Our Driveway Nearly Ruined Our House
We realized had a water problem in our basement the first autumn after we bought our house. You see, I live in Portland, Oregon, and it rains a lot here. It rains and rains and rains for 9 months of the year. And then we have a dry season July-September. And then it rains again. Sometimes the grey, rainy weather feels endless.
Our house and 1/4 acre had once been part of a larger 1/2 acre plot, but the previous owners flag-lotted the property, and built their house on the back where an orchard had been. Because the flag lot consumed our house’s previous driveway (and garage, which was torn down), the previous owners poured a double-wide driveway in our house’s front yard, taking up enough space for 4 minivans. A huge section of our front yard suddenly became a non-porous surface. It was a disastrous choice for the house.
You can see in the picture above that our house is downhill from the houses across the street. Remember that we live in a rainy climate? And that asphalt and concrete are non-porous surfaces? When it rains, the driveway across the street – and moreso, the street ending in a cul de sac to its right – collect massive quantities of rainwater and funnel it downhill across the street….and straight into my yard.
Now, this water coming onto my property would be less of an issue had the previous owners not poured a giant honkin’ concrete pad right where a garden had been. And even worse, they angled the new driveway toward the house foundation. That first autumn, when heavy rains came, we discovered that this had effectively created was a series of chutes, funneling water from several houses across the street, down the cul de sac road, across the street, down our impermeable driveway…and straight into our basement.
Every time it rained heavily, the area in front of our steps was flooded with 4 inches of water that would work its way down the foundation and into the basement. We put in a sump pump and dehumidifiers – but that still didn’t fix the problem – a problem we battled for years.
The Problem is the Solution
In permaculture, we say, “The problem is the solution.” How can we creatively respond to change? How can we take a difficult situation and turn it into an opportunity?
For years after we bought the house, I would get so frustrated every time heavy rains were forecast. I knew what was going to happen in the coming hours or days: a river of water would come streaming onto my property, down into my basement, damaging my property and creating mold issues inside my home. Instead of getting ticked off and shaking my fist at the weather, I decided to take this as an opportunity to make changes in our yard design, and fix the issue.
As I said, concrete is impermeable. It’s just a chute for water. But rich, fertile soil is highly permeable. And plants drink up water through their roots. And swales slow the flow of water so that plants have time to drink it up before it moves on its way. As I observed how the water was flowing, and how various surfaces in my garden impacted water flow, I began to realize what changes I needed to make: rip out the half of the driveway where most of the water flowed toward the house, and plant gardens carefully design with swales and other ways to slow and sink the water coming onto my property.
Here you can see the driveway removal in progress and the details of my design and thought-process. We hired a professional to cut the concrete into 2ft squares, and then we removed all of them by hand, and I busted up many of them to use as urbanite -(Urbanite is the term coined for pieces of concrete removed from existing structures, and repurposed as an alternative to stone or other building blocks.)
From Concrete Nuisance to Vibrant Garden Space
Where we had removed the driveway, I built 3 sets of raised hugelkultur beds, contoured to further slow and sink the water. I also added a spot for my greenhouse, using cut up urbanite as the foundation (again, not a solid concrete foundation, but blocks that allow for water to sink into the soil below).
The beds were planted with perennials, focusing on fruiting shrubs and pollinator-attractors. Where room allows, I tuck in annuals like pumpkins and inca berries.
The benefits of ripping out half my driveway have proved to be many. Since we added the new garden beds, not one drop of water has reached my basement. My front steps no longer flood when it rains. And I have increased the productive space on my property: increasing food production, pollinator habitat, and furthering shielding my house from an unattractive view of the street and car/city bus noise.
While this project was an investment we had to save for, and took a large amount of sweat equity, it has solved a major problem in our lives, helped restore a functional basement to us, and increased our quality of life, and the beauty of our garden. It has been such a win for our family, and I’m so glad I took the time to observe, follow permaculture design principles, and turn a problem into a multi-faceted, highly-effective solution.
Poultry Keeping: Lots of Options, Lots of Noise
We have raised ducks and chickens for many, many years. If you keep backyard poultry, you’ll know they are not silent. Chickens ba-gawk when laying eggs (or waiting in line for the favorite nest box they all want to lay in). Cockerels crow at all hours. Even older hens in a flock with no roos may sometimes start crowing.
Ducks quack. Drakes peep a quiet little hoarse call (which is why we’ve historically kept drakes to guard a flock, instead of roos). Some breeds of ducks quack more than others, though. For example, the adorable little breed known as the Call Duck lives up to its name, with females (hens) prone to loud and frequent vocalizations.
We have kept four breeds over the years: Indian Runners, Khaki Campbells, Blue Swedish, and Welsh Harlequin. All of these domestic duck breeds are descended from the wild mallard, but each have unique characteristics. Khaki Campbells laid prolifically, but were skittish around the kids, and overall more high-strung. Blue Swedish were beautiful, but heavy-bodied (better for meat than eggs, I suppose) and need a pond to cool off and for mating Welsh Harlequins are, in my opinion, the most beautiful duck breed, but also heavy-bodied and less heat-tolerant (they do lay lots of large eggs).
Indian Runners: The Ideal Duck for Small Gardens?
The breed we keep coming back to, over and over again is the Indian Runner Duck. This upright, light-bodied breed doesn’t need a pond (although we do give them a clawfoot bathtub pond). Runner hens can lay 300 eggs a year, and each duck egg is about 1.5x the size of a chicken egg.
Runners are delightfully entertaining, playful, and quirky. Their small size can make them ideal for smaller spaces. The fact that they can get by quite happily without a pond also adds to their suitability in that regard. And ducks don’t scratch, like chickens, making them easier to incorporate into urban gardens. Overall, I’ve been incredibly happy keeping runner ducks on our 1/4 acre property.
That was, until I acquired Brah-brah.
Yes, We’re Flight of the Conchords Fans
My kids have always picked the names of our poultry. (This is how my favorite Brahma hen ended up with the name John Cena.) At the moment, they’re really into the early 2000’s New Zealand comedy duo: Flight of the Conchords, so this year’s batch of birds got named things like, “Leggy Blonde” and “You’re a Legend, Dave.”
The two chocolate runners we picked out this year got named “Barbara” and “Brah-brah” after an episode in the show where Bret and Jemaine both fall of a woman and Jemaine thinks she’s named Barbara, and Bret thinks she’s named Brah-brah.
Holy Heck, Girlfriend, WHY ARE YOU SO LOUD?
All ducks quack. Runner ducks tend to emit a descending,”Quack QUACK quack, quack…quack….quack,” when they’re alarmed or demanding something, with the emphasis on the second quack, and a string of fading quacks after. You can’t own ducks and expect them to make no noise.
Ducks quack when they are scared, when they’re hungry, when they hear you open the back door and they really excited that you might be coming to visit them. If you can’t handle some quacking, don’t get ducks.
But Brah-brah is on a whole other level. This girl calls exponentially more often, and SO MUCH LOUDER than any of the many, many ducks we have had in the past. I tell her at least once a day she’s got to mellow out, or she’s going to end up in the soup pot because I don’t want her bugging the neighbors with her incessant quacking.
When I Said She Was Loud, I Wasn’t Joking
Why am I inserting a video about summer squash (below) into a post about ducks? I cannot think of a better example of what Brah-brah sounds like several times a day, than her performance in the first 15 seconds of this video. If you want to know what you’re getting into with a duck like her, watch the first little bit:
See? She’s a menace. Her sister Barbara isn’t like this. The older ducks hardly quack any more at all. Her quacking startles the turkeys and is out of character with the tone of the rest of the flock, who are all fairly chill.
So, what should I do with this lady? She’s started laying eggs, she eats slugs like a boss, and is earning her keep. But I have neighbors to think about, and doggone, she’s annoying. Will she settle down as she moves out of the teenager-phase, and into adulthood? Probably, since ducks tend to mellow with age and quack less the older the get. The question is, am I going to put up with her that long in order to find out if she quiets down eventually?
The family Cucurbitaceae is such an important plant family for food production. From this family come many of the annual veggies we know, love, and rely on to fill our pantries and our bellies. It gives us cucumbers, melons, watermelons, summer squash, winter squash, and pumpkins.
Many kinds of curcurbits are not edible for humans, but we have learned to cultivate eight edible species in this family. I want to take a look at the six most commonly grown species, so that we can understand the food we’re growing and become more successful gardeners.
But first, we need to unpack a crucial concept that every gardener needs to understand: cross-pollination.
What Makes a Species, and Why Do Gardeners Need to Understand it?
The common saying goes, “Knowledge is power.” I would argue that in the garden, knowledge is empowerment. When we understand how plants germinate, grow, live, and reproduce, we can better meet their needs and get consistent yields of produce. When we know how botanical processes work, we can dispel myths and create more productive gardens.
So let’s empower ourselves when it comes to the whole host of myths that swirl around cucurbits this time of year. And let’s begin with looking at how plants reproduce.
A biological species is a group of organisms that can reproduce with one another in nature and produce fertile offspring.
Species are characterized by the fact that they are reproductively isolated from other groups, which means that the organisms in one species are incapable of reproducing with organisms in another species.
Species in the same family (such as the Cucurbitaceae family) are related to each other, but one species in the cucurbit family cannot cross-pollinate and create viable seeds with a separate distinct species in the same family.
