Thursday, December 6, 2012

Rain Garden: Slowing Pollution at Its Source

In spring 2012, the City of Elk Grove, a community just south of Sacramento, California, opened a rain garden that is a magnet for wildlife, prevents pollution from running off into local streams, and an important tool to teach others about how use similar earth-friendly techniques in their own yard. Paul Mewton, Chief of Planning, Cosumnes Community Services District, and Greg Gearheart, State Water Resources Control Board, discuss this innovative park and how land use in the Central Valley still impacts our coast and ocean.

Elk Grove Rain Garden Fact Sheet:

California State Water Resources Control Board:

Cosumnes Community Services District:

Thank You Ocean: Water Pollution:

Friday, November 2, 2012

Edible landscaping sprouts beyond the vegetable patch

Originally published Thursday, February 9, 2012 at 4:01 PM

Tips on creating an edible landscape that can help reduce some pest problems while benefiting pollinators, enhance soil fertility and provide homegrown fruits, vegetables and herbs.

By Mary Beth Breckenridge
Akron Beacon Journal

Food plants have jumped the fence from the kitchen garden.

They're making their way into the landscape, doing double duty as both food sources and things of beauty.
It's a movement called edible landscaping, and there's good reason for it, advocates say. Edible landscaping encourages and simplifies local food production, with all its health and environmental benefits.
The idea behind edible landscaping is that fruits, vegetables and other edible plants can be intermingled with ornamental plants such as shrubs and flowers. Often edibles can be used in place of more common landscape plants — rhubarb instead of hostas, perhaps, or a fruit tree instead of a maple.

"I think it opens up a whole new territory for people who don't consider themselves gardeners" or don't like the look of a traditional vegetable garden, said Jonathan Hull, co-founder of the not-for-profit organization Green Triangle. The Cleveland-area organization promotes permaculture, an ecological system that stresses living in harmony with nature.
Edible landscaping is considered a part of permaculture because food plays a central role in sustainability, Hull explained. Homegrown food is considered by some to be more nutritious than much of the commercially produced food, and growing food locally saves the energy needed to ship it long distances.

What's more, reducing a lawn to make room for food plants means less maintenance, less need for chemicals and less use of noisy, polluting equipment, he said.

Edible landscaping also benefits pollinators and other wildlife that are seeing many of their habitats and food sources destroyed. And it's an economical approach to landscaping in tough times, noted Renata Brown, the Cleveland Botanical Garden's associate director of education.

But Tim Malinich's motivation is more personal. "The best benefit, in my opinion, — is the taste is phenomenal," said Malinich, a horticulture educator with the Ohio State University Extension in Lorain County.

Landscape designer Sabrena Schweyer said she regularly incorporates edible plants into the landscapes she and husband Samuel Salsbury create through their Akron, Ohio, firm, Salsbury-Schweyer. Sometimes those plants might be clustered in an attractive area set aside for food growing, such as a traditional French garden called a potager, or contained in pots in an area close to the kitchen. Sometimes they're incorporated into a food forest, a growing method that mimics the layers and plant diversity of a natural forest, where plants naturally get the water and food they need to thrive.

She and Salsbury created what she calls an edible border on an 8-foot-wide strip of land that edges the driveway on the south side of their Highland Square house. There they mixed edible plants such as nasturtiums, cardoons, strawberries, potatoes and tomatoes — some of them in pots — among small trees, shrubs and perennial flowers.

Schweyer said she took care to choose food plants they would use and looked for disease-resistant types, which often are heirloom or native plants. Because her yard is small, she often uses dwarf plants or climbers, such as the purple Italian beans that clambered up a bamboo arbor and fed the couple for a good part of last summer.

She chose those beans because their color matched the trim on their house, she said. Beauty, after all, is a foremost consideration for her.

Still, edible landscaping has some benefits that are purely practical, Hull said.

For one thing, mixing a variety of plants can do a better job of reducing pest problems than traditional food gardening methods. Destructive bugs have a harder time finding individual food plants than they do a whole row, which is "like a big neon sign for any munching insect," he said. And with a mix of plants, it's easier to incorporate flowers that attract predator insects or confuse undesirable bugs.

Interplanting can also enhance soil fertility, Hull said. He often incorporates plants grown specifically to be cut down and returned to the soil as fertilizer, or plants that take nitrogen from the air and convert it to a usable form.

And because edible landscaping involves beds that aren't completely replanted each year, they're not tilled annually, he said. Repeated tilling breaks down the soil structure, a detriment to soil health.

Despite the benefits, promoting the concept of edible landscaping means changing some firmly held mindsets.

"I think a lot of people think flowers have to be here, herbs have to be here, vegetables have to be here," Hull said.

He's hoping to break down those boundaries.


Edible landscaping tips from Jonathan Hull and Tim Malinich:

• Start small. Limit the number and variety of new plants you add each year. That way you won't be overwhelmed by the amount of information you need to learn about them.

• Choose sunny sites. Food plants need a lot of sunlight to produce the best-tasting fruits and vegetables. If you don't plant in full sun, the plants might still look nice, but the food they produce will have a lower sugar content and won't be as tasty.

• Be aware of plant competition. Larger plants such as trees and shrubs can take a big share of water and nutrients, leaving an insufficient amount for the smaller plants.

• Have a water source. Your food plants may need supplemental water, so make sure you have a hose or some other water source that can reach them.

• Plan for wildlife. Birds and beasts like to eat many of the same things we do, so edible landscaping is likely to attract them to your yards. Some people want that; others don't.

If you intend to protect your plants from wildlife, consider the ramifications. For example, you might be tempted to plant a berry bush in your front yard, but "how's that going to look in your design when it's covered with bird netting later in the season?" Malinich asked.

• Be prepared for trade-offs. If you're used to spraying your plants for insects or diseases, you're going to need to be cautious. Consider integrated pest management instead, an approach that looks at all the factors that keep plants healthy and de-emphasizes chemical controls.

