Forest Gardening

Planting Ramps in our Forest

There is something about the Spring forest that brings me a deep sense of joy and contentment. The days are growing longer. The air is warming. The trees are waking from their slumber. The songbirds are returning.

After the Winter, walking in the Spring woods seems to rejuvenate me as well.

It is in this temperate climate Spring forest that Ramps will grow.

These wild onions with strong garlic and leek undertones are true Spring ephemerals. They only shoot up in the early Spring forest, and they quickly depart as the trees’ canopy fills back in with new leaves to cover the forest floor in shadow.

I have previously written about Ramps in one of my plant articles.

Ramps are now growing on our farm in Tennessee!

When we moved to our farm in East Tennessee, Ramps were one of the plants I was hoping to find. Unfortunately, I have yet to come across a wild patch of them on our property.

I had been contemplating how to bring Ramps to our farm when an opportunity crossed my path.

My family and I recently had to travel to northern Indiana. We try to use our camper as much as possible, and we used it for this trip staying at a few different campgrounds. I spent many early mornings walking through the forests in and near the parks where we were staying, often with one of the kids who woke up early enough to join me.

The ephemeral Spring woodland where the ramps were growing.

There was a small forest bordering the property of one of the campgrounds. I recognized it as a special place as soon as I entered. Overhead were mature maple and beech trees with their young leaves just forming. There was an understory of flowering dogwood and pawpaw trees. Blanketing the moist ground were at least three different Trillium species all in flower, Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum), Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), Wild Ginger (Asarum), multiple ferns, and… Ramps! Literally thousands of Ramps covered the floor of this Spring forest! Unfortunately, I didn’t take a photo of the areas with dense Ramp plants, but I did get the photo above where there were a lot more of the other Spring ephemerals.

Fresh Ramps!

I spoke with the owner of the campground, and he told me he owned this forest as well. He was unaware of the plants he had growing there, but he seemed very interested to learn what I had found. He also told me that I could harvest a few Ramps for myself. I did so, but very carefully. Trilliums are sensitive to disturbance, and they will usually die if any part of the plant is picked or damaged. Since many Trilliums are endangered, I chose to harvest Ramps that were not growing near the Trilliums. I carefully dug up the Ramps preserving as much of the roots as possible. I then pushed the soil back in place and replaced the forest detritus.

I decided to eat a few Ramps with breakfast, sauteed in butter with our free-range chicken eggs… amazing! I saved the rest to transplant.

I planted the Ramps (3)  near Mayapples (2) and Pawpaw saplings (1).

We returned to Tennessee a few days later, and I knew exactly where to plant the Ramps. One small valley on our property has relatively moist soil. This is where our largest Pawpaw patch resides nestled under the overstory of hickory and oak. There are Mayapples, False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum), and ferns growing underneath. This environment best matched the location where I harvested the Ramps.

I won’t know until next Spring if the Ramps took to their new home. But I am excited and hopeful. If they do survive the transplant, it will probably be 3-5 years before I will feel comfortable with their establishment before I will harvest any.

Regenerative agriculture is a long game.

It takes patience.

But the rewards are well-worth the wait.

And sometimes they are delicious, too!

Who needs a plow when you have animals?

We are in the midst of preparing one of our fields for an edible forest garden (aka food forest). The pasture is mostly in grass, but not in great condition. We need to deal with this grass, and there are a few ways to do it. Many people spray with herbicides such as Round-Up (glyphosate), but that’s not what we do. Some will use a tractor and plow it all up, till it up, rototill it, or whatever implement and term you may use… but we don’t own a tractor or any tractor implements. Some people use sheet mulching or some other form of occlusive mulching. We may actually use this method some, but not yet.

For now, we are going to let our animals do as much of the work as possible. They are good at it. They enjoy it. They fertilize as they go. They eat pest at the same time (grubs, flies, etc.). They give us a product while they are working (eggs and/or meat). And they are a lot cheaper to maintain than a tractor!

This is what we are doing:

Our sheep and pigs did the initial clearing of the land. They ate and knocked the big stuff down.

Our sheep and pigs did the initial clearing of the land. They ate and knocked down the big stuff.

Test

This is how we initially rotated the animals: Sheep and pigs then chicken tractors.

Our Pasture-Raised Chickens

These were the Salatin-style chicken tractors we used to raise broilers.

Our chickens came next. We used Salatin-style chicken tractors to disperse the sheep and pig manure. They also ate more grass and gave their own fertilizer.

Once we were done with the broilers, we run laying hens in their place.

Our EggMobile!

The laying hens sleep in the mobile chicken coop, the EggMobile!

We pulse the geese and ducks through this area as well. They get

We pulse the geese and ducks through this area as well. They get some more grass, and they love to root around in the wet dirt making holes all over the place!

After the chickens come the pigs again. The sheep have moved onto another part of the farm with fresh pasture.

After the chickens, geese, and ducks, come the pigs again. The sheep have moved onto another part of the farm with fresh pasture.

The pigs do a fantastic job of really tearing up the grass.

The pigs do a fantastic job of really tearing up the grass.

We are left

While the area still has some grass left, the area is significantly denuded.

We will pulse the chickens through once more to spread the pig manure again and eat any pests trying to rise up. We also may do some mulching in areas that still have some grass hanging on. But we will see.

I much prefer this method than sitting on a tractor all day!

 

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Permaculture Basics: Edible Forest Gardens

I have had a number of people ask me for a basic description of an Edible Forest Garden (also known as a Food Forest or Forest Garden). I usually write for people who already have a basic understanding and foundation of Permaculture, and I often jump to that next level in many of my articles. So here is an overview of the concept and practice of designing, creating, and managing an Edible Forest Garden.

I’ll kick this off with the following quote (two paragraphs), used with permission from Dave Jacke, author of Edible Forest Gardens:

The Vision of an Edible Forest Garden:
Picture yourself in a forest where almost everything around you is food. Mature and maturing fruit and nut trees form an open canopy. If you look carefully, you can see fruits swelling on many branches—pears, apples, persimmons, pecans, and chestnuts. Shrubs fill the gaps in the canopy. They bear raspberries, blueberries, currants, hazelnuts, and other lesser-known fruits, flowers, and nuts at different times of the year. Assorted native wildflowers, wild edibles, herbs, and perennial vegetables thickly cover the ground. You use many of these plants for food or medicine. Some attract beneficial insects, birds, and butterflies. Others act as soil builders, or simply help keep out weeds. Here and there vines climb on trees, shrubs, or arbors with fruit hanging through the foliage—hardy kiwis, grapes, and passionflower fruits. In sunnier glades large stands of Jerusalem artichokes grow together with groundnut vines. These plants support one another as they store energy in their roots for later harvest and winter storage. Their bright yellow and deep violet flowers enjoy the radiant warmth from the sky. This is an edible forest garden.

What is an Edible Forest Garden:
Edible forest gardening is the art and science of putting plants together in woodlandlike patterns that forge mutually beneficial relationships, creating a garden ecosystem that is more than the sum of its parts. You can grow fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs, mushrooms, other useful plants, and animals in a way that mimics natural ecosystems. You can create a beautiful, diverse, high-yield garden. If designed with care and deep understanding of ecosystem function, you can also design a garden that is largely self-maintaining. In many of the world’s temperate-climate regions, your garden would soon start reverting to forest if you were to stop managing it. We humans work hard to hold back succession—mowing, weeding, plowing, and spraying. If the successional process were the wind, we would be constantly motoring against it. Why not put up a sail and glide along with the land’s natural tendency to grow trees? By mimicking the structure and function of forest ecosystems we can gain a number of benefits.

This is designer, teacher, and researcher Martin Crawford discussing Edible Food Forests.

 

Basics of an Edible Forest Garden


  • Incorporates Multiple Layers. Robert Hart initially described 7 layers of the Forest Garden:
    1. Canopy Layer
    2. Low-Tree Layer
    3. Shrub Layer
    4. Herbaceous Layer
    5. Ground Cover Layer
    6. Rhizosphere or Underground Layer
    7. Vertical layer
Robert Hart's initial 7 layers of a Forest Garden.

Robert Hart’s initial 7 layers of a Forest Garden.

My 9 Layers of an Edible Forest Garden.

My 9 Layers of an Edible Forest Garden.

I have updated the layer system to include the following:

    1. Canopy/Tall Tree Layer (this includes any emergent plants that would tower over the main canopy)
    2. Sub-Canopy/Large Shrub Layer
    3. Shrub Layer
    4. Herbaceous Layer (these are plants that “die back” every year to the ground in freezing weather)
    5. Groundcover/Creeper Layer
    6. Underground Layer (these are plants whose main use/product is formed underground, e.g. potato, ginseng, etc.)
    7. Vertical/Climber Layer (these are vining, rambling, scrambling, and climbing plants)
    8. Aquatic/Wetland Layer (this includes any plants that can tolerate or requires very moist to submerged conditions)
    9. Mycelial/Fungal Layer (includes edible and medicinal mushrooms)

Read more about my 9 layers of the Edible Forest Garden.

  • Incorporates Guilds or Companions. Many people are familiar with companion planting in an annual vegetable garden, such as planting tomatoes and basil together. When it comes to trees and shrubs that will be in place for years to decades, we have to be a bit more intentional. There can be positive, neutral, or negative interactions between plants. For instance, Walnuts (Juglan species) produce chemicals that inhibit many other plants from growing near them, so we need to be sure to put tolerant species near our Walnut trees. Some plants have deep taproots; some plants have expansive, shallow roots. Some plants are tall and thin; some plants are wide and short. Some plants need early Spring sun and then can be shaded out later in the year; other plants need sun all year long. All these things should be considered in your design phase. It makes the planning one big jigsaw puzzle to solve! Click here to download a copy of Midwest Permaculture’s Plant Guild E-Book!
  • Sustainable/Regenerative. This is a system that should be continually building soil, plant, and ecosystem health. This is often translated as being “organic” or using no synthetic/man-made chemicals, and some will occasionally use certain chemicals in an “emergency” situations. But sustainability and regeneration go way beyond this. Each year, we should be seeing more life in our Food Forest. There should be more worms, more spiders, more birds, more pollinators. We should be having deeper and richer soils each year. After a few years, most commonly at about the fifth year, something changes. Permaculture teacher and author Toby Hemenway describes this as when the “garden goes pop!” The Food Forest becomes a vibrant, dynamic place teeming with life. The Forest Garden seems to become its own entity.

    This is an example of a small Food Forest integrated into a suburban lot.

    This is an example of a small Food Forest integrated into a suburban lot.

