Keyhole Gardens vs. Row Gardens

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Elizabeth considers keyhole gardens vs. row gardens:

“David,

I enjoy your practical approach to organic/permaculture. I currently garden annual vegetables in rows on borrowed land. I styled the rows with narrow paths across the hill. This works great for me but not for my husband and friends. Anyone else walks on the planting rows. I have permission from the land owners to plant anything in any way I choose. 
Is it practical to transition to keyhole design? The keyhole design reduces the area of paths. I prefer the look of circles instead of rows. I could slightly raise the downhill side of the circle. In your videos, you do make mounds on the downhill side of some plantings. 
At this time I mostly use hand tools. The only power tool I use is a string trimmer. I have dreams of using a BCS.”
A BCS tractor, I assume. Yeah, that would be nice. I could use one of those myself.
Let’s take a look at keyhole gardens vs. row gardens.

Keyhole Gardens vs. Row Gardens

Keyhole gardens are cool. I’ve mentioned them before, but never built one.

That’s because, at heart, I am really lazy about digging and building things. I also like to plant large spaces when I can.

This is a pretty typical keyhole garden:

I mean, it’s really cool and all that—but the labor involved! Holy moly. You could plant a quarter acre of row gardens with that amount of labor in the same amount of time. To me, keyhole gardens are what happens when engineers get overly clever. I generally feel the same way about aquaponics systems, but I’m tired of taking abuse on that front so I won’t say anything more.

It would take me a day to build a keyhole garden—or to put in an entire, much larger traditional garden. I cleared, dug, and planted a half-acre in about six hours with the help of a local farmer last year. Row gardens are easy to weed with a hoe, can be built rapidly, and don’t need all the digging, piling up, and materials. I’m also not sure that a plot of land covered with keyhole gardens would have less path space than one with row gardens, as you lose the space between the circles. Perhaps someone has done the math on that already—let me know in the comments if you have an idea.

Beyond that, don’t get me wrong: There may be a good place for keyhole gardens. Beds close to the house for herbs and salad greens where you can dump your daily kitchen scraps—great! Build ’em!

But your row gardens are already doing well—so why change? Ah! That’s right. We need to face . . .

The Real Problem

Your husband and your friends are terrible people.

Kidding.

The lack of obvious paths in some of my garden beds have led visitors astray. Just because I know how I laid something out doesn’t mean that my wife, children, or neighbors—or the police detectives searching for bodies in my compost pile—do.

Why not stick some sticks in the ground to mark paths? Or just mulch some paths with straw? Or put down a few stepping stones? You could string strings between sticks to mark areas off in just a few minutes. Sure, it’s less convenient for you—but it would be a lot easier than building keyhole beds.

Even if you made dirt-mound style keyholes without bricks and sticks, it’s still a lot of digging—plus you lose growing space in between those circles.

If you’re really keen on some keyholes, I would go ahead and build a few on part of your land and see how they compare with what you’re doing. You’ll probably be tired after that—but, if you find you love them and they work great, great! Convert the rest.

I’ll bet you stick with rows, though. When you look at the keyhole gardens vs. row gardens fight in terms of labor, row gardens will win. And labor is big when you’re farming.

Just my two cents. Thanks for writing, and good luck. If you do build those keyhole gardens and have luck, drop me a line and send pictures. I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

 

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Should You Plant on Mounds in Sandy Soil?

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Calen asks about planting on mounds in fast-draining, sandy soil:

“I’m a native Cracker from [coastal Florida]. I’ve been homesteading on ancestral farmland with a survivalist and traditionalist mindset for three years now. All heirloom and organic, etc. I own all of your books, and they, along with your blog and videos, have been the most helpful gardening advice that I’ve ever found anywhere. Last year I grew tons of Seminole pumpkins with great success using your “melon pits.” I passed that along to many friends who did likewise. I also plant the pumpkins in many “guerrilla gardens” in the swamp and backwoods on public land, and that’s worked out great as well. I never revisit them until harvest time, and they normally do better than my tended ones. Anyways, this year I want to give the three sisters a try. My plan is to use Jimmy Red corn, Cherokee black pole beans, and Seminole pumpkins. Pretty much everything I read says to plant on mounds. However, my place is high, dry, east-bank-of-Lake George sugar sand. Is mounding the way I should go? We didn’t even have standing water during the past two hurricanes. My thought was to maybe do these in slight pits like the melons and pumpkins but wanted to see if you had any advice on the subject? Thanks for your time.”

Fantastic. It’s good to hear from a fellow Floridian.

Mounds are what you always hear about. It’s even on the back of the seed packets. Calen is right to question the practice in his soil conditions.

For people who haven’t planted in “sugar sand,” it’s hard to explain how very hot, dry, and fast-draining the stuff is. It contains almost no humus and needier crops planted in sugar sand need almost constant watering.

Scrubland Sandy Soil

My old homestead in North Florida had large patches of almost sandy loam with smaller granules which would hold water for longer. There, I would double-dig and loosen the ground to plant, which would mound it up somewhat.

GardensFebruary2015-5

Those loose raised beds did very well, so it would be easy to say, “Oh yes, Calen, go ahead and plant in mounds—it works in Florida!”

