Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Battling the Dogma of Big Ag

I just wrote another article for AgriTrue. You can read the full article on their site (see link below). You can read more about AgriTrue here... unfortunately we have had some set-backs, but we are still working on making AgriTrue a reality.

Home Extension Agent Canning Demonstration 1932

I just read an article at the Hobby Farms website, Grow Smart: Keep Food Safe. I was frustrated with it for a number of reasons, but the underlying theme of this article was that we should be scared to raise our own food. What better way to keep the food production in the hands of the big agricultural corporations than to instill fear in those of us that would challenge them? I would recommend reading this short article first (follow this link), and then come on back and see what I have to say about it.
The article documents an interview with Roy Ballard, Purdue Extension educator for agriculture and natural resources. The Extension Services were meant to disseminate information to local farmers and home producers to make their lives better. Unfortunately, it seems that they are becoming just another mouthpiece for Big Ag. Here are a few of his quotes and my issues with them:

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a commercial wholesale grower, hobby farmer, home gardener or direct marketer, the risk of food-borne illness is the same and the precautions that need to be taken are very similar.”
Really? Does he really believe that the risk of my eating a handful of blackberries I picked from the canes growing up the wall in my garden with nothing ever sprayed on them and never even being irrigated is the same as eating blackberries imported to the U.S., which were grown in Mexico, grown under who knows what conditions, sprayed with a variety of chemicals, and then shipped to the local grocer, stocked, and sat on the shelf for a few days before being bought? This fails the common sense test, and unfortunately, I think he really believes what he said.

Read the rest of the article here...

Monday, July 30, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Sumac

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta/typhina) is a great addition to the edge of a Forest Garden

Common Name: Sumac
Scientific Names: Rhus species
Family: Anacardiaceae (the Cashew or Sumac family)
Selected Species:
  • Lemon/Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica)
  • Winged/Shining/Dwarf Sumac (Rhus copallina)
  • Elm-Leaved Sumac (Rhus coriaria)
  • Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra)
  • Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta/typhina)
  • Punjab Sumac (Rhus punjabensis)
  • Sourberry/Skunkbush (Rhus trilobata)
  • Northern Hybrid Sumac (Rhux x pulvinata)

Harvested berry clusters of the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta/typhina).

Sumacs are a large family of shrubs, about 250 species, that primarily originate from North America and Africa. The shrubs from North America are best known for its lemony-tart fruit which was used by natives to make natural “pink lemonade”. In the Mediterranean, the flesh of the sumac berry is dried, ground, and used as a lemony spice. This was a common seasoning I really enjoyed while living in Turkey. All sumacs are drought resistant once established, larger species can be used as windbreaks, and smaller species are used as ornamentals. Many varieties are now being used around the world for prevention of soil erosion. They are all fantastic nectar and pollen sources for bees and other beneficial insects as well as providing Winter food and shelter in the thickets these plants can form if allowed.

Native to North America and Africa, Sumac plants were used by natives for food (drink) and medicine. In more recent times, they have been "discovered" by landscapers and used as ornamental plants; however, there has been very little development of these plants, and so they remain rather “wild”.

  • While closely related to Poison Sumac (Rhus toxicodendron), Poison oak (Rhus diversiloba) and Poison sumac (Rhus vernix), the species listed in this article are not poisonous.
  • The powdered spice from the fruit of the Elm-Leaved Sumac (R. coriaria) is mixed with Syrian Oregano (Origanum vulgare syriacum) and other available spices (Basil, Thyme, etc) in the famous spice mix, Za'atar
The fruit of the Smooth Sumac (R. glabra).

Sumac-ade from the Smooth Sumac (R. glabra) - all edible Sumac can make this drink!

Primary Uses:
  • Fresh Eating - the fruit from Sumacs are small and very tart, so few people choose to eat them fresh
  • Tea or Drink made from the berries – traditionally, you can place fruit into water and let soak in the sun to make a “pink lemonade”. Too hot of water releases the bitter tannins. But you can get a more concentrated juice by using some modern technology (here is a link to a site with a fantastic explanation of how to do this)
  • Dried fruit may be ground (without the seed) and used as a spice – popular in Middle Eastern cuisine
  • Immature fruit of some species (R. coriaria) can be used as a caper substitute
  • Ornamental plant - flowers in Spring, fruit in the Summer, and crimson foliage in Autumn

Secondary Uses:
  • General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
  • Food source for wildlife – especially birds in Winter
  • Thickets can create habitat for small birds and mammals and other wildlife
  • Windbreaks (small to large) – can form thickets that are great at blocking or directing wind
  • Prevention of soil erosion – thanks to fibrous network of roots
  • Dyes can be made from all parts of the plant (leaves – brown, roots – yellow, inner bark – orange).
  • It is also used as a mordant (substance that sets the dye).
  • Ink – boiling leaves and fruit.
  • Tanning
  • Shoots can be used to make strong “pipes” which have been used for tapping maple trees and making flutes
  • Some species can grow in maritime enviroments (Staghorn Sumac for sure, not clear on the other species)

Yield: No reliable information
Harvesting: October - December.
Storage: Best used fresh or dried

Sumac first turns orange in Autumn - Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta/typhina).

