Asking the Right Questions

Golden Tree and The Achievement of the Grail

Sir Galahad Discovering the Grail by Edwin Austin Abbe (1895)

The legend of Percival’s search for the holy grail is an odd one. Spoiler alert! Percival finds the holy grail not through solving a riddle or answering a question. Rather, he asks the right question. In his first trip to the grail castle and the wounded Fisher King who oversees it, Percival doesn’t know what to do or say. It takes him years to find the grail castle again. On his second encounter (depending on the version) he either asks simply, “What ails thee?” or “Whom does the grail serve?” In this way, he finds the grail.

I was thinking about this myth this weekend in Larry Santoyo’s Permaculture Design Course when Larry stressed the importance of asking the right questions. It got me thinking about the kind of questions we need to ask about the many subjects covered on this blog.

Take for instance bees. Mainstream beekeepers ask, “How can I get more honey?” when they should be asking the same question Parsifal asks, “What ails thee?” That is, “What is in the long term interest of the bee’s health?” This is the question Michael Thiele and Kirk Anderson both ask. It’s a wise one to ask, since our health is inextricably entwined with that of the bees.

Or think about aisles of poisons and traps at all those big box stores. What if instead of asking, “How do I kill this pest?”, we asked, “How do I create conditions inhospitable rats/possums/raccoons/coyotes?” Maybe instead of buying poison (or worse, setting snares) we’d, for instance, stop leaving pet food out at night.

What questions do we ask in our neighborhoods? We often, myself included, ask questions such as, “What number do I call to anonymously report my neighbor for having a car up on blocks in the front yard?” A better question might be, “How do we foster the sort of community where neighbors aren’t strangers?” Communities where, if I have a problem with a neighbor I can simply have a civil chat because I know them and we’re friends. A short answer to this question, by the way: throw a party and invite the neighbors.

Like most legends there are many layers to the Percival story. Carl Jung considered it to be central to understanding ‘what ails’ Western civilization. Percival, according to Jung, embodies the reconciliation of the masculine and feminine, the logical and intuitive. But Percival’s quest begins and ends, not through some grand gesture, but through humility, through asking a simple question.

Growing Your Own Soapnut Tree

The soap nut tree Sapindus Mukorossi aka Indian Soapberry is a very large tree that produces prodigious amounts of a soaponifying nut that you can use as a greywater safe laundry detergent, dish and hand soap. Mrs. Homegrown wants to rip out my beloved Mission Fig tree to plant the one that Craig at Winnetka Farms gave us last year. I’m going to chain myself to the fig.

That being said, I wish we had more room to plant our soapnut tree. Sapindus Mukorossi requires a fertile soil and a frost free climate. It’s a tall tree that can take as long as ten years to begin fruiting. A friend of mine has one growing in Altadena.

Sapindus Mukorossi needs lots of water. Craig has pointed out the perfect permacultural pairing for our dry climate–use the greywater from your washing machine to water your soap nut tree.

It can be a bit tough to get the seeds to germinate. Here’s some instructions on how to grow Sapindus Mukorossi from seed.

If you’re in LA you can buy a tree from the folks at Winnetka Farms.

I vote for Sapindus Mukorossi as LA’s next street tree . . .

Eight Things to Consider When Saving Vegetable Seeds

seed saving

The directions for seed saving in our last book, Making It, almost got cut. Perhaps we should have just changed those directions to “Why it’s OK to buy seeds.” The fact is that it’s not easy to save the seeds of many vegetables thanks to the hard work of our bee friends.

That being said, Shannon Carmody of Seed Saver’s Exchange gave a lecture at this year’s Heirloom Exposition with some tips for ambitious gardeners who want to take up seed saving. Here’s some of her suggestions:

1. Maintaining varietal purity
Is the vegetable open pollinated or hybrid? Hybrid seeds don’t produce true to type. You can’t save and regrow the seeds of hybrids, at least not without a lot of complicated multi-generational outcrossing in order to create a new variety that produces true to type. [I’ll note that I’m not anti-hybrid. The increased vigor of hybrids can be advantageous if you’re having trouble in your garden.]

2. Know how the vegetable is pollinated
It’s much easier to save the seeds of self-pollinating vegetables such as beans, peas and tomatoes. Remember that bees can fly for miles–anything pollinated by insects have to be isolated or caged to prevent cross-pollination. And many vegetables have weedy cousins. Try to save the seeds of carrots without caging and you may get a carrot/Queen Anne’s lace hybrid that won’t taste good. And some supposedly self-pollinating plants such as tomatoes have rogue varieties that can be cross pollinated by insects.

3. Consider your climate
Bienneals require two years of growth in order to set seeds. If you live in a cold climate that could be a problem.

4. Population size
Serious plant breeders often plant a minimum of sixty plants so that they can choose the most vigorous for seed saving. And they’ll often plant just one variety to reduce the risk of crossing. One way around the population size requirement is to crowd source the problem and get a bunch of friends to grow the same vegetable.

5. Space requirements
Some biennials get really big in the second year. You’ll need to make sure they have space and won’t shade out other plants.

6. When to harvest
Fruits harvested for seed may need to stay on the plant for a long time. For example, eggplants that you want to save seed from need to be harvested well past when they’re still edible.

7. Prepping seeds
In general, seeds harvested when dry, such as lettuce need to be air dried before storing. Seeds harvested wet, such as watermelons, need to be washed with water before drying and storing. Tomato seeds need to be fermented in water for a few days before drying.

8. Storage
Moisture is the enemy of seed storage. Those packs of desiccant that come with electronic gadgets can be recycled and used in your seed storage boxes.

There’s no shame in buying seeds

In our small garden it would be nearly impossible to save the seeds of readily pollinated vegetables such as members of the Cucurbitaceae family. But it would be great to have varieties of vegetables adapted to our dry Mediterranean climate. Most seed saving operations use lots of fertilizer and water and the result is vegetables that are adapted, unsurprisingly, to requiring tons of fertilizer and water. Native Seeds/SEARCH is a notable exception. But we need more regional seed saving groups run by trained horticulturalists. In the meantime I buy seeds and stick to saving just the easy ones–beans, peas and tomatoes.

If you want more information about seed saving the bible of the subject is Suzanne Ashworth’s book Seed to Seed.

How have your seed saving endeavors gone? What seeds do you save? Have you ever gone through the trouble of bagging seed heads or caging plants and hand-pollinating?

Vegetable Garden Note Taking

A page from Thomas Jefferson's garden diary.

A page from Thomas Jefferson’s garden diary.

My worst mistake in the fifteen years we have been gardening here in Los Angeles has been my shoddy note taking. Even though we don’t have frosts to contend with, it still can be tricky to figure out when to plant vegetables.

In a lecture I attnded at the National Heirloom Exoposition, Sonoma County gardening guru Wendy Krupnick had a simple suggestion for what to take notes on in your vegetable garden:

  • variety
  • planting day
  • first harvest
  • last harvest
  • comments

She suggested a minimum of three years of note taking.

If only I had this data! If there isn’t one already, someone should come up with a social note taking app for vegetable gardening that would aggregate information for each local microclimate. Leave a comment if such a thing exists.

And for more great gardening advice from Krupnick, check out iGrowSonoma.org. Most of the info is relevant even if you don’t live in Northern California.