Homegrown “Superfruit”

I saw this item for sale at my food co-op, Pogue’s Run Grocer, and it cracked me up.

Turkish Superfruit! Check it!

White mulberries, a “Turkish Superfruit,” only $5.99 for 4 ounces. What. A. Steal!

Just a week ago I spent a pleasant morning bicycling around the neighborhood with a friend. We stopped to pick from the mulberry trees that grow wild along the creek, meanwhile catching up on each others’ lives.

Mulberries are great in smoothies and crisps, and they are abundant, free, and nutritious (apparently a Superfruit, no less!). My friend and I were delighted with our harvest. Along with the usual purple, we found a white mulberry tree. It might be my imagination, but I always think the white berries are particularly sweet (though a bit less appetizing in appearance).

Superfruit from the hood. Free of charge. Bring your own bucket.

Superfruit from the hood. Free of charge. Bring your own bucket.

I once blogged about how homesteading (even on my modest scale) can make me feel like a chump because of all the extra work it takes to live “simply.” And how other times, I feel the tiniest bit smug, because—look! So much wealth on so little money.

Yeah, this is one of those smug times.

Peaceful Grounds

Monday morning a group of gardeners from the neighborhood had a private tour of Peaceful Grounds, Linda Proffitt’s endeavor at Marion County Fairgrounds, where the county fair is going on. (See my earlier post about her work here.) The vision and scope of this Global Peace Initiatives project astounded and inspired us.

The cattle barn at the Marion County fairgrounds is home to this volunteer-driven initiative.

The cattle barn at the Marion County fairgrounds is home to this volunteer-driven initiative.

George Marshall, Linda’s intern, showed us around the farm, where mounds of wood chips are not just regular old wood chips but worm habitat.


George next to a hoop house that stayed warm all winter from heat given off by decomposition.

Peaceful Grounds takes beer mash from local brewers like Irvington’s own Black Acre and buries it in mulch to feed the herd of worms.

The spent grain is perfect worm food because barley fits easily into worms' tiny mouths.

The spent grain is perfect worm food because barley fits easily into worms’ tiny mouths.

Hand-painted signs that say “Worms at Work” and “Thank a Worm” testify to the importance of these little red wigglers.


Digging up some of the underground workers to show us.

Volunteers mix 5 to 15 tons of mash with equal amounts of wood chips each week. Another mound incorporates dehydrated food waste from public hospital Eskenazi Health. Over time, these piles and rows are transformed into a viable medium for garden plants.

George showed us where vegetable and herb starts have been set right into these habitats.


Broccoli planted in one of many windrows made by worms doing their work on wood chips and beer mash.

In a nifty closing of the loop, Linda has begun to raise hops to supply local brewers.

A few of Peaceful Grounds volunteer-planted crops.

A few more Peaceful Grounds volunteer-planted crops.

While we were walking down the raised beds (“windrows”) of basil and tomatoes, a fair official came up and asked for Linda. He wanted to introduce her to the people in charge of an elephant exhibit, so she could incorporate elephant dung in the farm operation. (“You never met a lady more excited about poop than Linda,” George joked.)

Inside the cattle barn is where kids and adults can come for hands-on fun with art and agriculture. It’s also where artists like Jamie Locke (another Irvington neighbor) demonstrate mandala making and other crafts—and where young volunteers from Handi-Capable Hands take charge of a gigantic tumbler that sifts the worm compost into two grades of product.

Heidi Unger took this photo of the tumbler, which is named Apollo and was donated by a local farmer who saw Linda on TV.

Heidi Unger took this photo of the tumbler, which is named Apollo and was donated by a local farmer who saw Linda on TV.

We went home with the finer grade, which is basically worm poo, to use as a powerful organic fertilizer. One tablespoon per plant will nourish it through a month, Linda says.

Worm castings make an excellent fertilizer. Now there's a local source!

Worm castings make an excellent fertilizer. Now we have a local source!

Before we left, we learned that Will Allen is going to visit the operation, which is a training outpost for his fabulous Growing Power organization. He will speak at 2pm Saturday and lead a workshop at 4pm, and will also preside over a ribbon cutting ceremony at noon on Sunday, when the Peaceful Grounds Farm and Arts Market kicks off.

IMG_3598I’d love to see more interaction between local urban gardeners and this facility, which is just a stone’s throw from Irvington’s back door. Right now the county fair is in full swing, but the possibilities extend beyond its closing date. Linda is running a Farm Camp for kids starting July 7, and is happy to host volunteers at any time.

By the way, she offered to set me up with an interview with Will Allen. I’m thrilled to meet this man I admire so much. I’m crowdsourcing interview questions. What would you ask the grandfather of urban gardening, if you could?

I Heart My Garden Tower

Faithful readers of this blog will remember last year’s midseason efforts with a new gardening technology. Due to some missteps and a late start, I had pretty low yields. But this spring the Garden Tower Project, offering a vertical garden design with worm composting right in the tower, is my best friend.

I’m following the instructions this time and fertilizing with organic fish emulsion till my worms get going, and I can already tell a big difference.

I sowed radish and beet seeds in the top of the Tower over a month ago, and it was so exciting when they sprouted.

I sowed radish and beet seeds in the top of the Tower over a month ago, and it was so exciting when they sprouted.

In late March I bought starts from two of my favorite farmers at the winter farmers market, Stout’s Melody Acres and KG Acres.

Sweet little chard seedling in one of the pockets.

Sweet little chard seedling in one of the pockets.

This year I’m not asking each pocket to hold more than one plant (last year I was loath to thin my babies, resulting in spindly, sad specimens).

Beautiful lettuce (before I thinned).

Beautiful lettuce (actually two plants, before I thinned).

Soon I was able to eat my thinnings. Just last week, I harvested a bumper crop of radishes.

And the radishes are still coming!

And the radishes are still coming!

This week I’ve made my salads solely from my own garden (with a few foraged weeds for good measure), and I’ve begun snipping kale leaves to use in green smoothies.


More radishes on the way. And here come the beets! I will probably slip a tomato or pepper plant in here before too long.

Here’s what my Garden Tower looked like before I started majorly harvesting a few days ago.

Still room for a cucumber or zucchini seeding on the bottom row. (Yes I do love my greens!)

Still room for a cucumber or zucchini seeding on the bottom row, where that one pea sprout is lagging behind.

And another view.

Yes I do love my greens-- of all kinds!

Yes I do love my greens– of all kinds!

I learned more about the Garden Tower Project when I wrote a piece on it for the May issue of Farm Indiana. I was impressed with the vision of the project’s three partners. For example, at some point in the future they hope to switch from a petroleum-based plastic to plant-based.

According to partner Joel Grant, the type of polyethylene used in the Tower is simple to produce from plant-based sources. “You can produce polyethylene nearly as easily as biodiesel,” the environmental scientist says. “It takes more processing but…in some countries people solely manufacture it out of plant products.”

For more on the Garden Tower Project, visit their webpage or see my story in Farm Indiana (navigate to page 24).

Now I’m off to saute up some chard and radish greens for dinner!

Farming Females

Last month I enjoyed interviewing several women for a special section in Farm Indiana on women in agriculture. While some didn’t consider themselves farmers, all had valuable perspectives about what it means to bring a female sensibility to agriculture.

Many spoke of women’s connection to the earth as something deep and primal. Several compared the nurturing of plants and animals to caring for children.

And Kay Niedenthal, an urban farmer in Indianapolis, might have been talking about our procreative power when she said, “It’s like magic to make something from nothing. To start with dirt and a seed and then have a meal.”

Anna Welch of Fields of Agape in a field being prepared for hull-less oats.

Anna Welch of Fields of Agape in a field being prepared for hull-less oats. (The periodical has a much better photo of Anna by the terrific photographer Josh Marshall.)

I was intrigued by the fact that Anita Spencer of Homestead Growers didn’t start out growing organically. She and her husband were Miracle-Gro fans at the start. When a friend asked if they’d ever considered going organic, she said, “We laughed at her!”

But that question planted a seed all its own. They took a look at the contents of the famed formulation and realized they didn’t want all those chemicals in their bodies and those of their children. Nor did they want to sell produce grown that way.

Now Anita is proud to offer high-quality, chemical-free food to her customers through both Homestead Growers and its spinoff line of tomato sauces, Local Folks Foods.

(As a side note, this anecdote showed me how questions can spur behavior change, even the questions don’t seem well-received. I resolve to ask more questions!)

For the full story, including seven mini-profiles of women in agriculture and Josh Marshall’s beautiful photos, see the current issue of Farm Indiana (page A8).