• Know what you're growing. Just because someone told you a plant is edible doesn't mean it is. Be sure before you eat it. It's also a good idea to eat only a small amount of a new food at first, just to make sure you're not allergic to it.

• Expand your horizons. Study how to prepare the foods you're growing, so you'll enjoy them and they won't go to waste.

Monday, September 17, 2012

How We Can Eat Our Landscapes

What should a community do with its unused land? 

Plant food, of course. With energy and humor, Pam Warhurst tells at the TEDSalon the story of how she and a growing team of volunteers came together to turn plots of unused land into communal vegetable gardens, and to change the narrative of food in their community.

Pam Warhurst cofounded Incredible Edible, an initiative in Todmorden, England dedicated to growing food locally by planting on unused land throughout the community.

More about Pam Warhurst:
Pam Warhurst is the Chair of the Board of the Forestry Commission, which advises on and implements forestry policy in Great Britain. She also cofounded Incredible Edible Todmorden, a local food partnership that encourages community engagement through local growing. Incredible Edible started small, with the planting of a few community herb gardens in Todmorden, and today has spin-offs in the U.S. and Japan. The community has started projects like Every Egg Matters, which educates people on keeping chickens and encourages them to sell eggs to neighbors, and uses a 'Chicken Map' to connect consumers and farmers. Incredible Edible Todmorden empowers ordinary people to take control of their communities through active civic engagement. 

"I wondered if it was possible to take a town like Todmorden and focus on local food to re-engage people with the planet we live on, create the sort of shifts in behaviour we need to live within the resources we have, stop us thinking like disempowered victims and to start taking responsibility for our own futures." Pam Warhurst

“There's so many people that don't really recognize a vegetable unless it's in a bit of plastic with an instruction packet on the top.”  Pam Warhurst

“Can you find a unifying language that cuts across age and income and culture? … Yes, and the language would appear to be food.”   Pam Warhurst

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Want to calculate how much water you can capture?

I have a post from April 10, 2010 about how to install rain barrels and harvest the water and another April 12, 2010 about how to build a rain barrel.. A reader posted this link, which I never saw until now. It is very cool to get an idea how much water can be harvested if you have the set-up to do it.  Thank you Raindrops Cisterns!

Statistics generated in reference to NOAA calculations for average rainfall per year.

This is the link where they have the calculator - just put in your zip code and the square footage of your roof and you get the gallon figure!!!  Wow!!!
This is what I got:
Rainwater Harvesting Calculator
How much rainfall can I harvest in a year?
You could harvest up to 23,976 gallons of rainwater per year!
= 11,988 Toilet Flushes
= 599 Laundry Loads
Results based on NOAA calculations of average annual rainfall for California, 1971-2000

Calculating the appropriate size
Rule number one!
Shoot for 1000 gallons and go from there. 1000 gallons on a 1000 to 3000 square foot house is a nice starting point and will supplement your existing water use quite nicely. Supplementing is the key word. It is not always practical to depend 100% on rainwater, but it is always practical to supplement potable water with rainwater.


square footage of roof area   X .6   =  gallons per 1 inch of rain.
gallons per 1 inch of rain   X .average inches rain per month   =  amount available for collection


Square footage of roof area (length x width) 1800 sq. ft
1800 x .6 = 1080 gallons
Average inches rain per month in most of Florida is 3 inches – this does not include June, July, August and September which are about double that.
1080 gallons x 3 = 3240 gallons collected
Let us assume 2 people live in this home. With each person using 69 gallons of water per day (this is average), that is 138 gallons per day or 966 gallons per week and 3864 gallons per month.
Considering the frequency of rain, a 1000 gallon to 2000 gallon storage capacity would be a good fit for this home.

Here’s how it breaks down:

Daily indoor per capita water use in the typical single family home is 69.3 gallons.
Use Gal per Capita  % Total Daily Use 
Showers 11.6 16.8%
Clothes Washers 15.0 21.7%
Dishwashers 1.0 1.4%
Toilets 18.5 26.7%
Baths 1.2 1.7%
Leaks 9.5 13.7%
Faucets 10.9 15.7%
Other Domestic Uses 1.6 2.2%

By installing more efficient water fixtures and regularly checking for leaks, households can reduce daily per capita water use by about 35% to about 45.2 gallons per day Here is how it breaks down for households using conservation measures:

Use Gal Per Capita % Total Daily Use 
Showers 8.8 19.5%
Clothes Washers 10.0 22.1%
Dishwashers 0.7 1.5%
Toilets 8.2 18.0%
Baths 1.2 2.7%
Leaks 4.0 8.8%
Faucets 10.8 23.9%
Other Domestic Uses 1.6 3.4%

Considering the above figures, with efficient fixtures and a collection system capable of supplementing your water needs, you can make a significant impact on the environment and your pocketbook too!

What is rainwater harvesting?

Rainwater harvesting is the collection, storage and distribution of rainwater from the roof for use inside and outside the home, farm or business. Also known as cisterns.

Why we harvest rainwater.

  1. Increasing water usage as population continues to grow.
  2. Climate change.
  3. Storm water run off damages the environment.
  4. Increasing the storm water infrastructure cost taxpayers millions.
  5. Increase property value.
  6. Save potable water for drinking.

The Benefits are endless.

  1. Start harvesting water now! Rainwater reduces water usage in every home. Installing a system you will start saving water immediately.
  2. Rainwater is naturally pure and fresh. It is not recycled water!
  3. Research supports rainwater can meet all household requirements.
  4. Significant cost savings for the community and each household. When you consider the total cost to the community, it makes sense to install a system to catch rainwater that falls for free from the sky and utilize it in and around the home.
  5. Lower overall water usage. People that collect and use their own rainwater become more aware of their water use and further reduce their overall water use.
  6. Lower energy consumption and green house gas emissions. There are significant cost to treat and pump mains water throughout the community. Widespread installation of collection systems result in reduced energy consumption and less greenhouse gas emissions. Rainwater is an ideal water source for 95% of our requirements.
  7. Protect local waterways, bays, estuaries and reduce storm water infrastructure cost. Harvesting reduces both the volume and velocity of storm water run off.

What is that green stuff on tomato plants?

Sept. 29, 2010
By Lynn Byczynski

What is the greenish-yellow powder you get all over your hands and arms when you pick tomatoes?

For the past two summers, this question has been bothering me. But I couldn't find anyone who seemed to know. I asked numerous friends in the biology and horticulture fields, and even several tomato breeders. Most people said "isn't it pollen?" But clearly it isn't coming from tomato flowers — it's all over the plant, on the leaves and stems. One grower called it chlorophyl. Another called it "tomato tar" because it turns black if you don't wash it off quickly enough.

An interesting characteristic of this substance is how hard it is to get it off your skin. You lather up with soap and water and the suds turn green. Rinse, and lather again, and the suds still turn green. You can wash your hands four or five times and the stuff just keeps coming off. It explains why all your towels and t-shirts get green stains in summer — no matter how many times you wash, there's still some left behind on your skin.

Finally, the mystery of the tomato stuff was revealed. Chris Wien, a horticulture professor at Cornell University, had sent me some information about high tunnel tomato production for an article I was writing for Growing for Market. I emailed to thank him then added, "By the way, do you know the technical term for the greenish yellow powder you get all over your hands when you pick tomatoes?"

Chris emailed right back. "Yes, the green substance is a number of chemicals that are released from hairs situated on the surface of tomato leaves, stems and fruits.  Under a microscope, these look like miniature water towers, and the compounds are inside these glands.  Some of the compounds are called 'acyl sugars'."

Finally, I had the right words to Google it with. When I did, I was plunged into the totally unfamiliar world of plant metabolism research.

A few hours later, staggering from one barely comprehensible scientific paper to another, I landed on the website of the Solanum Trichome Project, a collaborative genomics project between the University of Arizona, University of Michigan, and Michigan State. That's where I found this beautiful illustration above (by Chris Smith of fivethirtythree studios) of the little hairs that secrete the green stuff that gets all over your skin.

Solanum trichome illustration

And where I learned, in plain English, the meaning and importance of that substance. Here it is, in a nutshell:
The little hairs that cover tomato leaves are technically known as secretory and glandular trichomes (SGTs). About one-third of all the vascular plant species have SGTs. They secrete various secondary metabolites -- that is, substances that aren't used for the growth or reproduction of the plant but have some other function. SGTs contain the essential oils that give herbs their fragrance and flavor. In tomatoes, they produce acyl sugars, terpenoids, and flavonoids.  Acyl sugars are lipids (fats) that are greasy to the touch, insoluble in water and soluble in alcohol. That's why they're so hard to wash off your skin. Terpenoids release the familiar tomato scent when you brush against the plant. Flavonoids are the substances in plants that are getting all the attention for their role in preventing cancer and cardiovascular disease.

These substances are thought to protect plants against environmental assaults including insect attacks, foliar diseases, extreme heat and excessive light. They are of great interest to plant breeders, who hope to use them to develop varieties resistant to late blight, early blight, Septoria leaf spot and other diseases. There is also some research into increasing insect resistance. "Some wild tomato lines from South America have different acyl sugars than the domestic tomatoes, and by crossing them, the breeders can select for compounds that ward off insects," Dr. Wien said.  "Unfortunately, these compounds also give the plants a 'wet dog' smell, so may take some getting used to."

So now I know. The green stuff serves a very good purpose, from the point of view of the tomato plant. And that makes me more kindly disposed to the green stains on my towels and t-shirts in summer.

Lynn Byczynski is the editor and publisher of Growing for Market, a magazine for direct-market farmers.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Illegal Front Yard Vegetable Garden

Front Yard Garden: Canadian Couple's Kitchen Garden Targeted By Authorities
July 22, 2012

Take a look at Josée Landry and Michel Beauchamp's gorgeous front yard kitchen garden in Drummondville, Quebec. The cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchinis, beets, onions, and brussels sprouts and other vegetables grown by the couple helped Beauchamp lose 75 pounds, and Landry 25.

The only problem? It's illegal.

Boing Boing points us to a petition to save the garden, which authorities insist must be removed. The town code states that a vegetable garden can take up 30 percent of a front yard at most, and Landry and Beauchamp's is in violation. They were given two weeks to comply, which means the garden must be drastically scaled back by this Sunday.

The petition reads in part:

Front yard kitchen gardens are not the problem; they're part of the solution to healthier and more sustainable communities. Thanks for helping us to defend them.

CBC News reports that if the couple fails to remove a significant enough portion of their garden, they could expect fines of between $100 and $300 each day. The news site also reveals authorities say neighbors have complained about the garden, but Beauchamp is suspicious:

Beauchamp said no one has complained to him. He said he shares his fresh produce with his neighbours.

"They love it. Everybody is surprised by the kind of taste we can have from fresh vegetables," he said.

The couple said they have no intention of complying with the city's request.

CBC also notes that the city plans to make all front lawn vegetable gardens illegal this fall. The measure would only apply to new gardens, so Landry Beauchamp garden -- assuming they scale it back -- will be perfectly legal.

How does the larger gardening community feel about attempts to remove the garden? Boing Boing has a quote from kitchen garden advocate and expert Roger Doiron: "If this garden is deemed illegal, we're in deep you-know-what."

Learn more about the couple's personal website, Le potager urbain. Fair warning, it's written in French. Language barrier or not, the pictures are pretty cool.

Watch the making of the couple's garden in the video below. What's not to like?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Convenience shoulders tomato taste aside Breeding for consistent color in unripe fruit may have diminished flavor

By Susan Milius
July 28th, 2012; Vol.182 #2  (p. 18)

Whether an unripe tomato has a gene form that leads to uniform light shade (right) or a darker shade on top called shoulders (left) could have consequences for the fruit's final flavor. Courtesy of Hakan Aktas It looks like 70 years of breeding for better color in unripe fruit has inadvertently helped create the wet-paper towel flavor of the modern tomato.

