Garden & Agriculture Archive


Ducks Vs. Chickens

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Thinking about adding a laying flock to your backyard, but having trouble deciding between ducks and chickens? Agonize no more. Carol Deppe (The Tao of Vegetable Gardening, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties) has the lowdown on which type of poultry might be right for you.

Deppe is a duck-lover at heart. In the following excerpt from The Resilient Gardener, she explains that ducks are easy to herd, have routine egg laying hours, and are superior to chickens in terms of pest control. However, she concedes that chickens are more readily available, usually cheaper to purchase, and are a better confinement animal, which is an important factor if space is an issue.

We’ll be sharing additional content about our feathered friends in the coming weeks, including how ducks and chickens fit into a farm ecosystem, how to make your own chicken feeder and waterer, and much more.

For now, check out Deppe’s analysis below and decide for yourself if you’re on Team Duck or Team Chicken.

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Ducks versus Chickens 

By Carol Deppe

The most ecologically well-adapted livestock for the maritime Northwest is the duck. The best-laying duck breeds lay better than the best-laying chicken breeds. Ducks can free-range year-round in our region. Ducks forage much more of their diets than chickens and eat a larger variety of natural foods common here. Ducks eat snails and slugs, and are better for yard and garden pest control. Ducks love our weather. (I should perhaps mention my biases. I’ve kept five breeds of chickens, two breeds of geese, and seven breeds of ducks. The ducks are my favorites, especially Ancona ducks, and at this point, I keep only a flock of thirty-two Ancona ducks. But I like chickens too.)

Eggs

Many people who are allergic to chicken eggs can eat duck eggs. A few people are allergic to both. I have also run into occasional people who claim to have problems eating duck eggs who can eat chicken eggs, though this pattern seems to be rare. Ducks from the better-laying breeds and strains can lay well enough to earn their keep for years. Laying chickens are usually not producing economically beyond the second year.

Ducks are much easier to control than chickens. Ducks of laying breeds can be easily confined with a fence only 2 feet high (as long as they have food and water and their buddies with them). Most of the egg breeds of chickens can fly well enough to get over any fencing. Keeping them out of the garden or the eaves of the porch often requires wing-clipping every bird.

Ducks tend to lay eggs that are bigger than chicken eggs from a breed of equivalent size. Some dual-purpose duck breeds (such as Anconas) lay eggs that are very big for the size of the bird.

Ducks normally lay their eggs between 4:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. daily. This means they lay their eggs in the nests in their night pens instead of hiding a nest in the yard. You can pick up the duck eggs just once per day, at the same time that you let the ducks out to forage. Chickens have a twenty-six-hour laying cycle, meaning each hen lays a little later each day. So a flock of chickens is laying at all times of the day and night. When allowed to free-range, they sometimes come back to lay in their nests and sometimes don’t. So recovering all the eggs can be problematic.

Pest Control

Chickens can help with pest control in yards, gardens, and pastures under certain circumstances. But chickens don’t eat big slugs or snails, two of the most important garden pests in the Northwest. (Some chickens may eat small slugs or snails.) And the scratching of chickens tears up plantings and scatters manure and dirt over the rest. Ducks are considered the premier critter for pest control. All the laying breeds of ducks are big enough to eat even 8-inch banana slugs, and do so with enthusiasm, swallowing them the way a sword swallower does a sword.

Moving Your Ducks and Chickens Around

Ducks are easy to herd. You can use one or two herding staffs, or you can just walk behind the ducks with your hands extended sideways, making scooping motions in the direction you want the ducks to go and saying, “Let’s go, ducks.”

In Asia, the free-range egg industry is based upon ducks that are kept in secure permanent quarters at night and herded to various separate foraging areas during the day. Since chickens can’t be herded, the night pen or house usually needs to be in or adjacent to the foraging area. To rotate chicken forage, you move their house, which must be portable. To rotate duck forage, you just herd the ducks to a different spot during the day, leaving their permanent pen in its permanent spot.

The crowing of roosters is much louder than any noise ducks make. Neighbors are less likely to hear or object to the sounds of ducks.

Climate Considerations

In many areas free-range chicken eggs are only seasonal, but free-range duck eggs are year-round. Here in the maritime Northwest, the free-range duck is happy foraging outdoors the entire year, and ducks of appropriate breeds are good winter layers. Ducks delight in cold rain. Chickens are so miserable in cold rain and use so much energy keeping warm that they either don’t lay or their egg production isn’t economical. The duck is the only way to get economical, year-round, free-range egg production in the maritime Northwest and other areas with cold, wet winters. (In areas where the ground is frozen much of the winter, there is no way to get winter free-range egg production from any poultry.)

Diet

Ducks can forage a larger part of their diet than chickens. Chickens eat mostly grain and animal life, with greenery as a salad. Ducks eat grain and animal life but also considerably more greenery than chickens, including grass, as long as it is succulent and growing.

In addition, ducks can make excellent use of wetlands, waterways, lakes, and ponds.

Ducks are more resistant to disease than chickens. Ducklings are hardier than chicks. Ducklings are more heavily feathered and have a layer of subcutaneous fat. They are designed for cold, wet weather. Ducklings can be outdoors earlier in spring than chicks. If allowed to waterproof themselves properly, ducklings can be out foraging in their third week. Chicks are normally kept indoors the first six to eight weeks.

Ducks, however, are much more vulnerable to four-footed predators than chickens, especially chickens with intact wings. Some people with marginal fencing or night housing can keep chickens but not ducks.

Chickens are much more readily available and usually cheaper. Day-old chicks of many breeds are often sold sexed, so you can get exactly as many of each sex as you want. Most laying breeds of ducks are much less available and are usually sold as straight-run only, meaning you don’t know how many of what sex you’re getting.

Water

Ducks need bathing water. Chickens maintain their skin and feather condition via dust bathing. Some people find it much easier to provide a dry dust bath than a bathing pool. Books sometimes say ducks can be raised without bathing water. Although this is technically true, raising ducks that way isn’t kind. Ducks keep their skin and feathers in condition by bathing in water and preening and coating their feathers with wax. All you need for a handful of ducks is a kiddy pool of water changed a couple of times a week. My ducks have a small pond I made by propping up a piece of pond liner on the hillside so I can open one side and drain it and hose it down easily. If you are unwilling to provide bathing water for ducks, I suggest you get chickens.

Chickens are a much better confinement animal than ducks. Ducks drink far more water, have a much looser, more liquidy poop, and need more space when confined than chickens. Some people need to confine their poultry and bring the garden produce and food to the birds. Chickens are usually the better choice for that situation.

