Saturday, December 25, 2010

My Small Christmas

I sit here on Christmas morning waiting for my wife to stir, or my daughter's great patience to finally run out. Behind me stands a bank of book shelves, mostly full of books. Behind that is a Christmas tree.

The tree is a short thing of about four feet including the pot. Around it are huddled presents, mostly from outside our immediate family. It has been tight this holiday season, but we are not destitute. I would have liked to have gotten a little more for my family, but not much. As is, it is about the same as in years when my income was better. 

I can't help comparing what I have to tales I occasionally hear from friends who tell me that they can't deny their children anything. I don't know what life is like for them. I simply can't imagine it. I do know when my wife and daughter come down, and we gather around the tree, we will be happy. We will be together. And we will love each other all the more.

I hope your Christmas is as happy and as peaceful as mine.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sustainable Work Ethic


Despite being committed to sustainability and better home food production, the financial core of my business is mowing lawns. While it is disappointing because it is so far from my goals, I do find it satisfying to to take tough projects and make them look better.

Most of my mow jobs are on foreclosed houses. The lawns are often all dead and I have to hack through hip high weeds on a regular basis. 

The results are an ugly, unevenly short lawn after the first mowing, but after the third mowing I'm bringing it in to where it could compete with the neighbors for quality. If I had living turf with some water on it instead of weeds.

The quality of what I do was brought home as I visited a former job that the property management company reassigned to another contractor. The fences had tall weeds lining them, as did the house and shed. There were lines in the center of the yard where the mower skipped parts. Really, there was just an air of laziness around the place.

Honestly, I don't mind the height and weeds that much. What I do mind is taking a job and not giving it the best you can. I will never make a prize winning lawn out of these tough jobs. But I will always do my best to walk away with my head held up high.

This all has taught me some important lessons about sustainability:

  1. It is sustainable to feed your family and provide a place for them to live.
  2. Sustainability requires hard work, just like anything else.
  3. It doesn't matter how hard you work if you don't understand the job and what you need to do to get it done.
  4. It is not sustainable if you cannot make something you can be proud of at the end of the day.

Sounds like a great way to live, doesn't it!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Choosing to Remove Trees

Removal of a tree is always an emotional decision. Usually the one wanting the tree removed is passionate about why he wants to remove it. There is almost always opposition to the removal that is equally passionate. Sometimes that opposition is silent, but the bigger the tree, the more the conflict and trouble that is likely.

Some of the legitimate reasons to remove a tree are:
  1. Competition with another tree that has greater financial, esthetic, or emotional value.
  2. Competition with a man made structure, whether it be a house, power lines, or sidewalk.
  3. The tree is dying.
  4. It has lost the value it was originally planted for.
  5. The tree is a weedy species.
  6. It is creating a bad phycological impact on those who live and work around it.
  7. The tree has become too much of a safety risk.

The last point is the most important: safety is the overriding decider in anything with trees. 

I don't think I need to list the reasons to keep a tree, I think we all have plenty of our own. I do ask that you respect the property owner's right and responsibility for his trees. While there are trees worth fighting for, they are not as frequent as I would like.

Too often I see that the trees that are being fought over are in bad shape and causing problems for the whole neighborhood.

A particular case in mind was a lot with large Siberian elms. These elms were dripping slime from a bacterial infection, had weak limbs that were a risk to the neighborhood kids, and were spreading seeds that were growing in every crack and fence line within a mile radius.

In this case the preservationists won, but I have to wonder if at this point, ten years later, they would be happier with what the property owner wanted to plant as part of the project, or the sick trees they stuck themselves with.

I know I would have chosen the healthier, safer trees.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Gardeners and Santa

A friend of mine told the truth about Santa to his kids a couple of days ago. This admission received a wide chorus of 'how could yous' with a few, quiet 'at-a-boys'. The 'how could you' crowd seemed to focus on how this friend was robbing his children of some 'vital experience' for growing up healthy.

My wife and I have never taught our child that Santa is a real guy flying around the world with reindeer and a red suit. She knows the stories, but she knows them in context of reality. And honestly, I think she knows them deeper than many of her friends.

Many of those friends spend horrific amounts of time putting together long lists of what they want Santa to bring them. The larger the family tradition of Santa is, the longer the lists seem and the more time the kids spend making them.

My daughter, on the other hand is much more likely to ask what work she can do to earn money to give a well thought out gift. Yes, she has a wish list. But it never makes it to paper unless she is asked. And while she has fun opening her presents, she is more excited to see the reaction to the ones she is giving.

Somehow I don't think she has missed that 'vital experience'. She has, however, gained several key traits for a gardener. Humility, a realization that one must give, and deep caring about others.

