Why we love fennel

Fennel is an invasive plant, and there are plenty of fennel haters out there, many of them our friends, but every year we let a stand or two of wild fennel take root in our yard anyway. We just had to pause now, while the fennel is high, to say that we love it, because it is hardy and beautiful and grows with no water and no encouragement. Feral fennel bulbs aren’t as good as cultivated bulbs for eating, but we eat the flowers, the fronds and the seeds from these wild stands.

But the real reason we let it grow is because fennel attracts more beneficial insects than any other plant, native or imported, that we’ve ever grown in our yard. It’s impossible to photograph, but our fennel stand is swarming all day, every day, with flying insects of every sort, honeybees, wasps, butterflies, ladybugs and many, many small pollinators which we cannot name. At least ten species at any given glance. It is truly a sight to behold.

Spore 1.1


Spore 1.1 from matt kenyon on Vimeo.

From artists Matt Kenyon and Doug Easterly of S.W.A.M.P.(Studies in Work Atmospheres and Mass Production), “Spore 1.1.”

It consists of a rubber tree plant, purchased from Home Depot, that is hooked up to a self-contained watering mechanism and calibrated on a weekly basis, according to the performance of Home Depot stock. If the Home Depot stock does well, Spore 1.1 gets watered. If Home Depot stock does poorly, “Spore 1.1.” goes without. Because Home Depot guarantees all of their plants for one year, if one rubber tree dies, another will be substituted in its place.

Waiting for our tomatoes/Tomatoland

grow! grow faster!

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Via Boing Boing, I found this excerpt on Onearth Magazine’s website, from a new book called Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook, which is apparently a document of all the indignities suffered by the industrial tomato–the tomato that sits, bright red, useless and flavorless, on store shelves year round, country-wide. Here at the Root Simple compound, we choose to eat tomatoes seasonally–when they’re coming out of our yard–and make do with canned and dried tomatoes for the rest of the year. Basically, we believe that fresh tomatoes are a privilege, not a right. Right now our tomato plants are covered with blossoms and tiny green fruit, and I’m almost frantic for fresh tomatoes. (The basil is in! Where’s the tomatoes?!?) Yet I know better than to buy a tomato at a store. I haven’t for years.

In this excerpt, Estabrook explains why Erik and I avoid store-bought tomatoes like a plague. I haven’t read his book, so can’t comment on the whole, but I liked the excerpt. It focuses on the tomato industry in Florida. Here in California, we’re not often offered Florida tomatoes. Ours seem to come mostly from Mexico at this time of year–and I have no idea how those tomatoes are grown. Are they better than Florida tomatoes, which are coaxed reluctantly from nitrogen-free sand beds, with massive inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides?

…they must be protected from competitive weeds, disease spores, and especially nematodes, which thrive in Florida. Growers have a ready solution to these problems. They kill everything in the soil. To do so, they fumigate the beds with methyl bromide*, one of the most toxic chemicals in conventional agriculture’s arsenal… The chemical is injected into the newly formed beds, which are immediately sealed beneath a tight wrapper of polyethylene plastic mulch. Then the growers wait while the chemical does its lethal work. Within two weeks, every living organism — every insect, fungus, weed seed, and germ — in the beds is dead. “It’s like chemotherapy,” said Ozores-Hampton. Once the soil is suitably lifeless, it’s time to plant tomatoes.

And methyl bromide is just the start–it’s just soil prep. The tomato growers use a large chemical arsenal to bring their crops to fruition:

U.S. Department of Agriculture studies found traces of thirty-five pesticides on conventionally grown fresh tomatoes: endosulfan, azoxystrobin, chlorothalonil, methamidophos, permethrin trans, permethrin cis, fenpropathrin, trifloxystrobin, o-phenylphenol, pieronyl butoxide, acetamprid, pyrimethanil, boscalid, bifenthrin, dicofol p., thiamethoxam, chlorpyrifos, dicloran, flonicamid, pyriproxyfen, omethoate, pyraclostrobin, famoxadone, clothianidin, cypermethrin, clothianidin, cypermethrin, fenhexamid, oxamyl, diazinon, buprofezin, cyazofamid, deltamethrin, acephate, and folpet. It is important to note that residues of these chemicals were below levels considered to be harmful to humans, but in high enough concentrations, three are known or probable carcinogens, six are neurotoxins, fourteen are endocrine disruptors, and three cause reproductive problems and birth defects.

