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Edgin

I won’t talk too much about the Kickstarter project, as it speaks for itself. I owe all of you an enormous thank you for showing me your interests, needs, and skillsets that directed me in creating this plan. I hope you find as much as I do that it has been crafted for you.

How do you see yourself leveraging this tool? If you’re curious what other details and rewards options I’ve worked into this project, click the image below. Feel free to comment here, or there on your take of it all.

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Taste of chaos

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.

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Featured on Plant Scientist

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.

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Orchard understory

Is the space around your trees still empty? Try these plants:

10 Companion Plants for Orchards (~4min read)

This article provides a pretty neat survey of plants that, together, make a diverse, healthy, productive orchard. Any of the listed plants of especial interest?

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Ground cover infographic

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.

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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.

Update: It’s launched! Mastering the Growing Edge is live if you want to check it out. 

 

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Follower photo

I posted on Instagram lately that I was after the best image of PASSIVE Gardening. I was so touched when I saw the response:

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Elora L. sent this among a couple other images she’d taken with her astoundingly high quality camera and artistic eye. I responded:

Elora, I don’t know quite what to say. Thank you? Let me know if there’s anything I can do to compensate you for this artful expression -if that’s possible.

….The one with the vines is pure genius. It’s to die for.

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Visual archive

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.

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Click here to view

Note: You can also find the Visual Archive in the sidebar next to any page or post -just turn mobile devices with small screens to landscape view.

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Growing annuals

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Amorpha regrowth 2: the results

Frost came and the Amorpha is done growing for the season. Check out this year’s growth.

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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.

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Black walnut suitable crops

willsull-netresourcesscottsullivanblackwalnut-pdf

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.

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Summer jobs or Summer care for a young food forest

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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.

How to grow seedlings without plastic pots

How did we ever grow vegetables, or any other transplants, without plastic pots?  Clay pots have of course been around for a long time. But these are heavy, breakable, expensive, and are not made with all the refinements plastic pots offer for encouraging a good root system.

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Personally, I use (and re-use, and use again and again, even when any sane person would say I should throw them away) plastic pots for growing out plants -the nitrogen fixers such as Amorpha especially. The above are my first choice for the task. That said, I have seen many advanced gardeners use an in-ground method for growing transplants that works well for small plantings. 

If you really want to ditch plastic pots, you can just grow your seedlings out in the garden, smack in the soil; but there are several tactics to making sure your green efforts are a success.

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Location

In almost all cases, seedlings like to have light, warmth, and protection from wind.  Ideally your whole garden would be a sunny, protected spot, but selecting the most happy, cozy little niche in your yard for your seedling nursery is imperative. These are babies you know.

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Fertile, friable soil.

Just remember this point as the two F’s. In this case, the F’s are not for failure, they are for success.

The natural strata of soil keeps the fertile, nutrient rich organic matter on top of the soil, with poorer soil lower in organic matter lower down. Seeds usually sprout on the soil surface, so it makes sense that seedlings are wired to use lots of nutrients as they sprout.

Planting seedlings in poor soil without organic matter is the exact opposite, and usually gives poor results.

Friable soil is crumbly soil. Rich soil high in organic matter is very friable. Sand is another friable soil type.

You want your soil to crumble easily, because you intend to transplant these tender little seedlings. If your seedlings are stuck in rock hard clods, you’re likely going to break a lot of them in transplant, and stress them far more than if the soil just falls off their roots.

Best situation would be to mix sand with a soil high in organic matter, or to have sand a foot deep, with a few inches of organic matter rich soil on top.

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Pure decomposed comfrey in Mortal Tree. This is excellent for growing seedlings.

If you’re growing out tree seedlings especially, you will want that foot or so of sand. This will accommodate the deeper roots.

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Method

In general, sprinkling the seeds around randomly takes up a lot of space, and often gives a chance for weeds to show up in the un-used space between sprouts.  Not good.

It’s often better to space out seedlings in time rather than space. In this case, start out seedlings close, in rows or patches, so they take up the minimum amount of soil for their size, and transplant to larger spacing as they grow.

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Some seedlings you will only want to sprout before transplanting to their final positions. Other plants, such as young trees especially, you will want to grow out in the nursery until a descent root system has formed. This may take months, and probably two sequential transplantings -one from the sprouting bed, and one to more spaced patches or rows -before transplanting to their final position.

