(Revisiting Ray’s Recommendations)
Image by Keith Weller, USDA ARS

It’s been awhile since I wrote about, or recommended a blog I like which I often use as a source of something to share to The Garden Professors Facebook Page, so I thought I’d revisit the topic this month.

Botanist in the Kitchen was launched in the fall of 2012 by Dr. Jeanne Osnas and Dr. Katherine Angela Preston, evolutionary biologists who also love to cook and were often asked by friends and family to discuss the details about plants during dinner parties.

Add a friend, chef Michelle Fuerst, to provide recipes and there you have it.

Our goal is three-fold: to share the fascinating biology of our food plants, to teach biology using edible, familiar examples, and to suggest delicious ways to bring the plants and their stories to your table. To judge by the questions we are often asked at dinner parties (“What is an artichoke?” “Why is okra slimy?”), some curious eaters genuinely want to know which plant part they are eating and how its identity affects the characteristics of the food.

Dr. Nigel Chaffey, an editor of the Annals of Botany journal and their blog, Botany One coined a cool word (which I’ve stolen) for their mix of plant science and cookery … Phyto-Food-Phylogeny while introducing them to a wider audience …

Plants and food? Tell me more! Well, espousing the view that ‘a person can learn a lot about plants through the everyday acts of slicing and eating them’, The Botanist in the Kitchen ‘is devoted to exploring food plants in all their beautiful detail as plants – as living organisms with their own evolutionary history and ecological interactions’.

I first learned about the blog back in 2015 from an article in Business Insider, linking to their post on the various foods we grow, that were bred from one species of plant …

Brassica oleracea

Six vegetables you can find in any grocery store and which most people eat on a regular basis are actually all from this one plant. Over the last few thousand years, farmers have bred Brassica Oleracea into six “cultivars” that eventually became many of the vegetables we eat …

From the blog post

Some species have undergone the domestication process multiple times, and with some of these species, each domestication effort has focused on amplifying different structures of the plant, producing a cornucopia of extraordinarily different vegetables or fruits from the same wild progenitor. Such is the case with Brassica oleracea. The wild plant is a weedy little herb that prefers to grow on limestone outcroppings all around the coastal Mediterranean region.

So if you enjoy learning about plants we eat, and trying various recipes with them, be sure to follow the Botanist in the Kitchen via email.

Previous posts here on the other blogs I’ve recommended:

Scientific Beekeeping 

Frankenfood Facts

James Kennedy on Chemistry

Ask an Entomologist

Nature’s Poisons


Image courtesy of Plant & Soil Sciences eLibraryPRO at UNL

I was asked by Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott to look up some information in order to answer a recent comment and question on a previous post.

Paraphrased, the question is, “… are there any verifiable “organic” fertilizers that can be guaranteed to be made from 100 percent non-GMO sources.”

First off, let me state up front that the whole “Non-GMO” labeling effort is pure marketing. There is no evidence to suggest products that come from genetically engineered crops are any different than crops made from other plant breeding methods. The body of evidence in fact suggests they are as safe as their conventional counterparts, and have some excellent benefits to farmers and consumers from an economic and environmental standpoint.

Having gotten that disclosure out of the way, and assuming that price is not a factor, it turned out to be an interesting question to answer.

“USDA Certified Organic” fertilizers would be problematic, since there are exceptions to the organic standards, which allow manures fed GE crops to be used.

Similarly, oilseed meals like cottonseed, soybean meal, etc. also can be certified organic, even though they come from genetically engineered crops.

Alfalfa Field image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One possible alternative in that category is alfalfa meal, since genetically engineered alfalfa is currently grown on only 13.5% of alfalfa acreage, whereas in the case of cottonseed, soybean, sugar beet, and corn products, the rate of adoption of genetically engineered crops is well over 90% of U.S. acreage.

Only about 13.5 percent of harvested U.S. alfalfa acreage is genetically modified, compared to more than 90 percent of corn, soybeans, cotton, canola and sugar beets acres, according to a new USDA report that cites 2013 farmer surveys.

It appears likely the percentage of genetically engineered alfalfa will continue rising, though: Roughly one-third of newly seeded acreage planted that year was of a biotech variety resistant to glyphosate herbicides, USDA said.

