I spent a lot of time trying to feed chickens without grain. I fed them air potatoes, kitchen scraps, sweet potatoes, beautyberries, scraps from church dinners… and didn’t have all that much luck. They would quit laying because they lacked enough protein in their diets.
So I tried letting them free-range, growing corn and amaranth, feeding them moringa and even letting chickens into my compost pile to pick out maggots.
Still, I found myself either buying chicken feed… or going without eggs.
That’s why I’ve been quite interested in what Justin Rhodes has been doing with his birds.
I know Justin’s knowledge is going to save us all a lot of money and I’m pleased to throw my support behind the good work he’s doing for backyard homesteaders. His film Permaculture Chickens is worth every penny and I am glad to have a copy.
If you live in a place where you can plant coconuts, I hope you’re planting some!
A pattern I saw again and again in South Florida was coconut palms growing in yards as ornamentals… with the coconuts rarely if ever being used.
Coconut water is good for you and refreshing, coconut milk is a great addition to your morning cereal or a curry stew and the coconut meat is wonderful shredded and added to desserts.
Quite a few people in South Florida have told me they don’t use their coconuts because they’re “too much trouble to open.”
Yeah, I get that. We often aren’t even sure when to open them and we wait until they’re totally hard and brown before trying to hack into them with a screwdriver and a hammer.
Fortunately, all you really need are your teeth:
I dare you guys to try that at home.
Okay, let’s look more at planting a coconut with the intent of growing a coconut palm, since this isn’t really supposed to be a post on using coconuts.
In order to get a coconut to germinate, you need to first start with a mature nut that has milk inside. Once you plant that, it’s just a matter of waiting. Further directions for indoor and outdoor germination are in this PDF from the University of Hawaii:
“To grow a coconut palm as a house plant, use a container at least 10 inches deep and large enough in diameter to hold the nut. Use a well drained potting soil mix. After soaking the nut, plant it with the pointed end down and the end that was attached to the tree upward. About a third of the nut should be above the soil level. Water it frequently, keeping the soil moist but not wet. As long as the soil drains well, it is difficult to give the germinating nut too much water. Keep the container in a warm location, preferably where the temperature never falls below 70oF and often is above 80oF. A container specimen should grow to be around 5 ft high and survive in the same container for about five years.
To grow the coconut in your yard, choose a site with well drained soil in partial shade. Place the nut on its side in a shallow hole, burying only the lower third of the nut. Water it thoroughly twice a week.
Under ideal conditions, a coconut will germinate in three months, but otherwise it may take up to six months. At germination, the roots should push out through the husk, and the first shoot, looking like a sharp green spear, will emerge from the cavity at the end of the nut that was attached to the tree.”
All you need to do is just bury a coconut part way and keep it watered. If it’s viable, it will grow.
My grandpop used to stuff coconuts into the holes the land crabs would make in his backyard in an attempt to slow down their assault on his St. Augustine grass. Eventually, some of them would germinate and he’d have to pull them out before they got too big.
You can often find baby coconuts sprouting in untended areas around coconut palms where the nuts have simply come to rest on the soil. They transplant readily and will happily grow even in clay soils, provided they don’t ever freeze.
This garden based on coconut palms is a nice project (albeit with annoying music and random cinematography):
Last week I posted a video on my easy compost tea recipe. Making this powerful fertilizer at home requires little infrastructure and zero cost:
I know that it’s not the “recommended” way to make compost tea; however, it feeds the soil excellently as my corn testifies.
That corn ate nothing but my compost tea. I’ve been asked about the “recipe” but it varies from batch to batch. That said, here is a close approximation even though I’m often changing the ingredients and amounts.
Easy Compost Tea Recipe
Barrel or bucket
Clothespin for your nose
Manure (can be substituted with various plants, compost, urine or fish guts)
Moringa or alfalfa (optional)
Epsom Salt (optional)
Fish Guts (optional)
First, find some manure you know is free of pesticides. Put 2-3 shovelfuls in the bottom of your barrel and then fill the barrel another 2/3rds with water. Stir the manure up so it doesn’t form hard clumps. Fresh is much better than dried. I’ve used chicken, cow and rabbit manure at different times, all with good success.
