Snails are pets, not pests

Yes, most people consider snails to be pests. However, I have always loved seashells, and I live at 7,000 feet in the Southwest USA surrounded by desert. For me, garden snails are pets 🐌

First swallowtail butterfly of the year!

Beneficial insects are a key ingredient in successful permaculture gardening, providing pollination services, pest control, and showing us beauty. Wild animals are highly useful in permaculture landscapes. They are especially important in vegan permaculture gardens, which are not animal-free.

Never forget the usefulness of beauty, especially during these difficult Anthropocene times. We require beauty to thrive as human beings.

Our dear friend Robin moved in with us just before the Covid-19 pandemic became a problem. They helped us dig a hole for our new dwarf apple tree today; we are very grateful for their help as both LynnAnnRose and I have extensive osteoarthritis due to birth defects and accidents. They are an artist and hairdresser with an eye for beauty. They noticed the swallowtail and took wonderful photographs.

More pics of the apple tree and permaculture garden-in-progress tomorrow.

Eat your edible weeds!

I planted my one tomato seedling, a short season Big Boy indeterminate vining variety (78 days to maturity) that can grow up to eight feet high. As part of my vegetable crop rotations, I planted it in the trellis planter on my back balcony where I grew sugar peas last year.

The extra nitrogen produced by the peas fertilized a crop of self-seeding lamb’s quarters, a common garden “weed” around here. Lamb’s quarters are related to spinach and chard, but are even more nutritious. Many common garden weeds are nutritious edible. Lamb’s quarters have a mild flavor and make excellent salad and stir fry greens. If you have too many to eat, they also make great nitrogen-rich mulch or additions to a compost pile. I used the woody bottoms and roots as mulch around the tomato plant. Tomatoes don’t need too much nitrogen, so the lamb’s quarters won’t hurt the seedling’s growth; too much nitrogen causes tomatoes to focus on growing leaves rather than fruit.

It will probably take more than 78 days to produce ripe tomatoes in my climate, as the days to maturity is relative and commercial seeds are grown in warmer areas. Nighttime temperatures are now in the low 40s, still quite cold for tropical tomatoes, so I expect the plant will grow fairly slowly for a while.

Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains 4th Edition Book Cover Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A Guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens

Garden snails are my friends — but they might not be yours

Adapted from Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens:

During my recent barberry picking expeditions to make barberry jam I encountered more than just garden spiders and other insects. These are photos of three different snails I encountered last week. The first time I spent an hour picking barberries for making jam last week was after several hours of hard rains. The garden beds (and my neighbors’) were soaking wet. I live at 7,000 feet elevation. Our summers are wet (if we’re lucky), with cool night temperatures. You might not think that snails could survive here, but they do, sometimes in abundance.

I saw several dozen snails, including a couple that ended up on my latex glove as I was picking berries. I wanted to take some pictures, so I had to run upstairs and around the house looking for where Dan had set down the camera with a snail on my gloved finger. I had not previously known it, but snails LOVE latex gloves. The snail was not afraid as I carried it inside. S/he (snails are both female and male) glided around my finger like it was an ice skating rink. I thought it was pretty cute.

During the monsoon season the snails some out of hiding, presumably in the earth where they stay moist during our long dry seasons and cold winters, and appear in my two front garden beds. I cannot plant leafy greens in those beds without having them eaten by snails. I don’t mind this gardening limitation. You see, I love shells. I have sea shells in every room of my house that I collected on beach combing expeditions in Florida, the mid-Atlantic, New England and California. I think my garden snails are adorably cute. I was happy that they were not afraid of me, but just happy to be out in the rain, their favorite time of year. I grow my leafy greens in raised beds and containers where the snails do not roam. My front garden beds only grow apple trees, barberries, Alliums (onion family bulbs), strongly-flavored herbs and other fruit orchard guild plants that are not very susceptible to snail herbivory. I also strongly favor permaculture garden ecosystems that are in balance. However I understand that you might not be so keen on garden snails and their slug cousins if they are eating you out of house and home.

Tips on protecting crop plants from snails and slugs:

Snails have shells. Slugs don’t. They both have useful ecological contributions to the garden, including eating algae, fungi, lichens, rotting plant matter, and generally shredding material and speeding decomposition. Their slime also helps to bind soil particles together. However, they also eat garden crops, especially tender leaves. Predators include some birds, including domestic poultry, some beetles, turtles, frogs, toads, salamanders, lizards and snakes. Make plastic cuffs from soda and water bottles to protect individual plants (slugs and snails cannot climb over them). Hedges of volcanic cinder rocks, recycled glass sand, diatomaceous earth and other rough surfaces discourage them from entering an area, as do drying substances like wood ash (keep in mind that too much wood ash might make your soil too alkaline, depending on where you live; my soil is already quite alkaline). Keep mulch from touching slug-attracting plants to avoid providing an easy pathway for the slugs. Place boards between plants; slugs or snails will collect underneath overnight. Hand-pick the slugs and snails. Slugs are also famous for being attracted to bowls of beer (stale is OK) and falling in and drowning.