...and then turns a brilliant red - Winged/Shining/Dwarf Sumac (Rhus copallina)

USDA Hardiness Zone: 3-8
AHS Heat Zone: No reliable information available
Chill Requirement:Likely considering the Hardiness Zone and the flowering nature of the plant, but there is no reliable information available

Plant Type: Small Tree, Large Shrub, Medium Shrub, and Small Shrub (depending on the species)
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Tree for small Forest Garden, Sub-Canopy (Understory), Shrub Layer, or Groundcover (depending on the species/cultivar)
Cultivars/Varieties: Very few cultivars have been produced. This is a very “wild” plant 

Pollination: Staghorn Sumacs are dioecious (meaning there are male and female plants)
Flowering: Summer. June-August.

Life Span:
Years to Begin Bearing: 3-5 years
Years of Useful Life: Likely between 30-50 years (less for smaller specimens), but as this plant suckers so easily, this may be irrelevant.

  • Lemon/Fragrant Sumac (R. aromatica) - 2-8 feet (0.6-2.4 meters) tall and 6-10 feet (1.8-3 meters) wide
  • Winged/Shining/Dwarf Sumac (R. copallina) - 10-20 feet (3-6 meters) tall and wide, much smaller than the Staghorn Sumac, its relative that grows in the same parts of North America
  • Elm-Leaved Sumac (R. coriaria)  - 10 feet (3 meters) tall and wide
  • Smooth Sumac (R. glabra) - 10-15 feet (3-4.5 meters) tall and wide
  • Staghorn Sumac (R. hirta/typhina) - 35-50 feet (10-15 meters) tall and wide, often much shorter
  • Punjab Sumac (R. punjabensis) - 30-40 feet (9-12 meters) tall
  • Sourberry/Skunkbush (R. trilobata) - 4-6 feet (1-1.8 meters) tall and wide
  • Northern Hybrid Sumac (R. x pulvinata) - 6-9 feet (1.8-2.7 meters) tall and 10-15 feet (3-4.5 meters) wide

Roots: Fibrous roots that send up suckers which can develop into new plants
Growth Rate: Medium - Fast

"Gro-Low" cultivar of Lemon or Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica) is a great groundcover.

Fruit of the "Gro-Low" Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica cv)

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade
Moisture: Medium to dry soils, but can tolerate periods of drought once established
pH: most species prefer fairly neutral soil (6.1 - 7.0)

Propagation: Seed – germinates well after a 24 hour pre-soak in hot water. Root cuttings and sucker cuttings taken in late Autumn through Winter usually do well.

Minimal.  If using this plant in the central portions of a Forest Garden, may need to keep the suckering roots from developing new plants – a quick snip of the clippers works well.

  • Can spread easily through the suckering roots and/or through seed. This can be great if you are using it as a windbreak, but can create some additional work if you are using it in the middle of a Forest Garden.
  • There are a number of unsubstantiated reports of Sumac being toxic or irritating to the skin, likely from this plant being related to Poison Sumac. This is not true in general; however, any person can develop an allergy to any plant at any time.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Windbreak Plants for a Temperate Climate

Windbreaks are structures used to block, or break the path, of wind. Many things can do this... mountains, hills, rocks, buildings, fences, and plants. The plants are the focus of this article. By using plants as our windbreak, we are have the ability to utilize a Permaculture Principle that encourages multiple functions for each element of design. Our windbreaks have a primary function that is typically one or more of the following:
  • Structure protection - blocks cold winds in the winter (lowers heating bill) and drying winds in the summer (lowers evaporation and may protect from forest fires).
  • Field protection - blocks wind from blowing too hard over places you would rather have more shelter like a garden near a rocky coast or a tree nursery that may not benefit from high winds
  • Livestock shelter - blocks cold and/or wet winds from animals which makes them more comfortable and they need less food calories to maintain body heat
  • Livestock fencing - living fences can be more solid and longer lasting (but also more permanent) and can be very effective if using a thorny or very dense growing plant
  • Living Snow Fencing - keeps those deep snow drifts on the other side, away from where it may do more damage or cause greater inconvenience (like near a road or barn)

Secondary uses of windbreaks can be:
  • Wildlife Habitat - providing some wild food for deer, rabbits, etc. can often keep them on "their" side of the fence and not in our primary food producing areas
  • Screening - blocking poor views of neighbors, hosues, or other buildings and/or eyesores
  • Noise Suppression - blocking or minimizing noise from a road, neighbors, etc.
  • Trespassing Prevention - lining a property with dense growing, thorny plants will make four and two-footed tresspassers think twice about coming on your property

Choosing plants that have additional benefits than just wind blocking increases the usefulness of the windbreak. This is called "stacking functions" and, as mentioned above, it encourages multiple functions for each element of design. Here are some of the additional benefits that plants can offer:
  • Edible fruit
  • Edible nuts
  • Edible other parts - shoots, leaves, flowers, etc.
  • Timber
  • Pole or Fence wood
  • Firewood
  • Nitrogen Fixing - the plant puts nitrogen back into the soil and can benefit other plants growing nearby
  • Nectar or pollen source for beneficial insects
  • Food for wildlife
  • Ornamental properties - just plain nice to look at!

