Category Archives: Soil

Perennial Edible Vegetables

Rhubarb in April

For those of us in temperate areas, eating local means learning how to extend harvests into the less productive seasons. Last year I wrote about the many food preservation methods that we can use. Another strategy is to find ways to get your plants to produce earlier in the spring and later in the fall. Perennial edible vegetables are one way to get an earlier harvest. They have a lot of other benefits, too.

Asparagus Emerging in April

Most of the vegetables that we eat are annual plants or biennials that we harvest in their first year (most root crops are biennials, like carrots and beets). These need to be replanted every year, can be delicate and are not great at building soil. Perennials on the other hand, regrow all by themselves after getting established, can take much tougher conditions and offer year-round living space and food to many in the soil food web. We also noticed in this year’s spring drought, they did not need nearly as much watering as our tiny starts did. As our weather patterns continue to shift, more resilient plants are critical to invest in.

Because perennials can develop large root systems that feed them year after year, they have the chance to grow much earlier in spring. While I’m still babying many of my seedlings indoors and have only just started planting seeds, some perennial veggies are ready to be eaten!

There are resources and people who have extensive knowledge of many plants in this category. I especially recommend Stephen Barstow and Aaron Parker’s work if you want to delve deeply. I’ll just tell you about the handful of veggies that we have been working with here at Living Land.

Rhubarb grows well for us!

Some perennial edible veggies are already well-known and well-grown, in particular asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) and rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum). Asparagus needs a few years to really get established, then should produce for a minimum of 20 years (most sources say 10-20 years, but at farms where I worked we often were harvesting from beds at least double that). We’ve had great luck with rhubarb, with the plants usually being vigorous enough by their second year for us to begin harvesting from them. You probably already have recipes or ideas of how to use both of these, which helps greatly when all your work pays off and you have the food in your kitchen ready to use! We also tried something new this year – interplanting asparagus with strawberries. We read that they could be good companions, since they use different above ground space and root zones.

Dandelions – Gorgeous!

Next let me mention two very early producers which most people think of as an herb, a medicine or, sadly, a problematic weed: stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) and dandelions (Taraxacum officinale). They are super easy to grow and bring other benefits, too. Both are exceptional soil builders and dandelions are important pollinator plants. The early leaves of both of these plants are extremely nutritious. Dandelion leaves can be used in salads, braised, or added to soups. Nettles do need to be cooked for at least a few minutes to deactivate their sting, so are great as greens in veggie dishes. I also dry them for making herbal infusions.

Egyptian Onions in April

Egyptian walking onions (Allium proliferum) also appear early in the season, generally after the stored winter onions and overwintered leeks are running out. Perfect timing! There are actually various types of perennial onions to choose from.

Lovage in April

Lovage (Levisticum officinale) can also be considered an herb. This is essentially celery that comes back year after year. I don’t like celery or lovage, but Steve does and I have found many recipes out there to try if you are a fan.

True Solomon’s Seal has flowers all along the stem

Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and hosta (Hosta spp.) you may know as ornamentals, but you can also eat their early shoots just like asparagus. Since they have been selected for how they look, their taste will vary from plant to plant. None will make you sick, but some will be more palatable than others. I like these in braised veggie dishes, soups and quiches. You will want to pick them when they are short, before they leaf out.

Sea Kale Florets in May

We have been working on getting Sea Kale (Crambe maritima) established here and seem to finally be succeeding. All parts of the plant are edible, especially the leaves and flower buds (like broccoli). This is another to cook up with various veggies for fresh spring dishes.

Turkish Rocket Florets in May

Our Turkish Rocket (Bunias orientalis) plant made it through one winter and produced some nice florets for Steve’s omelets. Turkish Rocket is especially known to be drought-tolerant so we are excited to have a nice bed set aside for it to fill in.

Ground Nuts Climbing

This year we started a bed of Ground Nuts (Apios americana) complete with a serious trellis for climbing, and Hablizia (Hablizia tamnoides) with space to climb as well. The ground nut tubers will be ready to start harvesting in two years. Hablizia’s spinach like leaves we can start eating as soon as the plant seems established enough. We look forward to trying them both.

