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Learn the Skills to Inherit Property! The SKIP Kickstarter

Say you dream of a homestead of your own but have no idea how to go about getting one. You need land, but that's expensive; you need skills, but those are hard to come by. What if I told you there was a program designed to earn you both?

It's called SKIP, for Skills to Inherit Property. And there's a Kickstarter going on right now for the SKIP bible - a book pulling all the SKIP lessons into one volume.

Here's creator Paul Wheaton to explain the idea behind the SKIP program and book:

Millions of people are blocked from homesteading because of the sheer expense of getting started.  And millions of elderly people are frustrated that they cannot find somebody worthy to pass their homestead to.  Every year hundreds of thousands of homesteads are abandoned - with the government taking possession about half the time.

Other homestead owners are looking for land managers or caretakers.  Or some sort of collaboration.  But their efforts have led to horrific results from dishonest or even criminal people - so their homesteads are, effectively abandoned.

People with homesteads are seeking people with REAL experience and skill.

People seeking homesteading opportunities want to build REAL experience and skill.

This book is an attempt to bridge these two communities.  People seeking homesteading opportunities are provided a way to accomplish hundreds of things and document them for free.  Eventually, they will be able to peruse hundreds of homestead opportunities.   And people with homesteads will be able to peruse hundreds of homesteaders that have proven their worth.

Active homesteaders use SKIP to build their skills for their own benefit.  The verification of their skills lends weight to their words on our forums.  Some people already have land and use SKIP to build their skills for caring for their land.

One thing we can tell you is that we've personally benefitted from our involvement in the permaculture community responsible for this Kickstarter, Permies.com, our weekly go-to for support of our gardening and permaculture projects. Whether it's helpful hints for going sugar-free in our baking, a possible remedy for galls, or a fantastic discussion on honeybees vs. native bees, Permies is the one online community we can count on.

Here's a handy link to the Kickstarter, where you can learn more!

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What Is Permaculture Gardening? And Why Does It Matter?

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By Lisa Brunette

I've been tossing around the word 'permaculture' to describe some of the activities Anthony and I are engaged in here on the suburban farmstead. As it's not a mainstream way of gardening (or way of life) yet, I thought it might be helpful to define it.

Permaculture is a portmanteau for the words "permanent" and "agriculture." The idea begins with the conviction that modern humans are not growing things on this planet in a permanently sustainable manner. Especially since the advent of fossil fuel technology and its resultant slew of fertilizers, soil amendments, and chemicals meant to kill off insect pests, we've been poisoning the environment, depleting the soil, and destroying our water supplies. The problems continue with practices like monocropping, or growing large tracts of nothing but one plant, aggressive tilling of the soil, and letting farmland lie fallow and sterile, without putting anything back in during the seasons it's not in use to grow food.

Turnip

I first heard of permaculture when I lived in the Pacific Northwest, where it's a bit of a buzzword. Somewhat ironically, however, it wasn't until I moved back to the Midwest that I began to practice it in earnest. 

I say 'somewhat' because it's not as if people in the Midwest aren't doing permaculture. There's Midwest Permaculture Center in my neighboring state of Illinois, and some folks here have been effectively practicing permaculture all their lives and just haven't ever labeled it as such. One of the best permaculture solutions I've ever encountered - a super-smart, inexpensive, completely non-toxic method for combatting cedar rust - came from a fellow Missourian.

Nyssa sylvatica

So, OK, I've outlined the practices that permaculture is calling out as wrongheaded. But what do we do instead?

As it turns out, a whole host of things, and most of these things are very ecosystem-specific. What I've learned in my four years' deep dive into all things permaculture is that you have to adapt and tailor it to your situation, your home, your region, your weather systems, soil type, etc., etc. But that said, there are some universal takeaways. I'll touch on them here, with some book recommendations embedded for your further exploration.

Soil

We seem to be coming to a consensus that the earth beneath our feet is the key to everything. I've talked about the soil before when I gave some tips on sheet-mulching. But I'm learning new, exciting facts about dirt all the time! Just last week, it was that the fungus-to-bacteria ratio in your soil could be a much better method for judging soil quality than the mainstream practice of assessing ratios of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (the ol' NPK metric) and amending the soil accordingly. But don't let that science-y tone put you off, as the F:B ratio thing is really pretty simple: For more fungal activity, you want to use a mulch that promotes mycorrhizal growth, such as wood chips. For more bacteria, you'd use compost. Brassicas and mustard like much more bacterial activity, and most vegetables like a slightly more balanced ratio of 3 fungal to 4 bacterial.

