A Summertime Update in Four Parts

Thank you for being patient over summer while finished my series of science fiction novellas while I took a break from regular posting here. I am pleased to say that “Our Vitreous Womb”, a story set in a distant future society built purely off biotechnology, is on track for eBook release in April 2023.

If you would like monthly updates by email (including an illustrated tidbit of weird biology) then sign up via my new author website:

www.haldanebdoyle.com

If you want a free review copy of book 1 (Her Unbound Hallux) please say so when you sign up.

My experimental farm has not been completely neglected during the summer months. Rather than post on one single topic today, I thought a quick update on some recent developments might be more fun.

1. Rotate Your Goat

In the six months since I started moving my goats to a new strip of paddock every three days I have observed some remarkable effects.

Firstly, milk production has held up for longer than the previous years when I was rotating between large paddocks every few months. I am still milking 6-8 L from my three adult does every second day, which has barely dropped since I weaned the kids months ago. The most interesting experiment was making a double sized cell at the end of the paddock, which should be enough to keep the herd well fed for a week. After three days in the double sized cell milk production dropped dramatically.

The most notable thing with the new system is that the goats are hardly eating any of their mineral lick (the only supplement they get). This suggests rapid rotation is improving the mineral cycles in the paddocks. The diversity and vigour of the paddock plants is also improving. This includes the spread of “weedy/unpalatable” species like bladey grass and molasses grass, but these patches seem to be acting as nurseries for fodder shrubs and trees. The bunya seedlings exposed to the goats are growing well, with minimal grazing impact.

Moving the fence now takes me about an hour every three days, which is more pleasant than the massive fence clearing job I had to do every few months with the previous system when the vegetation was allowed to overgrow the lines entirely.

On top of this new system, I have started actively herding the goats through my overgrown old vegetable garden. Only about 20% of this area was cleared for crops, which I have protected behind uncharged electric tape (and waving a bamboo stick at the goats when they approach it). After an hour gorging themselves on weeds I only have to wave my hat at them and they all go home without complaint. The richer feed they get is balancing out the lower quality feed in their daily paddock. As the weather turns dry again I plan to walk the herd over most of the property to reduce fire risk.

2. Mulch is for Losers

Now I have loads of vetiver grass bordering my vegetable garden, I experimented with using the hand cut mulch in a deep drift to help clear weeds before planting crops. The end result was a flop. Moving the soggy, half decomposed mulch was a pain. Weeds grew through it anyway. The mulch on the paths between the crops had the same issues, especially if running grasses got into it. My old system of putting a mound of charcoal/ash/goat manure down the middle of the growing beds and sowing on the edges, then leaving the paths bare to grow a crop of immature weeds before hoeing them down works much better.

I might experiment with mulching down the centre of the bed, but I am not sure it would serve any real purpose. That leaves the vetiver grass biomass in need of a new role (since the clumps need to be cut regularly to stop them turning into rat condos). That leaves animal bedding (especially for kid goats and nesting geese) or thatching the roof on the bamboo huts I keep promising to build one day.

3. Tulbalghia Hybridisation

Tulbalghia is a south African relative of onions, sometimes used as a leaf vegetable. I started hybridising a few species in the genus to see if I could make a perennial alternative to garlic chives (or maybe even a new root crop as some species have swollen bases).

After a few tries I got a feel for hand crossing the flowers and collected a decent quantity of seed. You never know if a project like this will fail at the many stages involved (pollination, seed set, germination, hybrid fertility, vigor, pest and disease resistance, or the usefulness of the end products). The hybrid seed is germinating strongly, so I will have to report back on the later stages as they unfold.

4. Train Your Inner Lizard

Nearly a year ago, after falling off the healthy eating wagon, I did some self-experimentation to see if I could reprogram my lizard brain to no longer want junk food (ice-cream in this case). The idea was to reproduce the effect of eating a bad prawn, getting mild food poisoning, then being unable to eat the offending food for years. The best additive ended up being tannin rich, unripe persimmon, a relatively safe substance that nevertheless twisted my guts up when discretely blended into said ice-cream.

Since that time I only had one moment when I ate some ice-cream, but the whole time I was suspicious of it and didn’t end up enjoying it at all. Any time I think about buying ice-cream I can easily locate that same feeling of visceral, gut-reaction suspicion. I think I have to call this experiment a win. Coupled with the higher production of goat milk I have been living off banana and yoghurt milkshakes for about half my calories for many months.

I should be back to my regular fortnightly posting schedule. If you have any suggested topics for the year ahead feel free to comment below.

Goats enjoying the fruits of neglect while I herd them about

Brisk Fiction- Green Cancer

A piece of microfiction this week (which is anything under 1000 words. This one is under 600). It explores a likely consequence of increasing carbon dioxide levels which I rarely see discussed.

In related news, the final rewrites and editing are proceeding smoothly with my novella series (Our Vitreous Womb) which imagines a distant post industrial society where pure biotechnology provides the foundation for a new kind of society. I’m on track to publish in April 2023. I’ll keep you all up to date with progress.

[Eerie music]

[Drone shot pans over the Bangkok skyline]

Voice over: It was here in this bustling, tropical megalopolis that the first infestations of Microsorum lithophytica appeared in the summer of 2023. This unremarkable fern first sprouted along shady drains and bridges, taking root on any damp patch of concrete. A few years later the locals named it “Kiao Mareng” though it is now better known as “Green Cancer”. In this shocking report we confront the activist responsible for spreading this sickness to the United States.

[Pull back drone shot of crumbling, abandoned apartment block covered in vegetation]

(Caption: Dr Ubon Suksathan. Botanist)

Dr Sukasathan: What we are facing is a total rearrangement of the global ecosystem. The atmosphere has changed irreversibly.

[Shot of Dr Sukasathan inspecting culture flask of green gunk]

Dr Sukasathan: The fern was first described last century from limestone gorges around Thailand. The species name… lithophytica… means living on rocks. Then carbon dioxide levels crossed 480 parts per million a few years ago. That allowed the fern to expand into drier habitats, accelerated its growth.

Interviewer: How far do you think it might spread?

