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.

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2013

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.

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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. 

Visual archive

A single, hyperlinked map. Use this to easily navigate and explore Mortal Tree

I’m all for efficiency. Reading on my blog is no exception.

I’ve noticed the piling up of posts around here makes it rather difficult to access older ones because, by the nature of chronological lists, the old get buried under the new.

In search of giving every post equal visibility, I’m trying a visual archive. Every title is linked to its respective post. I just finished adding the links this morning, so if there are any glitches, just let me know.

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Click to view. (Some devices require a second click to activate link.)

And of course, feel free to comment on how you like it. I’m all ears (or eyes considering it’s a computer screen… you get my point).

Foundation for the future

I’m using A bit blunt method for a lot of the new beds I’ll be planting later this year.

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Making a bare place for the N-fixers and comfrey that will feed the annuals.

One of my neighbors has a fill-dirt area on his property where people deposit rocks, shrubbery, and other “yard waste.” It just so happened someone deposited the refuse of a cement-brick wall to be pushed over the hill, which quickly disappeared to my place (with his permission, of course). I have four pallets stacked with these mostly very nice rocks. Pictured above is a little over one pallet’s worth. So there’s more coming.

I figure if they’re going to sit, they might as well be killing grass while doing it.

I also have a cherry tree that’s laid dead for two years now I’m just getting

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These logs surround a saskatoon, an Amorpha and a currant bush that have been ‘roughing’ it in the grass. This year they should have some relief.

around to cutting into ‘pucks’. The ones from last year I’ve mostly given permanent homes as steps.

Yes, the work involved in laying this mulch seems rather inefficient. I have about two hours into what is pictured. This was mostly getting wood cut and moved and the longer move of bringing the rocks into the food forest. Now that I have them at work, only small moves will take place, and there will be a lot of grass removed for which I didn’t have to use my limited resource of dried grass.

Like last year’s pucks, pretty much all these hunks of wood will be used as stepping stones until decaying into humus and feeding plants. The stones will become permanent stepping stones, with the added function of thermal mass.

That’s the end purpose. I’m looking at this mulch function as a beneficial function in-between.

IMG_0676I mention this reasoning because it seems not many people get it right away. I’ve had several people ask me what I’m doing with these rocks and wood pucks, and you can only imagine the looks on their faces when I reply, ‘mulch.’

Niche in fertility

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Since last year’s manual of bed building I have found yet another dimension to consider, fertility levels.

Piling all the material onto the beds in spring (which usually includes a sprinkling of the food forest rabbit manure) makes for a lot of nutrients swimming around.

This is one reason why I stick annuals between the young perennials the first season; the annuals suck up all this excess and make it into cover and mulch which can be cycled back. I’ve found when planting the second year, that fertility isn’t there.

You wouldn’t guess it by how the perennials explode the next spring with luxurious growth. By this time they’ve got extensive root systems established, feeding from a very deep and broad area and from stored food from the previous year.

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The purple is sage. The lovely silvery little ground cover is Silene uniflora -love it!

Annuals I stick in the second year usually limp along until they get their roots established to make a mediocre growth or die. This makes sense considering what I posted about growing annuals. They take huge amounts of nutrients.

Another point I’ve observed is the ground really needs roots to keep the soil alive. Continual growth and die off of the root hairs, besides myriad chemical interactions, keeps the ground fluffy and alive. Without them it goes hard and dead in short order.

Spots I didn’t get filled with plants last spring did just that. They got so hard I used my garden trowel like a pickaxe where before I could drive my finger in with ease. A reapplication of mulch quickly woke it back up so I could get some preferred plants stuck in.

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A new bed last year. Borage and marigolds are the only annuals. Ground covers already have the ground beneath them covered.

The main change then is to plant thickly, but a little thicker with perennials, the same amount of annuals, because there will be no annuals the next year. This makes sure all the nutrients are utilized and the perennials will be close enough to keep everything under control in the years to come. Hopefully in these beds I’m establishing now, that will be a lot of years to come.

Growing annuals

I’m always writing about perennials and no till, but I actually do a lot of annual gardening. My family’s farm has a CSA for about 20 shares that uses about 3 acres of tilled gardens.

Mortal Tree is my exposition on alternative methods, so of course I wanted to try growing annuals in a passive, no till setup.

That’s what the keyholes at the front were supposed to be; with perennials thrown in for propagation, and greater efficiency.

