Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Passion for Edible Root Exploration
An Interview with Rhizowen Radix

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Photo by Radix of a selection of Andean Root Crops

There are few plant people whom I admire more than Radix Rhizowen so I was giddy when he agreed to let me grill him about his hobby of growing and eating rare root crops. I'm pretty sure that the first time I encountered this intrepid unearther of all things tuberous was when I was googling something like oca. I was transported into the hilarious, well researched and fascinating world of his blog radix4roots.

For a floraphile like myself, it is highly enabling and I disappeared down the rabbit hole of his tales for as long as my children would permit. I was also compelled to try and source some of these fascinating roots for myself - no easy task. Crops like oca, yacon (which spell check keeps trying to change to bacon by the way) and the Apios are just not commonly grown and those examples are of more well known rare root crops. However, in 2013, there were posts on Nephrolepsis cordifolia - a fern with edible tubers, Aandegopin, and Soh-phlang. That's not to leave out Mashua - the marmite of roots - as he calls it owing to its mixed taste reviews.

So where does this intrepid root explorer reside? Radix over to you.

I garden on the outskirts of Liskeard, a small town close to the edge of Bodmin Moor, which is in Cornwall, the most southerly county in the UK. We're at about 50 N, but the weather is mild due to the presence of the Gulf Stream. Mild is, of course, a relative term and it can be cool and wet on any day of the year. The defining characteristic of our climate is its unpredictability, although it usually rains a lot. Grass often grows year round in Cornwall and there is even a little tea cultivated here.

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Radix4roots - Whoopee for Wapato

I've always enjoyed growing plants and eating has an enduring fascination for me, so exploring the world of edible plants is just a combination of these two powerful themes in my life. Root crops are among the most satisfying crops to grow - something about excavating them is like unearthing buried treasure - that denouement never loses its appeal for me. Unearthing roots is probably an instinctive behavior; there's some evidence to suggest that the harvesting (and cooking) of wild roots and played an important role in human evolution.

Reading your blog is like taking a botanical world tour. Would you say that there was a region that has given you more material and if so why?

I would have to say South America. The range of edible roots tubers cultivated there seems to me to be outstanding. Anyone who is familiar with the book 'Lost Crops of the Incas' will be aware of this. Although my interest in Andean root and tuber crops predates its publication, it certainly did nothing to divert me from my chosen path. That said, there are many fascinating species lurking in Asia, Africa and elsewhere that deserve further investigation. I subscribe to the view that one should do the necessary research and try and match the plant to one's growing conditions, but you don't know until you've tried: prepare to be surprised on a regular basis. Plants and their unknowable antics are the perfect antidote to smug self-congratulation. I wouldn't have it any other way.

In the A-Z of roots that you have grown, what would you say is your most and least (can I guess) favourite, as well as the rarest and strangest root you’ve grown? Any surprising success or failures?

My list of favourites fluctuates with what has currently caught my interest. During oca season, I become ocasessive and as I hunt for the seedling volunteers; I actually find I can see them before my eyes as I go to sleep. Now that oca seed production has been cracked, it can only be a matter of time before a day-neutral plant turns up. When it does, oca's future will be assured and I'll probably move on to pastures new. .

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Radix4roots - Mauka: Expansa by name, Expansive by Nature

I like mauka for its sheer rarity, rather unusual plant architecture and surprisingly hardy disposition. It doesn't taste too bad either. Ulluco almost never fails to frustrate and disappoint. I’d love to have another go with anchote (Coccinia abyssinica) as it grew surprisingly well in an appalling summer and seemed to tuberise at a sensible time.  My dream is to create a properly reliable, hardy, cool weather tolerant sweetpotato. Correction: that's one of my dreams.

Why do you think this sort of amateur plant experimenting and development is important?

Amateurs (read enthusiasts) can make progress by collaborating to create new crops and sharing their successes and methods with like-minded individuals, wherever they may be. Take oca - growing several thousand plants from seed is well within the realms of possibility and will certainly increase the likelihood of a day-neutral mutant turning up. A group of enthusiasts can share this burden and participants can enjoy the fruits (or roots) of their collective labours.

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Radix4roots - Yacon: Don't try this at home

This must surely be a golden age for motivated amateurs to develop new varieties and domesticate new crops. How their efforts are to be protected from hostile expropriation remains to be seen.

