The first thing we did after moving in to our new homestead was start planting.
Fortunately, there were some beds here already, filled with soil and just waiting to burst into new life:
The bed in the foreground to the far right, filled up with random stuff, is our new compost pile. I always rotate compost piles right through my garden areas as described in my book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting. It makes a lot of sense. Fertility stays right where I’m going to be growing next year’s crop, plus the resulting compost is easily accessible for my other beds. I can even get fancy and pile a little dirt in the middle to plant squash or melons if I feel like it. For now, we’re filling the compost pile with everything from newspapers to cocoa pods, mango peels to sea urchin shells. It’s going to be some fantastically rich material.
In order to feed the vegetables as they emerge from the ground, I also create a barrel of fermenting cow manure/nitrogen-fixer tea I can pour down the rows with a watering can (this is another trick from my book that allows you to stretch a limited amount of material across a large area before your compost piles get established).
I made sure to cover the standing water to keep mosquitoes from breeding, then possibly infecting us with Zika (which somewhat of a risk here and there across the region), dengue fever, malaria, Chikungunya or some other horrible tropical disease.
Behind the main garden beds I dug three more around the base of an established moringa tree, making sure to angle them against the slope so as to block erosion during the rainy season:
We just planted these with cabbages, hot peppers and more cabbages.
We have bamboo growing down the hill by the river, so I took some to make a trellis for some climbing purple-podded Roma beans we brought from the United States:
I love the purple stems on the beans.
Finally, I had to dig some of my melon pits (you can see me create a ridiculous melon pit in the Compost Everything movie) and plant some Seminole Pumpkins:
I’ll bet they’re the first Seminole pumpkins in the country. Wouldn’t that be cool?
Thus far we’ve also planted pimento peppers, bell peppers, Scotch bonnet peppers, tomatoes, beets, spinach, carrots, bush beans, cassava, watermelons, sweet potatoes, yams, pigeon peas and Missouri corn cob pipe corn.
I can’t wait to see how everything grows in this very different climate. We can plant basically year round since we’re on the mountainside and the weather never gets too hot or too cold. The only limitation is rainfall – and we can overcome that with irrigation.
I’ll post more photos as the gardens grow and mature.
Being only years in Florida, storage of food has been difficult…potatoes, onions, squash and now I have sweet potatoes growing. Any tips for storing these guys?? -Chris
You bet. Here are three tips for storing produce without a root cellar.
1. Grow Produce That Keeps Without Refrigeration
This may sound obvious, but by selecting crops that keep easily you can bypass the need to can/preserve/store/refrigerate your harvests.
Some good choices are nuts, Seminole Pumpkins and other long-keeping squash, dry beans, grain corn and pigeon peas. The reason grains became preeminent in the Western diet is because of their exceptional keeping qualities. Though I generally don’t recommend you grow grains on a home scale, they can keep a long time.
Sweet potatoes and white potatoes will usually keep in bags, baskets or boxes in a pantry for a few months. I’ve had poor luck storing homegrown garlic and onions in Florida, however. The varieties that grow here just don’t seem to be made for storage.
2. Grow Produce That Keeps In The Ground
Malanga keeps well in the ground
I grow cassava, arrowroot, ginger, malanga and other root crops that can be harvested pretty much whenever you feel like pulling them. The roots don’t freeze during the winter so you can grab ’em when you want ’em. I’ve pulled cassava roots from the ground in February.
Though the top of the plant was destroyed by frost, the roots were perfectly fine beneath the soil.
I taught myself to can at home via some trial and error and shattered mason jars.
Some foods are worth canning and some probably aren’t.For instance, okra would be disgusting canned, unless you made it into pickles first. Speaking of pickles, one of my favorite way to preserve produce is by live fermenting them. If you can make sauerkraut, you can make dill pickles… pickled garlic… kimchi and all kinds of other great live fermented foods. Sandor Katz’s book Wild Fermentation really got me started with the crazy world of fermented foods.You can read more on how I make sauerkraut in this post.Another way to pack away the harvest is to learn to dehydrate.You can dehydrate with the sun in some climates (Florida’s rain in the late summer REALLY doesn’t help me) as Paul Wheaton shows off in this awesome video:
Since it’s too humid here for me to get away with a nifty solar dehydrator, I use a simple Nesco model that works quite well.
You can go crazy and get the awesome Excalibur dehydrator (believe me… I’ve been really tempted but my budget won’t allow it!!!) but for the little bit of dehydrating we do on our homestead, my model is good enough for now.
When you dehydrate foods they keep a lot of their nutrition.
I’ve dehydrated everything from mushrooms to strawberries, mangoes (dangerously addicting) to calamondins (horrid when dried). I’ve also made jerky in the dehydrator that’s been wonderful. You can also pack away a lot of dried foods in a small space since water makes up so much of the mass of most fruits and vegetables.
I cut produce into small sizes, dry them, then pack them in sealed mason jars to keep the moisture in the air from getting in.
Though we may long for a Florida root cellar… it’s better to just be contented. Hey – we can garden year-round here when the folks up north are shivering.
I’ll take that over a row of crisp root-cellar turnips any day.
If anyone has any more suggestions on preserving the harvest without a root cellar, let me know in the comments!
I’ve been thinking for a long time about how I could express my gardening enthusiasm in a tattoo.
I’ve never gotten a tattoo before since it always seemed a bit trashy; however, I figured something botanical would work.
Heck, it could even be classy. Botanical prints are all the rage in interior design – why not in tattoos?
The more I thought about getting a plant-related tattoo, the more I liked the idea.
My big dilemma, of course, was – which plant should I feature?
I toyed around with chaya, though that could be mistaken for a maple leaf and I didn’t want folks to think I was Canadian.
I also thought about sweet potatoes, figs, mulberries or even a Chickasaw plum illustration with the Latin name beneath it.
The Florida Food Forests loquat logo was also in the race but I decided against it. I’m always changing my business ideas and didn’t want to get trapped in what might later seem to be a bad decision.
Fortunately, a great idea came to me at last… and it happened where many of my good ideas arrive: outdoors amongst my plants.
As I was wandering through the food forest last week and checking out all the new growth, I almost tripped over the stump of one of my multi-year-old cassava plants and then noticed the lush new growth coming up from the ground.
I thought, “Man… I love these plants!”
And then it hit me: cassava!
That was it!
It was the first perennial vegetable I ever grew seriously, plus it’s just a lot of fun to grow.
I made my decision – and yesterday I pulled the trigger!
CHECK IT OUT!
Yeah, it hurt. Still totally worth it.
Isn’t that great? Rob (my tattoo artist) did a killer job on the details… it almost looks like you could pick the leaf right off my arm.
When I went down to the tattoo place one of my friends recommended (thank you, Joel!), I figured they’d have no idea what a cassava leaf looked like.
Imagine my surprise when I saw it featured in many of their designs.
It wasn’t like there was just a few tiny images in a book, either – cassava leaf designs were EVERYWHERE.
There was a picture of one gal with cassava leaves all over her back, carried by flying cherubs… there was another one where a caterpillar was smoking a hookah while sitting on a huge cassava leaf (probably an after-dinner smoke… my favorite hookah tobacco tastes like apples, though who knows which flavor caterpillars prefer); there was even one guy who had a picture of a gigantic cassava leaf floating above a sunset.
Seriously – there’s a LOT of cassava love going on. I honestly had no idea that the tattoo crowd was that into growing tropical staple root crops. It really gives me a lot of hope for the future of perennial vegetables in our nation – I’m going to have to get connected with the local tat conventions and see if I can score some cuttings of different varieties we can test on the homestead.
I know – getting a tattoo is a big deal, and maybe I’m an idiot for doing it… but I don’t really think so. I’m proud of my cassava plants and am quite glad I found a botanical image I can live with for the rest of my life.
I hope you dig it as much as I do. Manihot esculenta forever!
As a side note on today’s article: one thing people always worry about with cassava is the cyanide.
Relax. Take a deep breath. There’s cyanide in a lot of different plants, including some of our most common edibles. With proper preparation, there’s no need to worry. It’s not like you’re going to kick off like a double-crossed super-villain if you eat a piece of raw cassava, either. It’s not that toxic. Also – the leaves are safe for your compost. During fermentation, boiling, composting, or even drying, the cyanide precursors off gas harmlessly into the atmosphere.
I’ve also fed limited amounts of cassava leaves to goats as a de-wormer. Amazing stuff.
For a a look at growing cassava as a survival crop, click here.
Since we’re not in the tropics, keeping cassava cuttings alive through the winter so you can plant them again the next year isn’t always easy.
Last week, my friend rycamor sent me an e-mail about his successful method:
“It looks like my black bag methodology is sound. Had this
loosely-knotted bag in the garage since first freeze, and look at it
now. All damp and rooty. Planting them today.”
Cassava cuttings survived the winter in this trash bag
Nice work. My bet is the trash bag kept the canes from drying out… they certainly look lively, don’t they? We’re in uncharted territory as American cassava growers – it’s not like you’ll find growing info in the Burpee catalog. Experiments like these are vital.
Inside the US, cassava is generally unknown except among some ethnic minorities.
Yet it’s where tapioca comes from (or “fish eyes,” as my Uncle Stuart calls them) and has been used as a source of laundry starch.
The roots are really, really high in starch.
Growing to about 12’ tall, the cassava plant looks very tropical.
Its palmate leaves and graceful cane-like branches are attractive in the landscape or in the garden.
Cassava’s pseudonyms include yuca (with one “c,” NOT two – “yucca” is a completely unrelated species), manioc, the tapioca plant, and manihot.
In Latin science-speak, it’s Manihot escuelenta.Whatever you call it, it’s a serious staple crop. Virtually pest-free, drought tolerant, loaded with calories, capable of good growth in poor soil – cassava is a must-have anyplace it can grow.And it’s MUCH less work than grain and much more tolerant of harvest times. In fact, once it’s hit maturity, you can basically dig it at any point for a few years (though the roots may sometimes get too woody to eat).
But there is a caveat on cultivation: cassava doesn’t like cold. At all.
If temperatures drop to freezing, your cassava will freeze to the ground.
This won’t usually kill the plant, but it does mean you need to plan your growing accordingly. In the tropics, cassava is a perennial, capable of growing huge roots and living for years.
Here in Florida the plant does well until you get north of zone 10, then the occasional frosts will knock it down. Growing it at any zone beyond 8 is likely an exercise in futility. Cassava needs warm days and nights to make good roots.
And speaking of roots… the cassava’s roots contain roughly twice the calories of a comparable serving of potatoes.
Bonus: they’re easier to grow.
Of course, there is the cyanide to consider.
What – you didn’t think a plant this awesome could exist without a down side, did you?
Yes – cyanide.
The plant is full of it, from its lovely leaves to its tasty roots. Fortunately, boiling or fermenting gets it out, so fear not.
A lot of plants we eat are poisonous. Just google the “cashew tree” or look up the toxicity of dry kidney beans.
Now THAT’S scary.
Compared to many things we eat, cassava’s pretty tame.
Microwaveable burritos, for instance.
How to Grow Cassava
Now – moving beyond the cyanide – how do you grow these things?
Unlike many plants, cassava is not usually grown from seeds except for breeding purposes. The only way most folks grow it is via stem cuttings.
(Roots from the grocery store almost definitely won’t work since they’ve been separated from the stem and dipped in wax.)
To grow from fresh cuttings, chop a sturdy stem into pieces about 1.5’ long, stick them in the ground on their sides about two inches down
and cover them lightly with soil – or, as I plant them, stuck in vertically with the growth buds pointing up – and within a week or so they’ll be growing new leaves.
I demonstrate how to plant cassava in this short video:
6-12 months later (depending on care and rainfall), they’ll be ready to start harvesting.
To harvest, machete down the entire plant a foot or so from the ground, throw the branches to the side and start digging.
Be careful, though – the roots are easy to chop through. Some careful exploratory digging with a trowel is often a good idea. The roots you’re looking for grow down and away from the main stem and are generally located in the first 1-2’ of soil. They’re deep brown with flaky skin. Don’t dig them too long before you’re going to process them as cassava doesn’t store well at all.
Once you harvest the roots, you’ll want to chop up the rest of the plant to make a new set of canes for planting out. I snap off all the leaves and compost them, then cut the bare canes into planting size. Canes that are too green tend to rot rather than root, so throw them on the compost too.
Sturdy, 1-2” diameter canes are perfect.
Plant them a third of their length or so into the ground and stand back so the new growth doesn’t knock you over. Just don’t plant them upside-down.
Ensure they’re right side up by looking for the tiny little growth buds by the leaf bases (or where the leaves were before they hit the compost bin). That little dot should be above the leaf’s base, not below.
Preparing the roots is another post for another day.
Peeled cassava roots
The Cassava plant is a must-have in warm climates, but even at the edge of its natural range you can push it.
You can bury cut canes in a box beneath the ground for the winter, as a Cuban friend told me her family does… you can let your current plants freeze to the ground and just wait for spring to bring new growth back… you can put cuttings in pots and bring them inside on freezing nights, then plant out in spring… or you can get a greenhouse and always keep a few plants in there for propagative stock.
It’s pretty tough stuff.
And as for work, the worst part is the harvesting. View it like digging for treasure and it’s fun.
Here’s my video on harvesting cassava:
Another great thing about this plant: its leaves are also edible (boiled, of course – remember… CYANIDE!) and rich in nutrients.
The young leaves are best and remind me of a drier-tasting collard green.
Not bad. At harvest time I usually grab a few baskets’ worth for the table or the freezer.
The roots can be chopped and frozen raw as well – they keep quite well that way.