A place where one woman has gathered resources and information to help her family survive in an uncertain future; together with occasional personal musings.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

What Will We Eat?

ScienceDaily (Feb. 12, 2010) — Yields from some of the most important crops begin to decline sharply when average temperatures exceed about 30 degrees Celsius, or 86 Fahrenheit. Projections are that by the end of this century much of the tropics and subtropics will regularly see growing season temperatures above that level, hotter than the hottest summers now on record.

An international panel of scientists writing in the Feb. 12 edition of the journal Science is urging world leaders to dramatically alter their notions about sustainable agriculture to prevent a major starvation catastrophe by the end of this century among the more than 3 billion people who live relatively close to the equator.

Specifically they urge world leaders to "get beyond popular biases against the use of agricultural biotechnology," particularly crops genetically modified to produce greater yields in harsher conditions, and to base the regulations of such crops on the best available science.

"You're looking at a 20 percent to 30 percent decline in production yields in the next 50 years for major crops between the latitudes of southern California or southern Europe to South Africa," said David Battisti, a University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor.

He is a coauthor of a Perspectives article in Science that urges food production experts, scientists and world leaders to begin thinking in dramatically different ways to meet food needs in a significantly warmer world. Lead author is Nina Federoff, science and technology adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"I grow increasingly concerned that we have not yet understood what it will take to feed a growing population on a warming planet," said Federoff, who also is a biology professor at Pennsylvania State University.

The challenge is becoming more difficult, the scientists said, because the world's population is likely to have increased more than 30 percent, to 9 billion people, by 2050.

Even without climate change, feeding all of these people will require doubling the grain production in the tropics, Battisti said, but a warmer climate will reduce yields because the temperature will be too high to achieve the most efficient photosynthesis. That factor, combined with less rainfall in major food-producing regions and increasing pressure from pests and pathogens, is likely to cut major food crop yields a minimum of 20 percent to 30 percent.

The authors advocate developing systems that have the potential to decrease the land, energy and fresh water needed for agriculture and at the same time reducing the pollution associated with agricultural chemicals and animal waste.

Battisti noted that the so-called green revolution in agriculture produced a 2 percent increase in yields per year for 20 years, primarily through development of new grain varieties and use of fertilizer and irrigation. But there is little, if any, new land available for farming, and such yield increases cannot be sustained without further innovation. In addition, there already are 1 billion people, mostly in the tropics, who do not have enough food for a healthy life.

"We're really asking for yield gains comparable to those at the peak of the green revolution, but sustained for an unprecedented length of time, 40 years, and at a time when climate change is acting against us," he said.

A major obstacle is that many of the institutions involved do not work together closely enough to succeed and, despite years of safe production and consumption, there is continued resistance to crops such as corn and soybeans that have been genetically modified to be insect resistant and tolerant of herbicides.

"There has to be a lot of creative thinking, a greater blending of biotechnology and agriculture and better coordination between private and public research efforts throughout the world for us to keep pace with the increasing demand for food," Battisti said. "We need to be thinking about the long-term demands for food and the environmental and social ramifications of how we will produce it."

The Science article represents the views of the authors and stems from a workshop they presented for the State Department last September in Washington, D.C.

Other authors are Roger Beachy of the U.S. Agriculture Department; Peter Cooper of the India-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics; David Fischhoff of Monsanto Co.; Carl Hodges of The Seawater Foundation; Vic Knauf of Arcadia Biosciences; David Lobell of Stanford University; Barbara Mazur of the DuPont Experimental Station; David Molden of the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute; Matthew Reynolds of the Mexico City-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center; Pamela Ronald of the University of California, Davis, and the Joint Bioenergy Institute; Mark Rosegrant of the International Food Policy Research Institute; Pedro Sanchez of Columbia University; Avigad Vonshak of Ben-Gurion University in Israel; and Jian-Kang Zhu of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and the University of California, Riverside.

ScienceDaily (Jan. 9, 2009) — Rapidly warming climate is likely to seriously alter crop yields in the tropics and subtropics by the end of this century and, without adaptation, will leave half the world's population facing serious food shortages, new research shows.

To compound matters, the population of this equatorial belt – from about 35 degrees north latitude to 35 degrees south latitude – is among the poorest on Earth and is growing faster than anywhere else.

"The stresses on global food production from temperature alone are going to be huge, and that doesn't take into account water supplies stressed by the higher temperatures," said David Battisti, a University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor.

Battisti is lead author of the study in the Jan. 9 edition of Science. He collaborated with Rosamond Naylor, director of Stanford University's Program on Food Security and the Environment, to examine the impact of climate change on the world's food security.

"This is a compelling reason for us to invest in adaptation, because it is clear that this is the direction we are going in terms of temperature and it will take decades to develop new food crop varieties that can better withstand a warmer climate," Naylor said.

"We are taking the worst of what we've seen historically and saying that in the future it is going to be a lot worse unless there is some kind of adaptation."

