We are on the road, and post I’m writing is not complete yet. As a teaser, here’s the current opening…
I’m sure a lot of you have seen the project (summary here, and the original video here) where the guy chronicled his adventures in making a sandwich mostly from scratch, and counted the expense as six months and $1500. I say mostly from scratch because while he did things like milk a cow to make his own cheese, he didn’t raise the cow or grow its feed, so he didn’t really do things from first steps. Anyway…
It’s a very interesting project, and I’m a big believer in people understanding how the world works and where food and other things come from. So kudos to him for the education he is providing. However it is sad that the takeaway is that growing and preparing your own food is absurdly impractical and the result is just kind of so-so. With the implied takeaway that we are so fortunate that professionals take care of it all for us, so we can get our sustenance neatly wrapped in plastic at the market.
There is so much missing and mistaken!
First, let’s talk about taste. One of the best reasons to grow and prepare your own food is because that is the only way to have the freshest, best tasting stuff. Imagine a chef dressed in a white apron, with a big old chef’s hat, or a peasant Italian grandmother. Or anyone who to your mind represents the ability to turn ingredients into good food. Not necessarily fancy food, but heartwarming and delicious homemade food.
In your mind, ask this person if they’d like to go to the garden to gather heirloom vegetables, and get a hand-smoked cut of meat from the cellar, or if they want to go shopping. Then ask if they’d like a spice mix or would they rather have fresh herbs? The exercise can be continued with bread fresh out of the oven, a dessert of home-canned peaches, and etc.
Yes it takes some practice to make good food from scratch, but there is nothing magical or difficult about it. If you can follow simple instructions on classic recipes, you can in very little time learn to make very good food.
…and this will continue at a later date…
UPDATE on June 22nd, 2016…
I had intended to go through the video and list out all the ways that this deviated from a realistic situation where people grow and make their own food. But I realized two things: (1) I’m trying to be a more positive person, focusing on how great it is to do things the right way, instead of how wrong it is to do things the wrong way, and (2) there really is just one relevant point, and no need to waste a ton of words elaborating on it.
And so here is the point: if you are just preparing food to make one sandwich, it will be very inefficient, and probably not very good. If you grow and prepare more of your own food you can process in bulk more efficiently, and you will get practiced and be able to do a good job of it.
If you pencil out the cost of buying local, heirloom varieties of sustainably produced food, and look at the time it takes to grow it yourself, it’s not a half bad deal. And if you then consider the time that hobbyist gardeners spend, and the health and spiritual benefits of gardening, the hours of “work” are even more substantially reduced, and then it becomes extremely economical. Just looking at time and money, it makes sense to grow your own food.
And that doesn’t even include the very real financial benefits of increased health.
And of course, not all that glitters is gold. Intangibles glitter, too.
We are going through a gradual process of getting more access to land to grow food on — and not just from buying our own land. Here is how we (and a few others) have found space. But first, I want to take an idealistic diversion to talk about why this is not just a practical way to grow food, but also a deeply important and good thing to do. Feel free to skip this section if you want to get straight to the practicalities…
The rightness of gardening any available land
In the Bible, there is a passage pretty near the start that says we are to fill the earth and subdue it. I do not take this to mean pavement and strip malls. This blessing was given in a garden, and it seems to me that the idea is for us to fill the earth with abundance, wisely tending the land to make it teem with useful life.
Most of the food that is created in our modern world is ruinous to the health of the people who eat it, and ruinous to the land. The deeper you dig into where our food comes from, the more you find adulteration and greed. It is so far backwards of what the original commandment and blessing that we were given.
We were created to tend land, in community with others, and share in the abundance. Not to dominate it by ploughing million-acre cornfields, but to subdue it with gardens teeming with every kind of natural life. The bible says — and I believe — that this is literally what we are made for. When properly subdued, all land can become made more productive by any measures, more diverse, and more beautiful.