But sugar sand isn’t the same as the soil above. Just because something works in one area of a state doesn’t mean it will work in another. And in his area, I would try to stay as flat as possible.

When you raise the height of the soil in one area, the water will drain out of it faster as it finds its level. You really can’t afford to let that happen. If he’s not holding onto water even after a hurricane, raised beds and mounds, unless amended with extra compost before every planting, are not the way to go.

You might want to go even further and grow in sunken beds, as is sometimes done in the Southwestern U.S.

Even across my old homestead, the backyard was loamy and the front yard was sandier.

This is how I used to plant melons and pumpkins in my fast-draining front yard:

Melon Pit

Those are sprouting legumes, by the way. In the winter I would plant melon pits with cool-season legumes like lentils, chickpeas, peas, and fava beans to feed the soil and pave the way for the curcurbits I planted in the spring.

Read More: “No Bare Soil! Vegetable Garden Cover Crops”

I would try planting in sunken beds, Calen, and see how it works. If you really want to see if it makes a difference, plant one area flat, one area in sunken beds, and one area on mounds, then compare how they did over the season. That would be a really good way to gain a bunch of data from one growing season.

I planted corn in flat ground when I had a sandy area:

Corn in Sandy Soil

And on mounds in clay:

Planting-on-mounds-1

You’re right to think outside the mound, and you get serious extra points for guerilla gardening Seminole pumpkins. The melon pit method is one of my favorite discoveries.

If you’re reading this and don’t know what Calen is talking about, here’s how to make a melon pit:

In sand, dig deeper and go for an indentation instead of a mound.

What about you? Have you had success planting on mounds in sandy soil? What about with using melon pits? Let me know in the comments below!

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Reforesting Land With ORANGE PEELS?

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Compost everything, orange peel edition:

“Treuer initially set out to locate the large placard that marked the plot—and failed.

‘It’s a huge sign, bright yellow lettering. We should have been able to see it,’ Treuer says. After wandering around for half an hour with no luck, he consulted Janzen, who gave him more detailed instructions on how to find the plot.

When he returned a week later and confirmed he was in the right place, Treuer was floored. Compared to the adjacent barren former pastureland, the site of the food waste deposit was ‘like night and day.’

‘It was just hard to believe that the only difference between the two areas was a bunch of orange peels. They look like completely different ecosystems,’ he explains.

The area was so thick with vegetation he still could not find the sign.

Treuer and a team of researchers from Princeton University studied the site over the course of the following three years.

The results, published in the journal Restoration Ecology, highlight just how completely the discarded fruit parts assisted the area’s turnaround.

The ecologists measured various qualities of the site against an area of former pastureland immediately across the access road used to dump the orange peels two decades prior. Compared to the adjacent plot, which was dominated by a single species of tree, the site of the orange peel deposit featured two dozen species of vegetation, most thriving.”

I’ve seen massive changes in an area after dropping lots of tree mulch. Struggling trees suddenly found their stride. Wildflowers and mushrooms appeared. Sweet potatoes exploded in productivity.

Read More: “Extreme Composting—How to Compost Everything”

Feed the soil, and the soil takes care of your plants. That’s why I argue in Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting that making lists of rules of things you “shouldn’t compost” and chucking good stuff like bones, wood, etc., is foolish.

Compost Everything

Nature breaks down organic material wonderfully. She’s a well-designed machine. Work with instead of against her and good things will come your way.

If something as simple as orange peels can restore lousy land, imagine what would happen if you added in a wide range of compostable material?

Big changes occur, even when you start small. Compost everything!

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Cooked Food in the Compost Is Bad?

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D wasn’t happy with the free composting guide I give away to newsletter subscribers:

“You say in your compost guide to use cooked food!!! Isn’t that just asking for rats and maggots to come and invade, giving them a invitation?”

You can’t win them all.

Yet why would you not use cooked food in your compost? Do you think rats are particularly attracted to cooked vs. non-cooked food? No, rats love just about anything you throw their way, as do maggots.

Soldier fly larvae are maggots, and they are great composters!

And rats? Come on. Bury things deeply, as I do in my “melon pits:”

Other gardeners are picking up the melon pit idea as well:

Melon pits are an easy way to add cooked food to your compost if you’re really afraid of rats and other vermin.

Or you can just compost in a closed bin.

I mean, really … why throw potential soil fertility away? Compost everything!

Nature was designed to break down organic material, and she’s really good at it. Cooked food isn’t a problem; meat isn’t a problem; paper isn’t a problem! You can keep problems at bay by burying the really nasty stuff or by building bins that are animal-proof (provided you don’t have bears or Bigfoot in your neighborhood).

Quit worrying and compost on.

 

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Planting Corn in Stations

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Before I moved to Central America a couple of years ago, I always planted corn in rows, one plant every 6-12 inches, 1.5-3 feet apart.

Like this:

Planting Corn in Stands

Then a farmer taught me the local method of planting corn in stations, and I’ve found it really saves prep time.

