Monday, November 19, 2007

The Ugliest Corner -- Ugly No Longer!

I've been a bit preoccupied and didn't get updates on the garden posted, though there's been great progress. The construction phase on the new garden is done! The beds are constructed, the paths are laid with concrete squares and bark dust, and it's ready now for some soil building in the beds and finally planting.

Wait for spring? Are you kidding? I've got a nifty cold frame on my Christmas list and some lettuce and kale seeds under the grow lights in the garage.

Yes, I have been a busy little beaver. Not only have I been a little overwhelmed this term with two new classes to teach, but I've also been doing NaNoWriMo -- you know, National Novel Writing Month. I've "won" the last three years, meaning I finished 50,000 words in a single month, and as I'm over 33,000 now, I think it'll be another win. The last three years I wrote fantasy. This year I went for a whole different genre: a historical novel. It's a Pride and Prejudice sequel.


C'mon, everyone else is writing one.

The flowers are mostly faded in the yard, but there's still color. Besides the leaves turning, there has been the most amazing crop of mushrooms this year. Check out these purply-red Russulas that popped up in the back lawn:

These honey mushrooms turned up under the Rhododendron:

And these, um, LBMs* had the loveliest shading from pale gold to mahogany.

*Little Brown Mushrooms. Very scientific terminology.

Monday, November 12, 2007

When Corn is Not a Cure

The New York Times reported today on growing resistance to new ethanol distilleries in the midwest (requires free registration to read the whole article).

Wait -- wasn't corn-based alcohol supposed to be a cure for our nation's fuel crisis?

Readers of Michale Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, already know the problems with corn-fed industrial agriculture: changes made in the late 1970's in the way that corn farmers were compensated created a system in which the government encourages overproduction of corn instead of paying farmers to allow their land to go fallow. I visited rural Indiana this summer and saw the results. Farmers now plant every last square foot, right up to the roadsides, leaving no hedgerows for wildlife. They pack the corn in as tight as they can, and feed the corn chemical fertilizers to make it grow as fast as possible, which results in nutrient-rich runoff into streams, with a resulting upset to wildlife. Without letting the land lie fallow, which allows some humus to be restored, the land loses topsoil at an alarming rate. All that corn needs water, but there's only so much water in the aquifers, and farmers know they've pretty much reached the limit in many areas of the corn belt. Mountains of cheap corn pile up, leaving food scientists to figure out how to make the current U.S. population eat more of it than ever -- which is why your soft drinks are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup instead of real sugar. A lot of that corn gets stuffed down gullets of steers destined to be corn-fed beef, but their digestive systems aren't adapted for digesting grain, resulting in a host of health problems that would kill them if they weren't slaughtered first. Grass is a healthier diet, and involves more efficient energy conversion (plus, according to some studies, free-range grass-fed beef has a higher proportion of healthy omega-3 fats than corn-fed beef, and lots of folks think it tastes better, too).

Okay, so mountains of corn, prices falling, farmers barely getting by -- why isn't corn-based ethanol good news?

Because we still have an industrial food system plugged into corn. Farmers can't feed the system AND the distilleries just by growing more corn. They're already maxed out. When corn is shunted to distilleries, it drives up food prices for everyone.

Could we unplug from the system? Demand free-range meats? Refuse soft drinks sweetened with corn syrup? Give up breakfast cereals made from de-germed yellow corn meal? Spurn corn-based "green" plastics? Free up more corn for ethanol?

Yes, it's possible. The system is vast and its corn-based tendrils are in just about every manufactured food in the grocery store. Unplugging all at once would put a whole lot of people out of business all at once, but taking small-but-steady measures to support organic agriculture, locally-grown produce, and free-range meat production will help create a market for more sustainable agricultural practices.

Yet corn-based ethanol still has its limits, and that limit is drawn by how much water is available to corn farmers. Is it better to use farmland and aquifers to feed our people or to drive our cars? That's an ethical issue that isn't easily resolved. But it sounds like some savvy midwest farmers already have strong opinions on the issue.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Let's define "yard waste"

The San Francisco Chronicle reports on a phenomenon that must be a problem in all communities with municipal composting: yard waste carts full of trash.

When curbside green carts are used as trash cans, collection companies spend time and money separating the compostable from the non-compostable. It seems that citizens have a hard time understanding what "yard waste" means. For some, "yard waste" seems to mean, "If it's in the yard and I don't want it, it must be yard waste." As a consequence, good compostable material arrives mixed with toys, garden tools, grocery bags, empty lawn chemical containers, plastic utensils tossed out with food scraps, broken bicycles, and more.

Our community recycling service uses this phrase: "If it grows, it goes!" That might spare some confusion. The main rule is that if it's something that goes in the compost bin, it can go in the yard waste cart.