Cross-Pollination…It Only Happens in Species
So, if only plants within a species can produce viable offspring with each other, what is cross-pollination?
Essentially, the melon you are picking this year is the swollen, mature ovum of the melon plant you planted out in the spring. The seeds inside that melon are the potential offspring that, if grown under the right conditions, will produce new melon plants next year. A melon is part of the parent plant, and it will express the genetics of the plant. (Much like a woman’s uterus contains her DNA and is part of her body, the melon is a part of the parent plant. It will not contain genetics from the male. )
This means that cross-pollination will not impact this year’s fruit, should it occur. If you grow a Spaghetti squash next to a Black Beauty zucchini (both C. pepo.) , you can count on the fact that the spaghetti vine will produce spaghetti squash, because it is the mature ovum of that plant. Same for the zuke. Only the seeds contain a mix of genetics from the male and female plant.
Let me reiterate, because this myth gets perpetuated over and over in gardening groups: if you grow one variety near another, or one cucurbit species near another, it will not mess up the fruit this year.
A Brief Look at the Cultivated Cucurbits
Summer/Winter Squash Species
Cucurbita pepo – A species of cucurbit that has been cultivated for thousands of years. Both vining and bush growth habits exist, with more male flowers being produced early in the life of the plant, and females coming along later. Commonly grown varieties include Acorn and Spaghetti. This species also includes the traditional “pumpkin” we carve into Jack-O-Lanterns at Halloween.
Summer squash also come from this species. Zucchini including traditional varieties such as Black Beauty, Cocozelle, and the round Eight Ball (perfect for stuffing and baking) are all C. pepo. Other favorites include Pattypan and Yellow Crookneck.
Cucurbita moschata – You may have heard that Butternut squash always come true from seed. This is one cucurbit myth that has a large element of truth to it. Butternut is the only C. moschata grown in most North American gardens. This means that it does usually come true from seed, because it cannot cross with the two other common species of garden squash. However, as interest in growing winter squash grows, more varieties from this species are becoming readily available, including Seminole, and Calabaza.
This species is more resistant to squash vine borers and disease and does well in hotter climates.
Cucurbita maxima – If I had to pick one species of annual veggie I could not do without, it is this one. It is a staple of our diet, enjoyed roasted, in baked goods, in soups and stews. Dozens of excellent varieties exist, including the superb Burgess Buttercup (pictured above), which is an excellent keeper squash with superior flavor and texture.
My other favorite is Angela’s Sweet Meat (I’ve been saving my own seeds from an original packet of Sweet Meat for so many years, the squash is adapted to my microclimate) which can keep for 9 months or more under my kitchen table.. Other varieties I grow consistently include Black Futsu, Red Kuri, Blue Hubbard, and Jarrhadale. Giant pumpkins grown for competition are also in this species.
C. maxima is a vigorous vining plant, and fits best in a smaller garden when grown up a trellis, and larger fruits should be supported by slings as they mature.
(Note: due to its more hardy and pest-and disease resistant nature, in the mid-20th century, work was done to create an interspecific cross (F1 hybrid) between C. moschata and the more productive C. maxima. The resulting squash, Tetsukabuto, has the expected hybrid vigor, produces large yields, and is more pest- and disease-resistant than C. maxima.
You will not be able to reproduce this on your own by accident in your garden. Tesukabuto squash are interspecific hybrids, do not produce viable seed, and are not even able to pollinate themselves. You must grow the appropriate varieties near them to get fruit. And the fruit must be cured at least 6 weeks before eating. You can purchase the seeds here.)
Cucumis sativus – Much like apples, which can be divided into cider, dessert, and baking, cucumbers can be divided into three groups: pickling, slicing, and burpless. (Note that cucumbers are not even in the same genus as squash. They are that much more distantly related.)
Pickling: Boston Pickling (I consider this my favorite variety for making lacto-fermented dill pickles due to the size and thin skin), Eureka, and Northern Pickling.
Slicing: Lemon (pictured above, produces very well in mild summers. Bright and lemony in flavor, it’s delightful in salads), Picolino (a crisp cocktail cuke), and Marketmore/Marketmore76, which produces well in shorter seasons.
Burpless – This class of cucumbers has thinner skin. Since the skin contains cucurbitacin -a compound which can cause GI issues in some folks – thinner skinned varieties are considered “burpless”. They are also often seedless. (In very large quantities in wild cucurbits, it is this same compound which makes cucurbits toxic. It is the dose that makes the poison, afterall.) Varieties include: Tendergreen Burpless, Muncher, and Burpless No. 26.
My favorite way to enjoy cucumbers is in tzatziki (you can find my recipe in a vintage post here).
Cucumus melo – This species are the true melons (their origin is still debated: India? Africa? East Asia?). Most are egg-shaped or round, including the cantaloupes, honeydews, and crenshaws. But you won’t find watermelons here.
My gardening relationship with melons is nothing short of compliated. My culinary relationship with them is simple: I have yet to meet a melon I don’t enjoy eating. This close relative of the cucmber boast a hugely diverse group of fruits whose complex sweet flavor, musky aroma, and succulently juicy flesh are enjoyed in hot climates around the world. Unfortunately, I don’t live in one of those hot climates.
Melons prefer long, hot seasons, and while the garden season in Western Oregon is long, the hot months are short (and sometimes non-existant). Can I grown cantaloupes? Yes. Can I get them to mature enough to produce the appropriate sugars and flavor profile? Most years, no. I sure can get a lot of 2/3 sized melons that taste like cucumbers, though.
Years ago when I had half as many kids as I do now, I had the energy to grow them over black plastic to heat the soil, reflective pans to add even more heat, and baby them into producing a good crop for me. Now, if I bother with melons, I stick to petite varieties that will give me the sweet dessert-worthy fruits I crave: Minnesota Midget, Honey Bun, and Sleeping Beauty.
If I had my druthers and knew the summer was going to be warm, I would grow Charentais every year, though. It’s definitely a winner – even for folks who don’t like the musky flavor of many melons.
Citrullus lanatus – Unlike many of the cucurbits we know and enjoy, watermelons originated in Africa, not South and Central America. They are in a different genus than other cultivated melons, and cannot cross with them.
As you might imagine based on their origin, watermelons like hot weather. Again, not an ideal crop for Western Oregon. If you’re going to grow them in cooler climates, stick to varieties specifically bred for such locations. I have successfully grown Cream of Saskatchewan in my garden, for example. Other varieties have joined the “it’s now September and I guess this melon is never going to ripen past ‘mature enough to pickle but no sugars develop’ stage.” pile with larger musk melons and cantaloupes.
Growing Cucurbits with Confidence
Cucurbits and the garden mythology surrounding them can be confusing. The more we learn about the lineage and complexity of our garden veggies, the more fascinating they become. The more we learn about the way plants interact with each other, function, and reproduce, the more empowered we become as growers of our own food.
Here are the two big takeaways I hope folks can glean from this article:
- There’s no need to worry: you can grow different species of cucurbits near each other and get the expected harvest you planted for: Melon plants will produce melons, squash plants will produce squash, cucumber plants will produce cukes.
- If you save seeds from on species of cucurbit you can be confident that it won’t make a canta-squash or a cuke-zuke. If you want to save seeds from one variety, make sure it is hand-pollinated only with that variety, and it will come true from seed next year. (If you don’t want to bother with hand-pollinating, simply grow only one variety of each species.)
For a more detailed dive into our cucurbits, including the concepts of toxic squash and mutt pumpkins:
Permaculture is Not a Self-Sufficiency Movement
The self-sufficiency movement is big right now. It’s understandable – we live in times of economic uncertainty, high costs of food, and a culture of toxic individualism. So, of course the solution Western culture posits is, “Do it all yourself. Don’t trust anyone else. Take care of your own and be ready to stand alone in the coming apocalypse.”
In my writings and my videos, I push back against this kind of mentality as it bleeds into permaculture groups. Preppers, libertarians, self-sufficiency types can be intrigued by many components of permaculture. But instead of diving in and learning the 3 Ethics and 12 principles, they tend to glean little snippets that fit their worldview, all the while bring their ideologies to permaculture communities, creating confusion.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s wonderful that different communities interested in finding alternative ways of living can share information, communicate, and even collaborate. But I believe the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” toxic individuality that can permeate self-sufficiency movements is harmful to the pursuit of truly sustainable communities.
The modern “homestead” or “prepper” mentality operates around an anachronistic view of our foremothers and forefathers. It crafts a narrative rugged individualists striking out on their own, emboldened by “do-it-yourself” gumption and the pursuit of “freedom”. But the reality for our ancestors was not romantic, nor did most folks live in isolation, doing it all by themselves.
The misunderstanding in prepper-type movements is in failing to see where true sustainability lies: not in the power of one person or household tackling everything alone and declaring themselves self-sufficient. That is simply exhausting and unsustainable long-term. No person is an island. We are, in fact, sustained in community. It is in the connections interwoven between humans, businesses, neighborhoods, food systems, that we discover the fabric of resilience.
This is the fundamental difference between permaculture and other sustainability movements is this: we are striving for community interdependence, not self-sufficiency. Our bonds make us stronger, our connections make us better able to withstand adversity. When we create robust local economies, strong community connections, infrastructure with safety nets and support, we build the bonds that hold the fabric of society together, and offer each of us a safety line. Like the Gungor song says, “We are better together. We are the oceantide. The Freedom and the Anchor. We are stronger.”
