Tree Planting Startup Guide

Are you thinking about converting your yard or farm field into a lush forest filled with food-bearing native trees and shrubs? Are you interested in planting a tree and watching it grow? If so, read on. This article contains a distillation of my best tips and advice learned by planting over 2,000 native trees, along with a step-by-step startup guide you can use for your own tree planting project.

Make Your Plan

The very first step before undertaking any gardening, farming, or forestry project is to observe. Permaculture wisdom suggests studying the land for a full year, and taking notes throughout all the seasons. Does it hold water? Do animals use the land? Is it vulnerable to fire, drought, flood, or erosion? Are there any special plants already present on the land that you want to save?

Wendell Berry uses a different phrase, “Consult the genius of the place.” The land has been before you ever were, and will continue to be long after. Try to consider its needs first and foremost, and trust that what’s good for the land will be good for us.

During this observation phase, consult the experts. Call up your county extension office and your local NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) office and ask them for advice and history about your land and your goals for your project. They can help you select tree species that are likely to grow well on your site. Draw on all this wisdom when making your plan.

Purchasing Trees

1,000 Trees In The Back Of A Prius
1,000 DNR Trees Loaded In The Back Of My Prius

The best place I have found to order lots of native trees is the state DNR (Department of Natural Resources). Indiana’s DNR runs two tree nurseries, and many other states do this too. They’re stocked with really high quality trees, and the prices are a steal. You can purchase trees in bareroot bundles of 100 trees for about $30-$45 per bundle. They carry many great varieties, including many that produce food for people. They also sell variety packs for those who don’t want 100 of a single tree species.

The DNR opens for tree orders on October 1st, and they sell out quickly, so mark your calendar. You order in October and you pick up the trees in March. The trees will need to be stored somewhere cool and moist, like a basement, after you pick them up. They’ll keep under those conditions for about two weeks. If you need to store them longer than that, you can dig a big trench and bury the roots on a slant, digging up trees as you have time to plant them. You must irrigate that trench regularly.

If you’re going to be planting by hand as I did, I suggest keeping your order small. I find that I can plant about 30 trees in an average work day, and 200 trees has been a reasonable number for me to plant each spring without stress or the need for trenching. If you have help or lots of free time, then you may be able to plant more. If you are unsure about your physical fitness level, then maybe limit yourself to one bundle of 100 trees your first year to see how it goes. You’ll get strong as you plant them, and perhaps you can plant a larger quantity next year! If you need to plant more trees faster (as I did, because of my grant), plan to dig some nice deep trenches in advance of receiving your trees. Plant your trees temporarily in the trenches. You can plant from March – May, and again from October – December. Don’t bother planting trees in the summer, they probably won’t survive.

Indiana DNR Tree Seedling Ordering Instructions

If you want to grow a named cultivar, an affordable way to do that is to graft a cutting onto your tree a couple years after planting, using the DNR tree as a rootstock.

If you have your heart set on a native tree species that the DNR doesn’t carry, you might find it at Cold Stream Farm nursery. I have ordered some of their trees for my project with mixed success. I find that their small trees are really small compared to the DNR trees, and I have had poor survival rates using that small size. I may order from Cold Stream Farm again, but if so, I’ll spring for a bigger size tree in hopes of better survival rates.

Cold Stream Farm Nursery

For wildflowers and other native herbs, Prairie Moon Nursery is a great resource.

Prairie Moon Nursery

Gathering Supplies

Planting Tools On Garden Cart

To plant the trees, you’ll need a good transplant spade. A spade is a long handled digging tool, kind of like a shovel, but shaped in a way that lets you dig with minimal effort. There are several different kinds of spades, and it’s worth noting that a transplant spade is different from a garden spade. Garden spades are short and wide, and they’re intended for digging shallow holes in soft topsoil. Transplant spades are long and narrow, and they allow you to dig deep holes for tree roots in tougher field soil. I recommend choosing a transplant spade with wide shoulders, so that you can comfortably push it into the ground with your foot. The one I have has narrow shoulders, and sometimes when I step on it, my food slides off the side of the spade. This can be painful when it happens, so it’s best to avoid it if you can. If you can’t get a transplant spade, shovels and garden spades are not workable substitutes, but you can substitute a good digging fork.

How To Choose A Garden Tool That Will Last A Lifetime: The Top 5 Questions to Ask Before Buying

You’ll also need at least one 5 gallon bucket. At the beginning of your work day, you’ll load the bucket with trees for planting, and fill the bucket with water so the roots won’t dry out. My favorite place to get buckets is a fast food restaurant chain called Firehouse Subs. They sell really sturdy buckets for an affordable price. The buckets are used and they smell like pickles (pro or con, depending on perspective, but the trees won’t mind). New pickle-free buckets can be found at hardware stores for a little more money.

