A key focus for our sustainability garden this year will involve expanding our experience with two guilds, one that's old and one that's new. For those who aren't familiar with that term in this context, a guild is a collection of plants that work together for mutual benefit.
Perhaps the oldest guild is the one that's traditionally known as "The Three Sisters" consisting of corn, climbing beans and squash. The corn provides a structure for the bean/pea to climb on, the bean/peas are legumes that fix nitrogen from the air to fertilize the guild, and the large leaves of the squash provide a canopy which limits evaporation and competition from weeds.
As usual, we're not focusing on the commonly grown varieties, but rather on types that offer value-added opportunities. Sustainability is about many things, one of which is variety since the more interesting and diverse the food supply, the better. For example, we'll be growing two usual corn varieties this year: oaxacan green corn used to make the green flour tamales of southern Mexico,
The pea that we'll be working with is the Cascadia climbing snap pea developed by Dr. Jim Baggett at Oregon State University. Nitrogen fixing plants like this perform that miracle through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria that form root nodules, and it's important to match the innoculant with the plant. In this case we'll be using an innoculant specific to peas produce by Nature's Aid.
Some of the squash varieties we'll be working with are the Potimarron squash from France famous for its unusual taste falling somewhere in between pumpkin and chestnut,
The second type of guild we'll be experimenting with this summer is the Apple Guild. Windward is located in open-range country, so one thing we can count on is that late in the summer, when there's not much in the woods for cattle to browse, they'll eventually find their way to Windward and see what they can find to eat. Here's a tongue-in-cheek poster that Amy made up last summer when we were getting grazed on a daily basis.
We weren't pleased at all when the cows "pruned" back the tops of the fruit trees, but in the long run, the trees are in more danger from our sheep and goats who'll go after the tasty bark, and once a tree has been ringed, there's nothing you can do to save it.
The occasional breakout is inevitable since there really is no such thing as a goat proof fence--I've seen a goat clear a five foot fence from a standing start when she really, really wanted to. And so we install protective fencing around our younger trees. Once a tree has grow to where the majority of the branches are more than four feet off the ground, we'll be able to take down the fence panels and just maintain protection around the trunk, but for now this is our best option.
As you can see, the cattle panels surrounding the young apple tree will make a fine scaffold for snap peas, and the peas in turn will fix nitrogen that will fertilize the tree. That's straight-forward, but what to plant in the rest of the enclosed space? Perhaps another type of winter squash would be good since their canopy will prevent the growth of weeds that would suck up water and other resources. Winter squash stores well without processing, but I'm just your faithful blogger--Jacque's our botanist, so that's her call.
In addition to plants grown for food, this summer we'll also be working with plants grown to support other aspects of our goal to demonstrate that it's possible, practical and preferable to feed, fuel and clothe twenty people on a hundred acres.
Actually, straw brooms aren't made out of straw, and broom corn isn't a type of corn, at least not the sort of plant that Americans think of when they hear the word "corn." Broom corn is actually a type of sorghum more closely related to sugar than than to maize.
For a link to an excellent article on the history of brooms, Click Here.
One of the key books in the internship reading list describes the incredible array of products that were manufactured by the Shakers, including some of the innovative designs they came up with such as the circular saw blade and the flat straw broom.
Broom corn is an example of a product that can be used to create value-added products for use at Windward, or which residents can choose to make and market to people interested in owning recreations of traditional products. That may sound like a small sort of niche, but renaissance fairs alone in the US constitute an industry with annual gross revenues well in excess of a hundred million dollars.
Windward has years worth of experience at growing and processing wool; indeed, our flock of sheep produce three different types of wool so that we can produce everything from wool batting for quilts to felted hats. It's easy to think of wool as the stuff that comes from sheep, but wool varies in type and utility in much the same way that wood does. Pine, balsa and oak are all types of wood, but they're used for entirely different applications--and wool is the same way.
And while wool is an excellent renewable clothing fabric, it's not the sort of fiber you'd want to use to make underwear. For that, your best options are cotton or flax. We're focusing on flax because it's traditionally been grown successfully in northern climates, and because flax seed oil is useful for making paint. The variety we'll be working with this year is Evelin Fibre Flax, a Dutch flax which has been specially bred for linen production.
This will be the first year we've grown flax, so we're looking forward to making the transition from theory to practice. For an excellent article on flax, Click Here.
This year we're going to be experimenting with uncommon grains as well. About the only thing anyone knows for sure about global warming is that it's going to cause a notable change in weather patterns, and since grains are key to any sustainable food supply, we want to have more options than just the wheat that is our county major agricultural crop.