  • Holistic. The first goal is always on total forest health. The byproduct is a useful yield. By focusing on total forest health and increasing variety (with guilds), an Edible Forest Garden will be managed in a more holistic manner than a conventional orchard or garden. Conventional agriculture will use pesticides to target pests but end up killing the majority if the insects in the garden/orchard; we will attract beneficial insects, birds, and other predators of our pests to deal with them. Conventional agriculture will use herbicides to get rid of “‘weeds” and unwanted grasses; we will encourage a wide variety of “weeds” for their composting benefit, culinary and medicinal uses, and ability to attract beneficial insects. We will use mulches to smother “weeds” and build soil in the process; we will use covercrops and groundcovers to outcompete “weeds” and build soil or harvest a yield in the process. Conventional agriculture will use fungicides to prevent loss of plants and yields from fungal infections, but will destroy the majority of the fungus in the garden/orchard; we will encourage a healthy population of beneficial fungus in the soils, roots, and plant surfaces of our Food Forest that increase nutrient availability to our plants, improve their ability to ward off and defeat harmful fungi, and provide us with culinary and medicinal mushrooms. We will accept some loses on occasion by learning to work with nature instead of fighting against nature.
  • Low-Maintenance. This is not a NO-maintenance system. Don’t let someone tell you otherwise. Edible Forest Gardens require regular work to keep it from progressing to an unproductive system. A person can significantly reduce their work with some good design, but there is a fairly consistent work input to yield output ratio… in other words, if you do perform regular maintenance and management, you will likely obtain higher yields.
  • Cumulative Yield. Tying right into the point above, the cumulative yield is where Edible Forest Gardens excel over conventional agriculture. But you can’t quite compare apples to apples here. For instance, a conventional apple orchard will have a higher yield of apples per apple tree when compared to apple trees in our Edible Forest Garden. That conventional orchard will have trees spaced 8-12 feet apart, at a minimum. There may be some grass growing under the trees, but nothing else. However, in our Forest Garden, right under and near our apple trees, we can grow strawberries or blackberries or hazelnuts or culinary herbs or medicinal herbs or mushrooms… maybe all of them together! Our apple tree may decrease its yield by up to 50% due to some competition of soil or nutrients or light, but all the other fruits, nuts, herbs, etc. will increase total yields of that area to more than a monocrop system could every consider. When you add up all the individual yields over an entire Edible Forest Garden, the total yield can be significantly higher per area than a conventional system. Another way of saying this is that we can produce significantly more calories per acre than conventional agriculture by using this approach.
  • Produces the 8 F’s. Each Food Forest has its own goal and purpose depending on who is designing it. No two are identical. But we have the potential to produce all of the following:
    • Food
    • Fuel
    • Fodder (feed for our animals)
    • Fiber
    • Fertilizer
    • Farmaceuticals (plant derived medicines)
    • Framing (timber materials for building)
    • Fun

 

History of Edible Forest Gardens

The concept of an Edible Forest Garden is not new. Many peoples in tropical climates have used mixed plantings and animal systems as common practice. There has been a more recent understanding of how indigenous peoples have “managed” wilderness for thousands of years across most continents of the world, and I am sure there have been many other mixed planting systems which have been lost to history. The majority of these systems have been in tropical, Mediterranean, and non-Western parts of the world. Here are a couple videos showing old Edible Forest Garden systems:

Here is Geoff Lawton describing a 2,000 year old Edible Food Forest.

Here is Geoff Lawton visiting a 300 year old Edible Food Forest.

 

Bringing Edible Forest Gardens to the Temperate Climate

J. Russel Smith published a book in 1929. It was titled, Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture. (I highly recommend this book. It is as revolutionary as it is readable, and it is still pertinent today.) In his book, Smith documented numerous trees that could be used for perennial cropping to replace annual agriculture which destroys topsoil and depletes agricultural land. This book inspired Toyohiko Kagawa, a Japanese Christian evangelist, scientist, novelist, poet, linguist, political reformer, and one of the founders of the Japanese trade union movement. Kagawa spent many years in prison, was nominated multiple times for both the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Nobel Peace Prize, and Robert Hart spoke of him stating he “will surely come to be acknowledged as a universal genius on a par with Leonardo da Vinci”. Kagawa implemented a system he called Three-Dimensional Forestry or Forest Farming which was used in the Japanese uplands to reduce erosion.

J. Sholto Douglas met Kagawa in Tokoyo and then began implementing Kagawa’s 3-D system in southern Africa in conjunction with UNESCO. Douglas went on to author Forest Farming: Towards a Solution to Problems of World Hunger and Conservation in 1978.

But it was the work of an Englishman, Robert Hart, that brought the concept of Edible Forest Gardening to temperate climates in the Western world.  Hart was caring for his brother who was born with a severe learning disability when he came across an article written by Douglas. He was inspired to use take this concept from broad scale agriculture to his smallholding (small farm). He created a a 0.12 acre (500 m²) Forest Garden, and then wrote a book titled after the phrased he coined, Forest Gardening.

Bill Mollison, co-creator of Permaculture, visited Robert Hart and his Forest Garden in 1990. Mollison quickly incorporated this system into his teaching. Subsequently, Edible Forest Gardening has been closely associated with Permaculture.

Here is a video tour of Robert Hart’s garden, produced by Malcolm Baldwin. As you watch this video, note that more recent research has strongly suggested that Hart’s plant spacing was too close. A Food Forest in temperate climates will be significantly healthier and more productive if the trees are spaced further apart, so that the entire canopy is exposed to sunlight and significant sunlight can fall on the sub-canopy and shrubs underneath and around the trees. This video also shares the work of Ken Fern, founder of Plants for a Future. This is a fantastic resource I frequently use. 

Martin Crawford, manager of the Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon, England, began planting his 2 acre Food Forest in 1994. He now has over 400 species of plants on this plot, and he continues testing and sharing the results of his research on Forest Gardening. He is also the author of a fantastic Food Forest book I’ll discuss below.

Here is a video tour of Martin Crawford’s Food Forest.

 

Getting Started!

There are a number of books on the subject of Edible Food Forests.

Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape. Robert Hart. This is a good book for what it is, the first Food Forest book for temperate climates. It is rather revolutionary, and it is an enjoyable read, but I would not use this as a guide for creating an Edible Food Forest.

How to Make a Forest Garden. Patrick Whitefield. This is also a good book, but not one I would routinely recommend. It also is an enjoyable read, and I am a big fan of Patrick Whitefield. It was the first book to really give a “how to” on Forest Gardening. However, I do believe that more recent research suggests better design options than outlined in this book.

Creating a Forest Garden. Martin Crawford. This is an excellent book for planning, designing, planting, and maintaining a Forest Garden. I included a tour of Martin’s Food Forest above. He has one of the oldest, continually managed Food Forests in the Western world, founded in 1994. I highly and routinely recommend this book to those interested in getting started with Forest Gardening.

Edible Forest Gardens (2 Volume Set). Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier. I call this the bible of Forest Gardening in temperate climates! It is the most thorough and robust book on the subject. If you want to go deeper than picking a few trees and shrubs, than I cannot recommend these books enough. Be warned, these are thick, information dense books. But I have read them cover to cover, more than once. They are readable and enjoyable.

Farming the Woods. Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel. This is an interesting book that is focused more on products that can be grown in an existing forest. I think there is a fantastic ability to translate this information into a designed Food Forest.

Perennial Vegetables. Eric Toensmeier. This book is focused more on individual plants than putting them all together, but that is definitely included. The only problem with this book is that the many of the vegetables listed are not for truly colder climates. I say that because I know some people who have been frustrated with this. However, I do still think it is a great reference for temperate climates, and I definitely recommend this book.

The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way. Michael Phillips. As I said before, the more work you put into your Food Forest, the more yield you will harvest. But how do we do this? How do we prune? How do we handle pests and diseases, because they will come. I do not think they will be nearly as bad as a conventional orchard, but they will come. We can just accept it, and probably lose some plants and lose some harvests, and this is a valid option. But if we are going to try and increase our yield, we need a solid plan that works with nature instead of against it. I believe Michael Phillips has put together about as good a plan as they come.

Restoration Agriculture. Mark Shepard. This book is mostly about broadacre Permaculture for farmers; however, many of the principles outlined in this book readily apply to Food Forests.

Landscaping with Fruit. Lee Reich. This book is more focused on homestead plantings, but it also provides a lot of good information on common and less than common fruiting trees and shrubs.

There are many online videos about Forest Gardening, and I have included many of these above. I will also highly recommend Geoff Lawton’s video: Establishing a Food Forest the Permaculture Way.

Promo of Geoff Lawton’s Food Forest DVD.

 

Online Resources.

The Temperate Climate Permaculture Plant Index. This is my own listing of plants that gives very detailed information on the species, history, planting, care, and uses of many plants I plan on including in my own Food Forest.

Plants for a Future Database. I highly recommend this site. I use it often. Probably the most complete online resource for the widest variety of useful plants.

Apios Institute. Their site states “The Apios Institute is a collaborative network of farmers, gardeners, and researchers focused on integrated perennial-crop agroecosystems (variously known as homegardens, food forests, and forest gardens). There are critical knowledge gaps regarding the design and management of these systems. Our website is a crowdsourced research platform for sharing experience and knowledge about perennial crop polyculture systems for all climates.” This site has a lot of promise to be a fantastic resource.

 

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Time to start a Forest Garden!

It has begun! We have owned our land for just over a year, and have lived here for almost 9 months. We have experienced all four seasons. We are significantly more tuned in to our land. We are finally ready to start designing our food forest.

A food forest, also known as an edible forest garden, was one of the first unique ideas that introduced me to Permaculture about 15 years ago. While forest gardens are not the sole domain of Permaculture, an affinity exists between the two. And this concept, a small forest containing plants which provide for our needs (the 7 F’s: food, fuel, fodder (feed for our animals), fiber, fertilizer, farmaceuticals (plant derived medicines), fun), was so intriguing to me that I soon became a bit obsessed with Permaculture.

The first goal on our farm was to start producing food for ourselves. We started with animals as they have a fast turn around and could be started on our land as it was. We are finally really getting into a rhythm with their care and maintenance. Any overages (chickens and eggs) are sold for a small profit – well, more of decreasing a small bit of our costs at this point. The next stage is to start our plant production systems. Trees are going to stay put for a long, long time, and so we wanted to make sure we knew the right place to put them. This is why we took a full year before we even started the design process of our food forest. Of course, there are many plant systems other than a food forest, and we plan on incorporating many of these onto our farm.  But we are going to start with the food forest.

We chose a location that was close to our house. It is a southeast facing slope (we are in the northern hemisphere). It is one of our more flat (i.e. less steep!) areas on the farm, so managing it for decades to come will not be as taxing as other locations. There is also an area of lower elevation that holds a lot of water and is just begging to become a wetland/marsh. This will allow us to grow plants that like drier roots up top and water-loving plants down low. Diversity is king… and it’s a whole lot more fun!

A view of the future forest garden.

The site of the future forest garden.

We are currently pulsing our animals through this area. Of course they will be adding a fair amount of manure to the soil, and this is great. Another reason we will be using the animals is to remove the grass in this pasture. The geese and sheep primarily will go after the grass, but the chickens, ducks, and pigs will also eat their share. After this is done, the geese and sheep will be moved off. The pigs will rotate with the chickens and ducks to remove as much of any grass and other plants in this pasture. We will of course be supplementing the feed for these animals at this time. But the goal is to let the animals do the plowing and rototilling for us. I know that there are some folks who do not want to use animals to do this kind of work. I understand. I love to give my animals fresh, green pasture as often as possible. But this is not a permanent set-up. They will get in, do their thing, and we’ll get them out. The pigs will especially enjoy it.

The area of the future forest garden as defined by DaftLogic.com

The area of the future forest garden as defined by DaftLogic.com

I highly recommend DaftLogic.com when you are working on design plans. This is a free site that allows you to measure area and distances. I use it frequently, and it is very user friendly. As you can see, our future forest garden is right at 2 acres (0.81 hectares). This is not small! It will take a lot of work and many years to “complete”, but we are so excited to get started!

This is a google map's image of the area of interest.

This is a google map’s image of the area of interest.

You can see we’ve already been improving the soil with our sheep and pigs (far left) and our chicken tractors (center). The patchwork appearance is due to the daily, or sometimes twice daily, moves of the tractors. As mentioned above, this rotation will become more intense as we near the time of planting.

The area drawn to scale.

The area drawn to scale.

It’s important to have a basic scale drawing of the land we are designing. This drawing will be used over and over again as the master template that all mock-ups and samples and ideas are based on. This particular drawing is very simple. It took me about 5 minutes to make. It was made by shooting the google map image onto a wall with a projector. I simply traced the important features onto a piece of paper. The only slightly difficult part was zooming in and out until the scale matched a usable distance on my architect scale.

Some major features of this area.

Some major features of this area.

