Category Archives: PERMACULTURE

Nutrition News I

by Tom Gibson

It is common knowledge, both among scientists and educated consumers, that food is less nutritious than it used to be.  Here’s a chart that shows how great mineral loss was between 1950 and 1999:

Later studies confirm that the situation has only worsened. One familiar culprit is the need by our modern industrial food system to require “efficiencies:”synthetic fertilizers, plant breeds that withstand long distance shipping, feed-lot-fattened meat, etc.  Less familiar, is humanities’ fatal dietary flaw, its sweet tooth that can’t resist anything sugary.  As Jo Robinson relates in her great book, Eating on the Wild Side, even blueberries, those alleged carriers of anti-cancer, anti-everything-bad nutrition, have lost much of their natural potency through over-breeding to accommodate humanity’s too-sweet palates. The more sour the blueberries, the better they are for you.  (Robinson recommends the semi-wild “Rubel” variety. Sour, but good for you.

Two recent developments that shed new light on the nutrition issue, however, caught my eye.  First, the bad news:  Declining nutritive value may well also be a consequence of the general rise in CO₂ concentration in Earth’s atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide not only causes global warming, it also speeds photosynthesis and, with it, plant metabolism.  Multiple scientific studies now show that this process weakens uptake of vital mineral nutrients like zinc.  The most convincing evidence of causality is that even non-crops like goldenrod, samples of which have been collected and preserved since the 19th Century, have also lost nutritional content.  The only variable, apparently, affecting goldenrod has been rising CO₂ concentration. 

                           Please Don’t Eat the Goldenrod

This is especially depressing news since it identifies a variable that impossible for individuals to correct on their own. Even if you work to balance micro-nutrients in your own garden, global conditions will always be tugging in the opposite direction.

 (For a well-reported article accessible to lay readers, see http://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/09/13/soil-health-agriculture-trend-usda-000513)

But don’t give up hope. The second item I noticed (the good news) gives us at least some chance to take better nutrition, quite literally, into our own hands.  It’s a prospective I-Phone app—a Bionutrient Meter– that will allow you to perform an instant spectroscopic analysis on fruits and vegetables in grocery bins.  Does that spinach at Whole Foods contain the iron you want it to?  Or does the farmer’s market offering outperform it? Just point and click. And the larger question: Will a small army of consumers demanding better nutrition put enough pressure on suppliers to change their standards?

An organization I greatly respect, the Bionutrient Farmers Association**, will unveil a prototype Bionutrient Meter this fall.  In this podcast, Dan Kittredge, gives more detail. ((https://soundcloud.com/wpkn895/digging-in-the-dirt-37-dan-kittredgeexecutive-dir-bionutrient-food-assoc/ )  His hope is that an affordable handheld device will be available to consumers a year-and-a-half from now.

*I’m ignoring here the far worse role played by manufacturers of highly processed food scientifically formulated to create junk food addictions among naïve populations.  For a truly depressing, but well-reported article that includes a quote from Cleveland’s (and Switzerland’s) own Nestle Corporation, see https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/16/health/brazil-obesity-nestle.html?_r=0

** (bionutrient.org.  Note that “bionutrient” is not plural.  Adding an “s” will take you to the wrong website.)

Nutrient News (You Can Use) II

It may be news to you that many good elderberry recipes exist.  Although American use of these tiny, astringent black fruits is pretty much limited to elderberry jelly and elderberry wine, European cooks take them much more seriously.  This is a good thing, since elderberries are off the charts in their nutritional value—double, for example, the anti-oxidant power of even the most nutritious blueberry. (Sorry, Rubel blueberries! See above.)

                                                       Sambucus Nigra, a European variety, though                                                          we also use the North American Sambucus                                                              Canadensis*

The best sources for many of these recipes are online and often not in English. But don’t let that stop you! All you have to do is look up the foreign word for the fruit you contemplate cooking, enter that and the foreign word for recipe, and you’ll get an extraordinary variety of good ideas. Just right-click on any given recipe, and it will appear in English. It’s really that simple, with only a mental barrier to stop you.

In the case of elderberry, several years ago I looked up its German translation, “Holunder” and the German word for recipe, “Rezept.” The resulting search led to a fruit compote that has become a family favorite.  The genius of this particular dish is that it takes the “bass note” astringency of elderberries and lemon peel and matches them with the treble notes of sweeter pears and plums.    The result is an unusual symphony of fruit flavor that we like on ice cream and on cereal.

Here’s a free adaptation of the recipe:

8 firm pears

1 liter water

1 lemon, juice and zest

1.5 Kg of Italian prune plums, de-stoned

1 Kg of elderberries

400 g sugar  (yes, the best flavor requires some additional refined sugar sweetness!)

Core the pears and chop into bite-sized chunks, add water and lemon zest, then cook until almost tender.  Add the plum halves, elderberries, sugar, and lemon juice and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer for 30 minutes.   We pour into jelly jars and freeze.

*The elderberry bush is an especially useful permaculture shrub since it allows easy “function stacking”—the permaculture term for getting multiple benefits out of the same piece of land.  In our case, we grow tasty king stropharia mushrooms in wood chips in the shaded soil beneath the elderberry bushes, which, in turn, benefit from the decomposed-wood-chip soil.  We also grow groundnuts, a frequently-found-in-nature companion plant to elderberries. The groundnuts vines curl up the elderberry bush branches, even as its roots fix nitrogen and feed the plants around them.  Three foods in one patch of ground, ever better soil, more nitrogen, plus a privacy hedge between us and our neighbors.  Now that’s function stacking! (Though it’s taken more time than I thought it would.)

Canadian Anemone: A Frenemy Becomes My Enemy

by Tom Gibson

The story begins with well-intentioned advice from an expert horticulturist friend who suggested Canadian anemone for my backyard Food Forest.  “Yes, it’s a little invasive, but it’s such a great plant for wildlife!” (As I remember her comment.)

And her assessment has proven at least partially true.  Not only do the white blossoms attract diverse insect pollinators, but the roots provide an unusually hospitable home to worms, millipedes, and, no doubt, trillions of other creatures (food to the aforementioned invertebrates) visible only via a microscope.

  ( Canadian anemone looking innocent)

I observed some of this soil life cornucopia as I tried to pull out proliferating Canadian anemone, which wants to pop up everywhere it’s moist.  When it can, it tries to squeeze out any competitors with a thick, fine matt of roots that covers every millimeter of soil surface; with a Cape Cod scraper it comes off like a soil-infused, hairy human scalp.  The moist root mass and regular root die-off probably explains the thriving microbe-to-worm food chain.  So, while I was aggravated by the plant’s aggressive spread, I was delighted by the rich soil it left behind.  Talk about tilth!

