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Month: March 2016

Monthly report: March 2016

Monthly report: March 2016

So, here’s what happened in March. The biggest lesson I learned, an overview look at what happened, and the money¬†that’s been spent so far for this season’s efforts growing food.

Biggest lesson

I hope this isn’t painfully silly for an adult to learn, but I rediscovered a mental tool to discover the most important thing to do on a given day (at least, for procrastinators). I sit and think for a minute about the thing that I most want to put off doing. Might be cleaning up an ignorable mess in the yard, making an unpleasant phone call like setting up an appointment with the doctor, or finally deciding which crops I’m going to not grow this year, so I can start planting seed flats.

I know that I typically put off what I dread until it becomes a bad enough problem to need dealing with. In the process, causing a good deal of stress and perfectly avoidable problems. So, for me, the highest value thing I can do in any given day is to fend off days/weeks/months of chronic stress and dumb problems. That is a very motivating thought, and so far has been enough to help me do very well at this.

And then I’m acting from desire of a carrot instead of pain from getting beaten by a stick, which is another nice thing. In the case of tasks relating to the garden, literally out of desire for carrots…

Bonus lesson: the second biggest lesson is that seed swapping is awesome. And I feel like a chump for not having done more of it. Oh well, next year…

What happened in March

I wish I had taken better notes — I’ll do better next month. I think I’ll try keeping a garden notebook the same way I kept lab notebooks in school. Anyway, here are some of the important things that were done:

Planting inside
– Set up grow lights in the kitchen
– Planted two flats of seeds, for 144 starts of: garlic and potatos (yep, from seed!), four kinds of tomatos, jerusalem artichoke, okra, sweet and hot peppers, broccoli, oregano, and lavendar.
– Planted three packets of onions to make sets: red, yellow, and walla walla sweet.

Seed flats and onion sets. The middle seed flat isn't planted with anything yet.
Seed flats and onion sets. The middle seed flat isn’t planted with anything yet.

– Planted ginger and 0.67lbs of turmeric in flat. They’ll go outdoors later.

Tumeric getting planted pretty densely. This is just to get it nice and sprouty before planting outside - they won't grow too many roots before then.
Tumeric getting planted pretty densely. This is just to get it nice and sprouty before planting outside – they won’t grow too many roots before then.

– Rooting tree collard cuttings

Tree collard cuttings starting to grow leaves -- and hopefully growing roots, too.
Tree collard cuttings starting to grow leaves — and hopefully growing roots, too.

Planting outside
– Planted garlic. Way late, but better than nothing. Hopefully.
– Planted sprouty little russet and yukon gold potatoes, the entirety of last year’s crop.
– Planted peas outside. We’ll see how long they take to germinate…

The beds up the hill at the end of March. You can mainly see the fuzz of cover crop growing in.
The beds up the hill at the end of March. You can mainly see the fuzz of cover crop growing in.

Other stuff
– Got permission from a few people in the area to undomesticate some vegetables on their land.
– Made a simple shelf on the back porch to keep containers from rotting the wood
– Bought wood to make a beehive. We’ll see if it gets finished in time for bees this year.


Time for the numbers! This’ll include all expenses so far for this growing season. Starting next month I’ll keep season-to-date tallies as well as monthly expenditures.

Raised beds, 500 square feet
$274 – 8 yards compost from Bailey’s compost. Good stuff. I know that over years I could have built this fertility into the soil, but I’m starting with pretty poor soil. The additional yield just this year should pay for the compost in terms of grocery bill savings.
$14 – 2 bales straw for mulch. I <i>do not</i> like bare soil!
$7 – cover crop mix. I don’t like wasting sunlight on mulch.
$15 – tarp. I wanted to keep my driving from getting muddy, and didn’t have enough tarpage to cover the size of the pile. I’m including this here because I had to buy it for this project, even though I’ll get more use out of it.
$0 – a day of hard labor by myself and and Dad. (Thanks Dad!)
$0 – bed walls, path materials, landscaping cloth, equipment rental, etc. I kept it very simple: just mounded compost with no walls, no double digging or rototilling, etc. I like making things simple. It’s elegant, and almost always easier, cheaper, and environmentally healthier than making things complicated.

Total cost for 500 square feet of raised beds: $310


Seed starting setup
$20 – 2 fluorescent grow lights.
$20 – fluorescent fixture
$0 – borrowed grow lights. I borrowed $40 worth of grow lights and fixture from Dad.
$12 – extension cord
$20 – three seed trays
$0 – seed tray I already had. Would have been $6 or $7 extra.
$12 – two bags of potting soil. Next year I plan to make my own, but didn’t have time this year.
$0 – cardboard and paper. I put a couple layers of cardboard and paper in the seed trays, underneath the flats as a capillary wicking mat. Like this, but with cardboard. It works great.

