Camellias as Garden Treasures

A camellia is a fine selection for the garden, when well planted and given the right care.

The camellia, which has been called “Japan Rose,” is a flowering shrub that is native to eastern and southern Asia.

Camellia japonica

The genus includes up to 300 species, and 3,000 hybrids, most of which are cultivars of C. japonica. Other cultivars are from C. reticulate and C. sasanqua. There are also popular cross-species hybrids.

This plant comes to mind now because May and June are the months for the best times to prune widely grown C. japonica cultivars, right after they have stopped blooming. C. sasanqua cultivars form buds at this time of the year and bloom in autumn. It’s already too late to prune these plants because to prune them now would reduce flowering.

Camellias are valued additions to the garden because of their attractive, evergreen glossy foliage and their flowers, which resemble roses, which come in a range of colors from white, through pink to red. Some creamy yellow hybrids have been produced in recent years; truly yellow flowers exist but are found in nature only in South China and Vietnam. C. flava is a yellow-flowering species that has interested hybridizers seeking to develop cultivars with desirable properties for the garden.

The American Camellia Society has defined six basic forms of camellia blossoms: Single, Semi-double, and four double forms: Anemone form, Peony form, Rose-form double, and the Formal double. A gardener’s inspiration could be to collect examples of each of these forms. The Society ‘s website provides a wealth of public information on these plants and invites membership for even more information.

Camellias sometimes are regarded as challenging to cultivate, but success can be achieved readily by planting and caring for a camellia correctly.

First, select a site that limits direct exposure to the sun. Especially for young plants, the preference is for filtered sunlight under a tall tree, or morning sun and afternoon shade. Older plants can tolerate greater exposure to sunlight.

Second, the soil of the site should be slightly acidic, i.e., 6.0 or 6.5 on the pH scale, which runs from 0 to 14. In the Monterey Bay area, soils tend to neutral (7.0) on this alkalinity to acidity scale. Unless you have tested the pH of your soil, it’s reasonable to assume it’s neutral and to modify it toward acidity. To do this, add common sulfur, ferrous sulfate, or sphagnum peat moss when planting, and regularly provide organic amendments such as compost and manure.

Sulfur is least expensive but might require annual applications. Ferrous sulfate adds iron to the soil and is recommended for plants that show yellow leaves. Peat moss works well when added to the planting hole, or applied on the soil’s surface, but has been criticized as a non-sustainable resource. When shopping for peat moss, look for Canadian peat moss, which is not endangered, rather than European peat moss. (A future column will present more information on peat moss as a renewable resource.)

Finally, provide regular water for young plants to promote the development of a deep root system. Mature plants can be drought-tolerant but will benefit from at least occasional irrigation.

By following these basic guidelines, you could enjoy a delightful camellia in your garden.

Landscape Uses of Plant Containers

Plant containers are popular as decorative elements in the garden. A well-placed large pot can provide a focal point, and a strategically arranged series of pots can lead the eye throughout a planned tour through the garden.

The color of a container can also contribute to the aesthetic of landscape by complementing plants in or near the container or by creating a visual exclamation point in a primarily green environment. Many containers in the garden marketplace are neutral in color, but bright hues are readily available as well, and color patterns have been appearing in recent years.

Containers provide familiar artistic forms in the garden, and can also support plant growth. Empty containers can stand alone as artworks, as well. Containers of all sizes can function like sculptures at more affordable prices.

Gardeners also experiment with other low-cost alternatives to sculptures: bowling balls, wine bottle trees, farm equipment, and porcelain accessories of the home have been striking and even unforgettable sights in some gardens.

A novel use of plant containers could be as elements of a thematic landscape.

In these columns, I have from time to time advocated a thematic approach to garden design. Many possible themes could provide an identity for some or all of a garden, and thereby support a rationale for plant selection.

Garden themes oriented to a single plant genus, e.g., roses, irises, dahlias, are quite familiar. Other themes emphasize a color combination, or one color, like the historic white garden of England’s Sissinghurst Castle.

My garden has several thematic beds. The largest beds are dedicated to each of the world’s five summer-dry climates: the Mediterranean basin, South Africa, southwestern coast of Australia, the central coast of Chile, and coastal California.

