Thursday, November 3, 2016

Mealworms raised outside with Passive Solar Heating

I've found mealworms (Tenibrio molitor or Yellow Mealworm) can be raised in black plastic containers outdoors in a temperate climate provide the containers are in a sunny position causing them to heat up during the day. A simple, basically free, form of passive solar heating.

Mealworms of course require heat (and darkness) to survive and flourish but they are also surprisingly tolerant of temporary cold. They survived all winter outside in the containers here, where the night temperature typically drops to between 5 C and -3 C (zone 9, Wellington, New Zealand).

By contrast when I tried raising them inside the house, including above the water heater, this quickly failed, presumably because it was not nearly hot enough.

I had to secure the containers with wire mesh to stop them blowing away in the wind. I also taped screening around the lid to prevent the adult beetle from climbing out, I'm not sure this is necessary they don't seem to have thought of that so far. 

Another problem was figuring out if the containers were safe for raising insects in, unsurprisingly there is not much info on plastics suitable for insects. Some manufacturers market containers as "food grade", suitable for keeping food in, which I took to be ok, but finding one that says that and is black may be difficult. I resorted to buying a blue "fish bin" (for keeping fish in, presumably safe) and painting it black. It might even be possible to make a container out of wood and paint it black if you don't like plastic. 

I just feed them grass and weeds from the garden I know to be edible for humans, reportedly they will eat anything that is rotting.  

I have never raised mealworms with the usual artificial heat so can't compare productivity of outdoor containers with this. So far, I've only had them a year, they appear to go through one life-cycle a year.

My interest in mealworms is as part of my own diet and part of an effort to produce most of my own food on a small section. Mealworms appear to contain all the essential nutrients fruit and vegetables lack, so could possibly be a wise addition to a small self-sufficient homestead that can't fit larger animals. 

I tried eating a few the other day, after fasting them for 24 hours. I fried them in olive oil, they were crisp and melted in the mouth, not much to them. I suppose they were a little like the skin of Kentucky Fried Chicken, not bad, but bitter as well, something I fed them perhaps, or the oil? Will have to do more work in this area.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Apparent Zealandia Kaka damage to Avocado Crop

Apparent Zealandia Kaka Bite Marks in Avocado 

Images of damage to Avocado Crop near Zealandia Reserve in Wellington, New Zealand. The crescent shape is consistent with bite marks from parrots on humans (1). I could not find any photos of Kaka bite marks but I can't see how it can be anything other than the NZ parrot known as Kaka from the recently instituted Zealandia Native Reserve. 

It looks like the Kaka attacked the fruit on at least three occasions separated by several weeks, but they did not destroy all of the crop, about half were damaged and in earlier years none were (the trees are young, so far bearing small crops of fruit for about four years). I get the impression the Kaka are investigating the fruit, being intelligent curious animals, having checked them out them it appears they had no further interest in them. So far it does not appear they are obsessed with eating the fruit or fruit in general but it is too soon to be certain.

Still, if this is damage from Kaka I find this rather annoying, I'm not against reserves or natives, I plant quite a few natives myself, but always edible ones where I live, alongside edible exotics. I think realistic environmentalism will promote edible and useful plant and animal species near where people live to reduce unnecessary resource depletion, waste and pollution associated with transportation. Unproductive untouched reserves like Zealandia are, in my opinion, better located in remote locations away from people for the good of both people and pristine native ecosystems. Having them in central city areas may even perpetuate the myth that modern cities are part of a system that is ecologically viable, just needing a little cosmetic tweaking (a common phenomenon known to psychologists as the 'licencing syndrome' (2) which basically means "I've done something good" (e.g., protected a few acres of pure, pristine bush) "now I can do something bad" (e.g., get back to generally destroying the planet and/or people).  

To say Kaka should be able to run rampant because they are "natural" is a little like saying we should we should drink untreated water because it is "natural" (although admittedly probably not quite as extreme). Pristine wilderness is dangerous to humans despite the fact that it is often romanticized by people thoroughly insulated from it, as the great environmentalist Rene Dubos pointed out (3).

At the very least it's worth noting it is not automatic moral perfection establishing nature reserves in the city, there are costs, some potentially very serious for certain types of genuine, hands on, nature lovers such as gardeners. 

