Sunday, May 9, 2010

On "Establishing a Food Forest"

A few days ago I watched a documentary/instructional video that I requested from the library called Establishing a Food Forest. It was so amazing that I watched it again the next day for a second time, this time with my significant other (who also thought it was amazing). I had heard of edible food forests, but didn’t really know what they were all about. This documentary is a really informative and fascinating introduction to food forests and how they work. (Here is the preview/promo/beginning of the film.)

Geoff Lawton, the Managing Director of The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, starts off by giving a quick classroom lecture on the basics of food forests and then later he walks the viewer through all the successive stages of developing a fully functional food forest. His enthusiasm and passion for what he does is totally infectious, and I found this idea of food forests to be one of the most inspiring and hopeful things I’ve encountered in recent months. The notion that one can create a lush and productive edible forest out of literally nothing but bare grassland is astonishing and fascinating. One of the things that struck me most was what little effort Lawton put into creating the forest, especially considering the unbelievably short duration of time it took for the forest to become rampantly productive soon after the seeds were sown.

There are some key principles used in growing a successful food forest. One key principle is the necessary layering of various types of plants (from the ground cover to the overstory). As Lawton points out in the film, the specific plants used are not important, but the concept of layering is essential (this allows for the method to be applied close to anywhere in the world using plants that are native to a particular region – so long as the plants are layered correctly it should work). Another really important key is providing biodiversity (and interactive diversity) – i.e., allowing many different types of plants to grow together in such a way that a natural cycle can flourish and allow the forest to sustain itself with a ridiculously minimal amount of human labor to maintain it. And one thing I couldn’t help but notice was that this process needn’t use any animals or animal products (fertilizers, etc.) in order to make this happen. At one point later in the film, Lawton offers a technique based on using chickens to fertilize the forest and control “pests” in the preliminary stages of forest production. However, the bulk of the film is devoted to a method that uses plant-based mulch to create healthy soil that certain leguminous/nitrogen-fixing plants help to create and that certain fruit trees feed off of (it’s a method called “chop and drop”). The end result is a beautiful lush forest that is completely self-sustained and replete with an abundance of food on which to subsist. With the lack of biodiversity on this planet having become a crucial issue that threatens all life, food forests seem to be at least one practical and sustainable answer to restoring some balance.

These newly created forests quickly become inhabited by animals. This makes me wonder what role food forests could play in creating (or rather recreating) new ecosystems for free-living animals who will need to migrate to more suitable destinations as the climate starts to warm up where they live. It is said that due to global warming the average temperature is moving at a speed of a quarter of a mile every year (in some locations it’s up to a kilometer a year). Could we rapidly design and create new sustainable and productive forests (in place of barren or unsuitable land) for animals who are bound to start moving northward in search of cooler climates? Could we anticipate climate change migration patterns and quickly establish forests that somewhat mirror animals’ original ecosystems, placing these forests where the animals are predicted to migrate? Could we relocate plants that are suffering from climate change to these newly established forests where they may thrive (and subsequently attract migrating animals who subsist on these plants)? I don’t know. It’s just some strange (and probably stupid) thoughts I just had…

Anyway…one of many insightful moments in the film for me was when Lawton speaks about the benefits of weeds. I have recently begun to see weeds from a totally different perspective (a number of plants considered “weeds” are not only edible, but have medicinal qualities). Lawton explains at one point in the documentary how weeds play a vital role in the ecological cycle of plant life. Their existence can be a sign or a symptom of deficiency in the soil. As weeds grow, their roots pull up nutrients and minerals (such as potassium) from deep down in the soil, and as the weed dies those nutrients and minerals in the plant become incorporated into the top layer of the soil where other plants can feed on them. So in a sense, they actually correct what is wrong in the soil. I think I already knew this, since the same concept applies to weeds that breakdown in compost and are later used to replenish soil. But I guess I never really thought about the direct relationship weeds have with the surrounding plants in the forest and the soil those plants feed off of.

