Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fruit Leather

Fruit Leathers are a traditional method of preserving a fruit harvest.

I recently got a great, brief question from a reader, Kyan:
"Would you be willing to do a post on fruit leather? I've never heard of it before."


If you've ever eaten a "Fruit Roll-Up", as many kids in the U.S. have, then you are familiar with the idea of a Fruit Leather... even if you've never heard the name.  Although making your own is significantly healthier than the store bought, mass-produced variety; plus it's a lot of fun, and kids (and grown-up kids) love them!

If you look online there are literally hundreds of recipes for making Fruit Leather, but they all involve the same process...

Thicker Fruit Leathers take longer to dehydrate.

Instructions for Making Fruit Leather

  1. Obtain the freshest, ripest fruit possible.
  2. Clean the fruit if needed.
  3. Cut up the fruit if needed. Discard bruised or damaged areas.
  4. Optional Step - Add a color stabilizer. The most natural is lemon or lime juice, but some people make a liquid dip from a mixture of water and ascorbic acid crystals (easily purchased at large grocery stores). Fruit chunks are allowed to soak for about 5 minutes. This step is used for apples, apricots, pears, and peaches.
  5. Puree the fruit in a blender - may need to add a small amount of water so the fruit blends well and the puree pours well. The texture should be close to applesauce. 
  6. Optional Step - Strain the puree. This gives a smoother texture, but also removes some of the fiber and nutrients from the puree.
  7. Optional Step - Add a sweetener. I think honey is the healthiest, plus it gives a good texture. Plain table sugar can be used, but it can give the Fruit Leather a granular (almost crunchy) texture. Concentrated fruit juice can also be used - this can be store bought or homemade by heating fresh fruit juice over low heat for a long time until a large portion of the water evaporates, and you are left with a very sweet, thick sauce.
  8. Pour the puree onto a flat surface for drying. This is where things can vary tremendously.  See Drying Methods below. The thickness of the poured puree should be about 1/4 inch (0.6 cm) thick. Try to keep the puree about an inch (2.5 cm) from the edge as it will spread as it dries.
  9. Remove the dried Fruit Leather, cut to size if needed, roll up or store flat in a clean, dry location (a paper bag works well, but fruit leathers can be frozen.
  10. Fruit Leathers will store for three weeks at room temperature, three months in a refrigerator, or up to a year if frozen.

Dehydrators or Ovens can be used to dry the fruit puree.

Drying Methods for Fruit Leather

  • NOTE - drying times can vary significantly on the method used, the consistency of the puree and the types of fruits used. It is recommended that you begin checking your Fruit Leather after the first 2-3 hours of drying. 
  • Dehydrator - this is the easiest method. The puree is poured onto plastic sheets provided with the dehydrator. If your dehydrator does not have the plastic sheets, then a layer of plastic wrap will work fine. 
  • Oven - this method works just as well, but may take a little experimentation to get it just right. Place plastic wrap on a cookie sheet. Pour the puree on the plastic wrap covering the cookie sheet. If you wet the cookie sheet a little, the plastic will stay in place on the cookie sheet better. Place the oven on its lowest setting, and crack the oven door open - this is very important as it lets the moist air escape. Ideal temperature is 100 F (37 C). Most ovens cannot be set that low, so just set the oven to the lowest setting, and watch the drying fruit - higher temps will dry faster. 
                    - At 100 F (37 C) it will take about 12-16 hours.
                    - At 150 F (65 C) it will take about 8-10 hours.


A beautiful raspberry Fruit Leather

This is the very basic method for making Fruit Leathers. As I said, there are many, many recipes online that include spices (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, vanilla, etc.), chopped fruit with the puree (raisins, dates, dried apricots, dried coconut, etc.), or other random ingredients (peanut butter, chopped nuts, pumpkin, yogurt, etc.), and even brandy or liqueur (uh... not for most kids) can be added to the puree. The variations are almost endless, and the results are delicious!


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Permaculture Tip: Nature Tending

A perfectly ripe wild blackberry is a thing of perfection!


A Permaculture Tip is an idea that is derived from observing and interacting with nature.  It is simple.  It is safe.  It is effective.  It helps build a sustainable system of agriculture and life in general.  If you have any Permaculture Tips you would like to share, please let me know.  I will post it here, give you the credit, and post a link to your blog or website if you have one.  Email me here: kitsteiner@hotmail.com

Nature Tending is a term I coined to describe subtle gardening of the natural world. In Permaculture, we have the design concept of Zones (read more about Zones in this article). Zone 4 is a semi-wild area. It is a place that is only visited a few times each year and is almost entirely left to nature... but not entirely. It is often used for grazing of animals, for collecting firewood, for coppicing, for hunting, and for wild harvesting. This is where Nature Tending works the best.