After all, where would our gardens be if we didn't put so much into them? If we didn't realize that we are subject to the greater power of the elements? And that our vegetable and fruit gardening always leads to helping someone else?

And aren't all these traits the same ones that make all civilizations work?

No, I am sure that teaching the truth about Santa will lead to much more magic in the lives of my friend's children.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Making Permaculture Better

A well pruned peach tree that will provide lots
of good sweet fruit. It is trimmed low enough
that my elderly client will have little problem 
harvesting it.
Many people jump into permaculture head first when they finally find it. This is not a bad thing, if they realize that permaculture is primarily a design art and that much of its effectiveness is based on experience and observation.

A good example of this is a friend of mine last summer. She put a couple of dozen apple shoots in water. When they seemed to be healthy, she proceeded to plant them, only then to reap disappointment when they all died.

Observation of a bouquet of flowers with lots of greenery might have given a hint at how difficult it can be to start a plant from a cutting. A quick chat with an experienced gardener might have have given her some tips for a better outcome. A well worded internet search also would have given her some things to think about.

A reasonable knowledge of practical gardening wisdom would have been enough to lead her to a highly successful apple propagating experience. This knowledge can be gained a number of ways, and I will cover that in later posts.

Here are three key areas permaculturists will find especially helpful:

Plant Propagation 
Most of us get how to grow a plant from seed, a few have successfully save seed, a couple are willing to pollinate flowers by hand, but who knows how to graft a favorite apple tree? What about getting a cutting from a peach tree to send out roots? By expanding our knowledge of creating new plants we create better opportunities for quality food.

Soil Science 
Of all the permaculture and home gardening books I have read, only one does justice to the soils of my home state. And that book is dedicated to flowers. With the complexity of soils extending from pH to soil structure to water infiltration to nutrient availability, no permaculturist can afford to have a less that professional scientific knowledge of the soils they rely on.

I know Fukuoka preached in favor of no pruning on his citrus, but not pruning doesn't work well on peaches and many other temperate fruit trees. A permaculturist must not only know how prune a fruit tree for best food production, for the health of the tree, and safety of those who work and play under them.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Stone Fruit Pruning Notes

When pruning cherries, plums, almonds, peaches, and other stone fruits you can cut off up to half of the expected leaves. Most of the stone fruits don't need that much. Only peaches need to have heavy pruning to promote enough new growth to give fruit the following year.

Almonds and apricots need some pruning to generating new fruit producing wood. But since the wood will produce fruit for more that one season, often just pruning for structure is needed. I know of a tree near where I live that is judged to be a hundred years old that is producing nicely with such basic pruning.

Cherries and plums only need structural pruning. They just keep on producing without regard to what we do to them.

Judging the expected leaves of a tree is the hardest part. You can't rely on guesstimating  based on a the before and after profile until you have a fair amount of experience. You can make a good guess by looking at the pile of limbs and comparing it to what is still on the tree. Just remember to compensate for how tightly packed the pile is.

And as a final note, remember that it is best to prune the tree less if you have any question. You can always prune more later if you need to, but you can never prune less.

Small Cherry on the left,
European plum on the right.
Before pruning.
And after pruning.

Asian plum. Before.


White peach. Before.


P.S. Feel free to ask questions!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Apple Butter

16 Apples
2 teaspoon Cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon Cloves
1 to 2 quarts Apple Juice

Set slow cooker on low and cover.

The recipe says it will take 15 hours to cook. More apple juice will slow it down and make it sweeter. If the liquid does not reduce fast enough, take the lid off and turn to high for less than an hour.

Careful! Things can go quickly with the lid off.

The apples I am using are an unknown variety from one of my father-in-law's trees. They are supposed to be Jonathans, but most years they are too large and too green to be Jonathans. This year they look right.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Growing Nutritious Food

The western world is becoming more and more conscious of what it eats, finally. But we are struggling with deciding what is really healthy. While the long held definition of a nutrient is that the nutrient is required by the body for basic life, is good for some things, it is a far cry from a comprehensive definition of what is healthy.

Scientists are now looking at many naturally occurring chemicals and the affect they have on our bodies and trying to decide what is really important. Given the size of the task, it will be decades before we have a good foundation for what we really need in our food. Maybe centuries.

But if you turn away from the more complex science, the answers become clear. Healthy food will be food that is raised healthy. That should make sense even to a non-farmer or gardener.

Here are some of the more important factors:

Plant Nutrients 
Make sure the plants have balanced nutrients. This includes all the micro and macro nutrients. Most of the nutrients are more likely to be deficient, but two are more likely to be in excess: nitrogen and water. Yes water. Watch how much nitrogen and water you use.

