Prospecting Camassia

How many people reading this even know what camassia are? Until lately, I just had the general idea they are hyacinth-looking flowers, and hadn’t the slightest inkling of their edible history or they’re potential as an excellent crop in food forests.

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C. esculenta. Photo by T. Prendusi

Camassia is a genus of plants native to North America with species like C. scilloides growing in the eastern United States, C. cusikii in the mountains of Oregon, and the most well known, C. esculenta and C. quamash, in the middle of the United states on the great plains with several other kinds in between.

It was on the great plains that camassia was used as staple food by several Indian tribes. It’s bulbs, like the tubers of another great plains plant, Jerusalem Artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), would be baked slowly for several days in pits on burning coals. This broke  down the inulin camassia contains, making them more digestible, turning them a carmalized dark brown, with gooey but not sticky texture, the flavor similar to winter squash. At least, so I’m told.

I’m just getting my own camassia in the ground this fall, and still waiting to get some for eating. I have seen how they grow though, because my neighbor has some. She grows them in very deep shade for a plant of the great plains, I thought. Then I asked her about their shade tolerance, and she reminded me that on the great plains there are a lot of very tall grasses and other plants like sunflower for instance. Since camassia is only about a foot tall, all these plants act as an upper story, leaving it in the shade. In many ways, it really is an understory plant.

Of course, they’re habitats vary, as I said. Camassia scilloides, for instance, grows in woodlands, while others grow on plains. I have read that camassia often prefer moist, rich meadows, but then I have read that C. lecthinii grows in the crevices of rocks!

Just think what that means for the food forest gardener: A plant that grows in shade, with or without weed competition, in wet places, in dry places –what we’d think entirely inhospitable for food crops — but it has excellent food qualities.

I’ll compare them to growing potatoes. Potatoes can’t stand weed competition very well, like to be hilled if you want a good crop, are not native here (they’re native to the Andes), and need sunlight, of which an established food forest will have limited amounts.

Camassia can be grown under trees –right among grass –as my neighbor does, as is its natural habitat in North America where it is native. Then there are different species for different biomes in North America suited to wet, or dry locations. As an extra bonus, it doesn’t need hilled, and on top of it all (literally) is a very beautiful blue flower.

Camassia are the potatoes of the food forest. In fact, famed plant breeder Luther Burbank, who spent several decades breeding camassia, suggested that they could one day “supplant” the potato! It was to this aim that he hybridized camassia, trying to improve both their flower and bulb size.

Of course, with results like he got, I can imagine camassia being preffered over potatoes. Here is a passage from his book about his experience.

I found it a relatively simple matter to      
hybridize the different camassias. All the 
species seemed to combine quite readily. 

Some of these hybrids of the second generation
produced bulbs smaller than those of their 
progenitors. But others grew bulbs of enormous
size. Even to one who is accustomed to observe
the striking variations that are produced 
through hybridization, it was surprising to 
see the extraordinary impetus given to the 
bulbs of the camassia by the union of different 
species. 

The bulbs of the common edible species, C. 
esculenta, are relatively insignificant, 
usually growing about one-half to three
-quarters of an inch in diameter. The C. 
Cusickii produces the largest bulb of all, 
but it is large only in a relative sense, being 
usually little over an inch in diameter and two 
inches in length. 

Camassia04

But among the second genera-
tion hybrids were some that 
produced bulbs three and a 
half inches across and four
or even five inches in length.

I have C. esculenta and cusikii in my food forest now. I hope to do some breeding myself with these and see what I can get. Along the way I will try growing them in several situations and see what they like best. Hopefully it will give me an education that books can’t offer.

Maybe I could grow them among winter grains since they would have died down by the time the grains had started to really grow?….. I’ll see what I can get.

If anyone has already done some work with camassia, or knows someone who is working with them now, comment and let me know or contact me. Or just comment with your thoughts about them in general. I’m always open to that.

Camassia have already been a staple food plant. With some selection, and observation, I think they have the potential to be a staple food plant again. Feel free to join in the journey.

An off-site project

I have been helping a friend set up a permaculture system in his yard. He’s put in some apple and cherry trees, black and red raspberries this spring. I helped him plant a blueberry bush last fall. The yard is getting its basic tree structure in place.

We are still dealing with weeds though, especially in part of the back yard where he wants to put the garden. It’s a steep slope that is far to steep to till, or else the whole thing would slosh down the road with the first heavy rain. Worse, before it was clear cut about two years ago, it was a mess of blackberry, mint, rosebush, wild sweet pea, young sassafras and oaks, Canadian thistle, and poison ivy. These are trying to take the place back now.

