The Urban Agriculture Problem

These days there are a slew of reasons for wanting to grow your own food. The most obvious reason is the high costs associated with buying organic, locally-grown fruits and vegetables. Another reason for urban farming’s rise in popularity is the alleged health concerns surrounding the widespread use of pesticides and/or GMO crops in modern agriculture. The problems are further exacerbated by recent population trends, indicating continued growth and demand for city living (i.e. more and more people are moving to urban settings). There are many startups attempting to address these concerns with complex–and expensive, equipment to meet the ever increasing demand for indoor farming and sustainable food systems. However, the biggest challenge they seem to face is the lack of horticultural education on the part of the general public.

“Grow-your-own” sounds hip and cool, but actually growing your own can be pretty daunting, especially in poorly lit, sub-optimal interior spaces. Far too often, solutions for sustainable living discount or flat out ignore the roles ancillary disciplines play in the process. In the case of indoor farming, people want to grow their own food primarily because it will save them money or make them healthier and not necessarily because they want to get into gardening. Thus the problem and the proposed solutions are frequently at odds with each other. The user experience becomes clunky and difficult with a high learning curve to boot. There’s too much in-between knowledge to be filled, shifting the burden from product to consumer. Unless we somehow automate the entire gardening process, customers are left with unanticipated responsibilities, rigorous chores, and what will feel like major time sinks. “It sucks to grow-my-own. I’ll just pay the premiums and dream of a better world instead,” they’ll say.

Not to put a damper on this hot topic, but the challenge centers around plants being actual living things. As history tells us, once humanity successfully domesticated key plant species, the Agricultural Revolution was born. Large scale agriculture enabled even larger populations over time and food quickly became a commodity. Continuous population rise, however, caused us to slowly “outgrow” traditional agriculture’s limits and the old system has now become unsustainable. Genetic engineering seems to provide us a possible lifeline (temporarily at least), but the science behind it remains controversial. Which brings us full circle. Interestingly, when problems get big enough, we tend to always return to the basics. The basics in this case are traditional farming methods, only this time they are compounded by the limitations of urban life.

Solving urban agriculture requires a shift in our population’s mindset regarding plant cultivation. Raising a bean stalk from seed to harvest requires at least some level of horticultural exposure. It is by no means rocket science, as people grow vegetables all the time in the ‘burbs. However, it is an acquired skill nonetheless, a skill mostly unpracticed today by most urbanites. On a side note, I also don’t foresee automatons running our indoor or outdoor gardens anytime soon, contrary to what buzzworthy AI proponents would have you believe. Those days will come, but not soon enough for many of us.

Gardening is increasingly popular among millennials, which is great, but basic education is still needed if we are to truly solve “grow-your-own.”  We are not quite there yet, but I am hopeful that growing plants, at least in some ways, will be the next big thing.

Ornamental Slavery?

Walk into any Home Depot or a major garden center and you just can’t help but feel sorry for their plants. Not only are they grown for human consumption, but the mere fact that they’re displayed in rows, jammed up against one another, blindly hosed down every couple of hours by staff, just waiting to be bought. This especially rings true for tropicals designed for indoor use, as their sight in a giant warehouse could not be further from their natural habitat.

As the overnight temperatures dip into the lower 40s here in the Pacific Northwest, I cannot help but feel the same about my own tropical houseplant collection, many of them still anxiously waiting outside for their lucky day to be brought back indoors for winter. I stare at them while drinking my afternoon coffee, as they soak in the last few rays of the Oregon sunshine before the inevitable rainy season. I see them and think, they must really hate this and that this must be torture for themThat no plant should ever be containerized for human enjoyment, savagely ripped out of its natural habitat, grown under artificial conditions, just barely surviving, as we smugly drink our gourmet coffees and carry on with our days. I think of all the “annuals” that aren’t true annuals, the millions of geraniums that are soon going to be thrown to the compost pile if not straight trashed in the coming weeks. I find myself wanting to start a PETA for plants, but then I read this, stop myself, and realize something.

