The American Hazelnut (Corylus americana) : A Versatile Native Nut

I spent most of my childhood in Indiana, and most of my adulthood as well. Yet, I didn’t know that we had a native hazelnut until I started this farm. The more I learn about this tree, the deeper in love I fall. Not only is this a very easy-going tree, but it’s also fast growing, quick to bear nuts, prolific, multi-useful, and adaptable. It can grow in sun and shade and anything in between, it can handle boggy soil and well-drained soil, and it can begin to produce nuts in only 2-8 years1. This species also offers highly valuable and diversified harvests. In addition to providing an edible nut crop, the wood of the American Hazelnut is valuable for basketry, garden structures such as trellises, and many other applications2.

I have planted a few hundred American Hazelnut trees here at Strawberry Moon Farm, but mine are not yet mature enough to produce nuts. Because of that, some of the information I am sharing with you now is first hand knowledge, and some has been gathered through reading, through discussions with other growers, and through my own recipe experiments with commercially available hazelnuts. I have done my best to include citations throughout this article as applicable, and also at the bottom of this article in the “Sources” section.

The American Hazelnut (Corylus americana), also known as American Filbert, is a small tree or shrub in the Birch family, with a mature height of about 8-16 feet and a spread of 8-13 feet3. It is native to Indiana, as well as most of the Eastern half of the United States and Canada4. Although our native hazelnut is a different species than most hazelnuts that are available commercially, it is closely related and similar in use. By most accounts, the nuts produced by our native tree taste like the more familiar European species, though they are smaller in size.

American Hazelnut Uses

Do your own thorough research before touching, foraging or ingesting any new plant. Mistakes can happen and so can allergies, interactions, and idiosyncratic reactions. Information presented in this article and elsewhere on this web site is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any health conditions. View our full legal disclaimer here.

Hazelnuts are highly valuable as a food source. Hazelnuts are praised by most nutritionists as part of a healthy diet5 due to their protein, healthy Omega 3 fats, and numerous vitamins and minerals. They are also very versatile in the kitchen! Hazelnuts can be made into delicious nut milks, nut butters, oils, flours, or consumed whole raw or roasted as a snack. I find them to be an excellent replacement for almonds in every recipe I have tried.

Why do I need a replacement for almonds? As a person who eats a mostly plant-based diet including lots of nuts, I am concerned about the environmental impact of my consumption of almond, cashew, and coconut products. These popular nuts are grown far away from my home, carrying a hefty transportation footprint. Some of these nuts may be cultivated in unsustainable agriculture systems, or the product of exploitative labor practices. I believe sustainably cultivated, locally grown nuts are an important step on the path towards sustainability and community resilience. Native nuts such as the American Hazelnut are the ideal options for local cultivation, since native plants are well adapted to our growing conditions and have important co-evolution relationships with the native animals, insects, and soil microbes. When we grow native nut trees as a part of a sustainable agriculture system, we can help to heal our ecosystems and our communities.

Nuts in general are a long-keeping food that can help sustain local communities through the dormant season. Long keeping foods such as nuts, beans, root vegetables, and preserved foods can provide locally-grown nourishment. I have found that the raw, whole hazelnuts I purchase can last about a year when stored in a sealed container in my cool basement.

Growing American Hazelnut

This tree fills a very valuable niche in the food forest. It can form hedges, it can grow in shade, and it can handle some moisture. It is the fastest producing nut tree that I know of, with a bearing age beginning at 2-8 years. Most other nut trees require at least ten years of growth before they can bear nuts, and some (like the Shellbark Hickory) may even require 40 years! The American Hazel is small and shrubby

Although this tree is said to tolerate moist soils, in my own experience it is not well suited to high flood waters or periods of sustained flooding. I have had very low survival rates from this species in my wetland floodplain, but I am currently working to plant another hedge of American Hazelnut on higher ground in a slightly boggy area, which I expect to flourish. I also plan to replace some of the invasive honeysuckle bushes I am removing from my woods with American Hazelnut. I will continue to update you as that project develops.

Troubleshooting American Hazelnut

When I speak about American Hazelnut, people often comment that they have a tree, but it never produces nuts. Since this is such a frequently asked question, I investigated further. I found two theories as to the cause of this particular issue.

My first answer came from Chris Gonso of Worries Are Gone Farm. I visited Worries Are Gone Farm in September on a chestnut-related quest, and while I was there I was treated to a very informational tour of the grounds. Among the many wonderful sights on this farm, I saw a thriving population of American Hazelnut. There was a large hedge growing in one area, and many more individual shrubs interspersed under the forest canopy. I asked Chris all my hazelnut questions. His theory on the missing nuts: add more plants.

Some sources (such as SF Gate) claim that American Hazelnut is self-compatible (which means that pollen from one tree can fertilize blooms on the same tree). However, other sources disagree. Either way, since this species is wind pollinated, a large number of plants may be necessary to ensure adequate pollination. Wind pollination is a fairly inefficient means of pollination, and more plants means more pollen on the wind, which means more pollination, which means more nuts.

My second answer comes from the book “Native Plant Agriculture, Vol. 1”, produced by Indigenous Landscapes. According to the book, “We’ve observed that non-local genotype can struggle to set nuts possibly because the cross pollination is affected by climatic transplanting”. The author recommends purchasing seeds or plants that originate from as close to your own climate as possible to increase your chances of success.

The American Hazelnuts at Worries Are Gone Farm certainly seemed prolific. I even saw nuts on the bushes growing deep in the woods under the shade of the canopy! Chris reported much better productivity from the bushes he planted in full sun, but it was clear that some nut production can occur in shady plantings. Additionally, shady plantings can be grown and pruned for a wood harvest.

“American hazelnuts are a good option for folks looking for something hardy and resistant to filbert blight. They produce even after late spring freezes and I’ve never seen them miss a year in production. Their main drawbacks are a smaller sized nut compared to the European hazel and an extra step in processing as the nuts usually need to be removed from the husk. Overall, they are a joy to grow and work with with everyone in my family loving them, especially the kids.”

Chris Gonso, Worries Are Gone Farm

For Further Reading:

Native Plant Seed Sources and Resources
Tree Planting Startup Guide
Native Plants for the Woodland Edge
Native Plants of the Deep Woods
Two Years In Review: A Progress Report

Sources:

Hazelnut Trees Are Easy – Cornell Small Farms Program
USDA Plants Database – Corylus americana Walter
Worries Are Gone Farm
Indigenous Landscapes
Missouri Botanical Gardens – Corylus Americana
Plants For A Future – Corylus Americana
American Hazelnut – Arborday

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

Lessons In Rooster Husbandry: Five Years of Raising Multiple Adult Roosters

I’m doing a lot of unusual things on this farm, but by far the most unusual and most controversial feat I have attempted is raising roosters. That is to say roosters, plural, indefinitely, for non-meat purposes. This is such an uncommon thing that I wasn’t able to receive any advice on this topic before embarking on this task. Back in 2016 when I was preparing for my first chicks, I found one blog post on the whole entire internet from one person who had multiple roosters at some point in time and thought it was going mostly okay by free ranging the roosters separately from the hens. It wasn’t a lot to go on. Aside from that one tip, all I received was bewilderment, discouragement, patronization, condescension, and ridicule. People thought I was naive or even crazy, and the very idea that I would try to keep all my male chickens offended many experienced poultry keepers. “You’ll see” was the refrain. The implication being that I would soon learn that roosters are unlovable, that roosters all hated each other, and how impossible a task it would be to refrain from killing them.

Why Keep Roosters?

For love. I love animals of all kinds, I’ve been a vegetarian since 2003, and I’d 100% rather have a live rooster than coq au vin. For the love of animals, rooster care is needed. About half of all the baby chicks that hatch out from eggs every year are male. Those tiny male fluff balls grow up into adult roosters…roosters that nobody wants to keep. Most male chicks never grow up. They are killed en masse at hatcheries because no one will buy them. For me, this is a problem. And so, for the love of animals, this project was also partially motivated by curiosity. I wanted to know if it was possible, practical, economical, and reasonable to raise chickens in a 100% no-kill method. If so, how?

Over five years later, I have not killed or desired to kill a single one of my beautiful, strong, brave, proud-yet-self-conscious, independent-yet-loving roosters. I’m not going to tell you it has been easy or cheap, but neither has anything else I’ve attempted on this farm. My rooster experience has been and continues to be rewarding and worthwhile. I feel like I have received a special glimpse into chicken life from an angle that most people never see. We have had challenges, but we have overcome them.

Breed Considerations

I attribute my success in part to careful breed selection. I did not choose one of the breeds of chickens that were originally developed for cock fighting! Instead, I chose the breed I would raise based on its reputation for being super chill, calm, friendly chickens. I’m raising faverolles.

Five Tips For Rooster Success

In this article, I share five lessons I have learned about rooster care from my quest for the cruelty-free egg. These tips come from my 5+ years of lived experience raising roosters for non-meat purposes. My roosters provide compost for my gardens, feathers for my art projects, education and humility for my own character development, as well as entertainment, music, and joy. If you’re considering raising your own roosters, feel free to reach out to me through the comments section or through any of my social media platforms with your individual questions and concerns. I’d love to help you succeed.

Always Have A Spare Coop Ready

One crucial factor in my success raising ten roosters through adulthood has been the ability to split the flock when needed.

At about eight months old, it became necessary to split the flock the first time. I separated them into one big sorority house and one big fraternity house. The hens could not live with roosters in equal numbers (there’s a phenomenon called over-mating, which causes injuries to the hens), and the roosters fought over access to the hens. After separating males and females, there was a time of relative peace when all the roosters lived together fairly harmoniously.

One rooster peeking out of the chicken door of his coop

A year or two after the roosters moved into their big fraternity home, a hawk assassinated their elected leader. The other roosters quickly surrounded and subdued the hawk until I could get out to the rooster yard to handle the situation. I’m happy to tell you that the the other roosters and the hawk all survived to tell the tale. The loss of their trusted leader caused instability in the social structure of Lambda Pi Rooster. The remaining roosters divided into two warring factions. The biggest, strongest roosters turned against two of their smallest brothers. The bullying got pretty intense, so I built a third coop and moved the two little guys into their own home where they could live together in peace. I named this new little house “the buddy coop”. I can’t even tell you how much joy these two little guys bring me every day. Dwayne “The Cock” Johnson and Dr. Wattleson grow the cutest little garden in their front yard by scratching their seeds into the ground. They eat lots of wheat grass and pea tendrils, and spend their days scheming about how to break into the hen house. The remaining roosters squabble a bit, but they’re all big and tough enough to handle it. We haven’t had any additional serious bullying situations.

Although these situations all resolved eventually, some physical injuries and emotional trauma could have been avoided if I had extra coops at-the-ready. My chickens did have to live through stressful situations for a month or two at a time while new housing was being built. If you plan to keep your roosters, I suggest having an extra coop always available, so that if a conflict arises, you’re ready to swiftly split the flock. If possible, never isolate one chicken all by himself. They really are social animals, and they need company. If you have a rooster who absolutely can’t get along with any other roosters, you could try housing him with your hens or in a subgroup with a minimum of two hens.

I’ll also note here that any split you make is permanent. You will probably not be able to re-integrate a rooster who has been separated from his flock (maybe even for just one night).

A Bored Rooster Is A Cranky Rooster

six roosters walking together along a path

If your roosters get cranky, they might need a day off. I don’t free range my chickens every day because this rich ecosystem in which we live is full of dangers for them. I allow supervised free-range excursions when I’m able to stand guard, but even that is not totally safe. Still, sometimes a free-range day is absolutely needed, and your roosters will let you know when it is time for a day out. I find that everybody is calmer and happier after a big adventure, and they often forget all about whatever they were squabbling over.

Keep An Eye On Those Talons

Roosters require an extra bit of maintenance that hens don’t need. Roosters have talons. These talons keep growing as long as the roosters live. Sometimes they actually fall off on their own, taking care of their own maintenance. Other times they keep growing, and need to be trimmed. These talons can experience growth spurts, and it seems to me like this usually happens in the spring. During one of these growth spurts, one of my roosters experienced an ingrown talon, in which the talon curved and grew into his own leg. Keep an eye out for this and ideally schedule regular pedicures with your boys. I can’t say that I’m always diligent with the pedicures, but I do try to get eyes on their legs at least once a week.

I’m happy to report that my little man with the ingrown talon made a full recovery and is still with us. I swaddled him in a towel so that only his head and legs were free to move, then laid him on a table while I trimmed back his talon with an old pair of pruning shears, cleaned the wound, and bandaged it with honey and sage leaves secured with vet wrap. He was a really good sport about all this.

Skip The Feeder

I have tried pretty much every kind of chicken feeder that exists, and none of them have worked for me. You know what has worked? Throwing the food on the ground. This is what my chickens really want. I switched to an unmilled, whole grain and seed food so that the pieces remain large enough for the chickens to see and eat. The whole seeds they do not eat do not get wasted, because if they are not eaten, they simply sprout and grow into some nice microgreens to enrich the chickens’ diet. By sprinkling the food all over the ground in the chicken run, there’s no central feeder point for chickens to fight about. Anybody can eat whenever they want regardless of their status in the pecking order.

