Thursday, November 01, 2012

Nuts about acorns...

(and walnuts, and chestnuts, and ...)

Every autumn in Portland brings a great opportunity to stock up on the easiest staple foods around: nuts! Depending on the type, in an hour of gathering you can collect days or even weeks worth of calories, all free for the taking from parks, roadsides, and yards where owners find them a nuisance. Of course, you'll spend a lot more time actually extracting the nuts, but the cold dreary days of winter suit that task quite well. Roughly in order of ripening, Theressa and I used to forage:

The Nuts

Hazelnuts (aka filberts) - We never had much success with these, as squirrels and scrub jays always started harvesting early, before full ripening in late August or early September. Friends of ours have had success, so perhaps we didn't look often enough, or get the timing right, or find trees with enough nuts to have some left over after our nonhuman neighbors took their share.

English walnuts - Also very popular with squirrels and jays, but usually produced in enough abundance for us to enjoy some of the harvest as well. Easy to gather, easy to shell out, and generally liked by everyone, these formed the bulk of our nut harvests each year.
Walnuts started dropping in mid to late September and lasted into early or mid October.

Chestnuts - Delicious, sweet, reliably produced carb-rich nuts. Spiny burs protect these nuts from the squirrels until they fall, so by checking trees every day or two you can collect a lot from the ground before squirrels run off with them. (Other humans, especially asian folks who've traditionally eaten chestnuts as a staple, actively seek out the nuts, often getting to trees shortly after sunrise to check on the previous night's fallen goods.) Hurling sticks or short chunks of 2x4s into the trees encourages new nuts to drop right in front of you, allowing a much larger harvest. Look for trees at Laurelhurst Park (mostly along 39th, but also some in the interior), Fernhill Park (two massive trees), and within neighborhoods. I found a nice spot, unharvested by anyone else, off the ramp connecting NE 42nd Ave to Columbia Blvd. Be sure to understand the difference between horse chestnuts and edible chestnuts before trying to eat them.
Chestnuts have a similar start time as english walnuts, but last into late October.

Acorns - By far the easiest staple for us to collect in bulk. Their tannins discourage squirrels and other humans who prefer to hoard the easier nuts first, but once you get a routine for leaching the tannins the acorns become very usable, and probably no more time intensive for the caloric yield than most of the other nuts. Acorns make excellent poultry food, though you'll have to crush the shells a bit for the birds to access the meat.
Acorns start falling about the same time as chestnuts, but last into November or even later. The rains of October and November usually ended our harvesting due to mold attacks long before we actually ran out of nuts to harvest.

Black walnuts - After acorns, the easiest nuts for us to collect in bulk. The hand-staining hulls and thick shells slow down squirrels and other humans. I generally harvested them after the hulls started rotting, making it relatively easy to extract the shell; we then air dried them for a while before storage. I cracked them out by holding each nut on a large rock (or driveway, sidewalk, etc) with my left hand and smashing it with a hammer. I cut the shells further open as needed with wire cutters to extract all the meat. Compared to most other nuts we got much lower yields of calories per hour of extraction, but the quicker and more reliable gathering offsets that a bit, I love the unique flavor, and the caloric yield still pays off quite well.
We harvested black walnuts from early October well into November.

Ginkgos - Tasty nuts surrounded by dog-poopy flesh, borne on female trees. (Many people in cities plant males to avoid dealing with the fruit, so don't expect every ginkgo to yield nuts.) Much smaller nuts than the others, so less efficient to harvest and process in quantity, but can still yield a good supply, and they fall after we've finished harvesting the others. We noticed some Asian people foraging these, but not as avidly as with chestnuts, and we didn't see any other animals gathering them. Some people suffer rashes as allergic reactions, so use caution the first few times you experiment. (One friend got an itchy anus presumably from the nuts on the way out, another a rash on her hands from handling the fruit or the shells.) You need to cook the nuts (before or after shelling); don't worry about removing the pellicle skin.
These start falling in November and last perhaps into December.

Foraging References

Samuel Thayer wrote the best two foraging books I've found for temperate climates: The Forager's Harvest and Nature's Garden. He covers a limited number of plants, but in great detail based on direct personal experience. In Nature's Garden he tells you more or less everything you can know (from a book) about hazelnuts, black walnuts, and acorns; The Forager's Harvest describes butternuts.

Euell Gibbons has shorter sections on acorns, walnuts, butternuts, and hickory nuts in Stalking the Wild Asparagus. "Wildman" Steve Brill discusses hazelnuts, black walnuts, butternuts, chestnuts, hickories, and oaks in Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and not so wild) Places.

Credits

Thanks to Jasmine for inspiring this post's title with her email address!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Book review: The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe

I rate Carol Deppe's The Resilient Gardener the most important gardening book of the last few years, and simultaneously the most frustrating gardening book I've ever read. Deppe, also the author of Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, draws on more than three decades of experience in the Willamette Valley of Oregon to present a treasure trove of tips and tricks for Pacific Northwest (PNW) vegetable gardening. After touching on many common vegetables and devoting some space to orchards, berries, and nuts, she thoroughly covers five staples for calories, protein, and omega-3s: potatoes, eggs, squash, beans, and corn. Her distilled expertise alone makes the book a must-read for regional gardeners and highly valuable for growers in any temperate climate, and her thorough coverage of sustaining staple crops truly sets her book apart.

The Important

Yet Deppe goes far beyond the in-depth but limited scope of how to grow vegetables and these particular staples,. She provides a rough roadmap for each gardener to think through his or her unique circumstances of physical ability, available time, dietary restrictions and needs, land access, soil type, sun & water availability, local microclimate, regional climate, and regional history to design a practical plan for growing some or all of a nutritious, delicious, and balanced diet.

Complicating her task further, she doesn't work from a baseline of stable gardening conditions, but assumes any of a host of disruptions can and will strike at some point in every gardener's life: personal emergencies such as injuries or needing to care for loved ones; climate change causing more erratic and extreme weather events of heat, cold, floods, and drought; temporary or long-term electrical outages; fossil fuel shortages; transportation shutdowns; and other possible disasters. She presents many ideas for minimizing risk of crop loss in various situations, such as organizing plantings for mantainance of the most important crops with a minimum of time and water; experimenting now with learning what you can get away with in withholding water, fertilizer, and attention; and staggering plantings of multiple varieties of multiple crops over multiple sowings.

Deppe has experienced many health issues in her life, including celiac disease, lactose intolerance, difficulty digesting raw vegetables, weight problems, food cravings, sugar jags, salt sensitivity, a bad back, general aging, and restless leg syndrome. Over the years she's observed her body and its reactions to different foods and exercise, allowing her to tease apart what works for her and what doesn't. The detailed description of her process and findings helps guide your own questions about what foods work well for you and which cause subtle or obvious problems. Interestingly, Deppe's observations have pushed her in some ways towards a paleodiet: she doesn't eat gluten grains such as wheat, eats pastured animal foods rich in omega-3s, rarely eats dairy except for pastured butter, minimizes caffeine & sugar, and avoids juices & processed foods. (But she seriously diverges from the paleodiet by relying on legumes & corn loaded with anti-nutrients, and taking in the vast majority of her calories as carbs including heavy reliance on potatoes.)

Deppe has worked out an extremely effective approach to growing not just greens and nutritious vegetables for herself, but also a significant portion of her calories and protein in a scalable manner. She's experimented enough with different techniques and levels of water and fertilizer input that she could, given access to enough land, cope quite well with whatever disruptions come down the line. She's saving enough of her own seed to continue gardening if commercial seed sources shut down. And she clearly relishes the results in every meal; her multitude of uses for each staple crop and her recipes convey a deep delight in the flavors and textures of her produce.

