Of late when we hear anything about bees, it’s usually scary
press. We hear that their colonies are collapsing and that they’re feeling
pressure from pesticides, diseases, habitat destruction and insects that attack
their hives. When we hear about ways our world is changing, it can seem
insurmountable. It can be hard to listen to the bad news because it keeps
coming and we may feel that we can’t do anything about these large-scale
shifts. In spite this, believe we can help through some simple key actions.
When it comes to bees, especially honeybees, our wellbeing
depends on their survival and indeed the ecosystem services they provide for
us, pollination being chief. We have a long-term relationship with bees as they
provide much of the pollination needed to get our food turned from a flower
into a fruit, for example. In
fact, a study done in California found that “native bee species pollinate between 35
and 39 percent of California’s crops and contribute at least $1 billion to its
agricultural economy.” For economic reasons alone this is certainly an issue
important to humans! Regardless, we wont survive very long in a world without
help Bringbackthepollinators.org suggests:
Grow a variety of pollinator-friendly flowers
(I’ll list some awesome options below.)
Protect and provide bee nest sites and
caterpillar host plants.
Avoid using pesticides, especially insecticides and
Spread the word
Pesticides are one of the biggest threats facing bees (and
insects) and they often live in the environment long after they’re sprayed,
meaning that we aren’t even completely aware of the negative effects that
continue to have ripples for years to come. In order to be an ally to our
pollinators, stop using them! You can transition part of your yard to a pollinator
habitat instead and you won’t have to worry about spraying.
a pollinator habitat
Studies have shown that wildflower or native plant “strips” planted at the edges of lawns or farm fields greatly benefit pollinators and they can increase pollination in nearby crops (a boon to farmers). This can be as easy as buying one or two plants a year at a native plant sale and putting them into your existing landscaping or you could dig up a portion of your yard and dedicate it to the pollinators. You’ll also find the added benefits of beauty and delight that come from watching bees and insects!
Some species that bees especially love that I love to
witness around our homestead include:
Wild Oregano: aka Bee Balm, there are many native species of this plant and it also comes in a diverse array of bright flowers. It’s easy to grow and comes back year after year. The leaves and flowers are also a great medicinal tea.
Anise Hyssop: Neither a true anise or hyssop, this plant is a stunning plant in the garden that blooms nearly all season long. Out of all of the plants in my garden, this one had the most pollinators on it at all times. It is also easy to grow, comes back each year and produces a delicious medicinal tea from the leaves.
Purple Coneflower: another native that is very well known. Echinacea is a drought hardy, easy to grow (it spreads!) beautiful medicinal plant that is a boon to pollinators. Often I would spy bumble bees on our coneflower.
Mints: These are easy to grow useful plants that also spread (you can grow them in a pot by the house as well.) Pollinators love the mints and, again, they produce a wonderful tea for humans (a theme!).
Clovers: This is as easy as taking a trip to the local feedstore. We get bulk clover seeds and sow them all over the homestead. They not only provide a living mulch and attractive nitrogen-fixing groundcover, but bees, butterflies, beetles & flies love them. They’ll come back year after year and you can even substitute some of the grass in your yard with them. Their dried flowers provide a healthy nourishing tea.
These are some of our favorite and easiest to grow
suggestions for starting off your pollinator habitat. To find out more, you can
google “Beneficial Pollinator Plants” and find more suggestions! While
beautifying your space, you’re also helping our bees and other winged ones! A
As the redbud blossoms fade and dogwood flowers makes their appearance, the mighty paw paw flowers waltz their way to center stage in the Ozark woodlands.
These luscious drooping maroon blossoms are sultry in their demeanor, but yet perhaps a little shy…
The paw paw has fast become a very dear tree to us, and we’re excited to get a little more intimate with some specimens this spring.
Almost all fruit needs to pollinated to set fruit.
There are a few exceptions such as certain persimmons, which can set fruit parthenocarpically which results in seedless fruit. The same can be said about seedless watermelons. All other fruit require male and female sex organs to intermingle in order to produce fruit. While some trees are self-fertile (meaning one tree can pollinate itself), others require cross-pollination.
Generally fruits are either wind or insect pollinated.
The scope of fruit pollination is far beyond this article. Paw paws (Asimina triloba) are pollinated by insects and often need a little help with setting fruit. Being pollinated by flies and carrion beetles and having female organs that are receptive before the male organs shed pollen, proper pollination (and therefore fruit set) can be tricky.
Some old timers swear by hanging rotting meat to attract pollinators, but hand pollination seems like a more savory choice for most.
The paw paw flowers are known as perfect; meaning they contain both male and female reproductive parts.
The stigma (receptive female part) matures before the male anthers shed its pollen. Here lies the conundrum. To make things even more nuanced, the pollen must almost always (there are some exceptions) come from a different genetic source to ensure proper pollination. This is where is gets a bit frisky.
Today we are harvesting some paw paw pollen from the flowers of several different trees. Paw paws fruit best if cross-pollinated, that is by receiving pollen from another tree. It is recommended to plant at least 3 varieties for proper pollination, so we will be roaming the woods near us and collecting pollen in hopes of increasing fruit set on wild paw paws on our land. Our cultivated varieties have only 1 or two flowers so far.
goal is to transfer the male pollen to a clean and dry container and then
transfer it to the female stigma. The pollen is ripe when the ball of anthers
is brownish and sheds readily. The stigma is ready when the tips of the pistil
are green, sticky and glossy. At this time the anthers ball is firm and light
yellow to greenish in color.
