Tag Archives: Agriculture history

All episodes that discuss, relate to, or center around the history of agriculture.

49: Apples Transcript

Listen to the full episode.

Hallie: Hello and welcome to One to Grow On. A show where we dig into questions about agriculture and try to understand how food production impacts us and our world. My name is Hallie Casey and I studied and currently work in agriculture.

Chris: I’m Chris Casey, Hallie’s dad. Each episode we pick an area of agriculture or food production to discuss and this week we are talking about apples.

[Background music].


Hallie: Okay, dad. What do you know about apples?

Chris: I know that some of them are delicious. Some of them are not. Some of them taste way too sour or like cardboard.

Hallie: Right.

Chris: I know that they can be stored for up to a year, which still blows my mind.

Hallie: That’s true. [Laughs].

Chris: I know they got little seeds in them and worms like to use them for houses at least in cartoons or something. I don’t know.

Hallie: Yeah, good stuff.

Chris: You can stick a crabapple on the end of a stick and fling it really far.

Hallie: We used to play like, I don’t know. I can’t remember if we had a name for it, but we had a crabapple tree up at the farm and we would take crabapples and throw them and the other person would hit them with a tennis racket and they would just explode. It was so much fun.

Chris: Oh boy.

Hallie: Probably not good for the tennis racket, but that tennis racket was probably like 45 years old.

Chris: Or crabapples. Sure.

Hallie: I mean, it was really not good for the crabapple. [Laughs].

Chris: Alright. So apples, what do you got? What’s so great about the apple?

Hallie: The apple also known as Malus domestica is in the Rosaceae family. We have talked about lots of things in the Rosaceae family, so I thought it would actually be interesting to talk about where in the Rosaceae family apples are compared to other things in the Rosaceae family. Listeners, I will put this on the Instagram and probably on the Twitter.

If you want to see what it is that dad and I are going to be talking about, you can find it there, but dad, this is basically a hypothesis of the evolutionary structure of the Rosaceae family that you can see here. Can you describe what it is for the listeners?

Chris: Well, I see Johnny and Maura up top and there’s also some David.

Hallie: What? No. [Laughs].

Chris: Okay. Now, what I’m looking at is this sort of ridiculous graph. On the left-hand side, it starts out as I guess, three lines sort of splitting out from each other at not quite, but almost a right angle and branching into a whole bunch of other little lines, which branch into even more little lines. It just sort of makes this little kind of tree like structure I guess and towards the lines become different colors I guess to represent different species of apple.

Hallie: It’s to represent different types of fruits within the Rosaceae family.

Chris: Oh, got it.

Hallie: Like if you see on the left, there’s like achene, druplet, follicles, capsules, dry drupe pome, et cetera. We’ve talked about some of these different types. We’ve talked about drupes on the show, we’re going to be talking about pomes today but basically, this is just like different structures of fruit within the family. You can see up here at the top, we have Fragaria and Rosaceae.

Rosaceae is roses like you have in your garden, Fragaria is strawberries and then you have rubrics, so those are all up at the top. Then down at the very bottom there’s Prunus, which is things like peaches and apricots and plums and then in the middle, you have Malus and Pyrus. Can you guess what Pyrus is if we know Malus is Apple?

Chris: Are Pyrus cherries?

Hallie: No, that’s Prunus.

Chris: Okay. Pyrus, I don’t know. Does it have to do with papyrus? Is it like little paper reeds?

Hallie: No, it’s pears. [Laughs].

Chris: Oh, that makes sense sort of.

Hallie: Yeah, apples and pears are quite similar. They’re both pomes.

Chris: Alright. Do they rhyme?

Hallie: No, not a poem. A pome, so P-O-M-E. A pome is a fruit consisting of a fleshy enlarged receptacle and then a tuft central core containing the seeds. A receptacle is basically the thing that holds the flower and it’s right below the ovary and this is actually what strawberries are as well as they’re mostly a receptacle. Then on the outside is where the actual fruit is.

Pomes are a little bit different where the enlarged receptacle is on the outside and then the seeds from the ovaries are on the inside. Basically, the inside bit is what comes from the ovaries and on the outside this technically vegetative part of the flower structure grows up and around it to protect those seeds.

Chris: Okay. When you say receptacle, basically, you mean the delicious part?

Hallie: Yeah, well, so the receptacle strictly speaking is like the stock that holds the flower and it’s the part on the stock that’s right below the ovary, but with like pears, apples, strawberries, when the ovaries are fertilized, then that part also grows as well as the ovary itself.

Chris: Cool.

Hallie: The fleshy part is the receptacle, the enlarged receptacle. The part we eat is the enlarged receptacle. We have talked about Amygdalin once on the show before. We talked about it actually in our Halloween episode last year when we were talking about apricot pits, but Amygdalin is also present in apple seeds, although in a smaller amount.

Chris: I do not remember what Amygdalin is.

Hallie: It is the thing that makes cyanide.

Chris: Maybe don’t eat those seeds in large quantities.

Hallie: I mean, you would have to eat a lot of them and honestly, it would be very hard because you would also have to like break them open. Usually, if people eat apple seeds, sometimes they just chew on them. Sometimes they swallow them whole accidentally. You’d have to basically make a smoothie of like 500 apple seeds and then eat all of it, which would be horrible and disgusting, so it’s not that big of a deal.

Chris: It definitely sounds unpleasant. Actually, now I do remember this. We talked about apricot seeds in foods that kill if you’d like to re-examine that episode, but yes, that’s where I’m remembering this knowledge from. Apple seeds have the same potential, but probably not a thing.

Hallie: Apricot pits have dramatically more Amygdalin. Definitely do not chew on an apricot pit.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: But apple seeds are not that big of a deal. Like I have heard that as a fun fact, like, oh, apple seeds can kill you. They can’t really kill you unless you eat an immense amount, which is true for most foods.

Chris: Fair enough.

Hallie: Originally, it is thought that apples originated in Central Asia, but modern apples actually share more genetic material with European apples just because of hybridization along the Silk Road. We started domesticating apples a very, very, very long time ago and Malus domestica is just such a distinct species and has genetic material from many, many different kinds of apples that is really like its own thing now, which is why it’s its own species, even though it was just hybrids from all these wild species. But that’s super cool.

Chris: This sounds like the kind of question that would get you thrown off a bridge on Monty Python.

Hallie: [Laughs]. One of the interesting things about apples is that they are self-incompatible. We’ll talk about this later on in the show when we talk about breeding. But that basically means that one apple tree cannot fertilize itself. It needs a second other apple tree to make apples. This plus the long lifespan of apples plus it being involved in cultural practices and being eaten by a lot of people made for hybridization and a lot of genetic variation during domestication. It’s very different from corn that we have now where like we have a lot of different varieties of corn, but they’re very genetically similar because apples cannot self-fertilize, you have so many, so many, so many different kinds of apples and they’re very, very genetically distinct.

Chris: I know we’ve got a lot to talk about and I don’t want to go off on too much of a tangent, but how common are self-compatible plants versus self-incompatible plants? That’s not something that I ever would have really thought of.

Hallie: With herbaceous plants, things like tomatoes, they have a year to live and then they’re done, so it’s much more common for them to be self-compatible and self-fertilizing just because it makes much more sense. If you have a year and then you’re done, then you really want to be cranking out those seeds as quickly and as easily as possible. If you have a tree crop, that’s really their goal is to live as long as possible, it makes sense to want to have a lot of genetic diversity because that will make you more resistant to disease.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: That’s really your goal. If a disease gets to a tree, that tree might be done. If there are a lot of other trees that are very similar genetically, then they also might be done. Having like self-incompatibilities just makes a lot more sense evolutionarily as an advantage to trees versus if you’re talking about more short-lived species.

Chris: So every apple tree is unique and special just like people.

Hallie: It’s true except for it’s not which we will be talking about. [Laughs].

Chris: Alright.

Hallie:
I want to talk about Johnny Appleseed. Dad, for any non-Americans that we have listening to the show, can you give a very brief summary of who Johnny Appleseed is?

Chris: Actually, I’m not sure that I can.

Hallie: What do you know about him?

Chris: Johnny Appleseed is one of those names that you hear here in American, even if you don’t know a lot about him. He’s like a guy that planted a lot of apple trees and had this philosophy of life that I’ve got everything I need, the sun and the rain and the apple seed and I’m thankful to God for all of these things.

Hallie: Yeah, that was a great summary.

Chris: Thanks. That’s all I know.

Hallie: Johnny Appleseed is based on a real man called John Chapman who was born in 1774 right before the American Revolution in Massachusetts. As he was growing up, where he was living was going through like a lot. Capital, A capital L, A Lot. Eventually, he moved west to Ohio and he was in Pennsylvania for a bit as well. Basically, he moved to Ohio during a land deal. The rules of it basically were the settlers could take land from indigenous people “settle it” up to 100 acres of land in what we now call Ohio if they planted 80 trees. You had to plant 80 trees to be able to claim your 100 acres. So Johnny Appleseed moved to Ohio and he would go up to the cider presses in the winter and load up on apple seeds that were a leftover a by-product and then come spring, he’d go and plant them all by a river with a little fence of brush around them to keep the deer out.

Then five years later, he’d come back, get all the saplings out of the ground and sell them to new settlers.

Chris: Sounds like a lot of work.

Hallie: Well, but the thing is it’s not a lot of work. You plant seeds and then five years later you have something to sell. It’s not like he was tending these apple trees. He was basically setting up little nurseries that he would just leave by themselves to function. Sometimes he would come back in once or twice to check on them and make sure everything was going well, but he wasn’t doing much.

Chris: So he made money off the land rush, basically.

Hallie: He made money off a land rush. It was like a very capitalist opportunity facilitating settler colonialism, but he was a weird guy. He took this money and it’s not like he went and bought a bunch of land or bought a bunch of people or resources or tried to make himself rich. He started to run a horse rescue with the money he was making. He would take in horses that he thought were being abused. He really couldn’t stand to see animals or plants abused or hurt, which is why he didn’t graft apple trees. We will talk more later about grafting apple trees, but that is something that was really, really common for hundreds of years. By the time Johnny Appleseed rolled around, it was very common to graft apples and he wouldn’t do it because he thought it was hurting the trees. He didn’t really live any particular places. He was a wanderer. He was very religious, so he would kind of wander around and spread the gospel.

He was a vegetarian later in life. There was this account that I found that Anthony Banning Norton, who was a journalist and historian he called Chapman the oddest character in all of our history in his 1862 History of Ohio. I copy and pasted a little account because I just thought it was really interesting. He said, “One cool autumn night while lying by his campfire in the woods, he observed that the mosquitoes flew in the blaze and were burned. Johnny who wore on his head a tin utensil, which answered both as a cap and as a mush pot, filled it with water and quenched the fire and afterwards remarked, God forbid that I should build a fire for my comfort. That should be the means of destroying any of his creatures,” meaning God’s creatures. Then in that same account, they talk about him sleeping in the woods, him walking around barefoot in the snow. I don’t know how truthful these accounts are just because it’s history and this guy wasn’t there. He was a journalist and he was talking to people who said that they were there, but boy, what a picture they draw.

Chris: Indeed.

Hallie: This really reminds me of if you’ve seen the Good Place you remember Doug Fawcett.

Chris: Yes.

[Laughter].

Hallie: This is what this reminds me of.

Chris: Right. Living on his own trying to make no impact whatsoever and just to backtrack super quick, as you said it very casually. He said he didn’t buy anything. He didn’t buy any land or people or whatever. Just to be clear, he did live in a time when buying people was possible.

Hallie: Exactly. I did want to be clear at the front, he did facilitate settler colonialism. He was taking advantage of these capitalist structures in this late time of oppression and he was able to benefit from that, but he was a weirdo amongst those systems. For sure.

Chris: [Laughs]. That’s awesome. Now, I’m curious. I wish we had more firsthand historical accounts of him. I’m sort of interested to learn more about the individual.

Hallie: Yeah, there’s a lot of interesting history, but the really interesting thing about Johnny Appleseed is really the impact he had because he wasn’t grafting plants and basically making clones, he was planting from seed and making genetically distinct individual trees. He dramatically increased the genetic diversity of apple trees in North America and made it really possible for genetic apple breeders today to have a lot of material to work with.

Chris: Okay. If apples are so genetically diverse, then how do apple growers predict how an apple is going to come out?

Hallie: We’re going to talk about that after the break.

[Background music].

Chris: Welcome to the break.

Hallie: Welcome everyone to the break. Dad, did you know we have a Patreon.

Chris: I did.

Hallie: We have a Patreon. It has several tiers on it. They are all super fun and I would encourage anyone who is listening and interested in supporting the show to just mosey your way on over there to patreon.com/onetogrowonpod.

Chris: We have several tiers. One of which includes our starfruit patrons, who should have just gotten a shipment of salt, which is amazing.

Hallie: It’s not just salt though. I want people to understand it’s not just salt. We worked very closely with this extremely cool shop that is based out of San Diego and they got like six specialty salts all of which I tried with you and oh my God, were they amazing?

Chris: Let me tell you a piece of sourdough bread with some butter and a little dash of the truffle oil salt is amazing. Also, the other night I had some corn on the cob with some butter and the Havana spice salt. Wow. That was incredible.

Hallie: That’s one of our tiers over on Patreon.

Starfruit patrons get a shipment every six months of very cool goodies that we love and we think they’ll love, but mostly we are just extraordinarily grateful for everyone on Patreon and all of your support of the show. You make it possible for us to do this and make it as wonderful as we are able to make it and thank you, especially to our wonderful starfruit patrons, Vikram, Lindsay, Mama Casey, Patrick and Shianne.

Chris: Thank you so much. We could not do the show without you.

Hallie: Back to the episode.

[Background music].

Hallie: Hey dad, do you have a nature fact for us?

Chris: I do have a nature fact.

Hallie: What is it?

Chris: One of the things that apples are used for is apple pie and I love me a good apple pie and there’s the expression American is apple pie, but did you know that apple pie actually originated in the UK and the first known recipe that was recorded that we have written down was by Geoffrey Chaucer?

Hallie: What? No way.

Chris: Yeah.

Hallie: Really?

Chris: Author of the Canterbury Tales often referred to as the father of modern English literature.

Hallie: Wow. That’s an incredible nature fact.

Chris: It included apples, figs, raisins, and pears in a pastry shell. But no sugar, which I’m guessing was probably much more expensive at the time.

Hallie: Honestly, that sounds pretty good. I feel like the raisins would bring that sweetness. It sounds like it would not be too sweet, but just right.

Chris: I was saying at the time I would probably be really happy to eat that pie.

Hallie: I feel like I would be happy to eat that now. Apples and pears and raisins, I could totally go with that and figs. I love figs. Figs are my favorite.

Chris: Figs are great.

Hallie: Tara tarara! Nature fact. Okay. You want to know about apple breeding.

Chris: You have no idea how much I want to know about apple breeding.

Hallie: A lot of the crops we eat as mentioned before can be pollinated by other flowers on the same tree or plant. Some flowers can even be pollinated by itself, like tomato flowers can just be pollinated by themselves. Apple pollen cannot fertilize flowers from the same plant. Their system to reject their own pollen actually also reduces the likelihood that parent or sibling plants can breed with them. As I mentioned, this makes for healthier plants more resistant to pathogens and pests, but it also makes it impossible to breed. The apples that Johnny Appleseed spread around North America, which were created by seed were mostly cider apples because for cider, you really just need the sugar content. They don’t have to taste good. They don’t have to look good. It’s very rare for an apple planted by seed to taste good and look good. It’s not common. The spread of apples across North America precipitated by Johnny Appleseed, but of course, not exclusively to John Appleseed, did lead to things called chance seedlings. Some of which led to varieties. We now know like the Golden Delicious, which is where you just have a random seed and eventually, wow. Something great comes of it, but almost never does that happen. We now have genetic sequencing, which does take some of the guesswork out of it. But honestly, if you think about it, if you’re trying to create a new apple, you can’t crossbreed between two apple trees necessarily that are related and you’re trying to isolate specific like genes, specific traits. Really, it’s just roll a dice. You have to plant a seed and then you have to wait 15 years to get an apple to see if it is good.

Chris: 15 years?

Hallie: That’s how long apple trees take. It’s like 10 to 15 years until the apples are ready to be harvested. It takes a long time. Sometimes it can be earlier if you have ideal conditions, but generally, that’s about how long it takes. It’s very hard. It’s very, very hard to breed apples. It’s very hard to breed apples. I cannot stress this enough.

Chris: Okay. Let me try to sort of clarify this in my mind. Let’s take Golden Delicious as an example because it’s like one of my favorite apples. Love me a Golden Delicious. If I want an orchard of Golden Delicious, then I get Golden Delicious apple seeds or do I start with saplings or whatever and plant them and then wait for years for them to become trees and then they keep producing apples forever or how does that all work?

Hallie: If you want a Golden Delicious apple orchard and you start with Golden Delicious apple seeds, you will not get Golden Delicious apples.

Chris: Really?

Hallie: Because the flowers on the Golden Delicious apple tree were pollinated by some other random tree, right?

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: The seeds are half Golden Delicious, half something else. How we breed plants is we do a lot of back crossing, so you cross with something else and then you cross back with the original plant. You cross with something else and you cross back with the original plant. That’s almost impossible to do on apples because of the self in compatibility and because they take so long to get to maturity. We don’t have these specific genes isolated. We don’t have the traits isolated. So Golden Delicious is really just totally random. How we get Golden Delicious apples, we take a root stock and we graft onto the top of it. Meaning we take part of a Golden Delicious apple tree and we cut off the top part of an apple tree and we stick on the top part of a Golden Delicious apple tree and they grow together and it’s basically cloning. This is how apples have been grown for a very long time. The oldest apple variety might be the Annurcha Apple, which some people think is the one mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his naturalist historia as maaleh or celer before the year 79.

Chris: Oh, that’s a while ago.

Hallie: We have been doing this for a very long time. We have been grafting apples because it’s very hard to breed apples, so we just clone them. We just clone them because that’s how you get good apples.

