Garden & Agriculture Archive


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.

 

Grow Your Own Sprouts This Winter

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

At this point in winter, if you haven’t already exhausted your cellar of root vegetables, then you’re probably exhausted with it. But just because the ground outside may still be frozen, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy fresh greens.

One simple and healthy way to breathe life back into your winter diet is sprouting your own seeds. In the excerpt at the end of this post from Wild Flavors, author Didi Emmons shows you how to make nutrient-rich sprouts from all kinds of edible seeds right in your own kitchen.

Once you’ve mastered the skill of sprouting, you can incorporate sprouted seeds into nourishing and tasty dishes. Check out this recipe for Vietnamese Sprouted Spring Rolls and Korean Soybean Sprout-Miso Soup from R.J. Ruppenthal’s Fresh Food from Small Spaces and the below recipe for Sprouted Amaranth Alegria Energy Bars from Katrina Blair’s The Wild Wisdom of Weeds. According to Blair, amaranth is one of the easiest wild seeds to gather and sprout.

Sprouted Amaranth Alegria Bars
1⁄4 cup sprouted amaranth seeds
1 cup sprouted sesame seeds
1 cup sprouted sunflower seeds
2 tablespoons raw cacao powder
1 cup sprouted pumpkin seeds
3 tablespoons raw honey

Directions: Mix all ingredients together and shape into bars. Dehydrate either in the sun for a day or in the dehydrator for several hours until firm. Enjoy this living raw treat as a snack on adventures in the wild. You can also make this bar by toasting the amaranth in a dry skillet and then adding raw, unsprouted, lightly ground sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Although sprouting the seeds brings a higher energy to the bars, toasting them is another way to make the recipe in a very short time so as to have it available when you need it and to bring a unique flavor into the recipe.

Happy Sprouting!

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Growing Sprouts: The Eva Way
By Did Emmons

Growing sprouts is one of the simplest things you can do to breathe life into the deprivations of winter. As an urbanite who doesn’t have much space or sun to grow food, sprouts are one thing I can grow at any point in the year. Sprouts are replete with vitamins, minerals, proteins, and enzymes. Sprouting is easy, as easy a process as cooking rice. And there is a satisfaction in fostering and watching them grow and prosper. It feeds my maternal side, without the crying and diapers.

Most any edible seed can become an edible sprout, but I like to sprout wheat berries, kamut, quinoa, lentils, and chickpeas. Other possibilities include hulled sunflower seeds, buckwheat groats, spelt, soybeans, peas, brown mustard seeds, radish seeds, broccoli seeds, rye seeds, cabbage seeds, and herb seeds. You can also sprout raw peanuts, black-eyed peas, adzuki beans, green channa, and, more commonly, alfalfa, clover, and mung bean. Tomato and potato sprouts are said to be poisonous.

Two Ways To Grow Sprouts

There are two main ways to grow sprouts at home: in a jar or in a bag (of any sturdy mesh fabric, whether natural or synthetic fiber).SproutsfromWildFlavors

  • In either case, start by rinsing about 1 cup of legumes or seeds and then letting them soak overnight.
  • Drain, rinse again, and transfer the legumes or seeds to a big glass jar or mesh bag large enough to hold five times the quantity of seeds or legumes that you have.
  • Tie the bag closed or secure cheesecloth over the mouth of the jar to keep debris out and to facilitate easy straining. Hang the bag or store the jar in a dark, humid place if possible, and rinse morning and night.
  • Eventually, after somewhere between two and ten days, depending on the type of seed, you will notice that the seeds have sprouted.

You may have noticed that there is a lot of rinsing involved here, and watching all of that barely used water head down the drain goes against every fiber in Eva’s body. When she rinses the seeds or legumes the first time, she catches that liquid in a bowl. To rinse the seeds or legumes afterward, she simply dips her bag into the captured water, lifts it up, and shakes the liquid out. Once the seeds or legumes have sprouted and the rinsing has ended, she uses the liquid for a variety of creative uses, from cooking her morning cereal to watering (and nourishing) plants.

Sources

Don’t buy your seeds at a garden center, there is a risk they may be contaminated with chemicals or bacteria. I get my seeds at a local natural foods store and they sprout—no problem. But if you are serious, there are plenty of websites like Sproutman.com that sell seed grown specifically for human consumption. “The Sproutman” also offers a helpful circular sprout chart for $5 that lists an array of seeds you can sprout, with the corresponding sprouting times, the suggested method, the level of difficulty, uses, flavors, and so on. It is worth getting.

Storage

After giving sprouts one final rinse, put them back in the same container you grew them in or in a plastic bag poked with a knife to ensure air circulation. Sprouts are living plants. They last about a week in the fridge in a plastic container, though legume sprouts may last longer.

A Conversation With Winemaker, Farmer, Author Deirdre Heekin

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Named one of the best wine books of 2014 by The New York Times, Deirdre Heekin’s An Unlikely Vineyard takes readers on a journey of learning how to grow wine in the unlikely hills of Vermont and tells the story of her quest to express the essence of place in every bottle.

“Heekin gives a lyrical description of her earthly discoveries…and imbues her accounts with the wonder of a child discovering an earthworm in the mud for the first time,” writes Lauren Mowry, wine and travel writer for The Village Voice. And, when it comes to capturing terroir and following the principles of natural winemaking, Heekin told the wine columnist for The Boston Globe, “I am constantly listening and responding to what the fruit wants to be.”

However, more than just a book on winemaking, An Unlikely Vineyard covers the evolution of Heekin’s homefarm from overgrown fields to a fertile landscape that melds with its natural environment and includes a wealth of information on growing food naturally using the principles of organics, permaculture, and biodynamic farming.

Chelsea Green’s Shay Totten sat down with Heekin to talk about her new book and her efforts to deeply understand the land from which both her food and grapevines are grown. See below for their conversation.

Related Links:
Wine Pairings from Deirdre Heekin
Capturing Landscape in a Wine: The Unlikely Vineyard

ST: What inspired you to start growing grapes on a hillside in Vermont – of all places – and what were the first grapes you grew?

DH: Initially, I was inspired by our land. We have a southeast facing meadow that is perfectly situated to capture sun and air. Our soil is complex and full of stones. But for a long time we only kidded about growing wine here. It wasn’t until I visited Lincoln Peak Vineyard over in the Champlain Valley and tasted their wines that I understood that Vermont had great potential as a winegrowing region, and that it was possible for us to turn that meadow into a vineyard.

That day we visited Lincoln Peak, we left their nursery with over 100 vines to plant! A combination of Marquette, La Crescent, Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, and Frontenac Blanc.

ST: How long have you been growing food on the farm for your restaurant, and how much of the restaurant’s food starts from your farm?

DH: We started growing ingredients for our restaurant kitchen about 16 years ago. Our goal is to try to produce 100 percent of the produce for Osteria Pan e Salute (our restaurant in Woodstock, VT) all year long. We are very close to that during the growing season and getting closer and closer during the winter with our winter greenhouse and the root cellar. This year, livestock came on to our home farm in Barnard, VT, so now our eggs for Osteria all come from here as well as our chicken, and soon we will have our own pork.

ST: How do you measure the success of your harvests, and have they improved in recent years?

DH: I am still so amazed that I am growing wine, I am always delighted that the vines actually produce fruit! All kidding aside, I look to the quality of the fruit and how the vines have handled the growing season in relation to the year before.

I look at how the bunch is formed, how the plants weather the weather. If it is a rainy season, how resistant are they to mildew and black rot? I look at the new wood they are producing, how much, how strong, how clean of disease, and when does it harden off in the autumn.

Given that we are dealing with either young vines, or recuperating vines, I look to their production. Some vines we are taking back to square one and limiting their bunch production until they are stronger and healthier, so I monitor how much well-formed fruit they are producing.

But each year is different, and I don’t expect a constant jump in quantity or growth to measure success each year. What I do measure is quality and nuance. Individuality. While it is certainly a good thing to have minimal to no disease in the vineyard, when you work organically or biodynamically, growing seasons won’t be perfect, and vines won’t be perfect. I try to flex with nature and know that some seasons will be better than others in terms of the conditions. What I ultimately look for is the quality of the juice from the berries and the wine they make. As long as I feel the berries that go into the wine are saying something about where they are from and the vagaries and little victories of the season, it is a good harvest.

ST: How are the harvests now at the new vineyards that you have taken control of, in terms of managing the fruit during the growing season?

DH: In just two growing seasons, we have seen big changes in the vines, especially this year. This year was a near perfect growing season, so we were very lucky to have so much sun and dry weather to which the vines really responded. But the pruning we did this year also really redirected the energy of the plants back to their center, back to their roots, and as consequence the fruit was beautiful. We grew a little in our tonnage of fruit this year, but then we doubled the juice itself. The ratio of fruit to stem was greater this year. The natural fermentations took off immediately and the yeast colonies from the field have continued to be healthy and strong.

Plants that we didn’t expect much from this year, produced better than we thought, and plants that had been previously destroyed by girdling by field pests a couple of winters ago, grew new trunks, giving us healthy new plants that won’t need to be replanted next year. I am looking forward to next year’s revelations.

ST: Throughout the book the phrase “Wine is made in the vineyard” appears. What does that mean?

DH: I believe that wine is made in the vineyard rather than the cellar. The work that the winegrower does in the field during the season is where I see most of the craft in creating interesting, thoughtful wine. I see the winegrower as a guide or a companion to the vines and the fruit that comes in at harvest, not as a manipulator in the cellar. Most of the effort takes place during the growing season; for me the true winegrower or maker is simply responding with a very light hand to what he or she understands what the wine wants to become as the season continues from crush to bottle.

I have a lot of friends on the west coast who don’t have their own vines, but buy fruit from local growers and make really remarkable wines. In this instance, these winemakers educate themselves on the parcels that produce their fruit, and they work with the grower, either helping to formulate the growing plan, or working in concert with the grower’s understanding of his or her land.

And that’s what it’s all about in the end: Understanding the land and how the plants grow in a particular place. For me, it is the vine’s relationship to its terroir, the personality of the field, that dictates the wine.

The Latest Offerings From Our Publishing Partners

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

In addition to publishing our own books on the politics and practice of sustainable living, Chelsea Green offers a helping hand to smaller publishers and those based overseas to bring their books to a wider audience. For the latest selection of titles from our publishing partners, check out the list below.

You’ll find books on a variety of topics including examining plants across the globe, observing natural landscapes in the United Kingdom, revealing the secrets of the truffle, and more.

Here’s an update on the new books from Permanent Publications, one of our strongest partnerships:

Around the World in 80 Plants- This book takes us on an original and inspiring adventure around the temperate world, introducing us to the author Stephen Barstow’s top eighty perennial leafy-green vegetables. Sprinkled with recipes inspired by local traditional gastronomy, this is a fascinating book, an entertaining journey, and a real milestone in climate-friendly vegetable growing from a pioneering expert on the subject.

The Vegan Book of Permaculture- In this groundbreaking book, author Graham Burnett demonstrates how understanding universal patterns and principles, and applying these to our own gardens and lives, can make a very real difference to both our personal lives and the health of our planet. Interspersed with an abundance of delicious, healthy, and exploitation-free recipes, Burnett provides solutions-based approaches to an eco-friendly, truly vegan lifestyle.

How to Read the Landscape (coming soon) - From his years of experience observing the landscape across the UK, author Patrick Whitefield explains everything from the details, such as the meaning behind the shapes of different trees, to how whole landscapes, including woodland, grassland, and moorland, fit together and function as a whole. Opening How to Read the Landscape is like opening a window on a whole new way of seeing the living world around you.

And, coming soon from some of our other publishing partners, Slow Food Editore and The Greenhorns, check out these new titles:

For the fourth consecutive year, Slow Food International offers an English-language edition of their guide to Italian wines whose qualities extend well beyond the palate. With visits to 350 cellars, its 3000 wine reviews describe not only what’s in the glass, but also what goes into the winemaking process for each label. (coming soon)
An aura of mystery surrounds the most precious of the earth’s fruits. This Slow Food manual dispels it, describing the various types of tuber, explaining how to recognize and select them, and offering suggestions for buying truffles, cleaning them, storing them, and using them in the kitchen. This practical advice is complemented by a series of itineraries in the homeland of the Alba white truffle and a selection of classic and creative recipes. (coming soon)
The theme of the second New Farmers’ Almanac is “Agrarian Technology.” In this volume, you will find answers to practical questions about institutional forms, and future-making: restoration agro-forestry, reclaiming high desert urban farmland, starting a co-op, pickup truck maintenance, pirate radio utopia, cheap healthcare, farming while pregnant, farm terraces, and quite a few more. (coming soon)

Our Most Popular DIY Projects of 2014

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

If leading a more sustainable life is topping your list of New Year’s resolutions, then check out our most popular do-it-yourself projects of 2014.

These how-to blog posts share a common focus on developing the skills and knowledge needed to create true change—the kind that begins with us in our own backyard. Whether you’re interested in identifying wild edibles, using a wood-fired oven, learning to graft fruit trees, or increasing your garden’s productivity, this list of projects is sure to inspire a greener, more resilient way of living.

For more of 2014′s most popular content countdowns, browse our lists of Top 10 Blog Posts and Top 5 Food & Drink Recipes.

Happy New Year!

#6: How to Use Lambsquarter from Root to Plant to Seed

This excerpt from Katrina Blair focuses on the edible and medicinal uses of lambsquarter, one of the “super weeds” that can be found growing all over the world. Featured in the New York Times gardening roundup, The Wild Wisdom of Weeds is the only book on foraging and edible weeds that focuses on the thirteen plants which together comprise a complete food source and extensive medical pharmacy and first-aid kit.

#5: Build a Wood-Fired Oven in Your Backyard

In this excerpt by bread expert Richard Miscovich, you will find a few general masonry design recommendations to get you thinking about how to turn your dream wood-fired oven into a reality. Check out the rest of From the Wood-Fired Oven for a wide range of useful recipes for home and artisan bakers, as well as oven designs, live-fire roasting techniques, and more.

#4: The Endless Arugula Bed

What does it take to extend your gardening season? In The Resilient Farm and Homestead, Ben Falk shows how using a simple structure of quick hoops and greenhouse film to overwinter arugula can provide fresh greens as early as mid-March. Try producing your own endless bed of arugula using these instructions, or experiment with another crop from Falk’s book.

#3: How to Graft the Perfect Fruit Tree: 5 Grafting Techniques

Interested in keeping an orchard but intimidated by the prospect of grafting? R.J. Garner’s The Grafter’s Handbook is the classic reference book on plant propagation by grafting. This excerpt, revised and updated from the original 1947 publication, details five key techniques for grafting established trees, such as cleft, oblique, rind, veneer, crown and strap grafting.

#2: Michael Judd’s Blueberry Soil Mix

Michael Judd, permaculture designer and author of Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist, reveals his special recipe for blueberry soil mix. How does it work? Instead of pulling material from distant ecosystems, Judd creates a soil mix that imitates the plant’s natural forest edge habitat.

 #1: The Ultimate Guide to Sheet Mulching

The number one do-it-yourself blog post of the year is a tutorial on how to prepare and install the ultimate, bombproof sheet mulch. Starting new layers of mulch in the fall is ideal for spring plantings. Be sure to check out the rest of Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway for more expert gardening advice on creating your own backyard ecosystem.

 

 

 

 

 

10 Books to Curl Up With This Winter

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

William Wordsworth was right when he said, “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” Nevertheless, the cold, dark days of winter can still get the best of even Nature’s most tenderhearted admirer. What’s one to do?

We here at Chelsea Green have concocted the perfect cabin fever remedy with our suggested winter reading list. With topics ranging from sustainable meat production to the secret lives of black bears to life lessons from a contrary farmer, and more, these books are sure to lighten up your days and keep your mind active long after the first signs of spring.

So throw another log on the fire, grab a blanket, and tuck in for the long haul with these new and classic favorites from Chelsea Green.

Winter Reading List

An Unlikely Vineyard by Deirdre Heekin
Ranked one of the best wine books of 2014 by The New York Times, An Unlikely Vineyard tells the evolutionary story of Deirdre Heekin’s farm from overgrown fields to a fertile, productive, and beautiful landscape that melds with its natural environment. Accompanied throughout by lush photography, this gentle narrative will appeal to anyone who loves food, farms, and living well.
Slowspoke: A Unicyclist’s Guide to America by Mark Schimmoeller
Slowspoke is about more than a cross-country trip on a unicycle; it’s a meditation on a way of life that Americans find increasingly rare; one that practices a playful, recalcitrant slowness. Schimmoeller intersperses recollections of his journey with vignettes of his present-day, off-the-grid homesteading with his wife in Kentucky and their effort to save an old growth forest. This memoir, deemed “profoundly simple, funny, and sincere” by Publishers Weekly, will help you slow down and appreciate every winter day.
Grass, Soil, Hope by Courtney White
This book tackles an increasingly crucial question: What can we do about the seemingly intractable challenges confronting all of humanity today, including climate change, global hunger, water scarcity, environmental stress, and economic instability? White believes the answer lies in the soil beneath our feet and our efforts to sequester carbon.
In the Company of Bears by Benjamin Kilham
In this book, Kilham unveils his groundbreaking work observing communication and interactions between wild black bears. Diagnosed with dyslexia, Kilham comes to discover that thinking differently is truly his greatest tool for understanding the natural world. You might not master the art of hibernation this winter, but In the Company of Bears will open your mind to the insights the non-human world can offer. Now available as an audio book!
Angels By the River by Gus Speth
In this compelling memoir, you follow Speth’s unlikely path—from a Southern boyhood to his career as an influential mainstream environmentalist to his current system-changing activism. Speth calls for a new environmentalism to confront the complex challenges of today.
Gene Everlasting: A Contrary Farmer’s Thoughts on Living Forever by Gene Logsdon
How do farmers relate to life and death? In this collection of essays, Logsdon reflects on the intimate connection farmers have with the food chain through his experiences as a farmer up to his most recent bout with cancer. Kirkus gives this book a starred review and calls it a “perceptive and understatedly well-written meditation.”
Carbon Shock by Mark Schapiro
It may be cold outside, but things are heating up in the atmosphere. Schapiro’s book is an investigative study into the relationship between climate change and the economy. His in-depth analysis into the cost of carbon in our daily lives will inspire you to not only think deeply about the impact of climate change, but also to put on another sweater.
Defending Beef by Nicolette Hahn Niman
Niman writes from the unique perspective of an environmental lawyer and vegetarian turned cattle rancher. In her latest book, she explains how, contrary to public opinion, cattle are neither inherently bad for the earth nor for our nutritional health. She convincingly shows how, with proper oversight, cattle can play an essential role in maintaining grassland ecosystems and are an irreplaceable part of the world’s food system. According to the LA Times, Niman’s argument for sustainable meat production “skewers the sacred cows of the anti-meat orthodoxy.”
The Seed Underground by Janisse Ray
In this award-winning book, Ray explores the crucial value of saving seeds in the local food movement and shares stories from numerous seed savers, as well as tips on how to save seeds yourself.
Taste, Memory by David Buchanan
In this book, Buchanan examines the relationship between past and present farming through the value of culturally forgotten foods and new varieties. He draws from his experiences as a grower of various heirloom species to show that thoughtful selection is necessary when matching diverse species with the needs of a particular land and climate.

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