Ancient Agriculture

Ancient Agriculture - Roots and Application of Sustainable Farming

If you think you see a theme starting to develop here, you’re right. I’ll say it again with feeling: THERE IS A WEALTH OF HISTORICAL FARMING KNOWLEDGE AVAILABLE FOR MODERN SUSTAINABLE FARMERS TO USE!

My latest find, Ancient Agriculture — Roots and Application of Sustainable Farming By Gabriel Alonso De Herrera, Illustrated by Bryan Romero, Compiled by Juan Estevan Arellano (Ancient City Press, Salt Lake City 2006) is an excellent example of useful information from past farmers informing the present and creating a sustainable future.

This excellent publication from the “Father of Modern Spanish Agriculture” discusses functional methods for achieving optimal farming results, based on types and location of soils, using easy to understand considerations. The original, “Obra de Agricultura‘, was published by Gabriel Alonso de Herrera in 1513. This compilation by Juan Estevan Arellano is the first English translation of the book that carried traditional farming techniques from the Europe to the Americas. Revised several times based on increased experience, Ancient Agriculture provides “Old-world techniques for new-world gardeners and farmers who are striving for agricultural sustainability.”

Topics include everything from traditional Moorish farming techniques used in Spain and North Africa to water conservation and irrigation techniques including the use of acequias, sangras, and arroyos. Written over 500 years ago, the content is still fresh and vibrant, with key practical insights for today’s sustainable farmers and special significance for our increasingly arid world. Many of de Herrera’s practices were successfully integrated into Indo-Hispanic farming in the southwestern United States, where drought conditions call for water conservation – and they are still relevant today.

Climate change has made the “treasure trove of the past a seedbed for a whole new generation of farmers and gardeners striving for agricultural sustainability.” With an emphasis on working the land in harmony with nature and producing more food through soil improvement and water management, this book is a gem and worth a read!


Sweet Potatoes!

Sweet Potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are starchy root vegetables originating from Central or South America.

Not to be confused with starchier and drier yams (Dioscorea) from Africa and Asia, sweet potatoes have a long shelf life and are usually sweeter and moister than regular white potatoes (Solanum tuberosum). In addition to being delicious, they are a very important crop in diet planning, because of the number of calories they contain per pound, and for overall sustainable gardening and farming!

Globally, people get many calories through growing and eating both “Irish” potatoes and sweet potatoes as staple crops. Sweet potatoes are the most practical calorie producing root crop by weight (see HTGMV 9th ed., p. 40 for more details). Garlic is more weight-efficient, but one can generally eat only 2 to 3 cloves daily, while 5 pounds of sweet potatoes—an amount that can reasonably be consumed by an adult human—can provide all the required calories to sustain a person for a day. Of course, you will need to eat other crops to get the essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals you need, but if you start with sweet potatoes as the base of your food pyramid, you’ll be on solid ground. (Also, using other crops for the missing nutrients noted above will allow you to reduce the weight of sweet potatoes you need to eat. This is because those other crops also contain calories.)

Sweet potatoes come in many colors—white, yellow, red and even purple. Purple ones are an ancient superfood and turn a beautiful bright violet color when cooked! They are high in anthocyanins, the antioxidant compounds that have been linked with a reduced cancer risk. The Stokes Purple variety is available from, and the Hawaiian Purple variety is available at Check out this Pinterest board on purple sweet potatoes!

Most sweet potato varieties take 6-8 months to mature. This makes it difficult to grow in many temperate climates, unless you do it under a double-walled miniature greenhouse (see HTGMV 9th ed., pp. 205-212. A plus for 6- to 8-month maturing varieties is the fact that you can harvest up to 20% of the nutrient-rich leaves (known as talbos ng camote or kamote tops in Spanish-speaking countries) for eating in the second month without lessening the ultimate yield. Excitingly, Sand Hill Preservation Center in Iowa, carries 225 sweet potato varieties, (including Korean Purple), including eight certified organic sweet potato varieties that mature in only three months–and they come in many colors!

A good article on the Purple Sweet Potato can be found in the spring 2018 issue of Heirloom Gardener. Another key resource for short growing season growing is Sweet Potatoes for the Home Garden—with Special Techniques for Northern Growers, by Ken Allan (available only from Mapple Farm).

Humans aren’t the only ones who love these delicious tubers: amazingly, gophers know three days before the optimal harvesting point that it is time to eat! To eliminate or minimize this challenge, you can build underground protection with a gopher cage (see “New Gopher Cage” article and illustrative photos on pp. 2-3 in the May, 2007 Ecology Action Newsletter).

For a Biointensive garden, sweet potato starts and slips should be planted on 9-inch offset centers, 6 inches deep. For full sweet potato planning information see the Master Charts in HTGMV 9th ed., pp. 150-151.

