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Posts Tagged ‘Gardens’

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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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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Here is a McIntosh apple, a beauty to behold!

Here is a McIntosh apple, a beauty to behold!

Editors note – Since the publication of this essay, there has been a little debate on the NAFEX facebook page as to what the true identity of this apple actually is.  I have never claimed to be an expert, and it is totally possible that the ID that I claim is incorrect.  I bring this up in the spirit of learning, if someone has a better idea than mine and it is backed up with decent evidence, I am all ears!  Regardless of what the true name for this apple is, I feel this is still a strong essay that can stand on its on.  Enjoy…

A reoccuring theme here on Autonomy Acres is food, a lot of the time specifically about fruit.  Fruit trees, fruit shrubs, growing and foraging fruit, and eating fruit have all been topics covered here over the last four years.  Its a favorite subject of mine for good reason, I love fruit!  Growing it, eating it, learning about it, cooking with it,  you name it, fruit is one of my passions.  Especially apples!

 

Nothing compares to a tree ripened apple on a cool autumn day.  They signal the finished accumulation of solar energy, the life of the soil, and the water from rain into a near perfect orb that holds the sweetness of summer within its flesh.  They are the inspiration for poetry and legends, and for so many years have played a part in the stories and traditions of cultures from around the cool, temperate climates of the world.

 

It wasn’t that long ago when every region in the world where apples could and did grow had its own locally adapted varieties.  Many of these varieties were used solely for culinary uses or cider and were rarely eaten out of hand and remained nameless, wild apple trees living on the edges of forests and in the hedgerows between fields.

 

But many of them contained desirable traits and magic that enchanted us – a superb taste, or great storage capabilities, or one that made a particularly smooth cider.  Some are just plain gorgeous, or ugly for that matter, but any of these apples that have called to us, have been named, and shared, and sometimes have even become famous.

 

Presently in 2014 there are roughly 7,500 named varieties of apples grown throughout the world, but it is thought that at one time (probably not all that long ago), there could have been well over 10-12,000 distinct varieties being cultivated worldwide.  But with the steady march of progress and the ever increasing trend towards a global monoculture, much of our collective apple heritage has been lost to the bulldozer, the suburbs, and the destruction of our traditional food systems.

 

While much of our great wealth of apple diversity still exists,  it is scattered and gets harder to find with each passing season.  The global, industrial cultivation of apples now relies on just 15 varieties for the bulk of its production.  How sad it is to have lost so many unique apples (and the land upon which they grew) in favor of a handful of apples that are easy to harvest and ship, and oftentimes resemble wet cardboard in  texture and taste.

 

There is an apple tree a couple miles from my house that I have been visiting now for the last few years.  It has been a reliable producer with apples that are hardly troubled by pests or disease.  They have tended to be a medium to large apple, but occasionally I will find one that is just huge!

 

This year I got to the apple tree far later than I ever have and realized that I had been picking this apple a bit too early.  This year I didn’t harvest until the middle of October, and because of this later harvest, these apples were really ready to be picked and had fully ripened on the tree.

 

Do you see a graft line?  If so, let me know...

Do you see a graft line? If so, let me know…

What I was really interested in was if I could find a graft line anywhere on the trunk.   While there is nothing discernible that indicates where the graft union may be (it was probably buried when planted, or slowly covered by the accumulation of mulch and leaves), I am pretty sure that this is a grafted, McIntosh apple tree.  Eating it this time of year, versus last year when I harvested them early in September, changed the flavor profile quite a bit, and it became evident that this was an apple that most of us have had at some point in our lives.

 

It has a noticeable thicker skin, a white to somewhat yellowish flesh that is far from crisp, but is definitely not mealy either, a small short stem, and is easily bruised when dropped.  The fruit tends to have a uniformly deep red color to it, that is splashed with small streaks of green.  It is not overly juicy or sweet, but has a nice, subtle acidic bite to it that makes it fine apple for eating fresh.  It cooked down to an almost perfectly smooth apple butter that only needed a bit of pureeing at the end.

 

All of those characteristics when compared to other descriptions of McIntosh (see here, and here) seem to be a fairly good match.  McIntosh started its journey in Canada back in 1850 and went onto to become a very popular apple for cultivation throughout Western Canada down into New England, and the upper midwest (where I live).  It is a large spreading tree, that tends to have reliable harvests, and at least the one I am harvesting from seems to be fairly resistant to some of the more common pests and diseases around here.

 

Honestly it is not the greatest apple I have ever eaten, but it is still pretty good.  Just for the fact that this is a big mature tree that is easy to harvest from, and also produces high quality fruit, and lots of it, makes me glad that this tree is in my neighborhood.  The fact that this tree is also in a spot that is very easy to access doesn’t hurt either.  This tree is a relic from when this area was still farms and orchards and I can only imagine that this McIntosh tree is in its twilight years.

 

Before I came to the conclusion that this tree is a McIntosh, last year I collected scion wood from it and grafted it onto one of my !Frankentrees!  At the time of grafting, I was calling it Crusader because of a landmark closeby, but it is now looking like I will have to get a new tag made up for that branch.

 

Mcintoshharvest

Here’s the Harvest!

The fact that this apple tree is a fairly common variety, doesn’t lessen its value as a tree or for what it can provide for one who cares for it. Moreover, the bounty and the knowledge I have gleaned from this tree are invaluable.  I love free food, and I also love the chance to learn something new, and this tree has provided both.   I admit that it would be fun to find and identify a tree that is more of a rarity than a McIntosh, but the fact that I am pretty certain about my identification means that my observations and research are maturing and starting to pay off!

 

Sadly it is getting harder to find old trees whether they are a rare variety or not.  The continued suburban expansion proceeds with the same vigour as late stage cancer, and it is not only old apple trees that perish and are lost to history, but many other forms of biological diversity are

threatened from this unceasing onslaught.

 

We may not be able stop the majority of this destruction, but we can be stewards to what is left.  We can educate our communities on the importance of fruit and nut trees, we can seek out and help preserve the genetics of threatened species and varieties,  and we can also start planting as many trees as we can on whatever land is available to us.  Trees are one way of investing in the future, so lets make our great grandkids proud and leave them something positive to remember us by.  Peace & Cheers…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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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