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Posts Tagged ‘companion planting’

On May 7th & 8th, I had the opportunity to attend a Forest Gardening workshop with one of my permaculture heroes, Eric Toensmeier, in West Chester, PA. There were so many awesome aspects to the weekend! To minimize driving, I took the train to Paoli, had a beautiful 10 mile bike ride to the workshop location, and met and stayed with some awesome folks through couchsurfing!

The workshop took place at the home of  sustainability educators Alan Wright & Paula Kline, who had hired permaculture designer Aaron Guman to work his permie magic on their property. We spent some time discussing the clients’ needs and Aaron’s design concepts before helping to install some perennial plantings (above).

Mollie Caitlin Brigid communing with cultivated King Stropharia

Special guest lectures included a whip-and-tongue grafting demonstration with Backyard Fruit Growers founder Chris Manning, and mushroom cultivation tutorials with Jared Urchek. Jared came out from Boulder, CO and discussed mushroom life cycles, varieties, and inoculation techniques with woodchips, straw, and logs.

We also broke off into groups to do site assessments throughout the property, later designing polyculture systems for different patches. Here are some general notes taken during the workshop:

Edible Forest Garden (EFG): Edible ecosystem modeled on the forest; perennial & low maintenance, providing ecosystem services & useful products.

By optimizing impact on land, we can work with its desire to become forest. Diverse polycultures minimize pest problems, and can achieve higher yields than annual cultures.

Utilizing Multipurpose Plants

Direct uses:

Edibles:
nuts, seeds, beans, fruits, flowers & flowerbuds, roots, tubers, leaves, shoots, tea & culinary

Other:
firewood, medicine, craft material, income, livestock fodder, honey, cut flowers, charcoal, mushrooms, seed & nursery stock, silkworms

Indirect uses:
Nitrogen fixing plants
insect nectary plants
habitat
mulch
groundcovers
decomposers (i.e. edible mushrooms)

Imitation

Architecture: layers, soil horizon, density, patterns, diversity

Social structure: niches, guilds, communities

Succession: patches, disturbance, non-linear evolution (mimic mid-succession)

Best Forest Gardening Species (N-fix means this species fixes nitrogen):

Tall Trees

walnut/ butternut/ heartnut
pecans/ hickories
oaks
nut pines
black locust (N-fix)
Japanese pagoda tree (N-fix)

Medium Trees

Chinese Chestnut
persimmon
paw-paw
mulberry
mimosa (N-fix)
alder (N-fix)

Small Trees & Shrubs

pears/ Asian pears
sea buckthorn (N-fix)
mayhaw
hazelnuts
native plums
bamboo
Amur Maackia (N-fix)

Shrubs

Amelanchier (serviceberry, juneberry, etc)
fig
Nanking cherry
goumi
bayberry
elderberry (native insectary)
highbush cranberry (viburnum)
Florida star anise
Ribes (currants, gooseberries, jostaberries)
running juneberry
blueberry
raspberry/ blackberry
New Jersey tea (N-fix)
Amorpha (false) Indigo (N-fix)

Vines

grape (fox & muscadine)
kiwi (hardy & arctic)
groundnut (N-fix)
hog peanut (N-fix)
Chinese yam
Hablitzia (climbing spinach)
maypop (native passionflower)

Herbs

jerusalem artichokes
rhubarb
fuki
Turkish rocket
taro
ostrich fern
comfrey
asparagus
giant solomon’s seal
nettle/ wood nettle
baptisia (N-fix)
thermopsis (N-fix)
sea kale
good King Henry
native perennial ground cherry
sweet cicely (insectary)
skirret
mayapple
large-flowered comfrey
ramps
sylvetta arugula
coreopsis (insectary)
Asclepias verticillata (whorled milkweed, insectary)
sorrel
Astragalus glycyphyllos (wild licorice, N-fix)
Chinese artichoke
water celery (insectary)
camas/ quamash (wild hyacinth)

Ground Covers

alpine strawberry
strawberry
foamflower (insectary)
wild ginger
toothwart
violets
prostrate birdsfoot trefoil (N-fix)
green & gold (insectary)
white clover
Waldesteinia (barren strawberry, inedible)
wild geranium (insectary)
fungi

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Corn, beans, and squash effectively comprise the collective staff of life of the New World. These crops were so important and complemented each other so well, that they were known as “The Three Sisters,” with many legends celebrating their sustaining virtues.

