Years ago, a hillside was tidied up. An apple tree growing there was pruned, grass around it ripped up. At the roots of the tree, clear plastic was laid, a layer of black plastic was laid over this, on top of this was laid colored woodchips
Alone, surrounded by short, browning grass in the heat of summer, its lower limbs sawed off, the apple tree died.
The owner changed. A new hand touched the wounds on this mortal tree, felt sorry, pulled back the layers of plastic, let the grass grow wild.
It was chaos. Briars and thorns grew up amidst the grass. Alongside these were fruit trees, vines, and shrubs.
Today I walked up the stone steps of this hillside, followed the meandering path that cuts through the long grass, and grasped one of many rusty-red peaches dripping from my trees.
Several of the peaches are fruiting abundantly this year. Because I have several kinds, some are ripe now, others a couple of months from now.
A fruit here, a fruit there has been the norm for years. This year there are just loads of fruit, beyond fresh eating, from goumi, gooseberry, saskatoon, currant. I often emerge from the food forest with fruits and berries for others to try. Some look at the fruit, look at the food forest, look at me puzzled and ask: “Where did you get those?”
I have actually done the least in the food forest this year than any year before. I haven’t even mowed much of it. The rose bushes and blackberries I let grow up in the back of the food forest actually provided some fine mulch when I trimmed them back.
The amorpha and comfrey provided some very nice mulch also. I mainly mowed beside the road in order to mulch a new bed. Yet, as I walk around, plucking clusters of shining sweetness, I‘m quite pleased to see my beds are expanding themselves. Within the beds, several plants have achieved some of the most lush growth yet, with the turnip rooted chervil way above my head, and forming new patches in new beds.
To bite into the dewy sweetness of a fruit warm with sunlight here is unlike that of anywhere else. All fruit is a process. It is the workings of a place, coming to such a refined state as food. To bring in a fertilizer here, and bring in a spray there, is like making a patchwork of places and processes, in my mind. I much prefer fruits with vibrant flavor from comfrey mulch growing at the trees’ feet, (comfrey mulch and tea does produce a notably rich flavor in garden vegetables too) and the spice of essential oils wafting around the air from such pest confusers as oregano or Spiraea.
I’ve had the privilege of working with chaos after letting it back into the garden. I think it’s got the idea of what I’m after. At this point in the food forest’s development, I am sure the chaos quite eagerly gets to work as I walk away from Mortal Tree, a fresh pit of a peach at its roots.
I’ve been working with Sarah Shailes, the curator, and writer of the prestigious Plant Scientist blog, to feature The rules of spacing, which was such a hit here a couple weeks ago, on her site. She published it today. Thanks to Carolee, a follower of Mortal Tree, for already liking the guest posting. Find the post here: The rules of spacing
While you’re there, you might like to check out some of the other articles Sarah and her guest writers have compiled. I have followed Plant Scientist for years now, and always appreciate the detail of the subjects explored there.
Sunchokes is number ten in the Top 10 ground covers for food forests series I started a while ago. To help put everything into perspective, I made an infographic.
The ground cover branch on the visual archive has links to all the original posts if you would like to find out more.
In general, the layout from right to left are ground covers that do well in established beds, to plants that simply wipe out other plants, and are excellent for bed building.
If you’re wondering how to share this on your own social media pages, try the share buttons below the post. I have most social platforms available for sharing.
I’m using the the term “dynamic mulch” to describe the ground covers, because ground cover has a rather flat connotation. Most gardeners think of them as useless plants that do nothing better than excessively clog the soil surface. They have much more potential.
I’m suggesting these plants as tools, not just for blocking weeds, but actively removing weeds, making use of otherwise useless plants through careful combinations, getting food from ground cover, improving the quality of the soil, and feeding other plants through their well calculated use. With the correct use, resulting from a more dynamic comprehension of plants, we are suddenly on the brink of an entirely new level of sustainable, productive, passive agriculture and gardening.
The infographic, and the Top 10 series are part of a bigger surprise to which some of you closely following me have probably caught on. It should be ready before the end of the month. My apologies for making you wait, but I assure you, it will be worth it.
A single, hyperlinked map. Use this to easily navigate and explore Mortal Tree
In search of giving every post equal visibility, I’m trying a visual archive. It’s hosted on MindMeister, with every title linked to its respective post on Mortal Tree. With over a hundred posts and pages, you might try bookmarking for future reference, and a more indepth study of the roots that have made this blog what it is today.
