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.

The well known path

The sound of the fresh falling snow lures me outside with the alacrity of a five year old. The snow renders the world silent, reduces the color palette to monochrome, refracts light into a million swirling rainbows, and turns even a well-known path into a journey of mystery and wonder.

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I headed for the Baltic labyrinth because I wanted to be totally immersed in the snow experience. The woods can be a very distracting place for me. In the fresh falling snow, with no tracks before me, I am the pioneer and the sole voyager. The sense of the place is subsumed by the sense of the elemental. I become one with the intense solitude, and experience, well, obviously not waldeinsamkeit.  Schneeinsamkeit, perhaps?

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What goes into a Community Supported Forest?

My friend Shannon just left a sack of bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) seeds on my desk. I know it was her, because how many of my friends know what a bladdernut is, much less that nothing would make me happier? A few years ago, Jerry brought home a pappery husk and asked me what it was. It took me a while to identify, because not only were they lacking from our forest, but as a diminutive understory tree, the bladdernut doesn’t make it in to many of the tree guides. The bladdernut is a delightful understory tree with an edible, if small, nut. We’ve only seen the single grove, a small layer in a larger grove of oaks, in the one location. I couldn’t find any one who sells them to plant at Amazing Space.

Next year, this important little cog will be replanted in the ecosystem, replacing a stand of invasive honeysuckles that currently do nothing more than provide a home for a feral cat and a handful of cowbirds.

in 2017 we planted paw paws (Asimina triloba) from Red Fern Farm. Another species once native, now vanished, will yield a mango-tasting, native fruit in coming years. It was likely originally native a bit south of here, but global warming is with us to stay. Ticks are now still active in February.

There are a handful of butternut (Juglans cinerea) trees on the property, but all are heavily cankered. Another friend, Roger, stratified a handful of nuts we collected in 2016, and started them in the spring. If I can keep the seedlings mulched, watered, and weeded, I can worry less about the species dying out here. And nothing is tastier than a butternut pie.

In years gone by, it took a community to manage and harvest the bounty from the forest. Today, it still takes a community to do the same. We just have better shovels (or on lucky days, PTO-driven augers) for planting seedlings and chainsaws for faster tree cutting. This should leave us plenty of time to enjoy a cup of tea by the fire with friends.

A Purple Prairie

One of the extraordinary things a prairie reveals is the great color palette of nature. Now that we’re in July, and the heat of summer, the purples are abundant. A few treasures from my latest walk:

Leadplant
Bergamot-pick the flowers and top few inches of stem and leaf for tea.
Purple Prairie Clover
Swamp Milkweed with bumblebee
Hoary Vervain
Prairie Blazing Star

 

These, you may have noticed, are growing in mulch, not the dense grasses that provide the structure of a tallgrass prairie. This was just my walk from my office to my car! They are newly planted around the parking lot at Indian Creek Nature Center. Everyone should be able to enjoy the natural beauty of a prairie, even if they aren’t up for a hike. The diverse flowers will attract butterflies and support native pollinators. The deep roots are drought tolerant. What more could you ask for in a landscaping plan?

 

Celebrating Earth Day with a new Labyrinth

I designed and built my first labyrinth before I learned what a seed labyrinth was, and before I learned how to draw a seven circuit labyrinth. The double spiral reflected the natural form of the ubiquitous land snail shells and the duality of nature. It was loved by the community, but in 2016 we mowed it down to lay out Amazing Space. While the site is still there (the area was peripheral to the project), the tallgrass prairie has been allowed to regrow. It is time to create a new labyrinth.

The first Labyrinth I designed, in 2012.

When a friend recommended the new labyrinth be a Baltic design, I balked a bit. I had no idea what a Baltic pattern was. I had spent a lot of time designing the double spiral, and replicating it would have been easy. But I’m also quite curious, and after doing a bit of research I was convinced and excited.

The Baltic labyrinth, while technically being unicursal, does offer choices. Which means a visitor can walk directly to the meditative center, follow the labyrinth path to the center, or follow the labyrinth path to the center and then back again. This provides three different lengths, and three different experiences.

The layout of the Baltic Labyrinth

There are a number of labyrinths in the area, but none of them are a Baltic design. This gives the labyrinth community something special. I love creating things, so the idea of learning a new pattern, and laying it out, seemed like fun. I am extremely grateful for circular graph paper.

To celebrate Earth Day, Alliant Energy volunteers laid out the new Prairie Labyrinth. The field of flags denotes where I need to mow. Within a month, the path should be established enough that they can be removed.

 

Live edge wood: celebrating the shape of nature

During a prairie restoration project, we had to cut a number of trees down that had grown up along a former fenceline. The farm fields had been planted to prairie in the 90’s, but they were still separated by a straight “treeline” edge. Such unnatural edges decrease the overall diversity of the species that live in the prairie. Instead of creating habitat brush piles and cutting firewood for maple syruping, we had the irregular log sections sawn on-site into 2″ thick boards.

We took the boards to a kiln. This allowed the wood to dry quickly, with minimal warping, and killed any insects in the process. The kiln recut and planed some of the boards for us to create 3/4″ live edge baseboard.

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Volunteers took the bark off and sanded down the live edge to create a smooth finish.

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A master craftsman from Ryan Companies than installed the baseboard. Lining up the live edge with the studs was a labor of love and caring.

Box elder is a soft wood with a short lifespan, and is not usually considered a top choice for craftsman. However, the beautiful red bands create a dynamic, rich hue in the room.
Box elder is a soft wood with a short lifespan, and is not usually considered a top choice for woodworking. However, the red bands create a dynamic, rich hue in the room.
Hackberry is also not typically a choice interior wood, but its pale color creates a unique offset to the blue wall.
Hackberry is also not typically a choice interior wood, but its pale color creates a unique offset to the blue wall.
Black cherry is more commonly used among furniture makers.
Black cherry is more commonly used among furniture makers.