Saturday, November 30, 2013

Temperate staple crops: plants (and critters) for a future

In my review of Carol Deppe's annual-based The Resilient Gardener, I expressed disappointment that no one has created a comparable blueprint with perennials. Now that I've moved to Hawaii with its abundance of well-documented perennial crops, I've dramatically eased my own task of synthesizing perennials, animals, and wildlife into production of a low labor, landbase supportive paleodiet. But I still want to see similar systems develop in temperate areas. I can offer some hints and glimmers of hope based on my experiments in Portland, for others to develop further. My previous post, Low-Maintenance Temperate Staple Crops, established a broad framework. This post gives more specific suggestions, heavily biased towards a Pacific Northwest climate with its winter rains and summer drought.


Small parcels

  • Most importantly, experiment with ways to integrate small animals such as ducks, chickens, rabbits, and guinea pigs into perennial gardens in such a way that the animals benefit the system, require minimal care, and produce high quality eggs & meat.
  • Keep bees for honey for moderate consumption. They'll gather incredible numbers of calories for the space required.
  • If you have a pond, try growing fish, even if just goldfish for slow-growing, very occasional eating by yourself or poultry.

Larger parcels

  • Keep grazers such as geese, sheep, buffalo, and cattle where the land wants to grow grass.
  • Keep browsers such as goats where the land wants to grow trees. Manage them carefully to ensure they don't make the land grow dead trees and sad scrub.

Tree crops

  • Plant nuts. Chestnuts, acorns, english walnuts, black walnuts, filberts, and ginkgos have all proven themselves as reliable abundant croppers in the PNW.
  • Plant fruits & berries. Figure out how much you can realistically eat, and how much is healthy for you.
  • Grow olives if you can, for low-PUFA, oil rich food. Our olives failed to grow, but others in the Portland area have had success. We may not have given our plants good enough drainage.
  • Use the seed kernels from Prunus and other fruit species as bonus seeds for your own or livestock consumption.

Herbaceous seed crops

  • Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus): needs breeding work for increased seed production (larger and/or more seed.) We found it a very low maintenance and tough crop, though we didn't perfect a ground cover situation to eliminate the need for spring weeding. Seed yields never got very high for the land involved - perhaps partly from competition following our neglect in weeding, and partly from inadequate irrigation in the summer.
  • Scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus): try growing them as perennials. We never succeeded in growing them well even for the first year (slug pressure?), and the few healthy plants didn't overwinter. Someone in my neighborhood grew them as perennials on the west side of his house for summer shade, so maybe giving them a similar warm microclimate and/or heavily mulching would help. Breeding for hardiness may help. Supposedly you can dig up the roots and store them in a root cellar, then replant in spring.
  • Experiment with recently developed perennial grains for humans (assuming you can digest them OK) and/or animals.
  • Integrate minimal maintenance legumes like overwintered favas and early spring peas (we had minimal success with these - ducks to keep down our slugs may have helped). As with the grains, humans can eat these in moderation if they don't have bad reactions, and/or they can feed livestock.
  • Perennial flax (Linum perenne). We grew this on our ecoroof and got a few seeds the first year. We didn't stay long enough to know whether it produces well once fully established. If not, maybe it could benefit from breeding work. Like its annual relative, perennial flax oil is rich in omega-3, highly beneficial for us and for livestock.
  • Find other perennial seed crops for minor or major production. For example, we found fennel extremely easy to grow and harvest for ourselves and for the chickens, but we could only eat a small amount of seed each day because of its strong flavor. Perhaps a variety of minor seed crops could add up to useful caloric inputs.
  • Breed other perennial legumes for larger or more useful seeds for humans, or just plant them as livestock fodder - Lupinus perennis, Vicia cracca, Vicia americana, black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), pea shrubs (Caragana sp.), and ...?

Root crops

See my notes on perennial and self-seeding roots for more information on specific species: part 1 and part 2.