Farmers have been slower to adopt genetically engineered alfalfa partly because it’s a perennial crop that stays in the ground for roughly five years, said Dan Putnam, an alfalfa extension specialist at the University of California-Davis.

It would be incumbent upon the buyer to ask, however, if the alfalfa meal came from a grower who does not use genetically engineered alfalfa, and whether or not the supplier of the alfalfa meal guarantees that.

Manure, a field in Randers in Denmark. Image courtesy of Malene Thyssen at Wikimedia Commons

“Demeter USA” … the private certifying entity that guarantees “Biodyamic” preparations does require that any manures come from livestock fed only “USDA Certified Organic” feed. So manures that carry that seal should satisfy the question.

As an aside, here is Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott’s literature review of “Biodynamics” and why that certification has little science to recommend it.

Further, finding the product would be difficult, since it is primarily produced on-site at certified Biodyamic farms, and used there.

An underwater shot of a kelp forest. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Next products that might qualify are seaweed, or kelp products. There are no genetically engineered seaweed/kelp products I’m aware of. However, there are real concerns about the sustainability of harvesting seaweed and kelp from the wild.

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott wrote about them here:

The ecological impacts of increased seaweed harvesting are currently under investigation and the possibility of significant ecosystem damage is real.

There is however, some interesting research and startup companies that are farming seaweed and kelp for a variety of potential uses.

I can’t however, find any products available for the home gardener that are sourced from this effort. Still early.

So, when it comes to seaweed/kelp products, you’ll have to (again) ask a reputable supplier to answer the “sustainable” question.

Bat Cave Mine Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In a similar vein, “Bat guano” products would also qualify as “non-genetically engineered”, but the sustainability question also comes into play. How is it harvested? 

I can’t deny that it’s a great fertilizer, but if you want to use an organic fertilizer why not at least consider one that is renewable instead of one that is from a limited resource and which may cause harm to a unique ecological system?

Non edible fish scrap processing … Public Domain image from 1894

Fertilizers made from by-products of the seafood and fish industries, assuming they don’t come from aquaculture farms, since the livestock feed for those operations could be sourced from genetically engineered crops, do have a history.

Two links (there may be others, but these seem sufficient for now), a comprehensive review of products (including fertilizers) from the Alaska seafood industry, put together by Oregon State University

Fish Fertilizer Product Descriptions

Fertilizers are characterized by their Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium content (N-P-K). Therefore all fish material will have some fertilizer value since fish contain protein which is Nitrogen,
the bone contains Phosphorous and the flesh and bone contain Potassium. Generally, fish products are re-allocated to fertilizer use for any number of reasons including quality too poor for feeding, volume too small to convert to fishmeal and oil, and an available agricultural market in the vicinity of the waste material.

And a similar document put together by Michigan State University about the use of fish by-products for other uses.

In an effort to help the Michigan fish processing industry find better solutions to handle fish processing waste materials, a project was initiated to determine the viability of composting fish waste.

Mined Sodium Nitrate (NaNO3) Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons

There is a mineral product called Chilean Nitrate or Nitrate of Soda that is mined from a desert in northern Chile that is allowable for use under the standards for organic production in the U.S. However, it is not allowed for use under Canadian, or international organic standards, and a change to prevent its use under U.S. standards is still pending. Up until 2012, this was the wording for its use.

Sodium nitrate, also known as chilean nitrate, cannot account for more than 20 percent of the N requirements of organic crops in the United States.

Its use is also prohibited by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and most other standards for organic production outside the United States.

After 2012, the 20% restriction was dropped in the U.S.

The expiration of the current notation will effectively mean that sodium nitrate may be used in organic crop production without a specific restriction on the amount used: however, producers must continue to comply with all requirements of the soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standard.

Although the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommended that sodium nitrate become a completely prohibited nonsynthetic substance, the NOP has not issued rule-making to carry out this recommendation as of yet.


A by-product of the poultry industry.  Is it from poultry fed only non-GMO feed?


The final piece of the puzzle can be found (only partly in jest) in Dr. Jeff Gillman’s post about a cheap, locally available source of Nitrogen.

You’d be saving yourself the cost of fertilizer, saving the environmental cost of shipping the fertilizer you might otherwise purchase, saving water, and you’d have something unique to tell your gardening friends about.  Win – win situation as far as I’m concerned.

