About me: Iím a native of Coloradoís eastern slope, where the winds screech through at 90 to 125 miles per hour with some regularity.  I was raised in Boulder.  My maternal grandparents were Morgan county farmers who also grew a vegetable garden. My paternal grandmother lived in Ft. Morgan, and grew vegetables and ornamentals.  In Boulder my parents planted a vegetable garden in the shade of a black walnut tree and when the vegetables languished, they blamed poor soil.  Apparently they didnít realize vegetables need at least 6 hours of direct sun, or that black walnut trees exuded a substance that was toxic to the vegetables they wanted to grow. The soil was not to blame.

My home town had no commercial nursery, perhaps due to the strong winds.  I was nearly 30 before I discovered one could wander the aisles of a nursery, learning about shrubs and trees by reading their labels. 

I earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Colorado so long ago it may have preceded the Christian Era.  Over 30 years ago, my husband and I moved to Boise, Idaho, where we bought a house for the large lot, and enjoyed gardening.  I was accredited a Master Gardener then four times an Advanced Master Gardener by the University of Idaho Cooperative Extension Service in Ada County.  Internet dawned, and I found wonderful garden groups to learn more from.  I wrote a weekly  garden column for the Boise, Idaho, daily newspaper, ďThe Idaho StatesmanĒ for 9 years and 10 months before being laid off in August, 2003.

In Spring of Ď99, my foot looked blue, so I went to the emergency room of the local hospital.  I had a femoral artery blood clot, and I ultimately lost my right leg above the knee.  Since Iím older than dirt and not graceful or athletic, I couldnít release my grip on crutches, so gardening seemed unattainable.  My wheelchair wheels sank in soft garden soil, and trying to weed plants sitting in a wheelchair trying to reach ground level was very difficult.   

I heard about another above-knee amputee who gardened in raised beds from the seat of an electric scooter.  Eureka!!!  I looked at various brands, and accidentally picked the best one for my purposes, a Pride Celebrity Victory scooter, top speed 8 mph.  The reason this brand is so great is that the seat swivels, locking at every 45 degree arc.  I can turn 90 degrees, and work facing my raised beds without twisting my torso.  Iím limited only by the size of my feet at how close I can get to the beds. I need smaller feet (one native, the other synthetic) or longer arms.

See the Handicapped Gardening segment for easy way to build raised beds. 


Why do I think gardening is important? My agricultural heroes

© Margaret Lauterbach, 2004

My heroes as I was growing up tended to be storied gardeners: Luther Burbank and George Washington Carver. My maternal grandmother, a farm wife, was proud of the fact that they grew food.  They didn't have a truck farm, but the food they grew was food in bulk, some to nourish beef cattle, some to wind up in bread, and some to make sugar.  In later years they grew thousands of turkeys every year, too. 

That grandmother, born in 1888, did not come from a farm family, as most did in those days, but lived in town. Her father was a carpenter and builder.  She loved to read about the wonderful new foods bred by Luther Burbank (1849-1926).  Burbank, a world-renowned plant breeder, endeavored to improve the quality of plants, so they would increase the world's food supply.  He introduced more than 800 new varieties of plants, including over 200 varieties of fruits, many vegetables, nuts and grains. 

Some of his remarkable fruits were crosses between plums and apricots, such as Pluots,  Apriums and Plumcots.  They're hardy to USDA zone 6, so should be all right here, unless we have a zone 4 winter (below minus 20į F.) as we've had on an average of every ten years.

My grandmother was also very enthusiastic about the wonderful discoveries of uses for peanuts and soybeans found by George Washington Carver (1864-1943).  Born as a slave, his mother was abducted and sold when he was an infant, but he was ransomed by his mother's master.  He worked very hard to obtain an education, and ultimately earned a master's degree from Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University), then was hired as a member of that institution's faculty.  He later taught at Tuskegee. 

He made great strides in breaking the South's dependence on cotton growing, guiding people into growing peanuts.  He found over 300 useful products could be derived from peanuts.  By 1938, peanuts were a $200 million crop, and many of us were addicted to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Of late, I've found another agricultural hero: Nikolai I. Vavilov, geneticist, plant breeder, explorer and administrator. We knew little about him until the end of the Cold War.  His life was built around questions:

Are potatoes grown in Russia afflicted with the same diseases as potatoes grown in Idaho?  How about potatoes grown in Peru? Ireland? Nigeria? Are any of these potatoes similar to or different from wild potatoes?  How? Why is some wheat more productive than other varieties? How do some varieties of wheat shrug off disease? Why do some varieties require more water than others or tolerate more heat?

