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. 

Practicality -Edible Dahlias part 3

The model in my mind of an edible dahlia seeds itself abundantly, and grows tenaciously; tubers just spontaneously generate over summer for fall harvest; the tubers you don’t care to dig freeze, so never become a perennial problem. I really do think this is a realistic vision, but it might take a little species trials to find the right one.


Cultivariable has done some excellent work gathering a collection of dahlias they consider edible, and are harvesting the seed for further selection. I read through an excerpt of his very informative book on his website which I subsequently grabbed a copy of (link below if you’d like to to check it out. It covers far more than dahlias) but saw no mention of self seeding.

He is already sold out of this year’s available tuber and seed stock anyway, so I looked deeper.

The species he raises are Dahlia pinnata and coccinea. Pinnata is the species most often cited as edible, and actually grows wild in the lower southeast US according to the USDA Plant Database -Mississippi and North Carolina in particular.

This was helpful when looking at my next best option -“Bishop’s Children” mix. I’d seen it many times in seed catalogs because it’s commonly grown as an annual from seed. It’s the progeny of “Bishop of Llandaff” -hence the name, and is believed to be cross between pinnata and coccinea.

This background information seems to originate from a single article profusely circulated and cited in Wikipedia articles. But the characteristics I see in pictures agree with the story. I think it’s worth believing. The seed is widely available so why not try them anyway?

The plan is to get the seed and sow some for carefully potting up and transplanting, the rest just spread around in opportune patches in the food forest to see how easily they take. Assuming they form plenty of tubers (most dahlias are daylength sensitive, some forming only small, and very few, tubers before frost) and assuming they taste good, they may become a prominent citizen of Mortal Tree, and perhaps find their way into my client’s gardens as delicious, productive little gem mines.


Above: The same heirloom dahlia in the opening photo, now harvested, with tuber harvest laid on the aerial parts which are now mulch.

The book I mentioned: The Cultivariable Growing Guide: Sixteen Rare Vegetables for the Pacific Northwest

Success for your plant purchase: Top 5 tactics

FYI, the frantic Black Friday deals for plants is during July -September, not November, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make some major cuts on your “consumption” of resources (I mean that in an environmentally responsible, as well as haphazard money saving way) using these time-refined strategies for getting, and successfully establishing, productive plants.

1. Plants or seeds?

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This one is huge. Some plants really sprout easily from seed, providing stronger, less expensive plants, for which you have lugged far less material around the globe to get; other plants are a regular joke to sprout from which you should by no means expect an actual plant.

This is because the perennials parents grow for years, and don’t want their progeny choking them out. As a result, the seeds aren’t really meant to sprout, and do so only after their puzzlebox-like seeds have been unlocked, which can take years. Many have germination rates which, even in synthetically pumped conditions, soaked in gibberilic acid, only reach single digit percentiles. You might be fighting a losing battle per the dictum of the parent plant.

My general rule is that potted, already established plants are the golden ticket to abundance. With perennials, I study their habits, and usually opt to get just one really healthy plant (or two if they need a pollinator) and let the plant self seed, or harvest the abundant, free seed to carefully plant myself, or propagate by divisions etc. in time. The long span of time, and higher price, are often better choices than the smaller, reoccuring price of seed year after year.

This is not just thoery. I have several plants with whom three years of seeds marked equal cost to getting the plant. After these serial failures, I just got the plant and started gathering succesful progeny in a year. In effect, I’ve payed double. Just pay up front for plants, and take this post as a 50% discount code for your future self.

There are few, but dramatic, exceptions to this rule, which I can’t ensure will be the same for you (that’s the hard part), but here you go.

Crambe cordifolia has been sky high on my want list for quite a while, and I payed matching prices to get my hands on two year old plants from the few sources that offer them.

I have forgotten how many I even got. They invariably died. None even made it through their first winter.

This year I begrudgingly tried seeds, which I read take years to finally bloom, are small, and all that dreadful stuff. I already had bad experience with the closely related sea kale (Crambe maritima) from seed. The success it had with Eric Toensmeier catapulted it into what I consider an extremely inflated fame. It’s meant for the rocky shoreline.

I half expected the same with cordifolia, but got some hefty, thick little sprouts resulting in two plants astronomically larger and healthier than the older, far more costly plants. I have no worries about them growing through the winter. What’s more, I see how luscious these plants are, and can’t wait to share my experiences on cooking and eating them. Their leaves are like green steaks.


So do homework, but in general, get plants.

