Plant Profile- Sword Beans (The Beanogenesis Chronicles)

Staple legumes appear in the majority of agricultural systems. They produce only modest amounts of carbohydrate (a role dominated by grains or tubers that give higher total calorie yields). Their most valuable role is as a form of storable protein (to complement variable flows of animal protein). Protein from legume seeds is usually inferior to animal sources, due to lower bioavailability and the presence of toxins, but if the alternative is protein deficiency then a sack of dry beans can be a lifesaver.

Under my peculiar conditions I have trialled just about every staple legume species imaginable. The main barriers are my weird low calcium/high magnesium soil, abundant weed growth whenever we aren’t in a drought, and considerable pressure from our local pod sucking bug. This pest inserts its proboscis into developing legume pods, damaging the developing seeds. The only legume which had shown some promise was lima bean, due to its habit of cropping through the end of autumn when pressure from the bug was lower.

I acquired my first swordbeans pretty much by accident, initially pegging them as some barely edible permaculture weed that nobody knew how to eat. The first species I grew was C. gladiata. The enormous, bright pink seeds germinated readily into robust seedlings that ignored my trellises and scaled the hedges surrounding my vegetable gardens. I sowed them in an area going back into fallow, so the plants got zero follow up attention. The next winter the giant, thick walled pods were scattered around the hedges, providing a modest crop. I have researched the required steps to detoxify the seeds but haven’t scaled up enough to try cooking them myself. The consensus for the cultivated species seems to be soaking, then cooking in 2-3 changes of water (and most critically cycling the ingredient in and out of your diet seasonally). For a long time I assumed lima beans would be the better alternative, and intended to begin hand crossing the half dozen strains I had gathered in coming years.

My outlook on Canavalia changed when two other species appeared on my radar. C. ensiformis is the other main cultivated species, with smaller white seeds. C. papuana is a wild native species from northern Australia and Papua New Guinea. Its undomesticated nature is evident in its thick seed coat which needs abrasion or hot water treatment to break its dormancy. This species is also likely to have more toxic seeds. Given the robust performance of C. gladiata I decided to plant all three species side by side and do deliberate hand crossing. The aim was a locally adapted staple legume that I could plant all through my overgrown orchard and hedges, needing nothing more than sowing and harvest (and careful cooking).

Once the crops were started the first barrier to overcome was simultaneous flowering. They were all sowed at the same time, but there was no way to know in advance how each species times its reproduction. Luckily this wasn’t an issue and they all flowered together in February (though C. gladiata was the earliest, and C. papuana latest).

The next barrier was how to arrange cross pollination. Most legumes (especially domesticated ones) are predominantly self-pollinating. This is probably an adaptation from when the original wild species were moved into regions where they lack suitable pollinators. Interestingly I observed a species of native solitary bee enthusiastically working the flowers, but I couldn’t rely on them to do outcrossing for me. I scrounged around for a piece of gauzy cloth, cut it into handkerchief sized squares, and started wrapping spikes of flowers that were at a convenient height on the trellis (held in place with a wooden clothes peg).

Using a set of tweezers, I applied the technique used for hand pollinating sweet peas. Anthers start to develop in the late afternoon in unopened flowers. The petals are squeezed open, often using the tweezers to split them apart. Then a gentle downward motion will knock off the ends of the anthers while usually leaving the female stigma intact. I usually had a cloud of tiny mosquitos around my ankles at the time, so sometimes I hurried and damaged the flower. The next morning I had to get up just as the dew was rising to beat the solitary bees to the intact flowers. I found the easiest method was to collect whole flowers from one species in my pocket, then peel back the petals off the anthers. With my other hand I could squeeze open the anther free flower of a different species from the day before, then dab the anthers from one species onto the stigma of another. I would then reapply the square of mesh to prevent bees from self-pollinating each species.

I didn’t bother labelling individual crosses, but selected a plant of each species to receive pollen from either of the two other species. This ensued that all six possible crosses were conducted. In the end I think I got around a 10-20% rate of pod setting, with no indication that any crosses were more or less incompatible. All going well I should end up with a few dozen seeds to grow out next season. I plan to plant about half of them (around one row) alongside another row of pure C.  gladiata.

The ultimate aim is to identify the most promising hybrids to backcross to gladiata since it seems to be the closest to my ideal plant. C. ensiformis is a bit too domesticated for my tastes- the plants set most of their pods low, dragging in the dirt, and the vines are almost bush shaped. By contrast C. papuana is too wild, with small, toxic, hard shelled seeds, pods that shatter. A complex hybrid of all three, selected back toward the best traits of C. gladiata will most likely produce a lineage which can provide large quantities of seed in return for little more effort than sowing and harvesting.

I still plan to breed my lima beans, but see them as being a crop suited to areas with more intensive management (namely vegetable gardens and silty lowlands in my icecream bean alleys). Sword beans will fill a complementary row in less managed spaces, where their hardiness allows them to produce a useful yield with minimal involvement on my part.

Our friendly pod sucking bugs that ruin many legume crops

C. papuana getting attention from a local solitary bee species.

The larger flowers of C. gladiata. The one on the lower left had its anthers stripped.

(Hopefully) hybrid pods on the refined C. ensiformis.

Mining the Midden

Lately I’ve been contemplating the core of the ecological niche for human cultivated crops. Let’s explore one of the key factors that started before the official origins of agriculture.

In the majority of terrestrial habitats plant growth is limited by access to nitrogen or phosphorus. Only in arid zones does water become the limiting factor. In some peculiar regions with unusual geology a deficiency or surplus of other elements may come into play. For example there are natural zones with high heavy metal levels that evolved their own specialist flora. Deficiencies are more common though, such as how agriculture in West Australia was initially crippled by selenium deficiencies.

Local imbalances in soil mineral profiles have long been evened out by the vertical activity of plants (which make the minerals bioavailable) coupled to the horizontal activity of large, migratory animals which would consume the minerals in a place of excess, and deposit them in a place of deficiency. Far from being entirely random, this process would be driven by the animals own sophisticated sense of taste as they sought out balanced nutrition. The terrestrial migration was also supplemented by the movement of fish and seabirds inland, to distribute key elements like iodine which are rapidly lost from the land.