The secret to success here is getting to seedlings transplanted on time. Seedlings right next to each other will shade each other’s stems. This will induce the production of hormones called auxins. These elongate the cells, making the seedlings long, spindly, and weak. The way to avoid this is to keep an eye out for sprouts, and never let them grow too close for too long. For some plants, sprouting happens over several weeks. In these cases, just dig out the little seedlings as they come.

Damping off

A major problem with seedlings can be damping off. This is when a portion of the stem looks like it is pinched, and shrivels up, or that seedlings don’t sprout at all because they have rotted below the soil.

Conventional methods dictate attacking the problem directly with antibacterials and fungicides mixed into the soil, or sprayed on the seedlings. Some organic methods spray the seedlings with infusions of thyme or other organic antibacterial herbs. A better method is to just provide a situation that doesn’t support the disease through proper design.

Damping off usually occurs in low temperatures, or excessive moisture. A warm position with well-draining soil already gets you ahead in keeping away from damping off; but there are some tactics to improve the situation even more.

For instance, raising up soil the seedlings are in, such as in raised beds, will bring the soil closer to the temperature of the air. This may be a bad or good thing if the space is outdoors, as cold snaps may mean the soil is warmer than the air. In most cases, and especially if the position is protected, the opposite is usually the case.

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You can also increase the temperature of the soil by increasing its solar exposure. One way to do this is, again, to raise the soil. The solar exposure is further improved by forming the soil in curved, S-shaped ridges.

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This works because sunlight interacts much more with soil when its surface is near perpendicular to the slant of the sun. Raising ridges like this also increases the overall surface area sunlight can hit. The more surface area sunlight hits, and the more direct the hit of sun, the more warmth your given sunlight will warm the soil.

Poor air circulation also encourages damping off. Don’t take this to mean your area should be exposed to wind. We already discussed how young seedlings don’t like that. A better way to minimize poor air circulation is to not let seedlings stand together too close for too long. Again, pay attention to timing.

Following these directions, you have the best chances of growing healthy seedlings without plastic pots. I’ve learned a lot of these tactics from watching experienced gardeners put them to use. I am always interested in learning about new tactics that can be added to this practice. If you know any, I’d love to hear about them.

Designers Connect

One thing I have noticed over the course of the Edgin campaign is a very weak awareness of permaculture designers, and what they have to offer. When salivating over the highly-productive, or superbly off-grid farms that blaze across social media, few realize that many people out there have the knowledge and skill to make these visions a reality in almost any situation.

Granted, not everyone that calls themselves a permaculture designer, or even has a certification, will get you these results. This is exactly why I want Edgin to broadcast the array of talent that is out there, and outline every detail of the experience you can expect when you bring a designer on scene.

Like lightning before the discovery of electricity, it’s an untapped power source that needs an effective platform. I created an infographic to help explain the core value of hiring a designer: connecting you to your vision.

 

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In this age of information, people can get a long way with their education. I find clients may have really great ideas for their site, and just need some fine, but drastically important tuning of the design they would only learn for themselves on the other side of installation.

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Hiring a designer may seem like an over the top, even pompous idea. It strikes many as expensive. If you’re uncertain exactly what you’re going to get when you part with your cash, and commit to the time you think consulting and installation will take, you have to ask: is this worth it?

I’ve seen designers charge tens of thousands. On the other hand, I have spent only a few hours with clients, identified their problems, gotten them a plant list and drawing, and not charged even a hundred dollars in total. Even I was surprised at the results that followed.

This broad range is as much a problem for designers as potential clients. What is too high a price, and what is too low? This is another reason to set projects, and prices, side by side: so people can choose their rate. Designers can compare the value of what they offer. You can imagine how this information would quickly encourage effective price tiers for different services offered.

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Between recognizing and firming up your vision, to connecting you with plant nurseries or building materials only years of experience can offer, designers represent a powerful tool for giving you a massive foot up in realizing your vision. The first step in connecting yourself with your vision is in connecting with the right designer, be it a book, the material for building, or an in-person designer. The first, and most powerful step to finding these resources, is creating Edgin.

The campaign is near it’s end, but one beauty of the internet is how quickly information can move. Care to share? Or participate yourself?

 

 

A 40+ year old forest garden

A yard can be more than a flat space of lawn. If we add to a flat space hillsides, rock walls, shrubs, and the like, the changes in soil and climate are exponential. A prime example of the powerful product these complications deliver is my neighbor’s ‘yard’ where she has been “cramscaping” for the last forty years.

img_5226The south-facing slope ( foreground )

Her yard is not a food forest, and wasn’t built as a food forest, but is not purely ornamental either. Blueberries flail their branches from the depths of overgrown boxwoods.

