Thursday, May 18, 2017

Asparagus and Radish Quiche with Chives

 These French Breakfast radishes are manna from heaven - a tender, buttery texture and a mild, creamy flavor, they're the only radishes I bother to grow. I usually eat them simply, sliced thin on open-faced french bread sandwiches, layed neatly on a thick layer of high-quality cultured butter and sprinkled with slightly crunch coarse Himalayan pink sea salt. A simple meal fit for kings - profoundly complex yet subtle flavors made this one of the classic sandwiches of all time for a very good reason. But the magic is in the interactions between the exact ingredients. A nice french bread with a biscuity aroma, the mild creamy, butteryness of the French breakfast radishes, and the texture and flavor of a traditional European style cultured and salted butter. Even the subtle acridity and crunch texture of the salt is part of the alchemy that gives this sandwich its emergent property, something better than the sum of its parts.

The tradeoff is that 2 days of 85 degree weather and the whole lot are bolting. 

So if you too have radishes to put to use, or seeing a glut of them at the market as the temperatures rise, you can try the classic radish sandwich, or this quiche inspired by the same flavor combination. In this case, made with a potato crust, as I'm always digging the season's last over-wintering potatoes around the same time radishes bolt and asparagus are at their peak. Chive flowers add a touch of pink to coordinate with the sea salt and slight pink of the breakfast radishes. Unfortunately, both of these recipes are very dependent upon the specific undertones of the exact ingredients, and would likely be a little lacking with any substitutions. 


Asparagus and French Breafast Radish Quiche with Chives 

sharp knife for thin-sliced radishes
medium cast iron pan 

3 small potatoes. 
1 bundle of whole chives, including bulbs and a few flowers.
1 bundle of small-sized French Breakfast radishes. 
6 eggs
1 cup cream or whole milk, or 1/2 cup lowfat milk and 1/2 cup creamy goat cheese (FTW.)  
3 large stalks of asparagus, sliced or 6 small stalks of asparagus. 
Himalayan pink sea salt, coarse. 
1- 2 T olive oil. 

Heat the oven to 350. 

Thin slice the potatoes as though making thin american fries or potato chips. Coat the bottom of a cast iron pan with a good quality cooking olive oil and brink it just to the point of smoking, over medium-high heat. When it just starts to smoke, add the potatoes and turn down the heat to medium. Olive oil has a low smoking point and keeps the oil at just the right temp to end with a somewhat crispy potato crust. 

Slice the chives, separating the white bulbs from the green stems. Set aside the flowers for later. Next, prep your asparagus. Brown the potatoes fror about 5 minutes, then flip, adding chive bulbs. 

Sautee the asparagus in a separate pan with a cooking oil or butter until tender crisp. Meanwhile, whip your eggs, cream and chive greens in a bowl together. When the asparagus is ready, add on top of the potatoes and poor the egg mixture over top. Put into the oven and set timer for 15 minutes. 

Next, slice the radishes about 1/8th inch thin. You'll want enough to almost completely cover the top of the quiche. 

(Yes, this is a lovely dish all by itself.) 

When the timer goes off check the quiche. It may take another 10 - 15 minutes, but it's important not to burn egg dishes, which turns them tough. It should be "puffed" all the way to the center and starting to brown around the edges. A quiche will set some after it's done cooking, but if it isn't risen all the way to the center, it will likely not completely set. 


When done, remove from the oven. Immediately add radishes. This should heat them through enough to slightly soften them and turn them transluscent, but without ruining the raw flavors and texture. Allow to cool another 10 minutes. Sprinkle the top with sea salt and chive flowers. Serve with a bed of spring microgreens. 


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

May Report - Inputs/Outputs/Activities

Perhaps the greatest advantage of Permaculture and forest gardening is that it can be used to maximize the return on investment of any productive landscape. In other words, it can optimize the value of your landscape, market garden or business, no matter what you do with it.

This is substantially different than the more commonly-stated goal of maximizing yields. 

See, Permaculture is a design system that can be used to create landscapes that are tailored to your individual lifestyles and goals. Some may want to try to maximize the output of their gardens for research purposes or to prove a philosophical point. Unfortunately, measuring the complex outputs of a diverse Permaculture system is proven extremely difficult to do in comparison to a simple one-time harvest of monoculture corn, maximized with oil and chemical inputs. 


But for most of us, living lives with finite energy and resources to put into our projects, and finite energy to deal with the outputs, (harvesting, storage, transport, sales....) maximizing yields isn't always a very practical goal. 