Once we have collected enough pollen we will use a delicate brush and simply apply pollen to receptive stigmas.
This is a delicate task, but one that we feel is well worth the effort. For a tree that has few to no pests, does not require pruning in almost all cases and produces such a wonderful fruit, hand pollination seems a small price to pay.
Many of the larger scale growers, including the Kentucky State research facility report that pollination isn’t a problem.
Perhaps this is due to the large volume of flowers that creates a habitat for pollinators. The head of the KSU paw paw research team Sheri Crabtree, says that while hand pollination is the best option for optimum fruit set (as opposed to hanging rotting meat), she and her team say it isn’t needed in their paw paw test plots and orchards.
Playing sexy time with trees is fun, and hopefully will pay off in the form of scrumptious fruits in late summer. Artificial “asimina-lation” is a great way to connect with nature in a productive and intimate way.
I’ve continued my research into the effects of climate change around the world. After avoiding it for many years – or just not focusing on or looking into the details – I’ve started to face it head on.
It feels like a brave thing to do. The next book I want to get at the library is about all of the reasons why humans avoid taking in information – or indeed doing anything about it – regarding climate change. There are a host of psychological response mechanisms, I’m sure, but I’ll let you know when I read it what I find informative. Currently I’m reading a book by Jeff Nesbit called This Is The Way The World Ends: How Droughts and Die-offs, Heat Waves and Hurricanes are Converging on America. I have to say, having all of this information in one place is shocking, but again I must look and so I am keeping my courage in the face of it all.
One thing that is repeatedly coming to mind as I read about
farmers facing drought and desertification all over the globe is how to make a
resilient agricultural system. We all need to eat and it is my feeling that
Food and Water, two of the human mainstays, will be the limiting factors as the
effects of climate change increase around the world.
We’ve written extensively about perennial agriculture and our reasons for choosing this form of land cultivation. You can read some of our dense articles here.
In writing this article, I want to reiterate and restate a
few of these ideas through an invigorated lens of heavy reading into current and
possible effects of climate change.
In the book mentioned above, one of the chapters focuses on the Sahel, the arid savanna that runs along the southern border of the Sahara Desert. It spans Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Cameroon, Central African Republic, and Ethiopia and has acted as a buffer to the harsh realities of the desert. However, in recent years, farmers have found earlier springs, drought and extreme periods of rainfall leading to water scarcity and destructive weather events, negative effects of land overuse which is all denuding the land making it difficult to grow anything.
People are worried that the Sahara is encroaching upon the Sahel, but in reality it just appears that way. It is the Sahel that is turning desert-like. Leaders of the World Bank, the government of France and others met at the Paris Climate Accord in December 2015 and came upon a “solution” for this and that was to build a Great Green Wall. It was basically plan to plant millions of trees the first years to create a living wall of trees to stop the desertification. Sadly, though not surprisingly, over 3/4 of these trees died within the first two months. China also tried a similar thing and had the same results.
Fast forward to what actually is working in the region and we find an indigenous solution.
They have found that farmers were allowing tree seedlings that were growing naturally to grow up near their plants and that these farmers encouraged meager rain that fell to puddle near the trees by digging a hole near the base of the tree.
When viewed from the sky, these patches of farms look like swaths of green. What the large institutions and governments could not figure out from a “top down” solution, the farmers were already naturally doing. They’ve switched the Great Green Wall initiative to be this simple yet effective act of the indigenous farmers: allow the tree seedlings to grow, nurture them alongside your farm crops and build up the wall of green slowly and naturally. I know it wont happen this way, but I think all of the funding should go to these small farmers.
I think the world should pay direct attention to this reality in the Sahel right now. With rising air and ocean temperatures, melting Arctic ice, and climate change happening the world round, we are all going to be called upon to adapt in some way. As I study the climate changes, that is the thing that keeps coming to mind again and again.
Climate Change implies that adaptation is key.
The hitch is that though it is the nature of life on earth to adapt, can we do it quickly enough? For that is what we’re seeing – the earth has always been and always will be in a state of flux and all of the creatures here have survived through evolving, but at times and for certain species that can take generations. We may not have generations. For the worldwide coral reefs dying as a result of rising ocean surface water temps, they certainly cannot adapt that quickly. Neither can many of the ocean creatures faced with acidification of their waters.
It is our role now as humans to look forward and see what we
need to put in place now to be as adaptable as possible. To me this looks like
creating resilient food systems (and knowing where my water comes from and
“catching” it on my landscape- but that’s another article entirely.)
As far as food is concerned, anyone can see that a plant that has roots and comes again each season (a perennial) is more resilient than a seed sowed into the soil each season (an annual) subject to the whims of the current alchemy of sun, water, temps, etc. A perennial is hardy and has worked on growing its root system year after year. It seems intuitive to have as many of these around bearing food as possible in the event of a shaky and unpredictable climate.
The farmers in the Sahel are facing an emergency situation right now and it is said that desertication, the process of an ecosystem turning into a desert, is possible along the entire Midwest portion of the United States within the next 100 years.
Whether for my lifetime or generations to follow after me, I ask myself, What are the things I can set in motion now that may be beneficial in the event of increased drought, rising temperatures and longer summers?
My answer is to plant fruit & nut trees (as native and locally hardy as possible), grow perennial roots, find the species that are hardy as hell and that love to grow in the heat (like sweet potatoes, lambsquarter, purslane and others) and get these seed banks established in the soil on my land and start growing these crops now. In the event of desertification, perhaps all of our handiwork will not be able to survive as well, but a tree that is 10-20 years old will have a better chance than one we are planting during the crisis.
