Inspiring Successful Earth-saving Projects

We can help the planet re-vegetate and reverse climate change. Here are three large projects that have had success and one which is still in the making because it is so vast. Watch these and be inspired, be hopeful, and plant native trees where you live:

Africa’s Great Green Wall:

China’s Loess Plateau:

Jordan’s Greening the Desert:

Tomatoes

Guess what we picked today? I’ve just finished freezing the large ones to make into tomato jam and tomato sauce later, or seasoning and setting the smaller ones out to sun dry. We’ll sell these fantastically tasty foods at our Marketplace in November.

Last year, 2016, we had no tomatoes until the Fall.  I couldn’t figure out why. Our summer temperatures were over 100F for days on end, peaking at 116F several of those days. The nights never cooled off and sleeping was difficult. It turns out that the tomatoes didn’t like the heat either. If temperatures consistently stay over 85F and don’t dip below 75F at night then the flowers won’t set fruit. And here I was thinking that tomatoes loved the heat! They just love the warmth, like I do.

Tomato flowers are self-pollinating. Each has both male and female parts and it takes vibration from winged insects and gentle warm winds to pollinate. Others flick them with their fingers, or set a tuning fork on them to simulate insect vibration. If there are very hot, dry winds, pollen dries out and isn’t viable. If the humidity is so high that it is sticky out the pollen swells and sticks, unable to fall to the female part of the flower. When the temperatures lowered in the Fall, even though the day length was shorter, the tomatoes quickly put on fruit. 

Here in Southern California’s inland area we don’t receive snow, so tomatoes can last outside as a perennial vine for several years. However a good way to keep tomatoes for use after summer is to prune it, hanging the vine with the tomatoes in a dry area with good air circulation. The vine will die but the tomatoes – especially sauce or paste tomatoes such as Roma – will stay in excellent condition for months.

Tomatoes enjoy a good deep watering, and then let go dry in between. The tomatoes are more flavorful that way as well. Most of the tomatoes we harvested today came from volunteers that had popped up along our fenceline and receive no water, and others receive water once or twice a week along with the trees by which they are planted.

This apricot tree has been struggling with the heat and heavy clay in which its been planted, and as it has too few leaves there isn’t anything protecting the trunk and branches from the scorching heat… except for this tomato plant. The tomatoes vine upwards away from nibbling animals and are easy to pick, and the apricot receives shade. (Remember that growing under trees that have an upward growth is great, but only grow companion plants outside of the dripline of trees that have heavy skirts such as citrus and avocado).

When tomato vines die down, cut them at the soil surface and then either bury them or cover them with compost and then plant right around them. Worms love tomato vines and roots, and the vines will return nutrients to the soil. Also, tomatoes don’t care about being planted in the same place twice, so don’t worry about crop rotation. The only issue you might have is that if you plant a different variety the following year, seeds from the previous year’s tomato might come up there as well. 

If your tomatoes crack on the vine, that usually means too much water, or that you’ve dumped some fertilizer on them and the growth spurt was too quick for the expanding fruit. Don’t use chemical fertilizers. Period. For anything. If you dose the tomatoes with fertilizer you’ll have lots of vines and little fruit. Also, if the tomatoes have blossom-end rot (round black dents in the bottom of the fruit) it means there is a calcium deficiency, so to prevent this bury crushed egg shells where you’ll plant tomatoes, or pour sour milk or milk products around the tomato plants. 

We have tomato hornworm in our garden,but they don’t get out of control because we have birds. They take care of most of the caterpillars in the garden. Besides, the tomato hornworm is the young of the Sphinx moth, 

a large lovely moth that you may see in the night.

If the temperatures remain tolerable this summer, we here at Finch Frolic Garden can look forward to lots of tomatoes to dry, can, freeze, eat fresh, make into sauce… whatever. Tomatoes are truly the taste of summer.

Six Years of Permaculture

In February, 2011, I signed the contract with Roger Boddaert to create a permaculture food forest. The goals at that time were to stop the erosion on the property, to create a wildlife habitat, and to grow food, medicine, native plants, building materials, herbs and ornamentals in a sane way: no chemicals. So the journey began, and it hasn’t been easy. Nor did I at that time know that the garden would evolve into Finch Frolic Garden and my business would be education. 

