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So this is a handout I just put together for a few grafting workshops I will be teaching in the upcoming weeks!  I am pretty excited to be sharing some awesome homesteading skills with people who want to learn how to graft trees!  If any of you want to use this handout in a workshop you are a part of or know somebody who might be interested in this, please share far and wide, and feel free to leave comments and thoughts below.  Peace & Cheers

 

Why We Graft

Spring_Farm_Work_--_GraftingFruit tree cultivation has been a part of human history for thousands of years.  Since before records, farmers and gardeners across the globe have traditionally incorporated fruit trees into their landscapes.

 

Occasionally some of these fruit trees have displayed characteristics or flavors that were sought after or defined the benchmarks of what makes a great fruit.  These trees, the ones that were prized for their unique and delicious fruit were propagated through grafting, which is a way of vegetatively cloning a specific variety of fruit tree.  Any grafted fruit variety will be genetically identical to the plant it was taken from.

 

By taking a cutting of the fruit variety that is intended to be grafted, and properly attaching it to another tree or rootstock that is genetically compatible, you in essence can build a new tree to suit your needs – whether that be for flavor, preserve old genetics, trial new varieties, or for climatic factors that are suited to your growing spot.

 

Tree grafting dates back to at least ancient China and was used throughout the Roman empire.  Early use of grafting was most likely inspired by nature.  Occasionally trees in nature will graft themselves together when twisted and overlapping branches grow together.  When humans figured out that they could do something similar, it allowed them to become orchardist with many trees of the same variety.  This allowed for the cultivation of uniform fruit trees, and making harvest easier and more efficient

 

Types of Grafts

There are many types of grafts that can be used when creating or updating trees.  The most common type of grafting is bench grafting which is done in late winter or early spring.  This requires a piece of rootstock, scion wood, and grafting supplies.  Bench grafts can be done inside at a kitchen table or a workbench, and they are the easiest way to make new trees with named fruit cultivars.

 

Another type of grafting that you may find yourself doing someday is called top working or frame working an already existing tree.  This allows you to grow many varieties of fruit on one tree, or completely change what variety a tree is growing over to a new one.  Luther Burbank, the famed plant breeder from California, had a plum tree with over 300 varieties on it, so top working a tree can be a lot of fun!

 

As a beginning grafter, there are only two grafts that you really need to know about, the cleft graft and the whip and tongue graft, both of which can be used in bench grafting or top working a tree.  The cleft graft is the easiest of the two to perform, but the whip and tongue when performed properly can give you a stronger graft union, and ultimately a stronger tree.

 

Which ever grafting technique you are using, the most important thing you need to do is to properly line up the cambium layers on the scion wood and the rootstock (or branch that you are top working).  The cambium layer is the inner layer of bark that produces the growth rings inside the tree, adding new layers of phloem and xylem each season.  The better the cambium layers match up, the more likely the graft will properly heal leading to many years of fruit production.

 

crown-cleft-grafting-fruit-treesThe cleft graft is a great place to start grafting due to its simplicity.  All it requires is a centered, vertical slice down the rootstock (creating a cleft), and making two identical cuts on either side of the scion wood basically turning it into a slim wedge.  The scion is then inserted and slid down into the cleft of the stock, all the while keeping the cambium layers lined up.  The cleft graft allows you to use smaller scion wood with a bigger diameter stock.  Once you are happy with the alignment of the cambium layers, wrap your graft with grafting tape or a binder, and then coat with wax or parafilm to help prevent desiccation.

 

87138_whip-grafting_lgThe whip and tongue graft is a bit more difficult than the the cleft graft, but with a bit of practice becomes quite easy.  The whip and tongue is prefered when the scion wood and your grafting stock are of almost similar diameters.  It allows you to maximize cambium layer contact, and makes for a stronger graft union.  Both the scion wood and the stock get a long diagonal cut that when put together, line up and form a new single branch or tree.  The secret to a good whip and tongue graft is the second cut you do on each piece which creates the “tongue”.  This tongue allows the two pieces to lock together, and because of the natural elasticity of the wood, this does a great job in helping the graft union to heal very strongly.

 

Both the cleft graft and the whip and tongue are great grafting techniques and with practice you can attain close to 100% success with either one. Regardless of which one you choose to use, lining up the cambium layers is the most important part of successful grafting.  Always remember to wrap your grafts tight using either a rubber band or grafting tape, and then finish them with parafilm or grafting wax.  Coating the graft union and the scion wood with grafting wax or parafilm will keep the wood from drying out.