Substitutes for Manure
If you don’t have manure, substitute something else that is high in nitrogen. In a tropical climate, a bucket of moringa leaves is great. If you live further north, alfalfa is excellent. In the absence of either of these plants, hunt for a nitrogen-fixing species. Peanut hay, leucana, etc. are all rich in nitrogen. Compost is another option; however, it’s not usually all that high in nitrogen. Urine works excellently though you’ll want about 3-5 gallons of it for a 55 gallon drum of compost tea, so start saving it up now. Fish guts are very good but stink to high heaven and attract the vultures. I use them anyway.
Now that you have your base nitrogen mix, add some mineral diversity with other things you may have lying around. Tithonia diversifolia leaves are great as are thistles and other weeds. Everything from pokeweed to mulberry works; just realize that if you have more fibrous leaves they won’t break down quickly. Softer is better.
Epsom salts are a good addition if you have them. I usually chuck in 2 or 3 cups in a barrel for magnesium and sulfur.
Finally, fish guts are wonderful sources of fertility but they do smell amazing. I share how I make homemade fish emulsion in my Compost Everything movie. It’s filled with minerals.
After you have your ingredients and water in the barrel, let it rot down for a couple of weeks. Stir vigorously when you think of it, though it’s going to work no matter what you do.
Putting it to Use
Once my compost tea is all rotted down and looks like coffee in the barrel, I dip into it and pour it out through a strainer into another container for longer-term storage.
I leave the last foot or so of tea in the original barrel, then start a new batch while retaining that bit as a “starter.” Because that material is already filled with bacteria, it gets the next round going a lot faster.
If I’ve added a bunch of material to the mix, I thin it out before I water any of my plants. If it was already a “thin” batch, I just use it as-is.
I water by filling watering cans and walking down the rows of plants, soaking the soil between them. It also works well as a foliar feed but may need thinning to avoid damaging more tender plants.
Objections and Cautions
But wait, David The Good – isn’t this “easy compost tea” stuff totally anaerobic and therefore EVIL?
Yes, it’s completely and utterly evil and I am a terrible person and a horribly irresponsible gardening author for sharing this method.
“Reach out with your laziness… embrace the power of anaerobic compost tea… yessssss… yesssssssss!!!”
I started doing this as an experiment. I don’t like running aquarium pumps. I’m not interested in filling ladies’ stockings with finished compost and dunking them like teabags. I want fertility for the garden and I don’t want to work that hard for it.
The experiments worked incredibly. Plants love it. I don’t care if it’s “wrong” – it works!
NOTE: I don’t use this compost tea to water plants I’m going to directly eat. I stick to corn, beans, fruiting plants and young vegetables that are getting established. Getting it on the lettuce? No. Bad idea.
More on Composting
There’s an entire chapter of my book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting sharing methods for stretching compost, of which this is one of my favorites. If you only have a little material to start with, make it into some easy compost tea and stretch it over a big area.
Compost Everything, by the way, keeps getting great reviews:
I didn’t come up with all of these systems myself: all I did was pay attention to what the Creator had already designed and then start putting those observations to work in my garden.
If swamp muck is great for the garden, why not make it in a barrel?
If a little sourdough starter can be stretched a long way and inflate many loaves of bread, why not take a little of the previous batch of compost tea and add it to the next one?
If trees fall to the ground in nature and turn into great soil over time without turning or proper ratios, why should I bother working so hard on my compost piles?
Identifying plants easily doesn’t happen by accident, though you can definitely speed the process along immensely.
I’ve noticed over the years that the more I’ve worked towards learning wild plant foraging, the more I’ve started to see plants in groups of related species. Even without knowing the specific names of the various specimens I find, I can often nail down the family in which they are members.
This bloom, for instance:
If you were to hazard a guess, what type of tree would you think that was?
It’s a quite distinctive bloom shape, isn’t it?
Not a common pattern to see, which is why I pegged it right away as belonging to Annonaceae.
That family is represented in the temperate world mostly by one species, which bears this bloom:
Know what that is?
Most relatives of pawpaw (Asimina triloba) live in the tropical world. Pawpaws in temperate America are like the legendary Wandering Jew, far from their warm homeland and now scattered across a chilly foreign clime.
