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.

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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.

Kiwis in Iowa: a potentially awesome vine

When I’m creating with the landscape, my top three criteria are usually local, organic, native. But I’ve been totally intrigued with the idea of adding kiwi vines to the yard. I repainted the windmill a few years back, only to have invasive hops run rampant over it. Hardy kiwis (Actinidia arguta) are native to China and Siberia, and produce lovely (I hope) little fuzzless kiwis. After doing enough research to determine that, having never actually tried a hardy kiwi, I completely lacked the knowledge to figure what varieties I really wanted, I opted to go with a variety pack from Stark Bro’s.

 

It included two Anna Hardy Kiwi’s, a male pollinator partner for them, and an Issai Hardy Kiwi. The Issai self pollinates. The plants are beautiful, and I managed to get them in the ground, mulched, and deer-fenced within a day of them arriving. They probably won’t produce fruit, even with the best of care, until 2019 or 2020. But it will good to see something with potential growing in the next few years, versus the hops.

Bee Season

The bees are here, the bees are here! Last year, I spent no time in the hives, received no honey from the bees, and went into the winter with no bees. It wasn’t a lack of productivity on the bees part, just a lack of assistance on mine. The hives became overpopulated, the bees swarmed, and swarmed, and swarmed again too late to remain viable through the winter.

Like most other inbred domesticated animals, apis mellifera usually need a certain amount of care and management to be successful. With Amazing Space finished, and a partner to help me in the apiary, they should get more attention this year and we will see what the top bar hives can really do. Top bar hives require less (in this case, no) chemical input, but like most organic systems, that translates to greater time in the field physically working with them. We will need to move frames around and remove comb throughout the season.

It is naturally shaping up to be a good bee season. It has been warm, so there is a profusion of blossoms full of both nectar and pollen.The apple trees and lilac bushes are in full bloom. The dandelions, bluebells, and wild violets are creating a fusion of blue and yellow.  The warm days will allow the bees to fly more and feed easily, and the colony will build up quickly.

Spring in the Orchard Nursery

Today, I finished grafting my 50 apple trees for the spring. Last year, I grafted two. Both died. This year, I changed things up a bit: a good left-handed grafting knife and M7 root stock that looked extraordinarily robust. Of course a lot more practice may help.

So what’s going in the nursery? Fresh eating apples (Malus domestica): Ashmead’s Kernel – Atlas – Black Gilliflower – Calville Blanc d’Hiver – Cox’s Orange Pippin – Delistein – Golden Nugget – Golden Precoce – Griffith – Grimes Golden – Hidden Rose – Late Strawberry – Livadiyskoye – Lodi – Northern Spy – Rome Beauty Law – Wealthy – Winter Sweet Paradise – Viking.  Two wild card scions from a friend: a Thomas Jefferson and an Etzel. The first is problematic because Jefferson grew a lot of different varieties of apple trees that are still in existence (and at least one that isn’t). The second is problematic because it isn’t listed anywhere. Odds are good it is a known variety, I just don’t know enough to ID it.

Nothing provides good cross-pollination better than a crab apple (Malus angustafolia). I grafted some Virginia Hewes Crab, a good cider apple which also traces its lineage to Jefferson’s estate, and Young American, which produces large fruits perfect for making jelly.

My absolute favorite variety this year is Kaz 96 08 15, a Malus sieversii. Why? Because it is the apple, a scion wood from one of the apples that started it all in Kazakhstan. I don’t care what it tastes like, though I am quite curious. All Malus domestica – the apples we eat every day, buy from the grocery store, and grow in our orchards – are descendants of the wild Malus sieversii.

Hunting Red in October

Every fall, two things happen that mark the shift from summer into the fall. The first is when someone calls to ask when to stop feeding the hummingbirds. The answer is whenever the hummingbirds stop eating the sugar water. They know when they need to fly south, and no amount of enticement on our part will convince them to stick around for winter.

The second is when someone brings me a beautiful red leaf to identify.

This is poison ivy. Stunning, and still full of oil. Off of its vine, there are no "leaves of three." The characteristic "mitten tips" curl under almost immeidately making it a tough one to identify.
This is poison ivy. Stunning, and still full of toxic oil. Off of its vine, there are no “leaves of three.” The characteristic “mitten tips” curl under almost immediately making it a tough one to identify.

There is, of course, plenty of non-hazardous beauty out there.

Oak leaves after a rainstorm.
White oak leaves after a rainstorm.
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Sugar maple leaves. Both the oaks and the maples produce golden leaves as well this time of year.
Sumac leaves only turn red before falling off.
Sumac leaves, on the other hand, only turn red before falling off.
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The red I was most excited about discovering on my last walk was a lovely patch of rose hips. Not only are the hips edible, I was able to cut them in half and save the seeds for future plantings, while drying the rose hips for turning into tea.