Let me repeat: permaculture is not a self-sufficiency movement. When we look into the design principles of permaculture, we are encouraged to seek out the connection between all things. We observe the ways that organisms depend on each other, and the way increasing connectedness can increase the resilience in an ecosystem. That same connectedness can also increase the resilience of human-made systems like communities and economies. We design from patterns to details: and nature gives us the pattern: connection, connection, connection. When we design human systems that value the bonds between us, we will create resilient neighborhoods and cities.
Community-interdependence is what we are striving for with permaculture.
You Don’t Have to Grow It All. Support Local Producers.
The “I need to grow it all myself” fallacy is one we can sometimes tumble into along our permaculture journey. In our desire to reduce our carbon footprint, to produce our food locally, and to have a diverse and abundant permaculture design, we can get a little over-zealous. (As someone growing 40 fruit trees and countless berry bushes, I am not immune to this tendency!)
I want to encourage you that you do not have to grow it all yourself. You are not into self-sufficiency, remember? You’re into community-interdependence. If we want to build those strong local food economies, we can and should support local producers.
The reality is that most of us do not have the ability to grow all our own food. We lack the space, the time, the physical ability, the desire. And that is totally ok. I can’t grow all the onions I need every year, but I sure can buy from a farmer in my state. I can’t raise cattle on 1/4 acre, but our family buys a local grassfed sustainable cowshare every year from a rancher about 45 minutes from our house.
We are striving to build communities of people that can weather hard times. A key component of that is making conscious choices to support local farmers, mom-and-pop shops, local textile producers, local businesses. Supporting local economies keeps diverse supply chains local and active right where we live.
Slow, Small Solutions. Your Small Choices Build Local Sustainability.
Permaculture principle #9: Use slow, small solutions. When we choose to support local food chains – especially buying direct from small family farmers- we are taking those slow, small steps toward resilience. When we chose to give our financial to support to micro-producers and mini-farms in our area, rather than to big box stores, we are helping support a functioning local economy.
Sourcing food locally not only means are we supporting a local business, but we are also diversifying our food chain right in our own backyard. ALL of that adds resilience.
You may think that your small actions don’t have an impact, but I can say that as a small business owner, they absolutely do. So look for those small struggling businesses, look for those less-trendy, under the radar little farmstands and minifarms. How can you support them, keeping that hyper-local food production going while you feed your family from producers in your community?
There’s Nothing Like a Home-Grown Fig, and Now is Their Time to Shine
As a child of the 80’s, I grew up with a very limited view of figs. They were that brown mushy stuff with little crunchy seeds in the middle of a Fig Newton. The End. It was not until I was an adult that I came to understand that a fresh fig is a truly exceptional fruit, and the only way to enjoy its full potential is to grow them yourself (or have a friend who does!).
About a decade ago, I started growing figs, and they have proved to be one of the best additions to my garden. For me (in zone 8b), figs have been hardy, disease-free, and consistently productive. (Sure, I have to share the top-most figs with the birds, but I always plan my garden with wildlife in mind. And when your tree produces 200-300 figs, there is plenty to share with the jays.)
Garden Figs are in the Moraceae family, along with mulberries. And like mulberries, figs are sugary sweet, without the higher acidity of most other garden fruits. They taste like pure sweetness, interwoven with notes that can vary from watermelon to strawberry to guava. In fact, figs can be so cloyingly sweet, my eldest kid likes to squeeze a little lime juice on her fresh figs to balance the out. (The Brix – a meaure of the sweetness of a food – of your average apple is about 14. A fig can top 25.)
No, There’s No Wasp in Your Garden Figs. They Aren’t Even True Fruit.
You may have heard that inside each fig is a little wasp. I absolutely love it when folks get excited about our pollinators, and I do not want to take the wind out of anyone’s sails here. But when folks comment on pics of garden figs with, “Did you know that there’s a little wasp inside each one?”, I can’t help but reply that this isn’t quite correct.
There are two native figs in the United States that require pollination by wasps, but neither of them produce food we eat. The Strangler Fig (Ficus aurea) and the Banyan Tree (Ficus citrifolia) both grow wild and require the services of our two native species of fig wasp to pollinate them.
Now, you may have eaten figs that have teeny tiny wasps (or remnants of them) inside. Smyrna (also called Calimyrna) figs, grown in hotter climates around the world (and in California) do need to be pollinated by wasps – a process in figs called caprification. These are the figs we often purchase dried and are used in products like those newton bar cookies.
However, the vast majority of us growing figs in the home garden are growing the Common Fig (Ficus carica). These delicious figs are not even a real “fruit”. They are an inverted packet of flowers that is loaded with sweet nectar when mature. There is no pollination occuring at all. That fig you’re enjoying from your garden is not a fruit, it is a syconium produced by female trees – essentially a stem-like structure packed with florets on the inside.
Needless to say, if you’re squicked out by the idea of eating wasps in your fruit, or maybe you’re a vegan and thought you can’t eat figs because they’re essentially carnivorous, you don’t need to worry about common garden figs. What you’re eating is an inverted basket or “urn” full of sweet little flowers that will mature into a delicious food without any pollination whatsoever. But, let’s go ahead and say it’s a fruit, because that’s how we know and enjoy them.
Determining Peak Ripeness for Maximum Flavor and Sweetness
Like most of the fruit we buy in the grocery store, fresh figs in the produce aisle will have been picked underripe. Unfortunately, figs picked at peak ripeness are the very definition of ephemeral. They do not ship, and last no more than a day or two. But underripe figs lack the honey texture, sweetness, and complexity of a fig that is allowed to mature on the tree. The fig you buy in the grocery store will only ever be a shadow of what if could have been if left to fully ripen on the tree.
Once picked, the fig will not continue to ripen. If you want to enjoy figs with the best possible texture, maximum sweetness and most developed-flavor profile, you must grow them yourself and pick them only when truly ripe.
If you want to know how to determine peak ripeness for your figs check out my video below (You can skip to the 4:30 mark to get right to the “how to determine ripeness” portion)
Growing Figs (and a Few Cautions)
Perhaps this post has gotten you excited about growing common figs if you don’t already grow them. Let me help you pump the brakes a bit. Permaculture is about effective design, and knowing what you’re in for when planting figs can help you determine if they are really right for your garden.
Figs can handle a wide range of soils, but cold is the kiss of death to a fig. They are hardy to 15F, but can start experiencing die-back with temps below 30F. Breba figs can be frozen off just below freezing, impacting next summer’s yields.
Figs do exceptionally well in pots, so in colder climates you can bring them into a greenhouse or the main house under lights in winter and still enjoy garden figs. In my climate, they thrive in the ground with absolutely no care. I never protect my figs, even if we get snow. I simply accept that some frost damage may occur, but the tree itself will be fine.
Some questions to ask, and crucial things to consider before you plant a fig:
- Do you like figs? If you haven’t eaten a fresh fig, consider asking around in your garden club if someone grows them, so you can try them first. They are startlingly sweet, and some folks find them overwhelming. Some folks are thrown off by the texture. Always grow food you actually enjoy eating, so give figs a try before you plant them.
- Can you use up the harvest? Figs can produce prolifically. Have a plan for making jam, drying, and sharing with the neighborhood.
- Figs are aggressive plants. Are you ready to bring that into your garden? Their roots can be absolute beasts. I grow my figs at the back of my garden, far away from my house foundation, and as far from my neighbors’ foundations as possible. (If your fig is “too happy”, take a shovel and chop just inside the drip line to damage the roots and restrict growth.)
- Are you willing to prune? Figs need pruning both to keep them from becoming giant rambly beasts, and to keep fruit producing within reach. Depending on what kind of fig you grow, it needs to be pruned differently. Some figs like my Desert King produce one crop – called a breba crop – per year. They require a different pruning technique than my Negronne fig, which will set two crops of smaller purple figs yearly – one in July (breba) and one in September (the main crop). Learn how to properly prune your figs to maximize your yields.
- Figs produce a white latex which contains a compound called ficin. Some folks (like me), have a very strong reaction to ficin. (This is why some folks say fig wood is toxic to burn, while other cultures burn it readily). Ficin causes a red, blistery awful rash if it hits my skin. I wear long sleeves when pruning, and avoid pruning trees when the sap is running if I can. If you don’t know your reactivity to fig sap, wear gloves and protect your skin.
- Figs can drop overripe fruit, which can attract wasps and create a mess on the ground. Do you have a plan for fallen fruit? I grow my figs in my chicken run, which means that any figs that drop are immediately eaten by chickens and ducks eat every last bit.
Which Varieties and Where to Find Them
The good thing about common figs is that they are 1. all female and 2. don’t need to be pollinated, so you only need to grow one variety. The question of whether you’ll want to stop at one fig is another thing entirely.
I did a lot of fruit tasting before I chose my fig varieties. If you’re unable to try figs before you buy, I suggest consulting other fig enthusiasts to see what they like best and what grows well in their climate.
I have two figs, Negronne (also called Violette de Bordeaux, Petite Negra, or Ronde de Bordeaux), which is a smaller (but still vigorous) fig that produces medium-small deep purple fruits with burgundy-red interior. To me, these smaller fruits do not diminish my opinion of this tree at all, because while each fruit smaller, the flavor profile is superb. Each fruit has strong strawberry overtones, and melts in the mouth.
