Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Asparagus

Asparagus is my favorite perennial vegetable

Common Name: Asparagus
Scientific Name: Asparagus officinalis
Family: Asparagaceae (the Asparagus family)

Asparagus comes in three color options.

Asparagus is another one of those vegetables people either love or hate. I absolutely love fresh Asparagus and believe that they are one of the most delicious vegetables created. They can be green, purple, or white. These are the best known perennial vegetable, and can produce shoots every Spring for over 20 years. The “ferns” are quite beautiful and used as ornamentals, and the flowers attract beneficial insects. One of the best tasting vegetables for the Forest Garden.

Asparagus officinalis

Native to Eurasia, Asparagus has been cultivated for over 2,000 years. It was used in ancient Egypt, Syria, Spain, Greece, and Italy. It was cultivated in France in the 1400’s and England and Germany by the 1500’s. It wasn’t until the mid 1800’s that it was cultivated in North America.

A wild asparagus species (A. prostrates) on the rocky ocean cliffs of England
The cultivated or "domesticated" Asparagus (A. officinalis) can still thrive in maritime conditions.

  • There are over 300 species in the Asparagus genus.
  • Most Asparagus species are grown as ornamentals, but there are a number of edible species. These are not well known except by locals.
  • Most Asparagus plants are either male or female.
  • Male plants produce the best shoots.
  • Female plants produce hard red berries that can easily spread new plants all over the place – one reason most growers do not grow female plants.
  • Often grown as a companion plant to tomatoes as the tomato repels the Asparagus Beetle (Crioceris species), and the asparagus may repel nematodes.
  • Asparagus shoots are typically green, but purple varieties have been developed.
  • White Asparagus is not a variety – any shoot can be blanched by covering with mulch, soil, dark buckets, or black plastic tarp tunnels. White Asparagus is less bitter and more tender than green Asparagus.
  • When Asparagus is digested, certain compounds found in the shoot are metabolized and excreted in the urine. These compounds have a strong smell which gives urine a distinctive post-Asparagus-eating odor. The compounds can be found in the urine in as little as 15 minutes after ingesting the vegetable.

Grilled Asparagus... by far my favorite way to eat Asparagus!

Primary Uses:
  • Edible Shoots – raw or cooked. Can be blanched, steamed, poached, sautéed, fried, stir-fried, grilled, used in soups and stews. Can be pickled.

Secondary Uses:
  • General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
  • Maritime plant – can tolerate salty conditions
  • Ornamental plant – the “fern” is highly regarded
  • Roasted seeds have been used as a coffee substitute

Yield: About ½ pound (0.23 kg) per crown or 20-25 spears per crown each year once established.

Spring. Cut or snap the shoots off at soil level. Once established (after year 3), the harvest can last for 3-8 weeks in the Spring. Less harvesting of weaker plants will allow it to grow stronger for next season.

Use right away. Asparagus does not store well. The flavor difference in freshly picked Asparagus and the stuff you buy at the grocery store is vast… makes eating store bought Asparagus rather depressing.

The small Asparagus flowers are popular with beneficial insects...

...especially honeybees!

The Asparagus berries are considered poisonous

USDA Hardiness Zone: 2-9
AHS Heat Zone: 8-1
Chill Requirement: Yes, see Special Considerations for Growing below.

Plant Type: Herbaceous Perennial
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Herbaceous Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: Many species and varieties available.

Pollination: Most Asparagus are Dioecious (male and female flowers are on separate male and female plants). Needs both male and females within relatively close proximity for viable seeds to be developed. Pollinated by bees.

Flowering: Summer

Life Span:
Years to Begin Bearing: 3 years before a significant harvest can be taken. No shoots should be harvested in the first year. We can harvest a few shoots the second year (6-8 spears per plant). By the third year, we can start to harvest in earnest (20-25 spears per plant). Things start to boom during the third year in a typical Asparagus patch. This delay in harvesting allows the plants to become firmly established and healthy.
Years of Useful Life: An Asparagus bed can be healthy and productive for 20+ years, although 10-15 years is more typical

Using Asparagus crowns are a great way to get your patch started.

Size: 3-5 feet (0.9-1.5 meters) tall and 1-3 feet (0.3-0.9 meters) wide
Roots: Rhizomatous – underground runners that send up new plants
Growth Rate: Medium

The standard way to grow Asparagus.
Permaculture Forest Gardens let us break away from this unhealthy monoculture.

Incorporating Asparagus into the Forest Garden is significantly better.

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates moderate shade
Moisture: Medium moisture soils that are well draining
pH: prefers neutral soil (6.5 - 7.5); however, it can grow is a wide range of soils (4.3-8.2)

Special Considerations for Growing:
  • Asparagus can be grown from seed or one year old plants known as crowns. If growing from seed, you will need to remove the fruit bearing female plants to avoid the seeds from spreading, along with new Asparagus plants, everywhere around your property. Growing from seed is cheaper, but adds another year to wait for a significant harvest. Growing from crowns is simpler and faster, but costs more for the plants.
  • Asparagus needs a period of dormancy every year. This dormancy can be induced with cold weather or dry conditions (i.e drought). This rest period is essential for good shoot production.

Propagation: May also be divided in the early Spring. May be planted from seed. Germination takes 3-6 weeks.

