“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

Fish Peppers to Spice Up Your Garden

Next to the tomato, peppers are probably my favorite vegetable to grow and eat. Sweet Bell and Banana peppers are always a staple in our home garden. We also usually grow a few jalapeños and/or cayennes. This year I found a unique hot pepper in the seed catalog that I thought I would try. Fish peppers are a variegated leaf pepper with a cayenne like heat taste. They have an interesting history of how they came to be found in current seed catalogs. Fish peppers are a African-American heirloom dating back to before 1870.


What’s Happening Around the Garden: Signs of Spring

Here is a pic of our first attempt at growing garlic that we planted last fall. We’ve been wanting to get some garlic started for a while now and was excited to see it finally come up. The bed needs to be weeded some soon and then I will probably apply another layer of staw mulch.

Here is our strawberry bed that we started a few years ago. Last years strawberries were looking promising until the deer found them and chomped them down.  We were still able to harvest some but probably nowhere near as what we would have had. Above you can see the mesh net over the bed in an attempt to keep the deer out of the bed.


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Hugelkultur and Jerusalem Artichokes

So I ordered some Jerusalem Artichokes from Oikos Tree Cropsto plant for this spring. Jerusalem Artichokes (Sunchokes),Helianthus tuberosusare a native perennial in the Asteraceae (sunflower, asters) family. They are suppose to be a good alternative to potatoes being less starchy. From what I have read about them they are not very fussy and easy to grow.

I ordered 14 Red Rover and 7 White Fuseau tubers. This is our first attempt at growing Jerusalem Artichokes and I’m considering another first………growing them in ahugelkultur bed.

Hugelkultur is a raised bed filled with rotten wood debris.   I don’t want to go into to much of an explanation of the hows and whys of a hugelkultur bed (check out the hugelkultur link above), but basically you pill lots of logs and wood, cover with organic material (leaves, compost, etc), cover that with some soil, maybe a layer of mulch, then plant.  Hugelkultur beds could possibly eliminate irrigation due to the moisture holding properties of the wood. For more details check out hugelkultur and the videos below.

I will post again soon about the hugelkultur bed building and jerusalem artichoke planting process once it is completed.

Jerusalem Artichoke Hugelkultur Bed Construction

jerusalem artichoke sprout The first sprouts of the jerusalem artichokes are beginning to poke out of the leaf mulch of the hugelkultur bed that my 4 year old son and I built and planted last weekend. For some information on hugelkultur beds check out my previous post on jerusalem artichokes.

There are two different techniques in building a hugelkultur bed. You can place all the large logs at ground level and then cover them with soil, or you can place the logs in a pit. The second technique provides you with soil to cover the bed. This is the method we chose. We didn’t have any extra soil around so it seem to be the more sustainable method since we didn’t have to purchase soil from offsite.

First we dug a trench about 1 foot deep and 10′ x 4′. We then filled the trench with a bunch of rotting logs from a maple tree limb that had fallen 3 or 4 years ago.

The next layer to go on was larger limbs.   Most of these were either from fallen storm limbs or tree prunings.

We then added another layer of small limbs that were found randomly throughout the yard and on the edge of the woods and then added a large pile of mostly oak and maple leaves that we had saved from last fall.


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New Greenhouse for Starting from Seeds and Growing Seedlings


About a month ago we finally got around to setting up our new greenhouse.  Actually it isn’t really new.  I received it as a gift about 3 or so years ago.  In the process of setting it up, we had a malfunction that delayed the setup process, then eventually I just decided to scrap the whole project.  But this spring I decided that I would try to set it up anyway and make some on the fly adjustments to the malfunction.  Anyway, after 3 or 4 hours of setup, our mini greenhouse was finally up.  So far it has served us well and has withstood a number of spring storms with high winds.