( What’s left after weeding Canadian anemone: beautiful soil)

Remembering the permaculture mantra “The Problem is the Solution”, I resolved to keep some Canadian anemone and use it as a nutrient factory for a deeper-rooted plant—the goji berry bush. The roots don’t compete and the anemone root nutrients would trickle down. And, in fact, the combination planting caused an explosion of goji berry production.  When lecturing our various permaculture classes, I liked to pull out this home-developed solution to illustrate permaculture principles in action.

Goji Berries with Canadian Anemone

Alas, even permaculture principles have their limits.  I never found enough time to keep my Canadian anemone under control.  My Food Forest floor was overrun.  It was either get rid of Canadian anemone once and for all or sacrifice too much space to a non-edible, aggressive invader.  (I’ll have to find some other productive ground cover for my goji berries.)

That’s what I’m doing this August. Elimination, of course, requires multiple passes as the Canadian anemone rhizomes refuse to die off.  But, by September, I think they’ll be gone or, at most, require occasional plucking.

( Canadian anemone returning for a second try.  They’ll be gone soon!)

One silver lining:  the beautiful soil they’ve left appears ideal for planting shade-loving salad greens.  Witness my happy new komatsuma sprouts.

 

Stinging Nettle: A Potential Frenemy Becomes a Generous Friend.

I’ve had better luck with stinging nettle.  It could have become annoyingly aggressive, but has pretty much stayed along the south edge of my raspberry patch.  There it accumulates calcium and magnesium, among other minerals, which become more easily available to other neighboring plants.  Thus, its frequent inclusion in lists of superior companion plants.

But stinging nettle is good for us, too. According to Martin Crawford, author of Creating an Edible Forest Garden, stinging nettle contains approximately double the nutrients of even our most nutritious annuals like spinach.  It is also tasty when cooked. (That’s when it also, conveniently, loses its chemical sting.) 

(Stinging nettle and mushroom omelet)

In growing it, I’ve discovered one other benefit: cutting the fresh young tip—the sweetest and most edible– causes the plant to respond with three more of the same! Production triples and, with further cuttings, sometimes even more.

(a second flush of stinging nettle leaves)

Unlike my Canadian anemone experiment: a clear winner!

  

Book Review: Mycorrhizal Planet

by Tom Gibson

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mycorrhizal Planet, a new book by Michael Phillips, is a true breakthrough book, one that will provide new, valuable information for every serious organic gardener.  The book describes how mycorrhizal fungi work with plant partners and gives detailed, practical information on how to maximize the power of fungi in all sorts of gardens—from backyard tomato patches to full-fledged agroforests.

The book combines a distillation of extensive scientific literature with decades of the author’s hands-on experience growing fruit and other crops. [As chance would have it, I just completed an Ohio State mycology course  last fall and wrote my class paper on Maxmizing Positive Fungal Power in the Food Forest. So I know a little of the difficult scientific terrain Phillips had to traverse.]  You would expect such a book to be densely packed, and it is. But it is also logical, good-humored, and down-to-earth, which should be more than enough to lead the committed gardener down a productive path toward a new set of best practices.

We need them.

The 20th Century produced some of the most brutal wars in history, but none so little noticed or comprehended as its War on Soil.  Some background and at least a partial explanation of why the War on Soil was so unwitting:

Soil, understood as something orders of magnitude different than mere dirt, consists of minerals, dead organic matter, and multiple living organisms that are often measured, breathtakingly, in billions per teaspoon.  Of these organisms, mycorrhizal fungi form the connective tissue on binds most plants.     Their hyphae—microscopic filaments—exude chemicals that dissolve potential food—from minerals to wood to dead insects—and then capture it by forming the equivalent of a new stomach wall around it.  See the graphic below where the red represents all the fungus’s external chemical activity. As its “stomach wall” expands, the fungus burrows its way tens of meters from its point of origin, all in the search for more food. 

Much of the food it seeks, however, is not for itself, but for its plant partners.  In return for the phosphorus, nitrogen and other elements our fungus gathers, it trades them in for plant sugars.  These provide the fungus energy to expand and capture still more plant nutrients. Put simply, mycorrhizal fungi extend the reach of plant roots by factors of 10 or more—costing the plant far less energy than if they had to expand their root system to cover the same territory.

Fungally-derived nutrients are so important to plants that they may devote one-third of all the sugars they produce to feeding fungi. It is no exaggeration to say that this trading system forms the core of life on earth.  It has been in place since both plants and fungi crawled their way out of prehistoric seas.   The relationship is so tight that mycorrhizae and plants have evolved to cooperate at the cellular level with the most prevalent mycorrhizal type—arbuscular mycorrhizae—actually penetrating the cell walls of a given plant root.   

But that’s only the beginning.  Individual fungi merge with other members of their own species to further increase their reach.  The resulting network forms microscopic highways for beneficial bacteria to travel the landscape. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AnsYh6511Ic And fungi emit a soil protein called glomalin which binds soil minerals and organic matter loosely together in a way that allows the overall soil complex to both breathe and retain water.  We call the resulting aggregation soil “tilth” —-the exact opposite of that gardening curse: soil compaction. 

LW
The modified dry litter waste management system uses dry available carbon materials such as chipped coconut husks and woods as bedding materials that reduces exposure of pollutants and pathogens from animal manure to ground and surface water resources.. It requires no water. Pigs are comfortable in their bedding. Pig activity turns and aerates the litter promoting decomposition of waste materials. The system allows farmers to safely manage animals while promoting a healthy and clean environment.

Surprisingly, much of this knowledge has only emerged recently.  Glomalin, for example, was identified by a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture scientist in 1996!

It is this tightly-woven mineral/fungal/plant interrelationship that 20th Century agriculture and horticulture ripped apart.  Tillage and plowing chopped up all those fungal hyphae.   Artificial fertilizers fooled plants into happily dropping their partnership with living food providers (sort of like satisfying children with a perpetual diet of macaroni and cheese!).  Disconnection from fungal partners, however, limited the availability of trace elements that fungi help scavenge.  These trace elements—molybdenum, boron, etc.–are essential to full plant health. Fungally-trapped soil carbon also disappeared.  All together, the negative cascade of disappearing nutrients left a void that growers filled with ever more fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.  The ultimate result: ever less nutrition for both plants and their human consumers.

Phillips explains our downward agricultural slide in nuanced detail. But his greater emphasis is not on what went wrong, but how to make one’s own garden right. The three chapters (“Provisioning the Mycorrhizosphere,” “Fungal Accrual,” and “Practical Nondisturbance Techniques”) that make up the bulk of the book tell how to energize and expand fungal networks.

The committed gardener will find numerous possibilities for fungal enhancement of soil, ones that will require rereading and also rethinking of one’s approach to gardening.  Out of dozens and dozens ideas the book offers, here are a few that I’m either implementing now or plan to in the near future.

