Growing Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) were never one of my favorite foods… until I grew and ate one. It was a transformational experience. An entirely different experience from store-bought. If you’ve never had nor liked white sweet potatoes, grow one and try it. Or if you have to load marshmallows on top to get the orange ones down, you won’t need that gook with home grown. 

And by the way, what you find in a US chain store are all sweet potatoes, although the USDA calls the yellow ones yams just to make them different. A true yam has a rough bark-like skin and is an African dietary staple.

I put them in curries, steam them and top with a little vegan butter, cinnamon, chili-con-limon, a very light sprinkle of sugar and a squeeze of lime. I eat them here, I eat them there….. anyway, you get the picture. Not only are they low in fat and heavy in beta carotene, but people who eat a lot of healthy starches such as sweet potatoes, taro, cassava, potatoes, etc. have fewer chronic illnesses. Just don’t load the starch down with salt and fat.

Sprouting and growing your own sweet potato is different from growing the common potato, which is a swollen tuber in the solanaceae family. Sweet potatoes are tropical vines that need sunshine and warmth, and a lot of room to spread.  Give them space or provide a support because the vines can sprawl ten feet. The shiny leaves, unlike potatoes, are edible and very decorative.  You can grow them in large pots in the house as long as you have space for the vines (up and over the window?). The flowers are pretty, too. 

There are all kinds of sweet potatoes and crosses: purple inside, purple outside,yellow, orange,
white and combinations thereof. They are all delicious. Some grow with clumps of potatoes directly under the plant, and some spread out and grow  wherever the vine roots. You can grow them inside or outside, as long as they have warm soil and sunshine. For warmer areas, plant slips out in May or June. Its extremely easy to grow sweet potatoes. Here are some options:

Buy an organic sweet potato and keep it in a warm, dry, semi-dark place until you  begin to see it sprout.  Allow these slips to grow until they are several inches long. Then give them a gentle pull; if they come off easily they are ready to root. You can keep sprouting from that potato, or just eat it. Put the slips in a glass of water in a bright window for a few days and you’ll see them begin to root. After that they are ready to plant.

Or, take your organic sweet potato and cut it into wedges about an inch long. Suspend the chunk, cut-end down, over a glass of water so that the bottom is wet but the piece isn’t submerged. Do this by sticking three toothpicks around the sweet potato so that the toothpicks are over the edge of the glass. Many sprouts can come from a chunk, so you can keep harvesting until the base starts to go bad. Follow the directions above for removing the slip, rooting and planting it.

What you don’t want to do is to bury an entire sweet potato. It might sprout, but the plant will have all the nourishment it needs from the big potato and won’t form many if any new ones. By planting slips you are forcing the plant to grow storage units, or sweet potatoes.  

Be sure they are planted where the soil is well-draining, and watch out for animals in your area because sweet potatoes are very yummy to everyone.  The soil should be enriched with compost, but not straight manure. Give the tubers a fighting chance by gently loosening up the soil under and around the planting hole with a garden fork. Remove any visible rocks or stones that might misshape or injure the tubers.

If you live where you can plant bananas outside, sweet potatoes are a great companion plant in a banana circle/guild. I’ve planted them as a groundcover (and choosing those varieties that root directly under the center, planted them in gopher cages). They are very ornamental.

 In the right conditions you can grow sweet potatoes year round inside. Sweet potatoes want warmth so they are ideally suited to being planted indoors in areas where there are short summers. This is an excellent use for old fishtanks. 

In the fall the vines will die off, and that is when you dig up the roots and enjoy them! Now you cure them – an important step for flavor development. Be sure that the roots are dry on the outside and keep in place at about 85F – 95F with a lot of humidity – about 80%, for five – ten days. They will develop a thicker skin, have a deeper flavor and be better keepers.  Keep one for resprouting.

So sprout and grow your own, and don’t keep them just for Thanksgiving. Bake them like a regular potato and really enjoy a fabulously healthy meal. And maybe you’ll find one that looks like a walrus.

 

 

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:

Installing a Swale

Last Saturday we hosted our first workshop of 2017, featuring Alden Hough of Sky Mountain Permaculture. Alden is a master at creating earthworks, and he spent three hours here at Finch Frolic Garden teaching a class of sixteen people how to install swales correctly. The project was a small pond that overflowed and flooded when heavy rains hit. The soil is heavy clay and therefore the small pond doesn’t percolate. It is kept filled by the well, and its overflow feeds the bog and the big pond. Right now the little pond is full of native Pacific chorus frog tadpoles, which will evolve into small frogs that will go out into the landscape and eat bugs the rest of the year. He created a urbanite (cement chunks) spillway into a twenty-foot swale. The class learned what a bunyip was and how to use the water level, and how to use a laser level. The swale will hold about 300 gallons of water that would have overflowed into another area, spread and sink the water. 

