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The Intrepid Homestead

One Family's journey toward a simpler, sustainable, prepared homestead and life

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Open-Pollinated, Heirloom, Organic, or Hybrid – I’m confused!

There can be some confusing information about seeds when choosing to plant a garden. Who would have ever thought there could be so much strong opinion and controversy surrounding the kind of seeds we plant in our gardens! If you’ve shopped for seeds, you may have noticed several terms related to the type and origin of the seeds. These include “heirloom”, “open-pollinated”, “organic”, “hybrid”, and “bio-dynamic”. You might even find some more terms in your shopping!

So what do each of these mean and how do they affect you and your gardening? Let us explain…

Hybrid

Hybrid seeds are those that are derived in the labs of universities or large multi-national corporations. In nature, seed varieties emerge as plants naturally pollinate and the DNA of separate species combine to produce a new species that combine the two. Hybrid seeds are those where that process is purposefully performed in a lab, skipping all the happenstance of nature and replacing it with careful, calculated measures intended to produce a desired result. Furthermore, Hybrid seeds are often created by combining genetic material from species that would not typically combine in nature. This is done to create plants with more favorable characteristics such as color, growing season length, taste,  disease resistance, pest resistance, etc. Because this process occurs in a lab, the typical hybrid result – once grown, is unable to reproduce in kind. Therefore, if one were to keep the seeds of a hybrid variety and plant that seed, the result would not be the same as the parent, but of one of the original contributors of the genetic material of the hybrid seed. This is if the seed grows at all. Oftentimes, these are sterile, or have been “programmed” by the producers to not be able to reproduce.

GMO or Genetically Modified Organism

GMO seeds are those that have been engineered in a lab in such a way that genetic material is modified to produce a certain result. It would be fair to say that all GMO seeds are hybrid seeds, but not all hybrid seeds are GMO. In some cases, the genetic modifications simply mimic nature’s process but in a matter of weeks rather than millennia. Other GMO seeds are far more concerning and at times combine even non-plant genetic material with plant material to produce “super plants” that are resistant to pests and diseases and in some cases even produce their own pesticide! GMO seeds are hybrid and therefore cannot reproduce in kind. It is this family’s opinion that many GMO seeds should be avoided because of the “frankenseed” nature of them. These seeds may contain genetic material that would not normally be found in foods consumed by humans.

Heirloom

Heirloom seeds are simply seeds that are not mass-produced or engineered by large multi-national corporations, but rather come from the slower, manual process of individuals and families preserving the seeds of their best crops over time. . These seeds have been chosen from seasonal crops over many years or decades because of their unique and positive attributes.  Technically, these seeds are not necessarily “open-pollinated” because a farmer of gardener could have manually pollinated their plants in a greenhouse or field for the desired result. Nevertheless, heirloom seeds were produced under circumstances that are harmonious with the natural order of the plant world.

Open-Pollinated

Open-pollinated means that the plant has naturally pollinated in nature without human interruption in a lab. These are varieties that emerged by chance “as the wind blew” genetic material from one variety to another.

Organic

Organic seeds are those that were grown under organic growing conditions and have met the requirements for considering seeds to be certifiably organic. This usually means that the seeds were produced in an environment free of harmful pesticides or chemicals. Some would debate the impact this has on seeds themselves since the resulting plant would not necessarily be effected by the environment in which it’s parent was created. However, others would argue that the DNA of such plants could be damaged or unfavorable altered by being produced under such conditions. In general organic seeds are non-GMO and usually non-hybrid but open-pollinated varieties as well. If you plant these seeds, keep the resulting plant’s seed and re-plant it, you’ll get the same variety of plant. It doesn’t make your plant or garden “organic” all by itself . You’d still have to maintain organic conditions and processes to do so. That’s the topic for another blog – not this one 🙂

Biodynamic

According the wikipedia.. Biodynamic agriculture…

“is a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants and animals as a self-nourishing system without external inputs insofar as this is possible given the loss of nutrients due to the export of food. As in other forms of organic agriculture, artificial fertilizers and toxic pesticides and herbicides are strictly avoided.

