Book Review: Manage Weeds On Your Farm

Front cover of Manage Weeds on your Farm

Book Review: Manage Weeds On Your Farm: A Guide to Ecological Strategies, by Charles Mohler, John Teasdale and Antonio DiTommaso. SARE Handbook 16, 2021, 416 pages, color photos, drawings, charts, $24.00

This immense book is a game-changer! A resource enabling us to understand weeds better and deal with them smartly, exploiting their weaknesses, making best use of natural and created resources.

About 300 pages comprise a directory of major agricultural weeds of the United States and Canada: about 20 grasses and sedges; about 45 types of broadleaf weeds. Many of the weeds in North America came from Europe, so the book’s usefulness is not restricted to this continent. The focus is on weeds of arable farmland. Gardens fit in this category, although the physical tools will be smaller! This part of the book is not merely to help you identify weeds, but to develop a management plan for each one.

The first part of the book is 120 pages of agricultural gold – an exploration of concepts of ecological weed management. Understanding the biology of weeds is vital to successful ecological management. (Note that I’m avoiding the use of the word control, as the authors do.) The book is “intended to provide the information you need to grow crops without synthetic herbicides, great expense or back-breaking work.” Good information is an efficient tool. Understanding more about how the biological world works will enrich your life!

This is not a book many of us will read cover to cover. It’s a toolbox. Read the first section, then seek out the profiles of your most problematic weeds and make a plan for each one. In each profile there is an identification section with good photos, a management section, a concise summary, referring back to cultural and mechanical strategies, and an ecology section with specific information leading to the recommendations in the management section.

Chapter 2, How to Think About Weeds, starts with the reminder that weeds die from various causes (any of which we can use to advantage). Seeds may fail to germinate, or get eaten. Seedlings die from drying out, disease, competition from other plants, or lack of light, or being eaten, mowed or turned under.

“The goal of ecological weed management is to arrive at a balance between birth and death that keeps the density of weed populations low most of the time and reduces them quickly when density starts to increase.”

You need to increase the death rate and reduce the germination rate of the weed seed bank, or else the population continues to increase. This demonstrates the value of understanding which tools to use in which situation. Keeping on hammering with a wrench will not work well!

Seed size is one of the characteristics of weeds that affect their successful management. Smaller seeds are easier to kill, because the seed does not provide much food for the seedling. Large-seeded crops and transplants can out-compete small-seeded weeds, if the timing of cultivation is right. There is a good explanation for why tillage prompts seed germination, which can give weeds the upper hand. Environmental cues such as soil temperature, the difference between night and day temperatures, oxygen levels, even a brief flash of light, can indicate if the seed is near the surface and whether there are competing plants up there. The cues can be very specific. Velvetleaf and tall morning-glory germinate in response to a sudden absence of certain volatile compounds which are vented from the soil during tillage. Understanding this Secret Life of Plants can help us figure strategies for specific weeds.

Different weeds germinate in different seasons, and crop rotation between spring, summer and fall crops will disrupt weed lifecycles and prevent any one taking over. Another consideration is that the same percentage of the seeds still in the soil will die each year. This means that if no fresh weed seed is added, the seed bank declines rapidly in the first few years, leaving some seed persisting for years.

The main cause of seed death is probably that seeds germinate in unfavorable conditions and then die. Secondly, seeds are eaten. Lastly, some seeds rot and decompose. Small seeds deep in the soil are unlikely to germinate. It takes a big seed to provide the resources to grow a shoot that can reach a long way to the surface. Galinsoga seeds rarely emerge from deeper than ¼” (6mm). Few seeds can germinate from deeper than 2” (5cm).

June-planted potato emerged through hay mulch. Potatoes are a C3 crop
Photo Pam Dawling

Nowadays we are learning about two photosynthetic pathways, C3 and C4. C3 plants thrive in cool, moist conditions, not needing full daylight to maximize their photosynthesis. Most cool-season grasses and broadleaf weeds use the C3 pathway.  They can increase photosynthesis (grow more) as CO2 concentration in the atmosphere increases. C3 crops like potatoes, pumpkins and soybeans will probably do better against C4 weeds as CO2 concentration increases in the climate disaster. C4 plants perform best at high temperatures, with more sunlight enabling more photosynthesis. Bermuda grass, foxtails, pigweeds, and common purslane use the C4 pathway. But C4 crops such as corn will have a harder time with C3 weeds. If your climate becomes warmer and drier, C4 weeds and crops will be favored over C3 weeds and crops. This effect may be stronger than the effect of increased CO2.

Silver Queen sweet corn with wilting pulled pigweed amaranth. Corn is a C4 crop, amarnath (pigweed) a C4 weed. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Other factors influencing growth include frost tolerance, drought tolerance, and the presence or absence of mycorrhizal fungi. The majority of flowering plants do form mycorrhizal associations, but many weeds and some crops do not. Brassicas, chenopods (spinach, beets, lambsquarters, amaranths), smartweeds and sedges do not. Mycorrhizae assist the growth of host plants by providing nutrients and a good growing environment. When conditions favor mycorrhizae, those crops are more competitive against non-mycorrhizal weeds.

The diameter of the roots also has a role. Large-seeded crops tend to have large diameter roots, while small plants tend to have small diameter roots, which can grow longer faster. Pigweed (small seeds) after 28 days of growth has a root-length:weight ratio eight times higher than sunflower (large seeds). Pigweed roots are better at gathering nutrients, because they explore more of the soil, and can absorb more nutrients (because the ratio of surface-area:volume is greater).

Some weeds flower near the end of their lifecycle, after growing quite large, in a “big bang” (pigweed and lambsquarters). Removing these weeds early in life prevents the competition from these large plants that reduce the crop yield. If you miss that opportunity, killing the weed later in life (before it seeds) will help future crops.  Other weeds are “dribblers” – they start to set seed while still small. They can hide among the crop plants, making seed whenever conditions are favorable. Failing to remove these weeds early in life will potentially reduce yields for many years. This is how galinsoga can be such a nuisance in vegetable farms, surviving where the soil is frequently cultivated, and sometimes neglected long enough for seeds to mature. It’s always worth hand-pulling a large galinsoga as you walk by, as the largest plants produce the most seeds.

Galinsoga – a fast growing, fast-seeding weed of cultivated soil.
Photo Wren Vile

All plant species have natural enemies (diseases and pests that have co-evolved to live in balance), plus the occasional alien plant enemy that could devastate the population. Consequently, there are few natural enemies of weeds other than imported ones. Bio-herbicides are rare. But there are less obvious natural enemies of weeds. The authors measured the mortality of lambsquarters and redroot pigweed in the absence of human intervention. 80% or more of the lambsquarters emerging after tillage died before maturity. Fungi and insects were the likely predators. Results with pigweed were similar.

There is a chart of edible weeds for those inclined to engage in direct weed eradication, and the chart includes cautions about toxic parts of each plant.

The chapter summary lists ten important lessons. Dealing with roots and rhizomes of perennial weeds; rotating between spring, summer and fall-planted crops; influencing when weed seeds germinate and when they die; using transplants; using slow release nutrients to feed your crops rather than the weeds; avoiding over-fertilization; preventing weeds from seeding; reducing arrival of new weeds on your farm.

Wheelhoe, Courtesy of Valley Oak

Chapter 3 is about cultural weed management. Ecological weed management involves “many little hammers”, using multiple strategies together in a complementary way. Crop rotation is one that involves advance planning. Spring weeds can be destroyed while preparing the soil for summer planting, reducing future pressures in spring crops. Good stands of overwintering cover crops, especially mixtures, can inhibit winter and spring weed germination. The diversity of field operations associated with particular crops is as important as the diversity of the crops themselves.

Growing healthy competitive crops is a fundamental part of weed management, and involves many aspects, starting with using high vigor, fast-germinating seeds. Planting the crop at an appropriately dense spacing will reduce weed opportunities. Any crop that produces multiple harvests (kale, tomatoes, squash) can be planted closer than most recommendations without loss of yield, whereas those with a single harvest (cabbage, lettuce, corn, root crops) will get smaller if planted too close. Planting 50% closer is usually worth trying, for a higher total yield, when smaller individual units are acceptable. Thus may involve more time harvesting, and bigger seed purchases. The reduction of weeds may benefit many subsequent crops.

Other factors not yet mentioned include row spacing, row orientation (plants get more light in rows that run N-S), choice of fast-growing or large-leaved varieties (Danvers are better at shading than Nantes type carrots), planting date (avoid the period when the dominant weed species is likely to grow vigorously), intercropping (practice with caution, avoid having two crops in competition), nutrient and water supply.

No-till cover crops, where the residue remains on the soil surface, will inhibit many weeds, and provide many other ecological benefits. Organic no-till isn’t the answer for every situation. It keeps soil cool and somewhat compacted, and doesn’t release its nutrients quickly, so it isn’t good for early spring crops, or early warmth-loving crops. To sow the necessary good stand of cover crops, tilling is required. This means no-till can have a valuable place in your rotation, but continuous organic no-till is not likely to work.

Tarping is a method of covering the soil with large opaque tarps for several weeks, to germinate and then kill emerging weeds by depriving them of light. This provides a seedbed ready to plant. Tarping can also be used to kill mowed cover crops or crop residues. Tarping can be useful in the transition from tilled to no-till farming, while weeds are still a big challenge.

Solarizing with clear plastic. Photo Pam Dawling

Solarization is another soil-covering practice, this time with clear plastic and the goal of heating the soil to kill weed seeds, pests and disease organisms in the top layer of soil. This method works in hot weather in areas with a good amount of sunlight. It works best when the plastic is laid tightly over well-prepared beds, providing good soil contact. The edges are buried to hold in the hot air. It takes several weeks to kill weed seeds, even when conditions are right.

A flock of chickens can do a good job of weed management, if penned in the vegetable garden early enough to allow 90 days after their removal before the crop is harvested (above ground crops) and 120 days for in-ground crops. These are commonsense food safety precautions required for Organic certification.

There are two main approaches to weed management. The first is to remove enough weeds so that crop yields are not compromised in an economically significant way. The second is to minimize weed seed production, aiming for very low weed populations, meaning little weed management work in the future. This preventive weed management requires more precise attention in the early years, including removing weeds that are not, in themselves, causing measurably lower yields. Either approach can be successful, but the preventive strategy is a good one for people who are growing older (!) and want less work in the future, while maintaining an income and satisfying work.

Chapter Four covers mechanical and other physical weed management methods. “The effect of tillage or cultivation on a weed population depends on the interaction between the nature of the soil disturbance and the ecological characteristics of the weed.” In other words, to control a particular weed, we need to know the features of that weed and choose methods of cultivation and tillage that will exploit the weaknesses of that weed, and take account of the weather, the soil conditions and the crop stage. Timing determines success, and the greatest success comes from using a planned sequence incorporating several operations.

There is a very clear explanation of vegetative reproduction of perennial weeds and how to thwart that process. Tilling chops up roots, which grow into new plants. Partial damage to perennial roots stimulates sprouting of dormant buds. The best chance of success comes from exhausting the root or rhizome pieces. With most perennial weeds, carbohydrates flow from the storage organ into the leaves until they produce enough food to return some to the root. The ideal stage to kill such plants is when the pieces of the storage organs drop to their minimum weight after growing new leaves. Generally this is after three or four leaves have grown.

Tilled fallow is a time without crops, when the plot is tilled often enough to stop weeds proliferating. Most annuals take 5 weeks to set seed, and so once every three weeks is a good tilling frequency, for management of both perennial and annual weeds. This will inevitably damage the soil structure. Growing a fast cover crop (buckwheat or a mustard) between tillages will reduce the damage.

Buckwheat cover crop in flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

A discussion of ten Principles of Mechanical Weeding follows. A useful chart of two dozen weeding implements and tools provides information on when and how they are best used, which crops they are most suited to and what their limitations are. The chart is followed by pages of clear drawings of various cultivators, with explanations of when they are most useful.

Often one goal is the creation of a surface layer of small aggregates allowing good air circulation and decreasing germination of new weeds. This is widely called a “dust mulch”. Weeding early, shallowly and often, is widely shared advice. Shallow soil disturbance can eliminate a large percentage of annual weeds, without bringing new seed to the surface. Small weeds do not re-root easily, as they have only small reserves of energy. Weeds over 2” (5cm) tall are more likely to re-root.

After the profiles of five farms with great weed management strategies, explaining their overall approach to weeds, comes the directory of weeds, including information on resources, naming, ecological information, recommendations for management and the limitations of those recommendations (for example, whether or not they have been field-tested).

There are summary tables of summer annual weeds, winter annual weeds, and perennial weeds, each subdivided into broadleaf weeds and grasses, with information on characteristics. To help with visualizing seed sizes from the weights given, they helpfully tell us that a lettuce seed is likely to weigh 1mg. The tables are followed by 3-4 page profiles for each weed, including several clear photos of the weed at different stages of growth, management suggestions, ecology and a handful of references for further reading.

There are tips on developing management plans for weed species that are not in the book. Some weeds are a big problem in a small geographical area, and of not much consequence elsewhere. Record your own observations, using the questions provided to focus your attention and identify the weed. Each taxonomic level (family, genus, species) can provide actionable information. There are some great resources for weed identification, leading me to find one from Virginia Tech https://weedid.cals.vt.edu/.

There is hope for dealing with even the worst weeds! “Competitive cover crops are effective for suppressing bermudagrass.” Example: A dense fall sowing of winter rye, barley or oats, harvested for forage in spring, with the stubble plowed under to allow sowing of a very competitive summer cover crop like cowpeas. The dense shade following the late spring soil disturbance will suppress the grass.

