Thursday, February 28, 2013

Product Review: Carts Vermont Garden Cart

Carts Vermont

I used to have a wheelbarrow. Well, actually, I used to have multiple wheelbarrows. I would have one for a few seasons and something would break, or rust, or the tire would go flat. I would fix it and use it for as long as possible before it finally broke to a point beyond repair.

But that was when I bought things that were cheap in an attempt to save money. What I realized was that I ended up spending more in the long run to replace the cheap item over and over again. I also realized that I was contributing to the "throw away" society which I am so against. Now, I take my time, research products, and buy quality products from quality companies.

When I moved here to the Azores and had some space to garden, one of the first things I purchased was a Carts Vermont garden cart. I have not regretted this purchase once.

Quality. Sturdy. Useful.

These are the three words I would use to descibe my Carts Vermont garden cart. We use this cart a few times a week to haul trash to the dumpster about a hundred yards from our house, and we use it about once a week to haul our recycling to the recycling bins a few blocks away. I did actually use it as it was intended, in my garden, last Autumn, and I plan to use it again this Spring.

It is truly one of the most useful tools we have in our garage. It saves us time from having to make multiple trips. It saves our backs from lifting too much. It is way easier to use than the wheelbarrow, which was a hassle to use. With two large wheels, there is no wobbling or tipping of the cart when walking. With contact at four points when left alone, it is very stable even on uneven ground. With a flat surface in the cart, there are almost no items that tip out of the cart.

The materials used to build this are strong. Of course, if I was dropping boulders on it, it would break, but this cart is so much more study than those cheap wheelbarrows I used to buy. This cart will last a long time. And, I love this, I can buy replacement parts easily from their website. The cart comes unassembled, and my boys and I put it together one evening. It was easy. So I know that replacing a part, if it should break, will be just as easy.

With that said, I don't think I'll be needing to replace any parts any time soon. The entire cart is made of high quality, durable metal and wood. The design is excellent.

Needless to say, I am a huge fan of my Carts Vermont garden cart. I have the midsize cart, and I love it. If you are looking for a high quality, durable, and useful cart, I don't think you can do better than Carts Vermont.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Questions from Readers: What Trees to Use and Avoid in Hugelkultur Beds?

The cut branches from my recently trimmed fig tree.

Can I use the timber from the fig trees to build a Hugelkultur raised beds? 

I recently had a reader post a question on my article, Pruning the Fig Tree... Wood for smoking and heat!  For more information on hugelkultur beds, you can read about them in my article on Permaculture Projects: Hugelkultur.

The short answer is to Valter's question is yes.

Here is the long answer...

To be honest, almost any tree, shrub, or woody material can be used for hugelkultur beds. Well, in fact, any wood at all can be used in hugelkultur beds, but some woods should really be avoided.

The benefit of a hugelkultur beds is likely derived from numerous things. First, as the wood slowly breaks down, the rotting material acts like a sponge. This "sponge" holds on to water and slowly releases it over time. Any plants which are growing above it will be able to stay hydrated with deep roots during periods of little or no rainfall for much longer than other plants nearby. Great!

Second, as the tree rots, it will slowly be giving off nutrients, specifically nitrogen, which will act as a slow release fertilizer. Perfect!

Third, fungus and bacteria are some of the key players in the rotting process. These organisms are also vital components to the underground network of soil life. When we place logs and branches underground (remember that they are already going to be inoculated with local fungus and bacteria, and they will readily welcome new fungus and bacteria as well) we are jump starting the intricate soil web of life. We are placing highways and tunnels all through the soil which will shoot these beneficial life forms under everything we grow. We are, in effect, helping to create an established forest soil in a matter of hours or days. Amazing!

There are likely many more benefits to hugelkultur and probably dozens of more things that are going on in wood and soil, but this is what we know for sure right now.

With all that said, all trees will eventually break down and be of benefit to the soil life. However, when we are designing Permaculture systems, and especially when we are trying to reclaim a barren soil or overgrazed pasture, then we want to expedite things a bit. And some wood just takes too long to rot.

So we should avoid using wood that naturally resists rotting in our hugelkultur beds. Here are some examples of trees that are considered to be very or significantly rot-resistant:

  • Chestnut (Castanea species)
  • Catalpa species (Catalpa species)
  • Cypress species (Family Cupressaceae) i.e. Bald Cypress
  • Walnuts (Juglans species) - note that these trees also release juglone, a natural growth inhibitor
  • Juniper species (Juniperus species) i.e. Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
  • Osage-Orange (Maclura pomifera)
  • Red Mulberry (Morus rubra)
  • Oak (Quercus species)
  • Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)
  • Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)
  • Sassafras species (Sassafras species)
  • Redwood species (Sequoia species)
  • Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Book Review: The Brewmaster's Table

I am not a food snob; I am a foodie. I am not a beer snob; I am a beer connoisseur. Food and beer snobs will turn down food that doesn't meet their preconceived ideas of quality, which is often only what they read in an expensive magazine. A foodie will eat just about anything once, and the same is true of a beer connoisseur. However, we foodies and beer connoisseurs still truly appreciate quality food and drink. We just don't care if it made the cover of Food and Wine.