Growers care about the green of unripe tomatoes, explains biochemist Ann L. Thomas Powell of the University of California, Davis. Ripening globes that are each uniformly green let growers easily judge when a field will be ready for harvest. Over decades breeders have selected for this uniform green coloring instead of for tomatoes that turn a deeper shade around the stem end, Powell says.

The problem is, getting rid of that dark green zone, called green shoulders, turns out to have sabotaged a gene called SlGLK2 that boosts sugar and other sources of flavor in the ripe tomato, Powell and her colleagues report in the June 29 Science.

“It is a good illustration of unintended consequences,” says molecular biologist Harry Klee of the University of Florida in Gainesville, who studies tomato flavor.

For years, Powell says, breeders assumed that a ripe red tomato got all of its sugars from the little photosynthetic engines known as chloroplasts in the plant leaves. It turns out, however, that a green-shouldered tomato gets about 20 percent of its sugars from its own chloroplasts. Without a functional SlGLK2 gene, the ripening tomato forms fewer and punier chloroplasts that don’t deliver, Powell and her colleagues have found.

Skimping on sugars certainly could make a difference in flavor, says Klee, who routinely does taste tests in his lab. His tomato testing panels respond strongly to sugar content. “The more the better,” he says.

Volatile compounds wafting off a tomato’s flesh also play a big role in its appeal. The problem is, inadequate chloroplasts likewise won’t produce as much of the chemical precursors for some of those compounds. “It’s totally obvious you’re going to take a hit in some of the volatiles,” Klee says.

In the June 5 Current Biology, he and his colleagues highlighted the importance of a handful of volatiles — some of them mere whiffs — in seducing the nose and taste buds.

Exactly what the loss of the green-shoulders trait means for tomato flavor remains to be measured. But, Klee says, “it's not the whole story of why modern tomatoes are so bad, by a long shot.”

Picking them before they’re fully ripe diminishes flavor, as does refrigerating them. Chilling tomatoes below 13º Celsius kills metabolic processes still functioning in a picked tomato, Klee says, so the fruit never manages to replace the lovely volatiles that float away.

Even under ideal conditions, genetic differences will matter in flavor. When Klee and his colleagues pamper various commercial varieties, taste panels pan some of them and give the best ones decent but not brilliant ratings. And just because a variety is an heirloom doesn’t mean it tastes great, he cautions. For his taste panels, Cherry Roma is the reigning favorite.

When choosing among generic tomatoes, he recommends going for cherry tomatoes and other little types: “Breeders haven’t had as much time to mess them up,” he says.

Monday, July 16, 2012

How to Build a Rain Garden in Your Backyard

An easy-to-build backyard rain garden is a work of art that will help you solve your drainage and runoff issues.

By Patricia Escarcega July/August 2012

Whether your backyard is large or small, rain gardens enhance the landscape while improving runoff problems and the ecosystem.
Brenda Carson/Fotolia

Tired of that muddy puddle in the middle of the yard, or that washed-out mini-gulley that forms whenever a downpour loads up your home’s downspouts? If so, it might be time to get a handle on all that runoff and put it to good use by learning how to build a rain garden. These shallow saucer-shaped gardens, commonly described as “nature’s water filters,” are designed to capture excess runoff that can potentially wreak havoc on your soil and pollute waterways. All you need to create your own rain garden is a well-designed plan, a handful of native plants, and some good old-fashioned elbow grease.

How rain gardens work

Rain gardens are designed to catch storm runoff from rooftops, patios, sidewalks, roads and other impervious surfaces. During a storm, rain gardens will fill with a few inches of water that gradually filter into the ground. When properly designed and constructed, these structures can hold water for around 24 hours and will not attract mosquitoes — they’re much more likely to attract birds and beneficial insects.

Rain gardens can be helpful wherever water runoff is an issue. Ideally, you will want to situate the rain garden in between the source of the runoff and the runoff destination.

Before you break ground, make sure the garden is at least 10 feet from any buildings or structures, and at least 25 feet from any septic system drain field. Also be sure to avoid underground utility lines (call 8-1-1 at least 48 hours before digging), and if you have trees on your property, avoid disturbing established root systems.

Conduct a soil evaluation

Sandy and loamy soils work best for these backyard havens since they tend to drain well. Clay soils can become waterlogged and may not be suitable for a rain garden. Test the drainage of potential sites by digging a percolation test hole that is at least 8 inches wide and 8 inches deep. Fill the hole with water and let stand. Ideally, the water should drain at a rate of about an inch every hour. If you are working with hard clay soil that won’t drain, remove it and replace it with a mix of approximately 60 percent sand, 20 percent topsoil and 20 percent compost.

Calculate rain garden size

A rain garden can be almost any size, but most residential rain gardens range from 100 to 300 square feet. Many are the shape of a saucer or kidney bean, with the largest side facing the source of runoff. Use site conditions as a natural guide in shaping the garden. Rain gardens are generally 4 to 8 inches deep. Anything deeper than 8 inches may pond water, and rain gardens less than 4 inches deep may not provide enough water storage for proper infiltration. The slope of the land should help determine the depth of the garden.

Use the following general guidelines to determine rain garden depth. If the slope is less than 4 percent (4 feet vertical in 100 feet horizontal), build the garden 3 to 5 inches deep. If the slope is between 5 percent and 7 percent, build a garden 6 to 7 inches deep. If you are working with a slope in the 8- to 12-percent range, make the garden about 8 inches deep. Remember, rain gardens are easier to install and tend to work best in places where the ground is relatively level.

To determine the length and width of the rain garden, think about how it will catch runoff. Runoff should spread evenly across the rain garden so water doesn’t pool at one end or spill over before it has a chance to filter into the ground. Plan the garden so that the longer side faces upslope. This will ensure that the garden catches as much runoff as possible, and that the water spreads across the entire length of the garden. The width of the rain garden will depend on the slope of the land, but most residential versions are between 10 and 15 feet wide. Remember, if a rain garden is too wide, it may become necessary to add additional soil to the downhill half of the garden.

