Feijoa Fever

Image from Wikipedia

If you’re lucky enough to live where you can grow it, pineapple guava (Acca sellowiana) is a beautiful tree. Evergreen, the leaves are dark green on top and silvery gray on the bottom. In the spring you get hundreds of pink and red, edible flowers (they actually taste like cotton candy). In the fall you get copious amounts of green fruit, high in pectin and sugar.  When I’ve seen pineapple guavas in our local supermarket they are priced at nearly $2 a piece. I planted one a few years ago in our front yard.

Image from Wikipedia

Last Thursday morning at the at the National Heirloom Exposition Mark Albert, a pineapple guava expert, gave a lecture on “Developments in Pineapple Guava.” Those developments are, interestingly, entirely in the hands of amateur growers like Albert. Pineapple guavas are not part of any government breeding program. And the tree has really only been domesticated in the last 100 years or so. There’s a confusing jumble of named varieties and considerable disagreement on how you even propagate them. During his lecture, Albert dropped a bunch of factoids of interest to pineapple guava obsessed fruit geeks such as me:

  • First, how to pronounce the Portuguese name for the fruit: feijoa – fay–ee–joe–ah
  • Don’t pick from the tree–wait for it to fall to the ground.
  • Pineapple guava is very drought tolerant but needs summer water if you want fruit.
  • Albert’s prefers to propagate from seed.
  • Pineapple guava’s origins are in Uruguay. The region it comes from sometimes does not receive any rain in three years. It’s also the climax species in this arid region.
  • The Spanish name for pineapple guava is Guayabo del país or wild guava. 
  • Albert, who lives in Mendocino County in Northern California (about as far north as you can grow this tree) propagates the seeds by soaking pulp in water for a few months and planting the seeds when it warms up in the springtime.   

If you live where it never gets below 15ºF, consider giving this gorgeous tree a place in your garden.

More info from the California Rare Fruit Growers on pineapple guava here

Toby Hemenway On How Horticulture Can Save Us

What I like about author and permaculturalist Toby Hemenway is that he does a lot better job, frankly, of explaining permacuture than do the founders of the movement, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Hemenway is a better writer and demonstrates how permaculture’s abstract designs principles can apply at the household and neighborhood level. His book, Gaia’s Garden, A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture ought to be on everyone’s bookshelf.

Last Thursday at the National Heirloom Exposition Hemenway gave a talk entitled “Redesigning Civilization: How Horticulture Can Save Us.” What he meant by “horticulture” is not, say, propagating begonias. Rather, he defined horticulture as gardening, the kind of gardening some indigenous people did when they influenced the landscape to produce useful and edible plants. In other words, what we in the West would call permaculture. This is in contrast to agriculture which Hemenway considers to have a destructive influence on ecosystems, human health and culture.

Hemenway also, justifiably, critiqued some corners of the urban homesteading movement for promoting an egocentric self-sufficiency–“MY food on MY land” as he put it–a kind of industrial farming on a household level. While “self-sufficiency” appears in the subtitle of our first book (our publisher’s idea), it’s not a term we use. Kelly and I always emphasize, like Hemenway, the importance of community. We are much more comfortable with the title “gardener” rather than “farmer”. We need farmers, of course, but I’d like to think of urban homesteading as being more about small scale, permacutural type projects that involve both individual and group efforts.

The takeaway from Hemenway’s talk for me was the importance, especially in urban areas, of integrating community in any permacultural design project. After showing what everyone reading this blog knows, that our modern world is in big trouble, Hemenway ended on a positive note. With small scale, thoughtful design we can go a long way to solving some pretty big problems.

Tips on Composting from Will Bakx of Sonoma Compost

Sonoma Compost’s composting operation.

On Thursday at the National Heirloom Exposition, Will Bakx, soil scientist and operations manager of Sonoma Compost, gave a rapid fire lecture on the nitty gritty details of composting. Here’s some of his useful tips:

Temperature and Turning
Compost should stay above 131ºF for 15 days to kill pathogens. Bakx recommended getting a thermometer to check the temperature every day during the initial period and using Sonoma Compost’s handy Temperature/Turning Sheet (pdf) to keep track of the temperature of the pile. If the pile dips below 135ºF, turn it. If it doesn’t get up to temperature, add more nitrogen containing materials. If it gets above 163ºF, add more carbon containing materials. After the initial turnings just let it sit unless you have to turn to add moisture.

Bakx believes that you should turn as little as possible, just enough to achieve that first period of 15 days above 135º F. I really like the simplicity of this method and will definitely use the turning sheet the next time I build a pile. I really makes it clear when you should turn and how often.

Lack of moisture, according to Bakx, is the number one mistake made by beginning composters. He suggested an ideal moisture range between 40-­‐60%. You can check the moisture level using the following technique:

Take handful of material. Squeeze firmly
Water escapes: >60%
Shiny ball: 55%–60%
Ball remains when tapped: 50–55%
Ball falls apart when tapped: 45–50%
No ball forms: 40–45%
Unless hand feels powdery dry: <40 p="p">

Bakx has drip irrigation set up on his large windrows, something I might try with my pile the next time.

Pile Size
The mimimum size for a compost pile is 3 x 3 x 3 feet or larger.

Things not to add

  • Ash–our soils tend to be alkaline in California and ash will raise pH. A small amount is ok.
  • Cardboard–Bakx is afraid of the glues and said that he is very conservative about what he ads to his compost.
  • Toilet paper–because of metals (I’ve been unable to verify this–if any of you know about this issue, please leave a comment.

Alleopathic plant material such as eucalyptus leaves and walnut leaves, on the other hand, are ok to add. Bakx cited studies where plants were successfully grown in leaf litter made entirely out of eucalyptus leaves. He suggested keeping such alleopathic material to less than 15% of the pile.

Web links
Sonoma Compost’s website: www.sonomacompost.com
Sonoma Compost’s Simple Guidelines to Composting (pdf)
Sonoma Compost’s Temperature/Turning Sheet (pdf)
An online carbon/nitrogen ratio calculator

Infinite Green Onions

Here’s a handy little tip. I’m pretty sure I heard it first from Mr. Jack Spirko:

Save the root ends of your green onions (aka scallions) — the parts you cut off when you’re cooking. Plant those, roots down, under about an inch of soil and they will generate new green onions. Keep this cycle going throughout your growing season and you should have an endless supply of green onions for your table. It’s much easier than starting from seed!

Green onions are shallow rooted, so work very well in pots. Also, they’re so unobtrusive and easy to grow that you can just tuck them here and there in your garden–anywhere that gets water–and forget about them until you need them.

Happy growing!

Comopost, Compost, Compost

As if I didn’t need a reminder of how important compost is to a vegetable garden, note the tomato above. It’s on its way out, but it grew with no supplemental water in hard-packed clay soil contaminated with lead and zinc in a hot side yard. Why did it do well while the rest of my vegetable garden did not do as so good this summer?

Homemade compost.

I didn’t have enough compost for the rest of the veggie garden so I bought some at a nursery. The homebrew compost obviously had much more life in it. 

And life is the point. Soil is a living thing. Plants, particularly vegetables, need microbial life to thrive.

For more on the importance of microbial life read the USDA’s soil biology primer written by Dr. Elaine Ingham.