Citrus of the north: Maypop

There are scarce few plants in this cold north that offer the sour snap of lemons. I was surprised to find this electrifying flavor the other day in Maypop.

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Maypop (Passiflora incarnata) is the sliver of the passion fruit family able to withstand northern frosts and freezes -to a degree. Many of my attempts establishing maypop in Mortal Tree have failed. But my neighbor, who has a much more protected yard, finally had success.*

She got a white flowered variant pictured above of maypop ‘Bill’s Delight’ from Companion Plants three years ago. She planted it in a warm, but shady position, on a terrace. Morning sun hits it much of the growing season; evening sun hits it pretty much all the growing season. Pine and beech trees are directly to the south, blocking out midday sun.

Although this situation isn’t ideal, the maypop has rambled over everything else in the bed with happy vines, and underground runners. It has spread out two feet from the original point of planting, mostly in one direction where we dumped a pile of very nice compost over the soil. Perhaps the plant is just sensibly getting what’s good.

In its first year, it just grew vines; last year it bloomed late; this year it grew, bloomed early, and has ripened cadres of fruit.

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I was rather unimpressed with these fruits earlier in about July. They were just hollow balls with small strips of white fuzz. She thought they smelled like movie theater popcorn. I just thought they smelled generally green and inedible.

A few months later, now in October, she mentioned she had opened another, and they were full of white fr lining the inside. Next time I was over I picked some, and found they indeed were much heavier, and that the insides were full of opaque, white little balls of juiciness.

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She had told me they tasted like lemon to her, and on that point I totally agree.

I can’t say the flavor is as pungent and powerful as lemon, but it is close. I stuck the insides of two pods in a blender with a cup of water, gave it a whir.  The resulting liquid I strained to get the seed chunks out, and added a little more water. The result -without any flavoring or sweetener -had a fruity hint, and slight creaminess I have never found in lemon juice. Everyone I had try it said it didn’t need sweetener. I think this was more due to the mildness of the flavors overall than the presence of sweet. In order for most palates to really enjoy it, a little flavoring would help.

But this was watered down. Straight fruity juice from around the seed was prominently sour in comparison; perhaps just use more fruit in less water.

There is a house far down the road from me that has also had success growing maypop -the common type with lavender colored flowers. So I will keep pressing on to get some of these in Mortal Tree. Until then, my neighbor has an abundant supply she is more than willing to share, and I am more than willing to play with. I’ll update with any developments.

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*For those who have requested I write a post about her wonderful yard, it’s on the way.

Machete

In contrast to swords being beaten to plowshares as the old adage goes, it seems the new vision of peace and plenty is beating plowshares of tilled earth into straight blades for managing lush tree crops.

I am happily entering a stage of my food forest’s development when the grass paths are shrinking, the shrubs, trees and N-fixers I planted so long ago are spewing fountains of green. At this point the main task of management is just hacking back the abundance.

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I have used two tools before my current one for managing the food forest: A woodsman’s pal, which hybridises an axe and machete with a sharp hook on the other end for cutting smaller branches. The other was a long machete blade with a plastic handle, and a hook on the back. Both have their drawbacks. The one I’m currently using (and love) is a clearing blade from Fiskars. I consider it a model of what makes a high quality food forest managing blade.

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It’s very light, well balanced, and has no du-flinkies that get caught on branches as I’m moving the blade around. Best of all is the sharpened portion on the flat end. I often swipe this under roots of plants I want removed from a polyculture’s future evolution. This is of course an unorthodox use for the blade; but it is a quick, simple way of weeding I very much enjoy.

I have used a friend’s blade which includes a saw on the back: greens are always getting caught on the backside. Hooks on the back present similar drawbacks when hacking lush brush. Attractive, I know, stuffing twenty tools into one. But we’re talking machetes here, not pocket knives.

Technique with this tool is imperative for staying safe and getting surprising amounts of work done. I am always mindful that the hand not in use is to my side, slightly behind me. Always keep in mind to just step back when something close to you needs to be cut; don‘t mindlessly hack right in front of you and risk injury to your legs or feet. If you don’t quite trust your fate in this case, certainly wear steel toed boots, and shin-guards.

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Where I harvested mulch with a blade.

Safety first, but the techniques for moving brush in the right direction whilst cutting can be very useful. Notice how when you cut the brush it moves or falls in the direction of the swing? Moving around a young tree and swiping in, the brush is already piled nicely by the time you’ve finished cutting.

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Where it went.

This is very similar to the tactic I explained and diagramed yesterday for scythes.

To slice branches neatly, make sure the blade is sharp for one. The finer the material to be cut the more narrow the sharpening angle should be. For larger, more woody cutting that could dent finely sharpened blades, you would want a larger angle. I would recommend a 25-30 degree incline when sharpening to deliver best results in the soft wood and green brush of a maturing food forest like mine.

