We planted some more today, and checked on a lot of our little plants. Here’s what’s growing around here…
We planted some more today, and checked on a lot of our little plants. Here’s what’s growing around here…
Last year we grew 9 different varieties of Irish Potatoes in our garden. We also grew sunchokes and sweet potatoes, and while there’s nothing quite like a fried potato, this year we decided to focus less on Irish potatoes, and more on other tuber crops.
Still, we figured we would try a low risk garden experiment this season by planting our seed potatoes in raised straw beds. Some advantages to this approach are that as the potatoes grow, instead of hilling them up with soil, we simply add more and more straw to cover the stems and encourage more tuber development. Because the potatoes grow in straw instead of soil, harvesting is easier and the tubers come out cleaner.
Last fall, after our homestead wedding, where we used straw bales benches, we strategically stacked the leftover bales in our garden area along the same contour layout of our raised beds. The thought was to simultaneously kill off the weeds and grasses underneath the bales and prepare the soil for new beds while conditioning the bales for planting.
We ended up going in a different direction though when spring came around, deciding to instead raise potatoes above the ground, and constantly add layers of straw to the growing stems.
First, I had to move the strawbales into a big pile next to the planting area. This exposed the nicely prepared and weed free “bed”. Hopefully this new pile will smother any weeds under it and allow us to expand this experiment in a few weeks. I then added a sprinkling of organic fertilizers and compost. I used a mixture of bone, blood, alfalfa, kelp and greensand, and then covered it with a nice layer of decomposing straw.
This is when I added the seed potatoes. I laid them out in multiple staggered rows, about 1 foot apart. I then went through and liberally gave each seed potato a handful of compost, and another pinch of fertilizer.
On top of this went a big layer of straw, probably 4-6 inches high, and then another light dusting of compost of fertilizer.
I am fertilizing this patch heavier than I would normally because the straw is high in carbon, and will require some extra nitrogen to fully breakdown. The end result should be a beautifully composted soil, and a nice harvest of potatoes as a bonus.
This kind of planting will need a little extra attention in the beginning, especially during dry spells, because the upper layers of straw have a tendency to dry out. Once the straw is 18 or so inches high I don’t think it will be problem anymore. If the potatoes seem to do okay, we may just try some sweet potatoes this way as well. I can’t believe that it’s almost time to start sweet potatoes slips again!
We’re really excited to have finally planted our first crops for the new year!
They have a temporary, cozy home… Set up in our guest bedroom with the chicks’ old heat lamp pointing at them, willing them into existence through the warmth and wetness that is their damp, soil filled tray! So poetic (can you tell we’re excited?)!
The first crops we’ve planted are both cabbages! Sauerkraut is not only one of our most favorite side dishes, is also super good for your body. Filled with plenty of healthy bacteria that promotes your digestive and intestinal health, it’s a “medicine” worth having around during all time of the year (especially during hot dog season).
We decide to great started right on time this year, since last year we waited too long to get some of our crops started. Planted a few days ago, the seeds have not yet sprouted, but it’s just a matter of time! We’ll allow them to grow in the their trays until they get a few leaves and/or until we think the threat of freezing has passes. Cabbage can take some chilly temperatures, but we want to be sure they grow up into large and delicious (multiple) cabbage heads!
The two varieties that we’ve planted are the Early Jersey and the Golden Acre. We’ll keep you posted about when these great varieties finally sprout!
I wrote yesterday on how to plant fruit trees and it got me thinking about the potential value and return on investment that a food forest, or even just 1 fruit tree can provide. Today I want to look at what an apple tree can yield during it’s lifespan, and maybe try and persuade you that planting one just may be the best investment opportunity around.
Okay. Let’s look at a semi-dwarf apple tree, like the William’s Favorite apple that I showed in the pictures of yesterday’s post. A semi-dwarf apple tree will cost anywhere from 15-40 dollars and you can definitely find a high quality, heritage variety for under 30 dollars. After planting, you can expect some yield in 2 years, but 3-5 years is when this tree will really hit it’s stride.
