Thursday, September 22, 2016

Starting A Suburban Tree Nursery, Part II: Seedlings in the First Year

Back in December, I wrote part one of this series, which was about starting apple trees from seeds I collected over the past year.  The idea was to get a series of tree seedling started every year from various fruit seeds, and over time, begin selling them to people in my local community as each batch of seedlings matured.  Keeping costs low is a large part of making this work, so I planted them in the regular old dirt in a partially-wooded area in my back yard.

I haven't wrote about it since then, and I suppose you might be wondering if that's because the seedlings didn't grow and the plan was a failure.  Well, fortunately that's NOT the case, and I did successfully germinate a number of apple seeds into baby apple trees.

I took a short video of the seeds sprouting out on the last day of winter, March 19th:

Other than removing the mulch I placed in part one, I did nothing else to help these seedlings along.  As much as I wanted to pamper each seedling, I tried to keep in mind why I was growing them this way: To distinguish the strong seedlings from the weak.  If the weak plants want to die, I'll let them.  That just leaves me with stock that is better suited to survive in my location.

After a few months of randomly checking on baby apple trees every now and again, I decided to snap a picture of them on June 6th:

There were more seedlings growing than I had anticipated.  A few of them seem like they have a disease, but most of them seem happy and are growing at a decent pace.

With only a month of summer officially left, I made another trip down to the apple tree seedling pot, to take another picture, and to clean up the area so I can plant another round of seedlings in the fall.  Here's what they looked like as of August 23rd:

There was a smudge on the camera lens

The canopy of the forest blocked most of the direct sunlight getting to the seedlings, so they ended up a bit leggy.  A few of the seedling appear to be suffering some kind of leaf ailment as well.  There are a couple of really robust seedlings that are growing much better than the others, despite the less-than-optimal conditions.  These are probably the seedlings I will try to sell or plant for myself.

I am still going to wait until next season before I decide what to do with them, however.  I'm trying to follow the example of Patrick of Little House on the Urban Prairie.  He has already successfully grown and transplanted hazelnut seedlings using this method.  After a year of growing, he transplanted his hazelnuts to a better location and gave them each a bit more room to grow.  This is what I am also planning to do.

I'm very enthusiastic about this whole process, considering I haven't done a single thing to help these trees along, other than the initial planting of the seeds.  If the trees end up being too weak and die off, it was no real loss other than wasting a few hours of my time.  But, if some or all of them survive and grow adequately, it could mean a few extra bucks in my hands next year, or a few extra apple trees to plant in my yard.

Meanwhile, I will be planting the next round of apple seeds to grow for 2017.  Additionally, I'm going to branch out (no pun intended) and plant a separate group of grape seeds using the same method that I described in Part I of this series.  I have collected countless seeds from the bountiful harvest of grapes from my three year old concord grape vine.  I'm also enthusiastic about that, but also worried about the very different growth habits of vines versus trees.  Mostly worried about how quickly they could possibly grow and take over everything.  But, I don't think it could hurt to try, and considering that the seeds are coming from a plant (Vita labrusca) that is native to my location in the world anyway, it probably wouldn't be a detriment to the local environment.  If anything, my main grape vine has improved the life of at least one critter (most likely a raccoon I've seen in my yard on another occasion), as said critter managed to eat at least a half-dozen of the last remaining bunches of the ripened grapes one night in the middle of summer.  But I digress...

A few of the bunches of grapes from my concord grape vine, a native plant of the eastern US.

So that pretty much sums up my progress on the tree nursery project.  Everything seems to be on track, so now it's just more planning, planting and waiting.  I will most likely post another update on the subject sometime early next year.  

For my next article, I'll be going over what I learned in the 2016 season, and my progress towards becoming more self-reliant.  We're still pretty far from that goal, but we've made a few good steps in the right direction, this year especially.

Building up my seeds supplies for next year

Have any questions or advice for me about growing these apple trees from seed?  Leave a comment below to let me know your thoughts.  Thanks for reading.

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.