37.5 million out of 50 million trees died when planted in
the 11 northern Nigeria states worst effected by desertification (pg 62 of This
Is How The World Ends).
Now is the time to start planting edible landscapes and resilient ecosystems.
Annual agriculture, and especially the warlike way it is done by big agribusiness, is not a sustainable or resilient model. While it may have more returns in the short turn, we’re shooting ourselves and future generations in the foot if we believe it will take care of us in the future. We need to start thinking about and acting upon the future. And in the event that much of this horror show that is climate change can somehow “be turned around”, that much the better for us as we’ll have mature edible landscapes to harvest from in abundance! Sounds like a great vision to me!
Just as the farmers of the Sahel couldn’t rely on the “powers
that be” to make the change for them, we too must rely on indigenous and small
and local solutions. The building of resilient ecosystems really is in our
hands – no back yard is to small so get planting!!!!!!
“Schoolkids in Marudi could recall that their uncles would hunt boar after the appearance of a particular butterfly, but they could not recall which butterfly it was or when it appeared.”
Such disconnected earth – human relations are par for the course in our modern age, but we want to change that and we know we aren’t alone in this bid for more intimate earth connection.
Just as cutleaf toothwort, spring beauty and spicebush are showing their flowers after the dormancy of winter, nettle is popping its head up and morel season will come on in a few weeks. Daffodils are sending up their lovely yellow flowers while toads and frogs lay and fertilize their eggs in waters everywhere.
Spring is in the air and it is a nuanced thing.
We have learned this within our fourth year, imagine the informative wealth of millenniums wherein a specific mushroom shows its head or a particular beloved plant appears related to this or they event.
I’ve seen a few Zebra Swallowtails out lately which feed on Paw Paws, for example. These are the things we must keep alive, resurrect if they are dead and remember if they are lost.
We love in increasingly disenchanted times as species diversity and ecosystem devastation happens at an unparalleled rate- it is, sadly, par for the course for our generation.
As the author mentioned above says,
“‘Nostalgia’ is the word we use to describe the bittersweet evocation of precious feelings that lie just beyond reach in the past. Often the emotion arises during rites of passage or out of the intricate matrix of personal history, memory and place, but what word or phrase adequately describes the feelings evoked by repeatedly observing the disappearance of an entire landscape, a people, a language, a way of life? It is akin to forever showing up for the last scenes of a tragedy in which one can glimpse, but never fully experience, the past glory of the protagonist.”
From The Ragged Edge of the World by Eugene Linden
As a human who has grown up with this existential threat over my head my entire life, I am not willing to see the degradation of our earth reach its peak climax. Though consumption and capitalism may try to overwhelm the earth in their crazy infectious nature on human behavior, I wager that earth connection is more a intimately satisfying and sustainable option in the long run.
I vote for knowing our seasonal identifiers’ name, species and interconnections for a better way forward.
Many of you have followed our journey in making a pocket pond within our food forest. A pocket pond is a term for a little body of water tucked into the landscape bringing in all of the goodness water features do!
Here are 3 previous posts on the process. Cool to see what we’ve made from a hole in the ground!
Now that spring is nearly here we’ve finished the body of the pond and have planted out the berm, it is time to find some plants for the pond!
The Berm & Surrounding Food Forest
One of the most delicious things about this pond is that it nestles right in the middle of some pretty rich biodiversity and will provide habitat and water for pollinators, frogs, other winged ones and other creatures! As it’s winter, I don’t have any stellar photos to show. Right now it looks just like a bunch of mulch with a few sticks poking out of the ground, but rest assured that it will be amazing & fruitful with each year’s growth!
I also sowed echinacea, our native wild skullcap, agastache, clover and we planted a lingonberry in the berm.
Concerning the food forest,
Aronias and wild false indigo are in a hedge to the north of the pond and the food forest mentioned earlier is to the northwest. It has a paw paw, asparagus, hazelnuts, blueberries, agastache, currants, serviceberries, mulberries, apple, nettle, yaupon, walking onion and strawberries. to the west we have raspberries, lavender, wild false indigo
In the post I mentioned that I was looking to trade thornless blackberries (Chester, Triple Crown), boysenberries, Jerusalem Artichokes, Heritage Raspberries, loganberries for awesome permaculture pond plants! I am currently trading someone thornless blackberries for Chinese water chestnuts and Louisana Iris – awesome!!! Do you have some pond plants you’d like to trade for the plants I’ve listed above? If so, contact me!
Permaculture Pond Plants
Along with those two plants, I have my sights on a few others. I have been doing some research and will distill some of the information here.
As seen in the diagram above, there are varying levels and functions of pond plants. Plants I am focusing on getting from each category are:
Rooted floating plants like the Water lily or American lotus.
Submerged (Oxygenating) plants like the Coontail aka Hornwort.
Floating plants like fairy moss (azolla) or water hyacinth
Marginal plants like Aquatic mint, chinese water chestnut, cattail, Louisiana Iris and others.
From all of my research, these are the plants I’m going to focus on getting to start. Below I’ll walk through some of the reasons I’ve focused on these plants out of the sea of plants that fill each of these categories! If you’re looking for a larger list, the website I linked above is a great place to start.
A good rule of thumb also from the site above:
For coverage of the water’s surface:
One third to one-half of the water’s surface should be covered with free floating and rooted floating plants.