Moderate. At the end of each season, the dried brown plant can be cut back and thrown into the compost pile. During the growing season, pests and diseases do like to attack Asparagus. Careful monitoring and intervention are needed to avoid, treat, or intervene with this. As I do not plan to grow Asparagus commercially, some disease and insect loss will be part of my expectation. I will intervene when I come across diseased plants, but by planting more than needed and losing some to disease and pests, the strongest will survive and produce better for me in the long run. Also, if you want White Asparagus, a lot more work is needed in covering the shoots to blanch them.

  • Poisonous – berries are mildly poisonous (large amounts need to be eaten for this to be toxic). Consuming large quantities of the shoots has been reported to cause kidney irritation, but what exactly that means is not clear. Likely, one has to consume more than would be reasonable for a person to consume for this to occur.
  • Can spread easily through seed if a female plant is present.

Here is a link to a great little video from BBC on planting Asparagus crowns. It is done in a conventional raised bed, but the same concepts can be applied to a Forest Garden.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Garam Masala... the Gateway to Indian Cuisine

My spice blend for Garam Masala

I cook a lot of Indian food. When I say a lot, I mean both in frequency and in quantity. It is not unusual for me to make an Indian meal or Indian inspired dish up to once a week. That may not be a lot for an Indian family, but for a white guy from Florida, I'm pretty sure that counts as a lot. This past weekend I cooked up a few dishes for a get-together at my house. We ended up with just under 20 adults dining with us. I have cooked for 40+ on more than one occasion, but that was a few years ago. While 20-40 hungry diners may seem pretty laughable for a working chef, it still feels like a lot to me... especially while I am cooking! But I love it, and I love Indian food. As does my wife, which is why I try to cook it as frequently as I do.

Indian Food? I don't like...
I hear from many people who say that they do not like Indian food. One common complaint is that it is too hot (i.e. spicy). Well, traditional Indian food may have a lot of heat in it, but it can easily be made very mild as well. I do think there is a depth of flavor lost when the heat is removed, but the food is still delicious. If at a restaurant, just tell the waitstaff that you cannot handle any heat at all, and they will can easily accomodate you and your weak tongue.

The other common complaint is, "I don't like curry." My rebuttal to this could be a 30 minute discourse, literally, on curry and what it is and is not. I will be much briefer today. "Curry" is really a Western-civilization corruption of the South Indian and Sri Lankan (Tamil) word, "Kari", which just means "sauce". The sauce is typically served over rice, and the sauce typically has vegetables, meat, or fish in it. Now there are curries from India, but there are also curries from Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia, the Philippines, and even the Caribbean, to name a few. To say you don't like curry is to say you don't like a well-flavored sauce with meats or vegetables.

Another variation of this complaint is, "I don't like curry powder." This is more narrowed down, but still does not rule out Indian food by any means. Curry Powder is not something you would buy in India. Well, to be fair, you probably could nowdays, but not in the nineteeth century when it was invented by British folks who wanted to export the taste of India to Britain. The original Curry Powder spice mixes were significantly more varied then they are today, and each producer had their own recipe. Some of these spice mixes originally contained dried, ground leaves from the curry tree (Murraya koenigii). However, over time, the curry tree leaves were not used anymore. The modern standard ingredients of Curry Powder now sold in supermarkets in the Western world is a dried, ground mixture of Tumeric, Corriander, Cumin, Fenugreek, and Red Pepper. Mild and hot Curry Powder just have respectively less or more Red Pepper. Most people who do not like Curry Powder either do not like Tumeric or do not like Fenugreek, and these spices are not used in a whole lot of Indian dishes. I have met at least one person (Shane, if you actually read this far into this article, sorry to point you out!) who doesn't like either Corriander or Cumin (I am not sure which one yet); however, he still eats the food anyway. So, if you have someone who doesn't like Curry Powder, try to figure out which spice it is they do not like, and avoid that one. This is easily done considering the varitey of recipes out there.

Bottom line: If you do not like Indian food, then I venture to say that you have not had enough experience with it. There is so much variety that you cannot really make that large of a generalization.

Garam Masala
This past weekend, I made a standard Chicken Tikka Masala, a Beef Korma, a Chicken Biryani (from a great recipe courtesy of the mother of my good friend, Christo, native to southern India), and Aloo Gobi. Fortunately, as usual and rather on purpose, I made way too much, and everything but the biryani freezes very well. This is perfect after a busy day when I just don't have the energy to cook. Steam some rice and heat up a some frozen Korma... delicious!

One of the common ingredients in these dishes was Garam Masala. I have been meaning to share my Garam Masala recipe for years as it is so simple to make. It is nothing terribly unique, but it is what I use, and people enjoy eating my Indian food.

So what is Garam Masala? Why would you want to know anything about it? And why do I call it the "Gateway to Indian Cuisine"?

