The Garden of Mortal Tree

Such gardens arrive after some years of trials, where species themselves indicate their preferences, often in defiance of the dictates of literature. It is fortunate indeed that plants cannot read!

-Bill Mollison Permaculture ll

The sun bleeds a hotter light as it sets in the west, and this slope leans into it. It’s face to the setting sun, backed by trees to the east that swallow the gentle light of morning, days begin in shadow that lingers almost to the heat of midday only to be seared by the red light of evening.

The plants grow from these elements. Red-tan brushes of broomsedge grass (Andropogen) speckles the front in tall clusters like an artist’s idle tools, while at the back, messes of honeysuckle cling on piles of logs below scraggly chokecherries. Near the center, in contrast to the lush green Catalpa tree down the hill, stands the skeleton of what was once an apple tree. This is Mortal Tree, the sun scorched slope next to my house that’s becoming a vibrant, lush, productive food forest.



You might say I’m starting from scratch on this fourth acre of scrubby land; but I don’t plan on doing it alone. I know that every plant and tiny animal living here intends as much as I do to make the place burst with life. The aim of all nature is to create more life. My aim is not to take over, it’s to encourage and strengthen the process already at work. All this through carrying out a design.

Design works for me as the bridge between growth the garden wants, and yield I want. The more my design mirrors nature’s design, the more successful the project will be. In Mortal Tree, that design is a self-sustaining organism, every part interacting to make the whole, every part feeding the others, in care and nutrients, demanding little intervention from me.

Mortal Tree is the center of this design. Paths radiate from this point in fractile, lightning-like arms, and around this point the intensive planting starts -at the “nucleus” of the garden, growing out. The rest I let grow wild, mowing the grass and weeds with the quiet swing of my scythe, gathering excellent mulch. This mulch is fertilizer, moisture retention, and a tool for clearing space my edible plants and fruit trees need. It’s my main tactic, directing free growth of the ecology into my designs of hungry crops.

I’m experimenting with a no-till grain patch, fine-tuning PASSIVE gardening, enjoying the productive beauty in polycultures full of fruit trees and perennial vegetables. Nut and more fruit trees are scattered through the wild growth further down the hill that would perform far better if I had the mulch for them, but there lies my biggest problem:

It’s easy with the desire to power more plantings to overtax the free growth, and damage this delicate ecology. The current design has its limits. Over time, the area of free ecology I harvest for mulch is becoming smaller than the area producing food. What will happen when the need for fertility is greater than the supply?

I watch for what the garden offers. Mirroring the designs of nature in the yields, the design is improving. I’m using running plants to manage weeds, plants that produce massive amounts of mulch in the organized plantings to cycle nutrients and provide cover that protects the ground, and nitrogen fixers that can meet high demands of the hungry production plants. Slowly but surely, the two ends of the equation -wild carefree and productive, labor intensive -are drawing close.


I have to remember design is only so good as the nature that informs it. Nature is only so good as the life that fills it. No matter how refined my designs become, they are still nature. They house the light that bleeds from the sun, stretching up as growing plants, spurring on change in every aspect. Sometimes that change is good, sometimes not so good; but with the hope of achieving an ever more harmonious design to harness this light, through the changes each day brings, this garden, and its designer, lean into it.


  1. Reading from my phone, I have seen this post in my feed but not what it looks like as part of a wider website. I hope you plans for your blog work for you – this post is certainly interesting and helps the reader understand what you are doing.


    1. The last version of this post was hit or miss with my veiwers -some loving it, some just not getting it. So we’ll see. I really appreciate your feedback. Thanks for taking the time to comment.


      1. You’re welcome.

        I guess it is easier to get your post if the reader is doing something similar, is au fair with food forests, mulching, biomimicry etc.


        1. Exactly. I think many can relate to a yard they wished was more productive though. It’s my hope the narrative aspect is relatable, and allows readers to realize the results I’ve acheived are entirely within their reach, if not closer. My food forest is pretty harsh space.


          1. I haven’t read enough of your blog to see how productive the food forest is. Of course, in any case, cropping will be different from a traditional food growing space, so it isn’t necessarily easy to translate that into figures which can be appreciated, I guess.

            What makes your space such a harsh environment – it is the afternoon sun, or other things?


            1. Sun is definitely part of it. Many of my plants that don’t have shade suffer. The soil is very poor though -orange clay with large hunks of black coal. There’s also some spots with blue-grey clay that not even grass likes to grow on. So although you are very right in assuming the production is low for what the same amount of space could produce, it’s quite pleasing to see it producing some fine apples, some leaf crops, and berries, with a continuous trend of improvement.


                1. Yes, it does have a higher cation exchange capacity than sand, and with the mulch, it softens up quickly to let roots penetrate. So not too much to complain about here. Just need to fill the clay’s empty cupboards so it retains more water, and has more nutrients to offer etc.

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