Biodynamic seeds are those that were created under such conditions and/or are intended for those wishing to plant the seeds under such conditions. Usually, this means that the seeds have been certified to be Biodynamic by organizations that define and maintain the standards for such. Most gardeners will not need to concern themselves with using certified biodynamic seeds unless they’re looking to start or maintain a certified biodynamic garden. This is not the interest of the average gardener, but usually a commercial pursuit.

Which is best to use?

We’ve been asked this question plenty of times. There’s no single answer to this question. As a family, we  endeavor to use organic, heirloom, open-pollinated seeds. We do so because we want seeds that were not created in a lab by those driven by profits. We also want to be able to save seeds from year to year in order to maintain a sustainable food production system. However, doing this carries some risk. In general, hybrid seeds are often going to produce higher yields and more resistance to pests and disease than most open-pollinated varieties.

Growing food can be similar to investing in the stock market, some (like us) want a balanced “portfolio” of produce that maximizes reward and minimizes risk. Therefore,  because we try to grow large volumes of our own food, a portion of our planting is often hybrid seed. We still try to avoid most GMO seeds. We choose this mix (at the moment) in order to get more return on our labors and less risk of loss. Were we to plant all open-pollinated varieties, or even single varieties of hybrid seeds, we’d be vulnerable to loss if a pest or weather pattern wreaked havoc on our crop.  However, our “emergency” seed supplies are entirely open-pollinated should we ever need to use them. No matter what you plant, consider planting a variety of the same fruit or vegetable. This minimizes risk and can also provide more enjoyable result.

Conclusion

People garden for a number or reasons. The choice of what seed to grow should be based on the reasons one gardens, the desired outcome, and the convictions of the gardener. We garden to grow our own sustainable food. We also don’t care for the immoral and deceitful business practices of some of the companies who produce hybrid and GMO seeds. We choose what we choose for our environment. At the end of the day, you must make your choices based on your needs. Take the time to learn more about the seeds you buy no matter what kind you decide to use. By doing so, you’ll become a healthier, wiser, and better gardener.

Our principles for emergency preparedness

The following are some principles that we’ve learned, pondered, and/or developed in the area of preparing for the unexpected – particularly for disasters or long emergencies. It’s not a complete list and we’re likely to update it as often as new principles begin to emerge in our thinking.

Fear Not
Fear leads people to make stupid, knee-jerk decisions (believe us, we’ve done it often). Fear will lead you to making poor decisions, secure the wrong resources, not to mention, cause you unnecessary anxiety. Emergency preparedness should not be fueled by fear, but by a sound mind set on wanting to sustain a flourishing lifestyle despite what’s happening in the world –  even in adverse circumstances.

When not If
Plan on a disaster or emergency happening in your lifetime. That might sound apocalyptic or dystopian, and some approach this topic from this point of view. The rest of us think it’s just good sense. Do you keep jumper cables in your car? If so, why? Because it’s reasonable to expect that some day, your car or someone else’ won’t properly start. Planning for disaster or long emergency stems from the same understanding on a larger scale. Instead of you car not starting, maybe the normal food or water supply breaks down. Planning for disaster forces your brain to develop a model for handling the resulting adversity. If you do so without growing fearful, it will be a positive exercise that will result in greater stability during times of crisis for yourself and your community. Furthermore, advanced preparation in many areas will also lead you down the path to sustainable living in those same areas of life – hence why we discuss these issues here on our blog.

