Monday, 31 March 2014

Growing precious plants that are near extinction...

After a long time without normal weather, spring has finally arrived to Iceland. 
I will make another post of it, but before please let me share with you my latest achievement in plant conservation.

I was busy buying seeds of species in danger of extinction and sowing them. Many endangered species are obviously very rare and impossible to find for sale, but since there are many thousands in risk of extinction, some of them can eventually have seed for sale online (like in

Over these last days, I managed to germinate seeds of two endangered species and one critically endangered species:
Abies pinsapo, Spanish fir
  • One is Abies pinsapo, a conifer species, a fir, only growing in moutains of the south of Spain and parts of Morroco. Despite conservation efforts, its population is still decreasing, mostly because of forest fires and the warming of the climate, which has increased mortality of the trees. Twenty years ago, the tree was more abundant. In Morroco, the tree is threatened by both deforestation (to grow cannabis) and forest fires. Overall, the fir is only present in 5 locations, so it's not a very good situation. I germinated one seed by placing it in a container with moist gravel in the fridge, after one month. Since this tree is from a Mediterranean mountain climate, I think it could be eventually be grown in a few spots in Portugal, where climate is still more temperate. I 
Aloe peglerae
  • A second species is Aloe peglerae. It is native to only 3 locations in South Africa, and although some part of them are protected areas, the population of this aloe is decreasing in number mostly due to illegal collection and also urbanization. This aloe germinated in a gravel mix containing a bit of soil, only barely moisted, placed in partial sunlight at 19-23ºC

  • The last species is Matelea orthoneura, this vine is native to Ecuador coastal forests. From the family of the milkweeds and is pollinated by flies in a similar fashion to orchids. It is critically endangered, since it is only known to be present in two small locations. And it's habitat has been destroyed at a fast speed and it continues. The two locations are near farms and villages, so this is no surprise. Thus this species can become extinct in soon, and as far as I know there is no cultivation or conservation efforts of it. I germinated two seeds by placing them on the surface of a mix of equal parts of soil and gravel covered by a bag, at 29ºC over a week, and then 20ºC for another week. If I end up sucessfully growing it, I must find ways of propagation to distribute this vine to other people interested in ensuring this species does not become extinct.

  • A few weeks ago I germinated Bauhinia bowkeri. This is a beautiful legume species only native to South Africa. The seed germinated in a tray containing moist gravel and soil, at 29ºC, after 2 weeks. I am now growing it near a light. The species is classified as vulnerable, but it hasn't been throughly accessed. Some decades ago the species was growing in several locations but presently it's only known at a single location and only 20 mature trees. Therefore this species could be well critically endangered. And I must protect my seedling at all costs! Guess now there are 21 known plants in the world!
The other threatened species I am already growing for a couple of months are:

The biblical gift to Jesus, the frankincense tree. Now it could also become extinct in the near future

  • Boswellia sacra, frankincense (highly difficult to germinate and grow past seedling stage; currently the tree are overexploited and in bad health due to that, it is not yet endangered but at the current rate it could become endangered in a few years, and extinct by end of the century if not soon - I germinated the seed by placing a mix of limestone, gravel, pumice and sand, over 29ºC for 3 weeks. Although a biblical species, frankincense is very rarely cultivated, and if it is, only as a bonsai; as far as I know, outside of the Middle East, I know only of one person growing it, and that is in Arizona). I could technically grow my frankincense tree if not in bonsai form, in the drier parts of Portugal.
Aloe dichotoma, an amazing aloe tree!
  • Aloe dichotoma (an outstanding yet vulnerable status aloe from South Africa and Namibia - germinated at 25ºC on moist gravel; it's rare but sometimes cultivated, including for its conservation purposes. However its population in the wild is reducing, mostly due to climate change, so it is important to continue its preservation efforts)
A forest of jubaea chilensis, called coquito nut
  • Parajubaea torallyi and jubaea chilensis, these two palms I got in ebay, but there are increasingly endangered in the wild (especially the parajubaea), despite ocasional cultivation and even an interesting use as a coconut-like fruit from a tree which is relatively hardy when grown in Mediterranean climates; apparently they can be grown in climates like California, Texas and South Europe. They are native, respectively, to steep ravines in Chile and moist ravines in a small part of Bolivia.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Fresh new year! List of gardening/ permaculture projects for 2014 !


It has been a while since I do not write.
I should write about my travellings back in January, and all the ideas for new projects I had starts since then.
Needless to say I have been obsessively gardening in February, now that springs is nearing.


Everything is growing amazingly good, thanks to the two CFL growing lights I bought last November. They are 250W and 300W. Tomatoes have buds and salads grow fast, when placed about 30-40cm away, and if tomato seedlings are placed about 20cm then they grow like crazy. Seedlings are 30cm tall one month from seed.

Two fluorescent lamps (300W and 250W) allow me to grow tomatoes and salads during the winter


This is a project dedicated to Pami, which is now on the first year of her herbalism/natural medicine course. We want to have a collection of dried herbs and homemade tinctures, so we are collecting medicinal herbs. I have grown from seed comfrey, borage, arnica, skullcap (last two with 2 month cold stratification), marshmallow. I have also a crazy big motherwort plant (3 month old from seed), which is a very good herb for anxiety and heart.  Our dream is to have a etnobotanical collection, and we are building it that way.

Motherwort, an amazing herb for the heart and anxiety


Ok. This one is work-related. I work as a soap maker/ natural cosmetic/ herbalist, so I have a fairly wide collection of essential oils in our workplace. Of course we all know what a lavender or a thyme plant looks like, but what about frankincense or patchouli? So, these are the species I am growing from seed, to smell them directly from the plant! I also have eucalyptus citriodora (with a fabulous scent when you touch the leaves!), tea tree (very tiny seedlings germinated over a radiator over a month). I want to germinate plumeria but so far I have failed (its flowers are ornamental and have a soberb sweet smell).