Large Trees  - Over 10 meters (33 feet) tall

  1. Italian Alders Alnus cordata - Nitrogen Fixer
  2. Red Alders Alnus rubra - Nitrogen Fixer
  3. Hackberry Celtis spp. - Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  4. Ash Fraxinus spp. - Timber, Some species have edible manna (sweet, hardened sap)
  5. Himalayan Sea Buckthorn Hippophae salicifolia - Nitrogen fixer, Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  6. Eastern Redcedar Juniperus virginiana - Evergreen, Timber
  7. Osage Orange Maclura pomifera - Living livestock fence (large thorns), Fence post wood, Fruit is a natural insect repellant
  8. Mulberry Morus spp - Wild animal food, Edible Fruit
  9. Spruce (Picea spp.) - Can be ornamental, Evergreen, Timber, Edible Tips of New Growth
  10. Monterey Pine Pinus radiate - Evergreen, Timber, Paper
  11. Corsican Pine Pinus nigra var maritime - Evergreen, Timber
  12. Pinyon Pines Pinus spp. in the Ducampopinus Subgenus - Evergreen, Edible Seeds
  13. American Sycamore/Buttonwood Platanus occidentalis - Urban shade tree, Edible Sap (can make a syrup)
  14. Oak Quercus spp - Timber, Edible Nut
  15. Black Locust Robinia pseudoacacia - Nitrogen Fixer, Timber, Firewood, Fence post wood, Edible Seed Pod

Small Trees - Under 10 meters (33 feet) tall
  1. Bamboo spp. (Tribe Bambuseae) - Hundreds of species, some Evergreen, Some Edible Shoots, Canes have many uses
  2. Redbud Cercis canadensis - Member of the pea family, may be a weak Nitrogen Fixer, Edible Flowers
  3. Hawthorns Crataegus spp - Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  4. Sea Buckthorn Hippophae rhamnoides - Nitrogen fixer, Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  5. Crab and Other Apples Malus spp. - Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  6. Pine Trees Pinus spp. - Evergreen, Edible Seeds
  7. Cherry Plum Prunus cerasifera - Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  8. Damson / Bullace Prunus insititia - Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  9. Willow Salix spp - Basketry, Nectar Source
  10. European Elder Sambucus nigra - Edible Fruit, Edible Flowers
  11. Rowans/Whitebeams/Service Trees Sorbus spp. - Some with Edible Fruit

Large Shrubs -  3-8 meters (10-26 feet) tall
  1. Alders Alnus spp - Nitrogen Fixer
  2. Juneberries Amelanchier spp - Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  3. Strawberry Tree Arbutus unedo - Evergreen, Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  4. Bamboo spp. (Tribe Bambuseae) - Hundreds of species, some Evergreen, Some Edible Shoots, Canes have many uses
  5. Barberries Berberis spp. - Some are evergreen, Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  6. Dogwoods Cornus spp. - Edible Fruit
  7. Hazels Corylus spp. - Edible Nuts
  8. Cotoneaster Cotoneaster spp - Wildlife food source
  9. Eleagnus Eleagnus x ebbingei - Evergreen, Nitrogen Fixer, Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  10. Autumn Olive Eleagnus umbellata, Nitrogen Fixer, Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  11. Plum Prunus spp. - Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  12. Arrow Bamboo Pseudosasa japonica - Evergreen, Bamboo shoots/canes
  13. Staghorn Sumac Rhus typhina - Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  14. Roses Rosa spp - Edible Fruit, Edible Flowers (great in Salads)
  15. Willow Salix spp - Basketry, Nectar Source
  16. Elderberries Sambucus spp - Edible Fruit, Edible Flowers
  17. Lilac Syringa spp - Ornamental, Nectar Source
  18. Nannyberry/Sweet Viburnum Viburnum lentago - Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  19. Highbush Cranberry Viburnum opulus var. americanum - Edible Fruit, Nectar Source