It’s a battle for sure; a matter of mind, with consistent, carefully thought out actions since, between the steepness of the slope, the ferociousness of the weeds, and a lack of time to devote to the project, brute force might not be the most effective move.

I’ve listed the design requirements as:

  • only 3-6 hours of maintenance twice to three times a year aside from harvesting.
  • to be completely no-till because the hill is so steep.
  • because it is no-till it will need lots of mulch for fertility, moisture retention, and weed eradication. So the system, if it is to be self sustaining, will need to produce a lot of mulch. If not, small amounts of mulch can be brought in from somewhere else.
  • Needs to be productive. He’s interested in food, not so much aesthetic effects.

Plan A to get rid of the weeds was cover crops. We cut down the weeds (scant at this time) for mulch, and sow a cover crop in this mulch to choke out the weeds to create fertility, making it easier to grow a lush cover crop to choke out more weeds etc.

Unfortunately plan A backfired with the weeds choking out the cover crop because I couldn’t make it over to his place often enough to keep cutting down the cover crop and weeds to get a new cover crop going. Scratch plan A.

Plan B, which we just executed a couple days ago, was to carbon bomb the place, by mulching heavily with leaves, holding down the leaves with a layer of hay. He rounded up enough leaves from his neighbors and anywhere else he could find them. I provided a small round bale of hay.

To apply, I started by mowing the standing brush with my scythe. Then we spilled leaves all over, making a six inch to one foot thick layer of leaves, finishing with spreading the hay on top. Once the round bale was shrunk down to the size we could easily lift it, we simply rolled it out like a carpet over the leaves. I would show a picture, but unfortunately I didn’t have anything with me to take one. Take my word that it looked very nice when we finished though.

The effect of this ‘Carbon Bomb’ is that all the carbon in the leaves needs nitrogen to break down. They will pull this nitrogen out of the ground beneath them, leaving little, if any, for the plants underneath to grow. Also, the mulch blocks out the sun, which we all know plants need to grow.

I have seen this effect on other gardens when people zealously pour the leaves on, thinking they will get amazing fertility next year, but really zilch fertility next year because even the nutrients that were there before are all bound up to break down the leaves. I’m trying to use this negative effect to my benefit.

In spring, we will rake the leaves up, then put them back down, re-covering plants that try to grow through, putting new leaves from on top in contact with the ground to suck more nitrogen. Eventually we will plant a cover crop of legumes, since they can make their own nitrogen, and once these can establish root systems without weed competition, we’ll start to plant the plants we want. Planting in polycultures so the plants take care of each other to a large degree, the whole place should become a productive, self sustaining system, aside from a little leaves applied every fall in problem spots.

Of course, the garden will be producing for just him, and he won’t need all that space for food production. Not wanting to leave bare space, wanting to make mulch, I’ll include lots of large mulch plants like Comfrey in the design. If they are at the top of the hill, their nutrients will flow down. But we might try arranging them in semicircles below patches of potatoes so when the potatoes are dug, the Comfrey will make sort of a barrier to block the dirt from washing down the hill; and keep the dirt in place because the mulched leaves that will lay on top of the dirt will keep the rain from hitting directly.

I don’t plan that he will cut the mulch plants once a month like I do. They will just be there and grow as much as they want to every year. Besides that, more edible plants that we’ll include in the polycultures will also serve for mulch and nutrient accumulation. Between all these, I think the garden can be largely self mulching.

The project shows promise. I’ll keep you posted on how it grows.

The Willow Garden

I mostly write about the food forest of Mortal Tree here, but I do have other gardens I maintain using the common sense that people have labeled as Permaculture.

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My favorite is the willow garden, named for the living fence of brake willow which used to completely, and today partially, surrounds it.

The garden is 36′ long by 16′ wide, and is divided into eight roughly 8x7ft beds, accessible by Keyhole paths. I think of it as two circular mandala gardens.

I said that now the willow ‘partially’ surrounds the garden. Nearly all the willow on the south side just hasn’t lived like the north side, which is a regular hedge. Why it’s just the south side that died, I don’t know.

That the willow is growing at all is a mistake really. I didn’t expect the willow to grow when I just hacked off the sticks in early spring from the riverbed where they grow on our farm and stuck them in the ground. A few weeks later, the dead sticks just started to leaf out!