Negronne figs also dry well, and make beautiful, deep maroon-colored jam. It is by far my favorite fig of the 8 or so varieties I’ve tasted. If autumn is mild, they will give you two crops a year. And an additional bonus: unlike many of the larger figs, these more petite fruits are not prone to splitting while maturing.
My second fig, the Desert King, is one of the most common figs grown in my area. It’s easy to understand why. This large vigorous tree can get 35 feet tall without pruning, and its fruits are equally impressive. The green fruit with a pale pink inside can be as large as my fist in a good year. While they only produce one crop a year, some years I get as many as 250 fruit of of one tree.
There are dozens of other tasty and beautiful fig varieties on the market, with varying cold hardiness, productivity, and fruit shape/color. My favorite source for fig trees is One Green World Nursery here in Portland, Oregon. They ship all over, and have a huge selection of permaculture trees, shrubs, and perennial vegetables. You can also propogate figs very easily from cuttings, so ask in your local garden clubs when folks are pruning if you can take cuttings and start your own tree for free.
If you currently grow figs, I hope this post helped you know when to pick for maximum flavor and enjoyment. If you don’t grow figs, I hope this post encourages you to consider common figs for your permaculture system.
There is absolutely nothing that compares to a fig picked fresh from the tree at peak ripeness. Permaculture design creates an opportunity for us to expand the diversity in our diets, and the pure enjoyment of our food. And a fresh ripe fig is the very definition of pure enjoyment.
My Yard Got Meme’d and Went Viral. Folks Doubted The Garden Was Real.
When Strangers Think They Know Your Garden Best
A few days ago, a meme of my front yard garden went viral on social media. I didn’t make the meme, and it’s been incorrectedly credited several times as the garden of a man in the UK, but it is, in fact, Parkrose Permaculture.
Inevitably, when someone shares a single image like this and it spreads rapidly on social media, criticisms, “gotchas”, fault-finding, and definititive judgments flood the comments section. Everyone becomes an authority and makes confident assertions and declares “this is how it really is” based on one image.
I responsed to the most common declarations in my video today (see below), but I wanted to take some space in this blog to address in detail one particular “hot take” that I didn’t address thoroughly on YouTube (perks of reading the blog!). It’s a question folks have asked long before this meme was made, and today I’m going to answer it, so let’s dive in.
Your Garden Isn’t Real, Angela.
The skeptics came out of the woodwork on each and every share, calling the images “faked.” They were confident that this garden must be photoshopped. It couldn’t be real. No one could really transform their front yard like that, right? Total strangers became “experts” on my garden based on a single meme showing a small portion of the yard. As the French say, “Trop beau pour être vrai,” and being manic with our skepticism sure is en vogue.
OK, OK. Maybe It IS Real, But She Definitely Doesn’t Have 32 Fruit and Nut Trees on 1/4 Acre.
While the confirmation bias of folks making these assertions on the internet was intensely strong, several lovely humans did return and say, “Gah, my bad! I should not have made assumptions,” after viewing more pictures of the garden or finding my YouTube. It takes integrity in our modern society to say, “Welp, I goofed that up. I’m sorry!”, so I appreciate it when folks admit they’re wrong and want to do better going forward.
To be fair, the transformation of the garden is profound. I look back at pictures of the house when we first moved in, and it doesn’t feel like my house at all. Although, even back in 2009, in my mind’s eye, I could see what the garden would look like in time. I had faith in the process, and have enjoyed every step of getting from there to here. It may seem too good to be true, so I understand the skepticism. But perhaps ask questions instead of assuming. Afterall, you know what they say about that…
Ok, but seriously…32? Impossible.
If folks believed that the images weren’t fake, they still called me “dishonest”. According to these guys, based on one image, they knew I was clearly “exaggerating” how many trees I can carefully fit on the property. It simply didn’t mesh with their mental image of how trees should be positioned in the landscape. It didn’t fit with the image of how horticulturists and modern farmers tell us we must grow fruit trees. Afterall, if you haven’t seen it done, it can be difficult to imagine another way. It’s easier to disbelieve than ask for evidence that might change your mind.
If You Really Grow 32 Fruit and Nut Trees, What Are They, Hm? Hmm?!
I have compassion for the level of skepticism happening in response to this meme, and I thought perhaps the most helpful thing to do here – both for doubters, and folks interested in adding trees to their own gardens – would be to list out for you all of the trees I grow here. I’m going to be totally honest right from the get-go: The youngest tree is 2. Most are over 10 years old, and a few are 15 (purchased as 1-2 yr old trees, or squirrel-planted before we moved in). It’s not actually 32 trees, but check for yourself:
- Plums, European (Prunus) x5 – Shropshire Damson, Stanley, Early Laxton, Bavay’s Greengage, Early Italian
- Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) x3 – Allegheny, Rappahanock, and Suquehanna
- Elderberry (Sambucus) x2 –Nova and York (I used to have a Blue elder, but removed it)
- Apple (Malus) x6 – Ashmead’s Kernel, Hudson’s Golden Gem, Roxbury Russet, Honeycrisp, Liberty, Cox’s Orange Pippin (again, I used to have more. It was too many apples)
- Medlar (Mespilus germanica) – Breda Giant
- Pear, Asian – triple grafted (In a pot)
- Pear, European – Seckel
- Fig (Ficus carica) x2 – Desert King and Negronne (the latter is superb)
- Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) x3 – (this is technically a shrub, but grows very very large and I treat it like a tree) 2 females, and 1 male
- Hazelnut (Corylus) – my lone nut tree. I coppice it for firewood and plant stakes. Nuts.
- Persimmon (Diospyros) x2 – Early Fuyu and a hybrid persimmon, Nikita’s Gift
- Quince (Cydonia oblonga) x3 – Aromatnaya, Krimskaya, and an unnamed variety
- Mulberry (Malus rubra) x3 – Illinois Everybearing, Contorted, and Dwarf
- Purple Robe locust (Robinia) – this tree’s seeds are not edible. It is an important nurse tree in my food forest, produces edible blossoms, but will eventually be cycled out.
- Peach –Oregon Curl Free
- Jujube (Zizyphus jujuba) – Lee and Lang
- Lemons – Meyer and Variegated Meyer in pots (they live in the greenhouse in winter)
- Sweet Bay (Laurus nobilis)- also in a pot, and sheltered in the winter outdoors
Like I said, not 32. That list makes 40. I generally don’t count the trees in pots, but they are an important part of our system and do produce important yields for me and I should. I did not include bush cherries, large shrubs like goumi and aronia and tallbush cranberry. Perhaps smaller fruits are a topic for another post in the near future.
I hope that information is helpful for folks. In the coming weeks, I’ll continue to lay out how I fit all these trees, why I need them all, and what my design process is. It is my sincere hope that I can help illuminate how permaculture – real world permaculture, not a thought exercise – functions. Hiccups and all. That’s my goal in blogging and making videos: to share the design process of permaculture, explain the principles, and how the work in the context of our real, hectic lives, and in our real gardens. For me and my family right now, 40 trees works in that context. It enriches our lives and feeds our bellies, and creates habitat for wildlife.
In an extractive world, regenerative ways of living can seem really foreign. Our knee-jerk reaction can understandably veer toward skepticism when someone tries something far outside the cultural norm. It’s my hope that permaculture – and other resilient design systems – can become accepted and normalized. Goodness knows we and the Planet need them.
If anything, I’m grateful that despite all the hater-ade I got from this meme blowing up (as much as permaculture memes can blow up?) on social media, it has helped more folks discover permaculture design, and helped more folks question the status quo when it comes to our gardens, our neighborhood design, and how we organize our society. I love sharing my garden, and am glad this experience has given me the opportunity to share it with more people, and explain in more detail how the system is designed and functions.
A Hard Year For Fruit Growers
2022 thus far has proven to be a difficult year for fruit growers in my part of of the world. Coming out of multiple years of drought, we started off the year with record cold snaps. We had a freak 3 inches of snow after our last frost date. In fact, the snow hit so late that stone fruit were already blooming in the Pacific Northwest. Frozen blossoms are nothing short of a disaster for orchardists. Many gardeners liked me had to face the harsh reality of a year with no cherries, no peaches, and few plums. Even early apples and breba figs yields have been hit.
On top of the freeze, a cold rainy spring kept pollinators hunkered down. And heavy rains created unusually high fungal pressure. Blueberry crops have disappointed many, since they bloomed while temperatures were too cool or the weather too rainy for bees to be out foraging. Decade-old raspberry patches have root rot for the first time ever. Even my blackcap raspberries – a reliable crop with consistently large yields – had poor pollination.
A Resilient Berry in Hard Times
While the weather has absolutely crushed many harvests in my garden this year, all is not lost. In fact, one of the reason I grow a huge diversity of fruits is so that if one – or 6 – crops fail, I have many others that are likely to produce well for me. Building diversity into our systems increases our resilience. And one such insurance policy that has yielded fantastically for me over the years it the mulberry.
Mulberries (Morus rubra, Morus alba, or Morus alba x rubra), are a genus of trees known for their production of deep reddish-purple fruits that are reminiscient of blackberries (Rubus genus). (White mulberries are, obviously, white or pale pink). The fruit is delightfully sweet, and lacks the acidity of blackberries.
These beautiful trees produce profusely, with berries ripening over several weeks to months. This results in a reliable daily harvest for long periods of time. I pick for a f ew minutes daily, and quickly fill multiple gallon containers in the freezer, with lots leftover for fresh eating each day. In July, dessert in the evening often looks like a handful of mulberries straight off the tree.