The swale was measured and marked on contour. Bermuda grass was pulled from it and set into trash cans to cook in the sun and hopefully be destroyed. The swale was then dug by hand. Old wood – branches, logs, boards and old posts – were laid below the swale, and covered by the dirt. This hugelkultur will absorb seeping water, aerate and enrich the soil, and provide food and water over time for the trees downhill.More dirt was needed to cover the wood so we emptied the first rain catchment basin on the property of silt and hauled it down the hill. This was a lot of heavy work, and several of our attendees worked extremely hard with the wheelbarrows. Miranda and I have a lot of experience doing this heavy work, and we are glad that this swale project also emptied this basin. 

Our wonderful workshop attendees worked very hard in the heat. The end result was a swale of beauty. By creating level swales dug on contour, you can see how right it looks. It hasn’t been dug deeper into the ground at one end to force the swale to be level. If you measure on contour your swale can be of any size, and it will collect, passify, spread and sink rainwater into the landscape. Earthworks are the best way to hold water, and are imperative to reestablishing water tables, keeping wells running, keeping trees alive and maintaining springs and streams. A little earthworks will make a huge difference.

What needs to be done now is to create a dedicated overflow from the swale into the main pond. As this area receives a lot of foot traffic, we’ll also need to haul more silt to make the raised walkway more gradual and blended with the paths around.  Once the tadpoles have grown and left the pond, we can drain it and use that silt. Two projects in one. 

Prior to the project Miranda carefully removed a lot of healthy creeping red fescue from the work site. After the swale and spillway were dug she replanted some of it. Native yarrow will also be planted to help hold the swale. 

A huge thanks to the many people who came to learn and work on site. No matter how many movies you watch or books you read, having hands-on experience makes the education click. And an extra huge thanks to Alden Hough for his expertise and hard work. Please visit Sky Mountain Permaculture in Escondido for more classes – earth bag dome building included – coming up there.

Our next Finch Frolic Garden workshop will be in April: April 22, 2pm – 4pm: The Many Benefits of Trees: Care, Nurturing and Pruning . Roger Boddaert, the Tree Man of Fallbrook and professional landscaper who planned the original garden that would evolve into Finch Frolic Garden, will talk about trees. So many trees are dying due to the drought, and we need to replace them to help shade and cool the earth and hold onto moisture. But what to plant, where and how to care for them? Roger will take you through tree care based on fifty years of experience in landscaping. RSVP to dianeckennedy@prodigy.net.

Go forth and dig swales!

Earthworks Workshop

Happy March! Finch Frolic Garden is officially open, and the trees are bursting into leaf and bloom. Birds are twitterpating and the ten inches of rain we’ve received since October are slowly working through the soil thanks to our earthworks.

Here’s an opportunity to learn just how to create accurate swales and hugelkultur so that they work. Saturday March 11th from 1 -4 we have the privilege of having Alden Hough from Sky Mountain Permaculture hold our first monthly workshop here in the garden. Alden has years of experience with building earthworks on all scales, from guiding excavators across hillsides to hand-dug. Alden will describe how to build swales and hugelkultur beds, show off equipment, and then its hands-on in the garden. You’ll learn how to use a laser level and a bunyip, and get the feel of how to build on contour. Bring your gloves and be prepared to have some fun creating earthworks, so that you can do it properly on your own property.

The workshop fee is $20/person. Please RSVP to dianeckennedy@prodigy.net. Wear appropriate work clothes and sun protection. Complimentary vegetarian refreshments will be available. Attendees may stroll Finch Frolic Garden as well.  Don’t wait!

Manipulating Cold

In areas such as here in flatland San Diego we don’t receive a lot of cold. We’re growing both tropicals which don’t want the frost, and stonefruit, brassicas and other plants that do better with a good chill. So when frost comes we need to manipulate it.

Of course the best possible practice is to plant where there are optimal conditions for your particular types of plants and trees. Trees that need chilling should go down where frost settles. Tropicals should go higher where frost will roll past. However, circumstances change and you can’t be perfect all of the time, so here are some tips for helping your plants receive what they need:

For young tropicals, some frost protection through the first winter is important.  A very easy way to protect your trees is to set four stakes around the tree; the poles should be taller than the tree. As much as I don’t like to use plastic, a 6 mil white plastic works best for this. Otherwise wrap in heavy burlap, blankets, etc. The thing about white plastic is that it lets in light so that you can set this up at the beginning of the cold season and leave it up until after the last frost. I open and close the top just on nights when it is going to be frosty.

Wrap the plastic around the poles, allowing some to be on the ground in a skirt which you can hold down with rocks, and some to extend above the top of the tree.  Staple the plastic to the wooden poles. Frost rolls across the ground like water, so you want to make sure that it can’t roll under your plastic. It also comes down like water so you want to protect the top leaves. You can have a plastic flap that you can secure – tie down if its windy – over the top. I used several layers of burlap on my mango and rose apple trees, and I’m using an old sheet on my papaya, as if that frosts at the top it will come back the next year, and I didn’t have poles tall enough to reach above the highest leaves. Burlap, particularly wet burlap, would be too heavy.

