Saturday, December 31, 2016

Looking forward to 2017

I haven't blogged in quite a while, so I will make a New Year's resolution to record more of my thoughts for posterity in the aether of the Internet.  I try to keep up with climate change science, and it looks like this coming year has a good possibility of an ice-free Arctic Ocean in the summer.  If not this year, it is only a matter of time, and then our weather will get weirder and weirder.  I intend to blog more on how to use permaculture to adapt to and cope with a changing climate.

One thing that permaculture requires is settling down, staying in one place long enough to get permanent crops established and prosper from those harvests.  My persimmon trees have been in the ground 6 years, and this is the first year that I have had a bountiful harvest, with enough for my own use and a surplus.  Climate change, on the other hand, sends populations off on a search for a new place to settle down -- people leaving areas of desertification and sea-level rise looking for a new place to call home.  How will these people settle down, plant some permanent crops, and reap their harvest?

Unfortunately, displaced people usually end up where work is, i.e., in big cities, and they are not in a position to start a permaculture venture that may take 5-10 years to pay off for them.  If you follow the news on the large number of Syrian refugees, they are not finding new farms to run along permaculture principles.  And that is a change that permaculture and its proponents have to make -- be able to bring in more people.  Change permaculture from a family enterprise to a community one.

I can see many advantages to organized community permaculture.  I have more tasks on my list of things to do than I have time to do them.  That makes me one of the fortunate, one who always has a surplus of food.  I am in the position of being able to support climate change refugees, should any come asking.  But this climate change disruption is not likely to proceed in an organized manner.  My capacity to take in refugees would be swamped by the off-loading of a large enough boat or bus.

True food security lies in matching the needs of people with the productivity of the land.  This is easier with large numbers of people, since temporary surpluses (a prolific persimmon tree) can be spread around and processed for long-term use.  I would like to encourage permaculturalists to think how they can enlarge their circle of consumers.  The way to make permaculture advance is to find people who are first consumers of permaculture production.  Once they know that they can eat in a more secure and sustainable way, they will come around to actively participating in permaculture labors.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Time to spray with boron

The southeastern coastal plain is blessed with abundant rainfall, most places getting over 4 feet of rain annually.  All that rain makes gardening much easier than in the arid west, but it also brings up the problem of micronutrients leaching away and leaving plants with deficiencies that need to be addressed. 

Such is the case with boron, an element that is necessary in plant metabolism, with deficiencies showing up as poor fruit set in fruit crops.  I planted some semi-dwarf plums, pears, apples, and persimmons in 2010, and have yet to have a real bumper crop that I can give away to friends and neighbors. Maybe it is because the trees are still small, but I have noticed that the abundance of blossoms in the spring does not translate to an abundance of fruit in the fall.  So I have taken the advice of several agricultural extension programs and I am making a boron foliar spray part of my annual fruit tree program.

Well, not exactly a foliar spray.  Nothing has leafed out yet, and blossoms are just forming, but you want to have the boron ready when the buds do open and the leaves start growing.  If you want to be a stickler for terminology, you can call it a ramial spray, ramial being the Latin adjective to describe a tree branch. 

I put about a gram of boric acid (available at most dollar stores as roach or ant poison) into 2 liters of manure tea or compost tea and then strain that into a hose sprayer attachment.  Give all the bare branches a spray, and the ppms of boron will get a boost up to a healthy level.  Boron is poorly transported through the plant's vascular system, probably because the way fruit trees evolved, boron was always transported through the air.  If you have ever seen the wind howl out west and kick up dust from a dry lake bed (like the kind where boron is mined), you know what I mean by "transported through the air". 

Unfortunately for those of us in the southeast, the closest dry lake bed is a couple thousand kilometers to the west, and any dust kicked up out there is going to settle out by the time the wind gets here.  So we have to take over and give Nature a hand, at least if we want a nice crop of fruit from our trees. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Preplanned foraging

Once upon a time, all humans got their nutrition from foraging, or as it is called when the food can see you coming and can run away, "hunting".  Somewhere in between foraging and hunting lies "clamming", the art of digging a clam out of the mud before it realizes what you are up to.  Some of them move pretty fast, and easy gathering turns into active hunting.  If you are not a very good clam hunter, then maybe it is better to go collect mussels; they don't move and can also be used to make a tasty chowder for dinner.