Or, conversely, no more than half of the water’s surface should ever be covered with floating plants
I am choosing the water lily (Nymphaeaceae) because I’ve always thought they are so beautiful! There are also many frost hardy varieties and that’s important to me when choosing plants. I want plants that aren’t picky and will thrive without my doing a lot and that will come back year after year. There is a float in a local river where I spied some water lily and I may go there to get some for my pond.
American Water Lotus
I am excited about the American Water Lotus (Nelumbo lutea), also known as Macoupin by Miami-Illinois Native Americans, is a native water plant with a laudable edible tuber! The seeds are also edible and known as “alligator corn” – with 2 edible parts and beauty, hardiness and lotus flowers this one is really a no-brainer. I have long wanted to grow and be around this plant!
I chose the Coontail as I think I spotted it in a local spring so it will be very easy to get and will be hardy in our area. If possible, I want to get plants that are native to the area because they’re guaranteed to be adapted. This plant oxygenates the water while providing nice cover and food for fish.
Azolla is a plant I did a lot of research on yesterday and I find myself increasingly excited by it! Many people may be more familiar with another surface plant, duckweed, that is used for fast growing animal fodder or an easy to grow biofertiliser. Azolla seems to be getting more popular and I was happy to learn more about it. I’ve known people who grow duckweed and I haven’t heard things that make me want to grow it! Azolla, on the other hand, has some fascinating characteristics and is also a popular fast growing fodder and biofertiliser.
Azolla is a free-floating water fern that fixes nitrogen in association with a specific species of cyanobacteria. Azolla is a renewable biofertiliser and can be mass-produced on the farm like blue-green algae. It is a good source of nitrogen and on decomposition, a source of various micronutrients as well. Its ability to multiply fast means it can stifle and control weeds in (flooded) rice fields. Azolla is also used as a green manure and a high-quality feed for cattle and poultry.
This news about its “association with a specific species of cyanobacteria” is what really perked my ears because it turns out azolla, over millions of years, has developed a symbiotic relationship with this bacteria (a type of algae) and fixes nitrogen as an offshoot of their relationship! So I get rid of algae in my pond and get a nitrogen rich prolific water fern out of the deal? I’m in! Let’s see how this goes, but if it is prolific, I’ll be able to skim it off the top of the water if it gets too excessive and compost it or feed it to our earthworms (it makes great earthworm food!)
I will foremost caution that in many places this plant has the potential to become seriously invasive! With our hard frosts, it’s not a worry in our zone 6b in Missouri, but you should be aware of this and be careful about “disposing” of it in local waterways in your area.
This plant is prolific! It has a lovely purple flower and floats on top of the water with a little balloon like sack. It purifies the water while being beautiful- a winner! It can also be used a biofertilizer or animal fodder.
Chinese Water Chestnut
Lastly I will talk a bit about this plant. I have heard that the fresh taste of one of these is nothing like the canned ones most of us have tried!
A tropical/sub-tropical sedge (like a grass with a long green stalk), the Chinese water chestnut produces a delicious corm that spreads and expands each year! This one, as with other marginal plants, needs to be grown in a bit of “muck” or a shallow bed of soil and I made the shelf for just this thing. We may also put some of these into a bathtub with shallow soil and water and see if we can propagate a lot of them. You can find more info here.
As you can see I am totally excited about these water plants and I’ve had so much fun learning about this whole new world of water gardening. The sky is the limit and I can’t wait to see how this area fills out and becomes so lively!!!
What are some favorite water plants that you’ve cultivated or are must-haves in your pond/future pond?
The other day Ini brought home one of those nutritional ad
magazines from a local health food store. You know the ones – they have a few
articles worth reading, but they’re mostly full of health product ads. After
reading through it, we used it for kindling.
It reminded me of how far we have come from a whole food diet being enough in our culture and that the trend for anything out of balance in our systems is to throw some expensive pills at it, instead of looking at lifestyle or dietary shifts foremost. Even health conscious, organic buying, body aware people do this. Hell, I’ve even done it. I digress.
Contained within this ad magazine was a shocking article about a new GMO potato, which its creator publicly speaks against for being “toxic.” Those of us who grow food (around the world) have long fought against the genetic modification revolution because of its short sided approach that simply doesn’t know what it doesn’t know yet pushes on anyway. Essentially, I ask, Why mess with something that is so perfect? Humans have been selecting varieties they like for aeons and we have a pretty good collection that gets better all the time.
What shocked me about this potato – and it’s a real cause
for concern – is that the scientists silenced melanin creation accounting for a
potato that doesn’t bruise, show disease and that stays white regardless of
state or care during transportation.
This is really bad news for consumers, though it’s clear why companies that want greater useable crop yields would create such a thing and that companies prioritizing uniform looking food would want it.
Tons of food is thrown out per year due to bruising or because it doesn’t look pretty. As an organic farmer, we always joke that some of these foods are just the ones that end up on the farmer’s plate. In most cases, you can just cut around it and ugly fruits and veggies don’t have anything inherently wrong with them. Yet, a vegetable that has a bruise, but doesn’t appear to is a real cause for concern.
Caius Rommens, one of the scientists responsible for this potato in particular, is speaking out against this and has even written a book called Pandora’s Potatoes in which he decries the accumulation of toxins that can take place due to the silencing of certain genes (which they’ve done in this potato). Toxins such as alpha-aminoadipate (a neurotoxin) and tyramine could be silent accumulators in the unassuming consumer base. (source)
On top of this, the GMO potatoes are still bruised –
you just can’t tell they are bruised. They could be far along in providing a
home for a dangerous pathogen, rot or another non edible decomposition process
and still appear white!