These beds might need to be identified for visitors, because most will not immediately recognize the origins of plants. I have considered placing an identifying sign in each bed, but would rather avoid that institutional look.

Another method for identifying a geographically defined bed might be to place in the bed a large container from that part of the world. Assuming that the visitor will recognize the container’s country of origin, it might serve to identify the bed.

To date, that idea has succeeded in exactly one instance. A Talavera pot now marks a bed of succulent plants from Mexico, which is not one of the world’s summer-dry climates.

The accompanying photo shows this pot with a young specimen of Agave applanata ‘Cream Spike’, from Mexico.

Cream Spike Agave

Many garden centers have at least a few Talavera pots. Authentic Talavera pottery comes only from the very old city of Puebla, in southeastern Mexico, but many products come from other sources. Regardless of authenticity, Talavera pottery is strongly associated with Mexico.

A fairly good marker for the bed of plants from the Mediterranean basin is a terra cotta container that suggests a Mediterranean style, confirmed by an image search of the Internet. The casual visitor, however, might find its message to be ambiguous.

Garden centers offer a good variety of plant containers, but few refer clearly to a country of origin. For example, the city of Pomaire, south of Santiago, is famous for its pottery, but when taken out of context, the pots do not identify as Chilean.

My search for thematic plant containers has yielded information about the world’s pottery traditions, and concluded that there is no good substitute for a sign. My next step is to try hanging clay nameplates on the pots. I’ll report on that approach in a future column.

Gardening can lead us in unexpected directions!

Garden Exchanges, Alstroemeria

My recent garden exchange experience generates thoughts about the ways in which gardeners share plants and other garden items.

In some Monterey Bay area communities, garden exchanges are infrequent occasions. There are successful events in Monterey and Seaside (and perhaps other communities) that local groups organize once a year. Santa Cruz has a low-key monthly exchange that is popular during the growing season.

Exchanges generally focus on plants as cuttings, bare-root specimens, seedlings (also called “starts”) in four-inch plastic nursery pots, and larger plants in one-gallon (or even five-gallon) pots. Empty pots and sometime other garden items also appear occasionally.

Most gardeners have plants that they could bring to an exchange simply because many good garden plants reproduce naturally and sometimes vigorously. While all plants that grow in a given area can be exchanged, this practice began with “passalong plants,” which are thought of as botanical heirlooms that have survived for decades primarily by being handed from one gardener to another. These plants might not be easily found in garden centers because they reproduce so easily that commercial growers choose not to compete with nature.

One example of such a plant is the Alstroemeria, commonly called the Lily of the Incas. This plant is also called the Peruvian Lily, although they are native to either central Chile (winter-growers) or eastern Brazil (summer growers). Central Chile, as you my recall, has a summer-dry climate very much like that of the Monterey Bay area, so these plants thrive locally.

Alstroemeria

Alstroemeria in bloom

The Alstroemeria reproduces by creating clusters of small tubers that are easily shared and grown. Plant the tubers horizontally, about eight inches deep.

This plant’s blossoms are available in many shades of red, orange, purple, green, and white, flecked and striped and streaked with darker colors. It produces long flower stalks and is a very good cut flower. To stimulate blossoming, tug the flower stalks instead of cutting them. They release easily.

The Alstroemeria produces large numbers of tubers, so many that it can be difficult to dig into a long-established bed. This growth habit exemplifies the passalong plant: desirable and prolific.

Steve Bender and Felder Rushing wrote Passalong Plants (2002), in which they describe 117 plants that have been shared for many years in the southeastern states. There are at least as many plants that are traditionally shared by coastal California gardeners, including both natives and imports.

I collected two free plants at last week’s garden exchange:

  • a seedling Tree Tomato (Tamarillo), a native of Chile that is a fast-growing tree that produces egg-shaped edible fruits with exotic appeal. It could grow quickly to fifteen feet, but can be limited by pruning. I’ll try it in my Chilean bed.
  • Mother of Millions (Bryophyllum delagoense), a succulent plant with interesting leaves. It is native to Madagascar that “escaped” to Australia, where is it considered a noxious weed. Each plant produces small plantlets along the edges of its leaves that detach and form new plants. This makes it difficult to eradicate. It is also toxic to humans, pets and livestock. I will not add this plant to my garden. Or share it.

