In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Learning From Nature, Week Ending 7/29/2018

I fear the time is coming – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon (within our lifetimes) – when increasing numbers of us will have to grow increasing quantities of our own food.

Supermarket shelves are fully stocked at the moment, but just one major weather event massively disrupts distribution chains … and lately, “once in a century”-strength storms occur with increasing frequency.

More and more food crops which underpin grocery items are grown overseas, subjecting the supply to possible disruption by global political events that we cannot control.

Gas prices continue to creep higher, with the resulting ripple effect at every level of the industrial food production system.

And how many of us are already living paycheck-to-paycheck? Where will we get food if we lose our jobs, especially with grocery prices on the rise?

More of us need to start gardening, with all the associated painful learning curves. Taking clues from nature can help us understand planting cycles and environmental effects that impact both wild plants and their domesticated cousins; paying attention to nature can help shorten the learning curve. Here are a few examples from late July in central Maryland.

The wild amaranth (also known as pigweed, Amaranthus spp.) growing between my backyard and the farmer’s field has already grown to four and a half feet tall. The top of the plant reaches my chest!

Wild Amaranth

Wild Amaranth

The Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus) I planted this year, by contrast, is a foot and a half tall at best. It should be seven to eight feet tall when full grown; I don’t think it’s going to make it!

Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth

Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth

Lesson? The two plants photographed experience similar growing conditions – they are separated by around 60 feet. Maybe the soil is better closer to the field, but I doubt it. Most likely, I waited too late to plant. In 2019, I will try a month earlier and see how it goes.

My blackberries, while productive, have started looking worse for the wear. The leaves are turning yellow and brown, developing spots, and even falling off altogether. What on earth have I done wrong?

Domestic Blackberry Leaves

Domestic Blackberry Leaves

And then I realized wild blackberries look just as awful!

Wild Blackberry Leaves

Wild Blackberry Leaves

Probably some environmental factor is impacting the wild and domestic varieties equally. Perhaps they are succumbing to an unseen infection following weeks of soaking wet weather, followed by weeks of excruciating heat and aridity, followed by another week of damp. Or – maybe it’s just what blackberries endure in mid-summer, having sunk all their energy into growing this year’s fruit and next year’s canes at the same time.

The last three examples all concern the timing of fall garden planning. In central Maryland, we are lucky to have a relatively long growing season. In my location, average date of last frost is April 15; average date of first frost is October 15. That’s six months (only counting half of April and October); plus at LEAST another month on either side (eight total) if you grow frost-hardy crops and use season extenders. (A twelve month garden is still my ultimate goal.) While no one wants to dwell in the garden in summer’s heat and humidity, now is definitely the time for planting fall crops!

The earliest Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) flowers have already started setting seed.  If it’s good enough for nature, it’s good enough for me! Now is the earliest opportunity to plant carrots for harvest later this year.

Queen Anne's Lace Seeds

Queen Anne’s Lace Seeds

Field mustard (Brassica rapa) has also gone to seed, although conditions aren’t quite ready yet for the seed to disperse. Still, we can determine that soon we should plant Brassica crops like radishes, turnips, kale, cabbages, collards, and kohlrabi.

Field Mustard Seed Pods

Field Mustard Seed Pods

Last but not least, wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) has bolted and flowered – it no longer even resembles lettuce as it towers over neighboring plants.

Wild Lettuce Flowers

Wild Lettuce Flowers

In a few more weeks we should begin planting lettuce … assuming we haven’t already … because we’ve been suffering without home grown lettuce in our salads since everything in the garden long since bolted … I mean, just saying.

Also, a correction to some previous posts. Twice I have identified local weeds as upland cress (Barbarea verna), when they were actually the closely related yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris). (Which is sometimes called winter cress, just to keep things confusing.) I have corrected the ID in both posts: Weed Walk, Week Ending April 8 and Welcome Weeds, Week Ending May 27. Whatever it’s called, it’s still super tasty!


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Weekly Weed Roundup, April 29

Just kidding! I would never use Roundup on my weeds. As I learn more about “weeds”, I am increasingly amazed that anyone would rather have a pretty green grass lawn instead of the natural bounty that surrounds us when the land is left to its own devices.

This week, broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) has become very prominent in my yard. For some reason, this is the only plantain variety around my house. The narrow leaf or ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) is very common in the mid-Atlantic… just not at my house.

Broadleaf Plantain

Broadleaf Plantain

While plantain leaves are edible, I find them unpleasant and stringy when they get much larger than shown in this picture. (Hopefully the grass leaves give you some idea of scale – the whole plant is only about five inches across right now.) The leaves can also be made into tea, and are rumored to help with seasonal allergies. If my allergies act up this spring, I’ll try it and share the results with you. (All three of you!)

I recently identified a burdock (Arctium minus) in a overgrown area of my yard. Normally, I struggle to distinguish between burdock and various other large-leaved plants such curly dock (Rumex crispus). But the pale green woolly undersides of the leaves help indicate this is, indeed, burdock.

Greater Burdock

Burdock

Greater Burdock - Pale Woolly Underside of Leaf

Burdock – Pale Woolly Underside of Leaf

Burdock leaves, roots, and young flower stalks are edible. You can even buy burdock seeds in some boutique garden catalogs. I decided to let this one hang around so I could photograph the flower stalk if this is a second-year plant. (Like many plants which are productive this early in spring, burdock is a biennial; it flowers in its second year of life.)

Speaking of wild things you can also grow in your garden… It was challenging to photograph this little guy among last year’s dead grass, but there is no doubt that this is a wild carrot, aka Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota). If they are growing now, in the wild, then conditions are ripe to plant the D. carota sativa in your garden as well.

Wild Carrot, aka Queen Anne's Lace

Wild Carrot, aka Queen Anne’s Lace

This carrot is still too small to bother eating, of course, but the roots are edible as long as you harvest before the plants form the white flowery umbrellas most people think of when they hear “Queen Anne’s Lace.” (Carrots are also biennials, like burdock.) The hairy leaves and stem provide one way to know this is “just” a carrot and not its toxic relative, poison hemlock (Conium maculatum).

I have been working in the garden, as well as foraging. Any day the weather is warm and sunny, you’ll find me outside! I was weeding one bed, when I realized – as I was pulling teensy seedlings up, roots and all – that the “weeds” were in fact the choicest possible species: lamb’s quarter (Chenopodium album).

 

Lamb's Quarter Seedling

Lamb’s Quarter Seedling

Lamb’s quarter features sparkly – almost fairy-like – leaves at this early stage. Based on the reading I have done to date, they appear to be one of the healthiest greens a person can eat, and they have a long edible season as well. (Unlike dandelions or wild lettuce, for instance, which get more bitter as the summer sun and heat intensifies.) Needless to say, I left the rest of the seedlings be! They are welcome to grow here … until I get hungry later!