Monday, November 24, 2014

Designing a Permaculture Hedgerow

Last night, I had the opportunity to join in a permaculture discussion where hedgerows came up, and people who know me know that I'm crazy about hedges. As modern agricultural research turns towards perennial crops, and polyculture plantings, the hedgerow stands out as a traditional and uniquely adapted system for utilizing both. Better still, these woody perennial polyculture systems can do extra work by providing building and craft materials, ample carbonaceous material for composting, providing windbreaks, wildlife shelter, fences for wildlife, create fire and erosion barriers, provide forage, protect livestock or humans, and greatly increase the biodiversity that has a positive benefit on pest and disease problems and system health and resilience. 

Far more than mere shrubbery, hedgerows represent the original "food forest" technology of cold temperate climates, with their linear nature being a perfect adaptation of forest gardening to northern latitudes where light penetration becomes key. And since forest gardening has been called "the world's oldest land use" by anthropologists, it's no wonder that where you find hedgerows they're fundamental to cuisine, medicine, magic, shelter... and life in general.

If the hedge-bug bites you, you can delve deeply into our cultural heritage with a Google quest across the the rich topic of the Hedge, by exploring:
Hedgerow foraging
Tapestry Hedges
French Hedgerows in WWII
The Hortus Conclusus


At Lillie House, our research into hedge-tech has focused on adapting the traditional systems of British and French hedgerows, especially the English "cut and lay hedge" and the French "woven hedge" to the Great Lakes region by using bio-mimicry of the spontaneous, natural hedge-like systems that arise throughout the region. Some of our favorite foraging areas have been these natural hedgerows and we've aimed to study and recreate them at our home.

A generalized European planting would typically use:
A "thorny" main structural planting of 60% Hawthorn or Blackthorn (wild plum) or 30% of each of those. In addition to thorns, these species spread by sucker to fill in dead sections, and take very well to "coppicing," and creating tight woven hedges. 
10-20% Hazel. Hazel was sometimes used as the "main planting," especially in more urban areas where nuts were desirable and 
And a mix of: roses, brambles, elder, crab-apples, damsons, sloes, and wild apples and pears.
Hedgerows intended as wind breaks might include 10-30% evergreens, including yew. Science has verified the wisdom of this traditional approach, finding that a greater density of evergreens increases the turbulance of winter winds, actually increasing the problem instead of reducing it.

To get an idea of these plantings, try looking at some of the offerings of the many British companies selling traditional Hedgerow plants:

For the Great Lakes region, many of these plants could be adapted at least in function, though Blackthorn may experience problems with black rot. Good substitutes for the primary planting could include Sea Buckthorn or Goumi, which both fix nitrogen and coppice well. 

Our US wild plums do not generally coppice well, so they aren't good choices, however other prunus species like Nanking Cherry make good substitutes. 

Rugosa roses make an excellent choice for the US, as do our native elders. Blackberries  or wild black raspberries would also be quite at home in such a planting. Mulberries are commonly found in natural hedgerows here, and I suspect that after some extra work to get it established, Paw Paw would be very happy with life in a hedgerow, too, as it suckers, tolerates shade and takes to coppicig well.  

Through your next drive through the country, a quick look out the window and you're likely to see exactly this kind of plant community growing wild in the ditches. One even happens to be growing along the bike trail down the street for us, which is the one we copied for our planting. There are probably several near your home that could serve as the basis for your hedgerow. 

But not all trees will work well. French and British models typically excluded trees that would be allelopathic (toxic to other plants) or those that quickly sucker and are very tolerant of shade, as they become weedy in a hedgerow. Norway maple, willows, certain dogwoods, and even English elder (a stereotypical Hedgerow tree) were often avoided, depending on the site. Tall trees such as oak, linden and maple were often included, but spaced at least 2 or 3 times mature orcahrd spacing, perhaps 200' apart. These rules typically aimed to keep hedge maintenance low by reducing pruning and weeding. 

Once you have your trees chosen, you'll have a wide variety of perennial vegetables and fruits that are ideally suited to the conditions of a hedgerow. At LillieHouse, these include: strawberries, sea kale, asparagus, good king henry, sorrel, endive (chicory) nettles, poke, comfrey, stinky bob, perennial alliums (we have over a dozen varieties) cleavers, milkweed, turkish rocket, sweet rocket, jerusalem artichokes, japanese yam, grapes, kiwi, ground nut, ground pea, ladies thumb, clover, salad burnet, spring beauty, mints, and many others! Hedgerows naturally take advantage of "edge effect" making them an ideal place for a huge variety of species. 


