Nature Doesn’t Calculate PPM’s (Parts per Million)

Over the past few years we’ve been moving more and more towards the ideas expressed by Masanobu Fukuoka and Emilia Hazelip.  But not entirely.  We do intervene in the natural process in mostly benign ways.  Because we grow vegetables intensively, we are extracting from the soil.  Thus we have to replenish it by adding SOM either via mulch which breaks down into compost or by adding plant-based compost, either finished or partially finished to the beds.  We also alternate feeding ourselves one year with feeding the soil the next year by planting green manure crops such as peas (a nitrogen fixer), buckwheat and Daikon radishes.  Last year we started using a water based mycorrhizal fungi to assist in nutrient uptake and extend the roots’ access to water – I should probably talk about mycorrhizal fungi in a separate post.

But adding SOM and improving the microbiology of the soil is only part of the process. Planting peas in a crop rotation is meant to replenish nitrogen (You must chop and drop the peas before they begin to flower in order to capture all of the nitrogen attached to the roots).  But nitrogen is only one of the nutrients that plants need.   You need to add back the other macro and micro nutrients. One of the ways of doing this is thru remineralization. This takes you into the complicated world of soil amendments and soil testing. The more I read, the more I said “Wait a minute” and a few things began to emerge.  Intuitively, soil testing makes sense. You want to know whether your soil is acidic or alkaline since this will affect how well your plants grow.  You want to know what macro and micro nutrients are in your soil since that also will affect how well your plants grow.   But then it begins to get messy.  Once you have a lab result, what then?  Most lab reports contain recommendations of how to amend your soil to get to the “ideal soil” .   +100,000 hits!!!! WOW.   So what do I add and in what proportions?  If you really want to dive into the confusion, start here.

My confusion morphed into frustration.  I know that we are mining our soil when we pull a carrot -an annual- or pluck an apple – a perennial.   Had the apple not been plucked, it would have fallen to the ground and its nutrients re-cycled.  The process of replacing what we are extracting involves a lot of science-based certainty applied to Nature. Enter Fukuoka at this point:  We cannot comprehend the complexity of Nature.

And significantly, the process involves dollars for testing and for buying remedial products.

And then I remembered that one of the benefits of mycorrhizal fungi is their ability to convert mineral nutrients to a form that the plant can use.

There is strong evidence showing that fungi produce a large diversity of enzymes and chelating compounds that allow them to capture nutrients from the soil that are not normally accessible to plants (chelating compounds bind metals into different forms in the soil to prevent their interference with uptake of other nutrients)

Then I remembered that mycorrhizal fungi promote growth.

Plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR) are naturally occurring soil bacteria that aggressively colonize plant roots and benefit plants by providing growth promotion. Inoculation of crop plants with certain strains of PGPR at an early stage of development improves biomass production through direct effects on root and shoots growth. Inoculation of ornamentals, forest trees, vegetables, and agricultural crops with PGPR may result in multiple effects on early-season plant growth, as seen in the enhancement of seedling germination, stand health, plant vigor, plant height, shoot weight, nutrient content of shoot tissues, early bloom, chlorophyll content, and increased nodulation in legumes.

PGPR are reported to influence the growth, yield, and nutrient uptake by an array of mechanisms. They help in increasing nitrogen fixation in legumes, help in promoting free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria, increase supply of other nutrients, such as phosphorus, sulphur, iron and copper, produce plant hormones, enhance other beneficial bacteria or fungi, control fungal and bacterial diseases and help in controlling insect pests. There has been much research interest in PGPR and there is now an increasing number of PGPR being commercialized for various crops. Several reviews have discussed specific aspects of growth promotion by PGPR. In this review, we have discussed various bacteria which act as PGPR, mechanisms and the desirable properties exhibited by them.




Various species of bacteria like Pseudomonas, Azospirillum, Azotobacter, Klebsiella, Enterobacter, Alcaligenes, Arthrobacter,  Burkholderia, Bacillus and Serratia have been reported to enhance the plant growth. 

