The Best Donut

The best donut is a mulch donut. Its the only kind that burns calories instead of making your waist line bigger.

The best filling for the best donut is something native, something edible, or something native and edible.

Aronia melanocarpa, the aronia berry, is perfect. This native shrub is great for native bees, has beautiful white flowers in the spring, attractive red leaves in the fall, and the berries…are edible.

They are incredibly nutritious, very low in sugar and exceptionally astringent. Which makes them a berry with a striking and flavorful first impression, but not necessarily a tasty one. If you can’t get over the mouth-pucker they cause, try baking them in a low sugar oatmeal cookie or throw them in a smoothie with kale and an apple.

What’s Going in the Ground at Sugar Grove

Your garden at home may be on a similar trajectory as The $64 Tomato, or it may be the sort of garden in which you watch in curious amazement to see what fruit is growing from the compost pile. You may have already purchased canning jars, visited the Ely Seed Lending Library, or you may still be thumbing through the catalogs to see what new varieties of pea sound tasty.

At Sugar Grove Farm, as at most businesses, there is another layer of questions we have to ask. Will we have the labor to successfully plant, weed, and harvest the crop? Are the seeds we are purchasing organic? Do we have buyers for the crops?

Even the cover crops are organic. This clover, planted last fall, will be tilled in to add nutrients to the soil before planting. We till shallow, and only where we will be planting. The rest of the field will stay in cover crop, to hold the soil and increase the organic material in the soil.

Every year, as we become more familiar with the site and the time involved in crop management, as the soil becomes richer through cover crops and certified organic amendments, and as we have improved infrastructure (such as driplines for irrigation), we should be able to expand our offerings. 

Stop by the Creekside Shop during harvest time if you want to experience these tasty and unique fruits and vegetables. All will be certified organic.

It can be challenging to find organic seeds of the varieties you want, and even more challenging the longer you delay placing your order. I really appreciate Wood Prairie Family Farm, Seed Savers Exchange, and High Mowing Organic Seeds for helping me out.

This year, we plan to grow: 

Keuka Gold potatoes (sourced from Wood Prairie Family Farm)

Parade cucumbers (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Waltham butternut squash(sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Sweet Pea Currant tomato (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Moon and Stars (Cherokee) watermelon (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Cream of Saskatchewan watermelon (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Chinese Miniature gourd (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Miniature Yellow Bell pepper (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Long Island Cheese Pumpkin (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Red Carpet F1 onion (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

Cortland F1 onion (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

PMR Delicious 51 cantaloupe (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

True Love F1 cantaloupe (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

Sweet Gem Snap pea (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

Sugar Ann Snap pea (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

What is A Community Supported Forest

A Community Supported Forest is a place in which the people actively and deliberately care for the light, the trees, the soil, and the plants to create a healthy system which provides sustenance in a myriad of ways.

Hazelnut

From wild strawberries and wild ramps (onions) in the summer, to linden blossoms and black raspberries in the summer, to hazelnuts and butternuts in the fall, the food from a well planted and cared for forest provides deliciously diverse and bountiful food.

There are other benefits as well. The wood can be made into walking sticks for hikes and charcoal for drawing. Firewood can be used to create the evening campfire, or boil sap down into maple syrup. Woodchips can be thrown in the smoker for succulent, flavorful meat dishes.

Sumac drupe

Maple syrup and honey can grace the breakfast table. Bluebirds can nest in the tree cavities and catch mosquitoes. It is a beautiful and intricate system, and what comes out of it is, like most things, proportional to what goes into it.

Humans have had a hand in Iowa’s woodlands for as long as Iowa has had woodlands. They have planted, gathered, cut, and burned. And how much of that we do today really determines how fruitful the forest will be for us. Dense stands of trees need to be thinned to improve sunlight. Honeysuckle bushes and other invasive species need to be grubbed out. Missing species need to be planted, fenced from deer, and watered the first few years. Every ten years or so, trees will need to be thinned. Community members support the forest.

Through that process, calories will be burned, muscles will be toned, and friendships will be formed. Knowledge will be learned and shared. Ultimately how productive the forest is for the community is a measure of how well the community cares for its Forest.

Sap, a mideason report

When does spring start? Does it start when the chickadees change their call? Does it start when the red-winged blackbirds return to the Lynch Wetland? Or does it start with the first harvest of the year?

A small snap of warm weather this year in mid February, combined with the enthusiasm of my colleagues Gabe and Syd, sent us into the forest. Vecny Woods has a ravine full of old sugar maples.

The blue tape on the drill bit takes the guesswork out of drilling to the right depth.

The sap started flowing immediately, which is both tasty and rewarding.

The sap from a sugar maple is usually 2%-3% percent sugar, and we set 26 taps in the Vecny Woods sugar maples. We will also be tapping silver maples in the floodplain (77) and box elders (a handful) in the former barnyard of the Penningroth Barn. While all three types of maple trees provide good sap, the silver maple sap has a sugar content of 1.5%-1.75% and the box elders have 1% sugar content. That sap requires longer boiling time, which in turn makes a darker syrup with a more robust flavor.