  1. Ramial wood chips.  These are wood chips made from fresh twigs and branches, the ones where a tree’s most recent growth has occurred. As one might expect, such high growth portions of the tree carry the highest concentration of nutrients—calcium, phosphorus, nitrogen, etc.  Fortunately, these young branches are often the ones professional arborists insert into their chipping machines and which they often have to pay to dispose of as landfill.  So it’s easy to persuade neighborhood tree cutters to dump a truck load.  I’ve done that and the chips have made my soil darker and richer and my plants happier. 

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  2. Direct feeding of mycorrhizae by air-knifing holes in the soil under a tree’s drip line, then injecting (often proprietary) fungal food.  I had this done last fall to reinvigorate what my arborist diagnosed as oxygen-deprived oak trees.   The result: more vigorous-appearing oaks, but also a tripling (!) of fruit production of my pawpaw and peach trees planted under the oak’s drip line.
  3. Planting of what Phillips calls “bridge trees.”  These are trees planted specifically to connect more of the separate fungal pathways of a given orchard or food forest and thus, as fungal networks tend to do, share nutrients to those plants which need them most.  Fruit trees typically work with arbuscular mycorrhizal partners, while oaks, maple and hickory work with ectomycorrhizal partners. Typically those two groups of fungi don’t “talk.” But a few tree species—willows, poplars, alders—partner happily bridge with both fungal communication gap. Within a broader landscape, they and their fungal partners open the possibility of tapping a much wider nutrient pool.  So I’ve begun to encourage alders—already self-seeding to some extent in my food forest—by planting more in strategic locations.

As readers can now gather, Phillips goes into considerable detail.  Yet what makes the appearance of this book especially exciting is how readable  the author is able to make it.

A typical passage will begin close to the “duh” level of simplicity; e.g. “Mycorrhizal fungi are the principal means plants have for obtaining phosphorus…the middle letter in NPK as represented by those three omnipresent numbers on a bag of fertilizer.”  But then Phillips escalates quickly into a discussion of slow- vs. fast-release phosphorus and the relative “cost” to the plant of exuding organic acids to feed phosphorous-gathering fungi.  Similarly, when Phillips must dip into scientific language—like “anastomosis,” the merging of separate fungi—he always defines it in understandable terms.

So, readable, yes, but also dense and complex.

Did I mention that this book is for gardening nerds?

Elsa Visits Sidwell Friends School

by Elsa Johnson

While in DC for the march for climate action I also visited the Sidwell Friends School, where my husband’s cousin, David Mog (an ex-Cleveland-ite), taught math for many years. Though now retired, he is still welcomed back at Sidwell Friends, and so I got a tour of the school complex. David had told me about the waste water recycling project that Sidwell Friend’s installed several years ago and which I’d expressed an interest in seeing up close and personal (well – not too).

It is a complex system in which the water from toilets flows first into a sort of settling tank where the solids settle out. Then the liquids flow into a series of three hillside, heavily planted leach beds. As it passes through the plants of each leach bed it gets progressively cleaner. Supposedly after flowing through the third leach bed, it is safe and clean and can be recirculated.  At Sidwell Friends it is reused again and again. By being circulated back to the toilets it proceeds thus in a continuous cycle. Impressive! There is really nothing to see – and definitely nothing to smell – except plants.

 

As part of the educational aspect a cylinder was installed at the top of the terraced slope that charts the flow of the water. This shows how the system works. Of course there is a good bit of unseen infrastructure of pipes, etc., in a basement which I did not visit. 

In the same location, at the bottom of the slope is a rainwater catchment pond that captures rainwater off of the roofs of several of the more recently constructed buildings surrounding the site.  The runoff rain water flows through a variety of runnels and tunnels, mostly aesthetic, and then flows into a catchment pond, which has fish. The day we were there I believe there was a problem with the filter and so the system was getting tweaked a bit by the firm that manages it.  There was a young (by my standards) man working in the water and David had a good talk with him while I wandered around taking pictures. 

The Sidwell Friends complex was also interesting for using its sloped site efficiently — putting playing fields, in one case, on top of a garage, and in another on top of the gymnasium.  

After the visit to Sidwell Friends Elsa and David drove past the Kushener/Trump home which is in the same neighborhood as the new Obama digs (a few short blocks from each other), which we also tried to drive past, but the access road was (is) blocked as Obama is still heavily guarded by security, for his own safety. We did a little DC tour and talked about what may be Elsa’s next DC sojourn in September, the Interfaith March. We shall see.     

My Wife No Longer Sneers at Fuki

By Tom Gibson 

My wife no longer sneers at fuki.  Fuki, also known as giant butterbur, is a vegetable, much prized by Japanese cooks in spring for its tender celery-like stalks.
The simplest way to cook them is to steam, lightly peel, and then stir fry them with sesame oil. For me a passable side dish; for my wife not at all!

That’s unfortunate since I like giving space to fuki in my permaculture garden: a) it grows in damp, dark shade—a rarity among edible perennials and b) its broad leaves are striking and attractive and add an equally rare aesthetic dimension to permaculture.

The lack of household interest in fuki had me contemplating possible replacements. But the gift of a new cookbook (from my wife, who hasn’t given up yet on me and my experiments) has changed my mind.  It’s Food From Your Forest Garden: How to Harvest, Cook, and Preserve Produce From Your Forest Garden, by the English Food Forest guru Martin Crawford and Caroline Aitken, who describes herself as an “eco-cook.” (https://www.amazon.com/Food-Your-Forest-Garden-Preserve/dp/0857841122

We’ve tried three recipes from the book for several perennial vegetables so far; all are uncomplicated and tasty to make. They are also often exceptionally creative.  Who, for example, would have thought of combining fuki, carrots and the juice and zest of an orange?  Cooked together until the mixture carmelizes, the combination leads to a subtle result that my wife states “is good enough to serve to company.”

We also liked Crawford and Aitken’s approach to fiddlehead ostrich ferns.

They fry them in a simple batter and dip them in a yogurt sauce with parsley (we substituted lovage), capers and lemon juice. Very satisfying.  The sweetness of the young fiddleheads comes through even set against the tangy sauce.

Finally, we tried Crawford and Aitken’s approach to ground nuts (apios americana, not to be confused with peanuts). 

On their own, ground nuts have an engaging potato-legume-like taste. But the tubers’ high density diminishes their appeal. Cooked plain groundnut slices have a hard time absorbing even the most basic complementary flavors (even salt!). And chewing on the slices can seem a little cardboard-y.  Crawford  and Aitken solve the problem by grating their groundnuts and combining them with sweet Bermuda onion, egg, and flour. The result is a juicy, crunchy groundnut “burger.” Very, very good.

The book covers a wide range of perennial vegetables and fruit—nettles, skirret, quince, Turkish rocket, goji berries, etc. It thereby overcomes one of the key barriers to growing sustainable, earth-friendly edibles: their often total unfamiliarity. Why risk growing something when you may have to wait two to three years for harvestable crop without knowing if you’ll even like to eat what you grow?

