On the sporadic nature of recent blog posts:

Who doesn’t get discouraged, or busy, or both? There’s solace in the fact that dormancy – the gathering in of energies and their conservation for an opportune moment – always breaks.

Monday, June 25, 2012

This Instant Harvest

Five minutes of harvesting from the yard.  What's in it?

Top (l to r):  red onion, basil, bee balm flowers, daylily bud, sage
Middle (l to r):  salad burnet, bronze fennel leaf, calendula petals, wood sorrel, spinach, borage flower, kale
Bottom (l to r):  royal oakleaf lettuce, 'Bright Lights' swiss chard

Earlier today I also harvested fava beans.  Here they are whole and shelled.  After peeling away the thick seed skins I also added these beautiful emerald fresh beans into the salad.

More and more I find myself understanding that my aim in gardening is not to grow plants but to grow systems.  With minimal effort, this salad appears -- a colorful play of greens wild and domesticated, flowers and herbs that return year after year, a brocade of the stitches that gather this particular space into a place.

For me this is what the EarthStoreHouse is, this mutual arising that feeds me, that is me.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Great Tangle

The garden looks messy, overcrowded, chaotic.  Weeds are running rampant.  What is planted is growing too thickly.  The gardener has clearly run away.  Time is in a tumult with spring, summer, and fall all entangled one with another.

  And isn't this just like nature.  In this bed are kales and cabbages that overwintered from last fall, grown now into teetering top-heavy treasuries of seed almost ready to spill.  Even now there are still delicious greens to be harvested from these plants long past the calendar's judgment of usefulness.  (And there are still bright yellow flowers to pluck for garlanding salads!) 

  Quietly tucked into the ground underneath and alternating with these behemoths are tomato seedlings.  As their roots settle in and reach out to knit into the soil, the leaves are lightly shaded by the sifting dapple of the kale seedpods blowing about overhead.  In a week I'll be harvesting all that seed and then chopping those kale trunks down to the ground (leaving roots to compost in place and feed the tomatoes), exposing my now-settled seedlings to the light they'll need to rocket up in turn.

  In front of the kale are fava beans all in a row, maybe the only hint of human hand here.  Now eighteen inches high, in early April they were curled up in hard, giant seeds in a paper packet, and in their place was a luxuriant bed of red nettles, downy soft green topped with a magenta crown.  Hardly an unpaying tenant to be evicted to gentrify the neighborhood, these greens deserved respect.  Everything is at home where it is.  Before planting my beans I did not "weed" the nettles, but rather "foraged" these wild edibles.  Or did I "harvest" them just as I would any planned crop?  In this crazy tangle of a bed, even terms lose their boundaries.  They were carefully cut back to keep the greens clean, and these were blanched and frozen for winter, when they will be mixed every once in a while with other greens or into soups.

My haul of nettles back in April.

  And at the front of the bed is spinach sown thickly.  Little by little, the patch is thinned for eating, and little by little these little ones remaining grow bigger and bigger.  Here there is some weeding to do, but if the weather's right (hot, sunny, and dry), the weeds can be laid out as a mulch right in place.  Make sure roots and leaves are all aligned in each handful, then lay the first bunch down.  Carefully lay the next one so its roots are on top of the first bunch's leaves, and continue.  The roots of each bunch will be temporarily prevented access to the ground's moisture by the preceding bunch's leaves and on a hot, sunny day will be crispy before sunset.

  But mostly I just eat the weeds.  First there were the red nettles, then chickweed, and now lamb's quarters is rocketing up.  These days when it's time to make dinner, I just walk out with a big steel bowl and pluck either tender top twelve inches of the larger plants or the whole smaller plants.  As I go I tug out the roots and let them die out in place to give more breathing space for the spinach, fava, and tomatoes.  In five minutes or less I easily have enough for a meal.  At a certain point they will likely get out of control.  Then I'll do a massive weed-forage-harvest and blanch them to store for the winter.  Frozen lamb's quarters cooked up is even better than frozen spinach.  It has a silky texture and a richer flavor that makes great saag paneer or other Indian curry dishes.

Another bed with lamb's quarters stitched through a dense brocade of onions, fava, kale, lettuce, burdock, and more.

  But then what?  Just as the lamb's quarters is hitting its stride, purslane seedlings are sprouting.  They will be a juicy crunchy summertime green and when there's too much, they can be pickled.  They in their turn will tangle through this food web.

