Plant Profile- Garlic

The post today is on a crop with a long and tortuous path, and one that isn’t finished yet by a long shot. Garlic is such an amazing plant with a multitude of uses that I was excited when I first tried growing it. The excitement was short lived however as when the plants were dug as their tops died down I found bulbs that were not substantially bigger than the ones I had planted. This was in my old intensive style garden that relied on truck loads of mushroom compost and regular irrigation.

When facing a failure like this there are a lot of different ways to respond. One option I have become more fond of as I get older is to simply give up on that particular plant and focus my energy on something that is more sincerely rewarding. The opposite extreme is to throw everything and the kitchen sink at the problem, hoping that if you just add enough of the right ingredient or work hard enough at the right technique then the problem can be solved.

With biological systems there are a multitude of possible causes for failure. Was the crop planted too early or too late? Watered too much or not enough? Was there too much fertiliser, too little, or even more diabolical the wrong balance of any of dozens of nutrients and minerals. Or it could be something about the soil itself, or the daylengths were too different at our latitude to places further south where garlic normally grows, or our winters simply weren’t cold enough. I tried growing it again on a smaller scale with new bulbs and got the same result.

As it turned out life got in the way and I stopped gardening for a few years. When I got back to it I noticed a few other folk were growing garlic as far north as Bundaberg, and even close by but usually further inland where the soil is quite different to mine. My earlier stock had come from mail order nurseries further south, so I thought it was worth trying again with the three unnamed varieties I knew could grow close by.

Like all my other cool season beds I simply top dressed some uncomposted goat manure and a bit of wood ash and charcoal, then hoed the topsoil from the paths up onto the beds during the summer after the geese had been through the area. Once the weather cooled a touch in March I divided my garlic bulbs and planted them about 10 cm apart in two rows. As before they sprouted, got a follow up weeding later in the season, a top dressing of camphor laurel leaves, and then left to die down in early spring. During the early season there was a lot of rain so the gardens were quite boggy, but the rain stopped in early winter so the ground was quite dry by spring.

To my surprise they had formed useable bulbs about 3-5 cm across, with distinct cloves that allowed them to be divided and replanted. Why had they filled out now when they failed during previous attempts? With so many possible factors it is almost not worth even asking the question, though I suspect the goat manure with its different mineral balance is the main reason. The smaller bulbs that had not filled out well were eaten since they were unlikely to store well. The large ones were strung up on the verandah over the summer. One variety almost completely dried up and died during storage and its few remaining bulbs were discarded. The other two were replanted this year along with a couple of new strains from different sources. Once again they performed pretty well considering the difficult conditions. The soil was like concrete at harvest, with large slabs of clay being levered out with a tuber hidden in the middle. A careful shovel strike would split it open like a geode with a precious bulb wedged inside. My initial planting of less than 500 g of very small cloves have a total yield of just over 2 kg, though this included the living roots and stems that will be slowly absorbed into the tubers soon.

I kept one kilogram of the largest bulbs to replant next year, and if the same rate of increase holds can expect about 8 kg of bulbs. Next year I plan to prepare some beds on our creek flats about 200 m from home. The soil is siltier here so it is possible the garlic will perform better. Due to its location it will be difficult to move large amounts of goat manure to the location, but I might try growing a portion of the garlic crop without this input to test my theory. I will also plant another bed of garlic in the same vegetable bed close to the house in order to hedge my bets. If I planted them all on the creek flats I might find they dislike the conditions so much that I lose my strains that perform reasonably well for me, taking me back to square one. Crops like garlic that are grown by division take several years to propagate up to a useful scale.

There are a few reasons I have been more persistent in learning to manage garlic compared to most other crops. It is in the Allium family, with spring onions giving their best harvests through late autumn to mid spring, and garlic chives coming on after the first good summer rains in January most years. This leaves a bit of a gap from late spring through summer, drawing out longer during droughty years. Garlic fills this gap nicely with harvests in early spring and ease of storage for a few months. Another reason is that garlic is so much more than just a vegetable. Even the bland bloated bulbs imported from China have potent medicinal properties. My years of being plagued by persistent ear infections are past now I know the power of fresh garlic infused olive oil trickled down the ear canal (the relief is almost instant). Home grown is much more potent, especially when grown under my zero input conditions, so garlic is definitely a crop where the total weight of the crop isn’t the most important factor. This potency can be further preserved by storing peeled cloves in honey, the planned use for the smallest bulbs this year. I haven’t tried this before so I will have to let you know how it turns out down the track. Garlic is a perfect example of a crop that bridges the divide between food and medicine, a distinction that doesn’t really exist for anything if you look closely enough. Garlic will always be a minor crop for me, especially since it is effectively sterile so the potential for further breeding and local adaptation is very limited (though amateur plant breeders are working to restore fertility and diversity overseas, so never say never). But it offers sufficient unique benefits that it was worth the slow and frustrating journey to this point. Hopefully garlic and I can grow to understand each other even better in the future.

Dried off garlic ready for harvest. I should have taken photos when they were green
A solid lump of clay levered off with the shovel then lifted with the weed on the left. Two bulbs are hiding in this lump
The harvest sorted by size, destined for honey, replanting and eating over the next month or two.

Good, Better, Best

People love to talk about improvement. Adding this improved the fertility of the soil. The yield of apples was improved with this pruning technique. This piece is a reflection on the limitations of this approach when managing complex systems and alternative mindsets that may prove more useful.

The first blind spot to consider is the problem of measurement. When we grow potatoes for example they serve a large number of uses. Their primary use is as a source of carbohydrates, but also provide protein, some minerals and vitamins, flavour and texture. Even these broad categories could be further broken down into more nuanced details. If you are managing a potato crop but only measuring the total yield of tubers then it is likely you will eventually compromise one of these many roles served by the potatoes. This easily happens if you choose the highest yielding variety. You will almost certainly select a starchy potato that is low in protein and high in water rather than a waxy variety. You could also select a variety that produces large numbers of tiny tubers that are difficult to harvest and process. If you were only selecting for the largest tubers then perhaps hollow ones would win out. There is an old adage that what gets measured gets managed. In the age of industrial vegetable production where the weight and appearance of a crop are the primary considerations it is not surprising that the flavour and nutritional value is sacrificed over time. With improved measurement techniques modern breeding is getting better at paying attention to the full range of factors, but illiterate peasant farmers have been successfully breeding crops for thousands of years using nothing more than their senses.

The next major pitfall is the simple link between more and better. A good example of this is soil carbon. After generations of industrial farming many soils have depleted soil carbon, so increasing it through various techniques will give a wide range of benefits. However the real relationship is more complex. As soil carbon levels increase eventually you reach something akin to a highly acidic pure peat soil, where minerals are so scarce and immobile that only specialist plants can grow slowly. Most relationships fall more into the shape like a bell curve with an optimum value somewhere in the middle. On the upslope, long before adding more of the input causes the output to fall, the return on extra added input starts to diminish. So for example if you gradually added more manure to poor soil the yields would initially increase dramatically, then only a little more as the plants needs are mostly met and other factors become limiting. With further added manure the plants would start to suffer excesses and maybe just be plain buried in the manure.

This idea of there always being a limiting resource in biological systems is called Liebig’s law of the minimum. Living things need many resources to grow and reproduce and any single limiting ingredient can limit overall output. Think of life like the recipe for a cake with different ingredients in fixed proportions. If you run out of eggs but still have everything else on hand you can’t make any more cakes. It is also sometimes explained as like a barrel where every slat in its side represents a different required input. Whichever stave is the lowest limits how much water the barrel can hold. There are a couple of limitations to this model (ironically perhaps?).

