This little guy was hanging out at our coffee compost all evening.
This little guy was hanging out at our coffee compost all evening.
I awoke with a start, imagining for a moment what it would be like if we went to the grocery store for something as simple as bread only to discover the shelves emptied of all supplies and food. Suddenly our small acreage feels that much smaller and though deer do roam downtown, the unlucky four would become overnight a highly prized source of protein.
Our varied seed choices are great, but honestly, we have the luxury of experimenting, of failure, or starting over. What if we depended on every square inch of our garden as those just a few generations back did?
The crop I love to hate, Jerusalem artichoke, so easy to grow, it’s nearly impossible to get rid of, and a great source of iron and carbohydrates. It’s also very appealing, and may be harvested from the ground until the ground freezes.
Jerusalem artichoke is neither from Jerusalem, nor is it an artichoke. It’s in the sunflower family and stores sugars in large, edible tubers that taste like potatoes, and are prepared very much the same way.
What about protein? I’ve never killed an animal and prepared it for food, and many haven’t – it’s a skill also abandoned in favor of the convenience offered by grocery chains. Most grains require acreage and those without will benefit from amaranth, an herb that is entirely edible (the leaves may be prepared as you would prepare spinach), with seeds that make an excellent substitute for protein-rich quinoa or rice.
There are a few varieties of amaranth. Giant amaranth may supply a family with up to 10 pounds of seed off of as many plants. The grains are high in calcium, iron, potassium, zinc and vitamins B and D and may be eaten, popped or ground into flour for bread.
Alongside Jerusalem artichoke, it’s a very attractive plant, so your neighbors, prior to any apocalypse, will still like you, despite having traded your lawn for food.
Other great storage crops should also be considered including potatoes, onions, peas and beans, squash, pumpkins, etc. along with berries and fruit crops will help sustain the hungry family in times of need.
For a time, I worked as a school garden coordinator for Central Lake Schools. On one of our walks back to the classroom, a student pointed to a flower and asked for the name. Rather than answer immediately, I asked the student to think instead about how the plant functions within its own ecosystem. He said, “How am I supposed to know?”
How are we supposed to know, without looking up the answers each time we stop to observe a plant, how that plant functions within its own polyculture?
Carefully, we uprooted the plant. It had a deep taproot, it was growing on the edge of a heavily-traversed footpath, its leaves were broad and low to the ground, it flowered and was attracting bees.
Several questions were answered in that short period of observation. Answers that would eventually lead us to make more difinitive conclusions about how this plant functioned within its own ecosystem, and how it might benefit the garden space.
We didn’t uncover all there was to know in that simple process; there may be chemical or biological interactions happening that we are not able to observe with the naked eye. Rather, we uncovered some key elements that might help us answer the more intricate questions.
When the boy asked what the plant was called, I could have easily answered “dandelion,” but the lesson wasn’t one in nomenclature. It was a lesson in learning to discern, through observation, some key elements about a plant or any other thing, and more importantly, the realization that learning how to find an answer is often more valuable than the answer itself.
Two days later, we are completely aphid-free!
We’re not your average farmers- eagerly awaiting a small infestation of aphids, so that we might experiment with solutions to eliminate them from our fruit trees, but there we found ourselves- eager at the sight of them to experiment with more traditional remedies. To prove more to ourselves than anyone else, that we can grow an orchard without chemical salts, fertilizers, and biocides- grow a food forest as nature might.
While nature doesn’t supply us with aphid spray (natural or otherwise), it does supply us with observable phenomena and if we apply this knowledge, rather than change the underlying structure, we can adapt and respond quickly; ensuring successful results.
We noticed not long ago that the tree suffering with curly leaf aphids was showing signs of stress. It had suckered on two occasions, and appeared thirsty. Within days, the aphids arrived.
People often look at aphids as the source of the problem with a plant, much as they might accuse the hungry woodpecker of destroying a tree. However, there are often underlying issues (and thankfully issues more easily resolved if noticed early on), that lead to infestations and disease.
Much as the overworked human might fall ill without rest and proper nutrition, and the tree, death by dismemberment, due to infestations of insects that attract woodpeckers, our trees will also suffer the consequences of illness, if not paired with good soil and adequate water.
Simply put, healthy trees stave off their own health issues. And trees interplanted with habitat for predatory insects that might feast on aphids, are at a huge advantage.
So apart from spraying a solution of peppermint oil, a soil conditioner, plus water (completely non-toxic), I also spent some extra time watering this particular tree and will interplant with some chives and comfrey in the next few days for added mulch and resistance to other aphid populations.
Normally, these trees would have been planted in an ideal mix of soil, mulched properly, and interplanted to start, however time constraints prevented us from first achieving the ideal conditions. What we hope to harvest from these trees, apart from eagerly anticipated apples and pears, is knowledge that may be applied in conventional orchards to replace costly and dangerous biocides.
“In teaching, there is healing; and in healing, we teach.”
One of the primary objectives of HTF is to foster an understanding of how we might convert some conventional methods of farming, to ecologically-friendly methods that are equally effective for farmers. We’re working, experimenting with ways to solve some of the more pressing issues for conventional orchardists including controlling aphid populations, use of fertilizers, examining cost-expense ratios, etc.
The conventional farmer approaches growing fruit drastically differently from the permaculcuralist. An obvious example may be found within an acre of each, the conventional and permaculture orchard. The typical apple orchard will contain within one acre, approximately 40 dwarf varieties. The permaculture orchard, just 20 semi-dwarf to standard sized trees.
Dwarf apple trees go into production earlier than semi-dwarf to standard size trees and produce about 65 lbs of fruit compared with their standard relation averaging 90-110 lbs. However, the conventional orchard grows trees in rows with even spacing that can fit the 40 trees neatly into the alloted space. And no other plantings apart from grass (that soak up nutrients from fruit trees), exist between rows. The permaculture orchard with its 20 apple trees might also contain 4-5 mulberries to attract beneficial birds and insects, along with a polyculture of beneficial plants to build soil, draw nutrients and minerals from below and redepositing in the top soil, and attract microbes and beneficials to stave off infestations often seen in out-of-balance conventional (monoculture) systems.
In terms of apples at harvest, we’ll see a return of 2,600 lbs of fruit per acre in the conventional orchard compared with only 2,000 lbs from the permaculture orchard. However, when you factor in a total caloric output from the growth of other perennial fruits planted within the orchard (not seen in the conventional orchard), output from the permaculture orchard far exceeds that of any conventional system.
Let’s also examine the inputs of these two vastly different systems. The conventional orchard plants dwarf varieties that it can easily harvest and attend to with tractors and sprayers. On average, the input-output ratio is 10:1 for the conventional farm, meaning after fuel, upkeep of machinery, cost of biocides and chemical fertilizers, etc., farming conventionally costs far more than it delivers in terms of resources.
Permaculture focuses on a system with a 1:1 ratio or, whenever possible, a system that is self-renewing. It mimics the forest edge, where nutrients are produced and consumed in a closed loop, so additional resources are not used to maintain overall system health. Standard or semi-dwarf trees are less prone to cracking, and tend to require less upkeep, so these trees are planted in place of dwarf varieties. And they are planted where there are natural swales in the fabric of the landscape, rather than in controlled rows.
Any aphid populations are controlled with natural soaps and oils, rather than harmful biocides. However, these solutions must be applied by hand, using backpack sprayers or bottle sprayers. This represents a cost to farmers in terms of labor, but saves thousands by avoiding expensive biocides.
Planting a polyculture also prevents disastrous failures for conventional farmers like the one seen this year for cherry farmers, in which 90% of crops were destroyed by frost. While its still represents a loss, the permaculcuralist may fall back on other produce to supplement income.
These are just a few of the most obvious differences between the two farming methods, but they help illustrate a return to an older way of thinking that involves use of renewable resources, locally sourced, work for local populations, and a healthier and more stable working, living environment for our community. And that’s a product we can all enjoy.
You may see them on your ritual run for coffee in the morning, the HTF Compost buckets collecting used grounds to create rich, delicious compost for next growing season. We’ve started with coffee houses using Higher Grounds beans as we know these beans were grown sustainably and farmers were paid a fair price.
Our grounds began as beans grown from the earth in Ethiopia and will end up renewing the earth on a small plot of land in northern Michigan.
Coffee grounds contain a high ratio of nitrogen to carbon (20:1), higher than manure (15:1). Combine or layer compost coffee grounds with wood ash (25:1) in an even ratio and you’ll have one of the best fertilizers on the planet.
Worms are also particularly attracted to grounds – nematode caffeine addiction – so use grounds to attract some of those hungry beneficials to help expedite the soil-building process.
We have easy access to cardboard, so I like to compost my grounds with smaller amounts of cardboard (350:1), apart from the regular compost pile, to maintain some control over the quality of the finished product. I’ll add wood ash when available, and in the spring, utilize the overwintered material. It’s a fun and easy way to build beds, and a great way to introduce the topic of permaculture to all the new people you’ll meet in your collection and drop-offs.
This makes that first cup of coffee in the morning all the more satisfying.
June 1st – September 14th • Crooked Tree Arts Center • 461 East Mitchell St., Petoskey, MI
|Call for Artists!! Photography Contest & Exhibition focusing on three different categories of entry: From the Farm, From the Table, and From the Market. All photographs must be taken in Emmet or Charlevoix counties and must not have been previously exhibited at Crooked Tree Arts Center. Submissions will be accepted from June 1st through September 14th. Submission and exhibit details available after May 18th.|