In summary, I don’t buy into any of the fear-based marketing of products that come from genetic engineering. There may be (at this time) sources of alfalfa meal that do not come from genetically engineered sources.

Biodynamic manures certified by Demeter USA require that the animals be fed only “USDA Certified Organic” feed, but will be difficult to come by. Seaweed/Kelp and Bat guano products would qualify, but have major sustainability questions about them. Lots of potential with seafood/fish by products, and finally … a personal possible solution.

Many thanks to Emanuel Farrow, a consultant to both conventional and organic farmers, who helped point me in the right direction and provided important fact checking expertise for this post.

A Resilient Citrus Tree Rebounds


Sad Citrus

The last two winters have been pretty brutal on my citrus trees.  Their winter home is the enclosed, but unheated, south facing entrance foyer.  Usually, this is a perfect spot.  Sunny, and with temperatures usually in 45-60 degree range.  But when the polar vortex brought record cold to the Mid Atlantic region back in February, they were hit hard, and I had my doubts that this 13 year old specimen would survive.


Happy Citrus

But it bounced back pretty well, after a season in the sun, so I figured it should be rewarded … I’d give it a new home, replacing its split container … and document the process here.


Prep Area


Drainage Holes Drilled


Whew! No Pebbles in the Bottom!


Rescued Parsley


Uh Oh, The Dreaded Circling Root.


Snip Snip


Wood Chip Mulch, of Course


Voila!  Ready to Move Inside


Mitchella repens … Partridge Berry … an Evergreen Native Groundcover for Shade


Partridge Berry in its Natural Setting

One of the questions that came up regularly when I was working the hotline at the local county Extension office, is a recommendation for an evergreen ground cover for shady spots.  I had the same issue when I created my own shade garden … something that would have year round interest, but complement my desire to emphasize native species, although that was only one consideration.

The solution was literally right next to me, as a walk in my woods revealed with the lovely plant Partridge Berry, or Mitchella repens.

Not only is Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens ) beautiful, evergreen, shade-loving, and native to Eastern North America, but there’s also a fascinating aspect about its flowers and fruit, from a botanical, and evolutionary point of view.

According to the U.S. Forest Service Celebrating Wildflowers website, the “… genus name Mitchella was given to this plant by Linnaeus for his friend John Mitchell, a physician who developed a method of treating yellow fever. The species name repens refers to its trailing or creeping habit.”


Here’s the part I found fascinating: The plant is dimorphous, meaning “occurring in two forms”:

In late spring, two beautiful white flowers (with one calyx) each open their four petals to entice insects to collect their nectar. Each blossom has one pistil and four stamens. The pistil in one is short and the stamens are long. In the other it is just the opposite. … Because of this no flower can fertilize itself–all flowers must be cross-pollinated by insects, and both flowers must be pollinated to get a single healthy berry. A berry will stay on the vine until after the blooms appear in the spring unless a hungry bird finds it nestled among the fallen winter leaves.

How cool is that?  The twin flowers produce, together, only one berry.


Here’s a closeup, where you can see residual evidence of the fusion.  The berry is edible, and persists through the winter, assuming it is not consumed by “ruffed grouse, northern bobwhite, sharp-tailed grouse, and prairie chicken.

The fruit is also “frequently eaten by raccoons and red fox” and it has been reported that “partridgeberry made up 2.9 to 3.4 percent (dry weight) of the summer and fall diets of white-tailed deer.”


Here’s a picture of the two flowers in bloom.

It’s easiest to spot the plant in its natural setting while hiking in late Fall, or early Winter before snowfall, or early Spring after snowmelt.

Back to the Forest Service article:

Some gardeners consider Partridge Berry a must for winter gardens. During the cold days of late winter Partridge Berry is a treat to the eyes with its deep, dark-green leaves and occasional scarlet berries. In a garden setting this evergreen prefers shade, accepting the morning sun. Partridge Berry is extremely difficult to propagate from seed.

The best way to introduce this native into your garden is through 1 year old cuttings or by division. In the garden situation they will form a thick, substantial ground cover. Once established they are relatively trouble free with the only required maintenance of keeping garden debris from covering the mats.

As always, do not wild collect plants from public lands and only from private lands when the landowner grants permission. Partridge Berry is a commonly available plant from native plant nurseries especially those who specialize in woodland plants.

