For example:

Green is always so tender and lush as it erupts from its hard, drab seed coat. Thankfully this only marks the beginning of much more growth to come if handled right. Take this scenario for example:

Just finishing its second year at one of my client’s home, right outside their front door, is the first installed PASSIVE-perennial vegetable garden fusion.

It is about 2/3rds perennial polyculture and 1/3rd PASSIVE annuals. The perennials provide much of the show, while the annuals give a small smatter of color and the bulk production at which they so excel.

The new placement of the garden is a major improvement of what they had. Their old garden was far behind the house, where they got little enjoyment and use of it because it was in a literal blindspot of their everyday life.

The new garden started by merely laying path. This we made of ceramic block, left over from some of the previous owner’s building projects on the property, which until then did nothing but take up space in a pile, unused.

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Design I had roughly figured and drawn beforehand, which we discussed and moderated as suited our needs in process of laying the block. The final product is a series of large curves, or spirals, if you will, within each other. This created curved beds about three feet wide for easy access. Where the paths were further apart, we made small islands of stone, which had the added effect of breaking up the large spiral design, besides being a pretty addition itself.

Mulch eradicated the grass lawn on the plot. This was mostly fallen branches and mowed grass from the lawn, which for the client was formerly just another waste product they had piled for compost.

They also applied select vegetable waste to the mulch, which has popped up to their delight as cilantro, pumpkins, basil, dill, and many others we didn’t expect. Right by the house, they got some of the finest cantaloupe I have ever seen grown in this area. On my parent’s farm nearby we have tried for years to get good muskmelons, trying black plastic for heat, and irrigation to combat the dryness. So I was a bit envious when I saw these just appear from the mulch. They were smack on the southeast corner of the house though, just out of reach of the spouting which overflows in heavy rains, soaking the spot. Microclimates rule.

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With minimal identification from me, the offensive weeds like quackgrass and thistle were casually plucked whenever found, and the garden has been a serendipitous mass of vegetables since.

Quick growth of a cover crop mix planted that fall, and continued additions of grass mulch they got from the lawn, with a chance find of some straw the husband, Hans, got at his work, bolstered the store of the organic matter ready for breakdown over winter, effectively blocking anymore weeds.

This left us with a clean spread of grass mulch, with patches of green herbs and vegetables popping up. It was quite nice for what could have been an awkward establishment phase. This year, it only got better.

Over winter I designed the planting, ordered seed and plants, starting out many of the plants for the client in my greenhouse. Transplanting happened as the plants were ready,  such that I completed the list by June. A picture of the initial planting list I sent them is below. A few things we skipped, a lot of things were added.

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When out shopping at a local greenhouse for example, a couple artichokes somehow tagged along home and made themselves happy in the new garden. One of these bloomed, and gave two smaller buds for eating.

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At the top of a hill, the garden has a wonderful microclimate. Of course, being close to the white brick house helps too. So I figured lots of things normally too tender for our climate might even overwinter here. The artichokes are just one of several accidental warm climate additions that slipped in. I’m chaffing to see how they fare.

In the annual planting area, there is comfrey and Cystisus scoparious for the permanent mulch making system. Cystisus stays low, so won’t block the view across the garden. At the east edge, Amorpha is planted in a row of wild daylilies to provide ample mulch for the perennials, and a small surplus for the annuals. Across the driveway, to the west, is a long line of Amorpha with comfrey at its feet to block wind and provide further mulch if necessary.

We added a bamboo bean tipi for a focal point this year, with tomatoes around the base.

These were mostly heirloom slicer tomatoes. We would have planted some cherry tomatoes, but the variety they planted the year before, “Matt’s Wild” had taken propagation into its own hands and now their persisting progeny couldn’t be chased out of the garden with a stick.  Fruits thickly festoon the bramble of branches they make though, so this isn’t too much of a problem. If anything they choke out the less desirable weeds.

Self seeders like this, and perennials that provide stock for annual propagation, are the next step in the PASSIVE method I want to refine, so keep an eye out for more examples like this.

