N-fix 7: Vetch

I was rather dissatisfied when finished with the Top ten ground covers for food forests series because I didn’t include an N-fix in the lineup of dynamic mulch. Vetch would be my first choice.

Crown vetch (Securigera/ Coronilla varia) is indeed the tyrannical ruler of the genus. It’s industrial grade ground cover, produces medium levels of nitrogen, stretches 3-4 feet tall, and eats as much as 60 ft of new territory in all directions via rhizome spread every year.

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I’ve only seen this number in reports. I’m guessing the ground where these measurements were taken was the most fertile sandy loam on the face of the planet, or someone dropped a bag of fertilizer. I’ve never seen it spread more than four feet a year -if it spreads at all. many readers have likely seen this plant along highways where governments have seeded it. Erosion is a thing of the past once this perennial is established, so they have encouraged its use.

Once established though, they can start new colonies via seed. As a result, many governments have removed it from their official list of recommended plants.

It’s a little late. I have some patches appearing by the road at the edge of my food forest, and one of my clients has several healthy patches around their property. I have in fact installed this plant in one client’s system, because it really is quite useful, and easily controlled, if you know its habits.

The one system where I installed this for instance was a very high production food forest with long rows of shrubs and fruit trees running along swales (not my designs. I was brought onto the scene in the later stages). The owner wanted a system that could be managed by laborers simply weed-whacking the place every month or two. With this mentality, the owner had started by laying black woven plastic mulch under the plantings -despite my disapproval. It didn’t take more than two moths before weeds found their way through. He was aghast when I showed him. Finally open to my suggestions for a dynamic mulch, crown vetch was the perfect candidate.

As a dynamic mulch, it can exclude grass. Sometimes, if the grass is well established, the two may persist together. If well established, it’s nigh inpossible for weeds to get a foothold in the crown vetch’s domain.

It grows well seeded among daylilies, and most any plant that grows more than three or four feet -a food forest cover.

The crown vetch in my food forest has to creep across the upper grain patch before it can invade any of my plantings. This is one of the most poor spots in the food forest even the crown vetch can’t stomach crossing. I simply tax it for its nitrogen rich growth about the time it comes into bloom. Because it can be pulled so easily, I simply yank up whole armfuls to feed other parts of the food forest. As you can imagine, the patch is expanding at a snail’s pace.

My clients have done the same, and find their patches stay put.

Hairy vetch (Vicia villosa) and wood vetch (Vicia sylvatica) are both annuals, but have scarcely less ability to spread. Hairy vetch is used commonly used as a ground cover in vegetable gardens to be tilled in as a green manure. It and wood vetch are also medium level n-fixers. I have seen vilossa reach about four feet tall as it meanders around, such as below with wine-raspberry. Reports say it can reach as much as eight feet. So long as it doesn’t bloom and seed, there isn’t a problem.

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I actually let the thing seed in my food forest because it grows right among weeds, grass, you name it -without complaint. I love it. When it blooms, I nab as many as I can for mulch, leaving the rest to seed. I really just wish I had more.

I came hit the jackpot the other day at my step-grandmother’s garden. She has the wood vetch, and a lot of it. I gathered a bunch of the pods as pictured below, which popped, flinging seeds every which way even as they sat in the bowl.

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I planted them in a problematic part of the food forest to see how well they might compete with the grass. Perhaps they’ll clear the place for me in a similar way sunchokes can. in the bed I found it growing so happily, it was hardly three feet tall. I’ll just yank them up or cut them down before they make any very much seed.

 

The conglomerate of perennial leeks

Leeks all fall under the species Allium ampeloprasum, but this divides into two subspecies: porrum and ampeloprasum (not a typo. It’s literaly Allium ampeloprasum var. Ampeloprasum. In other words: it best represents the species).

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Photo by Algyte
Porrum covers common garden leeks, whose thick shanks, and sweet, mild flavor we so love. They dependably bloom and make seed their second year from sowing. Sometimes they make side bulblets, creating a clump of progressively smaller leeks if not divided. This clump can come back year after year. The variety “Babington’s” leek is especially well know for this habit.

To be happy, though, they need pretty rich fertility; and really propagate best by self seeding. Winter quite dependably squelches these tender things in my climate. For all practical purposes, I consider porrum cultivars to be annuals.