I’ve been starting my own tomatoes and peppers from seed for several years now.  But a couple of years ago we started experimenting with starting more perennial and annuals (herbs, vegetables, flowers) from seed.  We’ve developed a pretty good system with a few wire racks and fluorescent hanging lights in our basement rec. room, but we lose our rec. room for 4 or 5 months a year.


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Guerrilla Gardening with Stinging Nettles

Guerrilla gardening is most commonly viewed as the act of planting and growing vegetables, herbs, and trees on others people’s property without the owners permission.  Usually an abandoned or neglected plot or in parks or recreation areas.  Though some might not consider my guerrilla gardening legit since I was on land that I own, I look at guerrilla gardening as gardening in an unconventional location.  Kind of like guerrilla warfare if you will.  This past weekend I got on my camo pants and long leave shirt; my machete, a hand trowel, and a tray of stinging nettle seedlings; and headed into the woods to do some gardening. Jack Spirko has an excellent podcast episode onguerrilla gardening – Guerrilla Gardening for Fun, Education and Survival.  The image above is made available for use under the Creative Commons License
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


Just the act of planting stinging nettle in the first place would be unconventional enough.  My first encounter with stinging nettles was in college.  I was a wildlife biology major and I was assisting in a deer drive.  In short a deer drive is a technique used to drive out deer from an area (drivers) with counters positioned to take count of deer as they are driven out.  When you are a driver you have to keep a straight line with the other drivers as you walk through the woods, so you can’t really keep going around obstacles like thickets.  As I was walking through some tall vegetation, I got a very painful burning sensation on my arms and hands.  I poured my water on them to try to relieve the itching but it didn’t help.  I latter found out I wasn’t the only one who had encountered this and found out I had walked through stinging nettles.

The entrance into our woods where I planted the stinging nettles.

Just a few months ago I came across some information on the uses and benefits of nettles. The previous nettles link goes to the permaculture forum Permies.com were you will find a forum thread with a lot of information on the uses of stinging nettles.  I started my stinging nettles from seed that I purchased from Richter’s Herbs.  I sowed the seed in peat pellets around the first week of April. Once they germinated, I moved them to the greenhouse.  Compared to the common comfrey I sowed at the same time (0% germination), the nettles were very easy to start from seed.


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Jerusalem Artichokes in Hugelkultur Raised Bed Update

Above is an updated photo showing the jerusalem artichokes and hugelkultur bed as of May 31st 2011.  I’ve added 2 pepper plants, 2 garden huckleberries, and a few other herbs her and there to try to fill in the sides.  I’ve also tried to leave the dutch white clover that is coming up to act as a living mulch.


Sweet Potato Harvest

sweet potato harvest

One should harvest sweet potatoes after the first frost has killed the plants or when day time temperatures have dropped into the 50s F.  Dig the tubers with a pitch fork and if any get bruised, use those first because they will not store as well.  Cure tubers by laying them out in the sun for a day followed by a warm (80 F) humid location out of direct sun for a couple of weeks.  Finally store them in a dry, cool spot.  They should store up to 5 -6 months.

Tubers harvested from one sweet potato plant

If anyone has any experiences they would like to share concerning their sweet potato harvest, sweet potatoes in a polyculture, or anything related please leave a comment.

Sweet Potato Bush Bean Polyculture

sweet potato polyculture

We planted this polyculture in a 10′x3′ ground raised bed.  The sweet potato transplants and bush bean seeds were planted in a somewhat hexagonal spacing technique similar to what is describe in the Biointensive gardening method.  Our garden beds are no-till.  A top layer of compost was added to the bed a week before planting.  Both sweet potato and bush bean seeds were planted at the same on May 8th.  We started harvesting beans in early summer through fall, though as the sweet potato vines began to take over towards the end of the summer chocking out some of the bush beans.

Sweet Potato, Bush Bean, volunteer beneficial polyculture by mid summer

In late spring a layer of grassing clipping were added to the bed for mulch which lasted most of the growing season.  All of the flowering plants in the polyculture came up as volunteers.

