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A true Minnesota grown fig!

A true Minnesota grown fig!

This has been a topic I have wanted to write about for a long time.  But due to a slow progression in this experiment, lack of actual results, the loss of some of my original photos of this project’s inception, and my habit of starting something and then setting it on the back burner for a while, an aritcle about growing figs in Minnesota has been well over three years in the making.

 

Back a handful of years ago when I was really starting to get into growing perennials, permaculture, and basic plant propagation, I came across a video of a guy somewhere in New England who was propagating and growing his own figs.  I watched that video, and subsequently, many more about folks who had fallen in love with growing fig trees.  My interest was piqued!

 

It seemed like an interesting project.  Even though the prospect of growing a plant in Minnesota that originated somewhere in the Middle East seemed like a fools errand, I easily located fig cuttings through the North American Scion Exchange and the experiment began.

 

I learned rather quickly, that there were an awful lot of people like myself growing figs in all sorts of different climates, and many of these folks take it pretty seriously.  Northern climate greenhouses dedicated to this Mediterranean delicacy, and collectors who seek out rare and exciting varieties from throughout the world.  Just like apples (or any other fruit for that matter), the folks growing figs do it out of love and a sense of horticultural adventure with a dedication that I find inspiring.

 

I am not going to go through and show you step by step on how to root fig cutting or the best way to over winter a fig in a cold climate.  There are already plenty of other folks out there doing these things with much greater success and with more knowledge than I have to learn from.  But what I am going to do is share my excitement, my small victory, and the short story behind my adventure of figs thus far!

 

While my love affair first started because of youtube videos and those first few fig cutting I received in the mail, it wasn’t until my short stint working at a Trader Joe’s that I got my first taste of a “fresh” fig.  They were small little things, picked before they were ripe and shipped thousands of miles to end up in the produce section.  I knew these were less than perfect specimens, but once ripened on the counter they were still good and I could catch a glimpse of what a truly delicious fig must taste like.

 

Adrianno's backyard orchard.

Adrianno’s backyard orchard.

Fast forward to this summer.  At the end of June, I was lucky enough to participate in a family vacation to the North eastern part of Italy.  The small town of Polesella where we spent the majority of our time, is located in the Po river valley, and is the main fruit growing region of the country.  Adrianno, one of the family friends we went to visit, has a backyard orchard the likes I have never seen.  Apples, pears, plums, apricots, nectarines, persimmons, grapes, currants, gooseberries, and yes, figs all had a home in his backyard paradise.

 

My son Owen with a basketful of fresh, Italian figs!

My son Owen with a basketful of fresh, Italian figs!

And it just so happened that the time of year that we found ourselves in this northern, mediterranean region was peak fig season!  It seemed that almost all yards had a fig tree (along with gardens and other fruit and nut trees).  We were spoiled for 9 days with some of the best food I have ever eaten, and my curiosity with figs bloomed into an exotic passion.

 

There is no way I can quite explain how good those figs in Italy were, but I will just say that there is nothing quite like them.  I know I will never be able to grow figs like that here in Minnesota, but it doesn’t mean I can’t try, right?!

 

Figs in Minnesota!!??

Figs in Minnesota!!??

So as this summer progressed, I realized there was a good chance I may get a small handful of figs from my half a dozen small fig trees.  While most of them have aborted and dropped off before they fully ripened, I finally grew a fig to near perfect ripeness!  It was great!  It was small, but it was a real fig, from a tree I started from a cutting oh so long ago.  And the taste?  While not quite the figs from Italy, it was juicy and sweet, and contained all the curves and mysteries that seduces a new lover!

 

As of this writing it looks like we may get three more figs from our trees.  While I am smitten by figs, I truly know very little about what they need to thrive when grown in containers in a northern climate.  The information is out there, so really it is just setting aside time and energy and focusing on some of the finer details about what figs really like.

 

But I can say one thing, figs are one of my motivations for building a four season greenhouse.  If the day ever comes that I find myself with a badass bio – shelter, a fig tree or two will find a home on the interior north side.  Until then, I will keep growing, propagating, and experimenting with figs in the expectation that climate change may be slowly making these northern climes more hospitable to these wonderful trees.

 

So there it is, my love story with figs.  It is an incomplete story, and one that I hope to add many pages, and maybe even chapters too.  Luckily we live in an age that is overflowing with information.  So what follows are some of the more interesting things I have come across concerning figs.  First, anyone who gets bitten by this fruit and has a question, check out the forum, Figs For Fun.  It is a great resource for the amatuer and expert grower alike.  There are comprehensive variety lists, discussions on all aspects of figs, and most likely you will be able to find plenty of folks who will be willing to help you get started for very little money.

 

Another source that I found helpful was on episode #89 of The Agricultural Innovations Podcast.  While a bit of it was a little esoteric for my liking, the main body of the interview was very informative and helpful.  This podcast has a lot of other stuff to offer as well, so check out The Agricultural Innovations podcast for more brain food!

And I will finish with a video my friend Little John made of his adventures foraging figs in southern California.  So if you are one of the lucky ones to live somewhere that figs grow without the freezing temps of the north, please enjoy them and know that there are others of us out there who are a bit jealous of what you have!  If you find yourself in a climate like mine, know that it is not completely impossible to enjoy this exotic fruit, you just have to work a lot harder to realize a harvest.  Peace and Cheers…

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While the title of this essay may be tinted with a bit of doom and gloom, it is not as ominous as it sounds, and it is a fairly accurate description of the events and stories that follow.  For anyone who has followed this blog over the last five years may have noticed, I have gone through periods of consistent, productive writing, balanced out with dry periods of nothing but writers’ block growing up through the cracks of my mindscape.  While these droughts have been few for the most part, this last one has been pretty epic in scale!  The last time I sat down to write was back in February of this year when I continued with an ongoing series of essays about DIY homebrewing.

 

Winter!!!

Winter!!!

Since this last winter (the one filled with all of the Polar Vortexes) many things have happened here at the Dead End Alley Farm, and much of it would have made great copy for essays and DIY how – to’s here on the blog. I am not going to touch on everything, but I guess it is time for us to catch up on current events and happenings around the homestead and the world at large.

 

As I sit here in the afternoon shade with a cold beer in the outside office (a picnic table and some benches, and a hacked together arbor covered in wild grapes and honeysuckle) I am listening to one of the hens cluck away in pride or fear or some other emotion that only a chicken can know.  I can see bumble bees feeding on white clover and catnip, an overcast sky, and my old dog Harvey lying in the grass watching the world go by.

 

There are parts of our yard that are overgrown with weeds that should have been ripped from the ground long ago, and some of our apple trees (especially the big old one in back) are beginning to shed apples like drops of rain.  There is garlic hanging from the roof joists of my back deck and the tomato plants are overloaded with luscious fruit this year.

 

I have three hives of bees this season.  My pride and joy are the Carniolans that overwintered and have proven to be exceptional bees.  They are 3 deep with 2 honey supers (which translates to a very healthy colony that is making a lot of honey), a naturally mated queen (who may be the same one from last year, not real sure if they have swarmed or not this season) leads this tribe, and they are poised to enter this upcoming winter appearing very strong and healthy with adequate food supplies.

 

buckfastbbeeinstall

Installing the Buckfast bees out at our country beeyard.