In fact, this reductionist goal of increasing yields at all costs seems downright childish when compared to the goal of "maximizing value" to stakeholders, including land stewards, end-users, and the human and natural communities which inhabit and surround the production area. 

Consider the conventional market farm doing everything "by the book," following "best practices" to maximize yield in an effort to maximize PROFIT: working long hours to squeeze every bit of profit from the land, doing extra spraying and fertilizing, hiring extra workers at exploitation wages, exposing volunteers and family members to harmful chemicals, taking on that extra farmers market on Tuesday evening for an extra 50 bucks a week.... Repeatedly, economic analyses find such farmers end up paying themselves a ridiculously low wage, with many admitting they pay themselves as little as $3/hour. Meanwhile they moved to the country to get away from the "rat race" of marketing, management and machines, and "back in touch with nature" only to find themselves deeply entrenched in managing an underpaid workforce, using spreadsheets, repairing machines and computers, and fighting tooth and nail against nature for their lives. 

Instead, wouldn't such a farmer be better off to design a system that yields far less than the maximim, but instead optimizes quality of life, healthful contact with nature, and a HIGHER LIVING WAGE for her work? Like most things, this follows the 80/20 principle, or the law of deminishing returns. Why pour extra hours of struggle into a system to squeeze out a few more units at the expense of your hourly wage? 


This is where good Permaculture design really shines. 

A great Permaculture system maximizes LIFE yields across different kinds of capital, not just that one most inflexible and dehumanizing form: financial capital. It buids our social capital, frees us to observe and interact with nature rather than going to war with it - something that helps us grow our informational capital. It frees up time to invest in our spiritual and social capital. And it give us a beautiful, nurturing environment to work in. 

Some of this is hard to quantify, 

I don't track the number of times I'm told that our garden is the most beautiful place in Kalamazoo, but I feel happy to report that I've already heard this a few times this Spring! I can't tell you how many people have told me they've driven past and been stunned by our garden, or that our garden was a  revolation to people that changed their lives. Or that my Permaculture talk, based on the things I've learned from this home ecosystem, was the most inspiring talk someone has heard. But I've had the honor of hearing all of these comments just in the last month. 

I can't tell you about the hours I've spent just sitting in my back yard watching the birds and butterflies. Or spectacular way the light shined on the broad leaves of sea kale on one special evening. Or how I got a free masterclass on photography from a watching a pro work in my garden. 


But what I can do is share our input/output tally again! For 3 years now I've attempted to share monthly updates here on our yields, inputs and time we've spent in the garden. 

Yet again, the off-site inputs have been very low so far this month. We did purchase one bag of cocoa mulch to pretty up the garden for a photographer's visit. We also put in substantially more work hours than we typically do, not to maintain productivity, but just to make things unnaturally tidy for a home landscape. Still, the work we've spent has been relatively low compared to most homesteads, farms or even home landscapes, and in return we've had daily yields of vegetables. 

And again, much of what we COULD harvest never gets picked since we haven't yet developed good long-term outlets  for sales and distribution. At this point, I simply have higher Return on Investment activities to put my time into than marketing produce I'd rather enjoy myself. 

In April and May my Lillie House related income was around $5,000/month, which is honestly quite high. This won't continue through the summer. About 1/3rd of that came from Forest Garening CSA registrations. Another 3rd came from edible landscaping design/install work. And the final 1/3rd came from rental income, final payments on our Winter Permaculture Design Course, speaking engagements, plant, produce and seed sales, and our online classes. As we shift to summer, more income will come from production and less from non-production activities, but honestly, I would philosophically like to see more coming direcly from production, AND at a reasonable market rate, not highway robbery boutique prices. But I'm also not in a rush to push it, since I want to ramp up the natural productivity of our site and live sustainably off the excess, rather than exploit the land, labor and finite resources unsustainably to convert them into cash. 

This month's current totals: (to be updated again at end of month)


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

2017 "CSA," Community Supported Permaculture

This is my favorite way to do Permaculture.

I do design/installation jobs for people who want to get a fast-forward on their projects without years of in-depth study of Permculture and forest gardening ecology, but I really do think the best way to transform your landscape is this class where we walk through the whole process together, with a group of other forest gardeners for support.

And it's a class that doubles as an advanced foraging class, covering many of Michigan's most valuable wild gems available throughout the growing season, which are often excellent additions to the forest garden or Permaculture landscape.

