Permaculture revelation

The reason permaculture isn’t “clicking” for me in my current location is that the space I live in is already a forest. That’s as perma as it gets. You don’t design a forest garden in a forest the same way you design when you’re starting with a degraded, eroded open field.

Must think about this in a different way…

Fruit tree change of mindset

I’ve been getting hung up lately on “where do I put the fruit trees?” and even “what trees do I want to have?” The south part of the yard is what we see from the house, and I want it to look good and be functional. And the south sun (especially full sun) is extremely limited, so it feels like I need to be very careful about what I plant. And it seems like I need to get the whole thing figured out before I start planting. I’m getting a brain cramp from thinking about it. This is not the fun way to garden.

Well, I found a way around that today: I just decided to throw a bunch of stuff into a different part of the yard, a corner we don’t see except when going in/out the driveway.  This will be a quantity, not necessarily quality or pretty, orchard. Throw in a bunch of stuff, in different varieties, give it the minimum care to get it established, and see what happens. Don’t worry about arranging it for beauty; just make sure it doesn’t take over the powerline cut. Plant enough so I might get some after the critters dine. Just get things in the ground, so five years from now I’m not wishing I’d started five years ago.

Here’s the list of species:

  • Serviceberries (aka saskatoons)
  • Hazelnuts
  • Raspberries
  • Bush cherries
  • Bush apricots
  • Red mulberries
  • Cider apples
  • Hardy pecan
  • English walnut

The areas I’m planting this stuff is pretty shady. Some of this stuff is supposed to have full sun, but you know, I’m not trying to optimize yield. There’s already an apple tree back there, and it was more productive than the entire commercial orchard down the road this year because it’s under the canopy and protected from frost. So what the hell. I’ll toss some stuff in there and see what happens. It’ll be fun. And if I get some fruit from it, great! I’ll sure come out knowing what can handle a laissez-faire gardening style!

Permaculture thoughts

As I look out the window through the forest to the fen, I see oaks, hickories, cattails, and herds of deer.

To a resident of this ridge 400 years ago, that’s a damn grocery store. I think our next step toward local eating is to develop a taste for these foods – adapt ourselves to this environment at least as much as we try to adapt it to us by gardening.

Planting new oak trees!

We’ve decided to plant an oak grove in the front yard.  The idea is to plant them close together so they will grow straight up before spreading out to a small canopy, closely grown together. When you walk under it 30 years from now, it will be dark and shady and cool.  As time passes, I hope to shade out the lawn underneath and replace it with a “forest floor garden.”

But that’s a long way off:

New oak trees

They are about 2″ in diameter right now, and perhaps 8-10′ tall.  We got one each of red, swamp white, and chinkapin oaks.  All have been found around here (SE Michigan) historically, and the swamp white and chinkapin are fairly rare in this area these days.

We are tickled pink about these oaks.  We bought them from a friend with a tree farm who is just starting to sell.  He loves his trees so much, he was joking that he wanted pictures of his saplings in his wallet to pull out when other people start showing pictures of their grandchildren.  We assured him he had lifelong visiting rights to these trees so he can watch them grow.  I know how he feels; I’m already thinking of them as part of the family!

There are layers and layers of awesomeness to these oaks, between Celtic symbolism and the somewhat serendipitous way they are arranged in the yard.  If you’re interested in the details, come by some time and meet them. I’ll talk your ear off. 🙂

Now accepting donations

Several people have commented recently on my vegetarian recipes pages (by far my most-viewed pages) that if I wrote a cookbook, they would buy it. I’m afraid two solid months of recipes is all I have in me at the moment – but I thought hey, if people would buy a fancy-schmancy cookbook for $20, would they perhaps be willing to chip in $5 for the existing 40+ recipes on the site? And what about all the equipment experiments I’ve done? Would anyone be moved to chip in a dollar or two to defray those costs?

I’ve weighed the possibility of asking for donations for a long time, and generally come down on the side of “that’s kinda tacky.” Then I thought no, advertising would be tacky.  This is just giving folks the opportunity to send a couple bucks my way if they are so moved.  I’ve done that many times on other people’s sites, and I generally feel it’s a perfectly reasonable way to defray costs.  Direct micro-funding, in a way.