In areas where winter is harsh and the ground is frozen or covered with snow for months, any poultry has to be confined. This fact can translate into chickens being the most workable option. If I lived in Minnesota or Wisconsin, or upstate New York, I think I would keep chickens instead of ducks.

Don’t Put Ducks in a “Chicken Tractor”

The “chicken tractor” is a small portable house with no floor that is moved around to fresh ground every day or so. There are many books and articles about this style of poultry keeping. It is actually a confinement situation in which the birds get a little greenery but not actually very much animal material. It works best for commercial broiler chickens, which don’t forage very actively or move far from the feeders anyway. Laying hens in chicken tractors produce eggs that are more a commercial-diet-based egg than a free-range one. However, chicken tractors are the only option many people have for their laying flock, and the chicken tractor, managed optimally, produces eggs that are better tasting, probably more nutritious, and certainly more ethical than those from commercial caged layers.

Chicken tractors work best with chickens. You can’t just substitute ducks. Laying chickens roost on raised perches at night and will use nests stacked in a bank against the wall. So the chickens use three dimensions of the space in a small movable house. The “chicken tractor” usually has one wall of nests that can be accessed from the side without entering the pen and a built-in roost on one side or end. A chicken tractor for ducks is problematic. Ducks use only floor space, and so need much more floor space than chickens, even before taking into account that their manure is much wetter. They need extra floor space for nests and resting. They need much more water and bigger water containers and bathing water. By the time you have given the ducks a big enough pen to be comfortable for them, it won’t be able to hold many birds in it, and it will not be very portable.

In America and Europe, chicken eggs are the standard. Most people don’t know how to cook duck eggs. During the last two decades, I’ve developed cooking methods and recipes for an American style of duck egg cookery. If you sell duck eggs, you will need to do some customer education on how they should be cooked.

Many people will enjoy trying both chickens and ducks. Generally, the two species should not be brooded together or housed in the same night quarters (unless they’re in separate pens). They have different requirements. However, chickens and ducks can usually share their daytime foraging area.

Gardening Tips from Eliot Coleman: How to Start Seedlings in a Cold Frame

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Are you ready to get a start on the gardening season? With a cold frame you can jump in now.

A cold frame, essentially a garden bed surrounded by an angled frame and covered with glass, is a simple way to harness the heating power of the sun to get seedlings going before it’s warm enough to plant them outside unprotected. Everything but the most heat-loving vegetables (tomatoes and peppers) can be started this way. Plus, a cold frame has the added advantage of getting your plants into the real soil right away, instead of constricting their roots in trays, which can lead to unnecessary stress.

Eliot Coleman is the master of growing vegetables year-round, and he has some simple guidelines for using cold frames to start seedlings right. If he can do it in freezing coastal Maine, you’ve got no excuse!

Related Links:
Eliot Coleman’s Guide to Creating a Root Cellar
Eliot Coleman’s Guide to Great Compost
Three Steps to Start Your Plants Off Right

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The following excerpt is from Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables From Your Home Garden All Year Long by Eliot Coleman.

Your cold frame can serve as a greenhouse for starting seedlings

You can use it for all seedlings that are transplanted except the early-spring sowings of heat-lovers such as tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. They should be started in a sunny window in the house. For all the others, the cold frame is an ideal place to start growing. Once you begin raising seedlings in the cold frame, you will find it so simple and successful that you will never go back to flats on windowsills. Here’s how to do it:

Spread potting mix about two to three inches deep in whatever part of a frame you wish to use for seedlings. Lay 3-inch boards around the edge as a border, then treat that area as if it were a flat: make furrows, drop in evenly spaced seeds, cover them shallowly, mark them with name and date on a small stake, and water them lightly with a fine sprinkler. The rows can be as close together as they would be in a flat. Space seeds evenly in the seeding row so they won’t be crowded. We always try to avoid plant stress at all stages of growing. It takes a little more time, but the results are worth it.

Cutting the Seedlings into 3-inch Blocks Inside the Cold Frame

When the seedlings are up, move them to an adjoining section of the frame, which also has a 2 inch covering of potting mix over the soil. Do this as soon as you can handle the seedlings. Within reason, the younger you transplant a seedling, the better. Dig under each one with a small, pointed dowel, lifting and loosening the roots as you extract them from the soil. Always be gentle with seedlings. Hold them by a leaf, not the stem, so you don’t crush the vital parts if you squeeze too hard.

Poke holes in the potting soil of the adjoining section with the dowel to make space for the roots, then tuck them in lightly. A good distance for all seedlings is 3 inches apart. When they are large enough to transplant to the garden, use a knife to cut the soil into cubes with a seedling in the center of each. It is just like cutting a tray of brownies. If you make sure the soil is moist (sprinkle if necessary before cutting), the blocks will hold together nicely. You can use a bricklayer’s or right-angle trowel to slice underneath each cube, lift it out, and set it in a tray for transport to its permanent garden home.

There are many advantages to growing seedlings in a cold frame

Scooping the Seedling with the Transplanting Tool

No flats are necessary. There is no potting soil mess in the house. The seedlings will be hardy because the cold frame is not artificially heated. Any additional hardening off is easily accomplished by opening the lights slightly wider.

Finally, watering is more forgiving, since your seedlings are connected to the earth and they can’t dry out as quickly as they can in the limited confines of a flat. Thus, an occasional lapse in watering is not disastrous.

The intermediate transplanting from the seedling row to the 3-by-3-inch spacing makes transplanting seedlings a two-step process. We think it’s worth the effort because the intermediate step has been found to stimulate increased root regrowth, resulting in slightly more vigorous transplants. You can do it as a one-step process by simply starting out with the 3-by-3-inch configuration and planting three seeds in each square. After they emerge, you thin to the best one in each square and proceed as before.

Planting a Seedling in the GardenWith some crops, we use a Dutch idea called multiplants and sow four or more seeds in each square with no intention of thinning them. This allows us to grow transplants in groups rather than as singles. The onion crop will serve as a good example of how to go about it. Sow five seeds together. Plan for four of the seeds to germinate. When the onion seedlings are large enough to go to the garden, cut out the blocks as usual and set them out at a spacing of 10 by 12 inches.

If you were growing single plants in rows they would be set 3 inches apart. Four plants in a clump every 12 inches in a row is the same average spacing as one plant every 3 inches. Each onion is allowed just as much total garden space,and the yield is the same. The onions growing. together push each other aside gently and at harvest time are lying in a series of small circles rather than single rows. If all the seeds germinate and there are five onions in each clump, that’s no problem.