Chris: Okay. What’s the difference then between breeding and cloning? In this case, cloning, you’re taking an existing plant and you’re taking a piece of it and you’re growing that or you’re grafting something else on to it to grow it.

Whereas when you say breeding, you mean growing from seed and hoping that they’re pollinated by plants close enough to it to produce something predictable, except it sounds like that won’t happen. It’s just going to get pollinated however it gets pollinated and have fun with whatever you get that could be really interesting or it could be awful.

Hallie: Right. For example, say we’re breeding like sunflowers. You want a bigger sunflower seeds so that you can put them in the Piggly Wiggly’s and you also want something that is resistant to sunflower blight or whatever diseases affect sunflowers. So you take a sunflower that might be really affected by whatever disease is affecting the sunflowers but it has big seeds. Then you take another sunflower that has small seeds and is really resistant to this disease and you cross pollinate them like 200 times. Then you look at all of the babies that came out of those and see, do any of these have both of the traits that I want. You just keep doing that over and over again until you’re able to breed the specific traits that you want. That’s a really simplified version. Plant breeding is a lot more complicated than that, but you can’t really do that with apples just because of that self-incompatibility. You can’t keep breeding back and forth because of this mechanism to reject pollen that is related to the original tree. We just have to clone it. We roll the dice. We go out into the woods. Literally, this is how they found the Golden Delicious apple. They were just talking to farmers, going out into the woods, being oh, I heard so-and-so has an apple that’s good. They went and they found it in the woods and they took it and they said, this is a good apple. We will now take part of these branches and go clone them and now you can eat them in the grocery store.

Chris: Thank you to those people.

Hallie: Yeah, absolutely. But also, it’s roll the dice. They didn’t really do anything other than facilitate the growth of the apple tree.

Chris: Fair enough.

Hallie: We graft all the apples. They’re all clones. All the Red Delicious apples are exactly the same. All the Golden Delicious apples are exactly the same. All the Granny Smith apples are exactly genetically the same. Of course, this creates issues with genetic diversity and disease. But because we just have so much apple genetics, apples as a whole are not really at risk of a disease wiping out a monoculture, but like specific apple varieties might be.

Chris: Okay. As long as Golden Delicious are safe, I’m fine.

Hallie: Well, as of 2008, 90% of the apples produced in the US were just 15 varieties.

Chris: Wow.

Hallie: So Golden Delicious is probably one of those 15. That’s a lot of Golden Delicious apples. They’re probably okay, but compared to every other apple out there, they are definitely at a higher risk in terms of risk to diseases.

Chris: Sure.

Hallie: That’s how we make apples. In terms of who eats apples, China eats 40 million tons of apples. The US eats 4 million tons of apples, which is second place. So China eats the most apples.

Chris: I mean, they got a lot more people, so I guess it makes sense.

Hallie: The highest per capita, I was actually really surprised by this is Poland, Turkey and then Iran.

Chris: Interesting.

Hallie: Very interesting. China also grows the most apples. They grow 41 million tons. The US grows 4.7 million tons and then Turkey comes in third with 3 million tons.

Chris: The little good Turkey.

Hallie: I know. Apparently, very big apple people over in Turkey, had no idea. Post-harvest, this is the thing that you really wanted to talk about when I brought up talking about apples, you wanted to know how we get the apples off the trees and into storage and then to the grocery store.

Chris: Indeed.

At some point, we have to blame Hollywood for the need for them to be red, but we will come to that.

Hallie: No, that’s the first thing I have.

Chris: Oh really?

Hallie: Yeah, red color is normally just cosmetic. Like Gala apples, it’s an indicator of maturation, but that is pretty much the only apple that we eat commercially where that’s really an indicator. Normally, it just is consumers won’t eat an apple unless it has some red on it or it’s specifically not a red apple.

Chris: I remember in the nineties, there were a bunch of farmers that tried to breed some really great bright shiny red apples, but they all tasted like cardboard.

Hallie: Yes.

Chris: They ended up going out of business and there was this whole thing about farmer relief for these people who were losing a bunch of money because they grew really not good apples and some of them were like, you know we’re in business. We tried and we failed. That’s it. That’s what happened.

[Laughter].

Hallie: I mean, it is very hard to breed apples to be fair. As you mentioned at the top of the show, apples can be in storage for up to 12 months. Their storage period is 1 to 12 months in storage. Usually, that has to be in the right conditions though, so like the temperature is usually between 30°F and 40°F. The humidity has to be like 90% to 95% just so that they can stay good and edible and delicious.

Chris: You can’t just put it in the cupboard for a year.

Hallie: Can’t just put it in a cupboard for a year.

Chris: Alright.

Hallie: The next thing I wanted to talk about was browning. Do you know why apples go brown, dad?

Chris: I assume it’s some sort of oxidation.

Hallie: It is. Great work.

Chris: Thank you.

Hallie: Yes, I found a really helpful article in the Scientific American, which is called, “Why do Apple Slices Turn Brown After Being Cut?” When apples are cut or bruised, oxygen is introduced into that injured plant tissue and then when the oxygen is present in the cells an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase also known as PPO, which is in the chloroplasts will rapidly oxidize phenolic compounds. Then that oxidation creates a brown colored secondary like product. You can use lemon or pineapple juice to coat apple slices, which will slow enzymatic browning both because they have antioxidants in them and because they have a lower pH so all in all that causes the enzyme to be less active.

Chris: If you want lemon juice on your apple, it’ll stay better longer.

Hallie: It’s true, but in 2017 there was an apple approved. There was a GMO apple called the Arctic Apple and there’s actually several different varieties of Arctic apples.

Chris: Interesting.

Hallie: They basically just took out that PPO, that polyphenol oxidase enzyme out and so now, there’s no oxidation process happening. Other than that, the apples are the same, so they don’t brown. There was a lot of talk when these were first released about like kid’s snacks, pre-cut apple snacks, the apples that you can buy from McDonald’s and stuff like that when you are on the go, you have small kids that need the apples already cut up and you don’t have time to cut them up. There was a lot of talk about those consumer packaged goods, ready to go apples. But of course, apple trees take a long time to grow and they weren’t approved until 2017. So we still have a ways to go until we know really what the market’s going to be.

This year was their highest harvest to date, according to Growing Produce, which is like an industry publication. This article was published on October 28th, so pretty recently. We’re recording this on Halloween. This is pretty up to date. They had almost 8 million pounds and of course, fall is usually when apples are ready, like early fall. 8 million pounds of Arctic Apples this year. Probably will be more next year.

Chris: I wonder how they taste.

Hallie: I mean, they taste the same. They took like existing apple varieties and then just took out that enzyme, so they probably taste exactly the same.

Chris: Also kids, you don’t need time to cut up an apple. You can just take an apple and bite it directly.

Hallie: What if you’re like a tiny baby with the little tiny baby teeth or a small little baby mouth?

Chris: Your parents can cut it up for you. But I mean, let’s face it. That’s not who these things are marketed to. They’re marketed to kids that are 8, 9, 10 years old, who don’t want to be bothered with whole apples or parents that don’t want their kids to be bothered with whole apples and would rather just get them pre-cut apples. I don’t know.

Hallie: Maybe probably. I don’t really mind a pre-cut apple. I mean, we’ve talked on the show before about the question ability of pre-cut fruits, whether that’s apples whether that’s pineapples whether it’s watermelon, when you go into the store and there is like a precut section, one creates plastic, but two, also makes it possible for people to eat fruit that that it might’ve been challenging otherwise maybe because they have a disability maybe because they just don’t have enough time in the day to really take time to prepare fruits like that. There’s a lot of reasons why pre-cut fruit is complicated in terms of creating plastic, but beneficial. It’s complicated.

Chris: Well, pre-cut fruit is fine. Sure. I’ll keep an open mind.

Hallie: [Laughs].

Chris: That’s really cool apples. Love an apple. I’m not going to try to breed an apple, but I will definitely eat an apple and I might try some medieval apple pie.

Hallie: Absolutely. That sounds great. Got to go get me some figs.

Chris: Also Mama Casey, if you’re listening, we haven’t had apple pie in a while. Just saying it.

Hallie: You can make an apple pie. It’s not hard. No, dad come on. You can make an apple pie. You don’t need mom to make an apple pie.

Chris: I mean, she really makes good pie. Just saying it.

Hallie: Oh my God.[Background music].

Chris: Thanks for listening to this episode of One to Grow On.

Hallie: This show is made by me Hallie Casey and Chris Casey. Our music is Something Elated by Broke for Free.

Chris: If you’d like to connect with us, follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at One to Grow On Pod or join our Discord and Facebook communities and leaf us your thoughts on this episode.

Hallie: You can find all of our episodes and transcripts as well as information about the team and the show on our website, onetogrowonpod.com.

Chris: Help us take root and grow organically by recommending the show to your friends or consider donating to our Patreon at patreon.com/onetogrowonpod. There, you can get access to audio extras, fascinating follow-ups, exclusive bonus content and boxes of our favorite goodies.

Hallie: If you liked the show, please share it with a friend. Sharing is the best way to help us reach more ears.

Chris: Be sure to see what’s sprouting in two weeks.

Hallie: But until then, keep on growing.

[Background music].

49: Apples

This week we’re talking about apples! We discuss varieties, methods of propagation, and how apples were first domesticated. Also, how well do you know Chaucer?

The Johnny Appleseed song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_IrdS-zu48

Read the transcript of this episode.

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One to Grow On is a podcast that digs into the questions you have about agriculture and tries to understand the impacts of food production on us and our world. We explore fascinating topics including food, gardening, and plant sciences. One to Grow On is hosted by Hallie Casey and Chris Casey, and is produced by Catherine Arjet and Hallie Casey. Show art is by Ashe Walker. Music is “Something Elated” by Broke For Free licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.
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44: Bananas Transcript

Listen to the full episode.

Hallie: Hello and welcome to One to Grow On. A show where we dig into questions about agriculture and try to understand how food production impacts us and our world. My name is Hallie Casey and I studied and currently work in agriculture.

Chris: I’m Chris Casey, Hallie’s dad. Each episode we pick an area of agriculture or food production to discuss and this week it’s bananas.

[Background music].

Hallie: Bananas, that is what we are discussing.

Chris: Bananas, the fruit.

Hallie: What do you know about bananas, dad?

Chris: I know that bananas are a berry.

Hallie: Do you know that? How?

Chris: You have said so on multiple occasions over the course of this podcast.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Great work to you and me.

Chris: Especially when we were asked, what is a berry? Or rather, what is berry?

Hallie: Yeah, banana is berry.

Chris: I also have been reading a book about bananas, but I haven’t gotten very far. I know there was something about some rich guy forcing people to go into the jungle and build a railroad or something. I don’t know.

Hallie: Yeah, we’ll get to that.

Chris: Great. I’m sure it’s great. Oh, and there’s a place in Belgium where they sort of keep all of the different varieties of bananas. That’s like banana central.

Hallie: Oh, I don’t have that covered in this episode.

Chris: Okay. Well, great. I know something that you don’t.

Hallie: Maybe I can put that in the extra research.

Chris: Maybe, but that’s all I know about it really. I don’t remember exactly where it is or what it’s called, but I think it’s like the center for banana researcher, something. I remember you saying that all bananas are clones. At least all the ones we eat. All the Cavendish bananas.

Hallie: You know the word Cavendish. That’s something you know about bananas.

Chris: I do. I got that from the book.

Hallie: Nice.

Chris: I guess there are still other bananas, but I mean, they’re all going to die because of some blight anyway, so enjoy them while you can.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Yeah, good summary. We’re going to get further into all of those things. Let’s start at the very beginning. The banana, the Latin name is Musa and the family name is Musaceae. The family is named after the banana because it’s like the star of the family.

Chris: Wait, how is that named after the banana?

Hallie: The family is Musaceae and the bananas name is Musa. So, Musaceae.

Chris: I see. Okay. Got it.

Hallie: As you mentioned, the banana is a berry. The banana is also the largest herbaceous flowering plant. Herbaceous meaning never develops woody tissue and flowering meaning it has flowers. Typically, they get around 16 feet, but they can get up to 20 to 25 feet tall, so they’re a pretty big plant.

Chris: If it’s a berry, then why do people make cream pie out of it instead of a berry pie out of it?

Hallie: Because you add cream as opposed to a berry pie where you just add sugar.

Chris: I mean, I think a banana pie with sugar and a little pectin might turn out pretty well. What do you think?

Hallie: Well, you don’t put pectin in a berry pie. You just put sugar.

Chris: Oh, I thought you put pectin in it to make it all gloopy.

Hallie: I have never done that. I’ve only ever just added sugar to strawberries and then you just dump it in a pie shell and you cook it.

Chris: Or maybe some tapioca.

Hallie: I have put tapioca in sometimes, but it’s not necessary. I’ve definitely done it sometimes where it’s just sugar and berries and strawberries and blueberries and stuff.

Chris: All right. Well, I derail this into wanting to eat pie. So, you were saying.

Hallie: That’s the basics of the banana, but what actually is the banana?

The “root” of the banana is actually a corm, which is not root tissue, but stem tissue. We’ve talked about corms in the past. It’s modified stem tissue and then the banana “trunk” is not actually a trunk because trunks are woody. As we mentioned already, it’s an herbaceous plant. Never develops woody tissue. The “trunk of the banana tree” is actually what’s called the pseudostem. Pseudostem just means not actually a stem, but looks like a stem and it’s actually made of really tightly compacted leaf tissue.

Chris: Weird. It’s like one big green thing.

Hallie: Well, most plants are, dad.

Chris: But trees are brown in parts of them and I guess, would you call it like a stock? Would it be like a stock?

Hallie: Yeah, stock is totally a fine word, but usually people say trunk just because it’s so big. They’re used to saying trunk for a big thing like that.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: Whereas usually I think of stock as like a flower stock or something, but it is in fact more of like a stock.

Chris: But you wouldn’t chop it down and pop it on the fireplace.

Hallie: Absolutely not. It would not go well. The corm itself is a perennial tissue, but the rest of the banana is usually not perennial. When a banana is mature, when it’s an adult banana, usually the corm, the stem tissue under the ground will send up an actual stem, like an actual legitimate stem as well as an inflorescence, meaning a head of flowers. This is also called the banana heart. In the industry, they call it the banana heart, which is lovely. Then usually the above ground structure will die it back, like the whole pseudostem and the leaves and everything. Once you have bananas, you harvest the bananas, the above ground stuff ties back and then you get new growth from that perennial corm that’s under the ground.

Chris: Cool. Sorry, I’m trying to track. I keep rolling with the word corm around in my head because it’s not corn. It’s corm and so I’m trying to make sure that sticks like a big old stock, but when it’s mature, it pops up the stem, it grows the heart and then when that’s done, you get the banana. Banana comes right off. Does it grow another stem?

Hallie: Yeah, once you pop the bananas off, then the above ground stuff is done for the year. It just like skedaddles and dies back to the ground. Then starting the next year, when it’s time for a new banana to grow, it just starts from the ground up, gets like that 16 feet tall and then once it’s nice and tall, you get a new inflorescence that pops up and new banana and year after year, that’s how it goes.

Chris: That is wild. I want to try to find a time lapse of this happening in a field of banana trees. Are they called trees? I don’t know.

Hallie: They are colloquially called trees. They’re not trees, but they’re called a banana tree.

Chris: Just seeing them grow 16 feet every year, that’s wild.

Hallie: Yeah, they’re pretty cool plants. How many bananas are there? There are more than 1000 varieties of bananas in the world that are produced for consumption locally. However, as you mentioned, we really only eat the Cavendish banana. That’s the name of the variety, the Cavendish.

Chris: Are there other varieties just eaten by other people just not by us in other areas of the world? Is that what it is?

Hallie: It’s a lot of like, this is the banana I have next to my house, so this is the banana that I eat. It’s just varieties that are native to different parts of the world and that’s what is locally grown, but it’s not to any commercial production.

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: I want you to guess how many Cavendish bananas specifically just Cavendish bananas not the rest of the other 999 varieties, just the Cavendish bananas are grown? For a baseline, we got about 76 million metric tons of apples in 2019 and in oranges, it was about 46.1 million metric tons. If that’s apples and oranges, where do you think bananas falls?

Chris: I’m going to say 1 billion tons.

Hallie: Why would you go that far?

Chris: Because it sounds funnier than just trying to be accurate. I don’t know. We’ll say 200 million tons.

Hallie: 200 million tons when I gave you 76,000,000 and 46,000,000.

Chris: Well, you said 1 billion was like way too high.

Hallie: Yeah, it’s 200 million. Now you’re really like letting me down. I thought it was a high number and you’re like shooting above it. It’s 127.3 million. A lot more than apples and oranges.

Chris: Well, it is a lot more. It’s still within an order of magnitude-ish. Maybe not, but yeah that’s a lot. That’s okay. More than double oranges. One and a half times about apples, so bananas are like super popular.

Hallie: They’re very popular. As of 2015, bananas were the second most produced fruit by quantity not by weight after watermelons.

Chris: Jeez Louise.

Hallie: What is a banana? A banana by any other name would taste as sweet. No, it wouldn’t. I want to talk about the difference between plantains and bananas. What do you know about plantains, dad?

Chris: There’s a restaurant not too far from my house that sells fried plantains and they look a lot like short bananas and they’re delicious.

Hallie: Is that all you got?

Chris: That’s all I got.

Hallie: Okay. Pretty good. A lot of scientists, a lot of banana breeders, marketers argue about what a plantain versus what a banana is. They’re extremely closely related. For our purposes, plantains are much starchier. Plantains are usually cooked, whereas bananas are usually eaten raw. The term is also often bandied about the dessert banana. That’s what we’re talking about. The banana is sweet. It’s a treat. It’s not part of your meal whereas plantains can be.

Chris: It goes well in cereal and ice cream.

Hallie: For sure. In terms of nutritional value, the bananas are generally less healthier for you than a plantain, but they’re still okay. They have like one fifth of your daily nutritional value for vitamin B6. They have 17% of your daily nutritional value for vitamin C.

