Sunchokes!

December 30th and the Heat Wave continues. High was over 50 today, so making lemons of my lemonade (I live in Wisconsin because I like Winter) I decided to do some harvesting. Pitchfork in hand I attacked a small portion of one of my three Sunchoke beds. The picture at right is my take-just shy of 2.5 lbs of glorious tubers. Some are the size of medium potatoes-topping 3oz! These 2.5 lbs came from about 4 sq feet of bed, and this is their first season so density should improve. I have about 200sq ft of Sunchoke beds so I figure I have about 100lbs still to dig up!

So why am I so jazzed up about these knobby little buggers? First off they’re native-Lewis and Clark ate them in North Dakota. Secondly they’re basically perennial-you can never find all the tubers, so the stand regrows annually. They are a multipurpose plant-they grow like weeds-reaching up to 9′ (mine hit 6-7′ their first year) providing massive biomass and a decent late season wind/site break. Lastly they store best in the soil so I don’t need a root cellar to keep them fresh-just mulch the beds to keep the ground workable and dig as needed! The best part for me is that from July on they are crowned with a riot of glorious little sunflowers-and I love sunflowers. I planted them after seeing them in virtually every Permaculture book I came across, and they also fit nicely in my quest to grow some actual “calorie” crops in addition to all the nutritional veggies. Speaking of which here is the low down on the Sunchoke:

Nutritional Highlights (from mothernature.com)
Jerusalem artichoke (raw, sliced), 1 cup (150g)Calories: 114Protein: 3.0gCarbohydrate: 26gTotal Fat: 0.015gFiber: 2.4g*Excellent source of: Iron (5.1mg)*Good source of: Potassium (643mg), and Vitamin C (6.0mg)

This compares pretty favorably with the Potato, and given the flowers, built in storage, and perennial tendencies it was really no contest. To drive the stake in even further the Sunchoke has no pests and recieved absolutely zero care all year-a true sow and forget crop that is perfect for organic gardening. No wonder the Permacultrists love it!

Serving suggestion are myriad. Use them anywhere you would a normal spud-we’ve mashed them, put them in skillets and into bakes-just be ready for their nutty taste. Because of that taste they also like to mimic water chestnuts in stir fry and radishes in salads.

Sourcing them isn’t hard-our Whole Foods carries them in season, just buy what you need and plant them in the spring-given them a good drained bed, dig 4″ deep furrows and give them about 6″ spacing. Be sure you really want them there for good-they are virtually impossible to remove!

Comfrey Musings

Now that we are back from our whirlwind holiday tour of the Midwest, I felt it was time to get down to earth on some gardening planning. First off was to map out some plant guilds for the Big Spring Planting. The week before we left I took 6 30 lb rocks and laid out the outline of my proposed gardens with the incredibly scientific method of dropping the rocks about where I thought a fruit tree would like to live, and then proceeded to kick them around some until I felt that the resulting gardens beneath them achieved a nice flow. I continue to kick them around a little every few days, no doubt the Chi will be well sorted by March.

After rereading much of Gaia’s Garden , Food Not Lawns, and Bill Mollison’s Introduction to Permaculture to get my Game Face on, this week I sat down and started dropping in some Excel Sheets on my gardens. I am still slightly uncomfortable in using such a sterile medium, but pixels are a bit more sustainable than the several dozens of sheets of graph paper I would otherwise have used. The fact that I actually graph out my gardens says volumes about me I am sure, but I digress.

Looks like each guild will have 3-4 dozen major plants, with another uncountable amount of misc clovers running amuck underneath. Sourcing much of this will be no problem, as they are readily available from seed or at nurseries. All but one-my beloved Comfrey. I will not get into the myriad uses of Comfrey here, except to say that if you want Biomass (and who doesn’t?!?) you want Comfrey. Not only will Comfrey grow into a nice 3′ mass in virtually any soil with enough water, but you can cut it to the ground 4-5 times a year, and it seems to improve with each cutting. Not only that, but it allegedly seeks out nutrients from the subsoil (the roots on this bugger are insane), stores them in the leaves thus making their mulch basically a fertilizer. The problem is that I only have 3 plants (all I could buy from the one and only vendor I have found selling them locally) which is only enough for one tree. Time to break out my copy of Plant Propagation, by Lewis Hill.

