All posts by strawberrymoon

Farming The Wetland

Strawberry Moon Farm in Lunar Eclipse
Strawberry Moon Farm in Lunar Eclipse

My husband and I looked for our farm for 18 months.  He only wanted a beautiful house, but I only cared about great land.  When we finally found something we could both love, we were both willing to make a few compromises.  I had been looking for a flat, sunny, well-drained, rectangular field; a blank canvas I could transform into my vision of the perfect fruit-filled paradise.  But this land had woods.  It had hills.  It had a flood plain.  It had its own plans.

We ended up with 10 acres of incredibly diverse land.  About 3 acres were wooded, and about 1.5 acres were in a flood plain.  The low land was classified as a once in 100 year flood plain for the adjacent creek, but after we moved in, we realized that a more accurate classification would have been three floods every single year.  Later, we learned that this part of our farm was a natural wetland, a former creek bottom.  I’m not easily discouraged, but this news was disappointing at best.  I didn’t think any useful or edible plants could be grown in this type of environment.  Luckily, I was wrong.

A creek overflows, creating flooded corn fields and road floods
Our natural wetland, flooded by an overflowing creek

As it turns out, wetlands can be beautiful, productive ecosystems capable of producing food, filtering flood waters, and sheltering wildlife.  If you’re trying to turn land like this into a corn field (which the previous owners were), you’re going to be sorely disappointed.  But if you protect the soil and encourage permanent, water-loving trees and shrubs, you and the land will be very happy together.  Pecans, maples, willows, and elderberries are just a few of the species that can thrive and produce in this type of environment.  By working with the water instead of against it, you can build a lush food forest that nourishes you at the same time as it drains and cleans the flood waters.

The reason why it’s a bad idea to till up a flood plain field and plant it to row crops like corn has to do with erosion.  Erosion occurs when water or other forces remove topsoil from the land and move it elsewhere.  Usually, this topsoil ends up someplace it isn’t wanted, like in a waterway.  The nutrients (like nitrogen and phosphorus) and sediments from the displaced soil disrupt the balance in the water.  This can kill fish, and generally damage the ecosystem.  Meanwhile, your land grows poorer and poorer as all its nutrients and topsoil are stripped away.  When you till, or when you leave bare soil exposed, the soil is vulnerable and easy to wash away.  But when it is densely covered with plants, myriad roots hold that soil in place.  The plants shelter and protect the topsoil, and when floods come, the water is absorbed into the root system or filtered through aerated soil into the groundwater table.

There’s a thing called a Riparian Buffer.  According to Wikipedia:
“A riparian buffer is a vegetated area (a “buffer strip”) near a stream, usually forested, which helps shade and partially protect a stream from the impact of adjacent land uses. It plays a key role in increasing water quality in associated streams, rivers, and lakes, thus providing environmental benefits. With the decline of many aquatic ecosystems due to agricultural production, riparian buffers have become a very common conservation practice aimed at increasing water quality and reducing pollution.”

My plan is to create an edible Riparian Forest Buffer.  The goal is to have all the benefits of soil and water conservation, but to also harvest and use something from each of the plants and trees in the buffer.  Strawberry Moon is not the first farm to try this, but it is not yet a ubiquitous practice.  I hope that this riparian buffer project will encourage more people to try this ecologically sound farming style.  If farmers can increase yields while at the same time protecting the environment, why not do this?  There is even financial aid available from some government organizations to make the transition from conventional farming to riparian buffers easier.  I’ll post more about that later, when I have all the facts.  Meanwhile, spring is coming.  Be ready!

A Fruity Harvest

There are a lot of reasons why I grow my own food, but the biggest reason is to eat it.  Here are some of my successes from the past year.

2 Violette de Bordeaux Figs, freshly picked from a potted fig tree.

These two figs ripened in late August.  I sliced them in half and ate them drizzled with cream.  Amazing!

2 Violette de Bordeaux Figs, freshly picked from a potted fig tree.

Giant Meyer Lemons shown in my hand, for scaleOn Christmas day, I ate the first ripe fruit from my Meyer Lemon tree.  I waited two long years to taste these lemons, but meanwhile I have been enjoying year-round greenery and fragrant blossoms.  This tree would be worth keeping even if it didn’t make fruits.  But it did make fruits, and I did eat them.  As for their fate, I first removed their zest using a vegetable peeler.  I packed the yellow strips into a small jar, and covered them with strong grain alcohol.  I hope to turn this into a tiny batch of Limoncello in a few months.  Next, I squeezed 1/2 cup of juice from the first lemon, and immediately drank it straight from the measuring cup in a joyous frenzy of excitement.  The other lemon was turned into delicious lemonade popsicles.

Two ripe Meyer Lemons hanging from an indoor citrus tree

The Quest For Dragon Fruit (Pitaya)

What I love most about gardening is eating what I grow.  Especially when I get to eat something that can’t be bought.  Case in point, the dragon fruit.  Have you ever seen or tasted a dragon fruit (a.k.a. pitaya/pitahaya)?  The bright pink fruits are shaped like small footballs and adorned with lime green “fins”.   The variety occasionally available (for $5 a piece!) in specialty groceries is called Vietnamese Jaina.  Though it’s generally regarded as the dragon fruit with the least interesting flavor, it is as refreshing as it is beautiful.  Imagine how good the best flavored varieties must taste!  I did imagine this, and then I ordered some vine cuttings.

A pitaya cutting planted in soil

Dragon fruits come in at least four main types.  White flesh with pink skin, white flesh with yellow skin, red flesh with pink skin, and purple flesh with pink skin.  You can grow some varieties from seeds, root any variety from cuttings of a living vine, or purchase plants.  Though sometime I would like to try growing pitaya from seeds, this time I opted to try rooting cuttings from named varieties.  Cuttings are surprisingly affordable, and I ordered 3 for $10 from ebay.  One white flesh type called Guyute, one red flesh type called American Beauty, and one purple flesh type called Purple Haze.  Information about many named varieties of dragon fruit can be found here: Pine Island Nursery

A dragon fruit (pitaya) cutting, unrooted
This is essentially what the cuttings looked like when they arrived. The arrow points to the top of the vine, as it was on the mother plant. Put the opposite end in the soil.

I ordered my vine cuttings in early April, set their bottom ends (there is a top and bottom, and the vine should be marked when you receive it) into individual pots of organic soil in my kitchen window under some grow lights.  I watered once every three days per the instructions, and I waited, and waited.  Once a week I pulled each cutting out of the soil to check for roots, and each week, nothing.  Eventually, my Purple Haze cutting started to rot.  It became infested with some tiny white worms, and turned mushy beneath the soil line.  Not willing to give up on the variety I was most excited to taste (it’s described as having a grape-kiwi flavor), I cut off the affected part of the vine and left the rest of it it to dry on my kitchen counter for about a week.  After a good callous formed along the cut edge, similar to what I had seen on the vine cuttings when they first arrived, I replanted it and hoped for the best.

A purple haze dragon fruit cutting planted in soil
The ‘Purple Haze’ dragon fruit cutting is much shorter than the others, because I had to remove the rotten part and start over. It still rooted, though!

In mid-may, the weather finally warmed enough to move the vines outside.  None of my pitaya cuttings had rooted yet, but I was determined not to give up on them.  Finally, after a few weeks in the sun, the Guyute vine sprouted roots!  I suspect the hot weather encoraged it to grow.  This week, the Purple Haze cutting sprouted roots too, and Guyute has already begun producing new top growth!  I can almost taste the juicy unknown flavors.  If all goes according to plan, I expect to harvest my first home-grown dragon fruits within 1-2 years.  Of course, this tropical cactus will have to be grown in a pot and moved indoors for winter.  Supposedly they like these conditions, and even thrive in a root-bound situation.  More dragon fruit updates to follow!

Dragon fruit cutting beginning to sprout new green growth
Guyute Dragon Fruit sprouting a new vine

Operation: Planter Rescue

Many things in life are temporary by nature.  Fresh food spoils, newspapers become irrelevant, and cardboard boxes weaken with use.  For these things, we do our best to take only what we need, and to recycle them into the best possible second life.  But other things were meant to last.  What do we do when one of those things breaks?  Too often, they’re thrown out with the trash or the recycling waste.  New things replace them, packaged in plastic and shipped from overseas.  But what of our old things?  Could they be repaired or re-purposed?  Could they be given a second chance to fulfill their potential?  Many times they can be, and it’s easier than you might think!