By combining direct observations with data from 23 global climate models that contributed to Nobel prize-winning research in 2007, Battisti and Naylor determined there is greater than a 90 percent probability that by 2100 the lowest growing-season temperatures in the tropics and subtropics will be higher than any temperatures recorded there to date.

They used the data as a filter to view historic instances of severe food insecurity, and concluded such instances are likely to become more commonplace. Those include severe episodes in France in 2003 and the Ukraine in 1972. In the case of the Ukraine, a near-record heat wave reduced wheat yields and contributed to disruptions in the global cereal market that lasted two years.

"I think what startled me the most is that when we looked at our historic examples there were ways to address the problem within a given year. People could always turn somewhere else to find food," Naylor said. "But in the future there's not going to be any place to turn unless we rethink our food supplies."

The serious climate issues won't be limited to the tropics, the scientists conclude. As an example, they cite record temperatures that struck Western Europe in June, July and August of 2003, killing an estimated 52,000 people. The summer-long heat wave in France and Italy cut wheat yields and fodder production by one-third. In France alone, temperatures were nearly 6.5 degrees Fahrenheit above the long-term mean, and the scientists say such temperatures could be normal for France by 2100.

In the tropics, the higher temperatures can be expected to cut yields of the primary food crops, maize and rice, by 20 to 40 percent, the researchers said. But rising temperatures also are likely to play havoc with soil moisture, cutting yields even further.

"We have to be rethinking agriculture systems as a whole, not only thinking about new varieties but also recognizing that many people will just move out of agriculture, and even move from the lands where they live now," Naylor said.

Currently 3 billion people live in the tropics and subtropics, and their number is expected to nearly double by the end of the century. The area stretches from the southern United States to northern Argentina and southern Brazil, from northern India and southern China to southern Australia and all of Africa.

The scientists said that many who now live in these areas subsist on less than $2 a day and depend largely on agriculture for their livelihoods.

"When all the signs point in the same direction, and in this case it's a bad direction, you pretty much know what's going to happen," Battisti said. "You are talking about hundreds of millions of additional people looking for food because they won't be able to find it where they find it now."

He said wheat makes up one-quarter of the calories consumed in India, but growth in wheat yields there have been stagnant for the last decade.

Temperature increases from climate change are expected to be less in equatorial regions than at higher latitudes, but because average temperatures in the tropics today are much higher than at midlatitudes, rising temperature will have a greater impact on crop yields in the tropics.

Recent UW research has shown that even with much smaller temperature increases in the tropics, the impacts of warmer climate will be greater there because life in the tropics does not encounter much temperature variation and so is less adaptable. That makes an even stronger case to begin now searching for ways to deal with substantially warmer conditions, Battisti said.

"You can let it happen and painfully adapt, or you can plan for it," he said. "You also could mitigate it and not let it happen in the first place, but we're not doing a very good job of that."

The National Science Foundation and the Tamaki Foundation funded the research.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Future of American Infrastructure

The "peak Oil Hausfrau" articulates my fears much more eloquently than I could. These are the types of issues I see as being of concern within the next decade - along with a few others such as unpredictable weather and upward spiraling gas prices.

Infrastructure: Priorities and painful decisions

When cheap energy reigned, we built acres of infrastructure throughout the United States, without giving too much thought to the energy, materials, and money that we would need to maintain and operate these constructions. Now, we have come to completely depend on these systems, most of which did not exist in their current form one hundred years ago:

- Roads, highways and bridges,
- Water and sewage systems,
- Housing and buildings (schools, hospitals),
- Electric grid and power plants,
- Landfills and hazardous waste disposal systems,
- Dams and canals,
- Public transit (including subways, buses and railways),
- Internet and communications, and
- Energy extraction, processing, and delivery systems.

The crumbling of this legacy of infrastructure is one of the many day-to-day living problems that we face over the next fifty to a hundred years. Unlike our natural systems, which can regenerate themselves (if not destroyed completely), and which are self-perpetuating and self-healing, our built infrastructure requires regular maintenance and investment. Maintenance depends on a base of knowledgeable personnel with access to information about the systems, affordable materials and energy, factories that produce needed parts, and regular investment to fix what's broken or decaying.

Some systems are more critical than others. The failure of some key systems might almost immediately cause chaos, death or disease. Other systems are less critical, but provide important support to the overall structure. Some could probably be replaced by more local, low-energy, distributed systems. And some, while causing severe inconvenience and a need for work-arounds, can be done without.

Most of our systems have interlocking dependencies; that is, that the electrical grid needs a well-maintained set of roads to get to the substations and transformers, the water & sewage systems need electricity, and all systems need the energy infrastructure to continue to find, extract, process and deliver oil and coal. Therefore failure in one infrastructural system could potentially result in cascading failures throughout the other systems.