After two years of the first “system” (or lack thereof) there are two problems: lack of fertility, and weeds. Of course everyone has those problems, but the system was supposed to keep these to a tolerable level.

As it is, aside from mache, annuals just aren’t satisfied with the fertility. This year I didn’t harvest anything but what the perennials willingly supplied.

Ideal weed level is pulling a few weeds as I inspect the garden on a pleasant evening. Instead, I found myself clearing whole beds only to have them full of weeds again in a month.

I’ve scrutinized the system and found two problems: lack of mulch and lack of fertility in general.

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The year of high fertility

I got the idea I wasn’t cycling enough nutrients from the lack of vigor the annuals and their self seeding progeny showed. I wasn’t sure how much more I needed. Normally the tillage and compost in the big gardens makes everything grow without complaint. Now that I’m trying to make this work with comfrey and other in-system nutrients, without tillage, it’s not.

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Martin Crawford has several tables in Creating a Forest Garden that really pin down nutrients and how much different plants need, and how much different sources offer. He has a light, moderate, and heavy cropping category, then annuals.

Most of the perennial vegetables he places in the light cropping category. It takes about two cut comfrey per square meter to sustain these plants, which is about what I am applying. To sustain annual cropping takes 60 cut comfrey for that same area. Problem found.

The amount of fertility I’m accustomed to working with in the annual gardens is simply an unnatural surge of nutrients. Compost is extraordinarily rich in nutrients compared to bulk green mulch.

Also, tillage forces more oxygen into the soil, breaking down those nutrients at a faster rate. The keyholes had this advantage at first because I dug out the paths and piled up the soil to make the beds.

Problem is, the mulch apparently needed for the annuals would drown most of the perennials. In response I’m moving all the perennials out, and making the keyholes completely annual.

The best comparison I have for this so far is a keyhole bed I have near the Willow Garden in its fourth year of no till.

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It has a dug out path and raised beds too. It has one comfrey for its mulch and fertility source. As a result, I’ve had to bring in more mulch to sustain the system.

For instance, I brought in a lot comfrey from the Willow Garden to drown out some quack grass (Agropyron repens) that had moved in. It was rather effective at suppressing it. Besides some vegetable mallow over the summer, it was enough to grow some nice cabbages.

In the food forest, I’m not supplying 60 cuts of comfrey per keyhole per year. I’ve got 12 beds with an average of 1.3 square meters each. It would take several hundred plants.

When faced with a large surge of energy in a design, I always try and disperse the blow across many sources.

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Young regrowth on a coppiced amorpha

According to Martin’s fertility tables, one amorpha, based on mature canopy size of about six feet in diameter, provides the equivalent nitrogen of 20 cuts of comfrey, or 10 comfrey plants; lespedeza about the same. I’ll throw some of these in the patch so the roots sloughing off after coppicing can feed the comfrey. They need nitrogen themselves.

This still requires more space than I’ve allocated to the annual’s mulch patch. So I’ll grow some annual cover crops on the keyhole beds once in a while to fill the gap -careful to choose crops that will die when cut, frosted, or heavily mulched since there won’t be any tilling.

To really cinch the deal I have the food forest rabbit’s manure. I let a bucket of it sit out to catch rain, and harvest the resulting “tea” to feed establishing beds right now. In time it can be exclusively for the annuals.

Achieving this much mulch in the food forest will take a while. I’m moving out the perennials first, and planting the whole thing in lots of annual cover crops. The first plant to start yeilding mulch will likely be comfrey, though I might just mulch their own patch the first year to ensure they are established. The next year the N-fixers will be ready for light coppicing, then full production. I’m assuming three years before that point, but I’m quite excited to the see the results. I’ll keep you posted as it goes along.

A roundabout way to perennial kale.

Perennial kale is what everyone wants. At the same time it is what everyone can’t get (or keep once they get it).

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‘Kosmic’ kale

The problem is the known world of perennial kale is just way smaller than what it really is, because while everyone tries to cram through the overly tiny front door of Daubenton’s (and ‘kosmic’), the broad back door of perennial kale from seed remains unknown.

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‘Sutherland’ Kale. Seemingly perennial, definitely grown from seed.

I don’t mean seed harvested from perennial kale, which is more or less an uncommon happening; and good luck getting it. I mean seed from certain kinds of biennial kale who’s genetics teeter on the border of perennial and biennial. With these, it can be as much of a fifty fifty chance each plant will be perennial.

