According to Wikipedia, human agriculture arose independently in at least eleven regions of the old and new world dating back to at least 20,000 BCE. Use of irrigation, crop rotation, and fertilizers began in the Neolithic age, but were greatly refined and expanded over the last 200 years. The last 60 years is witness to the hugely accelerated mechanization of human agriculture, and the use of fossil-fuel derived synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, as well as selective breeding, and genetic engineering across species.
Our gardens and our planet are coping with the hangover from chemicals used so liberally during the fevered enthusiasm of the Green Revolution – and in ever-increasing amounts today: the soil microbiome is depleted, waterways are polluted by runoff, beneficial insects and animals are struggling to survive the onslaught of toxins covering millions of acres of farmland, predators and weeds are developing resistance to the poisons, and humans are coping with a food-chain laden with endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Clearly, we need a better way to grow food and keep our crops safe from predation and disease, while balancing the needs of the ecosystems our farms and gardens coexist with. But is that even possible? How can we garden without poisons?
Beatrice Trum Hunter, in response to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, wrote “Gardening without Poisons” in 1964 to answer exactly that question: “An aroused nation [after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring] is looking for new ways to protect plants from pests and diseases — methods based on an understanding of the forces of life at work in field and Garden. In this book, Beatrice Trum Hunter describes their methods, which you can apply in your garden today, and reveals the new knowledge which can lead to Gardening without Poisons.” – from the back cover of the book.
You might think that it would be outdated by now, but trust me, this classic is amazing in its breadth, depth and scope, and the techniques are exactly as useful now as they were 50 years ago! An enjoyable read as well. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s great-granddaughter Edith W. Gregg said: “A most interesting book, timely and valuable, I hope all garden clubs will order their members to read it.”
Love your garden, love the Earth, and learn to grow your food without poisoning them! The fun and success begin now!
I know that Summer just got here, but part of being a farmer is planning for the seasons ahead…
With the sun at its apex for the year, the apples are hanging thick and green on the boughs and the bees are buzzing among the blackberry blossoms, and I’m thinking a
bout…planting trees! There’s no better inspiration than sitting, on a hot summer afternoon, in the cool shade of a fruit tree to start planning the bare root fruits you want to plant in your garden as the weather cools, so you can enjoy them in the next season – and for decades to come!
And while we’re dreaming, why not try something out of the ordinary? While the pippin and the plum will always have a place in our hearts, there’s something to be said for exploring the more exotic varieties available to us now. Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden—Expand Your Palette with Pawpaws, Shipovas, Jujubes, Maypops, and More! by Lee Rich is another excellent book from Timber Press (electronic version available on Amazon) to assist in this exploration! The great content and author’s eloquent style is enhanced by line art and wonderful color photos. This edition emphasizes the practicalities of plant selection with a good source list, plus cultivation, propagation and maintenance instructions.
And you may find that unusual fruits provide more than just a delicious new flavor – they may actually work better in your micro-ecosystem than some of the more “popular” varieties: “Reich proves that plants slightly off the beaten path are flavorful solutions in tough landscape problems.” – Easy-Care Landscaping.
The crops covered in this book include (with my observations about the ones I’ve enjoyed so far):
Alpine and Musk Strawberries (Alpine varieties are tiny and very sweet, have an especially intense strawberry flavor that you will want more of.)
Pawpaw: Banana of the North
Raisin Tree: Candied Fruit for the Picking
Mulberry: A Very Tasty Fruit of Many Colors (We really enjoyed eating these in Willits. In addition, friends who sold them at the Farmers Market had people “fight” to get them before others could have an opportunity to purchase them.)
Kaki and American Persimmons
Elaeagnus: Gumi, Autumn Olive, and Russian Olive
I always look forward to eating these.
Maypop: A Passionflower for the North
Che: Chew Dolops of Maroon Sweetnes
Black Currant (These are good-tasting and have healing properties. I am currently–no pun intended–eating them to reduce the impact of glaucoma in my right eye.)
Nanking Cherry: Cherries on a Bush (These taste treats are easy to harvest!)
Cornelian Cherry: From the Shores of Ancient Greece
Currants, Red and White
Asian Pear (Crunchy and tasty both. Enjoyed best by many when they are cold.)