I don’t recommend this for anyone else, since this kind of willow shoots up all over the place from underground roots, making it a “weed.” I get along with it though.

I was caring for the garden traditionally –tilling, weeding, taking those weeds and composting them in a pile then returning to the soil with added nutrients from off-site, although I did mulch with straw or hay from elsewhere on the farm.

I have made several changes:

  • I don’t till
  • I pull very few weeds, and mostly cut down all the ones that do come up.

    IMG_0884
    In this polyculture I have Broccoli, self-seeded Borage and Sunflowers I moved from elsewhere, Sweet Peas, Marshmallow (Althea officionalis), Sage, Salsify, Cosmos, self seeded Camomile, an Anchusa (Anchusa azurea), Nasturtium, a Dahlia, and Comfrey at the corners!
  • I have lots of Comfrey and one patch of Nettle plants in the garden which I cut once a month for tea for the garden. What I don’t use for tea, I put down as mulch where needed.
  • I have diverse polycultures, using lots of plants.
  • I didn’t have the keyhole beds until lately, so that was a change from the 8×7′ beds which weren’t quite so accessible. Also, my reach from the keyhole beds doesn’t reach to the very corners of the formerly square beds, so these corners make niches for the comfrey, nettles, and other nutrient accumulators I cut down once a month.
  • I mulch everything in place –weeds, and finished crops.

IMG_0876For the beds I am just converting to permanent mulch cover and no till, I usually dig out a keyhole path, mulch with straw, and then plant with a cover crop like this one I have planted with cowpea (a legume) and Japanese Millet (a grass to absorb excess nitrogen). Funny thing is, the common weed in my garden I call Foxtail Millet came up and did better than its close relative the Japanese Millet I planted. I still got very nice mulch though, and now have the bed planted with Daikon radish to suck up more nitrogen and make more organic matter.

One big difference between this garden and Mortal Tree right now is the pace at which life moves. Here, things shoot up fast, lush, and green. When I cut this growth down for mulch, the worms gobble it up, especially Comfrey. I can stand in the garden and watch the worms pulling plant material down their holes.

Mortal Tree, on the other hand, is dry, and not nearly so life filled. Mulch will sit there and dry, not rot. I have seen comfrey leaves sit there for months and not rot.

I think the difference between these two sites is mostly the amount of life per square foot of soil. This life I am referring to is bacteria, worms, and insects. It is larger animals, such as rabbits and chickens –any animal really. It is life force in general.

We can encourage bacteria, worms, and insects by mulching with a variety of plants making food and moist hiding places for them to live. We can keep larger animals for their manure, using our weeds to feed them, surging the process of decomposition of these weeds forward. We can encourage life force in general by doing both of the above. Plants, animals –large and small, all have life processes that takes dead, mineral earth and turns it into their living bodies and “waste products,” which are far more complex than mineral amendments. These processes can be enhanced vibrationally as I have explained here.

I plan to keep the willow garden as a propagation site for plants I want to have more of for planting Mortal Tree. I also want to keep it as a more annual garden than Mortal Tree –no woody plants (besides the fence) — and mostly self-seeding annual rather than perennial vegetables and fruits.

It’s always nice to compare the two gardens, knowing that someday Mortal Tree will be as enlivened, lush and fruitful as the Willow Garden –or better with the added dimensions of trees and vines. Also, I am not bringing in nearly so much, or as many kinds, of amendments for Mortal Tree as I did here. I am excited to see the outcome. I’ll keep you posted.

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A Pawpaw Permaculture

I just got back from the Ohio Pawpaw Festival last night, pawpaws and all!


Pawpaws have an amazingly sweet fragrance. It gently pervades the whole bag I have them in, and could always be smelled elusively wafting around the festival grounds.
The texture is the best part: I can only compare it to the most delicate custard to have ever graced my tongue. That is, when they are fully ripe. I had a few that weren’t quite ripe, so they had a little added bitterness, and weren’t quite so custardy. All the same, they were still really good!

I attended a few workshops while I was there. The best was titled “Pawpaw Permaculture”  given by Chris Chmiel. Chris is the one who started the Ohio Pawpaw festival 15 years ago, and runs Integration Acres, a permaculture farm in Albany, Ohio. His talk was about what species he uses in his system, and how they all “integrate.”

The base and purpose of his system is of course Pawpaws. He grazes goats under the trees, and also grows spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and ramps (Allium tricoccum). All three species are native.