Things break. Water lines crack, electric lines snap, and potholes appear magically overnight. Infrastructure is especially vulnerable in severe weather and during natural disasters, but also from lack of regular maintenance and from accidents, and of course from willful malfeasance. We currently have the capacity to come in after a disaster, clean up, and repair the damage. Will we be able to do so when everything costs twice as much and when state, municipal and corporate revenues have been cut in half? Will we be able to when we discover that the factories that manufacture the key gadget that connects point A to point B are bankrupt?

World geography is filled with artifacts of civilizations and empires that collapsed or could no longer maintain their structures. Some, like the Roman aquaducts, still exist today. Others are occasionally unearthed by enthusiastic archeologists beneath layers of dirt and history.

Unfortunately, we may already be close to a crisis, at least according to the American Society for Civil Engineers, which in 2009 gave our national infrastructure (composed of 15 systems) a grade of "D." According to them, we have a maintenance deficit of $2.2 trillion dollars over the next five years. Even in the best of times, we failed to maintain our infrastructure, instead choosing to pursue expansion and growth. Where will we come up with this money as governments go into a tailspin and they can no longer issue bonds for infrastructure projects?

At first, problems with our infrastructure might appear as delays or isolated problems. Broken water mains will stay broken, sewage backups will stay backed up. Power outages after ice storms will stretch from days to weeks to...months? Roads in certain areas will decay as potholes grow larger and deeper. Bridges in rural areas may be closed indefinitely, and traffic rerouted via another bridge, two hours away. Some schools may be abandoned as they become increasingly unsafe for habitation or when gas is too expensive to fuel their buses. These types of issues may not be recognized by the general public as the beginning of infrastructural collapse.

Later, as budgets contract further, poorer, rural and outlying areas may no longer get services. Certain areas, even entire towns, may never recover power after a major disaster like a hurricane or earthquake. As the price of asphalt and concrete escalates, roads may not get repaired after floods wash away roads, and overpasses crash to the ground. Some smaller, isolated cities may be virtually cut off from the rest of the world.

Certain areas will be better off than others:

- Systems that have been built with resilience in mind, with fewer critical points-of-failure, that have been well-maintained, and built with high-quality, long-lasting materials, should last longer.

- Systems with lower maintenance costs and that use parts and/or fuel that can be sourced locally or cheaply should be easier to perpetuate.

- Systems that are able to operate manually, with distributed skills and knowledge, in the face of power blackouts or communication problems, should provide more continuous service.

- Systems that are flexible, which can be altered or reconfigured to adapt to changing conditions, should be able to function longer.

-And systems in areas that are able to bear the costs of rising prices (toll roads, taxes, fees, utility bills), may be able to stay in operation longer as well.

But delayed maintenance and lack of repairs may finally bring infrastructure in many areas to it's knees. This might be only an inconvenience for some people, and for others it may require an exodus to the bigger, well-funded cities or smaller, yet resilient, towns. But eventually, unless we take corrective action, we will start seeing larger scale disasters as infrastructural systems reach their tipping (or cracking) points.

What large-scale disasters might we see and what would their consequences be? The collapse of key bridges or canals could effectively cut off traffic to certain areas. Dam failures could affect a whole range of systems from the elimination of hydroelectric power, flooding of large areas, or even problems with nuclear power plants that rely on constant water supplies. And if maintenance on nuclear power plants or energy refineries is delayed beyond repair, we could see horrible repercussions. We need to avoid these negative consequences as much as possible, even if making the necessary adjustments in our investments and economic psychology are uncomfortable (to say the least).

Some of these predictions may not happen until far off in the future, after budgets have become so constrained that cities cannot recover after disasters, and federal aid is no longer so readily available. Some well-built systems will take forever to crumble. Others are only a tipping point away.

This is reality. With a future of decreasing energy supplies, we will have less and less available to maintain the systems that support our globalized, high-energy, consumer lifestyle, on top of the resources we need to meet our daily needs. We will need to decide where to spend our money, our materials, our energy, and our manpower. How will we prioritize? Will it be haphazardly, fixing whatever is broken, patching things together until the point that resources are no longer available? Will we only maintain systems in the places of the rich and powerful?

I would suggest that as part of our powering-down and transition projects, we include the following activities:

- Acknowledge and quantify the amounts of energy, materials, and knowledge that we need to maintain our current infrastructural systems,

- Identify key points of weakness, and system dependencies,

- Create realistic projections for maintenance costs and available budget, taking into account reductions of key inputs such as energy, oil, water, etc;

- Prioritize systems in order of necessity (health and safety) as well as potential for disaster,

- Re-design maintenance of key systems to reduce expense and ecological impact, while increasing longevity and flexibility,

- Find ways to re-organize as many systems as possible in cheaper, and more sustainable, resilient, and localized ways, and

- Find ways to mothball or power down systems that will no longer be cost and material-efficient to maintain and/or which could create harm if left to disintegrate on their own - if left to reach the point(s) of no return while still in operation.