I emailed these photos to the Zealandia executive months ago, asking if they know of any ways of keeping Kaka away. I have not had a reply, it's possibly my initial anger seeped through in the email... "people are unlikely to help you if they think you hate them" as the pop psychologist Dr Al Bernstein put it. Still seems to me, the only possible "win/win" in this situation is to find ways gardeners can repell Kaka eliminating the otherwise legitimate drive for them to be banned. Forest & Bird and the Department of Consevation suggested nets and planting something more desirable to distract them, perhaps that's the best we can hope for, unfortunately I find nets ugly & oppressive. 

I did recently realize the Kaka ignored the bitter unripe green fruit of  a Pawpaw/babaco cross "Rainbow Valley" a few feet away from the Avocado. These unripe fruit are supposed to be edible, I eat them cooked sometimes, but they are quite bitter. Apparently birds can detect bitterness in order to avoid poisonous plants. Seems like a (non-toxic) bitter spray might be a possibility for some crops, especially if it can be washed off the fruit when harveted & somehow made so it doesn't seep into the flesh. 


2. The Willpower Instinct. K McGonigal. 2012.
3. The Wooing of the Earth. R Dubos. 1980.

Dubos argues convincingly the "natural" places we really like being in have been significantly modified by humans. Few would want to spend time in the New Zealand bush if the world's largest ever predatory eagle, the Haast's Eagle, had not been made extinct by early Maori settlers (apparently by causing the extinction of it's main food source, the Moa). It is considered likely this eagle preyed on the first human settlers. Perhaps if genetic engineering advances sufficiently we should bring this species back to life to prey on humans, because it is "natural" and "pure".

Monday, July 4, 2016

Tasty berries of some hardy epiphytic bromeliads

Small fruit of Aechmea gamosepala (left) & Quesenelia marmorata (right) which I sampled as food recently. The dark purple ripe fruit of the Aechmea was sweet, not outstanding in flavor but good. The Quesenelia was much milder and less sweet in flavor, but nice if you eat a lot of them, rather like custard. I was surprised to find the skin of both fruit is too tough to eat, you have to squeeze the flesh out with your teeth holding the skin with your hand, probably not a plus though possibly could become habit forming like sucking on a lolly. On the basis of this one sample it is hard to imagine these fruits having very much use except perhaps as novel but pretty average flavoring and colouring for things like ice cream. 

I decided to try the fruit largely on the basis of the article Bromeliads: Edible and Theraputic by Michael Spencer 1981 . Journal of the Bromeliad Society Vol XXXI (4). There is a specific reference to Quesenelia marmorata being edible, I don't believe I ever found a specific reference to Aechmea gamosepala fruit being edible, only general statements about the genus having edible fruit as well as virtually no reports of toxicity in bromeliads except in unripe pineapples.

Although these fruit do not seem to be very noteworthy food I think they are a small but positive addition to the edible garden because the plants can grow without soil as air plants or epiphytes, producing in niches where most, if not all, more useful crops could not, so don't compete with them for space. I grew these on the south facing side of a house in Wellington, New Zealand (hardiness zone 9)  where they only get late afternoon sun. They have tolerated winter night temperatures averaging around  + 5 C  with occasional frosts down to around  -3 C, possibly they survive because they do not get morning sun ( the sudden temperature change is often what kills tender plants).

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Expectation Adjustment as willpower tool (for self-sufficiency)

I've tried quite a few willpower (self-regulation/self-control) techniques from books by Roy Baumeister and Kelly McGonigal and others, all quite helpful. But have found for me personally, wanting to boost my performance in efforts to be self-sufficient in food production, the best technique has been to adjust my expectations of how pleasurable and easy gardening is and should be.

I suspect most people interested in getting back to nature and growing their own food because they don't like the industrial "system"  have a rather "idealistic" "romantic" "hippy" "greenie" "Garden of Eden" idea of what gardening will be like, everything will be harmonious, cooperative and nice. This view is not limited to "greenies" this has been called the Pastoral Fallacy (7) and the Arcadian Fallacy(8). So this particular adjustment may be of use to this relatively large group of people in particular. It simply means changing your expectations to accept gardening will be beautiful and pleasant but at times may also be ugly, disappointing, unpleasant, boring and difficult.