Like to Eat? Thank a Bee.

Kate Franzman, beekeeper and urban farmer

Kate Franzman, beekeeper and urban farmer

Kate Franzman is one of many fabulous people who keep the “indie” in Indianapolis. Concerned about the die-off of honeybees, she started Bee Public with a goal of increasing the number of honeybees in our city. The organization has placed hives at several urban farms, including one right in my neighborhood.

She’s a writer too, and her first-person story is featured in the current issue of Indianapolis Monthly. I generally don’t shrink from bees myself, but her description of capturing a swarm as a novice beekeeper is truly impressive.

Swarm on a fence post in summer 2013. Kate scooped them by (gloved) hand into a box before transporting them to their new home at South Circle Farm.

Swarm on a fence post in summer 2013. Kate scooped them by (gloved) hand into a box before transporting them to their new home at South Circle Farm.

Her passion for these pollinators leads her to give talks and workshops emphasizing their importance. “Since 2006, we’ve lost more than one-third of our honeybee colonies nationwide, due in major part to Colony Collapse Disorder, an alarming phenomenon that occurs when the bees mysteriously desert their hive and die,” she writes.

“One out of every three bites of food we eat was made possible by a bee. So no bees, no food.”

Kate and a few of the creatures on whom our lives depend

Kate and a few of the creatures on whom our lives depend

The unusually harsh winter killed all the bees in Bee Public’s hives, so Kate initiated a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to replace the honeybees. The response has been one of “unprecedented generosity,” prompting her to pledge to purchase replacement bees for other urban farmers and expand the network of hives.

On May 10 at Pogue’s Run Grocer, Kate will present Bees 101, an overview of how to create a bee-friendly backyard. And if you want to take it further, Bee Public offers consulting and hive setup for local restaurants, community gardens, and urban farms. There’s even a sponsorship option for people not in a position to have a hive. Check out Bee Public’s site and Facebook page!

All photos courtesy of Bee Public.

A Lifesized Lego Set for Farmers and Makers

I was invited to visit the Indiana Small Farm Conference this past weekend, and was I ever glad I went. I got to reconnect with some farmer friends and make new connections. I learned about the challenges facing the people who grow our food on a small scale. And of course lunch was delicious, as well it should be with food supplied from local farms and prepared by the stellar whole-foods caterer known as The Juniper Spoon.

But the highlight was a session with a representative from Open Source Ecology. This is a group I’ve had my eye on for a while because of the radical way they are working to take back the building blocks of modern life. The goal is nothing less than a modular, low-cost, DIY “Global Village Construction Set” of 50 machines that would meet the major needs of civilization.

The best part? The plans are all open source, allowing anyone, anywhere, to try them out and make improvements.

The 50 machines, from tractor to 3D printer to wind turbine.

The 50 machines, from tractor to 3D printer to wind turbine.

OSE Construction Manager Chris Reinhart, it turns out, lives just an hour away from me. He calls himself a tinkerer and maker, and holds an architecture degree from Ball State. He is developing plans for a micro-house that could be built by a small group of people in a handful of days, using equipment from the GVCS.

He posts his plans on Facebook and logs his work online for all to see. As a writer I shudder at the prospect of having so many eyes on a work-in-progress, but transparency is the name of the game here. Reinhart says the idea is to “tap the hive mind” and constantly iterate improvements.

Another goal is to standardize workflows. Reinhart explained that a group of 16-20 people could break into smaller teams, each take a module (there’s one for plumbing, one for windows, etc.), and work separately until time to put the construction together. He likened the system to a life-sized Lego set that can be snapped together.

The above TED talk by OSE’s founder, Marcin Jakubowski, talks about how lowering the barriers to farming, building, and manufacturing can unleash human potential. An entrepreneur who wants to start a construction company can jump right in. A household can add a DIY wind turbine and sell energy back to the grid. Farmers can be less dependent on manufacturers.

Think of it: That irritating built-in limitation of purchased gadgets, planned obsolescence, would become a thing of the past as people discover how to build and fix their own machines.

“This is a different model, economically and socially,” Reinhart says. In contrast to a top-down command and control ethos, this bottom-up model empowers many people on the ground, all making and innovating and selling to each other. I love the collaborative “do-it-with-others” spirit of these guys. Go DIWO!