What project is capturing your imagination at present?

I suppose oca is.  Other interests are hybridizing squashes and developing reliable chillies for our climate.

My aim is to have a wonderfully rich, diverse and productive suite of crops that will thrive here with minimum intervention. Nothing new or original in that, but I suspect that in the future we'll need a wider range of food plants as climatic fluctuations make old stalwarts less reliable. This may involve developing new varieties of old crops (like oca) or domesticating new ones.  There's no point waiting for commercial concerns to do this, we need to act now.  Aside from anything else, I find this work feeds my intellect and my imagination in a way that few other activities do.

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Radix4roots - Achote: Out of Africa


Interested in getting to know roots and their enthusiasts better? Come on down to Radix Root Crops on Facebook.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Saving Allium Seeds at Home

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I've written about saving leek - Allium ampeloprasum* - seeds before but can one really read too much about saving Alliums? Here are some differences between Allium nutans and Allium amepeloprasum too.

I started with the Allium nutans - a very pretty edible, perennial onion with strap like leaves and semi nodding pink flowers that straight as they mature. They have typical spherical allium seed heads that open to reveal dark 'wedge' shaped seeds within. When nice and dry, the seed heads are easily shattered into a bowl.

Seed sorting techniques, in my opinion, are all about making it less tedious ie, faster! They can be broken into three components: harvest, thresh and winnow.

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Allium nutans seeds and chaff ready for processing. 

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Allium ampeloprasum for comparison.


Some seeds will ripen irregularly meaning that part of the seeds on a stem or group will be dry and ready while others won't. Lettuce does this producing a few fluffy flowerheads ready to pluck while the rest remain sticky and green. If you are desperate to collect as many seeds as possible, you can collect these early ones and then wait until the majority of the stem is dry and collect the rest of the stem OR you can just ignore the first ripe ones and wait until the majority of the stem is ripe OR you can tip stem into a paper bag (carefully so the stem doesn't break) and kind of shake vigorously every once in a while.

Back to Allium nutans. There were a few precocious seedheads but for the most part, they all ripened at once. I pulled the ripe stems and put them in a clean bucket ready for the purpose then I brought them inside and ignored them until they were really really dry. The ignoring part is important or at least dryness is.

Some were used in seed saving demonstrations and the others languished in the drying corner until yesterday.


Also known as separating the chaff - stem, seedpod etc.. - from the seed. There are lots of ways of doing this. When I have tonnes of the stuff, I put in a large container and get a kid to shuffle on it. The kid is not necessary but they do seem to get a kick out of it.

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Allium nutans getting the gentle smash treatment to help loosen seeds from chaff.

It helps to strip seeds from stems first if you can (bother). It will save you work later but it really depends on the amount of seeds that you are processing. You can also use various sieves such as screens, or in this case a rubber matt, to break open the seedpods and separate the big chaff. Sometimes I'll rub seed pods together in my hands over a bowl.

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After big chaff has been removed from the top.

With the Allium nutans, I just stripped the seedpods and rays from the stems then gently used a masher to encourage further separation. With the Allium ampeloprasum (leeks) that I harvested today, I placed them in a paper bag and rolled them with my rolling pin. The leek seedpods were wrapped more tightly in their pods so need a bit more processing.

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Life action shot of The Swish to help sort seed settle to the bottom.

Pour remaining chaff and the seed into a bowl and do the swish. If you have a lot of seed in a bucket, then you can do the tap or the shake. The latter is when you jostle the bucket to get the heavy, smaller seed to settle at the bottom and the larger chaff to 'float' to the top. The swish is when you shake the bowl in a circular motion collecting the chaff in the middle. This is useful not only for the initial chaff removal but later in the process as well.


Either lots of fun or like getting a stick stuck in your eye - small chaff sized sticks. Anyhow, the easiest way is to get to bowls/buckets and a breeze. Pour the seed and chaff from one container to the other letting the breeze sort the seed. Adjust the height of the pour to the strength of the breeze and the relative heaviness of the seeds. If this just won't work, look into water sorting.

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When the breeze cooperates, winnowing is a beautiful thing to behold.

Worked just fine for Allium nutans species.