Curiosity about geographical differences in plants led Vavilov to assemble one of the world's largest collections of seeds and tubers of plants, planning to use them for breeding new strains that would increase food production for humans.  During the 1920s and 1930s he made 100 trips outside his home country of the Soviet Union to access seeds and tubers.  He traveled to 40 countries on five continents in his quest, his trip to the United States in 1932-33 including Idaho.  He assembled, identified and stored these tons of seeds and tubers in what was then the All-Russian Research Institute of Plant Industry in  Leningrad. The Institute has since been named the Vavilov Institute, and Leningrad has been renamed St. Petersburg.

Vavilov worked hard long hours, saying "life is short."  He infused his staff with the same energy and enthusiasm for increasing the world's food supply. 

This energetic activity seemed to come to a halt in 1940, when this brilliant scientist was arrested in one of Stalin's terrible purges.  Arrested for what? It must have been for being a geneticist that a man named Lysenko (who claimed to be a geneticist) wanted out of his way.   Jealousy may have been the motive.  Vavilov's staff, left behind at the Institute, understood the vital importance of preserving this collection of the world's seeds. When the German Army laid siege to Leningrad in 1941, the staff took heroic measures to preserve those irreplaceable treasures. 

During brutally cold weather, the staff burned pieces of furniture and all wood they could scavenge, to keep the precious potatoes from freezing.  The siege dragged on, and the tubers needed to be renewed.  Staff members found soil within the beleaguered city sufficient to grow out the tubers so they wouldn't be lost.  They planted and guarded them in spite of the bursting shells and gunfire.  They had to guard tubers and seeds from starving people and rodents, so they took turns on 24-hour guard duty.  The siege lasted 880 days.

Vavilov's staff, mindful of their charge, died of starvation rather than consume any of the carefully gathered wheat, beans, rice, corn and potatoes that surrounded them.  Nine staff members starved to death.  Alexandr Stchukin, in charge of peanuts, died at his desk.  Others who succumbed, were Georgi Kriyer, Dmitri Ivanov, Liliya Rodina, M. Steheglov, G. Kovalesky, N. Leontjevsky, A. Malygina, and A. Korzun.  In 1943 Vavilov himself died in prison, some reports say he died of starvation, others say malnutrition.

Those accessions have been used to improve the quality, disease-resistance and drought tolerance of  present-day food crops in many parts of the world.  Diversity was revealing is advantages, when a reversal occurred.  The number of species in the world began to shrink.  Seed companies dropped old favorite varieties in favor of their new hybrids.  I've heard that we've lost over 30,000 varieties of vegetable seeds alone to extinction.  Once they're gone, they're gone.

We must remember that our agriculture is monocultural, a situation defeating of diversity.  We have a field of corn, not a field of corn, potatoes, beans, Mashua, ocas, squash and amaranth.  We have not only one field of corn, but field after field of the same variety of corn.  If that variety is susceptible to a disease, it afflicts every field.

The trend in the agriculture world today is for fewer and fewer varieties.  That means less diversity.  Word gets around that HugeCrop wheat really produces, and every wheat farmer for miles around grows HugeCrop wheat. Many of our seeds are hybrids, and plant breeders jealously guard the identities of progenitors of their varieties. And so they should.  Unfortunately, we came very close to losing sweet corn as a crop or food in the early '70s because a progenitor used by all or nearly all of the seed companies was susceptible to a disease that reared its ugly head about that time.

When something like that happens, botanists rush to sources that are resistant to that disease. Often those sources are the wild versions of the plant in question.  If there are no wild versions left, there may not be any that are resistant to disease.  Then we have mass elimination of crops, and extinction. 

Now we have another peril: contamination of natural and wild crops by genetically-modified (GM) plants.  Crossing of GM with natural plants by windborne pollen has already shown itself to be a problem.  In 2001 scientists found DNA from genetically modified crops in wild maize (corn) growing in remote mountains in Mexico.  Wind would not have carried pollen that far.  One of the researchers theorized that someone had planted GM corn meant as food aid and the pollen from those plants tainted the wild corn. 

