A gentle plea for field crops in the garden

Wheat in the annual border? Cotton blooming amongst the zinnias?  Rice in the rain garden?  Is that crazy talk?  Field crop plants seem out of place in the home garden, but could it be we’ve undervalued them?  I think we have, and we would all benefit from an occasional foray into growing them.  I’m not arguing for everyone to pull out their roses and put in a patch of soybeans, nor am I advocating for everyone to turn survivalist and attempt to grow a year’s supply of grain.  However, I have been growing small patches of grain and fiber crops in my garden for almost a decade now, and have found the exercise to have a multitude of benefits.

Teach your family where their food comes from

I never considered planting field crop plants in my garden until a fateful train ride with my son. First, a bit of back story: My father was an agricultural researcher, and considered identifying major crop plants in any life-stage to be an Important Life Skill.  On any given trip through the countryside, we would have conversations like this:

Dad:  What’s growing in that field?

Teenage me:  Er…I don’t know…corn?

Dad:  No, sorgum.  You can tell because…(and here he launches into a few minute lecture on the agronomy and uses of sorgum)

Teenage me: Umm…ok. Why does this matter?

Dad:  This is important!  THIS IS WHERE YOUR FOOD COMES FROM!

Teenage me: Whatever, Dad.

I didn’t realize how unique a skill he had given me until years later.  Fast forward a decade, and I am sitting with my, much less jaded, 2-year old son on a train.

Me: Look at the wheat growing in that field!

Son: Wheat!

Guy behind me: Oh, is that what wheat looks like?  Hey, kids, look at the wheat!

Me (thinking to myself):  Wait?!? This is the crop that made western civilization possible!  How can a grown adult not know what it looks like?  Has the general populace become so disconnected from farming that they don’t know what staple crops look like?  I guess they have.  Wait, I shouldn’t be so smug. Do I know how to grow any of these plants? I don’t!  I’m a gardener; I should know. THIS IS WHERE OUR FOOD COMES FROM!

And from that moment on, I vowed to grow a small patch of a different grain or fiber crop in my garden each year to both teach myself and my progeny more about the crops’ life cycle and biology.  You can do this too!

Test yourself, can you identify the plants in the picture below?  Do you know how to grow them?  If so, congratulations! You get bragging rights over most of your modern brethren.  If not, consider planting a tiny patch yourself.  If you have kids, or are a teacher, the little ones discovering where their food (and fiber) come from can be especially eye opening.

Become better connected to history

For much of recorded history, growing grain and fiber crops was what the majority of people spent the majority of their time doing.  In fact, recorded history is arguably the direct result of the domestication of these plants.  By growing them yourself, you will be quite literally be grounding yourself in a part of this history. Want a taste of life in ancient Mesopotamia? Grow emmer.  Studying the Incas?  Plant some quinoa.  Want to learn about the Ethiopian empire?  Try your hand at teff.  Threshing and winnowing your own grains, while fun on a small scale, can also made make you appreciate the invention of the combine and other modern farm equipment.

Understand literature more deeply

Winter and Spring 215 004
Ma and Pa Ingalls, I’m impressed. A home grown loaf like this takes a lot of work!

From Little House on the Prairie, to the Little Red Hen, to the ancient sacred texts of the world’s major religions, staple crops are constantly referenced throughout literature.  These stories will become much more vivid, and the references much more clear once you’ve tried your hand at growing these plants yourself.

Get crafty

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Raw craft materials: Rice, Cotton, Wheat

Seed heads of wheat, broom sorghum, teff, and rice look great in fresh or dried flower arrangements.  Cotton bolls give a southern charm to wreaths, and can be used to make a variety of Christmas decorations. Die-hard fiber nerds might enjoy trying their hand at growing their own cotton or flax for spinning (and simultaneously develop a firm appreciation for the invention of the cotton gin and modern retting processes).  

Fill in “garden gaps”

This patch of wheat is suppressing weeds and eventually will become chicken treats, while I wait for some perennials to get big enough to divide and put here.

