Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Book review: Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets plus our fungal plans


I've finally read Paul Stamets' Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, which has been on my list for some time. It's an excellent assembly of the ways in which mushrooms can be used for real-world applications, from growing in your yard for edible and medicinal use to filtering contaminated water to speeding the regeneration of clear-cut landscapes. A while back I started reading Stamets' The Mushroom Cultivator, mistakenly believing I needed to read his books in order. I was turned off by the book, finding its detailed descriptions of how to set up a sterilized mushroom lab boring and impractical for a world of energy descent. My friends Torey and Briannah recently assured me that The Mushroom Cultivator and Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms are not prerequisites for Mycelium Running, acting rather as companion volumes with details on laboratory-based cultivation.

Much of the information in Mycelium Running I had already picked up from friends, glancing through the book in the past, reviewing other Stamets and Fungi Perfecti writings, hanging out with permaculture people, etc. But it was good to read through it all at once and get an organized presentation of some of the possibilities. It's clear that the functions and human uses of mushrooms are only barely understood so there's plenty of learning still to be done.

I found it interesting comparing Stamets' world-view with some of my realizations and insights from other authors. Even though the book was published in 2005, Stamets doesn't seem to have been aware of Peak Oil while writing, or at least doesn't give any indication that he expects civilization to deviate from its course of ever-onward progress. He does express concern about various environmental issues, but doesn't say a thing about changing the behavior that causes the problems, either at an immediate direct-cause level or at a root-cause level. He simply presents ways that mushrooms can remediate some of the damage, allowing us to continue on our path. Several of these remediation techniques still rely on high-complexity organization for deployment. In general, Stamets' philosophy strikes me as a variation on "technology will save us", except that Stamets believes it's mushrooms that will save us (and as much as says so in the book's subtitle). There's also an echoed theme of faith in science as the path towards betterment of humankind.

Despite those big-picture blindspots, Stamets is one of the foremost mycologists in the world, doing cutting-edge research and dissemination of this sort of information, putting it into the hands of lay-people who can run with it. The book is an invaluable resource and I will definitely be buying a copy for my library.

Our Fungal Plans

Last September, in The Birds and the Bees, I mentioned the logs we inoculated with shitake and oyster mushrooms. We have since moved the logs away from the house, where our friends warned us they might attack the wood. The shitakes are now piled in the back yard, and we spread the oyster mushroom logs (several of which are already fruiting a tiny bit) through the front yard, half-burying them in the wood chips. Since oysters are very aggressive mushrooms, we're assuming that they'll continue to dominate the logs without concern of other fungi invading from the ground (which is why you usually elevate your mushroom logs on a pallet). In fact, the oysters may well start to colonize the surrounding wood chips.

I have a few other plans for fungal experimentation:

  • Grow oyster mushrooms in buckets of coffee grounds, which we get for free from two local coffee places. We should be able to use our fruiting oyster mushrooms as inoculant for the grounds
  • When we come across more fresh-cut wood, add some into the pile of shitake logs to be colonized by the existing logs. Maybe put some adjacent to the oyster mushroom logs in the front yard, too. As the shitake logs fruit, we'll at least shake spores onto the new logs, and maybe do a more deliberate spore-slurry creation and inoculate the new logs.
  • We're taking out all the asphalt in the yard, which will free up about 1300 square feet of driveway and walkways for growing things. The ground underneath is probably somewhat contaminated by the petroleum sludge leachings, so we'll try inoculating woodchips across the whole area with oyster mushrooms, which break down hydrocarbons.
  • I want to get Fungi Perfecti's "Three Amigos" Garden Pack of outdoor patch mushroom spawn. This includes the Garden Oyster (Hypsizygus ulmarius), the Garden Giant (Stropharia rugoso-annulata) and the Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus). We'll start them off by inoculating a wood chip patch for each type. As the mycelium spread through the patch, we can transplant clumps throughout the yard. In theory, so long as we keep them refreshed with organic matter, they'll naturalize and become permanent growers in the landscape.

Ever since I saw Dave Jacke's diagram of nutrient and material flows in a mature forest ecological community, I've been excited about the potential for harnessing the decomposer cycle. (I think I saw his diagram at a presentation; I can't find it in his book Edible Forest Gardens.) The diagram showed how the vast majority of energy in a system flows through the microbial level, especially decomposers. If that decomposer niche can be influenced towards species producing food for humans we can tap into a lot of extra energy. I look forward to continuing my baby steps in integrating edible mushrooms into the rest of what we're doing!

Book review: The Weather-Wise Gardener by Calvin Simonds

I saw The Weather-Wise Gardener: A Guide to Understanding, Predicting, and Working With the Weather in a used bookstore and thought it might be a helpful read to better understand the weather. (As an indication of how clueless and oblivious I've been to the weather, I thought it was really neat when Theressa predicted the afternoon's weather by simply looking up into the sky and seeing which way the clouds were blowing!) After reading the book, I definitely know more than I did, but found that I had a lot of trouble comprehending the book. It's extremely unusual for me not to be able to follow the text of a book--I don't think I've experienced that since the dark days of college depression, slogging through textbook pages not because I wanted to but because I "had" to. I don't know whether the problem with this book was because it's such a complex subject, because I wasn't mentally focused (noticing that Keeping it Living was also a slow, more difficult read for me than usual), or because the book doesn't do the best job it could of explaining weather systems. Another complicating factor for me was that the book is written from the perspective of an east-coaster, and in the author's rare mentions of the pacific coast he seems to think that that means California. It was very confusing to me whether the weather patterns described for the rest of the US really apply over here, especially to the Willamette Valley in which Portland lies.

That said, a few thoughts on the book. It begins by describing the cyclical patterns of individual storms. I'd never realized that weather tends to have a four-day cycle and is locally predictable based on the shifting of the winds, which rotate around in a clockwise or counter-clockwise cycle depending on how storms are moving in relation to your location. The book expands on individual storms to explain how storm systems travel across the US and through different regions, what different temperatures and barometric pressures mean, what the influencing ocean currents and marine and continental wind systems are, what all the symbols and descriptions on a weather map mean (at least in 1983), and of course how to put all this together for a crystal-clear understanding of what's going on at the moment and how to make reasonable predictions of what's coming.

The final portion of the book applies the larger understanding of the weather systems to interpreting weather forecasts and making your own predictions for your own garden. A lot of it is pretty straight-forward how-to-react to frost predictions, precipitation, etc. And some of it is how to extrapolate weather predictions from the city for your rural garden 200 miles from the nearest weather station.

Unfortunately, although I grasped the basics and now understand a lot of terminology and concepts I didn't understand before, I was unable to follow the examples of predictions given in the book for different starting conditions. I'll have to do more reading and studying, tuning in to the weather channel, and of course simply paying attention to the weather, clouds and winds overhead. I'll see where paying closer attention and casual learning takes me, and at some point in the future check out some of the other recommended books (or see if there are newer books which may be worth reading): Meteorology, the Atmosphere in Action by Joe R Eagleman, British weather in Maps by James A Taylor & R A Yates, Weather Forcasting by Alan Watts, and A Field Guide to the Atmosphere (Peterson's Guide) by V J Schaefer and John A Day.

Book review: Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why is a study of who makes it through extreme survival situations and why. The author, a life-long thrill-seeker by way of extreme sports, aviation, etc, mixes case studies of people in wilderness situations with psychology and information about how the brain works. Although the book focuses on raw, wilderness physical survival situations, the author's argues that the mental attitudes crucial to survival in the wild are equally important in dealing with financial crisis, a divorce, or presumably peak oil and the collapse of civilization.

I have a hard time putting into words the messages of the book. In fact, as I was reading it, I wasn't even sure I was getting much out of it...until I watched the movie Hotel Rwanda and found myself applying some of the lessons and theories of the book to the survival situation of the characters in the movie. This book needs to be read and experienced to get the full meaning, not just summarized in a book review. But I'll throw out some of my thoughts anyway, partly for you and partly for me as notes to jog my memory.

One of the interesting themes of the book is that we don't live in reality. We live in the mental construct of reality which we have assembled in our brains. Our mental map is updated with new information all the time, but there's also a strong tendency to cling to the map or aspects of the map even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the map is wrong. Examining what it means to be lost, in the woods for example, Gonzales observes that if you find yourself making up elaborate explanations for why your map of the hiking trail doesn't match what you're seeing ("that lake on the map could have dried up so I can't see it now" or "that huge boulder could have rolled away somewhere") then something is wrong and you need to stop and reevaluate where you actually are. This seems so obvious from the known position of my desk and my keyboard, but Gonazeles' warnings are invaluable preparation for embarking into befuddling new landscapes. It's important to know that our brains so desperately want to retain a sense of knowing where we are that they'll concoct ridiculous stories to force the contradictory evidence from the eyes into the pre-existing mental map. Hopefully knowing that this occurs will make it easier to break the spell when it actually happens.

