Sunday, August 12, 2012

The National Heirloom Exposition, 2nd Annual Event, September 11, 12, &13, 2012

In just a few short weeks The National Heirloom Expositions second annual event opens at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, California, and I can’t wait to go again.

Last year’s premier event opened as the first “World’s Pure Food Fair”; and what an event it became.  Within the short 3-day run, over 70 speakers, 250 vendors, dozens of educational workshops, food tastings and demonstrations, seed swaps and many more activities helped provide answers to many of the questions Americans are having about their food supply, now and in the future.  Almost 11,000 “pure food’ enthusiasts attended last year, including almost 800 school children that were bussed in for Educational and Fun Day on the second day.

This year the event will again be showcased in Sonoma County “with its deep roots in agriculture and the overall passion there for good food.”  There will be more than 75 educational speakers covering a vast array of subjects including genetically modified seeds, concerns about honeybees, raising heritage animal breeds, preserving small farms, supporting seed banks, the local food movement, growing heirloom vegetables, healthy cooking, food politics, learning to break the corporate food chain and much, much more.

My sister, Barbara, and I attended the event on the last day last year and we were overwhelmed with the informative presentations, demonstrations and displays.  One of the highest points was getting to meet Jere Gettle of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, who put the Expo in motion.  The exposition is operated as a “not-for-profit” and any funds generated over and above the costs go to school gardens and other food programs.

The Sonoma County Fairgrounds are at 1350 Bennett Valley Road, in Santa Rosa, California.  Admission price is $10.00 for adults, free to kids 17 and under.  Hours are 11 am to 9 pm.  There’s more information at

Monday, July 30, 2012

Strange Buzzing Bugs of Summer

All last summer I kept hearing a strange buzzing coming from up in the trees in the backyard, and there were creepy looking bug molts showing up on the outer walls and cinder blocks throughout my gardens. I wondered if a new resident was making its home in my backyard zoo.  Then one day last July, I found my cats’ attention riveted to some frantic, buzzing movement on the patio floor.  It looked like a huge fly—like a horsefly, but bigger.  I ran to grab a jar to save it from kitty’s prey-play then took a good look at what I caught.  It didn’t look like a horsefly at all.  It had big, black bulging eyes, thick, finely veined orange wings, and an orange armored underside.  I had to know what it was.

I drove to the Effie Yaw Nature Center in Carmichael ( with my strange bug to see if I could get some kind of identification.  Unfortunately, the center was closed that day; but just as I was about to leave, one of the staff came out and took a look in the jar, then went back to get a field guide for local insects.  With just a few flips through the colored pictures, she stopped at a page and pointed to a picture that looked very much like the creature in the jar—a cicada! 

With some confusion, I said, “It can’t be a cicada; they’re only on the east coast.” But as we read the description I found that there are “annual” cicadas that can be found on the west coast and throughout North America and Canada.  So, after dropping the still living cicada in a bush near the center as the staff member suggested, I went home somewhat the wiser.

But my introduction to cicadas did not end there.  Just a few days later I was mowing over a large pile of dried leaves in my back yard when I looked down and saw—to my great surprise—a cicada clinging to the front of my shirt.  After my initial shock, and impulse to shake the bug off me, I decided to capture it for some photographs and start researching these strange new inhabitants of my backyard.

The cicada seemed pretty docile, so I put it in a shallow, white pan and started taking pictures.  It even stayed on its’ back for a short time so I got a pretty good photo of the stomach.  Then, after letting the cicada fly free, I turned to the Internet to learn more.  And that’s where the search almost ended.  Information on cicada’s in California is almost non-existent except for the “Bulletin of the California Insect Survey” published by UC Berkeley in 1954.

I checked for updates with the Essig Museum of Entomology at UC Berkeley, and the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis, and the Entomology Museum at UC Riverside, and found little to nothing about cicadas in California.  So I turned back to the Internet, and after extensive searches found enough information to narrow down my “little bug” to the genus Okanagana, based on the circular markings on its back.  There were three species previously found in Northern California that were possibilities: bella, occidentalis or rimosa.

Now I had something to go on, so I decided to turn to facebook where I found Cicada Mania!  I posted my photos on July 20, 2011 and they confirmed it to be Okanagana rimosa, stating that O. bella doesn’t have as much orange on its pronotum (the shield-like area behind the head).  And O.occidentalis is closer to yellow or white in color, not orange.  Cicada Mania’s website ( has more pictures of O. rimosa posted from around the US.