Materials

 

  • Rootstock – Rootstock comes in in many different types.  Usually they are selected for their dwarfing traits, their resistance to certain blights, or their abilities for growing in certain conditions.  Just remember, use apple for apple, pear for pear, etc..
  • Scionwood – Scion wood can be collected from neighborhood trees, local orchards, or be obtained through trading networks like the North American Scion Exchange.  Store them in a plastic bag, with a lightly damp moist towel and they can keep for up to a few months.
  • Grafting Knife – You can purchase any number of grafting knives through amazon or other websites.  They can also be made out of old steak knives or you can just use a razor knife.

 

    • Grafting Tape or Rubber Bands – You will want to use one of these to help tie the graft together.  Both are fairly easy to use and find.  Some people also use old plastic bags cut into strips.  Experiment away!
    • Grafting Wax or Parafilm – You can purchase grafting wax online, or you can also use the wax ring that is meant for toilet installs.  Parafilm is relatively cheap, can be purchased online, and is superior to wax – super easy to use and no clean up!
    • Labels – Labeling your grafts/trees immediately is very important.  You may think you have a great memory, but eventually you will forget.  You can use plastic tags and a sharpie marker or even better is aluminium tags that are completely weather proof.

 

  • Band Aids – Grafting is a lot of fun, but remember, you are using a sharp knife, be careful, take your time, and try not to cut yourself!  Oh yeah, have fun too!

 


Resources

 

 

Books

 

  • The Apple Grower – Michael Phillips
  • The Holistic Orchard – Michael Phillips
  • The Grafter’s Handbook – RJ Garner

 

Notes

 

 

 

 

 

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Here is a slip

Here is a slip

There are many reasons I live my life the way I do.  As a husband and father part of my responsibility in life is to help insure that my family has what it needs to survive, ie, food, water, a roof over our heads, and some simple (but very much appreciated) indulgences from time to time.  I found in Urban Homesteading a way of procuring some of these necessities of life through my own hard work, persistence, innovation, and a spirit of experimentation.

Throughout the last decade I have tried  many hands on, DIY skills – gardening, beekeeping, building stuff, fixing stuff, breaking stuff, making soap, homebrewing,  learning about mushrooms, learning about website development, and many other crafts, hobbies, and obsessions!  More than any one project, my biggest teacher in this time has been failure.  Not failure in the way it can make you give up, but failure that makes you dig deeper and try again until you get it right.  Failure as inspiration.

Sweet potatoes are one of those failures turned into a success.  I think back to the winter of the multiple and massive polar vortices (‘13-’14) and how I came across a youtube video of someone who was growing sweet potato slips.  Put simply, sweet potato slips are genetic clones of the “mother” sweet potato that are produced through rooting vegetative cuttings.

Nothing could be simpler right?  Actually it is pretty simple, but there is one major thing I learned from that first attempt 2 winters ago.  The sweet potatoes I used were most likely treated with  Chlorpropham or a related chemical that prevents the natural growth of a starchy tuber in its quest to reproduce and pass on its genes.

Fast forward to this year and I made sure to start with a higher quality, organic sweet potato that we got from the local co-op.  This simple step, using an untreated sweet potato, has made all the difference in success versus failure.  While it has taken almost two months to get to where we are at, 3 of the 5 sweet potatoes are exhibiting vegetative and root growth.

Here they are chillin' in the dim February afternoons...

Here they are chillin’ in the dim February afternoons…

Aside from a few sweet potatoes. you will also need a few jars, toothpicks, and water to grow your own sweet potato slips.  Stab the tubers about halfway down their length so the toothpicks are sticking out like arms (3 of these in a roughly triangular arrangement).  This will allow you to suspend the bottom half of the tuber in the water.  I keep mine in a south facing window, and top off the water whenever they need it.  Then all you have to do is wait!

Once the sweet potatoes are actively growing, and each slip is at least 3 inches long, you can remove the slips and the little chunk of tuber where they are growing out of with a small sharp knife or razor.  Pot this up in a nice mix of compost for another month or so and then plant out.  Or atleast that is what I have read and watched.

