Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cookies Resumed...

After a fruitless search for acorn flour here in the Twin Cities area comes great news: a package with acorn flour and acorn starch is on the way from a friend, reader and oh, by the way, the world's foremost expert on balanoculture.

What culinary delights await? What kitchen disasters will result? Well with me in the kitchen we know two things for sure: 1) something's gonna get burnt - and it's not always the food, and 2) if a little butter is good, a lot of butter is better.

Julia Child I ain't... but if I can create delicious food from acorns, anyone can!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

21 Years And Counting

21 years ago a good friend and forestry school classmate, Sandy McCartney, introduced me to the concept of "treeshelters" (better known these days as tree tubes) - translucent plastic tubes used for protecting seedling trees from deer & rabbit browse, drying winds, mowers and herbicide spray.

Wow. 21 years. Amazingly enough, given my inherent lack of business accumen, I immediately realized that tree tubes would someday revolutionize the way we plant trees. My immediate thought was for the "urban forest" (or, more accurately, "suburban forest") in which I grew up and watch the rapid march of housing development wipe out the native oaks to be replaced with a uniform landscape of seedless green ash, spirea & potentilla shrubs, and hundreds of tons of crushed limestone rock on plastic landscape fabric.

Oaks are difficult to transplant as large, specimen trees. And since they are widely viewed as "slow growing" they are not widely available as large potted or B&B trees in the nursery industry, at least they weren't back then.

But oaks are easy to transplant as seedlings (or, better yet, as acorns!) and they grow a whole lot faster than people think when given what they need to thrive. Already this spring I have planted bur oak acorns gathered last autumn from beneath a pair of massive, spreading giants on the campus of Carleton College here in Northfield (can we pass a law that says every American must plant an oak from an acorn every spring?).

I wrote an article for an early edition of my newsletter Lasting Woodlands about a British-made product called Tubex. 21 years later it's still the best tree tube on the market. One article determined the way I would make my livelihood for the next two decades (and counting).

We are planting trees into a very different world from the world in which their giant parents got started. Exponentially higher numbers of whitetail deer hungrily eat them before they can get established, hundreds of invasive grasses, weeds and shrubs growing unchecked by natural competitive relationships to take the lion's share of light, water and nutrients.

Take a walk through the woods. Chances are you'll see mature oaks. You'll see new seedlings. But you won't see a lot of trees in between. This is thanks to the whitetail deer - a gorgeous animal, but an animal currently out of balance with its habitat.

Trees need help. Well designed plastic tree tubes shield from deer browse, reduce moisture stress to enhance both survival rates and growth, and make it easier to control the competing vegetation that would otherwise overwhelm them.

21 years. And still it is right of spring to dream up the next generation of tree tubes, test them against the elements, and see if I can't find a way to get the oaks we need so desparately off to an even faster, healthier start.

Stay tuned.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Minnesota Bound: Construction Damage To Trees

Here's the third of my recent appearances on Minnesota Bound, this time focusing on construction damage to trees. Just click on the May 9 episode - the piece is after the wonderful piece about a bass fishing tournament in memory of a young man whose life was way too short.

Nearly 25 years ago (good grief I'm getting old) I started a non-profit organization called Lasting Woodlands, Inc. with the twin goals of a) educating people about how to build in wooded areas with minimal damage to existing trees, and b) encouraging people to replace vegetation inevitably lost to construction with native plants.

The concept grew out of my own twin experiences, circa 1986: I grew up in the western suburbs of Minneapolis, and watched as suburban development swept through the (primarily) oak woodlands that I had hiked, played and fished in and around. I always tried not to be a NIMBY ("not in my backyard") type of person; after all the house I grew up in was built 20 years previously in fields that had been some other kid's "wilderness." I saw suburban expansion as inevitable (or at least beyond my ability to stop). I just believed that it could be done differently.

At the same time I was spending my summers working for a nursery & garden center, so I saw first hand what these new homeowners were replacing the native vegetation with - Crimson King Norway maples, lots and lots of seedless green ash (which is not exactly looking like a good idea right now). spireas, potentillas, and tons and tons of crushed rock over plastic landscape fabric (I know because I'm the guy who bagged up the crushed rock and loaded it in people's cars - an activity of dubious environmental value, but a GREAT summer job for a kid!).

I enrolled in the Urban Forestry program at the University of Minnesota. I met giants in the field: Dr. David French, Donald Willeke and others. I realized that forestry people KNEW how to protect trees from construction damage, but that there was an enormous information gulf between what foresters knew and what homeowners and builders knew. I set out to change that.

