Some obscure thoughts on pruning

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It’s typical of deer that when they nip off the end of the branch, they pull, breaking the branch further down as you can see here on this cherry.

For the most part, things look as alive as they get in January-February time here, not very alive. I was worried about my plants since we hit well below zero — 25 below zero farenheit, actually. From all I could tell though, they look alive. If some of them do freeze to the ground, it’s a natural pruning.

Another less welcome form of pruning I found while inspecting the plants is deer nipping off tips of my trees where I thought they never would come, and mice chewing the bark off some of my shrubs.

Being optimistic, I’d like to point out that the deer have essentially pruned my trees in the most natural way possible. This is less work for me, and a better job of pruning than I would have done if I did prune (I don’t). Just a slight nip at the tips will encourage a nice thick growth from all the buds left behind.

You might wonder how mice chewing off bark could ever be a good thing? Well, it’s mixed. Scar tissue isn’t all that great for allowing sap flow as far as I know, but it does allow the cambium layer to expand in the healing process so there’s more room for sap flow.

Perhaps you’ve read in some of the more archaic gardening books that if a tree won’t fruit, the gardener should threaten to cut the tree’s throat? If the tree further refuses to fruit, it is recommended the gardener do just that — take a knife and make a big gash in the bark at the base of the tree, and it will fruit. Either this method, or I have read of driving nails into a tree, lashing it with a whip, shooting a gun into the branches around new years, tons of crazy stuff. All these were thought to “waken the tree spirit,” hence,  making it fruit.

Why this works is it partially constricts the flow of sap, stressing the tree, making the tree think it has to produce seed fast. It is the same reason why dwarf rootstock makes a tree fruit earlier and heavier in its life than standard rootstock.

With dwarf rootstocks though, the stress is never relieved. As a result, they have a shorter lifespan, and less resistance to disease usually; whereas the old method of ‘cutting its throat’ lets the tree heal with better cambium flow. Certainly a better choice than restricting it for life.

I’m not going to do either of these, and I’m not recommending you go hacking at any lazy tree you come upon –risky business over just giving the tree a healthy plant guild around it and waiting. I’m just pointing out that mice and deer chewing the trees, if not too harsh, really isn’t all that bad.

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The goats have since been banished from the food forest paradise to Underworld, a distant, weedy, rocky plateau more befitting their nature.

Last year I had far worse when my Sister’s goats nearly girdled my trees entirely. I put a salve of Betonite clay mixed with biodynamic preps onto the trees to help them heal, since the wounds were so extensive. The trees put on decent growth over the summer though, and seem to have recovered very well. I will apply some salve to these newly bit trees this year to help them heal.

It’s brutal here. But I will be getting my spring soon enough.

And what about that grain patch?

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My first Stropharia rugosa annulatta Mushroom. The extra pepper-looking plants are peppers. My Mother is a fanatical seed saver and, when she saw I had bare ground, designated a pepper and tomato to be grown there. Surprisingly, they did very well.

Getting my grain patch established has been sort of rough compared to other parts of the food forest. Of course, the original plan was extensive compared to what I did in other parts of the food forest. I took out some cherry trees that were growing in the grain patch site. I wanted a terrace. Some other places I wanted to slightly slope down to a ditch for mushroom growing and general water collection as I mention in Stropharia firstfruits.

To get all this done I brought that horrendous monster of machines the bulldozer into the planted food forest. That, of all things, was the biggest mistake.

Not that I ran the thing. I’m terrible with big equipment. So I just had to be satisfied with the work I got, which was alright, but the whole process didn’t get me the terrace setup I had wanted (though I’m still planting an upper and lower plot like there was one) and crushed one of my planted trees. But I got the cherries out, and the water ditch in place. As a bonus, the ground was scraped bare, and the grass and scant brush cover that had been there was gone, making it easier for me to establish cover crops.

Reflecting, I think I could have done this in a much more natural way by just cutting down the trees and leaving the stumps to rot. I could have dug the ditch by hand, or just piled the branches from the trees to rot throwing some dirt on them to make the ditch. Then I could have mulched to get rid of the grass rather than tearing up the earth.

Of course, the tree stumps would sprout back up and live for at least a year. The branches would need to rot down before they would catch much water or be good for planting on. It would have taken longer across the board to get what I wanted, but it probably would have been better.