This spring I also purchased 2 packages of hybrid Buckfast bees that came up from Georgia.  Sadly one perished within the first week (dead queen), but the other one has shown to be a vigorous (if not a bit pissy) hive of bees.  At last check they were finishing up drawing out comb and making honey in 3 deep boxes which should be enough stores for winter. And throughout the early part of the year these Buckfast bees provided frames of brood and eggs to help strengthen my Carniolans, and have also helped out to create a third colony.

 

At the end of June I came across a local company, 4 Seasons Apiaries, that specializes in locally bred queens and nucs.  This is a huge deal for us in Minnesota, not only for the fact that it is hard to find northern bred queens anywhere, but because it was only 20 minutes from my house as the car drives.  I ended up purchasing a really dark queen for $28 and put together a split that was made up of two frames each of the Buckfasts and the Carniolans.  The jury is still out on how this hive is doing though.  The queen is laying eggs, there is brood (both capped and otherwise), and they are actually making quite a bit of honey, but their overall numbers seem low to me.  They will most likely be subsidized with honey from the Carniolans this winter in hopes that they will have enough food to survive the cold, dark days of the upper midwest winter.

 

While I cross my fingers in hopes that all 3 of my colonies will pull through and survive this upcoming winter, observation and common sense tell me that the likelihood of all 3 surviving is slim at best.  Current numbers from this last winters survival rate was anywhere from about 30-50%.  These are horseshit numbers when compared to 20-30 years ago when a beekeeper could expect close to 90% survival rate in their apiaries.

 

My backyard is a refuge for endangered species...

My backyard is a refuge for endangered species…

So the same story continues for the bees.  While the numbers of reported cases of colony collapse disorder have evened out (and possibly plateaued), bee losses continue throughout many parts of the world, but seem especially high here in America.  Why this is such a surprise to people baffles me.  Our modern – mono crop – anthropocentric ways of inhabiting this planet are not compatible with a diverse, living, natural world.  This story is no longer just about the bees, but also of the monarch butterfly, the oceans, the remaining old growth forests of the world, and even people.

 

Habitat destruction, climate change, slavery, edible-food-like-products engineered to grow with poison, industrial pollution, and profit – from – disease are all symptoms of the overarching cancer that is this modern day capitalist society. It has grown up around us over the last 300 years, the whole time was spent in a petrochemical party binge, and now that we are drying out we are starting to feel the hangover!

 

It is as simple as this – when the bees lose, we lose, and that is the road we are going down.  The world that we live in, regardless of your flavor of religion, or politics, or indifference is still ruled by cold hard facts established through observation and the scientific method.  The world is changing, mainly its’ climate, but also the make-up of its varied populations.  Every day the Earth loses another creature, another plant.  The last of manifest destiny is completing itself as the few remaining “wild” people are driven from their forest homes, and the blood of ethnic genocide still waters the tree of “Liberty” for those of us in the privileged world .

 

Here is my flooded basement!

Here is my flooded basement!

This spring my family experienced climate change first hand.  For some naive reason I thought we were insulated from climate change here in Minnesota, but was I wrong!  Starting towards the end of May and going through towards the end of June, we received upwards of 15 inches of rain for the month, with a lot of this rain coming in bursts of multiple inches in short periods of time.  At some point a sewer line about a block and a half away from my home could no longer keep up with the amount of stormwater entering the system and literally collapsed in on itself.  This blockage led to my whole neighborhoods’ sanitary sewers backing up and we had upwards of 14 inches of sewage water in our basements!

 

Lets just say it was a real shitty and smelly problem to clean up.  To add to the mess, the city that I live in is not claiming any real responsibility for the sewer collapsing.  They are saying that the amount of rain that we received is to blame (because no one could have predicted that we would ever get that much rain in such a small space of time), and it is not their problem that the sewer wasn’t designed to handle that much water.  This situation is a good illustration of the intersecting problems of failing infrastructure and its ability to deal with the symptoms of climate change.

 

Not only is it bad enough that our infrastructure is falling apart and failing throughout the country, climate change will only hasten the collapse of these systems that we take for granted.  As there is less and less money to spend on domestic infrastructure projects and basic preventative maintenance, and the ever increasing threats of unstable weather conditions loom closer on all of our horizons, our roads and sewers and all the other systems that make modern lifestyles possible will be challenged and frequently overcome by a force far greater than themselves.

 

What is the quick take away from this conversation?  That as we face the future of a world that struggles to adapt to a changing climate with far fewer cheap resources on hand to work with, we can no longer rely on the long term support of our governments to solve these problems or to even help clean up the messes that ensue.  Just think back to hurricanes Katrina or Sandy (or any number of other climate disasters that happen regularly around the world) and you have all the evidence that you need to show government ineptitude when a climate-crisis strikes.

 

Most of the collapse will be slow and unnoticeable except for those places directly affected by whatever natural disaster decides to strike next.  But with each changing season, and every new climate change induced disaster, bit by bit the comfort and convenience that we are used to will begin to erode away. As long as we keep spending our resources, whether that be gold or oil, in a way that denies climate change and resource depletion, we will find ourselves in a world that is an empty shell of the one we now know.

 

If I were a religious man I may start praying extra hard right now, but thankfully I let science rather than superstition guide my life.  Critical observation and the ability to make rational decisions based on the facts is important.  Not just for a nation or a civilization, but also on the personal and family level.  I think if there is anything I have learned, is that when we can look at problems on multiple levels, do the research that is needed to educate ourselves on these problems, and then make decisions based on these observations to correct the problem, we can do a lot just in our own lives to change the course of events, and add a bit of resiliency and human spirit back into our everyday lives.

 

Nature reclaiming what is rightfully hers!!

Nature reclaiming what is rightfully hers!!

As briefly mentioned here in other posts, a year and a half ago I quit a long time job of mine in favor of one that affords me far more free time.  The trade off has been huge, and sometimes quite challenging.  This has been my second summer off, and my first full season as a partially self employed, full time stay at home dad.  It has probably been the most eye opening, and sometimes hardest role I have ever had to play.

 

Being use to the role as the main breadwinner in my family for so long and then giving up that economic control is not easy, but a lesson that I urge you to all try at some point in your life.  After these last few months of being at home with the kids, I have a far greater appreciation and respect for the work that my wife (as well as all you other moms out there!) has done over the last 8 years.  Child rearing is the hardest thing I have ever participated in, but I am glad that I have had the chance to dive in full time.

 

For me the hardest part has been balancing time between time actively spent with the kids, chores, and coordinating our CSA.  The CSA we run is small.  2 full shares, and 2, ½ shares, but it gave me a nice chunk of cash in the spring and early summer for things like groceries (I can’t grow cheese cake!) and gas money.  That cash is gone now, so my new endeavor is working on a business plan that expands out from the CSA in other directions to increase my summer cash flow for a few more months.

 

Eventually I hope to start making a bit of money by raising bees to sell, starting a small plant nursery, and I am also exploring some options for teaching classes.  Using outlets like the public library system, community education, and space at my local co-op, I am hoping to put together a selection of classes that will include introductions to beekeeping and Permaculture, and also a tree grafting workshop each spring.  I am in the early phases of research and planning, but I hope to teach my first official tree grafting class this upcoming spring (contact me if you are interested in hosting a class).

