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

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 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

The Promise of the New Year

Last night we bid farewell to 2021. It was an intense year for me, packed tightly with highs and lows. I built a garden, I tried my hand at market growing. I read many books, I studied, I wrote. I re-launched my photography business. I stayed home, I traveled, I met new friends, I reunited with old ones. I lost a loved one to cancer. I’ve lived through days filled with uncontainable joy and gratitude and days that flattened me. I haven’t made as much progress towards my goals as I wanted to make, but I have made significant, measurable progress towards those goals. This morning I woke up with the urge to start the new year with hope, with purpose, and with new life. I spent the day planting seeds.

It’s too early in the season to start most of the garden plants that might readily come to mind. If I started my tomato seeds this early, they’d take over my house by the time the last frost has come and gone. But there are certain kinds of seeds that benefit from an extra early start. Many native plants and medicinal herbs retain their own sense of the seasons, and must experience winter before they will consent to sprout. It’s called cold stratification, and it usually takes about two months. Certain other plants may grow very slowly from seed, even though they don’t need cold stratification. This category includes perennial herbs such as sage. I’m starting those seeds now as well.

Seeds planted in tiny soil blocks.  Twenty individual cubes of soil, each with a single seed resting on top, arranged to form a larger rectangle resembling a baked brownie.

My current preferred method for cold stratification when growing transplants is to plant the seeds that need it in tiny cubes of freestanding compacted potting soil called soil blocks. In this configuration, about 240 seeds can be started in a single growing tray, which I then cover with parchment paper and slide neatly onto a shelf in my refrigerator. There it will chill for about two months, with an occasional re-moistening now and again. In March, I’ll transfer them to my regular grow light setup and finish germinating them alongside the familiar tomatoes and marigolds.

One full tray of planted soil blocks, ready to load into the refrigerator! Note: I’ve labeled these with post-it notes, but only because I couldn’t find my label of choice (sharpie on masking tape). These will be replaced with something more sticky and more water resistant ASAP. There are few things more frustrating for a grower than raising a bunch of beautiful and healthy plants that you can’t identify because the label failed.
a day's work of seed planting
An honest day’s work! That little device in the bottom-left is the soil block making tool.

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

Pawpaw : The Indiana Banana

A pawpaw fruit may not look creamy and tropical from the outside. In fact, it looks more earthy, like a freshly dug potato. The intoxicatingly tropical scent beckons you to look closer, and when you do, you’ll find this fruit filled with rich and creamy mango-banana flavored custard. The experience is uniquely tropical for an Indiana native tree fruit. In fact, the pawpaw is the only member of its plant family to survive this far north. Its true name is Asimina triloba, of the family Annonaceae. Its relatives are all tropical, and include the Custard Apple, Soursop, and Chermioya. The pawpaw itself is native to most of the Eastern United States.

Pawpaw fruits ripen during the month of September. Though I’ve planted over 50 pawpaw trees, only two have begun to fruit. These two trees are grafted with named pawpaw varieties. Grafted trees will grow and bear fruit faster than seed-grown trees, and the fruit is predictable- if you graft your tree with wood from another tree that bears delicious pawpaws, your tree will produce identically delicious fruit. The downside of grafted trees is they reduce genetic diversity. I prefer to keep most of my trees wild on this farm to preserve more genetic diversity, but it is nice to have a few special grafted trees mixed in. I harvested a total of six pawpaws this year from my two grafted trees, though I could swear I had 8 on my trees at one point. Humans aren’t the only pawpaw lovers!

A pawpaw sliced in half, showing the creamy interior flesh and few large seeds

To enjoy the fruits, slice in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds and set them aside. The seeds are very large and easy to remove. Use a spoon to scoop out the creamy flesh. Do not eat the seeds or the skin.

