Saturday, February 16, 2008

In the Dead of Winter, Wildflowers

If growing perennials from seed is something you would like to try, consider buying some wildflower seeds this winter from the New England Wildflower Society. They are available now and orders must be received by March 15th. Prices may seem a little high if you do not take into consideration that these are native, wild-collected wildflower seeds. All proceeds benefit the society.

The catalogue offers over 200 native flowering plants, shrubs, and small trees. Growing from seed may be the only way to get many of the varieties they offer and while growing perennials from seed can be difficult, these wildflowers could be an extroadinary addition to your garden.

This seaside goldenrod, Solidago sempervirens,  I yanked out of a crack in the asphalt on a rotting pier in Red Hook where I had my studio. There it barely grew twelve inches each year. In my garden, it grows to five feet. There are so many varieties of goldenrod and many are native to New England or the mid-atlantic region, this one included. It has excellent foliage that looks much less weedy than the other goldenrods you may be familiar with. However, in my garden, it suffers from some late season, bright orange rust that never does more harm than wilt the lower leaves. If you want this plant, but don't have any asphalt around from which to yank it or maybe would prefer to not yank it, you can grow it from seed.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Sowing the Seeds of Change

Recently there was a post on GardenRant by one of the ranters, Michelle Owens, about the cost of seeds for vegetables going up. It got me thinking. I have just nearly completed a book called The Future of Capitalism by Lester C. Thurow. It was written in the middle nineties, but has been to me still pertinent. The long to short of it is simple, the times they are a changin'. And we're not prepared.

I wonder how long will it be before low skill industries like seed production move away from high wage areas like North America. In our age, isn't it likely we should be getting our seeds from Asia, not North America? It appears less likely that nursery plants would ship around the world profitably because of their health during shipping. But seeds, in their dry state with their low weight and all the handy work necessary for their production and packaging?

Let us not make too little of our desire for cheap seeds. An American low skilled worker costs a lot more than a comparably low skilled worker in other parts of the world. We could keep seeds at eighty five cents a package if we submit to this capitalistic reality. How does a seed company like Johnnies compete with an international conglomerate that produces seeds in far away lands for less than pennies? Johnnies got it somewhat right- in America they produce seeds in an area that is relatively wealth poor and has an abundance of low skilled workers. But in this age, that exact description fits a hell of a lot more places than Maine and those come much cheaper than Maine.

We see two markets developing. Not unlike the organic foods markets. Educated, highly skilled, maybe wealthy individuals will be marketed to with locally (meaning U.S.) grown seeds of ever expanding varieties and heirlooms and so on. This attracts the set who believe they are playing a part in saving the world and eating healthy. And you know, they are right. At least partially.

The other market is what I can only call the Walmart market. This is a much larger group of customers who really cannot afford $5 seed packets. They will be attracted to campaigns emphasizing low cost, reliability, and accessibility. Huge suppliers from around the world will produce Roma and Early Girl tomato seeds for this market, sold at big box stores for low prices. At least for a while.

The people in between these two markets will probably split the difference, sometimes Walmart, sometimes Johnnies.

The truth of our American lives is that real wages have been falling for years. We are more productive than the rest of the world, yet we do not grow in personal wealth, if anything we are in debt. There are all sorts of reasons for this. But as those seed packets go up in price to accommodate for oil's influence, we must also consider that these seed packets are supporting our local neighbors. Without help or further price jumps, I can only see a hard road ahead for the local seed producer. Inevitably, the market that buys expensive seeds is much smaller than the market that buys at Walmart.

The economic divide has most people on the wealth poor side, but there will always be room for a few local producers who charge accordingly for their seeds. But the motivation of capitalism is to find the cheapest resources and seeds will, if they haven't already, be produced far away for very little money. This will keep seeds at low prices as long as customers accept their seeds coming from distant lands.

This is not xenophobia. This is strictly a discussion about economics, the price of seeds, and our quality of life. We know our choices have far reaching effects, but so many of us are hamstrung by our falling real wages when it comes time to make these choices. We find ourselves in quite a pickle.

Just a quick internet glance for medium size tomato seeds:

Johnnies: packet of 50 seeds is $8.20
Burpee: packet of 30 seeds is $2.65
Park: packet of 30 seeds is $1.95

Big difference, but it probably could be a greater difference.

Upwardly Mobile Garden

I have a neighbor from around the corner who not long ago, in a discussion about the neighborhood, called me a yuppie. This bothered me some and here's why: I rent a small apartment in a dump of a building in a safe but crumbling quadrant of Brooklyn. I live cheaply, am an artist by profession but have a job. I don't buy new clothes much, generally wear jeans and t-shirts, don't have extravagant meals, eating out means pizza or take-out Chinese. I don't have a car. I don't really travel for vacations, nor do I have stocks, bonds or health insurance. My income is under 25,000 a year in NYC and I am 38 years old.

But I am a yuppie to this neighbor who is generally friendly and often mentions that she picks the flowers. The irony is that she owns her house, has a yard, and is enjoying retirement. So the question for me is how did she make this determination? Her terminology I consider somewhat dated. I first heard the term yuppie in the Reagan 80's when I was just a teenager. That's probably when she first heard it too and real yuppies were probably no where to be seen in this neighborhood.

I think I know why she cast this label. Its because I went to college and because I have a small, but abundant garden in the 2 foot by 30 feet strip of dirt in front of my dumpy building. Its because I spend some time there in warmer weather cleaning out the garbage blown in, tying up the leggy plants, pruning or clipping or transplanting the plants. I may be the only one in the neighborhood who does this (in the front yard). Its not because I have leisure time to spare, I work in the afternoon into the night. Or sometimes its just Sunday. And this is something I do rather automatically. I garden and am thankful to have some dirt to work with near my apartment.

My grandparents were good gardeners into their nineties. I think, like balding, it may skip a generation. My father made vegetable garden attempts for a number of years, but never really loved it. I took it up for the family basil and tomatoes after he dropped it. I was a teenage gardener and I didn't know anything. But 25 years later, you know the garden grows pretty well. Better than most in the neighborhood, with a few notable exceptions.

Is there something upwardly mobile about gardening? Does it reveal agency? Sure it appears to be work to those who don't enjoy it. I am hard pressed to see the work as the issue, but the appearance of leisure that gives one time to do the work? Or is it simply the aesthetic value, the beautifying effect it has on the neighborhood? Beauty equals wealth or the aspiration towards it?

I don't want to belabor this any more than I have. But this skirts around the edges of another post to come.