The impetus to do this now is that I have some big ideas for homestead expansion this year – namely a home permaculture orchard of four apple trees, at least four hazelnut bushes, bush cherries, raspberries, and perhaps hardy pecan and peach trees. Not to mention a passel of false indigo plants for nitrogen-fixing and an understory of strawberries and wintergreen (if it’ll grow here).  I’m starting to add up the tally, and it’s going to cost a pretty penny. I also want to buy a Harvest Kitchen half-share this summer to feed me while I’m teaching Preserving Traditions classes, doing my own gardening and food preservation, and helping a few neighbors with theirs.  It will cost even more than the trees, but will be worth it to keep me fed and rested during the busy season.

So, I humbly hang out my secure PayPal donation button and say: There it is.  If you feel so moved, many, many thanks.   And if sending a donation doesn’t grab you, no worries at all.

Donate via PayPal

Davebilt bulk nutcracker

If you’re into permaculture in the US, I bet you’ve planted hazelnut bushes.  Great understory crop – tasty nuts – hardy and fairly disease- and pest-resistant.  Have you started harvesting any yet?  Have you started cracking any yet?  If you’re like me, you probably are looking at shrubs just starting to produce and thinking “What on earth am I going to do with all those hazelnuts? Hell…how am I gonna get them out of the shells??”

So I’ve been looking for a high-quality nutcracker that cracks more than one nut at a time, and I think I finally found it. (You can buy it here or here or if you’re in New Zealand, try this version.) First, you set the width of the plates using a selection of washers of varying thicknesses (included). When the space is just barely too tight to allow a nut to fall through, you’ve got the right size of opening.  You pour nuts into the hopper and turn (or really, “rock”) the handle. It’ll take hazelnuts, pecans, English walnuts, almonds, and apparently also acorns.

It arrived recently, and I just put it through its paces with 2.75 lb of Oregon filberts that were a gift from a friend.  These were probably size-graded nuts; I can’t imagine anything straight from the tree would be this uniform.  If more than a handful had dropped through whole, I could reset the machine to a narrower setting and run them through – but for this tiny pile, I’d just do them by hand.

The final result: a little over a pound (quart) of clean, mostly whole nutmeats cracked in around 5-7 minutes, and separated from their shells over the next 15-20.  I was able to set the machine up, crack the nuts, and separate shells from nuts in half an hour.

Cracking hazelnuts

1+ lb of nuts, a handful of uncracked nuts, and 1.5+ lb shells. Half an hour to crack and separate.

Things I learned:

  • It’s loud!
  • It works really well when the nuts are dry enough to rattle inside the shells.  See the individual nut between the bowls – there is space between the nut and shell, which allows for a clean crack.
  • The nuts aren’t crushed at all. A few split in half.
  • A couple shell shards went flying, but the vast majority just dropped into the bucket with the nuts.
  • The thing is built like a tank.  I’m not worried it’s going to fall apart before I do.
  • Now I can buy cheap bulk nuts in Nov/Dec and actually get enough nuts to use in recipes.  Pecans are next on my list, to go in my new pumpkin-pecan-pie-waffles.
  • Definitely better than cracking them by hand.

This is the kind of thing each neighborhood needs one of.  You could do your whole harvest in an afternoon, or use it once a month to get a month’s supply of cracked nuts…and then let someone else use it.

Here’s a video of the nutcracker in action. Warning – LOUD.

Orchard revisions 2010

Based on a lot of great feedback from folks on my original orchard plans, I’ve gone back to the drawing board, re-thought everything, and come up with something that is an entirely different different approach but come across looking amazingly similar to the original plan.  Go me.

The biggest point made to me was that it’s much more effective to keep trees the size you want by pruning than by relying on dwarf rootstock alone to keep the size down, so you’re better off forgetting the dwarf or “Li’l Big” type rootstocks.  The dwarf rootstocks also apparently have other problems and a much shorter lifespan.  Instead, get a regular or proven semi-dwarf rootstock that will grow well in your area and go from there.