Garam Masala is a blend of ground spices used in traditional Indian cuisine. There are as many variations of Garam Masala as there are people who make it, and there are hundreds of thousands of people who make Garam Masala at home every week. It is similar to saying "barbecue sauce" or "salad dressing" in the United States. There are so many regional variations and personal preferences that the variety is almost endless. However, there are some basic common themes to this spice mix that makes approaching it much more manageable. Here is my recipe as a start:

Garam Masala
  • 1 Cinnamon Stick (about 2-3 inches)
  • 2 Dried Bay Leaves (Indian Bay Leaf, Cinnamonmum tejpata, if possible, quite different from the more common Bay Leaf from the Bay Laurel tree, Laurus nobilis)
  • 12 Cardamom Pods (remove and use the seeds from the pods; compost the pod casing)
  • 1 teaspoon Black Peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon Cloves
  • 2 teaspoons Coriander Seeds
  • 2 teaspoons Cumin Seeds
Gently dry roast the individual spices - place each spice (i.e. 2 teaspoons Cumin Seeds) in a hot pan with nothing else and cook over high heat until the spice becomes hot and aromatic. Constantly stir or shake the pan to avoid any burning, which can happen quickly depending on the spice. Set aside to cool. Once cool, grind the spices in a spice grinder (a coffee grinder works great for this, but keep it for spices only) or use a mortar and pestle (takes a while until you get good at it - trust me, but it is still worth it). You do not need to dry roast the spices, but it brings out more flavor and aroma. Once ground, store in a small container that is airtight. Will store for months, but slowly loses flavor intensity over time.

Other ingredients that may be used in Garam Masala
  • Peppercorns (white, green, or black like mine)
  • Red Pepper
  • Garlic (dried)
  • Ginger (dried)
  • Mustard Seed
  • Tumeric
  • Fennel
  • Sesame Seeds
  • Anise

Garam Masala is used in some dishes as the main or base spice layer and in other dishes as a minor flavor enhancer where other spices are more predominant, but it is very commonly used in many recipes. Once a person tries to make Garam Masala, they will realize how easy it is to make. The rest of almost every Indian recipe will be simple after that. After a person gets past the intimidation of making their own Indian spice mix, a whole new culinary world will be opened. If you have never tried to make an Indian dish, I hope this article will give you the courage to try.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Picking, and Eating, Tomatoes with my Daughter

My daughter on the rocky shore near our house.
She wants to be outside every chance she gets.

On almost a daily basis, I try to do at least a quick walk through of my garden with my daughter. She is only 15 months old, so the walk through usually consists of my carrying her. I tell her which plants are growing well. I will pick some mint or crush some thyme and let her smell the fragrant leaves. She only has a few words, so most of the conversation is one sided. She does manage a high-pitched, "oooh, oooh, oooh" when she spots a plant at which we normaly stop to examine further. However, since her first taste of a vine ripened cherry tomato a few days ago, she can barely contain her excitement when she realizes we are going anywhere near that plant.
We had a lot of roadblocks to a decent tomato harvest this year. The biggest problem was that I moved in the middle of the summer and could not get my seeds in the ground until late August. I only planted a few plants, and a short while after fruit set, Hurricane Nadine came through... twice! The plants were almost entirely shredded by the winds. There was one side of one plant that made it through relatively unscathed. The half dozen small green cherry tomatoes were protected from the wind and are ripening on the vine.
These are the tomatoes that my daughter loves. I’ll pick one and take a bite. Then, I’ll give my daughter a bite, but she grabs my hand and tries to eat the rest at once. Well, to be honest, I love them, too. They are tomatoes that taste like tomatoes are supposed to taste. These are tomatoes that remind me that tomatoes are in fact, technically, a fruit. They are sweet. They burst with juice and flavor.
We've picked and eaten three of them so far, and now there are only three left. Within a few days, they will be gone. I’ll wait until these fruit are perfectly ripe, and my daughter and I will together savor the last of tastes of summer. I would venture to say that these few tomatoes may be the best tasting tomatoes I have ever tasted… or maybe it is just because of the girl who is eating them with me.

I don't care either way.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Permaculture Cities?

I read the following article on the Permaculture Magazine website. To be honest, I am not sure how I feel about it. There is something in me that is so adverse to cities, that I don't know if I am giving this article's concepts a fair shake. I think it brings up some great points and some interesting ideas. I think that the idea of a Permaculture-minded and designed city sounds great, I think it is impractical for decades. I wish that were not the case, but unfortunately, these concepts are too obscure or too intangible to be applied... yet. I do hope and think there will be a time when humans will see that this really is the only way to live in a city, but I do feel that this is quite a long way off in the future. Sooner or later, this is an interesting article nonetheless.

Can We Make Our Cities Sustainable?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Horseradish

Horseradish - a root that yields strong opinions... I love it!

Common Name: Horseradish
Scientific Name: Amoracia rusticana
Family: Brassicaceae (the Mustard and Broccoli family)

A well tended Horseradish patch

Horseradish is a fairly well known condiment with its spicy, sinus-clearing, pungent flavor. This plant, with its famous roots, also has edible leaves, confuses garden pests with its scent, and can be grown in almost any location. A perfect plant for the Edible Food Forest.

"Horseradish, plate 415 from 'A Curious Herbal'" oil on Canvas

Likely originating from southeastern Europe and western Asia, horseradish was popular with the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans. It was popular during medieval times in Europe and Britain as a food and medicine. European colonists brought horseradish to North America. Today it is used all over the world.


  • Whole Horseradish roots have almost no aroma, but once the root’s cells are ruptured (from cutting or grating), the enzymes released will convert the naturally produced root compound sinigrin into the highly aromatic allyl isothiocyanate (a.k.a. mustard oil).
  • The English name “Horseradish” likely came about through ignorance. The German name for this plant is meerrettich (meer = sea; rettich = radish). At some point this was mistakenly called mahrrettich (mahr = mare (female horse); rettich = radish). It is not a far leap for someone to mistakenly translate the mare radish to horse radish.