Lowbush Blueberry (An easy to harvest taste specialty.)
Jujube: The Chinese Date (I very much enjoyed eating these directly from the tree in a neighbor’s orchard! Nice and chewy.)
Medlar: Lost in the Middle Ages
Over the past 50 years or so, humans have come to depend on very few crops and varieties for much of our food supply, with the result that many of the cultivars that historically grew well in different climates or soils or were favored by different cultures have become increasingly rare – with some disappearing altogether. This reduction in variety has resulted in our reliance on an agricultural base with very low genetic diversity, increasingly vulnerable to disease and climate change impacts.
Planting heirloom, open-pollinated, regional, cultural and “unusual” varieties helps keep our agriculture strong, diverse, and resilient. I hope you’ll be inspired to try a delicious “uncommon” fruit or vegetable the next time you plant something in your garden – the Earth and your taste buds will thank you!
As a farmer and a researcher, I am constantly reminded that agriculturalists from earlier times are often the best teachers. Experiments with Plants (6th ed.) written in 1911 by Harvard Associate Professor of Botany Dr. W.J. V Osterhout, is a good example of this phenomenon. An extraordinary book, it provides fresh learning experiences from the past, as interesting and relevant as if it had just been written. It is an enjoyable read and is easy to comprehend. Learning can truly be fun and in this book is enhanced by 252 illustrations!
The Chapters are:
A few of the many topics to intrigue students and teachers include:
Out of print, it’s still available on Amazon, or you can borrow a copy through your Inter-Library Loan service. However you get it, you’ll be starting a treasured learning experience. You cannot help but enjoy this publication!
Or: How to feed an extra person and still save over 5,000 gallons per year.
It may be a little late in the season for this post (at least in this hemisphere), but we just had a series of storms that would feel right at home in February, and this information isn’t going to become less useful, so I’m going to go ahead and post it anyway.
You may not think that starting seedlings in flats vs. sowing them directly in the growing beds makes much difference in terms of how much water your garden uses over the course of the year. You may think that the extra step isn’t worth the work, even when water is expensive or scarce. Think again! Study the two attached information sheets carefully:
Do you see the amazing possibilities for growing food and soil sustainably with biologically intensive practices on an increasingly water-scarce Earth? By starting your seedlings in flats and transplanting them into the beds when they are sufficiently matured, you can save enough water to grow calories and compost materials to support up to one additional person annually without increasing your overall water use AND you can save up to 14.8 gallons of water per day all year long to use for other purposes.
This savings is in addition to the 67% less water used per pound of food produced with biologically intensive practices compared with standard gardening and farming methods!
The solutions are available to us. Let’s change scarcity to abundance now, so there can be more than enough for all as we go forward into the future!
It is wonderful how the Earth gives us an abundance of delicious, beneficial, healing plants that we can grow and use to make our lives better. I have so many favorite books, and Healing Spices – How to Use 50 Everyday and Exotic Spices to Boost Health and Beat Disease (by Bharat B. Agarwal, PhD with Debora Yost) is one of my favorites on this topic! It educates and it provides a way to put more spice in your life and maintain your health at the same time. As the book’s information notes:
“Break through scientific research is finding that spices—even more than herbs, fruits and vegetables—are loaded with health-enhancing compounds.” From A to Z — Ajowan the Nature’s Pharmacy to Aniseed the Ultimate Digestif to Bay Leaf Infusion of Antioxidants to Cardamom the Stomach Sentinel to Black Cumin Seed The “Amazing” Cure-All to Sun-Dried Tomatoes Guardian of Men’s Health to Wasabi Hot Ally Against Cancer to so many more — 50 total!”
There are also three special sections: “Special Spice Combos” “Spices as Natural Medicines” and “Resources”.
Reading this book, you’ll find useful information like the fact that rosemary is one of the most powerful antioxidants, black pepper protects brain cells, chilis can relieve symptoms of arthritis, and turmeric has major anti-cancer properties.