  • Jerusalem artichokes AKA sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosus): Fantastic drought tolerant, persistent, low-to-no-labor abundant yielder. Due to high inulin content, these only work well as a staple crop if you can either:
    • Digest them OK with minimal cooking (many people ferment them).
    • Cook them long enough on a wood stove running in the winter anyway.`
  • Skirret (Sium sisarum): breed for increased root production. We found yields quite reasonable at 1/2 pound/year in good conditions, and 1/4 pound/year in shade or poor soil. We experienced enough variation in yields between different plants to warrant selecting for larger and more roots. Skirret also deserves experimentation with different lengths of multi-year growth before harvest to maximize its potential as a perennial; we generally found the roots larger and less woody if we let the plant grow for two or three years, but never quantified this precisely.
  • Grow mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum), oca (Oxalis tuberosa), and yacon (Polymnia sonchifolia) as perennials, deep mulching as needed to overwinter them.
  • Where conditions allow, try aquatic crops like cattail, water chestnut, and wapato.
  • Develop and refine perennial polycultures such as my experiments with skirret/oca/potato and yellow asphodel/oca/lily.
  • Cinnamon vine (Dioscorea batatas): great potential as a no-dig staple carb from its aerial bulbils. Set up on a permanent trellis such that you can lay a tarp or sheet under the vines to easily collect lots of bulbils at once.
  • Creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides): summer available root with mild flavor from an aggressive ground cover. May work well under jerusalem artichoke.
  • Yellow asphodel (Asphodeline lutea): summer-available root adapted to summer drought and intercropping well with many other plants. Try to breed it for larger roots (perhaps at the expense of its flowering, which though beautiful and providing tasty nibbles presumably diverts a lot of energy from the roots.)
  • Scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica): experiment with how long to leave in the ground without having to dig too deep for the taproot. I tended to dig the top foot or so of the root, but snapped it off and lost it below that point. Experiment with replanting a portion of the tops instead of needing to resow from seed. I have successfully transplanted individuals with 6-12" of root, but suspect you could plant even less, and therefore get to eat more.
  • Asiatic lily (Lilium sp): I assume Asian growers bred these over thousands of years to select for larger bulbs from these gourmet crops. Seek out varieties with maximum food yield instead of showiest flower.
  • Camas (Camassia sp.): Another inulin rich root, requiring experimentation in a solar cooker to evaluate as a summer staple root. Otherwise it may not be justifiable due to the large amount of fuel required to make it digestible.
  • Garlic (Allium sativum): pseudo-staple (since you can only eat so much of it per day.) Super easy to grow and supposedly high in calories per pound, though I wonder whether the high inulin content means we don't actually digest all the calories.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Low-Maintenance Temperate Staple Crops

During my last two years in Portland, I began focusing on calorie crops, those which can actually provide substantial daily energy. I wanted to create a perennial polyculture analog to the annual-based system described in Carol Deppe's The Resilient Gardener. My criteria for a crop included being regenerative for the earth, healthy for humans to eat, low maintenance, able to be consumed in fairly large quantities, and providing decent yields. I didn't get far enough in my research and experiments to say anything conclusive, but I can share a few findings. For the purposes of my harvest logs and for my Self Sufficient Diet drafts (temperate and tropical), I organized foods into categories, presented here from most to least valuable for these purposes.

Animal Products

Ideally, we can convince chickens, bees, and other livestock to spend their copious free time eating food of low value to humans, then eat them and their eggs, meat, milk, and honey. In a well designed system, our critters self-harvest, according to their preferences: small seeds, bugs, grass & other leaves, and pollen & nectar. This maximizes our efficiency, and provides us with some of the healthiest human food possible.

Calories per pound: Eggs - 650, Meat - 525, Milk - 300, Honey - 1400
Black walnut


Nut trees can provide easy, reliable oil-rich seeds year after yaer. The fact that it takes a decade to start getting big yields just means we need to plant them *now*. And of course we can underplant developing nut trees with faster growing crops to use the space in the early years. Besides the usual nuts, oaks for acorns should get some attention. Oikos Tree Crops has some interesting naturally dwarfish seedlings which could fit much more easily into urban & suburban yards.