Amaranth is a grain with both a remarkable past and an interesting future. Traditionally grown and used by central American cultures, amaranth has a protein content higher than that of wheat, rice, or corn, and is a better source for the essential amino acid, lysine, than most other grains. The vibrant burgundy seeds can be milled into flour, cooked as a hot cereal or popped like popcorn.
Amaranth is a warm weather crop that's sown about the same time as corn, and the seeds can be easily harvested by shaking the grain heads into a bucket.
Triticale is a grain created by crossing wheat and rye, the goal being to combine the grain quality, productivity and disease resistance of wheat with the vigor and hardiness of rye. It's ability to produce under less than ideal growing conditions make it a good candidate for sustainable food production in spite of shifting weather patterns.
Triticale can be harvested for human consumption, as an animal feed or cut as hay; given the vagarities of weather here in the Pacific Northwest, the more options the better.
A key part of our long-term approach to sustainable food production involves sylvacultue--the use of trees to produce food. The apple, plum and apricot trees we've planted are a start towards the goal of having four fruit/nut trees per person, and this year we'll look at increasing our diversity.
While there's no substitute for apple trees as the mainstay of a sustainable food program--it's hard to imagine getting tired of apple pie and hard cider--for sustainability, it's important to build in enough diversity to maintain interest. Also, diversity supports our ability to generate income through the production of value-added products.
We've not tried to get figs established here before, so we're curious how this cold hardy variety will work out. It's rated as good to 0 F°, and it rarely gets below 10 F° here--so we should be good to go.
Mulberries are so versitle--the fruit makes a great jam, a tasty wine, and chickens are quite happy to clean up any fruit that falls to the ground.
And once we have a mulberry grove established, that opens up the possibility of producing our own silk. It's actually easier than you might think, and wool/silk blends make a very nice, renewable fabric.
Todd discusses some of the mycology work we'll be doing this year.
I was in California back in early 2004 when I read Walt's article in these Notes about Chairs and Departments. The section on the Mycology Chair was my first exposure to the notion of growing edible mushrooms. Fast-forward to 2007 and we're preparing to raise several types of gourmet mushrooms using several different techniques. For certain, we'll be trying out shiitake and oyster mushrooms and possibly other exotics - like morels and garden giants - as well.
The shiitake mushrooms (lentinula edodes) is a traditional favorite on Japanese, Korean and Chinese tables and has historically been grown on sections of oak log that have been inoculated with mycelium. Since Windward has a plentiful supply of Oregon white oak on the property, and since the best time to cut the wood used for shiitake culture is late winter/early spring, we'll be firing up the chainsaws for this work very soon. Since we're just starting out, we'll buy commercial "plugs" (wood dowels that have been inoculated with shiitake culture). Using this technique we hope to see fruiting (mushrooms) in 6 months to a year.
an oak log growing shitake mushrooms
We'll also be trying to grow shiitake mushrooms indoors using a plastic bag culture technique that produces much faster fruiting than the traditional log culture method.
For oyster mushrooms (pleurotus ostreatus), we'll be using sterilized straw as a growing substrate, since we have a handy supply of raw material that's ready to be sterilized using much-diluted hydrogen peroxide. Another substrate we plan to experiment with is wood chips, made right here from pine slash with Windward's own chipper. For these experiments, both these substrates will be inoculated with commercial spawn.
A third medium for growing oyster mushrooms is coffee grounds. The fact that I have a ten-gallon tub of coffee grounds that I've been collecting over the winter for earthworms to feast upon makes trying out this method convenient. For this experiment, we'll probably use commercial spawn to mix into sterilized coffee grounds.
Since we're planning to grow corn this year (see Notes 67: Three Sisters Guild), we may introduce some straw that's been inoculated with spawn of the garden giant (stropharia rugosa annulata) mushroom that has been shown to be a friendly companion to corn and other vegetables. Another mycological experiment we may try is mixing commercial black morel (morcella angusticeps) spawn into the ashes of our annual stump burn. In the wild, morels are typically among the first species of vegetation to appear after a forest fire and are thought to have a future in mycorestoration strategies for burned forests.
March 9: Straw Bale Gardening
straw bales supporting a portable garden
A few years back we were able to purchase a strip of land 155 feet deep and a quarter mile wide along Windward's northern boundary. The primary purpose of the acquisition was to provide us with more set back, but a nice ancillary benefit was the acquisition of a large bench that we'll be using to grow perrenial crops such as saffon, lavender, strawberries and blueberries. For reasons of whimsey, that area--our northern most garden--is known as "Northumbria."