There are a lot of plant families that become easy to spot once your eyes have started to see the patterns. Some are easier than others. the rose family, for instance, is easiest to spot when you’re dealing with simple-bloomed plants and not the highly bred roses in gardens.
Is related to this:
You’d never know it, though. The first image is that of a “Bermuda Spice” rose, the second is a peach blossom. Both are in the Rosaceae family.
Fortunately, those highly bred representatives are absent from nature. It’s easier to see, for instance, that this plant’s bloom:
Shows its relation to this plant, which has a quite similar bloom:
The first bloom is that of a pear, the second is a strawberry blossom.
Members of the Asteraceae, or daisy family, are also usually easy to spot:
Those are, in order, sunflowers, perennial marigold, cosmos and thistle blooms.
The ability to spot plant patterns has been useful to me as I’ve been trying to learn a bunch of new plants quickly. I found part of a meal a couple of days ago when I spotted a wild amaranth growing around some of the pigeon peas I planted.
My sons chopped and gathered a bundle in a few minutes, providing plenty of healthy greens for the table:
I’ve grown good varieties of domesticated amaranth before and have enjoyed them both for their edible seeds and their hearty leaves.
It means that you don’t have to start from scratch with your wild plant foraging.
Help With Identifying Plants
With some training, you’ll be able to pick out members of the bean family, the daisy family, the spurge family, etc., and get an idea of what may or may not be edible, useful or poisonous without even knowing exactly what species you have in your hand.
The blossoms and fruit are usually how I nail down most species, but there are others I peg through their leaves, stems or growth patterns.
You’d have to be a savant to truly learn botany or identifying plants and plant families in a single day from the book; however, hyperbole aside, having this book around the house or by your bedside to gaze at now and again and get some plant identification patterns in your head = valuable!
I started seeing the patterns while identifying plants before I bought the book a few years ago. Seeing them illustrated over and over again was a good signpost telling me I was on the right track.
But what is that crazy bloom at the top of today’s post?
We’ve got at least a dozen scattered about the property and they’re really a blessing. Delicious and medicinal.
They’re in bloom right now and some are bearing small fruit. Soon we’ll have plenty for the table. For now I’m enjoying spotting the weird blooms, though they do make me miss the pawpaws of Florida, at least a little bit.
Last week I released what may be the most controversial film I’ve ever uploaded to YouTube, if not the weirdest.*
In Search of… Bilimbi!
I had people write me to make sure I was okay after that one.
If you can’t stand the tracking, stay out of the bilimbi!
I’ve always had a thing for old science and nature documentaries. I used to watch them on a wavy old TV set or off distorted VHS tapes. In the bilimbi film I recreated that in stunning technicolor.
Anyhow, for those of you that didn’t get it… I feel very badly for you.
It is a powerful and beautiful film of which YouTube is not worthy.
Every distortion and tracking error was lovingly hand-built.
Every warbly piece of the vintage soundtrack was tweaked and EQed for maxiumum impact.
Even now a tear comes to my eye as I ponder the masterpiece I created.
I wandered across the creek behind our place and up the mountainside with some of the children one afternoon on a rambling exploration and that’s when we first saw the bilimbi tree. I recognized it from the picture in my well-loved copy of Fruits of Warm Climates and couldn’t believe I finally got to see one in person.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera so I could capture images for all of you – so I decided to go back the next day in search of the bilimbi, this time armed with my inexpensive Nikon L830 in case I fell down the rocks or something.
I searched and search and searched, doing my best to retrace my steps… and had no luck! The next afternoon I tried again… and still no luck!
That’s where the film came from. A fruitless (heheh) search.
Finally, I asked again for directions from a local friend and he told me where to look. That third time… well… I’ll just let you watch the video:
I really was quite happy to find that tree at long last. Look at all that fruit!
It’s a small tree, similar in growth and appearance to its cousin the starfruit but bearing fruit directly from its trunk instead of just on the branches.
The fruit is incredibly acidic. As I say in the video, they taste like War Heads candy.
But What Is a Bilimbi?
Bilimbi is a fruit tree and relative of starfruit. Its Latin name is Averrhoa bilimbi, whereas starfruit’s Latin name is Averrhoa carambola.