Carrot seedlings rising up to meet falling bok choy seeds

  And just like the purslane sprouting at the feet of the lamb's quarters and the tomato seedling settling in under the tutelage of the kale, I'm thinking about what to plant among the spinaches and the favas.  Maybe in a few weeks I will direct-sow some basil seeds for a second summer crop, or perhaps spot in a few late plantings of peppers or eggplants.  Later in the summer as the tomatoes are really appearing in August or even as late as early September, maybe I'll try sowing turnips so that as summer crumbles under cooling weather, fall will already be rising up to meet in one great tangle.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Bonanza of Greens

Summer in March seems to have finally ended and left us back in a breezy Ohio Spring again...

...but not before those warm days spurred an amazing bonanza of greens in the garden!

 Share in the bounty!
Stop by
 EarthStoreHouse Project @ 270 East College Street, Oberlin, OH
 to pick up some fresh local greens grown sustainably without chemicals or fertilizers.
Come by the front porch on
3/27, Tuesday 3-5pm 
3/28, Wednesday 1-6pm 
3/29, Thursday 1-6 pm

This Spicy Greens Mix is perfect
  • for shredding up and adding as a vitamin-packed flavorful addition to salads
  • for steaming or stir-frying (great with sesame oil!)
  • for juicing to kickstart your day!

What's in it?

 Tat Soi
Turnip greens
Bok Choy greens
Chinese Cabbage
Hemerocallis leaves -- an earthy slightly spicy flavor
Garlic Mustard leaves -- super garlicky flavor
Baby Kale leaves (winterbor, redbor, lacinato)
Baby Savoy Cabbage leaves
Brassica florets -- like mini-mini broccolis!
Brassica flowers -- rich yellow blooms for a bright garnish

All that for only $8/lb!

What's been going on at EarthStoreHouse lately?

  • A group of OC Environmental Studies students is coming out weekly to learn sustainable gardening skills.

  • Marco is supervising a private reading in gardening to facilitate the inception of an OC-student-led community gardening project in Kentucky.

  • Every Friday this Spring OC students are gathering for the Exco course, "Zen/Gardening," an exploration of how Zen meditation and gardening can inform and enrich each other.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

What is WIld: Interlude

“Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise” by W.S. Merwin

When it is not yet day

I am walking on centuries of dead chestnut leaves

In a place without grief

Though the oriole

Out of another life warns me

That I am awake

In the dark while the rain fell

The gold chanterelles pushed through a sleep that was not mine

Waking me

So that I came up the mountain to find them

Where they appear it seems I have been before

I recognize their haunts as though remembering

Another life

Where else am I walking even now

Looking for me

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Forest Skulls, Porous Worlds

Amid the leaf litter bronzed by the slanting afternoon September light, a gleaming skull round and clean catches my eye. First one, then another further off the trail, and another smaller one like a child’s, and there is a white knob like a hip joint unsocketed and emerging from the ground.

“Botanizers are the worst out here. You’ve got to unscrew those green eyes from their sockets and put them away. No more flowers or leaf shapes. You’ve got to screw in your brown eyes and look for shades of brown and red, violet and orange, caps and shelves and spheres” advises my rotund forest guide as we soft-step through the leaf litter scrutinizing every shadow, every tree stump and rotting log, every clump of leaves tilted up as if by some tiny earthquake. We are searching for mushrooms.

Years later, having trained myself to look with my “brown eyes” at that other world sitting contiguous with ours – alien yet making contact at every point – I see from a hundred yards away what I have been looking for. Cradling the largest of these “skulls,” my hands reach under the smooth taut curve of it and with a light lift it pops away from the ground, as if snapping the delicate vertebrae of a neck. Where it emerged from the ground there are only leaves and twigs, no sign of its origin, no sign of the rest of the skeleton.

Calvo: bald. To be bald is to be one step closer to one’s skull. Gleaming taut skin across the hard bone. Most of my uncles are bald, as was my mother’s father. Dead: the baldest one can be when even skin and blood are shed away and only unyielding bone remains.

Across some hundred square feet, Calvatea gigantea, the “Giant Skull,” has burst from the ground, making its annual fruiting bodies, a fecund field of gleaming white skulls. As the recent colder weather brings down a few yellow leaves from the trees with every breeze, this magnificent fungus ripens its crop of spores, trillions inside each mushroom. As it matures, the pristine white marshmallowy interior becomes grainy and a sickly yellowish-green until with a silent snap the “skull” breaks from the invisible gigantic body underground and rolls away – downhill, tossed with the wind – cracking open with each bump and spilling its trillions of progeny to the breeze.