A similar mental blind-spot to watch out for is when emotions surge and take over from the rational brain in dangerous situations. Gonzales gives an example of search-and-rescue snowmobilers returning from a successful rescue, revved up with adrenaline. Two of them decided to sled down a hill and up a far slope, despite having been warned that day of the risk of snow-slide on that slope. One of them died in the resulting slide. A similar urge comes when lost or when headed towards a comforting destination. The emotions and imagination of reaching water or of getting to safe, familiar home can cause you to rush forward, heedless of rational precautions of pacing oneself, marking a path so as not to get lost, or even whether you're actually headed the right way. Hopefully having read about the effect will make it easier to recognize it if it ever comes up for me in a wilderness setting.

Gonzales also dances a lot around the concept of "Positive Mental Attitude", a top item in the US Air Force's survival checklist. Positive Mental Attitude can't be defined or explained, but it's another major theme that he weaves into the tales of survival. He doesn't give any advice on how this can be learned or cultivated. It's not clear whether it's something you're born with and have or don't have for the rest of your life, or whether it's something you can deliberately develop. Closely related to this theme is that of using dark humor to prepare for or cope with difficult situations. Another indefinable quality is that of "cool", being able to stay calm and poised in the worst situations, coralling and maybe even harnessing the emotions of fear and anger while keeping the rational brain in charge of actions.

It's interesting how routinely civilized humans these days underestimate nature, with the ease of driving halfway up a mountain and walking out along a pre-marked sign-posted nature trail. This book was a good warning to me (with almost no experience in non-urban areas) that when I depart the carefully sheltered confines of the city, I need to be really aware of where I am and how vulnerable I am to the real world if I'm not prepared. A similar attitude will have to apply to homesteading, both on the main site and when hunting and gathering in surrounding wilderness.

Gonzales summarizes what survivors do:

  1. Perceive, believe (look, see, believe)
  2. Stay calm (use humor, use fear to focus)
  3. Think/analyze/plan (get organized; set up small, manageable tasks)
  4. Take correct, decisive action (be bold and cautious while carrying out tasks)
  5. Celebrate your successes (take joy in completing tasks)
  6. Count your blessings (be grateful--you're alive)
  7. Play (sing, play mind games, recite poetry, count anything, do mathematical problems in your head)
  8. See the beauty (remember: it's a vision quest)
  9. Believe that you will succeed (develop a deep conviction that you'll live)
  10. Surrender (let go of your fear of dying: "put away the pain")
  11. Do whatever is necessary (be determined; have the will and the skill)
  12. Never give up (let nothing break your spirit)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Kucinich for President 02008

Dennis Kucinich announced he's running for President in 02008! It's exciting to see how many people are voicing their support on his website forums, and I've already seen two people I worked with in 02003 express their support. I'm glad Kucinich and his voice of sanity will be present amidst the business-as-usual madness of national politics.

I'll definitely vote for him (except in the unlikely event someone with even more sanity runs), but I don't plan to work on the campaign this time around. Although I think it would be fantastic to have Kucinich as President of the US, I think it's too late to turn things around through national politics. Further, I've become more radical in my solutions to the coming collapse. Kucinich's policies are about the best that could be hoped for from a national politician, but they're still essentially band-aids to a fundamentally flawed system--civilization. Civilization needs to come down entirely, and people who see what's coming need to prepare their own lifeboats at a local level. Even if Kucinich took office with a fully supportive House and Senate, there are too many powerful forces arrayed against the fixes he wants to make for them to achieve a soft landing. Again, I'm not saying it wouldn't be good to have Kucinich as President. I'm supportive of Kucinich and will vote for him, but I no longer feel his campaign is the most strategic place for me to put my energy and time.

Book review: Keeping it Living by Nancy Turner & Douglas Deur

I'm not that well versed in her works, but Nancy Turner has for decades been researching and publishing books on Pacific Northwest cultures and especially ethnobotany. I believe most of her work has been in British Columbia, but her books usually cover down to northern California. She's on my list of "authors to check out more".

I just finished reading a collection of essays edited by Turner and Douglas Deur, entitled Keeping it Living: Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America. The basic goal is to prove that indigenous peoples in this region were actively cultivating crops prior to European contact. Apparently the assumption amongst Europeans since the start, and thus subsequently amongst anthropologists through the 20th century, was that Indian people cultivated a local species of tobacco, harvested and ate and preserved a hell of a lot of salmon, and hunted and gathered a small amount of plant and other animal foods. This volume makes the case that plant foods were more important than previously realized, and especially that tribes deliberately cared for and cultivated berry patches and root crops.

I found the writing rather dry and had to push myself through a lot of the book--it's written by anthropologists for other anthropologists to debate fine points of anthropology. It's definitely accessible by laypeople, but not written for us per se. Not knowing much about anthropology and the details of the debates, I'm convinced by its claims, but what do I know? Anyway, I was mostly focused on practical applications to modern times. The main take-home points I got from the book are:

  • As I've read for other Indians elsewhere (such as in Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson and Changes in the Land by William Cronon), Indians in this region maintained berry patches through pruning, burning, and fertilization. Berries included blueberries, huckleberries, cranberries, salal, Rubus sp (salmonberries, blackberries, etc), strawberries, currants, and gooseberries. Some berries were transplanted to the edges of village sites. Also, the native crabapples were maintained, although I only recall pruning and maybe fertilizing being mentioned for those.
  • At this time, remaining Indians do not engage in the same kind of maintenance practices. Obviously prescribed burns are out of the question. Many historical berry patches have been wiped out by logging and settling, or made inaccessible because they can't be found anymore. Although Indians do still gather from the wild, the existing patches are too unpredictable for Indians to put energy into maintaining--they could be cut down next month for a logging road. This warns me not to expect that in a homestead situation we can reliably harvest large quantities of berries as people did in the past--things have been trashed, and the work required to achieve the productivity of the past in a given patch may not be worth investing so long as logging and other civilized destruction is still a threat.
  • Fireweed shoots (Epilobium angustifolium) and Rubus sp shoots were prime spring vegetables. Indians broke them off at the base, encouraging further shoots. They knew how many rounds of shoots to harvest before leaving the shoots to grow to maturity. I plan to control domesticated blackberries, raspberries, etc by eating unwanted shoots, and to pay attention to how Rubus sp and fireweed respond to the shoot harvesting.
  • Native people cultivated multiple roots by weeding, working the soil, removing rocks, pruning and removing encroaching woody plants, prescribed burns, replanting tubers, perhaps facilitating the spread of seed into turned soil, altering the environment in the coastal estuarine flats to expand habitat for desired plants, perhaps selecting superior varieties, and hunting or scaring off predaceous wildlife.
  • Roots cultivated included:

    • Wild carrot (Conioselinum pacificum)
    • Camas (Camassia sp.)
    • Rice root (Fritillaria camschatcensis)
    • Chocolate lily (Fritillaria lanceolata)
    • Pink fawn lily (Erythronium revolutum)
    • Tiger lily (Lilium columbianum)
    • Wapato (Sagittaria latifolia)
    • Springbank clover (Trifolium wormskjoldii)
    • Pacific silverweed (Potentilla anserina)
    • Nootka lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis)
    • Brackern fern (Pteridium aquilinum)

  • Some or many of the root plots were monocultures, though at least some were polycultures of these species. It's not clear to me how many were managed as polycultures or what the exact species mix was.
  • It sounds like the Indians put a lot of work into their plots, making multiple trips to their plots during the year for preparing the beds, weeding, and harvesting. It would be nice to find less labor-intensive ways to grow these roots. Wapato seems to have been an exception, being pretty much a show-up-and-harvest kind of crop. (Though the harvesting method of wading into the water in the cold months of the year, sometimes as deep as one's neck, has its drawbacks.)
  • All or almost all the root plots were owned by clans, kinships, families, and individuals. The most productive berry patches were similarly owned. This allowed people who put work into a particular crop to benefit from the harvest, avoiding "tragedy of the commons."

I'd like to try many or all of the native root crops listed. Half of them are aquatic or at least boggy plants, which makes it harder to experiment with them now, and limits their use to a homestead with significant water resources. (My ideal homestead site has, of course, multiple ponds for aquaculture and aquatic plants!) For berries, it seems we'll need to plan to grow most of the berries we consume, not relying on abundant harvests from wild areas until it's reasonably certain that industrial logging and civilization's expansion has ceased. Although I assume blackberries are a widely available weed in rural areas, as they are in the city...

Monday, December 11, 2006

Self-sufficient diet, rough draft

Note: see also my post on Self sufficient tropical diet, rough draft

I've been thinking about how much land would be required to give an adequate, roughly paleodiet (no potatoes, cereal grains, or dairy, minimizing annuals domesticated & bred within the last 10,000 years) in a homesteading situation. My first step has been to figure out what the diet would consist of, in terms of proportion of calories from fruit and berries, meat, tubers, vegetables, etc. I've worked up a very rough draft which I'll jot down here. I welcome input, and will post future drafts as I learn more, think more, and crunch more numbers!