Accomplishing this list of activities is a tall order, to say the least, especially as it first requires a recognition that we may not have a future of infinite progress and growth, and secondly requires a proactive approach. Proactive approaches aren't the hallmark of cities, states and nations that are already in a state of emergency and reaching fiscal breaking points. Regardless of how likely it is that we will implement this program, we need our officials to recognize that what are currently considered drastic measures may eventually become the only safe and sane options left. Otherwise, we will wait too late to salvage our most critical pieces of civilization while wasting our money and resources on maintaining the un-maintainable.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sharon's Top 25 Garden Plants

There are a million gardening books out there to tell you how to grow perfect tomatoes and lettuces. And that's important, especially after the blight disaster last year - in my house, salsa is a food group. But the reality is that for those of us attempting to produce a large portion of our calories, tomatoes and lettuce are not sufficient - we need to get either the most calories or the best possible nutrition out of our kitchen gardens and landscaping. So I've compiled a list of plants that I think are an important addition to many home gardens - both annual and perennial.

1. Buckwheat. Buckwheat is the perfect multipurpose plant. Many of you have probably used it as a green manure, taking advantage of its remarkable capacity to shade out weeds and produce lots of green material to enrich the soil. But it is also one of the easiest grains to grow in the garden - simply let it mature and harvest the seed, and the leaves makes a delicious and highly nutritious salad and cooking green. Although it won't be quite as good at soil building if you do it this way, buckwheat can be used as a triple-purpose crop - plant a few beds with it, harvest the greens steadily (but lightly) for salad (it is particularly good during the heat of summer since it has a lightly nutty taste not too far off lettuce and will grow in hot weather), cook some of the mature greens, harvest seed, cut the plants back to about an inch leaving the plant material on the ground. The buckwheat will then grow back up again, and you can harvest young salad greens and cut it back again for green manure.

2. Sweet potatoes. Think this is a southern crop? Not for me. I grow "Porto Rico" sweet potatoes in upstate New York. Garden writer Laura Simon grows them on cool, windy Nantucket. I've met people who grow them in Ontario and North Dakota. Sweet potatoes have quite a range if started indoors, and more northerners should grow them. They are enormously nutritious, store extremely well (some of my sweets last more than a year), and unutterably delicious. They do need light, sandy soil and good drainage, so I grow them mostly in raised beds with heavily amended soil - my own heavy wet clay won't do.

3. Blueberries. If there was ever an ornamental edible, this is it. A prettier shrub than privet or most common privacy hedge plants, it produces berries and turns as flaming red as any burning bush in the autumn. I have no idea why more people don't landscape with blueberries. Add to that the fact that blueberries have more antioxidants than most other foods and unlike other good for you crops, will be eaten by the bucketfull by kids. They do need acidic soil, but there are blueberries for all climates. Definitely worth replacing your shrubs with blueberries if you can.

4. Amaranth - I've grown amaranth before, but my first year growing "Golden Giant" and "Orange" was fascinating. In two 5′x4′ beds I harvested 11.2 and 13.9 lbs of amaranth seed respectively. The plants are stunningly beautiful - 9′ tall, bright honey gold or deep orange, with green variegated leaves. The leaves are also a good vegetable cooked with garlic and sauteed, or cooked southern style. Amaranth is an easy grain crop to harvest and make use of, is delicious, can be popped like popcorn, and makes wonderful cereal. Despite its adaptation to the Southwest (where it routinely yields extremely well with minimal water), it tolerated my wet, humid climate just fine. My chickens love it too.

5. Chick peas. Unlike most beans, which must be planted after the last frost, chick peas are highly nutritious and extremely frost tolerant. Plant breeder Carol Deppe has had them overwinter in the pacific northwest, and they can be planted as early as April here, or as late as July and still mature a crop. Unlike peas and favas that don't like hot weather, and most dry beans that don't like cold, chick peas seem happy no matter what. If you've only ever eaten store chick peas, you'll be fascinated to experience home grown ones - it is, in many ways, as big a revelation as homegrown tomatoes.

6. Beets. I know, I know, there' s no vegetable anyone hates as much as the beet. Poor beets - they are so maligned. We should all be eating more beets - especially pregnant women, women in their childbearing years who may become pregnant, and those at risk of heart disease and stomach and colon cancer. Beets are rich in folate and good for you in a host of other ways. Beets store well, yield heavily, provide highly nutritious greens for salad and cooking and are the sweetest food in nature. If you hate beets, give them another try - consider roasting beets with salt and pepper, or steaming them and pureeing them with apples and ginger. Laurie Colwin used to swear that her recipe for beets with angel hair pasta could convert anyone into a beet lover, whereas a recipe for beets with tahini has converted many of my friends. Really, try them again! My big discovery last year was the Intermediate Yellow Mangel, which produces 20 lb beets that are sweet, tender and delicious. They were developed as a livestock feed, but we fought the goats for them ;-).