At this point the experiment is still live, so I will be doing an update on them as the season progresses.  But so far a few key points to get started with are 1) Use an organic sweet potato 2) Start early.  I believe I got mine started in mid February, next year I will start them in January. 3) Have fun and experiment.  Try a few different varieties and compare growth rates, vigour, and eventually taste.  Maybe you will find a new passion and geek out on sweet potatoes for a few seasons and collect as many exotic sweet potatoes as you can find!  Until then, Peace and Cheers!

 

 

 

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A Jar of Green Herb!

A Jar of Green Herb!

I know what you are thinking, and sadly the jar filled with green herb is not legalized marijuana!  While Minnesota is making strides with the legalization of medical marijuana we are still aways from legalized recreational use.  Yes, someday I hope to write an article espousing the benefits (which there are many) of both medical and recreational cannabis, but this short article is about a very different plant altogether.

 

As I have written about many times before, we grow a diverse array of plants throughout our extensive gardens.  Some of them are fairly uncommon perennials, fruiting shrubs, and vines and others are very common plants found throughout many gardens.  Its fun having so much diversity, but it is even better when you find a new use for something as simple and common as celery.

 

We have grown celery, Apium graveolens for years now.  Typically we have always harvested the ribs for use in soups, stews, salads and roasted vegetables, and have used the leaves as an addition to soup stock.  This last summer however, I dried the leaves as a means of preservation.  And that is the green herb in the jar, dried celery leaves!

 

The dried leaf of celery has an aroma and taste very similar to when it is fresh, but it is deeper and more earthy as well.  This winter I have used it in much of my cooking.  It is a great addition to any soup or stew, I have added it to bread dough when I make an herbed loaf, when making rubs for meats it works very nicely with all the other herbs and spices that are found on my spice rack, it adds a depth to veggie dip, and is a great all around herb that I am excited to have available.

 

PreservingFoodCoverI came across the idea for drying celery leaf in the book Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning.  It documents many of the traditional food preservation techniques found throughout France.  From lacto fermentation to drying, and the use of oils, salt, sugars, and alcohol in preserving food, it has many great ideas on preserving the surplus harvest from your garden.

 

Its also a fun book, because it so simply illustrates the depth and tradition that is found in European cuisine.  Not only do they know how to use all parts of the celery plant, but there are recipes for black currant jam with honey, lemons preserved in salt, lacto fermented veggies, and cherries soaked in brandy.

 

This spring as you begin to plan and plant your gardens keep in mind that there are many ways of preserving the harvest.  Some of these ideas won’t be new to you, but others may revolutionize how or what you grow!  You may have a treasure just waiting for you that has always been there, and maybe it will look good being kept in a jar!  Peace and Cheers!

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Grafting Class with Andy!

Grafting Class with Andy!

Happy winter everyone!  There has been a lot of great stuff happening here at the Dead End Alley Farm, so much in fact there has been very little time for contemplation or writing.  For the last two weeks my time has been occupied with a home remodeling project, knocking out a wall to make a bedroom bigger. While I am not quite done, the end is in sight and it will be back to planning for an exciting spring and summer!

 

This autumn I contacted a couple of local community education programs with a few proposals for teaching classes.  To my surprise, both groups got back to me relatively quickly with a positive reception.  So this spring I will be teaching a few fruit tree grafting classes, and then this summer I will be doing an Intro to Urban Homesteading class, but more on that one later.

 

Coming up on Tuesday, April 28, I will be teaching a 2 hour long grafting class at the local high school from 6:30-8:30 PM.  Here is the link you will need to register and pay.  All participants will go home with 3 grafted trees (I will have extra supplies for sale) and the basic knowledge to continue on with this age old, homesteading skill.

 

So if you are in the Twin Cities (Minnesota) and want to learn how to graft fruit trees, come join me for a fun evening of hands on learning.  Please feel free to contact me either through email or on Facebook if you have any questions or comments.  Also, if you are interested in hosting a grafting class please let me know and I can supply you with more details.  Until next time, Peace and Cheers!

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Some truly wild seeds - Honey locust pods, wild onions, autumn olive, cornellian cherries, purple asters, siberian pea shrub, and a wild black berry that was collected in Italy over the summer.

Some truly wild seeds – Honey locust pods, wild onions, autumn olive, cornellian cherries, purple asters, siberian pea shrub, and a wild black berry that was collected in Italy over the summer.

