Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Towards Easier, Productive 3-Sisters Gardens

Growing 3-Sisters, corn beans and squash in a no-till garden, using "slash-mulch" techniques. 

(For those placing bets on this project and whether or not it will work, this is update #3 in what will become a series on "slash-mulch" 3-sisters gardens using a no-till, minimum [or no] dig techniques.)

Many researchers have identified "slash-mulch" gardening systems as the most sustainable form of annual gardening ever divised by homo sapiens. This traditional technique, found around the world, does not till the soil, which releases carbon into the atmosphere, requires heavy labor or fossil fuels, causes a loss of soil nitrogen, and an extreme loss of biodiversity and soil life. In fact, slash-mulch systems, which cut vegetation and use it as mulch in place, tend to increase the diversity, health and fertility of the fields they're used in. This same technique has even been found to increase the biodiversity and prevalence of broadleaf plants in meadow systems, fast-forwarding succession and reducing the dominance of grasses. 


So it's a perfect system to try in our "edible meadow," where we're trying to gradually convert lawn into productive flexible garden area without EVER digging, tilling, spraying or otherwise de-foliating the area.  

It is also widely believed to be the way Native Americans grew their famous 3-sisters gardens of corn, beans and squash, though I'm aware of no other experiments trying to replicate this technology. 


If we get it right, the implications for homesteaders and market gardeners are HUGE: we can convert large areas of lawn or field into perennial productivity without ever tilling, while at the same time sustainably growing these important crops - with minimal time investment and almost no off-site materials or fertility. 

GROWTH. So, with good germination achieved, the next major test is on growth! And so far, so good: we appear to be ahead of schedule, already reaching "knee high by July," with most of our plants passing this height in mid June. We do have some stragglers, but nothing conclusive as regards prepping method. One of our straggler mounnds was minimally dug, and two were sown into mulch piles. So far, it appears that an excess of green material without enough "browns" is the common factor in the slow mulch mounds. 


FIRST SLASH. In these images, you can see that we've begun our first whole slashmulching of the area, cutting down the big growth to make mulch in  place. So far, the benefit has been an immediate increase in the feeling of soil moisture retention. But it hasn't been without drawbacks.

FIRST CHALLENGE. The first challenge we've run across is planting out beans into the slashmulch system. Since we slashmulched before the corn was tall enough for the beans, (knee high) I had trouble planting the beans into the mounds. In one case, I was forced to dig (with my finger) too close to a corn stalk and caused one plant some apparent stress by disturbing its root. This challenge could either be addressed by another top-dressing of compost at bean-planting time, or by designing to have a wider "ring" of finish mulch or soil around the corn plants for planting the beans into. 

Some notes:

3-Sisters: Traditional 3-sisters gardens were grown across North America in a way that combined corn, beans and squash as ideal companion plants. Other plants like sunflowers, jerusalem artichokes, and amaranth were also frequently grown as 4th or 5th "sisters." These systems are theorized to have been sustainable, no-till, and more productive in terms of calories than conventional organic European agriculture of the time. 


"Mounds." One astute observer in our garden noted that our mounds were not very pronounced. This is because they were mostly made with only the soil dug from the cirlcle, or from mulch, which subsided in a few days. We also have moved towards a system where our "mounds" include a watering ring around them for planting the beans. This makes them easier to water, if necessary, and helps keep water in place in a rain. Native Americans reportedly used river-bottom lands for their plantings, using only the best soil for this intensive production system. These lands would have been naturally "irrigated" to provide good moisture all through the season, especially with a slash mulch layer to protect the soil. This is how they were able to reliably leave to go hunting for a few months, letting the crop grow without watering. However, it also left the plants more vulnerable to rotting and flooding, hence the mounds. On our sloped site, there's almost no danger of rotting or flood and little reason to use pronounced mounds. It's all a matter of using judgement and instinct. 

Multi-use varieties. For homesteaders and small producers, the ideal is always to get the most bang for our buck. So rather than grow varieties that are specialists, such as growing a storage  dry bean and a separate fresh bean, we looked for varieties that could do both well. Luckly, this is also what Native Americans selected for, so many of the varieties most appropriate for 3-Sisters gardens are also multi-purpose crops. 

Corn: We are using a small planting of our own corn seed, along with a multi-use variegated corn that can be eaten as sweet corn, used as popcorn or ground as corn flour. We're also using Oaxacan green corn, a variety we've had good success with in 3-Sisters gardens in S.W. Michgan sites. Ideally, we hope to add these genetics to our own genetically diverse "landrace" corn variety adapated to our site. 


