Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Greenpeace GMO Video

Found on Facebook today and for those who don't do Facebook, I'm embedding it here. This is probably the most succinct four minutes on GMOs you'll ever watch.  It covers all the main points in such density, I found it best to watch several times to take it all in. Very well done, Greenpeace!


Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Work Of A Seed Library

Beans with a history 
When immigrants left their homes heading for a new home in a distant land, they took that which they valued.  For many of them, some of their most important possessions were the family seeds, handed down from generations for longer than many could remember.  

One such family immigrating from Italy, those seeds were of beans.  They brought the seeds for the family bean to America and like many Italians, settled in Chicago.  The beans continued to be a part of the family's table fare and, their longevity as a part of the family, made them seem to be almost a member of the family - dinners in summer and early fall without this bean, were a part of the family's tradition.  

The beans finally came to be under the stewardship of a man who moved his family to Los Angeles.  They settled into a home near the Pacific Ocean and planted the beans.  The crop failed - and no one was certain why.  This was the story for year after year.  Finally, one day, I was sitting in the dental chair in the office of this man with the Italian family bean.  He was pretty excited to hear that I was growing out old heirloom seed varieties and I was very interested in growing out his family bean.

After a couple of false starts, I found about 100 bean seeds in my hand at the best time in Los Angeles to plant beans and they went into the ground.  I planted only 50 seeds, observing the principle of seed savers to never exhaust all the seeds you have of any one variety.  Of the 50 seeds, only one germinated.  Victor gave me more seeds and I planted 50 more - with three germinating.  I decided to hold off planting the rest - I could try them again next year if this crop failed entirely.  

I have some fairly healthy plants and furthermore, even though they are still very young plants, they have dozens of very long beans on them.  The seeds are not that large and the pods are prolific.  

I have cautioned many students not to 'count their beans before they're soup' but I can't help myself from the joy I feel with the new crop of this bean.  We will keep all the seeds we get this year, but next year, we'll return a large packet to the family and we'll start to offer limited amounts of beans of this heirloom to our members.  

I hope we do this kind of project a lot in the coming years.  Each saved variety hold genetic diversity that we have been losing for over 100 years.  SLOLA and seed libraries all over the US are working to ensuring we have more diversity in our diets and the wealth of a vibrant food system; part of our mission and passion.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Open Source Seed Initiative

You might have seen the hubbub on Facebook when they first launched the Open Source Seed Initiative on April 17th - many of us were euphoric that the idea of Open Source software was going to tried on seeds. A lot of what this means is yet to be explained, but the excitement remains.  

This blog is written using Open Office Writer, the open source equivalent of Microsoft's Office software suite.  I used the Microsoft product for most of my 17 years working in a university setting; now making my living working with not-for-profits and as a teacher/lecturer and a writer, I am very grateful for Open Office - it's not as polished as the Microsoft product and the documentation/help offered is really rudimentary, but most of the users of Open Office find those inconveniences a small bother when they compare the price.   Those geeks using Open Office have no problem for the lack of documentation, that's why they are called geeks!  

So Open Source technology has worked for software and other applications which makes it an interesting paradigm for seeds.  This effort is underway and there are already some 30 vegetable varieties offered as Open Source seeds, with the Open Source Seed Pledge on the packet, which reads:  This Open Source Seed Pledge is intended to ensure your freedom to use the seed contained herein in any way you choose, and to make sure those freedoms are enjoyed by all subsequent users. By opening this packet you pledge that you will not restrict others' use of these seeds and their derivatives by patents, licenses or any other means. You pledge that if you transfer these seeds or their derivatives you will acknowledge the source of these seeds and accompany your transfer with this pledge. www.opensourceseedinitiative.org"  

I fully support this initiative.  Over the past years, I have read of large multi-national companies (no one need name names like Monsanto or the other big ag bullies) taking indigenous peoples seed stock, using that genetic material to make their hybrids and then selling the new seed back to the people from whom the raw genetic material was taken from to begin with!  Of course, when taking the genetic material no monetary value was assigned and the raw material was essentially stolen.  Even if they had paid for it, it still would have been essentially stolen because no where near the value of those genes would have been paid.  