A harvest from my late spring garden

Adapted from Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens:

First photo: A salad made of freshly picked greens from my garden: baby kale (mostly underneath the pile), leaf lettuce, sorrel, arugula, lamb’s quarters (a weed related to spinach and chard—-I eat my weeds!), chives, a sprig of spearmint and some grated carrots. Leafy greens are by far the easiest foods to grow in cool, short-season and or high elevation climates like mine. Because I also live in a semi-arid climate surrounded by lower elevation deserts and spring is our sunniest, hottest time of year, my leafy green garden beds and containers are partially shaded and sheltered from the wind to prevent leaf burn and too much water evaporation from the soil or transpiration from the leaves. The salad would also have sugar peas in it, except that I have been snacking on freshly picked peas as fast as they mature.

Second & third photos: Most of the pea vines are growing in the planter on my north facing balcony where I have been spending much of my time lately. I’m sitting right next to them. They are within arm distance from me. They’re impossible to resist.

Canning prickly pear fruit juice

Prickly pear fruit juice has an amazing magenta hue due to the same betalain pigments found in beets. The flavor contains hints of melon. While the fruit is high in vitamin C, an acid, it is actually a border-acid food. I can pints of prickly pear fruit juice with a little added lemon juice to make it suitably acidic for water bath canning (the solids in the canning jar are lemon pulp). I have a couple of safe canning recipes for prickly pear juice in in The Natural Canning Resource Book: A guide to home canning with locally-grown, sustainably-produced and fair trade foods.

I usually make prickly pear lemonade as shown in the top photo by diluting the canned juice with water, additional lemon juice and sweetener to taste.

Adapted from Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains:  A guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens:

Prickly pear cacti grow wild across the Western U.S. There are many species, and they hybridize easily in the wild. Purchase varieties suited to your microclimate(s) at a native plant nursery or collect seeds or root cuttings of plants collected nearby. Sample the fruits; tastes vary. Domesticated varieties with small spines are from Mexico.

I forage for wild fruit; my dad often collects the fruit for me from large cacti growing in my parents’ yard and neighborhood in Sedona. Wild fruit ripens in mid-summer to late fall depending on the altitude. You’ll have to beat the javelinas (wild pigs) to them (the spines don’t bother them at all). Wild cacti spines are dangerous. Wear gardening gloves and use tongs to pry off the fruit. Place in a spine-resistant bag so the spines won’t poke through.

You can simmer washed fruit to soften the spines; I prefer to make raw juice to preserve more flavor: Freeze the fruits in freezer bags for a month or two. This softens the spines and ruptures the cells. I place the frozen fruit in strainers over large pots or bowls. The fruit practically juice themselves as they thaw. To remove all of the juice, I place them one-by-one in my chinoise strainer, slit them with a knife, and use my hands to press the insides against the holes to extract the juice.

Prickly pear have multiple functions in permaculture gardens

Prickly pear cacti are excellent additions to any permaculture garden in arid, semi-arid and Mediterranean climates. Among their multiple functions, they provide:

  • a green vegetable (the tender young cactus pads, called nopales in Spanish). The young pads are sliced and cooked like green beans or are pickled.
  • vitamin, mineral and and phytonutrient-rich fruit. The sweet fruit is eaten fresh, juiced, jellied or dried. Small amounts of fruit juice can be used to color other canned foods.
  • live fencing for garden beds. Indigenous peoples have been growing prickly pear fences for hundreds of years to keep out native garden pest animals such as javelina (wild pigs).
  • food for cochineal dye insects.

Dandelion — a miracle weed

Dandelions are already flowering and even going to seed in Flagstaff, Arizona. The top two photos are from my garden. I took the bottom photo downtown in what seems to be an especially warm microclimate.

Adapted from Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens:

Most people think of dandelions (Taraxacum officinale and other species) as obnoxious invasive weeds. They grow throughout the northern hemisphere, up to 11,000+ feet elevations. Their long taproots make them difficult to remove completely (and the plant can grow back from a broken taproot). Yet, dandelions have multiple functions, making them useful members of most any permaculture guild:

  • Dandelions have highly nutritious leaves, roots, flowers, and sprouted seeds. (more on this below). Eating edible weeds is a permaculture practice.
  • They are an important early nectar source for native bees, honey bees and butterflies. To keep pollinators happy year-round, you need to plant a variety of nectar sources so that there are always flowers in bloom Yellow blossoms are of great interest to many pollinators. Dandelions flower from early spring through late fall.
  • Dandelion roots are dynamic accumulators that bring up minerals from the subsoil. They are pioneer plants that improve poor soil for species that need higher-nutrient soil.

Dandelion leaves

Domesticated cultivars like I am growing have larger leaves than wild species. The leaves are eaten raw when young and cooked when older; wild species are boiled to remove excess bitterness. Dandelions make excellent winter greens for greenhouses and as winter indoor houseplants. Even if you don’t have a greenhouse, cold frame or sunny windowsill, you can still harvest fresh dandelion greens throughout the winter months. Dig up some roots in late summer and early fall, replant in a container and place in a cool, dark room or root cellar to produce “forced” greens with a pale green color.

Dandelion petals & pollen

The yellow petals are added to baked goods, where they are a good egg substitute and flavoring (I discovered this one: add ½–1 cup dandelion petals to a baked good recipe, depending on the amount of flour). The petals are also steeped and sweetened to make tea and dandelion jelly and fermented with sugar to make dandelion wine. The pollen is a yellow food coloring.

Dandelion roots

Roasted, powdered taproots are used as a coffee substitute and make an excellent espresso flavoring for baked goods.