How much does a semi-dwarf apple tree produce? Around 4-7 bushels of apples per year. A bushel of apples is about 45 pounds, so that makes 180-325 pounds of apples every year. That’s a lot of apples. It’s actually 500-880 medium-sized apples, and would likely satisfy your “apple a day”.
How much are these apples worth? Well, first off, go down to a store and try to buy a beyond organic, no spray William’s Favorite apple. How much is it? It doesn’t exist. You can’t buy it at a store, but we’ll substitute organic apples for our calculations. So, organic apples run anywhere from 1.99/lb. to 3.99/lb., but I’ll use the lower number to be on the safe side. So, at 2 dollars per pound, 1 tree will produce $360-650 worth of apples per year.
But what can you do with hundreds of pounds of apples? Well, you could make homemade apple pie, 60 -100 pies per tree actually.
What about cider? Did you know that President John Adams would drink a tankard of hard cider every morning to prevent gas? Well, your mature apple tree can produce enough apples to make 12-24 gallons of cider per year. That’s 128-256 bottles, or 21-42 6 packs of craft cider. If you’re not a cider drinker, I’ll tell you that a 6 pack of quality cider costs about 10 bucks, and most of these are made from the rejects of the fresh fruit market.
Now, for how long can you expect this investment to return? While standard apple trees, those grown on full size rootstocks, can easily live 100 years, semi-dwarf apples typically live from 20-25 years. So your $30 apple tree will produce around 5000 pounds of apples, enough to make 1500 apple pies, or 600 6 packs of apple cider. And thanks to inflation, who knows how much these will cost in the next 25 years.
I’d say that’s a pretty good deal. And after the first year, once the tree is established, it will require very little maintenance. Now if this 1 tree is surrounded by support species plants that fix nitrogen, attract pollinators, and provide mulch and predatory insect habitat, and maybe a small swale to hydrate the soil and reduce water needs, then this 1 tree becomes a self-supporting, and highly valuable aspect of your property.
And while you can drive out right now and buy a 2-3 year old apple tree to plant, you cannot buy a 10 year old tree that is in full production, with a root system 20 feet deep and capable of surviving drought like no corn field or garden can. All of these, and many more, are reasons to consider planting a fruit tree or two on your property. It’s not that hard, and can be an extremely profitable investment.
As we wrap up the initial planting of our backyard food forest, I thought it made sense to put together a post on how exactly we plant our fruit trees. We already uploaded a video about protecting fruit with tomato cages, so check that out if you haven’t already, but today I’m going to give a quick how to on planting bare-root fruit trees.
First off, decide where the best place to plant your fruit tree is. Some things to consider are the directions of your primary winds, how much sun the tree will get, what sort of shade the surrounding trees or structures may provide, and also how much shade your tiny fruit tree will provide when it is mature. It’s also nice to be near a source of water for both irrigation and planting if you can.
Next, I like to scratch off the top layer of sod or leaf litter, depending on where I’m planting, with either a mattock or shovel. This makes it easier to break ground, and also disrupts weed and grass growth in the area right around the young tree. Now it’s time to start digging. I like to dig a hole that is bowl shaped, with gently sloping sides, and a little deeper than the root ball on the dormant tree. For most of the trees we planted this year, this turned out to be a hole that was two and a half to three feet wide, and 18 to 24 inches deep.
After the hole is dug, I like to rough up the sides and bottom a little to make sure the tree roots can grow out into the native soil. I now backfill the hole a bit, and place the root ball of the tree on a small pile of dirt and see if the depth is right.
I try to plant the tree at the same level is was planted at in the nursery, a couple inches below the graft union. This is important because if you accidentally plant the graft union below ground, the tree will grow as a full size tree and you will lose any semi-dwarfing or dwarfing effects. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you spend money on a dwarf apple tree that only gets 6 ft. tall, you probably won’t be happy when it ends up being 60 ft. tall.
Once I have the right depth, I pack dirt around the roots of the tree, being careful to try and break up any large clumps of our beautiful, red Carolina Clay. At this point, I may add a handful of our native forest soil, in order to inoculate the young tree’s roots with mature soil bacteria and beneficial fungal mycelium to help with the uptake and cycle of nutrients.
After that, I fill the hole in completely, and perform any grading or minor earth shaping to channel runoff and rain water. Ideally, now is when you would plant a few support species next to the tree, to help it grow. It’s also the best time to add a thick layer of mulch around the base of the tree, and then give it a good long drink to water it in.
And that’s pretty much it. All in all, after you get a few under your belt, it takes about 15-25 minutes per tree, depending on the size of the roots. Not too bad when you consider the value of a mature fruit tree, and how much food security it provides.
i recently wrote about all of the plants we started from seeds in pans and trays. i wanted to provide an update about how some of these guys are doing and show you what some of our plants look like in their infancy:
i’m not really sure yet what i’ll do with the cotton once/if the plants are fruitful but i am so excited to have green cotton! wow!
the lettuce and the cotton need to be transplanted into the ground soon, while the tomatoes and peppers will be transplanted into larger and deeper pans so they can grow a little tougher and larger before we put them in the ground.
and the other seedlings needs a little more time to grow in their current locations before they graduate up the “food chain.” just thinking about it is making me hungry!
Over the past few weeks Emma and I have been busy planting over 100 trees, vines, bushes and shrubs as the foundation for our new food forest. A food forest, for those who may never have heard the term before, is a forest designed to provide food for its stewards. They often consist of perennial species, like fruit and nut trees, and are therefore inherently stable and resilient.
A well designed and established food forest is able to cycle nutrients, capture energy, and produce a yield with few human inputs, such as irrigation, fertilization, and planting. Our food forest will take some time to reach this mature, self supporting state, and for now we will have to nurture our young plants to ensure that they become well established and provide for us for decades to come.
This longevity is one of the key benefits of forest gardening. There are food forests that are over 2000 years old which have provided for many generations of humans caretakers. This is what we are shooting for. Designing a system that will feed not only us, but our progeny for years and years.
Our new food forest is only the home base for our future plans, and is located right outside our back door, in, what in permaculture is referred to as zone 1 or zone 2. The backyard area forms a u shaped, open glade that faces south, and is bordered by native woods made up of oaks, poplar, hickory, maple, and pine among others.We are expanding out from this hardwood forest with our fruit trees, replacing the shrubby undergrowth, and following the curved shape of the woods. This was a conscious design choice and has numerous advantages.
First, we replaced many undesirable and inedible species with productive species. As anyone who has ever walked into a forest knows, the edge is usually where you encounter the thickest undergrowth of thorny bushes and vines that seem impenetrable.
Second, by planting along the forest edge we, and our plants, are able to tap into the complex and well developed fungal network that supports and coexists with our woods. Plants usually prefer to grow in 1 of 2 environments.The first is a bacterial one that is primarily found in grasslands, meadows, and prairies. These environments rely on grazing animals to digest large amounts of plant material and poop out partially decomposed manure that is full of bacteria that complete the nutrient cycle from plant-animal-plant.
The other is a fungal environment, where moist, and shady conditions, as well copious amounts of woody material support millions of miles of fungal hyphae, that break down dead wood, help tree roots obtain and take up nutrients in the soil, and act as a sort of internet that connects the trees in a forest. Thus, by planting our trees on the edge of the forest, their roots are able to seek out the fungal network that forests and woody trees depend on to thrive.This is much easier than having to establish this fungal network from scratch by mulching with woody material, or trying to establish a fungal based system in the middle of a bacterial environment, like a lawn.
Third, in addition to tapping into the fungal network of the forest, our new food forest will benefit from the established nutrient cycle that is already in place. Our towering hardwood trees have roots that have driven deep into the soil, and are able to pull up nutrients and minerals unavailable to most plants. They then store these nutrients in their leaves, and when fall comes, shed huge amounts of organic fertilizer and mulch all around our young food forest.
In addition to gathering and cycling nutrients, these massive trees are also able to soak up and “sweat” out water. This dew will fall directly on top of our new food forest, supplying it with a decent amount of moisture and reducing our need to irrigate.
All of these benefits are part of the reason we planted our food forest on the hardwood forest edge. Because the mature system can provide so much for our new, immature system, we won’t be planting as many support species. There will be some, but no where near as many as would be planted in a typical food forest.
This diverse forest system will be made up of an extremely diverse group of fruiting and medicinal plants. In addition to the overstory of hardwoods (which also provide shade and moisture for our mushroom logs), we planted apple, pear, peach, pluot, plum, paw paw, cherry, and asian pear trees as the main food species. We then planted shrubs and bushes like raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, currants, gooseberries, seaberry, autumn olive, goumi, goji berry, aronia, and elderberry. We also planted a few vines, like groundnut, grape, and passionflower, as well as herbaceous species like sunchokes, comfrey, fava beans, and, soon, a dozen more medicinal, perennial herbs like black cohosh, astragalus, marshmallow, yarrow, and valerian. Among these will be nitrogen fixers like honey locust, black alder, and siberian pea shrub, as well as a mix of clovers.
All of these species are in an area smaller than an acre, and primarily along the border. Most are perennial, and should provide for food for many years, as well as serve as nursery stock for propagation, ans the expansion of our food forest to other spaces on our property. It has taken a great deal of effort to plan and plant, but our new food forest should start paying dividends in a few years, and then on for as long as there is someone here to harvest.
on april 6th i planted a whole lot of our seeds for this year in seed trays and have since watched their successes and adventures in growing.
we wanted to share what we’ve experienced in their germination process, so that you can have an idea about what to expect if you plant any similar plants.
first of all, my potting mix consisted of about 2/3 peat moss and 1/3 black kow, with a little bit of vermiculite thrown in there. this is not my ideal mix (we were running low on vermiculite) but it worked fine for this occasion! the trays were watered the same day i planted the seeds and have been watered every day or every other day since then. they have been sitting outside in the sun on our driveway with a fence gate laid down on top of them so dodger doesn’t decide to sit in them (since he does love to be the center of attention).
this is the list of all of the seeds that were planted in trays on the 6th of this month, categorized by how many days they took to germinate:
no germination so far
we’re still waiting to see what the few seeds that haven’t germinated will do in the future. until they germinate, they will be out in the sun, getting water and dodging dodger’s tippity toes!
we have been eating so many of our sweet potatoes this winter, both baked as warm, delicious snacks, or made into my delicious sweet potato ginger soup.
this fall, we had a sweet potato yield of about 12o pounds. this is more than we expected since, frankly, we didn’t really know what to expect because this was our first time growing them.
the recommended planting dates for sweet potatoes in our region are may 15-june 15 and our plants went in the ground on june 11, 2013. the 100+ plants were given to us by my father, and jason planted them 3-6″ deep in two of our raised beds. each plant was 12″ apart within rows, and 36-42″ apart between rows.
within a few months, the vines went crazy and flourished. we had a small issue with a groundhog who was trying to munch on the vines, but jason dealt with that effectively.
since the average number of days until maturity for sweet potatoes is 105-135 days, we decided to wait until the later end of that spectrum, hoping for larger potatoes. i harvested the first half of the sweet potatoes in mid-october and jason and i harvested the other half together at the very end of october.
since the first frost of fall was on october 22, we cut all of the sweet potato vines off at the ground the night before to make sure that the frost wouldn’t run into the ground and damage the potatoes. this meant that the potatoes sat in the ground for about a week without their vines, which is not a cause for alarm. still, the sooner you harvest the potatoes after cutting off their vines, the better.
i harvested the first half on a harvest day, according to blum’s farmer’s and planter’s almanac. i also encountered a black widow while i dug up the vines, and learned later that black widows love sweet potato vines more than many other hiding spots. be aware while digging up your potatoes of all kinds!
neither day that we harvested was sunny, so we did not leave them outside in the sun to cure. instead, we wiped as much dirt off of them as possible, sorted them by size (keeping the tiny potatoes for bolt to eat as treats), and stored them in our guest bedroom/farm room.
we’ve stacked them in multi-tiered, open-air crates to help with the curing and drying process. currently, 3 months later, most of the potatoes continue to store well and we intentionally choose the iffy ones to use first when cooking and baking.
we are proud of our first sweet potato crop and in 2014 we plan to plant even more sweet potato plants than last year! this year, when may comes, we’ll be ready to get those plants in the ground even earlier!