Actually this was almost certainly unnecessary-every account I have read of Comfrey has included strong warnings about its ability to grow from minute pieces of root. But I am a geek, and geeks check books first. So today I went out back hacked one of my Comfrey’s in half, rinsed the roots off and took a dozen cuttings off. In the process I also broke the crown up another 3 times, so I replanted those in an unused area near my veggie gardens-if they come up next year-awesome-if not- oh well. One item of note-its 12/29 and I live in Wisconsin. There is simply no frost in the soil at all. At least Climate Change is letting me burn off some cabin fever.

Should the cuttings root in the pots I brought in I will be egstatic, if not, I will try again in warmer times. But all this planning has led me to wax philosophical for a moment. As I strategically placed my N-Fixers, nutrient gatherers, insect attractors, and barrier plants to keep out the fescue-and then further thought thru how the Comfrey would interact with the Indigo, and which cultivar of Day Lily would yield the best edible flowers and in which color while still serving to hold the lawn at bay. I was struck by how this was diversity-valuing the uniqueness of each individual and how that inherent uniqueness was integral to producing the sustainable plant society I was attempting to create. There is a marked philosophical difference between gardening by using plants like we do with a pepper or carrot, and allowing the attributes that a plant inherently possesses to be brought together with other attributes from other plants to form a whole that is unattainable otherwise. How different would our society be if we thought of each other in similar ways-not in terms of usefulness, but of synergy?

If edible landscaping is helping me lead a more sustainable life, Permaculture seems to be doing something similar with my thoughts.

Solstice

Wishing all of you the joyous hopes and dreams of a new year welcomed in this morn by the return of the Sun. Today is a wonderful time to celebrate the cyclical rhythms of nature: Autumn slipping in spurts to Winter, the waxing and waning of the moon, gold finches turning ashen, the arrival of chipper little juncos, and the knowledge of seeds sleeping expectantly in the soil for the return of the warmth and rains of Spring.

May the next year be a little more peaceful, a little more mindful, and a little more loving.

Happy Solstice everyone!

Guilding the Garden

Recently I was searching for some good reading for breakfast and I stumbled across a much more sophisticated ecological gardening business located in Minneapolis, MN. Besides being significantly more educated in ecology than myself, they are also better marketers-I simply love their garden “products” for the ubiquitous herb spiral and fruit tree guilds. Here is a marketable turnkey permaculture planting that fits into a flyer, and can have a price assigned to it up front. The Fruit Tree Guilds are some of the most accessible pieces of permaculture-providing easy visual descriptions to interplanting and function stacking to reduce inputs and maximise outputs.

The business plan for our Someday Gardens is simple-to market the gardens, rain barrels, and compost bins we have created here in our Suburban Paradise to other ecologically aware suburbanites who through either lack of time, inclination, or knowhow aren’t interested in installing them themselves. The problem is that we don’t have any plant guilds anchored around fruit trees. Yet.

