Lew Bivona

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since Jan 03, 2018
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Recent posts by Lew Bivona

So, I live in a pretty warm Zone 7 climate (urban heat island just outside of Philadelphia, PA, USA) and from what I've read, it wouldn't be difficulty from a frost/heat perspective to meet the needs of a pistachio tree. The main issue is, of course, humidity. The areas where Pistachios are grown in California seem to reach a high humidity level of 40 or 50%, whereas in NJ humidity levels consistently get to the high 60s, low 70s year round.

After querying around the web a bit, I haven't found a clear easy answer for what exactly happens to pistachios (and, more generally, to arid-adapted trees and shrubs), when you attempt to plant them in a warmer climate. I assume they are fungal issues relating to moisture levels, but is the issue the moisture level of the soil, or ambient air, or both? Do fungi kill back the trees at an early age, do they die completely, or just enough to regrow but never mature? Or is the issue that the fruit succumbs to disease, and that you'd never actually be able to harvest something? More generally, are folks familiar with the plant biology of arid-adapted plants to know why it succeeds in dry areas and fails in more humid areas (e.g. something with the way cells are constructed or the ways they hold moisture)?

Moreover, is this a more difficult to change aspect of a plant's habit? Plant breeders are constantly at work developing varieties that can survive a zone or two lower temperatures, or resist this or that pest, or even respond differently to varying daylight lengths. Is humidity sensitivity that much different?

I know that's a ton of questions, but that just goes to show how boggled I am!
10 months ago
First, some context: From observations I've made at various fields and garden beds, I very much buy into the concept of "aromatic pest confusers" (APCs) described in Jacke and Toensmeier's Edible Forest Gardens. I'm actually interested a bit in the idea as a pest preventative measure in more annual garden beds, as I'm not that concerned about pest pressure around many of my perennials (they don't seem to have a lot so far), and so I've decided to plant low-growing/mowable aromatic herbs between my beds as pathways. Although some of them are quite a bit aggressive (oregano and a couple varieties of mint), I'm not too concerned about spread because 1) I'll be mowing them probably once a week during peak season, which seems to really slow down rhizome expansion as plants attempt to recover lost growth; 2) I'm going to finally experiment with double digging, so that should disrupt rhizome growth into my growing beds as well; and 3) worst comes to worst and things go crazy, I'll just have to smother things under cardboard/sheet mulch for a few years – there are worse things in this world, and it was worth experimenting.

That being said, I do want to take good preventative steps if possible. I've been put off by a lot of the technical solutions people have proposed, because (and I'm not sure if folks are just being overly dramatic) even the most rigorous options like 12" deep overlapping rhizome barriers are described as ultimately not very effective and prone to eventual failure. My hunch is that it would take a long time for something like mint to get around such a stiff barrier, but there are enough hyperbolic horror stories out there that it concerns me. (Aside: has anyone ever considered soldering the seams of metal rhizome barrier with food-grade silver solder, or something similar? Seems like that would be pretty impenetrable).

Anyway, all of this lead to my eventual question: We tend to discuss soil compaction as something to overcome and have developed lots of techniques to break it up. Has there ever been discussion of using very focused, narrow bands of compactions as a sort of "natural" barrier? For example, the mint I'm planting likes lofty, garden bed soil and I've read that it has quite a difficult time expanding into compacted soils. I've never seen it taking over (or even doing relatively well) in abandoned lots that are filled with heavily compacted soils. My thought was that if I could find a tool like a vibratory compactor that I could tamp along the edges of the walkways, I could make a sort of compaction barrier and have very easy to manage APC walkways, while being able to keep the bed areas themselves lofted and healthy. Because I don't know much about how compaction is distributed or how persistent it is, I wanted to throw this idea out to all of you other permies! Would the bed prep I do ultimately undermine the compaction of the walkways (e.g. I've read about compost's and soil microbiota's ability to repair compact soils)? Would it even be effective, or are aggressive rhizomes tough enough to break through even deliberately compacted soil?
1 year ago
I remember seeing something (it was either in Mollison's big ol' permaculture manual, or more recently in Geoff Lawton's online PDC) about letting a mesh/permeable bag dangle in one's rain barrel with limestone because it can harden water that's too soft. I'm particularly interested in this now, not because I'm concerned about it being too soft to drink or anything; I have a 450ish gallon rain barrel system joined together by copper pipes, and I'm concerned that being constantly exposed to 6ish pH rain water could start to corrode the pipes and put copper into the water. My rain barrels are my primary source of irrigation, and while I know that in the short term that's not nearly enough to cause copper toxicity for plants, I like to think about the long, long-term build up in the soil. So all of this leads to several questions:

1) Do other folks use copper plumbing in their cisterns/catchments, and have soil tests revealed any detectable changes in copper accumulation?
2) Does anyone do the baggy of limestone thing in their cisterns/catchments? Is it as simple as putting some actual chunks of full-on rock limestone in the cisterns, or does it have to be relatively processed, like agriculutral limestone (i.e. does or does not rock limestone break down fast enough for it to actually have an effect?)
   2a) How much do you have to use to actually affect water pH in a reasonable way? If you have to use very much, it's not sustainable to keep on importing it, plus I could see it as eventually adding too much calcium to the soil, although from what I know of soil chemistry, that's generally a much lesser problem – you have to put in quite a bit to over-lime a field.
3) In theory, couldn't there be two ways that CaCO would be solving my problem? Just talking this out: For one, if the water's pH is raised, that should lead to less corrosion inside of the barrels; and second, once it comes time for the water to go into the soil, if the lime has an alkalizing effect, that would lead to less copper uptake anyway (I recall from a soil class that raising pH was how you overcome copper poisoning in your crops).

Thoughts and experiences are welcomed!
1 year ago
I saw this really interesting article in an email update I received from the magazine sister publication for the journal Science, url: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/11/just-12-days-world-gets-half-its-annual-rainfall?utm_campaign=news_weekly_2018-11-16&et_rid=300642751&et_cid=2493410

Geophysical researchers sampled 185 weather stations all over the world (they kept their observations to sites within 50 degrees of equator for satellite accuracy/calibration reasons I don't understand, but that captures where almost all of us live anyhow). Interestingly, even though we think of some locations/climates receiving rain much more evenly throughout the year (e.g. here where I am in NJ and in the northeast US generally), versus more seasonal variation (Oct-March constant drizzle in the Northwest, or summer monsoons in the Southwest), the researchers found that consistently, on average across all sites, 50% of the entire year's rainfall occurs on just 12 days. This still does vary by region, where from the maps (the study doesn't show the data for each individual site, unfortunately) it looks like the SW gets half in maybe 6 or so days, while here in NJ I probably get half in about 16 - 20 days. This might not be a big finding for folks in dry climates, who are used to designing their systems to catch large, one-off rains, but might be more surprising for folks who design for a more even distribution of rain.

There could be a good "when it rains, it poors" (WIRIP) rule of thumb here for selecting cistern size, where you'd divide your annual rainfall by 2, then divide that product by the number of days to get to half for your area. So for my area, 44 inches/2 = 22 inches. 22 in./16 days = 1.375 inches/day. So I'd design for about a 1.4 inch rainfall. Of course, if you want to catch every drop, the paper also found that, on average across all sites, the rainiest single day of the year accounted for 8% of rainfall. For me that'd be 44*0.08 = 3.52 inches. But that's probably over-engineering for me. Still, catching optimal amounts of rainfall can be important, especially if you're doing Jeavons-style biointensive raised bed growing that requires more irrigation.

Another important thing would be knowing how the rainy days actually cluster. It could be very possible, based on observations of weather in my area, that several of these rainiest 12 days occur within a day or two of each other. If folks are interested, I could reach out to the researchers to see if they'd provide their cleaned data, but it will probably require statistical software to view/process it.
1 year ago
Hello All,

I just wanted to provide an update on my experiments with Honey Locust this season, hopefully it encourages other people to try next year and we can do some testing.

In searching in my area for good sources for pods, I found two. One was at my old alma mater, Rowan University here in South Jersey. I found those pods in late September, maybe very early October. From what I'd read about the cultivated "Hershey" variety, which is known for its large pods, about 16 pods could add up to a pound. The pods from this site were close to that large, with maybe 18 or so adding up to a pound. However, I only took 6 or 7 pods, since this was my first time actually trying them and I didn't want to take a ton if they weren't my bag. I thought these were delicious and the pulp tasted like an overripe (in a good way) sweet banana. I'd seen various reports about whether you can pick them ripe off the tree, or should wait until they fall, but I picked these off the tree and they were really tasty – even my wife, who's usually skeptical of my new plant adventures – liked them.

The other pods I found were actually on my current college campus, where I'm in grad school. I collected these much later, just at the very beginning of November. Because it was over a month later, all of these pods were collected from the ground. The pods were notably smaller than the earlier tree, and so there was less pulp, but it was still relatively the same in taste to me. As a basic test of whether I'd be able to eat the outer pod as well (if ground up according to the Carob/Honey Locust powder recipe I listed in my last post, above), I bit the pod and chewed a bit, trying to get out the "honey" that way. It worked, but I felt like there was a faint "spicy" feeling in the back of my throat (felt more like way on the back of my tongue). Didn't give it too much thought, though, since I'd incidentally chewed a little on the earlier pods and didn't have any sort of reaction. I collected a bunch of these pods to make into a "cocoa powder" as that recipe described.

I soaked, removed seeds from, roasted, and dryed the pods, then put them into my food processor to blend up into powder. Sieved it for the finest stuff. A better blender to make a finer powder would have been preferable. Still, the finished product was definitely fine enough to treat like a cocoa powder, and looked like this:

To test it out, I decided to try making my favorite cocoa-based treat: brownies! (or, in this case, "locusties?"). I followed a recipe for making carob-based brownies, and they came out nice and moist and sweet, texturally just like I like them. They came out looking more like blondies than brownies. Bottom line on these: If you're looking for something that will replace chocolate, or even carob (a replacement of a replacement), you're out of luck. They really tasted good and pretty unique to me, but not chocolatey by even the farthest stretch of the imagination (and I can stretch quite a bit). Here's a picture of the finished product:

Here things got a bit weird. I ate the first "brownie" and that familiar spice/tingling at the back of my tongue was definitely there, and because I'd eaten a large amount of the product, seemed more prominent. I also felt very slightly light-headed and it felt like my heart rate picked up while my breathing got slightly heavier. I'm totally food allergy free and also typically oblivious to things like that in my body, so the effect was definitely significant in order for me to notice. This effect only lasted for a couple of minutes, but is still enough to make me a bit weary. Here are what I imagine are possible explanations:

1. I have some sort of slight allergy to honey locust. This is possible, but it just doesn't seem likely given how much of the sweet stuff I've sucked out of the pods of the first tree I tried. I know in doing that I must have gotten some pieces of the pod, and they did not give me that weird tingly feeling.

2. Something changes in the composition of the pods between their early harvest time and their very late harvest time. After roasting I did notice a hole in one or two of the pods, as if a creature had gotten in and eaten some of the good stuff out. But I got that tingle even just form chewing the outside of the pod, so it doesn't seem like it would be the result of spoiling – plus, the sugars, which I'd expect to go sour way before the more durable outside pods, were still good.

3. The batch of pods I ultimately turned into my "cocoa powder" (the second ones, from my current campus) were from younger trees, and were also definitely thornless Honey Locust (Gleditsia inermis), whereas I am 95% sure the first batch Honey Locust was the thorned, tricanthos variety. I wish I'd paid closer attention to this, but I was just so excited to find a tree with such large pods! I plan to go back in the next week or two and double check myself here. If I'm right, this could mean tricanthos is suitable food, while inermis should probably be avoided. I plan to test this next year by testing both groups of trees, both in September and then both again near the end of their season. This should help determine if there is a difference between the two groups of trees and, if there is, whether this is due to timing or species differences.

Hopefully other folks will try this as well, so we can figure out the uses and limitations of this really cool tree!
1 year ago
Thinking about how we might creatively replace spices and herbs, or how we might find similar but dissimilar plants that could evolve into more regional cuisines is one of my favorite Permie thought exercises!

I'm planting sweet flag around my pond, and just recently read on PFAF that the leaves apparently have a vanilla bean flavor and can be used in ways similar to vanilla. The same PFAF post also says that the root can be powdered and is "spicy" and can sub for ginger, cinnamon, or nutmeg. That's a wide variety, so I'm excited to see what the root actually tastes like (maybe an awesome combo of all three?). Sweet flag is supposed to be hardy down to zone 4, but I bet original poster could make it work with a good microclimate! Also, read up on sweet flag's supposed toxicity, and the potentially carcinogenic oil found in european varieties of sweet flag is apparently not present here in our American varieties (Oikos even sells a guaranteed "American" sweet flag.

Someone already mentioned spicebush (Lindera Benzoin), and this is a great suggestion for replacing allspice. I read somewhere, but can't find the source now, that the actual fruit of the spicebush carries more of the "allspice" flavor, while the seeds inside are more like black pepper. This makes sense since spicebush kind of tastes like a peppery allspice, but taking the time to separate them seems like it'd be maddening. Maybe there's some tricky sink/float way of separating them? Say, through them in a grinder and collect floating seeds? This is all totally conjecture, though.

Another one I'd like to bring up is "Carolina Allspice" or "Sweet Shrub" (Calycanthus floridus), which, like spicebush is a strongly scented native shrub. I've read some neat stuff about how the bark was dried and used by Colonists as a Cinnamon substitute after Native Americans introduced them to it. The rub is that the seeds and leaves are supposed to contain an oil called calycanthine, which is an alkaloid with a similar structure to strychnine, which is, well, bad. Of course, if Native Americans were using it traditionally for longer than we know, I doubt it could be out and out toxic. My hunch is that the concerns are probably another case of the dosage being way exaggerated, and you'd have to eat several tablespoons of cinnamon for an unreasonable number of days before you'd risk serious harm. But unforuntately the info I'd like (% composition of calycanthine by weight in the bark, leaves, and seed) just simply doesn't seem to be available. I've searched quite a bit, so if anyone has any leads, I'd be super appreciative!

Last, I don't know if you'd cocoa as a "spice", but apparently honey locust pods can be crushed up and made into a powder that's like carob, the go-to chocolate sub. I'm planning on trying that out with the honey locust pods beginning to fall here in NJ, so I'll let you know how this goes!
1 year ago
I can't speak to their performance or flavor yet since I haven't grown them, but I've just finished Eric Toensmeier's Perennial Vegetables and easily the plants that have me most excited are the yam family plants that produce edible aerial tubers, including the edible (i.e. non-poisonous) cultivars of Air Potato (Dioscorea Bulbifera – apparently its sale is banned in U.S. due to concerns of invasiveness), Winged Yam (D. Alata) and Chinese Yam (D. Oppositifolia). No dig, perennial starch growers! Toensmeier even writes that with some pampering air potato could match per acre yields of traditional potatoes.

To balance my excitement, here's a page claiming air potato to be among the worst invasive plants ever introduced to the U.S.: https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/19295. This isn't a debate which would be solved here, but I honestly don't think it's as simple as "never plant this thing, ever."
1 year ago
This post seems to have been resurrected from the dead a number of times, so hopefully it's not a problem that I'm doing it again! Reading the posts above, I wasn't particularly excited about the potential of eating honey locust pods, until I stumbled upon this: http://ledameredith.com/make-carob-honey-locust-pod-powder/

As mentioned above, in Forager's Harvest, Thayer talks quite a bit about eating the flowers and the green seeds (some here have already talked about the latter), but these are two different genera, so who really knows if that carries over. But Thayer doesn't mention, nor can I find any mention anywhere else, of treating the pods like carob pods. But it would seem to make sense given the "honey" substance in the pods. I definitely plan to try this next season.

Update: I also just found some information from this site (http://www.wildpantry.com/beans.htm), though it doesn't provide much in terms of citations. It backs up the eating young pods/seeds idea, and mentions two intriguing other ideas, including using the seeds as a coffee substitute (though I've read in two other places that the result comes out more like a tea) and brewing beer from the sugary pods. The site also mentions that average sugar content of the pods is 12-14% of weight (again, seemingly without citation), which compares pretty favorably with things like sugar cane and sugar beet. Feels like this tree has untapped potential!
1 year ago