For a decade now, I have been a seed saver.  I have saved tomato seeds and squash seeds.  I have selected and saved my favorite beans to plant again, and I have tended garlic cloves and potato tubers from year to year.  I have collected perennial herbs, flowers, fruits, and vegetables, and have planted trees that will produce into my twilight years.

 

These seeds and genetics represent a true investment and a savings account for the future.  David Holmgren, one of the founders of Permaculture and author of Permaculture: Principles and Pathways devotes quite a bit of time on the subject of saving seeds.  He argues that anyone preparing for a future that will have fewer fossil fuels available to use should include seed saving into their toolbox of skills and cultural knowledge.

 

Purple potatoes...

Purple potatoes…

When we save seeds, not only are we preserving genetic material, but also the accumulated solar energy of one summer’s growth to be used again in a future garden.  This tradition is as old as agriculture itself.  When we stopped roaming the wilds in search of food, and instead settled down to cultivate the Earth, seed saving assured a future harvest.

 

For right or wrong, feeding our world’s population now largely depends on industrialized, annual based agriculture.  It is very efficient at turning oil and natural gas into edible calories, but it comes with a steep price.  Habitat destruction, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity (both wild and domesticated), the dismantling of small scale farming traditions, and our seed sovereignty are all threatened by industrialized agriculture.

 

But as those of us who have seen the writing on the wall (when it pertains to the negative consequences of big ag) , and have begun the transition to a Permaculture based lifestyle because of these warning signs, we can begin to put a halt to all of this destruction.  One farmer or person alone is not enough to change the course of current events, but just like the seeds of a dandelion, the more of us there are, the better chances we have of thriving and finding a place to put down roots.

 

The world, or more specifically humanity, is at a cross roads.  We are at a place where we can decide as to whether we follow the path that industrial agriculture is leading us down, or the path that allows the wild seeds to flourish and heal the landscape.

 

Garlic for planting

Garlic for planting

Our gardens, as an extension of ourselves, our bodies, and communities, have a place in nature.  While humans may display traits similar to an “invasive specie” a lot of the time,  we can also play an important role in helping to heal some of the wounds we have created.  As more of us see the evidence that our current path leads to destruction, it is only through conscience choices and a concerted effort that we can find a better and more resilient path to walk on.

 

That path, the one that leads to a future where we care for the Earth and all its inhabitants is possible.  Its already there, waiting for us to first find it, and then be brave enough to follow it.  It is there behind the monocrops of corn and soy and wheat and rice.  It is there when the blood from CAFOs is washed away.  It is there when we can move past the “40 hour” work week and find truly meaningful work for ourselves to participate in.

 

That path starts in our hearts, our  homes and our gardens.  It is weedy, and gnarled, and imperfect.  It nourishes our bodies and inspires our dreams.  It starts as a young sapling and ends up an old, twisted oak with deep roots.  It is found in a tomato vine and a bean patch, a chicken coop and a beehive.


That path starts with our seeds.  Those that contain the genetics of the food we eat, and those that start as dreams and finish as stories that we tell the next generation.  Our seeds need to be protected and propagated, they are the future.  Save them and plant them and tend them so that others can do the same in turn.  Peace and Cheers.

A path into the future...

A path into the future…

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owentree2

A boy and his dog, and a tree…

I give thanks for my wife and my kids,

and the land, and the house that we call home.

The bees that pollinate the flowers, the trees that grow,

the weeds that heal, the seeds that spread.

 

I give thanks for the talents and skills

that I have cultivated and grown.

Critical thinking, grafting, and gardening of the self

DIY Loving, mending, and building of life.

 

This Good Earth is my home,

It is where I come from and where I end.

 

It is star dust and water,

saw dust and food.

Compost and manure,

Veggie and fruit.

Mushroom and meat.

Worm and bug,

Chicken and duck.

Apple and orange,

Leaf and root.

 

It is freedom. It is health.

It is endangered. It is sacred.

It is our home, and we only have one…

We may be at a place in history, that someday is remembered as a turning point.  A time when we realized how far our nation had fallen into fascism.   A nation ruled by racist, sexist, and homophobic bigots and killers…

Let us move on, and shed the extra weight of intolerance and bigotry.  No, we don’t have to all be alike, but we need to learn how to live together and celebrate our common ground…

Let us listen to the land.  We are as much a part of nature as polar bears or dandelions.  Let us once again find our place in this grand experiment.  Let us leave a bigger handprint, than a footprint and take a proud seat in the counsel of nature…

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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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Cheers Mates!  This is a nice shot of the hot water tank, mashtun, and the kettle slowly being filled!  This is part of sparging, or in simpler terms, washing the grain of all of its sugary goodness...