Domesticated animals make 'hunting' a lot easier, and domesticated plants take the effort out of foraging.  In the days leading up to actual planned agriculture, the care and domestication of wild plants must have occupied the attention of tribal leaders of the day.  Living near a grove of fig trees took a lot of the effort out of mid-summer foraging with maybe a three month season of ripening fruit.  Winter in sub-tropical climates brought out the slow growing greens, chicories and mustards and cresses and lettuces that could be clipped again and again.  In a good foraging environment, there is always something ready to eat, whether it is actively growing like a chicory or whether it is dormant and waiting for the next growing season, like a cluster of sumac berries. 

Through selective encouragement of various plantings then, it should be possible to plan the foraging throughout the year.  This is the idea behind the "food forest", a new term for a very old idea.  Rather than have a vast expanse of one plant, something like the typical 80 acre grove of navel oranges, why not mix up the plants in order to have fresh fruit every month of the year?  Citrus can stay on the tree six months or more, so maybe I have not started off with the best example, but what do you do for the other six months?  Plums and cherries for early summer, figs for mid-summer, apples and pears for late summer into fall, and finally persimmons and pomegranates to finish out the year until the citrus are once again in season.

The idea is easy to explain and easy to implement with fruit trees, but leafy and root vegetables require attention, they need to be picked at just the right moment for the right flavor.   Or do they?  Instead of growing carrots as a row crop and having a big harvest where they are gathered and stored, how about just continually throw out carrot seed into the garden beds?  Have your carrots in all stages of their life cycle, from little sprout to the "baby carrot" stage to soup pot size and then to old and slightly woody and gone to seed.  My garden has all those stages of carrot, and consequently I never need to buy carrots from someone else's larder (the grocery store) and I can pick whatever I need the day I need it. By putting attention in on the front end, i.e., continuous plantings of carrot seed, I don't have to put a lot of attention into weeding, spraying, cultivating, etc. on the back end.  I can do that with celery as well.  By growing celeriac varieties, one plant can provide me with celery cuttings for a couple of years before it completes its life cycle. 

When I go out and walk the rows between my hugelbeds, there is wide variety of food plants that can be clipped to put either into the salad bowl or the soup pot.  By having a wide variety of plantings in my 200' of hugelbed, I have guaranteed food security right outside my back door.    How much would it take to keep one person supplied?  That's not really the right question to ask.  If there is more there than I can eat, I can  give it away/feed my animals/chop it for green manure/let the wildlife graze it, it's not going to "go to waste".  This concept of "go to waste" is the product of an economic system that puts a price on everything and know the value of nothing except the almighty dollar. 

If you are going to plant a garden for food security, then you can't evaluate it by the economic value of the produce harvested from it.  The way to evaluate it is by asking the question "can I pick enough to satisfy my hunger?".


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Regreening, reforesting, reorcharding

My street has been selected for a road widening project.  There was plenty of talk for three years or so, but when the state actually sliced some real estate from the front of the lots and paid the property owners, it became apparent that it was no longer just talk. The first project was to clear away all the vegetation that was in the way of the roadway-to-be.  After a few disruptions with cable and water lines, we are now left with a knee-high erosion fence and nothing screening the road traffic.  Slowly the big piles of oak and pine are being disposed of (in a perfect world, that would all be turned into biochar) as we wait for the next step, which is probably the arrival of an army of road graders. 

But among all this horticultural mayhem, there is opportunity.  My neighbors and I have frontage behind the erosion fence that needs to be planted.  There is no time like the present, so I have taken it upon myself to start a neighborhood tree planting program, and maybe in the time it takes them to complete their project, the trees of my tree project will have grown up enough so that the semis passing by on the road will once again be screened. 

I've been ready for this, what with all the seedlings and cuttings I have started.  I still have 4 bald cypress in pots from the 300 that I started in 2012, and now that I know how to get good germination from them, I should try another mass start for 2015.  I also have volunteer crepe myrtle, sweetgum, juniper, and Bradford pear, along with the usual pines and oaks.  While everything is dormant and the ground is wet, I will get busy and move these volunteers from where I don't want them to where they are needed. 

This is also a good time to be taking cuttings and getting them to root in preparation for spring.  If I give my fig and plum and pomegranates a good pruning, I can come up with plenty of cuttings to try and root.  One of my apple trees even has a sucker at the bottom, so I will have to see if I can carefully coax it into a life of its own, away from the mother tree. 

One thing I won't be doing is paying $20 a pop for bare root trees from the garden center of a big box store.  That may be an alternative for busy working people who have no time to invest in tree propagation, but if you have the time and inclination, it is much more rewarding to do your own tree propagation.  If you don't know how to propagate the tree you are interested in, a good place to start learning how is the Purdue University horticulture site.  They cover a fairly wide selection of trees, and if you check them and a couple of other agricultural extension sites, you can come up to speed on propagation pretty quick.  Give it a try and don't be discouraged.  I took a dozen cuttings last winter from a Krauter-Vesuvius plum, and only 3 of them actually rooted.  But that's better than zero!  This winter I am going to try that trick again, but maybe try some new tricks to see if I can up my average.  I've already got spots picked out that could use a nice purple plum tree.