My first foray into edible perennial permaculture gardens has already begun. Last summer we installed a rain garden and had high hopes despite the sad results from our perk test. Predictably, it was not to be and our garden turned into a nice sized pond-draining almost nothing for weeks at a time. So we purchased some goldfish for it and moved on. Then I stumbled across an anecdote somewhere about wild blueberry bushes growing on decaying logs in bogs and a idea was born. Could I, in permaculture fashion, turn my drainage problem into a solution for my lack of blueberry habitat? Perhaps…. So one weekend when I had an abundance of energy, I dug a huge trench (2’x10′ by 4′ deep) that I backfilled 3/4 full with chips and needles from a pine tree. I topped this with 30 gallons of coffee grounds from our local watering hole, and top dressed it with an 8″ layer of finished compost. I then connected this filled trench to the (drained) rain pond with a 2′ swale even with the pond bottom-and then backfilled the swale with a compost/chip mix to allow infiltration, but only slowly. My hope was to basically build a bog for a pair of blueberry bushes. The trench would act as a huge acidic sponge for several hundred gallons of rainwater which would then slowly spread out into the hillside in the top of my backyard forming a underground lens of water to tide my other gardens through times of drought. Results? The bushes won’t go in until spring, but the “pond” is now a true rain garden, draining its 1500 gallons slowly over 2-3 days. Nice! I plan on interplanting a legume under the bushes for a living mulch/beneficial insect attractant/fertilizer. Not sure what cultivar can survive the low PH-I’ll plant a mix and let nature decide for me!

I have plans for that buried lens of water from the bog. Come spring I intend to plant a half dozen guilds centered around as many fruit trees. In the works are guilds for apple trees, pears, and even apricots though they are a stretch in my zone. In addition to supplying my family with a truckload of produce, these gardens will also become a living catalog for Someday Gardens, and an example to visitors as our village progresses down the road to a more sustainable municipality.

These gardens will be a huge undertaking, entailing 6-10 trees, hundreds of supporting plants in the understory and the conversion of over 1000sq ft of lawn. Only 12,000 sq ft more to go!

Love. It’s a Burning Thing

We spent last night in the ER, and thankfully everything is fine. But it is times like these that force us to focus on what really matters. To my kids it was that the hospital had free granola bars and unlimited TV, but to me it was family.

The bonds that form in our families are some of the most powerful mojo around. Find your special someone today and love them a little extra.

Just because you can.

Be The Change

I know I am behind the eight ball on this, but my reading is booked thru February and NetFlix had a backlog. So it wasn’t until tonight that we got around to watching The Future of Food. Did I enjoy it? Enjoy might not be the right word, but I can’t think of a better compliment than this: It moved me. When the movie ended, I wept. Those that know me, know that tears are rare enough, but a lifetime count on a full blown weapings can be counted on one hand. I wept because I am only one man, under funded and still tied to The System. I wept because I can’t fix it all. I wept because I fear for my kids. And I wept for my beloved country and the scourge we are unleashing on the world in the name of progress and profit.

Nothing gets me moving more than an overdue catharsis, but my plate is a little full right now, with all the committee work, library initiatives, and Green Business launches. So Mia will be carrying the torch on this one. She will be hosting monthly showings of Movies that Matter at our Community Center starting in January with Inconvenient Truth and moving to the Future of Food soon thereafter. The world is run by those who show up, and we must ensure that everyone who has the moral fiber to care, has the information they need to take action-to show up.

In a related bit of serendipity, today we got a letter from one of my Congressman,the infamous Mr. Sensenbrenner (Republican 5th District WI) spouting the Company Line of an “undecided scientific community” in response to my wife’s concerns about his voting record on Global Warming. With all due respect sir, you and I are now at War. You are the past, and the ideas that my heart espouses are the Future. And that Future is Insight.

Be the Change.

Insight Update


So Honda discontinued the Insight in September of this year. Though terribly disappointing, with sales a pitiful 1000 cars ytd it is not a shock. I understand that to the typical consumer the benefits of an additional 10mpg over a Prius is not worth giving up the back seat, and that $19k for a commuter car is steep, but as I approach the end of my first year as an Insight owner I can’t help but think that they are wrong.

