Monday, April 30, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Ostrich Fern

The Ostrich Fern is more than just an ornamental.

Common Name: Ostrich Fern
Other Names: Fiddlehead Fern
Scientific Name: Matteuccia struthiopteris or pensylvanica
Family: Dryopteridaceae (the "Wood Fern" family)
The edible shoots of the Ostrich Fern are named Fiddleheads.

Ostrich Ferns are fairly well known ornamental plants throughout much of the U.S.; however, the small tightly wound shoots, known as fiddleheads, that pop up for a very short time each Spring are regional delicacies. These fiddleheads have a taste somewhere between a nutty asparagus and brocolli. They thrive in shade and moist soils where many other plants fail to grow at all, or if they do they fail to produce an edible crop. Its ability to act as a groundcover in the dark, wet corners of a property make it an excellent addition to Forest Garden.
Matteuccia struthiopteris
Illustration from Scandinavian Ferns by Benjamin ├śllgaard and Kirsten Tind, Rhodos, 1993
Appears to be native to northern temperate climates in North America, Europe, and Asia. While there are a few small commercial producers of Ostrich Ferns, they are almost all for the production of ornamental plants... not food.
  • The scientific name Struthiopteris comes from the Latin (struthio = ostrich) and the Greek (pteris = wing).
  • Shoots of the Ostrich Fern resemble the head of a fiddle... hence the name Fiddlehead Fern.
  • This is a very popular seasonal delicacy in rural New England.
  • Many other fern shoots are eaten, but they have varying levels of safety.

Fiddleheads are seasonal delicacies.
Primary Uses:
  • Cooked shoots (a.k.a "Fiddleheads") - steamed, sauteed, boiled
  • Dipped in beer batter and fried!
  • Pickled 
  • Frozen
  • Canned
Secondary Uses:
  • Ornamental plant
  • Shade plant
  • Wet soil plant
  • Pond edge plant
  • Groundcover (plant Ostrich Ferns 2-4 feet apart for groundcover)
  • Reports of roots being edible after being peeled and cooked
  • Native food source for a few caterpillars of moths and butterflies
Yield: varies on the patch/colony size
Harvesting: Early Spring (it is a short harvest season). Pick when the fiddleheads are tight. They are still edible when taller than a few inches, but they quickly become more tough.
Storage: Up to about a week fresh in a cool place
AHS Heat Zone: No reliable information available
Chill Requirement: Unlikely as there is no flowering or fruiting, but no good data
Plant Type: Large Perennial Herbaceous Plant
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Herbaceous Layer, Groundcover Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: No improved varieties
Pollination: Spore producer
Flowering: None. Spore producer
Life Span: Functionally indefinite as this plant will keep spreading through rhizomes
Ostrich Ferns make an amazing, tall groundcover for shaded areas.

Size: 2-6 feet (0.6-1.8 meters) tall and indefinitely wide forming large col
Roots: Running habit based on its rhizomatous roots (underground stems that send out roots and shoots)
Growth Rate: Medium to Fast

Light: Part to Full Shade (can tolerate full sun if soil is constantly moist)
Shade: Tolerates Full Shade
Moisture: Medium to Very Wet
pH: strongly acidic to fairly neutral soil (3. - 7.0)
Special Considerations for Growing:
Ostrich Ferns can tolerate wet feet and so they can be planted at the edge of ponds in full sun to full shade. If they do not have consistently wet soil, they will not tolerate full sun.
Propagation: Division (easy). Spores (difficult).
Maintenance: None
This is a vegan recipe... personally, I would replace the tofu with chicken or fish.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Urban Permaculture Institute of the Southeast

Clemson University has a Sustainable Agriculture Program. One of the projects under this program is the Urban Permaculture Instititute of the Southeast on a 1/2 acre lot in the middle of the Walterboro, South Carolina. The lead on the project is Shawn Jadrnicek who practices permaculture with chickens, fish, bees, food forestry, vermiculture, insect production, greywater systems, passive solar, mushroom production, rainwater catchment, floating hydroponics, and a partial hydroponic systems.

From their site:
Shawn Jadrnicek started the landscape in 2006 by installing edible perennials that he propagated. He currently has over 50 edible plants growing in a polyculture food forest system. The aquaponics system was created in the spring of 2007 and stocked with tilapia, Gambusia, bass and crayfish. Shawn Jadrnicek is a horticulture agent with Clemson Extension Service. He created the site to give a visual demonstration of permaculture design concepts, provide his friends and family with food, and prepare people for the peak oil crisis.
Here are a few videos giving a tour of their property:

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Plants for Beneficial Insects

Ladybug on Tansy.

