005 Amy and Vince of Tenth Acre Farm

DSC_1863

Image: tenthacrefarm.com

In the fifth episode of the Root Simple Podcast we talk to Amy and Vince Stross of Tenth Acre Farm in Cincinnati, Ohio.

We begin with the story of why Amy quit her job and how she began to radically transform their yard. Some of the first work they did involved constructing berms and swales in the front yard, the only part of their property that gets enough sun to grow edibles. Amy and Vince describe the trial and error process they went through to perfect this water harvesting system.

We also discuss the beautiful result you see above–a front yard that combines edibles as well as flowers that both please the neighbors and provide habitat for beneficial insects. The magic extends out into the parkway which is planted with a cherry tree guild.

Amy and Vince go on to discuss how belonging to a CSA inspired them to cook from scratch and learn how to preserve food. This knowledge came in handy once their garden got really productive. Amy shares why buying a pressure canner is a good investment.

We talked to Vince about his post on making a non-electric mason jar vacuum sealer with an automotive brake bleeder. This is a cool and low cost alternative to the electric Food Saver vacuum sealer.

And Amy discussed her provocative post on why they don’t keep chickens.

According to Amy, homesteading is “more of a marathon than a sprint.” They are in it for the long hall.

We conclude by having Vince and Amy answer a Listener question about living a sustainable life in a cold climate (something we know nothing about!). Amy mentions growing fruit trees and freezing fruit in one pound packages. Canning projects then take place in the winter when heating up the kitchen also heats the house. Vince talks about growing greens year round and references the books of Elliot Coleman.

You can visit their blog at tenthacrefarm.com. Amy also does a newsletter (see the sidebar on their website). When you sign up for you’ll get a free ebook describing a little more about all the amazing things they are up to. We could have chatted for hours.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store. Note that it takes a few hours for the new episode to show up in iTunes.

LA ecovillage: self-reliance in a car-free urban homestead

Johnny, who shot that nice video of us for faircompanies.com just made another video about our friends at the LA ecovillage. It’s well worth a view. Some of the most amazing folks in Los Angeles live there. And I like that fact that’s it’s an ecovillage smack dab in the middle of my beloved hometown.

Make sure to also check out Johnny’s blog Granola Shotgun.

Pakistan Mulberry Fever

pakinstanmul

Let me just say Pakistan mulberries. Now let me say it again. Pakistan Mulberries.  Let’s all repeat that as a mantra.

What are they? The tastiest fruit in the know universe. Imagine a longish, very sweet but ever so slightly exotic tasting berry. The problem: they go bad so fast that you practically have to eat them off the tree. The other problem: we have no more room left to grow a Pakistan mulberry tree. Thankfully fruit tree guru Steve Hofvendahl sold me two small strawberry cartons full of them over the weekend.

Now I need a regular Pakistani mulberry fix. If I wanted to plant one Bay Laurel Nursery has several varieties. It’s mostly a warm climate plant but some varieties do better in lower temperatures.

Here’s what Steve had to say about his six year old tree which he thinks is the “Cooke” variety:

It has totally thrived and become huge.  I have to top back huge vertical branches every year after harvest season and tie limbs down laterally.
And the harvest goes on and on and is not easy, you cannot shake the tree without bringing down loads of green fruit and stubborn ripe berries won’t fall.  You have to hand pick and it takes about 2-3 hours of combing over the tree from all the different angles with the orchard ladder.
Then I soak ‘em in a vinegar water solution and rinse and lay in flats refrigerated and finally weigh the good ones up, the not so good ones get made into delicious juice for jellies and my Jamalade with cumquats and/or habanero.
So it would probably maybe still be worth it to you but know what you are maybe getting into!

Again, the taste is so amazing that if I had the room I’d say it’s worth the hassle of harvesting.

Note from Mrs. Homegrown:  I wanted to add that the odd things about these mulberries is that they have a green stem which runs all the way through the center of the fruit, so when you eat them your sort  of scrape the fruit (drupes?) off the stem with your teeth, then discard it. Not that this is a problem–they’re delicious! I guess the stem is necessary to support their length.

Adopt an Indigo Plant in Los Angeles

indigo-only-poster

Artist Graham Keegan is crowd sourcing an indigo project here in Los Angeles. You can help out by adopting indigo seedlings and growing them out–then harvesting the leaves and joining the other growers for a couple of indigo dyeing fiestas.