2. Don’t let it get out of hand

There is a funny little principle that the fewer things you put your energy into, the more effective the energy. The result? You get more with less. You’re not a saviour of the planet letting your paycheck evaporate into a pile of tree seeds if all they do is evaporate back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

My rule is don’t let the number of new/risky plants you try exceed the number of fingers on your hand -five. You’ll really progress much faster this way.

3. Get promiscuous plants

I love weeds. They are astoundingly efficient, little (you hope) masters of the growing edge, and I adore every one of them. One of my foremost jobs as a designer is just weedling out their true service for mankind.

Any potential problem can almost always be rendered a potential power source. It’s when a plant is weakly and does nothing in either direction that you have no potetial at all -and far more potential of your single plant dying.

Lambsquarter (Chenopodium alba), for instance, is a lovely vegetable weed that come up on its own. The vegetable mallow I wrote about lately is a fantastic leafy green that comes up gangbusters on its own in the fertility of late season tilled (or properly mulched) gardens.

All the malvas below self seed. Read about them here.

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Always pay attention to comments on how easily a plant self propagates. If they say it’s invasive, find out how. Often, different conditions will render a horendously invasive plant sterile, so consider carefully whether it will actually be a propagation monster.

If it is, use it. We have thousands of uses for soybeans and corn -not because it’s useful, but because we figured out a thousand ways to use it. The whole reason for figuring these uses was because we had it, and a lot of it. It’s a pretty smart tactic.

4. Focus on where it will grow.

I have a confession to make: I tried to grow kudzu. Yes, the plant that ate the south is actually a crazy powerhouse of nitrogen fixation, which, if you know me at all, you know I’m a sucker for.

It died.

The most ferocious plants will at best do nothing if planted into a chink of grass-covered clay out back. A major component of a plant’s success is figuring how it will be worked into a guild, in cleared, fertile ground. Everything else -the decisions of what kind, what form, and what stage of plant/seed to get, comes after.

One bed a year is wise -or whatever your mulch supply can handle. This, for me, makes one bed I then plan my puchases around. Is it sunny? Shady? Sandy? Get plants that will grow in those conditions and use the niche of fertility and moisture the fresh mulch will provide, getting a good groundcover in place, and you are ten times more likely to succeed in establishing your plants and never order them from a catalogue again!

5. Look close to home.

Unfortunately, perennial vegetable and rare fruit enthusiasts are still too rare to be on every street corner. A not so rare occasions is when desirable ornamental and edible goddess type plants meet, making it far more likely to show up in the popular skin-deep ornamental garden.

Keep an eye out for what grows in your friend’s and neighbor’s yards, considering what plants might be of use, that you could trade for, or that are rank weeds somone else wishes were gone. The many insanely sweet possibilities here are amazing, especially if you posses the techiques to handle the plants well. Check this post here for one of them.

When I am glutted with a ton of plants, the ‘getting out of hand’ rule often applies. Taking up the resources and time to plant all you removed from someones yard (sometimes the deal for getting the plants is that you remove them all ) can lead to none of the plants living. It seems heartless, but sometimes picking out the one that looks best to plant and mulching around it with the others is the surest way of success.

It in a way combines all the former tactics, using all your resources for the single most likely specimen, and working towards propagating multiple plants from that one as soon as possible. It’s the biggest bang for your metaphorical -and literal- buck.

Perennial Alliums

         It is hard to imagine a civilization without onions

 -Julia Childs

Among all the weird perennial vegetables that seem more like the domain of botanists than cooks (understatement, I know) it’s pleasing to find our well known friends the onion, leek, garlic, have very tame, delicious counterparts that are some of the best perennials.

In many cases, the difference between a perennial and biennial or annual allium is how you grow it. Many of our common alliums people take the time to dig up every year only to replant in a few months, like garlic, are really perennials. They could easily be left in the ground to become a thick clump that returns year after year, each stem becoming thinner, with more emphasis on the tops than the roots.

The opposite is also true for some alliums that are recognized as perennials. When kept as a clump, these get smaller bases and are more for flowers than roots. Dividing these and lining them out, they suddenly grow thick and tender.

Welsh onion (it originated in China, welsh comes from the Anglo Saxon for foreign or strange in that it came from a strange country), Allium fistulosum, has, and is today cultivated as a standard food crop. Go into about any Asian market and you’ll likely find some very large, bulky looking green onions, which are more than likely welsh.

Most green onions sold in US supermarkets are A. fistulosum too. We usually call them bunching onions.