Reducing that sap to syrup requires a lot of firewood, a lot of boiling, and a lot of steam. It also requires a lot of patience. While the sap was flowing on February 11, our night time temperatures have been hovering around freezing, and the days have been cloudy. Those are not conducive to sap flow, and the trees have just been trickling. We might have enough to make three gallons of syrup. Fortunately, sap season has only just started, leaving us with a good month left for the weather to start cooperating. Next week is looking promising.

Solstice Lindens

After spending three seasons missing the linden flower harvest, I finally got it right: summer solstice. The blossoms have a beautiful delicate scent, and make a lovely tea. As the elderberry flowers are also in full bloom, I’ve been enjoying the two together in the evenings.

We planted linden trees in and around the parking lot of Amazing Space. Not only will they grow quickly, to provide shade for the vehicles, but their blooms are popular with the bees (and me!). The leaf buds and young leaves are also edible.

It was difficult to pick the perfect tree for landscaping the parking lot. On a completely practical level, the criteria were straightforward: native, edible, and no messy fruits or large nuts to drop on cars. The linden gives us that. I hope, as they mature, the landscape will evoke the same feelings one has when visiting the Lindenhof in Zurich, Switzerland. It is a place rich in cultural history and a place people gather to share time with one another.

What Goes into a Food Forest Canopy

One concern I have with the phrase “food forest” is that it implies that the rest of the forest is inedible. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least in Iowa. Upland forest canopies are dominated by oaks and hickories,  with a handful of butternuts mixed in. The midlands are full of mulberries, black cherries and black walnuts. Even the bottomlands, with their thick stands of silver maples and lindens, are full of edible life.

Linden blossoms are delicious in tea, and provide a valuable food source for pollinators.

In most landscapes, I focus on the natural history of the land, and ask what would be here, if we hadn’t cut the trees, grubbed out the roots, and planted corn in the heart of the forest? What is missing from both this particular plot, as well as the surrounding areas? What would increase the native diversity and resilience of the ecosystem?

In a food forest, I narrow that focus to species that 1) are native to the area, and 2) are fairly straightforward for humans to eat. A food forest has a greater concentration of native edible species than you might naturally find in a woodland. Done properly, a guest wouldn’t necessarily notice they were in a food forest; they would simply notice that they were in a beautiful woodland with abundant opportunities for them to forage as they walked. People are so far removed from what is and is not edible without a plastic wrap label and a price tag on it, I’ll probably need to put out signs. There isn’t much point, if people don’t know that the food in the forest is there for them.

A box elder tree comes down to make room for a new black maple tree. We have far more box elder trees on the land than we do black maples, so this will help create balanced diversity over time.

The pocket of sunlight we created this winter will be planted to maples this spring. I am locally sourcing Black Maple from Fleming Nursery and Sugar Maple from Hughes Nursery. Just downhill from the clearing is a large silver maple, well-suited to flooding. Mulberry and black cherry are already growing in the area, and we planted butternuts last year.

To the Sugar Bush We Go

It was 20 F when we out to tap the maple trees this year, but the wind wasn’t blowing and the snow didn’t start falling until we were wrapping up. When it warms up in a few weeks, it will be too late-the sap will already be flowing.

Otter tracks on Indian Creek. You never know what you will find in the forest until you go into the forest.

We primarily set taps in silver maple trees. All of the native maples, including black, sugar, silver, and box elder, produce sap that can be boiled down into maple syrup. We just happen to have a large amount of floodplain, and a corresponding large amount of silver maple trees.

The small annual hole we bore in the tree does not siphon out enough sap to damage the tree.

We also tap, to a lesser extent, box elders and sugar maples in the uplands. What difference does it make? Silver maple sap typically has between 1.5%-1.75% sugar in it. Black or sugar maple sap typically has between 2-3% sugar. And box elder sap has 1% sugar.To make syrup, we need to boil the box elder sap twice as long as the the sugar maple sap, and the longer it boils, the darker and richer the caramelization. It boils a long time, because we have to take the sugar concentrations from 1.5% sugar (sap) to 66% sugar (maple syrup).

Maple syrup is the first crop I harvest every year, and tapping the trees for it is my own personal act of faith that spring is about to emerge, in the form of sweet flowing sap from the maple trees.

What Comes out of a Community Supported Forest?

Firewood.

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We took out two leaning black cherries. A third cherry was left, because black cherries, while tiny, are quite tasty. Spit the pits out! Cherry pits contain amygdalin.

We took out a half dozen small scruffy elm trees and mulberry trees. Two large red mulberry trees were left to anchor the southern edge of the forest, because mulberries are also quite tasty.

We took out a box elder, nearing the end of its life. All of the trees we cut were about 40 years old, and one was quite hollow in the middle. Check out the mouse cache of bittersweet berries.

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We also removed a variety of impenetrable bittersweet vines, green briar vines, honeysuckle bushes, and blackberry canes. The blackberry canes will come back with a vengeance (as will, regrettably, the others), but we needed a clear space to work in. Underneath that mess, we discovered the old fenceline.IMG_20180117_132737167_HDR

The firewood will be split, allowed to dry for two years, and then used to boil maple sap into maple syrup. It will also be used to heat the pizza oven.