 

I guess when I really sit down and think about it, my ultimate long term goal is to not have to ever work a full time job again, unless it is for myself.  I am not scared of hard work, but it comes back to the fact that I am no longer alright selling my time to some asshole when I am fully capable of doing something(s) I am passionate about and generate an income for myself at the same time.

 

You can't stop nature!

You can’t stop nature!

Is this selfish?  Maybe, but I am okay with that as well.  I have begun to realize more than ever most people are just clueless drones.  Who after years of taking orders, and numbing themselves with TV, processed food, and fanatical beliefs in fairy tales can no longer truly take care of themselves or make desicions that impact their destiny.  As it stands, with humans being prisoners to their own creations and all,  I do not have a lot of hope for humanity right now.

 

If you follow David Holmgren’s work Future Scenarios, we are most likely entering into the Brown Tech future.  A world where we will continue draining the Earth of its fossil fuels, destroying the last of the wild lands, converting more and more  of that land to desertscapes of monocrops, and the further erosion of our shared cultural heritage, modern Homo Sapiens have perfected the art of extinction.

 

It is a bleak future.  One that leaves less and less room for those of us who seek freedom and justice.  It is a world that has been reduced to cultural poverty by traditions and tragedies alike.  It is a world where all life on Earth has been reduced to interchangeable and disposable parts in the pursuit of Progress.  It is a world filled with death and injustice, but it is also falling apart.

 

Whether humans can survive this collapse of our own making is yet to be determined.  It will be hard, but even the strongest rock is defeated by water and wind in the end.  It is in these cracks and fissures that we can seek our refuge.  The spots forgotten about and overlooked.  The areas where literal and figurative weeds grow.  The edges.  The TAZs where humanity still flourish.

 

Go on hikes.  Hunt mushrooms.  Raise bees.  Raise Kids.  Bake bread.  Love.  Hate.  Grow some carrots.  Chop some wood.  Pull some weeds.  Laugh.  Hug a puppy.  Cry.  Resist!  Grow.  Take a nap.  Rise up!  Read a book.  Lend a hand.   Take notes.  Have fun.  Fish.  Visit a friend.  Hug your mom.  Plant trees.  Be human….

Freedom!!

Freedom!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Long before the rise of annual grain based industrial agriculture, and the dismantling of our food and cultural traditions, humans lived in ways much closer to the earth.  In some places hunting and gathering remained a viable option (even up to the present day), and in other places this relationship with the earth manifested itself through horticulture and various forms of animal husbandry.  In many places it was a mix of these two ways of procuring food that shaped and defined a culture and/or a region.

For untold millennia (until relatively recently), humans had been able to provide for their basic needs through a combination of these two actions:  Hunting/Fishing/Shepherding/Husbanding and the cultivation/gathering of plants for all of their dietary needs.  These ways of life are not mutually exclusive, but rather a complementary set of skills and traditions that have formed the long and diverse history of humans, the food we eat, and how we inhabit, impact, and transform our landscapes.

The transition from hunter/gatherers to industrial agricultural farmers did not happen overnight.  It has been a long drawn out story that has seen countless empires and kingdoms rise and fall, climate and weather patterns change, landscapes transformed, and cultural practices (some good, and some bad) that have led up to the present day.  The part of this story that really interests me, and what this essay is going to explore, are some of the horticultural practices that came between the gulf of the hunting and gathering lifestyle and the transition to the industrial agricultural paradigm, and how the ultimate survival of the human species rests in reconnecting with these horticultural traditions.

For the last ten thousand years humans have undergone a transformation that has slowly eroded our abilities to be self reliant as communities.  Year by year, and season by season unseen and unnoticed by most of those living through these changes, we have become more dependent on others to grow, raise, and process our food for us.  But even as this has occurred, and continues to happen to this day, there are examples of resistance to the transition of mass produced food that is based on annual grain agriculture.

The kitchen garden, which in many regards is the original resistor to monocrop agriculture, is the heart of any homestead.  They provide us with an abundance of fruits and vegetables, culinary and medicinal herbs, flowers, forage, liquid gold from honey bees, fodder for livestock and pollinators, beauty, a sense of well being, and a bit of self reliance.  The kitchen garden, whether it is covering thousands of square feet as part of a rural homestead, or is an intensively managed set of raised beds in an urban neighborhood, has traditionally provided us with a majority of our essential vitamins, nutrients, and minerals that we need each day to remain healthy.

The kitchen garden has been the difference of merely surviving on a subsistence diet of staple grains or other forms of cheap industrial grown carbs, and thriving because of a diet consisting of healthy leafy greens, fruits, berries, legumes, stems, nuts, tubers, roots, and different forms of animal protein.  It is the kitchen gardens, allotments, community gardens, urban farms, and small scale polycultural farms found throughout the world and its history that have helped to feed the civilian population in times of war and peace, economic prosperity and downturns, and periods of climate change and stability.

As far back as ancient Rome, before it was an empire dominated by politicians and imperial armies, citizen farmers worked the land as families.  Their farms were small, diverse operations worked by hand that provided all the food a family needed to survive.  David R. Montgomery, the author of Dirt – The Erosion of Civilisations, sums up early Roman horticultural practices in this passage –

“Early Roman farms were intensively worked operations where diversified fields were hoed and weeded manually and carefully manured.  The earliest Roman farmers planted a multistory canopy of olives, grapes, cereals, and fodder crops referred to as cultura promiscua.  Interplanting of understory and overstory crops smothered weeds, saved labor, and prevented erosion by shielding the ground all year.  Roots of each crop reached to different depths and did not compete with each other.  Instead, the multicrop system raised soil temperatures and extended the growing season.  In the early republic, a Roman family could feed itself working the typical plot of land by hand.  (And such labor – intensive farming is best practiced on a small scale.)  Using an ox and plow saved labor but required twice as much land to feed a family.  As plowing became standard practice, the demand for land increased faster than the population.”

romanfarmers2

Farmers from ancient Rome.

This passage highlights a few points that are well worth looking at in more detail.  First, the description of the crops grown illustrates the importance of genetic diversity.  While the Romans did not have the word Permaculture, the fact that their horticultural choices included tree crops, vines, ground covers and annuals shows that they understood the importance of genetic variation within their farmsteads.  Genetic diversity within a particular crop selection almost always insures a harvest of some kind, and by designing this resilient feature into our farms, we can avoid complete famine in a bad year.

Second, these early Roman farmers knew the importance of a healthy, living soil even if the finer details of microorganisms and soil life were not fully understood.  By returning manure and organic matter back to the fields, and growing a diverse selection of perennial food crops (along with some annuals), the soil health was maintained and continually improved upon. But gradually throughout the empire the Roman family farm began to be replaced with annual grain production that depended on the tilling and plowing of the fields to support an elite urban empire.  Once this occurred the resilience of these small horticultural farms was lost to the history books.

At this point in Roman history, absentee land ownership took over, soil was lost to water and wind erosion, and farm labor moved in the direction of slavery.  These are all signs, still seen today to some extent, of what happens when our horticultural traditions are replaced with annual monocrop grain production to feed the cities.  This transition does not happen overnight, and is almost invisible to those living through it.  Only in hindsight and with an accurate historical narrative can we see the effects of what annual mono-crop based agriculture does to a once thriving, self reliant culture.

