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.

 

The conglomerate of perennial leeks

Leeks all fall under the species Allium ampeloprasum, but this divides into two subspecies: porrum and ampeloprasum (not a typo. It’s literaly Allium ampeloprasum var. Ampeloprasum. In other words: it best represents the species).

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Photo by Algyte
Porrum covers common garden leeks, whose thick shanks, and sweet, mild flavor we so love. They dependably bloom and make seed their second year from sowing. Sometimes they make side bulblets, creating a clump of progressively smaller leeks if not divided. This clump can come back year after year. The variety “Babington’s” leek is especially well know for this habit.

To be happy, though, they need pretty rich fertility; and really propagate best by self seeding. Winter quite dependably squelches these tender things in my climate. For all practical purposes, I consider porrum cultivars to be annuals.

Elephant garlic and the like are the true ampeloprasums. When you find sources online trying to pass off “perennial leeks,” they are more than likely from this corner of ampeloprasia. You’ll notice, as you chop them, a smaller diameter, and a more prominent garlic fragrance and flavor than usually found in the porrums. Variety anpeloprasums readily divide themselves every year, like garlic. Similar to the porrums, the individual plants get smaller as the clump gets bigger. I have yet to see these proficiently seed themselves; but winter here can’t dig its claws into this hardy plant, so there’s little incentive.

“Oepri perizweib” is a variety of perennial leek I grow. I got it from Southern Exposure. It has a mild garlic flavor. I don’t divide them, resulting in thick clumps of little sprouts I usually just snap off rather than digging. This leaves the bottoms to regrow. Doesn’t seed so far as I can tell. It rarely even blooms when clumped together. If spaced well, and given fertile conditions, they can reach close to an inch across at the base. Below is a fine clump with Mache as a groundcover.*


Another specimen I would say resembles these ampeloprasums is the Sacred Forest garlic Oikos Tree Crops sells. Its scapes are characteristic of the ampeloprasums, although they list it as a garlic (A. sativum). It has also proved quite hardy for me. I’ve found it is quite slow to form new side shoots where I have it, but these are about as large as the parent -no shrinking. This is in stark contrast to the Oepri Perizweib. It’s also much larger than the healthiest, most pampered of the Oepri’s I’ve grown; so perhaps give this one a try and let me know what you think.

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I prefer to keep the perennial ampeloprasum leeks for their hardiness, and because they sprout up as early as late February for me. They die down around June and July, but will often start up again once the weather cools around September. Below are some of the Oepri and mache I harvested in February.


As with the other alliums in this Perennial Alliums series, you could keep any of these ampeloprasums in a perennial border as clumps, then divide and separate every year for growing out in well spaced, fertile soils to get larger size and milder flavor. Let nature manage propagation. The porrums might find such uncouth settings unaccomdating; so perhaps give them a little richer spot, or try them in a greenhouse planting. It would certainly keep the leeks flowing all season long.

*If you are drawn to growing effective goundcovers like this, may I suggest you take a look at Mastering The Growing Edge. I wrote it just for an interested gardener like you.

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.

How your food can grow from air

I gave a talk at my family farm’s plant sale two weeks ago, that was supposed to center around PASSIVE Gardening. I thought it would be rather tacky to give a condensed version of the book, so decided to give a side glance of the method, by explaining the little known art of pulling nutrients from air. This is actually the basis of the method in my mind; but I often get some queer looks when I explain it that way. I’d love to know your take on it.

“I’d like to offer something rather uncommon in the gardening world…..”

View the talk here

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The why of fruit thinning

I noticed one of the apples in the food forest had finished blooming and now had tons of tiny apples clustered on its branches. I took the situation in hand and started to pick them off.

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photo by Jenella

Five flowers form on each spur, leaving five small fruits after pollination. They naturally fall off, one by one, until a single fruit is left to make seed. Contrary to what we might think, an apple has grown to its maximum potential within thirty days after the flower drops its petals. From this point, any ‘growth’ is just cells filling up with sap like balloons. The number of balloons to be filled with juice resulting from cell division is already decided.