Gardening anywhere, and especially in partnership with others, is fundamentally worthwhile. If you can eat the produce, that is wonderful. And given the scarcity of real food today, any of it that you can share is a blessing. I count it a privilege if I can get food growing anywhere, that anyone will eat.
At our apartment
After we filled our small deck with containers, our first tiny step towards expanding our garden was to approach the manager about letting us use a tiny (and I mean tiny!) little piece of ground at the bottom of our external flight of stairs. It was out of the way and we were granted permission. We grew a few potatoes and raspberries. Had we stayed there another year, I would have asked for more space – there was plenty of ground that could have been gardened there.
In this case, being out-of-the-way or aesthetically pleasing was important. Fortunately, there are a lot of herbs and vegetables that are absolutely beautiful and can fit in fine with ornamental plantings. If we had asked for more space, we would have approached the conversation with “let us maintain this area for you, for free, and here is how we will make it look nice.”
Many herbs are beautiful, and are sometimes grown purely for ornamentation. Rosemary, sage, and lavendar, for example. Mint, lemon balm, bee balm, and other mint family plants can fill areas with aromatic, attractive foliage. You can even plant a lot of things that are generally considered ornamental that are actually great edibles: for example, hostas have edible spring shoots, and nasturtiums have edible leaves and seeds which can be pickled to serve as capers.
In our neighborhood
We have a neighbor with a great big lawn (probably a half an acre) that gets mostly full sun. So we asked them if they would be okay with us planting an orchard there, and sharing the fruit with them. It would increase their property value, give them a variety of fresh fruits, and it would give us space to grow fresh fruits. A win-win.
And they said no, because they are planning to build something there someday. That was disappointing.
We have another neighbor, maybe a quarter mile down the street, who has a 40 acre lot that was clear cut a few years back. I asked him if I could scatter some seedballs on his land to see what varieties worked well in our area for doing that. And he told he that I could use an acre for that this year, and we are talking about planting rootstock apple trees from seed over a lot of the land. Hopefully we will grow hundreds of seedlings, give a ton away and have enough left for a nice big orchard. This is very exciting!
It took more than a year between thinking that I should talk to the person who owned the clearcut, and finally having the guts and followthrough to do it. And if the owner was not as friendly and open as he turned out to be, the answer probably would have been no. But if he had not said yes, someone else would have. Talk to your neighbors!
My style generally includes asking for permission to do things. I have a friend (you know who you are…) who occasionally, and by that I mean regularly, indulges in guerilla gardening. There was an empty lot that he operated a community garden on for years. When the owner of the lot finally noticed, he thought it was a neat idea, and put together a $10 a year lease for the land. Sadly, a year or two later the lot was developed.
Now my friend is gardening in a strip of grass alongside the road that runs by his apartment. He is making a series of keyhole beds as he gets his hands on organic matter to fill them with. Search for “keyhole garden” if you are unfamiliar with the idea, they are fantastic drought-friendly garden beds. The crew that maintains the grass simply mows around his beds, and there has not been a problem. Only fresh, real food.
Tim Peters, something of a legend in the plant breeding world, would use the sides of roads for isolating different trials of his perennial rye project. Periodically along the roadside he would plant a few rye plants, and they would simply blend in with the various grass and weeds along the road. He was able to significantly expand his ability to experiment by doing this.
On the internet
I have tried a few different ways to arrange garden space over the internet. There are several yard-sharing websites designed to connect people who have extra yard space with people who want to garden. Those did not work for me, because they either didn’t cover my region, or the people I contacted never responded. That was disappointing.
What worked the best was posting to my and adjacent neighborhoods on nextdoor.com, a social network for neighborhoods. I posted to ask if anybody had yard space for a project to breed drought resistant vegetable varieties, and said that I would share what was not needed for saving seeds. There were somewhere between a half dozen and a dozen responses, about 4 or 5 people who stayed in communication, two people who were ultimately interested, and one person who I had time to actually work with before we left.
Think about what you can offer — free maintenance, beautification, produce, teaching, or improvement of property value. Or all of the above!
