Mid-Atlantic Native Food Forest Polyculture for Rain Gardens & Wet Sites

On June 6, 2015 at Edge of the Woods Native Plant Nursery, I taught a workshop on Creating Native Food Forests. We discussed our woodland biome & the cycle of ecological succession, contrasted the outputs of wilderness with conventional agriculture, and detailed some possible direct and indirect uses of edible forest gardens. We then looked at some agroforestry case studies, like Mark Shepard’s 100+ acre New Forest Farm, Fields without Fences in Frenchtown, NJ, Eric Toensmeir & Jonathan Bates’ 1/10 acre Paradise Lot, and Steven Gabriel’s ‘De-slugging the Woods‘ maple-mushroom-duck polyculture.

It seems that everyone has a downspout or some greywater that could be redirected into a rain garden, so I pulled a selection of Edge of the Woods plants favoring moist to wet soil conditions. I wanted to highlight how these native species could produce nuts, fruit, berries, vegetables, tea, and medicine, as well as ecosystem services like nitrogen fixation, pollinator habitat, stormwater management, and watershed quality improvement.

mid atlantic native food forest polyculture rain garden

Species List (roughly from largest to smallest mature size)

1. Pecan / Carya illinoinensis / 70-100′, delicious nuts, high value timber

2. Pawpaw / Asimina triloba / 10-40′, most commonly 20-35′, delicious fruit (improved seedlings and grafted forms available), deer & pest resistant, host to zebra swallowtail butterfly.

3. Downy serviceberry / Amelanchier arborea / 15-25′, species within the Amelanchier genus go by many names and have varying sizes and habits, but all have highly ornamental white spring blossoms, followed by small, flavorful berries, and burgundy fall foliage. Not very picky about soils, serviceberries offer a nice alternative to acid-loving blueberries.

4. Hazel alder / Alnus serrulata / 12-20′, nitrogen-fixing, high wildlife value, glossy, ribbed leaves tinged with red, winter interest.

5. Spicebush / Lindera benzoin / 6-12′, a graceful shrub providing lemon blooms in early spring, glossy red berries, and yellow-gold fall foliage. Aromatic twigs and leaves can be used as tea. Host plant for spicebush swallowtail.

6. American black elderberry / Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis / 6-12′, insectary umbel blooms and dark purple fruits, usually stewed and consumed as cordials or cough medicine. Several ornamental cultivars are now available, featuring varied foliage and flower color, or improved fruit quality. Self-fruitful, although a pollinator will improve fruit set.

7. Ostrich fern / Matteuccia struthiopteris / 3-6′, ornamental fern producing edible fiddlehead vegetable of early spring. Will spread via stolons, and foliage will die down by mid-summer.

8. Swamp verbena / Verbana hastata / 2-5′, ornamental candelabra-like blooms, insectary, ‘cure-all’ medicinal, usually consumed as tea.

9. Goldenrod ‘Fireworks’ / Solidago rugosa / 3-4′, top herbaceous insectary species according to Douglas Tallamy. Ornamental golden sprays in late summer/ early fall. Medicinal/ tea.

10. Hoary mountain mint / Pycanthemum incanum / 2-4′, native, insectary mint. Medicinal, tea, potherb.

11. Nodding onion / Alium cernuum / 1-2′, ornamental flowers, insectary, deer/ pest resistant, all parts edible and used like scallions

12. Labrador violet / Viola labradorica / 4-6″, groundcover, ornamental and edible purple foliage and lavender flowers. Host plant for fritillary butterflies and seeds are favored by cardinals & other songbirds.

 

Related posts:

Lunaria Gardens Nursery

#SavetheBees: ‘Queen of the Sun’ screening and pollinator panel discussion, Doylestown, PA

Photos from Forest Gardening workshop at Fields without Fences

Notes from Edible Forest Gardening Workshop with Eric Toensmeier

 

Contact Kristen Jas Vietty

#SavetheBees: ‘Queen of the Sun’ screening & pollinator panel discussion, Doylestown, PA

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Along with local beekeepers, permaculture designer Kristen Jas Vietty will participate in a post-film panel discussion, delivering some tips for creating and maintaining habitat for our hardworking pollinators.

