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.

Orchard understory

Is the space around your trees still empty? Try these plants:

10 Companion Plants for Orchards (~4min read)

This article provides a pretty neat survey of plants that, together, make a diverse, healthy, productive orchard. Any of the listed plants of especial interest?

The rules of spacing

I was at a Christmas party in conversation with a local Timken engineer who, hearing I design food forests, wanted to pick my brain on apple trees. He had six trees in two rows of three, well spaced in his backyard. He was throwing out terms about the mainstream organic sprays he was using, and framed his questions expecting me to know some super organic spray, or spray regimen, that would fix his problems of pests and low vigor in general. I don’t think he expected the answer I gave: ‘What’s planted around the trees?’

We often think of the rules of spacing as rules for keeping other plants away from each other. In practice I find the lines blur between species, and enters a much more broad science: it’s what should be included near the plant, as well as what shouldn’t. Between these two aspects, you make or break the majority of fruit tree problems.

The lines often blur between species because, let’s face it, plants don’t grow in a vacuum and always have something growing up against them. In this guy’s case, his trees were planted right into his lawn. They were in competition with the grass.

Looking at their history, grass and trees are in most cases nemesis of one another. Trees make forest; but grass needs open space. The setting in most yards of trees with grass between is quite artificial, and only exists because we keep the grass mowed. In any other situation, trees would take over.

The prairies are the kingdom of grass, and these occured because of rain shadows, or areas where circumstances such as the Rocky Mountain range messed with the winds that carry rain, creating droughts in one part of the year, and near flooding in another. Trees don’t like that, because most have relatively shallow roots, as much as 80 percent residing in the top three feet of soil depending on the kind and its conditions; but prairie plants, such as the grasses, and N fixers like senna hebecarpa, put roots down unusually deep, so reach the water table whether rain comes or not.

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An experiment showing the root growth of Red Delicious apple tree two years after planting.
Have you ever wondered as you pass woods how the trees survive so close? If you were planting an oak tree in your yard that would someday reach a hundred foot tall, can you imagine the spacing recommendations? They would be over fifty feet apart. Most yards couldn’t fit more than one tree. But in the woods they stand on top of each other, growing for hundreds of years, happy, and healthy.

Studies have shown that trees can grow their roots deep into the ground, but prefer to keep their roots higher in the soil if possible. There is more organic matter, hence nutrients and water, in this layer. If there isn’t, trees will try to put in the work to grow deeper. This is a lot more work, and certainly isn’t their first choice.

What trees really prefer is building networks in which they share and preserve resources. For instance, trees have what is called hydraulic redistibution, which is a fancy term for moving water not only up for their own use, but back down into the soil for storage, and horizontally to other plants. Peter Wholleben, in his book The Hidden Life of Trees recalls his surprise when he found a ring of roots from a beech tree that must have been cut down well over a century beforehand, but still had green, living roots showing above ground. It had no leaves, and the stump was gone. As he explained, citing various studies, the living trees around this ancient (should be dead) tree were feeding it sugars made in their leaves, keeping it alive. Likely, they got some kind of kickback from the extended root system because it allowed them access to more resources.

This is in ancient, established forests, so conditions aren’t quite the same for our young transplants. We can get some similar effects by growing fruit trees in more open settings, or riparian zones. These are zones similar to fencerows and overgrown fields where grasses are just converting to trees. These zones are iconically untidy and wild; but skillful gardeners know the elements of these zones, like clay in a potters hand, have the best potential to form the most beautiful, lush gardens.

Riparian zones have many layers, with notably high numbers of low growing herbaceous and woody shrubs, many of which are nitrogen fixers. The quickest way to simulate this ecology is making ‘guilds’ of plants right around your fruit trees. Here is my manual of bed building for info on quickly clearing grass without tillage. Plan on expanding these plantings every year until the beds around your trees meet. If the tree is older, and larger, the bed should extend at least a couple feet beyond its drip line.