I don't think doing this is especially unusual, since thinking about this I've noticed people quite often talk about "being prepared" psychologically, for instance I recently read (something like) "rats make wonderful pets but they only live a few years so be prepared".  I just haven't seen it discussed in science based writing on willpower/self-regulation, so it seemed worth writing about.

"Expectation adjustment" is my term, I got the idea after noticing many of the willpower techniques Baumeister reports on already seem to exist in the military, such as tidiness and eating well (glucose believed to be the chemical basis of willpower) which reminds one of the saying "an army marches on it's stomach". So I started wondering about other thing the military do, since sacrificing your own life and killing others in battle are probably the most difficult things a rational person can attempt to do (5) and an effective army really needs to be more rational than emotional (6). It seems to me the expectation and acceptance they are going to do something extremely unpleasant and undesirable is a major factor in how soldiers are able to conduct war, or even disaster relief, imagine if they expected it to be nice*.

There is a cruel but hilarious experiment in Baumeister's book that seems to touch on this, by Mark Muraven. Runners were given equal distances to run, but some were told the run was shorter, then were told there was more to do once they'd completed this, these runners performed poorly for the remainder of the run compared with the other group (pg 34 Ref 1). This was discussed in terms of conservation of energy, but to me it is an example of being psychologically prepared or not prepared; "expectation adjustment".

I think this phenomenon may also have something to do with overcoming addiction through acceptance of the unpleasantness of addictive cravings "riding the wave" McGonigal talks about. (pg 225 Ref 2). Also ascetic people are better at difficult tasks I recently heard (3) by taking the emphasis off seeking pleasure I suppose this makes you more ascetic, temporarily.

The reality is sometimes gardening is negative, weeds and pests are competing with you and would gladly take over your niche if they could, you can't always be nice to all plants or animals. The elements don't care about you, nor does the land itself, but if you use your head and your body eventually you'll get back what you give. The aim of being self-sufficient should presumably be a degree of autonomy or independence, if seeking pleasure gets in the way of this it will have to be dispensed with for the moment. In the end you'll have far more beauty and pleasure that way.

There's nothing to be ashamed of about having a romantic view of nature. Darwin, usually associated with a "realistic" brutal view of nature saw it as half true, finding cooperation and competition to be equal in Nature (4).

* I'm not entirely certain adjusting expectation always fits the psychologists definition of willpower/self-control/self-regulation.  I've even wondered if this approach, at least the way I have been using it, actually makes me have less self-control as I seem to take more risks and become more daring as a result of not worrying about unpleasantness, trait normally associated with poor self-control or impulsivity. There are times when we need less self control (when conceiving a child or getting a flash of artistic inspiration) and times when we need more (when dealing with a misbehaving child or developing an artistic idea into a work of art).

Finding ways of deliberately reducing willpower/ self-control, for specific tasks for limited periods, may turn out to be just as important for a full balanced life as ways of increasing self-control, which appears to be the main, or even sole, focus of science at the moment.

At times I find the terms will power/self-control/self-regulation rather confusing anyway, for instance in a famous experiment children who resist the temptation to eat a marshmallow are considered to have more willpower than those who stared at it & usually gave in and ate it, that seems more like a technique that serves the will than actual will to me. I find adjusting expectation to be a  a way of doing something I believe I should be doing but don't feel like doing, which is all the matters to me, not terminology.

After thoughts.

Since writing the above I emailed the authors of "Self-Regulation and the Five-Factor Model of Personality Traits" in "Handbook of Personality and Self-Regulation" about my experiences. Corina Lockenhoff responded explaining that what I decided to call "expectation adjustment" sounds like what psychologists call "task framing", a term I was unaware of & will most likely use in future.

Another possible insight since writing the above is I noticed I've been working much more in the garden since moving my studio to my home, before I was catching buses across town to get to my studio. It appears the commute was draining my willpower, an example of what Baumeister & Tierney refer to when they say "pick your battles"; we all have limited willpower, we have to save it for the most important things, don't try to do too many challenging things.