A Hokkaido Stella Blue squash grown on a fence.

We try to do these New World native plants justice here at Lunaria, but none more than the winter squash, with whom we have a tasty love affair. I personally got so excited about them that I planted a few seeds on March 1, far before any sane gardener would think about squash. These tender crops are typically direct sown outdoors once the soil has thoroughly warmed up; they don’t like being transplanted. Well, ours were potted up and most were kept alive in sunny windows until last frost, and now they’re threatening to take down the fence of “Gary’s Garden” (named after the groundhog that kept infiltrating its perimeter). We have some ripening sugar pumpkins and stella blue hokkaidos that we expect to be ready in a few weeks. This should perfectly fulfill my intense craving for curried tomato-squash dishes.

Another one of our many experiments this year is corn. I’d always thought it somewhat inefficient, as it takes up a good amount of space relative to its cropping. Then, during my residence at Women’s Studio Workshop, I learned that the husks and stalks can be used to make a gorgeous, pale golden-green paper. Well that was enough to convince me to go ahead and try it. We planted 3 successions to stagger the ripening times, including a succession of transplanted corn. This is another crop that dislikes root disturbance, but we take the word of Elliot Coleman quite seriously, and decided to try it. We were elated with the results, as not a single transplant was lost, and they’re all still going strong.

Our Hooker's sweet corn planting in early July. The upper row was seeded a week earlier, transplanted, then mulched with grass clippings.

With most of our meals being vegetarian, we tend to eat a lot of beans – dry beans, that is. We can’t imagine a world without black bean quesadillas, chickpea hummus, or pinto bean chili. But when it comes to green beans… meh. Most gardeners think we’re crazy – “You don’t like green beans??!” – but we think we’re being quite rational. Besides not appealing to our particular palates, beans will always be produced at a loss for the small farmer. They are tedious to harvest, and they must be picked every day, yet they must be sold at rock-bottom prices to compete with industrial farms. Even our so-loved dry beans are uneconomical to dry, harvest, and shell, when organic dry beans are so readily available now. The main advantage of growing beans is their special characteristic of being nitrogen fixers. The legume family, including beans as well as peas, clover, peanuts, indigo, and lentils, capture the nitrogen from the air and “fix” it in the soil, making this essential nutrient available to other plants.

The Three Sisters planting in early July.

So this year’s garden includes a small amount of beans, a good stand of corn, and hopefully a year’s supply of squash. We’re really excited about a certain portion planted in the traditional, Native American, Three Sisters formation. We chose to plant heirloom varieties that would all be ready to harvest in autumn: blue dent maize for cornmeal, drought-tolerant tepary beans, and several varieties of cucurbits, including pumpkins, winter squash, and moon & stars watermelons.

Lee arranging cardboard around The Three Sisters to thwart weeds until the squash vines fill out. (Photo by Theresa Boles)

Corn is wind-pollinated, its tassels releasing their magic dust to the air to settle on the ear silks below. This fact of life prompts a break from the modern American row system – to ensure that each kernel develops (they are seeds, remember), the corn must be planted in blocks, or in this case, mounds. The first mounds, which are 18 inches across, staggered about 5 feet apart, and amended with aged horse manure, are each planted with 4 corn seeds. Then, when the corn germinates and reaches a height of 4-6 inches, a pole bean seed is planted in the same mound, 3 inches away from each corn seedling. In between the corn and beans, we create squash mounds of the same size, with 3 seeds planted in each.

The effect, once everything grows in, is a mutually-beneficial companion planting. The corn provides something on which the beans can climb. The beans fix nitrogen to provide nutrients to the other crops. The squash sprawls along the ground, suppressing weeds and providing a living mulch to retain soil moisture, while its prickly vines help deter hungry critters. And, come harvest, the delicious crops complement each other nutritionally. It’s hardly surprising that these crops were considered to be special gifts from the Creator. All of this botanical, gastronomic, and divine harmony kind of makes you want to enjoy some succotash while you plan your own Three Sisters garden for next year, doesn’t it?

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