Plants are an extremely important part of the food chain and as true plant lovers, it would be prudent to have to extend our protectionist attitudes toward agriculturally grown species as well. This would leave us with little to eat, especially vegetarians. Yes, we should care about geraniums and houseplants. Yes, the growing conditions in most homes are less than optimal. Right you are that livestock farming is arguably far viler than anything I’m complaining about here. At the same time, I still don’t know how I feel about the prospects of artificial meat. Likewise, I also cannot imagine my house or backyard without ornamental plants. Just as hamburgers and buffalo wings are part of American food culture, ficus plants and Draceana marginata are the staples of home decor. Palm trees are absolutely beautiful and I could not imagine Santa Monica beach without them. Am I a bad person for thinking these things? Far from it.

I and millions of other people grew up in the world with these cultural norms. And like most norms, few of them scale well. Sadly, with ever increasing population sizes, most farms have grown from a few domesticated animals to unspeakable death camps. Tropicals went from existing in the tropics only to nearly every home in the civilized world. Cocunut palms (Cocos nucifera) have been naturalized in so many places around the tropics that botanists aren’t really sure of their true location of origin. The butterfly palm (Dypsis lutescens) for example, has lost far too many specimen in its natural habitat in Madagascar to deforestation and other human activity, but the species is said to be thriving as a houseplant or as a landscape plant and therefore cannot be truly considered endangered. Does that mean that we shouldn’t care about the fate of the butterfly palm in Madagascar? Or course not.

Our world has grown tremendously complex in the last 100 years. We need to make some serious optimizations before it is too late. I don’t think that we should be cutting out the consumption of meat from our diets and perhaps artificial meat is the long answer to our harrowing farm practices. Maybe augmented reality tech can turn boring landscapes into lush tropical ones. I’m not quite ready to make these leaps yet, but it is vital that we do not ignore these problems and their ever increasing urgency. We need to keep an open mind about good solutions where everyone can benefit. In the end, a starving child from the Third World should be able to enjoy a delicious cheeseburger in the cozy confines of a houseplant-decorated home the same way that I do.

Plant Family Overview: Arecaceae (Palms)

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Archontophoenix species at the LA County Arboretum & Botanic Garden

Perhaps no other plant family has piqued my interest in botany more than the beautiful palms. This is not at all surprising, of course. My admiration and awe for these sexy plants is shared by millions across the globe. They are the archetypical symbols of luxury, vacations, and the tropics, powered by a massive army of growers and cultivators worldwide. Beyond aesthetics, there are numerous other economical uses for these plants, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll limit our focus to their ornamental value alone.

Even though palms are nearly pantropical, many avid enthusiasts regularly attempt to grow them anyway in their respective climates. Indoors or out, palms can be found in almost every corner of our planet.

In the future, you will likely see detailed profiles of particular species that I find most intriguing.

Biology and Morphology

Palms are flowering monocots of the Arecaceae family of plants. As the linked article describes, most thrive exclusively in subtropical and tropical regions. They are typically single-stemmed, non-branching, and tree-like. Tree-like because there seems to be an ongoing debate as to what constitutes a true tree. The TLDR; answer is that palms do not form rings around their trunks as they age and therefore do not produce what’s known as secondary growth, which technically disqualifies them from true treehood.

Several species are bush-like and clumping, like Rhapsis excelsa and Dypsis lutescens, but most eventually form tree-like woody or semi-woody stems. Their leaves are either palmate or pinnate and are always gorgeous to look at.

Most palms cannot be pruned or rooted from cuttings and must be propagated from seed.

Cultivation and Care

Most palms love fast-draining, sandy soil, and lots of moisture. Some, like Cyrtostachys renda, can even grow in water and prefer soaked bogs and marshland. Many grow near the beaches and as such enjoy significant sun exposure. In fact, most prefer high levels of light and only a few are said to tolerate shade and dim growing conditions. This likely explains why only a handful of species can be successfully grown as houseplants. The expensive Kentia palms (Howea forsteriana) and various species of the Chamadorea genus are among those commonly sold for the home.

