Monday, April 10, 2017

Food Forest #3

The idea behind a food forest is to create an artificial forest, which functions as a forest with little or no input, and which provides food for humans, birds or wildlife. Mine is intended to provide food primarily for humans, but I'm sure the birds will get their share.

The plants I chose should do well in this area. They're all relatively drought tolerant, and anything that doesn't make the cut will be weeded out eventually. I need this area to be self sustaining, and to require nothing from me. Once the trees are mature they should provide all the leaf litter necessary to sustain the reaction. Other plants will attract pollinators, protect the trees, fix nitrogen in the soil, etc. The fungus will break down the leaf littler.

Over time I will introduce other pieces of the balanced environment, until the food forest can thrive and grow without my help. Once established that area will provide me with various fruits, root vegetables, grains, edible mushrooms,and seasonings. It will provide food and shelter for birds, a refuge for beneficial insects, and a more sheltered environment for plants that wouldn't necessarily grow in this area.

The goal is to eventually turn most of the yard into a food forest. But I start with this little space to figure things out before I start the rest.

It's a long term project, but it's necessary.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Food Forest #2

A forest doesn't require fertilizer, it doesn't require additional water, it doesn't require any form of human intervention. Plants cluster where they fit and create their own planting zones. They naturally cluster with other plants that keep critters away. They build the perfect environment for OTHER plants and protect each other in a symbiotic fashion.

Forests exist all over the world, except in the worst cold and the worst deserts. They thrive where human thought says they should die. I think part of that is the human expectation that everything NEEDS them. Nope. Sorry. Here's your sign.

A forest naturally has seven layers.

Canopy
Under Canopy
Undergrowth
ground layer (creepers and such)
Climbing (vines)
fungus
Tubers

All niches are filled. You seldom see bare ground in nature. It's always covered by something. The forest goes down just as far as it goes up, and that area is also full of life.

In creating my food forest I wanted to cover those same bases. My canopy isn't 30 or 50 or 100 feet over the ground, so I cut out the under canopy. My canopy is the trees that would be an under canopy in a normal forest.

Canopy: Three dwarf fruit trees
undergrowth: Aronia, gooseberry, currant, elderberry
ground layer: tarragon, rue, dill, potatoes, tansy, fennel, herbs, grasses, sage, yarrow
vining: honeysuckle, luffa
root: potatoes, horseradish
fungus: winecaps (planting this year)

I'll be planting melons and nasturtiums up there as groundcover. This year is to see how everything gets established. Next spring the real fun begins.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Food Forest

I walked up onto the hill a few days ago and just stood there, looking down over my garden. I love this time of year, when everything is fighting to live again.

I sometimes wish I had an even higher place, where I could see the hill as well--that's going to be my food forest.

The "forest" was once a very steep hill. The neighbor behind us had a child in a wheelchair so when he built his fence he built it at the top of the steep hill rather than the bottom.

A few years ago I was in the difficult position of needing to relocate my herb garden, and the only place available was this hot, dry area where nothing grew. Not even weeds. It's straight sand, there was no water in place, wind blasted through there and blew away anything that did manage to grow.

Needless to say, the herb garden didn't do well. Rue, tarragon and feverfew thrived. Everything else died.

Then I made a discovery. That area is consistently 10 to 15 degrees hotter than the rest of the yard, even during the winter. The snow up there melted off a full month ahead.

Essentially I have a solid 1 planting zone jump, IF I can keep the wind from blowing the heat away during the winter, and IF I can control the heat during the summer. Not many plants can handle a range of 120 to -10 degrees fahrenheit.

Since the space is about 3 meters by 10, I decided that three dwarf fruit trees would be sufficient for the canopy layer. Eventually that will be one apricot and two cherries, which will help with transpiration and create shade, thus bringing the temperature down to a manageable level during the summer. By putting up a vine trellis along the east end the wind should be cut down summer and winter. So that takes care of two problems.

The other was the soil. It's almost straight sand, in spite of assertions that compost has been put up there. A few pounds of composted steer manure and a few buckets of garden soil are not sufficient. So last year I put in mulch. I buried the whole area in grass and leaves. I also spot-treated with whey when the plants appeared to be struggling. That should introduce the beneficial bacteria needed to actually build soil rather than the whole thing being just a few inches of leaves over dead sand.

I've been rewarded this year by everything coming back strong--even some I thought had died last summer! The next step will be introducing fungus. I found a few mushrooms up there last year, which I've never seen before, and this year the soil is thick with worms. Progress, right?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Celery

I mentioned in an earlier post that the celery was a wash. I planted a whole bunch (in moss, sheltered, under grow lights) and not a single one came up.

Thinking my seeds were perhaps to blame, I did a germination test. I scattered a pinch of seeds in a plastic bag on a wet paper towel. It took a while, but every single silly seed sprouted. It was like the celerypocolypse, with zombie celery popping up everywhere.

Celery is notoriously picky, and if I manage to grow this stuff I only want the strongest. I want the plants that will spit "not good enough" back in my face and grow in spite of my neglect. I stripped the seedlings from the paper towel with my fingers, scraped them all up and unceremoniously dumped them into the moss where I tried to start seedlings the first time. They did OK, a little yellow. When they had seed leaves I took them out of the moss and plunked them in the dirt.