The Dave Wilson Home Orcharding site also had some great pointers about growing fruit trees at home vs. for market.  At home, you don’t want 150 pounds of fruit…of one type…ripening the same week.  Much better to have 25-50 pounds of fruit and have multiple harvests to stretch the season out.  To achieve that, you do pretty much everything a professional orchardist would NOT do.  Plant the trees close together, prune them hard so they never get taller than you, and grow stuff under them so there’s competition for the nutrients and water.

I also reassessed my thoughts about stone fruit.  One is related to our microclimate: I know our flat, open yard is much colder than the surrounding area.  In town, the new zone is 5b, heading toward 6.  Out here, we’re a solid 5a.  We hit -15 every winter, and it’s not unusual to get to -20 overnight for several nights in a row.  There are no small hills to plant trees on that will let the coldest air flow down away from them in the spring, and the winds are fairly unchecked from the north.  My gut is telling me that stone fruits like peaches and apricots aren’t going to do well here.  I also planted an apricot four or five years ago, and it died this spring without even flowering once.  The other thought is that really, we don’t eat that much stone fruit.  I’ve got a craving for peaches like you would not believe, but a couple jars down cellar will take care of that.  I like the thought of apricots because they dry well…but again, how many do we actually need?  We’d eat a lot more apples if we had them, and both of us are keen to try pressing our own cider.

So.  The new plan will incorporate 3 apple trees on semi-dwarf stock, plus a few hybrid hazelnut bushes (also good for coppicing) and a carpet of wintergreen, if it’ll grow here (it usually likes acidic soils).  I’ll put the cherry bushes on the berm, and I’ll tuck one self-pollinating peach tree into the “nook” created where the garage, breezeway, and house form a lopsided U.  I know that’s a sweet, protected little microclimate, because the weeping cherry that was there shot up to about 20′ tall and 15″ in diameter in 7 years – too big for the space, actually, and we had to take it down.  If I put a peach there, I can keep it to 7′, or let it go to about 10′ and work on it from the roof.  (Note to my mother, whose knuckles just whitened around her mug of tea: trust me, the roof is a lot safer than a ladder!)

Fruit tree guild plans

I’ve been battering my brains for a couple months trying to come up with a micro-orchard plan that felt right.  I’ve got a 50’x50′ space in my back yard that’s screaming to be something other than lawn…but I just can’t wrap my brain around it.  Too much space, maybe. Just a big blank square, a totally blank slate.  And I have essentially zero experience with fruit trees.  Going from 2500sf of blank ground to…what? Permaculture guild? Something more like formal landscaping? Groups of trees just to fill up the space?  Something totally whimsical and pretty?  I can’t even settle on a concept for the space, let alone a plan.

So I more or less shelved the idea of doing anything with that space this coming spring. I was sure I wanted to put in a stand of willow on the north side of our garage, so I started working on that. I love Rob’s description of pit-and-mound gardening – it’s got aspects of hugelkultur, permaculture, and soil-building – and knowing willows love moisture, I decided to add a wood chip-filled trench under the drip line of the garage roof.  This will catch the water off the roof and hold it, feeding helpful fungi and microcritters and releasing nutrient-rich water to the willows slowly, instead of just running off.

Then I stepped back and realized that the runoff from the house comes in essentially the same direction, flowing north across the pavement right in front of the garage, over the edge of the pavement, and into what is now full-sun lawn.  I measured the space between the end of the willow bed and the turn-around/parking space bumping out the side of the driveway…24′ east/west, and easily 12-15′ north/south.  What if I aimed to capture the water running off the driveway (captured from about half our total roof space) and directed it into a small orchard guild? How many trees could I fit in there?

