Sunday, May 28, 2017

No-Till, No-Spray 3 Sisters Garden: Corn, Beans, Squash

Here's our small field of freshly-planted corn, beans, squash, and a variety of other edible perennial vegetables, many of which are North American native plants. Most of us are used to seeing the bare soil of plowed fields, completely denuded of plants. Have you ever seen a planted grain field that looks like this?

The "holy grail" of modern sustainable agriculture is honestly no-till, no spray grain production. Better yet, what if our production methods could actually increase biodiversity and fertility, while leaving the biotic community in tact, instead of destroying it to create a "clean slate" by tilling.

Producing calorie crops without destroying a healthy ecosystem is also one of our major goals here at Lillie House, both because it preserves valuable ecosystem functions that keep plants healthy, and because it avoiding tilling or digging the soil would save time and hard work.

Since modern agricultural techniques either require tilling or heavy spraying of petrochemicals, this is generally reckoned to be IMPOSSIBLE by modern experts. However, it's also widely believed (though not without some controversy) that Native Americans had done it for centuries or millennia, producing 3-4 times the yield/acre as European "scientific" agriculture prior to industrialization.

Here's a fantastic little treatment on the topic of the Native American horticultural techniques I often talk about in my classes and talks:
Unfortuantely, as explained in this great little article from 2012, much of that advanced technology and knowledge was suppressed by colonial governments. But what we do know, is:
- a wide variety of techniques were likely used
- there was no tilling and minimal digging
- fire was probably used at some points, but
- other researchers believe that methods were theoretically used which "kept fields alive" and allowed natives to sow 3 sisters directly into diverse perennial grasslands and savannah ecosystems which may have also been filled with other useful forbs.
Unfortunately, I have been unable to find in-depth details as to how that was likely accomplished. For example, we can read that Squanto planted 3 sisters into mounds of "dirt" and wood ash, with a fish at the bottom. We can infer that he would have made these mounds into some kind of untilled field ecosystem (possibly maintained by periodic burning.) We can guess that these "mounds" were essentially like the no-till deep mulch documented in indigenous horticulture around the world and popularized in Permaculture circles by Bill Mollison. But where did this "dirt" come from? Was anything else done to prep the land for planting? Were fields necessarily dug with bone tools as practiced by Buffalo Bird Woman? Were her gardens and those planted by Squanto perhaps influenced by the tilling practices of Europeans?

Having experimented deeply with no-till production into perennial crop systems, and having experimented with 3-sisters plantings for around a decade, I've come to believe that these native horticulturists would have likely done what any good gardener today would do: use whatever was at hand to accomplish the task with the minimum work necessary.

We've planted 3 sisters gardens for the last few years into our perennially-covered beds without digging or tilling, but this year, we're looking into techniques to plant into untilled field ecosystems. In our 3 sisters planting this year, we're experimenting with using a few different techniques and materials to create little mini "sheet mulch mounds" directly into our edible/ornamental meadow, or "eaddow" project, which has a large emphasis on native edible forbes. We followed the Wampanoag system of planting (on the 5 foot centers, recommended for our latitude) and selected varieties of corn, beans and squash that are thought to be traditional and appropriate to 3-sisters plantings in the Eastern Woodland region, based on suggestions from our friend John Edgerton and our friend Julian's success with Oaxacan Green corn in S.W. Michigan.

(Image from CMU)
I'm anticipating troubles with slugs, pill bugs and other primary decomposers during germination, and trouble with management of the grasses and other plants in the "eaddow." But we're hoping we can make something like this a permanent part of the management cycle for our "eaddow," and can have a system for harvesting a variety of roots, nursery plants and vegetables in addition to our corn, beans and squash.

And if it works, it should save us a lot of time and work. In this case, we prepared and planted around a 30' * 30' section of meadow, using materials almost entirely from on site, in about 4-5 hours total work. It would have taken considerably longer to dig or till this area. Wish us luck, we'll continue to share updates on this project.

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)