Amy Stewart on worms in NY Times

I’m sure Amy Stewart’s fair trade coffee will taste especially good this morning when the GardenRanter savors it while reading her op-ed contributor column in the NY Times, How the Worm Turns

She ledes:

BIRDS have all the luck. New or rare species get discovered and written up in scientific journals and celebrated for their curved bills or their salmon-colored feathers or their unusual techniques for extracting seeds from pine cones.

When the ivory-billed woodpecker was reported to have been spotted in Arkansas after 50 years in hiding, the bird became an overnight celebrity.

I can relate. I have friends who work at the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology (the folks who spearheaded the ivory-billed woodpecker search) and a neice who’s a crow researcher. We gardeners are often passionate, but not like the bird people.

Read the rest of Amy’s Earth Day tribute to worms.

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Kurt Vonnegut, RIP

Edith Vonnegut detailThe excerpt below was posted by atrios this morning. It’s from Slaughterhouse Five, or the Children’s Crusade and is one of my favorites. The image is a detail from Edith Vonnegut’s (Kurt’s daughter) illustration for The Idea Killers. Full image.

Rosewater was on the next bed, reading, and Billy drew him into the conversation, asked him what he was reading this time.

So Rosewater told him. It was The Gospel from Outer Space, by Kilgore Trout. It was about a visitor from outer space, shaped very much like a Tralfamadorian, by the way. The visitor from outer space made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low.

But the Gospels actually taught this:

Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected. So it goes.

The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn’t look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought, and Rosewater read out loud again:

Oh boy – they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!

And that thought had a brother: “There are right people to lynch.” Who? People not well connected. So it goes.

The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had. He still got to say all the lovely and puzzling things he said in the other Gospels.

So the people amused themselves one day by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn’t possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought. The reader would have to think that, too, since the new Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was.

And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of The Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this: From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!

Billy’s fiancee had finished her Three Musketeers candy bar. Now she was eating a Milky Way.

“Forget books,” said Rosewater, throwing that particular book under his bed. “The hell with ’em.”

“That sounded like an interesting one,” said Valencia.

“Jesus-if Kilgore Trout could only write!” Rosewater exclaimed. He had a point: Kilgore Trout’s unpopularity was deserved. His prose was frightful. Only his ideas were good.

Update: Jon Stewart interviews Vonnegut on The Daily Show via Crooks and Liars.

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Thoughts on Flower Confidential

Flower ConfidentialFull disclosure: My wife is allergic to flowers. I never bring them in the house. The only times I’ve purchased flowers were a corsage for the senior prom and an internet mail-order orchid plant for my left-coast sister when she got married a few years ago.

I finally finished reading Amy Stewart’s Flower Confidential this week. It’s not that it wasn’t a page-turner for this guy who’s only payed for flowers twice. It was. I’m just a slow reader when it comes to bed-side books.

I’d compare Amy’s book to works by my first favorite non-fiction writer, John McPhee. McPhee had a talent for writing at length about subjects that I wasn’t sure I was interested in — looking at them from every point of view — and making me glad I savored every page. Amy is similarly talented.

The story she tells is so familiar to me. I couldn’t help but draw parallels at every turn with the organic farmers I worked with in the ’80s and ’90s. That was a time when the globilization of agriculture and commoditization of foodstuffs like corn and soybeans (which had begun decades earlier) became totally accepted as business as usual. At the same time, there were (relatively) small voices screaming that maybe this isn’t such a good thing.

It was a time when the slow but steady growth of organic farming was starting to pick up steam. There was a recognition that there was a small group of consumers who wanted something different — something fresh, local, and in-season. Something flavorful. And something grown with a recognition that buying foods raised in certain ways can help heal the huge negative impacts on people and the land caused by other ways of farming.

The main take-home from Amy’s writing is that flowers have become faceless global commodities — just like corn and beans. With the availability of rapid shipment from growing areas to consumers, production will continue to slide to wherever labor is cheapest and environmental standards the most lax. Even with rising energy costs for transportation, flowers are a relative bargain to move around. Shipping something that’s worth a dollar a stem makes a lot more sense than moving around corn grain, for example. When corn sells for $2 a bushel, a bucks-worth weighs 28 pounds.

Another tidbit that caught my eye: Half of flower sales are on Valentine’s Day? Take a clue from the turkey industry and figure out a way to spread sales through the year.

If I was a flower-buyer, I think I would be as likely to buy a rose in February as I would be to buy a package or rock-hard tomatoes at that time of the year.

So now the floral industry is moving to certify flowers produced in more loving ways. That’s a good thing because it give consumers a chance to exercise at least some degree of choice about how the flowers they buy are grown. But ask any long-time organic farmer what they think of corporate agriculture getting into organic farming. It hasn’t been pretty.