Each tree must be well watered immediately after planting. If you have a hose that reaches everywhere you plan to plant, then you’re all set. I have 10 acres and they’re mostly not irrigated, so I fill up a few more 5 gallon buckets to water with. I pull my water buckets and tree soaking buckets with a small hand-pulled garden cart (pictured above). Some people may choose to use a tractor-pulled cart with a 55 gallon drum of water loaded into it. Note that the 55 gallon drum is much too heavy when full to pull with a hand cart. I’ve tried.

One other supply that may come in handy is a 300′ surveyor’s tape. I used one of these to help me lay out straight-ish rows, and maintain a healthy spacing between each tree.

If your land doesn’t flood, you might want to consider mulching around the trees. I wasn’t able to do this with my Flood Plain Food Forest, because the mulch would have all floated away. I plan to try it in my orchard though, which does not flood. As a child, my parents planted 300 White Pines on their land, and they mulched thickly in wide circles around each tree to keep weeds at bay, conserve moisture, and make it easier to mow around each tree. It worked well for us then. When mulching around a tree, leave about an inch around the tree trunk with no mulch to discourage rodent damage and reduce the chances of trunk rot. Wood chip mulch is available for free or almost-free from ChipDrop.

Planting

You’ve observed your site, made your plan, gathered supplies, ordered trees, and now it’s March and you’re ready to plant! Dig a nice big hole for each tree. The hole should be at least a little longer and at least a little wider than the tree’s roots. Place the tree inside the hole, making sure that none of the roots are curling around in circles or hitting the bottom and turning back upwards, and that the soil line meets the tree just at the top of the roots. You don’t want any roots sticking out over the soil surface, or for the trunk of the tree to be buried. The DNR will give you a nice pamphlet with pictures and detailed planting instructions. Follow them to the letter for best results. With your tree in position, gently fill in the soil around the roots, a little at a time, until all the soil is back in the hole. Gently tamp down the disturbed soil, so none of it blows away or floats away, then give your newly planted tree a deep drink of water. Optionally, say a prayer for the tree or offer the tree a blessing or a few words of encouragement. Depending on your goals, you may want to label the tree for easier identification. Now repeat with the next hole!

Ongoing Care

A newly planted American Plum tree

Depending on your site and situation, ongoing care may include annual mulching around trees, monthly mowing around trees, and watering once per week if there hasn’t been any rain. For native trees, once the tree is 2-3 years old, it shouldn’t need watering except perhaps during times of severe drought. As the tree grows, it may benefit from early spring pruning. Depending on your location, the tree trunk may need to be protected from deer antler damage once it reaches a sturdy size.

When planting very young trees such as the ones discussed here, not all the trees will survive. A 50% survival rate is about normal. I’ve had a lower survival rate in my wetland forest, because the conditions are extra harsh there. That’s okay. The trees that survive will be well adapted to your site. Plan to buy a bundle or two every spring for a few years to replace any trees that didn’t make it. Once a tree makes it to three years old, it has a really good chance of continued survival.

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The Herb Clothesline

I grow a lot of herbs in my garden, and one of the ways I preserve them for winter use is by drying. Last summer I dried most of my herbs quickly in an electric dehydrator. While this did work, it wasn’t really necessary. Most herbs (maybe all) will air dry quite nicely without the use of any machinery or electricity.

Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about hanging bundles of drying herbs from the rafters of her home in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass”. I love that image of herbs hanging from the rafters. It feels very beautiful and romantic. For months I daydreamed about how I wish I had rafters in my home, so I could hang herbs from them. I thought about retrofitting some rafters. Then I thought about getting another job so I could afford to retrofit rafters, and then I thought about what would happen to my farm and my quality of life if I did that… no thanks. When the idea finally occurred to me it was painfully simple. Build another clothesline!

Thus the herb clothesline was born, the third in a series of special purpose indoor clotheslines I have built in the past year or so. For the cost of three nails and a few feet of cotton clothesline rope (all of which I had on hand, leftover from other projects) I now have an elegant and energy-free herb drying system.

The Details

I installed this clothesline in the wall studs, but as close to the ceiling as possible. This is so that the herbs will hang high above heads and also above windows, so they’ll be out of direct sunlight. Into three separate studs, I hammered a nail half way in, and knotted the rope onto the protruding part of the nail. A screw would work just as well or better than the nails, but I was out of screws when I made this project. This knot system will allow me to tighten the rope later when it slackens, which I wouldn’t be able to do if I had pierced the rope with the nails.

To hang the herbs, first bundle them together with a rubber band. Then, depending on how careful you want to be, tie them to the clothesline with a piece of string, secure them with a clothespin, or split the bundle and straddle it over the line. My nature is to be careful so I went with string + clothespin.