Here is a relatively simple formula to approximate measurements for your rain garden. First, find out which hard surfaces will be producing the storm runoff for your garden.

Let’s say you are planning to use roof runoff as the main source of water. In this example, you would measure only the parts of the roof that will be “feeding” the garden. Measure the width and length (in feet) of that part of the roof, then multiply the two numbers to get the square footage. This number is your “drain area.” If you are gardening with sandy or loamy soil, plan on making your rain garden about 20 percent to 30 percent of the drain area size. For instance, if the part of the roof that will provide runoff to the garden measures 1,000 square feet, you’ll want to make the rain garden 20 percent to 30 percent of that number, or 200 to 300 square feet in size. If you are working with clay soils, plan on making the rain garden larger to compensate for poor drainage.

Prepare the site

Start by defining the borders of the rain garden by laying a string or hose around the perimeter or marking it with fluorescent spray paint. You can use a rototiller or backhoe, or dig by hand, depending on the size and depth of your garden. As you dig to the desired depth, heap the soil around the downhill edges to create a berm. Once the soil excavation is complete, use a hand level to make sure the bottom of the garden floor is level. Mix and add necessary soil amendments. Again, if you are working with clay soil, create a simple garden soil mix of sand, topsoil and compost to amend or replace the difficult soil. Once the soil has been amended, let it settle overnight before planting.

Planting and care

Choose native plants appropriate for the sunlight exposure and soil conditions of your rain garden. Plants need to tolerate standing water for up to 48 hours, as well as some periods of drought. First-time rain gardeners are encouraged to contact their local soil and water conservation district for a list of native plants that work well under local conditions. Keep identification tags on the plants — or otherwise label them. Some plants may thrive better than others, and this can help you start to identify plants that work best in your garden.

Now it’s time to plant. As a general rule, plant shrubs 3 feet apart, perennials 1 foot apart, and annuals 6 to 8 inches apart. Apply 3 inches of mulch, and water plants immediately after installation.

Most rain gardens do not require much maintenance. Check plants periodically for signs of wilting, and weed as necessary. Also, check for berm failure and ponding. If standing water occurs longer than two days, this is a sign that the garden is not draining properly.

A rain garden offers an opportunity to use your imagination, so be creative as you design a beautiful oasis on your property. A writer and gardener living in Phoenix, Patricia Escarcega is always looking for and experimenting with new ways to conserve water while keeping a garden in the desert.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Organic Tomatoes ARE More Nutritious!

From: Akhila Vijayaraghavan,
Published July 9, 2012 06:30 AM

The debate about whether organic food has more nutrients might be finally settled, at least in the case of tomatoes. The latest research from the University of Barcelona shows that organic tomatoes have higher levels of antioxidants than chemically-grown ones. The research team studied and analysed the chemical structure of the Daniela variety of tomato.

According to The Daily Mail: "They detected 34 different beneficial compounds in both the organic and conventional versions”� However they found that overall the organic tomatoes contained higher level of the polyphenols. The scientists says this difference between organic and conventional tomatoes can be explained by the manure used to grown them."

This makes sense because plants produce polyphenols to fight off diseases, and when we ingest them, we get the same disease prevention benefits. In a chemically-intensive agricultural system however, the plants’ natural ability to defend itself is diminished as that work is taken on by pesticides and fungicides. Polyphenols are a class of natural antioxidants and they halt the development of certain cancers as well as some chronic conditions due to their anti-inflammatory properties. There is a class of polyphenols called flavonols which impart flavour and taste to fruits or vegetables. That's the reason why organically grown food is said to taste better, although this is debatable.

However the scientific findings that organic tomatoes have more polyphenols than conventionally grown ones is more proof that chemical agriculture does not impart any nutritional value to food. Although this has been proven before in 2004 in a study by UC Davis, and more recently by the University of Newscastle,  the nutritional superiority of organic food still is a subject for intense research.

In spite of the results of the research, organic food still has not gained widespread acceptance. It is still more expensive than chemically grown food and the market for organic food still remains stagnant. In many countries, organic food is not even widely available. All of this needs to change before people are able to benefit from the nutritionally benefits of organic food.
Whole article

Friday, June 29, 2012

How The Taste Of Tomatoes Went Bad (And Kept On Going)

Notice how some of these tomatoes have unripe-looking tops? Those "green shoulders" are actually the keys to flavor. (

by Dan Charles

Jun 28, 2012 (All Things Considered) — Scientists have discovered that the gene that makes tomatoes uniformly ripe and red also makes them less tasty. But it's going to take consumer education and a willingness to pay more before the industry makes a change.

The tomato is the vegetable (or fruit, if you must) that we love to hate. We know how good it can be and how bad it usually is. And everybody just wants to know: How did it get that way?

Today, scientists revealed a small but intriguing chapter in that story: a genetic mutation that seemed like a real improvement in the tomato's quality, but which actually undermined its taste.

Before we get to the mutation, though, let's start with the old tomatoes — the varieties that people grew a century or more ago.

Thanks to enthusiastic seed savers and heirloom tomato enthusiasts, you can still find many of them. Eric Rice, owner of Country Pleasures Farm near Middletown, Md., first encountered heirloom tomatoes when he was a graduate student in North Carolina.

"I decided I really liked them," he says. He liked the vivid taste and the unusual colors, from orange to purple. These tomatoes also have great names: Cherokee Purple, Dr. Wyche's, Mortgage Lifter.

Rice now grows these tomatoes to sell at a farmers market in Washington, D.C. But he admits that all that tomato personality can make heirlooms harder to grow and sell. "Heirloom tomatoes don't ship very well because they're softer. And frankly, they're all different shapes and sizes." This makes them more difficult to pack.

There's something else you'll notice as these tomatoes start to get ripe — something central to this story. The part of the tomato near the stem — what's called the shoulder of the fruit — stays green longer.

"I think it is an issue for the consumer," says Rice, "because people do buy with their eyes. And green shoulders also mean it's not entirely ripe or not as soft and tasty there."

Those green shoulders turn out to be more significant than you might think. In this week's issue of the journal Science, scientists report that when they disappeared from modern tomatoes, some of the tomato's taste went with them.

Here's how. Sometime before 1930, somewhere in America, a tomato grower noticed a plant that was producing distinctive fruit. These fruit turned red from stem to tip in a uniform way. They didn't have any of those bothersome green shoulders.

It was a new mutation, and plant breeders saw it as the next big thing.

They called it the "uniform ripening" trait. In 1930, the agricultural experiment station in Fargo, N.D., released a new tomato variety containing this mutation. The variety was called All Red.

Ann Powell, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, says it spread through the entire tomato industry. "It's a little hard to find a variety in modern production that doesn't have it," she says.

Powell is one of the scientists who now has discovered the genetic change responsible for "uniform ripening."

She was studying some genetically engineered tomato plants for another reason when she noticed that one of the added genes resulted in green tomatoes that were really dark green. It struck her as odd. "The leaves were not dark green. It was only the fruit that were dark green," she recalls.

Since this foreign gene had interesting effects on the ripening of fruit, Powell and her colleagues started looking for a similar gene that occurs naturally in tomatoes. They found it — and by coincidence, so did another research team on the other side of the country, at Cornell University.

The researchers discovered that this natural tomato gene, when it works properly, produces those green shoulders on tomatoes. The darker green color comes from the chlorophyll in plant structures called chloroplasts, which is what converts sunlight into sugars for the plant. In fact, those dark green shoulders were making those old tomatoes sweeter and creating more flavor.

The uniform-ripening mutation disabled this gene.

"We find out that, oh my goodness, this is one of the factors that led to the deterioration of flavor in the commercial tomato," says Harry Klee, a professor of horticulture at the University of Florida.

Klee has been exploring the chemistry and genetics of tomato taste. He says tomato breeders made a lot of compromises like this over the years as they created tomato plants that produce more fruit and are also rugged enough to hold up under rough handling.

Now, Klee says, with some of this new science, we have a chance to undo some of those decisions. "What I tell people is, we can have 100 percent of the flavor [of heirloom varieties] with 80 percent of the agricultural performance of the modern varieties, with very little work."

Breeders can start with some of the best heirlooms, then bring in some of the disease-resistance genes that modern varieties have. They should also be able to increase yields somewhat, he says.

But consumers may have to change their expectations, Klee says. "They're going to have to go in and say, 'That one's got that little discoloration at the top; that means it must be good!"

And, the only way they're likely to show up in your local grocery store is if consumers can recognize them and are willing to pay a bit more for them.

Still, for the best flavor, you might want to grow your own.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

Source: NPR

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Arsenic in Our Chicken?

Op-Ed Columnist
Published: April 4, 2012

Let’s hope you’re not reading this column while munching on a chicken sandwich.

That’s because my topic today is a pair of new scientific studies suggesting that poultry on factory farms are routinely fed caffeine, active ingredients of Tylenol and Benadryl, banned antibiotics and even arsenic.

“We were kind of floored,” said Keeve E. Nachman, a co-author of both studies and a scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future.  “It’s unbelievable what we found.”
Damon Winter/The New York Times
Nicholas D. Kristof

He said that the researchers had intended to test only for antibiotics. But assays for other chemicals and pharmaceuticals didn’t cost extra, so researchers asked for those results as well.

“We haven’t found anything that is an immediate health concern,” Nachman added. “But it makes me question how comfortable we are feeding a number of these things to animals that we’re eating. It bewilders me.” 

Likewise, I grew up on a farm, and thought I knew what to expect in my food. But Benadryl? Arsenic? These studies don’t mean that you should dump the contents of your refrigerator, but they do raise serious questions about the food we eat and how we should shop.

It turns out that arsenic has routinely been fed to poultry (and sometimes hogs) because it reduces infections and makes flesh an appetizing shade of pink. There’s no evidence that such low levels of arsenic harm either chickens or the people eating them, but still...

Big Ag doesn’t advertise the chemicals it stuffs into animals, so the scientists conducting these studies figured out a clever way to detect them. Bird feathers, like human fingernails, accumulate chemicals and drugs that an animal is exposed to. So scientists from Johns Hopkins University and Arizona State University examined feather meal — a poultry byproduct made of feathers.

One study, just published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, Environmental Science & Technology, found that feather meal routinely contained a banned class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones. These antibiotics (such as Cipro), are illegal in poultry production because they can breed antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” that harm humans. Already, antibiotic-resistant infections kill more Americans annually than AIDS, according to the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

The same study also found that one-third of feather-meal samples contained an antihistamine that is the active ingredient of Benadryl. The great majority of feather meal contained acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. And feather-meal samples from China contained an antidepressant that is the active ingredient in Prozac.

Poultry-growing literature has recommended Benadryl to reduce anxiety among chickens, apparently because stressed chickens have tougher meat and grow more slowly. Tylenol and Prozac presumably serve the same purpose.

Researchers found that most feather-meal samples contained caffeine. It turns out that chickens are sometimes fed coffee pulp and green tea powder to keep them awake so that they can spend more time eating. (Is that why they need the Benadryl, to calm them down?)

The other peer-reviewed study, reported in a journal called Science of the Total Environment, found arsenic in every sample of feather meal tested. Almost 9 in 10 broiler chickens in the United States had been fed arsenic, according to a 2011 industry estimate.

These findings will surprise some poultry farmers because even they often don’t know what chemicals they feed their birds. Huge food companies require farmers to use a proprietary food mix, and the farmer typically doesn’t know exactly what is in it. I asked the United States Poultry and Egg Association for comment, but it said that it had not seen the studies and had nothing more to say.