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The remaining seed and chaff after I did the swish again to concentrate chaff in the centre for easier removal.

I've also blown on it especially at demonstrations when the wind was not cooperating or you can use other wind making devices such as a fan etc... You can even build a seed cleaning machine in your spare time. If you do, might as well make two and send me one. Thanks!

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The mostly cleaned seed of Allium nutans.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The truth about Zumpkins

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Family reunion - a selection of pepos and crosses

Here's a question you hear a lot:

"My zucchini looks funky. Did it cross with my melon?"

"Will my pumpkins and cucumbers cross if I grow them together?"

"Are my melons not sweet because I grew them with cucumbers?"

"Could my butternut have crossed with my pumpkin and that's why it is ripening/growing/looking weird?"

Okay, I admit that I am paraphrasing somewhat but these are all inspired by real life questions I have read or seen or answered on countless occasions. So to set the record straight, I give you the truth about the zumpkin.

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Immature pumpkin scarred by design and by that I mean that we etched this face into it when it was green on the vine not that we intended on hurting it emotionally... 

Not all vines are created equal

I'm not suggesting that they fall into a heirarchy; what I'm referring to is how closely related they are. Cucumbers, melons, squash, zucchinis, pumpkins and more might look similar in that they are all leafy vines that produce (mostly) yellow flowers of which the female flowers swell into fruits but this does not mean that they can all cross.

In fact, crossing is usually only restricted to members of the same species. Just like how a rabbit must mate with another rabbit not a monkey to produce fertile offspring even though both rabbits and monkeys are mammals. (No jumping ahead, we'll talk about interspecies crossing in a minute.)

Plant: Genus species

Cucumbers: Cucumis sativa
Melon: Cucumis melo
Armenian cucumber: Cucumis melo (see it's tricky sometimes)
Watermelon: Citrullus lantana
Many (but not all) zucchini: Cucurbita pepo
Most halloween pumpkins: Cucurbita pepo (hence zumpkins)
Squash: Cucurbita pepo, Cucurbita moschata, Cucurbita maxima, etc...*

That's not to mention gourds (some decorative gourds are actually pumpkins), other things called melons and some more unusual cucumber like things such as mouse melon, aka Melothria scabra.

The more closely related something is, the more likely it can cross assuming that the reproductive mechanisms are conducive to such a union and there no other barriers. Peas, for example, don't tend to cross because they self pollinate even before the flower opens giving the bees no chance to create mayhem**! The vining crops mentioned above, on the other hand, are busy with pollen dusted buzzers moving between plants so cross pollination most certainly can happen if it is possible.

If they have the same Genus and species such as a pattypan and spaghetti squash and zucchini, they can easily create cross cultivar hybrids***. Some people let same species cross on purpose or just because they don't care but if you want to keep your seed pure, you have to isolate your varieties.

Sometimes you even get an wide-cross which is a cross between two different species. This is more likely between closely related species such as two types of Cucurbits rather than between a cuke and a watermelon. To go back to our mammal examples, sometimes you see a zonky (zebra + donkey) but no elephantice (elephant + mice)****. This species hopping hanky-panky is actually quite infrequent and apparently highly cultivar dependent according to what I've read (see link below).

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Romanpan f1 = Romanesco x Patty Pan

Naughty neighbours?

What this does NOT mean is that if you are growing an Armenian cucumber beside your pickling cucumber that the fruit that forms will be some crazy mix between the two. It won't. Instead you will get just what you expect EVEN though you are growing two varieties.

The first year you grow two potentially cross pollinating plants will give you no pumpkin surprise. Honest. Growing pumpkin beside your zucchini will give you pumpkins on your pumpkin plant and zucchinis on your zucchini plant. Yup. Boring.

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Patty Pan x Halloween Pumpkin = warty dumpling and ribbed white or Hallopans collectively

Hiding in the Seed

Actually not so boring. Those plants might be hiding a secret in the seed. You see, the next year when you grow out your pumpkin seeds, you may get fruit that doesn't look anything like you were expecting. It is year two that you get the Zumpkin.

