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Archive | Gardening

Treasure Trove of Fertility: Composting Mussels

For about the last two years, I have been experimenting with composting mussels. Head to southern West Virginia and you’ll meet farmers who are learning to amend the brown, yellowish sandy soil deep within the Appalachian Plateau. The Berks-Pineville and Gilpin-Lily soil created by weathered shale, siltstone and sandstone can be unpredictable. Though it appears to be well drained in some areas and easily cultivated in others, the black gold they need to amend their crops is all but gone.

The author has experimented with a compost mix of zebra and quagga mussels.

Here in the southern coalfields that surround Mullens, Itmann and Pineville, mountaintop soil and dirt can be tightly packed and tough to work.

Compost can take a long time to break down, especially when there are long stretches of dry hot weather.

I knew little about the soil in Mullens when I first started experimenting with my zebra mussel shell compost mix. I first made a visit there last summer and stumbled upon a row of gardens at the Mullens Opportunity Center while I was in town for a meeting.

There, I met the executive director of the Rural Appalachian Improvement League and a farm-to-school AmeriCorps worker who was caring for their summer crops and high-tunnel complex. I asked if I could return to Mullens with just the right remedy for their soil. Continue Reading →

Identifying, Harvesting & Cooking Bamboo

I first read that bamboo is edible in my Army Survival Manual around age 14. That was over 25 years ago when my knowledge of botany was extremely limited. The book said to eat the young shoots, but there were no details or pictures as to what the young shoots look like or the time of year to harvest them.

Various ways of using edible bamboo with cooked hamburger in the internodes.

To an untrained and unsupervised child this meant trying the young twigs on the existing bamboo that grew near a branch behind my home in Sweet Water, Alabama. It was not a pleasant experience because the twigs were bitter and tough; making them unpalatable.

I gave up trying to eat bamboo for years and instead used it to build structures, makeshift arrows for homemade bows and cane fishing poles for unsuspecting bream.

It would be another 20 years or so before I would successfully eat a young bamboo shoot — the way they are intended to be eaten at a very young and tender age as they pop out of the ground in spring. Continue Reading →

Harvesting, Preparing Wild Potato

It’s true; the edible plants our ancestors have cultivated for hundreds of years are the main ones that get placed on the kitchen table, but their “wild” edible cousins that go back thousands of years — including wild potato — will most likely remain the black sheep of the family because few see their true worth.

White flowers and ruby throats, purple stems and heart-shaped leaves are the traits to help identify wild potato vine.

With all the talk of organic gardening and heirloom seeds, you’d think wild food and seeds would be at least as popular since there really isn’t any more “heirloom” than the wild cousins of modern day garden vegetables.

The surreal truth is that much of the population will happily eat genetically engineered foods without blinking an eye, but if asked by a well-known and respected forager to eat a wild plant, most get squeamish.

What if I told you there was food available that didn’t require the ground to be tilled, fertilized or watered? What if I told you that many of the weeds that you pull out of your garden and yard are more nutritious and even taste better than the neighboring vegetables? What if I told you there was a whole rainbow of nutritious and tasty flavors out there just waiting to be explored and experimented with which have histories with our ancestors going back hundreds and even thousands of years? Continue Reading →

Suburban Farming: Growing Berries & Small Fruit

The more I explored the world of growing berries, the more I began to understand how limited most American consumers are in their knowledge and experience of these healthy and tasty foods. Additionally, many of the berries and small fruit I grow are unavailable to consumers, even in high-end supermarkets.

Ripening ‘Red Lake’ red currants.

Growing up in central New Jersey, I’ve seen large expanses of former farmland transformed into seemingly endless residential sprawl. While this doesn’t bode well for open space (as well as a host of other things), it does present opportunity for those able to attract these new potential customers.

One way is by creating a suburban farm. Such a farm, on less than an acre, allows spry and innovative farmers to use small size and proximity to market to their advantage.

Eight years ago, after my youngest child neared the end of high school, I decided to expand my love of gardening into a business. I started off small — about a tenth of an acre in part of my backyard. I named my suburban farm “Pitspone Farm” — from a Hebrew word meaning very small. Over the years I slowly expanded, until at this point I’ve more or less taken over my entire backyard, about one-third of an acre. Continue Reading →

Saving Your Own Tomato Seeds

Saving your own tomato seeds from homegrown heirloom tomatoes will give a better tasting and producing tomato as it adapts to your location in just a couple of years. You only need a few fruits and some simple tools to get started.

A few considerations on saving your own tomato seeds: select fruit that are fully ripe or even just slightly overripe to get mature seeds; choose fruit with the characteristics that you are looking for — best-looking, best-tasting, earliest, latest or perhaps, largest. This will help you achieve more of the same qualities next year.

Finally, make sure that you are choosing open-pollinated or heirloom tomatoes, as hybrids from the store won’t grow true to what you started with. Saving some of your own seeds helps carry on an ancient gardening tradition many generations old.

The fermentation method duplicates what happens naturally when a tomato falls off the vine, ferments and then rots, leaving the seeds ready to germinate next spring. Continue Reading →

Diatomaceous Earth for Pest Control

There is an ongoing circulation of bad, misinformed, incomplete, and overall biased information regarding diatomaceous earth. This article is intended to bring to light much of the research (peer-reviewed articles and government regulation) surrounding DE and the potential dangers of its contents in a way that people can understand.

Many of the websites that list the benefits and uses of diatomaceous earth have a stake in the game. They are usually trying to sell you diatomaceous earth or make a commission by referring you to another store through an affiliate link. They are incentivized to paint the product in the best light. A lot of the bad “not so fun” information is left out or not highlighted as nearly enough as it should be.

As a result, you have a recipe for disaster with people reading, sharing and spreading anecdotal information stemming from these articles about a topic potentially affecting thousands of people causing respiratory issues and/or further pest problems. Continue Reading →