I’m always writing about perennials and no till, but I actually do a lot of annual gardening. My family’s farm has a CSA for about 20 shares that uses about 3 acres of tilled gardens.
Mortal Tree is my exposition on alternative methods, so of course I wanted to try growing annuals in a passive, no till setup.
That’s what the keyholes at the front were supposed to be; with perennials thrown in for propagation, and greater efficiency.
After two years of the first “system” (or lack thereof) there are two problems: lack of fertility, and weeds. Of course everyone has those problems, but the system was supposed to keep these to a tolerable level.
As it is, aside from mache, annuals just aren’t satisfied with the fertility. This year I didn’t harvest anything but what the perennials willingly supplied.
Ideal weed level is pulling a few weeds as I inspect the garden on a pleasant evening. Instead, I found myself clearing whole beds only to have them full of weeds again in a month.
I’ve scrutinized the system and found two problems: lack of mulch and lack of fertility in general.
The year of high fertility
I got the idea I wasn’t cycling enough nutrients from the lack of vigor the annuals and their self seeding progeny showed. I wasn’t sure how much more I needed. Normally the tillage and compost in the big gardens makes everything grow without complaint. Now that I’m trying to make this work with comfrey and other in-system nutrients, without tillage, it’s not.
Martin Crawford has several tables in Creating a Forest Garden that really pin down nutrients and how much different plants need, and how much different sources offer. He has a light, moderate, and heavy cropping category, then annuals.
Most of the perennial vegetables he places in the light cropping category. It takes about two cut comfrey per square meter to sustain these plants, which is about what I am applying. To sustain annual cropping takes 60 cut comfrey for that same area. Problem found.
The amount of fertility I’m accustomed to working with in the annual gardens is simply an unnatural surge of nutrients. Compost is extraordinarily rich in nutrients compared to bulk green mulch.
Also, tillage forces more oxygen into the soil, breaking down those nutrients at a faster rate. The keyholes had this advantage at first because I dug out the paths and piled up the soil to make the beds.
Problem is, the mulch apparently needed for the annuals would drown most of the perennials. In response I’m moving all the perennials out, and making the keyholes completely annual.
The best comparison I have for this so far is a keyhole bed I have near the Willow Garden in its fourth year of no till.
It has a dug out path and raised beds too. It has one comfrey for its mulch and fertility source. As a result, I’ve had to bring in more mulch to sustain the system.
For instance, I brought in a lot comfrey from the Willow Garden to drown out some quack grass (Agropyron repens) that had moved in. It was rather effective at suppressing it. Besides some vegetable mallow over the summer, it was enough to grow some nice cabbages.
In the food forest, I’m not supplying 60 cuts of comfrey per keyhole per year. I’ve got 12 beds with an average of 1.3 square meters each. It would take several hundred plants.
When faced with a large surge of energy in a design, I always try and disperse the blow across many sources.
Young regrowth on a coppiced amorpha
According to Martin’s fertility tables, one amorpha, based on mature canopy size of about six feet in diameter, provides the equivalent nitrogen of 20 cuts of comfrey, or 10 comfrey plants; lespedeza about the same. I’ll throw some of these in the patch so the roots sloughing off after coppicing can feed the comfrey. They need nitrogen themselves.
This still requires more space than I’ve allocated to the annual’s mulch patch. So I’ll grow some annual cover crops on the keyhole beds once in a while to fill the gap -careful to choose crops that will die when cut, frosted, or heavily mulched since there won’t be any tilling.
To really cinch the deal I have the food forest rabbit’s manure. I let a bucket of it sit out to catch rain, and harvest the resulting “tea” to feed establishing beds right now. In time it can be exclusively for the annuals.
Achieving this much mulch in the food forest will take a while. I’m moving out the perennials first, and planting the whole thing in lots of annual cover crops. The first plant to start yeilding mulch will likely be comfrey, though I might just mulch their own patch the first year to ensure they are established. The next year the N-fixers will be ready for light coppicing, then full production. I’m assuming three years before that point, but I’m quite excited to the see the results. I’ll keep you posted as it goes along.
Frost came and the Amorpha is done growing for the season. Check out this year’s growth.
Visually impressive I know. It’s actually lacking 2 ft of what I expected. If you’ve read Dealing with deficiency earlier this summer, you probably noticed this season wasn’t stellar for lush growth.
Compared to the nearby cherry that yellowed and lost its leaves several months ago, the amorpha did quite well, remaining green and vibrant, growing for a lot longer than other plants in the food forest. Early September even it slowed down and aborted its growing tip, calling it quits for the year.