And this is "last call" until 2018, registration closes May 9th.

Classes run 3rd Saturdays from 9 - noon from May - November.

There are three different ways to be involved, depending on your needs. All three come with some seeds and plants, lots of advice, and an online version via media-rich emails and interactive online classes.

Class Alone: $350 ($50/class, includes samples, a few rare plants and seeds.)

Class Plus: $500. Includes a larger number of plants to start a nice Permaculture collection, and includes a basic consultation.

Home Garden Membership: ($1,000) COVERS CLASS TUITION FOR 2 ADULTS. Includes $350 worth of rare, specially recommended plants, a mushroom kit, a written site Permaculture consultation and more:

If you'd like to discuss your options or other details, please give an email at

Hope you'll consider joining us!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

How Come There are Plants OTHER Than Mint and Bamboo?

(Our neighbors - Lillie House is nearby the A.M. Todd Mint flavoring facility in Kalamazoo, and we sometimes enjoy the aroma of "stepping into a York peppermint patty" from our garden.) 

Did you know that 90% of the world's mint used to come from a small area around Kalamazoo? 

That's right! We were once the mint capital of the world! Farmers here used to grow mint right out in the ground like maniacs, first in burr oak openings and later as an alternating perennial crop in farm fields, especially in our Kalamazoo mucky soils, often in the same fields as our famous celery (Kalamazoo was also famously once the celery capital of the world, and is still sometimes called "Celery City.") 

But wait - how could we possibly have grown anything BUT mint, I mean, once that "ultra-invasive rampant jerk of a plant" mint got established?! 

(MSU - A mint field in early stage of estblishing root cuttings.)

That's right, I'm on about "weeds" and "invasives" again, one of my favorite topics. Listening to the quivering fear in people's voices as they talk about the dangers of The Herb That Shall Not Be Named, or the stern disapproval of gardeners who say it is simpy "wrong" to plant any mints in any garden - EVER - I'm left wondering how we managed to grow celery or anything else ever since around here, if we had this "impossible-to-get-rid-of" bully of an invader growing in all the fields all around us. 

What's even stranger is that as an avid forager and hiker who's spent the last 5 years trucking through the region's thickets, old fields, deep woods, open trails, and every other possible ecology - including old mint fields - I've never once seen this "invasive" growing as an escapee in our region in the wild! If the conventional wisdom I often hear about this plant were even half true, then how could this possibly be?!  


We'll get back to mint in a minute, but first: Have you ever noticed that in Asia, there are plants other than bamboo? Again, considering the utter scornful condemnation of any gardener who'd dare to plant any bamboo in their Michigan garden, I'm left wondering how any other plants manage to exist anywhere in asia. In fact, as pointed out by Toby Hemenway in Gaia's Garden, people in many folk or indigenous communties in Asia would be surprised to hear that there's anything wrong with the plant at all.... The same goes for other "Verboten" plants in their home regions, where they're arguably most adapted to thrive: culinary mints, oregano and thyme in the Mediterranean region, sumac, poke and brambles in North America, garlic mustard in the British Isles, and so on.

Now, before a gaggle of gardeners hunt me down and force me to wear the scarlet "W," let me emphasize that caution is called for. While I'm the kind of guy who plants mints as part of a rotation in my garden beds, I'm also quick to caution people against planting specimens (like seedling hardy kiwi and vinca minor) that could become a management nuisance, could escape into nearby woods, or get them in trouble with their neighbors. And when I create landscapes for clients, I always assess how much time they have and how much they will be able to spend gardening and I never plant anything that I think could get out of their control.  I do NOT adise most people to plant mint or bamboo in their gardens without a thick soil barrier preventing their spread.

But the point I'm trying to make is about our mindset on "weeds" and "invasives," which isn't really helpful to gardeners or to the supposedly "wild" ecosystems we often spray into oblivion in a tissy over "weeds."

There are of course plants that were imported to North America that really did become widespread, to the detriment of native ecologies and plants. The most obvious cases are the non-native grasses we use in our lawns, and the dandelions that go with them. And in this case, it is now commonly believed that is the change in land management systems (from grazing and burning to mowing) that is responsible for the domination of non-native grasses - in other words, the plant spreading wasn't the problem, Europeans spreading was. But most often, like mint, these plants have more bark than bite. 

In this fascinating MSU article on historic mint farms in S.W. Michigan  they discuss the need to either replant the field every few years, alternate crops or let the field fallow, because every few years the populations would decline. Culinary mint plants are cultivated by root cuttings, are largely sterile and rarely set seed, so when a plant spreads in your garden it is all the same plant, with the same root system, and - such is life - everything eventually gets sick and declines, everything dies. Even mint. 

(My standard summer beverage, mint water with a splash of orange bitters.)

Like any other biological organism on this planet, mint, bamboo, and probably most other plants fingered as "invaders" all have their evolved niche, their roles in the process of "ecological succession," the process whereby nature transforms lawn gradually into an old growth forest. Each species may have its day as king, but it will be replaced as other tougher plants move in and the system naturally grows towards its "climax" as a mature forest, with greater diversity. Then, even the dominant climax ecology, the forest, is no longer deemed permanent, but just another ephemeral community, taking its time in the light until lightning, fire, humans or some other "disturbance" inevitably removes the woods and restarts the process of succession. This gives us an opportunity to solve weed problems by working with this natural process. We can "weed" our garden with our minds. 
So it seems to me that the problem very often is not with the plants, but in our thinking and interactions with them. The problem isn't in our gardens, but in our heads, where the thought of a single plant getting "out of place" is an affront to our sense of control. Change is painful. We want our gardens to be "perfect," locked in time, never growing or changing, or getting old. But nature wants the system to mature....

One of the most rewarding things I've learned from Permaculture is to let go of that control, and hand over the steering wheel to mother nature. She knows where she wants to go (ecological succession, greater diversity, more energy) but she's quite happy to take suggestions about how to get there (like which species to include, how much to "produce") so long as we're moving in her direction. What I've come to recognize is that often, my preconceived ideas about what's productive or aesthetic (like what "belongs" in a garden, or what's "native") don't really serve me or the ecosystem. And it feels particularly awe-inspiring to sit as just another individual co-creator in a dynamic evolving space that is "our garden," instead of a strange, sterile incarnation of my own neurosis imposed on the landscape. And it feels nice to look around my garden and see beautiful, helpful plants, each filling exactly the niche it evolved to fill, and doing exactly the job that I should expect it to, instead of seeing hated invaders and enemies.

If you're looking to recover from your own weed-neurosis, here are a few Lillie House articles that might help you learn to seek a functional balance with your weeds, a perspective that I've learned from studying Permaculture and ecology. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

This Hack Get's Mother Nature to Fight Weeds for You: Fortress Plants


Look: this is a picture of a vegetable at war with the lawn. 

Given all the attention around the "food not lawns" movement, you might think I'm being metaphorical. But an experienced gardener will understand that the veggie patch is ALWAYS fighting a war for survival against lawn and "quack grass" greedily trying to take over any bit of land it can get access to. 

"I've lost my garden completely to quack grass!!!"is one of the most common tales of garden woe, and usually the only recourse is to completely start over. 

But LOOK AGAIN: Here, it is the grass that's on the run! This spunky veg, with no help from the gardener, is actually winning the war. More importantly, this hardy specimen is holding the line, protecting the more easily overrun vegetables behind it. This is what some Permaculturists call a "fortress plant." Best of all, it's perennial vegetable, sorrel, meaning that once it is established it will come back each year, working to keep weeds out of the garden for years to come. This is one of several tools derived from the study of ecology and natural succession that clever gardeners can use to keep grasses and other weeds at bay. But you can't just plant sorrel in your garden and expect not to have any weeds. To work well, we need to understand and apply the ecological principle behind how it works and design with that in mind. 

(Another combo of fortress plants that has the grass on the run.)

It wasn't hard to convince myself that pouring a glass of home-grown elderberry-wine sangria and plopping a couple ice cubes in it would be the only possible way to visualize this. Now, staring at that ice cube it's still hard for me to imagine a wall of ice a mile high. But 10,000 years ago, that's what we had right here in parts of Michigan. In fact, as recently as 9,000 years ago most - if not all- of Michigan was under ice. When the ice melted and the water cleared what was left was a blank slate, in ecological terms a "disturbance," ready for mother nature to go to work repairing. 

But she couldn't just jump in with the ramps, morels and and solomon's seal that characterize mature woodlands, because they need the rich, deep fungal duff found in the mature forests of Michigan. She had to start with plants that could get a toehold into this "blank slate, with little organic matter or fertility to help out. This gradual process of transformation that occurs after disturbance is called "succession," and that's what we're interested in when it comes to weeds. 

Depending on the soil, the ecological history of the site, and other factors, a typical process of succession starts with the small, quick plants that evolved to cover poor "new" soils with little organic matter or easily digestible nutrition, like mosses and lichens. As these die back they enrich the soil with carbon and other nutrients, essentially adding "compost" to the soil and making it accessible to an increasing diversity of organisms. After a while of this composting, grasses and other "pioneer" weeds come in covering the land and playing their role in repairing the disturbance, creating a grassland. Over time, broadleaf plants like dandelions outcompete the grasses, making room for woody perennials to move in, creating a shrub field, then a savannah, then an open woodland, and finally coming to "climax" at a dark, dense mature forest. 

(A forest edge imitates this process, gradually advancing on the grassland.)

So, to nature, "weeds" grasses, and even non-native grasses have a role in ecosystems and a place in the process of ecological succession. In a natural system, their time is fleeting, doing their job, then slowly phasing out of dominance, eventually becoming rare in landscapes they had once dominated as they are replaced by the species that evolved to succeed them. This is why there are rarely many grasses or dandelions in a mature forest, and when they're present they are in balance, not dominating the other plants. 


But in a conventional garden we're constantly setting the ecological clock back every time we till or weed the garden, recreating the "disturbance" that is the promised land of the very grasses and pioneer "weeds" we're trying to get rid of! This is a system designed to fail!

From a Permaculture approach, a better way to keep grasses and other "weeds" from taking over the garden is imitate the process of succession. Author Toby Hemenway called this "fast forwarding to a later stage of succession" beyond the stage where these "weeds" necessarily reign. 

As it turns out, this "mid-succession" state, where grasses and early pioneers have started to naturally cede territory to a greater diversity of herbaceous plants, woody shrubs and early pioneer trees, is the ideal natural habitat for most of our favorite food plants. The soil is rich with organic matter and fertility. A variety of sun-shade habitats provides niches for many plants. Most (but not all) of our veggies can easily find a home in such an ecosystem, and most of our fruit trees are mid pioneers, happiest in such a situation. In nature, this situation is found at the forest edge, where the forest is spreading out converting grassland, and in old-fields and savannah systems. 

This is one reason why a well-designed forest garden works so well: it creates a variety of habitats all hovering somewhere around this mid-succession sweet spot. 

(An agro-ecosystem that imitates the mid-succession sweet spot.)

And Fortress Plants are just one great hack that food and ornamental gardeners alike can use to tap into this process. 

 The term "Fortress Plant" is not an ecological term, but rather a handy catch phrase for the various mid-succession pioneers that are adapted to reach out into grassland and begin converting it to forest, through competition, shade and allelopathy (chemicals secreted by one plant to poison its competition.)

So one fortress specimen alone will almost certainly be overrun. But if we can plant these perennial pioneers together with enough density to mimic the spreading pattern of succession, we have a chance at making a garden that is fairly resistant to grass and weed pressures, yet provides ideal habitat to our favorite fruits and veggies. 

(An edible hedgerow on the march, converting grassland just like a natural forest edge.)

A final caveat is that different soils require different fortress plant communities, so this strategy takes some experimentation. My recommendation is to use high diversity and high density, giving nature the tools she needs to solve the problem on the soils at hand. 

Starter List of Recommended Potential Fortress Plants

Relatively Low Herbaceous Perennials Idea for the Garden Edges
Most woody perennial herbs, depending on soil (better on sandy soil.)
comfrey, pretty much everywhere
sorrel and blood-veined sorrel
turkish rocket
most spring ephemeral bulbs including daffodils and alliums (though the effect is stronger at greater densities and with other plants)
over-wintering annual ephemerals like chickweed, dead-nettle, wild mustards and wild cresses
the monardas
fennel (again, this is probably a weeker effect on most sites, but it has good research proving its allelopathic influence.)

Taller Fortress Plants Often Observed at the Edges of a Forest
Maximillian sunflower
cane fruit

And this is just one of many tools that gardeners and farmers can use to put the process of ecological succession to work for them. The strategy gets even better when combined with other succession-mimicking hacks, like "nurse logs," another research-based approach to fast-forwarding succession. At Lillie House, these three factors are often seen working together. 

To get a fuller understanding of what these ecological mechanisms are and how they can easily be applied in the garden, we hope you'll join us for this year's Complete Forest Gardening Course, where you can see how these patterns are applied and managed over the course of a growing season, here at lillie House.