Archive for the ‘Food for Thought’ Category

Pesticide Packin’ Mama

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

Now at websites and box stores near you—”Gardening Mama” for Nintendo DS, which bills itself as the first video game about gardening. Gardening Mama is a spinoff of the popular “Cooking Mama” series for young girls (a little old-fashioned sexual role playing, anyone?) that stars an adorable anime head with stubby arms and a cute Japanese accent. Now, just in time for spring, Mama is venturing out of the kitchen and into the garden. Instead of chopping vegetables she’s pruning branches. Instead of sprinkling salt and pepper, she’s pouring on the fertilizer—all with simple touch screen controls. Like Cooking Mama 2, Gardening Mama is also a competitive sport—you can play multiplayer challenges with friends to see who can blow clouds out of the sky the fastest, or douse the most insects with their pesticide sprayers. 

Not being a big video game person, I’m not the best person to judge Gardening Mama’s technical merits. But after playing around on the Gardening Mama website for a few minutes, I can say that the game could keep chemical gardening alive and well for the next generation.

Slow Gardening

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

Okay, so I’ve been slow to add my two cents on “Slow, Easy, Cheap, and Green,” the piece on Felder Rushing’s adorable brand of “slow gardening,” which appeared in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. But slow is the name of the game, right?

If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look. Felder is a hoot. The self-described “lounge lizard,” who hosts a weekly radio show on Mississippi Public Radio, is the bad boy in the otherwise boring world of “garden communicators.” Picture Jerry Garcia with a pitchfork, kicking back among his plastic pink flamingos and recycled tire planters when not driving his “container garden on wheels,” a beat-up brown-and-white Ford F150 pick-up truck with a garden planted in the back. The effect is circa 1966 commune, with the sweet scent of Cannabis wafting through the air.

Felder is the leading proponent of slow gardening, which of course was inspired by the slow food movement. The idea is to stop stressing out about the lawn. Pass up Echinacea ‘Mac ‘n’ Cheese’ ($21.95 a pop), or anything “NEW!” from the White Flower Farm catalog. (“I’m not into the latest and greatest,” Felder told the Times reporter, speaking of the dowdy ornamentals like gladiolas and dusty miller that fill his garden.) Channel your inner Dale Chihuly by creating bottle trees with Bud Lite bottles from your last barbecue. Grow lettuce in pots, instead of in the ground, for easy maintenance. (Best line in the article: Felder’s quip that “lettuce is embarrassingly easy to grow. I grew some in a hanging basket last year. All it took was a squirt of vinaigrette, and I didn’t even have to bend over to eat it.”)

I was just warming up to this vision of the good life when, in a most unfortunate bit of timing, Rick Griffin, a local landscape architect who, we learn, helps Felder with garden design, arrives on the scene. According to the Times, “The men stood in the garden, debating a design element to fill space around an art installation made of three large glass circles.”

Oops. Maybe Felder’s idea of gardening isn’t so laid back after all. I mean, forget about the gladioli and the container garden on wheels. If you really want to slow down, plant a native wildflower meadow if you have sun, or some native woodland shrubs, wildflowers, and ferns if you have shade trees on your property, then let nature take care of most of the maintenance. To keep yourself out of trouble, plant some fruits and veggies, preferably in containers or raised beds, by your kitchen door. And/or some potted flowers by the patio to attract butterflies and other pollinators for free entertainment all summer long.

Native Plants: A Green Industry View

Monday, April 6th, 2009

As anyone looking for native plants can attest, the selection available at the typical retail garden center is still pretty pitiful. According to Garden Center Magazine, last year 10 percent or less of the plants at about a third of retailers nationwide were natives. Only a fifth of all garden centers said that more than 50 percent of their plants were native. Why? What do wholesale and retail nursery owners think about the market for native plants and the best way to make it grow? 

Thanks to Robert F. Brzuszek and Richard L. Harkess, researchers at Mississippi State University, we have a snapshot of what they think, at least the nursery owners in six southern states. The two developed an email survey and sent it to members of the Southern Nursery Association. The survey results and recommendations are in the latest issue of HortTechnology, the journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science.

When asked why they carry native plants, the nursery owners cited client requests (25.6%), followed by ecological reasons (17.8%), the plants’ adaptability to difficult site conditions (16.3%), and their low maintenance requirements (13.2%). They said they believe customer interest in native plants is increasing and—native plant advocates take note!—they are very interested in finding more effective ways to market them. Among the ideas they came up with: Develop better information and more sources of information on native plants for the general public, especially specific marketing campaigns and point-of-purchase information. They also said that presentations and displays at nursery trade shows could help growers and retailers learn more about natives.

