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.
The 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.
Seedling peaches of rare variety loom in the high corners of the hillsides.
Pawpaws enjoy the sun out in the open spaces.
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.
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.
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.
From 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.
See 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.
Another wonderful spot in this cut-through is her bamboo forest of Phylostachys bissettii and areoesculata.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.