7. Flax. You can grow this one in your flower beds, mixed in with your marigolds. Flax is usually a glorious blue - the kind of blue all flower gardeners covet. But the real reason to grow it is the seeds. Flaxseed oils are almost half omega-three fatty acids. A recent article claimed that we have no choice but to turn to GMO crops to provide essential omega threes without stripping the ocean - ignoring the fact that we can and should be growing flax everywhere, and enjoying flaxseed in our baked goods and our meals. Flax has particular value in nothern intensive gardening, which tends to be low in fats. If you grow more than you need, flaxseed is an excellent chicken feed - my poultry adore it.

8. Popcorn. If I could grow only one kind of corn, it would be popcorn. Popcorn is particularly suited to home scale gardening. There are many dwarf varieties, and many that yield well. And popcorn can be ground for flour (it is a bit of work, though, since popcorn is very hard), or popped for food. My kids like popcorn as breakfast cereal, or, of course, as a snack. Popcorn yields quite well for me in raised beds, and is always a treat at my house. It has all the merits of a whole grain, but is "accessible" to people not accustomed to eating brown rice or whole wheat - a great way to transition to a whole foods diet.

9. Kidney beans. While kidneys have lower protein levels than soy beans, they are very close to soy in total protein, and have the advantage of yielding more per acre. There are a number of pole variety kidney beans that are suitable to "three sisters" polyculture as well, so you can grow the two together. If I could grow only one dry bean (I usually grow 10 or more) it would probably be a kidney variety.

10. Rhubarb. Why rhubarb? Because once established, it will tolerate almost any growing conditions, including part shade (most vegetables won't), wet soil, and you jumping up and down on it and trying to get it out. Rhubarb is tireless. It is also delicious - it does require a fair bit of sweetener (stevia, applejuice or pureed cooked beets will do if you are avoiding sugar). We like it cooked to tart-sweet for a few minutes with just a little almond extract. But its great value is that it provides fresh, nutritious, "fruity" tasting food as early as April here, right when you are desperate for something, anything but dandilions and lettuce, and goes on as late as July, happily producing spear after spear of calcium rich, tasty food. I'm in the process of converting the north side of my house to a vast rhubarb plantation (ok, not that vast), because we can never get enough of it here.

11. Turnips. Let's say you live in an apartment, and want greens all winter, but don't have even a south facing windowsill available. What can you do? Well, you can buy a bag of turnips from your farmer's market. Eat some of them raw, enjoying the delicious sweet crispness of them. Shredded, they are a wonderful salad vegetable. Cook some, and mash them or roast them crisp. And take a few of the smaller turnips, and put them in a pot with some dirt on it, and stick them in a corner - east or west facing is best, but even north will work. And miraculously, using only its stored energy, the pots will go on producing delicious, nutritious turnip greens even in insufficient light. It is magic. If you do have a south facing windowsill, save it for the herbs, and put your potted turnips in the others.

12. Maximillian sunflowers. These are the perennials. They are ornamental, tall and stunning in the back of a border. They will tolerate any soil you can offer them, as long as they get full sun. They also produce oil seeds and edible roots, prevent erosion and can tolerate steep slopes, minimal water and complete and utter neglect. Don't forget to eat them!

13. Hopi Orange Winter Squash. We all have our favorite winter squash, and perhaps you know one that I'll like even better. But this variety has the advantage of keeping up to 18 months without softening, delicious flavor that improves in storage, and high nutritional value. I have to put in a plug for Banana Squashes as well - they just produce a ton of food value to the space you allot them. 25lb monsters are not unusual - and they store well and tolerate you hacking off chunks for a while without noticeable decline in quality.

14. Annual Alfalfa. Most alfalfa is grown for forage, and it has to be grown on comparatively good, limed soil. But alfalfa is good people food too, and even a garden bed's worth can be enormously valuable. First, of course, it is a nitrogen fixer. While you can grow perennial varieties, the annual fixes more available nitrogen, faster. It can be cut back several times as green manure during the course of a season, or you can harvest it for hay to feed your bunnies or chickens. Don't forget to dehydrate some for tea - alfalfa is a nutritional powerhouse. And if you permit it to go to seed, the seeds make delicious sprouts and have the virtue of lasting for years. I've found that the annual version will make seed at the end of the season for harvest.

15. Potatoes. A few years ago I did an experiment - I threw a bit of compost on top of a section of my gravel driveway (and by "a bit" I do mean a little bit - not a garden bed's worth but a light coating), added a sprinking of bone meal, dropped some pieces of potatoes on the ground, and covered them with mulch hay. Periodically I added a bit more and replaced the sign that said "please don't drive on my potatoes" and in September, I harvested a reasonably good yield, given the conditions (about 30lbs from a 4′x4′ square). I did it just to confirm what people have always known - potatoes grow in places on rocky, poor soil (or no soil) that no other staple crop can handle. Don't get me wrong - potatoes will be happier in better conditions, but potatoes can tolerate all sorts of bad situations, and come back strong. And potatoes respond better to hand cultivation than any other grain - until the 1960s hand grown, manured potatoes routinely outyielded green revolution varlieties of grains grown with chemical fertilizers. If there's hope to feed the world, it probably lies in potatoes.