Busy Bees pepo cross:

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All together now: Romanpan f1 -> Romanesco -> patty pan -> halloween pumpkin -> Hallopan f1

To illustrate, in 2012, I grew white pattypans, romanesco and halloween pumpkins: all Cucurbita pepo. Some of my white pattypans were tossed to the chickens. The next year 2013, I moved their chicken run and out of it grew a great mound of volunteer pumpkin vines. Off the vines sprouted mainly what looks like pattypan x romanesco but there were also a few pattypan x pumpkin. I love the white pattypans not as immature little roasters but because they store exceptionally well mature holding their texture. We keep them in the cellar, peel and use as winter zucchini.  However, the shape is annoying as you have cut off a lot of the flesh. The chance cross of romapan-pattyesco gave me a better shape. We'll see if it stores and tastes as good.

From further a field, some pumpkin pollen made it to a pattypan flower creating a couple other variations which I'm less interested in but they look neat. Here's one below with a very thick hard rind but decent texture. Flavour is average zuke.

Now, I didn't isolate as I didn't realize what I had until later but I intend on saving seeds, growing out and doing some selection in years to come.

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Inside one of the hallopans that we ate for supper. It's flesh was very pale but cooked up a bit darker. It held its texture well and tasted just fine.

A whole lot about Cucurbita seed production

* You are likely to grow these kinds but there are others as squash is a moniker given to a lot of fruit.
** That's not to say that crossing never happens and I seem to remember a reference to nectar stealing insects in beans that can trip up self pollination at the source which might also happen in peas. If you really, really want pure varieties of peas, there are suggested isolation distances.
*** Did you say hybrid?
Yes I did.
Aren't hybrids bad?
Depends on what you mean. A hybrid is just the crossing of two varieties. Anytime you don't isolate two cultivars of the same species, you might get a hybrid.
Yes, agricultural hybrids that don't breed true and force people to buy their seed again so they become dependent on the system have drawbacks. That's the hybrid that people rally against in favour of what they call OP - open pollinated. The kind of hybrid above is just kooky. You are welcome to save seeds from it but no guarantees about what offspring you'll get. That's true of most commercial hybrids by the way too. Which is not to say that you can't try to select and stabilize a new OP variety from your crazy mix. That's fun too.
**** Yeah, yeah. I know. There are several reasons for that.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Collecting Hablitzia Seed

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Hablitzia plant on the north side of a shed.

Have you heard? My Hablitzias have set seed and they look good! You haven't heard? That surprises me considering how loud I shouted when I discovered it but maybe you were listening to music or something or mistook me for an angry raven. Anyhow, on the off chance, you haven't heard:

"My Hablitzia tamnoides gave me seed!!"

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Closeup of seedpods and seed.

You don't know what I'm talking about? Spinach from the Caucasus? Perennial, shade tolerant green? Our friend Habby. Stephen Barstow is always going on about it.

Stephen? Extreme salad man? Okay so now you're intrigued.

Let's go back to the Habby seeds.

Aren't they lovely?

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Before I winnow, I'm going to let it dry down a bit more but looks promising.

Next year, all going well, Habby plants will be exiting my greenhouse (still under construction and by under construction I mean shovel yet to hit the dirt but I have days marked off on my calendar so soon) in the spring for sale. Woohoo!


Friends of Hablitzia

Monday, September 9, 2013

Edible Landscaping Community - Condo Complex

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A big rock that was dug out when putting in the path. Also visible left to right: temporary planting of peppers, gold leaf anise hyssop, lovage, kale. 

The condo board agreed that their landscaping - which consisted of some rough lawn, a few shrubs teetering on piles of dirt and perennials crowded in front of their entrance sign - needed a bit of freshening up. Resident Patricia suggested they try edible landscaping.

Now, it is my suspicion that though everyone was more or less fine with the concept that they let Patricia go ahead with her unorthodox plan because she has an infectious enthusiasm. Sonia figured this meant some nasturtiums but was happy that it ended up being "more than I imagined."

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The core team: Krystal, Sonia and Patricia standing in a path designed with an inverted mirror image pattern.

I met with them for the first time on a cool morning just after the snow pack had melted to be confronted with a patch of barely lawn covered in gravel from snow clearing that I was assured would be vacuumed up shortly. It was perfect: full sun, lots of access and lots of space. We discussed some possibilities then I went to work.