The thing is I would have never thought catching buses through town was depleting my willpower as I find negotiating the chaos of public transport and city crowds entertaining and educational. But perhaps maintaining civility in such anarchy does exactly that, drains willpower, probably a good example of what Ivan Illich called Shadow Work (9); unpaid toil and time required to support industrialism. Even more so if it is actually eclipsing our ability to do sustainable autonomous work by depleting our self-control, leaving us in a state fit only for impulsive activities, probably impulsive consumption of addictive industrial commodities in particular. Sometimes it may be a good idea to be on the lookout for seemingly inconsequential, even enjoyable, things that are depleting vital mental energy, stopping one from being able to do the important things.

Assuming that what was happening. It also seems possible I became "home-centred" moving my studio home, before I was probably mainly "town-centred". "A man cannot have two masters" as a Christian friend of mine used to say, perhaps that means he also cannot have two "centres".  


1)Willpower. Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Roy Baumeister & John Tierney 2011
2) The Willpower Instinct. How Self-control works, why it matters
 and what you can do to get more of it. Kelly McGonigal 2012
 3)  Jim Mora interviewing Marc Wilson on 'refutation' of Baumeister's ego depletion theory. Radio New Zealand 11:06 am 30/4/16
4) Why Big Fierce Animals are Rare. An Ecologists View. Paul Colinvaux 1979.
5) Overwhelming Terror. Love, Fear, Peace and Violence among Semai of Malaysia. Robert Knox Dentan, 2008.
6) Our Inner Ape. A Leading Primatologist Explains why we are who we are. Franz de Waal 2006.
7) Civilisation. K Clark. 1969
8) The Ideal Society and its Enemies: The Foundations of Modern New Zealand Society 1850-1900. Miles Fairburn. 1989.
9) Shadow Work. Ivan Illich 1981

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Pontederia cordata rhizome tasty when cooked

Picture: Pontederia cordata var lanceolata (a larger form) with boiled rhizome sections.

I found the peeled rhizomes of the aquatic plant Pontederia cordata (Pickerel Weed or Rush) quiet tasty after boiling for 5 minutes then frying. They were pretty firm, perhaps they need longer boiling, tasting mildly like mushroom, pate and mud, in a good, interesting way.

I am not aware of any book saying the rhizomes are edible but one says all parts are (see 1).  I tried them anyway as I've carefully sampled every part over many years and it seems utterly non-toxic, the parts known to be edible taste the same as all other parts (raw), much like the water the plant grows in. Also no part has ever been reported toxic. There are several internet sites saying the rhizomes have been eaten, such as Hilton Pond Center which states the rhizomes have been stewed as a potato substitute (2). Also various birds eat the rhizome along with other parts.

This looks like a very easy, reliable, at least moderately productive, root crop to me.

I started growing this aquatic plant in tubs because I wanted the edible nut-like seeds, however they do not appear to be produced here in New Zealand, perhaps because the required pollinator (1) is absent. I've found the supposedly edible young leaves and very young stems to be very disappointing, tiny & sparse, but have tried the small flowers, better, basically tasting watery too.  

1 )

Monday, April 25, 2016

Possibility of Pomacea as Temperate Micro-livestock.

Pictured is a tropical water snail, which I believe to be Pomacea bridgesi, which has grown to 1.75 cm over two years, possibly less, in an outdoor aquatic plant tub in temperate Wellington, New Zealand (hardiness zone 9). This species is harvested for meat in tropical and subtropical regions (1), no doubt when it has grown to its much more impressive full size of 4-6 cm. 

Growth appears to be dependent on heat, seems to be very slow in winter, much faster in hot weather, and it has been an unusually long, hot summer. Based on reports of growth rate in tropical countries growth is much slower here than there, but I will be watching with interest the progress of this and around 100 babies, in the coming years.  At this stage I'm only reporting on them as a potential temperate micro-livestock, since I was so surprised they even survived and reproduced outside not to mention one growing to an almost respectable size. 

Slaughtering snails for meat might raise fewer ethical and psychological issues for people who would normally avoid slaughtering complex animals for meat. I'm not sure I'll ever be slaughtering them for meat myself. I'm more interested in the potential for others who want to produce their own meat, especially in squeamish suburbs (or perhaps even apartment blocks, they could conceivably grow in tubs on balconies) .