Firstly, there are complex interactions between all of the inputs, so they don’t act independently. The bioavailability of many key minerals for example depends on the relative abundance of a competing or complementary mineral. Calcium and magnesium can compete, as can copper and zinc, and with 25 elements essential for life there are a vast number of potential interactions. A similar situation occurs in the intake of essential amino acids in animals where an overabundance of one can limit utilisation of one that is scarce. Secondly while the basic composition and requirements of all organisms is similar they have all developed different adaptations to allow them to cope with varying imbalances in their environment. Different groups of plants are adapted to soils with unusual pH levels or an abundance or scarcity of specific elements. The bioavailability of soil nutrients depends critically on the microbial communities in the soil. Plants form specific relationships with different microbial communities to absorb all their requirements, including water and macronutrients. These are the main tool that allows species to adapt to different mineral balances but is highly species specific. This is one reason why the vision of a garden with every kind of vegetable growing in abundance is folly since their needs are often irreconcilable. The mineral balance of the underlying geology can barely be dented by human efforts to import fertility even with the full power of industrialism, possibly with the exception of a couple of trace elements like selenium and molybdenum that are needed in very tiny amounts.

There is another potential trap in the concept of optimisation. That simple graph with a single optimum might be a smaller part of a much more convoluted landscape. Rather than a single optimum there may in fact be many. If you only make small adjustments in the inputs of the system then you will remain trapped at whichever optimum you first encounter. This is kind of like tuning in on one radio station without realising that if you kept turning the dial you would eventually reach a station that you like even more. A good example of this occurs commonly in plant breeding. Modern dessert type bananas are the result of hybridising two wild species to produce various infertile clones. These are unable to produce seeds, resulting in fruit filled with sweet pulp rather than tooth shattering seeds. In a single step the crop is improved amazingly, but because it is infertile it cannot be further improved. It is a dead end from a breeding perspective, resulting in inevitable disease outbreaks and periodic industry collapse. Though modern biotechnological techniques are finding new ways forward it is also theoretically possible to return to the wild seedy species and go through a more prolonged breeding process to develop bananas that produce just a few seed, and potentially allowing even more productive or disease resistant forms to be continually produced.

The idea of an optimum between competing factors, like increasing yield and decreasing taste, can also be constructed but suffers the problem of needing to weight the relative importance of each factor. There is no universal way to do this as it depends on the relative importance of the various factors, a deeply personal choice. In the absence of anything else the financial impact of all these factors can be weighed up to maximise profitability, but this seems to mostly lead to farms that produce massive quantities of pretty but empty produce. The landscape has so many different dimensions to consider it would fry Einstein’s mind trying to visualise it all at once. Instead science tries to isolate a small number of factors at a time and optimise them before moving onto another factor. With a landscape littered with numerous local optimums this approach is still limited to finding the closest one. There are two types of evolution in a way. One occurs when organisms are pushed to their limits, resulting in them being honed to the nearest viable optimum. The other occurs when the restraints are lifted and the organisms are free to wander the landscape of possibilities without immediately being eliminated.

What is optimum in the short term is often detrimental in the long term. The logic of industrialisation is centred on this idea where present productivity is valued above sustainability. Adding fertiliser inputs or increasing irrigation can increase returns this year, but undermine the functioning of the system in a way that decreases yields over time. The most pernicious of these issues are ones that creep up gradually over many years or even over multiple generations. Grandpa on the verandah will tell everyone that the potatoes from that field are nowhere near as good as when he was a boy, but who would take him seriously given the frailty of memory? Even worse, issues like erosion or mineral depletion can take much more than a human lifetime to take effect. Can a peasant farmer feeding his family seriously consider changing their practices to reduce yields today in the hope that people in a thousand years will have more?

One final factor also needs to be considered when optimising a system. As the system approaches its optimum, balanced and strained between a wide variety of competing factors, the optimisation landscape can become increasingly steep and treacherous. Like a violin string that is tightened to produce a higher note it also gets closer to the breaking point, with outputs potentially fluctuating more wildly as inputs vary. Like a village where there is zero food waste and people are perfectly efficient and economical, there is no buffer if the crop yield decreases by 20 % one year. Efficiency and resilience are often opposites in complex systems.

Hopefully this meandering rant has given you some new mental tools to avoid some of the pitfalls of the modern optimisation mentality. Sometimes less is more in a multitude of surprising ways.

Conceptual evolution from better, to optimum to multiple optima.

A Taste of Reality

One of the interesting parts of experimental farming is trying new foods. “Interesting” is a pretty neutral term and I would definitely not use exciting to describe the job these days. A large proportion of the crops that I trial grow reasonably well but fail to produce any product I consider worth eating. A lot of tropical leaf vegetables fall into this category for me and I wonder how many of the permaculturalists promoting them actually eat them in any amount on a regular basis (then again I am fairly oxalate sensitive so I understand people’s palates vary enormously).

As lunchtime rolled around today after a morning spent weeding I decided to put something on the menu I haven’t tried before. Pigeon pea is a commonly promoted plant in permaculture circles. It is predominantly used as a staple legume crop that is most commonly encountered in its dehulled form as split pea, commonly used in soups and curries. The whole seed has a bit of a tough skin on it but I found it quite acceptable in this form in stews provided the beans were soaked, cooked, skimmed and drained before incorporating in the main meal, much like any legume. I was very hopeful this plant would become a staple legume for me since the 2-3 m tall bushes are quite capable of growing through weedy pastures and in orchards. They establish quite nicely from direct seeding as well provided the conditions are right, usually just as the dry season ends so the competition is low at germination. They even self sow in a few locations.

The problems occur when it comes to harvesting. The plant flowers a few times a year but suffers near total loss of seed to a native bug that pierces the developing pods with its proboscis. Spraying bushes of this size would be a complete waste of time, and the bugs are highly mobile so would simply fly away a while. Chickens reject them even when hand fed. The only time I can get a decent harvest is from the winter flowering, but only if the winter is cold enough to kill off most of the bugs yet warm enough that the flowers and young pods aren’t damaged by frost. Based on recent experience these factors only line up about once every 3-5 years. So the plant makes a nice low input bonus crop from time to time, but it is nowhere near reliable enough to be a significant part of my diet. Even trialling a half dozen distinct varieties made no difference to the bug issue.

One variety of pigeon pea always stood out from the others. It is a much larger plant, getting close to 4 m tall under protected conditions. The seed are also larger and pure white, with the flowers also being very pale compared to the common forms. It is difficult to be sure but I suspect this is more akin to the forms of pigeon pea grown throughout the Caribbean islands. There it is not used as a dry legume but instead for its green beans that are added to various dishes. This fact had been rattling around in my brain for years but the final decimation of my winter snow peas by parrots spurred me into giving the green seeds a go. Today for lunch on top of spring onions, Ethiopian kale, a little coriander leaf and some remnant  drying tomatoes I spent another five minutes gathering pods of green pigeon pea to add to the mix.

Trialling a new ingredient requires a bit of balance. I usually cook in bulk so that I can dip back into the pot over a few days. Making a big batch of food with a new ingredient is usually a bad idea since if it turns out to be horrible (as it usually does) then you are left with the choice of forcing it all down or wasting the food. Sometimes a new ingredient will grow on you with time, or takes a few tries to get the preparation right, but forcing yourself to eat something disagreeable is a quick way to ensure you will never eat it again. So I opted to make a simple stir fry for one to try them out.