I found the part on the no-dig kitchen garden to be really inspiring (and it is my favorite part in the film). In keeping with the idea of the importance of biodiversity, the kitchen garden at the Permaculture Institute has 400 different vegetables, herbs, and fruit - all planted together side by side. The lesson I took away from this is that the more diversity you plant in your garden, the less “pests” will take over. Instead of pushing out certain “unwanted” insects or animals, it is much more beneficial to create an environment that invites everyone in and provides a little something for everyone (by way of a multitude of diverse plants and various forms of habitats). It seems the more life (plants) you grow and the more life (animals) you invite in, the better your garden will be balanced and self-maintained. What a beautiful concept.

If you do decide to watch Establishing a Food Forest, make sure you don’t miss the special features, particularly the one on the 300-year-old forest (or you can just watch it on Youtube; though I think watching this clip after watching the documentary allows you to comprehend the significance of the garden). Incredibly, somewhere in Vietnam there is a food forest that has been family owned for 28 generations. (As an aside, there is a moment in the clip where Lawton describes animals being “used” as part of the “holistic” system of the food forest, including a deer whose horns are “harvested” for medicinal purposes. I wasn’t so happy about that and I probably could write a whole post just about that, but lately I just try to extract - and pass on - useful and inspiring information, and make an effort to leave behind the more frustrating or depressing stuff.)

Overall, I recommend watching this film, even if you never plan to grow a food forest. It’s not only highly informative (offering insight into permaculture techniques and the ecology of food forests and ecosystem production), but I also found it to be surprisingly inspiring, which was wholly unexpected – it created a little bit of hope in me where it has lately been conspicuously absent.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Books on Gardening (and More)

For the past few months I have been checking out a number of books on gardening from the library. Firstly, I will share with you two books on herbs that have fast become my favorites. Keep in mind that I am fairly new to growing and using herbs, and there are many books on this topic that I have not yet read. These are just my favorites thus far, and I feel as though the journey has only just begun for me.

The Northwest Herb Lover’s Handbook is a handy source of information on growing herbs in general, but I also find it helpful that the author Mary Preus focuses on the needs of the Pacific Northwest (where I live). Each time I am about to plant an herb, I make sure I first consult with the sections in the book called “Planting information and cultural directions.” Additionally, at the end of each section on an herb, interesting tidbits of information are divided into sections such as “Garden uses,” “Craft and home uses,” “Culinary uses,” and “Medicinal uses.” Located toward the back of the book is a monthly checklist of to-do reminders.

Another book I have been referring to on a regular basis is Herbs for Pets. Since I’m not just growing herbs for myself, but for my furred buddies as well, it’s nice to have an all-in-one guide for growing herbs and using them medicinally for my dog and cat. The first chapter is a good primer for the beginner herbalist such as myself. And besides being an attractive book, it is also organized well. The section for each herb is easy to find due to alphabetized “tabs” on the edge of the pages. A large section in the back of the book is devoted to holistic care of pets and herbal remedies.

Another reference guide I sometimes use is Herb Gardening for Washington and Oregon. This book is very light on information and heavy on beautiful color photos (though the photos are actually useful in identifying herbs).

The Bountiful Container is a book on container gardening. I have been using it for supplemental information on herbs (and since I’m planting herbs in containers as well as in the garden, it serves a dual purpose).

As I delve more into using herbs, I have a feeling I’ll eventually find more detailed books on the subject. I’m also interested in the medicinal qualities and uses of native plants/herbs. Last week while browsing online, I found a book called Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West by Michael Moore (not "thee" Michael Moore; this Michael Moore is an expert herbalist) that provides more comprehensive information on how to collect plants that grow in the wild and how to prepare them medicinally. Who knew that Devil's Club, Trillium, and Skunk Cabbage could be used to heal? Not me...not until now anyway.

There is a belief among many gardeners that some plants grow better when planted adjacent to certain other plants. This method is called “companion gardening.” As a new gardener, I’m not sure how effective this is in reality, but I have been willing to give it a try. The book Carrots Love Tomatoes is a gardening classic, and I loosely refer to it when deciding where to plant my herbs (as well as other plants). Besides being a general guide for companion gardening, the author also throws in interesting bits of information about various plants that I have found helpful (I learned I can use all those crazy horsetails growing out of control in my backyard to make a spray that wards off mildew/fungus on other plants. Pretty cool!). This week I checked out a book called Great Garden Companions, also on the subject of companion gardening. I haven’t read much of this book yet, so I can’t vouch for it, but the color photos of the author’s garden are simply gorgeous. She obviously goes in for a decorative look, and she’ll closely mix together companion plants such as marigolds, basil, calendula, dinosaur kale, lettuce, and basil and somehow make them look like they all belong together in a magnificent splash of colors. That’s an end result that I could live with!

