Thursday, 24 October 2013

October - and the results of our "1 month food self-sufficiency" experiment !!

Early October. We have had the first few freezing frosts (-7ºC during the night), and also the first snowflakes. The soil is now often frozen and it is the official end of the growing season in Iceland.

I harvested the rest of the vegetables.
I give figures to how much I have harvested in Kg, the comparison with yields of conventional and organic farming, and how many meals is that going to feed me, and if whether that crop will be able to feed for a month.

- the Potatoes: I harvested 1.5 Kg from 1m2 (in the sunny side of the garden), and 3 Kg from 2m2 (in the part-shade side of the garden). In both cases, yields are around 15 ton/ha. Commercial (and conventional) yields are usually between 15 to 45 ton/ha. Top organic yields are 25ton/ha. The 4.5 Kg are enough potatoes for 1 month, if I eat them every other day. Many tubers are small, but some have a nice size. If I eat potatoes every day for a year, then I need around 72 m2.
- Turnips and swedes: another success story for these nice root crops. All produce nice shaped roots, but the soil add a nice addition of compost and seaweed. They were grown from tiny transplants. They produced about 1.5 Kg turnips (11 units) and 1.5 kg swedes (5 units), per 1m2 for each. These 16 tubers are probably more than enough for a month. Their yield is therefore around 15 ton/ha, as identical to potatoes. But I also used a lot of the turnip tops, as excellent cooked greens. Yields are within the range of conventional farming (10 to 25 ton/ha). Organic yields top 20 ton/ha. Not bad!
- Broad beans: it was another success crop, though all the beans were only produced throughout August and September and are now burnt by the frosts. It gave a few meals. Sadly, most pods were not ripen to save some seed, but who knows, some might actually germinate next year. Remember that these plants survived -15ºC, under a cold frame, in April. And the best these plants do, is to increase nitrogen levels on the ground and produce a lot of mulching biomass! Such a good crop. They produced 200 g of beans, per square meter (or a yield of 2 ton/ha). Enough for about 6 meals. This yield is superior to that of conventional farming!
- Peas. A nice success, as I was harvesting between July and September, but less towards the end of the season. Peas sown later did not produce any crop. Their yield (of fresh pods) was around 200 g per square meter, or 2 ton/ha. Enough for 6 meals. On this experiment, both the peas and broad beans feed me for about 12 meals, which can be enough within a month. About 30m2 would be required for a full year.
Siberian kale was the most successful crop this year. I have been eating it nearly every day since June! And it was all self-sown. I have harvested an estimated 4 Kg (around 1 Kg of greens per month), but there is a lot more outside waiting to be harvested.
Broccoli: some flowers heads were harvested. Broccoli seems to be a very reliable crop in Iceland. Heads are small but tasty, and are still under harvest as of early October. I have harvested an estimated 500 g. They were between 25 to 50% of supermarket size broccoli heads. The other day I met a couple that had a commercial crop of broccoli and they also had a very nice harvest, even in this cold summer.
- Rocket and Valerian salads were too of the most successful crops, for about 2 months. I must grow much more for next year! However, and sadly, the summer was too cold for anything to be able to self-sown. Even the kale did not produce ripen seed pods.
Chives: a successful perennial. I harvested it many times throughout the summer, and it will keep growing.

- I harvested two Siberian tomatoes outdoors. And a few others down in the community garden, where the microclimate is warmer. All were in sheltered spots and transplants already in flower. Their colors ranged from orange to red. But being this a weak summer, this was really a success. It took them July to set fruit, and August to ripen it. Smaller transplants only flowered but set no fruit. I gathered seed so that I can try many more plants next summer. What will be known as "Arctic circle tomatoes". The plants have survived -4ºC with some damage, but top growth has been completely killed by yesterday's -7ºC. The seed saved is viable and abundant. Next year, I will grow their seedlings and select -again- for the quickest fruit, and most tolerance to cold weather. The Siberian tomatoes was one of my proudest achievements!

- The Quinoa was quite a success! It was growing extremely well when placed outdoors since it was a seedling in late May to August when the flower heads started. However their growth stalled and entire flower heads died in the very rainy weather of August and frosty winds of September. However I harvested a few seeds (and they were viable!). A couple of plants, enclosed in a container, produced 12 g of seeds and judging from that small space, yields could be estimated to a few ton/ha, which I feel it can surpass the yields of mainstream cereals, and providing better nutrition. However, quinoa did not grow to its full potential. Indoors, I was not even able to grow amaranth. Both need intense sunlight, otherwise the plants do not do well. But quinoa showed that it's remarkable adapted to cool climates. Chilly weather is fine, a small frost is tolerable, but anything lower than -3ºC can kill most of the plant.

- An important success was to be able to grow from seed the following permaculture-significant trees: honey locust, mesquite, princess tree, laburnum, siberian pea shrub, mulberries, one wax myrtle, one jujube, and a few sea buckthorns. I cross my fingers in hoping that these trees survive their first full winter outdoors! I bought some of the sea buckthorns in a local nursery, so they are larger plants, ready to plant out. I expect to have first fruit in about 4 years from now (by 2017). It could even become a commercial crop one day. I also found larger pea shrubs in local nurseries. Indoors, I keep two seedlings of date palms, two hazelnut trees (corylus americana) and a few chilean mesquite trees.
- Passionfruit: after 2 years of growth, one vine grown from store-bought fruit seed (already 3 meter long) produce a couple of tasty passionfruits! This is an extraordinary success and probably the first passionfruits ever grown locally in Iceland! And I have a few more plants growing from seed.

Pomegranates. A tree that grew so much in only one year (from seed). Up to half a meter. And it is very undemanding.
Tiger nuts. Last time I checked (in August), one plant had no tubers whatsoever. Now in October I dug one plant and found out 23 tubers or 12 g, this was a tiny space of 10 x 10 cm. It is amazing. The yield of them would be extrapolated to 12 ton /ha, nearing that of potatoes. One of the most easiest crops, requiring almost no care.

Oats and Rye: while these had poor harvests (and grain is probably unripen and unfit for human consumption), it was still fun to do it. The rye gave some grain, after overwinter, even in such a terrible summer. The oats also produce some grain, but it was little. All seed was viable, as it readily germinates. These seed-saved oats will be a new variety that I name "the Icelandic extreme". They produced lots of biomass that will add to new mulch on the ground. Rye is easy to thresh and winnow, oats are much harder to remove from their awns.
The rye grain was entirely unripe, sometimes even moldy (due to constant rainfall). My largest concern is that it likely contains ergot. Therefore I am not going to eat it! It's such a shame! Such crop failures were the reason for the common famines that Europe had until a century ago. The oats show new tillering, so I wonder if some plants could become short-lived perennials. The plants produce around 100 g per square meter (I got 150 g rye from 2m2, and just 24 g of oats from a small 0.2 m2 plot). Their yields were about 1 ton/ha, in both cases, which are about 30% of conventional farming average yields (around 3 ton/ha). In developing countries, yields can be only 1.5 ton/ha, thus similar to ours. So, for a start, its not that bad!
This is enough to produce either 2 meals of pasta, 5 slices of bread, or 2 breakfasts meals.  I estimate to eat at least 4 Kg of grain per month, thus this harvest is enough for only 2 days. I would need at least 480m2 of field to grow my own grain for an entire year (or 40m2 for a full month). Seems too impractical and makes me think how sustainable it is to grow and eat grains! The problem is that I did not harvested anything from the backyard cereal field - it was in part shade and the grains failed to ripen due to such a terrible summer.

- The perennial rye did not produce any seed, but it showed amazing growth. It will hopefully survive the winters and produce grain in the next years. And it seems unaffected by the recent freezing. As a perennial, it could be a great example of sustainability for the future. The perennial rye is the rarity jewel in my garden! I just need to know whether they become a perennial and whether they produce new viable seed.