OSE is planning an intensive workshop series to teach people to build six of the 16 machines that have been prototyped so far. For more information, check out this Crash Course on OSE.

Correction: The original blog post indicated that six machines have been prototyped; in actual fact 16 are in prototype phase, and the workshops are being offered on the six most mature designs.

When Crisis Threatens

Thanks to a review in Permaculture Activist magazine, I found a little book called Small Stories, Big Changes: Agents of Change on the Frontlines of Sustainability. It’s a collection of inspiring voices from the community resilience movement. Each chapter is written by someone actively engaged in the world’s remaking.

Here’s a passage from the very first chapter that gives you a taste.

Goat milking, by V Becker, via flickr Commons

Goat milking, by V Becker, via flickr Commons

“(A) community of busy farmers, gardeners, goat-milkers, trail-builders, engineers, scientists, windmill climbers and solar installers…have led our society’s journey toward sustainability…

They are leaders because their excitement is stronger than their fear.

Logically, when crisis threatens we need to subdue our fear in order to take constructive action. But taking action also somehow diminishes our fear…Once we get busy we’re not as scared any more.

Perhaps we don’t control the forces changing our climate when we grow a few vegetables, but we do influence those forces, and I think the activity profoundly changes our perspective. The situation immediately seems more manageable when we begin to manage.”

—Bryan Welch, publisher of Mother Earth News

Photo by julochka, via flickr Commons

Photo by julochka, via flickr Commons

Have you found this to be true? I have, especially when I’ve gotten “the help of a few believers, supporters, and friends who light the way through the dark nights,” as David Orr describes elsewhere in the book. When I am at my lowest is usually when I’ve fallen away from hands-in-dirt activities for whatever reason, or when I’m feeling isolated. It’s easy to fall into this trap in winter especially.

But when I’m pulling together with neighbors to scheme a project or clean up my block or make a big batch of sauerkraut, I feel ready to face anything.

What about you? I’d love to hear about action you’ve taken—and how it impacts your anxiety level about the state of the world.

Postcard from Hopland, CA

This weekend was the big Building Resilient Communities Convergence in Hopland, CA. I was excited to be there for part of the action.

A highlight was the mycology skillshare, during which Fungaia Farm‘s Levon Durr demonstrated several methods for home mushroom cultivation.

Teaching how to cultivate oyster mushrooms at home using the stem butt/cardboard technique to grow your own spawn. Sweet!

I didn’t know until recently that shrooms actually are a source of protein. This makes me even more determined to try cultivating my own.

I thought Levon was going to levitate when he got to the part about mycoremediation. His enthusiasm is not misplaced: Mushrooms can clean petroleum from drainage ditches and aid in riparian zone restoration. They even eat heavy metals and bacteria.

The practice of using fungi to clean our beleaguered earth of toxins is one of the most hopeful stories I’ve heard. It is also the subject of an upcoming guest post from Radical Mycology, so stay tuned.

Garden Tower Update: Mistakes Were Made

Time for an update on our vertical gardening project. When last I posted about the Garden Tower, everything was growing robustly and looking smart.

I hate to say it, but that was kind of the high point of the season. The plants have not grown as vigorously as I’d hoped since that photo session.

Our Garden Tower in mid-September: Not bad but not great. And this is its good side.

Our Garden Tower in mid-September: Not bad but not great. And this is its good side.

Today there are five tomatoes just about ready to pick, but the plant looks pitiful. I cut off most of the grim stuff a few weeks ago.

Not sure what kind of maters these are; the plant was a sucker from a friend's tomato patch, and she didn't label it.

Not sure what kind of maters these are; the plant was a sucker from a friend’s tomato patch, and she didn’t label it.

On the bright side, we’ve had several cucumbers, as well as snippings of basil, parsley, and kale. I’ve also harvested a few small beets from the top (with lovely greens)—and more are still growing.

The peppers have produced some sad little specimens, but then again we didn’t expect much, having planted them so late in the summer. I was excited to see peas and green beans, till I realized that the yield was going to be quite lean, barely a handful each. I guess one would need to plant almost a whole tower of legumes to get a “crop.”

Sadly the plants have just not grown very robustly. But the Tower setup isn’t to blame. My mistakes:

  • I planted immediately after filling the barrel with the soil mixture. When I watered everything in, the soil sank a couple inches. This caused the plantings in the side holes to become quite leggy as they reached for sunlight. In retrospect, I probably should have watered well first, allowed everything to settle, and then planted. That might have given them a better start.