The creative dishes presented by Crawford and Aitken still manage to fall within the taste-range of the normal Western diet.  Nothing strange! Food cowards need not be afraid!  The book is a worthy investment for any potential food forest gardener.

Overcoming Mushroom Timidity

by Tom Gibson

Regular readers of this blog will have gathered that our personal Cleveland Heights home landscape can be fairly characterized as “bold:” Native plants with no grass in front and permaculture Food Forest plantings in back.  Some of the latter are pretty exotic—skirret , goji berries, even the oft- discussed native pawpaws .  But in one respect, we have kept the homestead “timid:” no mushroom cultivation.

We’ve just read too many stories of mushroom “experts” making fatal or near fatal (requiring kidney or liver transplants) mistakes. So we have carefully avoided either sampling the mushrooms that regularly emerge from our heavily shaded, oak-hickory landscape and have even remained reluctant to spread the spawn of mushrooms deemed safe.

That’s changed. It all began slowly.  A Food Forest seminar several years ago at Holden Arboretum left us with one sample inoculated shitake log.

(When the shitakes finally emerged, we ate them and survived!)  Then last fall I inoculated a patch of King Stropharia spawn underneath a stand of elderberries. This fall the distinctive wine-colored mushrooms popped up.   

We ate them and survived again!

Now, though, we’re moving much faster. The proximate cause: A course I took this fall at Ohio State University (“Mycelial Lectures”) that provided a broad overview of fungi and their natural role.  As part of that course, I combed both scientific and permaculture literature to write a research paper on “Maximizing Positive Fungal Power in the Food Forest.”

Here’s what we now plan:

  • Expansion of King Stropharia plantings to front and back yards and as companion plantings to vegetables in our community garden plot.
  • Inoculation of nameko mushroom spawn to as many fresh cherry logs as possible (a dozen?) to key companion planting locations in our Food Forest.
  • Inoculation of at least a dozen logs with shitake spawn.

We also plan to harvest maitake or “hen-in-the-woods” mushrooms which have been growing wild under our very noses for years without our knowing what they were.  

At this point the mushroom-savvy reader will no doubt want to place a hand on her forehead and shake her head in dismay.   What to us looked like ugly gray-brown eruptions on oak stumps are, in fact, widely sought-after delicacies!

Here’s what I learned from the course and elsewhere that has transformed my thinking:

  1. Of the 17 mushroom poisoning deaths reported annually on average in the U.S., 16 are due to the Angel of Death (amanita bisporigera) mushroom, which in its earliest stage looks like the edible porcini.   While other poisonous species can cause considerable damage, they tend to look quite different than the ones I plan to eat.  (Even the nameko,  which the very unwary might confuse with galerina marginata, is distinguished by clear identification points.  Or at least that’s what the literature says. Hmmmm… After looking at these pictures, I’m going to have study this further!)
  2. Fungal variety contributes to plant variety and productivity. (The reverse probably works, too, with plant variety contributing to fungal variety. But that point is, surprisingly, subject to hot scientific debate.) Most garden fungi are invisible to the naked eye, but are essential to the survival of most plants. They have co-evolved over millions of years to provide auxiliary root systems with special capabilities for scavenging hard-to-access elements such as phosphorous. This much I already knew. 

But what I learned in the course was how multiple combinations of fungal strains can lead to greater plant productivity.  Six fungal strains may contribute more together to a given plant than any one strain alone.  Moreover, plants select which fungi do the best job of providing them nutrients and reward them accordingly with more sugars.  (Lots of chemical intelligence in the soil that we’re just beginning to understand!)

  1. Study of fungal/plant interactions still leaves enormous gaps.  There is a tremendous amount no one knows for sure.  But intriguing companion planting anecdotes abound.  David and Kristin Sewak, the market gardeners who wrote the mushroom neophyte’s book Mycelial Mayhem, say, for example, that King Stropharia mushrooms thrive in the shade of tomato plants and stop late season tomato blight. I plan to copy their method in my community garden plot.  And the mushroom blog Radical Mycology reports that nameko mushrooms have a near miraculous effect on both growth and fruiting of neighboring woody perennials .  Thus my interest in namekos for my own Food Forest.
  1. The number one predictor of fungal species variety worldwide is precipitation. The lesson for the gardener is to never ever, ever let your landscape dry out: swales, mulch, watering—whatever it takes.   You experienced gardeners know that already, of course, but understanding one of the key “whys” reinforces motivation.
  1. The best way to ensure the productivity of most edible mushrooms—i.e., in the phylum known as basidiomycota, including the mushrooms you see pictured in this article and the puffballs below—is to have an adequate supply of calcium in the soil.   (I’m not sure yet what “adequate” entails, but I’ve been adding gypsum or calcium sulfate to support fruit set in my mini-orchard anyway, so I’m reassured.)

Longer term:

If fungal variety is so great for gardens, why not find a way to introduce more? Here systemic knowledge is also lacking.  Once established, many fungi are powerfully resistant to colonization by competitors. Yet some fungi valuable to humans and gardens alike, like King Stropharia, are known to spread aggressively.  Wouldn’t it be great to have the tools to perform a nuanced analysis of existing fungal populations and an equally nuanced set of guidelines for introducing sustainable populations of beneficial fungi to the soil? Maybe in 10-20 years….

And what about endophytic fungi?  This is a class of fungi about which I previously knew nothing. These are microscopic fungi that live within plant tissues, sometimes mutualistically, not as parasites.  Scientists have known about these fungi for over a century, but new tools for computerized genetic analysis have revealed their overwhelming numbers and variety. Many actually help their plant hosts either grow or ward off disease. Most plants acquire these fungi “horizontally,” the same way we catch flu. Studies have shown that suburban trees harbor fewer of these potentially valuable endophytes than the same tree species growing in native forests.  Could we make up that deficit in our gardens with foliar sprays of beneficial fungi?  Once again, maybe in 10 to 20 years.

Assuming that I continue to avoid eating toxic mushrooms, I’ll let you know then!

Pawpaw Update

by Tom Gibson

When last I left you, dear gardener reader, http://www.gardenopoliscleveland.org/2016/06/taking-a-swing-at-pawpaws/, my five bearing pawpaw trees were carrying about 20 fruit each.  Just as important, they had held their fruit despite several vigorous spring showers. This was in contrast to the year before when storms knocked all but four of my baby fruitlets to the ground.  In the intervening period I had added gypsum (calcium sulfate) as a way to encourage fruit set while preserving the acidic soil pH pawpaws prefer. In other words, I tried to toughen my little guys up to face whatever the increasingly extreme Northeast Ohio weather had to offer.