Yes, it important to note that “residues of these chemicals were below levels considered to be harmful to humans” but I dunno…I’d rather skip them altogether, thankyouverymuch.

And is the result of this chemical onslaught a delicious tomato? A “well, it was worth all that methyl bromide” sort of tomato? No, indeed, it is not. All of the resulting tomatoes are picked while green and hard and reddened by application of ethylene gas, eliminating any possibility that they will ever develop flavor. Taste plays no part in the equation. As one of the growers says:

“People just want something red to put in their salad.”

I grew up on flavorless, industrial tomatoes, and as a child, I assiduously picked them off everything I was fed. In retrospect, I don’t blame my young self–they were horrible. Believe it or not,  I didn’t know what a real tomato tasted like until I was 20 or so, not until an aggressive fruit vendor foisted a slice of heirloom tomato on me and I was too polite not to eat it in front of him. The flavor exploded in my mouth. It was–truly–a life changing revelation.

I wonder if more people grew up eating the real thing whether the bottom would fall out of the market for these ghastly Franken-tomatoes? Or are we really satisfied just to have “something red” in our salads?

*Reading the latest scientific literature, Erik has learned that methyl bromide is being phased out of the FL tomato biz, not because of toxicity, but because it generates too much greenhouse gas. (What a charming substance!) There’s no saying it will be replaced by anything less toxic.

A Common Sense View of Invasive Plants

Via the Garden Professors blog a sensible letter in Nature from Mark Davis and 18 other ecologists on the tired, in my opinion, native vs. invasive species debate:

It is time for scientists, land managers and policy-makers to ditch this preoccupation with the native–alien dichotomy and embrace more dynamic and pragmatic approaches to the conservation and management of species — approaches better suited to our fast-changing planet.

Clearly, natural-resource agencies and organizations should base their management plans on sound empirical evidence and not on unfounded claims of harm caused by non-natives. Another valuable step would be for scientists and professionals in conservation to convey to the public that many alien species are useful.

Amen.

More from that article here.

Ridiculous Press Release Tuesday

I’m not making this up

I’m getting so many off-target press releases clogging my inbox that I’ve decided to share them until the publicists who send them get a clue and actually spend some time reading this blog. One release in particular should get an award for crassness.

The American Dietetic Association has, apparently, teamed up with industrial food giant ConAgra (am I the only person who sees that pairing as a conflict of interest?) to bring us a condescending website about home food safety that I won’t link to so as not to give them free publicity. The ADA is promising bloggers a chance at winning a free iPad or Starbucks gift card for pimping a food safety website that includes things like the “cookie rookie pledge.” The pledge, aimed at kids, suggests “Wait until cookies are ooey-gooey and fully baked before digging in, ” and “Remind grown-ups to use two separate cutting boards for raw meat, like turkey, and ready-to-eat-foods like carrot sticks.”

At the risk of losing the chance to win that iPad, I can’t resist suggesting a few food safety tips for their corporate partner ConAgra: give your poultry space, sunshine and monitor their health. Compost their waste in a thermophilic (hot) compost pile. Follow these several thousand year old farming concepts and maybe we wouldn’t need the “cookie rookie pledge.” According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, ConAgra ran the most salmonella infested turkey plant in the country. The CSPI also has a nice rundown of what other food giants are in bed with the ADA.

The good news is that we can take yesterday’s stoic flow chart to heart and develop an entirely parallel food system by growing as much of our own food as we can. We might also–and I want to hear from parents on hard this would be to do–try to run this propaganda out of our schools. Perhaps it’s just time to settle down and develop some of our own memes. I have a feeling they’ll spread better, in this internet age, than the work of the ADA’s publicists.

Are Pallets Safe to Reuse?

Now you know. Pallet parts have names.

As a fan and proponent of reusing pallets in building projects, such as chicken coops and compost containers, I’m often asked if I think they are safe to use given that shippers and manufacturers fumigate them with pesticides.