Annuals such as calendula, and biennials like salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius), good at self seeding, were planted nearby in the perennial polyculture to cover the ground between the young perennials. A very pretty variegated mint is more permanently filling in the cracks. In the annual area we planted mache as a self seeding groundcover. See my post on its use here.

With all the mulch poured on the garden from the yard, there was descent fertility, although higher later on. This wasn’t until the end of the summer, because it was dry and bound up and not feeding the soil until we got rain. It’s fascinating to note that, although watered a few times with a sprinkler, this did not have a noticable effect on the mulch and its breakdown -hence fertility. One good summer’s rain, and the mulch suddenly changed color, and so did the garden.

The compliments are starting to roll in from my clients’ friends on how the garden looks so nice. The wife, Elora, is an artist in several media, and lately made a series of really cool macro lens pictures of the plants titled “A Garden Meditation.” Check it out here.

It is, as they tell me, their new entertainment to sit on the porch and watch the bees and butterflies flit around the lush growth and radiant colors. They have sent me several pictures of salads and tomato harvests they have made thus far, and posted a good bit to their social media pages if you want to take a look.

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Nasturium (Tropaeolum major) flower, chive (Allium schoenoprasum), “Matt’s Wild” cherry tomato, salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) and vegetable mallow (Malva verticillata), harvested fresh from the bountiful garden. Photo credit: Elora Toews

The best thing about the situation is it’s just year two, and only the beginning of what should become a very long lived, productive, PASSIVE-perennial gardening system.

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Book update: I know some of you can’t check my posts released on Fridays until Monday, so I am offering PASSIVE Gardening as a free gift again today.

Almost any device -smartphone, tablet, desktop -of almost every brand, can download the Kindle app that allows the device to display kindle books. Just click on the “Read on any Device” next to the book picture. At any rate there is no need worry about having a device that can support it.

I do understand some do not like extensive reading on an electrical device though, so will have a soft cover copy out soon.

The book had 700 downloads last time. No reviews yet, so the race is still on to see who shatters the silence. In whatever order they come, I am particularly excited to see a review from you.

Growing annuals

I’m always writing about perennials and no till, but I actually do a lot of annual gardening. My family’s farm has a CSA for about 20 shares that uses about 3 acres of tilled gardens.

Mortal Tree is my exposition on alternative methods, so of course I wanted to try growing annuals in a passive, no till setup.

That’s what the keyholes at the front were supposed to be; with perennials thrown in for propagation, and greater efficiency.

After two years of the first “system” (or lack thereof) there are two problems: lack of fertility, and weeds. Of course everyone has those problems, but the system was supposed to keep these to a tolerable level.

As it is, aside from mache, annuals just aren’t satisfied with the fertility. This year I didn’t harvest anything but what the perennials willingly supplied.

Ideal weed level is pulling a few weeds as I inspect the garden on a pleasant evening. Instead, I found myself clearing whole beds only to have them full of weeds again in a month.

I’ve scrutinized the system and found two problems: lack of mulch and lack of fertility in general.

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The year of high fertility

I got the idea I wasn’t cycling enough nutrients from the lack of vigor the annuals and their self seeding progeny showed. I wasn’t sure how much more I needed. Normally the tillage and compost in the big gardens makes everything grow without complaint. Now that I’m trying to make this work with comfrey and other in-system nutrients, without tillage, it’s not.

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Martin Crawford has several tables in Creating a Forest Garden that really pin down nutrients and how much different plants need, and how much different sources offer. He has a light, moderate, and heavy cropping category, then annuals.

Most of the perennial vegetables he places in the light cropping category. It takes about two cut comfrey per square meter to sustain these plants, which is about what I am applying. To sustain annual cropping takes 60 cut comfrey for that same area. Problem found.

The amount of fertility I’m accustomed to working with in the annual gardens is simply an unnatural surge of nutrients. Compost is extraordinarily rich in nutrients compared to bulk green mulch.

Also, tillage forces more oxygen into the soil, breaking down those nutrients at a faster rate. The keyholes had this advantage at first because I dug out the paths and piled up the soil to make the beds.

Problem is, the mulch apparently needed for the annuals would drown most of the perennials. In response I’m moving all the perennials out, and making the keyholes completely annual.