Mexico and central America not only contain the wild versions of corn such as Teosinte, but also landraces, varieties established by farmers saving seeds from particular types of corn and growing them out and selecting year after year.  One variety produces ears that are three feet long. 

Ignacio Chapela and David Quist of the University of California, Berkeley, found a gene from the cauliflower mosaic virus, often used as a vector in genetic engineering, in the wild corn, and caused an uproar when they announced it to the world.  The theory that someone had planted food aid corn (genetically modified) was the most likely way it got into that area.  Fear of people planting food aid GM corn has caused Zambia to refuse shipments of corn from the U.S. in 2002.  Citizen groups in Bolivia, Guatemala and Nicaragua have also refused food gifts of GM corn.

Following publications of the findings of contamination by Chapela, he was initially denied tenure. He was an assistant professor at UC Berkeley.  That tenure application would have been assessed by peer faculty, who may or many not have salary-supplementing funds from the biotech firms involved in genetic manipulation of food crops.  Those that did not have grants from biotech companies may have hoped to get such grants in the future. That extra money from grants is tantamount to prostitution of the faculty, and it's a reality in all sciences, not just agriculture.  (For instance, finding a geologist who would testify against an oil company when there was a major oil spill years ago off the coast of California was a very difficult task. )

Ralph Haygood, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said on Earthwatch Radio, mathematical models of how pollen moves between populations of plants showed domestic plants could permanently alter wild populations within a few decades.  "One of the major arguments for preserving biodiversity, in my judgment, is simply that we're losing a lot of things we don't understand.  We don't know how valuable they might be from a number of perspectives."


All of the food we humans consume, except for fish, shellfish and seaweed, ultimately derives from seeds or other germplasm such as tubers. Cattle eat grasses, the grasses are propagated by seeds.

Unless those seed-produced foods come from hydroponic setups, theyíre all grown in soil. More than one teenager has told me "No thanks, I donít want something grown in dirt. Iíll get my food from the supermarket." Telling them that supermarket foods are grown in dirt and washed evokes a skeptical look and a disappearing act.

There are many thousands of plants in the world, but human foods of whatever culture you look at, tend to be based on less than 200 different plants. About 50% of human foods come from wheat and rice, both domesticated about 8 or 9,000 years ago, and corn, domesticated in Central America at least hundreds of years ago.

Look at a globe some time, at that swath that lies between 30 and 40̊ latitude, stretching from southeastern China to the Black Sea and the northern coast of Turkey. Itís roughly the Silk Road. This area has pretty much the same growing conditions from one end to the other, so plants were swapped intentionally or by force, along the entire length, giving the whole area a head start on food domestication. Rice was first gathered in its wild state in China, and wheat in the fertile triangle (a little south of the main swath Iíve described, but not far).

Hunter-gatherers were able to settle in one place, raise their own food-bearing plants and domesticate animals. Some of those wild plants escaped gathering, and continued to grow in place.

During the 1920s, Dr. Nikolai Vavilov convinced the Soviet Union to let him go forth and collect seeds and germplasm from remote areas of the world, with an eye to feeding a growing population of humans. From an affluent family, he was well-educated in genetics before the communist revolution, and apparently ignored political realities to pursue his quest of building a large seed repository that would serve plant breeders.

He made more than 100 trips outside the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s, gathering seeds and tubers. Some spindly poor type of wheat might (and did) prove valuable some day in genetically resisting a devastating wheat disease.

Scientists in other parts of the world came to admire him, and began to emulate his work. Seed repositories were started in most countries, but famine and war destroyed many. Remember, seeds are food. In case of famine, many people would eat the gathered seeds to avoid starving.

Not Vavilovís people. During the two and a half year siege of Leningrad by the Nazis, many citizens starved to death, including 11 of Vavilovís employees in the seed repository. They also found space within the city to grow out germplasm that would not last without being grown. Potato tubers, allium seeds and the like were planted and guarded 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from human and rodent predation. The seeds in the repository were similarly guarded, and furniture burned to keep tender seeds from freezing.

As for Vavilov himself, a crackpot named Lysenko convinced the Soviet hierarchy that he was the one true geneticist, and Vavilov an imposter. Vavilov was jailed, and after two or three years, he died in prison. Some say he died of malnourishment, others say he died of starvation.

