I gave a talk at my family farm’s plant sale two weeks ago, that was supposed to center around PASSIVE Gardening. I thought it would be rather tacky to give a condensed version of the book, so decided to give a side glance of the method, by explaining the little known art of pulling nutrients from air. This is actually the basis of the method in my mind; but I often get some queer looks when I explain it that way. I’d love to know your take on it.
“I’d like to offer something rather uncommon in the gardening world…..”
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.
I was rather dissatisfied when finished with the Top ten ground covers for food forests series because I didn’t include an N-fix in the lineup of dynamic mulch. Vetch would be my first choice.
Crown vetch (Securigera/ Coronilla varia) is indeed the tyrannical ruler of the genus. It’s industrial grade ground cover, produces medium levels of nitrogen, stretches 3-4 feet tall, and eats as much as 60 ft of new territory in all directions via rhizome spread every year.
I’ve only seen this number in reports. I’m guessing the ground where these measurements were taken was the most fertile sandy loam on the face of the planet, or someone dropped a bag of fertilizer. I’ve never seen it spread more than four feet a year -if it spreads at all. many readers have likely seen this plant along highways where governments have seeded it. Erosion is a thing of the past once this perennial is established, so they have encouraged its use.
Once established though, they can start new colonies via seed. As a result, many governments have removed it from their official list of recommended plants.
It’s a little late. I have some patches appearing by the road at the edge of my food forest, and one of my clients has several healthy patches around their property. I have in fact installed this plant in one client’s system, because it really is quite useful, and easily controlled, if you know its habits.
The one system where I installed this for instance was a very high production food forest with long rows of shrubs and fruit trees running along swales (not my designs. I was brought onto the scene in the later stages). The owner wanted a system that could be managed by laborers simply weed-whacking the place every month or two. With this mentality, the owner had started by laying black woven plastic mulch under the plantings -despite my disapproval. It didn’t take more than two moths before weeds found their way through. He was aghast when I showed him. Finally open to my suggestions for a dynamic mulch, crown vetch was the perfect candidate.
As a dynamic mulch, it can exclude grass. Sometimes, if the grass is well established, the two may persist together. If well established, it’s nigh inpossible for weeds to get a foothold in the crown vetch’s domain.
It grows well seeded among daylilies, and most any plant that grows more than three or four feet -a food forest cover.
The crown vetch in my food forest has to creep across the upper grain patch before it can invade any of my plantings. This is one of the most poor spots in the food forest even the crown vetch can’t stomach crossing. I simply tax it for its nitrogen rich growth about the time it comes into bloom. Because it can be pulled so easily, I simply yank up whole armfuls to feed other parts of the food forest. As you can imagine, the patch is expanding at a snail’s pace.
My clients have done the same, and find their patches stay put.
Hairy vetch (Vicia villosa) and wood vetch (Vicia sylvatica) are both annuals, but have scarcely less ability to spread. Hairy vetch is used commonly used as a ground cover in vegetable gardens to be tilled in as a green manure. It and wood vetch are also medium level n-fixers. I have seen vilossa reach about four feet tall as it meanders around, such as below with wine-raspberry. Reports say it can reach as much as eight feet. So long as it doesn’t bloom and seed, there isn’t a problem.
I actually let the thing seed in my food forest because it grows right among weeds, grass, you name it -without complaint. I love it. When it blooms, I nab as many as I can for mulch, leaving the rest to seed. I really just wish I had more.
I came hit the jackpot the other day at my step-grandmother’s garden. She has the wood vetch, and a lot of it. I gathered a bunch of the pods as pictured below, which popped, flinging seeds every which way even as they sat in the bowl.
I planted them in a problematic part of the food forest to see how well they might compete with the grass. Perhaps they’ll clear the place for me in a similar way sunchokes can. in the bed I found it growing so happily, it was hardly three feet tall. I’ll just yank them up or cut them down before they make any very much seed.
