N-fix 7: Vetch

I was rather dissatisfied when finished with the Top ten ground covers for food forests series because I didn’t include an N-fix in the lineup of dynamic mulch. Vetch would be my first choice.

Crown vetch (Securigera/ Coronilla varia) is indeed the tyrannical ruler of the genus. It’s industrial grade ground cover, produces medium levels of nitrogen, stretches 3-4 feet tall, and eats as much as 60 ft of new territory in all directions via rhizome spread every year.

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I’ve only seen this number in reports. I’m guessing the ground where these measurements were taken was the most fertile sandy loam on the face of the planet, or someone dropped a bag of fertilizer. I’ve never seen it spread more than four feet a year -if it spreads at all. many readers have likely seen this plant along highways where governments have seeded it. Erosion is a thing of the past once this perennial is established, so they have encouraged its use.

Once established though, they can start new colonies via seed. As a result, many governments have removed it from their official list of recommended plants.

It’s a little late. I have some patches appearing by the road at the edge of my food forest, and one of my clients has several healthy patches around their property. I have in fact installed this plant in one client’s system, because it really is quite useful, and easily controlled, if you know its habits.

The one system where I installed this for instance was a very high production food forest with long rows of shrubs and fruit trees running along swales (not my designs. I was brought onto the scene in the later stages). The owner wanted a system that could be managed by laborers simply weed-whacking the place every month or two. With this mentality, the owner had started by laying black woven plastic mulch under the plantings -despite my disapproval. It didn’t take more than two moths before weeds found their way through. He was aghast when I showed him. Finally open to my suggestions for a dynamic mulch, crown vetch was the perfect candidate.

As a dynamic mulch, it can exclude grass. Sometimes, if the grass is well established, the two may persist together. If well established, it’s nigh inpossible for weeds to get a foothold in the crown vetch’s domain.

It grows well seeded among daylilies, and most any plant that grows more than three or four feet -a food forest cover.

The crown vetch in my food forest has to creep across the upper grain patch before it can invade any of my plantings. This is one of the most poor spots in the food forest even the crown vetch can’t stomach crossing. I simply tax it for its nitrogen rich growth about the time it comes into bloom. Because it can be pulled so easily, I simply yank up whole armfuls to feed other parts of the food forest. As you can imagine, the patch is expanding at a snail’s pace.

My clients have done the same, and find their patches stay put.

Hairy vetch (Vicia villosa) and wood vetch (Vicia sylvatica) are both annuals, but have scarcely less ability to spread. Hairy vetch is used commonly used as a ground cover in vegetable gardens to be tilled in as a green manure. It and wood vetch are also medium level n-fixers. I have seen vilossa reach about four feet tall as it meanders around, such as below with wine-raspberry. Reports say it can reach as much as eight feet. So long as it doesn’t bloom and seed, there isn’t a problem.

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I actually let the thing seed in my food forest because it grows right among weeds, grass, you name it -without complaint. I love it. When it blooms, I nab as many as I can for mulch, leaving the rest to seed. I really just wish I had more.

I came hit the jackpot the other day at my step-grandmother’s garden. She has the wood vetch, and a lot of it. I gathered a bunch of the pods as pictured below, which popped, flinging seeds every which way even as they sat in the bowl.

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I planted them in a problematic part of the food forest to see how well they might compete with the grass. Perhaps they’ll clear the place for me in a similar way sunchokes can. in the bed I found it growing so happily, it was hardly three feet tall. I’ll just yank them up or cut them down before they make any very much seed.

 

The right name for Amorpha

There are many species of Amorpha. The species I most recommend to clients, and in my published works, is A. fruticosa. This is because it is hardy in much colder regions, and grows taller -hence producing more biomass, than most species.

It is also the species that is best known worldwide. Several varieties have been bred from it making A. fruticosa one of the best foundational N-fixers on which to build gardens of lush fertility.


The fact is many of the Amorpha in Mortal Tree came from a company that listed the plant as A. californica, not fruticosa. I’ve called it that after I personally identified it. Allow me to explain:

Amorpha californica, according to the literature, grows a maximum of 6 ft. tall, and is only hardy to USDA zone seven. I’m in zone five, where this plant has lived through winters that fully reach the limit of what this zone offers, without the slightest dieback. I also find the Amorpha I have quickly pass up six foot tall. I looked into this further by researching the USDA Plant Database. Here I found information that backed my theory, and even pictures of the different seeds, which look nothing alike. Mine resembled fruticosa. I took liberty of calling the plant what I thought it was ever since.