Last year it grew right until frost in October. If the same had occured this year, I suspect it could have grown that extra 2 ft and more.
I plan on coppicing again next year. A lot of my seedling Amorpha I coppiced lightly this year though, just removing a branch or two to which they responded well. So I may have more genetics in different locations to compare with next year. I’ll keep you posted.
In pdf. form. You may have to copy and paste the link into your browser to make it work.
This paper really picks apart the effects of juglone, its production levels, area of effect, and all the possibilities of growing crops under its influence. Written with permaculture in mind.
I especially like their recommendation to plant black alder (Alnus glutinosa) as a nurse crop between your rows of black walnut. Since they’re sensitive to the allelopaths, they die out. But in the meantime you’ve grown poles for coppicing, and leave a whole stump and root system to slowly release nitrogen to the walnut crop -an excellent example of systematic development by filling niches in time.
I look forward to the food forest being more grown up at this time of year -meaning that the the food forest will have more shrubs and trees, making shade, mulch, and cycling more water. I wish I had more of these things right now. But besides being patient, there are several things I am doing to speed up the growth, and make this dream of an established food forest a reality.
First priority is to introduce more species and plants to fill in the huge gaps between the trees. This is what happens in nature where fields begin reverting back to forests from grass. The species in the open field change from grasses, to woody perennials like goldenrod (Solidago species), then to blackberries (Rubus species), multiflora roses (Rosa multiflora), and dogwoods (Cornus controversa), until oaks and the like begin to establish themselves.
By the time the forest trees start to grow up, there is a thick mulch of blackberry and multiflora canes, nicely manured by all the animals attracted there by the multiflora rose hips in the winter, and blackberries in the summer. Nature is not a “Veganic” gardener.
That being said, when I say ‘adding species,’ I do mean adding animal species as well as plant. I have moved our chicken pens across some of the more open places in the food forest, and the effect on the grass has been amazing. Rather than scraggly short stuff, I have lovely swaths of emerald green -nearly a foot taller than the grass next to it; all the green grass growing in the exact shape of the chicken pens.
This extra grass makes more food my rabbit. She can eat exclusively in-system grass and clover, providing lovely “bunny gold” for adding to the mulched beds.
This mulch has been helpful in killing of the scraggly grass under my trees, since to get rid of any sizable patch with mulch I need all the grass I can get.
Mulching to kill grass illustrates the best way to work with these newly introduced species of plants and animals: keep the life moving. In other words, cycle the life as fast as you can, keep all the species of plants and animals as dependent on each other as you can. That is how an ecosystem is built; through the interaction of a lot of species. If you have grass, mulch with it -or feed it to an animal, wild or domesticated. Whatever the case, keep those nutrients active!
Comfrey and nitrogen fixers are most of what I am planting under the trees, along with some Jerusalem artichokes here and there. They compete with the grass masterfully, and at the same time make more biomass.
Whatever I do, there is a lot to be done, not the least of these being to stand back and observe, so I had better get back out there.
Pruning shears, or nippers as I informally call them, fill most of a machete’s roles in slower, more purposeful fashion. Although the idea may seem safer than the use of machete for managing lush growth, nippers bite too and really are about as safe if precautions are taken. I personally have more nipps from nippers than machete anyway.
This comes from my excessive use of nippers. Not only do I grow and harvest many medicinal herbs for herb companies, but my mother grows lots and lots of flowers around here (see this post on her dahlia infatuation. This year, with over 100 varieties and over 250 plants, it’s only gotten worse). With hundreds of thousands of stems nipped a year, I have quickly gravitated towards the best nippers I can get my hands on.
They’re from Stihl, and slide like glass -no jolts, no grind, no clicks, no pinches. They lock smoothly, but the lock is built so the nippers jump open for work with a slight, one-handed squeeze. The blades hold a formidably sharp edge, and fit my hand like a dream.
I have them compliments of my neighbor. She purchased them, then switched to their exact shape in a smaller model that fit her hands perfectly.
As nippers are so mechanical, there is not a lot of technique for effective use except making sure the right side is used to get a close cut on branches. Also, whenever cutting a branch, one should always angle the cut to let water flow off the exposed tissue rather than sit and encourage infection.
A prime example of letting the nippers do the work for you are ratcheting nippers. Once again, the queen of tools my neighbor introduced me to these clever mechanisms. They have a gear-like set of notches that one by one can be ratcheted down until branches as thick as the things can bite are cut clean through. The ease with which this is done due to the racheting is surprising.