Double The Fence

Chickens are incredibly smart, and roosters are also highly ambitious. If you give them a weapon, they will figure out how to use it to get what they want. An electric fence is a weapon. To prevent my roosters from using it against their competition, I replaced their electric fence with a regular non-shocking fence surrounded by a two foot empty space, then an electric fence around that to keep the predators out.

rooster portrait

Conclusion

I’m still figuring out how to make this economical. I have some ideas, and I’m hopeful that I can get there through feather art. With all the other projects I’m juggling on this farm, I haven’t had the time to try it yet. As for the other questions I tried to answer: yes, it is possible, reasonable, and practical to keep roosters! No, their society does not inevitably devolve into cockfighting mania. It is a little harder than raising hens. You do need to be vigilant; guard against and respond to social rifts when they arise, before they get out of hand. Roosters need space, patience, compassion, and agility. Be prepared to change plans, take risks, and adapt to the needs of your flock. Have an extra coop at the ready in case it is needed. Let them out to free range whenever you can. Be brave, be bold, and keep showing up! This path is not for the faint of heart, but there are many rewards for those who are willing to persevere. I am so glad I did. These tough little guys totally melt my heart!

For Further Reading

The Quest For The Cruelty-Free Egg: Five Easy Steps To Happy Chickens
Where Do All The Roosters Go?
The Flow of Permaculture

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

Native Plants of the Deep Woods

My winter work this year centers around woodland management. Specifically, I’m clearing out invasive honeysuckle bushes to make room for a massive replanting of native woodland plants. Last week we looked at native plants for the woodland edge. Today we venture deeper into the woods to consider native plants that thrive under the shade of the canopy. These plants are just as important to the forest ecosystem as the large trees that so often receive all the glory. Yet most of the time, when land that was previously cleared is reforested, little to no attention is paid to the understory. The native plants that once carpeted the forest floor do not return once the new trees have grown tall enough to shade them unless someone comes back to replant them.

The trees I have planted on this farm as part of the wetland restoration project are still too young to provide the kind of shade needed to shelter native woodland plants, but we also have about three acres of existing mature woods on this farm. That existing woodland is where I am focusing my efforts right now. As you peruse the (limited, non-comprehensive, preliminary) list I have compiled, you may notice a theme. Many of these woodland plants are slow-growing, delicate plants that require very specific habitats, protection, and patience. These plants require and deserve our respect, and in return, they offer potent and valuable gifts. I wish them luck, and I wish you luck with all your forest gardening projects!

Indiana Native Shade Plants

Do your own thorough research before touching, foraging or ingesting any new plant. Mistakes can happen and so can allergies, interactions, and idiosyncratic reactions. Information presented in this article and elsewhere on this web site is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any health conditions. View our full legal disclaimer here.

  • Ramps (Allium tricoccum). Also called Wild Leek, this gourmet native woodland vegetable has been dangerously overharvested in the wild. I look forward to establishing a large population of this plant over the next 7-10 years, which is how long they take to grow from seed to maturity. Although this is a popular herb that people love to forage, I do not recommend foraging this plant from the wild. Since it takes so long to mature, if you are removing as much as one tenth of the ramps you find in a given area, you are overharvesting it. Since the plant is already threatened, I suggest planting your own shady ramp garden so that you can be sure you are increasing the bounty of this precious native herb rather than decreasing it.
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  • Ostrich Fern / Fiddleheads (Matteuccia struthiopteris). In early spring, the tightly-curled fronds of this plant can be harvested and eaten cooked. It is said to resemble the flavor and texture of asparagus, though I haven’t had an opportunity to try it myself yet. It is important to prepare and cook fiddleheads correctly, but I’ve seen many inspiring recipes for them in lots of different cookbooks and blogs, and they even appear on the menus of fancy restaurants sometimes! I look forward to getting to know this plant better through this project. As far as I know, Ostrich Fern is the only fern species that is edible.
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  • Wood Nettles (Laportea canadensis). Wood Nettle is in the Stinging Nettle family, but it’s in a different genus from the Slender Nettles that grow along the woodland edge. Wood nettle is extremely prickly, with even more stinging hairs than stinging nettles! I haven’t personally tasted wood nettle yet, but like stinging nettle and slender nettle, wood nettle is said to be edible as a cooked green, and produces a strong fiber. However, wood nettle does not have the same medicinal uses as slender nettle and stinging nettle.
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  • American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). American Ginseng has been dangerously overharvested in the wild. Its roots are valuable for their medicinal properties. It is a delicate plant that requires just the right conditions to thrive, and takes several years to grow from seed to maturity. I have observed some indicators that it might grow well here, but I’ll have to try it to know for sure.
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  • Pawpaw (Asimina triloba). The pawpaw tree produces more fruit in full sun, but it has the ability to grow in shade as well. I may try planting some in my woods to see what happens.
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  • Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum). The bulb, leaves, and flowers of the trout lily are said to be edible and medicinal in small quantities, though I haven’t eaten this myself. It is considered by some sources to be a threatened plant, and it’s another slow-grower, taking about eight years to blossom into maturity. This is a species that I have identified as already present in my woods, and one that I am trying to protect. I have chosen not to harvest any of it, at least for now.
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  • Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense). Host plant for the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, this native herb grows in shade and part shade. Its name comes from the gingery flavor of its roots, and it does have a history of edible and medicinal uses by indigenous peoples. I don’t think I’ll eat this plant myself any time soon, because modern research has revealed toxic compounds present in this plant. However, I still want to re-establish it into my woods for its many ecological benefits.
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  • American Hazelnut (Corylus americana): The American Hazelnut is one of the most useful and most adaptable plants I have encountered. From full sun to full shade, average soil to moist soil, this plant can flourish almost everywhere. The nuts it produces are, by all accounts, very similar to commercially available hazelnuts. In addition to the edible nut, this plant also permits heavy pruning, and the cut wood is useful in many applications such as basketry, garden trellises, and other structures.
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  • Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis): Bloodroot can grow in shade or part shade. It grows in abundance on my land already, and so far I have observed it exclusively along the woodland edge, so I’m placing it in this category. It may be that once I open up more light in the woods by removing the honeysuckle bushes, bloodroot will spread into the deeper woodland spaces. Bloodroot is a medicinal herb, but it’s a serious medicine and not for lighthearted use. I don’t feel comfortable working with this plant at this stage in my herbalist training, but I love this plant and I hope it continues to thrive here for years to come.
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  • Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum): Like Bloodroot, Mayapple can grow in shade or part shade, but on my land I have only observed it growing with Bloodroot along the woodland edge. I have never used this plant for food or medicine myself, but some do. It’s another serious plant with deadly poisonous parts, but the ripe fruit is said to be edible and choice. It’s a beautiful plant, often cultivated as an ornamental.
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  • Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides): A native medicinal herb of the deep shade, this plant is on the United Plant Savers “At Risk” list.
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  • Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis): Many states consider this plant threatened or endangered. It is a beautiful plant from the buttercup family, at home in the deep shade and highly valued for its medicinal uses. This is another slow growing, native woodland plant that asks for our patience and consideration.
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  • Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). Unlike most of the plants that I’m interested in, this plant is poisonous, so don’t eat it! However, it’s a beautiful native wildflower that I have identified in my woods. I’m glad it’s there, and I am working to protect it.
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  • Mushrooms. Mushrooms aren’t plants, but they are an integral part of the woodland lifecycle. Many mushrooms are edible and/or medicinal, and could make a valuable crop under the canopy. If you’re interested in growing a specific kind of mushroom, you can inoculate logs in your woods by drilling holes in them and filling the holes with wooden pegs or sawdust that have been previously inoculated with that type of mushroom. Shiitake and oyster mushrooms are commonly grown this way.

For Further Reading

Native Plants For The Woodland Edge
The Food In The Forest
The Woodland Understory
Native Plant Resources

Book Recommendations

“1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”, by Charles C. Mann
“Braiding Sweetgrass”, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Iwígara: American Indian Ethnobotanical Traditions and Science“, by Enrique Salmón
“Wild Food Plants of Indiana”, by Alan McPherson
“Nature’s Garden”, by Samuel Thayer

Other Sources and Resources

United Plant Savers
Plants For A Future
Minnesota Wildflowers
Mountain Gardens
Native American Ethnobotany Database

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

Native Plants for the Woodland Edge

Happy Halloween!

Halloween marks the midpoint between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. It is a time of transition between fall and winter. Here on the farm, I feel this transition every day. I watch the colorful orange leaves drop from the trees to reveal bare tree skeletons and I listen to the cold winds as they rip through the now-bare hills and howl at my windows. This is not a scary time for me, but rather a time of clarity. I no longer spend my days frantically directing the immense energy of summer growth. I can take the time for contemplation and careful strategy. As the bones of the forest come into focus, I can see paths into places that were closed to me during summer. I can begin to see my winter work with the clarity of an x-ray. It is time to begin cleaning up The Woodland Understory.

This project, in short, involves removing the invasive honeysuckle bushes from the woodland understory, and then reintroducing native plants in their place. I am buzzing with excitement for this new project. Although I don’t believe any plant is a “bad plant”, the honeysuckle has greatly overstepped its boundaries in this part of the world. It has filled in spaces that were meant for other plants, native plants, plants that offer much-needed gifts to the insects, wildlife, and human beings of this place. Many of these native woodland plants offer extremely valuable food and medicines for people, and all contribute to the wider web of the ecosystem.

Into The Woods

The more I learn about the history of this land and its people, the deeper my appreciation grows for this problem. It’s not just that honeysuckle bushes were introduced from Asia, it’s that the native plants of this place lost most of their caregivers, and with that their fighting chance against invasive species. It has been eye-opening to learn of the deep reciprocal relationship that once existed throughout this land between the native people and the wild spaces. The wild spaces were once tended with care, so the wild plants became dependent on their people. The honeysuckle problem is not just about honeysuckle, it’s also about missing plants and missing relationships. The native plants need people to tend them and protect them. I can’t solve this problem alone, but I’ll keep learning about it and I’ll keep working towards that goal. For now, this project is my next step.

Woodland Niches

There are two major categories of woodland plants: woodland edge plants, and woodland understory plants. Woodland edge plants grow on the edge between the dark of the forest and the light of the clearing. Plants from both niches are abundant, diverse, and extremely valuable, and I’ll talk about plants for the deep woods in a future article. Some plants can grow in both niches (like the honeysuckle bush), but may offer different kinds of harvest depending on their placement. Here’s a list of the native plants I am considering for the woodland edge, so you can get an idea of the diverse blend of amazing native plants available for woodland gardeners. We’ll look at these plants individually in more detail as the project progresses!

Native Plants of the Woodland Edge

Do your own thorough research before touching, foraging or ingesting any new plant. Mistakes can happen and so can allergies, interactions, and idiosyncratic reactions. Information presented in this article and elsewhere on this web site is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any health conditions. View our full legal disclaimer here.

  • Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum): Although this is one of the plants explicitly named as plentiful from, “A Historical Sketch of Johnson County”, I have spent most of my life in this county never having seen a single prickly ash. I have been trying for years to source seeds or plants to re-establish this on my land to no avail. Finally this year I ordered a seed packet and a single potted sapling from two separate Etsy shops. We shall see what comes of them. I have great hopes, as do the Giant Swallowtail Butterflies who need this as a host plant. This plant has documented uses for food and medicine, though I haven’t had the opportunity to try it myself (never having seen the mature plant).
  • Slender Nettle (Urtica dioica subsp. gracilis): Near and dear to my own heart, stinging nettle might be my very favorite plant. The stinging hairs guard great treasures, as this plant has valuable uses in food, in medicine, in dyes, and in fibers. I have been re-establishing our native subspecies (Slender Nettle) over the past few years, and it is thriving along my woodland edge. Slender nettle supports the caterpillars of several native butterfly species.
  • Elderberry (Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis): A native plant in the honeysuckle family, Elderberry flourishes along the woodland edge. It’s especially well suited for damp locations, and provides both food and medicine for people. I’ve successfully established some elderberry plants in my floodplain already, as well as in my garden. I look forward to bringing it closer to the woods as well.
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): A fragrant relative of the beloved Sassafras tree, spicebush is a shrub that grows along the woodland edge. Like Elderberry, it is especially well suited to damp locations, and I have those aplenty. Spicebush has established uses for both food and medicine, and it’s also a host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly.
  • Pawpaw (Asimina triloba): The pawpaw tree can grow in full sun to full shade, though it produces the most fruit in full sun. I think I’ll add some along the woodland edge as well, because in my opinion, one can never have enough pawpaws.
  • American Hazelnut (Corylus americana): The American Hazelnut is one of the most useful and most adaptable plants I have encountered. From full sun to full shade, average soil to moist soil, this plant can flourish almost everywhere. The nuts it produces are, by all accounts, very similar to commercially available hazelnuts. In addition to the edible nut, this plant also permits heavy pruning, and the cut wood is useful in many applications such as basketry, garden trellises, and other structures.
  • Wild Grapes (Vitis spp.): Riverbank Grape (Vitis riparia) already flourishes on this land. There are other native grape species that I’d like to try to introduce as well. The grape vines thrive on the woodland edge, vining up to the tops of trees and knitting the forest together. The fruit occurs where the sun shines, and that can often mean a difficult harvest at the tippy top of the canopy. However, grape leaves have many uses as well, and those occur everywhere.
  • Raspberry, blackberry, and dewberry (Rubus spp.): These delicious cousins thrive and fruit along the woodland edge. Black raspberry and blackberry already thrive here. I’m working to reintroduce the dewberry on the recommendation of a neighbor, who has fond memories of dewberry pie from childhood. These plants can also be grown in the deep woods, but they may not fruit in full shade.
  • Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis): Bloodroot can grow in shade or part shade. It grows in abundance on my land already, and so far I have observed it exclusively along the woodland edge, so I’m placing it in this category. It may be that once I open up more light in the woods by removing the honeysuckle bushes, bloodroot will spread into the deeper woodland spaces. Bloodroot is a medicinal herb, but it’s a serious medicine and not for lighthearted use. I don’t feel comfortable working with this plant at this stage in my herbalist training, but I love this plant and I hope it continues to thrive here for years to come.
  • Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum): Like Bloodroot, Mayapple can grow in shade or part shade, but on my land I have only observed it growing with Bloodroot along the woodland edge. I have never used this plant for food or medicine myself, but some do. It’s another serious plant with deadly poisonous parts, but the ripe fruit is said to be edible and choice. It’s a beautiful plant, often cultivated as an ornamental.
  • Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa): A beautiful and medicinal herb, Black Cohosh can grow in part shade to shade and is well suited to moist soil.

