Taste of chaos

Years ago, a hillside was tidied up. An apple tree growing there was pruned, grass around it ripped up. At the roots of the tree, clear plastic was laid, a layer of black plastic was laid over this,  on top of this was laid colored woodchips

Alone, surrounded by short, browning grass in the heat of summer, its lower limbs sawed off, the apple tree died.

The owner changed. A new hand touched the wounds on this mortal tree, felt sorry, pulled back the layers of plastic, let the grass grow wild.


It was chaos. Briars and thorns grew up amidst the grass. Alongside these were fruit trees, vines, and shrubs.

Today I walked up the stone steps of this hillside, followed the meandering path that cuts through the long grass, and grasped one of many rusty-red peaches dripping from my trees.

Several of the peaches are fruiting abundantly this year. Because I have several kinds, some are ripe now, others a couple of months from now.


A fruit here, a fruit there has been the norm for years. This year there are just loads of fruit, beyond fresh eating, from goumi, gooseberry, saskatoon, currant. I often emerge from the food forest with fruits and berries for others to try.  Some look at the fruit, look at the food forest, look at me puzzled and ask: “Where did you get those?”

I have actually done the least in the food forest this year than any year before. I haven’t even mowed much of it. The rose bushes and blackberries I let grow up in the back of the food forest actually provided some fine mulch when I trimmed them back.


The amorpha and comfrey provided some very nice mulch also. I mainly mowed beside the road in order to mulch a new bed. Yet, as I walk around, plucking clusters of shining sweetness, I‘m quite pleased to see my beds are expanding themselves. Within the beds, several plants have achieved some of the most lush growth yet, with the turnip rooted chervil way above my head, and forming new patches in new beds.

To bite into the dewy sweetness of a fruit warm with sunlight here is unlike that of anywhere else. All fruit is a process. It is the workings of a place, coming to such a refined state as food. To bring in a fertilizer here, and bring in a spray there, is like making a patchwork of places and processes, in my mind. I much prefer fruits with vibrant flavor from comfrey mulch growing at the trees’ feet,  (comfrey mulch and tea does produce a notably rich flavor in garden vegetables too) and the spice of essential oils wafting around the air from such pest confusers as oregano or Spiraea.


I’ve had the privilege of working with chaos after letting it back into the garden. I think it’s got the idea of what I’m after. At this point in the food forest’s development, I am sure the chaos quite eagerly gets to work as I walk away from Mortal Tree, a fresh pit of a peach at its roots.

N-fix 7: Vetch

I was rather dissatisfied when finished with the Top ten ground covers for food forests series because I didn’t include an N-fix in the lineup of dynamic mulch. Vetch would be my first choice.

Crown vetch (Securigera/ Coronilla varia) is indeed the tyrannical ruler of the genus. It’s industrial grade ground cover, produces medium levels of nitrogen, stretches 3-4 feet tall, and eats as much as 60 ft of new territory in all directions via rhizome spread every year.

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I’ve only seen this number in reports. I’m guessing the ground where these measurements were taken was the most fertile sandy loam on the face of the planet, or someone dropped a bag of fertilizer. I’ve never seen it spread more than four feet a year -if it spreads at all. many readers have likely seen this plant along highways where governments have seeded it. Erosion is a thing of the past once this perennial is established, so they have encouraged its use.

Once established though, they can start new colonies via seed. As a result, many governments have removed it from their official list of recommended plants.

It’s a little late. I have some patches appearing by the road at the edge of my food forest, and one of my clients has several healthy patches around their property. I have in fact installed this plant in one client’s system, because it really is quite useful, and easily controlled, if you know its habits.

The one system where I installed this for instance was a very high production food forest with long rows of shrubs and fruit trees running along swales (not my designs. I was brought onto the scene in the later stages). The owner wanted a system that could be managed by laborers simply weed-whacking the place every month or two. With this mentality, the owner had started by laying black woven plastic mulch under the plantings -despite my disapproval. It didn’t take more than two moths before weeds found their way through. He was aghast when I showed him. Finally open to my suggestions for a dynamic mulch, crown vetch was the perfect candidate.

