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.
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.
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.
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.
*For those who have requested I write a post about her wonderful yard, it’s on the way.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Scythes are so complete and precise in their ability to effortlessly remove blade from stem that they encompass all the talent of weed whips and lawnmowers combined. One of my first essays for school was in fact a persuasive essay on why you should junk your lawnmower and get a scythe (yes I’ve been at this for a while). It was, not surprisingly, one of my highest grade papers of that whole school year.
It’s an easy comparison: the chintziest lawnmower costs anything from two hundred and up to suck gas and go on strike every time it needs repair. Scythes rarely cost up to three hundred for a high quality snath, blade, whetstone, horn to wet it, and all the accouterment to make quite a posh setup; but scythes don’t take gas, or take up near so much room in your garage.
In place of the voluminous dirge-like whir of lawn mowers, scythes whisper through the grass, and ring with glee after every stroke.
Rather than pushing the beast of a lawn mower around only to pull out the weed whip to finish the odd spots, scythes have the versatility of both. Whether nipping an errant grass-blade between flower stems, or swiping the excess growth from another level of ground, scythes can go anywhere you can.
The limiting factor is simply your skill level. David Tresemer and Peter Vido in The Scythe Book, give ample explanation on the techniques that make mowing with a scythe a pleasure for the body and mind.
Does it take more time to mow with a scythe than with a lawn mower and weed whip? It depends. Especially tough material, like dry, short grass takes a lot of skill, and a sharp blade more than time spent. Soft grass mown with a small hand pushed lawn mower take about as much time as scythe if you become proficient with the technique.
It’s when mowing taller material over small areas scythes outperform even large riding lawn mowers. For example, one of my first clients had a luscious field of clover for mulch he demanded must be mowed with his Xmark riding lawnmower to not waste time. The thing choked and gagged on the clover even on the driest of days. It needed de-clogged, the deck cleared. Miserable.
He just wouldn’t believe a scythe could do the job faster.
The keyhole beds in Mortal Tree ready for mowing
One day he was gone, and I was there to mow, so took the liberty of mowing with my scythe.
He later saw the mulching I completed that day looked satisfactory for the amount of hours I spent (I detest clients paying me by the hour, and always try to negotiate a one time contract payment. I usually complete work in less time than expected anyway). He let me use the scythe one day he was there working on his house-building project, and was blown away by the cartloads of clover piled high that came wobbling down the lane. We ditched the mower forever after, and I was given the title Scythe Jedi.
Mowed. It took me all of ten minutes to clear nearly 100 square feet of tall aster stems and grass.
In general, strategic approaches to mowing with a scythe that make use of its versatility, greatly improve its efficiency over that of lawnmowers. One slick tactic I learned for cutting around, and mulching, a tree all at once is to simply circle the mowing around a tree. The windrow forms a nice thick mound in just the spot I would have mulched anyway.
One must also be very careful that the path of the swing ends a couple inches away from the tree as shown in the drawing. Otherwise, its likely you’ll nick the poor tree.
Also, this only works when nothing is planted around the tree – a mistake I made in the early stages of my food forest. I should have started my planting by establishing ground covers, then moved up to trees, as I currently recommend for new clients.
Does it require a lot of strength to use a scythe? If using it like a battle-axe, yes. Good technique is almost entirely about relaxing the arms and allowing the blade to glide just above the crowns of the grass. In a report cited in The Scythe Book, scientists who compare the wear and tear of various sports on the body showed mowing with a scythe, if the correct technique is maintained, is far less stressful on the body than most high school sports -while delivering the benefit of exercise. Assuming you use a European snath and blade rather than an American, there isn’t even much wood or metal you have to move, as they are very light.
On that point, I do have fairly specific recommendations for what scythe you should get. While there are some really high-end custom snath builders you could go searching for, very superior snaths are sold online ready-made. There are also some really junky ones I would love to steer you clear of.
The snath sold by Peter Vido’s company is the best ready-made snath on the market. The handles attach with actual screws; and the design allows for one size to fit several users because the handle can be moved up or down a couple notches. I started with an American blade, sitting rusted and unused in the back of a garage. Too heavy, really, and quite difficult to get the knack.