Sounds like native plant advocates and nurseries should put their heads together.

 

Linking Food & Native Plants: You Have a Friend at NRCS

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

Mark Ludwig of Sand Lily Farms writes:

You will be glad to know your local Conservation Districts and the Natural Resources Conservation Service are both promoting field borders for farms and natural landscaping at home. There are cost share programs for field borders of native plants with guidelines for native pollinator and predator promotion and protection. Many counties have native plant sales and promotional events.

On its website, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (or NRCS, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) describes simple and inexpensive ways farmers and gardeners can increase the number of bees on their land. Some of these, such as “exercising care with pesticides,” are no-brainers. Others are less obvious, like minimizing tillage to protect pollinators that live underground for most of the year, and allowing leafy crops like lettuce to bolt (flower) if possible to provide additional food for hungry pollinators. The NRCS website also has links to local Conservation Districts around the country.

Mark wasn’t the only person who reached out to offer ideas on resources and networks that could be useful for forging links between native plant and local food advocates. A couple that were mentioned repeatedly were Fair Food Matters and the Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation program. And don’t forget all the great information on the best native plants for attracting beneficial insects based on research at Michigan State University.

Linking Food & Native Plants: “Double-Duty” Beauties

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

Lisa Symons writes that she’s managed to get her friends to dig up their lawns by using the idea of “double-duty plants—those that are edible and loved by wildlife,” such as sunchokes (Jersulalem artichokes) and maximilian sunflowers. “There are so many of these useful and beneficial plants,” she says. “A good list is in Toby Hemenway’s permaculture book Gaia’s Garden.”

Linking Food & Native Plants: The Hybrid Yard

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

Tom Springer writes:

To me, the logical approach (although certainly not novel) is to combine the two: promote the use of manageable and hardy native plants that are attractive, make for good landscaping, and are also edible! Service berries, gooseberries, wild strawberries, wild blueberries, and hazelnuts are some examples.

He points out, too, that native trees often seen as “weeds”—such as sassafras and hackberry—can be pruned and shaped to make attractive shade trees, and that these species are not hard to find, even locally. 

He suggests that we resist the temptation to be purists:

To really make this mainstream, I think we have to forgo the notion that most people are going to quit having a yard entirely, or pull out their tulip bulbs and grandma’s favorite lilac. What we’re really talking about is a hybrid yard, where people more and more get comfortable with natives. If we could increase by just 25 percent the amount of natives planted across a community, what a difference that would make! And, having natives that you can eat—and readily use for cut flowers, as is the case with prolific natives like black-eyed susans and purple coneflowers—seems like a great way to get started.

Enlisting the help of a landscape designer at a local mainstream nursery would make all of this a lot easier, says Tom. It would be a big help for people just getting interested in natives if such a person could draw up a basic landscape plan that includes plenty of native plants. ”Once they have a plan in hand,” he says, “people can fill it in as the seasons come and go, whenever they get the money or energy to plant more.” 

Linking Food & Native Plants: A Landscape Designer’s View

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

Douglas Kent, one of the country’s leading sustainable landscape designers, weighs in:

You are certainly right—natives make excellent  companion plants, attracting beneficials if not pollinators, or repelling unwanteds. Cal Poly’s Center for Regenerative Studies, where I teach, uses a lot of natives to enhance their food production.

Ripping out a lawn to plant food is not an environmental movement, though. It’s economic, or at least economic symbology. The best Tom and Nancy could do is to frame their position in those terms—natives will reduce costs (pesticides and water) and increase productivity. The Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden is seizing this trend and has designed, but not yet installed, an edible native garden (grape, miner’s lettuce, elderberry, currant, etc).

Getting people to rip out their lawns is completely  different (I’ve tried to understand and change this for the last 25 years). People that hold onto their lawns are not gardeners, and don’t want to be. Requiring no special care, lawns only need $100 a month and a service of mowers  and blowers. Interestingly, studies show that most beginning gardeners start by growing veggies, then evolve to more sophisticated styles of gardening, like natives, over time. Tom and Nancy should rejoice—food is a gateway.

Considering that agriculture is the number one destroyer of native landscapes, Tom and Nancy should not lament the food movement—what better use for urban/suburban landscapes than to protect those truly wild places. 