Moving on to another example of a multi species, horticultural society, we find ourselves in pre-industrial China.  While China has suffered many famines, environmental degradations, and massive amounts of soil loss due to poor farming practices and land stewardship, not everything in this ancient culture’s history is doom and gloom.  Focusing solely on southern China, there is a roughly 10,000 year old agricultural tradition of growing rice along with fish and ducks.

Chinese rice farmer, Seven Stars and Moon viewpoint, Dragon's Ba

This farmer is carrying on a tradition that is millenia old.

This polyculture of rice, fish, and ducks provided a substantial part of southern China’s diet on land that was marginal at best.  Through intensive land management of irrigation ditches and rice paddies, and the continual addition of human and animal manures to these areas, the pre-industrial Chinese farmers were able to work these same lands for millennia without degrading the soil.  This technique of multi-species farming was so successful that the population would balloon in times of prosperity and occasionally overshoot the carrying capacity of the landbase, leading to isolated periods of collapse, famine, and death.

In addition to the rice, fish, and ducks, Chinese farmers also raised chickens and pigs, and cultivated amaranth, asian beans, barley, brassicas, leeks, melons, millet, turnips, and many other old world annual vegetables that added richness to their cuisine and health.  Fungi and herbs that have traditionally been used in Chinese medicine have now gained notoriety throughout the world, and as far as perennial contributions from their horticultural traditions, apricots, apples, bamboo shoots, citrus, lotus roots, and peaches also played large roles in feeding the pre-industrial farmers of China.

Like the example of the Romans, as ancient China grew and added more and more urban areas, the population increased and demanded more from the land.  As this happens, shortcuts are taken and eventually people start to change the way they grow their food.  Demand dictates efficiencies, so rather than keeping age old methods of growing and raising food for small communities using proven sustainable methods, new ways are invented to grow and export more food to the ever growing urban areas.  As this happens land stewardship ceases to matter, and as a consequence soil is lost, and civilizations fail.

potatoes

An example of genetic diversity within the indiginous crop of the Andes mountains – potatoes!

Moving along to one last pre-industrial horticultural society, we find ourselves across the two great oceans in pre-European North, Central, and South America.  While this land mass is huge and contained many diverse cultures, there was a shared, underlying similarity displayed by many of these first nations of the Americas.  While it is true that the Americas’ had its own agricultural revolutions with crops like maize and potatoes (and flourishing kingdoms and urban centers that were supported by these crops), the pre European Americas were highly managed landscapes overflowing with an abundance of useful plants and animals despite what the first Europeans thought was an untouched, virgin wilderness.

One major difference that set the Americas apart from Europe and Asia is that there were no domesticated animals aside from the dog that were a part of their horticultural systems.  While it could be argued that the guinea pig and possibly the turkey were partially domesticated, there were no beasts of burden prior to the arrival of the Europeans (and the animals they brought with them) that aided in the transformation of the landscape, thus giving it its wild appearance.

This fact alone sets the stage for the reasons that the original inhabitants of the Americas managed the land the way they did.  With no domesticated animals to keep track of or feed, there were no fences or pastures in the landscape.  Therefore all meat and animal products were procured from undomesticated sources.  The work of clearing fields was done first with semi controlled fires, and then using wood and bone hand tools to finish removing charred stumps and other debris, fields were then planted in any number of indigenous crops.  The same way manure adds nutrients and minerals to the soil, so too does fire from the (semi)annual burnings.

Fire not only cleared out fields where they grew the Three Sisters (maize, beans, and squash – Roughly  Mexico north through Minnesota ), potatoes in the central and southern American highlands, and manioc root in the tropics, but fire was also used to keep undergrowth in the forests (continents wide) from getting out of control.  The great savannas in the Eastern and Central United States, described by Lewis and Clark in their journals that contained American Chestnuts, oaks, maples, and many other trees were not wild tracts of land, but highly managed food forests that provided a variety of nuts, fruits, greens, medicinal herbs, and meat protein from the animals that also called these forests home.

Variations on this theme of the food forest could be found throughout the Americas.  From the northern climes all the way down to the tropics and beyond; each region had its own diverse set of species that flourished with the help of the native populations and the fire they used to shape the land.  Even the tropics and the great Amazonian rainforests are now thought to have been food forests and gardens that were managed by the local populations whose numbers are now believed to have been much larger than first thought.  The evidence of terra preta, a mixture of charcoal, fired clay, manure, and other organic matter that is highly fertile that is found throughout huge swaths of Amazonian soil, is now thought to be evidence of a very hands on approach to the management of land that was once considered to be virgin wilderness.

With the arrival of the Europeans to the Americas, the world changed forever.  Disease spread like wildfire and decimated native and imperial populations alike (this included non human species as well).  Plants and animals from all corners of the globe began their international migrations.  Maize, potatoes, and tomatoes from the Americas, wheat and barley from Europe and the Middle East, and apples, citrus, melons, and rice from Asia all became global crops.   Honey bees, horses, cows, chickens, and pigs all became global animals and farming practices around the globe began to radically change, which in turn affected how communities prospered or failed, and how landscapes were altered.  So while it can be said that monocrop grain agriculture started well over 10,000 years ago, it was with the advent of the Columbian exchange that it took on a new global approach that has altered our planet radically.

Today our kitchen gardens and small scale farms are made up of global plant immigrants.  Whether you are in Africa, America, or Australia, the joy of a garden fresh cucumber, tomato, or onion is now a shared experience.  And while the globalization of plants and animals has had downsides such as the spread of pests, disease, and “invasive” species, it has also provided us with many new opportunities to help feed ourselves and heal the land after so much abuse and mismanagement at the hands of modern civilization and the agriculture that has made it possible.

Having this plethora of plants (and animals) at hand to work with can now be considered an asset and another tool for us to use as we adapt to our new living arrangements.  As Bill Mckibben has so eloquently wrote about (see his book Eaarth), we no longer live on the planet that we grew up on.  The realities of climate change are real, and when combined with peak oil, habitat loss, and nuclear contamination humans have been backed into a corner that will be hard to get out of alive.

The horticultural traditions from the global past may now be our best shot for the survival of the human race along with all the good parts of our collective culture – i.e. – music, art, poetry, community, family, etc.  When we can all become producers again, rather than just blindly consuming, we begin to occupy one of our historical roles as land stewards.  Since so few of us have any connection with the Earth anymore, we no longer know what it needs or how to care for it.  When we no longer live with the Earth, we no longer know its rhythms and fall out of balance with our evolutionary roles as caretakers.  Every year more soil is lost to erosion, aquifers are drained and contaminated, wild habitat is plowed under for field crops and development, and human culture moves further away from our evolutionary roots.  This has been our fate, but now is the time to free ourselves from the shackles of civilization and move onto the next stage of evolution.

Our shared horticultural traditions, whether that be from the terraced slopes of China to the food forests of pre-Columbian America are examples of what is possible.  While we may never be able to recreate some of these systems as they once were, the lessons they have to teach us are timeless and offer real solutions for our journey into the future.  The ecological design science of Permaculture gives us an opportunity to take all of these diverse traditions and blend them into a new, adaptable way for us to inhabit the Earth.  As we begin this journey, we will see that modern, industrial grain based agriculture is incompatible will our ultimate survival on this planet.  Only when we begin to think long term and include future generations into our plans will we be able to affect real, positive change.