(Note, unlike blackberries and raspberries, the stem of the mulberry runs the whole length of the inside of the fruit. It’s totally edible! You can eat it, or not. Your choice, but the fruit is melded to the stem at its core and the stem cannot be removed.)
For me, growing mulberries has been a critically important part of our resilient design. When other berries fail, no matter the weird weather, my 3 mulberry trees produce reliably. There is plenty to share with wildlife (and my poultry – ducks love mulberries). When we build diversity into our permaculture systems, we create insurance policies for ourselves. My mulberries are my berry insurance policy: when more fiddly and delicate fruits fail, I can count on mulberries to give me a yield.
Tips for Growing Mulberries
- In my temperate climate, both red (M. rubra) and white (M. alba) grow well, but in many places white mulberries are an invasive species, spreading vigorously and displacing native trees and shrubs. Check before you plant, or consider only red mulberry species.
- Fruit size, color and quality vary considerably across varieties, but all are sweet and good eating. My Contorted Mulberry produces rather small fruit in moderate quantities, but my Illinois Everbearing is a workhorse: cranking out huge quantities of good-sized fruit for weeks on end. The Pakistani mulberry produces elongated fruits prized for their unusual length, but can be a bit less cold tolerant, so I chose not to grow it here.
- Consider that birds will love your mulberries, too. I count on 20% of my harvest going to wildlife and plan accordingly when it comes to pruning.
- More cold hardy varieties can be grown in zones 5 and 6-8, with less tolerant varieties 7-9 (In cold snaps, the trees can get die-back, particularly in areas pruned during the previous year.)
- Trees range from 6-20 meters (20-60+ft) at maturity, depending on species and variety. Choose carefully I don’t care what the catalogs tell you, mulberries are fast-growing, vigorous trees, and mine needs diligent pruning (pollarding) to keep it an appropriate size for my garden (see video above for more info).
- Mulberries like a sunny spot, and can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions. Once established, they are extremely drought tolerant. I never water my mulberry trees.
One of the beautiful things about permaculture design is that it is site-specific. This means you tailor your design to your needs, your yard, your community. Mulberries are not the right choice for every garden design. As I mentioned earlier, the trees can get quite large. If I were not committed to yearly pollarding, Illinois Everybearing would not have been an appropriate tree for my yard.
Mulberry juice stains. Everything. Hands, clothes, concrete, roof tiles. When deciding if this tree is right for your design, plan accordingly. Don’t plant over a driveway, for instance. I pick berries wearing dark-colored clothes so they aren’t ruined by any falling fruit or the juice that gets all over my hands.
In permaculture we design with stacking functions in mind. This concept means we try to have every element in our garden do as many “jobs” as possible. We looke for the connections in different elements in our system to increase resilience. In order to address the issue of stainy, fallen fruit, prevent fruit flies, and keep the area under the tree tidier, I planted my largest mulberry in my poultry run. Ducks and chickens relish mulberry fruit and quickly clean up every fruit that hits the ground. So my mulberry tree feeds not only our family, but also provides weeks of snacks for the poultry with zero effort on my part. And it stacks another function in nicely: The birds enjoy the shade the tree provides as it effectively cools the chicken run in summer.
When planning your permaculture system or homestead, perhaps a mulberry might be a tree worth planting. Understanding the pluses and minuses of this tree, how would it work into your design to increase your food security when other crops might fail? Consider the mulberry, a tree that has served our family well and is a crucial component of my resilient garden design.
Someone Else Meme’d My Garden. It Went Viral.
I did not intend to reboot my blog after a several year absence with a post like this. But life is full of surprises. Some welcome, and some not. It’s how we respond and adapt that makes all the difference.
This week, a documentary film company made a meme of my 14 year-old permaculture garden in Portland, Oregon, USA, using “before” and “after” images, taken more than a decade apart. It immediately went viral and was shared thousands of times across multiple social media sites.
I didn’t make this meme, and had no control of what happened to it when it was set adrift in the swirling garbage patch that is the internet. That being said, watching the descending swarm of commentors attacking a garden I have poured my heart and soul and sweat and energy into for almost a decade and a half felt like watching my baby be thrown to the wolves.
Strangers Know Your Garden Best, and They’ll Make Sure You Know It
In a matter of hours, I’d been bombarded by comments sprinkled around social media as this meme gets shared over and over:
-interested folks asking how they can learn about my garden
-other gardeners sharing their gardens which look similar
-total strangers boldly declaring the images were faked or that based on ONE picture, they were sure my garden must be overrun with snakes and mosquitoes and my water bill must be astronomical
– and hundreds of insults and offensive comments. “Looks like a foreclosure.” “I’d move if this was my neighbor.” “What a mess.” “She wouldn’t know a pretty garden if it bit her in the ass.” “Looks like shit.”
As a small-time YouTuber, but dedicated garden educator whose real life is lived in blissful anonymity, I’m not accustomed to being pelted with disgraceful behavior like this from hundreds of total strangers. Performative cruelty lobbed straight at me and my home is not a daily occurence in my life. Needless to say, it’s been a rough couple of days.
The Problem is the Solution
My heart feels a bit beat up, and my idealistic belief in humanity shaken a bit, but I wouldn’t be a permaculturist if I didn’t choose to see this experience as an option to design for a better world. In permaculture we have a saying, “The problem is the solution.” This simple phrase means that hidden in the problem are the keys to designing solutions that heal. When we break apart and examine the problem, when we reframe the “problem” as an opportunity to observe and learn, we can begin to understand and craft solutions. Pain, hardship, failure all can lead us toward solutions if we let them.
Let’s start with reframing. I don’t have a “slugs are eating my greens” problem. I have an “abundance of duck food” solution. Similarly, I don’t have a “windy spot where every plant gets windburn” problem. I have a “chance to design a windbreak and create shelter” opportunity.
So, what is the solution in this situation? As I kept sifting through the comments, two areas for improvement rose to the forefront for me.
The Solution is People Care
1. What can be learned when folks feel entitled to weaponize their loneliness, anger, bitterness and denigrate a stranger and her work in public? What can we do to help improve our People Care when we interact with each other?
As the parent of 4 kids, I see the solution in our youth: in the ways they’re normalizing therapy, working on healthy communication and empathy. They’re learning to set boundaries. They actively work on healing from their trauma. They’re growing into the kinds of adults who can make a better future.
Those of us who have positive relationships with kids can help encourage the permaculture ethic of People Care and promote a culture of nontoxic and empathetic interaction. You don’t have to be a parent to work on your own issues and help instill non-toxic masculinity, strong boundary setting, and compassionate communicate in kids. In fact, doing so helps you heal from the trauma we hope to never strap our kids with in the first place.
We have an opportunity here to be better people, and do better by each other going forward. When we heal the ways we think about and relate to other human beings, we are on the road to creating resilient communities.
Shifting Our Expectations of Front Yard Gardens
2. Why is it that the dominant (particularly American) mindset is that a lawn with a row of boxwoods is “pretty” and “tidy” and “good”, and a vibrant, productive garden that creates habitat for wildlife, and food and resilience for the family who lives there is seen as “ugly” and “messy” and “trashy”? We’ve been so indoctrinated we have lost sight of what truly diverse and thriving gardens look like, and boring, resource-heavy lawns have been normalized. The solution is to retrain our eyes,, our hearts, our cultural norms.
Those of us who already garden this way, should do it proudly and work to shift the culture and our expectations to see permaculture systems for what they are: a way to improve the lives of the folks who live there and increase resilience and biodiversity. We have an opportunity here to educate and a chance to expand our view of beauty so that we can become resilient people in an increasingly unstable world.
Am I saying I expect everyone to like my way of gardening? No. Am I expecting every unique individual to love my lush, abundant permaculture garden when they’ve been conditioned their whole lives to see flat grass and shapeless blobs of ornamental shrubs as beautiful? Not by any means. In fact, permaculture is site-specific design. Every garden is tailored to the needs of the gardener and her land and climate. So, I don’t expect anyone’s garden to look just like mine.
But I do hope we can learn to do better by each other and by the planet. We are better than the worst of these comments. These folks who took their time and their energy to behave in public with performative cruelty toward a stranger not only show the rest of us how not to be, but they themselves have the opportunity to do better going forward.
I don’t think I could have made it more than 20 years doing permaculture in late-stage capitalism, a warming climate, and a divisive culture if I wasn’t an idealist. I couldn’t do what I do if I didn’t eternally hope for the best for people and the planet. I’m glad to be back to blogging, and while this isn’t quite the topic I had intended to relaunch my blog, I’ll take it and learn the lessons along the way.
I’ll be posting regularly here while I continue to make YouTube videos and work on writing my book. Lots more to come on permaculture design, practical resilient gardening, and community connection.
I was out picking some fruit for lunch during a break in the rain, and snapped a few photos of a portion of the backyard. The rains have re-greened the garden very quickly. I’m struggling to pick and roast and preserve tomatoes before the continued rains split them all. Same with the plums.
It’s not officially autumn yet, but it sure feels like it this week. The chill in the morning when I handle garden chores is quick to remind me that the days remaining in the garden are relatively few. The summer veggies and fruits are beginning to fade, but so many fall foods are coming in, I am swamped with produce.