Cheers Mates! This is a nice shot of the hot water tank, mashtun, and the kettle slowly being filled! This is part of sparging, or in simpler terms, washing the grain of all of its sugary goodness…

A few years ago I started a series of essays dedicated to homebrewing (Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3 can be found here).  At the time when those articles were written I was still working in the brewing industry.  Since then, as I have alluded to in a few recent posts, I am no longer working in the adult beverage industry and glad of it.  But that has not diminished my love of beer or of brewing it.  In fact, now that I am no longer surrounded by beer and all the things (both good and bad) that happen in a brewery on a daily basis, I now have much more time for family and hobbies.  And because of that, my passion for the actual brewing process has had a bit of a renaissance.  Due to the cold winter and some breaks from the school that I now work at, I have had ample time to brew and bottle a bunch of batches of beer, improve upon my brewing skills, and more importantly getting my home brewery cleaned and organized.

 

This article is going to explore some of the equipment, space requirements, and other resources that make for a successful and awesome DIY home brewery.  Like so many homesteading projects and hobbies, there are basic procedures, guidelines, and equipment that should be followed to end up with a good result.  Think about canning as an example.  When you set out to can tomatoes, make preserves, or whip up a batch of pickles, you do not try and reinvent the wheel each time.  We know through the scientific process and observation throughout the years that certain recipes, amounts of acidity, appropriate sugar and salt content, and proper processing methods and times lead to a successful end result that will not kill you or get you sick.  This is a good thing and is in place for a reason.

 

Here is the burner, and someday soon, a stove just for brewing.

Here is the burner, and someday soon, a stove just for brewing.

While brewing is a much more forgiving process in terms of the end product not killing you (at least not  because of crappy equipment or poor brewing methods), having the proper equipment and a decent comprehension of the process can lead to success more times than not.  But don’t let this fool you into thinking that it is a one size fits all approach.  There are quite a few variations on both equipment and procedure that can be adapted to your personal situation.  Do your homework and evaluate what kinds of resources you have available to use, and as Charlie Papizian once said, “Don’t worry, relax, and have a home brew”!  So what follows are some of my thoughts and ideas as far as my downstairs, DIY home brewery is concerned.

 

Making Space – As most homebrewers can attest to, having a dedicated spot to do your brewing is sure a nice thing.  While it is easy enough to whip up an extract beer kit in your kitchen on a Saturday afternoon without ruining domestic bliss; when you start to move into all grain brewing you will find having a dedicated spot set aside from the kitchen can be a very nice thing for many reasons.  Due to equipment requirements and time constraints for all grain brewing, having a spot that won’t interfere with cooking dinner or story time can be very helpful.  In the summer, this problem is easily solved by moving the DIY brewery outside onto the deck, driveway, or garage.  But in the winter this can be a bit more problematic unless you have a heated garage.

 

Here is the maitnence department, one of my favorite rooms in my house!

Here is the maitnence department, one of my favorite rooms in my house!

I have chosen to locate my brewery in my basement.  It has taken a few years to get to where I am at (and honestly there is still more to do) but I am to the point where everything has its place, and because of a relatively organized work area, the process of actually turning malted grain into an alcoholic beverage has become more streamlined and efficient.   The most important aspect in the basement brewery is proper ventilation.  Because there is combustion going on (whether that is propane or natural gas) having fresh air coming in, and a vent to remove excess carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and moisture is very important.  In my case I have fresh air coming into the basement for my furnace, a small fan to help move it around, and a vent hood that is located right above my burner.  This has worked out very well for me, and the only improvement that still needs to be made is the installation of a stove (which is currently gathering dust in my garage) that will use natural gas instead of the propane burner that I currently use.  The new stove will burn more efficiently and safely, and will be in a permanent spot dedicated to brewing and maybe some canning in the fall.

