Friday, December 17, 2010

Bad luck and Good luck - How Not To Store Oca and Mashua and Winter Wheat as an Indestructible Cover Crop

Today, I went through my oca and mashua tubers. They were in a refrigerator and I’d been meaning to bring them out of the refrigerator for a while. The reason I’d been waiting is because mice love oca and we recently had some mice problems in the building I was planning on moving them to; plus, I’ve been really busy.

Well, there were apples in the fridge as well and ripe apples release ethylene gas. Ethylene gas makes things ripen really fast . . and it built up in our fridge. As a result, a lot of my oca and mashua has become rubbery. Most of the tubers seem like they’ll be okay and last long enough until I can plant them in the spring. But a couple, I’m going to plant now and see if I can nurse them through winter, otherwise they’re going to turn to mush and I’ll lose that variety.

So, if you want to learn from my mistake - never store oca or mashua with fruit. I should have known better, but sometimes, you space out about things when you’re stretched for time.

While it may seem I’m running through a stretch of bad luck, I also had a lucky surprise yesterday. This fall, I planted winter hard white wheat for a cover crop, but I got it in too late. I planted it in the middle of November I think, and when our hard frost came and it hit 6ºF, I thought all the wheat seedlings (literally seedlings - they only had just sent out their first roots and not shoots were visible) had been killed. Since I didn’t want the soil to be exposed to the heavy rains of winter and have my soil structure destroyed, I covered it with a couple inches of hay.

Yesterday, though, I noticed that the wheat has sprouted and managed to grow through the several inches of wet, matted hay, and it’s grown quite a bit - in the middle of December! Pretty amazing!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Seed/Tuber Sources

Now that I've posted about oca, mashua, and wheat, I thought I'd post some sources on where to obtain seeds and tubers for these species.

Oca can be bought at the following places:
- Nichols Garden Nursery - Oca
- Territorial Seed - Oca
- Seed Savers Exchange (you need to be a member, but it's worth it. There are so many alternative crop species there in addition to oca, and there's a far wider range of oca than the common red-white variety for sale at Nichols and Territorial.)

- MZ Bulbs - Mashua "Ken Aslet" (currently unavailable, but hopefully will be available again soon; Ken Aslet is the day-neutral variety)  Note: Now available, but they sent me a moldy dessicated tuber, so I would not recommend buying from them.
- Seed Savers Exchange
- Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (they don't ship them, but a good source if you're in Northern California)

There are certain varieties that do best in Western Washington, so those are the kinds you want to get if you live here. Here's a list of varieties of different types that I know do well.

Hard red spring: Hank, Kelse
Hard red winter: Bauermeister
Hard white winter: MDM
Soft white winter: Xerpha, Cashup, Chuckar (it's a club wheat - just different seedhead shape)

You can buy seed from the Washington Foundation Seed Service. You have to order by a certain deadline, but they're a good source for many of the varieties I listed. It's not organic seed, but you can request it untreated. They normally sell very large amounts, but they'll ship you small quantities too (shipping adds up, so be aware of that - the seed is cheap, but the final bill may be higher than what you expect). For farm name on the order form, I just put my last name followed by "Homestead".

You can also buy wheat berries from some of the farms growing wheat already in W. Washington and plant those. Nash's sells grain at their farm store in Sequim, and there are some farms in NW Washington that may sell grain directly to customers, though I can't think of any right now in particular.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Grains - Wheat!

Grains aren't an underutilized or alternative crop by any means. They make up the bulk of our most people's diets, and are grown over huge amounts of land. However, here in Western Washington, they haven't been grown on a large scale for several decades. There's been a recent upsurge in interest in locally grown organic grains and several organic farms are now growing wheat and other grains on a large scale west of the Cascades. The staff at the WSU Mt. Vernon Research Center are doing some really great work at evaluating grain varieties for W. Washington and if you're in Western Washington and at all interested in growing grains, you should definitely check out the Kneading Conference this next September.

I could go on and on about the local grains movement here in Western Washington and I likely will in a future post, but I'm going to curb myself and talk about my wheat growing so I don't end up with an excessively long post.

* * * *

Growing wheat has always been something I've dreamed of doing, but to be honest, it seemed a bit intimidating when I first read about how to do it. There was scything, threshing, winnowing, milling - and then I read that it couldn't be grown that well here in Western Washington. Turns out, it's not that hard to do (and can be quite fun), and you can grow it here, quite successfully!

