Growing and Eating Seeds

We eat seeds everyday. Grains, nuts, beans and, well, seeds, are all seeds. A seed is an embryonic plant covered with a seed coat. A grain is a dried fruit. In this blogpost I’m going to concentrate on true seeds.

Grains are usually seeds from grasses, although there are common exceptions to that rule such as the amaranth below.  Seeds contain the magic that makes a plant out of a speck; a towering oak from an acorn. Seeds are highly nutritious for humans as well, but often are just used as a flavoring (think of an ‘everything’ bagel). Many have been used medically for relieving everything from eczema to mental issues. Some seeds such as grains are difficult to prepare for eating on a small scale, such as rice. Separating seeds from chaff takes a lot of steps that may not be practical for the handful of food at the end of the process. However there are many seeds that we commonly eat that are easily grown among the veggies, or even in a flower bed. Here are some that we grow at Finch Frolic Garden Permaculture:

Let’s start with one of my favorite flavors, the sesame seed. Sesame  (Sesamum indicum) seeds grow on small upright plants about 2 – 3′ high that have lovely tubular flowers. Bees love to crawl into them. Its a pretty plant and flower, so could easily be incorporated into an ornamental area. There are both black and white sesame seed plants; the white seed is really brownish as it has a seed coat. Sesame is also called benne seed. Once harvested sesame seeds should be stored in a dark cool place or refrigerated. The seeds can be used raw, or better still lightly toasted in a dry pan before sprinkling over your food. So very yum. Tip: sesame pods become tight as they dry and then split with force, throwing the seeds away from the plant. If you want to harvest any then watch the pods as they dry on the plant and then cut and hang in a paper bag to catch the seeds as they fly, or break open with your hands.

Amaranth:

Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) is a very tasty, easily grown seed that is considered a grain. It was a major food of the Aztecs, and almost completely destroyed by the Spanish after their conquest of that civilization. Amaranth was too sneaky though and survived. It is easily digestible, high in protein and full of other nutrition. It has wild as well as  ornamental varieties, but all are edible (be sure what you are eating!)  Love-lies-bleeding is the dramatic name of the long red tasseled kind. 

All are great for birds as well as humans.

Pigweed and lambsquarter are its weedy relatives.  All of them have edible leaves, although some varieties are more tasty than others. Older leaves are better cooked. The tall varieties can grow 8′ tall or so, may need staking, and make good shade plants for others that need sun protection. When you start to see birds on the flowers then the seed should be ready. Another way to check is to gently rub the flowers between your fingers and see if seeds come off as well as the petals. If so, then over a clean, dry bucket rub the cut flowers between your fingers. Winnow the chaff away over a mesh screen or in the wind, or by gently blowing it away from the seed. Now you need to completely dry the seed in the sun, and then store in a dry, dark cool place. Use within six months for best results.

Poppy seeds:

No, not the opium kind, the lemon-poppy seed cake kind, although both are varieties of Papaver somniferum. Look for seeds for Breadseed Poppy varieties. This is another beautiful ornamental with striking seed pods that can be dried and used in flower arrangements. Poppies enjoy poor, disturbed soil. The seeds are tiny so need to be exposed to daylight to germinate. The flowers are beautiful; frail and feminine. The seed pods are rounded and have tiny holes at the top where the seeds come out of, so be careful when you are working around the drying pods or you’ll scatter seeds. Or just let some drop and they will come up next year.Allow the pods to dry on the stem and then carefully cut. Shake the seeds out into a jar and store in a cool, dark place. Use raw or lightly toasted. Be sure not to eat them before taking a drug test, or you’ll test positive.

Basil seeds:

Basil seeds aren’t well known for their culinary use in the US, but they are nutritious and useful. The seeds of the sweet basil plant (Ocimum basilicum) not Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), when soaked make the water gelatinous, as chia seeds do, so are used to thicken drinks and foods. You don’t have to soak basil seeds to use them though. The flowers are delightfully edible as well. Use them for additional flavor and nutrition by tossing them raw into salads, salad dressing, breads, or just about anything. Letting some of the basil plant go to seed (while pinching other stems to keep it leafing) will attract small native pollinators to your garden. When the flowers dry, the seeds are ready to be shaken off into a clean, dry bucket or bag. 

Coriander:

You probably know cilantro or Chinese parsley as the love-it-or-hate-it herb found in salsas and many Mexican or East Indian dishes.  Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) seed is called coriander. Coriander seed is usually used ground and used in curry mixtures, soups and meat dishes.  It is an historical herb, being used in ancient India, China and Egypt. It has a kind of lemony taste that is unique. 

Celery seeds:

Celery (Apium graveolens) seeds are marvelous savory additions to soups, particulary tomato.  I grind it up in a mortar and throw it in soups and stews to round out the flavor. We grew celery one year -although I have no photos of it – and because of the warm weather the celery stalk flavor was quite strong. However the seeds were delightful. Celery is a cool-season plant and the stalks should be covered to keep pale green and mild flavored. Or just let them grow for the seed. There is a wild variety that grows in marshlands, but please be very careful if you harvest from it because it looks similar to the very poisonous water hemlock (Cicuta). 

Fennel:

If you’ve sipped ouzo, aguardiente or anisette, you’ve tasted the seeds of the fennel plant. Fennel  (Foeniculum vulgare) is the brother of anise, and both have escaped gardens to be a troublesome weed. Fennel bulbs are absolutely amazing lightly steamed, and then baked in vegan butter and topped with vegan Parmesan. The leaves are fantastic stirred into eggs or salads, and the seeds are incredible flavorings for baked goods, candies and obviously alcohols. Miranda candied fennel seeds for me. They have been used to try and mask cigarette or alcohol breath, but really… who is kidding who? They do make a great breath freshener chewed. The plants are frondy, tall and have pretty umbels of flowers that native insects love.  Grow some for the bulbs (protect them from gophers!) and let others go to seed. Cut and hang upside down to collect the seed in a bag or else you’ll have fennel everywhere. And that may not be a bad thing.

Sunflower

I don’t know anyone who isn’t familiar with sunflower seeds; certainly the shells were routinely spit out all over campus as a cool snack when I was in college and probably still are. At least they are biodegradable. Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are one of the few edible seeds native to North America, and they are protected in an attractive hull. Some varieties are small, multi stemmed and ornamental, and others are grown for their fabulously large seed heads. Birds love eating the green leaves as part of their healthy diet, so grow extra. The seed heads should be left to dry on the stalk, and then cut and shaken to de-seed. Good pollination is important to produce seeds with good ‘meat’ inside. 

Eat them raw or toasted; they are full of good things for your body. (Miranda is 5’1″ in the photo, not tiny. I like that one of the heads seems to be checking her out.)

Dill

Dill (Anethum graveolens) is another double happiness plant. The leaves are tremendous used fresh or dried, and the seeds are fantastic as well. We use the whole seed heads in our dill pickle recipe. It goes well with fish, or in our case vegan fish. Grind them or use them whole, but definitely stir them into sauces, soups, dressings, dips, etc. Dill, like fennel, will reseed, but that isn’t a bad thing. They look pretty much like the fennel plant above.

Caraway:

We’ve grown caraway (Carum carvi) in the past, but I have no picture for you. Just refer to the photo above of the fennel and it will be close, as they are in the carrot family. You’ll find caraway in rye breads, liquors and cheeses, and in some areas the young leaves and roots are also eaten. They are dried and harvested just like the fennel and dill.

There are other seeds that we haven’t grown. We’ve tried to grow cumin and annatto seeds, but have failed to make them germinate; there is always next year. Some seeds are so small, such as chia, that you’d have to grow a lot of plants to harvest just a little seed. Seeds are such a vital nutritional and flavorful part of our diets, and so fun to grow that everyone should sprinkle edible seed-bearing plant seeds throughout their garden. As seeds dry and keep fresher longer than dried leaves (such as basil or dill), that fresh taste of the garden can last through until next year’s harvest time again.

 

 

Insects: Pest or Partner?

Ladybug on ragweed, chowing down on the aphids.

Finch Frolic Garden has been insecticide-free since it was first planted. It is a wildlife habitat as well as a food forest, and there are no chemicals at all used. Instead we rely on that habitat to create an integrated pest management system.

Western fence lizards are in and out of all of our veggie beds. We use no fertilizers other than compost, so they are safe.

The abundant frogs and lizards balance out most of the insect populations, and the birds, particularly bush tits and the other smaller gleaners, do their share.

A surprise visit from a skink! Welcome, little bug eater!

It may seem counter-intuitive to invite in and create habitat for insects when insects do the most damage.

A Baja California Treefrog, a.k.a. Pacific Chorus Frog (Pseudacris hypochondriaca hypochondriaca), clinging to the PVC pipe in the beet bed. He’s keeping the bugs in check while being cute.

But like humans, bugs are bug’s own worst enemy. Bring in the native insects!

Observation plays an enormous role in successful pest management; what better excuse for sitting in your garden looking at flowers?

Mexican Bush Katydid (Scudderia mexicana) on fennel.

For that is where you’ll see most of the beneficials.

A tiny jumping spider (family Salticidae) on yarrow. Spiders eat a lot of insects. The nectar draws in the bugs, and the spider waits.

In dryland areas everything is smaller: smaller tree canopies, smaller predators, smaller prey, and smaller insects. There are over 300 species of bee native to San Diego alone. None of them produce honey -there are no native honeybees to North America – but they are very important and very overlooked pollinators. Planting native plants, which have adapted over time to provide the best possible food sources in the most attractive packages, will be optimal for a native garden. Allowing non-natives that are also attractive to good bugs go to flower, along with the natives, is good too. For instance, dill, mint, basil, fennel and carrot all produce clusters of tiny flowers.

Blooming cilantro next to peas: both are good non-native small insect food sources.

Take a good squint at them and you’ll see very tiny creatures dining out on the pollen and nectar, and possibly each other. 

This scary-looking character (Chrysoperla rufilabris) is a wonderful friend, voraciously hunting many kinds of insects in adult, larval and eggs forms.

Lacewing larva are ugly ducklings that grow into lovely — and equally predatory — fairy-like adults.

Keeping a food supply for predatory insects is important to keep them in your garden. People buy ladybugs — most of which are non-native — and release them into a garden hoping they’ll linger and take care of any insect problem that might come up. Well, those poor bugs who survive packaging are hungry and thirsty. If there aren’t drops of water to sip on or aphids to munch right away, they have to go looking for them to survive. So leaving patches of plants with small infestations of aphids or other insects is important, as hard as that may be to do.

Recently while installing more raised pallet beds in the vegetable garden I was about to pull out a batch of ragweed.

Ragweed covered in aphids.

Its a native here, but an invasive one as it travels via underground runners and by seed. This batch was covered in aphids. Miranda, with her good eyesight, luckily stopped me. She saw dozens of ladybug larvae happily munching on all of those aphids.

Ragweed chock full of hungry ladybug larvae and hatched adults. They cleaned the plant of aphids and went to work on the rest of the garden.

There were adult ladybird beetles as well, but the number of larvae was incredible.

Nom!

The ragweed stayed. Eventually it was sprinkled with white aphid carcasses sucked dry by ladybug larvae. In a couple of weeks, the aphids were gone, the plant looked absolutely clean, and the ladybugs had had successful reproduction and had flown off to work in other areas of the garden and possibly in my neighbor’s yard. You are welcome. Then I pulled out the ragweed. We have plenty of it elsewhere for future ladybug mating sites.

Inspection of native plants at a friend’s house which were besieged by scale and aphids showed two things: one, that Argentine ants were farming insect on the leaves of the plant, and needed to be controlled, and that these plants also had the local rescue squad on hand. Thanks to Miranda again, she saw many types of native predatory insects feeding on the invaders.

hoverfly, beneficial insect, integrated pest management, Pseudodoros clavatus

Hoverflies or flower flies like this Four-spotted Aphid Fly (Pseudodoros clavatus) are not only our most common generalist pollinator, but also an important predator of plant-sucking insects such as aphids and thrips.

Larvae of Pseudodoros clavatus feasting on Oleander Aphids (Aphis nerii). Oleander Aphids are commonly found on milkweed.

We didn’t want to sprinkle food grade diatomaceous earth on the leaves or do anything to kill off the good guys, so we put borax ant bait in protected containers around the base of the plants and left them alone. The ants would die off and stop farming the bad guys, and the good guys would have great meals and be healthy and hardy enough to reproduce on site. The plants would recover and the natives would win.

Cryptolaemus montrouzieri, integrated pest management, beneficial

The worst gardening policy is the ‘squish first and ask questions later’ one. Although this long-haired cutie might look like the dastardly mealybug, it’s actually the larvae of the Mealybug Destroyer beetle (Cryptolaemus montrouzieri), a naturalized predator species that saved the California citrus industry once upon a time and which continues to covertly lend a hand in orchards and gardens every day.

Plants communicate in many different ways, and one of the ways is through scents that we cannot detect. These volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are released for various reasons and detected by surrounding plants. Native plants will release an alarm VOC when being attacked by insects that other natives pick up on, and they in turn release VOCs that attract the native predatory insects that will eat the pest. Having lots of native plants integrated in your landscape benefits your non-natives by calling in the rescue squad when the bad guys show up. Non-native plants, of course, release VOCs as well, but they are speaking a different language; their chemicals may not be recognized by the other plants, or they are signalling for beneficial insects that don’t live in the area. By providing good habitat – bird boxes, sources of water for birds, lizards, frogs, toads and insects, having mulches and native bee nesting boxes around the property, allowing some plants to flower, and of course, not using insecticide, you’ll have a balanced ecosystem full of wildlife in no time.

bird, integrated pest management, orange-crowned warbler

Industrious Orange-crowned Warblers (Oreothlypis celata) can be seen poking through bushes, trees and even tall lush grass prowling for small insect prey.

Remember that even if a product is from plant sources – such as neem oil or pyrethrum, doesn’t mean that it isn’t powerful. No insecticide will kill the target species and leave all the good guys alone. Scorched earth policy is never the best way to go in nature. Sprinkling food grade diatomaceous earth just where the bad bugs are and not liberally spreading it around, or using a soap and water spray on infested leaves, can help. Just look first and see if there are signs of beneficials already there working for you. 

beneficial, integrated pest management, Bracon celer

This female braconiid wasp’s tail-like long, thin ovipositor is a weapon of population regulation. She uses it to inject her eggs into the bodies of her prey — fruit flies in this species — and her maggots eat their hosts from the inside.

Remember too that if you purchase plants that have been treated with insecticide, particularly those with systemic insecticides (which means they work internally throughout the plant), they will kill anything that takes a bit out of them. The poison goes through the pollen and nectar as well. So birds nibbling the leaves, pollinators and beneficial predatory insects having a meal, butterfly caterpillars, and the insects that eat all of the above, will all be poisoned. If that milkweed you bought to feed the Monarchs don’t have aphids on them, be suspicious. Those tags at the big box stores that say the plants have been treated with insecticide – neonicotinoids – that are safe, are excluding facts about what else they effect. Systemics stay in the plant, possibly for the life of the plant. They don’t go away. GMO seeds have had their DNA modified to accept the use of chemicals, both herbicides and insecticides. Glysophate, a derivative of Agent Orange, is now found in mother’s milk, in human and animal tissue, and in most soil. We have to stop using chemicals for the health of ourselves and our ecosystem. So buy plants and seeds from sources you can trust. Just because the big box stores offer a good return policy doesn’t validate their products. You are buying inferior plants that are toxic to beneficial insects. That bug-free milkweed plant will kill the Monarch caterpillars feeding on it. The more you demand and support chemical-free plants, the more suppliers there will be. On my Resources page under Shopping I have listed many wonderful sources for plants and seeds online, but look locally first.

minute pirate bug, integrated pest management

A minute pirate bug (Orius tristicolor) scans the deck of this native Dove Weed (Croton setigerus) leaf for any of the mites, thrips, aphids and caterpillars it makes its vittles from. No prey, no pay, and dead bugs tell no tales about this tiny but deadly predator!

Get to know your native insects. Have a seat by the flowers and take a good look – with a magnifying glass if necessary – and be amazed at the hundreds of little workers you didn’t even know that you had.

 

What a Difference Mulch Makes

Two years ago friend sheet-mulched her very hard, dry dirt yard using cardboard and newspaper topped with  very large chunk free wood chips. Last year into this were planted a scattering of California native plants. Most of them have thrived, even surviving a frost and many 100F + days. These have been minimally watered. This week in March, after very low seasonal rainfall, we set off to plant more natives. What we found under the mulch was amazing. That light brown dirt was now moist, worm-filled soil. Under what was left of the cardboard were beautiful fungal hyphae breaking down the under layer of bark chunks into a fine surface compost. The shovel slide through the newspaper and into the ground making for very easy digging. The soil smelled good and felt alive.

Then we wanted to enlarge the planting area past the mulched area, and it was as if we were digging on  another property. The shovel barely entered the dirt, and then hit hardpan within an inch of the surface. We had to chop and scrape holes to plant in. Once we did, we heavily sheet mulched around the plants. 

Both of these areas, separated by a foot, have had the same rainfall and temperatures, but the mere existence of a thick layer of sheet mulch caused moisture and coolness to be retained, caused protection from hard rain, frost, high heat and dryness, compaction and wind. Just this easy combination of waste materials – wood chips and cardboard – made an incredible change in the soil structure and water retention.

Last summer when the outside temperature was in the 90’s we dug into a pile of bark chips. On the top the wood was almost hot. Three inches down, it was cool and moist even though it hadn’t rained for months. A difference of night and day. This summer I’ll obtain a compost thermometer and take readings. 

Leaving the soil bare is like going out in all weather unclothed. Your skin will burn and you’ll become dehydrated in summer; you’ll freeze and also become dehydrated in the cold. In heavy rain and hail you will try to protect yourself by becoming as small a target as possible. Although the soil isn’t cowering, it is being pounded down and de-oxygenated under the onslaught of weather. With no air in the topsoil water runs off rather than sinks in. Soil bakes and there is no microbial life in the desert of the uncovered topsoil. The soil freezes and frosts, and microbes are killed; the moisture in the soil evaporating with the coming of spring. All of this damage is preventable by the application of several layers of mulch, or sheet mulch. You wouldn’t think of being outside for a long time in harsh weather without clothing, so protect your soil the way nature intends, with a carpet of organic matter.

The cardboard had gone on top of weeds. No additives were used in planting, such as gypsum, fertilizer or compost. Watering is done on an as-needed basis with a hose.  I am always thrilled and awe-struck when, over and over again, I see proof of what simple soil conservation efforts have on soil building. 

California poppies seeds had been planted in the planting holes the year before, and their seeds have rooted in the bark mulch. Their roots will hold the mulch together and also help change it into soil, as poppies are colonizers helping repair disturbed soil. For the price of a packet of seeds, our friend now has the beginnings of a wildflower meadow filling out the spaces between native flowering plants. 

Good soil begins the food chain, beginning from what science can so far tell from microscopic mycrobes and ending in this property at least perhaps at the nesting red tailed hawk in the nearest tree, or perhaps the largest local predator, the coyote. Meanwhile the butterflies and other native insects, and all the song birds, will be on display for our friend’s enjoyment.

The sheet mulching will continue on over the slope, and as we plant we mix in pieces of old wood, we plant in shallow depressions in the ground to capture moisture and coolness, we dig a small fishscale swale above the plant to capture flowing water, and we sheet mulch heavily. It will be fascinating to keep checking that poor dirt as it regains microbial and fungal life simply through the protection of sheet mulch.

Rebuilding Our Habitat Pond… Again

Here in Fallbrook, CA, in San Diego’s north county, we’ve had 3 1/2 inches of rain in the past eleven months, and that came overnight several weeks ago. Last year we had a historic 20+ inches of rain which no one was prepared for, as our average is now about eight to ten inches. This year, the plants and animals are in trouble already. The days are hot and dry, with no rain in the forecast for our three rainiest months. I’ve heard people say that they never recommend a pond in a drought, but they can’t be more wrong ecologically speaking. The animals and insects need your help to survive, and they will help your yard with integrated pest management, pollination, soil building, and so much more.

Many years ago my daughter and I tore out this big juniper in front of our dining room window and dug a pond. I received a used pond liner, flagstone and some rocks for free from a source that didn’t want them. For years I had a lined pond, and I reconfigured it and the flagstones three times over the years. I’ve built new muscles lifting and hauling large, thick pieces of flagstones. With the success of our large unlined pond (blessed with thick clay at the bottom of the property) I wanted to make this little one unlined as well. The benefits would be that I could grow water plants in-ground, and better aquatic creatures could thrive in it. The problem was that up top by the house there is a lot of decomposed granite, which is porous. So I spent many a day digging up clay from various areas on the property, pushing the buckets or wheelbarrow uphill through mulch, lugging it over and lining the pond with it. Miranda hauled clay as well. Six inches of clay still didn’t seal it. I’d been refilling the pond every few days with well water, but the level would change dramatically and the Pacific Chorus Frogs that used to come to the pond in great numbers, sing deafeningly in January and February, lay eggs and then go off to eat more bugs in the yard, weren’t coming anymore. The low pond water allowed watercress and other plants to fill it up as well. Now it is frog breeding time, and there is little habitat for them.

So a few weeks ago I purchased new pond liner. My daughter and I pulled the pond apart, fed the watercress to the hens,

dug up clay and hauled it back down the hill (used it in raised beds) (best traveled clay anywhere),reshaped and enlarged the pond giving it plenty of edges, cushioned it with newspaper, 

relined it, moved around the flagstones yet again, transplanted a water lily from the big pond below into a sunken pot, transplanted creeping red fescue and a few green lilies around the edges, and installed a circulation pump which allows water to flow through a bird bath. We were finishing the work today, on this balmy, dry, 85F February 1, when Miranda noticed frog spawn attached to floating pine needles.

Over the last week while the pond had been full, the magic had already worked! So she corralled the pine needles – fallen from a newly deceased huge beautiful pine in our driveway that died because the neighbor randomly cut its roots in the heat of summer – into the shallow end to keep the spawn safe. Miranda cut some floppy dwarf cattail stems and stuck them into the submerged water lily pot so the frogs could attach their spawn to something stationery. We’d overlapped the edges with flagstone so there were plenty of sneaky places for frogs to hide out. We also have edges of different depths, for different sized birds such as the white crown sparrow below to bathe in, and they have been enjoying these areas immensely. We should charge a dirty bird spa fee!

Within half an hour of us finishing outside, while we ate a very late lunch, we had many diverse avian visitors coming in for a drink. The sound of water carries very far and will attract birds better than food sources. Even a female phainopepla, one of our few crested birds, enjoyed the new running water source. 

Followed by a mockingbird,

this wonderful thrush 

a scrub jay 

and more. Pond visitors today were also house finches, bushtits, a pair of mourning doves, bluebirds, crows, Western bluebirds, Anna’s hummingbirds, a tanager, Lincoln sparrow, and more. 

Then when the sun was about to set, the male Pacific chorus frogs gave out a practice singing session, just to see who was in the game for after it got dark.  

MVI 1937

Pacific Chorus Frogs sounding each other out around the upper pond before dark. Its breeding season!

You can make a small pond in a cattle waterer or other metal container, or suspend a big soda bottle over a concave dish and pierce a small hole in the bottom so that it very slowly drips. Provide some shelter for the animals around your watering hole, and you’ll be helping the wildlife get through these extremely dry days. They will respond by eating your bad bugs, building soil, pollinating and so much more. Be sure to watch the action, through a window or via a wildlife camera! Its better than TV, and no commercials.

(Photos Diane and Miranda Kennedy)

Projects for the New Year

Take on one project this year that will help improve the earth. Just one. If you can manage more, fantastic. However make sure that you are fully mindful of all aspects of your project so that is it done as well as it can be.

For instance, decide to use greywater. If you can physically and legally connect your household non-toilet water pipes to a water composting system and use it to irrigate plants, then do so. If piping is impossible, then hand-carry the dishwater, shower water, bath water and cooking water out and dump it on your plants as often as you can. Make a smoothie for yourself, then clean the blender by filling it with water, blending it, and pouring that nutrient-rich residual around your plants. Yet that is not enough. Use environmentally friendly soaps. Be aware of the plastic content and chemical treatments for fireproofing or insecticide of the clothes you are washing. Plastic is in synthetic fleece, in microdermal skin treatments, in polyester bedding. You don’t have to not use greywater if you are washing synthetic fabric, but you should be mindful of what you buying. Avoid microbeads. Avoid glitter and mosquito-proofed outerwear. Choose your purchases with open eyes, thereby reducing your usage of these toxins. Build good soil to help clean the toxins from the water. 

Compost. At the very least, use blender compost.    That means, take a handful of soft kitchen scraps, put them into a blender, fill with water, process, and pour the very liquidy mixture around your plants. Don’t throw away any food scraps, egg shells, leftovers, sour milk, moldy refrigerator mysteries, paper towels, tissues, paper napkins, cotton Q-tips, cotton balls, cotton dental floss, hair, or anything biodegradable. If you can’t blend it up and pour it onto the earth as fertilizer, then dig a small hole and bury it, or make a pile and compost it, or layer it in a raised bed or in a lasagna garden. What leaves your house in the form of trash should only be recyclables and undecompostable items. Your garbage disposal should be rarely used if ever. Put this raw fertilizer into the ground, not into the dump. Be mindful of what you are buying and whether it can be composted or not. 

Plant trees. If you are in an area with too much rainfall, you need the trees to take up the water, hold the soil and buffer the onslaught of the weather. If you are in a dry area you need trees to shade the ground, to capture ambient moisture and rain it down, to cover the hard earth with leaves. All areas need perches for animals. All areas need the oxygen supplied by the trees converting carbon dioxide gasses. All areas need reforestation with natives that thrive in indiginous locations. Be mindful of what kind of landscape you are planting. If you choose non-native trees that offer no food for animals and harm the native flora, then you are not helping. In San Diego, if you plant eucalyptus, ficus, Washingtonia palm trees, Brazilian or California peppers (not from California, but Peru), or many of the sterile fruitless versions of ornamental trees, you are taking away from the landscape rather than adding to it. I can’t begin to count how many neighborhoods I’ve been in with old plantings of ornamental plants and trees, and the area is so sterile of animals that they are like wastelands. Only survivor crows and sparrows (and loose cats) can be seen. Instead, areas with native trees are rich in many species of birds, and the insect population is under control as well. Water use is low, pollinator habitat is high, and the neighborhood feels alive and well, especially if the cats are safely tucking inside where they belong, as mine are.

Recycle. I am constantly stunned to see recyclable bottles and cans thrown into regular waste. The percentage of what is recycled that actually processed is low, too. So choose glass over plastic. We bought camping utensil sets to carry with us, refuse straws, and this year I’ll work on bringing containers for leftovers when we eat out rather than take a clamshell plastic container or Styrofoam one. I already wrap banana peels, leftover pastries, apple cores, and whatever is biodegradable in a paper napkin, bring it home and compost it. If you have a plastic water bottle, soda can, glass bottle, or anything recyclable, please put it in the appropriate container. Recycling has been around since I was a schoolgirl, and I can’t believe everyone still doesn’t do it.

Switch makeup. My daughter is particularly good at finding vegan, Fair Trade and non-GMO skin care products for reasonable prices. Neither of us use many cosmetics, but the lip and cheek color, eye color and moisturizers we use, as well as our daily soaps, are ethically and environmentally sourced. Why rub harsh chemicals into your eyes and mouth? The choices grow every day, and the prices lower all the time. Do your homework. Be mindful of what you pick up in the store. Remember that what you put on your skin is also washed down the sink and into the water table, or into your greywater. Support the businesses who have ethical business practices. This goes for men, too. Shaving cream, after shaves, toner, scent, hair products, etc. Your skin will be healthier for the change.

Shop local. Pick one or two local businesses that you know practice sustainable, ethical and conscientious business practices, who give back to their community, and give them all of your support. Buy from them, advertise for them, befriend them, give them moral support. Rate them highly on Yelp, Google, or other rating systems. Watch out for them to be sure that they can succeed. Work for them if possible. Adopt them so that they have success.

Go animal and dairy free at least one day a week. I cannot go into the scope of the damage to the environment and the horror of the treatment of food animals here. Dare yourself to find out for yourself. Read Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Find out what happens to cows and their calves in dairies, and the heartbreaking lowing of the cows -always kept pregnant to produce milk- as their young are hauled shrieking away to be slaughtered for veal. If you think that fish and shellfish somehow have no nerves or instincts, then think again. Lobsters who are by nature competitive being held in freshwater tanks, their claws bound, among their competition, starved, and then boiled alive. If you shrug and turn away from the suffering from others, then perhaps you should analyze your food sources more. You condone practices if you support them with your wallet. So set aside a meatless and dairy-free day once a week. If  the entire U.S. did not eat meat or cheese for just one day a week, it would be the equivalent of not driving 91 billion miles – or taking 7.6 million cars off the road. The UN  has said that a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from the worst effects of climate change because of the heavy environmental impact of raising livestock. Not to mention the health benefits that come from a plant-based diet; diabetes, cancer, hypertension, high blood pressure and so much more is rooted in diet. Make a Meatless Monday, or a Vegan Wednesday, or whatever, and avoid pouring cheese sauce all over some steamed veggies and calling it a good meal.  Have a curry, a Turkish Eggplant Stew, a dairy free mushroom stroganoff, spring rolls, veggie lasagna, heavenly steamed eggplant, a portobello sandwich, stir-fry, bean and avocado burritos, try some non-GMO meat substitutes like those from Gardein (particularly their fish!) (no product placement, just a recommendation), or make your own seitan. Make your own vegan butter. Let your body and the environment have a break for a day.

Help Out. Choose a local charity, or a needy neighbor, and provide what they need. Don’t just give them what you want to get rid of , or what you think they should have. Often people just need reassurance or a friend to talk to, or possible solutions, or a hand for a day. Donate what your charity needs, and if that is money then do it. Help with a fundraiser. Volunteer your time. Do something to truly help someone else out, without asking for praise or cosmic bonus points in return. Don’t be a pain; be a blessing. Volunteering and helping out make you feel worthwhile and surrounds you with like-minded people who can become your friends.

 I have found many of my closest friends through volunteering.  Be aware of large, nation- or world-wide charities who use most of your donations for salaries and infrastructure, and very little on what they are supposed to be supporting.  Don’t let the big names fool you. Use your money to help honest charities in your area, or by just sending money to people who need it, anonymously.

Whatever you choose to do, do it mindfully. Pay attention to the details, to where products come from, to the business practices of the charities and stores you support, to how animals and people are treated in the making of the products, of what is in what you handle every day. You don’t have to, nor can you, take on the world’s problems, but you can focus on one thing and stick with it; make it part of your day-to-day until it is habit. Then move to a second choice. What you do, what you buy, what you say and how you spend your time cause ripples across the earth, and being mindful of your influence will send out help rather than harm.

Happy New Year. Be healthy. Be kind. Be happy. You matter.

Inspiring Successful Earth-saving Projects

We can help the planet re-vegetate and reverse climate change. Here are three large projects that have had success and one which is still in the making because it is so vast. Watch these and be inspired, be hopeful, and plant native trees where you live:

Africa’s Great Green Wall:

China’s Loess Plateau:

Jordan’s Greening the Desert:

Tomatoes

Guess what we picked today? I’ve just finished freezing the large ones to make into tomato jam and tomato sauce later, or seasoning and setting the smaller ones out to sun dry. We’ll sell these fantastically tasty foods at our Marketplace in November.

Last year, 2016, we had no tomatoes until the Fall.  I couldn’t figure out why. Our summer temperatures were over 100F for days on end, peaking at 116F several of those days. The nights never cooled off and sleeping was difficult. It turns out that the tomatoes didn’t like the heat either. If temperatures consistently stay over 85F and don’t dip below 75F at night then the flowers won’t set fruit. And here I was thinking that tomatoes loved the heat! They just love the warmth, like I do.

Tomato flowers are self-pollinating. Each has both male and female parts and it takes vibration from winged insects and gentle warm winds to pollinate. Others flick them with their fingers, or set a tuning fork on them to simulate insect vibration. If there are very hot, dry winds, pollen dries out and isn’t viable. If the humidity is so high that it is sticky out the pollen swells and sticks, unable to fall to the female part of the flower. When the temperatures lowered in the Fall, even though the day length was shorter, the tomatoes quickly put on fruit. 

Here in Southern California’s inland area we don’t receive snow, so tomatoes can last outside as a perennial vine for several years. However a good way to keep tomatoes for use after summer is to prune it, hanging the vine with the tomatoes in a dry area with good air circulation. The vine will die but the tomatoes – especially sauce or paste tomatoes such as Roma – will stay in excellent condition for months.

Tomatoes enjoy a good deep watering, and then let go dry in between. The tomatoes are more flavorful that way as well. Most of the tomatoes we harvested today came from volunteers that had popped up along our fenceline and receive no water, and others receive water once or twice a week along with the trees by which they are planted.

This apricot tree has been struggling with the heat and heavy clay in which its been planted, and as it has too few leaves there isn’t anything protecting the trunk and branches from the scorching heat… except for this tomato plant. The tomatoes vine upwards away from nibbling animals and are easy to pick, and the apricot receives shade. (Remember that growing under trees that have an upward growth is great, but only grow companion plants outside of the dripline of trees that have heavy skirts such as citrus and avocado).

When tomato vines die down, cut them at the soil surface and then either bury them or cover them with compost and then plant right around them. Worms love tomato vines and roots, and the vines will return nutrients to the soil. Also, tomatoes don’t care about being planted in the same place twice, so don’t worry about crop rotation. The only issue you might have is that if you plant a different variety the following year, seeds from the previous year’s tomato might come up there as well. 

If your tomatoes crack on the vine, that usually means too much water, or that you’ve dumped some fertilizer on them and the growth spurt was too quick for the expanding fruit. Don’t use chemical fertilizers. Period. For anything. If you dose the tomatoes with fertilizer you’ll have lots of vines and little fruit. Also, if the tomatoes have blossom-end rot (round black dents in the bottom of the fruit) it means there is a calcium deficiency, so to prevent this bury crushed egg shells where you’ll plant tomatoes, or pour sour milk or milk products around the tomato plants. 

We have tomato hornworm in our garden,but they don’t get out of control because we have birds. They take care of most of the caterpillars in the garden. Besides, the tomato hornworm is the young of the Sphinx moth, 

a large lovely moth that you may see in the night.

If the temperatures remain tolerable this summer, we here at Finch Frolic Garden can look forward to lots of tomatoes to dry, can, freeze, eat fresh, make into sauce… whatever. Tomatoes are truly the taste of summer.

Shade

In drylands there is a noticeable lack of trees. This situation is kind of a Catch-22. The hotter and drier it is, the less water there is in the ground to provide for plants that can attain height, and the more the leaves of the existing trees must adapt (become smaller) to prevent transpiration and sunburn. Yet the very lack of trees and their extensive root systems, and the shade and habitat they create, and the transpiration that allows humidity to keep the air moist for pollen to survive, is one of the causes of desertification.

So how do we stop this cycle?

