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 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


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!


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).


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!


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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Learning & Exploring

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

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

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

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

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

Evil Civilized Technology

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

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

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

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


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