In the United States quarantine regulations require that pallets be treated with methyl bromide, a pesticide being phased out due to its adverse effects on the ozone layer. According to Mary Howland Technical Service Manager at Great Lakes Chemical Corporation, a supplier of methyl bromide,

Methyl bromide products are restricted use pesticides. A certified applicator license is required to purchase and use these products and strict adherence to label directions/requirements is mandatory. Under normal fumigation conditions methyl bromide is a gas and when the pallets are properly aerated according to label instructions, virtually no methyl bromide residue remains on the pallets and wood materials.

Now I’m not a methyl bromide fan and I find it’s use as a soil fumigant in agricultural applications appalling.  But I’m not too worried about reusing pallets. That being said, a Tylenol recall was linked to the use of tribromophenol (TBP) to fumigate pallets. Though, depending on if you believe the trade organizations behind wood pallets or plastic pallets (they hate each other), the Tylenol recall may have had nothing to do with TBP which is not used to fumigate pallets in the US.

So, as with most issues on this blog, no easy answer. But I’m still not concerned about using pallets as a building material.

Going Wired

Cat 5 o’ nine tails via BoingBoing

The dangers of radiation from cellphones has been in the news lately and, from what I understand, existing studies are either inconclusive or deeply flawed. But it got me thinking about the safety of wireless internet networks–should I be concerned about possible health effects?

In terms of a direct physical effect, probably not.  Dr Michael Clark of Britain’s Health Protection Agency, speaking in a 2006 Sunday Times article says,

When we have conducted measurements in schools, typical exposures from wi-fi are around 20 millionths of the international guideline levels of exposure to radiation. As a comparison, a child on a mobile phone receives up to 50 per cent of guideline levels. So a year sitting in a classroom near a wireless network is roughly equivalent to 20 minutes on a mobile.

So I’m probably not going to get cancer from a wireless internet network and the jury’s still out on cellphones. But what about the power of suggestion, so often neglected in our materialistic world? What about the symbolism of a world crowded with cellphones, wireless telephones, radio stations and now ubiquitous wireless internet networks? What about a kind of negative placebo effect?

I think we should acknowledge the symbolic implications of the technologies we use as well as the power of the unconscious mind. Even if we fancy ourselves thoroughly modern, what about those lingering doubts buried in our subconscious? Couldn’t those doubts cause deleterious effects both mental and physical? The placebo effect is real.

Our wireless modem recently failed, giving me the opportunity to put my theory into action by going “wired.” A neighbor gave me a hundred feet of ethernet cable, so all I needed was a few other supplies and a trip through the crawl space under the house to make it work. Initially the clerk at Radio Shack thought that I was insane when I told him I wanted to get rid of our wireless network. After several visits the clerk eventually warmed to my eccentricities and kind of got into the project, looking up things on the internet in the store for me. After a few hours on the phone with AT&T tech support (located in the Philippines!) we went fully wired.

Like the Radio Shack clerk, Mrs. Homegrown also thinks I’m crazy but I hope she appreciates the non-ethereal benefits of our wired network: greater security and higher speeds.

For more on the advantages of an ethernet network see this comparison of wired vs. wireless.

And, as Marshall McCluhan used to say, if you don’t like that idea I’ve got others . . .

What you control

Erik cited a Terence McKenna quote deep in his last post on bacon. It’s a good one, and deserves more attention so I’m giving it this space.

If Erik and I have a single message to offer, it is that you can’t control the world, but you can control your life. There’s plenty in this world to be outraged over, or worried about, but those feelings don’t get you anywhere. What you have to do is tend your own garden: Your body, mind and soul. Your family. Your kitchen. Your yard. Your neighborhood. See to those things. In making those things better, you do make the world better. At the very least you’ve improved your own life. Or, perhaps, you might be one of the many pebbles that makes an avalanche.

And here is McKenna saying something similiar in his inimitable style:

“We have to create culture, don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you’re worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you’re giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told ‘no’, we’re unimportant, we’re peripheral. ‘Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.’ And then you’re a player, you don’t want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.” –Terence McKenna

(I’m sorry I don’t know where this quote comes from–but I snatched it from Goodreads.)