“The bilimbi is generally regarded as too acid for eating raw, but in Costa Rica, the green, uncooked fruits are prepared as a relish which is served with rice and beans. Sometimes it is an accompaniment for fish and meat. Ripe fruits are frequently added to curries in the Far East. They yield 44.2% juice having a pH of 4.47, and the juice is popular for making cooling beverages on the order of lemonade.
Mainly, the bilimbi is used in place of mango to make chutney, and it is much preserved. To reduce acidity, it may be first pricked and soaked in water overnight, or soaked in salted water for a shorter time; then it is boiled with much sugar to make a jam or an acid jelly. The latter, in Malaya, is added to stewed fruits that are oversweet. Half-ripe fruits are salted, set out in the sun, and pickled in brine and can be thus kept for 3 months. A quicker pickle is made by putting the fruits and salt into boiling water. This product can be kept only 4 to 5 days.
The flowers are sometimes preserved with sugar.”
Good enough for me. You’re getting added to the homestead, bilimbi!
I brought home some rotten ripe fruit from around the bilimbi tree on my final quest and will be attempting to grow the seeds contained therein. The flavor, though powerfully sour, strikes me as having great culinary value. It would be nice to have a tree right where I can find it.
Especially considering the problem I have finding bilimbis.
*This film would probably take the “weirdest” award:
What other garden writer could pull off a powerful documentary-style search for a rare fruit tree? What rare horticulturalist would turn away from his perfectly spaced beans and dream up a film dripping with such raw and poignant emotion, not to mention 80s-era nostalgia?
I’m feeling like the Da Vinci of YouTube right now, despite the fact that my wife refuses to speak to me after I egged her into watching this powerful, powerful, amazing film.
“The trunk can expand to nine or 10 feet in diameter. In the nooks and grooves of this huge plant live a diverse number of species including frogs, birds and bromeliads.”
Live oaks in the South serve the same function as cornerstone species that host many other organisms. I’ve seen oaks hosting ants, lizards, bees, wild orchids, climbing cacti, strangler figs, various epiphytic “air plants,” lichens, bolete and chanterelle mushrooms, virginia creeper, yams, beetles, moths and many other flora and fauna that would otherwise be homeless.
“In many places the straight trunks of the kapok tree are used to make dugout canoes. The white, fluffy seed covering is used in pillows and mattresses since it is buoyant and water resistant it is often used in flotation devices and padding. The seeds, leaves, bark and resin have been used to treat dysentery, fever, asthma, and kidney disease.”
A fascinating and beautiful tree. If I end up moving to another homestead here in the tropics, I’m going to plant a kapok wherever I settle.
Of course, I may move to my ancestral homeland of Europe at some point in the future. If that happens, I guess I’ll just need to build a really big greenhouse.
I received this message asking if mulberries grow in Florida (and a few other things) a few days ago from my friend and faithful editor/proofreader, Jeanne:
Hello, David! Have been having a discussion with another friend up near Jacksonville regarding mulberries. He thinks they can’t grow in Florida. I bought one a few years back, and it’s not doing well. Is he correct? Have you had any success? If so, what do I need to do differently? Also, I tried to order a Buddha’s Hand tree from California, but they won’t ship to Florida. If I buy the fruit the next time I see it at Fresh Market, can I plant the fruit to grow a tree? Please advise. Do you have a Facebook page? I could share it with folks who think Florida is easy-peasy to grow things in or with folks who think it’s just too hot, humid, and sandy to grow anything. How are your bees doing?
Any new books in the works? Hope you and your family are well.
I’ll take this piece by piece, starting with one of my favorite topics: mulberries!
Do Mulberries Grow in Florida?
Not only do mulberries grow in Florida, they grow like weeds in Florida!
They grow throughout the entire state as well, from Tallahassee to Key West.
I filmed this down in Ft. Lauderdale:
That’s not to say every individual mulberry tree will do well, of course.
I once planted a long-fruited mulberry I bought at the Master Gardening Spring Festival in Marion County. It kept having problems with wilting, but it seems to get over it. Then the next year it made little fruit in the spring, but as they started to grow, the branches and the fruit all started to die back and turn black. It did the same thing the next year. The year after it died all the way to the ground and came back from the root stock as a small-fruited mulberry of some sort.
