Archive for the 'plants' Category

Walk slowly, pay attention

By Tom Read

Here comes the new stinging nettle! In addition to eating the steamed leaves and stems of young nettle plants, this year I'll use nettle roots and leaves to make a vinegar-based tonic and a fertilizer "tea." The pen in the lower right is for scale; it's about 5" long. Photo taken this morning.

Today I visited Dr. Kevin Black at the Texada Health Centre in Gillies Bay for my annual physical check-up. In the course of our routine review of my cholesterol levels (normal) and blood-pressure (acceptable), we talked about the prescription drugs I use to keep my moderate hypertension “under control,” including how expensive they’re becoming. Nothing new there, but it occurred to me as I drove home that maybe I can eventually reduce my pharmaceutical intake if I start using more of the wild food and medicinal plants that grow in abundance here on Texada Island. This wasn’t a random thought, as I’ll explain in a moment.

For years now I’ve resented my dependency on a daily dose of industrially produced drugs to moderate my blood pressure. When I started using these drugs I lived in the sedentary-yet-fast-paced urban rat race, and since moving to Texada 10 years ago I had hoped that my pharma-dependency could eventually end by adopting a healthier lifestyle. Indeed, my blood pressure has decreased somewhat during my years on the island, possibly attributable to such factors as less job stress, choosing a better diet and the necessity of a more physical way of life here at Slow Farm.

Earlier this week I attended a Texada Garden Club presentation by local herbalist and healer Doreen Bonin on how to benefit one’s health using wild food and medicinal plants that grow right here on our island. Doreen’s talk gave me hope that I might gradually wean myself off the pharma-habit, but I must acknowledge that this is something I approach cautiously. Uninformed self-medication can be dangerous to one’s health, so I will seek my doctor’s advice before making any substantive changes. That said, I was fascinated by her detailed descriptions of how to find, prepare and use the likes of nettle, dock and dandelion, along with many other locally common wild and easily-cultivated plants.  I am looking forward to joining a like-minded group on Doreen’s next “nettle walk” sometime in the near future, to get hands-on plant identification practice in the field.

The place to start looking for these plants is in your own garden, according to Doreen. “I teach people to pay attention, to be like children in adopting a beginner’s mind, and to walk slowly and quietly as you look for these plants.” One example I’m already familiar with is stinging nettle, which in years past we have harvested and eaten as a vegetable in various recipes. But there’s much more to nettle. Along with dock and dandelion, it’s what Doreen calls a “broad-spectrum plant,” because its leaves and roots can create a multi-faceted tonic for people and a powerful fertilizer for plants. As of this week, the nettle on our property is about four to six inches high, and growing fast. The dandelions are also coming on strong. I am walking slowly and attentively, digging tools in hand.

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Seed-saving adventures

By Tom Read

My apologies for this focus-challenged photo I took today. We'll soon be awash in carrot seeds, even if they're a bit blurry at the moment.

My apologies for this focus-challenged photo I took today. We'll soon be awash in carrot seeds, even if they're a bit blurry at the moment.

Texada Island is a good place to grow carrots, once you dig the rocks out of your garden and if you’ve got enough good seeds. Given the converging economic, energy and environmental uncertainties besetting the world today, we do not take for granted our access to good vegetable seeds. So, last summer we grew a Nantes open-pollinated carrot variety from West Coast Seeds. One difference between carrots and some other vegetables is that you have to let carrots continue into their second year of life to harvest seeds. Thus, we over-wintered the best carrot plants from our 2008 garden in hope of saving seeds this year.

Meanwhile, our friend Fred gave us about 30 scarlet runner beans last fall after I made admiring noises about their colourful long seed pods in his garden in Van Anda.  After decades of saving these runner bean seeds, Fred has noticed a gradual darkening in their colour.  Before planting, I soaked all the seeds overnight in a bowl of tepid water, then the next morning I set aside for planting only the seeds that had sunk to the bottom of the bowl. I had read somewhere that if a seed floats, then it’s not as vigorous as one that sinks. This may be a mistake in regard to scarlet runner beans, but I’ve soaked other types of bean seeds before planting, with good results.

I’m no expert in plant genetics, but of the 30 scarlet runner beans I planted (some more black than brownish-red), only about half germinated, which seemed a bit low compared to the store-bought pole bean seeds we planted about two weeks earlier elsewhere in our garden.  The store-bought seeds showed an 80% germination rate and are already six feet high, while the scarlet runners are barely above knee level, so far. This is probably a result of sun exposure and weather differences in the different garden locations, and each variety’s planting time requirements. I should have tried some side-by-side same-time planting for a truer comparison. Maybe the scarlet runners will catch up by September.

My point is not that Fred’s generously donated scarlet runners are somehow deficient.  The point is that I haven’t learned how to run valid plant genetics experiments in our garden. This matters because if we don’t learn how to keep our own food plant seeds viable generation after generation, we will remain dependent on an increasingly tenuous seed supply from a shrinking number of reliable seed companies.

We’re not alone in thinking about this issue. The Powell River Farmer’s Institute co-sponsored a 2009 seed-saving venture, which was promoted on Texada by PR farmer Wendy Devlin. Last winter, Wendy visited the Texada Garden Club and handed out seed packets for several types of garden vegetables to anyone interesting in seed-saving. I took 15 Styrian pumpkin seeds provided by a volunteer in the Powell River region, which we have since grown into six rather happy pumpkin plants.  They’re perched on well-fertilized hills containing rotted chicken manure and seaweed, about five feet apart.  Growing like crazy in the mid-July heat! We’ll have Styrian pumpkin seeds to share come October, if all goes well.

