Soil That is Too Good?

 I don’t expect to elicit much sympathy from moaning about the problem with my soil here on the farmden; the problem is that it’s too good. Wait! Don’t roll your eyes or, worse, stop reading. Allow me to present my case.
Aerial view of farmden
The setting: A valley cut through with a small river (the Wallkill River) in New York’s Hudson Valley. River bottom soil, specifically young alluvial soil, rich in nutrients, a silty clay loam with perfect drainage. Also naturally rich in nutrients. No rocks.

So what’s the problem? One problem is too much growth from plants that I’m not cultivating — weeds, everything from stilt grass and garlic mustard to wild blackberries and poison ivy to ash and cherry trees. Every minute of every day they are making the most of this rich ground and trying to insinuate themselves into my plantings. They creep into the edges of the vegetable gardens, settling in especially well right at the bottom of any fencing, where they are hard to weed out. 

My land is backed by forest running up to hills, then mountains, with soil that’s pretty much the opposite of what I have down here in the valley. It feels like that forest is just waiting for me to let up weeding and mowing, ready to spring down here and engulf my plantings.

That feeling is pretty much borne out in the one-third of an acre meadow to the south. Once a year mowing keeps the meadow a meadow. Yet even in the few months of each growing season, joe-pye-weed and ragweed stand almost 9 feet high and goldenrod, monarda, and grasses grow densely.

Looking at the herbage more closely I see multiflora rose, staghorn sumac, grapevines, and other woody plants elbowing their ways in here and there. And cherry, red maple, red oak, and poplar trees keep trying to introduce their progeny into the meadow to morph it into forest. Which isn’t a bad thing except that I scythe parts of that meadow for harvesting the herbage, not woody plants, to feed my compost, and grow apples, kiwis, pawpaws, hazelnuts, and other fruits and nuts that I cultivate in and around the meadow.

Errant and Robust

Even some cultivated plants grow a bit too well here.

Crocosmia, for example.  Towards the end of summer, this South African, summer-flowering bulb sprouts a tall, thin flower shoot about four feet high. The shoot curves over and then fire-engine red flowers open sequentially along the upper portion of the curve.
Crocosmia up close
Many years ago I planted crocosmia here and, as directed, dug the corms up at the end of the season for winter storage, just as I would do for dahlias. Those first few seasons, the plants hardly bloomed before frost killed the tops.

Long story short is that the original planting, which has since grown to a clump of plants, now blooms reliably each August, and does so without my having to ever dig the corms up for winter. Good so far, except that the plant evidently also now ripens seeds, and these seeds find their way elsewhere on the property. That would not be so bad except that in this rich soil one little seedling soon multiplies into a clump of vigorous plants that can threaten the existence of other plants.
My tack in reining in crocosmia is lopping off all spent flower heads wherever I spot them with a hedge shears, and digging out seedlings where they are not wanted.

This summer I even noticed a crocosmia seedling in the meadow. Hmmm. I recently saw, in a video documentary about color in the natural world (Life in Color with David Attenborough, highly recommended), a field of crocosmia in its native habitat, the flowers hovering over the field like a red mist. Do I want that in my meadow? Should I transplant some corms there? Would my rich soil and the apparent footloose habit of crocosmia create a future nightmare? If so, could I awaken from that nightmare with one whole season of mowing that portion of the field? Grasses are pretty much the only plants that tolerate repeated mowing.

Permaculture Ideals

All this is part of the reason I wince when I’m accused of practicing permaculture (although my agricultural perspective and much of what I do does happen to align with those of permies). Permaculture’s origins are in the poor soils and dry climate of Australia. Plant a tree there, give it water, nutrients, mulch, and you’re not inviting half the plant world in as too-close neighbors. But try this here on my farmden — or in any other place with hot summers and sufficient natural rainfall — and those “neighbors” will be at the door.

