Accusations,  (Mostly) not True

I’ve understandably been accused of being a “permie,” that is, of practicing permaculture.
    (In the words of permaculture founder, Bill Mollison, “Permaculture is about designing sustainable human settlements. It is a philosophy and an approach to land use which weaves together microclimate, annual and perennial plants, animals, soils, water management, and human needs into intricately connected, productive communities.” In the words of, permaculture is “a system of cultivation intended to maintain permanent agriculture or horticulture by relying on renewable resources and a self-sustaining ecosystem.”)
    Walk around my farmden and, yes, you’ll come upon Nanking cherry bushes where forsythia bushes once lined the driveway, an American persimmon tree where a lilac bush once stood, and other edible plants used also for landscaping. In the vegetable garden, I preserve soil integrity by never tilling it, and, in the south field, blackcurrant bushes make use of the space beneath pawpaw trees. There’s the requisite mushroom yard of shiitake-inoculated logs, free-range poultry, solar panels, a rain barrel . . .

Pawpaws interplanted with blackcurrants, and a row of hardy kiwis

Pawpaws interplanted with blackcurrants, and a row of hardy kiwis

    But no! I am not a permie. My vegetables grow in beds in parallel, straight rows (rather than keyhole plantings) and, despite that commingling of blackcurrants and pawpaws, most trees, shrubs, and vines here keep to themselves. Permaculture plantings of, say, hazelnuts in tall grass and rubbing elbows with elderberries, seaberries, apples, pears, and other edibles become, over time, an unproductive management nightmare with some plants drowning out others, productivity declining due to shade, and diseases increasing from tangled stems creating dank conditions. The paltry output of such planting are best left for wildlife, who can afford to spend all day foraging for a few tidbits of food.
    My hazelnuts are grown in a mown strip that, for easy gathering, is sheared low as nuts ripen.
    Low maintenance is a goal touted by permaculturalists; understandably so. But taken to the extreme, low maintenance means not giving the grape vine the pruning it needs to be a healthy vine yielding the most flavorful berries that are easy to harvest. (One book suggests, rather than troubling with a trellis, growing grape vines up trees; the vines do so in the wild, but such fruit, in partial shade and not easily accessible, can never be high quality.)
    Much of permaculture seems to me to be not only unrealistic, but also no fun. I enjoy caring for my plants, reaping the gustatory and other rewards for a job well done. I like the challenge of researching some pest or nutritional problem and finding a solution. I like watching how plants respond to my ministrations, whether I’m wielding pruning shears, a pitchfork piled high with compost, or my winged weeder hoe.
    Agriculture is about balancing Nature’s designs and human will. Too much of the latter is a losing battle. Too much of the former leaves nothing worth harvesting.

Big Bantam, an Oymoron

    My planting of sweet corn is very un-permaculture. It’s high-culture: 6 seeds per hill dropped into compost-enriched ground maintained weed-free, timely watering with drip irrigation, hills thinned to 3 stalks per hill, even stakes to keep the stalks standing soldier straight. I mentioned, last week, how my Golden Bantam variety of sweet corn isn’t bantam at all. The stalks soar over 10 feet high.
    Was it because of my green thumb? No. I now know that it is genetics.
    This year I made four plantings of Golden Bantam. The two later plantings are, in fact, bantam-size. Looking over my seed orders, I see that I had planted Golden Bantam Corn, Original 8-row Golden Bantam Corn, and Improved Golden Bantam Corn.
    Golden Bantam is an open-pollinated variety. As with any open-pollinated variety, various strains might arise, strains which might differ in some ways from the original. With any good variety, the hope is that progeny are monitored to eliminate any off-type varieties — or to look for something that might be better than the original.

Golden Bantams compared

Golden Bantams compared

    So the name Golden Bantam could be attached to the original Golden Bantam, from 1902, or any strain, which could also have “Improved,” “Original,” etc. attached its name. (Golden Bantam was also developed into a hybrid, Golden Cross Bantam, which, like other hybrids, would be genetically more consistent and ripen in a shorter window of time.)
    On the theory that bigger is better, “Improved” was tacked onto name of the strain of my early plantings. The original Golden Bantam was 8-row; Improved Golden Bantam is 10 to 14 row. I should have read the catalog more closely because Improved Golden Bantam casts too much shade, ripens too late for my intensively planted vegetables, and yields less, with but a single ear per stalk. The original also has better flavor, to me.