Processing Horseradish requires a well-ventilated location!

Primary Uses:

  • Roots – typically grated raw and mixed with vinegar; may be sliced and cooked like other tubers or carrots/parsnips; can be dried, then ground to a powder, but it is not as strongly flavored as fresh.
  • Leaves – “Horseradish Greens” are edible, and reportedly have a horseradish flavor. I’ve never tried them, but I think they could be used raw in small amounts in a mixed green salad or used cooked as a spinach replacement. Also used in pickling cucumbers to keep the cucumbers crunchy (as are grape leaves).

Secondary Uses:

Yield: Variable, but roots can grow to over 20 inches (50 cm) long and 2 inches (5 cm) thick.


  • Leaves – smaller, new growth ideal for salads; older growth best cooked.
  • Roots – As desired. The plant grows the most during late Summer and early Autumn, so waiting until just before the ground freezes (depending on your location) will give you the maximum yield. Alternatively, you can harvest in the Spring. Dig a hole or trench 12-24 inches (30-60 cm) deep along the plant, then from the opposite side dig the roots back to the hole. Grab the base of the greens and pull the roots out laterally toward the hole. Use the largest taproots for processing, and use the smaller roots for Spring planting stock if harvested in Autumn or immediately if harvested in Spring. NOTE – Horseradish roots older than 2 years can get stringy and woody. In a Forest Garden, we can harvest in the Spring and replant smaller roots immediately, or we can leave a patch of horseradish growing and harvest from the outer ring or just toss the woody roots in the compost bin or in the forest to compost in place.

Prepared Horseradish, grated with vinegar and salt


  • Leaves – use as any other green
  • Roots – peel the brown “skin” off the root; roughly chop; add to a food processor or blender with a little bit of water or you can use a simple vegetable grater or food grinder (whatever way you choose, do so where you have a breeze to blow the fumes away!); add a tablespoon of white vinegar (white wine or distilled vinegar) and a pinch of salt for every 10 inches (25 cm) of root (or 2-3 tablespoons vinegar and ¼ - ½ teaspoon salt per each 1 cup grated horseradish). Vinegar stops the enzymes from converting the sinigrin to the hot mustard oil, so add vinegar immediately after grating for mild and wait for about 3 minutes for hot horseradish.


  • Leaves – use immediately
  • Roots – Use immediately for best flavor. Can be stored in dry sand for a few months (a cooler location will keep for longer – ideally under 40 F (4 C) but above freezing); this dry sand storage is a great place to put Spring planting stock. If wrapped in plastic and placed in the coldest part of the refrigerator, it may stay good for a few months. Light will turn the roots green. Processed, refrigerated horseradish will last about a month.

Braised Horseradish Greens with Bacon

USDA Hardiness Zone: 2-10 (although some sources are more conservative at 5-8)
AHS Heat Zone: 12-1
Chill Requirement: Not likely, but not good information available

Plant Type: Large Herbaceous Plant
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Underground Layer, Herbaceous Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: There are only a few named cultivars.

Pollination: Self-fertile
Flowering: Late Spring to early Summer (May-June)

Life Span: No good information available as we typically harvest roots of plants less than 2 years old.

When Horseradish blooms, it attracts beneficial insects

Size: 3 feet (0.9 meters) tall and as wide as you allow it to grow
Roots: Large taproots
Growth Rate: Fast

Horseradish can be grown in a wide variety of soils and locations

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates moderate shade
Moisture: Dry to moist soils, but prefers soil a bit more damp
pH: 5.1-8.5 (tolerates a wide range of soil conditions)

Special Considerations for Growing:
Reported to inhibit brown rot if planted under apple trees.

Typically from root cuttings or divisions in Spring; ideally at least 8 inches (20 cm) in length. Any root will likely grow to a new plant. Seed is not typically produced in plants grown in modern cultivation, but if a patch is allowed to mature, then seed will likely form. Seed is best sown in place.


  • Minimal.
  • Root Rot can develop – just replant strong roots and compost the rest.
  • Some insects can cause extensive leaf damage in traditional gardens; this doesn’t affect the roots much and should be less of a problem in a Forest Garden.
  • A thorough digging and dividing of the roots every 3-4 years will keep a patch healthy, growing strong, and productive.


  • Poisonous – Reportedly, if one consumes a large amount of fresh roots the strong, volatile oils can be poisonous. This is not well researched, nor do I think people typically consume large amounts at any one time!
  • Spreading Habit – some sources state this plant can become invasive by spreading too fast, and other sources state that this rarely occurs.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

What I am Brewing: Holiday Brew

My cooling wort just waiting for some yeast

Name: Holiday Brew #1

My goal with this beer was to make a lightly spiced, dark ale for the holidays. As we are in the second half of October already, this beer should be ready just in time for Thanksgiving. I'm hoping there will still be some left by Christmas!