Thursday, June 11, 2015
Doors 6:30p, screening 7p

The County Theater, 20 East State Street, Doylestown, PA

Farm Fresh Film Series, sponsored by Doylestown Food Coop & Bucks County Foodshed Alliance

Queen of the Sun: What are the Bees Telling Us? (1h 23m)

Post-film panel discussion with Joe Ridgeway (President, Bucks County Beekeepers Association), Chuck Pressler (owner, Bucks County Apiaries), Courtney Scott (Delaware Valley College Apiary Society), & Kristen Jas Vietty (Permaculture designer, Lunaria Gardens)

Get tickets

 

Photos from Forest Gardening Workshop at Fields without Fences

I was recently lucky enough to attend a forest gardening design & installation workshop led by Sean Walsh, on June 28, 2014. I first met Sean over Memorial Day weekend, 2013, where we both attended a permaculture water systems workshop with Andrew Faust, and then teamed up to create a design proposal for the workshop site, Green Light Plants. I was impressed with his knowledge and experience gained since his time at the Conway School of Landscape Design, and now he’s leading Appleseed Permaculture’s New Jersey franchise.

The workshop was held just outside of Frenchtown, NJ, at Fields Without Fences, operated by Johann Rinkens & Lindsay Napolitano. This 10-acre commercial food forest project is just in their second growing year, and it’s amazing how far the site has come in that time. They have an excellent website that describes the history of the degraded land, and how they are restoring the ecology – do check it out. Fields Without Fences’ products can be purchase through a New Jersey based farm distribution service, Zone 7.

I’ll just tell the story of the workshop in photos below:

Appleseed Permaculture's Sean Walsh, introducing forest gardening concepts and showing us some site assessment examples.
Appleseed Permaculture’s Sean Walsh, introducing forest gardening concepts and showing us some site assessment examples.

 

Johann, Sean, & Lindsay orient us with the Fields Without Fences site.
Johann, Sean, & Lindsay orient us with the Fields Without Fences site.
Lindsay fields without fences forest gardening
Lindsay describes their approach to raspberry management. She describes observing brambles growing in wildflower fields, so they pair raspberries with Echinacea/ coneflowers. The flower’s sturdy stems hold the berry canes upright, negating the need to build trellises.
A shot showing a glimpse of the many polycultures utilized at Fields Without Fences. I spy a young pawpaw, comfrey, bolting lettuce & sorrel, and allium flowerheads.
A shot showing a glimpse of the many polycultures utilized at Fields Without Fences. I spy a young pawpaw, comfrey, bolting lettuce & sorrel, and allium flowerheads.
Lindsay called the elder the iconic plant of Fields Without Fences, and it was, appropriately, in full bloom during the workshop. They sell the aromatic elderflowers as well as the berries.
Lindsay called the elder the iconic plant of Fields Without Fences, and it was, appropriately, in full bloom during the workshop. They sell the aromatic elderflowers as well as the berries.
A closeup of an elderflower, as well as some developing berries.
A closeup of an elderflower, as well as some developing berries.
Fields Without Fences has a small annual vegetable production area, where the polyculture approach is still utilized.
Fields Without Fences has a small annual vegetable production area, where the polyculture approach is still utilized.
The main pond collects runoff from this previously waterlogged site. Since this photo was taken, the pond now is home to a couple of ducks.
The main pond collects runoff from this previously waterlogged site. Since this photo was taken, the pond now is home to a couple of ducks.
Most of the site is cover cropped with a seed mix heavy in red clover. The farmers leave it in place, fixing nitrogen in the soil, until ready to plant. Also shown are some of the many currant bushes featured throughout the polycultures.
Most of the site is cover cropped with a seed mix heavy in red clover. The farmers leave it in place, fixing nitrogen in the soil, until ready to plant. Also shown are some of the many currant bushes featured throughout the polycultures.
Pollinators are a vital part of the farm ecosystem, and there are 2 meadow areas for winged friends. Pictured is a hive housing the European honeybee.
Pollinators are a vital part of the farm ecosystem, and there are 2 meadow areas for winged friends. Pictured is a hive housing the European honeybee.
Closeup of honeybees a the hive entrance.
Closeup of honeybees a the hive entrance.
Here are some yarrow and alfalfa flowers attracting the attentions of the honeybee.
Here are some yarrow and alfalfa flowers attracting the attentions of the honeybee.
A beautiful permaculture design plan for Fields Without Fences was displayed. Click to zoom in and read about all the different zones and systems.
A beautiful permaculture design plan for Fields Without Fences was displayed. Click to zoom in and read about all the different zones and systems.
Over lunch, attendee Roman Osadca shared some delicious garlic scape pesto from his homestead, Valley Fall Farm. As of 2014, Roman grows over 290 varieties of garlic!
Over lunch, attendee Roman Osadca shared some delicious garlic scape pesto from his homestead, Valley Fall Farm. As of 2014, Roman grows over 290 varieties of garlic!
A glimpse of Fields Without Fences' plant nursery & propagation area.
A glimpse of Fields Without Fences’ plant nursery & propagation area.
A small cattail pond with the northwest field beyond, which has been shaped into additional raised bed production area since this photo was taken.
A small cattail pond with the northwest field beyond, which has been shaped into additional raised bed production area since this photo was taken.
Johann and Lindsay describe their goals for an Africa-shaped bed we'll be designing.
Johann and Lindsay describe their goals for an Africa-shaped bed we’ll be designing.
We broke into 3 groups to come up with design possibilities for the Africa-shaped bed. Here I am with my team, presenting our design proposal. [Photo: Sean Walsh]
We broke into 3 groups to come up with design possibilities for the Africa-shaped bed. Here I am with my team, presenting our design proposal. [Photo: Sean Walsh]
Sean and Lindsay amalgamate the groups' designs into a final plan. The polyculture includes (from canopy to groundcover): butternut, river birch, pawpaw, blueberry, spicebush, sunflower, catnip, and green & gold.
Sean and Lindsay amalgamate the groups’ designs into a final plan. The polyculture includes (from canopy to groundcover): butternut, river birch, pawpaw, blueberry, spicebush, sunflower, catnip, and green & gold.
In preparation for planting, we began  sheet mulching by rolling out round bales of straw over the grass.
In preparation for planting, we began sheet mulching by rolling out round bales of straw over the grass.
We continued to spread straw over the bed.
We continued to spread straw over the bed.
A view of the bed completely sheet mulched with the straw layer.
A view of the bed completely sheet mulched with the straw layer.
Then Johann used the tractor to dump loads of leaf mulch to spread over the straw.
Then Johann used the tractor to dump loads of leaf mulch to spread over the straw.
After all the topsoil was spread, we started planting. Here, left to right, are Jose, Johann, & Sean planting a young butternut tree.
After all the topsoil was spread, we started planting. Here, left to right, are Jose, Johann, & Sean planting a young butternut tree.
Finishing up planting.
Finishing up planting.
A group photo after planting, however, some folks had to leave before we got this shot.
A group photo after planting, however, some folks had to leave before we got this shot.
A panorama of the farm, including the newly-planted bed, and a wildflower meadow. [Photo by Sean Walsh]
A panorama of the farm, including the newly-planted bed, and a wildflower meadow. [Photo by Sean Walsh]