The directory is the main part of the book, and the part where you will want to search out your worst problems and form a plan. Keep this book in a place you can always find it when needed, for the rest of your farming life!

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Book Review: Grow More Food by Colin McCrate and Brad Halm

Cover of Grow More Food, by Colin McCrate and Brad Halm

Book Review: Grow More Food, a Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Getting the Biggest Harvest Possible from a Space of Any Size, by Colin McCrate and Brad Halm. Storey Publishing, 2022, 300 pages, diagrams, $24.95

This book, Grow More Food, is an updated version of the authors’ 2015 book, High Yield Vegetable Gardening. I have been a big fan of that book since it was published. This book has much the same content but is a larger format with color photos and a larger print size.

Some of the content has been rearranged into a different, more logical, order, (athough a good index does make all topics findable). Some of the more technical or professional terms have been changed from the earlier book. “High yield” has become “productive”. The real or fictional example gardeners have almost disappeared, although drawings of their gardens live on.

If you have High Yield Vegetable Gardening and like it a lot, as I do, you probably don’t need to buy Grow More Food, unless as a gift for a friend, or if you are going to relegate the old version to the greenhouse or shed as a quick reference work. You may like to have the bigger print and the more informative and inspiring color photos in your house for periods of longer contemplation and planning. The new one, however, does not have the lay-flat spiral binding of the old one. The book is definitely a good one to keep on hand, in one version or the other.

The authors founded Seattle Urban Farm Company in 2007, and have been running it since, helping more people grow food. Their focus is to ‘find joy in the simple pleasure of doing a little better each season.” Here they are bringing proven professional techniques for bigger harvests to vegetable gardeners on any scale. The information is presented very clearly, without jargon, so that home gardeners will easily benefit. As I said in my review of High Yield Vegetable Gardening, this also provides newbie professional growers with solid information on techniques that work, without the need to understand everything at once.

These are gardeners after my own heart. Here are details you will benefit from knowing and putting into practice, which are not found in many gardening books: interpreting and using soil tests, choosing onion varieties that work at your latitude, succession planting for continuous harvests, flame-weeding, making soil block mix of the right consistency, dealing with salt build-up in greenhouse soils, minimizing nitrate accumulation in winter greens under cover. There are lots of useful charts.

This edition has more emphasis on building and maintaining good soil, and includes sidebars that dig deep into particular topics such as providing onion flavors all year, making space dedicated to perennial vegetables, converting farm-scale soil amendment rates to garden-scale ones, setting transplants at different depths, hand pollination of cucurbits, and the role of ethylene in crop storage.

Dibbling holes for planting leeks.
Photo Wren Vile

The sequence of topics starts with clarifying your garden priorities, planning and record keeping: “It’s no exaggeration to say that a detailed garden plan alone can double or triple the productivity of a garden.” There’s help in choosing the right size of garden for your needs, experience and available time. Next, create a map or drawing of the garden site, including buildings, paving and trees, and consider which crops to grow. The chart of annual crops includes days to harvest and whether to direct sow or transplant. This enables gardeners to compare short-season crops, long-season crops and those in between, to plan food for the whole season; and sequential follow-on crops to make best use of all your space.

Once you’ve figured which crops to grow, how much of each to plant, when (and how often) to plant them, you can create your planting calendar. There are options for format, and a real-life example with arugula. This is followed with a sample section of a planting calendar with harvest tracker and room for notes for next year.

The next big question is “Where?” Make a map of your garden and think about a crop rotation to help you get the best yields by avoiding planting the same crop in the same place each year. A two-year rotation simply has two groups of crops and two beds or plots that flip each year. A three-year rotation can consider which crops need heavy feeding and follow two years of heavy feeders with one of light feeders. Also, if you don’t have soil-borne diseases, consider the counter-intuitive idea of following brassicas with brassicas in the spring and fall of a year, and avoiding brassicas in that bed for the next two or three years. For gardeners like me who grow a lot of brassicas, this makes planning a rotation easier. As well as an overall map of the whole garden, make a planting schedule for each bed, with space to write things down.

A pest and disease management log is another useful piece of record-keeping. It will remind you when to be on the lookout for particular problems, and what strategies worked for you previously. A garden log or diary with entries each day you garden can end with a To-Do list, including things to buy, and watch for.

Colorado potato beetle on an eggplant leaf.
Photo Pam Dawling

And that’s just the first part of five. The second is about building healthy soil, providing a diverse ecosystem, high nutrient-level crops and big harvests. There’s information on making boxed beds, if you want to go in that direction, or lasagna beds, where organic materials are piled in layers, and tilled beds incorporating amendments. Tarping (covering soil with tarps to smother weeds) is also discussed. Mulches for pathways are compared. There is a very clear description of taking, submitting and understanding results from soil tests, accompanied by an annotated soil report.

There are clear instructions on making quality compost, buying compost, improving soil with cover crops, and mulching over winter. This chapter includes a manageable chart of “beginner” cover crops (buckwheat, four clovers, peas, vetch, mustard, oats and winter rye). Then comes the weed-reduction chapter. Strategies include dealing with weeds while they are small and seed-free, hoeing (photos of various types, with pros and cons), flaming (good safety tips here!), tarping and mulch.

Part 3 is Get to Know Your Plants – “Grow More Food by Planting the Right Varieties at the Right Time with the Best Care.” Smart gardening, with no wasted effort. Choose suitable varieties (open pollinated ones and hybrids) to match your climate and your goals. Order sensible quantities, store leftovers carefully (cool, dry, dark, airtight, mouse-proof) for use next year. There’s a two-page chart of Seed Lifespan, including parsnips and peanuts, something for every climate. Seed treatments to improve yields are covered, including soaking, scarification and inoculation.

The chapter on transplanting and direct seeding advises on which technique works for which crops. There’s information about supporting plants, from hilling up with soil, to making trellises. Supplemental fertilizers (during the growing season) are useful for some crops, not needed for others (the lists are in the book). The general theme is that heavy feeders and fast-growing crops will benefit. There’s an interesting section on pruning for production, including for good air circulation; for delaying bolting; for encouraging earlier harvests (by root pruning); and removing late flowers to focus energy on maturing fruits already formed.

The goal of managing pests and diseases is not to eliminate them all, but to control levels by cooperating with and stimulating natural processes that restore balance. This process starts with preventing problems, and ramps up if this does not succeed well enough. Develop good soil; attract beneficial insects; use rowcover or netting to keep expected insect pests from vulnerable crops; use deterrent sprays such a baking soda, hot pepper, garlic, kaolin clay for various problems; bring in beneficial organisms.

To nip any problems in the bud, it is important to monitor or scout your gardens at least once a week, looking for problems. Distinguish problems caused by extreme temperatures and water shortage from those caused by pests and diseases. Find good ID resources. You may be able to hand pick or trap enough pests to make the difference between a damaging outbreak and a trivial level. The authors explain why it is unwise to rush for the sprayer. Sprays are a last resort, even organic ones, because they may kill unintended insects, and they leave some of the pests alive to develop resistance, making that spray ineffective in the long run. There’s a two-page chart for pest and disease management strategies.

Part 4 is entitled Create Efficient Systems. It describes how to use your resources well, so time, money and space are not wasted, and you get the best from your efforts. Set up a home nursery to grow your own transplants, and plant the varieties you want in the quantities you want, to fit your schedule. Here are details on light intensity and where on the color spectrum the light should fall. You may be surprised just how much light plants need. For overall plant growth, general full-spectrum lights are just fine for a nursery, where the plants are headed outdoors to the natural source. Growing plants to maturity indoors is another (costly) matter.

The photos on making soil blocks are very helpful, and it’s a topic not covered in many places. Various types of plant container are covered. Making your own seed-starting schedule is explained. There’s info on propagating from cuttings, grafting with silicone clips, and watering or misting tiny plants. The next chapter covers irrigation of more kinds: drip systems (good description and photos for newbies) and sprinklers (including oscillating lawn-type sprinklers, wobblers, impact sprinklers and microsprinklers). This section will clear up a lot of confusion. Whichever you choose, make yourself an irrigation map, helping ensure you run pipelines and hoses along the best route, and set up sensible zones. Designs that minimize the need to move equipment around during the growing season will preserve your sanity and sense of well-being.

One of our im[act sprinkler tripods, in a broccoli patch.
Photo Pam Dawling
Part 5 is Extend and Expand the Harvest. This includes storage. Good techniques and timely harvesting let you get the most food from your crops, and eat them at peak quality and flavor. Extending the growing season includes starting as early as possible, finishing as late as possible, helping crops get through hot weather as well as cold, and planting successions to give you a seamless harvest through the growing season. Try crops you have not grown before.

The section on choosing protective structures will help you think about the pros and cons, costs and benefits of low tunnels (with rowcover or clear plastic), cold frames, greenhouses, high tunnels (also called hoophouses), and combinations of low tunnels inside high tunnels. If you are undecided on this topic, Grow More Food could save you from buying the wrong thing and wasting many times its cover price. And it could save you the big disappointment of not getting the harvests you hoped for. Consider not just cost but also ease of use (let’s enjoy our gardening!), suitability for your climate, and gained productivity. Glass greenhouses and greenhouse heating are often not cost-effective, and heating brings environmental costs too.

When weighing up design features, do the math for your own situation. I dislike the “comb” greenhouse bed design because it doesn’t work so well with drip tape. The authors say it maximizes usable space. But the difference is very small and the disadvantages are several. You lose the staging area of the lengthwise beds design. Many gardening books neglect methods of summer cooling, but the climate emergency is upon us. Here you will find good ideas about shade cloth and using overhead irrigation for cooling.

The next chapter is about timely harvesting and successful storage. Remember when planning your garden to think about how much food you can use, including not just how much your household can eat, but also how much time you have each week for harvesting and storage. There is a good discussion about becoming a skilled harvester. For each likely crop there is a short description of which part to harvest, and how to recognize maturity.

Next is a section on harvesting “hidden” crops – extra harvests form your garden: weeds, less usual parts of crop plants, such as flowers, garlic scapes, carrot leaves, pea shoots and tendrils, and sweet potato leaves. You can harvest more food from the same plants by choosing varieties that provide multiple harvests (loose leaf crops, broccoli side shoots, turnip and beet greens and roots).

How to harvest garlic scapes.
Photo Wren Vile

There’s a bit on washing crops, and food safety. Then harvesting for maximum freshness and quality, and storage, short and long term. Not everything should be refrigerated! Onions, garlic, winter squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes need to be cured before long-term storage. Be sure to get the details right, or you could have big losses. There is a 4-page chart of storage conditions for various crops. Although I agree with the authors on almost everything they write, I wouldn’t wipe down winter squash with bleach. I’ve never found it necessary.

At the end of the book are worksheets you can photocopy and use. Or you can download them from Seattle Urban Farm. They include a Crop Amount Worksheet, Planting Calendar Worksheet, Planting Dates Worksheet, and Garden Planning Chart. The website also has sample log pages for a specific bed, for the garden as a whole, a pest and disease management log, harvest log, and planting calendar with harvest tracking.

There is a resource section and I was particularly happy to find two resources for non-toxic wood preservatives for garden use. The index looks very thorough – 21 columns for 300 pages.

The Seattle Urban Farm Company has a blog and a podcast, and their Projects page will give you lots of ideas on garden layout and design. Their shop sells training sessions, webinars, and individual coaching.

Brad Halm
Colin McCrate

Okra Planting Time

Young okra plants.
Photo Wren Vile

We’ve reached mid-May, the time of year to transplant our okra. Okra is a tropical annual in the mallow family, and is widely adapted where the frost-free season is long enough. Okra is heat- and drought-tolerant and has few serious pests or diseases. Those in hot climates will need to deal with its exuberant growth in mid-summer. Those in cold climates should choose fast-maturing varieties and transplant into black plastic. In areas with cold nights, okra can only be grown in a hoophouse.

Okra Varieties

We like Cow Horn okra from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which gives good yields and sturdy plants in our zone 7a climate. It is one of a few varieties that can grow relatively large pods without their becoming tough. We are sometimes not good at finding all the pods when harvesting, so it is an advantage to us if they are still good to eat when bigger than normal. SESE has an Okra Growing Guide.

High-yielding varieties include Cow Horn (55 days), Jade (55 days), Cajun Jewel (50 days).

Spineless (easy to harvest) varieties include Clemson Spineless (56 days), and Evertender (50 days). Red-podded varieties include Burmese (58 days), a high-yielding dwarf heirloom, and Red Burgundy (49 days), reported to do well in “cooler” areas, although it will not do much until day time temperatures reach 80°F (27°C).

Close up of Cow Horn okra pods.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Crop Requirements and Yield

Okra does best in well-drained, fertile, loamy soils with high organic matter. Wet clay soils can drown the plants. It grows best with a pH between 6.5 and 7.0, although as high as 7.6 is still OK.

5 gm sows 50’ (15 m) at 6” (15 cm) spacing. Average yields are about 50-100 lb/100’ (7.6-15 kg/10 m). We grow 90’ (27 m) for 100 people, which provides enough for some pickling too.      

Sowing okra

According to Rodale’s 600 Answers, germination speed can be improved by freezing the seed overnight, then soaking in hot water for ½-1 hour before sowing. It needs to be warm enough to get your seed germinated: you can soak the seed for 8 hours in water at 88°F (31°C).

When we direct sow, we “station-sow” – we put three seeds ½-1” (1-2.5 cm) deep at each spot where we want a plant to grow. We do this on May 1, with rowcover, as this is around our last frost date, and we want to avoid disasters! Direct sow once the soil temperature averages 65°F (20°C), 3-4 weeks after last frost.