Be sure to uncover the tops of your plants in the morning so that they don’t cook. The plastic will act like a small greenhouse and help your plants keep cozy during cold days as well. This is a treat for a tomato that came up next to our mango and is enjoying the greenhouse effect.

So what to do about capturing cold? Again, frost rolls downhill. Capturing it with obstacles such as earthen walls, stacked sandbags, bushes, railroad ties, or anything that keeps it from passing by will help deliver the chill hours needed.  Be sure that the cold trap is created like a smile downhill of the plant; fishscale swales are in the same direction but placed above plants for water catchment.  You want the cold to be caught in a cup.

This short video I took last week on Christmas day showed a very light frost, and how dramatically different it was between a path that had no obstacles, and the side that had.

After I shut the camera off I realized that I should also have wished you a Happy Hanukkah, an early Happy Kwanzaa, a general Happy Holiday for others, and now I wish you a Happy New Years, as we are five hours before the end of 2016.

Thanks for reading, thanks for doing permaculture and helping to save the planet. We can make the change we want to see happen.

Swales and Basins in Action!

img_0685This week here in Fallbrook, CA, at Finch Frolic Garden we received almost three inches of rain in 18 hours. Our storm pattern is changing so that there are fewer rain events, but when it rains, it really rains. img_0688For many this was a flood. Precious rainwater is channeled away from properties and into the street. In permaculture gardens the water is harvested in the earth with simple earthworks such as swales (level-bottomed ditches) and rain catchment basins.

Visitors have often expressed their desire to see the earthworks in action, so I took my camera out into the food forest. img_0691That was when the rain gauge was at about two and three quarters, with more to come. (I wanted to photograph the garden after the storm had passed but my camera refused to turn on due to the indignity of having been wet. A couple of nights in a bag of rice did it wonders.)img_0692

Please excuse the unsteady camerawork, and my oilskin sleeve and dripping hand making cameo appearances in the film. I was using my hand to shield the lens from the rain.

2016 Marketplace and Last Tours of the Year

Our Marketplace is extended to Sunday, Nov. 20th, 9 – 2!

img_0524At Finch Frolic we’ve come to celebrate the end of our season with a Marketplace. This year our Marketplace will happen one day only, this Sat. Nov. 19th from 8-3.  Finch Frolic is located at 390 Vista del Indio, Fallbrook, CA.  We’ll be selling our abundance. Here’s some of the goodies you’ll find:

Tiny Cocktail Mouse Melons (cucumbers… so cute!)

Amazing, milk-free Passionfruit Curd

Incredible tropical Guava Jam

Pickled Garlic

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Whiskey Cranberry Relishimg_0506

Nectarine Amaretto Jam

Tangy Plum Jam

Our very best dill Picklesimg_0517

Jelly Palm Jelly img_0500

Spicy Jalapeno Carrotsimg_0519

Hand-grated, homegrown organic Horseradish Sauceimg_0529

Guava Halves in Simple Syrup

Guava Paste squares – eat as is or put them in baked goods, or pair with slices of cheese. Ummm!img_0537

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Frozen Passionfruit Juice cubes

Our famous Pomegranate Gelato

Frozen Pomegranate Arils, all ready to sprinkle on your baked goods or mix in a salad or stuffing.

Clear, amazing Guava Jelly

Frozen Plum, Guava and Peach slices

Frozen strained cooked organic home-grown pumpkin, all ready for a pie or bread!

Our best-selling Cranberry Biscotti

Gingerbread Houses. Pair them with our Passionfruit Curd for a memorable dessert!

Lilikoi (Passionfruit) Poundcakes. Small amazing tropical bundles of yum.

Guava Sauce, like applesauce but guava. Very low sugar!

Fresh Jerusalem Artichoke (Sunchoke) roots. Cook them or plant them!

Layered Curry Mix – a sensual trip to the Middle East, either layered in cute little jars for a gift or in bags for use at home. Make a curry with these organic spices!

Lime Juice Cubes

Candied Orange Peels. From our organic oranges. A much better stocking stuffer than hard candy. Or top your baked goods with a twist.

Fresh, fragrant guavas, both white and pinkimg_0541

Fresh kiwanos, those thorny African fruit that sell for a fortune at the stores.

And more!

Plus, we’ll be selling some knick-knacks, and a few garage sale items . A punching bag anyone?

PLUS, we’ll have a selection of native plants lovingly grown locally.