The Frustrating

I love that Deppe has laid out such a solid plan for growing a complete diet in the PNW (and with some thought, experimentation, and adaptation, anywhere in temperate areas.) I hate that four of her five staple crops grow as labor intensive, soil and habitat disturbing annuals. And I feel uneasy with three of her five staples conflicting with the paleodiet.

But I have nothing better to offer! It took me six years of experimenting with perennial vegetables and crops in Portland to:

  1. Realize that we could easily grow greens & nutritious veggies but
  2. ...we couldn't possibly eat enough of them to get a substantial number of calories.
  3. Identify some potential perennial herbaceous staples and
  4. ...start to grow them out and eat them in greater quantity and
  5. ...realize that we should select and breed for better yields and
  6. ...experiment with polycultures for more efficient use of space and minimized harm from digging the root crops.
  7. Realize that we had a solid base of winter root crops, but very few summer perennial roots or other staples.
  8. Just begin to see yields from the nut and fruit trees.

I haven't come across perennial enthusiasts presenting anything nearly as comprehensive as Deppe's system, at least not for intensively cultivated small to medium scale systems in modern private land ownership patterns. I doubt that her level of expertise exists for a system based on diverse perennial plant crops anywhere in the temperate world. (Though I'd love to hear examples of how I'm wrong!) Hence my deep frustration: I yearn to meld the sustainability and low labor of perennial polycultures, the nutritional health of the paleodiet, and Deppe's level of experience growing resilient abundant staples into a truly permacultural blueprint for supporting ourselves and the rest of our landbase. But I don't know how.

The Future

Now that I've moved to Hawaii, I've dramatically simplified my own task of synthesizing perennials and animals and wildlife into production of a low labor, landbase healing paleodiet. But I still want to see similar systems develop in temperate areas. I have some hints and glimmers of hope based on my experimentations in Portland, which I'll post later.

In the meantime, visit www.caroldeppe.com to download free excerpts of the book. Drop her an email to be notified when she has seeds for sale; most of what she sells you can't buy anywhere else!

Monday, October 08, 2012

Hawaii - Week Six

Food

The food bounty started to overwhelm us this week! We didn't even take any food when we helped farmer Clive on Thursday, because we just plain have too much. We got three ulu from a broken branch from a tree on our host Dale's land, and two racks of bananas. I made a lot of meals of cooked mashed banana with ginger and lime: delicious!

Abiu - vanilla pudding from a tree
A neighbor brought over some excess abiu from her tree, and we discovered that they have way more flavor than those from the tree on this land. Had I based my judgement of the species solely on the sweet but bland tree I may not have bothered planting it; we definitely need to try fruit from multiple trees (especially selected cultivars, not just seedlings) before evaluating a given species. We should also expect to graft most of our fruit trees to superior varieties instead of growing from seed.

We ate a bunch of peanut butter cups and butterfingers because Dale bought them then decided he shouldn't eat them. Another good example of how poorly I self regulate when tempting items become available!

Health

I've had a few health issues in the last month, with infection of a light scrape on my foot, my first cold sore (oral herpes) outbreak in years followed by swelling of (I assume) lymph nodes in my left armpit, then a cold/flu thing starting last Wednesday. I had a lot of coughing and phlegm going on for a few days, especially at night causing restless sleep, and spent a lot of time resting in bed reading and researching. By Sunday I thought I'd gotten past the worst of it, and did some very light work. Monday I came down with a fever and didn't leave our shack all day except to pee. Jasmine took excellent care of me, bringing me tea and food, but I'm still quite sick. On the mainland I used to get a cold or bug about once a year, sometimes but not usually this severely. I feel very surprised to have caught this, given our isolation and very infrequent trips into town and my general good health, but perhaps I'm vulnerable to different strains of bugs here?

Pothos vine

Meanwhile, last Wednesday I did some clearing and mulching work on the land, including cutting off some "taro vine" (also known as "pothos") where it dangled down from huge mango trees. It turns out that the sap from fresh vines can cause a severe skin reaction on some people, including myself; I formed multiple blisters and pustules on my stomach, arms, and feet where I'd handled the vines or had juice splash on me. I also scratched myself very lightly with my machete on the back of an ankle, and the scratch turned into a gnarly blistering infected mess; I'm guessing I injected some of the pothos juice directly into the wound from the machete blade. Many of the other blisters on my body became infected too, perhaps from the multitude of flies and fruit flies who descended to slurp away. Jasmine helped me disinfect and bandage all the problematic spots, getting them well on the way to healing now. Though I've walked around with many open light wounds my whole life without any problems, I clearly need to take more care in this environment to seal up cuts and scrapes (especially on my feet).

Learning

We watched Geoff Lawton's Establishing a Food Forest video. I watched this years ago but hadn't intended to move to the tropics, so didn't retain many of the details about tropical plants. I like Lawton's basic strategy of drastically overplanting a space with legumes and pioneers, then cutting them back as mulch when rainfall exceeds evapotranspiration. Gradually, over the course of a few years, the cropping species take over most of the space from the pioneer species. Unfortunately, he didn't give any specific guidelines for spacing the main trees, which experts like Dave Jacke and Martin Crawford consider crucial to forest gardening. If your canopy closes in too much, you dramatically limit what you can grow in the lower layers, so you need to plan that part very carefully from the start.

I spent some more time working up my concept of goat integration into a multistory orchard/food forest, drawing up two pretty colored sketches and pondering the necessary spacings between trees and palms to achieve that desired goal of a diverse understory. Looking through Mollison's Permaculture: A Designer's Manual, his sketches for the humid tropics show overstory palms spaced far enough away from the next layer of cropping trees to allow them a good sized window of open sky above, with only the next layers down of cacao, coffee, & herbaceous plants in really heavy shade. I need to spend a lot more time observing mature tree sizes and their interactions at different spacings, looking at photos of traditional tropical home gardens, and picking the brains of long-timers who already know this stuff.

I read a lot more of Traditional Trees of Pacific Islands; one of the things I love about being sick is spending so much down time reading!

Networking

We helped for a few hours in the kitchen garden of a nearby retreat center/education center/farm/community, giving us the opportunity to see some of their systems, listen in on conversations about different landscaping challenges, and to meet a couple more folks who seem quite knowledgeable about plants. I liked their organization around resources like the on-farm truck and a shared bicycle, washing dishes, and for rotating chores among community members. Jasmine and I disliked the formal, country club feel of the place with lots of manicured lawn and tightly controlled plantings; presumably a style needed to attract people with enough money to spend on retreats and classes to keep the whole operation going. We definitely want a different model for our own community.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Hawaii - Week five

Food

Pig

A mini-tragedy occurred this week; we discovered that our neighbor's refrigerator into which we'd packed the rough cuts of the second pig never got very cold, and about 25% of the meat spoiled. We had felt very tired after processing two pigs two days apart, and took a break for a day after getting the meat from the second pig into the fridge; otherwise the meat would have stayed fine. Since the meat had started to turn, we rushed through the job of cutting it off the bones (not creating the nice portion-sized cuts of meat as with the first pig) and packed it into the car for our host to drive 30 miles to store in the freezer of another friend.

I started rendering the fat, which took me two solid days and resulted in a somewhat off-tasting half a gallon of lard and a big bowl of cracklings which only I am willing to eat. (Part of the bad flavor comes, I think, from burning the fat while trying to render it; our hasty job cutting fat off the meat and bones left many meat bits with the fat, which I suspect burn more easily than lard alone.)

Meanwhile, the neighbor's freezer got plenty cold with its bags of meat from the first pig - so cold that they all froze together and we became unable to access them! So we wound up eating a lot of stew early and mid week from the two pigs, but then ran out of meat.

