110 A Report from the 2017 National Heirloom Expo

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On the podcast this week are three interviews I recorded at the 7th annual National Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa, California in the first week of September 2017. The organizers of the expo, Baker Creek Seeds, hold a press conference in the midst of the fair and that gave me the chance to talk to some really interesting folks including:

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

A Celebration of Craft

Dave Miller at work. Photo by Josey Baker.

Dave Miller at work. Photo by Josey Baker.

The highlight of the National Heirloom Expo, for me, was running into three people who epitomize the value of dedication to a craft.

I’ve found that such craftspersons keep no secrets and are more than happy talk about techniques and tips. They are also, according to Matthew Crawford, an antidote to our culture’s narcissism. Crawford says, in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work,

The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self. A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs. At such a moment, technology is no longer a means by which our mastery of the world is extended, but an affront to our usual self-absorption. Constantly seeking self-affirmation, the narcissist views everything as an extension of his will, and therefore has only a tenuous grasp on the world of objects as something independent. He is prone to magical thinking and delusions of omnipotence. A repairman, on the other hand, puts himself in the service of others, and fixes the things they depend on. His relationship to objects enacts a more solid sort of command, based on real understanding. For this very reason, his work also chastens the easy fantasy of mastery that permeates modern culture. The repairman has to begin each job by getting outside his own head and noticing things; he has to look carefully and listen to the ailing machine.

The trio of craftspersons I ran into at the expo included a baker, a tomato farmer and a nursery owner. They share common qualities: humility, openness and an attention to detail.

The baker is Dave Miller who I helped bring to LA to teach a series of classes. Miller specializes in whole grain breads made from freshly milled local grain. Most “whole grain” loaves baked in this country are actually white flour with food coloring, sugar and a small amount of stale whole grain flour. Miller can turn wet, sticky whole grain lumps into perfectly formed, airy loaves with one deft flick of the wrist. He has the skill to build an empire the size of La Brea Bakery but is happy working at a smaller scale selling loaves at the Chico farmer’s market once a week. I think he’s the most talented baker in the U.S.

I also ran into tomato farmer and breeder Fred Hempel who was a guest on episode 79 of our podcast. Like Miller, Hempel has a humility that goes along with a sincere engagement with the natural world. Like Miller he’s more than happy to discuss his craft.

A third person I met at the festival is Alice Doyle, owner of Log House Plants a wholesale nursery in Eugene Oregon. In her lecture she went alphabetically through a list of edible plants she thought were interesting. By the end of the hour, I think she reached the letter “J.” I wished we could have had a few more hours to get to “Z.” And this is another quality of the craftsperson, a selfless enthusiasm that can turn a list of vegetables into something way more interesting than what passes for entertainment in our culture. I’ll see if I can get Doyle on the podcast.

We are, I think, entering a dangerous new age of extreme narcissism fueled, in part, by Silicon Valley tech bros who have figured out a business model based on self-affirmation. We need more people like Miller, Hempel and Doyle.

105 GardenNerd’s Tips for Organic Gardening Success

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Our guest on this episode is “GardenNerd” Christy Wilhelmi, previously heard on episode 19 of the podcast, who returns this week to discuss her new ebook 400 Plus Tips for Organic Gardening Success. As you might guess we touch on a lot of topics and tips including:

Christy’s website is GardenNerd. You can also connect with Christy on Facebook and Twitter.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Atomic Gardening

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The always entertaining podcast 99% Invisible has a new episode, “Atom in the Garden” about the forgotten 1950s fad of gardening with radiation. Essentially, it was a crude form of genetic engineering. Plants were zapped with radiation in the hopes of creating useful mutations.

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While it didn’t work well, it did produce several varieties grown to this day including Rio Star Grapefruit. There was also a strong amateur interest in irradiated seeds supported by the Atomic Gardening Society.

The 1950s “gamma gardening” craze feels credulous today but it’s not like there’s no uncritical scientism in 2017 (Elon Musk solving LA traffic with tunnels, perhaps?).

How’s that Tomato Grafting Project Going?

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Back in the winter I announced my plans to graft my own tomatoes. I undertook the project more in a spirit of idle curiosity than necessity. We haven’t had the sort of soil problems that might require grafted tomatoes but I thought it would be fun to try.

To graft tomatoes you grow a hardy root stock (I chose Maxifort) and the tomatoes you want to graft them on to. You then make the graft and secure it with a grafting clip. For the grafting process I used the directions in the following video from Cornell University:

The next step is to put the grafted seedlings into a “healing chamber” consisting of a dark, warm and humid environment that gives the plant a chance to heal and the graft to take. You then slowly introduce light over a period of days to transition the grafted plant to normal growing conditions.

What could possibly go wrong?
Let’s just say that at Root Simple Labs mistakes were made.

  • The root stock grew a lot faster than the heirloom tomatoes I chose. When you graft you want similarly sized stems. It would have been good to stagger the days I started my seeds rather than planting them all at one time.
  • The healing chamber needs to be a carefully controlled environment. I improvised a greenhouse by putting my seedlings in plastic bags. This worked but I had trouble re-introducing light in a uniform way. Grow lights would make this easier. And it was a pain to open all the individual bags to mist the plants.
  • Because of my lack of stem sizes to choose from I ended up with graft unions too close to the soil level. Of the six plants that survived my horticultural incompetence, I think they all may just be growing from the graft union itself rather than the root stock. I’m hoping that I can tell when I pull the plants at the end of the season.
  • I used potting soil rather than a seed starting mix. That’s just plain stupid. What was I thinking?
  • Next time I’ll get a selection of grafting clips in different sizes. That would give some flexibility in when to graft the plants.

Despite my cascade of errors I still have tomato plants (though probably not grafted ones) and I learned some valuable lessons should I attempt this project again next year. I’m thinking that instead of tomatoes, which have done fine in our garden in the past, I might try grafting peppers or eggplants which we have had trouble growing.

How are your tomatoes doing this summer? Are any of you growing grafted varieties?