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.

img_5271Dahlias

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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7 Comments

    1. The genus can be tall, with the bissettii growing to 30+ feet, or quite short, with the aureoesculata (this translates to “golden stem”) happily stopping at 6 feet sometimes. Although it can get to 15 when happy. These taller specimen also run less aggressively than the shorter ones, so I would recommend you consider bissettii or nuda if you want to get some for yourself. Both these species are considered hardy to -20 degrees farenheit, which is my zone 5. Your zone 6 should never hit that. As a note though, when we have hit the -20 degree limit, the tops have died and dried up. New shoots replaced the tops next spring though.

      I have actually found a clumping bamboo that is listed as hardy for our zone. I’m not sure if you can find it in your country, but here is the page for it in the US. http://www.burntridgenursery.com/SUNSET-GLOW-CLUMPING-BAMBOO-Fargesia-rufa/productinfo/NSBMSUN/

      I installed many of these this year and am waiting to see if they really fare so well. >

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  1. Hmm… I’m looking for thick stems and Fargesia rufa doesn’t seem to fit that at first glance. Aureoesculata at 6-10 ft (not meters) would be heavenly though. I guess the pronounced droughty periods we get would keep it (s)lower growing, same as any other plant.

    The winter is a risky period, one’s imagination tends to go running wild… 🙂

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  2. What a brilliant last post for the year. We are having a particularly hot and dry summer this year and are contemplating how to turn a mad jungle space at the bottom of our 4 acres into a more easily manageable area. We have a tall stand of bamboo on the property as well as a couple of enormous palms (one wide, one tall) that the first owners of the property planted. The property used to be fully reticulated (prior to paid water in the state) but when my father bought the property about 30 years ago, he stopped watering and most of the garden species here died. We are left with tough plants that have to survive without additional water and I am trying to work out how to restructure the front “jungle” area to give it better soil biota. I have mad ninja chickens that live in the trees that fertilise and scratch this soil but the whole property is on a steep incline and as they scratch, the soil has migrated down to the front of the property. Our property borders a river, just around the corner from the sea and I don’t want my soil heading off into Bass Strait! SO many challenges! This wonderful and inspiring post gave me great joy. It also made me desperately want to get hold of some American pawpaws! I am guessing you guys have a lot more rainfall than we get here in Northern Tasmania. We get the odd frost but not hard here, no snow and we have a lot of rocks on our slopes and in our soil. The soil here is ancient Australian soil and silty on top with very sparse vegetation (dry sclerophyll forest). We have sheoaks (nitrogen fixers) at the top of the property that are able to take the very dry conditions up there and tea trees (Melaleuca alternifolia) at the bottom of the property and in between we have a massive band of thick reactive clay that rises and falls each year. I am slowly adding to the biota here but as middle aged penniless student hippies, it’s hard to amass all of the soil ameliorates that we need to do this. We keep living and learning and your posts are a most excellent way to learn. Thank you for posting, for putting in the effort to share posts with us all that enlighten and encourage us to move forward with our own garden spaces. Here’s to a brilliant 2018 where we can all learn more and implement more in our gardens

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You have me enthralled! Having studied Bill Mollison’s writings I’m always interested in how the Australian climates work. I certainly enjoy hearing about your work on your site. Thanks for sharing all these details.

      I will have to look into that term: sheoaks. You’ve probably noticed by now I’m infatuated by N-fixers.

      Happy new year to you and yours. I’m excited to see where it takes us! I’m intent on doing what I can to make it a better, greener place.

      Liked by 1 person

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