Friday, March 08, 2013
Thursday, November 01, 2012
(and walnuts, and chestnuts, and ...)
Every autumn in Portland brings a great opportunity to stock up on the easiest staple foods around: nuts! Depending on the type, in an hour of gathering you can collect days or even weeks worth of calories, all free for the taking from parks, roadsides, and yards where owners find them a nuisance. Of course, you'll spend a lot more time actually extracting the nuts, but the cold dreary days of winter suit that task quite well. Roughly in order of ripening, Theressa and I used to forage:
Hazelnuts (aka filberts) - We never had much success with these, as squirrels and scrub jays always started harvesting early, before full ripening in late August or early September. Friends of ours have had success, so perhaps we didn't look often enough, or get the timing right, or find trees with enough nuts to have some left over after our nonhuman neighbors took their share.
English walnuts - Also very popular with squirrels and jays, but usually produced in enough abundance for us to enjoy some of the harvest as well. Easy to gather, easy to shell out, and generally liked by everyone, these formed the bulk of our nut harvests each year.
Walnuts started dropping in mid to late September and lasted into early or mid October.
Chestnuts - Delicious, sweet, reliably produced carb-rich nuts. Spiny burs protect these nuts from the squirrels until they fall, so by checking trees every day or two you can collect a lot from the ground before squirrels run off with them. (Other humans, especially asian folks who've traditionally eaten chestnuts as a staple, actively seek out the nuts, often getting to trees shortly after sunrise to check on the previous night's fallen goods.) Hurling sticks or short chunks of 2x4s into the trees encourages new nuts to drop right in front of you, allowing a much larger harvest. Look for trees at Laurelhurst Park (mostly along 39th, but also some in the interior), Fernhill Park (two massive trees), and within neighborhoods. I found a nice spot, unharvested by anyone else, off the ramp connecting NE 42nd Ave to Columbia Blvd. Be sure to understand the difference between horse chestnuts and edible chestnuts before trying to eat them.
Chestnuts have a similar start time as english walnuts, but last into late October.
Acorns - By far the easiest staple for us to collect in bulk. Their tannins discourage squirrels and other humans who prefer to hoard the easier nuts first, but once you get a routine for leaching the tannins the acorns become very usable, and probably no more time intensive for the caloric yield than most of the other nuts. Acorns make excellent poultry food, though you'll have to crush the shells a bit for the birds to access the meat.
Acorns start falling about the same time as chestnuts, but last into November or even later. The rains of October and November usually ended our harvesting due to mold attacks long before we actually ran out of nuts to harvest.
Black walnuts - After acorns, the easiest nuts for us to collect in bulk. The hand-staining hulls and thick shells slow down squirrels and other humans. I generally harvested them after the hulls started rotting, making it relatively easy to extract the shell; we then air dried them for a while before storage. I cracked them out by holding each nut on a large rock (or driveway, sidewalk, etc) with my left hand and smashing it with a hammer. I cut the shells further open as needed with wire cutters to extract all the meat. Compared to most other nuts we got much lower yields of calories per hour of extraction, but the quicker and more reliable gathering offsets that a bit, I love the unique flavor, and the caloric yield still pays off quite well.
We harvested black walnuts from early October well into November.
Ginkgos - Tasty nuts surrounded by dog-poopy flesh, borne on female trees. (Many people in cities plant males to avoid dealing with the fruit, so don't expect every ginkgo to yield nuts.) Much smaller nuts than the others, so less efficient to harvest and process in quantity, but can still yield a good supply, and they fall after we've finished harvesting the others. We noticed some Asian people foraging these, but not as avidly as with chestnuts, and we didn't see any other animals gathering them. Some people suffer rashes as allergic reactions, so use caution the first few times you experiment. (One friend got an itchy anus presumably from the nuts on the way out, another a rash on her hands from handling the fruit or the shells.) You need to cook the nuts (before or after shelling); don't worry about removing the pellicle skin.
These start falling in November and last perhaps into December.