In preparing for a talk about our garden, Miranda and I worked on before and after photos. The garden this April, 2017, is stunning, with blooming wisteria, fruit trees, red bud, roses, angel-wing jasmine, iris, and so much more. Best of all Mrs. Mallard has brought her annual flock of ducklings from wherever she nests, and the four babies are still alive and thriving after a week! So I thought I’d share the incredible difference between what had been, and what is now. All done with low water use, no fertilizer, herbicide, insecticide, additives or supplements. Come visit when you can!  Slideshow images change in ten seconds:

Irrigation for Drylands, Part 2: Evaluating your System

Miranda in the roses gluing pipe.

Miranda in the roses gluing pipe.

If you have an existing irrigation system that works, you may easily convert it by adapting the heads for whatever you want to plant.  Many lawn conversions I’ve designed utilize the existing spray system, particularly for natives, but with a different watering schedule.  Don’t spend money when you don’t have to.

If you have an old grove that is to be converted and downsized, you’ll usually have far more pressure in your system than you need for smaller heads which may cause them to blow.  Working with an irrigation specialist for the valves and pressure is advisable.  For this re-irrigation project of Finch Frolic Garden, I found Vista-based John Taylor of Taylor-Made Irrigation and Landscape, 760-945-0118.  He’s the first person to listen to and consider what I have to say, based on my experience with the old system, and he adapts to different situations.  I’ve learned some cool new things that I will pass on to you, and he’s enjoying learning permaculture techniques, which will help both him and his landscape clients.

Here’s a little world-weary advice from someone who trusts too easily: Many professionals no matter what their field have one set way of doing things that they apply to every situation, be it irrigation, plant selection, tree trimming, construction, etc.  (My neighbor has his poor coral tree topped every year.  Topping trees is a bad practice.  When I asked him about it, he said that his tree trimmer has been topping trees for years and recommends it, so he’s talking his expert advice!  Do you see the problem here?) You, I’m sure, have dealt with these people too.  Every situation needs a different solution, so look for someone who is flexible, listens to you, can offer several solutions with various price ranges, and who will give you a detailed estimate up front.  Jobs will always run over, but they shouldn’t run too much over and the professional should be determined to keep on budget, and honest with you when there is an overrun.  If you ask a professional to do extra things, the new tasks will need to be added on to the original contract because it will take up part of the time allocated towards the original project, so the project completion date will be moved ahead, and will add on to the total cost.  On the other side, if your professional adds on projects that he thinks you’ll like, and you give him the verbal okay, realize that he’ll be working on those projects in addition to the original tasks, so it will take longer and cost more than the original contract.  Look for people who don’t consider telling you their life story part of the time for which you are paying. If you tell them your life story, remember that they are on the clock and you are paying for that time. (I’d rather deal with a quiet, focused professional than a chatterbox who will talk more than work. If he’s not talking to you, he’s probably on his phone a lot while on the job.) Look for neat vehicles with organization, letterhead for estimates and invoices, someone who shows up on time when they say they will, and stays until they are done. They should schedule in their lunch; if they work through it they are not going to work well for you later in the day, and its unprofessional. Its okay for professionals to handle several clients at one time, but only if they are well organized and are eager to finish your project on your timeline.  Contractors are infamous for tearing something apart the first day, then disappearing for days or longer holding you hostage while they work on other projects.  Its okay to ask about all of this, and really important to read reviews.  Don’t always rely on people your friends have recommended; I’ve had both really bad and really good referrals, so make up your own mind.

Extreme mineral buildup in a PVC pipe. Photo from http://www.marinechandlery.com/.

Back to irrigation. Most irrigation is PVC, the white plastic pipe. If you have old buried metal pipes they should be examined for leaks.  Mostly they will fail to function due to mineral buildup due to our hard water.  The inner diameter of the pipe closes; if you’ve ever cleaned your shower head or seen house drains with the thick white inner coating, that’s what I’m talking about.  It will slowly dissolve in vinegar, but the vinegar must remain in the pipe to soak it for awhile, then blown out an open riser to get rid of the chunks.  All sprinkler heads must be decalcified as well. Often the buildup is so old that the pipes are deteriorating and just need to be replaced, usually with PVC.  The galvanized pipe can either be left in the soil to gradually rot, which is fine, or else be dug up and sold for scrap.  The labor cost involved with digging it up will probably be more than what you’ll get for scrap.

Here’s some understanding of water.  The reason why domestic  (potable) water is chlorinated is not to purify the water.  That has already been done before it gets into the delivery pipes.  It is to keep biomass from forming inside the water pipes.  Biomass is any type of growth that forms, usually in wet conditions. Think of algae inside a fish tank or on the inside of a pool. Biomass is nature’s way of filtering and softening hard surfaces, and in nature is essential.  In man-made pipes, the biomass can not only harbor things that can make humans sick, but also slows the flow of water.  Garden hoses have some biomass inside of them, and any rough part will slow the water pressure. Lengths of any kind of pipe are the same.  The longer the pipe, the slightly less pressure you’ll have.  Pressure is important because you want your sprinkler heads to spray, not just dribble (unless you set them for dribbling).  Pressure regulators are set in sprinkler heads, Netafim, and valves to keep lines from blowing out under normal pressure.  If you don’t have an irrigation system set up for a large grove or large grasslands for animals, which require enough pressure to shoot water great distances, then you shouldn’t worry about the lines blowing out.  But understanding about pressure and the effects of biomass and distance will determine what size pipe you lay.

Most people use domestic water for irrigation.  Some rural areas have agricultural water available for commercial growers.  Some people have well water, which is what I have.  Well water has not been treated, so whatever has leached into that water is what you are delivering to the topsoil.  Have your well water tested for contaminants and salts.  You should have a filter after the pump on your well.  However, our heavy-mineralized water will form a oozy barrier around the diaphragms in valves.  If debris or  too much of this slick mineral buildup accumulates, the valve won’t ‘seat’, or seal, and will allow some water to seep through the pipes even when the valve is off.  This has been a huge problem here at FFG, and one which several irrigation ‘specialists’ have completely denied.  They deal with treated water rather than well water, and just don’t understand.  Some valves have diaphragms that can be very carefully cleaned and replaced, but not frequently before they are damaged. If you have a well, check with an irrigation specialist who has real-time experience with well water and valves to recommend the appropriate valves and filter system for you.  I’ll talk more about the ones John recommended for FFG in a later post.

Large-diameter pipes will carry lots more water more slowly.  Small-diameter pipes carry less water more quickly.  If you lay out large diameter pipes from your valves, let’s say 1″ pipe like we’re using at FFG, then you can reduce the size of your pipe gradually to your sprinkler heads and that will be the best of both worlds.  You will have volume of water and increased pressure.  So John has recommended that we use 1″ PVC from our valves, which are connected to the well with 1″ PVC already.

One-inch PVC runs from the valve.

One-inch PVC runs from the valve.

Then we reduce the pipe to 3/4″ at the nearest T, or closest to the first sprinkler head.

The one-inch pipe is then reduced to 3/4" pipe at the first T, close to the first sprayer.

The one-inch pipe is then reduced to 3/4″ pipe at the first T, close to the first sprayer.

Then the sprinklers are reduced down to 1/2″.  Since our well is at the bottom of our slope and water needs to be pumped back to the top, this design really helps keep the topmost systems pressurized.

This sprayer is reduced from 3/4" to 1/2".

This sprayer is reduced from 3/4″ to 1/2″.

So as you are laying out your garden and irrigation system, understand about slope, water pressure, volume of water and your water source.  These factors all have large parts to play in the long-term success of your irrigation.

Next time I’ll discuss drawing up an irrigation plan.

You can read Part 1 Options here, Designing Your System Part 3 here , and Part 4 Conclusion here.

Plant Guild #9: The Whole Picture

3-26-13 009When set in motion the many parts of a plant guild  will create a self-sustaining cycle of nutrition and water.  By understanding the guild template and what plants fit where, we can plug in plants that fulfill those roles and also provide for us food, building materials, fuel and medicine as well as beauty.

Plant the appropriate plants for where you are placing them, for your soil and water use, and stack them in a guild with compatible plants that you can use.  The ground will be covered by a foliar density that will keep grasses and other weeds at bay and provide excellent habitat for a full range of animals and insects.  By stacking plants in a guild you are bringing life and abundance back to your garden.

Does it still sound so complicated?  Rather than try to learn the roles of all the plants in the world, start small.  Make a list of all the plants you want to plant.  List them under food bearing, culinary/medicinal herb, craft/building material, and ornamental.  Then read up on those plants.  What size are they at maturity?  Do they need full sun, partial or full shade?  If trees, do they have an upright growth so you may plant under them (stonefruit), or do they like to have their roots covered and don’t like plants directly under them (citrus and avocado)?

Citrus doesn't like plants under its canopy, but does like plants outside its dripline.

Citrus doesn’t like plants under its canopy, but does like plants outside its dripline.

Are they annuals, perennials or biennials? What is their growth habit: sprawling, rooting where they spread, upright bushy, do they need support and can they cling or do they need to be tied to a support?

Will the plant twine on its own?

Will the plant twine on its own?

Do they require digging up to harvest?  Do they fix nitrogen in the soil?  Do they drop leaves or are they evergreen?  Are they fragrant?  When are their bloom times?  Fruiting times?  Are they cold tolerant or do they need chill hours?  How much water do they need?  What are their companion plants (there are many guides for this online, or in books on companion planting.)

Do vines or canes need to be tied to supports?

Do vines or canes need to be tied to supports?

As you are acquainting yourself with your plants, you can add to their categorization, and shift them into the parts of a plant guild.  Yes, many plants will be under more than one category… great!  Fit them into the template under only one category, because diversity in the guild is very important.

Draw your guilds with their plants identified out on paper  before you begin to purchase plants.  Decide where the best location for each is on your  property.  Tropical plants that are thirsty and don’t have cold tolerance should go in well-draining areas towards the top or middle of your property where they can be easily watered.  Plants that need or can tolerate a chill should go where the cold will settle.

Once it is on paper, then start planting.  You don’t have to plant all the guilds at once… do it as you have time and money for it.  Trees should come first.  Bury wood to nutrify the soil in your beds, and don’t forget to sheet mulch.

Remember that in permaculture, a garden is 99% design and 1% labor.  If you think buying the plants first and getting them in the ground without planning is going to save you time and money, think again.  You are gambling, and will be disappointed.

Have fun with your plant guilds, and see how miraculous these combinations of plants work.  When you go hiking, look at how undisturbed native plants grow and try to identify their components in nature’s plant guild.  Guilds are really the only way to grow without chemicals, inexpensively and in a way that builds soil and habitat.

You can find the rest of the 9-part Plant Guild series here: Plant Guilds: What are they and how do they work? The first in a series. , Plant Guild #2: Canopy , Plant Guild #3: Sub-Canopy , Plant Guild #4: Nitrogen-Fixers, Plant Guild #5: Mining Plants, Plant Guild #6: Groundcovers, Plant Guild #7: Vines,   Plant Guild #8: Insectiaries .

Plant Guild #8: Insectiaries

California native sage and penstemon make great insectiaries.

California native sage and penstemon make great insectiaries.

Insectiaries are plants which attract lost of pollinators to the rest of your plant guild.  We’re not just talking honey bees.  Actually, what Americans raise and call honey bees, any bees from the genus Apis which are colonial honey-producers, are all European.  Of course there are also the African honey bees which are loose in America, but their ‘hotness’ – their radical and violent protective measures –  are not welcome.  There are no native honey bees in North America.

What we do have are hundreds of species of bees, wasps and flies which are native and which do most of the pollenization in non-poisoned gardens and fields.  Here in Southern California where everything is smaller due to the low rainfall we have wasps, flies and bees which range in size from the inch-long carpenter bees to those the size of a freckle.  A small freckle.  In fact the best native pollinator we have is a type of hover fly that is about the size of a grain of rice.

Hoverflies (Family Syrphidae) are one of our best pollinators.

