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

Hori Hori

There is an art to effortlessly slipping young plants into the dark earth in such a way the plant and the earth hardly notice what happened. There is an art to slicing just below the crust of the earth at the junction of root and shoot in a way that, with the most instantaneous shock, weeds flinch, and fall dead. The tool that facilitates such an art is the hori hori.

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It is a Japanese tool, the name meaning ‘dig dig’ in their language. Across the many designs, most have a simple knife-edge on one side, a serrated edge on the other, a sharp, tapered tip at the end.

You would not believe all the uses of a straight edge serrated blade like this in the garden. Over years of use I have gotten a knack for twisting the blade as I skim through the upper layer of soil, popping thick and thin roots alike, swiping young seedling.

To insert a small plant in the soil, I plunge the end into the ground, pry away from me to lift, sweep around towards myself, and lift the soil. Even in grass turf, I have the same technique – plunge, pry, slice, lift. to make a larger hole for larger plants, I just make bigger circles with my slice.

I can’t imagine going back to heavily angled, blunt edged trowels after getting one of these in my hands -unless it was a really bad hori hori, which I have come across. I have large hands, so many designs with excessive notches and rivets intended for providing the perfect grip are terrible for me. The notches often ware on my hands, causing blisters in short order.

My favorite hori hori (the first one pictured in this post -also the one I used in the videos. Link for this model at the end of this post) is in fact one my sister bought for my mother as a Christmas present. When I went to get one myself, I found it had sold out across the internet so far as we could find; so my mother just gave hers to me as a re-gift.

It has straight edges, and is large enough my hand doesn’t rub on the ends as I work. The open front and back of the handle allow me to pinch lightly with my thumb and index finger, swirling it from upward to downward position in one easy motion. Aside from looking slick as heck, this is a most efficient method of use.

Sharp little indents at the base of some blades are another problematic addition of many designs. Aside from the fact I never use these for cutting because either of the two side-blades does the job quicker and better anyway, this little notch is always catching debris, or catching strings, rocks as I pull it from the soil. Not helpful.

Extra long guards on the base of the hilt can be problematic too. They can get in the way, and rub on the hands if too shear. I have quite enjoyed working with hori horis that aScreen Shot 2017-09-23 at 5.27.17 PM have straight, rectangular handle, mildly smoothed around the edges without a guard similar to the one pictured. The problem with that one was its weak attachment to the handle, which bent too easily.

For anyone’s unique grip and method of use, the styles of hori hori may change, but in general, space for the hand to move without rubbing, less du-flinkies to snag things, and a strong connection between the blade and the handle are the hallmarks of the best models of this ninja gardening tool.

Mentioned in this post

My favorite hori hori Sensei Tools Hori Hori Digging Knife, 7.5 Inches – With Sheath

Scythe

Scythes are so complete and precise in their ability to effortlessly remove blade from stem that they encompass all the talent of weed whips and lawnmowers combined. One of my first essays for school was in fact a persuasive essay on why you should junk your lawnmower and get a scythe (yes I’ve been at this for a while). It was, not surprisingly, one of my highest grade papers of that whole school year.

It’s an easy comparison: the chintziest lawnmower costs anything from two hundred and up to suck gas and go on strike every time it needs repair. Scythes rarely cost up to three hundred for a high quality snath, blade, whetstone, horn to wet it, and all the accouterment to make quite a posh setup; but scythes don’t take gas, or take up near so much room in your garage.

In place of the voluminous dirge-like whir of lawn mowers, scythes whisper through the grass, and ring with glee after every stroke.

Rather than pushing the beast of a lawn mower around only to pull out the weed whip to finish the odd spots, scythes have the versatility of both. Whether nipping an errant grass-blade between flower stems, or swiping the excess growth from another level of ground, scythes can go anywhere you can.

The limiting factor is simply your skill level. David Tresemer and Peter Vido in The Scythe Book, give ample explanation on the techniques that make mowing with a scythe a pleasure for the body and mind.

