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?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Confused vegans

Poor, confused vegans.  They think that they have the solution to climate change, if they could only convince everyone to adopt their ascetic dietary choices.  It is true, factory farming of meat uses lots of fossil fuel inputs.  But they miss the boat when they emphasize "of meat" instead of the "factory farming" part.  The eggs I collect from my backyard chickens require less fossil fuel input than the factory farmed broccoli that is trucked from California to their local vegan-friendly grocer.  Their broccoli requires fossil fuel in the form of fertilizer, tractor passes, getting laborers to and from the field, trucks to haul it to warehouses and distribution centers, and refrigeration equipment to keep it fresh.  My chickens, on the other hand, require no fossil fuel inputs; they eat what grows in the garden and provide me with a continuous source of protein and vitamins that are missing from the vegan diet. 

As the model of factory farming becomes increasingly untenable, what with Peak Oil raising farming costs, Peak Phosphorus, climate change, weeds becoming herbicide resistant and insect pests becoming insecticide resistant, the crystal ball gazers that come to the conclusion that it is time to ditch factory farming for sustainable permaculture are much more on target than well-meaning vegans.  Vegans who want to eat foods that are out-of-season and shipped in from the other hemisphere, or eat grains and soy products that are factory farmed a couple thousand miles away are also part of the problem, albeit to a smaller degree than feedlot carnivores. 

Instead of harping on the meat-eating habits of others, people that are concerned about climate change should be preparing to get all of their food locally.  Subsistence farmers are the ones that have the lightest carbon footprint, even if they eat poultry they raise themselves, milk from their own goats, and fish from the local pond.  Chickens, goats, and fish can turn biomass that is unfit for human consumption into valuable protein and necessary vitamins, like B12.  Chickens can eat slugs, and they enjoy them, while slugs can be reservoirs of dangerous protozoan infections if a human were to eat one.  Goats can chow down on poison ivy and detoxify a long list of plants that are better avoided by humans. 

If it sounds like I am advocating a return to the farming household of yesteryear, with a few animals that are raised for household consumption, that is exactly what I am advocating.  The population of Peru is about 30 million, and they raise (and eat) about 85 million guinea pigs a year -- which works out to just shy of 3 cuy consumed per capita. This is sustainable meat, raised on grass and forbs that would otherwise not make it into the human food chain, and no fossil fuels are required to produce it.

The next time a vegan lobbies you to give up meat and gag down an imitation yogurt made from soy juice, politely decline and think about local meats that you could produce. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Perennial broccoli??

How is it that American palates have been refined to demand the most transient of a plant's lifecycle?  Large, tight heads of broccoli with unopened blossoms; large clumps of cauliflower with snow white curds; tomatoes at the perfect stage of ripeness; much energy goes into getting these from farm to market at just the right stage, and if one small flaw is discovered, the trip continues on to the landfill.  If you are raising these in your garden, you can't be so fussy about appearances, if it's healthy, nutritious, and tasty, you need to be eating it.  So you look up recipes for what to do with green tomatoes and learn that careful clipping with garden scissors can get a continual harvest from brassicas, not the one-shot that commercial agriculture has marketed to us. 

I have come across an excellent source for Italian vegetable seeds: Pagano Seeds.  The Italians have a much broader definition of what makes for acceptable broccoli.  The yellowish fractal heads of Romanesco broccoli, the cut again and again florets of a raab type broccoli, and the leafy stalks of the Spigariello variety.  I've had some of the latter growing in the garden, and it has yet to produce a flower head.  It has taken the Georgia summer heat in stride, but the plant just gets bigger and bigger, with more leaves, but no blossoms.  I suppose it is remaining true to its biennial character and will form heads and go to seed next spring. In the meanwhile, I am left with how to use it over the winter. 

I tried cutting small branches and chopping up the leaves, stems and all, for the soup pot.  The only problem with this is that the stems are quite tough.  A 1/4" diameter spigariello stem requires a lot more chewing than a 2" diameter stem of store-bought broccoli.  I think I will put these stems in the same category as collard ribs: something to chop up fine and feed to the chickens.  But the leaves are a keeper, if you want some broccoli flavor to add to soups or other dishes.  Just chiffonade them up and toss them in. I can see where these could be part of a food-security kitchen garden.