The best comparison I have for this so far is a keyhole bed I have near the Willow Garden in its fourth year of no till.

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It has a dug out path and raised beds too. It has one comfrey for its mulch and fertility source. As a result, I’ve had to bring in more mulch to sustain the system.

For instance, I brought in a lot comfrey from the Willow Garden to drown out some quack grass (Agropyron repens) that had moved in. It was rather effective at suppressing it. Besides some vegetable mallow over the summer, it was enough to grow some nice cabbages.

In the food forest, I’m not supplying 60 cuts of comfrey per keyhole per year. I’ve got 12 beds with an average of 1.3 square meters each. It would take several hundred plants.

When faced with a large surge of energy in a design, I always try and disperse the blow across many sources.

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Young regrowth on a coppiced amorpha

According to Martin’s fertility tables, one amorpha, based on mature canopy size of about six feet in diameter, provides the equivalent nitrogen of 20 cuts of comfrey, or 10 comfrey plants; lespedeza about the same. I’ll throw some of these in the patch so the roots sloughing off after coppicing can feed the comfrey. They need nitrogen themselves.

This still requires more space than I’ve allocated to the annual’s mulch patch. So I’ll grow some annual cover crops on the keyhole beds once in a while to fill the gap -careful to choose crops that will die when cut, frosted, or heavily mulched since there won’t be any tilling.

To really cinch the deal I have the food forest rabbit’s manure. I let a bucket of it sit out to catch rain, and harvest the resulting “tea” to feed establishing beds right now. In time it can be exclusively for the annuals.

Achieving this much mulch in the food forest will take a while. I’m moving out the perennials first, and planting the whole thing in lots of annual cover crops. The first plant to start yeilding mulch will likely be comfrey, though I might just mulch their own patch the first year to ensure they are established. The next year the N-fixers will be ready for light coppicing, then full production. I’m assuming three years before that point, but I’m quite excited to the see the results. I’ll keep you posted as it goes along.

Comfrey

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‘Bocking 14’ comfrey. I use it as living mulch between plants. For instance, the bright red is a young sourwood tree (Oxydendron arboreum).

Comfrey has a very good spread to crown ratio as I call it, the crown only taking a few inches of space, the spread covering two feet or more. This, and the roots delving deep in the ground leaving the upper soil alone, lets other plants grow right next to it without competition, and lots of ground cover.

It’s standard in my food forest that every tree has its companion comfrey or two (or three). Most have three around them in a triangle to keep the guild mulched with living and decaying leaves.

I use this same technique of triangulating comfrey for asparagus too. Asparagus having such a feathery leaf, it doesn’t shade the ground very well, but its fast growing shoots can easily clear comfrey leaves in spring. In fact such shade elongates them and keeps them more tender.

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A peach with three “Bocking 16” comfrey around it. Between these is chocolate mint.

Be careful if digging around comfrey. The roots spread before going deep such that within a foot circle four to six inches deep there’s a good chance of cutting the roots, making new plants. Comfrey is indestructible once established, so randomly making new plants can be hazardous.

A more controlled way to use this attribute is placing a pot-bound comfrey where you want a new plant. Once it’s sat there for a month, you can move the pot, breaking off the roots that have grown in the ground, and more likely than not a new plant will grow there.

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S. officionalis

Another propagative problem with comfrey is its seed. Only the true species, Symphytum officionalis, is really a problem. So if you have any, pay extra attention to keep them cut. If you don’t, I’d recommend you skip them, or keep them in the minority of your comfrey population, in spots you can keep an eye on.

Russian comfrey, a cross between S. officionalis and S. uplandicum (or asperum depending on who you ask) is for all practical purposes sterile, and far more interested in leaf growth. The Bocking 14 cultivar is one of the largest –four feet high by four feet tall in the willow garden –two feet by two feet in the food forest.

As suggested by the number fourteen, there were other hybrid comfreys –and the breeding wasn’t done by Russians either. S. uplandicum’s common name is Russian comfrey, hence the name. The cultivars are “Bocking” because the breeding was done by Lawrence D Hills at the Doubleday Research Center in Bocking near Braintree, UK.