When seedlings have 3-4 leaves, we thin to the strongest seedling. Okra is sturdier if direct sown, rather than transplanted, but you work with the climate you’ve got!

Transplanting okra

Okra seedlings in a Winstrip 50-cell tray.
Photo Pam Dawling

Usually we transplant, especially if we are intercropping. For transplants we sow April 15, using soil blocks or Winstrip 50-cell flats. I was amazed to learn that at 6″ (15 cm) tall, plants could have taproots three times as long! At full maturity, the tap root could be 4½ ft (1.4 m).  To avoid stunting the taproot, get the small plants in the ground as soon as you can, carefully.

We transplant 3-4 week old starts – a plant with 3 or 4 leaves is ideal – at 18” (45 cm) spacing in a single row down the middle of a bed. We transplant May 11, 10 days later than the direct-sowing date. In the past we used wider in-row spacing, but found we could get a higher yield with the “hedge-like” closer spacing.

Some growers plant as close as 6” (15 cm) in the row, with 5’ (1.5m) between rows, or plant double rows with 12” (30 cm) between plants, and wider spacing between the beds. Thick planting requires very fertile soil, and risks diseases from poor air circulation. Wide spacing can lead to heavily branched plants, and more pods per plant, but not necessarily more pods for a given area. It may lead to a later start to the harvest, as flowering is delayed while the plant grows bigger.

Burmese okra flower.
Photo by Raddysh Acorn

Intercropping Okra

Okra is slow-growing until hot weather arrives. We sometimes take advantage of this and its upright growth habit to transplant okra into a bed of early cabbage. We transplant cabbage in two rows along a 4’ (1.2 m) bed on March 10 and the okra in a single row down the middle on May 11. We mulch the cabbage, which has the disadvantage for the okra, of cooling the soil, so don’t try this if direct sowing! At first the cabbages are relatively small, and the okra uses the open space in the middle of the bed. As the plants grow, we remove outer leaves of the cabbage that might overshadow the okra. Finally, we harvest the cabbage and leave the okra to grow to full size. This method saves space, and efficiently uses our time to help two crops with one weeding.

Okra plants can be huge by September!
Photo Pam Dawling

This post is part of what I have written about okra in my book Sustainable Market Farming. Buy the book to read the rest, including crop rotations, pests and diseases, harvesting and post-harvest care of okra.

Pickled okra, garlic scapes and beets.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

The Whole Okra

See my review of Chris Smith’s book The Whole Okra. Chris has grown 125 varieties of okra, and still counting, and cooked it in many different recipes. His book includes using the oil from the seeds, eating the leaves; making okra-stem drinking straws, okra seed tempeh, okra marshmallow delights; okra history and geography, medical and industrial uses and so much more. Here are instructions for freezing the sudden glut of okra that often arrives at some point in the summer, pickling (both by fermenting and with vinegar), drying (best when strung on dental floss). Best of all are the okra chips. Chris has a video of taste testing on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAy0pouxlME

Unlearn, Rewild: Earth Skills, ideas and inspiration for the future primitive, by Miles Olson

Unlearn, Rewild: Earth Skills, ideas and inspiration for the future primitive, by Miles Olson. New Society Publishers, 2012, 200 pages, diagrams, $19.99

This is not a new book, but I was drawn by the title, as rewilding is a word I’ve been hearing lately. I thought I would learn about growing diversified hedgerows, and including areas of native wild plants to attract beneficial insects and predators. Instead, this book combines philosophy, politics, and ethics with some survival skills. If you seek answers to questions around what “sustainability” really means, and what it is you want to sustain, then this book can provide some pointers. Skills such as foraging, trapping, and using what you have are included.

The author, Miles Olson, was part of a small community of feral homesteaders for ten years, ten years ago on Vancouver Island. While I enjoyed some of the essays in this book, I was disappointed to find so little about growing food, which is my own passion in life. The author sees all agriculture as intrinsically problematic. The food part of the book is very meat-focused. I believe a mostly vegetarian diet supplemented with meat is the more sustainable way to go.

I agree with the author that skills are pointless if not grounded in a cohesive context. Why tan hides? It’s not helpful to the planet to tan hides on Saturdays and water-ski all week. We cannot relax into philosophizing without making practical contributions.

Olson questions the word “sustainable”, which is the first word in the title of my book, Sustainable Market Farming. Currently the favored word for planet-inclusive agriculture is regenerative. I’m sure this word will also get greenwashed, as organic and ecological have already. We need to consider what we actually mean by the words we use. What is it we want to sustain? Destroying the rainforest to grow soybeans for animal and vegetarian food is not sustainable. Monocultures of any sort destroy diversity. Destroying peat bogs to plant trees (as carbon offsets for other unsustainable practices) is not sustainable. Destroying good agricultural land to make conifer plantations so that jet-setters can continue jetting about is not sustainable. The global population needs to be fed. And so will the people of the next century.

“To “rewild” is to return to a more natural or wild state; the process of undoing domestication. Synonyms: undomesticated, uncivilized.” This is where Miles Olson starts to set out his anti-farming table. Farm animals are dominated and controlled by farmers, with their wild spirits extinguished. Humans are also domesticated animals. Hence the need for us to unlearn some domestication. Cast off assumptions that you need to earn your keep, for instance. I found his analysis unsatisfactory. He throws all aspects of the modern world that he does not agree with,  into the barrel of “civilization”, while keeping back ones he likes such as practical skills, intelligence, books, science.

While I found some of his thinking valuable, I did not like his gloominess, or the certainty that he professes. “Every day the world is ending. . . Our lifetimes, if we are not sedated, are going to be filled with loss and struggle. . .” He does continue with “. . . when we embrace that, we can move through it with more strength and determination.” But let’s also remember joy, humor, kindness.

In reading other reviews, I found that others say some of his facts are untrue. So, reader beware. Do not throw your critical thinking to the winds. “The back-to-the-land communities. . . a movement that was solid and strong in urban centers scattered into the countryside and gently faded away into dysfunctional utopian communities.” Now, that I know is not true! I live in a large community started in 1967. I’ve lived there 30 years. We’re not dysfunctional! We’re running our own businesses, producing quite a bit of our own food, raising around a dozen children at a time. Yes, I feel defensive!

He claims to be descended from nomadic reindeer hunter-herders in Scandinavia and acorn-gathering fisher people in the British Isles. I had not heard of Ancient Brits eating acorns. British acorns are considerably smaller than American acorns, and hazelnuts are tastier. This site: Old European Culture, says the writer has found no archa­eological data on acorn consumption in the British Isles.

When he was 17, Miles benefited from spending several summer months, living alone in a cabin in the woods on a small island in British Columbia. He was fortunate that it was not winter, or somewhere with a less benign climate, or the streets of Chicago. He was fortunate to be a physically healthy young white man. He grew a garden, foraged, trapped, and hunted. The solitude was life-changing for him. As he says “Everyone has different wounds to heal from, everyone has different ways of healing.”

In order to stop killing the planet, we need to realize that our own survival depends on the health of our land, with an understanding of our place on that land. Are tools neutral? “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” A part of the truth. People with guns kill more people than people without guns. We have to reduce the risk of gun deaths by making more gradual changes, and working on a plan towards our goal. Which technologies are ethical, appropriate, and which ones are inherently destructive? Good questions from the author.

I agree that technology can provide power and efficiency, while it can also take away understanding and connection. The internet allows us unprecedented ways to connect with others. But these are inferior to real-life connections, as we have become acutely aware during the Covid pandemic. It gives us access to massive troves of information, while seemingly destroying our ability to remember what we’ve read and sometimes even think for ourselves.

Is it “common knowledge” that hunter-gatherer societies do not destroy their land bases? Many societies have collapsed. Possibly some groups out-hunted or out-gathered what their environment could continue providing? Several pages bemoan the terrible things that white people did when arriving in North America. I doubt his claim that the immigrants did not appreciate that they had found something beautiful, a better way of life. Or that they (all?) “worked as fast as possible to degrade what was here.” As Jared Diamond says in Collapse, no one decides to cut down the last tree, but rather people cut smaller and smaller trees until the weather takes what saplings remain and no more seedlings can appear.

I appreciate that Miles includes an essay “On Being White”. How does the blond, blue-eyed white male reconcile himself to his lineage of colonizers? He doesn’t accept that his destiny is to be an oppressor. The Earth didn’t produce the white male oppressor, the white male oppressor did. “When our goals, views and perception fall in line with the plans of those in power, we have been fully colonized.” We cannot ignore the privileges that come with our ancestry. Olson says that we should use these privileges to navigate our way towards a society that is completely intolerant of racism, empire and genocide.

Author Miles Olson

The next hot topic is about diet – is veganism or radical sustainability best? Olson is an ex-vegan. He no longer believes veganism is good for humans or the planet. We have no evidence of a traditional society that sustained itself by being vegan. The very valid concerns and passions that drive vegans also drive the author. But their conclusions are different. Olson’s concept of radical sustainability includes nourishing and maintaining the planet. Traditional sustainable cultures are mostly omnivorous and they don’t farm. They hunt, fish, trap and forage. They don’t eat burgers from factory-farmed animals.

Veganism does not address domestication, over-population and the reduction of wild land. On the contrary it seems more urban, more detached from the roots of finding our own food. Veganism is efficient (cut out the cattle and eat the grain ourselves!). But hunter-gatherers worked fewer hours than farmers. Nowadays we cannot all become hunter-gatherers. Population density is too high where most of us live. Biologically, we are omnivores. Herbivorous animals have multi-chambered stomachs, regurgitate and chew the cud, and lack incisors. We are not like that. Cultures that eat mostly raw foods eat mostly meat. Those that eat mainly plants, mostly cook them (or ferment them). 92% of long-term vegans, 67% of vegetarians and 5% of meat-eaters suffer from B12 deficiency (WebMD).  A place-based (locavore) diet involves us in noticing and supporting what foods can be produced on the land we live on. It can teach us humility and respect.

The next essay is about the succession of plant types that colonize bare soil. Invasive plants are not a cause of destruction but a first response of the environment. Scotch broom may be followed by Himalayan blackberries, then red alder and finally the climax species of hemlock and cedar. There is no point in pulling the Scotch broom, it’s only there temporarily anyway.

Following the essays is the section on endangered practical skills. It’s a motley collection, including how to truly determine if dead animals are safe to eat. (Lots of myth-busting.) Roadkill can be a source of meat, and here you can learn how to tell how fresh the meat is. Look at the eyes, pull the hair, bend the joints, look at the size of the maggots. I’m confidant not everyone will want to use this information. I’m not squeamish about food expiry dates. I like to have facts, rather than myths. I do hope he checked his facts. . . Once again we see that the focus of this book really is on meat.

Olson says that in 2012 Africa, at least one group of Pygmy people will kill an elephant and camp around it, feasting and drying some meat for later, until it was all used. No freezers or refrigerators in sight. It is easier to imagine Inuit caribou hunters keeping meat cached for a year or more, because of the cold.

Next comes a chapter on feral food preservation. Traditionally, before refrigeration, there were three main methods of food preservation: drying, cellaring and fermentation. Secondary methods include salting, smoking and packing in various liquids or finely divided solids like ashes and sand. At last! Vegetables and fruit! Anything that can be dried in a dehydrator can be dried by sun and air, indoors or out. I was especially intrigued by the recipe for Gundru, or Gundruk, one of the national foods of Nepal. Pickled greens, without any salt. Crush the leaves, preserving the juices, and pack tightly in a jar, tamping down the layers. Don’t let any juice escape. Put a lid on. Leave the jar on a tray or plate in a warm place for 1-3 weeks. When ready it will smell tangy and tasty. If not, don’t eat it (yet). It can be eaten fresh, or can be dried, but should be used within a few weeks of opening.

There are interesting ideas such as storing apples in water (perhaps the origin of bobbing for apples), then it’s back to the meat. Olson explains the butterfly cut, a way to slice meat into long thin strips for drying, and discusses the hazards of smoking (carcinogenic creosote). He explains how to eat various less-likely parts of animals, and also the difference between the fat of herbivores and that of omnivores and carnivores, and explains how to render fat and store it. Next he gives directions for making pemmican, a staple food of Plains Native Americans. It is a mixture of powdered dried red meat with rendered fat, rolled into balls. The author has personally lived off pemmican as a staple for several months. If dried berries, seaweed or other dried plants are included, it is a complete food.

The next chapter brings in some plants as medicine. The author wisely encourages us to learn a few basic useful plants first, and really understand those, rather than overwhelm ourselves with hundreds of local medicinal plants. His list includes comfrey and yarrow for wounds; yarrow for influenza; Queen Anne’s Lace seed (beware of poisonous look-alikes) as a natural morning-after contraception; plantain for coughs, small injuries, stings and bites; high tannin plants for burns; goldenseal, Oregon grape and barberry against bacteria, viruses, fungi and other infections. I’m not advocating any of these, read up and make your own decisions.

Feral food cultivation is next, managing wild food plant sources to encourage more of what we want – pruning berry patches, weeding and tending camas plots. What appeared to incomers to be completely wild forests were sometimes forest gardens carefully tended by the native people. Clearing land to grow or raise culturally approved foods (domestication) puts us at war with what the land is naturally producing. Do you have a deer problem or a venison abundance? Miles favors learning how to support the land to feed us in sustainable, elegant and effective ways. This can include weeding, pruning and controlled burns.