It is with this mindset that I review this book. The Brewmaster's Table by Garrett Oliver (the brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery), is an absolute must read for anyone who appreciates good food and beer. It provides a great history and explanation of all the world's major styles of beer, which to be honest, has been done before in many other books. But what makes this book unique, and why I use this book as a reference quite frequently, is that Garret Oliver provides recommendations for pairing food with each of the styles of beer he describes. He dives into the reasoning behind food and beer pairing so that we can understand why the beer goes so well with a particular food or style of food.

Any book that makes me want to go out and experiment with whatever the author is writing about is a success. This book has inspired me to experiment well over a dozen times already, and I think a lot more experimenting is in store.

One specific subject that this books addresses, and an area I have struggled with for some time, is what beverage to serve with Indian and other Asian meals. Wine is a poor fit, although I have had some success with champagne. I try to avoid soft drinks in all circumstances. Water works well, but is boring. Beer is what is left over, but as it turns out, stands out as a clear front runner. No drink, other than certain styles of beer, come anywhere close to matching the flavor profiles or offering a distinct but complimentary contrast of flavors to these foods. For these precious recommendations alone the book was worthwhile.

Fortunately, the book offers way more than just that. As it turns out, almost every food and style of cooking has an almost perfect pairing (or two or three) with a style of beer (or two or three). I am a wine drinker as well, and I really enjoy wine, but when it comes to matching food with drink, wine has nothing on beer. Sure, a classic American-Italian dinner has a great pairing in almost any table red wine. A juicy ribeye pairs great with a Syrah or Cab. But you can also drink beer with these meals as well. But what about everything else? What about a barbeque with hamburgers and hotdogs and spicy ribs? What about fish and chips. What about all the other foods people eat that just don't really work with wine? This book has the answer. Don't believe me? Read this book. Experiment for yourself, and you will see.

This book is yet another highly recommended read.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Permaculture Plants: Salal or Shallon

Salal is an evergreen shrub that fruits in shade! Awesome!

Common Name: Salal, Shallon
Scientific Name: Gaultheria shallon
Family: Ericaceae (the Heath or Heather family)

The small berries have a sweet, unique flavor that some say tastes like blueberries.

Salal is an evergreen understory shrub native to the West coast of North America. It has sweet, great-tasting berries that are reminiscent of blueberries. It is one of the few plants that fruit well in shade. It also attracts beneficial insects, feeds wildlife, can be used as a low windbreak or ground cover, and once established, it can tolerate drought. A great understory plant for the Forest Garden.

Gaultheria shallon

Salal is a common understory plant, typically growing under conifers, and is native the the West coast of North America. It has been introduced in the UK where it has readily grown in more acidic environments. Some in Europe consider it a mildly invasive weed.

  • The name "salal" comes from the Chinnot Jargon sallal.
  • The name "shallon" come from the Native American (unsure which people group) shellwell.

Salal Preserves!

A couple more links to preserving salal berries:

Primary Uses:
  • Fresh Eating - fruit is like small blueberries
  • Baking - pies, tarts, turnovers, etc.  Use like blueberries or currants
  • Cooking - can be used in savory dishes
  • Preserves, jams, jellies, etc. The seeds are tiny (like strawberry seeds), so there is no need to strain them out
  • Dried fruit
  • Fruit Leather
  • Flavoring component to beers, wines, liquers, etc.

Secondary Uses:
  • General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
  • Wildlife food plant
  • Wildlife shelter plant
  • Groundcover plant - perfect for shady locations. Space about 3 feet (0.9 meters) apart.
  • Windbreak Shrub (very dense plant)
  • Hedge plant
  • Drought tolerant plant
  • Tea plant - from dried leaves
  • Edible leaves - young leaves are reportedly edible, but I have yet to try this
  • Salal is used in floral arrangements
  • Dye plant - fruit and leaves
  • Medicinal Uses

Yield: no reliable information can be found
Harvesting: Summer (July - August). Pick when the berries get dark and soft.
Storage: Like blueberries, will store fresh for about a week.

The dainty flowers of a blooming Salal.

USDA Hardiness Zone: 6-8
AHS Heat Zone: 8-6
Chill Requirement: 50-450 hours/units depending on the species and variety

Plant Type: Small to medium-sized Shrub
Leaf Type: Evergreen
Forest Garden Use: Shrub Layer, Groundcover Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: This plant has not been developed much

Pollination: Self-Pollinating/Self-Fertile. Pollinated by insects.
Flowering: April - June

Life Span:
Years to Begin Bearing: 2-3 years
Years of Useful Life: No good information available, but since this plant produces runners so easily, an individual plant's lifespan is not that important. An established community of Salal will live almost indefinitely.

The small berries have soft hairs on them - reminiscent of raspberries.

Salal berries will open as they mature.

Fully mature berries. Fruits are usually picked for eating before this stage.

Size: 1-6 feet (0.3-1.8 meters) tall and indefinitely wide
Roots: Fibrous with stolons (aka "runners" - stems right at ground level that form roots)
Growth Rate: Medium

Salal makes a great groundcover for deep shade.