 

Workshop: Edible Forest Gardening / Doylestown, PA

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 In a couple of hours, learn how you can be harvesting fruits, nuts, vegetables, mushrooms, & medicine from your land, WITHOUT tilling, seeding, planting, & weeding year after year.

Join the March meeting of the Ladies Homestead Gathering of Central Bucks County, where Kristen Jas Vietty of Lunaria Gardens will be leading a workshop on edible forest gardening!

Learn how to mimic the eastern woodland ecosystem in your garden, to provide not only diverse harvests, but also benefit soil life, watersheds, native pollinators, & wildlife. These natural, regenerative food forests can improve the value of your home while requiring relatively little maintenance over time.

The workshop will be held at Doylestown Fresh (home of Veg-E systems) on Thursday, March 27, 2014, from 6:30 to 9:00pm. The evening is open to all women, and the suggested donation is $10 general, $5 LHG members. Membership signup will be available at the meeting, and no one will be turned away for lack of funds. RSVP on Facebook!

If you want to hear about these kinds of events, subscribe to receive a monthly(ish) email!

Related post: Notes from Forest Gardening Workshop with Eric Toensmeier

INTERVIEW / Hunter Hill Farm / Easton, PA

A little late April Hunter Hill harvest in my kitchen. Clockwise from top left: mint, oregano, chives, sage, Siberian kale, radishes, salad mix (arugula, claytonia, spinach).
A little late April Hunter Hill harvest in my kitchen. Clockwise from top left: mint, oregano, chives, sage, Siberian kale, radishes, salad mix (arugula, claytonia, spinach).

Hunter Hill Farm is a 12-acre homestead & vegetable CSA just outside of the city limits of Easton, PA. Last year, I was a resident for the season, designing & helping to install the initial orchard phase of their edible forest garden. I decided to stick around the area, and this year we’ve been doing a little bartering of a different sort – forest gardening & poultry consultation in exchange for veggies. This week, farmers Dan Hunter & Bethany Towne came over with groundcover questions, as well as a beautiful harvest of some early greens, herbs, & radishes. I thought some readers would appreciate learning about what they do, so I suggested an interview. Below is our conversation.

Looking northwest upon the hoophouse and the fields in early spring.
Looking northwest upon the hoophouse and the fields in early spring.