While this still causes a great deal of concern, we in the United States can begin to apply this to our seeds at once.  Hopefully other countries' legal structure either do allow for this kind of contract or will soon.   While working on new strains of vegetables in The Learning Garden, I have often thought it would be a shame that I would have to patent any new variety I might be able to introduce even though I am fundamentally and religiously opposed to the idea of patenting life, but until now I had no other mechanism to prevent others from patenting the material and I certainly do not want any of my work ending up in the madness of un-controlled gene splicing.  

Look for more articles on this in the future.  This is one the most exciting events in the seed world since the Whealys sent out their first list of heirloom seeds to potential seed savers. 

It's an exciting time to be on the front lines of saving our genetic heritage.

Additional source material from:  


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Urban Ag Movie and Panel Discussion: Growing Cities

I am privileged to serve on a panel after the viewing of this documentary along with Alexa Delwiche and Teague Weybright, two folks I've had the chance to work with in these past few years. Both are profoundly knowledgeable and I'm sure this will be a marvelous evening of provocative thinking and vision.

The Los Angeles Community Garden Council presents…

Sunday  June 1, 2014

3:45 to 6:00PM 

Park La Brea Movie Theater
475 S. Curson Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036

3:45PM – Arrive and enjoy healthy snacks.
4:00PM – The 60 minute movie starts.
5:00-6:00PM – Refreshments & discussion with local urban agriculture experts:
> Teague Weybright, Board President, LACGC
> Alexa Delwiche, Managing Dtr, LA Food Policy Council
> David King. Founding Chair, Seed Library of LA.

Adults: $14.00
Under 18: $10.00

To purchase tickets and get more information, go to:

Sponsored by:  LACGC & the Park La Brea Residents Association


Sunday, May 11, 2014

National Famine Commemoration Day

Falling on the same day as Mother's Day in the United States, National Famine Commemoration Day is a Republic of Ireland day of memory for the Great Famine.  

The Great Famine occurred 1845 through 1850, with what is known as Black 47, being the worst.  If you have heard me lecture on The Great Famine you know there is much we can learn from the death that swept through the Irish homeland.  

Skibbereen 1847 by Cork artist James Mahony (1810–1879),
one town in Ireland horribly afflicted by
the Great Famine.
Without going into the whole ramifications of British policy and the lack of compassion for a starving populace, this famine forever changed Ireland in many ways.  The number of deaths is put at over one million with another million emigrating (mostly to the United States).  Ireland's population declined over 20% in those years and is only now beginning to approach pre-famine levels.  

The Irish, because of poverty and an onerous legal system which put them at the mercy of ruling British officials, had come to depend solely on the potato for food.  It could be planted and harvested without tools, the potato can be cooked and even eaten without utensils and provided not too shabby of a diet.  But the Irish grew only two varieties of potato:  The Lumper and the Green Apple, both of which were highly susceptible to the Potato Blight that swept Europe prior to 1845.  When the blight hit Ireland, it went through the potato crop like a hot knife through butter.  The Irish watched their only food supply rot in the ground overnight.  

You might be inclined to think, "So?"  But one of the lessons humans might have learned from the Great Famine would be to not plant so much of only one crop and especially without some genetic diversity in that one crop.

Let's think about the number of items in our supermarkets that are made from corn.  What would happen if the corn crop in the US suddenly were to be the victim of a pathogen? Do you realize that most of the millions of acres of corn in the United States are very similar - like the Irish potatoes - genetically?   Try to imagine a supermarket from which corn or corn derivatives are no longer there.  What do you come up with - how many empty shelve on how many aisles?  It is apparent our government has not learned from history. What's that line, "Those who know history are doomed to watch those who don't know history repeat it without fail."  It's enough for an ulcer. Or high blood pressure.  

We are affluent and have a good deal of political will which the Irish did not have.  The seed library movement is one way we can move to prevent or, at the very least, ameliorate the effects of such a pathogen destroying our food crops.  First off, begin to grow some of your own food - to the degree you can, become independent from the supermarket near you.  Encourage your family and friends to join with you in finding ways to avoid the supermarket and to grow more of your own food.  