They have some potassium in them. They’re fine. They’re decent. They’re an okay little fruit, but plantains are much healthier. They have 54% of your daily nutritional value for vitamin C. They have 25% of your daily nutritional value for vitamin B6. They’ve got a whole bunch of good stuff in them and they are healthier, but less sweet. Less desserty.

Chris: Okay. But I mean, if you have some fried plantains, they taste pretty sweet people. I got to tell you.

Hallie: They’re a great food. If you can get your hands on them and you’ve never tried them before, would highly recommend.

Chris: I mean, if I had some right now, I would eat them and take a break.

Hallie: Shall we do that? Shall we go take a break?

Chris: Yes, there is some time between March which we recorded this particular episode in this particular mid roll. In that stretch of time, I had some fried plantains and they were so good. I love them. They’re the best Peruvian roast chicken side that I’ve ever had. That’s for sure.

Hallie: This episode we actually wanted to encourage all of our listeners, particularly those who are US citizens to register to vote. The deadline to register here in Texas is coming up in October, but you can go to youtube.com/howtovoteineverystate to learn more about how to register where you are.

Chris: We are lucky, even though it doesn’t always feel that way to live somewhere where we do have a voice in our representation and so please, let’s use it. Register to vote and then vote. You know who I’m sure votes?

Hallie: Who is that?

Chris: Our patrons, especially our starfruit patrons, Vikram, Lindsay, Mama Casey, Patrick, and Shianne.

Hallie: You guys are so incredible. You keep our world spinning and we are so so grateful for you.

Chris: It’s true. But now, back to the episode.

Hallie: Dad, do you have a nature fact for us?

Chris: I do. Like in many other cities, there’s a marathon in Barcelona and the fastest marathon ever run by a competitor dressed as a fruit was two hours, 58 minutes and 20 seconds recorded at the Barcelona marathon on March 6th, 2011. His name was Patrick Whiteman from the UK and he was dressed as a banana.

Hallie: God bless Patrick Whiteman.

Chris: Right.

Hallie: Doing some great work in Barcelona.

Chris: Yeah, I looked up a picture of him and it looks like one of those big felts banana costumes and I can’t imagine running 26 miles anyway, but 26 miles in a big old banana costume and you’re already hot and sweaty as it is. Man, that thing had to be rank.

Hallie: Yeah, that’s commitment to breaking a record, but I admire it.

Chris: It’s true. Yes.

Hallie: Great nature fact, dad.

Chris: Thank you. Oh, you got to do the jingle.

Hallie: I was about two. I was just giving you a compliment.

Chris: All right. Well, thank you. I appreciate that. It’s important to be supportive like that.

Hallie: Tara tarara. Nature fact. Okay. Let’s talk about the history of the banana. When I was researching this, I found a lot of conflicting origin stories.

The banana has been around for a really long time and it’s kind of unclear where it originated thousands of years ago.

Chris: Real quick, when we say originated, obviously it’s a plant that has existed, but the banana in its current form was bred by people to have these characteristics.

Hallie: Right. The broader banana plants, not specifically the Cavendish. The broader banana plant, how did that evolve?

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: Where did that come from? Where’s that native to? I couldn’t find a lot. I couldn’t find like a specific origin story. I found a paper in the journal of Ethnobotany Research and Applications that said that the reason for this was because it is vegetatively propagated and they talked about like sweet potatoes as another example of this. The banana isn’t leaving a lot of pollen and they are also herbaceous, so they’re not leaving like wood or seeds or nuts for us to look back in the history of soil of a region. Maybe have a fossil record to really see where is this thing evolving. That might be one of the reasons why we don’t have a very specific origin story for the banana plant evolution.

Chris: The tissue is too soft to stick around for too long.


Hallie: That same paper estimated that 87% of banana production globally is for local food consumption, which was citing an article from Biodiversity International. I couldn’t find that article from Biodiversity International, but I think that the point is still totally valid, whether or not that 87% number is still accurate today. It’s a really key crop for subsistence farmers. I’m going to go on and talk about the history of large scale production of bananas, but bananas and plantains specifically these species is really important for subsistence farmers around the world in a lot of the global south. A really important thing to just remember as we go on to talk about the large scale production of banana plants.

Chris: Are you going to talk about why or is it just important to them because it’s such either A, an important cash crop or B, it’s an actual source of nutrition for them?

Hallie: Yeah, that’s a really good question. It’s mostly the latter. It’s quite common to have banana plants nearby a house, but not necessarily in a big field. Bananas are a really difficult crop to market, which we’re going to talk about. They’re quite fragile as opposed to something like yams or rice or a lot of other larger scale crops that you see subsistence farmers being able to market beyond just home consumption. Bananas are not easy in that same way. You need a lot of cold storage. You need a lot of packaging and you really need a developed supply chain, but they are quite nutritious, particularly like the heartier plantain plants are really nutritious and they’re pretty easy to grow most places in the global south. They have been in a lot of the global south for a really long time. They’ve been in South America and Latin America. They’ve been in Africa and they’ve been in Southern Asia for a long time, so it’s something that’s common in cultural recipes. It’s often just like nearby the house.

You’re able to mash it up or include it in some dish, but it’s mostly for home consumption.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: Let’s talk about the history of bananas in not the global south, in Europe and the US. Up until we had wider spread refrigeration, it was just pretty much a luxury food in the US and Europe and this is true for a lot of these perishable crops. If you couldn’t get them on a ship across the ocean, then only the Richie Rich’s could really afford to get them.

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: Around the turn of the century, you had two companies, Standard Fruit and United Fruit that took over large swaths of land in Central and South America and very quickly ramped up production and built demand in the US. They were really building demand once that refrigeration technology existed really introducing this fruit that nobody had any idea what it was, how to eat it and really making that demand from basically nothing. This is where that story you were talking about the guy with the railroad track came in. There was this guy Minor C Keith, he ended up being the CEO of United Fruit, which is one of these two large companies and he was from Brooklyn, moved down to Costa Rica to help out with his uncle’s railroad project, ended up planting a lot of bananas or having his workers plant, I should say bananas while he was doing this railroad project and found out that the railroad he was building was not terribly profitable.

But was building this demand to be able to sell these bananas back in the US and now he had this newly built railroad for extremely cheap and was basically exploiting the Costa Rican government to control large areas of land around his railroad. It became really easy for him to continue to exploit the workers he was already employing to build that railroad. Once the railroad was built to produce a lot of bananas and then he had this really cheap railroad that was already built, getting them back up to the US. I got really down a rabbit hole with a lot of this history. It’s very intense and I don’t think I have time to go super in-depth with all of the stories and all of the histories on this. I’m going to put more info on the Patreon under the extra research. If you want to learn more, you can go there. But I do think it’s important to talk about this history. Bananas got very cheap in the US and to this day, they’re a pretty cheap fruit. That means that production costs are really, really cheap, right? If you have a cheap fruit, then you have to have cheaper production costs. The way that these companies Standard Fruit and United Fruit achieved this is they had a very tight control on these foreign governments and the land within them. It basically became what I saw described as like a neo feudal system where a handful of very powerful companies, exploited Central American countries and Central American laborers and also benefited from government grants and tax breaks while all the time denying their Central American workforce, a living wage or basic rights. This is where the term banana republic comes from. These companies were granted huge amounts of land in Central America. Some of it was “bought”, but a lot of it was not and these land grants were tax breaks or government grants in exchange for building privately owned infrastructure like roads that was meant to benefit the very communities that they were actually exploiting. Eventually, there became a lot of organized labor protests around these poor working conditions.

Companies used extreme force using either private militia forces that the national military of those countries or in some specific cases, actual US forces under the guise of combating communism to fight these labor protests and basically punish, kill, assault the labor forces that were striking and the people that were striking and protesting in solidarity with them. There’s a lot more information about the history of US involvement in Central America under the guise of anticommunist propaganda that looking with a historical view seems extremely, extremely linked to United Fruit and Standard Fruits interests. I saw this really good quote from Dan Koppel. It was an interview with Dan Koppel.

Chris: That’s the guy that wrote the book I’m reading.

Hallie: Exactly. Yeah, he wrote the book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. In this interview he said, “The banana is an impossible export fruit. It’s fragile. It ripens quickly. It gets rotten fast and the way to do it is to make it so cheap that your money is made on volume.” They were trying to just produce as many bananas as possible at a cheaper cost as possible in order to get any return back and they got millions and millions of dollars in profits, but that was all made at the cost of these people’s lives and their dignity and their human rights.

Chris: I assume we’re going to get to sort of the current state of the banana. Okay. Then I’ll hold my questions until we get to that point.

Hallie: I know that was like a big dump. I told you I really went into research.

This took me like three times as long as it usually takes me to research an episode about this because I really wanted to do it justice while also trying to keep it within the scope of the episode and the time that we have here today.

Chris: Sure.

Hallie: In the 1900s, the US ended up bringing multiple antitrust lawsuits against Standard Fruit and United Fruit company, so we did end up seeing changes both from those lawsuits, that litigation, as well as from the labor movement from Central America. Eventually, I think it was closer to the fifties and sixties. I might have my dates wrong there, but the companies ended up changing their names and Standard Fruit became Dole and United Fruit became Chiquita. Today in the 2010s, this is 2013 numbers. Five companies own 44% of the banana industry down from 70% in 2002. A lot of this was because of the movement that was started really in the eighties for multinational companies to divest landholdings in Central America for bananas and replace company production with independently produced bananas.

Chris: So larger companies are instead of producing the bananas themselves, they’re buying from local people who produce the bananas.

Hallie: Right.

Chris: Okay. That was kind of, I guess, leading into my questions as the banana is still, like you said, very, very cheap. Therefore, methods of production must still be very, very cheap.

Have labor conditions and such things improved?

Hallie: One of the tricky things about having more independent production, which don’t get me wrong is a good thing. You do also have a harder time having generalized statements, right? Because it’s not five companies that are producing all of the world’s bananas. Yes, largely speaking, there are improvements in labor conditions that is not universally true across the board. A lot of the changes we’ve seen are in like technological changes, particularly in post-harvest technology. It’s easier to transport bananas without them going bad as fast. Here’s the thing. We have talked about the Cavendish banana. The bananas that we were just talking about in the last segment about the 1900s was not the Cavendish banana.

Chris: Right.

Hallie: What?

Chris: I knew that, sorry.

Hallie: Oh, you did.

[Laughter].

Chris: I’m not shocked. Yeah, I think I got this from the book.

There’s sort of speculation on what are grandparents and great grandparents tasted when they tasted a banana at the turn of the century and in the early 1900s.

Hallie: Right. The banana that was grown in the first half of the 1900s was the Gros Michel. This was very similar to the Cavendish in a lot of ways. It was seedless. It grew via clones. However, in 1903, a strain of fusarium wilt called Panama disease first appeared and started taking out these Gros Michel plants like crazy.

Chris: That’s what? A fungus?

Hallie: It’s like a fungus. It is indeed like a fungus. It’s not just like a fungus. It is a fungus. By 1960, the Gros Michel was commercially extinct. Like you said, we don’t really know. There’s not a lot of people who tasted this plant because by the 1940s, it was very hard to find. It was much less common to see bananas and it wasn’t really until like onto the seventies, when we started to see bananas becoming more common. There was not really a lot of comparisons ever. You didn’t ever have the Gros Michel and the Cavendish in the same room at the same time where you could say, here are the differences between these two bananas. There’s a lot of speculation on what is different between these two bananas. The companies, particularly Dole, once it started to see Panama disease pop up and become an issue, started investing a lot of time in searching around for commercially viable bananas. The thing about bananas is that because for thousands of years, people have been selecting against seeds in bananas, right? Nobody wants seeds and bananas, even us and nobody has for thousands of years. It’s actually really difficult to get a seeded banana and that means it’s really difficult to breed bananas.

Basically, what these companies were doing was just traversing the globe and examining all the bananas and trying to categorize them and see if they were marketable, if they were tasty, if they were easy to ship, if they had that lovely, long yellow look of what we expect now from a banana, and if they were resistant to Panama disease. Eventually, they found the Cavendish.

Chris: Wow. I thought the sort of long, vague, skinny brown bits in the middle were banana seeds only just couldn’t really tell that they were seeds because they were squishy like the rest of the fruit, did someone lie to me? Were they wrong? Have all the bananas that I’ve been eating been seedless?

Hallie: Yeah, bananas are essentially seedless. None of those seeds that we actually eat in the bananas are viable ever.

Chris: I see.

Hallie: Those are basically the relics of what were once seeds and the great, great grandfather of a banana.

Chris: Okay. Wow.

Hallie: Once upon a time, the banana had a seed and now these itsy bitsy little tiny seeds are what we have. It’s the same thing like if you eat a seedless grape, and there’s like those little tiny guys in there, they’re not hard and crunchy and they’re really, really small.

You can’t plant a great plant with it, but it’s what the seeds once were.

Chris: You can’t plant a banana tree with the banana.

Hallie: Yeah, they’re all clones. They’re all vegetatively produced.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: That’s been the case for thousands of years, so it’s hard to breed bananas because how we breed plants is we cross-pollinate and cross-pollinate and cross-pollinate and eventually something new pops out. We can’t do that with bananas. Eventually, they found the Cavendish. It was more fragile than Gros Michel actually. There are videos of people having big bunches of Gros Michel bananas and just throwing them onto a ship. We can’t do that with the Cavendish. You got to put it in a box, you got to put the box on the ship. Otherwise, they get all bruised and brown and consumers are not so interested, but for a long time it was good. Life was good. We had a banana that we liked and everything was looking up for these banana companies.

Chris: For a long time you say.

Hallie: For a long time until the 1980s. So really for like 20-ish years.

Chris: I feel like there were so many good things that changed for the worse in the 1980s, but that’s a whole other podcast.

Hallie: [Laughs]. In the 1980s, Panama disease reappeared. It was very similar to the first Panama disease, but it was a different strand kind of like different strands of flu viruses.

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: This second fungus strand, the second disease strand arrived and started to affect Cavendish bananas.

Chris: The bananas got their own pandemic.

Hallie: Pretty much. Not to be a downer. I told you guys we wouldn’t talk anymore about the P word or the C word.

Chris: Oh, sorry.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Yeah, basically. We saw a lot of bananas being wiped out in Southern Asia that were Cavendish bananas. We don’t have it yet in the Americas. It hasn’t gotten here yet. Just by luck of the draw.

Chris: I read the only place in the US that bananas were grown was Hawaii.

Hallie: No, I mean the Americas, not just the USA, Central America and Columbia.

Chris: There is my ethnocentrism coming out right there, but okay. The whole Western hemisphere basically.

Hallie: The fungus will arrive at some point. If the world has learned anything about epidemiology in the last six months, it’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when. One day the Panama disease will reach Central America and it will basically wipe out every last Cavendish banana, and it will happen very quickly.

Chris: Okay. What do we do then? We just don’t have any more banana splits.

Hallie: I saw this good quote in an interview with Alan Brown Ballana, I think is how you say his last name. He’s a biologist with the Institute of Tropical Agriculture. He said they dodged a bullet in the 1950s by identifying Cavendish. I think if there was something out there they would have found it by now. These companies didn’t stop looking. When they found Cavendish, they were like, just in case we better find something else. Or like, what if we find something else that’s easier to grow or like sweeter and easier to sell?

Chris: But they just haven’t found it yet.

Hallie: They haven’t found it yet. Which means it probably doesn’t exist. Also, if they did find something, the banana supply chain is built custom for the Cavendish. Every single banana is genetically identical, meaning it’s almost identical. They look almost exactly the same.

The only thing that changes between bananas is where they’re grown, how they’re grown, what the temperature is. Bananas are the same size. Bananas are the same shape. Bananas need exactly the same temperature, the exact same gas mixture. The whole supply chain is built specifically for the Cavendish. Even if they did find another banana, it would not be easy to just like whoop, okay, we’ll just add this banana into our whole process. We would have to completely restructure the supply chain, so that would be a huge lift. Like we talked about earlier, resistance can’t really be bred, right? Because we’ve got no seeds to breed. There is one hope and it is a GMO banana.

Chris: Oh boy.

Hallie: There are some GMO bananas. There is still work being done on a GMO banana because we are just waiting for the rest of the Cavendish bananas to go extinct. Not the banana plant to be clear. The banana as a species will on, but the Cavendish banana, which is marketable will die off at some point. It could happen tomorrow. We don’t know when it will happen. So there is work being done on a GMO banana, but at some point in the future, there will be no banana for you to buy at the grocery store other than a GMO banana.

Chris: The banana, as we know it is I guess basically doomed. It’s just a matter of time, so enjoy him while you can. If you want viable, healthy crops for a very long time, don’t base your entire economic structure on clones.

Hallie: Last quote. It’s a three quote episode. This quote from Randy Plots, who’s a professor of plant pathology at the University of Florida.

I don’t know if he meant for it to be a little poem, but when he said it, it rhymed and I love it. His little poem quote was once the pathogen is established, that’s all she wrote for Cavendish.

Chris: Also, there’s a guy named Ballana that studies the banana.

Hallie: [Laughs].

[Background music].

Chris: Thanks for listening to this episode of One to Grow On.

Hallie: This show is made by me, Hallie Casey and Chris Casey. Our music is Something Elated by Broke for Free.

Chris: If you’d like to connect with us, follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at One to Grow On Pod or join our Discord and Facebook communities and leaf us your thoughts on this episode.

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Chris: Be sure to see what’s sprouting in two weeks.

Hallie: But until then, keep on growing.

[Background music].

44: Bananas

This week we talk about bananas! The banana has quite a turbulent history. And while there are multiple varieties, the one we most commonly eat are all clones! Also, how far would YOU run in a banana costume?

Read the transcript for this episode.

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About us
One to Grow On is a podcast that digs into the questions you have about agriculture and tries to understand the impacts of food production on us and our world. We explore fascinating topics including food, gardening, and plant sciences. One to Grow On is hosted by Hallie Casey and Chris Casey, and is produced by Catherine Arjet and Hallie Casey. Show art is by Ashe Walker. Music is “Something Elated” by Broke For Free licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.
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A silver dollar plant in a pot

40: Houseplants Transcript

Listen to the full episode.

