Edible Forest Garden – July Update

surviving this summer

This has not been the greatest summer to start a garden. The almost complete lack of rain through most of the late spring and early summer, record heat, record low dew points, and a severe drought has not made for a nurturing environment; yet all but one of the plants is alive! The one plant that did die had gotten knocked over by something and managed to live on the ground for a few weeks before giving up the ghost, but everything else is alive, and a few of the plants are actually doing pretty well. I don’t know enough to say if any of the plants are thriving but since I have at least four of everything but the plum tree I have some comparisons and some plants are definitely doing better than their friends.

Here is the garden as a whole with my four quadrants labeled.

Quadrants one and two both have a full layer of cardboard within the various layers whereas quadrants three and four have none. Quadrant three, a non-cardboard quadrant is doing the best with the largest, healthiest looking plants. Quadrant one, a full-cardboard quadrant is doing the worst with the one dead plant and everything else being the absolute smallest and least healthy looking. Quadrant three also has some major weed issues whereas quadrant one has almost no weeds.

Here is a close-up of quadrant one, with it’s full cardboard layer, small plants, but almost no weeds:

Here is a closeup of quadrant three, without any cardboard, much bigger plants, but more weeds

If I only had these two examples to go by I would have some serious concerns about the cardboard. Yes, the cardboard clearly seems to be keeping the weeds controlled, which is a good thing, but it also seems to be hindering overall plant health. However, quadrants two and four tell a different story. They seem to be about equally and reasonably healthy with light to moderate weed pressure. Neither of them are as healthy as quadrant three but they are both doing better than quadrant one. The plants in quadrant four (non-cardboard) might be doing a bit better than the plants in quadrant two (full-cardboard) but the quadrant two plants still look relatively healthy and there are less weeds in the cardboard quadrant than the non-cardboard quadrant

Here is a close-up of quadrant two, with it’s full cardboard layer, decent plants, and a few weeds:

Here is a closeup of quadrant four, without any cardboard, decent plants, and some weeds

The growing season isn’t over yet so I am not ready to draw any conclusions, but I am very glad that I unintentionally did this experiment with two quadrants of each option. I did wonder if it had something to do with the order I planted things in but I doubt it. Quadrant four was the first to be planted and quadrant two was the last one planted and they are both my middle of the road beds.

We did finally start to get some rain so it will be interesting to see if that makes any sort of difference, other than helping the weeds in quadrant three. I should probably get on that…

Oh, I almost forgot. We did get our first wild strawberry harvest! Harvest is arguably a strong word for the fifty total strawberries I picked that are tiny. TINY. But they were very tasty.

I didn’t have a banana for scale so I had to use a pen.

Edible Forest Garden – Practice Plot – Part 2

Site Preparation

The books – Edible Forest Gardens Volume I and II have lots of suggestions for proper planting site preparation. These suggestions range from things done one or two years in advance to things done immediately prior to planting. I of course did no actual planning, so we didn’t do any site prep. The books also have a variety of methods and suggestions for actual planting. I decided to go with the sheet mulch option which has the following steps/layers:

  • Soil – amended with mineral powders (didn’t do that..) and heavily watered (did that!)
  • Stubble of existing vegetation, mown hard, cut as low as possible (did that)
  • Seedy mulch, hay for example (we have lots of that!)
  • Uncomposted manure, potentially weedy (we have lots of that too!)
  • Sheet layer, cardboard or newspaper with a minimum of 4-6 inches of overlap of seams (I thought we had lots of that)
  • Compost, seed free (didn’t have that)
  • Seed-free mulch (maybe had that…)

We opted for this method because (A) it is the least amount of work and (B) we already had most of the materials on hand so it would minimize cost, and some of these materials needed to be dealt with anyway, like the manure and the crappy hay so it was a win-win.

Looks pretty simple, shouldn’t take long at all, we’ll be done by lunch time!

Step zero – figure out where exactly this tree guild is going to go and get a fence up around it to protect our money and work from the deer and various other herbivores in the area. As soon as we actually stood on the spot I wanted to plant it I realized that my beautifully drawn circle was too wide for the space. We were hemmed in by the buried power line on one side and a planting of baby pine trees and a half-assed flower bed of day lilies on the other. Ultimately I shifted my circle design over and one of the existing baby pine trees is now in the middle of one of the dedicated walking paths (in an effort to minimize soil compaction you are supposed to have dedicated walking areas) and one of the lilies on the edge was ignored; maybe it will grow, maybe I trampled it, time will tell. The baby pine tree will be moved in the next few years, and I still have other paths so hopefully it will be okay.

One upshot was that since we were running into an already fenced in area we could just use that fence and extend it around to enclose the new planting as well. Of course we were short by about four feet of fence. I had purchased some additional fencing, but Fleet Farm didn’t have the same stuff (the previous fencing was purchased at Menards prior to my FF gig) so I decided to try chicken wire which it turns out isn’t nearly as rigid as the other fencing is. We still haven’t really fixed that, but it is secure enough that animals can’t get in. Eventually we’ll get it finished since the entire roll of chicken wire is still sitting up there in our front yard looking tacky.

