N fix 1: Maakia amurensis

The rare, unusual, and elusive are famous for offering extreme qualities in one area or another, but usually come with a catch, some pathetic weakness or obnoxious strength that makes you think twice before heading out on the search to get them.

Maackia_amurensis wiki
Photo credit: Wikepedia

Maakia amurensis, despite its rarity, extreme qualities of weather tolerance, excellent ability to fix nitrogen, seems to show no drawbacks.

Maakia is the namesake of the Russian naturalist explorer Karlovich Maack, who discovered the plant near the amur river near the border of Siberia and China in the 19th century.

Maackia_amurensis oanat.se
The leaves of maakia in spring are very pretty. Click for photo source.

As you might guess, growing on the border of Siberia, Maakia is hardy to usda zone 3 –plenty hardy for most areas of the world. It also tolerates heat, and flooding, to the point that many laud it for lining blacktop city streets like locust trees.

It’s attractive too. The leaves first unfurling in spring glisten a beautiful silver like frosted white flowers, its true, white, pea shaped flowers coming out to play much later in July. Yet another point for Maackia because very few trees bloom then.

Perhaps it’s only drawback, Maakia can, in good situations, grow as tall as 49 feet. In average conditions, and harsh conditions, maakia only grows to 20, perhaps 30 feet. Being a nitrogen fixer, it ought to be cut back periodically to mulch its system anyway.

For this reason I wouldn’t consider the characteristic an eminent drawback so much as a possible bonus. Certainly such a tall tree would be useful among the closed canopy of a nut grove, filling a niche that few others can.  On my sun beaten hill though, I assume it will only reach 20 feet –if I even let it get that tall.

Photo from hgtvgardens.com

Blue abounds

Among gardeners of texture and color, true, vibrant blue is often considered elusive, highly desirable, and never to be passed up if the chance comes to add a new blue to the collection.

Considering the common range of species, it comes as no surprise. Tulips, peonies, roses –the basic groups- to the chagrin of breeders, just won’t crack their colors enough to let a real blue slip through.

To my surprise, in growing edible species, and planting for function rather than color, I find myself surrounded lately with flora of that rarest color in the plant kingdom.

Anchusa azurea tops the list with towering, rough spine covered spires of deepest blue IMG_5448flowers shot with violet purple veins. Please don’t take offense at the idea, IMG_5452but the flowers are edible, being very closely related to the common Borago officionalis. At four feet tall, with flowers like these, it is by far the tall, dark and handsome member of the Boraginaceae family. It is also biennial, first blooming in its second year, but can perennialize, growing back and blooming for several years if it likes its site. We’ll see if it hangs around for me.

Its function in the garden is edible flowers, as I mentioned, but more importantly, mulch– after it has flowered and seeded.

At the back is C. cusikii, pale, and almost done flowering. At front is C. esculenta, dark blue, and just starting to flower.

Second comes camassia, which I’ve written about before, but for a quick review, it’s an edible bulb that takes a variety of climates in North America, including shade, sun, wet, dry; a very versatile plant.

C. esculenta

I’ve been impressed by the size and earliness of C. cusickii, both in bloom –starting more than a week earlier than C. esculenta, and its far  larger bulbs. Talking about flower color though, esculenta is a far deeper blue, which I prefer. Its diminutive size of six inches less than the cusikii at flowering is the one characteristic that evens things out.

Third is none other than the common weed, Glechoma hederacea, IMG_5460commonly known as creeping charlie. Of course I didn’t plant the stuff, but it is rather attractive with tiny blue flowers studding its green carpet.

For function, it is an edible medicinal; and that carpeting effect is useful where it keeps grass out from under taller plants.

A blue flower to come is the N fixer lupine. I have Lupinus perrenis, the blue kind of lupine, scattered about the food forest. Several are in their second year and could be flowering, but have chosen to wait until next year to bloom. Look for pictures next spring.

Nothing edible here, just N fixer and dynamic accumulator due to lupine’s tap rooting. I had to move a young lupine that had found its way smack in the middle a path, and I was very impressed with several large nodules jutting out on only a five inch taproot.

Ironically, all the species I’ve mentioned here are not hybrids, and hardly selected for any desirable traits. Nature has instilled such peaceful color by its own design, way ahead of the breeder’s game.

News of half success

I got an update from my friend as to how the work from An off site project is handling the spring weeds.

photo 1

Obviously some weeds popping up at some spots, but considering all the potential weeds under there not popping up, I’m quite impressed.

What’s more impressive is that even though weeds are getting through, for instance Thistles, there is so much mulch for them to grow through that a large part of their stem is soft, white, and easily pulled. See the weeds my friend pulled out by just reaching into the mulch.

photo 2

So the Thistles are under control. He mentioned they’re just the beginning though, and that the whole things is ready to burst. So we definitely still need to to execute part 2 of the plan when we rake up all the mulch and hack off the offenders.

With the insurrection finely minced and re-smothered under carbon rich leaves, we’ll plant some Comfrey for mulch, pile on grass clippings over this summer for more mulch, and I imagine few of those weeds will be back again.

So I plan anyway.