Hallie: Hello and welcome to One to Grow On. A show where we dig into questions about agriculture and try to understand how food production impacts us and our world. My name is Hallie Casey and I studied and currently work in agriculture.

Chris: I’m Chris Casey, Hallie’s dad. Each episode we pick an area of agriculture or food production to discuss and this week we are talking about houseplants.

[Background music].

Hallie: What do you know about the humble houseplant, dad?

Chris: Why would anyone want to live inside of a plant?

Hallie: Oh brother.

Chris: As their house?

Hallie: Oh God.

Chris: Their house.

Hallie: Oh no. [Laughs].

Chris: I know that they are plants that you can put inside of your house. I suppose they’re usually in some sort of receptacle like a pot. You have to occasionally water them. That’s what I know.

Hallie: Pretty good.

Chris: Oh, really? Show over. We’re done?

Hallie: That’s the whole show. That’s all we wanted to say.

Chris: Okay.

Hallie: No, not really.

Chris: All right.

Hallie: When talking about the beginning of the houseplant, which is where I want to start this episode, a lot of people talk about the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, ancient China, ancient Egypt. They had plants and they were inside. People have had plants on the inside for a long time, but it didn’t really become trendy in modern times until really Victorian England when it kind of became a fixture of the middle class household at least here in the West.


Chris: Wow. I thought you were going to say something like the original cavemen had likened on their walls.

Hallie: I mean, they did. That’s true.

Chris: All right.

Hallie: One of the most famous old school houseplants from this Victorian period is cast iron plants. There’s actually a really good episode of the houseplant podcast On The Ledge with Jane Perrone. It’s episode 138 and they only talk about cast iron plants and it’s extremely fascinating.

Chris: Okay. What in the world is a cast iron plant? Is that a plant that you put in cast iron or grow on cast iron or is made of cast iron? I don’t know.

Hallie: It is none of those things. It’s also called an Aspidistra. They’re called cast iron plants because they’re tough. They’re really tough like cast iron would be.

Chris: They’re tough to eat or tough to kill?

Hallie: Tough to kill, yeah. They’re sturdy. That’s how they got the name. They’re just super sturdy, but Aspidistra is just the nicer name. Cast iron plant now has a bad connotation because it’s like an old school plant. It’s like passé, but if you say Aspidistra oh, that sounds so nice. But cast iron plant is old school.

Chris: All right. Cool.

Hallie: But this episode of On The Ledge, which also can I say is a very great name for a podcast about houseplants is terrific. You should check it out.

Chris: Do people put houseplants on ledges?

Hallie: Yeah, like on the ledge of a window, counter.

Chris: Okay. I like that. That’s great. I love that name.

Hallie: In 1960s, houseplants really got kicked up in terms of a design feature. Before that it was mostly just, oh yes a nice plant and they’re good for me, question mark. But in the 1960s, it was really considered a part of the design as we moved into this mid-century modern era of interior design. Houseplants and particularly different tropical plants really became big features of rooms. This kind of diminished as you moved into the 1980s. Particularly for like houses, it became more popular to have like a fake plant. But in the Moli’i Gardens, actually I was doing research for this episode and particularly like the Moli’i Garden was something that was called out as the first public space that had a larger planting more than just like a pot. You remember here in Austin at the Barton Creek Mall, there’s a big garden over by one of the fountains. That’s pretty common. That large indoor planting was the first time we really saw it in the 1980s in malls.

Chris: I got to be honest with you. I noticed the fountains but I don’t know that I noticed the plants maybe like some big leaves or something. I never really thought about that. Interesting. A garden inside of a mall, not just an outdoor shopping mall, but an indoor shopping mall.

Hallie: What a concept.

Chris: Okay. Is it like a big greenhouse with this sky roof, sun roof, translucent roof?

Hallie: I mean, it’s just on the ground floor, you got a fountain and you got plants around the fountain.

Chris: I guess the fluorescent lights are enough for them.

Hallie: A lot of malls also have skylights and stuff like that. Indoor plants really don’t need a lot of lights, so it works. Today, a lot of houseplants are popular, particularly because a lot of people are renting and it’s really easy to fill your house with houseplants as a way to make it feel homey, but without having to make any permanent changes to the structure, like painting or wallpapering or putting up shelves or something like that. They’re just super on trend now, so I want to talk about them.

Chris: It sounds like they sort of became popular in Victoria England and then all of a sudden few decades later it was akin to picking out furniture. You also had to pick out some houseplants.

Hallie: Right. A lot of reasons for that is mostly around the advancement of the industry and the advancement of the greenhouse technology. It’s become much easier to find those tropical plants that maybe we just couldn’t find them in the 1920s, 1930s because we didn’t have ways to transport them and carry them and that industry really hadn’t developed. Whereas now you can find them at every single supermarket at every single hardware store. They’re just super common because our industry has really developed and we have ways to transport them and care for them and all of that.

Chris: Is it true they do better if you play music for them?

Hallie: I don’t know. Maybe we could do a whole episode on playing music for your plants.

Chris: Okay. That’d be cool.

Hallie: What are the reasons that we keep houseplants? Number one, we’ve been talking about it. It adds to the aesthetic nature of a space. For sure, I found a lovely Architectural Digest article that particularly talked about Funkshway, which of course is an ancient Chinese method of creating a balanced energy in a space. They offered some suggestions of different things that you might want to do in your house, both in terms of design and in terms of more utilitarian things. For example, if you wanted to give your space a sense of grounding or softness, they recommended philodendron or jade. If you wanted to heighten the space, they recommended ficus or rubber plant or a banana leaf plant, all of which are quite tall.

If you wanted to balance excess water, kind of a more utilitarian need, like somewhere in a bathroom or a laundry room, they recommended the lincon air plant, or perhaps pothos, which you’re familiar with. These are all great plants and great uses for them. I’m going to talk a little bit later about all different options for some of my favorite plants and why they’re helpful, but yeah, they provide a really lovely aesthetic thing in your house. It’s really soft. They’re really lovely and it’s a very different shape than most of our furniture nowadays, so they’re great.

Chris: Nice.

Hallie: Plants can also clean the air. To what benefit is questionable and I’ll talk about that, but they can also for sure increase the humidity of the space. If you have a dry room, particularly if it’s winter time or you live in somewhere like the desert, having plants in your house is definitely going to increase the humidity of the space just because you’re watering them more frequently and then there’s water in their trays sometimes, and not all the water is going directly into the plants. Having water out is going to be increasing the humidity.

Chris: I can definitely see in the winter. July in central Texas, maybe we don’t need the humidity quite so much.

Hallie: We don’t need the humidity here, but I’ve definitely lived in places where I’m like, oh, it’s so nice. I come home, there’s a bit of moisture in the air as I’m parched from coming in from the desert sun.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: There was a NASA experiment that was published in 1989 that was investigating ways to effectively detoxify space station air and they found that in a lab environment, indoor plants can scrub the air of volatile compounds, like formaldehyde and benzene, which are things that we don’t want in our air. However, if you really have a medical need for air purification, don’t replace your air purifier, which is plants. Plants are doing this, but not on a huge level. They’re very small guys. They can only do so much.

Chris: You can’t put like a whole rainforest in your bathroom.

Hallie: Yeah, I mean, they’re lovely to have, but if you need air purification, maybe have both. I don’t know. But yeah, they do do this, but on the outside of a laboratory setting, it wasn’t a really remarkable difference. I want you to imagine a scenario for me, okay?

Chris: All right. I’ve got my brain camera turned on.

Hallie: Okay, so you’re sitting in a room. There are no windows.

Chris: Why?

Hallie: The chair you’re sitting in is really hard. It’s kind of uncomfortable.

Chris: Am I in prison?

Hallie: Sure. If you want to be in prison, you can imagine yourself in prison.

Chris: I don’t want to be in prison. I’m in a really hard chair in a room with no windows. Okay.

Hallie: The light overhead is kind of bright. It’s like fluorescent. The ground under your feet is like a reflective tile. There’s light reflecting back up at you and all the walls are like bright white.

Chris: This seriously sounds like the intro to a horror movie.

[Laughter].

Hallie: How do you feel, right?

Chris: No, it’s awful.

Hallie: Not good. Okay. Now imagine the same room, but there’s a really big rubber tree plant or ficus plant in the corner of the room. How does that change things?

Chris: I guess it creates one point of interest.

Hallie: Yeah?

Chris: Yeah.

Hallie: How do you think your physical reaction would change to that room? Would you feel, I don’t know, more stress, less stress, no change?

Chris: I would feel less stressed, except if I walked into that room in the first description, I’d be like, oh, this is a really weird cold creepy room. The second description, I’d be like, oh, this is a really weird color, creepy room, but look, there’s a plant over there. That’s weird. Why did someone put a plant in the corner?

Hallie: [Laughs]. Sure. It’s not a perfect description.

Chris: But I see what you’re saying. It’s the cold creepy room versus the cold creepy room with like a little life in it. Adds as that little something extra.

Hallie: There have definitely been studies that have shown that plants in a space can improve your mood, improve your concentration, improve health outcomes. I found this piece from a Psychology Today article that said, “Based on several experimental studies, the presence of potted plants have been found to be helpful in many different settings, including work, school and hospitals. Particularly, they have been shown to lower blood pressure, improve reaction times, increase attentiveness, improve attendance at work and school, raise productivity at work, improve wellbeing, improve perceptions of the space,” which is a really vague term.

I don’t know how you measure that, but cool. “Lower levels of anxiety when you’re recovering from surgery and raise job satisfaction,” which is like a lot that we’re asking from just these little plants.

Chris: No, kidding. I almost feel like this is a superfoods episode and we should put a cape on a houseplant.

Hallie: [Laughs]. I had a professor in college who is actually studying the impact of plants in a classroom on college quiz test grades and the correlation there. It’s great to have plants in a room. They make you feel more relaxed and being inside of an angular stuffy cold room is not natural for our brains. It’s not where our brains pick operation. It’s weird and so having a little bit of that nature, it seems can help de-stress us and can help us feel more relaxed. Can help us enjoy a space more, which can then I’m assuming correlate to this like improved attendance. If you like the space more, you’re probably more likely to go to a space versus if you really hate the space.

Chris: Okay, cool. Magic plants.

Hallie: I mean, is it magic? Is it brain science? Who can say?

Chris: Fair enough, but you know what we can say.

Hallie: What’s that?

Chris: We can say that we’re going into a break right now.

Hallie: Here we go.

[Background music].

Chris: Hey, Hallie.

Hallie: Hey, dad.

Chris: Do you know who probably has houseplants?

Hallie: Who?

Chris: Our starfruit patrons, Vikram, Lindsay, Mama Casey.

Hallie: Patrick, and Shianne. You guys are so wonderful and your support means the world to us. If you at home listening are interested in joining our Patreon family, it helps so much. It makes so many things possible for the show, including us to have series, we’ve got transcripts on the website now, which our patrons are paying for 100%. You have supported so many things about the show and we are so, so grateful. If you are interested in supporting the show, you can head over to patreon.com/onetogrowonpod. We have a lot of different, super fun tiers.

Chris: Tiers that get you bonus content like outtakes and little extra audios. We’ve got the plan of the month club. We send you a little digital file with some plant facts about certain plants and a recipe using that plant and sometimes we’ll mail you a postcard, but we haven’t recently because I have been a little afraid to go to Office Depot to get a print it out and go to the post office to mail it out. I don’t want to do that because there’s a plague on, but we will get those mailed out someday. Our starfruit patrons get all kinds of goodies, like boxes of stuff.

Hallie: We’ve been doing like goody boxes for our starfruit patrons. We just did the first one, I guess, back in June. Yeah, June is when they got delivered and we worked with a really cool artist in Australia and she mailed them soaps and handmade candles and handmade lip balms and a bunch of really cool stuff. The next one is going to be closer to November, December. We’re doing it about twice a year, so we’ll be talking about it again when we get closer to that. But if you’re interested in supporting the show at any tiers, any levels, you can do $1, you can do more than that. We would really appreciate the support. If the show is something that’s meaningful to you, it’s great. We have so much fun over there. You also get a Discord channel and we can chat. Gosh, I feel like this Benadryl is not going well.

Chris: It’s going super long. Do you know what, I would appreciate if we got back to the episode?

Hallie: What’s up?

[Background music].

Hallie: Oh my God. Okay. Dad, you got a nature fact for us?

Chris: I do have a nature fact.

Hallie: Hit me.

Chris: All right. In the beginning of the episode, I asked who would want to live in a plant anyway because it’s hilarious, right?

Hallie: Sure.

Chris: Well, you know who does live in plants. It is the Keebler elves. They live in a tree. They do. You know who it turns out is a subsidiary of Keebler?

Hallie: Who?

Chris: Little Brownie Bakers.

Hallie: Okay. [Laughs].

Chris: They are one of the bakers that make Girl Scout Cookies.

Hallie: Yeah, I know this.

Chris: For half of the country, Keebler makes Girl Scout Cookies. Not only that, but Keebler has their own cookies that are the same flavors as some of the Girl Scout Cookies, like thin mint and samosas. They’re just not as exciting to buy from Keebler as they are from Girl Scout.

Hallie: Right.

Chris: This blew my mind. Did you already know all this?

Hallie: [Laughs].

Chris: It’s not blowing your mind?

Hallie: I was a Girl’s Scout. I knew this.

Chris: What you knew? I feel like you were in on something.

Hallie: I was in on something like a conspiracy?

Chris: Yeah, you knew the secret.

Hallie: We don’t have Little Brownie in Texas.

We’ve got ABC, so it’s like a totally different distributor.

Chris: Even if I bought the Keebler thin mints, they wouldn’t be the same as the Girl Scout thin mints that we get here.

Hallie: I mean, it’s like the same formula. I don’t know how different it is bakery to bakery. I’ve never done a test comparison.

Chris: All right. Well, I don’t know. I feel like I’m giving some pretty significant information to the rest of the world so you can be like, yeah, I knew that, whatever, but I bet listener I bet there’s at least one of you out there that didn’t know that already.

Hallie: Congratulations to the rest of our listenership other than me on now finding out that you can buy thin mints all year round, but it does not go to support Girl Scout, which is really great for the development of leadership skills in young women, so sport Girl Scout.

Chris: True.

Hallie: Oh wait, I have to do the theme.

Chris: Oh yeah. You got to do the theme. Don’t forget to do the theme.

Hallie: Tara-tarara. Nature fact.

Chris: Let’s say I’ve gotten really excited about the idea of getting a houseplant after you told me about all this great stuff.

Hallie: I hope so.

Chris: What do I need to do other than purchase it?

Hallie: What do houseplants need?

Chris: Yeah, I want to put in the corner of the room that I use for my office.

Hallie: Okay. Plants need light and water and carbon dioxide and nitrogen and phosphorus and potassium.

Chris: I can definitely supply carbon dioxide.

Hallie: Great.

Chris: I would probably have to remember to give it water. How often would I need to give it water? I guess it probably depends on the plant.

Hallie: Correct.

Chris: You say it needs light. Is the light from my overhead enough?

Hallie: Probably.

Chris: Probably, really?

Hallie: But maybe not.

Chris: Maybe if there’s a window in there, that’s a good thing, but maybe the light is good enough, but I have no idea how to get it nitrogen phosphorus or potassium. Do I give it bananas?

Hallie: I wouldn’t know. Personally, I would not do that at all. If you planted in potting soil, it has a lot of nutrients in it. If you plant it with compost, then that improves the nutrition as well, but also you will probably want to have some kind of liquid fertilizer. Eventually, it will need it. There are different options. There are mineral versions, there are organic versions. You can just go to your local nursery and say, “Hey, I have this plant. What do you recommend?” They have a myriad of options. You can buy it at a large hardware store, like a big box, but I always recommend shopping local because they typically have a wider selection and they will also have great knowledge on what would do best for your houseplants.


Chris: Wait, if I have say a slightly bigger houseplant that I have to put on the floor, maybe it’s a ficus or something that takes up a large area of a pot, can I put my composting material directly on top of that and just have it compost on top of the plant soil and then sort of mix it in over time?

Hallie: Yeah, you can top dress with compost.

Chris: Really?

Hallie: But you can also just mix it in when you’re potting it up, if you’d like, and that typically helps the bacteria and the fungi and whatever else is living in your compost to just disperse. I mean, they’re very small little guys. If you put them on the top, it’s going to take them a long time to get down to the bottom. If you mix them in your own self, then it just helps them get around to all the different parts of your plant. But if your pot is already planted, you don’t want to repot it. You can totally just top dress with compost.

Chris: Okay. That makes sense.

Hallie: I wanted to talk about some of my favorite plants and specifically outlining what they need, what they’re good for and then after that I was going to talk about some of the common issues and some of the best practices for having houseplants.

Chris: Lay it on me.

Hallie: Number one, pothos ivy, you know this plant. It’s what your houseplant, Gary was. It doesn’t need full sun. Very expressive. They really let you know when something’s going on. Not all plants do that. Really easy to propagate, easy to grow and water. They’re great.

Chris: Actually, it’s Jerry.

Hallie: Okay. Sorry, Larry.

Chris: [Laughs]. Actually, it’s Jerry.

Hallie: Terry, got it.

[Laughter].

Chris: But I feel like I’m cutting you off a little bit here. I feel like there was a point where the little jar of water that I was growing him in wasn’t good enough anymore and I needed to do something else with them, like move them to a different container or to some dirt or something. Does that make sense? Should I have done something with them?

Hallie: Yeah, pothus ivy can grow 100% hydroponically. Austin has hardish water, so usually there’s a good amount of nutrition in the water itself.

But if you want the plant to continue creating new leaves, and growing as opposed to just growing small amounts and then shedding the old leaves, so really increasing the amount of leaves and the size of the plant, then you probably will have to add additional nutrition into the water just so that it can fill all themselves up.

Chris: But you don’t move it to a bigger container or anything like that. I don’t know.

