Category Archives: Flowering Plants

Things to do when not farming…

The seed catalogs are piling up and it’s a constant reminder of how in flux we’ll be as of

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Identifying cool mushrooms…

June. It’s been a long time since I’ve not put in a large seed order, and frankly, I’m feeling a bit antsy about it this season. So, to take my mind off of what I won’t be doing, I’m thinking ahead to the things this extra time will provide in terms of opportunities for learning. An ever-growing, ever-bearing, zone 1-10 list of things to learn while not farming:

  • Tend to the travelling orchard
  • Improve spinning technique
  • Improve fiber processing set-up and technique
  • Experiment with natural dyes
  • Learn about medicinal herbs
  • Practice grafting techniques
  • Volunteer at school or public garden
  • Help a fellow farmer with farm chores, butchering, shearing, etc.
  • Learn old-fashioned candy-making
  • Focus on food preservation techniques:
    • Pressure canning
    • Smoking meats
    • Drying
    • Fermentation
  • Take a class in business planning for the fiber mill
  • Maybe, just maybe, learn a new knitting skill
  • Explore niche or value added markets
  • Take a botany class
  • Spend some time with growers using methods outside of your own, including conventional, biodynamic, and other permaculture or organic farmers and gardeners
  • Cut up seed catalogs to make art with the kids
  • Cut up seed catalogs to do some companion planting planning
  • Re-read Edible Forest Gardens

The list continues to grow and hope blooms eternal, so… suggestions are always welcome and may spring shine warm sunlight upon your gardens!

Healing the Tree: the Science Behind Plant Distress Signals

Apple trees do not suffer in silence. The other day, my husband called from the farm to tell me one of our apples had been badly damaged by rodents. Before asking, I was certain I knew which tree. Last summer, when selling our house, I had transplanted three healthy apples out of dormancy (a horticultural and pomological no-no).

Two of the trees went into healthy soil, and suffered very waxhealingtreelittle. The third tree, my personal favorite, I planted at a point that represents the entrance to the future orchard. The soil in that spot had been tilled and was badly depleted, but I nursed the tree along with high hopes. I pinned this hope on the fact that the tree was a highly disease-resistant Liberty on standard root-stock.

“The Liberty?”

It was. The sweet disease-resistant apple had taken yet another hit from an impressive rodent population living at the farm. Having already suffered through intense winter cold and heavy snowfall, it was no surprise that the tree had attracted the attention of some common orchard grazers. I knew this, not because I understood the science, but because it’s a pattern repeated in nature. Even predatory animals hunt the weaker of the herd.

The Science Behind the Pattern

It turns out, the scientific community has long been interested in the phenomenon of trees and plants putting out distress signals. A more recent study conducted by the Netherlands Institute of Ecology concluded plants and trees emit an odor that attracts predatory insects and birds to help ward off infestation or future attacks long enough for the tree to heal.

According to the journal article published in Ecology Letters, scientists examined apple trees specifically, and found that damaged or insect-ravaged trees attracted more birds than their healthy neighbors.

The journal article abstract concludes:

Birds were attracted to infested trees, even when they could not see the larvae or their feeding damage. We furthermore show that infested and uninfested trees differ in volatile emissions and visual characteristics. Finally, we show, for the first time, that birds smell which tree is infested with their prey based on differences in volatile profiles emitted by infested and uninfested trees. Volatiles emitted by plants in response to herbivory by lepidopteran larvae thus not only attract predatory insects but also vertebrate predators.

Scientists hope to apply their research to developing better (and natural) pest management strategies in commercial orchards.

In the meantime, I’ve treated the tree with a small amount of honey, some cinnamon (a natural insect and deer deterrent), and wax tape, affording the Liberty a little time to heal and a good bit of hope.

The hill

I must find a man who still loves the soil

Walk by his side unseen, pour in his mind

What I loved when I lived until he builds

Sows, reaps, and covers these hill pastures here

With sheep and cattle, mows the meadowland

Grafts the old orchard again, makes it bear again

Knowing that we are lost if the land does not yield.