Possible nuts include walnut (black & english), butternut, filbert, chestnut, ginkgo, acorn, almond, pistachio, pecan, hickory, and pine. Many of these can be foraged easily.

Note that paleodiet circles warn against excess consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA); most oil-rich nuts have high levels of PUFAs. I'm still trying to sort through this issue for myself.

Calories per pound: About 900 for chestnuts, 1800 for ginkgo, and 2700-3300 for the more oily nuts.
Good King Henry seed heads

Small Seeds

Though most of these work best as self-harvested livestock fodder, some may yield abundantly enough and process easily enough to be worth harvesting ourselves. Possible species include good king henry, fennel, Amaranthus sp, Chenepodium sp, perennial grains, dock, perennial flax, sunflower seeds, squash seeds, and various legumes including peas, favas, runner beans, and Carol Deppe's breeds adapted to the Willamette Valley. Not all will be palatable in large enough quantities to truly serve as staple crops: for example, fennel. But we should definitely explore those that do meet all three criteria of good yields, efficient harvest & process, and non-overwhelming flavor.

Calories per pound: around 1600
Mulberries & Serviceberries

Fruits & Berries

Everyone loves nature's candy, and the existing permaculture literature does a great job giving species options and describing how to grow them -- perhaps to an excessive extent, to the detriment of other important calorie crops. I found that I could eat about one pound of fruit per day, and half a pound of berries. Though I could probably push myself to eat more, Sébastien Noël of Paleodiet Lifestyle suggests limiting fructose intake to 50g/day, meaning no more than about 1 1/2 pounds of fruit and berries per day assuming no other sugars (including honey.)

Calories per pound: About 300 for fruits, 200 for berries


Perennial, low maintenance root crops provide a moderately dense calorie crop. I found that I could eat about one pound per day, so they only provided a supplement to daily total calorie intake. Greatly increasing this intake may result in too many carbs for a healthy diet.

Root crops, of course, have the inherent ecological and labor drawback of requiring digging, but appropriate polycultures can mitigate some of the disadvantages.

My notes on perennial roots: part 1 and part 2

Calories per pound: around 300

Winter Squash

Though annuals, these don't require much soil disturbance considering how much space they take up at maturity, and can self-seed themselves (though we may have undesirable results from uncontrolled crossing.) while summer squash have the calorie density and uses of other vegetables, winter squash occupies a gray zone between calorie crop and vegetable. I can eat a lot of it in one sitting, but it has fewer calories than roots or fruits (but more than most other vegetables). It has more nutrients than many staple crops. It yields abundantly when happy, and stores well into the winter without processing. Unfortunately, its season of availability coincides with the primary availability of the super easy perennial roots, somewhat diminishing its staple crop value. Still, it adds diversity to the winter meal options, and can definitely provide a substantial number of calories.

Calories per pound: around 200

Bonus Seed Kernels

We can eat the seeds from many fruits, giving us a small calorie-dense bonus. Species include all Prunus species (cherry, plum, peach, etc), Elaeagnus sp (goumi, autumn olive, silverberry), Cephalotaxus sp, and grapes. With the exception of almonds, a Prunus, no one grows any of these specifically for the seed kernels, but they're worth utilizing if we have them anyway! I used to eat some myself, and fed some to our chickens.

Calories per pound: guessing 1500-2500

Greens & Other Vegetables

Though not calorie crops, these add important nutrients to the diet. I found it very easy to meet our needs of 4 oz/day/person from perennial greens, shoots, stalks, and flowers.

Calories per pound: about 100

Monday, November 11, 2013

Lost in the Food Forest: rampant growth in Portland

I sent this email years ago to the Portland Permaculture Guild, offering some tips and discoveries from our experiments with dense interplantings in zones 1 and 2:

In zone 1 we have a pretty easy time keeping growth balanced as part of the once or twice daily gathering of greens for salad and omelets, plus occasional dedicated large-scale whack-backs.

