In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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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!


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Green Tomato Salsa

A.k.a., what to do with all the unripe tomatoes when cold weather hits.

Chop green tomatoes. Add diced garlic, diced red onion, hot peppers (another “harvest before it freezes outside crop”), and cilantro (also salvaged pre-freezing weather). Let stand for a few hours, stirring occasionally. Add additional seasonings to taste – more of any of the ingredients, and / or salt, pepper, lime juice. Whatever you like, it’s your salsa after all!


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Garden Progress March 2015

For some reason, I feel more urgency to garden this year than I have in the past. I was blaming the lingering cold and snow – nothing like being unable to start working to make you feel like you need to work!  I mean, it’s almost April. I am so. Far. Behind.

Then I checked my garden calendar from the past two years. Each of them, 2014 and 2013, had snows after March 21st. And in neither year did I even plant the first peas before the first weekend of April. So. This frantic feeling like I’m falling behind has it’s basis in… what? Possibly the shiny new detailed WVU Extension Service 2015 Garden Calendar I picked up for free at a local shop. (Local-ish, I’m near zone C in their map.)

The Calendar says right that I should be seeding things in cold frames or low tunnels, planting onion sets, seeding peas and radishes, and well, everything besides what I am actually doing: blogging about everything I haven’t started doing.

The fact that I did not “put away” my garden last fall is contributing to the panic because I am even farther “behind” considering all the clean up work I had to do. On the other hand, when I finally inspected the garden, I realized all was not lost!

Two caraflex cabbages survived the crazy winter in the cold frame. (The two left most plants in the photo – I still haven’t figured out what the rest of that is.)

Life lurking in the cold frame

Life lurking in the cold frame

I had a “low tunnel” – my first attempt at one – covered in plastic for most of the winter, though a bad storm in February shredded the plastic and exposed all the plant life. Somehow, parsnips (top) and leeks (bottom) survived the ongoing cold.  And yes, in the upper left, those are two carrots I pulled from the bed intact.  No, I didn’t try to eat them!

Life after the winter

Leeks and parsnips oh my!

This is all that remains of my strawberries. This is what happens when you don’t cover them with straw and deer netting (the netting you see there was added last week). The cold and the marauding deer population took their toll!

Nearly empty strawberry bed.

All that remains of my strawberries.

 

I have started some seeds indoors. Following the WVU Calendar. Apparently I started these tomatoes TOO soon though. I’ve got at least a month and a half before these guys can be planted in the garden, and they are already out of room under my grow lights.

Tomatoes outgrowing my grow rack

My tomatoes…compensating for my other inadequacies.

 


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Annual Garden Update, Part 1

One of my longest ongoing performance improvement projects is, of course, my garden. As such, I figured I should post a few updates about my garden, including how I’ve improved some approaches to make my garden “better” this year. “Better” as measured for my garden includes higher yields and better quality output.

Update 1: tomatoes! They have the most radical “improvement” – or at least, I am hoping it will be an improvement. I haven’t harvested any tomatoes yet, but I am hopeful.

I am following the radical guidance in the “Tomato Secrets” article from a recent issue of BackHome Magazine which promotes a very aggressive pruning strategy but only for the leaves. The suckers that grow in the “crotch” or join between the main stem and a leaf – those get to stay, because a lot of times they do produce fruit if you let them go long enough. This is backwards from most pruning guides and my tomatoes look very awkward and leggy as a result. But I’m happy to try anything (well, almost anything), at least once.

These jelly bean tomatoes are being woven back and forth through painted PVC bars for support. Last year we used a wooden trellis that had to be destroyed at the end of the year because it had weathered so badly. Hoping that the PVC structure can be reused over multiple years, reducing the cost and time to set up each year.

A jellybean grape tomato, woven between cross bars for support

A jellybean grape tomato, woven between cross bars for support

Here’s another view. All the “salad” tomatoes (three jelly beans and one sun sugar cherry) are trained up this trellis. Once they reach the top, they should trail across the top and perhaps even down the other side… maybe! Another big difference between last year’s trellis and this year’s – this one is short enough I can reach the top. Last year I had to use a ladder to reach tomatoes at the top. This year, yield should be improved just because I’ll actually be able to reach everything!  (Also, notice the peppers in the center of the structure.)