It needed to be neat, attractive and contain edibles that were not too far off what people would recognize as edible. A mixture of common cooking herbs like oregano, thyme and sage, perennial edibles like monarda, anise hyssop, sorrel and lovage and some complementary temporary plantings like nasturtium (just as Sonia thought), kale and chard found their place on a flowing framework.

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Some perennials, such as Echinacea, that were rearranged in front of the sign spilling over to create bee habitat foraging on the other side too, and some low growing herbs. 

I suggested that we use sheet composting as a method to build the garden bed as they didn't have any serious weeds. It requires less work, less materials and doesn't remove the existing fertility or overly stir the soil's weed-seed bank. I think they were okay with the 'less work' plan. Soil and mulch was ordered and plants were sourced. Some came from Aster Lane Edibles - the biz - and some from local nurseries.

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Krystal with a purple carrot from one of the resident's gardens.

Dig day was a beautiful day in late spring. The shape of the garden was cut a week or so beforehand. Though I provided drawings, I like to finalize the shape on the ground. Subtle (and not so) changes in elevation and other idiosyncracies can be better incorporated this way. I find it helps to remain flexible during the installation phase. For example, the perennials in front of the condo sign were very crowded, including a clump of iris that had been infested with borer. These had not been included in the original design but were easily incorporated in pleasing geometrical patterns, that enhanced the design, on the day. Also digging out the paths revealed a huge rock which became a focal ornament.

The core team of Crystal, Ashley, Patricia and Sonia worked tirelessly throughout the day removing half dead junipers with roots that seemed twisted to the centre of the earth, lugging endless wheelbarrow loads of soil and mulch and finally planting. I love it when clients work with me. This was truly a community effort!

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Delicious empanadas made by Patricia from fresh kale and chard from the entrance garden.

Those little starts grew quickly in the plentiful rain and good soil. When I returned, even I was impressed by how wonderful the garden looked. There was a lot of love being dug into this garden. I asked them what the rest of the residents thought of their new garden. "Appreciation is high but participation is more of a challenge but people are slowly getting on board with lending tools and planting their own gardens," said Sonia.

"Communication is key. People don't know what to pick and when. I didn't know what everything was," said Crystal, who refers to the Anise Hyssop as Bee Palace - this must be my favourite nickname for the plant because the bees really do love it.

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The kids know where the strawberries are.

"People are interested in food," said Patricia referring to the many new gardens that are popping up all over the complex. "They are putting in their own gardens." The remaining mulch and soil was offered to the rest of the residents. Many of whom were making good use of it.

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Mint in another garden that has sprung up in the condo complex taking over a place that other plants found difficult.

Sonia took me around to show me some rain barrels that were being attached to the sides of the housing units at the end of redirected downspouts. They also showed me some more garden spaces that were filling in with flowers and food. We spoke about plans for expansion next year.

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Patricia's raised bed garden in another part of the common ground growing some onions.

That first garden was a seed that was planted and grew into a community effort to make beautiful use of their common ground. I am honoured to be part of it.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Business Update!

Once upon a time there was a blog. It was new and fun and the creator was updating regularly - like twice week. People would comment and she would comment on their blogs. It was great. The world was good and then something happened. The blogger did not post a single post in the whole month of August. What! Why? Didn't the blogger still love her blog? Wasn't the blog still fun? Still exciting? What did the blog do to deserve this kind of treatment?

"It's not you blog. It's me. You see, I've been busy volunteering at the Canadian Organic Growers - OSO Chapter Demonstration Garden, chatting with friends on my new group Edible Ottawa Gardens Group and then there is my business."

"What business?" Asks the blog. "Aren't I your business?"

"Not that kind of business. The professional kind."

"You'd like it. It's called Aster Lane Edibles and I'm going to link to you and everything. Oh and there's  the greenhouse I need to put up once my formerly NGS (non gardening spouse)* moves his woodpile."

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"So you've just been busy?"

"Yes, with the business and the groups and the children; The baby just turned one. Just busy. It's not that I don't love you anymore. I figured our relationship was strong enough to withstand a momentary absence. Twitter on the other hand has something to complain about..."

* Non Garden Spouse has earned the title Will Garden Occasionally Spouse but that's a clumsier title so I'm just going to call him FNGS

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Garden to Stomach
A holistic approach with the Higgs

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Plums plumping up in the holistic orchard.