Visitors to the garden exchange also presented a wide variety of other popular plants. These examples suggest that both interesting and troublesome plants might be available, so a brief inquiry on the Internet research is always appropriate before adding an unfamiliar plant to the garden.

The next Santa Cruz Garden Exchange will be at the Eleventh Annual Garden Faire in Scotts Valley, Saturday, June 18th. For information, visit http://thegardenfaire.org.

Acanthus: Love & Hate

Aside

There are plants that most gardeners hate and other plants that most gardeners love. It is a rare plant, however, that provokes both love and hate in the same people.

The Acanthus is one of those rare plants.

Let’s consider why it generates strong reactions, both positive and negative.

The genus Acanthus includes twelve species. Various species are native to Europe and the Mediterranean basin, Africa. South Asia, and Australasia.

Three species from the Mediterranean basin are cultivated in many American gardens: A. mollis, A. spinosus, and A. balcanicus and are popular in Monterey Bay area, where the climate resembles the plant’s native environs.

Acanthus spinosus

Acanthus spinosus (click to enlarge)

These popular species are similar in appearance, with differences primarily in the lobes of the leaves: some have more deeply cut lobes than others. Generally, Acanthus is a clump-forming perennial plant that is grown for its attractive foliage and bold flower spikes. It works best placed behind smaller plants, to provide a lush backdrop for the landscape.

Given a favorable climate and adequate drainage, the Acanthus adapts to various soil types, and is usually pest- and disease-free, except for an occasional snail that tries to nibble the plant’s hard and glossy leaves. It prefers partial shade, but in our moderate climate also does well in full sun. It will grow in one season up to four feet high and wide, with some flower spikes reaching above the leaves.

At the end of the season, the flowers fade and the leaves wilt, and new leaves spring from the base. It’s time to cut the old growth to the ground and welcome a new cycle of growth.

Everything about the plant seems fine, right? Let’s look at the sources of ill will.

Firstly, a relatively minor concern is the plant’s prickliness. The genus name comes from the Greek word akantha, which means spine and refers to the edges of the leaves. When we encounter A. spinosus, we have the addition of the Latin term for spine, and a plant that might be called “Spiny Spiny.”

Actually, the Acanthus’ common name is “Bear’s Breeches.” I have not found an explanation for that odd name.

Secondly, the Acanthus propagates too readily. It develops creeping rootstocks and drops seeds, and has been considered invasive in some agricultural areas, but the progeny are really not difficult to control in a garden setting.

Thirdly (and this is the big negative), a well-established Acanthus is very difficult to eradicate. The smallest piece of root left behind will sprout into a new plant. Gardens change by the gardener’s design or by Nature’s plan, but the Acanthus is forever.

Given the excessive persistence of the Acanthus, we might have mixed feelings about the introduction of a new hybrid form of the plant. But the recent appearance of Acanthus ‘Whitewater’ has generated enthusiasm. This plant has variegated leaves and blossoms in white and cream, aging into pink. A mature clump of this plant in the right setting could be a knockout. (The ‘Whitewater’ photo is from Terra Nova Nurseries.)

Acanthus 'Whitewater'

Acanthus ‘Whitewater’

I have struggled to eliminate A. mollis and found A. spinosus to be better-behaved, so I’m hesitant to plant ‘Whitewater’ in my garden. It’s striking appearance, however, invites a compromise: container planting. The pot should be large enough for the roots, the right proportion for the largish plant, and in a color that complements green and white with a touch of pink. I have begun looking!

Rediscovering Eco-cultural Gardening

Gardening is a very old activity. The word “garden” has its roots in an Old English term meaning “fence” or “enclosure,” and the earliest enclosed outdoor space discovered was created about 12,000 years ago.

We are still learning about gardening.

More accurately, we are rediscovering ideas that earlier gardeners understood thousands of years ago.

One of the earliest ideas, evidently, was that a fence keeps some hungry animals from the vegetables and (later) from the flowers.