The author advocates for trapping rather than hunting, as a means of efficiently and effectively obtaining meat (and skins), leaving lots of time in the day for other activities. (I almost wrote “other pursuits”, then realized that sounds like hunting!) This does require understanding the habits of our prey, and might require changing our outlook from being brave, sporty, manly, to being most effective. So “Hunter-Gatherer” might become “Trapper-Gatherer”. And with the considerations about managing the forests, “Trapper-Gardener” or “Gardener-Trapper” when you consider the relative proportions of each type of food.

The book includes details on traps for various animals, and tips on becoming a successful trapper. Coppicing of trees (cutting them down to a stump that can resprout) is a sustainable forestry method that provides poles. There is information on catching mice and how to eat them (cooked!) without contracting hantavirus. I hope never to need to eat mice, but I guess in a survival situation, I could do it. I just hope to be better prepared and not need that information!

The trapping chapter is naturally followed by information on skinning and gutting animals of various sizes, and later comes tanning. Sandwiched curiously in between those chapters is one on birth control in the boonies, for those that need it.

There is a chapter on gathering and curing nuts. Beat the squirrels to the harvest of still-green hazelnuts, and ripen them in a warm, dry rodent-proof place. (Black?) walnuts, apparently, are best soaked to remove the anti-nutrients. Acorns take a lot of attention: drying, shelling, toasting, removing the skins, grinding, leaching and then drying or immediate cooking as mush.  I hope I never get that desperate. It’s a lot of work for the food they provide. Chestnuts we hope will make a comeback, thanks to hybridization. Horse-chestnuts (buckeyes) are toxic unless roasted, peeled, ground and leached for several weeks in a stream. Like acorns but bigger. What’s left is almost pure starch. Harvesting the squirrels first might be the way to harvest nuts.

Then we get to bugs, typically eaten whole, or with just the tickly legs and wings removed. Apparently there are over 1,700 known edible species in the world. Mind you, the earth is running out of bugs, and it takes a lot to make a meal, so I do question the sustainability of entomophagy (consuming arthropods as food). We need to hold back on killing everything that eats what we want to eat.

To close out the book there’s information on making fat lamps in the wild, using oils or fats from animal and plant sources. And finally there’s ideas on using human excretions safely and productively. The author’s conclusion is that we need to deal with our problems as they arise, to stop things becoming so miserable we cannot cope. We need to honestly evaluate ways of living sustainably, whether those ideas come form the past or the future. The “future primitive”

There is a 2014 Utne Reader interview here.

 

Book Review: The Ecological Gardener by Matt Rees-Warren

Book Review: The Ecological Gardener: How to create Beauty and Biodiversity from the Soil Up, by Matt Rees-Warren, published by Chelsea Green. 200 pages, paperback, $24.95

This is a lovely book for those wanting to make their backyard or homestead into an area more aligned with nature. It includes fruit trees and vegetables but these are minor themes in the book. It’s a guidebook to understanding your land, and working with the features of the space – slope, water, soil, light and shade. It includes constructing rainwater catchments, making compost, encouraging wildlife, and including more native plants. The author, Matt Rees-Warren, lives in southwest England, a country noted for artfully gardening every corner of tiny spaces.

The fact that almost all vegetables grown in the UK are non-native (changing the way wildlife and ecosystems interact with food production) can make a dividing line between those focused on encouraging biodiversity and those prioritizing food production. The author seeks to rebalance these approaches, to preserve wildlife, restore clean water and soil health.

The opening chapter, on design, suggests observing and studying our land, letting go of previously-formed plans and following nature. Observe your garden within the framework of the four elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water, using a page of questions about the prevailing conditions. There are tips on testing the structure of the soil and its ability to drain (or hold) water. If you notice an area prone to flooding, think about making a pond, a rain garden, or a bog garden. Or think about planting short trees to suck up some of the water without overshadowing other ideas for nearby. Give forethought to plants that colonize and grow rapidly. Imagine making the garden interesting and attractive (and perhaps productive) in winter as well as summer.

You can draw up your garden plans, but expect to be flexible about what happens. Work with the contours of the land, rather than plan for lots of earth-moving (unless you want a really big pond!) Note which elements of your dream will need the best light, and look at where to put those. Observe the microclimates as well as the prevailing elements of the weather.

As far as possible, design a garden that takes care of itself, providing for its needs from its natural resources. Make a cyclical design with no waste. Consider adding chickens or ducks. Make each area as rich in species as you can, for resilience and abundance of resources. The fittest will survive, even if they are not the species you expected to thrive there!

The second section, on the soil, encourages us to take care of the mycorrhizae, which extend the “reach” of plants’ roots, getting them more water and nutrients in exchange for carbohydrates for the fungi. Aeration of the soil can be a useful project for very compacted soils, but it will destroy the mycorrhizae. Reducing tillage will conserve the fungi. I like the author’s description of soil as “the basket that holds the roots of the mightiest organisms” (trees) as well as the roots of tiny seedlings.

The soil has an important role in holding carbon, and reducing tillage is one way of conserving the carbon already in the soil. When bare, soil emits much more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and supports fewer life-forms that might capture and store more carbon. In the natural world, the top 3 cm (1.2”) of the soil can take up to a thousand years to grow. Let’s not degrade that treasure! Building a successful compost system is a way to work in harmony with nature. Aerobic composting is what happens on the forest floor, open to air and water, heat from the sun, and animal activity. Cold aerobic composting happens if you never turn the pile: hot compost requires introduction of new air. Anaerobic composting corresponds to bog conditions, where the organic materials are deprived of air, and may have an overabundance of water. All composting is valuable. Hot aerobic composting adds the advantage of cooking weed seeds and pathogens. Anaerobic composting, where the ingredients are sealed underground, underwater or in a container, ensures that vermin have no access. There are tips on building compost bins, making leafmould and loam, bokashi compost, bokashi bins, compost teas and biochar. Vermicomposting (a good, cold-aerobic method for those with only a small space), animal manures and compost toilets (followed by hot-composting the product) are also given space. The issue for the ecological gardener, of how organic the animal manures are, including the humanure, is discussed. Medications, non-organic foods, are not the best ingredients. We work with what we have.

The third section is about plants. The native plants mentioned are, like the author, British. These plants are the European non-natives in the USA. Sometimes they are a problem. In helping you choose what to grow, consider plants that grow best in the open, in shade, in deep shade, in dry areas, in grassland, in marshes and bogs. You can substitute plants native to your region. There are tips on turning a lawn into a wildflower meadow. You need to start in the fall, cutting the grass very short and scarifying it to pull out 80% of the roots. The flower seed needs bare soil to germinate in, so roll or in some other way, press the seed firmly into the soil. Native plants generally shed seed in the fall, and some need a period of cold to break dormancy.

There are tips on scything, on planting a mixed species hedgerow (and for turning a hedge into a hedgerow of mixed species); on laying (pleaching or plashing) a hedge to keep livestock on one side of it, and on collecting seeds from wild plants. There is a table of which species need seed stratification, and which need scarification, and details on how to do each of those, and on taking and rooting cuttings.

Chapter 4 is about water, starting with rainwater “harvesting” or catchment. How we source, use and reuse water is of vital importance. Some past civilizations showed great mastery in water management: Minoans, Romans, Turks, and more. I’ve seen impressive English Victorian stonework reservoir management systems in Yorkshire and Derbyshire. One plastic rain barrel holding 150 l (40 US gallons) doesn’t go far enough to address a garden’s needs.  Your garden might need 5000 liters/1250 US gallons. Assuming barrels would refill 8 times during the year, one barrel only provides half enough.

The author avoids plastics whenever possible, and advocates for finding old wood whisky barrels. Most of the construction projects in this book use recycled lumber, typically from dismantled pallets. For rainwater collection, used metal drums and tanks are next best to wood. Aesthetics is important too. There are tips for creating a vista. There are tips on creating “Tranquil Effects” with rain chains for roof runoff, and channels, rills and gullies to move water through your landscape. Remember to make swales and ditches to catch overflow water from all the water features, to avoid erosion, slow the water down and let it soak usefully into the soil.

Matt Rees-Warren in his element

Rain gardens are easier to make than ponds. These are areas of dedicated plantings that can absorb larger amounts of water. There is a page on how to make one. There are instructions for constructing a bathtub reed bed in your garden. Grey-water use is another way to reduce the amount of fresh water you need for your garden. Water from showers, laundry, and sinks can add up to quite a lot of potentially useful water. One way to make use of grey-water is a keyhole bed with a central funnel or basket into which grey-water is poured onto compost full of micro-organisms, with a lower level of rocks and gravel.

The next chapter covers wildlife, everything from microbes to mammals. The author says: “By adding organic matter into the soil on a regular basis in the form of compost, you will do infinitely more to aid the food web than anything else.” The decomposition of organic matter sparks many life forms. Ideally, your garden will not be closed off from the rest of the world, but will have permeable boundaries. Opening your land to wild mammals will also mean the neighbor’s cat can come and go, which can cause problems for birds and small mammals. Ponds with a natural continuous water source can become part of a water-flow through your garden. Some ponds may sometimes need the addition of fresh water to prevent complete drying out. See the section on Creating a Natural Clay-Lined Pond. Find a good site, and a source of clay (try construction sites, where there is a pile of excavated clay). After digging the hole, spread a layer of cleaned, puddled clay over the inside, smoothing it with a plastering float. Sit back and wait for the pond to fill. Once plants start to grow, wildlife will soon follow. Seed the berm around the pond with fast-growing annuals to hold the soil in place, and add perennial plants later. Water-loving plants are not happy up on the relatively dry berms. Avoid plants with big roots that will destroy the integrity of the clay liner.

Pollination is important for most plants, so be sure to encourage pollinators: chiefly butterflies, moths and bees.

The chapter on materials includes growing your own plant stakes by coppicing and pollarding, as well as repurposing found and sought-out materials. Avoid new materials if possible, and when shopping, choose biodegradable materials and sustainable sources. Matt makes suggestions for repurposing many discarded items in creative ways. Plant your own coppice with a mix of whips of native trees such as willow, hazel, alder, ash and lime. After five to ten years, start harvesting rods by cutting the stems right down at the base. This kind of pruning can extend the life of the tree, which is perhaps counter-intuitive, but history and tradition bears it out. You can plan for a rotation of pruning each of the trees, some each winter. There are pictures and tips on coppicing a hazel.

We know it’s a poor worker who blames their tools. Here is information on maintaining and sharpening tools. I learned that waterstones should be soaked in water before use until no more bubbles come from the stone. I’d been in the habit of just dotting some water on the surface of the stone! Now I know better.

Mud mortars are explained as an alternative to cement. Matt also addresses the issue of agricultural plastics. He advocates for committing to a closed system, whereby you never send plastics to the landfill. Hard to do, but it does wonderfully focus the mind. And we can all do better at conserving and reusing plastic items.

The Ecological Gardener is a handbook for all who seek to be more ecological while working and playing outdoors on our land. It’s an earnest attempt to move the needle on the environmental impacts of our actions towards living more lightly. It’s not a soapbox, but a toolkit.

More on Insectary Flowers; Vegetable Crop Resources, Especially Weeds

 

Borage flowers attract many beneficial insects. Spot the honeybee! Photo Raddysh Acorn

More on Insectary Flowers (to attract beneficial insects)

A reader responded to my post Growing flowers to attract aphid predators in early spring

“Isn’t too cold for the predators to be around, Pam? unless they hibernated in the greenhouse. but even so, it’s still cold in there at night. We have some aphids too in the tatsoi and some of the lettuce, so thank you for all the tips, and the life cycle. I had not quite realized that the cycle was so short. I grow borage in the hoophouse but in the ground – the plants get large and gorgeous with clouds of blue flowers in March and April – much bigger and healthier than anything I try to grow outside. The honeybees absolutely love it and they attract are a lot of other insects too.”

Yes, it has been still too cold for predatory insects to be around, until this week, when ladybugs greet us around every corner. Our idea with the flowering plants was that by starting the plants in the fall, we’d have actual flowers earlier than if we started in “spring”, and that perhaps the extra stresses would even cause the plants to flower earlier. Apart from the borage, none of the others have flowered yet (Feb 23). We likely need to fine tune our sowing dates. We sowed at the very beginning of September and the very end of October. That two-month gap probably has better sowing dates! We noticed that some of our plants were not very cold-hardy. Some died and some had to be pruned of dead bits. Since then, we started more flowers in our greenhouse on February 1. Another thing we’re noticing since early February is that the plants in pots dry out very fast. It’s probably better to get the flowers in the ground in the hoophouse and greenhouse as soon as they are big enough, as suggested by the results of my reader quoted above, with borage.We had thought that having them in pots would enable us to move them into trouble spots.

Vegetable Crop Resources, Especially Weeds

Spiny amaranth – a weed to exterminate by careful pulling.
Photo Pam Dawling

A newly released handbook from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), Manage Weeds On Your Farm: A Guide to Ecological Strategies by Charles L. Mohler, John R. Teasdale and Antonio DiTommaso, is set to help us all. I haven’t read it yet (although I am looking forward to that!), so this is not a review, But these are three big names in weed science, and SARE is well-known for providing solid information on sustainable farming.