This setup is working fine. Watering with capillary mats is extremely easy and nice. I’ve got it going on shelving in my kitchen island, so the temperature is good. I could probably use another light fixture — my seedlings are a little light hungry. Maybe next year.

Total cost for 4-tray seed starting setup: $84.
Cost if I had the extra grow lights and seed tray: $130


Plants, seeds, starts…
$51 – three heather plants, a jasmine, two blueberry bushes, and one grape vine. I didn’t record how much each one was — oops. About $5 to $10, depending on the specific plant.
$0 – apple tree and pear tree cuttings. Got these from somebody, stuck them in the ground last year, and they’re growing leaves. Obviously they’re not on dwarfing, super hardy rootstock or anything, but still cool.
$16 – tree collard cuttings. I got 6 cuttings off of ebay for a perennial 8+ foot tall shrub of collard leaves. Once they root out I’ll be sharing them around, so let me know if you want some.
$13 – potato onion seeds. This is *a lot* of money for seeds, but these are hard to find, and I got a very good variety. They’re an onion, but they bunch kind of like garlic, so they are very easy to propagate. These used to be very common on homesteads.
$16 – skirret and chicory seeds. Again, pretty expensive, but again, skirret is hard to find, and I’m trying to go for diversified perennial crops. The chicory was an add-on to the order to make me feel better about shipping.
$0 – raspberry plants from Dad.
$40 – 300 shiitake mushroom spawn plugs. This cost more than inoculating with sawdust spawn, but not too much more. I don’t know what I’m doing with mushrooms, and I figure the extra expense is worth the increased confidence of a nice multiple-year crop.
$16 – grocery store seeds. Sugar snaps, ordinary hot pepper blend, broccoli, etc. Had I been on top of my game earlier in the year, all of this would have been seed swaps for really interesting varieties. As it was, I ran out of time and needed to start planting. Next year…
$1 – seed ginger. I bought a big bag of ginger that was discounted because it was starting to sprout, so of course it isn’t good for anything. Heh.
$5 – seed turmeric. I picked through the turmeric bin at an Indian grocery store for all the tiny little nubs that would be inconvenient to cook with but are great for planting.
$12 – seeds from Joseph Lofthouse. Cool stuff like garlic and potato seed (actually seed, not bulbils or tubers), F2 hybrid jerusalem artichokes, tepary beans, and a lot more really interesting, tough, genetically diverse stuff. With all the bonus seeds he added to my order, probably 2 dozen varieties.
$0 – seed swapping with dirty Paul for a some bulk seeds the undomesticating project, and some other interesting stuff.
$1 – postage for a seed swap for Amaranth and Asparagus seeds
$0 – seeds saved from last year.

Overall, I’m tickled with the variety of good stuff we have going. Lots of interesting varieties, and a decent start on perennial and tough foodcrops. I feel like a chump for not doing more seed swapping, earlier. Next year the last two items — postage and seeds saved from last year — will hopefully be only items of any significance on this list. A lot of this was startup expense.

$51 for plants
$62 for cuttings, tubers, and spawn
$57 for seeds

Grand total for propagable material: $170


I’m building a Warre hive. These are simple, very good for bees, and require very little maintenance and no chemicals.
$8 – linseed oil for finishing wood
$76 – four 1×12″ eight foot boards. These and a tablesaw should provide all, or very close to all, of the needed wood.
$14 – mineral spirits, for cleaning linseed oil off of brushes. I won’t use a full tub of this on the project, but again, I had to spend this money to make the project happen.

Total cost for a beehive: $98

Grand total of totals

Overall, to get set up for this season:
Total cost for 500 square feet of raised beds: $310
Total cost for 4-tray seed starting setup: $84.
Total cost for propagable material: $170
Total cost for a beehive: $98

Which brings the total to $662. This feels like a lot of money for a vegetable garden. However, our monthly food budget ranges from $300 to $600, and we pay that 12 months a year. So for the price of a month or two of food, we’ve permanently increased the ability of our yard to create food. In the first year, we ought to be able to recoup most or all of the money we’ve poured into the garden. And next year, our expenses to keep all of this running will be a fraction of this year, and the food budget savings will continue.