16. Sumac. No, not the poison stuff, but yes, I mean the weedy tree that grows along the roadsides here. That weedy tree, you may not realize, has many virtues. Besides its flaming fall color and value for wildlife habitat and food, sumac makes a lovely beverage. If you harvest the red fruits in July or August and soak them, you'll get a lemony tasting beverage, as high in vitamin C as lemonjuice. Since sumac grows essentially over the entire US area that won't support lemons, this is enormously valuable. You can can freeze or can sumac lemonade for seasoning and drinking all year round. Poison sumac has white or greenish white berries, so they are easy to tell apart. Sumac's other value is as a restorative to damaged soil - densely planted sumac returns bare sand to fertility fairly quickly, as a University of Tennesee study shows.

17. Parsnips. If you don't live in the northeast, or do biointensive gardening, you probably don't eat parsnips. Me, I'm a New Englander, and the sweet, fragrant flavor of parsnips is a childhood joy. But even I hadn't ever had a real parsnip - one left in the garden after the ground freezes for its starches to convert to sugars. Parsnips are one of the most delicious things in nature, nutritionally dense, and just about the only food you can harvest in upstate New York in February (you do have to mulch them deeply if you don't want them frozen in the ground.

18. Potato onions. Onion seed doesn't last very long - and that's a worrisome thing. The truth is that if we can't get seed easily, and we can't grow out plants for seed easily because of some personal or environmental crisis, we might find ourselves without onions, and what a tragedy that would be. Who can cook without onions? No, we need to have onions. Which is why the perennial potato onions, that simply stay in the ground and are pulled and replanted are so enormously valuable - good tasting, put them where you want them, pull up what you need and ignore the rest. They'll give you scallions before you could get them any other way, and will provide a decent supply of small, but storable and delicious onions.

19. King Stropharia Mushrooms (aka winecaps) - Mushrooms have complex nutritional values, and offer soil improving benefits. The King Stropharia has the advantage of growing well in wood chip mulch in your garden, having few poisonous cognates (ie, you are unlikely to kill yourself harvesting it, tastes great, and is a natural nematodacidal. They give you something meaty and tasty from your garden and can actually improve total yields in a given space. If you fear fungi, this is an easy one to start with.

20. Filberts/Hazelnuts - The best small space nuts, it has an astounding range and and various varities tolerate quite a number of soils. The nuts are delicious, it is fairly easy to grow and the yields are generally high. In cold climates, oil rich plants can be hard to come by - this is a useful exception Oh, and if you have chocolate, you can make that basic food staple, nutella .

21. Elderberries. Got a wet spot? What doesn't care if it has wet feet, has incredible vitamin C value, delicious and nutritious flowers, makes a champagne like wine and a red-like wine, grows like a weed, is ornamental and will feed the birds anything you don't want? Yup, the remarkable elder. What's not to love?

22. Sunflowers - Our local dairy farmers sometimes alternate cow corn with sunflowers as a winter feed. There is truly no more beautiful edible crop in the world than a field full of glowing sunflowers in late summer. They would be valuable enough if they didn't produce delicious food, high in vitamin E and a host of trace minerals, food for the birds, and stalks that when dry burn extremely well and hot in your woodstove.

23. Rice. In India, nearly half of all rice comes from the gardens of those who farm less than 5 acres - often from home plots of much less than that. This is true over much of Asia - the staple food of their population is often grown in what we'd consider garden sized plots - and the aggregate feeds a population. While the far northermost growers may struggle with this, rice is one of the few staple grains totally amenable to home scale cultivation, and if you can grow rice, you might want to consider it. It is a nearly univeral staple - studies have found that rice allergy essentially does not exist. While growing and harvesting rice on a home scale is some work (some cultures call it "the tyrant with a soul"), rice is worth the time and energy for many of us.

24. Jerusalem artichokes - I know, duh. Sweet and tasty, crisp and nutty, perennials who will take over your house if you let them - what's not to love? Those who worry that the bad guys are coming to take their food can plant these in their flower beds without fear that most people will recognize them as anything other than something pretty. When first harvested, the carbohydrates are in the form of inulin so that most diabetics can eat pretty freely of these.

25. Kale/Collards. They don't mind heat - 100 degree days don't phase them once they are mature. They grow all summer, north or south. They don't mind cold - some strains will overwinter uncovered here in icy upstate NY, while almost all will overwinter covered. They are nutritionally dense, great cooked, or raw in the baby stage. In the cold, their starches turn to sugar. Stir fry them with oyster sauce, steam them and toss them in vinagrette, cook them with bacon dressing - it doesn't really matter, they are universally good.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010



Here up north we are still locked in winter. If you are growing onions from seed, this is the month to to start them under lights, but other than that we are still reading gardening books and dreaming of spring. So this month I'm going to talk about composting which is a useful topic any month of the year.

Compost isn't rocket science. It is just broken down organic matter. Nature does it every day. If you scrape away the top layer of leaves in the forest you will see nature's compost.