Hallie: You might eventually need to do that just based on gravity, mostly like physics if physics-lly it’s not holding up, but you can have a tall plant with a small root ball in a small container, but you just have to make sure that it’s getting the nutrition and the water it needs without burning it. If you had a lot of leaves in a small root area, you would have to water it probably more frequently with the low dilution because otherwise it wouldn’t be getting enough nutrition and you could have the potential of burning the leaves if you added more nutrition. Increase the dilution of it. Does that make sense?

Chris: Yes.

Hallie: Cool. Next, Rosemary. Rosemary does need full sun, so you got to have one of the big windows for it, but it does not need a lot of water. Also, smells very nice and it will flower and you can also eat it, which is a bonus.

Chris: It goes great on chicken.

Hallie: Three, piece lily. I was informed one time by someone who worked at a florist shop that this is a plant that you get people when they know someone who has died. It’s like a condolence plant, but it’s not just that, but just so you know, they might make a comment when you try and buy it. It does not need direct sun. It’s one of the best plants for low light. It’s a really, really good office plant because it’s nice and big, but it grows really slowly and it doesn’t get super tall. It’s super manageable and it has nice flowers.

Chris: Flowers are great. Love a flower.

Hallie: Number four is the bromeliad. The flowers on this one have super nice color depending on what you get. You can get a pink, a yellow, an orange or red. They do need high drainage and they can tolerate high sun, but they’re super lovely. The fifth one is a dieffenbachia. These are good for small plants, but they can also get really big, which is super nice. They do need good drainage, but they’re also super good for low light.

Chris: Cool. Lots of options.

Hallie: Those are my faves. There’s a billion gillion houseplants, so you don’t have to get one of these. Please send us pictures of your house plants on Twitter, even if they’re not one of these six plants, but especially if they are, please send pictures.

Chris: Five plants. You talked about five plants.

Hallie: One, two, three, four, five. I talked about five plants.

Chris: [Laughs].

Hallie: Next, I was going to talk about some of the common issues. With houseplants, you can get some pest problems. Some of the most common pests are white fly, spider mites, scale. The most common time to get pest for your houseplant is when you buy a new plant and it’s already infected. You can have one of your existing plants get infected with a pest, but it’s just not as likely because the pest has to be introduced somehow and it’s your house, so you’re usually not bringing spider mites in to your own house other than on a plant. When you buy a plant, this is another reason to be really critical. When buying your plants, thinking through where you’re buying it from, do you trust them? Are you sure it’s clean? Inspecting plants before you bring them home. I oftentimes if I buy a new plant, I’ll keep it away from my older plants, like my existing plants in the house, just to make sure I don’t see any symptoms or issues before introducing it to the rest of the house.

Chris: Do they follow you home?

Hallie: Wait, what do you mean?

Chris: Spider mites. Like maybe you’re walking home from work and the spider might say, “Oh, I bet he has a nice houseplant.”

Hallie: [Laughs]. Probably not. If you get an infestation in your plants just start by pinching off as many of the insects as you see. That might be able to curb the infestation before it really takes off. But if it kind of takes off, you want to separate the infested plants from those that are not infested and you just have to research treatment methods based on what the infestation is. It depends based on pest. Sorry, I can’t give more specific advice.

Chris: I was going to say if the pest is new to you, you probably have to research what even the pest is before you research the treatment method.

Hallie: Yeah, unfortunately. Other issues you can get disease. Typically, it’s a fungus. Sometimes it’s a bacteria that will affect a houseplant. Similar to a pest the most frequent time to get this is with a new plant. Similar to pest, you’ll want to cordon off the infected plant. There are several common diseases that can plaque houseplants. One of them is powdery mildew, which can really easily be treated by spraying a solution of water and baking soda onto the leaves of the plant. If you get a fungus in your potting soil, you just have to replant the plant in brand new soil, toss out the old stuff. But also if you see mushrooms in your houseplants, don’t worry about it. It’s probably just compost mycelia that is now fruiting, so it’s fine.

Chris: Are they talking to the plant?

Hallie: Yeah, they’re probably talking to the plant. It’s great to have fungi in your soil, but if it’s like a fungal infection, if it’s causing issues, then repot just shake off as much of the soil from the roots as you can. Try to get it really clean and then repot.

Chris: All right.

Hallie: If your plant is wilting, yellowing, showing general signs of poor health, then it could be being watered incorrectly. Both over-watering and underwater can show similar stress signs, which can be frustrating. However, you probably know how much you’re watering it. If you think you’re watering it too much, water it less. If you think you’re not watering enough, then water it more. Both cases of over and under watering, it’s because the roots aren’t functioning properly. They’re not able to take up water. If you’re under watering it, then the water is just not there, so the roots begin to die off and they’re not able to take that water up, but if you’re over-watering it, then the roots become anaerobic. They don’t have enough oxygen and so the roots begin to die off and they can’t take up water. That’s why it looks similar, but usually if your roots are becoming anaerobic, it’s being overwatered, then you can just feel the soil. If it’s still wet, then it just really needs to dry off. You might need to pull your plant out and repot it, but usually just changing the watering regime is good enough. You can’t also have incorrect light. If your plant is yellowing, it’s not getting enough sun. If it’s being scorched, if it looks like it’s being burned, like there’s brown spots on the leaves, then it might be getting too much sun. That’s the run through of issues. Some of the best practices to avoid these issues, always consider your environment when deciding which plant to get. We talked about this in the vegetable gardening episode as well. Don’t get a full sun plant if you’re planning on putting it under a fluorescent light. Don’t get a partial sun plant and put it next to a window, it will get scorched. Consider how often you want to be watering your plants. Think about your own preferences with how you want to be interacting with your plants. Always plant it correctly.

You want to make sure that your root ball is higher up in the pot. This is one of the main mistakes that I see people make. With houseplants is they plant the root ball too low and then it’s hard to get oxygen into the root ball zone. Make sure it’s planted nice and high up in the pot.

Chris: The root ball, I guess is just the roots of the plant and if it’s too low, it can’t get oxygen. Which sounds weird. I don’t understand why that is.

Hallie: Well, I mean, we’ve talked about soil in the past. Potting soil is different from ground soil obviously, but potting soil still has a lot of oxygen in the roots. The soil in the ground is like 50% pore space, usually. Potting soil usually has a little bit more than that, but our plants are used to growing in soil in the ground and so they need that pore space. Usually, it’ll get filled up with water and then the water will drain quickly and then it will get filled up with air again. If you don’t have air in your root zone, then you get, like I was talking about earlier, you can get anaerobic conditions with your roots.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: If they’re not getting enough water, then the roots can begin to rot. You can begin to have fungal issues. You need to have some air movement, which does not seem intuitive it’s true, but it’s still important for good plant health. The exception is if you’re growing something hydroponically, obviously it’s already anaerobic, but it’s a different situation. Make sure you’re always using high quality compost and/or a good potting soil or core or whatever you’re using.

If you’re planting in a jar or a mug or a cup or something without drainage, you can do that, but you will need to repot the plant regularly at least once a year. If you plant it in a pot, you might start to see like a white crust appear on the top of your potting soil. That’s salts building up from your tap water. Tap water is not purified. If you water your plants with like 100% purified bottled water, then you won’t see that, but it’s a waste. It’s fine. It’s not hurting the plant, but it can become unsightly. It can be a good practice to repot once in a while after you start to see that salt buildup.

Chris: You keep talking about repotting, is this like an as needed thing or should you report periodically? You were talking about, I guess the mugs and cups and jar plants repot at least once a year as a good guideline.

Hallie: Other than that it’s as needed. Honestly, you could have plants in the same pot for decades and they can do fine. One trick if you’re dealing with bigger plants, it can be easier to leave them in like the plastic pots that you get at the store just because if you need to repot them, you can really easily cut those pots out. If you just take that flimsy plastic pot and put it whole hog into like a nicer looking planter, but not actually replant it into the planter. Those planters can be super heavy. If a bigger plant needs to be repotted and it’s like planted into the planter, it can just be a real pain to get that done. That’s one of the main issues I think with repotting is if they’re really big, so it might just be easier do that, but yeah, other than that, it’s just as needed. There’s not always a regime. Some plants need more maintenance in repotting, but it’s got to be like a plant by plant rule. There’s not kind of a rule of thumb that you can go by.

Chris: Not even a green thumb.

Hallie: Not even a rule of green rule of thumb.

Chris: Green rule of thumb.

Hallie: [Laughs]. That’s pretty much it for tropical houseplants. I also included a little bit at the end. If you want to be doing like food crops indoors, pretty much always, they will need a lot more light so you can buy grow lights. You can just use any fluorescent or led bulb and usually it says like how many lumens they are, and there’s really helpful resources online for knowing how bright you want a light to be a grow light. I would opt for led if you’re between fluorescent led, because fluorescents can get really hot, which unless you’re growing something like, I don’t know, peppers or tomatoes or something that you probably won’t want, especially if your plants are growing up and they might end up touching the bulbs, that can be really damaging to the leaves if they end up touching like a hot fluorescent bulb, but yeah, you can grow whatever you want inside. Why not?

Chris: All right. So grow something. There’s some maintenance, but it sounds pretty easy and it’ll make you a happier, better person in the end.

Hallie: Yeah.

[Background music].

Chris: Thanks for listening to this episode of One to Grow On.

Hallie: This show is made by me, Hallie Casey and Chris Casey. Our music is Something Elated by Broke for Free.

Chris: If you’d like to connect with us, follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at One to Grow On Pod or join our Discord and Facebook communities and leaf us your thoughts on this episode.

Hallie: You can find all of our episodes and transcripts as well as information about the team and the show on our website, onetogrowonpod.com.

Chris: Help us take root and grow organically by recommending the show to your friends or consider donating to our Patreon at patreon.com/onetogrowonpod. There, you can get access to audio extras, fascinating follow-ups, exclusive bonus content and boxes of our favorite goodies.

Hallie: If you liked the show, please share it with a friend. Sharing is the best way to help us reach more ears.

Chris: Be sure to see what’s sprouting in two weeks.

Hallie: But until then, keep on growing.

[Background music].

A silver dollar plant in a pot

40: Houseplants

In this episode, Hallie and Chris discuss houseplants. They discuss a brief history of houseplants, as well as some of Hallie’s favorite varieties and tips for keeping them! Also, Hallie clearly knows much more about Girls Scout cookies than Chris does.

Read the full episode transcript.

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About us
One to Grow On is a podcast that digs into the questions you have about agriculture and tries to understand the impacts of food production on us and our world. We explore fascinating topics including food, gardening, and plant sciences. One to Grow On is hosted by Hallie Casey and Chris Casey, and is produced by Catherine Arjet and Hallie Casey. Show art is by Ashe Walker. Music is “Something Elated” by Broke For Free licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.
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36: Vegetable Gardening Transcript

Listen to the full episode.

Hallie: Hello and welcome to One to Grow On. A show where we dig into questions about agriculture and try to understand how food production impacts us and our world. My name is Hallie Casey and I studied and currently work in agriculture.

Chris: I’m Chris Casey, Hallie’s dad. Each episode we pick an area of agriculture or food production and this week we’re talking about vegetable gardening.

[Background music].


Hallie: This week I wanted to talk about vegetable gardening. I have gotten many more requests in this spring than I ever have before from friends and acquaintances and family wanting advice on how to start a vegetable garden.

Chris: Gee, I wonder why that is.

Hallie: They’ve got time on their hands and vegetable gardening is super fun, so I thought we could spend a little bit of time talking about what makes a vegetable garden a vegetable garden, some of the history about it and some of my top tips, some of the success factors on how to vegetable garden. Dad, have you ever vegetable gardened?

Chris: You know my mom was a gardener, an avid gardener.

Hallie: I did hear that once you lawn mowed her artichokes. That’s kind of like vegetable gardening.

Chris: I mean she put it in the middle of the yard.

Hallie: [Laughs].

Chris: Two teenage me artichoke leaves look a lot like dandelion leaves, all right? I don’t know why anyone wants to plant an artichoke in their yard. Anyway, I do remember growing baby corn once and that was kind of fun. But for the most part, every time my mom tried to get me to help her in the garden, it just seemed like a whole lot of work that I didn’t want to do.

Hallie: Yes, it is work. It does take effort. That’s true.

Chris: Why do you want to put all that effort in?

Hallie: For fun and enjoyment.

Chris: Is it fun though? Is it really?

Hallie: Yes.

Chris: Okay. It does seem kind of peaceful.

You know your mom and I had a garden plot in the community garden once and we didn’t use it a lot but when we, did we did get some delicious food from it.

Hallie: Right. That’s a big benefit is the food is drastically better. I have a short list of the vegetables and fruits that are just a whole different thing if you get them garden fresh or farm fresh versus if you get them from the store like peaches, strawberries, broccoli, tomatoes stuff like that where it’s drastically better.

Chris: It seems like some of it could be and some of the stuff I have had is that was one of the times where you would pick up the tomatoes and you would just eat the tomatoes like an apple and we thought you were crazy but you really liked tomatoes.

Hallie: They’re so good. Have you ever had a garden fresh strawberry?

Chris: Yeah, some little tiny ones that were pretty good.

Hallie: That stuff will blow your mind. It’s insane. It’s like the best food in the world.

Chris: Good stuff indeed. That’s what got Shepherd Book onto Serenity.

Hallie: True. Very true. Except I don’t know how garden fresh that strawberry was but still true.

Chris: Look everyone, she has trouble with the Star Trek and Star Wars reference.

But she remembers the Firefly references, so go me.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Dad, they were like nine episodes and stuff that I had to keep track.

Chris: 14.

Hallie: What I want to know and talk about first is when people started vegetable gardening.

Chris:
Isn’t that the dawn of agriculture?

Hallie: Yeah, that’s the hard thing. When you talk about histories of gardening and histories of agriculture, academically they get conflated a lot of as this is the same thing. Largely, they are. It’s all about people growing their own food. The difference from what I see in the distinction I’m going to draw for the purposes of this episode is agriculture is really more about growing food for a larger need for economic profit, whether that’s from specific profit or from trade, whereas a home garden is negligible economic impact. It’s typically just for home consumption. That’s kind of the distinction I am going to be drawing for this episode.

Chris: It’s food for fun, kind of like entertainment. Kind of like Benihana.

Hallie: Not necessarily really. You can have a vegetable garden to feed your family and we’re going to talk about that, but you’re not growing it to support yourself and to make money off of it basically.

Chris: Got it. All right.

Hallie: Again, people have been gardening for a long time on account of needing food. I can’t go into all of the histories of gardening throughout all of the world, so I’m going to talk specifically about the US and a lot of US history is informed by British history and British culture. We’re also going to be talking about the UK. This is a very white Western look at the history of gardening. But we don’t have infinite time on this episode. Maybe we can do more histories of gardening from other places in the world in other episodes.

Chris: I really look forward to that.

Hallie: A vegetable garden also called a vegetable patch or a kitchen garden or a potager.

Chris: A what? A potager?

Hallie: I’m pretty sure that’s how it’s pronounced. I’m going to be honest, I had not read that word in this context until researching for this episode, so I could be pronouncing it wrong.

Chris: I don’t feel like I’ve ever read that word and now I think it’s a great word that should be used more.

Hallie: Yeah, it’s a lovely, lovely little word if it’s pronounced potager.

It’s probably good if you pronounce it a different way too.

Chris: I don’t want a vegetable garden. I want to put a potager.

Hallie: Maybe it’s potager today.

Chris: Oh, well then I don’t want one of those.

Hallie: Or a potager.

Chris: Definitely not.

Hallie: [Laughs]. People have been gardening for a long time, but in the 1790s in the UK or I guess at that point just England after a war broke out with France, there was widespread food scarcity and so the allotment movement began. Here in the US we call them community gardens. In England they call them allotment. The government created land specifically for people to use as a vegetable garden in a community garden style. That was a branch from agricultural policy at the time in the 1790s. It wasn’t really seen as distinct from agricultural policy, although as allotment policy went on in the UK into the 1800s that was seen as a separate thing as food became more readily available and allotments became more of a recreational activity and not so much about food access.

Chris: It almost sounds like so many things come out of extension.

It almost feels like shades of that where like there’s this agricultural policy and like, oh, we need to get more people involved, so hey, let’s go create a little thing.

Hallie: There was not enough food. There was scarcity from the war and so they said, “Okay, well if we give people who don’t currently have access to land some area of land that they can farm, then they can grow their own food.” It was really built out of response to this specific policy and then from there it became a more popular thing and food access became less of an issue until it became more of a recreational policy.

Chris: Got it.

Hallie: It also became in the later 1800s in England much more something for the gentry to do. It became much more popular for the upper-class to have walled vegetable gardens or decorative vegetable gardens or kitchen gardens off of their manner or something like that. Not often something that they would tend to themselves. But Queen Victoria had a very large vegetable garden and it just became something that was more seen as a status symbol for people with land to be able to have garden fresh vegetables and that also trickled over to the US as well and that became more of a thing as US was taking influence from that England Victorian culture.

Chris: Did any of them have a secret garden?

Hallie: Probably. I think that book was written in the early 1900s, so it’s probably influenced by this walled garden movement.

Chris: Just about every piece of British literature that I’ve seen her read there’s a gardener involved somewhere somehow.

Hallie: Right. One thing that I’m not really including in this episode is the larger idea of a captive state and a landscape garden and topiary and mazes and things like that that were a bit a bigger influence in that land culture of the upper echelons of the Victorian England.

Chris: Got it. Okay.

Hallie: [Inaudible] specifically vegetable gardens, but gardens and keeping them generally was a huge thing.

Chris: In these fancy walled gardens and later in these I guess sort of recreational public gardens, what kind of vegetables did these people like to grow?

Hallie: Well, there was a lot of different things, a lot of stuff that we still grow today. Fruit trees were very popular. There is a technique of growing fruit trees where you basically prune them back to a wall so they’re kind of trimmed along a wall and that was very popular at the time with these walled gardens. But of course, potatoes and onions and a lot of the vegetables that we eat today, but there also were a lot of vegetables that we don’t know about today that were just lost whether they were regionally native. They’re from that area and now we don’t eat them.