As best I can tell, an ideal hunter/gatherer diet consists of about 50-65% meat, and 35-50% plant foods. Assuming we have some need for land efficiency, this seems unrealistic for a self-sufficient homestead, since it does take a lot more land to raise meat than the equivalent calories in plant food. So for now, I'm figuring a minimal level of meat from the "homestead", with, hopefully, supplemental meat available from hunting and trapping. I haven't tried to do a full nutritional analysis of what a "balanced" diet requires; I'm just figuring that with a wide variety of foods most of that will sort itself out. But again, I welcome input into any of this, especially if I'm missing some important macronutritional info!

In the table below, % of diet refers to calorie intake. "Per day" is about how much of the item would be eaten per day on average. "Cals/lb" is my estimate of how many calories per pound this food type provides. The column for "Land" is a rough estimate of how much space, in square feet, would be needed to provide an annual yield sufficient for 2500 calories/day using this category as a monocrop (not integrated with other foods).

% of dietFood typePer dayCals/lbLandNotes
20%Meat5/8 lb8001 acre?Good homestead options seem to be beef, chicken, sheep, and maybe goats. Beef & lamb relatively higher in calories, chicken & goat low. Maybe 12 chickens (young males and old stewing hens)/person annually, plus half a pound of other meat per non-chicken-eating day? And 1/3 of a steer per year or its equivalent. No idea how much land required, which obviously is crucial.
10%Eggs3 eggs75/egg1/4 acre?Chickens or ducks (maybe other possibilities too?) For average 3 eggs/day, would need 4 or 5 fairly productive layers, or more older layers.
20%Protein nuts & seeds2/3 cup29006900Mostly thinking walnut, hazelnut, pine nuts, and sunflower seeds. Could also include hickory, pecan, almonds, pistachios, monkey puzzle, etc. Land requirement based on 1200 pounds/acre yield (I think very conservative, this could be doubled with good water/fertilization) and assuming 33% average kernel yield.
5%Chestnuts1/2 cup9001150Land requirement assumes 2400 lbs/acre (could be more with grafted varieties) and 80% kernel (I can't find any numbers for this, but this seems reasonable). Acorns would be a nice complement to chestnuts, but don't seem realistic for planting and getting a quick return. (Definitely an option for gathering from existing stands, though.)
10%Roots1.25 lbs8001000Ideally mostly low-maintenance perennials, but for now the common crops for which I can find data are: Jerusalem artichoke, beets, carrots, parsnips, camas, wapato, rutabagas, onions, turnips. Assumes a yield of 1 pound per 2 square feet. The calorie content varies widely for different tubers, so these numbers are very fungible depending on the crop make-up.
5%Starchy seeds1/5 cup1600600Amaranth, quinoa, other chenopods. Avoiding cereal grains (grass family). Assumes yield of 5 lbs grain per 100 square ft (could get higher yield, but maybe 5 lbs is a good guess for a low-maintenance patch).
7.5%Fruit2-3 fruits3001000Apples, pears, plums, persimmons, etc. Assumes 50 lbs per tree per year average, and trees and paths taking up a 16' diameter spread per tree.
7.5%Berries2-3 cups2001000Gooseberries, blueberries, blackberries, grapes, kiwis, etc. Might include melons in this category? 1000 square feet probably an over-estimate, as vines can make use of vertical space.
2-3%GreensLarge salad, 1 lb70350I haven't yet experimented with weighing different greens to understand how much salad 1 pound of greens actually makes. Assume can get 1 pound greens/square foot.
5%Squash, misc veggies1.25 lbs1001000Other veggies such as squash (including seeds, though maybe they should be included under protein nuts & seeds above, increasing that percentage of diet), shoots (asparagus, Rubus sp., bamboo, etc), tomatoes, peppers, etc. Land requirement assumes can produce 1 lb per 2 square ft.
7-8%Misc2 tbs honey, 10 olives, and 1/2 cup mushrooms 300Miscellaneous calories from things like mushrooms, honey, olives, vegetable oils (processing seeds from grape for example, or surplus walnuts?), and whatever else I haven't thought of yet. I pretty much just totally made up the land requirement number.

So, my very rough conclusion thus far is that for each 2500 calorie diet, you need a bit over a quarter acre (13,300 square feet) for plant food production in a monocrop system, plus 1.25 acres to support 12 chickens for eating, 1/3 of a steer, and 5-6 laying hens (see comments below for my calculations on that). Grand total: about 1.5 acres per person.

The next main research thrust needs to be into how much land you need to support free-range, almost fully pasture-fed animals on a rotational system. (Chickens, of course, will get supplemental feed from kitchen scraps, maggot farm, etc. I also expect it'll prove economical to grow some patches of grains and other vegetation purely for the chickens to pick through or to cut and store as feed for livestock through the winter.) I've read a lot of Joel Salatin's work on integrated livestock systems, but can't remember any details of the numbers.

Another aspect to think about more is how much space can be saved by growing crops under trees, so that it's not 1000 square feet for fruit trees and another 1000 square feet for berries, but rather 1000 square feet of fruit trees with berries growing underneath them, plus maybe another 500 square feet of berries growing in the open, for a total of 1500 square feet instead of 2000. This, of course, is how we're already planning and planting in our food forest plantings on an urban lot...but without mature trees to experiment with, we can't get data from our own experience for what final yields to expect in such an integrated system.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

One Green World orchard tours

Continuing the theme of "type up scattered notes before they get lost forever", here's what I jotted down on the two tours we've taken of One Green World's orchard. The tour spiels and plants visited were pretty much the same fall and this fall, so I'll basically combine the two tours into one set of notes, plus include the pictures we took.

Figs crop twice, once in the summer and again in the fall. Some varieties have their main, heaviest crop in the summer, and others in the fall. In this region, Desert King is a good variety for a heavy 1st crop. Latarulla is a good variety for a heavy 2nd crop. Figs are somewhat deer resistant, due to their latex. The fig on the left is Latarulla, on the right is Peter's Honey, 3-4 years after planting as a 1-2 year old cutting propagation. Of the figs OGW sells, Peter's Honey is the sweetest, but has the longest ripening time so needs a good warm spot outside of Portland in this region. (In Portland we're a warmer microclimate in general already.)

Akebias sold by OGW come in two species, the 3-leafed and the 5-leafed. Both produce seedpods which contain a white pulp around hard, inedible seeds. We were able to eat some pulp; the texture and taste are reminiscent of tapioca pudding. The pods are also edible; in Japan they're cooked as a vegetable. They can be stuffed and eaten like a pepper. It doesn't seem like a huge food crop, but if you want an ornamental vine it definitely has bonus food value. The 3-leaf pod is thicker and harder than the 5-leaf pod. Akebias are semi-evergreen, meaning they'll stay evergreen in a mild climate, but start losing some or all of their leaves if it gets too cold (I believe the temperature given was consistently in the low 20s? Or high teens?) They're low maintenance; at OGW they just whack the vines back as needed and the vines bloom just fine. The akebia picture on the left is the 3-leafed "Deep Purple", and the picture on the right is a 5-leafed variety.

Flowering quince has citrus-like fruit on shrubs. I keep wondering whether the fruit has the same acidic properties and whether it can be used straight-up in recipes.

Aronia is good for adding to apple juice. On their own the juice is only "ok".

Beautyberry has unique purple berries which hang on the branches after the leaves drop. They berries are very bitter, but edible.

Empress tree is a fast grower! Considered a weed tree by many people.

Persimmons - astringent types can be fast-ripened overnight in hot water at the right temperature. Astringent varieties are always sweeter than non-astringent. The persimmon on the left is an American persimmon, which are all large trees with relatively small, astringent fruit. On the right are two different Asian persimmons, one so loaded with fruit its branches are badly in need of extra support! The Saijo persimmon is ideal for drying (and from other conversations I've had with OGW, seems to be the only proven astringent variety for this area.) Fuyu is a dry crisp [did I get that right?] non-astringent variety.

Jujubes are late to leaf out, as late as June. The variety "Coco", when dead ripe, has a coconut flavor. (I tried this variety inside at their sample table and thought it tasted, like all jujubes I've tried, like a cardboard apple--and not even a coconuty cardboard apple. :/ ) They are attractive shrubs, as seen in the picture on the left.

Asian pears are super productive. Thinning out the numerous fruits allows those that remain to become larger.

Autumn Olives are large shrubs of the Elaeagnus genus, meaning they fix nitrogen and produce tasty red berries. We munched on a lot of them from different plants. All were good, but the "Ruby" variety was slightly sweeter and tastier. "Garnet" appears to be a seedling selected by OGW to ensure pollination for "Ruby" when they sell it, since they're unsure of whether Autumn Olives are self fertile.

Seaberries are highly prized in Russia, and used for commercial juice in Europe (especially or only Germany?). They must be sweetened to become palatable, though last year there was someone on the tour who said he ate them raw from his bush. For easy harvesting in Germany(?), they cut off entire branches and freeze them, which then makes it easy to mechanically knock off the berries. With this setup plants have to be on a two year rotation, since the cut branches can't crop the following year.

The Medlar in the background is about 12' tall. Medlars are tip-bearers. The "Nottingham" variety is annoying because the fruit tends to fall off before its ripe. Some varieties, especially those with larger fruit, are prone to the fruit splitting, but apparently this doesn't cause any problems besides aesthetic. There was a vague report of dipping medlars in salt water and hanging upside down to do something...preserve them? Medlars have to "blet", aka "rot", to soften up before eating. This can happen on the tree, or you can pick them and blet them indoors.

Pineapple guavas are slow growers, but grow faster with supplementary water in the summer. This hedge of 4 was planted in the 01990s, froze and died to the ground, and then grew back. One guy mentioned that wind in the winter knocked off lots of his leaves. In a hard freeze, new leaves fall off. I guess that would make pineapple guavas semi-evergreen, and not suitable for winter windbreaks.

Fruit Tastings

Last year and this year, Theressa and I attended fruit tastings at One Green World and at the Home Orchard Society's "All About Fruit Show". From those, I have scribbled notes on various scraps of easily mislaid papers with our reactions to the different varieties and fruits. It seems useful to compile those notes here, both for our benefit and for anyone else who comes along. I suspect other notes will turn up after I post this, which I'll just integrate into this don't be surprised if new varieties magically appear later.

Note that these reactions are by no means definitive--fruit quality can vary widely depending on whether it was harvested at the optimum time, the quality of the soil in which the plant is growing, whatever whims our non-professional taste-testing palates impose, and so on. That said, here's what we've got:


Home Orchard Society All About Fruit Show, fall 02005

  • Dumbarton Oaks - yum! slight bitterness
  • Arguta purpurea (Hardy kiwi?, Red) - very good
  • 74-49 - As good as Dumbarton Oaks without bitterness
  • Kuenta 72.001 - very good
  • Michigan State - so so
  • Cordifolia - very good
  • Anna - very good
  • Hardy Red - different taste, very good. Theressa wonders whether the fact that it's red gives it extra nutritional value?

One Green World, fall 02006

  • Hardy Red - bitter says Norris, Theressa likes
  • Rossana, Dumbarton Oaks, 4-96, L-167, Michigan State, Anna - all good
  • #54 especially good
  • Fully ripe Annas straight off the vine in the OGW orchard are especially enjoyable


Theressa likes crisp, tart apples. Norris likes a fair amount of sweetness, though sweet-tart is fine.

Home Orchard Society All About Fruit Show, fall 02005

  • Ashmead's Kernel - Theressa and Norris like. Maybe a hint tarter than Norris prefers
  • Black Gilliflower - neat color, good taste
  • Braeburn - crips, some tart, Theressa likes
  • Calville Blanc - meets both taste bud needs [not sure in retrospect what this means--maybe Theressa's requirement for tart and crisp. Or maybe it appealed to both N & T]. Kinda like the apple tree at Theressa's house at Rhine.
  • Earligold - mushy, nothing special
  • Fiesta - good, crisp
  • Gala - soft, low on flavor
  • Honeycrisp - watery
  • Idared - eah [not impressed]
  • Liberty - pretty good
  • Pink Lady - Excellent [we've also enjoyed Pink Lady's from the supermarket]
  • Red Boskoop - T likes the tart, N would like a tad less
  • Spartan - crisp, tasty
  • Sonata - crisp, very sweet, but enough tart for T which N doesn't notice
  • Spitzenburg - good
  • Swiss Gourmet - soft
  • Zeek's Longkeper - T likes, N thinks "OK", bland

One Green World, fall 02006

  • Callaway crabapple - N likes OK, T finds sour
  • Golden Sentinel - N likes OK, T not so impressed
  • Northpole - not impressed
  • Scarlet Sentinel - N likes OK, T likes OK
  • Spartan - OK

Asian Pear

Home Orchard Society All About Fruit Show, fall 02005

  • Chojuro - good!
  • Czui - not much flavor, softer, more tartness
  • Daisui Li - T likes OK, N finds watery and bland
  • Imamuraaki - a littel tart, almost apple. T likes.
  • Lao Suan Li - very good!
  • Large Korean - grows well, good for drying. So-so on the taste test.
  • Komenashi - dryish, mealy, weird crunchy bits
  • Kosui - pretty good. T likes.
  • Niitaka - butterscotchish, crisp, some strange tastes
  • Raja - OK, funny taste that comes out [I think this means an aftertaste]
  • Seuri - interesting pineapple? taste, crisp, enough flavor but not lots
  • Seuri li - a little more flavor than Seuri, quite good. T likes
  • Shinko - watery, crisp, no flavor
  • Shin Li - More flavorful, not blown away
  • Ya Li - even waterier

One Green World, fall 02006

  • Daisui Li - N likes well
  • Raja - yum!
  • Ya Li - N likes OK

European Pears

Theressa isn't a big fan of pears in general, though she hasn't had a lot of exposure to different varieties.

Home Orchard Society All About Fruit Show, fall 02005

  • Belle de Beugny - little taste
  • Cascade - T says like Wasser/Warren, general standard pear taste. N likes, but like Wasser better.
  • Conference - Norris yum (had this at HOS '06)
  • Elliot - good
  • Leona - kinda an apple. Crisper, less sweet.
  • Lezinova - eah
  • Mellina - OK
  • Princess - yum
  • Turnbull - bleh
  • Wasser (Warren?) - yum!

One Green World, fall 02006

  • Shipova - yum! says N, unique taste. T likes OK, too much pear taste for her to be excited.


One Green World, fall 02006

  • Lattarulla - very sweet, N and T like
  • Peter's Honey - sweet, N and T like
  • Vern's Brown Turkey - not very sweet, neither N nor T impressed


One Green World, fall 02006

  • Blue Muscat - similar to Glenora, stronger flavor.
  • Canadice - a little tart-sweet, good.
  • Glenora - good
  • Heavenly Blue - yech
  • Marquis - good (instinguishable from Reliance)
  • Reliance - good (indistinguishable from Marquis)

Home Orchard Society All About Fruit Show, fall 02006

  • Challenge - OK, not exciting
  • Marquis - yum!
  • Mars - OK
  • Vanessa - OK


Home Orchard Society All About Fruit Show, fall 02005

  • Wells - interesting flavor with aftertaste, not so sweet [not convinced that this was fully ripe]

One Green World, fall 02006

  • Unnamed Pawpaw in official tasting - N likes, T doesn't like--got a bitter taste from it.
  • Found fully ripe Pawpaws on the trees in the OGW orchard, which were all delicious to N and T.



Raw - meh. Sweetened juice tastes good.

Chinese Haw

Both N and T yuck, cardboard apple but bitter! (OGW '06)

Chinese Dogwood (Cornus kousa)

  • Big Apple - tasty goop inside, 2 seeds. Skins yucky. (HOS '05)
  • E14 - sweeter goop than Big Apple, but more seeds. Skin not good. (HOS '05)
  • fresh from OGW orchard trees and local Portland trees - N and T enjoy a lot.

Cornelian Cherry

  • unnamed variety - OK, big seed, not much flesh (HOS '05)
  • unknown yellow variety - OK, nothing special (local Portland tree)
  • unknown red varieties, probably somewhat overripe - range from OK to somewhat too tart for N's taste though T likes OK (OGW orchard '06)


N and T have found all the Jujubes they've tried, whether at fruit tastings or from OGW orchard trees, to taste like cardboard apples. Not impressed


  • Garretson - yum! small clusters (HOS '05)
  • We've scavenged some fallen persimmons from local Portland trees, and from a OGW orchard tree in '05 and '06, all generally in the fully ripe, mushy stage--all have been really tasty
  • We had some supermarket nonastringent types last year, and some supermarket astringent types. We both liked both types. Astringent seem to be sweeter, but the ability to eat nonastringent like crispy apples is nice.
  • Norris has eaten fallen American persimmon fruit at the Home Orchard Society demo orchard--fully ripe mushy, yum! Lots of waste though, since trees are way high and you have to scavenge relatively undamaged fruit from what's fallen to the ground


Seaberry juice, sweetened, tastes good. Raw seaberry - yuck.


Dried wolfberries not terribly exciting but knowing how healthy they are, tasty enough to eat happily. Wolfberry fresh off the plant - good! (OGW '06, new named variety they're carrying)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Book review: West Coast Food Forestry by Rain Tenaqiya

West Coast Food Forestry

I received and read West Coast Food Forestry: A Permaculture Guide by Rain Tenaqiya a few weeks ago. I think it's a very useful addition for this region to the other resources available. Much of the bioregional analysis I've figured out in the last couple of years, but some of it was new, and it would have been a great headstart for me when I was just getting started. Surprisingly, the CD introduced me to several new trees, shrubs, and vines I hadn't heard of before, despite obsessive perusal of catalogs and other permaculture resources! The section on perennial vegetables was especially useful, summarizing a lot of the species already on my to-try-out list and introducing me to many many more. There were also a few surprises in terms of uses and edibility of some of the plants I already new about.