Jeanne Robert Foster

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Up an old farm road, some ways out of town, there’s a place that grows ideas. It’s a little unconventional (thankfully), and as the woman who owns the property has always said, “If you make it up the hill, you were meant to arrive.”

I could drive it, and sometimes I do, but mostly I prefer to park at the base of the hill and trace the two-track up through the still of the forest. A few days ago made the trek on foot and met up with a deer, all the while contemplating the juxtaposition between the system and game that is played in surviving via a new set of rules, versus the simplicity of rules laid out by nature. How one system deprives us of purpose, while the other feeds it to us in abundance.

I digress.

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The hill is my transition in and out. A time for me to process what I have learned, or while ascending, consider all that I have learned that has lead to my return. This farm is where I got my start in permaculture. It’s the place where I was given information, shown how to grow food, how to build soil, how to live and think outside of the melancholy of the free-market system.

A biodynamic farm. What happens here is dynamic, from how we build thematrix of the food web from that which we eat, to that which eats what we eat, to the larger picture of how we relate to the plants, each other, our place within this universe. This is where I first heard the universe described as “one voice, one song.”

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And that word “dynamic” – I love how it feels to say it. How it opens my throat like a yawn. How intrinsic a vocal movement meets definition is this word, dynamic.

We have been asked here to help an old friend restore her vineyard, planted 25 years earlier on a bluff over the bay. The vines are still bearing, though many other plants have joined them and there is much to learn about the ever-increasing intricacies of this now self-regulating ecosystem.

And in returning, we are visiting the ghosts of our past. Walking past echos of ideas still standing. Thoughts pending. Heartbeats rendered through the undulating landscape where milkweed, vetch, and valerian have replaced annuals in the fertile soil. This is a living memory. And to think I felt sadness when I first looked upon it! When it has so thoughtfully produced in our absence! Lifted the roof off the greenhouse, and blanketed the orchard in a cloak of yarrow and gentle green grasses.

We have been charged with more than the responsibility of salvaging a vineyard for harvest.

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That is too one-dimensional and careless a thought. We have been shown a path that will lead to wisdom gleaned from the harvest or from the goal of harvest. And what better way to begin, than to learn about a vine?  A vine that is so careful to root itself in depth and breadth before reaching out to others for support.

We will not be saving a vineyard; we will be saving ourselves.

Staple crops that will grow just about anywhere

I awoke with a start, imagining for a moment what it would be like if we went to the grocery store for something as simple as bread only to discover the shelves emptied of all supplies and food. Suddenly our small acreage feels that much smaller and though deer do roam downtown, the unlucky four would become overnight a highly prized source of protein.

Our varied seed choices are great, but honestly, we have the luxury of experimenting, of failure, or starting over. What if we depended on every square inch of our garden as those just a few generations back did?

Tubers from a Jerusalem artichoke may be prepared as you would prepare potatoes.

The crop I love to hate, Jerusalem artichoke, so easy to grow, it’s nearly impossible to get rid of, and a great source of iron and carbohydrates. It’s also very appealing, and may be harvested from the ground until the ground freezes.

Jerusalem artichoke is neither from Jerusalem, nor is it an artichoke. It’s in the sunflower family and stores sugars in large, edible tubers that taste like potatoes, and are prepared very much the same way.

What about protein? I’ve never killed an animal and prepared it for food, and many haven’t – it’s a skill also abandoned in favor of the convenience offered by grocery chains. Most grains require acreage and those without will benefit from amaranth, an herb that is entirely edible (the leaves may be prepared as you would prepare spinach), with seeds that make an excellent substitute for protein-rich quinoa or rice.

There are a few varieties of amaranth. Giant amaranth may supply a family with up to 10 pounds of seed off of as many plants. The grains are high in calcium, iron, potassium, zinc and vitamins B and D and may be eaten, popped or ground into flour for bread.