I still have not the slightest doubt this Amorpha is Amorpha fruticosa. I don’t make such decisions lightly. My rather bold statement in Growing Amorpha that the company had incorrectly identified the plant got me more flack than I had ever expected.

My motive to make this statement was of course to dispel any fears the plant this company is selling won’t live for them if they are in zones 6 and 5. They are a major supplier of this plant, and I am telling people left and right to get it. I did try twice to contact the company to talk about this discrepancy, but their contact system never worked. I figured a small blog like myself was obviously of no consequence in their minds, but I was wrong.

The owner of the company was quite skeptical of my deduction. I was quite surprised when he showed skepticism of even the USDA’s accuracy, since the pictures clearly showed the seeds were not A. californica. He was in fact skeptical of most of the internet’s images of A. fruticosa seeds when I brought them up as examples. The only authority he considered trustworthy was none other than Gerd Krussman’s Manual of Cultivated Broad-Leaved Trees and Shrubs. This of course had been out of print for years, so I wondered how I would get my hands on the volume that had Amorpha in it. Thankfully, I have connections who graciously brought all three volumes to my desk in short order.

Krussman simply confirmed everything I had read previously about the plant. But we needed to identify this plant down to the very details of the flowers before this could be resolved.

Here are the results:

Flowers laid over fruticosa illustration from Krussman

Krussman’s work was not especially helpful in identifying the seeds. The real detail that sets apart A. fruticosa flowers from californica is the width of the petal, and spots on the californica flowers for what the line drawing shows.

Petal next to californica illustration
Petal next to fruticosa illustration

The flowers from my plants grown from the companies seed have especially wide petals I could not even make lay flat without ripping. So I spread it as best I could on a pen tip to show the plush width and lack of spots. I’ll let you derive the ID. It seems quite evident to me.

In our conversation about the plant, there was of course suggestion that we had a hybrid on our hands. If it is, it does not show the attributes of californica in the least. Fruticosa has the broader range, the greater popularity, and most importantly, the greatest utility for sustainable agriculture systems. I hope what I have done helped someone find success in this blossoming branch of agriculture through confident use of this amazing plant.

The why of fruit thinning

I noticed one of the apples in the food forest had finished blooming and now had tons of tiny apples clustered on its branches. I took the situation in hand and started to pick them off.

13217562 - close up of bee pollinating apple blossom
photo by Jenella

Five flowers form on each spur, leaving five small fruits after pollination. They naturally fall off, one by one, until a single fruit is left to make seed. Contrary to what we might think, an apple has grown to its maximum potential within thirty days after the flower drops its petals. From this point, any ‘growth’ is just cells filling up with sap like balloons. The number of balloons to be filled with juice resulting from cell division is already decided.

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I was pulling off all but one fruit on each spur. From this, I expected each apple left on the tree would have more nourishment from the tree, be larger, and better shaped. If I had waited for the tree to pair down the fruits itself, it would have divided that nourishment between all those extra apples that would never stay on the tree anyway.

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Is there a drawback to this unnatural thinning? Perhaps.

When plucking off the fruits I noticed a few had codling moth damage. I have gotten fine harvests of apples from my trees, with very little, if any, codling moth damaged in years past. Whether this is an especially good year for codling moth population or not might explain this damage. Or perhaps the tree had dropped much of the fruit with codling moth damage so I never noticed? It quickly occurred to me the tree grows the extra fruit in part to increase the chances at least one will make seed -as codling moths eat the seeds of the apples they infest.

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Codling moths have several generations through a season, so we will see if the moths come back for more later.

Another effect of thinning apples is more regular fruiting. The seeds in each fruit create a hormone that blocks fruiting the next year. Some varieties of apple are notorious for their violent fruiting cycles -one year not a fruit on the tree, the next (or year after that) the branches break for the myriad fruit clogging the works. By thinning, a moderate amount of hormone is produced every year, allowing a moderate amount of fruit every year.

Perhaps such staggered fruit production in un-thinned apples is a tactic for cutting down on codling moth population?

