Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Notes on perennial and self-seeding roots

We held an open house root tasting a couple of weekends ago, to let people taste samples of more than fifteen roots. I wrote information sheets for each root, and thought it might help others if I typed up those notes and shared them here.

See also part 2

As always, refer to the Plants for a Future database for full details on plants. The information I give here is based on our experiences in our particular location.

I present the roots in approximate order of importance or desirability for us in our current yard. I'll make another post soon giving a description of our root strategy (how many of which kinds of roots for harvest in which times of year), based on our experimentation with many roots over the last 5 years.


About Inulin

I've noted some roots as "INULIN ROOT", which means the root stores much of its starch in the form of inulin. Humans (some? many? all?) can't digest inulin, so we don't get full calories from it. Good for diabetics and people limiting calories. Not so good for subsistence gardens!

Inulin does feed probiotics in our large intestines, creating a good bacterial balance there. But the byproduct of the bacteria feeding on the inulin is gas.

Dealing With Inulin

Ease yourself into eating inulin roots, starting wtith small portions. Some people seem to deal with inulin beter than others, so see how your body adjusts as you eat more.

Ways to transform inulin into more digestible sugars:

  • Wait to harvest til after hard freezes
  • Could you freeze roots in a freezer to simulate that?
  • Wait to harvest til late winter or early spring, when the plant has converted its inulin into more mobile sugars in preparation for new growth.
  • Cook a long time. Native americans steam-cooked camassia 24-48 hours. John Kallas discovered through experimentation that pressure-cooking camass for 9 hours archieves inulin conversion, consistent with other info I've found online talking about 9 hours at 200 degrees Fahrenheit to make the inulin digestible.


Skirret - Sium sisarum

Our hands-down favorite root for its taste and ease of growing. See my previous Skirret Crop Summary post for many more details.

Edibility: Roots raw or cooked. Carrot/parsnip taste, and very sweet. Crisp when raw, smooth texture cooked. Only drawback is woody core of many roots.

Growth: Clumping to 3' tall (first year plants) up to 6' tall (older plants). Foliage somewhat open, allowing some light to groundcovers beneath. Roots radiate downward from crown like octopus tentacles.

Harvest: You need not harvest each year; older plants just keep developing more, larger roots (possibly with less of a woody core than first year plants?) Dig any time from early or mid fall (leaves on some plants die down early) til late spring when new growth has sapped the energy from the roots. Requires serious soil disturbance to get entire spread of roots.

Culture: Full sun to full shade, moist soil to super dry. Quite the low-maintenance survivor.

Yield: Still pinning down numbers, but seems to range from .25 pound per square foot per year in shade/crappy conditions, to a bit more than .5 pound in good conditions.

Mashua - Tropaeaolum tuberosum

A perennial, tuberous nasturtium.

Edibility: Leaves and flowers have spiciness of annual nasturtiums, plus flowers taste sweet. Root tastes very hot when raw, like a white icicle radish, but mild when cooked. The writer at Radix hates the taste of mashua, but ours taste fine to us, and no one at our root tastings has ever complained of a disgusting taste.

Growth: Vigorous vine, can reach at least 10' high. Top growth dies in hard frost.

Harvest: Dig all tubers out after hard frost kills top growth. Tubers too close to the soil surface will probably get killed by winter cold, but plant will probably come back the next year from tubers you missed deeper down. (This applies to mild winter climates such as in Portland, OR.) Store dug tubers in a frost protected place and eat as desired.

Culture: Full sun, but might benefit from some shade during heat of summer. Provide vertical support. May work well with jerusalem artichokes in a polyculture--we'll try it this year.

Yield: We got 15 pounds this year from 3 plants, each vine occupying about 1 square foot, though they did sprawl a little onto other plants. Very high yield!

Jerusalem Artichoke - Helianthus tuberosus (INULIN ROOT)

A super productive and low maintenance perennial tuberous sunflower. This root would top our list of most useful if not for the inulin content.

Edibility: Roots raw (crispy and juicy) or cooked. Nice flavor, and can be eaten in bulk. The author at Radix describes eating blanched shoots.

Growth: Stalks to 10' tall (some varieties are shorter), with multiple sunflowers. Patches spread outward somewhat slowly.

Harvest: Dig any time from fall (after top growth has died off) through mid-spring when the tubers hollow out, having sent all their energy up into the new shoots. Harvest on an as-needed basis, since tubers store much better in the ground than in the house. You'll never find all the tubers when you dig, so the patch will come back next year just as strong.

Culture: Full sun to full shade. Drought tolerant. Super easy to grow; you'll have a hard time trying to stop it once you get it started!

Yield: Incredibly productive. One isolated plant yielded about 5 pounds per square foot (but it benefited from no plant competition anywhere around it.) We haven't nailed down the numbers yet, but it seems that our main patch in partial sun and with very little irrigation yields 1-2 pounds per square foot.

Wapato - Sagittaria latifolia

Edibility: Root raw (unpleasant taste) or cooked (nice taste, kind of like a potato.) Our friend eats the leaves and flowers. Samuel Thayer eats young leaves and flower stalks, both cooked.

Growth: Aquatic or swamp plant, growing about 2' above the water.

Harvest: Fall through early spring. Loosen the mud with your feet or a shovel, then gather the tubers as they pop up to the surface of the water!

Culture: Pond or some water-holding container, with a few inches of dirt in the bottom.

Lily - Lilium sp.

Edibility: Root raw (I generally haven't liked the taste of raw bulbs) or lightly cooked (sweet, with fine texture). Some species have edible flowers. Asiatic lily varieties supposedly have more tender and less fibrous roots than oriental varieties.

Growth: Clumpers to 3'-6' tall. Reproduces from bulb offsets or seed. Different species or varieties may spread faster than others in different gardens.

Harvest: Can dig in fall after leaves die back, but the bulb tastes sweeter after a hard frost. Leave smaller offsets behind to keep growing.

Culture: Likes full sun for its top growth, with its bulb shaded. May work well in polycultures with lower growing groundcovers.

Yield: Not sure of ongoing sustainable yield. We've harvested large bulbs from each plant, but we started with medium sized bulbs purchased from flower vendors. The determining factor will be how quickly they reproduce and grow from seed or small offsets.

Yacon - Smallianthus sonchifolia (INULIN ROOT)

Edibility: Root raw or cooked. Has a crispy watery texture with slight sweetness. Leaves and stems cooked; we haven't tried them.

Growth: Large clumper. Ours have grown 6' tall and wide when happy. Usually closer to 3' x 3'. Top growth sensitive to light frosts, dies completely in hard frost.

Harvest: Dig after hard frost kills top growth, but before ground freezes enough to damage roots! Must store in sheltered place; roots will die if left in ground over winter. Save knobbly tubers from root crown for replanting. Eat the larger, lower roots.

Culture: Full sun. Wilts if not kept well watered.

