Permaculture revelation

The reason permaculture isn’t “clicking” for me in my current location is that the space I live in is already a forest. That’s as perma as it gets. You don’t design a forest garden in a forest the same way you design when you’re starting with a degraded, eroded open field.

Must think about this in a different way…

Fruit tree change of mindset

I’ve been getting hung up lately on “where do I put the fruit trees?” and even “what trees do I want to have?” The south part of the yard is what we see from the house, and I want it to look good and be functional. And the south sun (especially full sun) is extremely limited, so it feels like I need to be very careful about what I plant. And it seems like I need to get the whole thing figured out before I start planting. I’m getting a brain cramp from thinking about it. This is not the fun way to garden.

Well, I found a way around that today: I just decided to throw a bunch of stuff into a different part of the yard, a corner we don’t see except when going in/out the driveway.  This will be a quantity, not necessarily quality or pretty, orchard. Throw in a bunch of stuff, in different varieties, give it the minimum care to get it established, and see what happens. Don’t worry about arranging it for beauty; just make sure it doesn’t take over the powerline cut. Plant enough so I might get some after the critters dine. Just get things in the ground, so five years from now I’m not wishing I’d started five years ago.

Here’s the list of species:

  • Serviceberries (aka saskatoons)
  • Hazelnuts
  • Raspberries
  • Bush cherries
  • Bush apricots
  • Red mulberries
  • Cider apples
  • Hardy pecan
  • English walnut

The areas I’m planting this stuff is pretty shady. Some of this stuff is supposed to have full sun, but you know, I’m not trying to optimize yield. There’s already an apple tree back there, and it was more productive than the entire commercial orchard down the road this year because it’s under the canopy and protected from frost. So what the hell. I’ll toss some stuff in there and see what happens. It’ll be fun. And if I get some fruit from it, great! I’ll sure come out knowing what can handle a laissez-faire gardening style!

Very simple succession planting for zone 5b-6

Succession planting is the idea that you plant your garden in stages, so there’s always something to eat and you don’t get all your green beans in a 2-week window. There are tons of books and guides out there to help you figure this out, but I thought I’d share what I’ve figured out that works for me. What “works for me” means the most food for the least amount of fussing. Tweak as you see fit.

Some assumptions:

  • The only things I start from seed are things I can direct-sow in the garden: peas, beans, squash, root vegetables, sunflowers. I don’t start my own tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, or onions. I buy all those things as transplants on one warm weekend in May and call it good.
  • The one exception to this rule is kale. I’m a kale fiend, and picky about variety. So I do generally start some kale indoors in about March. And oh, while I’ve got the lights up, maybe some other brassicas like broccoli or cabbage.

There are certain things that start early and end early, and only so many things that you can start late and have any kind of harvest. So I tend to think of these things as “pairs” in the garden bed – the early crop and the late crop. For example, after I pull the turnips out, I always then put in bush beans.

  • Early crops: Turnips, lettuce, onions, peas, radishes. These are all things I can plant mid- to late-April, and they will be out of the garden by July 4th.
  • Late crops: Bush beans, fall crop of kale, fall lettuce, spinach, garlic (plant in October). Bush beans planted at July 4th will usually set a crop before frost. Lettuce and kale might need to be started indoors, or under shade, because they don’t like hot weather at all. But if you don’t get those started by August, you won’t have much of a fall/winter crop. Spinach planted after October will really get eaten in the spring, but it’s totally worth planting that late because it’ll be the first thing you eat in June (even without a greenhouse).

I also like to minimize the number of times I’m planting things. So, instead of planting 1/4 of my total bean crop every 2 weeks for two months, I’ve found it works great to plant a row of bush beans and a row of pole beans at the same time. They will start to bear a week or two apart, usually. Then I plant some more bush beans when one of the early crops comes out, and that usually covers me for the whole summer. Other pairings for extending the harvest:

  • Bush + pole beans
  • Indeterminate + determinate (i.e., “patio”) tomatoes
  • Short + tall snap/snow peas
  • Early + late potatoes
  • Everbearing + June-bearing strawberries
  • Early + late “storage” carrots

Your seed catalog should tell you days to maturity and/or key words like “earliest bean we carry” or “great for storage” or “determinate tomato concentrates harvest over two weeks” or “harvest all summer long.” Using these kinds of pairings lets you plant at the same time but harvest at different times.

So – what I recommend for truly simple “succession” planting is:

  • Pick some early/late pairs: for example, turnips + bush beans; lettuce + late kale; peas + garlic – and plan to put those in the same space in your garden. Once you figure out a couple that work for you, you can use the same pairings each year.
  • For other crops, pick varieties that will mature at different times and plant two varieties as indicated in the list above.

That’s it!

Permaculture thoughts

As I look out the window through the forest to the fen, I see oaks, hickories, cattails, and herds of deer.

To a resident of this ridge 400 years ago, that’s a damn grocery store. I think our next step toward local eating is to develop a taste for these foods – adapt ourselves to this environment at least as much as we try to adapt it to us by gardening.

Great day at the homestead

What a gorgeous gift of a day! Nov. 12th, but sunny and warm (60, by mid-day). Last week’s snow jolted us into realizing a number of chores that really needed to get done before winter set in, and we did pretty much all of them today.

Our neighbor, Gary, came over with his tractor and moved the giant pile of wood chips (20yd dropped off for cheap by a local tree service) to the various plantings that needed a fresh coat: the oak berm, the berry berm, and the apple/raspberry bed. When he was done, he moved the remaining chips (8 yd?) to a back corner of the property so they’re out of the driveway. As he did that, Scott and I started to take the pergola “roof” down, which lets the sun into the house and also keeps the pergola from collapsing under the weight of snow – I don’t think 4 year old willow fencing can handle a foot of snow!

This is always a shaky job – our ladder is just barely tall enough to get to one end of the pergola, and it sinks into the ground. It’s nerve-wracking and not terribly safe. Finally, Gary says, “I can’t take it any more! Scott, get in the bucket!” And in a move that looked more dangerous (but both guys swore it was better than the ladder), Scott gets in the bucket of the tractor and Gary lifts him up level to the top of the pergola, which we can then dismantle in record time. (I’m on the roof at this point, managing the slats that hold the screening on the top of the pergola, thinking I’ve got the safest perch of the bunch.) And heck, while I’m up there, I cleaned out the gutters, too.

When that was done, we trimmed a couple branches overhanging the deck, and finally called it a morning. After showers and lunch, Scott ran off to do Scott things involving coffee, and I decided to flop on the couch with a book, or the internet, or something. But! The living room is cold.

No worries! There is wood, and a fireplace. But! There’s so much ash in the fireplace that it’s hard to keep a fire lit. No worries! There is a shovel, and a tin for the ashes.  But! Now the ash tin is full. No worries! It is beautiful and sunny, and I can go dump them out by the greenhouse.

Oooh, greenhouse. I wonder how things are going in there? Pretty well, as it turns out. There’s actually a serving of green beans to be harvested, and the winter savoy cabbages are starting to head up. Hmm, cabbage – that reminds me, I was going to transplant the Storage #4s from the garden to the greenhouse to compare how they keep “live” to in the root cellar. Did I mention it’s beautiful and sunny?

And so on, for at least another hour.  And now the cabbages are transplanted and watered, one water barrel is empty (I don’t think they’re big enough for warm thermal mass, and since this one is on the north side, I’m betting it would freeze, making it the wrong kind of thermal mass), beans harvested, greens for dinner picked, and three cookie trays of herbs (oregano, rosemary, and sage) are drying on the kitchen table.

I’m a couple hours late to my flop on the couch, but so what? Now I’ve got fresh green beans to eat as I putter online. 🙂

Garden wrap-up 2011

Well, we finally got a hard frost on Oct. 22 (!!!) and I think I’ll get the last of the potatoes in this year.

This year’s tally was a whopping 1200 pounds of produce! Seven hundred of that (and change) was squash. Those pink bananas were da bomb – prolific, tasty, and craaaaaaazy big. I’d grow ’em again just for the laugh factor. They are also by far the best producers per square foot of conditioned garden soil (somewhere around 4-5 lb per square foot) because I let them run out into the lawn.

Of course, I can’t eat 700 pounds of squash. I have several recipes I like, and a few even the sweetie will eat, but c’mon. So most of that goes to Food Gatherers. Still – it’s great to be able to grow that many calories of seriously nutritious food with that little effort. I’m happy to be able to donate something besides mac-n-cheez.

Other crops that did well were potatoes (holding tight a 1lb/sf), kale/collards, and sweet potatoes.  Had some good green beans, but my “succession” plantings utterly failed and they all came in around the same time.  Spring peas were great. Lettuce and rutabagas bombed – both probably because they were planted too late for their species. The lettuce went bitter and the rutabagas (planted after the summer heat wave) didn’t really bulk up. Most look like carrots.

I did manage to grow carrots this year, thanks to the wet spring, I think, but none of them taste fabulous.

The best discovery of the season was crowder peas. They are a dry bean of the cowpea family (so I’m not allergic to them), and are they size and shape of a garbanzo bean. They grow 10-15 to a pod, though, and are by far the most prolific dry beans I’ve ever raised. Without staking or anything – I grew 2.5 lb in a 25 sf bed. I don’t know about you, but that’s phenomenal yields for me for dry beans. And did I mention how completely tasty they are? Less “green” tasting than cowpeas, with a skin that holds shape without being tough and nice melty insides. I’m in love.

I also spent far less time in the garden this year than most. I barely went out there in July and August, except to harvest green beans in July. Man, I love raised beds and avoiding Vegetables of Obligation. Though that did lead to me whinging a bit mid-summer that “there’s nothing in the garden” – meaning “I can’t make dinner out of what’s currently ready to harvest.” It was an odd sort of stress, and it’s faded now that no one else has anything in the garden…but I’ve got kale coming out my ears, carrots and a few potatoes and rutabagas to dig, and a cellar full of squash and potatoes.

I did spend an awful lot of September and October digging tubers – I will NOT be planting 350sf of them next year. I think probably 100sf of white potatoes, and maybe no sweet potatoes. Sweets are tasty, but a pain to plant and dig, and relatively expensive. For the record, the Georgia Jets were most prolific, followed by O’Henry (a much less-sweet whitish variety) and Bush Porto Rico.  Together, they produced about 68 lb of sweets. Only about 1/2 to 2/3 of the plants survived to produce any tubers, and ironically, the Jets had the greatest slip fatalities (Hmm, Sharks in the garden?) but the most pounds harvested. At harvest, they were all pretty bland and un-sweet – I’m hoping curing them has improved the flavor, but haven’t tried them yet. (And seriously? Who can cure sweet potatoes at 85 degrees? I’m pulling the plants out because it might FROST tonight, people – 85 degrees is not an option.)

This year also showed our first notable harvest of perennial crops: hazelnuts. I got half a grocery sack of pods, which yielded 3 pints of nuts in the shell. Many are quite tiny (these are the wild native type, not bred for size). I plan to shell them this weekend – I expect a cup of nuts, max. But still – it’s pretty exciting, and I really want to plant some hybrids next spring that we can really count on for full-size nuts. They’ll go on the Berry Berm, which should also produce some strawberries next spring. Oh, and elderberries. Serviceberries will be a few more years.

I still haven’t decided on whether I’m growing tomatoes next year. I may try some determinate ones that all ripen at the same time, or I may repeat this year’s tactic of buying or trading for the tomatoes I need. I had a pretty nice deal with several neighbors: they gave me tomatoes, and I provided squash and canning gear and organization expertise for big canning events. That worked out reasonably well, so I might do it again. Just not sure yet.

I’m definitely doing 100sf of peas (pod and shelling), 100sf of crowder peas, 100sf of potatoes, 100sf of brassicas, and some big winter squash. I’ll fill in the details over the winter. At the moment, it’s a little hard to imagine enthusiasm about noodling out that puzzle, but that’s always how it feels at the tail end of harvest season.

For now, it’s enough to be thankful that the cellar is full of great things to eat, and that we’ve made it through to the rest season again, healthy and happy.

Comparing organic potato yields in a home garden: cut potatoes vs. single drops

This year, as I planned to plant about 250 sf of seed potatoes, I decided to try cutting potatoes and planting pieces, instead of my usual “single-drop” method of simply planting whole small (less than egg-sized) potatoes.  Here are the results, using Kennebec potatoes.

The plants themselves were noticeably different in size.  This bed has two rows of cut potatoes and seven rows of single drops.  All rows have 10 plants. The single drops were planted at two different spacings between rows: 9″ and 12″.


Cut potatoes (and sprouting oat straw) on the left; single drops on the right. Planted May 20; photo taken June 26.

Curiously, early season harvests showed the cut potatoes far outproducing the single drops.  More energy going into roots and less into big, leafy plants, maybe? I didn’t weigh these, but I think I got 50-100% more potatoes per plant from the cut potatoes in the early season.

On Sept. 19th, I harvested two full rows. Each row now had 9 plants, as I’d robbed one plant per row earlier.  Here’s the difference:

Potato harvests

Harvests from equal areas of single drops (left) and cut potatoes (right).

The single-drops produced nearly twice as many potatoes (27lb vs 14.5 lb), and the potatoes were larger. (By the way, does anyone know what causes “double” potatoes? Nearly all my potatoes this year look like two or more potatoes fused together, or two lobes connected by a thick neck, like a peanut shell.) Neither technique had many marble-sized potatoes, as I had last year.

The “wide-space” row yielded 15 lb per row vs 27 lb. for the “normal” row. Keep in mind that the wide spacing was only wider east-west; north-south, these plants were spaced the same as all other rows.

Why this difference? I’ve read that in some climates, spreading plants apart makes more nutrients available to each plant, and each plant produces more.  This does not seem to be the case in my garden. Possible reasons:

  • My garden has very deep, rich soil with lots of organic matter; plants aren’t competing for soil nutrients or water, even when close together.
  • That normal row was on the edge of the bed, and its vines had a ton of room to spread on one side.
  • The soil might have been richer on the single-drop side.  That side of the bed was build over last year’s sheet mulched bed – the cut potato end of the bed had proportionally more purchased soil and less composted manure. The wide-spaced potatoes were between the single drops and the cut potatoes.
  • The cut-potato end of the bed was less shielded from sun and drying.

So perhaps next year, I’ll try super-duper wide spacing, more like the suggestions for row potatoes instead of biointensive spacing.  If I can plant half the number of plants and get the same harvest, I’ll save a lot of money on seed potatoes, or need to save a lot fewer of my own from year to year.

Final harvest from this bed was in the neighborhood of  130lb or 1.3 lb per square foot.  I”m pretty happy with that! In comparison, the 28sf plot of Superiors I planted April 23 only yielded about 0.8 lb per square foot and didn’t actually come in that much earlier than the rest of the potatoes.  I still have to harvest the Yellow Finns that went in on April 29th.

Pink banana squash review

These things crack me up!  If you’re thinking of growing them, be forewarned…

Pink banana squash

Remember that far side of "Early vegetarians return from the hunt"?

This one weighed in at 27 pounds. I thought I was picking a nice, manageable one. I was hoping for 10-15 pounds. I snipped the stem, hauled it out of its tangle of vines and unmowed grass, and discovered its diameter was about three times what I’d thought it would be.

Pink banana squash

I was not wrong when I hypothesized that these would not even fit in the oven whole.


Wheelbarrow of pink banana squash

These ones look positively dainty by comparison - "only" 13, 19, and 19 pounds!

The best part, though? They taste really wonderful! Closest “regular” squash I can compare it to is butternut: firm, no strings at all, deep orange, good flavor.  They smell a bit like a cantaloupe when you cut into them, and they are sweet, but not melon-y tasting.

Ok…I’m going to try to wrestle this bad boy into some jars.  I think half of this one will be more than a canner load – s’ok, I think I can foist off a lot of it on the neighbors I’m making salsa with tomorrow.

There are about 30 more of these lurking out and about. I think most of them are in the 15-20 pound range, but hey, this one surprised me, so who knows? Most of them are destined for Food Gatherers, but I’ll get my year’s supply out of this, too.  And I also discovered today that my lone butternut squash plant has set numerous fruit, too! Jeez, who would’ve thought I’d become the Squash Queen?

Final verdict – would I grow these again? Absolutely.  But then, my goal is hundreds of pounds to donate, and I have tons of space.  If that’s not true for you, I might grow one plant, or share with a neighbor. Like slaughtering a cow, picking one of these is definitely an event to be shared with the whole neighborhood!

How I deal with zucchini glut

Pink banana squash

Soon, we will not be able to park the car.

My approach is simple: I don’t grow zucchini. Instead, I grow winter squashes and if I crave a “summer” squash, I just pick an immature butternut, pink banana, or long pie pumpkin.  I’m never scrambling for things to do with squash before they get gigantic (I’m loving the term “sasquash”) because I can just let the big ones go and harvest them in the fall for winter eating.

Eating one vegetable at different stages, rather than planting multiple vegetables, is one technique I use to keep my yields up and my gardening time down.

Planting Potatoes: Cut or Single Drop?

There are two general ways of planting seed potatoes: planting a whole, small potato the size of a small egg (called a “single drop”), or cutting larger potatoes into chunks, letting the chunks dry a bit, and planting those.  I tried both this year, using the same variety of potatoes, and here’s what they look like just before flowering:


Guess which two rows came from cut potatoes?

(Please ignore the “grass”; my straw sprouted a very nice crop of wheat! I’ve since weeded this out.)


So, potatoes. What you see above are all planted at the same time, same depth, same density, same irrigation – it’s just that the plant from the cut potatoes are so much less robust.  We’ll see how they produce, but I don’t have hopes of 1.5 lb/sf from the cut potatoes, whereas 1-1.5 lb/sf is typical from the single drops.  Of course, you need a lot more seed potatoes to start with. I have some other experiments with spacing and such in other parts of the garden; I’ll let you know how that turns out.

I also have potato beetles for the first time ever this year.  They are in two of my beds and not at all in the other two.  Not really sure why; there’s no consistent pattern of potato variety, soil, or mulch.  So I’m hand-picking like crazy; every time I go out I pull off all the larvae I can find and throw them in a bucket of soapy water to drown.  It’s not hard, or even particularly gross, but it’s annoying: potatoes have always been a no-fuss crop for me.  Ah well.  Each year, one pest bug seems to boom, and this year, it’s potato beetles.  Hopefully I can keep the vast majority of them from spawning a second generation, and hopefully crop rotation and a parallel boom in predators will take care of things next year.

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