Samuel Thayer wrote the best two foraging books I've found for temperate climates: The Forager's Harvest and Nature's Garden. He covers a limited number of plants, but in great detail based on direct personal experience. In Nature's Garden he tells you more or less everything you can know (from a book) about hazelnuts, black walnuts, and acorns; The Forager's Harvest describes butternuts.
Euell Gibbons has shorter sections on acorns, walnuts, butternuts, and hickory nuts in Stalking the Wild Asparagus. "Wildman" Steve Brill discusses hazelnuts, black walnuts, butternuts, chestnuts, hickories, and oaks in Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and not so wild) Places.
Thanks to Jasmine for inspiring this post's title with her email address!
Thursday, October 25, 2012
I rate Carol Deppe's The Resilient Gardener the most important gardening book of the last few years, and simultaneously the most frustrating gardening book I've ever read. Deppe, also the author of Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, draws on more than three decades of experience in the Willamette Valley of Oregon to present a treasure trove of tips and tricks for Pacific Northwest (PNW) vegetable gardening. After touching on many common vegetables and devoting some space to orchards, berries, and nuts, she thoroughly covers five staples for calories, protein, and omega-3s: potatoes, eggs, squash, beans, and corn. Her distilled expertise alone makes the book a must-read for regional gardeners and highly valuable for growers in any temperate climate, and her thorough coverage of sustaining staple crops truly sets her book apart.
Yet Deppe goes far beyond the in-depth but limited scope of how to grow vegetables and these particular staples,. She provides a rough roadmap for each gardener to think through his or her unique circumstances of physical ability, available time, dietary restrictions and needs, land access, soil type, sun & water availability, local microclimate, regional climate, and regional history to design a practical plan for growing some or all of a nutritious, delicious, and balanced diet.
Complicating her task further, she doesn't work from a baseline of stable gardening conditions, but assumes any of a host of disruptions can and will strike at some point in every gardener's life: personal emergencies such as injuries or needing to care for loved ones; climate change causing more erratic and extreme weather events of heat, cold, floods, and drought; temporary or long-term electrical outages; fossil fuel shortages; transportation shutdowns; and other possible disasters. She presents many ideas for minimizing risk of crop loss in various situations, such as organizing plantings for mantainance of the most important crops with a minimum of time and water; experimenting now with learning what you can get away with in withholding water, fertilizer, and attention; and staggering plantings of multiple varieties of multiple crops over multiple sowings.
Deppe has experienced many health issues in her life, including celiac disease, lactose intolerance, difficulty digesting raw vegetables, weight problems, food cravings, sugar jags, salt sensitivity, a bad back, general aging, and restless leg syndrome. Over the years she's observed her body and its reactions to different foods and exercise, allowing her to tease apart what works for her and what doesn't. The detailed description of her process and findings helps guide your own questions about what foods work well for you and which cause subtle or obvious problems. Interestingly, Deppe's observations have pushed her in some ways towards a paleodiet: she doesn't eat gluten grains such as wheat, eats pastured animal foods rich in omega-3s, rarely eats dairy except for pastured butter, minimizes caffeine & sugar, and avoids juices & processed foods. (But she seriously diverges from the paleodiet by relying on legumes & corn loaded with anti-nutrients, and taking in the vast majority of her calories as carbs including heavy reliance on potatoes.)
Deppe has worked out an extremely effective approach to growing not just greens and nutritious vegetables for herself, but also a significant portion of her calories and protein in a scalable manner. She's experimented enough with different techniques and levels of water and fertilizer input that she could, given access to enough land, cope quite well with whatever disruptions come down the line. She's saving enough of her own seed to continue gardening if commercial seed sources shut down. And she clearly relishes the results in every meal; her multitude of uses for each staple crop and her recipes convey a deep delight in the flavors and textures of her produce.
I love that Deppe has laid out such a solid plan for growing a complete diet in the PNW (and with some thought, experimentation, and adaptation, anywhere in temperate areas.) I hate that four of her five staple crops grow as labor intensive, soil and habitat disturbing annuals. And I feel uneasy with three of her five staples conflicting with the paleodiet.