Small Shrubs - Less than 3 meters (10 feet) tall 

  1. Green Alder Alnus viridis - Nitrogen Fixer
  2. Serviceberry and Shadbush Amelanchier spp. - Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  3. Saskatoon Amelanchier alnifolia - Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  4. Chokeberries Aronia spp.- Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  5. Saltbushes Artiplex spp. - Evergreen, Edible Leaves
  6. Barberries Berberis spp. - Some are evergreen, Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  7. Siberian Pea Tree Caragana arboescens - Nitrogen Fixer, Edible Seed, Nectar Source
  8. Red Osier Cornus stolonifera - Basketry
  9. Hazels Corylus spp. - Edible Nuts
  10. Cotoneaster Cotoneaster spp. - Wildlife food source
  11. Broom Cytisus scoparius - Nitrogen Fixer, Nectar Source
  12. Goumi Eleagnus multiflora - Some are evergreen, Nitrogen Fixer, Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  13. Fever Bush Garrya elliptica - Evergreen
  14. Salal Gaultheria shallon - Evergreen, Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  15. Juniper Juniperus communis - Evergreen, Edible Fruit
  16. Oregon Grapes Mahonia spp. - Evergreen, Edible Fruit
  17. New Zealand Flax Phormium tenax - Fiber, Twine
  18. Ninebark Physocarpus spp. - Erosion Control, Nectar Source
  19. Trifoliate Orange Poncirus trifoliate - Edible Fruit
  20. Nanking Cherry Prunus tomentosa - Edible Fruit
  21. Currants Ribes spp. - Edible Fruit, Leaves (tea)
  22. Roses Rosa spp. - Edible Fruit, Edible Flowers (great in salads)
  23. Chinese Bramble Rubus tricolor - Evergreen, Edible Fruit, Groundcover
  24. Willow Salix spp. - Basketry, Nectar  Source
  25. Snowberries Symphoricarpos spp - Nectar Source
  26. Gorse Ulex europaeus - Nitrogen Fixer, Nectar Source


  1. Honeysuckle Lonicera spp. - Edible Fruit, Wood for tools and crafts, Nectar Source
  2. Roses Rosa spp. - Edible Fruit, Edible Flowers (great in salads)
  3. Blackberry Rubus fruticosus - Edible Fruit, Nectar Source
  4. Chinese Bramble Rubus tricolor - Evergreen, Edible Fruit, Groundcover
I'll update this article, and lists, from time to time as I get more research completed.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Importance of Knowing Your Local Farmers

I just wrote another article for AgriTrue. You can read the full article on their site (see link below). You can read more about AgriTrue here... unfortunately we have had some set-backs, but we are still working on making AgriTrue a reality.

In the cooling room at Kenny's Farmhouse Cheese.

I recently read about a recall of over 14 tons of ground beef in Vermont. This got me thinking about a number of things.

First, this is a lot of meat. I wondered how many steers (or old dairy cows) it takes to make 14 tons of ground beef...

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Simple Compost Bin

Here is a rather simple compost bin design created and explained by Lee Reich in an article from Fine Gardening. Reich is the author of a number of gardening books that I have read and enjoyed. As I am about to build a compost bin, I have been searching for a good design. I may use this one with some modifications... I'll keep you posted.

For more information about composting, you can read my previous article.

Monday, July 23, 2012

What I am Brewing: Dark Ale #6

My dark ale, just before the yeast was pitched (added).

Temporary Name: Dark Ale #6
Finished Name: Still debating...

My initial goals in designing this beer was to first, use only ingredients I had already, and second, to try and make a really dark Irish Red Ale. Beer Advocate descibes Irish Red Ales as: A bit sweet, with a lightly hopped tea-like flavor, and an even dextrinous body, Irish Red Ales are easy to please. Look for well-rounded and blanced flavors, and a pleasant toasted malt character in many examples. A drying finish is common.

Unfortunately, I think I made this one too dark. You can see in the photo how this is much more of a dark brown ale. When cleaning up my equipment after brewing, there is a red tint to everything, but I think I used too much of the Roasted Barley. We will see how this progresses.

  • 4 lbs - Muntons Dried Plain Light Malt
  • 1 lb - Muntons Dried Plain Dark Malt
  • 1 lb - Grains: Simpson's Dark Crystal
  • 1/2 lb - Grains: Simpson's Roasted Barley
  • 1/4 lb - Grains: Weyermann Cara Red
  • 1.0 oz - Hops: First Gold Pellets (AA 8.0%), boiling hops
  • 1.0 oz - Hops: Willamette Pellets, (AA 4.8%), finishing hops
  • Yeast - Wyeast Irish Red Ale Yeast

  • Simmer crushed grains in 2 gallons of water at 150-160 degrees F for 30 minutes.
  • Remove grains.
  • Bring to boil.
  • Add malt extracts and boiling hops, and return to boil.
  • Boil for 60 minutes.
  • Add finishing hops for last 1 minute of boil.
  • Strain into 5 gallon carboy with 2 gallons of cold water.
  • Top off for total of 5 gallons.
  • Add yeast when cool (below 75 degrees F).
  • Ferment, rack, prime with 3/4 cup corn sugar, bottle, age, drink!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Nature and Human Health... The Big Disconnect

(click on the image to see it larger)

I have previously written about why I, as a physician, among many other reasons, am so excited about what Permaculture can do for us as individuals and as communities (read that article here). I came across this chart yesterday and really wanted to share it. This comes from the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian-based organization with the following mission and vision:
  • Our mission is to protect the diversity of nature and our quality of life, now and for the future.
  • Our vision is that within a generation, Canadians act on the understanding that we are all interconnected and interdependent with nature.