Out of the number of shears and ratcheting shears my neighbor has, I most enjoy the ones from Florian. The company, as I have seen watching her experience, also has very good customer service. These have demanded notably little replacements or maintenace compared to other models she has; but with moving parts of pruners in general and ratcheting sheers especially, it’s a significant factor to keep in mind.
We’ll end our list of food forest tools here, but I’d love to hear from you, reader, if you have any particular tools you find of use in food forest creation? links to posts detailing your choice and use are most welcome. Thanks for all the support over the course of this series. I’m glad everyone enjoyed it so much!
Mentioned in this post
Stihl PP 60, 70, and 80. Unfortunately not available any longer online (expensive), but available through select Stihl Dealers.
In contrast to swords being beaten to plowshares as the old adage goes, it seems the new vision of peace and plenty is beating plowshares of tilled earth into straight blades for managing lush tree crops.
I am happily entering a stage of my food forest’s development when the grass paths are shrinking, the shrubs, trees and N-fixers I planted so long ago are spewing fountains of green. At this point the main task of management is just hacking back the abundance.
I have used two tools before my current one for managing the food forest: A woodsman’s pal, which hybridises an axe and machete with a sharp hook on the other end for cutting smaller branches. The other was a long machete blade with a plastic handle, and a hook on the back. Both have their drawbacks. The one I’m currently using (and love) is a clearing blade from Fiskars. I consider it a model of what makes a high quality food forest managing blade.
It’s very light, well balanced, and has no du-flinkies that get caught on branches as I’m moving the blade around. Best of all is the sharpened portion on the flat end. I often swipe this under roots of plants I want removed from a polyculture’s future evolution. This is of course an unorthodox use for the blade; but it is a quick, simple way of weeding I very much enjoy.
I have used a friend’s blade which includes a saw on the back: greens are always getting caught on the backside. Hooks on the back present similar drawbacks when hacking lush brush. Attractive, I know, stuffing twenty tools into one. But we’re talking machetes here, not pocket knives.
Technique with this tool is imperative for staying safe and getting surprising amounts of work done. I am always mindful that the hand not in use is to my side, slightly behind me. Always keep in mind to just step back when something close to you needs to be cut; don‘t mindlessly hack right in front of you and risk injury to your legs or feet. If you don’t quite trust your fate in this case, certainly wear steel toed boots, and shin-guards.
Where I harvested mulch with a blade.
Safety first, but the techniques for moving brush in the right direction whilst cutting can be very useful. Notice how when you cut the brush it moves or falls in the direction of the swing? Moving around a young tree and swiping in, the brush is already piled nicely by the time you’ve finished cutting.
Where it went.
This is very similar to the tactic I explained and diagramed yesterday for scythes.
To slice branches neatly, make sure the blade is sharp for one. The finer the material to be cut the more narrow the sharpening angle should be. For larger, more woody cutting that could dent finely sharpened blades, you would want a larger angle. I would recommend a 25-30 degree incline when sharpening to deliver best results in the soft wood and green brush of a maturing food forest like mine.
If you want to be really sure you make a clean cut, grab the branch with one hand (certain it’s far away from where the blade will hit) and cut up with the blade. In general directing the blow away from the branch’s base prevents splitting the branch. A blow straight across to snap a branch, followed by a blow from the opposite direction is another way to make relatively clean cuts.
I have also used my machete in place of a chipper shredder. this is helpful when cutting crown vetch and vines I want to place between small spaces plants for mulch. A few minutes of chopping the pile and I have fine mulch that fits neat.
I look forward to what the machete becomes in the public mind in years to come as food forests become more prevalent. It represent to me the epitome of refinement from the tiller tines and machinery that runs them. Simple tools for simple life.
There is an art to effortlessly slipping young plants into the dark earth in such a way the plant and the earth hardly notice what happened. There is an art to slicing just below the crust of the earth at the junction of root and shoot in a way that, with the most instantaneous shock, weeds flinch, and fall dead. The tool that facilitates such an art is the hori hori.
It is a Japanese tool, the name meaning ‘dig dig’ in their language. Across the many designs, most have a simple knife-edge on one side, a serrated edge on the other, a sharp, tapered tip at the end.
You would not believe all the uses of a straight edge serrated blade like this in the garden. Over years of use I have gotten a knack for twisting the blade as I skim through the upper layer of soil, popping thick and thin roots alike, swiping young seedling.
To insert a small plant in the soil, I plunge the end into the ground, pry away from me to lift, sweep around towards myself, and lift the soil. Even in grass turf, I have the same technique – plunge, pry, slice, lift. to make a larger hole for larger plants, I just make bigger circles with my slice.
I can’t imagine going back to heavily angled, blunt edged trowels after getting one of these in my hands -unless it was a really bad hori hori, which I have come across. I have large hands, so many designs with excessive notches and rivets intended for providing the perfect grip are terrible for me. The notches often ware on my hands, causing blisters in short order.
My favorite hori hori (the first one pictured in this post -also the one I used in the videos. Link for this model at the end of this post) is in fact one my sister bought for my mother as a Christmas present. When I went to get one myself, I found it had sold out across the internet so far as we could find; so my mother just gave hers to me as a re-gift.
It has straight edges, and is large enough my hand doesn’t rub on the ends as I work. The open front and back of the handle allow me to pinch lightly with my thumb and index finger, swirling it from upward to downward position in one easy motion. Aside from looking slick as heck, this is a most efficient method of use.
Sharp little indents at the base of some blades are another problematic addition of many designs. Aside from the fact I never use these for cutting because either of the two side-blades does the job quicker and better anyway, this little notch is always catching debris, or catching strings, rocks as I pull it from the soil. Not helpful.
Extra long guards on the base of the hilt can be problematic too. They can get in the way, and rub on the hands if too shear. I have quite enjoyed working with hori horis that a have straight, rectangular handle, mildly smoothed around the edges without a guard similar to the one pictured. The problem with that one was its weak attachment to the handle, which bent too easily.
For anyone’s unique grip and method of use, the styles of hori hori may change, but in general, space for the hand to move without rubbing, less du-flinkies to snag things, and a strong connection between the blade and the handle are the hallmarks of the best models of this ninja gardening tool.
Scythes are so complete and precise in their ability to effortlessly remove blade from stem that they encompass all the talent of weed whips and lawnmowers combined. One of my first essays for school was in fact a persuasive essay on why you should junk your lawnmower and get a scythe (yes I’ve been at this for a while). It was, not surprisingly, one of my highest grade papers of that whole school year.
It’s an easy comparison: the chintziest lawnmower costs anything from two hundred and up to suck gas and go on strike every time it needs repair. Scythes rarely cost up to three hundred for a high quality snath, blade, whetstone, horn to wet it, and all the accouterment to make quite a posh setup; but scythes don’t take gas, or take up near so much room in your garage.
In place of the voluminous dirge-like whir of lawn mowers, scythes whisper through the grass, and ring with glee after every stroke.
Rather than pushing the beast of a lawn mower around only to pull out the weed whip to finish the odd spots, scythes have the versatility of both. Whether nipping an errant grass-blade between flower stems, or swiping the excess growth from another level of ground, scythes can go anywhere you can.
The limiting factor is simply your skill level. David Tresemer and Peter Vido in The Scythe Book, give ample explanation on the techniques that make mowing with a scythe a pleasure for the body and mind.
Does it take more time to mow with a scythe than with a lawn mower and weed whip? It depends. Especially tough material, like dry, short grass takes a lot of skill, and a sharp blade more than time spent. Soft grass mown with a small hand pushed lawn mower take about as much time as scythe if you become proficient with the technique.
It’s when mowing taller material over small areas scythes outperform even large riding lawn mowers. For example, one of my first clients had a luscious field of clover for mulch he demanded must be mowed with his Xmark riding lawnmower to not waste time. The thing choked and gagged on the clover even on the driest of days. It needed de-clogged, the deck cleared. Miserable.
He just wouldn’t believe a scythe could do the job faster.
The keyhole beds in Mortal Tree ready for mowing
One day he was gone, and I was there to mow, so took the liberty of mowing with my scythe.
He later saw the mulching I completed that day looked satisfactory for the amount of hours I spent (I detest clients paying me by the hour, and always try to negotiate a one time contract payment. I usually complete work in less time than expected anyway). He let me use the scythe one day he was there working on his house-building project, and was blown away by the cartloads of clover piled high that came wobbling down the lane. We ditched the mower forever after, and I was given the title Scythe Jedi.
Mowed. It took me all of ten minutes to clear nearly 100 square feet of tall aster stems and grass.
In general, strategic approaches to mowing with a scythe that make use of its versatility, greatly improve its efficiency over that of lawnmowers. One slick tactic I learned for cutting around, and mulching, a tree all at once is to simply circle the mowing around a tree. The windrow forms a nice thick mound in just the spot I would have mulched anyway.