I also found Massachusetts Cicadas during my earlier research, a cicada specialist in New England that has extensive coverage on all cicadas from around the country.  They keep a website for ongoing cicada sightings all over the US. (

When I posted my pictures and said that I found the cicada on my shirt while mowing, they said it was a female (identified in the photo by the thin black ovipositor located on the underside of the abdomen) that mistook the sound of my lawnmower for a male cicada mating call—a fairly common occurrence among female cicadas.

Massachusetts Cicada also thought my cicada was somewhere between an Okanagana bella and Okanagana rimosa, seeing morphological features that could have narrowed the identification to either species.  But after looking at many specimens of O.bella and O.rimosa in their collection, they’re pretty confident it’s O. rimosa.  My claim to fame is being the first person to post a sighting of Okanagana rimosa in Sacramento.

But why would they settle in my backyard? According to the Entomology Collection at the University of Alberta, Canada, ( Okanagana rimosa is an arboreal species that likes to inhabit mixed wood forests, particularly maple trees.  Since we have three mature silver maples between 60-80 feet tall, plus other mature trees, our backyard is perfect habitat.

The adults feed on the trees fluids and the females lay their eggs at the base of small branches.  No economic damage has been reported from these cicadas other than girdling of small branches and twigs from the female’s oviposition punctures. 

The male cicada creates the buzzing sound by means of “timbals” located at the base of the abdomen.  There are strong muscles attached to this organ that produce the vibrations causing the high-pitched buzzing or chattering sounds.  The females are attracted to this mating call (and similar sounds, like lawnmowers) and after courtship, lay their eggs in the tree.  Incubation records are lacking except for a few reports of up to 90 days or less. 


After hatching, the nymphs drop to the ground and burrow into the soil at the base of the tree where they feed on the roots until emergence in late spring the following year.  The mature nymphs then climb onto a vertical surface where they molt into winged adults. 

These molted skins are usually found on hard surfaces like stucco, wood or cinderblock, but I was surprised to find one this year on the back of a leaf of my ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato plant.

Predators of the Okanagana cicada are few, mainly birds and sometimes squirrels.  There are also parasitoid cicada wasps that are attracted to the singing male and on which they will deposit their eggs.

The buzzing is also very attractive to cats, who may find a downed male that is emitting a noisy alarm a fascinating plaything. Our cat, Baby Kitteh, had two newly emerged adults on the garage floor in the first week of June this year, with a third larger adult a couple weeks later.  I do try to take them away from Baby if I can and give them a second chance to carry on their life cycle, but I was too late with these three.

One last thing I found about the cicada:  it does not sting or bite, nor is it poisonous.  They look intimidating but are generally a docile insect that won’t hurt if they land on you.  But it would not be a good idea to let one stay on your arm or a patch of skin for too long, because they may eventually mistake you for a tree branch and try to drive their tough proboscis (a thin feeding tube) into your skin—and that would hurt!

Genus Okanagana

Phylum Arthropoda - Arthropods
Class Insecta - Insects
Order Hemiptera - True Bugs, Cicadas, Hoppers, Aphids and Allies
Suborder Auchenorrhyncha - Free-living Hemipterans
Superfamily Cicadoidea
Family Cicadidae - Cicadas
Subfamily Tettigadinae
Genus Okanagana
Species rimosa - Okanagana rimosa

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Favorite Seed Catalog Companies

As promised, I’m listing my favorite seed catalogs and some varieties I would recommend from them.  Although I’ve tried seeds from a number of companies over the last decade, these five companies have been the most consistent with delivery, germination quality, and reasonable pricing. All have signed the Safe Seed Pledge or have made a statement reflecting their position.

Abundant Life seeds
PO Box 279
Cottage Grove, Oregon 97424

Abundant Life Seeds had been in the business of “protecting the genetic diversity of rare and endangered seeds since 1975” with their operation in Saginaw, Oregon.  But in 2003, a devastating fire destroyed their offices, the seed packing facility, and much of their seed inventory.  Through the intervention of Tom and Julie Johns, owners of Territorial Seed Company, seed production has been increasing every year at the certified organic London Springs Farm in Oregon, with most of the seeds now USDA Certified Organic.  This years’ catalog is the biggest yet as quantities of many seeds have increased enough to offer them again.
I’ve grown their tomato ‘Czech Select’ and ‘Fargo Yellow Pear’ from the 2006 catalog.  I’ll be looking at all the new choices in the Spring 2012 catalog.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
2278 Baker Creek Road
Mansfield, Missouri 65704

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds was started by Jere Gettle in 1998 at the age of 17.  Jere had planted his first garden at the age of 3, and now at over 30 years of age, his company carries one of the largest selections of 19th century seeds including many Asian and European varieties.  A large number of seeds come to him from folks whose families have handed down heirlooms over generations, and hope to have them now preserved by spreading the seeds to other gardeners through Baker Creek. 