So while planting biodiverse gardens with fruit and nut trees in and of itself is not the answer to all of the problems we face, it is a big part of the solution.  The challenges we are up against are compounded by so many factors, but food is one of the underlying commonalities that ties everything together.  When we begin to rethink how we grow our food and look to the past for examples, that is when we can truly move forward and begin the healing process of ourselves and our one planet.  I leave you with one final thought, a favorite quote of mine that sums up our journey thus far.  “Societies grow great when old men plant trees  whose shade they  know they will never sit in.”  It is not too late for us, lets do something epic and grow old together as one human culture!  Peace and Cheers

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Here are the apples - L-R - Rubinette, Baker's Square, Golden Delicious, Steele Red, Wickson, Goldrush, Library, Honey Gold, Haralson

Here are the apples – L-R – Rubinette, Baker’s Square, Golden Delicious, Steele Red, Wickson, Goldrush, Library, Honey Gold, Haralson

2013 saw a lot of successful gardening and foraging projects, and none were quite as fun to participate in as the apple harvest has been.  Not only did one of our trees begin to reach its full potential this year (the Haralson), we also added close to 25 new varieties to our ever growing (but still small urban orchard), harvested multiple varieties from Son of !Frankentree! and located a few other nice neighborhood trees to forage from.

 

From our local bounty we have been eating fresh apples for the last month (and I suspect for at least the next few months to come), are in the process of fermenting about three and a half gallons of cider, have made a decent sized batch of spicy apple chutney, and have began to experiment with drying apple slices.  The limiting factor so far in our apple projects has not been a lack of produce to work with, but with not enough time in the day to do everything we would like to try.

 

While most of our trees are still very young, a few of the original ones that we planted well over five years ago are beginning to enter their early prime.  The Haralson was the highlight this year.  The tree was packed with apples early on, and after an initial thinning out of the fruit, we  saw a nice harvest in early September.  Most of the apples were in pretty good shape, but there was some internal damage on some of them that was most likely caused by the plum currcilio.

 

Our Rubinette and HoneyCrisp, both about the same age as the Haralson, were much more disappointing.  While it seemed early on that the fruit set was going to be great, we ended up losing many apples. The few that made it to harvest were quite ugly and riddled with pest damage, though we did find a small number to at least taste.

 

Bad years are going to occur no matter how much we fight against pest invasion and disease, but it also shows that we have a lot to learn as far as orchard upkeep, maintenance, and overall orchard health is concerned.  I have two books that I always come back to when I have a question about fruit tree health and orchard care.  The Holistic Orchard and The Apple Grower are both written by Michael Phillips who is on the cutting edge of organic orchard practices and Integrated Pest Management techniques.

 

The perfect inside of a Baker's Square apple ...

The perfect inside of a Baker’s Square apple …

I have made great strides and improvements in grafting skills, tree planting, pruning, and mulching techniques, but I suspect it will take me the rest of my life to get to a place where I can grow high quality apples on a yearly basis.  Ultimately my goal is not the perfect apple, but one that is grown under organic conditions, that keeps pest damage under control and aims to eliminate fungal and bacterial pathogens through probiotic, natural treatments throughout the season.  That is a tall order of chores, but one that can be accomplished if given the time, energy, and homework dedicated towards this project.

 

I could keep going on about pests and diseases, organic growing techniques, or about all the different culinary projects you could start using apples, but instead I am going to share with you the best part of this years apple adventure!  The results from the First Annual Gathering of the Autonomous Apple Tasters Collective are in!

 

While I am just having a little fun with the name, we did put on a small family tasting this year and it was a lot of fun.  As Son of !Frankentree! matures (along with all the other trees), there is a likely possibility that we could have upwards of 40 distinct varieties to sample sometime in the next few years.  This years panel is myself, my wife Karyn, and our two kids – Owen (8) and Freya (5).  Comments by the taster and what they thought about the apples they sampled are their opinion only.  Autonomy Acres will not be held liable for any disagreements or slander caused by, for, or against the aforementioned apples grown and foraged for this tasting.  Arguments between apple lovers and their significant others is their own business and shall remain that way.  Any comments, concerns, or corrections please contact the editor … Peace & Cheers

 

Results from the First Annual Autonomous Apple Tasters Collective

 

Rubinette – Rubinette is an apple bred in Switzerland in the 1950s.  A cross of Cox’s Orange Pippin and Golden Delicious, Rubinette is considered one of the finest apples in the world.  A smaller apple that is slightly orange with splashes of yellow and red.  Ours were heavily damaged this year, and the kids called them ugly and slightly bumpy.  Owen described his first bite as sweet and gritty.  Karyn said overripe and mealy.  Freya thought they were tart, and I thought they had an underlying sweetness with a mealy mouth feel.  This years Rubinette pales in comparison to one we had last year, but I am hopeful that in the years to come we will once again taste this apple in all its glory.

 

Baker’s Square – Baker’s Square is one of the apple trees that we forage from.  It is named after the place where it lives, on the boulevard outside of a restaurant here in town.    We ended up collecting close to two produce boxes filled with these apples.  Cosmetically the Baker’s Square apples were nearly perfect.  Virtually free of pest damage, and no overt signs of disease.  These apples are larger in size, with a green background and a pinkish/red overlay,  ripening to a shiny yellow background.  They taste like an apple.  The kids thought they were sweet, smooth, and fluffy.  Karyn was under impressed and thought they were dull, but would be good for cooking.  I thought they tasted like cider and  make for decent fresh eating.  While it is not the best apple I have ever eaten, I will gladly forage from this tree as often as nature lets me.

 

Golden Delicious – This is one of the apples we got off of Son of !Frankentree! this year.  We only had one apple to try, and it had a bit of pest damage.  Visually it was a small, golden/green apple, that was slightly pitted.  Upon the first taste Karyn felt a tartness in the back of her mouth and Freya thought she tasted lime or citrus.  Owen thought it was kind of bland, but that may be because it was not the best example of what this apple has to offer.  I love me a good Golden Delicious so I am looking forward to a better crop next year.

 

Steele Red – Steele Red is another apple off of Son of !Frank!  This apple was a show stopper for us.  Karyn described its appearance as rustic, and looking like an old painting, while Freya saw shades of purple and dark reds.  When I saw it cut open I described it as looking like a fairytale with an almost perfect white fleshed interior.  We were all in agreement that it was very crisp and really sweet with just a touch of sour apple candy in each bite!  Great eating that reminds us of what some of the modern varieties taste like, but much better.  A real keeper.

 

Wickson – Wickson is an apple that I was turned onto by my friend Steven who writes the blog Turkeysong.  Steven has been kind enough over the last few years to share many different varieties of apple genetics with me, and Wickson is one of them (also harvested off of Son of !Frankentree!).  Developed in northern California by Albert Etter in the early 1900s, Wickson is a crabapple with a sugar content of up to 25%!  A good addition to cider, or for a sweet treat right off the tree.  We only had one to try and it was described as small, darkish red, waxy, very tart, but well balanced with sweetness.  Once again, this apple shows a lot of promise in the years to come.