If you want to be really sure you make a clean cut, grab the branch with one hand (certain it’s far away from where the blade will hit) and cut up with the blade. In general directing the blow away from the branch’s base prevents splitting the branch. A blow straight across to snap a branch, followed by a blow from the opposite direction is another way to make relatively clean cuts.

I have also used my machete in place of a chipper shredder. this is helpful when cutting crown vetch and vines I want to place between small spaces plants for mulch. A few minutes of chopping the pile and I have fine mulch that fits neat.

I look forward to what the machete becomes in the public mind in years to come as food forests become more prevalent. It represent to me the epitome of refinement from the tiller tines and machinery that runs them. Simple tools for simple life.

Mentioned in this post

My favorite machete Fiskar’s 24″ Clearing Machete

Hori Hori

There is an art to effortlessly slipping young plants into the dark earth in such a way the plant and the earth hardly notice what happened. There is an art to slicing just below the crust of the earth at the junction of root and shoot in a way that, with the most instantaneous shock, weeds flinch, and fall dead. The tool that facilitates such an art is the hori hori.

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It is a Japanese tool, the name meaning ‘dig dig’ in their language. Across the many designs, most have a simple knife-edge on one side, a serrated edge on the other, a sharp, tapered tip at the end.

You would not believe all the uses of a straight edge serrated blade like this in the garden. Over years of use I have gotten a knack for twisting the blade as I skim through the upper layer of soil, popping thick and thin roots alike, swiping young seedling.

To insert a small plant in the soil, I plunge the end into the ground, pry away from me to lift, sweep around towards myself, and lift the soil. Even in grass turf, I have the same technique – plunge, pry, slice, lift. to make a larger hole for larger plants, I just make bigger circles with my slice.

I can’t imagine going back to heavily angled, blunt edged trowels after getting one of these in my hands -unless it was a really bad hori hori, which I have come across. I have large hands, so many designs with excessive notches and rivets intended for providing the perfect grip are terrible for me. The notches often ware on my hands, causing blisters in short order.

My favorite hori hori (the first one pictured in this post -also the one I used in the videos. Link for this model at the end of this post) is in fact one my sister bought for my mother as a Christmas present. When I went to get one myself, I found it had sold out across the internet so far as we could find; so my mother just gave hers to me as a re-gift.

It has straight edges, and is large enough my hand doesn’t rub on the ends as I work. The open front and back of the handle allow me to pinch lightly with my thumb and index finger, swirling it from upward to downward position in one easy motion. Aside from looking slick as heck, this is a most efficient method of use.

Sharp little indents at the base of some blades are another problematic addition of many designs. Aside from the fact I never use these for cutting because either of the two side-blades does the job quicker and better anyway, this little notch is always catching debris, or catching strings, rocks as I pull it from the soil. Not helpful.

Extra long guards on the base of the hilt can be problematic too. They can get in the way, and rub on the hands if too shear. I have quite enjoyed working with hori horis that aScreen Shot 2017-09-23 at 5.27.17 PM have straight, rectangular handle, mildly smoothed around the edges without a guard similar to the one pictured. The problem with that one was its weak attachment to the handle, which bent too easily.

For anyone’s unique grip and method of use, the styles of hori hori may change, but in general, space for the hand to move without rubbing, less du-flinkies to snag things, and a strong connection between the blade and the handle are the hallmarks of the best models of this ninja gardening tool.

Mentioned in this post

My favorite hori hori Sensei Tools Hori Hori Digging Knife, 7.5 Inches – With Sheath

The fine points of food forest tools

I always consider the most refined state of any art to have the least equipment, involvement, and time invested to get desired results. Food forests are no different. In Mortal Tree I have decided the aim is to remove the barriers that block my designs from those of nature, allowing them meet happily in the middle (or somewhere thereabouts) by removing unnecessary tools and tasks.

Using the plants themselves as tools for tillage, weeding, and the like, is the first step in effective food forest creation. Where do we go from there? Blades.

Take a moment to envision the lush jungle food forests of the south where, as I am told, all you need is a machete and forest and you’re good to garden the most abundant food supply imaginable.

But with blade in hand how the heck do you use it? It certainly helps if you have a high quality blade to begin with too. Which one is that for you? Over the next few days I’ll cover four different ‘blades’ I use for food forest creation, and as many of their finer points as I can, from my experience, offer.

If you’re new, and not familiar with how I use plants as tools, check out the infographic and other info on this page.

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.

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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.

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Notes on Aronia (How does it taste?)

I'm sure many have partial shade, perhaps wet areas around their yard, they desparately wish they could plant the North American native Aronia in, but wonder about the reports on taste? 