These great mineral cycles were irreversibly broken over much of the planet, tens of thousands of years ago when the majority of the world’s megafauna became extinct (usually coinciding with the arrival of humans, right up to the relatively recent extinction of the moa of New Zealand and elephant birds of Madagascar within a century of settlement).

By contrast, how do humans engage in horizontal mineral cycles? Most hunter-gatherers settled in relatively small home ranges, undergoing an annual migration around their territory to coincide with the availability of prime food resources. This is distinct from the often continent scale migration of megafauna. Along the way humans formed a series of regular camps, to which they carried harvested food, along with large quantities of wood for burning (also containing minerals). The consequence of thousands of years of this pattern is visible in the form of middens- monstrous mounds of shells, bones, excrement and plant material, usually concentrated close to the periodically disturbed ground of human camps.

This concentration of minerals would have represented a prime resource for the evolution of human associated weed species, many of which would eventually form the ancestors of crops (especially vegetables). Adaptable fruit species would also find their seeds deposited in this region, undisturbed until the humans returned.

The wider region around the camp would also be affected, through persistent wood collection at a convenient distance to camp. The creation of deforested habitats may have created niches for non-woody species that tolerated the periodic disturbance by humans, especially in swamps and waterways. Perennial tuberous crops seem especially suited to this niche since they have a fairly wide harvest window (unlike grains which must be harvested as soon as they are ripe). Another early domesticate ideal for this system is the bottle gourd, a vigorous annual vine which produces woody fruit that are invaluable for carrying water.

Agricultural humans intensified this new pattern, further shrinking home ranges. They often spread their crops at the expense of trees until the vertical mineral cycle was significantly damaged. Agriculture seems to be the most stable in the long run in regions where the majority of the landscape is unsuitable for cropping (with only limited pockets of flat, silty soil), leaving the remainder of the hilly landscape to continue to grow trees. Uniformly flat regions tend to experience cyclic population explosions, deforestation, then crashes. Regions of cropping could be viewed as a kind of wound upon the skin of the world, only tolerable in isolated patches (comparable to some animal species that gnaw wounds in the bark of a great tree to regularly feed on the oozing sap). The ancient practice of trading dried sea and mineral salt over vast distances likely had significant impacts on local mineral cycles (many animals are limited from living in some regions permanently due to lack of salt).

Industrial humans have further transformed the planet’s mineral cycles in recent generations. Particularly the application of mineral phosphorus to soils has permanently changed their capacity to support plant life (usually supporting weedy species over the indigenous types that adapted for lower mineral levels). Most of the world’s industrial agriculture is dependent on phosphorus imported over vast distance and global reserves are estimated to face depletion in 80 years at current levels of consumption. In my estimate it is more likely that the economics of processing and transporting this vast quantity of material is more likely to sputter out before then (already farmers in the developing world are cutting back on fertilizer applications due to rising prices).

Phosphorus in particular has a tendency to become insoluble as soon as it is applied to soils. In doing so it binds up trace elements, often exacerbating deficiencies of key micronutrients. Plants that are well adapted to local soil structure and climate usually have little difficulty tapping into this buried treasure (and many weed species are phosphorus accumulators, making them a potentially useful component of a diverse system, provided their biomass is harnessed and the resulting nutrient flows directed at desirable species).

In our own systems we need to consider both vertical and horizontal mineral flows. Moving large amounts of material across the surface ideally requires multiple end uses beyond enrichment of cultivation spaces, otherwise it is difficult to motivate people to perform the function. Livestock is a particularly efficient way to concentrate nutrients close to the point of use. Stands of coppiced trees for livestock feed and firewood also stack multiple end uses and provides mineral rich ash and biochar for soil enrichment. But ultimately there is a limit to how much local mineral balances can be perturbed by human activity without the support of mechanisation. Finding crops and livestock that are already compatible with local soil and climate by pulling out all of the industrial era life-support systems is the only long-term sustainable solution.

Better that we go through the sometimes painful process of turning off the hose, throwing away the bag of fertiliser and letting the weaker crops die while the consequences are not catastrophic.

A modern day midden- a monstrous pile of buffalo skulls, representing a concentrated calcium and phosphorus resource.

Plant Breeding Logistics

A helpful reader requested a post about the strategies and techniques I have found useful when undertaking plant breeding projects. I learnt some useful habits from my time in research laboratories which can increase your chances of getting satisfying results from your hard work.

The first step is to decide which species are worth focusing your limited time and energy on. To begin it is generally worth growing a single variety of all available species of interest in order to assess compatibility with your local conditions. Native soil types have their own particular mineral balance and texture, which will strongly favour some species over others. Any species that doesn’t show moderate vigour in the absence of irrigation, excessive fertilisation or pest control is unlikely to be worth investing years of work into.

After the initial few years of throwing everything at the wall, eventually the time comes to assess what stuck. Crop species that demonstrated they were reasonably well suited to your conditions can be further improved by widening their genetics. Some niches in your system may take longer to find suitable candidates. Keep in mind the end result of having a reasonable diversity of crops with complementary end products. For me that looks like a dozen vegetable species (split evenly between cool and warm seasons) and a half dozen staple crops.

Different crop species can be broadly separated into those which naturally hybridise, and those that require hand pollination.  I will talk about the natural outcrossers first since they are easier to work with. Once I have identified species with some potential I gather 6 to 12 distinct strains and do a side by side variety trial. I do not assume I can buy more packets of any particular variety (often seed sold under the same name will be distinctly different strains due to mislabelling or substitution). I follow a general rule of sowing less than half a seed pack in any one year, and making sure the rest is stored properly to maintain viability (in the fridge, inside multiple snaplock bags).

Store bought seeds are often dead on arrival or rather weak, and only present in small quantities, so I sow them in pots then transplant once they are large enough (which usually demands hand irrigation until established if it isn’t raining). I label the individual pots (using a chinagraph pencil on plastic tags). I label the date, variety and abbreviated source on one side, then put multiples of a large letter (A, B, C…) on the other side. This code is recorded in a notebook, since the details on the label often end up smudged in the field. When I transplant the seedlings I also record their relative positions in the beds as labels often end up pulled out during the growing season.