We had hundreds of flies descend upon us as we tried to process the spoiling meat, and even more over the next two days as I rendered the fat and cleaned out the garbage bags and scraps of clothes we'd used to store the meat in the fridge. It definitely takes a lot of personal energy to process a pig (especially when you're still learning) and if you don't stay on top of it, it can get problematic fast! All in all, I much prefer the idea of building networks of friends and neighbors who all share in a feasts when someone makes a kill: gut the pig, singe the hair off, throw it in an imu (earth oven) to cook, and then have everyone over to eat it all up. No worries about things going bad, no need for everyone to have their own fridges and freezers, a lot more building of community, and a lot more fun.

Other

We went on an ulu (breadfruit) mission, checking four clusters of nearby trees with no success, then biking 16 miles each way to Kalapana where we found about 8 fruits weighing a total of 10+ pounds under a large tree. Unfortunately, although the fruits felt very soft and ripe, they still had green flesh near the skin, which apparently doesn't taste as good as when the flesh has turned white or yellow. We don't totally understand why these fruits didn't turn sweet and delicious; perhaps they fell prematurely from the tree? We also harvested one fruit directly from the tree; we judged it ripe because it had latex on it, but it actually has a long way to go to ripen. Probably a ripe fruit above it dripped latex onto it.

I ate a fruit of ambarella (Spondias cytherea) which tasted better than I remembered from two years ago; I always get messy when I eat these juicy fruits, but I do enjoy them! We harvested and fried a few flowers of hau, a mallow family Hibiscus whose cooked flowers and buds one of my books describes as a delicacy. We thought that description an overstatement as we find them similar to mallow flowers - fine for cooking mixed into omelettes or with other greens, but bland.

We ate a buffet lunch (including many sugary desserts for me) as part of a "day in Hilo" for Jasmine's birthday.

Learning & Exploring

I really enjoyed our 32 mile round-trip bike ride; it gave me a chance to see a large swath of road at a slower pace than in a car, and to get a human-scale feel for the stretch. I've never ridden so far in a day, and Jasmine hasn't done so in a long time. We're using very uncomfortable bikes borrowed from our host, and found that our butts, crotches, wrists, shoulders, and necks got tired and sore long before our leg muscles had any problems. So we expect we'll handle similar distances fairly easily in the future after building up more strength and purchasing better bikes.

We finally made it to the ocean, more than a month after getting here, even though we only have to travel 15 minutes to get there! I've never felt drawn to the ocean much; although I enjoy the view and the sounds and sight of the crashing waves, I don't enjoy getting wet and salty. Still, I'd like to learn more about the crabs and fish and starfish and corals and other critters in their totally different world, and I want to learn to fish, so we'll make more trips.

We helped farmer Clive weed and harvest "slips", new propagative shoots, from his pineapple bed. I really enjoyed the easter egg hunt of peering into all the spiky plants to see the clusters of fresh leaves indicating clumps we could break off from the mother plant; then we got to hurl the slips into piles at the front of the bed. Someone should invent a sport based on the skill of tossing pineapple slips into precise locations.

I couldn't sleep one night, so spent a few hours lying in bed working out a good (I think) solution to the problem of how to integrate goats into zone 2/3 orchards. I'll write up another post at some point detailing my musings.

I've continued to read Traditional Trees of Pacific Islands now and then, and to work on our plant lists; I finished entering a bunch of palms and started working on native & polynesian canoe plants.

Evil Civilized Technology

We finally got set up with an iphone (gift from Jasmine's aunt, thanks!) with a $45/month Straight Talk plan giving unlimited calls & text, and theoretically (but not really) unlimited data. I jail-broke the phone and got us set up with tethering options (both through the iphone, and through my Notion Ink Adam tablet), so now we have the use of internet in our little corner of the jungle.

I prefer being forced to go into town and stay really focused to get everything done in a few hours on the internet at the library, but Jasmine really likes our new convenience, which allows her to connect with friends and family online without having to be well organized about using limited library time in town. I don't do well limiting myself when something is available; I work best by making it inconvenient or impossible for me to access the thing in the first place. I've already found myself staying up til midnight on the internet once!

We finally exhausted the kitchen propane tank after more than a month of use, including a looong time rendering fat and cooking pig stews. It impressed me with how long it held out. We still plan to build a rocket stove to get off the propane.

We watched The Fellowship of the Ring over two days in the evening while shelling out jackfruit seeds. Part of me wants to make myself more productive and on-task by watching a permaculture video or something if we're going to watch anything at all. But part of me really enjoys having a good story fed to me in such an easy format.

Wildlife

I rested in the grass for a while one day, and think a grasshopper mistook me for a blade of grass and chewed open a flap of skin on my left pinky! Jasmine saw a cool 3" long stick insect in the kitchen one evening.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Hawaii - Week four

Food

Our host shot two pigs this week, the first he's ever killed, and the first Jasmine and I have ever butchered! For the first boar, it took the three of us about 6 hours to set up a butchering station, hoist him up, gut him, skin him, make initial rough cuts, and pack the meat into a cooler and a bucket with ice. The next day the three of us spent about 4 more hours rendering the fat (see picture below left), cutting the meat off the bones into meal-sized chunks, and packing it into a neighbor's freezer. We made stew the first night from the backbone, and fried some meat cuts the next day. Jasmine and I had felt some concern that we might not like wild pig; some people describe it as gamey or tough or otherwise inferior to domestic meat. But after tasting it, I deem it the best meat I've ever eaten!

Our host and I worked on the second pig mostly by ourselves, with Jasmine providing some support. It took the two of us 5 hours to process a larger pig, including the head (which we'd discarded from the first pig), and we did a much better job of retaining the fat with the meat instead of losing it by leaving it attached to the hide.

For the past few weeks, we've obtained all our necessary foods by foraging and work trade at the farm down the street, except for the crucial staples of cooking oil and meat. I feel really excited that we've closed that last gap and achieved semi self sufficiency in food within one month of arriving; the bounty of this land amazes me! (Reality checks: 1) much of the bounty comes from the work of folks in the past planting the perennial trees from which we forage now. 2) We're living at a very low elevation with relatively abundant sun and rainfall, perhaps an ideal microclimate for food trees. 3) We have not yet learned to use a gun, let alone something we can make ourselves such as bow & arrow; we're relying on our host right now to kill the pigs. 4) I don't know how many pigs live in the area and how often we could continue to shoot them without depleting their numbers or scaring them away.)

We had our first taste since moving here of that other Hawaiian classic - ulu, or breadfruit, a staple carb that grows on trees in convenient 1+ pound balls. Ours hadn't reached peak ripeness, so hadn't developed the sweetness of a fully ripe, soft breadfruit, but Jasmine and I both enjoyed it a lot as a blander starch. We also tried two more fruits from different trees of the related jackfruit. Though jackfruit requires a fair amount of work to process, the flavor and multiple yields of fruit and starchy seed has begun to convince me that we should grow one or two. Other new tastings: naranjilla (they remind us of kiwis, with a nice tart taste and similar texture), tree tomato (a lot like a tomato but with a thick, fruit fly proof skin), abiu (sweet & custardy but not much flavor), and yet another breadfruit & jackfruit relative: chempedak (delicious).

Our experience so far confirms my expectation that we can easily procure all the food we need for our tribe by growing perennial plants and hunting pigs. We hardly even need chickens and goats for their food products, though they have so many other uses in the systems (especially for weed and pest control, nutrient cycling, and goat walking) that it doesn't make sense to build permaculture systems without them. Once we develop our own food systems, we may quickly find ourselves with excess to share with the larger community!

After days of talking about it, Jasmine and I finally split a tub of Alden's Cookies & Cream ice cream (on sale at the local natural food store) and ate it for dinner. After eschewing sugar and grains and processed foods for weeks in favor of amazing fresh fruits and greens and taro and local beef, we both decided the ice cream wasn't all that great. I can't say that's the last time I'll succumb to processed sugar in a package, but the experience definitely decreased the temptation.