As is, thinning delivers better results for me. But my trees are also quite small -just barely above my head. Thinning falls into what I call pleasurable interaction with the food forest, or work I enjoy, and usually only takes five minutes or so to complete.

I may quit it in years to come, and just trade thinning time and larger fruit for hacking out the good hunks from myriad smaller fruits. Masanobu Fukuoka, when his students asked how they could grow good apples without equipment and sprays, said to simply feed the poor quality fruit the students thought eminent to pigs. I’m not so skeptical as Fukuoka’s students; I have seen my trees produce quite healthy fruit already, so we’ll see what they give as the system builds. Below are some of my Fuji apples last year.

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You may wonder how the heck massive orchards ever thin their fruit one by one. By machine? No, by chemicals. Hormones in trees largely dictate the quality and growth of the fruit. We have developed an array of synthetic hormones, of which there are no counterparts in nature, that cause apple trees to drop their fruit. Run some experiments to properly calibrate the dosage, and you have thinned trees by simply spraying. Some of the hormones they have developed even increase the cell proliferation process beyond what the fruit tree offers, resulting in abnormally large fruit. I’ll let you research the health effects of these synthetic hormones.

When I first came across this information years ago, I went on a long search for an equivalent that could be derived from plants. I didn’t come across one, or any information on a hormone pathway that could cause the fruit to drop, accept for stressing a tree, or simply reducing pollination. I am suspicious there is an even more elegant answer:

I find that increasing the health of trees and their ecology in general can can at times truly transform their character. Mortal Tree is still a long ways from being notably fertile. But Fruiting factors are building on their own in some places. So perhaps the good effects will get out of hand, and produce some good results I never would have expected. 

 

Food from shade: solomon’s seal and hosta shoots.

Hosta are ubiquitous to the flowerbeds of the world as any plant you can imagine. While some take sun with less complaint than others, many are misplaced in sunny positions, and run ragged because of it. They are really shade plants, preferring a fertile understory of trees.

Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) is harder to find, but can live on even less sun than hosta and still be happy.

Both are edible. “Urui” is the vegetable name for hosta where it’s eaten in Asia. The young “hostons,” as some forest gardeners call the plants just coming up in spring, are best for eating. As the leaves unfurl they’re still edible, but become more tough and stringy as the season unfolds.

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Solomon’s seal too, is best when sprouting in spring. The leaves have a slightly bitter element; which personally I don’t mind, but others may prefer omitting by stripping the leaves from the stalk. It’s the stalk itself that has the really good flavor, which is hardly different from asparagus -with the umami richness kicked up a notch.

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This makes a lot of sense if you consider how closely solomon’s seal is related to asparagus. They are both in Liliaceae -the Lily family.

I’m harvesting both hosta and SS from parts of the food forest that are in dappled sun now, but will have little to no light once the trees leaf out. Asparagus, which as a rule prefers sun, is just showing up to the party as these two are just passing their prime. Few annual garden crops are even planted now, let alone ready for harvest to fill the “hunger gap,” but these two are shooting to the sky, ready to be crisply snapped off their stems, and sauted in the skillet.

They’re simple to prepare: “hostons” may be sliced in half lengthwise. 

Solomon’s seal I leave whole. You could peel off the leaves to remove any possibility of bitterness. Just snapping their stems at ground level I have not found any hard bases like asparagus, so no chopping necessary.

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Once prepared, heat oil of choice in a pan, and add the shoots. I flavored these pictured with some pepper, fish sauce, and vinegar to compliment the bitter element. You may prefer to omit the vinegar if the leaves are removed from the Solomon’s seal. Once tender, they’re ready for the plate.

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I got my Solomon’s seal in a trade online with the understanding they were giant Solomon’s seal (var. comutatum), and certainly appreciated getting twenty or so rhizomes freshly dug. They have not achieved the height my neighbor’s specimen achieve every year though; mine stay around three feet, hers shoot to six easily. So I think there was a misunderstanding. I may get some of the larger kind in the near future.

