The Vegetable Tier List

Over the years I have trialled many different types of vegetables, some which I rejected almost instantly and others which have proven themselves to be indispensably rewarding. I decided a tier list of different vegetables in my experience, under my conditions and for my tastes would be a fun way to put all that time in the garden together in a single place. The structure is pretty simple- F being garbage grade level where I would never grow again, through to S which are super overpowered examples that significantly outclass everything else. Any of these classifications are open for revision should I find a different technique for growing them or find different genetics in the future. For example tomatoes span everything from garbage tier to not far from the top depending on which strain is in question. So in that spirit let’s begin!

First let’s get the garbage F tier out of the way. Garlic and onions both fall in this category since I have never found genetics that grow without a lot of bother. Both are cheap enough in the shops for the rare occasions I want them. Salad type capsicums like California wonder are also among the weakest plants I have ever grown, totally not viable without a constant drip feed of chemical fertilisers and water and perfect pest protection. All heading brassicas also fall into this category. Broccoli and cauliflower demand good conditions then their heads turn from edible buds to inedible flowers within days if the pests don’t find them. Cabbages make sense for winter storage, but are just a nice house for caterpillars in the subtropics. These highly selected brassicas also need large populations and careful selection if producing your own seed, something the home garden cannot replicate. In short these are crops that are so wedded to industrial scale systems that they make no sense on a home garden scale.

At the E tier level are crops that might occasionally give a yield if the stars align but that are barely worth eating when they do. I would put most large fruited tomato genetics in this category- simply lots of work for the fruit fly to eat. Stem celery is also so picky about soil type and water only to produce crunchy cardboard. Parsnips can be hardy but most people find the flavour a bit acrid, and on top of that their seed rapidly loses viability in storage so they are unable to survive crop failures. Turnip and beetroot need pretty good conditions to produce fairly flavourless tubers, and have trouble setting seed for me. Funnily I decided this year to place lettuce and rocket in this category as well. Both are flash in the pan salad greens, great for high turnover market gardens but blink and you miss them on a small scale. Staggered sowing makes no sense for me without irrigation to force germination outside our natural rainy seasons. Both regularly fail to produce seed for me if rain arrives when they are maturing, and fail to self-sow during extreme climate years.

D tier vegetables are those that can be fairly productive and useful, but have a major drawback. Asian brassicas like pak choi are in this category since they pass maturity too quickly for a home gardener. I put dill here for the same reason. Seed saving is simple at least. Most kale strains have the opposite problem- they can produce a harvest over a very long period of time but fail to produce seed. Lagos spinach is here because although it grows very easily the oxalate levels are a problem for me, otherwise I would rank it much higher. Malabar spinach has the same issue with slimy texture. Another category here are crops that are very demanding of regular picking of tender parts, with failure to do so leading to a greatly reduced crop. Snap beans, peas and most cucumbers fall into this category. On top of that snap beans get bean fly, peas get mildew and cucumbers are just crunchy water which is hardly worth the effort. All of these have relatively brief harvest periods as well.

When you get to C tier vegetables the crops on offer have something special to offer, but also have some bothersome limitations. I put carrots here because they need careful weed control during the first stage of their establishment. Coriander is here since it offers a wide range of different edible parts over a fairly long season and lots of unique flavours, but producing and saving high quality seed is unreliable under my conditions depending on the weather. My preferred capsicum substitute, chilli Ancho, goes here because my family doesn’t like even the residual heat so I only grow it for myself. It also has a fairly short and sporadic fruiting season that sometimes overlaps with fruit fly pressure. Spigarello (leaf broccoli) gets dropped in here because the productivity isn’t great, though it sometimes produces a nice flush of tasty leaves long before other brassicas have gotten going and plants last for many years. Seed production is pretty low as well. Cucamelon is also here since it grows very easily, produces over a long season and often perenniates but the fruit are slightly less pleasant to eat than cucumber.

Once we get to the B tier some more situationally rewarding crops come to mind. Daikon is here because it produces large crops with very little attention, even self-sowing in places. The roots are pretty uninteresting to eat though, unless you go through the work of making kim chi. Tomato principe Borghese also comes here since it reliably produces large, synchronised crops of good quality fruit, but they then need to be either dried or turned into sauce to be useful on that scale. Parsley is here since it is a long lived leafy green with decent self-sowing tendencies, but I find you can’t use a lot of it in cooking or it is overpowering and adds too much oxalate. Rosella is similar- a very robust and easy to grow summer crop, but the amount of leaves produced is only moderate and oxalate levels are significant, so I also tend to use it in fairly small quantities.

A tier crops are the ones I would never be without, but that need a little consideration in managing. Ping tung eggplant is here because it occupies space in the garden for long periods of time relative to its fruiting period. I usually establish plants in autumn so they can overwinter and fruit in the following spring and summer. Fruit also have a fairly short harvest window, but if you miss picking them the bushes continue to produce and rebound strongly if the mature fruit are removed. I like crops that forgive me when I overlook them. Other large fruited eggplants like black beauty are garbage tier however since they are so weak growing. Broad leaved forms of endive also turn up here because they produce juicy tender leaves in large quantities all winter long, with individual plants having a month’s long harvest window. Their only downside is seed collection is tricky, though they do self-sow much more reliably than lettuce for me.

Finally we reach the super overpowered S tier crops, the small handful of elites that I would run into a burning building to save. Just these four crops alone would be enough when combined with perennial and wild vegetables. First is the bush snake bean, a plant that produces tender pods for months through anything summer can throw at it. Seed saving needs a little care and pod sucking bugs will congregate around the plants. Shallots also make this list since once they are established they will continue producing versatile stems and leaves non-stop for at least two years. That said this applies to my particular population of shallots, and the types you normally buy in catalogues would probably be at C or B tier without selection over a few generations. Ethiopian kale also makes this list since it fits our seasons perfectly. It germinates at the end of summer and continues to produce tasty leaves for several months, then produces vast amounts of easily stored seed in the dry of late spring. The final of the top four is finocchio fennel, a plant that produces tender greens all winter, crunchy bulbs in spring, aromatic seeds for teas and then survives summer to do it all again for another year or two.

