Test-Tube Agriculture

I remember watching an old cartoon, set in a classic futuristic space setting. For food, they ate a single pill, full of everything needed to survive. It is a concept repeated other places as well: test-tube food. Just figure out the basic necessities of life pack it into one package and then have no worries about nutrition.

It is a reality that has fringes in our current standard diet: Ensure, formula, vitamin packed powders, and breakfast cereals packed with extra vitamins. Recently, the real food movement has pushed away from this overly simplistic science, acknowledging that we often can’t replicate the variance that our diets require, variance only found in the natural world. For the most part we still eat a wide variety of foods, and a varied diet is encouraged.

I watched this video, and started to wonder again about that test tube food. Modern mainstream agriculture is striving for that test tube approach. Figure out the right balance of nutrients, add it to crops in chemical fertilizers. Our food is becoming the result of too ridgid science, focusing not on the hundreds of nutrients in the natural world but a handful that are the most prevalent.

What we put into our food production is also what comes out. And if we are striving for test tube agriculture, the food that comes out is test tube food. It might look like a varied diet, but really often is the same  test tube grains processed in ways that simply look different. I realized at one point that  sometimes the various processed food I was eating was the same exact food, just flavored and colored to appear different.

When I produce my own food, I don’t use chemical fertilizers, or try to figure out exactly what a plant needs. I focus on natural systems, and let them do the too complex work to figure out myself. And I can see the benefit, in the yolks of my free range eggs, the taste of homegrown tomatoes, and feeling more healthy than ever during the height of harvest season. Test tube, over simplified science shouldn’t be the base of our diet, and so it shouldn’t have a place in our agriculture as well.


Squash Pests

My squash patch decided to have an abundance of pests. I find it rather fun. I love diagnosing problems in the garden, I spent a couple internships in college doing it and got hooked.

First–here’s a mini guide to diagnosing your own pests.

  1. Consistently check your plants for damage, yellow leaves, insects or other problems. If caught early, problems are managed much better.
  2. Look for the easy answer first. Find out what your plant needs and compare it to the care you are giving it. These are generally issues like a plant in the wrong spot, over or under watering, chemical spills, etc. Most problems are caused not by insects or diseases, but the care and environment the plants are in.
  3. If you are in Utah, sign up for the Extension pest advisories. They keep you up-to-date on problems they are frequently seeing. Their site is also were I first go to start hunting for pests. It’s local, so I’m not finding problems that don’t actually exist in my area. Pests and diseases and typically regional. If you live in another state, look for the equivalent in your area. If you start Google-ing away, sometimes it can lead you down a path that has no basis in the climate and situation your are facing.
  4. Use the Extension office: but use caution. Unless you are talking to an agent or sending in a sample for diagnostics by an actual professional, calling the Extension can often mean talking to an intern or master gardener. They generally do a good job, but they are just normal people and their depth of knowledge can vary greatly. I’ve given less than great advice answering phone calls as the Extension when I was first starting out.
  5. Always diagnose the problem before spraying with insecticides or other drastic action. I’ll never forget the man who brought in a some dead insects off a tree. He had sprayed before he even knew what they were, and it turns out they were ladybug larvae.

Okay, so out in my garden, I was hunting for squash bug eggs, because I do subscribe to the pest advisories and they said to start looking. I found a whole bunch, and removed them with tape. My treatment for the squash bugs is to continue to monitor for adults and eggs and remove them when I find them. I only have a small squash patch, so it shouldn’t be hard.
<a tape
While I was removing the eggs, I noticed that my leaves were yellowing. This is common for watering problems, or under-fertilization, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t the problem. Closer inspection led me to believe that I had spider mites. My best options for control are insecticidal soap or neem oil. I don’t have either on hand though, so I’m going with the third option–a hard stream of water to knock off as many as I can, and continuing to take good care of the plant.
My last squash plant problem was the sudden death of a zucchini plant. Over two days it wilted and died. I don’t know what caused it. There weren’t any signs of insect damage from squash bugs or vine borers, cultural control was the same as the surrounding plants, and I didn’t see any signs of a root rot. I’ve seen this happen before. On this page it lists sudden wilt with an unknown pathogen as a widespread problem. So I have no idea what happened to the zucchini plant, I just know that sometimes squash plants up and die for no apparent reason. It’s okay because I have three other zucchini plants.