Nature relishes transition. Countless species of plants inhabit natural systems only for the blink of an eye in the scope of the systems evolution, growing up overnight and vanishing within weeks –even days, only to lie dormant again for decades, waiting for the system to need them again, and the system to supply what they need. An excellent example of this is what happens after a forest fire. Species that had been forgotten spring up in droves as though by magic, phasing out as the system turns back to a forest.

Disturbing the ground made it easier to rake in the seeds of oats, peas, lupine, phacelia, bell bean, but it also roused the weeds from their subterranean slumber. It worked out that neither did very well in the upper part because the dirt was bad.IMG_1955

Where some logs had been sitting the plants were definitly greener and taller than everywhere else. The logs must have already pulled out the N needed for decompostition and had begun giving back the N along with the decomposed nutrients. Either that, or they had just made a nice spot for fungi and bacteria and other groundbuilding creatures to prosper, or all the above. The logs helped though, that was clear.

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See the line between the top and bottom portion. The millet, clover, and vetch are just coming up here.

In the lower level, I planted a mix of Japanese Millet, Crimson Clover, and hairy vetch. This did quite well, despite a few pernicious goldenrods that grew in the mix. I got a nice crop of well filled millet heads on the millets.

I don’t know why I didn’t think of it when choosing to plant millet, but my neighbor right across the street feeds thistle seed to droves of gold finches. What is millet? Finch food, apparently. They merrily hung on the drooping heads, gladly lifting the burden of all those seeds. It was a beautiful scene (sort of ) to see the little gold birds flitting about singing calmly, but somewhat horrific to see how well they cleaned the place! Nothing! I didn’t have any plans for the seed persay, but I will have to remember this for future reference. Millet is for the birds.

Food for the birds, and lots of mulch for the ground. I cut down the millet mix and left it for mulch, pulling out the goldenrods when I found them. It made a nice thick cover.

I planted a small patch of Hull-less Black Barley mixed with Austrian field peas which did quite well mulch-wise. The Barley ripened very unevenly though, with some heads barely ripe and others dropping their seeds. I saved only a little for further experimenting.

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The upper part I have planted with rye and vetch, both tenacious weeds in their own right, but at the same time annuals that will die next year and leave room for a new crop.

I have plans for next year of course. I plan to move further toward a Fukuoka- Bonfil method grain field, and plant some three sisters patches in there too. But I really don’t know what I’ll get, so I’ll explain it all next year. It’s safer that way.

Robert Hart’s forest garden

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Diagram by Graham Burnett
Most forest gardeners are familiar with Robert Hart and his garden either through his book “Forest Gardening” or the short documentary about the garden on Youtube, both of them teaching the idea of a seven layered forest garden, and the beautiful, productive systems that follow when applied.

I have several times wondered what happened to his garden after his death in March of 2000. Such a horror, and at the same time, joy, when I found this picture collection on Flickr by London Permaculture of Robert’s now abandoned forest garden; the first of the northern forest gardens, an anchor of history, left to dissipate into weeds.

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A glimpse of the now abandoned forest garden. Photo by London Permaculture.
I read the note by London Permaculture:

Robert Hart’s original forest garden in Shropshire continues to hold a fascination for a wide number of people. Hart’s description of the garden in his books and confusion over what happened to the garden following his death in March 2000 have both created an aura of mystery which haunts references to the place.

Highwood Hill is currently a private residence with no public access to the site. The forest garden which Hart created appears to have been partly cleared. The remaining elements have been untended and without human intervention have proceeded on a path of natural succession. The shade of the tree cover has led to a diminution in the under storey, although a few fruit bushes are still visible.

Robert Hart’s garden survives in his books and in the gardens that others have started around the world under his inspiration – it is not here.

Agast at “Partly cleared”, I rack my brain for how this haven could be saved. I think  ‘Why hasn’t someone bought the site and payed it off, offering tours, propagating plants? Anything?’.

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Comfrey still plugging along. Picture by London Permaculture.
I must relent. It is nature’s way, and I don’t think this scenario could be any better. What could a forest gardener want more than for their organism they’ve tended and partnered with for years to thrive on its own, then taking its natural course back to the nature that it came from? Just seeing the trees are still there, especially that the Comfrey’s plugging along, really shows how independent the forest is.