It’s always been my goal to have an even distribution of fruit crops throughout the year. Late September is no exception. Raspberries, grapes, late plums, apples, goji berries are all still going strong. Physalis (Inca berries and ground cherries) are just beginning to ripen, and the quince, medlars, kiwis won’t be ready for another several weeks.
Here are a few photos from a little portion of the garden, as it appears today – lush and green, but beginning to ebb for the year:
One of my favorite fall activities is harvesting elderberries to make elderberry syrup.
I have two black elders (Sambucus nigra) and one blue elder (S. nigra ssp. cerulea), and most years can harvest 40 lbs or more of fruit from these three shrubs.
Most of the fruit can be reached from the ground, but I have a pole-pruner to help me access the large clusters up high.
We had a heavy rain which washed all of the forest-fire ash off, so it seemed like a good time to harvest the second round of fruit.
I let the poultry out of their run, so they could hunt for worms and bugs in the rain-soaked mulch. Ducks don’t like elderberries, and the chickens will only clean up a few. They would much rather go for the protein-rich invertebrates which abound in the shade garden.
One of the black elders makes smaller clusters than the other, but each individual berry in the umbel is larger.
All parts of the elder contain cyanogenic glycosides. The berries contain the least amount, which dissipates during cooking. However, stems, leaves, and roots contain toxic amounts. Elderberries need to be removed from the stems which hold them in a cluster before they can be cooked. Even the small stems which hold the berries together in their characteristic umbel shape need to be removed before cooking.
The berries stain clothes and skin, and can be fiddly to remove from the stems. I use a fork. Freezing the berries first can make it easier to remove them from the stems, as well.
After the berries are de-stemmed, they are washed to remove any grit, bugs, spider webs, and dried flowers. I then make a batch of fresh syrup, and freeze the rest in packages to make more syrup throughout the winter. I have dried them in the past, but feel that freezing better preserves the flavor and nutrition.
I take elderberry syrup regularly during cold and flu season – straight, stirred into hot tea, or even mixed with seltzer water. Elderberries contain very high quantities of vitamin C, and are rich in vit A, iron, B6, and potassium. They are a nutritional powerhouse, and I feel very privileged to be able to grow them at home, where I can control how the fruit is produced. The berries and plants are never sprayed. The shrubs are fed with rock dust minerals, organic poultry manure, worm castings, comfrey and compost tea. I know that I am feeding the soil so the plant can benefit and produce for me the most nutritionally-dense berries possible.
If you’re local and interested in some of my all-organic elderberry syrup, please check out the order form HERE (details are on the form). I will be making a batch that will be ready for pickup (or delivery to Oaks Park for derby folks) on Sept 27. Because I’ve had issues with folks ordering and not paying in the past, I’m going to take payment before I make a batch this time around.
If you have any questions about growing elders or making syrup, feel free to shoot me an email at angela@ParkrosePermaculture.com or leave a comment below. Thanks!
Yes, there is still gardening to do in February! Today, we were planting morel mushroom spawn under the apple trees, and this afternoon, I started prepping to plant the yummy Winecap mushroom around the garden. Here’s a video I made all about Stropharia, and some tips for success in cultivating this delicious gourmet mushroom in your garden.
If you havent had a chance, dont forget to subscribe to my youtube channel!
One of my kids’ favorite rituals is afternoon tea. We used to have a high tea on Thursdays, but as the kids have grown and their needs have changed, we’ve shifted to having a casual afternoon tea any day of the week they want to sit down and have it.
George inevitably wants to have tea every day, whether or not his siblings want to. He loves getting out the china and his favorite mint tea and feeling very grown up.
With our tea, we had the last of the Seckel pears from our tree, and the first of the medlars (well, I enjoyed them. George wasn’t so keen. He did like the pears – I don’t think anyone can resist a pear whose taste matches its nickname,”sugar pear”.)
While George enjoyed his tea, Hal got some snuggle time with our favorite houseguest: Annabelle the Pionus parrot. She is the most sweet-tempered, gentle parrot I’ve ever known (and I’ve known a lot of parrots). She has such a calm demeanor and likes hanging out with the kids, although she seems to prefer Hal to everyone else – which is a good thing, because he absolutely adores her.
One thing I really enjoy about tea-time is that I can sit and knit while George and I chit-chat. Today I finished a remnant hat while we were hanging out. I seem to have lots of small balls of various greys and yellows in worsted weight and have made a few hats with grey and yellow stripes – I really like the combination. I’ve now worked through all my grey odds and ends and George has asked me to make him a cotton hat with red in it, so that’s next on the list for knitting projects. (I also have a shawl on the needles, but I usually like a mindless, easy project to fall back on at the same time, and hats or socks always fit that bill.)
I’ll be back tomorrow for Ginny’s Yarn Along.
The Cassis Shawlette is off the needles and blocked. I made a few alterations to the pattern and am extremely pleased with the results.
The yarn is Malabrigo laceweight I purchased on clearance ages ago and can’t remember the colorway. It knits up very nicely, and I love the fuzzy halo and loft in the finished piece. The yarn is extremely soft and great to work with. I used about 3/4 of one skein for the shawlette and may make some baby booties with the remnants.
Joining Ginny for her Yarn Along today, where we share what we’re knitting and reading. This weekend I’ll be reffing a men’s derby tournament in Eugene, so today I’m trying to get caught up on house chores and snuggle time with the kids. I haven’t had much time to read, except for an hour before the kids got up this morning. I read a little further in Robert Harrison’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition.
Looking forward to catching up on everyone else’s posts in the Yarn Along when I get back Sunday night.
Hope you have a wonderful weekend!
We’re hunkered down at home today thanks to the weather. All derby practices and scrimmages have been called-off on account of the wind storms and flooding in Portland. All my big garden projects for the afternoon are similarly on hold. But we have found plenty to keep us busy in the hosue today.
Hal has a birthday party for a close friend from his ReWild Nature Immersion program, and I asked him what his friend might want for his birthday. He replied, “Carmine’s really into Minecraft, and I think a magic potion kit would be a cool gift. Let’s make it a ReWild-style kit, though, okay?”
Every magic potion kit needs something in which to grind the ingredients. We started wtih a wooden mortar + pestle set I found online. We polished it with some of our Beeswax Polish, and set about finding potion ingredients that could be ground in it.
George helped pack dried flowers (calendula, lavender) and herbs in babyfood jars (I had picked up a bunch on Freecycle for the kids’ craft projects).
I added sweet myrrh resin (Opoponax, from Somalia), which smells amazing and is fun to grind up.
I lined a thrifted wooden box with some gardeny-herby fabric cut to fit, then Hal helped arrange the jars of herbs and flowers and magical-doo-dads and dropper bottles and wrap it all up.
I know Hal was really proud of his homemade gift and I hope Carmine likes the finished kit and he gets a chance to create all sorts of messy magical projects and potions!
After a long derby weekend, we had a PJ day at the Baker House today to catch up and recover a bit.
The younger kids spent the bulk of the morning continuing to listen to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on book CD, while I got some more of the border for my Cassis Shawlette completed. I started this shawl ages ago, frogged it, and just re-started it after making some changes. So far, it’s not the most thrilling knit, but I’ve never made a shawl with this kind of construction before (border knit vertically and then body of the shawl picked up from the long edge), so I wanted to give it a try.
Between house chores and knitting, I got about 4 solid hours of yard work done, pruning grape and fall clean up and the like. I made a video showing some of the work I’ve been doing in the front yard as I get reading to cycle three annual beds over to perennial fruit guilds as part of our mini front yard food forest. You can view it here.
One of the trees I mention briefly in the videos is the the pawpaw. It’s sometimes called the Arkansas banana – it’s native to the Eastern US and is a fruit that I have a great fondness for. While I won’t have pawpaws for a few years if I plant them this fall (they have an extremely short shelf life and are not available commercially). In baked goods, pawpaws and bananas are interchangeable.
Since I had a ripe bananas on the counter and a hankering for pawpaws, I made banana muffins. Not the same, but tasty nonetheless. Here’s my favorite banana muffin recipe, and the one the kids always ask for. We had them for lunch and again for an afternoon snack. The leftovers will keep nicely for breakfast tomorrow.
This recipe uses tahini and spelt flour, both of which have a delicate nutty quality that melds nicely with the banana. If you don’t have spelt flour, you can substitute with whole wheat.
Banana Sesame Muffins
Makes 24 standard muffins
1 Preheat the oven to 400F. Line 24 muffin cups with paper or grease well
2..Combine the following wet ingredients in a non-reactive bowl:
3 chicken eggs or 2 duck eggs, slightly beaten
¾ C whole milk
⅛ C coconut oil + ¼ C tahini melted together and cooled
3 medium bananas, peeled and mashed
1 tsp vanilla extract
¾ C packed cup brown sugar
3. In separate bowl, sift together the following dry ingredients.
½ C spelt flour
scant ¾ C unbleached flour
scant ¼ C cocoa
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp baking powder
4. Then fold following the add-ins to the dry ingredients:
¼ C sesame seeds
¼ C quick-cook oats OR toasted unsulphured/unsweetened coconut
1 Tbsp hemp hearts
5. Now fold the dry ingredients into the wet, being careful not to over-combine. Batter will be lumpy. When combined, fold in:
¾ C chopped chocolate
In a small bowl, combine: ⅓ C sesame seeds mixed with ½ C turbinado sugar
5. Fill each muffin cup at least 3/4 full of batter, and sprinkle with sesame-sugar mixture to top. Bake at 400F for approx 20-23 minutes or until muffins are browning on top, and set in the middle.