An example guild: 1. Fruit Tree 2. Comfrey 3. Siberian Peashrub 4. Amorpha fruticosa 5. Japanese Wineraspberry 6. Honeyberry 7. Blueberry 8. Turkish Rocket 9. Crambe cordifolia 10. Stepping stones, (or in this case, stepping logs). The green base is a ground cover of mint.
Any guild should include at least 2 woody nitrogen fixing plants, about 5 plants that do not fix nitrogen but can be cut for mulch, such as comfrey, or a groundcover of something like mint, then several fruiting shrubs like raspberry or honeyberry, and some perennial vegetables.

This is the best method if you already have fruit trees in the ground, like our engineer friend. If you’re just planning your food forest, Robert Hart, the father of the northern food forests, recommended planting full size or standard fruit trees at recommended spacing for their size, in rows like any orchard, but then semi standard or medium trees, then dwarf trees, then shrubs, then herbaceous plants, then vines to climb and fill in the cracks between them.

Photo credit: Graham Burnett.
I’d recommend mulching as much as you can, and planting that area with a complete planting like this. The space should be completly filled with plants, and will establish faster with less work overall.

This system gives quite attractive results that are increasingly less cost and labor than serial applications of even organic, clay-based sprays, pyrethrums and neems, let alone the more harsh chemicals. There is work later on, but this is of course dabatable, because its mostly harvests of fruit. Sounds like pleasant work to me.

Making friends with rodents

Blurring gray fur and tails pour like a waterfall onto the floor in front of me. A tense minute, and the place is cleared -bare, clean cement floor, and nothing but hushed scurrying sounds all around. I’d just turned on the light.

This was one summer long ago, when several old building were torn down by the Township very near our chicken house. These were an old garage, another chicken pen near it, and a large old barn. They all housed droves of rats. Where did they go when these building fell? Our place.

We had quite a clean operation. When the rats came, we cleaned it to the max, removed all the wood shavings, straw bales, any and all feed -no matter how tight its container, and even some of the chickens. Despite the cleanup, the invasion lasted for months.

They were too smart to fall for traps. Eerily, one of the traps we found set off with no rat in it, had a freshly gnawed twig from the lilac bush right outside the pen stuck in it, the bait removed. My dad stayed up several nights shooting them with pellet guns. He terminated the lives of hundreds, but only recovered a few because the rats began eating their fallen, dragging them back into their holes immediately, or gnawing into them on the spot. To say nothing of a few unfortunate chickens that fell prey when the lights went out.

The rats made this new house their home in short order -with or without resources. They dug enormous piles of soil out from under the cement flooring, brought in food from some place. We had removed everything else.

When specialists begin throwing out statements about harshly mowing orchards to keep rodent and rabbit from gnawing away bark and roots of trees, I am a bit skeptical. These creatures create habitat for themselves and are part of thriving ecologies. They are eaten by almost everything, providing a vital link in the trophic system. If you have ever studied how these systems work, reducing one part of the chain, reduces, or at least effects, all the others following. If you reduce rodents, you by default reduce potential health of the trees you’re trying to protect.

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A casualty in my parent’s small orchard. This tree was about five years old when snow fell, and a freezing rain covered the snow with a sheet of ice that remained for about two weeks. Rabbits, mice, and voles ate everything they could get at, including large trees like this one. See the gnawed bark at the bottom.

Rodents feed into a very broad system. Finding examples of what happens when rodents are entirely removed is difficult because we have seldom pulled this off in outdoor settings. If we have come close, someone is also fertilizing and pruning a lot to make up for the loss.

Rodents have many immediate effects too. For one, they dig holes, which allow more air and water to percolate into the soil. This is very good for soil health.

It’s interesting to note the trees most immune to damage by rabbits, voles, etc. are single seeded species, like peach and plum. The species most vulnerable are multi-seeded species, like apple and pear. Rodents and rabbits, every couple of years when the food gets scarce, devour the bark off a couple of these trees, killing the trees. If they didn’t these multiseeded species have a higher chance of sprouting on top of each other, and choking each other out.