Learning

I've still been reading the Traditional Trees of Pacific Islands book, and read Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes, an easy to read and seemingly balanced history exploring the impact of missionaries on Hawaii, the overthrow of the monarchy, and how it all tied in to the expansion of US imperialism. Jasmine and I both worked some more on our lists of plant species.

We attended an event at La'akea, a local permaculture community, where we learned new information about two fairly recent, rapidly spreading problems for humans in Hawaii: little fire ants, and rat lungworm disease (a potentially dehibilitating and/or lethal nematode when it accidentally winds up in human brains instead of its usual rat and slug/snail hosts.)

Networking

We met a few new people at the La'akea event, and Jasmine chatted a little bit with a pig hunter visiting at Clive's farm. The hunter loves talking about pigs, and we love learning about pigs, so I'm hoping to get a chance to talk with him too!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Hawaii - Week three

We foraged some new food this week, saw some new wildlife, checked out a bunch of library books with our new library cards, and started doing work trade with our land host "Dale" who returned to town. We spent a lot of time working on our spreadsheet of plants, to help us learn and organize0 potential species we might want to grow: fruits, nuts, roots, vegetables, and so on.

Food

We started eating plantains from farmer Clive, cooking one green (starchy and bland like a potato) but mostly eating them yellow and ripe (delicious dessert, especially cooked). I ate a mango from a grafted tree at Clive's; the fruit had an orange rather than yellow or green skin, and very low stringiness to the flesh. We foraged with Dale in a couple of places he knows well, finding pili nuts (Canarium ovatum; we haven't eaten them yet), a large patch of water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica) growing adjacent to a pond, edible hibiscus, mountain apples (crisp and refreshingly juicy, but only mild sweetness and flavor), avocados, guavas, papayas, one starfruit, yellow lilikoi, and chayote (Sechium edule, a squash-like fruit.)

Dale brought home a huge cassava root from another site, which Jasmine and I both enjoyed a lot; it has a nice flavor and texture and we can readily envision growing this as a staple. (I'd especially like to experiment with it as a cyanide-laced, pig-proof crop to plant out in forest areas.) He also gathered some different greens from another site, including sissoo spinach, vietnamese coriander, basil, katuk, and curry tree leaf. We ate all the greens mixed together so didn't really taste the individual species, but it all turned out nicely. We helped Dale harvest coconuts from two trees; he climbed up using special equipment, cut off fronds as needed to access the racks of coconuts, and tied each rack to a rope run up and over a remaining frond, with me and Jasmine on the ground holding the rope and slowly allowing each rack to drop down to the ground. We got dozens of drinking coconuts, with nice sweet water and "spoon meat" - jelly-like coconut meat.

We ate ice cream beans (probably Inga edulis) from two different trees;. The first tree didn't impress me (apparently we harvested a little too late, mostly shaking over-ripe beans from the tree), but we found low-hanging, perfectly ripe beans on the second tree, which tasted very sweet with a nice flavor, and plenty of yield per pod and plenty of pods on the tree. I definitely want to plant a couple of these nitrogen fixing treats on our future land. We harvested a small amount of sugar cane (very nice to chew on; the woody fibers should help clean my teeth while I enjoy the sugary goodness) and naranjillas (haven't tasted them yet.)

Learning

I got a big stack of exciting books from the library, all on tropical plants. I finished reading Introduction to Permaculture, read a short book on growing fruits, nuts, herbs, and spices in Hawaii, and started reading Traditional Trees of Pacific Islands: Their Culture, Environment, and Uses, a lovely book edited by Craig Elevitch with detailed chapters on 80+ multipurpose trees.

We helped Dale maintain a young orchard area by clearing weeds, sheet mulching, and planting comfrey and perennial peanut starts. We also worked with him to clear an area on the land for a temporary structure for us. It amazes me how quickly a chainsaw can totally alter an area by taking down small and big trees fast. I learned a bit about clearing brush and weeds with hand tools - machete, sickle, and scythe. I can see that much of the work involved in tropical systems is keeping unwanted growth at bay; the permaculture principle of immediately planting any cleared areas with desired species applies doubly here, where everything grows so much more quickly than in temperate areas! I want to use chickens and goats very intelligently in our future clearing and weeding work; with good animal integration we can save a lot of human labor.

Wildlife

We saw Java sparrows, Red-crested cardinals, and a yellow bird Jasmine thinks may have been Yellow-fronted canary. We finally saw the Island Blind Snake, the only snake in Hawaii; an earthworm-sized, shiny metallic snake that lives in soil and thrashes around in a slithering sort of way when disturbed.





Monday, September 10, 2012

Hawaii - Week two

We had another good week, with similar times spent on actvities as during the previous week, except with less figuring out electronics & internet, and more actual use of our computers to research things and make plant lists. We received the "crate of stuff" we shipped from the mainland, and unpacked and organized it. We went on a couple of mini exploration expeditions, but all in all didn't get out much.

Food

Orange lilikoi
Besides most of the same foods as the first week, we ate taro root, many ripe papayas, jackfruit fruit and seed, a brownish lilikoi, some delicious orange lilikoi (much better than the yellow ones from last week), and turmeric. Much of the new stuff came from taro farmer Clive, who has work parties twice a week and sends us home with lots of food at the end!
We find taro super starchy and bland, with a lot of potential to soak up flavors of other foods and fill us up fast. Jasmine made a delicious curry with the taro, green papaya, coconut, and honohono. We find jackfruit seed similarly bland and starchy, with a mealy texture and the ability to absorb other flavors. Jackfruit seed takes some fiddling to peel a tough waxy layer off the nuts, but takes less work to grow than taro, and probably we'll figure out some tricks to make the seed extraction go more quickly and smoothly.
Practice climbing vine
I tried climbing a strong vine to get up a coconut tree, and found it very enjoyable and practical. I need to build more arm strength though! I made it 2/3 up and got a little confused as to how to get past a weird loop in the vine; then felt a little too tired to go all the way up. Later, back in the forest where we're staying, I found two vines wrapped around each other providing a wonderful practice climbing rope!

Learning

Clive's taro field
We've learned a lot from just two sessions with farmer Clive, mostly about planting taro. He plants 18" apart in rows 4' apart and keeps everything well mulched, never exposing the soil. He manages all the unplanted portions of his 20 acre lot in cane grass (Pennisetum purpureum), a common weedy vigorous biomass producer. He basically mows and chips the grass, applies weed mat to kill the roots and keep it from resprouting, then peels back the mat to plant taro into the stubble, mulching as needed with more chipped grass from the edges of his cleared area. He's built about 2-3" of soil over bare rock in the last 15 years, while producing a lot of crop to sell at local markets in the last 4 years. I don't think we'll mimic exactly what he's doing, since we want to produce for ourselves in more polycultural, low maintenance ways, but we can definitely learn useful lessons from what he's figured out over the years.
Clive's ginger patch
I haven't made it to any ultimate frisbee games yet, but have found an enjoyable semi-similar pursuit: catching papayas as someone else knocks them off the tree with a special mini-plunger-on-a-tall-stick. It challenges my reflexes and eyesight, as the fruit gets pushed off at some angle or other from its perch on the tree trunk, and falls down through leaves and between or bouncing off branches, hopefully into my soft hands instead of the hard ground.
I'm still reading Mollison's Introduction to Permaculture, which has already given me some useful new ideas and plant pointers; I've never before read permaculture books with the tropics in mind, so now I get more meaning from many concepts I only skimmed before. I read a draft report on sustainable farming in Hawaii, but didn't find it very useful. Much of the book covered marketing and selling products, and the parts about actually growing food didn't go into enough detail (especially about Hawaii specific concepts) to add much to what I already know.