There are also some handy lists of plants that meet different conditions--"Fertilizer Unnecessary: Tall Trees", "Makes Lots of Organic Matter: Herbs", "Casts Light Shade: Short Trees", etc. And there's a sweet little chart of harvest times for Fruits, Nuts, and Berries to help plan your food forest for staggered harvests.

The book gives virtual tours of many west coast permaculture sites. The descriptions are inspiring, giving some ideas on combinations of plants being tried out elsewhere. Unfortunately, the pictures of the sites have been compressed enough for the ebook that it's difficult to make out what's what...I received permission from Rain to post higher quality images as a Picasa album.

All in all, I found this to be a good read and I've referred back to its various lists and plant bios as I designed our current food forest.

There's another review of the CD at:

Last year, I organized a wholesale order of edible plants from One Green World, a local nursery. I'm doing it again this year, and since I also have a habit of ordering multiple copies of interesting permaculture-related books to share at a discount with others, I put together a website to handle the plant order and list the books I have available:

The plant order is open to anyone who can pick up their order from our house in NE Portland in January or February, and the books are available either for pickup or for mail orders. Feel free to share the URL with anyone who may be interested in plants or books at discount prices!

Fall plantings

I've been doing one of my favorite things this past week--planting forest garden plants! It takes a lot of mapping, researching, designing, planning, redesigning, reresearching, and replanning (part of that whole prolonged & thoughtful observation rather than prolonged & thoughtless action thing) before I finally get to the point of actually putting a shovel into the ground. So it's always rewarding to pat down the soil around a newly homed plant.

There are two sites I've been planting--our own yard of course, plus the already partially planted food forest at Theressa's dad's place (Jay's). At Jay's, we planted 18 trees last spring, but very little of the other layers (10 shrubs, and no ground or vine layers.) We simply didn't have time last spring to finishing designing the tree understories, obtain plants, and get them into the ground before the end of the rainy season...and since we only make it over to Jay's about once a week, we figured it was better to grow his plants in pots at our house for the summer instead of putting them into the ground late and not being able to baby them to ensure they thrive. Now that the rainy season has begun (and oh boy but has it begun!), I planted another 13 shrubs and 3 echinaceas as understories, which makes the whole area look much more like an actual multi-storied food forest instead of trees stuck in a sea of wood chips. It's very exciting, and I'm looking forward to small (but tasty and real!) harvests next year of gooseberries, currants, barberries, chilean guavas, and maybe even blueberries, plus perhaps some pears, cherries, plums, apples, and peaches (though I need to decide whether to allow the trees to set fruit next year, or remove their flowers and fruit to let them invest all their energy in growing for another year.)

I did most of the planning for Jay's last winter while still living at the Portland Permaculture Institute, designing understory patches for trees both at his place and at the Institute. I made some last-minute changes, primarily adding a few extra gooseberries and currants, but mostly implemented the designs as-is. It was really nice to be able to just pull out the old designs, find the appropriate plants in pots, do some minor measuring on the ground, and put in the plants.

Here at home, a lot more planning has been necessary over the last couple of months. The mapping was pretty easy--the lot is a simple 50' x 183' rectangle, with the house in the middle dividing the lot into two distinct design areas. There are a few tall trees (30-40') at the south end of the back yard: an evergreen on the neighbor's lot to the east, essentially at our southeast corner, a seedling cherry on our south boundary about 8' in from the east edge, and a black walnut on the neighbor's lot to the southwest. There are also many black locusts and one more seedling cherry along the east boundary of the lot in both the front and back yards. Other than those, the lot is a blank slate.

Since we have tremendously destructive miniature dinosaurs roaming the back yard, pecking at anything which moves or doesn't move, scratching anywhere there may be roots to destroy, and ignoring the paths we carefully lay out to instead trample across any vegetation they can find, we decided the back yard would be primarily trees and shrubs and large perennial herbs. I designed a layout with:

  • 4 main trees (2 plums, 1 cherry, one fig), with 15 understory shrubs (gooseberries, currants, serviceberry, chilean guava, blueberry, salal, honeyberry)
  • a 10-shrub thicket of medium sized shrubs approximately 6' x 6' (blueberries, honeyberry, serviceberries, wolfberry, pea shrub, chilean guava, goumi)
  • a continuous evergreen hedge along the entire east boundary to act as a windbreak for the cold winter winds. Evergreen huckleberries on 6' spacing under the black locusts (which are nitrogen fixers), and nitrogen fixing Silverberries (Elaeagnus sp.) on 6' spacing in non-locust areas, plus salal halfway between all the 6' spaced larger shrubs
  • one lone mulberry which is going to hate the spot we're giving it 4' out from the north wall of the neighbor's garage (but which, if it grows up tall, will one day hopefully get enough sun to fruit nicely). No understory for the mulberry, as this area is where we plan to keep the hen house, duck and rabbit housing if we ever raise them, wood for burning, etc
  • an experiment with semi-espaliered Autumn Olives all along the west fence with various vines trained up them--pruning them flat against the fenceline to be living trellises and more effective chicken barriers than our current 3.5' fence, and giving them 1' of space towards the yard with a 2' path beyond that. This attempt to corral the autumn olives in such a small space may prove to be a maintenance headache and/or a mess, but if it works it'll provide nitrogen-fixing, tasty berries for humans and birds, firewood coppicing, and trellis space.
  • a row of larger shrubs/small trees (including 2 yellowhorns, 2 Cornelian Cherries, and a medlar) a few feet out from the west boundary, plus another goumi and pea shrub
  • A row of buried bathtubs about 6' out from the future house boundary, to allow us to experiment with aquatic plants and to provide extra winter sunlight into the house

The front yard, not cursed with hunt-and-peck feathered killing machines, will feature a large open area of about 1200 square feet, used for annual vegetables, herbs, nursery plants, and some smaller shrubs. In addition, we'll have:

  • 3 Pawpaws and 2 Chinese Dogwoods (Cornus kousa) in the morning-shaded area just off our east boundary of tall locusts and cherry.
  • 2 asian persimmons and 2 olives in full sun
  • east boundary evergreen hedge with the same pattern as the backyard, except for one full sun area where we'll plant two Darwinian barberries (Berberis darwinii). The front yard currently has a laurel hedge all along the east boundary, so we hope to rip out sections of the laurel hedge to plant the replacement plants, with ongoing pruning and knocking-out of the rest of the laurel hedge as the new plants grow
  • 2 large nut trees on the north boundary of the lot, taking advantage of the fact that shading out the street doesn't matter. Probably 1 english walnut and 1 chestnut, if we can convince a neighbor to plant a chestnut for pollination; otherwise 2 chestnuts.
  • 2 hazels as nut tree understories, plus a few sun-loving shrubs on the south edges of the nut tree canopies.
  • A material zone 10' wide x 14' deep to act as an unloading zone, receive future wood chip drop-offs, and possibly serve as a parking spot for soil-crushing cars
  • bike rack, probably set in concrete and with a roof covering, for visitors to secure their bikes

There is essentially no area on the east side of the house for planting. There is an area approximately 11' wide on the west side. A black walnut (or english walnut if we wind up planting two chestnuts in the front yard) will be planted approximately even with the south edge of the house, 8' from the house, for future summer shade (and, of course, nuts). North of that, a line of Russian Olives 8' out from the house will be trained to form an archway to the house, serving as a sun-screen for blasting summer sun, support for trellising vines, possible coppiced firewood, nitrogen fixation, and possibly future sheltered nursery space once there's sufficient shade.

We plan to run some hardy kiwi vines up some of the existing black locusts and maybe the seedling cherry trees. Eventually we'll use kiwis and grapes as summer sun-screens for the south side of the house, though first we'll have to tear off and rebuild the south addition. We may also experiment with either non-living trellises over the main 4' path in strategic spots, or living trellis (autumn olive?) trained to form archways over paths, with grapes or kiwis growing on those as well.

I'm following one of Dave Jacke's forest garden patterns for trees in which a 2' path circles the expected mature canopy dripline, with 5 1.5' paths evenly spaced from the perimeter of the tree to its center, like wheel spokes. This creates full access to the tree and understory for maintenance and harvest, while leaving as much of the rootzone area as possible untrampled and uncompacted. The 2' path around the outside of the tree allows extra sunlight to penetrate into the understory, making it more productive, and also allows a margin of error in case trees get larger than expected.

Once we had the design on paper and Theressa gave her first-pass thumbs-up, I measured things out on the ground and "planted" bamboo poles of the approximate mature height of the given tree or shrub. I used metal sign-stakes to mark off the perimeters of the trees and delineate the paths (one main 4' path through each yard, plus 2' paths to access almost every tree and shrub from all sides.) The backyard picture on the top is from the roof looking south, with the shrub thicket at the bottom of the photo, taller trees in the middle of the yard, and the mulberry sticking up over the orange garage at the back. You can sort of make out in the pictures the stakes for the tree perimeters, and the main 4' path on the right side of the picture. The front yard photo on the bottom, looking north from the roof, is less dramatic. The bottom part of the photo with the existing garden beds and extending further into the middle of the yard will be open space, with a few bamboo stakes towards the street indicating the trees and shrubs to be planted there. For the trees to be planted in the driveway once it's ripped out, I used pots as the plant markers, which aren't nearly as much fun as 15' tall bamboo stakes.