Periodically stepping back and evaluating what crops you are growing gives you a useful opportunity to balance diversity with quality. Rejecting lower performing crops can free up resources to grow the more rewarding ones better (or divert your energy outside the vegetable garden). This year I am going to stop growing anything under C tier for this reason. Vegetables are nice, but in the bigger scheme are just the proverbial icing on the cake. I need to make sure I give enough attention to my many staple and tree crop projects so true sustainability is possible for future generations.

Lush Ethiopian kale with a side serving of immortal shallots.

Scale and Scalability

The relationships between fruiting plants and the animals that disperse them offer a great model for the role of scale in creating ecological connections. If the fruit and seed is too large then the animal will have difficulty picking, eating and carrying it to a new location. Very large fruit such as pumpkins and jackfruit have a much longer evolutionary relationship with megafauna, most of which are now extinct and replaced by humans in some cases. The largest of these fruit can be challenging for humans to use, with a big jackfruit being difficult to harvest and transport and large pumpkins being a chore to crack open. At the other end of the scale fruit that are too small are too time consuming and fiddly to handle, with anything much smaller than a blueberry usually escaping human attention. Smaller edible portions like grass seed can be handled by humans but require specialised tools and techniques so they can be handled in bulk. Using this approach even the dust like seed of teff can be harnessed.

That said there exists an optimum human scale, which I think maize has probably come closest to achieving. Each cob is a comfortable handful, and each seed can be sowed individually without too much expertise. New world crops such as pumpkins and beans also fall close to this size optimum, making them highly compatible with farming systems that use minimal specialised tools. By contrast old world agriculture features small grains like wheat and rice that require specialised tools for sowing, harvest and processing. One could argue that the development of such equipment prevented the continued selection of crops to be more compatible with unaugmented human bodies. It is interesting to speculate if this trend extended into the differences in technological sophistication when those two worlds met. The superior crops of the new world were exported to the benefit of the old world (especially the peasant underclass through potatoes and maize), while the technology of the old world was imported and used to dominate the new world.

Another critical aspect of scale is how much space needs to be managed to produce a complete human diet, though it is worth pointing out that even the most intensively agricultural societies are still usually dependent on wild ecosystems for their food to some degree. Pre-industrial Japan had the highest population density but still relied on 0.3 acres of paddy rice per person to produce the bulk of their calories, but the majority of their protein was from wild caught seafood. Likewise many agricultural tribes grow various starchy tuber crops but hunt for protein. For reference it is interesting to put together a table of the industrial and pre-industrial yields of various major staple crops, and the corresponding area of cultivation required to supply the calorie needs of a single person for a year (at 10 000 kJ/day, 3 650 000 kJ/year). These are upper limits for when a person’s entire energy requirement comes from a single crop. In reality people would normally get their food from a more diverse range of sources with lower yields and thus require a significantly larger total area. Despite being familiar with this data the difference in yield after industrialisation is still shocking to me.

CropIndustrial yield (kJ/acre)Preindustrial yield (kJ/acre)Industrial subsistence area (acre)Preindustrial subsistence area (acre)
Rice56 000 0008 360 0000.0650.43
Maize54 000 0009 600 0000.0670.38
Wheat26 000 0003 600 0000.141.0
Potato62 000 0007 900 0000.0590.46

(Sources https://www.mathscinotes.com/2017/01/calorie-per-acre-improvements-in-staple-crops-over-time/                                https://ourworldindata.org/crop-yields)

In our current world awash in cheap industrial staple crops it is difficult to justify growing any of them yourself, especially grain crops that require specialised tools and techniques. Most people who have the space available for them are either working full time and would need to be a lunatic to spend the few hours they have outside work to grow grains or potatoes that they can buy using a tiny fraction of their wage, or are elderly and retired and thus lack the physical stamina needed to tend such large areas (and who can also easily afford the cheap industrial version, even the pricier organic equivalents).

The predicament arises because it is likely that cheap industrial grains will not be available forever. At some point in the future the giant combines and trucks will fall silent. Just maintaining diverse locally adapted crop genetics and passing on the skills required to produce such crops at meaningful scales will be a challenge since so much of our agricultural heritage has already been lost. At some point in the future staple crops will need to be grown on increasing scales without industrial inputs. This brings up the challenge of scalability, the capacity to rapidly increase the scale of production to meet demands. Different crop vary dramatically in their capacity to change scale from one season to another. Tree crops are probably the weakest in this regard, with most species of staple tree crops taking 10-20 years to start producing meaningful yields. This makes tree crops unable to respond rapidly to short term changes in demand, though many tree crops are capable of persisting without much attention once established so a stand of trees can function as an effective buffer to changing demands for food. This often happened in medieval Europe where peasants would take to the forests to collect chestnuts as a famine food during years when the preferred grain crop failed.

Grain crops are uniquely suited to human civilisation due to their high level of scalability. A single seed of maize will produce 500 more in a few months. Rice can produce about 1000 seeds per plant while wheat makes about 100 seeds per plant. By contrast a kilogram of “seed” potato tubers will yield at best 20 kg of potatoes. Cassava has about the same reproduction rate. Some tuber crops like taro and true yams have even lower rates of reproduction per year. The only commonly grown tuber crop with a high scalability is sweet potato, with the extensive vines being able to produce hundreds of cuttings per plant.

Staple crops with scalability are likely to be key to developing systems that can remain small and marginal as long as industrial staple crops are still cheap, but that can rapidly rise to the challenge if and when that situation changes in the future. Highly scalable staple crops are also important for allowing societies to rapidly recover from other more regular set-backs like natural disasters and conflict. By considering all these factors we can motivate ourselves to sustain the seeds that can expand in the future when the world needs them most.

Maize- the perfect crop for scale and scalability

Plant Profile- Edible Bamboo

Bamboo is a plant of many end uses, though in Australia we seem to spend most of our energy feeding them through mulching machines. Using bamboo for various structural purposes requires a very specific set of tools and techniques, and unfortunately that culture is almost completely absent in Australia. Hopefully as bamboo becomes more widely planted our relationship with the plant will improve, though at this stage it seems more likely people will instead to continue regarding them as a generous nuisance.