This is what they look like when very young and vulnerable:

pawpaw-fruitlets

So did they make it?  Yes, big time!

They even withstood one of the most extreme weather events of the year: the so-called “microburst” of this past August. This storm hit a relatively small, 20-block area in my Cleveland Heights neighborhood that brought down numerous trees—including several on my street:The storm struck in the early evening, but an inspection the next morning showed that all my well-staked pawpaws had survived:

saved-pawpaws

After that it was “wait and feel.” My particular pawpaw cultivars don’t change color much—maybe a little yellow here and there—when they ripen. So, like a nurse taking my patients’ pulse, the best way to gauge ripeness is to take a morning squeeze of each pawpaw.  If they begin to soften, I wait a day or so for more softening, then bring them inside to fully ripen.

I’d leave the fruit on the tree longer except for some mammalian competition.  Raccoon?  Opossum? Something was coming through every night and sampling at least one pawpaw:

no-good-pawpaw

In the end, we harvested about 80 pawpaws.  They lined our window sills:

pawpaw-ripening

A pawpaw is best when it feels squishy soft.  That means its pulp is nice and custardy inside.  You can eat them as is for dessert:

pawpaw-for-dessert

Or combine them in smoothies with sour blackberries:

pawpaw-smoothie

But we also put the pulp into freezer bags, two cups to a bag, for use in baking:

more-preparing

Pawpaws add texture, flavor (banana/mango/nutmeg), and aroma to a lot of great baked goods:

pawpaw-pudding

 

Pollinator Pocket Progress

by Elsa Johnson and Catherine Feldman

Last fall Gardenopolis Cleveland decided to offer to help people develop pollinator pockets, starting with soil building via lasagna mulching in the fall, then returning the following spring to plant pollinator attracting flowers. But, of course, before we began, we had to have a sign…so we designed one.Gardenopolis_PollinatorPocket_final_o

When you see this sign around town, look for a nascent pollinator pocket.

Next, we sent our idea out into the ether and in a short time-voila!-we had a handful of takers.

The original idea had been to place our pollinator pockets on tree lawns or front yards for visibility (else why need a sign?) and make them all the same–a formula–but we quickly ran into a hitch–nature doesn’t do formulas. Each site we looked at was different than the one before.

Since our sites were all different–one long, skinny and very shady, several sunny, one on the edge of the woods–we realized that we needed a variety of plants to meet a variety of conditions. Our goal was that each pocket had plants attractive to pollinators across one complete growing season, i.e., spring to fall. Now we needed to consider plants that could handle a broad spectrum of environmental conditions. Surely a job for (drum roll) native plants!

Our selection included milkweed, aster, coneflower, pink turtlehead, agastache, lobelia, geranium, eupatorium, native solomon’s seal, golden road and salvia. This mix tended toward mid-summer to fall bloomers–we found it interesting how so many of our native wildflowers are late season. We used only plants that were designated as unappetizing to deer.

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We usually buy plants in one or two gallon containers but because we needed a variety of plants and needed to keep our costs down we purchased very small plugs from a native plant mail-order nursery.

Checking on our pollinator pockets this fall we found varying results. One that had not been watered was basically gone. But, the rest were growing and doing well–though it will be next year before they mature and fill their purpose.

1005161346-1

If the idea of a pollinator pocket in your garden seems appealing, just let us know. Our goal is a pocket in every garden!

 

FYI

*A lasagna mulch consists of layers of soil building materials-newspaper, manure, compost, green and dried leaves, straw and wood chips or cover crop-that break down over time to increase the organic composition of the soil.

*A pollinator pocket is an area of at least 5’x5′ planted with a range of plants that help sustain bees, bugs, butterflies and birds throughout the year. Ideally, such pockets would exist in every yard so that the pollinators could travel from one to the next fulfilling their needs.

Water Extreme Resilience with Rain Gardens and Urban Trees

By Diana Sette

Originally published in the Permaculture Design Magazine -Regenerating Life Together –Spring 2016, Issue #100 Water Extremes: Drought and Flood

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By Diana Sette

For this issue’s Skills & Practices, we will look at ways to design for the anticipation of heavy rainfall extremes.  We know that with climate change, we are and will continue to be facing more and more erratic weather patterns that overload current infrastructure.  The more we can create built systems to function like wetlands, marshes, and prairies – among other systems that naturally handle occasional flooding– the more resilient we will be because we will be creating systems that work to, as Brock Dolman of the WATER Institute1 says, “slow it, spread it, sink it” rather than “pave it, pipe it, pollute it.” 

For the purposes of this article, we will look at two design patterns that can be resilient when facing water extremes.  Part One focuses on Rain Gardens, and the Part Two looks at how urban trees can work to manage water extremes.

Part I: RAIN GARDENS

I am within biking distance from the beaches of Lake Erie.  Lake Erie is the twelfth biggest fresh water lake in the world, and provides drinking water for over 11 million people.2  I regularly contemplate what happens to the Lake and its waterways when it rains.  The prompting of this consideration does not take much, as one heavy rainfall causes the beaches to be closed for swimming due to unsafe levels of E. coli.  This is because during extreme rainfalls, the stormwater overflows the water infrastructure system and puts stress on the streams resulting in the pollution of Lake Erie.   The more that this region experiences heavy rainfalls3, the more this region will experience unsafe water management.  This is because the City of Cleveland’s water infrastructure is set up as a Combined Sewage Overflow (CSO) system.  CSO is a common system for many older cities that allows unfiltered and untreated sewage mixed with stormwater into the waterways when there is flash flooding that adds more water to the system for which it was designed. 

Image A_ CSO_diagram_US_EPA

While re-designing cities on a massive scale to integrate green infrastructure may be the end game, we can and must take action now to make small changes that manage stormwater on-site with what resources we have available to reduce combined sewer overflow, and reduce the storm water that is draining into our waterways unfiltered and unharnessed.

Sustainable urban drainage systems (known as SUDS in the UK) or low impact development (known as LID in the US/Canada) include the following techniques: permeable surfaces, green roofs, rainwater and graywater harvesting, and finally installing bioretention systems also known as rain gardens.  For the purpose of this article, we will focus on rain gardens. 

Image BHow-Rain-Garden-works4

As permaculture designers, creating systems that require the least amount of input with the greatest output is one of the goals.  One of the ways in which designers accomplish this is by ‘stacking functions,’ or rather, using something for multiple purposes as to get more ‘bang for your buck’ sort of speak.  Designing a rain garden is a great opportunity to practice stacking functions.  One function an effectively designed Rain Garden can be is to create wildlife habitat and increase biodiversity by increasing the food source and nesting area for pollinators and beneficial species.  Depending on the plant selection, rain gardens can also add significant edible and medicinal value to the landscape.  Rain gardens can also be places of solace and tremendous beauty.  Most importantly for considering water extremes, rain gardens work to capture, store and filter water on-site, which in turn alleviates stress on waterways, recharges aquifers, reduces erosion, and reduces pollution to our drinking water. 