 

Another nice aspect of having an area dedicated to brewing, such as a basement, is that all of my equipment, access to water, ingredients, and tools are all in close proximity to each other.  This helps out immensely, whether that is moving a full 6 gallon carboy into the fermentation cellar or if my mash tun bottom needs to be repaired on the workbench.  By having everything relatively close to each other, and stacking functions of all the different components, my basement performs many roles other than just a DIY brewery, but also a workshop, cellar, dry and bulk storage, a place to do laundry, and a quiet spot to cool off from the hot summer sun.

 

Equipment – For the all-grain home brewer, having the right equipment can be the difference between great beer versus swill.  In its most basic form, the brewing process is fairly simple, but having a few key pieces of equipment not only makes the process much easier, but can also lead to a better finished product.  As already mentioned, you need something to cook on.  A propane burner or kitchen stove is what most people will use.  Just make sure to have adequate airflow and ventilation and you shouldn’t have any problems.

 

Here is the corona grain mill crushing corn, or also known as maize that was used in a pre-prohibition lager.

Here is the corona grain mill crushing corn, or also known as maize that was used in a pre-prohibition lager.

One key piece that is absolutely necessary for the all grain brewer is some type of grain mill to crush your malt.  I use an older type of corona mill that I got from a friend.  It is a very simple piece of technology, but when it is dialed in properly, you can achieve a very nice finished crushed grain.  You do not want to turn your malt into flour, so having it properly set can take a little time and adjustment, and will vary depending on what kind of grain you are milling (barley, wheat, rye).  There are many models of grain mills you can purchase all the way from the type I have all the way up to double roller mills that can be powered by a hand drill.  What you decide to use depends on how much you brew, how much money you want to spend, and whether or not you want a machine doing some of the work for you.

 

Next up is a brewing kettle.  This will be your main vessel for heating water and boiling wort (beer before it is fermented).  I built mine out of an old ¼ barrel keg.  First I bled out any left over pressure that was still in the keg.  Second, using a reciprocating saw and an angle grinder, I cut out the top.  And third, I added a ball valve drain towards the bottom.  While I won’t go into specifics on how to install this part, it is a necessary component for an all grain brewing kettle.  If you have welding skills, or know of someone who does, this is a good way of adding this part, otherwise it can be installed using components that are threaded and within the abilities of most people to install themselves.

 

You will also need another kettle very similar to your brewing kettle to hold hot water for when you sparge your grains.  I use a four gallon stainless steel kettle that I purchased very cheaply from a grocery store.  It also has a ball valve drain added in the same fashion as the brewing kettle.

 

The all-grain brewer will also need a mash tun.  This is the vessel where the magic happens, where the starches that are locked in the malted grain are converted to sugar; the necessary ingredient for the yeast to do its job.  My mash tun is made out of an upright, 6 gallon cylindrical Rubbermaid cooler.  Where the original beverage spigot once was, it has been replaced with an almost identical ball valve that the brew kettle and hot water tank has.  Also, a false bottom was made out of coiled copper tubing, copper screen, and copper wire all rescued from the waste stream!

 

This is one of my storage areas.  Bottling equipment, buckets, and all manner of brewing stuff can be found on these shelves and pegboard.

This is one of my storage areas. Bottling equipment, buckets, and all manner of brewing stuff can be found on these shelves and pegboard.

Keeping on the subject of copper equipment, another nice item to include in your brewing setup, is a coiled copper wort chiller.  These can easily be made out of coiled copper pipe, rubber or silicon tubing, hose clamps, and threaded fitting that will fit a standard garden hose.  Cooling the wort as fast as possible to the desired temperature (about 70 degrees F) at the end of the brewing session is important, as it creates the perfect environment for the yeast to thrive and to turn sugar into alcohol.  The quicker the selected yeast can thrive and do its job, the less of a chance that the beer becomes infected with unwanted yeast or other bacteria.

 

There are also a few more pieces of equipment that you will need to finish your beer after it is done being brewed.  First is some kind of fermentation vessel.  Most homebrewers use glass or plastic carboys.  These containers range anywhere in size from a one gallon cider jug all the way up to 6 gallons.  They are easy to work with, relatively easy to clean and can be found at any home brewing store or mail order.  I have even found one at a garage sale, so keep your eyes open for unexpected deals.  The glass ones are my favorite, but you have to be careful.  Early on in my brewing, we dinged one on my old cement sink and that carboy exploded into a thousand pieces!  Be warned!