These are the main features on this drawing:

  1. House
  2. Garage
  3. Fence – The entire property has a nice, tight woven fence of about 5-6 feet (152-182 cm). This fence was put up by the original owners to keep coyotes IN. They ran a coyote hunting farm. The bottom of the fence rolls toward the interior of the property (see the photo below). This worked for a hunting property, but causes some trouble when we want to grow something (or clear weeds!) next to the fence line. We are still trying to decide what we want to do about it, but it does work to keep rabbits and other unwanted creatures out of the forest garden area.
  4. Gate
  5. Main road
  6. Bottom of the valley – This is where water collects and flows during the rain. The closer you get to the lower portion of the property border (bottom left), the more water there is and the longer it stays after a rain.
The fence

The fence rolled under at the bottom – like a letter “L”. Lots of plants have grown through, including some trees. This really needs to be dealt with so that we can avoid “weed” problems in the future.

 

Basic topography on this site.

Basic topography on this site.

This is a basic topographic map (not drawn to scale by any means). I made this just to show the general lay of the land. #1 by the house and the #1 on the far upper left represent hills. The land slopes down and then back up at #3 toward the back of the house. If you keep going along that interior road, the land would continue to rise. But that is out of our area of interest for this project. #2 represents the start of the valley floor. A line connecting from #2 to #4 represents the run of this valley. When it rains, there is water in this location running from #2 to #4. After the rains stop, there will be standing water at #4 for 1-2 weeks, sometimes longer.

Soil in this area.

Soil in this area.

  1. The soil around the house is decent. Much of this soil was either placed back after excavation for the house or it was trucked in. All of the area from #1 down the long, steep driveway to #7 is currently planted to lawn. The soil here ranges is depth from a few feet deep before hitting rock around the house, to fairly shallow toward the lower and northeastern (right side) of the drive.
  2. The slope is steep in this area. The soil in this area is poor. It is only about 1/2 – 1 inch deep before hitting a lot of rocks. There is space and soil between the rocks, but not much. This is a difficult area to regenerate, but not impossible.
  3. As the slope is a bit gentler here, and we are a bit further downhill, the soil is deeper. I can dig 6-12 inches before hitting rock. And the rock is spaced farther apart.
  4. Toward the lowest end of the field, the soil is the deepest. I can dig to 24 inches before hitting rock. This area has no standing water after a rain, so the drainage is still good.
  5. This is toward the highest part of the valley floor. This has running water during rains.
  6. This is the lowest part of the valley floor. This has standing water after the rains.
  7. These are areas that were planted to grass (just like #1 above). These areas have fairly deep soils.

The soil on this property is generally poor. It has a very high, reddish-brown clay content. Little organic matter. All areas that are currently pasture have been compacted to some degree by tractors and continuous, open-grazing of cattle. It would be wonderful if the soil was great, but that’s not how it is. We deal with what we have, and fortunately, with good management, there is a lot that can be improved. Our animal rotation is one way we are going to improve the soil. The second is with cover crops. We will take about a year to grow cover crops  with a variety of functions. Here are a few plants we will be using, for example: buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) for biomass; clover (Trifolium species) for biomass and nitrogen fixation; borage (Borago officinalis), chicory (Cichorium intybus), and radish (Raphanus sativus) as deep-rooted/tap-rooted plants to break up the deep layers of the soil. Also, these plants are ones I don’t mind growing in the established forest garden if any of their seeds survive and reseed. We are still toying with the idea of spreading rolls of old/less-than-prime hay over the area to further suffocate/mulch the existing pasture. Of course, these rolls of hay will come with their own seeds, but we will use the chickens to de-seed as much as possible as well. These are just a few of our strategies for improving the soil of our forest garden before ever place a permanent plant.

Next week, we will be taking the next step. We will be collecting soil samples to be sent off to a few labs for analysis. Fun stuff!

Why I Love Hunting Mushrooms

The art above is Mushroom Picking, painted in 1860 by Polish painter Franciszek Kostrzewski.

 

Cooking some Shaggy Mane mushrooms I collected when living in the Azores, Portugal.

Cooking some Shaggy Mane mushrooms (Coprinus comatus) I collected when living in the Azores, Portugal. One of my favorites!

1. I love to eat mushrooms!

This is a pretty common reason why people get started hunting mushrooms, and I am no different. I had little love for mushrooms as I was growing up in suburbia. The choice was Button Mushrooms or Button Mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus), and I thought they were bland and slimy. However, after many years of traveling around the world, and being exposed to a wide variety of traditional, cultural foods, I not only grew to appreciate the mushroom as a food, but I became intrigued with the heritage and culture of foraging for this sometimes elusive prey. There are so many mushrooms with amazing flavors and textures that cannot be cultivated; they can only be foraged from the wild and only in the right season when all the conditions are perfect for a particular species to form the fruiting body (aka the “mushroom”). This has taken me on an exciting culinary journey: Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) in the Pacific Northwest; Boletes/Porcini/Steinpilz (Boletus edulis) in Spain (with wild harvested snails) and Germany (with wild boar in a cream sauce); Morels (Morchella) in Minnesota; Shaggy Manes (Coprinus comatus) in the Azores; and most recently, Giant Puffballs (Calvatia gigantea), Crown-Tipped Coral Fungus (Artomyces pyxidatus or Clavicorona pyxidata), and a Bauernhof Bolete** (Xanthoconium purpureum) on our farm in East Tennessee. 

 

Puffball_Hunter_03

Two photos of one of my sons with a Purple-Spored Puffball (Calvatia cyathiformis) taken 36 hours apart. This mushroom grows fast! This one was insect-ridden, so unfortunately it could not be eaten.

2. I love to be outside!

Any reason to keep me outside is a good thing. It is healthier for humans to be outside than to be indoors, not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as well. I hope to write more about this in the future, but there is a lot of modern research that supports what many people have been saying for centuries.

 

The Gem-Studed Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum)

The Gem-Studded Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum), another edible mushroom in our forest!

My son and I found these Old Man of the Woods Mushrooms (Strobilomyces strobilaceus, also called Strobilomyces floccopus )

My son and I found these Old Man of the Woods Mushrooms (Strobilomyces strobilaceus or Strobilomyces floccopus), and these are yet another edible species of bolete on our farm!

3. I love to be in the forest!

This is a bit of an extension of “I love to be outside!”, but is is different. There is a drastic difference when I am working with my animals in the pasture versus when I am meandering through the forest. Both are outside, but there is an almost magical feeling for me when I am walking under the canopy of large trees. There is shade. The temperature is cooler. The air is moister. The noises are different. The colors are simultaneously muted but more intense. There is a rich scent that can only be found in the woods. This is where most mushrooms reside and hide.

 

A stunning Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea)

A stunning Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) – not my photo

An Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) - also not my photo

An Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) – also not my photo

4. I love to observe nature!

Hunting for mushrooms is not a fast chase. It is a slow, thoughtful stroll in the woods. Walk too fast, and I will miss the mushrooms. When I slow down to a mushroom-hunting pace, I notice more things. I come across new plants and insects. I see a tree I didn’t know was here. Birds settle down more and care less about my presence. Only a week ago, on the day I found the Bauernhof Bolete** on my farm, a Red Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) flew into the hollow I was traversing. It landed in a tree just a few dozen yards from me and began to cry its classic kee-eeeee-arr!  About ten minutes later, I noticed a flash of reddish-brown and white and saw an Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) hunting for food amongst the shrubs on the forest edge. Only two minutes after than, a vivid blue Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyane) landed on the branch of a pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) I was excited to see was fruiting. These experiences are not what I get when I am hustling through from one point to another with only the destination in mind.

Identifying mushrooms also requires identifying the plants surrounding the mushroom. Was the mushroom fruiting on a conifer or hardwood tree? What species produced these dead logs and branches? Was the mushroom growing in the soil or on a log or on a log buried in the soil? These observations may make a big difference on whether I can identify a mushroom or not.

 

The first edible bolete I found in our forest!

The first edible bolete I found in our forest!

Classic bolete mushroom showing pores instead of gills.

Classic bolete mushroom showing pores instead of gills.

Another photo of the same species.

Another photo of the same species right before I cooked them!

5. I love to learn new things!

Thankfully, there is a never ending wealth of information and observations in the natural world. Mycology, while not a young science, is a rapidly growing field. I will not run out of new material when it comes to mushrooms!

**I came across the above bolete mushroom in our forest, and I was excited. Okay, I was pretty ecstatic! I absolutely love mushrooms, and a decent argument could be made for calling boletes the king of culinary mushrooms. But I had a heck of a time identifying this species. I am 99% sure that this is Xanthoconium purpureum. Also known as Boletus purpureofuscus, this summer bolete is common in the oak-hickory forests of the eastern United States, which is exactly where my farm is located. The cap (pileus) is velvety when young and can come in a range of colors from purplish-red to maroon to brown. I was surprised that this mushroom has no common name.

This species can contain a fair amount of bitterness, especially in the cap, but the stalk is quite good.

In celebration of finding this delicious mushroom growing in our forest, and the fact that this mushroom has no common name, I decided to call it the Bauernhof Bolete (after our farm, the Bauernhof Kitsteiner). Scientific names are a lot more difficult to create, but not a common name. That’s as easy as, well, just proposing it… like I just did!

(For full disclosure, there is a chance this mushroom is Xanthoconium affine, but I don’t think so. I will verify it with some chemical testing when I find some more samples!)

 

The Crown-Tipped Coral Fungus (Artomyces pyxidatus or Clavicorona pyxidata) is a delicious and very uncommon edible mushroom!

The Crown-Tipped Coral Fungus (Artomyces pyxidatus or Clavicorona pyxidata) is a delicious and very uncommon edible mushroom! They have a great, almost crunchy texture

A Common Earthball mushroom (Scleroderma citrinum), a non-deadly, but poisonous mushroom found in our forest.

A young Common Earthball mushroom (Scleroderma citrinum), a non-deadly, but poisonous mushroom found in our forest. It can cause significant gastrointestinal upset!

My 6 year old son is able to identify this Destroying Angel Mushroom (Amanita bisporigera)

My 6 year old son is able to identify this Destroying Angel Mushroom (Amanita bisporigera). It is a deadly mushroom, which is why he is giving a “mean face”.

6. I love to be adventurous!

There is a bit of adventure and a bit of daring when it comes to finding a new mushroom, identifying it, determining its edibility, then preparing it, cooking it, and eating it. It is not the same as hunting a wild animal, but it is not entirely unlike it either. Proper identification can make the difference between a fantastic meal or a night spent with intestinal misery (rarely death, but that is also possible if an egregious error is made). There are many, many people who think I am a bit, well, unconventional to eat mushrooms I collect from the wild. As mycologist David Arora, writes…

Bring home what looks like a wild onion for dinner, and no one gives it a second thought – despite the fact it might be a Death Camas you have, especially if you didn’t bother to smell it. But bring home a wild mushroom for dinner, and watch the faces of your friends crawl with various combinations of fear, anxiety, loathing, and distrust!

 

It was quite fun to show kids why this Dog Stinkorn ( Mutinus caninus) has an appropriate name!

It was quite fun to show my kids why this Dog Stinkorn (Mutinus caninus) has an appropriate name!

A montage of items collected with my 4 year old daughter during a walk in the woods.

A montage of items collected with my 4 year old daughter during a walk in the woods.  Clockwise from the turtle: Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina), Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea), Bolete (I believe it is Boletus harrisonii), Meadow Violet (Viola sororia), Crown-Tipped Coral Fungus (Artomyces pyxidatus or Clavicorona pyxidata), Unripe Mayapple, also known as the Wild American Mandrake (Podophyllum peltatum).

7. I love to teach!

Taking my kids into the woods and showing them the science, art, and craft of foraging wild foods is one of my favorite things to do. This activity combines most of my favorite things in life: nature, forests, science, foraging, food, and family. Life just doesn’t get much better!