I only do this careful labelling during the variety trial years, as I find it to be a pain to manage long term. I only labelling during a variety trial so I can later selectively back cross my first generation hybrids to pure plants of the best varieties in the second year. Ultimately I am aiming for a balance between quality/purity and diversity. As always I only sow half my current seed stock in any season, as an insurance against disasters. Generally by the third season I have saved so much seed that I can afford to direct sow larger beds more thickly and then thin the seedlings to select for early vigour. I find this trait to be really useful since it lets the crop to compete with weeds during establishment.

In following years I enter a maintenance phase for the species, which involves ongoing selection of better performing individuals. I only save seed from the nicest looking individuals (which means getting in the habit of not harvesting the best looking plants). From time to time I will trial a small number of plants of a new variety or three alongside my established population, and if they are above average I will save some seed from the new strains to gradually blend into my main population. Over time selecting the best plants to reproduce in a small population will inevitably lead to inbreeding depression, so adding small amounts of fresh genetics every 5-10 years can delay this process indefinitely. This is one reason why many “pure” heirloom strains are degraded today, though they represent a source of interest diversity for creating new grexes. Another viable strategy is sharing your early, high diversity mixed population with other local growers, then swapping seed periodically to increase the effective population size.

For crops that need hand pollination the process is similar but slower since you need to drive every hybridisation event, but because you are in control you can have more fun deciding which crosses to make. Every species has its own timing and techniques, so be prepared to fumble around a little before you get a feel for what you are doing. (I’m currently learning sword-bean pollination, to be described in an upcoming post). If you are doing wide crosses, where there is likely to be unknown levels of incompatibility, it can be useful to mix pollen from multiple different sources to apply to every available stigma. In early years it makes sense to cast a wider net in order to get at least some hybrid seed to get you started. In later years you can afford to be more narrowly focused on getting seed from more deliberate crosses.

Generally I will take the species/strain with the best agricultural potential and apply pollen from everything else that is available (similar to my strategy with outcrossing species). That way if any seed form I know at least half its genes come from a high quality parent. This is the approach I took to breeding Canna. As long as I know the seed parent I don’t worry about keeping track of the pollen parent. Some breeders label both parents of every single cross, but for species where the chance of getting seed set is low I think your time is better spent doing more crosses, then allowing the hybrid seedlings to stand on their own merits.

On this planet there are around 390 000 species of plants in 17 000 genera. Only around 2 000 plant species have been domesticated and most are suffering from decreasing levels of genetic diversity and vigour compared to their wild ancestors.

By contrast there are around 8 000 000 000 people alive today. We would only need one person in every 20 000 to take an interest in plant domestication to cover every known species (and only one in 470 000 if that individual took on domesticating a whole genus). Compared to plant breeding I can think of no other activity with more potential to positively impact the future of humanity. If you are fortunate enough to have the time, space and modest resources required I strongly encourage you to consider taking up this fascinating, world-changing hobby.

Winged beings hand pollinating date palms in ancient Assyria.

The Staple Crop to Vegetable Pipeline

Few people realise that many of our vegetable species have origins as staple crops. For example snow-peas are merely specialised lineage of field peas, which were cultivated for millennia as a staple dry legume (for dishes such as peas porridge mentioned in the old nursery rhyme). The creation of snap beans from kidney beans and sweet corn from more vigorous maize populations mirrors this pattern. This general pattern of harvesting a plant in its tender, immature stage of development extends to solidly staple crops like wheat (through the production of freekeh), and even to non-food crops in the form of immature bottle gourds and luffas.

The creation of dedicated vegetable type lines of staple crops often leads to a loss of vigour, probably due to some combination of inbreeding and smaller scale cultivation permitting more resources to be invested in each plant. The loss of defence chemicals may also be necessary to allow fresh consumption.

Pumpkins were also originally a staple crop, grown for their oil and protein rich seeds. Their use as a vegetable was of minor importance, until the much more recent development of weaker strains bred for production of thickened, sweet flesh. Watermelons were likewise originally domesticated as a source of storable water during the dry season, then for their oil rich seeds, until a single mutation led to varieties with sweet flesh appeared relatively recently.

The next example showing the whole pipeline is the humble apple. In many places in Europe peasants would forage for wild crab apples growing in hedge rows and wild places. These sour fruits were added in small quantities to cooked food. Later came orchards of high tannin apple varieties, best suited for brewing into cider. These were often seed grown since variations in fruit quality were tolerable, while lack of vigour or productivity was not. Only much more recently did the idea of dessert fruit spread widely, relying on highly selected, grafted clones that produced high sugar/low acid fruit suitable for eating straight from the tree. This genetic narrowing brought an inevitable drop in vigour compared to previous incarnations of the genus.

An interesting variation on this process is the evolution of various plants from potent medicinal herbs, to culinary herbs used for flavouring, and eventually bland, bloated versions that are consumed in larger quantities as vegetables. Lettuce was originally grown for the latex in its flower heads, used as a mild sedative/pain killer. Carrots were also originally a diuretic, then an herb for its flavourful seeds and leaves (similar to coriander today, a species where the insubstantial root is also consumed). In time coriander could be selected for large, tasteless roots as well. Parsley has gone through a less widely known transformation, leading to hamburg strains with carrot-like roots.

If you are interested in growing your own food then this should give you a sense of perspective. Modern vegetable varieties represent some of the weakest, most inbred organisms on the face of the earth. They were developed to give maximal performance and profit under carefully controlled, high input conditions, with each species demanding a specific soil type and set of management practices.

Expecting to grow the range of vegetables that we typically buy in the supermarket in a home vegetable garden is an act of folly. Even if your soil isn’t necessarily “bad”, it is impractical to have the sandy soil beloved by carrots and the mineral rich clay beloved by broccoli at the same time. No commercial vegetable grower would be expected to produce both crops profitably on the same land. This process of specialisation/narrowing of genetics has only gotten worse in widely accessible vegetable genetics in the last century, with the majority of seed for sale to home gardeners coming as by-product from the sprawling industrial vegetable growing system (which now relies heavily on greenhouses, automated watering systems and integrated pest management).

All this stress and effort to grow a product which is little more than water and cellulose that carries a vague promise of “health”. Vegetables can be lovely, interesting and beneficial additions to the human diet, but history shows they have always been peripheral players in broader agroecological systems. Home growers would do better to take a step backwards, away from the most intensively vegetablised varieties.