Beans: This is the sister we've had the least success with, so this year, we did our homework and hope to have the right varieties. Modern beans have been cultivated to put their energy into fruiting, instead of producing extra vine mass, so they have more compact plants. Great for monoculture, but bad for 3-sisters, where they have to compete with the corn stalks for light. The Native American varieties specifically grown in 3-sisters produced leaves on longer stems, inefficient for monoculture, but allowing the plants to reach out away from the corn to catch excess light. We picked two related varieties which reportedly have the right form and are also good multi-use veggies, Mayflower and Turkey Craw. 

Squash: Again, we picked two Native American heirlooms, Delicatta and Seminole. Seminole is our favorite for 3-sisters, extremely vigorous and disease/pest resistant, very good eating. Delicatta is less well adapted to 3 sisters, but can be eaten under ripe as a summer squash and makes a good fall squash, whereas the Seminole is one of the best storage squash we've grown. 


Styles: 3-Sisters plantings were adapted locally to suit the climate where they were grown. The style of planting in Michigan would have been very different than the style of planting in Texas or Montana. For the Eastern Woodland Region, including the Great Lakes area, we recommend what's been called the Wampanoag style, named after Squanto and his tribe, who taught this style to the settlers. In more southerly locations, these were planted in circles at 3'-4' spacings. In more northerly areas, this distance was increased to 5'. We're using the 5' spacings (approximately) this season, but have used 4' and 5' previously. We've found a possible advantage to the 5' on our site. 


Timing: Some sources disagree on the planting timing. The traditional planting schedule I researched and have used sows corn and squash together at the same time, then beans later once it gets to knee-high. We've mistakenly planted beans to early and found the corn over-run with beans before it could reach productivity. Corn harvest was negatively impacted and the beans outgrew their "trellises." So this makes perfect sense. Meanwhile, in one of the western styles of 3-Sisters, the squash is planted in with the corn in the same mounds, or nearby, so that they can better shade the corn and reduce watering work and waste. In that style, it makes sense to plant squash later, after the corn is grown out some and can better wwthstand the competition from the squash. But in the Wampanoag style, where the squash is placed a few feet away from the corn mounds, there is no threat of competition. Moreover, in our shadier, cloudier climate, the bigger danger is that starting squash too late is proven to dramatically reduce yields. So I strongly recommend planting squash at the same time as corn, and believe this to be the most historically accurate version for our region. 


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

High-Quality Edible Native Hawthorns

High Quailty Edible Native Hawthorns for the Great Lakes Region

Looking for a "native" plant that is also good to eat, beautiful, and easy to grow?

Consider some of our native hawthorns. It's true: most hawthorns have poor tasting, small, seedy fruit that's best left to the birds. And most the birds won't even bother with, leaving them on the tree even through the winter and into the spring. 

But a few hawthorns are quite good to eat, and some are even being cultivated for commercial production. They're especially good additions to "native gardens" or where grant funds or other regulations require that a planting be "native." 

I cross-referenced the USDA's listing of Michigan native hawthorns with edibility ratings from the Plants for a Future database and my personal knowledge of breeding programs and commercial varieties to come up with this list. You'll notice that I always use the term "native" in quotes, since what is considered a "native" is often more a subjective matter of politics and opinion, rather than science or concrete fact. The crataegus genus (hawtorns) are a particulary good example of this, with very poor understanding and documentation, and many previous specie now being considered synonyms for the same species. In other cases, species such as crataegus pennsylvanica are thought to have walked right up to the Michigan border (with known populations in northern Ohio,) and then skipped over to establish themselves as natives in Wisconsin, but somehow its seeds (and the birds carrying them) refused to cross the future MI border. Or perhaps just maybe some specimens made it here but researchers have just not yet verified it as a Michigan native. 

But given distribution patterns and habitat preferences, I would personally consider it difficult not to consider all of the following species as "native" to Michigan and the broader Great Lakes region. PFAF edibility ratings in parentheses. Take my personal tasting notes with a large grain of salt, as my sample sizes were VERY small, and I can't be really certain I correctly identified the species.
(Specifically listed as Michigan natives by USDA)
holmsiana (4/5)
douglasii (4/5. I've tried this fruit and considered it an acceptable trail snack.)
macrosperma (3/5, but often noted for large fruit and historic food use. I've tried it and thought it too mealy for fresh eating.)
mollis/submollis (4/5, but receiving special mention for commercial production. I believe I've tried these and found them a nice trail snack.)
pedicelata (5/5)

(Near Michigan natives found near our border in continuous states.)
Pennsylvanica (5/5)
champlainensis (4/5)
illinoisensis (4/5, with special mention for commercial production)
ellwangeriana (5/5. I've tried these from a few individuals and found the color very apetizing but the flavor less attractive than other haws. Often the most recommended for commercial fruit production, but most specimens have sharp thorns. Some specimens available without thorns but fruit quality is unknown. Some are now reporting this as another synonym for mollis, which seems likely, which would again make it a Michigan native "species.") 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

No-Till 3 Sisters Update: Germination!

