The tale of the worm bin celery

parsley flower

This is related to my recent post about our flowering radish. It’s a tale of botanic dumpster diving and another reason why you should let your food plants go to flower when you can.

Last year I threw the crown (which is to say, the bottom) of a celery plant in my worm bin. I probably should have chopped it up for the worms’ sake, but I didn’t. Later, sometime in the fall,  I rediscovered the celery crown. Instead of rotting in the bin, it had sprouted leaves and looked surprisingly vigorous. So I pulled it out and popped it into an empty space in one of our raised beds.

I didn’t have much hope. Celery doesn’t like our climate much, and I consider it one of those plants which is easier to buy than to grow.

To my surprise, the plant did quite well, though it did have a feral quality to it, despite its mild domestic origins. It didn’t grow fat, moist stalks which can be used to scoop up peanut butter. It grew stringy, dark green stalks which tasted powerfully of celery. It made excellent stock, and chopped into fine pieces, it was good in soup, too. Since I don’t eat much raw celery, this suited me fine.

All winter long I used this plant as the basis of my cold-weather cooking–chopped onions, carrots and celery in the bottom of every pot. It was a real treat not to have to buy celery for such a long time, and to have that flavor available whenever I wanted it. I should add that the leaves were just as flavorful as the stalks

As a side note, I’ve heard of a breed of celery made to work precisely this way, called cutting celery, but I’ve never grown it intentionally. The celery in this post looks very much like my homegrown “cutting celery.” Perhaps commercial celery wants to revert to this?

Months later, the hot weather arrived, the celery started to bolt (that is, send up flower stalks). When a plant bolts, it puts all its energy into flowering. At that point, its not much use to us as food. I was sad to lose my bottomless celery supply, but I was excited about the flowers.

Pollinating insects love celery blossoms. Actually, they adore the whole family of plants to which celery belongs, called Apiaceae or Umbelliferae (which I tend to call Umbrella Fae, which is wrong, but right in my head). This family includes carrots, celery, dill, coriander, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, etc. If you can let any of this family bloom in your garden, do.

The parsley flowers grew almost as tall as me, and they were surrounded by clouds of tiny insects every day –shy, tiny little pollinators that I can’t name.

I love to let things go to flower and seed in the garden, because it is a way of giving back to the rest of nature. Flowers for the insects, seeds for birds. And by giving back, you help balance your garden. We’ve had significantly less issues with destructive insects since we learned to let our garden go a little wild.

Sadly, this celery never got to seed, because it collapsed under its own weight one day. Its thick, hollow stalks folded and the head of the plant fell to the patio.  I had hoped to save a little seed and try to grow a plant the next year from scratch. But now I’m thinking I’m going to throw a whole crown of celery in the worm bin this fall, and hope this happens all over again.

collapsed parsley plant

Radish Surprise

radish close

A volunteer radish–I think it is a daikon–sprouted up in a little clear pocket of our yard. We let it go, ignored it. It grew bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Usually a radish is harvested early, so we never see how big they can get.

This one got huge, then burst out into hundreds of tiny purple flowers. Hummingbirds, honey bees and all sorts of flying insects visit it all day, every day. It has become one of the queens of the garden.

The picture below is horrible. The radish plant really is quite pretty,  the equal of any ornamental flowering shrub–but as bad is the picture is, it gives you some scale. See the bales of our straw bale garden behind it?  I think it must be pulling water from there, which accounts for its size and longevity. It’s gone a little past its prime now– a couple of weeks ago the blooms were thicker.

By the way, radish blossoms are tasty food for people, too.

radish flower

All Hail Our Succulent Overlords

succulent

Nature made this. It’s growing in a pot on our front porch. I am in a state of wonder and amazement. It is so perfect in all its parts, so regal and confident, that I just want to kneel down before it and say “I am not worthy to be in your presence, 0 plant god. I am nothing but a flabby, destructive primate.”

I don’t know the name of this succulent– and I know someone is going to ask! Does anybody know the name of this plant? Below is a pic of the rosette from which this rare flower has sprung. It’s none too shabby, either, obviously. But I never expected it had such beautiful secrets hidden inside.

suc top copy

A Backyard Bioshelter

Jonathan Bates of Holyoke, Massachusetts has a nifty greenhouse he calls his “backyard bioshelter.” He uses it to grows veggies year round in a climate that often goes well below 0°F. An aquaponics setup and a worm bin are also integrated into the shelter. And he’s even trying to grow avocados!

You can keep up with what he’s doing on his blog at permaculturegreenhouse.com.

Thanks to the Natural Building Blog for the link.

Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land

book cover for "growing food in a hotter drier land"

We just got our hands on Gary Paul Nabhan’s newest book, Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land: Lessons from Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Uncertainty. It couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I heard about this book on the grapevine a good while back, and requested a review copy from the publisher because we’ve met Gary and like his work. Getting free books once in a while is one of the perks of blogging. This book, though, I would lay down cash for in a heartbeat.