It is no wonder that the ancient Greeks thought mushrooms were created by lightning strikes, noting that the strange “plants” (actually fungi are more closely related to animals like you and me than to plants) would appear after summer nights of lightning-streaked rainstorms. The speed of their growth is prodigious, so quick and unyielding that where there was nothing yesterday today there might be a five-pound mass like the Calvatea I found this past weekend. Some fungi sprout their fruiting bodies so relentlessly that twigs, grass, anything already present in the vicinity is simply surrounded, engulfed by a form unable to countenance interference.

Fungi comprise 40% of all the life in the soil, and mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with some 90% of all plants on the planet. Actually it turns out that most plants are quite ill-equipped to absorb the nutrients necessary for life on their own. Fungi on the other hand, with powerful enzymes that can break down intractable substances like the lignin which makes wood woody (not to mention the Destroying Angel, which each year eats a hapless mycophile from the inside-out by liquefying her or his liver with its enzymes – “There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.”), are excellent nutrient absorbers. While plants catch sunlight and bounce it through the narrow green-glowing canyons of chloroplasts in leaves high in the air, fungi tunnel underground melting away this illusion of a solid world into wisps and fragments. Fungi send molecules across vast waxy white networks of mycelia to plants and plants reciprocate with sugars sent down stems and trunks to roots which fungal hyphae clasp and even penetrate. Together, these “phytobionts” and “mycobionts” form one system. Can we even think anymore about one kingdom and another? As in politics so in biology, borders are imaginary lines drawn for convenience only, and almost always they do violence to the true nature of life which is porous and connective.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

All of Time in a Bottle

I began teaching a Soil Management and Conservation course in Lorain County Community College’s new Sustainable Agriculture program two weeks ago. (This is its first semester.  Come join us in creating a vibrant forum for learning and applying sustainable agriculture principles to the NE Ohio region.) Roughly speaking, the class is divided into three units: What is Soil?; How Does Soil Work?; How Do We Work with Soil? These first few sessions have given me a chance to revisit just how amazing the scale of time on the planet is. As Wes Jackson put it in the opening of New Roots for Agriculture,  the world has been around for a long time and it's only gotten interesting in the most recent sixth of that time, that is, 750,000,000 years ago! 

Every week we get out of the classroom and do a hands-on lab. In these early weeks we are very simply trying to understand what soil actually is. When you pick up a handful of dirt, what is it you hold? Air; water; minerals; literally billions of beings eating, breathing, excreting, and breeding; the shreds and wisps of the innumerable beings that have come before, metamorphosed into that mysterious and all-powerful thing called humus; the kaleidoscoping whirlwind of electrical charges passing like gifts from one point to another.

How disorienting and reorienting it is to know that the principal elements of soil – and hence of us as well – are produced not in the furnace of our own sun, but were forged in suns far different and far away, that our own origin originates in the end of another place in another time.

Today, we did two simple tests to gauge the texture of soil. (Try them out yourself. Here are the instructions.) Texture is a measurement and description of the relative percentages of the three kinds of inorganic particles in soil – sand, silt, and clay. Sand in our everyday lives is one of those very things that signifies the small, the inconsequential, the overlooked. Sand in-between your toes after a trip to the beach. What portion of a moment is one grain of sand passing through the throat of an hourglass? “Innumerable as the sands of the Ganges.” Yet when we enter the world of soil, sand looms large as boulders, big as houses. Silt is middling, and clay is the smallest particle. If “O” is a grain of sand, then clay is the period at the end of this sentence.

Here in northern Ohio we are a people of clay.

Bacteria and fungi eat rock, lick by enzymatic lick. They unlock electrons and tiny molecules of silicon and magnesium and aluminum float away from “parent rock” into microbial gullets and out into the great whirling energetic ferris wheel that is life, rising up perhaps some millennia later into the sky to seed a cloud and then down again after an eon or two to the bottom of the sea. But nothing eats rock like a glacier, and here in northern Ohio, one of these great white land-leviathans crept further and further, pulverizing under the sheer scraping weight of its belly a quantity of rock in a relatively short period of time that bacteria and fungi could never have hoped to digest. It was these minute particles left behind that became the fertile matrix for a resurgence of plants, animals, and soil in the wake of the glaciers’ retreat.

