August 30, 2021

Tomatoes as Ground Cover (?)

I have a lot of volunteer cherry tomatoes this year. And most of them, I've just let grow. It's been nice to get the extra tomatoes and interesting to observe how they do in their different places. I have one bed that contained fall and winter veggies, but the cherry toms took over once everything was harvested.

A mounding mass of cherry tomato vines. 

The plants are indeterminate. I didn't stake any of these because I was curious how they would do growing on the ground. They've managed to produce quite nicely. They tend to sprawl out of the bed, so I lay the vines back over the plants to keep the aisles clear. They've done so well, that I began to wonder if I could use them as ground cover somewhere. I had just the place, too. 

Ridge on the right and the ground dips above the ridge.

The above photo was taken down in our woods, in the goat browse. Our land is a series of ridges descending toward the back of the property, and some of the ridges have a dip in the uphill side, kinda like a very shallow swale. Were they deliberately made that way? I have no idea. But when it rains, these dips catch and hold water fairly well. They aren't very deep and they are only roughly level, so with some improvement, I think they would make nice swales. 

For my tomato experiment, though, I was thinking about the ridges. Years ago, I placed logs and branches just below the ridges to help catch runoff and slow erosion. Much of that has settled over the years and needs more added, but I've also been wondering about planting something on the top of the ridges. Dan has taken out a number of dead or old trees, so the ridge here receives quite a bit of sun. The cherry tomatoes don't seem to mind partial shade, so this became the spot for my experiment.

Downside of a ridge with my dead wood barrier.

 I chose spots where the soil was bare and then scattered the seeds.

Tomato pulp from making tomato sauce.

The first time I tried this, I just left them scattered on the ground. When I came back a couple of days later, something had eaten them! Birds? Squirrels? Chipmunks? Opossums? Skunks? Could have been any of the above. This time I covered them with soil that I scraped up from the natural swales.

Maybe these dips can be dug out into proper swales.

There are a lot of tree roots there, but any improvement on the depth of the almost-swale would certainly help.

Tomato seeds covered with forest topsoil.

To protect the soil from washing in heavy rain, I mulched it with leaves.

Will it work? Time will tell. Likely, it won't grow until next year. I think it would be neat to see the ridge covered with sprawling tomato plants. They would provide ground cover plus food for wildlife and us too. Best of all, the goats don't eat tomato plants, so this may work very well. 

August 25, 2021

Forest Garden: Planning

We have a small, triangle-shaped area that was originally part of a treed ridge. It was also full of shrubs, so when it became part of a paddock, it was quickly eaten down by the goats. And it was the bucks favorite girl-watching spot, so it saw a lot of traffic. Dan wanted to do something with the area for years, but we didn't know what. First, we tried to establish it as silvopasture, but never got much to grow, probably because the boys favored the spot so much. Finally, the goats stressed the fence between the two pastures to the point of needing repair, so Dan took out a dead pine, thinned the oaks, and fenced it off to keep the goats out.

Cattle panel fence.

We've discussed ideas from time to time, but it wasn't until I finished the forest lectures in my PDC course, that we decided that the most productive thing to do with it was to turn it into a forest garden. A garden in a forest? More like, the forest is the garden. I was familiar with the concept, but the course gave us practical information and a plan. 

The green is the area for the proposed forest garden.

So, here's what we're starting with; pretty much a clean canvas.

View from the buck barn. The vine along the ground is a muscadine.

View looking back at the buck barn.

So, I've been researching what to plant. Forest gardens are built on layers of food producing plants: 
  • Canopy layer of tall trees
  • Understory trees
  • Shrubs
  • Herbs
  • Ground cover
  • Root crops
  • Climbers

We already have the canopy layer, which for us, is white oaks. The acorns are a favorite goat food, and I've experimented with them as well. We also have muscadines for climbers. So all we need to plant is everything else on the list! I want to choose things that will be happy in our growing zone and climate conditions, and which also will be happy with some shade. Here's my potential list so far. 

Canopy - besides the existing oaks, I'll plant some pecan tree trees

Understory trees
  • mulberries
  • pawpaws
  • redbuds
  • honeyberry
  • spicebush
  • comfrey
  • golden seal
  • wintergreen
  • ramps
  • hostas
Root crops
  • skirret
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • muscadine
  • hopniss
  • maybe hardy kiwi (in a sunnier spot)
Ground cover
  • violets
  • wild ginger

This is what I want to plant for sure, and I'll add more to the list as I continue researching. Fall is a good time for planting, so I hope to do as much as possible then. 

This is a pretty exciting project. Trees can be a very secure food source, producing fruits and nuts every year. So this seems like an excellent work-smarter-not-harder way to garden.