It’s time home gardeners put vegetables in their proper place. To do so we need to focus on the ideal traits of a vegetable suitable for home scale production, something I hope to do soon in a follow up post.

A Summertime Update in Four Parts

Thank you for being patient over summer while finished my series of science fiction novellas while I took a break from regular posting here. I am pleased to say that “Our Vitreous Womb”, a story set in a distant future society built purely off biotechnology, is on track for eBook release in April 2023.

If you would like monthly updates by email (including an illustrated tidbit of weird biology) then sign up via my new author website:

If you want a free review copy of book 1 (Her Unbound Hallux) please say so when you sign up.

My experimental farm has not been completely neglected during the summer months. Rather than post on one single topic today, I thought a quick update on some recent developments might be more fun.

1. Rotate Your Goat

In the six months since I started moving my goats to a new strip of paddock every three days I have observed some remarkable effects.

Firstly, milk production has held up for longer than the previous years when I was rotating between large paddocks every few months. I am still milking 6-8 L from my three adult does every second day, which has barely dropped since I weaned the kids months ago. The most interesting experiment was making a double sized cell at the end of the paddock, which should be enough to keep the herd well fed for a week. After three days in the double sized cell milk production dropped dramatically.

The most notable thing with the new system is that the goats are hardly eating any of their mineral lick (the only supplement they get). This suggests rapid rotation is improving the mineral cycles in the paddocks. The diversity and vigour of the paddock plants is also improving. This includes the spread of “weedy/unpalatable” species like bladey grass and molasses grass, but these patches seem to be acting as nurseries for fodder shrubs and trees. The bunya seedlings exposed to the goats are growing well, with minimal grazing impact.

Moving the fence now takes me about an hour every three days, which is more pleasant than the massive fence clearing job I had to do every few months with the previous system when the vegetation was allowed to overgrow the lines entirely.

On top of this new system, I have started actively herding the goats through my overgrown old vegetable garden. Only about 20% of this area was cleared for crops, which I have protected behind uncharged electric tape (and waving a bamboo stick at the goats when they approach it). After an hour gorging themselves on weeds I only have to wave my hat at them and they all go home without complaint. The richer feed they get is balancing out the lower quality feed in their daily paddock. As the weather turns dry again I plan to walk the herd over most of the property to reduce fire risk.

2. Mulch is for Losers

Now I have loads of vetiver grass bordering my vegetable garden, I experimented with using the hand cut mulch in a deep drift to help clear weeds before planting crops. The end result was a flop. Moving the soggy, half decomposed mulch was a pain. Weeds grew through it anyway. The mulch on the paths between the crops had the same issues, especially if running grasses got into it. My old system of putting a mound of charcoal/ash/goat manure down the middle of the growing beds and sowing on the edges, then leaving the paths bare to grow a crop of immature weeds before hoeing them down works much better.

I might experiment with mulching down the centre of the bed, but I am not sure it would serve any real purpose. That leaves the vetiver grass biomass in need of a new role (since the clumps need to be cut regularly to stop them turning into rat condos). That leaves animal bedding (especially for kid goats and nesting geese) or thatching the roof on the bamboo huts I keep promising to build one day.

3. Tulbalghia Hybridisation

Tulbalghia is a south African relative of onions, sometimes used as a leaf vegetable. I started hybridising a few species in the genus to see if I could make a perennial alternative to garlic chives (or maybe even a new root crop as some species have swollen bases).

After a few tries I got a feel for hand crossing the flowers and collected a decent quantity of seed. You never know if a project like this will fail at the many stages involved (pollination, seed set, germination, hybrid fertility, vigor, pest and disease resistance, or the usefulness of the end products). The hybrid seed is germinating strongly, so I will have to report back on the later stages as they unfold.

4. Train Your Inner Lizard

Nearly a year ago, after falling off the healthy eating wagon, I did some self-experimentation to see if I could reprogram my lizard brain to no longer want junk food (ice-cream in this case). The idea was to reproduce the effect of eating a bad prawn, getting mild food poisoning, then being unable to eat the offending food for years. The best additive ended up being tannin rich, unripe persimmon, a relatively safe substance that nevertheless twisted my guts up when discretely blended into said ice-cream.

Since that time I only had one moment when I ate some ice-cream, but the whole time I was suspicious of it and didn’t end up enjoying it at all. Any time I think about buying ice-cream I can easily locate that same feeling of visceral, gut-reaction suspicion. I think I have to call this experiment a win. Coupled with the higher production of goat milk I have been living off banana and yoghurt milkshakes for about half my calories for many months.

I should be back to my regular fortnightly posting schedule. If you have any suggested topics for the year ahead feel free to comment below.

Goats enjoying the fruits of neglect while I herd them about

Brisk Fiction- Green Cancer

A piece of microfiction this week (which is anything under 1000 words. This one is under 600). It explores a likely consequence of increasing carbon dioxide levels which I rarely see discussed.

In related news, the final rewrites and editing are proceeding smoothly with my novella series (Our Vitreous Womb) which imagines a distant post industrial society where pure biotechnology provides the foundation for a new kind of society. I’m on track to publish in April 2023. I’ll keep you all up to date with progress.

[Eerie music]

[Drone shot pans over the Bangkok skyline]

Voice over: It was here in this bustling, tropical megalopolis that the first infestations of Microsorum lithophytica appeared in the summer of 2023. This unremarkable fern first sprouted along shady drains and bridges, taking root on any damp patch of concrete. A few years later the locals named it “Kiao Mareng” though it is now better known as “Green Cancer”. In this shocking report we confront the activist responsible for spreading this sickness to the United States.

[Pull back drone shot of crumbling, abandoned apartment block covered in vegetation]

(Caption: Dr Ubon Suksathan. Botanist)

Dr Sukasathan: What we are facing is a total rearrangement of the global ecosystem. The atmosphere has changed irreversibly.

[Shot of Dr Sukasathan inspecting culture flask of green gunk]

Dr Sukasathan: The fern was first described last century from limestone gorges around Thailand. The species name… lithophytica… means living on rocks. Then carbon dioxide levels crossed 480 parts per million a few years ago. That allowed the fern to expand into drier habitats, accelerated its growth.

Interviewer: How far do you think it might spread?

Dr Sukasathan: If CO2 levels keep rising… [blinks awkwardly]… everywhere. I can’t see anything stopping it.

[Drone shot of work crews descending side of a skyscraper surrounded by steam clouds]

(Caption: Gus Thongsuk. Building Maintenance Supervisor)

Gus Thongsuk: Green cancer doesn’t only hold concrete. It eats rock. The roots make acid… like Alien. Get away b**ch.

[Gus peels back a pad of the fern and crumbles the concrete with his fingers]

Gus Thongsuk: We never stop work to clean kiao mareng. Steam knives very… effective, but when wet season come spores blow all over. Some company won’t pay extra… maintenance. Later… building is broken. I don’t complain. Always more work to do [laughing].

Voice over: Bangkok is ground zero of the infestation, and it’s fighting a losing battle. Unfortunately for us, the organism recently arrived on our own doorstep, sooner than anyone expected. All thanks to the reckless actions of a few.

[Pan across Georgia State Prison complex. Shot of a female prisoner with cropped hair in orange]

(Caption: Suzette Luers. Sentenced to 23 years for ecoterrorism).

Suzette Luers: What they think I’m gonna to do to you? [Shows her cuffed wrists] Throw some leaves at you? (laughing)

Interviewer: Do you feel any remorse for smuggling spores of the Green Cancer to the US?

Suzette Luers: What difference would regret make? It spread itself to eight more cities since christmas. Capitalism built the bonfire. I just tossed the match.

Interviewer: Doesn’t it bother you that people will be homeless when buildings are destroyed?

Suzette Luers: Humans didn’t give a f**k when they destroyed the habitat of other creatures. Look. Plants are pushing back everywhere since we crossed 480. Tree of heaven, knotweed, kudzu, tumbleweed. Every time you start your car you encourage ‘em grow faster. Ten years tops until that little fern chews through this concrete prison like a rice cracker. What’ll they do with me then? Stick me in a bamboo cage?

[Shot of workers in white hazard suits spraying clumps of fern in Miami]

Voice over: Local authorities are rushing to develop chemical measures to hold back the infestation, but the ferns mature rapidly and produce millions of dust like spores. Scientist are hopeful biological control may prove useful for slowing down the tide, but no candidate species have been identified. Citizens can report any new infestations on the website linked below. We must work together to defeat this menace and protect our homes.

The Ephemeral Trellis

When I started developing my vegetable garden I had little biomass handy for various projects beyond a modest stream of goat manure. Gradually support species established, and now I have more than I can use. One especially valuable plant is bamboo, which I am steadily learning to use for various projects. Today I made a bamboo trellis using zero string or fastening.

A typical approach for growing climbing crops in this industrial age is to put in a few star pickets (T-posts in the USA) then string some wire mesh between them. Then when the crop is finished you face the horrible job of taking the rusting, tendril infested mess down again (or leaving it until it becomes a hazard).

What most people never stop to consider in this time of overabundance is the resource consumption of that simple construction. The early industrial revolution was primarily a transformation in the production of iron- that essential ingredient in civilised life for thousands of years. Up until that point vast amounts of forest were cut in rotation to make charcoal, essential for smelting iron ore. That made iron so valuable that it could only be used for hand tools, weapons and fasteners. The idea of using iron for structural purposes like roofing and fences would seem absurdly extravagant. Tapping into vast coal reserves upended that equilibrium, and the rest is modern history.

One single bed in my vegetable garden is about 10 m long, needing six star pickets and an equivalent length of wire (double if I couldn’t be bothered training the vines up). I would estimate the structure would contain about 40 kg of iron, which has an embodied energy of about 20 megajoules per kilogram, for a total of 800 megajoules of embodied energy. That is equivalent to 80 days of food energy for a human. Industrial yield maize produces 10 days’ worth of calories from the same bed each year, climbing beans much less. The iron would rust long before it could break even in terms of energy invested.

Another way to visualise the situation is that it takes 45 kg of dry wood to make 15 kg charcoal to produce 1 kg of iron, so the iron used in my simple trellis would represent 600 kg of charcoal and 1800 kg of dry wood. The meagre dollars we spend in this age on these resources are shockingly disconnected from the true value of the materials.

Funnily my biggest issue with using structural metal in my garden comes from me being lazy. I always put off removing it until it becomes a rusting mess. I have many meters of goose fencing tangled in the weeds I have to extract and dispose of one day. All that metal is a resource that never had a chance of repaying the energy invested.

To address these glaring issues I have learnt to make simple trellises from bamboo. Not bamboo plus string or wire. Just bamboo and nothing else, using a few simple hand tools (the production of which should be sustainable in some form on the far side of this time of industrial excess). A word of caution- bamboo can be deceptively sharp when cut, as can the tools used to handle it. Gloves and caution are advised at a minimum. Bamboo is quite unlike wood in its strengths and weaknesses, and unfortunately Australia has little culture in its use to tap into, so I have mostly had to figure things out by bits and pieces.

The basic technique is as follows. I cut second or third year stems (which thicken and strengthen after their first season) using a small folding saw. For this project I worked with Bambusa chungii, a beautiful silver stemmed clumping species. Different species vary in their dimensions and properties. The leafy tops go to the goats, then I use a bamboo hatchet to knock off the remaining leaves. The lowest, strongest sections are cut to a bit over my height, then driven into the ground in a straight row using a fence post driver about 1-2 m apart. Pay attention to the stem as you go since occasionally they will splinter during the process. Remove these duds and try again. Be sure to leave a node at the top to reduce the chance of splitting.

Next I use the bamboo hatchet and a handy chunk of wood to split the upright posts down to about 30 cm from the ground (ideally a node will prevent the split going all the way down). The splits must be aligned with the bed. Then I take the thinner middle sections of the stems and split them using a bamboo splitter (though you can do this with the bamboo hatchet instead). Tapping with a chunk of wood helps. I try to make these slats as long as possible, so I can insert them horizontally into the split the uprights without joins, but overlaps aren’t that much of an issue.

To add the next horizontal spaced higher than the first I split the uprights into quarters, giving me the ability to improvise crossing them over. Just use one quarter at a time so there are others flexible enough to work for the next level up. I add more horizontals until I run out of vertical space.