Yield: We got 15" pounds from one of our 6' plants, a bit more than .5 pounds per square foot. Not that large a yield, especially considering the high water content and inulin.

Yellow asphodel - Asphodeline lutea

Edibility: Shoots cooked (we haven't tried them), flowers raw (very sweet). Root cooked, with a mild nutty flavor.

Growth: Main leaves clumping and low, spreading slowly as the roots multiply. Flower stalk takes a few years to appear, then grows 3'-4' tall. Main leaves go dormant for summer drought, growing from autumn til the next summer. Fills a useful time niche!

Harvest: Any time of year, but supposedly roots are best during dormant period. Easy to divide and replant while harvesting roots.

Culture: Full sun, maybe some shade? Drought tolerant.

Yield: Seems low so far, maybe .25 pounds per square foot? Great potential though as a winter grower intercropped with plants like oca or good king heny which take over after the asphodel dies back in summer. Also valuable as one of only a few summer harvestable perennial roots.

Oca - Oxalis tuberosa

Edibility: Leaves and flowers raw or cooked (we don't use them). Root raw (oxalic acid flavor, like sorrel) or cooked.

Growth: Low growing clumper, staying small (about 1' around) until late summer, when it explodes in growth and can get up to 4' diameter with dense foliage. Tops fairly sensitive to frost. Should work well as a groundcover with taller clumpers above it, or by utilizing its time niche with something utilizing space until late summer, then harvested to allow the oca to fill out.

Harvest: Dig all tubers after tops have been killed by frost, but before a hard freeze penetrates to the roots and damages them. Store roots in sheltered place, eating as desired. Replant from stored tubers next spring. (Though possibly tubers deep enough in the ground would survive the winter and regrow on their own in the spring.)

Culture: Seems to like protection from the blasting sun of the summer.

Yield: We've had pathetic yields in some years, but a decent yield of 17 ounces from our single plant this year.

Dandelion - Taraxacum officinale (INULIN ROOT)

Edibility: Leaves, flowers, flower stalks, crown raw or cooked. Root raw (super bitter!) or cooked about 10 minutes leaving only mild bitterness.

Growth: You know how a dandelion grows!

Harvest: Root seems good any time of year, and at any age of root, young or old. Very surprised people don't talk about this as a crop!

Culture: No need to encourage dandelions, really! Just let them grow where they like until they're in your way, then harvest the root.

Yield: Doesn't seem huge, but we're not trying to intensively cultivate it. Just harvesting the excess volunteers as bonus crops.

Scorzonera - Scorzonera hispanica (INULIN ROOT)

Edibility: Leaves, flowers, and flower stalks raw or cooked. Root cooked. Skin of root seems to have an unpleasant flavor, so best peeled?

Growth: Basically a giant dandelion. Leaf pattern different, but flowers very similar. Grows to 4'-6' tall. Prolific seeds, so should be able to self-seed well. Seeds germinate in spring or autumn.

Harvest: Root seems good any time of year.

Culture: Full sun or partial shade. Seems drought tolerant.

Burdock/Gobo - Arctium lappa (INULIN ROOT)

Edibility: Leaves, shoots, flowering stem raw or cooked. Root raw or cooked, but older roots supposedly best cooked.

Growth: Biennial taproot, aking basal rosette of leaves in first year, then tall flower stalk (to 3'-5') in second year. Self seeds well.

Harvest: Dig first year roots after hard freeze kills top growth. Roots can grow up to 3' deep, so expect a lot of digging if you want to get it all.

Culture: Full sun to part shade.

Sea kale - Crambe maritima

Edibility: Leaves and flowers raw or cooked with nice mild flavor and fairly tender texture. Roots cooked, with mildly sweet flavor, pretty nice.

Growth: Clumper to about 3' tall and wide.

Harvest: Probably best to harvest only during dormant season in late fall and winter? You can steal some roots from the edge of the plant and leave the main clump, or dig out the entire clump for root harvest and division/replanting.

Culture: The literature says full sun to partial shade, but our neighbors have a very happy plant in heavy shade.

Yield: Probably not high; treat the roots as a bonus crop when you want to divide a plant or knock back its size a bit.

Camas - Camassia sp. (INULIN ROOT)

Edibility: Roots cooked. When fully cooked to convert all the inulin into sugars, the roots taste very sweet.

Growth: Spring ephemeral bulbs, growing from early or mid spring through early or mid summer. Foliage generally 1-2' tall, with flower stalks a bit higher.

Harvest: Ideally dig during dormant season (summer through early spring). Leave the smaller bulbs behind to keep the patch going.

Culture: Full to partial sun. Can handle waterlogging during the winter and go dormant for the summer drought.

Solomon's seal - Polygonatum commutatum

Edibility: Young shoots cooked (basically a shade tolerant asparagus substitute). Root cooked (some sources describe a bitterness, but our first sample tasted sweet and delicious!)

Growth: Colony spreading at medium speed, growing to 3' tall.

Harvest: We harvested a small sample in the winter, after a hard freeze. Samuel Thayer only likes the roots in early spring.

Culture: Full shade to partial sun.

Yield: I wouldn't expect a large yield, especially if you're harvesting the shoots as a spring vegetable. But the roots tasted delicious enough for me to look forward to harvesting some from time to time as a means of keeping a patch in check.

Dahlia - Dahlia pinnata , Dahlia rosea (INULIN ROOT)

We grew this a few years ago, but the taste of the roots didn't excite us. The plants failed to regrow from the roots I left behind after the harvest, and we didn't care enough to seek out new starts. However, I've thought it'd be worth exploring available varieties to find some that taste better, and an article by William Woys Weaver confirms my hunch.

Edibility: Flower petals raw, root cooked.

Growth: Clumper to about 3' tall. Top growth sensitive to frost; roots may need some protection to overwinter in the ground.

Harvest: Dig roots as needed any time after top growth dies. May require serious soil disturbance?

Culture: Full sun.

Evening primrose - Oenothera biennis

Edibility: Leaves, flowers, seedpods, and seed raw or cooked. We use leaves and flowers heavily in salads. We haven't harvested many seeds, since they're small and fiddly. Root cooked.

Growth: Clumping biennial self-seeded. Makes basal rosette of leaves the first year, then tall stalk to 4'-5' tall with leaves and flowers the second year.

Harvest: Dig root of first year plant in fall or winter.

Culture: Full sun? Drought tolerant. Seed needs disturbed ground to germinate; harvesting the roots does the tirck.

Creeping bellflower - Campanula rapunculoides

Edibility: Leaves and flowers raw or cooked. I find the leaves to taste slightly unpleasant raw, so I mostly cook them. Roots raw or cooked.

Growth: Aggressive runner to about 2'-3' tall. Died down for s last year in summer drought, then again after hard freeze.

Harvest: We have not found substantial roots at the edge of a patch, only in the center. Roots may be available year round?

Culture: Full sun to full shade, though not sure how well it yields in shade. Drought tolerant (dies down.)