While this is a cautionary tale, consumers (who are lucky enough to have this information reach their ears) may be left wondering how they can sidestep this monstrosity. Here are a few alternatives to eating the ever-white non-bruising Franken-potato:
At the store always buy organic potatoes or, better yet, buy potatoes at your local farmer’s market from someone you have a relationship with. This is because GMOs still aren’t required to be nationally labeled so you can’t be sure what you’re getting unless it’s organic or you know the grower!
I didn’t mention this, but the original article I read also threw some
serious hate at potatoes for not being healthy! I was aghast and as I read it
started getting angry, which sparked a lively discussion with Ini. Potatoes are
a basic human survival food, helping countless generations of people stay
alive! How dare some modern calorie-counters write an article steering people
away from their consumption. Long live the potato and buy organic!
Eat (and even grow your own!) alternatives to the potato
At Mountain Jewel, we grow potatoes every year. Due to our
love for them, they rarely make it to winter storage, but we also grow a host
of other tubers that can be used in similar ways. You may consider growing some
of these plants alongside the familiar papa.
Jerusalem Artichoke or Sunroot
These, as many gardeners can attest, are vigorous and easy to grow tubers that produce a brilliant sunflower to boot! You can roast, boil, eat fresh, ferment, dry, make into soups or bake the sunroot. Also known as fartichokes, they also can up gas production in the intestines, but this usually (backed by a Mountain Jewel experiment) goes away after a few meals of eating them.
Sweet Potatoes or Yams
On our homestead we love growing Sweet Potatoes. They are so easy to grow and give you a nutritious green all year long as well as a delicious trove of roots at harvest time. I remember hearing a story of a Harvard professor who, when asked what the one food is that he would bring to a deserted island, said the sweet potato for it provides so many of our nutritional needs!
A native to North America, the groundnut is a tuber with a climbing vine and a sweet pea like flower. These perennials fix nitrogen in the soil, slowly amending it over time and producing their own fertilizer as they grow! There are many human cultivated varieties prized for their size and flavor.
We also have Chinese Mountain Yam growing on our homestead, but yet have to make a meal out of it, but that’s another option. What are some other favorites of yours?
While Monsanto and Simplot (the company responsible for this Franken-potato) carry on with their disastrous plans, we can take our food security into our own hands.
This means knowing where our food is coming from and paying those people legitimate prices for their products! While the cost of living in many ways has continued to rise with inflation, the cost of food statistically has not risen along with it! That means that we expect the same prices we grew up with for potatoes, eggs, veggies, bread, milk, etc and we expect farmers to be able to meet those prices.
GMO and mass scale farms can, but oftentimes organic produce
gets nearer to the true cost of high quality food production. Don’t be afraid
to plan for this and set aside a little more money in your budget to pay for
higher quality food. It certainly helps create the world you want to live in,
but it also helps those farmers continue their good business of growing healthy
food that’s good for you and the soil and water. Furthermore, the food will
provide more nutrients and minerals which makes up your body, the sacred temple
of yours during your lifetime on earth!
Take good care and steer clear of these bruise-disguising potatoes- they’re still bruised!
You hear us talk about perennials, edible landscapes and food forests a lot. Why have we chosen to focus on perennial agriculture? Through this missive I hope to clarify our motivations.
First some backstory:
Ini and I both spent countless hours working on organic farms specializing in annual production before ever seeing a perennial model. It’s important to make this point that it is our experiences with annual agriculture, not only the philosophies surrounding the practice of perennial agriculture, which, in a way, made this decision for us. Before I had ever heard the word Permaculture, I was working on organic farms and gardens with plants most people are familiar with- your basic veggies and herbs. A smattering of raspberries, asparagus, and perennial herbs were all I had seen of *plants that return* while I was getting my primary education in growing food.
It wasn’t until, after years of back-tiring work I started to get deeper into Permaculture, edible landscapes and food forestry, yet when I started to catch wind of the philosophy I was pretty sure there was no going back. Annual gardening has a lot of great things going for it and a capitalistic based production farm is drawn to many of its benefits. For example, in a short amount of time you can boast high yields and delicious well-known crops (that the consumer base already knows about). There isn’t the need to wait years for something you’ve put in the ground to yield, as is the case with perennial agriculture. This model of quick returns fits right in with the need of the consumer. What would an organic farm sell at market in the interim of planting a tree and when it finally bears fruit? With only so much time and energy on a farm (from a human perspective), annual organic gardening is already a lot to bite off – let alone incorporating a perennial vision into the mix.
As we worked on farms and our backs became more and more tired and we realized the futility of only thinking about the current season (in terms of crop yields – not in terms of soil necessarily as many organic farms take very good care of their soil for long term gain). I worked on one farm that had rows of perennial food crops (like asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, sage and more) that they took to market alongside their annual produce. They talked frequently about upping the perennial production for all that it required per year was perhaps a bit of weeding, some more mulch, perhaps some amendments and a drip irrigation.
There was no seed starting (including trays, potting mix, the time it takes to tend, etc), up-potting the seedlings into larger trays as they grow, plant loss that occurs with young plants (in relation to established plants), soil prep, etc. In fact, there were greater yields each year for less and less work. This seemed like a gardener’s dream. Yes there was a lag time between the sowing and harvest, but, all things considered, it seemed worth the wait. With this vision in mind, and as our journeys started to join in a united vision, Ini and I visited more perennial edible landscapes and we read any books/articles we could about food forestry, perennial agriculture and lesser known perennial food crops. When we met both of us had come to this vision and as our dreams started unfolding into the present lived reality, it seemed clear what we would do: It was time to ground our visions and start creating perennial edible landscapes.