 

Lunaria Gardens: What made you guys want to be farmers at Hunter Hill?
Dan Hunter: Maybe 7 or 8 years ago, I was watching C-Span, and Roscoe Bartlett was giving a presentation on peak oil, and that was I guess the first time I heard about the whole energy crisis thing. And at that time I was trying to be an upright bassist, which was predicated a lot on me having a wagon, and hauling a bass around. So I got interested in sustainability in general, and then the farming part seemed to be the one that most most attractive and stuck, like I tried a bunch of different things. And then I started some apprenticing work and started looking around for land with my parents, and that drug on for about 3 years. And then we finally found a place that was enough land and in our budget, and then we bought it. So, I’m gonna say, food security.

 

Lunaria Gardens: What is your farm mission?

Bethany Towne: I just try to grow a lot of food, and we try to make some money to get by. I like sharing it with everyone, and eating it. And learning about permaculture is really cool too, because if we can set up something really awesome, then we’ll have the experience and a lot of the resources to help people do that too.

DH: For me, I wanted a place where I could kind of make a livelihood and everything, but also be an experimental ground for different types of agriculture. If the goal was just to grow food for money, it would get old and I wouldn’t feel that I was doing much. So the idea is for it to be an educational place, or a place where people can just come out and relax. Our friend was talking about farm therapy programs in Europe, where people in different situations can come out relax for a while. So yeah, getting integrated in the community, and not just, you grow stuff and then you sell it, and that’s the extent of the interaction. The ideal is to be much more plugged in, to be a resource for the community, and have as many overlapping functions as possible. Because land is a huge thing. Land is expensive, and it’s hard to get, and hard to maintain. So many possibilities with it.

 

Dallas Vietty relaxing on the farm. Summer, 2012.
Dallas Vietty relaxing on the farm. Summer, 2012.

 

Lunaria Gardens: What do you offer at Hunter Hill?

DH: We offer a 22-week CSA (Community-supported agriculture), from the 1st week in June to the 2nd or 3rd week in October. It’s a weekly pickup of vegetables, in either a half or a full share size. And there will be other things that come in through the year, like mushrooms or fruit, that we’ll offer as add-ons, as retail items when people pick up.
We’ve also had Seventh Generation Charter School classes visit for educational field trips. Or if people have an idea for what they want to do, that’s related to, I don’t know, the growth or integration of communities, or experiments in agriculture, or whatever, that’s great, and they should talk to us.

BT: We sell to restaurants sometimes, and there are instances of being super busy and we have way too much of something, but maybe if we had better connections with particular restaurants…

DH: … or individuals, or 3rd Street Alliance, or pretty much anybody who’d be interested in coming out and picking something, we should set up a call list, or an email chain. So there’s opportunity for gleaning…

BT: … or trade.

 

Inoculated shitake logs fruiting in the Hunter Hill mushroom circle.
Inoculated shitake logs fruiting in the Hunter Hill mushroom circle.

 

Lunaria Gardens: What makes your CSA special?

DH: We really don’t really use any machines. What’s in the field is entirely hand worked, so we do no-till. So yeah, we just sheet mulch. And the only amendments we add are composted animal waste, or house compost. So it’s very simple. We try not to get involved with large supply chains, partly because their expensive, partly because they suck. I guess we’re still buying seeds from Johnny’s. But there’s some vague anti-corporate inclination going on. I feel like there’s not very much intention about how that gets carried out, but it gets carried out to some extent. But yeah, I feel like the special part is just the no machine thing. Just compost additives. All the stuff is hand-picked and maybe washed.

 

What can customers expect if they do sign up for a share?

DH: Full shares can expect 8-12 items per week. An item can be a bunch of carrots, or a quart of tomatoes, a head of lettuce. Half shares, 5-7 items per week. And it’s gonna be fresh, because we don’t have any fridge space! So even if we wanted to hold over products, we really can’t! So, expect fresh, seasonal vegetables in quantity. And shares are picked up from the farm or a drop point in North Bethlehem, near the YMCA.

 

Some cool-weather annual CSA vegetable transplants, as well as perennial forest garden plants & trees, April, 2012.
Some cool-weather annual CSA vegetable transplants, as well as perennial forest garden plants & trees, April, 2012.

 

Lunaria Gardens: Dan, you mentioned no machines and no-till, but I want your words for readers. What is it about no-till?