Unknown bellflowers - Campanula sp

I received seed supposedly of Adenophora lilifolia and A. pereskiifolia, but as far as I can tell, both turned out to be some Campanula species. They could be the same species, or maybe two separate but similar species!

Edibility: All Campanula species have edible leaves and flowers, raw or cooked, often mildly sweet. Some species have edible roots, raw or cooked.

Growth: Clumpers to about 2' tall, very slowly spreading. Make many seeds, so may self-seed well. Ours died down with the summer drought, then again with winter freeze.

Harvest: Maybe usable as a summer root? Definitely harvestale in winter.

Culture: Full to part sun. Seems drought tolerant by dying down.

Yield: Doesn't seem high for roots, though we've harvested abundant flowers.

Daylily - Hemerocallis sp (INULIN ROOT)

Edibility: Leaves and young shoots cooked (we haven't tried these.) Flowers, flower buds raw or cooked. Root raw or cooked.

Growth: Medium fast runner, about 3' tall.

Harvest: Roots during dormant season (only?). Maybe year round?

Culture: Full sun to par shade. Drought tolerant.

Yield: Low root yield, more of a bonus crop when you divide or reduce a clump.

Giant sea kale - Crambe cordifolia

Edibility: Flowers raw or cooked, leaves raw (though too tough for me to enjoy them raw) or cooked. Roots cooked, but unpleasantly bitter.

Growth: Clumper to 6' tall and wide.

Harvest: Probably best to harvest only during dormant season in late fall and winter? You can steal some roots from the edge of the plant and leave the main clump, or dig out the entire clump for root harvest and division/replanting.

Culture: The literature says full sun to partial shade, but our neighbors have an extremely happy plant on the north wall of their house.

Yield: Probably not high; grow this primarily for the leaves, with the root as a bonus crop.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Crop summaries: Indian breadroot, Psoralea esculenta and Balsamroots, Balsamorhiza sp

Indian Breadroot, Psoralea esculenta

I've tried off and on to grow indian breadroot since 2006, and have never successfully established any plants.  I direct sowed some seeds when we first moved here in 2006, into brand new beds of imported garden soil mix.  (I don't remember the seed source.)  Some of the seeds did germinate, but the plants eventually vanished.  I don't know what happened, as I didn't do a very good job of keeping track of everything that first year.

I've tried at least two years since then to start the plants in pots and transplant them out.  I know in two years I successfully started them, most recently this year with fresh seed from Praire Moon.  But every plant I've planted out has failed to thrive, and eventually withered up and died.  This wouldn't account for the first year's failure in new garden soil mix, but perhaps the current fungal-dominated nature of the yard doesn't provide the right habitat for these prairie plants?  (I did receive inoculant for the batch this year, so they should have had their necessary symbiotic bacteria.) Or perhaps the slugs, which seem to avidly eat any leguminous seedlings, keep killing the breadroots before they can establish?

Balsamroots, Balsamorhiza sp
Similarly, I've tried at least two or three years since 2007 to establish balsamroots here, trying three different species: B. saggitata (National Germplasm Repository source), B. deltoidea (Inside Passage), and B. hookeri (National Germplasm Repository.) As with the indian breadroots, every time I've planted out what seemed like successful starts in pots, they failed to thrive in the ground, and eventually withered away. This year I kept all the starts in their own individual pots, thinking maybe they needed to grow large before being set into the ground. I didn't baby the pots a whole lot, but did keep them watered and with decent sun access, just like all my nursery pots. The balsamroots never grew very large, and many or all seem to have died off. Maybe they simply died off for the summer drought season (they're adapted to dry rocky areas with our summer dearth of rain), and will resume growth in the spring. But I'm not holding my breath. Again, I wonder whether the soil of our yard and the potting soil of our pots lack some associates the plants need to thrive?

I have to say, it's a lot easier to write up the outright failures--much less to say about them! I have a lot more of them to cover, some with more interesting nuances of failure. But I'll also try to put some more time into writing up the successful plants.

Crop summary: Gai Lohn, Brassica oleracea alboglabra

I've tried two or three different years to grow gai lohn, which Eric Toensmeier in Perennial Vegetables describes as a perennial usually grown as an annual, with potential to be grown in a perennial cropping system.  I got seeds from Richters in 2008.  I might have tried some direct seeding (if so, nothing came of that), but I definitely got two or three decent starts growing in pots.  When I planted those out, only one managed to flower, and it did so as a small, stunted pathetic plant.  None of them overwintered.

I don't remember whether I tried to grow them in 2009.  If so, they failed.

This year, 2010, I started them in pots again, and got two or three decent ones to plant out.  They quickly succumbed to slugs or some other pest.

I give up for now, with the hordes of slugs in this yard.  Until I integrate ducks, tender seedlings of brassicas and legumes have a very hard time establishing.  For now I'll be content with the sea kales (regular and giant, Crambe maritima and cordifolia), tree collards, and hopefully perennial "Western Front" kale, all of which do suffer somewhat from slug attacks but have already established well enough to at least survive and give some yield.  (Our Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis) plants are also doing fine, with the parent plants even making new volunteer seedlings, but I don't find their leaves very useful.  We only need to grow three of them, for their broccoli raab-esque flower buds & flowers.)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ecoroof Final Planting Plan

Over the last month, we implented the final stages of the ecoroof: putting up pond liner, then soil, then planting the plants!  At some point I'll write up more details on the mechanical design of the ecoroof.  With this post I just want to share the final planting plan.

The planting plan images give most plants by latin name.  For common names, you can refer to my original planting plan post. Or for common names plus details on edible & other uses, you can look them up in the Plants for a Future database.

The Porch roof measures about 7' x 19', and supports about 8" of soil depth.  It slopes from the south (top edge) to the north (bottom edge).   It has metal roofs from the rest of the house draining into it from the south and the east.  We have a relatively hard time accessing this roof, especially in the rainy months due to the slippery metal roof of the rest of the house.  So we designed this to not require harvesting during those months.  It should yield dry month harvests of garlic, elephant garlic, and shallots; a number of berries; hopefully some seed crop from perennial flax and Good King Henry; and roots of unknown quality from the Sedum telephium (these may require harvesting in late fall after frosts, so would fall into the rainy season.)

I figured we can walk along the edges of the metal roofs to access the planting areas, so we only needed five "stepping stones" of about 2' x 2' to access the interior.  (We're not actually using stepping stones, just marked off areas not planted in the regular crops.)

I divided the roof into roughly 3' x 3' planting squares.  The "stepping stones" occur mostly in the lower set of squares, so disproportionately remove planting space from those squares.

The Sunspace roof measures about 13' x 29', and supports about 5.5" of soil. It slopes from the north (top edge) to the south (lower edge).  A metal roof from the other part of the house runs into the top edge of the ecoroof.