Once you have an idea about what plants you want in your hedgerow, you'll need to make a plan for establishing it. Like all things in appropriate technology, traditional technology and Permaculture, the trick here is finding the right balance of "intensive" and "extensive" tools for the job. Traditional European hedge systems provide us with a wide range of options here, from the careful and deliberate plantings of urban French Tapestry Hedges to the nature-assisted systems of "dead hedging." 

Any one hedge is likely to use a mix of hedging approaches, but arranging them in order of intensive to extensive, they might look like this:
1. Intensively planted urban or "zone 1 or 2" hedges close to the home: Hand planted at high density around 1-2' apart, relying on selected short tree species chosen to give a yield of fruit, nuts, berries beautiful folliage and flowers. Shorter species make the hedgerow less labor to maintain.  
2. Semi-intensive: hand-plants pioneer species like elder, prunus species, and hazel at a greater distance of 3-5' or more. Birds, mamals, and suckering fill in the hedge. Oftentimes, hedge-layers would encourage the process by throwing fruit cores and seeds into the hedgerow. 
3. Sacrificial planting: very fast growing trees are planted at a useful density 2-3' and quickly woven into a hedge. Later, these trees are selected out as more desirable species fill in. Trees especially suited to this might include empress tree, toon tree, and hybrid poplar.
4. Dead hedging: using available materials, pruinings and fallen wood to build a temporary fence to meet your needs. Over time, perching birds, and mammals help fill in the planting, reliably creating a hedgerow of useful mast and fruit species. The hedge-layer can help the process by occasionally planting in a few desirable species and selecting for the best plants. 

One of my favorite gardening blogs has a great post on how this mix of procedures is covered in the French literature here: 


And finally, if you've come this far into hedge-geekery, thanks for your time! You can find even more info on our hedgerows by searching this blog, if you like. Better yet, take a minute to look at some pictures of these traditional French and British systems:

1. Google search for British "hedge laying."

2. French tapestry hedges:

And finally, if you're planning a hedgerow, please drop me a comment and let me know about it. As a certifiable hedge-geek, I'd love to hear about your project. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Permaculture Garden in Early Winter

The first snow of the year.

A nice reminder of the beauty that comes as things come to the end of their season.

It's good to cultivate an appreciation for such things when you live in a place like Michigan. 

And a time such as ours, where so much of our lives will be lived after the growing season. 

And often that's where the real beauty is found. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Alternative Paths to Wealth

Bill Mollison, one of the founders of Permaculture, famously said that seeing houses well stocked with fuel wood was a better measure of the real wealth of an area than GDP. 

How true. 

Lately, I've been studying "wealth," what it means to different people, and the paths they use to get it. It's certainly an idea that a lot of folks find motivating, and accumulating it's even a core principle for many people's lives. In fact, the pursuit of wealth is one of the key organizing factors in our society, that defines the "right" American way of life and forms many of our most important norms and mores. But for most of my life, the common notions of "wealth" I was taught by society didn't seem very useful or desirable to me. "Wealth," as society defined it, was just a thing that seemed to keep people from accumulating the things I considered valuable, and generally kept people from thriving. 

"Screw wealth," I used to say, "it just costs too much."  

The concept of wealth I was taught was very much like the definition you'll find on Wikipedia: the accumulation of valuable resources and possessions. Society makes that seem very straight forward, but for me it always seemed a lot more complicated than that. I think a lot of people feel that way on some intuitive level. That's probably why more and more people are rejecting the "right" American way of life. Pundits on TV and Paternal figures in churches love to scorn and judge these wayward sons, but they're simply no longer tempted by the cheap plastic chochkies, stress, and stagnation that supposedly rewards us for "good behavior." 

One apparent problem is that wealth accumulation is affected by "diminishing returns." If somebody gives you a sandwich, you can have lunch. A second sandwich is a sort of luxury. A third sandwich probably won't taste as good and you'll probably end up paying for it later, either by working it off at the gym or paying for the negative health effects of over-eating. So, maybe you have a friend close by who also wants lunch. Ten sandwiches, and now you've got to waste your time to call your friends or go knock on doors and see who wants a sandwich. One hundred sandwiches and you've probably got to get some helpers to distribute your sandwich surplus. Of course, you'll need to pay them, so you'll need to start charging, so you won't be making any friends this way. 1,000 sandwiches? 10,000? Each step up creates more work to do, more time and resources to manage, and most importantly, at each step, the amount of sandwiches that will inevitably get wasted goes up, giving you a pile of stinky rotting sandwiches to deal with, too. 

