Heirlooms, hybrids, OPs and GMOs

There is some confusion about what all these words actually mean, so I am posting this to clarify things.

”Open Pollenated”, or OP, means that a plant will come “true” from seed; the next generation will look reasonably like the last, so seed can be saved from them. Wild plants are generally this way, as are most traditional plants.
“Heirloom” means that the OP strain in question is about sixty years old. Every heirloom plant was new once.
“Hybrid” means that two OPs were crossed to grow the seed. If a zucchini and a pumpkin were planted next to one another, and the seed was saved, it would almost certainly be hybrid seed; bees would have crossed it. The seed you planted next year would all come up looking alike. If it was better than the originals in some way, the gardener might decide to do it again on purpose. If, however, seeds were saved from the plants grown from the hybrid seed, every resulting plant would be wildly different. Selection over may years could then create a new OP variety which would come true from seed. Most heirlooms were once hybrids. So there is nothing wrong with a hybrid. The problem comes from their modern use. Since nobody else can duplicate a hybrid, companies dropped all their traditional heirloom varieties and switched over to them, thus greatly diminishing vegetable diversity, making famers dependent on bought seed, and setting the stage for disasters similar to the Irish Potato Famine ( at that time there were only two potato varieties in Ireland.) Also, modern varieties of any sort, OPs or hybrids, are suited to modern agriculture, and need large amounts of chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and perfect growing conditions. Heirlooms are better suited to low input methods.

You might be interested to know that apple seeds do not come true, since almost all of them are hybrids. You need two different trees for pollination to occur successfully.

GMO are a whole different matter. They are created by scientists in a Lab, and are dangerous on many different levels. Currently they are used to increase the control of large corporations over the food supply. However, unlike hybrids, which can be used rightly, GMOs have their own inherent risks.

I think that Heirloom varieties should be saved, because they represent the wisdom of the past; that small farmers should breed their own new OPs and hybrids, to adapt to changing conditions and methods, and to bring unique products to market; and that GMOs should be opposed in all situations.

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Notes from the meeting of October the 23rd

This meeting was held on our farm site in Lakewood. We continued work on our second hugelkulture, and as usual unearthed more rocks and other stuff. The hugelkulture is now a mound of sticks and small logs. We have been sifting manure and coffee grounds into each layer as we build it, to help trap more water. At the next meeting we will add about three more feet of wood, and then top it off with layers of manure, soil, and wood chips.

We discussed ideas for our sign, and other ideas for future land development. And we got fluorescent tape and reflectors put up around our work area, to warn people and to avoid damage to the beds.

I have been researching hugelkultures a little more, and I have found that in a dry climate, large hugelkultures work better than small ones, since there is a balancing act between the core, which holds more water than a flat bed, and the mound surface, which tends to dry out faster that a flat bed. The small mound has too little core and too much surface area. So we will be building our hugelkultures larger then at first planned.

I have also found that bone char is the best way to supplement our soil’s phosphorus levels. Bone meal, phosphate rock, and soft phosphate tends to be unavailable in this pH, and the manure we are getting may be too leached. It is also a very dilute source. I got some advice from a more experienced permaculture gardener. Here is what he said:

(This comes form the Permies forum, which is a good source of information about various permaculture topics. However, I disagree with many of the philosophical and moral opinions voiced.)

“Phosphorus is a tricky element to work with; if the pH is below 6, it gets fixed by iron and aluminum, if it gets above 7.3, it gets fixed by calcium. However, plants and their beneficial fungi can be persistent and un-fix the phosphorus, perhaps with some acidic or basic root exudates and enzymes, depending on what is needed. It’s unlikely that phosphorus is completely absent from soil, all sorts of critters dropping dead and decomposing provide a fairly constant source from above. The big question is the availability, and that’s where things like bone char can help tremendously. A piece of burnt bone, once colonized by mycorrhizal fungi, can be an oasis of phosphorous in an otherwise phosphorus-fixed landscape.”

So, now I just have to find a source of bone char. We could make it ourselves, and we might do that, a little at a time. However, to get things started, I might buy some, if I can find a source without too much shipping costs involved.

Notes from the meeting of October 11th

We got some soil nutrient testing done in the past week. We will have to wait about two week for the lead test to come back. The pH is neutral; this is good, especially if we have lead in the soil, since a neutral or alkaline soil ties up lead. The phosphorus and potassium are medium, and the nitrogen is low. However, the air is full of nitrogen, and most soils are full of locked up potassium, so we shouldn’t have to buy any. Phosphorus can be applied cheaply as manure or phosphate rock, though phosphate rock tends to be tied up in alkaline soils. Chemical fertilizers are expensive because the nutrients in them have been made available and soluble by energy intensive processing. Because of this they burn soil life and organic matter, and most of them wash away before they can be captured by plants. In contrast,  nutrients in a natural soil are insoluble, until they are made soluble by the action of plants and their fungal and bacterial allies— right in the root zone, a little at a time. If we do need to add trace minerals, they can be added as granite dust, which also contains potassium, or as seaweed.