 

If you liked this article, you may like…

Seventy Distintive Mushrooms
Wild Mushroom Identification (and a project for kids!)

 

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Photo References:

  • All photos of mushrooms are mine. Please ask if you would like to use them.
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mushroom_hunting#/media/File:KostrzewskiFranciszek.Grzybobranie.1860.jpg
  • https://www.audubon.org/sites/default/files/styles/hero_cover_bird_page/public/Indigo%20Bunting%20c22-37-204_V.jpg?itok=RL9WiOBS
  • https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/21/Pipilo_erythrophthalmus_-Quabbin_Reservoir,_Massachusetts,_USA_-male-8.jpg

Permaculture Plants: Mulberries

Common Name: Mulberry (Black, Red, and White)
Scientific Name: Morus species
Family: Moraceae
Common Species:

  • White Mulberry (Morus alba)
  • Chinese or Korean Mulberry (Morus australis)
  • African Mulberry (Morus mesozygia)
  • Texas Mulberry (Morus microphylla)
  • Black Mulberry (Morus nigra)
  • Red or American Mulberry (Morus rubra)

 

There are a number of Mulberry species and many varieties and cultivars.

There are a number of Mulberry species and many varieties and cultivars.

Description:
I was not a fan of the White Mulberry fruit that grew in my backyard when I lived in Kentucky.  It was quite bland, and that is the reputation that Mulberries  hold by most eaters.  Unfortunately, this is because most people in the U.S. eat unimproved varieties that have grown wild. It wasn’t until I lived in Turkey that I really rediscovered the Mulberry. They were everywhere. Dried. Fresh. Used in baked goods. Used in ice cream! There were a number of Mulberry trees that grew along the road near my house, and these fruits were delicious! I was able to visit carpet makers who where creating amazing works of art with the silk created from caterpillar who dined on the Mulberry leaves.  Then I learned about using the fruit and leaves to feed livestock, and that the cooked leaves and stems can be eaten by humans as well. I think it is about time for Americans to rediscover this amazing tree!

I am thrilled to have found numerous wild Mulberry trees on our new farm. I can’t vouch for their taste yet, but even if they don’t taste very good, that’s okay. I now know for sure that Mulberries will grow on my land.

Mulberry Trees are large trees that produce fruit that resemble a blackberry, but the fruit doesn’t taste much like a blackberry.  There are about 15 Morus species and many more hybrids, but the three most common species (the Black, Red, and White) have ripe fruits that typically develop the color of their name… the Black Mulberry has dark purple, almost back fruit; the Red Mulberry has reddish fruit that will ripen to deep purple; the White Mulberry has green, unripe fruit that will turn white when ripe.  However, there are varieties of all these trees that have a range of fruit colors.  It is said that the Black Mulberry has the best flavor, and the White has the worst (or least best) flavor.  I would have to agree in part, although the White Mulberry makes the best dried fruit. I think it resembles a fruity raisin with a bit of a crunch.  Fresh Black Mulberry fruit is delicious, especially the improved cultivars.  They are sweet and slightly tart and taste like… well, mulberries.

Mulberry

White Mulberry (Morus alba)

History:

  • Black Mulberry Trees (M. Nigra) are native to southwest Asia.  It has been cultivated for thousands of years in that area, and was brought to Europe before the Roman Empire where it has continued to be grown for its fruits.
  • White Mulberry Trees (M. alba) are native to northern, eastern, and central China and has been cultivated for thousands of years for fruit and to feed silkworms. It was introduced to North America during colonial times as part of an attempt to create a silk culture, and multiple sericulture (silk farming) endeavors were made over the next 300 years. Ultimately, these all failed due in part to a blight in the mid 1800’s, but mainly due to the fact that silk required intense labor to produce. Farmers would rather raise less labor-intensive crops like tobacco and cotton!
  • Red Mulberry Trees (M. rubra) are native to eastern North America and was used quite a bit by the native population. The fruit from unimproved Red Mulberries are often bland (but not always!)

 

Mulberry Tree by Vincent Van Gough

The Mulberry Tree by Vincent Van Gogh (October 1889)

Trivia:

  • The Mulberries hybridize easily, and many of the hybrids are fertile. This has led to confusion in taxonomy, and there are dozens of “species” and “subspecies” on which botanical authorities still do not agree. The good thing for the grower of Mulberries is that there are numerous varieties and hybrids that have been developed for improved flavor, increased production, and higher yields of fruit.
  • Mulberry fruits, a.k.a. the “berry”, is not a true berry but a collective fruit.
  • Murrey – a medieval term used to describe a fruit puree eaten as a pudding or cooked with meat. The term “murrey” was also used as an alternative word for “mulberry”. “Murrey” is also used to describe the mulberry color, somewhere between red and purple.
  • How did the Mulberry get it’s Latin name, Morus? Let’s start with some mythology!
    • The Tale of Pyramus and Thisbe (as told by wikipedia)In the Ovidian version, Pyramus and Thisbe is the story of two lovers in the city of Babylon who occupy connected houses/walls, forbidden by their parents to be wed, because of their parents’ rivalry. Through a crack in one of the walls, they whisper their love for each other. They arrange to meet near at Ninus’ tomb under a white mulberry tree and state their feelings for each other. Thisbe arrives first, but upon seeing a lioness with a mouth bloody from a recent kill, she flees, leaving behind her veil. The lioness drinks from a nearby fountain, then by chance mutilates the veil Thisbe had left behind. When Pyramus arrives, he is horrified at the sight of Thisbe’s veil, assuming that a fierce beast had killed her. Pyramus kills himself, falling on his sword in proper Roman fashion, and in turn splashing blood on the white mulberry leaves. Pyramus’ blood stains the white mulberry fruits, turning them dark. Thisbe returns, eager to tell Pyramus what had happened to her, but she finds Pyramus’ dead body under the shade of the mulberry tree. Thisbe, after a brief period of mourning, stabs herself with the same sword. In the end, the gods listen to Thisbe’s lament, and forever change the colour of the mulberry fruits into the stained colour to honour the forbidden love.
    • The above story was the Roman version based on a similar Greek mythological story where Moros, the personification or spirit of impending doom, drives people to their fate (usually death).
    • We get our modern word, morose (meaning sullen or gloomy), from the name of the same Greek spirit (Moros).
    • The word for Mulberry in modern Greek is Mouro.

 

Mulberry Tart

Black and White Mulberry Ricotta Tart (click on image for recipe)

Stuffed Mulberry Leaves

Stuffed Mulberry Leaves (click image for link to information and recipes)

Another stuffed Mulberry leaf recipe!

Another stuffed Mulberry leaf recipe! (click image for link to information and recipes)

Yet another!

Yet another! (click image for link to information and recipes)

USING THIS PLANT

Primary Uses:

  • Fresh eating – Fruit!
  • Cooked –  Preserves, jellies, jams, fruit leathers (may need to be mixed with more fibrous fruit juices/pulps), compotes, and desserts.
  • Dried – kind of like crunchy raisins!
  • Syrup – This is another use of mulberry juice and can be used in salad dressings, desserts, and drinks.
  • Juice – This is a growing market as the juice is very high polyphenols and other antioxidants.
  • Murrey – a fruit puree eaten as a pudding or cooked with meat.
  • Primary or secondary/adjunct flavoring in wines, cordials, liqueur, and other alcoholic beverages, including beers.
  • Edible Leaves and Young Stems – needs to be cooked. Used like grape leaves to wrap foods, can be used like cooked greens, just discard the water in which you cook the leaves.
  • Sericulture (silk farming) – Mulberry trees and silkworms have a long history with humans!
  • Tea Plant – Mulberry leaves have a long history of being used to make tea.
    Making Mulberry Leaf Tea:

    • Fresh Leaf Tea – Clean, whole, unblemished leaves are harvested and washed. They are cut or torn into strips roughly 0.5 inches or 1 cm in width. The torn leaves are dropped into boiling water. Leaves are boiled until the water turns light green. Leaves are filtered out.
    • Dried Leaf Tea – Clean, whole, unblemished leaves are harvested and washed then allowed to dry in a single layer. Once dry enough to crumble, they are ready to be used to make tea. Use like black tea (from Camellia sinensis leaves) for an herbal, non-caffeinated drink.

 

Pakistan Mulberries are huge!

Pakistan Mulberries are huge!

White Mulberries can be less sweet when fresh...

White Mulberries can be less sweet when fresh…

...but make the best dried Mulberries, in my opinion!

…but make the best dried Mulberries, in my opinion!

Secondary Uses:

  • Food for wildlife, especially birds!
  • Coppice or Pollard Tree – for fuel (wood), forage (leaves), or crafts (twigs); 1-4 year cycle is typical. The reliability of coppicing is varied depending on the source of information.
  • Windbreak, typically only the “Russian Mulberry”, M. alba var tatarica is used.
  • Traditional medicinal uses – it is reported that Mulberry root may help tapeworm. Overeating the fruit or eating the inner bark of the tree has been reportedly used to treat constipation (this information has not been verified). Tea made from Mulberry leaves has been reported to help with the common cold, diabetes and weight loss (by stabilizing blood sugars), and used as an antioxidant.
  • Mulberry Fruit as a Forage Crop
    • Mulberries (fruit) are choice food for poultry and pigs.
    • Mulberries bear fruit crops with regularity. Many nut and fruit tree species have good years and bad years, but Mulberries are reliable.
    • Mulberries have a long fruiting season. By planting early to late fruiting varieties/species, the fruiting season can be extended further.
    • Mulberries can recover and still fruit if there is a late frost.
  • Mulberry Leaves as a Forage Crop
    • While historically used as a supplementary forage, recently there has been more focused research on using Mulberry leaves as a forage crops for livestock including monogastrics (pigs, rabbits, etc.), ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats, etc.), and poultry (chickens, ducks, etc.).
    • The leaves contain between 18-25% protein (dry matter content) and have high digestibility (70-90%).
    • Yields of leaves and stems used for forage, based on information gathered from around the world and compiled by FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), ranged from 3.2-21 tons/acre/year (8-52 tons/hectare/year) with most in the 8-12 tons/acre/year (20-30 tons/hectare/year).
    • Compare this to alfalfa/lucerne (Medicago sativa), the “Queen of Hay Crops”, which yields 3-4 tons/acre/year (7.4-9.9 tons/hectare/year).
    • There is good reason that J. Russell Smith included Mulberries in his revolutionary book, Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture. He called the Mulberry the “King (of Crops) Without a Throne”.

 

Mulberries can be used to make cordials and wines!

Mulberries can be used to make cordials and wines!

Mulberries can be frozen just like raspberries or blackberries!

Mulberries can be frozen just like raspberries or blackberries!

Yield: One source states 5-25 lbs per tree, and this may be true for young or small trees. Another source states 10 bushels (equivalent to 80 gallons), and I think this is more accurate for a large, mature tree’s yield.
Harvesting: Varies according to local climate. Fruit may ripen from late Spring to early Autumn. Pick as the fruits ripen – they will not all ripen at the same time.  Sheets can be laid down and the tree given a good shake.  The ripe fruits will drop easily. This is a very easy way (and my favorite way) to harvest Mulberries!
Storage: Fresh fruit only keeps for a few days, and are best kept unwashed (until you are about to eat them) in a cool environment; uncovered in a refrigerator is a good location. The fruits can be dried.  The fruits also freeze well. It is best to freeze them individually first on a tray in a freezer before storing them together in a container or bag.

 

Mulberry tree in Autumn.

Mulberry tree in Autumn.

Young Mulberry trunk.

Young Mulberry trunk.

Mature Mulberry trunk.

Mature Mulberry trunk.

DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT

USDA Hardiness Zone: Zone 5-9
AHS Heat Zone: 9-4
Chill Requirement: 300-500 hours/units depending on the species and variety.

Plant Type: Medium-Sized Trees
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Tree, Sub-Canopy Tree
Cultivars/Varieties: A few species and a many cultivars available

Pollination: Mulberry trees are either monoecious or dioecious. Monoecious Mulberries (trees having separate male and female flowers on the same plant) are typically self-pollinating/self-fertile. Dioecious Mulberries are trees having male (staminate) flowers and female (pistillate) flowers on separate trees… often called male or female trees. Some dioecious Mulberry trees have been known to change from one sex to another. Some cultivars will produce greater yields if allowed to cross-pollinate, although many cultivars (monoecious types) do not need cross-pollination at all. Some Mulberries can even produce fruit without any pollination. Pollination occurs by wind.

Flowering: Spring (typically not effected by frost).

Life Span:

  • Years to Begin Fruiting: 5-15 years (can be as little as 2 years for some varieties, but will need a few more years to get to maximum production)
  • Years to Maximum Fruiting: 1-3 years after fruiting begins
  • Years of Useful LifeM. rubra (less than 75 years), M. alba (150 years), M. nigra (300+ years!)

 

Male and female Mulberry flowers.

Male flower stalks (long and thin) and female flower stalks (short and round) will often form on the same tree – making it self-fertile. However, cross-pollination from another mulberry will typically provide greater yields.

Mulberry tree with only male flowers.

Mulberry tree with only male flowers (staminate).

Mulberry tree with only female flowers.

Mulberry tree with only female flowers (pistillate).

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT

Size: 30-80 feet (9-24 meters) tall and wide. Black Mulberries are the smallest and tends toward a bush form. White Mulberries are the largest.
Roots: taproot or heart-shaped root pattern (a number of main roots all spreading out and down)
Growth Rate: Fast

 

Mulberry leaves come in various shapes and sizes.

Mulberry leaves come in various shapes and sizes. These variations can all occur on the same tree!

Young leaves on our wild Red Mulberry trees.

Young leaves on our wild Red Mulberry trees.

Harvesting Mulberries in a previous minefield in Azerbaijan.

Harvesting Mulberries in a previous minefield in Azerbaijan.

GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade (about 25-50%)
Moisture: Medium, however some species/varieties can handle drier soils
pH: most species prefer fairly neutral soil (6.1 – 7.0); M. rubra can handle more alkaline soils (to 8.5)

Special Considerations for Growing:
Branches can be brittle, so some protection may be needed from the wind.  M. alba tolerates juglone (natural growth inhibitor produced by Black Walnut and its relatives).  Consider using this tree as a buffer between your walnuts and other plantings.

 

Immature Red Mulberry fruit on our trees.

Immature Red Mulberry fruit on our trees.

Propagation:
Mulberries can grow from seed and can be sown immediately after fruiting. Seeds germinate better with some cold stratification. Seeds can be stratified from 4-16 weeks. Trees planted from seed take the longest to begin bearing fruit. Cuttings from hardwood, softwood, and even the roots have all been reported to work well, but depending on who you talk to about it, this is really easy or really difficult.

Maintenance: 

  • Seedlings are susceptible to slugs and snails.
  • Once established, very little maintenance is needed.
  • If pruning, do so in early summer.
  • Trim away dead branches for aesthetic reasons or prune branches to minimize branch overcrowding.
  • Few pests.

Concerns:

  • Fruits can be messy – avoid planting trees near driveways and sidewalks/walkways
  • Can spread easily by seed – usually by birds
  • Some people are allergic to the pollen – seasonal allergies
  • Some people are sensitive to the milky sap – contact dermatitis
  • Poisonous – In some species, the unripe fruit and leaves (mainly the white sap within the unripe berries and in the leaves) can cause stomach upset at best and hallucinations at worst.

 

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Photo References:

  • http://www.missouripermaculture.com/2011/09/morus-rubra-red-mulberry.html
  • http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/70/The_Mulberry_Tree_by_Vincent_van_Gogh.jpg
  • http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/JPEG’S/Plant%20Web%20Images/MulberryFlowers.jpg
  • http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Black_Mulberry_Female_Flowers.jpg
  • http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330mm.jpg
  • https://c3.staticflickr.com/3/2535/3917066690_9b5bcb36b8_b.jpg
  • http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7d/Morus_alba_Blanco1.206.png
  • http://www.hnffoods.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Mulberries-960×561.jpg
  • http://guidedoc.com/wp-content/uploads/white-mulberry-tea-benefits-fresh-mulberries1.jpg
  • http://img.21food.com/20110609/product/1306614065276.jpg
  • http://www.boonut.info/photoalbums/boonut_farm_2007/photos/r7.jpg
  • http://people.duke.edu/~cwcook/trees/moru3104.jpg
  • http://people.duke.edu/~cwcook/trees/moru3156.jpg
  • http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5103/5881263871_26967a0833.jpg
  • http://static.panoramio.com/photos/original/33118696.jpg
  • http://mulberryscleaners.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/berrywine.jpg

 

Permaculture Plants: Muscadines

Common Name: Muscadine, Scuppernong, Bullace, Bull Grape, Bird Grape, Munson’s Grape, Southern Fox Grape, White Grape, Fruit of the Mother Vine
Scientific Name: Vitis rotundifolia
Family: Vitaceae (the Grape family)

Americans are rediscovering this native grape!

Americans are rediscovering this native grape!

Description:
I’ve been planning on planting a large number of Muscadines for a long time, and recently Jack Spirko published a podcast discussing Muscadines, and so I thought I would elaborate on the topic. This North American native is at home in the humid southeastern parts of the continent, and these grapes thrive in conditions where the more temperamental European grapes struggle. They are vigorous, produce high yields (over 100 lbs/45 kg per vine!), can be eaten fresh, produce amazing preserves and wines, can be dried like raisins, and have edible leaves. This is a great vining option that will add diversity to your diet and your biome!

 

Muscadines

John J. Audomon’s Summer Tanagers eating Muscadines (Vitis rotundifolia)

History:
Muscadines are native to southeastern North America. The natural range stretches from Florida to Delaware (but much more infrequent north of Virginia) and west to Texas. Native Americans used these fruits for fresh eating, juice, and dried as raisins for Winter food. Thomas Jefferson planted Muscadines at Monticello. Muscadine wine (including a fortified port-style wine) became a large industry in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, but Prohibition severely crippled it, and it never recovered. There are a number of Muscadine Wine producers now, but it is seen as more of a novelty than a standard, although there are a number of wineries hoping to change that. There have also been a large number of improved cultivars that have sweeter and thinner skinned fruits which have growing appeal for fresh eating.

Muscadines can be very large compared to what most people think of grapes.

Muscadines can be very large compared to what most people think of grapes.

Trivia:

  • Muscadines don’t form the typical tight bunches of grapes like the classic wine and table grapes. Instead, they form loose clusters of 3-40 grapes.
  • Muscadines are all seeded with up to 5 hard seeds. The exception is the Fry Seedless, but these fruit are small and require chemical application for the fruit to grow to size.
  • There are over 300 Muscadine cultivars grown in the U.S.
  • Some Muscadines are self-fertile, but many are considered “female” or “self-sterile”. These plants produce pistils but no stamens (called “pistillate”), so they need a self-fertile (or “perfect” flowered plant) for fertilization. There are no “male” Muscadines (i.e. a plant that produces flowers with only stamens but no pistils, i.e. “staminate”).
  • Self-fertile plants do not need cross-pollination to set fruit.
  • Some self-fertile cultivars are: Alachua, Albermarle, Bountiful, Burgaw, Carlos, Cowart, Delite, Dixie Red, Doreen, Duplin, Fry Seedless, Golden Isles, Granny Val, Ison, Janebell, Janet, Late Fry, Magnolia, Magoon, Nesbit, Noble, Pineapple, Polyanna, Redgate, Regale, Roanoke, Southland, Southern Home, Sterling, Tara, Tarheel, Triumph, Welder.
  • Female plants need to be planted within 50 feet (15 meters) of a self-fertile plant to ensure good fruit production.
  • Cultivars that are more cold-hardy include Magnolia, Carlos, and Sterling.
  • In 1524, a green-bronze Muscadine was found growing along the Scuppernong River in North Carolina. Since then, many people mistakenly call all bronze Muscadines “scuppernongs”, but this is not accurate. The Scuppernong is one named variety. So all Scuppernongs are Muscadines, but all bronze Muscadines are not Scuppernongs.
  • The “Mother Vine”  is a Scuppernong vine that has been growing since at least the 1720’s (but possibly from as early as 1584!) on the northern end of Roanoke Island, North Carolina. It is the oldest known Muscadine vine in the world.
  • Muscadines have high GDH (Growing Degree Hours). This means, in general, Muscadines need long, warm days to reach maximum production. This is not surprising when we consider Muscadines are native to the southeastern United States. It is important to keep this in mind when choosing a variety, as some are more cold tolerant than others.
  • Muscadine cultivars are also evaluated by percentage of “dry scars” on the fruit harvest. The scar is the wound that is left when the fruit is picked off the vine. If the scar is “wet”, this means that the fruit can dry out and/or will start to rot faster (i.e. has a low storage/shelf life). If the scar is “dry”, this means that the wound seals over fast, and this fruit will store longer. Some examples of cultivars with “dry” scars include: Albermarle, Bountiful, Delite, Excel, Golden Isles, Granny Val, Hunt, Loomis, Magoon, Nesbit, Pride, Roanoke, Scarlet, Southern Home, Summit, and Welder. Some examples of cultivars with “very dry” scars include: Carlos, Florida Fry, Fry Seedless, Late Fry, Polyanna, and Tara.
  • The sugar content in Muscadines can range from very low (12-13%) to very high (20-23%). Some cultivars with high sugar content include: Albermarle, Bountiful, Darlene, Dixie, Early Fry, Pam, Rosa, Scarlet, Southland, Summit, Sweet Jenny, Tara, and Triumph. Some cultivars with very high sugar content include: Doreen, Florida Fry, Fry Seedless, Janet, Late Fry, Magoon, and Sugargate.
  • One reason Muscadine wine has not been promoted as much is because of its natural browning. This is when the wine, both white and red, slowly turn to a brownish color. There is no change in flavor, but marketers fear brown wines won’t sell. There may be some truth to that, but that isn’t going to stop me from making wine from my Muscadines!

 

Most cultivars of Muscadine are perfect for fresh eating!

Most cultivars of Muscadine are perfect for fresh eating!

Although many prefer to make Muscadine wine from the fruits!

Although many prefer to make Muscadine wine from the fruits! Click on the photo to see more on this wine.

USING THIS PLANT

Primary Uses:

  • Fresh eating – While the skins are edible, most people do not like to eat them. This is because most varieties have thick skins; people either suck the fruit from the skin or spit the skin out. There are thin-skinned varieties that have been developed which have skins that are significantly more palatable.
  • Cooked –  Preserves, jellies, jams, fruit leathers (may need to be mixed with more fibrous fruit juices/pulps), compotes, and desserts.
  • Dried – Muscadine Raisins! In a small study looking at three cultivars, Noble was chosen as the best raisin Muscadine.
  • Syrup – This is another use of Muscadines and can be used in salad dressings, desserts, and drinks.
  • Juice – This is a growing market as the juice is very high polyphenols and other antioxidants.
  • Primary or secondary/adjunct flavoring in wines, cordials, liqueur, and other alcoholic beverages, including beers.

 

Muscadine leaves can be used just like European grape leaves.

Muscadine leaves can be used just like European grape leaves. Click on the photo for a great recipe from herbalist and psychotherapist, Holli Richey!

