Designers Connect

One thing I have noticed over the course of the Edgin campaign is a very weak awareness of permaculture designers, and what they have to offer. When salivating over the highly-productive, or superbly off-grid farms that blaze across social media, few realize that many people out there have the knowledge and skill to make these visions a reality in almost any situation.

Granted, not everyone that calls themselves a permaculture designer, or even has a certification, will get you these results. This is exactly why I want Edgin to broadcast the array of talent that is out there, and outline every detail of the experience you can expect when you bring a designer on scene.

Like lightning before the discovery of electricity, it’s an untapped power source that needs an effective platform. I created an infographic to help explain the core value of hiring a designer: connecting you to your vision.



In this age of information, people can get a long way with their education. I find clients may have really great ideas for their site, and just need some fine, but drastically important tuning of the design they would only learn for themselves on the other side of installation.


Hiring a designer may seem like an over the top, even pompous idea. It strikes many as expensive. If you’re uncertain exactly what you’re going to get when you part with your cash, and commit to the time you think consulting and installation will take, you have to ask: is this worth it?

I’ve seen designers charge tens of thousands. On the other hand, I have spent only a few hours with clients, identified their problems, gotten them a plant list and drawing, and not charged even a hundred dollars in total. Even I was surprised at the results that followed.

This broad range is as much a problem for designers as potential clients. What is too high a price, and what is too low? This is another reason to set projects, and prices, side by side: so people can choose their rate. Designers can compare the value of what they offer. You can imagine how this information would quickly encourage effective price tiers for different services offered.


Between recognizing and firming up your vision, to connecting you with plant nurseries or building materials only years of experience can offer, designers represent a powerful tool for giving you a massive foot up in realizing your vision. The first step in connecting yourself with your vision is in connecting with the right designer, be it a book, the material for building, or an in-person designer. The first, and most powerful step to finding these resources, is creating Edgin.

The campaign is near it’s end, but one beauty of the internet is how quickly information can move. Care to share? Or participate yourself?



A 40+ year old forest garden

A yard can be more than a flat space of lawn. If we add to a flat space hillsides, rock walls, shrubs, and the like, the changes in soil and climate are exponential. A prime example of the powerful product these complications deliver is my neighbor’s ‘yard’ where she has been “cramscaping” for the last forty years.

img_5226The south-facing slope ( foreground )

Her yard is not a food forest, and wasn’t built as a food forest, but is not purely ornamental either. Blueberries flail their branches from the depths of overgrown boxwoods.



Seedling peaches of rare variety loom in the high corners of the hillsides.


Pawpaws enjoy the sun out in the open spaces.


Hardy begonias and wild yams ramble up stems and tree branches to feed edible roots below ground.

With me around taking an enormous interest in her arborateum of yard, nitrogen fixing plants have of course begun to pop in on the scene. Although long before I came around she had such nitrogen fixers as lespedeza, indigofera, thermopsis, a lovely golden leaved locust tree, and wild black locusts.


She weeds a good bit, but she also mulches with wood chips when she can get them. Weeds at her place are very different from mine. Grass, which is a fortress weed at my place, is a rare species there -and not because she doesn’t grow it. Her lawn grass has such shallow roots it can accidentally be smeared from the soil surface if walked on. The dreaded quackgrass (Agropyron/Elymus repens), while it has of course found its way to her place, is so spindly there you could hardly recognize it for the leviathan beast it is at my place. The traveling roots of this species hardly pierce the ground in her yard, weakly crawling along the soil surface. As you can imagine, ‘weeding’ for her is simply picking the miserable creature off the ground.

This isn’t to say plants don’t grow well in her yard. In fact, many, many plants that flourish in her yard won’t live at my place just over a large hill from her. This is because of several factors: For one, the soil is very fertile and sandy at her place compared to my red iron and even gray clay. The soil is so soft that even several year old trees can be lifted from the soil by hand as if they were growing in the clouds. Some parts of the yard have a layer of pure worm castings on top.


But it hasn’t always been this way. Some parts of the yard where she has not cultivated forest are still clay and coal, or almost pure sand. We figure some glacier must have broken down at her place to deposit so much sand.

She has brought in few amendments. The spots she did, but did not build up the number of species, the soil has returned to very poor states. The plants have managed up-cycling the nutrients and feeding the ecosystem of worms and other soil life that have built up -and apparently maintain- her soil. The plants would not have had near the success if it weren’t for her unusual climate.

For instance, she has especially warm winter temperatures. Some years frosts take effect in her yard as much as a month after they do in the lower parts of my place. I seldom get away with any plants not hardy to USDA growing zone 5a  or -20 (-28). She easily gets by with zone six temperatures, and even a few zone 7 plants. In warm years, she has even overwintered plants hardy to zone eight. This means the yard never experienced more than a hard frost!