I couldn't agree more with their goals. The bottom line is that we, as humans, truly need to be outside in nature. It is vital to our health. Take a close look at the graph, and tell me if you don't agree.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

How Then Should We Eat? ...some brief thoughts

As a primary care physician, and as a person who is now fifty pounds lighter than before I started medical school, I am frequently asked about health and food and diets. This is such a confusing topic for so many people. Unfortunately, I blame the medical establishment for much of this. I believe in their desire to do good, they have not only given blatantly conflicting information over the years, but they have also gotten so far in the weeds, so to speak, that they have lost touch with basic human history. They have lost touch with the traditions that were developed over thousands of years of trial and error, traditions that have shown time and again to be more healthy for the human body than whatever the current pop-science article tells the media outlets, and in turn tells us, and in turn causes more confusion when, a few years later, another article is written that tells us to do the exact opposite of what that first article told us! No wonder we are confused.

In addition, in the United States, the world melting pot of cultures, where little of those cultures remain intact, Americans are searching for their own traditional diet. Sadly, this relatively new traditional diet is almost nothing like what any traditional culture ate. This disconnect to real food is another major stumbling block for Americans.

So what are we to do? What do I tell my patients? My personal view is one that is grounded on a lot of medical, scientific, historical, and anthropologic reading. Maybe one day I will get around to writing all my thoughts on the topic. Today, I'll share one book, one theme, and one brochure...

I have previously endorsed Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. This is a fantastic book written by a non-medical author, and it provides some simple but effective "food rules".

Probably the strongest recommendation is for the Paleo Diet... the concept, not necessarily one specific book (you can find thousands of websites on this topic, and I highly recommend spending some time reading about this). The Paleo Diet is really a concept that encourages us to eat a more "hunter-gatherer" diet. This is how humans were designed to eat before the advent of modern civilization and modern agriculture... and not coincidentally, modern chronic diseases. There are a dozen or more books on the topic, and they all share the same theme, some are more "strict" than others, but there are literally thousands of websites on the Paleo Diet, so no money needs to be spent learning all about it.

Finally, I will sharemy most recent find and recommendation, the Healthy 4 Life Booklet, from the Weston A. Price Foundation. If we (the "modern world") all ate how this booklet recommends, I think we would be significantly healthier than we are today. The link is at the end of this article.

Now before you dive into reading any of these things, I should give my disclaimer. While I don't agree 100% with everything that is in my reading recommendations, I agree with almost all of it (to be honest, I don't know if I would ever agree 100% with anything on which I have an opinion!). Also, some of these recommendations have ideas that seem to contradict each other... why is this and how do I reconcile it? Well, the Paleo Diet shows us that avoiding grains and starches can be healthy for us, and I agree. The other readings tell that there are healthy ways to eat these foods. I agree with this as well. My reconciliation is to minimize the consumption of grains and starches, definitely avoiding them as a primary component in my diet, and looking at ways traditional cultures ate them (fermentation and sprouting are two methods).

So, I hope this helps a few people who are struggling with making "healthy" food choices in this world of dietary confusion.

Here is the link to the Healthy 4 Life Booklet
Also, I'll add some information about the Weston A. Price Foundation...

The Weston A. Price Foundation is a nonprofit, tax-exempt charity founded in 1999 to disseminate the research of nutrition pioneer Dr. Weston Price, whose studies of isolated nonindustrialized peoples established the parameters of human health and determined the optimum characteristics of human diets. Dr. Price's research demonstrated that humans achieve perfect physical form and perfect health generation after generation only when they consume nutrient-dense whole foods and the vital fat-soluble activators found exclusively in animal fats.

The Foundation is dedicated to restoring nutrient-dense foods to the human diet through education, research and activism. It supports a number of movements that contribute to this objective including accurate nutrition instruction, organic and biodynamic farming, pasture-feeding of livestock, community-supported farms, honest and informative labeling, prepared parenting and nurturing therapies.

As an alternative to the USDA lowfat, high-carbohydrate dietary guidelines, the Weston A. Price Foundation proposes Healthy 4 Life, a dietary plan in the form of a colorful booklet and poster featuring four food groups: animal foods; grains, legumes and nuts; vegetables and fruits; and healthy fats.

Rather than prescribe one-size-fits-all levels of macronutrients—fats, carbohydrates and proteins—the Healthy 4 Life plan recommends nutrient-dense versions of animal and plant foods, with particular emphasis on healthy traditional fats like butter, lard, egg yolks and coconut oil. The plan does not specify specific amounts of fats or carbohydrates because the need for these macronutrients varies with the individual. Those who engage in high levels of physical activity can incorporate more carbohydrates in the diet without gaining weight; those needing to lose weight or control blood glucose levels require more healthy fats in the diet as fats provide satiety and help keep blood sugar within a normal range.

The proposed 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines perpetuate the mistakes of previous guidelines in demonizing saturated fats and animal foods rich in saturated fatty acids such as egg yolks, butter, whole milk, cheese, fatty meats like bacon and animal fats for cooking. The current obesity epidemic emerged as vegetable oils and refined carbohydrates replaced these healthy, nutrient-dense traditional fats. Animal fats supply many essential nutrients that are difficult to obtain from other sources.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Lupine

The beauty of Lupines are not just in their flowers.

Common Name: Lupine
Scientific Name: Lupinus species
Family: Fabaceae (the Legume or Pea family)

Edible Lupine seeds being developed in South America.http://www.mosojcausay.org/in/im/Noticia/feria002.jpg

Lupines are beautiful wildflowers found almost around the globe. Known primarily for their showy spikes of flowers in blues, purples, reds, yellows, and white, these legumes put nitrogen back into the soil (natural fertilizer), host a number of beneficial insects, can act as a groundcover to protect top soil, and some species even produce edible seeds. A brilliant addition to the home and Forest Garden.
Found almost all over the world, there are likely native or at least naturalized Lupines close to where you live. They have been used as food plants likely for thousands of years. The Romans were fond of the seeds, but have been used by most Mediterranean cultures. The South and North American species were also used by natives there as well. More recently, there has been a growing trend to use Lupines as a cash crop alternative to soy, livestock forage and feed crop, as well as developing a wide variety of ornamental flowering varieties.


  • Edible species include Wild or Sundial Lupine (Lupinus perrenis), Seashore Lupine (Lupinus littoralis),  Blue Lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis), another Blue Lupine (Lupinus augustifolius), and White Lupine (Lupinus albus), but the best is likely the Pearl Lupine (Lupinus mutabilis).
  • There are larger species in the Lupine genus... the most common large species being the Tree Lupine or Yellow Bush Lupine (Lupinus arboreus) that grows to over 6 feet (2 meters) tall.
  • Lupines are an important larval food for many butterflies and moths.

Lupines come in a wide variety of colors.

Primary Uses:

  • Ornamental flowering plant (wildflower)
  • Edible seeds in some species - used as cooked bean substitute, can be roasted then ground into a powder (NOTE: seeds contain a bitter toxin that can easily be leached out by soaking the seeds in water overnight, and up to 3 days) and discarding the soaking water. 
  • Some species produce an edible oil from the pressed seeds

Secondary Uses:

  • Nitrogen fixing plant (puts nitrogen back into the soil) - inoculated with leguminous bacteria.
  • General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
  • Provides shelter for parasatoid wasps (beneficial wasps that prey on plant pests)
  • Lacewings (beneficial insects) prefer to lay eggs on this plant
  • Dynamic Accumulator (Phosphorus, Nitrogen)
  • Groundcover - space plants about 1 foot (30 centimeters) apart

Yield: Not applicable
Harvesting: Not applicable
Storage: Not applicable

Many beneficial insects are attracted to Lupines.

AHS Heat Zone: No reliable information available
Chill Requirement: No reliable information available

Plant Type: Small to Medium-sized, Clumping Herbaceous Perennial
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Herbaceous Layer or Groundcover Layer (depending on the species) 
Cultivars/Varieties: Many varieties available.

Pollination: Self-Pollinating/Self-Fertile - pollinated by bees
Flowering: May-July depending on the variety and USDA Zone where it is planted

Life Span: No reliable information available, but if conditions are fair to good, Lupines will self-reseed.

Harvesting Lupine flowers in Detroit - 1938

Size: 1-4 feet (30-120 centimeters) tall and 1-3 feet (30-90 centimeters) wide
Roots: Fibrous network of roots
Growth Rate: Medium - Fast

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade
Moisture: Dry to Medium soils
pH: most species prefer acidic to near neutral soil (3.5 - 6.5)

Propagation: By seed (needs scarification) or by Spring cuttings of soft, basal growth. Division is reported to be difficult.

Maintenance: None

Concerns: Poisonous – There are many varieties of lupines that have toxic seeds, and the seeds can become contaminated with a fungus that produces toxins as well. If you are going to eat the seeds, really know what you are doing.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Spotted: Snow Bunting - an Artic visitor!

A beautiful Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) in breeding plumage.

I was shutting the front gate after a walk to the tidepools with my boys when I saw a blur of white and black. The bird darted past me within a few feet of my head... long enough for my brain to take a mental snapshot of its feather pattern. I had not ever seen a bird like this. I quickly went inside before the image faded from my memory and flipped through the bird identification book I had checked out from the library. There it was. A Snow Bunting. Plectrophenax nivalis. In breeding plumage. Resident of the Artic Circle!

Snow Bunting Distribution

After a bit of research, I found that Snow Buntings visit the Azores on a pretty rare frequency, but they have been recorded here every month of the year. They Winter in warmer climates, and then they head back to the Artic Circle to breed in late Winter to Early Spring. This guy must have been trying to avoid the cold since it is already Summer here now, and he has quite a ways to go.

Male Snow Bunting in Winter.

Snow Buntings may be common where you are from, but for me, this was my first sighting. Being such a bird-nerd, I still get really excited about first spottings. I hope I never lose that.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Art of Stacking Firewood

My first attempt at stacking firewood

Yeah, it's the middle of summer, but I just had my first load of firewood (ever) delivered yesterday. I figured it would be cheaper in the off-season, and I want to do some smoking and barbecuing in the next few weeks, so now is a good time.