We also talked about soil horizons, the characteristic profile that soil forms as it is created. Typically, as one scrolls down such a profile one goes through decomposing organic matter to topsoil rich in biological activity and then to subsoil rich in minerals and poor in humus and eventually down to bedrock, solid and immutable (or are there some patient intrepid microbes down there? Lick. Lick.) However, here in northern Ohio, where once this was the bottom of a glacier and then after that the bottom of a lake, dig and dig and dig and you are likely to only encounter the frustratingly dense and sticky clay that every gardener around here wrestles with.

In 2008 I had the luck to travel to Patagonia, making my way down down down to El Chalten near Tierra del Fuego. I camped and hiked through an amazing landscape of alpine plant hummocks like living boulders clinging to near-bare rock; brilliant mosaics of lichens and barren fields of scree; and forests comprised of one and only one tree --Nothofagus, the southern beech – tall and stately in sheltered areas, scrubby and contorted in open places. Finally I climbed up and onto the serene alien beauty of a glacier. Light refracted into varying shades of turquoise through its undulating twenty-, fifty-, hundred-foot walls. The group I was with balanced our way up ridges with crampons on our feet and gloves on our hands lest we shred them on the knife-sharp crystals of ice.

For a sense of scale, the face of the glacier was well over 100 feet high.

Me climbing up the side of one of the "ripples" on the surface of the glacier in the picture above.

The glacier lay in a trough of its own making between imposing blackish-greyish-red cliffs and one could see along the seam between glacier and mountain where boulders had been knocked off the side and embedded in the icy flow. More subtle and more fascinating was the dust, blown or washed off the mountains, that coated the glacier to varying degrees. The “dust” ranged in size from pin-point to quarter-sized. Being blackish-greyish-red, each speck absorbed the heat of the sun and, like innumerable little heaters, melted the surrounding ice. The smaller pieces pock-marked the surface. The larger stones and boulders “carved” their way deep into the glacier, tunneling down into the blue deep heart of it. Ultimately all this “sweating” results in a glacial lake that bleeds out into a rushing glacial stream. Strange world, where black stones burrow like moles through white ice and emerge into a blue lake that pours out into a milky white river. The milky whiteness of these rivers (note the color of the glacial lake in the picture above) is from all the mineral particles they carry, reflecting light back out of its currents. Like all flowing waters carrying minerals from mountaintop to ocean bottom, these shining rivers carry suspended in them specks of the mountain their parent glacier is bringing down bit by bit.
If you look closely a the dark gray "rock" to the right of the center light-gray boulder you'll notice it is actually ice covered in dust.

Everything but the immense bluish rock forming the horizon is actually rubble crusted over the glacier. 

The strange tunnels formed by heated rocks and flowing water on the glacier's surface.

Once upon a time, this too was a glacial place. (I was sad to learn recently that A Place on the Glacial Till by Thomas Fairchild Sherman is out of print. Those of you from Oberlin, Lorain County, or northern Ohio, should go to your library or find a copy online. It is an invaluable place-book, lovingly cataloguing all the horizons of this particular bit of land.) As our own glacier ebbed away, how much dust sweated and burrowed its way down off its flanks, slipping off the great white body into the lake that once was over all of this land? Sherman writes that in most spots around here one would have to dig twenty to fifty feet through clay to hit bedrock, and under the Cuyahoga it would be 500 feet! Over millennia, it was minute clay particle by minute clay particle, drifting through the chilled milky waters and settling at the bottom 500 feet down, that shaped this land. As you grapple with the clenching heavy mud of it all in your own garden or farm field, imagine that you are at the bottom of a bone-shivering cold body of water and looking up you see nothing but a sky of shimmering white, the winking patient tumbling of innumerable bits of mountains making their way across eons to lay at your feet.