"Hank" - A hard red spring wheat I grew this year
I first learned about wheat growing at the Evergreen Organic Farm, where they had done some variety trials a few years ago. I became heavily involved with the wheat growing on the farm, and managed to get some wheat berries at the Tilth Conference. The variety I got was "Hank", a hard red spring variety, which you can see growing in the picture to the left. 
The 'hard' in 'hard wheat' basically means it's high in protein and is good for baked goods that you want to rise and be chewy, such as bread. Soft wheat is better for baked goods that you want crisp and not chewy, such as crackers and pastries. The red simply refers to color; white is the other main wheat color. And the final distinction is the spring/winter. Winter wheat you plant the previous fall (here, after Sep. 15th, but before November) and it overwinters to produce the following summer. Spring wheat you plant in the spring, as soon as the soil can be worked. 
I planted the Hank in the picture above on March 23rd. I planted it in rows, which allows you to weed between the rows. You can always broadcast (sprinkle by hand) the seeds, but if you have weedy ground, you'll probably want to plant it in rows instead.

The great thing about growing wheat is you don't have to water it. It can do fine all by itself through our dry summers. Apart from any weeding, it's mostly maintenance free. You may notice some orange powder forming on the leaves, which is wheat rust. If it's really bad, you have a susceptible variety, and you could likely lose yield. There's really nothing you can do to help this organically and planting rust resistant varieties is your best defense.

You can safely harvest when the upper most leaf, called the 'flag leaf' has dried out (turns yellow). The grain should crunch between your teeth when it's ready. This year, the wheat was ready in early August. A hand scythe (a.k.a. sickle) works great for harvesting small amounts. You can buy these online, and there are some really great Japanese grass sickles that I think work best. If you want, you can also invest in a scythe. Or if you have a couple thousand dollars, you can buy a combine - there's quite a few to be found on Craigslist.

Tie together a bundle of wheat into a 'sheaf' (plural is sheaves) with some rope or twine, and if you want, you can lean them against each other to create a shock. Here's a picture of a shock I made at the Evergreen farm this year:
"Red Chief" - an older wheat variety - soft red winter
Shocks are a way of storing grain in the field and it also allows the wheat to dry further if its still a bit green. One or two sheaves can be laid on their sides on top of the shocks to help repel rain and this protects the grain from getting wet.

Threshing is the next step and there are many ways you can do this. A good method I've found is using a burlap sack. Simply put the sheaf in the burlap sack and beat against a fence post. If you do this outside, you may get strange looks from your neighbors. You can also stomp on the sack and this will loosen the grain as well. 

Another fun method is to lie a sheaf on an old bed sheet and beat the sheaf with a piece of rope or electrical cord. You can also fold the bed sheet over the sheaf to ensure that all the grain will get captured. Have fun with this - it can be a great stress reliever.

Simply collect the grain in a bowl when you're done threshing to begin winnowing. You'll need another bowl and a fan for this. Winnowing is simple enough. Just pass the grain and "chaff" (chaff is the light fluffy material that gets threshed out with the grain) from bowl to bowl in front of a fan or if it's windy, no fan is necessary. The chaff will all blow away and eventually, you'll end up with grain, like in the photo below.
Wheat berries from the Hank in the previous picture

The next step is milling, which can obviously be a challenge if you don't have a mill. Grain mills run anywhere from $100 to upwards of $400. You can go old school and use a mortar and pestle, but that could take a while to grind a significant amount. I've heard a blender or food processor can be good at giving a rough grind of the wheat. Using the wheat whole is another option and you could use it make a pilaf or sprout it.

Remember to save seed to replant the next year. Once the harvest is over, you'll also find that in addition to grain, you know have your own homegrown straw to use for mulching or compost. I used my straw this year to successfully shield my winter carrots from a recent arctic cold blast.

Mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum)

Mashua is another tuber crop from the Andean highlands of South America. If you were unfamiliar with mashua, you might easily mistake it for nasturtium. It's actually in the same genus, and the leaves and flowers look very similar.

In South America, mashua is grown on poor soils, where it can thrive, and it is amazingly productive. It produces starchy tubers, just like oca, though they have a unique flavor which I'm not sure I could describe. Different varieties have different flavors as well, so you'll just have to try them yourself if you can track some down. From the mashua I tried though, it was vaguely peppery, and more of an acquired taste.

Apart from the benefit of being able to grow in poor soils and its high yield, the plants can also take acidic soils and they like high rainfall and cloudy weather. That fits perfectly with the climate and conditions in Western Washington. The natural soil pH here is around 5.5 and annual rainfall is around 50 in (127 cm).

The plants are also very disease and pest resistant, as they contain natural bactericidal, nemocidal, and insecticidal compounds. I've read that they're grown in a polycrop system with potato, oca, and ulluco, and help to control pest problems in the crops surrounding it. I haven't tried that, but it seems like an intriguing possibility.

Personally, I think mashua has some promise as a livestock feed, given how productive it is. I've read that the tubers may need to be baked before feeding to livestock due to the presence of isothiocyanates that could cause health problems (these break down with cooking, and small amounts can be safely eaten raw by humans), so keep that in mind if you want to give it a try. It should also be noted that mashua have a reputation of being an anaphrodisiac (sex drive killer) for men. In an experiment done on rats that were fed mashua, their testosterone levels dropped by half. So that's something you might want to keep in mind if you're thinking of making mashua a large part of your diet. In the Andes where it's cultivated and eaten, it was coupled with another plant, maca, which balanced out this effect.

Mashua are also fairly frost hardy and a mashua plant I grew in Olympia (and that I had forgotten about before the big freeze) survived the really low temperatures.

Like oca, the majority of mashua varieties only produce tubers after the fall equinox until frost kills back the foliage. However, the variety "Ken Aslet" is not dependent on day length for tuber formation and can be found for sale online.

* * * *

This was my first year growing mashua, and I started with several different varieties. I obtained seed tubers from the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center and also through Seed Savers Exchange (from Frank van Kiersbilck), and planted them this spring. I provided a trellis for them and they went pretty wild, sprawling all over and climbing about eight feet high. I planted them next to the oca and a few of the mashua plants were crowded a bit, but one plant produced over five pounds of tubers. All of the tubers in the picture below were produced off of that one plant:

Here's a picture of a mashua plant (surrounded by oca) taken about a month ago:

Oca - 2010

I grew oca again this year (2010), and had obtained some new varieties through the Seed Savers Exchange (from Frank van Kiersbilck in Belgium) which I planted as well. This year was great for oca. I planted it in an area with better quality soil and our frost here came so late (late November - very unusual for this area) that it had plenty of time to form tubers and I got a bumper crop. Good thing I got it out of the soil in time though. When our frost hit, it hit hard. An arctic blast from Canada came in and at the coldest, it was 6ºF (-14.4ºC) here. Those temperatures will turn oca tubers in the ground to slime, so needless to say, I was carefully watching the weather reports.

Here's the area I grew the oca in, to give an idea of what it looks like from a distance and where it was growing. The other plant you'll notice that's vining up the trellis is mashua, which I'll discuss in my next post:

And here's a photo of one of the plants flowering in October. A good closeup view of the clover-shaped leaves.

Here's pictures of tubers of each of the varieties. Definitely some striking and beautiful variety.

Growing Oca (Oxalis tuberosa)

Hi everyone,
      This is my first post on my blog where I will try my best to document my attempts to grow plants that I think have a lot of potential here in the Chehalis Valley where I live, and also in other agricultural areas. My hope is to share my experiences with others growing these crops as well as inspire people to grow them.

The first plant I'm going to talk about is Oca (Oxalis tuberosa). There's a good deal of information about oca on the internet, so I won't give too detailed of a background on it here.

The plant is from the Andean highlands of South America where it has been grown for thousands of years and is still grown for its starchy tubers. They taste similar to potatoes, but with a nice lemony sour flavor. That's caused by oxalic acid in the tubers, which is found in spinach and sorrel is responsible for their sour flavor as well.

Tubers are planted around May, when the danger of hard frost has passed. They can be started earlier indoors, and transplanted, which gives them a bit of a head start.

Like potatoes, hilling them with soil increases tuber production. Tubers are formed only after the autumn equinox (usually Sep 21st.) and are dependent on the amount of daylight reaching the plants (Some exciting work is being done to produce oca that is daylight-neutral over at Radix Root Crops).

If you have early frosts, oca can be killed back before it produces a good amount of tubers. Therefore, if you live in a really cold area with early frosts, oca might not be a good crop to grow. In the United States, oca grows really well in coastal California, where it can be a perennial, and it can grow well in the Pacific Northwest too. I'm not certain how well they would do east of the Rockies, but you could certainly give them a try.

Harvesting should be done before hard frosts come. Foliage can die back and the tubers can be fine, but if temperatures get very cold (as in the teens and single digits), the tubers can freeze in the ground - something I've witnessed myself.

* * * *

I first grew oca in 2008 after I ordered some tubers from Nichols Garden Nursery in Oregon. I had heard about it on the PFAF website, and was really enthusiastic about growing them. I started them indoors in March, I believe (I didn't take notes, unfortunately, but have since learned the importance of taking detailed notes). It did well, and survived our record-breaking heatwave. I had read that oca did not do well in extreme heat, but it successfully survived 107ºF (41.6º C). I harvested them that fall, and ended up with a fairly good crop. Here's photos of the plants in fall shortly before I harvested them. Apologies for the poor quality. Note the plants are a little frost-damaged already - the plants in the top photo look somewhat brown and slimy in spots.