“What if we could blend the best qualities of interplanting and companion planting?  Interplanting combines crops that minimize competition for sun and nutrients.  Companion planting blends varieties that enhance each other.  Natural plant communities, tuned by billions of years of evolution, do both.  Why not emulate these plant communities in our gardens?” – Toby Hemenway, Gaia’s Garden


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Sweet Potato Harvest from Polyculture

sweet potato polyculture

We experimented with a few different polyculture combinations this season.  Some seemed to produce and work well, others not so much (more on polycultures and our experience with them in a later post).  One polyculture that did seem to be promising was the sweet potato/bush bean/beneficial weeds polyculture.  This year’s sweet potato harvest resulted in yields that seemed to be comparable to a single bed or rows of sweet potatoes.

Sweet potato and bush bean polyculture with some volunteer flowering plants popping up here and there

What is a Polyculture?

A polyculture can be thought of as the opposite of a monoculture crop.  A monoculture is a planting of one single species like in a large field of corn or garden beds of single species.  Polyculture combines different plant species together in the same space, similar to what one would find in a natural ecosystem.  The idea is that a more bio-diverse system will decrease the chance of widespread loss to disease, provides more habitat for beneficial insects, and provide mutual benefits between each plant species.  Inter-cropping and companion planting are a less complex form of polyculture, but the ideal polyculture will have many different layers of complexity with a high species diversity.  I recommendGaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway for a detail understanding of polyculture and its benefits.

Jerusalem Artichokes in Bloom: Late Summer Early Fall

jerusalem artichoke hugelkultur

The jerusalem artichokes in the hugelkultur bed started blooming in late fall.  The photo below was taken on September 3rd.  By the end of September all the sunchokes were in full bloom and getting really top heavy from all the flower heads.  It didn’t take much wind to cause the tallest plants to topple over to the ground.


Jerusalem artichokes blooming in late summer

Results and Conclusions from Growing Jerusalem Artichokes in a Hugelkultur

I guess the final results will be the harvest of the jerusalem artichokes and how well they produce.  I plan on harvesting some soon and hopefully continue the harvest throughout the winter months.  But as far as growing them is concerned, they were pretty much care free.  I did a little weeding here and there, provided no supplemental irrigation all year, and well….that’s it.  Though there was no sign of disease, I did have an infestation of some type of bag worm and there also seemed to be a high concentration of ants living on the plants.  They were able to weather the storm from the bag worms and didn’t show any signs of stress.  Next year I will be sure to mulch more heavily and I will also add some type of support to keep them from toppling over when in full bloom.  I will also try to make the hugelkultur bed more of a polyculture by planting some other species of plants with the sunchokes.

Harvesting and Cooking

My next post concerning jerusalem artichokes will be on my first attempts at harvesting and the ways that we find to use them.  In the mean time, check out Paul Wheaton’s latest video on sunchokes.

Protecting Garden Soil with Fall Leaf Mulch

fall leaf mulch protecting garden soil

Fall provides a great opportunity for us to collect a mulch source that is free and is an important element in building our soil.  If at all possible, the soil in a garden should never be left exposed or bare for an extended period of time.  Whether you use cover crops, straw mulch, leaf mulch, shredded newspaper, or landscape fabric (not my first choice); mulching is vital to protecting garden soil.  Our strategy to provide soil protection for late fall and winter is to collect the massive amount of fallen leaves, mulch them, and apply them directly to the garden beds.

Mulching beds with fall leaves is one of our important soil building strategies


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Sustainable Soil Management Practices for the Garden

garden soil

I used the methods described in the article A Better Way to Fertilize Your Garden: Homemade Organic Fertilizer for a couple of years to organically fertilize our newly constructed vegetable garden.  The article was published in Mother Earth News in the June/July 2006 edition and written by Steve Solomon.  By using the recipe for this organic fertilizer I obtained very good yields and our vegetables were very healthy.  I think this is a very good alternative to chemical fertilizers and a great technique for a new garden to give it an initial boost, but I would like to offer some sustainable soil management practices for soil building in the home garden that should eventually eliminate or greatly reduce having to add any fertilizer.