If you want to find some space, be willing to talk to a number of people. Some will say no, some will be interested but fall by the way. If you are persistent, you will find somebody who says yes.
And if you are thoughtful about it, you probably don not need to be afraid of turning unused public-ish space into gardens.
If you can have a project for the space you are seeking, it can help you get interest. For example, a seed breeding project, or maybe sharing with a food bank. One of the best things about gardening is that it opens a world of abundance. It does not take much effort to grow a large amount of food to share.
It is okay to garden for purely esthetic and practical ends (i.e. getting good food). It is also okay to garden with lofty, idealistic notions about changing the world (a little bit) and living the life we were created for. And it is especially okay to do both. : )
Recently, some very kind people have given me some seedlings transplanted from their gardens (thanks Barrett and Robin!). These were volunteer plants, dug out of the ground, and they seem to generally be very happy having been transplanted.
I did some googling, and found out the phrase “nursery bed”. It’s a closely manicured place in the garden where you grow transplants or seedlings before planting them out. There are a number of really nifty benefits to this.
Growing seedlings directly in the dirt doesn’t need as much finagling. I don’t need to precisely place seeds in the little cells, just make a furrow and spread them out. Much of the time I won’t need to water (using a sunken bed with soil mix that retains water well), and having water come from below will encourage deep roots.
Speaking of deep roots, I made the soil in my nursery bed about 6 or 8 inches deep. Normally when I transplant out seedlings grown in flats, the roots are running circles at the bottom and poking out the drainholes. It’s got to be better for them to have as much space as they want to grow deep. Assuming I’m careful when transplanting, the extra root depth should translate to the adult plants being able to reach deeper into the soil for water and nutrients.
I’ve been inspired by the people who have been giving me plants — friends, family, and random people who posted their surplus free on the internet — and I want to be able to grow extra plants to be able to give away. I don’t really have enough space with my current indoor setup to grow all the plants I want, much less enough to give away. If I can put otherwise unused space along my fence to use growing seedlings, I’ll be able to start many more than I can otherwise.
Another motivation for this is that I travel fairly frequently, and want to be able to start seedlings in a controlled manner, but also in a manner that is tolerant of neglect. Fluorescent lights are great for indoor seed starting. But they really aren’t a substitute for the sun, and they are expensive. And you have to be there every day to turn them on and off. And even if it’s during our wet season, you have to carefully water your indoor seedlings regularly. I just planted the nursery bed, and will be out of town for weeks. Hopefully I’ll come back to a bunch of happy seedlings regardless. We’ll see!
For next year, I plan to expand this, and prop up glass over it so I can get some extra warmth in the soil and start seeds outdoors before the last frost. It should be interesting!
A list of reasons to grow your own wheat: kind of a manifesto
Food is not a commodity, and it never has been. It is treated as one by industrial culture, but it really isn’t.
The classic comparison of industrial and garden food is tomatoes. Compare a regular grocery store tomato to any well-tended heirloom tomato and the gulf between them is obvious. However, the same gulf exists with all the food we eat, it just isn’t as obvious sometimes. And where the discrepancy is greatest is in the foods that we rely on for the bulk of our sustenance — grains and legumes.
Wheat is as close to a commodity as it is possible for food to get, and wheat flour even more so. Yet it can be moldy and stale, deficient in vitamins and minerals, and harvested well past ripeness, and contaminated with industrial chemicals. Or it can be fresh and clean, untainted, high in vitamins and minerals, and harvested and cured at its peak.
Might as well start with the fun stuff. Here’s a picture of some wheat berries I sorted out of a cup that I was grinding for flour. You can see what some different kinds of moldy and bad wheat looks like, compared to some that is okay:
Mold toxins in grains and legumes can cause health problems (shocking!). The biggest problem is the Aspergillus family of molds, and the toxin they produce called aflatoxin. There are a number of factors that contribute to contamination. The more damaged grains, the more mold. The more insect pests, the more damaged grains and thus mold. Storage in cool conditions reduces mold.