 

Goldrush – I did a review of Goldrush last year with an almost perfect specimen harvested from S.O.F.T..  Sadly, this year’s examples fall short to what we have tasted before.  While this years Goldrush apples were beaten up quite a bit, you could still glimpse (and taste) how wonderful this apple is.  Crisp, tart, and mildly sweet, Goldrush starts out slightly juicy and finishes dry in the back of your mouth.  Eating a Goldrush apple I can just imagine what a hard cider would be like when made with these apples!

 

The Library Apple!  A true beauty that deserves a real name ....

The Library Apple! A true beauty that deserves a real name ….

Library Apple – This is another one of the apple trees that we forage from, or should I say will be foraging from in the years to come.  I found this apple the day before our apple tasting while driving by our library.  This may or may not be a named cultivar, but my suspicions are that it is a seedling due to where I found it.  The Library apple is a very dark red, with a smooth shiny skin.  There are no stripes and almost looks like a velvety plum.  Both Owen and Freya loved this apple and it was described as “The best ever!”  Upon eating this last minute entry, the taste did not let us down.  It was soft, juicy, and very sweet with hints of berries and strawberries.  Library apple will have scion wood collected from it this spring and it will find a home in our orchard for further research and eating.  Delicious!

 

Honey Gold – Honey Gold has always been one of my favorite apples.  My first introduction to this apple was through the farmer’s market, and since then I have grafted Honey Gold onto S.O.F.T.  But the sample we had to taste this year actually comes from a tree that is growing at my in-laws property.    The general consensus was that is was very sweet, and well, tasted somewhat like honey.  Karyn also got hints of pineapple.  Honey Gold is a crunchy apple that is great for fresh eating, and an all round pleasure to have available to us.

 

A picture perfect Haralson.  I wish the taste would have been equal to its beauty ...

A picture perfect Haralson. I wish the taste would have been equal to its beauty …

Haralson – A popular Minnesota apple developed by the U of M in the 1920’s.  Red and russetting, this apple ripens a bit earlier and does not store super well.  So it is with great regret that I report the Haralson fared the worst in this tasting.  With words like astringent, bland, and UGHH being used to describe our homegrown local Haralsons you would have thought you were biting into a mass produced Red Delicious purchased from a Wal-Mart!  It really was that bad!  Part of the problem is that they were starting to loose their freshness due to age.  With a shelf life of only a month or two, a Haralson is meant to be used quickly and not put away on the shelf to be eaten later in the year.  Haralsons are great, and I know that in the past we have harvested a few really great apples off of this tree.  One year of pest damage and disease is not enough to stop me when I know the potential of this Minnesota classic.

 

 

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Here is a dark shot of myself and the giant puffball that I checked out from the library!

Here is a dark shot of myself and the giant puffball that I checked out from the library!

Two nights ago I found myself at our public library, diving deep into the bowels of what the Affordable Care Act will mean for my family and what our options for insurance may be.  Between looking at different websites trying to navigate this maze of government red tape, my mind would wander and my eyes would focus on the view looking down on the land outside of the library.  Our library was built over 20 years ago on land that was one of the last remaining farmsteads in W. St. Paul, MN and it still contains a few aspects of what it once was.

The fact that the county purchased this land for building a library (rather than a housing or commercial developer), was in certain regards a saving grace for some of the wildlife that called this little piece of Earth home.  So while there is a big library building and parking lot, there are a few acres of land that hold the remnants of a small oak savanna, a pond full of ducks and geese, black walnuts, birches, maples, delicious fruiting mulberries, aronia bushes, wild raspberries and many other species of plants and animals.

There is also a thriving underground network of mycelia; in other words mushrooms that also inhabit this small holdout of nature.  Sitting there in the library, daydreaming of affordable health care, my eyes were distracted by a large, white orb maybe 30 or 40 yards away from me.  From my vantage point looking through the windows, it was hard to tell exactly what it was – maybe a kid lost a ball, or someone lost a grocery bag to the wind, but whatever it was, my eyes kept coming back to it.  Something inside me knew what it was all along, so before it got too dark outside, I packed up my bag and made the short hike to find out what this mysterious object actually was.

giantpuffball

Thar’ she be gettin’ weighed in … Yaargh!

It took me less than five minutes to find what I was looking for, and let me say it was hard to miss!  I have seen some puffball mushrooms in my life, but nothing like this!  This Calvatia gigantea, or more commonly known as a giant puffball, weighed in at just over 2 pounds and was harvested at just the right time.  It was the perfect age for eating, and had no damage from bugs.  I gratefully harvested this gigantic fungi, and headed home to show my family.

Mushrooms are an interesting food in our household.  I am a crazy mushroom freak – I love hunting for them, eating them, and learning about them!  My kids are slowly following in my footsteps and becoming a bit more adventurous when it comes to eating mushrooms, and my wife is allergic to all mushrooms so she keeps her distance.  Needless to say, I am spoiled when it comes to mushrooms as there are very few mouths that I have to share my mushrooms with.

Knowing that I could only eat so much on my own, I brought some of the giant puffball with me to work to share with a few folks who I know would appreciate such a find.  Both of my bosses in the kitchen where I work love wild crafted mushrooms.  The day before my find, we tried some sulphur shelf mushroom (Laetiporus sulphurues), which is a bright orange, highly edible mushroom common to Minnesota and most of North America.  Two wild mushrooms in two days, not too bad!

I ended up cutting thick slices of the puffball and sauteing the pieces in butter with a little bit of salt and pepper.  How to describe them short of saying they were heavenly?  They are very light with a noticeable, but subtle, mushroom flavor and a texture that literally melts in your mouth.  In the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, giant puffballs are described as choice, which means don’t pass these up when you get a chance to eat them!

bolete

Here is the unidentified bolete from the library. Any guesses?

Another mushroom that I found the next day, also on this same land at the library is some type of bolete.  There were a few dozen of them growing in the footprint of a birch, so it leads me to believe that it is the birch bolete, or Leccinum scabrum or possibly the Slippery Jack that is comprised of a few other varieties of boletes.  This is a perfect example of why it is so important to make a positive ID before consuming any mushroom.

According to my Mushroom Field guide, boletes contain the largest number of edible species of any family of mushrooms.  While there is a good chance that the one I found is edible, and most likely quite good, I will not be taking a bite until I can make a positive ID, which most likely will not happen this season.

Making a positive identification of mushrooms can be done in a number of ways.  The first and easiest is by visual observation.  This works for some mushrooms without any problems.  I was taught about the “FoolProof Four” which include Morels, puffballs, sulphur shelfs, and chanterelles.  I have found three of the four and am still trying to track down chanterelles.  From my understanding, chanterelles do have a few look alikes that are not good for you, so having some back up methods of making positive identifications for mushrooms is a good thing to know about.

Other methods include knowing whether a mushroom has gills, pores, or some other way disseminating its spores.  Aroma can also be a clue, like the first time I found Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) there was an overwhelming smell of anise, which in the case of oyster mushrooms is an identfying characteristic.  Location of where it was found can be helpful, but by no means does it prove anything about the exact species.  And then there is a relatively simple test that you can do called a spore print (I will write about this sometime, I promise) that can also help you to ID a mushroom.  While I will not go into detail here about a spore print test, it is a very helpful way in determining what a mushroom may be.