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I guess the key takeaway is that permaculturists look for ways to improve the soil that mimic natural systems. When I'm hiking through the forest, I see a layer of dead leaves each fall that decompose, feeding the forest trees and plants. No one comes through and tills the soil. The forest is a healthy ecosystem. While we can't grow most food plants in a regular deciduous forest, we can mimic natural systems with thick mulches that replenish the soil, plants that are grown solely for the purpose of feeding the soil and/or chopped to "mulch in place," and layers of plantings that harness the power of a forest but focus on food we humans can eat, hence the term "food forest."

For an excellent introduction to soil, read Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. While I don't agree with his stance on native plants, the symphonic description of soil bowled me over.

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Native Plants

The best permaculturists use many native plants, as natives have evolved over millennia along with beneficial, native insects to exist in the given environment without a lot of human intervention. Now, there are permaculture practitioners who advocate the use of some exotic invasive plants, but I am not in that camp. To my thinking, the benefits of any particular invasive are far outweighed by the potential damage that invasives can do. Since invasives can easily spread through seed carriage from birds and animals, to me it seems irresponsible to use invasive plants (sort of like second-hand smoke). There's always a native or at least non-invasive introduced plant alternative that will accomplish the same thing anyway.

Echinacea

Of all the plants we've grown, the native trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers are by far the easiest. You don't need to do anything to amend the soil, nor do you need to till it. Just put in the plant, or sow the seed, and you've got fairly instant success - though patience is key, as natives grow by the rhythm, 'first year sleep, second year creep, third year leap.' Many natives are edible and medicinal, too. We've used that criteria for selecting our natives and have never been at a loss. Our native food/medicinal plants include paw paw and persimmon trees, violets, blueberries, blackberries, plums, cedar berries, hibiscus, passionflower, sunflowers, echinacea, rudbeckia, hyssop, New Jersey tea, chokecherry, serviceberry, and more.

If they aren't edible or medicinal, they're at least host plants for beneficial pollinators and other wildlife, such as our sycamore, tulip, and black gum trees, as well as our native violet ground cover.

Though he doesn't call himself a permaculturist, and he has less of a focus on edible/human use plants than I'd like, Doug Tallamy is a leading advocate for native plant gardening. His book Bringing Nature Home is a must-read.

 

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Canopy Layers and Polyculture Guilds

Speaking in terms of that hike through the forest I mentioned earlier, the other thing we notice is that plants grow in distinct canopy layers. First, there are roots, tubers, bulbs, and rhizomes growing into the dirt, followed by low ground covers colonizing the soil surface. Next are knee-high plants and grasses, followed by shrubs and small trees in the understory. Finally, tall trees make up the canopy overhead. Permaculturists mimic the layering found in nature by designing gardens in the same way.

For example, in our garden, we've planted (or simply encouraged) the aforementioned sycamore, black gum, and tulip trees for the high canopy, and they're joined by a Shumard oak, Eastern red cedars, and several persimmons. Next is the understory, made up of paw paws, serviceberry, an old lilac, a rose bush, and fruit trees. Next are blackberry vines, blueberry and gooseberry shrubs, elderberries, chokecherry and serviceberry trees, hazelnuts, witch hazel, and others. Then down to the perennial vegetables asparagus, rhubarb, and horseradish, as well as annual vegetables. Finally, we have a ground cover of violets and geraniums, as well as plants with edible roots.

Evening primrose

Polyculture guilds are more complex, but the one everyone references first is the three sisters: squash, corn, and beans. The point is that the three plants are interdependent. Corn provides a trellis for beans, beans provide nitrogen to the corn, and squash shades the soil over their roots. In our garden, we've created fruit tree guilds with, for example, alliums, witch hazel, evening primrose, borage, and other plants interplanted in the orchard. You might also think of simple companion planting, such as peas, lettuce, carrots, and beets planted in proximity to support each other. We planted an oak where its leaves will fall on a bed of blueberry bushes, the acidic oak leaves providing a natural mulch for acid-loving blueberries, and we won't even have to rake them into place!

Sepp Holzer's Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening is kind of the bible of permaculture, or one of them, anyway, and it's a great read. I highly recommend it. 