These are usually grown from seed rather than divided from clumps. As gardeners, we can get an edge on efficiency by letting a clump of welsh onions propagate in our perennial beds, dividing them once a year. Line these out with good spacing, they size up nicely in a few months.

Even if left a clump, the real benefit of welsh onions over the green stage of regular onions (Allium cepa) is the season they’re available. Regular onions are day length sensitive, so bulb up and dieback in midsummer. Welsh onions coming up perennial are ready at least a month earlier, if not two. After a short hiatus for flowering and seeding in late spring, the late summer and fall growth is absolutely fantastic.

There is still a small harvest during the flowering time because the flowers are edible, and pretty, and the sideshoots are still tender. The only undesirable part is the hard flowering stem.

Lining them out, there will usually be some first year sprouts that won’t flower and will be tender all the season. Seedlings, likewise, which may turn up if you let the flowers make seed, won’t flower their first year but will nevertheless be picking size within 4-6 months or so of sprouting depending on what size you like.

The only thing dizzying about the fistulosums is their many colors and sizes -large, small, red, white, purplish. I personally grow ‘Ishikura’, which is white, very thick, and very tall. Kitazawa seeds has a very large selection of welsh onions if you want the more exotic types. If you aren’t too particular, most seed companies carry them under bunching onion.

Next up: Egyptian walking onions.

 

Shoot -shoots!

Excellent news! The small sutherland kale I suspected was a rooting from the bigger one has been transplanted to the food forest, grown happily, and even survived the winter!


I cut it back around September to invigorate its growth. Young growth is much more resilient than old, which I figured would increase its chance of living through the winter. It seems to have worked.

I covered it with a plastic barrel greenhouse though; and the winter was exceedingly mild.  I wouldn’t say this kale has proven itself ‘hardy’ yet.

Unfortunate news is it’s sending up flower shoots -profusely. Considering its supposed clone-parent hardly gave a flower, I doubt it really is a clone and is more likely a seedling -an especially stocky seedling.

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Even biennial kales can have their life extended by prohibiting seeding. I harvested the shoots along with the asparagus spears pictured and some early turkish rocket buds and cooked them up for a very tasty lunch.

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It was just a quick saute with some black pepper and fish sauce sprinkled over it. Once on the plate I sprinkled on some white balsamic vinegar and it was perfect.


We’ll see how perennial this kale turns out to be. But if the cold doesn’t get it, and its longevity is only a matter of keeping it cut back and clean of shoots, it will live a long time.

A soup made with burdock

There are a lot of perennial vegetables I work hard to get my hands on, coax into growing, beat the weeds off. While I’m sure it will pay off once all this gets established, there is far more virtue in figuring out how to use the perennial vegetables that are weeds themselves.

Burdock is a prime example. I planted a few “Takinogawa” burdock raised from seed in the willow garden a few years ago. In a shady corner, seldom weeded, it thrives, seeding with abandon.

I noticed as I walked by today a bunch of little burdock leaves unfurling and figured these would be prime candidates for tasting. So I grabbed a shovel, shoved it in the ground by each plant and just lifted enough to let me break the clump in half to get at the deep root. Root out, I sank the clump back down without turning.


Most of these are second year plants, some first year plants that sprouted late last summer. Largest diameter I dug was half an inch.

Back at the house I searched for recipes and found this website. She described them as hearty and crisp; there was one recipe that sauted the juliened roots with vinegar and sugar; I thought soup.

She mentioned peeling the roots, which I thought would leave me with nothing, but found a light scrape with a paring knife was suffucient as the skin is pretty thin. I put the peeled roots in water to keep them from discoloring.

To julienne, I cut the larger ones in half, then laid them on the flat side to finely slice. The smaller ones I just made a single cut down the middle.


I sautéd the roots in lard (from our animals; see Earth movers) until they began browning at the tips. I did them in two batches to keep from crowding. I did the same with some tiny perennial leeks from the food forest and added those to the burdock.

I tasted one of the burdock french fries and found it a bit stringy and downright bland. I expected a strong bitter flavor though, so considered this a bonus.

I threw the roots back into the pan with some beef stock (thick stuff cooked more than 72 hours) and threw a raw “Ishikura” onion on top to wilt.


I added some black pepper and vinegar, and that was that. And that was very, very good.

 

 

 

I’ll probably omit a lot of the formalities in future preparation, but it’s definitely something I will prapare again. With the wildly prolific supply, that can be again, and again.

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.