Hoverflies (Family Syrphidae) are one of our best pollinators.

My daughter Miranda hosts our Finch Frolic Garden Facebook page where she has posted albums of animals and insects found here, with identifications along with the photos so that you can tell what is the creature’s role in the garden (you don’t need to be a member of Facebook to view it).

"This photo is of a minute parasitoid wasp (likely Lysiphlebus testaceipes) which preys on aphids. The aphids here are Oleander Aphids (Aphis nerii), which infest our milkweed bushes." Miranda Kennedy

“This photo is of a minute parasitoid wasp (likely Lysiphlebus testaceipes) which preys on aphids. The aphids here are Oleander Aphids (Aphis nerii), which infest our milkweed bushes.” Miranda Kennedy

We notice and measure the loss of the honeybee, but no one pays attention to the hundreds of other ‘good guys’ that are native and do far more work than our imports.  Many of our native plants have clusters of small flowers and that is to provide appropriate feeding sites for these tiny pollinators.  Tiny bees need a small landing pad, a small drop of nectar that they can’t drown in, and a whole cluster of flowers close together because they can’t fly for miles between food sources.

Oregano doesn't spread as much as other mints do, and can be kept in check by harvesting. Look closely at the blooms in summer and you'll see lots of very tiny insects pollinating!

Oregano doesn’t spread as much as other mints do, and can be kept in check by harvesting. Look closely at the blooms in summer and you’ll see lots of very tiny insects pollinating!

If you’ve read my other Plant Guild posts, you’ve already familiar with this, but here it goes again.  You’ve heard of the ‘Three Sisters’ method of planting by the Native Americans: corn, beans and squash.  In Rocky Mountain settlements of Anasazi, a fourth sister is part of that very productive guild, the Rocky Mountain bee plant (Cleome serrulata).  Its purpose was as an insectiary.

Borage is edible, medicinal, lovely and reseeds.

Borage is edible, medicinal, lovely and reseeds.

So planting native plants that attract the insects native to your area is just as important as planting to attract and feed honey bees.  Many herbs, especially within the mint and sage families, produce flowers that are enjoyed by most sizes of insects and are useful as food or medicine as well.

You'll remember our old friend comfrey, which is also a mining plant and great green fertilizer! It also is a dining room for bumblebees.

You’ll remember our old friend comfrey, which is also a mining plant and great green fertilizer! It also is a dining room for bumblebees.

If you like flowers, here’s where you can possibly plant some of your favorites in your guild and not feel guilty about it!  Of course, aesthetics is important and if you aren’t enjoying what is in your garden, you aren’t doing it right, so plant what makes you happy.  As long as its legal.

https%3A%2F%2Fscontent-a.xx.fbcdn.net%2Fhphotos-xfp1%2Ft31.0-8%2F10285532_766393793401086_3893958450901210608_oOf course be sure to grow only non-GMO plants, and be ESPECIALLY sure that if you are purchasing plants they are organically raised!  Although large distributors such as Home Depot are gradually phasing into organics, an enormous amount of plants sold in nurseries have been treated with systemic insecticides, or combination fertilizer/insecticides. nionicotinoid-home-depot-poster Systemic poisons work so that any insect biting the plant will be poisoned.  It affects the pollen and nectar as well, and systemics do not have a measurable life span.  They don’t disappear after a month or so, they are there usually for the life of the plant.  If your milkweed plants don’t have oleander aphids on them, be wary!  If the plants sold as food for pollinators and as host plants don’t have some insect damage to them, beware!  They WILL sell you ‘butterfly and bird’ plants, but also WILL pre-treat them will systemic insecticides which will kill the Monarchs and other insects that feed on the plant, and sicken the nectar-sipping birds.  imgresEven those plants marked ‘organic’ share  table space in retail nurseries with plants that are sprayed with Malathion to kill white fly, and be sure that the poison drift is all over those organic vegetables, herbs and flowers.  Most plant retailers, no matter how nice they are, buy plants from distributors which in turn buy from a variety of nurseries depending upon availability of plants, and the retail nurseries cannot guarantee that a plant is organically grown unless it comes in labeled as such.  Even then there is the poison overspray problem.  The only way to have untainted plants is to buy non-GMO, organically and sustainably grown and harvested seeds and raise them yourself, buy from local nurseries which have supervised the plants they sell and can vouch for their products, and put pressure on your local plant retailers to only buy organic plants.