I've started planting the back yard with the plants we already have in our nursery. All in all, I'll be able to plant about two dozen trees and shrubs and several vines now, with more to follow once we receive plant orders later this winter. A few plants will have to wait until house renovations are completed, as they're too close to the expected construction zone.

I hope to get the yard designs for both our house and Jay's place scanned and posted, but the last time I tried the scanner it wasn't working. :/ I'll get them up eventually, but don't hold your breath! I welcome questions about the designs, plants, implementation, etc...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Oregon Indigenous Population Densities

I just sent an email to some friends and thought this part was worth posting here too...I'm reading L. S. Cressman's The Sandal and the Cave: The Indians of Oregon, published back in 01962, summarizing what's known (or what was known back then) about the indigenous populations of Oregon. I'm not too far into the book, but I got a partial mind-blow regarding indigenous population densities which seems worth posting here.

Obviously any number for pre-European native population involves a lot of speculation--guesstimates for the population of the Americas as a whole range from 10 million to 200 million. (See Charles Mann's 1491) But even with a huge margin of error, the Oregon numbers are astounding. The numbers in the book are based on 1939 figures from A. L. Kroeber, who seems to have been a respected anthropologist. Listed for each group is the number of people per square mile, then the number of square miles per person (the numbers are inverses of each other.)

Pacific Coast.651.54
Chinook on Columbia River from The Dalles to the sea3.86.26
Coos around Coos Bay & south to the Coquille2.6.38
Columbia River east of the Dalles.128.33
Klamath (the author says densities were likely higher than these numbers, since much of the claimed land was used only lightly).137.69
Northern Great Basin.0616.67

So the densest population of Oregonians pre fossil-fuels were the Chinook, living in a fully functioning ecological community that wasn't half-asphalt, with abundant salmon runs and game to hunt. And they had one person per quarter of a square mile, or 160 acres. That means I'd have 9 city blocks by 9 city blocks of land supporting me. Damn but are we in overshoot.

Not that this is news...but there's a difference between knowing that we have 600+ million extra people on the continent vs the close-to-home comparison of 9 city blocks square just for me or 9 city blocks square for 600 households.

Similarly, if you assume a population density of 1 person per 3 square miles, the 1 million acres of Mt. Hood National Forest could support a whopping 555 people. Boy, looking at the facts sure puts a damper on hopes for a soft landing.

Granted, we still have to fossil fuels we can burn to support our overshoot for a while yet, and there's been a tremendous mingling of plants and techniques from all over the world which could allow for the most productive horticultural (or permacultural) communities humans have ever managed. But weighed against those bonuses in the carrying capacity equation are the impacts of climate chaos, toxification of the environment, degradation and paving over of soil, loss of even the most rudimentary naturalist skills, and the ongoing mass extinction. All in all, we know that population needs to decrease, and numbers like these give us a good indication of the general order of magnitude we're looking at, at least in the long-run.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Fall cover cropping

I cover cropped half our front yard last Wednesday (1500 square feet) with 1.5 lbs of wheat, 3/8 lb of crimson clover, 3/8 lb of white dutch clover, and 4.5 lbs of fava beans. To determine how much to use, I found different recommendations of how much seed to sow from different catalogs, then applied 1/4 the lowest recommendation of crimson clover, 1/4 of white dutch clover, and the lowest recommendation for wheat and fava beans. I figured that a somewhat higher density of seed would be appropriate than just dividing everything by 4, since the part I sowed is covered in wood chips laid down about 7 months ago and doesn't give the best conditions for establishment, plus the different species will utilize somewhat different niches in the soil and above ground. I used wheat because we have a lot of it already for food but we're weaning ourselves from it, favas because they're a classic cover crop and we hope to eat them in spring, white dutch clover because it's a perennial which will stick around as a ground cover (and even expand its coverage) anywhere we don't replace it with other stuff, and crimson clover because Theressa thinks it's pretty, plus it's cheaper than the white dutch and can fill in space until it dies off next year, by which time the white clover will be ready to fill out.

I followed pretty much the same practice I used when I cover cropped in early summer, presprouting everything in advance. When sowing, I began by trying to carefully apply seeds from the wheat bucket to an area of the yard, then carefully pick seeds from the clover bucket (with both kinds of clover mixed together), then from the fava bean bucket. But I got tired of that very quickly and decided it was a lot easier and a whole lot more fun to just grab handfuls of seeds and fling them across the yard in a vaguely targeted yet largely random manner. I think the yard got fine coverage.

Once the seeds were all flung, I covered half the yard in another 1" of wood chips. I left half the seeds exposed to the air because we were in a cloudy, rainy stretch. However, by Friday the sun had come out enough that I decided it best to cover most of the exposed seeds with 1" of chips. I still left a few areas uncovered to see how the different patches do.

As of today, in the patches not covered in chips, there are some signs of the first green leaves unfolding if you look closely enough at the chips, and lots of seeds sending out their radicles (the first white shoot a germinating seed sends out) trying to find a path through the chips downward to anchor its root. I haven't seen anything breaking through the 1" chip layer yet.

RIP Cleo, 1987-2006

Yesterday we had to put down Theressa's cat Cleo of nineteen and a half years. She's been a miracle kitty, reversing a diagnosis of feline leukemia when she was a year old, and bouncing back from the vet's prognosis of death within a day or two two years ago after a severe E coli infection, mixed with a slightly enlarged heart, one functioning kidney, and thyroid problems. Nonetheless, after some tough times for Theressa two years ago, Cleo decided to stick around and help Theressa through the hard times, being gifted in turn with wonderful pampering fit for a queen. Cleo remained happy and healthy even as she slowed down over the last year, but over just the last week, her body really started to crash. By two days ago she could barely walk, stumbling along in the saddest manner, no longer able to purr normally, too tired to move much at all. :(

Cleo's long-time vet came to our house yesterday afternoon to give her a gentle passing from her body into painless freedom. We buried Cleo today, at one end of one of our vegetable beds, in a sheltered sunny spot in the food forest plan. We'll put something on her grave to mark her rest, whether a bird bath, a special plant, or something be determined.

Rest In Peace, princess.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Birds and the Bees

Theressa and I have been living at the new house she bought since the end of March, so it's about time I gave an update on how things are going here! Theressa bought .2 acres with a small 800-odd square foot shack plus garage/carport/shed. The lot is 50' x 175', with the house set back 80' or so from the street, leaving a 65' long back yard. There's almost no tree cover right now, except for one pine and one cherry in the back yard on the south boundary, a row of black locusts on the east boundary in the back yard, and a cherry and a few more locusts on the east boundary in the front yard. It's nice to have a near blank-slate for designing in full sun.


The soil is interesting--incredible drainage, but very little top soil and full of rocks. Apparently this area used to be a river bed. My thought is that there's good nutrients available because of the presence of rocks constantly being weatherized, but that we need heavy additions of organic matter to improve soil structure and hold on to some of the water, and we probably need dynamic accumulator plants to tap into the nutrients that have washed downwards with the rain and bring them back to the surface. So, we've had dozens of loads of wood chips dumped in the driveway and have sheet mulched almost the entire yard to build soil organic matter, add nitrogen via coffee grounds and dumpstered bread (our soil test showed 1 part per million nitrogen, ouch!) and improve soil life (our earthworm population is really really weak). The driveway is currently used to store heaps of wood chips continuing to break down, plus our firewood pile.

I tried an experiment a few months after the first layer of sheet mulch. I presprouted three or four jars worth of beans and many more seeds of various Amaranthus sp. (pigweeds) and Chenopodium sp. (lambs quarters and relatives) and sowed them directly into the wood chip sheet mulch. I sowed the beans on top of the wood chips and then covered with about an inch of fresh wood chips. I then sowed the smaller seeds and raked them into the mix. We used the sprinkler for the next few days to keep things moist as the seeds established. I had no idea whether or not it would work, between the hot June sowing, ravaging chickens in the back yard, and general uncertainty of how well the seeds would take to having no actual soil, just wood chips. It turned out fairly well--many bean plants did come up and several developed into very healthy plants (those in the back yard have now been largely devoured by the chickens). The smaller seeds didn't seem to come up at all--I think they should have been sown with the beans and then had the 1" of chips on top of it all. As it was, I think sowing the smaller seeds at the surface and raking them in was inadequate to protect them from drying out in the sun.