Elephant garlic and the like are the true ampeloprasums. When you find sources online trying to pass off “perennial leeks,” they are more than likely from this corner of ampeloprasia. You’ll notice, as you chop them, a smaller diameter, and a more prominent garlic fragrance and flavor than usually found in the porrums. Variety anpeloprasums readily divide themselves every year, like garlic. Similar to the porrums, the individual plants get smaller as the clump gets bigger. I have yet to see these proficiently seed themselves; but winter here can’t dig its claws into this hardy plant, so there’s little incentive.

“Oepri perizweib” is a variety of perennial leek I grow. I got it from Southern Exposure. It has a mild garlic flavor. I don’t divide them, resulting in thick clumps of little sprouts I usually just snap off rather than digging. This leaves the bottoms to regrow. Doesn’t seed so far as I can tell. It rarely even blooms when clumped together. If spaced well, and given fertile conditions, they can reach close to an inch across at the base. Below is a fine clump with Mache as a groundcover.*


Another specimen I would say resembles these ampeloprasums is the Sacred Forest garlic Oikos Tree Crops sells. Its scapes are characteristic of the ampeloprasums, although they list it as a garlic (A. sativum). It has also proved quite hardy for me. I’ve found it is quite slow to form new side shoots where I have it, but these are about as large as the parent -no shrinking. This is in stark contrast to the Oepri Perizweib. It’s also much larger than the healthiest, most pampered of the Oepri’s I’ve grown; so perhaps give this one a try and let me know what you think.

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I prefer to keep the perennial ampeloprasum leeks for their hardiness, and because they sprout up as early as late February for me. They die down around June and July, but will often start up again once the weather cools around September. Below are some of the Oepri and mache I harvested in February.


As with the other alliums in this Perennial Alliums series, you could keep any of these ampeloprasums in a perennial border as clumps, then divide and separate every year for growing out in well spaced, fertile soils to get larger size and milder flavor. Let nature manage propagation. The porrums might find such uncouth settings unaccomdating; so perhaps give them a little richer spot, or try them in a greenhouse planting. It would certainly keep the leeks flowing all season long.

*If you are drawn to growing effective goundcovers like this, may I suggest you take a look at Mastering The Growing Edge. I wrote it just for an interested gardener like you.

What does GKH need to self seed?

The popular perennial spinach good king henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) is pretty difficult to germinate. Under Making sense of wild seeds I found how hard some fellow perennial vegetable gardeners have worked to eek out nothing but empty pots of this plant. In my own experience, a hundred seeds will likely yield as high as twenty, and as low as one or two seedlings.

When I established this plant in Mortal Tree, I hoped the seed would suit itself, and sprout on its own. I’d transplant whatever appeared. Such serendipitous propagation eluded me for years, until last year, when I moved them.

Next to the patch this year, I was ecstatic to see a moderately thick patch of the sprouts!

This is a southwest facing slope, but has a small windbreak of plants in front of it. The bed is in its second year. The grass mulch I laid to start it still covers the ground. We also had an extremely mild winter. In general, I think this plant likes really temperate conditions, prefering cool over heat, moisture over dryness.

I hope this conjures some images in your mind of areas in your garden that might suit this plant. It really is quite a nice perennial vegetable. I call it, The better broccoli, for its delicious flower buds. With seeds growing themselves now, I plan on having a lot more of this food in the very near future.

Food from shade: solomon’s seal and hosta shoots.

Hosta are ubiquitous to the flowerbeds of the world as any plant you can imagine. While some take sun with less complaint than others, many are misplaced in sunny positions, and run ragged because of it. They are really shade plants, preferring a fertile understory of trees.

Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) is harder to find, but can live on even less sun than hosta and still be happy.

Both are edible. “Urui” is the vegetable name for hosta where it’s eaten in Asia. The young “hostons,” as some forest gardeners call the plants just coming up in spring, are best for eating. As the leaves unfurl they’re still edible, but become more tough and stringy as the season unfolds.

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Solomon’s seal too, is best when sprouting in spring. The leaves have a slightly bitter element; which personally I don’t mind, but others may prefer omitting by stripping the leaves from the stalk. It’s the stalk itself that has the really good flavor, which is hardly different from asparagus -with the umami richness kicked up a notch.

