Anne Hars’ Top Ramen Keyhole Vegetable Garden

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“I call it my Top Ramen garden,” says gardener, Root Simple neighbor and artist Anne Hars, “I planted things that go well in Top Ramen.” Hars is referring to her keyhole vegetable bed that she created this winter. With the keyhole, Hars has made good use of a very small front yard with a dense planting of Ramen friendly veggies including bok choi, three kinds of kale, sunflowers, carrots, peas, garlic, radishes, spinach, romaine lettuce, cilantro and parsley.

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Anne with husband Bill and Petra the chihuahua.

She was inspired by a video by the British charity Send a Cow that shows the construction of a keyhole bed in Uganda. Keyhole beds are raised, circular vegetable gardens that contain a compost pile in the center. The compost pile provides nutrients and worm habitat. The keyhole form is said by permaulturalists to maximize space and ease of access.

Hars’ keyhole bed replaced two square raised beds that were made out of wood. “Gardens have to be rethought every couple of years and I feel less guilty then I did when I was using wood,” says Hars referring to the straw wattle she used to edge the keyhole. Straw wattle is a (mostly) biodegradable material made out of rice straw and plastic netting. You can find it at irrigation supply stores and on order at Home Depot. It comes in 25 foot lengths.

Soil for the bed came from the ground, from bagged soil that used to be in the wooden raised beds and from compost that Anne makes herself.

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“I’m going to plant things under things,” says Hars. As the winter garden reaches maturity Hars plans on putting warm season crops in under the winter greens. “It will be a lazy summer garden.”

Ute, one Anne and Bill’s two chihuahuas, agrees.

A Review of Masanobu Fukuoka’s Sowing Seeds in the Desert

First published in Japanese in the mid 1990s, Masanobu Fukuoka’s book Sowing Seeds in the Desert: Natural Farming, Global Resotration, and Ultimate Food Security is now in English in a beautiful translation published by Chelsea Green.

Fukuoka’s writing deals with the tricky practical and spiritual issues involved with our place in nature’s synergistic complexities. To intervene or not to intervene is often the question when it comes to what Fukuoka called his “natural farming” method.

Fukuoka councils a humbleness before nature, a cessation of the materialist drive to understand and control. Fukuoka illustrates this approach in a pen and ink drawing reproduced in the book. Of the drawing he says,

I call it “the cave of the intellect.” It shows two men toiling in a pit or a cave swinging their pickaxes to loosen the hard earth. The picks represent the human intellect. The more these workers swing their tools, the deeper the pit gets and the more difficult it is for them to escape. Outside the cave I draw a person who is relaxing in the sunlight. While still working to provide everyday necessities through natural farming, that person is free from the drudgery of trying to understand nature, and is simply enjoying life.

Paradoxically his natural farming method involves, on the one hand, letting vegetables reseed on their own and revert to their wild ancestry, while on the other avoiding the neglect that led to the loss of hundreds of trees at his parent’s farm when he first took it over. And in the second half of the book he suggests a radical interventionist approach to what he calls “deserts” (by which he means areas ruined by human activity). Here he chronicles his trips to wastelands in India and the Central Valley of California. Fukuoka suggests carpet bombing these areas with seed pellets (a how-to for making seed pellets is included in an appendix). And the content of those seed balls? Whatever will re-vegetate the landscape most effectively regardless of whether those plants are native or not in order to achieve what Fukuoka calls a “second Genesis.” As he puts it,

I would mix the seeds of all plants–forest trees, fruit trees, perennials, vegetables, grasses and legumes–as well as ferns, osses, and lichens, and sow them all at once across the desert.

Nativists will cringe at this suggestion but to me it makes a lot of sense. Fukuoka says that these desertified areas lack the seeds needed to recover on their own.

Sowing Seeds in the Desert is a book steeped in a passionate Buddhism. The real desert is in the human heart. It’s our hearts that Fukuoka is trying to heal and by so doing, bring about that second Genesis.

When people try to grow crops using human knowledge, they will never be anything more than farmers. If they can look at things with an empty mind as a child does, then, through the crops and their own labor, they will be able to gaze into the entire universe.