The reason for this stark difference in climate is mostly protection. Her yard is a near perfect example of what in permaculture design is known as a suntrap.

img_5744From Permaculture 1

The model of a suntrap is protection from cold winds from prevailing westerlies, and eastern or northern cold snaps. The south side is open to solar exposure. This design greedily sucks warmth in, but only parsimoniously lets it out, producing enormous alterations to the climate within.

Speaking purely of the geography, her yard is only half a suntrap, with a steep slope to the east  and north, but exposure to the west. This she has mitigated with windbreaks made up of hemlock, and other evergreen shrubs on the west side, making her yard a still haven where sun beams like to hang around.

In addition to the geography, the slope to the east is covered with pine trees. This actually blocks sun in the early morning, keeping the yard cool until later in the day. But the trees themselves make up for this lack of sun. The pines accumulate sunlight, and hence warm air throughout the day. When cold air begins to come down the slope in late evening from above the pine trees, the effect is a flush of warm air at the bottom of the trees into her yard -another classic permaculture design for improving climate.

The hill between my place and hers is south of her yard, and is covered with trees. This is further protection from wind. At the same time, the hill is set back far enough it doesn’t cast a shadow on her yard. My side of that hill has very windblown, unhappy trees, which goes to show how much cold, beating wind this hill averts from her still haven.

There is in fact an open place on her side, at the foot of this hill, where power lines cut through.

img_5493See the bamboo at the bottom of this slope

Here she has pawpaw trees, which greatly appreciate the protection from wind, but get sun most of the day.


Another wonderful spot in this cut-through is her bamboo forest of Phylostachys bissettii and areoesculata.


Harvests from this ‘forest’ provide many useful poles for staking and fence building throughout the garden. One winter, when she cut a lot of the bamboo, she generously shared the evergreen leaves with a neighboring dairy. The cows of course appreciated this, and I’m told made noticeably more milk from the food. What bamboo she leaves standing provides homes for many birds.


Another major force in this garden are all the rocks she has around. She collects them, as all great gardeners do. These add even more warming and cooling stability to the yard.


To cut down on weeding, she is now using more ground covers. She has in fact taken an interest in my Mastering the Growing Edge. Some parts of her yard already have amazing ground covers that help taller plants flourish, while keeping weeds from popping up below. After hearing my idea of using these plants as tools, she is pushing the limits of ground covers with very exciting results.


Check out this Lysimachia nummularia ground cover. It kept the ground under this year’s dahlias free of weeds, while the dahlias above grew and bloomed with abandon. No weeding in between.


For fertility, I am introducing some of the nitrogen fixing plants I talk about in PASSIVE Gardening. Linda already has an excellent chaos ratio of mulch plant, but is adding a few beautiful true comfrey (Symphytum officionalis).


Because she likes the beds to be especially aesthetic, she uses a compost pile to break down her mulch plants, or chips up the nitrogen fixers before applying them as mulch. With ground covers managing the weeds, the mulch plants can easily function purely for fertility, leaving the beds alluringly beautiful, and lush. 

If there is any one thing I have observed from this garden for food forest science, it is that plants can flourish with much less sunlight -and build soil more effectively than anyone would guess- when they can form a forest biome. Such a biome needs wind slowed down, and a specific diversity of species at work together.

Picture credit: Graham Burnett

I apply this tactic in Mortal Tree by planting as many N fixers and plants in all levels of the 7 layers model once I remove grass using grass. This transforms the open yard into forest biome rather than grass biome. It’s obvious to me that once this change begins to take hold, the forces of growth change, and a forest of food becomes the rule you reap rather than the exception you must work to maintain.


I am pleased that this post completes 2017, because this knowledge has been the underlying theme of most posts this year. The rules of spacing most clearly explores this phenomenon. To sum up: If anyone asks me what is the key to creating a healthy food forest from lawn, it is to make a forest, then figure out how to get food from it. So many simple elements build on each other in these biomes, creating truly remarkable results.


N-fix 8: Albizia julibrissin

Terrible Tree #1 — Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) What’s wrong with it: Weedy, short-lived, insect- and disease-prone, invasive roots, unattractive most of the year.

Comment: Yes, I know. You grew up with mimosas in the yard (sniff), they remind you of Meemaw’s garden (sniff, sniff), and they’re so pretty when their fluffy pink flowers open in early summer. But let’s get real. The flowers last about two weeks. Then they’re replaced by scads of these large, ugly, brown seed pods that hang there until the next spring. So for two weeks of beauty you get 50 weeks of gross. Plus, seedlings from your tree will sprout in everyone’s yard within a quarter-mile.