There are many annual plants I don’t expect to ever give up, however for the sake of our soil and to have a resilient food supply, expanding our perennial food plantings makes a lot of sense. We plan to add more every year. How about you?

Asparagus interplanted with strawberries and basil

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2019 On the Homestead

Garden in July

We just finished up our most productive season on our homestead yet, a year that showed how abundant permacultural systems can be. The bounty also kept us very busy with picking, drying, freezing, canning, and root cellaring.

Winter in New England provides a natural space to review, reflect and plan ahead. During the rush of the growing season, it’s a struggle just to keep up with daily chores. I’m grateful for the down-time that lets me practice the first principle of permaculture: Observe and Interact and the fourth principle: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback. Some of what I note I can’t necessarily plan for – such as how much rain we get – but other information will change what I do – such as I planted too many bush beans for what we need or what my back feels good about.

I’ve begun to think of our years here less as numbers and more by conditions. Like, 2018 was the Year of Rodents & Clouds and 2016 was the Year of Drought. This year, 2019, stands out to me as the Year of Enough Rain, Weird Nectar Flows & Overabundant Veggies.

Last year’s review focused on the gardens. Here I will expand that to include our animals and other projects.

Let me begin again with speaking to problems, starting with the issues I identified in my 2018 Review and how I fixed them or saw them evolve.

Seedlings in April

Starting Seedlings

Having learned from my 2018 reflections on our seedling trouble, I did go back to a commercial blend. I found a company called Organic Mechanics that has peat-free seed starting mixes, so at least I was able to address that ethical issue arising with these mixes. It still came in a plastic bag. It worked well, though, so I got off to a good start with lots of healthy new plants.

Rodents, Pests and Diseases

Fewer Chipmunks Mean More Strawberries!

Rodent pressure was SO much less this year! It’s basic population dynamics – if a group grows beyond it’s ecological limits, it will crash. After 2018’s nearly unbelievable numbers, we had our easiest year yet dealing with chipmunks, squirrels, and voles, our usual competitors. I see this with insect pests and diseases often as well. It’s why I take my time and observe carefully before reacting, especially with any kind of drastic intervention.

We did have a groundhog appear mid-season, hanging out in our lower garden. We failed to figure out how it was getting in and out of the fenced area so we had some damage – it loved my broccoli and cauliflower plants and took bites out of many of our winter squash in that section. Honestly, for a groundhog, it was well-behaved to only make that much of an impact. It just kept me holding my breath for the day I’d go down to devastation! I’ve exhaled mostly by now.

Healthy Cucumber Vines in August

The cucumber disease that I and many others were affected by in 2018 was not a problem this year. In fact, I had way more cucumbers than I felt ready for! Luckily, the chickens and goats are fans of the overgrown ones. The only change I made from previous seasons was to space the vines far from each other around the garden, making it harder for disease to spread. I’m not sure that mattered, though, as so many others reported great yields from their cukes. I think it was a problem that came and went by factors larger than we control.

Pulling Parsnips

Roots

After a few years of germination problems with carrots I seem to have found the right combination for success. First, I planted later. Although carrots, beets and parsnips as “cool season crops” are happy to grow in cool weather, they don’t necessarily germinate well in cold soil. Especially since I am a committed mulcher, seeding carrots in March meant weeks before seeing them, and keeping them consistently moist that long was tough. So, I waited for some warmth and exercised patience, which I really needed given what a cold spring we had. It was May 26 when I finally seeded the root crops. I also put up a shade cloth over the carrots to keep them from drying out as the sun strengthened. It worked! In fact, my carrots came up

Carrots for the Root Cellar

thickly, and it had been years since I had needed to thin, so my first planting had it’s share of weird twisted, multi-legged roots from being crowded. I was on top of thinning the later plantings which gave me gorgeous results and 195# just of carrots to eat and pack in the root cellar.

 

Labor

The one big problem we experienced this year was a labor shortage. This should not have surprised me, as it is a very common problem on farms. When you are putting a lot of work into a product that is comparatively undervalued financially, there are going to be problems, even with the many labor-saving techniques used in permacultural systems. Steve needed to take more off-farm work this summer, leaving me to do more than I expected and than I was really up for. Any real solution to this needs to be addressed at a societal level, but, meanwhile, I am going to have to rethink some of my choices and be more realistic about my time. I am a great solar-powered, renewable resource, but have my energy limits!

