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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

The best fertility enhancer

You quoted words by William Blake that the mind of man is a garden already planted and sown; it’s a question of cherishing the plants already there. I think this applies very much to the soil as well.

They speak of fertility being “locked up” in the soil, and one of the main aids of promoting fertility is not something one puts on so much as releasing what is already there. It’s a question of allowing such things as soil roots and earth worms to make channels in the soil and therefore make a circulating system so that energy and fertility that is already in the soil is free to circulate.

-Robert Hart

Speeding up succession can take some strange forms, especially as tilling.

Tilling was originally introduced as a fertility enhancer, ‘bringing light into the soil’ as the ancient Zarathustrian texts put it. Today, science is well aware that oxygen, and several other components of air (nitrogen in a roundabout way), play crucial roles in the fertility of soil and the breakdown of organic matter. Tilling makes a huge surge of breakdown of organic matter, hence fertility, by shoving a ton of oxygen into the soil while killing a lot of the soil life -more organic matter for breakdown. It’s a goose that laid the golden egg situation though, as this massive onslaught cuts future fertility short unless things are carefully managed.

As you may have noticed in Niche in fertility, the fertility corresponded with fine tilth (fluffiness) of the soil. I use natural means of getting a good tilth by mulching. This worked because the mulch held moisture and food that attracted worms, and killed the resident grass, leaving a ton of organic matter and little tunnels for air to enter.

Remember too, if I neglected replacing the grass with preferred plants, the soil structure went flat, hard, dead.

This is because plant roots and soil life maintain soil structure. It’s worth noting the excellent results I get from mulching aren’t just from the mulch, they’re also from the grass I’m killing underneath. The deeper and more prolific the roots the better the end result.

The average lawn, even if the nicely clipped grass is green, won’t offer quite the same benefits. By cutting the grass short, we cut its roots short, as roots grow in relation to tops. Without grass clipping or leaves to feed worms, there is little insect or soil creature activity, so about 4 inches down the soil is hard as a rock and lifeless.

I have had the luxury of letting mine grow as tall and as deep as it will with only one or two mowings a  year. Those roots are deep as they can get.

In short grass situations, a good compromise is to get air into the soil by sticking a garden fork or shovel into the ground and gently lifting -not turning, just loosening. This keeps the delicate strata of bacteria and myriad soil life in order but allows roots to penetrate soil that would be very hard to break up.

I’m bringing an area of my parent’s greenhouse into production that’s been under two layers of plastic and one of weed barrier for years now. The soil is completely unamended clay. I know from experience in other parts of the greenhouse that plants cringe at the idea of puncturing their roots into this kind of stuff and just throwing a layer of compost on top will make for stunted plants.

I’m not too keen on tilling either, but I’ve got a schedule I have to adhere to so succession needs to happen fast.

Not some ancient script. These shovel and garden fork holes are good stuff to get plant roots, worms, and air into the soil.

So I pryed the ground. In some spots (notably by the edges of the plastic) it broke up and cracked whereas others hardly budged. You can see the hardness of the ground in the collateral damage of the mission. I had to finish with another shovel.

I finished the plot in about two hours.

Bill Mollison was quite a proponent of this method of soil rejuvenation as prescribed for Keyline systems. On a large scale this was done with a keyline plow that cut into the soil violently. This shook up the soil on top of slicing it, and in Permaculture I and II Mollison praises the effects, highly recommending it for speeding up succession.

So the next time you start a new bed, take into consideration whether the soil is compacted or not. The effect of a quick pry with a garden fork may save years of succession time. Strange I know to bring any tilling into the picture, but done right, it does hardly anything but good.

Visual archive

A single, hyperlinked map. Use this to easily navigate and explore Mortal Tree

In search of giving every post equal visibility, I’m trying a visual archive. It’s hosted on MindMeister, with every title linked to its respective post on Mortal Tree. With over a hundred posts and pages, you might try bookmarking for future reference, and a more indepth study of the roots that have made this blog what it is today.


Click here to view

Note: You can also find the Visual Archive in the sidebar next to any page or post -just turn mobile devices with small screens to landscape view.

Observing wind

Fertilizers, sprinkler systems, special garden tools abound with the promise of healthier plants and harvest. Have you ever considered the health benefits to plants that follow simply blocking wind?

This peach is a little unbalanced because of wind blowing on it from the right.

Take for instance these statistics from Permaculture I.

Click to view

Crop yields vary in increase from 100% increase in such crops as avocado to 45% in corn, 60-70% in alfalfa, 30% in wheat, and lesser gains (7-8%) for row crops such as lettuce. All these follow windbreak establishment on exposed sites

Not that anyone in the north is wringing their hands over their exposed avacados. As far as wind goes, I would say Paw Paws are about the same. The leaves are large and catch lots of wind; the wood is weak and easily breaks; the flowers are pretty tender; fruits even more so, being scratched easily or falling off because they don’t have a very strong attachment to the branch.

Even when wind isn’t blowing, windbreaks can increase ambient temperature on the leaves of plants. Martin Crawford cites 2 degrees average increase, which over a whole summer in a cool climate can really surge growth forward.

Besides enhancing growth, lack of wind saves on leaves. I’ve mentioned the lovely Catalpa in the food forest. That tree has a heck of a lot of enormous leaves that come storming down in autumn, none of which I’ll happily part with.

I have amorpha and autumn olive planted along here that will eventually be taller than the grass.

Lacking a large windbreak right now, my strategy for slowing wind onyoung plants and keeping leaves is to constrict my mowing to early summer and let all the food forest grow tall in fall. This way the grass and asters manage leaf collection and wind breaks for me. Eventually the N fixers and fruit trees will grow up and function the same way but taller.

Another way to keep plants out of the wind is planting in a niche sometimes in front of a windbreak.

For instance I have a chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus), which is rather tender for my area, planted in front of a stump.


Wind moving over and around the stump makes a gentle buffer that’s quite noticeable when I stick my hand in there. I also notice in general snow is blown away 4-6 inches from trees, further from larger things like houses, but piles up at the border of the bare zone. So I have planted the chaste tree about that distance from the stump in its ‘sweet zone.’


Add in the good effect of sun hitting the stump heating everything up and this makes for a superior growing sight.

Not that theory alone confirms this spot is good. I have observed unusually good plant growth here. For example, out of the belated blue lupines I mentioned in Blue abounds, I found a bloom not long after writing nestled in the sweet spot of the stump. All the others waited a full year later to bloom.

Now to see if the chaste tree likes it too.

So until I have my N fixers to full size, that’s what I’m doing to slow the wind, decrease winter mortality, and increase summer growth.

Niche in fertility


Since last year’s manual of bed building I have found yet another dimension to consider, fertility levels.

Piling all the material onto the beds in spring (which usually includes a sprinkling of the food forest rabbit manure) makes for a lot of nutrients swimming around.

This is one reason why I stick annuals between the young perennials the first season; the annuals suck up all this excess and make it into cover and mulch which can be cycled back. I’ve found when planting the second year, that fertility isn’t there.

You wouldn’t guess it by how the perennials explode the next spring with luxurious growth. By this time they’ve got extensive root systems established, feeding from a very deep and broad area and from stored food from the previous year.

The purple is sage. The lovely silvery little ground cover is Silene uniflora -love it!

Annuals I stick in the second year usually limp along until they get their roots established to make a mediocre growth or die. This makes sense considering what I posted about growing annuals. They take huge amounts of nutrients.

Another point I’ve observed is the ground really needs roots to keep the soil alive. Continual growth and die off of the root hairs, besides myriad chemical interactions, keeps the ground fluffy and alive. Without them it goes hard and dead in short order.

Spots I didn’t get filled with plants last spring did just that. They got so hard I used my garden trowel like a pickaxe where before I could drive my finger in with ease. A reapplication of mulch quickly woke it back up so I could get some preferred plants stuck in.

A new bed last year. Borage and marigolds are the only annuals. Ground covers already have the ground beneath them covered.

The main change then is to plant thickly, but a little thicker with perennials, the same amount of annuals, because there will be no annuals the next year. This makes sure all the nutrients are utilized and the perennials will be close enough to keep everything under control in the years to come. Hopefully in these beds I’m establishing now, that will be a lot of years to come.