Hal is at ReWild’s Nature Immersion program on Fridays. It’s the highlight of his week. He gets to run around outside all day, learn primitive skills, and engage in loads of imaginative play with his friends. He comes home tired, filthy, and very, very happy.
It’s not just a benefit for him: In a house with lots of kids, sending just one kid off for the day has lots of perks. It not only provides him with adventure apart from his siblings, but it also reduces the conflict, mess, noise, etc in the house by a significant portion. And considering that resolving sibling conflict normally comprises the bulk of my “parenting” lately, Friday is a day I’ve been looking forward to, as well. I get so much accomplished on Fridays, all while having a quiet, peaceful morning.
I got a loaf of sesame-spelt bread baked early this morning. It has 2 cups of unbleached flour, and 1 cup of spelt, so it takes longer to rise, but it gets some loft eventually. It is much less dense than an all-spelt bread, with the nutty flavor of the spelt still coming through.
While the bread was rising, I worked on a pair of top-down mix-n-match socks I started ages ago. I’m down to the toe on the last sock, and then I can block them! (Joining Ginny’s Yarn Along. These are 100% wool yarn my sister-in-law gave me some time ago. They’re leftovers from another project she did, so I’m not sure of the brand.)
While I’m knitting this morning, George has been alternating between working on a puzzle and playing with items on the nature shelf. He loves to look at the agates and limpet shells we collected at the beach last month, and added some hazelnuts from the backyard.
It seems that everywhere you look in the kitchen, there are medlars strewn about. The kids and I keep bringing them in as they fall from the tree. They need to sit on the counter for a few weeks to soften and be edible. I can’t wait to eat them: they taste intensely of autumn to me. (See my new video about growing and eating medlars here.)
This weekend is packed with derby. I’m officiating four bouts, in three days, as well as a few scrimmages. But next weekend I’m taking the weekend off to work on fall garden clean-up and transition some of the front yard garden from annuals to perennials. The plan is to add two new pawpaw trees, another pomegranate, and a “Nikita’s Gift” persimmon amongst the shrubs and herbaceous perennials I established the last two years. Finding derby-life balance is hard for me, especially as autumn in the garden is still a busy time, but I’m looking forward to a crazy derby weekend starting today and a permaculture weekend next weekend.
The dry summer and mild autumn here in Oregon have produced a pleasant surprise: the main crop of Negronne Figs have ripened! In our cool climate, the only figs suitable to grow are those that produce a delicious breba (first) crop. Many figs produce small, mealy breba figs that aren’t sweet and aren’t worth eating. Some varieties – like my Desert King and Negronne figs – are prized for their sweet, abundant breba figs. Most years the weather turns too cold for the later, main crop of figs to ripen. However, this year the Negronne’s main crop has been producing about 10 lbs of figs per week the past three weeks.
With the unexpected abundance of figs so late in the season, I’ve been cutting and freezing and preserving them, because we cannot possibly eat them all fresh. Truly ripe figs that have the most complex and fully-developed flavor only keep for a few days, and must be utilized quickly. One way to use up a significant portion of the bounty is to make jam.
Figs are the sweetest fruit, with a Brix rating of 20-30, and rarely as high as 40. (A very rough, untechnical definition: Brix is a measurement of sugar content, with 1 Brix = approx 1-2% sugar by volume). They have no acid and can by cloyingly sweet. I find plain fig jam almost overwhelmingly sweet and like to eat it with salty cheese to cut the sweetness.
Another option is to add a highly acidic ingredient to fig jam, so that its sharpness will cut the intense sweetness of the fruit. I’ve made fig and balsamic vinegar jam, and thoroughly enjoy it – especially over ice cream. The flavor is sophisticated and refreshing, but not particularly kid-friendly. This time, I had citrus in the fridge, and so chose that for the acid component of the jam. (If you like your jam quite tart, feel free to double the lime pulp and lime zest in this recipe.)
Fig + 3 Citrus Jam
Makes 4-5 half-pint jars
4 cups of finely chopped fresh figs (I cut them into 12ths)
2 1/2 C white granulated sugar
zest of 1 lime
zest of 1 Meyer lemon
juice of 1 Meyer lemon
zest of 1 large orange
1 large orange
1/2 tsp sea salt
Optional: 2 -3 Tbsp Grand Marnier
- In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the chopped figs and sugar, stirring to combine. Allow to macerate while you prepare the other ingredients.
- Using a microplane, zest the lemon, orange and one lime. Juice the lemon. Set zest aside.
- Remove the peel/pith from the orange. Section out the fruit, and chop it. Squeeze the remaining membrane and reserve the juice. Repeat with the two limes. (Total reserved juice = about 3 Tbsp)
4. Prepare a hot water bath and sterilize jars, lids, and rings. Recipe makes 4-5 half-pints.
5. Turn heat to medium on the figs and sugar. As it warms, stir in the citrus ingredients and 1/2 tsp salt.
6. Bring mixture to a full boil, and cook, stirring frequently to avoid scorching. Periodically mash with the back of the spoon or a potato masher to break up the pieces of fig. In 45-60 min, jam will thicken to desired consistency. Keep in mind, this is an old-fashioned jam without extra commercial pectin, and figs are low in pectin. The citrus contains pectin and will set the jam, but it will be a little thinner than jams with added pectin.
Immediately before pouring jam into jars, stir in 2-3 Tbsp of Grand Marnier (taste, if you want more, add another Tbsp), and stir thoroughly. Allow to cook for 2 minutes. (be careful, too much alcohol will thin the jam too much.)
8. Pour finished jam into hot sterilized half-pint jars, wipe rims, place lids and rings on, and process in a hot-water bath for 10 minutes. Jam will continue to thicken in the jar over the next 24 hours.
Yesterday I spend the morning making Pear-Quince Butter. It’s a twist on the traditional apple butter because I’m using the ingredients I have on hand. I have an abundance of quince trees in the garden, and the fruit is now beginning to ripen up. I also have basket full of pears right now – some from our Seckel pear tree, but most the girls picked up in Hood River this past weekend.
I make membrillo out of quince every year, and also Caramel-Spice Pear Butter (sorry, the recipe is top-secret!), but with the quantity of both in my kitchen right now, I thought I’d try mixing them together. I’m quite happy with the result. Here’s my recipe:
Spiced Quince-Pear Butter
5 large quince
10 pears (I used a mixture of Comice, Seckel, Barlett, and Red Anjou)
1/4 C water
6 C sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp kosher salt
Juice of two lemons
4 Tbsp brandy (optional)
- Wash the fruit, peel and core it. Cut the quince into 16ths and the Pear into 8ths (quince are harder and take longer to cook, cutting them into smaller pieces insures they will cook at the same rate).
- To a large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch Oven, add the chopped fruit and water. Cover, and cook on medium until all of the fruit is tender (about 30 min).
- After fruit is tender, remove lid and reduce head. Here you have two options: for a super smooth butter, process fruit in a food mill. For a more rustic butter, mash thoroughly with a potato masher. Measure pulp. You should have 8 cups.
- Return the pulp to the pot. Add spices, salt, and sugar. Cook, uncovered, stirring frequently, until the butter cooks down to a desired thickness (depending on the heat and frequency of stirring, about 45 min to 2 hours)
- Halfway through cooking down the butter, Heat up the hot-water bath canner. Place clean jars in the canner and bring them up to a boil. Place lids and rings in a small saucepan and warm them (do NOT boil, it damages the rubber seal).
I use a lid-rack I found at a thrift store ages ago to keep the lids from being in direct contact with the bottom of the pan. It also makes them easy to grab when filling jars.
- When butter is ready, stir in lemon juice (and brandy, if desired). Cook 2-3 minutes.
- Fill half-pint jars, clean top of the jar, place lids and rings on snuggly. Process 5 minutes in a hot-waterbath canner. Remove from heat and let cool for several hours. Makes 9-10 half pint jars.
Thrifted yarn and easy patterns = two finished shawlettes.
I think this yarn is alpaca. It’s two shades done in stripes to get enough to make a shawlette. The knitting is easy, mindless, meditative.
This yarn is a wool/alpaca blend. Simple feather n fan style shawlette. Wish there had been more to make a larger shawl. I’m just about done with a larger autumnal shawl in worsted brown and purple with a feather n fan border, and will post pics when I get it finished (maybe next week?)
This one is a birthday present for my mom next week (Shh! Don’t tell!). I used to dislike feather n fan patterns and favor more delicate, intricate lacework. But with four busy kids, and needing to put my work down frequently, I have learned to appreciate a simple, predictable pattern.
I’ll be in Salem tomorrow reffing a derby bout, but will be back Sunday with a new recipe.
Blessings on your weekend!
I’ve made this Chanterelle and Gruyere Tart a few times in the past few weeks. It’s quick and easy, and uses ingredients I’ve had readily on hand in the pantry, and in the garden. It only takes a few minutes to put together, and is packed with autumnal flavor. If Chanterelles aren’t in season, you can substitute with any fresh, meaty mushroom, thinly sliced.