Read More: “Hand Pollinating Corn for Seed Saving”

Instead of tilling an area, you just take a string trimmer (or scythe or whatever may be your weed-clearing weapon of choice) and scalp the ground right down to the dirt.

Then knock loose holes in the ground about 2.5 feet apart, plant 4 kernels in each hole, and feed with manure or whatever high-nitrogen material you have.

In a few weeks, the corn will grow taller, but the weeds you knocked down will also return. Come back with your string trimmer and knock all the space between the corn back to bare earth.

In a few more weeks, the corn will be tall enough to take care of itself and shade out the weeds. Eventually, you harvest the ears, then turn the ground over to grow something else.

It’s really an easy system. You can see a patch I planted this way in this video.

This method of planting corn can also be used in a pigeon pea/corn intercrop system like I wrote about here.

As I remark in the video, I’d really love to try this in a typical lawn. Imagine doing this in the midst of an expanse of St. Augustine or bahia! What great fun.

Here’s a large patch of corn growing this way:

Planting Corn in Stations on Hillside

See how it was done? It’s the same method of hacking holes into the soil and planting kernels. 3-4 seeds are planted in each hole and the corn grows nicely that way in a small clump. Between clumps is about 2.5 feet in all directions.

This method seems to work very well on slopes, as the roots of the weeds and grass hold the soil together, whereas tilling it all and row planting corn could lead to serious erosion issues.

The harvests are decent as well — I haven’t noticed a drop off in productivity at all. The wider spacing also means you can often grow corn without any irrigation, depending on your climate.

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Are Tire Gardens Toxic? The Case For And Against

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Are tire gardens toxic?

In a newsletter last year, I shared some thoughts on tire gardens, along with this video:

In response, one of my readers wrote:

“Hello David,
Tires do leach toxic, carcinogenic chemicals into the soil and plants grown in them. No time to research this? Then do not show pictures of plants grown in tires. That is irresponsible and bad karma as you pass on injury to others. Look into it. Fact: tire gardening and straw bale gardening are bad if you do not want toxin-suffused vegetables.”

And Sheila writes:

“One year, my father and I planted potatoes in tires. Just put on another tire and add dirt. We had lots of potatoes with seven high. PVC pipe with holes in it to water the plants. Problem was that they tasted like tires. Since then, I am not a fan of tires for living or gardening.”

Vegetables tasting like tires? And bad karma! Oh me oh my, I just want to give up.

Actually, I don’t care about tire gardens, though I do like the idea of recycling a waste product into a gardening bed.

But growing vegetables in tires isn’t a method I have any personal stake in. I’m happy to drop the method if it’s got its downsides, like straw bale gardening seems to have.

So—are tire gardens toxic? Let’s do a little digging.

Are Tire Gardens Toxic? The Case For Tires

Tires are, of course, cheap and widely available even in the third world. ECHO uses them in their urban garden demonstration area. You can set up tire gardens on driveways, on roof tops, in rocky lots, and in tight spaces.

They’re convenient, too. But are they toxic?

When Patrice at Rural Revolution blogged about their tractor tire gardens, she got a similar response to that which I got … but even harsher.

Someone wrote:

You could have created a floral landscape, a Dutch Masterpiece, an English Rose Garden, a French Formal Garden, and you chose Fords-Ville, Michelin Man, and polluted Mother Earth. Scrap timber is everywhere, so are bricks, tiles, even rockery stones, but tires no. Are you sure the food grown will be free of carbon rubber tire oil moisture? A carcinogen?

You can read Patrice’s response and entire defense of tire gardening here, but most of it boils down to what she wrote here:

“Tires have a lot of nasty things bonded into them, things that arguably ARE carcinogenic. But it’s the term BONDED that must be considered. Intact tires are distressingly inert (that’s why they’re everywhere rather than quietly decomposing into Mother Earth).”

She then quotes extensively from research done by Mr. Farber of www.tirecrafting.com (which now redirects to an Etsy site so the original essay appears to be missing):

Used tires already exist, and in their solid state, they are as safe or safer than any other construction material. The process and the result of this global discard nightmare being recycled by industry, whether grinding them up for road base, burning them as fuel, or recouping the oil, releases more hydrocarbons while costing the global economy billions of dollars for tire cleanup and commercial recycling. Modifying tires to create green space and home gardening available to everyone would not only absorb hydrocarbons, it could well be the key to salvation for practically every family on the planet that is otherwise excluded from adequate sustenance. Personal tire recycling potential benefits far outweigh all perceived hazards.

Still, I am not convinced. After all, if vegetables are tasting like tires, well, that doesn’t inspire confidence. Yet I do love what Patrice has done at Rural Revolution. In her case, it made sense.

Are Tire Gardens Toxic? The Case Against Tires

According to Brighton Permaculture Trust:

“Due to commercial secrecy, it’s difficult to find out the exact ingredients of a tire, and there are lots of different types. The list below is from a ‘typical tire’:

  • Natural rubber
  • Synthetic rubber compounds, including Butadiene—known carcinogen
  • Solvents: Benzene—known carcinogen, Styrene—anticipated to be carcinogenic, Toluene—has negative health effects, Xylene—irritant, & Petroleum naphtha
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: Phenols—some are endocrine-disruptive, Benzo(a)pyrene—linked to cancer
  • Heavy metals: Zinc, chromium, nickel, lead, copper & cadmium
  • Carbon black—possibly carcinogenic
  • Vulcanising agents: Sulphur & zinc oxide
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls—known carcinogen
  • Other synthetic chemicals”

Again, though, these terrible things might have off-gassed during the tire’s usable life or been stabilized and made inert during manufacturing.