Now some gardeners may be wondering why one needs a yard waste cart when one could use a compost bin. For me, grass clippings, weeds, and kitchen waste do go in the compost bin, But when I trim shrubs or rake up fallen branches, I'd rather put the woody debris in the cart. I don't have a chipper, and woody stuff piles up faster than it breaks down. Municipal composting facilities often like to get woody debris, as they frequently need wood chips to mix with the piles of grass clippings they receive. Makes for a win-win situation for me.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

My kittehs has cheezburgers

My three babies, in a picture from a month or so ago, which I captioned on the "I Can Has Cheezburger" website (if you don't know about Cheezburgers, check it out). After a stretch in the voting section, they got moved to the main page. Huzzah!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Eating Locally -- in the Dairy Case

This may not be about gardening as such, seeing as how there's no room for cows or goats or other dairy animals in my fraction-of-a-suburban-acre proto-farm. But the idea of eating locally, as chronicled in my Blog Action Day post, has me rethinking a whole lot of the products my family uses daily (right down to the stuff I knit with, as told on another blog I contribute to -- see Meet Your Fiber Source).

Between thinking about eating locally and reading about bovine growth hormones in cows, I started looking at my daily yogurt with a more critical eye. Bovine growth hormone, for those who haven't read much about it, does for cows some of the things that human growth hormone does for humans. It's present naturally in cows and their milk to some degree. However, pumping dairy cows with extra hormones makes them produce a lot more milk. Nursing moms, or those who have been there, imagine this: you know how it is when Baby hasn't been nursing for a few hours and you're feeling rather "full," right? Now imagine your doctor giving you shots filled with hormones that will make you produce four times as much milk. Ow. Ow, ow, ow.

Okay, now imagine how the cows feel.

Not only do they run around with full udders, they're also at a much higher risk for developing mastitis. Worse still, pumping cows full of milk-production hormones is kind of like pumping athletes full of steroids, on purpose. Suppose somehow it became the thing to do to take athletes in high school and routinely shoot steroids into them to turn them into super-athletes, and they continue to receive steroids all during their careers. What would happen to them? We all know the risks of steroids, including an greatly increased risk of heart disease and accelerated wear and tear on the body.

The risks are similar for cows. Hormone-injected cows are the dairy equivalent of a steroid-enhanced athlete -- all of their highly-shortened lives!

I was happy, then, when I read the yogurt carton at breakfast and found that my favorite brand, Nancy's Honey Yogurt, is totally organic (no cows were harassed by hormones to make this product) AND it's produced about an hour's drive south of where I live. Score two for Nancv's!

So what about my lunch yogurt? I could spoon some Nancy's over berries in a reusable container, sure, which would be a lot more ecological than buying little plastic cartons, and sometimes I do that if I have the time in the morning when I'm throwing things in my lunch box and trying to get out the door on time. But I'd gotten to like my Yoplait Lite, and their cartons are at least recyclable.

So how does Yoplait score? Locally produced? Um, no. Sorry. Yoplait is a national brand, and their nearest distribution center is, well, I have no idea where.

What about cow hormones? Do they have an organic product line? I checked their website and didn't find any such products. So I wrote them a letter expressing my concern about growth hormones and cows. Here's the reply I received:

BST (bovine somatotropin) is a hormone naturally found in cows. The synthetic version of this hormone (not to be confused with a steroid hormone) has been subjected to extensive testing. The Food & Drug Administration, American Medical Association, National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture along with a number of other science-based organizations have concluded that there are no food safety issues in conjunction with milk produced by BST-supplemented cows.

Because BST is naturally found in all cows' milk, there is no scientific way to test the milk to determine if the BST present is from synthetic sources or natural sources. The amount of BST present in milk will not be greater from a synthetic source than it would be occurring naturally.

For more information about Bovine Somatotropin (BST) or Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) you may wish to visit the United States Department of Agriculture' s website at

We hope you will continue to enjoy our products.

Awww, pooh. No plans for an organic product, and a weak, "Gee, there's no way we can test for the stuff, so oh, well." The statements about human safety are a little controversial, I know, but I won't comment on that because I haven't read up much on the studies and I don't know much about the evidence. But it was cow health that I was concerned about, and that wasn't even addressed.

So what were my options for a grab-and-go yogurt if I forget to fill reusable cups the night before? Nancy's makes individual yogurt cups, but my store doesn't carry them any more. I cruised to the dairy case and found Tillamook yogurt. I already buy Tillamook cheese. The Tillamook Cheese Factory is a highlight of any trip to the northern Oregon coast. What about their yogurt?

Let's see, the Tillamook factory is about two hours from here in some of the most beautiful country this side of Heaven. Score one for locally produced. What about cow hormones? Turns out that the Tillamook company is concerned about cows, too. They're working on contracting with dairies in the area that do not use growth hormones on their cows. While not all their products are hormone-free, they're working on that, and hope to have everything hormone-free in the near future. Score nearly two for Tillamook! Now if only they made a "lite" version.

Yes, yes, I could go totally local and make my own yogurt from organic milk. That is, if I could make yogurt and have it actually turn into yogurt. I've accepted the fact that I'm a yogurt dunce, and I'll continue to support Nancy's and Tillamook.