I demonstrated one of the soil texture tests for my students and then asked them to replicate it at home. First soil is dried and then pulverized. As I rubbed the dirt between my fingers and palms, I said, “What other processes that we’ve talked about does this remind you of?” At one end of Wes Jackson’s great line of time, I am a glacier, grinding to dust the massive and unbroken expanse of bedrock. At the other end, though, I am also a tiller passing through a field, taking all the complexity imbued in healthy soil by the powers of time, physics, chemistry, and biology over millennia and reducing it to a uniform and simple dust. I placed the pulverized soil into a bottle and then poured water into it. After shaking the mixture thoroughly, the goal of this test is to measure the percentages of different size soil particles – sand, silt, clay – as they fall out of suspension. On the one hand, we have the shimmering descent of mountains through a glacial lake. On the other is a freshly tilled field after a heavy rainfall, muddy puddles and ponds pooling here and there. Within a minute, the heavy sand particles have settled out into a sludge at the bottom. A few hours later the silt particles will rest as well. Clay -- the clay of our fields that resists our shovels and follows us into the house to the annoyance of our non-gardening partners – is so fine that it may take days before it fully settles out of the water.

“Now,” I asked the students as we watch the chocolatey water swirl and the larger particles settle, “when this test is finally done and there is a layer of fine clay on top, how well will plants grow in this newly configured soil?” Clay is clay, the same as what terracotta pots are made of. Imagine how well a plant’s roots would penetrate such a thing. When our glacier receded back to Canada and the glacial lake drained away and the sun finally graced the mucky sticky clay of the lake bottom, it took millennia for plants and animals to churn up that uniformity and impregnate it -- life by life -- with their own corpses broken down cell by cell, electrical bond by electrical bond, into that mysterious and all-powerful humus. Ask any gardener around here about making the mistake of working their soil when it is too wet, and they will readily shake their heads and groan. “Concrete” is what they’ll mutter, usually followed by a curse. When the puddles and pools dry up in the tilled fields all around us, little by little the work of millennia has been undone. Little by little microbes and fungi and earthworms will resume their endless churning complexifying work, but it will take other millennia more before the soil returns to what it was yesterday, and will we even be here to see that return?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Garden Medicine

  Fundamentally all life has the same requirements:  living things consume, respire, and produce waste.  One of the natural farming preparations I learned recently (see my post "Touching the Earth") is a health tonic that is added to other indigenous micro-organism recipes to strengthen the organisms and in turn strengthen the soil they live in.  Perhaps it isn't surprising that most of the ingredients are items we would use for our own health:  ginger, garlic, angelica, licorice.  Other possibilities include astragalus, burdock, curly dock, dandelion.  Their vital elements are extracted using brown sugar and alcohol.

The first step is to collect your ingredients:  you can find dried angelica root, licorice root, and astragalus root at any Chinese grocery.  There is usually an aisle devoted to dried medicinal herbs.  You may also find fresh burdock root for sale there.  Even better, dig its long tap root up out of your yard or field.  Burdock is a common weed in North America.  Learn to identify it, and know that you not only have a medicinal herb but also one tasty vegetable.  Learn more about the plant here  Burdock is one of my favorite things to add to stir-fries and homemade kimchees.

You first work with your dry ingredients, to rehydrate them.  Pack each one separately into jars one-third full, then cover each herb with a weak alcohol (10-15%) like rice wine.  Make two jars of angelica root.  Cover each jar with a porous cover like paper towel, cheese cloth, etc.  Let this sit for two days and the dried herbs will absorb the liquid and soften.

Now chop each of your fresh ingredients -- garlic, ginger, other ingredients like fresh turmeric, burdock root, or curly dock root -- and place them each in separate jars one-third full.  Now cover all your herbs -- the rehydrated ones and the fresh -- with brown sugar so the jar is two-thirds filled.  The brown sugar should liquify and melt into the crevices of the herbs.  This didn't happen for me my first time, so I used a wooden spoon to mix the sugar and herbs.  Now the herbs will ferment in the sugar for two weeks.

When this is done, it is time to fill the last third of the jar with a strong alcohol (25-35%) to extract the healthful properties from the fermented herbs.  The jar is covered with a non-porous lid this time (to keep the alcohol from evaporating).  Every day for the next two weeks, use a wooden spoon to stir the mixture so the herbs release as much as possible into the alcohol.  After two weeks, decant the liquids from all the herbs and mix the liquids together.  Store the liquid in an airtight container out of light. You can then add alcohol again to the herb mix up to 4 more times for further extraction.  The resulting liquid is a health tonic that is added in minute amounts to other preparations to stimulate the indigenous micro-organisms being cultivated. 

I would hazard (though definitely not recommending or prescribing) that this tonic would serve human health equally well and that a daily sip would probably do wonders.  Life is life, and we all consume together, respire together, and produce waste together.