I would never suggest that folks stop buying flowers. It wouldn’t do any good. People love flowers. But I would suggest folks vote with your purchases to help foster a sensible sustainable ‘flower system’: In order:

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Thoughts on Anna Pavord’s
The Naming of Names

The Naming of NamesI’ll admit that I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to botanical history. When I took systematic botany back in the ’70s, it was all about the flowers. While no pro, I was pretty good at dissecting them, and with Gleason and Cronquist by my side, keying plants out to species.

It made perfect sense to me that the sexual parts of plants would correspond precisely with their evolutionary history, though we were warned that with advances in DNA analysis, we might find a few surprises in our (for the most part) neat and clean schema. At least that was an easy sell to 20-year-old without much plant experience.

It’s also easy for a 20-year-old to think that this focus on flower parts must have been easy to figure out. Boy was I wrong. And wading through Anna Pavord’s The Naming of Names showed me just what a long slow journey it’s been.

I won’t try to retrace the journey Pavord leads from Theophrastus to John Ray — from trying to make sense of plants from gross morphology or use their use as food, medicine or magic to what we ‘know’ today. Let’s just say it’s not a trip for the faint of heart. I agree with Publishers Weekly: “Pavord’s prose dazzles, but it’s not enough to carry readers with a casual interest in plants or gardening through an otherwise dense history.”

But a few thoughts crossed my mind as I read:

Of the nearly 60 cast members in this epic, I don’t recall a single woman. Yes, women were largely excluded from academic circles from the Greeks through the Rennaisance. (There is mention of apothecaries and ‘herbarists’, but they all sounded like semi-licensed men to me.) I have a hard time believing that there wasn’t a parallel network of midwives and healers who maybe didn’t quest to categorize the entire plant kingdom, but knew well the plants that grew where they lived — and knew how to use them.

Linnaeus doesn’t appear until the epilogue. Seems the plate was set for him by those who came before, and he just picked the low-hanging fruit. (Even though he’s the one name that all young botanists know.) But Pavord does include this delightful quote from that randy Swede:

The actual petals of a flower contribute nothing to generation, serving as the bridal bed which the great Creator has so gloriously prepared, adorned with such precious bedcurtains and perfumed with so many sweet scents, in order that the bridegroom and bride may herein celebrate their nuptials with the greater solemnity.

MarmelukaThe Bishop of Carlisle fears his system will ‘shock female modesty’ with its ‘gross prurience’. So I guess we’re not the only ones living in an era where the quest for truth is hampered by those who are unwilling to deal with the sexual nature of the natural world.

I’ve always been fascinated by botanical illustration, and there are many great ones included. They parallel and support the text quite well. You can almost get the gist of the book by just studying the pictures.

The two I’ve included here are not typical, but they’re the ones I fell in love with. They are by Albert Eckhout, a Dutch painter who accompanied an expedition to northeast Brazil from 1637 to 1644. His paintings document the wonderful new plants that came to Europe from the New World, and forced botanists to come up with a system of classification that would work for them as well.

New world fruits

I also found myself sympathizing with the early botanists trying to sort through synonyms before standardized naming. I’m working on a Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners website at my day job. We’ve got more than 5,000 varieties described, and there are more to come. The trouble is, those selling seeds aren’t always the most thorough and careful in their naming and descriptions, especially when it comes to heirlooms and cultivars from other cultures. While we’ve got a good start at the site, it would be a full time job to just sort through them all to find all the instances when two differently named varieties are actually the same thing. Or two varieties with the same name are actually significantly different.

Stop by that site and look for something new to grow this year, or rate and review some of your favorites.

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Great plants look good dead

That title is a quote from my greatest inspiration, Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf. I was reminded of that yesterday when I took advantage of the near-60 F temps and put together a couple of dried arrangements for the house. I had no shortage of material to choose from, both cultivated and wild.

In his books (Designing with Plants, written with Noel Kingsbury), Oudolf stresses mixing up the different forms of flowers when designing plantings — spikes and spires, buttons and globes, screens and curtains, plumes, umbells, etc.

Combining good plants with a mix of these forms makes a good garden in season. Combining great plants that hold these forms into winter extend the season of interest in the garden — and provide great material for arrangements.

My favorites this year include the 4-foot-long spikes of Digitalis ferruginea, the Seuss-esque stacked globes of Phlomis tuberosa, and the curly, hand-like spires of Veronicastrum virginicum. Throw in some curly willow, the rampant teasel, various plumes and spikes of ornamental grasses, sedum umbells, some motherwort, hazel catkins, Verbena hastata and Verbena bonariensis seedheads, and goldenrod stems comoplete with galls and you’ve got and arrangement without half trying. I’ll add a picture next time I have the camera home.

Kingsbury has a new book out Seedheads in the Garden. I’ve only had a chance to skim the pictures, and was amazed how my tastes had already gravitated toward the species he includes.

I’m sure I’ll post more about Oudolf when I get a chance. A similar style has arisen Germany. (See The New German Style.) This winter I also hope to finally get around to reading Hansen and Stahl’s Perennials and their garden habitats, translated from German in 1990, putting the ecological foundation under this aesthetic.

Update: Lousy pix of the arrangements.
\'dried arrangements

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