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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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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Cover Crops: When To Grow Them And How

Cover crops are all the rage in regenerative farming, and for good reason. Plants are powerful. This world contains plants that can make nitrogen out of thin air, plants with roots that can break hardpan, plants that can prevent erosion, and plants that can clean contaminated soils. Cover crops were a step on my own path in transitioning the land from corn fields to pasture to native plant food forests. Overall, my cover crop project was successful, but I made some mistakes and learned some lessons along the way. I paid out of pocket for some projects that I might have received funding assistance for, bought some tools I didn’t need, and planted some cover crops that I shouldn’t have. These are some lessons I wish I had learned before I began.

Sprinkle The Seeds On Top

The cover crop project was my first ever project as a farmer. My experiences in horticulture up to that point had all been from the perspective of a gardener. So I thought I would have to rent fancy, expensive, fuel-intensive tools to till the ground and bury the seeds 1/4″ deep as one would in the garden, but bigger. Luckily I got some great advice from my local NRCS representative before I began: surface-sowing works fine. As it turns out, in spite of traditional gardeners wisdom, tilling often does more harm than good for the soil. And when you think about it, how do weed seeds get planted? They just land on the soil and grow. So even though my soil was all crusted over and I was certain that no seed could germinate in it, I took a leap of faith and sprinkled my seeds on top. And, they grew!

P.S. I tried several kinds of broadcast seeders, and abandoned them all in favor of scattering seeds with my hands out of a bucket. The broadcast seeders wasted a lot of seed. I had a lot more control with my hands, and it really wasn’t that hard or time consuming. I was able to sow about 3 acres per day this way. Also, scattering seeds to the four winds is really enjoyable.

Seek Help

There are some governmental assistance programs that can help you pay for your cover crops, if you’re eligible. I planted my first few rounds of cover crops on my own dime, but later I received some funding assistance through NRCS in the form of an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) grant to help me finish. If you’re planning to do a soil conservation project in the United States, it might be worth contacting NRCS to see how they can assist you.

Fields of Clover

Learn Your Local Weeds

I wasted time hand-pulling weeds out of my cover crop my first year. This was a losing battle. But even if you’re determined to pull weeds, you only need to pull the perennial ones. Annual and biennial weeds can be easily controlled just by mowing them down before they set seed. Plant identification is a learning process though, and the weeds I see on my farm land are different from the weeds I was accustomed to seeing as a gardener. I suggest joining a local plant forum where you can share plant pictures and exchange IDs, or downloading a plant identification app to help bring you up to speed quickly. These days, I let most of the weeds do their thing and I only expend energy removing plants if they are poisonous, irritant, or extremely invasive (namely poison hemlock, poison ivy, and garlic mustard).

Scythes Work Best on an Acre or Less

I was determined to mow my sorghum-sudangrass cover crop with a scythe. This is a crop that is planted for its vigor. It has incredible roots that can break up hardpan layers in the soil, and it produces a massive amount of biomass up top, which when mowed, becomes a nice mulch for the soil. It does need to be mowed, though. I was drawn to the idea of mowing with a scythe in order to avoid the maintenance, cost, and fossil fuel use of a mower. And I had heard many rave reviews about scythes within the permaculture community. So I bought a scythe and I tried it. But not only was I unable to mow ten acres this way, I was unable to mow even two. My field had some volunteer tree saplings in it and some giant ragweed with thick rigid stalks that frequently caught the scythe blade mid-swing. And it was hard work. By the time I made it from one end of my smallest field to the other, my body was in ragged shape and it was time to start over at the beginning again. My husband saved the day by borrowing a pull-behind brush hog and finishing that mowing job himself, because a regular lawn mower can’t handle 8 foot tall vegetation, and I can’t start a pull cord engine to save my life. Luckily, none of my other cover crops were this huge, and the crimson clover that followed it needed no mowing at all. Even after all this, I still think the scythe has a place on the farm. It would be excellent at cutting smaller cover crop rotations from the garden or harvesting a small grain crop.

