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.

img_4764

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.

img_1147

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.

img_4745

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.

 

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.

IMG_3494

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.

IMG_3493

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.

IMG_3586

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.

IMG_3590

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.

Sunchokes

Sunchokes, or Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) are not so much a stable ground cover as masterful bed builders. They don’t just block, but obliterate grass lawn, taking the place of bed building mulch if handled correctly.

35172408 - jerusalem artichoke flower in garden

Its home is the American prairie biomes, where it stretches for sun among massive grasses and other very competitive plants. Placing it in the standard lawn, full of short European grass species, or even an overgrown field is like releasing a saber tooth tiger into a playpen with modern house cats. It’s a brute.

img_1881

It begins by pumping nutrients from deep in the soil to power billowing clouds of leaves rambling up sometimes 15ft tall stems. At the end of the season, less fortunate species smothered below, it sucks all the nutrients gathered in its stems safely into the underground for storage in its edible tubers. Every year it sends out runners, some species more aggressive than others. One variety, “Supercluster,” Oikos Tree Crops sells is supposed to be well behaved, but most are decidedly imperialist, surging several feet out in all directions every year as resources allow. As long as it fills its nutrient reserves every year, the size of the open field it inhabits is its only limit.

To unleash the beast, get a bucket of the tubers in fall, and with a shovel, make little slits in the ground about one foot apart, inserting the tubers deep enough they aren’t exposed, and walk away. The days of the nearby plant residents are now numbered.

28174029 - topinambour  helianthus tuberosus  plants
Sunchoke sprouts
Don’t worry next spring when the tubers don’t sprout early. Sunchokes don’t like frost, and wait until late in the spring to pop up their furry little heads. I have planted these into completely unamended yards where lawn grass wasn’t even happy, but the ‘chokes still grew well. Results of removing grass and patch expansion are best if the patch is left a year or two before harnessing it for actual bed building.

It is very difficult to put strong beasts like sunchoke to use with brute force. You have to outsmart them. This you do by pinpointing their one weakness, and suddenly you have them in the palm of your hand. Because exploiting this weakness is so effective, I must go begging to my friends for new tubers in fall because I have accidentally wiped out my propagation patches.

I have quite a hard time removing their disbelief. Sunchokes are otherwise known in the gardening world as hard-to-chokes, which is why I don’t recommend digging up your newly cleared bed to remove the plants. I have never seen this work. Though you could swear all the tubers are removed, the plants always return. Some varieties were selected from patches sprayed with roundup -and lived.

Biologically, sunchokes are impenetrable tanks of ecosystem war, and have the potential to become the worst weeds for your new planting. I would not in any way suggest their use anywhere near your garden if it wasn’t for the one gap in their armor.

You see, ‘chokes go all out to ensure they get as tall and bushy as they can. Having invested every last bit of stored food from their tubers into the above ground stems, it’s as though the plant stood on top of the ground and could just be gathered up as a pile of stems to be placed somewhere else.

I discovered this one year when a particularly healthy, bushy specimen blew over in a windstorm, partially uprooting it. I broke the plant off, cracking up the lush growth to mulch the bed, expecting to see the plant return next spring. I was surprised when next year there was nothing.

Later, in a very dry year, sunchokes were the most lush thing in my food forest to feed my rabbit. She liked them, so I would snap off the growing tips, let the plants branch off to the side, and snap of the side branches to make rabbit happy. I started this when the plants were about 5ft tall, leaving about 4ft stems that in turn could return their nutrients to the tubers. Nevertheless the plants that normally topped ten foot came up the next year anemic, and dwarfed, barely reaching three feet.

43792512 - jerusalem artichoke plant
A young, thick patch of sunchokes.
The exact point in time when they seem most vulnerable is just before bloom at a certain time when the growth of leaves changes from being as tightly stacked and lush as possible, to becoming a bit more sparse, the stem getting harder, and the flower buds showing up quickly afterward.

Flowering, and in fact most dieback processes of plants, are accompanied by the production of ethylene gas, which in the ‘chokes I would guess also begin the back flow of sugars in the leaves to the more complex carbohydrates in the tubers, and oxidation of the stem fibers, making them woody and brittle. Cutting ‘choke down just before signs of this hormone’s activity seems to be their secret weakness.

In my climate, this means cutting the plants off about a foot tall in July. It is helpful to leave some stem to make lots of side shoots. A second cutting, about a month later, to remove the side shoots and what’s left of the stem, perhaps even some roots, in my experience, weakens the plant beyond recovery.

Some gardeners I have explained this method to ardently insist I’m wrong. They cite their own experience of mowing sunchoke patches for two years and the ‘chokes just growing up over and over again.

I have gotten excellent results with the method in my experience. That they were only a few years old unlike the decades old patches in these other reports may play a role. I doubt it though. On the one plant that blew over I saw a very large clump of tubers which I left in the ground.

Perhaps it is more a question of the plants adapting to growing less each time they are cut back, developing a sort of stunted homeostasis. They may have grown more miserly with their output of stored sugars. I think it is imperative that you allow the roots to put maximum growth above ground, then sap the last little bits of strength out of them with subsequent cutting.

Be cautious of course in planting the sun chokes and letting them run wild. If you closely follow the details I have given, I am confident you can get very similar results. Feel free to let me know how it goes.

Hacking off all this biomass leaves a lovely, thick mulch for planting into next spring. Grass is usually gone by this time. Adding some grass mulch early next spring ensures establishment is smooth the next year, but very little is necessary compared to normal bed building. If used well -in conjunction with the other ground covers, sunchokes are a real workhorse, with the potential to carry your efforts to the blissful state of an established, productive, ground thickly covered food forest.

Photo credits (because I’ve accidentally killed so many of my sunchokes with this method): Top photo by elzeva, second down Gurcharan Singh, third down Harald Biebel, bottom Tawee Wongdee