A second problem with "wealth" was that I often disagreed with my society about the "value" placed on various things. So many of the "resources and possessions" society considers valuable seem like dirty diapers to me, not something I really want even one of, let alone something I'd want to accumulate. This is different than "diminishing returns," which is too much of a good thing. Even one dirty diaper (or Hummer, or private jet, or private golf course) isn't really something I'm exactly yearning for. All of those things seem to come with lots of "negatives" like smelling bad, or making you look like an asshole, offer very little added utility, and require lots of additional resources, time and money for upkeep, even when you're not using them. 

Anyway, I will be writing a few posts about what real "wealth" means to me, how I'm going about accumullating it, and some tools I've discovered for getting there. 

To start with, here's a quick list of some "resources or possessions" that I highly value and want to accumulate. But I also keep in mind that all of these are affected by the idea of "diminishing returns," which implies that a kind of "balanced portfolio" is an important part of what real wealth means:
--Peace of mind, a calm and relaxed, yet energized and happy mind that's naturally predisposed to good intentions and realistic but compassionate mental narratives. This is the most important resource and possession we can have, as state of mind influences our ability to appreciate and use all the others. There is no activity, resource or possession that is worth sacrificing this one. 

--Time to "spend" on things that are important to me: friends, family, community, life-enriching activities, silent contemplation, nature, art, and play.
--Valuable "intellectual property," skills, experience, ideas, sets of knowledge that can improve life for me and other people.
--Freedom to do as I like so long as I'm not hurting other people. This implies a certain amount of control over your own basic necessities such as food, water, clothing, shelter.... So, a certain amount of:
--Self Reliance.

--To be a part of a respected member of a healthy, happy community and biome. 
--Relationships: friends, family, love...
--Rewarding work where I can contribute something meaningful and positive. 
--A deep connection with nature and my biome. 

--Dirty hands and muddy boots, the feeling of "working" as the "keystone species" in my ecosystem as a natural human. "Obtaining a yield" from working with nature is an extraordinarily rewarding experience. 
--A beautiful and comfortable "home" where I can express myself and be surrounded by beauty. This does not have to be done with expensive things, in fact, the most beautiful homes are humble. To paraphrase Thoreau, people live in big, expensive houses with shiny new things while they romanticize the painting of the rustic old cabin on their wall. The important thing is the restorative and joyful experience of being in a beautiful place. In many spiritual traditions it is considered important to make one's home like the home of the gods! This is old magic....

--A healthy, flexible, strong body. Secure access to good healthy food and natural medicines. A healthy home environment free of toxins. High quality, rewarding exercise. Comfortable levels of heat and coolth. Secure access to clean water. 
--A fair say in the politics and policies of my community, especially when they affect me. 
--Security. By this, I mean the feeling that--within reason--some "insurance" that I wouldn't be too negatively effected by external circumstances beyond my control. For me, some of this is external, and a matter of having resources and possessions that can be "protected" in some way. It's especially important mentally to make sure your ability to meet me needs is protected. But I also recognize that the bigger part of this is "internal." There's never any perfect insurance or guarantee you won't lose something. Loss is part of life. So true security means having a mental state where these inevitable losses don't overly impact your happiness, health and contentment. 
--Simplicity. As few tangible physical possessions as I can get away with. As few responsibilities and obligations, as well. Do less, better. 
--Compassion for all beings. Compassion makes life richer. 

Of course, any idea of "wealth" has to include "luxuries." The list above provides me with most of the things I'd consider true luxuries, and most are experiences that you can't buy with money these days, a roaring fire, connection to nature, ripe heirloom fruit just picked from the tree....

I feel like if I can design my life to accumulate these resources and possessions in the right amounts, then extra money would just be a bother I'd have to deal with, another responsibility I'd be burdened with, and a detraction from real wealth. Sure, I might like to travel a little now and then, mostly to see friends across the country, but perhaps with some creativity I don't need monetary wealth to do that. 

When I envision a life with the right balance of those things, I see true wealth. 

So, what's valuable? What truly makes a person wealthy?