Friday, July 31, 2009

Round and Round The Mulberry That Ate South Minneapolis

This is a mulberry tree, red mulberry (murus rubra) I think. (Click on the picture to discover the species of the vine in the top-left corner.) There are several other mulberries growing in this fence in South Minneapolis. This tree is probably closely related to the mature mulberry at the near end of the next block north. The mature tree is 25-30 feet tall, with a similar drip-line diameter. The blotchy gray picture is the sidewalk below the parent, taken several weeks after the fruit was long gone from the tree’s branches.

Whoever is responsible for the fence should dig these plants out before they get bigger and wreck it. Mulberries are edible, and the trees have various uses, medicinal, fibrous, dyeing, and hallucinogenic, but probably not for an arborista with a small site. (Small, dry, kind of sweet, and not very flavorful; kids and birds eat them.) They grow and spread quickly, and thrive on being cut back. They’re weeds.

I removed one from the bank in front of our house when it was a foot or so tall. I was in junior-scientist mode, so I took some pains and excavated the entire root. It was between two and three feet long. (Junior-scientist mode, but not enough so's I'd write down what I'd found.)

Mulberries are often included in permaculture prescriptions. This may be an artifact of permaculture’s down-under origin. Or in larger plantations, mulberries might be commercially useful. Hypothesis: Mulberries would enhance growing and nutritional conditions for the rest of a site, if placed at the top of its slope. If the roots of older trees are proportional to my baby’s, they’re very deep. They would lift minerals from way down in the clay. Rainwater flowing downslope, and birds, would distribute minerals from fallen berries and leaves.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Wabbit-Proof Fence

They bring out my inner Elmer Fudd. Fudd was dumpy, pompous, middle aged, and hellbent on banging what must have been an already frayed ego against Bugs Bunny’s insouciance. He couldn’t get a break. But in the Wagnerian spoof What’s Opera, Doc? Fudd manages to “kill the wabbit,” then carries Bugs’ broken body off in a cloud of grief and remorse. Even then, Bugs gets the last word, rising from Elmer’s embrace, shrugging to the camera and saying, “What’d ya expect? It’s opera.”

Kumo, the kitty, and I like to chase them. Wabbits. We try to trap them with a pincer maneuver. “You go that way. It’ll watch me circle this way, and you can get it.” The rabbits have bumped into both of us as they fled the other.

But maybe I’m more like Farmer MacGregor in Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. (Potter was the first Brit to realize that lichens are colonies of symbiotic algae and fungus.) I have a stake, after all, and the rabbits nibble the things I plant. If they wind up in a pie, they’re only making restitution. They (it?) go mostly for the prairie clover, but they’ve also done a number on a plum I’ve been trying to nurse back to health after the mice girdled it last winter (my fault...the mice will starve this winter).Link

And speaking of winter. Speculation is that we're seeing more rabbits than usual because milder winters have given the local population an extra breeding cycle every year. Maybe I can send my bill for rabbit damage to ExxonMobil.

Prairie clover (Petalostemum or Dalea purpureum) is a native perennial, and a nitrogen fixer. It’s cousin to clover. It’s one of the mix of herbaceous plants I’m trying to establish in my sideyard ecology. Rabbits seem to like it. A lot. It’s starts out small, and seems to take two years to get blooms. What’s on the menu this year was in pots last year, and it’s still tiny.

The bunnies chew it back to stems. Maybe this is something the clover has adapted to over the milennia, and needs it, the way prairie needs fire. Maybe the plants will be fuller for their pruning. I don’t know. They’re mine, they cost two or three bucks apiece, they take a long time to grow, and I don’t want the consarn idjit varmints running experiments in my lab.

So I’ve wired together little cylinders of hardware cloth, and stapled them into the ground. One for every clover. Mwahaha!

Now for the squirrels.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bill Mollison Permaculture & Abundance

Korean War-era Tasmanian Bill Mollison developed permaculture in the early ‘seventies with younger Aussie, David Holmgren. In the Global Gardener video series, Mollison said, “In the late ‘sixties I was protesting social and environmental issues. But by the early ‘seventies, I decided that protest wasn’t good enough. So I commenced designing gardens and positive design systems for human habitation.”

What he means is that social and environmental ills come out of scarcity, and he meant to pitch in on the side of abundance. People starve because of scarcity; that’s a no-brainer. The next step is that people worry that somebody will steal what they have, so they organize to defend themselves and their treasure...and maybe swipe a little of somebody else’s. After that we soil our own nests because we don’t have, or believe we don’t have, the means to keep them clean. Mollison believes that by studying natural systems and trying to imitate them, people could cultivate plenty. A variation on Buckminster Fuller’s thought that, “If you want to change a system you cannot amend it. A new system which makes the old one obsolete is the only true change.”

Homo sap hasn’t really figured out yet what it is, and figuring it out means fitting in with all the other living things on Planet Gaia. Permaculture is still at the pre-Model-T stage, but by following its principles and ethics, our species will come of age.

Yeah, but what is it? Here’s what David Holmgren says: "Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs."

Here in Minnesota, and much of the central United States, what you do is try to mimic the native oak savanna, substituting plants that will fulfill your needs. Anchor your garden with oak or, more usefully, a chestnut or two. Below that, plant hazelnuts, apples, and cherries, with grapes trellised on the branches. The next story is fruiting shrubs, bush cherries, currants, gooseberries, blueberries, etc., oriented to the larger plants according to how much sun they need. Then herbaceous perennials, pollinator attractors, pest repellants, long-rooted plants to bring minerals from deep in the soil to the surface, and nitrogen fixers. Bees, ducks, chickens, hogs, etc., according to your site. Mushrooms, medicinals, ginseng.

1. Observe and interact;
2. Catch and store energy;
3. Obtain a yield;
4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback;
5. Use and value renewable resources and services;
6. Produce no waste;
7. Design from patterns to details;
8. Integrate rather than segregate;
9. Use small and slow solutions;
10. Use and value diversity;
11. Use edges and value the marginal;
12. Creatively use and respond to change.

Criticism has mostly been that permaculturists import non-native, invasive species, and that mature, or “climax,” ecosytems are not very productive of fruit, etc. The invasive-species critique may have been true once. I found reading Mollison infuriating because I wasn’t familiar with the species he prescribed. Maybe people with more expertise jumped the gun and tried to build Tasmanian ecosystems in the US. The fact is that current Minnesotan and Wisconsin permaculturists use familiar plants. As for the objection that climax ecosystems aren’t productive from a human point of view, that’s a management problem. Finesse it by thinning, planting, pruning, coppicing, and you wind up with a kind of bonsai ecosystem. Even if what we call “permaculture” were shown to be humanly useless, the objective of designing “landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy," or at least figuring how to do that, is the best use of human time as of the early 21st century.


Permaculture Activist Magazine -- Good, dry articles about permaculture in the US, with beautiful color covers;

Permaculture 101 -- Series of short videos about permaculture;

Midwest Permaculture -- Three designers in Wisconsin and Illinois who offer instruction (my teachers); these guys say their style of food growing has an eighteen hundred-year rotation; they also claim you can get 25% more ethanol per-acre from apples than from corn, and you can graze the orchard, since you aren't worried about human consumption of fecal coliform bacteria;

Permaculture Research Institute - Cold Climate -- Minnesota-based designers working to learn more.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Onion and Chinese Strategic and Economic Talks

Last week’s Onion was written as if (I hope) the humor weekly had become part of the Chinese “Wu Wan Mei Amalgamated Salvage Fisheries and Polymer Injection Group.” The articles were humorless examples of propaganda, naive boosterism, and redaction that would make J. Edgar Hoover blush. “American Consumer Masses Agree: It Fish Time!” “Nothing At All Happens To 28 Tibetan Protesters, Their Families,” “Clear American Sky A Constant Reminder Of Industrial Inferiority.”