In a few years, my neighbors and I will once again have a green, forested road frontage, only this time with a lot more variety and edible fruit.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Food security means food diversity

In my daily review of the articles at Climate Progress one paragraph in one article stood out from the others:
In Latin America and the Caribbean, these heat extremes and changing rain patterns could lead to a 70 percent fall in soybean crop yields and up to 50 percent for wheat by 2050 without further adaption efforts. In the Caribbean, tropical storms and sea level rise will impact everything from tourism to security.
The immediate solution to the predicted problem is "don't depend on 4 crops for 80% of your calories".  The human population of the planet has become far too dependent on corn, wheat, soy, and rice.  Each one has major problems in store if the predictions of the climate scientists prove right.  Much of the rice crop is grown on land not far enough above the high tide line; a couple feet of sea level rise is going to take out a lot of rice acreage.  Although corn is a warm weather plant, it can easily get too warm and too dry and then that crop will fail as well.  Wheat has been grown on land in dry areas, just a little bit drier, and down go the wheat yields.

Much of the effort of the Green Revolution was to improve these crops to be able to solve the problem of world hunger.  It was a great success of the 20th century, but it may have set humanity up for a catastrophic fall in the 21st.  We need to be diversifying our food sources and learning how to grow new crops in new places.  For example, potatoes in Greenland.  A couple of decades ago, there wasn't enough of a growing season in Greenland to make a potato crop, but climate change has changed that.  The potato harvest in 2012 was 100 tons, double that of 2008.

My own project in this area is to grow sorghum.  This spring I got a 7 gram packet of sorghum seed, enough to plant three 40' rows.  I don't have an exact number for the yield, but it was a few pounds, at least 700 grams, of that I am sure.  Sorghum is not like corn, where you have one harvest at the end of the season and can then weigh the crop.  I cut my first sorghum heads in August, and they continued to send up new seed heads until the first frost in November.  The choice seed heads get saved for grain sorghum uses and what doesn't pass muster becomes chicken feed.  I thought about cutting the stalks and trying to extract juice for making syrup, but for that you need to have a large amount of stalks to get a small amount of syrup.  It would have been too much work for me to come up with a pint of syrup.  But all those sorghum stalks didn't go to waste -- they make great guinea pig fodder.  Dry them and shred them up with the lawn mower and the pigs can snack on them all winter.

I got a bag of jowar flour -- milled sorghum -- at the Indian grocery store and have been experimenting with it in the kitchen.  It makes good tasting pancakes and crepes, but I haven't tried using it in any bread recipes.  If I had to subsist on a large sack of grain sorghum, I think it would be eminently possible given all the tortillas, crepes, pancakes, and rotis you could make with it, let alone cooking it up whole as a rice substitute.

The closest most Americans get to sorghum grain is when they buy a sack of birdseed to stock the bird feeder.  I think this may change in the coming years, especially since sorghum will succeed in producing a crop where corn will fail.   

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Not all nitrogen is the same

I came across this excellent video of how to use a refractometer in the garden, and it confirms what I have been finding out in the garden without the use of any scientific instruments. 

First is that ammonia nitrogen is far better for plants than nitrate nitrogen.  He suggests that the ammonia to nitrate ratio in fertilizers should be in a ratio of at least 3 to 1, which means that if you are going to apply one measure of ammonium nitrate, you had better add to it two measures of straight ammonia.  But my practice has been to cut out the nitrate altogether.  I use only manure, manure tea, or urine in my fertilizers.  I apply them as root drenches and as foliar feeds, and that along with copious amounts of wood chip mulch is all that I need to keep my plants green and healthy.  Well, they look healthy, but I won't know if I have achieved that 12 degrees Brix level that he refers to until I get a refractometer and start juicing up some leaves. 

I can understand why reduced nitrogen (ammoniacal) is better for plants than oxidized nitrogen (as nitrate): plants, just like us humans, need anti-oxidants to stay healthy.  Proteins, the building blocks of life, all contain nitrogen in reduced form, so the nitrogen has to enter the anabolic process as ammonia, and if it shows up as nitrate, well, that adds another step (reduction) before it can be utilized. 

Nitrate seems like it should go in the same class as other strong oxidizing agents, such as bleach and peroxide -- a little goes a long way.  While organisms, plants included, use such strong oxidizing agents to defend themselves from bacterial invaders,  it is probably best to generate them in situ at the site of an infection, than it is to be drenched in them.  If there is no infection for the nitrate to kill by oxidizing, it is going to put that oxidizing potential to work in ways that stress the plant.