DH: Well, my limited understanding of soil science and agricultural practices leads me to believe that tilling is primarily an expedient practice. In tilling, it’s like the rain comes down, and if soil is loose, it moves; so if you break up the soil all the time, more soil and nutrients and everything are going to wash off your land. I guess that’s really the crux of the matter. And I guess when you till, you’re breaking up the soil ecology that’s trying to form all the time to help you. So we don’t till. And we don’t use machines because their expensive, and they’re part of the industrial corporatocracy, and they compact the soil most of the time. And they also have sort of an expedient element to them, that makes it easy but ends up hurting you in the end. That has been my experience of it. I guess I could expound on how they hurt the people using them, or the people making them, or the places where they’re taken, or the larger watershed or ecology, but mostly, I don’t like working with them, and they’re expensive.

 

Camping out in the apple orchard. Summer 2012.
Camping out in the apple orchard. Summer 2012.

 

Lunaria Gardens: Who else is helping behind the scenes, besides you guys?

BT: Oh, yeah, lots of people! It varies a lot year to year, and you never know, it seems like there might be quite a few people coming to stay at the farm at some point during the year. But Dan’s parent’s bought the property, and they help out a lot. Dan’s dad was just helping me build the frame for a chicken tractor last week, which is really exciting. Scotty… I don’t know, there’s tons of people!

DH: Lehigh Valley friends who have varying degrees of residency at the farm [laughs], or non-residency.

Bethany: Yeah, Joe Farnack was working for us really regularly last year, and helping with harvest, and taking home vegetables.

 

The Hunter Hill kitchen, during a young farmer potluck & film screening, March, 2012.
The Hunter Hill kitchen, during a young farmer potluck & film screening, March, 2012.

 
Lunaria Gardens: What resource would you love to come into?

Dan: One thing that was amazing, was this guy from Green Briar Equestrian Services or whatever…

Bethany: Oh yeah!

Dan: Yeah! [laughter] This guy who cleans out horse stalls, he goes out with his Bobcat loader in his dump truck, so he has to leave it at the place, and then go dump the load somewhere locally, and then go back and pick up his Bobcat – so he goes and dumps at all these farms. And he dumped 6, 7, or more dump truck loads of equestrian bedding. And that’s probably 3 solid weeks of full-time work that he just donated for free, in terms of if we had to go pick it up, and all the wear and tear on the truck. So, um…

Lunaria Gardens: So… delivered horse shit?

[laughter]

DH: Or just convenient sources of decent compost. The ideal is that it’s free and delivered. That would be great. Because that’s the input, besides some infrastructure, or irrigation stuff.

BT: Man, it’s really exciting thinking about like the future, like we’ve been working on growing medicinals and things like that, but even with the permaculture project, fenced portion is a small percentage of farm property, but there’s so much that you can produce on that land to share with people. And things that don’t take as much work as a vegetable plot. It’s pretty exciting.

 

Lunaria Gardens: Would you say you get excited about abundance?

BT: Yeah, haha.

 

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Hunter Hill Farm 2013 CSA shares

Full share: $500 ($25/week), Half share: $300 ($15/week)
Length: 20 weeks, June 6 to October 17
Pickup: Thursdays at farm (901 Frost Hollow Road, Forks Township, Easton, PA) or Bethlehem, PA
Includes: A share of non-certified organic vegetables; 8-12 items (full share) or 5-7 items (half share) / additional seasonal offereings, i.e. apples or mushrooms, for purchase as available

Contact: Dan Hunter/ 484-788-4634 / Local Harvest / Facebook

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Tomato Season: Recipes for Making the Most of It

It’s no wonder they’re the most popular vegetable in the home garden – nothing beats a fresh tomato. But how do you make the most of them when they’re coming in full force? Here’s how we’ve been using ours:

Caprese Sandwiches

This is an easy appetizer or a casual, build-your-own meal for guests. Just slice some hearty artisan bread, & top with tomato, basil leaves, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and a pinch of salt. Fresh mozzarella is optional.

Lunaria Farm Salsa

Essentials:
2 lbs tomatoes (any type will do), diced
1/2 – 1 onion, finely chopped
1  jalepeno or other hot pepper, very finely chopped
juice of 1 lime or 1/2 lemon
1/2 tsp salt
Extras:
1 bell pepper, finely chopped
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp fresh cilantro, minced
tomatillos, husked & diced

Combine all ingredients, toss, and, ideally, let sit for an hour before serving to allow flavors to develop. Save the remaining juices to use as a base for sauce, marinade, or salad dressing.

Clove-spiced Ketchup/ BBQ Sauce

This recipe was inspired by Aunt Janet at High Oak Farm in Humboldt county, CA. There we picked wheelbarrows full of paste tomatoes, which she transformed into delicious, clove-spiced ketchup – a most excellent pairing with her homemade meatloaf.