Hungry? Get planting!
Bon Appétit!

(images from, mother earth news, and


Hedgerow by Eric Thomas and John T. White

Living Fences for Fruit, Nuts, Building Materials, Bird and Beneficial Insect Habitat, Plus Animal Protection!

“Hedgerows” is an old English term that refers to narrow planting strips of trees or shrubs that grow along field borders, fence lines and waterways. These borders serve as effective windbreaks and improve conditions for the nearby crops, forming an “edge habitat” that supports ecological diversity. Hedges have been used around the world since the stone age, and hedgerows are first mentioned “officially” in Europe in the 12th century. Through time these living fences – some hundreds of years old! – became an integral part of many farming regions, until recently, when they became unpopular because they “waste” space in the field. However, in England, when the farmers removed hedgerows to have more land to grow crops on for higher production, not only did they lose a beautiful and bio-diverse part of their farm, their yields decreased immediately! Still, the damage was done, and by 1996, Britain had lost over 80K miles of hedges. Now, people are starting to look again at these sustainable, affordable, long-lasting fencing alternatives, and some are replanting hedgerows for wildlife and pollinators they shelter, and the benefits they provide to the crops.

I am intrigued by these living fences, and hope to begin building one in the next few years, using plants appropriate for my region. If you can find it, the book Hedgerow by Eric Thomas and John T. White was published by Morrow in wonderful full color throughout 1980s and is an excellent and very inspirational book. It shows hedgerows through all four seasons. Just think of it: a luxuriant fence producing berries, filbert nuts, food and habitat for birds, a home for predatory insects and pollinators and a means for repelling deer—all at the same time. What’s more, the materials for tools (such as wooden bow rakes among many others) can be grown as part of the living fences. It is fascinating that the bow rake needs a different kind of wood for its handle, crosspiece and tines – and that the materials for all these parts can be part of your fence!

The book is out of print, but you can usually find used copies at Amazon and Powell’s or your favorite online book-seller at a reasonable price. Otherwise, you can arrange to use it through the Interlibrary Loan program at the local library. Enjoy!

Brickhouse Coffee

Sometimes you find a place you just have to share with everyone, and this is my current delight: Whenever you are in Willits, CA for a great, fresh really good meal, stop at Brickhouse Coffee on the corner of Main and Commercial Streets!

The atmosphere makes you feel at home. Try some of Tom’s carefully seasoned soups for a special treat! I like the Mocha made with coconut milk and double the chocolate. Find your favorite. Try the Veggie Deluxe Breakfast or Lunch Sandwich with Basil included with the fresh vegetables. Enjoy! 😋

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Some Thoughts on Arbor Day

Some thoughts in honor of Arbor Day on April 27 (after all, shouldn’t every day on our beautiful forested planet be Arbor Day?):

Aren’t trees magnificent? They make oxygen, shade, food, building materials, fuel, habitat, and soil. They’re beautiful. They last for years – some for generations! They consume greenhouse gases and help keep our planet cool enough for us to live here. They draw nutrients from deep underground and deposit them on the surface when they drop their leaves. When they die, they form nurseries for new trees. They are a precious natural resource. Earth is currently home to ~3 trillion trees. Which seems like a lot…right? But the truth is, we could do with more. A lot more.

According to the UN-FAO estimates, about 30% of the Earth is currently forested…but what does that really mean? While every country in the world has its own definition of what “forested” is, in the United States, forest land, as defined by the U.S. Forest Service, includes “…land at least 10 percent of which is stocked by trees of any size, or land formerly having had such tree cover that will be naturally or artificially regenerated. Forest land includes transition zones such as areas between heavily forested and nonforested lands that are at least 10 percent stocked with forest trees and forest areas adjacent to urban and built-up lands.” (USA-FED-DA-ERS 2003) This means logged land, 90% bare land, and land with tiny fragile saplings is considered the same as an old-growth forest with giant trees sucking up CO2. Unfortunately, although about 5 billion new trees are planted or sprout annually (and assuming 100% of those make it to maturity), we still have a net loss of 10 BILLION TREES per year, due to human activity. Since the beginning of human civilization, the number of trees has dropped by 46% according to a recent paper in Nature. With all this in mind, it is possible to estimate that, compared to 10,000 years ago, there are only ~11% of the trees remaining in biomass terms.