First, work on a manageable area. If you have a large property, then start on the area closest to your home or where you need water the most, or where water settles. As in the Annie Lamont title, Bird by Bird, you work on a piece a little at a time.

  1. Put in earthworks to harvest rainwater. Simple swales or rain catchment basins, perpendicular to the water flow and on contour with your property, will harvest hundreds of gallons of water each rain. You can do them with tractors, you can do them with shovels, you can do small ones with trowels above small plants. Just do them.
  2. Bury organic matter: hugelkultur. Do you have old wood laying around? Palm trees that are growing and being a fire hazard? Old untreated lumber full of nails? Branches? All of this can be layered into the ground. Bury organic matter downhill from your swales. If you cannot bury, then pound sticks vertically into the ground. The important thing is that you are adding organic material back into your depleted soil. It will hold rainwater, it will activate soil microbes and fungi, it will open oxygen and nutrient channels, it will sequester carbon and make it available to the plants. Our soil is mostly just dead dirt. By layering organic material with dirt you are doing what nature does, but at an accelerated pace. If your soil is unmanageable, or you can’t dig, then layer on top of the soil. Its called, among other things, lasagne gardening. Lay out newspaper, top it with fresh grass clippings or other greens, top that with dried grass clippings, dried leaves or other ‘brown’ materials, and depending upon what you want to plant in this, you can top it with mulch or with a layer of good compost and then mulch. Then plant in it! You create soil on top of the ground.
  3. Mulch and sheet mulch! Protect your soil from the heat and wind, and from pounding rain. A thin layer of bark will actually heat up and accelerate the evaporation process: add several inches of mulch to the ground. Better yet, sheet mulch by laying cardboard and/or newspaper directly on top of the weeds and layering an inch or more of mulch on top. This can be free mulch from landscapers, old weeds, grass clippings, animal bedding, softwood cuttings… just cover the soil to keep it moist and protected.  Thick mulching alone will help keep some humidity in the air and begin soil processes, as well as reduce evaporation by reflected heat that comes from bare earth or gravel
  4. Plant native plants. They thrive in our soil. Grow trees that filter the sun and don’t like a lot of water, such as palo verde, or those that take minimal additional water such as desert willow, California redbud, valley oak, or others. Grow tall bushes such as toyon, lemonadeberry, sugarbush, quailbush, ceanothusor others. Use these wonderful plants to invite in birds,butterflies, lizards and other wildlife that will begin pollination and help activate the soil.
  5. Design your garden for what you want to grow besides natives. Fruit trees? Vegetables? Ornamentals? They can be arranged in your mulched area in guilds to grow cooperatively. 
  6. Grow shade. Fast-growing trees and shrubs are invaluable for protecting – ‘nurserying in’ – less hardy plants. Acacia and cassia are both nitrogen-fixers and will grow quickly to shade your plants, can be cut for green waste in the fall and also attract pollinators. Moringa is completely edible and is also an excellent chop-and-drop tree. There are many others. You need to protect what you plant from the harsh summer sunlight, and using sacrificial trees and shrubs is the most productive way to do it.
  7. Protect your tree trunks from scorching by growing light vines up them, such as beans or small squash.

Once you have done this process in one area, then move on to the next, like a patchwork quilt. These areas should all be planted in accordance with a larger plan that covers your entire property, so that you plant what you want in the best possible place. However, the earthworks, hugelkultur and mulching can be done everywhere.  By following these guidelines, and working one small area at a time, you’ll have success, have trees, shade, food and be helping reverse desertification, one plot at a time.

Six Years of Permaculture

In February, 2011, I signed the contract with Roger Boddaert to create a permaculture food forest. The goals at that time were to stop the erosion on the property, to create a wildlife habitat, and to grow food, medicine, native plants, building materials, herbs and ornamentals in a sane way: no chemicals. So the journey began, and it hasn’t been easy. Nor did I at that time know that the garden would evolve into Finch Frolic Garden and my business would be education. 

In preparing for a talk about our garden, Miranda and I worked on before and after photos. The garden this April, 2017, is stunning, with blooming wisteria, fruit trees, red bud, roses, angel-wing jasmine, iris, and so much more. Best of all Mrs. Mallard has brought her annual flock of ducklings from wherever she nests, and the four babies are still alive and thriving after a week! So I thought I’d share the incredible difference between what had been, and what is now. All done with low water use, no fertilizer, herbicide, insecticide, additives or supplements. Come visit when you can!  Slideshow images change in ten seconds:

Creating Rain with Canopy

Even if we don’t receive a lot of rain in drylands, we might have fog, sprinkles and other degrees of ambient moisture. This moisture can burn off with reflected heat from hard-packed earth, from gravel and hardscape, and from buildings.  It is too irregular and thin to make the use of mist nets feasible.  However, a much better way to collect that moisture and turn it into rain is the method nature uses: trees.  The layers of a plant guild are designed to capture, soften and sink rainwater, so why not just let them do it? Many trees are dying due to heat, low water table, lack of rainfall and dry air. Replacing them with native and drought-tolerant trees is essential to help put the brakes on desertification.

Please take five minutes, follow this link and listen and have a walk with me into Finch Frolic Garden as this 5-year-old canopy collects moisture and turns it into rain:

Plant a tree!