Notes on juglone

I am consulting for a rather large food forest (20 acres) and needed to check out juglone effects because they want to include Walnuts with Persimmons and Pecans. I hope to share more info about the project soon. Here are my notes I thought I’d share.

My Mom planted several Lilacs under this Black Walnut several years ago. Notice there are no Lilacs now.

Plants effect one another: by shade, by root competition, by mulching each other with leaves. These effects are basic and easily seen, but plants also effect each other in far more intrinsic ways, one of the most significant called allelopathy.

Allelopathy is the science of the effects plant chemicals have on each other; how one plant, if planted near another, will thrive or languish because of the chemicals its neighbor emits.

The methods of emissions can become quite advanced: from root exudates of nitrogen and the simple release of chemicals as a plant rots down over winter, to release of chemicals into the air, via the leaf stomata.

The chemicals are fairly specific: killing some plants but benefitting others, depending on species. In this way, allelopathy is more a situation of plants choosing the partners they want nearby than an all out homicide (herbicide?) of any plant nearby.

One of the most famous allelopaths is Juglone. It’s produced  by plants in the genus Juglans, which as you might huess gave the allelopath its name. Black walnut (Juglans nigra) produces the highest amounts of this allelopath in the genus Juglans.

Juglone works by slowing the metabolism of plants, turning their leaves yellow when taking serious effect. Despite the strength of juglone, it is not very soluble in water, and hence, doesn’t spread very far, even in porous, well drained soil. The effects are often weaker where the soil is better draining, strongest where the soil is hard and non-porous.

The potential dose of juglone is strongest under the tree’s drip line. Nevertheless, it is recommended that sensitive plants be kept at a distance of even sixty feet from the tree to ensure root exudates containing juglone aren’t a problem. Obviously this is only a worry with larger walnut trees, but because they grow over time, keep this in mind.

See this post and its pdf. for more info on juglone, and lists of plants likely suceptible to its effects.

A bit blunt

IMG_1954So far in my campaign of grass eradication, Group and Conquer has given very satisfactory results so long as there is a ton of grass, and I let the grass rot down, mess it up, rot, mess it up again. I’ve made some developments.

In An off-site project, I mention the carbon bomb technique of using carbon heavy leaves to suck the nitrogen out of the ground rather than fresh or dried grass which is, comparatively, rather balanced between N and C, and so doesn’t suck up N near so well. I’ve added another element.

I have stones set on all the places I hope to plant Sunflowers (Helianthus annus) later this season. The small area of cleared ground under the rocks will be just enough to get them established. From there, Sunflowers have an allelopathic effect ( secretion of chemicals) that is specifically designed to kill grass. I will update with how effective it turns out to be.

Sheer mass, you see, opaque, heavy mass, does the deed of killing grass all on its own. To boost, it keeps the ground under it moist, rots the grass, attracts worms, insects, fosters lovely molds (yes, I am serious). Yes, sheer mass includes rocks, but I’ve found something even better.

I’ve observed that where old logs sit that they kill the grass under them because of sheer mass combined with the carbon bomb effect, but they also leave not only the grass dead, but the ground improved if they sit for awhile- most of the good due to the sheer mass effect I just mentioned, as I found in establishing my grain patch.

So rather than grouping grass to conquer grass, I’m trying grouping slices of logs to kill grass, and I’m quite pleased with the effects. Grass that once grew lush and green now rots yellow and moldy, a plethora of soil life attending to its burial needs, but there was no digging done.

A bit blunt, but it works.

The grass does grow up in the spots between the logs, but this can be fixed by tightly stuffing the cracks with grass, or, what I have been doing, just move the “pucks” around every week or so, and watch the grass disappear.

One of the clumps that grew between the first arrangement of logs already showing yellowing after a few days under the ‘puck’.

So if you have any trees come down, do use the thick trunk by cutting it in slices thin enough to easily move, but heavy enough to keep the grass pressed down, and be ready to stick some preferred plants in place of the no longer existing grass.


As a holding area

Many small scale fruit growers are familiar with “heeling in” bare root plants. Usually it includes digging a shallow trench, laying the trees or plants down with just their roots in the trench and covering. Although if a hard freeze is coming you might also cover the tops with a blanket, or even add some straw for insulation, heeling in is basically giving the roots the life support of earth without letting them get too comfy.

I’ve found that my water catchment ditch is the ideal place for heeling in plants. The walls give some protection from wind, and make a warm little microclimate by raying back heat from the day. Water that collects there seldom stays a puddle, but rather keeps the ground evenly moist between rains. It’s ideal.IMG_1764

The plants seem to approve too. I heeled in several extra three inch tall Beach Plums (Prunus maritima) there to hold until I could figure places for them, and a year later, there are more living and they are all healthier in the ditch than the ones I planted out in the dry sunny spots beach plums are supposed to like.

If you’d like to make your own holding area, I think that even a little swale would have similar effects as far as moisture collection goes. If you don’t want to move a lot of dirt, which I recommend, just piling up sticks, leaves, weeds and other such roughage (preferably on a hillside) when available will eventually build up to the same thing as I have.

It’s very helpful to have spots like this whenever time constrains planting your precious plants. It’s just one more way to reduce stress during their transit, bringing you that much closer to a healthy, established food forest.