Yet as Mischa argues in that article:

“When it comes to growing food in tires, why take the risk?

Whilst the quantity of toxic chemicals may be small, we don’t know the exact amount used in tyres because of commercial secrecy.

People generally grow food organically for themselves to avoid exposure to synthetic chemicals. It seems ironic that a ‘Permaculture way’ of reusing tires could be unintentionally reintroducing potentially harmful chemicals back into the equation.”

And over at Science Daily, it gets scarier:

“Draper’s method has been to make up clean samples of water like those inhabited by several kinds of aquatic organisms—algae, duckweed, daphnia (water fleas), fathead minnows, and snails—and under controlled laboratory conditions, put finely ground tire particles into the samples. By letting the particles remain in the water for 10 days and then filtering them out, she created a “leachate” that included substances in the tire rubber. All the organisms exposed to the leachate died, and the algae died fairly quickly.”

This is not complete tires, of course, but tires will break down slowly over time in the garden—and if it kills ground life, well, that’s obviously a bad thing.

The science isn’t settled, but it is unsettling.

Conclusion

After multiple hours of research, I am now leaning against tire gardening. On my new property, I have not built any tire gardens and I don’t plan to add any.

If you’re in an urban setting, have terrible soil or no soil, and no options, etc., there might be a place for tire gardens. I built mine for fun in a few minutes and have enjoyed them, but I now have no desire to expand and add more. Yet digging beds is free—so why use tires at all?

Especially if it’s going to ruin the karma I don’t even believe in.

If you want simple, tried-and-true and even off-grid methods for growing lots of food without much money in tough times, stick around The Grow Network and keep learning!

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Featured Photo Credit: Mark Buckawicki / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

 

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Compost Fish Right in the Garden

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Yes, you can compost fish!

Last year, Jim wrote me to say:

“Since you are focusing on the wonderful world of rotting stuff, I wanted to relate a recent experience to you and your fans.

We garden in Alaska, and the whole composting thing is a big challenge for us. Because our average temperature is so low, it literally takes years to compost material.

Last year, we unfortunately had a chest freezer go bad, and it sat for a week before anyone discovered the problem. It was full of red salmon fillets and buffalo meat from what we had harvested previously.

After we cried about the 250 lbs. of rotting meat, we did what a lot of coastal Alaskans have done for 100s of years. We added the meat to the garden.

We garden in raised beds, so we dug out the dirt and placed the fillets (half of a red salmon each—about 2 pounds) in the bottom of the bed. The salmon was layered in the beds about 6 inches apart over the entire bottom of the beds and covered with 10 inches of dirt. We put approximately 20+ fillets (10 whole fish) in each bed.

We planted potatoes, peas, and broccoli in the beds and away we went. Luckily the bears left the beds alone, and the plants prospered.

We got a bumper crop of peas and broccoli, and the potatoes were the largest we have ever seen. The potatoes were the fancy purple kind and they grew 3-5 feet tall with 1-inch stalks.

They gave us a surprise by producing potato berries in large bunches. These berries are like large grapes. Unfortunately, they were everywhere, and the dog ate some and proceeded to vomit toxic berries for 2 days.

Lesson learned there!

So rotting, stinking fish flesh worked wonderfully, and the plants did not show any over-fertilizing problems as you would think.”

Oh heck yeah. When life gives you ruined meat … turn it into potatoes! Just don’t let the dog get into the solanine-rich potato fruits.

In a related idea, a reader e-mailed me this:

“My uncle told me a planting method for papayas in which you dig until you reach water (which, here, it only takes about 6 feet), refill the hole until there is no water showing, start a wood fire at the bottom of the hole, and fill the hole with organic matter.”

Another place for composting fish, perhaps?

I’ve not heard of that precise method, and it sounds like a lot of digging, but it’s not all that different from the melon pits I discuss in Compost Everything. That book also contains details on how to make fish emulsion in a barrel, just in case you don’t feel like digging.

Nature composts everything … why not do the same? Composting fish really isn’t that crazy. Remember the Pilgrims and the Indians? Why have we forgotten what our ancestors knew well?

Just go for it. Giant potatoes don’t lie.

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The Incredible, Edible, Pindo Palm!

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A friend asks if a beautiful palm has edible fruit:

“There is a palm tree in the front yard of a house we bought in Ocala about 18 months ago. This year, it produced large clumps of a yellow-orange fruit that has a tough skin and a large seed inside each one. Pictures are attached.

pindo-palm-with-orange-fruit-edible

Can you tell us what this is, and how to protect and use it? (The fruits spoil almost a quickly as they ripen.)”