One must also be very careful that the path of the swing ends a couple inches away from the tree as shown in the drawing. Otherwise, its likely you’ll nick the poor tree.
Also, this only works when nothing is planted around the tree – a mistake I made in the early stages of my food forest. I should have started my planting by establishing ground covers, then moved up to trees, as I currently recommend for new clients.
Does it require a lot of strength to use a scythe? If using it like a battle-axe, yes. Good technique is almost entirely about relaxing the arms and allowing the blade to glide just above the crowns of the grass. In a report cited in The Scythe Book, scientists who compare the wear and tear of various sports on the body showed mowing with a scythe, if the correct technique is maintained, is far less stressful on the body than most high school sports -while delivering the benefit of exercise. Assuming you use a European snath and blade rather than an American, there isn’t even much wood or metal you have to move, as they are very light.
On that point, I do have fairly specific recommendations for what scythe you should get. While there are some really high-end custom snath builders you could go searching for, very superior snaths are sold online ready-made. There are also some really junky ones I would love to steer you clear of.
The snath sold by Peter Vido’s company is the best ready-made snath on the market. The handles attach with actual screws; and the design allows for one size to fit several users because the handle can be moved up or down a couple notches. I started with an American blade, sitting rusted and unused in the back of a garage. Too heavy, really, and quite difficult to get the knack.
The first European snath I got was junk. It was a model for which they expect you to keep the handles in the snath with glue, or by sheer pressure. They give the lame excuse using correct technique should keep this in place, but I often will use the versatility of my scythe to pull or lift some grass I’ve just cut. Even if only used for the intended swipes, not all ground is ideal, nor is the material you are cutting. Get a snath that holds itself together.
As for blades, I got a bush and a grass blade when I first started from Marugg, and have not moved on, so have little long-term comparison to offer. I have worked with a Fux blade, and personally seen it has fine qualities. I have used friend’s blades that are really junk, so know there are some unworthy buys out there. Really good blades are made of delicate metal quite soft and pliable. This allows for the frequent, but quick sharpening that keeps the blade edge microscopically serrated for effortless cutting.
Bush blades are of course a little thicker in order to withstand the shock of hitting sticks and thicker stems; but grass blades should never be thick enough that you would ever dare sharpen it with a grind stone or the like. A whetstone briskly swished over the edge, with intermittent peenings (hammering the thicker metal thin as you progress into the blade due to wear of sharpening) is all that’s needed to remind a blade of what shape it should hold.
If you have a well made scythe as I have described, there is no reason you should not be able to mow your lawn and food forest alike. In the early years of a food forest especially, when grass is likely the predominate plant in the food forest scene, a scythe will be the most used blade for gathering mulch, managing weeds and the like. It was for me. As time goes on, other blades will be your best friend, as we will cover over the next few days in the posts that follow.
I always consider the most refined state of any art to have the least equipment, involvement, and time invested to get desired results. Food forests are no different. In Mortal Tree I have decided the aim is to remove the barriers that block my designs from those of nature, allowing them meet happily in the middle (or somewhere thereabouts) by removing unnecessary tools and tasks.
Using the plants themselves as tools for tillage, weeding, and the like, is the first step in effective food forest creation. Where do we go from there? Blades.
Take a moment to envision the lush jungle food forests of the south where, as I am told, all you need is a machete and forest and you’re good to garden the most abundant food supply imaginable.
But with blade in hand how the heck do you use it? It certainly helps if you have a high quality blade to begin with too. Which one is that for you? Over the next few days I’ll cover four different ‘blades’ I use for food forest creation, and as many of their finer points as I can, from my experience, offer.
If you’re new, and not familiar with how I use plants as tools, check out the infographic and other info on this page.
I am enamoured with the idea of a farm factory -not a factory farm, rather a farm that produces not only food products, but many of our industrial, and medical products.
This was of course the case years ago, when practically everything but metal and minerals was derived from plants, usually from very close to home. Today, we have upped our standards, migrated to other resources, whatever you may call it, and grown accustomed to products that are mostly derived from petroleum. Machines convert and contort the molecules of this petroleum into the most exotic forms, mimicking everything from plastics to essential oils.
I am enamoured by the idea of plants transforming a raw material of sunlight and air into the products we use today. The fact is that plants, deriving hydrogen and carbon from the air, can and do serve many of these advanced functions as hydrocarbons in petroleum, minus much of the toxicity and detriment to ecology.
Of all the plants commonly used, comfrey has some of the most potential as a sunlight and air converting living contraption. Beyond any refinement of the contraptions used today, it yields excellent mulch for fertility and weed control (see my work in Mastering the Growing Edge for these functions), but also medical products.
Comfrey contains allantoin -a molecule which, in the human body, acts as a cell proliferant, i.e. helps tissue regenerate faster. Its use in this sense is ancient. Although this has not helped it in the present day, as it came out of the dark ages with plenty of superstition clogging its public image. But fast forward to the World Wars and mountains of comfrey were coming out of farmer’s fields for its patently proven ability to heal the wounds of war.
To apply these benefits, I usually grab a leaf, squeeze the midrib, and find a clear liquid gel appearing at the end of the open stem. It’s surprising how much of this can be applied, as it absorbs quickly. With multiple applications, many wounds that have befallen me have healed without even the slightest visible scar.
Before I go too far, and my trained herbalist friends reading this have to lecture me again on the delicacy of herbal healing, you shouldn’t apply comfrey to wounds or diagnose yourself without consulting a trained medical professional. Comfrey does have some contraindications for its use. For instance, if a wound is infected, or not cleaned, comfrey is not the herb for the job.
I’ll offer one situation comfrey was especially helpful to me: I was at a client’s, by myself, cutting a long, long row filled with some of the biggest, most beautiful comfrey when the blade I was using gave me a morbid bite. The wound was on my thumb, and penetrated even into the nail. Out in the middle of a field, I decided to gamble with my life (as it seems I often do) and staunch the bleeding with some yarrow (Alchillea millefolium), then got on with cutting comfrey, applying gel from the stems over and over again as the wound sucked it up.
You might call that quite a rash decision, which is why I don’t recommend anyone do the same. To this day I can’t even find a scar.
Assume you do have the green light for comfrey’s use from a trained medical professional, but aren’t in the middle of a comfrey patch? It is possible to infuse an oil, glycerine, or alcohol with this comfrey gel for long-term storage, and quick, simple application.
Such processing may sound complicated at first, but just the other day I made a comfrey glycerite you may find surprisingly simple.
I gather fresh, true comfrey (Symphytum officionalis) in early morning, simply rip off the stem, and upper parts of the leaves, leaving the lower parts where bugs and dead leaves accumulate.
I took a small portion of this big bundle, twisted and ripped the stems into 4 inch lengths, and placed in a stainless steel bowl. I poured certified organic glycerine over this (derived from organic soybeans) and began to knead the comfrey leaves with the glycerine. At first, the mixture went very dry, then became very wet. The clear glycerine turned green as comfrey gel began to spew from the crushed stems.
Once this first bundle was crunched, I added another, mixed, crushed until moist, and repeated. The whole bundle broke down to a very small amount, and the glycerine turned a reddish-black-brown from all the comfrey stuffed into it. It actually resembled iodine.
To get all the goodness from this slurry, a press would have been helpful. Lacking that, I simply gather all the comfrey to one side of the container, and pressed until I lifted myself off the floor. The glycerite oozed from the mess into the empty side of the bowl and could be easily poured through a sieve into mason jars. After much gymnastics, I got well over a quart.
Terrible Tree #1 — Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) What’s wrong with it: Weedy, short-lived, insect- and disease-prone, invasive roots, unattractive most of the year.
Comment: Yes, I know. You grew up with mimosas in the yard (sniff), they remind you of Meemaw’s garden (sniff, sniff), and they’re so pretty when their fluffy pink flowers open in early summer. But let’s get real. The flowers last about two weeks. Then they’re replaced by scads of these large, ugly, brown seed pods that hang there until the next spring. So for two weeks of beauty you get 50 weeks of gross. Plus, seedlings from your tree will sprout in everyone’s yard within a quarter-mile.
-Southern Living Magazine
Once the naysayers settle down to let me get a word in edgewise: Mimosa -specifically Albizia julibrissin or silk tree -in my climate at least, does not own up to any of these accusatory standards. To boost, it’s quite a proficient N-fixer.
As to their longevity: There are several specimen of silk tree in my area, many of which are over 30 years old, some, in really protected areas, nearly twenty feet tall, and only all the more gorgeous for it. Perhaps we are outside the range of its pests. On the other hand, winters around here often frost silk tree back to the ground. Such dieback actually extends their likely lifespan, because the wood is renewed. For plant cells, this is the equivalent of turning back the biological clock, and can be done over and over again.