Cinnamon stick, fresh ginger (needs chopping), whole nutmeg (needs grinding), and specialty grains (needs crushing)

Amarillo Hops (left), Vanguard Hops (right), and spices ready to go

  • 3 lbs - Muntons Dried Plain Dark Malt
  • 3 lbs - Muntons Dried Plain Aber Malt
  • 2 lbs - Muntons Dried Plain Light Malt
  • 1/2 lb - Grains: Crystal 50/60
  • 1/2 lb - Grains: Caramel 120
  • 1 Cinnamon Stick - whole
  • 1 Teaspoon Nutmeg - freshly ground
  • 1 Teaspoon Ginger - freshly chopped
  • 3 Cloves - whole
  • 1.0 oz - Hops: Vanguard (AA 4.8%), boiling hops
  • 1.0 oz - Hops: Amarillo (AA 7.1%), finishing hops
  • Yeast - Safale S-04

  • Simmer crushed grains in 3 gallons of water at 155 degrees F for 30 minutes.
  • Rinse grains with 1 gallon water - drained right into the brew kettle
  • Add more water to bring total to 5 gallons
  • Bring to boil.
  • Add malt extracts and return to boil
  • Add boiling hops for 60 minutes
  • Add spices at T-10 minutes
  • Add finishing hops at T-2 minutes
  • Cool and transfer to clean 5 gallon carboy
  • Add yeast when completely cool (below 75 degrees F)
  • Ferment, rack, prime with 3/4 cup corn sugar, bottle, age, drink!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Permaculture Tip: What to do with Autumn Leaves?

I had a question "from the audience" the other day, and I thought I would share it with my answer.

What would you do with your fall leaves if you were extremely short on time? I just purchased a home and don't have much time to work outdoors before winter sets in. I have a lawn that is covered in both deciduous leaves and conifer needles, but no dedicated garden beds, Permaculture projects, or compost bins going yet. Bottom line: How would you use those leaves to maximize next year's usage?

Short answer:
Save them all!

Long answer:
Loosely pile the leaves and run your lawnmower over them, or put them in a large, plastic garbage can and run your weed eater (a "whipper-snipper" in the UK) like a large kitchen blender. Then pile the leaves in one of two spots. The first location would be an out of the way spot that you may use for future compost bins. The second location would be in the general area where you will want to plant garden beds next year.

A few things to consider...
If your leaves are mostly dried and brown, consider adding some vegetable scraps from your kitchen or fresh lawn trimmings to the leaf pile. Dried leaves are high in carbon, but low in nitrogen. To get them composting well before the cold of winter hits, adding nitrogen-rich material will help. The alternative is also true. If the leaves are all green, then the addition of carbon-rich brown material would speed the composting process. However, there will likely be a mix of both, and these will eventually compost on their own without any help from us. Just like in a forest.

Pine needles take a long time to compost. If you can shred them with the lawnmower, it will help.

Freezing and thawing will help the leaves break up and decompose as well. Make sure there is enough moisture in the pile as you build it (AFTER the leaves are shredded!).

Other Options...
If you have any existing trees or shrubs that you are planning on keeping, you can pile the leaves underneath as natural mulch. Doing this after the leaves are shredded will minimize wind distribution.

If you plan on keeping chickens next spring, consider saving some of the leaves in a dry area. Maybe just piled high and covered with a tarp. These can be used as a deep litter source for a henhouse. A deep litter plan is the only way I would recommend keeping chickens unless they are being pastured. The book that best describes this is The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.

I have also heard of people filling a bunch of garbage bags full of the leaves. The bags were stacked against a poorly insulated wall in a partially-exposed basement wall. This natural insulation dropped the owner’s heating bill. I imagine bags could be placed in attics or crawlspaces as well. They may be viewed as ideal nesting sites for rodents, but they could be removed easily.

A Permaculture Tip is an idea that is derived from observing and interacting with nature.  It is simple.  It is safe.  It is effective.  It helps build a sustainable system of agriculture and life in general.  If you have any Permaculture Tips you would like to share, please let me know.  I will post it here, give you the credit, and post a link to your blog or website if you have one.  Email me here:

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Cherry, Sweet

The Sweet Cherry is a more temperamental tree to grow, but the fruit is probably worth it
Common Name: Sweet Cherry, Wild Cherry
Scientific Name: Prunus avium
Family: Rosaceae

Prized by birds, we need to protect our harvest... if we want one!
There is a wide range of cherry colors from which to choose.
All have their own unique flavor
Sweet Cherries (a.k.a. Wild Cherry or Bird Cherry) are the cherries commonly sold in grocery stores. These prized fruits are significantly more picky about their growing enviroment and are more susceptible to pests and disease than their cousins the Sour Cherry. However, if you have the space, and some luck (or a lot of time for babying it), you will have one of the best tasting fruits in the natural world. I plan on growing a few of these trees on my land for all their other attributes like attracting beneficial insects, wildlife food, and wood production. If I get a small to medium harvest, I will be thrilled.
Sweet Cherries have been consumed by humans for thousands of years. Native to the Mediterranean region, likely eastern Europe/western Turkey, it has spread through accidental and intentional plantings. Sweet Cherries were cultivated in Turkey by 800 BC. Since then,they have been grown on all continents but Antartica.
  • Sweet Cherries can be dark purple (almost black) to bright red to bright yellow to almost white... and any color along this spectrum (birds prefer red fruits)
  • An older used division of Sweet Cherries split them into the Heart (a.k.a. English Gean - cherries with a softer flesh) and Bigarreau (cherries with a firmer flesh - these are the kind typically in grocery stores)
  • Sweet Cherries were once known as Gean and Mazzard
  • Sweet Cherries are also known as Wild Cherries, because in Europe, these trees do indeed grow wild in many places
  • An Early Bonze Age human settlement in Italy had Sweet Cherry pits dating to 2077 BC
Primary Uses:
  • Fresh Eating!
  • Baking - pies, tarts, turnovers, etc.
  • Cooking - used in savory dishes commonly with meats
  • Preserves, jams, jellies, etc.
  • Juice - often combined with other sweeter fruit juices or sweeteners (sugar, honey, etc.)
  • Dried
  • Fruit Leather
  • Flavoring component to beers, wines, and liquers

Secondary Uses:
  • General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
  • Wildlife food source, especially birds (Summer)
  • Specimen plant (i.e. decorative) - some varieties have been developed for profuse flower production, but these are often sterile and will not produce fruit
  • Living Fence/Hedge plant
  • Larger varieties may be coppiced for wood used in woodworking, fuel, etc. (will delay fruit production for a few years after each coppicing)
  • Wood - high quality lumber
  • Gum - sap that has dried over bark wounds can be chewed as a natural gum

Yield: 1-2 bushels/35-70 liters/50-100 lbs (22.5-45 kg) per tree, large standard trees have been known to produce up to 300 lbs of fruit!
Harvesting: Summer (July-September). Pick when the fruit is ripe... when the fruit is in full color and the fruit stalk (stem connecting the fruit to the tree) separates easily from the tree
Storage: Fresh Sweet Cherries should be used within a few days, maybe up to two weeks if kept very cool and moist. Sweet Cherries typically freeze well.

Sweet Cherry in Spring bloom... breathtaking.
Sweet Cherry trees can grow to be one of the largest fruit trees.
Chill Requirement: 500-1,500 hours/units depending on the variety

Plant Type: Very Small to Large Tree
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Tree Layer, Sub-Canopy (Understory) Layer, Shrub Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: Many varieties available.

Pollination: A few are self-fertile, but most require cross-pollination from another compatible variety/cultivar. See the following links for compatibility charts:
Raintree Nursery Cherry Compatibility Chart
NY State Ag Extension Cherry Compatibility Chart (go to page 3)
Flowering: Spring. April-May depending on the variety and USDA Zone where it is planted. May be susceptible to late frosts.

Life Span:
Years to Begin Bearing: 4-5 years, earlier for dwarf varieties, later for non-grafted trees
Years to Maximum Bearing: 10-20 years
Years of Useful Life: 15-25

Typical lateral banding of Sweet Cherry.
Young trees have more. Older trees become more gnarled.
Size: Standard (full-sized trees): 25-35 feet (7.5-10.5 meters) tall and 35-40 feet (10.5-12 meters) wide depending on the variety/cultivar, and many do not reach max height.
Wild varieties may grow double the size of Standard fruit varieties.
Semidwarf trees are about half sized and Dwarf trees are about one quarter size of Standard.
Roots: Fibrous, may sucker
Growth Rate: Medium

Cherries should be picked when perfectly ripe but do not store well.
Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates a little shade
Moisture: Medium soil moisture
pH: most species prefer fairly neutral soil (6.1 - 7.0)

Special Considerations for Growing:
  • Many edible cherries tolerate juglone (natural growth inhibitor produced by Black Walnut and its relatives). If not sure, then consider using other trees as a buffer between your walnuts and other plantings.
  • Consider netting to protect fruit crop from the birds.
  • Consider choosing varieties with fruits other than red - birds prefer red fruits
  • A site in full sun with well drained soil will help prevent pests and disease

Usually grafted. Seeds need at least 13-16 weeks cold stratification for germination and can take up to 18 months to germinate. Cuttings can be taken from Early Spring through Summer. Suckers can be divided in dormancy, but only consider this if the tree is not grafted.

Minimal. Prune out live wood for training as desired and dead or diseased wood in late Summer and Autumn - not when dormant.

Poisonous – Leaves and seeds contain a precursor to cyanide (large amounts need to be eaten for this to be toxic).

Monday, October 15, 2012

How I Spent My Sunday... Planting my Garden Beds!

I spent a few hours today planting my garden beds. Lots of fun! I did get a little help from Elijah, my 3 year old son.

Here is what I planted today. Almost all were seeds. I'll post some more photos as things start growing.
  • Basil – Genovese
  • Basil – Thai (Siam)
  • Beets – Detroit Dark Red
  • Beets – Burpee’s Golden
  • Beets – Tall Top Early Wonder
  • Broccoli – Romanesco (yeah, some people call it a cauliflower)
  • Brussels Sprout – Long Island Improved
  • Cabbage – Copenhagen Market
  • Cabbage – Red Acre
  • Cauliflower – Purple Cape
  • Cauliflower – Snowball
  • Cauliflower – unknown variety of seed that I saved from my previous garden
  • Dill
  • Garlic – Softneck (grocery store garlic that started to sprout)
  • Garlic – Hardneck (grocery store garlic that started to sprout)
  • Kale – Dwarf Blue Curled
  • Kohlrabi – Early White Vienna
  • Leek – American Flag
  • Leek – Giant Musselburgh
  • Lemongrass
  • Lettuce – Black Seeded Simpson
  • Lettuce – Parris Island Cos (Romaine)
  • Onion – Long Red Florence
  • Onion – Sweet Spanish Yellow Utah Jumbo
  • Onion – Walla Walla
  • Parsley
  • Radish - Watermelon
  • Sage
  • Shallots – Red (grocery store shallots that started to sprout)
  • Spinach - America
  • Swiss Chard – Five Color Silverbeet
  • Turnip – Purple Top White Globe
  • Rosemary

Friday, October 12, 2012

Vote for the Dinner Party - article by Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan

Yet another great article by Michael Pollan.  I highly recommend reading this.