Annual beds

Two or three days after she took possession, we had a load of 6 cubic feet of mixed soil plus 3 cubic feet of potting soil dumped in the double-wide landing-strip driveway (the previous owner had an RV), and within a day or two had four 20' x 4' raised beds laid out and seeds planted. This is our third year of trying to grow annual vegetables, and the first year things have really clicked for us. The beds have kind of petered out now, but for a while we were having large salads every day, and we got lots of beets and carrots and rutabagas from the first round of planting. Very exciting! We've found that the heat of summer on our fully sun-baked garden beds has made it difficult to grow a second round of veggies, especially as we have a lot of projects going on and can't devote all the necessary time to the annuals. Hopefully the fall growing will be a little easier as the heat backs off and rain starts in.

Sharing Garden

Taking a cue from a practice Pam & Joe from the Permaculture Institute had used at their old house, we created a sharing garden right next to the street, with raspberries in a curve enclosing salad plants, strawberries, and four large barrels planted with cherry tomatoes and a nectarine. We encourage passersby to harvest from the area, sharing the wealth and helping people realize where food actually comes from. At first we had a hard time convincing anyone to take any food, but now there seems to be some regular picking of delicacies! Unfortunately, the summer heat has taken its toll on the front area, which is far enough away that it gets even less maintenance including water than do the annual beds next to the house. Permaculture zones in action!


We have a nursery going of plants we bought wholesale last year, plants we've started from seed, and other plants we've accumulated here and there. Although we have planted out lots of annuals already (especially squash and sunflowers) and a few perennials (especially jerusalem artichokes), we're waiting to do any "real", permanent planting until this fall. By then we will hopefully have a fairly good feel for wind and water flow, sun patterns, traffic dynamics, interaction with the house, etc. Probably the planting will be in two stages--one in fall with the plants we already have, and a second in late winter or early spring when new plant orders come in. Meanwhile it's a struggle to keep the nursery watered well with so little shade, but we're doing pretty well! There are a lot of seeds we have which I'd hoped to start this year but didn't get to...hopefully we can organize well enough to do a round of seed starting in the fall for overwintering and germination in the spring.

The Birds

We have hens for eggs! We started Helen from a chick last year; she lived at the Permaculture Institute for a few months after we moved out, giving us time to start new chicks and build a hen house. The chickens have the full run of the back yard and are proving to be wonderfully destructive little beasts. It's fun watching them scratch the hell out of plants and wonder exactly what our permanent planting will look like. One of our hens wandered out of the back yard and found a rat trap which gave her a concussion and had us worried about her for several days. :( She seems to be OK now, though after a few name trials we seem to have settled on "Dizzy"--we're guessing she'll never be quite like the rest of the chickens. :/ At this point Helen has been laying regularly and Sexy (our black sexlink) just joined her last week with little teeny tiny cute baby eggs! Here you can see Sexy in action, plundering a sunflower head twice as tall as she! Chickens have wings but can't fly very well, so she's jumping, not flying!

The Bees

We also have bee hives! We bought two "packages" of bees, which are small cages with a queen and 10,000 worker bees buzzing like crazy. We set one hive up on our roof and the second hive up at Theressa's dad's place, where we've been sheet mulching and planting a food forest since last fall. This past June Theressa caught a swarm of bees from a neighbor's tree way high up, and we set that swarm up on our roof as well. The purchased colonies seem to be doing really well; we've actually added "supers" which are boxes in which bees place their "surplus" honey, the stuff we get to harvest! Normally you don't expect a harvest the first year, so it's exciting to potentially be harvesting already. The swarmed colony, perhaps because it was set up later in the year, seems healthy enough but lacks the honey reserves and full strength of the other two colonies. We might steal some honey from our strong colonies to make sure our swarmed batch can make it through the winter and have a strong start next year.

It seems that I may be allergic to bees--I had amusingly chipmunk-like swell-up the first time I got stung in the cheek, and a similar reaction the second time I was stung on my foot. Stings since then haven't been nearly a problematic, so I'm not too worried about it, but for now Theressa is the primary beekeeper, with me acting as a cowardly back-seat driver shouting inane instructions and taking pictures from a safe distance.

The Fungi

We ordered 2000 plugs inoculated with mushroom spawn--1000 each of Shitake and Oyster mushrooms--and spent a tediously long time drilling holes in big chunks of wood we scavenged here and there, hammering in the plugs, and sealing with beeswax. We have them stacked in a big criss-cross pile on the north side of the house where they can be shaded, and we're keeping them watered. Next year the spawn should have colonized the logs well enough to start producing mushrooms!

That about covers the summary of yard projects. We've also been busy canning and preserving gleaned food (blackberries, apples, figs so far), and there's a lot of work to be done on the house itself. I'll write more about house projects later.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Recent readings: and Derrick Jensen

This post is about my thoughts in recent months and what's been influencing them. Two sources have radically changed my perspective this year: the website and anarcho-primitivist author Derrick Jensen.

Anthropik is a tribe forming to exit civilization. They have four members now, and their plan is to make enough money in the current system to pay for workshops and classes for foraging and hunter/gatherer skills and to purchase land adjacent to national/state forest. They'll be well situated to use their land as a socially accepted base for living off of the land in the forest, and to melt into the forest when they're ready and/or when civilization crashes.

It sounds crazy to most of us who've grown up in this culture of civilization, but it's actually an incredibly logical and well thought-out plan built on an equally logical and well thought-out analysis of the nature of civilizations and their collapses. Applying the analysis to our current civilization, the tribe predicts collapse to become obvious by 02012-02015 and in full progression by 02020, whether the proximate cause is resource depletion, global climate chaos, mass extinction, or a combination of these and other factors.

The primary writer on the site is Jason Godesky, who combines a strong background in anthropology with computer skills and technical knowledge. The tenor of the site takes the writings of Daniel Quinn as a starting point of sorts--Quinn's basic points of civilization and agriculture being very recent constructs in human history (having begun a mere 10,000 years ago), with a much longer history of successful tribal living with hunting and gathering as the subsistence method (millions of years). Quinn is where Godesky got started years ago questioning our cultural mom gave me Quinn's Ishmael in high school and I remember liking it but it apparently didn't leave much of an impression then. I got a lot more out of Quinn when I ready The Story of B, My Ishmael, and Beyond Civilization last year. Godesky takes a rigorous, scholarly approach to further explore the subject matter covered by Quinn, pulling together many sources of anthropological research and studies and theories of the collapse of civilizations.

The discussions following up on posts by Anthropik tribe members are amazingly flame- and troll-free, intellectual and serious and a joy to read. It took me probably tens of hours to work through the site including some (but by no means even a majority) of the links to further resources. I've gotten some great pointers to books and subjects to pursue further.

Derrick Jensen has written books on a variety of subjects--the nature of hate, teaching and the education system, technology, communication with nonhumans, the logging industry, and more--but all the books are very much about civilization. He takes an honest, painful look at what our civilization costs the planet and its inhabitants--nonhuman and human, those obviously displaced and oppressed and those getting along relatively well. It's pretty grim, and Jensen is unapologetically anti-civilization, to the point that his latest books, Endgame Volumes I and II, in part discuss how to bring civilization down. Even ignoring the subject matter, his writing is brilliant and a true pleasure to read. I began by checking out one of his books from the library because I'd heard so many good things about him; once I read the first one I put holds on all the rest of his work.

Some of the concepts and radical changes in my thinking due to reading anthropik and Jensen:

  • The Paleodiet: Based on the fact that we evolved for millions of years eating a diet of meat, vegetables, fruits, tubers, and berries and few or no grains, the diet eschews the grains which make us sick--our bodies are not adapted to them since they're such a recent introduction via agriculture. I'm experimenting with my diet, having sharply reduced my grain intake, am eating meat (local and organic) again after a few years of vegetarianism, and eating a lot more vegetables (a full meal's worth of salad every day now for several days--harvested from our own garden as a fresh and nutritious bonus!)

  • Agriculture is inherently doomed: From the first successful experiments with agriculture 10,000 years ago, we were practically doomed to the path we've since followed. Agriculture is the original escalating arms race; any culture which began farming and successfully worked around existing biological limits to its growth was able to absorb its neighboring cultures, unless they adopted agriculture themselves. Similarly, once a culture is practicing agriculture, it must intensify and expand the area it brings under cultivation as much as possible. If it slacks off, a neighboring culture will eventually take advantage of available opportunities and become the dominant. Also, the result of agriculture is desert and ruined lands, bringing another constant need for expansion. Without a major disruption to short-circuit the escalation (such as climate change altering the conditions necessary for successful cultivation), the system will proceed to an inevitable endpoint of consuming everything available before collapsing. This means that any post-crash strategy reliant on agriculture, even if possible in the short term, will also be doomed in the long term to the same pattern of required growth and ultimate collapse.