In addition to onions, you can use the multiplant technique for early transplants of beets, broccoli, cabbage, leeks, scallions, and spinach. Not only is this system more efficient because four plants can be transplanted as quickly as one, but it also can be used to control size when desired. A clump of broccoli, for example, will yield three or four smaller central heads rather than one large one. For many families, the smaller unit size is more desirable.

Get Ready for Maple Sugaring Season

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

Everything is better with maple syrup. At least that’s what you’ll hear when you ask Vermonters. So what better way to solidify your love for all things maple than to learn how to make it yourself?

If you only have a couple of trees nearby — say in your backyard — author Michael Farrell (The Sugarmaker’s Companion) has some simple advice for you to get started tapping a few trees and collecting the sap by bucket. The following excerpt is adapted and condensed from Chapter 5 of his book.

If you have access to a larger grove of trees you might also want to read these additional excerpts from The Sugarmaker’s Companion on producing value-added products from your collected tree sap.

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Maple Syrup 101
by Michael Farrell

Backyard Sap CollectionWhen to Tap

One of the most difficult decisions you have to make from year to year in your sugaring operation is deciding when to tap. I always recommend tapping just a few trees in January and February to determine what is going on with sap flow conditions. In relatively cold areas, even when the temperatures get above freezing in January and February, the amount of sap flow can be negligible. The trees are basically frozen, and it takes an extended period of warm temperatures to induce substantial sap flow. In warmer regions where the winter isn’t as severe, optimum temperature fluctuations usually happen all winter and the trees may be producing a decent amount of sap in January and February. If you see this happening in your test trees, you’ll want to tap the rest of your sugarbush to catch the early sap runs.

How to Tap

Finding the Right Spot

The first step in tapping is to find a good spot to drill the hole. It doesn’t matter how nice a hole you drill, what type of spout you use, or what level of vacuum you are pulling if you have drilled into a bad section of the tree. To get a decent amount of high-quality sap, you need to drill into clear, white sapwood. It is important to avoid previous tapholes and the associated stain columns as well as other defects and rotten areas on the trunk. Large seams and wounds are easy to identify and avoid, but it takes a trained eye to locate old tapholes.

Drilling the Hole

Sugaring Tap

Some people advocate drilling the hole directly into the tree whereas others recommend drilling at a slight upward angle. I usually try to achieve a perfectly straight hole but always err on the side of making it at a slight upward angle whenever necessary. No matter how you drill the hole, be sure to use a relatively new, clean, sharp drill bit that is intended for drilling into maple trees.

When you are pulling the drill out of the tree, always examine the shavings to make sure that they are pure white. If you get brown or dark-colored shavings, you have drilled into a bad part of the tree. Your sap yield will be negligible, and any sap that does flow may have a yellow tinge to it and impart off-flavors to your syrup.

Setting the Spout

The final step is placing the spout in the tree. It takes some practice to figure out how hard to tap on the spout to get it nice and snug without overdoing things. Not tapping in hard enough can cause the spout to be too loose, creating a vacuum leak. On the other hand, tapping too hard can potentially cause the wood to split, which in turn leads to vacuum leaks, lost sap, and increased wounding at the taphole. Most sugarmakers use regular hammers to set the spouts, but you don’t necessarily hammer the spouts in. Just a few gentle taps will usually do the trick until you hear a thumping sound. As soon as you can hear the difference, stop tapping on the spout.

Row of Sugaring buckets

The Seed Series: Choosing the Right Seed Crop

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

The vast majority of seed-propagated vegetables most used worldwide fall into nine plant families. Understanding the characteristics of these particular families will give you a better idea of which crops are best suited for your climate.

In the following excerpt from the award-winning book The Organic Seed Grower, author John Navazio provides some key questions you should be asking to determine if a crop will grow where you live.

For more seed-related content, check out all our excerpts from “The Seed Series:”
Seed Saving Basics by Janisse Ray
Become a Plant Breeder by Carol Deppe
Three Steps to Start Your Plants Off Right by Ben Hewitt
A DIY Seed Bank by Carol Deppe

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SEED CROP CLIMATES
By John Navazio

While there are several dozen plant families that contain species of crop plants that are commonly used by different agricultural societies around the world, there are only nine families that house the great majority of seed-propagated vegetables that are the most important across most cultures worldwide. Through learning a bit about the characteristics of these nine families of the most cultivated vegetable crops, it is possible to get a better feel for which crops are best suited to a particular climate, especially when growing them as a seed crop.

SEED PLANT CHARACTERISTICS

There are a number of prominent characteristics of cultivated plants that are quite similar within the nine plant families in which most of our vegetable crops are found. One of the first things someone researching our cultivated crop plants finds is that closely related crops within a particular family usually share a number of prominent features. We know that different crops within the same family often share certain phenotypic traits, such as structural or reproductive characteristics.

Flower structure has long been a principal way of categorizing plants into families. The type and structure of the fruit, which is indeed a fertilized ovary of the flower, has also classically been used to assign different plants of the angiosperms (the true flowering plants) to various species and genera. As to structural features, we all know that crop species in the same family usually share a common leaf type, arrangement of their leaves on the main stem, type of stem, and so forth.

Plant structure can also be a reflection of the function of a particular part of the plant. Certainly as you get to know the different crop members of a plant family you may begin to see more of the commonalities among these species. This way of viewing crops can prove quite useful when you consider growing unfamiliar seed crops for the first time and realize that it is possible to culturally handle them in a similar fashion to a seed crop with which you have experience.

Here are a few categories in which crops within a particular family share traits that will help you decide whether the crop is suited to your environment:

1. Evolutionary past

  • Center of origin. Is your climate similar to that of its evolutionary past?
  • Climate. Is your climate similar to the climate where it’s currently grown?
  • Structure and flower parts of the family definitely relate to shared ancestry.

2. Environment. Characterize the climate that the crop thrives in.

  • Cool-season crops need cool weather to mature high-germination seed.
  • Intermediate crops will grow in cool or warm climes and mature seed in warm conditions.
  • Heat lovers need heat to thrive and produce high-germ seed.

3. Life cycle. While some patterns exist across families, there are clearly families that contain annual/biennial/perennial species.

  • Annuals complete their entire life cycle in one season.
  • Winter annuals are planted for fall growth and flowering early in the next growing season.
  • Biennials need most of two seasons to complete their life cycle, with vernalization between the first season of vegetative growth and the second season of reproductive growth.
  • Perennials. This includes very few seed-propagated vegetable crops.

4. Daylength sensitivity. Is the crop sensitive to daylength?

  • Daylength-sensitive crops only flower at certain daylengths.
  • Daylength-neutral crops flower at various daylengths.