Consider Seasonal Rainfall Patterns

Once, as a gardener, I planted a buckwheat cover crop in the summer. It grew beautifully, fitted in nicely after some of my other crops were done producing, provided great forage for the bees in a time of dearth, and improved my soil. I sought to recreate this on the farm. But, one key factor of my earlier success was that I had irrigation in that garden, and I do not have irrigation in all my farm fields. Turns out, there isn’t enough rainfall in summer for the crop to establish itself, and my summer buckwheat cover crop didn’t thrive. All my early spring plantings did well without irrigation though, as did my late-fall-planted crimson clover.

Grasses and Weeds Are Cover Crops Too

All the cover crops I have discussed up to this point are annuals, and they add the most value when they are grown as one rotation of many on an annual crop farm or garden. Since I was transitioning my farm from annuals to perennials, I now realize that I could have skipped a few steps. My final cover crop was a perennial blend of pasture grasses and clovers. The pasture grasses need no fertilizer or irrigation, and they do a great job of keeping the soil aerated and protected from erosion, preventing nutrient loss, and addding organic matter. The clovers add nitrogen to the soil and provide food for the bees. Looking back through the lens of experience, I suspect these perennial plants would have grown just fine if I had planted them straight away and skipped all the annual cover crops. Even certain weeds can function as free cover crops! I especially value the dandelions for their taproots, the clovers for their nitrogen-fixing abilities, and the wild grasses for their erosion prevention.

If you’re interested in learning more about cover crops, check out this comprehensive resource by SARE.

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Dandelion Blossom Veggie Burgers

I’ve been a small time forager for years, but last spring when I found myself newly unemployed and trying to navigate a pandemic and a recession at the same time, I doubled down on this relaxing, money-saving, health-building hobby. I taught myself how to forage for dandelions, and began gathering the flowers and greens to incorporate into my meals. I found, to my delight, that the humble dandelion is one of my favorite foods. The blossoms are especially delicious, reminding me somewhat of an artichoke drizzled with honey. The yellow fluff is traditionally separated from the green base and used to flavor wines, meads, and confections. Whole flower heads can also be individually battered and fried. I tried these preparations last spring, and found them delightful. But I really wanted a way to incorporate the dandelion blossom as a substantial part of a main dish. Enter the Dandelion Blossom Veggie Burger.

Basket of Dandelion Blossoms and Leaves

Important! If you intend to forage at all, it’s imperative that you put in your own research time and educate yourself thoroughly about safe foraging practices, poisonous plants, indicators of soil contamination, lookalike plants, food allergies, and more. Believe it or not, there are numerous other plants that resemble the common dandelion. Invest the time to learn how to collect and consume wild foods safely. There are lots of great foraging resources available through your local library, your county extension office, and local foraging clubs. Learn first, then gather.

Once you have learned how to gather the dandelions safely, you’ll need to collect about 2 cups (packed) of the fresh whole blossoms (yellow fluff and green base in tact). It’s ideal to pick them soon after they open fully, which seems to be around 11:00am. You may not be free at 11:00am, and the perfect is the enemy of the good. Pick them when you can get them. If you like, you can also gather some of the leaves at the same time. A delicious and slightly bitter pesto can be made from the leaves, which makes a wonderful sauce for the burgers. (Use a recipe for regular basil pesto, but substitute dandelion leaves for the basil).

After picking, the blossoms need to be processed as soon as possible, but at least within a few hours. They do not keep well when raw. I like to soak the flowers for 5-10 minutes in a large bowl of cold water to clean them, agitating them a few times with my hands. They can be dirty, and they can have little ants in them. Don’t bring them inside until you’re ready to wash them, or the little hitchhikers might escape into your kitchen. After soaking, I gently wring them out with my hands to remove most of the excess water. Now they are ready to use!

Washing Dandelion Flowers

To make the veggie burgers, you will need:

  • 2 packed cups freshly picked, rinsed, and wrung out dandelion blossoms.
  • 6 whole dandelion blossoms, reserved for decoration
  • 1 cup cooked & drained black beans (or any leftover cooked beans you might have on hand)
  • 1 cup cooked brown rice (or any other cooked whole grain you may have leftover in your fridge)
  • 1/2 cup organic cereal, such as fruit juice corn flakes
  • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
  • 1/3 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 heaping teaspoon each of turmeric, thyme, sage, basil, garlic powder. Or, about the same amount of any flavoring herbs and spices you enjoy and have on hand.
  • 1/2 tsp each of sea salt and pepper
  • 2 tsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for oiling the baking sheet
  • 1 large egg, or two smaller ones

Before You Begin: Oil a baking sheet with extra virgin olive oil, or the cooking oil of your choice. Set your oven to preheat to 350˚.