In terms of vegetable gardening, I have been religiously using two indispensable books that I have mentioned before on this blog: Growing Green and Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades.

I own (and know of) only two books specifically about veganic gardening. One is a book no longer in print called Veganic Gardening by Kenneth Dalziel O’Brien. To be honest, I don’t find myself referring to that book much (so far anyway). Instead, I use Growing Green when I have a question about veganics. I have found that the chapters on soil fertility and propagation have been the most helpful.

Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades gives tips on organic gardening for folks who live (yep, you guessed it) west of the Cascade mountains. Though the author Steve Solomon is not a veganic farmer, he does offer great information on organic methods and stuff specific to the Pacific Northwest, such as soil fertility and planting dates. I have learned a great deal about gardening from reading this book and highly recommend it (even to those folks who do not live in the PNW).

One thing you have to keep in mind while reading his book, however, is that Solomon is not a fan of biointensive gardening, and he will direct you to plant seeds in a very controlled and sparse fashion (he is the anti-John Jeavons so to speak). So far, I have gone along with his proposed method of spacing plants farther apart. However, biointensive methods are looking more and more appealing to me, especially since I have only so much space to work with in my backyard. So I might just be looking more into John Jeavons’ methods, and I have recently checked out his very popular book called How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. I’ll hold off on recommending it until I’ve read it. I'm also interested in learning more about permaculture techniques, and plan on checking out some books by the two Grahams (Graham Bell and Graham Burnett). I did read Food Not Lawns last year, and am thinking I could go for a second reading.

There are other books that I am currently reading that are not directly connected to gardening, but I think I’ll mention them anyway. I started reading Seeds of Destruction a few weeks ago and after getting through about two-thirds of it, I literally had to put the book down and walk away from it for a while. It was just too depressing to learn of yet more ways in which the corporate elite are attempting to control our lives (this time through control of our seeds, and therefore our food supply). At the same time, I got it into my head to look into who was behind the Doomsday Vault (a seed bank where seeds from around the world are stored for “free”) – well, the same people managing this giant “seed bank” are the same people trying to control the seed supply (e.g., Dupont and Syngenta and the creepy people [CGIAR and the Rockefeller Foundation] who started the failed Green Revolution and have a long shady history that dips into eugenics – read Seeds of Destruction and you’ll know what I am talking about). Equally depressing is how every day the alternative news informs us of how Monsanto is pushing GM seeds/food on various developing countries and indigenous peoples, as if the company hasn’t ruined enough land, soil, communities, and farmers’ lives. And apparently, industry is not stopping at GM foods; they are now pushing boundaries by developing nano-food – and like GM food, don’t expect nano-food to be labeled or tested properly anytime soon either. It’s gotten to a point where I really can’t keep up with the aggressive self-serving agenda of the corporatocracy; their multitudinous moneygrubbing tentacles are reaching everywhere in a world that is dying from greed. But I suppose this topic/rant can be saved for another blog entry on another day.

In the meantime, I have turned to reading another book called Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution by Caroline Fraser. I’m only about thirty or so pages into it, but so far it’s a very interesting read. Among other things, the author talks about the technique of creating corridors between wild areas that allows animals to migrate when necessary. This is a subject in which I have become very interested, since it seems like a necessary solution to some of the problems that free-living animals are facing due to climate change. There is some speciesist language in the book, but I’ve tried to ignore it in order to receive the pertinent knowledge that Fraser has to offer. I previously thought this idea of creating corridors for animal migration was something that had developed in recent years, but as it turns out some conservationists have been doing it for many years now (and in fact, a project is already planned for creating bridges and culverts in the Cascades that will allow wildlife to cross over Interstate 90, a major barrier for migrating animals). As the climate changes and warms up, the ability for animals (and plants) to migrate to locations with more suitable conditions will become ever more important. In a world where animals and plants are going extinct faster than they are evolving (!) and where biodiversity is rapidly decreasing to the point in which it is becoming harmful even to humans, helping the remaining animals to survive and adjust to the vast changes in their habitats is becoming the responsibility of us humans who have put them into this mess in the first place.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Walk in the Cascades

Here are some photos I took during a short walk in the Cascades a couple of weeks ago. The photos were taken from my phone. I'm a horrible photographer, but hopefully I've done the Cascades some justice.