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Seedling peaches of rare variety loom in the high corners of the hillsides.

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Pawpaws enjoy the sun out in the open spaces.

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Hardy begonias and wild yams ramble up stems and tree branches to feed edible roots below ground.

With me around taking an enormous interest in her arborateum of yard, nitrogen fixing plants have of course begun to pop in on the scene. Although long before I came around she had such nitrogen fixers as lespedeza, indigofera, thermopsis, a lovely golden leaved locust tree, and wild black locusts.

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She weeds a good bit, but she also mulches with wood chips when she can get them. Weeds at her place are very different from mine. Grass, which is a fortress weed at my place, is a rare species there -and not because she doesn’t grow it. Her lawn grass has such shallow roots it can accidentally be smeared from the soil surface if walked on. The dreaded quackgrass (Agropyron/Elymus repens), while it has of course found its way to her place, is so spindly there you could hardly recognize it for the leviathan beast it is at my place. The traveling roots of this species hardly pierce the ground in her yard, weakly crawling along the soil surface. As you can imagine, ‘weeding’ for her is simply picking the miserable creature off the ground.

This isn’t to say plants don’t grow well in her yard. In fact, many, many plants that flourish in her yard won’t live at my place just over a large hill from her. This is because of several factors: For one, the soil is very fertile and sandy at her place compared to my red iron and even gray clay. The soil is so soft that even several year old trees can be lifted from the soil by hand as if they were growing in the clouds. Some parts of the yard have a layer of pure worm castings on top.

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But it hasn’t always been this way. Some parts of the yard where she has not cultivated forest are still clay and coal, or almost pure sand. We figure some glacier must have broken down at her place to deposit so much sand.

She has brought in few amendments. The spots she did, but did not build up the number of species, the soil has returned to very poor states. The plants have managed up-cycling the nutrients and feeding the ecosystem of worms and other soil life that have built up -and apparently maintain- her soil. The plants would not have had near the success if it weren’t for her unusual climate.

For instance, she has especially warm winter temperatures. Some years frosts take effect in her yard as much as a month after they do in the lower parts of my place. I seldom get away with any plants not hardy to USDA growing zone 5a  or -20 (-28). She easily gets by with zone six temperatures, and even a few zone 7 plants. In warm years, she has even overwintered plants hardy to zone eight. This means the yard never experienced more than a hard frost!

The reason for this stark difference in climate is mostly protection. Her yard is a near perfect example of what in permaculture design is known as a suntrap.

img_5744From Permaculture 1

The model of a suntrap is protection from cold winds from prevailing westerlies, and eastern or northern cold snaps. The south side is open to solar exposure. This design greedily sucks warmth in, but only parsimoniously lets it out, producing enormous alterations to the climate within.

Speaking purely of the geography, her yard is only half a suntrap, with a steep slope to the east  and north, but exposure to the west. This she has mitigated with windbreaks made up of hemlock, and other evergreen shrubs on the west side, making her yard a still haven where sun beams like to hang around.

In addition to the geography, the slope to the east is covered with pine trees. This actually blocks sun in the early morning, keeping the yard cool until later in the day. But the trees themselves make up for this lack of sun. The pines accumulate sunlight, and hence warm air throughout the day. When cold air begins to come down the slope in late evening from above the pine trees, the effect is a flush of warm air at the bottom of the trees into her yard -another classic permaculture design for improving climate.

The hill between my place and hers is south of her yard, and is covered with trees. This is further protection from wind. At the same time, the hill is set back far enough it doesn’t cast a shadow on her yard. My side of that hill has very windblown, unhappy trees, which goes to show how much cold, beating wind this hill averts from her still haven.

There is in fact an open place on her side, at the foot of this hill, where power lines cut through.

img_5493See the bamboo at the bottom of this slope

Here she has pawpaw trees, which greatly appreciate the protection from wind, but get sun most of the day.

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Another wonderful spot in this cut-through is her bamboo forest of Phylostachys bissettii and areoesculata.

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Harvests from this ‘forest’ provide many useful poles for staking and fence building throughout the garden. One winter, when she cut a lot of the bamboo, she generously shared the evergreen leaves with a neighboring dairy. The cows of course appreciated this, and I’m told made noticeably more milk from the food. What bamboo she leaves standing provides homes for many birds.

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Another major force in this garden are all the rocks she has around. She collects them, as all great gardeners do. These add even more warming and cooling stability to the yard.