There are a long list of beneficial insects that can aid our gardens and orchards. These insects reduce the number of pests by directly killing and eating the adults, larvae, and/or eggs of these pests. Beneficial insects may also use these pests as hosts for their own eggs and larvae - just picture the movie Alien, and you'll be right on track.

Cornflower (aka Bachelors button) is a stunning flower.

While there are a few of these beneficial insects that are completely predatory, the vast majority need food from other sources, namely and chiefly nectar and pollen. The smaller and more numerous the flowers that provide the nectar and pollen are, the more useful the flowers are for the beneficial insects.

Spike Speedwell comes in a variety of colors.

Following is a list of some more common plants that attract and sustain beneficial insects, but keep in mind that this list is not all inclusive. There are many other plants not listed here today. Also, remember Permaculture Principle One: Observe and Interact. Observe what is occuring in your yard and in your area. What plants are covered with Lacewings or Predatory Wasps? Consider growing more of these on your land. Also, keep in mind that many of these plants are beautiful in their own right and also useful in many other ways such as cullinary herbs, edible greens, root vegetables, medicinal plants, etc.
  • Basket of Gold
  • Buckwheat
  • Butterfly weed
  • Carpet bugleweed
  • Chamomile
  • Chervil
  • Chives
  • Clover
  • Cornflower (Bachelors button)
  • Cosmos
  • Coreopsis
  • Cinquefoil
  • Coriander
  • Dandelion
  • Dill
  • Fennel
  • Four-wing saltbush
  • Golden marguerite
  • Marigold
  • Mustard
  • Parsley
  • Queen anne's lace
  • Scented geraniums
  • Spike speedwell
  • Sunflowers
  • Tansy
  • Vetch
  • Wild carrot
  • Yarrow

Basket of Gold, a perennial alyssum, is a beautiful attractor of beneficial insects.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fractal Patterns in Nature

Romanesco Broccoli/Cauliflower may be my favorite example of fractal design.

Many design patterns in nature, previously described as "chaos" or "chaotic" are now understood to have design, sometimes very subtle yet strict mathematical design, known as fractals. Fractals are found all over nature, and you likely see them every single day without knowing it.

By strict definition (per Wikipedia) a fractal is:
"...a mathematical set that has a fractal dimension that usually exceeds its topological dimension and may fall between the integers. Fractals are typically self-similar patterns, where self-similar means they are "the same from near as from far". Fractals may be exactly the same at every scale, or they may be nearly the same at different scales. The definition of fractal goes beyond self-similarity per se to exclude trivial self-similarity and include the idea of a detailed pattern repeating itself."

Yeah, that's a mouthful!

To me, I know a fractal when I see it represented visually. Here is a classic image of a fractal called a Mandlebrot Set:

I am very interested in the forms of patterns in nature. Permaculture is about modeling nature, and fractals are one pattern found in many forms all over the natural world. Maybe these would be design motifs for a garden, an orchard, a wall, hedgerow, irrigation system, paddock system, or... who knows. But they are beautiful.

Lightning is a common fractal pattern.

River mouths and networks are fractals (Ganges River, India)

Yes, even clouds are patterned... fractals.

Mountains in Tibet.

Fractal leaf design.

Grand Prismatic hydrothermal spring in Yellowstone National Park, USA.

Cut red cabbage showing a fractal design.

Fractal pattern found in Agate, a type of stone.

Yes, even Slime Mold follows fractal pattern design!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Saskatoon

The Saskatoon is very similar to the Blueberry.

Common Name: Saskatoon
Other Names: Saskatoon Serviceberry, Pacific Serviceberry, Alder-Leaved Serviceberry/Shadbush, Western Juneberry, Pigeon Berry
Scientific Name: Amelanchier alnifolia
Family: Rosacaea
This medium to very large shrub produces fruit that to many are interchangeable with blueberries. Some think they have a more almond flavor others a hint of apple. I think they just taste like blueberries.
Amelanchier alnifolia
Native to northwestern and north central North America.
Has been gaining popularity over the last decade or so with commercial growers in the north.
Can grow from seal level to over 11,000 feet (3,400 meters).
The city, Saskatoon (in Saskatchewan, Canada) is named after the berry.
Saskatoon pie!

