Thursday, May 12, 2016

Growing Sorrel (Rumex acetosa): A Refreshing Perennial Leafy Green

I apologize for not updating the blog more frequently.  I recently re-entered the work force, and it seems like I never have time for doing the things I need to do  The garden, however, is as productive as ever.  When I get around to it, I will make an update on all the new stuff I've planted and all the new tricks I've learned this year.  But for today's post, I want to talk about a plant I've been growing for well over a year now that has rapidly become one of my favorite leafy greens.  That plant is Rumex acetosa, more commonly known as sorrel.

Sorrel is a leafy perennial herb belonging to the Polygonacae family, more commonly known as the buckwheat family in the US. Wild sorrel plants are frequently found in moist grassland areas all over the world. Sorrel is also cultivated as leafy vegetable or culinary herb.

Pliny the Elder describes sorrel as far back as 77 AD.
One of the earliest recorded mentions of sorrel being used as a vegetable comes from Pliny the Elder of the early Roman empire. In Book XVIII of his encyclopedia titled Naturalis Historia, completed in 77 AD, Pliny notes that sorrel " the hardiest of all vegetables, for where it once seeds, there it grows forever; neither can it be killed, do what you will with the earth, particularly if it be near the water."

Indeed, sorrel will happily grow in most climate zones ranging from USDA zone 3 to zone 9. Here in my city of Asheville, with the temperate climate of zone 6/7, sorrel is one of the first edible greens to appear in the spring, and one of the last to remain growing in the fall. It also seems to prefer acidic soils.  Sorrel will tolerate full sun to part shade, and will generally grow well without much human intervention. Although it prefers to be kept moist during the first year of growth, sorrel's roots quickly dive deep in the ground--four feet or more by some accounts--which allow it to access moisture and protect it from harsh winter conditions.

Sorrel readily germinates in a winter sowing container, where it can later be transplanted to the garden.
There are a few different varieties of sorrel as well. Rumex acetosa, also known as French sorrel, is the most commonly cultivated variety here in the US, and it is the variety I currently have growing in my garden here in Asheville. Rumex scutatus, commonly referred to as buckler-leaf sorrel, is touted as superior to French sorrel in terms of flavor and texture, but has smaller leaves and is not quite as vigorous as R. acetosa. Additionally, there is Rumex acetosella, also known as sheep sorrel, which is generally considered a weed that is prone to growing in recently disturbed areas with dry, acidic soils. R. acetosella spreads rapidly via runners and seed dispersion, and it can quickly become invasive in the garden if not properly managed.

In zone 7, sorrel is large enough to eat by the first week of March.
I use the leaves of sorrel for salads, smoothies, veggie burgers, and as a topping on nachos.  There are also many more culinary uses for it. The leaves have a sour flavor, almost like a mixture of lemon juice and a sour candy apple. Its leaves' zesty flavor can be added to soups for an extra "zing," or as a base for lemon-y sauces or pesto. Cooking the leaves makes the flavor a bit more mild, although, much like spinach, it cooks down considerably. Using a lot of leaves will be necessary if it is to be the centerpiece of a meal.

Sorrel is also a very healthy food to consume. One cup of chopped sorrel has 4 grams of fibre, 3 grams of protein, 5000 IU (106% DV) of Vitamin A, 64 milligrams (106% DV) of Vitamin C, plus a decent amount (10% DV or higher) of iron, magnesium, potassium, and manganese. That same cup only has 30 calories, making sorrel a highly nutrient-dense vegetable.  Sorrel also contains polyphenols thought to be beneficial to human health, including the well-known chemical resveratrol.

By May, the plant is bursting with huge, edible leaves.
 One thing to keep in mind about consuming sorrel is its oxalic acid content, which is what gives the plant its characteristicly sour taste. For most people, consuming foods with oxalic acid poses no health risks. However, there is some evidence that eating large amounts of oxalic acid-containing food may increase the risk of kidney stones, gout and rheumatoid arthritis in some people. For that reason, it may be wise to enjoy sorrel in moderation--perhaps no more than a few times per week. Boiling sorrel and discarding the water before consuming also reduce its concentration of oxalic acid by as much as a third.

In closing, I think sorrel may deserve a spot in your garden, as it easy to grow, exceedingly hardy, remarkably palatable and highly nutritious. Perhaps more importantly, it is an edible perennial plant, meaning reduced work for you and an improvement in your soil's biology, since the soil won't have to be tilled and seeds planted each year. Much like Pliny the Elder, where you once set seeds of sorrel, you will likely have it forever.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Starting A Suburban Tree Nursery, Part I: Planting the Seeds

This site has a lot of potential for an apple orchard
This site has a lot of potential for an apple orchard
In a post I wrote a few months back, I talked about starting a tree nursery in my suburban neighborhood.  Well, that idea has started to come to fruition.  And, as promised, I am going to show you the entire process for as long as I can keep it going.  In today's post, I will outline all of the steps I took to hopefully start the trees from the ground up--more specifically, how I grew them from seeds.

I must first give credit to the author of little house on the urban prairie, a blog that I started following after hearing Mark Shepard mention him/her on the permaculture podcast.  It was his/her post titled "Chestnuts and Hazels for the Future" that I learned of this method of starting trees from seed.  The author wrote the post in 2010, and he/she started hazelnuts and chestnuts using this method.  According to post dated in September 2014, those trees can now be purchased for $10 a piece.  If you're interested in buying a tree or two, follow this link to check out the details.

That being said, let's continue with my project currently underway.


For this project, you're going to need:
  • 3-gallon plastic pot
  • hardware cloth
  • a pair of wire cutters
  • some zip ties
  • knife

Materials needed to start a lot of apple trees from seed
Everything you'll need for this project, except for zip ties

Total cost was roughly $19; nine for the hardware cloth, eight for the wire cutters, and two for the zip ties.  I already had a knife.  Imagine that.

Oh yeah, and you're also going to need a spot in your yard that is in a sunny location. 


Step 1 - Cut out the bottom of the pot.

Simple 3-gallon plastic pot for growing apples from seed

Plastic pot with the bottom cut out

Using the knife, cut out the bottom of the plastic pot.  This is to prevent the bottom of the pot from interfering with the roots of the trees once they start growing in the ground.  Shouldn't be too hard, unless the plastic is super thick.

Step 2 - Cut out a peice of hardware cloth and position it into the bottom of the pot.

Hardware cloth fitted into the bottom of the plastic pot used for growing apples from seed

Although we don't want the root growth to be inhibited, we also don't want critters digging up through the bottom of the pot to eat our seeds over the winter (however unlikely that is).  The solution is to put hardware cloth in the bottom so the roots can grow through while preventing any moles, voles or groundhogs from gaining access to them from the bottom.  Use the wire cutters to cut out of piece of hardware cloth to stick into the bottom of the pot.  I simply fitted it snugly into the bottom without using any zip ties.

Step 3 - Pick a sunny spot in the yard and dig a hole slightly smaller than the size of the pot.

First, I have to clear all this vegetation out of my planting area.

If you have nice spot in your yard that's easy to get to and gets plenty of sun, that's great.  Less work for you.  I, however, only had a spot with enough sun where plenty of new vegetation (including wild grape vines, invasive roses, oriental bittersweet plants, and more) had already started growing.  So I had to spend a few days hacking away at vines, pulling weeds and piling up dead branches to get my area ready for planting.  The picture above is what I started with.

Now there is a bit more space to work with.

Ahh, that's a little easier to work with.  Now to find the perfect spot.

Find a spot to dig the hole for your apple seed pot.

This little patch seems as good as any.  Time to dig the hole for the pot.

Dig a hole slightly smaller than the apple seed pot.

Pile up the dirt to the side, as you're going to be using it to fill the pot.  Set your pot in the hole, with about 1 inch (2.5 cm) of the pot still above the ground.  Then backfill the pot with the soil you dug up, as well as burying the outside the pot.

Refill the pot with the dug-out soil, leaving 1" (2.5 cm) sticking out of the ground.

It should look something like this when this step is completed.  Hopefully I explained it clear enough.

Step 4 - Plant your seeds in the pot.

Collect your tree seeds.

I decided to only grow one type of tree to keep it simple, since this will be my first time doing a project like this.  I didn't want to get too overwhelmed with the whole thing.  I collected a few dozen apple seeds from apples bought in the store, as well as from seeds from the nearby high school's apple orchard.

Spread the seeds out evenly on top of the soil you just put into the pot.

Spread the seeds evenly over the soil in the pot, like shown here.  The put another layer of soil over the to

Once your seeds are in the pot, put another layer of soil over them and give the pot a good watering.

Give the pot a good watering.

Step 5 - Attach hardware cloth to the top of the pot using zip ties.

Now that your seeds are planted, it's time to protect them from critters that would take them from above.  Using the wire cutters, cut out a piece of hardware cloth just big enough to cover the top of the pot.  Use the knife to pole holes into the sides of the pot, insert a zip tie through each hole, and then tie it through the hardware cloth.  It'll look like this:

Finally, attach some zip ties over the pot to keep out critters from above.

Step 6 - Mulch the pot heavily.

The last thing left to do is mulch the pot heavily, like shown here.

Use some kind of organic matter to mulch the pot, which will provide a little protection from hard freezes and the compacting force of the rain.  I used old leaves in my situation, but you could use hay, straw or old grass clippings as well.  Just make sure the is plenty of it.


Well, that's pretty much all there is to the planting out the seeds.  Now I am to wait until Spring, at which time I will remove the mulch, allowing the ground to warm and hopefully signal the apple seed to germinate and grow.  If they do start growing, I am to leave the tender seedlings growing in the pot for another year.  If they make it through the next winter, the trees will be ready to plant or sell.

So it looks like all there is left to do is wait.  I will be quite honest... I am not 100% sure this is going to work.  I'm fairly confident, but still not completely sure.  But at least the seeds were easy to come by, and I only spent $19 on materials for the whole project.  On the bright side, if they seeds do grow into tiny trees, I will be well on my way to have several dozen apple trees, hopefully some of which will produce useful or tasty apples in a few years.  At that point, I could sell them for a reasonable price or try to grow them out myself if they seem to have potential.

I will be sure to update the blog in the comings months to report if the project was a success or failure.  I hope you enjoyed the first part of this article series, and if you found it useful, perhaps consider sharing it with your friends and neighbors.  You never know who might be wanting to grow some trees!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Fall Has Arrived! Time to Review the Last Few Months of the Dow Dominion Garden

The last post I wrote about the garden was back in late June, and a lot of stuff has changed since that point.  I thought I'd show my readers what has happened in the time between then and now.

Although I am attempting to convert a large portion of my garden to a system of edible perennial plants, there will always be a spot for in the yard for growing classic annual favorites, like tomatoes.  Today, I'd like to offer a glimpse at what both annual and perennial plants produced for my family to eat over the summer season.


Tomatoes - My tomatoes were glorious this year!  So many delicious tomatoes were eaten by the entire Dow family this summer.  The "Brandy Boy" variety started to ripen in early July, with the rest of the varieties blushing shortly thereafter.  With the exception of "Rio Grande," they have been putting out delicious tomatoes for us to eat ever since.  Production has slowed to a crawl, however, over the past month, as early blight, cooler temperatures and shorter days all have played a part in limiting each plant's growth.  Still, we were able to eat fresh, delicious tomatoes all summer long and have plenty to share with relatives, friends and neighbors.

Green Brandy Boy tomatoes just starting to change colors
July 11th, when the tomatoes first started turning colors
Almost fully ripened Brandy Boys
Brandy Boys almost completely ripe

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Dow Dominion Will Now Be the Home of a New Tree Nursery

After several months of contemplation and research, I have finally decided to start a tree nursery on my property.

A tree nursery?  "How am I going to do that on less than a third of an acre in suburbia?" is probably what you're thinking right about now.

I know, I know.  I asked myself the same thing over and over, too. I've also heard it a thousand times from various internet gurus as well. There's no way I can grow trees with this little space.

Perhaps they have a point.  Or perhaps they are just too discouraged to try, given that almost nobody thinks it can be done.  There are, however, a few individuals who are doing the exact same thing I want to do, despite conventional wisdom that claims it isn't possible.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Garden Progress, May/June 2015 - Improvement and Refinement

I've enjoyed the amount of time I've had to relax and watch the various bugs fly around and march along in my backyard garden. They seem particularly unconcerned about my presence there, and I get a sense of accomplishment knowing that, by growing edible plants, I'm helping them in their daily activities as well.  

It's especially noticeable this year, as I've made a variety of improvements to my garden and added a generous amount of new plants and varieties to my collection.  It seems my garden is becoming more and more of an insect haven as the biodiversity of the plants I grow improves.  I think that is a good thing.

That said, the "improvements" to the garden that seem to attract various pollinators were initially for my benefit, in order to increase the amount of food I can grow for my family.  Today, I want to share some of the things I made improvements upon from last year, as well as some brand new techniques for this year that have helped tremendously.  In this update, I will also showcase some of the plants I have been eating over the Spring season.

Monday, May 11, 2015

How and Why I Put Urine To Good Use in My Garden

I've been busy in my gardens whenever I have a hour or two of free time.  The gardens usually take priority over my other hobbies during the day, one of which includes writing articles for the blog.  That is partly the reason for the lack of updates over the past few months, with the other part being that I've had a hard time coming up with topics for posts that haven't already been done by people more experienced and knowledgeable than myself.

All that aside, I want to talk a little about something generally considered a waste product, and how to turn it into a valuable resource. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

What's Happening In the Dow Dominion Garden for the 2015 Season

March in the mountains of North Carolina is the beginning of the gardening season, and I have a lot to accomplish this month.  In today's post, I will give you the rundown of the typical tasks I complete to get the garden ready for planting, as well as some of the new things I am trying out this year.