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Permaculture encompasses more than gardening as well - it's a whole way of life. I'll tackle other permaculture aspects in a future post, but I hope for now you're excited to dive in, checking out some of the books above. Also want to shout out to my online permaculture community, Permies.com, where you can discuss these topics with likeminded folk. It's been a great resource for me. And if you're in the St. Louis area, I recommend checking out the tremendous offerings from Gateway Greening - from low-cost seeds to a handy planting calendar to helpful how-to videos. Welcome to permaculture!

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The Winners of Our 'Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener' Book Giveaway

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Winner Lynne Griffin, of Aurora, Colorado, USA.

We're pleased to announce the winners of our book giveaway. Two lucky subscribers each received a signed paperback copy of Tammi Hartung's book, The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener. Winners Lynne Griffin and Lila McClellan are avid gardeners and nature lovers, and they also both live in Colorado, a landscape that can be a challenge as much as it is a joy for gardeners. We're excited to share their stories and images with you.

Lynne Griffin of Aurora, CO

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In Lynne Griffin's garden, a monarch on purple coneflower.
 
Our first winner talks about what it's like to garden in Colorado. As it's also where Tammi Hartung herself runs Desert Canyon Farm, Lynne is in good company. Lynne explains:
Since we have a fairly short growing season in Colorado, we normally start the seeds indoors in March and plant during the Memorial Day weekend, after the ground has warmed. We put in the usual vegetables; multiple varieties of tomatoes, multiple types of squash, cucumbers, cabbage, beets, etc. We also grow several herbs like basil, rosemary, thyme, parsley, sage, etc. 
 
Our flower gardens are literally for the birds and the bees. Our yard has lots of native species of flowers to help keep everyone happy. We have several seed feeders as well as multiple bird baths. Since we're birders, we just love watching all of them visit.

Living close enough to visit Desert Canyon Farm, Lynne was already a fan of Tammi Hartung but had never read this book. She's now a regular reader of Cat in the Flock, too, and we're really glad to have her. "Many thanks for mailing Tammi Hartung's wonderful gardening book," says Lynne. "I've started reading it and am greatly enjoying all of her advice and wisdom." 
 
More pictures of her garden.
 
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Lynne makes birds welcome with a bird bath and feeders, in addition to native plants.
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We love the solution to the backend slope, with a grouping of native trees and plants set off by a rock wall.

Lila McClellan of Coaldale, CO

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Lila McClellan is an accomplished painter and photographer in addition to gardener; you can see her breathtaking work over at Wolf's Head Art. Before COVID-19, she took a whole season of classes offered at Desert Canyon Farm, drawn to Tammi Hartung's focus on living in harmony with nature. "I am looking forward to reading this latest book and using her techniques for helping the wildlife and pollinators," says Lila. "Thanks so much."
 
Lila already does quite a bit to make her garden wildlife-friendly, whether that's placing perching spots - in this case, crystals - in her bird baths to enable small insects to sip there in addition to the birds, or putting in bluebird houses. But she's excited to find new ideas in Tammi's book.
 

While Lynne's garden has more of a suburban feel, Lila's is a bit more rugged. Her struggles with the harsh Colorado environment are sometimes profound:
Living at the foothills of 12,000-foot mountains has its challenges. I mostly plant natives that are adapted to this climate of harsh winds, extreme temperatures, and the multitude of animal life and insect populations. I know gardening starts with the soil, so, I've been paying closer attention to this and began making my own compost with worms and an insulated compost bin. We also have 11 ducks that help by adding lots of fertilizer and eating the bugs (especially those voracious grasshoppers). We also mulch the outdoor beds with their 'used' straw when we clean out the duck pen in the spring and fall.
 
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The bird bath gets some visitors in Lila McClellan's garden, at the foot of the mountains.
 
Lila's biggest foe isn't the lack of water or the shorter growing season, though. It's the weather itself:
The number one problem I have is the WIND! It can be discouraging to amend the soil and watch it blow away on windy days. I also wonder how the plants survive when they go sideways instead of up. My husband built a seven-foot wall on the south side of our yard to block some of the wind, which helps a lot. This summer, I will be putting up paver stones to make two-foot walls on some of the beds. I installed a soaker hose watering system a few years ago, which is a tremendous help since it saves water and time. Some wells near my house can go dry when there is a severe drought situation, but we haven't had that problem.
 