Have you ever seen a wild tangle of blackberries or a few black cherry seedlings trying to survive in the forest edge? What if we trimmed back some old blackberry canes to allow the new shoots room to grow? The blackberries produced on those developing canes would likely be larger and easier to harvest. What if we cut back some branches from that neighboring walnut shading those black cherry seedlings? What if we piled a little dirt just downhill of those seedlings so that when it rained a little extra water would linger at its roots? What if we took some of the leaf litter and tucked it up under the seedlings to provide a little extra natural mulch? These quick actions would provide a better life for these seedlings, and a better life often means survival. In a few to a dozen years, those seedlings are now large trees providing habitat and food for wild animals and wood and food for us.

These small things, that take only a few seconds each, can pay big dividends in the months and years to come.

I think back to the time when I live in Franklin, Kentucky. My home's backyard was a strip of woodland before the farmer's field of corn and soy. It was chock full of black cherry trees (that made some great jelly, by the way!) and black walnut trees. There were just a few straggly blackberry vines snaking their way through the edge of the field and the woodland. I remember thinking that I wish these blackberry canes were more vigorous and produced more fruit. This would have been the perfect time and place for Nature Tending. If only...

Maybe we won't be the ones who benefit from this. Maybe it is just the wildlife that benefits. Good for them. Maybe we set it up so another person enjoys the benefits of our (very brief) labor, and maybe they become so enamored with the idea of harvesting from the wild that they do the same for others. Maybe it is just a little kid who picks the blackberries while on an "adventure" in the woods, dreaming he is an explorer and living off the land. Maybe he grows up to be the next Bill Mollison or Geoff Lawton or Joel Salatin or Michael Pollan or...

Once your eyes have been opened to the idea, you can see the opportunities for Nature Tending all around.


Monday, February 27, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Goumi


Goumi is a fruit well known in Asia and gaining popularity in the U.S.

Common Name: Goumi, Gumi
Scientific Name: Elaeagnus multiflora
Family: Elaeagnaceae (the Oleaster Family)

A perfectly ripe Goumi berry with its edible, but not typically eaten, single seed.

Description:
A small to medium, multi-stemmed shrub native to eastern Asia that produces sweet-tart, red, cherry-sized fruits, can grow in a very wide range of soil conditions, tolerates some shade, and puts nitrogen back into the soil. This plant has a lot going for it.

Elaeagnus multiflora by M.E. Eaton

History:
Goumi has long been grown in China, Korea, and Japan as a food and medicinal plant. It has only been recently that it has has become available in Europe and North America.

Trivia:

  • Goumi fruit have a single seed which is edible but not tasty... it's fibrous
  • Because it adds nitrogen to the soil, Goumi has been grown in orchards where it has been reported to increase orchard production by 10%

Goumi fruits well in less than ideal conditions.

USING THIS PLANT
Primary Uses:

  • Fresh eating - use only very fresh fruit
  • Cooked (pies, tarts, etc.) - cooking, with the addition of sugar, makes good use of underripe fruits
  • Preserves, jams, jellies, etc. 
  • Fruit leather


Secondary Uses:

  • General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
  • Food source for wildlife... fruit may stay on the plant through the winter if not harvested.
  • Nitrogen fixing (i.e. it puts nitrogen back into the soil)
  • Hedges - leaves seem to shimmer in the breeze
  • Tolerates salt water, so can be used in maritime environments
  • Flowers are strongly scented... reminiscent of lilac
  • Used medicinally for hundreds (or more) years, but no reliable information


Yield: No reliable information available
Harvesting: Summer. Late July to August. Ripe when red, but astringent (dry and lip-puckering) before ripe.
Storage: Use quickly as they do not store well.

Goumi hedge in flower.

Goumi flowers being visited by an Orchard Mason Bee (slightly smaller than a honey bee).


DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT
USDA Hardiness Zone: 4-9, not frost tender
AHS Heat Zone: 8-2
Chill Requirement: 50-450 hours/units depending on the species and variety

Plant Type: Small to Medium-sized Shrub
Leaf Type: Deciduous or Semi-Evergreen (depending on the USDA Zone it is planted)
Forest Garden Use: Shrub Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: Multiple varieties, but many are not available in the U.S.

Pollination: Typically Self-Sterile; should be planted with two selections for cross-pollination and best crop yields
Flowering: Spring (April-June)

Years to Begin Bearing: 3-4 years, Years to Maximum Bearing: 5-10 years

Goumi berries should only be eaten fresh when perfectly ripe.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
Size: 6.5-10 feet (2-3 meters) tall and wide
Roots: Shallow and flat, will sucker... new shoots will from from base of the plant
Growth Rate: Medium to Fast

Goumi is a shrub that thrives on neglect.

GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates moderate shade
Moisture: Medium, however will tolerate dry soils
pH: tolerates a wide range of soil conditions (5.1 - 8.5)

Special Considerations for Growing: 
Goumi is an actinorhizal nitrogen fixing plant... it will grow best if inoculated with actinobacteria from the genus Frankia.

Propagation:  By seed - will require 8-12 weeks of cold stratification for germination. Can propagate through cuttings, but this is less reliable.

Maintenance:
Minimal.

Concerns:
Spreads easily by seed. It is considered an established exotic species in parts of the eastern U.S.


Friday, February 24, 2012

Solar Water Heaters

Classic image of rooftops in Turkey... solar water heaters and satellite dishes.