Secondary Uses:

  • Medicinal Plant – While the fruit contains many healthful antioxidants, the seeds are being researched for stronger medicinal benefits.
  • Tea Plant – The leaves can be dried and used as a tea or used with herbal tea mixes.
  • Edible Leaves – The young leaves are edible and can be used just like “regular” grape leaves. See photo/recipe above.
  • Edible Sap – I could only fine a few sources for this bit of information, but reportedly, the sap can be harvested from a cut vine. This is said to be a “coolly refreshing drink”, but may weaken or kill the stem/vine.
  • Dye Plant – The leaves have been used as a natural yellow dye.
  • Wildlife Food – many animals will eat the fruit, especially birds!
  • General insect nectar plant.

 

Many animals enjoy Muscadines as much as humans! Here is a Giant Leopard Moth ( Hypercompe scribonia).

Many animals enjoy Muscadines as much as humans! Here is a Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia).

Yield: Variable depending on the cultivar and variety. In one study performed in Mississippi, yields ranged from 15 lbs (7 kg) to 115 lbs (52 kg) with most cultivars yielding 55 lbs (25 kg) to 77 lbs (35 kg) of fruit per vine. That is a lot of fruit!
Harvesting: Harvesting can begin in the third growing season; all flower clusters should be removed for the first two years to establish a healthy vine. Muscadines are harvested when the fruit is ripe, in late Summer and Autumn (depending on location), and are typically picked one fruit at a time (not in bunches like bunch grapes). The fruit is ripe when it falls easily off the stem and has a pleasant, sweet fragrance. The fruit will not ripen more after picked, so avoid picking unripe fruit. Another harvesting method takes advantage of Muscadines tendency to drop when ripe. A tarp or sheet can be placed under the vine, and the vine given a hard shake, and ripe fruit will fall onto the tarp making for easier harvest.
Storage: Use within a few days fresh. A few cultivars can be stored for about a week, but this depends on the cultivar.

 

Muscadine jelly is a Southern treat!

Muscadine jelly is a Southern treat!

Muscadine seeds are being investigated for their health benefits (thought to be almost identical to European grape seeds).

Muscadine seeds are being investigated for their health benefits (thought to be almost identical to European grape seeds).

DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT

USDA Hardiness Zone: Zone 5-10
AHS Heat Zone: 11-6
Chill Requirement: 200-600 units (or hours below 45°F/7°C).

Plant Type: Vine
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Vertical/Climbing Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: There are hundreds of varieties.

Pollination: Self-fertile or Female plants. Pollinated by wind and insects. There is some debate about honeybees pollinating Muscadines as I have seen conflicting reports in horticultural literature.
Flowering: Spring-Summer depending on the location.

Life Span:

  • Years to Begin Fruiting: 2-3 years
  • Years to Maximum Fruiting: 4-5 years
  • Years of Useful Life: 20+ years.
The flower clusters should be removed for the first 2 years to promote healthy vines.

The flower clusters should be removed for the first 2 years to promote healthy vines.

Muscadine flowers are pollinated via wind and insects.

Muscadine flowers are pollinated via wind and insects.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT

Size: Up to 100 feet (30 meters) in length
Roots: Most grapes have a large portion of shallow, fibrous roots with some deep roots that can grow 20 feet (6 meters) down into the subsoil. Roots can spread laterally up to 33 feet (10 meters) from the vine, and it is likely that the longer Muscadine vines’ roots may be larger.
Growth Rate: Fast

Muscadine leaves can be eaten like European grape leaves.

Muscadine leaves can be eaten like European grape leaves.

Muscadines don't cluster like European grapes.

Muscadines don’t cluster like European grapes.

GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates moderate shade, but fruit yield decreases significantly in the shade.
Moisture: Moist and well-drained soils is preferred. Avoid areas with standing water, as Muscadines cannot tolerate wet ground for long.
pH: 5.5-6.5

Special Considerations for Growing:

  • It is reported that irrigation is not needed in areas with at least 30 inches of rain (not surprisingly, this is typical for the areas where Muscadines originate). If there is no rain for more than 60 days, then supplemental watering is needed. If your region has dry summers, then irrigation for establishment is recommended for the first 2-4 years.
  • Female plants need to be planted within 50 feet (15 meters) of a self-fertile plant to ensure good fruit production.

Propagation:

Typically from layering of developed varieties, usually in Summer. Can be propagated via cuttings, but this is reportedly more difficult. Muscadines can be easily propagated via seed as well, but you may or may not get a good-tasting fruit. 1-2 months of cold stratification is recommended to increase germination rates.

Maintenance: 

  • For maximum fruit production, pruning and training are required. Pruning should be done when the plant is dormant (Winter) or the cut vine will heavily bleed.
  • Training to a trellis system is the most common method of growing Muscadines, but they will grow on fences, shrubs, and trees as well.

Concerns:
None

 

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Photo References:

  • http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-PEMDwGLbae0/Tl5S_qwObRI/AAAAAAAAADE/0q4wRZutFgo/s1600/IMG_4573.JPG
  • http://www.alcoholprofessor.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Muscadine-grapes-Wills-Creek-Winery.jpg
  • https://static.squarespace.com/static/52cc3095e4b083c53db90757/52d050d8e4b0c550db39dbab/52d050d9e4b0c550db39ddc1/1346026320093/1000w/Muscadine-seeds.jpg
  • http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-KVY5zc1Wflo/UBm55VY2PVI/AAAAAAAAALI/zaigPsPcVxU/s1600/hcoutdoors.com+105.jpg
  • https://hollirichey.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/img_4007.jpg
  • http://blog.emergencyoutdoors.com/tala/uploads/2012/07/muscadine-05.jpg
  • https://happyhealthypurposed.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/istock_grapes1.jpg
  • http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/1403813/18419297/1338005919080/IMG_1284+2.jpg?token=SCM%2BjW1TU%2BWhWu2gjcd15zB4sxM%3D
  • http://i.imgur.com/5nbzI.jpg
  • http://www.caes.uga.edu/commodities/fruits/muscadines/cultivars/scuppernong/scuppernong_hand.jpg
  • https://mmmbrews.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/dsc05973.jpg
  • https://msfruitextension.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/april302012poplarville-008.jpg
  • https://tateshellblackwaterriverstateforeststs.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/p1010594.jpg
  • http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Muscadines1.jpg

 

 

Permaculture Plants: Currants

Common Name: Currant, Blackcurrant, Red Currant, White Currant
Scientific Name: Ribes species
Family: Grossulariaceae (the Currant or Gooseberry family)

Blackcurrant harvest!

Blackcurrant harvest!

Common Species: there are over 150 species in the Ribes genus. The Gooseberries were discussed previously in this article. The “flowering currants” are not discussed in this article. While there are a number of very uncommon edible currants, it is the common edible currants that are discussed below:

  • Alpine Currant (Ribes alpinum): A more cold-hardy currant distributed throughout Europe with fair flavor.
  • American Black Currant (Ribes americanum): Our native Black Currant. I’ve never tried this species. Reports on flavor range from very poor to very good. This probably has to do with location, plant, and personal preference.
  • Golden Currant (Ribes aureum): Native to western North America, these currants reportedly have a good to very good flavor.
  • Blackcurrant or Black Currant (Ribes nigrum): This is the most widely grown currant with many varieties available.
  • Clove Currant or Buffalo Currant (Ribes odoratum): This North American native has clove-scented flowers and can produce small batches of very good flavored fruit. This would be a prime plant for breeding/selective improvements.
  • Rock Red Currant (Ribes petraeum): A less common European species.
  • Trailing Red Currant (Ribes procumbens): A very low-growing Asian currant with good flavored fruit.
  • Redcurrant or Red Currant (Ribes rubrum): There are a number of red-fruited currant species that all have the name “Red Currant”, but this species has had many names in its past. Ribes rubrum is sometimes called Ribes sylvestre or Ribes sativum or Ribes vulgare, and you will still see these names in older publications (or with writers who aren’t aware of the taxonomic updates). These fruits are more tart than Blackcurrant, but full of flavor. They typically can tolerate more shade than Blackcurrants.
  • Whitecurrant or White Currant (Ribes rubrum): this is actually an albino sport of the Redcurrant, and it has a mild flavor and a pale color. Depending of the cultivar, the fruit color can range from almost translucent white to salmon to pink to yellow. These other colors are often sold as
  • American Red Currant (Ribes triste): Our native Red Currant. Good flavor, very tart, with a lot of seeds.
  • Downy Currant (Ribes warszewiczii): A Siberian currant with very good flavor.
There are a wide variety of currants.

There are a wide variety of currants.

Description:
Currants are one of my favorite uncommon fruits in the United States. Many other countries know and love them, and I think Americans are just reawakening to this small shrub thanks to their high antioxidant content. But apart from their health benefits, they are quite tasty fruit, albeit a bit tart when eaten fresh. Currants are shade-tolerant, provide food and shelter to wildlife, and while their leaves are edible, they are more commonly dried and used for tea. In addition, many currants can be quite beautiful plants. Unless you live in an area that restricts their presence, then I would highly recommend the addition of currants to your property.

Blackcurrant (Ribes nigrum)

Blackcurrant (Ribes nigrum)

History:
The Blackcurrant is native to temperate central and north Europe and northern Asia. The Redcurrant is native to western Europe and Britain. The Blackcurrant was cultivated as early at the 11th century in Russian monasteries. It was mainly used as a medicinal for many centuries. In the UK during the 1940’s (and World War II), Blackcurrants were used as a primary vitamin C source, and the government distributed Blackcurrant syrup to children under age of 2 years for no charge. Historians make a good argument that this is the reason for the lasting popularity of Blackcurrants in Britain. Blackcurrants were also popular fruits in North America, but once the White Pine Blister Rust (see below) threatened the timber industry in the U.S., a federal ban was placed on growing this plant. The federal ban was lifted in 1966, and only a few states still have existing bans. The contemporary focus on antioxidants, along with Blackcurrants’ high antioxidant levels, have combined to bring about a resurgence in awareness of this fruit. Although, the Blackcurrants previous popularity has not yet returned.

"White" Currants

“White” Currants are really an albino form of the Red Currant (Ribes rubrum)

Another version of the "White" Currant

Another version of the “White” Currant

A pink or "Champagne" Currant

A pink or “Champagne” Currant, also a Red Currant variety.

The Golden Current (Ribes

The Golden Current (Ribes aureum)

Trivia:

  • Blackcurrant is very high in vitamin C and antioxidants.
  • Blackcurrant seed oil is being investigated for its health properties (similar to grapeseed oil).
  • Zante Currants or Corithian Raisins (often just called “Currants”) are dried, seedless grapes (a.k.a. Raisins) from the small ‘Black Corinth’ grape (Vitis vinifera). These are not related to the true currants of the Ribes genus. These are tasty little raisins.
  • Jostaberry (Ribes x nidigrloaria) is a tetraploid cross of the Blackcurrant (R. nigrum), the western North American Spreading or Coast Gooseberry (R. divaricatum), and the European Gooseberry (R. uva-crispa). These have a taste that falls somewhere between Blackcurrants and Gooseberries, and there are a number of varieties available.
  • Cider & Black is a drink that combines Blackcurrant cordial with hard cider.
  • Lager & Black is a drink that combines Blackcurrant cordial with lager beer.
  • Snakebite & Black (a.k.a. Diesel) is a drink that combines Blackcurrant cordial with lager and hard cider.
  • Johannisbeerschorle is a German drink made from Redcurrant syrup and soda water.
  • Bar-le-duc or Lorraine Jelly is a hand-made jelly produced in the town of Bar-le-duc, France using whole, seeded Redcurrants or White Currants. It is highly prized and considered an elite food product. The seeds are traditionally removed with goose quills, and Here is a great article about this culinary gem.
Whit Pine Blister Rust on Currants (left) and Pines (right).