Photo Credit, Soil by John!!! under Creative Commons License


Sustainable Soil Management

Sustainable soil management practices are techniques used to build soil using products and byproducts from your own property or a local source that is added directly to the soil for long term benifit.  These add fertilizer, organic matter, and build soil structure.


Many gardeners are very familiar with composting.  Composting can be complex or as simple as piling together your kitchen, garden, and yard waste and waiting for it to break down.  I add compost to my garden beds in the spring.  I add about 1/4 inch of compost on most of my beds and do some additional side dressing later if I still have compost available.


Adding mulch to garden beds is our number one way at building soil.  In the fall we add shredded leaves.  In the spring and summer we purchase straw from local sources and add thick layers to garden beds.  I also add shredded paper, grass clipping, small tree twigs, and tree bark.  These break down and add organic matter to the soil.

Sheet Mulching/ Composting in Place

Sheet mulching or composting in place replicates natures way of building soil from the top down by adding layers on layers of organic matter that slowly break down.  The simplistic method of sheet mulching is to apply a weed-suppressing layer, most commonly cardboard and newspapers.  Then you add a foot or more of organic mulch.


Hugelkultur is a great technique to make use of down tree limbs, sticks, and prunings.  Mound up a large amount of woody material 2-5 ft high and 4-8 ft long.  Then add layers of organic matter and soil if possible.  I like to dig the hugelkulturs that I construct.  I dig down about 1 1/2 ft.  I then add the woody material in the pit, add organic matter, and finally add the soil that was removed.  This techniques keep one from having to import soil from offsite.

Cover Crops

Cover crops are plant crops planted specifically to provide mulch.  These crops shade the soil from sun and protect the soil from weathering.  Cover crops can be legumes, non-legumes, perennials, and/or annuals.  They can be under sown with fruit and vegetables to act as a living mulch, cut in place and place the residue on the soil surface, or lightly till the cover crops into the top layers of the soil.  Cover crops are excellent for long term fertility in a food forest or orchard.  Refer toManaging Cover Crops Profitably for an excellent resource for information on specific species.


Tilling destroys soil structure.  It releases a blast of nutrients that is immensely beneficial to crops for the first season or two.  But tilling releases more nutrients than the plants can use and the rest gets leached away by rainfall.  Then one must work to replenish  the soil of its nutrients and organic matter.

Though this might sound contradicting to the above, I usually use a technique called double digging when constructing new garden beds.  I double dig the bed initially to build it, then I practice a no-till after that.

Chop and Drop

Chop and Drop is basically a technique used with cover crops and some other soft-leafed plants.  Clovers, buckwheat, vetch, oats, wheat, artichokes, rhubarb, comfrey, and Jerusalem artichoke, make mulch very fast and are great for this technique.  One can cut these plants before they seed and either drop them in place or place them wherever mulch is needed.

Chicken Tractors

Chicken tractors are small lightweight bottomless enclosures that can safely protect and contain a few chickens.  These structures are easily moved around on garden beds, in areas where you would like to build a garden bed, or within an forest garden.  The chickens will scratch, till, weed, and manure the soil.  I move a tractor around as need to clean up a bed from weeds or a cover crop or I might leave it in place for a while adding straw and leaves daily to build a sheet mulch.

This is by no means a complete list of soil building techniques.  I make use of all these, but if I really need to add some quick fertility to an area I would rely on the organic fertilizer recipe that I linked to above instead of using chemical fertilizers.  If your going to use fertilizer use that recipe and create your own.  I highly advise avoiding synthetic chemical fertilizers all together.  If you are not already using some of the techniques above, consider researching and trying some of these sustainable soil management practices.