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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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.

Small Steps to Zero Waste

Packaging after-dinner leftovers can be something of a challenge in our house.

Jerry: I’ll clean up.

Jean: Awesome.

Moments pass. Then a wad of plastic wrap goes sailing into the living room.

Jerry: Maybe if you could just do something with the leftovers…

Jean: Of course.

Moments pass. A second wad of plastic wrap (this one launched by me) goes sailing into the living room.

Jerry: Maybe it will fit into a little container?

Plastic wrap has long been the bane of our kitchen. The metal teeth on the box will cut part of it, but not all of it. If the wrap is within 2″ of the box, it sticks to itself as if it were in a strange gravitational field. But getting the plastic wrap to stick nicely on anything once it’s out of the box is a disaster.

Jean: What did people used to do?

Jerry: They starved a lot. So when there was food, they ate it all.

This is clearly not a problem today (as my belly will attest to). But in a slightly less-distant past, back in the “good old days” when plastic wrap actually worked the way it was intended, it was made from polyvinylidene chloride. In 2004 it became in vogue to use low-density polyethylene (since vinyl and chloride are both chemicals that create a lot of problems, this was probably a really smart move). The new version may have made manufacturing cheaper and eliminated concerns about chloride, but it also doesn’t work. Except as interesting, non-harmful indoor projectiles when wadded up. All filmy plastics, including our wads of plastic wrap and sandwich bags, can be recycled with the plastic bag recycling. Which is good, but it is ridiculous for me to buy something just for the sake of recycling it.

Since I’ve been fortunate enough to never be close to starvation, I needed a better solution, and found it in beeswrap. Its natural, reusable, and wait for it…really works. I’ve been using it for three months now and only wish I had given up on plastic wrap years ago.

 

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.

Jonquils and Iris

I was staring out the kitchen window, looking at the jonquil patch beside the garden, and realized the jonquils, about to burst into flower, really need to be divided to continue thriving.

Not that this is the best time of year to be dividing things, but I decided they would like nice in the orchard, which just last year was a mess of multiflora rose, garlic mustard, and honeysuckle. The apple trees are still so small, it looks a bit stark. Nitro and I went down to the orchard, and decided that yes, the jonquils would look lovely, but I should rally plant some iris first as a backdrop, as the iris grow taller. My inspection also revealed that the deer have finally discovered the tasty apple buds. On a mature tree the deer are not a problem. But if there are only a dozen buds on the tree in the first place, the deer can eat the whole thing. Apples will stump-sprout, but as they are all grafts…the fruit will not be tasty.

My work cut out for me, I went out to a field by a former farmstead, where the feral iris are thriving in a myriad of colors amidst the brome grass and occasional big bluestem, and dug two up two five-gallon buckets of rhizomes. Once they were all cleaned up they yielded 70 plants.

Rhizomes, separated and ready for planting.

Into the ground they went, and then, just as the rain was starting, I fenced the trees. Definitely not good enough to be a permanent deer barrier-I supplemented my metal fencing with previously cut thorny debris, including multiflora rose and black locust branches. But it will save the trees for a little while longer. Here we are, two weeks later, and I realized the jonquils…still haven’t been divided. A project that will just have to wait until fall, which they will prefer anyway.

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.

 

Creating biophilia: the plant press

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We harvested big bluestem grasses from the prairie and cattails from the wetland last fall.
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Using 3/4″ plywood and buckets full of sand, we created a 4’x8′ plant press that dried the grasses flat over the winter.
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We shipped the grasses to 3-Form, a company that presses organic materials into resin. The see-through panels that resulted are one of the ways Amazing Space merges nature and interior spaces.