Wildlife

We enjoyed the fascinating sight of an 'Io (Hawaiian hawk) eating prey (most likely a bird) on a branch, ripping off feathers to discard in between tearing off chunks of flesh. We saw a few cool new insects, including a funny little bug who seems to live inside a flat brown dead-leaf-looking mobile home, from which the bug pokes his or her head from at least two openings (one in each end) while dragging the whole structure to and fro. We'd never seen anything like it before.






Monday, September 03, 2012

Hawaii - Week One

Our kitchen
First full week! Jasmine and I learned a lot, foraged a lot, relaxed a bit, explored a bit, and spent a lot of time figuring out how to charge electronics and get online.

Food

We harvested and gathered lots of food: coconuts, avocados, bananas, mangos, strawberry guavas, limes, surinam cherry, lilikoi (passionfruit), koster's curse, green papaya (cooked like a squash), honohono, chaya, ginger flowers, and edible hibiscus. I feel very impressed by how easily we've found major staple foods, though most of the coconuts and all the surinam cherries, bananas, limes, and greens have come from the land on which we're staying, not from roadsides or other semi-wild public places. (If needed we could probably find enough coconuts out and about, and honohono grows as a weed all over the place; but I have yet to see any harvestable bananas or other greens I recognize in public places.) We've gotten nearly four eggs a day from the four chickens on the land.

Sprouting coconut with sweet fatty "King's meat"
On average, between the two of us, we seem to naturally eat on a daily basis something like: 1.5 small sprouting coconuts, 3/4 of a coconut for water, 3 bananas, 2 medium to large avocados, 8 mangos, 2-3 ounces of other fruits, 3.5 eggs, 8-12 ounces of greens, four tablespoons of butter, and a small handful of other nuts.

We brought from the mainland two pounds of butter, half a pound of cheese, some dried meat, nuts, and dried fruit , and still have 3/4 pound of butter and most of the nuts and dried fruit left. We're using the butter quickly and haven't figured out locally sourced cooking oils yet , but definitely haven't needed the nuts and dried fruit! We've experimented a little with extracting coconut oil, but still need to learn more to make it work.

We tried eating hala keys, but found them barely edible - consistent with reports of Hawaiians using them only as famine food. We'll try to get varieties grown on other Pacific islands with flesh larger, less fibrous, and free of oxalate crystals.

We've seen pigs several times, once as close as 40' away. With a gun and a little bit of skill, it should be very easy to shoot one and get a lot of meat. Since we haven't acquired that tool or those skills yet, we're starting to buy some island raised grass fed ground beef at the local natural food store, for less money than similar meat cost us back in Portland.

Learning

Passion vine butterfly
Besides food plants, we've learned a lot of the common trees such as gunpowder tree, octopus tree, melochia, autograph tree, noni, and bingabing. We've seen/identified a few birds, like the Hawaiian hawk, Japanese white-eye, Northern cardinal, Myna, house sparrow, and spotted & zebra doves (and probably mourning dove). We identified the Passion Vine Butterfly. We've seen plenty of the common gold dust day geckos, and a couple of smaller gecko looking reptiles.

I read through a book on organic gardening in Hawaii and added to my species list, and started reading Bill Mollison's classic Introduction to Permaculture.

Lifestyle adjustments

View from our hut -
ti, banana, mango, jackfruit, coconut, & albizia
We're going to bed shortly after dark and waking up at dawn, with much less computer use than usual. I'm experimenting with a eucalyptus toothstick instead of toothbrush. We've hardly gotten online at all, which I haven't really missed but Jasmine has.

Ironically, on our initial push of going primitive, we've probably spent as much time trying to get online and trying to charge electronics as we have foraging food. I've learned a lot about solar systems, DC power, adapters and tips - some of it the hard way - and hopefully have gotten past the worst of the learning curve! This probably merits its own write-up, as I'm sure sharing some of the mistakes I've made and learning I've done could save some other people some trouble.

Networking

We haven't talked much with people yet, but did chat a little with two locals involved in growing food and running a weekly market. We will probably talk with them more about the possibility of using some land in something akin to a community garden. We don't yet know where we'll settle long-term, but the location seems reasonably central to our most likely options. So if we start planting things now, we can harvest them in the future as food crops, and/or for propagation material for our actual land. And if our purchased land doesn't suit itself to teaching and showing permaculture food systems to others (because of our community wanting to keep its privacy, or too isolated for the public to access easily) then perhaps the community garden area could serve as a demonstration site.

We've talked on the phone with two other folks in the area, one of whom gave us permission to harvest his excess avocados but whom we haven't met. The other fellow has biweekly work parties where we can probably learn a lot about lowland tropical farming (and maybe take home some food or starts?) so we look forward to joining him in that later this week.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Life changes

My life has changed a lot in the last eight months. Notably, I've finally made my long-planned move out of Portland and to Hawaii! Not part of the plan: I broke up with Theressa (AKA Tulsey) in February, shortly before she sold her house in March. The breakup with Theressa did not go smoothly, and we haven't been in contact since April. She has moved to Hawaii as well, but other than that I don't know what she's doing.

I spent several months tying up loose ends in Portland, and finally moved to the wet side of the Big Island of Hawaii in August, with my new girlfriend Jasmine. We plan to spend 6-12 months learning about the landbase here before trying to buy a parcel suited to our vision of tribal living on a permaculture homestead with hunting and gathering in public lands.

We haven't had much internet access since we arrived, but I've been keeping notes on our activities and learnings. I'm going to post this introduction and weekly summaries of our experience with retroactive dates to match our actual timeline of living here (I'm writing this at the end of September but will post it with an August date so that my weekly summaries all follow it in logical order!) I hope to take some time to work through my large backlog of planned posts about temperate plants and systems. I'll also begin posting thoughts on tropical food systems and semi-primitive living. Stay tuned!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Crop summary: Darmera peltata - Umbrella Plant or Indian Rhubarb


Years ago, on the Klamath River of northern California, I came across and later identified Darmera peltata, known as Umbrella Plant or Indian Rhubarb. The plant grows on rocks along rivers and in other wet places, putting out long stalks terminating in the center of large roundish leaves.
I felt excited when I learned that you can eat the leaf stalks, but I didn't have a chance to actually try them out until this summer. Plants for a Future says to peel the stalks and eat them raw or cooked. After a little trial and error, I determined that the basal portion of the stem has a lot of fiber, but still a soft, juicy core with a mild flavor and a lot of water. I pulled off the outer full-on fibrous layer, chewed on the inner parts, and wound up with fiber wads which I spat out or swallowed. Towards the top of each stalk, the outer fiber layer hadn't developed yet and I could eat the entire stalk without peeling, a very nice nibble. The very top inch or so of stalk has the same pliability, but tastes fairly bitter. Perhaps cooking would mitigate the bitterness; I didn't try cooking any of the stalks so can't say how that affects the flavor or tenderness.

I wouldn't grow Umbrella Plant in an urban setting with limited clean-water aquatic space; I would instead plant some aquatic or wetland root crops. But I would definitely consider Umbrella Plant for graywater areas where you wouldn't want to eat plant parts in contact with the soil anyway. And if I had a stretch of natural creek or river on larger acreage, I would experiment with it as a water edge plant in rocky areas.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Crop summary: Saltbush, Atriplex canescens & A. halimus

We tried growing two species of saltbush - Atriplex canescens and A. halimus.  I think I received both from the National Germplasm Repository - definitely A. canescens (PI 508551), but I can't find my records on the A. halimus.  In June of 2009 I wrote a short report-back on the performance of the A. canescens:

Planted out two plants which seemed to establish well in 2008. Tasted the leaves last summer, and a friend and I both found them disgusting, contrary to highly positive reports from permaculture literature. Over the winter, both plants died to the ground, which surprised me. One plant re-sprouted this year and looks healthy, while the other plant never re-sprouted. I expected them to be hardier in our climate. On a positive note, the plant which re-sprouted now makes leaves which taste very good, with the salt-flavor-burst and a pleasant aftertaste.