3 lbs paste tomatoes
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup brown sugar (or substitute with white sugar plus some molasses)
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/8 tsp onion powder
1/8 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp salt to taste
pinch cayenne to taste

If desired, remove skins and seeds from tomatoes. Blend in food processor or blender. Cook down on stovetop for a couple of hours until thick and almost paste-like. Stir in remaining ingredients. Will keep in refrigerator for several weeks.

Freeze Now, Sauce Later

Slaving over a hot stove on a 90 degree day? Doesn’t sound very enjoyable to us, either. Last fall, we worked at Dandelion Farm, which runs entirely on solar power. Being conscientious about energy use, we would sometimes let sauces simmer down on the woodstove all night, since it was already heating the house. That gave us an idea – why not freeze tomatoes during the steamy summer, then boil them down when we need to warm up the house anyway?

You may want to blanch the tomatoes to remove the skins, but supposedly they can come off easily with warm water once frozen, so we’ve been freezing them skins and all.

How have you been using your tomatoes?

The Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, & Squash

Corn, beans, and squash effectively comprise the collective staff of life of the New World. These crops were so important and complemented each other so well, that they were known as “The Three Sisters,” with many legends celebrating their sustaining virtues.

A Hokkaido Stella Blue squash grown on a fence.

We try to do these New World native plants justice here at Lunaria, but none more than the winter squash, with whom we have a tasty love affair. I personally got so excited about them that I planted a few seeds on March 1, far before any sane gardener would think about squash. These tender crops are typically direct sown outdoors once the soil has thoroughly warmed up; they don’t like being transplanted. Well, ours were potted up and most were kept alive in sunny windows until last frost, and now they’re threatening to take down the fence of “Gary’s Garden” (named after the groundhog that kept infiltrating its perimeter). We have some ripening sugar pumpkins and stella blue hokkaidos that we expect to be ready in a few weeks. This should perfectly fulfill my intense craving for curried tomato-squash dishes.

Another one of our many experiments this year is corn. I’d always thought it somewhat inefficient, as it takes up a good amount of space relative to its cropping. Then, during my residence at Women’s Studio Workshop, I learned that the husks and stalks can be used to make a gorgeous, pale golden-green paper. Well that was enough to convince me to go ahead and try it. We planted 3 successions to stagger the ripening times, including a succession of transplanted corn. This is another crop that dislikes root disturbance, but we take the word of Elliot Coleman quite seriously, and decided to try it. We were elated with the results, as not a single transplant was lost, and they’re all still going strong.

Our Hooker's sweet corn planting in early July. The upper row was seeded a week earlier, transplanted, then mulched with grass clippings.

With most of our meals being vegetarian, we tend to eat a lot of beans – dry beans, that is. We can’t imagine a world without black bean quesadillas, chickpea hummus, or pinto bean chili. But when it comes to green beans… meh. Most gardeners think we’re crazy – “You don’t like green beans??!” – but we think we’re being quite rational. Besides not appealing to our particular palates, beans will always be produced at a loss for the small farmer. They are tedious to harvest, and they must be picked every day, yet they must be sold at rock-bottom prices to compete with industrial farms. Even our so-loved dry beans are uneconomical to dry, harvest, and shell, when organic dry beans are so readily available now. The main advantage of growing beans is their special characteristic of being nitrogen fixers. The legume family, including beans as well as peas, clover, peanuts, indigo, and lentils, capture the nitrogen from the air and “fix” it in the soil, making this essential nutrient available to other plants.

The Three Sisters planting in early July.

So this year’s garden includes a small amount of beans, a good stand of corn, and hopefully a year’s supply of squash. We’re really excited about a certain portion planted in the traditional, Native American, Three Sisters formation. We chose to plant heirloom varieties that would all be ready to harvest in autumn: blue dent maize for cornmeal, drought-tolerant tepary beans, and several varieties of cucurbits, including pumpkins, winter squash, and moon & stars watermelons.

Lee arranging cardboard around The Three Sisters to thwart weeds until the squash vines fill out. (Photo by Theresa Boles)

Corn is wind-pollinated, its tassels releasing their magic dust to the air to settle on the ear silks below. This fact of life prompts a break from the modern American row system – to ensure that each kernel develops (they are seeds, remember), the corn must be planted in blocks, or in this case, mounds. The first mounds, which are 18 inches across, staggered about 5 feet apart, and amended with aged horse manure, are each planted with 4 corn seeds. Then, when the corn germinates and reaches a height of 4-6 inches, a pole bean seed is planted in the same mound, 3 inches away from each corn seedling. In between the corn and beans, we create squash mounds of the same size, with 3 seeds planted in each.