Personally, I especially like and use turmeric with coconut milk as a drink to minimize joint pain. According to Healing Spices, “Turmeric the Leading Crusader Against Disease” may help prevent and/or treat: acne, allergies, alzheimer’s disease, osteo- and rheumatoid-arthritis, asthma, blemishes, cancer, chloresterol problems, colitis, cystic fibrosis, depression, dermatitis, diabetes (Type 2), eczema, eye infection, flatulence, gallbladder disease, gout, gum disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, liver disease, macular degeneration (age-related), overweight, pain, Parkinson’s disease, pollution side-effects, psoriasis, rash, reducing wrinkles, scleroderma, stroke and wounds. Healing Spices includes useful “information boxes” with topics such as “Turmeric Pairs Well with These Spices…”; “Turmeric Compliments Recipes Featuring…”; “Recipes Containing Turmeric (including a delicious recipe for Potato Cauliflower Curry)…” and “Make Your Own Turmeric Extract…”.
This book covers the properties and uses of all 50 spices in this same delicious detail. It would be fun to take a year off just to become proficient in all this wisdom and knowledge!
Living in a rural area, it’s not always possible to get to the vet in an emergency, and we must do what we can with what we have. Example: a friend had to google “dog Heimlich maneuver” when her dog started choking – and successfully learned how to save her furry friend. While I’m not advocating going it alone if you don’t absolutely have to, I can say from experience that I’ve found The Doctors Book of Home Remedies for Dogs and Cats by the Editors of Prevention Magazine Health Books to be an extremely useful collection of tips, and is the next best thing to having a 24-hour-a-day on-call veterinarian!
Use as a practical reference to more than 100 common illnesses, emergencies and behavior problems. Benefit from the advice and wisdom of more than 200 veterinarians and other animal experts, with recommendations for when a professional will be needed — and what you can do to address the problem until you can get to the vet. Since the health needs of dogs and cats are often entirely different, there are also specific tips for both cats and dogs, along with more than 75 easy-to-follow illustrations. Find out how to come up with the purr-fect solution to:
A source of knowledge for your and relief for those fuzzy family members you care so much about!
So, here’s another post about roots. This time, I want to talk about how deep soil preparation (double-digging) works to increase the health and yields of plants by giving them room to spread out.
Did you know that the average carrot puts down an 8-foot-deep root? It’s true – check out the picture on page 19 of the 9th edition of How to Grow More Vegetables! The more root a plant has, the more nutrients it can take up. More nutrients means healthier plants, higher yields, and more nutritious food for you and your family.
Typically, farm soil is only prepared 6-inches deep. However, the Royal Horticultural Society in England performed tests showing that soil prepared 24-inches deep – the same depth that results from the “double-digging” method that Biologically-intensive gardening uses – produced healthier plants and higher yields. When you prepare the soil four times as deep as “normal” (24 inches) you produce four times the root system and four times the nutrient-cycling occurs! See what happens in the soil when it is prepared 10-inches deep (upper image) and 20-inches deep (lower image) in the photographs to the left. These images are from the section “Living Quarters for Plant Roots—A Picture Story of How Soil Conditions Determine Root Development” by Henry C. De Roo. This is from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden out-of-print Handbook on Soils, 1956, which has been reprinted by Ecology Action with its kind permission (also available on Amazon). Which rooting system would you rather have growing your food- and compost-crops?
Now, I know that people can be a little doubtful about double-digging, because it seems like “work”. But Biologically-intensive gardening and farming is not really labor intensive…it is actually skill intensive! You do not need to work harder, you just need to think smarter! See p. 30 in HTGMV. Think of double-digging as an investment, that once made, will continue to repay you and your garden to as long as you maintain it correctly. You do not have to continually double-dig. Once good, deep soil preparation has been established for a sufficient time, you only need to surface cultivate 2- to 4-inches deep with a hula hoe. See pp. 14=32 in HTGMV for the overall process.
Good soil preparation increases the quality and quantity of your gardening and farming result!
Give double digging a try – even if it’s only one bed to start with. You won’t be disappointed, and your plants will love the extra space to sink their roots.
Spring has sprung, and it’s time to get your seedlings in gear for a productive year!
In keeping with the season, I thought that this would be a good time to discuss the benefits of pricking out your seedlings before you transplant them. Many people are in the habit of simply planting their seeds in flats, and then transplanting the resulting seedlings directly in garden beds. Most don’t know that you can greatly increase plant health and yields by including a step in between planting the seeds and transplanting the seedlings, called “pricking out” in which you select the healthiest seedlings and transfer them to a slightly deeper flat to continue to grow to the correct size and hardiness, before finally transplanting them into a growing bed.