Mortal Tree –and any other food forest, I sincerely hope stay productive for centuries after the forces that brought them together are gone. It will be the ultimate test for our designs. Robert’s garden I think is exceptional though. It has inspired and hence given life to so many forest gardens, including my own. Letting it disperse and rise to the realm of ideas is how it will best spark independent, unique ideas that are best adapted to our sites.

I have the same idea for Mortal Tree. It is a remnant of the garden I’ve heard once grew in my yard –a long time ago. As it decays I see it as physical nutrients for the garden, but also as an idea, a memory, of a place where the earth isn’t dead, but living, healed, and healing everything that comes into its embrace. The old form has to taste complete death before it can take new form though. Such is the meaning of decay, an end becoming a beginning to bring new life in a new form.

Thoughts like this really make me want to get back out into the food forest. Join me?

The pros of green plums

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Raintree’s picture of the Bavay.

Green seems like a very unappetizing color when we think of the juicily sweet dark purples, reds, and blues of perfectly ripened plums. Despite the contradiction, while looking around Raintree I happened across a species of plum called Green Bavay or Green Gage, that ripens green like it didn’t know it was a plum.

Having never seen or heard of something like this before, I was curious if it is all that great. So I went looking for a second opinion, and found an extremely information-filled post on Gauging the Gages at A Gardener’s Table.

Linda Ziedrich, the author, has not only grown the Bavay that I found, but another variety of Gage, and several other plums. All of the first hand experience I found very helpful, especially since the cultivar I had found on Raintree, the Bavay, was one of her favorite Gages. She writes:

The Reine-Claude de Bavay plums were ugly. A little bigger than the so-called Green Gages, they ripened more green than gold, with a heavy bloom, rash-like red patches, scabby spots, and open cracks. But what a marvel in the mouth! Here was all the buttery texture of the other gages, a powerful honey-like sweetness, and a strong tartness besides.

I was sold, and decided to include Reine-Claude de Bavay in my food forest.

I already have several species of plums in the food forest including ‘Nana’ Beach plum (Prunus maritima), and Japanese plums (Prunus salicina). I have them in dry, well drained, sunny hillside spaces they are supposed to like. The problem is these site’s are filled up, and what’s left are in the heavier clay further down the hillside. Looking at Raintree’s care guide on plums, I read that European Plums, which includes Gages, prefer heavier soils though. So the Bavay will fit in perfectly.

Trying to figure the reason for breeding a green plum, I’ve heard that birds will often eat plums as they turn color and ripen, and though I haven’t seen it myself to be sure, I assume that birds wouldn’t recognize that a plum is ripe if it stays green. Breeding for a green-ripe plum might be to protect from birds eating the whole crop.

As usual with trees, the investment will take a while to pay me back, if at all. But trusting  what I’ve read, I have high hopes I won’t be disappointed. So look for a review of Green Bavay plums here not too far into the future.

Daubenton’s kale in the US?

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Look familiar?
There are many ways to get to perennial kale. Just see this article. But talk to truly advanced collectors of perennial vegetables in the US, and you will find there is one plant which, although they hear about, and search for endlessly, they scarcely have. Amidst all their varied menagerie of species there is too often a hole where, wouldn’t you guess, the queen of the leafy green perennial vegetables is missing.

We’re just short on royalty here, unlike some blessed inhabitants of the UK who have those great fountains of everlasting leafy goodness in their gardens. Darn that its perennial nature has barred it from passing through customs to the US, otherwise I, and many others, would’ve had it long ago. All reasons why I was ecstatic to find among the pages of Territorial seeds, Daubenton’s Kale! At least, so I thought.

NEW! Gardeners love this new, perennial, bicolored kale. Truly one-of-a-kind, this fetching variety is practically a whole new vegetable! The large, upright plant’s unique perennial habit allows for continuous, cut-and-come-again harvests of gorgeous, slightly curled blue-green leaves that are set off by contrasting creamy white coloration at their rough-hewn margins. This easy-to-grow, highly-edible ornamental was bred by Dick Degenhardt in Boskoop, Netherlands and is propagated by root cuttings.

Available only within the contiguous US.

I say it’s Daubenton’s, as their description and picture above seems to say, but they are selling it as ‘Kosmic’ kale, and a newly bred hybrid? For the sake of not spreading around false information I have emailed Territorial asking them to clarify if they can. So I will see what I can find out and will post my findings.

Of course, if it is perennial, beautiful, and excellent tasting, I will be happy growing it, wether it is or is not Daubenton’s. Let me know if you find anything out yourselves.

Update: I received an email back, and Territorial seeds assures me that ‘Kosmic’ is indeed a novel breeding accomplishment, not Daubenton’s, despite all the similarities. Say hello to a new addition of the perennial vegetable family.

I’m not done yet though. I am determined to find out what genetics make up this “F1 hybrid.”

Prospecting Camassia

How many people reading this even know what camassia are? Until lately, I just had the general idea they are hyacinth-looking flowers, and hadn’t the slightest inkling of their edible history or they’re potential as an excellent crop in food forests.

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C. esculenta. Photo by T. Prendusi

Camassia is a genus of plants native to North America with species like C. scilloides growing in the eastern United States, C. cusikii in the mountains of Oregon, and the most well known, C. esculenta and C. quamash, in the middle of the United states on the great plains with several other kinds in between.

It was on the great plains that camassia was used as staple food by several Indian tribes. It’s bulbs, like the tubers of another great plains plant, Jerusalem Artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), would be baked slowly for several days in pits on burning coals. This broke  down the inulin camassia contains, making them more digestible, turning them a carmalized dark brown, with gooey but not sticky texture, the flavor similar to winter squash. At least, so I’m told.

I’m just getting my own camassia in the ground this fall, and still waiting to get some for eating. I have seen how they grow though, because my neighbor has some. She grows them in very deep shade for a plant of the great plains, I thought. Then I asked her about their shade tolerance, and she reminded me that on the great plains there are a lot of very tall grasses and other plants like sunflower for instance. Since camassia is only about a foot tall, all these plants act as an upper story, leaving it in the shade. In many ways, it really is an understory plant.

Of course, they’re habitats vary, as I said. Camassia scilloides, for instance, grows in woodlands, while others grow on plains. I have read that camassia often prefer moist, rich meadows, but then I have read that C. lecthinii grows in the crevices of rocks!

Just think what that means for the food forest gardener: A plant that grows in shade, with or without weed competition, in wet places, in dry places –what we’d think entirely inhospitable for food crops — but it has excellent food qualities.

I’ll compare them to growing potatoes. Potatoes can’t stand weed competition very well, like to be hilled if you want a good crop, are not native here (they’re native to the Andes), and need sunlight, of which an established food forest will have limited amounts.

Camassia can be grown under trees –right among grass –as my neighbor does, as is its natural habitat in North America where it is native. Then there are different species for different biomes in North America suited to wet, or dry locations. As an extra bonus, it doesn’t need hilled, and on top of it all (literally) is a very beautiful blue flower.

Camassia are the potatoes of the food forest. In fact, famed plant breeder Luther Burbank, who spent several decades breeding camassia, suggested that they could one day “supplant” the potato! It was to this aim that he hybridized camassia, trying to improve both their flower and bulb size.

Of course, with results like he got, I can imagine camassia being preffered over potatoes. Here is a passage from his book about his experience.

I found it a relatively simple matter to      
hybridize the different camassias. All the 
species seemed to combine quite readily. 

Some of these hybrids of the second generation
produced bulbs smaller than those of their 
progenitors. But others grew bulbs of enormous
size. Even to one who is accustomed to observe
the striking variations that are produced 
through hybridization, it was surprising to 
see the extraordinary impetus given to the 
bulbs of the camassia by the union of different 
species. 

The bulbs of the common edible species, C. 
esculenta, are relatively insignificant, 
usually growing about one-half to three
-quarters of an inch in diameter. The C. 
Cusickii produces the largest bulb of all, 
but it is large only in a relative sense, being 
usually little over an inch in diameter and two 
inches in length. 

Camassia04

But among the second genera-
tion hybrids were some that 
produced bulbs three and a 
half inches across and four
or even five inches in length.

I have C. esculenta and cusikii in my food forest now. I hope to do some breeding myself with these and see what I can get. Along the way I will try growing them in several situations and see what they like best. Hopefully it will give me an education that books can’t offer.

Maybe I could grow them among winter grains since they would have died down by the time the grains had started to really grow?….. I’ll see what I can get.