They’re not in the cultural menu I guess of fruits and vegetables that are known or if they were just some specific cultivar variety that is no longer grown and so we don’t know about it. When I was doing research for this episode, there were a couple of examples of like here’s a weird kind of garlic that had its own name and was considered a separate vegetable. But it was grown then and now we don’t even know about it. We’ve never heard of this word before. We lost a lot of those really unique vegetables.

Chris: Oh, I don’t like losing food. That’s makes me sad.

Hallie: Luckily, there are some really cool botanical gardens that are doing great preservation work and if people wanted them, we can probably have a revitalization effort for some of these weirdo garlics out there.

Chris: Okay. It was in the UK and it was later also in the US.

Hallie: In 1902, the US had its first school garden which was in hell’s kitchen in New York. Another kind of different thing when considering vegetable gardening is that urban versus rural. For a lot of rural people throughout history, it’s been very common to have a small garden because maybe it’s harder to get into town, but between the 1910s and the 1930s here in the US we had the great migration where a lot of rural black folks moved up into urban cities up in the North to escape the Jim Crow South and they brought gardening with them and urban vegetable gardening became a part of that culture up in the North for many African American communities in these urban cities.

Later on in the early 1900s, we had World War 1 and food again became an issue both here in the US and in England, so we had things like victory gardens which were also called war gardens, which basically there was less food and so the government was creating propaganda to encourage people to garden so that food could be sent overseas to soldiers for soldiers rations.

Chris: Do you remember watching VeggieTales?

Hallie: Yes.

Chris: You remember the episode where they was vegetables fighting each other?

Hallie: That was a lot of the episodes, Dad. I feel like the premise of VeggieTales.

Chris: But they weren’t just arguing. It was like a whole battle. I don’t remember the whole thing.

Hallie: [Inaudible] episode.

Chris: Oh, that could be, but you’ve said war garden and it makes me think of that.

Hallie: Yes, that’s exactly what I want you to picture. Now, it was pretty much just like a community garden. Municipalities would put land aside for specifically community gardens for people to access so they could grow their own food.

In England, allotment land tripled which is like a lot. It’s huge. Then from there we went into the great depression and gardening again was a food access issue and from there, a few decades later, we had the World War II. Again, food access was an issue as food was once again scarce as we had this big warfare and so victory gardens researched from there. But after that, there was still gardens. There was not any state sponsored propaganda and lawn culture in suburbia here in the US became much more in Vogue and so you saw fewer gardens. It was just less common. Not that they disappeared entirely. Lots of people had vegetable gardens, but ever since the 2000s, it’s become a little bit more popular and we’ve seen a dramatic rise in home gardening and home food production as people think more about climate change and the environmental impact of their food and the ways that they eat.

Chris: What kind of food did they grow here? I imagined it’s mostly a lot of the same stuff like onions, potatoes, garlic, leafy greens.

Hallie: In which timeframe?

Chris: Well, you just went through half of the 20th century.

Hallie: I did.

Chris: Let’s cover that whole thing. I guess it’s all good staples that are relatively easy to grow.

Hallie: It’s very similar to what we were talking about earlier. We see a lot of the same things. We see a lot of good staples, but we did lose a lot of those specific varieties, what we call like heirloom varieties that were common and they were bred for specific regions or micro regions. Even you would have these heirloom varieties that would do really, really well in just this one part of Central Texas or just this one part of Northern Ohio or something like that.

Chris: Okay. Cool.

Hallie: We did see a loss in that. Beyond that, pretty much vegetables were popular depending on where you were geographically and what was culturally relevant to you. That definitely influenced how people grew and just what the gardeners preference are. That’s one of the hugest factors in how people garden is just what the gardeners want to eat.

Chris: Nowadays, obviously it’s not as much of a food access issue. Although I imagine for some people, maybe it is, but it sounds like it’s maybe getting a little bit more popular.

Hallie: Yeah, for sure and it’s much more of like an awareness issue. People are thinking about the nutrition content of their food. If you eat fresher foods, then it can have a higher nutrition and thinking about the carbon footprint of your food that you buy at the grocery store versus what you can buy at your house. I think that’s much more the focus of gardening we see now according to the National Gardening Survey, that 18 to 34 year olds account for 29% of all gardening households, which is huge. That’s a higher percentage than we saw in previous generations. I think young people are getting involved, they’re getting interested because they are aware.

Chris: Well, that’s awesome. Awareness is good. Awareness if you know your situation, what you need, where you are and what I’m aware of right now is that it’s time for a break.

Hallie: A break.

[Background music].

Hallie: [Laughs].

Chris: Welcome to the break. Listener, we would love it if you would take this podcast and while you’re discussing podcast with your podcast listening friends or your non podcast listening friends, tell them about this podcast. Say, “Hey friend, I love this podcast and I think you’ll love this too” because we think if you love this podcast, then they will also love this podcast. Spread it as you would spread seeds in your garden.

Hallie: Maybe you’re talking about what a superfood is. Maybe you’re talking about how to start a vegetable garden.

Chris: Maybe you’re talking about confusing Star Wars and Star Trek References.

Hallie: [Laughs]. We really, really love making this show and we’re trying to make it for the people who are also interested in these ideas and these conversations.

We would really appreciate it if you shared it out. We don’t pay for any advertising or anything for this show, and so word of mouth is really the only way that we’re growing and we would just love to have more people here who can contribute to the conversation and who can have fun with us here in this little podcast community that we’re trying to build.

Chris: Honestly, I hope we never pay for advertising.

Hallie: Who knows? I could totally see us getting a billboard. Let’s get a billboard along the highway.

Chris:
Oh, there you go.

Hallie: Do you want food? Do you eat food? Check out this podcast. Just a picture of me with like two thumbs up like, hey.

Chris: An extra shout out to our patron listeners, especially to our starfruit patrons, Lindsay, Vikram, Mama Casey, Patrick and Shianne.

Hallie: To our newest patron, Andrew, thank you so much for joining us.

Chris: Hello, Andrew. Welcome.

Andrew: Hello.

Hallie: We’re really thanking you for coming to join us over on the Patreon.


Chris: All right. Back to the episode.

[Background music].

Hallie: Dad, do you have a nature fact for us?

Chris: I do have a nature fact for you. Pollinators can pollinate vegetable gardens, can they not?

Hallie: They indeed can.

Chris: Common pollinator is the bee.

Hallie: Correct.

Chris: An animal that is frequently mentioned in conjunction with bees are birds. The word that has bird in it is Thunderbird and the Thunderbirds are who flew over my house today and it was awesome.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Very good.

Chris: It was cool. It was a nice little fly over San Antonio and Austin.

Hallie: Dad, real quick. For non-arrow minded friends, can you explain what a Thunderbird is?

Chris: Okay, so the Thunderbirds are a group of pilots in the air force that fly fighter jets for show basically. They are some of the best pilots in the air force and it’s a nice job after a long career of flying fighter jets and they do stunts and they do fly overs and they were doing a flyover of San Antonio in Austin in honor of healthcare workers during the coronavirus pandemic. There’s issues with the cost associated with this. Part of the reason the Thunderbirds exist for the air force and a similar group the Blue Angels for the Navy is for like recruiting and promotion and stuff like that, so whatever. Sure there’s a carbon footprint, but man, when a group of fighter jets fly over your house, it is awesome.

Hallie: Tara tarara nature fact.

Chris: I hope other people got to see them.

Hallie: They were extremely loud. Do you want to start a vegetable garden?

Chris: Oh, hold on there cowboy. I bet someone wants to start a vegetable garden. Sometimes I think about starting a vegetable garden.

Hallie: Well, think about it. For this exercise, we’re going to talk through what it takes.

Chris: Okay. Do I even have a spot where I could do a vegetable garden? I don’t know.

Hallie: You absolutely do.

Chris: Really?

Hallie: I know because mom has grown vegetables at your house.

Chris: Really?

Hallie: Yes, definitely.

Chris: Not that I’ve eaten. Maybe out there.

Hallie: Oh my gosh. She did that last year.

Chris: She listens to the podcast. I’m sure I’ll hear about this.

Hallie: I’m sure you will.

Chris: All right.

Hallie: The key factors in figuring out what you can grow in a vegetable garden are one temperature, the number of cold days, the number of super, super hot days that you get because you can’t really do a ton with that. You can if you want to build out some infrastructure and have like a little greenhouse or something like that, but that’s the key factor. Another key factor is how much sun that area gets. You can’t really do a lot if an area does not get a lot of sun. You could get some utility lamp but who wants to do that and also tons of energy. Then the third key factor is your preference. Those are like the three things that are kind of hard to address and change.

Chris: Are those in that order on purpose?

Hallie: No, not really. They’re all important. I would probably start with preference. I would probably start with what is it that you’re interested in growing and then thinking about how the temperature and the light situation in what you have affects what you can grow. You also do want to consider your soil. It is possible to grow without soil, right? If you’re in a container or something like that, you’re probably going to be amending your soil regardless. If you’re doing an in ground bed, you will need to be thinking about what my soil is, but you are going to be amending it. It is a factor but it’s possible to work around it. I mentioned in ground gardens, that’s basically where you put plants directly into the ground. You’re still going to be doing things like digging it up and amending the garden and tilling and stuff like that, but you have other types of gardens.

Chris: When you say amend the garden, do you mean adding compost, adding nitrogen or doing what those things?

Hallie: Yeah, pretty much adding compost mostly is what I mean.

Chris: All right.

Hallie: You want to amend your soil if you’re doing an in ground bed because it’s very helpful to have compost that’s adding microbial life and adding organic matter, which can increase your water holding capacity. You could also do a raised bed garden, so this is slightly up above the ground. You can, if you want, dig down into the ground. But one of the big benefits of having a raised bed is that you usually don’t have to till down into the dirt very far. You’re adding six inches an inch or six inches a foot, two feet to your garden bed and so you’re not having to do the work of digging it out. But that also means that you’re having to bring more dirt in and you’re having to bring in potting soil or garden door or whatever it is that you’re using in order to fill up this box. It can be a little bit more expensive.

Chris: Okay. You have to have the box or build the box in the first place, which sounds like even more work.

Hallie: I would say getting the dirt is harder. Building a box, you just go to Home Depot, you get four pieces of wood and you nail them together.

Chris: Four?

Hallie: One for each side. It’s a square.

Chris: You don’t need a piece of wood on the bottom?

Hallie: No, you don’t want a piece of wood on the bottom.

Chris: Oh, so you’re just building dirt up higher basically.

Hallie: Pretty much.

Chris: Okay, cool.

Hallie: You can also do container gardening, which is not open to the ground and it’s really helpful if you have a balcony or a deck or something like that where you want to just put something out but you don’t want to deal with the actual soil and do something larger or if you’re in an apartment and you don’t have a lot of space. It’s also helpful if you want to do something that your temperature of your region might not really be as accommodating too. Like I’ve done strawberries before in places where it might’ve been too hot to do strawberries, but I can just pull them in on like the really, really hot days and then put them back out later.

Chris: Because you’re a wizard.

Hallie: Because I did a pot and I can put it in a pot and then it’s all good.

Chris: Oh, okay. It’s like a potted plant. I thought I was going to ask if it was like hydroponics.

Hallie: No, just a potted plant.

Chris: You store soil. I’s just not the ground.

Hallie: It’s not really what we call soil. It’s what we call soilless media. That would be like potting soil, which is 100% organic matter. That’s like a pot mass or coconut core, which is the outside of the coconut or something like that. That’s like an alternative medium that doesn’t really have any minerals in it.

Chris: It’s called potting soil, but it’s not soil.

Hallie: It’s not. It’s soilless.

Chris: Okay. I feel like maybe we talked about this in our soil episode. But this is getting too deep in the weeds for me, so to speak.

Hallie: I think we did, but remember we talked about soil and most of it is just broken down rock. A potting plant doesn’t have any broken down rock. It just has broken down plants.

Chris: I see.

Hallie: It’s much lighter because it’s like just this light, fluffy carbon stuff, which is nice, so it’s really a lot easier to move. It’s cheaper. A lot of benefits to using potting soil. You can also do an indoor garden, which would be something like having container pots put inside or I’ve seen spice walls before where people have a little container by their kitchen if they have a window and you can just put all your little herbs and grow little herbs.

Chris: But you have to have a window with sun.

Hallie: Or buy a lamp from Home Depot or [inaudible] or wherever.

Chris: Okay. If it does the job. Sure.

Hallie: Another type is permaculture. This is a type of in ground planting where you’re planting directly in the ground, but the idea is that you’re planting it to be a more permanent landscape. Usually, it’s not in rows like a typical vegetable garden and typically you’re trying to build it out to be longer lasting. It typically includes fruit trees or fruit vines and the beds that you have typically don’t get tilled every year. It’s like a landscape as opposed to just a vegetable garden.

Chris: It’s like part of the decor almost.

Hallie: For sure. Another type of garden, the last one I’m going to talk about is a hoop house. This one is the most amount of infrastructure of any of the ones on my list. This one we did a lot when I was living in New Mexico because it gets really, really cold in New Mexico. You have a very, very short summer season, so it gets cold really quick and then it stays cold for a long time. Having a hoop house, which is basically what we did is we bought really long PVC pipes and then we put like steaks of rebar in the ground and then we would bend the PVC pipe in like a U shape over it. Then we would just do that like 10 times and then put a tarp over it, basically like a see-through plastic so that the light could get in. But basically it was much warmer inside of this little house that you built.

Chris: Now, just as an extra weird little piece of trivia for the people that know us, a hoop house has nothing to do with a hoopy house, nor is it where your username on Discord comes from.

Hallie: It is not where my username comes from. My internet username is Nat Hoopy, which is a Douglas Adams joke that is extremely obscure and I thought it was really clever at 15 for thinking of it.

Chris: For a 15 year old, it was pretty dang clever I got to say.

Hallie: Thank you very much.

Chris: I was impressed. You have all of these options. They all require sun and they all require water I’m guessing.

Hallie: Well, they don’t all require sun, right? There are famously a lot of people who grow plants indoors with no sun. You can just get a light bulb. You need some kind of UV radiation.

Chris: They get busted by the FDA. No, the DEA.

Hallie: You can deal with whatever you want. Cannabis is not the only thing that can grow with lamps. Plants just use sunlight for the photon energy to convert CO2 and water into starches and so they can get that energy from tons of stuff including just plain old lamps. If you want to get one that’s kind of higher voltage and you can find more information depending on what plant you’re growing, just so that it’s going to be giving off more light. LEDs are also really popular for this because they don’t get as hot, which can also damage a plant. But you can grow stuff inside without any sun.

Chris: All right. There are some alternatives, but there are no water alternatives.

Hallie: Correct. You have different options with irrigation. You have drip irrigation, which basically uses less water per amount of food. It’s like an efficiency question that’s very popular with a lot of people because water bills can get high if you’re watering a garden as well as people living in a house.

Chris: That makes sense. Got to water the people.

Hallie: You can also have some issues with drip irrigation just because you’re putting the water right at the base of the plant. If you have something like a root vegetable, then sometimes your root vegetables turn out looking kind of weird because they’re contorting themselves to grow directly where that water is as opposed to something like a sprinkler where all of the ground is getting saturated, so the taproot can just grow in the natural way. If that makes sense.

Chris: I feel like I’ve seen some funky looking carrots and maybe this is why.

Hallie: Well, there’s a lot of reasons to have funky looking carrots. Maybe there was a rock in the way and so it had to grow around a rock or something like that.

Chris: No, I have no idea.

Hallie: Maybe the dirt was super constricted and so it was just growing weird. There’s tons of reasons. Sprinklers are a good option for something like root vegetables if you want. They can also be a good option if you have a lovely ground cover. If you have a permaculture setup, you can just sprinkler it if it’s something that’s maybe not fully grown in and you’re trying to encourage it. Sprinklers are also often used for leafy vegetables because leafy vegetables can be super tender. Stuff like lettuce and arugala are prone to overheating, but they’re also like summer vegetables. Sprinting them with a bit of water during the day can help cool them off.

Chris: Oh, nice. Like a nice little mister on your skin.

Hallie: Exactly. People love it. Plants love it. It’s great. You can also have something called subsurface irrigation, which is pretty cool. I’ve used this in one form, which is called the olla, which is spelled O-L-L-A. It’s a Spanish word. An olla is basically like a terracotta pot that’s unglazed so it’s still permeable, right? There’s no hole at the bottom. It’s just a complete pot and so you bury it with just the top out of the soil and you fill it with water and then you cover the top. Because the clay is permeable, the soil matrix has a higher water potential than the pot of water and so the water moves out into the soil matrix. I’m pretty sure I got that correct. But I could be mixing it up.

Chris: You bury the pot on top of where you plant your seeds?

Hallie: Right next to it basically.

Chris: A little watering pot. That’s great.

Hallie: It’s like a little watering pot. It’s great. Usually, you’ll want to water your plants in for the first couple of weeks while they’re getting used to the olla because they don’t always know where it is and so it’s kind of off to the side and they have to kind of grow towards it to like pull the liquid out of it to pull the water through the pot. If I’m using an olla that I usually overhead irrigate for the first couple of weeks in addition to doing the olla occasionally just so they don’t get too wilted until they figure out where the olla is.

Chris: Nice.

Hallie: You can also do rainwater collection, which is great for drip irrigation. You can use it for olla and sprinklers and stuff too, but it’s really easy to use for drip irrigation because you just can use gravity because you’re not needing a lot of pressure to get the water out of the little drip emitters. I think that you just need to put your rainwater collection tank something like a foot and a half up above where the drip emitters are going to be then they just submit on their own. You don’t need any kind of pump or anything like that.

Chris: Nice. Even though presumably it just rained.

Hallie: You could just turn it off and catch the water and then in three days when it hadn’t just rained, then you could turn it on and use the tank.

Chris: Three days later after a rain you’d need to water again that soon.

Hallie: It depends on what you’re growing. You could keep its water in the tank. You can keep it for however long you want.