If you’d like to grow a pawpaw tree for yourself, plant the seeds right away and keep them watered until winter. Pawpaw seeds will not germinate if they dry out. They are not extremely flood tolerant, but they do prefer moist soil and they can handle occasional standing water. They may need irrigation while they become established, during their first three years of growth. It is my understanding that they do not need irrigation after they reach 3 years old, except perhaps during times of extreme drought. They grow well in part-shade, but they fruit best with more sun. This is a native wild tree that grows successfully in the woods without human intervention. Beyond a little water and a little sun, this tree doesn’t ask for much. I never spray mine with anything, nor do I apply any special fertilizers. I just top-dress with a little mulch now and then, and the trees are happy.

Enjoy pawpaws as soon as possible after harvest. They will keep in the refrigerator for a few days, but this is not a long-keeping fruit. You may wonder why you never see this local delicacy in grocery stores, and that is why. The fruits are delicate and they do not ship well or keep a long time.

A scoop of pawpaw flesh on a spoon.  Looks like ice cream.

Though this fruit has enormous culinary potential and is delicious in a wide variety of dishes, I personally have not developed any pawpaw recipes yet. I’ve simply never had more pawpaws in my possession than what I could eagerly devour fresh, cold, and straight up, so I’ve never experimented with preserving them or baking them into things. People do freeze the pulp for winter use in a similar manner as with persimmons, so if you have a bounty, you could give that a try. I look forward to the day when my 50+ trees all come into fruit and I can finally experiment with pawpaw recipes galore.

The Ohio Pawpaw Festival is a great place to immerse yourself in pawpaw culture. There I’ve tried pawpaw beer, pawpaw wine, pawpaw salsa, pawpaw burritos, pawpaw cakes, fresh pawpaws, and more. The festival also features an educational component with pawpaw-related lectures and demonstrations.

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

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.

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 Food In The Forest

One of the iconic paradigms of permaculture is a food forest. The idea is as follows:

“By understanding how forests grow and sustain themselves without human intervention, we can learn from Nature, copy the systems and patterns to model our own forests — ones filled with trees and plants that produce food we can eat.”

Angelo Eliades, Permaculture News Magazine

Food forests are beautiful in concept and application, and many indigenous cultures throughout the centuries have practiced agroforestry techniques along these lines. If you’re starting with a lawn or a farm field, then planting a food forest is kind of like planting turbo-charged garden, and it’s likely to be a major ecological, environmental, and aesthetic improvement over what was there before. But what if your lot is already wooded? Should you cut down existing trees to replace them with food-bearing trees?

I encountered this very dilemma on the land I steward. Strawberry Moon Farm is about 10 acres in size; minuscule compared to all of the neighboring farms. Of this, we have 2.4 acres of frequently flooded wetland, 3.6 acres of woods, and 4.4 acres of former corn fields and lawn. By mainstream thinking, that equates to 4.4 acres of “good farm land”. At first, I believed this misconception about good and bad land, and I was not sure if the 4.4 classically-appreciable acres would allow enough room for all the plantings I had in mind for this farm. I briefly considered cutting down some trees in the woods to make space for more “food trees”. Ultimately, the idea of cutting down lots of trees made me feel a little sick. But don’t we need food? Aren’t there hungry and undernourished people in our community? Isn’t it important to reduce food miles? And, if I plant new trees, does that make up for cutting down existing trees? The old ones? The native ones? Is a food forest better than a wild forest?

Luckily, I was not forced to make that impossibly heart-wrenching choice. And if you are facing a similar tough decision, relax. There is really good news here. The forest is already made of food.

If you have a wood lot on your property, go to your library and borrow a nice field guide for tree identification in your locale. Take it with you as you walk through your woods. Identify as many trees as you can, and write down their names. Later, employ high technology to its highest purpose, and google those trees. Learn all you can learn about them. Search for them in the Plants For A Future database. Search for them in ethnobotanical databases, such as BRIT. Find out as much as you can about the ways indigenous people use them for food, medicine, tools, and fiber. Learn any modern uses. Learn which mushroom species can be cultivated on the fallen branches from each tree. Learn about its importance to wildlife and pollinators, about its lifecycle, and about its impact on soil, water, and air quality. Learn about its native range, and find out if it is endangered. Chances are, most of the trees in your woods have at least one wondrous purpose, and your only real task is to learn how to responsibly partake of their gifts.