So, recouping initial investment within a year, and likely a 100% to 200% return every year after that? Speaking on purely financial grounds, there is literally nothing I could have done with that money that would be as financially prudent. (Yes, it’ll take manual labor, but still. It’s an investment that was required for me to be able to put in the manual labor this year to make that return.)

We aren’t doing this for money. But the money, like everything else, lines up on the side of “you should definitely be growing your own food”.

Next week I’ll talk about anchoring a genetic pool of domesticated crops with feral or wild varieties for long term genetic robustness.

Wildness and domesticity: resilience

Wildness and domesticity: resilience

[Edit: Correction to last week’s post: new posts will come out on Tuesdays.]

I’m growing food for a lot of reasons. It is wonderful six ways to Sunday, even before considering nutritional content and flavor of homegrown food that blow away the cardboard produce you see at the grocery store.

One of my reasons to grow food is that I see a lot of challenges for our food supply in the future, and I want to contribute to making it more robust. I’d like to learn how to raise steady, decent amounts of food and do so without undue disruptions from droughts and freak storms, some dumb invasive species of beetle, or loss of topsoil.

Mostly, this comes down to questions of balancing the amount of leverage, of risk versus reward. How much yield do you get per square foot, and how long from planting to yield? How tasty is it, versus how resistant to pests? How resistant to drought?

On one extreme, the natural state makes incredibly efficient use of sunlight and water to support life, and is very resilient. The amount of biomass in a Douglas Fir forest is incredible, and it is completely unsupervised. However, as a human who can only eat certain kinds of biomass, the Douglas Fir forest isn’t particularly compelling because I can’t eat fir, and living from swordfern rhizomes and venison would require a lot more land than I have. What a convenient copout, right?

At the other extreme is industrialized agriculture: monocrops that exist only via a life support system of irrigation, chemical fortification, and poison applied by large machines and provisioned by an intricate supply chain. Without irrigation the water-hungry varieties wilt away, without chemicals the stripped soil can’t support growth, and without poison the intensely crowded conditions breed disease like an 18th century slum. For me, this package is even less compelling than digging sword fern rhizomes.

The average vegetable garden is between these two, and is a great start. Many gardeners use natural compost instead of chemicals, so the soil is maintained. The home gardener doesn’t have square miles of a single crop, so pests are much less of a problem, and more easily managed with non-poisonous means. The plants selected, though, have much the same character as those used in industrial agriculture.

If you use a normal variety (heirloom, or from a seed company), it has been bred to taste good, look good, come true to seed, and yield heavily given good growing conditions. These are undeniably nice features, but they mostly come down on the “not resilient” side of the scale.

Coming true to seed is nice, although you pay the price of significantly lowered genetic diversity. That leaves the plant population with fewer options for dealing with new situations, like dumb beetles or abnormal weather patterns that give life to a regionally new blight. Yuck.

Breeding for maximum yield under ideal conditions generally leads to plants that take risks and make them not very good at handling less than ideal conditions. For example, a high-yield tomato plant will grow tall, quickly, and bear tons of tomatoes as early as possible. This is lovely, unless you have a dry spell and the root system can’t support that much growth and the plant gets parched. A variety that was more compact and had smaller, later fruits would have much better chances of having enough root system to continue to support its production.

There isn’t anything wrong with growing normal tomatoes varieties for high yield, and I have some under the grow lights right now. But these kinds of plants are what give people brown thumbs, and the kinds of plants that will up and crop fail on you at the drop of a mite.

“Tasting good” is somewhat subjective — some people love kale, others don’t — and somewhat objective. Wild dandelion greens are bitter, and nobody can eat much of them. Often, though, what we mean by “tasting good” is being mild flavored, juicy, and large, and this does make things generally pleasant to eat and easy to prepare. Although these are similar criteria that caterpillars, rabbits, aphids, deer and other pests use to determine what they find tasty. It’s not a coincidence that last year the rabbits completely destroyed my crisp, juicy pea plants and left the sorrel alone. We had to put in a fence, otherwise we would not be able to grow nearly any of the domesticated vegetables we want to. Which is fine, but again, it’s an example of the process of domestication simultaneously bringing risk and fragility along with the rewards.

There are three approaches to get plant varieties that are more resilient than what you get in the seed packets at the nursery.

The first approach is to plant wild things. There isn’t a beetle alive that’s going to touch my dandelion greens, for example. And if that’s just one of the species of wild greens I have, even if some enterprising beetle wipes out my dandelions, I’ll still have sorrel, plantain, miners lettuce, chickweed, and the other forageable greens around here. Most wild things are optimized for being very, very conservative, though, and have correspondingly un-optimized yield and flavor. It’s quite a bit of work to make dandelion salad, and it’s just a touch bitter. These things are important, but peripheral. Notable exceptions are things like sunchokes and nut trees.