August 21, 2021

Canned Fig Coffee Cake

I had a jar of figs that didn't seal the other day, so I wanted to try something new with it. I dehydrate some figs, but I can most of them. Mostly, we eat the canned figs as breakfast fruit, but I'm always looking to increase diet diversity, especially with our homegrown foods. Coffee cake came to mind, you know, the kind with the crumb topping. Here's the recipe for my records.

Canned Fig Coffee Cake


  • 1½ cups of flour (I mixed whole wheat and unbleached white)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ¼ cup soft butter
  • 1 egg
  • ¾ liquid* (see below)
  • 1 pint canned figs (could use fresh.)

  • ⅓ cup brown sugar, packed
  • ¼ unbleached flour
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • 3 tbsp firm butter

*Drain figs and set aside. Reserve and measure liquid. Top it off with enough milk or whey to make ¾ cup total liquid.

Make topping by mixing all ingredients until crumbly. Set aside.

Blend all ingredients except figs and topping. Fold in figs and pour batter into a greased square baking dish. Sprinkle topping over batter. Bake at 375°F (190°C) for 30 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Serve warm.

It's nice to have something else to make with canned figs!

August 17, 2021

Outdoor Kitchen: Cookstove Part 1

I've been talking about building an outdoor kitchen for a long time. Earlier this year, we finally got serious about plans for it (this post.) However, it's been one of those projects that doesn't get to the top of the to-do list because something else always comes up. Like the gate project. I have alternative ways to cook, so the summer kitchen is the thing that gets put on hold. Finally, enough progress has been made that I can share it with you!

The stove we chose is a Walker brick masonry stove. We're considering replacing our wood heater, so this design is sort of a trial run. Not so much for the heat, but for the fuel efficiency. The firebox in the Walker stove is a batch box design, similar to the ones used in batch box rocket stoves. Why are these more efficient? The geometry between the firebox and the internal chimney path create a turbulent mixing of oxygen and wood gases. The result is that the fire burns more completely and more cleanly. People report a decrease in wood fuel consumption by up to 75-80%. What's not to like about that! (For a better and more thorough explanation of how it works, visit

Here's what's been accomplished so far. 

Frame for a concrete slab for the stove.

The base is cinder blocks.

Firebricks and red bricks.

The first layer.

The "core." Firebox and smoke path on the right. The oven will be on the left.

Side view of the core.

View from above. The smoke and heat come up from the fire
box and follow the brick path around and down into the oven.

The smoke and heat come out the left archway-like
 opening on the side of the core & circulate in the oven.
The little arch on the right will exit to the chimney.

View from the front. The rectangular
steel tubing is for airflow into the firebox.

Back of the core with brickwork begun.

Continued ---> here.

August 12, 2021

Of Tomatoes and Tomato Sauce

Does anyone grow paste tomatoes for making tomato sauce? I used to. I've grown Roma, San Marzano, and Amish Paste. I especially liked the flavor of the Amish Paste. But I found that paste tomatoes, no matter their variety, seem more susceptible to disease and other problems. So much so, that I finally gave up and stopped planting them.

I pick tomatoes while they are still somewhat green, and then let
them ripen on the countertop.  I have less bird damage that way.

The appeal of paste tomatoes is that they are fleshier and less juicy. That means it takes less cooking time to make sauce. Of course, any tomato can be used, the juicy ones just take longer to thicken. Also, because I freeze them to make sauce later, they tend to be watery when they defrost. I've learned to drain this tomato water and can it by itself, as an additive for soups and such. Kind of like the soup stock from vegetable scraps. Waste not, want not!

This year, I've had tons of cherry tomatoes. Last year I planted a few plants and they self-seeded so readily, that this year I have cherry tomatoes growing everywhere!

Matt's Wild Cherry Tomatoes and Eva Ball tomatoes.
Both varieties have done exceptionally well for me.

Since it's more than we can eat, I started adding them to my pizza sauce too. They are so flavorful, I figured they'd be great in sauce. Last week, I made my first batch containing cherry tomatoes and discovered that the sauce thickened up more quickly than it usually does!  

This morning's picking of tomatoes and okra.

I never thought about the juiciness of cherry tomatoes;. They are one-bite size, so we eat them whole in salads or scrambled in eggs. Mostly I just notice the flavor, but apparently, they are relatively meaty for their size!

I'm hoping the cherries grow a lot of volunteers next year too. Now that I know how great they are in tomato sauce, they are doubly appreciated.