We have a ladder set up outside our back door to give easy access to this roof, so we designed it to provide several leaf crops (Alliums, violets, Campanulas, and more) for harvest a few times a week.  We planted many of the same species as on the porch roof, plus a few new ephemerals (tulips, Triteleia, Brodiaea, Erythronium, muscari, and scilla), breadseed poppy as a seed crop, and a few other miscellaneous plants.

I figured again that we can walk along the edge of the metal roof to access the north edge of the upper planting bed.  I set a second main path 4' down the roof to give access to the other side of that planting bed, with keyhole paths going down the roof from that main path to give access to the rest of the lower beds.

Most of the planting patches measure about 3' x 4'.

UPDATE 7-23-11: We wound up planting Agastache foeniculum instead of Hyssopus officinalis. We never planted any tulips. Instead of the scilla, we planted Tigridia pavonia.

For both roofs, we hope to get a little extra summer moisture from the condensation that forms on the metal roof and runs down it into the ecoroof areas.  It won't be a lot, but it may help support plants at those edges which otherwise wouldn't survive.

For both roofs, we planted the lower edge with camassia, assuming that the soil will be somewhat boggy but that the camassia can deal with it.

For both roofs, Tulsi wanted the edge plantings to look pretty, since people will see them from the ground.  The Camassia for the lower edges met her needs there.  For the west edges we planted sedums with nice flowers, daylilies, yellow asphodel, and perennial flax.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Extrafloral nectaries

Just learned something new while watching the videos of Will Hooker's college permaculture class. Many plants have extrafloral nectaries (ie, not flowers) which exude nectar. Scientists theorize the plants do this as a symbiotic relationship with beneficial insects such as ants and predatory wasps, who keep other herbivorous insects in check.

So for permaculture design, which emphasizes scattering beneficial insectary plants through your garden or food forest, this greatly enlarges the number of species you can use to achieve this goal. I suspect that if you have a wide diversity of plants in your system anyway, then you might not even have to deliberately plan any insectaries for nectar. You'd still need to plan out the pollen-providing plants, though. Of course this depends on more information on when exactly the extrafloral nectaries produce; I don't know whether the plants exude their nectar all the time they're in leaf, or just in certain seasons, or only if they're suffering from predation, or what. I'll have to start observing plants to figure this out!

Extrafloral nectary plants by family

Extrafloral nectary plants by genus

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Question: Fragaria chiloensis for fruit, and largest bulbed spring ephemerals?

I'm putting these questions "out there" because I can't find much info through the research I've done. Hopefully someone will stumble upon these and share some good info!

Does anyone know of any selections of Fragaria chiloensis (the native coast strawberry) with better or worse fruit production? Or just have any experience growing them for fruit? These plants should survive on an ecoroof, so I'd like to use them as a groundcover between taller plants.

And, any thoughts on the largest sized corms (bulbs) of the edible spring ephemerals Camassia, Triteleia, Brodiaea, Erythronium, and Dichelostemma? Or have extra corms to share or trade? These should also work well on an ecoroof, plus they fill a useful understory niche in forest gardens, so it seems well worth identifying and breeding for larger bulbs. Here's a little rundown of what I've come across, though I have little personal experience:

-Camassia: Eric Toensmeier in _Perennial Vegetables_ says C. cusickii bulbs get two to three times as large as those of C. quamash.

-Erythronium: Samuel Thayer in _Nature's Garden_ says the western species E. grandiflorum has larger bulbs than most other species. Natives would sometimes harvest hundreds of pounds of them at a time in the spring. By comparison, it takes Thayer about an hour to pick one cup of his native E. americanum.

-Triteleia: T. laxa "Humbolt Star" is supposed to get huge bulbs instead of making many offsets. So it'd be a lot easier to harvest, though you'd have to pay more attention to allowing for good reseeding.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sustainable and humane rabbit keeping

Two aspects of common small-scale rabbit operations have kept me from seriously considering keeping them for meat: the prison model (each adult rabbit in his or her own tiny cage, allowed each other's company only to mate) and the importation of alfalfa pellets or hay as feed. I dislike having to buy in feed for our animals, as I'm a cheapskate by nature, and I don't know any easy efficient ways to close the nutrient loop to make the importation of such resources sustainable. We get around that problem with our chickens by only feeding them waste products from civilization--excess bread donated by the bakery down the street, and produce scraps from the local food co-op. But I don't know of any waste streams to tap for protein-rich rabbit food, and I can't even come up with a good model to have the rabbits free-range for some of their own food.

I assume I don't have to go into any detail about why the one-rabbit-per-cage model turns me off. I don't visit commercial animal prisons (AKA "zoos") and I don't intend to start one in our yard.

Many months ago I stumbled across this article (PDF) that changed my perception of the food supply for domesticated rabbits. Basically, researchers fed Soviet Chinchilla rabbits nothing but black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) leaves at a rate of about 14 ounces per rabbit per day for 56 days, and the rabbits not only didn't die, but actually gained an average 10.4 grams per rabbit per day!

Black locusts grow like weeds in our yard. We have an existing hedgerow of them which we plan to coppice for rot-resistant lumber and for firewood. Now when I look up into those trees, instead of leaves I see rabbits all over the branches! The locusts also grow like weeds through the rest of the yard, popping up all over the place and needing the occasional cutting or yanking. Definitely a low-maintenance supply of leaves! Obviously we wouldn't want to feed the rabbits 100% black locust, but it could probably form the backbone of their food supply. We can supplement by growing some alfalfa (we have some growing already for the chickens, but they don't touch the stuff?!), comfrey (I haven't read it yet, but the freely downloadable book Russian Comfrey by Lawrence Hills goes into great detail on its use as animal fodder), the nitrogen-fixing tiny floating aquatic plant azolla,and possibly Paulownia tree leaves (supposed to be good fodder for rabbits, chickens, and other livestock--though again our chickens haven't taken to them in my couple of tries to feed it to them.) And of course miscellaneous excess greens from our garden or trimmings from veggies could go to the rabbits.

This method will take a bit of time per day to cut the fresh material and take it to the rabbits, but as long as enough black locust trees are managed properly in rotation, it should provide fairly efficient ongoing leaf cuts, while also providing firewood a bit at a time.

Inspired by this new information on rabbit feed possibilities, I did some research into alternatives to the prison model, and quickly found a few references to keeping rabbits in colonies. I haven't researched enough to really say much about it, or even to provide links to the best sources, so just search for yourself if curious. Basically you just have to provide a predator-proof fenced area over soil, or a decent sized building with plenty of straw, and the does will create their own burrows and set things up how they like. You can provide nest boxes, which the does may or may not use. Some people successfully allow their buck to live full-time with the does; others find that the buck over-breeds the does, not allowing them any down-time between litters to recover from the last batch. Of course you still have to provide food and water, but you can do so for the whole colony at once instead of having to put food into individual cages or buy expensive automatic systems.