  • Permaculture may be flawed as well: Permaculture may not be a panacea for a permanent sustainable culture. Permaculture is a form of horticulture, and horticultural systems have only been around about as long as agriculture. Obviously agriculture is more destructive than horticulture, but that's no guarantee that in the long run horticulture won't lead to the same end. Possibly a culture starting with permaculture which decides to abandon some of the basic ethics and instead simply apply permaculture "tricks" to intensify production could overwhelm neighbors carefully safeguarding the fertility of their land, leading to another cycle of short-term exploitation of land with the need to constantly take over new areas. Fortunately, permaculture is capped at a lower level of output potential, so cultures probably wouldn't be able to reach the same levels of intensity as with agriculture and the expansion and collapse influence would be diminished and never again reach anywhere near global proportions. Another drawback to permaculture is that horticultural systems may be dependent on some of the same climatic conditions as agriculture and thus be vulnerable enough to climate change or other disturbances to collapse, leaving only tried and true hunting and gathering as a viable mode of sustenance. So permaculture may well be a good stepping stone as we decline from current industrial civilization to something more sustainable, but it might not be adequate as a final state of collapse.

  • More nuanced understanding of collapse: Anthropik's analysis of the inevitability of collapse and its arguments for why it'll happen sooner rather than later makes a lot of sense and has greatly augmented my understanding of what sort of future we might be seeing as a result of Peak Oil. Much of it is comforting: Anthropik and Jensen have very convincing arguments as to how bad civilization is for us, and Anthropik details the advantages of a hunter/gatherer existence. Further, my current working definition of collapse (the same used by Anthropik I think, and the same used by Joseph Tainter in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies) is simply a reduction in complexity of a society. It doesn't have to mean starvation and rioting in the streets. In fact, the relocalization movement and much of the direction of the Peak Oil community is pushing voluntary collapse: scaling back the US empire, taking power back to localities instead of the feds, producing goods and services locally rather than via globalized trade, voluntary simplicity, and having more people growing their own food and being self-sufficient instead of employed as one of a million categories of specialized cogs in industrial civilization, are all reductions in complexity and thus elements of a society in collapse. Also, historically, civilizations have taken decades to collapse, again meaning that a decline doesn't have to be bloody and terrifying. But it does get scary when the collapse is neither gradual nor voluntary, and my immediate research is into what collapse has looked like in past societies and whether our own is likely to be graceful or ugly. (Anthropik fully believes it'll be worst-case scenario with abrupt decline into violence, starvation, and cannibalism in the cities.)

  • Believing civilization needs to crash: I'm now convinced that civilization is not only inevitably doomed to collapse, but that the sooner it happens, the better. The atrocities, daily atrocities, carried out to continue its growth (which is a requirement; there's no way to have a static civilization), are so horrifying that nothing can justify civilization's continued existence. There's also no way that civilization can voluntarily change itself into something sustainable; that would require multilateral agreements across the board of everyone on the planet not to continue down the current path; if any small group took advantage of everyone else's self-crippling that group would again kick off the whole escalating cycle. Further, the longer civilization drags itself on, the larger our population grows and the more we trash our support bases, thus the harder the crash will be. What I'm not sure of yet is whether I want to play an active role in bringing civilization down or whether my focus will continue to be on preparations at a personal and community level.

  • Questioning my plan to see it through in the city: Reading anthropik has made me much less confident about my prior attitude of sticking it out in Portland as Peak Oil hits, helping as many people as I can through the chaos. (The disappointing experience with the Peak Oil prep community at PPI probably factors in as well, since the integration challenges there make me wonder just how possible it is for people of our culture to come together to address the problems we'll be facing soon.) Anthropik's approach of preparing to become hunter/gatherers holds enormous emotional appeal for me, and almost as much intellectual appeal. Along with my readings of Derrick Jensen's work, I've started wondering what the point is of keeping myself mired in a culture which is so intensely destructive, exploitative, and miserable--will I really be able to change anything or help anyone? Or is it best to get out of the way as civilization crumbles and turns in on itself, working with whomever else wants to get out to forge a new culture? Even if I don't go the full-blown hunter/gatherer route, a multi-acre permaculture homestead in a rural area, adjacent to public forest, is very attractive, giving me more flexibility than I have here. Community, of course, will still be crucial.

  • Foraging for food: This is a natural extension of the permaculture path I was already travelling, but learning how to forage has taken on a new priority. Being able to identify useful plants for edible and medicinal uses, know how to use them, and actually be using them now is vital if I do ever want to exit civilization, in which case these skills will be even more important than knowing how to grow my own food in an annual vegetable garden or a permaculture food production system. It's also a fascinating realm in and of itself--I bet I could feed myself entirely on food foraged within the city if I just had the knowledge (so long as not too many other people get the same idea, of course), and I'm already enjoying figuring plants out bit by bit.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Portland Permaculture Institute, October 02005-March 02006

Theressa and I moved into the Portland Permaculture Institute at the end of October, eager to learn from and live in a community working on sustainability, Peak Oil prep, and sharing knowledge and skills with the larger Portland community. The hope was that after a trial period, Theressa could "buy in", to co-own the property with Pam and Joe and maybe others, depending on the ownership model. I had a wonderful time getting to know the land and appreciating the scale of 1.6 much larger than a standard 5000 square foot lot, but not as overwhelming as 40 acres! 1.6 feels pretty manageable by the 8 people expected to eventually live in the community. (Whether or not it's enough land to feed all 8 people is another question!)

I spent a lot of time outdoors clearing blackberries and ivy, sheetmulching, and measuring and mapping out areas. Most of my time was spent indoors, helping to finalize the tree placements in the main food forest, designing an extension of the food forest under and around a giant 80' black walnut, and researching plants and designing polyculture patches as understories for the various orchard trees.

Unfortunately, it turns out that Theressa and I aren't a fit for the community, so we'll be moving out this month into a new house Theressa bought, half a mile away. Hopefully we can stay connected as part of the larger network of permaculturists and peak oil people in the neighborhood, still working together to do the research and knowledge dissemination to blunt the coming economic and energetic crashes. I'm very excited to see how this property continues to develop, and hope to watch the trees I've planted develop into fruit-producing, integrated elements in the whole site design!

I learned a lot here about living in community, as this was the first intentional community I've ever joined. I've lived with housemates in the past, but there's a huge difference between co-habitation where you all live your own lives, vs a community actively trying to work towards shared goals. Although the key to success in both situations is probably the same: communication. That's something our culture doesn't train us on very well...hopefully what I've learned will help in whatever future community situations I'm in, as I expect that whatever solutions arise for Peak Oil et al, response as and in community is going to be a necessity.

Mossback Farm internship, August-October 02005

I spent two months from the end of August to the end of October interning for Rich and Val at Mossback Farm, a 40 acre permaculture farm in Yamhill, Oregon, about 40 miles southwest of Portland. Their main product has been pastured chickens for broiling and for eggs, though they've now discontinued both as high feed prices and increasing energy costs make the business uneconomical. It was a wonderful experience, giving me the chance to experience country living, slow down and relax a bit, and learn a lot about permaculture and on-the-ground aspects of animal husbandry.

Besides the chickens, I helped care for their pigs, sheep, and young steers, which mostly involved daily feeding and watering, with once or twice weekly moves of the animals from one patch of pasture to the next, controlled via portable electric fencing. The most memorable moment of my internship was slaughter day for the lambs--not so much for the slaughter and skinning process itself (though that was a new and unique experience for me), but for the half hour we spent chasing escaped sheep across the pasture, sprinting in work boots to try to head them off and herd them back towards their pen, reading their eyes and faking with them as they juked and tried to slip past reminded me of and made me miss playing ultimate frisbee!

I'm really glad I was involved in the fascinating project of ripping the soil along Mossback's three seasonal creek channels, staking out routes leading from the creek channel downstream, but looking like they go "up" the bank because the fall of our stakes was less than the fall of the creek itself. We then had a bulldozer guy come in and drive along the routes with two tines embedded two feet in the ground, creating deep gouges and breaking up the hard clay. The idea is that we've created massive drainage ditches for water to flow through during the heavy winter rains, pulling water out of the creek and onto more of the land than would normally absorb the rain. If all works as planned, Rich and Val will start noticing their seasonal pond and their creeks lasting longer, eventually becoming year-round water sources. I look forward to revisiting the farm in the future to see how things develop!

Rich and Val have a great library, including Permaculture Activist back issues, books by Joel Salatin about small-scale livestock keeping for direct marketing, books by Daniel Quinn, and a wide range of other agriculture and permaculture-oriented literature. I spent most of my spare time reading through their library, and didn't come close to exhausting it! On top of that, Rich is a huge storehouse of permaculture information, and it was wonderful to be able to pick his brain on all kinds of subjects.

I discovered that I could actually enjoy living in the country, something I'd never really contemplated before. The quiet and the space to manage a sizable landscape is wonderful, and I don't mind the isolation since I'm practically a hermit anyway. I could really see myself pursuing the self-sufficiency thing on a plot of land and enjoying the lifestyle, a path Theressa is interested in but which I've been hesitant to pursue. This realization doesn't change my immediate plan of staying in the city to help Portland through the changes coming down the line, but it opens up whole new possibilities if I decide in the future that I don't want to do the city thing...

All in all, the internship was a great experience. I'm really glad that I had the opportunity, and very grateful to Rich and Val for welcoming me onto their farm and sharing so much with me.