Resuming my highly personal notes on Chapter Twelve: Plants, Crops & Seeds — The Real Dirt in Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook (2012). Any misrepresentations of Bane’s words or work are mine alone and completely unintentional. Notes on each chapter linked here.
“You cannot garden without killing a lot of plants deliberately. Just as we should take no offense that plants move onto ‘our’ turf, we should have no guilt about chopping, mowing or grazing them down as it suits us. Out of common sense and self-care, we should, however, refrain from poisoning plants because poison knows no boundaries.” — Peter Bane
There are 500,000 to 1 million species of plants alive on planet Earth now, just a “tiny fraction of all those that have ever lived.” Of these, we’ve used about 100,000 species over all of human history for gardening. And of those, about 10% have been used for food. About 3,000 plant species used for food and drink are now available commercially or collected in botanical gardens or arboretums, with only 150 species developed extensively for agriculture. And a “mere 20 species provide 80% by weight of the food consumed by humans.” and only a small number of cultivars within each of those 20 species.
Sort of mind-blowing, isn’t it?
The earliest evolved plants — mosses, liverwort — are 800 million years old (humans are only 2-3 million years old). Flowering plants emerged from 80 to 140 million years ago, when continents starting forming.
The Six Kingdoms of Life: Archaea; Bacteria; Protista; Plantae; Animalia; and Fungi. They are further subdivided by Phylla (Phyllum), Classes, Superorders, Orders, Families, Genera (Genus), and Species.
Discussion of nomenclature (and how important it is to use scientific names, not common names which can vary from place to place), taxonomy, and economic botany –most of our food and medicine comes from angiosperms (flowering plants – monocots and dicots), of which there are 254K species, and 7 of the 115 families provide the most economic value: legumes, mints, sunflowers, mallows, mustards, carrots, and lilies, plus the rose family, which includes many tree, shrub, and cane fruits and beech trees.
31 Crops that Feed Humanity – list on p. 216. Includes rice, wheat, rye, maize, potatoes, barley, cassava, oats, sorghum, sugar cane, soy, banana, coconut, apple, cottonseed, peanut, olive, citrus, beans and peas, tomato, mango, onion, sesame, date, cabbages, yam, et al.
Another list, of 31 Superorders and Some Crops That Come From Them, on p. 220, divides the superorders into two groups, monocots and dicots. Bane doesn’t explain what these are, so I had to research it, and it’s quite difficult to grasp the botanical terms at first (for me, anyway), though once you’re given examples of each, it becomes intuitively obvious which are which in most cases. Essentially, a monocot has one seed leaf, often slender and long; most are herbaceous (no woody tissue) and small, and many are grasses; wheat, oats, barley, and corn are monocots, and so are palms, orchids, and many plants that grow from bulbs.
On the other hand, a dicot has two seed leaves, usually rounded and fat, because they are two halves of a seed; there are many more species of dicots, including most tree and shrubs, and many annuals and perennials.
Some of the dicot superorders in his list are:
Lamianae (Mint), e.g., sesame, sage, basil, oregano, lavender, mullein, foxglove.
Violanae (Mustards and Cucurbits): e.g., cabbage, squash, cucumbers, melons, radish, violets, capers, and mustard
Aralianae (Carrots-Ginseng Alliance): e.g., carrot, celery, lovage, dill, parsnip, cilantro, fennel, cumin, anise, ginseng.
One dicot superorder with a lot of food crops is Liliidae (Lily), which contains onion, garlic, leek, iris, crocus, asparagus, yams, vanilla, agave, and yucca.
Plant Origins – Native or Exotic:
“Plant origins are not important, in my view, for the purpose of keeping ecosystems in some form of ‘native’ purity. We are not only past the time when that is possible outside of very small areas, but climate change has handed us a mandate to accept and to create new combinations of plants, animals, insects and fungi in the interest not only of meeting our own needs but to preserve the diversity that is the basis of life itself.
“Plant origins matter because they have shaped to a considerable degree the expectations of the organism. A plant that originated near the equator will not likely respond well to very short or very long day lengths in the temperate regions, though there are exceptions. Plants will have coevolved with insects and animals; they will have pollinators; they will have ecological niches that tell us much about how they should be cultivated. Studying plant origins can tell us where to look for analog plants, those that can function in the place of a native species, but that may have preferred characteristics, e.g., disease resistance, better flavor or higher yields.”
Later in the chapter, Bane says that plants can never accurately be said to be invasive; it’s we who have “invaded territory and unhinged ecosystems.” But he also notes that
“[a]s a practical matter, we should always be mindful to include natives among our cultivated landscapes, gardens and fields for the unseen but essential relationships they make with soil microbes, pollinators, birds and other key players in the ecosystem. And we should thoughtfully consider the qualities of exotic plants that may make them difficult to manage.”
Plant Breeding: Corn is now dependent on us: “[I]ts seed will scarcely germinate at all unless removed from the cob by humans.”
New plant traits are most likely expressed in plants with widely divergent types of parents (called “hybrid vigor”).
Crop breeding selection has focused on durability, keeping qualities for storage, uniformity, and ease of mechanical manipulation — all traits suited to commerce.
