Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book Review: Small-Scale Grain Raising

Gene Logsdon is one of the most prolific alternative agriculture writers today.  This book is a second edition of the original first published in 1977.  The content is probably more relevant today considering the larger number of people desiring, and actually attempting, to raise their own food and the increased ease of obtaining high quality grain seeds through the internet.

This book covers most aspects of raising and using many grains: barley, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats, rice, rye, spelt, sorghum, triticale, wheat, as well as non-grains as soybeans and field beans.

I think this book blurs the line between real home-scale grain raising and farming.  It is inspiring to read.  I am strongly considering (in the future) a patch of barley for bread and beer.  Wheat, as well as some of the older uncommon grains, may be a hearty food source that requires less work than I originally imagined.

Logsdon does rely on tilling more that I feel comfortable due to my Permaculture indoctrination, but I think there are two options for this: first, small patches of tilled land that are frequently rotated and managed intensively could still easily be incorporated into a larger Permaculture system; and second, I wonder what no-till options are available, and how successful they would be, for grain growing.  This also brings to mind the research being done on perennial wheat, which Logsdon does mention in his book as well.  While still in the research phase, it is an amazing concept that would mesh beautifully in Permaculture design.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book.  Logsdon is, as always, an entertaining, motivational, and educational writer.  If you have the chance and the topic interests you, I would highly recommend this book.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Permaculture Principles: Principle Eight - Integrate Rather than Segregate

Holmgren's Twelve Principles of Permaculture

Principle Eight: Integrate Rather than Segregate
Holmgren's Proverb for this Principle:  Many hands make light work.

It is amazing to me that this principle has not been adopted more in modern agriculture.  I understand why.  It has to do with dogma and profit and simplicity.  However, it has been proven time and again that an acre of land (for instance) will produce more total or combined yield if planted in polyculture (multiple species) than if planted in monoculture (single species).  Yet farmers the world over have adopted the idea that they need to produce one item at a time and maximize that single harvest, whether it be corn, wheat, or soybeans.

This principle's best example is the Edible Forest Garden which I have gone into greater detail on previous posts.  Please take some time to review this post to truly understand the benefits of integration from an agricultural perspective.  The benefits that we know of are truly colossal: reduced work, reduced pesticides, reduced herbicides, greater food variety, greater nutrition, greater biodiversity, reduced watering, greater beauty, and the list goes on.  These are just some of the benefits we are aware of; there are likely more that we are yet to discover.

I believe there are two (or three depending on how you look at it) concepts of this principle that were expressed independently in previous iterations of the "principles of permaculture" as the science of Permaculture was being developed.  Each component, while not absolutely required, provides an idealized goal in the design process.  It allows us to critically think about each element we are adding.  If we have a choice between two elements (e.g. canopy trees), then the one that rates higher or contributes more to each of these components should likely be the element chosen.  Here they are:

Relative Location - This components seems like common sense to me.  Place an element where it will be most beneficial to other elements and vice versa.  Very obvious examples are solar panels on the roof or rain barrels at downspouts.  Other less obvious examples would be placing the pond at a higher elevation than your home so we have enough water pressure or placing tall, canopy trees on the north side of the food forest to prevent shading the other plants (or on the south side if you are in the southern hemisphere).

Stacking Functions - This concept is best explained by its component parts below.

Each Element Performs Many Functions - The classic example to describe this component is the chicken.  Sorry if you have read this before (or many, many times before as I have), but it is used so often because it is such a great example.  Here goes:  The chicken can function to provide meat, eggs, feathers, stock, bones, manure, tilling, pest control, heat (e.g. attaching a greenhouse to the hen house), and probably many more functions.  This is just quickly off the top of my head.  The goal of this concept is to make sure we are utilizing all parts or functions of an element, and that we choose elements that have multiple functions.  Again, it is not mandatory, but it provides much greater integration into the Permaculture System we are designing.

Each Important Function is Supported by Many Elements - This is really looking at things from the other perspective.  If we want to water our gardens then relying only on city water is less redundant than collecting rain water, having ponds, swales, dew ponds, gabions, and practicing hugelkultur.  Obviously, when there are many elements that are all working toward the same goal, if only half achieve that goal at any time, then that function is sustained.  A four-legged stool is much safer to sit on than a one-legged stool.

"Many hands make light work" reminds us that our Permaculture Design should incorporate as much diversity to create truly sustainable systems.

By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things, and they work together to support each other.
- David Holmgren

Monday, August 29, 2011

Beneficial Insects: Ichneumon Wasps

This Ichneumon Wasp is about to lay an egg inside this butterfly pupae.