My first thought for our yard was that we could keep a rabbit colony on our garage roof, which has convenient access to overhanging black locusts. We could also provide a ramp to the ecoroof over the sunspace, and occasionally allow the rabbits up onto the roof to graze. Just an idea for now; we'll see if and when I have time to pursue this further! (Our highest priority homestead expansion right now is to add ducks; the slug populations have exploded this year and made it nearly impossible for us to grow any annual veggies. Good thing we hardly bother with them anyway, but still...)

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Polyculture summary: stinging nettle & Ribes sp

Years ago, I read somewhere (maybe in Patrick Whitefield's How to Make a Forest Garden?) that Robert Hart (food forest originator and pioneer in England) allowed the naturally occurring nettles in his garden to grow up through his gooseberries and currants. The nettles provided many functions, including their normal nutrient accumulation, caterpillar host, delicious human spring green vegetable, and host for early harmless aphid species allowing aphid predator populations to build up in preparation for arrival of pest aphids on other plants. But Hart specifically allowed them to grow amongst his Ribes species because gooseberries and currants can take a lot of shade, such that the nettle supposedly didn't interfere with their crop, and the nettles kept birds out of the berries. Once harvest time arrived, Hart would cut the nettles down and use them as rich mulch, and harvest the berries.

I planted Urtica dioica (seeds from Horizon Herbs) nettle amongst our gooseberries and currants as a precaution against bird predation, and as a way to work nettles into the yard in a useful way. So far we haven't had problems with birds eating anything in the yard, except for scrub jays going for our hazelnuts. We get some birds in the yard, eating some seeds (bushtits eating parsnips, goldfinches & nuthatches & downy woodpeckers eating mullein), some cherries, some berries; but so far no major wipe-out-the-crop harvests. We don't mind sharing some!

Unfortunately, our Ribes have not done very well in terms of crop yield. We planted them in fall of 2006, so have had three years for possible harvests. I forget whether anything notable happened in 2008, but they may still have been establishing. Last year (2009), they got hit badly by an outbreak of currant sawfly caterpillars, who feed on the leaves of currants and gooseberries and stripped some of our bushes almost totally bare of leaves. I noticed their frass (poop) early on, but thought it was dirt the chickens had kicked up onto the leaves. Not until a week later did I notice the leaves being devoured and associate the frass with the worms. I immediately started hand-picking worms to introduce them to the chickens; then started shaking the upper branches to send worms to the ground for the chickens to devour; and after a few days trained the chickens to look on the lower leaves for worms. The chickens did regular patrol of the bottoms of the shrubs from then on, and I shook down the upper branches every few days, and we got the sawfly population under control to the point where the bushes all recovered fine, but they didn't bear any fruit last year. Note: I don't attribute these sawfly woes to the nettle; I just figured I should write up this experience while I'm at it.

This year, we had a few sawflies, but not too bad. We had hundreds of gooseberry fruits developing, and all looked promising. Then, while we were out of town for a week, much of the developing fruit vanished! Maybe birds came through and ate them (though I doubt it, since they hadn't ripened yet.) Maybe the bushes just dropped their fruit in the same way many fruit trees do a "June drop" of poorly pollinated or over-abundant fruit. (I heard from someone else in town that their gooseberries did the same thing.) But possibly we had problematic competition between the nettles and the Ribes, for either sunlight (seems unlikely given the shade-tolerance of Ribes), nutrients such as nitrogen (possible, though I do pee on the nettles & Ribes a lot, and the nettles are supposed to be deep-rooted and supplying nutrients to a polyculture), or water (most likely, since we don't water much during our three month drought season.) Even without specific disease or pest problems, our Ribes wound up looking pretty ragged by now, with curled and browned and maybe some yellowed leaves. So between the poor fruit yields and the general sadness of the plants, something isn't working.

Nettles are a pain. Duh. Managing nettles growing through fairly densely branched Ribes shrubs is an awkward pain. Trying to maneuver my hands down into the bottom of a sharp-thorned gooseberry bush to cut down nettles is a pain from two fronts.

Nettles grow fast! They stayed quite manageable for the first two or three years, but this year they've gotten established enough to really take off. They've spread runners into the paths (both the small 1.5' paths between Ribes shrubs in the tree understories, and into our main 2' and 4' paths between trees). It now requires more than an annual chopping of the nettles to keep them out of our way; I have to go in every week or two in the spring to cut them out of the paths. Of course, a lot of that maintenance dovetails well with harvesting them as my favorite spring vegetable. But once they start to flower, you're supposed to stop eating them because their calcium oxalate crystals can damage your kidneys, so at that point I'm just chopping (ouch! it stung me. ouch! damn gooseberry thorn.) the nettles to keep them out of the paths and try to open up some sunlight for the Ribes. And this kind of work, though it occurs in shorts & t-shirt warm weather, really demands pants and long sleeves to minimize masochism--which means I have to dress up special for the job. I haven't dressed up real special since I got old enough for my mom to stop dragging me to church; and I haven't dressed up semi special since I quit my corporate business casual job, and I don't often get around to dressing up special for the nettles either. So the paths get more and more overtaken and the Ribes seem to suffer and we got hardly any berries this year.

When we do get around to chopping back the nettle, we're now ripping out as much of the root as we can get, to slow it down a lot more than just cutting the aboveground growth would. I don't think we'll try to totally eradicate it, but we'll do more to set it back. In my next yard design, I'll definitely still include nettle, but as its own patch where I can just chop it back with a machete from the edges to keep it in check, rather than having to maneuver through and around other vegetation or branches to get at the nettles. I might try planting a shade tolerant low-growing evergreen (violets?) to provide a solid ground cover through the full yard. And for Ribes, I'll try a less robust and non-painful vine--perhaps annual garden peas or annual or perennial beans or Apios sp (groundnut) or Lathyrus tuberosus (earth chestnut - I did plant this originally in 2007 with the Ribes, but they've never taken off--maybe from chicken abuse, or maybe not enough water. Two plants were still alive early this spring, but growing slowly and definitely getting shaded out by the nettles. I wasn't able to find the plants a month ago.)

In conclusion, in the future, unless we have active bird predation problems, I would not plant a combination of nettles and berry shrubs again. Especially not nettles & thorny shrubs!

Harvest log update

Brief comments on our harvest log (see May 25th post for my original description of the log):

We've gotten good boosts in our calorie harvests since then due to berries (about one eighth of our calories, heavily weighted towards raspberries) and garlic (another one eighth of our calories). We got a decent crop of nearly 8 pounds of cherries from one of our mature seedling (bird-planted) trees, but that only gave us 2000 calories, enough to feed me for one day. (We did harvest the cherry seeds for another 1000 calories.) We've harvested almost 15 pounds of tomatoes, but it turns out they don't have very many calories--less than 100 per pound. We were forced to harvest our small hazelnut crop early, as the scrub jays had begun to spend time in the small trees each morning. I couldn't quite tell whether they actually took any nuts yet, but I think I noticed slightly fewer nuts each morning. I assume our harvest of green hazelnuts doesn't yield as many calories (less fat, less protein?) as properly ripe nuts would. We've gotten close to 3000 calories from potatoes, with a lot more still in the ground, and I expect we'll easily have 50 pounds of jerusalem artichokes and many pounds more of skirret come fall, which will help fill the root crop gap I mentioned in my first harvest log post. One of our two persimmon trees has perhaps 50 fruits developing on it, which should give us a large yield of relatively calorie-dense food.

