Celebrating A Job Well Done

In 2017, I received an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. This grant pays part of my costs for the tree seedlings and seeds I needed to purchase to transition this land from corn/soy fields into tree crops and other perennial crops. It came with some restrictions, but the only restriction that concerned me was time. It was a huge project, and the grant required it be completed in only two years. Well, luckily for me I was awarded a one year deadline extension last year, because I fell a little short of that deadline. But today I planted the last tree and I can finally say it is complete!

These are the projects I’ve completed in the past three years, under guidance of my encouraging and knowledgeable NRCS representative and with help from my wonderful husband.

  • Grown a buckwheat cover crop in my three non-flooding fields, to help shade out weeds and provide good summertime forage for pollinators (but for one summer only).
  • Planted a permanent pasture grass blend in the same three fields, consisting of mixed grasses and legumes. This planting will reduce erosion on that land, keep the soil aerated so it can absorb maximum water, add biomass to the soil (mulch), and someday provide food for sheep, when we are ready for them. The clover included in the planting mix will also provide food for pollinators for years to come, and nitrogen to naturally fertilize the grasses.
  • Planted a native plant food forest on our two acre riparian flood plain. This project doubles as both an orchard and a wetland restoration. The soil is no longer bare, but now contains a tree every 10-12 feet, mown grasses down the tree rows, and strips of native herbs and wildflowers blossoming between rows. Not only does this planting help to clean and filter flood waters, reduce erosion, and create food and habitat for pollinators and wildlife, but when fully established, we expect these two acres of diverse native plant species will generate thousands of pounds of food per year with minimal human intervention.

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Oaks of Indiana

An oak is a beautiful, long-lived tree. They don’t erupt in floral fireworks in the spring, but their autumnal display is second to none. They’re planted in parks, back yards, and campuses for their generous shade, farmed for their highly valuable lumber, and climbed by adventurous children and young-at-heart alike. The oak belongs to the noble Fagaceae tree family, along with Beeches, Chestnuts, and Chinkapins. Roughly one year out of every three, an oak tree is capable of producing a huge crop of healthful and delicious nuts that sustained many civilizations throughout human history.

Did you make a confused face when I mentioned oak nuts? Yes, we are talking about acorns!

Acorn Uses

Oak Leaf with AcornsAcorns are not suitable for fresh snacking like pecans are, but after some simple processing (involving soaking the nuts in water to remove their bitter tannins) they can be ground into a versatile and gluten free flour that can be baked into cakes, cookies, breads, and more. They can also be made into porridges, soups, and beverages. Their culinary use is more similar to grains than the nuts that might more commonly come to mind, although their cultivation requires none of the ecologically destructive tillage practices and deleterious sprays that are commonly employed in grain farming. The extensive root system of the oak tree helps to protect soil from the forces of erosion, which in turn protects clean water. The many leaves of the oak tree filter the air of the carbon that we have too much of, and infuse the air in turn with plenty of the oxygen that we need more of. Since these trees grow all by themselves and produce plentiful acorns in the wild, we know they won’t be high maintenance as crops. This is Earth-positive agriculture at its finest.

Aside from a few fun experiments with acorns, I haven’t really cooked with them in quantity. But that’s all about to change. For me, 2020 is to be the year of the acorn. I bought a new nutcracker so I can process them in bulk, and gathered all the publications I could find on the subject. Over the past month, I’ve been searching for oak trees everywhere I go, and keeping a detailed log of the species, location, and approximate age of each tree that I find, and noting whether or not the tree is producing acorns this year. My hope is to collect a sampling of acorns from every native oak species to experience and compare all the available flavors, and to collect a large quantity of acorns from trees of the easier-to-process white oak group for recipe experimentation and general winter sustenance. I probably won’t realistically gather acorns from every single native oak species this year, but eventually, I aim to collect them all.