So far, so good. I can see half a dozen that are sinking their roots into the dirt and laughing at my attempts to kill them. This is good. I'll try harder next time. :)

Monday, March 13, 2017

The effectiveness of a pinned post

I have one post (on vinegar craving) that still gets about 200 hits per week after five years. I can see that the posts to either side of it get more hits than most of my other posts, but few people go so far as to search out the homepage and see what I'm currently writing.

So I did a test. For three days I "pinned" the vinegar craving post, just to see if there was a difference. Taking into account that there are a LOT of comments on that post and it would take a long time to scroll down through them, I expected that the post just after it would have a few more hits. Probably just because of proximity. I think the system counts it as a view even if the individual just scrolls to it in getting past the previous post. If the skuttlebut about a pinned post driving more traffic to other posts is accurate, then the posts beyond the first should also see an increase.

During the test period the next post down (True Potato Seed update) got 18 hits, about triple the usual, but no comments. The posts below it got no more than usual.

I have concluded that the idea of a "pinned" post being a draw for traffic applies ONLY if the audience is the same for both posts.

Monday, March 6, 2017

TPS (True Potato Seed) Update

Potatoes are a root crop, right?

Most people believe that potatoes don't set seed, that they are root crop only. Like garlic, but that's another topic. In fact, most potatoes do set seed--it's only the "commercial" varieties that have been bred for male sterility, which means the flowers don't set fruit unless they're hand pollinated.

I always knew potatoes had flowers, but since I have never seen a seed pod on a potato (in spite of years of trying) I assumed the flowers were sterile and didn't go any further.

Until last year, when I accidentally ran across a mention of True Potato Seed and went looking for more information.

It's really not important to go into the details here, but this year I planted tps, or true potato seed, for the first time.

True potato seed prefers cooler weather, with normal germination temperatures being between 50 and 70 degrees. Using a heat mat will give you more consistent results, but it won't result in higher or quicker germination. The seed leaves are smaller than a radish seed, or another comparison would be the point of a pencil. I can't think of any real comparisons in the modern world, so you'll have to use your imagination if neither of those work for you. Think really tiny. The stems are about the thickness of a paperclip, and hairy.


The first batch started to germinate after about 10 days and I got 30% germination. I have since read that because of their built-in growth inhibitors (a lot of seeds have this) germination can take anywhere from five to fifty days. So 30% may not be accurate, but it's what I got. I now have 9 plants from that first batch.


The potato seedling is shown here (in the center) with tomatoes below and peppers above, all of them planted the same day. If you look really close you can see two more potato seedlings, just two leaves poking up above the soil in the two pots that look empty. This was the day after transplant into their first pots.

I'm half expecting a high failure rate this year. I hope not, but working with plants when I'm not familiar with their habits and needs gets tricky.

Monday, February 27, 2017

It's not "Traditional"

It snowed last night and the sky is overcast. Not unexpected for February. Last night I was chortling over the new snow, but this morning I want to go out and play in the dirt, and it's all covered with sky dandruff! :)

It's interesting how habits affect people. I was talking about the garden the other day and the man I was talking to asked how I was going to till 18 inches of mulch into the soil. I said I wasn't going to till and started to explain, but I got as far as "no-till" and he said "Maybe that's why you're not getting a crop. The soil needs to be tilled or nothing will grow."

We get a good crop every year (aside from corn, which is another topic altogether) but that doesn't seem to matter. If we're not tilling, we're not getting a crop. Habits.

Tilling has been a staple of gardening and/or farming for generations. It allowed for "commercial" farming rather than a group of people walking through the fields poking holes in the dirt. It allowed an easily harvestable crop, in straight rows, so it was more economically feasible, and over time it became an inflexible rule--no till, no crop.

It's not precisely true. Or not at all true, depending on your point of view. Tilling breaks up the soil, allows water to escape, allows air into deep soil where it would not normally be and jumpstarts the bacterial process that releases a short-lived nutrient payload into the soil. There's a lot of science surrounding the issue, but tilling is traditional and speaking against it is Badthink.

Then there's monocropping--planting a single type of plant in blocks, in straight rows. Again, a carryover from commercial farming.

Another long-lived gardening "habit" is leaving the space around trees open, the soil uncovered to prevent rot, disease, and keep rodents and bugs away. But nature doesn't work that way. The leaves fall, surround the tree, form an extra layer of winter protection, keep water IN the soil, prevent bugs and provide (through compost) an extra influx of nutrients every year. It's really not rocket science. And yet I talk to people all the time who are of the "bare dirt" philosophy.

I normally just smile and keep my mouth shut. The bare-dirt philosophy started because commercial farmers needed clear space under their trees for harvest and care of the trees. Over time it hardened into an inflexible rule. If you allow anything to fall or grow under your trees your trees will die.

Traditions and habits can be a good thing. They teach the basics, prevent many problems, and otherwise form a framework for a life. But as adults we need to THINK beyond the traditions. Honestly, with most things I end up going with the habits or traditions, but it's because I've identified the issue, thought it through, and decided that the habit or tradition is the best way to go.

Blind adherence is not my way. But if I try something new in my garden and find out it doesn't work I'm willing to go back to the traditional. Or at least to consider it. :)