Jere is deeply involved in the stand against genetically modified seeds and will only sell open-pollinated and non-patented seeds.  All of the seeds are in the public domain which means you have the right to save the seeds without being sued by companies that might find their patented genes in your crops.    

Last year was the first time I bought from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, after seeing the catalog at a friend’s house and ordering my own copy right away.  Page after page of professionally photographed close-ups of the vegetables are the highest quality you’ll see in any seed catalog.  And the descriptions are brief, but enough to distinguish among the varieties.  Perhaps my favorite part of buying from Baker Creek is that the prices per packet are low enough—averaging about $2.50 per packet—that I can order a good variety without breaking my seed budget.  And the packets themselves are stunning in black with a high quality photograph of the vegetable in full-size and full color on the front.  You’ll know a Baker Creek seed packet immediately when you see it.  From the seeds I grew out last year, I would recommend:  Cucumber “Marketmore 76”, Wonderberry, Squash “Jumbo Pink Banana”, Tomato “Green Grape” and Tomato “Cherokee Purple”

Bountiful Gardens
18001 Shafer Ranch Road
Willits, CA 95490

Bountiful Gardens was started in 1982 through Ecology Action, a non-profit organization that was created in 1971 during the first wave of interest in learning how to live more ecologically sound lifestyles.  John Jeavons soon joined the organization to explore alternative ways of growing food, and subsequently developed the “Biointensive” method of gardening based on the work of Alan Chadwick who developed the “Biodynamic/French Intensive” method of sustainable gardening.  John has taken his farming method all over the world to developing countries where mini-farms are supporting entire families, villages and cultures. 

Fast forward 40 years to our new gardening and food Renaissance and you will find Bountiful Gardens thriving, with a catalog in full color; printed on recycled paper.   Prices for the seed packets have stayed low, averaging $2.00-$2.50 per packet and there are a lot more varieties to choose from compared to the first black-and-white catalog I bought seeds from many years ago, including a very extensive selection of Cover Crops, Grains, Fibers and Oil Crops“Teff” is a great grain to try for beginners.  It’s an ancient Ethiopian grain; the smallest in the world, that grows with delicate foliage that kitties love to hide in during the summer and feathery seed heads that tiny finches love to eat in the winter.  The newest additions to the catalog are the Theme Gardens for the home or school garden, and includes such themes as:  Chinese Herbal Medicine Collection, Tomato Rainbow Collection, Salsa Collection, Shady Garden Collection, Edible Flower Collection, Tasty Tea Collection and Italian Kitchen Garden.  I want to try one of these collections this year but am having a hard time deciding which one!

Pinetree Garden Seeds
P.O. Box 300
New Gloucester, ME 04260

When I look over my garden notes, I find that many of the vegetables I grew around 2005-2011 came from Pinetree Garden Seeds.  I’m pretty sure the first catalog came to me by my friend, Virginia, up in the back country of Mendocino County and I’m so glad I gave them a try.  The company was started in 1979 by Dick Meiners who, along with his wife Donna, built it into an impressive operation with dedicated and knowledgeable staff offering hundreds of vegetable and flower seed varieties as well as books, soap making supplies, gardening products and more.  After 32 years, Dick and Donna have passed the torch to the next generation, Melissa and Jef Emerson, with promises of more to come to interest the home gardener. 

I always enjoy looking through the Pinetree Garden Seeds catalog, with simple thumbnail photo’s and brief, but informative descriptions.  One of the most intriguing aspects of the catalog is the Foreign Vegetable section where vegetable seeds are grouped by Asian, Continental, French, Italian, Latin-American and Middle Eastern.  It’s great place to find unusual varieties not often seen in most catalogs.  Among all of the varieties I’ve tried from Pinetree Garden Seeds, these were some of my favorites:  Onion ‘Bunching Heshiko’, Onion ‘Red Wing’, Turnip ‘Golden Ball’, Pumpkin ‘Baby Bear’, Pepper ‘Anaheim’, Radish ‘French Breakfast’, and Swiss Chard ‘Bright Lights’.