In the 1950’s Dr. C.K Snyder of the University of California-Berkeley performed a study, with globally accepted results, showing that an increase in root health of just 2% to 4% enabled field crops to produce 200% to 400% the yield. The photograph above shows the difference pricking out makes to the root systems of the seedlings. Which seedling would you like to have growing your crops?!
Some people are reluctant to take the extra time and effort to prick out seedlings – and I understand that an extra step at an already busy time of year isn’t welcome, but believe me, the results are worth it! Years ago, a GROW BIOINTENSIVE Certified Teacher candidate did not believe that pricking out would make a difference. He had been starting lettuce seedlings in flats and then transplanted them directly into the double-dug growing bed, as most farmers do. After being encouraged for a long time to try pricking the lettuce seedlings into a second flat, allowing them to grow to the right size and then transplanting them into the growing bed, he finally tried it. The result? He found that he reliably received double the yield of lettuce from the pricked-out seedlings, time and time again.
If you want to get the most out of your garden this year, it’s easy to learn for yourself how and when to correctly prick out seedlings for different varieties. See pp. 85-86 in the 9th edition of How to Grow More Vegetables published by Penguin/Random House 2017. Also refer to Columns E through N in the Master Charts on pages 137-187 of HTGMV.
You will be amazed!
Sustainability isn’t a new concept.
For almost 50 years I have worked to create a form of agriculture that helps all people grow abundant nutritious food and fertile soil, in harmony with this beautiful earth. I know that I have been helped and guided along the way by those who came before me: the original farmer-to-farmer training network, stretching back thousands of years. Time after time, I have seen examples of “primitive” cultures that knew more about their environment and how to keep their land healthy and productive than many of the finest scientists our modern agricultural and educational systems have produced. And now that our civilization is seeing unprecedented challenges in the face of climate change, I find myself looking to the past, to the native people of North America for advice and resources on how to work with our planet to create the solutions we need to survive.
Three books that spring to mind on this theme are:
Written in 1997 by Thomas E Mails, author of the source-book for the epic film Dances with Wolves. According to the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center’s online biography, Mails’ “…spiritual awakening as a minister gave him the insight needed to see the wonder and beauty of the Indian life-way, the center and core of which is man’s relationship to creation. … He spent years writing and illustrating Native American history books. The first book he worked on was titled The Mystic Warrior of the Plains…[which became] a standard reference book worldwide for those interested in the culture of the Plains Indians.”
Mails wrote The Hopi Survival Kit in 1997, at the request of the Elders of Hotevilla, a tiny village on a remote Hopi reservation in Arizona, who for centuries had “…guarded the secrets and prophecies of a thousand-year-old covenant created to ensure the well-being of the earth and its creatures.” Mails was “…chosen by the last surviving elders to reveal to the outside world the sacred Hopi prophecy and instructions at precisely the time in history when they are most urgently needed. The Hopi Survival Kit is the first full revelation of traditional Hopi prophecy. … And though this may be a sobering realization, it is also our best defense. For the Hopi teachings give detailed instructions for survival–our actions can alter the pace and intensity of what will happen and help avoid a cataclysmic end.”
The chapters include:
- The Secret of Land and Life
- The Ark’s Instructions
- The Ark’s Warnings, and
- The Twist in the Secret
Much of this book is a historical narrative, and while some have criticized Mails’ writing style, I found it an interesting read and a valuable commentary on our current situation. The primary message of the Hopi prophecy is that humans must embrace peace and work with Mother Earth to achieve survival in harmony with nature. And within the narrative is a nugget of 30 pages or so of practical advice and survival techniques to achieve this goal.
(Of course, if you’re interested in growing your own food sustainably, I also have another book you might like to read… 🙂 )
The Medicinal Uses of More Than 3000 Plants by 218 Native American Tribes
An incredible resource! This is one of those books that really provides a link with the past for farmers into the future.