Only one successful seed is necessary to replace its parent. Rodents are a factor which ensures the chance any young tree grows to adulthood is very, very low. This is a good thing in natural conditions. It means trees are more likely to be well spaced.

But how do we make our tree “the one” that grows to adulthood when we’ve already taken spacing into account?

The most effective move is just installing tree guards; simple spiral guards are fine for young trees; tree guards like these are better for larger trees. Larger trees are less vulnerable to girdling, but I have seen trunks near five inches in diameter girdled to the hard wood if the snow lays thick enough long enough. For these sizes, I am not a fan of corrugated plastic pipe guards because they’re extremely hard to get on and off, often harming the tree in the process. Even covering the trunks with tinfoil or fine wire mesh is better than nothing.

Opaque tree guards also protect from sun scald: when bright sun reflecting off cold snow heats the cold tree bark, making it crack. This isn’t good. Covering the trunk helps prevent it.

Another tactic is to provide food for the rodents (No, I’m not nuts. Keep reading). The fact is, rodents and rabbits will be present whether you like them or not. If you mow the grass, they will dig tunnels. If you remove food, they will find it, and store it.

I’m not the only one recommending this. One extension service informational pamphlet extolled mowing the grass in an orchard to the finest bits to reduce cover, yet recommended throwing out sunflower seeds when the snow fell. This is intended to divert the eminent population of rabbits, voles, and mice -now forced into starvation.

Apparently the specialists are aware their mowing and trapping are only mildly effective, and that the real issue is diverting and blocking the rodents when times get tough, not killing them. Natural predators do that.

It seems most logical to just leave the tall grass and brush -at least in isolated corners, so the rodents can feed themselves.

There are also biological deterrants, such as Sepp Holzer’s bone tar. Here is a forum discussion on the subject. Sepp Holzer explains making bone tar and its use in his book. I own a copy, and quite like it. I have never gone through the trouble of making bone tar though. Tree guards have done the job for me.

There is an idea that planting certain bulbs and other plants around a tree deter rodents and rabbits -especially voles, which eat roots underground. In controlled studies, ground covers like Pachysandra species, and bulbs like daffodils are themselves very unpalatable to rodents. This doesn’t necessarily deter their cozying up to your trees.

I’ve had trees with no guard brutally stripped by rabbits, despite a ring of daffodils around it. Keep in mind, when hunger gnaws, rodents gnaw just about anything -tasty or not. While these plants might deter voles from eating roots, don’t expect these to block the possibility of girdling.

Ecosystems keep a pretty tight control on rodents and rabbits as is. If we simply focus on making a healthy, lush habitat, giving your trees the protection to make them “the one” that succeeds in growing to adulthood, the rodents can function less as your foes and more as your friends. The alternative is certainly not as pretty.

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. 

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. 

Ground cover infographic

Sunchokes is number ten in the Top 10 ground covers for food forests series I started a while ago. To help put everything into perspective, I made an infographic.

Scaled Infographic

The ground cover branch on the visual archive has links to all the original posts if you would like to find out more.

In general, the layout from right to left are ground covers that do well in established beds, to plants that simply wipe out other plants, and are excellent for bed building.

If you’re wondering how to share this on your own social media pages, try the share buttons below the post. I have most social platforms available for sharing.

I’m using the the term “dynamic mulch” to describe the ground covers, because ground cover has a rather flat connotation. Most gardeners think of them as useless plants that do nothing better than excessively clog the soil surface. They have much more potential.

I’m suggesting these plants as tools, not just for blocking weeds, but actively removing weeds, making use of otherwise useless plants through careful combinations, getting food from ground cover, improving the quality of the soil, and feeding other plants through their  well calculated use. With the correct use, resulting from a more dynamic comprehension of plants, we are suddenly on the brink of an entirely new level of sustainable, productive, passive agriculture and gardening.

The infographic, and the Top 10 series are part of a bigger surprise to which some of you closely following me have probably caught on. It should be ready before the end of the month. My apologies for making you wait, but I assure you, it will be worth it.

Update: It’s launched! Mastering the Growing Edge is live if you want to check it out.