- Barley. Such a crappy summer but even with a late sowing (and terrible short growing season), the barley did quickly produce seed heads in part shade, but they are mostly green. However its fat seed heads seems to promise a crop of much potential for Iceland, with a much quicker and more reliable harvest, compared to rye or wheat. And it is easier to thresh than oats.
- I have harvested a few seeds of few varieties of Millets. The Pearl millet seems to require better pollination, so growing it indoors is not an ideal option. I have harvested a few seeds, that were very easy to pick. The Proso millet failed to flower, requiring a longer growing season, but it seems more tolerant to a lack of water. the Japanese millet produce a few seed heads and I collect a nice amount of seed from just one container, which was easy to harvest. The teff also produced seeds, which are extremely tiny, but easy to winnow. I still have to test these seeds for viability. The millets were more grown for curiosity than to provide food. But they show excellent potential as drought tolerant cereal crops for the increasingly arid climate of Portugal.
Kohlrabi. I only harvested one bulb, from about 10 plants. It had 350 g. I added a lot of compost to that plant so that it could grow faster. While a very tasty crop, growing kohlrabi seems challenging in Iceland.
- Pak choy was a nice early crop, and seems it has self-sown itself, so hopefully I could have a "forest" of it next year. Just like it happened with the kale this year. However it quickly goes to seed, so I will grow it in part shade next summer. Kale seems to be a better use of space.
- Lettuce: I had some nice lettuce but they were grown in a container hugelkultur, with some rice compost added. It really prefers a sheltered spot to thrive.
- The spring onions were a bit of a failure. Their growth was slow, however they will likely overwinter and produce a nice crop next year.
- Moringa. I have cooked leaves from the "miracle tree" and found them acceptable. However, the small tree is very picky, vulnerable to spider mites, and goes often into dormancy. Furthermore, the cat broke its growing tip, which is not a problem for this species. I also did that accidentally for a seedling of pecan nut, which hopefully will recover.

- Hopefully, the walking onions will also produce nice harvests and naturalize in the garden within the next couple of years , but the plants are still small. The same will apply for the multiplier onions and the ramps. I have these species in several spots, so to assure I do not lose them. 
- I have nice growth for only one plant of perennial broccoli. I should plant many more next year. In addition, we have a few plants of salad burnet and the scorzonera root, and two small plants of crambe, which hopefully will overwinter.
- I have a couple of good king henry plants, grown from seed. They seem established and this is of course a happy achievement. They might be the perennial spinach I have been looking for. I have it growing outdoors and in a plastic house, to assure their survival.
- I have a few avocado tree seedlings. They dislike growing indoors since they are sensitive to the spider mites. However, outdoors, the seedlings face -7ºC with no big problem.
- Asparagus. While it is on its way to produce the first thick stems, any asparagus tried outdoors was a uterly disappointment. The plants do nothing. Any harvest will only start in spring 2015.
- It has been 2 years since I have been growing Ginger. I finally dug the plant and it has produced some (but not many) new fresh roots, which can be used. Ginger is slow to grow, but rather carefree!
- There are new perennials I just got: a sort of perennial leek, a bamboo, a tiny tuber of arrowhead, and hopefully a cutting of rubus nepalensis.
- One Jícama, did produce a small tuber, after 10 months of growth. Sadly the cat turned the container down  into the flood and the upper part died. But when I dug I was happy to discover such a tuber (which was just starting to enlarge). I still have another growing plant and at the surface I can see another - significantly larger - tuber forming (the size of a turnip). I am not going to eat it; I need to save more of its seed, and conserving the tuber to produce new growth for the next summer.
Oca grows amazingly well in our cold rainy Icelandic climate. They stand frosts around 0ºC but the plant mostly dies when it freezes below -3ºC. Now I am waiting for their tuber production. But I am not going to dig them until December. I dug one, and its tubers were still extremely tiny as of early October. True, the tubers only start forming after the autumn equinox.