I think it’s lovely, and my herbs have been drying very well so far.

herb drying clothesline

Just for fun, here are pictures of my other clothesline projects:

This is my patio bistro indoor clothesline. This was the first one I built, and it’s actually for clothes. It doesn’t hold a full load of laundry, but it’s perfect for air drying special delicate clothes or blankets, or for use in combination with a clothes drying rack. I still aspire to building a big outdoor clothesline like my grandma had someday, but this one was much easier and cheaper to construct.
Kitchen Clothesline
This one is my kitchen clothesline. I use this one to hang my reusable freezer bags, regular ziplock bags that I’ve washed for reuse, plastic wrappers washed and destined for ecobricks, nutmilk bags, and cheesecloths. I wrote a whole article about this clothesline if you’re interested in learning more about it.

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To All The New Gardeners

Starting a new garden often begins with excitement, enthusiasm, and optimism for all the possibilities that await. In winter, you choose the most beautiful pictures and mouthwatering descriptions from the seed catalog. In spring, you bring home the best looking plants from the local garden shop. You prepare your soil with loving care and good intentions and you plant. Then maybe late frosts or spring storms come. Maybe some of the plants get injured or sick, or even die. The ones that survive will have to battle weeds to stay in the game until mid-summer, and then the insect predators arrive, and you may wonder if your labors will bear any fruit at all.

If you’re feeling a little garden frustration right now, take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. I’ve been there, countless others have been there, and many are feeling what you’re feeling right now. Gardening is a process. You’re not just growing plants, you’re also growing soil and skills.

Today is the 8 year anniversary of this blog, my 6 year anniversary with my land, and the 1 year anniversary of my life as a full-time farmer. In celebration of this auspicious day, here is a post all about my first garden ever, and filled with the lessons I harvested from it twelve years ago.

Invest in Organic Fertilizer

My first garden was planted in fill dirt, on top of an old landfill. It was a community garden so I didn’t own the land, and I thought I wouldn’t invest any money in the soil. Instead, I got loads of free rotted leaves and wood chips from the city and used coffee grounds from various coffee shops. While these items are great for gardens and make excellent mulches, they are not the same thing as compost.

I likely would have seen much better harvests much more quickly if I had purchased compost the first year. My many loads of free mulch did eventually build fabulous soil after about three years, but it was a long wait. You can make your own premium compost at home for free, but if you’ve just started gardening, you probably won’t have any homemade compost ready until the second year. Learn more about making your own compost from my article The Foundation of Our Future.

Grow Some Easy Wins

The most popular garden vegetables are not necessarily the easiest to grow. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, melons, and squashes all require good soil to thrive. Spinach and head lettuces must have a long cool season and rich soil, or they will go to seed before you ever get a salad. Carrots will grow into funky shapes if the soil isn’t perfectly light and loose and free of any twigs or stones.

Other garden plants are much more forgiving and adaptable. These are some crops that produced abundant harvests for me when other crops failed:

TomatillosKaleOregano
SunflowersCollard GreensMint
SunchokesRadishesLemon Balm
PeasSwiss ChardDill
BeansFennel

It’s worth noting that some of the plants mentioned may become weedy.

Make Friends

By joining a community garden, I had ample opportunity to talk to other gardeners. I was able to learn from their wisdom as well as my mistakes. Gardening is an inherently local act, and the wisdom of gardening is inextricably linked to place. There are many great books and blogs about gardening, and they’re worth reading. But that knowledge must be paired with local gardening knowledge that you can only get from experience- yours or someone else’s. So join a gardening club or a community garden or at least pay a visit to your county extension office to give yourself the best start possible.

Avoid Gimmicks

There are all kinds of stores out there trying to sell you stuff you don’t need. Invest in good soil amendments, durable hand tools like a digging fork and a hori-hori, quality seeds, and maybe a hose. Once you have gained some experience, you may realize the need for another tool or two, but I suggest starting from a minimalist perspective.

Try, Try Again

Keep a gardening journal and record all your joys, sorrows, trials, and lessons. Take pictures to document your gardening journey. You can refer back to them next year when you’re planning your next garden. And most importantly, plant that next garden. Every year, your garden will become better than the last, and you will become a better gardener. Gardening does not deliver instant results, but it is an ancient and rewarding pursuit. Keep showing up for your garden day after day, and it will show up for you as well.

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Infinipeas : Grow Peas, Save Seed, Repeat For A Never Ending Harvest

The hardest part about saving seed from pea plants is to refrain from eating every last pea. But if you can bring yourself to leave some of those beautiful pods on the vines, you can reap a different kind of harvest: the harvest of next year’s garden.