The resulting structure works well for chunky vines like sword beans (which I intend to plan here) and large seeded lima beans (which I should plant soon if I can hop to it). Yams and angled luffas also do well. I normally get one or two seasons out of it before it starts to slump.

Best of all, when the garden has inevitably moved on and the weeds have returned the space to fallow all I have to do is give the structure a gentle shove and it turns into a modest pile of kindling, or if I am too lazy to make use of that it will completely disappear given another year.

Humans are masters at improvisation, but you cannot build a bamboo trellis unless you grow the bamboo first and take the time to learn how to use it. Then you to can begin your slow journey to break your reliance on “cheap” industrial inputs.

Plant Profile- Society Garlic (Tulbalghia)

There is a pretty dependable recipe for creating a new domesticated crop species. Research into the long lost origins of a wide variety of food plants has revealed a typical pattern. Usually the best starting point is a genus that contains a few wild species that have at least some utility as food. Step two is to hybridise those original species, either deliberately or by accident. Often the primary hybrid of two species is then crossed with a third species. Hybridisation opens up an order of magnitude more genetic diversity in the resulting hybrid swarm. From that point selective breeding improves the characteristics of the new crop, sometimes including back crossing to the wild species to restore vigour if inbreeding becomes an issue.

It is my contention that for every established crop species in cultivation there are dozens more that could be created by curious and committed amateur plant breeders. Often the main barrier is convenience- why go through the years of developing a new crop when an existing crop already serves that function in the agricultural ecosystem? In my system I have relatively limited options when it comes to vegetables in the Allium family. My strain of giant blue shallots are wonderful and continue to produce for a few years once established, but garlic, onions and leeks have proven to be poor performers. Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are a hardy perennial, but tend to only produce good quality material for a short period when summer is consistently wet and warm, and are a little bit too fiddly to harvest for my liking. Based on this I looked around for an alternative perennial allium instead.

Society garlic (Tulbalghia violacea) is a common landscaping plant in my area, thriving in difficult situations with minimal care. This isn’t surprising since it comes from the south east corner of south Africa, which has a very similar climate. It is also edible, more or less, with the leaves and flowers having a peppery/garlic flavour, perhaps a little too acrid for most tastes (somewhat stronger than garlic chives). That on its own meant it might be worth growing for the kitchen, but it also happens to be only one species in a genus of two dozen others. A few hybrids have been established in the horticulture trade, a sign of cross fertility between wild species, so I set about gathering a few other species to begin my own breeding program with a view to developing a new perennial crop.

I finally got my two strains in flower, an unidentified tall growing species that could be a hybrid of T. violacea, and a low growing, broad leaved species with fragrant flowers (T. simmleri). I have some T. cominsii x violacea plants ready to plant out as well, though they seem pretty fragile compared to the other forms. I only just planted out the common form of T. violacea, so had to steal a handful of flowers of this variety from a local carpark to hybridise the other two forms. Learning to hand pollinate a new species always takes a degree of trial and error, but I soon found I could split the tubular flowers open to expose the stigmas. The stamens remain stuck to the base of the petals, so the combined arrangement can be gently dabbed onto the stigmas of other flowers. Just today I noticed the first hand crossed seed pods forming. I should have the first hybrid seedlings mature in a couple of years.

Over coming years I will continue to gather other species to add to the project. T. alliacea looks especially promising, with widespread use as an edible in Zulu culture. Every new species means an expanding range of potential crosses to try (useful when not every combination is viable). As I produce more hybrid seedlings I will need to keep an open mind about what traits I wish to bring out. Palatability in the leaves and flowers is the obvious direction, combined with vigour, natural pollination, viable seed set and pest resistance. I will need to remain vigilant about the edibility of each hybrid and strain as they emerge as this trait can vary unpredictably between generations, but in general the genus isn’t known to be toxic, though that isn’t a black and white property. The genus also produces quite substantial thickened bases to their clumps, a kind of pseudobulb made of stacked leaf bases, which could be enhanced with selective breeding to produce something akin to a perennial onion.

Hopefully this has made you curious about the possibilities of domesticating new crop species. A great resource to research potential species that you could domesticate yourself is the Plants for a Future database ( The nurturing instincts of humans make us uniquely suited to catalyse the creation of new species, helping them through the difficult early stages of coming into existence. Just as the symbiosis between pollinating insects and flowering plants caused an explosion in biodiversity millions of years ago, human beings have the potential to be universal pollinators of any number of plant species, sparking another transformation in the structure in the sprawling tree of life.

My first hand pollinated seed pods forming

The sweetly scented flowers of T. simmleri (formerly T. fragrans)

My robust, unidentified form with juicy leaves that are almost edible to my tastes.

Easy Cheesy (Sans) Lemon Squeezy

Australians are very much a people out of place, especially for those of us with European roots who find themselves living in the subtropics. I occasionally meet somebody undertaking the herculean effort of producing cool climate cheeses under our often steamy conditions. This often requires the purchasing of all sorts of delicate microbial cultures in the post, grown in distant laboratories, and demands the use of a specially modified refrigerator which can simulate the conditions of a cheese cave in the Swiss alps (until the power goes out). As the poorly paid actors in the infomercials say: There has to be a better way!

Milk is a metastable emulsion of fat and water, stabilised with a complex array of proteins. For dairy producing societies the fluctuations in output mean that often more milk is produced than can be consumed. Different cultures came up with different solutions to this problem, seeking ways to transform milk into denser products (which sometimes allow easier preservation for times when less dairy is available). One possible option is heating the milk or cream long enough that the oil floats to the top, producing clarified butter/ghee. If sufficiently pure this mass of mostly saturated fat can store a relatively long time without refrigeration.

Most approaches aim to coagulate the fat and most of the protein in a way that allows the liquids to be drained. The resulting curds can be further compressed, fermented or stabilised through various additives. In European cheese making the coagulation is often catalysed by rennet, the scraped lining of a calves stomach which contains enzymes that begin digesting the milk. For a small scale producer this technique is not really practical, unless you are content to buy powdered rennet from the shops. The curd is often compressed and fermented under controlled conditions to produce a hard cheese capable of long term storage. None of this seemed worth the bother to me on a low tech home scale.