Patchouli plant (and tiny tea tree seedlings in background to the left)


This is my special pet project. I had the idea back in November after watching a documentary on endangered animals, and thought I could help a few endangered plants. I found seed of many on the internet (some of which rapidly disappearing, and on brink on extinction). I have ordered a dozen of them, and now I am on to germinate them. I have succedeed with frankincense (near endangered even if it such a famous biblical tree), that required radiator and a special mix of volcanic gravel and limestones. Germination is about 10% and keeping seedlings alive requires rigorous control of moisture on the dry side, and strong light. I also have a fan to simulate wind, which helps plants to become strong. Other than it, I have aloe dichotoma (an endangered aloe from south africa) and an endangered species bauhinia (germinated like a bean). Obviously by using only seed you do not threaten the endangered plants themselves. This project is a big one, and many seeds are very rare and expensive (and difficult to start), so I will need to write a crowdfunding project to help me finance this. Hope people contribute. Furthermore, I plan to later propagate more these rare plants and spreadf them to other people, so that these species remains less rare and farther away from the brink of extinction.

Aloe dichotoma, frankincense, and bauhinia, 3 plants I am growing from seed that face risk of extinction. 


This is a second attempt after the experiments last summer.
Last year I successfully grew siberian tomatoes, even in such an unusually cold and rainy summer! This year I want to try corn; still a second try of the painted mountain corn, which failed miserably last summer, but I am going to try also dwarf blue jade corn, and earlivee (the quickest corn to produce). Dwarf and early varieties are probably a good bet.
I ordered bush bean "provider" which was recommended by people in Canada, as more cold tolerant than most beans. And bush varieties of pumpkins: summer ball and golden nugget. They don't grow long, so they will be similar to zuchini which grows well in our cool Icelandic summers.
About the tomatoes, I am growing an outstanding number of 15 different varieties, all adapted to cold climates, from Alaska, Canada and Siberia. I already exposed seedlings to -6ºC and snow outside and had several of them survived. I am doing a natural selection of them.

This siberian tomato plant has survived freezing of -6ºC and it is still alive and recovering. While I demonstrate the extreme situation, this variety is able to set fruit outdoors in Iceland, which is quite an achivement.


I done this back in 2007. I did an experiment of planting spinach and radish for each day for an entire moon cycle. Such a patience! I observed that radish produced better roots and bushier plants when planted in earth and water element days, while seeds in general germinated faster near the full moon. Seeds germinated near new moon grew longer roots, while those at full moon, longer aerial parts.
As a scientist/ biologist, I am quite surprised, shocked, and fascinated, that yes plants do respond to lunar cycles and lunar influences.
Now I have repeated the experiment in February with seeds of radish, broccoli, tagete, chicory and tomatoes. I have seen many interesting observations which I will report later, but basically they reinforced what I have seen back in 2007. I add that last year I saw also an impact of the use of certain biodynamic herbs (valerian, nettles, dandelion, chamomile) on the growth of vegetables (when added on the watering of those plants).


This is another crazy idea I had.
Long it has been reported that crops grow fantastic well in volcanic slopes and soils. Since I live in a volcanic island, one day, while we were hiking, I imagined I could try the volcanic material of the different 30 active volcanoes in Iceland, and see how plants react. I started a few experiments with ash and gravel from Hekla, Veidivotn, Katla and Grimsnes volcanoes from Iceland. So far, I see that most of them seem to increase growth of the plants, as compared to controls without volcanic material. I will report on this later.

Testing different volcanic rocks/ash, in plant growth


These are all developments done with other people.
First, I have been invited to give permaculture lectures where I live in Sólheimar, I will gladly do so. I think it's time to push forward some of my educational side. Also, this spring I am excited to see whether I will manage to have the opportunity to do an online permaculture course with the big guys in Australia. More details later.
Another outreach thing - but one that I am skeptical about - is to bring forward the idea of permaculture into Solheimar (the community where we live in). This would be to implement the idea of a garden with perennial species, zoning design and forest gardening, applied  to the community garden in Solheimar, possibly also to the other outdoor spaces, and also inside the community´s plastic house. Perhaps even a collection of medicinal plants, exotic tropical species and unusual crops.
All of these ideas develop slowly. People are still not receptive, so I do not want to invest much energy on it. Also I am impatient so when people do not show interest or support, I quite rather early and focus in my own projects without bothering others. I don't like pushing my ideas into other people, if they are not receptive to them. Manifesting the idea of permaculture is surely a challenge in Iceland (since it has no tradition in gardening or even vegetable farming). Nevertheless I feel the need to move my ideas from a personal to a more communitarian and social sphere. It makes all the sense, since human beings are community beings, not isolated cells. Let's see how it goes.

I am happy growing many indoor vegetables, and also many other interesting species, like edible perennials, fruit trees, endangered species, medicinal herbs. However such projects cannot be sustainable if not supported by other fellow human beings, and continued by others.


One of these is to continue to cultivate edible plants from around the world, especially perennials, and introduce some of them to my permaculture garden in front of our house. And hopefully transform it, gradually, into a forest garden kind of thing.

Another project is to continue the 1 month food production project. This year I will still cultivate vegetables, broad beans, normal beans and peas, potatoes, and of course, try grains. Last year the grains mostly failed (except for oats), so now I am cultivating much earlier indoors (and more varities - something ought to work!). I organized myself and did a calender for the gardening tasks in Iceland, with the exact timing one must sow seeds and transplant them outdoors, in order to be successfully with an harvest. I also want to eat much more, rather than just trying and experiment. Currently, we are already growing salads and sprouts indoors.

I also want to develop an essential oil mix to deter spider mites and aphids. I created one with rosemary, peppermint, lemongrass, and some lavender, thyme and cinnamon. It seems to at least control them, but it burns the leaves of some sensitive plants if applied too much. Perhaps dilution is key. Spider mites are a big problem, they quickly kill a plant, and I can loose months of effort within a couple of days.