In my case, the woods provide walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, beech nuts, sweet syrups, cherries, grapes, mulberries, fresh greens of many types, edible flowers and seeds, blackberries, raspberries, herbs, and spices. And I am convinced that is not all, that there is much more value in my woods that I have not yet learned to see. We are not talking about a token yield of a few snacks here, but rather about buckets and buckets of harvest every year, for which we need do no work other than learn what it is and be present to gather it and give thanks. In the future, when I have the time available, there is ample opportunity for me to engage with these woods in a more meaningful way. If I remove some of the invasive undergrowth, I could cultivate many more food and medicine herbs, brambles, and shrubs under the shade of the old canopy. I could inoculate fallen logs with edible mushroom spawn, and harvest the fruiting bodies. I could plant young saplings to replace dead and dying trunks, and eventually harvest their bounty. I could reintroduce numerous species of endangered or threatened native plants. I am only beginning to scratch the surface of all that is possible in these woods.

The key skills in farming the woods are to observe with attention and intention, to learn to recognize gifts of great worth, and to learn how to harvest responsibly and sustainably. One cannot approach a woodland with arrogance and a closed mind and expect to leave with an abundant harvest. Unfortunately, that’s what the first colonists of my county did, and it resulted in most of our old growth forests being cleared, most of our wetlands being drained, and a labor-intensive, resource-intensive monoculture imposed over the ashes of a once great land.

“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” …

“During a dry time, two or three men might, by merely sowing and deadening over with fire, burn up the whole superincumbent covering over eight or ten acres in a single day… till the whole county, in an incredibly short time, was brought into cultivation.”

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

Had Judge Harden (one of the first colonists of my county) and his people made a priority to learn from the indigenous people who were already engaged in a longstanding fruitful and reciprocal relationship with this land, perhaps we would all be living a more abundant life today. If he had studied more deeply, he might have learned that prickly ash, nettles, spice-wood (spicebush), some species of ferns, and many species of tall trees already produce premium quality food, and some of those plants have useful medicinal applications as well. Furthermore, there were likely many other magnificent species that he overlooked in his haste to slash and burn.

“There were wild plums, strawberries, grapes, pawpaws, persimmons, crabapples, and many varieties of berries. The acorn of the bur oak, Indian potatoes, and tubers of the water chinkapin, arrowleaf, and Jerusalem artichoke supplied starch. Common milkweed, flowers of the mulberry, early shoots of skunk cabbage, sour dock, wild onion, and a number of other plants were prized as greens. Teas were made from spikenard, spicebush, sassafras, and several other plants.”

-Stewart Rafert, an account of the wild local bounty known and enjoyed by one of Indiana’s largest indigenous tribes, the Miami. From “The Miami Indians of Indiana, A Persistent People” (1999).

I wish I could have seen my state covered by that old and abundant forest made of food. Past harms cannot be undone, but we can choose to learn from the mistakes of our past and to make a better decision today. I’m grateful for the wild spaces that remain, and I will do what is in my power to do to preserve and restore them. The woods on my land are not old, but they are becoming old. A token few trees may have lived a century or longer, but most are 50 years or younger. It is likely that someone of my grandparents’ generation planted the majority of these trees. That planting was a great gift. I hope someday, when a future generation inherits the new native tree forest that I have planted, they can recognize the inherent worth of it, and steward it on into the future. And as I begin to plant the 4.4 “good” acres on this farm, I find my plans evolving towards more and more native food-bearing trees and plants over the more common (mostly Eurasian) orchard crops. The native plants offer a brilliant package of joy and nourishment for the entire ecosystem. Perhaps one day, the old forest of abundance will return to these ten little acres in Johnson County.

For further reading:

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

Celebrating A Job Well Done

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

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

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

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

Summer in the Riparian Buffer

One mowed row in the riparian buffer

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

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

An American Elder sapling, hidden among weeds

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

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

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

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

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