What You Think: Linking Food & Native Plants

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

You came through for Tom and Nancy! For the next few days, I’ll be blogging about some of your ideas on how to build on the interest in local and homegrown foods to promote native plants.

On Friday, I suggested that one way might be to use the growing number of farmers markets to spread the word through a “love local food?/ help a pollinator/ grow native plants” campaign. I also noted that it might be possible for supermarkets like Whole Foods that sell organic food to participate by promoting and selling native wildflowers instead of just cut tulips and the like.

Robbin Simmen, head of Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s GreenBridge project, one of the biggest and best community horticulture programs in the country, responded:

I like the idea of encouraging retailers of food to sell native flowers. GreenBridge did this a couple of years ago with the Sustainable Gardening project where we reached out to the community gardeners who grow flowers to sell at the East New York Farms! market and asked them to grow Echinacea and Rudbeckia. They loved it because these plants are so bright, drought tolerant, and easy to grow, plus it’s an extra piece of interest for the shoppers to learn that they’re buying native plants.

Robin noted that another way to make connections between native and edible plants is to spread the word about native food plants. For example, she said she’ll be speaking on edible landscaping with native plants at the Brooklyn Food Conference on May 2nd. In her words, she’ll “be plugging blueberries and paw paws for human consumption, and lots and lots of native species for wildlife, the point being not to forget wildlife in our drive to feed ourselves!” 

Tom and Nancy Need Our Help!

Friday, March 27th, 2009

Three cheers for Nancy Small and her husband, Tom! When they retired in 1996, the two indefatigable former English professors began turning their half-acre yard in Michigan into better habitat for wildlife. Three years later, they founded a chapter of Wild Ones, the organization that promotes native plants and natural landscaping, and a couple of years ago, they established the Michigan Climate Action Network. But now, says Nancy, who emailed me the other day, they’re stumped and hoping we can help them out:

“Neither Wild Ones nor the environmental movement as a whole,” she writes, “have had much success in getting people to tear out their lawns in order to put in native plants for wildlife (or to reduce carbon emissions), but it’s beginning to sound as if people can hardly wait to get rid of their lawns in order to grow their own food” (which, as she points out, is a lot more work, and harder work, than growing native plants!). So Nancy and Tom are trying to build on the work of Michigan State University researchers who have demonstrated how native wildflowers, by providing pollen, nectar, and shelter to the pollinators and other beneficial insects that are critical for healthy agricultural systems, can help farmers increase crop yields. They’re asking us to put on our thinking caps and help them come up with ways to use the current interest in organic, local, and homegrown food to promote the notion that food plants and native plants are essential partners in a healthy landscape.

I told Nancy that one way might be to use the growing number of farmers markets to spread the word through a “love local food?/ help a pollinator/ grow native plants” campaign. Heck, we might even be able to get Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and other natural foods markets to promote and sell native wildflowers instead of just the usual decapitated roses or tulips. So whaddaya think? Email me, and I’ll send your ideas (or even your words of encouragement) along to Tom and Nancy. 

iPhorest?

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

If you read my previous post about online “social spaces,” you know I got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. Maybe that’s why I think there’s something ridiculous about iPhorest, the brand-new IPhone app (the cutesy iPh prefix, for starters). Sure, it’s for a good cause: After downloading the software for $4.99, you plant a virtual tree. For each virtual tree you plant, the Conservation Fund will plant a real-life native tree—starting with the restoration of vulnerable wildlife habitats along our own Gulf Coast. So far so good.

It’s what you have to do to plant your virtual tree that gives me pause. After you download the app, you have to do a digging motion to make the hole, plant the seedling, then shake your phone to create a rain storm, so your seedling will start to grow. You keep repeating this until your tree is full sized.

There are enough people walking around my Manhattan neighborhood while jabbering on their hands-free cellphone devices, or worse, with those bizarre Bluetooth gizmos clipped to their ears. I can just see all the iPhone users in Central Park engaged in some weird form of iKung Phu as they plant their virtual cypress trees.

Okay, so I’m being grumpy. But apparently, the iPhorest idea originated at a TED conference. TED is supposed to be about inspired ideas from the world’s leading thinkers and doers. Nice try guys. But I’d be more inspired if you could come up with an app that automatically plants a tree every time we turn on our iPods or boot up our MacBook Pros. Now that would reforest the world in a hurry.