(Corn germinating in piles of mulch plopped directly on top of slashed meadow, with no barrier. Most of the mulch material was taken from our nearby hedgerow, which also acts as a fertility belt, mostly slashed comfrey, sorrel, chicory and autumn olive. This was covered with a layer of "brown" plant material like dry jerusalem artichoke stalks. A thin "finish mulch" of compost, cocoa mulch, and coir was used to create a seed bed for germination. )

As a quick update, we've overcome the first hurdle in our No-till Slash Mulch 3 Sisters planting. We had nearly 100% germination by day 5, with a few stragglers bringing close to probably 98% germination, much better than the 75% average expected in conventional corn plantings. All germination happened within the expected average 5-7 days for corn.

(Here we turned over the sod to reveal a seed bed, and used the up-turned sod to make slight watering basins. An inch of compost was mixed with the soil.) 

There was no measurable difference between our "dug" circles and our mulch piles in terms of germination time or percentage, growth appears even between both sets, though one mound MAY show some small signs of excess nitrogen "burn" in one or two seedlings. This is very encouraging, because it was not a given that in such an experimental style of planting that we would have good germination. 


Our next step will begin to "slash mulch" more of the existing vegetation to provide good mulch for the growing corn and squash, much in the same way that we (and other Peramculturists) do in our other no-dig garden beds. This will NOT completely remove competition, leaving the "weeds" other edible plants and grasses largely in tact, but instead just give our three sisters a "leg up" on the competition. In a few South American studies, similar slash mulch techiques have been found to outcompete organic corn production by 4 times, and even out-yield conventional chemical agriculture. However, I could not find any temperate-climate studies (or at least North American ones, there was one high-yielding study on traditional slash mulch in temperate Nepal) on slash-mulch production, so we'll have to see how our planting does. 


In the meantime, with this important hurdle cleared, I feel I can recommend others who might want to also try this technique, and have extra seed to play with. While I can't yet guarantee an outcome, because this technique took so little time to prep and plant, I can assure you that you can significantly increase your 3-sisters planting area relative to the amount of time you have to garden. 


And stay tuned for more unusual adventures in Permaculture, home restoration and homesteading, where we will answer the questions:

What's the relationship between Permaculture and Science? 
How about Permaculture and Preppers? 
What is limewash, and is it sustainable? 
And: What makes the best mulch for a Permaculture garden? 

Coming soon....


Sunday, May 28, 2017

No-Till, No-Spray 3 Sisters Garden: Corn, Beans, Squash

Here's our small field of freshly-planted corn, beans, squash, and a variety of other edible perennial vegetables, many of which are North American native plants. Most of us are used to seeing the bare soil of plowed fields, completely denuded of plants. Have you ever seen a planted grain field that looks like this?

The "holy grail" of modern sustainable agriculture is honestly no-till, no spray grain production. Better yet, what if our production methods could actually increase biodiversity and fertility, while leaving the biotic community in tact, instead of destroying it to create a "clean slate" by tilling.

Producing calorie crops without destroying a healthy ecosystem is also one of our major goals here at Lillie House, both because it preserves valuable ecosystem functions that keep plants healthy, and because it avoiding tilling or digging the soil would save time and hard work.

Since modern agricultural techniques either require tilling or heavy spraying of petrochemicals, this is generally reckoned to be IMPOSSIBLE by modern experts. However, it's also widely believed (though not without some controversy) that Native Americans had done it for centuries or millennia, producing 3-4 times the yield/acre as European "scientific" agriculture prior to industrialization.

Here's a fantastic little treatment on the topic of the Native American horticultural techniques I often talk about in my classes and talks: http://whyfiles.org/2012/farming-native-american-style/
Unfortuantely, as explained in this great little article from 2012, much of that advanced technology and knowledge was suppressed by colonial governments. But what we do know, is:
- a wide variety of techniques were likely used
- there was no tilling and minimal digging
- fire was probably used at some points, but
- other researchers believe that methods were theoretically used which "kept fields alive" and allowed natives to sow 3 sisters directly into diverse perennial grasslands and savannah ecosystems which may have also been filled with other useful forbs.
Unfortunately, I have been unable to find in-depth details as to how that was likely accomplished. For example, we can read that Squanto planted 3 sisters into mounds of "dirt" and wood ash, with a fish at the bottom. We can infer that he would have made these mounds into some kind of untilled field ecosystem (possibly maintained by periodic burning.) We can guess that these "mounds" were essentially like the no-till deep mulch documented in indigenous horticulture around the world and popularized in Permaculture circles by Bill Mollison. But where did this "dirt" come from? Was anything else done to prep the land for planting? Were fields necessarily dug with bone tools as practiced by Buffalo Bird Woman? Were her gardens and those planted by Squanto perhaps influenced by the tilling practices of Europeans?

Having experimented deeply with no-till production into perennial crop systems, and having experimented with 3-sisters plantings for around a decade, I've come to believe that these native horticulturists would have likely done what any good gardener today would do: use whatever was at hand to accomplish the task with the minimum work necessary.

We've planted 3 sisters gardens for the last few years into our perennially-covered beds without digging or tilling, but this year, we're looking into techniques to plant into untilled field ecosystems. In our 3 sisters planting this year, we're experimenting with using a few different techniques and materials to create little mini "sheet mulch mounds" directly into our edible/ornamental meadow, or "eaddow" project, which has a large emphasis on native edible forbes. We followed the Wampanoag system of planting (on the 5 foot centers, recommended for our latitude) and selected varieties of corn, beans and squash that are thought to be traditional and appropriate to 3-sisters plantings in the Eastern Woodland region, based on suggestions from our friend John Edgerton and our friend Julian's success with Oaxacan Green corn in S.W. Michigan.

(Image from CMU)
I'm anticipating troubles with slugs, pill bugs and other primary decomposers during germination, and trouble with management of the grasses and other plants in the "eaddow." But we're hoping we can make something like this a permanent part of the management cycle for our "eaddow," and can have a system for harvesting a variety of roots, nursery plants and vegetables in addition to our corn, beans and squash.

And if it works, it should save us a lot of time and work. In this case, we prepared and planted around a 30' * 30' section of meadow, using materials almost entirely from on site, in about 4-5 hours total work. It would have taken considerably longer to dig or till this area. Wish us luck, we'll continue to share updates on this project.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Asparagus and Radish Quiche with Chives

 These French Breakfast radishes are manna from heaven - a tender, buttery texture and a mild, creamy flavor, they're the only radishes I bother to grow. I usually eat them simply, sliced thin on open-faced french bread sandwiches, layed neatly on a thick layer of high-quality cultured butter and sprinkled with slightly crunch coarse Himalayan pink sea salt. A simple meal fit for kings - profoundly complex yet subtle flavors made this one of the classic sandwiches of all time for a very good reason. But the magic is in the interactions between the exact ingredients. A nice french bread with a biscuity aroma, the mild creamy, butteryness of the French breakfast radishes, and the texture and flavor of a traditional European style cultured and salted butter. Even the subtle acridity and crunch texture of the salt is part of the alchemy that gives this sandwich its emergent property, something better than the sum of its parts.

The tradeoff is that 2 days of 85 degree weather and the whole lot are bolting. 

So if you too have radishes to put to use, or seeing a glut of them at the market as the temperatures rise, you can try the classic radish sandwich, or this quiche inspired by the same flavor combination. In this case, made with a potato crust, as I'm always digging the season's last over-wintering potatoes around the same time radishes bolt and asparagus are at their peak. Chive flowers add a touch of pink to coordinate with the sea salt and slight pink of the breakfast radishes. Unfortunately, both of these recipes are very dependent upon the specific undertones of the exact ingredients, and would likely be a little lacking with any substitutions. 


Asparagus and French Breafast Radish Quiche with Chives 

sharp knife for thin-sliced radishes
medium cast iron pan 

3 small potatoes. 
1 bundle of whole chives, including bulbs and a few flowers.
1 bundle of small-sized French Breakfast radishes. 
6 eggs
1 cup cream or whole milk, or 1/2 cup lowfat milk and 1/2 cup creamy goat cheese (FTW.)  
3 large stalks of asparagus, sliced or 6 small stalks of asparagus. 
Himalayan pink sea salt, coarse. 
1- 2 T olive oil. 

Heat the oven to 350. 

Thin slice the potatoes as though making thin american fries or potato chips. Coat the bottom of a cast iron pan with a good quality cooking olive oil and brink it just to the point of smoking, over medium-high heat. When it just starts to smoke, add the potatoes and turn down the heat to medium. Olive oil has a low smoking point and keeps the oil at just the right temp to end with a somewhat crispy potato crust. 

Slice the chives, separating the white bulbs from the green stems. Set aside the flowers for later. Next, prep your asparagus. Brown the potatoes fror about 5 minutes, then flip, adding chive bulbs. 

Sautee the asparagus in a separate pan with a cooking oil or butter until tender crisp. Meanwhile, whip your eggs, cream and chive greens in a bowl together. When the asparagus is ready, add on top of the potatoes and poor the egg mixture over top. Put into the oven and set timer for 15 minutes. 

Next, slice the radishes about 1/8th inch thin. You'll want enough to almost completely cover the top of the quiche. 

(Yes, this is a lovely dish all by itself.) 

When the timer goes off check the quiche. It may take another 10 - 15 minutes, but it's important not to burn egg dishes, which turns them tough. It should be "puffed" all the way to the center and starting to brown around the edges. A quiche will set some after it's done cooking, but if it isn't risen all the way to the center, it will likely not completely set. 


When done, remove from the oven. Immediately add radishes. This should heat them through enough to slightly soften them and turn them transluscent, but without ruining the raw flavors and texture. Allow to cool another 10 minutes. Sprinkle the top with sea salt and chive flowers. Serve with a bed of spring microgreens. 


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

May Report - Inputs/Outputs/Activities

Perhaps the greatest advantage of Permaculture and forest gardening is that it can be used to maximize the return on investment of any productive landscape. In other words, it can optimize the value of your landscape, market garden or business, no matter what you do with it.

This is substantially different than the more commonly-stated goal of maximizing yields. 

See, Permaculture is a design system that can be used to create landscapes that are tailored to your individual lifestyles and goals. Some may want to try to maximize the output of their gardens for research purposes or to prove a philosophical point. Unfortunately, measuring the complex outputs of a diverse Permaculture system is proven extremely difficult to do in comparison to a simple one-time harvest of monoculture corn, maximized with oil and chemical inputs. 


But for most of us, living lives with finite energy and resources to put into our projects, and finite energy to deal with the outputs, (harvesting, storage, transport, sales....) maximizing yields isn't always a very practical goal. 

In fact, this reductionist goal of increasing yields at all costs seems downright childish when compared to the goal of "maximizing value" to stakeholders, including land stewards, end-users, and the human and natural communities which inhabit and surround the production area. 

Consider the conventional market farm doing everything "by the book," following "best practices" to maximize yield in an effort to maximize PROFIT: working long hours to squeeze every bit of profit from the land, doing extra spraying and fertilizing, hiring extra workers at exploitation wages, exposing volunteers and family members to harmful chemicals, taking on that extra farmers market on Tuesday evening for an extra 50 bucks a week.... Repeatedly, economic analyses find such farmers end up paying themselves a ridiculously low wage, with many admitting they pay themselves as little as $3/hour. Meanwhile they moved to the country to get away from the "rat race" of marketing, management and machines, and "back in touch with nature" only to find themselves deeply entrenched in managing an underpaid workforce, using spreadsheets, repairing machines and computers, and fighting tooth and nail against nature for their lives. 

Instead, wouldn't such a farmer be better off to design a system that yields far less than the maximim, but instead optimizes quality of life, healthful contact with nature, and a HIGHER LIVING WAGE for her work? Like most things, this follows the 80/20 principle, or the law of deminishing returns. Why pour extra hours of struggle into a system to squeeze out a few more units at the expense of your hourly wage? 


This is where good Permaculture design really shines. 

A great Permaculture system maximizes LIFE yields across different kinds of capital, not just that one most inflexible and dehumanizing form: financial capital. It buids our social capital, frees us to observe and interact with nature rather than going to war with it - something that helps us grow our informational capital. It frees up time to invest in our spiritual and social capital. And it give us a beautiful, nurturing environment to work in. 

Some of this is hard to quantify, 

I don't track the number of times I'm told that our garden is the most beautiful place in Kalamazoo, but I feel happy to report that I've already heard this a few times this Spring! I can't tell you how many people have told me they've driven past and been stunned by our garden, or that our garden was a  revolation to people that changed their lives. Or that my Permaculture talk, based on the things I've learned from this home ecosystem, was the most inspiring talk someone has heard. But I've had the honor of hearing all of these comments just in the last month. 

I can't tell you about the hours I've spent just sitting in my back yard watching the birds and butterflies. Or spectacular way the light shined on the broad leaves of sea kale on one special evening. Or how I got a free masterclass on photography from a watching a pro work in my garden. 


But what I can do is share our input/output tally again! For 3 years now I've attempted to share monthly updates here on our yields, inputs and time we've spent in the garden. 

Yet again, the off-site inputs have been very low so far this month. We did purchase one bag of cocoa mulch to pretty up the garden for a photographer's visit. We also put in substantially more work hours than we typically do, not to maintain productivity, but just to make things unnaturally tidy for a home landscape. Still, the work we've spent has been relatively low compared to most homesteads, farms or even home landscapes, and in return we've had daily yields of vegetables. 

And again, much of what we COULD harvest never gets picked since we haven't yet developed good long-term outlets  for sales and distribution. At this point, I simply have higher Return on Investment activities to put my time into than marketing produce I'd rather enjoy myself. 

In April and May my Lillie House related income was around $5,000/month, which is honestly quite high. This won't continue through the summer. About 1/3rd of that came from Forest Garening CSA registrations. Another 3rd came from edible landscaping design/install work. And the final 1/3rd came from rental income, final payments on our Winter Permaculture Design Course, speaking engagements, plant, produce and seed sales, and our online classes. As we shift to summer, more income will come from production and less from non-production activities, but honestly, I would philosophically like to see more coming direcly from production, AND at a reasonable market rate, not highway robbery boutique prices. But I'm also not in a rush to push it, since I want to ramp up the natural productivity of our site and live sustainably off the excess, rather than exploit the land, labor and finite resources unsustainably to convert them into cash. 

This month's current totals: (to be updated again at end of month) https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/18Jw3_YIc6VeIbZau07mxHyfK4KOhaw9r80u0JkRZkOM


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

2017 "CSA," Community Supported Permaculture

This is my favorite way to do Permaculture.

I do design/installation jobs for people who want to get a fast-forward on their projects without years of in-depth study of Permculture and forest gardening ecology, but I really do think the best way to transform your landscape is this class where we walk through the whole process together, with a group of other forest gardeners for support.

And it's a class that doubles as an advanced foraging class, covering many of Michigan's most valuable wild gems available throughout the growing season, which are often excellent additions to the forest garden or Permaculture landscape.

And this is "last call" until 2018, registration closes May 9th.

Classes run 3rd Saturdays from 9 - noon from May - November.

There are three different ways to be involved, depending on your needs. All three come with some seeds and plants, lots of advice, and an online version via media-rich emails and interactive online classes.

Class Alone: $350 ($50/class, includes samples, a few rare plants and seeds.) https://lilliehousekzoo.wordpress.com

Class Plus: $500. Includes a larger number of plants to start a nice Permaculture collection, and includes a basic consultation.

Home Garden Membership: ($1,000) COVERS CLASS TUITION FOR 2 ADULTS. Includes $350 worth of rare, specially recommended plants, a mushroom kit, a written site Permaculture consultation and more: https://lilliehousekzoo.wordpress.com/the-basic-home-garden-membership/

If you'd like to discuss your options or other details, please give an email at lillie.house.kzoo@gmail.com.

Hope you'll consider joining us!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

How Come There are Plants OTHER Than Mint and Bamboo?

(Our neighbors - Lillie House is nearby the A.M. Todd Mint flavoring facility in Kalamazoo, and we sometimes enjoy the aroma of "stepping into a York peppermint patty" from our garden.) 

Did you know that 90% of the world's mint used to come from a small area around Kalamazoo? 

That's right! We were once the mint capital of the world! Farmers here used to grow mint right out in the ground like maniacs, first in burr oak openings and later as an alternating perennial crop in farm fields, especially in our Kalamazoo mucky soils, often in the same fields as our famous celery (Kalamazoo was also famously once the celery capital of the world, and is still sometimes called "Celery City.") 

But wait - how could we possibly have grown anything BUT mint, I mean, once that "ultra-invasive rampant jerk of a plant" mint got established?! 

(MSU - A mint field in early stage of estblishing root cuttings.)

That's right, I'm on about "weeds" and "invasives" again, one of my favorite topics. Listening to the quivering fear in people's voices as they talk about the dangers of The Herb That Shall Not Be Named, or the stern disapproval of gardeners who say it is simpy "wrong" to plant any mints in any garden - EVER - I'm left wondering how we managed to grow celery or anything else ever since around here, if we had this "impossible-to-get-rid-of" bully of an invader growing in all the fields all around us. 

What's even stranger is that as an avid forager and hiker who's spent the last 5 years trucking through the region's thickets, old fields, deep woods, open trails, and every other possible ecology - including old mint fields - I've never once seen this "invasive" growing as an escapee in our region in the wild! If the conventional wisdom I often hear about this plant were even half true, then how could this possibly be?!  


We'll get back to mint in a minute, but first: Have you ever noticed that in Asia, there are plants other than bamboo? Again, considering the utter scornful condemnation of any gardener who'd dare to plant any bamboo in their Michigan garden, I'm left wondering how any other plants manage to exist anywhere in asia. In fact, as pointed out by Toby Hemenway in Gaia's Garden, people in many folk or indigenous communties in Asia would be surprised to hear that there's anything wrong with the plant at all.... The same goes for other "Verboten" plants in their home regions, where they're arguably most adapted to thrive: culinary mints, oregano and thyme in the Mediterranean region, sumac, poke and brambles in North America, garlic mustard in the British Isles, and so on.

Now, before a gaggle of gardeners hunt me down and force me to wear the scarlet "W," let me emphasize that caution is called for. While I'm the kind of guy who plants mints as part of a rotation in my garden beds, I'm also quick to caution people against planting specimens (like seedling hardy kiwi and vinca minor) that could become a management nuisance, could escape into nearby woods, or get them in trouble with their neighbors. And when I create landscapes for clients, I always assess how much time they have and how much they will be able to spend gardening and I never plant anything that I think could get out of their control.  I do NOT adise most people to plant mint or bamboo in their gardens without a thick soil barrier preventing their spread.

But the point I'm trying to make is about our mindset on "weeds" and "invasives," which isn't really helpful to gardeners or to the supposedly "wild" ecosystems we often spray into oblivion in a tissy over "weeds."

There are of course plants that were imported to North America that really did become widespread, to the detriment of native ecologies and plants. The most obvious cases are the non-native grasses we use in our lawns, and the dandelions that go with them. And in this case, it is now commonly believed that is the change in land management systems (from grazing and burning to mowing) that is responsible for the domination of non-native grasses - in other words, the plant spreading wasn't the problem, Europeans spreading was. But most often, like mint, these plants have more bark than bite. 

In this fascinating MSU article on historic mint farms in S.W. Michigan  they discuss the need to either replant the field every few years, alternate crops or let the field fallow, because every few years the populations would decline. Culinary mint plants are cultivated by root cuttings, are largely sterile and rarely set seed, so when a plant spreads in your garden it is all the same plant, with the same root system, and - such is life - everything eventually gets sick and declines, everything dies. Even mint. 

(My standard summer beverage, mint water with a splash of orange bitters.)

Like any other biological organism on this planet, mint, bamboo, and probably most other plants fingered as "invaders" all have their evolved niche, their roles in the process of "ecological succession," the process whereby nature transforms lawn gradually into an old growth forest. Each species may have its day as king, but it will be replaced as other tougher plants move in and the system naturally grows towards its "climax" as a mature forest, with greater diversity. Then, even the dominant climax ecology, the forest, is no longer deemed permanent, but just another ephemeral community, taking its time in the light until lightning, fire, humans or some other "disturbance" inevitably removes the woods and restarts the process of succession. This gives us an opportunity to solve weed problems by working with this natural process. We can "weed" our garden with our minds. 
So it seems to me that the problem very often is not with the plants, but in our thinking and interactions with them. The problem isn't in our gardens, but in our heads, where the thought of a single plant getting "out of place" is an affront to our sense of control. Change is painful. We want our gardens to be "perfect," locked in time, never growing or changing, or getting old. But nature wants the system to mature....

One of the most rewarding things I've learned from Permaculture is to let go of that control, and hand over the steering wheel to mother nature. She knows where she wants to go (ecological succession, greater diversity, more energy) but she's quite happy to take suggestions about how to get there (like which species to include, how much to "produce") so long as we're moving in her direction. What I've come to recognize is that often, my preconceived ideas about what's productive or aesthetic (like what "belongs" in a garden, or what's "native") don't really serve me or the ecosystem. And it feels particularly awe-inspiring to sit as just another individual co-creator in a dynamic evolving space that is "our garden," instead of a strange, sterile incarnation of my own neurosis imposed on the landscape. And it feels nice to look around my garden and see beautiful, helpful plants, each filling exactly the niche it evolved to fill, and doing exactly the job that I should expect it to, instead of seeing hated invaders and enemies.

If you're looking to recover from your own weed-neurosis, here are a few Lillie House articles that might help you learn to seek a functional balance with your weeds, a perspective that I've learned from studying Permaculture and ecology. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

This Hack Get's Mother Nature to Fight Weeds for You: Fortress Plants


Look: this is a picture of a vegetable at war with the lawn. 

Given all the attention around the "food not lawns" movement, you might think I'm being metaphorical. But an experienced gardener will understand that the veggie patch is ALWAYS fighting a war for survival against lawn and "quack grass" greedily trying to take over any bit of land it can get access to. 

"I've lost my garden completely to quack grass!!!"is one of the most common tales of garden woe, and usually the only recourse is to completely start over. 

But LOOK AGAIN: Here, it is the grass that's on the run! This spunky veg, with no help from the gardener, is actually winning the war. More importantly, this hardy specimen is holding the line, protecting the more easily overrun vegetables behind it. This is what some Permaculturists call a "fortress plant." Best of all, it's perennial vegetable, sorrel, meaning that once it is established it will come back each year, working to keep weeds out of the garden for years to come. This is one of several tools derived from the study of ecology and natural succession that clever gardeners can use to keep grasses and other weeds at bay. But you can't just plant sorrel in your garden and expect not to have any weeds. To work well, we need to understand and apply the ecological principle behind how it works and design with that in mind. 

(Another combo of fortress plants that has the grass on the run.)

It wasn't hard to convince myself that pouring a glass of home-grown elderberry-wine sangria and plopping a couple ice cubes in it would be the only possible way to visualize this. Now, staring at that ice cube it's still hard for me to imagine a wall of ice a mile high. But 10,000 years ago, that's what we had right here in parts of Michigan. In fact, as recently as 9,000 years ago most - if not all- of Michigan was under ice. When the ice melted and the water cleared what was left was a blank slate, in ecological terms a "disturbance," ready for mother nature to go to work repairing. 