The start of the seed-saving process happens before planting, when you are ordering seeds and designing your spring garden. You’ll need to start with heirloom pea seeds. These are seeds that will reproduce true to type and are free of any patents or restrictions. You can find heirloom pea seeds from places like Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek. If you want to save seeds from a small garden, it’s easiest if you grow only one variety of pea, though it is possible to grow more than one kind with some care.

Peas are self-pollinated and not very eager to cross pollinate with other pea plants, but if you’re growing more than one variety of peas, it’s best to put some distance between each variety to prevent cross pollination. Some sources suggest that as little as ten feet of space between varieties is enough to prevent crossing, while others suggest a minimum of 50 feet or even hundreds of feet. You can use your own judgement based on the size of your garden and how important it is to you to prevent cross pollination. If you’re growing multiple varieties of peas with a smaller isolation distance, you can further reduce the risk of cross pollination by planting lots of other early flowering plants in the garden to keep the bees busy and away from your pea flowers, or by placing screens or covers over your plants to exclude bees and prevent cross-pollination.

Snow peas, garden peas, and sugar snap peas are all the same species (Pisum sativum), and it is possible for them to cross pollinate with each other. If that happens, you might grow a whole new type of pea that’s not really a garden pea, nor really a snow pea, nor really a sugar snap. You might like the result, or you might not. Even if you’re only growing snow peas, if you’re growing three varieties of snow pea, they could cross pollinate with each other to create a new variety that may or may not be a favorite. If you’re a very relaxed and experimental gardener, there’s nothing wrong with saving mystery pea seeds, growing them, and trying the result! But once you find a favorite pea variety that you really want to preserve, you’ll need to separate it from any other Pisum sativum to ensure that the seeds you save will be true to type. Peas will not cross pollinate with beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), limas (Phaseolus lunatus), black eyed peas (Vigna unguiculata), chickpeas (Cicer arietinum), or anything else that isn’t a Pisum sativum.

Once you have your seeds and your garden design, the next step is planting. I like to plant my peas on St. Patrick’s day here in central Indiana. I dress all in green and lure my husband into the garden and we plant them ceremonially as a part of our holiday festivities. I use a no-till gardening method and prepare my soil in the fall, so I don’t have to wait for the ground to dry out enough to support heavy machinery. In my best years, I build trellises for the pea plants out of bamboo stakes and jute twine. This spring I never quite got around to building the trellises. The plants didn’t grow as tall as they might have with good support, but I still got a decent crop. Peas are a wonderful crop for the organic garden, because they build soil fertility and are relatively free of pests and diseases. Since my goal was to expand my pea plot significantly in next year’s garden, I ate only a small percentage of the pods and left most on the vine to ripen into viable seeds. Next year I’ll have many more plants, so I’ll be able to eat more peas while still saving the same number of seeds. It’s best to save a few pods from as many healthy plants as possible to maximize genetic diversity, rather than to save all the pods from a few plants.

Pea Pods Dried on the Vine

The seeds in the pods are fully ripe when the pods are brown, dry, and brittle. In my garden, the whole plant is usually brown and dry by this time. If your pods are almost dry but you’ve got a hail storm or a hurricane on the way, you can probably pull the whole plants up by the roots and hang them upside-down in a protected location to wait for them to finish ripening and dry fully. If you aren’t facing terrible weather, it’s best to leave them in the ground until fully ripe and dry.

When it’s time, shell the peas out of their totally dry pods and leave them in a cool, dry, shady location for another few weeks to make sure they are all the way dry before storing them. Make sure you store them with a good label including all the relevant information about the seeds. After they are totally dry, they will keep longest in a sealed container in the fridge. If you plan to grow them within the next year or two, it’s fine to store them at room temperature in a cool, dark, dry location.

Pea Seeds, Labeled and Ready To Save

For further reading, check your library for the book “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth, and this article by Seed Savers Exchange. You can also read more about my multi-purpose seed-saving garden in my post A Multipurpose Garden.

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Chicken Run Soil Update

In December I wrote about testing the soil of my chicken run, to find out if any damage had been done by leaving the chickens on the same ground for longer than planned (4 years). When I built my chicken coop, I intended for it to be a mobile coop that I would move once per year, so that the chickens could help me expand my garden by fertilizing the new ground and removing weeds. Unfortunately the coop turned out too large and too heavy, and it’s now awkwardly stuck in the middle of my garden and completely immobile. I’ve tried all the ideas I could come up with to get it moving, but I now have resigned myself to building a new coop elsewhere and disassembling this one. I’ll be able to reuse most of the parts for future projects, but it’s a setback and a big task to add to an already overflowing to-do list. Oh well, live and learn.