Ultimately, if you are into mushrooms and enjoy hunting them and eating them, then educating yourself is the most important thing you can do.  The internet is very helpful, but personally I have found real life books to be more enjoyable when it comes to learning about mushrooms.  The National Audubon Society Field Guide To Mushrooms has been indispensable on my mushroom forays throughout the years, for it is full of great pictures and very scientific descriptions that have lead to some neat discoveries.  Another one that I have found helpful is Edible Wild Mushrooms of N. America by David W. Fischer and Alan E. Bessete.  This book is not nearly as comprehensive as the Audubon Field guide, but focuses more on edible mushrooms and all the wonderful ways that they can be prepared and preserved.

Just like gardening, tapping maple trees, or trying to catch a swarm of bees, mushroom hunting (and eating them as well) will always be an exciting and somewhat seasonal part of my life.  As I write, the seasons seem to be changing in front of me!  Cold winds blow out of the north, the leaves are changing colors and are falling to the ground, and I can see the Dark Days of winter looming not far off over the horizon.  But even with this season winding down there is always the hope of the future to keep us going and moving forward.  Soon enough the cold embrace of winter will keep me inside more than I would like to admit, but even winter does not last forever!  Before I know it, I will be out again, scouring the ground for the ever wonderful Morel!  Peace & Cheers

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Here are my two helpers.  We spent a morning picking apples off of a tree that we found a few years ago on a public boulevard.  The apples are almost perfect, and nearly blemish free.  They are large, slightly sweet and great fresh eating!

Here are my two helpers. We spent a morning picking apples off of a tree that we found a few years ago on a public boulevard. The apples are almost perfect, and nearly blemish free. They are large, slightly sweet and great fresh eating!

As happens this time every year, I have hit a lull in my writing.  Not that there hasn’t been plenty to write about, I just haven’t had the energy to sit down in front of the computer screen and pull all my thoughts together and put them into written words.  The summer of 2013 has seen our backyard bees doing great,  my wife just picked our first real harvest of Haralson apples, and it has been a very bountiful year for us on our urban foraging adventures which yielded us more than a dozen pints of mulberry jam and close to forty pounds of really great apples gleaned from an old neighborhood tree.

One reason for the lack of activity here at Autonomy Acres is that I am now working two jobs, and neither of them are the one that I have spent the last 10 years of my life working at.  Back at the end of May I called it quits at the adult beverage factory where I had worked and took the summer off to rediscover what it means to be human.  I was burnt out and depressed by the endless daily routine of factory life and knew I had to make some positive changes in the way I live and walk on this Earth.

Having a couple months off to gather my thoughts, and to let my body heal was the right medicine at the right time.  When I decided to take my life back, it was one of the most empowering moments I have ever felt, and the energy and self knowledge that I gained from that choice has changed my life.  I have realized that all the “Things” that society tells us are important and that matter are meaningless.  No longer will I let a “job” define who I am as a person.  The accumulation of money and “Toys” is not a measurement of happiness nor are they milestones that should be enshrined in our personal stories. Finally, it was reinforced in my mind that nothing is more important than our relationships with our families, friends, and the Earth.

While I wish I could say that I am now a gentleman of leisure, relaxing in a hammock sipping cold beer and reading Edward Abbey novels, sadly, I am still just a common worker!  I find myself back in my old haunts though – line cooking!  I worked restaurants for many years and truly enjoyed the kitchen work, but not the hours.  But I got lucky and I am now  slinging hash and eggs, cooking up real stocks and soups, and working with a terrific crew of Food Service Pirates at a local music college in the early morning, Monday through Friday.  It is nice to be appreciated for my talents and skills, and to also work for decent folks who treat me like a human being, and not a machine; a big change from where I previously worked.

I am also pulling a few shifts a week at a “Hip” national grocery store chain.  And while I do enjoy this as a part time gig, the pay is horseshit, and the health care benefits I was hoping to get through them just got put through the guillotine because of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which translated means – the big bosses saw this as an opportunity to make a shitload of money.  At least I still get a small discount on groceries!

It is interesting though to see a new side of the food industry that I was previously only a spectator and consumer in.  While I have written extensively about the global food supply chain and how it affects farmers and communities, and how it is ultimately not based on sustainable and local means and resources, seeing this first hand has been very educational.

freshly picked Haralsons!  These are an example of what can be grown in your own yard - No semi-truck needed!

freshly picked Haralsons! These are an example of what can be grown in your own yard – No semi-truck needed!

It is easy to use Wal-Mart as the poster child for the just-in-time, warehouse on wheels delivery model, but it is everywhere, whether that be a grocery store or a local brewery.  Anyone who has spent time researching food, how it is grown, and then how it is shipped to all parts of the world has seen the figures that say if a natural disaster or collapse of some kind disrupts the supply chain, grocery store shelves would be empty in 3 days.  Seeing how a grocery store runs, is managed, and is stocked I completely believe this.

Our food supply chain is balanced ever so gently on a global house of cards that when it does fall, it will fall fast.  It could happen because of the loss of honeybees that is now in the news almost everyday, or it could happen from a natural disaster or escalating climate change, or in a worse case scenario could be triggered by a terrorist attack or a war that shuts down the supply chain.  Whichever way you slice it, this scenario is all the evidence anyone should need to dig up that lawn and get growin’ as much of their own food that they can and begin adding a bit of resilience into their lives!

To echo past essays here at Autonomy Acres and other sources that touch on these issues, this predicament of global climate change, energy descent and food security that we find ourselves in, need to be looked at as an opportunity to move the human race forward into the future.  While it may seem like a futile prospect to think we can take on, and ultimately overcome these challenges, the words of Permaculture Pioneer Geoff Lawton come to mind -”All the worlds problem can be solved with a garden”!

It may seem like an idealistic statement, but I truly think that there is a lot of truth and wisdom from such a simple idea as planting a garden.  If everyone who has access to a bit of land, whether that be in the city or out in the country began to grow a portion of their own food, we would realize the abundance that this Earth can provide for us.  And a garden is more than just growing food.  Once you make the leap to becoming a producer and not just a consumer, many other wonderful things follow in the footsteps of a garden.

Compost is one of them.  Food scraps, garden waste, animal manures, leaves and other plant debris can all be composted and be used to start healing our soils.  When our soils are healthy and filled with organic matter, not only can we grow lots of great food, the soil also becomes a living ecosystem, a sponge for holding water, and most importantly a place that can capture and store carbon.

When we start to tend the Earth as stewards rather than rulers, and begin to see how humans can have a positive impact on our surroundings, beautiful things begin to spring forth.  Where once there were manicured lawns that were maintained by a regiment of poisons and pointless labor, now there can be gardens packed full of both annuals and perennials providing food for humans, habitat and forage for wildlife, and many other products that range from fibers, fuel, and pharmaceuticals.

Where once there were boulevards and roadsides, those pieces of land that are cut off from each, now there can be fruit and nut trees, fruiting shrubs, and forage for all the pollinators.  These pieces of land can be reclaimed and planted with species that need little to no human maintenance that once again help to feed us, provide us with fuel, store carbon, and heal the soil.

My futue looks sweet!  We took one frame of honey this year from our strongest hive.  It is a dark, sweet honey, most likely foraged from local goldenrod.

