Monday, January 31, 2011

Notes on perennial and self-seeding roots, part 2

In my first notes write-up I missed a few roots we sampled at the open house root tasting. I also want to cover a few more roots we didn't have available at that root tasting. Most of these are minor roots with which we have only a little experience so far, and we don't expect to use them as major staple crops. But they help add diversity to our diet and to our garden, and may yield well with further experimentation or breeding.

I've ordered these roughly by theoretical future performance and usefulness to us in our current location.


Garlic, Elephant Garlic, and Shallots (INULIN ROOTS)

Edibility: Roots and greens raw or cooked

Growth: Clumpers to about 2-4' tall. Foliage grows from late fall or early winter, then dies down with summer drought.

Harvest: Roots dug in summer. Normally one harvests everything and stores the roots for eating. When we miss plants, they seem to perennialize, but we've only harvested greens from them, and haven't tried to work out an ongoing perennial root harvest.

Culture: Most productive in full sun, but we've had success growing them under trees where they get shade from spring til summer. Adapted to summer drought.

Yield: Not sure of pounds per square feet. Supposedly garlic and elephant garlic roots contain more than 600 calories per pound! Unfortunately, that comes in the form of inulin, and of course one can only eat so much garlic per day.

Potato - Solanum tuberosum

We haven't actually grown a lot of potatoes. I have an ideological bias against the carbohydrate-heavy, high glycemic load potatoes provide, since I'm aiming for a paleodiet. Plus I have my doubts as to the long-term yield of potatoes once certified virus-free slips can't be imported.

Edibility: Root, cooked only.

Growth: Clumping, to about 2' tall and up to 3-4' wide.

Harvest: Available from early summer through fall. Seem to store OK in the ground, though normally people harvest the full crop and store it for winter consumption.

Culture: Seems to do OK in heavy shade, though normally grown in sun. I think it needs some watering, but I haven't paid proper attention.

Some people grow potatoes as true perennials, allowing the plants to continue in place while harvesting some of the roots from time to time.

Yield: Can certainly give very high yields, both in pounds and in calories per square foot. We've had moderate yields of about .5 pounds per square foot, without putting much care into it.

Cinnamon Vine - Dioscorea batatas

Although people can and do harvest the actual roots for eating, it takes a lot of digging to access the deep brittle taproots. I plan to use them in the future for their aerial bulbils, rather than the roots.

Edibility: Root and bulbils cooked. Root comes very close in taste and texture to potatoes.

Growth: Deciduous herbaceous vine. Gets maybe 7-8' tall in a growing season here.

Harvest: Bulbils form in summer, and it seems best to lay a tarp under them to catch them as they fall.

Culture: Provide some sort of vertical support in full sun.

Camas - Camassia quamash, leichtlinii, & cusickii (INULIN ROOT)

Staple root crop for northwest native americans. We're still getting our patches going (fairly slow to propagate and spread themselves). See also my report-back on foraging camas.

Edibility: Root cooked. Unlike many inulin roots, these taste very gummy and unpleasantly starchy unless fully cooked (ie, 9 hours in a pressure cooker) at which point they taste like caramel candy.

Growth: Spring ephemeral bulbs to 1-3' tall depending on species. Slowly spreading patches.

Harvest: Dig during dormant time from summer til late winter. Harvest the largest bulbs and leave behind the smaller ones.

Culture: These do fine in winter wet including standing water. Presumably best with full sun access during main growing season, though may work well under late-leafing trees. Adapted to summer drought.

Canna lily - Canna indica

We killed one plant a few years ago, I believe because we grew it in standing water over the winter. (Thanks to the fellow (Matthew??) who mailed me the starts from the east coast!) One year ago we planted a new division from a patch doing well in this climate.

Edibility: Root cooked. Mild starchy taste.

Growth: Slowly spreading clumper to about 3-4'?

Harvest: Harvest in fall or winter after foliage dies down (with the first frost??)

Culture: Likes moist soil (but apparently not full-on standing water!). We placed our start in our main garden area, which got watered once or twice a week through the dry summer.

Yield: Our division definitely made substantial roots this year, and I see potential for good yields.

Parsnip - Pastinaca sativa

We've been trying to get self-seeding patches going, but we haven't seen very good growth from seeds. Perhaps too much slug pressure? Or too much other plant competition with not enough soil disturbance from us?

Edibility: Root raw or cooked.

Growth: Biennial clumper to 3' tall. Seems capable of going dormant during summer dry season and resuming growth with fall rains.

Harvest: Perhaps any time of year?? Considered sweetest after some autumn frosts.

Culture: Full sun, disturbed soil. Supplemental watering probably helps a lot.