Why Perennial Edible Landscapes
As mentioned above, we already had extensive experience growing annual food crops – and I predict that we will always take part in this to an extent. However, the perennial vision is the one which propels most of our actions and keeps us up late at night making excited exclamations over new crop discoveries that will do well in our area.
Perennial Edible Landscapes In Comparison with Annual Agriculture
– Perennial Agriculture doesn’t disturb the soil leaving the soil food web and biome of the soil in tact.
This has many benefits, but primarily (as many also tote in annual no til gardening), not disturbing the soil reduces erosion, allows the diverse biota of the soil to continue in its strong web formation, doesn’t flip top soil beneath subsoil, and doesn’t kill countless creatures existing in the soil (which are beneficial to the soil as they decompose, aerate, poop, feed on one another creating biomass and keep balance in their micro-ecosystem). When left in tact, healthy communities form and strengthen in their diversity and they balance and stabilize. Though annual tilling produces greater yields in early years, one is essentially continually disturbing these fragile but useful communities of soil microorganisms that help us grow healthier plants.
– Perennial Agriculture is Nature’s Way: Creating Balanced, Perpetual Ecosystems
Permaculture seeks to align human relations with the earth by observing what the earth is already doing. By aligning – not dominating, overworking, exploiting or putting our ideas onto – we can reap much greater yields than if we work against the way of nature.
I think this point is best demonstrated through an example. When you create a garden, tilling and baring the soil, what happens alongside the crops that you grow? Weeds come up, right? Opportunistic, often edible or even medicinal, plants. You’ll have then growing taller than your crops if you’re not careful! And if you leave your garden unweeded, un-mulched and untended, they’ll take over your garden forming a large, nearly unpenetrable mat. In reality, the soil abhors a void and covers itself. These plants draw up nutrients from deep in the earth and decompose aiding the soil and they also stop erosion from happening. After time, if you let these plants grow, pioneer species will also come in – these are the shrubs and brush, scrubby opportunistic un-picky plants that are very adaptable. You’ll also see hedges of these on the edges of farm fields and forests all over. They are the transition plants.
After this, trees will pop up and vines and what was once barren soil no longer resembles a scrubby, brushy field. But you’ll notice, nary a space is left from what you had initially cleared. Nature is progressing toward stability, which is often (depending on the climate/habitat/water availability/etc) a forest with all of its many layers. By planting food forests, with edible ground cover, shrub layer, midstory, vining and canopy species, we are actually taking part in creating an ecosystem that nature finds very stable. We are simply selecting which plants go into nature’s algorithm. Unlike annual agriculture, we wont need to dig up, replace, seed start and continually work the soil. Instead, with each year, this ecosystem comes into its own and matures, producing more yields with each year and remaining very stable.
– Easier on the Back
Although there are undoubtedly greater initial yields with annual cropping, over time perennial food systems yield just as much, if not more harvests with less overall work. As I worked on farms during the summer seasons, at times 8 hours a day nearly every day of the week, my back was the first thing to speak up. It hurt! Often! One farm I worked at was an organic farm of about 8 acres that had a CSA and also went to a weekly market. We produced a lot of food for our local community, but the farm was often understaffed and it had trouble making ends meet – even though we were working as hard as we could and producing as much food as the land would allow in any given season. This added to the back pain – knowing that we would need to struggle at this again the next year, while we heard our efforts literally weren’t paying off to make the farm a sustainable operation. This isn’t an isolated story- many farms struggle to “make it” economically even though they’re producing as much as they can and providing a very needed service for their communities! (Could write an entire article on this alone!) When my back really started to hurt from all of the bending over and hard physical labor, I started to seriously consider other options – options that could be sustainable in terms of my back, labor, money and for the land.
– Greater Yields, Less Work
Perennial agriculture is a waiting game. Yet, after that waiting game is over, the yields are tremendous and longevous! A farmer knows well that what you reap is what you sow, but there is no harm in extending this cycle. In fact, after the initial work of clearing the land for planting, preparing soil, planting, watering, mulching, the work load drops off tremendously.
There is a comparable initial input of time and labor and yet, with a little tending each year, the benefits continue coming with hardly any work! This is not so in annual gardening when, after each season, usually one just has to contend with equal work loads of the previous year, slightly more depleted soil, tons of beat up used seedling trays, piles of disorganized crop covers, and perhaps even long sheets of ragged plastics used to suppress weeds. In comparison, a food forest just keeps getting better each year! When done right (and by this I mean planted after observing your locale for quite some time with good spacing, tended with good watering and much mulch -for weed suppression, water retention and encouragement of healthy soil microorganisms), food forests will take care of you for many years to come!
– Fun to plant and tend
This is the step we’re in right now at Mountain Jewel. By getting a grant through EQIP to plant fruit and nut trees, we’ve been able to get off to a great start in actualizing our perennial agriculture dreams! We’ve bought hundreds of trees, shrubs, rhizomes, tubers, herbs and more and planted them acres around the property. The initial clearing (of scrub land, basically) is the hardest work. Fires, rakes, a grub hoe, a chainsaw, and a lot of sweat are our main tools. After that, the design and planting is fun! We are careful to heavily cardboard and mulch (to suppress weeds and retain moisture) initially and after that we are given the task of waiting and tending until things start to bear fruit!