Leeks all fall under the species Allium ampeloprasum, but this divides into two subspecies: porrum and ampeloprasum (not a typo. It’s literaly Allium ampeloprasum var. Ampeloprasum. In other words: it best represents the species).
Porrum covers common garden leeks, whose thick shanks, and sweet, mild flavor we so love. They dependably bloom and make seed their second year from sowing. Sometimes they make side bulblets, creating a clump of progressively smaller leeks if not divided. This clump can come back year after year. The variety “Babington’s” leek is especially well know for this habit.
To be happy, though, they need pretty rich fertility; and really propagate best by self seeding. Winter quite dependably squelches these tender things in my climate. For all practical purposes, I consider porrum cultivars to be annuals.
Elephant garlic and the like are the true ampeloprasums. When you find sources online trying to pass off “perennial leeks,” they are more than likely from this corner of ampeloprasia. You’ll notice, as you chop them, a smaller diameter, and a more prominent garlic fragrance and flavor than usually found in the porrums. Variety anpeloprasums readily divide themselves every year, like garlic. Similar to the porrums, the individual plants get smaller as the clump gets bigger. I have yet to see these proficiently seed themselves; but winter here can’t dig its claws into this hardy plant, so there’s little incentive.
“Oepri perizweib” is a variety of perennial leek I grow. I got it from Southern Exposure. It has a mild garlic flavor. I don’t divide them, resulting in thick clumps of little sprouts I usually just snap off rather than digging. This leaves the bottoms to regrow. Doesn’t seed so far as I can tell. It rarely even blooms when clumped together. If spaced well, and given fertile conditions, they can reach close to an inch across at the base. Below is a fine clump with Mache as a groundcover.*
Another specimen I would say resembles these ampeloprasums is the Sacred Forest garlic Oikos Tree Crops sells. Its scapes are characteristic of the ampeloprasums, although they list it as a garlic (A. sativum). It has also proved quite hardy for me. I’ve found it is quite slow to form new side shoots where I have it, but these are about as large as the parent -no shrinking. This is in stark contrast to the Oepri Perizweib. It’s also much larger than the healthiest, most pampered of the Oepri’s I’ve grown; so perhaps give this one a try and let me know what you think.
I prefer to keep the perennial ampeloprasum leeks for their hardiness, and because they sprout up as early as late February for me. They die down around June and July, but will often start up again once the weather cools around September. Below are some of the Oepri and mache I harvested in February.
As with the other alliums in this Perennial Alliums series, you could keep any of these ampeloprasums in a perennial border as clumps, then divide and separate every year for growing out in well spaced, fertile soils to get larger size and milder flavor. Let nature manage propagation. The porrums might find such uncouth settings unaccomdating; so perhaps give them a little richer spot, or try them in a greenhouse planting. It would certainly keep the leeks flowing all season long.
*If you are drawn to growing effective goundcovers like this, may I suggest you take a look at Mastering The Growing Edge. I wrote it just for an interested gardener like you.
There are many species of Amorpha. The species I most recommend to clients, and in my published works, is A. fruticosa. This is because it is hardy in much colder regions, and grows taller -hence producing more biomass, than most species.
It is also the species that is best known worldwide. Several varieties have been bred from it making A. fruticosa one of the best foundational N-fixers on which to build gardens of lush fertility.
The fact is many of the Amorpha in Mortal Tree came from a company that listed the plant as A. californica, not fruticosa. I’ve called it that after I personally identified it. Allow me to explain:
Amorpha californica, according to the literature, grows a maximum of 6 ft. tall, and is only hardy to USDA zone seven. I’m in zone five, where this plant has lived through winters that fully reach the limit of what this zone offers, without the slightest dieback. I also find the Amorpha I have quickly pass up six foot tall. I looked into this further by researching the USDA Plant Database. Here I found information that backed my theory, and even pictures of the different seeds, which look nothing alike. Mine resembled fruticosa. I took liberty of calling the plant what I thought it was ever since.
A. californica seed to the left, A. fruticosa seed to the right. Images from the USDA database.
I still have not the slightest doubt this Amorpha is Amorpha fruticosa. I don’t make such decisions lightly. My rather bold statement in Growing Amorpha that the company had incorrectly identified the plant got me more flack than I had ever expected.
My motive to make this statement was of course to dispel any fears the plant this company is selling won’t live for them if they are in zones 6 and 5. They are a major supplier of this plant, and I am telling people left and right to get it. I did try twice to contact the company to talk about this discrepancy, but their contact system never worked. I figured a small blog like myself was obviously of no consequence in their minds, but I was wrong.
The owner of the company was quite skeptical of my deduction. I was quite surprised when he showed skepticism of even the USDA’s accuracy, since the pictures clearly showed the seeds were not A. californica. He was in fact skeptical of most of the internet’s images of A. fruticosa seeds when I brought them up as examples. The only authority he considered trustworthy was none other than Gerd Krussman’s Manual of Cultivated Broad-Leaved Trees and Shrubs. This of course had been out of print for years, so I wondered how I would get my hands on the volume that had Amorpha in it. Thankfully, I have connections who graciously brought all three volumes to my desk in short order.
Krussman simply confirmed everything I had read previously about the plant. But we needed to identify this plant down to the very details of the flowers before this could be resolved.
Here are the results:
Krussman’s work was not especially helpful in identifying the seeds. The real detail that sets apart A. fruticosa flowers from californica is the width of the petal, and spots on the californica flowers for what the line drawing shows.
The flowers from my plants grown from the companies seed have especially wide petals I could not even make lay flat without ripping. So I spread it as best I could on a pen tip to show the plush width and lack of spots. I’ll let you derive the ID. It seems quite evident to me.
In our conversation about the plant, there was of course suggestion that we had a hybrid on our hands. If it is, it does not show the attributes of californica in the least. Fruticosa has the broader range, the greater popularity, and most importantly, the greatest utility for sustainable agriculture systems. I hope what I have done helped someone find success in this blossoming branch of agriculture through confident use of this amazing plant.
The popular perennial spinach good king henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) is pretty difficult to germinate. Under Making sense of wild seeds I found how hard some fellow perennial vegetable gardeners have worked to eek out nothing but empty pots of this plant. In my own experience, a hundred seeds will likely yield as high as twenty, and as low as one or two seedlings.
When I established this plant in Mortal Tree, I hoped the seed would suit itself, and sprout on its own. I’d transplant whatever appeared. Such serendipitous propagation eluded me for years, until last year, when I moved them.
Next to the patch this year, I was ecstatic to see a moderately thick patch of the sprouts!
This is a southwest facing slope, but has a small windbreak of plants in front of it. The bed is in its second year. The grass mulch I laid to start it still covers the ground. We also had an extremely mild winter. In general, I think this plant likes really temperate conditions, prefering cool over heat, moisture over dryness.
I hope this conjures some images in your mind of areas in your garden that might suit this plant. It really is quite a nice perennial vegetable. I call it, The better broccoli, for its delicious flower buds. With seeds growing themselves now, I plan on having a lot more of this food in the very near future.
I noticed one of the apples in the food forest had finished blooming and now had tons of tiny apples clustered on its branches. I took the situation in hand and started to pick them off.
Five flowers form on each spur, leaving five small fruits after pollination. They naturally fall off, one by one, until a single fruit is left to make seed. Contrary to what we might think, an apple has grown to its maximum potential within thirty days after the flower drops its petals. From this point, any ‘growth’ is just cells filling up with sap like balloons. The number of balloons to be filled with juice resulting from cell division is already decided.
I was pulling off all but one fruit on each spur. From this, I expected each apple left on the tree would have more nourishment from the tree, be larger, and better shaped. If I had waited for the tree to pair down the fruits itself, it would have divided that nourishment between all those extra apples that would never stay on the tree anyway.
Is there a drawback to this unnatural thinning? Perhaps.
When plucking off the fruits I noticed a few had codling moth damage. I have gotten fine harvests of apples from my trees, with very little, if any, codling moth damaged in years past. Whether this is an especially good year for codling moth population or not might explain this damage. Or perhaps the tree had dropped much of the fruit with codling moth damage so I never noticed? It quickly occurred to me the tree grows the extra fruit in part to increase the chances at least one will make seed -as codling moths eat the seeds of the apples they infest.
Codling moths have several generations through a season, so we will see if the moths come back for more later.
Another effect of thinning apples is more regular fruiting. The seeds in each fruit create a hormone that blocks fruiting the next year. Some varieties of apple are notorious for their violent fruiting cycles -one year not a fruit on the tree, the next (or year after that) the branches break for the myriad fruit clogging the works. By thinning, a moderate amount of hormone is produced every year, allowing a moderate amount of fruit every year.
Perhaps such staggered fruit production in un-thinned apples is a tactic for cutting down on codling moth population?
As is, thinning delivers better results for me. But my trees are also quite small -just barely above my head. Thinning falls into what I call pleasurable interaction with the food forest, or work I enjoy, and usually only takes five minutes or so to complete.
I may quit it in years to come, and just trade thinning time and larger fruit for hacking out the good hunks from myriad smaller fruits. Masanobu Fukuoka, when his students asked how they could grow good apples without equipment and sprays, said to simply feed the poor quality fruit the students thought eminent to pigs. I’m not so skeptical as Fukuoka’s students; I have seen my trees produce quite healthy fruit already, so we’ll see what they give as the system builds. Below are some of my Fuji apples last year.
You may wonder how the heck massive orchards ever thin their fruit one by one. By machine? No, by chemicals. Hormones in trees largely dictate the quality and growth of the fruit. We have developed an array of synthetic hormones, of which there are no counterparts in nature, that cause apple trees to drop their fruit. Run some experiments to properly calibrate the dosage, and you have thinned trees by simply spraying. Some of the hormones they have developed even increase the cell proliferation process beyond what the fruit tree offers, resulting in abnormally large fruit. I’ll let you research the health effects of these synthetic hormones.
When I first came across this information years ago, I went on a long search for an equivalent that could be derived from plants. I didn’t come across one, or any information on a hormone pathway that could cause the fruit to drop, accept for stressing a tree, or simply reducing pollination. I am suspicious there is an even more elegant answer:
I find that increasing the health of trees and their ecology in general can can at times truly transform their character. Mortal Tree is still a long ways from being notably fertile. But Fruiting factors are building on their own in some places. So perhaps the good effects will get out of hand, and produce some good results I never would have expected.
How do you make a salad from perennial vegetables? How do they pair? Is there a best way to slice them? My friend and client Elora lately posted a short video showing how she makes salad from her PASSIVE garden.
If you’re new to this blog, you might like to read the post about Elora’s garden establishment here For example:
She has posted about the garden before on her blog, The Blonde Butter Maker, and tells me she plans on making a lot more content on how passive agriculture fits into her and her family’s day to day life. I started design in their yard about three years ago, and am so pleased they are seeing such excellent results.
Here is the recipe Elora uses in the video:
Salad burnett -a loose handful
French sorrel – 3 to 5 leaves
Scorzonera -10 leaves
Welsh onion -5 of the green tops picked off, or 1 onion removed from the base up.
Chocolate mint -2 sprigs
Stritello -loose handful
Some mache stems and leaves -as much as a handful.
Violet flowers for garnish -as many as 30 flowers per salad
The scorzonera, sorrel, and onion greens should be chopped -preferably into thin strips cut lengthwise. Mix this with the stritello and salad burnett and mache. The chocolate mint can then be chopped fine and evenly dispersed over the top with violet flowers for garnish. A light vinaigrette would compliment this best.
The above advertisement is for an ebook I personally own and use.
If you would like to learn the real details of taking good food pictures from Lindsay Ostrom over at Pinch of Yum, click to check it out. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!