The effect, once everything grows in, is a mutually-beneficial companion planting. The corn provides something on which the beans can climb. The beans fix nitrogen to provide nutrients to the other crops. The squash sprawls along the ground, suppressing weeds and providing a living mulch to retain soil moisture, while its prickly vines help deter hungry critters. And, come harvest, the delicious crops complement each other nutritionally. It’s hardly surprising that these crops were considered to be special gifts from the Creator. All of this botanical, gastronomic, and divine harmony kind of makes you want to enjoy some succotash while you plan your own Three Sisters garden for next year, doesn’t it?

What’s Pickin’ in the Heat of July

Here’s just a glimpse of what’s pickin’ at Lunaria right now, where change is the only constant. The delicious snap peas that started so early are finally winding down in this hot, dry start to summer. The broccoli are plumping out the last of the main florets or sending out their rays of side shoots. We’re starting to get a handful of tomatoes every day, mostly Romas and cherries with the heirlooms not far behind. With the June strawberry season long gone, we’ve stopped pinching the flowers on our first year everbearing varieties so they can focus on fruiting. We planted a few zucchinis only to be met with just as many volunteers, and so starts the season of squash at every meal. The herbs are coming full force; loads of basil, cilantro, chives, parsley, dill infusing the kitchen. Although one of our hens recently molted for 2 weeks (thereby creating feathers instead of eggs), they’re all laying spectacularly once again. and And our standby greens – the kale, chard, lettuce, cabbages – are chugging away through the heat of summer, obliging us with leaves for the taking.

That’s what’s picking, but there’s so much more just focusing on vegetative growth, sending out new stems and leaves and vines every day. Check out what some of the gardens are looking like lately:

The eastern half of the Helen Nast Memorial garden: zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, winter squash, and more.
The sorry-looking slips that arrived in the mail are beginning to look like lush, promising, sweet potato vines.
The mystery brassicas that we thought were broccoli, then maybe cabbage, have revealed themselves as brussels sprouts, to which we say "Yum!"
Our attempt at a sun-trap garden on the shady property: melons & cucumbers on the fence, tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, peppers, & ground cherries, undersown with radishes & lettuce.
We've had the delight of bringing in a few of these yellow straightneck "siamese squash."

The Stoked List

As you might have discerned from the lack of blogging, Lee and I have been particularly busy lately. Part of the reason is that we’ve been tending our new farm away from home. Truth be told, Lunaria is little more than a swampy yard of heavy clay with some spots of fleeting sunlight. So we felt like some lucky ducks when we found out that we were given the use of a sunny plot of land up the street! This corner garden was worked and loved for decades by a special woman named Helen Nast, providing the neighborhood with plenty of fresh food and flowers. We’re grateful to be able to continue that tradition and honor her legacy.

Unfortunately, in Helen’s later years, the garden was left untended, and grass has taken over, obscuring any clues to the original garden plan. Racing against rainy weather, we’ve spent days battling that stubborn turf, using a combination of hand digging, sheet mulching, tarp killing, and rototilling. We even have plans for some squash strangling for the real tall stuff. We were able to carve out enough beds to get some potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and jalepeños in the ground.

Lee finishing the poultry tractor

Constant farm tasks have met us on the home front, too. In another attempt to rid our hens of lice, we sprayed each of them generously with orange oil, and then watched as they wobbled away high and briefly disabled. We built Poultry Tractor 2.0, into which we tried to assimilate the lately-separated chicks and ducklings, but the larger ducks turned out to be bullies. We also received about 300 blueberry, strawberry, asparagus, rhubarb, brassica, and tomato plants that we’re still catching up with.

On Monday, after a sonorous thunderstorm that kept us up half the night, Lunaria farm had a particularly trying morning. The duck tractor proved to not be entirely watertight, and their heat lamp had shorted out at some point. The upper level nest box area of the chicken tractor had collapsed, and the hens laid their eggs in their food. Despite our fencing, a groundhog had gotten into the greens garden and eaten half the lettuce and some of the cauliflower. When I went up the road to the corner garden, I found that our rototilling methods hadn’t accounted for the necessities of drainage, and the paths between our rows were flooded with 6 inches of water. I planted 100 tomato plants in the mud while Lee dug a trench to sink a groundhog-proof fence into. Then it started raining again.

We were ready for some coffee. Just about every day, Lee and I have a “business meeting,” when, for few minutes, we discuss priorities. But it’s really just an excuse to sit down and drink coffee. This time, feeling as dampened as we were, Lee suggested that we start out by making a list of things we were stoked about. Here’s a summary:

blueberries are in the ground!

we have kombucha brewing!

happy ducks!

healthy chicks!