But before we get to stacking functions in our design, let’s talk about the basics of rain garden design.

KEY STEPS to SUCCESSFUL RAIN GARDEN DESIGN

First: Choose a site.  Choosing the right location for the rain garden is key. 

To start, rain gardens must be a minimum of 10 feet from a building to prevent any damage from overflow during heavy rainfalls.  Rain gardens work well when they catch and filter stormwater runoff from permeable surfaces like roofs or parking lots, so placing a rain garden in juxtaposition to a paved surface is a wise consideration.

Secondly, rain gardens should be placed in locations with good drainage (not areas where water tends to pool).  A rain garden can allow the land to soak up about 30% more than a patch of lawn!4 That being said, rain gardens are not a solution to wet areas in a lawn, nor should they be placed near the drain field of a septic system. 

Second: Design the garden.   

Deciding on the size of the garden depends very much on the amount of anticipated runoff from the roof and/or lawn that the rain garden that will flow into the rain garden.  Ideally, a rain garden will be able to absorb all of the stormwater that drains away from the site.   

If you are connecting a rain garden to the downspouts of your home, you can calculate the amount of rainwater using the following steps.  First, figure out the footprint of your home by taking the length of the building multiplied by the width of the building.  This will give you the square feet of your home footprint.  Then count the number of downspouts on that building.  Divide the square feet of your home footprint by the number of downspouts directed to the rain garden, and you will have the square feet of the roof area draining to the garden.

If you are placing your rain garden more than 30 feet from a downspout and using a rain garden to manage stormwater from an impermeable surface like lawn turf, driveway, or parking lot, you can calculate the amount of rainwater that will drain to the rain garden using the following steps.  Measure the length of the uphill lawn area and multiply it by the width of the uphill lawn area.  This will give you the square feet of impermeable surface that will drain into the rain garden. 

If your rain garden will be managing runoff from both your house and lawn/parking lot, add those two total square feet together to get the total drainage area.  The general ratio of drainage area to rain garden is 5:1 for a well drained, sandy soil profile.  For example, if you had 500 square feet of drainage area, you would build a 100 square foot rain garden5.   Then again if your rain garden site’s soil is compacted, poorly drained or clay soil, use a 2:1 ratio.  It is also possible to excavate soil and replace with layers of compost and mulch to improve soil porosity.  Many landscaping companies even offer ‘rain garden soil mixes’ now.

Also, it is important to consider the slope of where you want the garden to be. The ideal slope for a rain garden is between 3% and 8%.  A general rule is that the steeper the slope the more work it will be to level out the area to create a flat basin.  That being said, in general a slope over 12% are generally not suitable for rain gardens, as they require a depth for the rain garden depth above 8 inches, meaning that it might hold water for too long.  You can use Table 1 below to determine the depth of your rain garden.

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 2.36.09 PM

   Table 1

The shape of a rain garden.  Shapes vary with design aesthetics, but they tend to be in the kidney shape, as it allows for the natural container of water in-flow and storing of the wide brim.  A solid berm is carved out and reinforced on the downhill of the rain garden to allow for water holding.  This is one area that will be important to monitor over time, and do any maintenance work if needed.

Third:  Get to work!

Before you starting digging, it is useful to call the “Call before you Dig!” hotline to make sure you are digging in a safe place.  In the US. You can call 811, or go to call811.com to find out the direct state line to “call before you dig.” 

Finally, invite friends and neighbors, and get a group together to help!  Nothing builds community like collective work.  What a great way to share knowledge and give purpose to a gathering!

A NOTE ON SPECIES SELECTION

A common requirement for all rain garden plant species is that they must be able to tolerate periodic flooding.  From there, you can choose plants based on their needs for sun versus shade, and what is available at your site.  Sun and partial sun for rain garden sites is best, though shade gardens are possible as well.

In order to optimize benefits of the rain garden, it is useful to plant perennial native species that tend to thrive in your region.  With particular attention to their zone and soil moisture tolerance, you can find a broad range of color that can bloom from first to last frost.  Currently working in a cool temperate moist forest climate, with some anticipation for the climate to be shifting towards a warmer temperate moist forest area, Table A lists some of my favorite herbaceous and shrub species for rain gardens.  Listed in the footnotes are resources for plant selections for rain gardens in other climates6.

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END NOTES:

1 The WATER Institue (Watershed Advocacy, Training, Education and Research) is a project of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center in Occidental, CA.  www.oaecwater.org.  See Brock Dolman’s article “Watershed Relationships” In the Winter 2010-11 issue of Permaculture Activist # 78 for a more in-depth discussion and explanation of watersheds.

2. http://www.lakeeriewaterkeeper.org/lake-erie/facts/

3. Research of Cleveland climate patterns shows a 25.8% increase in annual precipitation from 1956-2012 with a 57.4% increase in precipitation in the months of Sept – November.  Rajkovich, Nicholas B. “Climate Change and Cleveland” presentation, University at Buffalo.  2015. 

4.  Cornell Cooperative Extension.  Introduction to Rain Gardens.  http://hightstownborough.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/NJ-Raingarden-tri-fold.pdf

5. There is also a guide chart for assessing proper rain garden in Cornell University Cooperative Extensions “Installing a Rain Garden” manual.  http://www.townofglenville.org/Public_Documents/GlenvilleNY_stormwater/01238879-000F8513.6/Installing%20A%20Rain%20Garden%20Cornell%20University%20Cooperative%20Ext.pdf

More worksheets available at Rain Garden Manual for Homeowners: Protecting Our Water, One Yard at a Time.  Geauga Soil and Water Conservation District/Northeast Ohio Public Involvement Public Education Committee (NEO PIPE), 2006.  http://www.clevelandwpc.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/raingarden_manual_forhomeowners.pdf

6. Brad Lancaster’s  “Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond” website provides numerous useful rain garden plant lists for Dryland Regions (especially considering AZ, CA, CO, MN, NM, UT, WY climates) http://www.harvestingrainwater.com/plant-lists-resources/multi-use-rain-garden-plant-lists/    The “Rain Gardens for Nashville” Resource Guide provides a thorough species list with particular attention to Southern US region climate.  https://ag.tennessee.edu/tnyards/Documents/Rain%20Garden%20Brochure%20Metro%20Nashville.pdf  Many of the other Rain Garden Manuals cited in the End Notes provide plant recommendations as well.  Numerous seed companies are selling ‘rain garden seed mixes’ as well.  See Prairie Nursery, Ohio Prairie Nursery, Prairie Moon Nursery, Roundstone Native Seed, Ernst Seeds, The Vermont Wildflower Farm, among many more you can find online.