 

After fermentation is complete, the beer will either be bottle conditioned, or racked into kegs.  Each has its advantages, but for the purpose of this article I will only talk briefly about bottling beer.  I am not opposed to kegs, but I have never really done it so only want to speak to things that I have personal experience with.  For bottling, you obviously need bottles.  This ones easy, buy beer that is in bottles with pry off crowns – 12, 22, and 32 ounce bottles will all work.  And if you are cheap like I am, frequent the recycling bins of any decent beer bar and you will find more than enough bottles in very little time.  New crowns will also be needed as well.

 

Before actually bottling the beer, you will need a syphon to move the beer out of the carboy into what is called a bottling bucket.  Mine was purchased, but one could easily be made with the right parts.  It is just a 6 gallon food grade plastic bucket, with a spigot added towards the bottom.  You will also want a spring activated filling tube.  It sounds way more complicated than it is and will only cost a little bit of cash at a homebrew equipment supplier.  You will need some type of capper, and there are more than a few models to choose from.

 

Some milk crates performing one of their many functions in the home brewery, holding two batches of freshly bottled brew!

Some milk crates performing one of their many functions in the home brewery, holding two batches of freshly bottled brew!

Last but not least lets wrap up a few loose ends on the equipment front.  Milk crates are an invaluable resource to include in the DIY home brewery.  They can be stacked to create a higher work area or to hold different kettles and such.  Carboys fit in them perfectly, so when you find yourself with a 40 pound plus filled carboy, it is sure nice to have a way to move them around with something that has handles.  They also work great for storing both full and empty bottles.

 

A selection of hoses, a stainless steel shower head for sparging, food grade buckets, timers, thermometers, hand tools like screwdrivers and wrenches, smaller containers like cider jugs, quick release clamps, airlocks and bungs, pitchers, a spare scrap of 2×4, and other things I am sure I am forgetting can all come in handy at some point in the brewing process.  As you gain experience and get more batches into your belly and under your belt, you will figure out what kinds of things you may need for your specific setup for brewing.  Just remember, no two home breweries are going to be exactly a like, so be creative and use what you have available.

 

Time – Time may be the most important asset to have when it comes to all grain brewing.  You can count on at least 4 hours for a single session, but if you have more time available, and a streamlined setup and process, you can get 2 batches done in about 6 hours.  Doing it this way also cuts down on resources being wasted.  Then there will be anywhere from a week to a few months of fermentation and conditioning depending on the beer you are waiting to bottle.  Once it is in the bottle, it is usually carbonated within two weeks, but can occasionally take longer.  So while this may be the shortest section of this essay, time is essential.  Carve out a block of it and use it wisely, and learn to embrace patience and you will be rewarded with some great beer!

 

The cellar!  Three batches are against the right wall still fermenting, and dry storage and bottles of finished beer against the back wall.  This area also is filled with pickles and jams, and buckets of grains and beans.  A room all homesteads and hobbit holes should have.

The cellar! Three batches are against the right wall still fermenting, and dry storage and bottles of finished beer against the back wall. This area also is filled with pickles and jams, and buckets of grains and beans. A room all homesteads and hobbit holes should have.

To anyone with experience homebrewing, this essay is not breaking any new ground.  It has been a very basic overview of how I go about making a batch of beer and what has been working for me.  I really just scratched the surface of the process and the equipment needed to make good beer.  My intention was to show you some of the the basics to all grain brewing, and as a motivation to give it a try.  There are tons of resources available to the DIY homebrewer these days.  Books, videos, forums, and meet up groups are all avenues to learning more about this great hobby!  Two books that I highly recommend for the DIY homebrewer are Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing, and The Alaskan Bootlegger’s Bible by Leon W. Kania.  Both of these books have great recipes and ideas for those of us who like to do things for ourselves and are just great reads.

 

While it may come across that I take this stuff really seriously, I actually don’t.  I am not a beer snob, but do enjoy a good beer!  It is a fun hobby, and a great way to spend the cold winters, but for me it is also a way to save a bit of money, build in a bit of resiliency into my life and still be able to enjoy a few pints of really good beer.  There are plenty of folks out there with more knowledge and know how than I have to offer, so seek that information out.  But to truly learn anything, you gotta get your hands dirty so give it a shot and brew some beer!  Start collecting the equipment you will need, buy your ingredients in bulk and begin your journey on the path of being a DIY homebrewer!  Peace & Cheers

 

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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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