More than a third of our calories still come from animal products (eggs, three dead chickens, squirrels and rats) which (as discussed in my first harvest log post) are not fed entirely from our yard, so the calorie accounting gets kind of murky with that.

Our harvest of greens has dropped off, caused by at least three factors: I got tired of eating so many of them; the rains of late spring and all of June kept the leaves wet and heavy but now they're dry and light weight; and I've been throwing myself back into the house project and haven't taken the time to pick salads and cooking greens each day. I now estimate I could reasonably eat a year-round average of 8 ounces of greens per day.

We haven't tried to do a formal accounting of our time like we have with the harvests, but we estimate we spend at most an hour a day between the two of us to maintain and harvest the yard, including chicken and bee care. Not bad--if we could scale that up directly, it would mean about three hours a day to supply all the calories for one person. (This doesn't include time to prep things such as cleaning roots.) I've felt disappointed by just how few calories we're getting at this time, and by our yields of certain things, but I feel very happy with the input:output ratio we've achieved.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Crop summary: Woodland chervil, Anthriscus sylvestris

(Picture shows black locust canopy with annual garden peas on the left, and woodland chervil on the right, taller with lacy leaves)

I got excited about Anthriscus sylvestris, "Woodland chervil" or "Cow parsley" after reading Patrick Whitefield's "perennial alternative to annual chervil" description in How To Make a Forest Garden. I eventually established some plants in the heavily shaded area under our back yard fence-line black locust trees, where an initial few plants have multiplied into a dense thicket of mature plants and young seedlings. This proves woodland chervil's ability to grow and even thrive in dry shade--their position doesn't get much irrigation water from us, and the locust canopy above intercepts a lot of the scant late spring/early summer rainfall along with casting its dappled shade.

Woodland chervil puts out its carrot family flowers very early in spring, making it (with Myrrhis odorata, sweet cicely) a valuable beneficial insect nectary for that crucial time.

Unfortunately, the leaves, whether fresh and young, or older and mature, have a strong mostly unpleasant taste to my palate. I don't taste any of the aniseed flavor the annual chervil has, and notice that Ken Fern describes the leaves as tasting "somewhat less than wonderful." So although I might throw the leaves into a mixed salad in early spring when I don't have much else available, I don't see myself ever using the leaves very heavily.

I did plant a purple-leaved plant someone gave me, which she called woodland chervil. The leaves look much less divided to me than the regular plants, but otherwise I can believe I have the purple "Ravenswing" variety. The purple leaves taste much better to me than the regular plants, such that I think I could use them in bulk in a salad. But I need to verify that I'm working with the Anthriscus sylvestris species before I eat much of it.

I planted the original plants in the backyard chicken area, but just on the other side of a fence; they would not have established without protection. The mature plants might now coexist with the chickens if I removed the fence, but I'm sure their self-seeding would come to an end with all the scratching disturbance. Our chickens occasionally ate some of the regular green leaves early in the season, but they definitely don't devour the plants. So far my efforts to interest them in the green seeds have failed. I'll keep trying, especially with the mature seeds, in the hope that the plant may provide useful calorie-rich chicken fodder via its seeds.

I have nibbled a little myself on the immature seed. I haven't found any mentions of edibility of the seed, so I've only taken a few tastes so far, but I haven't suffered any ill effects. The seeds have some of the same flavor as the leaves, but not as strong and missing some crucial element that makes the leaves taste bad. I can see myself using the seeds in some bulk as a spice or garden snack. As the earliest seeds have matured, they've developed more fiber, so this use may end once they've passed beyond their green stage. Still, I sampled my first seeds almost three weeks ago, and the plants have more green seeds now and flowers getting ready to produce more seeds from scratch, so the season lasts a long time. Plus even fibrous mature seeds may work OK cooked in a dish.

Today I sampled two tiny roots for the first time, which Plants for a Future and other sources specifically list as edible. I really liked them! I took a couple of nibbles raw (though PFAF only lists them edible cooked), and found they had some of the same flavor as the leaves and seeds, but not terribly strong, and not with the extra unpleasant twist the leaves contain. I tasted some sweetness, too. I cooked the remaining root for a few minutes, then sampled again, and thought they'd lost some of their sweetness leaving them with just their strange but not-too-strong flavor. I don't think I would want to eat a big mess of 'em on their own. But I could easily see mixing them in with other roots or in a dish of some kind. We have a lot of young seedlings growing which will need thinning out for their own good, so I look forward to experimenting more with these and seeing how big their roots become and whether the taste changes.

I think I'll try introducing these into the shady, dry NE corner of our front yard, also under black locusts along the fence line. I'll use the better-tasting purple leaved variety if I can verify the species, since I would have much easier access to these plants in my daily greens-picking rounds than to the plants in the back yard. I haven't really figured out a good way to use that front NE area, but now I'm thinking a combination of woodland chervil; the existing edible rooted money plant (Lunaria annua, though the roots I've pulled out have never seemed very big); ground bean/hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata, already planted there and trying to establish a colony); and the native shoot/root/berry crop false solomon's seal (Maianthemum racemosum) may fill in the area well as an understory to the tree canopies.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Harvest log

Link to Harvest log

Since April 15th, we've weighed and recorded what we've harvested from our yard, to begin to quantify our caloric yield. We realize that we have way more greens than we need, and that the greens don't provide very many calories. We do not weigh or record excess greens that we cut down and use as mulch or feed to the chickens. So the calorie yield would be higher if we measured those as a potential export crop--but our focus is on feeding one or two people a balanced diet from this yard, so we're just tracking what we're actually eating and using.

We need to get more root crops in, but even those wouldn't get our calorie yield up very high--I don't see us eating more than 1 pound of roots per day per person, which would only supply 300 calories or so per person per day. Our berry crops will start yielding soon, which will increase our calorie harvests. I don't expect much from our young fruit trees this year--our Hollywood plum got hit hard by aphids and has dropped all but three of its plums; our Oullins plum in heavy shade only made a handful of flowers and I don't see any fruit, and our Stella fig has died back to the ground (I think I made a mistake cutting off its strong shoots from last year to propagate it). We might get some nuts in the fall, assuming we can get the harvest timing figured out before the squirrels & jays get them.

For this yard to provide a balanced, full-calorie diet, we'll need to focus on calorie-dense foods--seeds, nuts, eggs, and meat. We have four hazels, an english walnut, a black walnut, and a chestnut planted. (Plus one small live and one large dead yellowhorn, neither of which do us much good for a while--I'm pretty sure we need a pair for cross pollination.) I want to experiment with harvesting and using carrot seeds this year--fennel, coriander, Bunium bulbocastanum, maybe others.