A Quick Book Review

I like to still read beginning gardening books and articles, talk to gardeners, go to gardening classes. It is a good way to keep up on my gardening knowledge, and see what people are thinking as well. Not everything I hear and read is accurate. My cousin commented on my previous post, “There is so much misinformation and pseudo science out there. Thanks for making the world a more informed and scientific place.” It is very true, gardening advice is full of pseudo science. I would love to go over a lot of common advice that needs to be re-evaluated…but it’s already been done. There is an excellent book out there, that I believe should be in every gardener’s library.

The book is Decoding Gardening Advice: The Science Behind the 100 Most Common Recommendations by Jeff Gillman and Meleah Maynard

I bought this book on a Timber Press monthly special. (By the way, Timber Press specials are the best. Every month they have three e-books that are 3.99 or less. I have bought a load of gardening books all for around $3.50 just by checking up on the specials. It isn’t just old or unwanted books either, I’ve got some newer releases and some bestsellers from there.You can sign up for their mailing list and get notified. Can you really have enough Timber Press books as a gardener? I think not. And I am in no way compensate for this statement, although if they would like to send me free books they are more than welcome too.)

After my last post, I started to look through this book again. It is well organized, so in my case I was skipping through the book instead of reading it straight through. It is divided into chapters that include soils, water, pests, mulch, flowers, trees, vegetables and fruit, and lawn. It is presented simply, sorting advice in each chapter into good advice, advice that’d debatable, and advice that’s just wrong. In a glance you can quickly tell the value of a certain piece of advice, and then go on to read the details.

I did wish they would site specific studies and articles to back up their stance one everything, but that would also make it not as user friendly and is probably not of interest to most people. (An appendix would be nice.)


I was talking with my father-in-law about gardening, and we started talking about the soil. His garden is quite rocky, which is common for the area, and he was frustrated that even with years of tilling the soil had not improved. I think it is a very common practice to till the soil before planting every spring. Many people believe that tilling will help the soil become more fluffy and workable. (And if you want to be fancy about it, you can use the word tilth.) It makes sense, tear up the soil, increase the tilth. But…


I know it is done all the time, and modern agriculture and certainly home gardeners religiously till. But I believe home gardeners do this simply because they don’t understand what they are doing. There are many reasons to till, some of which I will discuss below:

1)The primary one and most acceptable is incorporating organic matter. If you are dumping on a load of compost or growing a cover crop, you can go ahead and till or work it in. The benefits of the organic matter will likely be greater than the downside of tilling. Even so, organic matter can be applied to the surface of the soil and will gradually incorporate itself.

2)Tilling is often used for weed control. But on the small scale homeowners have, there are many other better options. Hand pulling and mulch are my favorites. Tilling some weeds can actually help them come back bigger and better.

3)Tilling is used to get rid of compaction. This can work; however it doesn’t address the cause of compaction. It would be far better to have dedicated pathways than to keep tilling year after year.

Here are some reasons not to till:

1)Tilling destroys structure. Structure is what ultimately makes our soil workable, not easily compacted, and allows for the proper flow of air and water. Tilling doesn’t help create structure: worms, critters, and plants do. Tilling will destroy the structure of the soil, and in effect decreases tilth. It might make the soil nice and fluffy for a few days, but it doesn’t last and overtime it starts creating hardpans, and more compaction.

Soi Collage

2)Tilling inhibit soil organisms over time. Would you like someone to come rip through you home with a tiller? Neither do all the organisms that live in the soil. And these organisms are awesome: they enable plants to get water, and nutrients more readily, fight off disease, add nutrients to the soil, and create structure and tilth.


Here is how I think of it. I have my original soil, with a good layer of compost on top. If I till it, it all gets mixed together. If I leave it alone, than I can start increasing my soil depth by continuing adding organic matter and have a nice rich, organic top.

Which would you want?

Hiring a Landscape Professional

In the world of landscaping (and probably any career), there is a slew of certifications, and education paths. Right now I’m a stay at home mom primarily. It gives me a chance to think about where I want to go in my career after my children get older, and there are a lot of options for continuing education. Here’s a look. I thought this would be very useful for those looking to hire people, which is why I’m posting it. Many references are state specific, and I based all mine in Utah, where I live.

Master Gardener: Being a Master Gardener is essentially being a volunteer for the extension service. There is an associated training course that is good but not extensive. It is nowhere near a Master’s degree despite the title. Anyone claiming to be a master gardener professionally shouldn’t: the title should be restrained to volunteer work with the extension. (I put this up here, so people would know exactly what it is and not think Master Gardeners are well-qualified landscaping professionals. They are not, and never will be.)