Working with James Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases, it’s possible to  come up with the plants that contain the most quantities of the macro and micro nutrients that a remineralization programme would use.  For our zone, the list is fairly short – lambsquarters (Chenopodium album), stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), pigweed (Amaranthus), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), and horsetail (Equisetum arvense). Comfrey does not score particularly high but it does have an entrenched place in garden lore thanks to Lawrence D.  Hills in the 1950s and 60s.  The roots do reach very deep so it’s a bit surprising that the leaves don’t contain more minerals than they do.  It’s easy enough to grow so why not include it.  These plants can be added to the compost pile or they can be made into teas that are used for soil drenches or foliar sprays.  Is this better than soil testing and soil amendments?  Those with a science orientation would say no but they have no basis of comparison.  It’s certainly cheaper and regenerative.

So that leaves us trying to do what Nature does – mining minerals with deep rooted plants and making those minerals available to plant roots through a mycorrhizal network as well as building soil organic matter.  We just do it a bit differently – we harvest the deep rooted plants and turn them into compost or teas and we build soil organic matter by mulching and crop rotation.

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David Jacke meet Michael Phillips

This past Thursday, we went to an all-day presentation by David Jacke who co-authored with Eric Toensmeier, the two volume set, Edible Forest Gardens.  In was a very rich and full day and Jacke is an dynamic and organized speaker.  Apparently, the group of +150 people was larger than his normal size group but you’d never know from the way he presented.  But this post is not about the presentation which would be impossible to recount without a recording to help.  This post is about one word that David mentioned a number of times: patches.  I’m not going to talk about how he used the word but rather what it sparked us to think about in our orchard.

We have been planting as many types of cold hardy herbaceous perennials as we can to attract as many insects – pollinators and predators – as we can.  The pests will come because we planted fruit trees to invite them.  We’re looking to create an environment where there’s enough balance that the insects are the caretakers. We started out by just keeping a log of what we were planting but weren’t focusing on design other that to have something flowering from last frost to first frost.  We basically took the approach of loading as much in as we could.  That works and doesn’t work.  We got an incredible range of plants going and we could see & hear lots of activity.  But as we grew with the orchard, we realized that we needed more than what we were doing.  We knew that we were planting a lot of diverse perennials and the results were clear but it seemed to me that I wasn’t seeing as many plants as we had planted.  I began to suspect that some were not making it through the winter. But I didn’t know which or where.

We needed to do some design where we were the beneficiaries.

And that’s where David’s use of the word patch sparked me and I came up with the idea of planting-grid maps where the rectangle’s corner is a tree in the orchard.  We can start by inventorying what’s in each patch.  Then we can fill the holes by design that is connected to the four trees that form the corners of the rectangle.  This simple tool will allow us to design guilds that are fitted to the trees near them. It will give us information about what plants thrive, what plants survive, and what plants die in different areas of the orchard.  It will allow us to better observe the impact of our plantings on the fruit trees.

Below is a planting-grid map of one section of the orchard.  The trees are real but the herbaceous perennials are representative.


Thank you, David and Michael.

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One potato, two potato, three potato, four ………..

Over the past few years as we’ve been developing our gardens and our gardening skills and knowledge, we’ve often heard comments about being self-sufficient or self-reliant. Wikipedia defines self-sufficiency as the state of not requiring any outside aid, support, or interaction, for survival. In an essay entitled The Myth of Self Reliance, Toby Hemenway of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture fame, critiques the notion of self-sufficiency far better than can I.   Although he goes beyond food, it was the food part of the essay that I found interesting.  Exactly how much of their food can two people grow?  It quickly becomes clear that you have to be mostly vegetarian since animals require you to grow food for them in order for them to survive the winter season.  The more mouths that have to be fed, the more difficult the task becomes.  And it quickly becomes clear that you need to grow vegetables that can keep until the next harvest, either by root cellaring, pickling, drying, canning, or otherwise preserving.  And it quickly becomes clear that you need protein and calories so arugula  won’t cut it despite the fact that it’s a great green.  And cereal grains are problematic if you want bread since cultivation requires mechanization or draft animals which gets you into feeding more mouths.  As I’ve often found when it comes to the garden, looking into the past or at current so-called undeveloped countries often provides simple solutions.  In this case, it is the past that offers the answer: root vegetables.  Ireland had its potatoes (and its famine), Eastern Europe & Russia, potatoes, turnips and beets.  In fact, the history of the potato in human food systems is a fascinating one. Root vegetables are easy to grow, have few diseases or pests, have high yields, store easily, are very versatile when consumed, have a lot of calories and nutritional value, and are stick-to-your-ribs-filling. So the core of our food production centers on root vegetables – potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips, turnips as well as legumes – peas, beans, and soy.   Tomatoes are part of the core production as well – they dry and can very well.  Cabbages store well but we’ve not yet grown them.  They are on the list for this year. We also grow easy threshing varieties of barley and oats but we had to find a way of stretching the yield which means that bread is out although biscuits made for a single meal do work.  A cup of dry barley or oats gives you 4 cups boiled.  We use the boiled grains to make kutia/kutya.  We have the honey and the hazelnuts to make the kutya.  It’s so filling that 1/4 cup suffices for breakfast which really stretches the yield.  Sometimes we use the boiled grains to make “burgers”.   Not everything is producing fully yet but we have apples, pears, mulberries, and plums that provide preserves, jam, jellies, leathers, purées, dry fruit and juice.  For berries, we have wild grapes, seedless table grapes, black currants, red currants, haskap/honeyberries, and seaberries.  Of our nut trees – hazel, northern pecan, heartnut and black walnut, the hazel has started to tease us with one tree producing small amounts.  Hazel is probably the “best” nut for us. It is easy to propagate by cuttings and layering which is good if you want more trees cheaply. It cracks easily and can produce a cooking oil using a cold-press expeller such as a Piteba.  Soy and sunflowers could also be processed to oil this way but both seem to require more cranking force than hazelnuts.  Sunflowers also have the added problems of Eastern Goldfinches and insects which bore into the seeds.


Piteba Oil Expeller

Two seasons ago we experimented with sugar beets.  The sugar extraction process is complicated but then we found this technique. It produces a sweet, syrup liquid with an “earthy” taste.  After a life-time of eating white, refined sugar, anything else is different, even cane sugar.   But it works. Toss in perennial herbs – oregano, French tarragon, lovage, anise hyssop, sorel, lemon balm, chives, garlic, horseradish and an easy-to-grow annual – basil and the taste variations are endless. It took a while to figure out the core crops to grow that provide reliable good yields and take us through the winter months but we think that we have the basics in place.

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Perennial Grains Update

Little new was done in 2013.  Last year’s grain effort focused on oats and barley.  It was also a year of observation and reflection on the rye and wheat.

Most of the rye overwintered.  Only one wheat plant overwintered but we did manage to harvest enough seed to grow out more in 2014.  None of the buckwheat overwintered.

We also focused on how to bring wild pasture into cultivation without tilling or using Roundup so that we could move the perennial grains out of the raised test beds.  The process that we tried worked surprisingly well.


We grew a bit of seed that we saved from 2012.


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Dynamic Accumulators, Part II

Back in February of last year, I wrote about Dynamic Accumulators and speculated about the source of much of the information that circulates about dynamic accumulators.  Since then, I’ve had an educational and enjoyable email exchange with Robert Kourik who has confirm that he is the source of material like that shown at  He worked with the information that was available at the time.  Just after the book was published he discovered Dr. James Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases – and quickly realized that much of what he had written in about dynamic accumulators was inaccurate.  Some plants in his table did accumulate the nutrients ascribed to them but many did not.  And more importantly unlike Duke’s data, his chart did not contain parts per million information which makes it impossible to focus on the best accumulators.

There was only one edition of Mr. Kourik’s book so there was never an opportunity to revise the data.

Hopefully, Mr. Kourik will update his original information.

Note: In addition to James Duke’s database,  Mark Pedersen‘s Nutritional Herbology : A Reference Guide to Herbs contains hard data such as this for comfrey.

Comfrey - Nutritional Profile

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Plant Cloning

There are many types of vegetatively reproducing a plant –  cutting, layering, division, grafting and tissue culture.  A chance comment on the NAFEX list when I was looking for information on how to propagate our Illinois Everbearing Mulberry led me to bubble cloners and aeroponic cloners. You’ll note that many of the links are to marijuana forums. These folks are some of the most creative horticulturalists on the planet.  Poking around in these forums, I found lots of info on the bubbler technique in which the clones are submerged under water and are bubbled with an air stone and the aeroponic technique in which the clones aren’t submerged under water but are dangled and misted.  It seemed to be a bit of a coin toss as to which was more effective.  The costs of either cloner were pretty steep so I started looking at DIY.  You tube had a huge number of videos but it was it was pictures like this Marijuana Cloneand the very clear instructions – Lets Build a Clone Machine *Step by Step* (Also here). So I assembled the parts and built the same cloner.