It’s always great when people who you meet on the internet live close enough that you can pop by for a visit. This is the case for the Higgs that live a little over three hours South-west of me. I can’t remember our first conversation, whether it was about rare fruits, mycorrhizal associations, raised beds, reskilling or fruit tree propagation or perhaps it was some happy union of all those things. Mike is one of those rare growers who stares tradition in the face and decides whether or not it’s being honest. He’s a researcher and an experimenter reading about past and present gardening trends, then trying them out in his garden to see if they accomplish the goals of feeding his family without unnecessary work. 

They draw inspiration from a variety of sources including John Jeavons (growing fertility and nutrition), Emilia Hazelip (low soil disturbance), Massanobu Fukuoka (work with nature and do as little as possible) and Mel Batholemew (intensive planting in raised beds).

Tell us about your farm:

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There orchards and other tree plantings include many unusual fruits and nuts.

North of the Saint Lawrence, in South-Eastern Ontario’s rolling hills is the Higgs farm: a diverse planting of fruits, nuts, perennials and vegetables. Planted in mulched circles are an abundance of crops from perennial ground cherry to young heartnuts surrounded by tumbling squash. Laid out in staggered rows is the formal orchard, now inspired by Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard, that includes rare fruits for these parts such as quince, medlar, persimmon and beach plum. Just beyond is a row of willow and poplar, propagated by softwood cuttings, that is being grown to produce ramial woodchips for the orchard and craft material. It is banked by a mulched and Dutch while clover covered berm to capture the water and direct it to the willow roots instead of it draining away downhill. Just in front of the big bay window of their home are a series of raised beds with fruit crops like haskaps and raspberries and traditional vegetables like potatoes, beets, carrots, and parsnips. There are also more rare items such as perennial wheat and rye from Tim Peters.

In the beginning:

Cutting trails in their back forest shortly after they moved to their new country home in 2008, they found a beautiful, unblemished yellow apple. “It was a potentially superior apple from one of the wild trees.” Mike wanted to propagate it but knew that he would need rootstock. "Getting some was a problem because there's little available in Canada for the small grower. Learning how to graft and produce more rootstock wasn't as big a problem although few bother with these skills anymore." He begin to research and One Thing Lead to Another. This is the title of his blog where he details experiments on how to propagate plants by techniques such as trench layering and root cuttings among other things.

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Raised beds with veggies, some small fruit and a propagation bed for root stock.

Joyce’s early attempts at vegetable growing were also frustrating. Turning up the soil in what had been an old grazing field for llifestock awoke every thistle imaginable from slumber. It took hours to weed around a few strawberries. “This was not what I had signed up for,” said Joyce. Then they learned about square foot gardening  and mulching. They consider mulching an extremely essential and often overlooked part of gardening “Look at this soil,” Mike says as he pulled back the weed excluding mulch to show moist workable soil. Joyce now shares what she has learned in a column in The Link, a magazine ‘celebrating a creative lifestyle’ in the area. She also sells some plants and preserves at the farmer’s market.

The Orchard:

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Concentric mulch circles of pea gravel for drainage and to prevent critter nests and mulch to encourage beneficial fungal associations. 

Though they have planted trees throughout their ten acres including butternuts and red maples in the back bush and fruit and nut trees such as mulberry, sea buckthorn, University of Saskatchewan cherries, hazelnuts, heartnuts, hardy kiwi, Virburnums, rosehips along the embankment in front of their house, up the driveway and in the fields, their holistic orchard catches the eye right away. With the help of a WWOOFerthe conventional orchard of staggered rows of young trees was modified this year based on the holistic ideas of Michael Phillips. It was mulched with an inner ring of pea gravel for drainage and to give rodents no nesting material and an outer ringof ramial woodchips to foster mutualistic fungal relationships important to tree health. The mycorrhizae get food in the form of carbohydrates from the plant’s photosynthesis and the plant gets access to water and nutrients from an expanded root system. Plants may then be healthier and more resistant to drought.

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Willow cuttings beside white clover planted berm.

When I asked why he liked holistic orchardist Phillips’ approach, Mike said, “When I read the word balance, I said, ah-hah. That’s what it’s about. If I get rid of all the aphids, the ladybugs have no food and they disappear as well. If I want ladybugs to keep the aphids under control naturally, I need some aphids." Around the concentric circle plots of trees is a wildflower meadow to increase biodiversity in order to attract a permanent population of pollinators and predatory of pollinators and predatory insects. Along with Coreopsis and Echinacea, the so-called weeds such as mullein, oxeye daisy, bladder campion and Queen Anne's lace flourish in this unmown area. They have also included nutrient accumulators such as nettle and comfrey to act as a source for chop-and-drop mulch, compost teas and soil drenches

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Squash growing near a heartnut in the open field. Note the mulch under plants.

Away from the orchard, in the uncut areas of the field, he is even experimenting with planting unruly vegetables such as squash and tomatoes in ways that minimally disturb the soil.  For example, squash is planted by laying down a thick layer of wetted and compressed grass clippings followed by a layer of partially finished compost and then a 3 inch layer of mature, plant-based compost for seeds to germinate in. As soon as the seeds are upping and growing, more mulch is added. The squash vines wander where they want beyond their mulched cradle.

This technique aligns well with the Organic Creed of feeding the soil. In order to avoid too much importing of materials, Mike is looking into plants that produce high biomass such as sterile Miscanthus giganteusand fast growing woodies to coppice like poplar and willow.

Plans to expand

Lining the wrap around porch are pots of all shapes and sizes with plants and cuttings growing until they are big enough to join the lush gardens below.

One detail that I was particularly interested in was the trenching bed where he produces more rootstock to graft on rare scion wood. In a raised bed (constructed of pressure treated wood lined on the inside with vapour barrier to keep the wood and soil from being in contact)* he lays the bare root stock tree on its side, coaxing the branches upwards. Hopefully these branches will root enough that they can be detached as whole trees. "The beds are filled with pure plant compost which is very rich. It's also very friable which allows trees to be dug up easily and without damage." 

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Propagation bed for root stock and more.

You can tell he is developing a feel for when a plant part will sprout roots. He speaks of dormancy and the energy burst that occurs when plants emerge.. He points out suckers coming from the rootstock of various trees with obvious glee.

Food Forests

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Nice thornless blackberry being prolific

I asked him what he thought about food forests. “I’m interested in getting what’s out there in here,” he said as he points to the garden then pats his stomach. “Food forests have some problems in cold climates. It is different from warm regions where food can be grown all year round, even parts of Europe. Here, we have to store nutrition to take us through the winter. Perennial vegetables are heavy on greens that don't store well, and those that do may be difficult to harvest. The vegetables that store well are mostly annuals - root vegetables, squash, beans and corn. These are the vegetables grown by Carol Deppe, author of The Resilent Gardener."

He also talks about the importance of finding ways to incorporate staple annual vegetables into permaculture designs in our climate. Another part of the Higgs equation is that they are really interested in using what they grow and growing what they need.  Using the square foot gardening techniques advanced by Mel Bartholomew, Joyce intensively plants exactly the quantities of carrots, beets, turnips, and parsnip that she thinks they will need through the winter.

They own several canners, an oil press and a hand grain mill. The basement has a couple good-sized cellars for storing vegetables – Joyce showed me some nice looking daikon radishes in sand from last year – and canned goods.

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A precocious seedling hazelnut producing very early.

Though Mike’s fruit and nut tree collection continues to grow, he is scaling back the vegetable varieties he uses to those that he thinks are most useful for winter and store well. 

I asked him about grains and he gave me an interesting answer. “I had discarded the idea as I didn’t want to till the soil and unleash the thistles as well as being dependent on fossil fuel or having to learn about horses but then I read about perennial grains. If they can produce a useful crop without soil disturbance, they could be useful for the home grower.”

One thing leads to another really does sum up their gardening journey to date. To quote Mike, “It’s a process of discovery, of finding ways to do conventional things in unconventional ways that are regenerative, tread lightly on the land and are minimally disturbing to Nature”

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Mike examining some of his sprouts.

More Links (and some I've repeated because they are so good):
Ramial Woodchips
Mycorrhizal Fungi
One Thing Leads to Another (Mike Higgs blog)

* Here is a pinterest on raised beds but I'm sure you can find numerous designs. I’ve begun to make a propagation bed myself, lined with harvested softwood trunks infilled with leaf mould and other organic matter.