And an update written from memory June 2012: later in the season the leaves started tasting disgusting again. The following winter killed the remaining plant off for good.

I remember very little about the A. halimus, except that it suffered from the same die-back or die-off problems over the winter(s). If I ever tasted it, it didn't taste good enough for me to have marked it in my memory as worth eating.

Both species should easily handle the coldness of our winters (with A. halimus approaching marginal hardiness at about 10F, but still below our usual coldest temps). However, the Plants for a Future database reports that both plants "are apt to succumb to winter wet when grown on heavy or rich soil" which probably explains our winter failures.

I see a lot of potential for these species, but we would need to figure out how to give them good drainage over the winter, and experiment more to have consistently good tasting leaves. Were I to try them again, I would experiment with soil conditions (try some poor soil instead of just rich garden soil), obtain seeds or preferably cuttings from shrubs known to have tasty leaves, and pay more attention to seasonal effects on the flavor.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Good Egg Is Hard To Buy

With our hens in low production over the winters, we regularly resort to buying in some eggs. The quality always disappoints me. Even local, pastured eggs at $6 and $7 a dozen literally pale in comparison to those of our hens! Maybe this is one of those things money can't buy--at least not in commercial quantity?

The picture shows our hen egg at left, and one each of the $6 and $7/dozen eggs at right.  (Plus other standard ingredients of my scrambles: cooking greens, acorn halves, cherry kernels, and skirret root.  Fennel seed is in there but too small to see.  Garlic to be added at the end.)

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Our house sold: Permaculture designed urban homestead


SOLD
4510 NE GOING ST
One-of-a-Kind Permaculture Designed Urban Homestead
 Country Feel In The City 
$224,900
All offers considered
  • 2 bedroom / 1 bath cottage (easy potential for 3rd bedroom) on 8750 sq. ft lot
  • House sits 80 ft off the street providing privacy & 4,000 sq. ft garden in front yard
  • 975 sq. ft Living Space with potential to live comfortably without fossil fuels
  • 345 sq. ft new Sun Room– amazing room with   21 ft wall of windows floor to ceiling!
  • Shaded, rain-proof porch for year-round outdoor living 
  • Garage with washing machine, Carport, Wood Shed, and Utility shed with electricity
  • Passive Solar Heating System (no fossil fuel or electricity to operate)
  • New concrete perimeter foundation & earthquake ties 
  • Well insulated walls, ceiling, & floor joists
  • Double-pane vinyl windows allow lots of natural light
  • Natural gas furnace and range
  • New custom metal roof
  • Chicken coop with laying hens, beehive for bees
  • 600 sq. ft of under-house storage space, including root cellar area
  • 1,000 sq. ft of edible Ecoroof garden
  • 6,850 sq. ft low maintenance, organic, permaculture designed Food Forest providing a family with year-round fruit, berries, nuts, eggs, and honey. 
  • A wonderful loose-knit co-housing community that shares tools, potlucks, and neighborly help
  • Super quiet, low car traffic street
  • 3 blocks to bus line #75, 9 blocks to #72
  • Walk to New Seasons and Alberta Arts District
  • Property taxes for 2010: $1582
4510 NE Going Street, Portland OR 97218
     Contact Tulsey @ 503-288-5331 or norristh@gmail.com
    see our Website http://farmerscrub.blogspot.com

    Photos

    • House pictures of our finished house project.
    • Garden pictures - general pictures of pretty plants
    • Chickens - Pictures of our feathered helpers
    • Harvests - A few photos of harvests, mostly roots
    • Full Yard Views - Roof-top photos showing the changes over the years, from 2006 til present

    Monday, February 06, 2012

    More books for sale

    I've listed a few more books for sale, mostly foraging & ethnobotany. New listings are noted with "NEW" in front of them.

    I also dropped prices on most of the unsold books.

    And last call for plants & seeds; we're probably moving in early March.

    Sunday, February 05, 2012

    Full yard pics, February 2012

    I just posted some winter pictures of the yard from the roof. Not very exciting since most plants are still dormant, but nice to compare to the lush growth of other seasons.

    Greens - Phases of Growth & Winter Snapshot

    Inflection Point

    With lengthening days and unusually abundant winter sunshine, the greens in our yard grow actively again! No longer do I sparingly pick leaves, carefully allocating the non-renewable resource over the weeks of winter gloom. We enter a period of daily growth in the yard evenly balanced with how much we can eat each day. Soon we'll enter the crazy exponential phase of growth where we can't possibly eat it all, and we'll start replacing some of the weedy greens with more deliberate summer staple crops. As we eliminate the greens further out in the yard, we'll turn our attention more and more to the two new dedicated beds of perennial greens I organized over the last couple of months. These beds, of about 100 square feet total, currently lie in the shade of the house, so are growing more slowly than the rest of the yard. In another month they should have enough sunlight to begin vigorous growth, and the shadier conditions will help them through the summer.

    Right now, since each leaf is small to tiny and I have to pick a thousand leaves to fill a bowl, harvesting takes me about 5 minutes per ounce.  That will change soon as leaves get larger, overall growth gets denser, and I spend less time wiping off dirt splashed onto leaves from the ground.

    Current Greens Harvests

    Roughly in descending order of bulk, we're currently harvesting:

    Salad Greens

    • Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
    • Wintercress (Barbarea verna)
    • Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum)
    • Woodland chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris)
    • Purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum)
    • Nipplewort (Lapsana communis)
    • French sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
    • Scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica)
    • Allium tops (garlic chives, elephant garlic, egyptian walking onion, bunching onion, other unknown species)
    • Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
    • Earth chestnut (Bunium bulbocastanum)
    • Popweed (Cardamine something or other)
    • Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella)
    • Spearmint (Mentha spicata)
    • Lemon balm (Melissa officinale)
    • Unknown mint
    • Salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor)
    • ground cover bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana)
    • Zebra mallow (Malva sylvestris mauritiana)
    • Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
    • Siberian miner's lettuce (Montia sibirica)
    • Hen and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum)
    Stinging Nettle

    Cooking Greens

    In addition to using most of the same greens as for salads, we're harvesting (again in descending order of bulk):
    • Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)
    • Tree collard
    • Clove root leaves (Geum urbanum)
    • Radish leaves
    • Chard
    • Kale
    • Beet leaves

    Saturday, February 04, 2012

    Harvest log update, February 2012

    I've updated the harvest log website. I haven't posted about the harvest log since last April. Some unorganized thoughts follow:

    • Our average daily calorie harvest hasn't changed much, still right about 670 calories per day. We still have perhaps 10-20 pounds of honey and maybe 3 pounds of fennel seed which we harvested but haven't weighed and entered into the database yet, which will boost the calories.
    • We've been harvesting fewer ounces of food per day than before, but with similar total calories, meaning we're harvesting more calorie crop - mostly a result of increased honey and egg harvest.
    • None of the fruit trees we've planted yielded last year, except the medlar in heavy shade with a little over 2 pounds of fruit. We did get twice as many cherries from our front yard seedling cherry as we did the previous year. We were a bit surprised and disappointed that the persimmon tree which gave 8 1/2 pounds in 2010 didn't yield in 2011. Our region had poor fruit harvests in general due to weather causing poor pollination. Hopefully this year the fruit trees will really start to produce, after 5 years in the ground!
    • Great yield from our goumi, which gave 12 1/2 pounds.
    • Much better yield from the strawberry patch, which gave 17 pounds in 2011 compared to 6 in 2010. Probably because Tulsey thinned out the plants in winter of 2010/11. The patch is about 80 square feet.
    • Bad raspberry year (11 pounds compared to 31 in 2010), as most of the plants in our original planting died (probably from root rot or some other disease), plus we didn't water the living patches enough to get a good fall harvest.
    • Our english walnut and two or three of our four hazels set some nuts, but all were taken by squirrels and jays. Unfortunately, we didn't eat any squirrels from the yard this year to offset that loss. We did get one tiny chestnut!
    • Our harvest of greens dropped off a lot last year, partly because we were wrapped up in the house project, and partly because we didn't irrigate much in summer and the greens suffered a lot.
    • Fairly large garlic harvest last year, of 18 pounds. (Shallots were a near total failure.) I'd like to see that tripled next year.
    • Sunchoke harvest has dropped by 50% due to making fewer fires, greatly affecting the winter calorie harvest. I think I'm going to break down and just use our gas stove and a sleeping bag (to act as a "haybox") to start cooking the sunchokes.
    • We approximately doubled our fennel seed harvest, to 5 pounds. Very successful calorie crop.
    • More eggs this past year, as the hens we purchased in May 2010 laid heavily from December 2010 through November 2011 before slowing down. We've had a larger flock than would be at all sustainable for this yard, and have been gradually culling the flock for ongoing meat harvest.
    • Harvesting a lot more nettles this winter season than last year. Delicious!
    • Light skirret harvest this year. I think last year I harvested a bunch of plants that had been in the ground 2 or 3 years and got very big, then replanted those crowns. I didn't water the skirret much this past season, and many of them grew in part to full shade. I harvested almost all those plants this winter as 1 year old, relatively scrawny roots. Definitely better to get some sort of multi-year mixture going so you can always harvest older plants.
    • Light mashua & yacon harvests this year, again because of lack of water. Almost all the mashua plants died down in the summer; I didn't expect any roots from them at all, and was pleasantly surprised at how many we did get considering how sad they were.
    • Good oca harvest this year! Two patches did poorly (lack of water again); one patch to the north of one of our persimmon trees in polyculture with yellow asphodel & lily did very well.
    • Nice teaser autumn olive and grape harvests! Neither huge, but larger than the few dozen berries or grapes from last year.
    • Pretty good potato harvest, though still not as good as I'd have liked - lack of water stunted or killed many plants.
    • We ate lots of fuki stalk, and sold or gave away several divisions, barely managing to keep the growth of the patch in check. Great vigorous perennial vegetable.
    • So far our asparagus is a very poorly yielding crop in terms of calories per space it takes up--only 280 calories from maybe 10 plants using maybe 30 square feet? Our solomon's seal gave 2/3 the calories from a similar area but growing in heavy shade on the north wall of our house, under timber bamboo, with lungwort, lovage, and wood sorrel in there as well. And we didn't even harvest as much of the solomon's seal as we could have.

    Friday, February 03, 2012

    Close Encounter

    A couple of nights ago, I returned from the library at dusk.  On the way home from the bus stop, I detoured into the vacant lot 3 doors down from our house.  I decided to sit in the grass under one of the black locust trees and watch the sky and the stars and the moon for a bit.  After maybe 10-15 minutes, I heard a rustling in the blackberry patch to my left, and turned my head to see a big ol' raccoon creep out!  Maybe 8-10' away from me!  He or she walked forward a few steps, sniffed, stared in my direction, walked forward a few more steps, getting within 3-4' of me!  Peered some more in my direction.  Turned to my right and walked in an arc, now maybe 6' out. topped and turned to stare at me again, sniff sniff, until due south of me.  Maybe finally smelled me well enough to figure out my presence...moved at a brisk walk to the orange fence 20' away, and seemed to vanish in the blink of an eye!

    2 minutes later...whole thing over again!  Rustle rustle, emerging raccoon, maybe even a little bigger than the last.  Step step stop peer sniff step step--this time definitely within 3', maybe 2', even closer than the last!  Reared up on hind legs as high as he or she could get.  Then back onto all fours, then moving to my left and backing out a bit. I thought this raccoon maybe peed, but I'm not sure why I thought that--I didn't really hear pee or see anything clearly (and when I went and sniffed the spot later I didn't smell anything.)  Circled around to my right again, with the same step step stop sniff peer step step, pretty much in the same path as the first raccoon.  Same thing again of stopping due south in front of me, and finally moving quickly to the fence; this time I watched carefully and saw the movement as he or she glided under the fence at a low spot in the dirt.

    I waited another 5-10 minutes, but no further activity; I was wondering whether younger adolescent raccoons would all repeat the performance!

    Very very cool; I'm so glad I got to experience that!  I must have lucked out with positioning myself such that the bright street light was more or less behind me when they came out of the thicket, and the wind was coming from the south so not blowing my scent at them.  I was actually scared a little bit; big animals with nasty teeth and claws and all that, oh my!  Definitely worth another twilight stake-out sometime soon...

    Wednesday, February 01, 2012

    New Paul Wheaton video: Sustainable Food - People Per Acre

    I've added this to the "Video and articles about us" perma-link:

    Paul Wheaton Sustainable Food - People Per Acre video (12 minutes) with a lot of footage of me and Tulsey describing our property, our initial expectations for self sufficiency for 3-4 people, and our growing realization of the realities of how many calories we can harvest here. Shot in August 2011.

    Monday, January 30, 2012

    Income from tours & classes

    A friend and potential tribe-mate sent me a video of an Australian permaculture farm which makes most of its cash income from teaching classes and from tours. My friend wrote:
    I know you aren't big on making $ but perhaps once you have a working system in hawaii (or even here) you can have tours which both teach people, inspire people, and maybe make a few dollars per visitor while also inspiring you to keep learning ?

    My reply is meant not as criticism of what others do for income, but as an expression of my own approach:

    I enjoy giving tours and teaching classes, and have hosted dozens here over the years. I don't like organizing them, and have left much of that up to Tulsey or to other folks who bring their class or a permaculture meetup group or whatever.

    I really really dislike the notion of charging for tours. Partly because I dislike engaging in the cash economy in any way, but I have extra resistance to charging for information & knowledge, insubstantial and more or less infinitely reproducable goods. (I recognize that it takes time for someone to reproduce that by writing it down or speaking and presenting it, but I don't think of time as a commodity either.) I feel reasonably happy with my current model of giving information away to anyone who will listen, and having products like plants and books for sale at bargain prices for those who want to spend some money. I *hate* the idea of excluding people based on ability to pay, and I don't feel comfortable with "sliding scale" options because I almost always stay away from such classes myself.

    I'm very concerned about the trend for middle class white people to be buying their way into peak oil / climate change preparation by stockpiling goods, buying land, and buying classes & information.  Giving away my knowledge is the least I can do to help counter that.

    All that said, yeah, if we're hard up for income in Hawaii, I would entertain tours and teaching as part of our income model. But I'd rather not go into the project planning for that.

    Sunday, January 29, 2012

    House heat update & unintended consequences

    Fuel Used To Date

    With the whole house almost completely insulated, we've burned about 38 cubic feet of firewood this winter, a bit less than 1/3 cord.  (One cord of wood is a pile 4' x 8' x 8', or 128 cubic feet.)  We've been keeping the sunspace between about 50-62F, with the north part of the house generally a few degrees cooler during the day, but dropping to the same temps overnight.  We've made a fire every 2 or 3 days on average.  We made at least 1/3 of those fires for guests or for house showings, not because we needed the heat for ourselves.  We're probably on track to use a total of 4/10 a cord of wood.  We scavenge all our wood for free, but market rate is around $150/cord, so we'll use about $60 worth of wood for heating.