Some plants, like comfrey, which is a chop and drop medicinal mulch plant par excellent!, we keep dividing and spreading all throughout the understory. Other plants, like thornless blackberries, vigorously replicate themselves (which accounts for our many plants we have for sale at the Homesteader’s Coop!). And many other plants, like many of our standard fruit trees, have yet to really make a peep. These plants take longer to bear, to really rev up per say, but once they get going they produce quantities beyond what any annual crop can! It’s a long term vision.
– Diversity Rules the Day
One of annual agricultures greatest faults is its susceptibility. It’s only natural as it’s going against the way of nature. Humans have tried to curtail this basic law by creating a massive warlike business of -cides (herbicide, pesticide, etc), but the fact remains that annual monocrops (one crop in an area instead of a diverse array) are more susceptible to disease and pests than a diverse ecosystem. Why is that? If you only have one crop in an entire field and a predator insect comes, they’ll wipe out your entire crop. The more variety of crops you have, the more resilience you have against pests coming and destroying it all. In a perennial ecosystem, we strive to up the diversity tremendous proportions and include guardian plants, like many in the allium family (garlic, onion, etc) that confuse predators and slow them down and even avert (in the case of marigolds) them from their mission. Annual agriculture can also employ these techniques, but often it is far easier to mass produce (which is what modern agriculture focuses on) anything of a diverse nature, as different plants need different things. Many smaller organic farms do employ these techniques and that is one of the ways we can help strengthen our human chosen edible agricultures and not use pesticides or herbicides simply to grow food! Always buy organic (if your budget allows) for many reasons – this being a major one.
– Growing the Soil with Ease
In annual agriculture, the soil often takes a hit. Plants are grown in it each season and, as they extract valuable minerals and nutrients and go off to market, leave the soil depleted. Many organic farms do an excellent job of building and maintaining, or even boosting their soil quality, yet it often takes expensive, non locally sourced and timely to apply inputs to do the job. In contrast, with all of the cover crops (which annual farms also employ) and mulch that we apply onto our soils, over time we end up with really nice top soil! Again, it takes time to decompose and we still may add amendments at times, but the need is far less than in an annual model.
Time, Necessity, & “The Way Things Are” as Main Factors
I could go on in sharing some of the reasons we chose to focus on perennial agriculture and I’m sure I’ll think of many other reasons and may do a Part 2, but, in closing, I want to speak to the inhibitory factors against perennial landscapes that keep many farms, homesteads, gardens and, indeed, humans from adopting these methods. First, I think many people simply don’t know about the breadth and scope of their option to produce copious amounts of food through perennial edible landscaping. Partly I am writing this article to get the beneficial word out there so more people can adopt perennial styles!
Secondly, we are often addicted to “The Way Things Are” as humans and unfamiliar (or lack of familiar) crops often take time to be accepted. One lady in our local area, in response to talk of setting up a vegetable market in our local town, humorously said, “We likely wont eat those veggies for if our grandmothers didn’t eat it, we wont either!” It’s human nature to eat like our parents did, although there is increasingly a lot of deconstructing of dietary choices going on and I hope this lends itself to opening the mind towards a perennial shift. And as I said, I’m not advocating a complete doing away with of common annual vegetables (we still have an extensive annual garden), but into shifting the focus, or even 3/4 of the land use to perennial agriculture.
Necessity is another huge inhibitory factor against perennial agriculture. When we first moved to the homestead, we planted crops that would yield quickly for us as we needed food Now! (Yes, we still go to the grocery, but set ourselves to try to grow us much as we could ourselves.) Many perhaps don’t have the luxury of embellishing a long term fruition as they need food now to survive. However, I would encourage anyone in this position to consider putting aside some effort and space for perennial agriculture and look at it as an investment for your future. Even one tree, shrub or variety of tuber a year adds up over time and while you’re busy with the annual garden, it sure will be nice when that apple tree finally blooms!
This brings me to my last point, which ties right in there with necessity: Time – many say they don’t have enough of it, but it’s all in how we sculpt our days. For me, the waiting game of perennial landscapes is just a part of it. We have planted hundreds of plants that we haven’t gotten anything from yet– and that may truly be too much for some people. Yet again, consider it an investment for your — or your kids or grandkids future. Every perennial plant that you put in the ground is sure to increase in yields with every year with a little care and tending. If we do this and take a slow and steady approach, we will soon be very grateful for the actions of our past selves and have lots to share with others.
In the meantime, we also have lots we can mindfully harvest from the wild!
The long quiet nights of winter are an ideal time to catch
up on books. Last week I finally indulged myself and devoured Paw paw after yearning to read it for
months. For anyone with even a
moderate interest in native plants, wild foods, agriculture, culinary
curiosities and all the intersecting cultural elements of this continent this
book is a must read.
Paw Paw reads like a story, a conversation even at times with an old friend as the author recounts his travels and experiences across the paw paw belt. It is quirky, personalable, engaging, insightful and deeply inspiring book. Moore weaves a tapestry that connects this unique fruit and the culture surrounding it across it’s native range from past to present and into the future.
Paw Paw is more than a fruit as it strikes some deep resonant chord for many paw paw nuts that fall in love with this delightful and enticing plant. I count myself in that camp, and if you’re not already intrigued by this wonderful native fruit this book will certainly nudge you in that direction.
Paw Paw introduces some of the most prominent folks in the paw paw realm and the work that is going on from foraging, to decades of breeding work, to festivals celebrating the fruit and even an orchard that specializes in mail order fruit for gourmet markets. Moore leaves no stone unturned (expect perhaps the technical details for cultivating the fruit) as he recounts his travelling tales and adventures while collecting information through conversations and library archives, sampling a range of wild and cultivated fruits, tasting the food and drinks made with the fruit and meeting the diverse group of paw paw aficionados that are described as being “off the round”… just like the fruit itself.