Written on the occasion of the two-day strategic and economic talks between President Obama and US cabinet-level officials with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan and State Councilor Dai Bingguo, Volume 45 issue 30 was a note-perfect take on, at least, my image of the Chinese: chauvinistic, authoritarian, generous to a fault, and completely irony-challenged.

China is the world’s third largest economy, and growing. We have a two billion dollar-per-year trade deficit with them, which they lend back to us by buying t-bills. They currently own over 800 billion dollars worth. At the meeting, the Americans nag the Chinese about currency manipulation, while the Chinese chide American profligacy.

However this meeting turns out, Americans will see more Chinese impingement on our culture, and it won’t be in the form of Taoist teachers (actually we could use those). America, which has alloyed European and African music, operated on a mostly-accurate "systems" understanding of the world, and sponsored (British) scientist James Lovelock in his development of the Gaia Hypothesis, could be swamped by a billion peasants trying to ape nineteenth century imperial capitalism. Just when we were starting to understand human liberty, to say nothing about our relationship to the planet, we have to educate the pretenders to a 3000 year old culture. And do it broke.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Farmers' Market Saturday Morning

I filled in briefly Saturday at the Midtown Farmer’s Market.

If all commerce were like this, we wouldn’t ever worry about “th' stupid economy.” Midtown is a big parking lot full of local food, crafts, music, and information, rockin' out every Saturday morning and Tuesday afternoon, May-October. You’ve got Hmong families and fresh-faced hippie-looking youngsters making their tables groan beneath just picked-veggies. Also farmers from nearby pasture lands, with grass-fed meat; artisan bakers and other local gustatory value-adders (including the redoubtable Barsy’s Almonds); jewelers; soap makers; master gardeners with expert advice; a chef doing demos with seasonal garden produce...

What else? Local musicians trying out their chops, fair-trade, dark-roast coffee, crepes, roasted corn, tamales, boiled peanuts, Grateful Dead-flavored breakfasts from a big old purple school bus, flowers, canned stuff. Gee. I know I must be leaving somebody out, and I apologize. People go to the market to see their friends, and it’s a gas, gas, gas!

Minnesota Flavored Almonds

Darned good Almonds. Darned good marketer. Barbara had a recipe for smoked almonds she’d tinkered with over the years. Family and friends looked forward to getting them for Christmas. We won’t say the big gun’s name, but Barbara’s have a meatier taste, almost bacony (they are entirely vegetarian, vegan even).

Co-worker Jason and she decided to try selling them at the LinkMidtown Farmer’s Market in the spring of 2008, and they were a hit. Over the course of the season, they developed three new recipes, “Sweeties” (chai or “pumpkin pie” flavored), “Naughties” (cocoa and cinnamon, with a snap of cayenne), and “Hotties” (cayenne and chilli, with molasses, vinegar, and smoke giving them a lot of depth). Meanwhile, they found retail outlets (Seward Co-op, East Side Co-op, Mississippi Market Co-op, Anoka Lakewinds Co-op, Kiki's Simple Abundance in Red Wing, The Golden Fig, with more on the way). This year they’ve expanded to three other farmer’s markets (Kingfield, North East, and New Hope).

The flavors are all complex, and a little on the adult side. They’ve made it to Iraq, and Barbara and Jason proudly display a photograph of a squad of GIs eating Barsy’s Almonds in front of a Baghdad palace.

Barbara and Jason are engaging sales people, and like to play and flirt with customers and prospects. They have regulars who seem like friends, and Barbara and Jason are popular with the other sellers. When one of them has a conflict or they get triple-booked, I step in as baker or seller. Baking is fast-paced and engaging, but selling is a gas.

The next recipe will probably be “Babies,” and will use hazlenuts, aka “filberts.” The idea is to diversify, but also to use a local product (there ain’t no Minnesota almonds). Most of our filberts come from Turkey, but the trees grow like weeds out in the country here. There is the beginning of a hazlenut industry, with local arborealistas tinkering with processing machinery, and marketing networks.