We realize this is a highly local post, but it’s a great idea, and we hope it might inspire some of you to do group growing/harvesting projects in your hometowns.

Here’s the 411 from his website, grahamkeegan.com:

Indigo pigment grows naturally in the leaves of a large number of plant species from around the world. This plant, Persecaria Tinctoria, also know as Polygonum Tinctorum, has been a staple source of blue in East Asia for millennia. It is known for being relatively easy to grow. All it needs is lots of sunshine, plenty of water, and some food.

indigo seedlings persecaria tinctoria graham keegan

As an experiment, I’ve germinated a bunch of indigo seeds and want to get the seedlings into as many people’s hands as possible! I hope to spread the wonder about the fact that color can be grown, to raise the consciousness of humanity’s original sources of pigment, and to get people to exercise their thumbs, green or otherwise!

The pigment can be extracted from the mature leaves and used to dye all types of natural fibers. As the season goes on, I’ll be posting harvest and processing instructions, as well as invitations to two separate harvest parties where we pool our collective leaves and do some dyeing!

These seedlings will be available for pickup from my workshop in Silver Lake (Los Angeles, CA) from June 6-8, 2014 (10 AM – 2 PM Daily). They will be ready to be (and should be) transplanted ASAP. I will also have a limited number of growing kits available for purchase for apartment dwellers that will include a suitable pot, soil, and plant food ($12) There is no charge to adopt an indigo seedling. However you must sign the pledge poster to properly care for your plant in order to receive your indigo seedling. You will also receive a copy of the poster to hang in a prominent place in your home, lest you forget about your little baby!

There are a limited number of seedlings available. Please reserve yours by filling out the form below.

For those of you not able to pick up a seedling here in Los Angeles, I am willing to experiment with shipping them directly to you in the mail for the cost of postage. I have zero real world experience with this but have been reading up on the process and believe that it is possible. There is no guarantee that the plants will arrive alive, but I’ll do all that I can on my end to ensure safe travel!

Remember, this is an experiment! If we fail this year, we’ll try again next year!

Please grow along with me!

Graham

We’re going to participate. If you want to, be sure to fill out the form at his website (linked above), and do so soon, because there are only so many seedlings. And make sure to check out Graham’s work and shibori dye workshops.

Direct Seeding vs. Transplants

How I used to plant my veggies.

How I used to plant my veggies. An 8 inch spacing guide and some seedlings back in 2009.

To direct sow or transplant, that is the question. I’m as indecisive as Hamlet when it comes to this question. Some caveats here: we live in a warm climate where you can direct sow almost anything unless you want to get an early start on tomatoes and peppers. And we don’t have to start seedlings indoors.

Another thing to note–I fell under the spell of John Jeavons and even took his class up in Willits a few years back. Jeavons transplants everything. One of the best vegetable gardens I ever grew was done following his instructions to the letter. But I’m not big on double digging, nor do I look forward to the twice a year transplanting chores.

backbeds

Look what’s growing in the new raised beds–nada!

This year I tried to direct sow the summer garden instead of growing trays of seedlings and I have to say I’m not getting good results. A week of temperatures over 100° F didn’t help. Nor did the long delay getting the vegetable garden planted while I attempted to evict skunks from the backyard. I know I sound like the president of an excuse factory. Let’s just say it’s good that we’re not trying to subsist on our home grown produce.

My conclusion? I’m going to have to go back to sowing seeds in flats and transplanting them out in the garden. It may not be the best practice from a horticultural perspective, but in terms of my own personality and the quirks of our little yard, it may still be the best option.

Dear readers, where do you come down on this question? Do you sow direct or do you transplant? How does your climate influence this decision?

Gardening Mistakes: Six Ways We’ve Killed Plants

betony

In the years we’ve gardened we’ve killed our share of plants. I’d like to think we’ve learned from our errors. To that end, I thought I’d run down some of the big mistakes we’ve made.

1. The right plant in the right place Our front yard is a hillside. Our backyard has two tall trees that cast shade towards the north. The soil varies in color, texture and quality largely due to almost a hundred years of construction projects (decks, foundation work terracing, etc.). The same plant that might thrive in one spot will wither in another. This is where trial and error comes in. Sometimes the only way to find out if what will grow is to plant stuff and see what takes off.

2. Soil compaction This is a big problem in urban areas and our yard is no exception. The parkway, which gets a lot of foot traffic, is very compacted. Very few plants do well with compacted soil, including natives. The best way to break up compacted soil is with a broadfork, a spendy item. We use a garden fork instead.

3. Soil fertility When it comes to growing vegetables, in particular, you need rich soil. Get a soil test first. But soil fertility is a lot more than chemistry–it’s about life. Healthy soils have a rich and diverse microbial and fungal ecosystem. You can jump start that fertility with compost. But somehow we never have enough compost.

4. Bad nursery stock. I’ve bought my share of root bound plants and plants that came with diseases. The worst example I’ve seen is a nursery selling grape vines that all had incurable Pierce’s disease. That’s a guaranteed failure. Thankfully we’ve found a few good sources when we need seedlings: Annie’s Annuals and Perennials and Theodore Payne.

5. The great mystery of watering. I’m still working on this one. I discovered last year that I’ve been under-watering our fruit trees.  To figure out watering needs for fruit trees the pros use expensive soil augurs to take samples. I may break down and get one but in the meantime I’ve got a high quality moisture sensor I’m experimenting with on the suggestion of fruit tree guru Steve Hofvendahl (thanks Steve!). More on this topic in another post. I’ve also been known to neglect and/or over-water our vegetables as well.

6. Timing. It took us a few seasons to realize that our Mediterranean climate is very different from what the back of seed packages were telling us in terms of when to plant. I’m sure climates that have hard freezes have a whole other level of surprises and heartbreak.

Acceptance
You’re going to kill plants. Just as you have to break an egg to make an omelette, the only way you’re going to learn about your garden, its soil, microrclimates and quirks is by killing plants.

I’m sure I’ve left some things out.  Let us know in the comments how you have killed plants.

Biochar Results: Mixed

Biochar

Image: Wikipedia.

Results from the first ever scientific study of biochar by researchers at the University of Southampton have been released. Plant growth was stimulated (up to 100%!) but,

the positive impacts of biochar were coupled with negative findings for a suite of genes that are known to determine the ability of a plant to withstand attack from pests and pathogens. These defence genes were consistently reduced following biochar application to the soil, for example jasmonic and salcyclic acid and ethylene, suggesting that crops grown on biochar may be more susceptible to attack by pests and pathogens. This was a surprising finding and suggests that if reproduced in the field at larger scales, could have wide implications for the use of biochar on commercial crops.

The researchers concluded:

Our findings provide the very first insight into how biochar stimulates plant growth — we now know that cell expansion is stimulated in roots and leaves alike and this appears to be the consequence of a complex signalling network that is focused around two plant growth hormones. However, the finding for plant defense genes was entirely unpredicted and could have serious consequences for the commercial development and deployment of biochar in future. Any risk to agriculture is likely to prevent wide scale use of biochar and we now need to see which pest and pathogens are sensitive to the gene expression changes.

Thanks to Michael Tortorello for the tip.

What is that black and orange bug in my garden?

4 bugs

The suggestions on a recent “what’s this bug? post on this blog made me realize how hard it was to tell apart several common garden bugs: the harlequin bug, the bagrada bug, the milkweed bug and the boxelder bug. They are all flattish, orange/red and black, under an inch long, and seem to always be mating.

After doing the research, I really wanted to see all the bugs side by side, so I made this picture and this simple reference chart. It is now my gift to you. You are welcome.

Continue reading…

Mulch Volcanoes: Another Bad Gardening Idea

Root Simple reader Donna, in response to my post on decomposed granite as mulch, alerted me to a related phenomenon: the infamous mulch volcano. For whatever reason, I don’t see this viral gardening phenomenon much here in Los Angeles but it’s really common elsewhere in the US.

Mulch volcanoes are generally considered to be a bad idea. It’s thought that the lack of air circulation at the base of the tree can lead to disease problems and you don’t want roots to grow up into the mulch so close to the trunk. When applying mulch you should keep it a few inches away from the base of a tree.

herber bayer grass mound

Artist Herbert Bayer’s EarthMound, 1955. Image: GardenHistoryGirl.

How strange gardening practices, such as mulch volcanoes, get started is really interesting to me. Mulch volcanoes remind me of miniature versions of minimalist art earthworks or Native American mounds. Is the mulch volcano a kind of outsider landscape art? Is the mulch volcano a misguided attempt at putting a human imprint on nature, what landscape architects call “clues to care?”