The first European snath I got was junk. It was a model for which they expect you to keep the handles in the snath with glue, or by sheer pressure. They give the lame excuse using correct technique should keep this in place, but I often will use the versatility of my scythe to pull or lift some grass I’ve just cut. Even if only used for the intended swipes, not all ground is ideal, nor is the material you are cutting. Get a snath that holds itself together.
As for blades, I got a bush and a grass blade when I first started from Marugg, and have not moved on, so have little long-term comparison to offer. I have worked with a Fux blade, and personally seen it has fine qualities. I have used friend’s blades that are really junk, so know there are some unworthy buys out there. Really good blades are made of delicate metal quite soft and pliable. This allows for the frequent, but quick sharpening that keeps the blade edge microscopically serrated for effortless cutting.
Bush blades are of course a little thicker in order to withstand the shock of hitting sticks and thicker stems; but grass blades should never be thick enough that you would ever dare sharpen it with a grind stone or the like. A whetstone briskly swished over the edge, with intermittent peenings (hammering the thicker metal thin as you progress into the blade due to wear of sharpening) is all that’s needed to remind a blade of what shape it should hold.
If you have a well made scythe as I have described, there is no reason you should not be able to mow your lawn and food forest alike. In the early years of a food forest especially, when grass is likely the predominate plant in the food forest scene, a scythe will be the most used blade for gathering mulch, managing weeds and the like. It was for me. As time goes on, other blades will be your best friend, as we will cover over the next few days in the posts that follow.
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.
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.
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.
Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) posses such an above ground showiness they are known more as visual spectacle than food. When used in the kitchen, or included in edible landscapes, it is almost always as an obscure herb rather than a substantial vegetable.
The truth is it can be a side dish of its own if you know its more tender attributes.
I say this, first and foremost, because garlic chives readily propagate themselves. To me, abundance is a prerequisite to utility in perennial cooking; because just about any small delicacy can be made a meal if you have enough of it. Garlic chives not only divide to form handsome, large clumps in short order if conditions are sunny and fertile as they like, they also self seed like crazy.
The leaves themselves are a small delicacy. In early spring these come up thick, each leaf flat, with rounded tips like linguine noodles. As there is almost nothing below ground on this plant, it’s most productive for future harvests to pick only a few of these above ground leaves from each plant, leaving a couple on the base to produce the real harvest of flower and stem.
These stems show up around late August for me, with a trickle of flowers popping their papery covers throughout the month.
The flowers themselves can be tossed over salads. The stems can be snipped as young as you find them. By the time a stem has an open flower on top, it has become far to tough to enjoy.
There is a point, just as the unopened buds still hang their heads down, but the stem has begun to get hard at the bottom, that the top quarter to third of the stem is still tender.
Here I prepared garlic chives at about this stage. I sprinkled the with some oil (ghee, or butter oil in this case) , beef broth, hickory smoked salt, pepper, with mint and oregano flowers on top, and let sit while a pan heated. Once the pan was warm enough I could throw water on it and watch the water skitter around bubbling, I threw this mixture in the pan, stirred, reduced heat, then swished the liquids around in the pan to keep them bubbling between the stems until it was about gone and a thick sauce covered them.
These can be eaten like large asparagus -picking up the stem at the bottom, munching the tender part as far down as you enjoy.
At any point you can harvest whatever portion is tender and throw them into stir-fry or the like. Harvesting with the hard stems makes them more of an event to be savored.
Despite the name, garlic chives actually have a very mild, really sweet flavor. It can be added to salads, raw, or cooked in rich dishes, where it adds light overtones of garlic, luscious sweetness, and, if not overcooked, pleasant crunch. The garlic character really comes out more in the scent than the flavor.
I should mention Allium cernuum, or nodding onion, is almost exactly the same as garlic chives, except for the flavor. Whereas garlic chives are so mild and sweet, with garlic overtones, nodding onion has a robust onion flavor, and scent which can even smart the eyes as you’re harvesting.
Otherwise, the two are exactly the same in spreading themselves, time of harvest, character of the stems as the main crop, and the fact so many gardeners have mistaken for a mere ornamental what are truly delicious gastronomic delicacies.
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.
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.