Step one – the soil and existing vegetation. Since I didn’t really plan anything out and haven’t gotten around to soil testing yet we didn’t lay down mineral powders to improve the soil because I don’t know what it may or may not need. I did, however, water it really well and mow the existing grass down pretty short.

Step two – seedy mulch layer. We have a lot of the crappy, foxtail infested, stemmy, and apparently not very tasty, hay left so we hauled two bales up and laid that around everywhere. I should have done a good job of breaking apart the bales to get everything evenly distributed. I did not. I roughly shook the bales out and kicked it around until it looked good enough and moved on. I did water it down well, as recommended, since once the cardboard layer is put on water will have a harder time getting down to this layer.

Step three – uncomposted manure. Technically, the manure we used is sort of composted, but it wasn’t hot-composted which means it can still be contaminated with seeds of unwanted plants, so it had to go below the cardboard layer. One of the recommendations the book has for long term planning is to think hard about where everything is in relation to each other. For example, it doesn’t make sense to have your compost pile on the other side of your property from your garden because that means more work hauling it between the two locations. I will absolutely be heeding this advice for long term planning because shoveling the poop out of the compost bays and hauling it up to the planting site took way too long and was way too much work. This was also when I remembered the whole – oh yeah, there are supposed to be paths in this thing! – so you’ll notice the seedy hay layer is covering everything but there are paths between the manure. If I’m being totally honest it was mostly because I really didn’t want to have to haul another load of manure up there and realized that if I left it off the paths I could be done. Yay for being done (with that step). I did set up the sprinkler to water this layer really well too.

At this point it was dinnertime and what was supposed to be my superfast and easy morning project wasn’t even half-way done. Time to break for the day. We’ll get it finished tomorrow. Right?

Edible Forest Garden – Practice Plot – Part 1

the original goal

The inspiration – Edible Forest Gardens Volume I and II.

These are tomes. TOMES! There is so much information packed into those two volumes that I will be reading and re-reading and referencing them for ages. Which also means I will need to buy them for myself and actually return the ones I have to the library before the fines get any bigger.

There are many ideas, options, inspirations, methods, etc. in the books but for the Lawns to Legumes grant I decided to go with a tree guild polyculture as a very first “nuclei that merge.”

The “nuclei that merge” option is a method for large spaces and/or limited budgets where you plant small nuclei of a tree with supporting plants and as those patches grow they merge with one another to eventually create your Edible Forest Garden. One of the books many recommendations is to start with a small plot to practice, well, everything, because they have suggestions from planning to prepping to planting and all of it can get very nuanced and detailed if you want it to. Though, the book is also very good about always reminding you to take and try what you want and not worry too much about the rest.

There are so very many cool plants to work with and I know so very little about them all that I was having a hard time narrowing it down on my own. Luckily, I found the Project Food Forest website and they have four starter polyculture tree-guilds listed as inspiration and the “native bounty” one seemed perfect, all native plants with edible or medicinal properties.

Here was the starting inspiration:

  • Wild Plum (Prunus americana) as the center tree, native to the U.S. with edible fruit
  • Silver Buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea) as the nitrogen fixing shrub, native with edible berries
  • Supporting plants:
    • Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) as native, edible, medicinal, insectary, and mulch maker
    • New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) as native, medicinal, nitrogen-fixer, mulch maker, insectary, and soil improver
    • Wild Garlic (Allium canadense var. lavendulare) as native, edible, medicinal, pest confuser, and insectary
    • Winecup or Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) as native, edible, insectary, ground cover, and soil improver
    • Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) as native, edible, medicinal, mulch maker, and insectary
    • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) as native, medicinal, insectary, and wildlife food
    • Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) as native, edible, medicinal, insectary, soil improver, and ground cover
    • Yarrow (Achille millefolium) as native, medicinal, edible, insectary, soil improver, and beneficial insect attractant

Though all those plants are native to North America, they are not all native to Minnesota and so they would not all work for the Lawns to Legumes grant. I also had to keep our limited budget in mind and couldn’t afford to get at least four, preferably eight, of each of the plants on the list.

I did a search on Minnesota Wildflower to determine which ones were native to Minnesota and to find possible substitutes for the rest. The updated list with only Minnesota native plants was this one:

  • Wild Plum (Prunus americana)
  • New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) to replace Silver Buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea)
  • Supporting plants:
    • Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) to replace Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)
    • Wild Garlic (Allium canadense var. lavendulare)
    • Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
    • Narrow-leaved Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) to replace Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
    • Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)
    • Yarrow (Achille millefolium)

Unfortunately, I didn’t plan ahead very well (okay I didn’t really plan ahead at all, kind of skipped that part of the process…) and by the time I got to the Prairie Restoration Garden Center they were sold out of some of the plants I wanted. They also reminded me that for the Lawns to Legumes grant I needed a fall blooming plant and none of the ones on my list were fall bloomers so we had to add something to cover that need. My first and second choice of the fall bloomers they normally carry were also sold out so the final list I came home with was this:

I did have a rough idea of how I wanted everything laid out: tree in the center, four paths leading out creating four quadrants, two of each plant in each quadrant. The reality changed a bit as we got the prices and adjusted for what was and wasn’t there, and the addition of the fall bloomer.

After I got home I laid out the following plan on paper:

Now I just had to get all those plants into the ground. Should be an easy Saturday morning project, right?