Comfort with Complexity

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

PattyGrayThere is a fascinating body of cancer research that, oddly enough, has relevance for the health of the garden (see Siddhartha Mukherjee’s article “Cancer’s Invasion Equation” in the Sept. 11, 2017 issue of The New Yorker).

Research increasingly demonstrates that cancer cells are always present in our bodies to some degree; they are never completely eradicated. But they also may never manifest in harmful ways if the proper environmental conditions to suppress them are maintained – the health of the body’s immune system. One way to treat malignant cancer is to use chemotherapy, which knocks back cancer cells – but it is also toxic to the whole body, damaging the very immune system that fights the cancer cells.

As I was reading about this, I was reminded of weeds in the garden (not that it takes much to remind me of the weeds in the Robb Garden – I have a much more intimate relationship with them than I would care to admit). Weeds and their reproductive parts – seeds, rhizomes, etc. – are always present in the garden. We pull and pull and pull weeds, but there are always more popping up behind the ones we got rid of. Of course, we could treat the weeds with a systemic herbicide, but that would be like treating a cancer with chemotherapy: it would knock back the offending weeds, but it would also damage, even kill, the plants that we want in the garden (I won’t even go into the damage that the herbicide residues could do to the bodies of the humans who ingest them).

Both approaches – chemotherapy on humans, herbicides on plants – address an invading organism by making the entire environment toxic. And yet, neither method will ever completely eradicate the presence of the invaders. Every Gardener knows that weed seeds are always present, perhaps unseen, but nevertheless lying dormant beneath the soil surface.

The agricultural methods we’ve come to take for granted involve mechanically tilling the soil – which brings those weed seeds to the surface where they delight in the sunshine, water, and ideal growing conditions created for them – and then spraying chemicals to kill the weeds. When the chemicals threaten to damage the desired crops, the crops are genetically modified to resist that damage. Rather than working with the natural conditions of soil and plants, we’ve worked against them.

There is another way, of course, and that is to accept the perpetual presence of weeds, but to encourage the environmental conditions that create balance and prevent weeds from taking over. Minimal tilling of the soil (which not only keeps weed seeds way down under but also preserves the structure of the soil), keeping the soil covered at all times with green plants (crops or ground covers), and pulling weeds to weaken their photosynthesis mechanism – these are examples of techniques that work. But it requires one to feel comfortable with complexity – to be willing to figure out how all the parts of the intricate environmental system work together, and to work with that system and not against it.

 

Tomato Woe

by Patty Gray, Pacific Garden Program Director

PattyGray

“Sack-a-tomatoes”.

That’s how I always thought of Sacramento and the Central Valley when I was spending part of my childhood here. In my memory, tomatoes were everywhere, always ripe, always perfect. I later had good success growing my own tomatoes in Southern Illinois, but then my travels took me to much cooler climes, first to Alaska, and then to Ireland. After spending the last eight years struggling to grow the juicy orbs in cold, damp, mostly-cloudy Dublin, I thought growing tomatoes in Stockton would be fool-proof.

So does that make me a fool? Because here in the Robb Garden at University of the Pacific, we had practically no tomatoes this summer. Out of twenty plants, only about half produced any fruit at all, and most of those were cherry varieties. The big, plump, sun-ripened beauties I had imagined – and hankered for – never materialized.

Legend has it that Dr. Mark Brunell, when he served as faculty garden director in the Robb Garden 2012-2014, had 100 varieties of tomatoes planted, with the vines groaning under the weight of abundant fruit. When I arrived at Pacific a year ago in July, the Robb Garden sported a bumper crop of ripe tomatoes. We harvested basketsful every week, well into Fall.

This year we are already preparing to yank the plants out in mid-September, in an admission of defeat.

Just about the time I was ready to conclude I’m not the gardener I thought I was, I started getting reports from other gardeners in Stockton that they’ve been experiencing similar tomato misery. Commiseration is a wonderful resource for gardeners. It’s a chance to engage in mutual reassurance that it isn’t us, it’s Mother Nature conspiring against us. Even local Stockton gardening heroes were functionally tomatoless this summer.