Dr Sukasathan: If CO2 levels keep rising… [blinks awkwardly]… everywhere. I can’t see anything stopping it.

[Drone shot of work crews descending side of a skyscraper surrounded by steam clouds]

(Caption: Gus Thongsuk. Building Maintenance Supervisor)

Gus Thongsuk: Green cancer doesn’t only hold concrete. It eats rock. The roots make acid… like Alien. Get away b**ch.

[Gus peels back a pad of the fern and crumbles the concrete with his fingers]

Gus Thongsuk: We never stop work to clean kiao mareng. Steam knives very… effective, but when wet season come spores blow all over. Some company won’t pay extra… maintenance. Later… building is broken. I don’t complain. Always more work to do [laughing].

Voice over: Bangkok is ground zero of the infestation, and it’s fighting a losing battle. Unfortunately for us, the organism recently arrived on our own doorstep, sooner than anyone expected. All thanks to the reckless actions of a few.

[Pan across Georgia State Prison complex. Shot of a female prisoner with cropped hair in orange]

(Caption: Suzette Luers. Sentenced to 23 years for ecoterrorism).

Suzette Luers: What they think I’m gonna to do to you? [Shows her cuffed wrists] Throw some leaves at you? (laughing)

Interviewer: Do you feel any remorse for smuggling spores of the Green Cancer to the US?

Suzette Luers: What difference would regret make? It spread itself to eight more cities since christmas. Capitalism built the bonfire. I just tossed the match.

Interviewer: Doesn’t it bother you that people will be homeless when buildings are destroyed?

Suzette Luers: Humans didn’t give a f**k when they destroyed the habitat of other creatures. Look. Plants are pushing back everywhere since we crossed 480. Tree of heaven, knotweed, kudzu, tumbleweed. Every time you start your car you encourage ‘em grow faster. Ten years tops until that little fern chews through this concrete prison like a rice cracker. What’ll they do with me then? Stick me in a bamboo cage?

[Shot of workers in white hazard suits spraying clumps of fern in Miami]

Voice over: Local authorities are rushing to develop chemical measures to hold back the infestation, but the ferns mature rapidly and produce millions of dust like spores. Scientist are hopeful biological control may prove useful for slowing down the tide, but no candidate species have been identified. Citizens can report any new infestations on the website linked below. We must work together to defeat this menace and protect our homes.

The Ephemeral Trellis

When I started developing my vegetable garden I had little biomass handy for various projects beyond a modest stream of goat manure. Gradually support species established, and now I have more than I can use. One especially valuable plant is bamboo, which I am steadily learning to use for various projects. Today I made a bamboo trellis using zero string or fastening.

A typical approach for growing climbing crops in this industrial age is to put in a few star pickets (T-posts in the USA) then string some wire mesh between them. Then when the crop is finished you face the horrible job of taking the rusting, tendril infested mess down again (or leaving it until it becomes a hazard).

What most people never stop to consider in this time of overabundance is the resource consumption of that simple construction. The early industrial revolution was primarily a transformation in the production of iron- that essential ingredient in civilised life for thousands of years. Up until that point vast amounts of forest were cut in rotation to make charcoal, essential for smelting iron ore. That made iron so valuable that it could only be used for hand tools, weapons and fasteners. The idea of using iron for structural purposes like roofing and fences would seem absurdly extravagant. Tapping into vast coal reserves upended that equilibrium, and the rest is modern history.

One single bed in my vegetable garden is about 10 m long, needing six star pickets and an equivalent length of wire (double if I couldn’t be bothered training the vines up). I would estimate the structure would contain about 40 kg of iron, which has an embodied energy of about 20 megajoules per kilogram, for a total of 800 megajoules of embodied energy. That is equivalent to 80 days of food energy for a human. Industrial yield maize produces 10 days’ worth of calories from the same bed each year, climbing beans much less. The iron would rust long before it could break even in terms of energy invested.

Another way to visualise the situation is that it takes 45 kg of dry wood to make 15 kg charcoal to produce 1 kg of iron, so the iron used in my simple trellis would represent 600 kg of charcoal and 1800 kg of dry wood. The meagre dollars we spend in this age on these resources are shockingly disconnected from the true value of the materials.

Funnily my biggest issue with using structural metal in my garden comes from me being lazy. I always put off removing it until it becomes a rusting mess. I have many meters of goose fencing tangled in the weeds I have to extract and dispose of one day. All that metal is a resource that never had a chance of repaying the energy invested.

To address these glaring issues I have learnt to make simple trellises from bamboo. Not bamboo plus string or wire. Just bamboo and nothing else, using a few simple hand tools (the production of which should be sustainable in some form on the far side of this time of industrial excess). A word of caution- bamboo can be deceptively sharp when cut, as can the tools used to handle it. Gloves and caution are advised at a minimum. Bamboo is quite unlike wood in its strengths and weaknesses, and unfortunately Australia has little culture in its use to tap into, so I have mostly had to figure things out by bits and pieces.

The basic technique is as follows. I cut second or third year stems (which thicken and strengthen after their first season) using a small folding saw. For this project I worked with Bambusa chungii, a beautiful silver stemmed clumping species. Different species vary in their dimensions and properties. The leafy tops go to the goats, then I use a bamboo hatchet to knock off the remaining leaves. The lowest, strongest sections are cut to a bit over my height, then driven into the ground in a straight row using a fence post driver about 1-2 m apart. Pay attention to the stem as you go since occasionally they will splinter during the process. Remove these duds and try again. Be sure to leave a node at the top to reduce the chance of splitting.

Next I use the bamboo hatchet and a handy chunk of wood to split the upright posts down to about 30 cm from the ground (ideally a node will prevent the split going all the way down). The splits must be aligned with the bed. Then I take the thinner middle sections of the stems and split them using a bamboo splitter (though you can do this with the bamboo hatchet instead). Tapping with a chunk of wood helps. I try to make these slats as long as possible, so I can insert them horizontally into the split the uprights without joins, but overlaps aren’t that much of an issue.

To add the next horizontal spaced higher than the first I split the uprights into quarters, giving me the ability to improvise crossing them over. Just use one quarter at a time so there are others flexible enough to work for the next level up. I add more horizontals until I run out of vertical space.

The resulting structure works well for chunky vines like sword beans (which I intend to plan here) and large seeded lima beans (which I should plant soon if I can hop to it). Yams and angled luffas also do well. I normally get one or two seasons out of it before it starts to slump.

Best of all, when the garden has inevitably moved on and the weeds have returned the space to fallow all I have to do is give the structure a gentle shove and it turns into a modest pile of kindling, or if I am too lazy to make use of that it will completely disappear given another year.

Humans are masters at improvisation, but you cannot build a bamboo trellis unless you grow the bamboo first and take the time to learn how to use it. Then you to can begin your slow journey to break your reliance on “cheap” industrial inputs.

Plant Profile- Society Garlic (Tulbalghia)

There is a pretty dependable recipe for creating a new domesticated crop species. Research into the long lost origins of a wide variety of food plants has revealed a typical pattern. Usually the best starting point is a genus that contains a few wild species that have at least some utility as food. Step two is to hybridise those original species, either deliberately or by accident. Often the primary hybrid of two species is then crossed with a third species. Hybridisation opens up an order of magnitude more genetic diversity in the resulting hybrid swarm. From that point selective breeding improves the characteristics of the new crop, sometimes including back crossing to the wild species to restore vigour if inbreeding becomes an issue.

It is my contention that for every established crop species in cultivation there are dozens more that could be created by curious and committed amateur plant breeders. Often the main barrier is convenience- why go through the years of developing a new crop when an existing crop already serves that function in the agricultural ecosystem? In my system I have relatively limited options when it comes to vegetables in the Allium family. My strain of giant blue shallots are wonderful and continue to produce for a few years once established, but garlic, onions and leeks have proven to be poor performers. Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are a hardy perennial, but tend to only produce good quality material for a short period when summer is consistently wet and warm, and are a little bit too fiddly to harvest for my liking. Based on this I looked around for an alternative perennial allium instead.

Society garlic (Tulbalghia violacea) is a common landscaping plant in my area, thriving in difficult situations with minimal care. This isn’t surprising since it comes from the south east corner of south Africa, which has a very similar climate. It is also edible, more or less, with the leaves and flowers having a peppery/garlic flavour, perhaps a little too acrid for most tastes (somewhat stronger than garlic chives). That on its own meant it might be worth growing for the kitchen, but it also happens to be only one species in a genus of two dozen others. A few hybrids have been established in the horticulture trade, a sign of cross fertility between wild species, so I set about gathering a few other species to begin my own breeding program with a view to developing a new perennial crop.

I finally got my two strains in flower, an unidentified tall growing species that could be a hybrid of T. violacea, and a low growing, broad leaved species with fragrant flowers (T. simmleri). I have some T. cominsii x violacea plants ready to plant out as well, though they seem pretty fragile compared to the other forms. I only just planted out the common form of T. violacea, so had to steal a handful of flowers of this variety from a local carpark to hybridise the other two forms. Learning to hand pollinate a new species always takes a degree of trial and error, but I soon found I could split the tubular flowers open to expose the stigmas. The stamens remain stuck to the base of the petals, so the combined arrangement can be gently dabbed onto the stigmas of other flowers. Just today I noticed the first hand crossed seed pods forming. I should have the first hybrid seedlings mature in a couple of years.

Over coming years I will continue to gather other species to add to the project. T. alliacea looks especially promising, with widespread use as an edible in Zulu culture. Every new species means an expanding range of potential crosses to try (useful when not every combination is viable). As I produce more hybrid seedlings I will need to keep an open mind about what traits I wish to bring out. Palatability in the leaves and flowers is the obvious direction, combined with vigour, natural pollination, viable seed set and pest resistance. I will need to remain vigilant about the edibility of each hybrid and strain as they emerge as this trait can vary unpredictably between generations, but in general the genus isn’t known to be toxic, though that isn’t a black and white property. The genus also produces quite substantial thickened bases to their clumps, a kind of pseudobulb made of stacked leaf bases, which could be enhanced with selective breeding to produce something akin to a perennial onion.

Hopefully this has made you curious about the possibilities of domesticating new crop species. A great resource to research potential species that you could domesticate yourself is the Plants for a Future database (https://pfaf.org/). The nurturing instincts of humans make us uniquely suited to catalyse the creation of new species, helping them through the difficult early stages of coming into existence. Just as the symbiosis between pollinating insects and flowering plants caused an explosion in biodiversity millions of years ago, human beings have the potential to be universal pollinators of any number of plant species, sparking another transformation in the structure in the sprawling tree of life.

My first hand pollinated seed pods forming

The sweetly scented flowers of T. simmleri (formerly T. fragrans)

My robust, unidentified form with juicy leaves that are almost edible to my tastes.

Easy Cheesy (Sans) Lemon Squeezy

Australians are very much a people out of place, especially for those of us with European roots who find themselves living in the subtropics. I occasionally meet somebody undertaking the herculean effort of producing cool climate cheeses under our often steamy conditions. This often requires the purchasing of all sorts of delicate microbial cultures in the post, grown in distant laboratories, and demands the use of a specially modified refrigerator which can simulate the conditions of a cheese cave in the Swiss alps (until the power goes out). As the poorly paid actors in the infomercials say: There has to be a better way!

Milk is a metastable emulsion of fat and water, stabilised with a complex array of proteins. For dairy producing societies the fluctuations in output mean that often more milk is produced than can be consumed. Different cultures came up with different solutions to this problem, seeking ways to transform milk into denser products (which sometimes allow easier preservation for times when less dairy is available). One possible option is heating the milk or cream long enough that the oil floats to the top, producing clarified butter/ghee. If sufficiently pure this mass of mostly saturated fat can store a relatively long time without refrigeration.

Most approaches aim to coagulate the fat and most of the protein in a way that allows the liquids to be drained. The resulting curds can be further compressed, fermented or stabilised through various additives. In European cheese making the coagulation is often catalysed by rennet, the scraped lining of a calves stomach which contains enzymes that begin digesting the milk. For a small scale producer this technique is not really practical, unless you are content to buy powdered rennet from the shops. The curd is often compressed and fermented under controlled conditions to produce a hard cheese capable of long term storage. None of this seemed worth the bother to me on a low tech home scale.