-Southern Living Magazine

Once the naysayers settle down to let me get a word in edgewise: Mimosa -specifically Albizia julibrissin or silk tree -in my climate at least, does not own up to any of these accusatory standards. To boost, it’s quite a proficient N-fixer.

As to their longevity: There are several specimen of silk tree in my area, many of which are over 30 years old, some, in really protected areas, nearly twenty feet tall, and only all the more gorgeous for it. Perhaps we are outside the range of its pests. On the other hand, winters around here often frost silk tree back to the ground. Such dieback actually extends their likely lifespan, because the wood is renewed. For plant cells, this is the equivalent of turning back the biological clock, and can be done over and over again.

Short lived flowers? Perhaps it’s the cooler weather, but the bloom lasts far more than two weeks around here. Some do only bloom for three or four weeks, but several I see start in late July, and continue without stop until October.

I should mention some trees of course have more color to their plume-like blossoms. The one below my neighbor found as a seedling even further north, from a parent tree whose flowers were this undesirable color. It came out alright I think.

As to “ugly,” “brown,” pods: They’re tan, if not gold. I find them very attractive. In fact, even less attractive pods like these on any plant are often highly sought by advanced garden designers for “winter interest” they provide. Of course, a barren landscape in winter is more a northern problem than a southern.

Seeding all over the place: In the south silk tree is considered a noxious weed, per its willingness to pop up everywhere. It’s doing its job of turning open space into riparian field, to become productive forest. Shame on you for hogging up petroleum, riding around a growling hog to keep open spaces it’s just trying to repair. But I’ll stop my rant there.

If this seeding were an issue in northern climates I would only be all the more delighted to grow this plant; but I can say from experience that we only find a seedling or two every year, quite close to the parent tree. These do not always survive to adulthood, and so are quite precious, usually given as gifts.

There are rumors of a few trees in this climate that seed especially well, but these are interestingly enough, ugly white-flowered specimens.

These considerations are for tall trees though. My neighbor has allowed her tree to reach the upper story of her forest garden between a magnolia,  Montmorency cherry, and serviceberry tree. For most food forests, silk tree has much more practical functions.

Soft design aside, the tree makes N. It grows footage of branches every year, which in our climate helps it bounce back from winter-kill. In the case of a food forest, this means lots of delicious mulch for healthy soil.

The USDA cites this plant as a medium level nitrogen fixer. One study noted it made far more nodules than other N-fixers, although only had medium level bacterial activity as pictured below. (Notice all the species aside from silk tree are decidedly tropical). View the full study here.


This study in particular pointed out that nitrogen fixation is heavily dependent on sunlight for enough energy to run the nitrogen-fixing process. As a result, cloudy climates may not see such vigorous growth. But Ohio certainly isn’t the most sunny state; and many fast growing silk trees I have come across do so in half day’s shade.

I recommend taxing the tree of its growth for mulch at about time of bloom. You could just snap off the flowering branches with your bare hands. In the case that your tree has not reached blooming age but is getting out of reach for easily collecting mulch, just wait until about midsummer to begin snapping off branches.

One more practical accusation to address is the invasive roots. This refers to roots choking out plants below it, and roots becoming new plants. I should also mention that many accuse mimosa of allelopathy -manufacturing poisons for the surrounding plants (See Notes on Juglone for more info on allelopathy). Soil type, and climate can have major effects on how these attributes are expressed. I must report I find they don’t show up with the local specimen. My neighbor in particular has ferns, hosta, and tree peony below her mimosa. They have no complaint but for the slight dryness due to the thick branches above. Otherwise, they’re quite happy.

Studies have been conducted on mimosa and its relatives’ ability to inhibit germination in seeds. Although only a limited range have been placed in controlled studies, this study, for example, did not find any inhibition of germination.

View the rest of the text this image came from here.

The best way to propagate mimosa, aside from seeds which just need water, warmth and soil in most cases, is actually to dig up pieces of the root and let them sprout branches. I have tried cuttings, and they don’t root. If you are hacking up the ground with a shovel around the base of a silk tree, then perhaps you’ll get a sprout. We never have been lucky enough for this to happen around here.

When placing mimosa in design, I give it especially visible positions, where people can interact with it. For one client, I have mimosa at the corners of a grotto design where they will be allowed to grow as large as winters allow. The intent is to create a dome of arching branches. In winter these will quietly rustle with golden pods.