I love the symmetrical variegation in the evergreen leaves, a bright, light yellow line bisecting each leaf, and the delicate, less visible veins.

It’s a great alternative to Vinca, an introduced species from Europe that appears on invasive species lists in our area.

A Google search will reveal many potential on-line sources for buying Partridge Berry plants, or check with a local nursery, or independent gardening center in the native plant section.

Confessions of a Lazy Gardener


I admit it.  I can’t keep up … I’m not as industrious as most of my gardening friends are when it comes to the effort necessary to manage my 6 acre landscape.

It can get overwhelming, especially when there are previous beds that came with the property that had been neglected for 10 years or more by the elderly lady who owned the property before us, and where perennial weeds are well established.

I make a valiant effort in the Spring, with all the enthusiasm of the new season to clean them up … dig the perennial weeds … plant something new (usually a division, or a naturally layered specimen, from elsewhere, or one shared from friends), but by mid-July or so, I have to redirect my efforts to the places that I’ve created … the shade garden … the rock (mostly sedum) garden … mulching the new trees and shrubs, and of course my tomatoes, so these previous places don’t get the attention they deserve.

But then again, some surprisingly beautiful, and beneficial results can happen in spite of (because of?) the neglect …


This is a “pre-me” bed of mostly Japanese Anemone stretching between two arbors, with Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans) (pre-existing), and Climbing Hydrangeas (Hydrangea anomala) (me added), anchoring each end.

The Goldenrod (Solidago) and White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima I think) now dominate, along with Sweet Autumn Clematis (C. terniflora), a non-native introduction that appears on watch lists as an invasive species in our area.


Yet look at the insect life.  Scads of hoverflies (some species of Syrphid), who in addition to their role as pollinators as adults, are voracious consumers of aphids in their larval stage.


Scoliid wasp, predatory on Japanese Beetles.

Ailanthus Moth

An Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva aurea), which uses the invasive Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) as its larval source for food.


And my, and most folks favorite these days, honeybees (Apis mellifera)


And if I kept up the weeding of this neglected bed, would there be a self-seeded Hydrangea paniculata available to transplant elsewhere?

So, probably a rationalization to justify my laziness … but looking on the bright side, there can be beneficial results from my neglect.

Ray’s 2015 Tomatoes

I thought I’d share some of the new varieties of tomatoes I’m growing this year, along with some old favorites.

Garden Gem and Blush
Garden Gem and Blush

First up is a picture of a new variety from Dr. Harry Klee’s research at the U. of Florida called Garden Gem, along with Blush from Artisan Seeds.

Garden Gem is a new hybrid, poised to take the fresh market grocery store tomatoes on. Same disease resistance, same shipping quality, but with much improved flavor.  Dr. Klee describes the research at his site:

The first step in a flavor improvement program starts with a simple question: what do people like and what’s in the varieties that people do like? In order to answer this question, we took a giant step back to “heirloom” tomatoes.

Blush has been around for a few years, an open pollinated variety with a great history of breeding, since 8 year old Alex was instrumental in choosing its parent lines.

The year that the cross that created Blush was made, Alex participated in setting up crosses for our annual winter crossing list.  He chose 3 of the 19 crosses to be made that year, after the other 16 had been established (by a PhD-holding plant breeder with big plans).  The striking outcome is that about 90% of the value from that year came from Alex’s 3 crosses.  The progeny from his crosses continue to permeate most everything we are doing.  

Both have something in common in that one of the progenitors for each is a variety called Maglia Rosa.

Note also the meatiness of Garden Gem … I think it will make a great all-purpose variety for the home gardener for canning and sauces, as well as fresh eating.

Another aspect, which you can’t tell very well from the picture of Garden Gem, is the faint yellow striping in the skin, and some later fruits that have a hint of a nipple on the blossom end.

Top Garden Gem Next Maglia Rosa Bottom Green Tiger

Next up, another Garden Gem, followed by Maglia Rosa, and then Green Tiger. See hints of vestigal “nipple” alluded to earlier in the Garden Gem.

Currant Tomato Solanum pimpinellifolium

Cute little feller … a Currant Tomato. Actually, a different, but very close relative, and source of much research and study, since it still grows wild in the Andean mountains … PITA to pick, but great “conversation piece” when used as a garnish. Solanum pimpinellifolium 

We grew these as part of a variety trial a few years back … more for the novelty. But when we did a Brix test that year, it was the highest recorded.