Another approach is to use acid to coagulate the milk in the form of lemon juice or vinegar (often with some amount of heat). Mediterranean cheeses like paneer is made this way. I tried this a couple of times and it basically worked, if you didn’t mind squeezing a load of lemons. The main downside was the resulting whey is too acidic to feed to livestock. Chickens in particular do spectacularly well on the residual soluble protein left in solution from cheese making. It can also be fed to kid goats with care as they get close to weaning age. The fat is the most valuable component of the milk in the end.

Most of the time we turn our goat milk into yoghurt, a pretty simple technique that is commonly used in warmer climates that are similar to our own. It definitely feels like the most robust and appropriate method, but we can only consume so much yoghurt. For a long time I scratched my head at the problem of milk coagulation/concentration. Luckily a stroke of serendipity intervened one day.

Once when I was making yoghurt with a small batch of milk I poured what I thought was the previous day’s milk into the pot, only to discover it was instead finished yoghurt. I shrugged and figured no point crying over spilt whatever it was, and went through the yoghurt making cycle, heating the milk to 70 C, then cooling it to 42 C before inoculation with a live yoghurt culture (a hand held infrared thermometer is very useful for this). To my surprise when I went to inoculate the milk had already separated into a nice hard curd. The first few times I inoculated and incubated for a bit under 24 hours as usual (a 4 L thermos container is very useful for this stage). The thinking was to break down any residual lactose, but I am pretty sure it is mostly gone without further incubation. I am now pretty certain that the acid and enzymes from the yoghurt half of the mixture is enough to drive curd formation. Labneh is an example of a cheese based on a yoghurt culture, and is common in places like Lebanon, so I only accidentally reinvented that particular cheese wheel.

Once you form a sufficiently hard curd it is an easy matter of straining the mixture. I tried using cheese cloth of various types and found it was a pain to wash. If you don’t mind losing a little of the curd, and it is well set, then a plain colander works fine. For a while I used to wrap the curd tightly in a cloth and press it between two weights to firm up the product, but now I simply let the curd drain into a bowl in the fridge overnight to end up with something the texture of mascarpone.

The final product lasts about three days in the fridge. Much of the lactic acid acidity is drained away with the whey, so it is possible for unwanted bacteria to grow on the curd eventually (unlike whole yoghurt which is more acid and usually stable for much longer). Salting the curd to preserve it is possible, but I find I usually eat it quickly enough anyway. I usually end up adding it to other meals to make them richer. The pressed curd still crumbles a bit if I put it in brine, so I don’t bother pressing anymore. If you freeze the curd the texture changes, but it is still pretty good mixed into other dishes.

The main advantage of this method is that it leverages a culture I was handling and maintaining anyway, and the whey contains no additives that prevent me from redirecting the excess whey protein to my livestock. I find I can get through a batch of cheese alongside my usual yoghurt consumption without feeling like milk is about to trickle out my tear ducts. The neighbours go gaga over the cheese too, but I think it is easier for them to accept it because the idea of goat cheese seems fancy but at the same time they have eaten it rarely enough to have no preconceived ideas about what it should taste like (unlike my sour/runny yoghurt which bears little resemblance to the gunk they buy in the shops which most friends try once, smile politely, then never bother again).

I often wonder how many famous regional dishes that rely on fermentation were discovered completely by accident. Natto (glutinous fermented soybeans) were meant to have been discovered when a horse rider left his lunch bundled up behind the saddle for a few days. Perhaps there are other potential foods out there which people currently view as inedible which merely need to be combined with the right microbes to transform them into something utterly delicious (if you don’t mind your food crawling with microbes).

Disclaimer- Dairy products can harbor potentially dangerous microbes if handled incorrectly. If preparing your own dairy at home be sure to do sufficient research to ensure you are working safely.

The hard, grainy, easy to drain curd formed from heating a 50/50 mix of sour mature yoghurt and fresh milk.

Brisk Fiction- The Tomatos of Truth

Ada reclined in her hanging chair and absorbed the archival footage one more time.

On the screen a smiling woman in a flowing, paisley kaftan stepped lightly around the overflowing garden. “What’s better than a home grown tomato? This one is perfect. Sun ripened on the vine.”

Ada mouthed the magic words. Organic. Heirloom. Tomatos.

The smiling woman took a bite and her eyes rolled back into her head. Juice trickled down her chin and she smiled like a bashful child. How had Ada overlooked such an enticing ingredient in the cultural archives for so long? Millennia spent underground, waiting for the radiation levels to taper. Decades wasted on ninja-surgeon simulator or knitting scarves only to recycle the atoms yet again.

A quick check of the sensor array confirmed it would only be a few more centuries until they could explore the surface, though there was nothing up there apart from cyanobacteria and tardigrades. That would be plenty of time to comb the archives for the proper method to grow her own organic heirloom tomatos.

A tickle of excitement fluttered from Ada’s bare feet, all the way to her sensibly cropped hair, as she descended into the man-cave.

“Evan? I have an idea for a fun project!”

Ada shifted from foot to foot until Evan put down his miniature train and paintbrush. He flubbed the final stroke and frowned at his efforts.

“Just put it in the matter synthesiser and start again,” suggested Ada. “Besides, I found a much more interesting project we can do together.”

***

A quick scan of the genome archives found a dozen strains of heirloom Lycoperiscon esculentum. Mortgage lifter. Grosse Lisse. Brandywine. Green Zebra.

“Skip resurrecting the last one,” said Ada. “I want red ones.”

“Look at the old irregular spellings. Toh-mah-to-eey-z. I found the oldest video showing how to grow them, from all the way back in 1998, can you believe? They used some pretty loopy techniques but I’m sure we could skip some of the more difficult step-“

Ada cut him off with a wave.

“No! We have to follow the video exactly, otherwise they won’t be organic heirloom tomatos.

Evan poked at his tablet. “As you wish, my love. I think the fusion cells can handle the strain, if I hold off printing miniature trains for a few centuries. Of course we could just synthesize a tomato for you to try. They might not even taste that goo-“

“No! I’m sick of synthesised food. And besides… it’ll be fun to work on something together.”

***

While Evan busied himself watching grainy organic gardening videos, Ada snuck upstairs to the molecular synthesizer. She closed the door quietly and searched the thousands of options. They had eaten little more than nutritionally complete sugary bacon bites for centuries. Tomato: there it was. It had to be the same thing as organic heirloom tomatos. She pressed the button and watched the glowing chamber as the atoms snapped into place. The fruit finished with a ding, big enough for a single gulp. She popped it into her mouth, salivary glands twisted with anticipation.

Upon biting down, the nasty thing burst. Acid slime jetted down her throat. She gagged at the texture: somehow powdery and rubbery at the same time. Damn synthesizer wasn’t up to the job. Real organic heirloom tomatos was a sensory delight. She had seen the kaftan woman’s reaction with her own eyes.

Ada returned to her lifepartner, as he finalised preparations. She considered confessing her mistake, but he seemed so excited with his calculations. If they did everything right, followed the ancient wisdom of the ancestors, everything would work out fine.

“Have you figured it out?” Ada tried to ignore the persistent prickling on her lips. “We have to follow the instructions exactly.”

“The techniques are pretty strange, but anything to keep you happy my love. Synthesising the resources will put a strain on the power cells, so we will have to go into stasis for a few centuries to build up energy reserves.”

“The radiation levels will be low enough by then. Add a kaftan to the production queue and meet me in bed.”

***

Three centuries later Ada and Evan climbed the long tunnel to the surface and stepped outside. The orangey ultraviolet light bit at their skins. Millennia of storms had worn the land down to bedrock. Only a crust of slime and lichens tickled the smooth horizon. Ada refused the radiation suit, preferring her kaftan and a session in the resurrection chamber afterwards.

“The first step is to make some newspaper.” Evan scouted around for a suitable place. “We could save a lot of time if we just made it in the synthesizer and-“

“No. I want proper newspaper made using authentic 20th century techniques.”

“That means growing resurrected pine tree embryos, building a chlorine factory and pulping plant, then a printing press.”

“Do it,” commanded Ada. “I won’t have a single step skipped. That’s the only way to be sure the final product are genuine organic heirloom tomatos.

“Fine. I’ll make the preparations and meet you in bed after you decontaminate.”

Fifty years later they re-emerged to find the bots shoving the last of the wood into the grinders. Ada resisted the urge to cover her ears against the racket, just in case an “I told you so” was in the works. The acrid waste from the bleaching plant had collected into a small lake, killing what little greenery had sprung from the rocks.

“As you wanted, my darling. A precise reproduction of The Daily Mail, circa 2013.”

Ada narrowed her eyes to read the headline. “Woman Finds Penis Shaped Strawberry in Garden?”

“We can grow some of those next if you like” replied Evan. “I’m just lucky you didn’t want to use recycled carpet – now that is a complicated process.”

“So remind me what the newspaper supposed to do, husband.”

“It suppresses the weeds.”

“Oh no! I forgot we needed dandelions and dock and running couch grass as well, to maintain the Balance of Nature.

“Don’t worry, I resurrected some weed embryos as well, plus a range of insect pests. According to the videos they are all important parts of the Web of Ecology.”

“Evan! You’re wonderful. I can’t wait until we can both bite into our organic heirloom tomatos.

Once Ada was at a safe distance, Evan fired up the mulching machine to convert the pine forest waste into compost feedstock. She put on a brave face, kaftan wrapped around her mouth to avoid the stinking exhaust, shoulder pressed to her ear to blunt the racket. It shouldn’t matter that the diesel was from the synthesizer- even Ada couldn’t wait another million years for authentic oil deposits to form.

***

After a brief four month nap all the inputs were ready. Together they laid the compost, then newspaper (pausing to read Bigfoot Kept Lumberjack Sex-Slave), then a layer of sweet smelling mulch aged to perfection. Evan handed the hardened embryos of the heirloom tomatos to Ada, one at a time, then the green specks of clover and nettles and nutgrass.

Every morning Ada returned, barefoot, dragging the hem of her kaftan in the mulch. She sprinkled the garden with precisely chlorinated water from a plastic hose, exactly as shown in the video. The dots of green soon erupted into a vibrant carpet. She did her best to not complain as her fingers ached from weeding. She didn’t scream when a tobacco hornworm sunk its fangs into her thumb. This was how the ancients worked their magic: it was all so authentic.

Four long months after planting, after starry yellow flowers dropped, after silver-green nubs of fruit swelled and blushed through shades of watery red, the moment had finally arrived. Every night Ada had watched the archival footage over again, studying the ecstatic woman for the briefest flicker of insincerity. It had to be true. The true taste of organic heirloom tomatos would soon prove Ada right.

“Do you think this one looks ready?” Ada asked, cupping the pendulous, crimson mass in her palm. Was the feeling rolling over in her stomach excitement or plain dread?

“Only one way to find out,” Evan replied. “You should go first. It was your idea.”

With a gentle twist the fruit came loose. The glandulous bushes hissed a warning in volatile alkaloids.

Ada sniffed the scarlet globe. The same solanaceous aroma, mellowed by a hint of decay.

She touched her lips to the rubbery epidermis. Did they prickle with expectation?

A tentative bite into the powdery flesh. The acid, slimy juice escaped out the corner of her mouth.

Evan watched, unblinking, full of hopeful intent.

Ada attempted to roll her eyes, but it turned into a grimace. The prickling spread up the back of her throat, deep into her sinuses.

“Wow!” Evan used his most supportive tone. “Save some for me.”

There was no hiding from the truth forever. Head hung, Ada handed over the remaining half.

He touched the seedy pulp with his tongue, smacked his lips delicately, furrowed his brows a moment, then promptly devoured the offering.

“This is amazing,” he said between sloppy mouth sounds. “I’ve never eaten a real living thing before. What should we grow next? Zucchini? Brussel sprouts? Radishes are ready in weeks!”

If he was putting on a brave face for Ada’s benefit she didn’t want to shatter the illusion. Suddenly the callouses on her fingers, the sunburn on her neck, the ache in her back asserted themselves.

“I’ll come pick some more for you tomorrow, my love. How about we go back inside, sit down with a big bowl of nutritionally complete sweetened bacon bites? Then you can show me how to hand paint those little plastic trees for your model train set.”

Tomato Plant and Root (Basilius Besler 1613)

My Kingdom for a Teat Rag

A few years ago a friend and neighbour gave me a gift. In return for sending some curds and whey her way she hand knitted a stack of face washers, which proved useful for the routine task of cleaning udders every day before I milked the goats. I have dabbled in various handicrafts over the years, so I appreciated someone taking the time to make something by hand to give away.

Last week the final surviving teat rag disintegrated, so it was time to find a replacement. I considered going back to cheap disposable cloths, but they fall apart almost instantly: a horrible waste. So I looked around the house and found this:

This is a doily that I made a while ago, back in the days when I still bothered to pick flowers to bring inside (and even then I rarely used the doily). It only took me an evening to crochet it. However, the reason I kept it hanging about the house so long, and story behind the many hours it took to make it is worth sharing.

When I first bought the farm I was interested in getting some alpaca to spin and weave/knit their fleece. As a test I bought some alpaca yarn and made a scarf, and promptly discovered I overheated in it after the one week of subtropical winter was gone. So I scrapped that idea in favour of more useful goats, but the urge to spin and weave didn’t completely vanish.

I tried growing perennial cotton. There are four main species of fibre producing cotton and only one is an annual. The species I managed to locate (Gossypium arboreum) grows into a shrub around 2 meters tall that persists for about 5 years once established. They need decent conditions when young, but stand up to just about anything once they get some height. The peachy flowers are followed by pods that split to release tufts of white cotton wool, that the birds love gathering for their nests (birds of a feather think alike and all). There are strain of the species with naturally green or brown fibres, which I tried without any success, but that may have just been bad luck. In the end I decided the white variety was enough for now (with some scope for dying later, though cellulose is more of a pain to dye than wool).

Years ago, before the recent floods, I grew a row of cotton bushes and harvested a few shopping bags of fluff. Timing is sometimes an issue- during wet spells the quality of the fibre drops rapidly if not harvested quickly. Next I had to figure out what to do with it all.

After doing some research I bought a simple drop spindle, though with the short fibre length of cotton this is not the ideal approach. The upside was it allowed me to start getting a feel for the material without spending too much. To compensate I needed to produce very chunky fibre, a slow and tedious process compared to finer fiber once you get the technique right. In traditional fabric production the spinning phase consumes the vast majority of the labour, and used to be a major focus of pre-industrial households if you didn’t want the family freezing in rags. This sample of chunky, single ply thread was what I turned into my unfortunate doily: my very first attempt at producing fabric from scratch (and hence why I didn’t throw it out despite it being useless).

The problem with drop spindles is that the growing thread needs to support the weight, which means more delicate/short fibres like cotton are not really suitable. In India they get around this by resting the spindle in a smooth bowl, a technique that requires a lot of practice to master. I experimented with disassembled egg beaters and fishing rods to make a mechanism for horizontal spinning (similar to how a great wheel works) but couldn’t find anyone willing to turn the handle while I drew out the fibres.

The final solution came in the form of a kick spindle, a considerable investment imported from a craftsman in the USA. It took me a little while, but soon I was churning out decent quantities of thread about the same thickness as commercial knitting wool. I toyed with double plying it, but found it wasn’t necessary with thread this thick. It might be worthwhile if I get better at creating thinner thread one day.

This thread was then turned into beanies, using a simple circular knitting nancy. Once again spinning the thread for a single beanie took about 5-10 hours, while the final step of knitting took maybe an hour to complete. Going through this process really emphasised the incredible impact industrial spinning mills had on society. I now have to stop myself from going into the fetal position when I throw out a cheap tea towel or (heaven forbid) a tattered bed sheet. The amount of material, energy and skill/technology needed to produce them is staggering, yet we consume cheap cloth like it is no big deal.

When I first made the beanies, even I was sceptical about how useful they would be. They were pretty thin and full of holes, so I was surprised to discover how warm they were. Initially the thread was quite tightly spun, but over time the fibre frayed just enough to make them incredibly soft and comfortable to wear. And despite my fears of them disintegrating the first time I washed them, they are going strong after wearing them non stop, every winter, for several years. The durability of homespun thread was the biggest surprise. My worry about all those hours spinning being a waste evaporated. Instead my biggest problem was explaining to friends why I wasn’t in a hurry to put aside ten hours to make one for them (would you pay $200 for a beanie that should last a lifetime? That my friends is the essence of the trap of industrialisation).

The whole experience keeps making me reflect on a bit of history I picked up. When Romans conquered southern Britain it connected the island to the vast trade networks of the continent. Cheap, mass produced, high quality ceramics were imported from specialist regions in France and beyond. The local pottery industry on the island vanished as a result.

When the Romans finally abandoned their possession, the people left behind found themselves with a big problem. Nobody knew how to make ceramics. For quite a while examples of pots turned up in the archaeological record, so crude you would laugh at them if your child brought them home from arts and crafts lessons. It took the migration of skilled potter families into Britain to restore the skillset.

As the high tide of industrialisation and global trade continues to wind down, a similar dynamic will likely play out around the world in a wide range of products and materials people rely on day to day. Fabric is likely to be among them, given the extraordinarily stretched supply lines that pass through multiple countries. Even third world nations mostly rely on cheap clothing imported from far away.

Spinning fibres and making cloth is one of our most fundamental skills, something I felt twitching in my fingertips my whole life, unexplained until recent years. We shouldn’t all be expected to pursue such strange hobbies as growing our own underpants. But the amazing thing about humanity is how rapidly skills pass from one person to another, provided there is a person to start the chain.

If ancient Britain had retained just one local potter family they might have saved themselves a whole lot of bother. Likewise, if a few among us (a few oddballs on the margins are more than enough), if those few people invest the necessary hours in rediscovering these old techniques, then perhaps one day we will have something precious to share.

Beloved beanies after years of constant wear
Now there’s dust on my kick spindle, you shmuck. I’ll get back to spinning soon, but plan to keep experimenting with other approaches to producing thread and fabric.

Wait Long Enough by the River

There is an old saying- wait long enough by the river and the head of your enemy will float by. I think it is a perfect encapsulation of the “do nothing” impulse recommended by Fukuoka. Often problems will solve themselves given enough time better, and often far better than if you had intervened.

A great example of this principle happened with stable fly in my goat sheds. These insects suck blood from the animals then lay eggs in the manure. Under ideal conditions they can rapidly build up to damaging levels. For the first year or so they hadn’t discovered the herd, but then they arrived and we had a massive population explosion of biting flies. At the time the herd was on a concrete floor, so I tried cleaning up the manure regularly, though I soon noticed that the maggots did much better in a thin layer of fresh manure. Allowing a thicker manure layer to build up seemed to make life harder for them. I later found out there is a fairly common parasitic wasp that preys on the stable fly pupae, but it persists better under more undisturbed conditions compared to the maggots. I now make sure to leave a deep, well-aged manure pile in the corner to provide habitat for them (and having the animals on a dirt floor seems to also help). I cannot be completely sure my intuition is correct since the wasps are too tiny to observe, but since I changed my approach toward doing less I rarely see more than a couple of stable flies bothering my goats.

A second example of this principle is the blady grass/sword grass/cogon grass that has steadily spread in my goat pastures. It is a low palatability species, with high silica leaves with razor sharp edges. On the upside it produces a network of rhizomes that contain a modest amount of starch. This makes the plant easily controlled by pigs (though I would not tolerate the digging and erosion where it grows on my hills). It also means this plant is a potential famine food, so having a few large patches on hand is comforting when viewed the right way. That said, I was slightly concerned about it continuing to spread and dominate my goat paddocks, reducing feed quality.

Over the last two wet summers the blady grass population has exploded, growing taller and lusher than ever before. Then I noticed a particularly thick patch growing outside the goat paddocks looking strangely browned off and collapsed. I figured there was likely an unidentified pathogen taking out its root system. As an experiment I dug a bucket of soil from the worst affected spots, then transplanted it into the centre of the thriving blady grass clumps in the goat paddocks. I only did this to half the unaffected patches as a simple experiment to see if my method caused any effects. Fast forward a couple of months later and the deliberately “infected” blady grass patches are looking distinctly sick, while the untreated ones look pretty normal for this time of year. I won’t go out of my way to infect all of them- maintaining a stable population of the pathogen might depend on not killing all the patches at the same time. How far the effect will go to kill the blady grass I cannot tell, but if it slows them down enough to allow other species to grow then I will be happy. As it turns out, the inside of blady grass patches are the perfect place to establish wattle trees inside the goat paddocks since the girls normally graze around them. Spiny pioneer plants like brambles often serve a similar purpose. By the time the herd notices the trees they are past the vulnerable stage and ready to grow abundant, tasty goat fodder up and over the competition.

Close up of a Stable Fly (sourced from here)

The original patch of dying blady grass

Distant patches deliberately infected blady grass browning off, while the control group in the foreground seem normal.

Redesigning Zone One

As a general rule I avoid writing posts about my plans- reporting results is much more juicy. This post is an exception since I am at a turning point- redesigning my zone 1 home garden. You could call it a vegetable garden, but it has always been used for so much more.

The space in question is ten meters away from the house, 60 m long and 20 m wide (a total area of 0.3 acres). It is the largest relatively flat space close to home in our farm of rolling hills. Originally it was dense kikuyu pasture, which I divided into six cells with chicken wire to house my geese at night. They removed the grass and concentrated a little fertility from their daily foraging. Around the borders I planted hedges of Tithonia as a windbreak/goat fodder/goose barrier. Beds were prepared running east-west by hoeing the topsoil from the paths onto the growing space. After clearing weeds with a hoe the beds were prepared by topdressing biochar and goat manure in a central strip, then direct sowed along the edges.

Weeds were controlled by hoeing several times through the growing season, mostly on the path and bed edges, then piled up to die. I used no mulching since I had no biomass ready to use, and refused to bring in truckloads of machine processed mulch. Overall the method worked well and for several years I created six cells that periodically returned to geese, to be prepared and sown twice a year in spring and autumn. Old vegetable cells with residual fertility and lower weed pressure were used to trial staple crops most seasons.

During 2021 I burned out a bit, so let the space go (though it continued to produce crops for nearly a year). The summer of 2022 turned extremely wet, so it was fortunate I hadn’t planted anything the prior spring. Our soil is a peculiar heavy cracking clay that holds a lot of water, supporting crops with zero irrigation for about six months without rain, but it turns to a bog with prolonged rain even on the top of the hill. The topsoil on the hilltop is fairly thin. One day I might create a smaller vegetable garden in a low lying area to use during prolonged droughts.

Over the years of growing in the space I discovered the southern boundary crosses over an old road base, and fertility generally declines in the south and west. The Tithonia hedges eventually became woody and annoying to cut back, with significant root competition, so I cut them down one final time and burnt or sprayed them out. I also discontinued my goose flock, so removed all the bird wire. Experimenting with organic structures like bamboo trellises has convinced me to banish structural metal from the space going forward.

The vetiver grass boundary has now matured, but turns out to make a perfect rat nest habitat if left uncut. It is a useful living weed barrier around the space, but I am now committed to cutting it all regularly (something which is vastly easier to do if it cut before it turns woody). I didn’t use mulching when I established the space because I didn’t have the biomass on hand, but that situation has now changed. I also now realise how excellent Canna is as a mulching material (I would rank it as more useful than vetiver) and plan to plant the western half of the space with Canna as part of my breeding project. I may put a lemongrass border between the canna and growing beds, if I think I have enough time to cut it regularly and need of the extra mulch.

Laying mulch in one place forever is still a luxury I cannot afford. I suspect most people who are mulch enthusiasts would feel the same way if they didn’t have diesel or coal powered machinery doing most of the work for them. Even with half the space planted in Canna and a mature vetiver edge I would not have enough biomass to permanently mulch the remaining half of the space (I only need about half of it under crops at any one time). Instead I plan to leverage the limited mulch supply more effectively using a technique called stale seed bedding.

The biggest problem with weeds is during the early phase of establishing the crop. Under the worst scenarios a carpet of weed seedlings will germinate around your crops and smother them if you don’t go through the fiddly work of separating them by hand. Permanent deep mulching kind of solves this, but usually it only works if you transplant seedlings into holes in the mulch (which demands a whole lot extra work and resources and gives substandard results due to root disturbance).

Stale seed bedding seeks to reduce the weed seed bank in the soil before you plant your crops. Often this is achieved by clearing the space, waiting for weeds to germinate, then smothering them with a sheet of heavy plastic while they are small. I wanted to get away from relying on plastic, so wondered if focused use of mulch could achieve the same result. As such I have created a system of mulch banks, rolling across the weedy landscape like waves, with gaps of bare soil between them to tempt the weeds into germinating, only to die when the next wave smothers them. Moving the rows forward with the hoe is pretty quick and light work, and the mulch can be piled deep enough to smother even perennial weeds like dock. Most importantly it allows a limited amount of mulch to have a much larger impact than it would sitting in one place until it rots. I suspect regularly lifting the mulch will slow down its decomposition (and make it less attractive for vermin).

The proposed shape and proportions of the growing beds now works a lot better since materials don’t need to be transported as far. The Canna beds run parallel to the whole space, providing mulch. The goat pens are also positioned to provide manure and stripped branches without excess movement. When you move all your material by hand such things quickly become important.

This approach should allow me to transition from the previous batch approach to bed preparation (where I had to rush to prepare a whole cell in time for spring or autumn) to a continuous approach (where a new bed is prepared, and sowed every few weeks provided soil moisture is sufficient). The continuous approach works better now I have given up large scale variety trials to focus on the smaller range of vegetables that are proven performers under my conditions, and should allow me to produce a more steady supply for the kitchen. Currently beds are being prepared starting in the north east corner, moving to the south, but ideally I will reverse the direction from south to north so that newly germinating crops are not shaded by more established crops to the north (mostly an issue in winter when the sun dips). Soon I will burn my Tithonia branch piles on the southern end and start working northwards. The best looking Canna hybrids will be selected from the mass planting further from home, one clone per bed so I can evaluate starch content later on.

The final piece of the design is the northwest corner, where soil fertility is a bit lower but the proximity to the house puts the space at a premium for convenience. This is where I plan to move all my herbs and perennial vegetables, though I have decided to give up on the Mediterranean herbs (rosemary, oregano, thyme) that regularly collapse during our wet summers and struggle on our low calcium clay. I will do a follow up post on the herbs and perennials that make sense under my conditions, sometime in the future, as well as a report on how the new design worked in practice.

Alternating rows of vetiver mulch and bare soil for stale seed bedding

An aerial view of my zone one space. Green border shows vetiver edge.

Bunya Seedling Tubers

A major project on my experimental farm involves a heroic (and possibly fool hardy) attempt to domesticate Araucaria as a new staple tree crop. This involves collecting as much genetic diversity in the genus as possible (both from remnant local populations of bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii) and adding a pinch of South American parana pine (Araucaria angustifolia)). I wrote about the start of this project previously here

When I sow my bunya nut seed I often end up with more than I can pot on. I usually transplant into tree tube pots at the dormant tuber stage, the strange swollen root that forms from the seed long before any shoots appear above ground. I could have run around planting the excess tubers in the paddocks, but previous experiments have shown that only a small number manage to establish from this early life stage under my conditions.

I had read that the local indigenous people used to bury excess bunya nut seeds in damp river banks to save them for later. Their rate of respiration would slow down, but if they germinated the tubers would also be eaten since the seedling tubers still contained a useful amount of nutrients. Apparently an edible fungus would sometimes infect the seeds, and I have seen them rot and emit a rather spectacular blue cheese aroma, but haven’t been game to try them myself given how unpredictable fungi can be in terms of toxicity.

This season I took the few dozen spare seedling tubers and decided to experiment with eating them. I roughly cleaned them and split the batch in half. One set was boiled for 20 minutes with skin on. A nibble on a raw root showed a texture like a somewhat woody carrot, and a flavour between parsnip and coconut. After boiling, the starch grains inside swelled, making the texture more like a potato but still fairly crisp. The skin contained most of the flavour and was soft enough to consume whole, though was a little too earthy for my liking.

The other half were peeled lightly then also boiled for 20 minutes. The final texture was more pleasant without rough skin in place. I would stick to a description of somewhere between cooked carrot crunch, and flavour somewhere between chestnut and parsnip, with a slight resinous aftertaste.

It is worth pointing out this post does not count as a recommendation to eat bunya seedling tubers yourself. Whenever you try eating a new food it pays to be cautious. Doing research is one part of the process, but more important is easing into consumption. That means tasting before swallowing, nibbling (and waiting a few hours) before eating more, and waiting a day or two before considering anything approaching a full meal. Even edible plant species can have toxic parts elsewhere in the organism- potato leaf salad wouldn’t be a good idea for example. And finally, foods that are edible for one person will usually cause unexpected reactions in a small percentage of the population.

Going forward- what practical use could be made of the results of this little experiment? Bunya nuts do have the downside of being relatively perishable. Large, starchy nuts tend to have an active metabolism that means they cannot be stored fresh for long. At the moment I mostly shell mine then freeze them, but that won’t be a practical option in a post industrial future. They can also be dried, but that needs a fair bit of energy (be it electricity or firewood) and air tight containers for storage.

The results of this experiment suggest a useful low tech approach could be to densely sow beds with bunya seeds, so the tubers can be gradually dug up over time for consumption. This could extend the season by about 3-6 months, since the sprouting of the tubers takes about that long, and would provide a functional equivalent to carrot/parsnip for cooking through winter and spring without needing to fuss with their short lived seeds.

Next time I have too many bunya nuts to process for the freezer I will give it a go and report back.

Freshly washed bunya seedling tubers

Peeled and boiled. A bit fiddly but the end result is tasty enough.

Boiled with the skin on. Edible but not ideal.