In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


3 Comments

Edible Landscaping Tour

I truly believe that people need to take more responsibility for their own food production. I know this isn’t realistic for everyone, but if food production became more local – hyperlocal, in the case of the gardener or forager feeding themselves and their loved ones – it would do a lot to help heal the planet by reducing the demand for fossil fuels. The beginning of this podcast by Chris Martenson reinforced that for me. (Although I’ve also read a number of books that discuss the dependence of our industrial agricultural food complex on the continued supply of cheap oil – Omnivore’s Dilemma, Nation of Farmers, and Folks This Ain’t Normal, among others).

To that end, I may have gotten carried away with this year’s project: edible landscaping.

To show you what I mean, here is a tour of the edible landscaping in my meager 1.85 acres. I haven’t gone completely crazy – we still mow way more lawn than I would like. But I’m also still learning how to take care of all these various plants and trees so I’m adding to the layout gradually. I goal is to plant as many perennials and self-propagating annuals as possible, to make the landscaping easier to maintain over time. I will post a separate (but also photo-heavy) update about this year’s garden efforts as well.

Where to start, where to start.

We’ll begin our tour at the driveway, with the items you might see if you were coming to my house for a visit.

This photo shows the beginning of my food forest. A “food forest” is an engineered forest, modeling forests as they occur in nature, but planted with trees, shrubs, pollinators and other plants that primarily provide benefit to humans. (I have a lot more to say about food forests in a future post.)

The future food forest - elderberry, serviceberry, mulberry, hackberry, and hazelnuts

The future food forest – elderberry, serviceberry, mulberry, hackberry, and hazelnuts

As you can see, I have a ways to go until this reaches “forest” status! I planted primarily local fruit and nut trees. The mulberry and elderberry (on the left) were already growing on their own. There are also two hackberries and a black locust in the center (ish). I have added three hazelnut trees, two serviceberries, and another elderberry. You can’t really see them in this photo – they are in the green wire cages on the left. They are all plants mentioned in foraging books for this area, so I guess you could say this counts as reverse foraging too. The hazelnuts are particularly important to me to reduce my consumption of almond flour. Since I don’t eat grains like flour or corn, I use almond flour in a few recipes. But despite how trendy almond flour is, almond growing is actually very problematic from an ecological perspective. Unfortunately, it will probably take several more years until any of the plants I added actually produce fruits and nuts.

In additional to the food forest, we also built a little pollinator bed.

The pollinator bed

The pollinator bed

It has a ways to go. The plants here are primarily flowers to attract bees and butterflies, since they help pollinate food crops as well. I’m trying to pick plants with medicinal or edible value to humans as well. Johnny jump ups, for instance have edible flowers. I hope to add wild bergamot, echinacea, and milkweed (of course!) to this bed soon.

By the front door is my strawberry bed.

The strawberry bed

The strawberry bed

They are done for the year, so the photo isn’t nearly as dramatic as it could have been. Yes, my Junebearing strawberries are all tapped out of fruit by June. Go figure! We have discussed removing the existing shrubs from the house and replacing them with fruiting shrubs as well, but I want to do a little more research before making that change, given how expensive that project would be!

Around the side of the house we find my gooseberries and herb wall.

Herb wall with gooseberries beneath

Herb wall with gooseberries beneath

Honestly, I had never even tasted a gooseberry until my husband brought these two plants home from a local nursery! But all the edible landscaping books mention them, so I felt like I had to have them. They fit perfectly in this spot under the herbs on the shed wall, transforming this bare empty space with splashes of color and sweet-tart fruit.

If you turn around from admiring the gooseberries, you’ll see my leftover amaranth.

Amaranth among the weeds

Amaranth among the weeds

I germinated a lot of amaranth using a technique called “winter sowing” (which is a post I still need to write), and ended up with leftovers. I hate throwing away or composting extra plants, and couldn’t find anyone to adopt them. We carved out a space among the weeds next to the chicken coop, and planted the golden and purple plants there. You can barely see them for the weeds (look for the arrows); they have a little mulch around them but the pokeweed, grasses, lambsquarter, and even some wild amaranth are closing in!

Still with me? Great! There’s more to see! The edible landscaping continues onto my back deck.

Tomatoes and eggplant in containers, flanked by scarlet runner beans

Tomatoes and eggplant in containers, flanked by scarlet runner beans

I’ve mentioned my container tomatoes previously; I also have three pots of eggplants (two plants per pot). The flea beetles in my garden inevitably shred the eggplant leaves to the point where the plants die, but somehow they can’t find them safely tucked away on my deck! These eggplants produce a miniature variety of fruit, which is the perfect amount for me and my husband to enjoy periodically in a stir fry.

The deck railing supports several scarlet runner beans, which not only display stunning red flowers, but also feed hummingbirds and produce edible beans. Next year we’ll plant a few more, in order for better coverage of the railing. In some climates scarlet runner beans actually survive as perennials, but I suspect our winter temperatures plunge too low here.

On the back side of the railing are my blueberry plants.

The blueberry bed

The blueberry bed

They are all low bush blueberries, to fit into this small space. (If/when we replace the foundation bushes in front of the house, we may use high bush blueberries which have a bigger profile.) They get less sun in this spot than they would like, but they are hanging on despite the suboptimal conditions.

Our yard beautification project extended to the chicken run as well.

The chicken run beautification project: nasturtium and redvine passionflower

The chicken run beautification project: nasturtium and redvine passionflower

Here you see busy, thriving nasturtiums – edible flowers and leaves, folks! – with my poor little redvine passionflowers (see the arrows) planted in between them. I doubt the passionflowers will survive long enough to reach their full potential of climbing and vining along the chicken fence, producing edible fruit. (If you are wondering why I have such a dim outlook on their fate, you can read my tale of drama and woe here. Also, if you know of a source for maypops – the cold hardy variety of passionflower that WILL survive in my USDA zone of 7A – please let me know!)

There is also comfrey planted at the far corner of the chicken run, but you cannot see it in the photo because a cheerful nasturtium blocking the view.

We recently had a hand pump installed for our well.

Rhubarb around the well

Rhubarb around the well

Now if the electricity goes out for an extended period of time (which seems to happen more frequently each year), we can pump our own water instead of having to haul it from the creek – which is half a mile away, down (and then back up) a steep slope. This provided another great opportunity for edible landscaping in the form of rhubarb. I have been timid about harvesting the rhubarb though, so the crowns can get more established in the hard clay soil.

Several years ago, we had our hilly backyard partially terraced and hardscaped. We tried planting fancy, pretty plants but eventually everything was choked out by weeds. I sheet mulched the entire area over the winter (that’s another post I haven’t written yet), and this spring started fresh.

Jerusalem artichokes, amaranth and milkweed

Jerusalem artichokes, amaranth and milkweed

Currently this hardscaping features some pretty standard landscaping plants like liriope (to the left) and ornamental grass (to the right). But we also planted Jerusalem artichoke (the plants with pointy leaves), golden and purple amaranth (which are still too small to really see in this photo). Some random milkweed (the plants with rounded leaves) managed to grow through the sheet mulch and of course I let it go because that gives me milkweed I KNOW won’t get mowed by the farmer across the street.

You might have noticed that despite the variety, everything is on a relatively small scale. We don’t harvest a ton of rhubarb every year, or so many blueberries there’s leftover to preserve. I don’t think I’ll harvest enough gooseberries at one time to make a gooseberry pie! And It was a surprise earlier this year when we got enough strawberries to be able to freeze dry some. I’m still learning how to steward all these different kinds of plants, and what to do with the food they produce.

Stay tuned for the follow on post about how my little garden is doing this year!


Leave a comment

Brambling On, Week Ending 2/10/2019

In this week’s post, we’ll look at another way the lack of winter foliage reveals wild edibles for later in the year. When the understory is smothered with leaves and thorns, it can be hard to know if anything buried under there is worth fighting to reach. In the winter, however, we can see the stems and note the location for future foraging forays.

A tangle of brambles in the winter

A tangle of brambles in the winter

Here are a few of the central MD canes and brambles you might encounter on a winter hike, with photos to help tell them apart.