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This makes a lot of sense if you consider how closely solomon’s seal is related to asparagus. They are both in Liliaceae -the Lily family.

I’m harvesting both hosta and SS from parts of the food forest that are in dappled sun now, but will have little to no light once the trees leaf out. Asparagus, which as a rule prefers sun, is just showing up to the party as these two are just passing their prime. Few annual garden crops are even planted now, let alone ready for harvest to fill the “hunger gap,” but these two are shooting to the sky, ready to be crisply snapped off their stems, and sauted in the skillet.

They’re simple to prepare: “hostons” may be sliced in half lengthwise. 

Solomon’s seal I leave whole. You could peel off the leaves to remove any possibility of bitterness. Just snapping their stems at ground level I have not found any hard bases like asparagus, so no chopping necessary.

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Once prepared, heat oil of choice in a pan, and add the shoots. I flavored these pictured with some pepper, fish sauce, and vinegar to compliment the bitter element. You may prefer to omit the vinegar if the leaves are removed from the Solomon’s seal. Once tender, they’re ready for the plate.

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I got my Solomon’s seal in a trade online with the understanding they were giant Solomon’s seal (var. comutatum), and certainly appreciated getting twenty or so rhizomes freshly dug. They have not achieved the height my neighbor’s specimen achieve every year though; mine stay around three feet, hers shoot to six easily. So I think there was a misunderstanding. I may get some of the larger kind in the near future.

As for variance in hosta, I can’t vouch for the quality -especially when it comes to the hybrids. My neighbor is a formidable collector of hosta, and has even brought me with her to purchase direct from hosta breeders; so the fact that there are myriads of hosta, with crazy exotic chemical attributes and textures out there is real in my mind. Usually the blue, and dark green varieties are best for eating.  In this dish, I prepared H. nigrescens, and ‘Sum and Substance’ (a hybrid of unknown parentage), both of which aren’t too rare. These are mostly the throwaway hostas from my neighbor’s massive collection -seedlings that have no name, and extras.

Thriving in the dark corners of the food forest, these two are making food, and beauty, in places little else would grow.

Tasty Food Photography eBook

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If you would like to learn the real details of taking good food pictures from Lindsay Ostrom over at Pinch of Yum, click to check it out. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!

Plum Blossoms

One of the Japanese plums in Mortal Tree blossoming. This one was the first to be mulched and guilded, which resulted in a huge difference of size and maturity between it and its pollinating partner. Although just down the hill, and planted at the same time, this other plum just sat until I mulched it the following year -relieving it of the grass growing right up against it. As a result of this delay in mulching, the partner has not even begun blooming yet. It really is amazing how much grass can suppress the growth of young trees.

On another note, any pictures on this blog that are mine (i.e. no picture credit to anyone else) is available for use on your own blogs or the like. A couple people have taken this liberty themselves in the past -which I was quite flattered by.

If you could credit me, I’d appreciate it. At the same time I totally understand aesthetics can frown on clunky captions under your photos; so adapt as needed to make things beautiful. If for any reason you have a hard time copying an image yourself, but would like to use it, contact me and I’ll try to get you a copy.

I also contribute to Shutterstock as of the last couple months. Most of these are especially floral pics that won’t show up on this blog. You’ll have to deal with their payment plan to use these; but my public portfolio with them can be viewed here if you’re curious. If you do check them out, I’d love to know your thoughts.

Approaching Hablitzia

Scanning page after page on late night searches for interesting plants, there is one that has always topped my list of most lusted after leaf.

Hablitzia tamnoides, or Caucasion mountain spinach, is the sole member of the genus Hablitzia, closely related to Amaranth. It is a perennial vine, growing 6-10 ft (or so), hardy to zone 4 by most accounts, boasting the title of ‘the’ perennial spinach, with harvest beginning in very early spring. Tantalizing, isn’t it?

The plant is also said to be triploid, which is supposed to result in poor germination. Diploid strains seem to have surfaced in the gene pool after increasing interest in the plant. Years ago the seed was only available per the kindness of a handful of growers -sometimes at a dollar a seed as I recall -aside from any shipping.