Right now, the land is clayish and will need a good deal of improvement before any beds placed there can be tought of as permanent, but one way we're looking to get a jump on that process is by using a technique developed by Dr. N. L. Mansour of Oregon State University, and brought to our attention by Nichols Garden Nursery.
Our '06 'terns made a lot of good compost last year, but we'd like to reserve that for other uses, and so we're going to give the straw bale concept a try this year as a way to get our lavender and strawberry beds going. By stacking bales of wheat straw side by side, and covering them with a few inches of dirt, you can quickly create a bed that offers both good drainage and moisture retention. We'll spray the straw bales regularly with a nutrient enriched solution that will cause them to start undergoing the composting process "in situ." A couple years down the road, the densely packed straw will have compacted down into raised beds of lavender and strawberries.
In addition to the production of primary food stuffs, a sustainability garden should include room for plants that add interest, even if they aren't going to be used as food. This year we'll be expanding our experience by working with brown mustard and luffa gourds.
Brassica juncea is another "two-fer" in that it contributes both table "greens," rich in vitamins A and K, and a bounty of seeds that can be ground to produce the fancy brown mustards which add flavor and zest to other foods.
Another advantage is that mustard is able to go into the ground early in the season, and withstand dry conditions later on. As we enter into an era of climate change, growing food--always a dicey proposition at best--is going to become ever more uncertain, so any plant that can produce under a wide range of weather conditions is a good plant to work with.
Since most modern sponges are made from fossil fuels, we're interested in learning to grow a cradle-to-cradle replacement that serves the need, and with which we can develop value-added products for market. For example, a luffa sponge can be sliced into sections the same way you'd slice a loaf of French bread, and then dipped in fresh, home-made soap that hasn't set yet to create a scrubbing soap bar--the luffa fibers creating a mechanical effect that enhances the detergent effect. Add in a bit of lavender, and you've got a pleasing product that's a bit out of the ordinary.
a mature luffa growning on a section of chain link fence
The challenge with growing luffa here is that it requires a long growing season, so we'll be getting some seeds started indoors this week for later transplanting once the ground warms up. If we can get them growing early enough, they should be ready to harvest after the first hard freeze in the fall.
We're having an early spring, and a couple of things caught my eye today as I wandered through the main garden. Windward's elevation is right at 2,000' and it's common for our ground to be slow to warm up enough for direct planting of seeds. However, this past winter was mild, and spring is coming on early so we're seeing signs that we'll need to speed up some of our prep work for this year's garden.
A plant will only grow when its roots are warm enough, and one way we've developed to get heat to our early beds is through the use of huge vehicle tires that have been openned up with a chain saw so that they function as raised beds. The black tires soak up the sun's heat and allow for early production. Here's a couple of examples:
This is a bed of garlic that Kerry planted last fall. It will continue to grow well into summer when it will be harvested, sorted, and the smaller bulbs replanted for next year's crop.
Here you can see the rhubarb starting to push its way up through the dirt. This bed was newly planted last summer, and allowed to grow unharvested so as to build up the root system. We'll do that again this year, in preparation for replanting in a permanent patch down along the creek next spring.
This year we'll be looking to advance Project Pizza--in which we expand our ability to make our own pizza and beer--by growing our own hops and malting our own grain. In the case of hops, they need a framework upon which to grow, so today we took three 20' lengths of 1/2" rebar and made a trellis over our wooden loveseat.
We started by cutting six 2' lengths of 3/4" steel pipe, and drove three of them into the ground on each side of the loveseat. Todd and I each grabbed an end of the rebar and walked towards each other forming it into an arch, and then slipped the end of the rebar down into the pipe. That way, the trellis will be easy to disassemble when it's time to harvest the hops.
As seems to happen too often, today was one of those days when lots of stuff arrives all at once. We've been expecting our fig and mulberry trees for three weeks now, anxious to get them into the ground; not only did they arrive today, but so did the strawberries, the new horseradish rootings and our new flock of 50 baby Rhode Island Red chicks!
Naturally, getting the chicks settled in the brooder has to take priority, so we opened up the shipment, watered everything down and stuck them away in a cool, dark spot to wait a bit.
Lunch today featured a delicious vegetarian lasagne that got a good deal of its flavor and bulk from our fine crop of leeks.