- I failed to harvest any kamut wheat  (not a single grain - all the heads were green). But most of it was sown too late by May, or grown in part shade. As a solution, I have sown plenty of overwintering wheat for next year (in both sunny and shade locations), and the plan is to grow it at the community garden in the next year, to feed chicken or try to make a few breads.
- I also failed to harvest any Painted mountain corn. Next year I must try a different variety of earlier sweet corn.
- Likewise I failed to harvest any beets (they just bolted). Carrots are always a better crop.
- And again I failed to harvest any Jerusalem artichokes despite their intense leafy growth. Absolutely no new tubers. This is surely a mystery.
- I also failed to harvest any sunflower seeds. They all flower nicely but seed rots down during the month of August, when it rained nearly every day.
- A failure this year was the zucchini, which was a nice success in the last 2 years. It was simply a too cold summer for the squash, even under a cold frame. Absolute failures were attempts to grow siberian watermelon, or hardy varieties of melon. The zucchini needs a summer with average highs around 18ºC, or it will fail to set fruit.
- Failure was also the cherry tree, which did not produce any fruit (due to stormy cold winds in June). Hopefully next year. And we have a few apples and cherry trees in the community tree, which despite no fruit, they show nice growth. Soul cherries are another thing to try.
- The Groundnut (apios americana) and yams (dioscorea japonica) were 2 crops, which I had significant expectations (as both are cold hardy and perennial sources of starchy roots), however they fail to have any significant growth. Their tubers are still alive, so I must see how they behave during the next year.
- Indoors, the failure was any sort of beans (winged beans, lima beans, groundnut), due to the spider mite problem. While under control, this was the other misery factor of 2013, in addition to the weather.

Conclusion: I have succeeded growing enough vegetables, turnips, potatoes, beans and peas, to provide me food for a full 1 month. And cereals (oats) only for a meal, due to the crop failures of wheat, barley and rye. The "1 month food self-sufficiency" experiment was therefore quite a success!

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Food sustainability, an essay

I was calculating how much land is it required to feed a person on a year, with eggs, beans, grains, and meat. The conclusions are pretty interesting and it pushes us towards a vegetarian diet, which relies a bit on grains (but not so much), and more in potatoes, pulses, nuts and also eggs. Meat is very unsustainable. Grains are also not the most sustainable option.

It is much better is to convert a fraction of an area (about 60m2) to feed 3 chicken hens for a year, and then provide an average of 2 eggs per day, rather then occupying 480m2 to grow grains, to be produce our staple foods (bread, rice, pasta).

Seems that eggs are significantly more sustainable than grains! However if you want meat instead of eggs - let's say to eat one chicken per week - than the amount of land required is 3000m2 (which is 6 times more than growing grain for a year). Eating meat is even more terribly unsustainable than growing and eating grain!

Land required per year:
Beans or peas (every other day) - 30 m2
Eggs (2 eggs per day) - 60 m2
Potatoes (1 meal per day)- 72 m2
Rye/grains (130 g per day) - 480 m2 (corn requires less land) (quinoa and amaranth are also better options)

Chicken meat (1 animal per week) - 3000 m2 (and other types of meat are even more unsustainable)

Being vegetarian has a much less impact in our planet. It requires much less land.

As a final remark, nuts are probably well worth to consider (walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, almonds, peanuts). The area occupied to feed a person on a year is similar to the area required by grains. However, we must remember that this will be an area ocuppied by a forest (nut trees), which provide more habitat for animals and other plants, and it is a low input crop, yielding for many years without any effort.

Peanuts (like most culinary nuts) are excellent choices for a sustainable lifestyle. Buy peanut butter without additives (like the organic one), it is much healthier and more tastier. It's the real thing. It's also easy to do spreads of hazelnut with cocoa powder (basic nutella), much healthier than the commercial processed nutella.

Perennial starch and perennial protein should be two of the main preocupations of permaculture people nowadays. However I see everyone growing and focusing their attention on vegetable gardens and their veggie garden designs, but no one stops to think about the meat, milk and grains they still eat. It's a completely unsustainable matter that deserves our attention!

I have pointed out, often, sources of perennial protein and perennial starch, and perennial sources of oil. This should be one of the "number 1 topics" in the permaculture circles. But it is still not. Please let us focus more attention and experimental work on this topic!

It's the real tenet of "permanent agriculture".