Why Compost?

When people start gardening, they don't think of their soil as being alive, but it is. It is home to many organisms, both the good and the bad. My philosophy to gardening is to work with nature not against her. When you don't replenish the soil with organic matter (compost or turning under crops), you are effectively killing off all the good organisms that help your plants grow and some can even help protect your plants from disease.

When there is plenty of organic matter in the soil the good bacteria and fungi can thrive. Many of the good bacteria can hold onto excess nutrients in the soil and when they die they release them to the plants. Interestingly enough the good bacteria and fungi thrive in a compost pile. So when you add the organic matter, you aren't just making a good living environment for these organisms, but you are adding more of them to the garden.

You can get compost in several ways. You can buy it bagged up at the garden center, which can be expensive and isn't very sustainable. Many towns in my area now compost their leaves and grass clippings and it is often free for town residents for the taking. Some will even haul it to you in large quantities for a low price (fabulous for starting a new large garden). But you can't beat your own homemade compost. It costs exactly nothing and keeps a lot of kitchen waste out of the trash. When kitchen waste ends up at the dump it produces methane, one of the worst of the greenhouse gasses. So you are doing both your garden and the earth a favor by composting.

Where to put a compost pile

You want to put your compost pile on flat ground over dirt or grass. It needs to be within reach of your hose. It should be convenient to your kitchen and to your garden. You can put it directly in your garden and rotate it from year to year. The soil under the pile will be very fertile. Or you can put it in the shade which will help retain moisture in the pile.

How to contain the compost

Commercial compost bin

There are many commercial compost makers, from the really expensive, like a tumbler, or the more inexpensive like a wire bin composter. Many people make their own. You can get wooden pallets and connect them to make a free composter.

Compost bins made from wooden pallets, photo copyright and courtesy of Our Engineered Garden

My solution is to buy wire fencing material. I measure out about 10' of it and cut it off. I connect the two ends and have a bin about three feet in diameter. Then there is the cheapest and easiest of all methods. You can just pile up the materials into a heap. Most people don't elect for this one since it takes up more space and looks messier.

To keep the compost hot you need a compost pile that is at least three feet in all directions. The mass of the pile will be able to insulate it well enough. If you want a smaller compost pile you need to go for one of the enclosed black plastic varieties (either a tumbler or the on ground ones) and keep it in the sun. There is an advantage to those types of composters. They keep animals from getting into them. I usually throw my kitchen scraps into one to keep the raccoons out of it. It has no bottom, but the top locks shut. If I lived in an area with rats, I might choose the tumbler kind that is totally encased for my kitchen scraps.

But what type of containment you use is totally up to how much you want to spend, the quantity you are making, and how you want it to look.

How to make a pile

I pile needs three things to compost well. It needs moisture, air, and orgainic matter to compost. Typically you can add any organic matter to your pile with certain exceptions. DON'T ADD:

meat and bones
atrracts pests like rats to your yard (it can be done, but it is expert composting)
milk or oils
smell up the compost pile
dog and cat waste
contains parasites that can infect you
diseased plants
if the temps don't get high enough the disease can spread
toxic materials
dyed hair, treated wood, plants treated with herbicides or pesticides
black walnut tree
produces juglone which is toxic to certain plants

The organisms that break down the organic matter in your pile like a 25:1 to a 30:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen in the organic matter you put in. If you are really into getting the perfect ratio you can do a lot of calculations, but a good rule of thumb is to mix half green material (higher nitrogen material) and half brown material (higher carbon material). It might be called green material and brown material, but the color has nothing to do with it. And even the green material which is higher in nitrogen, still has more carbon than nitrogen.

grass clippings
kitchen waste/eggshells
coffee grounds/tea bags
green plants from the garden
dried plants from the garden

It is best to cut up or shred the larger items. If you put a log into your compost it could take years to break down, but if the wood is chipped it will compost much faster since it has a larger surface area. Leaves, especially oak leaves, can mat down and take a while to compost, so shred them by running over them with your lawn mower. I've found that newspaper mats down very easily into a glue like substance. It is best to shred them and mix them with something else. Grass clippings also can mat down if left in large clumps.

Many people will tell you to make a compost pile by adding four inches of green material and then four inches of brown material. The reality is that they do better by being mixed up at the start. The pile heats better and things don't tend to clump as much when mixed. So add eight inches of mixed material together. To get the organisms you need into the pile to start it off faster add a shovelful of soil (I've done piles without any soil and it still works). Soil, especially good garden soil, will not only add organisms, but will add some minerals that might be lacking. You can buy compost activators from a store, but in reality all the organisms you need are in your soil.

If you add too much carbon to your mix, your compost will decompose more slowly. If your nitrogen is too high then you will get a smelly pile as the ammonia goes off. Your neighbors will not appreciate this. If you find you have done this, just turn the pile and add more carbon.

