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.

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

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.