Good Soil, Big Plants

Success in the Gardens

At this point we have about one acre out of our 7 in garden beds full of organic matter, built from the countless truckloads of reclaimed resources we have brought in since we moved here in 2008 (seaweed, coffee grounds, manure, hay and wood chips). The majority of the beds are planted in perennials such as rhubarb, asparagus, berries and fruit trees, most still too young to be very productive. Between the young trees, and in our 3,300 square foot sheet mulched main garden, we plant our annual crops.

Peaches!

With the regular rain, low rodent numbers, and the soil we’ve built, it was a great year for growing. The trees are also becoming mature enough to begin to bear and we had our first real harvest of peaches, 219#, juicy and delicious.

Here are the veggie and fruit numbers, hopefully presented in an useful way (feedback on that welcome!):

Alliums – garlic – 165 hds; garlic tops – 161; leeks – 96#

Beans & Peas – 96.75# snap beans; 17.5# dry beans; sugar snap peas – 11.5#

Brassicas – broccoli – 3.75#; brussels sprouts – 12.5#; cauliflower – 3#; kale/collard – 29#

Celery – 1.5 #

Corn, popcorn – 9#

Cucumber – 195.5# (ack!)

Eggplant – 70.25#

Greens – lettuce – 9#; nettles – 3#, beet greens – 1#

Herbs – basil – 6.25#; dill – 1#

Melon – 21.5#

Potatoes – 166.5# (from 22# seed potatoes, a solid 1 to 7.5 ratio)

Roots – beets – 30.25#; carrots – 195.25#; parsnips – 38#; radishes – 82

Squash – summer – 53.75#; winter = 686#

Tomato – 55.75#

Fruit:  beach plums – 1#; crabapples – 12#; currants, clove – 16.75#; currants, red & white – 21.5#; elderberry – 1#; grapes – 12#; honeyberry – 3 ½ cups; jostaberry – 3.25#, nanking cherry 1/4#; peaches – 219#; rhubarb – 15#; strawberry – 20.5#

This bounty kept us eating well and was preserved to last for months to come.

Bees Making Honey in June

Bees

My two hives from 2018 came through the winter strong, ready to take off in the spring. It was a slow start with the chilly weather, but once they had the opportunity they were wonderfully productive. Usually we have a dearth (lack of nectar) in July, but this year that did not happen. Instead, they just kept on filling their combs, to the point that we pulled honey in order to avoid towering hives toppling over, or late season swarms. I also split the overwintered hives to create two more, plus a small nucleus hive. Strangely, though, the fall nectar flow never came. I have no idea why. I gave them back some of the honey frames I’d pulled plus some sugar syrup and hope they were able to build up enough of a population to survive the winter.

We were able to take 165# of honey, so despite the weird season, I consider it a good one.

Goats

Goat Kids: Zan & Jayna

We had another year of healthy, happy goats, including two successful births in the spring. All four kids were sold to other homesteads with natural goatkeeping practices. We helped Gagnons Mountain Homestead start their herd with Luna’s little girl, Jayna, and her whethered brother to keep her company. We love helping others get started, especially folks we resonate with on animal keeping.

I have been milking three animals since the spring, this year’s moms, Cocoa and Luna, and 2018 mom, Lily. We brought in 107 gallons of milk over the course of the year, most of which I turned into yogurt, chevre cheese, and mozzarella.

Young Dominique Chickens

Poultry

All went smoothly with our Dominique chickens. From the incubator and one broody hen we raised 41 chicks, some of which we added to our own flock, some of which we sold, and some of which we harvested to eat. We added to our number of move-able chicken houses and yards to keep the growing birds protected but rotating pasture. It is tricky to make the structures strong enough to withstand predators but light enough to actually move.

Day Old Ducklings

Our Indian Runner duck flock had some turnover this year. We still had our “old grey duck” from the first batch we brought home back in 2012 but she was showing her age. Over the winter she had seemed arthritic, walking stiffly at times. I thought it kinder not to ask her to go through another cold season. We really liked her and her big blue eggs and wanted to keep those genetics in our flock. So, I put her and our drake together by themselves for a week, took her seven eggs, and put them in the incubator. We find duck eggs much harder to hatch successfully so were delighted when six of them hatched out 28 days later! And, in a poignant, bittersweet coincidence, Old Grey curled up in the pasture the following day and peacefully died, probably not – but maybe on some level – knowing that she had

Our Current Duck Flock

completed her basic biological imperative to pass on her genes to a new generation. Four of those ducklings did turn out to be female and are now part of the flock!

At that point, though, our drake became too related to everyone else in the flock to breed from, so we are ordering some spring ducklings from Sand Hill Preservation Center to add new genetics to our operation.

Our poultry harvest came to: 1,683 (140.25 dozen) chicken eggs; 593 (49.4 dozen) duck eggs; chicken meat about 100#; duck meat about 5#.

Other Homestead Projects

Packing Parsnips for the Root Cellar

The root cellar is up and running after about 7 years of intermittent work! This is a free-standing cellar since our house doesn’t have one. Lots of rock moving and masonry was involved, slow and heavy work. We also continued to expand the orchard and garden areas enough that I can order about 10 more trees for spring planting.

Looking Ahead

And now it’s time for me to do an inventory of our seeds and send in my order to Fedco, as well as orders for trees, bees, and ducklings. Now is also the season to find new and interesting ways to cook and bake all the food we have put up from this abundant year, and thus enjoy eating what’s still fresh and completely local. Watch for me to get back to the topic of food preservation in coming posts.

Happy 2020 – it’s a year of auspicious anniversaries including the 100th year of US Women’s Suffrage and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day… we’ll see what it brings for us all, on the homestead and beyond!

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The Miracle of (Plant) Birth

“As I kneel to put the seeds in
careful as stitching, I am in love.”

(excerpt from The Common Living Dirt by Marge Piercy)

Every time a seed sprouts in my garden I am amazed.

This year’s cold, wet spring delayed planting and germinating making it even more of a thrill to finally see my plants coming alive and growing throughout June.

Carrots Are Up!

Most people are more excited by the birth process in animals which is a more dramatic moment for sure. It also stresses me out. Whether it’s the goats laboring or the poultry hatching, it is loud, messy and takes time during which my attention is held and I can’t help but wonder about everything that could go wrong. In comparison, I appreciate the restful quiet of the garden, and the surprise of the seeds suddenly germinating. If it doesn’t work, I try again, without having to dispose of any bodies – literally.

When it does work, I feel triumphant because my planning and care succeeded! I also feel humbled by recognizing how little I really had to do with it and considering what else was involved in bringing me to this moment. The evolution of flowering plants, thousands of years of plant breeding by our ancestors, the work of pollinators and spring actually coming again, to name a few.

Working with rather than against nature is a foundational concept in permaculture and I experience a sense of that collaboration in this process.

Knowing the science of it only makes it more wondrous. Here’s a glimpse at that…

Sunflowers Sprouting

A seed is a method that plants developed to reproduce, sort of recently. As far as we can tell, seeds first appeared about 400 million years ago while land plants have been around at least 700 million years. Currently, over 220.000 plants – 90% of those we know – make seed. Every seed contains a living embryo with its first leaves and root in miniature. Most seeds have a protective coat and a nutrition pack that will last until its roots function. Seeds can be as tiny as dust or as big as 50 pounds with many different shapes. A seed is in a kind of suspended animation until the conditions align for it to burst into life: the right amount of water, oxygen, temperature and light for instance. Seeds can survive, waiting for the right conditions, for years, with the oldest documented living seed being 2.000 years old! Most of our garden seeds are in the 1 – 5 year range.

After 20 years of growing, maybe I should have gotten used to it but I’m glad I haven’t.

Now that we’ve hit July, there will be less seed starting and more watching the plants grow and harvestng. I’m preparing my food preservation equipment and looking forward to the abundance!

More from The Common Living Dirt by Marge Piercy in her book Stone, Paper, Knife

Beets Emerging

As I kneel to put the seeds in
careful as stitching, I am in love.
You are the bed we all sleep on.
You are the food we eat, the food
we ate, the food we will become.
We are walking trees rooted in you.

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