Afghan botanists gathered seeds, and stored them in jars, carefully labeling them as to location, climate conditions (had they survived drought, for instance), proximity of given disease, and similar definitions of this seed.

When the U.S. and their allies attacked the Taliban in Afghanistan, someone broke into the seed repository and said "Hey, jars!" and poured seeds onto the floor, taking the jars and lids with them. One official said it was like having a library of books without titles. One carrot seed looks like another, although one may produce round roots, another long tapered ones.

Similar mishaps have occurred in other countries too.

So what? We have lost some seeds. Canít we go back and harvest more?

For some crops we can, but for others probably not.

Pollen from genetically-manipulated plants has contaminated plants in very remote places in the world. By genetically manipulated or genetically engineered, I mean plants that have been altered by the human addition of a gene or bacterium from another species or genus. That gene or bacterium then infuses the entire plant.

University of California assistant professor Ignacio Chapela and a graduate student discovered genetic manipulation markers or identifying substances in wild maize in the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca mountains, 62 miles from the nearest industrially-farmed crops. BBC

They wrote and published a paper on their alarming finding, causing three things to happen: 1. Mexico sent out teams to find the extent of GM contamination in that country,

2. Monsanto, Bayer and Novartis/Syngenta, multinational seed/pharmaceutical companies, were put on notice to gather defense materials, and defenders of the GM faith, and 3. Chapela was denied promotion and tenure.

As an aside, the University of California administers all grants given to its faculty and charges the grant 50% of its total for that administration. Itís very profitable, and the U has a sizeable bank account as a result, from which the University had to draw when then Governor Reagan slashed funds so drastically to keep itself in business. Thus the University has a vested interest in not offending granting organizations such as the multinational seed companies/pharmaceutical houses.

Mexican authorities found GM corn in 9 states: Chihuahua, Morelos, Durango, Mexico State, Puebla, Oaxaca, San Luis Potosi, Tlaxcala and Veracruz. How did GM corn get there? The theory was that GM corn sent as food was planted instead by individuals receiving the corn, then the pollen containing the alien gene, of course, blew into wild stands. Fear of such an outcome may explain why Zambia refused U.S. food aid when so much of its population was starving.

What I found shocking was one of the GM corns discovered was the variety called Starlink, prohibited for human consumption in the U.S. and now off the market. The other contaminations were BT to kill corn earworms and a strong bacterium that would resist glyphosate application (or Roundup).

The world nearly lost sweet corn as a food in the 1970s. Most sweet corn grown is hybridized, and proprietors of those varieties are secretive about the combinations of parentage that goes into those hybrids. They have a right to do so, to protect their investment in breeding that variety.

Unfortunately a disease appeared that targeted a certain variety of corn, and that variety turned out to be one of the progenitors of most of the sweet corn hybrids in the world. They couldnít stop the disease until they found a resistant gene. That was a close call for roastiní ears.

Corn is not the only crop at risk. About 80 % of the U.S. soybean crop is genetically engineered to tolerate sprays of Roundup. Unless youíre allergic to soybeans, you probably donít know how many foods contain some soy. And odds are, itís a genetically-engineered soy.

There are tons of information available on Internet about the dangers of genetically-modified food crops, but my emphasis here is on seeds. Cotton, rapeseed (from which Canola oil

is pressed), strawberries, and tomatoes have been genetically manipulated. A flounder gene was injected into tomatoes to improve their tolerance of frost.

Wheat is next, being grown in this country now.

China is going to introduce GM rice in that country in a very large way. They plan to increase the harvest by 66 billion pounds per year, enough to feed 70 million more people. (PBN)Those pushing GM methods have injected vitamin A into rice, and hailed it as a cure for a form of blindness common in parts of Asia. Eat the food, heal the body. Dream on.

One would have to eat over two and a quarter kilograms of that rice to reach the MDR of vitamin A, but even if one were to eat that much rice, there are two problems. One, the diner would probably not be able to eat the other food that would fill out his nutrient requirements, and two vitamin A requires fat for digestion, and rice is very poor in fat, so the vitamin would probably be lost anyway.

Meanwhile, those countries who lost good agricultural land to the recent devastating tsunami will receive rice seed that tolerates salty soil from the International Rice Research Institute. Out of 100,000 strains of rice, there are 40 that are salt tolerant. A few years ago, a disease called "grassy stunt virus" reduced grain yields, substituting tufts of yellowing foliage instead of green seed-bearing plants. They searched 17,000 varieties of rice before finding one that was resistant to that virus.