When the average temperature of your hottest month is 60 degrees, as it is in Dublin in July, all you can think of as a remedy for your ailing tomato plants is more heat. It just never would have occurred to me that you could have too much heat. But of course you can. Stockton experienced a perfect storm of adverse tomato weather this summer.

Tomatoes grow best when daytime temperatures are anywhere from 65 degrees F to 85 degrees, and when nighttime temperatures do not fall below 55 degrees. If temperatures get above 95 degrees, fruit will not set on tomato plants. What’s worse, if nighttime temperatures fail to drop below 85 degrees, fruit that has set won’t ripen.

So Stockton’s weather this summer was basically a tomato disaster. During the critical window for tomato plants to flower and set fruit, temperatures were way too hot – a look at the Weather Underground historical pages for Stockton shows that we had 13 days above 95 degrees in June, 28 such days in July, and 19 such days in August. And many of those days were well over 100 degrees. The records show that low daily temperatures were plenty below 85 degrees F, but I wonder if in the Robb Garden – situated as it is amidst heat-radiating pavements and concrete buildings – does not experience warmer nighttime temperatures than the local averages.

Next year we will be ready. There are ways to place tomatoes so as to shade them during the hottest part of the day, and we can do a much better job of mulching and making daily checks of soil moisture. We cannot control nature, and our beloved tomato varieties cannot adapt to these heat extremes, but we can mitigate the effects to some extent.

We’d better start honing our mitigation skills if we want to keep enjoying ripe local tomatoes, because we might have those summer heat extremes with us for some time to come. Believe it or not.

 

A Sad Farewell to Ecology Action – but Big Plans Ahead!

by Laura Navarro

Navaro mug shotI am sad to say that my internship with Ecology Action is coming to an end!  😦

I have had a great time here and have met some amazing people. I have learned more than I expected and I worked harder than ever before. This was an amazing experience and I am very grateful to all the people who made it possible.

These last two weeks have been extremely hot, it’s almost as if Willits is punishing us for leaving. I am not very motivated to work in the garden when it is over 100℉ so I have been just taking it easy and not working too hard. The main task for these two weeks is harvesting fava beans. We pulled water off the favas a while ago so the soil is dry and the roots of the plants have died. I can just tug on the stock and the whole plant comes right out of the ground. I saved some of the beans for myself to take back with me. Another task that we have for these last two weeks is flatting the winter brassicas. Rachel said that most people start their brassicas a little too late; she suggests starting them in late June. I flatted kale, broccoli and cabbage to take back to the UOP garden.

We had our last class at the coastal garden where we talked about garden planning and received a certificate of attendance. We have finished the basic classes that Ecology Action provides – the classes will continue now to an intermediate level of garden planning. I really enjoyed the classes and I wish I could continue to the intermediate level. It was sad saying goodbye to the other students and the Ecology Action staff that I would not see back at the ranch, but I hope to keep in touch with everyone in the class.

Wednesday, August 2nd, was our last day in the garden, but it was too hot to be working in the garden. Instead, I spent most of my work hours cleaning the house to prepare for dinner. We planned a huge dinner to celebrate our completion with zucchini lasagna, potatoes, and fruit salad, with champagne for dessert. The house was full of people who wanted to celebrate with us!

On Thursday, we went up to the dining hall for breakfast and to say goodbye to the local Ridgewood Ranch community; Ellen gave us Seabiscuit t-shirts. I had an exit interview with Rachel and Justin while enjoying our final coffee break. I then spent an hour picking Mulberries to take home with me. After I filled a jar up with berries I was ready to pack up my car and say my final goodbyes.

Leaving the ranch was bittersweet; I met some amazing people and felt right at home in Mendocino County, but I am excited to get back to Stockton and start new projects in the garden at Pacific. I hope to have my own section of the garden this coming year to practice the biointensive method. I am leaving Ecology Action with so much knowledge, excitement, and plenty of seeds and flats to start my garden. I couldn’t be happier with how this internship turned out, I am so glad I did it!