Silver Queen sweet corn with a wilting pulled amaranth plant in the center
Photo Kathryn Simmons

I had the great good fortune to attend a workshop by Chuck Mohler years ago, and got some realizations that forever changed my approach to weeds. Top of the list is that some weeds, such as pigweed (amaranth species), don’t distribute any seeds until they have grown very big. Until that point they are not threatening next year’s farming efforts. We used to get huge pigweed plants in our sweet corn, and fatalistically did nothing once we were in there harvesting, somehow believing it was “too late”. No, it’s not! They hadn’t seeded. We started to make a practice of pulling the huge pigweed every two days while harvesting corn. Often it was necessary to stand on the base of the corn plant to hold it in place, while pulling the weed. Then all we had to do was drop the pigweed between the rows. Sweet corn ripens in hot weather and the weeds soon died, rather than re-rooting. All those big leaves sucked the moisture right out of the plants. Be extra careful if you have spiny amaranth. We have twice eliminated this weed form our gardens, by diligent hand-pulling, only to have it reappear a few years later!

Galinsoga – a fast growing, fast-seeding weed of cultivated soil.
Photo Wren Vile

Conversely, galinsoga forms seeds very soon after germinating, while still small. This weed is one to strike early and repeatedly. It readily re-roots in damp soil. Our strategy when we are too late to hoe and have to hand-pull them, is to shake off as much soil as possible, then to either twist and break the stem (if there are not many), or “shingle” the weeds, laying them down with the roots of one on top of the leaves of the previously pulled plant, providing a surface of roots all exposed to the air, and none touching the soil. This works quite well. Timely hoeing is much better, of course!

Manage Weeds has chapters on How to Think About Weeds, Cultural Weed Management, Mechanical and Other Physical Weed Management Methods, Profiles of successful managers,  and then the alphabetical rogues gallery of grass weeds and broadleaf weeds.

This book and all the online information from SARE is free of charge. You can buy print copies if that suits you better. Other good resources from SARE, while you’re at their website, include several other books:

Building Soils for Better Crops

Managing Cover Crops Profitably For many of us, this is the “Cover Crops Bible”

Systems Research for Agriculture

Crop Rotation on Organic Farms 

There are also podcasts, bulletins, videos, Topic Rooms and interactive pages to explore.

Winter Vegetable Production Methods

For those who missed the Pasa Sustainable Agriculture conference, here is my slideshow Winter Vegetable Production Methods, From the Field to the Hoophouse

Winter Vegetable Production Methods, From the Field to the Hoophouse Dawling 60 mins 2022 2.11 9am

Book Review: Gathering Moss

if it was you who sent a contact form about crop planning, sorry i lost it. please would you send it again?

Gathering Moss book cover

Book Review: Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, published by Oregon State University Press. 160 pages, paperback

Gathering Moss is a little treasure combining science, personal observations and reflections, from Robin Wall Kimmerer, famous for Braiding Sweetgrass.

This was the perfect book to pick up during the recent snowstorm and power outage, when I could truly focus on the details. Many of us have not given mosses much thought, and have even thought of them as the singular, moss. Now we can be drawn in to a much deeper understanding and appreciation of these tiny plants. Pop a hand lens in your pocket whenever you venture into mossy territory from now on! The closer you look, the more there is to see.

Robin Wall Kimmerer combines her training as a scientist with the traditional plant knowledge of her Potawatomi heritage and with learning from the plants themselves. There is value in combining learning from different perspectives, including the messages from species other than our own. In indigenous ways of knowing, things must be understood by all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion and spirit. These mossy essays take various approaches. Many read like poetry.

What looks from standing height to be a uniform green rug reveals itself under magnification from kneeling height to be a garden of divergent forms. There are fernlike fronds, feathery plumes, wavy ribbons, soft baby hair. There are textures like brocade, velvet, silk and woolly tweed. Learning to see mosses requires undistracted attentiveness. There is art and beauty here, and there is a whole lexicon to distinguish one moss from another. Leaf shapes, leaf edges, words for the various types of tiny bumps.

Before you travel far into the world of mosses, you’ll need to know about plants commonly called mosses that are no such thing. Reindeer moss is a lichen; Spanish moss is a flowering plant; sea moss is an alga; club moss is a lycophyte. True mosses are bryophytes, the most primitive of land plants. They are non-flowering and rootless, and without phloem or xylem to conduct fluids internally. There are 22,000 species worldwide. Each one thrives in a specific ecosystem. Just marvel!

Mosses are small because they lack the support structures big beings have. The biggest mosses are found in lakes and streams, where the water supports their weight.  Without roots they cannot pull water from the soil, but by hugging the ground, they find the water they need. They have a different type of chlorophyll from taller plants, that absorbs the wavelengths of light that filter through the plant canopy above. In deciduous forests, leaf fall makes the ground uninhabitable for mosses – they grow on logs and stumps, in cracks in rocks and the bark of trees.

Not much competes for the meeting ground between earth and air, which is known as the boundary layer and has some special features: wind speed is reduced, the sun-warmed surfaces radiate heat, which remains there longer without breezes to pull it away. Water vapor, similarly, is held in place. The damp log releases water vapor and the moss catches it. Mosses grow when they receive water, not otherwise. Larger plants cannot survive in these conditions, as their needs are too great. The boundary layer also holds other gases (such as carbon dioxide from decomposition), and microorganisms cycling the nutrients. All these riches are available to the mosses. The boundary layer on a log may contain ten times the carbon dioxide in the general atmosphere. The very food that plants need for photosynthesis.

Mosses ranging in height from thin crusts to 4in/10 cm “giants” find a matching boundary layer of the right depth. Mosses can also control the depth of their boundary layer by changing the shape of their leaves, and of their whole profile. Long narrow upright leaves will slow the airflow. On dry sites, mosses often have dense hairs, tiny spines or long reflective leaf tips, which all reduce evaporation by creating a thicker, deeper boundary layer.

“Moses are the amphibians of the plant world. They are the evolutionary first step towards a terrestrial existence, a halfway point between algae and higher land plants.” Science tells us that life on earth began in the water. The land was sunbaked, without animals or plants. The Zuni Origin Story tells us that the world began as water and clouds, and then the marriage of earth and sun produced algae. Algae do not need a reproductive method beyond releasing eggs and sperm into the water, where they may meet and fuse.

350 million years ago, primitive land plants evolved. One step of evolution was to develop a successful dryland reproductive strategy. There is a moss lifecycle drawing of male moss shoots releasing sperm in a water droplet, which can land on the female shoot and develop a sporophyte, a specialized type of “intergenerational” plant. The mature sporophyte sheds spores on a substrate, where they can grow into filamentous protonema, from which new female and male shoots can grow. Sounds kind of miraculous that it ever all happens in the right place and right time!

You can marvel at the details described. Including how the tiny sperm escape the surface tension of the water droplet. Spoiler alert – the sperm have their own surfactant, plus are ejected under hydraulic pressure. Also – sex is not the mosses’ only way to reproduce. Mosses clone themselves from small fragments, such as a single leaf that has broken off the plant.

By this point, we have been drawn in deeply and are ready for a whole chapter on just one moss genus, Dicranum, which has microscopic male plants enclosed within the leaves of the female plants. The drawings are fascinating in themselves, and help us discern differences between species.

Without water, a dry moss cannot grow. Having no roots, they cannot draw water up from the ground. We are unsurprised to find them in wet and damp places. “If mosses dream, I suspect they dream of rain,” says the author. But there are mosses that live in places that dry out. They are poikilohydric, meaning the water content of the plant varies depending on the water content of its surroundings. Most mosses can become 98% dried out, without dying. Dry mosses have been revived after 40 years in a specimen cabinet. There are specialized alar cells at the base of each leaf that absorb water rapidly, causing the leaf to lean out and catch more light. The overflow falls down to the next leaf.

Quite possibly the early stages of insect evolution occurred in clumps of moss. The wet world among moss leaves offers a transitional environment between water and land. Even today, many insects use mosses as incubators and nurseries for their young. Invertebrates moving through moss may carry and distribute moss sperm.

Mosses are healing plants. They can endure where other plants cannot, such as mine tailings. Algae, bacteria, and fungi benefit from the shade thrown by larger mosses. Algae fix nitrogen, adding nutrients to the spoil heaps. Slowly the organic matter increases, and the tiny plants bind the loose dirt together. Research is happening into the value of moss and other plants in slowing wind erosion and in providing a hospitable site for seed germination of bigger plants. Researchers used plastic beads and carpet squares. Moss holds the seeds and provides water as well as shelter. Astroturf just doesn’t do the job! Aspen seeds grow into seedlings; berry seeds grow in the “tree” shade. Aspen leaves fall and create soil, and then maple seeds can germinate.

Mosses are sensitive to air pollution and so they are a good way to monitor the air quality in cities, or near industrial plants. Let’s enjoy and appreciate urban mosses!

Waterbears (tardigrades) rely on the moisture in moss, and will shrink to as little as one-eighth of their normal size if the moss dries up. The dried-up Waterbears (called tuns) can survive like this for years, and then revive to a more active life when water returns. Or while dried, they may blow to a different moss patch entirely.

Rotifers also have the ability to dry up without dying. This reversible state of complete inactivity is known as anabiosis. Unsurprisingly, it is a source of great interest to some researchers, who subjected them to high and low temperature extremes. A drop of water would later revive them.

Robin Wall Kimmerer with a moss

Robin studied bands of different plants on cliffs beside the Kickapoo River. The small Fissidens moss grew alone near the water, topped by a band of various other mosses, and then, higher up, another monoculture, this time Conocephalum conicum, a liverwort. Her initial hypothesis assumed differences in light, temperature, humidity or rock type, but careful measurement (when the tools didn’t fall in the river!) showed no significant difference in environment between the bands. Samples replanted in her greenhouse demonstrated that the liverwort would overgrow the moss given any chance. Clearly the moss could only survive if the liverwort didn’t get too close.

Investigation of Corps of Engineers’ river level records supported the hypothesis that the moss could survive flooding but the liverwort could not. The middle zone of intermediate flooding frequency housed ten species. Comparison with a study of competing non-mobile shellfish in a rocky intertidal zone showed a pattern of few species living where wave action was constant, and fewer still on rocks rarely disturbed by waves. In between, species diversity was high. Results from both studies has led to the Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis: diversity of species is highest when disturbance occurs at neither extreme interval. This hypothesis fits with the Forest Service’s policy on fire. Vigorous fire suppression results in too few fires and forests that become monocultural tinderboxes. Too many fires lead to only scrubby species surviving. In between is a fire frequency that maximizes diversity and strong forest health.

Ecological theory predicts that where there are two very similar species, one will win and the other lose. If two similar species seem to be occupying the same niche, it is likely there are some differences that give them each the upper hand in some situations. Perhaps the sides of the logs for one species and the top of the log for another. In one such competition, Robin and her colleague found that slugs were carrying bits of moss in their underbelly slime. But they didn’t carry the moss far. Something else was transferring moss parts. This story is very entertaining and I won’t give any spoilers as to what was transferring the “brood branches”. The story includes beer, peanut butter sandwiches and sticky white paper.

Some mosses throw out millions of tiny spores that have a very small chance of surviving (the barn cat strategy). Others focus reproductive energy on fewer larger (better provisioned) spores. The maple tree strategy. In unstable environments, evolution favors the strategy of many, very dispersible spores, some of which may find more hospitable habitats. Tetraphis is a moss with reproductive choices. It grows gemmae cups on the ends of vertical shoots. Each gemma cup holds a cluster of egg-like green spheres, each composed of only 10-12 cells. These are simple clones, not spores. When a raindrop lands in a gemma cup, the gemmae are ejected by the force of the water, some 6in (15 cm) from their origin. Here they may grow separately in the “neighborhood” where their relatives have succeeded. Tetraphis can also reproduce sexually, developing spores that will travel far from their parents.

Robin studied what factors determine the reproductive strategy Tetraphis uses on a particular occasion. The answer is that low-density colonies grow gemmae cups, crowding stimulates the production of female shoots and spores and overcrowding triggers production of only male shoots. In a few years, the overcrowded, all-male colony dies, and new gemmae land from nearby colonies to start new growth. The world is unpredictable and we survive by chance and by the strength of our choices.

As a Native American and a moss expert, Robin is in an excellent place to tell us about Indigenous uses of mosses. Indigenous ways of knowing include that each living being has a precise role, and the responsibility to fulfil that role in serving creation. What is the gift that mosses share with people? Traditional teaching was suppressed. There is a tragic gap between what current generations know and the people who once made more extensive use of plants. The oral tradition was partly researched by ethnographers and anthropologists who put into writing what they learned. Not much about mosses. Just a little about chinking gaps between logs in buildings, wadding harpoon tips and scrubbing dishes. One short statement explains that moss was widely used for diapers and sanitary napkins. The researchers had mostly been men. So it goes.

Robin Wall Kimmerer

The next essay is about peat bogs, especially Sphagnum bogs. I experienced peat bogs (also known as moors and mosses) when living in Yorkshire in northern England. Now appreciated as carbon sinks, they were previously drained in efforts to make them more agriculturally productive. Peat bogs are quaking treeless expanses that defy the distinction between solid and liquid. Step carelessly on what looks like solid ground and you may lose your boot in the effort to pull your leg out.

Peat mosses not only thrive in bogs, they create them. Most plants cannot survive in the acidic saturated anaerobic conditions created by the moss. The pH may be 4.3, like dilute vinegar.

Each individual plant may be several yards tall, but only the top few inches are alive. Most of the plant underwater is dead, but preserved by the acidic conditions. Each tiny leaf has only one cell in twenty alive, creating a green lattice around empty cell walls holding only water. The moss can absorb twenty times its weight in water, taking up the space that might have held air. If you pull up a big handful of Sphagnum moss and wring it out, you gain a quart of water! Trees and most higher plants cannot grow, leaving the bog open to all the sunlight.