One of the first plants to pop up in early spring is the skunk cabbage. I always look forward to finding the first skunk cabbage, because it means spring is around the corner!

The beginning foliage of wildflowers is starting to crop up along the trail paths.

This is actually a bleeding heart that seems to be droopy from the rain. Some bleeding hearts are just beginning to form their little heart-shaped flowers.

Edit: Whoops. I went back on this trail this week and realized what I rather started to suspect, that this is not bleeding heart, but another plant of the same family (corydalis), called western corydalis. I should have known better, since bleeding heart doesn't normally grow this tall at the outset. I guess without the flowers fully formed I had a temporary mind fart in identifying it. Western Corydalis grows in the back of my house, as does bleeding heart. They are both currently blooming. A better photo of western corydalis is shown at the end of this post.

One of the things I love about the Cascades is the crazy amount of moss and lichen that grows on everything alive and dead. The moss is a brilliant emerald green right now. One of these days I'm going to take it upon myself to identify different types of moss.

Here the moss is growing on a nurse log. Western red cedar nurse logs and stumps are amazing - everything and anything seems to grow out of them. I don't know why, but it never ceases to fascinate me. This is probably a very boring photo to most people, but I love checking out all the crazy stuff that grows from dead cedar - trees, bushes, ferns, flowers, moss.

Licorice fern growing on a tree...this is very common.

More lovely moss on an old-growth.

And more moss...

A fallen tree showing her roots.

I'm not knowledgeable in mycology, so I have no idea what kind of mushrooms these are...but I thought they were pretty enough to take a picture.

Here's my doggie. She's the best hiking/running companion in the world! That's the Snoqualmie River. The river is so clear one can see the the copper-colored stones on the bottom.

Western Corydalis:

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Walt's Organic Fertilizer Co. and Steve Solomon's Veganized Fertilizer Recipe

For those of you living in the greater Seattle area and in need of vegan fertilizer, Walt’s Organic Fertilizer Co. sells a vegan mix called Organic Garden Blend 6-2-5. The mix has a good balance of NPK. Note that you might want to add some lime to the mix. Pacific Northwest soil is very acidic; the rain leaches away much of the calcium. This problem can be corrected by feeding it some lime.

For a year now I have been mixing my own vegan fertilizer using a recipe that I derived from Steve Solomon's Complete Organic Fertilizer for the Pacific Northwest. The following ingredients are totally vegan:

4 parts organic cottonseed meal (or organic soya bean meal)

½ part dolomite lime (or a 50/50 mix of dolomite lime and agricultural lime)

½ part kelp meal

½ part rock phosphate

I was really unsure about using this fertilizer on my garden last year, but I was assured by the great (and very helpful!) folks on the Veganic Agriculture Network that the modified recipe I was using was indeed vegan and balanced. Then, a few weeks ago, I was walking my dog in the Lake Hills Park in Bellevue and came upon a large community garden that was open to the public called the Urban Demonstration Garden. As I walked around reading the informational placards placed in front of the various plants and garden beds, I came upon one placard that explained the type of fertilizer they use. Lo and behold, they use the same exact recipe (also derived from Steve Solomon’s formula) that I thought I had “made up.” I was surprised, and yet very relieved, to know I’m not the only one using it. The only minor difference with their recipe is that they sometimes use fish meal as a substitute for one of the ingredients, which I would never use.