Another approach is to use acid to coagulate the milk in the form of lemon juice or vinegar (often with some amount of heat). Mediterranean cheeses like paneer is made this way. I tried this a couple of times and it basically worked, if you didn’t mind squeezing a load of lemons. The main downside was the resulting whey is too acidic to feed to livestock. Chickens in particular do spectacularly well on the residual soluble protein left in solution from cheese making. It can also be fed to kid goats with care as they get close to weaning age. The fat is the most valuable component of the milk in the end.

Most of the time we turn our goat milk into yoghurt, a pretty simple technique that is commonly used in warmer climates that are similar to our own. It definitely feels like the most robust and appropriate method, but we can only consume so much yoghurt. For a long time I scratched my head at the problem of milk coagulation/concentration. Luckily a stroke of serendipity intervened one day.

Once when I was making yoghurt with a small batch of milk I poured what I thought was the previous day’s milk into the pot, only to discover it was instead finished yoghurt. I shrugged and figured no point crying over spilt whatever it was, and went through the yoghurt making cycle, heating the milk to 70 C, then cooling it to 42 C before inoculation with a live yoghurt culture (a hand held infrared thermometer is very useful for this). To my surprise when I went to inoculate the milk had already separated into a nice hard curd. The first few times I inoculated and incubated for a bit under 24 hours as usual (a 4 L thermos container is very useful for this stage). The thinking was to break down any residual lactose, but I am pretty sure it is mostly gone without further incubation. I am now pretty certain that the acid and enzymes from the yoghurt half of the mixture is enough to drive curd formation. Labneh is an example of a cheese based on a yoghurt culture, and is common in places like Lebanon, so I only accidentally reinvented that particular cheese wheel.

Once you form a sufficiently hard curd it is an easy matter of straining the mixture. I tried using cheese cloth of various types and found it was a pain to wash. If you don’t mind losing a little of the curd, and it is well set, then a plain colander works fine. For a while I used to wrap the curd tightly in a cloth and press it between two weights to firm up the product, but now I simply let the curd drain into a bowl in the fridge overnight to end up with something the texture of mascarpone.

The final product lasts about three days in the fridge. Much of the lactic acid acidity is drained away with the whey, so it is possible for unwanted bacteria to grow on the curd eventually (unlike whole yoghurt which is more acid and usually stable for much longer). Salting the curd to preserve it is possible, but I find I usually eat it quickly enough anyway. I usually end up adding it to other meals to make them richer. The pressed curd still crumbles a bit if I put it in brine, so I don’t bother pressing anymore. If you freeze the curd the texture changes, but it is still pretty good mixed into other dishes.

The main advantage of this method is that it leverages a culture I was handling and maintaining anyway, and the whey contains no additives that prevent me from redirecting the excess whey protein to my livestock. I find I can get through a batch of cheese alongside my usual yoghurt consumption without feeling like milk is about to trickle out my tear ducts. The neighbours go gaga over the cheese too, but I think it is easier for them to accept it because the idea of goat cheese seems fancy but at the same time they have eaten it rarely enough to have no preconceived ideas about what it should taste like (unlike my sour/runny yoghurt which bears little resemblance to the gunk they buy in the shops which most friends try once, smile politely, then never bother again).

I often wonder how many famous regional dishes that rely on fermentation were discovered completely by accident. Natto (glutinous fermented soybeans) were meant to have been discovered when a horse rider left his lunch bundled up behind the saddle for a few days. Perhaps there are other potential foods out there which people currently view as inedible which merely need to be combined with the right microbes to transform them into something utterly delicious (if you don’t mind your food crawling with microbes).

Disclaimer- Dairy products can harbor potentially dangerous microbes if handled incorrectly. If preparing your own dairy at home be sure to do sufficient research to ensure you are working safely.

The hard, grainy, easy to drain curd formed from heating a 50/50 mix of sour mature yoghurt and fresh milk.

Brisk Fiction- The Tomatos of Truth

Ada reclined in her hanging chair and absorbed the archival footage one more time.

On the screen a smiling woman in a flowing, paisley kaftan stepped lightly around the overflowing garden. “What’s better than a home grown tomato? This one is perfect. Sun ripened on the vine.”

Ada mouthed the magic words. Organic. Heirloom. Tomatos.

The smiling woman took a bite and her eyes rolled back into her head. Juice trickled down her chin and she smiled like a bashful child. How had Ada overlooked such an enticing ingredient in the cultural archives for so long? Millennia spent underground, waiting for the radiation levels to taper. Decades wasted on ninja-surgeon simulator or knitting scarves only to recycle the atoms yet again.

A quick check of the sensor array confirmed it would only be a few more centuries until they could explore the surface, though there was nothing up there apart from cyanobacteria and tardigrades. That would be plenty of time to comb the archives for the proper method to grow her own organic heirloom tomatos.

A tickle of excitement fluttered from Ada’s bare feet, all the way to her sensibly cropped hair, as she descended into the man-cave.

“Evan? I have an idea for a fun project!”

Ada shifted from foot to foot until Evan put down his miniature train and paintbrush. He flubbed the final stroke and frowned at his efforts.

“Just put it in the matter synthesiser and start again,” suggested Ada. “Besides, I found a much more interesting project we can do together.”


A quick scan of the genome archives found a dozen strains of heirloom Lycoperiscon esculentum. Mortgage lifter. Grosse Lisse. Brandywine. Green Zebra.

“Skip resurrecting the last one,” said Ada. “I want red ones.”

“Look at the old irregular spellings. Toh-mah-to-eey-z. I found the oldest video showing how to grow them, from all the way back in 1998, can you believe? They used some pretty loopy techniques but I’m sure we could skip some of the more difficult step-“

Ada cut him off with a wave.

“No! We have to follow the video exactly, otherwise they won’t be organic heirloom tomatos.

Evan poked at his tablet. “As you wish, my love. I think the fusion cells can handle the strain, if I hold off printing miniature trains for a few centuries. Of course we could just synthesize a tomato for you to try. They might not even taste that goo-“

“No! I’m sick of synthesised food. And besides… it’ll be fun to work on something together.”