It turns out that excess irrigation, while nice for plumping up crops, can cause excess plant susceptibility to pests, and increase the humidity levels, both of which increase mold contamination. This study has an interesting analysis of cotton, much of which is likely true of other crops. Also, it turns that harvesting late season, bug ridden dregs of a crop doesn’t help yield much, but does significantly increase contamination.
One solution: pre-contaminate the crops with an Aspergillus that doesn’t produce the government-regulated aflatoxin. Seriously, this is being developed. It is wonderful to reduce Aflatoxin, but I’d much rather have my grain not moldy in the first place. I’ll write more about this in next week’s post…
Solution: grow and store the crops with skill and care, in family-scale quantities. Before consuming food, have somebody take care to sort through and discard anything obviously moldy.
Traditionally, wheat was harvested at peak ripeness, and allowed to cure and harden before threshing. This optimized flavor, and probably nutrition. In modern wheat harvesting, it is allowed to fully harden to flint stage before harvest so that the mechanical combines do not crush it. Some is still damaged, of course.
Solution: Grow wheat on a human-scale, not a machine scale, and harvest at optimal ripeness.
The nutrient profile of wheat can also vary greatly depending on the variety grown, the fertility of the soil it is grown in, and how it is watered, and if it is annual or perennial (some perennial wheat strains do exist, and are nutritionally attractive). Annual that are grown in soil that has been tilled to death and has lost all its microbes due to harsh fertilizers and pesticides? Not going to be as nutritious.
Solution: Grow wheat in rich, fertile soil that is tended properly.
3 known or probable carcinogens
9 suspected hormone disruptors
4 developmental or reproductive toxins
7 honeybee toxins
I know that the dose makes the poison, and that these were found in low levels. However, I also know that “low levels” is defined by bodies that are rife with industrial ties. I also know that if make the dose of a poison zero by not consuming it, then it cannot cause you any harm whatsoever. Also, I don’t care to support the poisoning of agricultural workers, or the poisoning of honeybees, or the poisoning of the groundwater and air in rural communities.
Solution: buy expensive organic flour (which doesn’t address the other points), or grow it at home and don’t spray poisons on it.
Too many shortcuts
The points above all connect at a central idea. When somebody else is growing the wheat that I eat, and that I feed to my family, they are almost certainly taking shortcuts that I am not okay with. And sometimes they do things that I find downright astounding, like applying poisons, or pre-innoculating crops with mold. I know that the supply chain from seed company to farm to supermarket is long, and I can’t imagine all of the shortcuts and shenanigans that are taking place.
Solution: grow your own wheat with the same skill and pride that you would have when growing an heirloom tomato. Grow food as though you and your own loved ones are going to eat it. And then eat that food.
The real thing
I don’t want plastic wrapped, industrially optimized, moldy, nutrient thin bread that comes from a fluorescent lighted warehouse. I want the real thing. I want my family to live on bread that we saw with our own eyes come from God’s provision of rain, sun, soil and seed. Grown and prepared with tender loving care. Fresh from the garden and warm out of the oven.
This is not sentimentalism, and achieving it is not a pipe dream. It takes work, and patience, for years, but building a life where this happens is perfectly achievable. Arguably more achievable than climbing a corporate ladder, because there is enough space for everyone on this planet, but there are only so many corner offices.
There is a hilarious twitter account I saw recently: @handsinwheat. The schtick is making fun of stock photos of people running their hands through a field of wheat. Here’s an example:
@handsinwheat does a great good job of satirizing the overuse of this imagery by anyone and everyone who is trying to pitch something. It is among the cheapest, most hackneyed tricks in the book. But you know what? It works, and it works for a reason. I dare you to look at the silly pictures on @handsinwheat and not feel something real. Something that comes from thousands and thousands of years of your ancestors — your own family — walking through land abundant with food, and feeling contentment, connection to God, and connection to their ancestors and a legacy for their heirs.