Since pawpaws are not attractive forage to goats, Chris grazes them under the pawpaws where they eat the multiflora rose and other competitive weeds. What annual-type weeds grow back (mostly ground cover weeds such as creeping charlie) Chris said are very helpful for conserving moisture and making a soft landing spot for ripe pawpaws, saving them from bruising.

The goats make manure, which improves the fertility under the trees, in addition to weed control. Even better, the goats turn those weeds into milk, which Chris makes into artisian cheese.

For nitrogen fixers in his system, Chris left all the natural black locust trees standing that were already growing in the area he planted his pawpaws. Since black locusts are legumes, they can work with bacteria in the soil to fix nitrogen for the pawpaws to use.

The amendment(s) that Chris makes to the soil, is adding organic matter around the trees when planting, and walnut hulls, which he pointed out are around 80-90% organic matter. So his main amendment is organic matter.

As a side note, walnuts naturally contain a plant poison called Juglone. Chris pointed out that pawpaws and walnuts naturally grow in the same ecosystems without bad effect, and that he has never noticed negative effects on the pawpaws from applying the hulls. If anything, it further deters weeds.

Besides hearing about Chris’s system, I also learned that I had a totally wrong understanding of what situation pawpaws should be grown in, at least sort of.

I was of the understanding pawpaws grow in shade (young pawpaws cannot be exposed to prolonged direct sunlight or they burn), and prefer low wet places, growing in thickets.

I saw some on the way, growing in a patch in an open field, and some growing at the edge of a woods by a lake in a low place at the festival grounds. The latter situation is what I gave the two pawpaws I have growing in my food forest -a place very near the bottom of Mortal Tree, although not very wet at all, where they get half the day’s sun.

From what I heard at the festival, I was right. What I have just described is one of the usual situations pawpaws grow in. That is not the situation you want them in if you want lots of fruit.

Pawpaws, for one, frost. If they are in a low place there is higher chance of the flowers getting frosted, and you losing fruit for the year. Two, pawpaws need full sun to have enough energy for lots of fruit. Three, I was told having pawpaws in a wet place isn’t always the best, because they can get root rot.

Of course, some of the pawpaw growers I heard these statements from use Roundup under their trees, and chemical fertilizers, mowing the grass between the rows of pawpaws in monocultures. Chris was not one of those.

In that respect, what applies to their pawpaw’s might not apply to mine. I especially wonder about the whole root rot from wet areas. Nevertheless, I planted two of the three pawpaws I bought at the festival in a high place in full sun. I will have to see how the two patches compare when they get older.

Here is a link to Chris Chmiel’s website: http://www.integrationacres.com/

http://annisveggies.wordpress.com/2011/06/02/a-tip-about-starting-polycultures/

http://annisveggies.wordpress.com/2011/06/02/a-tip-about-starting-polycultures/

This post by Anni at Anni’s perennial vegetables clearly defines one of the best ways to establish a polyculture. Enjoy!

Roots as of now

I am putting things to bed in the food forest, planting seeds that need stratification, cutting more grass, strategically mounding the grass where I want to plant things, and harvesting roots, an especially exciting job.

Besides a single earth pea (Lathyrus tuberosus), and Parsnips, which I have strewn around everywhere in the food forest, all my root crops are concentrated in one place down hill away from all the activity of the intensive gardens on their own little Hugelculture island.

 

A Hugelculture, by the way, is simple a pile of logs and sticks covered with dirt. Nothing too fancy. I made it earlier this spring out of some dead trees in the food forest, and now it is full of root crops.

 

Yes, it may seem like a serious flaw in design that I place crops I am going to dig for on a hill, hence eroding, and ultimately flattening it every time I harvest. I thought of that after the fact, and figure it will just happen. I will end up with a flat, very rich patch of root crops when the design has run its course. I don’t think it will pose a problem. What I was really after was a rich, fertile spot, anyway, and that’s just what I’ll get. So while the hill still stands, it’s just that much easier to dig sideways into the hill rather than downwards to get to those roots.

 

A much better version of this design is to set the Hugelculture on a hill, cultivate something you don’t dig on the side facing out from the hill (maybe strawberries?), and cultivate your roots in the little valley you’ve made between the hill and the Hugelculture. In this situation, when you dig, you will move the dirt upward rather than downward, so gravity brings the dirt back down to bury the roots you leave to grow for next season. You dig once a year, and the rest of the year nature puts the dirt right where you need it, on the plants. This system would be excellent for potatoes, which are usually hilled with dirt as the season progresses. I have a place where I am going to try this — the wood is in place, I just have to cover it with dirt. I will let you know how it works.