The most basic principle for successful gardening is compatibility with Nature. We are advised occasionally that humans developed instinctive behaviors, e.g., Fight or Flight, at an early stage of our history, and evolved to thrive with a diet that consisted of a combination of foods that grew naturally in our local environment.

By the same token, plants and animals evolved over long periods to thrive in specific regions, together with each other. As a result of this co-evolution, we have interdependence between plants and animals that grow naturally within a specific environment. We even have interdependence between those plants and animals and certain aspects of the environment itself.

Ancient civilizations that understood these relationships intuitively gardened—and lived—in harmony with Nature. “Eco-culture” is today’s buzzword for the connection between ecological and cultural practices.

Some aspects of the environment appear not to interact with the plants and animals: the weather, elevation, and sunlight operate under their own rules, but the soil microbiota has close relationships with the flora and fauna.

Gardening is easiest and most successful when we recognize and respect these natural relationships. Good practices include gardening organically and growing plants that are native to the local environment.

The more recent history of gardening, however, has included many attempts to rewrite Nature’s rulebook. For example, as people traveled the globe, they added plants from exotic environments to their gardens and developed adaptive practices, including irrigation systems, greenhouses, and indoor gardening.

Also, as gardeners desired plants that would grow faster or larger, taste better, or look better, they developed hybridizing methods, fertilizers, and pesticides.

Such departures from Nature’s ways are often successful in achieving certain objectives, but they often have negative consequences, as well.

The clearest downside of attempts to “fool Mother Nature” is that gardening requires more time, energy and expense. If you find gardening to be burdensome, try converting to plants that are native to your environment.

When large-scale, commercial gardening (“agriculture”) adopts new technologies, the disruptions of Nature’s processes also grow larger in scale. Widespread applications of synthetic agricultural chemicals are damaging the soil biota, are poisoning the soil, killing birds, bees and butterflies, contributing to climate change and threatening our health.

Historically, ecological traumas began with the Industrial Revolution and accelerated in the 1940’s (with at the start of World War II), particularly in uses of synthetic chemicals.

Today, a growing number of non-profit organizations are sounding alarms about these practices and advocating alignment with Nature’s ways. Consumers increasingly demand organic foods, and intuitively resist genetically engineering foods. These groups and individual gardeners are rediscovering eco-cultural gardening.

Our roots are showing!

More to come: links to consumer-oriented non-profit groups related to eco-cultural gardening.

Here’s a related article (with an inappropriate title), “The dirty little secrets of a Native American garden,” from the San Francisco Examiner.

Basics of Low Maintenance

For many gardeners, as they create or recreate their gardens, their objectives include minimizing maintenance. Let’s consider the “why” and “how” of low maintenance gardening.

The motivation for minimizing maintenance requirements begins with the press—or the appeal—of other priorities, and the perspective is that gardening is drudgery that steals time from higher priority pursuits, and should be avoided whenever possible.

Some of us have unavoidable demands on our time, it’s true, but in reality, maintaining a garden does not require large chunks of one’s schedule.

In addition, gardening has unique rewards to be appreciated and even sought after: time for meditating, exercising a bit, and absorbing vitamin D, as well as communing with Nature and making an individual contribution to ecological balance.

Avoiding drudgery and securing those rewards requires both a positive attitude and a well-designed garden.

With those elements in place, gardening can be easy not burdensome, and satisfying rather than frustrating. Here are basic guidelines for creating a low-maintenance garden.

Establish Realistic Goals

The size of your garden should be manageable within your available time, physical capacity and financial resources. In this assessment, consider your gardening partner or partners, including family, friends and contractors.

Your horticultural knowledge and skill are also important, but because you can increase them, they are not limitations. If you have a large property, define an appropriate size of your garden, and leave the rest to Nature. If you have less space than you would like, develop an interest in container gardening, or community gardening.

If your gardening plan includes regular “mow, blow and go” assistance, it’s likely that you are not really gardening, and not gaining those unique rewards. Take another look at the design of your landscape, with a focus on eliminating the lawn.