Oak Tree Groups

Oak Leaf VeinsAccording to Wikipedia, there are around 600 species of oak trees, encompassing a multi-continental native range and spanning multiple oceans. Here in Indiana, we have quite a few native species of oak trees from the white oak group and the red oak group. The white oak group produces the sweetest nuts that ripen about six months after the tree flowers, and these nuts require less processing (soaking in fewer changes of water), since they contain lower levels of bitter tannins. The red oak group produces nuts that are higher in tannins, and ripen about 18 months after the tree flowers. Because of the higher tannin content, acorns from red oak trees require more work to process the bitterness out of them (you soak them in extra changes of water). However, all acorns are edible as long as you process them until they are no longer bitter. We have planted one hundred Swamp White Oak trees in our wetland food forest in anticipation of their delicious acorns, and so far they are thriving more than any other tree species we have planted. We also inherited a beautiful mature Bur Oak tree that grows on a steep slope between our high and low fields, and that tree is loaded with acorns this year. Most trees in the White Oak Group have rounded lobes on their leaves, and most trees in the Red Oak Group have pointed lobes on their leaves. However, this is not a 100% hard and fast rule. If you have space for an oak tree on your land, be sure to select a species that is native to your area. Native trees are usually easier to grow and more beneficial to your local ecosystem. Although you might notice some bite marks on the leaves of your oak tree, or an occasional acorn with a hole in it, please don’t spray as these are not usually a serious problem for the tree, and are a sign that the tree is supporting the vibrant web of life in your community.

Indiana Native Trees of the White Oak Group

  • Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa). A splendid tree with a very nice form and especially nice acorns. It is a very adaptable tree whose native range includes all of Indiana, and also dips down as far south as Texas and reaches up as far north as Canada.
  • Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana). Native to upland regions of eastern and southeastern United States, including the southernmost parts of Indiana.
  • Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii). Native to all of Indiana and several neighboring states. Prefers upland soils.
  • Dwarf Chinkapin Oak (Quercus prinoides). Native to all of Indiana and several neighboring states. Prefers dry, acidic soils.
  • White Oak (Quercus alba). A huge oak tree native to all of Indiana, as well as most of the eastern United States.
  • Overcup Oak (Quercus lyrata). A great lowland oak tree native to several southeastern United States, including a very small area of southern Indiana.
  • Post Oak (Quercus stellata). Native to southern Indiana and most of the southeastern United States. A smaller oak tree that prefers dry soils.
  • Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii). Native to a small section of southern Indiana, and several Southern, Eastern, and Southeastern United States. Very similar to Chestnut Oak, but native to lowland regions instead.
  • Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor). Native to lowlands across all of Indiana, and a few neighboring states.

Indiana Native Trees of the Red Oak Group

  • Black Oak (Quercus velutina). Native to all of Indiana, and to a huge range encompassing much of eastern United States. Adaptable to multiple soil types.
  • Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica). Native to dry soils of southwestern Indiana, and several southeastern United States.
  • Cherrybark Oak (Quercus pagoda). Native to a tiny corner of southwestern Indiana, but mostly to southern states. Thrives in moist bottomland soils and tolerates occasional flooding.
  • Northern Pin Oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis). Native to uplands of northern Indiana, northern Illinois, and a few other northern states.
  • Pin Oak (Quercus palustris). Native to moist but well-drained soils across all of Indiana, and to our neighboring states to the west, south, and east.
  • Red Oak (Quercus rubra). Native to all of Indiana, and a huge range encompassing most of the eastern United States and parts of Canada. Adaptable to multiple soil types.
  • Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea). Native to splotches of southern, northern, and central Indiana and most of the northeastern United States. Grows best in well-drained, acidic, dry or sandy soils.
  • Shingle Oak (Quercus imbricaria). Native to most of Indiana, as well as our neighboring states to the west, east, and south. Adaptable to many soil types.
  • Shumard Oak (Quercus shumardii). Native to most of Indiana and to the south. Adaptable to multiple soil types.

Side Note

One notable “oak” we thankfully do not have in Indiana is “poison oak”! Poison Oak is not related to oak trees at all. Its in the same genus as (closely related to) poison ivy and poison sumac, and its plant family curiously also includes cashews, pistachios, and mangoes! Poison “oak” is named such only because the leaf shape vaguely resembles the shape of an oak leaf. The similarities end there.

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Summer in the Riparian Buffer

One mowed row in the riparian buffer

The Riparian Buffer Native Food Forest project is well underway. It’s an ever-evolving work and while it will never be “finished”, the initial planting phase is on track to be complete this year. With every new year, we gain new knowledge and encounter new obstacles. This year, the dominant obstacle has been mowing. Little growing trees are not as tall as weeds, and they need help to get their quotas of sunlight and fresh air. Most farmers in a similar situation would likely spray herbicides to control weeds around the young trees, but we won’t do that here because we value the diversity of our ecosystem.

If I could start this project over again, I would have been mowing this area regularly this whole time with a regular riding lawn mower. But I had some misconceptions at the start: that I could maintain the area by mowing infrequently with a scythe, that frequent mowing wouldn’t be necessary, and that I’d be able to delegate the bulk of my mowing work to a few happy little sheep by now. I’m a natural researcher, but there isn’t a lot of documentation available on this subject, and none of those hopes panned out. Now I’m facing some pretty serious weeds. Three year old saplings, chest-high invasive grasses… add to that driftwood and large miscellaneous debris that regularly floats into our field on floodwater currents, and you’ve got an expert-level mowing situation. We have a riding mower with a pull-behind brush hog, which is able to handle the rough terrain. We’ve used it a few times to mow large spaces between planted rows, but the handling is not precise enough to be trusted anywhere near the small trees, and the operation is a complicated, multi-day effort involving two people guiding and coordinating the unwieldy beast. The riding mower alone could get fairly close to the saplings, but the deck cannot handle this much overgrowth. I was almost about to purchase an expensive new machine, when I saw my husband using our tiny electric battery-powered push mower to mow down some sturdy mulberry saplings near the rooster coop. I knew immediately that this unassuming little machine was up to the task.

An American Elder sapling, hidden among weeds

And so began the painstaking work of reclaiming the planted rows. Of course, the first job is locating the saplings, so I don’t accidentally mow them over. As you can see in the photo to the right, they’re hard to find. Especially because most of the stakes I used to mark them with last year floated away in one flood or another.

How do I find the trees? This treasure map! Actually, it’s a modern day treasure map, in the form of a google sheet. Every cell represents a 5’x5′ square. Text inside the cell tells me what species might be planted in that square. Highlighted colors denote topography. I’m able to update this sheet in real time from the field on my mobile device.

I use a surveyor’s tape (300′) to mark the row, joining the first tree in the row and the last tree in the row based on my spreadsheet notation. Then, I reapply marking stakes to any trees in the line that lost their stakes to flood currents. After the trees are all marked, I run the mower along the right side, then the left side of the planted row, coming as close to the little trees as possible. I often have to angle the front of the mower upwards, like a munchy mouth, then chomp it down over tall, tough weeds. After mowing along both sides of a planted row, I make a final pass to clear the area between planted trees. It takes 2-3 battery charges and about a day to complete one 300′ row. The maintenance work is much easier though, as long as the weeds stay short. I’m leaving wild strips between the rows, for wildlife habitat. These wild strips host important wildflowers such as milkweed, and give small animals safe places to hide, nest, and rest.

Permaculture Guild Area
This area was an attempt at a “Permaculture Guild” style design, and it was the hardest to mow. The trees aren’t planted in rows, they’re planted in concentric circles. That made them really hard to find, and created a lot of extra mowing work. This area was an experiment that will not be repeated. Yet, I mowed it!
Me standing next to a 3 year old pecan tree
This three year old American Pecan tree is nearly as tall as me! Delicious pecans in T-7 years!
All the hard work is worth it when I find a healthy little tree thriving with new growth like this yearling Swamp White Oak! Edible acorns in T-19 years.
A tiny American Cranberrybush hiding amongst the weeds. Hard to find, but worth it! T-3 years to fruit! This plant is a whole topic unto itself, and I’ll write a lot more about it. For now, suffice it to say, it’s not a cranberry.