Another reason to prefer ammonia over nitrate is that nitrate is very soluble, meaning that it can easily leach from a field after a heavy rain, while ammonia will chelate with any metal ion it can find in the soil.  Much better to add nitrogen to soil in the reduced form, where it will stay until it is needed (and if need be, get oxidized to nitrate in the process), than to add it as nitrate and hope it won't wash off or burn anything while it is waiting to get taken up.

I'm glad he mentioned boron at the end.  I'm still working on the pound of boric acid I bought four years ago, that's how little it takes to keep the garden happy.  One gram in a 5 gallon bucket of compost tea is plenty to keep the boron levels where they need to be.  I'm glad that plants can tolerate this element in its oxidized form well; I can't imagine what it would be like trying to apply reduced forms of boron like diborane.  That would be some bizarro science fiction type world indeed!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Hugelkultur coming around

I first got interested in hugelkultur in January of 2013 and immediately set about installing them in my garden.  You can do that in Georgia, the soil temperature in January dips briefly into the 40s, and there are all sorts of winter vegetables that can be planted while winter rages further north. I dug down to the bed of kaolin underlying my garden, about 8 inches or so, and piled up lots of oak, pine, and wood chips as the organic matter to build up the hugel (German for 'mound'), and then replaced the topsoil. 

I decided this would be a mirepoix hugel, taking the German gardening technique to raise the vegetables I would need for that French base of cooking, mirepoix, which is onions, carrots, and celery.  If a recipe calls for a mirepoix, all I need to is take the garden scissors to the hugel and collect what I need to get cooking. 

The first year was a bit hit-or-miss as the organic matter began to rot and turn into soil.  The Egyptian walking onions did great; they were on the sunny south slope of the hugel, close to grade, so they were able to take off right away.  The celeriac and carrots planted on top were a different story.  Not knowing what to expect, I did not water the hugel much (what I had read said that it shouldn't be necessary, that the rotting vegetation should hold adequate moisture) and I got less than spectacular results with the seeds planted on top.

In the fall of 2013, I planted some salsify on top as well, and these did quite well, better than any of the carrots or celeriac.  I harvested many salsify buds this April, about the same time as I harvested asparagus, and I was able to cook them in the same way as asparagus.  In early summer, the salsify put out a prodigious amount of seed, so much so that I knew I would have many volunteers this fall and I would not have to seed it.  So how does it look now, 22 months into this on-going experiment? Take a look:

This is taken from the north side of the hugel looking to the south.  The Egyptian walking onions are at top center, at the left is a clump of lemon balm, the spoons to the right are bok choi, the tall spiky plants on the right are leeks, and the low rosettes in front are creasy greens.  There are two celeriac in this hugel, and they were volunteers from last year's crop that went to seed.  Apparently the celeriac likes the cool north side of the hugel, because none volunteered on the south slope.  The carrots and cilantro are a little hard to pick out as they are hiding amongst all the other greenery.  Finally out of view on the opposite slope of the right hand side are kale and cabbage seedlings that I transplanted. 

The trench for this hugel was 30" by 8', and the top of the hugel is about 15" above the grade of the lawn.  Before this hugel went in, this was just lawn on my southwest property line, quite compacted and not really hospitable to the centipede grass that was trying to colonize it. Having the hugel has certainly increased the food security outside my back door. 

Egyptian walking onions provide scallion type onions for about 10 months of the year, the other two months they put their effort into making topsets.  The creasy greens, salsify, and carrots have all sprouted from the seed set last spring, and look like they are going to be prodigious producers through the coming winter.  I may have to adjust my mirepoix recipe to use less carrot and more salsify as the salsify volunteers are outnumbering the carrot volunteers by a good margin.

I think this hugel has matured to the point that I want it, and now the challenge will be to keep it mulched so that it continues to be as productive as it is now.  I am using a mix of one part biochar to three parts wood chips for my mulching mixture, and any time that I do any harvesting or weeding, I toss down handfuls of mulch mixture.  Yes, there are weeds, there is a good bit of oxalis scattered in there, but since it is also an edible it is welcome.  If I get any dandelions, prickly lettuce or other interlopers, when I notice them, I can pull them and toss them in for chicken salad. Er, let me say that another way: I can toss them in the chicken coop so the girls can have some salad. 

Oh, and one last thing.  This hugelkultur is home to a toad that lives in a hollow of one of the logs that comes up to the surface. Can you see him peeking out?