An ancient food forest

An intriguing short video by permaculturist Geoff Lawton about a food forest in Morocco.

It does leave me with questions, though, such as: what sort of labor does it take to keep this system going? And also, what other kinds of inputs does it require? Is it irrigated, and if so, how?

Still, it’s inspiring to see so much abundance in a dry space. Come to think of it, LA has lots of palm trees already. If we’d just give up our cars, we could plant that understory of carob and banana…

2014, a Year in Comments: Plant Thievery, Loquats, Breakfast Cerial and the Apocalypse

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Scene of the crime. Our missing cactus.

One of the reasons I prefer blogging to writing books is feedback in the form of comments. The subject matter we write about attracts thoughtful and compassionate people interested in making the world a better place. And I appreciate discussion and constructive criticism (We’re thankful too, that no trolls live under the Root Simple bridge). As an only child prone to ex cathedra statements, it’s good to have accountability in the form of reader feedback. With this in mind, I thought I’d review the most commented upon posts in 2015.

One curious phenomenon is that the number of comments a particular blog post gets is often inversely proportional to the amount of time it took to write. Kelly and I will sometimes spend hours agonizing over a blog post that gets just a few comments. Other times, a post dashed off in ten minutes will touch off a spirited discussion. This is not to say that a post that gets comments is any better or more popular than one that does not. Some posts, I suppose, are just more worthy of commenting. And we’re aware that many people read and never comment.

Here’s the five most commented upon Root Simple posts of 2015:

1. Plant Thievery. Back in April three barrel cacti disappeared from our front yard. It was a thorny, premeditated crime that prompted many readers to share their loss of plants. Later in the year I heard about two women who stole a lawn in England. And in local plant thievery news, a Los Angeles bakery lost most of its outdoor patio plants and the Episcopal Cathedral had an entire orange tree disappear. I like to think of these crimes from the plant’s perspective. Assuming they survive, the plant probably enjoys being able to travel and spread genetic material. Many plants, after all, evolve ingenious ways of, for instance, getting birds to eat seeds and poop them out over the landscape. Appealing to our lesser instincts could be yet another devious genetic strategy on the part of team plant.

2. Loquat Season is Here. Second to ways to avoid traffic, one of the great questions of life in Los Angeles is what to do with all those damn loquats. As the loquat is not frost tolerant, this is not a question for folks in the antipodal extremes.  And there’s great variation in loquat quality. Some taste, well, almost as good as an apricot (I know this sounds like faint praise). Others are just a thin, watery pulp surrounding huge, inedible seeds. I suspect part of Kelly’s motivation for writing this post was her skepticism of my loquat fruit leather recipe. I considered it the equivalent of discovering the loquat northwest passage. Despite Kelly’s brave stab at understanding the loquat, I don’t think we have a definitive answer on the subject. Perhaps we need to construct a kind of loquat Hadron Collider to solve this problem. Hey, that sounds like our first Kickstarter!

3. A Year After the Age of Limits: 5 Responses to the End Times. While Kelly may not have nailed the lid on the loquat coffin, she did write an eloquent essay on the pitfalls of apocalyptic thinking that was prompted by our attendance to the 2013 Age of Limits Conference. It took us and our friend John, who went with us, an entire year to process this disturbing weekend. Kelly and I recorded a long interview for our podcast with John about his experience that we never used. It’s well past time for me to revisit that recording. Thanks to KMO’s always excellent C-Realm Podcast, I heard that this year’s conference was different, perhaps due to the absence of the near term extinction crowd.

4. The Hugelkultur Question. Popularized by Sepp Holzer and many other permaculturalists, this practice of mounding logs in a hill of organic matter has been making the rounds of the avant-horticulture scene for the past few years. Like many 21st century radical home ec practices, evaluating Hugelkultur takes us to the messy collision point of systems theory and reductionism. This is not to even get into the problem of climate, which I pondered in another much commented upon post, Hugelkultur in Dry Climates. One thing to come out of researching the issue was discovering the Garden Professor’s Facebook page, wherein brainy horticulture types engage in a dialog on newfangled ideas. Use the search function on that page to find the subject you’re interested in. Who would have guessed that Facebook is useful for more than sharing cat photos and speculating about caftans?

5. Non-GMO Versions of Grape Nuts and Cheerios Less Nutritious Than GMO Versions. This may seem to be a post about the GMO debate (I’m not a fan of GMOs in most cases), but it’s really a stealthy realization that my Grape Nuts habit needed to end. Thankfully I discovered the Higgs bosen of breakfast cereals thanks to the KoMo FlicFloc. Which, to cram way too many physics metaphors in one blog post, really is the Hadron Collider of kitchen gadgets.

What controversial and comment worthy subjects would you like us to take up in 2015?

The Hugelkultur Question

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A debate broke out at the Root Simple headquarters this past weekend over hugelkultur.

Hugelkultur is the most talked about concept in the permaculuture world. The idea with hugelkultur is that you mound or bury logs in compost and plant in it. Proponents contend that the logs break down and become open fungal pathways to store water and nutrients.

Kelly suggested we take an unused raised bed in our front yard and try an at-grade hugelkultur experiment (mounding in our dry climate seems like a bad idea, especially given our current drought). I balked at the amount of digging that would be involved. Kelly suggested that we should try it since we had little to lose and we’re supposed to be experimenting with garden ideas for the sake of our readers. I, again, thought about all the digging and the excess soil that would have to be carried down the staircase.

Then I had a change of heart. We should be experimenting, I thought. And we have a pile of wood.