Work with Nature

This core idea reaches into all aspects of gardening. Gardening and landscaping amounts to imposing on Nature, which has powers that are not be denied. For this reason, gardening should be pursued in ways that are compatible with, and supportive of, Nature. Those who challenge Nature must commit to high-maintenance gardening., but will, in the long run, lose.

Gardeners could challenge Nature in many ways, beginning with the selection of non-native plants, especially those that have evolved under significantly different environments. Choose plants that have evolved under your garden’s conditions, including climate and precipitation, elevation, soil type, wildlife habitat, etc.

Another strategy for challenging Nature is the monocrop, i.e., limiting large sections of the landscape to a single kind of plant. In residential gardens, the most familiar monocrop is the lawn. Such landscapes do occur in Nature (think of Midwestern prairies) but lawns are inhospitable to wildlife, and costly to maintain in acceptable condition. Mixed plantings work better, can be very attractive, and are easier to maintain.

A related issue is the use of synthetic chemicals in garden maintenance. This practice might seem to mimic Nature, but truly natural ways to feed the soil and the plants are based on the growth and decomposition of organic materials. The use of synthetic chemicals leads to the accumulation of inorganic salts that eventually poison the soil. Short-term impacts from chemicals may be welcome, but organic compost yields the best results in the long term. In addition, the birds and the bees will thank you.

There are more ways to achieve low maintenance gardening. These two basic guidelines are a good start.

Enjoy your garden!

A Primer on Succulent Plants

California’s recent drought, which promises to stick around in future years, has inspired a surge of interest in succulent plants, which, as a group, grow nicely with limited moisture. If you already know all you want to know about succulent plants, you can skip this column, but if (like many gardeners) are just becoming interested in such plants, here is a primer.

Gardeners who explore the world of succulent plants soon discover that these plants have more to offer than drought tolerance:

  • They bring a great range of forms, foliage colors, blossom colors, and sizes
  • Some grow well in bright sun, while others thrive in filtered light
  • There are are winter dormant varieties (“summer bloomers”), and summer dormant varieties (“winter bloomers”).

These characteristics make succulent plants terrific for landscaping and container gardening.

Cream Spike Agave

Cream Spike Agave, from Mexico

Cream Spike Agave - cu

A closer look

The world of succulents includes some ambiguities to get used to, as follows:

First, the term “succulent” refers to the plant’s biological ability to store water during dry spells, and does not indicate a botanical category. The succulent characteristic occurs within about sixty different plant families. Succulence is a variable trait: succulent plants differ in their needs for moisture.

Second, some definitions of succulent plants exclude geophytes, which are plants that store water underground structures called bulbs, pseudobulbs, tubers, corms, rhizomes or other terms. Interestingly, plants that store water in a caudex (a modified stem that might be partially underground) are considered succulents even when geophytes are not.

Third, all cactuses are succulents, but all succulents are not cactuses. Cactuses are in the plant family Cactaceae. All plants in this family have specialized structures called areoles, a kind of highly reduced branch that produces spines, which are highly modified leaves.

Fourth, except for the cacti, succulent plants do not have spines, but some have leaves with hazardous sharp points or spiked edges, intended to discourage predators.

Always the best way to learn about plants is to grow them. Hands-on experience and regular observation are the best forms of education.

There are faster ways, however. The Internet contains vast informational resources about succulents, accessible by searching on any plant name or botanical term in this column. Very helpful Internet resources for this purpose include Wikipedia for botanical information, Pinterest for photos of succulent plants, and YouTube for video clips on all aspects of growing and displaying succulent plants.

Another very good strategy, especially for Monterey Bay area gardeners, is to join the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society (http://mbsucculent.org/). This non-profit group has monthly meetings in Watsonville, with expert presentations, a fine lending library (listed on its website), and public shows and sales in the spring and fall. The shows at these events include displays of a great variety of expertly grown and often extraordinary succulent plants. The sales present a vast number of small and not-so-small plants in great variety and for attractive prices.