Gina shares the secret of her vegetarian lasagna with Andie
With eight bare-root trees needed to get into the ground, the weather sure could have been more cooperative; in the space of a couple of hours we enjoy rain, hail, sleet--each broken up by fleeting patches of sunshine. Still, bare-root trees need to get into the ground as soon as possible, so heedless of the weather, we persevered.
First we started with the mulberry trees which we wanted to plant on towards the bottom of the slope in the sheep's main summer pen where they'll get good drainage, lots of sunshine and where the berries that fall to the ground can be gathered up by the sheep. The quickest way to go is to use the backhoe to dig a 3'x3' hole two feet deep, piling the removed dirt on the downhill side of the hole so that it can be shaped into a catchment to direct rain water to the root of the young tree.
Andie uses a rake to smooth the dug dirt into a catchment berm
We then fill up the hole with a mixture of compost and soil, carefully spreading out the roots of the tree as we gently, but firmly, pack the soil in around the tree (it's important to not leave any air pockets).
Walt nestling the young mulberry tree into it's new home
Once the composted soil is packed in, it's shaped so as to be part of the water catchment, and a wire cage is placed with flags to discourage idle grazing of the buds by passing deer and such.
A wire cage is placed around the tree to give it a bit of protection
Then it was off to an area below the ram pen to plant the four hardy fig trees. The mulberry trees will quickly grow tall enough that they won't be at risk of being damaged by browsing sheep, but figs stay close to the ground so they need a location where they will be relatively safe from being grazed.
the hardy figs planted with water catchment and protective cage
Each year we add a couple more of the huge-tire raised beds to the main garden. They're quite useful for all sorts of things, and in this case, they'll provide a home for the new strain of horseradish that we've ordered. We've grown horseradish before, but weren't satisfied with the pungency of the root. Perhaps we just weren't preparing it right, or harvesting it at the right time, but it can't hurt to try another strain.
laying out the new horseradish roots
It was fun. The rich mix of earth and compost had matured over the winter, and was moist, light and ready to take the roots. Another part of the fun is the way the sheep react to anyone working in the garden since they've learned that very few people can resist the fun of doing a bit of weeding and then tossing the weeds to the sheep.
the sheep eagerly await the yield of a bit of weeding
The hops rhizomes arrived, so it was an easy matter to take a post-hole digger and prep a hole at the base of each of the rebar-arbor arms.
the hops rhizomes tucked away at the base of each leg of the arbor
The two varieties we're going with this year are Cascade and Nugget.
Cascade hops are described as a Fuggle cross, aroma type that's spicy and pungent. It's used to add flavor and aroma to light, American type lagers. The Nugget hops are a bittering type of hops used for ales and stouts.
lining up bales of spoiled hay
We also got our first strawbale raised bed in place today using seven bales of spoiled hay that we were able to pick up from a farmer down the road. They've been sitting outside unprotected over winter, so they've gone through an initial composting heat and won't burn the strawberries.
covering the bales with a few inches of rich soil
A quick pass with the front bucket gathered up plenty of rich soil, more than enough to cover the spoiled straw with a few inches in which to plant a couple dozen ever-bearing strawberry plants.
Just realized that I'd forgotten to talk about tomatoes--what would a garden be without tomatoes? One thing we do each year, and this will be no exception, is plant plenty of cherry tomatoes, and then as they ripen to cut them in half and dehydrate them. They come out so sweet that we think of them as "Italian raisins" and use them liberally as a topping on our homemade pizza, and in our table salads after frost has ended our supply of fresh from the garden tomatoes.
This year, in addition to the usual tomatoe plantings, we'll be doing a few new things. The first involves giving a try to the techniques worked out by Charles Wilber as presented in his book How to Grow World Record Tomatoes: a Guinness Champion Reveals His All-Organic Secrets. In his introduction, Wilber writes that, "the prospect of feeding a hungry world has to be answered with smaller, not larger farms." a sentiment which we're entirely in agreement with. In order to back up his words, he goes on to detail how he's been able to grow more than three hundred pounds of tomatoes per plant. There's a lot of techniques in his book that we're looking to check out to see how well they'll work for us.
The type of tomato we're going to be working with as we try to duplicate Wilber's success is the heirloom variety known as Brandywine. It's an indeterminate potato-leaf variety with a flavor that's described as sweet, rich, and slightly spicy. In addition to producing lots for storage, we're looking to practice saving seed since it's only when you can grow a plant year after year without relying on seed companies that you can really be said to have achieved sustainability with regard to that plant. As of now, we're too dependent on seed companies--we're looking to change that.