Ichneumon Wasps
Latin Name: Family Ichneumonidea (over 60,000 species worldwide and over 3,000 species in North America)

Another caterpillar about to be injected with an egg.

Why are they beneficial?
Just picture the Aliens movie genre when I describe these wasps.  Ichneumon Wasps typically don't have the ability to sting in self defense.  The females of the species have long ovipositors (egg laying tubes) in place of a stinger.  Most species inject their eggs into a host's body, and some will include a bit of venom with the injection.  The egg hatches and the larva will eat the host from the inside out as it grows, typically saving the vital organs for last to keep the host alive as long as possible.  The host is usually a larva or pupa (e.g. caterpillars, grubs, beetle larvae, scale, plant bugs, leafhoppers, etc)... species which can often cause great damage in our gardens.

Ichneumon Wasp about to inject a case or bag moth caterpillar in Australia.
This caterpillar constructs a home on its back with material from its environment.  Not safe enough!

What is their lifecycle?
Male Ichneumon Wasps will search for a female with which to mate.  He has no stinger.  After mating, the female will search for a place to lay her fertilized eggs.  Some will lay their eggs in the ground, but most look for a host larvae or pupa.  The female will land on the host and pierce the host with its sharp ovipositor.  At least one egg will be deposited into the host, and then the female will fly away.  It seems that most Ichneumon Wasp species target only one or a few host species.  Each one is different.  Some Ichneumon Wasps only target wood-boring larvae (of wasps or beetles).  These females actually have metal (manganese or zinc) in their ovipositor!

The egg will hatch, and the larvae will feed on the host.  The larval stage can range anywhere from ten days to a few weeks.  Most Ichneumon larvae will feed on the non-vital tissues first and then feed on the vital organs last to keep the host alive as long as possible.  Some larvae never kill the host while in the larval stage.  Eventually, the larvae will pupate either inside the host (with the host sometimes still alive) or outside the host (and they may use the host's remains as part of the cocoon).

The adult Ichneumon Wasp will emerge from the cocoon and will typically begin to look for a mate right away.  Some species have only one generation per year, while others may have two or more generations per year.

Another species of Ichneumon Wasp

What do they look like?
They look like wasps!  Really, they look like skinny wasps with unusual color patterns and markings.  They are usually black or dark colored with lighter colored legs.  Size can range from an eighth of an inch (about 3 mm) to over five inches (12 cm) including the ovipositor.  Females will have long thread-like ovipositors that look like long stingers, but they don't sting - so don't be afraid.  Males lack the ovipositor.  They have unusually long antennae; some species use these antennae to tap along wood to detect hollow spots that house burrowing larvae.

So many species!

What do they need?
Adults typically feed on nectar of flowers, shrubs, and trees.  The smaller the flower, the easier it is for these wasps to feed.  It has been said that ichneumon wasps prefer members of the carrot family.

Examples of plants that provide nectar and pollen to beneficial insects: basket of gold, buckwheat, butterfly weed,carpet bugleweed, chamomile, chervil, chives, clover, cornflower, cosmos, coreopsis, cinquefoil, coriander, dandelion, dill, fennel, four-wing saltbush, golden marguerite, marigold, mustard, parsley, queen anne's lace, scented geraniums, spike speedwell, sunflowers, tansy, vetch, wild carrot, and yarrow.

Adult Ichneumon Wasp drinking the nectar of a carrot flower.

These wasps are not available to buy.  If we create a good habitat for them, they will arrive on their own.

A beautiful female ichneumon wasp, Megarhyssa marcrurus, looking for larvae of the horntail wasp - a wood burrowing larvae.

She found her host and begins drilling with her metal-tipped ovipositor.

Check out these other pages on beneficial insects in your garden!
Praying Mantis
Trichogramma Wasps

Friday, August 26, 2011

Herbal Medicines: Some Things to Consider

As there is growing interest in herbal medicines, treatments, and therapies, I thought I would lend my thoughts to the subject.  I will likely anger people on both sides of the argument.  It has been my experience that when there are two strongly opposed sides, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Yes, I think there is a place for herbal medicine in modern healthcare.
Yes, I am an M.D.
Yes, I think some herbal treatments work.
Yes, I instruct some of my patients to use certain herbal medicines.
No, I do not think all herbal medicines work.
No, I am not corrupted or blinded or brainwashed by the evil pharmaceutical companies.

I am not going to get into specific herbs right now.  I’ll save those for later posts  

Now let me get started… 

Statement: Modern physicians don’t like herbal medicine.
My Answer: That is, by and large, true.  
But why is that?  To be honest, there is some indoctrination to it.  As we go through our medical education, there are the random comments by some pious educators talking negatively or flat out mocking herbal medicine or those who use it.  It is unfortunate, but true.  Also, we see many people get really sick or who die because they were relying on herbal medicines for treatment of their medical conditions.  The vast majority of the time, these people are either very anti-establishment types (and wear a tinfoil hat to keep the government from reading their minds) or, sorry to say, are not the sharpest tool in the shed.   Finally, there is very little good research about herbal medicines (see my next section).  These reasons generally cause a lot of physicians to at the minimum remain very skeptical about herbal medicine.

Statement: Doctors say there is not any research to support herbal medicine use.  This is because the evil pharmaceutical companies are suppressing the truth. 
My Answer: The truth is there is very little good research on herbal medicine.  
Here’s why: Drug companies want to make money.  I know that the researchers who work for these companies truly want to help humanity.  I know many of them personally.  They are good people using their scientific brains to try and beat diseases the best they can.  The corporate side of things is different.  The management of drug companies want to turn a very healthy profit.  In part, this is a good thing.  The company makes drug A which treats disease 1 really well.  They make a profit.  They do research in disease 2.  They develop drug B which really works.  They make a profit.  They do research…. and on and on.  Overall, this model has saved millions of lives across the globe.  In the U.S., whole herbs are considered food products.  They cannot be patented.  Which means a drug company cannot charge $150 a month for using them.  Which means they have little interest in using the whole herb.  Since the vast majority of research into medicines is done, or at least funded, by drug companies, and they have no interest in a specific herb since there is no return of investment, then little research is done on it.

That is not to say that NO research is being done.  There are grants given out every year to investigate herbal treatments.  The National Institute of Health now has a Complimentary/Alternative Medicine branch to do research in herbal medicine.  It has been very interesting to see their results.  I must add, that the amount of high quality research into herbal medicines is growing quickly each year. 

Statement: There is a lot of research out there.  You don’t like it, because it shows herbal medicine works, and you are against herbal medicine. 
My Answer: There is a lot of research out there.  A lot of it is poorly done.

What makes research good or bad?

First, good research has a lot of people in the study.  What sounds more reliable: a study with 10 people or a study with 1000 people?

Second, good research uses randomization.  This means you separate the people in your study into different groups at random.  There are a lot of reasons why this is, and if you really want to know, I can give you a more detailed answer.  

Third, good research uses a placebo and/or a third medicine.  What sounds more reliable: a study that give 30 people herb X or a study that compares 10 people with herb X, 10 people with modern medicine Y, and 10 people with placebo Z.  (For those that do not know, a placebo is basically a fake medicine, like a "sugar pill")

Fourth, good research uses blinding.  This means the people in the study, and in really good studies the people giving the medicine, do not know if they are in the herbal medicine group, the modern medicine group, or the placebo group.  Single blinding is where the subjects do not know.  Double blinding is where the subject and researchers do not know (until after the study is done).

There is a lot more to it than that, but this is a good basis from which to start.  In reality, most herbal medicine studies rarely fit to any of the above standards.

But you say, “I have this book that says the research shows…”  In almost all cases, herbal medicine books offer very little proof that an herb works.  The book may say, “It has been used for hundreds of years for…”, or “according to this herbal medicine specialist…” or “patient X used it for this disease…”.  Where is the proof?  Who cares if it has been used for hundreds of years by the most well respected Chinese herbalists?  At one time people thought tomatoes were poisonous.  We believed the earth was flat!  Oftentimes, tradition has little in common with truth.  That is not to say these herbs do not work, it is just that tradition alone is not proof.

But you say, “This herb has been shown to kill cancer.”  LOTS of chemicals (including herbals) have been shown to kill cancer cells – in a petri dish!  There is a HUGE jump to say it will work in a human body the same way it worked in a petri dish.  If that is all the “research” you have, I would be very careful about using it, and I would never recommend it to others. 

Statement: “My mother had cancer and took this herb and now she is cancer free!” 
My Answer: I say that is wonderful!  But how do you know it was the herb that did it?  
In medicine, we are still learning how the immune system works and how the body repairs itself.  Would your mother have beat the cancer on her own anyway?  Was it that she stopped eating fast food and exercising more?  Was it the chemo?  Was it people praying for her?  