Horticulturist: Understands the cultivation of plants. It doesn’t have a definite meaning, but should mean a degree in horticulture or related field or extensive work experience. Certification is available through the ASHS.  I have a BS in Ornamental Horticulture, so this is what I most frequently call myself.

Landscape Architect: Understands and designs the structures of outdoor spaces. They are licensed by the state, and have a degree in Landscape Architecture.

Landscape or Garden Designer: Designs outdoor spaces. Anyone can be a garden designer, but preferably there are degree programs and ALPD certification.

Arborist: A tree surgeon, primarily working with cultivated trees. Certification is pretty standard through the ISA, an arborist will frequently also have a degree.

Landscaper: Installs or maintains landscapes. No qualifications needed, should have a general contractors licence from the state, and many also have other certifications and a degree in a related field.

Nursery Professional: Grows or sells plants. The person or business should be licensed through the Utah Department of Agriculture, and can also receive certification through the UNLA.

Irrigation Designer: Can be a landscape designer or landscape architect. Should have specific experience/coursework in irrigation design. Certification available through the IA.

Pesticide Applicator: Anyone who applies chemicals commercially. Licensed through the Utah Department of Agriculture.

Permaculture Designer: Designs landscapes using the principles of permaculture and received minimally a permaculture design certificate.

Extension Agent: Works for the land grant university (USU here), has a masters degree in plant science or related field.

There is a lot of overlap here, but there’s a starting point and some things to look for.


Widespread Ecological Design

So this post doesn’t necessary apply to my normal audience, but the thoughts were up in my brain, so I’m writing them out anyway.

I’ve recently began studying permaculture, which has been very fascinating to me. Permaculture is ecological design, or fitting human needs into natural systems. In the garden, I like to focus on systems and problem solving. I’ve never quite been a plant enthusiast, as many gardeners are. Permaculture is a good fit for me. But a main problem with permaculture is it can get complicated, and hence will not be for an average landscape owner.

What we do see in average landscape is a bunch of lawn, hopefully some trees, and maybe a small mixed bed and vegetable garden patch. It works, but it isn’t particularly attractive, low maintenance or ecologically friendly.  I don’t see many people outside because, in addition to other reasons, of the boredom and lack of functionality of a normal landscape.

I think the layout of our landscapes has been greatly determined by what facets of the industry have been simplified effectively. Lawn care is not in actuality simple–I took an entire collage course about it. But the industry has simplified the process with readily available sod, four-step fertilizer programs, and an abundance of lawn care companies. Simplification has transformed lawn into the landscape solution of choice…if you’ve got empty ground you plant grass. One plant (not really, but that’s what people see), one set of maintenance tasks  embraced by big box stores, and a multitude of resources available. Lawn care isn’t necessarily simple, but by portraying at such, it has enabled the saturation of lawn care products, and maintenance and chemical companies that keep prices cheap, and help easy to find.

Lawn is useful, but the unworthy of the monopolistic  role it has in our landscapes. Other options exist, but now require a lot of effort for an average homeowner. It usually requires quite of bit of work and research, it costs more, and maintenance isn’t as clear cut. What often happens is a what could have been a beautiful mixed border ends up a weedy patch of unwanted plants and dead flowers.

I love ecological methods like permaculture, rain gardens, wildlife gardens, natives, edible landscaping, xeriscaping, and forest gardening. There are thousands of beautiful, durable and useful plants all ready to create amazing landscapes. But until the industry simplifies such methods, they will never catch on past the garden enthusiast.

One way where I have actually seen a garden method catch on is square foot gardening. It simplified the implementation and maintenance of a vegetable garden. I don’t agree with everything in square foot gardening, but it is an example to others wanting to push for new methods in landscaping. Simplify it, make it applicable to everyone, and perhaps even a product to be sold at big box stores.

Although it would be nice if people turned to landscape professionals and independent garden centers when they needed landscaping, it doesn’t happen. In my mind I should be very busy doing garden consultations, helping people understand the diverse and wonderful word of landscapes and gardening, but I’m not. Most people aren’t interested in horticulture, they just want cheap quick fixes so their landscapes aren’t weed patches.

If we want wide scaled changes in the landscape we have to simplify ecological design, and make it approachable for everyone including those that want cheap, quick fixes.

Endnote for average person: If you are someone who would like to get away from traditional lawn and move toward ecological design or simply something lower maintenance and beautiful, go for it and know that there are lots of resources out there if you look past the basic big box store. It isn’t higher maintenance or more expensive, just different. 