Permaculture, but not by Me

    Walking down the main path of my vegetable garden yesterday, you’d come upon a very permaculturalesque planting — in the path. The path was overrun with purslane, which I didn’t even have to plant. Purslane is a tasty, very nutritious vegetable enjoyed raw or cooked. But not by me.Hoeing purslane in path
    I grabbed my winged weeder and hoed the purslane loose from the soil. As a succulent, purslane can continue to grow — and seed! — even with its roots flailing in the air. So after hoeing, I scooped the plants up to feed to the compost file.


Bye, Bye Beetles

    So far, this growing season has been one of the most interesting ever. Could it be global warming? Perhaps. Perhaps it’s all a legacy from the relatively snowless winter with long periods of cold, but not frigid, temperatures. Perhaps it was spring’s two nights of plummeting temperature that followed a warm spell. Perhaps it was this summers extremes of dry and wet periods. Perhaps all that’s from global warming. Perhaps . . .
    All I know is that it’s all been pretty good. As I wrote previously, for the second year in a row, Japanese beetles made their entrance on time in June, and then, as if from stage fright, skittered away. Or never emerged from the soil. Or never hatched from eggs laid in the soil. Or the eggs never got laid last summer.
    For years, Mexican bean beetles would lay eggs on my bean plants, and those eggs would hatch into voracious larvae and then adults that would shred bean leaves. I was able to harvest enough beans for fresh eating and freezing only with succession planting of bush beans every couple of months.Mexican bean beetle
    For the past couple of years, only a few beetles show up here and there; nothing to worry about. So now an early sowing of bush beans provides the first plates of beans, and then passes the torch on to pole beans, which unlike bush beans, keep yielding till the end of the season. Bush beans peter out after a few pickings.
    (I did spray neem oil and the biological insecticide ‘Entrust’ a few years ago. Perhaps that broke the Mexican bean beetle cycle here. Perhaps it was the mere threat of a wall at the Mexican border . . . No, no, that can’t be it. Mexican bean beetles have established themselves north of the border for many generations, human and beetle. Throughout the country over many decades, this pest has waxed and waned in its severity, at times turning its taste to soybeans, sometimes to lima beans. My beetles never showed an appetite for my soybeans.)
    Two other pests that, I hope, can now be off my radar are scale insects on the greenhouse figs and flea beetles on the eggplants. That status comes with some effort on my part: weekly sprays, until recently, of “summer oil.” I expect to have to maintain those efforts every season. (Late update: I saw a few scale insects on the figs so did have to spray again.)

Skyrocketing Corn, De-Luscious Blueberries

    This season’s interests aren’t all about pests.
    Right now, corn stalks are as high — no, higher — than an elephant’s eye. (For journalistic accuracy, I looked up the height of an elephant’s eye. One report on the web, that fount of highly accurate information, reported the median height at 98 inches.) I just stepped away from my desk to measure the actual height of my corn, and it topped out at about 10 feet high. And that’s the variety Golden Bantam. I’ve grown it for many years, during which it always topped out at 6 or 7 feet.
    The first ears of this rich-tasting, old variety should be ready any day now. Will they also seem to be on steroids?Tall Golden Bantam corn
    No explanations for this corny behavior jump out. Year after year, the soil gets the same one-inch depth of compost, the 3-foot-wide corn bed is planted in two rows of hills, thinned to 3 stalks per hill, with each hill 2 feet apart in the row, and the bed is drip irrigated. Mislabeled seed can’t explain the phenomenon because this season’s popcorn (Dutch Buttered and Pearl) and polenta corn (Otto File) also have higher aspirations. Anyway, I’m not complaining.
    Apples never grow well here. This low lying valley is a sink for colder, moister air that, along with the backdrop of thousands of acres of forest, is a haven for apple pests. This season, with some spray assistance from me, the apple crop is relatively heavy and attractive. Apples, in those years when I do get a decent crop, are especially tasty here.Blueberry fruit cluster
    I have to tip my hat, once again, to blueberries, my favorite fruit and the most consistent performer among my many fruits. I have never not gotten a good crop of blueberries, come hell or high . . . 17 year cicadas, hurricane Irene, late frosts, etc. This season, canes are arching to the ground with a particularly heavy crop of berries.
    What will next year hold? An even better growing season?