Alongside Jerusalem artichoke, it’s a very attractive plant, so your neighbors, prior to any apocalypse, will still like you, despite having traded your lawn for food.

Other great storage crops should also be considered including potatoes, onions, peas and beans, squash, pumpkins, etc. along with berries and fruit crops will help sustain the hungry family in times of need.

Why weeds matter

By definition, a weed is any plant that crowds out cultivated plants.  In nature, plants will only crowd out other plants when the environment is altered and one plant is deprived of some nutrient or gained by another.  While we tend to think of forests as stationary ecosystems, they’re always moving.  As we see in succession, when one layer of pioneer plants has amassed enough biomass to sustain a perennial herb layer, the grasses move in and “crowd out” the pioneers.  As more biomass is generated at the top-soil layer by the bundled root-systems of the perennial grasses, the shrub layer encroaches followed by the shorter, then taller trees.  With each step, we see a more complex ecosystem unfolding until the web of biodiversity is strong enough to sustain minor alterations.  

“Weeds” or those plants we have labeled weeds, contribute to biomass, cultivation, offer a food source for beneficial insects and play a part in the development of the ecosystem.  And in many cases, those plants we’ve labeled “weeds” are far more beneficial than the plants we’ve cultivated.  Dandelions, for example, are completely edible, hold nutrients from the soil and redistribute these nutrients at the end of the life-cycle, are insectary, and offer humans some medicinal value.  Grass, on the other hand, prevents erosion and provides biomass, but otherwise, isn’t very useful to humans, doesn’t attract beneficial insects and takes in more nutrients than it contributes.

Healing Tree: the website

I’ve been brainstorming ideas to make this blog more effective and I’ve decided to build a website around topics discussed on the blog while maintaining the blog as a central forum for discussion and ideas.  The website will offer resources to folks new to permaculture and also those more familiar with the “do no harm” approach to farming, including helpful links and articles written by me and those more familiar with the process.  

Since we’re landless, we’ll be propagating a new kind of garden – with vital seeds of change – online!

Guild Building: Grow with your guilds… (Pt3)

Once we have allowed for ample decomposition and the accumulation of multiple nitrogen/carbon-rich layers of biomass along with a healthy number of lively microbes, planting may begin.  Really, what you plant within your guilds is completely up to you, but there are some general guidelines to consider and you may go as deep into these as you’d like.  Permaculture can be quite the scientific endeavor, but it need not be overly complicated in your first attempt.  Grow and learn with your guilds.

If you’re planting a fruit-centered guild, think of the tree as your centerpiece.  Everything around the tree should compliment the tree.  I don’t mean aesthetically, though it will naturally assume a beautiful pattern all its own, but rather compliment in the sense that those things growing around the tree either work with the tree or do not interfere with the tree during major growth cycles.

Cat mint works to attract beneficial bees and insects; comfrey accumulates nutrients and mines for water from deep within the soil and offers medicinal value to humans; grass-suppressing bulbs act as a deterrent for deer and other scavengers while attracting  beneficials while the tree is blossoming.  One of the most important things these plants share in common is their lack of competition at root level with the fruit-tree.  Another is that they supply a food or medicinal source for humans and none of them require much upkeep other than the occasional watering.

In certain cases, there is a very specific and “magical” relationship between plants.  Blueberry roots feed off of a specific microbe found in the rhizomes of certain members of the Rhododendron family.  Since both of these prefer a lower pH, blueberries and azaleas, for example, may be planted side by side and will establish a harmony all their own over time.

A tree that takes in more nitrogen, might do well with N2-fixing plants such as clover or wild blue indigo.  Our mulberry guilds will contain some of these lovely blue accents to benefit the tree, offer some diversity in the guilds and attract insects.  The mulberry itself is an excellent food source for both birds and humans and will keep birds interested in the mulberries over your apples or cherries.

I’ll suggest some specific plantings in a future installment.  Email/comment with questions.