Another approach is to domesticate wild plants, which is a worthwhile thing to do but can take lifetimes to see substantial progress. This is really, really cool — but in terms of the immediate project I have of trying to grow more of our own food, again a largely peripheral concern.

Another approach is to de-domesticate cultivated varieties. This is the easiest way to adjust the wildness/domesticatedness of plants, because it’s always easier to move things back towards the natural state than it is to move towards something more specific and controlled. One way to do this to take established, conventional varieties, and cross them like crazy to get populations with high genetic diversity. Then grow them out with the conditions you want the plants to be able to handle. Watering once a week, or rainwater only? Shade, sun? Frost? By imposing the difficulties you want the plants to be ready for, you will select plants that don’t take stupid risks considering those conditions.

Do you want tomatoes that don’t need watering where you live? Plant a bunch of genetically diverse tomato seed, and get ready for a harvest of seed that will grow plants with small fruits of various shapes and generally less yield than if you watered daily. But they’ll be the toughest darn cherry tomatoes you’ve ever grown. If you want something closer to a beefsteak sandwich tomato, you’ll need to have a variety that isn’t as tough – but can still probably be tougher than the kind you get at the nursery.

I’m pursuing this in a couple ways.

This year, I got a bunch of seeds from Joseph Lofthouse [], who has been breeding “adaptivar landraces” for years in Utah, and has written a lot that is worth reading on plant breeding. Although he’s been adapting varieties to a different climate than the Pacific Northwest, his varieties are starting with a large amount of genetic diversity, are open pollinated, and have at the least an inclination towards toughness generally. I’ll be adapting these varieties to my climate.

I’m also going to start from scratch on some de-domestication. I’ve gotten a few kind volunteers to let me have use of some of their land for a breeding project. I haven’t finalized the plan yet, but the general idea will be to scatter a ton of seed in these areas, and more or less let things go feral. Hope for (and maybe manually carry out) hybridization, maybe manually encourage propagation of some of the more promising plants, but generally just let nature take its course.

Short term, this ought to lead to some individuals and populations that can hold their own in the Northwest climate, while at the same time giving acceptable yields and tastiness. Long term, I’d love to have a genetic reservoir of feral crops to regularly crossbreed into whatever varieties I otherwise am growing, as a way to essentially provide an anchor of some degree of wildness.

Next week will be April, and I’ll write up a report on March. Budget, tasks done, lessons learned, and fun stuff like that. The week after that I’ll explore a little bit more the idea of genetically anchoring domesticated varieties with a feral counterparts as part of a checks-and-balances arrangement for genetic improvement. And in a later post (didn’t get to it in this one) I’ll talk about wildness, domesticity, and beauty.

Hello world

Hello world

This is my new online journal. As a first post, I wrote an¬†about page, which I’ve also copy-pasted below. Without a routine I’ll never post anything, so the plan is to write a new post every Monday. Next week, I’ll write about how I’m approaching putting together a garden that balances wild plants and domesticated plants for beauty and resilience.

Freshly laid raised beds
And so it begins…


On the surface, this blog is about cultivating the land to make it abundant forever with natural farming and permaculture. Underneath, it is about living the life we were created for — as Jesus said, to love God with all our hearts, and souls, and minds, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

As for nuts and bolts, I’ll be documenting our journey to get more food from our half-acre yard, and less from the store. Over time we’ll develop a food forest ecosystem on a chunk of our land in addition to the gardens. Long term, we want to find enough land to truly support a family and community. I’ll keep a journal here of how we progress on this path. I’ll try to be as concrete as possible, so that if we learn something you can learn from it also.

Over the years I’ve learned a tremendous amount from ordinary people publishing out-of-the way blogs. I’ll search for something, come across a post somebody took the time to put online, and leave with more than I had before I read it. A few times, these people have introduced ideas that changed the course of my life. Tricks, stories, journals about the development of a garden over years, or thoughts about the big questions.

There is nothing new under the sun, and I won’t have anything deeply original to share. But every now and then I’ll do an experiment in my garden, or figure out a good trick, or have a thought about life that I think is important or useful. And given where the world is at now, it might be a new application of a very old idea, or a new mashup of idea to context. If I write up some of these things, maybe they will be useful to someone who otherwise wouldn’t have run into them.