5. Reproductive biology. Self-pollinated species versus cross-pollinated species.

  • Cross-pollinated species. Is on-farm isolation possible?
    • Wind-pollinated. Pollen travels far and doesn’t require insects.
    • Insect-pollinated. Are pollinating insects present?
  • Self-pollinated species. How many on-farm isolations are possible?
    • Faithful selfers are highly self-pollinated; several crops are possible.
    • Promiscuous selfers—how many isolations are possible?

6. Presence of disease. Is disease a limiting factor in your environment?

  • Diseases of the vegetative stage—is it a limiting factor?
  • Seedborne diseases—are they endemic and economically limiting?

7. Presence of insect pests. Are insects a limiting factor in your environment?

  • Insects of the vegetative stage—are these a limiting factor?
  • Insects of the seed—are they endemic and economically limiting?

CLIMATIC ZONES

Here is a reference list of the four major climatic types in which vegetable seed crops are grown. The important climatic considerations that determine each zone’s suitability are given, followed by the crops that are most well adapted to that particular zone. Note that some crops are suited to more than one climate and therefore have a wider adaptation to environmental conditions for producing high quality.

Cool-Season Dry-Seeded Crops

All dry-seeded crops are formed in dry pods or in clusters along the stem of the plant and are essentially harvested like grains. They produce the best quality seed when they mature and are harvested in seasonally dry, low-humidity regions; the so-called Mediterranean climate. These cool-season, dry-seeded crops are best grown in the cooler reaches of the Mediterranean climate, where cool, often wet weather predominates during prolonged springs, and summers are mild and dry with little or no rainfall through harvest. Cool-season crops do not handle hot weather, especially through the earliest stages of their reproductive cycle. These crops form the highest quality seed when temperatures are generally somewhere between 60 and 75°F (16 to 24°C) during pollination, fertilization, and the earliest stages of embryo and endosperm development in late spring and early summer. After this initial formation and development of the seed they are able to tolerate average summer daytime high temperatures between 75 and 85°F (24 to 29°C) but thrive in relatively cool summers, especially where daytime high temperatures rarely exceed 80°F (27°C) to produce the highest-quality seed.

Seed crops that excel under these conditions: Spinach, beet, cilantro, Asian greens, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, Chinese cabbage, parsnip, mustards, Swiss chard

Warm-Season Dry-Seeded Crops

This climate is similar to the Cool-Season Dry-Seeded parameters above but with temperatures that are consistently warmer throughout all the months of the growing season. Warmer spring temperatures result in more rapid early growth and development for these crops over the cool-season dry-seeded crops. Daytime high temperatures during flowering and seed setting should generally not exceed 78 to 85°F (26 to 29°C). But after this initial formation and development of the seed these crops are able to routinely tolerate summer daytime average high temperatures between 85 and 92°F (29 to 33°C) when producing high-quality seed.

Seed crops that excel under these conditions: Broccoli, kale, collards, celery, radish, turnip, lettuce, Swiss chard, favas, peas, runner beans, parsley, endive, escarole, and chicories.

 

Hot-Season Dry-Seeded Crops

All dry-seeded crops do best when there is little or no rainfall during seed maturation and harvest. This lessens the incidence of diseases of all kinds, especially seedborne diseases, and it lowers the threat of excessive rainfall shattering the seedheads that form with all dry-seeded crops. While summer highs do regularly exceed 92°F (33°C), a number of these crops must complete their early reproductive stages of pollination and anthesis to mature a high-germinating, high-quality seed crop, while early season daytime temperatures are between 80 and 92°F (27 and 33°C).

Crops that excel under these conditions: Garden beans, lima beans, edamame, carrot, onion, and sweet corn.

Hot-Season Wet-Seeded Crops

The wet-seeded moniker refers both to the fact that most of the fruit of these crops is wet but also to the method used to extract the fruit, which is extracted through a wet fermentation or a series of water rinses (see Seed Harvest for each individual crop). These crops are all heat lovers from the moment they are planted. They depend on warm spring temperatures that average above 65°F (18°C), to establish good early growth and need warm nighttime temperatures to realize a decent yield and mature a high-germinating, high-quality seed crop. Temperatures may routinely exceed 90°F (32°C) during flowering and early fruit and seed set,* and unlike the dry-seeded crops, some humidity is tolerated; in fact, the presence of humidity often is responsible for holding the heat into the evening and nighttime hours.

Crops that excel under these conditions: Cucumbers, melons, watermelons, summer squash, winter squash, bitter melon, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. (*The exception for this group is cucumber, which does prefer slightly cooler temperatures.)

Drill, Plug, Wax, Wait: Four Easy Steps to Growing Mushrooms Outdoors

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

Grow your own mushrooms outdoors with this simple four step tutorial from Tradd Cotter, author of the new book Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation. All you need is a log, some mushroom starter, and a couple basic tools and you are on your way to producing gourmet mushrooms for years to come.

To demonstrate how easy it is, in the video below Cotter shows you how to inoculate a log in just 60 seconds.

For more mushroom guidance, check out his entire collection of 90+ videos. You’ll find information on fungi identification, cultivation tips, and even a few unexpected shorts like hunting the elusive snow morel and growing mushrooms on your cat (cat blooper reel embedded below).

Blooper Reel: Even our furry friends love getting in on the mushroom growing action.
Don’t worry, no cats were harmed in the making of this video.

The Seed Series: 3 Steps to Start Your Plants Off Right

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

How you handle your seeds and your practices around seeding is your first chance to get your plants off to a good start and help them achieve their full potential. Ben and Penny Hewitt, authors of The Nourishing Homestead, have developed a three-step process which starts with inoculating the seeds, then sowing them in high quality potting soil, and finally using soil blocks instead of pots to start seedlings.

It may not be quite as easy as 1-2-3, but the increased vigor and yield the Hewitts have experienced with their crops using this system has made it worth the extra effort. Check out the following excerpt from The Nourishing Homestead for more details on how you can incorporate these three steps into your early spring planting routine.

And, for additional information on seeds, read the previous article in our “Seed Series”–an excerpt from Carol Deppe’s latest book, The Tao of Vegetable Gardening about creating your own seed bank. Up next, learn from award-winning author John Navazio about the right questions to ask when determining what crops will grow best on your land.

Related Articles:
Seed Saving Basics
Become a Plant Breeder 

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Seeding

Perhaps the best way to think of your seed and your practices around seeding and starting your plants is to draw the obvious analogy to human gestation. Starving your seeds of nutrients is no different from starving your unborn child of nutrients, and the results will be no better in the long haul. This is the first opportunity we have to minimize the stresses that negatively impact your crops’ potential.