Chris: Fair enough. All right. Well, cool. Is that all about water?

Hallie: That’s my water stuff. The steps for actually planting you can either direct seed or you can transplant direct seeding where you put a seed in a pot or in the dirt or in a raised bed.

It’s going to be cheaper but it can be less likely that you actually get a plant because when you’re transplanting you see the plant, you know you have the plant. When you’re direct seeding, not all the seeds will grow.

Chris: That makes sense.

Hallie: It can also be hard if you have a shorter season. When I was in New Mexico, we would also often use transplants because you’re a month ahead. It takes like a month less to get the food at the end than if you’re direct seeding because you’d have to wait for it to grow from the seed versus just using the transplant.

Chris: Wait a little longer for that extra little germination to take place. Not germination but the little sprouting.

Hallie: You got it. [Laughs].

Chris: I got it.

Hallie: You have to think about your seed spacing and some other stuff, but usually the seed packet has a ton of very helpful information in terms of how deep to plant the seeds, how far apart to plant the seeds. All of that information should be on your seed packet. You can also opt for a transplant. If you opt for a transplant, it’s going to be more expensive, but you know that you have a plant for sure. If you’re doing a transplant, once you plant it, you’ll want to water it in. Just watering it so that it’s kind of nice. It’s like welcome to your new home little plant. Here’s some water for you. You’ll be happy here. You always want to do that right away. Otherwise the plant can just get really dried out and have a little bit of shock and it might not make it.

Chris: Make it feel at home.

Hallie: You can also grow your own transplants in your own house if you want. You can do this with little egg cartons. You can buy a plug trays, you can use whatever, but you can just put a little seed in a little bit of potting soil and you mist it once a day or twice a day, you put it near a sunny window or you get a light so that the little guys grow. Once they’re tall enough, then you want to start putting them out for a couple of hours each day increasingly. That’s just so that they get used to things like wind because otherwise if they’re inside and then you just plant them in the garden, then it’s really easy for their stems to break because they haven’t had to build up any extra cellulose to be sturdy or anything like that. That process is called hardening off. You just put them out gradually more each day and they just get stronger and stronger and then you’re ready to plant them.

Chris: Wow. I had no idea plants were so complicated like that.

Hallie: That’s all of the notes I took. Do you have any questions?

Chris: All right.

When I was a teenager, your grandmother made me dig holes for her tomatoes with a pickaxe because it was in Dripping Springs and there was limestone a few inches down and so I had to bust holes through the limestone. Was that actually necessary?

Hallie: She could have built a raised bed, but if she wanted to go in ground, yeah.

Chris: Oh, okay. She wasn’t just making me do work.

Hallie: No, out towards Dripping Springs there is a lot of limestone and there’s two inches of topsoil and then it just goes straight down to what we call parent material, which is rocks. What she was doing was because limestone is a softer rock, she was just carving it out so that she could add in compost and gardening soil and these other things as an amendment.

Chris: Just super quick, do people need to worry about pest mitigation?

Hallie: Everyone likes vegetables including pests so you will get them. It will very much depend on where you are in the world and what vegetables you’re growing. It might be something that you have to think about. If you’re growing indoor plants, it’s going to be less of an issue than if you growing outdoor plants. But everyone should at least do a cursory Google to see what are the biggest pest problems for gardeners in my area so you can kind of be prepared, but it’s all a learning experience and it’s all about figuring out what pests are in your area and what they look like.

Chris: I’ve got one last question. I’ve been saving this one for last specifically. I pretty sure this was you that I’ve either heard say or seen posts about it on social media, which is something along the lines of growing your own food is a radical act. Was that you that said it and if so, could you comment on that a little bit?

Hallie: I have definitely said that in the past. I think it is a radical act. I think that thinking about how our basic needs are so separated from how we actually operate in terms of like food and water and things like that that are really based and how they’re kind of built within capitalism and this corporate system that’s kind of really, really decentralized and includes so many players. We talked about this in the COVID episode that we uploaded, but thinking about how immense that system is and how fragile it can be and how much of a toll it takes on other people’s lives and on the environment and on animal welfare and all of these different factors, I think that regaining some of that autonomy and regaining your place in your own survival and considering the way that extracting yourself from that system, even in a small way, can alleviate a burden that’s being placed on the environment or on someone’s human rights or something like that, is for sure a radical act.

Chris: Wow. I never thought about all that. That is pretty heavy. You heard it here first folks. You want to be radical, grow your own food.

Hallie: You can grow a radical which is a part of a plant. [Laughs].

Chris: No.

Hallie: Really good. [Laughs].

[Background music].

Chris: Thanks for listening to this episode of One to Grow On.

Hallie: This show is hosted by me, Hallie Casey and Chris Casey.

Chris: It is produced by Catherine Arjet and Hallie Casey.

Hallie: Our music is Something Elated by Broke For Free.

Chris: Connect with us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at One to Grow On Pod.

Hallie: You can find all of our episodes as well as more information about the show and the team on our website onetogrowonpod.com.

Chris: Join our community and learn more about each episode at patreon.com/onetogrowonpod. There you can get access to audio extras, fascinating follow-ups and even custom art created just for you.

Hallie: If you liked the show, please share it with your friends. Sharing is the best way to help us reach more ears.

Chris: Be sure to check out the next episode in two weeks.

Hallie: But until then, keep on growing.

Chris: Bye everybody.

[Background music].

36: Vegetable Gardening

It’s time to get our garden on! This week, Hallie and Chris discuss vegetable gardening, including how they started and how to do your own. We learn the history of gardening (and gardening policy), Hallie’s best gardening tips, and which space-based TV show references Hallie actually gets.

Read the transcript.

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About us
One to Grow On is a podcast that digs into the questions you have about agriculture and tries to understand the impacts of food production on us and our world. We explore fascinating topics including food, gardening, and plant sciences. One to Grow On is hosted by Hallie Casey and Chris Casey, and is produced by Catherine Arjet and Hallie Casey. Show art is by Ashe Walker. Music is “Something Elated” by Broke For Free licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.
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30: Water – History of Irrigation Transcript

Listen to the full episode.

Hallie: Hello and welcome to One to Grow On. A show where we dig into questions about agriculture and try to understand how food production impacts us and our world. My name is Hallie Casey and I studied and currently work in agriculture.

Chris: I’m Chris Casey, Hallie’s dad. Each week we pick an area of agriculture or food production that confuses a lot of people and get Hallie to explain it to us. This week we’re focusing on water.

Hallie: The history of water.

[Background music].

Chris: I know what this is.

Hallie: Do you?

Chris: Yeah, I know what water is. There’s been a lot of stuff that we’ve talked about like I have no idea what that is. I know water is.

Hallie: What is it? [Laughs].

Chris: It’s a liquid and it’s made up of an oxygen molecule and two hydrogen molecules bonded together. Hey, astute listener. Editing Chris here. If you’re thinking, hey, wait.

A water molecule is made up of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms because atoms make molecules, you’d be right.

Hallie: One time when I was in grad school, I didn’t have to, but I wanted to make an animation for a presentation about how passive water transport happens in plants and so I did this whole lovely animation and I realized at the end I had built the molecules backwards, so there was one hydrogen and two oxygen. [Laughs].

Chris: I remember that.

Hallie: It was deeply embarrassing.

Chris: Also, the famous Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink. Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink, but this is water that I’m guessing plants drink.

Hallie: Yeah, we’re going to talk today mostly the history of irrigation. This is going to be a two-parter, so today it’s the history of irrigation and how we’ve used water in agriculture. Then the next time we’ll talk about how we are currently using water in agriculture and it’s going to be heads up less fun.

Chris: Okay. Are we going to talk about California politics?

Hallie: In the next one, yeah.

Chris: Really? Okay.

Hallie: Oh, yeah for sure.

Chris: I remember seeing those signs driving down highway 5.

Hallie: Oh, yes. Talk about the signs that we saw. This is when we were moving me into grad school.

Chris: Right. We were driving you up to Davis and there were signs outside of farms that said the government caused the drought and it just sort of boggled my mind.

Hallie: For those of you who’ve never been to California, there’s a lot of great parts of California. Highway five North of LA is not a great part of California. It’s a pretty bad part of California.

Chris: It’s one of the worst drives I’ve ever taken.

Hallie: It’s really, really bad and you just basically drive and it’s just expanses of farmland forever and ever. Even if you’re driving through Kansas or something, people talk about how flat Kansas is. You got stuff like trees in Kansas like you can see a tree line. Northern California, Central Valley, there is no trees. It’s just flat tomato fields, zucchini. It’s really terrible.

But you do see these very bizarre billboards that are talking about no water, no food, and stuff like that. But that is for the next episode. Right now we’re just going to talk about history. Fun, fun history.

Chris: All right. History of irrigation.

Hallie: Yes, we are just going to be talking about irrigation in regards to agriculture. I’m not really going to be talking about landscape plants, not going to be talking about recreational irrigation stuff like turf grass and golf today.

Chris: Sorry, Vikram.

Hallie: Yeah, if you want to hear us talk about turf grass, we did a whole episode about it. We start from patron Vikram Pilliga.

Chris: It’s true.

Hallie: Irrigation started in prehistoric times, right? We have a lot of records of irrigation because this is what made civilization possible. We’ve talked a lot on the show about how agriculture is what shifts people throughout many different histories around the world from hunting and gathering to being able to be stationary and do things like build buildings. Irrigation is a really huge part of that.

The first evidence we have in the prehistoric record of irrigation is around 10,000 BCE, which is pretty much when a lot of people started farming throughout the world in different places. Very early civilizations in the Fertile Crescent really got a handle on irrigation in some super cool ways. This is mostly like Egypt and Mesopotamia, which is what present day Iran and Iraq is. They were able to use floodwaters from the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates to irrigate their lands.

Chris: You need all that water to water all the plants.

Hallie: Yeah, you got to have water to water the plants. It’s extremely important and these people in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia were able to divert floodwaters into their fields, so that’s like irrigation.

Chris: When you say divert, did they literally just dig trenches and the water would start going that way?

Hallie: Actually in ancient Egypt is where we see the first instance of a canal that was invented by a people called the Hyksos who lived in Egypt. They weren’t technically Egyptian, but they were as some medic people that lived in Egypt for a while and they invented canals.

Chris: Cool.

Hallie: Very cool.

Chris: The V-nation should be very thankful.

Hallie: Yeah, it’s true. Except they’re not really anymore because they’re sinking. The canals are causing some trouble for Venice.

Chris: So are rising tide waters. Anyway, back to irrigation.

Hallie: There was also evidence in ancient Egypt that they use gauges to measure tide waters so that they would be able to track when the tides would rise on the river. They would use things like steps or cylindrical gauges to make predictions about when the floods would come.

Chris: Oh, like when you cross low water crossing and there’s a little pole with numbers etched on it, that kind of thing?

Hallie: Yeah, kind of like that.

Chris: Nice. Did they have a sign that said turn around, don’t drown?

Hallie: I wouldn’t think they would know. [Laughs]. That’s something that we have here in Texas because we have a lot of flooding. We have a lot of flash floods that happened like extremely quickly.

Chris: It’s true and we have a lot of low water crossings that get flooded very quickly in those situations.

Hallie: In ancient Egypt, they also came up with the concept of a Shadoof, which is basically a bucket on a lever and it’s the first evidence we have of people physically moving water.

Chris: How? Like a bucket on a lever that they carried or the water got moved from where to where in this bucket?

Hallie: They were able to irrigate basically farmland that wasn’t on the flood plain by moving it in a bucket. It was instead of like diverting water that was already going to be flooding these flood plains so that it was flooding it more efficiently, they were actually able to get farther out from the rivers flood plains, using a Shadoof a bucket and a lever. Ancient Egypt also, we see the first evidence of a water wheel, which is like the first use of irrigation technology that does not require human labor.

Chris: That’s awesome.

Hallie: Extremely awesome.

Chris: Water wheels isn’t something I normally associate with ancient Egypt.


Hallie: It’s extremely awesome mostly because prior to this, a lot of it was slave labor because it was human labor and that was the cheapest available. The invention of a water wheel is extremely huge. Also, windmills were generally a big thing. We’re going to talk about windmills a little bit throughout. We’re going to kind of bounce around talk about Rome, talk about China. There are windmills throughout history. In many places, we don’t really have like an origin of the windmill story. A lot of people thought about windmills in many different places.

Chris: Wow. They’re just everywhere, so that makes sense though. I mean, everyone’s figuring out ways to grow their food and grind up the grain and eat it. It kind of makes sense that everyone would have similar ideas on how to do it.

Hallie: Exactly. It’s similar to a water wheel and it doesn’t use human labor, but not really an origin story there.

Chris: Don Quixote couldn’t slay them all.

Hallie: He could not [laughs]. Particularly in ancient Egypt to kind of wrap up the canals were extremely important in Egypt’s ability to grow as an empire and as this huge civilization. The canals themselves were culturally very important. They were often decorated with art or with images of a Pharaoh and they really ended up symbolizing a lot from what we can tell the Egyptian people to like wealth and being fertile and having fertile fields and being able to grow food, which is amazing. Irrigation is super important as is agriculture. We love to see it.

Chris: It is. It makes sense that you’ve got all this water that you’re able to divert and so it’s easier to have access to food. When it’s easier to have access to food, you have a population center that grows more and yeah, that’s really cool.

Hallie: You mentioned Venice earlier. Moving on to the Roman Empire, they also had canals. They in fact copied Egyptian style canals.

Chris: Oh, I had no idea.

Hallie: Being an empire they were able to appropriate a lot of technologies from their conquered peoples and this included canals.

Chris: I remember seeing some of the obelisks when we were there.

Hallie: Exactly. [Laughs]. Yeah.

Chris: Some stuff appropriated. Some outright stolen.

Hallie: Yeah, in terms of technology much more appropriated because it would be pretty hard for you to move the canal, but they were also very into pipes, particularly led pipes which now in retrospect, hindsight being 2020 led, not the greatest thing to build a pipe out of, but pipes in general, huge for Rome.

Chris: Super useful. Super great way to move water around.

Hallie: Totally. The Romans as a people, as an empire were extremely good at agriculture and this is definitely one of the things that allowed the empire to grow as much as it did was that they really were able to grow food very efficiently and this included irrigation. Pipes were a big part of that. Canals were a real part of that and aqueducts were something that not only helped agriculture, but aqueduct and pipes also helped the growth of what we consider really like the first city centers where you really had things like the Roman bath houses and people were able to live close together and they had running water and indoor plumbing and there were fountains on squares and people had access to safe water generally, which was very huge.

Chris: When did they start throwing money in the fountains?

Hallie: I couldn’t tell you.

Chris: Okay. That makes sense though. I mean, it goes back to the irrigation and agriculture fostering access to food and a population center.

Hallie: Totally. We’re going to see a lot of that in this episode. We also did see reservoirs in Rome. They put them down like below mountains so that when the snow melted, they were able to capture that water instead of it just all going either out into the ocean or it being put into groundwater.

Chris: That’s smart. I had no idea that reservoirs had a strategic placement like that.

Hallie: I mean today, some of them do. Not all of them. Usually today, most of our snow melt goes into surface water, so it naturally goes out into rivers. But I can imagine if you are in Southern Europe, the ocean is very close to you. If it goes out to the river, the river is going to be going to the ocean. That’s not where you want your fresh water.

Chris: Also now, if we need to fill a reservoir and we have access to water that we can pump into it for later, we have that technology now. Back then when they didn’t have a technology to pump water around, putting it at the base of a snow melt is great a idea.

Hallie: For sure. More on Mesopotamia. I mentioned this earlier, but going a little bit more in depth on Mesopotamia, there were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. We don’t really know how this worked. It seems like they definitely existed and they definitely needed irrigation, but we have not yet been able to figure out what irrigation technology they used for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which is extremely cool, which was around like circa 600 BCE.

Chris: Maybe it was prehistoric hydroponics.

Hallie: May be. I don’t know. I really want to know.

Chris: [Laughs]. When we invented the time machine to stop the spread of the Asian Chestnut, then we can also go back and check out that.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Yes, go see the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. I would love to. That would be wild. The Mesopotamians also invented something called a komet, I think is how you pronounce it, which is basically an underground tunnel that brought water from a well to somewhere else. Today, we have things like subsurface irrigation pipes, which is kind of comparable. But this was particularly for transporting water from one area to another, which we have tons of pipes in Mesopotamia 550 BCE twenty-five hundred years ago almost.

Chris: Wow.

Hallie: More than. Pretty wild.

Chris: This is really cool. I’m thinking about sanitation because we think about how ancient sanitation practices weren’t what they are today. They didn’t know as much about things like germs and whatnot, but clearly what they had was good enough to create these population centers and create easier access to food and water and stuff like that that was good enough for life.

Hallie: I mean, particularly for Rome, having running water was huge. Having access to clean, running water was extremely important in Mesopotamia and we’re going to talk about China here in a second and then Egypt, we did see like population centers, but it wasn’t in the same way where it was definitely this is like a city center, like what we would modern day recognize as a city.

It was more like you had more people who were doing less farming closer together and then like the further out you got, it was like just farmers. Whereas Rome, you really had a very close concentration of people who were not at all farming, which is very cool for back then. But the ability to transport water is definitely linked in with a civilization’s ability to thrive because you’re able to grow your population if you’re able to grow more food.

Chris: All right. You mentioned China.

Hallie: Yes, I mentioned China. There is a lot of technology that was created in China, but one that is like particularly cool around irrigation is something that and I think this is how you pronounce it, the Dujiangyan water irrigation system, which was invented in the third century BCE, long time ago, still in use today.

Chris: Like being used for irrigation.

Hallie: Yes.

Chris: Wow. That’s awesome.

Hallie: Extremely cool. This guy, Lee Bang he was a hydrologist. The emperor at the time, asked him to go look at this because the main river ran through this city/province, the Sichuan Province and it was flooding a lot, which was causing a lot of issues naturally. So he had this hydrologist go out there.