At the time I made the request, I merely though it would be an interesting read. In the wake of the Age of Limits Conference, and my subsequent reading about climate change–and the depression that resulted from that–its fortuitous arrival this week has given me much to think about, as well as a much needed infusion of hope.

I leaned a terrible word at the conference: hopium (Hope + Opium). This is a doomer term for any practice or philosophy that would give us false hope, or perhaps any hope at all. It has a satirical counterpoint: despairoin (Despair + Heroin), which speaks to the seductive nature of despair.

Nabhan’s book is neither hopium or despairoin. It’s sublimely realistic. He’s looking with clear eyes at a future which is going to be hot and dry (except when it’s flooding, of course.).

This hot, dry future is not limited to already hot dry places, like Los Angeles. He points to recent droughts in places which usually receive generous rainfall. Right now it seems as if this tendency toward drought is occurring on a global scale and will worsen in coming years.

Unfortunately, conventional, large scale agriculture is not only adding to the problem, it will also not be able to deal with the changes in the making. It is ill-suited to chaotic weather. In sum, if we don’t start growing food in different ways, we’re not only looking at a dry future, we’re looking at a hungry future.

To solve this puzzle, Nabhan takes a look at at existing desert agriculture, from the Sonoran desert to China to Oman. From the ancient past right up into the present, humans have been cleverly managing their water, soil and plants to gather harvests from some of the most inhospitable places on the planet. We have much to learn from them.

Over and over he points out that we’re not meant to replicate the exact methods of these desert farmers, but learn from them and adapt them to our own particular situation and climate.

To help us do this, he breaks down the methodologies into conceptual chunks, like catching runoff, using efficient water delivery systems, easing heat stress in both plants and animals, tips on orcharding in uncertain climates, choosing stress tolerant and/or quick maturing plant varieties, etc.  All of this information is supported with helpful tables and plant lists.

While some of his information is only going to be useful to people with large-ish parcels of land, I found plenty of inspiration in here for my tiny yard.

Woven between this practical information is separate body of information which he calls parables. A parable is story he tells us about a current dry land farmer, or stories from the past which can be pulled from history or the archeological records. These parables provide a sort of emotional bolster to the otherwise “dry” information, giving us a glimpse of the lived experience and philosophies of people who have thrived in difficult climates.

Some of the key positive characteristics of a dry land farmer are adaptability, resilience and persistence. What worked for us in the past is not always going to work in the future. We must know our land intimately, make good guesses, and be creative about developing  strategies to distribute risk.

Gardening is hard enough, heaven knows. The bad news is that it is going to get harder. The good news is that you can work your way through the challenges. Their are tools, techniques, and plant varieties that can help you weather the changes. Better to start learning these skills now than to wait for the squeeze.

A Vision for the Future

The part of the book which really set me on fire, though, was a talk Nabhan had with a Sufi visionary, Aziz Bousfiha, who lives in the dry outskirts of Fez, Morocco. There, he’s built a dryland paradise, lush with heat adapted fruit trees, like pomegranates, mulberries and jujubes. He also grows olives, agave, citrus and poetic herbs like lavender and coriander.

Bousfiha has built an oasis in a difficult climate and envisions of chain of oases spread around the world: oases for both nature and humanity. These oases are not carefully preserved bits of paradise, but rather are reclaimed from degraded spaces:

For me, the idea is to go somewhere into the desert [to find a place share with others–one severely degraded over time by neglect, depletion of water, a perhaps climate change]. We’ll proclaim that yes, this place has been desertified, but now we’re going to make it into a living oasis, one where we will respect and nurture a diversity of life.

He goes on to speak about the importance of bio-diversity, and how this chain of oasis-like farms could promote this, and serve the larger community. Then he says,

We will generate solidarity between people on and off the farm, who will begin to walk the long road of ancient wisdom together. They will bring back the old grains of the region as symbols of the seeds of wisdom that we must plant. Over the centuries, these ancient sees have adapted to place. It is just not just a natural ecosystem, but a cultural ecosystem as well.

At the end of the conversation, he’s asked how he thinks his vision will fly in the face of climate change. He laughed gently and replied,

I can’t waste time worrying about whether or not this will work. There is a proverb in Arabic–and [probably] similar ones in other languages that may say it all: If it looks like the last day of the world is upon us and the end of life may be coming…and you realize this moment while you are planting trees, well, don’t stop planting.

If this is hopium, give me more.

Los Angeles is a sad and degraded space, and the Root Simple Estate is already an oasis of sorts, but Nabhan’s book has inspired us to max it out, to do as much as we can to capture and recycle water, to improve our soil, to start breeding out tough-as-nails annuals, to develop more effective “guilds” (in Permaculture speak). In regular talk that means we plan manage our landscaping wisely, so the plants support one another.

I’d encourage you to think of your own little patch of the world as an oasis too. How can you help make it more resilient to the shocks of strange weather?  How can you forge links with other oasis keepers?