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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

Creating an orchard

When I was nine, my grandfather would let me mow the hayfield with the tractor. He would supervise from the edge of the field, wearing a long-sleeved plaid shirt and straw hat, eating an apple fresh from the tree.

31 years later, I wear long-sleeved plaid shirts and a straw hat to protect me from mosquitos, thorns, ticks, and the sun. I inherited a McCormick Farmall Cub tractor older than I am. The only thing missing was the apple tree.

My friend Craig has been trying to give me a pair of apple trees for about two years now. I have always demurred, because apples need sun, and that’s not something I have a lot of living under the canopy of an oak savanna. But this spring I was watching the cardinals and chickadees in the thicket of mulberries, multiflora rose, and honeysuckle that had grown up under the dead oak tree, and I realized that I do, indeed, have a sun spot.

The oak tree died back in 2000, before we moved onto the land. It is gradually crumbling in place. Woodpeckers are aiding its decomposition, and more small twigs and bark slough off each year. If enough sunlight in the area is allowing the birds to plant  and grow a thriving orchard of invasive trees and shrubs, its enough sunlight for a few more desirable trees as well.

Armed with a chainsaw and a shovel, I started clearing and planting. Since I had no idea what kind of apple tree I wanted (the kind that tastes good?), Craig started me with a lovely variety of heirloom eating apples: a Chestnut Crab, a Yellow Hardin, a Golden Russet, a Ribston Pippin, a Rhode Island Greening, and a Yates.

IMG_20160403_172437235