I don’t know what a third century BCE hydrologists looks like, but I guess it’s just a guy who thought a lot about water. He went out there and he thought about how we can make this river not flood. Basically, it was a system of terraces and canals and it still exists today and right now today it irrigates like 600,000 hectares of farmland. It’s basically a method of using natural topography to control the spring snow melt off of the Dujiangyan Mountain that’s like right pushup behind the city. It was like, the snow was melting and the river was flooding so they terrorist it and they added canals and that just slowed the water down immensely so that it was able to percolate down into the soil and you weren’t seeing flooding.

Chris: That’s amazing, so it serves two purposes, both irrigation and flood control.

Hallie: Absolutely. Extremely cool.

Chris: Real quick. Do you know off the top of your head the conversion of acres to hectares?

Hallie: Yes, I do. It is one hectare to every 2.47 acres.

Chris: Okay. So 668,000 hectors times 2.4 acres is a lot.

Hallie: A lot of land.

Chris: It’s a lot of freaking land. Are people able to look at the staff and say, “Hey, let’s do that.” Or I guess this is sort of unique to this region.

Hallie: The idea of using natural topography to slow water down generally is something that has been used for a long time in lots of different places. A lot in Southeast Asia, definitely in South America, the Inca people and people before them, which we’ll talk about here in a second, used it. In the Andean region because they had mountains and they had to get some flat land that the water would slow down percolate into and that they would be able to cultivate easily. That idea has existed in many different forms, in many different places, but this is like one example of it that has one like lasted so long and two is just extremely effective and they’re using the snow melt from one mountain to irrigate just such a huge area. It’s like a really incredible example.

Chris: Nice.

Hallie: One really cool thing. This was right before we had gunpowder because it was third century BCE. What they did was they alternated, heating and cooling rock in order to like break the canals open.

Chris: What do you mean? Oh, you mean there’s a rock in the way and so they would heat the rock up and then they’d cool the rock down and then the rock would crack and water would flow through.

Hallie: Yeah, basically. I mean, it was like kind of on a mountain side part of this hydrology landscaping. They had to like basically break through a lot of rock in order to like build canals and that’s how they would do it.

Chris: By that point, they’d figured out not only irrigation, but thermal expansion I guess.

Hallie: Right which is so cool.

Chris: That’s very cool.

Hallie: Yeah, and some researchers today think that like this irrigation system fundamentally changed the culture of the Sichuan Province and Chengdu, which is the largest city in the Sichuan Province because it was so much easier to farm. It’s always been easier to farm in the Sichuan Province because this hydrologically minded irrigation system is still functioning. It has been functioning there for like more than 2000 years. There are so many fewer disasters. You have fewer floods, so people were just able to be more laid back. You had fewer worries on your mind and so it changed how people interacted with each other and the world.

Chris: That’s awesome.

Hallie: It’s so cool. Irrigation is amazing.

Chris: [Laughs].

Hallie: I mentioned a second ago talking about South America.

For different reasons including that there was not ever the same kind of research effort from the European, like “institutions of research” put into the North and South American ancient cultures as there was a huge research effort, both in the Fertile Crescent and in ancient China from these massive academic institutions in Western Europe. Then of course there was a genocide that arguably is still happening today against indigenous people for the past 500 years and there was a massive knowledge loss. Unfortunately, we do not know a lot about ancient irrigation in the Americas, but we do know some things. The Hohokam people in what is today considered Arizona made a very complex system of canals that carried water from the Salt River to their farmland between 850 and 1450 Common Era.

Chris: Okay. It could be argued that, I mean, they didn’t do it first, but they also invented canals on their own.

Hallie: Yeah, totally. On the Eastern side of the US, there were several different Mound Building cultures and there is some evidence that topography change influenced irrigation as well. The Chimu people in what is now mostly Peru also had canals and this allowed their culture to flourish until they were then conquered by the Inca. Then in modern day, Central America, what is mostly Mexico now, the Aztec also had Chinampas. Do you know about Chinampas?

Chris: I’ve never heard of the Chinampa.

Hallie: They are super cool. They still exist today, although they are no longer floating. Basically, they would have cane plants that they would lie down and they would build up a huge mound of organic matter in the middle of a lake and then they would be able to plant crops on that. Mostly they would have a lot of Chinampas and circled [inaudible], which is where Mexico City is now, which was like the Aztec capital.

Chris: Okay. Help me with the visual on this Chinampa real quick. You got a lake full of water. You lay down a cane plant, which means what? You make a raft out of.

Hallie: No, it’s basically you lay down a lot of cane plants on the bottom of the lake until the bottom of the lake is now above the lake. So it’s like this huge mound of just organic matter, like cane plants and sometimes other plants, but they used a lot of cane because it grows in lakes.

Chris: When I hear cane plant, I think of sugar cane, but this can’t just be any sort of cane plant.

Hallie: Yeah, like a reed.

Chris: Oh, okay like reeds and sort of lake bound grasses, things like that. Cool. Then when they build that up, they put dirt on top of that?

Hallie: It was mostly organic matter that had broken down. The lakes would flood and you would get, I mean, there’s some evidence that it was a lot of what we now call night soil, which is human excrement, which has lots of good organic matter, minerals, nutrients, but we don’t really use it anymore.

The lake would flood and it would bring more stuff in from surrounding areas. You would also get some soil that washes some sediment, but it was a lot of organic matter and then they would just be able to farm on top of that. That’s a cool technology. It’s not terribly scalable in terms of irrigation. It’s kind of a cool thing that doesn’t really exist anywhere else as far as we know.

Chris: Well, much like they had to break the reeds down to put them in the lake, we have to break this episode up into parts.

Hallie: In order to put it into a lake.

Chris: Yes, or in order to have a midroll, which we’re going to do now. We’ll be back soon.

[Background music].

Chris: Hello, listener. Welcome to the break.

Hallie: Dad, I would like to thank our starfruit level patrons, Lindsay, Vikram, Mama Casey.

Chris: Shianne. Thank you all so much.

Hallie: Thank you so so much.

Chris: Thank you to our newest patron, Tim.

Hallie: Thank you so much, Tim. Also, if you’re interested in the agriculture industry, Tim runs one of the best agriculture podcasts out there. You should definitely go check him out. Future of agriculture is the name of his podcast.

Chris: Yeah, it’s great. Also, he makes great dad jokes or at least he should. Don’t limit yourself, man.

Hallie: [Laughs].

Chris: Also, we have a listener survey we would love for you to fill out.

Hallie: We do. I spent a really long time putting this listener survey together.

Chris: But it won’t take a really long time for you to fill it out.

Hallie: It won’t. It’ll only take you like 10 minutes, but we really want to know more about you for many different reasons. It’s helpful for us as we try and grow the show to one, know how you listen to the show, what you like about the show, what works, what doesn’t and also we are collecting a little bit of demographic info so that if we want to start selling ads, we have that info that we can then take to sponsors.


Chris: Also, mostly in the survey what we want to see is what you get out of the show, what you enjoy listening to most. We know what we like producing and we want to try to focus on a few things and make sure you get the most out of it that you can.

Hallie: Honestly, this would be incredibly helpful. If you could go to onetogrowonpod.com/survey and take 10 minutes of your time, you can tweet at us afterwards and we will personally thank you. At the beginning of the survey, we also ask name and email. You can be totally anonymous, but if you leave your name and email, we will enter you into a raffle to win some stickers and a handwritten thank you note.

Chris: Yeah, but like she said, if you want to take the survey anonymously, the name and email are optional. You can just skip that page.

Hallie: It’s onetogrowonpod.com/survey. One more time. That’s onetogrowonpod.com/survey. 10 minutes of your time would mean so much to us.

Chris: Thank you very much and now back to the episode.

Hallie: Back to the episode.

[Background music].

Hallie: All right we’re back. Do you have a nature fact for us?

Chris: I do. This is going to be nature fact with help from Hallie. For Christmas, I was gifted a book called Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel.

Hallie: Right.

Chris: While we were at the party, I started reading it and it’s really kind of so far cool, interesting read. But one of the things he wrote in here was that the banana was a berry and it’s the world’s biggest herb and I’m like, what the hey man? What do you mean? First of all, please explain to me how it’s a berry.

Hallie: Oh my gosh. I did a whole Ask One to Grow On about this.

Chris: Oh, did we do? Do we have an episode doing this?

Hallie: Yes, it’s called what is a berry?

Chris: Okay and you talked about the banana.

Hallie: I think I talked about the banana yeah. Bananas, tomatoes, blueberries.

Chris: Wait. Is the tomato a berry?

Hallie: Yes, I will refer you to the Ask One to Grow On as per my last email.

[Laughter].

Hallie: The Ask One to Grow On episode what is a berry. You can refer to that.

Chris: Okay. All right. I will go back and re-listen to that and listener, if you want to go listen to that too it’s called what is a berry?

Hallie: Also, if you have any additional questions listener, you can hashtag #askonetogrowon on Twitter and Instagram and I will see it and answer it.

Chris: I’m guessing it’s not because it comes in a bunch of bananas that it’s a berry.

Hallie: No, definitely not.

Chris: Okay. That was the only thing I could think of, but I’ll check. Why is it a herb?

Hallie: I wouldn’t really call it a herb because we use the word herb colloquially to mean things like herbs and spices and many of the herbs that we use in the kitchen are not actually herbaceous. They’re referring to the word herbaceous. Basically, we categorize our plants in many different ways. One of them being woody versus herbaceous plants. Woody plants have things like lignin.

Chris: I was going to answer that.

Hallie: Woody plants have lignin. They have bark. They have wood tissue on the inside, which is like old xylem tissue, basically. Our herbaceous plants like bananas and papayas and grasses don’t have that woody tissue. They never develop any kind of lignin. They don’t develop wood. They don’t develop bark or cork. If you cut into a banana plant or like a grass plant or a papaya plant, it’s just like fleshy gooeyness on the inside.

Chris: Even on the stock?

Hallie: Right. Yeah, there’s like no woody part. There’s no dry part. It’s just gooey flesh. They also aren’t really able to grow outwards so they’re like the same size round all the way up kind of like bamboo. Bamboos are grass so it’s herbaceous. It’s like the same size around forever. You’re going to have a 20 year old banana plant. It doesn’t really get bigger around because they’re not able to build that cambium layer that pushes it out and builds wood on the inside. Does that make sense?

Chris: It does. Cool. All right. Tara tara tata nature fact.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Okay. That’s kind of talking about when things first came about, like who was thinking about canals and how all these different technologies first were thought of.

After that, technology was transferred, things became pretty unified around much of the world until the 18th century. Not a lot happened. We thought of canals and we got some pipes and we’re like, all right. This is working for us until we really were trying to scale up due to colonialism. The British Empire was expanding greatly and they were trying to get more people. In order to have more people, you need more food and they had all of these people that they had just subjugated and so they had a lot of really cheap labor. We had a lot of technological advances that was then dubbed the second agricultural revolution. What I would now call the agricultural revolution because the first agricultural revolution is like the beginning of agriculture. Not really revolutionizing anything you’re like inventing it. So like beginning of agriculture and then the agriculture revolution. But if you look it up in textbooks it is termed as the second agriculture revolution. It’s a bone epic. That’s like we started draining fens and bogs to get water. We also invented the hose as well in the 1870s.

Chris: Hang on. The hose as in the hose that water comes out of?

Hallie: Yeah.

Chris: Oh, okay. Not the plural of hoe.

Hallie: Correct.

Chris: Which makes sense in this context which we’re talking about.

Hallie: The plural of hoe like the tool a hoe was invented definitely before the hose, like the long thing that water comes out of. Hose was amended in 1870s. That’s pretty recently.

Chris: Wow. Yeah.

Hallie: In the 1900s, in the America rural people didn’t really have access to electricity, so you didn’t really have electric pumps. Once people got electricity, they were then able to pump water, which was closer to the 1950s. In 1952, a guy called Frank Zybach invented center pivot irrigation, which completely changed the game for particularly the Great Plains in the US.

Chris: Oh, I can guess from the name is that when we’re driving out in the country and we see these long, I don’t know basically sprinklers on wheels that stretch out from a center point and look like they sort of drive around in a circle watering things.

Hallie: Yeah, pretty much. You basically have a big, long arm that has sprinklers on it that runs the radius of a circle. The hub of it is in the center of the circle and then the spoke goes out the radius of the circle and then it’s able to move around in a circle. Basically you’re using very little energy in order to irrigate this circle and it’s a very large area generally. If you’re flying over farmland, oftentimes you’ll see like circles and that is what that’s from. That’s from the center pivot irrigation system.

Chris: Actual crop circles as opposed to things that people call crop circles.

Hallie: That’s true.

Chris: Anyway, that takes us to what?

Hallie: In 1965, a person called Simcha Blass is attributed as inventing drip irrigation. This is kind of questionable because drip irrigation is basically using passive irrigation and that has existed for a long time. There’s a concept called an oya where basically you use terracotta. Basically, you fill something that is terracotta up with water and then because the terracotta is permeable that water can be drawn out through the terracotta itself. It’s similar to drip irrigation and that’s existed in China and that’s existed in Spain for a long time and then it was used by indigenous people, but in 1965, there was an Israeli agronomist who put a lot of pieces together. In Germany, there was an underground pipe that basically there were very small perforations on the pipe and so the plants were able to slowly draw water out of the pipe. Then in 1965, this Israeli agronomist took all these different pieces and added a drip emitter and “invented” what we now call modern day drip irrigation. Although he didn’t invent the drip emitter for sure, but the concept of passives or slow release irrigation has existed for a long time.

Chris: It sounds like he made a decent innovation on an existing concept.

Hallie: Yeah, for sure which is huge. People really are moving a lot more towards drip irrigation not because you use less water, but because you use less water per plant, which is good. A lot of people talk about how drip irrigation ends up using less water. It doesn’t necessarily. You end up using about the same amount of water, but you’re able to grow more plants if that makes sense.

Chris: Yeah, more efficient watering practices.

Hallie: Kind of. Yeah.

Chris: Great. How does that work?

Hallie: Drip irrigation?

Chris: Well, why are you able to use less water per plant?

Hallie: Basically, drip irrigation is you have a thin plastic. We call it a ribbon. It’s a very thin flexible plastic pipe that you lay along the ground and you have little holes that are punched into it and you have little emitters and the emitters control how much water comes out, so you’re able to slow release a gallon an hour or half a gallon an hour basically in drops. It like very, very slowly releases this irrigation, so you’re not irrigating to the left of your plant or to the right of your plant. You’re irrigating a very localized spot. That’s basically why. It has mixed uses. There are some ways that it’s not as good as things like sprinkler irrigation, but you end up with yes, more efficient irrigation technically. Today, 38% of irrigated land is irrigated with groundwater. 62% is irrigated with surface water. 69% of all water withdrawal globally is for agriculture.

Chris: That’s not a figure I would have thought of that’s a lot. Wow.

Hallie: It is a lot. The highest percent is an Africa and Asia. This number has increased dramatically over the past hundred years. I mean, earlier I was talking about how people weren’t really pumping water in the early to mid-20th century. Now, pretty much everyone is able to pump water because we have things like solar technology. Slap a solar panel on it. You don’t have to be hooked up to the grid. It can just pump away. Then worldwide, only 20% of cultivated land is irrigated. But the land that is irrigated produces 40% of the food supply.

Chris: Okay. That sounds like a pretty significant percentage. Do we know how the rest of the land gets water if it’s not irrigated?

Hallie: It gets watered by the rain and if the rains don’t come, then the food doesn’t grow.

Chris: Oh, wow. Bummer. Okay. So it’s either rain or irrigation.

Hallie: Yeah, pretty much. Sometimes like in some places you do still have flood irrigated areas, but it’s much less common mostly because there are a lot of dams now that control rivers and we don’t really want rivers to flood anymore because we have a lot more people. It can be very dangerous if rivers flood. It’s much less common to have flood irrigated.

Chris: Cool. To sum up irrigation is really cool. Not only super important, but like critical innovation for people to go from a sort of hunter gatherer lifestyle to agrarian and somewhat city centered lifestyle.

Hallie: Yeah, for sure.

Chris: People came up with it all over the world and been doing it for a very long time.

Hallie: Today, it is such a huge part of how we globally use water as a people, as a species. It is an immense part of how we use our water.

Chris: That’s where most of our water goes it sounds like.

Hallie: Yeah, 69%.

Chris: That’s the history of irrigation. Come back for the next episode where we’ll talk about.

Hallie: Next week, we are going to talk about climate change and we’re going to talk about policy change and we’re going to talk about the future of irrigation in two weeks.

[Background music].

Chris: Thanks for listening to this episode of One to Grow On.

Hallie: This show is hosted by me, Hallie Casey and Chris Casey.

Chris: It is produced by Katherine Arjet and Hallie Cassie.

Hallie: Our music is Something Elated by Broke for Free.

Chris: Connect with us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at One to Grow On Pod.

Hallie: You can find all of our episodes as well as more information about the show and the team on our website, onetogrowonpod.com.

Chris: Join our community and learn more about each episode at patreon.com/onetogrowonpod. There you can get access to audio extras, fascinating follow-ups, and even custom art created just for you.

Hallie: If you liked the show, please share it with your friends. Sharing is the best way to help us reach more ears.

Chris: Be sure to check out the next episode in two weeks.

Hallie: But until then, keep on growing.

Chris: Bye everybody.

[Background music].

30: Water – History of Irrigation

In the first of a two-part series on water, Hallie and Chris discuss irrigation and water use. We learn it’s history, dating from prehistory to today, how it’s used and why it’s so important. We also learn that Chris is still confused about what is and is not a berry.

You can check out the stellar podcast the future of agriculture at futureofag.com or wherever you get your podcasts.

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About us
One to Grow On is a podcast that digs into the questions you have about agriculture and tries to understand the impacts of food production on us and our world. We explore fascinating topics including food, gardening, and plant sciences. One to Grow On is hosted by Hallie Casey and Chris Casey, and is produced by Catherine Arjet and Hallie Casey. Show art is by Ashe Walker. Music is “Something Elated” by Broke For Free licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.
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