I just started using organic soya bean (soybean) meal instead of cottonseed meal this week. Cottonseed meal seems to have some controversy surrounding it regarding whether or not it is really organic (and GM free), even though it may be labeled “organic,” and this is something I want to look into more. (On page 36 of Steve Solomon’s book Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, he gives a short explanation on how the final product of cottonseed meal has been stripped of its oil – the part that retains any pesticides/herbicides. Solomon recommends using cottonseed, but being the vegan skeptic that I am, I plan on researching the situation further.) Regardless, I decided to try the soybean meal more for a change of pace. Linseed meal is also an acceptable substitute for cottonseed or soybean meal. I sometimes throw in some alfalafa meal with my fertilizer as well, though it’s not necessarily needed, it seems.

All of the ingredients I’ve written about thus far are available at Walt’s Fertilizer Co. If you live farther east toward the mountains, The Grange in Issaquah sells some of these ingredients as well. I'm sure there are many more sources out there for vegan fertilizer products that I don't know about because I am new to veganics, but I have been keeping my eye out for new companies and sources, and will list them on my blog as I encounter them.

If you are wondering whether or not an ingredient you want to use for fertilizer is vegan, Growing Green (a book on veganic techniques) devotes a chapter to the guidelines (chapter 3: Soil Fertility). Also there is a very helpful information sheet presented (in PDF format) by the Vegan-Organic Network called Propagation and Fertilizers, which I often have been referring to lately.

There are many different types of vegan fertilizers that one can use, some less expensive than others (e.g., wood ash, comfrey liquid, compost tea, stinging nettle liquid, weed tea). Some really creative ways have been proposed in various garden blogs and forums on how to fertilize plants without using animal products. I am trying to keep a list of the ones I encounter so that one day I can post them all.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Blogs on Veganic Gardening

During the past couple of weeks I have found a few more blogs on veganic gardening while searching, browsing, and being generally nosy on the Internet. I usually do a search on the keyword “veganic” (or variations of such, like “veganic gardening”) each week in the hope of finding more information on the subject. Here are some blogs that I have encountered:

Austin Vegan Gardener

grow peace and dance in the garden

We Don’t Dig It, Man

2010 Gardening
Table Scraps

Note: I don’t know what’s up with the comments function on this blog, but it’s not working (I'm not able to receive comments). I doubt anyone has left a comment, since this blog is relatively new and unknown. But if anyone out there did attempt to submit a comment, I sincerely apologize that it did not get posted. I’m working on this problem (which is probably caused by my own deficient blog skills), and I should have it sorted out soon. In the meantime, feel free to email me if you want at, which I usually check every day or so.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Storing Seeds

The most important thing to remember when storing your seeds is to place them in a location that is cold and dry. The colder and dryer, the better.

Do not subject your seeds to fluctuations in temperature (and humidity), otherwise they will lose their ability to germinate. In other words, do not frequently shuffle your seeds around from room to room, from indoors to outdoors, from near the fireplace to the cold garage, etc.

An underground root cellar is a great example of an excellent storage location. If you are keeping seeds in your home, find a place that is cool, dark, and dry (and where the temperature does not fluctuate much). Do not put them in a greenhouse or a damp woodshed.

Placing your seeds nearer to the floor is better than placing them close to the ceiling where it is warmer.

Even though it might be the coldest spot in your home, do not put your seeds in the refrigerator or freezer unless you have already taken the proper steps to protect them from moisture, like placing them in an airtight container with recharged desiccant.

For now, I am placing my seed packets in airtight opaque canisters with locking clamps and gasket seals (like this) on the floor of my pantry, where the temperature is consistently cool year round. The canisters are ceramic, and I think airtight glass or metal jars would be better, but the ones I already have on hand will do for now. I have been saving small bags of silica gel* desiccant from products that I buy (shoes, electronics, etc.), and have learned that they can be dried out for reuse by placing them in the oven or a dehydrator. The desiccant absorbs moisture and lowers the humidity in the container in which the seeds are stored. I have read that rice can also serve as a desiccant to absorb moisture. I am not too overly concerned about using desiccant since there is relatively low humidity in my home, but if I decide not to bother dehydrating the desiccant, I may throw some rice in the bottom of the canisters that I am using (I figure it can’t hurt). When saving seeds from the garden, I think drying them out becomes a much more complex and necessary process. I may attempt to save my own seeds this year, but at this point I know very little about that particular process from beginning to end. In any case, there are many ideas floating around on the Internet as to ways in which to store seeds (e.g., there are some interesting ideas in this forum thread at Seed Savers Exchange). I’ll be creating a list of ideas that I gather as the season progresses, and will blog about them later on down the road. In the meantime, the book Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth has a great section called Seed Storage Techniques (starting on page 28) for those who save seeds and are serious about storing them (she also covers the steps needed when storing seeds in the refrigerator or freezer).