But, like a gardening version of Hamlet, I started waffling again. I decided to post the hugelkultur question to the Garden Professor’s Facebook page. One of those horticulture professors, Linda Chalker-Scott is someone who I seek out when writing a magazine article. A civil discussion ensued on that Facebook page, proving that Facebook is good for something other than angry political screeds and cat videos. A summary of some of the points made:

  • There is no peer reviewed research on hugelkultur.
  • The concept seems to date back only to 2007 or so, most likely to Sepp Holzer.
  • Chalker-Scott suggested that you could get the same benefits with surface mulch with a lot less effort. See a previous Root Simple blog post for the reasons why mulch does many of the same things as hugelkultur.
  • Someone pointed out that subsidence in a hugelkultur bed might be bad for trees, though many use hugelkultur just for vegetables.
  • I pointed out that nature mulches but does not hugelkultur (except maybe in the case of floods).
  • Relieved that I would not need to dig, I chimed in that I thought that hugelkultur would rob soil of nitrogen as the carbon material broke down.
  • A hugelkultur supporter countered that large logs would not rob soil of nitrogen due to the surface to area ratio.
  • The conversation concluded with a back and forth on mulch vs. hugelkultur and the benefits of hugelkultur as a method to break up compacted soil. Again, the issue was that mulch takes less effort.

What’s needed is a field trial to answer a few questions. Would surface mulch alone work just as well? What is the effect of mounding? Would at-grade hugelkultur work better in dry climates? Does hugelkultur save water? Since I’m lazy and especially don’t like big dig projects I’ve decided to forgo a hugelkultur bed. But I also don’t want to completely dismiss the idea.

What do you think?

Flowers from Vegetables

flower of an Italian dandelion

Whenever possible I let vegetables go to flower, sometimes to save the seed, but more often to share the bounty with insects and birds. The usefulness comes in two waves: the first being the pollinators attracted to the flowers, and once the flowers go to seed the birds will move in. Of course this means that I’m “wasting space” and making my garden “unproductive” but the rewards outweigh any inconvenience.

New gardeners are often surprised to see what amazing flowers different vegetables make. People with no connection to food plants whatsoever may not even know that vegetables make flowers, so it’s fun to show them a carrot flower, a squash blossom, a bean flower.

My new favorite garden flower comes off an old Italian chicory plant left to go riot. I’m not sure which chicory it is, but it’s one of those  long-leaved, bitter greens beloved in Italy and sold by Franchi seeds. It’s easy to grow, pest proof, and we like the strong, bitter flavor. The flowers, though, are amazing. The greens send up narrow stalks 8′ tall or more (approx. 2.5 meters) and the stalks are covered from top to bottom with beautiful periwinkle blue flowers which are about 2″ (5cm) across– classic chicory flowers.

The bees adore these flowers. What’s more, this plant has been blossoming continuously for months now–at least 3 months. Unfortunately I didn’t mark down when it started, but it’s been at least 3 months by now, maybe 4. It’s given me lots of joy.

In our yard the flower stalks have interwoven with grape and bean vines, adding a lot of color to a corner of our patio. The situation is impossible to to photograph, because the flowers are both high and low and tangled up with everything, but trust me, in person it’s charming in its wild way.

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005 Amy and Vince of Tenth Acre Farm

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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.

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.

Hügelkultur in dry climates?

Hügelkultur, popularized by permaculturalist Sepp Holzer, is the practice of burying logs in a mound to create a raised bed that composts in place. As the logs break down they add organic matter and create, in theory, a rich soil full of air gaps, fungal and microbial life.

But the thought of mounding anything in our dry climate doesn’t make sense to me. As I said in my post about the pros and cons of raised beds, if I didn’t have contaminated soil I’d grow my veggies in the ground. A Root Simple reader from Cyprus, which has a very similar climate as ours, said that Hügelkultur experiments there had not worked out. I’ve also heard that Geoff Lawton is skeptical of the practice in dry climates. And I’ve found no peer reviewed research on the practice.

But I also want to keep an open mind. I get asked about this practice a lot and have to confess ignorance. If you know of a Hügelkultur experiment in a dry climate please leave a link. Perhaps there’s a dry climate variation?  Has anyone seen any research? Have you tried it yourself?

Village Homes: A Model for Sustainable Suburbs

I’ve recently discovered a truly inspiring housing development in Davis, California. This is not new news–it was built in the 1980’s, but it’s new to me and worth sharing.

Village Homes is the brainchild of architect/developer Michael Corbett. It encompasses 70 acres and 200-some homes. It has all the space and privacy that brings people to the suburbs, but it’s designed with considerable intelligence. For instance, the homes are all designed according to passive solar principles, so their heating and cooling bills are considerably reduced. Some have even have green roofs. But more interesting is the landscaping, the massive network of bike/walking paths and the creative use of public space.

The entire development is essentially a big food forest. All of the rainfall is captured and instead of being directed to the sewer system, it runs to swales between the houses, to nourish fruit trees. The resulting space is a lush park full of edibles, from exotic jujubee trees to grapes to almonds. Residents can stroll around in the abundant shade and pick fruit at will. Only the almond crop is off limits–the almond crop is harvested every year and sold to support the the gardening services for the entire development. There are also community garden space available for those who wish to raise more food crops than their own yard space allows.  The lush growth coupled with the reduced asphalt surfaces makes the whole development 10 degrees Farhenhiet cooler in the summer than the surrounding suburbs.

I could go on and on, but perhaps the best way to get a feel for it is to watch the 10 minute video above. It’s hosted by Permaculture guru Bill Mollison, who’s a big fan of the development.  It’s well worth the time to watch it all the way through.

Also, here’s a short paper on the development, which gives all the pertinent facts, friendly for quick skimming: Village Homes: A model solar community proves its worth.

And finally, here is a video someone took during a site tour given by Michael Corbett, the developer. It doesn’t have as many visuals as Mollison’s video, but has some good insider tidbits in it, as well as discussion of some of the other features of the development, like office rental space and day care.