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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Whole Earth

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

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

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

Edward O. Wilson, “Half Earth”

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

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

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

Edward O. Wilson, “Half Earth”

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

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

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

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

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

The Strawberry Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oaks of Indiana

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

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

Acorn Uses

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

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

Oak Tree Groups

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

Indiana Native Trees of the White Oak Group

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

Indiana Native Trees of the Red Oak Group

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

Side Note

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

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

Summer in the Riparian Buffer

One mowed row in the riparian buffer

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

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

An American Elder sapling, hidden among weeds

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

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

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

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

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The Winner Among The Weeds

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

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

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

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Farming the Woodland

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

A Smattering of Deep Shade Crops:

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

A Sampler of Woodland Edge Crops (part shade):

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

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

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

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

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