Why I’m planting high-tech in my garden

April 30, 2009 at 10:08 pm


The early spring planting season is upon us in Colorado, and I’ve been picking out seeds and starting plants for the ever expanding container garden and community garden plot. I’ve been learning a lot each growing season, and the major lesson that I learned last year: Plant hybrids. Lots of them.

Judging from the Burpee Catalog, garden stores, and plant centers which I visited this year, it seems most garden plants and seeds can be separated into four broad categories: Heirlooms, Organics, Hybrids and Unknowns. Heirloom plants are “older” genetic varieties, usually plants or seeds grown before industrial agriculture. Organic seeds are simply certified by government agencies to be the product of plants that are grown organically.

Organics and heirlooms have been growing in popularity in the last few years. When I started my garden, I devoted myself to cultivating only heirloom plants, if I could, and grew them with classic organic gardening techniques. The typical arguments for these older varieties include keeping genetic diversity alive, that the older types of produce taste better than newer varieties, and that heirloom plants have adapted over time to be resistant to local pests, diseases, and weather extremes.

Last summer, I learned that these arguments are, mostly, not applicable in Colorado. Let’s take, for instance, my problems with heirloom tomatoes. The first major issue is that there are no real heirloom varieties of tomatoes in Colorado. Colorado is not a friendly climate in which to grow tomatoes, and, as far as I’ve found, no tomato was traditionally grown in Colorado before industrialized agriculture. While we do get a lot of sun on the Front Range, our soils are sandy, our weather is very dry, our insects are ravenous, and our nights are cold.

For two summers I have devoted myself to coaxing heirloom tomatoes to life in my garden, and I have managed to over- and under-water them constantly, had them eaten whole by huge grasshoppers and little flea beetles, and watched the tomatoes sit green on the vines for the entire (short) growing season.

Yes, it’s frustrating. And for what? To keep genetic diversity? If my tomatoes never ripen, I’m not getting any new seeds to move on to the next generation. Because they taste better? Actually, the new garden hybrids I tried last summer tasted much better than the heirlooms. Because they’re better at resisting local pests? Not at all. In the end, I can’t justify the time, expense, energy and effort required to get a few heirloom tomatoes (or beans, or melons) off of fragile, dying plants, when I could get so much more food, and tastier food, from the new hybrid plant varieties.

So, this summer I’m avoiding any plant or seed labeled as “heirloom,” and that’s a hard and fast rule. Instead, I’ve invested in seeds and plants engineered for the lazy gardener in a harsh climate. These hybrids have been engineered to be very hardy, much higher producing (more veggies per plant), and very tasty in the garden. I’m buying piles of seeds to grow plants that are resistant to heat and cold, resistant to over- and under- watering, and producing tons of extremely good food. Because life is hard for plants in my mountain garden, and if I want tasty eats, I have to go high-tech.

What do you think? Are you devoted to heirlooms in your garden, or feel they have been over-hyped? Do you think engineering plants for a lazy gardener is a good idea or dangerous? Do fast-growing beans and seedless tomatoes make you excited about the newest developments in garden genetics or scare the begeebies out of you?

Hiking to Hanging Lake

April 20, 2009 at 7:41 pm

On Monday morning we had to pack up and head home. The weather in the mountains was beautiful, but I was feeling grouchy and a little depressed about going back to “real life.” After picking fights with both TJ and Mark for no reason, and then having a little emotional breakdown, I pulled the car off the highway and decided that a hike sounded good. We all needed a few more hours in the mountains, and another dose of endorphins (some of us more than others).

Trail is difficult! I'm ready to hike.

There’s pictures from the hike in the gallery.

We knew next to nothing about this trail. I’d seen signs for it as we drove through Glenwood Canyon, and one of our neighbors had declared the Hanging Lake trail to be his favorite in the entire state of Colorado. So we read all of the signs at the rest stop, and figured out that the trail started around the corner, was 1.2 miles long and rose in elevation from 6,XXX and 7,102 ft (as was written on the sheet of paper at the trailhead). We packed up water, cameras and lunches and headed out for the hike.

TJ and Mark climb the rocks and steps to the high lake

The trail was steep and rocky, but well maintained. The last 0.3 miles of the trail were covered in ice and snow. And the last few feet were very steep climbing up a blocky ledge system. Once over the ridge and on top of the canyon, you pop out and get your first view of the lake.

Waterfalls into Hanging lake

The lake sits high above Glenwood Cayon, filled with crystal clear water, surrounded by waterfalls running with spring snow melt, and crowned by granite cliffs. The lake is so beautiful, that planners re-routed the interstate though two tunnels rather than disturb the spot. We loved sitting next to this clear alpine lake on the sunny and beautiful afternoon. I ran around taking pictures of the waterfalls, and TJ and Mark watched trout in the deep, clear lake dart out of the shadows and eat insects off the surface.