If You Go

What: Spring Show & Sale of Cacti and Succulents

Who: Monterey Bay Area Cactus and Succulent Society

When: Saturday, April 23, 9:00 to 5:00 and Sunday, April 24, 9:00 to 4:00

Where: Community Hall, 100 San Jose Avenue, San Juan Batista, California

Admission and Parking: Free for all visitors

Spring Show of Tall Bearded Irises

The tall bearded iris is among the most rewarding drought-tolerant plants, and right now is the ideal time to plan for irises in your garden.

Big Picture (Ghio, 2014)

Big Picture (Introduced by hybridizer Joe Ghio, 2014)

There are several iris genera and species, and several varieties of the bearded iris. The tall bearded iris is the most popular variety, the result of the past fifty or so years of hybridizing. The hybridizers’ patience and creativity have yielded an amazing range of colors, color combinations, patterns and blossom forms, as well as plants with great vigor, productivity and in some cases repeat blooming.

The early fall is the time to plant irises, but they are blooming now, in the early spring, making this the time to learn about the varieties and choose plants to add to your garden.

The occasion for this timely and enjoyable pursuit is the Monterey Bay Iris Society’s annual show, scheduled for this weekend. This event features the best plants grown by local gardeners. There are a few “ringers” among those displaying their plants (people who grow irises commercially), but they are also locals and active participants in the Society’s ongoing educational programs.

A room full of top quality irises can be overwhelming to those not already familiar with these striking plants, and perhaps intimidating. You might even think, “How could I grow such impressive plants?” A good defense to such feelings is to read “How to Grow Tall Bearded Iris,” which is freely available online from the MBIS.

This two-page tutorial will make clear that irises are among the easiest great garden plants to cultivate and provide the confidence to bring them to your garden.

Another very good preparation for this show is to look through the Show Program, which is also available online from the MBIS. This eight-page document is packed with information about the categories of irises in the show, the exhibition rules, and the awards to be won. The Show Program provides an excellent orientation to the blossoms to be seen at the show.

The Program also includes information about membership in the MBIS and a calendar of the Society’s sales in June and July, anticipating planting in August and September.

This show is conducted according to the rules of the American Iris Society, and a team of expert judges will evaluate the blossoms. This process occurs on Saturday morning, before the show is open to the public, so visitors will see which blossoms have received first, second or third place awards. Visitors to the show are invited to vote for the People’s Choice Award.

Irises can beautify your garden!

If You Go

What: Spring Iris Show: “2016 Spring Rainbow”

Who: Monterey Bay Iris Society

When: Saturday, April 23, 1:00 to 6:00 and Sunday, April 24, 10:00 to 5:00

Where: Louden Nelson Community Center 301 Center Street, Santa Cruz, CA

Admission: Free for all visitors

Information: “How to Grow Tall Bearded Iris” and Show Program: http://www.montereybayiris.org/

Book: The Art of Gardening

 

My short list of readings for avid gardeners has just become longer.

The book is The Art of Gardening: Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer (Timber Press, 2015).

Chanticleer is an exceptional thirty-five acre public garden, in Wayne, Pennsylvania, thirty minutes NW of Philadelphia. It was established a century ago at the home of the Rosengarten family, and became a public garden twenty years ago.

The book’s authors include R. William Thomas (Chanticleer’s executive director and head gardener) with fifteen members of the garden’s staff, including seven horticulturists. Rob Cabrillo created the photographs, a prominent feature of the book.

The Chanticleer garden reportedly continues the original layout created in the early 1900s by landscape architect Thomas Sears; most of the floral and garden development has been accomplished since 1990, when the owner passed.

Chanticleer includes fifteen distinct areas. These are not enclosed, as “garden rooms” might be thought of, but well-defined small spaces within the sprawling property, separated in several cases by lawns. Each unique area has its own gardener who has freedom to manage the ever-evolving design of the landscape, while maintaining the integrity of the overall garden, the area’s relationship with other areas, and (quoting the book) “the union between plant and site. “

I am still working on this concept of “union” because all the plants in my garden are fully unified with their site, but never mind.

This arrangement of spaces and the relative autonomy of the gardeners makes Chanticleer an unusually rich resource for the home gardener. Each of the fifteen relatively small spaces displays design concepts and plant combinations that are ready for adoption or adaptation within the constraints of the typical home garden.

