From time to time, I get a mild ear infection. An itching sensation in the right ear, like ants, crawling about inside and a deep swelling feeling like a softball is trying to grow its way out of the side of my head. The ear, nose and throat doctor suggested a drop of olive oil from time to time, but for the most part, these things are supposed to clear up on their own. The olive oil helps a bit, but the sensation never really goes away. I started looking for other solutions.
One day I found this ginormous plant growing in my field. It had big fuzzy leaves and a five-foot-tall flower stock. Could this be mullein?
Meet mullein, a plant with many uses. The leaves are dried for tea to treat respiratory distress or used fresh as cowboy toilet paper (but not both). Parts of the plants are transformed into tinctures for addressing various issues, but in my case, I'm after the oil.
To make mullein blossom oil, we pluck the ripe flowers from the stock. Place them in a jar and cover the flowers with olive oil then seal the jar with a lid. I put the jar on my desk where I will see it, but out of the direct sun, and shake it at least twice a day. After a week or two (depending on how many flowers I put in it), it's ready. I strain the flowers and whenever my ear hurts, I put a drop or two in my ear.
Mullein oil works wonders for the pain and itch. I've also tried it on eczema and is quick to sooth the swelling.
I'm glad to have mullein flowers again this year. It's a biannual so I've only been getting blossom every other year. I'll probably make an extra batch later in the summer to get me through next year.
George is one of my silkworms. These greedy-samas (sama is the Japanese honorific title added at the end of the name, like 'san' but with more respect) are going to help me transform leaves into cloth.
These are my very first silkworms and I want to give a shout out to Peggy at Flourishing Filaments who helped me with the research and found a way to send silkmoth eggs to Canada. At the time of writing, it is legal to import Bombyx mori into Canada and to export from the USA without a fancy certificate (but check with the government before attempting it for yourself because things change).
While researching silkworms online, I noticed that a lot of people name their worms. They grow attached to these little guys. I didn't want to feel left out, so I named them. I named all 200 of them George except for the big one, his name is Harold.
Over the last nine years, we've planted a couple of dozen mulberries on the farm. These are marvellous trees, willing to grow without irrigation (but they do grow better with), on land that wouldn't grow anything else. These perennials are willing to be bush or tree, have deep roots to combat erosion, leaves that feed all manner of livestock, including silkworms, produce a paper or cloth from their bark and are an excellent investment for timber. Oh, and they make tasty berries which are shaping up to become the next superfood in about five years.
Moriculture - the growing of mulberries - is as old as silk. We have five thousand years of history interacting with this plant. Unlike the silkworm who is wholly domesticated and dependant on humans to survive, the mulberry tree is delightfully wild. It has to be because any chemical aid we may apply to give it a boost or protect it from leaf munchers destroys the silk crop. Pesticides kill caterpillars. Silkworms are caterpillars.
Being domestic, silkworms are hugely sensitive to any changes in their diet. Even dusty or damp leaves can kill them, and the residue from car exhaust along a busy street is enough to give them the trots. Just about anything and everything in the modern world is out to kill silkworms.
Growing mulberry trees was never just about the trees. Mulberries do best when they are intercropped with other plants. Two rows of mulberry trees, a wide swath of annual plants like beans or a mulch crop, another two rows of mulberries. Tilling between the mulberries loosens the soil and allows the moisture and air to penetrate to the roots. But tilling is a lot of effort just for trees, so plant something in the freshly turned earth. The trees protect the annual crop by preventing erosion and providing shelter for helpful wildlife like pollinators and pest-eating birds.
To learn more about how to grow silkworms, check out Wormspit's article on Bombyx mori
We have officially entered stage four drought conditions, which is apparently the worst we have. It means that the government can start making emergency legislation to reduce water usage including industry and farming. It also means that we are at risk of not having enough drinking water next year if the drought continues through the rainy season.
Since water-less and water-free farming is the main focus on the farm, I wanted to share some updates on what's working and what techniques we are still developing. It's all experimental. There's lots of theories on what works, but what works for one may not work at another location. That's why it's so important to try things for yourself.
Many of the trees my grandfather planted on the property were watered and given great care and affection. But these trees never toughened up. Their roots are shallow and they haven't the ability to make it through this heat unaided. So I place at the base of each tree a bucket of water. The geese and ducks splash in this water and it helps to cool the roots and provides a slow trickle of moisture into the soil. This is often enough to save the tree, but when it isn't, we apply some water to the ground around the drip line of the tree in the evenings. Maybe once a week. This not only waters the roots, but it also creates conditions that encourage dew to gather.
