Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Era of Edible Forest Gardening has Arrived

(Edible Forest Garden at Lillie House, filled with food, flowers and medicinal and culinary herbs.)

Nature is calling us home, and people all over the world feel it, the urge to reconnect with their landscapes in a more meaningful way than the endless struggle against lawn and weeds. And the forest garden - a designed ecosystem filled with ripe fruits, lush vegetables, craft materials and medicine that integrates native plants and wildlife habitat - is the ideal representation of our rightful human relationship with the world, cultivating the wild, working with ecosystems to meet our needs instead of reaping them for profit or spraying them with poisons: nurturing all the beings around us while rewarding ourselves and our families.

Building on the improvements of the "native plants movement," the "wild" landscaping, and then post-wild landscaping paradigms, permaculture-designed forest gardening not only preserves and increases biodiversity, but it also maximizes the potential to create habitat for pressured wildlife, catches, cleans  and infiltrates water, dramatically reduces (if not eliminates) our dependence on finite petrochemicals, and sequesters more carbon! Most importantly, it reduces our negative ecological, climate and social impact by helping us grow some of our own food, in the easiest way possible. Moreover, scientists tell us we need to maximize forests if we want to reduce the impacts of climate change. And so the "food forest" has arrived as the new model for the ideal eco-friendly, conscientious landscape design.

(London Glades forest garden, which won top honors for future-friendly gardening at the prestigious Hampton Court Flower Show.)

Forest gardening is now widely being called "the oldest human landuse" by academics across many disciplines, with traditional systems across Europe being recognized as important elements of national culture and heritage. But while the western world had largely forgotten these systems, Indigenous communities around the world, especially in the tropics, have kept these systems alive as vital lifelines and important resources. In fact, modern researchers are documenting how these systems allow human societies to harvest the energy of "ecosystem services" in ways that decrease poverty, lessen oppression, mitigate the human impact on wildlife and biodiversity, provide community resilience and autonomy, reduce work hours, and enhance public health (McConnel, Goutum, United Nations, etc.). It was these systems that inspired the first modern Western forest gardens, especially that of Robert Hart. 

Slowly at first, starting with the earliest visitors to Robert Hart's forest garden in Shropshire, this most modern/most ancient form of landscape captured people's imaginations: to live surrounded by a landscape of bountiful food, regulated by natural ecosystem services. And then they began to spread like wildfire, with models springing up in cities throughout the western world. 

(The famous Pensioner's Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, top honors, modelled after a traditional English form of forest garden.)

Their influence began to be felt in the world of high landscape design as post-wild, naturalistic landscapers began including more edibles into their work, creating little edible ecosystems that were - in a sense - already forest gardens. 

(Food, medicine, comfort, nature...) 

Quickly, the idiom became a dominant force in aesthetic garden design with the famous Pensioner's garden at the Chelsea flower show. This now-famous garden, modelled after the traditional "cottage garden" cultural icon - recognized as a form of forest garden integrating food, flowers, teas, medicines together in a half-wild natruralistic planting - stoked the fires of the public imagination world wide.

 (Kate Frey, ornamental agro-ecology with fruits like polarded grapes, vegetables, herbs, and flowers.)

The forest gardens kept coming as designers like Kate Frey also took top honors the Chelsea Flower Show, perhaps the world's most prestigious garden competition, with a naturalistic ecosystem of edible plants, wild medicines, and wildlife habitat in a low-maintenance assembly that has been described as an unofficial forest garden. The edible ecological gardens she's gone on to design have been excellent models for what post-wild edible landscaping could achieve in terms of beauty and comfort. 

(London Glades, photo via the Telegraph)

And now, the London Glades, an official forest garden, designed with the Permaculture system, has won a gold medal at the Hampton Court Palace flower show, another of the world's most prestigous competitions! And, at first glance, they nailed it! This is a beautiful example of the form. Of course, there's more to a forest garden than beauty, and I would need to look over goals, production objectives, required inputs, desired uses, plant selections and so on, to really know if this is a great forest garden. But, since forest gardens are really about meeting specific needs, and I beleive the primary objective  here was beauty, then I think this is a wonderful example. To find out more, view plans and see some mock-ups, visit:

(London Glades, Telegraph.)

The time of forest gardens as an aesthetic medium has come, for any community-minded, conscientous people who want to reconnect with nature while doing one of the single most important things they can do to reduce their negative climate, ecological and social impact. In a world where political solutions seem hard-won and often ephemeral, this is a source of hope, a form of direct cultural transformation we can take action on right outside our door, at our place of work, at an empty lot or bike-trail near our homes....

(Aesthetic home forest garden at Lillie House.)

And  finally, a small community of aesthetic-minded gardeners have been working to refine the aesthetics, functionality and comfort of these gardens to move them beyond mere low-maintenance food gardens, but to make models for truly attractive, viable gardens for the home, business or public landscape. Indeed, at Lillie House, we take pride in matching forest garden designs to the architecture, community character and "genii loci" of each place, such as our front yard Jardin de Cure  modelled after a historically-acurate style of garden that was popular when our house was built!   

(Jardin de Cure, another traditional European forest garden with ancient origins.)

If you would like to visit us here and experience a few different models for what a home forest garden can be like, feel free to send us an email at or connect with us on Facebook. We have an Introduction to Forest Gardening class coming up on Sunday, August 20th, and may schedule another session for a weeknight around that time. 

(Lillie House.)

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Permaculture for Sanity Retention (and Landscape Management)

Kneeling on the lawn, dirty gloves to your face, you see the writing on the garden wall: you now understand the "gardener's trap" you find yourself in - and you find yourself praying to that great tiller in the sky, to just come end it all. Now. Your garden (literally) looks like the heat death of the universe. A manifestation of pure chaos. The apocalypse, but with weeds. 

And grass. 


I know this is a very geeky metaphor for a gardening blog, but it might seem clever in a moment if you bare with me.

Two years ago, you started your first garden bed. And while the work filled up much of your freetime, it was sooooo worth it: Beauty, cut flowers, fresh food - you were hooked. 

You wanted more. You came up with a plan to convert your whole yard into gardens. Maybe annual flowers. Maybe an annual vegetable patch. Perhaps an English border garden. "Lawn be gone!" you proclaimed. 

But in the second year, as you started working on your new beds, last year's beds still demanded your attention. "That's ok," you thought," this is my hobby." And your expanded gardens expanded into your life, taking up the rest of your freetime. You still had dreams of conquering that lawn, but realized in your heart that you'll never get there. Unless you can coax someone else into helping you. 

I talk to many gardeners who've run up against this wall of time constraints. So many with big plans, but not enough time to implement them - and still keep up the gardens we already have. 

But at least it works. You have enough time to maintain the gardens you've created. You and your garden are a "stable system." 

Until there's a problem. (And there's always a problem.) A particular "weed," or even a beloved plant gets out of control. Ants start farming aphids on your favorite tree. A family of rabbits moves into your vegetable garden. Powdery mildew. Or even just a few weeks of extra rain and cool weather causing the lawn to need more mowing can tip you into the trap. 

And because these problems require additional time to solve, and because you've already run yourself up against your personal time limit, you're now in:

The Gardener's Entropy Trap: Where your gardens takes increasing time and energy to maintain, but you're all out of time and energy. And if your problem gets out of control, there's a real chance it will enter into what's called a "phase shift," like the melting of an ice cube, a move towards chaos that takes a LOT of energy to get it back to the original state of organization (being a garden.)

So there's no time to lose! You need energy!

Seeing the desperate look in your eye, neighborhood children run as you approach. Friends, family and even the significant other are all suddenly VERY busy with work/knitting/darning socks.  

Now, the only viable solution is to dig up all the perennial weeds, till the garden under and start all over again. You give up. Fall down face first into the tangle, and let the minty darkness of the weeds envolope you.... 

You now understand one of the fundamental ideas in Permaculture. Blown up onto the societal level, you can recognize the same "entropy trap" or "complexity trap" in the problems of Urban decay, ever-growing taxes, our declining infrastructure, failing schools, our unstable financial system, a floundering industrial food system....  

Whether you're a ornamental gardener, market gardener, farmer, or homesteader, as we put energy into our landscapes, we all run up against this complexity trap sooner or later. The Energy Law of Gardens: A garden in motion will always  expand to fill your life. 

But it doesn't have to be that way. The primary idea of Permaculture is that there is one force, one source of energy that was available to us all along, and it WANTS to help us, if only we'd have chosen to make a place for it. That force is nature. And the energy it can provide is through what's called "ecosystem services." 

(This naturally-occuring food forest filled with garlic, mustards, medicinal herbs and fruits requires 0 maintenance.)

Here's the Permaculture strategy, in contrast to the complexity trap: When we start a garden, we design a "self-organizing" or self-maintaining system where nature does most of the work. We try to design systems that aren't just low-maintenance, but that can actually free up more time and energy for us! We replace needy lawn with ecosystems! We get that done and stable. THEN we move onto the next project. 

In this way, we can finally conquer the lawn, and transform our yards the way we always wanted to. 

Now, I can't reduce all of Permaculture to one article. But I want to give you the single most important concept to understand HOW we can recruit mother nature (and her services) into our landscapes, farms and gardens. 

The Intensity Spectrum

In Permaculture, systems that require a lot of energy and time from us humans are called "intensive." This includes things like flower beds, veggie patches, produce fields and native gardens. Those where we let nature do the heavy lifting are called "extensive." These include: naturally occuring ecosystems, stable agriforest systems, mature forest gardens and well-designed guilds. 

Somewhere inbetween these two, there is a spectrum of relatively intensive systems, like edible meadows, intensive forest gardens and guids, hedgerows, slashmulch gardens, annual polycultures, etc. 

The whole point of Permaculture is to balance intensive/extensive systems in a landscape (or city, or business, or organization) so that they better fit our available resources and our goals, minimize maintenance (by relying heavily on extensive, self-organizing systems) and maximize usefulness (by using JUST ENOUGH well-chosen intensive systems.) Period. 

Permaculture Zones

Zones are the most important tool for helping us achieve a good energy balance in the landscape. 

Choose your battles. 

Whether your goal is profit, beauty, or food sovereignty, keep intensive systems small and focussed.

(Clean edges where it counts at Lillie House)

Clean Edges 

Again, one of the most important concepts in Permaculture. We expect clean lines in the garden, even in the market farm. But these take a LOT of energy to maintain. So choose the places where clean edges will have the biggest impact on aesthetics and productivity. 

(Edible border garden with "clean edge".)

Soft Edges. 

Elsewhere, we can use "soft edges" with fortress plantings and pioneer plant communities to maintain the edges for us. 

(Soft edges at Lillie House.)

Post Wild Aesthetics

Even in the ornamental landscape, we can blend Intensive and Extensive. Having tidy Intensive gardens where it counts to make a visual statement, and using "Wild" aesthetics to lower our maintenance elsewhere. This ain't a Permaculture idea though, this was once a  major concept in horticulture, now mostly forgotten. 

(The "wild" potager at Cambo is famous as an ornamental food garden.) 

(A "Post Wild" landscape design.) 

(An edible cottage garden associated with the PFAF project.)

Defeating Entropy

Armed with Permaculture, and with nature as an ally, you're ready to take on the lawn, once and for all. Working with nature, a little at a time, creating stable communities and plantings as we go, we shall garden the world.

The Beginner's Permaculture Garden Bed Make-over
Fortress Plants 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Who Cares for Whom?

See this glorious variegated corn? I'm so drawn to its colors, its beauty. 

This is one multi-use variety we're growing in our no-till slashmulch 3-sisters garden of corn, beans and squash. This was intended to be a "plant it and forget it" type of garden. But I just can't forget this beauty. 

Instead, I'm spending a little extra time tending and nurting this planting, drawn to want to tend this beautiful plant. And that is deep ecology. 

In a very literal sense, this plant has evolved to coax gardeners like me into tending it. Just as all cultivated plants have: through their usefulness, their great flavors, their intoxicating aromas, and of course their beauty. 

No doubt the synergy goes both ways. I take care of  them, they take care of me. Surely, they provide me with a high-calorie carb crop that provides me with the energy I need to garden. And the rich, brilliant flavor of the corn in its milk stage keeps me near, protecting the seed crop when its at its most vulnerable. And yes, this food is medicine. 

But beyond that, could this plant offer me healing and nourishment through its beauty? Does it hold me as a devoted protector with its inspiring colors? When I sit and look at it, is it building my connection with my ecosystem, teaching me to be a better steward? Healing my relationship with the earth and my community? 

When I tend her, I tend the soil, I tend the myriad of beings that dwell therein. And so, I tend myself: making the habitat that supports me richer, more fertile, more abundant and healing. This is part of the magic of forest gardening. 

I'm drawn to the beauty of this diverse landscape. I want to increase its health, enrich its diversity. And so I make the land better for myself, and all the beings I share it with. It has transformed me, a lowsy destructive human, from a "pest" into a beneficial. 

Through forest gardening, I no longer want to "control" the landscape, go to war with it, limit its diversity. I want it to be wild, free, healthy and diverse, and I prioritize techniques that lead to that end. 

"Come to me. Tend me. Give me water. Cover my soil. And I will nurture you, too. I can heal the sickness that has grown in your heart...." 

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....