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The Winner Among The Weeds

When I first moved here five years ago, I was so excited to have a vegetable garden again. I had been pining for it for years, and even though I really didn’t have time for it, I tilled up a large plot of land the very first spring and planted one. I kinda-sorta kept up with it that first year, even though maintaining ten acres of land was proving to be much harder than I first expected, and my time was limited. But over the next few years, other commitments usurped what little free time I once had, and that garden – which I now call “the old garden” – grew wild. The situation has been really hard to clean up, and I don’t recommend doing this yourself. Without help from my chickens, it might take years to reclaim this as a productive vegetable garden. But despite the mess, three of my original perennials survive to this day. Only one, however, is thriving : sunchokes.

Sunchokes (aka sunroots or Jerusalem artichokes) are a delicious and healthy root vegetable that is native to most of the United States and part of Canada. They are a close relative of the sunflower, which is also native here. They are very hard to get rid of once you have planted them, and they spread. But since they’re a particularly delicious and satisfying food crop, and because they’re native here, I’m ok with that. Even without my help, this plant has out-competed most of the weeds and gradually expanded its territory each year. Although I’ve been working to reclaim the rest of the old garden this year, I’m going to leave the part where sunchokes grow alone until fall. It will be worth the wait to enjoy their delicious harvest.

P.S. The other two surviving perennials are garlic and lemon balm. Both were considerably less bountiful than the sunchokes, so I dug those up and relocated them.

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Farming the Woodland

When we look at garden catalogues, almost every plant description mentions “Full Sun”.  Almost every common food plant seems to require it, but there are many exciting, delicious, and beneficial crops that prefer shade.  That’s important information, because the mature trees and woodlands that are most often responsible for creating that shade are tremendously valuable.  If we view our trees as a hindrance to our gardening and farming efforts, then we become more likely to remove them, or to avoid planting them in the first place.  When we truly understand the ecosystems trees create, we can enter into a mutually beneficial partnership with them.  Furthermore, many of these shade-loving food crops are native to Midwestern USA.  When we grow native food plants, we nurture not only ourselves but also the beautiful community of wildlife, birds, butterflies, and other insects that depend on those plants.

A Smattering of Deep Shade Crops:

  • Ramps (native)
  • Ostrich Ferns aka Fiddleheads (native)
  • American Ginseng (native high-value medicinal crop)
  • Edible & Medicinal Mushrooms (native and non-native varieties)
  • Nuts or fruits from the large trees creating the deep shade (native and non-native)
  • Maple Syrup (the best syrup trees (sugar maple & red maple) are both native!)

A Sampler of Woodland Edge Crops (part shade):

  • Blackberries (native)
  • Black Raspberries (native)
  • Red Raspberries (not native)
  • Violets (Native violet leaves & flowers are great in salads. Non-native sweet violet flowers are used in perfumes, candies, and flavor syrups.)
  • Red Mulberries (Morus Rubra – native. Not to be confused with the more commonly found invasive white mulberry Morus Alba.)
  • Grapes (several species are native)
  • American Elder (Flowers and berries are used for food and medicine. Native.)
  • Spicebush (Bay Laurel relative. Leaves are used for tea, and berries are used like allspice. Native!)
  • Sassafras (Bay Laurel relative. Leaves are an important ingredient in gumbo (file).)
  • Honeyberry (non-native but non-invasive fruit crop)
  • Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana, native)
  • Stinging Nettles (The stinging mechanism deactivates when cooked properly, and then they are a delicious and highly nutritious vegetable. Some nettles are not native, but Urtica dioica subsp. gracilis is native!)

Woodland cultivation poses different advantages and different challenges than full sun gardening. Some special considerations include:

  • Cleaning up downed trees and limbs after storms
  • Maintaining access paths to the planting areas
  • Removing invasive species
  • Removing poison ivy
  • Reducing Mosquitoes

It’s a fascinating topic and we’re just getting started. I look forward to learning more and more about woodland gardening as I gain experience, and sharing that new knowledge with you here. I hope you’ll try a shade crop or two if you have a woodsy spot on your property! And more importantly, I hope you’ll look at trees as garden friends rather than foes.

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