5 eggs every day!

we’re farming the neighbor’s unused sunny garden!

we harvested pretty radishes!

all the healthy, free plants!

our fresh eggs for fresh bread exchange!

200 Roma tomatoes!

rain!

safety-first Lee & get-her-done Kristen are a perfect match!

we have a new french press!

we got some gigs playing music!

Needless to say, we both felt a lot better after recounting only a few of our blessings. The universe will continue to provide, and we’ll go on being grateful. We highly recommend opening with a stoked list before your own business meeting, or just as a way to perk up a dreary day.

Enjoy some recent photos!

Duckling cuddle-puddle, before their move outdoors
Art by Joyce Murphy (pictured, right) and Sheena Mae Allen (on wall) at RAT Gallery Opening, 5/1/10
Frogs in the pond
Bird found dead in the radish bed, any idea what kind?
Magic hour sky at Lunaria

Poultry Care: Figuring It Out as We Go Along

It seems lately, that each time I go for a trip, I come back feeling an increasing urgency to keep up with the demands of spring. It’s not a stressful kind of urgency, but the voice of a season that says in each breath, “Look alive.”

This time the excursion was to Brooklyn, to visit foodie Daniel Delaney, artists Brandon CoxJennifer Grimyser, and the sustainable butcher shop The Meat Hook. I came back to find the ducklings about twice as big as when I left them, excitedly trampling the chicks as they raced between the food and water dishes to maintain a constant grain slurry in their bills and all over the bedding and the other birds. The chicks, with their more reasonable growth rate but innate sense of pecking order, preferred not to eat out of the provided containers, but to chase the ducks around trying to peck the food off of their sloppy bills. Sixteen birds in one box meant the shredded paper bedding needed to be changed twice a day and they couldn’t make it through the night without drinking the water dry. This had to stop.

The next day we went to the feed store and bought a mason jar feeder and waterer and some straw bales. We got another box set up and moved the chicks to a home with higher walls so they could practice flying safely. We figured the ducks should get the new, deeper waterer so that they could submerge their bills. An hour later we realized that this allowed them to spill most of the water they were drinking, putting almost a whole quart onto the floor of their cardboard box. Oops. But the straw is working out quite well. It doesn’t get as compacted or soiled as the shredded paper, and is better for the compost pile. And it’s probably safer for the ducks to eat, although they will munch on both (have you figured out that ducklings are a handful?).

For the past few days it’s been rainy, which keeps us from focusing on most farm tasks. Today’s precipitation let up enough for us to address some wanting farm tasks. Since their move, we had been ignoring the state of the duckling’s cardboard box, but this morning it was definitely leaking and reeking, no doubt about it. The results of our emergency meeting concluded that a purchase of a huge plastic storage container was in order. The swell and smell are solved, and now, instead of having to scoop out their nasty bedding, we can just dump the contents into the compost.

Next on the agenda was dealing with our laying hens’ lice problem. We got our hens as adults with clipped beaks. They do this at some commercial hatcheries to prevent chickens from pecking each other when they’re kept in those inhumane and stressful factory farm conditions. However, clipped beaks also prevent them from effectively cleaning themselves, and as a result, our chickens are being plagued by poultry lice. These parasites are host specific and can not be transferred to humans. But they seem to be irritating and can potentially spread to our young chicks and ducks, so we’ve made it a priority to get rid of them. Our research shows that it may be impossible to do without Monsanto-made poisons. So far we’ve tried dusting with diatomaceous earth and today, spraying with orange oil. We applied it to one hen today, and noticed that hundreds of lice began crawling away from the skin only to be met by the inaccurate, blunt pecks of her sisters. It’s nice that they try to clean each other, but they’re not very good at it. After spraying that one chicken, she seemed so damp and grumpy that we decided not to soak the rest until a sunnier day when they could dry themselves properly.

By lunchtime I was feeling like I’d had enough of dealing with dirty birds, but then we had our latest version of the egg sandwich – Happy Farm duck eggs on whole wheat sourdough with steamed garden greens and feta cheese. Biting into a bright orange, perfectly runny yolk is a certain kind of  bliss, the taste of which forbidding you to enjoy another lifeless, factory farm egg ever again. This winter in Austin, I got so hooked on these “yard egg sambos” that I found I didn’t feel quite right if I didn’t have one in the morning. Four months later and I’ve hardly skipped a day. I’m not sure if you’d call it an addiction or a passion, but in either case this is precisely when I realize it’s all worth it.