There’s not much green at this time of year but I took cuttings from rosemary and stevia plants overwintering in a southeast window.  And I took two cuttings from our Meyer lemon that spends its winter in the bathtub under a grow light.   The rosemary and stevia proceeded to rot where the stems pass through the neoprene rubber and after a week or so the Meyer lemon leaves dried up and dropped off even though I had cut them in half to reduce transpiration.

When I started thinking about why the rosemary and stevia might have rotted, I wondered if our tap water might be the problem. It certainly was the cause of  damping off in some of our seedlings.

So I decided to replace the tap water with spring water.  And I decided to put jars over the cuttings to act as greenhouses and keep the leaves moist.

The cutting callused and produced the beginnings of a root.

Then it flowered! I pinched it off to hopefully direct energy to root production.

Then it produced a root!!

Apparently Meyer Lemons aren’t that difficult to root but nonetheless I now have two where I previously had one.

But that’s not where this story ends.

For the past few years, I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to grow Elaeagnus multiflora. What I thought as a seedling, turned out to be Elaeagnus umbellata and the  Elaeagnus multiflora cutting did not overwinter.

A horticultural friend in France sent me some Sweet Scarlet goumi seeds and some Elaeagnus umbellata “Brilliant Rose” seeds.  Thank you, Nicolas. These are cultivars so any seedlings will not be true to the parents.  At this point, I don’t care.  Four of the autumn olive seeds germinated as did one of the goumi seeds.











As you can see, the seedlings are quite spindly, especially the autumn olive on the left. So I decided to cut them back to force lateral shoots. On a whim, I stuck the cuttings in the aeroponic cloner under glass as I had done with the Meyer lemon.

This morning, this picture of one of the “Brilliant Rose” cuttings says it all.  More pictures.

But I’m sure that there will be more good stories to come from this cloning technique.

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The Garden Path Not Taken

In 2003, an extraordinary gardening series called Recreating Eden aired the first season of five.  Unlike many gardening shows which are mostly about the garden and the plants in them, these programmes were more about the gardeners and how their gardens changed their lives.  The twelfth episode in the first year was “Keeper of the Dream“, a story about one of Canada’s most historic gardens, its creator, Elsie Reford, and her great-grandson, Alexander Reford who saved it and restored it.

Among the flowers that Elsie Reford grew was the Himalayan Blue Poppy. In the first winter after we built the house, Joyce decided she wanted to have a go at growing them. So she researched how to grow them and I found some seed.

Blue Poppy
The seeds germinated and grew to about 1-2″. Then they wilted and died.  We knew that we were dealing with damping off.  We germinated more seeds and the same thing happened. We tried better circulation, fungicides, home remedies such as chamomile tea and garlic.  Finally, we gave up and blue poppies became a faded dream.  After that but not because of that, our garden interests shifted away from flowers to food – vegetables, fruits, nuts, and berries.

This winter we’ve had a fair number of seeds cold stratifying – goumi, autumn olive, Nanking cherry, Japanese quince, sloe, hawthorn, a number of different sorbus, etc. When some of the Japanese quince germinated, I did some potting up and placed them under grow lights.  At first, they did quite well and then one by one they wilted and fell over.  It had been a while but I knew that I was looking at damping off again.  This time my researching the problem led me to Tom Clothier’s excellent gardening site with its information on damping off.  His comments about accumulated salts and soluble salts got my attention.  We have a water softener and I started thinking that there might be a connection to the damping off because I was watering with tap water.

So we started buying bottle spring water.  Within days the results were very noticeable. One seedling that had fallen over and was nearly dead recovered and put out new leaves. All of the remaining plants turned dark green and put on growth.


Nanking Cherry


Sorbus Domestica










So it seems that salts in the water from the water softener were the problem.  One wonders what our garden would look like today had those blue poppies not died.  Perhaps we would have been on a entirely different path.

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