And above all, acknowledge that the only way to be Food Secure is to be Seed Secure. Imperative in this, we need to plant a diversity of all types of our foods and to have plenty of different genetic varieties in abundance.  If a blight takes out one, another will survive.  One of the most troubling characteristics of our food supply as proffered by the multi-national corporations is a huge loss of genetic diversity.  We must find that diversity and re-establish that as our hallmark of famine prevention.  The only way to abundance is through changing this lack of diversity.  

We can do a lot to prevent a repeat of food famine like the famines that cursed Ireland.  Let's take a moment of this remembrance day to reflect on what we can do now.  The Seed Library of Los Angeles meets May 17th in the Learning Garden on the campus of Venice High School at the intersection of Walgrove Avenue and Venice Blvd.  Check out our website too.


Friday, April 18, 2014

SLOLA's April Meeting, 19 April, in The Learning Garden at Venice High School

at 2:30 PM
in the Learning Garden 
This month's timely topic: 
Practical Responses to Drought 
With Orchid Black  
Water is a crucial part of maintaining a healthy garden and practicing water efficiency has never been more important that it is today.
Orchid is a noted designer of California Native Plant Gardens and has taught a UCLA Extension course Green Gardens: Sustainable Garden Practice with David King for the past five years.  Brilliant and provocative, she shows practical and do-able steps to save water, something every gardener, in or out of SLOLA should do.  Orchid will be one speaker not to be missed.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

California Native Plants From Seed

Flowers of Romneya coulteri at The Learning Garden,
grown from seed stratified with fire.
Before we begin to think about how to propagate California native plants from seed, let's think about why we might want to grow California native plants. The native vegetation, through evolution, is adapted to this climate, these soil types and interacts with other natives (insects, mammals, birds, reptiles) in an ecological dance that was going on long before humans arrived, and certainly before the present civilization of humans arrived on scene. Their niche in the ecology of California gain some advantages to the gardener:

They Save Water
Once established, many native plants need little or no irrigation. Not only does one save the limited amount of water we have available, that saves one money.
Lower Maintenance
Less pruning and no fertilizers means less work for a gardener, saving time to learn more propagation and take more courses at UCLA Extension
Pesticide Freedom
Native plants interact with the insects of their environment in a way that eliminates pesticide use. The pests and diseases evolved with the plants and native plants have their own defense against them. Beneficial insects often become collateral victims when we spray pesticides (even more true if we use organic methods). Stop poisoning ourselves and our world.
Invite Wildlife
Native plants, birds, butterflies, beneficial insects, and interesting critters are, as noted above, co-evolved to be here. Current research shows confirms what many have intuited for many years: native wildlife clearly prefers native plants. California’s wealth of insect pollinators can improve fruit set in your garden, while a variety of native insects and birds will keep your landscape free of mosquitoes and plant-eating insects. Open your garden to these wild living things that live among us, despite what we have done to their habitat.
Support Local Ecology
While creating native landscapes can never replace natural habitats lost to development, planting residential and commercial gardens, parks, and roadsides with California natives can provide a “bridge” to nearby remaining wildlands.

California native plants are a world unto their own, mostly because we have so little familiarity with them. By that I mean, our culture's experience with growing these plants is something like 250 years – many a good deal less, like 60 years. And that is also the time we've been selecting them for our gardens. On the other hand, beans, lettuce, cabbage, onions have been in cultivation for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years. Over that time, civilizations have selected year after year those plants that adapt to our culture, or in the case of stubborn plants, we have figured out how to make that plant grow to suit us. This selection process has yet to occur for California natives. Add to that the fact that these are plants from the driest of the world's Mediterranean climate that have adapted to survive with cool, wet winters and long, hot, droughty summers, in a land ravaged by frequent wildfires and you have plants that are, by nature, not ready to accept the regimen we intend to use to make them grow.