Sunlight is the basic energy for plants. You can have everything else in abundance, but the plant won't live if it doesn't get light. Most common food plants grow best with full sun, but only a few are damaged by too much sun. Do your research and adjust accordingly.

Typically plants with more color have higher levels of nutrients and beneficial phytochemicals. Choose species and varieties with higher intensity of color in the part that you eat. A good example is zucchini versus butternut. The butternut comes out way ahead for nutrition.

Organic Content of Soil 
This is another way of saying carbon in the soil. While there are many ways to get organics in the soil, including adding charcoal, the best ways are to add compost and plant based mulches. Soils with high amounts of organics grow better for a number of reasons, enough that I’ll have to cover that in a later post.

You will eat better if you grow your own food and will have better food if you plan ahead with these factors in mind.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Permaculture Progression

One of the key ingredients of a good sustainable garden is to guide the garden into duplicating natural patterns while also getting it to provide food, fuel, and building materials. While there are many things that need to be understood to accomplish this, one of the most important is to understand the natural progression of vegetation.

While I'm not going into extreme detail, it is important to have the picture of the plant life in a temperate 'juvenile' area to be annuals, new perennials, and very young woody plants. As the years progress the dominant plants are 'climax' woody plants with an assortment of shorter plants making the most of life underneath the climax plants. How tall the climax plants are depends a great deal on how much water is available as well as many other growing conditions.

For instance, in spots in California, the climax trees are giant red woods. In places in Utah, the best we can do is medium sized sagebrush.

In a traditional garden the climax plant is often an annual that will be cut down at the end of the growing season. In a forest garden it is often a large fruit or nut tree that produces food for many years.

Because of this long term food production, there are many who think this is the ultimate in gardening and that they are fully obeying nature's laws.

I myself would have to disagree with this conclusion.

Even now I hear the cries of "burn the heretic!" But please, consider that the food forests that the American Indians maintained were in fact maintained. That is, they were burned to eliminate undesirable plants and cut out competition from younger plants that might cut down on production.

This is in fact not a climax condition anymore that a tilled garden is. (Please remember that I am not a fan of tilling!) It is an artificially maintained condition that nature is fighting against.

So if what I am saying is correct, why am I saying it? Because real sustainable gardening is about choosing the best option for what your conditions, resources, and production needs are. It is about letting your garden progress to the level it needs to be, then starting the cycle over again.

This start may be taking the orchard to the ground and planting vegetables. Or it may be replacing a worn out tree by planting the new one in part of the annual patch and planting vegetables where the old tree was.

Or whatever. It really depends on conditions, resources, and productions needs coupled with what you have observed works.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Don't Bury Your Trees

So, I was working in a back yard This summer and I noticed that the the folks next door had graded the area around their fruit trees in an attempt better gather water to the roots.

While I applaud the intent and the good hard work, I was disappointed by the lack of understanding that the gardener had about basic tree growing.

The first problem was with the spacing of the trees in relation to his efforts to gather extra water. The fruit trees were conventionally spaced. 

This means they wouldn't benefit from the concentration effect because they had access to the same amount of water that fell directly on them. 

To gather water, you have to plant at a further distance and have the extra water in between the full sized trees run to where the tree can best use it.

The second problem was that the gardener hilled up extra dirt around the trunks of the trees. This is a more serious problem because that dirt will cut down on oxygen that the roots and lower trunk need to live. 

In short the gardener should not have just been studying Permaculture design, he should have been studying what his plants needed.

Permaculture is after all not about a ridged set of rules, it is about thinking about what we are doing and what is the best way for your situation.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Going Native

This photo was taken in Tooele, UT. Note how impressive the fiery red pops out at you. This is a Big Tooth maple, a shrub/tree common just a few miles away. It's natural altitude range runs through the Tooele area, so it is perfectly comfortable where it is with just a little extra water.

There are many native plants for most areas that are just as beautiful, you just need to look for them.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Fall Flowers

My first job out of college was planting annual flowers. That job worked me so hard I had a hard time enjoying the planting. Shortly after I moved to my next employer, I realized how much fun designing and planting the beds can be.

Many professional and home gardeners look forward to planting their flower bed the same way I did. It is the one time they can truly let loose with their creativity. And if they make a mistake, no big deal, it will be corrected in six or seven months when they remove the flowers for the next season.

While I still like doing a few annuals, I find I get a greater charge out of planting and maintaining edibles. 

Anyone who knows me will find it unusual that I planted such a formal style of bed. After having planted the larger of these two beds for a number of years I fell into a rut.
To get out of the rut I did something off the cuff. 

While you can't see it in these photos, the lines of dusty miller are not all parallel, nor are they spaced equally distant. This makes it so that orange pansies vary from two lines of fill to three.

