All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Computer modeling of complex systems has gotten us in a whole world of trouble in recent years. Filmmaker Adam Curtis has directed a superb series, about this issue, for the BBC called “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”. The second episode “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts” will be of particular interest to readers of this blog. It details the errors that occur when we try to model natural systems. I can’t reccomend this program highy enough. Set aside an hour today to watch this program before the BBC copyright police take it down.

Episode 2  “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”:

Here’s the first episode “Love and Power” about what happens when computer algorithms and, shall we say, overly confident philosophers gain control over our economic life.

Episode 1: “Love and Power”:

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace from science2art on Vimeo.

U-Dig-It Folding Shovel

I came across this nice little folding hand shovel called the “U-Dig-it” at a surplus store. It measures 5 3/4 inches when folded and weighs six ounces with the convenient belt holster. I used it this morning to transplant some okra seedlings and I can also see taking this tool camping.

I dig the U-Dig-It design, and I already prefer it to the hand shovel that got buried in the yard somewhere a few months ago. I can see this tool becoming part of my gardening “EDC“.

Mongolian Giant Sunflower

Nothing much to say about the Mongolian Giant Sunflower other than, “wow”. I got these seeds from Seed Savers Exchange and they have lived up to the “giant” in the name. I’m going to have to climb a ladder to harvest the seeds.

Though I don’t see the need to get competitive with my sunflowers, Renee’s Garden has some good harvesting advice,

As the petals fall off, the center florets dry up and the seed kernels begin to swell in the disks, carefully climb a stepladder and cover your flower head with a mesh onion bag or loose burlap or paper bag. This keeps marauding birds from robbing your seeds so that the heads look perfect and complete when you are ready to show them off to friends or proudly display them on their long stalks at your local county fair. Cut the stalks at the base when the ripened seeds develop a hard shell. If you plan to eat your sunflower seeds or preserve them for your bird feeder, wait until the seeds are completely dry; then remove them by hand or by rubbing them over wire mesh into a basket. Store in tightly closed containers to keep rodents away.

In addition to the native sunflowers that reseed themselves every year I think I’ll plant a few Mongolian Giants each summer. If you’ve got a favorite sunflower variety, either ornamental or edible, please leave a comment.



Mrs. Homestead here: Turns out sunflowers can also help clean up radioactive contamination. Good to know! They’re planting them in Fukushima. (via Boing Boing)

Winter Squash Disaster

Those of you who follow this blog may recall last summer’s “squash baby” fiasco.  This year I planted a few Marina di Chioggia squash plants (technically a pumpkin) in one of my vegetable beds located in a more secure location. Instead of some homo sapien making off with my squash bounty, it looks like the neighborhood raccoons are having a gnocchi party somewhere. All I’ve got to show for three Chioggia plants is one small squash and the one pictured above.

Household animal tracking expert Mrs. Homegrown assures me that the nearby scat pile belongs to some raccoons.

My thoughts after another year under a squash curse: winter squash takes up too much room to devote precious vegetable bed space if, like me, you don’t have a lot of room. In previous years I’ve tucked it in unused corners of the yard and let it sprawl around. That’s what I’ll do next year.

Help Us Choose a Grain Mill

At the Huasna Valley wheat farm I blogged about yesterday, they have a grain mill made by a company called All Grain Mills out of Utah. What the farmer liked about this company is that the mills they make have stone wheels instead of steel. Steel burrs can heat up and destroy the enzymes in the wheat. Furthermore these All Grain mills are considerably less expensive than other ones I’ve seen. I’d like to know if any of you readers have one of these All Grain Mills? If so, please leave a comment. I’m also interested in recommendations for other mills.

And I can’t help but comment on the aesthetics of the All Grain Mills. The company’s website is so bare-bones it’s almost hip (promising in my opinion when you’re looking for pre-interweb technology). And that fake wood paneling reminds me of my childhood:

Sonora Wheat at the Huasna Valley Farm

Ron Skinner

I had the great privilege this week of visiting the Huasna Valley Farm in California’s central coast run by Ron and Jenn Skinner whose visible joy is infectious. The Skinners grow Sonora wheat, an heirloom variety brought to the Southwest by the Spanish.

Sonora wheat is well suited to dry desert and Mediterranean climates. It produces a cream colored flour that was historically used for tortillas and posole. The Skinners served us some Sonora whole wheat biscuits that tasted as light as white flour but with a rich and complex flavor.

Jenn Skinner

To fight weeds (the big bugaboo of wheat farming) the Skinners plan on introducing Black Medic (Medicago lupulina) a leguminous plant that will fix nitrogen and out-compete unwanted weeds. The tall stalks of Sonora wheat will allow the medic to grow far below the seed heads. This is in contrast to conventional wheat farming with its short varieties and heavy reliance on herbicides. Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution” used Sonora wheat to create Sonora 64, an early green revolution wheat. Ironically, as we face an uncertain energy future, we may have to go back to the original Sonora wheat as it performs better in organic circumstances and needs less water than modern wheat varieties.

Ron shows off the combine.

One of the challenges the Skinners faced in farming just a few acres of wheat was figuring out how to harvest it. Large industrial farms use enormous and very expensive combines. Small and medium sized combines simply aren’t manufactured anymore. Luckily the Skinners found a vintage Allis-Chalmers combine across the road which Ron and his son disassembled and rebuilt.

I bought twenty pounds of Sonora wheat flour and a few pounds of wheat berries and am really looking forward to baking with it. I might even grow my own mini-Sonora wheat field this winter (you plant it here in Southern California in January for harvest around the 4th of July.

For more information on Sonora wheat see:

The Huasna Valley Farm website, particularly their informative newsletters.

Sustainablegrains.org has a Sonora Wheat tortilla recipe.

Slow Food USA has a page on the history of Sonora wheat.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area, join the Los Angeles Bread Bakers to participate in farm visits, baking classes and oven building sessions.

And a special thanks to LABB member Joseph Shuldiner for arranging this trip!

Bee Hotel

From an old beekeeping book (thanks Steve!),  How to Keep Bees and Sell Honey:

This is probably the finest bee hive in the world. It was built by E. S. Williams, St. Petersburg, Florida, who spent 6 months constructing it. It holds two standard 10 frame hive bodies and a bottom board. The second story lifts off for hive manipulations. It is wired for 110 volt current, has window shades and curtains. The front plastic doors swing easily and fit snugly. There is a flag pole, also a sign, that is not pictured here. This has been displayed at the Kentucky and Florida State Fairs. It is unusual items like this that make a few fair exhibits stand out.

 Not sure the bees appreciate that electricity.