Grape hyacinth - Muscari neglectum

Edibility: Roots cooked. I find them very bitter and tolerable only in small amounts mixed with other food. Tulsi detects only mild bitterness, so can eat more of them.

Growth: Bulb spreading fairly quickly. In growth from fall or mid winter through summer, dying down with the drought.

Harvest: Presumably the dormant season, from summer til fall or winter.

Culture: I assume full sun is best. Adapted to summer drought.

Chinese artichoke - Stachys affinis

Edibility: Root raw or cooked, supposedly crispy and nice nutty flavor.
Growth: Running herbaceous mint to 3' tall.
Harvest: In the fall? You'll always miss some, so the plant will grow back year after year.
Culture: Sunny position with moist soil supposedly ideal.
Yield: Plants for a Future database says about .25 pounds per square foot.

Earth chestnut - Bunium bulbocastanum

Edibility: Root raw or cooked (though cooking doesn't seem to add anything to the taste or texture). The best tasting root I've ever had, even a little tastier than skirret! Leaves raw or cooked, available through the winter. Seed raw or cooked as a cumin substitute.

Growth: Slowly spreading clumper to about 18" tall. Takes a while to get established, but our patch has finally formed a dense carpet after 2-3 years of growth from three original small divisions.

Harvest: We've only harvested once, last December, by digging under a dense clump and flipping it over, then removing the marble-sized roots thus exposed at the top of the flipped-over-clump. After harvesting many or most of the roots, I flipped the clump back over, and it seems to have recovered just fine.

Culture: Could possibly be used as a ground cover, though very slow to establish. We have ours in full sun, and give them some water in the summer along with the rest of the front yard. (Maybe once or twice a week.)

Yield: Probably very small, since the roots are so small. But perhaps an established clump can yield good numbers on an ongoing basis. Probably lots of potential for breeding work!

Miscellaneous spring ephemerals - Triteleia, Brodiaea, Dichelostemma, Erythronium (INULIN ROOT?), etc

I've tried to start many of these from seeds with very low success (I suspect massacres by slugs), so haven't gained much personal experience. But I think they have potential as an understory crop.

Edibility: Roots cooked. Some may have edible leaves cooked.

Growth: Spring ephemeral bulbs, growing from late winter til summer.

Harvest: During dormant season. Harvest largest bulbs, and leave smaller bulbs to continue growing.

Culture: Suitable as understories to late-leafing shrubs and trees. Adapted to summer drought.

Woodland chervil - Anthriscus sylvestris

See also my crop summary

Edibility: Root cooked (and raw??). Leaves raw or cooked. Maybe seeds raw or cooked?

Growth: Clumping biennial (or perennial?) to 4' tall. Ours stayed in leaf through this past winter. They normally set seed in late spring and maybe die off after that?

Harvest: Dig roots maybe year round??

Culture: Doing fine in full shade with almost no supplemental water.

Sweet cicely - Myrrhis odorata

Edibility: Leaves raw or cooked, usually with sweet anise flavor. Immature seeds raw, tasting like licorice jelly beans. Root raw or cooked, supposedly with the same flavor, though the one older root I've tried didn't taste like much.

Growth: Clumper to about 3' x 3'. May keep a few leaves over the winter, but mostly grows from early spring til hard frost.

Harvest: Probably best during winter? Also possibility of harvesting excess seedlings in summer?

Culture: Full sun to part shade. Probably requires some supplemental water in summer.

Lovage - Levisticum officinale

Edibility: Leaves raw or cooked, a celery substitute. Seed raw or cooked (haven't tried this.) Root cooked; I don't remember it tasting like anything exciting when I tried it once.

Growth: Clumping to 6' tall.

Harvest: Not sure when to harvest the root for best results.

Culture: Full sun to full shade. Tolerates drought just fine.

Orpine - Sedum telephium

Mostly interested in this as a potential ecoroof root crop. We've just begun to grow it, so I don't know much about the root harvest.

Edibility: Leaves raw. Root cooked.

Culture: Supposedly full sun to full shade. Definitely drought tolerant.

Scilla scillioides

Edibility: Leaves cooked (I think they tasted OK the time or two I tried them.) Roots cooked, but I've never really liked them when I've tried them. Not sure why.

Growth: Spring ephemeral bulbs, spreading at a medium rate. Die down with summer drought.

Harvest: Probably best during dormant season, from summer til late winter.