Buying and Growing Palms

My experience–at least in the Pacific Northwest, has been that finding and buying palms–outside of the select few species that are usually circulated by retailers–to be a difficult one. Buying small starter specimen has been especially tough. Besides the diminutive Parlor Palm (Chamadorea elegans), most nursery palms are 3-4 feet tall and start at around $100. There is apparently no market for seedlings or immature starter plants, the assumption here being that most buyers prefer lush, mature specimen. While that may be true for the general population, palm enthusiasts, like myself, are left with few options. Mail order nurseries and popular palm sites like Real Palm Trees offer a much larger selection, but once again at a pretty hefty price. Growing palms from seed can also be a pretty challenging and time-consuming endeavor with somewhat unpredictable results.

I’ve dedicated an entire post to the difficulties in finding plants in general and I will not belabor the point here. The problem is not unique to palms, but it does feel more pronounced with them, since most are slow-growing and have limited means of propagation. Obviously, for those who live in frost free zones, this is practically a non-issue. Luckily for palms, the rest of the world is also interested, but unfortunately many plant lovers today must still jump through costly (and often blind) hoops in an effort to increase their palm collection. Hopefully we can change that soon.

Indoor Plants Outdoors

Many of us “northerners” do not have the luxury of planting, willy-nilly just about anything in our gardens. For us, tropical gardens are a thing of the true tropics. Hawaii, the Caribbean islands, and Southeast Asia come to mind. Floridians and Southern Californians can get away with them to some extent, but for most of us in the northern hemisphere, we must treat tender perennials as either annuals or container plants that we overwinter indoors.

Making matters worse is the somewhat artificial distinction in the industry between indoor and outdoor plants. Most tropicals north or south of the tropics tend to be sold as houseplants in nurseries and retail department stores. These plants are not designed to be moved outdoors and are specifically bred and trained to survive in the somewhat unnatural confines of a human home. This of course does not mean that you cannot move them outside during the summer, many people do. However, there are a couple of gotchas to be aware of that are not usually shared up front by most plant care guides:

  • full sun in the outdoors is not the same as full sun through a window indoors
  • even sun-loving succulents will sunburn if you suddenly place them outside in full sun
  • even partial sun (2-3 hours) can burn the leaves of shade plants
  • plants in a container are far more exposed to the elements than a plant in the ground
  • de-bugging plants in the fall is real and important

The Sun

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The sunburned leaves of a Jade Plant

As you can see in the above photo, the sun-loving Jade Plant’s leaves are severely burned only after a single day in full sun. This plant has clearly not seen sun like this before and was bred to survive in an indoor environment. Fortunately, gardeners can train houseplants for the outdoors and slowly expose them to sunny conditions. For example, placing them outside for one hour each day in the first week and slowly extending the time as the summer progresses. The sun’s intensity in your climate can of course also affect the length and duration of this process.

Container Plants

Houseplant guides are notorious for claiming that tender tropicals are not to be exposed to temperatures lower than 50 or 60 degrees Fahrenheit (10-15 degrees C).  However, if you were to look up the USDA hardiness zones of most of these houseplants, you’ll quickly find that they are far more hardy than these guides would have you believe. Again, this does not mean that you should suddenly move a houseplant with complete disregard for outside conditions. Instead, a smooth transition is preferred.

The other thing to consider is that most houseplants, unless we are transplanting them in the ground for the summer, will likely stay in pots or containers. As such, if overnight temps dip close to the lower end of a plant’s hardiness zone, then cold damage can occur far sooner for potted plants than for their in-ground counterparts. Roots in containers are much more exposed and susceptible to cold air than in the ground. This is often known as plants getting “cold feet.” Microclimates and a close proximity to a heated pool or doorway can help, but it’s good to be aware of these seemingly minor technicalities.

Bugs and Overwintering

As overnight temperatures approach the freezing, most tropicals need to come back inside. It is also extremely important that we do not bring the outside in. Bugs, spiders, slugs, worms or anything else that may have set up shop in our pots all need to be dealt with. Here’s a great article with many useful tips.

As for overwintering plants that are generally not considered to be houseplants, but nonetheless need to be overwintered, a different approach may be needed. Oleanders (Nerium), for example, prefer cool winter temperatures, as do many succulents. In these cases, an unheated garage with a window or a cool, well-lit hallway would work far better than a warm living room.