Even among cultivated plants grown cheek to jowl in the various “guilds,” growth eventually becomes so rampant that it’s a major job to keep growth among plants balanced so each plant gets what it needs in terms of light and air.

Most permaculture sites outside of climates such as Australia, our Southwest, and the Mediterranean, that I have seen mingle plants nicely on paper and look good when first planted. After a few years, though, they become a tangled mess of plants with low yields of poor-quality fruits and vegetables.

Permaculture seems to encompass a broad philosophy, broad enough so a well-known local permaculturalist once told me, contrary to my opinion, that I was practicing permaculture. I asked him, “Ok, then; what isn’t permaculture?” He replied, “Everything is permaculture! (Except commercial agriculture).”

All this is not to say that I don’t side with permaculturalists in certain key practices. Like them, I minimize soil disturbance. I also practice interplanting, such as the blackcurrants and pawpaws, favor pest resistant species, such as hardy kiwifruit and gooseberries, and let my ducks have almost free rein here. I also have my requisite shiitake logs, fire wood pile, and solar cells.


True Accusation?

Accusations of my being a permaculturalist, that is, a practitioner of permaculture, are true, but only partially so. Yes, I grow peppers in a flower garden and persimmon as much for its beauty (see Landscaping with Fruit) as for its delicious fruits, also integrating other edibles right into the landscape. And, like permaculturalists, I do try to maximize use of the 3-dimensional space in my farmden with, for example, shade-loving black currants growing beneath my pawpaw trees.
Farmden, aerial view
I am also a permaculturalistic in maintaining the integrity of my soil by not tilling it or otherwise disrupting the structure that builds up naturally in undisturbed soils. New ground is prepared for planting by merely smothering existing mowed or stomped down vegetation. I mulch with compost, leaves, wood chips and other organic materials to keep bare ground from ever showing. 
Sammy also likes the mulch
And like permaculturalists, I try to grow plants adapted to the setting so as to minimize pest problems. And poultry — ducks here on the farmden — wander freely, except in the vegetable gardens, to minimize pest problems, to provide fresh eggs, to add to the bucolic atmosphere, and to provide entertainment. And, in the shade of a Norway spruce, a rack holds up oak logs from which pop out shiitake mushrooms. I could go on.

Why I Am Not a Full-Fledged Permy

Despite the assertion of one young, self-described “expert” permaculturalist, I am not a permaculturalist. I tend a permaculturesque farmden. Why the “-esque”? Because I part with true permaculturalists in a few critical ways.

Let’s begin with soil preparation. I smother existing vegetation beneath a few, typically four, sheets of newspaper topped with compost or some other weed-free, organic mulch. (I describe my methods in more detail in my book Weedless Gardening.) Many, perhaps most or all, permaculturalists prefer using corrugated cardboard from boxes as that first layer. The longevity of that cardboard on the ground is seen as an asset over paper. But I use paper so that soon after existing vegetation is smothered, the mulch and the soil below can begin to meld together. I don’t want any barrier to water and nutrients, or bacteria, fungi, earthworms, and myriad other soil organisms in place any longer than necessary. 
Beginning a garden
I part ways with permaculturalists by growing my vegetables rectilinearly, in straight rows within rectangular 3-foot-wide beds. Yes, the idea of organically shaped beds and keyhole gardens is very appealing –- on paper. But time, my time, is also an important element in the garden, and it takes a lot longer to maintain curved and somewhat randomly shaped bed than it does rectilinear beds.
Vegetable garden
And then there’s the permy way of tucking, say lettuce plants, beneath fruiting shrubs and trees. But I eat a lot of vegetables and there’s nothing like straight rows running down straight beds for packing a lot of vegetables into a given area, and making planting, weeding, and harvesting quicker and easier. When I go out to pick some vegetables for a meal, I don’t want to be remembering where I tucked the lettuce and wending my way through trees and then crawling beneath some shrub to get at it. 