I have traded, bought, begged hablitzia seed from several sources, for several years, gotten several strains. Every year I have carried out the most carefully composed care I can contrive to obtain a healthy plant. They have invariably died.

Every year I have inched closer, with barely a sprout the first year. In following years, I began getting what I think must be diploid seed strains, because the germination greatly improved to about 90 percent.  I also began stratifying them for shorter durations; because one gardener told me he gets sprouts by simply putting the planted flat in his root cellar for two weeks in fall. Which one allowed the improvement in germination is hard to tell.

Once germination was no longer a problem, I achieved whole trays of the plants. This was only for one by one, day by day, each plant to wilt. The next day I’d find it flat on the ground, dead.

I figured it must be a bacterial infection. What kind I am not sure. The only disease I have ever heard hablitzia succumbs to is botrytis, but I had never seen a sign of the ‘ash.’

It may have just been post hoc, but I found the greatest onslaught usually followed even slight long term excess of water -such as watering two days in a row. Now I keep a tight leash on any watering, waiting until the soil completely dries out, then drenching. The plants seem to like this. Other variables may be at work.

This year, I finally made a breakthrough: I have continued using more and more rock powder, with better and better results for the plants. Most describe hablitzia as a ‘woodland’ plant; but the situations that seem to give the best results simulate dry river beds, or rock crevices. They seem to like tons of available minerals, little nitrogen, and alternating dry and wet, with lots of sun. Providing enough rock seems to be especially important.

I started the seeds last year in a simple organic blend of potting soil. This includes small amounts of peat moss, and chopped wood chips, and has proven the best choice. Once sprouts appeared, I dusted the plants heavily with a very silica-rich rock powder called wollastonite.*

Also, I only filled the pot about half way with soil. This way the walls block most movement of air, and reflect heat and light on the seedlings. Because the soil is thinner, it dries out faster too.

Once the seedlings achieved true leaves, I transplanted into simple, unamended clay I dug up from under a healthy clover plant, mixed with wollastonite until it was white. I put the transplanted seedlings in the shade, and didn’t water for the first day. When I did finally water, I put them in full sun for a couple hours, to dry off the leaves, then put back in the shade.

The plants that followed were some of the most sturdy specimen I have ever grown. I dusted again with wollastonite, and moistened with water I  added a little honey to (antibacterial properties). Bacterial wilt stayed away for a long time.

I gave away a couple of these plants, hoping they would live somewhere. Haven’t heard back any successful reports. I gave two to one of my clients. These I dusted and sprayed during a later visit in hopes of holding off any possible infection. One died. One took.

Yes, one continued to grow beyond the size of any hablitzia I have grown. Then it vined. It even bloomed! This spring, it’s sprouting!

Obviously I’m just short of delirious. What’s more, I am reverse engineering the heck out of this situation in the hopes I can actually get one to grow in Mortal Tree. I transplanted several of the other plants to the food forest last year. They all died -some due to animals though. Perhaps they would have overcome the wilt otherwise.

The situation at my client’s is a southeast corner of their white brick house, next to a concrete patio. This protects from all the most undesirable winds, but is wide open to early morning, and some mid-day sun. It is also under the rain gutter, which overflows in downpours, but dries out quickly after because of all the reflected sun. The soil isn’t notably good -actually quite gravelly there. Spent flower bouquets, and a few kitchen scraps under thin grass in a sort of thin Lasagna Garden fashion provides a small flow of nutrients. If you would like to learn more about the site, see this For example:

Eventually I will get one of these plants to flourish in Mortal Tree. Until then, I am ecstatic my clients have achieved one of these precious plants, and look forward to hearing what they think of the flavor when they begin harvesting. That will probably be next year of course. We want to be sure this plant is here to stay!

 

*I got it from the mine owner when I met him at a conference, but he sells as small as 50 lb bags on request through his website. My parents are considering getting a couple tons of the stuff for our gardens and fields. I am actually planning on taking the distribution a step smaller with one, or even half pound units available for sale for small scale gardeners. I’m still working out packaging and sales channels; but contact me if you would like to be informed of Stardust Chelation Substrate’s launch in a couple months.

Making sense of wild seeds

I’m not quite sure what it takes to sprout Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis). Last year I posted a fairly certain observation that a couple weeks in cold temperatures does the trick, only to find in the comments from the ever apt Wooddogs3 that she had sprouted quite a few straight out of the packet in warm weather.