Light: Full sun to part shade
Shade: Tolerates deep shade
Moisture: Medium moisture soils
pH: prefers an acidic to fairly neutral soil (5.5-6.5), but can tolerate very acidic soils

Special Considerations for Growing: 
Salal has a combination of traits that let it fill a unique niche in the Forest Garden. A difficult spot to fill is often under conifers, but the acidic soil and shade is where Salal will thrive.

Propagation: Typically by seed - requires 4-17 weeks cold stratification (depending on the source of information). Can be propagated by cuttings or more commonly by splitting the new plants that develop from the runners.

Takes a little care to get young plants established as they are more frost susceptible, but once established, the only maintenance will be cutting back the runners from where you do not want them to grow. A mature patch of plants will try to expand at a rate of about 1 foot (30 cm) per year. This is easy to maintain and keep in bounds.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

I fell in love with a hoe!

A Peasant Young Girl With a Hoe
Jules Breton, 1882

Although my parents have become quite good at producing a lot of vegetables in their garden now, I was not raised by gardeners or farmers. As a kid, the only thing I ever used a hoe for was mixing concrete. Over the years, as I have gotten more and more into gardening and Permaculture, I have used my garden hoe on occasion. To be honest, I hated it. It was so much work to do anything. My cheap, mass produced garden hoe has been sitting with my shovels and rakes for a few years now. All the other tools are taken out on a fairly regular basis, but not the hoe. It has remained on the bench while all the other tools have had a chance to play.

Over this past weekend I noticed that my garden beds were getting quite a few small weeds growing in them. I thought about how long this would take to hand weed. I thought, "Well, people have been using garden hoes for centuries or more for this job. I may as well try it as well."

On a seemingly unrelated note, I am now living in a place the has a fireplace which we have used everyday this Winter. I have been splitting wood and making kindling for a few months. It wasn't until I finally purchased a high quality ax that I realized how poor little hatchet really was. I am planning on discussing that soon in another article, but the hatchet I had was poorly constructed and dull. Very dull. After using a razor sharp ax, the chore became enjoyable.

So, I grabbed my garden hoe, and I looked at it. I mean I really looked at it. It dawned on me that this is a chopping tool. Things that chop, like a knife or an ax, need to be sharp. I checked the blade of the hoe, and it looked like every other hoe I have ever used. Dull. I grabbed my metal file, sat on the handle, and sharpened the blade of my hoe. It took a whole five minutes. Then I headed to the garden.

To say that this was an epiphany would not be exaggerating. I weeded the garden bed in less than ten minutes. I was standing the whole time; my back didn't get sore. The entire time, I kept thinking to myself, "How could I have never known?" Sharpening the blade of the hoe suddenly made this stick with a hunk of metal on it a useful tool. It was wonderful. It was easy. It was enjoyable. I fell in love with a hoe!

Then, because my brain never shuts off, as I was repeating to myself, "How could I have never known?" I thought that ancient people from around the world knew this for centuries, and I have to relearn it. Of course this is a minor thing, and many people who use garden hoes never forgot it, but some did. What else has dropped from common sense? What other things have we entirely forgotten?

I thought of ancient cultures that had rich gardening and farming heritages. The Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Chinese, the Japanese... the Japanese did a lot of gardening. The Japanese have a whole variety of hoes. The Japanese also wrote haikus about nature. "How could I have never known?"has seven syllables. I could write a haiku. So here it is:

Sharpen the darned thing!
How could I have never known?
Ancient tool reborn.
Stay tuned for more poetry about garden tools!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Free E-Book: Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison

Bill Mollison, the co-founder of Permaculture

This downloadable PDF (which opens great in any e-book reader) is a collection of "pamphlets" dealing with many aspects of Permaculture... all from Bill Mollison, the founder of Permaculture. Well, to be honest, it is not quite from him. It is the transcript of a Permaculture Design Course he was teaching in 1981 in New Hampshire. The good folks from Barking Frogs Permaculture taped the course and then typed it all. On top of that, they made it a public public domain! This compliation of all 15 pamphlets is free to anyone who wants it. A fantastic resource.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Spring Garden - Seed Trays are Planted!

Just a quick post to share (and to keep for my own records) what seeds I am starting for this year's Spring garden. As you can see, I am a huge fan of Seed Savers Exchange and heirloom vegetables in general. 

This seasonal transition, and the importance it plays in human life, has greatly been lost in our modern world. To get reconnected to it... to the pleasures of the coming Spring are simple, but profound. Plus, it is always fun to get the seeds planted. I always feel like a kid in a candy store when going through my seed collection to pick out what I want to plant this year.

Well, here is my final selection. I'd love to know what you are planting. Let me know!

Tray 1

Tray 2

Tray 3

Tray 4

Tray 5

Tray 6

Tray 7

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Permaculture Plants: Stinging Nettle

The Stinging Nettle - a beautiful plant with an attitude!
This photo is from my yard

Common Name: Stinging Nettle
Scientific Name: Urtica dioica
Family: Urticaceae (the Nettle family)

Perfect young shoot for harvesting

A harbinger of Spring, the Stinging Nettle has long been used as a food and medicinal plant. Yes, they do sting, but it is not that bad. I accidentally discovered them in my garden about a week ago when planting some garlic bulbs (see my prior article about using sprouted garlic). I was pushing some new growth back to clear a small patch of soil when I felt a sharp pain on the back of my hand. It felt like a fire ant sting, which I have had plenty of experience with growing up in south Florida. But there was no insect on my hand. I looked around and found a tiny Stinging Nettle plant a few inches tall. This meant two things... First, I needed to get some gloves. Second, it was foraging time!

I did a quick search around my neighborhood and discovered a large patch in my neighbor's yard. I harvested a large bag full and took them home. My neighbor was happy to have me cut some of his "weeds" back. He was a bit skeptical about their being edible. I explained that the "sting" is neutralized within about 30 seconds when exposed to heat. I also showed him how you can even eat them raw, if done the right way, but he wasn't about to try it. I took my new picked treasure home and made some Stinging Nettle and Pork Belly soup with a homemade duck stock... delicious! That same neighbor came over and tentatively tasted the soup, then proceeded to devour it, raving about how good it was. Another convert!

Another photo from my yard - you can just barely see the hairs on the leaf

Now, most people would not plant these on purpose, but they often will pop up in yards, typically in rich, moist soils. If you have a larger property, you can "cultivate" them in an out of the way corner. If you have some real land, then you likely already have them growing somewhere. It is just a matter of locating them. This is when I would consider Nature Tending.

Stinging Nettle can be eaten, used for tea, used medicinally, and used to make a fiber similar to linen. They are also attractors of beneficial insects. The plants accumulate large amounts of nutrients, and if composted can be a valuable fertilizer to your garden. These are resilient and useful plants that have a poor disposition, but are worth the trouble in my opinion.

Urtica dioica

Native to the Northern Hemisphere, Stinging Nettle has long been used for medicine and food. It has been introduced around the world, and is now seen more as a weed than a beneficial plant.

A real close up view of the stinging hairs (large) and non-stinging hairs (small)


  • The sting from Stinging Nettles comes from their stinging hairs, called trichomes. Stinging Nettles are covered with hairs, but not many are actually the stinging hairs. These stinging hairs are on the underside of the leaves and on the stems. When touched, the tip of the hair is displaced, and what is left resembles a hypodermic needle. This needle will inject chemicals that cause itching, irritation, and pain.
  • Stinging Nettles inject histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, morodin, leukotrienes, and formic acid (formic acid give fire ants their "fire").
  • Stinging Nettle leaves can be eaten raw... just hold the leaf only on the top side, fold it over on itself to cover the stinging hairs on the underside of the leaf, roll it up, squeeze it a bit to make sure the stinging hairs are all crushed, then take a bite. Yes, I have done this. No, I did not get stung. Yes, it tastes good!
  • Exposing Stinging Nettle to heat for about 30 seconds (like boiling water for tea or soup) neutralizes the sting, as does drying the leaves
  • There are many species in the genus Urtica that are likely all edible, but check with local experts before you start foraging for other species.

Stinging Nettle Soup is delicious!
Here is a link to one recipe... I'll share mine soon.

Stinging Nettle leaves dry very well... and the sting is gone!

Primary Uses:

  • Edible Leaves - used fresh and cooked briefly; leaves dry well and can be stored for later use
  • Tea Plant - fresh or dried leaves are used

Secondary Uses:

  • Dynamic Accumulator (Potassium, Calcium, Sulfur, Copper, Iron, and Sodium) - excellent addition to compost
  • Manure Tea Plant - high in Nitrogen
  • Lacewings prefer to lay eggs on Stinging Nettle leaves
  • Ladybugs prefer Stinging Nettle foliage
  • Fiber Plant - obtained from the stems. Makes a strong fiber similar to flax which can be used to make cloth similar to linen. The fiber can also be used to make paper
  • The seeds can be pressed to produce an oil that can be used in lamps
  • Dye (green) from the leaves and stems
  • Extensive medicinal use
  • Juice from the leaves have been used for hundreds of years to curdle milk for cheese making if rennet is not available
  • Drinks can be made from the young shoots - non-alcoholic drinks similar to ginger-beer and alcoholic drinks like beer and wine

Harvesting: Spring. Leaves are best when the plant is less than 3 feet tall, before flowering has occurred. Ideal is when they are under a foot tall. Use gloves to avoid the stinging hairs on the underside of the leaves and stems.
Storage: Can be dried and used as needed. Many people will just keep the fresh leaves in a brown paper bag, shaking occasionally, until dried.

An out of the way corner of a larger property is great for Stinging Nettle

USDA Hardiness Zone: 4-8
AHS Heat Zone: No reliable information available.
Chill Requirement: No reliable information available.

Plant Type: Herbaceous Perennial
Leaf Type: Deciduous, but can be "evergreen" in areas with mild winters
Forest Garden Use: Herbaceous Layer, Ground Cover Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: Many subspecies and varieties, but no significant development

Pollination: Plants are dioecious, meaning they have either male or female flowers (hence the scientific name: dioica). Both male and female plants (typically a 1:8 ratio) are needed to produce seeds.
Flowering: Summer

Life Span:
No reliable information available, but not really needed. These plants spread so easily with runners and seed, that as soon as one plant dies, another will take its place.

The spreading nature of the Stinging Nettle makes it a pretty good ground cover...
...but also tricky to eradicate.

Size: 1-6.5 feet (30-200 centimeters) tall, usually about 3 feet (100 cm) tall, and indefinitely wide
Roots: Fibrous roots which have stolons (aka "runners" - stems right at ground level that form roots) and rhizomes (roots that spread along ground level), both of which can form new plants
Growth Rate: Fast

The flowers of the Stinging Nettle are tiny, but develop many seeds.

Light: Full sun to partial shade
Shade: Tolerates medium shade
Moisture: Medium, but can tolerate fairly wet soils
pH: tolerates a fairly wide range of soils (5.5 - 7.5)

Special Considerations for Growing:
Tolerates juglone (natural growth inhibitor produced by Black Walnut and its relatives). Consider using this tree as a buffer between your walnuts and other plantings.

Propagation: Few people propagate this plant on purpose, but transplanting young plants from stolons or rhizomes is easy. Seeds easily - just rub the mature seed heads, releasing the seeds, over where you want the Stinging Nettle to grow.

None required.
To control growth and spread try these methods, and always protect your hands and arms:

  • Cut off the flowering heads to reduce seed production - typically done in late Summer when the plants are tall. A scythe is a great tool for this job.
  • At least once a season, and maybe a few times, pull up any plant that is growing outside of where you want the Stinging Nettles to grow. 


  • Stinging Nettle can spread fast through runners and easily through seed.
  • Stinging Nettle can... well, sting! Some people have a very small reaction, and others will have a more significant local reaction.
  • Consuming too much nettle and especially from older leaves can cause a laxative effect - which is one of the medicinal uses
  • Older leaves contain cystoliths which can irritate the kidneys - another reason to use just the tender, young leaves which taste better anyway!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Nut Wizard

The Nut Wizard

I have recently written about growing oak trees and using acorns as food. I have also written in the past about chestnuts, hazelnuts/filberts, and walnuts. My only complaint with nut trees is actually having to harvest the nuts themselves. There have been a number of techniques developed to help harvest nuts, but I don't think I have come across anything as simple and effective as the Nut Wizard. I must be honest and state that I have never tried the Nut Wizard myself... yet. The moment I am able to harvest nuts on more than an occasional basis, then I will be buying one (or more). But when an icon in forest gardening, like Martin Crawford, endorses the Nut Wizard, then I have to believe it is a good product.

The Nut Wizard was invented by Cecil Holt who said that the idea for this nut collector came to him in a dream. He created it initially for pecans, but in a short time the Nut Wizard was being used for all types of nuts as well as other items like golf and tennis balls. There are a number of sizes available for the desired nut to be harvested.

You can order the Nut Wizard from Holt's website:  This is not a great website, but it is functional. I have also put links up to Amazon to make it easier:
  • Nut Wizard - 11", Extra Small: Acorns (small) from most Oaks, or other nuts 3/8 inch (9.5 mm) to 1 inch (25 mm) in diameter.
  • Nut Wizard - 12", Small: Pecans (small to large), Acorns from White Oak, or other nuts 1/2 inch (12.7 mm) to 1.5 inches (38 mm) in diameter, will also work for many crabapple varieties.
  • Nut Wizard - 14", Medium: Pecans (very large), English Walnuts, Hazelnuts/Filberts, Acorns from Red Oak, Chestnut Oak, Hickory Nuts, Chestnuts, or other nuts 1 inch (25 mm) to 2 inches (50 mm) in diameter, will also work with medium-sized fruits.
  • Nut Wizard - 17", Large: Black Walnuts, Sweet Gum Balls (ouch!), Apples, Citrus, Osage Orange, or other fruits and nuts 1.5 inches (38 mm) to 4 inches (100 mm) in diameter.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

How to Eat Acorns

Acorns can be great food
Red Oak (Quercus rubra

Acorns are the nut (fruit) of the Oak (Quercus species). I wrote a more extensive article on Oak trees yesterday. Acorns are very high in carbohydrates and good fats, but very few Oaks have nuts that taste very good without processing. So which ones taste good? How do you process acorns? Is it easy, hard, time-consuming? Is it worth the trouble?

I will answer some of these questions myself, but I am going to provide a lot of links to really good articles on the subject. There are others who have a lot more experience that have written a lot on the subject. So instead of re-inventing the wheel, I will just give links to some reallygood articles.

Every tree is different. Every location produces different flavors and nuances (this is the Terrior of Food). One White Oak may produce acorns that are bitter and need to be processed, while another White Oak a quarter mile (0.4 km) away may be "sweet" enough to be eaten raw. Local growing
conditions and varieties play a large role. So experiment and see what is out there!

With that said, here is a list of the best tasting acorns:
  • White Oak (Quercus alba
  • Boz-Pimal Oak (Quercus aucheri)
  • Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)
  • Emory or Black or Bellota Oak (Quercus emoryi
  • Pin Oak (Quercus palustris
  • Holly Oak (Quercus ilex)
  • Holm Oak (Quercus ilex ballota)
  • Chestnut Oak (Quercus prinus)
  • Blue Oak (Quercus douglasii
  • Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa
  • Cork Oak (Quercus suber
  • English or Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur)

If you read these articles, you will see that there are a number of ways to process the acorns. The big decision is hot vs. cold water leaching of tannins. If you want to use acorn flour for cooking anything that requires the flour to stick together (i.e. breads) then you need to use the cold water method or mix the acorn flour with another flour, like wheat. This was Hank Shaw's mistake when trying to make an acorn flour flatbread.

Three articles on acorns written by Hank Shaw author of Hunt, Gather, Cook:

A fantastic, detailed article on using acorns by Green Deane, of the Eat the Weeds website:

A great overview of harvesting, processing, and cooking with acorns from Jackie Clay, a well known homesteader and writer for Backwoods Home Magazine:

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Permaculture Plants: Oak

The majestic Oak.

Common Name: Oak
Scientific Name: Quercus species
Family: Fagaceae (the Beech family)

Ariundle Oakwood, Scotland.
One of the last surviving old-growth oak forests in the Scottish Highlands.

Common Species:

  • Sawtooth/Sawthorn Oak (Quercus acutissima) - medium-sized tree
  • Encina or California Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) - medium-sized evergreen tree
  • White Oak (Quercus alba) - large tree
  • Boz-Pimal Oak (Quercus aucheri) - large evergreen shrub
  • Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) - large tree
  • Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris) - large tree
  • Kermes Oak (Quercus coccifera) - medium-sized evergreen shrub
  • Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea) - large tree
  • Blue Oak (Quercus douglasii) - medium-sized tree
  • Black Oak (Quercus emoryi) - medium-sized tree
  • Hungarian Oak (Quercus frainetto) - large tree
  • Gambel or Shin Oak (Quercus gambelii) - large shrub
  • Glaucous-Leaf Oak or Japanese Blue Oak (Quercus glauca) - medium-sized evergreen tree
  • Holly Oak (Quercus ilex) - large evergreen tree
  • Holm Oak (Quercus ilex ballota) - large evergreen tree
  • Valonia Oak (Quercus ithaburensis macrolepis) - medium-sized tree
  • Californian Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii) - large tree
  • Bull Oak (Quercus lamellose) - very large evergreen tree
  • Overcup Oak (Quercus lyrata) - large tree
  • Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) - large tree
  • Chinkapin Oak or Yellow Chestnut Oak (Quercus meuhlenbergii) - medium-sized tree
  • Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii) - large tree
  • Mexican Blue Oak (Quercus oblongifolia) - medium-sized evergreen tree
  • Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) - large tree
  • Dwarf Chinkapin Oak (Quercus prinoides) - large shrub
  • Chestnut Oak (Quercus prinus) - large tree
  • English or Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur) - large tree
  • Red Oak (Quercus rubra) - large tree
  • Post Oak (Quercus stellata) - large tree
  • Cork Oak (Quercus suber) - large tree
  • Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) - large evergreen tree
  • Sierra Live Oak (Quercus wislizeni) - large evergreen tree
  • Compton's Oak (Quercus x hybrid) - large tree
  • Schuette's Oak (Quercus x schuettei) - large tree

Angel Oak Tree, outside of Charleston, South Carolina, is over 1,500 years old.
Live Oak (Quercus virginiana

The Oaks are a large family of shrubs and trees, about 600 species, which produce acorns. Oak wood is highly valued for everything from timber buildings and furniture to wine/whiskey barrels and shitake mushroom logs. Acorns can be used for making flour or a coffee/tea substitute. The trees themselves are beautiful, large, and long-lived and work great as windbreaks. If you enough space, oaks are a great addition to a Forest Garden.

English or Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur
Watercolor by Ruth de Monchaux

Native to the northern hemisphere, oaks are found from tropical to cold climates. Oaks have been used for wood and food for thousands of years. Craftsman around the world have used oak wood for centuries. Because of their long lives and strong wood, oaks have been used as national and political symbols, and because of their use is no many areas of life, oaks have been used as religious symbols as well. In more recent times, a number of hybrids and cultivars have been developed for landscaping purposes. Unfortunately, there has not been much development in producing acorns with less tannin.


  • Oak trees can be deciduous or evergreen (a.k.a. "Live Oaks")
  • Oaks produce fruit as a nut called an acorn. The nut contains the seed. The "cap" of the acorn is called a "cupule".
  • The fruit of nut trees, like acorns, are generally referred to a "mast".
  • Most acorns have high amounts of tannin, which eaten in large doses, can be toxic to certain animals, namely horses, cattle, and sheep. Pigs, which in certain locations feed on large amounts of Autumn acorns, can have some issues with the toxins, but this is much less common.
  • The primary source of corks for wine bottles and other uses comes from the
  • Cork Oak (Quercus suber). Cork is considered a renewable resource, since
  • harvesting the cork (bark) is done in a way which does not harm the tree.

Acorns can feed wildlife, domesticated life, and human life alike.
Red Oak (Quercus rubra

Oak leaf and acorn variety.
5 oak leaves and 6 acorns found by Coniston Water by Eileen Postlethwaite

Primary Uses:

  • Nut - the "acorn" is typically dried and ground as "meal" or "flour". Only a few species or improved hybrids have seeds that can be eaten raw (Quercus ilex)
  • Oil - only a few species have seeds that can be pressed to expel edible oil (Quercus ilex)
  • Young Leaves - cooked. Only a few oaks (Quercus acutissima) have edible leaves.
  • Coffee - The seed can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute.

Secondary Uses:

  • General insect nectar and pollen plant
  • Wildlife food
  • Wildlife shelter
  • Windbreak
  • Most species can be coppiced - every 7-30 years depending on the size wood desired.
  • Wood is highly prized for finish carpentry, furniture, tools, barrels, crafts, baskets, as well as posts, fencing, stakes, wedges, roof shingles, firewood, and charcoal.
  • Wood and acorn shells can be used for tanning.
  • Wood can be used for mushrooms (shiitake!)

Yield: highly variable on species and size of the tree. For example, Q. acutissima can produce up to 125 lbs (56 kg) of acorns per year.

Harvesting: Autumn (October-November). Acorns are harvested after they have fallen from the tree.
Storage: Can be used right away, but can be stored for months if kept dry.

Beautiful photo of Oak leaves in Autumn
White Oak (Quercus alba)
( ... this is a beautiful blog!)

Oaks are just impressive trees!

USDA Hardiness Zone:

  • Sawtooth/Sawthorn Oak (Quercus acutissima) - Zone 5
  • Encina or California Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) - Zone 8
  • White Oak (Quercus alba) - Zone 4
  • Boz-Pimal Oak (Quercus aucheri) - Zone 8
  • Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) - Zone 4
  • Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris) - Zone 7-9
  • Kermes Oak (Quercus coccifera) - Zone 6
  • Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea) - Zone 4
  • Blue Oak (Quercus douglasii) - Zone 7
  • Black Oak (Quercus emoryi) - Zone 7 
  • Hungarian Oak (Quercus frainetto) - Zone 6
  • Gambel or Shin Oak (Quercus gambelii) - Zone 4
  • Glaucous-Leaf Oak or Japanese Blue Oak (Quercus glauca) - Zone 7
  • Holly Oak (Quercus ilex) - Zone 7
  • Holm Oak (Quercus ilex ballota) - Zone 7
  • Valonia Oak (Quercus ithaburensis macrolepis) -Zone 7
  • Californian Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii) - Zone 7-9
  • Bull Oak (Quercus lamellose) - Zone 8
  • Overcup Oak (Quercus lyrata) - Zone 5
  • Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) - Zone 2-8
  • Chinkapin Oak (Quercus meuhlenbergii) - Zone 4
  • Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii) - Zone 6
  • Mexican Blue Oak (Quercus oblongifolia) - Zone 7
  • Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) - Zone 5-8
  • Dwarf Chinkapin Oak (Quercus prinoides) - Zone 5
  • Chestnut Oak (Quercus prinus) - Zone 5
  • English or Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur) - Zone 4
  • Red Oak (Quercus rubra) - Zone 3
  • Post Oak (Quercus stellata) - Zone 5
  • Cork Oak (Quercus suber) - Zone 7
  • Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) - Zone 7
  • Sierra Live Oak (Quercus wislizeni) - Zone 8

AHS Heat Zone:

  • Sawtooth/Sawthorn Oak (Quercus acutissima) - Zone 8-3
  • Encina or California Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) - Zone 12-9
  • White Oak (Quercus alba) - Zone 8-1
  • Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) - Zone 8-1
  • Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris) - Zone 8-1
  • Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea) - 9-4
  • Blue Oak (Quercus douglasii) - Zone 9-1
  • Glaucous-Leaf Oak or Japanese Blue Oak (Quercus glauca) - Zone 9-4
  • Holly Oak (Quercus ilex) - Zone 9-2
  • Californian Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii) - Zone 9-5
  • Bull Oak (Quercus lamellose) - Zone 8
  • Overcup Oak (Quercus lyrata) - Zone 8-4
  • Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) - Zone 9-1
  • Chinkapin Oak (Quercus meuhlenbergii) - Zone 8-2
  • Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii) - Zone 9-3
  • Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) - Zone 7-3
  • Dwarf Chinkapin Oak (Quercus prinoides) - Zone 8-1
  • Chestnut Oak (Quercus prinus) - Zone 8-1
  • English or Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur) - Zone 8-3
  • Red Oak (Quercus rubra) - Zone 9-5
  • Post Oak (Quercus stellata) - Zone 9-4
  • Cork Oak (Quercus suber) - Zone 12-3
  • Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) - Zone 11-6
  • Sierra Live Oak (Quercus wislizeni) - 10-6

Chill Requirement: likely, but no reliable information can be found

Plant Type: Medium to large-sized Shrubs; medium to large-sized Trees
Leaf Type: Evergreen or Deciduous depending on the species
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Layer, Sub-Canopy (Understory) Layer, Shrub Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: Many species, hybrids, and varieties available.

Pollination: Oaks require cross-pollination. This can come from just about any other species of oak. Pollinated by the wind.
Flowering: late Spring to mid-Summer

Life Span:
Years to Begin Bearing: 5-35 years depending on the species
Years Between Major Cropping: 1-10 years depending on the species.
Years of Useful Life: 200 years is considered young for most species. Oaks can live to 400 years if not cut down. There is an oak over 2,000 years old in California.

The Pechanga Great Oak, outside of Temecula, California, is over 2,000 years old.
Encina or California Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia)

Oak leaves can be extremely variable. Each species is different.


  • Sawtooth/Sawthorn Oak (Quercus acutissima) - 16 feet (5 meters) tall and 49 feet (15 meters) wide
  • Encina or California Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) - 49 feet (15 meters) tall and 26 feet (8 meters) wide
  • White Oak (Quercus alba) - 65 feet (20 meters) tall and 32 feet (10 meters) wide
  • Boz-Pimal Oak (Quercus aucheri) - 16 feet (5 meters) tall and 13 feet (4 meters) wide
  • Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) - 82 feet (25 meters) tall
  • Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris) - 114 feet tall (35 meters) tall and 82 feet (25 meters) wide
  • Kermes Oak (Quercus coccifera) - 13 feet (4 meters) tall and wide
  • Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea) - 82 feet (25 meters) tall and 49 feet (15 meters) wide
  • Blue Oak (Quercus douglasii) - 39 feet (12 meters) tall
  • Black Oak (Quercus emoryi) - 39 feet (12 meters) tall
  • Hungarian Oak (Quercus frainetto) - 98 feet (30 meters) tall
  • Gambel or Shin Oak (Quercus gambelii) - 14 feet (4 meters) tall
  • Glaucous-Leaf Oak or Japanese Blue Oak Oak (Quercus glauca) - 49 feet (15meters) tall
  • Holly Oak (Quercus ilex) - 82 feet (25 meters) tall and 65 feet (20 meters) wide
  • Holm Oak (Quercus ilex ballota) - 82 feet (25 meters) tall and 65 feet (20 meters) wide
  • Valonia Oak (Quercus ithaburensis macrolepis) - 49 feet (15 meters) tall and 42 feet (13 meters) wide
  • Californian Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii) - 82 feet (25 meters) tall
  • Bull Oak (Quercus lamellose) - 115 feet (35 meters) tall
  • Overcup Oak (Quercus lyrata) - 98 feet (30 meters) tall
  • Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) - 75-100 feet (22-30 meters) tall and wide
  • Chinkapin Oak (Quercus meuhlenbergii) - 35-50 feet (10-15 meters) tall and wide
  • Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii) - 75-100 feet (22-30 meters) tall and wide
  • Mexican Blue Oak (Quercus oblongifolia) - 26 feet (8 meters) tall
  • Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) - 82 feet (25 meters) tall
  • Dwarf Chinkapin Oak (Quercus prinoides) - 12 feet (3.5 meters) tall and 12-20 (3.5-6 meters) feet wide
  • Chestnut Oak (Quercus prinus) - 49 feet (15 meters) tall and 75-100 feet(22-30 meters) wide
  • English or Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur) - 98 feet (30 meters) tall and wide 
  • Red Oak (Quercus rubra) - 82 feet (25 meters) tall and 59 feet (18 meters) wide
  • Post Oak (Quercus stellata) - 65 feet (20 meters) tall and wide
  • Cork Oak (Quercus suber) - 65 feet (20 meters) tall and 49 feet (15 meters) wide
  • Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) - 65 feet (20 meters) tall and wide
  • Sierra Live Oak (Quercus wislizeni) - 65 feet (20 meters) tall and 98 feet (30 meters) wide

Roots: Extremely variable based on the species. Many have taproots, some are heart-shaped root masses, and some are a diffuse, fibrous network.
Growth Rate: Most species grow at a Slow to Medium rate; however, a few species are known to grow fast. Also, many of the hybrids grow at a much faster rate.

Shiitake Mushrooms prefer Oak wood over any other wood.

Oak wood has so many uses!

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Some species tolerate light shade
Moisture: Medium soil moisture preferred, but the "swamp" species (Q. bicolor, Q. michauxii) can handle pretty wet soils as can Q. robur
pH: most species prefer fairly neutral soil (6.0-7.0), and some species (notably Q. macrocarpa) is tolerant of very acidic to very alkaline soils.

Special Considerations for Growing: 
It is likely that all species tolerates juglone (natural growth inhibitor produced by Black Walnut and its relatives). Consider using this tree as a buffer between your walnuts and other plantings.

Easily from seed. Sow immediately in Autumn after the seeds have fallen from the tree.

Not much maintenance is needed.

Some people can have seasonal allergies to the pollen.