Bed of lettuce and chinese cabbage

Permaculture originated and thrives in the dry climates of Australia and our Southwest. Over much of the country, and especially here in the Northeast, rainfall coaxes very exuberant growth from crop plants and weeds alike. Too many permaculturalists are liable to spend their first few permaculture years admiring their efficient and attractive use of space, and all the years hence cursing all the time needed cutting and weeding needed to keep growth of various plants in balance. What I need are some straight lines and a little elbow room.

(I have been hired more than once as a consultant on a property designed and planted by a true permaculturalist. I’m sure it looked great on paper and for the first few years, until it became a tangled mass of plants, more than most people could handle long term. Sometimes, the best course moving forward is to remove everything for a fresh, perhaps permaculturalesque start this time around. As one landowner told me, “a few years back I was ‘permacultured’ by some fine folks. I have been fighting my way back ever since.”)

“Forest gardening,” growing and eating from your planted forest, is receiving growing interest within permaculture circles. As you might guess, I’m also not a forest gardener, despite the fact that I have integrated fruiting trees, which do come from forests somewhere, as well as chestnuts, English walnuts, black walnuts, and other nutty things into my landscape.

Planted "forest"

Planted “forest”

I do have a miniforest in a portion of my meadow. The cool shade beneath the now large buartnut, shellbark hickory, maple, and river birch trees is not planted with herbs and vegetables for nibbling. It’s mostly a leafy mulch that fall in autumn, as in any forest floor. Oh, with a bow to forest gardening, I also planted ramps there.

I plant fruits, vegetables, and nuts to provide sustenance, not just a nibble here and there. 

I Aim for Good Food, Not a Concept

I’m growing my own fruits and vegetables because I want great-tasting food. It seems to me that permaculture is usually about making growing plants easier. Nothing wrong with that, of course, except sometimes plants that are easiest to grow aren’t those that have the best flavor. I grow elderberries (back in my more hard-core permaculture planting along with aronia, rosa rugosa, seaberry, and highbush cranberry). Could anybody claim that a fresh picked elderberry can hold a candle to, flavorwise, a fresh picked blueberry?

Elderberry harvest

Elderberry harvest

Speaking of blueberry, they are easy to grow. But, if you want best production of flavorful berries, best to put some effort into getting the soil right, pruning correctly and annually, and netting to fend off birds so you can harvest truly ripe berries. Grapes? They need abundant sunlight, not the shady but easily supplied support of a nearby tree, for best quality and easy picking. Pruning is critical for topnotch flavor and pest control. It all takes effort, but is worth it.

Today's blueberry harvest

Today’s blueberry harvest

Although I am very intimate and knowledgeable about the plants I grow, I am no expert on permaculture. Perhaps I have misconstrued certain permaculture techniques or am totally missing the concept (even though I was accused of being a permaculturalist). I welcome feedback.


Years ago I wrote about one of the unsung heroes of Thanksgiving, the groundnut (Apios americanum). This plant, which helped nourish the Pilgrims through their first winters, never achieved the reknown of corn, pumpkins, cranberries, and other foods of the season.
When I first wrote about groundnuts, I had just planted them. I pointed out that there was renewed interest in the plant, though specifics as to how to grow it were wanting and selection of superior clones was just beginning. Now that I have grown groundnut for a few (thirty plus!) years, I am ready to share my experiences.

It Looks Like . . . And Acts Like . . .

As you might guess from the name, the plant makes edible tubers, usually the size of golfballs and strung together on a thinner, ropelike root. The swollen roots on one of my plants are more the size of tennis balls than golf balls. Not as obvious, below ground, at least, is that the plant is a legume; as such, it can “fix” atmospheric nitrogen, that is, put it in a plant-available form.