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To cut down on weeding, she is now using more ground covers. She has in fact taken an interest in my Mastering the Growing Edge. Some parts of her yard already have amazing ground covers that help taller plants flourish, while keeping weeds from popping up below. After hearing my idea of using these plants as tools, she is pushing the limits of ground covers with very exciting results.

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Check out this Lysimachia nummularia ground cover. It kept the ground under this year’s dahlias free of weeds, while the dahlias above grew and bloomed with abandon. No weeding in between.

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For fertility, I am introducing some of the nitrogen fixing plants I talk about in PASSIVE Gardening. Linda already has an excellent chaos ratio of mulch plant, but is adding a few beautiful true comfrey (Symphytum officionalis).

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Because she likes the beds to be especially aesthetic, she uses a compost pile to break down her mulch plants, or chips up the nitrogen fixers before applying them as mulch. With ground covers managing the weeds, the mulch plants can easily function purely for fertility, leaving the beds alluringly beautiful, and lush. 

If there is any one thing I have observed from this garden for food forest science, it is that plants can flourish with much less sunlight -and build soil more effectively than anyone would guess- when they can form a forest biome. Such a biome needs wind slowed down, and a specific diversity of species at work together.

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Picture credit: Graham Burnett

I apply this tactic in Mortal Tree by planting as many N fixers and plants in all levels of the 7 layers model once I remove grass using grass. This transforms the open yard into forest biome rather than grass biome. It’s obvious to me that once this change begins to take hold, the forces of growth change, and a forest of food becomes the rule you reap rather than the exception you must work to maintain.

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I am pleased that this post completes 2017, because this knowledge has been the underlying theme of most posts this year. The rules of spacing most clearly explores this phenomenon. To sum up: If anyone asks me what is the key to creating a healthy food forest from lawn, it is to make a forest, then figure out how to get food from it. So many simple elements build on each other in these biomes, creating truly remarkable results.

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Citrus of the north: Maypop

There are scarce few plants in this cold north that offer the sour snap of lemons. I was surprised to find this electrifying flavor the other day in Maypop.

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Maypop (Passiflora incarnata) is the sliver of the passion fruit family able to withstand northern frosts and freezes -to a degree. Many of my attempts establishing maypop in Mortal Tree have failed. But my neighbor, who has a much more protected yard, finally had success.*

She got a white flowered variant pictured above of maypop ‘Bill’s Delight’ from Companion Plants three years ago. She planted it in a warm, but shady position, on a terrace. Morning sun hits it much of the growing season; evening sun hits it pretty much all the growing season. Pine and beech trees are directly to the south, blocking out midday sun.

Although this situation isn’t ideal, the maypop has rambled over everything else in the bed with happy vines, and underground runners. It has spread out two feet from the original point of planting, mostly in one direction where we dumped a pile of very nice compost over the soil. Perhaps the plant is just sensibly getting what’s good.

In its first year, it just grew vines; last year it bloomed late; this year it grew, bloomed early, and has ripened cadres of fruit.

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I was rather unimpressed with these fruits earlier in about July. They were just hollow balls with small strips of white fuzz. She thought they smelled like movie theater popcorn. I just thought they smelled generally green and inedible.

A few months later, now in October, she mentioned she had opened another, and they were full of white fr lining the inside. Next time I was over I picked some, and found they indeed were much heavier, and that the insides were full of opaque, white little balls of juiciness.

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She had told me they tasted like lemon to her, and on that point I totally agree.

I can’t say the flavor is as pungent and powerful as lemon, but it is close. I stuck the insides of two pods in a blender with a cup of water, gave it a whir.  The resulting liquid I strained to get the seed chunks out, and added a little more water. The result -without any flavoring or sweetener -had a fruity hint, and slight creaminess I have never found in lemon juice. Everyone I had try it said it didn’t need sweetener. I think this was more due to the mildness of the flavors overall than the presence of sweet. In order for most palates to really enjoy it, a little flavoring would help.

But this was watered down. Straight fruity juice from around the seed was prominently sour in comparison; perhaps just use more fruit in less water.

There is a house far down the road from me that has also had success growing maypop -the common type with lavender colored flowers. So I will keep pressing on to get some of these in Mortal Tree. Until then, my neighbor has an abundant supply she is more than willing to share, and I am more than willing to play with. I’ll update with any developments.

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*For those who have requested I write a post about her wonderful yard, it’s on the way.

Nippers

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.

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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.

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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.

Florian Ratchet Lopper

Machete

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Mentioned in this post

My favorite machete Fiskar’s 24″ Clearing Machete