In my travels overseas, I occasionally come across things that make me say, "Why in the world do we not do this in the United States?"  Solar Water Heaters are one of them.  Yes, there are some people (mostly corporations) who are utilizing solar water heaters in the U.S., but it is nothing like the common everyday use like in Turkey, South Africa, Germany, and India.

I think the biggest reason why the U.S. is not utilizing this technology more is because of the photo at the top of this article. Home owners associations do not want their roofs to look cluttered like this... it's unattractive. Who cares about the monetary savings and reduction in pollution to generate the energy to heat the water conventionally? But in reality, they do not have to look bad. German rooftops seem to integrate the solar systems into the design a lot more.

Solar water heating systems in Germany are a bit more aesthetically pleasing.

According to 2010 data, it would take over 12 years to have the initial system's cost paid back in energy savings in the United States. In Brazil and South Africa, the payback time is 5 years or less. However, this is for a purchased system. There are many systems that can be designed, built, and installed for only a few hundred dollars (if that) if we are willing to do a little scrounging and do-it-yourself work. I'll try to highlight some of these systems in future posts.

Passive (A) and Active (B) Solar Water Heating Systems.

There are two basic design types of solar water heating systems, passive and active. Passive Systems (aka Thermosiphon Systems) allow the natural properties of water (hot rises and cold sinks) to run the system. This is not as efficient a system, but it is cheaper and is often more reliable as it contains no moving parts and has no electronics that could break. Active Systems (aka Forced-Circulation Systems) utilize an electric pump and an electric controller to maximize the sun's heating power, and well designed systems also use solar energy to power the electric pump and controller.

Another way to categorize solar water heating systems is Direct Circulation vs. Indirect Circulation systems. Simply put, direct circulation systems heat up your home's water directly. Indirect circulation systems will heat up some sort of anti-freeze fluid that then runs through coils of pipe (a heat exchanger) that heats up your home's water indirectly. I always think of an indirect system like an electric blanket... the wires heat up the blanket which heat me up. Indirect circulation systems are good for areas that freeze frequently or severely; the anti-freeze fluid won't freeze and crack the pipes which could happen with a direct circulation system in colder climates.

A Direct Circulation Solar Water Heating System (this one is a passive design type).

An Indirect Circulation Solar Water Heating System (this one is an active design type).

Finally, there is a choice of solar collector types. The solar collector is the heart of the system, it is how solar energy is actually captured. There are three basic solar collector design types:

  • Batch or Integral Collector-Storage (ICS) - These systems utilize one or more tanks, painted black or coated with a "selective absorber" finish, which is inside an insulated box with a clear top often made of glass. This design uses the same concept as solar ovens. Cold water flows into the black tank which is "cooked" by the sun to fairly high temperatures. The water is heated and returns either actively or passively back to the home. These systems are probably the most common do-it-yourself types of systems. Old refrigerators with the door removed and glass placed on top are frequently used.
  • Flat-Plate Collector - This is a very similar design to the Batch or ICS system. However, instead of large tanks inside the sealed box, there is a tube that slowly winds its way back and forth through the flattened box.
  • Evacuated-Tube Collector - This collector design relies on the fact that heat cannot be lost easily through a vacuum. This is basically a tube within a tube. The space between the inner and outer tubes is "evacuated" of all air (made into a vacuum). The outer tube is clear, typically glass, and the inner tube is painted black. The sunlight passes through glass tube and heats up the black tube, but the heat cannot escape back out through the vacuum. These systems are almost always an indirect circulation design where an anti-freeze liquid is circulated through the inner black tube. The heated anti-freeze then flows back to a heat exchanger and heats up the home's water. Evacuated-Tube Collectors are very efficient, but much more expensive.

The last thing to consider with solar water heaters is how they will be integrated into the home. Some people choose to utilize the solar water heating system as the home's primary water heating system. If the sun is out, they you have hot water. If the sun does not come out, then within hours to days, depending on the size of your storage system and its ability to retain heat, you will be out of heat. Homes that are completely "off-grid" often do not have, or do not want to use, extra electricity or gas to heat water on cloudy days.

Another way to integrate solar water heating systems, and one that is most often used, is to have the solar water heating system pre-heat water going to a conventional water heater (either electric or gas). Newer constructs are using on-demand water heaters that have no hot water storage tank. The pre-heated water then needs significantly less energy (sometimes none) to heat it up for the home's needs. This allows a home greatly reduced energy costs, but still provides hot water on cloudy days.

Solar water heating systems will become more and more popular in the U.S. as people start to understand their benefits and start to feel the pain of increased energy costs.



Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Introducing AgriTrue!


I am very excited to tell you about a project I have been working on for some time... for almost a year now. We are finally about ready for our website to go live. 

I would like to introduce you to AgriTrue.

I am the project manager for AgriTrue, and I have spent many hours working behind the scenes to make this idea a reality.

As a Family Medicine physician, I have seen how the food we consume can make us unhealthy. I have seen how the food we eat can literally kill us. Half of the battle for our health is deciding to make good choices in the food we eat. But once we have made that decision, we have to act on it.

But how can we make good food choices when we don’t even know what we are eating anymore? Where did that vegetable come from? Is it even from this continent? How long ago was it picked? What vitamins and phytonutrients have been lost in the transoceanic voyage it made? What chemical was sprayed on it, and is it still there in the plant’s cells ready to be consumed by us? It gets even more complicated when it comes to meat and dairy.

These questions cannot be answered by going to the local grocery store’s produce aisle.

Connecting the people who produce food with those who eat it. It’s a simple concept, but it is a concept that has been lacking for too long in the U.S. There are a growing number of farmer’s markets and there are more and more CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) and cooperatives being created across the country every week. But what do you know about those vendors? How can you find out about the things that are important to you about your food?

You can go out and visit the farms. Talk to the people who produce your food. I highly recommend this, but it is very, very time consuming. Few of us will actually do this. So what are we left to do?
This is what AgriTrue is all about, and this is why I am so excited about it. AgriTrue is about information, and it is about relationships.

AgriTrue will provide a place where we can find out where our food comes from, who produced it, how they produced it, and why they produced it. AgriTrue will help us make informed decisions about our food.

I can hardly wait!

Our site will be going live in 30-60 days.  I'll keep you posted.  Stay tuned.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Organic Fertilizers: Wood Ashes


Wood ash is a great source of Potassium.


What is it?
Wood ashes are the remains of fire consumed wood.  This is a fairly simple definition, but that's what it is. When people understood the benefits of wood ash in the 18th century, the British colonies of America were exporting large amounts of this material back to Great Britain.

What is the primary benefit?
Wood ash is a good source of Potash (aka potassium... in a water soluble form). It is also a good source of other trace minerals. When wood burns, the nitrogen and sulfur are lost as gases. What remains is potassium (potash) plus calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, manganese, and sodium. There are also other minerals present to a lesser degree including aluminum, arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, and zinc. Some of these minerals, like arsenic and nickel, where thought to be poisons to biological life. However, we know now that most of these minerals actually have a vital, albeit very small, role in the biology of microorganisms and plants. Returning these minerals and trace elements to the soil will allow our plants and soils microbes to utilize what they need for a healthy life. Also, wood ash helps to raise the pH of acidic soils - this is the calcium carbonate component (aka garden lime). Most soils could use this unless you are growing acid-loving plants like blueberries. See NOTE below.

Ash from our fireplaces and wood stoves are not "waste"!

How is it used?
Ash from our wood stoves and fireplaces can be used if we did not use chemical starters, burned chemically treated woods, burned non-plant material including cardboard and particle board which contains toxic glues. Ash can be mixed directly into the compost pile. Just sprinkle a little ash on each layer. Wood ash can be sprinkled directly on the soil (in the Spring) and lightly worked into the top layer around plants that could benefit from a boost of potassium, calcium, and pH. Hardwoods will produce three times as much ash and five times as many nutrients than softwoods.

Application:
If you soil has adequate potassium levels: 3-5 lbs per 1,000 square feet
If you soil has medium potassium levels: 5-10 lbs per 1,000 square feet
If you soil has low potassium levels: 10-20 lbs per 1,000 square feet
or
about one half to one pound ash around each shrub

Composition:
NPK Ratio:  0-1-3 to 0-1.5-8 (depends on the source of wood, the age of the ash, and other factors)


A GENERAL NOTE ABOUT FERTILIZERS:
Always test your soil before adding any fertilizers.  We can easily damage our plants and the soil by indiscriminately adding soil amendments.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Good King Henry



Good King Henry was once a well known plant with many edible parts.

Common Name: Good King Henry
Other Names: Lincolnshire Asparagus, Lincolnshire Spinach, Poor-Man's Asparagus
Scientific Name: Chenopodium bonus-henricus
Family: Amaranthaceae (the Amaranth Family)

It produces well in shade making it a great groundcover plant.


Description:
This is a small perennial herbaceous vegetable that was once well known in England and central/southern Europe. While it has naturalized in the U.S., it is a rather uncommon food there. Good King Henry is in the same family as spinach, and its leaves are used in much the same way; however, its shoots are eaten like asparagus, flower buds like broccoli, and the seeds are an edible grain. Add its ability to grow in the shade, and this is a great plant to add to your Edible Forest Garden or other Permaculture plantings.

Chenopodium bonus-henricus
Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany

History:
Good King Henry was once very popular in Europe and England, and it was grown for hundreds of years until the end of the 19th century. While still used by some (the broccoli-like flower buds are considered a gourmet food), it is now mostly seen as a weed.

Trivia:
One source states that the name comes from the Tudor herbalists and likely has nothing to do with any of England's King Henrys. The Germans likely named it first, and they called it Guter Heinrich (Good Henry). Most plant historians think the English added the "King" to the name to give it a more interesting heritage.

Shoots, Leaves, Flower Buds, and even the Seeds are edible!

USING THIS PLANT
Primary Uses:

  • Raw Leaves - Raw leaves are bitter and contain oxalic acid, so they should only be eaten in moderation. Best in Spring and early Summer and used in a mixed green salad to vary the salad's flavor.
  • Cooked Leaves - Cooking destroys the oxalic acid. Makes a good spinach substitute. Often used with a mixed cooked green meal (kale, spinach, chard, sorrel, dandelion, etc.). Older leaves become tough and bitter, so cooking is needed; however, after flowering the leaves become larger and more succulent. Younger leaves just need to be steamed for a few minutes. 
  • Shoots - Very popular, harvested and prepared just like asparagus (cut when about 5 inches (12 cm)).
  • Flower Buds - Prepared and cooked like broccoli, but much smaller and a little tedious to harvest.
  • Seed - A decent supplementary grain source. Needs to be soaked overnight and rinsed to remove the saponins (soap-like chemicals) much like its relative, quinoa. Ground and usually mixed with other flours.


Secondary Uses:

  • Decent groundcover plant - clumping, plant at 1 foot (30 cm) spacing for groundcover
  • Green/gold dye obtained from the whole plant
  • Reportedly considered a gentle laxative that can be used with children
  • Reportedly used to weaken parasitic worms (vermifuge) in the human body


Yield: Reported in one book that 30 plants would be good for four people
Harvesting: Plant parts can be harvested from Spring through Autumn (see Uses above)
Storage: Leaves wilt quickly after harvest, so plan accordingly if planning on using fresh.

Good King Henry's flower buds are eaten like broccoli.

DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT
USDA Hardiness Zone: 3-9
AHS Heat Zone: None identified

Plant Type: Small to Medium Herb
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Herbaceous Layer, Groundcover
Cultivars/Varieties: Almost no improvement breeding has been done with this plant

Pollination: Self-Pollinating/Self-Fertile
Flowering: May-October depending on the USDA Zone where it is planted

Life Span: No good information on the life span for this plant, but as it can spread well through self-sowing, this may be irrelevant.

The young leaves can be eaten raw, but typically the leaves are cooked.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
Size: 1-3 feet (30-90 cm) tall and 1-1.5 feet (30-45 cm) wide
Roots: Main taproot that has many small fibrous/tangled side roots. Can be quite deep.
Growth Rate: Medium

Great illustration of Good King Henry - 1777.

GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
Light: Prefers full sun to light shade
Shade: Tolerates and still grows well in medium shade
Moisture: Medium, however it is not very drought-tolerant
pH: fairly neutral soil (5.5 - 7.5), but not very picky

Special Considerations for Growing: 
If grown in a hot and/or dry climate, it will produce better in shade.

Propagation: By seed. Does not need stratification for germination. Large clumps can be divided in Spring and directly replanted.

Maintenance:
Minimal. Grows well with neglect. Few pests.

Concerns:

  • Poisonous – Leaves contain oxalic acid when uncooked (large amounts need to be eaten for this to be toxic).
  • Dispersive - Easily spreads.  Can deadhead or harvest flower buds/flowers before it goes to seed.
  • Some people may have seasonal allergies to the flower's pollen



Friday, February 17, 2012

Cauliflower from my Garden!

My cauliflower just moments before harvest.

I don't know if it is just because I grew it, or maybe it is because it was so fresh when I ate it (literally seconds after I harvested it), or maybe because it was grown without chemical fertilizers and herbicides, but this cauliflower was the best I have ever tasted. Likely it was a bit of all three reasons, but I don't really care. It was fantastic. I am a little depressed I only have a few more left in my garden, but that is just more motivation for next season's garden!

A huge thanks to Jake for the cauliflower seedlings!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Ramps


Ramps are pretty, wild onions with a strong flavor.

Common Name: Ramps
Other Names: Spring Onion, Wood Leek, Wild Leek, Ramson (although the true Ramson is another, very closely related European/Asian species, Allium ursinum)
Scientific Name: Allium tricoccum
Family: Amarylidaceae, Subfamily Allioideae / Alliaceae (The Amaryllis and Onion Family)

Harvesting ramps is easy.

Description:
Ramps are a U.S. native species in the "onion" genus. This wild onion has a strong garlic aroma and a sweet, onion flavor. Both the large, flat, tender leaves and the small bulbs are edible, and the leaves are more mild tasting than the bulbs.  Ramps are a spring ephemeral that grows well in moist, deep shade where they can naturalize into large colonies.

History:
Native to eastern and central North America. Very popular in the Appalachian Mountains, but almost no cultivation.

Ramps can form very large colonies if allowed to spread.

Trivia:

  • North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania all have ramp festivals every Spring.
  • The city of Chicago was named by a 17th century explorer due to the fact that ramps grew thickly on the shores of Lake Michigan. The native Americans called ramps Chicagou.

A great collection of photos of Allium tricoccum.

USING THIS PLANT
Primary Uses:
  • Cooked - either/both greens and bulbs or whole plant.  Cooking mellows the strong flavor. Stir fried, fried, roasted, in soups, etc. Used like leeks or scallions. Here is a link to some Ramp Recipes. and another Ramp Recipe here.
  • Fresh - the bulb flavor is quite strong, and not many eat the bulbs raw; but the more mild greens can be chopped finely and added to salads

Secondary Uses:
  • General insect nectar plant
  • Aromatic pest confuser
  • Fair to decent groundcover in the Spring, but not after that as the plant dies back.

Yield: A few leaves one one bulb per plant.
Harvesting: Very late Winter through Spring.
Storage: Fresh is best. Can be refrigerated like leeks or scallions. Greens can be rinsed, air dried, and then frozen for a few months in an airtight container/bag.

Young ramps don't have the time to develop a full bulb.

DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT
USDA Hardiness Zone: 4-8
AHS Heat Zone: Not defined.
Chill Requirement: As this is a bulbed plant, some chill is required, but nothing specific that I can find in my search.

Plant Type: Herbaceous perennial
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Herbaceous Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: Not cultivated commercially. In Canada, it is a threatened species.

Pollination: Self-Pollinating/Self-Fertile
Flowering: June-August depending on the USDA Zone where it is planted.
Life Span: Spreads indefinitely from new bulbs.

The small flowers are nectar sources for beneficial insects.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
Size: 6-12 inches (15-30 cm) tall and continues to grow wide indefinitely as new bulbs form
Roots: Shallow bulbs
Growth Rate: Slow

Ramps will self-sow if given the chance.

GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
Light: Prefers Partial to Full Shade
Shade: Tolerates Full Shade
Moisture: Medium to fairly wet soils
pH: Prefers slightly acidic to neutral soil (5.5 - 7.0)

Special Considerations for Growing: 
Tolerates juglone (natural growth inhibitor produced by Black Walnut and its relatives).  Consider using this plant under your walnuts. It will die back before the walnuts fall.
Should be planted under deciduous trees, not evergreens, as ramps need the light in Spring.

Propagation: Transplanted through division from new bulbs splitting off an older plant, ideally when dormant. Some people even have success transplanting plants in full leaf. Seeds need at least 15 weeks stratification for germination.

Maintenance:
Minimal.

Concerns:
Once abundant wild stands are at risk for overharvesting.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Potential for Photovoltaic (Solar) Power in the U.S.


This is a map showing the annual potential solar photovoltaic (i.e. solar power) resource for the United States. Basically, the closer to red the higher the potential, and the closer to purple (well, green on this map) the lower the potential for solar energy production.

Here is the key for the map.


Not much more than that. Just want to save this map for my reference. Kind of cool. 


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Heritage Breeds: Dominique Chickens


The Dominique was the first U.S. breed of chicken.

The Dominique chicken is primarily an egg laying breed, but many keep it as a dual-purpose (egg and meat) bird. This is a breed I am strongly considering adding to my land. As you read about this chicken, I wouldn't be surprised if you will, too.

Conservation Status: In Watch Status by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.  "Watch" status means that there are less than 5,000 breeding birds in the U.S.  For a full description of Heritage and Heirloom Foods, check out this post.

Description: Laying Breed Chicken or Dual-Purpose Chicken
Class*: American
Origin: United States
APA**: 1874

Size: Medium
Cock 7 lbs (3.2 kg)
Hen 5 lbs (2.25 kg)

The Dominique's "rose" comb is small enough to minimize risk of frostbite.

Comb (the fleshy thing on top of the chicken's head): Small to medium rose comb - bright red
Wattles (the fleshy thing hanging from the chicken's chin): Small to medium wattles - bright red
Earlobes (the fleshy thing just below and behind the chicken's eyes): Medium-sized, oblong - bright red

Beak: Yellow
Eyes: Deep red
Shanks: Yellow
Toes: Yellow

The black and white barred feather pattern, also known as "hawk coloring".

Feathers: Barred black and white (really they are dark gray over off-white)
Eggs: Small-Medium. Brown eggs. 230-275 eggs per year.

The Dominique was once the country's primary backyard chicken.

History
It is the first truly American breed of chicken, although the exact origin is unknown. Likely it was primarily European stock that formed the original breeding stock, and over time there was likely some Asian breeds mixed in as well. The Dominique was the primary barnyard chicken in the U.S. for about a century (1830-1930's), until it was replaced by the Barred Plymouth Rock breed. By the 1950's, it was thought that they Dominique was extinct; however, there were a few breeders out there who kept the breed alive. A full scale restoration took place in the 1970's with only four flocks, and today the breed is in a much safer position.

The name, Dominique, may have come from the French colony Saint-Domingue (a.k.a. Hati) which was a likely source for some of the original breeding stock.

The Dominique's mild manner is just one of its great attributes.

Attributes/Permaculture Planning
  • Very hardy birds
  • Range well
  • Tolerates confinement (but I don't recommend that for any animal!)
  • Great forager
  • Good egg producer
  • Broody tendency (means that the hen will want to hatch the eggs she lays - this is a great attribute when we are trying to improve our stock in a breeding program... who wants a mother that abandons her eggs?)
  • Good mothers
  • Barred feather pattern provides protection from arial predators - camouflage!
  • Feathers used to be highly prized for stuffing pillows and mattresses
  • Young birds feather out and mature early - can produce eggs as early as six months
  • Hens are calm and friendly
  • Cocks can be aggressive - known to kill snakes, mink, even small cats... good protectors!

For more information on Dominique Chickens, check out the Dominique Club of America.

A Dominique cock.

*Note: While there are a number of breeds that have a Bantam (miniature) version in existence, I choose not to discuss them on this site. Most Bantam breeds are show-only birds, and would not be ideal birds for a homestead... and I am not interested in "pets" that take up resources instead of providing for me and my family. There is a lot of very good and helpful information on other sites if you are interested in Bantam breeds.


**APA = American Poultry Association. Founded in 1873, it is the oldest poultry organization in North America.


Monday, February 13, 2012

Basics of Lactic Acid Fermentation

Sauerkraut is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to lactic acid fermented foods.


What is Lactic Acid Fermentation, and why would we want to know anything about it?

Here's a scientific definition:
Lactic Acid Fermentation is a biological process by which sugars such as glucose, fructose, and sucrose are converted into cellular energy, and the metabolic byproduct Lactate is formed.

So, that's a bit of a mouthful, and not very useful for the non-scientists among us.

How about this definition:
Lactic Acid Fermentation is a process used to store foods (mostly vegetables) long term without using heat, cold, or preservatives, yet retains the nutritional value and original freshness of the food.


Okay, that is better. 



Pickles made the original way... far superior in flavor in my opinion.

So what are Lactic Acid Fermented Foods?
Ever had Sauerkraut? Kimchi? Old-fashioned Pickles? Olives? Yogurt? Sourdough bread?
These are all examples of common foods produced through Lactic Acid Fermentation.

How about Magou? Kefir? Laban Zeer? Nham? Balao Balao? Gundruk? Sinki?
Yeah, I've never tried these foods either, but I hope to one day.

Here is a traditional Nepalese meal made with Grundruk... lactic acid fermented leafy greens.

Why should we care about Lactic Acid Fermentation?  I have a few reasons:

  1. It is relatively easy. Seriously. Fresh, clean vegetables. Salt. Maybe some water. And a little time.
  2. It is pretty cheap. All you needs are the fresh foods and maybe a little salt and/or water. Food prices are rapidly increasing (see my article on the Rising Cost of Food), and the more food we can grow AND preserve will be money saved.
  3. It preserves our food. When we have a bumper crop of vegetables from the garden, here is just another way to extend the shelf-life of that food. Much better than letting it go bad and (hopefully) just ending up in the compost pile.
  4. It tastes good! This is a big priority to me. I'm not going to waste my time on something that doesn't taste good. I've only had a few foods that were make with traditional lactic acid fermentation. Most "modern day" foods that were once preserved through lactic acid fermentation are now made other ways (like vinegar preservation) or are killed by heating before storing (hot water canning). But the flavor of fresh yogurt, real sauerkraut, real pickles!  It is worth it, trust me.
  5. It is healthy. More and more research is showing that these fermented foods may, in some cases, be healthier than the fresh food. Mineral content stays the same, but some vitamins increase. The bioavailability of the nutrients in the fermented foods can also increase... meaning, the nutrients found in these foods are more readily absorbed by our bodies after fermentation. Not to mention that the bacteria that ferment these foods end up in our gastrointestinal tract and improve our digestive processes, which also leads to improved absorption of foods, which leads to better health. Now to be fair, these foods may be fairly salty. Lactic Acid Fermented foods should be a part of a well-rounded diet, not the primary component.
  6. It uses very little energy and resources. No heat from stoves. No electricity for refrigerators or freezers. Minimal water. Just the vegetables we grow and maybe some salt. That's it.
  7. It provides yet another way for us to be a bit more self-sufficient. Even if food security is not on your radar, as it is mine, having the freedom of just a little more self-reliance is powerfully reassuring.


So, there you have it. That was my quick definition of Lactic Acid Fermentation and my reasons why I am a big fan of learning more about it.  I plan on posting some articles on my adventures making these foods in the near future.  Stay tuned.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

Deforestation in the U.S.

Loss of Primary or "Old Growth" Forests in the U.S.

Primary Forests, sometimes called Old Growth Forests, are simply areas of forest that have never been logged. The map above is a sad statement on our management of these forests. I am not against logging. I am not against using the natural resources of the Earth; however, we must do so wisely. The Primary Forests are full of species of plant and animal that, if lost, will never exist again. But that is only part of what we have lost and stand to lose through deforestation.

Permaculture teaches about the use of Zones (you can read more about that in this article).  Zone 5 is a permanently "wild" area. It is vital to have these areas so that we can observe how nature functions without our interference. It is the model for the systems we are trying to emulate. If we lose this, we lose our teacher... not in some esoteric way, but in a very real, tangible way. We need to make sure we protect these areas, so we can observe the systems of nature. These forests are the prime example of a functioning sustainable ecosystem, and without them we lose thousands of years of information to guide us in creation of our own sustainable systems.

Finally, we need these places to experience God's creation untarnished by man. That alone should be enough reason.

With all that said, take a look at this map:


This map does give me hope. I have not been able to find a date for this map or any information on the creation of it, but it is quite interesting. While there are places in the world that are really doing poorly, there are others (especially in the U.S.) that have allowed new forests to develop.

I get rather tired of politicians, celebrities, and even some scientists, who get all worked up about some small aspect of environmentalism and forget about the very large, tangible ways to protect the environment... they are worried about a speck of dust right next to the elephant in the room, so to speak.

If you truly care about the environment, please put your energy into something that has a tangible result.




Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Skirret

Skirret is a great tasting root crop with many useful attributes.

Common Name: Skirret
Other Names: Suikerwortel (Netherlands), Crummock (Scotland), Zuckewurzel (Germany)
Scientific Name: Sium sisarum
Family: Apiaceae/Umbelliferae (Carrot Family)


Above ground, Skirret is a small to medium-sized herbaceous plant.


Description:
Skirret was once a very well known small to medium-sized perennial root crop. Its bright white, pencil-thin roots are sweet and said to have a flavor somewhere between potato and parsnip. Unfortunately, this is one plant I have yet to taste. I keep my eyes open in my travels through the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East in hopes of finding some to sample one day.


Botanical illustration of Sium sisarum.
Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885


History:
Likely originating in China, Skirret made its way to Europe early in the Middle Ages where it was a primary root crop. Unfortunately, Skirret was rather quickly replaced by the potato (from South America) given that potatoes are a larger, more easily cleaned crop. However, skirret is still used widely through northeastern Asia.

Trivia:

  • The name “Skirret” comes from the Dutch “Suikerwortel” meaning “sugar root”.
  • The wild ancestor of Skirret grows on the banks of waterways. This shows how tolerant skirret is of moist soils.
  • Pliny the Elder stated that Skirret was a favorite vegetable of the Emperor Tiberius.



Skirret flowers are attractors of beneficial insects.




USING THIS PLANT
Primary Uses:

  • Cooked (primarily): boiled, roasted, baked, braised, stewed, creamed, mashed, batter-fried
  • Used interchangeably or with carrots, parsnips, potatoes, or salsify in most recipes
  • Raw: peeled, sliced, chopped, or grated


Secondary Uses:

  • General insect nectar plant
  • Specialist insect nectar plant… lacewings prefer Skirret plants
  • Refuge plant for parasitoid wasps… they like to hide in Skirret foliage
  • Historically was used as a flavoring in beers, wines, and liquors


Yield: Varies widely depending on plant, soil, climate, and growing conditions in general
Harvesting: Autumn – Winter (October – March) after the foliage is killed by the frost. Skirret becomes sweeter with frosts like carrots and parsnips. Break the individual roots free and scrub the dirt off with a brush under running water. If you have a plant with a woody core, then the sweeter, softer root surrounding the core needs to be cut to scraped away first – try using a vegetable peeler. This emphasizes the importance of choosing higher-quality, woody-core-free cultivars.
Storage: Store like carrots... unwashed/uncleaned and wrapped in plastic and stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator, or unwashed and stored in straw or barely moist sand in a cool, high-humidity location like a root cellar. Keep the roots whole - if the root is damaged or broken, use them fresh instead of stored. Can be stored with other root vegetables like potatoes. Should not be stored near/with fruit (like apples), since they give off ethylene gas that can cause spoilage or off flavors.


Skirret roots can have a variety of forms depending on the soil conditions.


DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT
USDA Hardiness Zone: 4-9 (Zone 4 at a minimum, maybe even colder)
AHS Heat Zone: None described
Chill Requirement: Since this is a root crop, a chill requirement is rather irrelevant; however, this plant does appear to produce better in areas that are a bit colder. Also, flavor seems to get better with below freezing temperatures.

Plant Type: Small to Medium-sized Herbaceous Perennial
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Underground layer; Small to Medium-sized Herbaceous Perennial
Cultivars/Varieties: There are a number of unnamed varieties available. Be sure to find one that is free of a woody core in the roots. It may take some time and a few sources to find a good, high quality parent plant that we can propagate on our land.

Pollination: Self-Pollinating/Self-Fertile
Flowering: August - September

Life Span: No good data as this plant is harvested and split well before its lifespan reaches its end.


Skirret can tolerate shade and wet soils... a great plant for those "tough" locations.


PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
Size: 4 feet (1 meter) tall and 1-2 foot (0.3-0.6 meters) wide
Roots: Tuberous
Growth Rate: Medium


Skirret is a classic "plant/replant perennial" 
(see Propagation below).


GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Easily tolerates light shade (about 50%)
Moisture: Can tolerate high moisture levels, but does not require them.
pH: Can handle slightly acidic to alkaline soils

Special Considerations for Growing:
Skirret can tolerate rather wet and/or maritime soils.
It appears to grow the best tasting and least fibrous roots in rich, moist soils.

Propagation: Very easy to divide from the root. It is a classic “plant/replant perennial” plant… i.e. we can harvest a plant, take some of the roots for harvest and replant some of the remainder in the original hole and the rest in new locations where it will grow into a new plant.
Skirret can be grown from seed; however, the new plant is typically inferior to the parent plant.

Maintenance:
Minimal once established.

Concerns:
None reported.