How a fruit that is native to 26 states, boasts the largest
size of any native North American fruit, tastes, smells and looks distinctly
tropical is not the lauded and highlighted throughout the country eludes answering.
Although the author posits and speculates on how and why paw paws are not more
popular and exhibits the many examples of this fruit indeed making a comeback.
The paw paw is a unique species that beckons to be explored.
While the fruit is the most obvious example of human usage, so too has the bark
been used as cordage and baskertry material. Perhaps the most significant discovery
that the plant itself is a very effective cancer medicine. Extracts of the
twigs contain high level of annonaceous acetogens that inhibit cancer shells by
shutting down their ATP production and inducing apoptosis. This represents a
major potential for homegrown, non-patentable healthful cancer cure that
address multi drug resistant cancers without major side effects.
Do yourself a favor and read Paw Paw by Andrew Moore. If you haven’t fallen in love with paw paws yet, what are you waiting for?
Though this plant, also known as Jerusalem Artichoke, Sunroot or Sunchoke, is making a revival, I have heard much negative press about this forgotten, yet increasingly popular root vegetable. Largely the negatives reside around the side effect of flatulence due to its inulin content (the same characteristic that has earned it the title of a nutraceutical) and the flavor.
Last night Ini and I made our first harvest of these tubers in the sunflower family. A wild plant to the Americas, they were first tended and selected by Native Americans in the eastern part of the continent, yet now they are popular all over the world after early Europeans brought them home with them.
We have already written about the plant and showed you some very sexy photos of the plant in bloom here so today I want to focus on the roots, their preparation towards the tastiest (and easiest) of dishes and ways we can reduce that fartaffect.
Because last night, let’s just say I was nearly gassed out of my house between Ini and the dog and my own digestive track was doing the rumble and “letting wind” — I have a personal stake in the matter.
And as their perennial nature of self propagation, ease of growing, and health benefits, I am not even close to giving up on this plant.
Digging them was like digging for treasure and as we collected the smaller heads and filled the hole with a big head and spread them around the property, we realized what an easy staple food crop this truly is.
I learned that indigestible polysaccharides such as inulin can be converted to digestible sugars by “acid hydrolysis.” In layman’s terms, that means bathing the inulin in something watery and acidic. Lemon juice, perhaps?
“Boiling Jerusalem artichokes in an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar will hydrolyze the inulin to fructose and small amounts of glucose,” Rastall advises.
Here’s another solution: Traditional fermentation-style pickling also removes sunchokes’ gaseous effects – while retaining their artichoke flavor. Gardening mavens Linda Ziedrich and Rose Marie Nichols McGee developed a game-changing recipe that yields completely gas-free Jerusalem artichoke pickles that keep all their wonderful crunch and taste.
Build Up A Tolerance
His fix for the overdose of inulin in Jerusalem artichokes? Build a tolerance. “Rather than avoiding all inulin, I suggest that people consume small quantities on a regular basis,” he notes. “Their gut microbiota will adapt – the proportion of beneficial bacteria will grow, while the gas-producing bacteria will diminish – and after a while they will be able to eat Jerusalem artichokes without discomfort.”
In On Food and Cooking (2004 edition), page 307, Harold McGee indicates that the… erm… flatulent effects of sun chokes (also called Jerusalem artichokes) are due to complex fructose-based carbohydrates that are not digestible by humans.
> Long, slow cooking allows enzymes present in the fresh of the tuber will convert these fructose over time. McGee recommends 12-24 hours at 200 F / 93 C.
“About half of the remaining indigestibles can be removed by boiling in a large volume of water for 15 minutes.”
Harold McGee addresses this subject in his excellent book, The Curious Cook (1990). He explains the Jerusalem artichoke in great detail in the chapter titled, “Taking the Wind out of the Sunroot.” His conclusions are (a) the quantities of the responsible carbohydrate are somewhat dissipated during cold storage of a month or more.
As one of the other answers outlines: the most accepted remedy is cold storage or late harvesting. When left in the groud during the winter, the tubers transform the inulin, thus enabling us to effectively digest the Sunchokes. This means that if you are growing your own, you can just harvest the tubers on the day you eat them, provided you do so late in the season.
First Things First
This is so exciting. Ini and I dug up a bunch of sunroots today and last night and will be selling some on the @homesteaderscoop for SBD! We bought these from a reputable nursery and they are select varieties!
First things first, I have some wonderful fodder here to experiment with. I think, to start, we’ll try the fermented aspect. As you know, we’re going on a 10 day meditation retreat shortly and will start a couple batches of classic lactofermentation using these sunroot and some salt (and other herbs and spices, and perhaps vegetables, as the mood strikes.)
The sky is the limit when it comes to learning how to most effectively partner with perennial vegetables. One thing is for certain, I feel the joy of life moving through me as a I work with this plant and I feel the familiar happiness and wonder at thinking of all of the humans whose hands this vegetable has passed through and how it has traveled all over the world (via humans and yes of course rodents, which are known to move little tidbits around gardens everywhere– and the plant will grow from the smallest tidbit!)
How do you like to eat Sunroot? Start small and let our bodies, which aren’t used to high amounts of inulin, get up to speed with this nutraceutical and it sounds like we’ll be off to a better start.
Let me know your favorite ways to eat it in the comments below!