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. :)

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Best laid plans

My process for everything = as little effort as possible and no outside resources that might not be available at some point. That includes electricity, which makes people look at me oddly and wonder about my sanity. To which I can only reply that if they knew me they wouldn't have to wonder.

I look through gardening catalogs and I see special starting trays, heat mats, specialized starting medium, even coated seeds so they germinate more easily and predictably. The gardener's perfect setup to ensure success every time! My own "setup" consists of a covered cake tray, toilet paper rolls and sphegnum moss. Whoop-de-doo. Severely high-tech, do NOT try this at home. :)

I cut the toilet paper rolls in half, stuff them with moss, put them inside the cake tray, hydrate the whole thing, plant the seeds and done. Well not technically DONE, but done with that piece. In a sunny southern window the seeds get plenty of heat--sometimes too much.

But someday, those resources may not be available and I want my plants to survive and continue to feed me. With that in mind, I want strong, self-sufficient monsters that are going to survive no matter what is thrown at them, and that won't happen if I coddle them with all the stuff that people seem to think is necessary. So when a seedling starts to sag from damping off, I pull it. If one comes up with no seed leaves, I pull it. I don't spend time and resources on trying to save something that will just pass on weakened genes to the next generation.

Up to this point I haven't taken this beyond seedlings, but this year will be different--if I can make myself pull perfectly healthy plants just because they get a virus or a calcium deficiency. I don't want those weaknesses in my seeds. If there is no fertilizer I don't want plants that have grown into that dependency over a matter of generations.

So starting this year I'm going to be ruthless. I hope. At least that's the plan.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Seedling update

True potato seeds (TPS) had about a 30% germination rate, which is fine because I only want the strongest plants to put outside. I'll be doing the next batch with brighter lights to see how that affects it. I was initially told to use supplemental lighting and bottom heat but I don't really have any way to do bottom heat without electricity so that's a no. Once this set is well established I'll be doing at least one more this year, then save the rest of the seeds.

Tomatoes had an excellent germination rate, which they usually do--all my own self-harvested seeds. Three of the pots had only one plant come up, but several had 3 so we ended up with 30 strong plants. I planted 32. One damped off so I pulled it. Only the strongest are going in the ground this year, and I've half decided (well, 3/4 decided) to pull any that have blossom end rot.

Last years peppers were a wash. Only a few came up and they didn't have seed leaves. I ended up with one after planting about 30. I assumed something was wrong with the seeds so this year I just pretty much dumped the seeds--anywhere between three and ten in each pot. It looks like most came up. I have 18 for sure, possibly another 10 or 12 coming.

Celery was a wash. Not a single seedling. I'm going to replant with brighter lights and see if that helps.

One licorice plant sprouted. I planted additional seeds to see if we can get more. Ideally one for each fruit tree (as nitrogen fixers), but if we can get one established we're home free.

No sign of fruit tree seedlings yet, but I don't expect that until later. Possibly as late as May.

One goumi survived the winter.

Last night's frost melted off in minutes. Another month before I can safely (!) plant out the tomatoes with protection. I did it last year in February and they thrived, but the other plants caught up and they didn't fruit any sooner so the extra work and care isn't worth it.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Projects

As spring gets closer I start dancing anxiously, wanting to be out there playing in the dirt. I look out my window and I see the grapevines that need to be trimmed, the trees that need to be pruned, my garden area (now covered with a six inch layer of leaves for mulch!) and my fledgling forest garden.

The forest garden was last year's major project. Everything up there will be perennials or self-seeding annuals, and I mulched it heavily this year so hopefully I won't need to water as much. The tree I have right now is a rescued apricot. I need two dwarf cherry trees to finish the "canopy" layer, but for the understory I have akebia, gooseberry, currants and aronia. Akebia is a vine, which eventually will create a windbreak for the strong winter winds. I also have edible honeysuckle that I grew last year, but I don't know if it survived the winter. At groundlevel I planted potatoes, herbs, strawberries, horseradish and kale along with various scattered annual seeds. This year I'll leave it mostly alone so the plants can fight out their own balance and naturalize wherever they fit best.