Or for a healther recipe, just switch Saskatoons for Blueberries...
Primary Uses:
  • Fresh eating.
  • Cooked.
  • Baked in desserts (pies, tarts, etc.)
  • Preserves, jams, jelly.
  • Dried.
  • Main ingredient or flavor component in wine, beer, and cider.
  • Can be used to make pemmican (a Native American preserved food of meat and fruit)

Secondary Uses:
  • General insect (especially bees) nectar plant.
  • Summer food for wildlife (especially birds).
  • Hedges.
  • Windbreaks.
  • Very tough wood, but small - good for tool handles.
  • Has been used to make rope and baskets.
  • Ornamental.
  • Leaves have been used as a tea substitute, although this genus of plants is known to contain a precursor to cyanide in the leaves. It is very likely that heat destroys this toxin, but caution is advised.
  • History of many medicinal uses by Native Americans.
Yield: about 10 lbs (4.5 kg) per plant
Harvesting: Summer (June-July)
Storage: Fresh berries can be stored in a cool dry place for just over a week
The flowers of the Saskatoon are individually and collectively beautiful.
USDA Hardiness Zone: 2-7 (depending on the variety)
AHS Heat Zone: No reliable information available
Chill Requirement: There is a strong likelihood, but no reliable information can be found
Plant Type: Medium to Very Large Shrub
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Shrub Layer 
Cultivars/Varieties: Many varieties available.
Pollination: Self-Pollinating/Self-Fertile
Flowering: Spring. April-June
Life Span:
Years to Begin Bearing: 2-5 years
Years to Maximum Bearing: 12-15 years
Years of Useful Life: 30-50
Autumn colors make Saskatoon an ornamental plant as well.

Size: 6-15 feet (2-4.5 meters) tall and 6-10 feet (2-3 meters) wide
Roots: Spreading and suckering system of roots.
Growth Rate: Medium
Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade (about 50%)
Moisture: Medium
pH: tolerates a wide range (5.1-8.5)
Special Considerations for Growing: Sunshine is needed for fruit to ripen, so plan and plant accordingly.
Propagation:  By seed (needs 5-18 months cold stratification). Seed produce plants true to type (i.e. almost identical to parent plants). Layering (can take 18 months). Division of at least two year old suckers (in late Winter).
Maintenance: Minimal once established.  Birds love to eat the fruit, so consider netting.
Concerns: Poisonous – Leaves contain a precursor to cyanide (large amounts can cause death).

Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Review: The Hand-Sculpted House

This is a book about building cob homes. Cob is a mixture of clay, sand, and straw. I recently posted a brief article that showed a few videos highlighting the beauty of cob homes (read that article here). This book is a motivational and philosophical how-to on building cob structures.

It goes fairly in-depth on how to make cob, how to build foundations, walls, roofs, windows and doors, plasters and finishes, flooring. At first, the entire concept seems a bit overwhelming. We live in a day and age where "professionals" build homes and us mere civilians must work years and years to pay them (indirectly through the bank) for our homes.

But when you read of a single mom and her elementary school-aged daughter building a home almost entirely themeselves, one really starts to question the entire process with a more critical eye. Why can't we build our own homes? What is really stopping us? People all over the world do it every day. Specifically with cob, anyone can easily learn how to do it. Cob homes can be beautiful. In Devon County (in the U.K.) there are almost 30,000 cob homes still being living in today... and most of them are well over a hundred years old!
An example of a cob home.

Just some things to think about. When a book makes me question and think this much, well, I think it is a pretty good book. Now I have to admit, as with much in the world of "alternative" anything (gardening, medicine, and even building), there is what I call the "crazy hippie component" in this book. But it is not nearly as overwhelming as many "alternative" books I have read.

If building your own home has ever crossed your mind, or even if it hasn't but the idea of even owning your own home seems too distant a dream, seriously consider reading this book. It will challenge you and maybe even inspire you to go out and try it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A New Zealand Food Forest

I first saw these videos on the Subsistence Pattern blog. These videos tell the story of the Guytons "who started planting their food forest in 1998 on two acres of bare land in Riverton, New Zealand. This style of gardening was new to Southland so their neighbours did not approve. Now it is an established food forest with hundreds of different plant species. Fruit and nut trees, berries and herbs and wild plants all blended together in a productive and sustainable way."

To me, these videos (especially the first) are inspiring...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Plastic Bottle Lights... Amazing!

Using only sunlight for "power", these plastic bottles filled with water are providing interior light to the developing world. This is an amazing example of Permaculture Principle Six: Produce No Waste. Here is a quick video explaining this simple, but amazing, invention.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

It is Time to Ban Atrazine.

Atrazine being sprayed

Following is a great article from Mother Earth News on Atrazine, an herbicide that has been around for a long time and has been under fire for health risks. This type of double-speak from the Environmental protection Agency (EPA) is why we need more transparency in agriculture… it is why we need AgriTrue.