But our attempt to grow pumpkins in 2008 utterly failed due to several obvious-in-hindsight errors which could have been avoided by doing more research or having guidance from an expert. Confirmed optimists like myself call that a “learning experience.”  This year we’ll make different mistakes, no doubt. I believe that you can’t truly garden successfully just from reading about it on the Internet or in gardening books; experience counts, especially hard-won experience.

Which brings me to another, somewhat sobering thought in closing.  After several years of gardening, Linda and I are still really novices. We get some pretty good crops every year, but we make lots of mistakes, too. What will happen when the global price of oil takes another sharp turn upwards, making store-bought food a lot more expensive, so that people with even less experience than us must try to grow their own? Yes, we can help each other, but that will amount to novices leading other novices. That, and sustaining vigorous seed genetics, gives us something to ponder as we continue our adventures in seed-saving.

To bee, or not to bee?

By Tom Read

That is not really a valid question, but it is the title of a little skit to be performed on April 25 as part of Texada’s Earth Day celebration. It’s not a valid question because there can be no doubt that the presence of bees is a requirement for life as we know it to continue. From a purely human perspective, bees pollinate the plants we need for food. No bees, not much food for us, unless we find other means of pollinating food plants. We are fortunate that Texada Island is one of the few places left in North America where local honeybees are still healthy, free of varroa mites, colony collapse disorder and other such bee afflictions.

Clover is starting to leaf, dandelions are appearing, bees are flying.  Our surviving hive is partially wrapped in tar-paper to provide additional protection from the cold (we're still getting occasional frosts).

Clover is starting to leaf, dandelions are appearing, bees are flying. Our surviving hive is partially wrapped in tar-paper to provide additional protection from the cold (we're still getting occasional frosts).

Here at Slow Farm we’re in our first year of beekeeping — last fall we took delivery of two hives filled with healthy bees moved here from Gillies Bay. Due to my inexperience, one of the hives didn’t get enough ventilation. Result: too much moisture accumulated in the hive and it perished over the winter. I felt a lot of guilt and sadness when I discovered the death of this hive, and my complicity in that outcome has given me new resolve to become a better beekeeper.

But life goes on, resilient in spite of human ineptitude. Our other hive is still going strong, and with a little help from my beekeeping mentors, it may soon be divided so that we can multiply our bee population this year.

So, for Texada’s Earth Day 2009 our community will celebrate long life and good health to pollinators. We’ll build mason bee nests in the afternoon, then come together for a community potluck dinner. Somewhere along the line we’ll be entertained by dueling poets and the aforementioned “To bee, or not to bee” story about pollinator stewardship brought to us by the “Clinging to the Rock for Dear Life Players.”

Let every day be Earth Day, as they say.

David Moore’s garden diary for early April, 2009

By David Moore

Photos taken in the first week of April, 2009.

(To see a larger version of any of these photos, click on the thumbnail.)

Spring garden diary: A secret garden

By David Moore

Photos taken March 31, 2009.

(To see a larger version of any of these photos, click on the thumbnail.)

David Moore’s Garden Diary for late March

By David Moore

Flowering shrubs and perennial borders are a renewable resource — pleasure and beauty which are free after the first year. (Photos taken March 28, 2009.)

(To see a larger version of any of these photos, click on the thumbnail.)

The oft-repeated S-word can be cynical flim-flam

Malaspina Strait from Stillwater Bluffs, where forest meets seashore.

Malaspina Strait from Stillwater Bluffs, where forest meets seashore.

When a forest of say 75 acres is destroyed by clear-cut logging, eliminated are countless, perhaps thousands of birds, mammals and amphibians — from canopy-dwelling thrushes to tree frogs to bats and squirrels — and gone is the habitat that supported them. The sheer number of individual critters bumps up a few orders of magnitude when the insects, slugs, centipedes and spiders are counted. Then there are the micro-organisms in the millions, and billions of bacteria and similar life forms.

Now consider the plant life. Thousands of towering trees are executed and trucked far away to be converted to money and other useful things. Pulverized in this primary timber harvest are the epiphytic ferns, lichens, fungi and mosses which drape on, cling to and beautify the trees where they find moisture and sustenance for life. Ground down and ground up are the shrubs and berries of the under-storey and the wildflowers of the forest floor in their hundreds and hundreds of species. These plants of the forest have evolved by necessity to be shade-tolerant and moisture retentive.

British Columbia has the greatest diversity of plants in Canada. B.C. has up to 800 identifiable species of moss, alone. How many of them were growing in that 75 acre forest that is now the silenced and flattened landscape left behind by the BC loggers today? Could any but a very few survive the glaring sun and harsh exposure of an instant clear-cut? Nature will do her best to heal the wounds and restore a balance over years and years of time. But how many ‘crops’ can be harvested before a healthy forest cannot recover? How long can land subjected to take-it-all and no give-back endure the one sided equation? How can the destruction of an ecosystem be called sustainable forestry? Yet that’s what is claimed by the BC forest industry in the double-speak world we live in today.

It is time to put the term ‘sustainability’ in its proper context: buzzword of the decade. As such, it has a diminishing shelf life and one day it will be regarded as quaint and naive. Sustainability, as a concept, has caught the popular imagination, which is understandable, but it is a sort of inflated myth, destined to fall to earth as the uncertain future progresses. I’m not saying the notion is worthless; it’s just that a ‘sustainable’ plan of action or set of policies assumes a future level of stability or predictability that simply doesn’t exist. The skills most needed by an ever-changing society will be adaptability and a complex of survival strategies.


Post facto

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