One thing of note is that Pinetree Garden Seeds did not sign the Safe Seed Pledge this year, although they have signed it in the past.  It’s not that they don’t support many of the concepts of the pledge; they feel it’s not strong enough and have created their own statement reflecting their position.

 “We sell no seed that has been developed using genetic manipulation. We do not view technologies as being good or bad things in themselves, but people can certainly employ them in pernicious ways. We also think that developing countries are best served, focusing on the agricultures that they have the material and manpower for. Not some Western notion that ignores indigenous materials and tastes.”

“Moreover, Pinetree has signed the Safe Seed Pledge in the past but has chosen not to this year because we do not feel it is worded strongly enough and is used more as a tool for marketing than a political statement. More than promise not to “knowingly” sell or buy GM seeds, Pinetree promises not to sell or buy them. Period.”

Territorial Seed Company
P.O. Box 158
Cottage Grove, OR97424-0061

I started ordering seed from Territorial Seed Company in 2006 after finding their colorful catalog at Spare Time Nursery on a trip through Willets, California.  Founder Steve Solomon ran the first catalog in 1979 with much of the early seed inventory grown in neighbors’ backyards.  By 1981, Territorial was shipping out over 100,000 mail-order catalogs and Steve was spending most of his life submerged in the business. 

In 1985, and advertisement ran in the local newspaper ''... mail order seed company in Lorane for sale.''  Steve had made the decision to return to a simpler lifestyle.  The ad was seen by Tom and Julie Johns who felt taking on the business would fit their self-sufficient lifestyle and commitment to organic gardening.  They bought the company and in 1987 added the 44 acres at London Springs to research and evaluate varieties to include in the catalog.  Today, Territorial Seed Company is a leader in the organic agriculture movement as it moves squarely into the mainstream market. 

I’ve always had good luck with growing seeds from Territorial Seed Company and appreciate the “sampler” size they have available for the small gardener.  I also like that there is a basic description on the front of the seed packets, with more detailed instructions on the back.  Among my favorite varieties that they carry are Kale ‘Nero Di Toscana’, Corn ‘Honey & Cream’, Lettuce ‘Nevada’(my favorite lettuce), Pak Choi ‘Ching-Chiang’, Snow Peas ‘Sandy’, Pineapple Ground Cherry, Pumpkin ‘Jack Be Little’, and Zucchini ‘Black Beauty’.

This year I plan to try the new Grafted Vegetable Plants featured in the 2012 catalog.  I hadn’t heard of this before but it appears to be quite common in Asia and Europe and is gaining popularity in the U.S.  The plants being offered are all tomatoes with the exception of one eggplant.  I would be willing to try a grafted ‘Brandywine’ tomato because the seed-grown plants have not done well in my gardens.  I’ll update on this blog if I take the plunge.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Supporting Seed Companies that take The Safe Seed Pledge

It’s not too late to put in an order of seeds from you favorite seed catalog.  But have you checked to see if the company has signed The Safe Seed Pledge?

More and more of us are demanding to know where our food is coming from, how it’s being grown, and how the growers’ practices are impacting the environment and surrounding communities.  We are also becoming more concerned with the genetic engineering of our food crops where they are altered at the molecular level in ways that cannot happen naturally.  

With genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) in most processed or packaged foods already produced in the United States--including those with ingredients containing corn, soybeans, canola, and sugar beets--it’s difficult to find foods that have not been genetically modified unless we were to grow them ourselves.  And this is just what countless Americans are now doing, with backyard—and front yard—vegetable gardens. 

But if we are making a stand against genetically engineered crops we also need to be diligent in supporting seed companies that have taken The Safe Seed Pledge, offering seeds that are untainted by GMO’s.  The Pledge in its entirety is as follows:

“Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend.  We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations.  For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners, and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically-engineered seeds or plants.  The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families or kingdoms, poses great biological risks as well as economic, political, and cultural threats.  We feel that genetically-engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release.  More research and testing is necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically-engineered seeds.  Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems and ultimately people and communities.”

For the 2012 Safe Seed Resource List of seed companies that have signed the pledge, visit:

I agree with the effort to save the integrity of our global seed supply and will order only from seed companies that have signed the pledge.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Cleavers in the Soup Pot

As a follow-up to the previous blog on Galium aparine, also known by it's common name of 'cleavers', I decided to try some in a soup pot.  In my research, I found that cleavers has been used for centuries in herbal teas and as an addition to soups because of its high Vitamin C content and its many medicinal qualities.  The raw plant is inedible because of the clinging nature of the hooks so cooking is needed to soften them.  You wouldn't want the little 'cleavers' stuck in your throat. 