But she couldn't just jump in with the ramps, morels and and solomon's seal that characterize mature woodlands, because they need the rich, deep fungal duff found in the mature forests of Michigan. She had to start with plants that could get a toehold into this "blank slate, with little organic matter or fertility to help out. This gradual process of transformation that occurs after disturbance is called "succession," and that's what we're interested in when it comes to weeds. 

Depending on the soil, the ecological history of the site, and other factors, a typical process of succession starts with the small, quick plants that evolved to cover poor "new" soils with little organic matter or easily digestible nutrition, like mosses and lichens. As these die back they enrich the soil with carbon and other nutrients, essentially adding "compost" to the soil and making it accessible to an increasing diversity of organisms. After a while of this composting, grasses and other "pioneer" weeds come in covering the land and playing their role in repairing the disturbance, creating a grassland. Over time, broadleaf plants like dandelions outcompete the grasses, making room for woody perennials to move in, creating a shrub field, then a savannah, then an open woodland, and finally coming to "climax" at a dark, dense mature forest. 

(A forest edge imitates this process, gradually advancing on the grassland.)

So, to nature, "weeds" grasses, and even non-native grasses have a role in ecosystems and a place in the process of ecological succession. In a natural system, their time is fleeting, doing their job, then slowly phasing out of dominance, eventually becoming rare in landscapes they had once dominated as they are replaced by the species that evolved to succeed them. This is why there are rarely many grasses or dandelions in a mature forest, and when they're present they are in balance, not dominating the other plants. 


But in a conventional garden we're constantly setting the ecological clock back every time we till or weed the garden, recreating the "disturbance" that is the promised land of the very grasses and pioneer "weeds" we're trying to get rid of! This is a system designed to fail!

From a Permaculture approach, a better way to keep grasses and other "weeds" from taking over the garden is imitate the process of succession. Author Toby Hemenway called this "fast forwarding to a later stage of succession" beyond the stage where these "weeds" necessarily reign. 

As it turns out, this "mid-succession" state, where grasses and early pioneers have started to naturally cede territory to a greater diversity of herbaceous plants, woody shrubs and early pioneer trees, is the ideal natural habitat for most of our favorite food plants. The soil is rich with organic matter and fertility. A variety of sun-shade habitats provides niches for many plants. Most (but not all) of our veggies can easily find a home in such an ecosystem, and most of our fruit trees are mid pioneers, happiest in such a situation. In nature, this situation is found at the forest edge, where the forest is spreading out converting grassland, and in old-fields and savannah systems. 

This is one reason why a well-designed forest garden works so well: it creates a variety of habitats all hovering somewhere around this mid-succession sweet spot. 

(An agro-ecosystem that imitates the mid-succession sweet spot.)

And Fortress Plants are just one great hack that food and ornamental gardeners alike can use to tap into this process. 

 The term "Fortress Plant" is not an ecological term, but rather a handy catch phrase for the various mid-succession pioneers that are adapted to reach out into grassland and begin converting it to forest, through competition, shade and allelopathy (chemicals secreted by one plant to poison its competition.)

So one fortress specimen alone will almost certainly be overrun. But if we can plant these perennial pioneers together with enough density to mimic the spreading pattern of succession, we have a chance at making a garden that is fairly resistant to grass and weed pressures, yet provides ideal habitat to our favorite fruits and veggies. 

(An edible hedgerow on the march, converting grassland just like a natural forest edge.)

A final caveat is that different soils require different fortress plant communities, so this strategy takes some experimentation. My recommendation is to use high diversity and high density, giving nature the tools she needs to solve the problem on the soils at hand. 

Starter List of Recommended Potential Fortress Plants

Relatively Low Herbaceous Perennials Idea for the Garden Edges
Most woody perennial herbs, depending on soil (better on sandy soil.)
comfrey, pretty much everywhere
sorrel and blood-veined sorrel
turkish rocket
most spring ephemeral bulbs including daffodils and alliums (though the effect is stronger at greater densities and with other plants)
over-wintering annual ephemerals like chickweed, dead-nettle, wild mustards and wild cresses
the monardas
fennel (again, this is probably a weeker effect on most sites, but it has good research proving its allelopathic influence.)

Taller Fortress Plants Often Observed at the Edges of a Forest
Maximillian sunflower
cane fruit

And this is just one of many tools that gardeners and farmers can use to put the process of ecological succession to work for them. The strategy gets even better when combined with other succession-mimicking hacks, like "nurse logs," another research-based approach to fast-forwarding succession. At Lillie House, these three factors are often seen working together. 

To get a fuller understanding of what these ecological mechanisms are and how they can easily be applied in the garden, we hope you'll join us for this year's Complete Forest Gardening Course, where you can see how these patterns are applied and managed over the course of a growing season, here at lillie House.