Looking at the shape of the land, it goes down into a valley where and then up again on the other side. At the base of the valley is an ephemeral stream and in the winter, there are springs that bubble on the surface of the valley floor. But up here on the ridge, the subsoil is glacial till, which is rocks and other coarse matter deposited by the last ice age. This makes for amazing drainage... which also makes it difficult for plants to thrive in the summer.
Have another look at the above photo. Can you see how green it is in the valley? In the foreground, all the annuals are dead. But a bit further away, there is hawk weed and further still we can see green grass and nettles. Then as we travel up the hill on the other side, the ground is quickly brown again.
We can see from this photo that the valley has more soil moisture, even in the summer. Even in a terrible drought like this one, we still have greens growing. So we put the summer garden down there. This year it is sunflowers and soup (dry) beans. Over the last few years, I've been planting these two quite early in the spring. Before even the last frost. In the first few years, I had little success because sunflowers and beans don't handle frost well. But I kept on saving seeds from the survivors and now I can plant my crop in April, before the rains have finished for the year. The rain helps the seeds germinate and they very quickly grow a deep root system. Because they can establish themselves so early in the year, they are strong enough to handle the drought without any irrigation. It's a combination of plant breeding (I used a smidgen of landrace techniques to choose the genetics, then nature do the selecting until I had a plant that would do what I needed) and using the natural inclination of the land.
Storing water in the soil is my first preference, but this year we experimented with some large rainwater tanks. We used them to help a few transplanted fruit and nut trees make it through the summer. We have the hope of transforming the space near the road into a small forest garden, but the first step is to get the trees established. I think they would have been find in a normal summer, but I don't know when we'll see one of those again. It's also why you see the hose in the next picture. Nothing to do with the annuals.
Now here's a dismal site:
This is the second generation of my landrace kale. There are several experiments going on here. The first is trying to improve the soil. We terraced this section to help it gather more moisture in the winter. But until we can add more organic matter into the soil, it's going to be tough keeping the moisture in there for the whole year.
I started this experiment with Seedy Saturday. I got one packet of every kale seed that did not have the word "dwarf" on it. Combined them all together in a big bowl and planted them in poor soil where they would receive no water or love. Half of them survived. These are their children and I can see that there are some interesting varieties (crosses) that weren't part of the original mix.
They did very well at the start, with a good deal of dew collection. The plants spaced closer together (plant spacing is another experiment this year) did the best at the start. But once the heat hit, the plants with the widest spacing are doing best of all.
Another thing I noticed is that aphids hit the taller, bigger leaf kale pretty hard this spring but ignored the others. But these same plants are doing the best of all now. Did the aphids do something to the plant to harden it against the drought, or perhaps the same genetics that make plants tasty to aphids when young, are what makes them do so well in the drought?
You can also see some sunflowers self seeded in this part. Worst soil on the farm, best drainage, hottest and driest part. So even sad looking kale is a victory. I can't wait to see what the offspring from these kale can do.
Record keeping - The theory behind this is we can reproduce what we made before. But here we are, working with natural materials. Nature by her very essence is constantly changing. The weather, soil, air, sun, and wind all have their effect on the colours these plants produce. Every time we dye with natural ingredients, we are promised a different colour. I wonder if anything beyond the most basic record keeping is strictly necessary (although, it can of course be fun).
Mordants - I've discovered that there are a great variety of mordants and many dyes will affix to the yarn without any mordant at all. The sheer range of alum I've seen recommended in dyeing from 2% weight of fibre (WOF) all the way up to 22% WOF. I wonder if precision is really that vital when it comes to mordanting yarn and fibre.
Ratio of dye to yarn - I've had very bad luck following directions. I carefully weigh everything to the decigram and at best, I get a pale imitation of colour. However, the times I simply stuff my dye pot full of leaves or flowers, simmer a while, then add yarn, I'm greeted with vibrant results. I wonder if being less precise is actually the key to dyeing.
So what is the most vital part of dyeing in my opinion?
The most vital part in dyeing yarn, is final step - washing the yarn.
Why do I think this stage is the most important? Because this is the stage that teaches the most.
Being gentile at this stage is abusive to your future self. One quick rinse and hang the yarn to dry and you risk using that yarn, putting loads of work into a project, and first time through the washing machine, all the dye washes out. It didn't take. Or worse, it bleeds and stains the rest of the project.
I once wove a set of towels from hand dyed linen. The arbutus dyed linen was a gorgeous brown, and the carrot top dyed linen, a lovely lime green. But one trip through the washing machine, and all the carrot top washed out. It looked okay, but not as good as it would with the green.
This morning petrichor was heavy in the air. Petrichor is a smell so strong; you can almost feel the texture gritting against your skin. It's a mixture of ocean and dust. But more than that. Petrichor is the smell rain makes after dry, grimy, hot summer days.
It's unusual to experience petrichor here, as it seldom rains in summer and never in June. At least not since we moved to the farm nearly ten years ago. It is an unusual year for weather. I expect unusual will soon be the new norm.
Most years, the rain stops on or before May first. There are a couple of rainy patches near midsummer and again at the end of August, but these showers usually miss the farm. It will rain at the neighbours and across the road, but not here. One of the things we strive for is low maintenance farming; farming without irrigation or rain in a Mediterranean climate. Most of the experiments on the farm have been focused on the assumption it won't rain in the summer. We've had great success with this. There are a few parts of the farm that are entirely irrigation-free and produce a decent crop even on poor soil.
We've grown chickpeas, peas, soup peas, kale, squash, hot peppers, sunflowers, woad, flax, and tomatoes without irrigation or rain. Pretty darn neat. This year, we've been experimenting with different row and plant spacing as well as potatoes. But the rain has skewed our results - not that we mind - so we'll have to try it again next year.
How are we growing these without irrigation?
I've learned a lot from permaculture. The world domination gardening videos are a great resource filled with different techniques, how and why they work, and how to build them. The last video is my favourite. It's about adding texture to the landscape to create warm pockets.
Finding microclimates that are already moist
There's a section of the farm that is quite moist most of the year. There's an ephemeral stream and in the winter, the whole area floods. By deepening a hollow that was already there to create a pond we capture some of the winter rain that would otherwise pass us by. The stream we made curvier and planted willows and other trees to help capture moisture and hold it in the soil. Trees are also great at capturing dew and can often create their own rain on moist mornings. Since the ground is too wet to till until May, it is a good spot for warm weather crops like beans, corn, squash and sunflowers.
Making our own microclimates
Terracing adds texture to the landscape like nothing else. It's also great for reducing the speed that water runs off the land. Storing moisture in the soil during the rainy season is possibly the most efficient way we've found to grow without irrigation. Somehow terracing reduces the fluctuation in temperature.
airwells to capture dew
Capturing dew is an essential tool to irrigation-free farming. An airwell a great help with this. About three years back we transplanted 100 fruit trees at the start of what turned out to be one of the driest summers on record. We moved the trees to the spot with the most drainage and worst water retention soil on the farm and gave them nothing to drink. Not even watering them in when we moved them.
Two-thirds of the fruit trees were given an airwell. A small, dry stack, rock wall. One third was given nothing. Of the latter, we have on tree surviving. But the trees with the airwell are growing strong. Through extreme heat, drought, cold, and all sorts of crazy weather, we have only lost two of the 60-odd trees. The only difference is the airwell. We were shocked by just how much difference it made.
Even making texture on the soil increases dew collection. Molding up potatoes left furrows between the rows. I was surprised to see just how much dew collected in them.
One thing that isn't working is mulch. Mulch works wonders if it rains at least once a month, but by the end of the second month without rain, it seems to do more harm than good. By the end of month five, only well established perennials with high dew collecting abilities like rosemary, sage, and lavender can survive mulch.
Mulch covers the soil and prevents moisture loss, but it also prevents moisture penetration. Once the mulch dries out, the dew that runs down the stems of the plants, cannot enter the soil for later use. By the time the soil is warm enough for the invisible beasties to break down the mulch into soil, the mulch is too dry to sustain them.
Looking at our local forests, one can see why mulch doesn't make sense here. Mulch works well where the soil is built through layers of detritus like leaves and grass. But here, when one watches a pioneer area, the soil isn't formed that way. The cottonwood and alder grow on poor, but moist soil pockets, then when they fall, the logs quickly rot to create better soil. The leaves do very little except provide food and shelter for animals who fertilise and build soil that way. For this reason, I suspect Hugelkulture will be a useful tool in our area. Something to try in the years to come.
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