Depressed? Don’t be! We can still do something about this. We each can make a world of difference – globally and locally – NOW, by reforesting the earth. We can be a vital part of forest recovery wherever we are – planting trees to bring the forests back to the levels they were 10,000 years ago, with our hands or with the gifts we give to loved ones and friends —and we’ll help stabilize climate change while having fun growing shade, oxygen, fruits, and nuts! Check out The Tree of Life: How Ecosystems are Held Together by Trees! It is easy for us each to begin! You can plant trees yourself, or if you can’t, there are many organizations that, for a donation of as little as $2, will plant one tree in a location that needs it. Why not have a dozen or more planted? If only 100 million of the Earth’s 7.4 billion people had 100 trees planted each year (~US$200), our “debt” of 10 billion trees could be wiped away and the earth could begin moving towards real reforestation again! If this sound unrealistic or too expensive, consider that for the last three years in a row, Apple sold over 200 million iPhones each year, at around US$1000 each.

If you think one person can’t make a difference, then look at one of my favorite inspirations, Richard St. Barbe Baker: an English forester, environmental activist and author who during his lifetime is estimated to be responsible for catalyzing the planting of ***26 TRILLION TREES***. As if that wasn’t enough, St. Barbe was the only person in the world knowledgeable enough to save California’s redwood trees in court, which he did not once, but twice: the first time in the 1950s, and the second time (because humankind is forgetful) 30 years—a generation – later. A similar thing happened in Kenya, where St. Barbe initiated an organization called Men of the Trees with a ceremonial dance to plant trees. He had to return to Kenya a generation later to reinitiate the dance. Thankfully, his persistence paid off and the organization, now known as the International Tree Foundation, it is still active today, with many chapters carrying out reforestation internationally.

Want to be part of the solution? There is an abundance of resources to help you start RIGHT NOW, while you are online. Here are a few I found interesting:

An excellent resource for looking at deforestation and reforestation levels, as well as other land use data in different regions is

To understand the need for us all to act, check out The 29th Day Parallel vignette at in its A World of Hope Section. The time is excitingly now.

Ecology Action’s book Man of the Trees—the Selected Writings of Richard St. Barbe Baker was published with St.Barbe’s permission, and contains many of St. Barbe’s best writings in it. If you would like a copy of the book, you can purchase one at I think it would be great to create an additional book/resource to inspire people to plant trees: each page would contain key St. Barbe writings; key world tree challenges, and corresponding key actions people and organizations can accomplish to make a difference.

Get out there. Or online. Plant some trees and help give our beautiful Earth something to smile about.

Creating Forward,

“If you want to predict the future, create it!”

Eastern Leatherwood

Dirca_palustris_-_EdwardsI wrote this post earlier this year, the week before Arbor day.

In honor of the forest-friendly holiday, I thought I’d talk about one of my favorite trees (or, more accurately, a shrub): Eastern Leatherwood (Dirca palustris L. Thymelaeaceae), which is native to eastern North America. It’s west-coast counterpart, Dirca occidentalis, or Western Leatherwood, is rare and endemic to the San Francisco Bay area of California. While D. palustris and D. occidentalis grow almost exclusively in moist, marshy areas, in 2009, an upland variety, D. decipiens, was discovered growing in more arid areas in the western Ozarks.

Leatherwood’s interesting and useful qualities are covered in the out-of-print book, Uses of Plants for the Past 500 Years and How to Grow Them by Canadian ethnobotanist Charlotte Erichsen-Brown, Breezy Creek Press, 1979.

Medicinal Plants and Where to Find Them

An in-print version, entitled Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants—A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes was published by Dover, 1989 – both books can be found with a quick search of your favorite online book retailer. In her writings, Charlotte documents Leatherwood’s uses from 400 B.C.E. to 1955 C.E.—2,355 years. These include sewing the timbers of a bark canoe together with strips of the leatherwood tree. It is also good for making ropes, thongs, cordage and baskets and many other purposes. At a point in its growth, it seems like it might be possible to remove the bark off the trunk and make huarache sandals with strips of this vegan leather!


For the past 25 years I have been encouraging individuals to “adopt” this plant, grow it out fully and then write a booklet on how to cultivate and best utilize some of its many qualities. Leatherwood is occasionally offered in the native plant nursery trade (Yerba Buena Nursery in Half Moon Bay, CA, has a waiting list for Western Leatherwood, and many online nurseries have Eastern Leatherwood seeds or seedlings for sale). How exciting if lots of individuals could similarly adopt many of the other plants in these books was well. Are you ready!

Resprouting Vegetables: Part 2

I’m really enjoying experimenting with re-sprouting vegetables from kitchen waste!

Just as celery bases and carrot tops can be cut specially and then planted to regrow without the need for seeds or seedlings (see my March 6, 2018 post), the same can be done with cabbages and root onions. Simply cut a core out of the root end of each vegetable, as shown in the first image above, and then set the cabbage cores out on offset spacing centers (see How to Grow More Vegetables… for full details on offset plant spacing).