Since I wasn’t able to move the coop, I wasn’t able to plant a big test garden in the soil of the chicken run this year as I had planned in my previous post. However, I did fence the hens out of a tiny patch of land in the run for just a few weeks. This was kind of accidental, but it did give me the information I sought. The small chicken-free area in the run sprouted a rich, healthy garden including a big blooming tomato plant! I feel confident now that my soil is good and I can garden here after the chickens have moved to the new coop.

A green patch of healthy plants inside the chicken run

Although there have been struggles in my journey with the chickens, I am so glad they’re here. They have taught me much about the world that I wouldn’t have learned without them. They have provided joy, companionship, laughter, exercise, a reason to go outside even on the tough days, and much more. The manure and compost they’ve made for the farm helps us to grow amazingly lush and healthy organic gardens, and their eggs have become an integral part of our family’s meals.

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider showing us some love! You can help us and our cause of Earth-positive agriculture by sharing this article with your friends, following us on social media, and interacting with our posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss us a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi. It’s easy to use and processes through PayPal so you don’t have to create a new account.

Whole Earth

I recently read the book “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life” by Edward O. Wilson. It’s a very thought-provoking book about the rapidly declining biodiversity on planet Earth. In the book, he proposes that the only way to limit future extinctions in a meaningful way is to leave half the planet totally wild, without human intervention. In the other half, our human half, he suggests we concentrate some of our existing activities. Among other things, he suggests we turn to more intense agriculture with more genetically modified crops in an attempt to limit the amount of land we have to damage with our agriculture.

I think Mr. Wilson makes a lot of good points in his book, and his observations on extinctions are certainly eye-opening. But at the end of the book when he proposed his solution, I found myself imagining a different one. What if, instead of separating ourselves more completely from the wild and thriving parts of the Earth, we connected ourselves more deeply? What if, instead of further intensifying our agricultural practices, we rewilded them?

“Clearing a forest for agriculture reduces habitat, diminishes carbon capture, and introduces pollutants that are carried downstream to degrade otherwise pure aquatic habitats en route. With the disappearance of any native predator or herbivore species the remainder of the ecosystem is altered, sometimes catastrophically.”

Edward O. Wilson, “Half Earth”

What if we didn’t farm this way at all? Strawberry Moon Farm is one example of a different kind of farm. On our land, where there once were acres of GM corn and soybeans sprayed with chemicals and likely shipped thousands of miles away for processing, now there are tended forests of native plants. These forests are still very young, but when they mature, my calculations show that they will produce more pounds of food annually than the industrial crops ever could. That food will be more nutritious and (in my own humble opinion) more delicious than industrially produced food. It is food that can be consumed locally, without industrial processing. It can be grown organically, and without irrigation.

While the land produces all this great food for people, it also provides habitat for all kinds of wildlife and insects because it is also a forest of native plants. I’m intentionally reintroducing and tending many species of threatened or endangered native plants to help them re-establish their populations. The farm is producing cleaner water and fresher air and sequestering carbon and preventing erosion at the same time and in the same space as producing food. In the few short years since this project began, flood waters soak into the now permeable earth in days rather than weeks. Butterflies and fireflies have returned in full force. Songbirds, bald eagles, hawks, owls, foxes, snakes, tree frogs, toads, two kinds of squirrels, and more thrive on the land. In the process of doing this work, my own personal connection to the land has deepened, providing immense physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits to me as a human.

“It sometimes seems as though the remainder of American native plants and animals are under deliberate assault by everything Humanity can throw at them. Leading the list in our deadly arsenal are the destruction of both wintering and breeding habitats, heavy use of pesticides, shortage of natural insect and plant food, and artificial light pollution causing errors in migratory navigation. Climate change and acidification pose newly recognized, yet game changing risks.”

Edward O. Wilson, “Half Earth”

I propose that it is not humanity itself but our present culture that assaults biodiversity. Prior to colonization, the Americas were not wild as is commonly said. The “wild” land that settlers “found” was actively and successfully stewarded by indigenous humans in a mutually beneficial partnership. The vast forests were skillfully managed and tended in a way that increased biodiversity, plant health, animal health, and human health.

What if, rather than limiting ourselves to living on half the earth, we rejoined the whole earth in harmony, reclaiming our place as caretakers and stewards of the wild places. What if we stopped eating twinkies and rekindled our taste for acorns and nettles and sunroots and wild berries. What if we didn’t cut down the forests, but replanted them? What if we disconnected our televisions and reconnected to the land. And what if we stocked our farms, yards, and communities with these wild native food plants. What might our world look like then?