An alternative end use most people would have experienced is the humble bamboo shoot, commonly added to Asian cuisine straight from the can. These are processed on a large scale in south East Asia, predominantly from the large species Dendrocalamus latiflorus, also known as the sweet bamboo. This species produces stems about 15-20 cm thick up to 24 m tall and produces large shoots that have a good flavour. Shoots are harvested at about 30 cm tall, once they size up but before they start becoming fibrous. In principle the shoots of all bamboo are edible but some require more processing than others. The shoots contain significant amounts of cyanide, which sounds scary but it actually a very widespread plant defence chemical. It is also found in apple seeds, cassava, linseed, lima beans and a host of non-edible plants. One species of bamboo has low enough levels of cyanide to be edible raw but the rest need processing.

I harvest the shoots with a small folding saw. Once I get them back to the kitchen I then cut them up through the middle with a Chinese cleaver. This makes it easy to peel off the tough outer sheathes all together. I then sit the half shoot upright on its base and use the chopper to remove the outer layer of skin. The skin is a little tough and impermeable so makes removing the cyanide take longer. The shoot is then cut into fine slices, increasing the surface area as much as possible to speed up cyanide removal. The shoots are rinsed once then brought to the boil. You will smell the distinct almond smell of cyanide being boiled off, but you can detect it at concentrations too low to be hazardous. Humans are pretty good at detoxifying cyanide in small doses. The main problem is when a large dose is ingested quickly since the toxin prevents your blood from carrying oxygen. Too much at once causes a kind of asphyxiation. I then change the water and boil again. Once that is done I taste a shoot. If it is still even a little bitter I boil again. Sweet bamboo shoots normally need three changes of water, with longer times spent boiling each time. Long ago I tried freezing my bamboo shoots, but found this to be terribly inconvenient since I only ever added a small amount to a stir fry at a time. This year I put the freshly cooked bamboo shoots in a solution of 50% white vinegar with 3% salt. I put one jar in the fridge and one on the bench to test how long they would hold. The room temperature batch was eaten within a month with no signs of spoilage. The one in the fridge is still being used. I estimate our family could eat maybe a dozen shoots in a year if I was more dedicated to processing them during their annual growth flush, but to be honest they aren’t nice enough to be worth eating much more. They add a nice crunch to stir fries, especially when there aren’t many other veggies on hand, but their nutritional value is close to zero.

The energy return on energy invested of bamboo shoots would be interesting to study. The plant itself takes pretty much no effort to grow, so that is a plus. Harvesting and chopping up is likewise pretty quick- maybe one hour for the three shoots I processed. I ended up needing to boil about 15 L of water from room temperature, which would take at least 4700 kJ, ignoring the extra energy used to continue boiling the water for some time. Bamboo shoots contain about 570 kJ per kilogram, and I got about 2 kg of finished shoots, or a mere 1140 kJ in food energy. By contrast cooked potato has 2500 kJ/kg, over four times the energy density of bamboo shoots. As a thought experiment a person who wanted to get their daily energy from bamboo shoots would require 17.5 kg to supply 10 000 kJ per day. Since bamboo shoots require about ten times as much energy to cook them the human would need to use 100 000 kJ in firewood, which at 16 000 kJ/kg would mean 6.25 kg of wood per day to cook, possibly doable but something that would probably run into ecological limits if done long term on any scale, even if you were burning fast growing bamboo. For reference firewood dependent subsistence societies currently consume about 1.5-3.5 kg per day per person. I cooked on convenient gas using tank water. If I had to gather all that firewood and water by hand the final bamboo shoots would seem even less appealing.

I am pretty sure I couldn’t physically eat 17.5 kg of cooked bamboo shoots in one day, an example of a food type that is simply too low in energy density to support the human body. This is not unlike being offered an unlimited supply of a soup that is so highly watered down that our digestive system and kidneys simply could not filter out all the water to get to the nutrients. To rely on a low energy density like bamboo requires a specialised lifestyle and anatomy like is found in the giant panda. Bamboo shoots do contain a fairly good balance of other nutrients, including iron, so do have value as a vegetable that supplements staple crops which serve as energy sources. It is also worth noting that in some places bamboo shoots are processed and fermented without cooking, though mastering this process without an experienced person to guide me will likely be challenging and of low priority.

Overall I see bamboo shoot as a kind of bonus subsidiary yield from the more important function of bamboo providing poles and weaving material. This is not unlike how dairy animals occasionally provide meat, hides, horn and bone for other uses on top of their main function providing milk and manure. Bamboo shoot is also a great example of crops that require almost zero cultivation but extensive processing, and these are the crops that have the potential to scale beyond our limitations of agricultural labour.

A fresh sweet bamboo shoot cut down the middle
Sheathes peeled on left and outer skin trimmed off with the chopper on the right
Final slicing before cooking
The finished product in a salt and vinegar solution

Transmutation

Transmutation has several different definitions but for me it is the best word to describe the combining of two or more things to create something new. This can mean something fanciful like the alchemists attempt to mix lead with other substance to make gold, or something more mundane yet equally magical like combining flour, water, salt, yeast and heat to make bread.

On the smallest scales of biology the central process is the combination of different chemicals, such as oxygen and sugar, to release useful energy. For bacteria all the ingredients need to be present at the same time and place so they can simply diffuse across their cell membrane, which greatly limits their ability to tap into more distant resources. Most of the environment is very rich in one potential resource while being poor in another that is needed for the transmutation. Multicellular organisms connect these disparate resources in order to utilise them. Plants for example connect the soil environment, which has ample water and minerals, with the above ground environment that has ample oxygen and light energy. Neither set of resources is very useful on its own, but when combined together by specialised transportation systems plants unleash tremendous biological potential. The earliest plants like mosses barely moved beyond the interface between soil and air, but over time plants pushed deeper into the soil and higher into the sky to more effectively connect resources in the two locations. There is a physical limit on how tall a tree can grow or how deep roots can penetrate, mostly due to the limitations of the transportation of resources between the two worlds.

Animals usually adopt a different strategy, rather than connecting different resources with permanent transportation systems they instead move their entire body around the environment, collecting different resources in different locations. So a goat will collect water from a stream, then walk uphill to graze on a variety of different plants growing on different soil types that supply different nutrient balances, and finally up a hill to lick at a salt deposit. All the time the animals are redistributing nutrients across the landscape in their wastes, evening out imbalances in soil chemistry and carrying nutrients leached by water back up hill.

Human societies represent an astonishing advance in the way organisms achieve transmutation. The first big innovation was the use of fire, which allowed energy trapped in wood, then later fossil fuels, to be released and used for a wide variety of purposes, not least converting the inedible into food. Even supposedly primitive hunter gatherer societies also engaged in extremely long distance trade of essential commodities, particularly high grades of specialised stones such as flint or obsidian for making tools. This allowed people living in regions without suitable geology for tool making to hunt and create fire effectively. This allowed modern humans to form a new kind of superorganism that transported limiting strategic resources over continent wide scales. The peak of Bronze Age society in the Mediterranean was underpinned by sea trade networks that combined copper and tin from different regions, allowing various kingdoms to maintain bronze tools and weapons. Today the global industrial superorganism allows goods to be extracted from almost anywhere and transported and transmuted with other resources as required, and it is even pondering connecting the planet to resources in space. The Bronze Age system suffered a spectacular collapse where loss of trade connections prevented the transmutation of copper and tin into bronze, resulting in a prolonged dark age. Complex human systems such as these are most vulnerable to the severing of crucial connections, much as a mighty tree can be killed simply by ring barking, breaking the connection between the sky and the earth. Similarly warfare is usually decided by the strength and stability of supply lines to the battle front. Our information age society has several crucial connections which are highly vulnerable to disruption, such as the concentrated production of the microprocessors used in computers in Taiwan and South Korea and the production of large transformers essential for maintaining electrical grids in a few concentrated locations. The increasingly concentrated production of low cost oil and even coal also represent potential weak points in the global economy.

Sexual reproduction is another kind of transmutation, taking the essence of two organisms and combining them to create something new. Horizontal gene transfer between organisms is another much older way to achieve the same result. This process only appeared two billion years ago, after life had already been around for two billion years. Life has always found new mechanisms for more effective genetic transmutation, such as the explosion of plant diversity with the coupling of flowers with pollinators. Humans have recently unlocked the barriers between species with biotechnology in a way that has never happened before, allowing a level of genetic transmutation on a planetary scale. It is also the only modern technology that has the potential to uncouple from its industrial origins. I wonder if sometime in the distant future our current machine age will be a mere legend in a biotechnic civilisation.

When a large tree dies due to its internal transmutation networks breaking down it opens a space for weeds to grow. Sometimes I wonder if the original permaculture movement is like a seed that germinated in the shade of a still healthy tree with a dense canopy. Sometimes when a seed makes this mistake it is a death sentence since it runs out of resources before it gets to see the light, but often the seedling will enter a kind of holding pattern, barely growing but not dying either. Its existence might seem pointless but it is simply biding its time, waiting for the giant to finally fall. Permaculture is just one of many small social structures waiting in the wings for the industrial economy to fail. It has to not only survive the long wait in the shade, but must be able to compete with the alternatives once its moment in the sun arrives. If permaculture in its embryonic state grows too tolerant of the shade of the greater system, even dependent on its protection, then it may simply wither away once the larger system is gone. I also wonder if there are other resources waiting to be connected and transmuted into something new, just as unimaginable as industrial society would have been to the Romans and Persians at their peak, probably also unimaginable to the first coal miners who made simple steam engines to pump out water and reach deeper coal. My bet is the great untapped powers for the future are biological resources. Will permaculture in its current form be the best positioned to kindle that fire?

Vertical (plant) and horizontal (goat) transmutation at work.

Plant Profile- Rosella

Rosella is a remarkable plant in the hibiscus family. The family also includes other edible species, but all of them have fallen out of my favour over time. Okra produces tasty tender pods, but they need to be picked almost every day or they turn fibrous and sap the mother plant of its strength, and the optimum harvest season is pretty short. I don’t like vegetables that set my harvest schedule too strictly. Abika is a leafy perennial vegetable from the south pacific but I find it suffers during our dry and cool winters, and during the brief period of summer that is both hot and wet enough to make it happy it often experiences grasshopper damage. Molokhia has the opposite problem, being so vigorous and prone to self-sowing that it is too much of a pain to manage, with even small seedlings having a taproot that makes them a pain to remove. The small leaves it produce taste fine to me, but are too high in oxalate even after blanching to be tolerable. The only other potential species in the family is the shrubby perennial called Malvaviscus arborea, known by a wide range of common names. This species is sometimes seen in old gardens as an ornamental, growing to 2-3 m tall with nodding red closed hibiscus type flowers. Some strains are supposed to produce edible fruit somewhat like the rosella, and like most members of the hibiscus family should have edible young leaves, though the species will need some breeding work to bring out its potential.

Rosella seems to have the best balance of traits out of all the species I have trialled. It is a warm season annual that quickly grows into a small shrub, putting its head above the inevitable waves of summer weeds. The seed are quite large so they quickly come to dominate their space, and can be sowed at 50-100 cm spacing which also reduces weeding demands. Most people know about rosella in the form of jam that is usually produced with astonishing amounts of labour by dedicated little old ladies. I have made rosella jam several times before but usually end up giving it away since I don’t eat bread any more. This year I decided to make rosella syrup instead, since using the fruit for fresh herbal teas barely makes a dent in the crop. Rosella syrup should be a way to extend the season, and avoids the complexity of worrying about jam setting and not burning it on the stove and making a ghastly mess while producing a product with a wider variety of uses. Syrup production is much easier, just a matter of cooking the outer calyxes of the fruit in a minimal amount of added water, then straining the pulp. I found it worthwhile to add a bit more water to the strained pulp another couple of times, just enough to make it easy to boil again without burning, then cooking and straining again to extract the most liquid as possible without adding more water than needed. The combined strained liquid was simmered a bit to reduce its volume. Once it thickens a bit you add an equal volume of sugar and heat until dissolved. Adding enough sugar until it no longer dissolves as room temperature, but does when heated close to boiling is about right. The resulting syrup is then bottled and sterilised in a hot water bath with the lids in place but not tightened until the bottles are removed from the hot water. The sugar levels should be about high enough to prevent the growth of microbes, but typically a mould spore will get into the top of the jar and grow in any condensation that forms a pocket of lower sugar concentration, but heat treatment makes this unlikely so storage at room temperature is good for about a year. After the incredible amount of work that goes into harvesting and processing the fruit it is tragic to throw out a whole jar due to spoilage. For the same reason any suspect fruit should be tossed during processing since a single bad one can taint a whole batch.

The amount of labour involved in processing rosella fruit seems quite extraordinary to industrial era humans whose biggest regular effort is carrying all the shopping bags a few meters from the car to the kitchen. I harvested about a quarter of the fruit from my dozen bushes in about 30 minutes, but processing to remove the inner seed pods took a couple of hours more. Cooking and straining took another couple of hours (mostly waiting for a timer), and bottling the syrup another hour, all to produce a couple of litres of syrup which is almost all sugar. The best way to harvest efficiently is to get the fruit when they have expanded but are tender enough to just snap off the bush. If you leave them a few more days the stem at the base of the fruit becomes very fibrous and needs to be cut with scissors or a knife, slowing the process even though the fruit are a little bigger at this stage. Rosella is also used as a low quality fibre crop in many places, with the old bushes processed into coarse string. Older fruit are more likely to be tainted, either with rotten petals that didn’t separate fully or occupied by nesting ants or other bugs. There are a few different ways to separate the red calyx from the inner seed pods. I have heard in the old days the casings from the right sized bullet could be pushed into the base. I prefer to use my Chinese chopper to cut across the base. Often a slice up the side of the calyx helps them separate. I did a variety trial of five different strains of rosella, sourced for a few dollars a packet from different sellers. There seems to be only two broad types, with either a pointed or blunt fruit. The pointed fruit types seem to mature more rapidly, give more fruit, and are easier to both harvest and process. I will keep some of the round fruited variety in my population, but let the superior pointed form dominate to improve production next year.

If rosella only produced these fiddly fruit for tea and syrup then I probably wouldn’t bother growing them. They really stand out because they are also one of the best summer leaf vegetables I have ever tried. The chopped up young tender leaves and shoot tips can be added to soups and stir fries, adding a tangy slightly floral flavour. They contain some oxalate but seem manageable for me at least. Rosella tea is also fairly astringent and I find I end up with tooth sensitivity if I drink it too much. Rosella bushes that have their growing tips pinched as they grow will develop into bushier plants with more tips to pick, though if you pick them heavily they often seem to end up too exhausted to produce fruit properly. I plan on separating my bushes into those dedicated for leaf production, and others left alone to fruit. Seed saving took me a little while to figure out as well. When left on the bush the seed pods inside the red calyxes will mature until the seeds darken and the segments separate slightly. This is the ideal stage to save seed, but the fruit looks much the same from the outside. If the seed are left beyond this stage in wet weather they will lose viability and rot, and it is usually rainy on my farm at this time of year. This means I need to inspect pods carefully by breaking the calyx and gently squeezing the seed pod to see if the seed are ready. I generally leave the first pods that set for seed saving since they get access to all the plants resources. If you wait to save seed from the last pods to set they seem to be weaker and have more trouble maturing in the cooler days of autumn. Once picked they should be dried carefully, which for my humid climate means putting inside a chamber with a drying agent after a few days air drying.

One thing that really bothers me about rosella is its reliance on refined sugar to turn it into jam or syrup. This process is as close to self-sufficiency as putting a sprig of home grown parsley on top of a McDonald’s burger. Sugar is very much an industrial product, with the world being flooded with ever cheaper sugar for the last few hundred years. Before that refined sugar was expensive and rare due to the large amount of labour and firewood needed to make it. If I had to make my own sugar this way the work involved processing the rosella would seem like a rounding error. Only with colonialism and slavery (later replaced by mechanisation and fossil fuels) could sugar transform from a luxury to an everyday commodity, a shift that corresponded with a dramatic decline in health due to sugar consumption. Queen Elizabeth I had famously blackened teeth due to her sugar habit. Sugar is composed of sucrose, itself made of glucose and fructose which are separated during digestion. Glucose isn’t a major issue, with every cell in the body able to use it as an energy source, though excessive blood glucose levels does have a few negative effects. The real issue is the fructose, which can only be broken down by the liver in much the same way as alcohol and many toxins. When humans eat fruit, which also contains fructose, it is absorbed slowly by the digestive system and the liver can manage the fructose as it arrives, akin to slowly sipping on some beer with low alcohol content. By contrast refined sugar is rapidly absorbed, meaning the liver must try to cope with it arriving all at once, which is more like slamming a dozen shots of high alcohol vodka. Thus overwhelmed the liver creates a serious of metabolic issues that lead to many negative health impacts. Cooking from scratch with sugar does at least have the benefit over buying processed food in that you can see how much sugar is going into the process, and sometimes reduce it if it doesn’t have a structural or preservative role where concentration matters.

As such I don’t see rosella syrup as an end point to my relationship with the crop, just the next step to deindustrialising my life. Unlike jam I can use very small amounts of syrup in herbal teas and more easily add it to baking or desserts. Before sugar became cheap jam and syrups didn’t really exist as we currently know them. Expensive honey was sometimes used as a preservative, but moisture levels needed to be kept low enough to prevent fermentation. As such fruit that have a natural tendency to dry out like figs and dates would sometimes be preserved in honey. Partially dried fruit could also be stored in honey this way. If I can access more honey in the future I might try mixing it with dried rosella, though it would be probably easier to completely dry the rosella and keep the honey separate. Drying crops like rosella during what is the wettest and most humid time of the year cannot happen using air flow alone. I have previously used an electric food drier and was appalled at the amount of electricity it used. In future I plan to build a wood fired outdoor kitchen which will include a food drier, so that is likely to be the final destination for my relationship with stored rosella fruit. Until then I will get better at growing and using its valuable leaf crops, and enjoy the fresh fruit while they are in season.