We spent a quiet hour next to the lake, eating our lunches, and getting just a little more sunburnt. The hike out was quick and we were back in the car, driving though the mountains in what seemed like no time. Everybody was definitely feeling better.

Mountain Biking in Fruita, Part 2

April 19, 2009 at 7:52 pm

On Sunday morning, we were sore. 15 miles in the saddle the day before was rough. But TJ was excited and we still had a full day to enjoy the fine trails around Fruita. So, we ate breakfast slowly, and then headed north to the 18 Road trails.

Photos from the day are up in the gallery.

Nice markers on every trail junction

These trails run up and down the bottom edge of one of the large, sandy mesas north of town. While they don’t climb to the top of any mountains, the long, gradual downhills and uphills in the area make for some fun and hard rides. Plus other trails run over the ridges of petrified sand dunes, with steep drops and roller-coaster like single track.

We started up the road, getting the kinks worked out of our legs and the feeling drained back out of our sore butts. Eventually, we met up with Western Zippity, a “green” trail, and rode the 1 mile until it connected with the Frontside trail, a more difficult route.

Google Earth view of the 18 road rides

Along the Frontside trail, you can hook up with any number of expert, scary looking trails. We ended up riding past all of them, having fun on the rolling single track until we met up with the parking lot at the north end of 18 Road. From there, we all agreed to try Kessler’s Run back to the car. This was a great plan.

TJ flies down Kessler's Run on his third trip

Kessler’s Run was the best trail of the whole weekend. We flew down this whoop-di-woop trail, riding up and down an arroyo on the long downhill from the edge of the book cliffs to the trailhead: 2 miles and 500 feet below. We rode sooo fast and had soooo much fun.

When we got back to the car, we ate snacks and drank gatorade, and decided to do it again. This time, we rode straight up 18 road and right back down Kessler’s. I was pretty tired after this 4 mile jaunt, but TJ and Mark decided to do it one more time. So I drove them up the road and met them with the car back at the trailhead, 2 miles down the hill.

Campsite 45 is pretty great at night

It was a great day, and an incredibly fun, fun ride. We logged another 16 miles even with the sore legs. We headed back to town and dropped off TJ’s rental. Next up were showers for $5 at the Fruita Fitness center, and finally, we chowed down on more pizza. In the evening, we played Fluxx for hours, and messed around with long exposure pictures of the lights of town so far below our lovely campsite.

Mountain Biking in Fruita, Part 1

April 18, 2009 at 8:22 pm

The prelims are over, and I survived (and passed)! The day after the oral exam, we packed up our gear and headed west to the desert with my little brother TJ.

Now we're having fun!

There’s pictures from our weekend up in the gallery!

Friday we drove, through a huge snowstorm, over the mountains and out to the western edge of Colorado. Where the mountains meet the desert and the big Colorado river starts carving its way through red sandstone. Fruita is a small town, west of Grand Junction, that has developed a huge system of great mountain biking trails and a great community of riders.

Mark hikes a bike up a narrow section of trail

We spent the weekend camping at the Colorado National Monument, which is perched on top of a mesa south of Fruita. The camping is expensive at $10 a night, but there’s water available, nice bathrooms, picnic tables and charcoal grills. Plus the views are absolutely incredible. Pretty lux, all around.

Saturday we geared up after breakfast and decided to try and find some easier trails to get our groove back. We headed west to the Kokopeli Trailhead, and rode a few of the loop trails in the area.

We ended up riding almost 15 miles on Saturday, over beautiful trails, some fast and fun, some slow and technical, some scary and exposed. It was a beautiful day, a lot of hard riding, and we had a great time. On the map above, we started with the first, smaller loop on the east side, called Wrangler’s loop. This was a little hard for us at first, even though it was graded “green.” But after about 3 miles, we got our legs back, and had huge fun on a fast, long, downhill section of the trail.

Much “WOO-HOO”-ing commenced.

TJ with the wheelies!!

We then set out on the bigger loop – starting with Mary’s Loop, a “blue.” This was fun, but harder. The views were gorgeous, and we worked our way out into the desert. We stopped for lunch at the “Pizza” overlook, where an aid station was helping runners on a 50 mile trail running race. We ate a snack and relaxed for a while, then decided to head down Steve’s loop.

This was a steeper, but very fun trail. It dropped down a steep hill to near the river, and then winds back around some awesome slot canyons. We picked up Handcuffs to get out of the canyon – rated a “black diamond” it was steep and slow going, but we made it out and back to the car. Happy, exhausted, a little sunburnt and ready for pizza and an afternoon nap. In the evening we enjoyed some sight-seeing in the National Monument, endorphins, night steaks, and Fluxx.