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Spirea, growing in Lila's garden.
We decided to use the wind to our advantage; this summer, my husband will be installing a wind turbine to power the electric in our geodome greenhouse that we finished last fall. To keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter, we have a swamp cooler and a heater, which will greatly extend our growing season for herbs and produce. Living in/with nature is an ongoing process as the seasons change. I enjoy the challenges and rewards and am thankful and in awe of the plants that survive. 
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Lila's domed greenhouse, soon to be powered by the wind.
 
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Beets and chickweed.
 
Congratulations to Lynne and Lila on their wins, and we hope they both enjoy Tammi's book as much as we did.

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There's Mulch to Learn Through Gateway Greening's 'Community Agriculture Conference'

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The Gateway Greening Demonstration Garden.

by Lisa Brunette

This past week, I attended Gateway Greening's Community Agriculture Conference. It was entirely virtual and took place in the evening, so I was able to participate around my full work days. I attended most of the conference sessions, only taking a break mid-week. The conference was free, though I did kick them a donation since I get so much out of the group's offerings, and this conference was just one example. Gateway Greening has been so kind as to upload all of the conference videos to YouTube, where you can watch them free until the first day of spring, March 20.

While the conference showcased all that local St. Louis, Missouri, has to offer, the principles and practices certainly hold universal appeal. I highly recommend them to anyone, no matter where you're gardening.

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Here are my top 3 picks for what to watch, in order of priority.

1. Caring for the Life Beneath Our Feet - Dean Gunderson, Gateway Greening

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I believe this is the third presentation I've seen from Dean Gunderson, community projects manager for Gateway Greening. Just like his previous talks on how to create a sustainable orchard and how to plant late fall crops, this one gave me some fantastic takeaways. The biggest? Rather than spinning my wheels trying to get the right "chemical" makeup in my soil (that old Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium ratio), the emerging science actually says you'll get far better results if you think in terms of building the right ratio of fungal and bacterial communities in your dirt. 

2. Growing Mushrooms at Home - Henry Hellmuth, Ozark Forest Mushrooms

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We've been customers of Ozark Forest Mushrooms through our local farmer's market, so it was a real treat to get this behind-the-scenes tour of their growing operation in the Missouri Ozarks. Hellmuth's talk is definitely more skewed toward those who really want to dive deep into the world of mushroom cultivation, but it's fun to get all fungal science-y even if you're not going to create a special ventilated spore room. The exciting takeaway for me is that we can grow shiitakes on logs right in our own backyard. Can't wait to try it.

3. Organic Pest Solutions for Your Vegetable Garden - Jason Hambrick, Gateway Greening

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Hambrick is Gateway Greening's community education manager. I found his talk really helpful, especially as we strive to increase the percentage of our food that comes from the garden vs. a store, which means less tolerance for loss due to disease and predation. However, I'm unwilling to compromise organic principles, so Hambrick's tips were a great confirmation that we're on the right track. I learned some new disease-resistant varieties I hadn't known about, as well as some additional plant companions that hadn't been on my radar.

You can check out more Gateway Greening videos on YouTube. The organization also provides a handy planting calendar, for those of you in the St. Louis area (we have a copy on our fridge!). The conference happens annually, too, so there's always next year, and who knows? Maybe that one will be in person.

About Gateway Greening:

At Gateway Greening our idea is simple: to provide St. Louis with a fun, safe, and educational environment for people to connect and discover the Power of Growing Food through sustainable urban agriculture projects. 

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Crockpot Congee: A Quick, Easy, and Healthy Rice Dish

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By Lisa Brunette

When I showed you how to cook a perfect pot of stovetop rice every time, I mentioned that next up I'd demonstrate a quick-and-easy recipe for a crockpot rice dish. That dish is the Asian rice porridge known as congee. Never heard of it? Well, neither had I until a friend spirited me away to a delightful, unexpected place in Seattle's International District called the Purple Dot Cafe, where I had my very first bowl of this heavenly porridge.

Congee's secret is a relatively low ratio of rice to water - and a slow cooking time. For this dish, I used 1 cup of rice to 10 cups of water instead of the usual 1:1.75. If that sounds like it might produce a bland-tasting ricey soup, never fear. Congee's packed full of ginger, garlic, and onion, making it just the thing to eat in the fall, when your body's readying for the winter season. In fact, the recipe I'm using below is adapted from Thompson Acupuncture's Ancient Roots Nutrition video series. Lindsey Thompson, as a previous guest here at Cat in the Flock, suggests congee as one of three recipes in her segment on the fall season in Chinese medicine. It's my favorite of all the recipes in the series.