As I have written before, trading my Evo 8 (basically a race car w/plates) for my Insight Hybrid (I still refer to it as my human race car) was both the cause and effect of a huge shift in my world view. First of all you are smaller. Certainly smaller than a Hemi Dodge, smaller than a minivan-heck you look up at Ford Focuses. I have found this to have a very calming effect on the ego. Next you are, well, slow. Wait, that isn’t true. You are fast enough. In my 8,000 miles I have never once needed more power. I have driven the freeways of Chicago at 85mph, I have passed semi’s on 2 lane highways, and I have driven thru sustained 45mph headwinds and massive sheets of rain. Having just enough power means that you start using just enough acceleration, in fact I coast alot. Again-very calming. My favorite feature is still the autostop. Back when the sun existed I would coast to a stop with the windows down, the ECU would kill the engine, and I would sit for a few breaths on my rural road commute and just soak up the crisp morning air and birdsong. Hybrids make me unhurried. Suddenly by giving up 230hp, I gained just enough power to stop to smell the roses.

This is my first winter in the Insight, and apparently the engineers were very concerned about the hybrid driver staying warm enough. The closed loop mode of that teensy 1000cc motor is brutal on mileage as the ECU dumps fuel into the engine trying desperately to warm up the coolant enough to produce heat. I have a 19 mile commute, and it take about 12 of those to get the Insight out of “warm up” mode so that it will get decent mileage again. The long and short of it is that for those first 12 miles I am getting about 45mpg, and even getting my typical 70 the last 6-7 only nets me about 55 total trip. This explains why the total lifetime mileage on the car is 59.5 and not the 70 I was used to getting-for 5 months out of the year I will be averaging under 60mpg. In the last 1/2 tank I have come to terms with that, and have stopped frantically staring at the mileage gauge in a vain hope to see it best 60mpg. And yes, I know I am a geek.

A year can change at. Last December I was dreaming about imported German Suspension kits and racing slicks, while also feeling terribly guilty about what the money should be going to in our family. Now I am installing a new compost bin at our church, researching deep mulch gardening, and attending study groups on Swedish Sustainability Models. Buying the Hybrid removed a lot of the dichotomies in my life-and allowed me to more fully embrace a more simple lifestyle and stop trying to be something I thought I wanted to be. How many of our societal problems share the same simple solution?

Be the Change.

Biomass

I spent much of my environmental life considering cutting down a tree about two steps down from clubbing baby seals. Trees were for planting, growing and hiking under; for habitat restoration, for erosion control, and most importantly for air quality preservation. They certainly weren’t for manufacturing, heating, or any other industrial use. That, along with some of my some of my other old environmental mainstays (notably Eco-vegetarianism, and being anti nuclear energy) has gone by the way side. Over the past year I have become more and more pro biomass, fuelled in part by my studies of the Swedish Natural Step sustainability models. Biomass is playing a significant part in Sweden becoming Oil Independent by 2020-in fact they are calling it their Wood Fueled Future.