Culture: Full sun probably best during growing season? Adapted to summer drought.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Fennel seed as a calorie crop

We harvested and have begun eating fennel seed this year, and I think it can play a small but useful part in providing a low-maintenance calorie-dense crop in the perennial food system. We didn't do a great job of measuring how much space our fennel seed sources took up, but we have some estimates. We think we harvested from about 15 plants, and figure they take up a combined total of about 40 square feet. (This gets especially fuzzy when you try to distinguish between space at the base vs space at the top after the stalks have branched out a lot. We interplant a lot of shorter plants with the fennel, so we're estimating more of the base/root exclusion area.) We harvested a total of 35.5 ounces (3600 calories), but we estimate we only harvested about 2/3 of the available seed. So we could have gotten about 5400 calories from 40 square feet, which means 135 calories per square foot...right on par with good yields from greens and roots.

We also harvested an unknown but sizeable bunch of greens from the fennel plants through the season. I also harvested many flowers (perhaps 5% of the total?) for salads, believing mistakenly from my early experiments with eating the fennel seed that the strong flavor meant we wouldn't actually be able to use it in much bulk, so I might as well eat up the flowers.

I can't eat much fennel seed raw; I use it in small amounts as a strong spice or nibble. But I can eat at least a tablespoon (quarter ounce, about 25 calories) in my omelette each day, as long as I put the fennel seed in early so it cooks well. That knocks the strong flavor back a lot. I can sprinkle fennel seed on beef patties before cooking them, or add it in bulk to soups and stews. (Haven't measured exactly how much I've used in these situations, but I'd guess at least half a tablespoon with 1/3 pound of beef.) I've also soaked fennel seed overnight with nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds) and eaten them all together with dried fruit the next day. (Again, maybe half a tablespoon at a time with a quarter cup of other nuts.) All in all, I think I can easily average 25 calories a day year round, and if I wanted to push it maybe 50 per day. Not a staple food by any means, but an easy concentrated source of calories. I'm learning the value of that as I find my limits of how many greens or bulky roots I can eat per day. A tablespoon of fennel seed providing the same calories as three cups of greens has a lot of value.

Growing fennel takes no work at all once it gets established. It comes back from a taproot year after year, probably mining some nutrients from deep below, and definitely feeding beneficial insects with its carrot family flowers. You can eat the roots of excess seedlings, though I've had trouble finding a good time to harvest them--young plants have nice enough roots (though very strong tasting, benefiting from cooking) but weigh almost nothing, while older sizable roots have become too tough for me to enjoy. So I'll probably just adopt an approach of over-harvesting to death the greens from unwanted seedlings, leaving more greens on our main plants to maximize seed production.

Our chickens love eating the seed! We had never tried feeding them fennel seeds until this winter, and I wish I'd figured it out sooner. Definitely worth growing a bunch of fennel plants in the chicken yard, then cutting down the heads throughout the fall and winter for the chickens to access.

It took me a while to process the fennel seed. Tulsi had already harvested the seed heads, by cutting them from the stalk and filling a four gallon bucket packed fairly tight. (It maybe took her 15-30 minutes to harvest it all??) I spent about 4 hours total watching movies and stripping the seeds from the seed heads. So I processed about 900 calories per hour. In general, I take much longer to do manual hand-processing work than Tulsi and many other people, so take that figure as an upper end of expected time required. Also, it took me a little time to figure out the most efficient strategy, and even once I did, I had a hard time making myself follow it.

You'll get the quickest results by accepting some losses--strip as much seed as comes off the seed head easily in one or two passes, then move on to the next seed head. The fennel seed you miss will feed the chickens. However, I tend to demand too much perfection in these matters--spending a long time picking the last bit of walnut out from the deep groove, carefully cutting off bad spots from jerusalem artichokes so as to preserve as much good flesh as possible (despite still having 100 pounds out in the yard to work through, more than we'll be able to eat!), and spending 4 times as much time to get the last 4 fennel seeds as I spent getting the first 16 seeds from the seed head. I need to cultivate an attitude of strategic waste; accept that I don't need to extract every last morsel of food from the project at hand, when there's plenty more where that came from, and the chickens have much more combined time on their hands (er, beaks and claws) than I.

I don't know whether fennel seeds contain anti-nutrients, which of course eliminate many seeds (especially grains) from the paleodiet. I would guess fennel seeds rely more on their intense flavor to keep mammals from eating very many of them, so maybe cooking them to mellow the flavor deactivates their main line of defense? And if they do contain anti-nutrients, I would guess that a quarter ounce per day won't constitute enough consumption to really cause problems. But I'd love to see more definitive information on this question.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Harvest log now shows category & food item breakdowns

Quick note that I just added a new page to the existing Harvest Log. Now you can view the usual harvests by date, plus the new page to show harvests by categories & food items. Makes it a lot easier for me to get a quick handle on how many calories are coming from roots, from greens, from berries, etc.