What does all this mean for consumers? The study looked only at feathers, not meat, so we don’t know exactly what chemicals reach the plate, or at what levels. The uncertainties are enormous, but I asked Nachman about the food he buys for his own family. “I’ve been studying food-animal production for some time, and the more I study, the more I’m drawn to organic,” he said. “We buy organic.”

I’m the same. I used to be skeptical of organic, but the more reporting I do on our food supply, the more I want my own family eating organic — just to be safe.

To me, this underscores the pitfalls of industrial farming. When I was growing up on our hopelessly inefficient family farm, we didn’t routinely drug animals. If our chickens grew anxious, the reason was perhaps a fox — and we never tried to resolve the problem with Benadryl.

My take is that the business model of industrial agriculture has some stunning accomplishments, such as producing cheap food that saves us money at the grocery store. But we all may pay more in medical costs because of antibiotic-resistant infections.

Frankly, after reading these studies, I’m so depressed about what has happened to farming that I wonder: Could a Prozac-laced chicken nugget help?

I invite you to visit my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook and Google+, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Ron Finley: Food Forest

Here is another heart-warming example of the growing food movement and a great story of people coming together and getting in touch with nature in the city.

This film tells the story of a South Los Angeles edible garden planted in a surprising spot. Ron Finley, its planter, constructed the garden the way he wishes his neighborhood could be. And his vision of repurposing unused open space, like that of many others working together on urban agriculture in our city, should inspire us all, and remind us of how, with a little creativity of vision, and willingness to get our hands dirty, we can remake spaces defined by asphalt and dead grass into productive places of beauty.

TO LEARN MORE about Teaching Gardens:

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The best room and board for your backyard chickens

May 10, 2012 -
Charlotte from Peaceful Valley
All chickens deserve dry, safe places to live. Offer them good grub too—and you’ll get yummy eggs full of Omega-3 fatty acids! 

Feed your chickens our Omega-3 Chicken Forage Blend to ramp up the Omega-3 in their eggs.  (shown here growing in seed flats).
Give your backyard chickens the best room and board. Here at Peaceful Valley we have all the supplies you need to raise healthy chickens.

BACKYARD CHICKEN VIDEOS Raising Chickens - We have 3 videos for you on backyard chickens! Tricia raises chickens and covers the basics on what they need. 

Jessi Bloom, author of Free-Range Chicken Gardens, tells the story of chickens as part of permaculture.

Jayme Jenkins blogs at Nest in Style—and built her own chicken coop. View Jayme's tips on the coops that will be best for your back (and for the hens).

We’re famous (in the poultry population) for our Omega-3 Chicken Forage Blend. Chickens love to cruise around and find their own tasty bites in the garden. This blend gives them choices, and sneaks in a lot of Omega-3 producing greenery for them.

Omega-3 fatty acids are an important component of a healthy diet. One way to get this substance in our food is to eat eggs from chickens raised on a diet that promotes the formation of Omega-3s right in the egg. University studies show significantly higher Omega-3s in eggs from hens who can forage in pasture instead of just eating an industrial diet. Our mix has the alfalfa, clover, and flax that increase Omega-3s in eggs.

Plant annually after danger of frost has passed.

Plant at 50 pounds per acre or 2-3 pounds per 1,000 sq. ft. Keep moist until germination and then water regularly, depending on your soil type. When the mix is 2-5” tall turn the chickens loose on the planted area until they have eaten the grasses about half way.

Or plant some in a 17” square flat for the chickens and let them chow it all down. Add soil, sow thickly, follow the growing instructions above, then place the flat in the chicken run.
Caution: Flax can form prussic acid when exposed to frost so do not graze horses on this mix.

Who uses that coop anyway? The hens, of course, but you do too—and you want the coop height to be easy on your back when you’re gathering eggs, checking on your flock, and cleaning the coop.

We found small and large coops that work well for the chickens and for you!

These meet all the requirements for being secure, high off the ground, well-ventilated, designed with chicken roosting and laying needs in mind—and they’re cute!

We have galvanized chicken waterers and feeders for your feathered friends. Lots of good food too, like Organic Layer Chicken Pellets, and the specially digestible oyster shell that keeps calcium levels high (and egg binding away).

A chicken’s idea of a spa treatment is a dust bath. Mix food grade diatomaceous earth with your own dirt and make some hens happy.


Chickens are a hot topic and the chicken books are flying off the presses. We read all the new books and have our picks for the top of the pecking order.

You can’t go wrong with Jessi’s Free Range Chicken Gardens, or the comprehensive City Chicks and Living with Chickens.

In a nesting mode? Check out the great coop designs and super-easy-to-follow building directions in the brand-new Art of the Chicken Coop.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Consider the Weed

In defense of botanical trespassers.

By Richard Mabey
Posted Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The first weeds were created 10,000 years ago, when the first fields were cultivated, and the concept of the botanical trespasser—the "plant in the wrong place"—was invented. Seven thousand years later, Middle Eastern farmers, still disgruntled at having lost their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, wrote a creation myth in which agriculture and its accompanying weeds are a celestial punishment for their cleverness. Genesis' god condemns errant humans to till the soil "in the sweat of they face ... cursed is the ground for thy sake ... thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee."

Today the thorns and thistles are still there and more is spent trying to exterminate weeds in farms and gardens than on any other aspect of cultivation. Their appearance sparks reflexes, not reasoning. They are regarded as inexplicable and impertinent intruders, quite unconnected with the way we live our lives. But the fact is that we are responsible for weeds. Every single nuisance, from the purslane and witchweed in the cornfields to the thrown-out aquarium exotics now smothering the native flora of the Everglades, is a consequence of our thoughtless and sometimes deliberate disruption of natural systems, ploughing, spraying, moving species way beyond their natural homes.