Weaving cherry and grape tomatoes through bars for support

Weaving cherry and grape tomatoes through bars for support

For the slicing tomatoes (a San Marzano roma, a Better Boy hybrid and a beefsteak hybrid), we re-used the “artificial fence” concept from last year. Although we did change it up, using plastic “chicken” fence with much smaller holes than last year. This gives me more options on where to tie off the tomatoes for support.  This view shows the San Marzano (which is indeterminate – all my tomatoes are indeterminate this year).

A San Marzano Roma tomato, spreadeagle against a fake fence for support

A San Marzano Roma tomato, spreadeagle against a fake fence for support

This view shows the Better Boy (left) and Beefsteak (right). Both are still very “leafy” because the BackHome article is very clear – once fruit has set and is about the size of a pea, you remove all the leaves below that. Well, each of these plants has only set a few fruit, near the bottom!

Two slicing tomato plants, spreadeagle against a fake fence for support

Two slicing tomato plants, spreadeagle against a fake fence for support

Last but not least, our other major change this year: a cute popup greenhouse. (Which may not survive the year, given the nasty storms we’ve already had this summer.)  Three tomatoes are in containers in the greenhouse, to protect them from the fluctuations of local rainfall and the ravages of the wind. Oh yeah, and tomato hornworms.

Another beefsteak, this one in the greenhouse:

A hybrid slicing tomato plant in the greenhouse

A hybrid slicing tomato plant in the greenhouse

A family portrait: two more San Marzano Romas.

Two roma tomato plants in our greenhouse

Two roma tomato plants in our greenhouse

There are two other tomatoes which aren’t shown here. One, whose variety I forgot, is in a container on our back deck. The other “volunteered” in the middle of our strawberry patch, and I didn’t have the heart to pull it up after it had grown big enough for me to realize it was there!


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Two Complicated Ways to Stake Your Tomato Plants

So the latest issue of Grit features an article “Four Easy Ways to Stake Your Tomato Plants.”  One of them even sports a cool name – the “Florida Weave”.  Well, how I am staking my plants isn’t “easy” by any stretch of the imagination. But I thought I would share, since so far they have worked REALLY well.

Complicated stake 1: The cherry & grape tomatoes – which might as well be weeds because they just keep growing, and growing, and growing – are woven through a structure my husband built specifically for this purpose.  It’s very sturdy and reinforced at the top corners because of the fierce winds we get through our yard.  There are three plants on each side, one cherry and two “jellybean” grapes (one red, one yellow), and they are woven through each layer of the trellis as they grow.  The plants will eventually grow across the top. The space underneath features marigolds and pepper plants.

Tomatoes

Cherry and grape tomatoes “staked” with a trellis-like structure.

Complicated stake #2 – I’ll call this one “On the Fence”.  The two slicing tomato plants are  planted along a fake fence, so the branches can be spread out across the “fence” to allow maximum air circulation and easy access to fruit, and suckers and tomato hornworms that need to be removed.   The branches are held in place with plant tape, and for some particularly heavy fruit, held up.  The Beefsteak:

Tomato

Beefsteak tomato spread eagle on an artificial fence.

The Brandywine:

Tomato

Brandywine tomato spread eagle on a “fence”.

And a not-so-complicated stake, to round out the post.  Here’s my last tomato plant – no complicated staking for the Roma. It’s the only determinate tomato variety in the garden this year, so it’s only got a double-stacked cone cage.

Tomato

Roma tomato in a standard cage available at hardware stores.

The pieces of “fence” supporting the Brandywine and Beefsteak form an “L” shape, and the Roma is planted in the space inside the “L”.

I’m extremely happy with how these structures have worked – there’s nothing I would have done differently.  …except to start the plants earlier, so we’d already be up to our eyeballs in tomatoes. It’s the beginning of August, and we’re only starting to get salad tomatoes turning.  But oh, the tomatoes…

(The other thing I love is that there are NO splits in the tops of the slicing tomatoes this year.  We have been vigilant in using the drip irrigation system to make sure the plants get a consistent amount of water, and the results have been worth it!)

For fun, I dug up this picture of my cherry tomatoes from last year.   The poor things WAY overgrew their folding tomato trellis, and became a nightmare to care for. I let them go rotten on the vine rather than trying to reach in that mess to try picking them!  So maybe my stakes are over-engineered…now you know why!

Tomato Mess

Tomato stake fail! (From last year’s garden)