The onions can then be planted separately on 4-inch spacing centers or interplanted among the cabbages on offset centers as shown in the second photo (cabbage cores are circled in orange). The photo shows the cores set out on top of the soil, so you can see the spacing, but in reality, you’d want to dig a little hole for each core, and then cover everything with an inch or so of soil so that the sprouts will be protected as they start to grow. If you interplant onions with cabbages, consider 6”-spacing with 12”-center spaced cabbages (shown here), 7.5” with 15”- center spaced cabbages, and 9” with 18”- center spaced cabbages. 

One of my favorite cabbages is the Greyhound variety (so called because it looks like a greyhound’s ear) because it grows so rapidly! It is planted on 12-inch offset centers and only takes about 2 months to mature—much less than the 90- and 120-day maturing varieties (which go on 15- and 18-inch offset centers respectively). Each Greyhound cabbage is smaller, but the yield per day per unit of area is about the same as for the larger varieties, as many more cabbages can be planted in a given area and take much less time to produce. 

For the highest root onion yields per unit of area/time, consider the Walla Walla variety. It’s delicious and sweet, and for us, its yields have tendency to double, plus it does not make your eyes water when you are slicing it! Also in the higher yield category is the Red Torpedo Onion. The roots are the same diameter as regular onions, but can be up to twice as long.


Resprouting Vegetables: Part 1

Do you ever wish you had a magically inexhaustible supply of food? Well, for some crops, that’s _almost_ possible.

Celery and carrots are amazing vegetables: they’re delicious, high in nutrients, and staples in much of our cooking. As if that weren’t enough, these powerhouses have one more gift to give us: with just a little bit of help, they’ll regenerate, and grow a whole new crop from the parts we usually send to the compost heap! I experimented with interplanting carrot tops (connected to a small amount of carrot) in the middle of celery bases on 8” centers in our kitchen garden, and they’re doing beautifully! In this manner neither seeds or seedlings are needed—just the refuse from the veggies you eat! They produce full-sized carrots and celery! Next, I’m going to try onions and cabbage.

A celery base and carrot tops, ready for planting.
Interplanted celery and carrots, grown from the bases and tops I saved from the kitchen.

Indoor and Container Gardening Inspiration

Feeling the stir of spring in your veins? Wishing you could grow something but you don’t have the space? Then this post is for you!!

Indoor/container/balcony gardening is a great way to enjoy spring in an apartment, with very young children, if you experience mobility challenges, or if you just enjoy having a garden as a roommate! There are a lot of resources out there, but I have found the following books fun for their indoor/micro-scale gardening possibilities. They are both available on Amazon, but you can also probably find them on your favorite online bookstore, or you can order them from your favorite brick and mortar store! I hope you enjoy them, too.

  • The Apartment Farmer by Duane Newcomb — both editions. The first edition is out of print, but your local library’s Inter-Library Loan Service should be able to access it for you for a small charge. The first edition has lots of tips for balcony-type applications and even lists a variety of small sweet corn that can be grown well in just 8”-deep growing boxes. The second edition – which is available online in paperback – focuses on mainly indoor applications.
  • Growing Tasty Tropical Plants (olive lemons, limes, citrons, grapefruit, kumquats, sunquats, Tahitian oranges, Barbados cherries, figs, guavas, dragon fruit miracle berries, olives, passion fruit, coffee, chocolate, tea, black pepper, cinnamon, vanilla and more…) — in any home, anywhere by Laurelynn G. Martin and Byron E. Martin, owners of of Logee’s Tropical Plants (  The size of your home will define how many of these delicious and exotic plants you can grow, but the possibilities are exciting. This book is available online, and comes with beautiful color photos and detailed instructions.

Good luck and happy gardening!

Soul of Soil

A couple of years ago, I wrote this piece to share my hope and enthusiasm for the simple, vital act of growing the Earth in harmony with the gentle and powerful forces at work in Nature. Beautifully illustrated by Judy Chance Hope, this is a letter from my heart to the world.

Here’s an excerpt:

The industrial revolution is based on “fire”—and we are “burning
up” the planet.

As you simplify your life,
the laws of the universe will be simpler;
solitude will not be solitude,
poverty will not be poverty,
nor weakness weakness.
~Henry David Thoreau

In Silence, You can Hear More.
~Henry David Thoreau

It is Time to Listen.

We can choose to work with the most powerful energy source on
the Earth—photosynthesis.

Let’s take the Green Path. It provides a balanced reasonable
planetary temperature. In fact, properly applied, it can be the solution to
climate change.

Our greatness lies not
so much in being able
to remake the World,
as in being able to remake ourselves.

We need to experience this life-giving Force. As we heal ourselves, so
will the planet consist of thriving resilient sustainable mini-ecosystems.

Be the first neighborhood in your area to have one.

You can download the whole piece by clicking here (~8MB PDF).

Descarga la traducción al español haciendo clic aquí haciendo clic aquí. (~2MB PDF).