Placed where you might brush by the leaves, silk tree is especially entertaining, because it folds its leaves in response – a character which in plant terminology is called thigmonasty. The tree also folds its leaves at night, or in the dark before storms. This response to light is called photonasty. Below are some photos taken by my client of her young trees.

My client asked why the mimosa had stopped folding its leaves when she petted it. The fact is they can learn.  In The Hidden Life of Trees a study was cited which used dripping water as a means for stimulating a mimosa’s thigmonasty, causing it to shut. After many days of applying water in regular intervals, stopping, applying again, it learned this was not a threat, and got on with photosynthesis.

An intelligent tree like this is most desirable for adding to food forests as pleasure for the eye, delight for the curiosity, as fountains of mulch and fertility, for vibrant, healthy, cold climate jungles. Thank you for letting me state my position.


The rules of spacing

I was at a Christmas party in conversation with a local Timken engineer who, hearing I design food forests, wanted to pick my brain on apple trees. He had six trees in two rows of three, well spaced in his backyard. He was throwing out terms about the mainstream organic sprays he was using, and framed his questions expecting me to know some super organic spray, or spray regimen, that would fix his problems of pests and low vigor in general. I don’t think he expected the answer I gave: ‘What’s planted around the trees?’

We often think of the rules of spacing as rules for keeping other plants away from each other. In practice I find the lines blur between species, and enters a much more broad science: it’s what should be included near the plant, as well as what shouldn’t. Between these two aspects, you make or break the majority of fruit tree problems.

The lines often blur between species because, let’s face it, plants don’t grow in a vacuum and always have something growing up against them. In this guy’s case, his trees were planted right into his lawn. They were in competition with the grass.

Looking at their history, grass and trees are in most cases nemesis of one another. Trees make forest; but grass needs open space. The setting in most yards of trees with grass between is quite artificial, and only exists because we keep the grass mowed. In any other situation, trees would take over.

The prairies are the kingdom of grass, and these occured because of rain shadows, or areas where circumstances such as the Rocky Mountain range messed with the winds that carry rain, creating droughts in one part of the year, and near flooding in another. Trees don’t like that, because most have relatively shallow roots, as much as 80 percent residing in the top three feet of soil depending on the kind and its conditions; but prairie plants, such as the grasses, and N fixers like senna hebecarpa, put roots down unusually deep, so reach the water table whether rain comes or not.

An experiment showing the root growth of Red Delicious apple tree two years after planting.
Have you ever wondered as you pass woods how the trees survive so close? If you were planting an oak tree in your yard that would someday reach a hundred foot tall, can you imagine the spacing recommendations? They would be over fifty feet apart. Most yards couldn’t fit more than one tree. But in the woods they stand on top of each other, growing for hundreds of years, happy, and healthy.

Studies have shown that trees can grow their roots deep into the ground, but prefer to keep their roots higher in the soil if possible. There is more organic matter, hence nutrients and water, in this layer. If there isn’t, trees will try to put in the work to grow deeper. This is a lot more work, and certainly isn’t their first choice.

What trees really prefer is building networks in which they share and preserve resources. For instance, trees have what is called hydraulic redistibution, which is a fancy term for moving water not only up for their own use, but back down into the soil for storage, and horizontally to other plants. Peter Wholleben, in his book The Hidden Life of Trees recalls his surprise when he found a ring of roots from a beech tree that must have been cut down well over a century beforehand, but still had green, living roots showing above ground. It had no leaves, and the stump was gone. As he explained, citing various studies, the living trees around this ancient (should be dead) tree were feeding it sugars made in their leaves, keeping it alive. Likely, they got some kind of kickback from the extended root system because it allowed them access to more resources.

This is in ancient, established forests, so conditions aren’t quite the same for our young transplants. We can get some similar effects by growing fruit trees in more open settings, or riparian zones. These are zones similar to fencerows and overgrown fields where grasses are just converting to trees. These zones are iconically untidy and wild; but skillful gardeners know the elements of these zones, like clay in a potters hand, have the best potential to form the most beautiful, lush gardens.

Riparian zones have many layers, with notably high numbers of low growing herbaceous and woody shrubs, many of which are nitrogen fixers. The quickest way to simulate this ecology is making ‘guilds’ of plants right around your fruit trees. Here is my manual of bed building for info on quickly clearing grass without tillage. Plan on expanding these plantings every year until the beds around your trees meet. If the tree is older, and larger, the bed should extend at least a couple feet beyond its drip line.