“Tall trees covered the whole county with their wide-spreading branches, depending to the ground, and the shrubbery below arose and united with the branches of the trees…In the open space, in the valleys, grew either prickly ash or nettles, both equally armed with sharp, fiery prickles…Where spice-wood did not grow to thickly, male fern formed a solid mass three feet in depth, covering logs and pit falls so completely”

-Judge Franklin Harden, “A Historical Sketch of Johnson County” (1881)

For Further Reading

The Food In The Forest
The Woodland Understory
About The Farm
Farming the Woodland

Book Recommendations

“1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”, by Charles C. Mann
“Braiding Sweetgrass”, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Iwígara: American Indian Ethnobotanical Traditions and Science“, by Enrique Salmón
“Wild Food Plants of Indiana”, by Alan McPherson
“Nature’s Garden”, by Samuel Thayer

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

The Business Of Farming: Five Big Lessons From My First Two Years As A Market Grower

Sometimes I am surprised by how much I have in common with my readers. I love engaging with you all through social media and hearing the questions you bring to in-person events. One of the most common questions I heard from you this year was, “How can I leave my day job and become a farmer too?” I don’t have a good answer for this yet. I worked in the technology industry for fourteen years in order to prepare myself financially for farm life. It was a long, difficult journey for me and it’s not accessible to everyone. I and many others are working on clearing a better path for you and for the next generation. The world needs you, your community needs you, and the earth needs you! We all need farmers and land stewards, and if this is your calling, I will do all I can to help you get there. One way I feel I can help right now is to share my own mistakes, triumphs, and lessons from my first two years as a market grower. Here I have distilled all that life experience into one smooth blog post with five great tips to help you start your farm business right!

Lesson #1: Dive In Deep

In my first year as a market grower, I had it in mind to dip my toe into the well and test the water. In some ways, this was smart. I didn’t spend more than my (small) operating budget, I didn’t invest in huge quantities of supplies that didn’t work out, and I didn’t generate significant waste by producing larger quantities of perishable products than the market could consume. However, I also didn’t bring enough products or enough kinds of products to the market to cover my costs of being there. Sit down with your calculator and figure out all your costs of vending at a market. Add in your desired revenue and divide that total by the cost of producing your main product. That will give you an idea of how much you need to produce and sell. If that’s a high number, you may need to consider offering more than one kind of product to reach your goal.

Lesson #2: Diversify

In that first year, I specialized in microgreens. I also brought tomatoes and fresh leafy greens from my garden when I could, but I hadn’t yet expanded my garden to a large enough size to reliably meet demand for garden produce. I’ve grown microgreens for my own family for years so I felt proficient in that type of growing, and they seemed like a relatively accessible candidate to scale up as a market crop. However, there wasn’t enough demand for microgreens at my market to break even on that product alone. Many people stopped by my booth to chat, and they told me that they’d love to buy something from me to support my farm, but sadly they don’t like to eat microgreens. Others really enjoyed the microgreens, and came back every week to replenish their stash. Still, on a really good day at my local market, I can earn a maximum of about $60 in revenue from my microgreens. Keep in mind, that isn’t my profit. I still have to pay for seeds, potting soil, packaging, etc to produce that product, and to produce all the boxes of microgreens that I produce but can’t sell. I also have to pay vendor fees and farmers market insurance. This experience taught me that I would need to offer a wider variety of products the next year if I hoped to succeed as a market grower.

Lesson #3: Prepare To Be Flexible

I first saw myself strictly as a food vendor. So between year one and year two, when I envisioned diversification, I was only considering new kinds of produce to offer. I thought about offering prepared foods, but that turned out to be more difficult than I realized due to health codes, licensing, commercial kitchen rental fees, and other red tape. So in my second year, I went all-in on expanding my garden. I invested months of work, thousands of dollars, and all my hopes on this one project. Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed. By June I realized my new garden location had not been suitably prepared, and my investment would not pay off this year. I would still have my microgreens, I would have a goodly amount of kale and collard greens from my raised beds, and I would have a small amount of fresh herbs. The great and diverse bounty of vegetables I had envisioned, however, would not come to pass.

The metaphorical wind blew hard. It was my choice to bend with this wind, or allow it to break me. I chose to bend. Diversification was needed, and it was too late to retry vegetables for the year. I needed to consider what value-added products I could offer to my community. I wasn’t prepared with the proper licenses and other resources that are needed to begin selling prepared food items, so I decided to call in my artistic skills and begin creating handmade art and craft items from things I have available on my farm. This was a very natural pivot for me, because I’ve actually been an artist longer than I’ve been a farmer or even a gardener. However, even if you aren’t an artist, there is probably some type of craft you are drawn to and can become skilled at making. I’ve had great success with this effort so far, and I hope for even greater success on this path next year, when I will be able to show up at the first market day well prepared and ready in a way that only a winter’s incubation can provide. I would encourage you to think about backups for your backups well in advance of your first market season, so that if your primary strategy is thwarted, you’ll be ready to roll with it.

Lesson #4: Hit The Ground Running

The beginning of the farmers market season is much more profitable than the rest of it. In spring, the whole community is excited that the weather is finally warm and the market is finally open again, and they show up in large numbers eager to support their local producers and artisans. This part of the season is great for everyone including craft vendors and baked goods vendors, but it’s especially good for produce vendors. Since most other produce vendors won’t have their veggies ready until later in the season, anything you can bring early is likely to sell well. I sell many times more bunches of kale, microgreens, and fresh herbs on the first three market days than I sell later in the summer. Do everything you can to be ready before the market starts so that your success in these early days will be great enough to sustain you through the hot days and the rainy days to come when none but the most dedicated and loyal customers visit the market.

Lesson #5: Strategize and Prioritize

I can see how it would be very easy to burn out in this business. I work more hours than I have ever worked before, and for less money. Especially this year, when my business strategy was to try everything, find out what works and what doesn’t, and forge a path towards success, I was spread very thin and not only did I not have time to enjoy my own garden and my life, but there were days when I didn’t have time to eat meals, didn’t sleep enough, and didn’t have clean clothes to wear because I hadn’t had time to wash any. I’ve been through this phase twice before, when I started my first business in 2008 (Reflected Spectrum Photography), and another time when I was renovating an investment house (which currently helps generate income for me while I build this farm). I think it’s a necessary phase to pass through when starting up a new business, at least for me. Nobody wants to linger in this phase- or worse, to remain in it permanently. It’s important to strategize and to prioritize the things that are most important to you. Make a vision board or even just a list of your real goals for your life, and keep checking in with them. Make sure you’re still on track towards the life you really want. For me, this means time to work with my land, healthy food and products for myself and my community, and enough income to fund my ecological restoration projects and educational outreach efforts. Notice how I didn’t say “all the money in the world”, “one million followers”, or “corporate ad sponsors”. Those are not the kind of goals I am talking about. What do you want your life to be? I’m building a life around my values. That is my priority and my ultimate goal. Everything I do needs to be in service of my path towards those goals.

This year, one of the things I tried was adding a second market day every week. I loved my second market, located in a neighboring town called Bargersville. The timing seemed perfect, with Franklin Market on Saturday mornings and Bargersville Market every Wednesday evening. I really loved being part of that second market! It has a beautifully chill vibe, the people are totally lovable, and they have an amazing band that shows up every single week to play all my favorite 60s era songs. I learned lots of great tips for success from talking to the other vendors there, and many of them generously shared their extra products with me after our market hours ended. However, I found that doing two markets every single week took up about four full work days every week. I was too busy doing markets to keep up with my land management chores or to tend my own garden. I hope to remain a part of both markets in some capacity going forward, but now I realize that I can’t do two markets every single week. I started an Event Calendar so that my customers can easily find out where I will be and when, even when my schedule isn’t the same every single week.

Conclusion

I hope this article helps somebody experience greater and faster success with their new farm business. Local food farmers and producers are extremely valuable and extremely needed. It’s a hard business, but a rewarding one. Through my first two years as a market grower, other farmers have aided me, collaborated with me, mentored me, and supported me. The other vendors at my markets are not my competition, they are my coworkers, allies, and friends. I hope that by sharing my experiences here, I can extend some of the kindness I have received to beginning farmers wherever they may be. Best of luck, I’m rooting for you!

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

Preparing For The First Frost

It’s a beautiful warm day in the neighborhood, but frost is in the forecast. Good preparations before a frost can do much to ease the transition between the growing season and the dormant season. If you have the resources and the drive, you can even extend your growing season for up to three more months! Here are a few of the preparations I am working on today.

#1: Harvest Remaining Summer Bounty

If you’re dedicated, you can cover your tomato plants to give them a few more weeks. But in my experience, it’s not worth it. During these waning autumn days, my tomato plants don’t grow, bloom, or ripen fruit with enough vigor to make all that covering worthwhile. Instead, I prefer to pick all my tomatoes, peppers, and other heat-loving fruits before the frost arrives. Unripe fruits can often be ripened indoors inside of a paper bag, or pickled unripe.

#2: Disconnect Your Water Lines

If you run hoses or drip irrigation from your house to your garden, disconnect the hose from the spigot at the house prior to frost. If there’s water trapped in your hose and it freezes hard, that ice can cause damage to your valve, spigot, or even to your home water pipes. It’s also a good idea to open all the shutoff valves and remove any water wands or blockers that you may have attached to your hoses farther down the line. Pressurized, trapped water that freezes and expands may damage your tubing or watering instruments.

#3: Protect Glass & Ceramic Vessels

Do you have a glass rain gauge, ceramic bird bath, or terracotta planter? These types of items aren’t very rugged against freezing temperatures. Empty any glass or ceramic vessel that currently contains water. If it’s a small item, consider bringing it indoors for winter. Any potted plants in terracotta or ceramic vessels should also be brought indoors during freezing temperatures to prevent cracking.

#4: Bring Sensitive Potted Plants Indoors

Potted plants experience winter more harshly than plants that are planted in the ground. The temperature underground is much more even and more protected than the air temperature. So while a plant that is marginally hardy in your growing zone might have a fighting chance if planted in the ground, a potted plant will have a much lower likelihood of surviving winter temperatures because the roots of the potted plant will experience winter temperatures equivalent to a climate that is one full zone colder. I let my hardiest potted plants experience winter outdoors along the south facing brick wall of my home, bringing them indoors only during “arctic blast” or other extreme cold weather fronts. But I bring most of my potted plants indoors for any frosty weather.

#5: Cover Herbs and Hardy Greens

You may be able to extend your harvest of certain herbs such as mint, oregano, sage, and rosemary by covering them during frosts. Experience will tell you which plants truly need cover in your area, and when. Certain vegetables such as kale can also survive through the winter months with the right covering techniques.

For Further Reading:

Softening Up

In spring, overwintered potted plants and new plant starts go through a process called “hardening off”. This process involves gradually acclimating the plants to life outside where light is brighter and wind is stronger and temperatures fluctuate through a much wider range than the plant would ever encounter indoors. I have found that repeating this process in reverse every autumn is very beneficial to my indoor/outdoor potted plants such as white sage, bay laurel, and citrus trees. I’m not aware of an official term for this reverse process, so I’ve taken to calling it “softening up”.

Timing and Division

Nighttime lows have begun to dip into the high 30s in my area, and that’s my cue to begin the softening up process. Since I have many potted plants, I divide them into three groups to minimize the amount of time I have to spend moving planters every day. The first group will require the longest softening up transition, and should be spending most of its time indoors by the time I begin transitioning the second group. The second group will require a shorter transition, and the third group requires very little transition at all.

Extra Care For The Most Delicate Plants

The first group consists mostly of tender evergreen herbs. These plants are the most sensitive to environmental shifts, and require the most delicate care during the softening up transition. Most of the Mediterranean herbs will fall into this category: bay laurel, sage, rosemary, and lavender for example. White Sage, a California native plant, also responds well to this treatment. These plants appreciate a two week softening up process, and for me, that begins right now.

Note: I also bring these arid climate plants indoors if rain is in the forecast during the softening up period, because in past years I have observed that a soaking rain can moisten the potting soil so thoroughly that it may take a month or more to fully dry in the cooler, damper environment of my home. Since these plants are mostly from arid climates, they do not appreciate that long wet period, and may suffer root rot or fungal infection if that happens. When I water them manually, I am able to control the amount of moisture these plants receive so that they will not have wet feet for long periods of time. Perhaps if you grow your plants in very sandy potting soil, or if your home is very dry, rain may not be an issue for you.

Faster Transitions for Hardier Plants

My second group consists of tougher plants that are frost-tender, but not as sensitive to shock as the first group. My second group consists mostly of citrus trees and succulents. I grow lemon, orange, lime, aloe, and dragonfruit in pots, and I find that those are all very resistant to shock, but they appreciate a little bit of softening up and will reward you with greater vigor if you treat them gently. These plants respond well to about a week of softening up. I don’t find it as necessary to bring these plants indoors before rain, unless the root system hasn’t yet filled the pot it is in.

Winter Care For The Easy Going Plants

The easiest plants to transition are those that naturally shed their leaves and go dormant over winter. For these plants, it’s not a big deal if they experience a transition shock and lose their leaves a little early. They tend to bounce right back in the spring. I generally leave these plants outside until they are almost totally dormant, only bringing them in if there’s an actual frost in the forecast. Some types of plants that often fall into this easy care group include figs and other deciduous trees, bulbs, tubers, and rhizomes.

The Softening Up Process In Detail

Step 1: Ideally, before beginning the softening up process, examine all the plants you plan to bring indoors. If they have any insect infestations, it’s easiest to tackle this now while they’re still outdoors. Any mess you make will remain outside, and you can avoid creating a new infestation in your home. If you can’t do this right now, then I doubt will cause a true disaster. The worst that has ever happened to me involved spending an afternoon scrubbing up plants in my bathtub, or setting out a trap for fungus gnats.

Step 2: In the evening, I round up the potted plants that I am currently softening up. I take them all indoors to spend the night in the house. Early on in the softening up process, I may take the plants back outside in late morning, so they can spend most of the day outside. Midway through the softening up process, I begin keeping them indoors until early afternoon. Towards the end, I will keep them indoors until late afternoon and give them just a few hours outdoors.

Step 3: When the plants have been fully acclimated, I bring them all indoors one last time. I place them in their permanent winter places where they will stay until spring. I keep my dormant plants in the basement, since they don’t require much sun or heat. I place other plants as close as possible to sunny windows. I have experimented with adding artificial lights, but none have worked out for me. They don’t seem to provide enough benefit to equal the expense and difficulty of their use. I find that although my plants don’t really thrive and grow vigorously in winter window light, they do survive this way until spring and will resume their vigorous growth patterns when they return to their outdoor lives. However, if you don’t have adequate window light, you might find grow lights to be an important part of your overwintering strategy.

If you’re interested in learning more about container gardening, you might enjoy these other articles from The Strawberry Moon Blog:

DIY Recycled Seedling Pots
DIY Plant Stand: How to build a convertible plant stand, potting bench, or boot bench
The Quest For Dragon Fruit (Pitaya)
Improved Meyer Lemon Tree

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

The Woodland Understory

“The plants have enough spirit to transform our limited vision.”

Rosemary Gladstar

Included in our many diverse habitats, Strawberry Moon Farm treasures 3.5 acres of established woodlands. These wooded acres are my favorite places to explore. In the months of autumn, winter, and early spring, when the woods are not so dense with growing things and I am not so busy in the garden, I walk amongst the trees almost daily. Though 3.5 acres isn’t a huge forest, it’s enough that I can get a little bit lost in them if I’m trying. It’s enough that I can find myself completely surrounded by beings older than myself. Over the years I have learned how to identify most of the tree and plant species on the land. I’ve been delighted and amazed to find that many of them produce incredible foods, medicines, and other useful supplies. These woods have given me peace, insight, and sustenance. It is time for me to give something back to the woods. I intend to give them back their understory.

What Is The Woodland Understory?

When most people think of the woods, they think about the tall trees. But woodlands are made of many layers, and each layer is vital to the health of the whole. The word understory refers to the lower growing shrubs, brambles, herbs, and vines that grow beneath the tall canopy of the forest. This low layer of vegetation is often the most neglected, most damaged, and most threatened. Although some people plant new trees after old growth has been cleared, rarely does anyone come back to re-establish the native understory layer once those new trees have grown enough to form a canopy that can cover them. Invasive plants take over, and this precious habitat for native herbs is quickly filled by more aggressive species. Because of this, many of our native woodland plants are now threatened or endangered.

I am very excited to announce our newest project, to restore the woodland understory with native plants at Strawberry Moon Farm!

Project Details and Grant Funding

This week, I had the great privilege of signing the papers for my second grant award from National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). NRCS has been an invaluable partner to this farm, and in addition to funding our wetland reforestation project, they have also provided information, ideas, encouragement, and guidance. One of the ecology goals NRCS works towards is reducing the spread of invasive woodland understory plants, so they sometimes pay farmers to remove invasive plants such as Asian Bush Honeysuckle from their woods and hedgerows. The funding I received will help me in my endeavor to clear most of the honeysuckle from my woods and prepare the understory for replanting with native plants.

Money from these grants is often used to purchase herbicides to make sure the invasive plants are fully dead with no hope of return. I remain deeply committed to organic and least-harm land management methods, and I have been very up front about that with NRCS. We have agreed on an approach that uses no chemicals or sprays of any kind. It will be a more prolonged, labor-intensive approach, but I’m up for the task. My plan is to cut the bushes down to ground level, attempt to uproot as many trunks as possible, and then continuously mow over any re-sprouts so that they can no longer grow large or produce seeds. Some of the grant money I receive will be used to purchase new seeds and plants to give the understory new life after this transition. The seed of an idea for this project is one of the reasons why I joined the United Plant Savers and enrolled in the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine last year. Both of these organizations value the native herbs of Eastern North America, and I am learning as much as I can about these important plant allies in hopes of establishing thriving populations of them on this land.

Bloodroot In Bloom
Bloodroot, a precious native woodland herb

Thoughts About Invasive Plants

I’m grateful to the honeysuckle for stepping in to hold the soil together and perform the alchemical magic of photosynthesis. Perhaps no other plant could have done so without help. Human beings are meant to be part of nature after all, and wild spaces often struggle in our absence. But now that I’m here to step into the role of human being of this ecosystem, I am turning my attention to restoring balance in the woodland understory.

The land I live on was lushly forested and well managed by indigenous people such as the Miami, Lenape, Kaskasia, and Kickapoo tribes prior to colonization. When settlers pushed north from Kentucky to stake their claim on what is now Johnson County, Indiana, what they found was mostly forested swampland. They didn’t stop to consider how they might live in harmony with that kind of landscape, or what it could offer them. Instead, they made quick work of cutting down all the trees and burning everything in sight. They assumed such destruction was necessary in order to create open fields for the crops they were accustomed to farming. Perhaps it did not occur to them that people were already thriving on this richly forested land before they arrived, or that it was already the picture of abundance. Thriving forests require human management, and people had put a lot of work into those old forests that they thoughtlessly cleared.

Speaking as a person who works with this land every day, I can tell you with certainty that it still wants to be forested swampland. If I stop mowing a patch of ground and leave it to its own devices, it will be thick with baby trees within a year. The trees that grow up on their own are a result of whatever seeds blow in, and are not necessarily the most desirable species or even a very diverse mixture of species. One of the gifts human beings bring to the forest is the gift of creativity. We can look at a damaged field and think, “What if a great oak tree grew here, 50 years from now?” Humans have the power to imagine all the creatures that could raise families in the branches of that oak tree that does not exist yet, and all those that could gather acorns from below, and all the small plants that could grow in its shade. We have the power to plant seeds, to water them, to nurse them through their tender times until they are strong. And we have the skill to guard them against other plants and creatures that would snuff them out before they reach their full potential.

I used to be hesitant to weed out any plant from my garden. After all, every plant has special gifts, and no plants are bad or useless. However, I have grown to be more comfortable in performing my role as a human being of the ecosystem. I see now that removing one plant can be an act of care for another plant. To do so is to be a steward. Careful selection can bring beautiful growth.

I hope this project will bring forth something beautiful and new and ancient. It will take several years to complete, and I’ll update you from time to time on my progress. Wish me luck, and stay tuned!

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy these other posts about our woods and ecological restoration projects:
Farming The Wetland
The Food In The Forest
Life in the Flood Plain
Farming the Woodland

A Spark of Encouragement

Although my new garden expansion hasn’t been as successful this year as I hoped it would be, my two-year-old garden shines. Every day it greets me with a new lovely surprise. Some of you may remember my herb-loving snake friend from last year. She raised two littles in the garden last summer, and this year they have returned. She has grown to twice her previous size, shed her skin (I kept it), and this splendid little team has deftly handled my once-insurmountable vole problem. No more tunnels in the garden, no more root crops destroyed, no more seedlings uprooted! I want to throw a parade in her honor.

Garter Snake in the Herb Spiral
This is a photo from last year. She hasn’t allowed an updated portrait.

In my entire gardening career, I have never successfully grown eggplants. I have tried almost every single year at every single garden. This year is the year! My plants are loaded with beautiful striped heirloom Antigua Eggplants. I don’t expect I’ll harvest enough to sell at the market because I didn’t do a market-sized planting, but it’s enough to impart some much-needed encouragement, and hopefully a good seed crop so I can grow these again next summer.

Antigua Eggplant, Heirloom Eggplant Ripening
Antigua Eggplant, heirloom variety

Another plant I’ve always struggled to grow is winter squash. Squash Bugs seem to follow me wherever I go, and they win every single battle. This year I’m seeing much better success in the cucurbits I’ve planted, even the ones growing in the boggy soil of the new garden expansion. But by far the winner is this butternut squash, that I did not even plant, but which sprang up from the compost pile as if by magic. My most fervent wish this year was for a bountiful squash harvest. Squashes like the butternut make up the basis of my diet during the winter, and organic squash can be quite costly at the supermarket. The garden must have heard me, because just look at this beauty! Yet another good reason to tend a compost pile.

Volunteer Butternut Squash

My next joyful surprise came by way of a friend. Earlier this spring, she offered to share some yellow turmeric roots that she had grown in her garden. I previously dabbled a little bit in growing turmeric and ginger with mild success, but I hadn’t received a substantial harvest. Buoyed by the sight of her abundant turmeric treasure, I planted the starts she gave me. So far, it’s a roaring success. The plants have already outgrown two pots, and one of them blossomed last week. Check out this beautiful bloom! Turmeric is considered a medicinal plant due to the chemical component curcumin, but I feel like this flower is a different kind of medicine for the soul.

Lastly but not leastly, I have grown an absolute jungle of Thai Red Roselle Hibiscus! The fleshy red calyces can be made into delicious tangy beverages and jams. Most of these are second generation plants, grown from seed I saved from my 5 plants last year. I also planted some from a different seed source to compare, but there was no observable difference in the plants.

**Note that not every species of hibiscus is edible. The type discussed here is Hibiscus sabdariffa.

I hope you’re finding your own sparks of encouragement this summer!

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

The Season Of Getting Real

This is my third summer living life as a full-time farmer and gardener. In that time, the seasons have begun to take on on new meanings for me. Autumn is the season when I rest and regroup after the harvest is in and the market season has ended. Winter is the season of dreams, when I organize my seeds and plan for the new season. Spring is the season of hope and faith, when I plant my seeds and imagine their harvests. But summer? Summer is the season of the reality check.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed right now by too many zucchini or too many weeds or too many bugs or too many plants that didn’t work out, give yourself a moment of peace and a deep breath. You are not alone. There is something precious in this moment, this experience, this lesson. If your garden didn’t thrive this year, that doesn’t mean your effort was wasted. Maybe you learned something new about your garden, or about yourself, that will help you go farther next time. The compost and mulches you applied will improve the soil and bless your next-year garden with a huge head start, and any weeds that grew tall will photosynthesize abundantly and contribute unseen benefits to the great web of life.

In contrast to the modern trend of broadcasting our shiniest moments, I believe it’s more important than ever to share our struggles. So many people feel alone with their setbacks in the face of the ever-growing feed of other people’s triumphs. More often than not, the messy hard work that went into producing the dazzling success we admire doesn’t make the editor’s cut. To me, that messy hard work is the most beautiful part. It’s the part that means you’re learning. It means the garden is growing you.

Whether you’re harvesting bushels of ripe tomatoes this summer or a sticky mess of hard lessons, take a moment to reflect upon your experiences so far. Write notes about it, and revisit your own writings from time to time, so you can continue to learn and grow and evolve. The lessons of summer are ripe for the picking.

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“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor