The Glorious USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection

Chestnut. Ellen Isham Schutt, 1913.

Over the past few months I’ve been reviving my long lost drawing hobby, partly as a way to fend of the temptations of phone addiction but also as a way of training myself to take the time to really see what’s around me. Anyone who has tried to draw knows that what it teaches is to observe the world without the preconceptions imposed by language. Before the advent of inexpensive photography, drawing had a central role not only in everyday life but also in science. The United States Department of Agriculture’s online collection of watercolor illustrations of fruits and nuts demonstrates how scientific illustration can be both useful and beautiful.

The collection spans the years 1886 to 1942. The majority of the paintings were created between 1894 and 1916. The plant specimens represented by these artworks originated in 29 countries and 51 states and territories in the U.S. There are 7,497 watercolor paintings, 87 line drawings, and 79 wax models created by approximately 21 artists. Lithographs of the watercolor paintings were created to illustrate USDA bulletins, yearbooks, and other publications distributed to growers and gardeners across America.

Rimmer Apple. Deborah Griscom Passmore 1901.

The collection showcases the diversity of fruit and nut varieties before industrial agriculture took it all away and replaced it with easily shipped but tasteless produce.

Pomegranate. Mary Daisy Arnold, 1932.

The human eye can see and perceive things that a camera can’t and the artists who made these exquisite watercolors must have had an encyclopedic knowledge of the fruits and nuts they portrayed. The collection has 3,807 images of apples alone.

Should you have some blank walls in need of art let me point out that all of the images are available in high resolution.

133 Trees of Power with Akiva Silver


On this 133rd episode of the Root Simple podcast Kelly and I talk to Akiva Silver of Twisted Tree Farm, described in his author bio as a “homestead, nut orchard and nursery located in Spencer, New York where he grows around 20,000 trees a year using practices that go beyond organic.” Akiva’s background is in “foraging, wilderness survival and primitive skills.” He is also the author of Trees of Power: Ten Essential Arboreal Allies (Amazon, library) just published by Chelsea Green. In our conversation we discuss how trees could replace a lot of the staple crops in our diet. During the podcast we also rap about:

  • J. Russel Smith Tree Crops (Free download on Archive.org)
  • Kat Anderson Tending the Wild
  • Mulch, soil and water
  • Processing acorns
  • Exotics vs. natives – should we learn to love the invasives?
  • Tree of heaven!
  • Coppicing and pollarding
  • Arborist fails and #arboristfails
  • How to plant trees

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. Closing theme music by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Go Plant a Million Trees

Kelly and I interviewed Akiva Silver, of Twisted Tree Farm, for the next episode of the sporadic Root Simple Podcast. Silver is the author of Trees of Power: Ten Essential Aboreal Allies (Amazon, library). The book celebrates the power of trees to feed us and solve a lot of the world’s problems including climate change and soil erosion. In the book Silver makes the provocative suggestion that we might all be better off with a greater emphasis on tree crops instead of clearing land for monotonous fields of wheat, corn and soybeans. He has an interventionist, Johnny Appleseed like passion at odds with the hands-off, leave-no-trace branch of environmentalism. Silver says, “Instead of trying to have as little impact as possible, I want to have a huge impact. I want to leave behind millions of trees, a bunch of ponds, enriched soil and wild stories.”

In our own small urban yard, we’re beginning to see the fruits, literally, of our own small-scale arboreal efforts that we began over ten years ago. This month we had a abundant crop of Mission figs, avocados, olives and pomegranates. And that pathetic vegetable garden I blogged about? My heretical thinking is to give up annual vegetables entirely and use the space to plant two small citrus trees. If I want vegetables I’ll put in artichokes which grow well here and return every year without any effort. We’ll outsource the misery of growing annual vegetables to the vendors of the farmer’s market.

Watch for our interview with Silver next Wednesday. In the meantime read his book and then go plant some trees.

Destroy Nature Before it Destroys Us


As philosopher Slavoj Žižek so wisely reminds us, we don’t spend enough time thinking about the ideology behind our assumptions and vocabulary. This is especially true with our vague and ill defined concept of “nature.” I really don’t think that we’ve all really thought through what we mean when we use this word.

Conner Habib takes a look at “nature” in this thought provoking episode of his podcast, Against Everyone with Conner Habib. Habib calls our concept of nature “fatally flawed” and connects it to Sigmund Freud’s notion of a death drive in the sense of something that we think is separate from ourselves that generates a feeling of longing that can never be fulfilled. Paradoxically, we revel in this state of separation, in a never ending spiral of longing that explains not only our twisted relationship to the environment but also things like gambling, smart phones and drugs. I’m not going to summarize Habib’s profound thoughts on the meaning of “nature” but let’s just say that he says that we need to destroy our concept of nature in order to save it. Have a listen and let me know what you think.

Straw Bale Gardening Update

I think I’ve put a name to an all to common gardening experience. I’ve got what I shall, from now on, refer to as Tomato Disappointment Syndrome or TDS for short. TDS recognizes a unspoken reality of vegetable gardening: that for every lush and productive tomato plant there exists at least ten spindly, diseased specimens hiding in backyards.

Without careful soil stewardship, just the right amount of water and diligence about not growing tomatoes in the same place every year TDS will visit your household. Since I’ve had tomato disease problems for years I decided to grow them in straw bales this season as I did, successfully, back in 2013.

Unfortunately, my straw bale tomatoes succumbed to one of three possible problems:

  • Improperly conditioned bale. I may not have spent enough time adding nitrogen to the bale.
  • Root-bound seedlings.
  • Herbicides in the straw.

I’m leaning towards a lack of nitrogen caused by not following bale conditioning instructions carefully. Herbicides in the bale are also possible or some combination of all three of the above factors.

Allow me to also theorize, building on the foundation of TDS, that success in vegetable gardening is inversely related to one’s propensity to brag, write or boast about vegetable gardening on, say, a blog or social media account. Perhaps I should just shut up and take care of the soil or pay more attention to my bale conditioning efforts and cease the grandstanding.