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I was pulling off all but one fruit on each spur. From this, I expected each apple left on the tree would have more nourishment from the tree, be larger, and better shaped. If I had waited for the tree to pair down the fruits itself, it would have divided that nourishment between all those extra apples that would never stay on the tree anyway.

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Is there a drawback to this unnatural thinning? Perhaps.

When plucking off the fruits I noticed a few had codling moth damage. I have gotten fine harvests of apples from my trees, with very little, if any, codling moth damaged in years past. Whether this is an especially good year for codling moth population or not might explain this damage. Or perhaps the tree had dropped much of the fruit with codling moth damage so I never noticed? It quickly occurred to me the tree grows the extra fruit in part to increase the chances at least one will make seed -as codling moths eat the seeds of the apples they infest.

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Codling moths have several generations through a season, so we will see if the moths come back for more later.

Another effect of thinning apples is more regular fruiting. The seeds in each fruit create a hormone that blocks fruiting the next year. Some varieties of apple are notorious for their violent fruiting cycles -one year not a fruit on the tree, the next (or year after that) the branches break for the myriad fruit clogging the works. By thinning, a moderate amount of hormone is produced every year, allowing a moderate amount of fruit every year.

Perhaps such staggered fruit production in un-thinned apples is a tactic for cutting down on codling moth population?

As is, thinning delivers better results for me. But my trees are also quite small -just barely above my head. Thinning falls into what I call pleasurable interaction with the food forest, or work I enjoy, and usually only takes five minutes or so to complete.

I may quit it in years to come, and just trade thinning time and larger fruit for hacking out the good hunks from myriad smaller fruits. Masanobu Fukuoka, when his students asked how they could grow good apples without equipment and sprays, said to simply feed the poor quality fruit the students thought eminent to pigs. I’m not so skeptical as Fukuoka’s students; I have seen my trees produce quite healthy fruit already, so we’ll see what they give as the system builds. Below are some of my Fuji apples last year.

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You may wonder how the heck massive orchards ever thin their fruit one by one. By machine? No, by chemicals. Hormones in trees largely dictate the quality and growth of the fruit. We have developed an array of synthetic hormones, of which there are no counterparts in nature, that cause apple trees to drop their fruit. Run some experiments to properly calibrate the dosage, and you have thinned trees by simply spraying. Some of the hormones they have developed even increase the cell proliferation process beyond what the fruit tree offers, resulting in abnormally large fruit. I’ll let you research the health effects of these synthetic hormones.

When I first came across this information years ago, I went on a long search for an equivalent that could be derived from plants. I didn’t come across one, or any information on a hormone pathway that could cause the fruit to drop, accept for stressing a tree, or simply reducing pollination. I am suspicious there is an even more elegant answer:

I find that increasing the health of trees and their ecology in general can can at times truly transform their character. Mortal Tree is still a long ways from being notably fertile. But Fruiting factors are building on their own in some places. So perhaps the good effects will get out of hand, and produce some good results I never would have expected. 

 

PASSIVE salad 

How do you make a salad from perennial vegetables? How do they pair? Is there a best way to slice them? My friend and client Elora lately posted a short video showing how she makes salad from her PASSIVE garden.

Harvesting from a Perennial Garden (~2 minute watch)

What are your favorite perennial salad pairings?

If you’re new to this blog, you might like to read the post about Elora’s garden establishment here For example:

She has posted about the garden before on her blog, The Blonde Butter Maker, and tells me she plans on making a lot more content on how passive agriculture fits into her and her family’s day to day life. I started design in their yard about three years ago, and am so pleased they are seeing such excellent results.

Here is the recipe Elora uses in the video:

Salad burnett -a loose handful

French sorrel – 3 to 5 leaves

Scorzonera -10 leaves

Welsh onion -5 of the green tops picked off, or 1 onion removed from the base up.

Chocolate mint -2 sprigs

Stritello -loose handful

Some mache stems and leaves -as much as a handful.

Violet flowers for garnish -as many as 30 flowers per salad

The scorzonera, sorrel, and onion greens should be chopped -preferably into thin strips cut lengthwise. Mix this with the stritello and salad burnett and mache. The chocolate mint can then be chopped fine and evenly dispersed over the top with violet flowers for garnish. A light vinaigrette would compliment this best.

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