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.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Starting summer carrots

In descending order, here is when my sown carrot seeds work best:

1. First thing in the spring when the soil is wet and moist
2. In the fall (yeah some of mine wait until spring)
3. Second thing in the spring before the seedling eaters are out in force
4. Fall when the ground cools slightly and the rain falls. 
5. Summer - sporadically.

So yes, summer is not a no-fail time for me. Partly it is due to way I culture.* I don't irrigate because we are on a well and my gardens are not all at house distance anyhow. Soil in most of the garden plots is sandy too which is great for root crops generally but crummy for germination when it is dry like in the height of summer. As well, earwigs are in their prime right now patrolling the ground for any juicy seedling foolish enough to break dormancy. 

I have considered pre-sprouting carrot (parsley and other umbillifer) seeds before but the oft' talked about germination board just sounds like an earwig B&B. As my spring sprinkling of carrots is showing weakly, I figured I'd try and grow more using some new techniques:

They can be broken down into ways to a) speed germination and b) pre sprout.

Speed Germination

a. Shock seeds into growth: freeze or boil. One assumes that this breaks the seed coat to allow in water and therefore germination rather than apocalyptic temperature changes being enticing.
b. Imbibition (or soaking in plain speech)

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Hot water and regular water. The hot water is coloured like tea. Cool!


a. Baggie Method followed by The starch bowl: pre sprout on paper towels then make seed pudding for planting. Yes, seriously. Go check it out.
b. Fluid seeding (similar to starch bowl)
c. The cardboard tray - 'stiff' baggie method.
d. Carrot sprout or jar technique - More imbibing.

Easy Planting:

a. Seed Tape - toilet roll sized: I've not had luck with this but I haven't tried it very much either and I'm a shallow planter.
b. Seed Tape - Newspaper sized: This guy uses sheets of newspaper
c. Plant Deeper: After I thought of this all on my little lonesome, I've read several references to it. Dig until the soil is damp. I'm planning on making a trench, watering and covering with vermiculite.
d. Pelleting. This is done commercially to aid in machine sowing. The seed is also partially germinated so that it will sprout quickly. Perhaps something akin to a seed bomb would work.
e. The paper seeder: An origami seeder just for fun

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Two jars and two cardboard backed paper towel.


What I tried

I split my seeds into two groups. The first was shocked with hot water. The second was placed in regular tap water. Next, these were split into two groups. As I decided to try the cardboard tray technique, I put two lots of seeds on them, one with seeds from the hot water shocked lot (HC) and one from regular tap water (RC). The other half were placed into two jars for sprouting (HJ and RJ).


RC: First to show roots after three days.
HC: Followed the day after

I tried to lay them carefully in the garden. The promptly fell off their paper towel and cardboard so I sprinkled them carefully in rows. Seedling rate in garden: poor.

Long pause

HJ and RJ: After another week, they started to sprout at about the same time. I try to make pudding with them to gel seed. It turns out unevenly gloopy. Seedling rate in garden: unsure still.

Additional row: I also put a long row of seedling tape down with deeper spacing. Just checked and outside of the area that the chicken scratched up, germination has commenced.... better than the other methods. I did plant a bit deeper then sprinkle with a bit of straw.


Questionable methodology aside, I'd say that I still haven't found the formula for summer carrots though most promising is deeper planting and a sprinkling of mulch overtop.

Further Investigations:

Next I'm going to try deeper planting, sprinkling with a green mulch like cut grass to seep moisture and chicken exclusion.

* And by culture, I don't mean my knowledge of fancy paintings or where my parents came from. Instead, I"m referring to how one gardens, often called variations of cultural methods, cultural techniques or cultural controls. I'm sure there's an interesting historical reason but I'm insufficiently cultured to know. Okay, I just don't have time to research. Feel free to do so and leave it in the comments. Thanks.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Currant Hell

Journal of the currant pickers

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Currant bushes. Yes there is a lot of fungal disease this year with the wet weather but it didn't affect yield much! This picture was taken after at least one picking.

Day 1:

OG (that's me): Oh look, the currants are almost ready.
Younger Child: Yay, currant muffins, currant juice. I love currants.
Older Child: Will you tell stories?
OG: Fine, stories, but you have to tell some too. 
Younger Child: I'm going to eat some right now.

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Day 2:

OG: We should really go pick some currants (for hours and hours and hours and...)
Older Child: Maybe the birds will eat them.
OG: They didn't last year. Why don't you get a bowl.
Older Child: But I'm reading.
Younger Child: Mommy's going to tell harvest stories.
OG: Do I have to?

Half an hour later

Older Child: I'm hot.
Younger Child says nothing because she has run off to play
Baby wants a nap.

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Bowl of currants slowly filling up.

Day 3:

Older Child: Do you think the birds will get them?
OG: Birds? Hungry? Hey you, waxwings. Get out of the serviceberries and delight in this feast of red deliciousness.
Younger Child: You promised to tell stories!!
OG: Fine.

A stirring rendition of the Pied Piper complete with musical scores follows. Children half heartedly pick.

Older Child: I'm hot and there are spider webs. Do I pick the spider webs?
OG: They are fruitworm webs not spiders. How many times do I have to answer that?
Older Child: Are these spider webs? Are these spider webs? Are these spider webs?
Younger Child says nothing because she has ran off to bring the chicks to eat earwigs under the currants bushes.

An hour later we bring in a large bowl.

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Day 4:

OG: Time to ... kids?

An hour later, I freeze a bunch of white currants.

Day 5:

Older Child: Do you think the birds will eat them.
OG: We've been over this.
Younger child darts in and out of bushes to bring back one or two currants at a time. Eats half.
Baby crawls over and starts to pluck them off. We pause for photo moment.
Younger child gets bored and gets the chicks and starts placing them on people's shoulders.
Older Child: Is that a deer fly?
OG: Sounds like it.
Older child: Ah, the chick ate one off your head!

We start wearing chicks.

One hour later we are almost done.

Older Child asks for the fifteenth time: What are you currently doing mommy?
OG: Picking currants.
Peels of laughter.
Older Child: Pass me a chicken.

One hour later, the bushes are almost empty.

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Day 6:

No one mentions currants

Day 7:

Younger Child: Guess what I found in the woods?
OG: What?
Younger Child: More currants!!!
OG: I didn't hear that.

We now affectionately call this currant hell. P.S. There are more currants.


Currants, and other Ribes, are super easy to grow here in my experience. They are versatile too, the red replacing cranberries in many recipes at our place. You can pick them stems and all and squish then strain them to make a juice or a base for jelly. Or you can clean and freeze.

They are forgiving of growing conditions, often found as an understory bush but will be heavier producers in the sun.

Around here, several types are commonly grown:

Red currant - Ribes rubrum. Heavy producing and often found wild though they may or may not be as tasty as some of the commercial cultivars.
White currants - also Ribes rubrum just a white form. These are delectable.
Black currants/cassis - Ribes nigrum. A special delicious flavour. Sometimes the leaves are used but as I have not tried this, I suggest you do your own research.
Golden flowering currant - Ribes aureum. Grown as an ornamental for its early yellow flowers but also edible. I find them quite tasty
Alpine Currant - Ribes alpinum is a common hedge plant with bland fruit

Not to mention the gooseberries and jostaberry. In the woods, you might find a prickly gooseberry which is just begging to be part of a bet. Traditionally the spines were singed off.