The plant also has shown some virtues aboveground. Chocolatey brown flowers dangle like jewelry from the twining stems. The flowers are pretty enough to have accorded groundnut a place in flower gardens in France a hundred years ago. On some plants, the flowers also have a strong and delicious aroma – vanilla, instead of chocolate, though.
Groundnut flower
I started some of my plants from seed; others I purchased growing in pots. I trained each vine up and down and around a tomato cage. The plants were and still are in full sun and rich soil, with a thick mulch of wood chips. The ground is so fluffy that I can harvest by just grabbing one end of a root, then pulling it up and out of the soil.

Soon after I planted groundnut, I discovered that it is weedy. I was soon finding plants, first sneaking across the ground a couple of feet from mother plants, and then further and further.

Aboveground, the twining stems reached around and insinuated themselves amongst the branches of a nearby bush cherries and other plants.
Groundut vine
To further unsettle me, I was startled at the reappearance, with vigor, of one young plant which I thought I had destroyed as I dug looking for edible roots. (I since learned that harvest must be delayed until the second season.) I hope groundnut will not prove to be as unruly and as hard to remove as the horseradish I once foolishly planted in the garden!

Is It Good To Eat?

Now for the important question: What does groundnut taste like? Thomas Hariot, in A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590) may have been the first to write of groundnut, and his opinion was “boiled or sodden they are very good meate.” In 1602, a correspondent from New England wrote to Sir Walter Raleigh that groundnuts were “as good as potatoes.”

Dr. E. Lewis Sturtevant (Sturtevant’s Notes on Edible Plants, 1919) reported an eighteenth century horticulturalist writing that the “Swedes ate them for want of bread, and that in 1749 some of the English ate them instead of potatoes.” He also quotes a nineteenth century writer, who wrote that the Pilgrims “were enforced to live on ground nuts.”

Moving up to the twentieth century, wild food forager Euell Gibbons, who enjoyed everything from cattails to milkweed pods, was reserved in his praise of groundnuts.

I have harvested groundnuts and, because they should not be consumed raw, boiled some and baked some. They taste almost as good as potatoes, though less distinctive. The texture was dry and mealy. Like Euell, I am reserved in my praise of the roots, though other groundnut plants might have better or worse roots. (After all, not all potatoes taste the same.)

I do think that groundnut, even in its present primitive state, is a native, perennial, permaculture friendly vegetable (I have been accused by some of being a permaculturalist)  good enough to deserve a place at the Thanksgiving table. That is, it deserves a place in the garden and on the Thanksgiving table as long as it’s planted where its growth and spread can be reined in.

How about calling it one of its Indian names – nu nu, perhaps – and making nu nu stuffing standard Thanksgiving fare? Happy Thanksgiving!

The Bad and the Good

Winecaps, Not For Me

My successes with growing shiitake mushrooms emboldened me, this past spring, to venture further afield, to wine cap mushrooms (Stropharia rugosoannulata). After all, it’s been billed as “prized, delicious” and “edible when young.”

Their quick production also prompted me to give them a try. As a matter of fact, my spring “planting” started bearing a couple of weeks ago. A bed can also be refreshed or a new bed can be inoculated from an old bed for repeat performances.Stropharia mushroom

Let’s go back to spring, to my planting. Wine caps grow very well in wood chip mulch, something that’s aplenty on my farmden. My berry bushes are mulched, my pear trees are mulched, as are the paths in my vegetable gardens. Why not do double duty with those mulches?

A few years ago, I attempted just that, laying a thick mulch of chips atop my asparagus bed in spring. Two problems: The thick mulch almost killed the plants, and the weather was very dry for weeks on end. Mushrooms need moisture.

This past spring, I pulled back twigs and other debris from a patch of ground beneath a Norway spruce tree and laid down a few inches of hardwood chip mulch. After sprinkling the purchased spawn over the mulch, I topped everything with another inch or two of, this time, wood shavings.

For this spring’s planting, I also decided to water, so set up a sprinkler. Rain fell pretty consistently all season long, obviating the need for further watering.

The tasting: To me, the mushrooms were tasteless. Sure, I could have sautéed them with butter and garlic; then they would have tasted like butter and garlic. (Disclaimer: Your results may differ from mine.)

My taste for wine cap mushrooms went down another notch when I more recently read a caution to eat them moderately and not more than two days in a row. My yard abounds with plenty of other good tasting, healthful food, so I’ll pass on the wine caps.

Seaberries For Me

On to more tasty items. Seaberries (Hippophae rhamnoides). The harvest is in, the first harvest from my 2013 planting. I wanted them for juice and, on the recommendation of seaberry expert Jim Gilbert of, planted Titan, Leikora, and Orange Energy.

Seaberry plants are either male or female. Only female plants bear fruit; to do so, they need pollen from a nearby male, which I also planted. One male can sire up to 8 females.

Seaberry, Titan

Seaberry, Titan

In addition to yielding very healthful berries, seaberries further earn their keep as landscape plants. (I’ve seen them planted as ornamentals in New York City’s Battery Park.) The bush’s thin, olive green leaves are the perfect backdrop for the bright orange berries, clustered thickly right along the stems.

And there’s the rub. Long, sharp thorns also cluster along the stems, making harvest a potentially painful proposition.

I used the method Jim recommended for harvest, and that is to cut stems heavily laden with berries into 6 inch long pieces, put them into a covered plastic tub, and then freeze them. The frozen berries came off the stems when the tub was shaken vigorously. All I had to do then was to pick out the stems, and then winnow the leaves from the fruit in front of a fan.

The berries are now back in the freezer, to be made into juice at my leisure. That’ll involve cooking them in a little water, mashing them with a potato masher, and then straining. My previous planting yielded a delicious juice once diluted with 1/8 part water and sweetened with 1/8 part maple syrup or honey.Seaberry juice

This season’s juice should be even better because the berries taste better than the previous varieties I planted. Especially good — even straight from the bush — in the new planting is the variety Titan. Seaberry generally tastes, to me, like very rich orange juice with the addition of pineapple or passionfruit. Titan has more of a tangerine-y flavor.


Wine cap mushrooms and seaberries are both plants beloved by permaculturalists. The mushrooms for the little care they need, and their use of mulched ground. The seaberries, also for their low maintenance, their beauty, and their enrichment of the soil with nitrogen.

Seaberry bush

My seaberries are in a permaculturalesque planting, along with elderberry, highbush cranberry, nannyberry viburnum, rugose rose, Korean pine, and aronia. They’re all easy to care for. They’re all very ornamental. The only ones that taste good or yield anything are the seaberry and the rugosa roses.


Imperfect Lawn

I’m no devotee of the perfect lawn, but I did recently suggest, for the bare palette of ground on which W wanted to plan for a variety of fruits, a patch of lawn. W protested that she hated mowing and wanted a “permaculture planting” that would take little care.

Visitors to my garden have occasionally complimented me on my lawn. The only care I give it is mowing with a mulching mower that lets clippings rain back down. By not cutting the lawn I avoid “mining” the soil for nutrients by repeated harvest of clippings. The clippings also enrich the ground with humus.

Pawpaw tree in my cousin's lawn

Pawpaw tree in my cousin’s lawn

Still, I’d rather grow trees, shrubs, vines, especially fruiting ones, and vegetables and flowers, than lawngrass. But I have plenty of ground devoted to these plants. And the easiest way to care for a plot of ground, short of sealing it in asphalt or just letting weeds grow (some of which would undoubtedly be edible or attractive) is by mowing. Visually, lawngrass also provide a calm backdrop for the scene out my back and front door. Plus, it’s nice to walk and play on.

A lawn need not be the environmental disaster inadvertently promoted by purveyors of fertilizers, and pesticides. As stated above, by letting clippings fall where they may, ground is not drained of its fertility, so fertilizer may not be needed. Especially if you let a little clover invade the lawn to add nitrogen, the most evanescent of plant nutrients.

That nitrogen highlights another approach to an easier lawn: Not striving for the uniform look of artificial turf. My lawn has its share of dandelions and clover and, later in the season, crabgrass, especially if the weather turns dry. I tolerate all this, with a refocussing of my aesthetic lens to celebrate a certain amount of diversity in the lawn.

Lawn care is even more environmentally sound these days with cordless electric lawnmowers not spewing noise, carbon dioxide, and other byproducts of gasoline consumption into the air. Periodic scything is a very pleasant way to get by with less mowing and sheep may be a way to get by with no mowing (but you do have to fence and do whatever else is necessary to care for the sheep).


Eco-mowers: Fiskars push, Stihl battery, and Scythe Supply Co. mowers

Fruits To (And Not To) Grow

Now for W’s permaculture fruit trees, shrubs, and vines — with some lawn, of course. (I think I convinced her.) For starters, I suggested steering clear of apples, peaches, plums, cherries, nectarines, and apricots. All are relatively high maintenance and, even with all that maintenance, still are iffy crops in this part of the world because of our extreme and variable climate and the plants’ susceptibilities to insects and diseases.

Nanking cherry hedge

Nanking cherry hedge

So what’s there left to grow??!! Berries, for one. Most berries don’t stand up well to commercial handling so are picked underripe even though they don’t ripen at all once harvested — all the more reason to grow berries in the backyard where the best tasting varieties can be planted and the harvest need not be shipped much further than arms’ length.

Redcurrant espalier

Redcurrant espalier

Summer's berries

Raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries are all easy to grow without much care beyond pruning, which is very important for keeping the plants disease free and convenient to harvest.

And no need to restrict the berry bowl to these most common berries. Also easy to grow are seaberries, elderberries, lingonberries, mulberries, and hardy kiwifruit (which are, botanically, berries). An added plus for these latter berries, as well as the aforementioned blueberries, is that the plants are also ornamental.

There is one common tree fruit that’s easy to grow: pears.  And even easier than European pears, such as Bartlett, Anjou, and Bosc, are Asian pears, such as Chojuro, Yoinashi, Hosui, and scores of other varieties. Asian pears also bear more quickly and prolifically, and are a little more decorative than the also decorative European pears.

Asian pear, comfrey, and lawn

Asian pear, comfrey, and lawn

Avoiding Nightmares

The main problem that I’ve seen with many permaculture plantings is that they look great on paper as well as when first planted. Mouths water at the prospects of all those ornamental, fruiting plants cozied together, fruit on creeping plants beneath trees whose branches strain downward with their weight of fruit. And perhaps a nearby grape or kiwifruit plant insinuating its berried vines in among the trees’ branches.

I’ve seen such plans and such plantings. What a nightmare of management they are or will be, mostly because of the need for relentless, extensive, judicious pruning to keep some plants from overtaking the landscape and starving others for nutrients or light. The result is less fruit of lower quality and difficulty in finding the fruit and getting to it.

A little lawn is good to give the fruiting plants some elbow room and to make them easier to care for.


Don’t wait for dry weather to learn about an easy and better (for you and plants) way to water. On June 24, 1-4:30 pm, I’ll be holding DRIP IRRIGATION WORKSHOP at the garden of Margaret Roach in Copake Falls, NY.  Learn how to design a system, and participate in a hands-on installation. For more information and registration,


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.


 Hog Peanuts, Groundnuts, Whatever

   I was wrong. A few weeks ago I wrongly dissed groundnut (Apios americana) for invading my flower garden. Yes, I planted it; that was 30 years ago, and it’s resisted my attempts at eradication for the past 28 years.
    The worse culprit, this year at least, is related to groundnut. Like groundnut, it’s a legume, it’s native, it’s edible, and it’s a vining plant with compound leaves. But each leaf of hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata), has 3 egg-shaped leaflets, as compared with groundnut’s 5 lance-shaped leaflets.