Those unfamiliar with Fukuoka’s philosophy should start by reading The One Straw Revolution. And if you want to get the nitty-gritty how-to on how to apply his natural farming methods you’ll want to pick up a copy of  The Natural Way of Farming. Sowing Seeds in the Desert serves as a deeply moving coda to his life’s work. And it got me to start sowing the seeds in my own front yard desert. Thanks to a winter rain, a mixture of clover and greens is now sprouting beneath the fig tree that graces our front yard.

Thanks to the wonders of Youtube, you can watch an hour long documentary about Fukuoka here.

What To Do With Old Vegetable Seeds

In short, throw them around.

We’ve got a lot of expired seed packages sitting in a shoe box. And I’ve been reading a newly published translation of a book by the late, “natural farmer” Masanobu Fukuoka (review coming soon). Fukuoka inspired me to distribute those old seeds around our micro-orchard to see what comes up.

Fukuoka has some tips in his book The Natural Way of Farming for creating a semi-wild vegetable garden:

  • Include nitrogen fixers (in my case some clover seeds)
  • Use daikon and other radishes to break up hard soil
  • Sow before weeds emerge

Scott Kleinrock has used the same strategy at the Huntington Gardens. Here’s what his semi-wild vegetable garden, growing in the understory of some small fruit trees, looked like in January of this year:

And there you have it–vegetable gardening with a fraction of the work.

Sources for Interesting Perennial Crops

A fruitless search for a fruiting olive tree caused an existential crisis here at the Root Simple compound. With a few exceptions, most nurseries in Los Angeles cater to the mow and blow set. You’re more likely to find parts for your leaf blower and a flat of petunias than anything worth growing. Good luck finding olives.

In the midst of my frustration I stumbled upon a interesting list, put together by the USDA, of retail nurseries and perennial crop resources. You can view that list here. Here’s three sources I found particularly interesting from that list:

Continue reading…

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.

The Ecology Center of San Juan Capistrano

Kelly and I had the privilege of doing a short talk this weekend at the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. If you’re interested in Southern California food forestry, greywater, chickens, you name it, this is the place to visit. They have an amazing garden, classes and a well curated gift store. When people ask us how to design garden and house systems in SoCal, we’re going to send them to the Ecology Center.

Introducing Nancy Klehm With Tips on Growing Jerusalem Artichokes

Photo by Ann Summa

We’re very proud to welcome to the blog our good friend Nancy Klehm. Nancy is a radical ecologist, designer, urban forager, grower and teacher. Most importantly, unlike Kelly and I here in Los Angeles, she lives in a place subject that odd meteorological condition called “winter”, namely Chicago. We asked her to write posts for us for on gardening in a four-season climate and to add her expertise to Root Simple. Nancy’s website, where you can find listings for her upcoming classes and events is http://spontaneousvegetation.net/.

She keeps a garden in her yard, an empty lot next to her house and on her roof in addition to lots of indoor seedlings. She has 5 chickens (one is rooster) and 7 quail (5 bobwhite and 2 coturnix). She also grows and gathers in her neighborhood and maintains a half acre food forest west of the city. In her first post for Root Simple Nancy introduces her climate and offers some tips on growing Jerusalem artichokes:

Welcome to Zone 5
I live in what is known by the USDA as Cold Hardiness Zone 5. Chicago is 5B and my food forest is in 5A. If you don’t know, the map is based on minimum average temperatures and helps as a guideline for first and last frost dates: http://www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/ushzmap.html. In the Midwest, where winter is a serious endeavor, a zone 5 growing season’s frost dates are May 15 and Nov 1, meaning that is the bracket for growing more tender annual plants such as basil, tomatoes, melons, etc. We have had a mild winter and a very early Spring this year – almost a month ahead according to any record. As a true farmer said: ‘This is the warmest April on record.’ And it was still March when he said it.

In the past 10 days, dodging rain and wet soil, I have planted out potatoes, asparagus, peas, collards, chard, kale, radishes, carrots, beets, turnips, salsify, and cress. I have many vegetables, fruits, culinary and medicinal herbs sown and growing under lights indoors that have weeks ahead of them under 14 hours of artificial sun. But thankfully, I have already been eating out of my garden which is a loose collection of the cultivated and the forageable: asparagus, stinging nettle, dandelion, chickweed, dock, wild and French sorrel, parsley, pea shoots, garlic mustard, ground ivy, wild onion, horseradish leaves, wild carrot, hawthorn flower and burdock root. The hops are almost four feet high, the fruit trees are in heavy bloom and my pawpaw birthed 14 blossoms for the first time since I planted its seed seven years ago!

The problem with this early spring is that it is likely to freeze between now and may 15. Everyone I know who grows tree fruit commercially is a bit worried about the fast blooms so early in the season. We could lose our fruit if the weather snaps to 30 degrees.

Jerusalem artichokes – PLANT NOW!
I was given a lunch bag full of dirty Jerusalem artichoke roots a handful of years ago and now I have a stand that is at least 500 square feet. It is in the center of my food forest. The stand acts like a giant sponge to absorb the extra water that floods my growing area now that the natural hydrology has been interrupted by a nearby housing developer. The stand provides shade for toads and in wet times, muddy crayfish tunnel into the mud around its tubers. In August, the flowers are 10 feet tall. Every spring, I dig out 30-50 pounds of chokes from my ever expanding bed to keep them from overwhelming my young quince and apple trees, which they would if I didn’t.

Muddy chokes and a few worms.
Chokes are a delicious wild perennial food. Darn easy to grow, but can be a lot of work to dig and wash and are really tough to store well. They either mold or dry out quickly once out of the ground and, even if I keep them nice and muddy, I haven’t had the luck or skill to store then over two weeks. In other words, use them or process them immediately.

Washed chokes and wild carrots drying.
I almost broke my mother’s Kitchen Aid when I tried to make Jerusalem artichoke flour, an answer to my father’s diabetes and new anti-gluten faddists. I sliced them, dried the slices and then tried to use the Cuisine Art to chop them up. Wrong tool, so I went to the mixer. It beat on and on for 10 minutes. I threw a towel over the top of the entire machine to keep the fine clouds of dust down. I got flour as well as some hard bits which I sifted out. It was tasty, but given the work I had to do, I had to think of another approach. And this is coming from someone pretty intrepid athlete with food processing. Making sunchoke flour takes second place for me just after creating my own dried pectin from wild crab apple skins.

Note from Kelly for folks in dry climes: Jerusalem artichokes grow in LA, too. We blogged about them here, where you can see a picture of one growing (they look like small sunflowers on enormous stalks). Our patch didn’t grow for more than one year because we decided we didn’t want to water them.  I believe in a wetter place they can grow without inputs–indeed, they’re hard to stop once they get going!– but in a dry climate they do need some water.

Growing Greens Under Fruit Trees

In the photo above is Scott Kleinrock showing off a section of the edible garden he designed at the Huntington Gardens. At first glace it looks like a lot of weeds, but it’s a clever idea: growing greens in the understory of fruit trees.

In this picture, which was taken last weekend, you see a field of:

  • mallow
  • daikon radish
  • arugula
  • mustard 
  • vetch
  • calendula
  • cabbage

Except for the vetch, which helps build soil, all are edible and nutritious. It was grown with almost no supplemental water. Labor involved removing unwanted grasses in the first year and spreading seeds. And all of these plants readily reseed themselves.

Depending on your climate, the plants you use for this strategy could vary, but the idea is the same: select hardy, reseeding greens that take little or no care. Weed out the things you don’t want. Use space that would otherwise go to waste. Lastly, sit back and let nature do her thing.

Look To Mother Nature

While this clip is about the economy, I often think about it in relation to our burgeoning urban homesteading movement. Whenever I’m asked why we are engaged in the disparate activities chronicled on this blog, I point to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of one of my favorite books, The Black Swan.  In this clip he talks about how nature isn’t centralized. Nothing in nature is “too big to fail.” Nature depends on built in redundancy. It’s adaptable, flexible, built to withstand shocks–Taleb’s term for this is robustness.

He’s talking about reforming financial systems, but we apply the same ideas when considering our overly centralized food system. All of us who grow a little food, bake, brew, keep small stock and bees–what have you–are part of the solution. By building community ties and practical knowledge we’re creating a robust food production and distribution able to withstand shocks.

This is reason enough to do it, but as you all know, it’s a whole lot of fun, too.

Just another reason why urban homesteading rocks.