First let’s look at the CO2 benefits. If you can keep the energy plants relatively close to the forest, some Scandinavian studies are showing net reductions in CO2 to be in the ballpark of 30 to 40 times less than petroleum sources. That is a flipping huge! The new scrubbers and advances in forestry management have made this a workable solution. For the remaining ecological advantages let’s look at the age old Christmas Tree issue. 32,000,000 trees are cut each Christmas in America alone. That number sounds staggering and is enough to get many people out to buy the new plastic fantastic. But in reality, it is only 30,000 acres (corn had 24,600,000 in 2006) as about 1750 trees are planted per acre. In contrast to traditional agriculture, those acres were not cultivated, rarely sprayed or fertilized, provided habitat for fauna, and sucked a whole lot of C02 from the atmosphere. Compare that with the PVC fake trees that we purchase that out gas for years and create dioxin in their production. For me this is a no brainer-real trees do real good, even the ones in a strict agricultural monoculture. They combat erosion, produce oxygen, provide habitat and keep farmers in business while growing perennial crops that fix CO2 for a decade or more. Fake trees put real toxins into the environment that last forever while adding to, not subtracting from, our CO2 emissions. These arguments are true to varying degrees for virtually any other industry that is using a synthetic industrial model to replace a natural fiber. For example, Wood Burners are popping up across rural America. These compact units heat both air and water, include emission control devices, and drastically cut down on the ecological footprint of our homes by removing the petroleum needed to heat the household for the winter. The kicker, of course, is where all the wood comes from. On one end is a friend of mine at work who takes nothing but dead fall from his 4 acre woodlot, and plants a dozen or so trees a year to backfill. Unfortunately many people will end up sourcing their wood fuel from less sustainable sources. Here is where I will irate some people. I would rather that America fuel its homes with clear cut trees than natural gas and heating oil. At least here in WI most of the harvestable lumber is from managed forests including DNR land and education and some minimal legislation can get the rest of the country up to speed. While it is very traumatic to see a recently harvested wood, from an ecological point of view it is not much different than having those acres burned down in a lightning strike fire which would happen in a non managed forest. Within months of the harvest, Gaia is rebuilding with a lush growth of brambles and seedlings that’s a boon for biodiversity. For me it comes down to the fact that the problems from biomass are more easily handled-erosion control, selective wood harvesting, and pollution scrubbers. Whereas the problems with petroleum fuels are a herd of night mares-once the pollution is up in the troposphere we can’t really get it back into the bedrock and I’ll take a clear cut forest over a strip mine any day. Are there better ways? You bet, for one, passive solar heating uses almost no energy to heat homes, but rebuilding 20 million homes takes more resources than retro fitting them with wood burners. Like many of the Big Name environmentalists I guess I am getting realistic in the face of Global Warming which is looming very large indeed. My next home will be heated by a Tulikivi stove or a separate wood burner if it is pre existing-or built passive solar if it isn’t. I might still retro fit this one if I can figure out how to reinforce the floor to support the stove. Our family is blessed with 20 acres of woodland that could sustainably heat my home for eternity. Those woods have been selectively cut for 3 generations-both for dimensional lumber and heating. They are also a dense mixed stand that provides habitat for large populations of turkey and deer which could also feed us if we were inclined, and there are enough small fruit and herbs growing in the under story to keep us in jam for a life. Can you say that about a natural gas mine or a coal plant? That is why I find myself opting for natural materials more and more. Virtually everything in our consumer culture has a Dark Side-but those from natural materials are more easily remedied.

Food, Not Lawns

Alright, since it will be 4 months until we know if the Supreme Court is pro humanity or pro Big Oil I figure we should move onto other items. The mail brought several presents today, by far the most interesting was air mailed from Chelsea Green Publishing and included their brand new release: Food, Not Lawns. This was also free of charge-have I mentioned how much I love these people?

I am only a chapter or so in, but first of all let’s look at the subtitle. That about sums up what Mia and I view our missions here in our little hamlet to be, so suffice it to say that I am positively disposed to this book. But even in the first paragraph I was hooked. Here is the second sentence of the book:

“Gardening my seem like just a hobby to many people, but in fact growing food is one of the most radical things you can do: Those who control our food control our lives, and when we take that control back into our own hands, we empower ourselves toward autonomy, self reliance, and true freedom.”

Amen Sister! And look at that punctuation-there are at least 4 or 5 commas in there! (now if she would only use more parantheticals…) The book will be interesting if for no other reason than Flores appears to have arrived at a very similar intellectual place as myself, but from the opposite end. I am coming into sustainable suburban communities from upper middle class Corporate America. Flores is a former Greenpeace Activist and I get the distinct impression that she has chained herself to a tree or two. Granted, I am only about 10% into her book, but it appears we have both come to the conclusion that many people want to live simpler lives: produce some food, use less chemicals, live better, more meaningful lives. And that they can do that in their own yards- in suburbia.

I can’t think of a better book to found the Sustainability Library with.
Thanks again Chelsea Green!

%d bloggers like this: