Spring Update: Planting Tips

I haven’t been posting that much because it is a very busy time of year for perennial food tree planting. I have planted hundreds of trees, shrubs and herbs this spring and have been tending gardens. The Westwood Ambulance Corp is growing really well as well as projects at Native Earth Teaching Farm and Sassafras. For anyone doing permaculture inspired gardens in public spaces i recommend planting as many pretty but useful herbs and flowers. Some of the herbs we planted at the ambulance building are starting to flower including tansy, yarrow, daylily and more. We have also eaten the first strawberries from the garden. We planted three varieties: seascape, earliglow and sparkle so we will have strawberries for most of the season!

Bare root nursery stock from St. Lawrence Nurseries in NY. I recommend St. Lawrence because they sell plants that are not pushed with fertilizers, instead they sell medium sized plants with huge healthy root systems.

We had some dry spells in April and was worried about the plants but it has been raining often. I have also found that fresh woodchips tend to suck up nitrogen (aged woodchips are a better choice). You can tell if this is occurring if new leaves on plants are yellow and pale. In response to the nitrogen deficiency I brewed some comfrey tea for fertility. Comfrey has large tap roots that mine nutrients from the ground and make those nutrients available around them through decomposition of its leaves.

Ambulance Corp Garden: Perennial polyculture of multi-use plants

How to Brew Comfrey Tea

  1. Gather a bundle of comfrey leaves
  2. Place comfrey in a bucket and fill the bucket with water
  3. Weigh down leaves with a brick or rocks
  4. Cover bucket so bugs don’t lay eggs
  5. Wait a couple weeks and dilute tea with water 1:10

Polyculture including asian pear, black currant, comfrey, mountain mint…

During Memorial day break I spent my time at Native Earth and Sassafras planting trees. We mostly planted Hybrid Hazels (soybeans) and Chestnuts (corn) purchased from Mark Shepard at New Forest Farm. Mark Shepard is one of leaders of perennial agriculture in the US and grows chestnuts and hazels along with hundreds of other plants and animals instead of corn and soy. Mark uses what he calls the STUN breeding method which stands for sheer, total, utter, neglect to breed his plants.  He told me in an email that his plants rarely have a problem with eastern filbert blight. Mark is one of my biggest inspirations, he does so much great work and he also has a band that sings about food issues!

Beach Plums at the Borough Hall? Not a common sight.

More to come soon, gotta plant some more food trees.

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Growing Vegetables all winter

Clear Plastics and glass are some of the most useful materials produced in our industrial society.  With just some cheap plastic and thin dimensional lumber you can create a greenhouse effect that enables you to grow vegetables every season of the year, passively heat infrastructure, raise fish, propagate plants and so much more. I first read about the the wonders of plastics and glass in the book Four-Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman. Eliot Coleman owns Four Season Farm  in Maine and grows vegetables for market year- round.

$5 cold frame full of greens in Mid-December

Coldframe construction, golden amaranth to the right and neighbors garden across the street.

Cold frames are a great choice for suburbanites and small scale growers because they require less space, cost less to build and contain less air volume to be heated compared to massive greenhouses. Most materials needed to build simple cold frames can be found for free, I found more than ten glass windows on the side of the road and plenty of lumber. The only materials you might need to purchase are screws, nails and hinges, in the fall I made five coldframes for under $15 dollars.

Roadside finds

Haybale coldframe. Cost:$0

Best winter vegetable crops

  • Mache
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Carrots
  • Radishes
  • Turnips
  • Sorrels
  • Arugulas
  • Kale

Cold frames are also very good for plant propagation. Root cutting can be taken in fall and throughout the winter and placed in the cold frames for protection and heat. I propagated   plenty of mountain mint, comfrey, onions and chestnut trees with the help of my cold frame. You can also “harden off” seedling and start seeds in cold frames. Most allium seeds can be sown in cold frames mid winter for a nice jump start for the spring.

Russian Comfrey and Mountain Mint root cuttings

The major problems with growing under plastics and glass are bugs, heat and irrigation. Bugs love the warm environment and like to feed on the greens. The only way to deal with bugs that I know of is using chickens to debug during the winter. Irrigation is also a problem because the warm environment dries up the seed bed pretty quickly. Starting seeds requires daily irrigation or leaving the cold frame open during a rainfall. Drip irrigation could be an option but I don’t know if it would freeze on cold nights. Dealing with heat might be the most annoying part of cold frame growing. One day, when it was about 45 degress outside I came home to find some anise hyssop seedling burn to a crisp and smoking. Venting the cold frame according the the weather is the only way to deal with excessive heat.

Broccoli rabe in January

Joel Salatin, one of the leaders in regenerative agriculture uses unheated greenhouses at Polyface farm. In the winter the the pigs, chickens and rabbits inhabit the greenhouses and till, fertilize and debug. In the spring Joel moves the animals out and plants tomatoes for early spring and summer sale.

French Sorrel

“In my opinion, if there is one extremely legitimate use for petroleum besides running wood chippers and front-end loaders to handle compost, it’s making plastic for season extension. It parks many of the trucks [for cross-country produce transportation]. With the trucks parked, greenhouses, tall tunnels, and more seasonal, localized eating, can we feed ourselves? We still have to answer that burning question.”- Joel Salatin, Folks, This Ain’t Normal

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Sunchokes: A multipurpose inspirational plant

Whether you are a farmer, a suburban gardener or a city dweller, sunchokes should be a part of your life. With little or no inputs Helianthus tuberosus produces massive amounts of food and beautiful flowers.

Flowering Sunchokes photo by Trevor Newman

The native perennial is an inspiring plant because it is extremely vigorous and thrives in pretty much any soil type. The vigorous shoots that reach for the sun  grow up to 15 ft and have a beautiful little sunflower in the fall. Once the plant dies down you can harvest the high calorie tubers all winter as long as the ground is not frozen.

Sautéed sunchokes go well with eggs or meat

Many people get gas after eating sunchokes, my friend Paul Tappenden calls them “Jerusalem Fartichokes”! Sunchokes contain inulin which cannot be digested by most people, but certain methods of preparation solve the gas problem. By leaving the tubers in the ground for most of the winter the inulin levels go down and they become much sweeter.

Pickled Sunchokes

I have read that native peoples would cook the tubers in pits for days to get rid of the inulin. Another method is pickling which has proven to not cause gas. There are so many ways to cook sunchokes but my favorite way so far is sunchoke latkes.

Young vigorous sunchoke shoots

Sunchoke Latke Recipe 

1 lb. Sunchokes

1 lb. Potatoes

2 eggs

Some flour

Some Carrots, burdock or skirret root

1 handful of chopped onions

Grate tubers and roots and mix everything together, fry small handfuls at a time. Refrigerate and reheat for treat the next day.

Add two eggs to grated sunchokes and potatoes

Sunchoke latkes in the pan

Both Sunchoke tubers and tops can also be used for livestock fodder. Sunchoke tops have more TDN (total digestible nutrients) than alfalfa but have less digestible protein. I am especially  interested in experimenting with pigs and sunchokes at Native Earth Teaching Farm. Pigs can initially be used to clear the forest under story of brambles, vines and opportunistic plants. After this disturbance sunchokes can be planted and maybe harvested for market for a couple years (this could be done in many patches). Eventually the pigs could be moved into sunchoke patches to eat the tops and tubers and cause disturbance again. The pigs would be very happy digging up the tubers and less feed would need to be imported, i would think the sunchokes would come back if the pigs were not left to long in each patch. I dream of a system where all feed for the pigs is grown on site and harvested by the pigs. Imagine chestnuts, oaks, hickories, apples, persimmons as a canopy and sunchokes and other tubers in the understory!

Fresh dug tubers

I have seen sunchokes for sale for 4-6 dollars per pound at market which is more than most organic potatoes. This is cool because they are much easier to grow than potatoes. People have also told me that some high end restaurants like sunchokes! I will be growing some large sunchoke patches for market experiments this summer.

Sunchoke flower

Another plant that I am very interested in growing is Apios Americana or the groundnut which is a nitrogen fixing vine. Eric Toensmier and Jonathan grow sunchokes and groundnuts together like the three sisters. Adding the groundnut to the pig system could be possible too.

Epic harvest of sunchokes, groundnuts and ramps photo by Trevor Newman

Sunchokes are also a great guerilla gardening plant because they are so vigorous. I know some people who have been establishing wild patches throughout their landscapes. These wonderful plants were cultivated by many native tribes and should be much more widely cultivated today. I am seeking different varieties of sunchokes and want to trade with anyone who has sunchokes.

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Goodbye Lawns- Hello Edible Forest Gardens

Lawns are a huge part of the current American landscape, 40 million acres of America are covered in lawn which makes lawns the largest crop in the country. People spend their weekends making sure their lawns are green, neat and short, do people actually enjoy doing this? Most lawns are monocultures that are maintained using irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides and lawnmowers. Americans spend about $40 billon on their lawns each year! What do people get from lawns?  What if we planted 40 million acres of  fruit trees, berries and perennial vegetables instead of lawn!

Westwood Volunteer Ambulance Corp sheet mulching the garden site

Don’t worry we can turn lawns into low maintenance, resilient and productive edens that supply us with food, fuel, fodder, fiber, farmaceuticals, fertilizers and fun. Lawns are actually a great place to start because they make things easy, you don’t have to worry about taking out existing plants and working around things.

Westwood Volunteer Ambulance Corp sheet mulching complete, we will be planting asian pears, plums, pawpaws, currants, gooseberries, beach plums and more in the spring.

This fall I was busy getting rid of a bunch of lawns (almost 5,000 square feet) by sheet mulching and I will outline the process that I used. There are many other techniques that can be used, this technique is adapted to the materials that are available for free.

Front yard sheet mulched and pathways layed out at our house in Oak Bluffs, MA. In spring we will plant currants, gooseberries, blueberries, a persimmon and more.

To get rid of your lawn easily you will need:

Cardboard- I like going to appliance stores and getting massive boxes, the dudes even help load up the car.

Mulch- woodchips are my favorite, become friends with tree services, they might even call you and ask you if you need more. You can use leaves, hay, compost or whatever else you can find.

All you have to do is lay down the cardboard and cover it with mulch! This simply smothers the grass an builds soil. If you have the materials available and you want to get fancy and really make your soil nice you can aerate the ground with a pitchfork, spread compost/leaves and then lay the cardboard and mulch.

The beginning of the Native Earth Teaching farm Edible forest garden

We planted english walnuts, pecans and chestnuts in tubex tree tubes. Hopefully the tubes will protect the trees from the many animals on the farm.

Although sheet mulching works very well on a small scale I worry about establishing large scale food forests and farms. It would be too labor intensive and require tons of material to sheet mulch acres. Grass is probably better for farms so animals can graze. At Native Earth we will be starting with small polyculture patches and we will expand them every year. Does anyone have any ideas or experience with large scale plantings? Also what would happen if wood chips became scarce, I have heard the demand for wood chips is very high in portland because of gardening.

Sheet mulching the Westwood Highschool Permaculture Garden

For more info on the gardens I am working on check out these links:

Westwood Volunteer Ambulance Corp Garden

Native Earth Teaching Farm

Thanks to everyone who participated in sheet mulching lawns this fall. It is never to late to get rid of your lawn.

“Plant food trees everywhere always for the rest of your life”- Mark Shepard

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A Forager’s Thanksgiving

It has been a busy fall and I will post more info as the weather gets colder.

The weekend before thanksgiving I got to participate in creating a truly wild feast with the Suburban Foragers gang.  Suburban Foragers is an great organization that teaches workshops and courses on wild edibles and medicinals, Herbalism, Survival skills, cooking and more. Paul Tappenden and the rest of the teachers put many many hours into this event and I would like to thank them for all their work and for welcoming me into the gang.  This feast ended a great year for seven dedicated students who studied with suburban foragers for the entire 2011 season.

Myself lighting the fire with a bow-drill

On the menu was:

  • Creamy Nettle Soup
  • Bittercress Salad with Red Colver Vinaigrette, Pickled Sunchokes and Fiddleheads
  • Roasted Daylily tubers with Sorrel Pesto
  • Garlic Cream Sunchokes with Goat Cheese
  • Sorrl with Garlic Mustard and Chicory, Pears and Paneer
  • Wild Garlic Bread Pudding
  • Bacon Wrapped, Fire Pit Squirrels
  • Venison Pie
  • Venison Meatballs
  • Venison Sausage
  • Acorn Bread and Muffins
  • Black Torte with Fresh Whipped Cream
  • Crapapple cake

We roasted some fresh dug sunchokes in the pit oven we made, very tasty!

Paul Tappenden is the man, this is him serving chicory coffee

Paul Prepped the field garlic

Chopping pickled sunchokes and picking black walnut nut meat

Some local squirrel

Lisa the wonderful chef putting the squirrel in the pit

The squirrel was quite tasty and I would like to eat them more often

Adrienne Gomez made the paneer on top of this bittercress salad

Wild Abundance

The Dandelion Wine was great

Kim and Dale churning the ice cream hosted the feast at their beautiful house up in the mountains

After five hours of hard work, fifteen of us sat down and ate, talked and laughed. The coolest part about it was that everything we were eating was gathered from our local ecosystem! The feast was truly “traditional” because we ate many of the foods the the lenape indians of our region use eat. I think we all had a feeling of security and connection to place as we ate what we gathered and grew. Everything was way better than we ever imagined. All the acorn flour, venison and sunchokes really filled us up!  I am thankful for this memorable experience.

Get ready for the 2012 Suburban Foragers season, there are many new things planned and I will be starting to teach some workshops too.

Happy Thanksgiving



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Recent Happenings

Here is a great piece on my friend Charlie Zelhof and his forest garden. Charlie taught me a lot of what I know about permaculture and health. Charlie and I went to Stokes State Forest to get spring water a couple  of  weeks ago. Spring water is filtered by dirt, sand, rocks etc and is not exposed to the polluted atmosphere. Daniel Vitalis explains spring water in more detail in this article.

Charlie, my Mom and I went to Martha’s Vineyard for the first planting day at Native Earth Teaching Farm. We had a great time on the vineyard visiting farms, reading, drinking raw milk, building a tree house, surfing, cooking, eating local meats and de-husking black walnuts.

I also wrote a piece in the Gazette about my permaculture experience so far and my connection with Native Earth Teaching Farm.

Making a Lasting Impression By Leaving No Impression

Like most kids from suburban New Jersey, I grew up disconnected from the earth compared to the Native Americans that I’m learning to live like today. But I was not completely disconnected; I loved to be outside and despised video games. I would spend a lot of time “suburban canoeing” in polluted rivers and “party bagging” on the Vineyard during the summer. We would forage for bags of beer cans and redeem them for money at Our Market. The natural hunter-gatherer inside me was itching for the natural world and I didn’t even know it! As I got older I began to observe the world and ask questions. Simple questions such as why are we here, where does our food come from, and could I survive without all these modern technologies eventually led me to the world of permaculture.
My first big step was the organic vegetable garden. I never enjoyed helping my dad with the garden as a kid until I started asking those questions, like where does our food come from? I decided I needed to grow my own food and I got really into it. I looked forward to checking on my plants every day after school. At the time I thought organic farming was the answer to all the questions I was asking. But then I started to hear about something called permaculture, or permanent agriculture. A couple of people I know mentioned a kid my age who was trying to get a permaculture garden at his high school just a few towns away. I needed to meet this kid. I thought I was the only kid in New Jersey interested in growing food.
I got in contact with the kid, whose name is Charlie Zelhof, and I visited his garden which covered his entire front and back yard! I was amazed and a little bit overwhelmed by his knowledge but I also was hooked. I read all the books and articles about permaculture I could find. I found out that permaculture is a design system that mimics natural ecosystems. I found out that anything you can think of could be designed using permaculture principles including farms, economic systems, gardens and school systems.
Studying permaculture led to learning about the current issues we face, such as the collapse of industrial civilization, peak oil, food security, climate change, etc. These issues are not pleasant. Humans have had an overall negative impact on our environment. But this has not always been the case. Indigenous people who were closely connected to their local ecosystems often increased diversity and productivity of plant species with advanced forms of permaculture. Just like the indigenous people of the past, we can have a positive impact on the land. We need to plant trees. Not just any trees, but trees that produce food for us and for future generations. We need to create edible perennial ecosystems that are resilient and stable like natural ecosystems. Ecosystems that can withstand flooding, drought, high winds and other extreme weather conditions associated with climate change. By switching to a perennial-based food system we can remove carbon from the air, reduce our dependence on oil, improve our health, build soil, improve biodiversity, prevent soil erosion and have a great time!
I have been thinking about permaculture on Martha’s Vineyard for awhile. With so many wild edibles growing already, it would not be that hard to mimic existing ecosystems to grow perennial food crops. What if farmers did not have to till their fields or add nutrients to the soil every year; instead they could plant food forests that would sustain themselves like natural forests and require less maintenance every year.
This past summer Rebecca Gilbert from Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark and I came up with a plan to plant one of the first permaculture gardens on Martha’s Vineyard. The Edible Forest Garden will include many rare and new underutilized perennial crops that should come as a pleasant surprise to many people. The garden will function as a mother to other permaculture gardens on the Vineyard.
Today, Sept. 30, from 2 to 6 p.m., we will lay the foundations of the garden by using sheet mulching and planting beneficial fungus. All are invited to attend and be part of one of the first permaculture projects on the Island. Come to the farm and learn how to design and plant your own permaculture garden!
Kevin Brennan is a senior at Westwood High School in Westwood, N.J. He has spent his last two summers on East Chop.

On Thanksgiving weekend we will be planting the first trees on the Native Earth Forest Garden. We will plant osme Hybrid American Chestnuts, Beaked Hazels and more.

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Roots To Fruits

Roots To Fruits is an ecological design firm based out of Clarkston, Michigan run by two young entrepreneurs named Trevor Newman and Mark Angelini. Trevor and Mark are very talented and knowlegable, they have a great time growing plants, propagating plants, foraging, fermenting, doing consultations, designing and installing permaculture gardens for clients, and more. They also document their gardening and experiences very beautifully with photos and video. All of these wonderful photos where taken from Trevor’s Flickr Page.

A truly astonishing photo of a bountiful perennial harvest. Plums, Asian Pears, Apples, Peaches, Crazy Blackberries, Aronia berries and Cornelian Cherries!

A beautiful polyculture in Trevor’s edible forest garden.

Delicious looking Pawpaw fruit.

Mark was recently interviewed on the Anthony Anderson Show while he was in New York State for the Northeast Permaculture Convergence. In the interview he talks about Roots To Fruits, edible forest gardening, Permaculture farming, some of his favorite plants and other awesome subjects.

Look out for more amazing work by these fellows in the future!

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