I wrote a newsletter, and a humbling, amazing number of forestry professionals (all of whom knew a whole lot more than me), homeowners and builders supported it. I gave seminars and talks wherever I could. I like to think it made at least a small difference.

Somewhere along the line a lot changed. I ran smack dab into the whole "need to make a living" thing, after avoiding it as long as possible (and longer than I should have). Job changes necessitated moves to parts of the country where I wasn't as well connected. The allure of staying up until 3am at Kinko's to get out another newsletter that I largely paid for out of pocket began to wear a bit thin.

The need for this information to become part of the public consciousness is still as great as it ever was. That's why filming these three spots for Minnesota Bound, and especially this one about construction damage, has been so much fun and so rewarding for me. It's a reminder of why I got into forestry in the first place. It's a chance to spread an important message. My own interests and concerns have expanded far beyond the issues of construction damage & oak wilt to encompass broader issues of land use and environmental & human health (in other words permanent tree crops and eating acorns!) but I know that peoples' relationships with the environment begins in their own yard. And that makes this information as important and timely today as it was 25 years ago.

Thank you, Ron Schara, Adam McFarlane and Steve Plummer. Ron for giving me time on his wonderful show, and Adam & Steve for their patience and editing wizardry (and let me tell you it took some wizardry to make these pieces coherent!).

Acorns: Barbaric Food

From The Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery (published 1898, edited by Theodore Francis Garrett)...

At an early period of barbaric existence this fruit of the oak was ground into meal to make a kind of cake, or bread. In modern times it is regarded as food fit only for hogs, and even that is disputed. It is stated that in Germany acorns are sometimes chopped up and roasted to be used medicinally by invalids as coffee; by this process of roasting much of their intense astringency is destroyed.

Yes, acorns are highly questionable fodder for hogs as compared to the diet of most hogs today. Good grief, the world's best pork is acorn fed!

The best part: This encyclopedia entry started with...

Acorns (literally, oak (ac) corn)

Although we think of the word corn as being synonomous with maize, historically the word corn has had a much more general meaning of the edible seeds of plants.

So in other words, people down through history have called acorns "the edible seeds of oak trees," and then a writer in the "modern times" of 1898 decided that as food acorns might not even be fit for hogs.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Oil and acorns

The previous post about acorn oil got me thinking about the "black gold" kind of oil, and the relationship between the two types.

When J Russell Smith wrote his classic, Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture he was primarily concerned about the loss of our precious soil as a result of producing annual grain crops. In the wake of the recent oil spill in the Gulf, he might have just as easily been talking about the loss of wetlands, estuaries, sea life, etc. as a result of our love affair with annual grain crops.

What's the connection? Producing corn and soybeans requires an immense input of fossil fuels (that's why ethanol as a gasoline alternative is so wrong-headed; it takes more energy to produce ethanol than is contained in the ethanol).

On the other hand, permanent woody crops such as acorns, chestnut and hazelnuts require a very low fossil fuel input - actually a very low input of "work" in general, which explains the popularity of bocce ball in the acorn- and chestnut-eating parts of the world.

So, to review what we know so far...
1. Acorn eating cultures have historically been affluent, peaceful... and well fed
2. Nut eating (and livestock foddering) cultures work less and relax more
3. An acorn based diet is incredibly nutritious
4. Switching from the annual battle with our topsoil known as grain production to a permanent woody agriculture would conserve soil and fossil fuels - reducing our depency on foreign sources (and the ethical conundrums that come along with that dependency) and reduce the risk of environmental disasters like the one we are seeing in the Gulf

Yes, it certainly is easy to see why we got away from balanoculture - eating acorns - isn't it?
I'm not sure whether to spend more time trying to understand how/why we ever stopped eating acorns, or trying to encourage people to return to it.
So I'll keep doing both.

New Title For My Business Card: Wild Eyed Acorn Enthusiast

While searching for a source of acorn oil, I came across this:

Acorn Oil is oil pressed from acorns. Some acorns are more than 30% oil.

It is pressed from Spanish and north-west African acorns, rather than the bitter ones in Europe and North America. Some wild-eyed acorn enthusiasts think that Acorn Oil might be the next big thing.

It is made and used in Algeria and Morocco, and made to some small extent in Spain.

This is not the same thing as the distilled acorn oil sold in North America to hunters to use to mask their human scent with.

Of course I resent the reference to our bitter acorns in North America. I have eaten local bur oak acorns right off the tree without leaching, and with very minimal leaching most of our native acorns are great.

... but there I go again, being a wild eyed acorn enthusiast!