That is the way it is supposed to be. We are built for this, in so many ways. That twitter account is funny, but it is tragic that the imagery of so much of what should be fundamental to our lives has become an icon of cynical manipulation.
Well, that’s all for this post. I’ve got work to do.
This post is about what happens when an ill-timed cover crop goes crazy for three weeks, what we learned, and why we are glad to have had it despite the laborious work of reigning it in. First, though, an explanation for the recent lack of weekly-ness…
We were on a trip to do volunteer dental work south of Ensenada. The first week in Mexico we had very little access to internet, so I didn’t post. The second week we got internet, and also the flu, so when we weren’t seeing people I was laying in bed. The third week we were on the road home, and I still had the flu.
And that concludes the excuses. Back to the regularly scheduled programming. : )
Cover crop takeover
The day before we left on our trip, we cut the cover crop back to the ground and transplanted all our little seedlings. Tomatoes, okra, potatos, herbs, sunchokes, peppers, and more. We also randomly scattered seeds for about 30-40 different vegetables and herbs. We crossed our fingers, and left for just over three weeks. When we got back, it looked like this (it has been partially cleared in the picture):
The cover crop of rye (with a little clover) grew two feet while we were gone. The bad news: it completely overgrew everything else that was planted. Oops. The good news is that apparently everything we planted is doing fine, if a bit hungry for light. I’m guessing that it took a week for the rye to overtop the transplants, and another week after that to completely shade them, so averaging it out they only missed maybe a week and a half worth of sun. Not too bad. We’re in the process of painstakingly cutting away the straw by hand from around the seedlings. It’s kind of fun, like an easter egg hunt.
What didn’t fare as well as the transplants were the potatoes and the garlic. Those plants were much more mature, and seem to have felt the lack of light much more intensely. The garlic was mostly pressed over by dense growth of rye, and a lot of the potatoes are yellowish and sad looking. It is still early in the growing season, so they may recover, but I expect this to cause significantly reduced yields.
Now the good news. The tall stalks helped protect the transplants from the sun, helped collect dew at night and through transpiration raised the surface humidity during the day. I have little doubt that this helped them survive three weeks of no watering after transplanting (we didn’t even water the day we put them in). Part of the goal of all this is to be able to garden with little or no irrigation, so happy transplants with three weeks of total water neglect is pretty sweet.
And more good news – with chopping and dropping this new growth, we’ve significantly increased the depth of mulch on the garden. Heading towards dry summer, this is very important. While it’s been quite a bit of work to clear it out, I’m really glad to have all that extra organic matter on the surface.
Last bit of good news: there was a lot of buttercup growth in the paths, but the cover crop almost entirely prevented intrusion into the beds. There were just a few easily chopped runners deal with. They aren’t going to send a lot of growth into such a shady area. And guess what got chopped and dropped? All that buttercup foliage in the paths. With a dose of rye straw over the stumps for good measure. That’ll keep them down nicely while our crops keep getting taller.
If you chop and drop a grass cover crop, expect it to shoot back really strongly. In retrospect, duh. What we’ll try next time is simply bending and bruising over, so hopefully we don’t trigger a burst of vertical growth, while keeping it out of the way. Crop circle style! Hopefully that we we can have a living mulch, and give the transplants or seeds time to get their own height before the cover crop bulks up again.
Also, we’ll shoot for better timing. We put the beds in in February, and planted the cover crop then. I knew it was not the best time for a cover crop, but the beds didn’t exist before then, so we couldn’t have planted it earlier. And despite the extra work of taming am ill-timed rye field, I’m very glad we put it in.
True fertility comes from plants moving solar energy into sugar and pumping it underground to feed the microbes that in turn feed everything else that grows. Real soil is alive – literally, the most important parts of it are tied up in living organisms. They lock up the carbon that stores water, they bring water and nutrients to plant roots, and even sometimes from one plant or tree to another. All of this life is fed underground by plant roots, and on the surface by dead plant material. Because of the rye, our transplants went into soil that is blossoming into life instead of soil that was in the process of starving.
