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

A very good read.

A very good read.

I can really relate to –and entirely agree with this post by Resurgent Circles. It’s as though he was writing my own thoughts. It’s just what I have been experiencing and thinking about lately. It’s exactly what I would put on my own blog, so I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Group and conquer update

About a month ago I posted about the technique I was using in my food forest to get rid of the grass and make planting beds for more desirable plants. Here is the patch I had planted with strawberries and borage as shown in the Group and Conquer! post.

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Now here is the same patch about a month later. All the plants in this picture were planted in the earlier picture, if you were wondering. That just tells you how deep the mulch was!

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I did have a few grasses try to grow through the mulch, but I simple ripped the blades off that were sticking out, and fluffed the mulch back over that spot. This really has worked to make a happy strawberry patch — the strawberries are already putting out runners!

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Let me know if you have ever tried this technique, or know anyone who has.

Summer jobs or Summer care for a young food forest

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I look forward to the food forest being more grown up at this time of year -meaning that the the food forest will have more shrubs and trees, making shade, mulch, and cycling more water. I wish I had more of these things right now. But besides being patient, there are several things I am doing to speed up the growth, and make this dream of an established food forest a reality.

First priority is to introduce more species and plants to fill in the huge gaps between the trees. This is what happens in nature where fields begin reverting back to forests from grass.  The species in the open field change from grasses, to woody perennials like goldenrod (Solidago species), then to blackberries (Rubus species), multiflora roses (Rosa multiflora), and dogwoods (Cornus controversa), until oaks and the like begin to establish themselves.

By the time the forest trees start to grow up, there is a thick mulch of blackberry and multiflora canes, nicely manured by all the animals attracted there by the multiflora rose hips in the winter, and blackberries in the summer. Nature is not a “Veganic” gardener.

That being said, when I say ‘adding species,’ I do mean adding animal species as well as plant. I have moved our chicken pens across some of the more open places in the food forest, and the effect on the grass has been amazing. Rather than scraggly short stuff, I have lovely swaths of emerald green -nearly a foot taller than the grass next to it; all the green grass growing in the exact shape of the chicken pens.

This extra grass makes more food my rabbit. She can eat exclusively in-system grass and clover, providing lovely “bunny gold” for adding to the mulched beds.

This mulch has been helpful in killing of the scraggly grass under my trees, since to get rid of any sizable patch with mulch I need all the grass I can get.

Mulching to kill grass illustrates the best way to work with these newly introduced species of plants and animals: keep the life moving. In other words, cycle the life as fast as you can, keep all the species of plants and animals as dependent on each other as you can. That is how an ecosystem is built; through the interaction of a lot of species. If you have grass, mulch with it -or feed it to an animal, wild or domesticated. Whatever the case, keep those nutrients active!

Comfrey and nitrogen fixers are most of what I am planting under the trees, along with some Jerusalem artichokes here and there. They compete with the grass masterfully, and at the same time make more biomass.

Whatever I do, there is a lot to be done, not the least of these being to stand back and observe, so I had better get back out there.

Stropharia first fruit

Yes! The Stropharia mushroom bale is fruiting with its first mushroom! The bugs were already enjoying the mushroom when I found it, so I left it for them to finish.

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I inoculated the straw bale the mushrooms are growing in earlier this spring by soaking it in one of our ponds for a month (a spring fed, clean pond) both to get it wet and let it ferment, and to drown any fungi already in the bale. Then, after the bale had dried for a day or two, I put mycelium I had purchased into it and let it sit

The location I have the bale in is a ledge I dug in the side of the water storage ditch below my Fukuoka-style grain patch. It is somewhat shaded there inside the ditch, because the side of the ditch blocks the sunlight; but I plan for it to be much more shaded once I have plants growing on the ditch wall. The bale is also well watered there, since it is on the side of the ditch where it can suck up water, water that I didn’t have to lug up there.

Since the bale is in such a good situation, I planted tomatoes into the straw — with some compost under them so thy aren’t in pure straw. The bale was already white with wonderful smelling mycelium when I dug the holes into the bale to plant the tomatoes, so the bale should have started breaking down, and the mushrooms should be feeding the plants the straw residues, and distributing water to them. The tomatoes look pretty healthy.

I hope to colonize a few more areas in the food forest from the mycelium in this bale. You could probable guess the first place I want to colonize is my Fukuoka- style grain patch, where the mushrooms can speed up the rate of decomposition, and hence, fertility by eating the straw I harvest, feeding their leftovers nutrients to the growing grains in a form the grains can easily absorb. In between, I get really tasty mushrooms, since Stropharia is an edible kind of mushroom, and a tasty one at that, if the taste is anything like the smell. I hope to post about what they taste like soon.

Group and Conquer!

Of all the weeds that will inhabit a garden, grass is the worst. It is not all that bad in singular form –that is singular root, singular blade, singular plant. But grass grows in numbers, and while an individual grass root is rather fine and easily broken, an established grass root system is unbreakable without a shovel. Likewise, singular grass blades don’t shade too much in the garden, but if they close the gaps? Grass has perfected the art of group and conquer.

In starting a food forest, or garden, most people don’t start with a well tilled, weed free piece of ground; they start with grass. This can be a big problem if you are the kind of person who frowns on tillage, abhors grass poison, and try’s to avoid bringing in outside resources such as for foot thick sheet mulch made of wood chips, newspaper, cardboard and all that. In this situation, there isn’t much a person can do, accept revert to one of the above approaches, unless they observe nature, think outside of the box, and come up with a very permaculture solution, the problem. That is not a typo.

I am referring to the “The problem is the solution” principle as taught by the so called “father” of permaculture Bill Mollison. His idea is that there are no ‘bad’ forces in nature, just forces, which can be used to our disadvantage, or advantage. We could go on for a while about the depth of meaning in this principle, but back to the practical aspect of grass.

The grass is a force. It grows, it chokes out other plants, it seeds, it rots. Grass is not going to rid you of grass, but you can use grass to rid you of grass by mowing a large area of it (preferably just before it has bloomed), and thickly mulching with it (grouping it). In this way, the grass doesn’t get any light, and dies (conquer it)! Yet you have not brought in any outside materials, have not tilled, and have not sprayed poison.
Sheet mulching like this is far better than just hoeing the grass, which dry’s out the soil and leaves it exposed to sunlight. The thick cover of grass holds moisture very well, and the abundance of grass translates to abundant nutrients for soil organisms to eat, which leads to healthy soil life, and a rich layer of humus to grow plants in.

In the case that your mulch wasn’t thick enough, and the grass can make it through to sunlight, rake the mulch around to bury the grass again, and continue to do so until the grass has starved to death.

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In the picture, I made the mistake of planting strawberries directly into the green mulch. It was only about four inches deep when I applied it, so there is some grass coming through, so I am just reaching underneath and cutting them of.

In the places where I have been smart, and have refrained from planting anything, until the grass is dead, I will plant lugumes in the mulch, and let them establish a new root system before planting my perennial and self-seeding annual vegetables.