Whenever we have a story about herb X doing something for one person.  We call it anecdotal.  Practicing anecdotal medicine is very dangerous.  People die when we treat a disease a way that has not been studied well.  When we hear a bunch of stories about herb X healing people, that gets our attention.  If it is believable and preliminary studies (good research) shows there may be something to it, drug companies often jump into the game and try to isolate the chemical in the herb that is working.  That is how we got salicylic acid from willow bark (we now know it as aspirin). 

Statement: Herbs are safe because they are natural. 
My Answer: This is one of the most dangerous myths about herbal medicine.
Water is natural.  
Water in the right place, in the right amount, without contaminants, is safe.
Water in the lungs kills people every year – drowning.
Drinking too much water kills people every year – water toxicity.
Drinking too little water kills people every year – dehydration.
Drinking water with contaminants kills people every year – poisoning.
And this is just water, not a plant with so many more complicated chemicals.

Let’s look at this another way.

If a person is taking an herb, they expect it to do something to their body.  If it does something to their body, then it is what we call bioactive.  ANYTHING that is bioactive as a potential to interfere with a body's normal function.  That is the whole point!  We want the herb (or other medicine) to DO something to our bodies.  We hope that it is a good thing, something that will help us.  Bioactive compounds can have side effects.  They can interact with other medicines.  People can have allergic reactions to them.  People can die from the wrong dose, the wrong application, from a contaminant, from mistaking one herb for another… the list goes on.  

Just because a herbal medicine is from a plant does NOT mean it is safe. 

Statement: This herb will always work for this condition. 
My Answer: If someone tells you this, they are usually lying (either on purpose to sell you something, or because they are misinformed).
Plants are very dynamic life forms.  There is so much involved into why a plant produces certain chemicals or not.  The French have a term for it: terroir.  They used it to describe all the geographical components of the land their grapevines grow to produce great, good, or bad wine.  You can grow one plant with rich soil with certain percentages of minerals, with a certain sun/shade ratio, with a certain humidity level, with a certain amount of rain fall, with a certain temperature range, with a certain insect pest, with a certain sun angle, etc.  You can grow the same plant in a completely different terroir, and the chemicals in the plant will be very different.  One plant may help with headaches, and the other makes them worse.  One plant may boost your immune system, while the other does nothing, or gives you an allergic reaction.  One plant may calm you if you drink it as a tea, the other may give you insomnia.  This is why the drug companies try to isolate the bioactive compounds that give certain results (and then they can patent that chemical and make money of course.)

Certain bioactive compounds in plants are very reliable, and some are very unreliable.  It takes good research, great record keeping, and usually quite a bit of time and experience to know which plants will produce which bioactive compounds under which conditions.

Statement: I’ll go to the store and pick up a bottle of herb X. 
My Answer: Don’t count of Herb X being in a bottle marked Herb X.
What?!  That is right.  Since there is no government organization (NOT THAT WE NEED ANOTHER ONE!!!!!!)  to monitor herbal medicine content (remember, they are sold as food, not medicine), there is no guarantee that what is on the label is actually in the bottle.  A very large, very well done study examined this issue.  The researchers went and bought a bunch of bottles of herbal medicines from different companies and from different stores across the U.S.  The results were that about 70% of the bottles contained some form of the plant.  It may have been the root or leaves or flowers, but most samples did not specify which part.  This is important if you are looking for a root or a flower specifically, and that bottle only contains leaves.  The study also showed that 30% did not even contain the herb that was printed on the bottle!  The bottom line is that there is poor quality control in the herbal medicine business.

Statement:  You sound very negative about herbal medicines, but you say you tell you patients to use them. 
My answer: Be skeptical.
In an ideal world, we would know exactly how and where to grow our herbal medicine.  We would know what dose to use and how to take it.  We would be able to go to the store and buy the herbs we cannot grow ourselves and trust what was on the label.  Right now we can do none of those things with 100% certainty.  

So now what?  

Investigate the evidence for using an herb you are considering.  Try to find the research and read it yourself.  A lot may be technical, but you can get the general idea if it is good research or not.

Get a good book on herbs side effects and interactions (The Physician’s Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines is a great one).

Grow your own herbs if you can so you know what you are actually getting.  My advice is to grow your herbs in different micro-climates on your land and see which ones are better at treating the condition they are traditionally known for.

If you have to buy your herbs, do your research into the company that makes it.  What are their quality controls?  

Let your physician know what herbs you are using, so they can help you best.  If your physician says not to take it, ask them for the reasons.  If they have none (which likely means that physician is just anti-herbs), consider finding a new physician.  If they can give you a reason with evidence to support it, then take their advice.  

Hope this helps. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book Review: Mini Farming, Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre

If you are looking for a book that provides a general overview on the "backyard homestead", then this is a great book with which to start.  Brett Markham is a real part-time homesteader.  He works full-time as an engineer, and he farms in his free time.  This book is written through that lens, which I think a lot of people with a dream to homestead can truly appreciate.

This book does not go into great details on every subject covered.  It provides a general overview of the main areas of small-scale homesteading.  Some of the chapters in the book include: Raised Beds, Compost, Watering and Irrigation, Seed Selecting, Seed Saving, Fruit Trees and Vines, Raising Chickens for Eggs, Raising Chickens for Meat, and Preserving the Harvest.

While not my favorite book on homesteading, it does provide some unique information on composting and really good instructions on how to make a chicken plucker.  Overall, this is a good book for someone who is entertaining the idea of producing more of their own food in their backyard.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Permaculture Plants: Persimmons

Ripe Persimmons ready to be picked!

Common Name: Persimmon, Kaki
Scientific Name: Diospyros kaki (aka Oriental or Japanese Persimmon or Kaki)
                            Diospyros lotus (Date Plum)
                            Diospyros virginiana (aka American Persimmon)
Family: Ebenaceae
There are two main species of persimmons, the Oriental Persimmon (or Kaki) and the American Persimmon.  The persimmon fruit can range from yellowish-orange to dark reddish-orange.  The fruit size can range from the smaller American Persimmons (about 1/2 inch diameter, about the size of a cherry tomato) to the larger Oriental Persimmons (up to 4 inches diamter, about the size of a medium tomato).  The texture of a ripe persimmon can range from jelly-like and almost dripping from the cut fruit to much dryer but still soft, almost like a firm melon or a soft apple.  When not quite ripe, some persimmons have a lot of tannins and can be very bitter or dry, but when ripe, the persimmon is rich and honey-sweet with a spicy apricot flavor.

Persimmons can be categorized as Astringent or Non-Astringent.  Astringent Persimmons have that bitter-dry, chalk-like taste to them before they are ripe.  American Persimmons and astringent Oriental Persimmons are astringent, and they should be allowed to ripen on the tree or picked underripe and allowed to ripen.  When ripe, the skin becomes soft and the skin is almost translucent, and the fruit will easily separate from the calyx.  Non-Astingent Persimmons or Non-Astingent Kakis (since only kakis can be non-astringent) are ripe when the fruit is fully colored.  They will still be firm at this point, but are ready to eat.

The Date Plum is a tree with berries less than an inch in diameter.  It is one of the oldest cultivated plants.  It is from these fruits that taste like a mix between a honey-filled date and a sweet plum, that the name Diospyrus originates (see Trivia below).

The Oriental Persimmon is native to China but spread very quickly through all of Asia.  It has been cultivated for thousands of years and was only brought to Europe and the U.S. in the early 1800's. 
The Date Plum is native to southeast Europe and southwest Asia and has been cherished since before the time of the Greeks.
The American Persimmon is native to the eastern U.S. and has been used for its wood and fruit for thousands of years by Native Americans.
  • The scientific genus name, Diospyrus, means "fruit of the gods"... not a bad description of a perfectly ripe persimmon.
  • Persimmon fruits are technically berries.
  • One Oriental Persimmon variety is commonly sold as "Sharon Fruit", named after a plain in Isreal where the plant was cultivated.
  • There are over 2,000 varieties of Persimmons in the world.
  • Underripe fruits can be ripened on a windows sill, a counter, in a bag with a ripe apple, or in a bag with a small glass of whiskey
Primary Uses:
  • Fresh Eating - only eat ripe fruits!
  • Dried  - some varieties can be left to dry on the tree, others can be dried like an apricot, and others can be peeled and dried with frequent "massages" to improve the texture
  • Frozen and then eaten chilled
  • Baked into breads
  • Carmelized into glazes
  • Main or supplementary ingredient in sauces
  • Fermented in Beers, Wines, Brandies, and Vinegars
Secondary Uses:
  • Specimen tree
  • Wood - small wooden objects are typically made from Persimmon wood (D. virginiana can be coppiced)
  • General insect (including bees) nectar source
  • Winter wildlife food source
  • Unripe fruits are high in tannins and can be used in tanning and dyeing
  • Tree barks is said to have medicinal properties
  • Fruits have been used to make ink
  • D. kaki: 1-2 bushels (35-70 liters), can produce up to 400 lbs of fruit
  • D. virginiana: 1 bushel (35 liters)

Harvesting: As late as possible (September - October), usually after the leaves have dropped
Storage: Underripe fruits can be stored in a cool place for up to 2 months
Hardiness Zone:
     D. kaki: 7-10
     D virginiana: 5-9

AHS Heat Zone:
     D. kaki: 10-7
     D virginiana: 9-4
Chilling Requirement: 50-450 Units or Hours
Plant Type: Tree
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: Thousands of varieties are available.  Use only named varieties for best flavor.

D. kaki may need cross-pollination.  Pollen may come from a separate male tree or from a male flower that randomly blossoms on a primarily female tree.
D. lotus and D. virginiana have male and female trees and both are needed for fruiting
NOTE: Pollination levels can change the character of the fruit.  There are some prized varieties of goma (the Japanese word for these brown fleshed fruit that are eaten when still firm).  Tsurunoko, sold as "Chocolate persimmon" for its dark brown flesh, Maru, sold as "Cinnamon persimmon" for its spicy flavor, and Hyakume, sold as "Brown sugar" are the three best known.

Flowering: Summer (July - August)

Life Span:
Years to Begin Bearing: 2-6 years
Years to Maximum Bearing: 25-50 years
Years of Useful Life:
     D. kaki: 300-600 years!
     D virginiana: 20-300 years!
     D. kaki: 13-40 ft (4-12 m) tall and wide
     D. lotus: 33 ft (10 m) high and 20 ft (6 m) wide
     D. virginiana: 50-75 ft (15-22 m) high and 25-50 ft (8-15 m) wide
Roots: Tap Root (D. virginiana can produce suckers, new shoots from underground roots)
Growth Rate: Slow to Medium
Light: Perfers full sun
Shade: Does not tolerate much shade
     D. kaki: Medium
     D virginiana: Medium to some drought tolerance
pH: 6.0 - 8.5

Special Considerations for Growing:
American Persimmons are one of the few plants that tolerate juglone, a chemical produced by black walnuts that can poison other plants, so American Persimmons can be used as a buffer plant between your black walnuts and your other forest garden plants.

Propagation: Seeds (2-3 months stratification).  Grafting.
Maintenance: Minimal once established.

Underripe fruits have been very rarely associated with a very rare condition, the formation of Persimmon Bezoars.  These are accumulations of undigestible polymers from a persimmon specific tannin.  This only happens with extremely high consumption (one man ate over 2 lbs daily for 40 years!).  These phyto (or plant based) bezoars traditionally were only removed via surgery.  More recently drinking Coca-Cola to break the chemical bonds of the bezoar has been used.  Amazing!

Classic illustration of American Persimmons (above) and Oriental Persimmons (below).
From the Encyclopedia of Food.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Midwest Permaculture Videos

Here is a great video series on Permaculture.  Bill Wilson, founder of Midwest Permaculture, has created a free 90-minute webinar series called "The Case for Permaculture".  This video series provides information on what Permaculture is and why it is growing so fast around the world.

Take a look at it here:  Midwest Permaculture, the Case for Permaculture


Monday, August 22, 2011

Permaculture Principles: Principle Seven - Design from Patterns to Details

Holmgren's Twelve Principles of Permaculture

Principle Seven: Design from Patterns to Details
Holmgren's Proverb for this Principle:  Can't see the forest for the trees.

The icon for this principle, the spider web, provides a great example.  Each spider web is easily recognized by its pattern of multiple radial threads with numerous circular threads.  However, the details of the specific location of each spider web mandates small variations in how the basic pattern is implemented.  The exact same relationship of patterns and details exist when designing a Permaculture System.

The most useful and recommended patterns in all land based Permaculture Systems are those of Permaculture Zones, Permaculture Sectors, and Permaculture Guilds.  I have elaborated on these design patterns in much greater detail; just follow the links to read more.  Zones, Sectors, and Guilds are all patterns which are more conceptual in initial design, yet, like the spiderweb, the implementation or application of these patterns are shaped by the unique details of the relative location at which you are working.

"Can't see the forest for the trees" reminds us that in design we need to start with the big picture first.  What are we trying to achieve?  How will the components interact with each other?  What are the consequences, good and bad?  Should we be doing this in the first place?  By designing Permaculture Systems with the end goal in mind, while staying true to the Ethical Principles of Permaculture, and using the tools of Zones, Sectors, and Guilds, we can create truly sustainable Permaculture Systems.

By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society.  These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
- David Holmgren

Friday, August 19, 2011

Dandelion Wine

Dandelions... Weeds to Wine!

Full disclosure first:  I have not made nor taste dandelion wine... yet.  I usually only share recipes that I have made myself numerous times so that I can give real advice about them.  However, dandelion wine has been on my mind for some time.  I don't want to forget about it or have to search for the recipe when I have  the chance to make it.  So here goes.