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A happy Comfrey. I just started it from seed this spring!

There are several species I grow on the hugelculture: Chinese Artichoke (Stachys affinis), Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosum), and Hopnis/Groundnut (Apios Americana), and Chinese Yam (Dioscorea batatas) with a few parsnips in there, and one Comfrey (Symphytum officinale), which seems to like Hugelculture conditions quite a lot.

The first three species make up what fellow blogger and root enthusiast Radix calls the Three Brothers guild –the Chinese artichoke, growing short, and taking shade, acting as a ground cover; the Jerusalem Artichoke, growing tall, acting as a trellis for the vining Hopnis; the Hopnis making nitrogen for the ‘chokes; all of them making tasty tubers.

I like the name. It is a spoof of the Three Sisters guild grown by Native Americans     with Corn (Zea Mays), Beans (Phaseolus spp.), and Squash (Cucurbita spp.). As you can tell, that guild is all fruit crops, the Three Brother is all root crops.

IMG_3999I will wait until next year to dig the Hopnis because I would like to let them multiply a little. I will wait until late winter for the Jerusalem Arthichokes, since they are much sweeter by then. But I harvested the Chinese Artichokes since I want to propagate them to make another three brothers guild in another place. I think they could have stood another year before I harvested them though. They were smaller — at least, smaller than the tubers that came with the plants I originally bought. So I know they could have been bigger if I had given them another year to get established and size up.

Despite their small size, their flavor is excellent –sweet, with a hint of mushroom, and explosive crunch. I can’t wait until I have enough that I can have more than one or two for eating.

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Chinese Artichokes and “Nutty” Groundnuts in pots, ready to be covered with compost.

As I mentioned, I plan to start a new patch of Three Brothers, and since I am just starting to kill the grass (via Group and Conquer!) where I am going to put it, I am planting the Chinese Artichokes and the new groundnuts I have in pots, and will plant them in the spring — or whenever the grass is dead. The Jerusalem Artichoke is already there, which is stronger than grass anyway, so I’m not worrying about it.

Here is the new patch with mulch. Think it’s thick enough?

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Growing Beetberry

Beetberry (Chenopodium capitatum) is a delightfully strange little plant. It has edible leaves which can be eaten raw in salads -or cooked like spinach, root, which is similar to parsnip, and fruits, which look very much like raspberries. It was discovered around 1600 in an overgrown, deserted monastery garden, holding its own against the weeds.

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It only grows about a foot tall, so there isn’t much fear of it shading out other plants. Although the weight of all the fruit it makes around August sends it flopping over the plants next to it, or spilling into nearby pathways, which it did here. Very pretty to look at though.

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Small and bushy. Even still, don’t the young leaves look like lambsquarter?

The flavor of the fruit is slightly sweet, although fairly bland. If you really stretch your imagination you could call it a raspberry flavor – a very vegetable kind of raspberry: fairly watery really. Perhaps I could compare it to a quart of water flavored with a single raspberry? When combined with the texture, which is crunchy because of the seeds, the experience isn’t far off from munching a fruity stick of celery. I don’t like eating them straight, but they can really add body, and juicy crunch to salads.

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The leaves are like lambsquarter leaves (Chenopodium album), to which it is very closely related. Both species’ leaves can be cooked like spinach, or used raw in salads. Beetberry leaves are more smooth than lambsquarter leaves though, so I would use them in salads and lambsquarter for cooking.

He roots are said to be parsnip flavored. My plants have never produced I root large enough I thought to be worth eating. In more fertile soils than mine, perhaps they would bulk up a bit more. This, and the flavor of the fruit are both points I think beetberry could be improved.

It’s that beetberry is so easily grown that I like it so much. Because if it is anything like its near cousin lambsquarter (Chenopodium album), then it will generously self seed. If it goes through the trouble of propagating itself, I will be happy to taste some berries, leaves, and the small edible root, and select for more desirable size and flavor: turning to mulch the inferior, making room for the superior.

Starting beetberry myself wasn’t hard either: I read that it needs a short time of cool temperatures to sprout, but mine sprouted very well in the same unheated greenhouse we had our tomato starts in. It gets cool, but not cold; perhaps temperature is something to play with if yours aren’t sprouting.

Of course, looking at its history, beetberry proven it can take care of itself in an overgrown garden in Europe. So unless I purposefully eradicate it (which I won’t) I think this happy little plant is here to stay. Here’s a source for the seeds

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