The peas were podded and vegetables chopped and fried in a little oil in my cast iron pan. Once they softened I added some left over brown rice, warmed it through, then pushed the ingredients aside to cook a couple of eggs in the hottest part of the pan. A little salt and a small avocado finished off the meal. I fished out a couple of the pigeon peas to try first. A little mealy, a little musty (much like the bushes themselves), but a nice texture and so far no signs of indigestion. Given that each bush only had a few pods at the right stage with filled out seeds that were still green, and it took a bit of fiddling to find them, I don’t think I can say this ingredient is a winner. It is nice to know it is edible enough, but I won’t be going out of my way in a hurry to make it again.

It is worth also considering the economics and sustainability of the meal as a whole as well as an interesting mental exercise. The shallots, tomatoes, kale and coriander probably weighed about 200 g in total. Store bought equivalents would cost about $3 at most. I used about two cups of cooked brown rice bought from the store, about 100 g worth of dried rice costing about 30 cents. I have grown rice before and while it surprisingly withstood our birds the processing was too complex for me to figure out on the scale of the trial, and with it costing so little in the shops why would I bother? The two eggs were also store bought, costing about $1.50 and weighing about 100 g in total. The avocado weighed about 100 g and cost $0.60 from the local farmers market. It was cooked on an old electric stove for about 20 minutes, consuming about 1200 Watts, or 0.4 kWh, costing less than 20 cents. So of the total cost of the meal of $5.60, of which about half was derived from the vegetable garden. It is difficult to account for all the time I spent getting the vegetable garden going, but just allowing for the 10 minutes spent harvesting before the meal the time for that unavoidable task on its own rewarded me with $3 per ten minutes, or $18 per hour. I would estimate I spent about as long on establishing the crops, so the real rate for vegetable gardening is more like $9 per hour. Given my inputs are minimal this estimate does not need to fall further but if I was investing in irrigation and imported fertility it would be lower, but yields could also be higher. Either way this rates tell you why so few people garden if they can find work. Under the current economic conditions it makes much more sense to work a job and simply buy vegetables. The pigeon peas took a lot less time to establish and grow but much more time to harvest and process, a common pattern across different crops.

Analysis from an energetic standpoint is also interesting. The home grown vegetables consistent mainly of spring onion and tomato, so those 200 g contained about 90 kJ. By contrast the rice contained 2500 kJ, the eggs 400 kJ and the avocado 900 kJ. I am also ignoring the little rice bran oil used. So from an energetic stand point the vegetables contributed 90 kJ out of a total of 3890 kJ. For reference this total is about 45% of the daily minimum energy intake for an adult, but my intake is probably a bit higher since I am fairly physically active. Those vegetables only contributed 2% of the energy in the meal and a measly 1 % of a daily minimum energy need. Hopefully these calculations reveal how vegetable growing is marginal economically and irrelevant to actual survival from an energetic perspective. All they offer is a way to make a diet reliant on a few bland staples more palatable, and provide some fibre, minerals and vitamins. Depending on the staple crop and how it is processed it should be able to provide adequate levels of all these as well, though in recent times industrially processed staples tend to be deficient in these vital ingredients, stripped away to make the products easier to store and transport.

Some regular readers might be thinking back to my recent post on winged yam. To be honest the tuber is still sitting on the verandah waiting processing. I might put some into dinner tonight, but if I had peeled and prepared it for lunch it would have added about 30-40 minutes more to preparation time (plus I already had the left over rice waiting in the fridge). Traditional agricultural societies had a minimum group size with at least one person dedicated to food preparation for a reason as managing the demands of cooking from scratch is a full time job with a natural scale of about one cook for every 3-6 eaters, especially in the absence of refrigeration. Taking the extra time to prepare the yam would have meant no time to write a post today. I think I will stop now before I am tempted to analyse the economics and energetics of that particular habit.

An old pigeon pea bush nearing the end of its life
Mixed dried pigeon peas from the last decent crop a few years ago
A quick harvest from the unirrigated vegetable garden
The finished meal, complete with musty green pigeon peas

Lettuce Not?

For a person who spends a lot of their time growing and breeding vegetables I am pretty sceptical of their importance. The further you go back in agricultural history the less important they appear to have been. Staple crops were domesticated first with vegetables only starting to appear thousands of years later and long after tree crops. Where possible cultures usually preferred to harvest wild vegetables when they were available, but increasing populations and intensification of land use saw them gradually erased from the landscape, leading to greater incentive for cultivation. Eggplant was only domesticated in the 1st century BC. Broccoli is from around the same time in the Roman Empire. Staple crops are my main passion, so rationalising the return on investment of the vegetables I do grow is important for me. I can always munch on some wild weeds on the side if times get hard, but scrounging starch from an unmanaged and degraded landscape is a much harder challenge.

A hint of the role of vegetables in ancient societies can still be found in their names. Lettuce bears the latin name Lactuca sativa, the second part referring to saving, or promoting good health. Many plants now thought of as vegetables to be eaten by the plate full originated as plants considered more medicinal in their traits. Other plants with this species name include garlic, oats, cannabis and saffron. Other plants bear the species name officinalis in reference to being the official medical form, including asparagus, nasturtium, dandelion and ginger, along with many herbs. Dandelion is a good example of a plant shifting from herb to vegetable in current culture.

Vegetables have been a relatively minor component in the diet of most modern humans, increasing over time as fat and animal protein became more limited in response to an increasing proportion of carbohydrates. The modern mania for vegetables, where the logic goes “if a little is good for you then a lot must be miraculous” is quite curious to me. Thinking of them as medicinals, where the dose makes the poison and quality is more important than quantity makes more sense to me.

Lettuce is a crop I have been growing for many years and I am starting to seriously reconsider its place in my system. I thought I had a suitably hardy old strain called canasta that produces thick ruffled rosettes of lightly bronzed leaves that taste quite nice. After a few years of itself seeding vigorously that lured me into a false sense of security so I didn’t save seed, it disappeared from my garden one year. Our highly variable climate was probably behind the issue with seed failing to survive in the soil over summer, though I did also notice it was having trouble setting seed in spring due to a mildew on the flowers. This in turn I suspect might be due to a limiting mineral nutrient. I managed to resurrect the variety from a few very old seed found in a packet at the bottom of a drawer and grew a large crop again this year. But once again they look like they will fail to make seed this spring. Lettuce has a very shallow root system compared to most of my other crops, making it more vulnerable to dry spells. With our typically dry springs that means it can have trouble completing its life cycle. Wet springs aren’t much better as the seed often rot as they mature.

A much more useful alternative to lettuce in my system is endive. This is another daisy but from a different branch of the family tree, with large blue flowers in contrast to lettuces tiny yellow ones. It is traditionally a biennial in cooler climates but flowers in late spring from an autumn sowing. Unlike lettuce it has a substantial tap root, allowing it to access water during dry spells. This also means the whole head can be harvested, leaving the taproot to regrow for a second harvest later. That trick is invaluable since by midwinter my garden is too dry to start new seedlings most years. I have settled on the broadleaf forms since the frizzled types trap so much debris in their crowns that they are a pain to clean off. Unlike the fluffy seed of lettuce that must be harvested before it blows away, endive produces tiny seed packed into dense heads that must be crushed with considerable force to release them. A sturdy boot on concrete works well.

Originally I planned to grow both crops, with the lettuce giving a quicker harvest in autumn while allowing the endive to continue on for harvest in winter and spring. Looking at the recent performance anxiety of lettuce when it comes to producing seed I am re-evaluating if I want to grow them at all. Endive grows only a little slower at the start of the season, tastes nicer (I like a little bitter), is more pest tolerant, drought tolerant, regrows from harvest and damage, has a much longer harvest window and can seed and self seed much more reliably than lettuce. Thinning excess seedlings of endive gives a crop before lettuce is mature as well. Managing only a single species would also make seed saving a lot easier. There is an optimum level of management complexity between a pure monoculture and growing everything under the sun.

Not all is lost for lettuce as I will keep tinkering at the edges with new varieties to see if anything gets through my filters. This year I am trialling a variety called “lion tongue” that might be “deer tongue”. I planted it too late to get a fair assessment of its flavour potential, but it is from a distinct lineage that potentially has a stronger root system than more modern forms developed with constant artificial irrigation in mind. If it seeds well this year I will see if it can complement endive as outlined above. If not I will probably try the odd new variety now and then see if any take off, if only for the excitement of growing something new. Because lettuce self pollinates it only takes one good plant to found a new line, so it is easy to play with in a less serious way than outcrossing crops that demand more genetic diversity for long term performance. If not lettuce, then any old green thing will save me instead, and I will save myself the bother of persisting with a crop that doesn’t repay my efforts.

Lion tongue lettuce holding through the drought (so far)
these for salads but need the strongest ones for seed
A patch of self sown endive in last years garden that are providing loose leaves every day. These are even growing on the bare path that was scraped back to the clay subsoil.

Against Design

Humans are the thinking ape, self defined as being the only species to ponder deeply and create novel thoughts and behaviours. Western human experience is deeply immersed in worship of intellect and the power of decision making. More recently many of us have been influenced by the narrative power of computer games and fiction where problems are always designed to be solved as long as the correct decisions are made, and usually fairly obvious ones at that. We are continuously taught by the artificial world we inhabit that success awaits us so long as we make the correct decisions.

Yet the world around us is usually not the product of deliberate human thought. Cities and landscapes grow and evolve as a million unconscious acts unfold. In places where humans dominate landscape design the results are often deeply unsettling. Anyone who has spent much time in Canberra can tell you how off-putting the lived experience is, in contrast to the beautiful sweeping curves on the designers maps. Other designed cities like Brasilia and Naypyidaw in Burma suffer similar disturbing atmospheres. Humans have great difficulty escaping the tendency for order and simplicity, projecting simplified Platonic ideals on a messy reality. When asked to make up a string of random numbers we can’t do it. Gardeners planting bulbs tend to produce a bland smeared arrangement compared to natural distribution with all sorts of exciting clumps and drifts. We claim to love simplicity as elegance but in reality it is all we are capable of producing.

The principles of permaculture, which is at its heart a design philosophy, are similarly vulnerable to the inescapable limitations of the human mind. For example one common design tool is the swale- consisting of contour lines sketched across the topography that is relatively simple to conceive, communicate and implement. This also contrasts with their brittleness in practice: a single break in their design can end up concentrating water flows in a way that significantly worsens erosion relative to doing nothing, potentially damaging more swales below them and creating a cascading failure. Swales are similar to an electric fence that is designed to function with the most efficient use of materials, but a single faulty insulator renders the whole structure useless.

By contrast a real landscape that has self evolved to utilise water will consist of a complex three dimensional fractal network that goes beyond the ability of language and art to communicate. Designs only based on surface contour ignore variations in soil composition across the landscape. Places that concentrate water flow experience more growth, allowing the system to slow the water and silt where it is flowing the most, making the system self maintaining, unlike simple swales that require perpetual human intervention. Human tendencies to design for efficiency and elegance often lead to systems that are brittle. Even the visual image fails to communicate meaningful complexity, instead favouring a sweeping line in the landscape, a cute animal face or a succulent looking fruit. A photograph of a tangle of weeds or a shovel full of soil says nothing, even though these are the foundations of fertility.

Another design aspect in permaculture is the use of layers to increase total photosynthetic efficiency. Different species in these layers interact with each other in different ways, including factors of shade patterns, seasonality of leaf cover and the production of allelopathic chemicals that hinder the growth of other plants. As a simple example designing a food forest with seven layers with a mere three possible species to consider in each layer gives a possible 3 to the power of 7, or 2187 different combinations of species, each with a different total photosynthetic efficiency and food output potential. For humans planting one plant at a time this level of complexity is beyond anything manageable by deliberate design. The optimum combination would also vary across the geology and topography of the landscape to add further complexity. As a result any human design will be suboptimal almost by definition.

Similarly talk about designing guilds from scratch, as if each species is a piece of furniture to be arranged in a room, shows a lack of understanding of the depth of individual species and their interactions. Even established guilds such as the three sisters system of maize, beans and squash cannot be rapidly reconstructed from scratch since each species contains enormous genetic diversity and needs to be optimised individually for local conditions and again for their interrelationships to create a truly functional guild.

Even the simple concepts of edges and zones are an illusion. In a truly complex and self determining system the species form complex overlapping distributions that defy simple maps and definitions. If dominant species such as trees are used to classify each location then the other components of the ecosystem will still be found to vary somewhat independently. Analysis of forest composition over time has shown what are conceived to be well defined biomes today with combinations of dominant plant species are in fact of relatively recent origin, with wildly varying combinations appearing and disappearing throughout evolutionary history. In these complex patchworks of species edges also do not exist in any form that can be grasped and communicated by the human mind. Only by massive intervention, such as by cutting down a section of forest, do we create something approximating a simple edge that humans can understand.

Natural systems incorporate and tolerate more experimentation and “waste” than human systems where human labor and decisions greatly limit activity. Each plant makes many seeds that are dispersed across the landscape and they grow where they can, but the vast majority do not grow. A human designed system either would not tolerate wasting all the seeds if they were a product for human use, or would lack the labor to disperse and nurture the seeds. The seeds that don’t grow in natural systems are not a waste as such. They are the price the plant pays to find the optimum locations for its growth in the complex ecosystem. By contrast in human designed systems each location ends up with a suboptimal species as they are established and protected from competition by human intervention. In natural systems the plants that photosynthesise best win the day, to the betterment of the total ecosystem as more energy becomes available. The dream of the “edible landscape” reveals humans true priorities in managing the landscape. We happily chose to lower total productivity in return for increasing resources for human use.

All this allows humans to maintain the illusion and myth of being in control, while simultaneously convincing themselves they are the saviours of the planet. Simply making the correct series of landscape design choices will not allow us to solve our bigger cultural and ecological problems (though I acknowledge permaculture did originally include this aspect, but it is rarely emphasised alongside the landscape design aspects).

There are several alternatives strategies and heuristics to avoid the mental traps of design. Fukuoka’s principle of “do nothing” and embracing the power of non-intervention deserves greater appreciation. Human instinct is to do, only to find out later that the effort was ineffective or actively harmful. Machinery and technology give us the power to do more and faster, but also allow us to magnify our mistakes before we realise them, often generations later. Mimicking the willingness of nature to experiment by using the power of minimal interventions is also important in the context of limited human resources. For example with vegetation establishment the use of direct seeding, self seeding and minimal sized transplants allows a greater number of experiments to be undertaken compared to planting a small number of larger trees. Producing your own seed and propagating small seedlings also makes more experimentation possible, especially if coupled with a willingness to let plants fail when they are put in the wrong place. This last part is much easier to do if the time, energy and money invested in each plant or seed is minimised as much as possible. Allowing a high species diversity is also key, including leaving room for species with no obvious utility, plus considering that those species labeled as having negative impact may not be as bad as supposed. When dealing with undesirable species focus on management or better yet utilisation rather than elimination. A personal example of this is the camphor laurel trees on our property. A few large trees were removed with great effort based on their reputation, only to find their shade, fodder for goats and fruits for geese were of immense value while their local rate of self seeding was minimal. Pasture quality down hill from these majestic trees is also greatly improved, probably due to their mineral cycling lacking in pastures without large trees. They are now seen as a valuable resource and no more mature trees will be killed.

Permaculture and its principles and philosophies contain enormous value in this rapidly changing world but these things do not stop us suffering human limitations and biases. Being aware of these limitations can help us become better stewards by accepting our important but far from central role in the ecosystem.

An artist ideal of a space planned by the human mind

The Master of Jewels

A long time ago in a prosperous city a merchant arrived from afar and presented the king with a spectacular green jewel, the likes of which had never been seen before. The king was so impressed by the gift that he offered the merchant anything he wished in return. The merchant simply said “Appoint me as master of jewels, giving me the power to create jewellery workshops and tax them for your benefit”. The king was even more impressed that this stranger would propose an arrangement that would only further add to the king’s wealth and prestige. So the king agreed and retreated to his chambers to marvel at the magnificent jewel he had just received.

Outside the master of jewels set about his work. He found several prime locations occupied by filthy chicken pens or withered gardens that the peasants had built. He ordered them removed and built several spectacular jewellery shops in their place. In return he delivered more jewels to the king, who added them to his collection. Next the master of jewels, his power and wealth growing by the day, ordered more peasant gardens and shanty towns built over. The jewels continued to flow.

Several years later the princess forced her way into the king’s chamber. He had not been seen by the people for many months, preferring instead to jealously guard the growing pile of jewels in his chamber. Refusing to listen to his words she dragged him to the balcony and forced him to look out upon his city. The king was astonished to see half the buildings had been replaced with jewellery shops. The few remaining emaciated peasants had been enslaved to work in them from dawn to dusk. The cool trees and sweet flowers were all gone and dust blew along the emptied streets. The princess said “Your master of jewels has destroyed your kingdom. What good are these trinkets when everything else is gone?”

This story is a metaphor for how humans do agriculture. We are like the jewel master who has both the power to create jewellery workshops and the ability to profit from their operation. In operating our farms we displace and destroy the underlying system. We reduce the total amount of photosynthesis taking place in the system in order to take a greater percentage of the energy caught by what remains. We compensate for the lost functions from all that missing photosynthesis by stealing the outputs from a wider area, concentrating the fertility in a small space that is easier to dominate. Even more significantly than this we also use combustible plant matter as a supplementary energy source in order to make a wide variety of foods easily digestible, fundamentally changing our metabolism and place in the ecosystem and making us unlike any organism that has previously existed.

In my own practice I also fall into these patterns. The first photo is of my potato bed that has just been planted out. It was a weedy paddock a year ago, photosynthesising year round. Longer ago it was a forest with probably 2-3 times higher net photosynthesis, with the extra energy used to bring minerals from deep in the soil more effectively than the thin pasture. I housed my geese in there for a few months, causing the pasture to be killed off and manure from the wider farm concentrated in this small, manageable space. Recently some charcoal, ash, bone meal and goat manure were added and the beds hoed up, concentrating the goose manure and top soil in an even smaller space while leaving bare clay behind. For the next month or so as the tubers start to sprout the net photosynthetic output of the bed will be close to zero. The concentrated organic matter and nitrogen will slowly break down and return to the atmosphere. If we get much rain minerals will leach deeper into the soil. A few months later the potatoes will be harvested and stored for the summer, a tiny fraction of the total photosynthetic potential of the space but much more edible to humans than pasture or forest.

By contrast the second picture is of my original vegetable garden established not far from the potato bed. It went through a similar cycle of being denuded, enriched and planted but has started to transition into being a bed for perennials, so the geese will not be returning here except maybe for brief visits. The crops from last year are still growing (spegariello, eggplant, capsicum, fennel, spring onions, lima beans) or have self sown (Ethiopian kale, daikon, carrot, lettuce, endive) and a range of weedy species have been left to fill in the gaps. This bed is still surprisingly productive, producing fennel, endive, shallots and capsicums recently. Various perennial crops have also been planted in amongst everything else (asparagus, pineapple, strawberry, rosemary, tulsi, goldenrod). Since there are no small crop seedlings that would benefit from controlling competition it is tolerable to allow the weeds to fill in gaps for the most part. When weeds start seeding I will hoe them out to keep them in balance with the system and each other, though some species are less friendly and eliminated where possible. If the good weeds are hoed at the correct stage they contribute more in soil building than competition. As the season turns drier this weeding becomes easier since they are less likely to reattach to the soil, and more beneficial since the reduced competition for water benefits the perennials left behind.

The two spaces outlined represent points on a continuum from unmanaged to human dominated spaces, though both examples are at the latter extreme. Even though the diverse garden has some benefits the salvation of mankind and our reconciliation with nature will not be found there. Unlike many other thinkers in this space I don’t believe there is reason to expect humans to collectively recognise our place in the world and voluntarily give up the riches provided by agriculture. I do not believe a return to the arrangements of the pre-industrial past hold much hope either for many reasons. On the other hand I don’t believe humans are on the verge of a near term extinction.

Instead we represent a significant step forward for how a species can live and the planet is going through the process of coming to terms with this change in the rules of the game. This has happened many times before in the history of life on earth. The first blue green algae developed a new highly efficient form of photosynthesis that had the unfortunate waste product of oxygen. This highly reactive molecule had never been produced on the planet before. As it accumulated it poisoned virtually every microbe that came before it, pushing their survivors into the deep ocean and underground. It changed the composition of the atmosphere so dramatically that the planet nearly froze solid to the equator, but also formed a protective ozone layer. As life came to terms with this new pollutant it made new innovations like multicellular life possible. It is hard to imagine how dull life on Earth would have been without this disaster brought on by unchecked power and self-interest on the part of the blue green algae.

Likewise I expect the impact of humanity on planet Earth will lead to unimaginable and fantastic places in time. The power granted to the jewel master cannot be revoked. In the short term we must deal with the impending disasters that are unfolding but such has been most of our history. More on that old story in the next philosophical post.

A bowl of capsicums from the overgrown garden to add to lunch, but mostly for seed saving

Plant Profile- Spring Onion (Allium fistulosum)

Spring onions are a crop that has finally reached its potential after many years of experimentation and development. It serves as a good example of how I go about growing vegetables, so rather than just list boring details about when to sow and how to eat it that you can find anywhere I will instead mostly focus on how my relationship with this species has changed over the years.

Alliums are on the whole a more temperate genus than our climate accommodates. I have grown red salad onions once before after extensive searching to find a variety that will form bulbs at our latitude since each strain uses changes in day length to trigger maturation. They needed to be germinated in a pot, transplanted out into a very highly enriched bed and watered constantly to size them up enough to form good bulbs that matured all at the same time. The resulting onions tasted significantly nicer than store bought red onions but had terrible storage properties, so most of them tasted about the same by the time I got around to eating them. All that work for something that only costs a few dollars in the shops. On top of that it is difficult to produce good quality seed from a limited gene pool if they would flower at all for me. Garlic is similarly challenging, previously growing but not producing useful bulbs. That has changed recently but I will save the details for a future post. One member of the alliums that has proven useful is garlic chive (Allium tuberosum). This species is more perennial and goes dormant during our cold and dry winter and spring, producing a decent crop in late summer through autumn if we have good rains.

Our main allium is the spring onion. I have grown them here for about ten years on and off, initially in more intensive irrigated beds and now with zero input methods. To start I bought seed of one or two varieties at a time. The seed has a fairly short shelf life and commercial seed quality is very variable, so I usually germinated them in a pot in late summer and transplanted them out in clumps of about three in early autumn. The initial crops I grew usually failed to flower or produce seed when left in the bed, though one strain finally managed to produce a few weak flowers and a little seed. This variety appealed to me a lot as it formed very large and robust plants with a deep blue hue due to a thick waxy layer on their leaves that allowed them to stand up to dry conditions.

The following year I decided that the crop had shown just enough potential to take it seriously. I widened my scope and purchased about twelve different named varieties and once again grew them from seed. About two thirds of this seed germinated, with everything from a thick lawn of vigorous ones to zero sprouts under identical conditions. Until you see this kind of side by side comparison it is easy to be sceptical about the wide variability in commercial seed quality. They were transplanted into a new vegetable garden quite far from the house that was abandoned to the weeds after about six months in early spring. About half of the varieties survived this treatment but I lost track of labels and names along the way. Where I was going they wouldn’t matter anyway. I waded into the weeds and transplanted out the surviving spring onions to a bed closer to the main house in late spring. Once they settled in about a third of the plants flowered over a fairly long time period over summer but the majority never flowered. Visual comparison revealed at least a handful of different original varieties were flowering together and most likely crossing based on the frantic bee activity. I didn’t care about which variety was which since anything that could germinate, grow and flower was allowed to contribute to the gene pool. Seed was collected and pooled over this time as well.

When the autumn of 2019 rolled around, about a decade since my first dabblings with the species, I had my first large quantity of home grown seed. I had never direct sowed the seed before since it was too scarce, expensive and unreliable from commercial sources, but having my own stocks changed everything. I prepared a 15 m long bed with two rows, hoed shallow seed beds, broke the underlying compacted clay to about 5 cm with a shovel, then sowed as thickly as I could. Instead of burying the small seed in the unimproved clay I collected pulverised animal manure and leaf litter from a nearby concrete slab where my geese and goats congregate and used that to cover the seed. This brought in a bit of weed seed but resulted in acceptable germination during our wet early autumn. Given I was uncertain how effective direct sowing would be I also made up a few large pots of seed. These proved useful for filling in gaps in the bed by transplanting them later. This hybrid planting strategy reduced the risk while also reducing the work load of transplanting that entire huge bed by hand.

The bed closest to a hedge was selected for the spring onions since they are relatively shade tolerant. The row closest to the hedge was significantly smaller by the end of winter but caught up once the sun moved higher in the sky. The small seedlings were hand weeded once with a hoe then butter knife up close then ignored for the rest of autumn and winter. This allowed a fair bit of weeds and grass to grow around them but the shallots still put on a decent amount of growth. In late winter the beds were hand weeded again and a surface layer of fresh goat manure applied between the two rows, along with a generous sprinkling of wood ash. The plants jumped in size again after this.

Currently the first of the shallots are starting to flower. When the plants go to flower they exhaust much of their resources and often die. This means the useful harvestable span of the crop is reduced as the unflowered plants will remain in useful condition well into mid summer. My current plan is to start harvesting the earliest flowering shallots to try to eliminate this trait from the population. Ideally they should start flowering together in early summer. This also gives the garlic chives a chance to get going so the two allium species can complement each other and provide a similar vegetable product all year around.

Apart from the initial applications of goat manure and ash, the germination layer of leaf mould, and a second manure and ash application the crop received no additional fertiliser. Apart from the ample rains during our wet autumn during establishment where the paths were usually 5 cm deep puddles the crop received no artificial irrigation. The beds were hoed up in preparation over summer and weeded twice so far (a more intensive task the first year on virgin ground provided weed seeding is limited from here on). The crop received no spraying or pest protection of any kind. The soil was only dug roughly to 5 cm deep directly under where the seed were sown and was otherwise left as untouched compacted clay that is like glue when wet and concrete when dry (though close inspection shows it is riddled with worm burrows of varying sizes).

Throughout autumn when the crop was establishing I was still harvesting the tops off last year’s crop that had managed to persist. When cut cleanly off the roots the plants will usually regrow. Individual leaves can also be harvested and the growth of the plant will be less interrupted. The large crop started to be harvested after about three months. Now that our dry spring is here (already 35 C in early September) the crop will power on and continue providing tasty greens for stirfries and soups for another three months at least until flowering begins (and the ones reluctant to flower will keep picking until late summer most likely). At this scale I now have enough to share seed more widely while also providing all our household needs. Increasing the growing scale would just result in more crop than we can eat.

Hopefully all this outlines how growing with limited inputs is possible but requires a big shift in approach. Instead of treating species of vegetables like a piece of furniture picked out of a catalog you need to treat them like a friend, and friendships require attention, consideration and adaptation so that both parties can benefit.

Main bed of spring onion with goat manure/ash top dressing between rows
Last years spring onions still going strong among the weeds

Plant Profile- Winged Yam

Plant profile- Dioscorea alata (winged yam, water yam)

Staple crops that are capable of providing the energy we need to stay alive are a major emphasis on my experimental farm. Most gardeners don’t bother with them since industrially produced grains or potatoes are extremely cheap and there isn’t a major difference in quality between bought and home grown. Vegetables offer a much better economic pay off under these conditions. In a resource constrained future this situation is likely to change.

One crop that has shown enormous promise under zero input management is the winged yam, so named because of the winged ridges on its stems. The name water yam comes from its preference for wet places, though it does not like boggy ground. The vines bear heart shaped leaves and can grow about 10 m tall but they will produce well on shrubs and trellises about 2 m tall. At the base of the plant a lumpy tuber is formed that can be up to 50 kg under ideal conditions such as where they are grown as a major staple crop in central Africa. Under my more difficult conditions I usually harvest them at about 3-5 kg, but one specimen recently caught my eye that was much bigger than normal. The vine had climbed to about 5 m tall up a dead tree and the roots were situated near the outlet for a storm drain.

I set about carefully harvesting this monster. Using a shovel is a recipe for snapping off the brittle tubers and leaving half of them in the ground. The damaged tubers will dry off and heal but need to be cut a fair way below the cut during preparation. A better approach is to use a digging stick or crow bar to dig around the tuber, eventually levering it out once the hole is deep enough. My scales were too sensitive to weigh the tubers but I estimate they are about 15 kg in total. The tubers will store for a few months in a dry shady spot, before the drive to sprout in late spring/early summer gets the better of them. The tubers are peeled with a knife and can be cubed and boiled. They retain a bit more firmness than a waxy potato so can be added to soups, but are also easily mashed into a strangely satisfying sticky mass that is traditionally eaten in small balls by hand in Africa. The cubes can also be roasted and produce a magnificent golden crust. I would rate them only slightly below waxy potatoes in this regard.

This tuber is a good focal point to discuss the idea of EROEI, or energy returned on energy invested. This metric is estimated for fossil fuel sources by counting all the energy used by the industry compared to how much energy is produced. Hunter-gatherers typically operate at an EROEI of 2:1 at most, while agricultural societies have around 5-10:1. The early oil industry was as high as 100:1 when oil shot out of the ground, but now we are only left with the difficult reserves it has dropped to around 15:1. Renewables are generally lower again. EROEI is important because the excess energy left over is needed to support all the complex and specialised functions of a society. This is why hunter gatherers have almost no specialists, while industrial society has thousands of them.

When applying this idea to subsistence staple crops and easier way to think is in terms of time. The 15 kg of yam tubers have about 2500 kJ of energy per kilogram. Allowing for peeling and storage losses there will probably be around 10 kg of finished tubers, so 25 000 kJ of energy. Humans consume about 1500 kJ of energy per day. This means the tuber I just dug up has enough energy for 16 days of energy. I am unlikely to rely completely on yams for my diet, so a more reasonable estimate of 50% of my calories from yams means that large tuber will support me for 32 days, or about a month. In this simplified system the time returned to me then is around 30 days. On the input side it cost me around 1 hour to harvest the tuber, generously one hour to plant (including plants put in other spots that didn’t produce enough to bother harvesting yet), peeling would take about 6 hours as it is a pretty fiddly and slow process due to the irregular shape of the tubers. At this stage the time equivalent EROEI would be looking pretty good, with about one day’s worth of labour (leaving time for sleeping and other tasks) returning 30 days of subsistence calories for an EROEI of 30. Currently I would cook the yam on an electric stove in a metal pot. In a deindustrialised future I would need to spend a couple of days labour collecting fire wood and maybe another day worth of time creating a ceramic pot for cooking (or I could roast the tubers but that would require more firewood). Suddenly the EROEI drops from 30:1 days to 30:4 days, or an EROEI of 7.5, smack in the middle of the range of typical agricultural societies. This would leave enough time spare to secure the other 50% of my calories from other sources, construct and maintain shelter, tools and clothing.

At this point many people would be tempted to take these values and estimate the amount of land area needed to support a single person on yams. The big yam took up about 3 x 3 m, so about 10 square meters. Therefore if one yam supports a person for a month you just need to scale up by a factor of twelve, so 120 square meters is enough to feed a person for a year for 50 % of their calories, or double this at 240 square meters for some miserable hypothetical human who eats nothing but yams for eternity. This estimate would be a mistake for a few reasons. Firstly nutritionally a diet of 100 % yam would be a recipe for all sorts of deficiencies and imbalances. Additionally yams contain toxins (more below) that while easily reduced by cooking some residual amounts inevitably remain. That feeling of indistinct disgust when you eat too much of one kind of food is often related to these minor food toxins accumulating over time. On top of this it is worth remembering this yam was exceptional. I normally get about 1/5 as much yield per plant, so the area would need to be five times more, or 1200 square meters. It was also unusual in having a perfect trellis as the dead tree. If I needed to build trellises for all the vines it would take investment of a lot more time, plus I would need the area to grow the trellis material. The original calculation also didn’t have any measure of land used for fire wood to cook the yams and fire the clay pots.  And the final problem is that yams are only available from late winter to late spring, so maybe four months of the year. They could be cut into slices and dried to extend the season, but this would also increase the amount of time invested and require extra land for more firewood. Like the original idea of EROEI calculations the whole idea suffers from a border problem, as in where do you stop counting something as an input. Does the energy used to educate the child that goes on to become an oil field worker count as an input?

Widening the scope of the calculation to include everything needed to support a person gets me back toward an estimate of 5-10 acres per person in a mature zero input system of subsistence agriculture. I would be delighted if my 40 acre parcel reached the point of supporting 2-4 people after another 20 years of work. At present it produces enough food for about one person, but with considerable remaining subsidies from industrial civilisation.

Getting back to the crop itself, winged yam has some big advantages and a few difficulties to consider. The tubers have excellent eventuality, the quality I made up that allows a crop to gradually grow through good and bad seasons until it reaches a point of harvest. Yam tubers will gradually increase in size over several years, with a new larger yam being produced beside last year’s one. This means tubers don’t get woody over time. Yam tubers are also exceptionally resistant to herbivores, like our local rats, mice and bandicoots. By contrast crops like cassava, with roots packed with cyanide, are torn to shreds. Yams contain a range of bitter and toxic chemicals, with some related species remaining toxic after boiling or roasting. Winged yam is easily detoxified by cooking.

A good indication that winged yam is a good subsistence crop in my area is the existence of a different locally native species, Dioscorea transvera, that was used extensively as a food source by indigenous tribes. True yams are one of the oldest domesticated crops and have been vegetatively propagated for many thousands of years. Aborigines knew to replant the top of the tuber to grow again, and burned prime yam habitat during their dormancy to maintain their dominance. This brings up one of the major disadvantages of the crop. They are propagated from small pieces of tubers produced on the previous crop. This means most of my plants are identical clones of one white coloured form, limiting the capacity of the crop to be bred and selected for local conditions. I also have a small amount of material of a purple skinned form, but each plant only produces a handful of seed tubers for next year so it takes many years to build up a large stock of plants. On top of this the plants are either male or female, and only flower sporadically from large plants. The white form shown here is a female but I haven’t flowered any other forms. I have a few seedlings coming on from various sources but I am not even sure if they are the correct species. With a bit of luck I may be able to flower a male from our local D. transversa and hybridise it with the winged yam, combining the size and productivity of winged yam with the local adaptation of the native species. It might require pollen storage and hand pollination if they don’t flower at the same time, which means needing freezers and very tall ladders to reach the flowers. It may be possible to develop a hybrid form that can grow in an outer zone in partnership with a useful shrub for support.

Overall this genus has potential to become an important part of my zero input agricultural system, providing calories at a time of year when they are in short supply after the bunya nuts are gone but before the big late spring potato harvests. They will never be more than one important piece of the puzzle I am solving bit by bit.

About 15 kg of tubers from a single monster plant of Dioscorea alata
Winged yam leaves (not my photo as mine are all dormant now)
Monster tuber in situ, part way through extraction
Dead vines from the monster and a few neighbors.
Small tubers replanted in the hole to make another crop in the future

Letting Go With Open Arms

As I get this blog going I will be alternating reposting older articles and current events. This piece is about a recent small decision but it is a good example of my overall growing philosophy.

Every crop I grow has to pass through a number of hurdles. Firstly the seed need to germinate (or if I bought it as a plant it needs to establish). A significant amount of commercial seed is simply dead or so weak at the point of purchase that no grower, no matter how experienced, could coax it to life. Seed needs to be even stronger, both in terms of quality and genetic potential, to cope with direct sowing. Nowadays I normally sow my own saved seed directly since the quantity and quality is higher. The amount of seed I buy in is rapidly diminishing, normally for limited variety trials. This purchased seed is more commonly sowed in pots for transplantation, but some species like carrots and lettuce resent transplantation so much I still direct sow and take my chances. Most gardeners respond to failing this hurdle by first blaming themselves, then trying to prepare the seed bed with ever more inputs to try and meet the needs of the seed. When seed doesn’t germinate I just shrug my shoulders and move on. If it fails to germinate in a well prepared bed and I miss my planting window for the year then I am much more annoyed than when it fails to germinate in a pot. I usually direct sow my own seed as early as possible since I usually have plenty to resow as needed, while bought seed is too expensive and scarce to do so.

The second hurdle is being able to grow out successfully. Sometimes seed germinates well and then simply sits there doing nothing. This might be due to being sowed at the wrong time of year, or simply a bad season. More often it is due to its needs being incompatible with our particular soil. Most gardeners respond to failing this hurdle by adding more water and fertility to the plant. Usually I will simply plant something else over the top of it to balance giving the first plant more time while making sure the space gets used for something. I do this with trees as well since I can always thin out the less desirable tree in time.

The third hurdle is being able to flower and reproduce. Kale is a great example of a crop that failed at this hurdle. Despite growing well through our mild winters they failed to adapt to our latitude and day length patterns, making them unable to flower convincingly. Most gardeners respond to failure at this hurdle by resigning themselves to buying seed from catalogs forever. I decided I didn’t want to rely on buying expensive and unreliable seed. Luckily I stumbled upon leaf broccoli (spegariello) that flowers well here and even tastes better than other kales. Other crops like true broccoli can flower here but require much bigger breeding populations to maintain quality, so they fail by this criteria (plus others I will discuss in later posts).

The final growing hurdle is the ability for seed to be stored until the next growing season. Parsnips are an example of a crop that fails here for me since their seed has a very short period of viability even with careful drying and refrigeration. Without these artificial supports they aren’t worth growing in the subtropics. Some seed like maize is highly susceptible to weevils and mould in storage as well, but surprisingly easy to store still attached to the cobs if they are hung in an airy place. Most gardeners who make it this far in the growing cycle will improve their seed storage techniques, or fall back on store bought.

Another bonus hurdle not related to cultivation is being useful and palatable, and not having a competing crop that provides a similar product at the same time of year. Daikon nearly failed this criteria since it is such an uninspiring vegetable. Luckily I discovered it is great for fermenting into kim chi and substitutes for winter brassicas like wong bok or cabbage that don’t grow reliably here. I also nearly gave up on taro and cocoyam since the oxalate crystals in them upset my digestion no matter how long I boiled or presoaked them. Putting them through a pressure cooker fixes this issue, reinstating them as a minor crop.

A crop that has been on the borderline of rejection for some time now is snow peas. They already had several strikes against them. Firstly the only good varieties are climbers, so that meant extra work building trellises. Secondly they have the annoying property of demanding regular harvest every day or so, otherwise the pods get tough and drain the plant of resources. Crops that have a long and flexible harvest period are much more valuable to me. Third, their cropping period is quite brief, but it does come in late winter/early spring when other autumn crops are finishing off. If I try to extend their season further into spring mildew becomes an issue. This year I planted a whole 15 m row of them and had a nice enough if somewhat brief harvest. I left a large number of pods to mature to save for next year. Unfortunately our local king parrots discovered them and have eaten just about every pod. For me this was the final straw. Snowpeas are a weak inbred mutation of field peas so were already marginal for many reasons. The return on invested time, energy and resources is nowhere near positive. If their seed can’t be saved then they are finished for me. Enjoy your last meal you feathery clods!

The standard gardening circles would reflexively launch into a long list of things you can add and do to save those precious plants, such as plastic nets, plastic tape and plastic CDs flapping on plastic string, or even easier just keep buying seeds from a catalog forever. This is the instinct I have fought to overcome in my garden, believing there is always a better way. In traditional agricultural societies many crops were simply not grown in many locations due to the plants failing one of the many hurdles necessary to make it possible and worthwhile to grow. Interestingly the scale the crop is grown on can have a big influence on viability. A few isolated plants will often go unnoticed by local herbivores or undiscovered by insect pests. At the other extreme a huge crop that ripens simultaneously can overwhelm the pests. Sometimes the intermediate scale fails to achieve either desired outcomes.

Interestingly this issue of king parrots isn’t a problem for all my legumes. I did a variety trial on lab lab beans recently, growing out a few strains used as a cooked green bean in South East Asia. The mature seeds can also be eaten with careful detoxification. I was hoping these would pod over the summer to act as a complement to snake beans but was initially dismayed that they only flowered and podded in late autumn and early winter. The pods are mature now and set for processing and saving. Their timing might in fact be perfect to substitute for snowpeas but they need to pass the final hurdle of being adaptable to our diets. The seed I saved from the lab lab beans will give me a bigger crop next year that will allow me to experiment with them in the kitchen, and to share with other growers in the area.

Shattered snowpeas after the king parrots visited
Lab lab bean variety trial reaching maturity
Harvested lab lab beans with second year spegariello plants in background
Processed lab lab beans ready to be spread out to dry

Our Place

When you spend time in a wild or unmanaged place you start to notice how different plants end up in distinct locations. Often a species will grow over a wide area only to suddenly stop as if some invisible barrier is holding them back. Each species is adapted to be competitive under a particular combination of factors of soil, water, aspect, microbiome, herbivore pressure, and a hundred other factors including plenty that are probably unknown or poorly understood by science. Zero input agriculture is all about finding ways to match plants to locations that they genuinely like and accepting that most species wont do well in most locations without heroic ongoing interventions (and that you are better off accepting that you can’t grow everything).

The property was mostly in low pasture when we took over, predominantly kikuyu and sour paspalum mixed with Vigna parkeri with large dense stands of Setaria in three different places. There were a few mature trees in the paddocks, and dense remnant rainforest along the creek edge dominated by water gums. Weekly rotational grazing of our small beef steer herd increase pasture diversity over a few years. When pasture die back came through and killed over 90 % of the kikuyu and sour paspalum the Bidens and fleabane took over much of the property, though the Setaria unfortunately wasn’t affected. Luckily this happened as we transitions from cattle to goats, and the Bidens is good feed for them. A wider variety of new pasture species are establishing through the Bidens, including Rhodes grass, Gatton panic and Desmodium.

Our rainfall is pretty ample on paper, averaging around 1500 mm per year, however it varies a lot year to year. We normally get more rain in the summer but it often doesnt arrive until fairly late into January. Autumn is pretty reliably damp with soil moisture decreasing into spring. Every five years or so we get a drought with rainfall failing for about six months, and about as often we get a tropical cyclone settling over us and dumping extra rain, often causing the creek flats to flood briefly. Late spring and early summer are often hot and dry. We get occasional light frosts most winters in low lying areas, but every now and then get a harder frost. Summers can climb into the low 40 C range but only if it is dry. When it is humid a maximum of 35 C is more typical.

The block is mostly hills of moderate slope with various aspects to all directions in different places. The eastern boundary is a permanent creek with a small amount of creek flats. The soil on the hills is predominantly a brownish cracking clay that has a layer of quartz about 30 cm down with heavier yellow clay beneath. There are smaller patches of more reddish soil, plus somewhat deeper and siltier soil on the creek flats. Four dams were constructed for cattle water before we took over. The smallest one with the smallest catchment can completely dry out during a drought, while the bigger ones have come close.

After some issues with goat health I got around to getting soil and pasture nutrient testing. It showed some interesting points but was mostly pretty average. The main stand outs were a calcium:magnesium ratio of 1:1 where most soils are 2:1. This can potentially stress dairy animals where this ratio is critical for udder health. Soil organic matter in our shabby weedy pastures was 7 %, probably higher than in my new vegetable gardens judging by relative soil texture. Mineral levels were otherwise satisfactory, one benefit of having a heavy clay soil. In this humid coastal zone minerals have been leached out by rain for about 25 million years since the local mountains were built by volcanic activity, unlike much of the northern hemisphere where glacial activity restored soil minerals much more recently.

This region is however one of the most geologically diverse on the planet. Every time I dig a hole I find something different, with powdery blackish soil on one side of the farm and porous red on another. Our neighbor had a bore drilled and it showed extremely varied geology with layers of grey gravel, many types of clay including pure white kaolin, among other oddities. This variability has the advantage of a high chance of a particular plant being able to grow well in at least one place on the farm. The disadvantage is it takes extra trial and error to match plants up with that location, and if I want to grow a particular species over a larger range sometimes I find they simply refuse to grow well beyond a certain point.

On paper this is about as ideal a location as you could want, with a mild climate, moderate rainfall, plenty of space and reasonable soil. The main disadvantages are variable rainfall and limited flat ground for cropping that is vulnerable to brief floods at any time of year. If it isn’t possible to feed two people on 40 acres without ongoing inputs then we may as well just go back to hunting and gathering once the global population crashes back to a few tens of millions of people. Time will tell, and the 20 odd years until I hit 60 should be long enough to answer the question to my satisfaction one way or another.