    We still have extra heat input from showers (about 3 per week) and from cooking on our gas stove (8 therms=800,000 btus since Oct. 18, or the equivalent of 1/25 cord of wood.) This winter has seemed unusually sunny, so our passive solar heat gain has been higher than in a normal winter.

    Future Steps

    I'm fairly pleased with our relatively low energy consumption this winter, but we're still far short of our original goal of heating the house entirely from on-site resources.  Some pieces we're still missing:

    • Insulation for all house windows, especially sunspace windows, for better overnight heat retention
    • Finish insulating attic
    • Rocket stove instead of normal wood stove, for much greater efficiency in cooking and heating
    • Install our 5 solar hot water panels and run the hot water through the radiant floor tubing
    • Full growth of trees and shrubs for fuel from pruning & coppicing

    Unintended Consequences

    In past years, we used our daily fires through the winter to cook our jerusalem artichokes (aka sunchokes), converting the inulin to digestible sugars after 6-8 hours of pressure cooking. That worked well when we made fires daily. Now, with fires only every 2nd or 3rd day, it takes almost a week to cook the 3 pounds of sunchokes which our pressure cooker can hold. Last winter I ate twice that much per week. We could partially solve this problem with an additional and/or larger pressure cooker.

    Same problem with processing acorns using our preferred hot leaching method. However, since we don't rely on a pressure cooker, we can "scale up" by using multiple pots of large size to leach the acorns, rather than relying on daily fires.

    Similarly, without frequent fires, we're having a much harder time drying nuts, herbs, processed acorn meal, seeds, laundry, wet winter clothes, etc. Now I wish we hadn't sold our solar dehydrator last fall; we could have used it on our sunny winter days when we weren't making fires. If we were staying here longer, we'd probably set up the front porch or carport for initial drying of clothes, moving them inside for final drying as needed. Better yet would be a space protected from rain but exposed to the sun, such as my recent idea of an enclosed greenhouse to the south of our sunspace.

    Friday, January 27, 2012

    House Layout, Features, & Future Projects

    Design Goals

    Before embarking on our house project, we designed the final layout of rooms with a few criteria in mind:

    • Active living space at the south end of the house, to utilize the light & warmth from the sun.
    • Heat the entire house via passive solar with back-up wood stove.
    • Bedrooms at the north end of the house where the reduced light and cooler temperatures don't matter as much.
    • Natural daylighting in all rooms.
    • Add significant storage area for food, preferably unheated space (canned goods, fresh produce, roots, etc)
    • Integrate airlocks/mudrooms to reduce heat loss in winter and heat gain in summer, as well as contain dirt & wet clothes.


    Goal Implementation

    We built the sunspace at the south end of the house as one large room, suitable for a wide variety of active living uses - living room, dining room, party room, play room, study/office, etc. We "planted" our bath tubs to the south of the sunspace for extra heat & light gain in the winter. We planted a black walnut to the SW of the house, and built a grape trellis south of the sunspace for seasonal shade.

    We installed an EPA certified wood stove facing the kitchen for radiant heat gain and comfort from the cheery glow. It heats the sunspace quickly. The sunspace sits 2' below the rest of the house, creating a natural convective loop of heat rising from the sunspace into the rest of the house, for fairly rapid heat distribution.

    We added east windows looking onto the ecoroofs, to allow morning light into the NE bedroom, the pantry, and the sunspace. We added a wavy glass privacy window between the bathroom and the sunspace, since the bathroom had no natural light. The sunspace allows a lot of light into the kitchen and the SW bedroom (which also has a west window.)

    We created a pantry with a 2' path down the middle and shelves lining the walls for efficient storage of lots of goods.

    We didn't build the airlocks, but we left room to add them if desired: one in the sunspace around the back door, and one on the current front porch, enclosing the upper portion of the deck.

    Other Features

    The front porch makes a wonderful hang-out area in the summer, opening to the front garden to the north. Walls block the sun to the east, west, and south, and the ecoroof limits heat gain from above.

    We made it easy to add a third bedroom (or office space) by constructing a single partition wall to turn the northwest portion of the house into a large closed off room.

    We installed a sliding glass door between the sunspace and the kitchen, and of course the southwest bedroom has a closing door, so it's easy to isolate the sunspace for cozy temperatures in the winter without needing to heat the entire house.

    We built nice big stairs from the kitchen to the sunspace, very inviting for people to sit and gather on.

    When we lifted the original house and put a perimeter foundation under it, we wound up with three holes in the foundation wall so the I-beams could lower the house onto the wall. We discovered that in the summer, opening those holes creates a natural air conditioner as cool air from the crawl space flows into the sunspace.

    Future Projects

    If we were staying in this house, we would:

    Add insulating curtains to the sunspace window wall. (And figure out insulation for the other windows in the house.)

    Replace the wood stove with a rocket stove, for dramatic efficiency improvements in heating and cooking.

    Remove the natural gas forced air furnace and associated ductwork in the attic, since we never use it and it wastes a lot of space (usable room space in the southwest bedroom, and insulation space in the attic).

    Install the five hot water solar panels we bought, using them to heat domestic water and to run the excess heat through the radiant tubing under the original house.

    Build a greenhouse on the south side of the sunspace, enclosing the bath tubs with the grapes growing on top. Move the chickens to sleep in the greenhouse.

    Plant more plants on the west wall or west side of the house to create more summer shade while utilizing that growing space (without interfering with its current use as hang-out party space.) Perhaps plant akebia or scarlet runner beans against the house, and/or trees further out trained to high-branching trunks for easy human passage underneath.

    Build a cold cupboard to tap into the cool crawlspace air and pull it up through a small pantry area to keep perishable foods a little cooler in the summer.

    Site Plan

    Here's the house in relation to the property boundaries, showing setbacks for addition of an Accessory Dwelling Unit:

    Wednesday, January 25, 2012

    Neat seeds from Adaptive Seeds

    Since we're trying to sell our house and move to Hawaii any month now, I'm not planning new experimental plantings. But that doesn't stop me from dreaming, and I might as well share that here.

    I just received the 2012 seed catalog from Adaptive Seeds. They have a few interesting perennials and Pacific Northwest (PNW) adapted calorie crops:

    • "Western Front" perennial kale - newly available after last year's unavailability. I bought seeds of this in 2010, but didn't get very many plants well established. Chickens ate the best plants and none wound up overwintering successfully. So I can't vouch for their perennial nature, but they seem to have potential.
    • Withner's White Cornfield Pole Snap Bean - according to Carol Deppe (author of Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties and The Resilient Gardener), this variety is the best for the PNW and for growing in the cornfield (or in partly shady conditions).
    • Corn varieties recommended by Carol Deppe for the PNW: Abenaki & Mandan Parching Lavender.
    • Amaranth seed varieties: Copperhead (A. cruentus) and Rodale Red Leaf Grain. I still have hopes of getting seed amaranths growing in the yard as self-seeding "grains."
    • Japanese buckwheat - supposed to have larger seeds than the usual cover crop varieties. They say they've planted as late as mid-July and still harvested a crop; maybe this could work as a follow-up to garlic or favas?
    • Elka White Poppy - large seed pods stay sealed instead of scattering their seed. I've always liked the idea of poppies as a staple seed source, with their ability to grow a bit over the winter, but have had no success growing them.
    • Millwright Perennial Rye - bred by Tim Peters.
    • Douglas Triticale - from Tim Peters, shows some perennial regrowth when plants are spaced out well. May not work well with our system of dense plant growth everywhere.
    • Silene inflata - perennial herb with winter-available greens.
    • Oregon Homestead Sweet Meat squash - selected by Carol Deppe for the PNW.