The Flow of Permaculture

When people find out I’m starting a farm, the first question they usually ask is, “What are you going to grow?”  After I’ve told them about the extensive gardens, orchards, vineyards, woodland crops, wetland crops, animals, and honey bees in the plans, most people respond with a comment along the lines of, “that sounds like a lot of work”.  And yes, farming is undeniably a lot of work.  But raising a wide variety of crops can actually make the small farm more efficient.  By strategically designing a self-sustaining ecosystem, the farmer harvests more, wastes less, and diversifies her workload rather than increasing it.  Take a look at the flow chart below, showing the complex relationships between the various crops and animals planned for Strawberry Moon.

Permaculture Farming Flow Chart
In the system above, the farmer does a wide variety of jobs, but each task sets multiple other tasks in motion.  I personally find it more enjoyable to spend small amounts of time doing many different things than to spend a large amount of time doing one thing.  Additionally, many of the least desirable jobs can be delegated.  For example, look at how the chickens fit into the farm ecosystem.  The farmer does spend time and money buying food for the chickens, caring for them, and building a safe shelter for them.  However, in return, the chickens will prepare new garden beds, provide fertilizer for the crops, control insect pests, clean up and “compost” damaged fruits and vegetables, and as if that wasn’t enough, they also reward the farmer with eggs and feathers!  And if you are someone who eats chicken meat, then that can be another benefit as well.  Even if the chickens did not provide eggs, they would still be valued partners on the farm.  Now, take a look at the chart below.  This shows a less complex system with fewer elements, but notice the additional tasks that now fall to the farmer.

Non-Permaculture Farming Flow Chart In the first chart, the farmer was responsible for 13 tasks, but some of them were one-time jobs such as building shelters for the animals.  In the second chart, the farmer is responsible for 13 very significant, ongoing tasks.  Yet, the farmer no longer receives wool, milk, honey, wax, eggs, or feathers.  The farmer is not purchasing chicken feed, however the farmer is now purchasing fertilizer and pesticides.  The farmer is not responsible for caring for the sheep, but she must now spend hours per week mowing grass.  By omitting the farm animals, the farmer must do the animals’ work*.

This method of designing an interdependent, self-sustaining farm ecosystem is called permaculture.  The concepts of permaculture are based in nature and in traditional family homesteads.  If your great-grandparents farmed, they may have used some of these techniques.  Permaculture farming is less common in modern times, perhaps because modern farming is usually done on a very large scale in which machines are necessary to keep up with the work.  It would be very expensive to maintain factory grade equipment for so many different crops and animals.  However, on a small ten acre farm such as Strawberry Moon, where we do our work with hand tools anyway, this is a compelling farming system to consider.  In addition to optimizing the rewards for the farmer’s labor and purchases, this farming style is incredibly earth-friendly and sustainable.  How would you rather spend your Saturday afternoon: watching some fluffy little sheep chow down on your orchard grass while you refill their water trough, or breathing in diesel fumes from your noisy lawn mower?  I definitely know a few people who would prefer the mower, but for me and my farm, I choose the sheep!

* Please keep in mind, farm animals are living beings.  It is a great responsibility to enter into a partnership with an animal, so first please be sure you can accommodate their needs appropriately.

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider showing us some love! You can help us and our cause of Earth-positive agriculture by sharing this article with your friends, following us on social media, and interacting with our posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss us a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi. It’s easy to use and processes through PayPal so you don’t have to create a new account.

Growing Great Soil With Cover Crops

My first garden at the Greenwood Community Garden

My first garden was far from perfect.  It was a rented space in a community garden, with hard, rocky, clay fill dirt that caused most of my neighbors to abandon their own plots by June.  I stayed and gave my heart, soul, and sweat to that soil for three years before I ever reaped a decent harvest.  Each year, I spread several truckloads of mulch, pulled thousands of weeds, and cried over the deaths of drowned plants, frozen plants, sick plants, trampled plants and nibbled plants.  But eventually, the garden became healthy and fertile.  I wouldn’t change a thing about my first garden, because the lessons it taught me have served me well.  The most important thing I learned was that good soil is absolutely essential to a successful organic garden.

If you are gardening on a small scale, you might be able to bypass your soil all together, by growing food in containers or raised beds filled with store-bought perfect soil.  Or, you might be able to make enough compost to sufficiently enrich the soil you have.  But what if you need to fix acres of hardpan clay soil?  It would take decades for one person to make that much compost, and many thousands of dollars to build acres of raised beds.  An excellent solution can be found in cover crops.

Sorghum-Sudangrass Cover CropA cover crop is a plant that is grown specifically for the benefit of the soil.  There are many kinds of cover crops, each with its own magical power.  There are crops that create nitrogen from nothing but air and bacteria, crops that mine minerals from deep within the ground, crops that smother weeds, and crops that control pests.  These crops are chosen for their ability to grow vigorously even in poor soil, and for their ability to leave the soil better than they found it.  The specific problem at Strawberry Moon Farm was compacted clay soil.  The soil was hard, and rainwater stagnated in puddles for days rather than soaking peacefully into the ground.  So I selected sorghum-sudangrass, a crop with five-foot-deep roots to break up the soil.  As a bonus, it also has ten-foot-tall foliage, which will provide plenty of mulch at the end of the season.  The sorghum-sudangrass has performed extremely well so far, even with no fertilizer, pesticides, or irrigation.  You can learn more about the types of cover crops and how they work from SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education).  I plan to invest in a few more cover crops to reap still more benefits for the soil at Strawberry Moon, to give our organic orchards, vineyards, and vegetable gardens the best possible chance to thrive.

Cover crops are extremely useful for building great soil on a large scale, and they are just as useful for small gardens.  Consider growing a quick midsummer crop of buckwheat between your spring peas and your autumn radishes, or maybe a spring crop of alfalfa before you plant your tomatoes next year. It’s an affordable, easy, and effective strategy to boost production in your vegetable garden and on our farm.

 

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider showing us some love! You can help us and our cause of Earth-positive agriculture by sharing this article with your friends, following us on social media, and interacting with our posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss us a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi. It’s easy to use and processes through PayPal so you don’t have to create a new account.

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!

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider showing us some love! You can help us and our cause of Earth-positive agriculture by sharing this article with your friends, following us on social media, and interacting with our posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss us a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi. It’s easy to use and processes through PayPal so you don’t have to create a new account.

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

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider showing us some love! You can help us and our cause of Earth-positive agriculture by sharing this article with your friends, following us on social media, and interacting with our posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss us a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi. It’s easy to use and processes through PayPal so you don’t have to create a new account.

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

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider showing us some love! You can help us and our cause of Earth-positive agriculture by sharing this article with your friends, following us on social media, and interacting with our posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss us a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi. It’s easy to use and processes through PayPal so you don’t have to create a new account.

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.
Continue reading Sauerkraut with Cumin & Coriander

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
Continue reading Violette de Bordeaux Fig Tree

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.
Continue reading DIY Recycled Plant Labels

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.
Continue reading DIY Plant Stand: How to build a convertible plant stand, potting bench, or boot bench