Or perhaps you've never heard of the plant to begin with. A. melonacarpa, A. prunifolia, and A. arbutifolia are often considered ornamentals for their blazing, orange-red leaves shown off in fall. They can tolerate salt to the point many authorities recommend planting them as a privacy hedge by the road. In cold climates, where salt is spread for ice and snow, most plants in this area would be salted to death. It can abide a decent amount of shade, and doesn't mind moist soils, and blooms rather late in the season helping it slide its flowers by frosts even in low areas. All this is especially attractive when reading reports of a mature plant producing 20 lbs of dark blue, highly nutritious berries every year. 


I suspect they are right on that point. I have a couple in the food forest; and one, this year, although only two feet tall and two twigs wide, has made several healthy, dark blue fruit clusters. 

I think many are put off by the common name for these plants -"chokeberries. " Statements in shrub books that say 'The fruit is unattractive to birds, so stays on the bush for months" also cast a shadow of doubt. What's the point of tons of fruit in poorer sites if it's inedible?

I was quite excited to see the fruit from this "Viking" cultivar (Aronia prunifolia) because I could finally taste some fruit myself. 

I found the taste quite mild compared to what I expected. Really, it's almost bland, and rather dry, with white inner pulp, and a couple crunchy seeds. A pure sourness twinged in the background. 

I don't have the average palate though, because I don't eat any sucrose sugar, and am sparing with even unrefined sweeteners, so find pleasure in many food others find repulsive. To give a more trustworthy report, I took the copious harvest and handed them out to my sugar seeking siblings. 

Invariably their faces scrunched up. One said she had to force herself to swallow, another said it reminded him of pomegranate (including the seed) with a touch of blueberry. My mother had come across the dish of them when I wasn't around, ate one, and apparently spit hers out promptly. 

I really have no problems eating more of these for their health benefits. To quote: 

Aronia berries contain higher levels of antioxidants, polyphenols, and anthocyanins than elderberries, cranberries, blueberries, grapes, and most other fruit.

-see the rest of the article here.

I'm sure also that a little cooking and flavor work on these rather bland fruits could do something for them. They are so dry I can see them sucking any added flavor like a sponge. 

The next time you are at a nursery then, keep an eye out for one of these Aronia species. As they are self fertile, and quite willing to grow, it is likely most yards will have a spot that can grow out these happy shrubs to productive fruiting. I'll update when I have more than one handful in the coming years and can play around with flavor. I have a feeling it will be well worth the wait.

Taste of chaos

Years ago, a hillside was tidied up. An apple tree growing there was pruned, grass around it ripped up. At the roots of the tree, clear plastic was laid, a layer of black plastic was laid over this,  on top of this was laid colored woodchips

Alone, surrounded by short, browning grass in the heat of summer, its lower limbs sawed off, the apple tree died.

The owner changed. A new hand touched the wounds on this mortal tree, felt sorry, pulled back the layers of plastic, let the grass grow wild.


It was chaos. Briars and thorns grew up amidst the grass. Alongside these were fruit trees, vines, and shrubs.

Today I walked up the stone steps of this hillside, followed the meandering path that cuts through the long grass, and grasped one of many rusty-red peaches dripping from my trees.

Several of the peaches are fruiting abundantly this year. Because I have several kinds, some are ripe now, others a couple of months from now.


A fruit here, a fruit there has been the norm for years. This year there are just loads of fruit, beyond fresh eating, from goumi, gooseberry, saskatoon, currant. I often emerge from the food forest with fruits and berries for others to try.  Some look at the fruit, look at the food forest, look at me puzzled and ask: “Where did you get those?”

I have actually done the least in the food forest this year than any year before. I haven’t even mowed much of it. The rose bushes and blackberries I let grow up in the back of the food forest actually provided some fine mulch when I trimmed them back.


The amorpha and comfrey provided some very nice mulch also. I mainly mowed beside the road in order to mulch a new bed. Yet, as I walk around, plucking clusters of shining sweetness, I‘m quite pleased to see my beds are expanding themselves. Within the beds, several plants have achieved some of the most lush growth yet, with the turnip rooted chervil way above my head, and forming new patches in new beds.

To bite into the dewy sweetness of a fruit warm with sunlight here is unlike that of anywhere else. All fruit is a process. It is the workings of a place, coming to such a refined state as food. To bring in a fertilizer here, and bring in a spray there, is like making a patchwork of places and processes, in my mind. I much prefer fruits with vibrant flavor from comfrey mulch growing at the trees’ feet,  (comfrey mulch and tea does produce a notably rich flavor in garden vegetables too) and the spice of essential oils wafting around the air from such pest confusers as oregano or Spiraea.


I’ve had the privilege of working with chaos after letting it back into the garden. I think it’s got the idea of what I’m after. At this point in the food forest’s development, I am sure the chaos quite eagerly gets to work as I walk away from Mortal Tree, a fresh pit of a peach at its roots.