Continue reading Operation: Planter Rescue

Sauerkraut with Cumin & Coriander

Comparisson shot of cabbage and sauerkraut color variation
(Left) A jar of finished sauerkraut. (Right) Fresh cabbage, just beginning to ferment

I first tried wild, unpasteurized sauerkraut at a farmers market in the Castro district of San Francisco.  A local artisan offered me a free sample, and  I was pretty sure I was going to hate it.  Almost completely convinced it would be terrible.  But I’m not one to turn down a new taste experience, so I agreed.  “I’m not so sure I’m going to like it,” I told the nice man holding the jar of kraut.  “That’s the best reason to try something new!” he said.  I was completely surprised by what I tasted.  It was tart, bright, crunchy, and scented with seeds of cumin and coriander.  It really didn’t taste anything like cabbage, or what you might think sour cabbage would taste like.  I bought the biggest jar they had, and devoured it in under a week.
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Violette de Bordeaux Fig Tree

Figs are like a fruit holiday.  They have two short seasons each year.  Figs are a little sensitive to cold weather, and therefore not very available in many parts of the world.  Including my part of the world, much to my dismay.  So what’s a fig lover to do?  Grow them, of course!

Fig Leaves Close Up
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DIY Recycled Plant Labels

Growing plants from seed is such a hopeful, optimistic thing.  Every year, when I see my first pair of cotyledons, I envision their potential so intensely that I can almost taste the summer’s garden.  Of course, those baby seedlings have a long journey ahead before harvest day comes.  They will battle weather, insects, disease, and hungry herbivores.  If they win all of those battles, only then will I taste the sun-warmed, juicy potential I see in my day-old seedlings.

DIY Plant labels / markers made from recycled soda cans

My first year of gardening, I tried to make plant labels out of popsicle sticks.  At first, it worked well.  But as the weeks went by, water caused the wood to swell and the ink smeared beyond recognition.  I ended up with about a hundred unmarked plants!  I could of course discern the peppers from the broccoli, but I never did sort out all the varieties of tomatoes I had planted.  The next year I purchased plastic plant markers.  They were expensive, but I thought at least I would be able to reuse them.  However, the summer sun baked the plastic until it became weak and brittle, and their broken pieces will probably haunt the local landfill for centuries to come.  Finally I came across this technique of cutting labels out of empty soda cans.  The writing is etched into the metal, so it’s completely permanent.  They are reusable, they can be cleaned in a dishwasher, and ultimately recycled when the garden has no more use for them.  I cut fancy shapes, engraved with decorative designs for my perennials.  When I’m starting dozens (or hundreds) of seeds, I love to make simple rectangular labels.  The creative and useful possibilities are endless!  Best of all this project is:  FREE!  ECO-FRIENDLY! CRAFTY! and PRACTICAL!  A set of beautifully embellished aluminum plant markers could even make a great gift idea for gardeners.
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DIY Plant Stand: How to build a convertible plant stand, potting bench, or boot bench

When I moved into a newly rented house, I had six subtropical trees to fit in my kitchen.  I wanted a storage solution that fit into the space I had, elevated my plants to window height, and had a top bar from which to mount grow lights.  I came up with a sketch for a 2′ x 2′ x 4′ bench with one tall side.  It was easy to build, cost less than a bookcase from Ikea, and looks beautiful in my kitchen.  In the future if I no longer need a potting bench, I can easily convert this to a boot bench with a coat rack by simply installing a few hooks on the top bar and adding some decorative boards to the base.
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The Long Journey

Screen shot 2014-02-13 at 9.31.49 AM

Last week, my husband and I embarked on our second cross-country move. Despite freezing weather, three snow storms, and one curious police officer, we safely crossed eight of our united states from San Francisco to Indianapolis.  We arrived at our new home with our three cats, six trees, and live sourdough culture.  As we unwrap each of our belongings, we try once again to adapt to a new home, a new climate, and a new neighborhood.

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Welcome Home, Owari Satsuma and Santa Teresa Feminello Lemon Trees!

One year old Owari Satsuma Tree (Left) next to One Year Old Santa Teresa Feminello Lemon Tree (Right)At the end of this month, I’ll be moving back to my hometown of Indianapolis, IN.  As I prepare to say my goodbyes and restart my life one more time, I have been thinking about how to carry with me some of my favorite California experiences.  I have thought about joining or starting a new drum circle there, driving to neighboring states in search of dark skies to photograph, and of course growing some of the fruits that make farmers markets around here so special.  To that end, I adopted two new fruit trees into my patio garden family today.  I had never seen a Satsuma mandarin orange until I moved to California.  Last year I drove to a farm in Brentwood and bought a whole case of fresh Satsumas  to share with family and friends over the holidays.  This year I bought a tree, so hopefully I can continue to enjoy them for many Decembers to come.
Continue reading Welcome Home, Owari Satsuma and Santa Teresa Feminello Lemon Trees!