We have a small ongoing egg yield, and have harvested two chickens in the last 40 days. These have provided more than half our harvested calories. But, probably half the calories we feed the chickens come from off-site resources from civilization's waste streams--not sustainable long term, and not indicative of what this yard can actually support. Also, we didn't harvest the two hens as part of a plan; one got sick (maybe a broken egg inside her), and a raccoon killed another before our neighbors chased him or her off, saving the hen carcass for us to eat. So our laying flock has dropped from 5 to 3 hens, which puts a big crimp in our ongoing egg calorie harvest. We did just get 4 new baby chicks, so the egg yield should pick up in 5-6 months.

I welcome questions and comments--I can add a lot more about my thoughts on our calorie measurements as I go if people want more. This measuring & calculating exercise has really helped me figure out some of the realities of feeding ourselves from this site.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Crop summary: Skirret, Sium sisarum

We've grown skirret in our yard since the first year we moved here. I obtained seed from the National Germplasm Repository for research purposes, and direct seeded them March or April 2006. Several plants grew up just fine, and betweeen propagating those vegetatively and volunteers appearing from seed, we've expanded to two or three dozen plants in the yard.

I haven't paid close attention to plant size, so don't take this as gospel. But first year plants reach maybe 18-24" tall and 18" wide. Presumably plants growing from seed attain a smaller size than those with the headstart of vegetative propagation. Our two or three year old plants grow much larger; I measured a two year plant just now and it's grown to 3' tall and 2.5' wide. If I recall correctly, a three year old plant last year in almost full sun reached 5' or 6' tall by the time it flowered in July. In that case, the height proved problematic--the plant put on much of its growth in the dry weeks of June, receiving neither rain nor irrigation. When we started irrigating with sprinklers in early July, the weight of the water bent the tall plant over, making it sprawl into the path. So this year we'll either irrigate sooner so the plants grow accustomed to the practice, or we'll stake up the tallest plants, especially those unsupported by other surrounding vegetation.

Skirret makes the typical carrot family flowers, which provide food for beneficial insects such as predatory wasps. Last year the plants in our yard began blooming July 4th; in 2007 they began July 11th. I didn't keep track of how long the bloom season lasted. It produces copious quantities of seed. I haven't seen any references to people or chickens eating the seeds, but I'd like to experiment with them, since they could provide substantial calories.

Right now we grow skirret to eat the octopus like clump of individual fingerlike roots, each up to 12" long and up to 3/4" thick, all branching out from the crown. We dig up the clump, shake or wash off a lot of the dirt, and cut off the roots from the underside. Then we divide and replant the crown, which has made 6-18 vegetative shoots which can be individually planted out, or just replanted as a group. Skirret also self seeds itself very well; it has begun volunteering itself throughout our yard near parent plants. If you want to propagate the plant more quickly, you could divide after the first year of growth and either eat the roots or replant them with the crown divisions to give the divided plants faster growth the next season. I don't remember whether our first year plants from seed or divisions usually flower the first year or not until the second, so I'm not sure how quickly you'll get seed production.

The pictures above came from first or maybe second year plants I took the pictures several years ago so I don't remember much detail, such as whether I had already removed any of the roots from the clump. Most of the plants I harvest these days have 5x to 10x that many roots attached.

We usually steam the roots for 10 minutes or so which sweetens them up even more than in their raw state, but they make a fine raw snack too. They taste like a carrot/parsnip combination, and leave me feeling well fed and full. Most descriptions of the root mention a woody core at the center of the root, but we find only our thinner, smaller roots have the woody core. We rarely mix skirret into other dishes, but if we do, we just use the fatter roots without any woody core, and save the thinner roots for eating on their own, by stripping the flesh from the woody core with our teeth. Usually we just steam a big mess of fat and thin roots and eat them as a side dish.

Plants grown for one year make smaller and fewer roots with higher likelihood of the woody core. So we usually grow them for two or three years before harvesting. I realized this year that skirret would probably work well grown along with cinnamon vines (Dioscorea batatas) which also works best if you let it grow for 2-3 years before digging and harvesting the roots. Dioscorea batatas shoots emerge very late in spring, which would give skirret a chance to use available sunlight for a few months before receiving light shade from the cinnamon vine growing up the bamboo poles we normally provide.

Our skirret has thrived with minimum care; it seems to handle drought to moderate moisture, and full sun to heavy shade just fine. I haven't paid close enough attention to harvests of roots in different conditions to know whether better growing conditions results in more or better (less woody) roots. Nor have I weighed any of my harvests to calculate productivity per square foot per year. I'll probably do some of that this fall.

Skirret stores in the ground through the winter. We harvest skirret as needed in its dormant season from fall to early spring, up until the new shoots get about 6" inches tall. I just noticed a description at Jonathan Bate's Permaculture Nursery saying "Roots can be detached and eaten fresh. Root harvest will not harm the plant." I read that to mean you could detach roots during the growing season by digging at the clump from the side and eat them on an ongoing basis. But when I tried it a few days ago, it yielded pithy soft roots which had no flavor and lots of fiber. I might try more such experiments later this summer and into the fall to find out when you can start harvesting decent roots.

We tried growing skirret with the chickens, protecting them for the first year in a cage, then digging out half the clump to eat while leaving half the clump in the ground. I thought perhaps the half left in the ground would grow vigorously enough to overcome chicken abuse. But the chickens won. We have chickens free-ranging our entire back yard all the time; this method would probably work better in a rotating paddock chicken setup, where plants would have a solid 3 weeks to grow before the chickens returned. I might try the experiment again with even better established plants.

As a tall clumping plant with plenty of foliage up high, skirret seems to grow fine with shorter plants all around it, such as peppermint or annual weeds. It also holds it own for us amongst other tall perennials such as fennel, lemon balm, and french sorrel.

We sell seeds mail order or in person, and (when available) sell starts for pickup only. See Discount Permaculture for more info.

As always, Plants for a Future has more helpful information on skirret.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why our tribe members should have a general skill base

Ran Prieur posted this which really resonated with me, and helps clarify one of the needs Tulsi and I listed in our Needs/Wants list on this blog: "All tribe members reasonably well-versed in all survival skills". Specifically, this statement by Ran encapsulates my thought: "I can see only one way to have a non-repressive society of any size. Every person has to have the ability, whether or not they use it, to connect their work (or the work of their close friends and family) directly to their food (and also shelter)."

Central powers (whether a civilized government or a tribe chief) have far less ability to control you if you know how to procure everything you need. Obviously you still need access to land, but we plan to take care of that part by moving to fairly remote wilderness with lots of land and few people. So as long as we each know how to procure food and water, and make shelter and clothing, we always have the option to move away from unwanted domination.

As a small note, I disagree with Ran's belief that complex human cultures are inevitable, and his belief that it will be impossible to limit cultures to hunter-gatherer tribes and permaculture villages in the future. So I'm not trying to promote his discussion and exploration of ways to have sustainable cities and universities and airplanes and computers. I just agree with his point that "For any system to control you, it must stand between your work and your food."