Hog peanut leaves

Hog peanut leaves

    Hog peanuts produce flowers both above ground and below ground. Below ground is where the goodies are. Pods that form there enclose peanut-sized seeds that allegedly are tasty raw or cooked. I’ll see if I can dig some up in a few weeks. Like groundnuts, hog peanuts provided food for Native Americans; the plants were among the four sacred plants of the Osage.
    So what can be bad about a plant that tolerates some shade, adds nitrogen to the soil, and yields an allegedly tasty seed below ground? The problem is that it’s run wild over the flower bed, the fine stems and leaves attempting to smother, sometimes successfully, every plant in its path. Even non-native, invasive Japanese stilt grass and garlic mustard can’t hold their own against hog peanuts.

Permaculture Reality

    Low maintenance, protection and enrichment of soil, and edible parts recommend hog peanut and groundnut to permies (permaculturalists). As with so much in permaculture, these plants perform better in theory than in practice.

Hog peanut & groundnut strangling crocosmia

Hog peanut & groundnut strangling crocosmia

   In humid climates, plant growth — and not just groundnut and hog peanut — can run rampant. Growth needs to be controlled and balanced, a job made more difficult in a permaculture “guild” of groups of plants working together. I’m all for interplanting different species to make best use of light, water, and soil resources, and form communities that resist pests — to a point.
    I’ve had the opportunity, over the years, to visit the permaculture garden planted by students at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Now in its 5th year, the garden pays tribute to the compost, mulch, and sweat students put into soil preparation. The plants have grown very well. Too well, perhaps. One could say that the plants have commingled nicely; from another perspective, one could say that they are overunning each other. A blackcurrant bush or bushes has swelled into a mass of unapproachable stems 10 feet deep and wide. Chives and oregano have each taken over their areas. (How much chives or oregano can you eat? I’d rather eat tomatoes.)
    Not that I’m immune to such errors. A few years ago I created a very permaculturesque planting that included elderberries, seaberries, and rugose roses almost elbow to elbow. It all looks very nice but these three shrubs all spread by suckers. I keep everything in check with elbow grease and a scythe . . .  for now, but Mother Nature is relentless. Am I?
    The most productive and accessible parts of the UMass garden are the beds of kale, beets, and other vegetables — straight rows in cultivated soil. How un-permaculturalesque.
    Oh, I forgot to mention the groundnuts at UMass. Stems of those plants are twining around and overpowering others in their guild in an ever-widening circle. Even if the groundnuts could peacefully coexist with their neighbors, grubbing up the golf ball size tubers will require an inordinate amount of time and soil discombobulation.
    My memory fails me. Perhaps it was hog peanut rather than groundnut vines threatening their neighbors. Perhaps it was both plants. Hog peanut has been suggested for erosion control, and as a groundcover, a livestock forage, and a food for humans. My suggestion: Hog food. Turn some hogs loose in a patch, and they’ll fatten as they clear the ground of this pernicious weed. Does anybody have a small hog for rent?

Elderberry Wine — No, Syrup

    Elderberry looked to be one of the most successful plants in the UMass permaculture garden. It grows fast and it grows high. My two plants, now in their third year, yielded more than four gallons of berries. And harvest, last week, was quick and easy; aggressively tickling the umbels had the berries quickly filling a basket.Elderberry harvest
    Elderberries can also be recommended for their flowers and the berries’ deep, blue color. Flowers open in June to dinnerplate size umbels of small, white blossoms. They’re good for tea, fritters, or to flavor wine.
    The berries impart their good color, but little flavor, to wine, pie, and juice. (They should not be eaten uncooked or unripe.) There’s a bit of scientific evidence than an extract or syrup of the berries  can help fight flu, perhaps other ailments also. I’m good at growing fruit, not cooking it, so I gave my crop to Dina Falconi who concocted a syrup using the recipe from her book Foraging & Feasting. I look forward to tasting the benefits of my horticultural and her culinary skills.
Elderberry flowers