Yacon(left) and chinese artichokes (right): two edible perennial roots

Indoors, I am excited to try to acomplish the following goals: collect seed from the perennial roccoto chili pepper, from the mexican jicama root, harvest chinese yams, grow different and beautiful varieties of peppers, tomatoes and corn, grow and produce yacon, grow more moringa, grow winged beans, and try peanuts for the first time. Outdoors, I want to grow skirret, chinese artichokes and try again the groundnut. Want to try quinoa outdoors, now not in a container but transplanted into the soil! And hopefully I will get the cherry tree to produce fruit this year (fingers crossed!)

Monday, 30 December 2013

Much larger projects - saving endangered plant species

You probably notice I have been absent from the blog for a while.

December visits
I have travelled to Portugal for a month. I visited a few permaculture projects, some nice ones, like the Fojo (near Pombal) and Cherry Pond (near Gouveia). Last summer we visited the famous ones: Martin Crowford's forest garden, the Plants for a Future farm, and Seff Hozler amazing project.

These are some serious experiments at improving food sustainability. I notice that many projects brand themselves as "permaculture" but they add little to what countless generations have done and grown in the countryside. We should be more experimental.

Now, both me and Pami, have found two personal projects, which will occupy our lives for decades ahead.

A collection of medicinal plants
One is making a collection of medicinal plants (and she is doing a 4 year course in natural herbal medicine, not trivial stuff you find everywhere in the web, it's something deep).

So I have been collecting seed (and trying to germinate) plants like arnica, leonorus cardiaca, skullcap, etc, in addition to our collection which includes meadowsweet, valerian, angelica, etc. I also have been collecting seed of plants often used in aromatherapy: eucalyptus citriodora, patchouli, plumeria.

Eucalyptus citriodora is a tree I eagerly want to grow. The smell of its leaves is incredible. I had two exemplars but they died because of lack of watering. Now I am growing many more seedlings.

Saving endangered plants
Another big project that we are just starting, is making a collection of endangered plants. Controversial stuff, yes. I have noticed that many plants are in fast route to extinction and there are very little efforts towards stopping it. Even conversation institutions do little. They are limited to study why those species are becoming endangered, mapping them and saving seed in seed banks.

Well, things in nature do not work like that. Endangered plants must be kept growing. If not in their endangered habitats, then elsewhere. Often they are under threats of human construction, farming and forest fires, in the very reduced areas they still remain. Even making nature reserves to protect them, is not enough. If their area of growing is small, then a disease, climate change, or a forest fire will kill them, and then they are lost forever.

Frankincense is one example of a species in some risk of extinction. These trees were over-harvested because of its famous resin, which was given as a gift to Jesus on its birth. Are we going to let such a historical tree disappear only because we did nothing?

I don't understand why conservation institutions are not doing more (probably lack of funding is the answer). So, I will embark in such a mission. Some of these species have seeds for sale in the internet (sometimes even growing plants). I will order them, grow them with much devotion and propagate them. I intent to collaborate with as much people and institutions as possible, to many places can grow these species, to save them from extinction.

Some of these species include:
critical endangered (only one step from extinction): calendula maritima, aloe pillansii, some portuguese species, pinus torreyana, cycas debaoensis, agathosma gonaquensis, medicago citrina

endangered (high risk of extinction in the wild): parajubaea torallyi, araucaria araucana, abis pinsapo, cycas elongata, pinus maximartinezii, leucandendron discolor, atlas cedar, juniperus cedrus
vulnerable (risk of extinction in decades ahead): sandalwood, dracaena drago, jubaea chilensis, abis recurvata, cycas bifada, abis fabri, pinus gerardiana, aloe dichotoma, aloe ramosissima, bauhinia bowkeri, rhamnus glandulosa
near threatened (likely to become endangered in the near future): frankincense, abis spectabilis

Often some of these species are only growing in a single location, in areas not larger than a few sq km! Imagine how fragile their situation is!

The Torrey pine is the second most rare pine in the planet. It only grows in a single spot in the west coast of the US. Though rare, sometimes seed can be found for sale. The qiaojia pine is even rarer. There are only 20 trees in the entire planet, in a forest in China. The Baishan fir, also native to China, has only 3 trees left. Both are extremely close to extinction.

I will be starting a crowfunding project in soon, to have some funding to buy their seeds and for to cover the incredible ammount of work that this task requires. Please contact me if you already want to donate some fundingx or be informed about this project. Even small donations are welcomed.

These species cannot wait to be protected.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

December- the impermanence of Permaculture

During the last month of November, I was ill for a few weeks. Recovering now :)

The very cold weather arrives
Outdoors not so much was going on. The weather has been very cold in Iceland, average -5ºC to -12ºC, and down to -21ºC in one day. The snow has been pilling to half a meter. All the plants are dormant under the snow, and it looks like most perennials are surviving well under the protection of the snow. Cycle to cycle, this is the time of the year when nothing can be grown in Iceland. Or could it?

This is how Iceland looks like in winter

Compact fluorescent lamps, for growing plants alive indoors
Indoors, I bought a set of powerful bright compact fluorescent lights (300W, about 20.000 lumen). Before this, it was difficult to keep most plants alive indoors (even when using four 20W cf lamps). Now, the 300 W light is so blindly bright that almost all plants are thriving.  I can keep my tree seedlings alive during the darkness of the winter.

Hopefully, we will be able to grow vegetables, like salads, perhaps even tomatoes, during winter.


I also had a powerful insight, during these recent weeks, as I was ill. That nothing is permanent, and so I am thinking about what I have now called "Impermaculture". Nothing is permanent, everything is always changing, so the notion of trying to control a stable system is impossible. Systems are inherently unstable, change and sometimes dramatically and outside of our control. Let's say you have a property and a forest garden, it is possible that you lose everything you planted to an extreme drought or a forest fire. And I think its worthless to have this idea of control (which implies a lot of effort), when nothing is assured. Better to plant and just let is flow, without expectations. In this context, a wide diversity of species, and also doing a wide number of forest garden projects, ensures better survival of species, and of rich habitats.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

October - and the results of our "1 month food self-sufficiency" experiment !!

Early October. We have had the first few freezing frosts (-7ºC during the night), and also the first snowflakes. The soil is now often frozen and it is the official end of the growing season in Iceland.

I harvested the rest of the vegetables.
I give figures to how much I have harvested in Kg, the comparison with yields of conventional and organic farming, and how many meals is that going to feed me, and if whether that crop will be able to feed for a month.

- the Potatoes: I harvested 1.5 Kg from 1m2 (in the sunny side of the garden), and 3 Kg from 5m2 (in the shade side of the garden). Those shade potatoes had very lush leafy growth, and actually being on the shade and having more compost (higher nitrogen) was not so good for tuber production; their yield was about a third. Yields were respectively: 15 ton/ha, and 6 ton/ha. Commercial (and conventional) yields are usually between 15 to 45 ton/ha. Top organic yields are 25ton/ha. The 4.5 Kg are enough potatoes for 1 month, if I eat them every other day. Many tubers are small, but some have a nice size. If I eat potatoes every day for a year, then I need around 72 m2.
- Turnips and swedes: another success story for these nice root crops. All produce nice shaped roots, but the soil add a nice addition of compost and seaweed. They were grown from tiny transplants. They produced about 1.5 Kg turnips (11 units) and 1.5 kg swedes (5 units), per 1m2 for each. These 16 tubers are probably more than enough for a month. Their yield is therefore around 15 ton/ha, as identical to potatoes. But I also used a lot of the turnip tops, as excellent cooked greens. Yields are within the range of conventional farming (10 to 25 ton/ha). Organic yields top 20 ton/ha. Not bad!
- Broad beans: it was another success crop, though all the beans were only produced throughout August and September and are now burnt by the frosts. It gave a few meals. Sadly, most pods were not ripen to save some seed, but who knows, some might actually germinate next year. Remember that these plants survived -15ºC, under a cold frame, in April. And the best these plants do, is to increase nitrogen levels on the ground and produce a lot of mulching biomass! Such a good crop. They produced 200 g of beans, per square meter (or a yield of 2 ton/ha). Enough for about 6 meals. This yield is superior to that of conventional farming!
- Peas. A nice success, as I was harvesting between July and September, but less towards the end of the season. Peas sown later did not produce any crop. Their yield (of fresh pods) was around 200 g per square meter, or 2 ton/ha. Enough for 6 meals. On this experiment, both the peas and broad beans feed me for about 12 meals, which can be enough within a month. About 30m2 would be required for a full year.
Siberian kale was the most successful crop this year. I have been eating it nearly every day since June! And it was all self-sown. I have harvested an estimated 4 Kg (around 1 Kg of greens per month), but there is a lot more outside waiting to be harvested.
Broccoli: some flowers heads were harvested. Broccoli seems to be a very reliable crop in Iceland. Heads are small but tasty, and are still under harvest as of early October. I have harvested an estimated 500 g. They were between 25 to 50% of supermarket size broccoli heads. The other day I met a couple that had a commercial crop of broccoli and they also had a very nice harvest, even in this cold summer.
- Rocket and Valerian salads were too of the most successful crops, for about 2 months. I must grow much more for next year! However, and sadly, the summer was too cold for anything to be able to self-sown. Even the kale did not produce ripen seed pods.
Chives: a successful perennial. I harvested it many times throughout the summer, and it will keep growing.

- I harvested two Siberian tomatoes outdoors. And a few others down in the community garden, where the microclimate is warmer. All were in sheltered spots and transplants already in flower. Their colors ranged from orange to red. But being this a weak summer, this was really a success. It took them July to set fruit, and August to ripen it. Smaller transplants only flowered but set no fruit. I gathered seed so that I can try many more plants next summer. What will be known as "Arctic circle tomatoes". The plants have survived -4ºC with some damage, but top growth has been completely killed by yesterday's -7ºC. The seed saved is viable and abundant. Next year, I will grow their seedlings and select -again- for the quickest fruit, and most tolerance to cold weather. The Siberian tomatoes was one of my proudest achievements!

- The Quinoa was quite a success! It was growing extremely well when placed outdoors since it was a seedling in late May to August when the flower heads started. However their growth stalled and entire flower heads died in the very rainy weather of August and frosty winds of September. However I harvested a few seeds (and they were viable!). A couple of plants, enclosed in a container, produced 12 g of seeds and judging from that small space, yields could be estimated to a few ton/ha, which I feel it can surpass the yields of mainstream cereals, and providing better nutrition. However, quinoa did not grow to its full potential. Indoors, I was not even able to grow amaranth. Both need intense sunlight, otherwise the plants do not do well. But quinoa showed that it's remarkable adapted to cool climates. Chilly weather is fine, a small frost is tolerable, but anything lower than -3ºC can kill most of the plant.

- An important success was to be able to grow from seed the following permaculture-significant trees: honey locust, mesquite, princess tree, laburnum, siberian pea shrub, mulberries, one wax myrtle, one jujube, and a few sea buckthorns. I cross my fingers in hoping that these trees survive their first full winter outdoors! I bought some of the sea buckthorns in a local nursery, so they are larger plants, ready to plant out. I expect to have first fruit in about 4 years from now (by 2017). It could even become a commercial crop one day. I also found larger pea shrubs in local nurseries. Indoors, I keep two seedlings of date palms, two hazelnut trees (corylus americana) and a few chilean mesquite trees.
- Passionfruit: after 2 years of growth, one vine grown from store-bought fruit seed (already 3 meter long) produce a couple of tasty passionfruits! This is an extraordinary success and probably the first passionfruits ever grown locally in Iceland! And I have a few more plants growing from seed.

Pomegranates. A tree that grew so much in only one year (from seed). Up to half a meter. And it is very undemanding.
Tiger nuts. Last time I checked (in August), one plant had no tubers whatsoever. Now in October I dug one plant and found out 23 tubers or 12 g, this was a tiny space of 10 x 10 cm. It is amazing. The yield of them would be extrapolated to 12 ton /ha, nearing that of potatoes. One of the most easiest crops, requiring almost no care.

Oats and Rye: while these had poor harvests (and grain is probably unripen and unfit for human consumption), it was still fun to do it. The rye gave some grain, after overwinter, even in such a terrible summer. The oats also produce some grain, but it was little. All seed was viable, as it readily germinates. These seed-saved oats will be a new variety that I name "the Icelandic extreme". They produced lots of biomass that will add to new mulch on the ground. Rye is easy to thresh and winnow, oats are much harder to remove from their awns.
The rye grain was entirely unripe, sometimes even moldy (due to constant rainfall). My largest concern is that it likely contains ergot. Therefore I am not going to eat it! It's such a shame! Such crop failures were the reason for the common famines that Europe had until a century ago. The oats show new tillering, so I wonder if some plants could become short-lived perennials. The plants produce around 100 g per square meter (I got 150 g rye from 2m2, and just 24 g of oats from a small 0.2 m2 plot). Their yields were about 1 ton/ha, in both cases, which are about 30% of conventional farming average yields (around 3 ton/ha). In developing countries, yields can be only 1.5 ton/ha, thus similar to ours. So, for a start, its not that bad!
This is enough to produce either 2 meals of pasta, 5 slices of bread, or 2 breakfasts meals.  I estimate to eat at least 4 Kg of grain per month, thus this harvest is enough for only 2 days. I would need at least 480m2 of field to grow my own grain for an entire year (or 40m2 for a full month). Seems too impractical and makes me think how sustainable it is to grow and eat grains! The problem is that I did not harvested anything from the backyard cereal field - it was in part shade and the grains failed to ripen due to such a terrible summer.

- The perennial rye did not produce any seed, but it showed amazing growth. It will hopefully survive the winters and produce grain in the next years. And it seems unaffected by the recent freezing. As a perennial, it could be a great example of sustainability for the future. The perennial rye is the rarity jewel in my garden! I just need to know whether they become a perennial and whether they produce new viable seed.

- Barley. Such a crappy summer but even with a late sowing (and terrible short growing season), the barley did quickly produce seed heads in part shade, but they are mostly green. However its fat seed heads seems to promise a crop of much potential for Iceland, with a much quicker and more reliable harvest, compared to rye or wheat. And it is easier to thresh than oats.
- I have harvested a few seeds of few varieties of Millets. The Pearl millet seems to require better pollination, so growing it indoors is not an ideal option. I have harvested a few seeds, that were very easy to pick. The Proso millet failed to flower, requiring a longer growing season, but it seems more tolerant to a lack of water. the Japanese millet produce a few seed heads and I collect a nice amount of seed from just one container, which was easy to harvest. The teff also produced seeds, which are extremely tiny, but easy to winnow. I still have to test these seeds for viability. The millets were more grown for curiosity than to provide food. But they show excellent potential as drought tolerant cereal crops for the increasingly arid climate of Portugal.
Kohlrabi. I only harvested one bulb, from about 10 plants. It had 350 g. I added a lot of compost to that plant so that it could grow faster. While a very tasty crop, growing kohlrabi seems challenging in Iceland.
- Pak choy was a nice early crop, and seems it has self-sown itself, so hopefully I could have a "forest" of it next year. Just like it happened with the kale this year. However it quickly goes to seed, so I will grow it in part shade next summer. Kale seems to be a better use of space.
- Lettuce: I had some nice lettuce but they were grown in a container hugelkultur, with some rice compost added. It really prefers a sheltered spot to thrive.
- The spring onions were a bit of a failure. Their growth was slow, however they will likely overwinter and produce a nice crop next year.
- Moringa. I have cooked leaves from the "miracle tree" and found them acceptable. However, the small tree is very picky, vulnerable to spider mites, and goes often into dormancy. Furthermore, the cat broke its growing tip, which is not a problem for this species. I also did that accidentally for a seedling of pecan nut, which hopefully will recover.

- Hopefully, the walking onions will also produce nice harvests and naturalize in the garden within the next couple of years , but the plants are still small. The same will apply for the multiplier onions and the ramps. I have these species in several spots, so to assure I do not lose them. 
- I have nice growth for only one plant of perennial broccoli. I should plant many more next year. In addition, we have a few plants of salad burnet and the scorzonera root, and two small plants of crambe, which hopefully will overwinter.
- I have a couple of good king henry plants, grown from seed. They seem established and this is of course a happy achievement. They might be the perennial spinach I have been looking for. I have it growing outdoors and in a plastic house, to assure their survival.
- I have a few avocado tree seedlings. They dislike growing indoors since they are sensitive to the spider mites. However, outdoors, the seedlings face -7ºC with no big problem.
- Asparagus. While it is on its way to produce the first thick stems, any asparagus tried outdoors was a uterly disappointment. The plants do nothing. Any harvest will only start in spring 2015.
- It has been 2 years since I have been growing Ginger. I finally dug the plant and it has produced some (but not many) new fresh roots, which can be used. Ginger is slow to grow, but rather carefree!
- There are new perennials I just got: a sort of perennial leek, a bamboo, a tiny tuber of arrowhead, and hopefully a cutting of rubus nepalensis.
- One Jícama, did produce a small tuber, after 10 months of growth. Sadly the cat turned the container down  into the flood and the upper part died. But when I dug I was happy to discover such a tuber (which was just starting to enlarge). I still have another growing plant and at the surface I can see another - significantly larger - tuber forming (the size of a turnip). I am not going to eat it; I need to save more of its seed, and conserving the tuber to produce new growth for the next summer.
Oca grows amazingly well in our cold rainy Icelandic climate. They stand frosts around 0ºC but the plant mostly dies when it freezes below -3ºC. Now I am waiting for their tuber production. But I am not going to dig them until December. I dug one, and its tubers were still extremely tiny as of early October. True, the tubers only start forming after the autumn equinox.

- I failed to harvest any kamut wheat  (not a single grain - all the heads were green). But most of it was sown too late by May, or grown in part shade. As a solution, I have sown plenty of overwintering wheat for next year (in both sunny and shade locations), and the plan is to grow it at the community garden in the next year, to feed chicken or try to make a few breads.
- I also failed to harvest any Painted mountain corn. Next year I must try a different variety of earlier sweet corn.
- Likewise I failed to harvest any beets (they just bolted). Carrots are always a better crop.
- And again I failed to harvest any Jerusalem artichokes despite their intense leafy growth. Absolutely no new tubers. This is surely a mystery.
- I also failed to harvest any sunflower seeds. They all flower nicely but seed rots down during the month of August, when it rained nearly every day.
- A failure this year was the zucchini, which was a nice success in the last 2 years. It was simply a too cold summer for the squash, even under a cold frame. Absolute failures were attempts to grow siberian watermelon, or hardy varieties of melon. The zucchini needs a summer with average highs around 18ºC, or it will fail to set fruit.
- Failure was also the cherry tree, which did not produce any fruit (due to stormy cold winds in June). Hopefully next year. And we have a few apples and cherry trees in the community tree, which despite no fruit, they show nice growth. Soul cherries are another thing to try.
- The Groundnut (apios americana) and yams (dioscorea japonica) were 2 crops, which I had significant expectations (as both are cold hardy and perennial sources of starchy roots), however they fail to have any significant growth. Their tubers are still alive, so I must see how they behave during the next year.
- Indoors, the failure was any sort of beans (winged beans, lima beans, groundnut), due to the spider mite problem. While under control, this was the other misery factor of 2013, in addition to the weather.

Conclusion: I have succeeded growing enough vegetables, turnips, potatoes, beans and peas, to provide me food for a full 1 month. And cereals (oats) only for a meal, due to the crop failures of wheat, barley and rye. The "1 month food self-sufficiency" experiment was therefore quite a success!

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Food sustainability, an essay

I was calculating how much land is it required to feed a person on a year, with eggs, beans, grains, and meat. The conclusions are pretty interesting and it pushes us towards a vegetarian diet, which relies a bit on grains (but not so much), and more in potatoes, pulses, nuts and also eggs. Meat is very unsustainable. Grains are also not the most sustainable option.

It is much better is to convert a fraction of an area (about 60m2) to feed 3 chicken hens for a year, and then provide an average of 2 eggs per day, rather then occupying 480m2 to grow grains, to be produce our staple foods (bread, rice, pasta).

Seems that eggs are significantly more sustainable than grains! However if you want meat instead of eggs - let's say to eat one chicken per week - than the amount of land required is 3000m2 (which is 6 times more than growing grain for a year). Eating meat is even more terribly unsustainable than growing and eating grain!

Land required per year:
Beans or peas (every other day) - 30 m2
Eggs (2 eggs per day) - 60 m2
Potatoes (1 meal per day)- 72 m2
Rye/grains (130 g per day) - 480 m2 (corn requires less land) (quinoa and amaranth are also better options)

Chicken meat (1 animal per week) - 3000 m2 (and other types of meat are even more unsustainable)

Being vegetarian has a much less impact in our planet. It requires much less land.

As a final remark, nuts are probably well worth to consider (walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, almonds, peanuts). The area occupied to feed a person on a year is similar to the area required by grains. However, we must remember that this will be an area ocuppied by a forest (nut trees), which provide more habitat for animals and other plants, and it is a low input crop, yielding for many years without any effort.

Peanuts (like most culinary nuts) are excellent choices for a sustainable lifestyle. Buy peanut butter without additives (like the organic one), it is much healthier and more tastier. It's the real thing. It's also easy to do spreads of hazelnut with cocoa powder (basic nutella), much healthier than the commercial processed nutella.

Perennial starch and perennial protein should be two of the main preocupations of permaculture people nowadays. However I see everyone growing and focusing their attention on vegetable gardens and their veggie garden designs, but no one stops to think about the meat, milk and grains they still eat. It's a completely unsustainable matter that deserves our attention!

I have pointed out, often, sources of perennial protein and perennial starch, and perennial sources of oil. This should be one of the "number 1 topics" in the permaculture circles. But it is still not. Please let us focus more attention and experimental work on this topic!

It's the real tenet of "permanent agriculture".

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Potato harvest: a success even in the coldest summer in decades!

I was recently on holidays and I haven't posted in a month. We were visiting several permaculture projects, visits of which will be the subject of future posts.

Now it's harvest time in Iceland!

And it has been the coldest summer, some say, since 60 years.

Others said that this has ranked the 4th worst summer in 100 years, with a mere 9 days of summer afternoons, compared to the average 40 days of recent warm summers. These are days of sunny weather and daily temperatures above 15ºC. Of course most of this summer was around a chilly 10ºC, and endless rain.

Potato time!

The potatoes were sown in mid May and harvest now in mid September (4 months of growing season). Yesterday I got a hard frost so this means its time to start to harvest them, before the ground freezes.

And it is a success!! In a small 1m2 square, I harvested 1.5 Kg, which is reasonable for about 5 meals (of 300g each). This means I have a yield of about 15 ton/ha, which is superior of that in Russia and Ukraine, and similar to that of the conventional production in Portugal, but still 3 less below that of Germany or the UK. But its organic potato, grown in Iceland, in the worst summer of many decades.

No compost was added to the field. I just added a thick mulch of lupins and cut grass. But the bed has kitchen compost added the year before. The seed potato was a store bought local variety.

I still have a larger field of potatoes to harvest - in the backyard of the house  - which should give me 9 Kg extra of potatoes (the total would be enough for 35 meals, or about 2 months if I eat potatoes every other day!!!

Note: top yields of organic potato production are around 25 ton/ha, which is 1.6x superior to ours, but we were growing under much more extreme weather and without any sort of external inputs (like manure, fish meal..)

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Early August- The growing season is almost over, but the harvests not ready yet

It´s early August, and I have been busy not only gardening but also travelling and chatting with other people growing their own food.

Interactions with other people

In the past couple of weeks, I received two visits of people interested in Permaculture. The visits were readers of the forum. One was from a couple that is starting a farm in south Iceland and so I am very glad to see someone joining the movement of growing local food in Iceland. The other was a friendly guy from Alaska, growing food at Bethem, they have a similar climate to ours, though the summer is warmer than ours. They made extensive use of polytunnels and subterranean storage rooms. Here is their website 

During this time I also exchanged emails with people growing food near the Arctic Circle. One was Lone Sorensen, growing food at Nunavut The other was from a food chef grows salads at Svalbard, but indoors

In the next few weeks I will visit the projects of Plants for a Future and Martin's Crowford forest garden in southwest UK, and Seff Holzer Kramerterhof project, high in the Austrian Alps.

The experiment with 1 month food production outdoors in Iceland

Its still early to know whether the experiment worked or not.

The biomass in the garden has grown to its full extent. I had eaten the first few harvests of peas, lettuce, broccoli, carrots and kohlrabi. The broad beans are still forming pods, while the grain is heading but I am unsure whether it will ripen or not. The potatoes have lush foliage and I wonder how good they are beneath the soil surface. I am confident that with a good harvest of potatoes, beans and grains, my experiment with food production will be considered a success.

I sown a lot of overwintering wheat, rye and triticale, both in a bed prepared with cut lupins, compost and pumice, and in an extensive backyard area that has tilled soil without any preparation.

I have two siberian tomatoes ripening outdoors, but were transplanted in fruit setting. The ones that started flowering outdoors never set any fruit and probably never will. It was also a failure for the zucchini. While I had a nice crop of it in 2011 and 2012, this year the weather has been so cold that it is proving impossible even under a low tunnel.

I had a few frosts in June, July and August. And also cold northern winds for the past few days. The improvised windbreaks and plastic frames help, and raise the temperature by 2 to 5ºC but I am not sure whether they will survive the extreme winds of the upcoming winter.

The swedes and turnips are just forming their bulbs as most kohlrabi. The beets do not seem to be forming a bulb yet. The painted mountain corn was a failure: no harvest outdoors, not even flowering. Some perennials look very good: the walking onions, the good king henry, the chives, crambe and jerusalem artichokes.

The arugula, valerian salad, pack choy and coriander, are flowering and I hope to have it self-sown.

Indoors I cleaned everything because of the spider mites, I introduced predator mites and hose the plants left outdoors for a few days. Everything seems much better, but some indoor plants were slightly damaged by unexpected frost a few days ago. I think I will not have any crop of the millet, amaranth, lima beans, winged beans, groundnut, and other rare vegetables I was expecting to have. The summer is just finishing, and the daylight quickly decreasing.

However I still hope to harvest some oca and quinoa, now growing outdoors.

Testing nutrients in soil

I received a kit to test soil nutrients from ebay and I analysed the soil. I was surprised to see a neutral pH, high levels of potassium and phosphorus but depleted levels of nitrogen. It seems that the nitrogen is leached due to excessive rainfall but this loss is prevented by covering the ground with thick mulching, plastic or growing nitrogen fixing species. I will write a detailed post about this.

Finally we also got a kitten, and we did a natural pond to attract wildlife.

Overall, I now feel a feeling of letting things grow wild and nature follow its course; not creating too many expectations; and adapting myself to this hard climate.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Plan for 2014

Since the summer is almost gone (and has been so cold), I did a plan of our garden for next year, using It is just an idea. 

I am thinking planting the taller plants to the left, since that is facing southeast (where dominant winds blow). I will also place on that southeast facing side, a windbreak, to shelter against the winds.

Click here for full size picture

Monday, 15 July 2013

Gardening at the Arctic - ways of raising soil temperature (and extending growing season)

  • Windbreaks (by using transparent thick plastic, the plants are protected by the winds, wildlife finds a sheltered spot, and the sun heats through the plastic increasing the air temperature around the plants (up to 2ºC)
  • Use raised beds and slope beds (facing the sun) to increase the soil temperate- raised soil warms much faster than surrounding soil. Use black sandy soil, near the surface.
  • Avove or within the soil, place a mulch of decomposing grass (when it decomposes it releases heat.
  • Use clear plastic mulch, above the soil and grass mulch (this increases much more the soil temperature)
  • Use microclimate; place certain plants in a protected spot amongst other taller and bushier plant. Also planting against a south oriented wall, has a higher temperature than other spots (around 2ºC).

  • Any sheltered spot, near a wall, has also higher temperature (usually up to 2ºC), and much less frost.
  • Sandy soil freezes less, and warms faster. Count up to 2ºC more, when sun shines.
  • Use peatmoss as a protection against hard freezes. Cover plants also with a plastic for extra protection. Both can raise the soil temperature up to 2ºC. Bare soil is the worst, it will freeze hard, without any protection. 
  • Use fleece as an easy way to protect all plants from frosts. A fleece prevents frost formation down to -3ºC, but usually only raises about 1ºC of the night temperature.
  • Use a cold frame to protect young seedlings. Cold frame can increase night temperature up to 2ºC and significantly more during sunshine. If you use all methods above, you can prevent the soil from freezing even when it gets to -10ºC.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Early July - the first harvests!

July frosts, rain nearly every day

For a few days of the last days we have been having minor frosts at night (lows around 0-3°C) but sunny mild afternoons (highs around 15-18°C). Still it is a cold summer, colder than average, and the squash is just beginning to flower now (too late). The melon plants died, when the temperature first reached 2°C during one of the last nights. But it has rained non-stop for 2 months! 

First harvests: kale, pak choy, salads

Still, there are many successes. The pak choy and kale is ready for harvest, so are the salads, the peas and beans are flowering, and the broccoli is just a question of time. Another nice harvest are the strawberries (they grow so well in the Icelandic summer). Chives is another of those perfect crops for Iceland.

Slowly the turnips, leeks and spring onions also seem to be heading to a crop. The swede (swedish turnip) is much faster and it is just beginning to start forming its large root.

The rye and oats are heading and I should have my very first harvest by September. Probably the barley (and the perennial rye) will be heading in the next few weeks, but the wheat seems to be slow, and I don´t think I will get an harvest from it. 

Kale, broccoli, pak choy, salad, parsley, coriander

Best time for sowing crops

Mid July is also the best time to sow radish (outdoors). Because early sown radish tends to bolt during the 24 hour daylight. It is probably the best time to sow overwintering grains.

The best time for sowing the other crops is late March for broccoli, kohlrabi, leeks, celery, beets, fennel, lettuce and tomatoes (all indoors, for transplant out by June), mid April for lettuce, corn salad and carrots (outdoors), cereals, broad beans, turnips, swedes, pak choy and kale (outdoors or growing indoors for a few weeks) and squash (indoors for transplant out by mid June). Potatoes should be planted out by June.


The story of a kohlrabi

I might have for the first time (in Iceland) a kohlrabi, it is forming the bulb now, but it was a 2.5 month old transplant in mid June (so best time for sowing it indoors is around late March. The soil where it is planted is the richest - it had a lot of our homemade kitchen compost.

The kohlrabi

Weeds as soil indicators - and the secret of a fertile soil

I am using weeds as soil indicators. Where sorrel grows, it indicates an acidic soil, potencially lacking in calcium. If I start to see weeds like chickweed, groundsel and pigweed family weeds, then it means that the soil is as fertile as it should be. This is done just by adding enough compost and ensuring a good soil structure (adding the hollow branches of lupins and angelica, as well as peatmoss and seaweed, really helps!). I also mulch with a lot of nettles, lupins, sweet cicely, ferns, coltsfoot, dandelion and meadowsweet, to see which weed is best cut as a mulch.

This is a container having hugelkultur; compost, dead wood and branches - the vegetables are growing very healthy and rapidly, because of the good soil structure and soil life.

Planning new grains for overwinter

I am digging out the last remaining part of lawn in front of our appartment. I am laying soil and compost over it, and around 15-30 July, I plan to sow winter oats, winter rye, triticale, and winter wheat (some new 4m2). I am waiting for the seeds I ordered from If I can manage to make the plants overwinter, with thick mulching, then I should be able to have a harvest next summer. The challenges in Iceland are both a short, cold and unreliable summer, and the winter with too many cycles of thawing and freezing.

The medicinal plants of Iceland

We have been trying the edible and medicinal uses of many Icelandic native plants. These last days I drunk an infusion of lady bedstraw, greater plantain, we cooked with dandelion and nettles, I ate the leaves of sweet cicely and cuckoo flower  (after positive ID)

Warm loving crops and building a plastic windbreak

The siberian tomatoes are just beginning to ripe (but they are so slow that its only for the fun of it). The painted mountain corn is a kind of failure. It grows slowly and if I move a tall plant from the greenhouse, the stems fall with the often windy Icelandic climate. Seems impossible to grow corn in Iceland, even with this variety, which is the best for cold summers.

However, one success story is the quinoa. The quinoa was growing 2 months indoors before being moved out in June, and it is about to begin the flowering stage (which requires cool weather). Hopefully it will produce an harvest sometime in late summer.

I started yesterday to build a simple windbreak and kind of cold frame, or greenhouse. In a sheltered spot near the walls of the house (where I grow the tomatoes), I stuck two pieces of wood and a transparent plastic between them (1 meter high, 2 meters wide). This should produce a greenhouse like microclimate, that should allow me to grow many of the warm loving crops next year.

Siberian tomatoes cropping outdoors
Many flowers

After the tulips, daffodils, crocus, scilla, frittilaries and muscari, I have outside pansies, tagetes, centaurea, phacelia, lupins, wild myosotis, wild sedum, roseroot, poppies, water avens, and even a nice clematis and laburnum climbinb against the wall. The flowering brassicas and angelica attract many beneficial insects.

Flowering broad beans, peas, brassicas, pansies and oats

Trying perennial vegetables in Iceland

I also abandoned the idea of moving my 1 year trees to the outdoors, after causing them to suffer a cold shock in June. I keep all the mulberries, honey locust and chilean mesquite indoors, as well as the asparagus, since they seem to stop growing in such cool weather. The same happened for the groundnut (and thus I kept one plant in a container indoors). The chinese yams also do not grow outdoors. 

I have a feeling that the siberian pea shrub might do fine in Iceland, as well as the good king henry. The crambe is also doing nicely outdoors, but I believe it will not flower this year. All these are growing in a fine way.

Besides that, we have nice patches of strawberries, chives, multiplier onions, walking onions, perennial rye, rhubarb and scotish lovage, all growing very happily in our cold climate. There is a change that the amelanchier (juneberry), mulberry, elaeagnus (silverberry) and pecan, might grow better outdoors.

Good king henry, a kind of perennial spinach, giving also broccoli like heads and  early spring shots like asparagus

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Map of the permaculture garden - 2013

Thanks to I was able to draw a design map of our current garden.

Click here to see the map in full size