Hopefully, our lead testing will not turn up any problems. However, since our soil has chunks of concrete, brick, etc. in it, testing is a prudent course of action. Most lead contaminated soils can be made safe by adding large amounts of phosphorus (to turn soil lead into unavailable minerals) adding organic matter (to bind with lead) keeping the pH up, and mulching heavily (to keep from coming in contact with lead in soil and dust.) All of these are things we would be doing anyway. If the lead was really high, in addition to the steps above, we would only grow fruiting crops like tomatoes, squash, and apples, since plants don’t accumulate lead in their fruits.

At the meeting we finished our first hugelkulture. At previous meetings we had dug a  broad, shallow hole about a foot deep, and filled it with sticks and branches. At this meeting we continued adding wood until the pile was about three feet above ground. We then added coffee grounds and manure to the top, and shook the pile so that they would migrate down and fill voids. The manure will add nitrogen to help rot down the largely carbonaceous wood, and helps hold water.  Then we piled on the soil from the hole, and covered it with cardboard and wood chips, to prevent erosion and weed growth. The only step remaining is to place the rocks from the hole on top of the pile. These will trap heat, creating a better microclimate, and will help with water retention. In Colorado, much of our snowfall disappears as water vapor without melting. Rocks trap enough heat to melt the snow into the mulch, and then help to hold that water in.

We also put up some wire to contain leaves, and laid down cardboard so our next pile of manure  will not be infiltrated by bindweed.

The horses which use the field are “scuffing” through our sheet mulch. To prevent this, we will be putting up a simple temporary fence to keep them out. This should be fairly easy, since they don’t WANT to get in; they are just running around the field.

We saw lots of snakes, especially hiding under our tarp. This is good, they will eat voles and mice.

Hugelkultures: the raised bed of Permaculture

As most readers of this site already know, Permaculture mimics creation, copying the work of God, the greatest designer. Here are two more natural patterns for us to follow.

In old forests, rotting, mossy logs slowly crumbling into the earth are a common sight. Small trees often root right on top of them, and surrounding vegetation and fungi tap them for water. Even late in a dry summer, rotting wood is still moist. They also trap soil, keeping it from sliding away, and nurture a vast community of beneficial life. Rotten logs enabled the ecosystem of Mount Saint Helens to quickly rebound after lava flows and mudslides.

Old growth forests tend to have a pit and mound topography. This is caused as large trees fall, turning up their root balls. They then rot away, leaving a mound of rich, well drained topsoil and crumbly wood, and a moist, shady pit with mineral subsoil exposed at the bottom. Both pit and mound have a sunny side and a shady side. This diversity of terrain creates a diversity of wildflowers on the forest floor, as many as fourteen species to the square yard. The diversity of plants then promotes a diversity of insects and a more stable system.

We can mimic these two patterns by building a hugelkulture. To build one, a shallow trench is dug, and the topsoil and sod are set aside. Then a mound of woody debris; brush, logs, rotten firewood, etc. is piled into the hole or trench. Manure, straw and other organic matter is placed on top, and then the soil is placed over all. They can be built in any shape, but are generally formed in long ridges, between three and seven feet high, running east-west, so that they each have on North and one South face.

The advantages are numerous.

  • The mounded shape is able to fit in more plants than a flat bed with a similar footprint would be able to do, effectively increasing surface area. (This is imitating another natural principle; in creation, surface area is often maximized to utilize resources, in this case garden space, effectively. The human lungs have an interior surface area the size of a basketball court.
  •  The spaces between the sticks, and the raised position of the bed, insure well aerated soil, and prevent flooding damage to crops.
  •  The rotting sticks hold a huge volume of water, so the plant’s roots can always access sufficient quantities of both water and air.
  •  The wood holds on to nutrients and keeps them from leaching away.
  •  The decay process provides a gentle heat which stimulates plant growth.
  •  This strategy maximizes organic matter.
  •  The wood feeds fungi and other beneficial organisms, which are often lacking in traditional gardens.
  •  The south face warms up early and has a much warmer microclimate then the surrounding area. This allows production of crops which need a lot of heat, and are typically difficult to grow in Colorado, such as melons and sweet potatoes. At the same time, the north side stays cool and shady, and helps lettuce and similar crops avoid bolting in the heat of summer. (This is similar to the diversity of wildflowers mentioned above.)
  •  If laid on contour, the hugelkultures catch water running down a slope.

We will be building a number of hugelkultures, both in the annual vegetable gardens and in the orchards.