A little odd, since the flavor is not in the least “sweet” … coulda been just more concentrated. Dunno, really.

Aunt Ruby’s German Green Heirloom

Aunt Ruby’s German Green. One of my long term favorites.  It’s a more tangy than sweet heirloom variety that stays green when ripe.

Green Zebra
Green Zebra

Green Zebra … an open pollinated variety bred by Tom Wagner and introduced in 1983 according to Wikipedia.

Green when ripe, and with yellow striping.
Dunno why most of mine this year are exhibiting a lobed shape, rather than perfectly round.

I may have to buy new seeds next year.

Garden Treasure
Garden Treasure

Another hybrid from the research lab of Dr. Harry Klee of the University of Florida. This one is named Garden Treasure.

I don’t have any information about its progenitors, like its companion Garden Gem. 

Beautiful, baseball-sized fruit. Very slight indication of green shoulders, and with the same faint yellow stripe as Garden Gem. Also a heavy fruit, very meaty.

And very good flavor. Pretty good balance between tart and sweet. I can see these being popular with fresh market growers.

I sourced the seeds from Dr. Klee’s efforts by making a small donation to his research program at the University of Florida.  The idea was brought to my attention by his colleague, Dr. Kevin Folta in this blog post.

We can look forward to new, satisfying varieties that merge the best of production traits with the historical successes that delighted the senses. These are new heirlooms, and they open an exciting peek of what is coming in plant genetic improvement.

Here are more details of the story and the individual varieties! I hope you order some seeds and give your feedback to Dr. Klee so he can build your ideas into the future of tomatoes!

I often complained about the flavorless red things that you find in grocery stores, so here was a way to support researchers working to overcome that.

And Dr. Klee is not alone.  Rutgers University went about restoring the old fresh market hybrid varieties that gave “Jersey Tomatoes” their deserved reputation.

Read about Ramapo, Moreton, and a processing tomato at the Rutgers site Rediscovering the Jersey Tomato .

And there are other research programs at Purdue, University of Michigan and Israel conducting similar efforts.  No doubt there are others.

The future of good tasting grocery store, and fresh market tomatoes seems bright.

Scientific Beekeeping

Apis mellifera
Honey bee (Apis mellifera), Courtesy of Charles Sharp at Wikimedia Commons

When I first moved to the country in the late nineties, one of the first things I wanted to do (after establishing several vegetable gardens to indulge my tomato obsession) was to become a beekeeper.

So I took a six week course sponsored by West Virginia University, read the full documentation available from the University of Maryland and Penn State as well as back issues of beekeeping magazines, and checked with some hobby beekeepers in the area.

Unfortunately, at that time, honeybees were being devastated by an invasive species … the Varroa mite (Varroa destructor), and the amount of effort needed to keep colonies free from them discouraged me, and the message I was getting from experienced hobby beekeepers was one of “be prepared”, and “I’m, regretfully, giving it up because of the effort involved.”

Basically … too much work … not something I was willing to commit to.

But I never lost my fascination with them (and other bees and wasps, for that matter.)

Then in 2006, I started hearing about Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, and it was while researching it, that I found the site of Randy Oliver, a biologist who also made his living beekeeping.

The site is Scientific Beekeeping.

From his About tab.

I started keeping bees as a hobbyist around 1966, and then went on to get university degrees in biological sciences, specializing in entomology. In 1980 I began to build a migratory beekeeping operation in California, and currently run about 1000 hives with my two sons, from which we make our livings.

In 1993, the varroa mite arrived in California, and after it wiped out my operation for the second time in 1999, I decided to “hit the books” and use my scientific background to learn to fight back.

The site is not a beginner’s “how to”, but a way to share what he has learned with others:

What I try to do in my articles and blogs is to scour scientific papers for practical beekeeping applications, and to sort through the advice, opinion, and conjecture found in the bee magazines and on the Web, taking no positions other than to provide accurate information to Joe Beekeeper.

(If you’ve been following my blog posts here, then you’ll probably recognize the pattern of places that rise quickly in my judgment, as ones I like)

The site has become my “go to” source for all things related to honeybees, and I recommend it to others who want to stay abreast of the subject.

Scientific Beekeeping