Barsy’s has a website, but mail order is pretty ad hoc still. At current scale, what would be nice would be somebody else whose business would be mail order fulfillment source for artisan-food start-ups.

Potato Towers

This is one corner of the garden. The yellow things are potato towers. We scrounged a discarded plastic window blind from neighbor Steve’s trash. (Some people use old tires; it depends on what you have.) I cut it in two, and and wired the ends together to make two cylinders. Some half-composted yard waste, plus commercial composted cow manure from a garage sale became medium.

You put a little bit of medium in the bottom of the cylinder, lay the seed potatoes on top, and just barely bury them. As the plants appear, you bury the stalks, and keep doing that until you get to the top. In the fall, you open up the cylinders and take out the spuds. A potato high-rise.

I never did this before, so I put too much medium in before I placed the seed potatoes (especially since the towers were on top of an existing raised bed). The foliage has grown a lot taller than the tops of the containers. I think I could have cultivated a larger harvest if I’d started the potatoes deeper in the cylinder. The limiting factor would have been the amount of medium I could find.

Here’s a link to a video. Don’t take this guy too seriously. It’s just nice to have an image.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Minimum Wage Up to $7.25

The minimum wage goes up today to $7.25 an hour.

Argument in favor: Could you live on fifteen grand per year?

Argument opposed: Increased labor costs mean employers will hire fewer workers.

There doesn’t seem to be a consensus regarding the opposition argument. Could there be a fair study? Employers aware of the argument might vote by using fewer workers.

Something that should humble everybody working or employing or both is that we’d all be sunk if the oil dried up. Few, if any, modern enterprises can say they create wealth, when we depend on the irreplaceable combustibles we find in the ground. There's no room for complacency, especially among those of us to whom much is given.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Freezer Blues

Yesterday I defrosted the chest freezer. Last year was an off one for apples, and frozen stocks had gotten down to an amount I could cram into a picnic chest. This year, the weight of the apples is turning the branches into lawn draperies. The promise of a bountiful harvest.

So I unplugged the beast and went to work.

It had been a while. I don’t think we’ve defrosted the freezer in the fifteen or twenty years it’s been ours. To my shame there was the muck of a few messes in the bottom, whole wheat flour and apple slices in pinkish ice. Defrosting was part of a program to treat Permaculture household and garden as real, not just hippie affectation.

I got it clean and dry, running up and down basement steps between freezer, other chores, and compost pile. It was busytime, but not frantic. Time for thoughts to bubble up.

The freezer came with the house. I used to own another, but that was part of a long-ago natural food store, in a distant university town. This is really my first. Size, rounded corners, interior enamel in mattress-ticking colors, all tell me this appliance is almost as old as I am.

How long do freezers last? Will we have the cash to replace it when it crashes? Would canning take less energy? Where would the canned food go? How the hell do you can, anyway? How serious is the threat of fatal stomach ache from home-canned food?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Robert McNamara versus Terry Gross

When Robert McNamara was alive, he represented about as much intellectual firepower as you could cram onto two legs. That didn’t mean he had things sussed. He was the architect of the Viet Nam War, and opposition to that war and the fact of the draft shaped choices I made as a young man, and shaped who I became. McNamara came to think the US couldn’t win in Nam, and resigned -- or was ejected --from the Johnson Administration.

Still it was hard to know what to say at the wake.

It took Fresh Air from WHYY, the night he died, and a night’s sleep before I had something original to add.

Terry Gross is the canniest interviewer on radio today. She replayed her 1995 interview with McNamara, one in which he promotes his memoir, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.” There may be some quicker and better prepared reporter, somewhere, but I haven’t heard any. Good or not, Gross kept trying for an apology, and she never laid a glove on Mac. Next she replayed her interview with Errol Morris, the director of the 2001 documentary, “Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” Morris was less interested in apology, in spite of being of age and sensibility similar to Gross’ and mine. (Gross, b.: 1951; Morris, b.: 1948, your servant, b.: 1949)

“Fog” opens in the middle of an answer from Mac. There’s a framing device related to Morris’ running out of film, and intended to characterize McNamara as a brilliant control freak (He directs Morris about how to handle an interruption). In this speech, McNamara says that commanders in war will inevitably err, and people die. He claims that three times during the Kennedy Administration the world was hours away from nuclear war, the kind of war when nations would die.

So, Bobby, if ye kin hear me, wurrivver ye are... What was it made ye think that holdin’ the line in that little rinkydinkaragua of Viet Nam would avert the great nuclear holocaust? And if it be the case that it might’ve, what made ye think ye had th’ right to make th’ poor sufferin’ Viet Namese bear the turrible cost? And further, if ye were keerect in all your ponderin’ and calculatin’ whatever for did ye walk away from it all?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rain Warrior

Somewhere in Mad Max’s shattered world, lives the lonely king of an empty city. After the rare rains, he rides out in an improvised water tanker. He knows where the puddles are, and using scavenged fuel from the abandoned cars, he cruises boulevards and alleys, siphoning the puddles dry. Scavenged water irrigates his gardens. Someday he’ll have sucked the cars dry, or the condensation of too many seasons will have ruined the gas. Until then, he’ll convert the fossils of fossil fuels into water, into food, into his flesh.

I woke at five twenty-one to the welcome sound of rain. I listened gratefully to the storm’s background fricative, a billion raindrops crashing against roof, pavement, and sun-packed turf. Wrapped in that lisping din, water from a downspout gurgled into the tank. It’s been weeks since the last rain, and long weeks before that to another. I’m an industrialized kind of guy, and this is the first year when I have paid attention to where my water comes from.

In May of 2008, with two or three neighbors having installed rain barrels, I realized that for twenty-five dollars more and some tinkering, I could install one of those tanks that are designed to fit on the beds of farm pickups, and go from seventy-five to two hundred ten gallons. I built a cradle from four-by-sixes that our house’s previous owner left behind, and cobbled together a hose-cock with a little help from the plumbing staff at Mill’s Fleet Farm.

It drains about 225 square feet of sky, or between a fifth and a quarter of our total footprint. (There’s more roof than this, at an angle between horizontal and verrtical, but the rain is going to treat it like it was flat and smaller.)

Last night we got between a quarter and a half inch of rain, and collected about 120 gallons. If I’d figured out how to drain the whole roof, it would have been five hundred forty gallons.

The entire site is a little more complicated, but if you imagine a roof over everything, house, shed, garage, driveway, yard, and you collect the runoff from that, we get five thousand gallons. Ten thousand gallons per inch of rain.

I think about the energy that city water represents, the wear and tear on the storm-sewer system and lakes, and the possibility of watering bans during droughts. Two hundred gallons doesn't go that far, either. A full tank helps but doesn't come close to watering twenty to thirty fruit or nut trees, bushes, and vines, plus the raised beds and asparagus. I balked at putting a ton of water high enough to flow everywhere in the yard. I seek better ways to harvest rainfall.

Monday, July 20, 2009

In Which We Are Introduced

Test. Test. Is this thing working?

This is my first blog. I plan to react to the things that happen as I build the permaculture plantation in my inner-city side yard, make art, get old, and live a life in a post-peak industrial democracy. Today I'm reacting to going to a big-box electronics store and getting an external hard drive and a USB hub. I also borrowed a scanner from my son.

I don't like it. I'd rather send letters to the editor, but we live when we live, and exchanging good ideas is like trading punches with the gestapo on top of a runaway train.

I'm Tom Roark, sixty, married, father to an adult son. I agree heartily with my neighbor Margaret's t-shirt that says "The Hippies Were Right." I live in that kind of a neighborhood -- South Minneapolis, Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District. We're the ones who elected the country's first Muslim Representative; I'm trying to turn the yard into a food-producing oak savanna; it's a liberal kind of place.

The blog title, "Can't Learn Less," is a slogan of Buckminster Fuller's. If you keep trying, you keep growing.