This randomness makes for a looser, more relaxed appearance. I would call it 'formalistic' since it actually resembles the sheer points in slate and shale, rather than some human mechanical construction.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Baked Pumpkin Soup

One of my favorite things about sustainable gardening is eating well!

I was asked yesterday how to cook a Hubbard squash. Since I don't have a formal recipe for that yet, please consider this one:

Baked Pumpkin Soup

1 six inch pumpkin

2 small to medium potatoes

3-4 pounds beef, deer, elk, or other red meat cut into one inch cubes

1 onion or 6 top setting onions, diced

1 cup potato broth

olive or sesame seed oil

black pepper, freshly ground

Open and clean the pumpkin like you would a jack-o-lantern. Grind pepper on the inside and drizzle half a tablespoon of oil in the bottom of the pumpkin.

Put the pumpkin with its lid on onto a baking sheet and put it in a preheated oven at 400 degrees for one hour.

Cut up the potatoes and boil till almost done. Bigger chunks take more time, smaller ones less.

While the pumpkin and potatoes are cooking, coat the meat in black pepper and brown in an oiled cast iron frying pan.

Remove the meat and brown the onions.

Add the meat back to the onions and cook together for two minutes.

Take one cup of liquid from the potatoes (or one cup water) and add to the meat. Cover the frying pan and continue cooking the meat for ten minutes. Keep hot till pumpkin is ready.

After one hour take the pumpkin out and lower the temperature to 325 degrees.

Take the lid off the pumpkin and add the hot meat and onions with broth to the inside of the pumpkin. Put the potatoes in on top of the meat and put the top back on the pumpkin.

Place the pumpkin back in the oven and continue cooking for one hour.

Remove pumpkin and serve by ladling out the meat and potatoes and by scraping flesh from the sides of the pumpkin.

This is a highly variable recipe and will likely turn out different each time. And remember, the pepper is the key ingredient in making the red meat and pumpkin blend.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Final Frontier

We are constantly threatened with globalization. Whether it is through the media, politics, or at your not-so-local neighborhood grocery store. While this may not bother some people and though many of its outcomes are beneficial, I find that too often I feel overwhelmed by everything from elsewhere. I also start feeling a loss of identity. Have you ever wondered, 'Who am I and where do I fit in this huge world?'

I have found that the best cure for this potential paranoia is to go out and garden. Gardening gives you a direct sense of place because you are working with that place. You get to make things that are unique because of the specific temperatures, soils, light, and nutrients of that area.

A peach that is grown in my father-in-law's place in Utah County tastes different from one grown in Georgia (the Utah peach is better, by the way). You can't grow a blueberry in Utah for any length of time. A banana tree might be coaxed to grow outside in a Minnesota summer, but it will not produce fruit without lots of protection.

Even if I were to plant an alpine fir from the mountains overlooking my home right next to my back window where it is in direct line of sight of its home, it would die in a few short seasons.

This dedication to area specifics I like to call the Last Frontier of Regionallity. While engineers, architects, and politicians are busy trying for universal one-size-fits-all, the good gardener is trying to find something that fits his location. 

If he is a good gardener he will create a connection with the land. He will know what he can and can't do, what he should or shouldn't do. This understanding will make his design totally different from any other garden. It will even be different than one around the same cookie cutter house next door.

Personal, identifiable, local. The Final Frontier, right here at home.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Don't Worry, It's Just a Bug!

When it comes to weeds and bugs we have a habit of panicking and over reacting. While most of us know that getting too excited with a toxic chemical is a bad thing, getting carried away with an organic solution may not be the best thing either.

One way of keeping things in balance is by applying an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) approach to weed and insect problems. 

IPM is a collection of common sense techniques combined with an understanding of the pest life cycles and the environment they live in.

The basics of and IPM program include: 

1  Point of Action: This step is basically deciding how much of the pest we are willing to deal with. While it would be nice at times to get rid of all pests, reality is that we never will. So we need to decide where the point is that we need to react. 

2  Monitor and Identify Pests: We all do this in a garden anyway. Looking at new things and how it might effect us in the garden should be second nature. 

3  Prevention: What can we do to keep the pest from being a problem. This is a no brainer for an organic gardener or anyone that has grown up with old-timey gardening. It is as simple as crop rotation or as complex as breeding a pest resistant crop. 

4  Control: This is where it can get scary, but it doesn't have to be. IPM requires that the least risky methods should be used first. While most mainstream gardeners would head straight for the pesticide isle, simple techniques such as trapping, weeding, chickens, or other simple organic methods are the first options in any true IPM system. 

And most of the time, the simple thing is the only thing we need to do.