Yes, I am proposing a big cultural shift, but a beautiful one. Rather than giving up half the planet, adopting a culture of restriction, and accepting our role as agents of destruction to everything good in our world, we could choose to reorient ourselves towards abundance, partnership, and care-taking. I don’t believe our hope for the future necessarily lies in genetically modified crops and more intensive bioidentical agriculture as Mr. Wilson proposes. Our future could be free, wild, and bountiful. We could grow healthy crops that are native to our bioregions and consume those nourishing foods locally. We could embrace our local ecosystems and work to enhance them. Rather than separate ourselves from the healthy part of the world, we could choose to thrive as a part of it.

For more information on agricultural methods that help make the world a better place, look for books and articles on the topics of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Permaculture, Native Plant Agriculture, and Regenerative Agriculture. And check out these other articles from Strawberry Moon Farm:

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider showing us some love! You can help us and our cause of Earth-positive agriculture by sharing this article with your friends, following us on social media, and interacting with our posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss us a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi. It’s easy to use and processes through PayPal so you don’t have to create a new account.

The Strawberry Moon

Tonight is a full moon, but not just any full moon. In the Algonquian languages, the group of languages spoken by all the original inhabitants of Johnson County (the Miami, Lenape, Kiikaapoi, and Kaskaskia nations), the full moon of June is called Strawberry Moon. This moon is celebrated because it coincides with the strawberry harvest, and the beginning of the local fruit season. People often think that this farm is named after strawberries, but it’s actually named for this moon, this time of year. The beginning of the fruit harvest. Today I’m celebrating the Strawberry Moon more fully than ever before, because we finally have native wild strawberries growing on our land!

I started these strawberry plants from seed over the winter, and they have grown really prolifically. Strawberry seeds require a process called cold stratification in order to germinate. This is a fancy way to say that the seeds need to go through winter before they will sprout. That makes a lot of sense if you think about the life cycle of a strawberry. The seeds are in the fruit, and if they sprouted as soon as they hit the ground in June or July, the plants wouldn’t have time to get big and strong enough to survive winter before it comes. So the seeds are patient. Gardeners can place moistened seeds in the refrigerator for a couple of months to convince the plants that winter has passed, and then give them an early start under lights. The plants are incredibly tiny and fragile at first, so they must be watered from the bottom or with a very fine mister until they gain some size.

Since these plants are so young (strawberries are perennials), they don’t have fruit on them yet. But they do have flowers! And flowers are the promise of fruit. Notice how the flowers shown are white, not yellow. You may have seen another plant that looks very similar. Mock Strawberry (Duchesnea indica) looks very similar and even bears little red fruits. But the fruits of the mock strawberry have very little flavor. The Mock Strawberry has yellow flowers, and the fruits are round with little bumps on them. If you look really closely at the fruits, you may be able to tell that they don’t really look like strawberries, but they have duped even some experienced foragers. Admittedly, I’ve never actually tasted a native wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), but I’m told that the flavor is phenomenal. I look forward to acquiring some first hand experience on this subject soon. 😋

Unlike Alpine Strawberries (Fragaria vesca), our native strawberries send out runners. Runners are like long stems that sprout baby plants along them. This is one way that the plants reproduce themselves. Some gardeners prune the runners back, but I am not doing that this year. I’m excited for the plants to spread and reproduce themselves. I don’t think it’s possible to have too many strawberries.

This image shows the mock strawberry, Duchesnea indica. This is not a strawberry. It’s not native here, but it is very common. You can see that the leaves look very similar. The fruit is red and round with bumps on it. The fruit is white inside, not red inside like a strawberry, and the flowers are yellow.

Although I’m still currently strawberry-less, you need not feel sorry for me. I’m writing this article powered by a full belly of black raspberries. Black raspberries are another amazing native fruit plant!

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Sage Abundance

Last summer, I wrote an article about two different cultivars of garden sage growing in my garden. It has been fascinating to watch these plants grow side-by-side. Their differences go beyond those of leaf shape and flavor. Both are the same species, Salvia officinalis. For me, growing a diverse assortment of plant varieties is one of the great joys of gardening. I love to taste all the different flavors, delight in all the colors and shapes, and enjoy extending the harvest season by growing some varieties that yield early, some that yield in great abundance, and others that can be stored well through winter.

Before I built an herb spiral and raised beds, I never had any luck growing sage. It didn’t thrive in my moist clay soil, because it’s a plant that loves heat and good drainage. The plants didn’t survive the spring rainy season, so I never even got to find out if they survived winter. This spring for the first time in my life, I have sage plants that are over a year old! They’ve grown from tiny seedlings into shrubby bushes, and even crowded out some of their plant neighbors. I’ve been photographing these plants all year and taking notes comparing the two varieties, so you can join me in observing them through the seasons.

May 2020

Here’s the herb spiral, brand new and just planted in May of 2020. You can see both sages at the very top of the spiral. The large, rounded leaf variety on the left is a German cultivar called “Berggarten”, and the narrow leaf variety on the right is not a named variety, it was simply sold as “sage”. At this stage both plants are tiny, and about the same size.