The bog has two layers, As the moss slowly grows upward, its branches droop down into the water layer. Below the living layer is deep wet dead peat, partially decomposed. The bog is a sponge, a strange ecosystem, which has provided fuel, ethanol, and soil additives. Now we know we need the carbon sink. I don’t use peat in our gardens.

After the water-bound mosses, we learn about the airborne and air-resident mosses. Moss spores and plant seeds (“aerial plankton”) are carried in the jet stream, high in the stratosphere, and deposited across the globe. Some are strictly aquatic, some terrestrial, and epiphytic mosses grow among tree branches and on electric wires. One moss grows only on the droppings of white-tailed deer! This is an unusually fast growing and unusually colorful moss type.

There is a very minimalist filamentous moss, Goblin’s Gold, that grows most of its life in the dark, in caves that get a short period of sunlight (or maybe moonlight) when the planets line up. The cell walls form interior facets like a diamond, that catch even small traces of light and focus them in to the single chloroplast in the middle of the cell, enabling photosynthesis for the few minutes the light hits the spot.

As with peat bogs, rainforests not only support growth of mosses, but are partially created by them. When rain lands on the forest canopy, very little of it reaches the ground. The leaves and twigs direct the water towards the trunks. Foresters call this water “stemflow” as opposed to “throughfall”. Clumps of moss block this flow and soak up some of the water, slowly dripping the rest downwards.

Robin writes about her trip to the Amazon rainforest. Everything was overwhelmingly complex and yet familiar. The light, the wetness, the greenness, the shadows, the undergrowth – like walking among moss! A 3,000 times difference of scale, but the same inter-dependency between life-forms, the same ecosystem energy flows, including competition, mutual aid and cycling of resources.

The following chapter beggars belief. Robin is called in as a moss consultant to an unidentified very wealthy client to advise on transplanting mosses to create moss gardens (within view of the newly built, old-looking house). The huge project includes moving full size trees and every other kind of land rearrangement. Clearly the owner has an appreciation of plants and wants to see them thrive, but within his own terms, in an “exact replica of the flora of the Appalachians, in a native plant garden.” He (or his contractor) knows enough about mosses to ask for “guidance on matching correct species of moss to the proper rock types.” The initial consultation with the contractor leaves Robin telling him that transplanting moss from one rock to another is almost doomed to failure, no matter how much money he throws at the problem.

The contractor asked about sowing mosses instead of transplanting, and Robin was able to tell him about degrading the rock surface with repeated acid drenches, to create pores where moss spores can take hold. And about moss milkshakes, where mosses are blended up with a milk product, which is then painted on the rocks. Some recipes include other ingredients too. It can take a year to grow moss this way.

The job paid well, but was unsatisfying. A year later, Robin was asked to return. The place had aged a century in just one year. Every rock was carpeted with actively growing mosses of the right species. Yet the installation was only two weeks old. There was a large staging area with a “field hospital” and burlap-wrapped bundles. The rock contractor wanted to ask Robin to advise the explosives team who were blasting apart the beautiful mossy glen which provided the transplants, spores and moss milkshake materials the year before. Horrors! Destroying nature to make a live art form closer to the house. Robin was asked to advise on the care of each shattered piece of rock-and-moss, and decide which were beyond hope. She thought of the doctors assigned to arriving slave ships, deciding which people could be sold and which were to be left behind to die.

This raises the big question of “ownership”. Is it right to own a living being? To use as you choose, dispose of at will and deny others the use of? What to make of someone who vandalizes a wild spot, then employs experts to care for the casualties? Can you own a thing and love it at the same time? Does exercising this much power destroy that which is “owned”? Sadly, the owner sought authenticity, but destroyed it.

Almost no animals of any size actually consume moss, possibly due to the high levels of phenols. Animals that do ingest mosses generally do not digest them. Bears are known to eat large amounts of moss before hibernating, to bind their digestive systems until spring.

Life balance is important to all of us, and the details about moss life are interspersed with details of Robin’s family life, as her daughter grows into an adult and her grandfather fades towards his death. A wonderful book for reflecting on life and appreciating things we hadn’t noticed before.

 

Book Review: The New Farmer’s Almanac, Vol V

 

The New Farmer’s Almanac from the Greenhorns

The New Farmer’s Almanac, Vol V 2021, Grand Land Plan, by the Greenhorns, Feb 2021, 400 pages, softcover, $25, illustrated with B&W photos and drawings. Distributed by Chelsea Green.

This is a great winter treasure trove to dip into by the woodstove after darkness brings you in from the fields. Or to absorb you on snowy days. Or to leave by a frequently visited seat (!) for browsing. It’s a compilation of pictures and writings as an antidote to helplessness. Here you will find reports from the fields, shores, woods, beehives, kitchens, watersheds, and compost piles.

There are historic pieces, such as The Diggers’ Song by Gerrard Winstanley written in 1649, and very current writing on living in a time of racism, Covid, hate crimes, climate disaster and white nationalist surges. This Grand Land Plan is a vision of the future of food systems and land use, put together by farmers, gardeners, poets, activists, grocers, nature-lovers and agitators. Here are solutions to give us hope and ideas on what to do to recover from the challenges, dismantle inequity, restore our chances of a beautiful world. You can browse for what you need each day: poetry, maps, comics, portraits, lessons from honeybees, campaigns for local food, reports of successes, thoughtful prose on the principles and practice for fair and responsive land use for everyone, or a design for a seaweed commons.

The Greenhorns are a group working to promote, recruit and support the next generation of farmers, through publications and events. Covid has led them to use more digital productions, including EARTHLIFE, initially centered in Downeast Maine, along the Pennamaquan River, where the Greenhorns are based in the old Pembroke Iron Works. The group has several ventures in the town, including carpentry, a boat shop, mycological lab, agrarian library, art spaces and living spaces. They offer monthly naturalist trainings.

The contents are divided into monthly sections with a theme. January’s theme is Resistance and Recovery. Small-scale farmers producing healthy food for local eating, have become the envy of many of those in the big cities. The difficulties of 2020 (and 2021) have thrown home food production and working together into a better light, and shown the deep importance of friends and companions. Vegetable seeds sold out, as did CSA shares. Security is in the potato patch, in knowing how to feed your household with what you have on hand, fix things, organize, be a leader – things that truly matter. Not money in the bank, flashy clothes, having a large office.

People have become aware of the fragility of industrial supply chains and the value of local small businesses and the people who work in them. Mutual aid and support, community-based economies, revolving savings and loans, shared healthcare funding groups – all help people get through hard times and thrive. Doing small things that make a difference can empower us to persist and make more differences. As one pioneering farmer says “When we started, we wanted a revolution! . . . Then we realized, it’s the incremental changes that affect a revolution. And then you realize you have had a revolution. You just didn’t see it coming.” The Black communities have long used mutual aid strategies to survive and uplift each other. Black farmer cooperatives have a long history.

We can get hope from reading about reforestation. By the late 1900s, forest area in Denmark had almost rippled since 1800. Swiss forestation had increased from 19% in the 1860s to 32% in the 1980s. Japan, New Zealand, Cuba and Scotland have all undertaken large scale reforestation. An article describes New Zealand’s One Billion Trees Programme, part of a range of initiatives to build a sustainable economy for the people while also meeting their international climate change commitments.

The articles move from political to poetic to practical, and round again. Should farms set aside areas to encourage species diversity, while “sacrificing” the fields with edge-to-edge plowing and cultivation? Or would we do better to incorporate the diversity into the whole of the farm? Here we can probe this question by considering soil life; soil cover; water, nest and shelter functions; flowering plants (food for insects, birds and mammals); native plants; plant structure and composition (diversity); habitat patches and corridors. This leads to thinking about the effects on humans of time in nature. The Japanese have “forest-bathing” therapy. Perhaps it’s time to recognize the value of “farm-bathing” too.

There’s a Hawaiian glossary of terms related to land and water use. You may not need the actual words, but the concepts are such valuable food for thought! There are wise quotes from Kalaninuiliholiho Kamehameha, Ursula Le Guin and Janene Yazzie. There is material to read on pesticide spraying, fishing, pruning, shopping during Covid, cottonwood tree decline and propagation, trapping fish, spruce bark beetles, farming seaweed. Did you know it takes 11-16 years for a 4ft tall rockweed to recover from being cut back 16ins from the holdfast?

Read about capitalism, cooperation, Medieval European land enclosure, colonization, and other forms of land tenure. Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel Prize in economics, researched global commons-based resource management systems. She found that each represents a unique set of ways in which people work together to ensure the longevity and health of the resources they depend on. It isn’t the land or the resources that causes commons to succeed, but the process by which people relying on those resources engage with them and with their fellow commoners. Ostrom lists 8 general principles used.

Garrett Hardin’s 1968 infamous essay The Tragedy of the Commons suggests that individuals will destroy the commons by prioritizing their own needs until the system collapses. The assumption is that financial gain is always more important than social networks, or sense of fairness, integrity, or desire to be well-thought-of. Hardin’s theory was not based on research of actual commons-based management systems. Sadly, he is better-known than Ostrom, and the myth that personal ownership is the most effective and logical way to divide resources, is often spoken of as fact.

Sixty miles east of Alaska, the Gwich’in community of Old Crow had to deal during the pandemic with two uninvited visitors from the city of Quebec, seeking refuge, but bringing no gloves, no tools and a risk that they had the virus with them. The community had limited access to healthcare, many vulnerable elders and a bad history of white people bringing in diseases. Members of the Tribal government met them at the airport, isolated them and sent them back.

Many writers thread their politics through their observations. Sheltering in place, working from home, learning to bake sourdough bread and grow kale are not too hard for the privileged, with spacious comfortable housing, outdoor space, computers, desk jobs, and garden space. “By actively and consciously cashing in on my privilege, I have placed myself in an environment in which feeling relief is possible.” (Quinn Riesenman). Others ponder how to shelter in place when unable to earn money to pay for shelter.

I discovered the work of George Washington Carver maybe 10 years ago, when gathering information about growing sweet potatoes. In the Almanac you can read his instructions for growing peanuts, and how to build up worn out soils. Makshya Tolbert has written a eulogy to her late grandmother, who came from Cameroon, in the form of an ode to peanuts. There are photos of recipe cards from Black women in domestic service. A way of establishing an identity.

The Indigenous Corn Keepers Conference of Uchben Kah in January 2020 brought together indigenous farmers to share experience and cultural attitudes about corn. Did you know corn is one of the few plants that can coexist with black walnut?

I loved Ang Roeli’s essay Radicalize the Hive, on what honeybees can teach us about social change. There is proof in Spanish cave paintings that people gathered honey from bee colonies 8,000 years ago. There is evidence of honey-gathering 15,000 years ago, long before farming. The author followed the ritual of “telling the bees” when the Covid pandemic started. “If we come together now, we could get sick, and many of us could die.” Their response was “If we were apart, and could not hold each other, even for a short while, we would most certainly die.” You can read this metaphorically if you prefer. I was taken aback to see the chapter illustrated with a photo of paper wasps, but then, many people are afraid of stinging insects, and don’t look long enough to distinguish one from the other.

Learn about the history of land tenure in Puerto Rico. It is indeed tragic that the lands of the sugar lords were, in many cases, sold to the multi-national seed magnates. 122 years after sugar plantations, the land is still not in the hands of the local people.

Read the September 19, 1942 front page of the Poston Chronicle, published in the Poston, Arizona concentration camp for Japanese-Americans, which was located on the lands of the Colorado River Indian Reservation, against the objections of the Tribal Council. The editorial proposes changes to the co-operative farm management system, with five year leases on a sharecropping basis. Clearly the prisoners didn’t expect to return to their homes in California any time soon.

History is interwoven with memoirs. A Farm Hand’s Perspective explores the challenges and benefits of working on an organic vegetable farm in the Sierra Nevada foothills. “I have no idea how to quantify right livelihood, proximity to nature’s beauty, and the slow pace of seasonal, rural living. The downsides are much easier to count – long hours, low wages, no healthcare – and due to our socialization in a capitalist society, these are easy to fixate upon.”

For a different slant on life, read about developing native plant materials for roadside dust mitigation in southern New Mexico. Yes, people are researching this, and have promising plants that are drought-tolerant, perennial, quick to establish and able to deal with high salt levels.

Michael McMillan writes about a serendipitous meeting on the road with a mycologist and botanist, who taught him to identify wildflowers, cactuses, shrubs and trees, by first identifying the plant family and noting what types grow where. This practice of reading the landscape informed Michael’s career as an ecological landscape designer.

Colleen Perria writes about restoring oak savanna in the southern Great Lakes bioregion. Oaks are fire-resistant and the Native peoples used fire, producing the savanna, with oaks, grasses, flowers and shrubs. But later the land was cleared by settlers to grow field crops. When abandoned, dense young forests grew up. Concrete came later. We falsely “remember” that deep primeval forests occupied the land before the white settlers, when in fact, that land had been a savanna for ages.

Catherine Bennett writes about composting those glossy political candidate flyers, along with dead lambs and reed canary grass. Will the microbes be able to break down the inks and other chemicals, some probably toxic? Journalist Bill Moyer got tested and found he was home to 84 health hazards. Why do we produce so much waste that isn’t safe to be around?

Back to land reform – this time in Scotland. The public has the Right to Roam across private land, provided they do no damage. Between 2003 and 2016, a set of land reform acts established a diversity of alternative land tenure arrangements, intending to reach 100,000,000 acres of community land ownership by 2020. They only managed just over half a million. Parliament reported that 432 individuals in 2013 owned 50% of the private land. But there has been good progress. The entire 5,000-acre island of Ulva was bought by the residents. The Scottish government has supported these transfers, with the message that if you hold title to land, you also have the responsibility to ensure that its use balances your private profit with public good.