Stockpiling is NOT a sustainable strategy
When thinking about preparing your family for a long emergency or disaster, this principle is essential. This idea is the foundational driver behind how we plan for every aspect of emergency planning. The encouragement to stockpile resources is found everywhere in disaster/emergency preparedness literature! Yes, you SHOULD have adequate supplies of certain items, but you cannot stockpile enough resources to be an adequate solution. The length of an emergency or disaster could always be longer than your stockpiled supply will last. Then what? You must have a plan for securing your fundamental needs when your stockpiles are diminished. Otherwise, you’re just delaying your demise rather than preventing it. So, when it comes to stockpiling resources for a long term emergency, you need enough of a given resource (food, shelter, water, etc) to see your family through until you can implement a more sustainable means to secure these resources.

Think of this like the top-down triangle below. At the top (the beginning of an emergency or disaster), your needs of a resource are small and compact. That’s what you need to have on hand for immediate consumption and survival. Next, you have some intermediate needs. That’s the part of your strategy for obtaining additional resources before you can implement a more permanent (if necessary) solution. Lastly, the base of the triangle represents a sustainable and ongoing means for obtaining a given resource. This principal should apply to every aspect of disaster preparation and should guide your preparation strategy.

The Preparation Triangle
The Preparation Triangle

Example: Food. A common idea found on the internet among emergency supply vendors is to stockpile things like “textured vegetable product” (umm, sounds good! NOT!). If you look at the space required to store the amount of food recommended, it’s prohibitive to many people. Not to mention, once the food’s gone, it’s gone! A better strategy might be to store several 1-3 months worth of food, then develop a strategy for hunting, gathering, raising and growing additional food items. To put this in really simple concepts, it’s better to have a fishing pole than a few fish.

No expectations or assumptions
As the old saying goes, when you assume, you make an ass of u and me. It’s probably safe to say that the majority of people in western culture assume that things will always be okay and will always work out. There’s a distinction between faith and optimism. Faith is essential in life. Optimism, while helpful at times, can lead to complacency and a lack of planning for lean times. An overly optimistic worldview is ignorant of world history, modern events, and human nature. An overly optimistic view expects or assumes that if the power goes out for a month, or you run out of water, that the government, neighbors, charity will sweep in with salvation and rapidly meet those needs. The reality that one can see from events like hurricane Katrina, the Northeast blackouts of 1977 and 2003 is that services can take a long time to restore. Meanwhile some people become quite inhumane and criminal rather than helpful. Bottom line – don’t expect someone else to be responsible for the essential needs of your family. Expect nothing from others unless you’ve worked out a plan in harmony and cooperation with your friends and neighbors. That leads us to our next point…

“We COULD do it ourselves” vs. “We CAN do it ourselves”
Americans thrive on a self-sufficiency mindset and attitude. So do survivalist usually. Having the knowledge and preparation to be the sole provider for your essential needs is a good idea, and could save your life. A better ideal is that have this knowledge, share it with your friends and neighbors whom your trust, then work together on a cooperative plan for dealing with emergencies. This allows for the sharing of labor, resources and responsibilities and increases your ability to weather long emergencies and disasters. Aside from the fact that there really is increased safety and security in numbers, there’s also increased happiness in having people to share adverse experiences with rather than being alone. Know how to be on your own in a disaster – because that could always happen, but plan on handling emergencies as part of a group. That’s the ideal.

Saving Money is not preparation

Many people will seek to have three months worth of living expenses in the bank, but not consider having three months of food and water on hand. This view assumes that money is all that will be needed to handle emergencies or disasters. You cannot eat or drink money, and it won’t keep you warm (unless you burn it). Having some cash on hand for emergencies should be part of your preparations for the unexpected, but don’t think that you’ll be able to rely on money alone. You’re better off using your funds to purchase resources that will allow you to be better prepared.

The simpler, the better
Choose the simplest solutions you can find for your needs. Complexity during an emergency is your enemy, not your friend. If everyone in your family cannot be made to understand how something works, work on making it simpler!

Falling off the roost

A few days ago, we experienced our first dose of the reality of caring for small animals. It all started when one of our hens started exhibiting some strange behavior. The kids came in the house exclaiming “I think Risa’s dying!”. She had fallen off the roost in the coop and hadn’t landed well. She had been very still most of the day, was off to herself, had her eyes closed, etc.

There were no other apparent symptoms, so diagnosing the ailment wasn’t going to be easy. The symptoms this bird exhibited were common for just about every chicken illness. After some consideration and research, we thought that maybe she was “eggbound” – a condition when an egg gets stuck inside a hen and can cause death soon afterward is not passed. While some people do take some drastic measures in these cases – from probing around inside of their chickens to seeking veterinary care, we chose to do neither. Instead, we gave Risa (the hen) a nice warm bath – something we’d seen recommended for this condition. She was completely listless. At one point, we laid her on her side while we retrieved a towel and she just stayed there – totally unnatural for a chicken. We dried her off and set her in her own cozy straw-lined box for the night.

When we awoke in the morning, what we had expected had taken place – Risa passed away sometime in the night. In 24 hours we had gone from apparently healthy chicken to a sick and then deceased chicken! While we wonder why, and continue to examine our flock for signs of illness or distress, the reality is tat these things happen. Birds, like all living creatures will come to an end of their lives.

Rather than dissect this bird who had become a pet to our kids, we chose to just chalk it up to a sickness – likely Marek’s disease or something else that is common to chickens. We then cremated the carcass in order to quickly and humanely deal with it in a way that would not pose any health threats to ourselves or our flock.

Our children (4,9,12) all handled things pretty well. The younger two did not like the cremation idea but were more accepting of the outcome once they understood the humane reasons behind it – to protect the flock, and to avoid seeing Risa’s carcass dug up by some other animal. Yes, the cried – and at times even screamed. We don’t think this was so much because of a fondness for this hen, but because of the reality of death which no human enjoys being reminded of – particularly children. Ultimately, we found it a good opportunity to discuss issues of life and death and our kids came out of the ordeal with strength and new understanding.

We know this isn’t instructional per se – but in our journey to a simple life, sometimes the unexpected happens. Hopefully our sharing our experience will help someone else go through this process.

Adding kitchen waste to your garden without composting – should you do it?

We’ve seen many people skip the compost process and place their kitchen waste directly into their garden. While this won’t kill your plants, there’s some things to consider when taking this approach.

Among other things, one of composts’ benefits is providing nitrogen (N) to the plants in your garden. The process of composting is actually one of micro-organisms breaking down the decaying material. Here’s the thing – these micro-organisms require nitrogen for this process. Until the process is finished, the composting process will TAKE nitrogen. If this is happening in your garden rather than a properly constructed compost pile, your plants will suffer from a lack of nitrogen to the decaying waste in the soil rather than receive from it. This must be overcome with additional nitrogen. What value then is there in doing this? Personally, we think it’s best not to put non-composted material onto your garden unless it’s mulch which will not have this same effect. Unless you generate a LOT of kitchen waste, it’s not likely that it’s really acting as mulch.

That doesn’t mean you cannot add this waste to the garden before it’s composted, but one would wonder what is the benefit since you’ll need additional nitrogen to compensate for what’s used in the break down process? Until it’s composted, the waste will not provide many benefits. Rather, it will take longer to decompose into valuable nutrients than if it were in a compost pile and could also attract all manner of undesirable pests and critters to your garden – not to mention it will likely smell. Not to mention, who knows if things like Salmonella would easily transfer from kitchen waste onto your otherwise fresh veggies 😉

Save yourself the trouble and build a compost heap or pile. You’ll be able to receive benefits faster this way and with far less hassle.

Using dandelion roots as a coffee substitute

We’ve had a growing interest this summer in foraging and the use of wild edible plants. While cleaning up the garden today for the upcoming fall/winter, we decided to use some of those pesky weeds that have infiltrated our vegetable garden.

Roasted coffee substitute, here we come!
We thought about pan-frying or sautéing the dandelion roots, but roasting them and making a drink out of them sounded a bit more fun. We gathered about 3/4-1 lb of dandelion roots for this process. It’s important to note that we have not treated our lawn with harsh chemicals or fertilizers that could cause health concerns when using these weeds as a food source.

Dandelion roots prior to roasting for coffee alternative
Dandelion roots prior to roasting for coffee alternative

Preparing the roots for roasting
The first step was to prepare and clean the dandelion roots. This was done by removing the leaves where they meet the roots and inspecting the roots for rot, damage, insects, etc. It should be kind of obvious where the “joint” between leaf and root is – that’s where you cut. We then took the cut roots and sloshed and soaked hem in a large bowl continually replacing the water with fresh water until the water was clear.

Chopping the Dandelion Roots
Chopping the Dandelion Roots

Next, we took the root pieces and using a hand-chopper (a food processor would be another way to do it), we chopped up the roots into smaller pieces. We left the stringy roots as is – they’re no problem.

Once this is done, we rinsed the chopped pieces again using a strainer until the rinse water was clear. This is not something you need to be super careful about since roasting will likely kill anything harmful.

Preparing dandelion roots for roasting on cookie sheet
Preparing dandelion roots for roasting on cookie sheet

Once rinsed and as clean as we could get them, we spread the pieces out on a cookie sheet and placed in our oven at 250℉ for about two hours, gently agitating the pieces every 20-3o minutes or so during the roasting process. The roots smell pretty nice while roasting – something akin to roasted sweet potatoes. The final result will be much smaller than what you started with.

The finished roasted dandelion - about enough for 8 cups of brewed drink
The finished roasted dandelion - about enough for 8 cups of brewed drink


Ready to brew!

After the pieces cooled off, we placed them in our coffee grinder and ground them to a fine powder, just like we would for coffee. These roots are not as potent as coffee, so for every tablespoon you would normally use in coffee, plan on using two tablespoons of the dandelion roots. The ground roots are quite pale in color compared to coffee when ground. It was almost a khaki color.

Here's the ground roasted dandelion roots, just before brewing. Notice the color!
Here's the ground roasted dandelion roots, just before brewing. Notice the color!

While brewing, the dandelion drink gives off a rather pleasant, earthy aroma. It looks very much like coffee in the coffee pot and in the cup, unless you are accustomed to dark-roasted coffees.

Down the hatch boys and girls!
When finished brewing, we added cream and sugar to taste as we would coffee and enjoyed our new drink. Our whole family tried it (ages 4-37) with everyone thinking it tasted fine, just a tad bitter (like coffee). If you’ve every drank Cafix, this drink is not far off in flavor, although we enjoyed it more than we have enjoyed Cafix in the past.

Happy campers enjoying the caffiene-free roasted dandelion drink
Happy campers enjoying the caffiene-free roasted dandelion drink

Why are we doing this again?
We did this primarily for the experience of doing so, and to share with others. However, if circumstances of life were to place us in a context where coffee was unavailable, knowing this little process would provide us to come pretty close to our normal routine of starting the day with coffee. Additionally, there are plenty of nutritional and medicinal reasons to know how to use dandelions to our advantage (read on). Lastly, why work hard to eradicate dandelions when they offer useful benefits? It’s always good to know how to use our resources to their full advantage.

A bit about nutrition…
According to our trusted standby “Prescription for Nutritional Healing“, dandelion has the following useful chemicals and nutrients: Biotin, Calcium, Choline, fats, gluten, inositol, inulin, iron, lactupicrine, linolenic acid, magnesium, niacin, PABA, phosphorus, potash proteins, resin, sulfur, vitamins A, B1, B2, B5, B6, B9, B12, C, E and P, and zinc. Apparently, it also has many useful medicinal uses. Since providing medical advice is beyond the scope of our blog, we’ll leave you to look up the specifics and determine if it’s an appropriate means for your needs.

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