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‘Western Front’ kale (just the bluish leaves down low, not the tall orach) is said to have a fifty fifty perennial regrowth. Unfortunately, after growing it I can’t say for sure. The cultivar is selected from the hardiest kale the breeder, Tim Peters, could get, all of them surviving a very cold western front storm. Apparently Ohio winters can be colder. It died. I like the variation in leaf shape though, some showing a frilly Russian look, some a more rounded shape. I’ll try them again, in the greenhouse.

That is only for select cultivars such as ‘Pentland Briggs, ‘ ‘Western Front, ‘Sutherland.’ I’ll do some more research this year with some other varieties rumoured to have the elusive talent of immortality. So, in about two years, I’ll let you know the results. Until then, if you are in a dire straight to gain eternal kale, I would recommend you set an area aside for a lot of kale, and try the varieties mentioned as an alternative, roundabout way of getting it.

Manual of bed building

IMG_5759Group and Conquer, A bit blunt, and even some link posts on this blog all revolve around the non-ground-breaking task of building no-till beds from turf.

As you can tell, these posts are a shared learning experience, with changes for the better always turning up. This year I did a lot of bed building, both for myself, and alongside several clients, resulting in new found tricks to really make a new bed weed free, and productive, fast.

First is the timing. While it is entirely doable to mulch and kill grass at any time of year, I find it easiest done just before the grass breaks dormancy in early spring. It seems to be a vulnerable time for the grass, I assume because it needs sunlight to jump start for the year. In fact mulch laid at this time of year often gets by with no weeding or raking at all.IMG_5270

I also find raking dead grass in spring is much quicker and easier to do than mowing with a scythe. I’ve noticed this is a relatively long lasting mulch -at least as much as green grass mulch, despite its being broken down over winter a little.

So I mow less in fall to leave more grass for mulching in early spring, do less work mulching, and get better results all around.

The idea of long grass I know isn’t attractive to a lot of people. A lot of permaculture designers stress that its not necessary for quality design.

It’s not. But it is far better. Deeper roots, more diversity, more growth, greater stability Through wet and dry wheather are just some of the benefits of letting grass grow tall and harvesting on scheduke like the one I’ve mentioned; but slow growth is better than no-growth. By all means, adapt as your circumstances allow.

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Another detail is using bulky, woody material as a base layer –not on top of the mulch. This way it holds the mulch higher off the ground, making that much more space for the weeds underneath to overcome. It also puts the wood where it will hold more water, and so grow more beneficial fungi.

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There is no question your mulch will be successful if the weeds are half dead before you even lay the mulch. Putting something completely impenetrable over the ground such as rocks, or logs, as explained in A bit blunt, is probably one of the best findings I made this year. It weakens even pernicious weeds like thistle, and allows for progress to be made while you’re waiting for grass to grow, as I did in the picture above. Every time I got some grass, I would clear as much room as I had grass for, and move the logs onto fresh grass.

Finally, or rather first, have plants propagated and ready for planting. Nature wants to make that site productive. If you don’t, nature will –with the same grass you just cleared. As soon as the plants underneath are dead –probably a week or two after mulching –less if you’ve used logs ahead of time, get that bed planted with mulch makers, fruit bearers, nitrogen fixer, anything you want. Definitely don’t leave the bed empty.

Of course perennials take a long time to grow to full size, so plan on adding fillers such as annual nasturtium or nitrogen fixing peas, beans, or vetch to occupy the gaps until the perennials move in.

With such a good start, it’s wise to build onto a bed rather than start a new detached bed; this conserves your efforts, and allows some leverage of the existing plants.

One way this can be done, as explained in Martin Crawford’s “Creating A Forest Garden” is putting an impenetrable mulch at the edge of a bed whose ground cover is a runner (mint, strawberries, etc. ). This lets the runners grow out, (underneath in the case of mint, on top in the case of strawberries). All the while, the grass is languishing beneath the mulch, so once removed, it allows light to the root runners, earth to the vine runners. The product: instant ground cover.

About the same thing happens with violets. Such as one spot with violets growing among grass, fall aster and others on which I laid a very thick layer of mulch. The grass and everything else were never seen again; the violets, I suppose because they can tolerate very, very deep shade, not so. They broke through!

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Of course I am trying hard in other parts of the food forest to establish such a ground cover. So I was more than pleased to see this. But just a note for the reader: violets are not killed by mulch.

And there is my review of bed building for the year. New developments to come I’m sure. Any experience from you, reader, is very welcome in the comments below.