Step 1: Inoculate

You may be familiar with inoculating legumes, which is the process of coating the seed with the bacteria that allow it to “fix” nitrogen in the soil. But it’s not merely legumes that benefit from inoculation. In fact, prior to sowing, we treat all of our seed with a high-quality inoculant (we get ours from the Nutrient Dense Supply Company, the same source for many of the trace minerals, inoculants, and enzymes we use).

Seed inoculant is cheap as all get-out: For a mere 13 bucks, you can purchase enough inoculant to treat 100 pounds of seed, and the process is ridiculously simple. Just mix a pinch of the powdered inoculant with the seed inside the seed packet. Doing so assists with germination, improves seed vigor, and breaks down nutrients so they are available to young roots. In other words, it’s a jump start on plant health.

Step 2: Sow Your Seeds into High-Quality, Inoculated, and Mineralized Potting Soil

Ideally, we’d be making our potting soil from scratch, but until we realize that goal, we purchase high-quality potting soil from the Vermont Compost Company. Their Fort Vee potting soil includes compost, sphagnum, rock phosphate, gypsum, protein meal, kelp, bone char, crushed granite, and vermiculite. We add more kelp, montmorillonite clay, humates, and alfalfa meal, which can generally be found at your local farm supply store. We also add two ingredients that will likely require a bit more diligent shopping: a biological inoculant (we use Biogenesis from NDSC) and an enzyme microbial stimulant (Pepzyme from NDSC).

The quantities of our additions are not an exact science. Roughly speaking, to a 60-quart bag of potting soil we add a quart each of the first five ingredients, a few grams of inoculant, and half a milliliter of Pepzyme mixed into the water we use to moisten the soil.

Step 3: Punt the Pots

One of the best investments we’ve made in the health and vitality of our seedlings, and therefore of the vegetables we ultimately grow and eat, is a soil blocker. This is a small mechanical contraption that compresses loose potting soil into tight seedling blocks that are then released into an open flat. They are available in numerous sizes; we use one that makes twenty 3⁄4-inch blocks for starting peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant. Because we have limited space for our starts, the mini blocks make it possible to germinate lots of seedlings in a small space. The most vigorous seedlings are then transferred to a larger block shortly after germinating.

The size blocker we use most makes four 2-inch blocks. We own two of these blockers, one with a seed pin that makes seed-sized holes in the top of each block and one with a 3⁄4-inch cube pin that creates a hole in the top of the block that’s just the size of the mini blocks. Coincidence? I think not. The blocker with the seed pin is used for brassicas, lettuce, chard, celery, celeriac, onions (four seeds to a block), basil, parsley, and other herbs and flowers. We also use it for germinating squash, cucumbers, and melons. The 2-inch blocker with the cube pin is, of course, for anything that has been sown into mini blocks, as well as for larger seeds like corn or beans.

Lastly, we have a blocker that forms a single 4-inch block with a 2-inch square relief in the top to accept the 2-inch blocks. We use this for “potting on” (a term that means potting up in size) cukes, winter and summer squashes, peppers, and eggplant.

The two smaller sizes of soil blocks are quick to make after a little practice. It’s key to get the soil moisture just right; generally, we make it a bit wetter than for pots. Think spongy, not soggy; you should be able to squeeze a few drops out of a handful. The larger 4-inch blocks are more time consuming to make, simply because they tend to fall apart without a studious effort to really pack the soil into the form. For this reason, we are not above using large pots instead if time is short. We always use 6-inch pots for potting on tomatoes, because with the 4-inch blocks, it isn’t possible to set the original 2-inch block deeply enough in the soil to take advantage of all the little root hairs on the stem that will create a stronger root system if buried in the soil.

The advantages of soil blockers are numerous. First, they eliminate the inevitable waste and expense of cracked and broken containers that must be discarded and replaced. Second, the blocks are cubic, rather than tapered, providing more room for root growth. Third, by eliminating the impenetrable walls of a plastic container, you eliminate one of the primary limiting factors to early plant growth and vitality.

To understand why this is true, remember that the growth you see above the soil surface is merely a reflection of the growth that is happening below the surface. In fact, root growth generally exceeds top growth, which means that a 4-inch seedling in a 4-inch pot is already experiencing diminished potential as its roots bump against the hard container surface. Think of a plant’s roots as its “feelers”; as soon as these feelers hit the container wall, they circle around, looking for more space, and in that circling back, a degree of vitality and development is lost. Before you’ve even put your starts in the ground, you’re losing vigor and yield.

In blocks, instead of the roots circling, they simply fill the block to the edges and wait. When transplanting, there is no root shock and seedlings are quickly established in their new environment. However, if the seedlings are not transplanted in a timely manner, they will eventually grow into neighboring blocks, which should be avoided.

Once the seeds have been inoculated as discussed, Penny then engages in a bit of seed discrimination, selecting the largest, plumpest seeds from each packet for planting. She also plants more seeds than necessary, so that she can discriminate once again when the seeds become seedlings by discarding the ones that lack the vigor of their companions. In the case of tomatoes and peppers, she’ll actually plant at least twice as many seeds as the actual number of seedlings she’s looking for, just so she can have the pick of the litter. If this seems wasteful, I assure you it is precisely the opposite, because by selecting for health and vitality, we end up with far greater yield for a given square footage of garden space.

Our earliest seedlings are started on shelves in front of a set of south-facing French doors. We have chosen to not rely on artificial lighting or heat for our starts, a habit established during the 15 years we were disconnected from the utility grid and simply didn’t have access to the necessary electricity. Now that we are grid-connected, we could rely on these technologies, but we still choose not to, because our cheap electricity inevitably costs someone, somewhere a great deal.

Once the weather warms up, we transfer our flats of seedlings to makeshift shelves on the enclosed porch that houses our summer kitchen. We installed translucent panels on the southern end of the porch expressly for this reason, and the seedlings thrive out there, as long as we bring them inside for the nights, until temperatures warm up. This daily shuffling of our seedlings—out to the porch in the mornings to catch the most light, in from the porch in the evenings to protect them from the cold—is unquestionably a hassle, necessitating reminder notes left in conspicuous places (BRING! SEEDLINGS! IN!). But like most hassles, it seems bigger than it actually is. As the season progresses, there are more and more flats to move, but with the boys’ help, it generally doesn’t take much longer than seven or eight minutes. Just about the time we’re getting sick of this little dance and the number of flats has increased to multiple dozens, it is suddenly warm enough to leave them out at night.

Seeds that need a lot of heat to germinate, such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, are granted a coveted spot atop our coldbox, which resides near the wood cookstove. As soon as they germinate, they are potted on into the larger-sized soil blocks and placed in front of the French doors with their companions.

The next big stressor event for our seedlings is transplanting. We’ve already mitigated some transplant shock by seeding into soil blocks, rather than containers. We also refrain from starting our seeds too soon. This is not easy, because like most gardeners, by the time March rolls around, we’re chomping at the bit. But we have found that vigorous seedlings of the proper age do better than seedlings that were started too early and have grown beyond the capacity of their soil blocks to fully nurture them. Finally, all our seedlings are allowed a few days in their flats outside to “harden off” in preparation for transplanting. We then transplant on an overcast day or late in the day, to protect the young seedlings from the stress of direct sun.

Over the years, as we’ve learned to select for more vigorous seed and seedlings, we’ve also learned that we have to take this increased vigor into account and provide them with a little extra space to fully express themselves. Whereas we once planted our tomato plants 1 foot apart, we now allow them at least 2 feet, if not even more. This may sound counterintuitive; after all, if we’re planting fewer plants, won’t our yield be greatly reduced? But the reality is precisely the opposite. In fact, over the past few years, our tomato yield has increased dramatically, despite a 50 percent reduction in actual plants. The genetics are the same. The overall space devoted to their cultivation is the same. The only thing that’s different is that we’ve created an environment that allows our plants to come closer to achieving their full potential.

Hybrid Hazelnuts – A New Resilient Crop for a Changing Climate

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

In the face of global threats like climate instability, food insecurity, and water pollution, scientists are looking to how we use our agricultural land for solutions. One such group of scientist-farmers in Minnesota have collectively spent nearly three decades developing what could be the new ecological crop of the future: hybrid hazelnuts.

Philip Rutter, along with his colleagues Susan Wiegrefe and Brandon Rutter-Daywater at Badgersett Research Farm, designed the hybrid hazelnut to address a host of problems with conventional modern agriculture. Their new book, Growing Hybrid Hazelnuts, list the many benefits of this promising crop, which are:

  • Once established hazelnuts require no plowing or even cultivation.
  • The extensive, permanent root systems mean dramatically improved infiltration rates that prevent water from running off of fields.
  • No soil is lost to wind or rain; in fact, this perennial crop builds soil.
  • Economically speaking, hazelnuts have a large, existing, and unsatisfied world market, not to mention the additional applications outside of the food industry including fuel and timber.
  • In a nutshell (pun intended), this crop helps regenerate the earth, at the same time reaping profits for the farmer.

Growing Hybrid Hazelnuts provides readers with a wealth of information from the history of hazelnuts and the genetics involved in creating a hybrid swarm to instructions on harvesting, processing, marketing, and more. Booklist calls this guide “a godsend for agricultural entrepreneurs and farmers desperate for newer, financially lucrative crops to replace those that have been, or may soon be, compromised by climate change.”

Progressive farmer and activist Joel Salatin certainly agrees and is ready to plant his own rows of hybrid hazelnuts. He writes,

Anyone ready to innovate outside the box will be blown away by the vision and practical insights demonstrated in Growing Hybrid Hazelnuts. The eclectic blend of science and practical how-to information packed into this fascinating, readable book is enough to inspire a whole new generation of farmers. Turning soybean fields into hazelnut plantations is truly a vision for the stout-hearted pioneer futuristic farmer. Sign me up.

Check out the following excerpt from chapter one of Growing Hybrid Hazelnuts for more information about hazels, their origins and what makes them a good starting point for developing a new staple crop.

Excerpt: Chapter 1 – Hazels, Hybrid Hazels, and Neohybrid Hazels

The Seed Series: A DIY Seed Bank

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

A do-it-yourself seed bank is simply your own frozen stash of seeds set aside for long-term storage. In the following excerpt from The Tao of Vegetable Gardening, author and plant breeder Carol Deppe discusses the do’s and don’ts of saving your own seeds. Deppe believes the best seed banks are located in your own home or neighborhood and contain vigorous, regionally adapted varieties of the crops you already know how to grow and use.

To purchase open-pollinated, non GMO seeds directly from Carol’s seed bank, Fertile Valley Seeds, download this order form.

Up next in our Seed Series, Ben Hewitt explains how soil health can greatly contribute to the vitality of your seedlings.

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The Do-It-Yourself Seed Bank

Seeds tucked away in a vault in Svalbard, Norway, are fine as far as they go. But in hard times this is unlikely to be very far from Svalbard, Norway. Even in the best of times you, an individual gardener or farmer, won’t be able to get any seeds out of the Svalbard seed bank. Only institutions that have deposited seed can get seed out, and then only the seed that they deposited in the first place.

A generic can of “survival” seeds is also not likely to be very useful. Such cans are full of varieties that are not optimal for your region, nor best for your purposes. Nor is the can likely to include more than trivial amounts of the big-seeded staple crop varieties such as corn, legumes, and squash, the very crops that would be most important in the event of any major disaster.

The best seed bank is the one that is full of vigorous, regionally adapted varieties of exactly the crops you care about the most, your very favorite varieties, those that do best for you, that you already know how to grow and use. It contains serious amounts of seeds of these crops, enough to plant a normal-sized crop of each of them for three years or more, not just a tiny sample of seed that has to be increased for several years before there is enough to be useful. And the best seed bank is in your own home or neighborhood.

Every gardener should have her own seed bank. Even if you aren’t a seed saver, you should have your own seed bank. Even if you never experience any disaster beyond the ups and downs of ordinary living, it’s useful to have your own seed bank.

Reasons to Start Your Own Seed Bank

First, if you buy seed, you can buy in bigger amounts and pay just a fraction of what you pay when you buy a little packet every year. You simply dry the bought seed for long-term storage, divide it up into one-year-sized packets, and put it into your freezer.

Second, there are years when we can be too poor or too busy to buy seed. With my own stash of seed, I buy seed when I can afford the money and time and dip into my stash when I can’t. Some years I buy a lot of seed. Some years I buy none, but still plant everything I want. The personal seed bank gives me greater flexibility and resilience in good times as well as bad.

Third, many varieties these days are produced by only one grower in the country or world, even if sold by many retail seed companies. So you can find your favorite variety suddenly stamped with CROP FAILURE in every seed catalog one year. When that happens it’s very nice to have your own stash of the variety.

Finally, the commercial seed trade regularly loses varieties. And the fact that a variety is widespread and very popular is no guarantee. Of my five favorite squash varieties from the 1980s the commercial trade has lost all of them. Often many seed companies continue selling the crossed-up trash under the traditional name. The more reputable seed companies drop the variety when it is no longer what it is supposed to be. The result is that you can buy varieties sold under the classic name long after the real variety that name represents no longer exists anywhere. All that has actually been preserved is the name.

One reason often given for saving our own seed is to be able to prevent the loss of varieties we care about. Where the seed isn’t available otherwise, we have to do our own seed saving, of course. But when the seed is widely available we just need to stash some away so that, if it is lost, we have good seed we can use to start our own seed saving after it becomes necessary. I really wish I had just dried and frozen a little of every variety I liked thirty years ago. If I had, I would still have real ‘Sugar Pie’ pumpkins and real ‘Guatemala Blue Banana’ winter squash. (What is being sold by these names today bears little resemblance to and has little of the distinctive flavors they had thirty years ago.) And I would not have had to do all that work to breed the ‘Sweet Meat— Oregon Homestead’ line of winter squash after the commercial trade lost ‘Sweet Meat’.

Types of Seed Varieties to Save and Avoid

Even if you purchase most or all of your seed, only varieties that can be saved belong in your seed bank. The seed bank needs to feature open-pollinated varieties. If you cache hybrid seed you have only the seed you have stored and are at a dead end when it is used up. Whether your seed bank starts with saved or purchased seeds, its usefulness depends on your being able to save seed and perpetuate the variety after taking it out of the bank. So the seed in the seed bank needs to be of open-pollinated, not hybrid varieties. Hybrid varieties don’t breed true. Some hybrids don’t produce seed at all. Others do, but the seed produces plants with variable characteristics that reflect segregation for all the genes and traits that were different in the two parent varieties that went into the hybrid. Some hybrids can be dehybridized into uniform, open-pollinated, true-breeding varieties that resemble the original hybrid, but this is a breeding project that usually takes a number of years. And not all hybrids can be dehybridized. The more your gardening uses open-pollinated rather than hybrid varieties, the more complete your seed bank can be, and the more seed-supply resilience you have.

If you regularly use some hybrid varieties, search for equally good open-pollinated varieties you can switch to. Most hybrids in most crops are not superior to the best equivalent open-pollinated varieties. They are simply marketed more intensely by the company that produces them than are varieties for which no one has a monopoly. Furthermore, with open-pollinated varieties, the fact that gardeners and farmers can save their own seed puts a limit on what can be charged for it. Hybrid seed makes a captive market of anyone who becomes dependent on it. We gardeners have no reason to encourage and promote monopolies in our seed supply. So we need to do our homework and trial more varieties than just the heavily touted ones. We need to actively search for and replace the hybrid varieties in our gardens with varieties that are open-pollinated.

Beware AAS varieties. This acronym stands for “All American Selections.” It could more accurately be said to stand for “All Agribusiness Selections.” The rules of the contest require winners to pay a certain percentage of all worldwide seed crop sales for a number of years to the AAS organization. You can do this only if you totally control the seed, which you can do only with hybrid, patented, or PVP (plant variety protected) seed. So AAS is an award for the best new proprietary varieties, that is, the best new hybrid, PVP, or patented varieties only, not the best new varieties. Nor are these best new proprietary varieties better than preexisting public domain varieties. Nor are the “new” characteristics for which they are touted necessarily new. Sometimes they have been around in public domain varieties for years or decades. When you see the words AAS Winner be aware that the variety is proprietary, and that you cannot grow it without giving up your traditional ability or right to save your own seeds and some of your seed-supply resilience.

PVP varieties are open-pollinated varieties and breed true to type. However, they have legal restrictions that forbid you from selling, swapping, or even giving away seed. You are, though, allowed to produce seed for your own use or sell a vegetable crop grown from such seed. It is also legal to use PVP varieties to do crosses to develop new varieties of your own. (It isn’t legal to derive a new variety simply by selection from a PVP, or to use a PVP to make a hybrid whose seed you sell.) So it is workable, though not ideal, to include PVP varieties in your seed bank. In a mega-disaster there probably wouldn’t be anyone around to enforce the PVP rules. But most uses of seed bank seed will be in situations short of mega-disaster. And for seed-savvy gardeners and farmers, selling or distributing seed is an important option. I suggest avoiding all PVP varieties in your garden and seed bank unless the variety is genuinely superior to all other equivalents.

A third category to avoid putting into our seed banks is varieties that are sold only with seed treatments (fungicides). The seed treatments involve dangerous chemicals that are not practical to apply on the home scale. The varieties are not resistant to common diseases that are found in most gardens, so cannot grow without the treatments. The combination of a variety not resistant enough to ordinary diseases to grow without seed treatments and the seed treatments themselves makes for varieties for which you cannot save seed. Avoid buying treated seed. Avoid varieties that are sold only as treated seed.

Of course, we don’t want GMO varieties in our seed bank. Even if we didn’t mind the genetic modifications, GMO varieties usually have utility patents that are maximally restrictive. You are forbidden from saving seed even for your own use or for using the variety in breeding of any kind. You basically don’t own the seed when you buy it. You are just leasing the use of that amount of seed for one year.

A Small Amount of Space is All You Need

In most cases your seed bank will start as a small box in a freezer. It may grow to a whole freezer of its own if you get ambitious and figure on storing enough seed for years, or for your entire neighborhood as insurance against a serious disaster. Properly dried for long-term storage and put into a freezer, the seed will keep virtually indefinitely as long as the power lasts, and for several years beyond should the power stop. During that several years beyond, you would save and replace the seed as you used it.

If at some point you want to expand your do-it-yourself seed bank to a whole freezer, consider getting a used chest freezer. These are often available free because people get rid of them to convert to more convenient upright freezers. Chest freezers are fine for seed, as you don’t need frequent or convenient access. Most used chest freezers change hands via freebie ads placed by those wanting to get rid of or acquire one.

A seed bank can be designed around the needs of ordinary gardening or it can be oriented toward getting your family or neighborhood through serious hard times or even mega-disasters. I think the best do-it-yourself seed bank does at least some of both.

Related Articles:
Seed Saving Basics
Become a Plant Breeder
Choosing the Right Seed Crop

 

A Taoist Approach to Gardening

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Groundbreaking garden writer Carol Deppe (The Resilient GardenerBreed Your Own Vegetable Varieties) has done it again with her latest book, The Tao of Vegetable Gardening. Called a “vegetable gardener’s treasury” by Booklist, this new guide focuses on some of the most popular home garden vegetables—tomatoes, green beans, peas, and leafy greens—and through them illustrates the key principles and practices that beginner and experienced gardeners alike need to know to successfully plant and grow just about any food crop.

In addition to practical advice on topics like how to deal with late blight and establishing your own DIY seed bank, Deppe explores the deeper essence of gardening both in terms of nature and ourselves. Her work has long been inspired and informed by the philosophy and wisdom of Tao Te Ching, the 2,500-­year-­old work attributed to Chinese sage Lao Tzu. She has organized her book into chapters that echo fundamental Taoist concepts: Balance, Flexibility, Honoring the Essential Nature (your own and that of your plants), Effortless Effort, Non-Doing, and even Non-­Knowing.

The “Non-Doing” concept may be hard for some to comprehend. Isn’t gardening supposed to be hard work? Deppe explains how easy it is to fall into a pattern of unnecessary efforts.

“There are three reasons to do something: It is the right thing to do, it is the right time to do it, and you are the right person to do it. Usually, it isn’t, it isn’t, or you aren’t. Gardening books and magazines usually focus on doing. They report the positive—things that worked at least once for someone somewhere on the planet. That is only part of the story. We gardeners are an inventive lot. We are capable of thinking of lots of other things to try that we have never seen anybody do or write about. Many of these other things have undoubtedly been tried repeatedly by gardeners in many times and places, and have failed to work for every single person who tried them. For everything that at least sometimes works, there are many-fold other things that never work. I have discovered quite a lot of these.”

In the spirit of doing less, Deppe provides helpful lists like twenty-four good places not to plant a tree and thirty-seven good reasons for not planting various vegetables. She also introduces her innovative “Eat-All Greens Garden” which could be the easiest, most space-saving, and labor-efficient way of growing greens. With this method, a family can raise all their summer greens as well as freeze and dry enough for the winter months with even a tiny garden—a perfect approach for small-scale and urban gardeners. The trick is to use plant varieties that grow fast. “The fast growth is necessary in order to produce plants that have succulent stems and all prime leaves even when large,” writes Deppe.

To get started on your own simple sow and harvest style garden and for delicious ways to prepare your bounty of greens, check out the following “Eat-All-Greens” excerpt from The Tao of Vegetable Gardening. And, for more gardening wisdom from Carol Deppe, here’s an interview she did on growing food in uncertain times – How to Grow and Store the 5 Crops You Need to Survive.

The Tao of Vegetable Gardening: The Eat-All Greens Garden

The Nourishing Homestead: Practiculture and Principles

Monday, January 19th, 2015

Whether you live on 4 acres, 40 acres, or in a 400-square-foot studio apartment, the lessons you’ll glean from The Nourishing Homestead by Ben Hewitt (with Penny Hewitt) will help anyone hoping to close the gaps that economic separation has created in our health, spirit, and skills. This book offers practical ways to grow nutrient-dense food on a small plot of land, and think about your farm, homestead, or home as an ecosystem.

Ben and Penny (and their two sons) maintain copious gardens, dozens of fruit and nut trees and other perennial plantings, as well as a pick-your-own blueberry patch. In addition to these cultivated food crops, they also forage for wild edibles, process their own meat, make their own butter, and ferment, dry, and can their own vegetables. Their focus is to produce nutrient-dense foods from vibrant, mineralized soils for themselves and their immediate community. They are also committed to sharing the traditional skills that support their family, helping them be self-sufficient and thrive in these uncertain times.

The Hewitts’ story is reminiscent of The Good Life, by Helen and Scott Nearing, and is sure to inspire a new generation of homesteaders, or anyone seeking a simpler way of life and a deeper connection to the world.

Ben Hewitt uses the term “practiculture” to describe his family’s work with the land—a term that encompasses the many practical life skills and philosophies they embody to create a thriving homestead.

What is “practiculture”? Here is how Ben Hewitt describes it:

The term practiculture evolved out of our struggle to find a concise way to describe our work with this land. Of course, no single word or term can fully explain what we do. But in practiculture, I feel as if I have something that is concise but also opens the door to a broader conversation. It’s an intriguing word, and not one that yet enjoys widespread understanding. It also contains elements that are immediately recognizable: Practical. Agriculture. Practiculture. And not just agriculture, but culture, as defined by our work with the land, cultivating its teeming populations of beings and bacteria. The longer I do this work, the less I feel as if we are practicing agriculture so much as we are simply practicing culture.

Practiculture also refers to our belief that growing and processing our food, as well as the other essentials necessary to our good health, should be both affordable and, for lack of a better term, doable. Practical. It should make sense, not according to the flawed logic of the commodity marketplace, which is always trying to convince us that doing for ourselves is impractical, but according to our self-defined logic that grasps the true value of real food to body, mind, spirit, and soil.

Finally, practiculture is about learning practical life skills and the gratification that comes from applying those skills in ways that benefit one’s self and community. This sort of localized, land-based knowledge is rapidly disappearing from first-world countries in large part because the centers of profit and industry would rather we not possess it. They know that its absence makes us increasingly dependent on their offerings.

The Hewitts also live by some touchstone principles, ideals and ideas they return to at times when they are faced with a decision to which there is no obvious answer. We’ve listed a few of them below, but additional principles (and full descriptions) can be found in The Nourishing Homestead, and are worth reflection.

As Ben Hewitt writes, “This is not a literal list, etched into stone or rolled into a yellowed scroll, although years ago we did create a written document to help us determine the direction of our land-based practices. Truthfully, we are not always able to act in harmony with these principles. There are times when circumstances compel us to behave otherwise. But even in these cases, it’s valuable to understand and acknowledge the compromise we’re making.”

Guiding Principles:

  • The way we think, act, and perceive the world is a reflection of the world we wish to inhabit.
  • We will produce the most nourishing food possible.
  • Real nutrition comes only from vital soils that enable plants and animals to express their full potential.
  • The labor to produce nourishing food is itself of value.
  • Do not let the logic of the market dictate the logic of the homestead.
  • Resilience of systems is the outgrowth of diversity, redundancy, simplicity, and, ultimately, resourcefulness.
  • Resourcefulness of body, emotion, spirit, and skills is just as important as resilience of systems.
  • The manner in which you spend your time is, in fact, the manner in which you spend your life. Time is not money; it is life.
  • We are not stewards of the land; the land is the steward of us.
  • Interdependence, not self-sufficiency.
  • Living in alignment. It is important to us that our daily activities comprise as much as possible actions we enjoy and which can be defended ethically and intellectually, not only from the perspective of humanity, but also from that of the natural world.
  • When in doubt, be generous.

Consider adopting a list of your own. If nothing else, it may compel you to think carefully about your guiding principles, and in this regard, become a step toward living life on your own terms.

 


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