How about this for a $64,000 question: “Is fixing trophobiosis the key to beating everything from Coronavirus to locust swarms to climate change?” Trophobiosis is a symbiotic association between organisms where food is obtained or provided. Locust swarms are one symptom of land degradation and poor land management, where trophobiosis has gone awry. Land degradation leads to chronic drought and flooding, followed by soil erosion and loss of organic matter and nutrients, then pest invasions and increased disease levels in crops, livestock and humans. Covid-19 crossed over to humans from wildlife, where the contact was closer than was wise. Synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers cause imbalances that lead to pest and disease outbreaks. Francis Chaboussou writes about this theory in Healthy Crops: A New Agricultural Revolution. It leads to a unified theory of earth repair.

A traditional Hopi dryland farmer in Arizona describes his heritage crops including corn, beans, melons, squash and gourds. He is in a line of 250 generations of farmers, and knows how to grow food when nature provides 6-10 inches of rain each year. As a youth he worked with his grandfather and studied agriculture at Cornell University. He often wondered at the recommendations in his course. He could not see a need for a 14-row planter. An agricultural economics class explained that American farmers are locked into a cycle that demands high yields (because food prices are low). They are trapped by the financial costs, and the devastating psychological dependence, to need extreme efficiency. Hopi farming is not to make money but to survive and continue their culture. Agriculture and spirituality are closely linked.  Despite more than 2,000 years of these methods of crop production, these methods are often called primitive! Hopi plant corn anywhere from 6-18ins deep, depending on the soil moisture availability. Rows are 6ft apart, with 10-20 kernels in each hole.

I have picked out some articles and left others unmentioned. I’ve no idea how to review poetry, for instance. You, too, can pick and choose what to read in this book. Different subjects speak to us at different times. I have named some people and left many unnamed. A review can only say so much – you need to see the whole book to get the whole benefit. The Greenhorns have done an outstanding job compiling this almanac. You will eventually reach the back cover, and appreciate what you have learned, been uplifted by, and been spurred to act on. (Of course, you might start at the back of the book, nothing to stop you.)

There are four pages of careful image credits and five pages of the 99 contributors’ names, locations and occupations. Sadly, no index.

To submit something for the February 2023 edition of the New Farmer’s Almanac, Volume VI Adjustments and Accommodations, send  to [email protected] by March 2022. Perhaps you have something on building, planting, community land ownership, transformative finance, citizen science, rotational strategies, wildcrafting, rooftop gardens, seed migration, or the art of the possible.

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Book Review: Sandor Katz’s Fermentation Journeys

Book Review: Sandor Katz’s Fermentation Journeys: Recipes, techniques and traditions from around the world, by Sandor Ellix Katz.

Chelsea Green, 2021, 252 pages, hardcover, $35, color photos throughout.

This brand new book will make an amazing gift for your friend who is very enthused about all kinds of fermented foods and drinks. Sandor Katz is the world’s most well-known and respected advocate of all things fermented, and the author of four previous books on the subject. This book includes directions and recipes for over 60 fermented foods from across the world. Sandor traveled the globe learning, teaching and tasting every day. And this time, Sandor had a camera, and the pictures are fascinating. This is his first book in almost ten years, so you can be sure there are many foods you haven’t met before.

To his credit, Sandor shows deep respect for the cultures (human, fungal and bacterial) that he encounters, and invites us to do so too. He describes the traditional techniques as well as the customs and ceremonies attached to the ferments. Here are some well-known fermented foods, such as sauerkraut (in a chocolate cake), tempeh, cheeses, and breads, and also much less well-known ones like pickled tea leaves, Dan Chang egg sausages, Alaskan stinkheads (salmon), and Peruvian Chicha de jora. Sandor reminds us how much work sustenance takes, and what a wide range of skills and knowledge are involved.

After youthful discoveries of palm wine and millet beer in Niger, Sandor found books for home brewers technical and off-putting, with their emphasis on chemistry and sanitation. Global alcohol makers had other traditions, as had the fermenters of other foods, to preserve the food and add flavor and safety by preventing pathogens. Some ferments, consumed raw, may provide beneficial bacteria.

Fermentation varies across the world, depending on climate, which foods are abundant, and what storage facilities are available. Ideas and techniques have spread from people to people, although sadly, sometimes extinguished by colonization.

The book is organized by fermentation substrate (sugars, vegetables, grains, starchy tubers, mold cultures, beans, seeds, milk, meat, and fish). Due to his fame and fermentation friends, Sandor was able to visit many small villages. Fortunately for us, when Sandor had to hurry home from Tasmania (wearing a gift of a home-made mask) after Covid-19 struck, he realized he suddenly had time to write a book!

The simplest ferments are sugary fruits and plant saps, including the recent excitements: “drinking enzymes” (young fruit wine) and “cleaning enzymes” made from vegetable and fruit scraps for killing mold and general wet cleaning. Fermenting vegetables is recommended as a gateway into fermentation, because it is simple and safe, and yields results fairly quickly. Also, fermented vegetables are delicious, nutritious and rich in probiotic bacteria. It seems likely that China is where fermenting vegetables with salt started. Sandor has eight short videos of his travels in China, each highlighting one realm of fermentation. You can find them on YouTube by searching for “People’s Republic of Fermentation.”

Pao Cai is a Chinese fermentation method using a perpetual brine. New batches of vegetables can be pickled in sequence, adding salt, sugar and spices as needed to restore the flavor of the brine, which can live for years. Sometimes the vegetables are sundried for a day before immersion in the brine, to keep the pickles crunchy. There are recipes for both methods.

I mentioned the sauerkraut chocolate cake earlier. This recipe intrigued me, because I usually am not a fan of vegan cakes, finding them flat-tasting and dull (or over-sugared). But I know a good vegan chocolate cake that includes a little cider vinegar. I’m not usually a fan of vinegar either. This cake is moist and tasty, so I expect the sauerkraut chocolate cake to also be tasty. Sandor explains that the sourness of the kraut is mostly neutralized by the alkaline baking soda, and the reaction between them causes the cake to rise. Inspiring!

Pickle soup is a thing. Previously my standby for making soup when there seems to be nothing in the house, and the garden is covered in snow, was garlic soup. The recipe started: “Gird up your loins, take your courage in both hands and peel 6 whole bulbs of garlic”. It’s delicious, the flavor mellows in the cooking. The source of the pickle soup recipe, Coppa Restaurant in Juneau, Alaska, uses curried kelp pickles.

Grains and starchy tubers are dietary staples, and fermenting them can unlock nutrients, pep up their mild flavors, and even convert them into alcohol. Salt-rising bread is a traditional Appalachian food with a unique fermentation process. The simple recipe is in the book. The raising agent is not yeast, but the bacterium Clostridium perfringens. The name may give you pause, but microbiologists have studied salt-rising bread and found no dangerous bacteria present. A fresh starter is made for each batch, from a little baking soda, fermented with milk, cornmeal and flour, for about 12 hours. The hot liquids kill most of the yeast and unwanted bacteria.

The author clearly enjoys meeting community millers and fermenters, who provide a service for their neighbors. Oat “milk” is gaining fans in the global north. Here’s how to make your own, soaking and then fermenting oats in water for up to 5 days.

Starchy tubers have mostly come a long way from their toxic predecessors. Read the history of the potato, if you are in any doubt! The original cassava varieties were similarly bitter and toxic. South America has many other starchy tubers, consumed both fermented and unfermented locally, but little known outside their bioregion. Included is a recipe for Chicha de Yuca y Camote, using yucca (cassava) and sweet potato. You can make it just with sweet potato if you lack cassava.

In many places, Indigenous practices have been lost because of suppression and worse. This book includes a short section on North American Indigenous fermentation, such as Cherokee cornbread with a small amount of wood ash mixed into the dough. Ancestral practices can be revived and celebrated. Chef Sean Sherman of the Oglala Lakota Sioux has started an organization called the Indigenous Food Lab, working together with others to restore their food cultures.

Mold Cultures is the title of the next chapter. These cultures also use starches, but rather than spontaneous fermentation (as in the previous chapter), here we are looking at cultivated filamentous fungi (such as koji, Aspergillus oryzae) on grains and legumes. These molds do have more precise growing requirements than the spontaneous fermentations do. Start with small batches and take notes and photos! Find ways to keep the right temperature (oven with the pilot on? insulated boxes with incandescent lightbulbs? heating pads?) There are detailed instructions on growing koji on rice, barley and other grains, seeds, beans and starchy tubers. Koji is used in brewing sake, making miso and other foods. From Switzerland comes garum, a fermented fish sauce. Vegetable garums, usually made from food scraps (which can include coffee grounds), are also explained.

Because of my familiarity with tofu and tempeh making, I was especially interested to read those sections. Tempeh is a fermentation of filamentous fungi on cooked soybeans, creating a delicious protein food. I enjoyed seeing the photos of the small-scale commercial production in Indonesia. A surprise for me were the tempeh bowls served at a café in Amsterdam. Edible soup bowls, which are briefly baked before serving. To get bowls of the right size to eat as well as hold a serving of soup, they use Puy lentils and crushed lupine seeds as substrate, and plastic bowls as forms for the shape.

Tempeh can also be grown on whole or chunked boiled potatoes. I read that fried potato tempeh is especially delicious, nutty like chestnuts. That’s a recipe I want to try!

Mao Dofu is moldy tofu, which might not sound appetizing, but has a creamy texture, and is widely enjoyed in China. You can use tempeh starter to make mao dofu, if you can’t find the real mao dofu starter.

There is also fermented tofu, called furu or dofuru. Until refrigeration, there was no way to keep tofu fresh, except by using a fermentation method, after making mao dofu. The initial fungal ferment keeps the product safe from harmful bacteria. Do not shortcut by fermenting tofu in plastic wrap, or you risk cultivating the very harmful Clostridium botulinum.

Some fermented foods have been sensationalized with offensive words like weird and bizarre. You may not like all fermented foods, but there is no call for rudeness towards the people who enjoy a food you don’t like. Sensationalizing foods from other cultures to get laughs, shudders, fame or to make money is unkind and chauvinistic. Rather, we can celebrate the diversity of foods and the ingenuity of the people who create them.

Fermentation used to be considered a mistake in coffee production. Clean and sweet flavors were preferred. Fermentation, which facilitates removing the pulp from the coffee seed, had been a useful tradition. As yeast and bacteria consume the mucilage, they create flavored by-products, which add “mouth-feel” or viscosity to the beverage. This natural process works best at 50-60% humidity. At higher humidity, molds can grow. Below 50%, the beans dry without much fermentation happening. A product we think we know well has a fermentation back story too.

The part about fermentation removing the slime coating from the coffee seeds reminds me that we use the same process when wet-processing saved tomato, cucumber and melon seeds. After a few days, the clean seeds emerge from their slimy coating and it is easy to wash and dry the seeds.

Sadly, in the global north, fermented foods have moved from traditional village food preservation skills to become niche foods for well-off, mostly white, people. “The fermentation industry, like any other, has a whiteness problem” as Miin Chan wrote on the Eater website. The people making money from copying indigenous cultures are almost all white. Sandor Katz acknowledges his privilege in the world, leading to this wonderful book, and seeks to understand the perspectives of the food creators who do not have the same privileges.

Fermented milk products include naturally occurring clabbered milk, and deliberately cultured yogurt, kefir and others. Ah! Now I know what SCOBYs (such as kefir grains) are: Symbiotic Communities of Bacteria and Yeast!

Yogurt starters have been made from inner tree bark, unripe fruits, St John’s wort, sorrel, white stonecrop, ants, clarified butter, buttermilk and rain-water. Most yogurt-makers save back a portion of each batch to be the starter for the next. This practice, known as “back-slopping”, is common in fermented foods. A technique for immigrants was (is?) to saturate a cloth with the culture, dry it and pack it among clothes. Sandor has done this successfully, keeping the resulting culture alive and productive for years.

My most appetizing chapter was the one on cheeses! I, too, love blue cheeses and very ripe soft cheeses, and strong-flavored mature hard cheeses. Dr Johnny Drain is quoted saying “The perception of rancidity and oxidation in foods and fats are culturally elastic and context-dependent.” Mild rancidity adds richness and complexity.

Only in the far North are meat and fish fermented without combining with other preservation methods –  the cold temperatures provide some preservation. Meanwhile, in Australia, Bruce Kemp is making salamis of possum, wallaby, horse, hare, goat and boar, on a mission to increase consumption of these animals which damage agricultural crops and the environment.

One way to ferment meat and fish is to add a carbohydrate source to feed the lactic acid fermentation. Traditionally in Japan, sushi consumed beyond the coastal areas where the fish is caught and can be consumed immediately, the fish is fermented in rice. Nowadays we see refrigerated raw fish served with vinegar on rice, in imitation of the traditional flavor. This fermented fish is known as narezushi.

The book’s epilogue “A Whole World in a Jar,” reminds us that across the whole world, fermentation is practiced in some form. Fermentation traditions vary, but the basis is that people ferment what id abundant, to save it for later. This reduces food waste, and keeps people fed and healthy. May your next year include more fermented local abundance!

For more information, go to Sandor’s website www.wildfermentation.com. For an inscribed, signed copy of Fermentation Journeys, order from Sandor’s friends at Short Mountain Cultures at.

The Chelsea Green Publishers website includes a video about the Fermentation Journeys book.