But I have nothing better to offer! It took me six years of experimenting with perennial vegetables and crops in Portland to:
- Realize that we could easily grow greens & nutritious veggies but
- ...we couldn't possibly eat enough of them to get a substantial number of calories.
- Identify some potential perennial herbaceous staples and
- ...start to grow them out and eat them in greater quantity and
- ...realize that we should select and breed for better yields and
- ...experiment with polycultures for more efficient use of space and minimized harm from digging the root crops.
- Realize that we had a solid base of winter root crops, but very few summer perennial roots or other staples.
- Just begin to see yields from the nut and fruit trees.
I haven't come across perennial enthusiasts presenting anything nearly as comprehensive as Deppe's system, at least not for intensively cultivated small to medium scale systems in modern private land ownership patterns. I doubt that her level of expertise exists for a system based on diverse perennial plant crops anywhere in the temperate world. (Though I'd love to hear examples of how I'm wrong!) Hence my deep frustration: I yearn to meld the sustainability and low labor of perennial polycultures, the nutritional health of the paleodiet, and Deppe's level of experience growing resilient abundant staples into a truly permacultural blueprint for supporting ourselves and the rest of our landbase. But I don't know how.
Now that I've moved to Hawaii, I've dramatically simplified my own task of synthesizing perennials and animals and wildlife into production of a low labor, landbase healing paleodiet. But I still want to see similar systems develop in temperate areas. I have some hints and glimmers of hope based on my experimentations in Portland, which I'll post later.
In the meantime, visit www.caroldeppe.com to download free excerpts of the book. Drop her an email to be notified when she has seeds for sale; most of what she sells you can't buy anywhere else!
Monday, October 08, 2012
FoodThe food bounty started to overwhelm us this week! We didn't even take any food when we helped farmer Clive on Thursday, because we just plain have too much. We got three ulu from a broken branch from a tree on our host Dale's land, and two racks of bananas. I made a lot of meals of cooked mashed banana with ginger and lime: delicious!
|Abiu - vanilla pudding from a tree|
We ate a bunch of peanut butter cups and butterfingers because Dale bought them then decided he shouldn't eat them. Another good example of how poorly I self regulate when tempting items become available!
I've had a few health issues in the last month, with infection of a light scrape on my foot, my first cold sore (oral herpes) outbreak in years followed by swelling of (I assume) lymph nodes in my left armpit, then a cold/flu thing starting last Wednesday. I had a lot of coughing and phlegm going on for a few days, especially at night causing restless sleep, and spent a lot of time resting in bed reading and researching. By Sunday I thought I'd gotten past the worst of it, and did some very light work. Monday I came down with a fever and didn't leave our shack all day except to pee. Jasmine took excellent care of me, bringing me tea and food, but I'm still quite sick. On the mainland I used to get a cold or bug about once a year, sometimes but not usually this severely. I feel very surprised to have caught this, given our isolation and very infrequent trips into town and my general good health, but perhaps I'm vulnerable to different strains of bugs here?
Meanwhile, last Wednesday I did some clearing and mulching work on the land, including cutting off some "taro vine" (also known as "pothos") where it dangled down from huge mango trees. It turns out that the sap from fresh vines can cause a severe skin reaction on some people, including myself; I formed multiple blisters and pustules on my stomach, arms, and feet where I'd handled the vines or had juice splash on me. I also scratched myself very lightly with my machete on the back of an ankle, and the scratch turned into a gnarly blistering infected mess; I'm guessing I injected some of the pothos juice directly into the wound from the machete blade. Many of the other blisters on my body became infected too, perhaps from the multitude of flies and fruit flies who descended to slurp away. Jasmine helped me disinfect and bandage all the problematic spots, getting them well on the way to healing now. Though I've walked around with many open light wounds my whole life without any problems, I clearly need to take more care in this environment to seal up cuts and scrapes (especially on my feet).
We watched Geoff Lawton's Establishing a Food Forest video. I watched this years ago but hadn't intended to move to the tropics, so didn't retain many of the details about tropical plants. I like Lawton's basic strategy of drastically overplanting a space with legumes and pioneers, then cutting them back as mulch when rainfall exceeds evapotranspiration. Gradually, over the course of a few years, the cropping species take over most of the space from the pioneer species. Unfortunately, he didn't give any specific guidelines for spacing the main trees, which experts like Dave Jacke and Martin Crawford consider crucial to forest gardening. If your canopy closes in too much, you dramatically limit what you can grow in the lower layers, so you need to plan that part very carefully from the start.
I read a lot more of Traditional Trees of Pacific Islands; one of the things I love about being sick is spending so much down time reading!
NetworkingWe helped for a few hours in the kitchen garden of a nearby retreat center/education center/farm/community, giving us the opportunity to see some of their systems, listen in on conversations about different landscaping challenges, and to meet a couple more folks who seem quite knowledgeable about plants. I liked their organization around resources like the on-farm truck and a shared bicycle, washing dishes, and for rotating chores among community members. Jasmine and I disliked the formal, country club feel of the place with lots of manicured lawn and tightly controlled plantings; presumably a style needed to attract people with enough money to spend on retreats and classes to keep the whole operation going. We definitely want a different model for our own community.
Monday, October 01, 2012
A mini-tragedy occurred this week; we discovered that our neighbor's refrigerator into which we'd packed the rough cuts of the second pig never got very cold, and about 25% of the meat spoiled. We had felt very tired after processing two pigs two days apart, and took a break for a day after getting the meat from the second pig into the fridge; otherwise the meat would have stayed fine. Since the meat had started to turn, we rushed through the job of cutting it off the bones (not creating the nice portion-sized cuts of meat as with the first pig) and packed it into the car for our host to drive 30 miles to store in the freezer of another friend.
I started rendering the fat, which took me two solid days and resulted in a somewhat off-tasting half a gallon of lard and a big bowl of cracklings which only I am willing to eat. (Part of the bad flavor comes, I think, from burning the fat while trying to render it; our hasty job cutting fat off the meat and bones left many meat bits with the fat, which I suspect burn more easily than lard alone.)
Meanwhile, the neighbor's freezer got plenty cold with its bags of meat from the first pig - so cold that they all froze together and we became unable to access them! So we wound up eating a lot of stew early and mid week from the two pigs, but then ran out of meat.
We had hundreds of flies descend upon us as we tried to process the spoiling meat, and even more over the next two days as I rendered the fat and cleaned out the garbage bags and scraps of clothes we'd used to store the meat in the fridge. It definitely takes a lot of personal energy to process a pig (especially when you're still learning) and if you don't stay on top of it, it can get problematic fast! All in all, I much prefer the idea of building networks of friends and neighbors who all share in a feasts when someone makes a kill: gut the pig, singe the hair off, throw it in an imu (earth oven) to cook, and then have everyone over to eat it all up. No worries about things going bad, no need for everyone to have their own fridges and freezers, a lot more building of community, and a lot more fun.
We went on an ulu (breadfruit) mission, checking four clusters of nearby trees with no success, then biking 16 miles each way to Kalapana where we found about 8 fruits weighing a total of 10+ pounds under a large tree. Unfortunately, although the fruits felt very soft and ripe, they still had green flesh near the skin, which apparently doesn't taste as good as when the flesh has turned white or yellow. We don't totally understand why these fruits didn't turn sweet and delicious; perhaps they fell prematurely from the tree? We also harvested one fruit directly from the tree; we judged it ripe because it had latex on it, but it actually has a long way to go to ripen. Probably a ripe fruit above it dripped latex onto it.
I ate a fruit of ambarella (Spondias cytherea) which tasted better than I remembered from two years ago; I always get messy when I eat these juicy fruits, but I do enjoy them! We harvested and fried a few flowers of hau, a mallow family Hibiscus whose cooked flowers and buds one of my books describes as a delicacy. We thought that description an overstatement as we find them similar to mallow flowers - fine for cooking mixed into omelettes or with other greens, but bland.
We ate a buffet lunch (including many sugary desserts for me) as part of a "day in Hilo" for Jasmine's birthday.
Learning & Exploring
I really enjoyed our 32 mile round-trip bike ride; it gave me a chance to see a large swath of road at a slower pace than in a car, and to get a human-scale feel for the stretch. I've never ridden so far in a day, and Jasmine hasn't done so in a long time. We're using very uncomfortable bikes borrowed from our host, and found that our butts, crotches, wrists, shoulders, and necks got tired and sore long before our leg muscles had any problems. So we expect we'll handle similar distances fairly easily in the future after building up more strength and purchasing better bikes.
We finally made it to the ocean, more than a month after getting here, even though we only have to travel 15 minutes to get there! I've never felt drawn to the ocean much; although I enjoy the view and the sounds and sight of the crashing waves, I don't enjoy getting wet and salty. Still, I'd like to learn more about the crabs and fish and starfish and corals and other critters in their totally different world, and I want to learn to fish, so we'll make more trips.
We helped farmer Clive weed and harvest "slips", new propagative shoots, from his pineapple bed. I really enjoyed the easter egg hunt of peering into all the spiky plants to see the clusters of fresh leaves indicating clumps we could break off from the mother plant; then we got to hurl the slips into piles at the front of the bed. Someone should invent a sport based on the skill of tossing pineapple slips into precise locations.
I couldn't sleep one night, so spent a few hours lying in bed working out a good (I think) solution to the problem of how to integrate goats into zone 2/3 orchards. I'll write up another post at some point detailing my musings.
I've continued to read Traditional Trees of Pacific Islands now and then, and to work on our plant lists; I finished entering a bunch of palms and started working on native & polynesian canoe plants.
Evil Civilized Technology
We finally got set up with an iphone (gift from Jasmine's aunt, thanks!) with a $45/month Straight Talk plan giving unlimited calls & text, and theoretically (but not really) unlimited data. I jail-broke the phone and got us set up with tethering options (both through the iphone, and through my Notion Ink Adam tablet), so now we have the use of internet in our little corner of the jungle.
I prefer being forced to go into town and stay really focused to get everything done in a few hours on the internet at the library, but Jasmine really likes our new convenience, which allows her to connect with friends and family online without having to be well organized about using limited library time in town. I don't do well limiting myself when something is available; I work best by making it inconvenient or impossible for me to access the thing in the first place. I've already found myself staying up til midnight on the internet once!
We finally exhausted the kitchen propane tank after more than a month of use, including a looong time rendering fat and cooking pig stews. It impressed me with how long it held out. We still plan to build a rocket stove to get off the propane.
We watched The Fellowship of the Ring over two days in the evening while shelling out jackfruit seeds. Part of me wants to make myself more productive and on-task by watching a permaculture video or something if we're going to watch anything at all. But part of me really enjoys having a good story fed to me in such an easy format.
I rested in the grass for a while one day, and think a grasshopper mistook me for a blade of grass and chewed open a flap of skin on my left pinky! Jasmine saw a cool 3" long stick insect in the kitchen one evening.
Monday, September 24, 2012
For the past few weeks, we've obtained all our necessary foods by foraging and work trade at the farm down the street, except for the crucial staples of cooking oil and meat. I feel really excited that we've closed that last gap and achieved semi self sufficiency in food within one month of arriving; the bounty of this land amazes me! (Reality checks: 1) much of the bounty comes from the work of folks in the past planting the perennial trees from which we forage now. 2) We're living at a very low elevation with relatively abundant sun and rainfall, perhaps an ideal microclimate for food trees. 3) We have not yet learned to use a gun, let alone something we can make ourselves such as bow & arrow; we're relying on our host right now to kill the pigs. 4) I don't know how many pigs live in the area and how often we could continue to shoot them without depleting their numbers or scaring them away.)
