Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Dedicated Do-It-Your-Selfer Dilemma

I have often wondered about the food I cook with. Where does it come from, how does it get to me, and how could I do it all myself? The milk for instance, I have seen documentaries on how it is produced commercially, and I have helped in small scale home production, so I get it. The same with flour. In fact, flour is easy to produce with some quality without any complex procedures or equipment.

The honey is a little harder, but with some research and space most people can become competent. The oil on the other hand seems like an incredible chore. I'm sure I could do it, but the task seems almost epic compared to the other foods I've mentioned. Even once I set up the press and other equipment, I would have a hard time getting enough raw plant material to make the effort worth while.

Wheat has the same problem with volume, but at least wheat can be obtained in bulk if I can't grow enough. Try buying a 50 lb. bag of flax or rape seed some time. I'm sure it is there, I am also sure I would have to look for it. 

The point of this is that there are some things that are difficult to produce on a small scale. A dedicated do-it-your-selfer with visions of sustainability has to accept that he can't do everything. Especially if he lives on a city lot, or even worse, an apartment. 

But, he can take the time he saved by retreating from one or more of the difficult tasks and use it to focus on mastery of what he can really make a difference with.

After all, would it be better to produce a couple of pints of oil a year or to produce enough honey for all your sweetening needs for the year, plus some to share with your friends and neighbors?

Think about it, then sit back and decide which tasks are most worth it. Then, who knows, maybe it will be creating artisan flax seed oil. If so, could I trade some early snow peas for a cup or two?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pesticide Thoughts

A vital part of my organic pest control system.

I garden mostly organic. That is to say, what most old timers would call organic before the government hijacked the word. But beyond that, I have a few caveats I insist on.

The first of these is safety. I like all sorts of critters in my gardens, including the stinging ones. But if they scare my daughter or sting me I will finish off the offending nest. 

The second is using up existing stocks of fertilizer. I use chemical fertilizer sparingly in controlled doses. I figure I will do more damage over time by throwing it away.

There are other things, but that gives you the basic picture. I know that many of my readers use some or lots of chemicals. And I know others use none. My hope is to generate a constructive discussion so that we can all understand each other better.

I've come up with three scenarios. These are based on situations that happen in the real world although the specifics are not true.

Please feel free to make well thought out comments. Be ready to back up your points and accept the views of others as valid, even if you disagree.

Scenario #1
The health minister of a small, third world nation is faced with a growing death toll due to malaria. He is working with the Western democracies to educate his people on how to improve their conditions, but the reality is that it will take years. It doesn't help that much of the nation is on low lying land and has natural pools of standing water.

Most of the government is corrupt, but due to international pressure they have provided a small amount of money to combat the problem. As the minister looks at his resources he realizes that he has just enough money for a mosquito elimination program using DDT. The money is not sufficient for anything else, not even one of the newer pesticides. If he uses the DDT, new cases of malaria will drop to almost nothing.

Scenario #2
Six months ago you picked up some bed bugs at a hotel while you were visiting family on the East coast, and they have infested your home. You've done your research, but the only things you can find that are not chemical based involve putting a quarantine on your house and possessions for at least a year or use a plant derived 'repellant'.

You opted to use the repellant, and it works fine on you, but the kids are suffering worse that ever. They're always covered with bites and the new mattresses you bought are already covered with bed bug feces.

Your in-laws are reluctantly willing to take you in, but they think you are being silly and should just spray. In fact, they just had their house sprayed as a precaution.

Scenario #3
A farmer in 1950s Idaho has the opportunity to spray nicotine insecticides on his wheat and potatoes. Other farmers in the area use 
it already and are impressed with the results. One of his friends doesn't trust chemicals, but since the cigarettes they both smoke have nicotine in them, the farmer thinks his friend is just being a little crazy. 

The farmer is old enough to remember the Great Depression and is willing to do just about anything to make his farm work so his family doesn't have to see that kind of poverty again.

Now, the question to all of you is what would you do under these conditions? Remember to be courteous, back up your position in a well thought out manner, and respect other points of view especially if they are radically different from your own.

Please be brutally honest with yourselves, though. Don't cheat yourself out of paying the price on any of your choices.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Permaculture Pruning: Lesson Three

'Momma Red' proves that when the books tell you
a red delicious is supposed to make a good central
leader the tree may not agree. You have to be
willing to accept what the tree gives you.

The primary purpose of planting a fruit tree is to get fruit. This sounds simple, but most of the fruit trees I pass on the road are neglected, almost as a ritual. One of the biggest areas of neglect is in pruning.

Either people don't prune at all, prune once every five to ten years, or prune with reckless abandon with no idea of what they are doing. Of these three methods, I would rather see no pruning because when I'm called in to fix the tree, I can turn to what nature provided rather than what man mangled.

The decision of how you prune starts when you decide to buy a fruit tree. By the time you've bought the tree you already have to know if you have room for the tree you are getting. This includes height, width, and avoiding incompatible obstacles like the children's sandbox or your spouse's favorite rose.

And then there is the fruit. How do you prune for the best fruit? There are three widely used forms for raising temperate fruit. They do not cover all possibilities, but they are great tools for getting most jobs done.

Open Center This is my favorite because it can be used for many types of trees and because it is easy for me to climb and pick fruit. An open center tree is formed like a wide bowl or vase with the main branches coming out of the trunk anywhere from one foot up to about four feet up, pointing in different directions.

Usually four main, or scaffold, limbs are recommended, but I vary between three and five depending on what the tree gives me. 

If the type of tree is well suited to this form it will be easy to prune each year. Fruits that take well to open center pruning are: almond, apples (most), apricot, cherry (pie), fig, nectarine, peach, and plum (Japanese).

A nice open center prune job.
Top view of the above tree. Note the small fifth
scaffold limb. It fills a spot that the older limbs
were never able to use.

Central Leader This is what we think of as a 'classic tree'. It has a trunk that runs from bottom to top with scaffold limbs popping out in all directions from about three or four feet from the ground to nearly the top of the trunk.

The central leader form is often used for big fruit and nut trees that can not harvested from the ground. It is also used for shorter trees that have strong vertical growth, like pears.

Trees that do well trained to a central leader are: apples (red delicious, jonathan), butternut, cherry (all), chestnut, filbert and hazelnut, pear, pecan, and walnut (black and English).

This would be well on its way to a central
leader if it were not sick and dying.

Modified Central Leader This is the same as a central leader, but the limb that is serving as the 'trunk' is cut back somewhat short of its top.

Many years ago when I was just learning pruning, I thought of this as one of the best and most versatile ways to prune a fruit tree. Now, having rarely used it, I wonder if I have learned wisdom, or if I need to rethink some of my pruning.

Trees that do well with a modified central leader are: apple, apricot, cherry, pear, and pistachio.

Other forms that are used, but less thought about are:

Natural Form Citrus and most plums do well with only basic removal of dead, sick, and crossing limbs. 

This plum has done well for most of its life with
little help from me or anyone else. Now that it is
getting older I keep more of an eye out for dead
wood. I take a few live branches mainly to improve
sunlight for the remaining branches.

Multi Leader Service berries, filberts, and other trees that have a natural suckering habitat and no root grafting are usually right at home going somewhat amuck.

Double Leader Some trees are highly susceptible to diseases that are only treatable by removing all the infected wood, plus some. By providing a secondary, smaller leader you provide insurance against a bad infection on either of the leaders. This is my favorite way to prune pears.

Dozens of other systems for pruning fruit trees exist. But this is a solid list of the basic forms for a beginner to learn and the most productive for the average home owner.