There is no "right" way to make Dandelion Wine.  I came across literally hundreds of recipes in my search.    The basic components are as follows:
Dandelions - either petals only or petals with the flower head and no stalk
Water - Needed for volume.
Body building agent - since dandelion wine is a light wine without body (sense of alcohol and a sense of feeling in the mouth), other ingredients are used to add body.  Golden raisins, white grape juice, figs, and dates have all been used.  The lighter the color, the more "true" the dandelion wine will look.
Acid - Citrus is used most often as lemons and oranges, but a bottle of "acid blends" can be used as well
Sugar - Needed for alcohol production. Granulated sugar is most common but other sugars can be used.  Honey can be used to make a Dandelion Mead.  The amount of sugar affects the end alcohol content.  But before you dump a bunch of sugar to make a high alcohol wine, remember that only certain yeasts can continue to make alcohol in a high alcohol environment.  Higher alcohol will usually make the wine drier.
Yeast - Typically white wine yeast is used.  There are so many available.  Each yeast strain will give its own subtle flavor differences, so experiment!
Yeast Nutrient - This is usually used in non-grape wines so that the growing yeast can continue to propagate.

Beautiful color in this finished Dandelion Wine

Here is the recipe that I like the most (i.e. the first one I will try).  It is from amateur wine maker Jack Keller with some minor changes/explanations by me.


  • 1 qt dandelion petals
  • ¾ lb chopped or minced golden raisins
  • 2 lbs finely granulated sugar
  • 3 lemons, juice and zest
  • 3 oranges, juice and zest
  • 1 tsp yeast nutrient
  • 7½ pts water
  • wine yeast


  • Prepare flower petals beforehand. 
  • Put water on to boil and pour over dandelion petals in primary fermenter (glass jug or sterile food grade bucket). 
  • After 2 hours, strain, press and discard petals. 
  • Return water to heat and bring to low boil. 
  • Stir in citrus juice and sugar, stirring well to dissolve. 
  • Add citrus zest and chopped raisins. 
  • Remove from heat and set aside to cool. 
  • When room temperature, stir in yeast nutrient and activated yeast and recover. 
  • Stir 3 times daily for 10-14 days. 
  • Strain into secondary fermenter and fit airlock. 
  • After 3 weeks, rack (transfer the liquid part and leave the sediment) into another sanitized secondary fermenter, top up with sterile water and reattach airlock. 
  • When wine clears, wait 30 days and rack, top up and refit airlock. 
  • Repeat racking procedure every 3 months for 9 months. 
  • Rack into bottles and age 6-12 months or longer.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Saved by my Power Box!

Stanley DPS109 Digital Portable Power Station

Yesterday morning I climbed into my car to go to work.  I turned the key... nothing.  No lights or radio.  Nothing.  I was already running a few minutes late.  I looked up and noticed a very faint glow from the dome light overhead.  Then I noticed the door ajar light was also barely lit indicating that the rear door was open - we've been having trouble with the back door latch for a few weeks.  I muttered under my breath as I began trying to figure out who I could get to drive over and jump my battery.  But then I remembered my Power Station (also sold as a Power Box, Jumper Starter, or Power Dome).

Here is the product detail:
You won’t get stuck on the side of the road again if you have the Stanley Digital Power Station. It features a 350-amp battery jump starter with 700 peak battery amps, a built-in digital tire inflator with automatic set and auto shut off, a 200 watt 120 volt power supply, a 3 LED emergency light, USB, and DC outlet.

There are many similar products on the market.  This was the only one I could find the day before I left the U.S. to live overseas (I packed it in my car at the port).  I am a fan of the Stanley Power Station, but I know there are other versions that have much higher ratings on Amazon and other sites. 

Bottom line, I highly recommend getting one of these portable jump starters.  I have used mine to inflate low car tires, bike tires, balls, and air mattresses.  I have recharged a cell phone with this, and now I have jumped my dead car battery... in less than 3 minutes and made it to work on time!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

President Obama visits Seed Savers Exchange

President Obama in front of the Seed Savers Exchange barn.

Yesterday, President Obama visited one of my favorite places in the U.S., the Seed Savers Exchange Farm.  I wrote about this farm in Decorah, Iowa a few weeks ago in this post.  I was watching the news and saw a report on an interesting exchange between a Tea Party member and the President.  I thought to myself, "That barn looks really familiar... it almost looks like the Seed Savers Exchange barn..."  Then today I received the Seed Savers Exchange email newsletter which reported on the event.