Is this the year that the food movement finally enters politics?
One of the more interesting things we will learn on Nov. 6 is whether or not there is a “food movement” in America worthy of the name — that is, an organized force in our politics capable of demanding change in the food system. People like me throw the term around loosely, partly because we sense the gathering of such a force, and partly (to be honest) to help wish it into being by sheer dint of repetition. Clearly there is growing sentiment in favor of reforming American agriculture and interest in questions about where our food comes from and how it was produced. And certainly we can see an alternative food economy rising around us: local and organic agriculture is growing far faster than the food market as a whole. But a market and a sentiment are not quite the same thing as a political movement — something capable of frightening politicians and propelling its concerns onto the national agenda.
California’s Proposition 37, which would require that genetically modified (G.M.) foods carry a label...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

My New Garden Beds

My new garden beds about ready for planting! I used free, local, volcanic rock.
In the background, you can see the recycled shipping palett compost bin my father built during his recent trip
I thought I would share one of the projects is my garden. I just finished (almost) setting up my garden beds. I just need to plant seeds and seedlings. Very exciting!
Those of you in cooler climates may be thinking I am just a bit too late, or way too late, for a Fall garden, but in the Azores, it is perfect planting weather. We are in a maritime subtropical temperate climate. The Winter temperatures never drop below freezing. It is actually a more mild Winter, though more windy, than my previous garden in Turkey (a Mediterranean subtropical temperate climate).  So, I figure I'll be planting all my cool weather crops within the next few weeks, and be enjoying fresh greens and veg through the Winter.

My "Lower Garden". The spot I chose for the first garden beds.

I also thought I would share all the reasons I set up the garden beds where and how I did. It may be obvious for those with a lot of gardening experience, but not so for those with minimal time in their own garden. The first decision was location. As I am located just about 100 yards (90 meters) from the rocky, exposed beach, I get a lot of wind. The bougainvillea lining the wall in the photo above were almost decimated from Tropical Storm Nadine during her first and second visit to our island. Fortunately, the patch of earth I call the Lower Garden has pretty good wind protection from the surrounding walls and hedge. It literally sits about 5 feet (1.5 meters) below the rest of the garden, but it has great drainage. Even with the prolonged rain from Nadine, there was no puddling.
The next decision to be made was orientation. In the photo above of the Lower Garden, south is to the top of the photo, east is to the left, west is to the right, and I am on the north side taking the photo. This means the sun will progress from left to right (east to west) through the day. By orienting the beds on the north-south axis, the sun will hit both sides of each bed. Taller plants will be planted on the north end so that the southern sun (shining to the north) will hit more leaves, and the taller plants will not shade out shorter plants. Other gardeners run their beds east-west and plant all their taller crops on the north side as well; this is just another way of doing it. Of course, if you are in the Southern Hemisphere, then just switch north and south.
Rock walls and grass barrier in place. My Dalmation overseeing the project.

My last decision was how to make the beds. I am a huge fan of raised beds. Do I think they are the only way? By no means, but I think they will work great for my situation. I had a large pile of local volcanic rock piled up in a corner of the garden, and I decided to use these to make the sides of the raised beds. There were a number of reasons for this. First, they were free. Second, they were natural; chemically treated wood is commonly used, but I am not a fan for a lot of reasons. Third, the dark rocks would heat up in the sun which heats up the soil faster and improves the microclimate of the beds. The rocks will also radiate heat at night. I live in a cooler area even though it is not cold, so the additional heat will be nice.

I earned a greater appreciation for the builders of stone walls, because stacking rocks on top of each other in a linear fashion is not nearly as easy as it looks. There was a lot of rearranging and restacking and checking balance and stability. It was actually quite fun, but building a wall more than two layers would require a lot more time and skill.

I chose to line the beds with a number of layers of brown packing paper from our move. I saved as much of it as I could for just this reason, but I also have used it as kindling for fire starting. This will smother the underlying grass, slowly break down over time, and allow the bed plant roots to burrow through this layer and deeper into the soil.

That's it for now. A glimpse into my thinking and creation of my new garden beds.

Oh - these beds are about 4 feet x 12 feet. That's 48 square feet (4.5 square meters) per bed or 96 square feet (9 square meters) total. Not to bad!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Cherry, Tart or Sour

The Tart or Sour Cherry should be required for every home.

Common Name: Tart Cherry, Sour Cherry
Scientific Name: Prunus cerasus
Family: Rosaceae

A bowl of Tart Cherries... life doesn't get much better!
The Tart Cherry (a.k.a. Sour Cherry) is closely related to the Sweet Cherry, but as the name implies, it is significantly tarter than its cousin. Tart Cherries can be eaten fresh when perfectly ripe, but are most widely used for baking and cooking. The fruit alone is enough reason to grow this small tree, and if space is an issue consider dwarfing varieties at only 3-6 foot (1-2 meter) tall "trees". Tart Cherries are beautiful in the Spring, provide nectar and pollen to beneficial insects, and its wood has a number of uses. It is significantly more hardy of cold, heat, drought, pests, and disease than the Sweet Cherry, and there are plenty of varieties to choose for your home or Forest Garden.
It is believed that the Tart Cherry (Prunus cerasus) was a wild cross between the European Dwarf/Mongolian Cherry (Prunus fruticosa) and the Sweet Cherry (Prunus avium) somewhere in what is now modern day Turkey. It was prized by the Greeks and Romans, the later who introduced it to Britain. The 'Kentish Red' Tart Cherry was the first Tart Cherry planted in North America by British colonists in Massachusetts. There have been many cultivars/varieties developed around the world, and it still remains popular today mainly for baking, cooking, and juicing.

