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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This from from the company poet laureate, Larry Simpson, at  really should go viral (if the mycorrihzae allow it).

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all over the ground

No plants were stirring- there wasn’t a sound;

Their roots spread throughout the soil with care,

In hopes that St. Myco soon would be there;

The rhizomes were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of fungi danced in their heads;

Eileen was chillin’; Dr. Mike had a beer,

Watching a Ducks game, getting ready to cheer,

When down in their yard there arose such a clatter,

They sprang from the couch to see what was the matter.

Off to the window they made a quick dash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow

Gave the luster of mid-day to the soil below,

When, what to their wondering eyes should they see?

It was jolly St. Myco planting a tree!

He used Liquid Endo, all drippy and wet;

spraying the roots was a pretty good bet.

Then he whistled, and shouted, and called out some names:

“Now, Gigaspora! now, Pisolithus!

On, Suillus! on Laccaria, Rhizopogon and Glomus!!

From deep in the ground they heard his loud call:

“Inoculate! Inoculate! Colonize all!”

As sand in the desert blows in the breeze,

When tossed by a storm through the cacti and trees

Thus into the topsoil the propagules flew,

With a sack full of Endo and Ultrafine too.

And then, in a twinkling, they saw some stuff pour

All Purpose Granular spilled to the floor.

While twisting their heads and turning around,

Suddenly St. Myco just sprang from the ground!

He was covered with hyphae- rather hairy I’d say,

just sucking up phosphorus in a gluttonous way.

A sheath of chiton clung to his back,

So nary a fear of pathogen attack.

His spores were all over – so many and merry!

His arbuscules like roses, his vesicles like cherries!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the mycelia around him were as white as the snow;

A nematode’s body he held tight in a noose,

gripped by a hyphae- it will never get loose;

He had a broad face and a root-ball belly,

That shook when he laughed like glomalin jelly.

He was funky and weird, a right crazy old dude,

And they laughed when they saw him, trying not to be rude;

But a wink of his eye and a twist of his head,

Soon gave them to know they had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but got on with his work,

colonizing root cells; then he turned with a jerk,

And with hundreds of hyphae all over his bod,

he burst through the soil past the trees and the sod,

Then continued on with a song and a whistle

spreading fungal spores like the down from a thistle.

But they heard him exclaim as he flew into the night

“Happy Christmas to all, and start those roots right!”

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Wild Pasture Cultivation and Perennial Grains

Back in October of last year, I wondered if we grew annual or perennial grains.  Well, the results are mixed.  The rye was 100% perennial; the wheat was mixed; and the buckwheat was annual.

At the same time, I was thinking about how to get the grains out of the raised beds into the field.

With the rye clearly being perennial, I needed to transplant it out of the raised bed in order to make room for more seeding and seedlings.

I decided to take two approaches.  The first is described below and is designed to improved the fertility of the soil before the rye is transplanted.  It is a longer process requiring one season before the area will be ready.  The second approach is faster with less fertility improvement.  I will describe it in a later post.

Last fall, a small area was scythed and then covered in grass clippings to a depth of about 12 inches.

At the end of April, 2013, I covered the area with flakes of straw. The material under the straw is the dried remains of last fall’s grass clippings.

Then the straw was covered with semi-decomposed leaves & grass clippings.

On top of that was added a 4 inch thick cover of mature compost into which peas would be planted. You can see the peas at the top of the picture.

A month later, the peas were established with no sign of weeds

June 3, 2013 – A mulch of grass clippings to retain moisture in the soil. Still no weeds.

The germination of the peas could have been better. Perhaps the thin skin of mature compost was not kept moist enough.  Hopefully, this cover combined with the mulch will keep the weeds down.

The next step will be to scythe the peas just as they begin to flower so that the nitrogen is kept in the roots and made available to the soil.  If legumes are allowed to flower and then seed, most of the nitrogen fixed from the air by the plant is used up. Only about 20% is left for enriching the soil.

When the peas are scythed down, buckwheat will be planted into the green mulch.

More pictures.

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