Step 1: Roughly chop the 2 cups of dandelion blossoms, or use your food processor to “pulse” them a few times.

Step 2: Add all the ingredients except for the six reserved decoration blossoms to a large mixing bowl. With clean hands, massage the ingredients together until they are well mixed, sticky, and cohesive. You could probably use a spoon for this part, but your hands are going to get dirty in the next step anyway. Why wash an extra spoon?

Step 3: When you feel the ingredients are well mixed, scoop up a handful of the mixture and try to form it into a ball. If it’s solid and sticky enough to hold its shape, then you are ready to form the patties. If it’s too dry to hold together, add more egg. If too wet to hold its shape or it will not stick together, add more flour.

Step 4: Shape the mixture into patties of the size and shape you prefer. I like to form a ball first, and then squish it down until it resembles a hockey puck. I usually get about five patties from this recipe, but you may find you have four or six based on how generously you pack your measuring cup, and how large you portion your patties. Place each patty onto the greased baking sheet when it’s complete.

Step 5: Press one of the reserved dandelion blossoms sunny-side-up on top of each patty for decoration. After you’ve finished this, I suggest flipping the patty over so that the dandelion blossom is on the bottom. You’ll flip the patties again midway through the baking cycle, and I think the blossoms come out more beautifully if they finish their baking time sunny-side-up.

Step 6: When the oven is fully pre-heated, place the baking sheet in the oven. Set a timer for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, take the baking sheet out of the oven and use a spatula to flip each patty over. Use a fork to smooth out any decorative blossoms that might have gotten folded or moved so that they lay beautifully atop each patty. Place the baking sheet back in the oven and bake for 20 additional minutes.

Dandelion Veggie Burgers Ready To Bake

Cool slightly and serve on a bun with your favorite toppings. Some of my favorites include pesto, hummus, and a fresh tomato slice. Or serve atop a bed of spring greens and drizzle with a good balsamic vinaigrette. Extras can be stored short-term in the fridge, or individually frozen for later enjoyment.

Dandelion Veggie Burgers Ready To Eat

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Two Years In Review: A Progress Report

About 2 years ago I published a post called “Resolutions and Accomplishments“, in which I detailed some pretty ambitious goals for the farm.  I’ve only written one other post since then, and that’s not a coincidence.  I’ve been working hard on this stuff, friends!  We’ve had some failures and some successes, but overall I feel really proud of the work DH and I have accomplished over the past couple of years, and even more excited about what’s to come.

  1.  The 1,000 Trees
  2. That first year we planted all the pawpaws, persimmons, and spruces.  It was harder work than planned, and I ended up injuring both of my knees, which knocked me out of commission for the entire fall planting season.  I stashed the other trees safely in trench rows in the field, where they survived just fine.  In late spring we found out we had been chosen for an EQIP grant from NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service).  The grant will reimburse us for part of the cost of the trees, and our NRCS rep has been super helpful and has taught us about even more awesome wetland tree species!  One of the requirements for this grant is that the trees must be planted pretty close together (10 feet apart), so this dramatically increased the number of trees we will plant in the edible riparian buffer.  This year went much more smoothly, and we planted 200 American Plum, 100 Elderberry, 100 Pecan, 100 Red Maple, and 200 Spicebush in the riparian buffer.  Next year, we’ll finish the project by planting more plums and elderberries, plus 100 Swamp White Oak, 100 Shellbark Hickory, 200 Hazelnut, and some number of Highbush Cranberry Viburnum, Serviceberry, Willow, and Hackberry.