I cut about 3" off the tips of some of the young plants in my garden to put in the soup pot with chicken broth and shredded chicken breast.  The plant tips were already sticky, even at their young age.  Since I needed to boil the quinoa for 15 minutes that I would be adding, I tossed the cleavers in at the same time and cooked both at a low boil.  The cleavers made a fizzing sound when I dropped them in the boiling broth.  Could it have been from the tiny horns bursting?  Then I dished them all up.

The tips were edible, albeit tasteless (I expected at least a "green" flavor), but further down the boiled stems the hooks were still somewhat bristly.  Maybe just the top 2" of growth would be best if using it in a soup.  A more favorable use may be as an herbal tea where the infusion of the plants--either dried or fresh--will draw out the rich Vitamin C it contains and the other medicinal properties the plant has been known for in its long history.

I'm still intrigued by the red dye you can get from the roots, and the coffee-like drink from the dried and roasted seeds.  I'll be revisiting this 'wicked' but interesting weed again...

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Wicked Weed Indeed: Galium aparine

When we look over the weeds that show up in our gardens every year, most are easily recognizable like lambsquarters, bindweed, thistle, many of the sedges and spurges, and most of the grasses.  But last year a new plant started growing around my gardens that I hadn’t seen before; with a vibrant green color, dainty foliage, and tiny white flowers.  It was growing under many of my trees, along the fence line and in other areas where I had put leaf mulch over the years.

It wasn’t until the end of the growing season that I realized this was not a plant to fool with.  The plants had become rampant vines reaching over 6 feet high to climb up into my trees, and thickly covered plants in my tubs and raised beds until they were almost shaded out.  The tiny white flowers had been replaced by prickly burrs.

When I tried to pull out the plants, the tiny hooks on the leaves and stems scratched the skin on my bare arms and the burrs stuck to my gloves and my clothes, clinging to me like Velcro.  After putting on a long sleeved shirt I went back to work, pulling out all of the plants I could find. 

Then it was time to find out what I was dealing with.

A Google search using words describing the plant soon brought me to Images of possible candidates; and before long I spotted it—Galium aparine!

Galium aparine is an herbaceous annual plant in the Rubiaceae family—the same family as Coffee, Gardenia, Sweet Woodruff, Bouvardia, Pentas and many other cultivated plants.  Its most common name is “cleavers” for the way it clings to everything; but it has many other names including, goosegrass, grip-grass, stickywilly, stickyjack, catchweed, and Robin-run-the hedge. 

Although there are native forms of Galium aparine in the North American continent--mainly found in deciduous woods, thickets and rocky coastal bluffs--the weedy type in most gardens was likely introduced from contaminated seeds brought by early settlers from Eurasia and quickly spread by hitching rides on animal fur and on human clothing.

Indigenous peoples on many continents have used Galium aparine, for centuries for its numerous medicinal qualities and the red dye produced from its roots.  The cooked greens are considered rich in Vitamin C and the roasted seeds can be used as a coffee substitute (coffea is a close cousin). 

I also found out why Galium aparine chose my garden: it prefers and thrives on soils that are nutrient-rich, loamy, clayey and which contain humus.  After years of amending and improving my clay soil, along comes a plant that boldly lets me know how good it is.  So how can I be ticked off with a plant like that? Because once established in my gardens the plant will effectively compete with all of my other plants for light, water and nutrients, by smothering or climbing over any plants in its way.

Controlling Galium aparine is fairly easy if done early in the season.  The young plants can be pulled out by hand or covered with a thick layer of mulch to smother them.  This might be a good time to try some in a soup-pot because of its nutritional value.

Herbicides can also be used on early growth but the plant has an extended germination period so one application will not likely be enough.

If you wait until the plants have grown to maturity, be prepared to have to roll the vines into big balls like tumbleweeds and dispose of them outside of the garden.  Don’t even think of putting them in the compost pile.  Plan to also spend time picking the burrs off of your clothing and disposing of them where they are unable to germinate.   Or make use of the burrs by drying and roasting them to make a coffee-like beverage.

A really bad infestation of this wicked weed can take as long as 3 years of complete removal before seed production occurs.   I am now starting year one…

**Photo credit:  Douglas Ladd @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database/USDA SCS. 1991. Southern wetland flora: Field office guide to plant species.  South National Technical Center, Fort Worth.