I hope in the future, when I have some land, to harvest my own trees and split my own firewood, but for now I have to get it delivered. I'm okay with that, as there are so many other things I want to spend time doing.

Just to remind anyone reading this, I grew up in South Florida. There were a few people there who had fireplaces, but it was mainly for show. There may be three days a year, where you could have a fire in a fireplace without needing to turn on the air conditioning as well. Cold days were not common at all where I was raised, so at age 36, I finally stacked my first tower of firewood.

Here are a few things I learned. There really is an art to stacking firewood. It's not like stacking bricks all the same size. Trees, and the subsequent splits, are rarely straight and flat. If not stacked right, the tower is very unstable. With three kids ages four and under running around my house, I really needed to do this right. Fortunately, it didn't take me too long to get the hang of it. But I will not say it was quick to build a stable tower of irregularly shaped firewood. Also, my tower is not tremendously tall. Even more attention to stable building would be required if I build a tower higher than I did.

It was also really refreshing to be working with my body and not just my brain. As a physician, I often go days without feeling as if I accomplished anything physically productive. I love being a doctor and taking care of those who are ill, but there really is something to using my whole body to complete a task. To be honest, I don't want to do hard labor full time, but after building this tower (and five other smaller ones under the brick wall posts on the side of the house) I realized how important it is for me to be "working" outside. I often recall my friend Justin reminding me that the physics definition of work is force miltiplied by distance, so if I wasn't moving something, I wasn't really working. There is something to this. I truly believe there is something innate to the human body that desires, and maybe requires, physical work to feel complete and at peace.

A few hours after I stacked the forewood, I decided to browse the internet to see if there was anything I should have known before I started stacking the wood. As it turns out, I did everything right. I am not sure if this was an instinctual thing... likely from seeing so many stacks of wood outside homes when I lived in Kentucky and Minnesota. Maybe it was from reading articles on homesteading that covered firewood. But it was gratifying to see I did it right.

Here's to a warm winter and slow-cooked, smokey-flavored meat!

Here are some of the articles I found online:
How to Stack Firewood - Popular Mechanics
The Science of Wood Stacking - Mother Earth News
Some Thoughts on Stacking Firewood - Woodheat.org

Friday, July 13, 2012

A New Interview with Geoff Lawton

Here is another great interview with Geoff Lawton, the director of the Permaculture Research Institute, being interviewed again by Jack Spirko on the Survival Podcast. Geoff Lawton is one of the leading and most knowledgeable practioners of Permaculture today. This interview goes into more detail on the specifics of design in different climates and how to choose land. Lots of Permaculture fun!

Here's the interview.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Spotted: European Goldfinch - Flying Jewels

Male European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

As I have readily admitted in the past that I am a bird-nerd, I will also admit that I stopped my car on the road and put on my flashing hazard lights when I spotted this guy in the grass hopping around with some sparrows. This is another bird that may be common where you are (if you live in Europe or the UK), but it was a first spotting for me. These are beautiful birds that I have previously only seen in photos. I was pretty stoked!

European Goldfinch in flight

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Weasel in My Garden!

The Least Weasel (Mustela nivalis)... resident of my garden

During our first week at our new home, I saw this little blur of brown and white fur run out of the garden, spin in a circle, and run right back in. It was too sleek to be a rat, so I asked one of the locals about it. He was standing with two other men, and he was the only one who spoke English, a little. I described what I saw, and he translated to the other two men. The one in the back held up his hands just under a foot (30 cm) apart and raised his eyebrows in question. Yeah, that was about the size of it, I nodded.

"Ah, niñito," he said nodding.
"Ah, niñito, yes," the other two men assuredly nodded as well.

That name seemed a bit familiar. About 10 minutes later, I was rolling my eyes after reading the google definition: Diminutive of niño small child.

This is obviously the local name for the animal. Not helpful.

A little more looking, and I discovered the animal was likely the Least Weasel. It is the smallest member of the Weasel Family (Mustelidae) as well as the smallest member of the Carnivore Order (Carnivora). It is found throughout Europe and on islands in the Atlantic (including ours in the Azores!), the Mediterranean, and Japan. It feeds mostly on rodents, and it can kill and carry an animal up to 10 times its own weight!

Then a few weeks later (a couple of days ago), right at dusk, I was standing on the porch overlooking the garden, when I saw a little furry critter slowly creep out from under the large clump of aloe plants. This clump is about ten feet (3 meters) long by four feet (1.2 meters) wide. He (or she) stepped out, walked around for about 20 seconds, and then scampered back under the aloe. Definitely a Least Weasel. Almost cute.

My first thought when I saw him come out was, "Oh great, these things can kill birds. I want to get some chickens." I wondered if I was going to have to "get rid" of the weasel somehow. But I almost immediately thought of the story of the Bullock brothers.