Amarelle (left) and Morello (right) are the two classes of Tart Cherries
  • Tart Cherries flower later in the year than Sweet Cherries, so they are less susceptible to late frosts
  • Tart Cherries can tolerate more shade than Sweet Cherries
  • Tart Cherries are less susceptible to pests and disease than Sweet Cherries
  • Amarelle are Tart Cherries with lighter red fruit, light red juice, and light flesh
  • Morello are Tart Cherries with dark red fruits, dark red juice, and dark red flesh
  • Marasca cherries are a type of Morello Tart Cherry which were traditionally used to make Maraschino Liquer; modern Maraschino cherries are made with a number of cherry varieties which are bleached, dyed with red food coloring, and then soaked in sugar water and almond extract.
  • Kriek Lambic is a style of open (wild) fermented Belgian beer that uses Tart Cherries for flavoring, traditionally instead of hops
  • Common dwarfing rootstocks are Colt (12 feet/3.5 meters tall) and Gisela (6.5 feet/2 meters tall)

I love unexpected flavor combinations: Tart Cherries in Meatballs
recipe here on Healthy Jewish Cooking

A more traditional Tart Cherry Recipe
Croatian Sour Cherry Strudel Recipe (Fil za Strudlu s Tresnjama ili Visnjama)

Primary Uses:
  • Baking - pies, tarts, turnovers, etc.
  • Cooking - used in savory dishes commonly with meats
  • Preserves, jams, jellies, etc.
  • Juice - often combined with other sweeter fruit juices or sweeteners (sugar, honey, etc.)
  • Fresh eating – Many varieties can be eaten this way, but typically they are only eaten fresh when fully ripened on the tree. When not perfectly ripe... well, there is a reason they are named "tart".
  • Dried
  • Fruit Leather
  • Flavoring component to beers, wines, and liquers

Secondary Uses:
  • General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
  • Wildlife food source, especially birds (Summer)
  • Specimen plant (i.e. decorative)
  • Living Fence/Hedge plant
  • Larger varieties may be coppiced for wood used in woodworking, fuel, etc. (will delay fruit production for a few years after each coppicing)
  • Wood

Yield: 1-2 bushels/35-70 liters/50-100 lbs (22.5-45 kg) per tree
Harvesting: Summer (July-August). Pick when the fruit is ripe... when the fruit is in full color and the fruit stalk (stem connecting the fruit to the tree) separates easily from  the tree
Storage: Fresh Tart Cherries should be used within a few days. Tart Cherries typically freeze well.

Tart Cherries can be full sized or very dwarfed - will fit in any space.

Chill Requirement: 600-1,500 hours/units depending on the variety

Plant Type: Very Small to Medium Tree
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Tree Layer, Sub-Canopy (Understory) Layer, Shrub Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: Many varieties available.

Pollination: Self-Fertile
Flowering: Spring. April-June depending on the variety and USDA Zone where it is planted

Life Span:
Years to Begin Bearing: 4-5 years,
Years to Maximum Bearing: 10-20 years
Years of Useful Life: 15-25

Tart Cherry trees can be stand alone specimen trees or incorporated into a Forest Garden.
Size: Standard (full-sized trees): 15-30 feet (4.5-9 meters) tall and wide depending on the variety/cultivar, and most do not reach max height.
A variety of rootstocks are available that will produce Standard, Semi-Dwarfing (Semi-Vigorous), Dwarfing, and Bush types resulting in various sizes. Largest is probably the Kentish Red Cherry (Prunus cerasus caproniana) at 30 feet (9 meters) tall. Shortest is probably the Bush/Dwarf Sour Cherry (Prunus cerasus frutescens) at 3 feet (1 meter) tall.
Roots: Fibrous, may sucker
Growth Rate: Medium

Beautiful flowers that attract beneficial insects... perfect!

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates moderate shade (needs at least a few hours of direct sun per day)
Moisture: Medium soil moisture
pH: most species prefer fairly neutral soil (6.1 - 7.0)

Special Considerations for Growing:
  • Many edible cherries tolerate juglone (natural growth inhibitor produced by Black Walnut and its relatives). If not sure, then consider using other trees as a buffer between your walnuts and other plantings.
  • Consider netting to protect fruit crop from the birds.

Usually grafted.  Seeds need at least 13-16 weeks cold stratification for germination and can take up to 18 months to germinate. Cuttings can be taken from Early Spring through Summer. Suckers can be divided in dormancy, but only consider this if the tree is not grafted.

Minimal.  Prune out live wood for training as desired and dead or diseased wood in late Summer and Autumn - not when dormant.

Poisonous – Leaves and seeds contain a precursor to cyanide (large amounts need to be eaten for this to be toxic).