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.

Adapting In Place

From a young age I have been in love with plants, growing just about everything I could get my hands on. Starting in early adulthood I also developed an obsession with the state of our industrial civilisation, coming to understand how precariously it is perched on top of a dwindling resource base. Combining these two passions has seen my family move to a 40 acre ex-dairy in subtropical Australia in the hinterland hills. The block is too big for a typical hobby farmer, and too small and suburban for a real farmer.

Most modern hobby farms are exercises in turning cheap industrial inputs into heavily subsidised outputs that still come nowhere near competing with the output from professional industrial farms. Vegetables are usually grown on imported compost or manure, pushed along with fertiliser and propped up with irrigation. Livestock are sustained with feed bought from the store, even grazing animals are buffered through droughts with imported hay and sustained with imported minerals. And that is not to mention all the fencing and housing made with imported materials.

In the resource constrained future ahead of us these input dependent approaches to growing food will become impractical or impossible. Instead new systems that rely on locally adapted crops and livestock, integrated into systems that are truly compatible with the local geology and climate will be required. I have taken on the challenge of developing these systems in our particular region in the remaining two decades of vigor I have left in me. This blog is an account of this journey. Hopefully I can inspire some of you to follow in my direction and develop your own locally adapted systems.