Another advantage is it appears to require little care or feeding, I have it in tubs with edible aquatic plants, such as Nymphaea odorata, and Aponogeton distachyos, they seem to mainly eat the algae growing on the plants, though the Aponogeton occasionally looks pretty mauled. There might be potential to supply them with foods that make them grow faster.

An additional advantage is they don't need elaborate containment structures like gourmet land snails, they seem to stay in, or very near the water. Though it appears they can attach themselves to animals that visit the water and escape that way, presumably this explains how a number ended up looking quite happy in my dog's water bowl some distance away inside!

A disadvantage is they often lay eggs on, and cling to the underside of the edible aquatic leaves I harvest for dinner. It can be fiddly getting them all off. I understand some water snails have extremely toxic eggs, I believe these are species with very brightly colored eggs, showy displays are usually a sign of danger in the animal, plant and human worlds. The eggs of my snails are transparent, indicating they are "hiding" because they are non-toxic, probably I have eaten a few of them by accident with no noticeable effect. But plants are more my area than snails, I strongly encourage doing your own research or find an expert on this subject. 

Another disadvantage is they would be difficult to remove from a tub or pond once established, I tried with chlorinated water which kills many fish, they loved it. Perhaps a traditional fish toxin like saponins from various plants would be worth a try, otherwise complete draining might work, but they actually have lungs as well as gills so might even survive that, at least for a while.  

I discovered they could survive outside entirely by accident, I was raising them indoors in a tank, it didn't seem to be going well, the older large ones, purchased at a pet shop, kept dying. So I gave up on the project and dumped the water, containing a few tiny baby snails, into some of my outdoor water plant tubs expecting that to be the end of it. Much to my surprise I noticed eggs everywhere shortly after. So they are able to go through their full reproductive cycle when very small, they do not need to grow large for this.

1) Apple Snails in the Aquarium. Dr G Perera, J Walls 1996


Friday, April 22, 2016

Gordonia yunnanensis: Potential Temperate Caffeine Crop

I think the plant Gordonia yunnanensis (Camellia taliensis) could be a good source of caffeine for home gardeners, perhaps even orchardists, in temperate climates such as Wellington, New Zealand.

This attractive tree has long been used for tea, collected from the wild, in the Yunnan Province of China (1). It has only recently become widely available in the nursery trade elsewhere, it also appears that it was only discovered to contain caffeine as recently as 1984 (2). Presumably communism kept it unavailable and little known to outsiders until very recently.

So far there seems to be little interest in this plant as a caffeine crop, which seems a little surprising given the economic importance of "mildly" addictive caffeine, found in very few plant species. As far as I'm aware it has been marketed exclusively as an ornamental not a caffeine/tea source in the nursery trade. I am also not aware of any books or sites recommending it as a caffeine source for home gardeners, only sparse scientific texts and the odd traveler seem to refer to use as tea. Conceivably the recent name change from Camellia taliensis to Gordonia yunnanensis has not helped, I'm not aware of a reference associating the new name with caffeine or tea.

The plant pictured has been in my garden, largely neglected, in Wellington, New Zealand, for about a year.  It has not minded winter with night temperatures usually around 3 C, sometimes down to -5 C . It also seemed to be oblivious to a very dry summer and below average, fairly hard clay soil. Some other plants I gave much more care to did not do so well, losing up to half of their leaves. Perhaps I over-fertilized them, a potential problem with the related tea plant.

I have not had the plant long enough to judge how productive they are, growth was impressive in spring but so far very slow at other times. Determining productivity is my main objective in the next few years.

I tried a few cups of tea from the leaves, it seemed to taste better than standard (Camellia sinensis) tea to me which I don't like much, it also didn't appear to be astringent like tea, but my perception could easily have been warped by my enthusiasm for this new discovery.  There are (probably more objective) comments on the net saying it doesn't taste that good, to me this is a minor problem if you think producing your own caffeine is more desirable than getting the third world to grow it for you and having corporations ship it around the world for you.  Plenty of tasty things could be grown and brewed with it to improve its rather bland, mild flavor if that's an issue. In my opinion almost any flavor associated with something addictive starts to taste mighty good over time, look at beer, tobacco or wine.


2) Teas, Cocoa and Coffee: Plant Secondary metabolite and Health. Crozier, Ashihara, Toma-Barberan 2011