As I said, last year I covered the gardens with a thick layer of leaves for mulch. The plan is to use the fall leaves from the trees to cover whatever area is lying fallow the following year, giving the leaves a year and two winters to compost. If there are sufficient leaves (or I can get enough) I'll finish a new garden area each year. Every area of the garden will get a thick layer of mulch at least every seven to ten years rather than a scattering of leaves every year.

I have two major projects planned for this year. The first is the greenhouse. The roof will be a watershed, directing the water from runoff into the forest garden. During the summer it will be covered with vines for temperature control and it will sit flat against a block wall for heat in the winter. A combination of geothermal and sun. It will have a door on either side to allow the winds to blow directly through for another layer of temperature control.

The second major project is removing a bunch of grass and planting fruiting berries and herbs as a border around the yard. We plan to raise the ground level around the edge by about 18 inches, which will necessitate moving the sprinklers in and up as soon as the ground thaws enough. The flattening of the ground will prevent much of the runoff we currently experience and the rainspout from the roof will feed into this area as an additional water source. Since the plants I'm considering are drought tolerant or local natives (Serviceberry, lavender, etc), it shouldn't ever need supplemental water.

My minor projects are growing potatoes from true potato seed (TPS) and grafting fruit-trees onto serviceberry root-stock.

I'm anxious to get started, but the ground is still covered with white sky-dandruff. :)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Fluke is not a fish :)

Interesting coincidence (fluke) or whatever, I was just reading back through old posts and discovered that every year about the middle of January I start getting Spring fever. Or itchy feet, cabin fever, whatever you call it. I start planting, going outside, digging in the snow, demanding that spring come NOWNOWNOW! Buying seeds. Or trees. Oops.

I have so many plans! I want spring to come so I can get started, but mostly I want spring to come because I can plant my feet in the dirt and give a huge sigh that I'm back where I belong.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Beans

This year, just as a test, I decided to grow dry beans inside. It wasn't a rousing success--only three plants came up and only three pods off of two of the plants. No big deal, I wasn't expecting much. The two kinds of beans I planted were Great Northern White and Pinto. The pods all looked the same, so I assumed I had only one kind of bean and I was anxious to see what I got.

However, I just pulled a mostly dry pod off one of the plants and opened it up.

What I have are the color and shape of the Great Northern White, but with the markings of the pinto. I know it's just a fluke--what I probably got are pinto--but it's interesting.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Using wild yeast for bread

Using wild yeast isn't as simple as capturing it. Maybe it doesn't like being imprisoned. Who knows?

Initial post on capturing wild yeast here.

Each variety of yeast has its own personality and its own needs. I made yeast from four different kinds of fruit--apple, orange, plum and raisin. The initial "feeding" was done with flour I'd milled myself, and I'd grown the wheat. On that one, apple and raisin did the best with apple ahead. Plum just sat there, sulking. Orange raised, but wasn't outstanding. When I did the second feeding I used white flour since I ran out of the other.

Raisin went crazy, doubling in size in less than six hours. Apple sulked at the change in diet and orange just tagged along, riding on the others' laurels. Plum was still sulking from the first offense. I immediately used the raisin to make a small batch of bread, and fed it again.

I had the original liquid left over, and since orange and apple showed no sign of fungus I dumped the leftover fruit and made another starter for those two "flavors" of yeast.

Here comes the tricky part. I hadn't measured the water precisely, but the original was about the same amount for each. When I added flour and water for the starter I measured it, putting in 1/4 c of flour and 1/4 c of water each time. So theoretically they all had the same amount of water to start, within a teaspoon or two. When I put the starter liquid in the starter jars, I measured it at 8 ml (almost two teaspoons) for each jar.

I used half a cup of starter with my "raisin yeast" bread loaf. I cut the recipe in half so I used 1 1/2 c of flour and 1/2 c of water since the starter was liquid as well. The dough was dense, dry, and resisted kneading. I added water a little at a time until it was the right consistency, and let it rise overnight.

I decided to get rid of the "plum" starter, since it wasn't doing anything, so I added 1 1/2 cups of flour and 1/2 cup of water...it soaked up the water and was messy-sticky. I had to add flour.

Then the apple starter and the orange starter from the original bottles. The orange starter came out in a lump, the apple starter came out soggy, with lots of water in it. So I added 1 1/2 c of flour to the apple starter, and added both flour and water to the orange starter. The orange came out perfect, the apple needed slightly more flour.

The only real difference between them all was the yeast culture--precisely the same amount of culture, the same amounts of water and flour, but the outcomes were entirely different.

The raisin loaf is dense, with a soft crumb and a crunchy crust. Because of the wheat flour used in the original feeding it has a wheat flavor. The wild yeast didn't seem to make a significant difference to the taste. But the smell! Oh, my. I would bake every day just for that smell!

The plum loaf was definitely sourdough, but with a faint fruity taste that doesn't linger. The crumb is light but dense.

The orange loaf was dark and crunchy, with a flavor that's difficult to describe. It smelled really sour going into the oven, but coming out the taste wasn't even sourdough but completely different. The texture is almost like a cake rather than bread, but not dense--just a little stiffer than I'm used to bread being. Almost like focaccia.

The apple loaf is very light in color and has a very mild sourdough flavor, but again it's different from any sourdough I've had before. The smell is fruity but there's none of the fruit flavor. It isn't dense, but the crumb is strong and resists tearing. The crust is extremely chewy.

I could get addicted to having bread that has a different flavor every time I bake.


Based on this test, the rankings of the 4 types of yeast are:

1 Raisin
2 Apple
3 Orange
4 Plum

Monday, January 2, 2017

Yeast

I've always thought that yeast is boring. I mean, you take it out of a bag--boring. It's a uniform color and it makes bread rise. It's also a finite commodity--in an emergency, once it's gone, it's gone. But there's yeast in the air all around us. I've investigated capturing wild yeast but it's a long drawn out process and takes lots of resources--if you're baking bread every few days great, but if you get a strong culture it grows so fast that anyone else can't use it all and it dies. Or you keep feeding it and use all your flour just keeping the thing alive.

Then I ran across a mention of using fruit yeast. The white bloom on grapes, plums, etc? Yeast. There's yeast on every fruit and every bark and every leaf, just waiting. If I can harvest yeast that easily, then why bother keeping a culture alive? Start a new one every month or so.

I didn't have any fresh fruit to test my hypothesis (aside from oranges) so I used raisins from last year's harvest, a dried plum from last year's harvest, a piece of dried apple from two years ago, and a piece of fresh orange peel.


After four days bubbles were starting to appear in the water, and three of the four smelled "yeasty." The plum just smelled fermented. The raisins and plum had fungus hyphae in the water.


I took 1/4 c of flour and 1/4 c of filtered water and put them in jars with about 2 teaspoons (8 ml) of liquid from each bottle.

Less than 24 hours later the dough was already rising. The strongest (most bubbly) was apple, followed by raisin, orange and plum in that order.



Plum had bubbles but hadn't started mounding yet. I fed them another 1/4 c of flour and 1/4 c of water, put them in larger bottles and put them away again. The orange had a sour orange smell, the apple just a faint hint of apple, the plum just smelled like fermented plums, and the raisin like raisins. All had a yeasty smell. At this point I had cut out a week, possibly two, from the process of collecting wild yeast.



The original bottles had lost their "yeast" smell, with the exception of the apple which had a very strong yeast smell. I assume the bacteria and fungus had taken over the other three bottles.

The orange, apple and raisin had visible rising within a few hours. Raisin more than doubled in about six hours and overflowed its bottle so I used half to start a batch of bread.


Based on the test, this process is both simpler and more predictable than trying to capture a wild strain of yeast by setting your culture out on the windowsill or under a tree. Any fruit should work--if dried fruit several years old provided an immediate result, fresh fruit would probably be better. It also isn't necessary to have a full jar of mashed fruit--less than a tablespoon of each kind resulted in usable yeast growth within a few days.

Post on baking with this yeast