Twenty one hybrids, I’m told, came out of the program, it seems Bocking 14 and to a lesser extent Bocking 4 are the only ones still in circulation.

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All a bit hagard with fall, but still good representatives, true comfrey is at left, Bocking 14 at right and S. ibericum “Goldsmith” in the middle.

I do have a smaller Russian comfrey that I dug up from a friend’s yard. They were growing in a bank of almost pure coal and shade of bamboo for nearly thirty years, so I guessed they were stunted. After growing many cuttings in healthy situations, they’re just smaller and have a lighter pink flower.

Another friend brought me a specimen of a similar comfrey he said was quite old. From what information I can turn up, I’d guess these are Bocking 16. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to verify this yet, but if anyone knows a place I could find out let me know.

‘Axminster Gold ‘ is a variegated form of Russian comfrey if you want to get fancy. It’s definitely on my want list. There’s an especially nice picture of it here.

S. ibericum has a variety called ‘Goldsmith’ that is very small, only about 3 inches tall in leaf growth. The species is known for having more shallow roots and spreading to form a carpet, so it works differently than the other comfreys as ground cover. I’ve had it next to low growing strawberries and it didn’t seem to compete though. It’s overall rather weak, and can be ripped out and transplanted without the missed roots sprouting.

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S. grandiflorum at Companion Plants nursery

Companion Plants carries S. grandiflorum, which is considered synonymous with S. Ibericum. It has yellow flowers and the same spreading, low growing habit. I’m trying to propagate the one I got from them this spring.

Then there are smaller forms of S. officionalis. I’m just starting to experiment with them myself and haven’t seen how well the one from Companion Plants seeds. So far it is smaller than the true, and looks more like a Bocking variant.  I’ll let you know how it shapes up.

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Companion Plants’ smaller S. officionalis.

There are several other colors of comfrey out there. These mentioned cover the basic form and functions comfrey has to offer as far as ground cover is concerned. It’s just another function of that wonderful plant, comfrey.

Propagating Comfrey

Few plants can boast as many niche filling functions as Comfrey; which is why I have well over a hundred around the farm and in my food forest (so far).

Less than half of those were purchased or dug up from elsewhere though, thanks to its amazing ability to propagate.

I have Symphytum officionale –the pure species propagated from seed. But the majority of my Symphytum legion are the sterile bocking varieties (a cross between S. officionale and uplandicum). No seeds.

Then there’s the normal method of propagation, dividing the roots. I often get a whole ten plants from one when doing this –the original of course coming back without any attendance. I’ve only done this with two plants though.

IMG_1931 My favorite way to propagate Comfrey is to pick a bouquet of the flowering stalks in late spring, stick them in a vase, and let them sit until they grow roots.

I much prefer this method because the only loss in mulch production and time is the loss of a few flowering stems; whereas you have to wait most of the growing season for seed to ripen; and while waiting for the seed the plant can’t be cut.

Digging disturbs the soil and puts the parent plant out of production until it resurfaces. Although I have to admit that isn’t long. Overall it just takes less effort to throw a few choice stems into a jar and let them grow roots.

IMG_1932 With roots grown, I transplant into pots, and wait for the pots to fill before transplanting out to the system.IMG_1936

In the jar, usually there is a fifty percent success rate for root growth. I have had further losses after potting up, but usually it is one hundred percent success once potted.

Just to illustrate how easy cuttings can root, I have had success just removing the developing flowers from a stem, sticking the stem directly under some fresh mulch, watering, and leaving. Mind, this was in the willow garden, so it was a good situation to begin with. Even compared to the other Comfreys in the willow garden, the resulting plant has been one of my best.

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A true Comfrey from seed on the left and the Comfrey from a cutting stuck directly under the mulch to the right. They’re both a little under three feet tall.

It’s just another plus of Comfrey that besides all its uses, it’s easily gotten.

The Willow Garden

I mostly write about the food forest of Mortal Tree here, but I do have other gardens I maintain using the common sense that people have labeled as Permaculture.