If anyone has already done some work with camassia, or knows someone who is working with them now, comment and let me know or contact me. Or just comment with your thoughts about them in general. I’m always open to that.

Camassia have already been a staple food plant. With some selection, and observation, I think they have the potential to be a staple food plant again. Feel free to join in the journey.

An off-site project

I have been helping a friend set up a permaculture system in his yard. He’s put in some apple and cherry trees, black and red raspberries this spring. I helped him plant a blueberry bush last fall. The yard is getting its basic tree structure in place.

We are still dealing with weeds though, especially in part of the back yard where he wants to put the garden. It’s a steep slope that is far to steep to till, or else the whole thing would slosh down the road with the first heavy rain. Worse, before it was clear cut about two years ago, it was a mess of blackberry, mint, rosebush, wild sweet pea, young sassafras and oaks, Canadian thistle, and poison ivy. These are trying to take the place back now.

It’s a battle for sure; a matter of mind, with consistent, carefully thought out actions since, between the steepness of the slope, the ferociousness of the weeds, and a lack of time to devote to the project, brute force might not be the most effective move.

I’ve listed the design requirements as:

  • only 3-6 hours of maintenance twice to three times a year aside from harvesting.
  • to be completely no-till because the hill is so steep.
  • because it is no-till it will need lots of mulch for fertility, moisture retention, and weed eradication. So the system, if it is to be self sustaining, will need to produce a lot of mulch. If not, small amounts of mulch can be brought in from somewhere else.
  • Needs to be productive. He’s interested in food, not so much aesthetic effects.

Plan A to get rid of the weeds was cover crops. We cut down the weeds (scant at this time) for mulch, and sow a cover crop in this mulch to choke out the weeds to create fertility, making it easier to grow a lush cover crop to choke out more weeds etc.

Unfortunately plan A backfired with the weeds choking out the cover crop because I couldn’t make it over to his place often enough to keep cutting down the cover crop and weeds to get a new cover crop going. Scratch plan A.

Plan B, which we just executed a couple days ago, was to carbon bomb the place, by mulching heavily with leaves, holding down the leaves with a layer of hay. He rounded up enough leaves from his neighbors and anywhere else he could find them. I provided a small round bale of hay.

To apply, I started by mowing the standing brush with my scythe. Then we spilled leaves all over, making a six inch to one foot thick layer of leaves, finishing with spreading the hay on top. Once the round bale was shrunk down to the size we could easily lift it, we simply rolled it out like a carpet over the leaves. I would show a picture, but unfortunately I didn’t have anything with me to take one. Take my word that it looked very nice when we finished though.

The effect of this ‘Carbon Bomb’ is that all the carbon in the leaves needs nitrogen to break down. They will pull this nitrogen out of the ground beneath them, leaving little, if any, for the plants underneath to grow. Also, the mulch blocks out the sun, which we all know plants need to grow.

I have seen this effect on other gardens when people zealously pour the leaves on, thinking they will get amazing fertility next year, but really zilch fertility next year because even the nutrients that were there before are all bound up to break down the leaves. I’m trying to use this negative effect to my benefit.

In spring, we will rake the leaves up, then put them back down, re-covering plants that try to grow through, putting new leaves from on top in contact with the ground to suck more nitrogen. Eventually we will plant a cover crop of legumes, since they can make their own nitrogen, and once these can establish root systems without weed competition, we’ll start to plant the plants we want. Planting in polycultures so the plants take care of each other to a large degree, the whole place should become a productive, self sustaining system, aside from a little leaves applied every fall in problem spots.

Of course, the garden will be producing for just him, and he won’t need all that space for food production. Not wanting to leave bare space, wanting to make mulch, I’ll include lots of large mulch plants like Comfrey in the design. If they are at the top of the hill, their nutrients will flow down. But we might try arranging them in semicircles below patches of potatoes so when the potatoes are dug, the Comfrey will make sort of a barrier to block the dirt from washing down the hill; and keep the dirt in place because the mulched leaves that will lay on top of the dirt will keep the rain from hitting directly.

I don’t plan that he will cut the mulch plants once a month like I do. They will just be there and grow as much as they want to every year. Besides that, more edible plants that we’ll include in the polycultures will also serve for mulch and nutrient accumulation. Between all these, I think the garden can be largely self mulching.

The project shows promise. I’ll keep you posted on how it grows.