 

  1. The Bees
  2. I built 5 mini hives the first winter and set them up in various locations, each one scented with beeswax and lemongrass to lure wild swarms of honeybees. I had hoped that some bees would move into at least one of these “swarm traps”, but sadly it was not meant to be.  By the end of swarm season when I knew I wouldn’t catch any wild bees that year, it was too late to purchase bees for that year.  I didn’t want to take the risk of another year with no bees, so this year I purchased bees.  I first ordered two “boxes” of bees for pickup on April 7.  I built two beautiful top bar hives in preparation for them, and drove to Kentucky to pick them up so they wouldn’t have to spend any extra time on a delivery truck.  Tragically, I took some bad advice which resulted in the death of those first bees.  FYI friends, if anyone tells you not to put your bees in the hive right away because the weather sucks, and instead advises you to put them in a cold basement and mist them with sugar water until a warmer day, please do not listen to them.  Additionally, maybe don’t order any bees for April pickup.  After that sad mistake, I decided to give it one more go and I purchased another box of bees for May pickup.  The weather was warmer in May and the hive succeeded!  These bees have built lots of beautiful combs and stored a lot of honey in their first year.  Winter is an uncertain time for a bee hive, but I’m doing my best to help them succeed.  Winter preparations include:  building the hive out of 2x lumber instead of 1x for better heat retention, inserting a divider so that the bees only have to worry about warming the space they are actively using, packing the empty side with wood chips, providing a candy board feeder inside the hive in case the honey supply runs out mid-winter, and topping the hive with a “quilt” made of burlap stuffed with pine shavings to absorb moisture and provide insulation, adding a mouse guard to protect the hive entrance, and not opening the hive when the ambient temperature is less than 50 degrees.

 

  1. The Birds
  2. DH and I took an epic roadtrip to Lindsborg, KS to adopt our first baby chicks in spring of 2017. I asked for 12, paid for 18, and left with 23 beautiful new souls who insisted on riding the whole way home to Indiana sitting on my lap and drinking water droplets off my fingers. I did a ton of research in advance but I have to tell you, I had no idea what I was getting into.  Every day these amazing birds teach me something new about the world, and I am grateful for the opportunity to know them in this way. To my immense joy, my rooster plan has been a success, and we have been able to keep all of our roosters safely and happily together in their own little frat house. There have been some hard days too, and I’ve had to bury four of my sweet chickens.  I give them the best care I possibly can (including veterinary care when needed), but sometimes it isn’t enough and sometimes there simply isn’t anything that can be done.  When this happens, I try to take comfort in the knowledge that although their life may have been short, at least it was filled with sunshine and love and good food, and I lay them to rest in the orchard and mark their grave with a sapling. Through the good days, bad days, and hard days, I will say it is always worth it.

 

  1. The Solar Panels
  2. The solar panels went up last December and they have been a roaring success!  We haven’t paid an electric bill since April.  DH really rocked this project!

 

  1. The More Cover Crops
  2. The crimson clover did great. It was so awesome that I decided to let it go to seed, even though it’s an annual and I thought I’d only keep it for one year. The bees love it and it has done an awesome job rehabing our soil! I also did a round of buckwheat cover crops last year as a part of our grant project with NRCS. The buckwheat wasn’t a roaring success, mostly due to the dry weather at the time we planted it. I tried again this year, and it still didn’t grow very large but it did flower and it was awesome to have something blooming for the bees in the mid summer when not much else is blooming. My favorite cover crop by far has actually been the dandelions! They are free, and they are amazing. They have a strong taproot that loosens soil very effectively, they need zero care, they are edible, they are useful in herbal medicine and skincare recipes, they provide high quality food for our bees and for our chickens and I personally find them very beautiful. If I had it all to do over again, I would have skipped the sorghum-sudangrass and I would have just planted clover and grass and let the dandelions take care of the rest of it.  Next year we plan to sow pasture grasses on the high land and wildflowers in the low land and that will be the final and permanent (we hope) cover crop.

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Resolutions and Accomplishments

Crimson Clover
Crimson Clover after one month of growth (9/2/16)

Last year was my first year of farming here at Strawberry Moon, and it was a great one.  Sorghum-sudangrass flourished in our fields, loosening the soil and covering it with a thick layer of mulch.  In September, crimson clover was overseeded into the sorghum-sudangrass, and we are hoping for a breathtaking, honeybee-luring carpet of blossoms come spring.  I also attended several conferences and workshops to learn more about beekeeping, permaculture, winemaking, grape growing, and small scale farming.

Inside the house, all 58 incandescent and halogen light bulbs were replaced with energy efficient LEDs.  Drafts were blocked, insulation was installed.  DH even completed a training course to become a certified solar panel installer, so we can build our own solar energy system at a substantial savings.  All these things will help us achieve our goal of a self-sufficient, eco-conscious farmstead.

Last year was an important and necessary foundation-building year for the farm, but this year I want to see some real action.  These are ambitious goals for someone with a full time desk job, and I’ll need help if I’m going to pull this off.  With a little but of luck and a lot of hard work, it will happen.

  1. 1,000 Trees!
      To jumpstart the edible riparian buffer project, we will plant 300 elderberry trees and 300 wild plum trees in our wetland!  These will comprise the majority of the understory in that area.  Additional edible tree and shrub species will be added to the wetland later, when seedlings become available.  On higher ground, we will plant 100 Norway Spruce trees for an edible windbreak (needles and new growth “tips” have culinary and nutritional value), 100 red oak trees as a short term timber crop (we will later grow mushrooms on the cut logs), and 100 each of pawpaw and persimmon to kick-start our orchard.
  2.  Honeybees
      Before winter is over, I intend to build two top bar bee hives and four swarm traps. If we are lucky, some wild honeybee swarms will find our clover fields, and then decide to stay.
  3. Chicks
      I’m nearly finished building the first coop and brooder, so I’ll be ready whenever our chicks are born. I expect a call from the breeder in April, but the exact arrival time is unknown.
  4. Solar Panels
      If all goes as planned, we will install an array of solar panels large enough to cover most or all of our electricity usage. Although solar energy is not a vegetable, it is nevertheless a valuable resource we can harvest from our farm.
  5. More Cover Crops
      Last year, I had planned to grow a third cover crop of tillage radish. This didn’t work out because the sorghum-sudangrass never stopped growing! Rather than kill the sorghum-sudangrass with chemical sprays or risk re-compacting the soil with heavy tillage machinery, I let it grow until the killing frost. That meant I couldn’t plant the radish seed I had already purchased, but it also meant we received extra value from the sorghum-sudangrass. Since I already had the seed, and I believe tillage radish will greatly benefit our soil, I decided to extend the cover crop project by one year. After the spring bloom of crimson clover, we will grow a short summer cover crop (probably buckwheat), followed by the radish in August. The pasture grass will be postponed until next year.

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The Flow of Permaculture

When people find out I’m starting a farm, the first question they usually ask is, “What are you going to grow?”  After I’ve told them about the extensive gardens, orchards, vineyards, woodland crops, wetland crops, animals, and honey bees in the plans, most people respond with a comment along the lines of, “that sounds like a lot of work”.  And yes, farming is undeniably a lot of work.  But raising a wide variety of crops can actually make the small farm more efficient.  By strategically designing a self-sustaining ecosystem, the farmer harvests more, wastes less, and diversifies her workload rather than increasing it.  Take a look at the flow chart below, showing the complex relationships between the various crops and animals planned for Strawberry Moon.

Permaculture Farming Flow Chart
In the system above, the farmer does a wide variety of jobs, but each task sets multiple other tasks in motion.  I personally find it more enjoyable to spend small amounts of time doing many different things than to spend a large amount of time doing one thing.  Additionally, many of the least desirable jobs can be delegated.  For example, look at how the chickens fit into the farm ecosystem.  The farmer does spend time and money buying food for the chickens, caring for them, and building a safe shelter for them.  However, in return, the chickens will prepare new garden beds, provide fertilizer for the crops, control insect pests, clean up and “compost” damaged fruits and vegetables, and as if that wasn’t enough, they also reward the farmer with eggs and feathers!  And if you are someone who eats chicken meat, then that can be another benefit as well.  Even if the chickens did not provide eggs, they would still be valued partners on the farm.  Now, take a look at the chart below.  This shows a less complex system with fewer elements, but notice the additional tasks that now fall to the farmer.