A related thread I've been thinking about: Sustainability more or less requires direct relationship with the beings you're using for your life. How can you give back more than you take when you take from other landbases you never visit, or from parts of your own landbase you rarely visit and don't really understand? Conceivably you could maintain sustainability by trading surplus you gather sustainably directly with other people who are doing the same. But given the unsustainable relationship almost every civilized human has with their landbase, it will take a lot of trust that your trade partner knows how to give more than they take to their landbase. I think any introduction of a middleman makes sustainability exponentially harder, since suddenly you're not even dealing with someone with a direct dependence on their landbase. The middleman profits from trade and probably does not have a direct connection to the landbase of either originating trade partner.

A section in Alan Weisman's Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World has really stuck with me. I don't remember the full details and don't have the book handy to refresh my memory, so feel free to correct me if I butcher important details. As I recall, the village was paying residents in the surrounding areas to harvest a naturally growing plant which hadn't had economic value in the past. As Gaviotas ramped up their use of the plant, they had to start employing middlemen to find more sources for the plant. At some point they discovered that at least one of the middlemen was procuring the plant from people who were obviously overharvesting it in their area. Although Gaviotas was able to detect and belatedly correct this excess harvest, I have to wonder how many other instances they didn't know about. If you need a middleman because you can't trade directly with the people supplying you materials, how can you expect to monitor all those sources for sustainable harvesting?

OK, enough theory--time to get out into the sunny garden!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Art of Not Being Governed

I just finished reading James Scott's book The Art of Not Being Governed, an examination of cultures of resistance to state and civilization, mostly focused on hill and mountain peoples of southeast Asia. I wound up skimming through some parts of the books, where the subject matter didn't interest me enough to plow through the somewhat academic and dry prose, but much of the content gave me some good insights into how we might craft our own lifestyle as a tribe to minimize state encroachment on our freedoms.

Before I go into some of the strategies which might help us, I'll mention an interesting but not directly relevant argument from the book. Civilized lowland valley farmers in southeast Asia have long considered their upland neighbors as primitive ancestral relics who stayed in the hills to continue their nomadic or semi-nomadic, horticultural (as distinct from agricultural) lifestyles while their descendents moved down into the valleys and progressed into civilized life. From my layman perspective on popular anthropological accounts of various hunter-gatherer and horticultural tribes, it seems the authors and the general public make the same assumptions or tell the same origin stories about non-settled tribes in other parts of the world--their cultures have endured for thousands of years in roughly the same form, lasting this long because they worked sustainably with their landbase. Scott makes a compelling argument in his book that, at least in the case of upland southeast Asia, the groups living there have formed and chosen cultures over hundreds or one thousand plus years of intertwined coexistence with civilization. The "friction of terrain" of steep mountains, dense jungles, malarial swamps, etc limited the reach of states, creating "shatter zones" of refuge. Millions of people chose Daniel Quinn's option of "walking away" from civilization, whether refugees of war or famine, escaped slaves, or peasants who decided the benefits of civilization didn't justify the taxes, corvee (forced) labor, dangers of plague, mass famine, war and conscription, and so on.

In good times for the states, and in good and bad times as a result of slavery, many hill people moved into the valleys to replenish the unsustainable population base of civilization. (Apparently, in southeast asian civilizations, and in western civilizations until about 200-300 years ago, civilized people died out faster than they could reproduce--civilizations could only keep themselves going by continuous population raids of mostly slaves from the hinterlands.) Waves of refugees would either integrate into existing hill populations, or push those populations further up into the mountains, creating complex frequently changing populations of no firm ethnic identity or tribal unity; just people adapting to pressures and circumstance. These people did not necessarily lack the knowledge of farming, hierarchical social structure, domestication of animals, literacy and so on. Rather, they chose to incorporate or leave out different elements to support the relationship to civilization that made the most sense to them in their situation. It makes me wonder how many of the "primitive" tribes of other areas of the world in fact have the same complex history of interactions with and partial origins in other collapsed civilizations. (The author specifically mentions the Siriono of Bolivia, whom Allan Holmberg in Nomads of the Longbow described as primitive, timeless hunter gatherers "apparently lacking the ability to make fire or cloth, innumerate, having no domestic animals or developed cosmology...Paleolithic survivors living in a veritable state of nature". New information since his book has definitively shown them to have formerly lived as crop-growing villagers until influenza & smallpox and enemy attacks with the risk of slavery led them to abandon their crops and become fully nomadic around 1920.)

Now on to lessons we can use for shaping our own choices of how to subsist and relate to civilization. Note that I don't much fear a scenario of zombie hordes from the cities pillaging the countryside for potatoes. Instead, I expect the greatest dangers to our freedom to come, as it presently does, from the monopoly of force of civilization. I think about the adaptations below primarily in terms of resisting gunpoint taxes, tribute, forced labor, etc, not in terms of evading individual people or loosely organized bands (though the principles will help with those sorts of relations, too.)

"Escape Crops"

Horticultural (such as permaculturally designed) cultivation of crops can support mobility and freedom from civilization. "Escape crops" meet one or more of these criteria:

  • Well adapted to terrain difficult to access - high rugged mountains, swamps, deltas, etc
  • Staggered maturity to avoid easy harvesting of large quantities all at once
  • Easily hidden
  • Fast growing
  • Requiring little care
  • Little value per unit weight and volume (not worth transporting great distances)
  • Grow below ground (root crops)

State repelling features

  • Physically mobile group, widely dispersed, likely to fission into new and smaller units when under external pressure. This probably requires skill in hunting and gathering, nomadic pastoralism, or dispersed horticultural cultivation of escape crops.
  • Living far from centers of control, or in areas like roadless rugged mountains where "friction of terrain" increases the effective distance.
  • Highly egalitarian social structure which doesn't allow the state to get a foot in the door by making deals with a single person of power and influence. Elements which support such an egalitarian social structure:

    • Radical instability of tribal structure and identity
    • Autonomy of local groups
    • Capacity to shift to new territory and alternate subsistence strategies quickly
    • Ability to divide into small independent units whenever advantageous
    • Common property resources such as pasture, hunting grounds, and potential swiddens allows groups to strike out on their own and impede development of large, permanent distinctions in wealth and status characteristic of inheritable private property
    • Mixed portfolio of subsistence strategies -- foraging, shifting cultivation, hunting, trade, livestock raising, and sedentary agriculture
    • Different social relations, settlement patterns, and cooperation structures arise based on those different methods

After reading this book, I feel even more confident about the value of our plan to cgreate a permaculture homestead adjacent to national forest for hunting and gathering. That gives us secure "owned" property to allow us to experiment with crops and have a stable home base, while providing us the "commons" to allow relatively easy dispersal and fissioning once we have the necessary skills and if and when it becomes necessary or desirable.