March Toward Seed Monopoly: Post-war farmers, instead of saving seeds from year to year like their great-grandparents, purchased hybrid seeds promising higher yields. In the years after World War II (“and the violent decades of revolution and upheaval that preceded and followed it as old empires collapsed and former colonies threw off their masters”), governments understood that hunger was dangerous to the established order so they were very interested in growing high-yield wheat, corn, and rice. Seed dependency increased because the new seeds were all hybrids that corporations owned; ownership of these corporations “was tightly integrated with the elites of the former Western imperial powers. The patenting of life forms was, through intense political pressure applied behind closed doors, legally enabled in the 1970s so that profits from hybrid seeds could be maximized.”
Hybrids: When two similar hybrid plants are crossed, you get F1 (first filial offspring), which will include only a few plants that will resemble the parents. Takes 6 or 7 generations to stabilise hybrid seeds so they produce true to type.
Lots of risk to hybrid breeding strategy: blight, susceptibility to other diseases and to insect devastation.
“Hybrid seeds, in and of themselves, are not evil. But the expansion of their use to support increasing intensification of agriculture worldwide, combined with plant patenting laws and the destruction, intended or otherwise, of landrace diversity in staple crops throughout many of the largest agricultural centers of production in the global South, saw a massive increase in monoculture and a dramatic narrowing of the genetic diversity underpinning agriculture itself. This has placed the very future of humanity in jeopardy.”
The Ethics of Diversity: “The cultivation of diversity, which leads to resilient ecosystems, is a principle in permaculture but is also expressed in our ethical injunction to ‘Care for the Earth,’ which means to respect and conserve all species. Every garden farm should strive to introduce and maintain more plants than it can crop. In part, this is a strategy for selection, but at a deeper level it is a strategy for survival, for diversity is the life raft of life itself.”
Climate change has shifted North American USDA zones northwest by an average of 15 miles per year for the past 20 years. 1990 vs. 2006 map (but he spelled January wrong!):
Politics of Diversity: Big Pharma (a few global corporations) control an integrated product line of agrochemicals, seeds, GMOs, and drugs. Independent research shows strong links between genetically modified food and allergies, degenerative disease, and reproductive failure (p. 227, cites a 2011 report). Yields of GM crops and nutritional values are lower than from conventional varieties, but they are proprietary, so profitable.
Polyculture: Nature is a polyculture, so we can “have some confidence that this strategy will work when applied to cultivated systems.”
Planting in Guilds: A guild is an assembly of cooperating plants whose lives are intertwined; the elements within each are mutually supportive, fully integrated. He describes the Native American “three sisters” guild of corn, beans, and squash: The (green) beans bring nitrogen to the system; the corn provides a stalk for the bean vines to grown on, and corn is an amino acid complement of beans, nutritionally; and the squash provides ground cover to deter insects and mulch the soil, and nutritionally it offers calories, betacarotene, and minerals. Another plant to grow in this guild is the flower cleome, which is a trap crop for the squash beetle.
Typically a guild is organized around a single tree or small group of trees of a single species, usually fruit or nut trees. Then shrubs and herbs can be planted nearby to give ground cover, build soil, repel pests. Growing in guilds means less weeding, better pest control, less staking. Something should be in bloom at every part of the growing season. See the Bee Forage list in Appendix 2. Plant species with many small flowers are good for predatory wasps, which attack garden pests. Note what works.
Finding and Filling a Niche: Find or create a niche for each species in a guild, and conversely, survey niches to find the right plant to occupy them.
“The central role of plants in polyculture stems from their rootedness. Once planted, they can only move slowly by incremental growth of by distributing their seeds, tips, or stolons into new territory. So spatial relationships to other species become critical to the design of cultivated environments. This architectural aspect of gardening has visible and invisible components. Up to half of the biomass of most vascular plants, the vast majority of species, lies underground, out of sight.”
Annuals grow from germination to seed production in one year. They are not meant to endure in one place but to succeed to (be replaced by) other species.
Biennials germinate and grow in the first year, then set seed in the second (after a season of dormancy).
Perennials — which can be woody or non-woody, herbaceous, shrubby, tree-like — grow from their roots each year and can live for centuries, some taking years to set seed and some setting seed on an irregular basis. Woody perennials grow a new layer of cambium (the living tissue just below the bark) each year, which means that their stems and branches thicken each year. Each limb takes energy, so plants will abandon limbs to conserve energy to grow cambium; that’s why pruning is a good practice, to divert energy where it’s needed.
Bare soil is an unrealised opportunity, and dangerous.
Section on propagating plants (pp. 234-238), genetic and vegetative methods.
Saving Seeds: Store them dry and cool, in small labelled envelopes. Once dry, store in airtight jars. Most veggie seeds can be stored for several years.
Sprouting seeds: To germinate seeds, don’t let soil dry out. Once sprouted, light misting at least every day and sometimes much more often until in the ground. Potting mix for seedlings: 1/4 garden soil, 1/4 sand, 1/4 vermiculite, 1/4 compost. Add rock phosphate, green sand, and limestone.
Transplanting, rather than planting seeds in outside ground, means no tilling.
Alternate Planting Strategies – direct seeding, broadcasting:
- Direct planting with a dibble stick
- Scratch a furrow
- Plants seeds in soil at depth 4x their diameter, with squash, corn, and beans a little deeper, and garlic, onion sets, and large fruit and nut pits deeper still. Plant tiny seeds like carrots on the surface.
- Can broadcast cover crop seeds: With large seeds, get them high in air so they fall in a scatter pattern. Keep small seeds close to the ground.
- Use seed balls for weedy or brushy areas.
Featured image (top image) is a tiny section of a tomato tasting at a local farmstand in NH, Sept. 2016. Each year they trial and taste-test about 40 varieties of determinate and indeterminate tomatoes.