My futue looks sweet! We took one frame of honey this year from our strongest hive. It is a dark, sweet honey, most likely foraged from local goldenrod.

The future is full of possibilities.  If we continue down the road we are on now, then there will not be a future for the human race.  Turning the ship around is not enough – we have run out of time to do that, we need to jump overboard and start anew.  It will not be easy, but for the sake of the generations that follow, and all the other critters and plants that call this planet home it is what we must do.

Starting over will require participation from everyone.  It will not happen because a government or a corporation tells us too.  It will happen organically, and from the bottom up.  When the people demand an end to the destruction of the planet and are ready to start the healing process, governments and corporations will have no choice but to listen, and eventually cease to be.

It is possible, and it is starting.  It is happening everywhere that there are gardens being planted, where land is being reclaimed, and where communities are being built.  It happens when people band together and stand against the machine of oppression.  It happens when people realize that everything we have been taught is an illusion, and that when we change our lives, we have the power to change the world!  Peace & Cheer

A great video about living a simple life …

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Our first ever plums!  On the left is a Mount Royal, and the other is Superior, both off of Plumsy, our !FrankenPlum!

Our first ever plums! On the left is a Mount Royal, and the other is Superior, both off of Plumsy, our !FrankenPlum! Tree…

It is that time of year again here in the northern temperate climate of Minnesota when we start to see the abundance that pours forth from a well loved and tended garden.  Ripe tomatoes off of the vine, apples that will soon be picked, bags full of potatoes, and another successful harvest of garlic curing downstairs.

It seems like every spring I have reservations about the year to come – things like too much rain or not enough, how bad are the Japanese beetles going to be this year, or is a gigantic wind storm going to take out my fruit trees; and each year I am surprised by what happens and what thrives or what  completely fails.  But regardless of the overall outcome, we have always had something good to eat this time of year.  That is one of the benefits of planting a diverse garden, packed with the  many varieties of plants we have available to us.

This is a shot of the Superior plum. It was the best plum I have ever had, and I can not wait to have a whole tree filled with these little orbs of bliss sometime in the future!

This is a shot of the Superior plum. It was the best plum I have ever had, and I can not wait to have a whole tree filled with these little orbs of bliss sometime in the future!

When we diversify our gardens, regardless of the weather or pests, we can almost always insure some kind of harvest.  Right now, if I were so inclined too, I could walk out into the gardens and prepare any number of dishes using beets, cabbage, carrots, collards, kale, garlic, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, onions, swiss chard, green beans, a wide range of cooking herbs, eggs from our chickens, and if I felt like stealing a bit of honey from the bees, that as well.

This is not me trying to brag, but more to show what is possible when we decide to grow food, and not lawns!  Yes, it takes some work.  Yes you may get strange looks from your neighbors (but also gain some allies as well).  And yes, you will eat better and feel the benefits of joining the ranks of us crazy Urban Homesteaders!

As far as our gardens are concerned, self sufficiency has never been the goal.  For me the thought of trying to be self sufficient in food, whether that be in a city or a rural setting is a mute point.  The only way to be truly self sufficient is by building and living in a community that is based on mutual aid and respect.  When we can respect our neighbors and lend a hand when one is needed, than we can talk about being self sufficient, or more appropriately, self reliant.  Growing food is one of the ways we can start to build these kinds of communities, and start the process of reclaiming our culinary traditions.

For the rest of the essay I am going to highlight a few things already mentioned, the food that we receive from our generous gardens this time of year.

garlic

Here is a shot of some of the garlic we grew this year. We ended up with close to 250 heads, and almost all of them were as beautiful as these!

Garlic – Here at the Dead End Alley Farm we have been growing garlic for about 8 years.  The first couple of years were pretty rocky with very meager results.  But with a bit of homework, and some  perseverance,  we have now grown great garlic for the last five or six years.  Right now we grow 7 varieties – Chesnok Red, Georgian Crystal and Fire, Killarney Red, Marten’s Unknown (rescued from my neighbors garden), Mitachi, and Siberian.  All of these are hardneck varieties that are well suited to our northern climate.

Garlic deserves its own essay here at Autonomy Acres, and someday I will get to that one, but for now I will leave you with this.  Garlic is a heavy feeder.  I devote a large percentage of my homemade compost to my garlic planting every fall.  So if nothing else, I know that wherever it is that I plant my garlic, that space also gets a huge addition of organic matter and nutrients once a year.  Two books that have been influential concerning my love affair with garlic have been Stanley Crawfords A Garlic Testament and Chester Aarrons Garlic Is Life.  Both are more memoirs rather than growing manuals, but they are great reads and may get you addicted to growing garlic, just like they did for me!

Tomatoes – These do not need any introduction.  The whole world loves them, and for great reasons.  They lend themselves well to many different types of cooking.  They can be blanched and frozen as whole fruits, chopped and prepared as fresh or canned salsa, or cooked down into the classic sauce that fills the shelves of so many of ours root cellars.

These were harvested as I wrote this essay.  There is a mix of Big Ivory, Black From Tula, Hungarian Oxheart, and two Russian heirlooms that I have lost the name on.  All of them are great eating!

These were harvested as I wrote this essay. There is a mix of Big Ivory, Black From Tula, Hungarian Oxheart, and two Russian heirlooms that I have lost the name on. All of them are great eating!

For the last few years we have grown on average about 15 tomato plants, some years more, some a little less, but that usually yields us about 15 quarts of canned sauce along with quite a few pints of canned salsa.  That does not include what we eat fresh, or what we provide in our CSA shares throughout the late summer.

Tomatoes should be a part of any homestead garden, if only for the taste and beauty that they add to fresh summer meals.  Stick to heirlooms, but don’t turn down a good hybrid or two for early fruits.  Be diligent on lite pruning and trellising, and you will be rewarded in bountiful harvests!

baggedpotatoes

These 3 bags of potatoes hold close to 80 pounds of spuds! Not bad for a $10 investment!

Potatoes – Potatoes, also known as Earth Apples, are a staple crop here at our city farm, along with the garden we have been establishing at my in-laws an hour west of St. Paul.  I my opinion, they are the best bang for your buck crop.  Seed potato is cheap, and if given the right environment, will thrive and more than triple its mass in return.

This year at our “country” garden, we planted three rows each with five pounds of whole “seed” potatoes planted offset in rows about 15 feet long.  We ended up harvesting close to 80 pounds from those three rows!  Talk about a real investment!  Once again, potatoes are heavy feeders, so any compost, manure, and mulch that can be set aside just for them is well advised.

We also have a number of potatoes planted here in the cities this year as well.  They take up two of our raised beds and were planted with pre cut potato “eyes”.  As of right now the jury is still out on how well they have performed, the plants are still green and robust so we will allow them to be for now and keep growing into the early autumn.  Otherwise, potatoes are a great staple crop that can be grown in smaller spaces and provide a lot of calories that we can not get from other garden variety crops.

So to sum things up in this installment of Autonomy Acres, plant, plant, plant!  Grow whatever, and wherever you can, and realize the abundance that can be had with a little time and effort.  I am going to finish this short essay with one of my favorite youtube videos, a short piece from a South African farmer by the name of Jo Dyantyi.  I can only hope to have his outlook on life someday!  Happy harvesting Amigos y Amigas … Peace & Cheers

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