Next year, we’ll plant cover crops in the fall. And as our perennials mature, and less area is spent on annuals, we won’t need as much temporary cover cropping, which will save even more time and effort.
Some of our flowers are starting to bloom!
In addition to the vegetables, berries, and herbs, we’re growing some crops that have a wallop of calories. Hopefully we’ll be able to eat many full meals from the food we grow right here, without needing to get the main course from somewhere else. There is often an assumption that home gardens are for growing vegetables because it would take lots of space and machinery to grow what fills the belly. It is possible to grow 40 pounds of wheat on 1/40th of an acre, though. That would be a fairly significant portion of the flour a person needs for a year. If you have time to do it, even with fairly limited space, you can grow a lot of food. We are abundantly blessed to have a half an acre to work with.
There is also the fact that most staple crops are ridiculously cheap in the store. So why on earth would you take the time to do something like growing your own potatoes when you can buy fancy organic ones for $1 a pound? It does take time, and we are blessed to have the time. But like the space, it may take less then you’d think, and it is well worth it just because it feels good to work with your hands outdoors. There is so much more, though. If you have a family, and especially if you have kids, growing food is a fantastic thing to do together. There is immense spiritual benefit to, as a family, physically living out diligent stewardship, and seeing the literal fruit of your hard labors together, and yet being made very aware that all of it is completely subject to God’s provision.
For a while at least, we’ll still buy some potatoes and flour at the store. What we won’t buy at the store is anything that lets me and my family glimpse a bit of eternity together.
Back to practicalities. In terms of growing calories, there are a few considerations. I want them coming from a number of crops. I do not want failure of one thing to take out the whole food supply we were trying to grow. It is healthy to eat a diverse diet, too, so shooting for diversity attacks two birds with one stone.
Another consideration is ease of harvest and processing. Most of the calorie crops we are growing are straightforward to use. We will be growing some wheat and other grains, but that will come with a learning curve before we can harvest and process it in bulk. Right now, we’re just growing out seed stock, so we have a year or two to get set up for that.
Lastly, amount of replanting and soil disruption required. Currently our calorie crops are things that are either annuals, or perennials with underground food stores that require digging. This involves a lot of disturbance to the soil, and ongoing replantings. Over time we’ll bring in some tree crops to contribute so that we can have some areas of more permanent plantings that provide solid amounts of calories. Given that we are just establishing our garden, however, these will not being helping out for years.
What we are growing
We’re growing a lot of ordinary staples: beans and peas, pumpkins and squash, wheat, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, carrots, beets, etc. At some point we’re going to have fruit and nut trees, but those aren’t in yet. Some of the not as common staples we are growing are…
Amaranth is a pseudograin originally cultivated by the Aztec civilization. It is a lot like quinoa. It grows like a weed, has edible greens, and produces up to a couple of pounds of high-protein yield on a single seedhead, and is much easier to harvest and process than things like wheat. And not only that, it is planted in the hot season here, so when a lot of other crops are tapering out this shoots up.
Garlic, leeks, and elephant garlic
Garlic, leeks, and elephant garlic are regarded more as flavorings than as calorie crops, but they actually have a pretty decent yield of calories per area cultivated. Obviously these are not eaten in huge quantities, but eaten in fairly normal quantities they could provide 2-3% of caloric intake. And what I’m trying to do is have diverse sources of calories, and if everything grown for calories produced 3% of what was necessary, I’d only need about 30 calorie crops. That doesn’t even account for the calories that do come from greens and other vegetables.
Elephant garlic gets a bum rap for being a weak knockoff of garlic. Another way of looking at it is a member of the alium family that is high-yielding, easy to harvest and process, and can be cooked up however you like. If onions can be a staple crop, so can these. What I’ve done is sliced the cloves and fried them with seasonings, and they go along well with the kinds of things you would eat with grilled onions.