Once I know how to grow a certain plant, this is usually my go-to reason for planting it again.  Many agronomic plants make excellent, inexpensive place-holders.  Warm-season grains like millet and broom sorghum can be used in landscape designs like other ornamental grasses. Pop a few patches of them in the back of the border to give quick vertical accents in the garden, or use them to foil the view of your neighbor’s shed while you wait for slower-growing perennials to fill in.  Other plants can be used as “mini-cover crops” to suppress weeds in an attractive manner until you get around to planting something more permanent in an area.  Wheat and rye work well for this in the fall and over winter. Buckwheat is an excellent temporary filler to plant during the spring and summer and, if allowed to bloom, is attractive to many pollinators and other beneficial insects to boot.

From educational value to practical uses, field crops have a place in any home garden. They connect us to history and literature, fill gaps in our over-ambitious garden projects, give us fodder for crafting, and yes, remind us of where our food comes from.

The Hidden Dangers of Botany

Pursuit of botany starts off innocently enough: maybe you are a gardener interested in learning about plant biology, maybe you are a survivalist wanting to learn about edible plants, or maybe you are a wildlife lover who wants to attract hummingbirds to your yard. Whatever the reason, you need to make sure you are fully prepared for the havoc you may wreak upon your life.  Before you read that gardening book, click that link, or go to that native plant conference, take the time to educate yourself about the hidden dangers of botany:

  1. You can’t un-see the scenery.

Like walking in on your parents, plant identification is one of those things that you can’t un-see.  Before you learn about botany, the world around you consists of only vague categories of greenery.  Afterwards, plant scientific names practically scream themselves at you every time you go outside. Sure you might feel “more engaged with the natural world” by knowing how to properly address the surrounding flora, but once you learn those names, you will never be able to traverse the countryside in blissful botanic ignorance.

How your brain interprets the roadside before learning botany…
…and afterwards.
  1. You increase your risk of accidents.

Your new-found plant identification skills will also put you at greater risk for bodily harm. You may skin your knees while climbing logs to photograph ferns. Wildflowers off the side of the road may catch your eye and cause you to swerve your vehicle dangerously. Even on the water you are not safe.  Plants along the water’s edge will call you like sirens, and threaten to entrap your kayak on snags.

Well, you see, Officer, there was this stunning patch of asters along the side of the road and…
  1. You will start to hoard plants.

Each new group of plants you learn about will become The-Most-Awesome-Plants-Ever and lead to a cycle of never-ending garden expansion.  Sure gardening is great way to exercise in the great outdoors, but you will always be tortured by the desire for “just one more plant.”

I’m sure I can find room for these somewhere…
  1. Your relationships will be strained.

Once you learn a bit about botany you will want to share some of your knowledge with your friends and family.  Occasionally, you may wow them with fun facts about some unusually useful/poisionous/carnivorous plant, but most the time you will simply become a source of exasperation.  Your friends will roll their eyes as you point out (yet another) wildflower on your walk together, your  significant other will sigh as you bring home (yet another) species of plant to add to your over-brimming garden, and your kids will become annoyed that (yet again) you are taking so long looking at all of the plants. While vacationing, more fun loving people will want to go to overpriced theme parks, but you will be torturing your family and friends by suggesting (yet another) trip to a botanic garden.

Come on y’all! There’s five more acres of gardens around the corner!
  1. You will want to learn more science.

Botany is the ‘gateway science’ to obsession with a wide range of natural sciences.  Once it has you in its clutches, botany may start you off on the path to wanting to learn entomology, ornithology, or, Lord-forbid, mycology.  It may even send you off into the esoteric realms of soil chemistry or meteorology.  The madness will simply compound itself.

Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.