If Chanticleer were designed and managed by a single vision, it would be less interesting and less useful to the visitor.

The book has two major sections: Design and Plants. It also includes minor sections: introduction, afterword, suggested readings, index and a group photo of the several authors, with brief biographical notes.

The Design section (85 pages) describes the site, the arrangement of the fifteen smaller gardens, the use of built structures, the use of patterns to unify the overall garden, the evolutionary approach to garden design, uses of color, and specific examples of design concepts.

The much larger Plants section (205 pages), includes some bylines for the various writers, but likely was written mostly by the co-authors. This section includes observations about the uses and cultivation of individual plants, revealing the staff as a group of thoughtful plant lovers. They have the advantage over many home gardeners of careers in gardening and the opportunity to focus on their plants through annual cycles and over the years. (Speaking for myself, life’s many distractions interrupt the continuity of the gardening experience.)

Despite these multiple voices, the book reads easily, with consistent language throughout. This quality surely reflects the work of the editor.

The avid gardener would benefit from a few pleasant hours with The Art of Gardening, and from having it readily available on the bookshelf. A visit to this extraordinary garden should be included with a future opportunity to fly to the east coast.

As always with garden information from Other Lands, consider climatic and environmental differences with the Monterey Bay area.

GMO Labels Are Important

As reported last week, the U.S. Senate rejected a recent legislative attempt to ban states from requiring labels to identify food products made with ingredients that include genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

This was a victory for the vast majority of consumers, who have been demanding to know what is in their food. Food producers have insisted GMOs are nutritionally no different from so-called conventional foods, GMO labels would suggest that such foods are not as good and some consumers would avoid them.

The food producers, working through the Grocery Manufacturers Association had spent millions of dollars to oppose state initiatives to require these labels. State initiatives in California and Washington failed narrowly, but Connecticut, Maine and Vermont passed similar initiatives. Vermont’s law will go into effect on July 1st of this year, prompting the federal preemption strategy.

With the failure of the Senate bill, several major food producers announced plans to label foods with GMO ingredients. Campbell was the first to announce. It was soon joined by General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, and Conagra Foods. They had previously opposed GMO labeling, and are now calling for uniform national guidelines for such labels.

These large companies are taking this action as a clear business decision. They are sure that Congress will respect the clear and strong position of consumers, they expect additional states will require labels, and they certainly don’t want a hodge-podge of state-by-state requirements.

Food producers now will do all they can to persuade consumers that GMO foods are both safe and good for you. This is “Plan B,” the fallback position for when they could not ban labeling.

At this juncture, consumers should learn all the reasons why GMO labels are important.

First, U.S. Food & Drug Administration has concluded that GMO foods are the same nutritionally as non-GMO foods, but the FDA relies instead on research conducted by the food producers and does not conduct its own research. Independent scientists have argued that manipulating genes is not an exact science and could have unintended consequences. Steven Drucker’s book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, presents this perspective.

Second, the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not allow GMO foods to be labeled “organic,” which the typical consumer understands to mean “natural,” which does not include gene manipulation.

Third, the primary use of genetic modification technology, by far, has been to create food crops that can tolerate RoundUp, a synthetic chemical weed killer that have been found to be carcinogenic. Vast quantities of this chemical are being dumped on agricultural fields.

Fourth, farmers must buy seeds that tolerate weed-killing chemicals annually, rather than saving and planting their own seeds. This raises the operating costs of small farms, and too many farmers in the Far East have committed suicide in economic despair.

Fifth, winds have blown pollen from GMO crops into nearby field of organic crops, contaminating those fields and nevertheless prompting GMO seed producers to claim theft of their private property.

Federal laws that provide the basis for FDA regulations do not address these economic and environmental impacts of GMO-based agribusiness. They focus instead on nutritional content. Recent studies have concluded that certified organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally grown foods (including GMO foods), but more importantly labeling GMOs should raise questions about the unintended fallout of GMO-based agribusiness.

In a perfect world, GMO technology would target good health and good taste, not weeds, and would yield seeds that belong to the world, rather than profiteers. Until then, the consumer’s best choice is to enjoy organic foods.