The cycle that California native plants live by is almost perfectly backwards to the cycle by which we want to make them grow. We want to plant in Spring (along with our tomatoes and marigolds) and have flowers blessing our landscape by July, if we insist on this, we will spend much more money on therapy than plants! Plant California natives in fall, when we hope for rain to establish them, and enjoy the fecundity of flowers in March/April. Right now, in the California native garden, some salvias are blooming, I've seen Blue Eyed Grass and some poppies blooming. By mid-March, the scene is breathtaking!

Being essentially wild plants, these plants of our home employ many different mechanisms to ensure that at least some of the seeds will find conditions acceptable to carry on the family name. These mechanisms cause for wacky germination of their seeds that drive gardeners batty and can be imitated by gardeners, if one knows the mechanisms a given plant uses to germinate at the most propitious moment for plant survival include:
  •      germination after a fire
  •      germination after cooler temperatures indicate winter
  •      germination as daylight gets longer, indicating more longer days
  •      germinating over a long period of time to have at least some of them hit ideal growing conditions

Meeting some of these conditions, for a gardener can be difficult. In order to imitate conditions that would break these inhibitors, one must understand the process the seed goes through in order to mimic it. In the case of fire causing germination, is it the heat, the chemical residue left by the fire or both that causes the seed to germinate when there is less competition for natural resources? If it is chemical, the commercially available 'Liquid Smoke' could be added to the container of the initial watering and might be the key to unlock germination. If it is heat, one will need to start a fire over the seeds to get the heat. For example, in germinating Matilija Poppy (Romneya coulteri) the fire that would burn around these seeds in nature, would be composed of Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) leaves. When I want to start Matilija Poppy from seed, I cover them with Live Oak leaves and set them on fire. My thought is that the temperature, the chemistry needed for the poppy to sprout will best be approximated by those leaves of the oak with which it can often be found. I might be just a little too fixed on this, but my results of poppy germination have been excellent.

Cold and heat is usually coupled with the word 'stratification,' cold stratification being the most common.

Collecting and Drying Local Seed


Make a point of picking only plants growing in prime locations. Individual plants with many insect holes and obvious poor health are probably located at the extremes of their preferred growing conditions and may also have distinctly atypical biochemistries as a response to their compromised growing conditions. Always check around the vicinity after you have located a desired plant. In fact, it should be stated that the best collector has scouted the area weeks ahead of going to collect seed – this needs to be a thoughtful and deliberative process. 

However, there may be times when there isn't any 'wiggle' room – in that case, be cautious, always error on the side of restraint. A thoughtless collector can wreck havoc on an ecosystem. There may be a whole field of your desired plant over the next rise or around the bend in the road. On the other hand, it may be the only one in the whole valley – and should be absolutely left alone. Furthermore, a plant common in one state may be a rare, protected plant in the next state, so check with a local California Native Plant Chapter first if in doubt.

Certain conservation practices are always necessary. The following figures should be your guide only.  We all know seed collectors that have paper bags in a spare room filled with seed from ten years or more ago that have never been germinated (and at this point are probably dead) so once more, error on the side of caution.  If a plant grows in large stands, never take more than a third of the plants' seed. If it is a large, solitary bush or tree, never pick more than a fourth of the seed. If it is a large stand of perennials that is healthy, you can be more relaxed with the material as they have more than one year to produce more seed.

Wherever you gather, presume that you will come back the next year to the same place and find the plants still healthy. Don’t make a common mistake of looking many days for a plant, finding it at last, and taking a whole load of its seed back with you – it’s like you are punishing the plant (indeed the species!) for your frustration. And most of it, mark my words, will go to waste.

Remember, know a few plants well, know what you will need and don’t try for the record amount of seeds never planted (and in a year, designated 'uncertain germination percentage').


Dry your seeds promptly upon return. Lay the seed on screens away from direct sunlight in a dry place and, above all, away from rodents and insects. Fear of insects and rodents have spurred me to use my food dryer to do the job as quickly as possible. Dry your seed as promptly as possible and, once dry, place in paper envelopes or in glass jars. Make sure your seed stock is insect free before storing. It can be terribly disconcerting to find your stored seed has become insect larvae feed and you have nothing to show for your work.