Shallow Roots


The gardening season in central New York is short. Nights stay cold deep into spring, and two years ago all the squash got killed by a frost on the last day of August. You only get one shot at growing most vegetables, particularly those that take a long time to mature. My project over the past few days has been getting all the storage onions in the ground, meaning the first thing I’ve planted will be one of the last crops harvested.

The comparison between the roots of a spindly onion transplant and those of the weeds that I’ve cleared to make room for them highlights the strangeness of domestication. The onions roots are fewer, shorter, and far less branching than those of even the smallest lambsquarters plant. They are less capable of wringing every droplet of water from the soil or vigorously pushing back against the roots of neighbors. In exchange for growing a tasty bulb, the onion has offloaded responsibility for food, water, and the management of competition to humans.

I often wonder about the process by which a wild plant became a domesticated vegetable. Earlier this year I attended a lecture about the long transition grains went through as they moved from a peripheral to a central food source over the course of hundreds to thousands of years, with a slow interplay of human gathering methods interacting with particular traits to kick start domestication long before any intentional manipulation. You can plausibly tell a similar story about the domestication of animals.

But it’s harder to imagine something like a wild onion becoming the thing I plant in my garden without it being a conscious plan, executed over years.

If the history of vegetables is mysterious, the fact of grafting is more so. Grafting is the joining of two genetically distinct plants. In my case, this means attaching a cutting from a favorite apple on my farm to the roots of an entirely different tree. This allows for the propagation of a tree with exceptional fruit, but the interplay between the roots and the top of the tree goes far deeper. The roots will actually determine the final size of the tree, as well as how vigorously it grows and how early it fruits.

When I looked into it I was shocked to discover that the practice has arisen independently in a number of places, beginning thousands of years ago. On the one hand, it makes sense that societies in which the vast majority of the workforce engaged in subsistence agriculture would facilitate a tremendous amount of experimentation. On the other, even with modern tools and understanding it is a specialized skill that can easily fail.

I am, unfortunately, not terribly confident that I did it properly. I dug the rootstock a bit late, I don’t know how well I stored the cuttings, and the grafting itself takes a high degree of precision. As you can see in the picture above, I grafted two scions onto each base in the hopes that at least one will take. At least I’m confident in a good onion crop.

2 Comments

  1. Brian Chrystal05/25/2022

    Dear Garth,

    First of all, I fucking love your blog. I appreciate the broad perspective you have and your dedication to your principles in your work. I too think about transitioning The United States of America to a sustainable food ecosystem.
    I guess I’ve learned a decent amount about you through your blog and website but you don’t know anything about me. My name is Brian Chrystal and I am 23 and I live in Eastchester, NY. I’m a rather private person, I don’t have any social media or a blog or anything as of right now. I’m a college dropout and have been working for the past few years. I was a backpacking guide in New Mexico for the Boy Scouts of America, I worked at REI, I was a roofer and a hiking trial builder. I got into nutrition and grass fed beef because I have some athletic goals I am still working on. I’ve spent the past few years thinking about how I can have the greatest impact on the world and help as many people as I possibly can, and I came to the conclusion that food, being so fundamental to our health and behavior, is a good path through which I can help people. I’ve read some of Michale Pollan’s works (and many other books) and it seems to me that regenerative agriculture is probably the best path to feed the planet for generations to come, and it is time to provide a market option in urban and suburban settings where people can go out to eat well raised and healthful food. In short I’ve been thinking about starting a farm-to-table restaurant with the goal of becoming a food chain that makes regeneratively raised foods more attractive and affordable for the middle class. I’m reaching out because I’ve reached that point where thinking about it is doing no more good and it is time to start doing it. I’m looking for like-minded people to work with and you seem like you are probably one. I was wondering if we could email or talk at some point and see if our minds meet on this mission. If anything, thanks for what you do.

    Brian

    Reply
    1. Garth Brown05/26/2022

      Hi Brian, thanks so much! I sent you an email. Let me know if you got it.

      Reply

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