We had our first taste since moving here of that other Hawaiian classic - ulu, or breadfruit, a staple carb that grows on trees in convenient 1+ pound balls. Ours hadn't reached peak ripeness, so hadn't developed the sweetness of a fully ripe, soft breadfruit, but Jasmine and I both enjoyed it a lot as a blander starch. We also tried two more fruits from different trees of the related jackfruit. Though jackfruit requires a fair amount of work to process, the flavor and multiple yields of fruit and starchy seed has begun to convince me that we should grow one or two. Other new tastings: naranjilla (they remind us of kiwis, with a nice tart taste and similar texture), tree tomato (a lot like a tomato but with a thick, fruit fly proof skin), abiu (sweet & custardy but not much flavor), and yet another breadfruit & jackfruit relative: chempedak (delicious).
Our experience so far confirms my expectation that we can easily procure all the food we need for our tribe by growing perennial plants and hunting pigs. We hardly even need chickens and goats for their food products, though they have so many other uses in the systems (especially for weed and pest control, nutrient cycling, and goat walking) that it doesn't make sense to build permaculture systems without them. Once we develop our own food systems, we may quickly find ourselves with excess to share with the larger community!
After days of talking about it, Jasmine and I finally split a tub of Alden's Cookies & Cream ice cream (on sale at the local natural food store) and ate it for dinner. After eschewing sugar and grains and processed foods for weeks in favor of amazing fresh fruits and greens and taro and local beef, we both decided the ice cream wasn't all that great. I can't say that's the last time I'll succumb to processed sugar in a package, but the experience definitely decreased the temptation.
We attended an event at La'akea, a local permaculture community, where we learned new information about two fairly recent, rapidly spreading problems for humans in Hawaii: little fire ants, and rat lungworm disease (a potentially dehibilitating and/or lethal nematode when it accidentally winds up in human brains instead of its usual rat and slug/snail hosts.)
We met a few new people at the La'akea event, and Jasmine chatted a little bit with a pig hunter visiting at Clive's farm. The hunter loves talking about pigs, and we love learning about pigs, so I'm hoping to get a chance to talk with him too!
Monday, September 17, 2012
FoodWe started eating plantains from farmer Clive, cooking one green (starchy and bland like a potato) but mostly eating them yellow and ripe (delicious dessert, especially cooked). I ate a mango from a grafted tree at Clive's; the fruit had an orange rather than yellow or green skin, and very low stringiness to the flesh. We foraged with Dale in a couple of places he knows well, finding pili nuts (Canarium ovatum; we haven't eaten them yet), a large patch of water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica) growing adjacent to a pond, edible hibiscus, mountain apples (crisp and refreshingly juicy, but only mild sweetness and flavor), avocados, guavas, papayas, one starfruit, yellow lilikoi, and chayote (Sechium edule, a squash-like fruit.)
Dale brought home a huge cassava root from another site, which Jasmine and I both enjoyed a lot; it has a nice flavor and texture and we can readily envision growing this as a staple. (I'd especially like to experiment with it as a cyanide-laced, pig-proof crop to plant out in forest areas.) He also gathered some different greens from another site, including sissoo spinach, vietnamese coriander, basil, katuk, and curry tree leaf. We ate all the greens mixed together so didn't really taste the individual species, but it all turned out nicely. We helped Dale harvest coconuts from two trees; he climbed up using special equipment, cut off fronds as needed to access the racks of coconuts, and tied each rack to a rope run up and over a remaining frond, with me and Jasmine on the ground holding the rope and slowly allowing each rack to drop down to the ground. We got dozens of drinking coconuts, with nice sweet water and "spoon meat" - jelly-like coconut meat.
LearningI got a big stack of exciting books from the library, all on tropical plants. I finished reading Introduction to Permaculture, read a short book on growing fruits, nuts, herbs, and spices in Hawaii, and started reading Traditional Trees of Pacific Islands: Their Culture, Environment, and Uses, a lovely book edited by Craig Elevitch with detailed chapters on 80+ multipurpose trees.