Does it take more time to mow with a scythe than with a lawn mower and weed whip? It depends. Especially tough material, like dry, short grass takes a lot of skill, and a sharp blade more than time spent. Soft grass mown with a small hand pushed lawn mower take about as much time as scythe if you become proficient with the technique.

It’s when mowing taller material over small areas scythes outperform even large riding lawn mowers. For example, one of my first clients had a luscious field of clover for mulch he demanded must be mowed with his Xmark riding lawnmower to not waste time. The thing choked and gagged on the clover even on the driest of days. It needed de-clogged, the deck cleared. Miserable.

He just wouldn’t believe a scythe could do the job faster.

The keyhole beds in Mortal Tree ready for mowing

One day he was gone, and I was there to mow, so took the liberty of mowing with my scythe.

He later saw the mulching I completed that day looked satisfactory for the amount of hours I spent (I detest clients paying me by the hour, and always try to negotiate a one time contract payment. I usually complete work in less time than expected anyway). He let me use the scythe one day he was there working on his house-building project, and was blown away by the cartloads of clover piled high that came wobbling down the lane. We ditched the mower forever after, and I was given the title Scythe Jedi.

Mowed. It took me all of ten minutes to clear nearly 100 square feet of tall aster stems and grass.

In general, strategic approaches to mowing with a scythe that make use of its versatility, greatly improve its efficiency over that of lawnmowers. One slick tactic I learned for cutting around, and mulching, a tree all at once is to simply circle the mowing around a tree. The windrow forms a nice thick mound in just the spot I would have mulched anyway.

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One must also be very careful that the path of the swing ends a couple inches away from the tree as shown in the drawing. Otherwise, its likely you’ll nick the poor tree.

Also, this only works when nothing is planted around the tree – a mistake I made in the early stages of my food forest. I should have started my planting by establishing ground covers, then moved up to trees, as I currently recommend for new clients.

Does it require a lot of strength to use a scythe? If using it like a battle-axe, yes. Good technique is almost entirely about relaxing the arms and allowing the blade to glide just above the crowns of the grass. In a report cited in The Scythe Book, scientists who compare the wear and tear of various sports on the body showed mowing with a scythe, if the correct technique is maintained, is far less stressful on the body than most high school sports -while delivering the benefit of exercise. Assuming you use a European snath and blade rather than an American, there isn’t even much wood or metal you have to move, as they are very light.

On that point, I do have fairly specific recommendations for what scythe you should get. While there are some really high-end custom snath builders you could go searching for, very superior snaths are sold online ready-made. There are also some really junky ones I would love to steer you clear of.

The snath sold by Peter Vido’s company is the best ready-made snath on the market. The handles attach with actual screws; and the design allows for one size to fit several users because the handle can be moved up or down a couple notches. I started with an American blade, sitting rusted and unused in the back of a garage. Too heavy, really, and quite difficult to get the knack.

The first European snath I got was junk. It was a model for which they expect you to keep the handles in the snath with glue, or by sheer pressure. They give the lame excuse using correct technique should keep this in place, but I often will use the versatility of my scythe to pull or lift some grass I’ve just cut. Even if only used for the intended swipes, not all ground is ideal, nor is the material you are cutting. Get a snath that holds itself together.

As for blades, I got a bush and a grass blade when I first started from Marugg, and have not moved on, so have little long-term comparison to offer. I have worked with a Fux blade, and personally seen it has fine qualities. I have used friend’s blades that are really junk, so know there are some unworthy buys out there. Really good blades are made of delicate metal quite soft and pliable. This allows for the frequent, but quick sharpening that keeps the blade edge microscopically serrated for effortless cutting.

Bush blades are of course a little thicker in order to withstand the shock of hitting sticks and thicker stems; but grass blades should never be thick enough that you would ever dare sharpen it with a grind stone or the like. A whetstone briskly swished over the edge, with intermittent peenings (hammering the thicker metal thin as you progress into the blade due to wear of sharpening) is all that’s needed to remind a blade of what shape it should hold.

If you have a well made scythe as I have described, there is no reason you should not be able to mow your lawn and food forest alike. In the early years of a food forest especially, when grass is likely the predominate plant in the food forest scene, a scythe will be the most used blade for gathering mulch, managing weeds and the like. It was for me. As time goes on, other blades will be your best friend, as we will cover over the next few days in the posts that follow.

Mentioned in this post

The Scythe Book by David Tresemer

Scythe Connection -The company I recommend (I’m not sponsored to say that in any way whatsoever)

The fine points of food forest tools

I always consider the most refined state of any art to have the least equipment, involvement, and time invested to get desired results. Food forests are no different. In Mortal Tree I have decided the aim is to remove the barriers that block my designs from those of nature, allowing them meet happily in the middle (or somewhere thereabouts) by removing unnecessary tools and tasks.

Using the plants themselves as tools for tillage, weeding, and the like, is the first step in effective food forest creation. Where do we go from there? Blades.

Take a moment to envision the lush jungle food forests of the south where, as I am told, all you need is a machete and forest and you’re good to garden the most abundant food supply imaginable.

But with blade in hand how the heck do you use it? It certainly helps if you have a high quality blade to begin with too. Which one is that for you? Over the next few days I’ll cover four different ‘blades’ I use for food forest creation, and as many of their finer points as I can, from my experience, offer.

If you’re new, and not familiar with how I use plants as tools, check out the infographic and other info on this page.

Making comfrey glycerite

I am enamoured with the idea of a farm factory -not a factory farm, rather a farm that produces not only food products, but many of our industrial, and medical products.

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This was of course the case years ago, when practically everything but metal and minerals was derived from plants, usually from very close to home. Today, we have upped our standards, migrated to other resources, whatever you may call it, and grown accustomed to products that are mostly derived from petroleum. Machines convert and contort the molecules of this petroleum into the most exotic forms, mimicking everything from plastics to essential oils.

I am enamoured by the idea of plants transforming a raw material of sunlight and air into the products we use today. The fact is that plants, deriving hydrogen and carbon from the air, can and do serve many of these advanced functions as hydrocarbons in petroleum, minus much of the toxicity and detriment to ecology.

Of all the plants commonly used, comfrey has some of the most potential as a sunlight and air converting living contraption. Beyond any refinement of the contraptions used today, it yields excellent mulch for fertility and weed control (see my work in Mastering the Growing Edge for these functions), but also medical products.

Comfrey contains allantoin -a molecule which, in the human body, acts as a cell proliferant, i.e. helps tissue regenerate faster. Its use in this sense is ancient. Although this has not helped it in the present day, as it came out of the dark ages with plenty of superstition clogging its public image. But fast forward to the World Wars and mountains of comfrey were coming out of farmer’s fields for its patently proven ability to heal the wounds of war.

 

To apply these benefits, I usually grab a leaf, squeeze the midrib, and find a clear liquid gel appearing at the end of the open stem. It’s surprising how much of this can be applied, as it absorbs quickly. With multiple applications, many wounds that have befallen me have healed without even the slightest visible scar.

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Before I go too far, and my trained herbalist friends reading this have to lecture me again on the delicacy of herbal healing, you shouldn’t apply comfrey to wounds or diagnose yourself without consulting a trained medical professional. Comfrey does have some contraindications for its use. For instance, if a wound is infected, or not cleaned, comfrey is not the herb for the job.

I’ll offer one situation comfrey was especially helpful to me: I was at a client’s, by myself, cutting a long, long row filled with some of the biggest, most beautiful comfrey when the blade I was using gave me a morbid bite. The wound was on my thumb, and penetrated even into the nail. Out in the middle of a field, I decided to gamble with my life (as it seems I often do) and staunch the bleeding with some yarrow (Alchillea millefolium), then got on with cutting comfrey, applying gel from the stems over and over again as the wound sucked it up.

You might call that quite a rash decision, which is why I don’t recommend anyone do the same. To this day I can’t even find a scar.

Assume you do have the green light for comfrey’s use from a trained medical professional, but aren’t in the middle of a comfrey patch? It is possible to infuse an oil, glycerine, or alcohol with this comfrey gel for long-term storage, and quick, simple application.

Such processing may sound complicated at first, but just the other day I made a comfrey glycerite you may find surprisingly simple.

I gather fresh, true comfrey (Symphytum officionalis) in early morning, simply rip off the stem, and upper parts of the leaves, leaving the lower parts where bugs and dead leaves accumulate.

I took a small portion of this big bundle, twisted and ripped the stems into 4 inch lengths, and placed in a stainless steel bowl. I poured certified organic glycerine over this (derived from organic soybeans) and began to knead the comfrey leaves with the glycerine. At first, the mixture went very dry, then became very wet. The clear glycerine turned green as comfrey gel began to spew from the crushed stems.

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Once this first bundle was crunched, I added another, mixed, crushed until moist, and repeated. The whole bundle broke down to a very small amount, and the glycerine turned a reddish-black-brown from all the comfrey stuffed into it. It actually resembled iodine.

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To get all the goodness from this slurry, a press would have been helpful. Lacking that, I simply gather all the comfrey to one side of the container, and pressed until I lifted myself off the floor. The glycerite oozed from the mess into the empty side of the bowl and could be easily poured through a sieve into mason jars. After much gymnastics, I got well over a quart.

With so much of the stuff, I intend to supplement the Bovidine© my parents use for the teats of their dairy cows for at least the post milking teat-dip. Another portion of it I mixed with unrefined wheat germ oil, several essential oils, and tinctures for a mixture I apply to my skin daily. Good stuff.

It is likely many more products could be derived from comfrey alone if we applied ourselves to its study. As such, it offers an opportunity to fill a vital role in a more sustainable, healthy future.

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N-fix 8: Albizia julibrissin

Terrible Tree #1 — Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) What’s wrong with it: Weedy, short-lived, insect- and disease-prone, invasive roots, unattractive most of the year.

Comment: Yes, I know. You grew up with mimosas in the yard (sniff), they remind you of Meemaw’s garden (sniff, sniff), and they’re so pretty when their fluffy pink flowers open in early summer. But let’s get real. The flowers last about two weeks. Then they’re replaced by scads of these large, ugly, brown seed pods that hang there until the next spring. So for two weeks of beauty you get 50 weeks of gross. Plus, seedlings from your tree will sprout in everyone’s yard within a quarter-mile.

-Southern Living Magazine

Once the naysayers settle down to let me get a word in edgewise: Mimosa -specifically Albizia julibrissin or silk tree -in my climate at least, does not own up to any of these accusatory standards. To boost, it’s quite a proficient N-fixer.

As to their longevity: There are several specimen of silk tree in my area, many of which are over 30 years old, some, in really protected areas, nearly twenty feet tall, and only all the more gorgeous for it. Perhaps we are outside the range of its pests. On the other hand, winters around here often frost silk tree back to the ground. Such dieback actually extends their likely lifespan, because the wood is renewed. For plant cells, this is the equivalent of turning back the biological clock, and can be done over and over again.

Short lived flowers? Perhaps it’s the cooler weather, but the bloom lasts far more than two weeks around here. Some do only bloom for three or four weeks, but several I see start in late July, and continue without stop until October.

I should mention some trees of course have more color to their plume-like blossoms. The one below my neighbor found as a seedling even further north, from a parent tree whose flowers were this undesirable color. It came out alright I think.

As to “ugly,” “brown,” pods: They’re tan, if not gold. I find them very attractive. In fact, even less attractive pods like these on any plant are often highly sought by advanced garden designers for “winter interest” they provide. Of course, a barren landscape in winter is more a northern problem than a southern.

Seeding all over the place: In the south silk tree is considered a noxious weed, per its willingness to pop up everywhere. It’s doing its job of turning open space into riparian field, to become productive forest. Shame on you for hogging up petroleum, riding around a growling hog to keep open spaces it’s just trying to repair. But I’ll stop my rant there.

If this seeding were an issue in northern climates I would only be all the more delighted to grow this plant; but I can say from experience that we only find a seedling or two every year, quite close to the parent tree. These do not always survive to adulthood, and so are quite precious, usually given as gifts.

There are rumors of a few trees in this climate that seed especially well, but these are interestingly enough, ugly white-flowered specimens.

These considerations are for tall trees though. My neighbor has allowed her tree to reach the upper story of her forest garden between a magnolia,  Montmorency cherry, and serviceberry tree. For most food forests, silk tree has much more practical functions.

Soft design aside, the tree makes N. It grows footage of branches every year, which in our climate helps it bounce back from winter-kill. In the case of a food forest, this means lots of delicious mulch for healthy soil.

The USDA cites this plant as a medium level nitrogen fixer. One study noted it made far more nodules than other N-fixers, although only had medium level bacterial activity as pictured below. (Notice all the species aside from silk tree are decidedly tropical). View the full study here.

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This study in particular pointed out that nitrogen fixation is heavily dependent on sunlight for enough energy to run the nitrogen-fixing process. As a result, cloudy climates may not see such vigorous growth. But Ohio certainly isn’t the most sunny state; and many fast growing silk trees I have come across do so in half day’s shade.

I recommend taxing the tree of its growth for mulch at about time of bloom. You could just snap off the flowering branches with your bare hands. In the case that your tree has not reached blooming age but is getting out of reach for easily collecting mulch, just wait until about midsummer to begin snapping off branches.

One more practical accusation to address is the invasive roots. This refers to roots choking out plants below it, and roots becoming new plants. I should also mention that many accuse mimosa of allelopathy -manufacturing poisons for the surrounding plants (See Notes on Juglone for more info on allelopathy). Soil type, and climate can have major effects on how these attributes are expressed. I must report I find they don’t show up with the local specimen. My neighbor in particular has ferns, hosta, and tree peony below her mimosa. They have no complaint but for the slight dryness due to the thick branches above. Otherwise, they’re quite happy.

Studies have been conducted on mimosa and its relatives’ ability to inhibit germination in seeds. Although only a limited range have been placed in controlled studies, this study, for example, did not find any inhibition of germination.

View the rest of the text this image came from here.

The best way to propagate mimosa, aside from seeds which just need water, warmth and soil in most cases, is actually to dig up pieces of the root and let them sprout branches. I have tried cuttings, and they don’t root. If you are hacking up the ground with a shovel around the base of a silk tree, then perhaps you’ll get a sprout. We never have been lucky enough for this to happen around here.

When placing mimosa in design, I give it especially visible positions, where people can interact with it. For one client, I have mimosa at the corners of a grotto design where they will be allowed to grow as large as winters allow. The intent is to create a dome of arching branches. In winter these will quietly rustle with golden pods.

Placed where you might brush by the leaves, silk tree is especially entertaining, because it folds its leaves in response – a character which in plant terminology is called thigmonasty. The tree also folds its leaves at night, or in the dark before storms. This response to light is called photonasty. Below are some photos taken by my client of her young trees.

My client asked why the mimosa had stopped folding its leaves when she petted it. The fact is they can learn.  In The Hidden Life of Trees a study was cited which used dripping water as a means for stimulating a mimosa’s thigmonasty, causing it to shut. After many days of applying water in regular intervals, stopping, applying again, it learned this was not a threat, and got on with photosynthesis.

An intelligent tree like this is most desirable for adding to food forests as pleasure for the eye, delight for the curiosity, as fountains of mulch and fertility, for vibrant, healthy, cold climate jungles. Thank you for letting me state my position.

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