In Conclusion

Newly purchased houseplants at the end of the day are just normal plants that have never been outside. With a little extra knowledge and care one can easily grow them outdoors during the growing season. Some consideration should be taken while moving them in or out, but otherwise you’re doing them a favor by relocating them to a more natural habitat. Care guides and hardiness zones can be confusing, but with a little research one will find that most tender plants can (and should) be grown outside for most of the year in all but the harshest climates.

Finding Plants And Seeds

When it comes to finding plants in 2017, local nurseries and the internet is most people’s go to solution. Casual gardeners don’t even bother with specialized nurseries and instead simply opt for Home Depot or Lowe’s offerings. In fact, in the US, one can buy plants from almost anywhere. The selection of plants, however, can vary wildly from place to place and so can price and quality. As for finding specific plants, especially rare or more exotic types, the internet is often the only choice we are left with. Once again, price and quality can be questionable, even more so when attempting to buy starter plants or fresh seeds. Here are some examples from my experience.

As already evident from my earlier posts, I’m a huge Cordyline fan. About six months ago, one cultivar in particular, the Cordyline Fruticosa “Kiwi” had me searching the internet for hours.

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Cordyline Fruticosa “Kiwi”

I finally found a reputable sounding seller from Hawaii on eBay that sold wood cuttings of these plants for $25 apiece. I decided to buy one even though with shipping costs, the total price was closer to $35. So basically a small 6″ tall plant that looked nothing like the above picture arrived in the mail a week or two later. It came with instructions and all kinds of warnings about keeping the plant out of direct sunlight and the importance of constant moisture. I followed every care instruction I could find, but it slowly withered and died anyway. Perhaps it’s no accident that they don’t sell these in local nurseries. Or maybe I bought a substandard specimen. I don’t really know, but the only way to find out is to buy another one from another faceless seller online.

Some time ago, I also decided to grow a Kentia Palm (Howea Forsteriana) from seed. Why, you might ask? Because the only other solution was to buy a large specimen from a local specialist for $200. I knew these were notoriously difficult to grow from seed, but I wanted to try anyway. So I ended up buying 6 dry looking seeds, once again from a seemingly reliable account on eBay for a grand total of $6. The seeds are still sown 6 months later and none of them have sprouted yet. This of course does not mean that they never will, as Kentia palm seeds can take years to germinate. My point here, once again, is that I had no idea how fresh these seeds were (they didn’t look fresh) and though I paid very little for them, as of yet not had successful results.

Just recently, I bought another batch of seeds of a different species of palm and it took the online retailer a whole month to ship them from Florida for $30 plus $25 shipping. I’m expecting to receive them this coming Friday.

The biggest takeaway from these is that if you are a plant enthusiast or collector and are looking to experiment with or buy exotic and/or rare plants, it will be extremely difficult to find a good price/quality deal online. You can of course always travel to locations where these plants are naturally grown and probably find them, but most of us do not have the means to travel the world freely in search of exotic plant species. A better solution is needed. Using location-based services, we need to connect plant enthusiasts like never before. I want to be able to search for people around me for plants that I want to buy and possibly physically examine them before doling out a load of cash in the blind and paying astronomical shipping costs. I think we need to find a way to make that happen.

Plant Hardiness Zones

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Hardiness

By far the most popular way of measuring plant hardiness is the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. This of course applies to the United States only, but maps that are based on similar data exist for other parts of the world. There are yet other scales and systems that attempt to paint a more optimal picture of a plant’s likelihood of thriving such as the AHS’s Heat Zones and Sunset’s eponymous Sunset Zones. For the purposes of this article, we will focus only on the USDA system, since that is the most popular and most likely to be used by nurseries and plant information web sites. Read More

Plant Identification

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Are these even the same genus?

I just want to know

As a firm believer in science and somewhat of a compulsive about classifying and ordering things, I have this odd dissatisfaction with how difficult it is, especially for an amateur to positively identify a particular species of plant. There are a number of reasons for this of course, some of which I will get into at the end of this article. Firstly though, let’s try to get at the heart of the problem. In the photo above, there are two instances of what seem like distinct plants. Here’s how I identified them along with my line of reasoning. Read More