These three brothers had decided to start a Permaculture project on one of the islands off the coast of northwestern Washington state. They had worked for a few years to restore the flora at the water's edge including planting some "wild" foods that they also enjoyed eating, like cattails. They had a good harvest for a year, and then they noticed that most of their cattails were being raided. They eventually realized it was muskrats. As they had started to restore the land, the animals were coming back, and they were eating some of the brothers' harvest. Instead of trapping them or killing them, they decided to let nature be. For a few years, they continued to lose their cattail harvest. Then one year it seemed that the muskrats were gone. It turned out that now, thanks to a healthy muskrat population, the otters and eagles had moved back to the area, and they were feeding on the muskrats. The brothers were able to harvest some cattails again, but they shared some with the muskrats as well, and a more complex and stable food web and ecosystem was restored.

I have done something similar in the past (see my article: Hold the chemicals... see what happens!), but it was on a much, much smaller scale. However, the priciple is the same.

So, we will see what happens.

The other logical way to look at it is this... If the Least Weasel in my garden eats mice and rats and other rodents, and I have seen mice and rats in my neighborhood and in my neighbors backyard, but I have not seen any of these pests in my house or yard, then this guy is doing me a service. I will not only let him be, but I will welcome his stay.

Now we have a weasel as a neighbor.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Hope in a Changing Climate... an Amazing BBC Video!

Award winning film: Hope in a Changing Climate

I am rarely truly amazed by a video any more. That is unfortunate, but it is also all the more remarkable when it does happen. Hope in a Changing Climate amazed me. Regardless of your perspective on why the climate is changing (human created carbon damage, normal earth cycles, etc.), the Earth's climate is changing. This video ignores the controversial aspects of climate change (or global warming/global cooling/global weirding/or whatever they want to call it now...), and shows that there is a real economic, as well as environmental, conservational, agricultural, and societal reason to reverse the damage that has been done to the land. This video shows that there are whole countries working on this, not just some hippies who don't know when to bathe. This video shows that repairing the land to produce viable sustainable and restorative ecosystems that benefit humans and the natural world (this is Permaculture!) can work on a very, very large scale. Inspiring and truly amazing!

(the video is at the end...)

...a new documentary on BBC World optimistically reframes the debate on global warming. Illustrating that large, decimated eco-systems can be restored,Hope in a Changing Climate, which will have a special screening at COP15 [the 15th Conference on Climate Change], reveals success stories from Ethiopia, Rwanda and China which prove that bringing large areas back from environmental ruin is possible, and key to stabilising the earth’s climate, eradicating poverty and making sustainable agriculture a reality.

The programme documents the remarkably successful efforts of local people to restore denuded, degraded ecosystems – transforming them into verdant, life-sustaining environments which enable people to break free from entrenched poverty. The film contains breathtaking before and after footage of large-scale restoration projects. Presented by John D. Liu, founder of the Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP) and creator of the film Lessons of the Loess Plateau, the new programme is directed by Jeremy Bristow from the BBC, the award-winning producer of the acclaimed David Attenborough seriesThe Truth about Climate Change.

The area of restoration on the Loess Plateau in China is the size of Belgium and thousands of years of subsistence farming had made it barren and unfertile. In 1995 The Chinese Government, with support from The World Bank, took drastic action to rehabilitate the plateau, and local people – seen as both perpetuators and victims of the devastation – became part of the solution.

John D. Liu has been visiting the area for the past fifteen years and in Hope in a Changing Climate travels back to find astounding results. He said: “Human impact on the climate is not simply from the flagrant emission of carbon dioxide and began long before industrial scale emissions. Carbon disequilibrium is a symptom of a larger systemic failure – we are reducing biodiversity, and this has altered fundamental earth processes that we rely on for life. We must act as a species to restore ecosystem function wherever it has been disrupted. We know what is needed; we know it works; and we know from the history of other civilizations that have collapsed what the consequences are of failing to act – and quickly.”

The film uncovers the dramatic impact of similar projects in Ethiopia and Rwanda. Once the scene of devastating droughts in 1984, Ethiopia has used the same approach as that in China to begin bringing areas of arid land back to productivity and ecological balance. In Rwanda, where ecological degradation from over-farming of wetland areas saw the near failure of the country’s hydro-electricity supply, the Government has undertaken a similar project and seen vast improvements.

Dr Joe Smith is The Open University’s lead academic for the programme and says: “With climate change projected to hit the poorest people in the developing world worst of all ecological restoration projects are key to ensuring that future generations have security. What is refreshing about this film is that developing world scientists and policy-makers take centre stage in devising responses to environmental problems. The film also shows how ordinary people in China, Rwanda and Ethiopia play a key role in restoring and protecting their environment. It can feel disempowering to look at global issues such as climate change or biodiversity loss; but the breath-taking before and after footage from these projects shows that imaginative research and policy can generate solutions on the ground.”
Hope in a Changing Climateis produced with support from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), The Open University, The Rockefeller Foundation, the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture and The World Bank. The film will also be made available on The Open University’s new Creative Climate website, www.open.ac.uk/creativeclimate, which documents diverse experiences of climate change across the globe. In addition, EEMP and the George Mason University Center for Climate & Society have organised a network of research centres and nongovernmental organizations around the world to host facilitated stakeholder discussions around the themes of the film.

Here is the video, Hope in a Changing Climate:

Hope in a Changing Climate