As a dynamic mulch, it can exclude grass. Sometimes, if the grass is well established, the two may persist together. If well established, it’s nigh inpossible for weeds to get a foothold in the crown vetch’s domain.

It grows well seeded among daylilies, and most any plant that grows more than three or four feet -a food forest cover.

The crown vetch in my food forest has to creep across the upper grain patch before it can invade any of my plantings. This is one of the most poor spots in the food forest even the crown vetch can’t stomach crossing. I simply tax it for its nitrogen rich growth about the time it comes into bloom. Because it can be pulled so easily, I simply yank up whole armfuls to feed other parts of the food forest. As you can imagine, the patch is expanding at a snail’s pace.

My clients have done the same, and find their patches stay put.

Hairy vetch (Vicia villosa) and wood vetch (Vicia sylvatica) are both annuals, but have scarcely less ability to spread. Hairy vetch is used commonly used as a ground cover in vegetable gardens to be tilled in as a green manure. It and wood vetch are also medium level n-fixers. I have seen vilossa reach about four feet tall as it meanders around, such as below with wine-raspberry. Reports say it can reach as much as eight feet. So long as it doesn’t bloom and seed, there isn’t a problem.

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I actually let the thing seed in my food forest because it grows right among weeds, grass, you name it -without complaint. I love it. When it blooms, I nab as many as I can for mulch, leaving the rest to seed. I really just wish I had more.

I came hit the jackpot the other day at my step-grandmother’s garden. She has the wood vetch, and a lot of it. I gathered a bunch of the pods as pictured below, which popped, flinging seeds every which way even as they sat in the bowl.

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I planted them in a problematic part of the food forest to see how well they might compete with the grass. Perhaps they’ll clear the place for me in a similar way sunchokes can. in the bed I found it growing so happily, it was hardly three feet tall. I’ll just yank them up or cut them down before they make any very much seed.

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Mastering the Growing Edge

A while back, I launched a series on this blog, post by post unfurling ten plants that cover ground. Like vibrant streaks of color, new concepts and uses popped into these posts, until the original idea was far outgrown.

The series blossomed earlier last week into Mastering the Growing Edge. You could call it a companion to PASSIVE Gardening; although the main focus in MtGE is food forests and perennial vegetables. It ties the concepts of bed building, mulch management, ground covers, and bed builders into a coherent whole.

I was able to once again work with Kindle Direct Publishing to make the digital copy free for your download today, Friday (Feb 3), and Saturday (Feb 4).

If you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry; almost any device that displays this post can display a Kindle book by simply downloading the free Kindle app here.

I hope to hear your feedback and see the results that follow your new-found knowledge. Like a bud coaxed into bloom, this book is meant to bring the plants of a garden to full luster of growth through healthy pairings. The plants manage a lot of the growth, leaving you more time to smell the roses.

The book cover below is linked to the digital and softcover book’s page -just click.

Ground cover infographic

Sunchokes is number ten in the Top 10 ground covers for food forests series I started a while ago. To help put everything into perspective, I made an infographic.

Scaled Infographic

The ground cover branch on the visual archive has links to all the original posts if you would like to find out more.

In general, the layout from right to left are ground covers that do well in established beds, to plants that simply wipe out other plants, and are excellent for bed building.

If you’re wondering how to share this on your own social media pages, try the share buttons below the post. I have most social platforms available for sharing.

I’m using the the term “dynamic mulch” to describe the ground covers, because ground cover has a rather flat connotation. Most gardeners think of them as useless plants that do nothing better than excessively clog the soil surface. They have much more potential.

I’m suggesting these plants as tools, not just for blocking weeds, but actively removing weeds, making use of otherwise useless plants through careful combinations, getting food from ground cover, improving the quality of the soil, and feeding other plants through their  well calculated use. With the correct use, resulting from a more dynamic comprehension of plants, we are suddenly on the brink of an entirely new level of sustainable, productive, passive agriculture and gardening.

The infographic, and the Top 10 series are part of a bigger surprise to which some of you closely following me have probably caught on. It should be ready before the end of the month. My apologies for making you wait, but I assure you, it will be worth it.

Update: It’s launched! Mastering the Growing Edge is live if you want to check it out. 

 

Sunchokes

Sunchokes, or Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) are not so much a stable ground cover as masterful bed builders. They don’t just block, but obliterate grass lawn, taking the place of bed building mulch if handled correctly.

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Its home is the American prairie biomes, where it stretches for sun among massive grasses and other very competitive plants. Placing it in the standard lawn, full of short European grass species, or even an overgrown field is like releasing a saber tooth tiger into a playpen with modern house cats. It’s a brute.

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It begins by pumping nutrients from deep in the soil to power billowing clouds of leaves rambling up sometimes 15ft tall stems. At the end of the season, less fortunate species smothered below, it sucks all the nutrients gathered in its stems safely into the underground for storage in its edible tubers. Every year it sends out runners, some species more aggressive than others. One variety, “Supercluster,” Oikos Tree Crops sells is supposed to be well behaved, but most are decidedly imperialist, surging several feet out in all directions every year as resources allow. As long as it fills its nutrient reserves every year, the size of the open field it inhabits is its only limit.

To unleash the beast, get a bucket of the tubers in fall, and with a shovel, make little slits in the ground about one foot apart, inserting the tubers deep enough they aren’t exposed, and walk away. The days of the nearby plant residents are now numbered.

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Sunchoke sprouts
Don’t worry next spring when the tubers don’t sprout early. Sunchokes don’t like frost, and wait until late in the spring to pop up their furry little heads. I have planted these into completely unamended yards where lawn grass wasn’t even happy, but the ‘chokes still grew well. Results of removing grass and patch expansion are best if the patch is left a year or two before harnessing it for actual bed building.

It is very difficult to put strong beasts like sunchoke to use with brute force. You have to outsmart them. This you do by pinpointing their one weakness, and suddenly you have them in the palm of your hand. Because exploiting this weakness is so effective, I must go begging to my friends for new tubers in fall because I have accidentally wiped out my propagation patches.

I have quite a hard time removing their disbelief. Sunchokes are otherwise known in the gardening world as hard-to-chokes, which is why I don’t recommend digging up your newly cleared bed to remove the plants. I have never seen this work. Though you could swear all the tubers are removed, the plants always return. Some varieties were selected from patches sprayed with roundup -and lived.

Biologically, sunchokes are impenetrable tanks of ecosystem war, and have the potential to become the worst weeds for your new planting. I would not in any way suggest their use anywhere near your garden if it wasn’t for the one gap in their armor.

You see, ‘chokes go all out to ensure they get as tall and bushy as they can. Having invested every last bit of stored food from their tubers into the above ground stems, it’s as though the plant stood on top of the ground and could just be gathered up as a pile of stems to be placed somewhere else.

I discovered this one year when a particularly healthy, bushy specimen blew over in a windstorm, partially uprooting it. I broke the plant off, cracking up the lush growth to mulch the bed, expecting to see the plant return next spring. I was surprised when next year there was nothing.

Later, in a very dry year, sunchokes were the most lush thing in my food forest to feed my rabbit. She liked them, so I would snap off the growing tips, let the plants branch off to the side, and snap of the side branches to make rabbit happy. I started this when the plants were about 5ft tall, leaving about 4ft stems that in turn could return their nutrients to the tubers. Nevertheless the plants that normally topped ten foot came up the next year anemic, and dwarfed, barely reaching three feet.

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A young, thick patch of sunchokes.
The exact point in time when they seem most vulnerable is just before bloom at a certain time when the growth of leaves changes from being as tightly stacked and lush as possible, to becoming a bit more sparse, the stem getting harder, and the flower buds showing up quickly afterward.

Flowering, and in fact most dieback processes of plants, are accompanied by the production of ethylene gas, which in the ‘chokes I would guess also begin the back flow of sugars in the leaves to the more complex carbohydrates in the tubers, and oxidation of the stem fibers, making them woody and brittle. Cutting ‘choke down just before signs of this hormone’s activity seems to be their secret weakness.

In my climate, this means cutting the plants off about a foot tall in July. It is helpful to leave some stem to make lots of side shoots. A second cutting, about a month later, to remove the side shoots and what’s left of the stem, perhaps even some roots, in my experience, weakens the plant beyond recovery.

Some gardeners I have explained this method to ardently insist I’m wrong. They cite their own experience of mowing sunchoke patches for two years and the ‘chokes just growing up over and over again.

I have gotten excellent results with the method in my experience. That they were only a few years old unlike the decades old patches in these other reports may play a role. I doubt it though. On the one plant that blew over I saw a very large clump of tubers which I left in the ground.

Perhaps it is more a question of the plants adapting to growing less each time they are cut back, developing a sort of stunted homeostasis. They may have grown more miserly with their output of stored sugars. I think it is imperative that you allow the roots to put maximum growth above ground, then sap the last little bits of strength out of them with subsequent cutting.

Be cautious of course in planting the sun chokes and letting them run wild. If you closely follow the details I have given, I am confident you can get very similar results. Feel free to let me know how it goes.

Hacking off all this biomass leaves a lovely, thick mulch for planting into next spring. Grass is usually gone by this time. Adding some grass mulch early next spring ensures establishment is smooth the next year, but very little is necessary compared to normal bed building. If used well -in conjunction with the other ground covers, sunchokes are a real workhorse, with the potential to carry your efforts to the blissful state of an established, productive, ground thickly covered food forest.

Photo credits (because I’ve accidentally killed so many of my sunchokes with this method): Top photo by elzeva, second down Gurcharan Singh, third down Harald Biebel, bottom Tawee Wongdee

Success for your plant purchase: Top 5 tactics

FYI, the frantic Black Friday deals for plants is during July -September, not November, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make some major cuts on your “consumption” of resources (I mean that in an environmentally responsible, as well as haphazard money saving way) using these time-refined strategies for getting, and successfully establishing, productive plants.

1. Plants or seeds?

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This one is huge. Some plants really sprout easily from seed, providing stronger, less expensive plants, for which you have lugged far less material around the globe to get; other plants are a regular joke to sprout from which you should by no means expect an actual plant.

This is because the perennials parents grow for years, and don’t want their progeny choking them out. As a result, the seeds aren’t really meant to sprout, and do so only after their puzzlebox-like seeds have been unlocked, which can take years. Many have germination rates which, even in synthetically pumped conditions, soaked in gibberilic acid, only reach single digit percentiles. You might be fighting a losing battle per the dictum of the parent plant.

My general rule is that potted, already established plants are the golden ticket to abundance. With perennials, I study their habits, and usually opt to get just one really healthy plant (or two if they need a pollinator) and let the plant self seed, or harvest the abundant, free seed to carefully plant myself, or propagate by divisions etc. in time. The long span of time, and higher price, are often better choices than the smaller, reoccuring price of seed year after year.

This is not just thoery. I have several plants with whom three years of seeds marked equal cost to getting the plant. After these serial failures, I just got the plant and started gathering succesful progeny in a year. In effect, I’ve payed double. Just pay up front for plants, and take this post as a 50% discount code for your future self.

There are few, but dramatic, exceptions to this rule, which I can’t ensure will be the same for you (that’s the hard part), but here you go.

Crambe cordifolia has been sky high on my want list for quite a while, and I payed matching prices to get my hands on two year old plants from the few sources that offer them.

I have forgotten how many I even got. They invariably died. None even made it through their first winter.

This year I begrudgingly tried seeds, which I read take years to finally bloom, are small, and all that dreadful stuff. I already had bad experience with the closely related sea kale (Crambe maritima) from seed. The success it had with Eric Toensmeier catapulted it into what I consider an extremely inflated fame. It’s meant for the rocky shoreline.

I half expected the same with cordifolia, but got some hefty, thick little sprouts resulting in two plants astronomically larger and healthier than the older, far more costly plants. I have no worries about them growing through the winter. What’s more, I see how luscious these plants are, and can’t wait to share my experiences on cooking and eating them. Their leaves are like green steaks.


So do homework, but in general, get plants.

2. Don’t let it get out of hand

There is a funny little principle that the fewer things you put your energy into, the more effective the energy. The result? You get more with less. You’re not a saviour of the planet letting your paycheck evaporate into a pile of tree seeds if all they do is evaporate back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

My rule is don’t let the number of new/risky plants you try exceed the number of fingers on your hand -five. You’ll really progress much faster this way.

3. Get promiscuous plants

I love weeds. They are astoundingly efficient, little (you hope) masters of the growing edge, and I adore every one of them. One of my foremost jobs as a designer is just weedling out their true service for mankind.

Any potential problem can almost always be rendered a potential power source. It’s when a plant is weakly and does nothing in either direction that you have no potetial at all -and far more potential of your single plant dying.

Lambsquarter (Chenopodium alba), for instance, is a lovely vegetable weed that come up on its own. The vegetable mallow I wrote about lately is a fantastic leafy green that comes up gangbusters on its own in the fertility of late season tilled (or properly mulched) gardens.

All the malvas below self seed. Read about them here.

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Always pay attention to comments on how easily a plant self propagates. If they say it’s invasive, find out how. Often, different conditions will render a horendously invasive plant sterile, so consider carefully whether it will actually be a propagation monster.

If it is, use it. We have thousands of uses for soybeans and corn -not because it’s useful, but because we figured out a thousand ways to use it. The whole reason for figuring these uses was because we had it, and a lot of it. It’s a pretty smart tactic.

4. Focus on where it will grow.

I have a confession to make: I tried to grow kudzu. Yes, the plant that ate the south is actually a crazy powerhouse of nitrogen fixation, which, if you know me at all, you know I’m a sucker for.

It died.

The most ferocious plants will at best do nothing if planted into a chink of grass-covered clay out back. A major component of a plant’s success is figuring how it will be worked into a guild, in cleared, fertile ground. Everything else -the decisions of what kind, what form, and what stage of plant/seed to get, comes after.

One bed a year is wise -or whatever your mulch supply can handle. This, for me, makes one bed I then plan my puchases around. Is it sunny? Shady? Sandy? Get plants that will grow in those conditions and use the niche of fertility and moisture the fresh mulch will provide, getting a good groundcover in place, and you are ten times more likely to succeed in establishing your plants and never order them from a catalogue again!

5. Look close to home.

Unfortunately, perennial vegetable and rare fruit enthusiasts are still too rare to be on every street corner. A not so rare occasions is when desirable ornamental and edible goddess type plants meet, making it far more likely to show up in the popular skin-deep ornamental garden.

Keep an eye out for what grows in your friend’s and neighbor’s yards, considering what plants might be of use, that you could trade for, or that are rank weeds somone else wishes were gone. The many insanely sweet possibilities here are amazing, especially if you posses the techiques to handle the plants well. Check this post here for one of them.

When I am glutted with a ton of plants, the ‘getting out of hand’ rule often applies. Taking up the resources and time to plant all you removed from someones yard (sometimes the deal for getting the plants is that you remove them all ) can lead to none of the plants living. It seems heartless, but sometimes picking out the one that looks best to plant and mulching around it with the others is the surest way of success.

It in a way combines all the former tactics, using all your resources for the single most likely specimen, and working towards propagating multiple plants from that one as soon as possible. It’s the biggest bang for your metaphorical -and literal- buck.

Late season ground cover

The explosion of growth in spring pretty well covered in the last posts, what’s to keep our gardens free of weeds in the late season?

Several of the ground covers so far disappear completely in the heat of summer, especially if the year is hot and dry. While these conditions don’t easily give rise to weeds either, so problems seldom come from it, there are some instances where you want a thick cover beginning in the heat of summer, and at its peak at the onset of fall.

For example, if you have a bed really well stuffed with early rising, but late season dormant perennial vegetables like Valerian, rhubarb, Camassia, the bed goes just about bare once the days get long and hot.

The other category is plants that get long and lanky in the end of the season, like Asparagus, and tiger lilies. These don’t shade their ground very well, but are tall enough to stay above the weeds themselves.

Given the two separate situations, I’m covering two separate plants for ground cover post number nine.

Down near the ground, with plants that only keep sparse leaves for gathering energy over summer, like Turkish rocket, it’s best to use blue mist flower (Conoclinium coelestinum). Although similar in form to annual Ageratum, this plant is perennial. It doesn’t show itself until about June, when it slowly begins growing in an upright fashion that later flops over, covering quite a bit of ground around it. Usually the vines top somewhere between one to three feet long. The flowers, in late September-early October, are a pretty addition themselves.

The ones below are in my friend’s ornamental garden, with a lovely ground cover of golden Lysimachia nummularia next to it.

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Blue mist flower has long, white, very shallow roots that run and sprout up, filling the cracks in the planting quickly. It pulls out about as easily as cobwebs from dusty corners, and doesn’t come back from the smallest micron of root like some weeds. What’s more, it cohabits quite well, not stressing other plants like many weeds -unless of course they’re buried under the vines, which are again easily removed. Overall it’s quite easy to manage.

Towering up to 6 ft by September, alongside our lanky end of the season plants like tiger lily, Asparagus and the like is Tartarian aster (Aster tataricus). A bit later than blue mist flower, Tartarian aster unfurls its light blue flowers around late September, and well into October in my climate.

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Until July, it’s just a thick mat of leaves, when all at once they shoot up in leafy spires, leaving the ground beneath in darkness. In ornamental gardens, like my step grandmother’s garden above, I’ve seen it work well with peonies, which are just looking drab as the asters shoot up. This covers the peonies from view, but it’s not so aggressive as to grow through the peonies leaves. This leaves a little spot of sun to continue feeding the peonies until they are satisfied and ready for dormancy, the cycle happening year after year quite successfully.

For how lush the leaves look in spring, I keep wondering if they wouldn’t make a tasty cooking green at least. My searches for references has turned up very little. Plants for a Future database has hopeful, but very scant information on its edibility. I may just try it sometime if I can’t find a good reference and report the results. Many asters are edible, so I don’t think it would be poisonous. The roots are used in Chinese medicine for certain lung conditions.

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The same bed of Tartarian aster in October.

It also runs quite successfully, so you don’t need many initial plants to eventually fill a large space. From my observation, established plants run at least a foot a year. With an initial spacing of two foot distance between plants, the space should be filled in two to three years.

Pulling is quite easy. It’s best done late in the year when, due to the long stems, pulling can be done while standing upright. More importantly, these late season bloomers are quite vulnerable to losing their precious energy store for the winter by keeping so much energy in their stem so late. Snapping off the big stem just at or before blooming weakens them severely. 

Building so much biomass in the fall, both these plants still provide good ground cover in spring, so planting something other than useful crops to cover the ground is hardly necessary. Often their is too much biomass, which stacks higher than some plants can stretch. This makes excellent mulch the next spring if removed for new beds, or if broken up and shoved against the ground to make a thick, water retaining, weed blocking cover. 

Given they show off when everything else is going drab, every garden should have at least a little patch of one of these niche-in-time filling ground covers.

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