And we’ll have amazing succulents from our neighbor Rosa of Roja’s Succulents. You’ll pass by her business on the way in, so please stop by on the way out and see her incredible inventory of plants, all organically hand-grown by Rosa. I never loved succulents until I saw her collection, and her very low prices!

Except for the gelato, we’re dairy (milk) free this year. We use organic eggs from cage-free hens, and otherwise use vegan butter that I make at home which is coconut-oil and rice milk based.

Our last two tours of the year (the garden closes from Thanksgiving until March 1.  We will still be available for consultations and appearances) will be this weekend, Nov. 19th and 20th, both at 10. [UPDATE: THE SATURDAY TOUR IS FULL. THERE IS STILL ROOM FOR THE SUNDAY TOUR]. The tours are our usual 2-hour concentrated Intro to Permaculture walks through the garden. The tours cost $15/adult and you will come away with so many ideas and so much information that you’ll spend the next week working in your garden! Please RSVP for the tours to dianeckennedy@prodigy.net.

Your continued support helps Miranda and I keep our consultation and tour prices low, and enables us to keep teaching and spreading the word on permaculture. So thank you!

Adventures with Fruit: Pindo (Jelly) Palms

pindopalmEvaluating the usefulness of the plants in your yard is a big part of permaculture; once you understand what each plant does, you will know if it is useful either to you, to wildlife or to the environment, or if it is causing harm. There are many food-producing plants that we think of as weeds or as ornamentals. Always, always, always be sure before you pop something in your mouth. So by identifying your plants you can add to your diet, and if something is already successfully growing in your yard and you can use it, fantastic!

palm-pindo-1You’ve probably walked past them, or even looked askance at the dropped fruit without realizing. Also called Jelly Palms, the pindo palm is a common landscape tree for drought-tolerant hot areas.  The fronds look very pokey, but are rather soft.  That is a relief because once you’ve tasted the ripe fruit you’ll be thrashing through the fronds trying to pick more of them.

Pindo palms (Butia capitata) are called Jelly Palms because the fruit has a lot of pectin in them. The trees are also called Wine Palms because you can make a cloudy wine from the fruit.  But then, mankind has proven that you can make alcoholic beverages from just about anything.

The fruit is  small and fiberous with a big seed, and falls to the ground when very ripe. They taste amazing. The burst of flavor is as if a pineapple and an apricot had a little yellowish baby. The best way to eat them is to gently chew the whole thing and swallow the juice, then spit out the fiber and seed.

We have two jelly palms at Finch Frolic Garden, only because they didn’t have identification we didn’t really know what they were. At the beginning of this year Miranda and I were evaluating the garden plants using the Three Positives rule (where everything in the garden has to give you three positive things. If it doesn’t, then it should be turned into hugelkultur or mulch). Several trees were repurposed and we were eyeing the palms.  These palms are squat and short, not slim and tall like the very similar Queen palms. Fortunately for them, and as it turned out, for us, the trunks were too thick for my small chainsaw so we didn’t remove them with the others.  This threat seemed to work because they set fruit on long stalks.  We hesitantly tried one… and then just about ran each other over trying to get more!

Queen palms also produce an edible fruit that is sweeter, but is only edible when very ripe.

The fallen ripe fruit can attract bees and wasps because, well, everyone wants some.  We waited until the stalks were just about completely ripe then cut them off and left them in a paper bag. The fruit then ripened and dropped off in the house where we could have them all.

Most of what I know about the Pindo Palm comes from the website Eat the Weeds by Greene Deane.

We cleaned them and froze them.  Now we’re making Pindo Palm Jelly.  Or maybe Jelly Palm Jelly, which sounds better.

img_0495Freezing and thawing the fruit actually helps break down some of the fiber and release juices, and makes them much easier to pit.  The pits are high in oil, so advice for cooking the fruit whole says the jelly can pick up bitter flavor from the seeds. We sat with trays laden with cutting boards, a knife and bowls and pitted them.  Yes, this is how we spend our evenings when I’m not out dancing, processing fruit and watching a movie or reruns of the Bob Newhart show or something. Yep.

The thawed fruit was easy to push away from the seed, so the process went very quickly although our fingers were pretty cold from the fruit.

We covered the pitted fruit with water and cooked it for about an hour, then strained out the fruit. There isn’t a lot of pulp because of all the fiber.  img_0499We used the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s recipe which used a lot of sugar, but the juice is so tart that  it needed it.

What we got was a beautiful jelly that,despite the natural and added pectin was fairly loose. The benefit was that it can be used as a syrup as well.  While the flavor of the jelly isn’t quite as astonishing as the fresh fruit, the tart tropical flavor is very good.img_0500

So walk around your weeds and trees and identify them, read up on them, and perhaps you can find a treasure in your yard as we have!

(We’ll be selling Jelly Palm Jelly at our annual Marketplace here at Finch Frolic Garden on Sat. Nov. 19th, 2016)

 

 

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!