August 7, 2021

Pattern in Permaculture Design

I've mentioned that I'm taking Bill Mollison's online Permaculture Design Course (PDC) at But, I also had the opportunity to get Geoff Lawton's 2013 PDC on DVD for just the price of postage(!) So, Dan and I have been watching that one together, while I fit in the online course as spare time allows. I'm going to have to say here, that until these courses, I didn't understand what permaculture actually is. Most of what I knew about permaculture was various gardening and landscaping techniques, or a business with services to purchase. From, I've started seeing permaculture as a lifestyle. But while there are many definitions to permaculture, it's always best to go to source material, in this case, Bill Mollison himself.

"Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. . . The philosophy behind permacultre is one of working with, rather than against, nature."
Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designer's Manual, page ix.

One of the key elements of conscience design, is pattern. Pattern exists everywhere in nature. Here are my notes from the PDC lectures:
  • Patterns are events of form.
  • We're surrounded by the natural patterns of the universe, from micro to macro.
  • Design that follows natural patterns is productive, design that doesn't, isn't.
  • There are very few pattern form types but infinite variations.
  • Partial list of pattern forms:
    • waves such as water waves and sand dune ripples
    • spirals - snail shells, whirlpools, sunflower seeds in the flower head
    • lobes - reefs, lichens
    • branches - rives and tributaries, tree branches or roots
    • nets - cracks in mud or skin, honeycombs
    • scatters - algae, lichen on rocks
    • cloud forms - clouds or tree crowns
    • tessellations - turtle shells
    • Fibonacci sequences - found in the number of sunflower seeds in a flower head or number of pine seeds in a pine cone.

So, some simple examples of using pattern in design would be an herb spiral, making swales that follow land contours, making an herb garden with branching pathways, or circular greywater mulch pits. I guess, contrast with this with how most farming and gardening is done - squares, rectangles, and rows of straight lines, none of which is found in nature!

One way of discovering pattern is with a topographical map. The contours can reveal a specific pattern of one's property.

Contour lines are in green and spaced every four feet.
Yellow X's mark the highest elevation on the property.

Our house and Dan's workshop are located at the highest elevation of our property. This will be important when we begin working on implementing permaculture water conservation. (More on that one of these days.) Interestingly, the tree lines follow the contours, and our existing fences follow the trees. What hasn't fit this pattern, however, has been my paddock system for rotating goat grazing. Here's the plan I came up with several years ago.

As I contemplate pattern, I've tried to re-envision this with what I'm learning about permaculture design. I started to play around a bit, to see what I could come up with. First, I superimposed the contour lines onto my drawing.

Not perfect, but close enough!

Then I drew in paddock fencelines that follow the contour lines.

Will we actually do this? For now, it's just an exercise in thinking. But what we're also considering is digging swales on contour. Capturing and retaining water is a primary permaculture goal, one that I really get. Most of our growing struggles point back to our long, hot, droughty spells most summers. Our current idea is that swales will follow the contour, we'll plant the swales with edible hedgerows, and grazing paddocks will follow these. 

All of this is in the contemplation stage at this point, with many details to work out. Like how to get/pay for the equipment to make the swales! However, one step at a time. First, we strive to understand the concept, then we explore ways to implement it. Hopefully, this is just the beginning. 

August 3, 2021

Dan's Project: Driveway Gate

 Continued from here.

One of Dan's summer projects is done at last - a gate for the driveway. As with most projects, it turned out to be more than simply putting up a gate. We tied the gate into another project - window pergolas for homegrown shade. The first pergola was finished in this post; then he started on the gate. We discussed  options and decided that using materials similar to the pergola and existing privacy fence would give the most pleasing aesthetic. We also discussed one large gate versus two half gates, and Dan chose to build  half gates. 

Privacy fence panels that need to be used.

For his materials, he pulled out a couple of privacy fence panels we bought several years ago. They've been stored under a tarp and need to be used. He also had some trellis similar to what he used on the pergola.

Here's what he came up with.

There was some unnecessary excitement to make the build memorable. Dan had set up his table saw and saw horses in the shade between his workshop and the goat barn. Unfortunately, we discovered we have some ground bees nesting under the concrete slab on which the milking room is built. They did not like the noise of the table saw! Dan had a couple of them attack him when he was using it and chase him back to the house! They were on guard for several days afterward, which was a nuisance. Dan set up a different work area after that and they left him alone.

The first gate required a lot of think time, but the second was made fairly quickly. Then came hanging them.

front side

One of the reasons he chose to make two half gates was because of weight. Then, because one of the pergola posts also served as a gate post, a gate wheel was installed to additionally support the weight of that half of the gate.

back side

Eventually, we'll get the second pergola done. For now, Dan has already moved on to working on his other summer project, the outdoor kitchen. So the other pergola will have to wait. At least we can keep stray dogs out of the back yard and away from our poultry now.

Dan's Project: Driveway Gate © August 2021