Book Review: Building Your Permaculture Property

Building Your Permaculture Property book cover

Book Review: Building Your Permaculture Property, A Five Step Process to Design and Develop Land

Rob Avis, Michelle Avis and Takota Coen

New Society Publishers, 2021, 222 pages, $49.99, color photos and illustrations throughout

Thank goodness for this book! I had already admired some of the work of Michelle and Rob Avis in Adaptive Habitat (ecological design and sustainable technology), so I knew them to be committed and practical. I am one of those put off from permaculture by the worshipful jargon of some followers, and the peculiarly male-dominated field. This book restores my faith in being able to benefit from and use the good ideas in permaculture without abandoning independent thought or the all-important holistic approach.

This book is a valuable and realistic resource from authors who have “earned their share of cuts and bruises”; a guide to clarifying your goals, attitudes and approaches to holistic land management; a step-by-step guide to get from today to a future aligned with your dreams.

This is not an introduction to permaculture, or a quick-fix for your garden, woodlot, home energy source, flooded land, compacted soil, or back aching from rototilling! There is a common misperception that permaculture is about a set of trendy vegetable gardening techniques. Here is a careful Five Step Permaculture Process, with exercises, templates, workflow tools and thoughtful questions. It addresses real challenges.

The book is introduced by the quote from Bill Mollison (one of the cofounders of Permaculture), defining Permaculture: “Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”

When Rob and Michelle were teaching, Rob was often ashamed to mention the word “permaculture”. Despite the elegant practical solutions for solving systemic problems with food, water, housing and energy systems offered by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Permaculture One, most people publicizing permaculture talk about zones, guilds, keyhole and spiral planting beds. “Putting a herb spiral in your backyard while you still source the majority of your basic needs from the degenerative food, water and energy systems is simply permaculture tourism.” Thank you! Straightening the deckchairs on the Titanic! Society’s big messes will not be helped by a herb spiral!

The authors believe that the root cause of people becoming disenchanted in permaculture is a lack of a clearly defined process. They ask the question “What is the biggest problem you are struggling with right now putting permaculture into practice?” and have found that answers fall into five categories.

  1. I don’t know what I should do. (Unclear goals.)
  2. I don’t know where to look. (Inadequate information.)
  3. I don’t know how it all fits. (Confusion.)
  4. I don’t know where to start or what’s next. (Being overwhelmed.)
  5. I don’t know when it will end. (Burnout)

All indicate a lack of something important. The authors decided that instead of teaching students what to do, they would teach them how to solve their problems. We benefit from focusing less on specific practices (those herb spirals!) and more on making a clear step-by-step process for how to design, develop, and manage a property to provide all the food, water, shelter and energy needs in harmony with the ecosystem.

The Five Step Permaculture Process logo

In the Five-Step Permaculture Process, each step addresses one of the five Biggest Struggles:

  • Clarify vision, values, resources
  • Assess strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats in your resources
  • Design your use of resources to meet vision and values
  • Implement the design that most improves your weakest resource
  • Monitor for well-being or suffering

Buy the book, check out their website, I’m not going to spell it all out here! It’s easy to forget that hours of learning and practicing a skill come before becoming an expert! Persistence and process are both needed.

The illustrations from Jarett Sitter throughout the book look like those from children’s picture books, although examination reveals symbols of the permaculture journey. Each chapter includes sidebars with enlightening segments from Takota Coen’s Story developing regenerative agriculture as a fourth generation farmer.

The heart of the book addresses the five steps and the initial foundation (Step 0) to guide you through design and management. Approach the steps in the order given, and be open to the possibility that you will need to tackle several aspects at once. Like learning to play guitar by learning to read music, keeping time, strumming a rhythm and making a chord, you will need to practice many skills and pull them all together as you go. Find an independent Accountability Partner, who is tackling a similar permaculture challenge, but is not invested in the same one as you. You will gain support and motivation.

The foundation chapter (Step 0) is about inspecting our conscious and unconscious beliefs about reality, which determine our vision, our actions and our responses to other people. We look for hindrances such as confirmation biases (remembering information that supports our existing preconceptions); endowment effects (demanding more to give up something than we would pay to acquire it); the IKEA effect (giving higher value to things we have assembled ourselves, regardless of actual quality!)

The authors define two predominant downward spiraling paradigms: ‘degenerative’ and ‘sustainable’, in contrast to the upward spiraling ‘regenerative’ paradigm. The degenerative paradigm cycles through arrogance, extraction, combat and suffering, creating an increasingly fragile system. The ‘sustainable’ paradigm seeks to maintain the status quo, cycling through guilt, conserving, controlling and surviving, creating a resilient system. The ‘regenerative’ system is anti-fragile, getting stronger, cycling up through reverence, co-creation, designing, thriving.

I dislike this definition of “sustainable” – people in survivalist mode, delaying on their own land the effects of societal collapse. As the author of a book with the S word in the title, I feel a bit defensive. I am not the guilt-ridden, masochistic, fearful, self-hating type portrayed. How does this stereotype help the authors make converts? I share with permaculturists feelings of reverence, awe, co-operation, justice, humility, compassion and being part of nature. But I am not a permaculturist. I use the definition of sustainable in the 1987 Brundtland Report: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” I do agree with the authors that ableness to sustain or maintain is not a guarantee that sustaining will happen.

From the perspective of word meanings, regenerative suggests being able to or tending to regenerate, renew or restore, especially after injury, or damage. It includes the sense that something has gone wrong and we are going to ride in and fix it, returning things to a previous state. Yes, corporations and individuals do co-opt the word sustainable, for industrial agriculture, as happened previously with the words organic, biological, ecological. And will happen with the word regenerative. In a few years, this word too, will be seen as having shortcomings, meaning retro-farming, or something unfortunate like that.

Step 1 is to clarify vision, resources and values. The large number of options can be reduced to those that answer all three questions, What do you want? What resources do you have? and What matches your values? The overlap of the first two filters out the impossible. The permaculture movement has developed helpful tools: the Needs and Yields Analysis, when applied to ourselves, will help answer the first two questions, and the Three Permaculture Ethics of earth care, people care and future care gives guidance on clarifying values.

Make an inventory of your resources, starting with money and material resources, and moving into natural, social, spiritual, experiential, intellectual and cultural resources. Your personal resource inventory should include debts (negative resources) and resources you have access to without ownership. Step 1 also includes thought experiments on increasing wellbeing for all, and the creation of a Vision and Values One-pager. Because most of us want to share our lives with others, we need to resolve interpersonal conflicts, to build shared vision and value statements. The process of writing down your desires in broad daylight helps with inspection and reflection.

The most common design mistakes when clarifying visions and values are focusing on the what rather than the why; using language traps like the future tense which let you off the hook for actually doing anything today; identifying yourself as outside the ecosystem looking in, and being paralyzed by perfection. The authors sell a toolkit of the  templates for the exercises  and provide practice tips at the end of each chapter.

Jared Diamond, in Collapse, his study of collapsed societies, notes: “Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping the outcomes towards success or failure: long-term planning and willingness to reconsider core values.”

Step 2: Diagnose Your Resources for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats, opens with encouragement to search out any information that could make or break your plans.

Jarett Sitter’s illustration of 11 categories of resources

You can organize your property resources into 11 categories: geography, climate, water, access, structures, fencing, flora, fauna, business, technology and soil. There’s another helpful chart. Use a pattern found in nature to gather, store, organize and retrieve your info, based on these categories. This functions to help create an ordered workflow (order of operations) for design and implementation.

Diagnosis has two stages, firstly making observations about your resources using the four variables of patterns (form, timing, placement, scale). There’s a chart about this, with descriptors that fit each mode. Secondly SWOT analysis, where you make value-based judgements about each resource. Strengths and weaknesses are attributes within your project. Opportunities and threats are outside your project but close enough to have an impact. There is a big chart with examples for each of the 11 categories.

Takota Coen

Be warned that every property seems to have a hidden piece of information that, if discovered, can change everything for the better. Takota Coen describes discovering he had (at big expense) had a pond dug in the wrong place. He thought he knew the land so well he didn’t need to put his design on paper. After learning to use Google Earth Pro (it’s free!), he discovered a much better pond site. The website has tools to help you make effective use of GIS programs.

Step 3: Design Your Resources to Meet Your Vision and Values. When you draw out a design in detail on paper, you gain insights into how to create it in real life and reduce silly mistakes. There are three misconceptions about what design is. Designs are not fixed in stone – if you become aware of ways to improve your design, you do it! Design is not just aesthetics, but is structural, functional, and also beautiful. The best way to improve something is not always to add to it – many improvements come with removing something, or taking a very different approach.

Regularly ask yourself what you are aiming to achieve, and what other options would also provide the same outcome. Don’t decide you need a swale, or a solar greenhouse until you identify a goal and weigh up the options for reaching the goal, and come out with the answer that best satisfies the goal.

Two useful method of design that can be tweaked for this job are the needs and yields analysis and the sector analysis. Both are carefully explained. They examine if every need of every element is fully met within your system; if every yield is fully used; if every element serves multiple functions; if every function is served by multiple elements; and if all is functioning ethically.

Rob Avis

Consider each of the energy sources and sinks on your farm, whether you want that energy and how you will make best use of it if you do want it. There are suggestions of what sources and sinks to consider, as well as ways to reduce losses. There’s an engaging list of tips, including “When you are working, work; when you are chilling, chill. Make it a binary.” Also, reduce clutter, distractions (social media), and set up a ritual for starting deep work on your design. Use your accountability partner. Gather all your worksheets in one place.

Step 4: Implement the Right Design That Will Most Improve Your Weakest Resource, opens with a note that “the dirty little secret of permaculture is that design is the easy part, it is the implementation that kills you.” When one of your resources fails, it will no longer be helping you thrive, it will start to cannibalize the farm. This can happen if you made a poor decision earlier. This chapter helps you organize workflow, make weekly plans, make good decisions, and not rush to get to your goal in what looks like the fastest way.

Problems can arise if you tackle tasks in a poor order. Go back to the 11 categories of resources. Geography comes first, because once chosen, it cannot be changed easily or quickly. The categories that are listed higher impact all those below them. Don’t abandon the list because soil is last! Soil is very important, of course, but there is no value in getting into the detail of the best cover crops, if you have not dealt with water supply and drainage to prevent runoff, or dealt with wind erosion.

Look for weakest links (biggest gaps between vision and resources), turn this gap into a Wildly Important Goal (achievable and exciting), and focus with the formula “from X to Y by when?”. Each week commit to one or more actions that will lead in the right direction, schedule them weekly, and check them off when done. The book has an extensive chart of examples.

Michelle Avis

Revisit Step 3 (Design) with its description of good, bad and ugly designs, and transfer the descriptions to decisions. What is your process for making good decisions? Many people are not consciously aware of how they make decisions. Intuition alone is not enough. Use the Good Decision Worksheet.

After writing down your decision, check its alignment with your values; any possibly ruinous outcome; whether it actually addresses the problem; whether it’s your best use of your resources; the risk/reward ratio; then sleep on it and repeat the process; pass the idea by your accountability partner; flip a coin to check if your emotions align with your decision; write down what needs to be done, and early indications of whether you have made the best decision.

Step 5: Monitor Your Resources for Indicators of Well-being or Suffering. You can only manage what you measure (but you can measure more things than you can manage!) Precision is not the same as accuracy! Knowing exactly how many beetles are on your plants does not provide the whole answer on what to do.  Rather than focus entirely on numbers, monitor for suffering and well-being. “The one thing never found in a healthy ecosystem is excessive suffering.” There will always be some suffering – it is feedback on the situation and the design that led to it. Determine what actions you can take to improve things.

There are two categories of resources, personal resources and the 11 categories of property resources. Look at your Vision and Values Sheet and use your Indicators of early signs of success or failure to see if you are heading towards well-being or suffering. Takota tells the story of figuring out when and why his cows got mastitis, and making a small change he had resisted, increasing well-being, and preventing mastitis from then on.

Increase awareness of your own state of being: if you feel patient, grateful, relaxed and enthusiastic, you are in a state of well-being. If you are sleepy, angry, resentful, jealous and prone to procrastination, you are suffering. Do you hum as you work, or curse? Your coworkers will know your signs of distress, if you can’t tell for yourself.

Keeping a journal can help monitor your well-being. Write down the answers to 3 questions in the morning. What are you most excited about today? What are you most grateful for? What is one thing you could do to make today great? In the evening, ask: What is the most amazing thing that happened today? What could I have done better? What was my biggest insight today?

At the end of each month, review your weekly planner sheets, and your daily reflections. Answer questions on a range of 0-10, and compare your answers the previous month. How clear are you on what your weakest link is? How confident are you that what you are doing is addressing this weakest link and moving you towards your goal? Have you seen signs that you are increasing well-being (or suffering)? What has been this month’s most valuable insight?

Monitor your 11 property resources yearly, looking for signs of increased well-being. There is a template! Shockingly, cropland globally is often bare for 30-50% of the year, wasting the potential photosynthesis, and degrading the soil. Soil carbon can (on average) hold four times its weight in water. Another source of potential wastage or potential improvement. When the solar cycle, the water cycle and the soil nutrient cycle interact well, the flora and fauna spiral towards the climax ecosystem for that region.

Monitor, reflect, record, compare results with your vision and values statement, monitor your ecosystems. Make a paper planner and use it for a full year before reviewing. There are templates and suggestions for designing your own planner.

A lot of the ideas in this book make a great deal of sense even for those of us who don’t identify as permaculturists! Careful design and planning, checklists, worksheets – these can save all of us wasted effort or heartache. This thoughtful book can be useful to every farmer or landowner. As I’ve often noted, any gardener or farmer paying close attention and recording their results, has something valuable to teach us, whatever they call the style of their farming.