July 2020

In July 2020, both plants have put on some impressive growth in their first two months. At the time, I felt like the Berggarten plant was growing faster, but they look about the same in this photo.

Berggarten Sage and Garden Sage Growing Together
August 2020

By August, both plants had reached a large enough size for me to begin carefully harvesting small quantities of individual leaves from each plant. This is the only kind of harvesting recommended for sage plants in their first year. I am told that a sage plant needs to conserve its energy to have a good chance of surviving winter, so it is not advised to harvest much from a sage plant in its first year.

February 2021

In February, Berggarten sage still looks pretty good! The garden variety sage is not very attractive this time of year, and looks near death.

March 2021

In March, Berggarten sage is much greener and more lush than the “regular” sage. It has already begun growing again!

April 2021

By April, both sage plants are totally green and growing. And already, the garden variety sage plant is passing up Berggarten in size and vigor.

May 2021

By May, the regular garden sage plant is in full bloom. It put on a beautiful display of lavender colored flowers, the delight of bumble bees and gardeners alike. Both plants are vigorous, lush, and healthy.

I still haven’t harvested large quantities of sage from these plants, because I don’t want to impede their growth. I’ve been using up most of my sage harvests for tea. The tea can be made with 1-2 tsp of dried sage leaves per cup of boiling water, steeped for about 10 minutes1. If you brew the tea too long or too strong, it can be unpleasantly bitter and astringent, but I find the lightly brewed tea to be very delicious and soothing. Sage is beloved by herbalists for its many health-boosting properties, and by chefs for its warm savory flavor.

If you’re interested in learning more about sage’s uses in herbal medicine, I recommend the following books:

  • “The New Healing Herbs” by Michael Castleman
  • “Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs” by Rosemary Gladstar
  • “The Herbal Apothecary” by JJ Pursell
  1. Tea recipe comes from “The New Healing Herbs” by Michael Castleman

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A Multipurpose Garden

Last summer I had four raised bed gardens and one herb spiral. It was the humble beginning of what will eventually become a 3/4 acre market garden. I suppose I could rent some expensive heavy machinery and purchase a huge quantity of compost and seeds and hire some help and take over the entire 3/4 acre space at once, but I don’t prefer to work that way. I prefer to minimize my costs and my fossil fuel consumption, I like doing this work by myself and by hand, and I choose to grow my planting areas slowly so that when I make a mistake, I can correct it before it becomes a giant mistake. I worked all winter long expanding the garden, and it now consists of 13 raised beds, two herb spirals, a 20×30 in-ground vegetable patch, a large herb border, and mulched pathways. It’s my home garden, it’s a mini-sized market garden, and it’s also a seed garden. Next year I hope to make it twice as big.

I’ve filled every garden I’ve ever planted with heirloom seeds (open pollinated seeds that have been & can be saved and passed down through the generations). I choose heirlooms partly because I appreciate the colors, textures, rich flavors, history, and diversity, but also because I believe in them. An heirloom seed is a renewable resource. If you learn how to steward it, you never have to buy it again, and you can share it with whomever you please. And if you select seeds only from your best and healthiest plants, every year your seeds will become better adapted to your needs and local conditions.

One way to support heirloom seeds and keep them available for all is to purchase them from independently-owned seed companies with good ethical practices. I’ve done my share of that over the years, but lately I’ve been working towards becoming a seed keeper myself. Last year, I successfully saved seeds from my Provider Bush Beans, several kinds of herbs, and a particularly vigorous and tasty butternut squash from my friend’s garden. I also saved enough Carola seed potatoes to double my potato planting from last year, and I have previous experience saving garlic cloves to replant year after year. It is extremely satisfying work. This year I planted the seeds that I saved, and now I’m watching them thrive with an extra layer of pride and connection. I remember your parents, little plants. Let’s make them proud together.

I structured my whole garden this year with seed stewardship in mind. Plants that can be isolated by distance have been given that isolation space to prevent cross pollination. For some other plants that can’t be isolated by space, I planted only one variety of each species so that no cross pollination can occur.

Corn is a special case, because it can be cross pollinated by wind up to 1/2 mile away. Although I’m only growing one variety of corn, my neighbors grow another. Since I can’t isolate my corn by distance, I am attempting to isolate it by time. I started my corn seeds extra early (indoors under lights, then transplanted at the proper time), and I chose a variety that is supposed to mature much faster than the kind my neighbors grow. With luck, my corn will be completely done before the surrounding field corn tassels. It’s really important not to let your garden corn cross pollinate with field corn, especially if you plan to save seeds, because the patented genetically modified genes from the industrial corn can get into your seeds. Even if your mother plant is an heirloom, if the father pollen is a GMO, you aren’t legally allowed to plant those baby seeds. Seed Savers Exchange does sell some special bags that can be used to protect the silks from stray pollen, and I am planning to use those too as an extra measure of protection.

I’ve even planted a few varieties that are rare and/or expensive, so I’m growing them just to make more seeds! One of these is a special bean from the Potawatami Nation called Potawatomi Pole Lima that I sourced from Truelove Seeds. The seeds are rare and they sell out quickly, so I only got one packet. I may not even eat any of the harvest this year, because that would reduce the number of seeds I can save to grow a larger planting next year. Another is Mandan Parching Lavender corn, a beautiful pink colored flour corn that is one of the traditional native corns from North Dakota. I’m also growing French Grey Shallots, Santé Shallots, Inchelium Red Garlic, and Tree Onions. These are not grown from seeds, but from bulbs. Bulbs are expensive compared to seeds, and $100 bought barely enough bulbs to fill two 4×8 beds. Will I get my money’s worth from that planting? Probably not, if I simply eat the harvest. But if I re-plant all or most of it, I’ll be able to increase my planting next year to many times that size for no additional money!

Before too long, I should have a market-sized planting of gourmet garlic, shallots, onions, lima beans, and much much more, and plenty enough to save seed AND eat my fill AND take to the market. With certain fruits like tomatoes and ripe peppers, you can save the seed and still eat the fruit the seed came out of. Win-win. Year after year, for as long as I continue the work, I’ll always be able to have these plants in my garden.

If you’re interested in saving seeds from your own garden, there are wonderful free resources available from Seed Savers Exchange. I also recommend the book “Seed To Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth. Perhaps it’s available for free at your local library! It’s a very rewarding, economical, and accessible skill.

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Brood X and The Knifelike Ovipositors

Cool band name, right? Brood X is indeed musical, and their infrequent performances are loud and memorable. They are 17 year periodic cicadas. They are due to emerge any day now.

During the last cicada summer, 17 years ago, I was a student of Computer Science, and I subleased an apartment in Bloomington while I worked a local internship and took summer classes at Indiana University. The campus there is natural and semi-wooded, and when the cicadas emerged, they did so in force. I didn’t have a garden at that time, but I didn’t notice any obvious damage to the plant life on campus. For the most part, all I noticed was the deafening sound they produced. I had to wear ear plugs to go outside, because my ears physically ached from the collective volume of cicada mating songs.

Now I find myself in another natural, wooded setting. And this time, I’m responsible for the care of a young orchard. I’ve tried to read and prepare as much as possible for the upcoming cicada emergence, and I hope I have done well enough. I have learned that cicadas are native insects, that they play an important role in our ecosystem, that they’re fascinating and unique, and that they should be revered and protected rather than feared. I have read that the cicadas do not eat anything from the garden, nor do they feed on the foliage of trees or shrubs, nor do they harm humans, livestock, or pets. Insecticide sprays are neither needed nor effective against them.

Cicadas do, however, lay their eggs in trees. To do this, they slice open pencil-width twigs with their saw-shaped ovipositors and lay their eggs inside. This shouldn’t cause any long term problems for established trees, where all the pencil-width twigs are located near the extremities of the tree. But it could spell big trouble for young trees like mine where the main trunk falls within the cicada’s preferred size range. The official recommendation to prevent damage is to wrap the whole tree lollipop-style to keep the cicadas out. But with nearly a thousand trees to wrap, the amount of fabric I would need to accomplish this could break my annual budget.

Young trees wrapped for cicada protection

Instead, I am attempting a compromise. I cut long strips of floating row cover fabric, about 3″ wide. I am wrapping multiple layers of these fabric strips around the main trunks and any branches that are within 3/8″-7/8″, the cicada’s preferred size range. Maybe the cicadas will be able to slice through the fabric and do their damage anyway, but I think it’ll be difficult for them. Row cover fabric is stretchy and a little clingy, and I can’t slice through it very easily with my pocket knife. I think it’s likely that the serrated ovipositors will get stuck in these fabric layers, and that they’ll quickly become frustrated and move on to a bigger tree. There’s a whole forest nearby, after all.

I think it unlikely that many cicadas will emerge in the field where the young trees are planted. Since that field had no trees last time the cicadas emerged, it’s unlikely that any eggs were laid there. Perhaps some cicadas will travel from the woods to the field of young trees, or maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll all stay in the woods. I’ll be monitoring the situation closely and taking copious notes so I can be prepared the next time they return, 17 years from now.

For more information:
“Emergence of the 17-Year Cicada” by Purdue University
“Brood X is almost here. Billions of cicadas to emerge in eastern US” by CNN

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