Eating Acorns: The Key To Peace, Prosperity & Happiness

More from my favorite book in the world:

"For how many thousands of years did people in these upland belts subsist on acorns as a staple, supplemented by everything from goat meat and snails to barley tea? How secure a life was it? Weren't whole regions constantly in danger of famine? Did they not turn to agriculture for greater security?

"Evidently, balanocultures were among the most stable and affluent cultures the human world has ever known. Kent Flannery, who studied the Middle Eastern peoples of this time and was among the first to debunk the idea of the big-game hunters turned to farming, wrote in a 1965 article, 'Hunter-gatherer groups may get all the calories they need without even working very hard.' Another researcher concluded that in the Zagros uplands near Eden it took ten times less labor to harvest acorns than it did to harvest wheat & barley. Another noted that a diet based on acorns was far more nutritious than one based on wild game, and far easier to acquire."

Acorns: Get your protein for nothing and your fat for free.

The only question: Why did we stop? We did we switch from an acorn (and other nut) based diet to the more expensive, time consuming, difficult and destructive practice of farming grains?

Short answer: I don't know. The longer answer will be the subject of a series of forthcoming posts.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Update on Native Trees for Sale

Updated list of Minnesota native trees available for sale:

Black cherry - 10
Choke cherry - 1
Black walnut - 2
Ohio buckeye - 1
Silver maple - 1
Gray dogwood - 1
Pagoda (alternate leaf) dogwood - 1

All local Twin Cities seed source, gathered and grown by yours truly and Sandy McCartney, forester extraordinaire.

Grown in plastic treeshelters.
5 or 7 gallon pots.
Black cherries are 4 to 6ft in height... $20 each
The others approximately 15 to 24" in height... $10 each

To order call Chris Siems 507-301-5106.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Vigil Starts Again...

I have told the story before... neighbor's (sweetest old lady in the world) gorgeous red oaks pruned by a "professional tree care company" on May 22, 2009, smack dab in the middle of oak wilt season... two month vigil watching for signs of flagging... 36" diameter red oak collapsed in August, diagnosed with oak wilt... top quality tree care company S&S Tree Specialists injected the adjacent 2 trees on either side in hopes of preventing its spread... Excellent local tree care company Cannon River Tree Care removed it in March.
So now the question is: Will the two adjacent trees - about 23 feet away from the dead tree - survive? Did we treat them in time? A new vigil starts. The branches of one adjacent tree that overhang the street appear to be flagging - or at least not to have leafed out this spring. Could be nothing. Then again, that's how it started with the first tree.
Please be nothing.
I can't stand to see another of these beautiful oaks die just because some idiot with a chainsaw and a truck decided he could make money convincing elderly people their trees need pruning.

Minnesota Bound Clip: Oaks & Air Pruning Pots

The second of three short clips aired on Minnesota Bound this past Sunday evening (and will repeat this coming Saturday) on KARE-11 here in the Twin Cities. (Click on the link to view - it's the "Rapala Almanac" segment right after the piece on smallmouth bass fishing. Which, by the way, I'd rather be doing right now!)

The theme of this piece was planting, especially in light of the massive removal and replanting effort we will soon be facing here in Minnesota as new Emerald Ash Borer hot spots keep popping up. My two pieces of advice:

1. Plant oaks - There are of course myriad reasons to plant oaks, but one of the main reason people don't plant them more often is the widespread perception that they grow too slowly. Overcoming the slow growth stereotype is surprisingly difficult, seeing as how it's patently false. Hopefully this segment will help, if only a little

2. Look for trees grown in air pruning pots - The nursery industry is finally starting to pay attention to root systems. The life span of urban trees planted in the 70s and 80s in the wake of Dutch elm disease has been abysmally, embarrassingly short. The primary reason: nursery and planting practices that mutilated root systems. Traditional plastic nursery pots tend to promote a circular, spiralling root growth pattern. After planting those spiralling roots continue to grow in girth around the main trunk, slowing growth and ultimately killing the tree. The tree literally strangles itself (think of giant pythons wrapped around the base of the tree and you've got the right idea).

Air pruning pots come in a variety of designs, but the concept is the same. Openings in the walls of the pot expose root tips to air, causing them to stop growing outward and forcing them to branch out. This creates a thick, fibrous root system and prevents spiralling or girdling roots.

Where can you buy trees grown in air pruning pots? Here's one place: Knecht's Nursery here in Northfield, MN. Owners Leif & Deb Knecht are great people and have what I have come to admire most in people: a willingess to rethink the way they do things, a desire to find better practices, and of course a deep and abiding love of trees!