Who know what happened. There’s no telling.
The native red mulberry may not be the best choice the further south you go, but the white and black types should be good through the state. NOTE: “white” and “black” and “red” doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the color of the fruit.
Your tree could be suffering from any number of issues. Personally, I planted over a dozen trees of a wide range of varieties in my old North Florida Food Forest. I had long white mulberries, normal while mulberries, red mulberries, Pakistan mulberries, Dwarf Everbearing mulberries, large everbearing black mulberries, large-fruited mulberries that made one harvest in the spring…
…well, let’s just say I really like mulberries and mulberries DO grow in Florida. Plant more and feed and mulch them well to get them started. They grow like crazy and will produce like crazy when they’re happy.
Even the Buddha Can’t Get Through
…the shipping regulations on citrus!
Okay, how would one go about getting a Buddha’s hand citrus in Florida? Is there any path to rare tree enlightenment?
It’s a hard task, but remember: desire leads to pain and therefore should be suppressed.
Seriously, though – because of citrus greening and other diseases, it’s very hard for Florida collectors to get rare varieties of citrus.
Any serious plant geek looking at this thing would want it:
In order to get a Buddha’s hand citrus in Florida, you’ll need to find a rare citrus nursery that sells them or you’ll have to find a person with a tree you can beg some scion wood from, then graft that scion onto another citrus growing in your yard or a random root stock.
Seeds are iffy with some sources claiming Buddha’s Hand citrus seeds don’t exist – and other sources claiming they do. If you buy a fruit and it had seeds, plant them.
“A most unusual and interesting citron is the fingered or Buddha’s Hand citron (fig. 4-71) of the Orient (bushukan of Japan), where it has been prized for centuries, especially in Indo-China, China and Japan. As the name indicates, the fruit is apically split into a number of fingerlike sections, somewhat resembling a human hand. There appear to be two clones—one in which all the fruits are deeply fingered and lacking in flesh development and seeds, the other in which only part of the fruits are fingered and the rest are corrugated, lacking in flesh, and contain seeds hanging free in the locules. Both are typical acid citrons in all other respects and would seem to constitute clonal varieties rather than the botanical variety sarcodactylis as they are classified by Swingle (see chap. 3, this work).”
No telling if they’ll produce true to type if you find seeds. My bet is that tracking down scions inside the state is the best option. Good luck.
The best place to interact and ask questions is here or on The Survival Gardener Forums, however. I try to limit my time on social media as I have a lot to do and write.
Any New Books Coming?
I was most of the way through writing a new book on Florida zone-pushing when I got talking with my publisher and he convinced me to expand the topic to include zone-pushing across multiple climates, rather than just having it be another regional title.
This seems like sound advice to me and I already have Dr. David A. Francko on board to write the introduction, which pleases me to no end. He’s the author of the brilliant zone-pushing book Palms Won’t Grow Here and Other Myths.
It’s going to take some time to re-write and research, but I do think we’ll have it out by some time in August or September.
I’ve also almost finished working on a short book on beekeeping in the south that needs some final fact-checking and proofing before it’s ready. That’s on the back shelf at the moment but will be released before too long. My co-author Allen Dovico made this one happen, since I’m nowhere near the bee expert he is.
Finally, I have two more books planned: one is a great big book of crazy gardening ideas with lots of drawings, the other is a book on forest gardening across multiple climates.
Grow or Die and Compost Everything keep selling excellently with Grow Or Die having now surpassed the sales of Compost Everything as of this month.
They were doing great… when I sold my homestead and ran away to the tropics. Just about to swarm, in fact, and Allen and I were going to split the hive.
You know, it’s really hard to bring a hive on an airplane. I tried claiming the bees were “service animals” but they wouldn’t believe me. Then I cried “sexism” because the workers are all females and they were obviously being discriminated against. In the end I had to leave the hive with the TSA. I gave it a good kick before walking out, though.
Enjoy the rest of the day, folks – see you tomorrow.
A few weeks ago I learned how the natives go about interplanting corn and pigeon peas…
…then the rainy season kicked into full effect and the weeds went nuts!
Dude, where’s my corn?