Read more about it President Obama visiting Seed Savers Exchange.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Permaculture Plants: Pawpaw

Pawpaws in Fruit

Common Name(s): Pawpaw, Paw Paw, Paw-paw, Prairie Banana
Scientific Name: Asimina triloba
Family: Annonaceae

White to yellow tropical tasting pulp.

Cold hardy deciduous small tree or large shrub with large tropical looking leaves and tropical tasting fruit.  The fruit can be described as resembling small thin mangoes.  You do not eat the skin or the large brown seeds, but the pulp is white to yellow, creamy, and smooth and tastes like a mix of vanilla pudding or bananas with hits of mango and pineapple - very tropical!

Native to eastern North America with the largest native North American fruit.  Has never been cultivated at the scale of apples or peaches due to the fact that the fruit will not last long after picking and it doesn't  ship well.  In recent years, it has becoming more popular due to it distinctive growth habits, fresh fruit, low maintenance, and new cultivars that allow it to grow in areas outside its native habitat.

  • Some areas of the world also call the papaya a pawpaw, but the papaya is a true tropical fruit tree, and not related.
  • Earliest documented mention of the pawpaw is a 1541 report from conquistador Hernando de Soto's expedition where they found Native Americans cultivating the plant.
  • Chilled pawpaw was a favorite dessert of George Washington.
  • Thomas Jefferson grew pawpaws at Monticello.
  • Pawpaws are the larval host of the zebra swallowtail butterfly, but the caterpillars usually do not inflict much damage to the plant.

Freshly harvested pawpaws

Primary Uses:
  • Fresh Eating
  • Dried
  • Baking in desserts (puddings, pies, cakes) - can be used as a banana equivalent 
  • Pancakes
  • Ice cream
  • Jams and Jellies
  • Juices (straight or mixed with tropical fruit juices)
  • Beer, Wine, and Brandy

Secondary Uses:
  • If allowed to form a thicket, a "pawpaw patch" can provide shelter for birds and small animals.
  • Leaves, twigs, and bark can be used as an insecticide.
  • Can be coppiced for bark to be used as an insecticide.
  • Tough, fibrous inner bark was used to make ropes, mats, and fishing nets.

Yield: 25 lbs per plant; 1-3 bushels (35-105 liters)

August - October (depending on variety and location). 
Ripe fruits have soft skin and will start to turn yellow with dark speckles or blotches.  Ripe fruits will tend to drop, so a soft understory planted below is a good idea.  Almost ripe fruit will ripen in a sunny window.

Best eaten fresh or within a few days of becoming ripe.  Slightly underripe fruit will store in the refrigerator for about a month.  You can also scoop out the pulp, remove the seeds, and freeze for many months if desired.

Pawpaw flower (pollinated by flies) and large leaves

Chill Requirement: 1,000 - 1,800 Units or Hours

Plant Type: Small Tree or Large Shrub
Leaf Type: Deciduous (large 8-12 inch dark green leaves that turn yellow in the fall)
Forest Garden Use: Tree or Understory Tree/Large Shrub
Cultivars/Varieties: Over a dozen to choose from, and more are being developed.  Choose a named variety for best flavor and production.

Needs cross-pollination from another variety for best fruit production.
Pawpaws are pollinated by flies.

Flowering: May - June
Years to Begin Bearing: 4-6 years

Pawpaw in autumn

Size: 12-35 feet (4-10 m) tall and wide
Roots: Single taproot or heart-shaped root pattern (a number of main roots all spreading out and down); will send up shoots at a distance from the trunk from roots.
Growth Rate: Slow to medium

John Audobon's painting of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo eating a zebra swallowtail butterfly in a pawpaw.

Light: Full Sun preferred.
Shade: Tolerates a moderate amount of shade.
Moisture: Medium
pH: 5.1-7.0

Special Considerations for Growing:
Pawpaws are one of the few plants that tolerate juglone, a chemical produced by black walnuts that can poison other plants, so pawpaws can be used as a buffer plant between your black walnuts and your other forest garden plants.

Grafting or seedlings (slow to germinate and need at least 13 weeks stratification)

Almost none once established.  Thickets can form from shoots that sprout from spreading roots, and these may provide too much shade for good fruit production, so consider cutting out the shoots from time to time to prevent this.  Fruit is borne on year-old stems, so older trees may have increased fruit production if occasionally thinned.

All parts of the pawpaw, other than the delicious fruit, are poisonous.  Some people may develop hives after eating pawpaws or handling the fruit.  Use caution when first sampling and working with this plant.
While slow growing, pawpaws can form thickets by putting out shoots from their roots.