An example guild: 1. Fruit Tree 2. Comfrey 3. Siberian Peashrub 4. Amorpha fruticosa 5. Japanese Wineraspberry 6. Honeyberry 7. Blueberry 8. Turkish Rocket 9. Crambe cordifolia 10. Stepping stones, (or in this case, stepping logs). The green base is a ground cover of mint.
Any guild should include at least 2 woody nitrogen fixing plants, about 5 plants that do not fix nitrogen but can be cut for mulch, such as comfrey, or a groundcover of something like mint, then several fruiting shrubs like raspberry or honeyberry, and some perennial vegetables.

This is the best method if you already have fruit trees in the ground, like our engineer friend. If you’re just planning your food forest, Robert Hart, the father of the northern food forests, recommended planting full size or standard fruit trees at recommended spacing for their size, in rows like any orchard, but then semi standard or medium trees, then dwarf trees, then shrubs, then herbaceous plants, then vines to climb and fill in the cracks between them.

Photo credit: Graham Burnett.
I’d recommend mulching as much as you can, and planting that area with a complete planting like this. The space should be completly filled with plants, and will establish faster with less work overall.

This system gives quite attractive results that are increasingly less cost and labor than serial applications of even organic, clay-based sprays, pyrethrums and neems, let alone the more harsh chemicals. There is work later on, but this is of course dabatable, because its mostly harvests of fruit. Sounds like pleasant work to me.

The Garden of Mortal Tree

Such gardens arrive after some years of trials, where species themselves indicate their preferences, often in defiance of the dictates of literature. It is fortunate indeed that plants cannot read!

-Bill Mollison Permaculture ll

The sun bleeds a hotter light as it sets in the west, and this slope leans into it. It’s face to the setting sun, backed by trees to the east that swallow the gentle light of morning, days begin in shadow that lingers almost to the heat of midday only to be seared by the red light of evening.

The plants grow from these elements. Red-tan brushes of broomsedge grass (Andropogen) speckles the front in tall clusters like an artist’s idle tools, while at the back, messes of honeysuckle cling on piles of logs below scraggly chokecherries. Near the center, in contrast to the lush green Catalpa tree down the hill, stands the skeleton of what was once an apple tree. This is Mortal Tree, the sun scorched slope next to my house that’s becoming a vibrant, lush, productive food forest.



You might say I’m starting from scratch on this fourth acre of scrubby land; but I don’t plan on doing it alone. I know that every plant and tiny animal living here intends as much as I do to make the place burst with life. The aim of all nature is to create more life. My aim is not to take over, it’s to encourage and strengthen the process already at work. All this through carrying out a design.

Design works for me as the bridge between growth the garden wants, and yield I want. The more my design mirrors nature’s design, the more successful the project will be. In Mortal Tree, that design is a self-sustaining organism, every part interacting to make the whole, every part feeding the others, in care and nutrients, demanding little intervention from me.

Mortal Tree is the center of this design. Paths radiate from this point in fractile, lightning-like arms, and around this point the intensive planting starts -at the “nucleus” of the garden, growing out. The rest I let grow wild, mowing the grass and weeds with the quiet swing of my scythe, gathering excellent mulch. This mulch is fertilizer, moisture retention, and a tool for clearing space my edible plants and fruit trees need. It’s my main tactic, directing free growth of the ecology into my designs of hungry crops.

I’m experimenting with a no-till grain patch, fine-tuning PASSIVE gardening, enjoying the productive beauty in polycultures full of fruit trees and perennial vegetables. Nut and more fruit trees are scattered through the wild growth further down the hill that would perform far better if I had the mulch for them, but there lies my biggest problem:

It’s easy with the desire to power more plantings to overtax the free growth, and damage this delicate ecology. The current design has its limits. Over time, the area of free ecology I harvest for mulch is becoming smaller than the area producing food. What will happen when the need for fertility is greater than the supply?

I watch for what the garden offers. Mirroring the designs of nature in the yields, the design is improving. I’m using running plants to manage weeds, plants that produce massive amounts of mulch in the organized plantings to cycle nutrients and provide cover that protects the ground, and nitrogen fixers that can meet high demands of the hungry production plants. Slowly but surely, the two ends of the equation -wild carefree and productive, labor intensive -are drawing close.


I have to remember design is only so good as the nature that informs it. Nature is only so good as the life that fills it. No matter how refined my designs become, they are still nature. They house the light that bleeds from the sun, stretching up as growing plants, spuring on change in every aspect. Sometimes that change is good, sometimes not so good; but with the hope of achieving an ever more harmonious design to harness this light, through the changes each day brings, this garden, and its designer, lean into it.

For those of you new to this blog, “The Garden of Mortal Tree” used to be my About page, but after placing it in the Visual Archive, it fell out of existence. This is a major overhaul of that page that better reflects the present Mortal Tree.