Sunflower seeds are tasty, healthy, and fairly calorie dense. I scattered Mammoth Sunflower seeds over about an acre of a neighbor’s yard (with permission!), and will be completely neglecting them until harvest time. I got the seed from a friend who has been saving them for a few years and generally selecting for ability to grow well without being coddled, so hopefully we’ll get a good yield of food and also seeds that are incrementally better at growing without being coddled.
These are also called Jerusalem Artichokes, or Sunchokes, but I like the name Sunroots because that is closest to what this plant is: a sunflower with edible tubers. It grows like a weed, does not seem to have disease or pest pressure to speak of, and supposedly is good roasted with oil and salt. When I hear that something grows like a weed, what I take that to mean is that the plant is not going to need a lot of work or the best soils in order to thrive and produce. I like that. I’d rather do some extra chop-and-drop work because my crops are too vigorous than try to coax spindly things into not dying. And if such a weedy edible plant is good with salt and oil, it is especially welcome in my garden. Sadly, this does not make large, tasty seeds like other plants in the sunflower family, but I can forgive it that.
Tree collards, potato onions, perennial wheat, potatoes and garlic from seeds, and Douglas Fir, Cedar, and Western Hemlock all have a place in our food garden this year. These all are familiar, with a twist. We’ll be sharing seeds, starts, and cuttings if you want any. Just let me know, and when I have extras I’ll give them to you. By the end of this season we should have a lot of seeds, tubers, cuttings and more to share.
Alrighty, on to the details…
In some ways this is a very plain crop. Wheat is one of the most prominent staples in all of human history. The twist is that it is perennial, not annual. We will plant it, and the plants that survive the first year will form clumps and keep coming back year after year after year. The reason we’re growing this is because first, I want to grow at least a little bit of all the foods we eat. There are many reasons for growing the perennial strain. Perennials have deeper and longer-lived roots than annuals. This helps build a more permanent, complex soil and lets the crops access nutrients and water that are deeper down. They should be a more stable crop through difficult years, especially through dry summers.
The perennial in the below picture isn’t the same as what I’m growing, but hopefully the result will be similar:
Also, it saves the work of having to replant every year, and means we don’t need to reserve as much of the crop for seed. And leaving the straw standing will provide for nice beetle banks throughout the garden to help keep slugs and other pests from eating the vegetables.
Potatoes and garlic are almost always propagated clonally. You plant a clove of garlic, or a chunk of a potato that has a few eyes on it. This is convenient because the crop turns out genetically identical to the planting material, so you know exactly what you will get. Where this is not so great is that you have no genetic diversity. If conditions change, or pests come along, your entire crop can easily be wiped out. Also, just like with annual wheat, you have to reserve a significant fraction of your yield for planting the next year.
The twist here is that garlic and potatoes can be grown from seeds formed from flowes. If we have seeds, we can eat the whole crop if we want to (although we probably will still leave some in the ground for the next year). The genetic diversity and crossings over will help them adapt to our location. And in a sense, every seed I plant of garlic and potato will be a variety never before grown. It’ll be fun to dig them up and see what grew.
We like collard greens at our house, and the twist here is growing them as a perennial tree, rather than an annual plant. Or at least if not a tree, hopefully a roughly 6-12 foot tall shrub. This should produce a lot of greens with a small footprint, and will probably be harvestable year round in our climate. We’ll see!
It doesn’t often produce seed, and from what I gather the seed either doesn’t come true or is infertile, so it is propagated by cuttings. If I can ever get mine to flower I’ll see what I can do about breeding some out. That’s a project for the future…
I got these from a seller on eBay. Just search for “tree collards”, there are a number of options.
These were a variety of onion popular with homesteaders of old, but are less convenient for machine harvesting so they fell out of common use with the industrialization of onion fields. They are onions, with the twist that they divide like garlic. This means that instead of needing to go through a biennial cycle to get seeds, and then trying to get starts from seeds, you can simply leave part of the harvest in the ground as seed for the next year. Yet they do grow readily from seed, so that can also be done to keep adaptation moving forward.