Without being moist the pile won't heat up properly. You want your pile to be moist but not wet. Think about the moisture content of a wrung out sponge. So as you layer your pile, water it so everything is just damp. If the pile gets too wet it will become anaerobic and the organisms that like to live in an airless environment will take over. These are not good organisms for your garden and they smell. If your compost is too wet, turn it to air it out a bit. I keep plastic over the top of my open bins to keep out the rain, since I live in a very rainy environment. This also keeps the rain from leeching out the nutrients in the pile. If I had sides to the pile this would probably be a bad idea since the pile needs to breath, but I don't. I just have wire mesh on the sides, which give it plenty of air.

My wire bins with plastic on top to keep out the rain

So you just keep adding to your pile until it reaches the top of your enclosure. In a normal household this can take a while and the bin is mostly populated with leaves and grass clippings and a few buckets of kitchen scraps. Some people collect things and make a big pile all at once which makes for better hotter compost, but doesn't fit the lifestyle of most people. If you want to collect things for you piles an easy source for carbon material is leaves in the fall, or newspaper from your friends all year long. Often tree companies will dump their chipped wood on you for a low cost or free (they have to pay to get rid of it). For nitrogen materials, coffee houses will often save buckets of them for you. I get pails of this from my husband's work. Grass clippings left by the curb are great if you know they don't use herbicides on them. You could probably even convince a nearby restaurant to save the kitchen scraps for you. I occasionally get these from my husband's work too, but there is someone with rabbits that works there that gets first dibs.

Maintaining a pile

Once you have your pile, you have two options. You can keep it turned every few days to a week to keep an active compost pile, or you can just let it sit like mother nature does.

For the active compost pile. The organisms in compost will heat up the pile if they get just what they want to survive. They need the right amounts of nutrients, water and air. Turning the pile adds air to the mix and will keep a pile hot if everything else is just right. After a few days to a week the temperature will start to come back down again. Now it is time to turn the pile. You keep doing this until the pile no longer heats up when you turn it. The better shredded your starting materials are the faster it will decompose. Also the closer to your 25:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio you have the better it will work. If things go well you can have compost in six weeks. The best compost for the garden is this kind of compost. When you add all your ingredients for your pile, you will notice that it heats up all on its own. It creates a whole lot of disease preventing fungi and in addition the nutrients haven't had time to leech out so it is more nutritious for your plants.

For the inactive compost pile you can just let it sit until it is ready. This can take up to a year. This method doesn't even require the right amount of nitrogen for the pile. If there is too much carbon it just takes longer to make. One type of compost is leaf mold, which is just made with a pile of leaves that have been moistened and allowed to sit. They have to sit for a year if very well shredded or two if not, but it is very low effort. This type of compost won't have the nitrogen content of a quicker compost. So on its ownit isn't a perfect fertilizer. It needs to be supplemented. It also won't supply the large quantities of beneficial organisms for compost tea (use actively made compost for that), but it will provide a lot of low work organic matter and your garden will love it.

If you just have compost pile that you constantly add little bits and never turn, the pile will never officially be done, but it will produce good compost at the bottom of the pile. Once a year you should dig off the top parts that aren't yet decomposed. At the bottom will be your finished compost. I do this with my black bin composter (shown above). The bin has little side slots from which they assume you will dig out your finished compost. They are way too small to do that. I just lift off the whole bin and move it over to a new spot. Then dig the unfinished bits back into the bin.

Using the compost

Compost is finished when it is dark and crumbly and smells like soil and not your original ingredients. Many people screen their compost before use. Sometime there will be parts that haven't decomposed, like a stem from a plant or a stick. Maybe some oak leaves have been resistant. These are usually screened out before adding to the garden. Screens can be bought or made from 1/2" hardware cloth. I don't usually screen mine. I go through it and pick out the larger bits and toss them into the next pile to form.

Once it is screened or sorted through you can dig it into the top six inches of the soil or use it as a mulch if you follow the no-dig philosopy. I tend to think of 1/2" as a minimum to add to the garden on a yearly basis to replace the organic matter that has disappeared over the year. I tend to add a lot more because I make a lot of compost and often use it as a mulch to keep down weeds. Most garden writers will tell you to add at least 1". With organic matter more is not a problem. It isn't like fertilizers. It won't burn your plants.

There is one other common way to use compost - in tea. Actively made compost and worm compost (which I'm not discussing here since I don't keep a worm bin and have no experience, but you can buy worm compost), are the best for compost tea. They both have a lot of beneficial organisms. The usual tea recipe requires a bubbler, molasses, rock dust and sometimes a host of other ingredients. The idea is that you give your good organisms a really good environment to grow and boost their population. I do not do this. I simply put the compost into a container and fill the container up with water. I let it sit a day; filter it; then spray it on my garden. The reason to do this is the organisms contained in the compost can out compete the disease causing ones on the plants. In addition it supplies some foliar feeding. The actively brewed tea works much better than my version, but requires equipment that I don't have. If you want to know how to do it, you can read about it in Fine Gardening.