Experimental Homestead

Grapes Reviews and Simple Biochar Production, a Few Videos

Yay, burn season is here!  Just uploaded a few videos.  A couple of short grape variety reviews, The pretty darn good Glenora and the excellent Reliance (of which I’m eating some right now, and they’re super tasty!).  And a somewhat long winded, but cool, video of burning a top lit open burn brush pile to make biochar (Which Kelpie of Backyardbiochar calls TLOB).  This is one of the two charring methods I’ve been messing with, the slope sided pit (or container), and the open top lit piles.  I think each has it’s merits, but probably more importantly, each might be better suited to certain materials that people commonly have.  Both can be scaled up and down in size and neither should produce a ton of smoke if the wood isn’t either soaking wet or green.  A pit burn video should be forthcoming.  Hopefully I’ll get better at shooting and editing video, learn to talk faster and develop a video personality at some point.  In the meantime, pop some popcorn and check it out.

No Guinea Pigs were harmed during the making of these videos, although some chickens were verbally assaulted.

September 23, 2014 Posted by | BioChar, Food Trees Fruits and Nuts, Garden Stuff | , , , , , | 10 Comments

Saffron Dreams: Musings and experiments in growing Saffron


saffron dreams header

I like to cook intuitively with what happens to be on hand, which means having a certain familiarity with my ingredients.  Recipes are just guidelines in my world and not to be taken at face value, ever.  I’ve never had enough Saffron around to become familiar with it to the point that I can use it with any confidence.  When my mom brought me a small box of quality saffron from Spain, I had a chance to become a little more familiar.  With Saffron now on my radar, I of course decided I should grow the stuff instead of buying it.  I mean if we can grow the stuff here, why import it at 80.00 an ounce?  Saffron seems to be capable of growing in a fairly wide variety of climates from England to Afghanistan.  Then I could sell the bulbs and promote the idea of growing it and start a local industry and…..

A laptop surfing safari turned up a few small scale growers focused on high quality Saffron for local consumption, but none of them in California.  Aside from these geeky boutique producers who have been bitten by the Saffron bug, saffron production seems to be left to areas where it has long been cultivated.

Saffron’s peculiarly unique flavor is subtle and pervasive at the same time.  A few threads too many and it goes from enhancing your dish to ruining it.  Fortunately, it’s intensity means that only a few threads are required and if it wasn’t so intense, no one would likely be able to afford to use it at all, nor probably bother to.  The part used is the intensely red stigma of a pretty little purple/blue flower named Crocus sativus, the stigma being the female part that receives the pollen.   The Latin name is probably pronounced like kroak-us sa-tee’-vus, or sat’-i-vus but no one really knows for sure because Latin is a dead language.  So just say it however you want to and if anyone flicks you shit for pronouncing it wrong, just follow Jepson’s advice of The Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California:

“… practice what sounds good to your ear; conviction is important.”    “When someone presumes to correct your pronunciation, a knowing smile is an appropriate response.”

That’s always worked for me :D

Anyway, there are only three stigma or “threads” in each flower.  Not only are there only three, but they have to be removed by hand one flower at a time.  The threads are already small and they dry into teeny weeny little flakey things looking something like pubic hair from a redheaded elf.

soaking saffron progress

Re-soaking saffron threads for use in cooking.

Crocus carwrightianus is probably the parent of the Saffron Crocus, and is a normal seed producing plant that exists in wild seed propagated populations.  Crocus sativus on the other hand is a mutation or hybrid of some type, and it never produces seed, but can only be grown and propagated by redistribution of the underground parts.  So, Saffron Crocus is probably entirely dependent on humans for it’s survival and propagation.  Although the stigma of Crocus cartwrightianus can also be used to make saffron, it is almost exclusively made from Crocus sativus.  All of the sources I can find indicate that the Saffron crocus has either more or better flavor than C cartwrightianus, and/or that C Sativus produces more Saffron per plant due to heavier Stigmas.  Regardless, I’m interested in picking up some cartwrightianus to play with.  Cartwrightianus, now there’s a clunky name that I can never remember.  I guess if I discovered it I could name it Edholmianus.  I’m not sure I like it, and it sounds pretty dirty.

Freshly harvested saffron threads.

Freshly harvested saffron threads.  Only freshly opened flowers are used.  It is necessary to revisit the plants nearly every day for a week or two, since the flowers don’t emerge and open all at once.

Continue reading

September 13, 2014 Posted by | Food and Drink Making, Garden Stuff, Uncategorized | , , , | 12 Comments

Interstem Grafted Apple Tree Update, Year Four

interstem update header It’s been 4 years since I grafted my first interstem apples.  They were in the nursery for a year, and have been in the ground in permanent locations for 3 years.  This is an update on my experience and thoughts so far.

A couple paragraphs for those who aren’t familiar with interstem trees: An interstem (a.k.a. double worked, archaic) tree is on that has an extra stem grafted between the rootstock and the upper portion of the tree.  Sometimes the interstem (the stem between the roots and the tree) is there for the sake of compatibility and can be used when the fruit variety is not genetically compatible with the rootstock, but the interstem is compatible with both the top and the rootstock…. think of a kidney transplant, the donor and recipient have to be compatible or the graft will be rejected.

Often though, and in my case, the technique is used to dwarf a tree. One problem with dwarf rootstocks is that they are weak.  Sure they are small, which is what we want, but so are the roots.  Interstem grafting allows us to select a large vigorous rootstock, that would normally grow a large vigorous tree, for the roots and a weak interstem to dwarf the tree… small tree big roots.  That means, no staking of the tree, which would be required for a weak dwarfing stock.  They also need less water.


Interstem dwarfs on the left at 8 foot spacing, and oblique (diagonal) cordon row on the right, tresllised, 18 inch spacing about 7 feet tall.  Both will outperform standard trees in production per unit of land.  The oblique cordon are on bud 9 however, and require more water than the interstem trees which have a base of possibly the most drought tolerant of the common apple stocks, M111 and interstem of bud 9.  The largest looking tree there on the left has a short interstem, and is also growing near a waterline leak.


Drought Tolerance:  My primary motivation for grafting interstem trees has been drought tolerance combined with dwarfing, a pairing which I don’t know of any other means of attaining.  I’ve had a few of the trees get a little crispy in the end of summer, but over all, I think they are performing much better as m111 / bud 9 interstems than they would on any stand alone dwarfing stock.  I do water them occasionally, but not a lot.  I probably should ideally water a little more, but I want them to grow up tough and self sufficient, not expecting a drink whenever they want one… tough love.  There is a second row of interstem trees that I will probably move, or just remove, which are not cared for nearly as well as the main row along the driveway.  Most of these outliers have survived and, although they are not doing great, I doubt many would have survived the droughty conditions they are growing in if they were on a straight dwarfing stock like MM109 or bud 9.  I probably won’t water any of the interstems this season since my spring is lower than it’s ever been at this time. Continue reading

August 9, 2014 Posted by | Food and Drink Making, Food Trees Fruits and Nuts, grafting, Uncategorized | , , , | 4 Comments

Soil Banking With Biochar: proposition for a migrating latrine system aimed at permanent soil improvement

“The idea is to have a sort of trench system that would serve both as a latrine, and as a means of permanently improving the soil.”

This proposal is built around the concept of using charcoal to permanently improve soils.  If you’re not familiar with that idea, a little reading on biochar might be helpful. 2 3 

(EDIT: Ok, I just posted this yesterday, but the original title sucked, so I had to take action.  The more I’ve thought about this idea today, the more I’m inclined to think that viewing it as just a latrine is somewhat limiting.  A system of soil improvement like this could serve to accommodate all sorts of rubbish and organic refuse.  I always thought that if I built a nice outhouse someday, that I’d make a sign for it that said Bank of Fertility (make a deposit:).  I like that concept.  I’m going to go with the term Soil Banking for the concept of a migrating soil improvement  system using an open trench.  While making daily deposits of doodie makes eminent sense for such a system, there are so many more things that could be tossed in the mix.  All people who live in the country that don’t have access to landfills, have rubbish heaps or pits of some kind.  What I’m proposing is that we use that open pit, and the material added, to a high level of advantage toward the end of permanent soil improvement.  At this point, I can only see a big open pit, placed in the right area, to be an outstanding opportunity.  The idea of permanent soil improvement, made possible by the addition of charcoal, is really compelling.  Dead animals and parts, rotten wood, old natural fiber clothing, shells, bones, ashes, seedy weeds that are best not put in to the compost, anything else that plants or soil life can feed on that the chickens can’t eat, or that we don’t want to put in the compost for whatever reason, and of course poo and charcoal, all added as they occur.  And of course adding whatever other amendments, like lime, rock powder or trace minerals might make sense too, depending on circumstances.  Over many years, this system could add up to an ever expanding bank of super soils that will probably continue to be superior for decades, if not for centuries.  So there it is, Soil Banking.  “What should I do with this dead maggoty possum?”  “put it in the soil bank with a few scoops of charcoal and some dirt”  “yeah, okay, I was going there to make a deposit anyway!” “righteous dude, high five!”  Now back to regularly scheduled programing.)

I’ve been knocking this idea around in my head for a while.  Actually, maybe it’s been knocking me around it just want’s me to think that I’m knocking it around.  It started when I was thinking about ways to use the pit after pit burning charcoal in a long trench.  The obvious use was to bury the biochar in it instead of digging another hole for that.  After all, it’s one thing to make all that char, but then you have to dig it into the soil, which is a butt load of work.  In this climate, outside of irrigated garden beds, I think getting the char pretty deep is probably a good idea.  After june, soil moisture is scant near the surface.  If the char was buried lets say only 12 to 18 inches deep, that puts it in the zone where roots are mostly on idle for the summer.  No moisture= no root activity to speak of.  Charcoal is a great retainer of moisture, but it’s not that great.  I’m talking about unirrigated areas for orchards and perrenials, or maybe for dry farming crops.  If the char was more like 3 feet or 1 meter deep, it would be of much more benefit to plants in the summer season. Continue reading

July 29, 2014 Posted by | Garden Stuff, Uncategorized | , , , , | 17 Comments


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