Looking back at the steep, technical, exciting Mary's Loop trail

Kate’s kinda busy right now…

April 8, 2009 at 9:16 am

Ding Ding Ding, the starting bell has rung for… PhD Entry Exams!

Let the PhD Commence!
Kate has submitted a proposal. Written Exams commence… NOW… and oral exams commence next week. Katy is going to be extremely busy.

Good luck Katy, you are totally going to kick ass.

This means for the next two-ish weeks, I am your blogger-extraordinaire. I suspect that when Katy does take a break it will be to do a quick tweet (click to check up on her).

To our faithful readers, you can expect picture-deficient blog entries about off-topic rubbish. Me? Blog? My magic 8-ball says “outlook poor”. Let’s give it a try anyway…

Cooking! (book review)
I have been a little burned out on cooking lately. I kept making the same meals over and over. When asked to make a menu, I’d get just a little bit depressed as I thought about what protein I was going to pair with what carb plus a veggie… Blah. So, at Katy’s suggestion, I bought a couple new cookbooks. One for the new pressure cooker as well as one from a PBS show I always liked called “America’s Test Kitchen”. Each recipe is made many times in there test kitchen: tweaking the ingredient list, amounts, and procedures until they have a tasty recipe which is quite repeatable.
Inside America's Test Kitchen (book)
In this book you will notice that there are few recipes, but those recipes are bulletproof and fully explained.

For example: Last night I made their Pad Thai and the directions to make perfect rice noodles were spot on. My rice noodles were not a sticky clump!
Hooray! I’m excited about cooking again!

Sports! (but not basketball)
In February, Katy picked up a couple soccer jerseys for me on her way back from Jerusalem and I thought that if I was going to wear them out in public, I had better watch a few games. And to my surprise, after watching a single UEFA Champions League match, I really liked it. And, I figured out why I never liked it before. You have to REALLY pay attention. When I watched with unblinking focus, I was getting nervous/excited as the ball got within striking range of either goal. If I allowed myself to be a little distracted and read some stats on my laptop, it didn’t even phase me when I’d see the goalie carrying the ball away from another saved shot. What was the final score of the match where I discovered that I liked to watch soccer? 1-1.

Go Man U! Manchester United Crest

Yesterday was a heart breaker when Porto scored in the final minutes to tie the score 2-2. As that was a home game for Manchester United, it puts them in a must-win situation for the second leg of the quarterfinals (4/15/2009 Man U vs Porto)

Games? sort of…
I’m also taking a shot at playing Dungeons and Dragons after a 20-year hiatus (you can blame my brother for that). This may be the last mention of it on the blog.

The Big Thaw

April 7, 2009 at 1:56 pm

For the last few weeks I’ve been studying and preparing for my Preliminary Exam, so I’m spending all of my time thinking about clouds and climate. Which, really, isn’t such a bad way to spend time. It’s also springtime in Colorado, so the weekends have been snowy and cold.

While we’re shivering in the mountains, the rest of the climate is going through the typical spring seasonal shift. The sun has risen over one pole and set over the other. The northern hemispheric land masses are beginning their seasonal carbon sequestration. And climatologists are starting to look at changes in sea ice cover.

Two interesting articles went by this week, one from each pole.

In the north, groups studying arctic ice coverage announced that the 2008-2009 winter saw the fifth lowest maximum ice extent since monitoring began in 1979. They also mention that seasonal ice, the sea ice which melts and refreezes each winter, is up from ~50% of all northern sea ice to about 70%.

When I was flying home from Israel last January, we flew into the polar night over Greenland. When the plane flew back into the light of day, we watched the sun “rise” over the arctic sea ice north of Canada. I had the rare opportunity to see the glowing pink light illuminate the beautiful crystalline world below, without any clouds blocking the view. I was surprised to see that the sea ice was not just a blank, white, plain of emptyness, but, even in the depth of winter, it was a patchwork of peaks and valleys, with what looked like ice-rivers flowing around millions of big and little chunks of ice. It really is amazing how dynamic the polar oceans are, even in the deepest freeze.

In the southern hemisphere, the sun set a few weeks ago, and the summer melt season is ending. Satellite groups are reporting on the danger of a possible “imminent breakup” of the rest of a large ice shelf in Antarctica. The pictures (shown above) are really beautiful, and wild. This shelf already lost more than 650 square miles of ice to break-up and calving in the last year (old story with great pics here, new CNN report here). There’s a great and very interesting discussion on the ice shelf over at RealClimate.Org. If you have questions, I can try to answer them, but the ice dynamicists are all over at RealClimate. I highly recommend checking out that site.

According to CNN, the Wilkins Ice Shelf is (or was) about the size of Connecticut. And the largest ice shelf to be threatened so far, that we are aware of.