Dry Plants

Here is my list of plants for dry sites (specifically meant for my sister living in the middle of nowhere Nevada, although my knowledge of growing them comes from northern Utah). All these plants usually survive with little to no additional water after the first year or two. They also need good drainage, and low fertility soils. Most are native.


Fringed Sagebrush (Artemisia frigida) or Big Sagebrush (A. tridentata): Growing sagebrush in the garden isn’t for everyone. But consider it in the lower maintenance areas that are seldom seen in the garden. It makes an excellent backdrop with fine grey foliage.

Curl-leaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius): An evergreen shrub that can function as a specimen plant or even a hedge.

Rubber or Yellow Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus or C. viscidiflorus): Yellow blooms in the fall, with fine grey foliage similar to sagebrush.

rabbit brush

Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra):  These taller shrubs sucker, creating a small grove. Good for covering an area.


Threeleaf Sumac (Rhus trilobata): Good fall color and form. Dwarf cultivars are available. My go-to shrub for massing and low hedges.


Desert 4 o’clock: (Mirablis multiflora) This plant spread out from a single tap-root. It has purple flowers in the summer that open in the evenings. Works well on slopped sites.

Chocolate Flower (Berlandiera lyrata): Yellow blooms all summer than have the scent of cocoa. It is my favorite fragrance plant. Looks better with less care.


Sundancer Daisy (Hymenoxys acaulis): Extended summer bloom of cheery little yellow daisies. Can benefit from deadheading, but not required.


Blue Flax (Linum lewisii): Blue flowers in the spring. The plant tends to die out or look horrible in the summer, so plan accordingly.

Other plants worth trying:

  • Moonshine Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
  • Crag Aster (Aster scopulorum)
  • Puckered Sundrops (Calylophus lavandulifolius)
  • Mountain BeeBalm (Monodella odoratissima)
  • Palmer’s Pensetmon  (Penstemon palmeri)
  • Globemallow (Sphaeralcea)
  • Prince’s Plum (Stanleya pinnata)
  • Yucca
  • Native grasses
  • Cacti and succulents

Many of these plants and pictures are from the Utah Botanical Center. As always, check with your local extension office for information suited to your region.

The Problem is the Solution

I recently went to a Permaculture workshop up at USU  It was excellent. If you ever have a chance to hear Joel Glanzberg, don’t miss it. One of the principles we talked about was that the problem is the solution. Here’s two writer who did just that: a gardener started eating the weeds growing in her vegetable garden, and a native-plant enthusiast  used her “weedy” driveway as a plant nursery.

Other ways to turn the problem into the solution? Here are a few:

  • Use fall leaves as mulch. (Or drop them off at my house. It is beyond me why anyone would willingly get rid of their leaves….it is the best form of free mulch.)
  • Let the clover grow and provide free fertilizer in the lawn
  • Feed grasshoppers to chicken or other animals
  • Use the death of a plant to plant something better
  • Put kitchen gardens close to the house or in the front yard
  • Use unique native or adapted plants for hard-to-grow areas

Vinegar Kills Lawn

An accident got me curious in organic weed killers. We made a giant volcano out on the lawn:


It effectively killed the lawn. I have read that household vinegar is not very effective as a weed killer. But this proved otherwise. So I filled up sprayer and sprayed a portion of the large weed field out back.


The advantage of this stuff is it is dilute vinegar so I didn’t mind when my little kids went out and helped looking like this:


After ten days, here are my experiences with household vinegar as a weed killer:

  • You have to drown the plants to kill them, or even notice leaf browning.
  • It works more as a contact herbicide, so to get it to die you have to spray it directly on the plant.


It did have some effect. You can see my spray path in the picture above. For some weeds vinegar would work. It didn’t kill the bindweed, but if I had a weed field full of small little annual weeds it might have done all right. If I really wanted an effective weed killer, I would go buy more concentrated stuff, and maybe mixed with clove oil. (Or maybe a product like Natural Weed Control.) However, concentrated vinegar is a strong acid and not something I would handle without protective gear. I would rather handle glyphosate (Round-up), as there isn’t a chance for acid burns with that.

Overall, I think I’ll stick with hand weeding and glyphosate if I need to kill off weeds. But maybe vinegar can have an occasional turn as well. In smaller concentrations, it is often recommended to mix with dish soap and lemon juice, or various oils. Here’s another article that’s interesting, if you’d like more information on vinegar as a weed killer.


Flowers from a recent hike:

Western Bluebell (Mertensia oblongifolia)

Longleaf Phlox (Phlox longifolia) and the awful Dyer’s Woad.

And I had no idea what these were before hiking. I’m still learning. But this app sure helps.