Blackberry: most of the local wild blackberries appear to be Rubus pensilvanicus. There are also Alleghany blackberries (Rubus allegheniensis) in the area, and they have narrower leaflets. (I am not sure there is a way to tell them apart by winter stems… I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen an Alleghany blackberry).

Blackberry in winter

Blackberry in winter

Blackberry canes have wicked sharp thorns, and often feature furrows and ridges lengthwise along the stem. They may be branched or not, depending on whether the tip of the cane was injured during the previous year. (“Tipping” is a pruning approach used for domestic blackberries because the branches will produce more fruit than a single long cane.)

Black raspberry: The other native bramble species, Rubus occidentalis, can be easily distinguished from blackberries by the purplish coloring on the stems. Like blackberries, the fruit grows on biennial canes that grow one year, survive over the winter, and flower the following year.

Black raspberry in winter

Black raspberry in winter

The new canes that grow the following year will also have an eye-catching color, though light blue rather than purple. The black raspberry’s thorns are also thankfully smaller than those of blackberries.

Wineberry: Black raspberries often share a habitat with Rubus phoenicolasius, a non-native bramble species.

Wineberry in winter

Wineberry in winter

In addition to thorns, wineberry canes bristle with red prickly hairs. In roadside thickets of brambles, the reddish color makes wineberries stand out almost as much as the purple stems of black raspberries.

Multiflora RoseRosa multiflora, technically foragable but not really interesting due to its small flowers and fruit (called “hips”). A non-native invasive species in central MD, this is the only kind of wild rose I have encountered so far.

Rose in winter

Rose in winter

While similar to blackberry canes, the multiflora roses of my acquaintance tend to be more upright (rather than long and arching); more likely to have branches; and less likely to be deeply furrowed than blackberries. Oh, but the thorns are just as sharp!

The last two plants in this post are visually similar to the previous ones, although they are not related. (Blackberries, raspberries, wineberries and roses are all members of the Rosaceae family.)

Elderberry: The winter form of Sambucus canadensis shares the long, arching leafless stems of the previously discussed canes.

Elderberry in winter

Elderberry in winter

You can tell elderberry by the lack of thorns, the larger size compared to the other canes discussed in this post, the scars from last year’s leaf stems, and the raised bumps on the bark.

Greenbrier: Smilax rotundifolia is a small sprawling vine that also has a thorny stem that looks similar to roses.

Greenbrier in the winter

Greenbrier in the winter

However roses stems are pale green or sometimes red (depending on the amount of cold it has been exposed to), while greenbrier sports glossy green stems, which look almost artificially colored compared to the dull, washed out shades of most winter plants.


Leave a comment

Foraging Updates, Week Ending 9/23/2018

For this week’s foraging post, I have two updates about wild plants I have covered previously. Part of what I love about foraging is constantly learning. Even when it means I have to revise my previous understanding of the abundance that surrounds us every day.

Update one: Butternuts.

About a month ago, I posted all giddy thinking I had found wild butternut (Juglans cinera) near my house.

I regret to say, it is highly doubtful the tree I found is, in fact, butternut. At the Great Frederick Fair this past week, there were displays of both black walnuts (Juglans nigra) …

Black walnut samples at the Great Frederick Fair

Black walnut samples at the Great Frederick Fair

… and butternuts …

Butternut samples at the Great Frederick Fair

Butternut samples at the Great Frederick Fair

(Sorry it’s so blurry! The camera on my phone was really acting up that day.)

You can see the staggering difference between the two nut shapes. I thought the butternut was just a “little” pointier or more oblong than the black walnut, but wow, was I wrong. This next photo shows the shapes (sorta) of the nuts I harvested and cracked open from the tree near my house:

Bitter about the butter(nut)

Bitter about the butter(nut)

You can see how, despite the pointy ends, the nut shape really is much closer to black walnut that butternut. Alas. But seriously, I am not bitter about the butternut. It gives me something to keep looking for!

(P.S., it is currently black walnut season in central Maryland. If you aren’t careful, standing under one of these trees can be dangerous! I hear that the nuts are so hard to get into, squirrels won’t bother, which leaves plenty of nuts available for humans. I will try to post more about foraging for black walnuts in the next few weeks.)

Update two is much more exciting: I found my elderberry shrub (Sambucus nigra)!

Stop laughing! I’m serious!

The whole time we’ve lived here, we’ve waged battle against the overgrown side yard. “Unfortunately”, since I’ve learned more about wonderful wild plants, it’s gotten harder for me to find the will to work on it. In a rare show of enthusiasm this spring, we leveled most of it except for a few precious trees – hackberries (Celtis occidentalis),  black locust  (Robinia pseudoacacia) and mulberry (Morus nigra) – and anything entwined with poison ivy… which was actually most of it.

I think during the clearing spree (which took place before the spring green growth had started) we mistook bare elderberry branches for staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina).

In the weeks and months that followed, the ground was too rough to mow, and so Nature reclaimed much of our work with K-selected species and stubborn survivors. And staghorn sumac wasn’t among them.

This past week, I walked around the overgrowth to see how much work we faced next year. OK, honestly I was checking if there was anything “good” among the weeds. Burdock. Yellow rocket. Pokeweed. Then lo and behold – I spotted the compound leaf typical of elderberry.

Compound Elderberry Leaves

Compound Elderberry Leaves

When I looked for my missing elderberry before, I was looking for flowers and then fruit. But I think the elderberry didn’t flower this year because it spent all its stored strength trying to grow again. We removed other plants from its perimeter so it won’t get accidentally cleared again, and now it has less competition for soil nutrients.

Ellie the Elderberry, Hiding among the Weeds

Ellie the Elderberry, Hiding among the Weeds

I’ve named it Ellie.

Yes, I name my plants. Doesn’t everyone?


3 Comments

Foraging Fails, Week Ending 9/2/2018

For this week’s foraging post, I am going to once again focus on plants that I failed find or harvest in the central MD area.

Cattails (Typha spp.)

Cattails are one of the most celebrated wild foods because so many parts of the plant are edible. Both broad-leaved (Typha latifolia) and narrow-leaved (Typha angustifolia) varieties grow in this area. However I have failed to find any in a location where I feel comfortable harvesting any of it. The one population where I could get permission from the land owner is too small just yet. The rest of them either require trespassing (not okay) or dangerous or polluted locations (also not okay).

Cattails too close to train tracks

Diesel-flavored cattails, anyone?

In late spring the shoots can be collected; during the summer, the pollen can be gathered from the flower heads and added to baked goods (like quick breads) for extra protein and a cheerful yellow color. The male flowers at the tips (above the “hot dog” looking part, which is the female flower) can be steamed or boiled either in pieces or whole like a teensy corn on the cob. The rhizomes are edible as well.

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) 

My failure to forage elderberry is particularly sad. One of these leafy shrubs used to grow in the wild tangle of weedy plants along the side of my yard. That was several years ago, before I really knew how amazing the berries were. I didn’t think  we cut it down while cleaning up the overgrowth, but this year I was unable to locate the plant. There are two hackberries, one black locust and a mulberry … but no elderberry! I have no idea what happened to the shrub!

The elderberry flowers are showy white against a green canopy. The flowers can be used for liqueurs or battered and fried. But the berries are the real gem. They seem to boost to immune system, possibly even helping fight against the flu.

I have seen several elderberries on my daily commute, but they pose two recurring problems. 1) They are on my commute which means they are roadside plants and thus subjected to the pollution which comes  with um, being alongside the road. And 2), if they are alongside the road, they are on someone else’s property and swooping in to collect either flower or berries is, shall we say, legally problematic?

Maypop / Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)

Maypop’s ridiculously alien-like flowers are definitely an eye-catcher, and I was sure I would have spotted them at some point during the summer. They tend to grow along fields and fences, which we have plenty of around here. The fruit starts as green egg-shaped orbs, maturing to yellow when ripe. The leaves are practically shaped like a T-Rex footprint, mashed up with a clinging vine and alien flowers. How could I possibly not find one, if there was one to find? There is still opportunity to find the flowers or fruit, based on the dates on the photos on the MD Biodiversity project, but date of first frost is a month and a half away. The days are counting down!

Rather than continue to drive myself crazy trying to find them, next year I plan to just grow them myself! Several online merchants sell either seeds or young plants.