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My favorite is the willow garden, named for the living fence of brake willow which used to completely, and today partially, surrounds it.

The garden is 36′ long by 16′ wide, and is divided into eight roughly 8x7ft beds, accessible by Keyhole paths. I think of it as two circular mandala gardens.

I said that now the willow ‘partially’ surrounds the garden. Nearly all the willow on the south side just hasn’t lived like the north side, which is a regular hedge. Why it’s just the south side that died, I don’t know.

That the willow is growing at all is a mistake really. I didn’t expect the willow to grow when I just hacked off the sticks in early spring from the riverbed where they grow on our farm and stuck them in the ground. A few weeks later, the dead sticks just started to leaf out!

I don’t recommend this for anyone else, since this kind of willow shoots up all over the place from underground roots, making it a “weed.” I get along with it though.

I was caring for the garden traditionally –tilling, weeding, taking those weeds and composting them in a pile then returning to the soil with added nutrients from off-site, although I did mulch with straw or hay from elsewhere on the farm.

I have made several changes:

  • I don’t till
  • I pull very few weeds, and mostly cut down all the ones that do come up.

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    In this polyculture I have Broccoli, self-seeded Borage and Sunflowers I moved from elsewhere, Sweet Peas, Marshmallow (Althea officionalis), Sage, Salsify, Cosmos, self seeded Camomile, an Anchusa (Anchusa azurea), Nasturtium, a Dahlia, and Comfrey at the corners!
  • I have lots of Comfrey and one patch of Nettle plants in the garden which I cut once a month for tea for the garden. What I don’t use for tea, I put down as mulch where needed.
  • I have diverse polycultures, using lots of plants.
  • I didn’t have the keyhole beds until lately, so that was a change from the 8×7′ beds which weren’t quite so accessible. Also, my reach from the keyhole beds doesn’t reach to the very corners of the formerly square beds, so these corners make niches for the comfrey, nettles, and other nutrient accumulators I cut down once a month.
  • I mulch everything in place –weeds, and finished crops.

IMG_0876For the beds I am just converting to permanent mulch cover and no till, I usually dig out a keyhole path, mulch with straw, and then plant with a cover crop like this one I have planted with cowpea (a legume) and Japanese Millet (a grass to absorb excess nitrogen). Funny thing is, the common weed in my garden I call Foxtail Millet came up and did better than its close relative the Japanese Millet I planted. I still got very nice mulch though, and now have the bed planted with Daikon radish to suck up more nitrogen and make more organic matter.

One big difference between this garden and Mortal Tree right now is the pace at which life moves. Here, things shoot up fast, lush, and green. When I cut this growth down for mulch, the worms gobble it up, especially Comfrey. I can stand in the garden and watch the worms pulling plant material down their holes.

Mortal Tree, on the other hand, is dry, and not nearly so life filled. Mulch will sit there and dry, not rot. I have seen comfrey leaves sit there for months and not rot.

I think the difference between these two sites is mostly the amount of life per square foot of soil. This life I am referring to is bacteria, worms, and insects. It is larger animals, such as rabbits and chickens –any animal really. It is life force in general.

We can encourage bacteria, worms, and insects by mulching with a variety of plants making food and moist hiding places for them to live. We can keep larger animals for their manure, using our weeds to feed them, surging the process of decomposition of these weeds forward. We can encourage life force in general by doing both of the above. Plants, animals –large and small, all have life processes that takes dead, mineral earth and turns it into their living bodies and “waste products,” which are far more complex than mineral amendments. These processes can be enhanced vibrationally as I have explained here.

I plan to keep the willow garden as a propagation site for plants I want to have more of for planting Mortal Tree. I also want to keep it as a more annual garden than Mortal Tree –no woody plants (besides the fence) — and mostly self-seeding annual rather than perennial vegetables and fruits.

It’s always nice to compare the two gardens, knowing that someday Mortal Tree will be as enlivened, lush and fruitful as the Willow Garden –or better with the added dimensions of trees and vines. Also, I am not bringing in nearly so much, or as many kinds, of amendments for Mortal Tree as I did here. I am excited to see the outcome. I’ll keep you posted.

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