    Leggy amaranth and kohlrabi

    Leggy amaranth and kohlrabi

  • I neglected to apply the weekly liquid fertilizer suggested by the literature that came with the barrel. Said literature was buried on my desk until recently. Oops. (After the first month this is supposed to be unnecessary as the worms do their work. But I imagine that fertilizing during those first crucial weeks would have given the plants a needed boost.)
  • I overcrowded the side pockets, planting more than one seed. I told myself I would remove all but the strongest seedling later, and I did some thinning, but not nearly enough. I just didn’t have the heart to do it. I bet they would have grown bigger with less competition.

    Overcrowded chard

    Overcrowded chard

  • I overfilled the center tube with veggie scraps at the very beginning: In my excitement over this new worm farming adventure, I filled it to the top instead of to the suggested one-third level. I don’t know if this was a factor or not. (We’ll see how it goes when we harvest worm castings!)

One point of pride: my daily hand picking of cabbage worms at the height of their infestation seems to have saved my kale plants. However, it was too late for the kohlrabi and cabbages, which have not progressed beyond seedling size. I’m told that an application of Bt and some ladybugs would eliminate these little munchers, so we’ll keep that in mind for next year.

It may have been another misstep to mix our compost into the potting soil, given how much trouble we’ve had with diseases in our tomato plants. I hated to see the tomato transplant succumb to the same yellowing and crispy leaves we’ve had the last several years in our regular beds. But: no blossom end rot; the tomatoes themselves are so far looking luscious.

We can’t do anything about the soil, short of dumping it out and starting over, and I’m not willing to do that. But the other issues are all learning points for the next growing season. With gardeners, it’s all about next year!

My Day at School

Yesterday I drove down to Bloomington to spend part of the day with my homeschooling coop friends. These two families use homesteading activities as the basis for their children’s learning, along with traditional math workbooks, writing assignments and the like.

The task of the morning was to prepare cedar limbs to build a spit for cookpots over a campfire. The previous week, the kids had cut branches off the cedar tree, with a goal of being able to climb it. They’d christened it Fort Cicada.

Climbing ropes and nubs of branches make it easier to scale Fort Cicada.

Climbing ropes and nubs of branches make it easier to scale Fort Cicada.

The brushy limbs now needed to be trimmed and the bark removed with a draw knife. The kids coached me on sawing. I can’t remember the last time I sawed something. It’s satisfying to cut right through a branch and have it fall.

Prepping the cedar limbs for use as fence posts and building material

Prepping the cedar limbs for use as fence posts and building material

The draw knife was a revelation. I have never experienced the pleasure of skinning a tree branch with a sharp instrument. I wasn’t sure I was qualified for the work, but the kids taught me well.

Using the draw knife

Using the draw knife

They assured me that they would use a regular knife to shave around the knots where the draw knife caught. Here’s the youngest, working with her knife.

Knife skills

Knife skills

I love how fearless these kids are. I find that my own hands are better suited to a keyboard than a hand tool. Yet, I pulled off a passable job on bark-peeling task.

Proud of my handiwork

Not bad for a beginner

After a while it was time for lunch (fresh-baked bread!) and conversation. I asked the four kids what life would be like if they went to a school where they sat at desks all day. They agreed that they wouldn’t have nearly as much fun and flexibility in their lives, and probably not be as fit. Nor would they spend as much time with their families. On the flip side, they have to schedule activities to connect with larger groups, whereas students in school interact with lots of different kids daily.

Asked how their education is preparing them for adulthood, they pointed to skills like gardening, cooking, and researching solutions to problems.

After lunch, it was time to split maple logs and stack wood for the winter’s fuel. This was more fun than I expected. I consider myself something of a pipsqueak—but seeing the kids demonstrate, I thought, why not try?

Demonstrating wood splitting

Demonstrating wood splitting

After numerous tries and tons of pointers from the peanut gallery, I managed to stick the splitting maul in the top of the log. I whapped at it with a mallet till the firewood split with a satisfying crack.

Alas, no one captured the moment on film, but I have the sore muscles to prove it.

All in all it was a great time with lovely people, and felt wonderful to be outside doing real work on a pristine fall day.