Prune/whack ruthlessly where needed. Leave in place as mulch wherever you can.

Designate your paths, at least 2' for main access routes, at least 1.5' for keyhole paths. The plants will invade the paths no matter what, so don't be afraid to make the paths "too big"; you can decrease the frequency and/or severity of your whack-backs if you find you don't mind the plants taking up some of the path. If you make the paths too small you'll guarantee an unpleasant walk through the garden and/or increased maintenance.

Place plants far enough from the paths that they don't interfere.  It can be difficult to determine spacing for perennial veggies based on book data alone; we find that tall plants may fall over into the path after summer rains since they haven't grown up accustomed to the weight of water. I used to want to plant a 3' wide plant (based on book data) exactly 1.5' back from the path to maximize the plant packing. But I now think you need to give a large buffer - maybe 2.5' from the path, and fill in the gap between the large plant and the path with a low-growing plant. You can easily trample the low-grower if it exceeds its allotted space. This makes for easier harvesting anyway--you can reach the large plant in the middle of the bed, and the small plant(s) at the edges.

It's OK to plant the plants more closely together inside the bed--they'll work things out if they crowd or fall onto each other. So I would place two plants with expected 3' maximum width 3' apart from each other. Dedicated trample-tolerant very low-growing ground covers help delineate the path, keep bed plants from spreading into the path, and can fix nitrogen, accumulate nutrients, etc. We're having good success with:
  • prostrate bird's food trefoil (Lotus corniculatus plena)
  • "Treneague" variety chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
  • what I think is dutch white clover (Trifolium repens)
  • Pacific silverweed (Potentilla anserina)
Those cute little squash volunteers that look so harmless in late spring will take over 6' or more in every direction if you let them grow. Don't, unless you're really OK with it. Similarly, be realistic that squashes you deliberately plant will want lots of space.

Give climbing plants something to climb, or be aware that they will sprawl across the ground. Tomatoes, squashes, beans/peas/groundnuts/hog peanuts, and mashua will all sprawl if they don't find vertical supports. Some of them will sprawl anyway, and require deliberate guidance to minimize horizontal spread.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Crisis: Personal & Planetary

I just experienced the worst, and weirdest, illness of my life. I went from fully healthy to not breathing in a week and a half. It began with some headaches, double vision, acute hearing sensitivity, and fatigue, which prompted me (with Jasmine's insistent and wise encouragement) to check in to the emergency room in Hilo. As my condition deteriorated, they decided to fly me to a Honolulu hospital on the island of Oahu, where they found encaphalitis (brain swelling) and brain lesions. The next day, I stopped breathing so they intubated me, sticking a tube down my throat to keep the air flowing.

The doctors sent out more than 70 tests, but everything came back negative, so the cause of all this remains a mystery. They hit me with antibiotics, antivirals, and steroids to carry out a broad-spectrum attack against the mystery, and something seems to have worked. My brain swelling and lesions have decreased, and after a little over a week in the hospital followed by a week of rehab I can walk and do most tasks well enough to feel confident about my release today back to the jungle.

As I understand it, times of personal crisis are supposed to prompt deep self-reflection and reevaluation of life. Interestingly, my experience leaves me thinking I'm more or less right where I want to be, doing what I want to do. As I wondered whether I would die or be left permanently incapacitated in some manner, my biggest concerns revolved around the effect on my resistance work. My own human life doesn't matter much in the big picture, but the earth sure as hell needs every one of us fighting for her with as much commitment and energy as we can bring. I've positioned myself in a wonderfully low-maintenance and healthy lifestyle, requiring less than 20 hours a week to meet my basic needs in an environment I enjoy. This leaves me a lot of free time to devote to activism, mostly tech work for Deep Green Resistance, and possibly some local campaigns as well.

Time is short, so I'd better make the most of whatever time I have.   Will you join me?