Written by renowned ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman, this 800-page compilation is a wide-ranging and authoritative font of information about medicinal plant usage by the first peoples, far outpacing other books I’ve seen on the subject. Don’t be daunted by its size – it’s an enjoyable read, and a good addition to your reference library, covering “…82 categories of medicinal uses, ranging from analgesics, contraceptives, and gastrointestinal aids to hypotensive medicines, sedatives, and toothache remedies. This book includes extensive indexes arranged by tribe, usage and common name…and is a…starting point for anthropologists, botanists, phytochemists and readers interested in ethnobotany natural healing and the preservation of biodiversity.”
The topics are arranged by tribe, usage, and common name, making it easy to access the richly detailed information. If you are interested in native plants, healing, naturopathy, survival, or botany, this is the book for you!
Another volume on the theme of native plant use, this handbook focuses on varieties used for centuries by people in the desert environments stretching south into Mexico. On an increasingly desertified planet, this epic 971-page treasure trove of useful information by Walter Ebeling is a great place to start learning how to make a proactive difference right where you are, growing food and fiber while conserving water in our gardens!
- The First Americans (including wild plant foods of the high plains and bordering mountains)
- The Great Basin Wild Food and Fiber Plants
- Owens Valley Native Food and Fiber Plants
- California Food and Fiber Plants of the Central Valley
- Food and Fiber Plants of Cahuilla Territory
- The Lower Colorado Basin
- The United States Southwest – The principal Useful Wild Plants
- A Historic Perspective
Pondering the predictions of the Hopi elders, wondering how things will go for our species and the planet, two of my favorite quotes from visionaries of different backgrounds spring to mind:
“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” ()
“The best way to predict your future is to create it.” (Abraham Lincoln).
The plants and perspectives included in these wonderful publications are a link with the past that can make all the difference in the world to each of our futures – if we take the time to understand them and integrate the wisdom of the first peoples into our actions! Why not start taking care of our part of the web of life, and growing a future where all beings can thrive today, with one of these books?
These days, everyone seems to have a slow cooker to make life easier. But guess what? There’s a simpler, less expensive alternative that’s been helping rural people cook food and conserve fuel for at least 200 years!
According to Wikipedia, a haybox is a “…cooker that utilizes the heat of the food being cooked to complete the cooking process. Food items to be cooked are heated to the boiling point, and then insulated. Over a period of time, the food items cook by the heat captured in the insulated container.” Haybox cookery (sometimes called “thermal cookery”) may well be the original “slow food” as it takes about 3x longer to cook the food than when using direct heat, but as long as you’re not in a hurry, it’s an excellent way to conserve energy – up to 80% according to some sources.
First thought to have been practiced by Norwegian peasants and “officially” appearing in publications in the early 19th century, hayboxes were used in WWI and WWII in England to conserve rationed cooking fuel, and were also promoted by the US government during the Great Depression. Fast forward to the 21st century, where the concept is still used by hikers and campers, who heat up food in the morning and then store the heated pot in a sleeping bag or backpack through the day, to provide a hot meal in the evening. True today as in the 1800s, the haybox method saves fuel and labor. No food is overcooked, or burnt. No nourishment is lost. The resulting flavor is exquisite!
There are several books available on the subject, but my favorite is Haybox Cookery by Eleanour Sinclair Bohde, published by George Routledge and Sons, Ltd, London in 1939. Even though this book is out of print and somewhat difficult to find), I recommend getting a copy if you can, because it gives detailed information and is an excellent place to get started. Topics covered:
If you’re interested in trying haybox cooking, and can’t find Haybox Cookery, there is a wealth of information online, including the following:
One note: When using any thermal cooking method, you need to be careful to maintain a high enough temperature to prevent the growth of dangerous bacteria. If the temperature of the food drops below 140°F (60 °C) for any length of time, you risk food poisoning. Therefore, a) it’s important to make sure the food is truly boiling when you place it in the thermal cooker so it stays good and hot and b) it’s best to use a thermometer to make sure the food stays at a safe temperature. There are several digital cooking thermometers with remote sensors that can be used to monitor the temperature of the food in your haybox cooker without opening the lid – a quick internet search will show you several options.
Grab a box, some hay, a covered pot, and your favorite ingredients and start exploring a whole new exciting, delicious, resource-conserving world!