Note: south is at the top, north is at the bottom. (Click to enlarge)Fruit tree guild

Five, I think, with some bush cherries scattered in between.  Each dwarf tree will get 10-12′ tall; the semi-dwarfs on bottom (north) side will be 12′-15′, I think. By planting the roots at the corners of the bed, I can still get about 12′ between the trunks of the larger trees.  The trees will be accessible from all sides, though I’ll have to go under branches (eventually) to get to the bush cherries.  Permaculture tells me if I prune the trees properly, enough light will get in to let the bush cherries grow. They should top out around 6′ tall.

Other details: There is a slight slope from south to north, but the site is nearly flat.  I’m in zone 5b, but a cold and exposed microclimate, so I chose varieties that bloom late and have a good track record holding their own against late frosts. I’m buying a pig in a poke as far as taste is concerned; I know I like Northern Spy apples, and Nova Spies are supposed to taste like them, but I have no idea what the other fruits taste like. I do like tart cherries, even for fresh eating, and I picked the apricot and peach varieties recommended for my area that also had some raves about taste.  The apples are good keepers, and the apricots and peaches are both good for canning and “high dessert quality.” The apricots are also good for drying.  Which is good, because there’s no way I could eat 2 trees’ worth of apricots, but you need 2 for pollination!

It was odd…as I looked at variety descriptions, Gurney’s “semi-dwarf” peaches should be planted 12-14 feet apart, but the ones from Grandpa’s Orchard (on a “standard” root) has a spread of only 8-12 feet. And Grandpa’s apricots, though all on “standard” roots, have a big variety in spreads. So I really had to read the fine print. In the end, it looks like I’ll get all my trees from Grandpa’s Orchard, which is in SW Michigan about 130 miles from here.  Should be cheaper than Gurney’s, too

Well, anyway…this bed is half built already, and the willow bed is ready, mulch trench and all, just waiting to be planted in the spring.  Thus begins my foray into tree crops!  This feels so much more manageable than the swathe at the back.  Just goes to show that if things aren’t falling into place, you might just be barking up the wrong tree. 🙂

Coppicing ash: the first cutting

Stand of ash trees three years after cutting back to "stools" 3" in diameter and 6" tall.

Three years ago, we cut down some ash trees that were both under a power line and likely to be destroyed by emerald ash borers. The stumps resprouted vigorously, and I started to think seriously about the potential of coppiced ash to both provide firewood, and perhaps even to resist the ash borer.

Time for an update. There are many pictures in this post, so I’ve put them behind the break. The upshot: in three years, the 3″ diameter “stools” have each sprouted one or two shoots 3″ in diameter at the base and 12 feet tall. They also produced a dozen or so 1″ poles – very straight and useful as bean poles, fencing supports, etc.

Read the rest of this entry »

Bur oak guild: selection and installation

After months (or has it been years?) of planning, I installed my first “permaculture guild” this weekend. It is not, strictly speaking, a Toby Hemenway-style “food forest” guild, because only one item (the oak) is even marginally edible. However, I followed many of his basic principles and added one other: all the species are native to my area or are slightly aesthetically-selected varietals of local species. Here’s the result. Or perhaps the beginning, since this will really take 50 years to get into shape. 🙂

Bur oak guild

Bur oak guild

When planning a guild, you need to think in layers and functions. Here’s how I’ve addressed them in this guild, which draws on the Oak Openings found in SE lower Michigan and NE Ohio:

  • Overstory layer: Oak tree
  • Shrub layer: White and blue false indigo – will get up to 3′ tall and wide
  • Groundcover layer: Canada anemone and Pennsylvania sedge
  • Nitrogen fixers: White and blue false indigo and non-native Dutch white clover (seed not sprouted yet)
  • Insect feeders: Butterfly weed
  • Biomass: I did plant some non-native seeds (flax and borage, which are also good for insects), though I’m sort of wishing I hadn’t now. I will plant mullein seed in a few weeks when it becomes available – the first mulleins are just starting to bloom now.

Because this planting is so small, I don’t have an understory (small tree) layer or a vine layer. Eventually, I expect this guild to expand to this entire corner of the yard, and I’ll add serviceberries, New Jersey Tea shrubs, maybe buffalo berries, and some more flowers (blazing star, culver’s root, and thimbleweed).

Close-up of bur oak guild

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