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

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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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.

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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.

What does GKH need to self seed?

The popular perennial spinach good king henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) is pretty difficult to germinate. Under Making sense of wild seeds I found how hard some fellow perennial vegetable gardeners have worked to eek out nothing but empty pots of this plant. In my own experience, a hundred seeds will likely yield as high as twenty, and as low as one or two seedlings.

When I established this plant in Mortal Tree, I hoped the seed would suit itself, and sprout on its own. I’d transplant whatever appeared. Such serendipitous propagation eluded me for years, until last year, when I moved them.

Next to the patch this year, I was ecstatic to see a moderately thick patch of the sprouts!

This is a southwest facing slope, but has a small windbreak of plants in front of it. The bed is in its second year. The grass mulch I laid to start it still covers the ground. We also had an extremely mild winter. In general, I think this plant likes really temperate conditions, prefering cool over heat, moisture over dryness.

I hope this conjures some images in your mind of areas in your garden that might suit this plant. It really is quite a nice perennial vegetable. I call it, The better broccoli, for its delicious flower buds. With seeds growing themselves now, I plan on having a lot more of this food in the very near future.

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.

Fertility

Tillage allows us to neglect for a while the task of replenishing organic matter because it pries from the soil’s fingers more fertility than usual. I read of one study* performed on a field tilled for 60 years without inputs. Problems were becoming apparent, but the farmer was still getting a harvest.

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It has been the same throughout history: civilizations rise and fall, often as a result of their failing fertility systems. For those that lasted, by restoring to some extent the organic matter, there were some interesting methods.

The first was to simply move from place to place, exploiting the fertility of a site, moving on to a new one once the fertility was gone. This method was practiced by a few Native American tribes.* Their particular method was called “Slash and Burn, where an area of virgin forest was cut and burned. The fertility provided from such a mass of organic matter lasted a while. This is certainly an excellent method when you have ample areas of virgin forest to work with -slash and burn, move on, and allow everything to revert to the chaos of a forest system that would slowly renew the organic matter until, in a couple hundred years, they returned to tear it down and organize it for crops again. Today such a tactic would not last long with our increasingly high population.

Many ancient cultures practiced a similar method by simply leaving the land fallow for a short time between small spans of tilling and harvesting. The ancient Israelites had in their law several different spans of time in which they were not to till a field, with the assumption they would set food by in the prior years of harvest. The usual numbers are three to seven years tilling and harvesting, to one year of lying fallow.

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[T]he ancient Egyptians, who were one of the first civilizations to use tillage, had a much more passive method which relied on the Nile river flooding to bring in organic matter from the rainforests upstream. Problem was, if the Nile didn’t flood, there was famine.

What we must realize is we are hardly in a different position today.

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In a properly managed no-till garden, we should burn less organic matter in total, but in covering the ground and supplying enough decaying organic matter to sustain the system, we use a lot of material. Bringing it in as mulch rather than broken down compost, we see organic matter in its most bulky state and realize, it’s a lot.

The Ruth Stout method is an excellent example of this. Perhaps one of the most low work, effective no-till garden methods, Ruth Stout grew excellent annual vegetables by covering the ground thickly with mulch, with some additions of manure.

When all this organic matter is added, and moisture is so well preserved by the thick cover of mulch, the soil life responds by building a home for themselves of many tunnels, creating a soil similar in consistency to crumbly chocolate cake.

The technical term for this state of soil is ‘flocculated’. Flocculation occurs when sufficient levels of active calcium are available, pulling particles out of suspension in ‘flocs’, or flakes, making the soil fluffy.

The Stout method gives excellent results in the garden. Yet again, this is not the whole picture. Take this quote for example:

The ”Stout Method” of mulching is a biological transgression similar to, though not as severe as is the social and biological transgression of polluting air and waterways with the industrial wastes. The main characteristics of the ”Stout Method” is that the soil is to be covered constantly with a thick layer of mulch hay, which requires 8 to ten tons of hay per acre annually. Based on average yields, each year 3 to 4 acres of farm soils must somewhere be deprived of organic matter replenishment so that 1 acre of backyard garden plots may get the ”Stout Method” treatment.*

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Wood chip sources we once got for free are now going to composting companies who sell the finished product by the bag to be dumped on tilled soil that will burn much of the carbon into the atmosphere. A Certified Organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) like ourselves can hardly find a source of clean organic matter that doesn’t charge for you to haul away their waste.

Many township yard-waste drop-offs at one time chipped up the material laboriously collected and brought to them by every yard nitpicking denizen to be carted off by the hippies for their organic gardens for free. More and more now, they sell this material to the compost companies.

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According to the United States Composting Council, there are currently four chemicals likely to end up in compost that do not break down in the composting process. Approximately 150 lawn care, or in general weed killing products, have at least one of them as an ingredient.

Aside from knowing exactly what was applied to your substrate, which in most cases of yard waste scavenging isn’t convenient -if even possible, there is unfortunately no way to tell if your substrate has these killers on them before applying to your plants without expensive testing.

Once in the soil, these toxins effect most garden plants, and can remain there for up to three years before breaking down.

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The ideal ratio is about 30:1 carbon to nitrogen. Until the substrate given attains something near that ratio, there is little the bacteria can do with it. Fungi play a role in breakdown until the carbon finds the necessary nitrogen, or is simply burnt into the atmosphere.

To put this into perspective: wood chips are approximately 200:1, fresh cut grass 17:1, straw about 60:1 depending on what source you use.

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If fresh wood chips or straw are mixed into the soil, all that surface area is placed directly in contact with the soil. If no nitrogen is added, the substrate will pull the available nitrogen from the soil, binding up the available nitrogen, and the majority of chemical processes that give fertility.

This is quite a popular mistake in recent years. I have had several friends and clients ask me to look at their garden, recently converted to no-till and mulch, because nothing will grow. In almost all situations, they have bound up the available nitrogen by neglecting the C:N ratio.

Often the tactic that side steps this binding-up issue is to separate compost pile from garden, turning often to speed breakdown. By now you should have an idea what this is doing: burning up your organic matter into the atmosphere. This is why the nutrients used to increase organic matter should be as balanced in the carbon to nitrogen ratio as possible.

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While Ruth Stout’s method illustrates the effectiveness of growing annuals with nothing but mulch, PASSIVE creates an ecology which includes its own mulch, and so sets it apart. I here use Ruth Stout’s method as proof annuals can be grown with nothing but mulch. I don’t credit her method as the direct roots of PASSIVE though, I credit its roots to a forest model.

*http://soilandhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/01aglibrary/010120albrecht.usdayrbk/lsom.html

*http://whyfiles.org/2012/farming-native-american-style/

*Dirt Farmer’s Dialogue by C.J. Pankimg_2294

This is one of the really important chapter from PASSIVE Gardening explaining why the art of in-system fertility is so beneficial to a truly sustainable, healthy, low-work garden. In the later chapters the book explains Chaos Ratio, one of the most powerful tools for managing system fertility and seamlessly transitioning from yard to garden oasis. I hope to get a post out on this subject soon. Until then, I hope you find this of interest. The photo to the side is another of the photos graciously given to me by Elora L.