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Scratch that idea. I figured something else must have deterred my Turkish rocket sprouts; but then, in later conversation, Heather mentioned that more Turkish rocket sprouted after the pot sat out over winter. (?)

I think the fact of the matter is we are working with fairly wild, unselected seeds. With them, variance is the standard. At the same time, it offers several little known benefits.

Varying the time of germination increases the likelihood at least some of the seeds will sprout in a ‘sweet spot’ of a season, or at least avoid catastrophes, and make it to adulthood. What if an unusually late frost hits or some animal nips off the tender sprouts?

This is a very helpful character for love-in-a-puff vine (Cardiospermum halicacabum) which I’ve grown on a large scale for the last couple years. It’s a warm climate plant, and can’t take frost. I nevertheless plant it in mid April, when we still have a chance of frost. While a few will come up as early as three days after planting and get nipped, the majority of the plants take about two weeks to sprout, and will continuing sprouting up to three months after.

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Cardiospermum sprout back when I tried growing them in flats. Because their sprouting time was so varied,  I watered the flats a lot longer than expected for all the seeds to sprout. They don’t transplant very well anyway, so I now direct seed.

The mechanics that govern this variance can vary, but are usually based on the activity of certain enzymes releasing nutrients necessary to wake up and nourish the embryo that will become the new plant.

Health conscious readers may be familiar with the discussion of improved nutrition in sprouted or soaked grains because the phytates present in these seeds have been removed (see here for more info). This is because in the seed, phytates bind up nutrients -phosporus in particular- keeping them off limits for the embryo (1). Water is one factor that initiates the enzyme phytase, which is responsible for breaking up the phytates (2). In the right temperature range, phytase completes the breakdown of the phytates, releasing the nutrients the embryo needs for growth. In most cases, the need for adequate water and longer durations of certain temperatures ensures the plant can grow to maturity once it sprouts.

Of course, many of our perennial vegetables also need cold, moist temperatures, or dry and warm temperatures, in addition to a later stage of warm moisture to successfully sprout. Phytates are one example of the mechanics generally at work in seeds -enzymes releasing nutrient.* Differences in the genetic makeup can dictate the time each seed takes to activate these enzymes, and release the nutrients for sprouting. Its variance in genetics that often gives such extreme variance in sprouting time, and what conditions are necessary to induce germination.

Most of our garden vegetables were the same way at one time, with lots of variance. They’ve just been selected. If over the next ten years I only saved seed from cardiospermum that sprouted two weeks after planting, this character would soon be the norm.

Although it’s nice to have an idea what’s going on in those drab looking little seeds as they deny us a happy sprout, what can we do to improve the likelihood that we, at some point, actually get a sprout?

Heather had the right idea leaving her Turkish rocket in the pot to see if any more sprouts would show up. Just give the seeds time, and changes in temperature.

I know from experience that keeping a little empty pot of dirt safe for seasons at a time is not easy. As a first step, designate a spot where seeds are protected -by mandate of heaven -or whatever works for you. Tell this to anyone that might come along thinking your untidy plant-keeping needs tossed in the trash.

Rodents seldom care about the mandate of heaven, so cover the seeds with some mesh, or build a hanging tray well above the ground, as Martin Crawford does, to keep them out. I hung some trays in our greenhouse last year which did the trick keeping mice out of squash seeds. The only problem with hanging trays I find is their fluctuating temperature: pots placed on them can easily dry out on a hot day.

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Seeds are more likely to stay moist and live if they’re in more temperate climates surrounded by bricks in a shady corner. My favorite spot for sprouting is on the east side of our garage, or on the north side of our greenhouse. I’ll bring the trays from these temperate spots once in a while to the hot greenhouse. For a short time here, I watch them, and keep them watered, while transplanting any sprouts that appear. Once the sprouts stop appearing, I move them back to the less intense climate.

This system is very effective at getting around the errant nature of our prized perennial vegetables and trees. With such complexity, it’s better to just offer a variety of situations to seeds, and wait, rather than trying to guess what’s going on in those drab little seed’s dreams.

*There are even several kinds of phytase. See here for more info.