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.