While Evan busied himself watching grainy organic gardening videos, Ada snuck upstairs to the molecular synthesizer. She closed the door quietly and searched the thousands of options. They had eaten little more than nutritionally complete sugary bacon bites for centuries. Tomato: there it was. It had to be the same thing as organic heirloom tomatos. She pressed the button and watched the glowing chamber as the atoms snapped into place. The fruit finished with a ding, big enough for a single gulp. She popped it into her mouth, salivary glands twisted with anticipation.

Upon biting down, the nasty thing burst. Acid slime jetted down her throat. She gagged at the texture: somehow powdery and rubbery at the same time. Damn synthesizer wasn’t up to the job. Real organic heirloom tomatos was a sensory delight. She had seen the kaftan woman’s reaction with her own eyes.

Ada returned to her lifepartner, as he finalised preparations. She considered confessing her mistake, but he seemed so excited with his calculations. If they did everything right, followed the ancient wisdom of the ancestors, everything would work out fine.

“Have you figured it out?” Ada tried to ignore the persistent prickling on her lips. “We have to follow the instructions exactly.”

“The techniques are pretty strange, but anything to keep you happy my love. Synthesising the resources will put a strain on the power cells, so we will have to go into stasis for a few centuries to build up energy reserves.”

“The radiation levels will be low enough by then. Add a kaftan to the production queue and meet me in bed.”


Three centuries later Ada and Evan climbed the long tunnel to the surface and stepped outside. The orangey ultraviolet light bit at their skins. Millennia of storms had worn the land down to bedrock. Only a crust of slime and lichens tickled the smooth horizon. Ada refused the radiation suit, preferring her kaftan and a session in the resurrection chamber afterwards.

“The first step is to make some newspaper.” Evan scouted around for a suitable place. “We could save a lot of time if we just made it in the synthesizer and-“

“No. I want proper newspaper made using authentic 20th century techniques.”

“That means growing resurrected pine tree embryos, building a chlorine factory and pulping plant, then a printing press.”

“Do it,” commanded Ada. “I won’t have a single step skipped. That’s the only way to be sure the final product are genuine organic heirloom tomatos.

“Fine. I’ll make the preparations and meet you in bed after you decontaminate.”

Fifty years later they re-emerged to find the bots shoving the last of the wood into the grinders. Ada resisted the urge to cover her ears against the racket, just in case an “I told you so” was in the works. The acrid waste from the bleaching plant had collected into a small lake, killing what little greenery had sprung from the rocks.

“As you wanted, my darling. A precise reproduction of The Daily Mail, circa 2013.”

Ada narrowed her eyes to read the headline. “Woman Finds Penis Shaped Strawberry in Garden?”

“We can grow some of those next if you like” replied Evan. “I’m just lucky you didn’t want to use recycled carpet – now that is a complicated process.”

“So remind me what the newspaper supposed to do, husband.”

“It suppresses the weeds.”

“Oh no! I forgot we needed dandelions and dock and running couch grass as well, to maintain the Balance of Nature.

“Don’t worry, I resurrected some weed embryos as well, plus a range of insect pests. According to the videos they are all important parts of the Web of Ecology.”

“Evan! You’re wonderful. I can’t wait until we can both bite into our organic heirloom tomatos.

Once Ada was at a safe distance, Evan fired up the mulching machine to convert the pine forest waste into compost feedstock. She put on a brave face, kaftan wrapped around her mouth to avoid the stinking exhaust, shoulder pressed to her ear to blunt the racket. It shouldn’t matter that the diesel was from the synthesizer- even Ada couldn’t wait another million years for authentic oil deposits to form.


After a brief four month nap all the inputs were ready. Together they laid the compost, then newspaper (pausing to read Bigfoot Kept Lumberjack Sex-Slave), then a layer of sweet smelling mulch aged to perfection. Evan handed the hardened embryos of the heirloom tomatos to Ada, one at a time, then the green specks of clover and nettles and nutgrass.

Every morning Ada returned, barefoot, dragging the hem of her kaftan in the mulch. She sprinkled the garden with precisely chlorinated water from a plastic hose, exactly as shown in the video. The dots of green soon erupted into a vibrant carpet. She did her best to not complain as her fingers ached from weeding. She didn’t scream when a tobacco hornworm sunk its fangs into her thumb. This was how the ancients worked their magic: it was all so authentic.

Four long months after planting, after starry yellow flowers dropped, after silver-green nubs of fruit swelled and blushed through shades of watery red, the moment had finally arrived. Every night Ada had watched the archival footage over again, studying the ecstatic woman for the briefest flicker of insincerity. It had to be true. The true taste of organic heirloom tomatos would soon prove Ada right.

“Do you think this one looks ready?” Ada asked, cupping the pendulous, crimson mass in her palm. Was the feeling rolling over in her stomach excitement or plain dread?

“Only one way to find out,” Evan replied. “You should go first. It was your idea.”

With a gentle twist the fruit came loose. The glandulous bushes hissed a warning in volatile alkaloids.

Ada sniffed the scarlet globe. The same solanaceous aroma, mellowed by a hint of decay.

She touched her lips to the rubbery epidermis. Did they prickle with expectation?

A tentative bite into the powdery flesh. The acid, slimy juice escaped out the corner of her mouth.

Evan watched, unblinking, full of hopeful intent.

Ada attempted to roll her eyes, but it turned into a grimace. The prickling spread up the back of her throat, deep into her sinuses.

“Wow!” Evan used his most supportive tone. “Save some for me.”

There was no hiding from the truth forever. Head hung, Ada handed over the remaining half.

He touched the seedy pulp with his tongue, smacked his lips delicately, furrowed his brows a moment, then promptly devoured the offering.

“This is amazing,” he said between sloppy mouth sounds. “I’ve never eaten a real living thing before. What should we grow next? Zucchini? Brussel sprouts? Radishes are ready in weeks!”

If he was putting on a brave face for Ada’s benefit she didn’t want to shatter the illusion. Suddenly the callouses on her fingers, the sunburn on her neck, the ache in her back asserted themselves.

“I’ll come pick some more for you tomorrow, my love. How about we go back inside, sit down with a big bowl of nutritionally complete sweetened bacon bites? Then you can show me how to hand paint those little plastic trees for your model train set.”

Tomato Plant and Root (Basilius Besler 1613)