Whit Pine Blister Rust on Currants (left) and Pines (right).

White Pine Blister Rust:
This is a fungal disease that infects White Pine trees (Pinus, subgenus Strobus) and causes serious damage or death to these commercially important trees. The problem with White Pine Blister Rust is that it requires two host plants to complete its life cycle. One host are the White Pines. The other host can be one of a few genera of Broomrapes (small, flowering plants), but most commonly it is the Ribes (Gooseberries and Currants). The rust is native to Asia, and it was accidentally introduced to North America in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s. Seedlings and young trees are the most susceptible. Alternatively, the infection on Gooseberries and Currants is usually minimal, especially in Redcurrants and Gooseberries. Also, there are a number of immune or resistant Blackcurrant cultivars now available. In infected Ribes species, the leaves may get chlorotic spots (light spots), and they may turn orange-brown and fall off early. But then the leaves fall off anyway in Autumn, and the infection is done. Many places in North America have banned the import and growing of Ribes species, and while some locations still have these policies (especially in New England), this management has not been very effective due to alternate hosts and wild Ribes species. I recommend checking with your local state’s Agriculture Extension Service/Department. Look to plant resistant cultivars especially if you have a lot of susceptible pines.

Baked desserts are one of my favorite ways to eat currants!

Baked desserts are one of my favorite ways to eat currants!

USING THIS PLANT

Primary Uses:

  • Fresh eating – All currants can be eaten fresh, but many are very tart, especially Redcurrants. The tarter varieties are often used raw in small amounts in salads, fruit dishes, and as an edible garnish.
  • Cooked –  Preserves, jellies, jams, fruit leathers (may need to be mixed with more fibrous fruit juices/pulps), compotes, and desserts are significantly more common than raw currants and can be exquisite. Cooked currants also pairs with flavorful meats (lamb, venison, and other and game meats) or poultry (turkey, goose, pheasant, etc.).
  • Syrup – This is another common use of currants and can be used in salad dressings, desserts, and drinks.
  • Juice – This is a growing market as the juice is very high if vitamin C and other antioxidants. Typically combined with other juices before serving.
  • Primary or secondary/adjunct flavoring in wines, cordials, liqueur, and other alcoholic beverages, including herbal beers. Here is an interesting article on Blackcurrant Leaf and Nettle Beer.
Currant leaves are edible but most commonly used in teas.

Currant leaves are edible but most commonly used in teas.

Secondary Uses:

  • Medicinal Plant – The leaves and fruit are often used medicinally.
  • Tea Plant – The leaves can be dried and used as a tea or used with herbal tea mixes.
  • Edible Leaves – Young, tender leaves are edible, and most commonly used in soups, although I have yet to try this. I cannot find any source that states the leaves need to be cooked first, but all recipes use cooked leaves. I do not know if, for instance, the leaves contain any toxins that are destroyed with cooking, or if the leaves just taste better when cooked and used when mixed with other flavors. I’ve even seen a recipe for Blackcurrant Leaf Ice Cream!
  • Dye Plant – The leaves and fruit have been used as a natural dye.
  • Wildlife Food – many animals will eat the fruit, especially birds!
  • Wildlife Shelter – mainly birds and small mammals find refuge in the mini-thickets these plants can form.
  • General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
  • Hummingbird Plant – these plants have nectar for Hummingbirds
Blackcurrant Syrup!

Blackcurrant Syrup!

Blackcurrant Syrup:

  • Blackcurrant syrup has long been used as a treatment for sore throats and cough in children, but it can also be used to flavor soda or tonic water, teas, other juices, or mixed drinks.
  • Blackcurrant syrup is a pretty simple recipe. It consists of roughly one part sweetener, one part water, and two parts fruit. The sweetener is dissolved in the water over heat, and then the fruit is added. Boil for 5-10 minutes, then remove from the heat for a few minutes. Mash the fruit (a potato masher works well for this). Return to boil for another few minutes to make sure the juice is all extracted. Some people will add lemon juice or citric acid at this point. Strain the juice through a fine sieve, muslin, or jelly bag. Pour into sterile jars and keep refrigerated.
Red Currant plant in full fruit!

Red Currant plant in full fruit!

Yield: Variable, but an established Blackcurrant bush can produce up to 10 pounds (4.5 kg) per year/3-5 quarts/3-5 liters.  Redcurrants produce a little less than Blackcurrants. Clove Currant can produce 4-8 pounds (1.8-3.6 kg) per plant. White Currants, being significantly smaller, produce even less.
Harvesting: Harvest in mid to late Summer. The longer the fruits stays on the plant, the sweeter they become. Although, this give birds more chance at eating them. The more “wild” species (ones with no varieties) will ripen more unevenly, so these plants may need to be harvested a few times.
Storage: Use within 1-2 weeks.

The Clove or Buffalo Currant has clove-scented flowers! (Ribes

The Clove or Buffalo Currant has clove-scented flowers! (Ribes odoratum)

DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT

USDA Hardiness Zone:

  • Alpine Currant (Ribes alpinum): Zone 2-7
  • American Black Currant (Ribes americanum): Zone 3
  • Golden Currant (Ribes aureum): Zone 3
  • Blackcurrant or Black Currant (Ribes nigrum): Zone 4-8
  • Clove Currant or Buffalo Currant (Ribes odoratum): Zone 3b-8
  • Rock Red Currant (Ribes petraeum): Zone 5-9
  • Trailing Red Currant (Ribes procumbens): Zone 3-7
  • Redcurrant or Red Currant (Ribes rubrum): Zone 5-9
  • Whitecurrant or White Currant (Ribes rubrum): Zone 5-9
  • American Red Currant (Ribes triste): Zone 3
  • Downy Currant (Ribes warszewiczii): Zone 3-7

AHS Heat Zone: AHS Heat Zones have not been defined for most of these plants (that I can find!), but most prefer less heat-stress locations.

  • Blackcurrant or Black Currant (Ribes nigrum): Zone 7-1
  • Clove Currant or Buffalo Currant (Ribes odoratum): Zone 9-3
  • Redcurrant or Red Currant (Ribes rubrum): Zone 7-1
  • Whitecurrant or White Currant (Ribes rubrum): Zone 7-1

Chill Requirement: Blackcurrants need 1,200-2,500 chill hours/units. Redcurrants need 800-1,500 chill hours/units. The farther north the range of the native plant, typically the higher chill requirement.

Plant Type: Small Shrub
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Shrub Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: There are a number of varieties available. This is a nice Cornell review of some popular Ribes varietiesand here is a very extensive list of cultivars available, also from Cornell. 

Pollination: Ribes are self-fertile, but Blackcurrant cultivars will fruit significantly better with insect-mediated cross-pollination of other cultivars. Clove Currant will also produce better with cross-pollination.
Flowering: Early to Mid Spring

Life Span:

  • Years to Begin Fruiting: 3 years
  • Years to Maximum Fruiting: 3-4 years
  • Years of Useful Life: Not defined for most Ribes species, but Redcurrants can still fruit for 10-15 years, and Blackcurrants have been known to still be productive at 15-20 years of age.
Currants can be beautiful plants.

Currants can be beautiful plants (Ribes aureum)

Blackcurrant flowers.

Blackcurrant flowers.

Red Currant flowers.

Red Currant flowers.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT

Size:

  • Alpine Currant (Ribes alpinum): 3-4 feet (0.9-1.2 meters) tall and 2-3 feet (0.6-0.9 meters) wide.
  • American Black Currant (Ribes americanum): 3-6 feet (0.9-1.8 meters) tall and wide.
  • Golden Currant (Ribes aureum): 3-8 feet (0.9-2.4 meters) tall and 3-6 feet (0.9-1.8 meters) wide.
  • Blackcurrant or Black Currant (Ribes nigrum): 3-5 feet (0.9-1.5 meters) tall and wide.
  • Clove Currant or Buffalo Currant (Ribes odoratum): 6-12 feet (1.8-3.6 meters) tall and wide.
  • Rock Red Currant (Ribes petraeum): 3-6 feet (0.9-1.8 meters) tall and wide.
  • Trailing Red Currant (Ribes procumbens): 8 inches (20 cm) tall and 3 feet (0.9 meters) wide.
  • Redcurrant or Red Currant (Ribes rubrum): 3.5-5 feet (1-1.5 meters) tall and wide. Up to 7 feet (2 meters) tall on occasion.
  • Whitecurrant or White Currant (Ribes rubrum): 2-3 feet (0.6-0.9 meter) tall and wide.
  • American Red Currant (Ribes triste): 3-5 feet (0.9-1.5 meters) tall and wide.
  • Downy Currant (Ribes warszewiczii): 3-5 feet (0.9-1.5 meters) tall and wide.

Roots: For the species that have been defined, most have fibrous or heart-shaped root patterns, and the American species often sucker (produces new plants from underground runners).
Growth Rate: Medium to Fast.

Beautiful Red Currant esplier grown by Lee Reich.

Beautiful Red Currant espalier grown by Lee Reich.

GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT

Light: Prefers partial sun/shade to almost full sun
Shade: Tolerates moderate shade and can grow in fairly deep shade, but fruiting is substantially reduced.
Moisture: Prefers moist soils. Can tolerate pretty wet soils, but does not tolerate dry soils.
pH: As a very general rule, European/Asian Ribes prefer more acidic soils, and the American Ribes prefer a bit more alkaline soils; however, both do well at close to neutral.

Special Considerations for Growing:
Ribes tolerate juglone, a chemical produced by black walnuts that can be toxic to other plants (killing or severely stunting them), so Currants can be used as a buffer plant between your black walnuts and your other forest garden plants.

Propagation:
Most common propagated with seed; needs cold stratification for 12 weeks. Can also be propagated via cuttings, and this is how cultivars are propagated.

Maintenance:

  • With many Currants, about one-third of all stems can be cut out at just above ground level after leaf die-back in Autumn. The first to be pruned should be older stems with the least new growth. The goal is that fruits will be borne on spurs of 2-3 year old wood. Redcurrants need to be pruned less, unless you want to trigger new wood growth.
  • May need potassium supplementation (aka Potash) to maintain good fruiting.

Concerns:

  • Susceptible to White Pine Blister Rust as noted above. If in an area of concern, then choose resistant varieties.

 

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Photo References:

  • http://www.leereich.com/2014/08/weeds-birds-pest-free-currants.html
  • http://store.isons.com/content/220634/product_images/Currants/Red_Currant_Hi_Res_SS.jpg
  • http://www.rougemagz.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/red-black-white-currants-wide-wallpaper-514833.jpg
  • http://www.plantandgardens.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/white-currants.jpg
  • http://www.ornamental-trees.co.uk/images/products/zoom/1309442907-03271300.jpg
  • https://fruitforum.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/champagne-hampton-c.jpg
  •  https://thefruitnut.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/p5128822.jpg
  • http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/62/Ribes_rubrum_HC1.JPG
  • http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-IFGz6wQkfQQ/Ta_TTEEHtRI/AAAAAAAAE98/ntYz27bZ3Fs/s1600/SAM_3978.JPG
  • http://plantillustrations.org/ILLUSTRATIONS_full_size/136900.jpg
  • https://thefoodieatdotorg.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/blackcurrant-leaf.jpg
  • http://pharmeko.eu/wp-content/uploads/Pharmeko-Black-Currant-%E2%80%93-Ribes-Nigrum-wholesale.jpg
  • http://www.newplantsandflowers.com/wp-content/uploads/Ribes-aureum-Vierbeere-Fairberry-Orangesse-%E2%80%93-photo-Lubera.jpg
  • https://granadanativegarden.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/ribes-aureum-3-21-13.jpg
  • http://rootstofruits.biz/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/IMGP7987.jpg
  • http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-bic0xItk6Nc/U85Sj3nHX_I/AAAAAAAADls/3lZCoXLx8MY/s1600/Black+currant+cordial+recipe.jpg
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  • http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/highelevationwhitepines/images/Education/rust_canker.JPG
  • https://extension.umass.edu/landscape/sites/landscape/files/news/images/Jostaberry_WPBR1.jpg

 

 

Designing A Custom Native Plant List

The first Permaculture Ethic is Earth Care. This can be realized in many different ways depending on appropriate context. Personally, as my family is preparing for our move to the farm, I have been in massive planning mode. For us, one aspect of planning for Earth Care will be the planting of native plants. There are a number of reasons for planting native plants including:

  • Restoring a native ecosystem
  • Increasing wildlife habitat
  • Increasing wildlife food sources
  • Pollen and nectar source for native pollinators
  • Pollen and nectar source for beneficial insects
  • Pollen and nectar source for honeybees
  • Ancillary forage source for domestic animals on the farm
  • Sources of herbal/plant-derived medicinals

Again, there are a number of things to consider when compiling a list like this, and I thought I would share how I built my list. I wanted plants that are:

  • Native. These are plants that should, typically, be designed/well-suited for my climate and grow the best. Of course, this is not always true with how the land has been used/abused/cleared.
  • Commercially Available. Yes, it is possible for me to find wild specimens and collect seed, divide, etc. But this is significantly less practical right now. I may do this in the future, but for now I will need to purchase these plants. Ideally, I will be able to get seed for these plants.
  • Attract Beneficial Insects, Pollinators, and Honeybees. This was described above, but it is important enough to reiterate. These plants provide food sources for birds, bats, native bees, bumble bees, parasitic wasps, predatory wasps, predatory insects, etc. All these animals greatly reduce pest damage (and many diseases by reducing the pests that introduce the diseases) and increase pollination rates. This equates to higher yields with less damage. It also increases general biodiversity with its many known and unknown benefits.
  • Non-Toxic… mostly. When I started looking through all the plants that met the above criteria, I decided to eliminate certain plants that were known to be highly toxic to people or livestock. Plants like White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima var. altissima), Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberose), and Green-Headed Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), to name but three, attract beneficial insects, but can also kill a cow or a child. That is not compatible for us. There are a number of plants I did chose to keep that are potentially toxic to horses, but since we don’t plan on keeping horses, these plants fit within our context. In addition, there are other plants, Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is one example, that is known to have toxins in pretty much all parts but the fruit; however, the birds and I enjoy the fruits so much that I thought I would keep this one on my list. Finally, I kept a number of plants that have “some reports of toxicity”. This may mean that if a plant or person eats too much of it, they can get sick, so keeping a wide variety of plants mitigates this risk. I believe that many plants are harmful if eaten in excess, but a cow taking a nibble once in a while may have a health benefit – the plant may be slightly anti-parasitic, or it may contain certain trace nutrients an animal needs in very small quantity. I do know that these plants existed with grazing and browsing animals for a long time before we got rid of them, so it stands to reason that if a plant is not deadly toxic in small amounts, it likely deserves a place on a regenerative farm.
  • Non-Invasive. This can be a little controversial. I will likely be adding some plants to my landscape that some people would not because of a “risk of invasiveness”. I believe many “invasive plants” are only invasive because we have degraded the land so much that these plants are the only ones able to grow on it anymore. If we are dealing with healthy soils and pastures and forests, then many (NOT ALL) of these invasive plants are not a problem. With that said, I will not actively be planting Ironweed (Vernonia spp.) or Trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans).
  • Finally, and this is more of an organizational method, I wanted a variety of plants that would flower throughout as much of the year as possible. You will see below how this works.

Let me know walk you through how I created a list of Native Plants for a Tennessee Permaculture Family Farm. How do you start?

You may happen to live in an area where someone has already created a seed mix. Peaceful Valley has a seed blend for California called the Good Bug Blend. For the rest of us, we need to make our own list and obtain our own seeds.

One great resource for lists of North American native plants that attract pollinators is the Xerces Society. Their site has a List of Regional Bee-Friendly Plants. Find your area and start a spreadsheet or list of plants for your area.

Another amazing resource (if you live in the USA or Canada) is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of The University of Texas at Austin. They have an extensive listing of native plants that are commercially available. There is a listing for each plant that also provides its blooming time. I recommend you find your state or province on their Collections Page. Add this list to your master list.

Next, I evaluated each species for invasiveness and for toxicity to humans and livestock. I utilized a number of sites for this including the NRCS Plant Factsheets, the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, and Cornell University’s Plants Poisonous to Livestock.

Using the above resources, I created a list of plants that met my criteria (yours will probably be different). I then made a table where I highlighted the months when the plant blooms. Next, I rearranged the table so that the plants were listed in order of bloom time. In addition, I left a blank for additional notes, and I color-coded the plant name based on its growth habit (Vine, Herbaceous, Shrub, or Tree).

This is the result:

Microsoft Word - Design Your Own Good Bug Blend - 4.docx

Microsoft Word - Design Your Own Good Bug Blend - 4.docx

Microsoft Word - Design Your Own Good Bug Blend - 4.docx

 

Click to download a PDF of this document: Native Plants for a Tennessee Permaculture Family Farm

I hope this article provides you with some tools and motivation to produce a custom native plant list. While it takes a bit of research and time, this list will be a reference for your land forever. To me, that is time well spent!

 


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Photo References:

  • https://kimsmithdesigns.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/cornus-florida-rubra.jpg

 

The Facts Behind Dynamic Accumulators

A significant goal for my site has been to amass reliable information for myself, and therefore, my readers. The information I place on this site has been extensively researched before it is posted. As a physician (M.D.), I strive for scientific accuracy. I am well-versed in the scientific method and critical reading of scientific research articles. I understand the world of academia. I know, beyond doubt, the benefit this arena has provided for the world. However, I also know, beyond doubt, that there is a lot of truth that has not been proven in a lab. This may be due to many factors. To name but a few: the topic has not yet been studied, there are flaws in the design of the study, the topic is too complex for reductionist evaluation.

It is with this mindset that I readdress the concept of Dynamic Accumulators.

Within the world of Permaculture we often find reference to plants known as Dynamic Accumulators. I wrote about these plants in a previous article, but in brief, it is the idea that certain plants (often deep-rooted ones) will draw up nutrients from the lower layers of the soil, and these nutrients will be deposited in the plants’ leaves.  When the leaves fall in autumn and winter and are broken down, those stored nutrients are then incorporated into the upper layers of the soil where other plants will benefit from their deposition.

Comfrey is one of the most popular Dynamic Accumulators.

Comfrey is one of the most popular Dynamic Accumulators.

So, with our scientific minds turned on, does the concept of Dynamic Accumulators hold merit?

In short, my answer is a non-comital “maybe”.

Let’s start with the scientific evidence… well, there is not much. In fact, I can find almost no research into Dynamic Accumulators. Strike that – I can find NO research into this concept at all. None. Many sources site references, but these references just don’t pan out. There are circular references, there are references to non-existing sources, and there are references to (just being honest) less than reputable books or authors. I have to be very fair and state that I am not the utmost scientific-research-article-searcher in the world, but I am pretty darn good, and my lack of results was a bit disappointing.

As it turns out, it appears that the concept of Dynamic Accumulators has been passed down and around for so long that it has been accepted as fact. This concept did not originate with Permaculture, but it has been adopted and advocated by it for a long time. So much so, that many people associate Dynamic Accumulators with Permaculture.

Chickweed is another popular Dynamic Accumulator with many additional benefits.

Chickweed is another popular Dynamic Accumulator with many additional benefits.

Well then, how did this concept get started? Where did it originate? Is there any proof at all?

This is where I back away from the cliff a bit. We do have evidence that some plants accumulate minerals in high concentrations in their tissues. This concept has been significantly researched. In the botanical community, this concept is known as Phytoaccumulation or Hyperaccumulation. There are a number of hyperaccumulator plants that can grow in soils with high concentrations of certain minerals, often metals. These plants can be grown in areas that have been contaminated with heavy metals or high-value metals. The plants pull out these minerals (phytoextract) from the soil. The plants are then harvested and processed to extract the minerals from plants to be recycled or dealt with in a more ecological manner. This “phyomining” has been used, with success, on significantly contaminated sites.

In addition, there has been an extensive database put together by botanist James “Jim” A. Duke Ph.D which provides information on thousands of plants. Specifically, and for our purposes, the database provides information on concentration of minerals found in the tissues of plants. His Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Database is hosted on the USDA ARS site (that is the United States Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Research Service). This is a wealth of information that would take a long, long time to fully peruse and appreciate. Using the information from Dr. Duke’s database, a free, downloadable Nutrient Content Spreadsheet was created. I am not sure who created it, but I found it on Build-A-Soil.com. This is well organized spreadsheet with multiple worksheets (pages).

Lambsquarter (Chenopodium album)

Lambsquarter (Chenopodium album)

With this information we can connect the dots for Dynamic Accumulators. For instance, we can see phosphorus (P) concentration in Lambsquarter (Chenopodium album) is over 36,000 ppm (parts per million). This is a high concentration. Therefore, it would make sense to grow Lambsquarter on our site, let the Lambsquarter die back in the Autumn to be composted in place, and then have higher concentrations of phosphorus (P) in the Spring.

Unfortunately, while this scenario sounds good, we have no proof that it will work. Our logical pathway sounds plausible, but the reality is that Nature is never quite so simple as we would like. Minerals don’t appear out of nowhere (alchemy is still not a science!); if the soil has no phosphorus, then the Lambsquarter cannot accumulate it. If the soil has no biology, i.e. Dr. Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web, then there is a good chance the phosphorus may not be bioavailable to the roots. And while our scenario sounds good, we have no scientific proof (research data) that if the Lamsquarter did accumulate phosphorus it would indeed be returned to the soil in a usable form to future plants. Maybe it will, but would it take 1 year, 5 years, 25 years to become available again? This is information that we just do not have.

People will often swear by their Dynamic Accumulators. They will site their own garden as “proof”. Unfortunately, this is anecdotal information and not scientific evidence. I am not saying that their soils did not improve with the planting of Dynamic Accumulators, but was it the dynamic accumulation or another factor that caused the improvements such as mulching, composting in place, biomass accumulation, biodiversity, microclimate creation/enhancement, etc. As a good friend of mine likes to say, “The plural of anecdote is not data.”

What then should we do with the concept of Dynamic Accumulators? Take the information for what it is, soft data. That is, we can make some logical assumptions, i.e. “guesses”, and hope for the best. But we should not treat or teach the concept, the theory, of Dynamic Accumulators as scientifically proven information. We should not treat it as fact. We should definitely not rely solely on dynamic accumulation as our single solution for degraded soils. Of course, if we are appropriately applying and practicing Permaculture, we wouldn’t do this anyway.

Personally, I will continue to use Dynamic Accumulators in a holistic approach to soil improvement. It may help our soils for our intended purposes. It may help for entirely another reason. And having more diversity on our sites will almost always be of benefit… scientifically proven or not.

Note: If anyone has come across published research (not books and not anecdotes) on Dynamic Accumulators, please send me a link!

*SECOND NOTE: Due to some great input and conversation on this topic both here and on my Facebook page, I updated this article. It was published on the Permaculture Research Institute’s page here.

 

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Photo References:

  • http://lh6.ggpht.com/_ofF5B1eh_dM/SxPeCIYqJNI/AAAAAAAAITE/_azGECDUfi0/Symphytum%20officinallis.jpg
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  • http://ca.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blet_blanc#mediaviewer/File:ChenopodiumAlbum001.JPG