Chanterelle and Gruyere Tart
1 piece storebought puff pastry, thawed in the fridge
4 oz chevre, crumbled
6 oz gruyere, shredded
One heaping cup chanterelles, thinly sliced
Four pieces of curly kale, stems removed, and torn into one inch pieces
Extra virgin olive oil
Pink Himalayan salt
Cracked black pepper
1 egg whisked with 1 Tbsp heavy cream
1)Preheat the oven to 375 F. Roll out the pastry. Line a jelly roll pan with parchment paper and lay the pastry on top. Brush the edges of the pastry with egg wash mixture and fold over 1/2 inch. Press with a fork to seal and crimp the edges. Add more egg wash to the outside crimped edge. Return to the fridge to chill for 10-15 minutes if the pastry has warmed too much during this time.
2) Carefully spread the chevre across the bottom of the pastry. Sprinkle with half the shredded gruyere, the mushrooms, and the kale. Top with remaining gruyere. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, then sprinkle lightly with pink salt and liberally with cracked black pepper.
3) Bake at 375 for 15-18 minutes or until crust is browning. Place under the broiler for 2-3 minutes or until cheese is bubbling and turning golden. Remove from oven and immediately place on a wire cooling rack.
Cut into 16 pieces. Serve warm or at room temperature. Enjoy!
A friend from derby is recovering from a broken leg and I’m taking her tomato bisque and homemade bread for dinner and needed a salad for the side dish. The garden is bursting with tomatoes and peppers, the mint has spread everywhere, and the fall curly kale is ready to start harvesting. I have a big block of feta in my fridge and a lot of Israeli couscous in my pantry. And thus, this salad came together.
(Note: The recipe serves four, but some of the quantities look large in the photos because I made a quadruple batch to share with my parents and so our family could have some for dinner, too.)
End of Summer Israeli Couscous Salad
2 cups Israeli couscous (sometimes sold as “pearl couscous”)
2 1/2 C water
2 tsp salt (I prefer pink Himalayan)
1 1/2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 C chopped tomatoes (I used a mix of cherry and beefsteak tomatoes)
1/2 C finely chopped sweet peppers (I used pimiento and part of a yellow bell pepper)
1/4 sweet onion, very finely chopped
2 large pieces curly Scotch kale, washed, ribs removed, and chopped
2 tsp fresh mint, cut in a fine chiffonade
2 tsp red wine vinegar
1/8 tsp cracked black pepper
6 ounces feta, crumbled
- In a medium saucepan, bring the water and salt to a boil. Add the couscous, cover and cook for 8-10 minutes or until couscous is tender and cooked through. Remove from heat, remove lid, toss gently with the olive oil, and allow to cool to room temperature.
2. In a large bowl, combine all chopped veggies, mint, pepper, vinegar, and feta and gently toss.
3. Gently fold the cooled couscous into the bowl of veggies. Add salt and additional pepper to taste. Garnish with sprigs of mint, and serve at room temperature or chilled – your choice. Enjoy!
I’ve always been a sporadic blogger. Honestly, the last several months, it’s been easier to Instagram. After a long, unintended blog break full of
officiating roller derby,
working in the garden,
and writing for Azure Standard,
the change of the seasons always draws me back here. I have recipes and knitting patterns in the works, and hope to be back to blogging on a semi-regular basis…for a while at least…until derby and work and unschool life with four kids gets overwhelming again.
Blessings on this tail end of summer. Back tomorrow with a recipe to share.
My youngest child, George, loves muffins. Several mornings a week, he requests muffins for breakfast. And he wants variety. Sometimes I make banana-tahini muffins, sometimes blueberry with streusel topping, sometimes molasses spice muffins. Thanks to G’s desire to be surprised with new types of muffins, I am always working up new recipes.
We have a lot of chai tea mix leftover from the holidays, so I have been working up a recipe for Chai-spice muffins. Our chai mix contains powdered milk, black tea, sugar, cinnamon, clove, cardamon, anise, and ginger. Over the past week I’ve baked several revisions and the kids gave me their honest feedback of every attempt. Here’s the winner:
George’s Chai-Spice Applesauce-Oatmeal Muffins
1 1/2 C old-fashioned oats, uncooked
3/4 C spelt flour (you can substitute whole wheat)
3/4 C unbleached flour
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
2 Tbsp chai tea mix
1 C applesauce (unsweetened)
3/4 C firmly-packed dark brown sugar
1/2 C whole milk
3 Tbsp oil (I use hazelnut, but you can use vegetable)
3/4 C chopped dark chocolate or chocolate chips
Optional: sprinkle tops of the muffins with brown sugar before baking.
1)Preheat oven to 400 F. In a large bowl sift together dry ingredients
2)In a separate bowl, whisk together applesauce, brown sugar, milk, egg, and oil.
3)Fold wet ingredients into dry until just combined, then fold in chopped chocolate. Be careful not to overmix.
4)Fill lined muffin tins with batter. Tins will be nearly full to the top. Sprinkle with brown sugar if desired.
5)Bake at 400 F for 22-24 min, rotating halfway through. Let muffins rest for 5 min before removing from pan and cooling completely on a rack. Makes 12 muffins.
I am behind on my blogging, but it has been for good reason (and for once, that reason isn’t roller derby!). I’ve joined the blogging/writing team at Azure Standard, and have been busy working on my first two pieces. Keep an eye out for my posts in Azure’s new Healthy Living blog. I’ll be writing about gardening, permaculture, beekeeping, poultry keeping, and sharing LOTS of my original, healthy recipes.
This is what gardening looks like in Western Oregon in January.
I’m trying to finish shoveling a giant pile of mulch off my driveway. I’m down the last couple of yards, and even though it was 38 degrees and raining out, today was the day when I had room in my schedule to work on it. So, I got to work.
Most of the garden is asleep in January, but I still make the rounds of all my perennials every week to check on them. Each one gets a visual inspection for weather/rodent damage, disease, state of dormancy, etc.
The Goumi berry (Eleagnus multiflora) (left) and Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) (right) plants may lose their leaves in winter, but they still provide visual interest with upright shape and scores of thorns. The Goumi’s thorns are only on younger growth, but their downward hook means it is easy to snag a hole in your pants as you walk by. Sea Buckthorns are notorious for their spines, but I grow Siberian varieties, which are less thorny than their German cousins. Both species are nitrogen fixers and produce their own nutritious tasty fruits, but their spikey nature means I have planted them on the perimeter of the garden – near enough to the pome fruits to provide nitrogen-fixing benefits, and where their own berries can be easily reached but not where kids will fall into them, or clothes become easily snagged on the spines.
Walking around today, I noticed that one of the rhubarbs in a particularly warm and sheltered spot has emerged early from dormancy. The new leaves are always a vibrant blend of fuschia and chartreuse, with salmon and tangerine overtones. Simply beautiful.
The rhubarb divisions potted up for our upcoming spring plant sale are all still dormant, but I can spy one in the upper right trying to wake up.
The backyard isn’t much to behold this time of year. One can hardly tell there is an orchard along the U-shaped perimeter of the yard – it all blends in to the fencing with the leaves and fruit absent. The rain garden in the foreground doesn’t impress much at the moment, either. But soon sleeping herbaceous perennials and spring bulbs will start to stir from their slumber.
For the time being, the ducks have the run of the place -the rain keeps the chickens hiding much of the time, and the ducks follow me around as I take care of morning chores, although here they’re happily preening in the rain garden, in the midst of a downpour. Always in their element in wet weather, the ducks.
Working outside every day in winter weather has taken a toll on my hands. Every time I come in, my knuckles seem to be cracked and bleeding. Potting up dormant berry bushes for the spring plant sale, in particular, has been really rough on them.
Because being out in wet, windy, cold weather so much was damaging my hands – and because my dad, a hobby woodworker, was experiencing similarly cracked and banged-up hands – I made up a special batch of lanolin-rich hand salve.
Lanolin is the waxy oil from sheep’s wool – because it is washed from the wool after shearing, and no sheep are harmed in production, it is a vegetarian (not vegan) product. But because it is also an animal fat, made to keep skin & wool healthy out in the elements, lanolin is the perfect choice to use on hands that spend many hours outdoors or in rough working conditions.
Combined together with beeswax, lanolin makes a water-resistant coating against rain and wind. And because lanolin is readily absorbed into the skin, it helps to heal and moisturize severely dry skin as it protects.
I’ll be back later in the week with more from the garden – evergreen plants that provide winter interest now – and nutritious fruit come summer!
If you’d like to order some of this batch of salve, you can find it here.
My dear friend, Trish, from Lucky Lola Studios asked me to make her a little quilt she could use for newborn portraits. Something pastel and gender neutral. My local thrift store is the perfect place to pick up bags of scrap fabric for $0.50-$2. It’s often vintage or good quality quilting remnants from Fabric Depot. If you’ve got a use for little bits of this and that all the way up to fat-quarter sized pieces, their grab-bags can be a good deal.
A while back, I found a bag that was all 5×5 or smaller pieces or strips of Depression-Era reproduction fabric. Most of the pieces were 2 inches or smaller, but some were long strips. I’d been holding it back for the perfect project, and it seemed like just enough to fulfill Trish’s request.
My favorite pieces were these teacup prints! Just enough to cobble together eight squares for the main blocks.
Since we’re on the subject of handwork, I wanted to share these books my sister-in-law got us for Christmas. All of the scenes are made from felted wool! The kids and I have loved looking through them and Ruth has been researching more about how to make felt figures with wire frames underneath.
I finished the quilt with some machine quilting and used some vintage thrift store fabric for the back and thrifted bias tape for the binding. Looking forward to getting it off in the mail this weekend!