Short lived flowers? Perhaps it’s the cooler weather, but the bloom lasts far more than two weeks around here. Some do only bloom for three or four weeks, but several I see start in late July, and continue without stop until October.
I should mention some trees of course have more color to their plume-like blossoms. The one below my neighbor found as a seedling even further north, from a parent tree whose flowers were this undesirable color. It came out alright I think.
As to “ugly,” “brown,” pods: They’re tan, if not gold. I find them very attractive. In fact, even less attractive pods like these on any plant are often highly sought by advanced garden designers for “winter interest” they provide. Of course, a barren landscape in winter is more a northern problem than a southern.
Seeding all over the place: In the south silk tree is considered a noxious weed, per its willingness to pop up everywhere. It’s doing its job of turning open space into riparian field, to become productive forest. Shame on you for hogging up petroleum, riding around a growling hog to keep open spaces it’s just trying to repair. But I’ll stop my rant there.
If this seeding were an issue in northern climates I would only be all the more delighted to grow this plant; but I can say from experience that we only find a seedling or two every year, quite close to the parent tree. These do not always survive to adulthood, and so are quite precious, usually given as gifts.
There are rumors of a few trees in this climate that seed especially well, but these are interestingly enough, ugly white-flowered specimens.
These considerations are for tall trees though. My neighbor has allowed her tree to reach the upper story of her forest garden between a magnolia, Montmorency cherry, and serviceberry tree. For most food forests, silk tree has much more practical functions.
Soft design aside, the tree makes N. It grows footage of branches every year, which in our climate helps it bounce back from winter-kill. In the case of a food forest, this means lots of delicious mulch for healthy soil.
The USDA cites this plant as a medium level nitrogen fixer. One study noted it made far more nodules than other N-fixers, although only had medium level bacterial activity as pictured below. (Notice all the species aside from silk tree are decidedly tropical). View the full study here.
This study in particular pointed out that nitrogen fixation is heavily dependent on sunlight for enough energy to run the nitrogen-fixing process. As a result, cloudy climates may not see such vigorous growth. But Ohio certainly isn’t the most sunny state; and many fast growing silk trees I have come across do so in half day’s shade.
I recommend taxing the tree of its growth for mulch at about time of bloom. You could just snap off the flowering branches with your bare hands. In the case that your tree has not reached blooming age but is getting out of reach for easily collecting mulch, just wait until about midsummer to begin snapping off branches.
One more practical accusation to address is the invasive roots. This refers to roots choking out plants below it, and roots becoming new plants. I should also mention that many accuse mimosa of allelopathy -manufacturing poisons for the surrounding plants (See Notes on Juglone for more info on allelopathy). Soil type, and climate can have major effects on how these attributes are expressed. I must report I find they don’t show up with the local specimen. My neighbor in particular has ferns, hosta, and tree peony below her mimosa. They have no complaint but for the slight dryness due to the thick branches above. Otherwise, they’re quite happy.
Studies have been conducted on mimosa and its relatives’ ability to inhibit germination in seeds. Although only a limited range have been placed in controlled studies, this study, for example, did not find any inhibition of germination.
The best way to propagate mimosa, aside from seeds which just need water, warmth and soil in most cases, is actually to dig up pieces of the root and let them sprout branches. I have tried cuttings, and they don’t root. If you are hacking up the ground with a shovel around the base of a silk tree, then perhaps you’ll get a sprout. We never have been lucky enough for this to happen around here.
When placing mimosa in design, I give it especially visible positions, where people can interact with it. For one client, I have mimosa at the corners of a grotto design where they will be allowed to grow as large as winters allow. The intent is to create a dome of arching branches. In winter these will quietly rustle with golden pods.
Placed where you might brush by the leaves, silk tree is especially entertaining, because it folds its leaves in response – a character which in plant terminology is called thigmonasty. The tree also folds its leaves at night, or in the dark before storms. This response to light is called photonasty. Below are some photos taken by my client of her young trees.
My client asked why the mimosa had stopped folding its leaves when she petted it. The fact is they can learn. In The Hidden Life of Trees a study was cited which used dripping water as a means for stimulating a mimosa’s thigmonasty, causing it to shut. After many days of applying water in regular intervals, stopping, applying again, it learned this was not a threat, and got on with photosynthesis.
An intelligent tree like this is most desirable for adding to food forests as pleasure for the eye, delight for the curiosity, as fountains of mulch and fertility, for vibrant, healthy, cold climate jungles. Thank you for letting me state my position.