Non-Permaculture Farming Flow Chart In the first chart, the farmer was responsible for 13 tasks, but some of them were one-time jobs such as building shelters for the animals.  In the second chart, the farmer is responsible for 13 very significant, ongoing tasks.  Yet, the farmer no longer receives wool, milk, honey, wax, eggs, or feathers.  The farmer is not purchasing chicken feed, however the farmer is now purchasing fertilizer and pesticides.  The farmer is not responsible for caring for the sheep, but she must now spend hours per week mowing grass.  By omitting the farm animals, the farmer must do the animals’ work*.

This method of designing an interdependent, self-sustaining farm ecosystem is called permaculture.  The concepts of permaculture are based in nature and in traditional family homesteads.  If your great-grandparents farmed, they may have used some of these techniques.  Permaculture farming is less common in modern times, perhaps because modern farming is usually done on a very large scale in which machines are necessary to keep up with the work.  It would be very expensive to maintain factory grade equipment for so many different crops and animals.  However, on a small ten acre farm such as Strawberry Moon, where we do our work with hand tools anyway, this is a compelling farming system to consider.  In addition to optimizing the rewards for the farmer’s labor and purchases, this farming style is incredibly earth-friendly and sustainable.  How would you rather spend your Saturday afternoon: watching some fluffy little sheep chow down on your orchard grass while you refill their water trough, or breathing in diesel fumes from your noisy lawn mower?  I definitely know a few people who would prefer the mower, but for me and my farm, I choose the sheep!

* Please keep in mind, farm animals are living beings.  It is a great responsibility to enter into a partnership with an animal, so first please be sure you can accommodate their needs appropriately.

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Growing Great Soil With Cover Crops

My first garden at the Greenwood Community Garden

My first garden was far from perfect.  It was a rented space in a community garden, with hard, rocky, clay fill dirt that caused most of my neighbors to abandon their own plots by June.  I stayed and gave my heart, soul, and sweat to that soil for three years before I ever reaped a decent harvest.  Each year, I spread several truckloads of mulch, pulled thousands of weeds, and cried over the deaths of drowned plants, frozen plants, sick plants, trampled plants and nibbled plants.  But eventually, the garden became healthy and fertile.  I wouldn’t change a thing about my first garden, because the lessons it taught me have served me well.  The most important thing I learned was that good soil is absolutely essential to a successful organic garden.

If you are gardening on a small scale, you might be able to bypass your soil all together, by growing food in containers or raised beds filled with store-bought perfect soil.  Or, you might be able to make enough compost to sufficiently enrich the soil you have.  But what if you need to fix acres of hardpan clay soil?  It would take decades for one person to make that much compost, and many thousands of dollars to build acres of raised beds.  An excellent solution can be found in cover crops.

Sorghum-Sudangrass Cover CropA cover crop is a plant that is grown specifically for the benefit of the soil.  There are many kinds of cover crops, each with its own magical power.  There are crops that create nitrogen from nothing but air and bacteria, crops that mine minerals from deep within the ground, crops that smother weeds, and crops that control pests.  These crops are chosen for their ability to grow vigorously even in poor soil, and for their ability to leave the soil better than they found it.  The specific problem at Strawberry Moon Farm was compacted clay soil.  The soil was hard, and rainwater stagnated in puddles for days rather than soaking peacefully into the ground.  So I selected sorghum-sudangrass, a crop with five-foot-deep roots to break up the soil.  As a bonus, it also has ten-foot-tall foliage, which will provide plenty of mulch at the end of the season.  The sorghum-sudangrass has performed extremely well so far, even with no fertilizer, pesticides, or irrigation.  You can learn more about the types of cover crops and how they work from SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education).  I plan to invest in a few more cover crops to reap still more benefits for the soil at Strawberry Moon, to give our organic orchards, vineyards, and vegetable gardens the best possible chance to thrive.

Cover crops are extremely useful for building great soil on a large scale, and they are just as useful for small gardens.  Consider growing a quick midsummer crop of buckwheat between your spring peas and your autumn radishes, or maybe a spring crop of alfalfa before you plant your tomatoes next year. It’s an affordable, easy, and effective strategy to boost production in your vegetable garden and on our farm.

 

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