But I'm breaking out of the fall mold here with a late-winter congee, and that's okay. The copious amounts of ginger in the porridge is a great spice for the transition season here between winter and spring. I had a whole head of cabbage I wanted to use - this porridge is full of it - and cooking rice by crockpot method is also part of my quest for a permaculture badge in food preparation and preservation. Not to mention, I was hankering for a bit of congee, and since I'm a few thousand miles away from the Purple Dot, that means I have to make it myself!

All right, on to the porridge.

Ingredients: 

  • Half a head of cabbage (or more if you desire)
  • A half or whole white onion
  • Fresh ginger root
  • Anywhere from 3-8 cloves of garlic, to your preference
  • Soy sauce, tamari, or coconut sauce
  • 1 cup of rice to 10 cups of water
  • Salt (optional)

1. First, dice at least half a head of cabbage and one onion. For this batch, I used a whole head of cabbage because I wanted to, but you use what you want. As Lindsey says, "Congee is really forgiving," so don't sweat the exact amounts. You can dice them small if you prefer, but I like my vegetables chunky. Place these in the crockpot.

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2. Next, grate a good amount of ginger into the crockpot. I used a whole, small-sized root. Depending on your love of ginger, you can use less - or more. Note I used a Microplaner to grate the ginger - I have to credit Lindsey for this tool as well, as I first heard about them from watching her video series. They come in multiple grate sizes meant for everything from nutmeg to cheese and are really handy to have in the kitchen.

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3. You can add in garlic, too, and the same rule applies - as much or as little as you wish. We like garlic, and I tolerate it much better when it's slow-cooked like this, so we went for a lot. Pro tip! Garlic cloves are way easier to peel if you pour boiling water over them first. I just found out about this from the first episode of the Netflix show Nadiya's Time to Eat (love her!). I was skeptical because every 'easy tip for peeling garlic' I've tried hasn't really worked that well, but this one actually does! 

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Now for the garlic, I just use the traditional garlic crusher. I've had my OXO for going on seven years, and it works great. For me the Microplaner isn't as useful because cloves are too small to grip without the risk of grating your finger.

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4. Now for the rice. Like I said above, the ratio is 1 cup of rice to 10 cups of water. I used white basmati rice this time, but you can use any white rice. I'm not sure about brown, though; I think its "chewiness" might not work for congee. But feel free to experiment!

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Lindsey's original recipe called for 10 cups of water. But it also contained fewer veggies, and since I went for the whole head of cabbage plus dialed up on the garlic and ginger, I added a couple of extra cups of water to compensate, for a total of 12. Remember, congee is forgiving! I've made crockpot congee numerous times, and it's always turned out tasty and satisfying.

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5. The last step is to season it with a bit of tamari or soy sauce, according to Lindsey, or with coconut sauce if you're me. Soy and tamari are both high-histamine products, which triggers a mast cell reaction for me. Yeah, it bites because I love the taste of soy (and tamari even better). I struggled with this through 13 years of vegetarianism and beyond, though, and it's just better for me to say no. The coconut sauce is sweeter, so I add a bit of salt to bring it over to the umami side of the palate. Then you can start the crockpot, cooking it for 6-8 hours on low. Lindsey recommends eight, but I've had success at just six. Still, it's good to know you can set this all up in the morning, work an 8-hour day, and come home to congee. It fills the house with the exhilarating aroma of garlic and ginger.

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And it tastes great. Though it's low in protein, you can drop an egg on it or eat it alongside a grass-fed beef patty, as we often do, to round out the meal. You could even top it with crumbled bacon, ham, seeds, nuts, or cheese, though I'd hate to subtract from the clarifying quality of the meal by adding a dairy product, especially if you're trying to bust a cold. 

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So there you have it: crockpot congee! But if you're ever in Seattle, I recommend heading to the Purple Dot to get your congee fix. You'll be glad you did.

(Note: We'll always tell you if we're getting a commission or anything else in exchange for mentioning or linking to the products, services, or establishments here on Cat in the Flock, but none of that's happening in this post.)

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