Ban Atrazine NOW!
By Top Philpott

Atrazine is the second most widely used pesticide in the United States. Farmers have been using it since its registration in 1958 to control weeds in fields of corn, grain sorghum and other crops, and it has pervasively contaminated our drinking water for years.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates pesticide use, has been operating under the assumption that atrazine (produced by Syngenta) is “not likely to be a human carcinogen.” But in 2009, the agency launched what it called a “comprehensive new evaluation of atrazine to determine its effects on humans.”

Please keep reading here:

Monday, April 16, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Cornelian Cherry

Beautiful plant with edible fruit... wonderful combination!

 Common Name: Cornelian Cherry, European Cornel
Scientific Name: Cornus mas
Family: Cornaceae

Description: Cornelian Cherry is really a edible form of a Dogwood. The fruit are small, bright red (although the color can range from almost white to yellow to orange to deep violet depending on the cultivar), and taste like tart cherries/plum/cranberry when ripe, but can be astringent if picked too early. These trees produce an abundance of flowers that last for many weeks, and while they bloom early in the season, they don't seem to be bothered much by late frosts. Cornelian Cherries produce beautiful flowers, and they are a great food producing, ornamental addition to any garden or yard.
Cornus mas
  • Likely native to the Black Sea region (near Turkey).
  • Ancient Greek literature states that it was used as pig food.
  • Historically used as a food source throughout its native region and as it spread through Europe.
  • Eventually fell out of favor as larger fruits became available.
  • Has been used extensively in Europe, the UK, and U.S. as an ornamental landscape plant.
  • Cornelian Cherry fruit are called "cherries" or "cornels"
  • Cornelian Cherry wood is so dense it will not float. This trait makes it good for tool handles.
  • Turkey is one of the few countries that cultivates Cornelian Cherries in large quantities today where it is used as a flavoring agent for many deserts
Primary Uses:
  • Fresh eating.
  • Cooked
  • Baked good ingredient (e.g. tarts)
Secondary Uses:
  • Dried fruit
  • Pickled fruit (kept in a brine like olives)
  • Preserves, jams, jellies
  • Juiced
  • Wine
  • Liqueuer and Cordials
  • Flavor component to cider and perry
  • Syrup
  • Seed (one single large seed per fruit) can be pressed to produce an edible oil
  • Seeds can be dried and powdered for a coffee substitute
  • Ornamental (beautiful yellow flowers in Spring)
  • Food source for wildlife in summer
  • Good early season nectar source for bees
  • Wood is dense and hard (will not float) and used for tools
  • Dye from the bark (and maybe other plant parts?)
  • Medicinal uses
Yield: 30-50 pounds (13-22 kg) 
Harvesting: Mid-Late Summer and Early Fall. Harvested when the fruits just begin to soften. They are still astringent (dry or puckering) and/or tart at this point, but this will fade when cooked or dried or even allowed to sit in a bowl for a few days. Or the fruit can be left on the tree a bit longer to ripen a bit more. Many growers will spread a sheet on the ground under the tree and give the branches a good shake; the ripe fruit will drop making harvesting much easier.
Storage: Cornelian Cherry fruit does not store well fresh.
Chill Requirement: Likely, but no reliable data available for this.
Plant Type: Small Tree or Large Shrub
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Layer for small Forest Gardens, Sub-Canopy (Understory) Layer, or Large Shrub Layer (will be smaller in poor or dry soils or with regular pruning)
Cultivars/Varieties: Many named and unnamed varieties available. Make sure you choose a specific food variety if your desire is to produce fruits, otherwise you will have pretty, but poor fruit producing, plants.
Pollination: Self-Pollinating/Self-Fertile, but most will fruit better with cross-pollination
Flowering: Early Spring
Life Span:
Years to Begin Bearing: 3-13 years from cuttings or grafting, up to 20 years from seed
Years of Useful Life: 150-200 (can be much less for cutting/grafted plants)
Not a great photo, but highlighting the color and shape variation of Cornelian Cherry fruit.

Leaves of Cornus mas are very similar to other Dogwoods.

Size: 13-20 feet (4-6 meters) tall and wide
Roots: No reliable information
Growth Rate: Medium
Cornelian Cherry is a great early season nectar source for bees.

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade, but produces more fruit in full sun
Moisture: Medium
pH: prefers fairly neutral to alkaline soil (6.1 - 8.5)
Special Considerations for Growing:  Cornelian Cherry will produce better if planted in a more sheltered location.
Propagation: Usually grafted for the fruit to produce as the parent stock. Germination of seed can take over a year at times. Can be propagated through cuttings (has a pretty high success rate) and layering (can take over 9 months) from new growth.
Maintenance: Minimal once established which can take 1-3 years.
Concerns: No significant concerns. Few pests.