In his book Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, master gardener Steve Solomon writes that it is very easy to make your seeds last four times longer than normal. “For the purposes of this book, I define normal storage as being in a cardboard box on a shelf in a closet away from the woodstove, where humidity isn’t excessively high and air temperature tends to be stable. […] More precisely let’s call normal storage 70 degrees F and 70 percent relative humidity (RH). The rule of thumb used in the seed trade is that for every 10 degrees F drop in temperature from normal, combined with a corresponding reduction in humidity that lowers the seed’s moisture content by 1 percent, the life of the seed doubles. It takes roughly a 10 percent drop in relative humidity to lower seed moisture by about 1 percent. So at 60 degrees F/RH60%, the seed life is more or less double the normal span. At 50 degrees F/RH50%, it doubles again to four times normal.” To achieve 50 degreeF/RH50%, he suggests getting a large recharged silica gel packet and placing it in with your seeds in a tightly lidded gallon jar or other airtight container and then keeping it in a cool place such as under the house, in the cellar, or even in cool closet located along a north wall.

* Edit: Silica gel is vegan. And according to Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (page 123) it is an acceptable form of desiccant. In any case, I might go with the more natural form of rice instead for now. The book Growing Green does not mention anything about silica gel, and simply suggests storing your seeds in a sealed packet in a cool dry place.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Seed Companies

Last winter I purchased my vegetable and herb seeds from the organic seed company Seeds of Change. I have no complaints about their seeds or service, but this year I decided to order herbs from a company located a little closer to home here in the Pacific Northwest. In my search, I discovered an awesome organic seed company located in Williams, Oregon. Horizon Herbs offers an incredible selection, including all standard herbs as well as interesting and rare varieties that were gathered from around the world by the owner Richo Cech. Check out the rave reviews that Horizon Herbs received on Dave’s Garden Watchdog (74 positive reviews opposed to two negative ones). Note that Mr. Cech himself personally responds to some of the reviews. I hope the company is as good as the reviews say, because I ordered a crazy amount of seeds from them! Including some really cool seed sets (my cat is going to go nuts for the catnip set, which consists of three different types! He's a catnip junkie!).

After much deliberation, I decided to order the bulk of my vegetable seeds from High Mowing. Located in Vermont, High Mowing offers a wonderful selection of open pollinated seeds and heirlooms. The company received excellent reviews on Dave’s Garden Watchdog, as well. And I admit, High Mowing gets extra points in my book for taking Monsanto to court last year over the premature deregulation of Monsanto’s GMO sugar beets (High Mowing won!).

A number of Pacific Northwest organic seed companies have either direct or unclear relationships with Seminis/Monsanto, so I scratched them off my list. Some of these include Osborne and Territorial, who still sell a number of seeds from Seminis. I was originally going to purchase my veggie seeds from Irish Eyes located here in Washington State, but I couldn’t find much information online about the company and the reviews they received were a bit spotty. A blurb on the inside cover of the Irish Eyes catalog claims that they oppose GMO in all forms, so I haven’t totally ruled them out yet. The blog Sustainable Eats gives a nod to Uprising Seeds, a company located in Bellingham, WA that states on their homepage that they have signed the Safe Seed Pledge (though I take that with a grain of salt, since Territorial Seed also signed the pledge, and they still carry seeds from Seminis). Wild Garden Seed, located in Oregon, is an organic seed company that may be another possible choice that I am looking into.

Finding a Seed Company in Your Region

Choosing a seed company located in your region can be a wise decision (particularly if they themselves grow many of the seeds they sell), since the seeds are most likely adapted and suited to the particular climate and environment in which you live.

If you are looking for an organic seed company that is right for you, here are some helpful links that might help you to get started:

List of organic seed companies by state and country

Seed Alliance’s list of seed companies

Search by type of seed