As for variance in hosta, I can’t vouch for the quality -especially when it comes to the hybrids. My neighbor is a formidable collector of hosta, and has even brought me with her to purchase direct from hosta breeders; so the fact that there are myriads of hosta, with crazy exotic chemical attributes and textures out there is real in my mind. Usually the blue, and dark green varieties are best for eating.  In this dish, I prepared H. nigrescens, and ‘Sum and Substance’ (a hybrid of unknown parentage), both of which aren’t too rare. These are mostly the throwaway hostas from my neighbor’s massive collection -seedlings that have no name, and extras.

Thriving in the dark corners of the food forest, these two are making food, and beauty, in places little else would grow.

Tasty Food Photography eBook

The above advertisement is for an ebook I personally own and use.

If you would like to learn the real details of taking good food pictures from Lindsay Ostrom over at Pinch of Yum, click to check it out. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!

Plum Blossoms

One of the Japanese plums in Mortal Tree blossoming. This one was the first to be mulched and guilded, which resulted in a huge difference of size and maturity between it and its pollinating partner. Although just down the hill, and planted at the same time, this other plum just sat until I mulched it the following year -relieving it of the grass growing right up against it. As a result of this delay in mulching, the partner has not even begun blooming yet. It really is amazing how much grass can suppress the growth of young trees.

On another note, any pictures on this blog that are mine (i.e. no picture credit to anyone else) is available for use on your own blogs or the like. A couple people have taken this liberty themselves in the past -which I was quite flattered by.

If you could credit me, I’d appreciate it. At the same time I totally understand aesthetics can frown on clunky captions under your photos; so adapt as needed to make things beautiful. If for any reason you have a hard time copying an image yourself, but would like to use it, contact me and I’ll try to get you a copy.

I also contribute to Shutterstock as of the last couple months. Most of these are especially floral pics that won’t show up on this blog. You’ll have to deal with their payment plan to use these; but my public portfolio with them can be viewed here if you’re curious. If you do check them out, I’d love to know your thoughts.

Building beds with bricks

The mulch-generating polyculture for Mortal Tree’s PASSIVE garden system is going well. It’s the bed in Foundation for a future I am establishing with bricks.*

The intent for this bed, per A bit blunt method, was to shift the rocks every couple of months to kill off the grass underneath. This worked pretty well for most of the bed. I shifted the bricks in July and made a final small shift about a week ago. Above is the freshly shifted “mulch” around an amorpha.

I also tried covering a small part with grass mulch in May last year, and this took care of any weeds growing through the cracks. Below is the planting now. Like most fun times, there is a mess to clean up afterwards. This bed had a lot of fun last year. What you see is actually mulch I applied, the healthy comfrey, and some amorpha interplanted. I plucked out the little bits of green quackgrass, and look forward to some very lush, beautiful growth here come summer.

I plucked out the quackgrass when I shifted the rocks. Because they block sun and moisture loss, the rocks encourage the quackgrass to grow shallow, allowing me to just pick them up rather than pulling them. What roots did grow deeply are easily pulled because the soil is so soft under the bricks.

 


This soil conditioning is one if the main perks of using rocks. The soil life is everywhere, with centipedes, worms, spiders -even at this cold season. Soil between the bricks which heaved from the freezing over winter is unbelievably friable. It looks like it has been tilled.

Considering how low this soil is in organic matter, with a clay-coal base, with no amendments like sand or ever even being tilled before, I am very excited to already have such results. The moisture and soil life have brought it so far because I have created the right habitat, covering the soil. The organic matter is starting to accumulate.

Above are some amorpha leaves dropped last fall, which likely have brought in nitrogen the system formerly did not have. The plants were already beginning to nodulate in their pots when I planted them last year. If you would like to learn more about how I ensure they make nitrogen and get off to a good start, I have some notes here on Growing amorpha.

I also harvested some of the comfrey leaves last year, which I left around the plants I harvested from. This is breaking down into gorgeous soil, bringing in carbon the system did not formerly have.

Pictured is some broken down comfrey from a larger patch in the food forest. This new patch should be producing similar soil in the near future. It’s already well on its way.

 

*This could have been done with some large piece of canvas or the like, or a large piece of plywood. One of my clients decided to try clear plastic just to block water, which was still effective at removing the plants underneath.

Orchard understory

Is the space around your trees still empty? Try these plants:

10 Companion Plants for Orchards (~4min read)

This article provides a pretty neat survey of plants that, together, make a diverse, healthy, productive orchard. Any of the listed plants of especial interest?