Other Useful Resources for Rain Garden Design Inspiration…

Part Two: Urban Trees

The industrialized “pave and pipe paradigm” is “disastrously flawed and hydro-illerate”1

Many cities are completely paved and piped with little to no green space, or daylighted rives, creeks, or streams.  On the other hand, some of the most enjoyable spaces in a city are where there are urban trees thriving.    The temperature is cooler, people tend to feel more relaxed in the environment, and interestingly the density of tree canopy is reflected in income levels as well.2  Cleveland, OH, historically known as “The Forest City” has lost about 100,000 public trees since 19403..  Some now call it “The Deforest City,” though many people and organizations are working to make it “The Reforest City.”  The efforts to plant more urban trees is for many reason, one being that the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District based in Cleveland is under a federal order (aka a consent decree) to reduce the volume of sewage that overflows into the local waterways due to gross amounts of water pollution.  By focusing on the replanting of urban forest canopy, significant steps can be taken to improve water quality and restore the local hydrology. 

“Cleveland’s urban forest intercepts an impressive 1.8 billion gallons of rainwater every year, a service valued at just under $11 million”4.  With the increased frequency of water extremes in this region, we can plan to see more and more rainfall, and urban trees that are well-planted and cared for present a significant design solution to managing water extremes in a resilient way.

Trees & Stormwater Management

Trees have numerous benefits in stormwater management including: runoff absorption, water filtration, erosion prevention, recharging aquifers, reducing impermeable surfaces like compacted soil through root growth, and helping control water temperatures that may otherwise lead to high temperature waters prone to algal bloom.

For a minute, imagine rain as it falls from the sky.  If the ground is bare or paved, the raindrops hit the ground hard, bounce off and head downhill as fast as possible.  However, if the rain falls on a tree, the water first collects on the leaves, branches, and trunks and is either evaporated or absorbed.  Some of the rainwater never even hits the ground.  That sort of initial crash pad delays the onset of initial water surges, and reduces the volume of peak flows and flash floods.  The water that was absorbed in the soil near the tree is transferred from the earth and transferred up to the leaves, where it can evaporate. 

Trees can intercept rainfall from 8% to 68% of a rainfall event, and sometimes higher, depending on the species.5  Trees also manage heavy rainfalls through the process called Transpiration.  The rate at which trees transpire is different for different species, and only recently have studies been attempting to quantify the rate.  “A mature tree can, on average, transpire 100 gallons of water every day”6.  In addition to interception and transpiration, trees also increase soil infiltration rates and overall infiltration capacity through the growth of tree roots, and the decomposition of roots and leaf litter. 

Finally, trees have proven to be extremely successful at removing pollutants from stormwater.  Bioretention systems planted with trees have been shown to be a best practice, and more research is proving tree plantings to be a best practice7.

Key Steps to Successful Urban Tree Plantings

Right tree, right place:  Make sure you consider how big the tree will be when it is at its full capacity.  Will it be 30 feet or 100 ft tall?  Will it be 10 feet or 50 feet across?  If you are planting a tree near a power line, or close to some other building or sign requiring visibility- take notice and plant accordingly.

Also consider the horizontal needs of a tree.  Trees need enough space for their roots to grow as mirrored by their canopy.  Which means, do not plant a tree sapling in a 2’ x 2’ cement box and except it to be living a year or two later.  Make sure the full growth size of the tree you are planting matches the space that is available.

Consider the soil:  It is important to consider the soil of where you want to plant trees.  Many urban soils are extremely degraded, compacted or even contaminated and require significant remediation before it is ready for a tree to thrive there.  First, have the soil tested.  Second, depending on the results, make some decisions.  If the soil is heavy clay, make sure to work with a broadfork to break up soil to make room for water, roots and air to move through the soil.

Another option that is being used to integrate trees and pavement is a designed soil medium called Structural Soil which can be compacted to pavement design & installation requirements, yet allows for root penetration and optimal tree growth.

However, if you can plant trees in natural soil with adequate space for its growth, a good rule of thumb for prepping the soil for urban trees is to top dress 1-2 inches of compost, rip to 1 foot, top dress with another inch of compost, and 2-3 inches of woodchip mulch and prepare an 8 foot diameter tree rings, and let the mycelium get to work!

Know that whatever steps you take to help repair the soil and plant a tree, you are improving the soil.  An established tree’s roots can help to break up compacted soils and build organic matter as it draws carbon from the atmosphere.   The increase in organic matter of the soil, increases soil’s water holding capacity- again strengthening its resiliency when facing heavy rainfalls.

Plant a tree correctly:  Go around many cities and towns and you will see trees with volcanoes of mulch piled around the base of their trunks.  People do this thinking they are giving a tree what it needs.  Little do they realize that by “volcano mulching” or piling mulch high up on the base of the trunk, you are actually damaging a tree’s ability to transpire properly.   It is more likely to be susceptible to disease, decay, and potentially even result in strangling itself through girdling advantageous roots.  That being said, the same is true for planting a tree.  Do not plant it to deep.  A tree’s root flare (the base of the trunk that curves out into the roots) must be level with the ground, and then a donut shaped circle of wood chip mulch should be placed around the tree leaving the root flare open to the air and able to breath at least a fist width distance from the base.  See Image C for more details.

Image C Tree_Planting_Diagram1

Anticipate the Water Management Needs:  If you track or research the climate trends in your area, you may be able to anticipate about how much water you may need to manage on-site.  Start by assessing how much water any pre-existing trees on-site are managing. One way to do this is using a tool like i-Tree8 which allows you to assess how much stormwater a tree may be intercepting by inputting its location, species, size, and condition.  Comparing the number of how much water is already being intercepting, and how much water you must anticipate in an extreme moment, you may base your urban tree specie selection on that.

It is important to note, however, that even if your region expects higher rainfall, it is essential to have a water maintenance plan in place when planting new trees in the city.  Newly planted trees are experience transplant shock and can require up to 15 gallons of water a week for the first three years after planting!  So be ready to have a watering plan for trees in between heavy rainfalls to ensure their long-term thrivelihood. 

A NOTE ON SPECIES SELECTION

The following list of trees (though some are more often considered shrubs) are all species that tolerate drought to flood conditions in a more temperate climate.  Depending on your site, some varieties will thrive more than others.  These species were chosen for their diversity in function from stormwater management capabilities, edibility/usability, wildlife habitat, beauty, and adaptability.  They are as follows: Willow, Downy Serviceberry, Dogwood (Flowering, Red-osier, Yellow Twig), Eastern Red Cedar, Black Gum, Oak (Swamp White, Overcup, Chestnut, Nuttall), Black Walnut, Elderberry, Plum, American Hazlenut, Redbud, Sugar Maple, and Paw Paw.  Check out the End Notes for more tips on selecting urban trees for transitioning climates9.

END NOTES:

1. The WATER Institue (Watershed Advocacy, Training, Education and Research) is a project of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center in Occidental, CA.  www.oaecwater.org.  See Brock Dolman’s article “Watershed Relationships” In the Winter 2010-11 issue of Permaculture Activist # 78 for a more in-depth discussion and explanation of watersheds.

2. Trubek, Anne.  “Money Does Grow On Trees: Canopy Cover Reflects Income Inequality.”  Belt Magazine.  http://beltmag.com/money-trees/

3. The Cleveland Tree Plan, 2015, http://www.sustainablecleveland.org/celebration-topics/2017-vibrant-green-space/the-cleveland-tree-plan/

4. The Cleveland Tree Plan, 2015.

5. Stormwater Management Benefits of Trees by Stone Environmental, Inc.  http://www.vtwaterquality.org/stormwater/docs/sw_gi_tree_benefits_final.pdf  Many additional resources can be found in this article as well, including more on tree selection, siting and planting, more on engineered systems for trees, and soil restoration resources, among others.

6. Stormwater Management Benefits of Trees.

7. Stormwater Management Benefits of Trees.

8.  “I-Tree Design v 6.0.”  i-Tree: Tools for Assessing and Managing Community Forests.  http://www.itreetools.org/design.php  i-Tree Design is also useful for assessing and understanding other tree benefits related to greenhouse gas mitigation, air quality improvements, and energy usage reduction.  i-Tree Eco can be used for quantifying annual avoided runoff of trees.  i-Tree Hydro can be used to quantify hourly and total changes in stream flow and water quality based on vegetation and impervious cover.

9.  More tips for plant selection can be found at: Urban Forest Adaptive Planting List with consideration given to the warming climate. “Trees for 2050” Chicago Botanic Garden http://www.chicagobotanic.org/plantinfo/tree_alternatives; “Plants and Your Stormwater Control Measures.”  Restoration and Recovery.  http://rrstormwater.com/plants-and-your-stormwater-control-measures

CAPTION FOR IMAGES:

Image A: Combined Overflow System diagram, sourced at “Combined Sewer”, Wikipedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combined_sewer

Image B: How Rain Gardens Work, courtesy of Lauren’s Garden Service, www.laurensgardenservice.com.

Image C: How to plant a tree.  http://actrees.org/resources/local-resources/how-to-plant-a-tree/ as borrowed courtesy of International Society of Arboriculture.

AUTHOR BIO:

Diana Sette is a Certified Permaculture Teacher and Designer working primarily in Cleveland, OH, after almost a decade of growing in the Green Mountains of Vermont.  She serves on the Board of The Hummingbird Project (hummingbirdproject.org) and Green Triangle (greentriangle.org), two permaculture-based non-profits working locally and abroad.  Her work in social and urban permaculture is centered at Possibilitarian Regenerative Community Homestead (PORCH) and Possibilitarian Garden (Facebook: Possibilitarian Garden) in Cleveland, OH.

What We are Eating Now: Groundnuts

American Groundnuts: Another Perennial Vegetable Worth Trying

by Tom Gibson

American groundnuts (Apios Americana) were a staple of Native American diets, particularly in New England.  Not to be confused with African groundnuts (good old “peanuts!”), Native American groundnuts grow much thicker than their African namesake.  I’ve harvested Apios Americana tubers as big as 3 inches in diameter. 

ApiosAmericana

As plants, they offer several advantages.  They’re native and all that implies for supporting native pollinators. They’re easy to plant and require no maintenance thereafter. And, they’re a legume, which means they fix and add nitrogen to your garden.  The groundnut vines emerge with the onset of hot weather in June and shoot up rapidly any near-by trellis or bush. I‘ve seen them climb 10 feet or more in a summer, and I bet they could grow taller yet.

apios-americana-31

If nothing in your seedling’s vicinity is growing higher, though, the little vines just sit there, a few inches long, and sulk.  Think of them as the very definition of a companion plant and a natural fit to permaculture gardening.

But, as is always the case with unfamiliar perennial fruits and vegetables, how the heck do you eat them? (I think harvesting and eating may be the single highest barrier to permaculture gardening—cited both by famous permaculturists like Ben Falk and Eric Toensmeier and experienced every year by unknown, everyday permaculture gardeners like me!)

It’s always best if there’s a simple, no-fuss way to eat and enjoy something new.  Fortunately, for groundnuts there is. Simply slice the tuber thinly, fry, salt, and eat. They’re better—at least to a non-fast-food addict—than French fries.  They have 3 times the protein content of potatoes and their nutty taste reflects it.

groundnut-chips

For a more complicated recipe, I plan to try this bean dip from the website hunter-angler- gardener-cook (http://honest-food.net/2014/02/13/harvesting-eating-american-groundnuts/) and designated by another name for groundnuts: “hopniss.”

groundnut-skordalia

Photo by Hank Shaw

Hopniss Skordalia

Make only enough you think you will eat in one or two sittings because hopniss tightens up a lot once you put it in the fridge. You can loosen it with a little vinegar or water, though.

Serves 4 as a dip.

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 35 minutes

  • 1/2 pound hopniss tubers, peeled
  • 3 to 5 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup high-quality olive oil
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • Black pepper

____________

  1. Boil the hopniss tubers until they are soft enough to mash, about 35 minutes. Drain and mash roughly in the pot.
  2. While the hopniss is cooking, mash the garlic with the salt in a mortar. Add a little olive oil and mash to emulsify it. Pound in the mashed hopniss until well combined. You will notice that hopniss is more fibrous than potatoes. It’s mostly visual.
  3. Mix in the olive oil and vinegar to taste. You want a very loose mashed potato, or a nice dip consistency. If it’s too tight, add a little water. Grind black pepper over the skordalia when you are ready and serve with bread or on crackers.

Downsides? Yes, there can be, especially if, as I did, make the less-than-smart decision to plant groundnuts in among my raspberries.  I thought I’d nicely stack functions on the same piece of land—groundnuts and nitrogen production under the ground and nitrogen-hungry raspberries and fruit above.  But the groundnut tubers can be hard to extract from raspberry roots and, besides, there are those thorny canes around which to maneuver!  (The extra nitrogen, at least, contributes to solid raspberry production.)

Instead, I’ve decided to shift my planting focus to combining groundnuts and elderberry bushes. Not only do the 12 foot high elderberry bushes give Apios Americana ample room to spread, they reflect the natural growing habits of both plants.  In natural settings the two often grow together.  The elderberry roots are also easier to negotiate when digging for ground nuts.

Sourcing: I’ve had good luck with the groundnuts I’ve bought online from Oikos Tree Crops. (https://oikostreecrops.com/?gclid=CjwKEAjw8da8BRDssvyH8uPEgnoSJABJmwYosPybuDNApIvKQ-x-FA2wR4fdPYWMI99YaoFKA4hIqhoCwsjw_wcB)