Potatoes have been injected with the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, to kill larvae of Colorado potato beetles. Andean farmers have tried to protect the potatoes theyíve raised and selected to plant over centuries from contamination and from being co-opted by the huge seed companies. Indigenous people there do not plan to patent those unique varieties; thatís not in their culture. But the huge seed companies will. Theyíve already patented the popping beans called "NuZas."

Andean farmers were outraged, but seed companies have their work cut out making NuZas commercially viable. The beans only flower and produce during short daylight days (i.e., winter in our hemisphere), and theyíre tender to frost. I hope they succeed. I canít tolerate popcorn hulls....

The multi-national pharmaceutical houses/seed companies, that are shrinking in number, next have their eyes on "biopharming." That is, growing medicines. If it works, it could result in lower costs for medicines (provided the pharmaceutical houses pass along savings to the customer), but what if that cropís pollen contaminates other crops and passes that medicine along?

You could be ingesting medicine to control pig diarrhea the next time you bite into an ear of corn. Or ingesting antibiotics, having an allergic reaction or rendering your body immune to its beneficial effects . Good luck if you ever need that antibiotic.

Pollen can be distributed by wind or insects, seeds stuck in machinery and transported, or float in water. In Colorado theyíre counting on isolation of 600 feet between a biopharm crop and a crop of human-edible corn.

Again, the seed is too contaminated for its original use, but you canít tell whatís wrong with it by looking at it. Therein lies part of the problem. The FDA and EPA use a standard of "substantial equivalence:"

Stated simply, substantial equivalence holds that a biotech food is as safe to consume as an existing food with the same compositional and nutritional characteristics and a history of safe use

In other words, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and acts like a duck, it is a duck.

You may have heard of Terminator Technology, a term coined by the Rural Advancement Foundation for the patent granted to a very large cotton seed company AND the United States Department of Agriculture. That technology would permit the crop to grow to seed bearing status, but the seed would be infertile unless a trigger were activated. In that case the trigger was tetracycline, as I recall. Isnít enough of that in the atmosphere, is there?

They said they werenít going to use that commercially, at least not right away.

The aim of that kind of patent is to force farmers to buy new seed from this company or that company each year. Can Third World farmers do that? No, they canít afford it. Is it good for the crop or the people or the world that the farmer buys the same seeds from the same company each year? No. Farmers usually select the best-performing seeds from a given crop and replant those, in time building a new variety or landrace.

Cargill, a large seed company absorbed by a larger company, gave farmers in India free seeds for a few years, just long enough to make the seeds they had saved from their previous crops no longer viable. Farmers planted their own seeds, they didnít germinate, and Cargill sucked up bankrupt farm after bankrupt farm. Many farmers committed suicide. I donít think that company dares do business in India any longer.

I donít know whether this is coincidental or not, but it is not legal anywhere in the European Union to sell any seed that has not been entered on a central register. It costs about $3,000 to register a variety plus $750 per year to keep it on the list. Heirloom seeds seldom are listed because of that exorbitant cost. Seed companies will list their hybrids though.

As most of us know, hybrid tomatoes are bred for withstanding shipping. Theyíre like little green cannon balls just waiting to be sprayed with ethylene spray so theyíll turn red.

And young people will pick them up in the supermarket, go home and slice them for sandwiches because theyíre wet and mild.

What can you do about this disappearing diversity of seeds? For one thing, ask your Congresspeople to enact laws protecting farmers from wind-blown pollen. Monsanto has hired "guns" traveling around the country, looking for "illegal" fields of GM crops. Then they sue. The only state I know of that has passed laws protecting farmers in this regard is Vermont.

For another, look for the "safe seed pledge" in any seed catalog youíre considering ordering from. Those that have signed the safe seed pledge include Baker Creek Heirloom

Seeds, Johnnyís Selected Seeds, Native Seeds/SEARCH, Nichols Garden Nursery, Seed Savers Exchange (public catalog), John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and Territorial Seed Co., for example. The pledge is that none of these companies will knowingly buy or sell seeds that have been genetically manipulated.

Notice they adhere to that pledge is usually opposite the order page or on pages 2 or 3 of their catalog. ##