If, despite all these dangers, you still want to pursue botany, go right ahead. Learning botany may indeed help you grow prize-winning dahlias, get free food from your yard, or become a better steward of the earth.  Just know what you are getting into, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

How to Get a Kid to Garden: Minecraft Style

Biologists come in different flavors.  I’m mostly a look-under-logs-and-run-around-outside-and-get-muddy field biologist.  My husband is a this-must-be-done-indoors-under-highly-controlled-and-extremely-clean-conditions lab biologist.  Our son, who is not-quite doomed to become a biologist, takes after his father, and is more interested in indoor pursuits of science and technology.  Well, mostly the technology part. Ok, mostly Minecraft.

It was not always so. Once, before corrupted by his video-game obsessed peers and his parents’ too lax “screen-time” rules, my son actually enjoyed gardening.  He would toddle around after me planting seeds, watering plants, and picking any tomato that showed the slightest hint of redness.  At one time, he knew which plants in our garden were edible better than most adults. Now, my son accuses me of having too many “useless flowers” in my front herb garden.

My son enjoying the garden in the blissful days of his youth.

Determined to help my son recapture the love of gardening, I gave him a sales pitch I knew he could not refuse: “We’re going to make a Minecraft garden.”

Project 1: Failure in miniature.

My first plan was to take some old boards from discarded bookshelves and use them to build a combination sandbox and raised miniature Minecraft garden.  I made a terraced “hill” out of scrap 2×4’s and used a cement mixing trough we had lying around for a “lake”.  My son and I built and painted a “Steve” character, villager, ocelot, and cow to inhabit it.

On the plus side:

  • My son got to practice carpentry skills building the frame and figures with me.
  • Painting the little figures was a fun diversion on a day the power went out.
  • Frogs love the little pond, and we have tadpoles every summer.
We tried so hard, and got so far…

On the minus side:

  • My son was slightly too old for the sandbox and has used it exactly once since we built it.
  • My son complained early on that the garden “doesn’t look enough like Minecraft.”
  • The Japanese holly bushes I planted as “trees” got way too big before the ground covers filled in, and had to be moved elsewhere.  The tiny dwarf boxwoods I got to replace them are definitely “slow growing” as advertised, and my son will probably be in college by the time they get big enough to look like miniature trees.
  • I chose my main ground cover poorly.  The Irish moss looked lovely in the pots at the garden center, but it was not happy in our sultry Carolina summers.  The first year it sat there and glowered at me.  The second year it shriveled up and died.  I replaced it with a fast growing sedum, which I should have done from the start.
  • The whole thing takes an insane amount of weeding and trimming for the tiny space it occupies.
  • I think the bookshelf boards we salvaged for it were originally painted with oil-based paint.  The green we painted over them started peeling off after a few months.
  • I neglected to put waterproofing sealant over the paint on the figures, and the paint-job on them is rapidly deteriorating as well.
  • Neither my son, nor I like to weed it. The results are what you would expect.
…but in the end, it doesn’t even matter.

Project 2: If at first you don’t succeed…

After the failure of our first attempt, my son surprised me by lobbying to try again.  He said he wanted to try growing the real versions of plants he commonly grew in his Minecraft game.  As I wanted to expand my vegetable garden anyway and was still trying to find a way to bring him back into the gardening fold, I agreed to his plan.

Here’s my son’s garden design that he made in Minecraft. We decided when planting the  garden to replace the front patch of carrots with potatoes to avoid carrot overload. As sugar cane is a tropical perennial, we used ‘Sugar Drip’ sorgum as a substitute.

The second attempt was much more successful.  The poppies and some of the sunflowers were no shows, but the rest of the garden grew beautifully.  Although my son sometimes grumbled about helping me, he dug, planted, weeded, and harvested with me.  Looking back, he claims he actually enjoyed some of it.

In Minecraft, all flowers bloom all the time, and wheat goes from seed to harvest in about 10 minutes. In real life, my son and I watched the garden unfold over the course of the season.  I’m sure when he’s 30 he’ll also value the educational aspect of that.

The tulips we planted the previous fall were the first to bloom. The taller, greener grass on the right side of the garden is the wheat starting to perk up.
The rose bush was blooming and the wheat was close to full height when the rest of the garden was just starting to sprout.
The wheat was ready to harvest in early summer.
The rest of the garden filled in later.

Did these projects cure my son of his screen obsession, and give him back the gardening fervor of his toddler-hood.  Hardly.  Were they an enjoyable pastime for the whole family that got us all out in the garden.  Definitely!

Would you play Pokemon Go for science?

My son and husband have just returned from a pleasant walk around the neighborhood during which they managed to snag a Charmander, Spearow, and Scyther.  They will now take these creatures home to care for them, train them, and watch them develop.  This is, of course, not wildlife biology, but the game Pokemon Go, and it could be the start of something revolutionary for ecological research.

For those of you not familiar with the Pokemon mania that is sweeping through the population of Millennials and their progeny, this newly-released augmented reality game transforms Pokemon from something played on a screen to a real-life search for virtual creatures that can only be found by walking around outside.  To play, you actually have to go out in your yard to find grass-type Pokemon and go to the park with a pond to find water ones.

Many elements of Pokemon Go embody the things that I love about my job as an entomologist: going outside, looking for creatures, collecting them, bringing them back to learn about them, and sharing my discoveries.  Unlike the average Pokemon hunter, I don’t make the insects I bring back to the lab do battle with each other; however some of my colleagues who study ant behavior do.

The similarity of Pokemon to entomology is no coincidence, the game designer, Satoshi Tajiri, was an avid insect collector as a child, and the whole idea of battling creatures was inspired by the Japanese pastime of beetle battling.


Even as I am struck by the similarities between of Pokemon and my profession, I am enthralled by the idea of developing a similar game that takes Pokemon Go’s photographic creature-hunting approach to “collect” real organisms as part of a massive citizen-science based ecology project.

In my imagined game of ‘Ecology Go’ (please help me think up a catchier name) users would be sent to “scan” various birds, beasts, and bugs by photographing them with their phones.  Once scanned the user could get a cutely-drawn virtual “copy” of said creature to care for in a little electronic world on the user’s phone.  Such creatures would need virtual food or shelter which could be obtained by photographing real-life trees, flowers, and other host plants.  Of course, in addition to being fun, this game would be stealthily educational, teaching people how identify the living things that surround them, but don’t mention that part to the kids.

Meanwhile, the information from the photographs could be used by scientists interested in ecology and biogeography (the science of what organisms live where) to answer questions about how well pollinators are doing, where birds are migrating, when pests are spreading, and how all these things are impacted by land use and climate changes.

In a highly unscientific survey of user acceptance, I have run this game idea by an actual 10-year old, who said that my game idea sounded “fun to play” and who offered helpful suggestions such as “make it so you can build things for your virtual creatures” and “include slimes and dragons.” Several 30-year olds have mentioned that they would want to play too, but as all of them were biologists, take the interest level of that demographic with a grain of salt.

Although I know that image-recognition software isn’t yet up to snuff for a ‘Ecology Go’ game to exist, such a game is not so far-fetched.  Apps, like Birdsnap, are working to improve upon machine recognition of birds from photographs, and citizen science apps such as, the Lost Ladybug Project and eBird, already help scientists track the numbers of rare ladybugs and birds. While we wait for machine learning to catch up with human visual acuity, anyone who takes a screen shot of an interesting (real) creature while playing Pokemon Go can put it on Twitter with the hashtag #pokeblitz for scientists to identify.  Perhaps, the closest thing on the internet today to “Ecology Go” is Project Noah an app which gives users missions to photograph different types of plants and animals around them.

However, none of these apps and projects have the game mechanics that would give them widespread appeal to those who are not already biologically inclined.  Pokemon Go is fun because it turns your yard and neighborhood into a daily scavenger hunt.  Like the way my research provides me various incentives to collect a ton more insects that I would do on my own, Pokemon Go provides incentives for users to keep Pokemon-hunting for longer than the average person would casually search for wildlife.  An actual game-based ecology app would have the potential to connect its players more deeply to the natural world, and at the same time, give scientists the information they need to understand that world more clearly.