I’m sure I planted some in there somewhere.
I spent part of last week learning to weed like a native, crouching with a machete and trying to find where in the world all the corn and pigeon peas we planted went.
But… let me back up and tell you how we planted our intercropped corn and pigeon peas.
Interplanting Corn and Pigeon Peas
Since I’m new at gardening on a slope and new to growing in a truly tropical climate, I hired our farmhand – a local farmer who’s chock-full of agricultural knowledge – to show me how they plant corn here.
I told him I wanted to grow corn and later put in some pigeon peas somewhere on the hill as well.
He told me that the best way to grow them was to intercrop corn and pigeon peas.
Then he started clearing the weeds with his machete, rapidly mowing everything down to ground level.
After knocking the weeds flat, he started digging planting stations with a spading fork, twisting and loosening the soil and making a little ridge down slope from each pit.
I assisted with my trusty grub hoe, following the pattern he was creating.
After digging the pits, he recommended I toss 4 corn seeds and a couple of pigeon peas into each one. He then kicked the soil back over them, burying the corn and peas at a depth of 3-4″.
“Are those going to come up?” I asked.
Sure enough, they did.
Since I have a lot of my own ideas and knowledge, it was an interesting experience to simply assist a local farmer and do exactly what he recommended.
Back in Florida I would grow corn at 36″ width between rows, without intercropping, and space the corn at around 6-8″ between plants.
That’s not how they do it here. And they don’t bother tilling in between planting stations.
I created a diagram so you can get an idea how this works:
Less than a week after planting, the corn and peas were already up. Thank God for warm, rich soil and a warm and moderate climate.
We probably planted about 1/10 acre of corn and pigeon peas.
The thinking behind planting both at the same time, so far as I understand it through the language barrier, is that the corn will bear first, followed by the pigeon peas later on. You can start chopping down the corn and then the entire plot becomes a patch of pigeon peas, bearing on and on for the next year or more. By planting both at the same time you’re only clearing and planting once.
He also told me that the corn, as they mature, will push outwards a bit and away from each other, finding the space they need to create good ears. They do indeed have plenty of space in all directions.
Weeding a Corn and Pigeon Pea Plot
As you saw in the first picture, the ideal little pockets of corn and peas were rapidly consumed by the bush. That’s when it becomes necessary to chop the weeds down again and lay them in the rows, like so:
I was told by my new farming sensei that after this first weeding the corn and peas will reach rapidly for the sky and start to overshadow the competition, requiring only one more good weeding before the corn is ready to harvest.
That stuff works like magic and has done very well on the corn I planted previously in the beds near the house. Why buy fertilizer when you can make it for free? This particular batch started with Leucana leaves, fish guts, urine and cow manure.
The mosquitoes got into that batch and started breeding, however, so I bought a little cheap vegetable oil to put a “skin” on top they couldn’t breathe through. Now their little larval corpses are feeding my corn.
I’m making another batch right now that’s heavy on moringa leaves, which ought to be very good for the garden and field crops.
Once you let it ferment for a couple of weeks, then you just dip out what you need with a watering can and water away. That’s what I did with the corn and peas right after we finished weeding them. They’re already looking nice.
On Friday I went down there and filmed some of the machete work, plus give you all a look at the beds, including the additional cucumber bed we planted after the corn and pigeon pea plot.
There are multiple reasons for that, but in short: grain corn is easy to grow, stores for a long time, is much easier to clean and process than other grains, plus you can make grits and corn bread from it.
Adding in pigeon peas makes a lot of sense if you’re in a climate where they grow well.
In our old location we’d usually get a frost just as the pigeon peas started to produce, destroying all the pods. I gave up on them after a few years of failure. Down here – and in zone 9/10 USA – they make a lot more sense. Pigeon peas are actually a small perennial tree and fix nitrogen while making food and good fuel for a biomass cook stove.
I’m looking forward to harvesting corn and then peas… and I’m really enjoying learning new ways to farm. Interplanting corn and pigeon peas isn’t something I considered doing before. Sure, I’ve interplanted corn with beans and squash, but putting a big plant like a pigeon pea in the same hole with a big plant like corn? No, never tried it!
No matter how good you get at something, there’s always something new to learn.
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