Rosella syrup ready for bottling, and a sampler on yoghurt. A thick based pot makes cooking much easier.
Rosella processing, showing a calyx separated from the seed pod.
The rounder shaped fruit form of rosella. The shrubby nature means weed control can be less obsessive over the hot summer months
More rosella shrubs towering over the weeds

One Hundred and Ten Percent

It has been a while since I last posted, and rather than apologising it would be better to thank those of you who are signed up for notifications and have been waiting patiently. Gratitude is always preferable to contrition. For the last month or so I have been having something akin to a period of metamorphosis, unmoving in a chrysalis with my usual habits turning into a gelatinous goo, allowing me to stop and let the world go by while I reconfigure myself. During that time I ate a lot of gross industrial junk food, played video games, watched anime and did the bare minimum to keep life on the farm ticking over while the weeds of a wet late summer continued their march into the sky. During that time an article crossed my path which stated that the first phase of our life involves telic activities, those that are oriented toward a specific goal. Crises arise when we achieve our goals and then realise them to be absurd. The suggested remedy is the pursuit of atelic activities, those not focused on a particular end goal. So instead of going for a walk to reach a destination, beat a record or lose weight you should go on a walk because the process of walking is enjoyable, no matter where you go or what you achieve along the way.

That outlook resonated with me. Something had been hovering in my subconscious since last winter, when I noticed that I had dozens of huge winged yam tubers sitting within a few meters of my back door, a food that I had figured out how to grow and process and quite enjoyed eating, but I didn’t eat a single one in 2020. Instead I just had easy and familiar brown rice, bought from the shop for a few dollars. I am now watching a huge maize crop developing every day, anticipating the time when I will have to harvest, process and store its bounty. Yet for this crop I don’t really know what to do with it, and more importantly beyond that I don’t know how to want to eat it. I need to go through the mental and physical effort of learning how to process and cook the food, then the intangible effort of adjusting my tastes and habits to make it part of my person. The absurdity of my goals, to produce staple calorie crops as an insurance policy to the accelerating decline of industrial life support systems, has been brought into sharp relief, not by failure but by successes that bring complications that are harder to get a handle on than simple calculations of energy content or skills to master.

It made me realise there is a limit to how much one person can change in a lifetime, especially if they are not pressed by absolute necessity. Humans are at the same time incredibly adaptable, but we are also incredibly resistant to change unless forced. The same humans that like to dream about changing their entire society struggle to change the number of spoons of sugar they put in their own coffee every morning, let alone quit coffee altogether, even when they know the sugar is killing them and the coffee was picked by slaves. I have come to accept that as a child who grew up in the suburbs on industrial food there is a limit to how much I can change my habits and desires during the few decades that remain of my life. Real change happens between lifetimes, though the tools we pass on to the next generation limit the range of choices they will have. Much of what I am doing in developing staple crops for my particular region is not for me but for the people who come after me. And my plant breeding work is even more forward casting. It may take many human generations to turn my most speculative hybrids into anything of real value, if it happens at all. I need to be able to accept that there may be no goal to be had and learn to enjoy simply playing with my plants and wondering about the possibilities. With that in mind I also know I need to devote more energy to making connections with other people in the area to carry things forward into the future, but that has to be balanced against the reality that people alive today have the same smothering influence of the industrial food system. The trick may lie in deriving something greater than simple chemical sustenance from the crops I am developing. Grain amaranth in Central America for example was stamped out by the Christian colonisers, but it managed to persist due to its central role in various spiritual ceremonies, and today’s society is definitely hungry for such ritual social bonding.

I have also been thinking about the more tangible physical limits that lie ahead of me, with my strength only set to decline in coming years. I have worked consistently and gently for the last five years on the farm full time, with only the occasional day off here or there, so I think it was about time to have a proper rest. Working as a peasant like this tends to focus the mind into a kind of gentle and cautious persistence. The tasks are so ongoing and never ending that protecting your own physical capacity is the most important priority as a fairly simple injury, either due to inattention or plain overuse, will only lead to a period of enforced down time when everything gets away from you, or worse permanent disability which can easily derail the viability of the whole farm. Peasants ideally should work in large teams so that one member going down does not interrupt the work flow too seriously. Working mostly on my own means the consequences of serious incapacity are magnified, so gentleness is even more important. It isn’t only my body that demands a degree of gentleness, but my heart and mind as well since they are just as likely to be broken by abuse as my body. For any of my more speculative projects to get off the ground I need to work in a way that allows me to keep going for at least 20 years. In traditional peasant societies working in groups allows socialisation at the same time, something I lack here working alone, and need to make room in my life to address, but that links nicely back to the need to link my work to others more effectively for it to continue after I am gone.

In our frantic industrialised society we often hear about people being expected to give more than one hundred percent to the tasks that are demanded of them. Working with gentleness most of the time does ironically leave a little fuel in your tank so you can work harder during unexpected emergencies, like when I recently had to build a large goose fence at short notice. If you give more than one hundred percent all the time you will find yourself unable to dig deeper when really needed. One example I like to think about is how our own muscles work. Your strength isn’t actually limited by the muscles themselves, but by the amount of signal coming through the nerves from your brain. Typically humans use less than half of our raw muscle strength even when we feel at our limits, though stories of ordinary people lifting a car during an emergency are pretty common examples of us overcoming these inbuilt limiters. If we used our bodies like this every day we would break them in no time. We all have a deliberate safety mechanism to reduce the risk of injury and to be more energy efficient.

Our human societies likewise had various social mechanisms to keep our activities within safer bounds, many of which were destroyed during industrialisation. The impact of widespread caffeine usage with the shifting of human focus to tasks too boring or repetitive for unmedicated humans to do for long during industrialisation is worth contemplating. Tea drinking became widespread in East Asia around the 8th century AD, coinciding with the golden age of scientific and industrial innovation in the region. The Islamic golden age in the 14-15th century also coincided with the popularisation of coffee drinking in the region, and the European renaissance also lines up with caffeine consumption becoming common in Europe. I do not engage in habitual caffeine consumption these days, but as a child who grew up having chocolate every day maybe it is not surprising that I periodically relapse into this vice. Interestingly the effect is not to make me more productive about the farm, but to fall into a hypnotic state where video games and movies become more compelling for prolonged consumption. I suspect the other industrial junk food I was eating during my hiatus had a similar effect on my sleep, energy and motivation levels. I suspect the psychological rationalisations I used during the month off were mostly just an after the fact confabulation built on top of the physiological effects from the degradation in my diet influencing my microbiome and metabolism. Societies that once moderated activity and consumption through social ties are gone, replaced with an industrial system that produces material abundance coupled with a near total immersion information system that controls our consumption. I can accept I will probably never be completely free from that system in what remains of my lifetime, but one day in the future people will need to learn to live without it since its foundation is already steadily crumbling. My job is to hang around long enough to pass on some tools to help them find a different way to live.

A green tree frog, on the wrong side of the planet for a while, shuts down for a rest among the spines of a sisal plant.

Tools and Techniques- The Fire Sleigh

I have previously used the awesome power of fire for creating disturbance, pushing back weeds and creating disturbed spaces for growing crops. Wood is a limited resource though, and a fire started in one place burns much longer than necessary to do this job of clearing weeds. In preparing my Inga alleys for growing field crops I have been left with a large quantity of wood that had been separated from the leaves that were used as a weed suppressing mulch. I was pondering how I could use this wood to maximum benefit when a pretty simple idea came to mind. A basic metal box with chains attached, in which I could create a controlled fire that would apply weed suppressing heat beneath it. I put a prototype together from a sheet of galvanised iron and a pair of tin snips, complete with a tapered bow so it is easier to slide forward over obstacles. I gave it a trial run closer to home using old goat branches. This revealed the fire burned nicely, accumulating an evenly spread layer of hot coals after half an hour of building it up. The attached chains worked nicely as well, with the attachment points on each side allowing it to be steered, though having a long handled hoe made finer adjustments in position possible. The heat applied was quite capable of singing surface weeds, but any thicker vegetation tended to hold the box up in the air, limiting its ability to apply heat at a distance. This suggested that the fire sleigh was best applied to cleared land, possibly as a way of killing surface weed seeds before they germinated. The fire was almost instantly quenched with a small water can I had ready, and showed almost no tendency to spread into nearby vegetation if moved regularly.

The sleigh was carried down to the larger Inga alleys and an area of thick cobblers pegs cleared with the hoe. The weather and soil were still fairly dry, so I ran the fire sleigh over the bare soil, moving forward one box length every few minutes. For the second row I moved the box a bit more rapidly, then left the third row half untreated as a comparison. I sowed a rice crop and then observed. I could see fewer weeds germinating in the areas where longer treatments of heat were applied, but the patch still needed a couple of rounds of follow up hoeing to let the crop get established. Pretreating weed seeds with heat didn’t seem to make much of a difference, nor justify the time taken. Though it should be said operating the fire sleigh was a fairly slow job, but it was not a strenuous one, so fire treating one area can be coupled with work in adjacent spaces that allows you to go back and forth between the tasks.

The final trial took a different approach. A larger area was once again cleared of surface weeds by hoeing, but this time I waited until the thick lawn of small surface weeds germinated. Then I applied the fire sleigh, and I could see the singing of the weed seedlings as I went which helped me gauge the timing for moving the box. This area was also sowed with rice and maize. Once again a second wave of weeds germinated but this time it was much more sparse than the first trial, allowing much more efficient hand hoeing of weeds. I also tried applying some limited Inga leaf mulch in the maize bed, but will outline its use in an upcoming article on that crop.

The ultimate effectiveness of the fire sleigh as an idea remains to be determined, though there are signs it may be worthwhile under the right conditions. It needs to be carefully compared to the labour requirements of simply hand hoeing the crops several times until established, and against other potential uses for the waste wood, though the method produces a useful amount of biochar as well. The method also relies on access to cheap sheet metal or some equivalent, though perhaps a simpler technique would be to hoe the coals of a fire forward, feeding more wood into it as you go.

The newly made fire sleigh going through a quick trial run, unable to cope with well with thicker weeds
A trail of disturbance through my large maize patch. Firing one row while hoeing the adjacent one worked well.
A close up of the impact of a quick heat treatment on small germinated weed, with the foreground weeds yet to be singed.
The larger second rice patch just before sowing.
The first pre-germination treated rice patch, overdue for a second follow up hand hoeing. This patch may be too far gone to bother wrestling with.
The second larger rice patch, with germinating rice and a more manageable scattering of weed seedlings due to a light hand hoeing.

The Diminishing Returns on Collapse

The collapse of complex systems, both natural and manmade, is as inevitable as their growth. But practice makes perfect as the old saying goes, and a theory that has been rattling around in my head is that every cycle of collapse makes the process a little less disastrous and a little more functional. Maybe in time the fruit that plummets from the tree and rots upon the earth learns to better release its seed and start the cycle again. This article is an exploration of this idea, which I playfully think of as the diminishing returns on collapse, a riff on the diminishing returns of complexity proposed by Tainter to be key in civilizational collapse.

Looking at the long history of life on Earth we have a useful set of major mass extinction events over the last half a billion years of multicellular life, though prior to that the great oxidation event around 2 000 million years ago (mya) might be a good starting point, killing 99 % of bacterial species present at the time and taking another 1000 million years for ecosystem function to recover. The next major event was around 450 mya, where 85% of species were lost, with recovery in 5 million years to a very similar ecosystem. Next at 370 mya a two phase extinction saw 75% species lost, and 40 million years for recovery. Then at 250 mya the most severe mass extinction occurred with 80% marine and 70% terrestrial species loss, though forests took only 5 million years to recover, with terrestrial vertebrates recovered in 30 million years. At 200 mya 70% of species were lost in the second biggest extinction, but the surviving groups were relatively untouched and recovered in under 30 million years. The most recent mass extinction at 66 mya also took 75% of species but recovery only took around 6 million years. The percentage species lost during each crisis is difficult to compare since it depended on the specific events of each catastrophe, but a general trend emerges with recovery of ecosystem functions happening on a shorter time scale after every mass extinction event. Larger animals tend to be the most vulnerable to extinction, but are more rapidly replaced in subsequent extinction events. Life on Earth is getting pretty good at taking a cosmic beating and bouncing back swiftly. A look of all extinction metrics for marine life over the last 500 million years also shows a general decline in extinction intensity outside of the dramatic events as well.

A similar pattern could be argued about the history of collapse of human civilisations. This analysis focuses on western Eurasia but I would be interested to hear from people with more insight into history elsewhere to see if the pattern is more widely apparent. The first wave of multiregional globalisation, trade and specialisation occurred during the late Bronze Age, when a handful of nations around the eastern Mediterranean formed an interdependent structure. When this was destroyed during the Bronze Age collapse (around 3200 years ago) due to a large volcanic eruption followed by mass human migration that only Egypt barely managed to survive. I would estimate this as a 90% destruction of existing structures and territories. Recovery took about 450 years in Greece though varied in different regions. The next example of a widespread trade network in the region was the Roman Empire, encompassing more land to the north and west than the Bronze Age system and the entire Mediterranean Sea. When it finally collapsed around 1500 years ago only the western half was truly abandoned, with the eastern part of the empire maintaining political and economic continuity for another thousand years. The collapsed 50 % of the former empire recovered in around 300 years to mark the start of the middle ages.

The maritime and colonial empires of the Spanish and then British represented a new form of globalised trading network, though different in structure to previous land based empires. When these systems collapsed they underwent a relatively smooth process of severing colonial organs, often on a more political than economic level, with trade often continuing during the transition. Often the drive to relinquish territory was purely economic, with the captured territories costing more in military outlays than they brought in from trade. The process is reminiscent of a water stressed tree dropping its leaves. The collapse of these maritime empires effectively left a head with no body, which went on to live a fairly long and prosperous life with obvious but mostly manageable declines in standard of living. The USSR represented another large and mostly land based trading and specialisation network which lost coherence as resource and economic restrictions weakened it. In contrast to the collapse of the British maritime empires the highest centres of soviet power blinked out but left the robust organs of production in place to continue functioning independently, in this case like a body that continued to live on without a head.

And now today many of us feel like we are on the precipice of the collapse of the US global empire. The USA is in many ways an extension and refinement of the British colonial model, except it goes further in that it claims very little territory in the traditional sense, simply because it does not need to. It does claim tiny parcels for military bases across the planet, a thousand launch pads to maintain naval dominance in order to keep the ocean shipping lanes open and secure (and to knock any troublesome nations into line if they threaten that global order). The US system relies on the soft power of cultural influence (though prolific export of mass media) and economic infiltration (as so artfully explained in “Confessions of an Economic Hitman”). As such the partial collapse of such a system could be almost as invisible as the system itself, with unprofitable sectors quietly cut loose much as the British “liberated” their former colonies when there was no more blood left to suck. The main hurdle though is that relinquishing power of any significant region could mean that US military resources then need to be devoted to securing the boundaries of that sector. By contrast global dominance has a certain economy of scale since there are no more outer borders to patrol when the entire planet is secured (the ultimate solution to the Roman problem of expanding territory creating expanding borders with their inevitable conflicts). The US Empire is interesting to compare to Rome in one key way. The power centres of Rome were kept viable for so long due to massive imports of grain by ship from North Africa, the foundation for the bread that kept urban populations pacified and armies fed. This made their conflict with Carthage for control of the Mediterranean Sea an existential one, where even a victorious Rome was severely wounded. The USA by contrast is the major source of export grain in the world, with its productive interior combined with industrial agriculture producing vast quantities of surplus export ready food, a diplomatic weapon that it wields against all food importing nations. Even with diminishing food production the US still has the potential to wield this weapon if it manages to curtail the use of grain to grow excessive domestic feedlot meat production.

As the world passed through the period of peak energy production per person (falling since 1985 as population growth outpaced increasing total energy production) how the US centred empire collapses is a topic of great debate. Based on these longer trends I believe that the US Empire will be the most functional collapse to date with the most rapid recovery. The fate of US citizens though will still be pretty dire in comparison with their recent history, but more akin to the millionaire who spirals into depression when they are forced to live at subsistence levels that would be quite tolerable by the majority of humans who ever lived in history. The empire however itself has ample resources to maintain itself while becoming less resource intensive and wasteful, especially through the erosion of its internal consumer culture. This was manufactured with the crude mass media of the 1950s to absorb surplus production and could be even more rapidly reimagined to reduce consumption using the full spectrum digital immersion of the early 21st century.

It can be argued that the USA is already a half century into its collapse with domestic conventional oil production peaking in the 1970’s. In that light the future merely holds a further acceleration of those trends, with a few bumps in the road of course. The centre of US power no longer resides in the mouldering organs of its government, but has been effectively transferred to a diverse host of economic powers (multinational corporations and financial institutions) and the US military-industrial complex. While this does present the risk of a major conflict arising between these many interconnected entities, it does have the advantage that the seat of power of the global network is dispersed and mobile in a way that makes it possible for it to untether itself from locally unfavourable conditions, much like the centre of power shifted from Rome to Byzantium. While I still ultimately believe that a system wide collapse and dark age lies ahead of us I also believe that we will first go through a prolonged period of further energetic/economic/political rationalisation as the flourishes and excesses that were feasible under conditions of rising energy per capita during the 19th and early 20th century become a liability during this era of falling per capita energy. This should leave us at least a couple of generations to continue preparing for the inevitable dark ages ahead, and pondering what shape the next global trading network will take in a world scrubbed clean of easy fossil fuel energy sources. Just as the global ecosystem has gotten better at picking itself up, dusting itself off and starting all over again so has human civilisation. This means the unfolding collapse could pleasantly surprise us in its duration, depth and eventual recovery.

Marine Extinction Intensity over time (mya) showing a general decreasing trend
One man’s collapse is another’s respite.