This may seem a bit at odds with what I said about growing garlic and potatoes from seed. One difference is that these are easily and regularly grown from seed, so they are not a mono-clonal population to begin with. Maybe the more important and fundamental difference, though, is opening up options. If I can grow things from seed, or clonally, then I can do both. I can keep the genetic diversity high, and adaptation moving forward, and also have underground roots, tubers, and bulbs ready to spring out.
The twist here is regarding these as foodcrops, rather than lumber.
It’s cheating a little bit to include these as foodcrops – but only a little. We’ve got a few of these trees on our property, and they provide a lot of benefit. They provide habitat, fresh air, and shade for cool summer breezes. They also hog a lot of sunlight, and perform a lot of photosynthesis whose products get locked up in cellulose. Bah.
But here’s one weird old trick for eating cellulose: feed it to mushrooms. Conifers are the preferred food for different kinds of tasty mushrooms, and when these trees are ready to shuffle off their mortal coil, we’ll simply inoculate their stumps and maybe some of their branches, and enjoy the product of all that sunshine they kept from the vegetables. Probably fried with garlic.
It may seem strange to think of eating our trees. But that is more or less what we do when we eat mushrooms. And if that is the case, it isn’t too far off to look at them, and consider them a crop. It is a humbling privilege to be stewarding a crop in our garden that has been there for decades already, and won’t be ready for harvest for decades or a century yet. And besides, this gives me a good answer when my kids point at a tree and ask if we can eat it.
I got these when we got our place…
Last week I mentioned a talk by Larry Korn that I was planning to attend. I did indeed go, and it was fantastic. I’ll have the notes for that in an upcoming post.
I want to grow plants that are the best of all worlds. Delicious and high yield and beautiful, and drought tolerant and pest resistant. As I mentioned a couple posts ago writing about resilient crops, there are often tradeoffs for crops between attractiveness as food for people and degree of scrappiness and resilience.
Quick review — if it is juicy and delicious for people, it will be for pests, too. And if it’s juicy and delicious, and quickly grows lush and huge, it’ll wilt up at the first sign of drought. Best bet for something tasty? Grown in a greenhouse, watered every day. Best bet for tough? Something leathery and bitter that doesn’t care about a month without water. So there is a balance to be found between wildness and domesticity, and balances take wisdom.
I take a lot of inspiration from Masanobu Fukuoka. One thing he emphasized was letting nature make decisions as much as possible. The ability of organisms and ecosystems to find balance is far above what our ability to intellectually find balance ever could be.
My application of that idea here is to have nature find the balance between resilience and my desires for tastiness, yield, ease of harvest, etc. In my garden, I’ll do some breeding and selection for those conventionally sought things. And I’ll have patches of land where I simply scatter seed and neglect it henceforth, and what grows, grows. Periodically – maybe every year, maybe every five years, I’ll plant some of the feral seeds in my garden, and scatter some garden seeds in the feral patch, and let them all crosspollinate and compromise.
The two patches won’t ever agree with each other all the way. There will always be a tension. But over enough time, the garden plants will be as tough as possible given the traits I want to see in them, and they will have high genetic diversity. And the feral patch will have as much of the traits I want as is possible for to have while growing wild.
It’s basically a system of checks and balances. It’s not perfect, but it’ll fundamentally anchor my domesticated plants in some kind of external reality, and give them high genetic diversity so they can adapt quickly to changing conditions. This “feral anchoring”.
This week I’m planning to attend a talk by Larry Korn, a student of Masanobu Fukuoka, so next week’s post will probably be thoughts on his ideas of Natural Farming…
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.
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:
– 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.
– Planted ginger and 0.67lbs of turmeric in flat. They’ll go outdoors later.
– Rooting tree collard cuttings
– 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…
– 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.
[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 [http://garden.lofthouse.com/adaptivar-landrace.phtml], 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.