I wrote back:

“That’s a pindo palm! Great fruit. We stew them into an absolutely delicious jelly with sugar to taste and jar them. Best flavor ever. Also makes a great pancake syrup. You can also eat the fruit fresh. In the past, people have made wine from them as well. Butia capitata is the Latin name.”

They really are delicious. And it’s fun to say “Butia capitata.” Try it three times fastI’ll wait.

I planted two in my North Florida food forest because I was so impressed with the flavor of the fruit. You can see one of them here:

FoodForestAfter-Un11

Pindo palm fruit are not great off the tree, but the jelly … incredible. Coconut, pineapple, passion fruityou taste notes of different tropical delights in it. Very, very good.

I once harvested about 50 pounds from the Ocala agricultural extension offices and made jelly with them. The fruits often just fall on the ground unused and are available for the asking.

And the aroma of the fruit is intoxicating.

As Wendy Kiang-Spray writes:

“On the short walk from the pool to the house we rent in the ‘low country’ in South Carolina, Winter picked a berry from the tons of these little palm trees in the community and said, ‘Mom, smell this.’ Well, I’ve played that game before, and it’s not always fun. I was cautious at first, but then quickly began oohing and aahhing over the fragrance that in an instant transports you to the warm sunny place of your dreams. You cannot prevent the immediate inclination to hold in your hand a drink blended with ice and topped with a frilly paper umbrella.”

You’ll also find a recipe for pindo palm jelly in her post.

Pindo palms are often sold in ornamental nurseries across the Deep South. Their silvery foliage and cold hardiness make them very popular. I got my two trees from Home Depot and have encouraged many food-forest enthusiasts to add a few to their plans. You won’t regret it.

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Compost Tea: An Easy Way to Stretch Your Compost

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Don’t Kill Yourself Making Compost!

Long ago, I used to spend a lot of time making big piles of greens and browns—carefully mixed, watered, turned, and sifted…. And yet I never had enough compost to go around.

I’m sure you know the feeling!

I still make piles, since I like to have fine compost for sprinkling on new garden beds and making my own potting mixes; however, I no longer rely on finished compost for the majority of my fertilizing.

Instead, I’ve got a much easier system: compost tea.

Read More: “How to Make Composting Easy”

Watch Me Make Compost Tea

This is my favorite way to make free fertilizer. I use moringa leaves, manure, urine, compost, weeds, and other nitrogen-rich materials. I put them in a big barrel, top it off with water, and then let it rot on down into liquid fertilizer for my gardens. I’ll also add a cup or two of Epsom salts if I have them available for the extra magnesium and sulfur.

After a couple of weeks of sitting in the sun and rotting, you’ve got a compost tea with some serious fertilizing power. Take a look:

How to Use Compost Tea

I’ve fed big plots of corn and other crops effectively with very little trouble and very little material after discovering how well this anaerobic composting method works. It’s similar to Bokashi composting, but without having to buy Bokashi starter. Just let nature take its course, and you’ll have a rich, green garden like I do.

Warning: You don’t want to pour this stuff on your greens or on other crops you’re going to eat right away, as it is most definitely not safe for consumption!

I cover this method in my popular book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting, and I’ve had people write in and share their own successful experiments with the “big stinky barrel o’ fertility” method. Give it a try. Aside from the smell, I think you’ll like it.

A Quick Update

Here’s another video I made that offers specifics about my anaerobic compost tea recipe … even more stinky goodness from my “tea pot”! Won’t you be my neighbor?

(This article was originally published July 8, 2016.)

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Your Questions, Answered!

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Okay, so I’m not going to lie—I had a blast a couple of nights ago at TGN’s Ask Me Anything! podcast. This is the first time we’ve used this format (think homesteading meets Car Talk), and it really went well.

David the Good and I answered questions on no-till gardening solutions for heavy clay soils, what to look for in a permaculture design course, how to deal with underground hornets’ nests, what exactly you should and shouldn’t add to your compost pile (are all those rules really necessary?!) … the list goes on and on!

Being able to connect with David and me like this every month is a perk of our Honors Lab subscription, but there were so many good questions (and … dare I say it … so many good answers!!! 😉 ) that I thought you might enjoy reading the transcript!

Read the Ask Me Anything! Podcast Transcript Here

(Oh, and if you want to join the Honors Lab and get it on the fun next month, you can subscribe here. It’s just $9.95 a month … and you get so, so much more than just an invitation to each month’s Ask Me Anything! podcast!)

 

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Why You Should Add Clay to Your Compost Pile

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My friend Steve Solomon (who is the #1 gardening author you should read) recommends you add clay to your compost pile, especially if you have sandy soils.

I’ve seen applications of compost disappear in a couple of months in hot, sandy soil. It just doesn’t stick. Unless you put a little clay in it.

Putting Clay in Your Compost Pile

Since I pretty much do everything Steve Solomon tells me to do, I started putting clay in compost piles some time back … but now I’m really getting serious. You can see me adding clay to the compost layers in this video:

I really didn’t need to add that much, but heygo big or go home!

An article at The Food Garden Group in Tasmania reports good results from adding clay to a compost pile:

The heaps made with clay, so long as they contain a reasonable amount of coarse material to enable some air movement, do not need to be turned. The ingredients all get to soak and mix in a thick clay soup before stacking (putting a pile of food and drinks in every pantry) and the heaps seem to stay moist for a very long time. I recently opened up a heap I hadn’t touched for three months and it was still moist and generating warmth. A reasonable compost can be made by simply wetting the materials with clay slurry as the heap is built, but remember that only the material which decomposes in association with clay particles is going to become durable humus/clay complex. A heap built this way will probably need to be turned and rewatered, too. Think of the difference between a dish that’s been marinated compared to one that’s only been sprinkled with a dressing.

Clay is made up of very fine particles, so the combined surface area of all the particles in a peanut-sized clod might be equal to a tennis court or three Clive Palmer skins or some such mind boggling factoid. No wonder, then, that it can hold so much water. Also these particles carry a negative charge, so each one is capable of forming bonds with positively charged particles (ions) like many of the essential plant nutrients. They gradually fill up with waste, sticking fast and firm to walls, floors, and ceilings as the food in the pantries is consumed.


The resultant compost is packed with nutrients that are more or less available depending on how complex the chemical bonding with the clay is. What we have here is humus in close association with clay, a long-lasting, water-retentive material in which plant roots and soil organisms can find all the nutrition they are looking for. A material which will keep carbon not only locked up, but also doing a great job for years to come.”

Putting Clay in Your Compost Pile Is Good for Sandy Soils

In sandy soils, organic matter burns up a lot quicker than it does in clay soils. Clay hangs on to the good stuff for longer, binding with organic material and increasing its persistence.

If you make compost in an area where clay is not part of the soil, it’s easy to put clay in compost via bentonite.

Just sprinkle it in as you layer materialsyou really don’t need as much clay as I dumped in my pile.

According to Infogalactic:

“The application of clay technology by farmers in northeast Thailand, using bentonite clay, has dramatically reversed soil degradation and resulted in greater economic returns, with higher yields and higher output prices. Studies carried out by The International Water Management Institute and partners in 2002–2003 focused on the application of locally sourced bentonite clays to degraded soils in the region. These applications were carried out in structured field trials. Applying bentonite clays effectively improved yields of forage sorghum grown under rain-fed conditions.

Bentonite application also influenced the prices that farmers received for their crops. Production costs are higher, but due to more production and the quality of the food, clay farmers could afford to invest and grow more and better food, compared to nonclay-using farmers.”

Fortunately, bentonite is what cheap, non-scented cat litter is made from. If you can’t find powdered clay in sacks locally, just rob your kitty instead!

Make that compost stick around!

 

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The Top 10 Tropical Staple Crops (VIDEO)

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Earlier this year I created a video on the top 10 tropical staple crops. It took me way too long to write and edit, so I hope you find it incredibly helpful.

Let’s run through them here, along with a few notes.

10: Grain Corn

Corn

 

Stick to dent corn varieties in warm, hot climates. Flint corns are better for up north, dent for down south. Corn needs decent soil and plenty of nitrogen, but it’s the best grain for production and processing—much easier to process than small grains like oats, rye, and wheat. You need to nixtamalize it with lime or eat it as part of a balanced diet to avoid pellagra, a niacin deficiency which will really mess you up.

9: Pumpkins/Winter Squash

Pumpkin

 

These are one of my favorite plants to grow. In the tropics, most of the pumpkins grown are C. moschata types, though there are others, too. Pumpkins take up a lot of space, but make big, storable fruit. On the downside, they’re not that calorie dense and it’s easy to get sick of eating pumpkins.

8: Breadfruit

Breadfruit

 

Breadfruit is delicious and productive, plus it’s a tree so you don’t need to plow and plant like you do with annual staples. They are tough trees, though they can’t take any cold. The downside is that the breadfruit come in seasons instead of spread out through the year.

7: Coconuts

Coconuts

So long as you don’t cut through your hand while opening them, coconuts are very good. They are high in good fats and nutrients, grow easily even in terrible soil, and require very little work to maintain. The fronds are also useful for crafts, thatching, baskets, and more. The downside of coconuts is they are a pain to open.

6: Bananas and Plantains

Plantains

It’s a fruit! No, it’s a starch!

Unripe bananas and plantains can be cooked and eaten like potatoes or fried like chips, making them a good way to fill in the caloric cracks. Though they are non-seasonal, they do produce better in the rainy season unless you keep them watered. And they like a lot of water! They also like a lot of nitrogen. Plant them around the septic tank and you’re golden.

5: Malanga and Taro

Malanga Roots

Malanga, a.k.a. dasheen, has edible leaves (when cooked ONLY) and tubers (ditto). They like a lot of water and grow like weeds in a drainage ditch or shallow pond.

4: Pigeon Peas

Pigeon Peas

Pigeon peas are a very easy-to-grow nitrogen-fixing tropical staple crop. The dry peas are a good source of protein and the younger peas can be eaten like common green peas. If you have marginal ground, hack holes in it and plant pigeon peas. The downside is that shelling the peas takes way too long. I also find them a bit hard to digest.

3: Cassava

Cassava Coming Up

Cassava is a carbohydrate bazooka. It’s productive even in bad soil and has roughly twice the calories of white potatoes. Unfortunately, it’s almost devoid of real nutrition. It’s just a blast of carbs. This makes it great for a crisis, but not good to eat all the time. The leaves are edible when boiled and are nutrient-rich, so it makes sense to eat the leaves and roots together.

2: Sweet Potatoes

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes have edible greens and roots, produce abundantly in a small space, are high in calories and nutrition, and are non-seasonal. An excellent choice for survival.

1: True Yams

Giant Yam Root

Yes, I am prejudiced. Yams (Dioscorea spp.) are my favorite staple crop. The flavor is good, they take almost no work to grow, they’ll live on the margins of a food forest, and they’ll even grow and produce when guerilla-planted in the woods. Grow some—you’ll be impressed.

Conclusion

Any combination of these 10 tropical staple crops could keep you alive in a crisis. I recommend planting more than one of them for variation in diet, plus redundancy. If cassava does badly one year, you’ll still have pigeon peas. If the malanga doesn’t get enough water, maybe the corn will come through. Experiment and see what grows best in your area.

Did I miss one of your favorite tropical staples? Leave me a note and let me know.

 

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One TON of Food in 7 Months!

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I just got an e-mail from my pal David the Good, who shared a time lapse video of him growing 1 ton — yes, that’s 2,000 pounds! — of food in just 7 months. I thought you’d enjoy it as much as I did, so I’m sharing it here:

David says, “By far, the biggest gardening success of 2017 was hitting our goal of growing 2,000 lbs. of foodWe hit it in seven months — check out my time-lapse video above for the full countdown. That was just fun!

Much of our success was thanks to the many tree crops on the property we rented. I’ve been a fan of food forests and agroforestry for a long time.  Though the yields aren’t always as high for the space requirements as what you get from annuals, trees produce for years and require less work long-term.

We fed the jackfruit heavily in 2016 which led to great results in 2017. We also keep the bananas cleaned up and happy.

If we’d started with bare ground in 2017, though, it would have been tough to reach 2000 lbs.

Some things, such as the avocados and mangoes, basically grew themselves. Others, like yams and pumpkins, required plenty of work. Some things I planted simply failed, like sweet potatoes and beans. It was a very rainy year and the bugs were bad.

I love that David has his own song at the end of the video….

… and, whew! a lot of piña coladas to be made there, huh? 😉

 

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Make Homemade Potting Soil With 3 Simple Ingredients

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Today you’ll learn how to create homemade potting soil using only three simple ingredients. I’ll also give you alternate recipes for potting soil in case you don’t have those three readily available.

My Homemade Potting Soil Recipe

If you’d like to see me make my homemade potting soil, here’s a video I created illustrating the process:

First, you’ll need a place to work.

I like to spread a tarp on the grass and use that as my mixing area, but you can work on any solid surface. A tarp is easy to roll back and forth to help you mix, but making potting soil isn’t rocket science and you can really do it anywhere.

Second, gather your materials. My potting soil recipe has three main ingredients:

1. Rotten Wood

Fresh wood chips will eat up a lot of the nitrogen in your potting soil mix and can cause your plants to struggle. Rotten wood doesn’t cause that issue, plus it holds moisture and provides a loose and airy texture to the mix.

homemade potting soil recipe ingredient rotten wood

As you know if you’ve read my popular book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting, I don’t throw away or burn the logs and sticks that fall in my yard. Instead, I use them to feed the soil.

Leaving a pile of brush and logs in a corner of your property to rot over time will give you a ready source of rotten wood.

If you haven’t started doing that yet, just go for a walk in the woods and get a nice sack of fluffy, crumbly wood and drag it home.

2. Aged Cow Manure

I gather manure from my neighbor’s cows and leave it on a piece of metal in the sun to age and dry for a few months.

Homemade potting soil recipe aged manure

Fresh cow manure is too “hot.”

If my home-baked manure sounds too weird, just pile it up in a compost heap somewhere and let it go for a few months. That will leave you with a nutritious, organic-matter-rich pile of good stuff for your homemade potting soil.

NOTE: Manure in the United States is often contaminated with long-term herbicides that will destroy your garden and your potted plants. Read Karen’s story and learn more about that danger here.

3. Sifted Soil/Grit

I let my chickens do a lot of composting for me, like this:

I go into the coop or chicken run, sift out the grit, soil and compost, then use it in my homemade potting soil.

Homemade potting soil recipe sifted chicken run soil

You don’t need to do that, though. No chickens? No problem.

I sift grit from the local creek bed and add that sometimes. I’ve also just added good garden soil, old potting soil mix from expired plants and even regular old sand.

Mix It All Up

Now all you need to do is get mixing.

Smash the rotten wood into smaller chunks, break up the cow patties, and pour in the grit. I use one part rotten wood, one part aged manure and one part grit/soil in my potting soil recipe, but don’t overthink it. If it looks loose and feels good, the plants will be happy.

As you’ll notice in my video, I often leave pretty big chunks of wood in my homemade potting soil. The potted plants seem to like them and they act as moisture reservoirs and soil looseners.

If you need a finer homemade potting soil for starting seeds, just crush the mix finer or run a coarser mix through some hardware cloth to sift it.

Alternate Ingredients for Homemade Potting Soil

If you don’t have cow manure, try goat or rabbit manure. Both work quite well. Homemade compost is also excellent, though I never seem to have enough for everything I want to do. It’s often full of seeds, so watch out for that unless you want pumpkins growing out of your potted begonias.

Don’t have grit/sand available? Vermiculite or perlite both work nicely, though you have to buy them.

Rotten wood can be replaced with peat moss or coconut coir. I prefer the coir. It seems to repel water less. You can also use leaf mould. Sift it out in the local forest – it’s wonderful. As a bonus, it contains beneficial bacteria and fungi.

Along with these ingredients, I’ve also added some ashes, crushed charcoal, coffee grounds, old potting soil, peanut shells and even moldy cocoa nibs.

When I ran my nursery business I often stretched my potting soil budget by mixing purchased soil with rotten wood chips I got from a local tree company and set aside for years to break down.

Just keep your homemade potting soil loose and fluffy with a good mix of ingredients and your plants will do great.

 

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Growing Gardens Under Oak Trees?

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Growing gardens under oak trees? Jennifer asks if it can be done:

Dear David,

I have 10 very mature oaks in my front yard. At the base of one of 
the oaks I have started my food forest experiment. I dumped a layer 
of compost, a variety of seeds (squash, beans, herbs, morning glories, 
echinacea, passionflower and i forgot what else lol!), and light mulch 
because of the oak roots, it is growing good so far. So we talked about 
before i would begin to stop raking leaves and let the leaf litter collect.  
I would then have a self mulching landscape. From my understanding 
not much will be able to grow as ground cover since the leaves will 
ultimately smother them out. I know i can grow vines that travel up though.  
Also any fruit trees or bushes will be of low yield since they would only 
receive dappled light. Is the solution to just plant more?? Please tell me 
if what all I am saying is true? Also I am thinking this is a mesic oak 
hammock since we are on a lake but our house is not in a flood zone 
because we sit up in the hammock zone. Hope that helps.

Thanks

Jennifer

I like her approach. Compost and a big mix of seeds. My kind of growing.

There are two issues here that I can see. Let’s tackle them both

1: Too Much Shade

Oaks are hard to garden under, but I hate to remove them. I explore this conundrum and my thoughts on it in my book Compost Everything in the chapter on “Stupid Worthless Trees.”

I was joking when I called them stupid worthless trees, but that’s the way many people view big, “non-productive” trees. An oak or a maple or a sweetgum is viewed as worthless by many food growers because they aren’t good sources of food. Sure, you can eat acorns or tap maples, but the work involved with processing makes them a less-than-desirable source of food.

Jennifer has a different approach. She’s letting them drop leaves and feed the soil, which large trees are great at doing. They also support other species such as birds and mushrooms—sometimes even edible mushrooms—so they’re vital parts of the ecosystem.

Lactarius_Indigo_Edible_Mushroom

This edible Lactarius indigo was discovered beneath an oak tree.

The problem is the shade they create. Gardening under oaks isn’t easy unless you’re growing shade-tolerant plants. I grew grape mahonias, pineapples and gingers under mine back in North Florida. Around the edges of oaks you can also grow citrus and other fruit trees provided they get enough light. It takes a lot of solar energy to get fruit-producing vegetables like squash, tomatoes, peppers, beans, etc., to make much worth eating.

Throwing down a lot of seeds is a good idea, though—Jennifer may discover some species which are more tolerant than others of the shade.

Sometimes you can strategically remove limbs and open up the canopy to keep things growing underneath.

Planting a big variety is a good idea. The area may not be as productive as it would be without the canopy, but the oaks will buffer the overnight lows during the winter and can help you push the zone, so there are benefits.

Research shade plants for your area, test lots of species, then see what flies.

2: Leaves Covering Everything

If you are starting plants from seeds, having a lot of leaves drop can crush out young seedlings and make it hard to get things started; however, if you plant seeds when leaf drop is minimal, the plants should get established before the leaves get too thick. Older plants will be fine and the leaves will feed their roots as they grow.

Leaves

One of the things I love about mature trees is how many leaves they drop. Leaves are great food for the soil and your compost pile. Perennial vegetables are easier underneath oaks, which is one reason I loved ginger. It likes the shade and will grow through leaves without trouble.

Something worth doing: travel to local parks with natural woodlands and observe what is growing beneath the oaks in wild areas. See if you can mimic what is happening in your own yard. Look for species that are edible. Smilax? Try growing its cousin asparagus.

Beautyberries? Sure, plant some of those!

Violets? They’re a good edible.

Wild blackberries? Plant some cultivated types.

See if you can find patterns in nature and then put those patterns to work in your oak gardens. I learned this concept from the late Toby Hemenway and it has worked wonderfully.

It’s not easy to grow a garden under oak trees, but it’s not impossible. Keep planting and follow your intuition and your observations.

And have fun.

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