We tend to ignore that weeds are beneficial. They are nature's pioneers, abhorring the vacuum of barren earth, sometimes functioning as a kind of ecological immune system: organisms which move in to repair damaged tissue, in this case earth stripped of its natural vegetation. Certain weeds are more directly useful for humans. The wheat on which western civilization is predicated began as a weed grass: wild emmer, St John's wort (klamathweed) is now a recognized and widely used anti-depressant.

We couldn't survive as modern humans if we ceased to control weeds. It's impractical to let them grow unimpeded. But, every once in a while, perhaps we should take a break from weed-whacking and examine our relationship with these clever and resilient plants, if only to admire their will to live and to multiply.

 Credit: Photograph by foto footprints via Flickr.
Bindweed is the archetypal weed, being both an interloper and awesomely adaptive. It’s also ambivalent, as beautiful in flower as its close relatives the morning glories. The big, “granny’s nightgown” flowers of hedge bindweed came to the United States with early settlers. Bindweeds thrive on weeding and ploughing. Every fragment of chopped root or stem can generate a new plant. It can cover 30 square yards in a season. If it’s eaten by cattle, chemicals in the stem respond to the growth hormones in the animals’ saliva and grow even faster. Doff your hat in respect before you try to hoe it out.

Credit: Photograph by Bogdan via Wikipedia Commons.
A cosmopolitan family of semiparasites that come in all manner of varieties, each chemically adapted to a specific host. Dodders have no chlorophyll and no roots. The growing stems edge forward with the coiling movements of sidewinders, until they chemically “sniff” their host, and then head toward it, suckering spikes at the ready. The variety that preys on tomatoes has been filmed rejecting globes of red liquid and dyed tennis balls, and slithering decisively toward a piece rubber impregnated with tomato-scent chemicals.
Credit: Photograph by Epukas via Wikipedia Commons.
Most American weeds originated in Europe, a legacy of colonialism that outstayed the colonists. Burdock’s floppy gray-green leaves were a favorite foreground ornament of 17th- and 18th-century landscape painters. But it’s had a more modern practical use. The seed-heads—called “burrs”—are covered with hooked spines, which attach themselves to passing animals and get dispersed. In the 1940s the Swiss inventor George de Mestral, removing a bushel from his dog’s fur, was inspired to create Velcro. It was patented in 1951, one of the first examples of the burgeoning science of bio-engineering.

Credit: Photograph by Muffett via Flickr.
One of the most enchanting European wetland flowers. The pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais painted its magenta sprays on the riverbank in his famous picture of the drowning Ophelia. It arrived in the New World in the early 1800s, probably as a stowaway in ships’ ballast. It came without any of the munching insects that, above and below ground, keep it in check in Europe, and took off west like any other ambitious immigrant. It has now reached the fragile marshlands of Alaska, forming solid stands—a mile thick in places—which even muskrats cannot penetrate.

Credit: Photograph by K W Reinsch via Flickr.
A quintessential ingredient of the ambience of Western movies, but also a wonderful example of cinematic anachronism. Tumbleweed—aka Russian thistle—is a native of arid areas of eastern Europe and Asia which arrived in the USA in the late 1870s, mixed up with flax seed brought by Ukrainian immigrants. It didn’t really become established until the early 20th century, some while after the pioneering heydays portrayed in classic Westerns. Tumbleweed’s great trick, in which the dried-out plants detach themselves from the ground and bowl about the desert, scattering seeds as they go, is a typical piece of weed smartness.

Credit: Photograph by Lane Tredway via Flickr.
Sounds as American as hillbilly, but is another settler introduction. Meadow-grass is a widespread European weed-grass and was introduced to the United States in the fodder, or attached to the hooves, of their cattle. Adapted to the heavy grazing—and heavy hooves—of domestic stock, it soon ramped across grasslands east of the Mississippi, and drove most of the more delicate indigenous grasses close to extinction. But it was good feed and a boon to ranchers, who rebranded it, immortally, as “Kentucky blue grass.”

Credit: Photograph by Gardening in a Minute via Flickr.
Not all weeds travel east-west. Cogon is a tough grass that is a natural component of the ground vegetation of Southeast Asian forests. When the United States used Agent Orange to obliterate the trees in large areas of this forest during the Vietnam War, cogon rampaged across the landscape. It has overwhelmed attempts to overplant it with pineapple, teak, even the formidable bamboo, and picked up the local tag of “American weed.” There’s some poetic justice in the fact that cogon recently infiltrated the United States in the packaging of imported house-plants, and is now advancing across the southern states.

Credit: Photograph by SoftCore Studios via Flickr.
Kudzu is the “vine that ate the South”—aggressive, imperious, its origins the subject of wild conspiracy theories. The true story of its arrival in the United States is that in 1876, the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia contained a Japanese garden full of that country’s native plants. Kudzu proved very appealing as an ornamental climber and was widely planted in gardens. In the 1920s, a Florida nursery noticed that cattle were browsing on the plants and promoted it as a forage crop. Ten years later the Forest Service started planting the vine to control soil erosion in the dust bowls. But by the 1950s it had broken out of cultivation, and, capable of climbing up to 90 feet at the rate of 1 foot every 12 hours, was swallowing entire forests and houses. It’s a salutary demonstration that even the most beneficent of plants, translocated from the natural control systems of their native habitats, can turn into superweeds.

Credit: Photograph by DarkOne via Wikipedia Commons.
Not all weeds are, so to speak, “weedy.” Many tree species can behave with the enterprise of wheatfield invaders and flower-border guerrillas. Tree-of-heaven is a popular Chinese ornamental with prodigious powers of both seeding and vertical growth. It gets its name not from some paradisiacal scent (the flowers smell rather disagreeable, but are popular with city bees), but from the speed with which it rockets skyward, sometimes carrying sidewalk slabs with it. In the U.K., during a rubbish collectors’ strike, trees-of-heaven were seen shooting out of unemptied refuse bins. They are one of the great healers of broken and derelict city space, as in Detroit, and already a key component of the post-industrial urban forest across the northern hemisphere.