Talk about a sales twist! They don't mention that it kills EVERYTHING else!

Talk about a sales twist! They don’t mention that it kills EVERYTHING else!

When public demand is high enough, they will change their buying habits, and that will force change all the way down the line to the farmers.  No matter how friendly and beautiful a nursery is and how great their plants look, insist that they prove they have insecticide-free plants from organic growers (even if they don’t spray plants themselves).  Systemic insecticides are bee killers.  And wasp and fly killers as well.

Of course many of the other guild members will also attract pollinators, and even be host plants for them as well.  With a variety of insectiaries, you’ll receive the benefit of attracting many species of pollinator, having a bloom time that is spread throughout the year, and if a plant is chewed up by the insect it hosts (milkweed by Monarch caterpillars, for instance) there will be other blooms from which to choose.

Placing fragrant plants next to your pathways also gives you aromatherapy as you pass by.

And flowers are pretty.  So plant them!

You can find the entire 9-part Plant Guild series here: Plant Guilds: What are they and how do they work? The first in a series. , Plant Guild #2: Canopy , Plant Guild #3: Sub-Canopy , Plant Guild #4: Nitrogen-Fixers, Plant Guild #5: Mining Plants, Plant Guild #6: Groundcovers, Plant Guild #7: Vines,    Plant Guild #9: The Whole Picture.

 

Plant Guild #7: Vines

Our varieties of squash several years ago.

Our varieties of squash several years ago.

You may think that vines and groundcover plants are pretty interchangeable, and they can share a similar role.  However, as we covered in the Plant Guild #6: Groundcovers these plants do not have to vine, but just cover large spaces close to the ground and coming from a single trunk or stem.

Sweet potatoes and yams make fantastic ground covers. The leaves are edible. Some root in one place, and some spread tubers over a larger area, so choose what is appropriate for digging up your harvest in your guild. They will die of frost.

Sweet potatoes and yams make fantastic ground covers. The leaves are edible. Some root in one place, and some spread tubers over a larger area, so choose what is appropriate for digging up your harvest in your guild. They will die of frost.

Vines can be large and heavy, small and delicate, perennial or annual.  In a food plant guild vines are often food-bearing, such as squash.  If you recall the legendary Three Sisters of planting – corn, beans and squash – there are two vines at work here.  The corn forms a trellis for the light and grabby bean plant to climb upon (the bean fixing nitrogen in the soil as well as attracting pollinators with its flowers).  The squash forms a low canopy all around the planted area.  The big leaves keep moisture in, soften the raindrops to prevent erosion and deoxygenation, drop leaves to fertilize the soil, provide a large food crop, and attract larger pollinators.  Even more than that, the squash protects the corn from raccoons.  These masked thieves can destroy an entire backyard corn crop in a night, just when the corn is ripe.  However, they don’t like walking where they can’t see the ground, so the dense squash groundcover helps keep them away.

Pipian from Tuxpan squash supported by a plum and a pepper tree.

Pipian from Tuxpan squash supported by a plum and a pepper tree.

Vines are very important to use on vertical space, especially on trees.  With global warming many areas  now have extremely hot to scorching sun, and for longer periods.  Intense sun will scorch bark on tender trees, especially young ones.  By growing annual vines up the trees you are helping shade the trunk while producing a crop, and if the vines are legumes you are also adding nitrogen fertilizer.

Can you spot the squash in the lime tree? It is crescent shaped and pale.

Can you spot the squash in the lime tree? It is crescent shaped and pale.

Be sure the weight of the mature vine isn’t more than the tree support can hold, or that the vine is so strong that it will wind its way around new growth and choke it.  Peas, beans and sweetpeas are wonderful for small and weaker trees.  When the vines die they can be added to the mulch around the base of the tree, and the tree will receive winter sunlight. When we plant trees, we pop a bunch of vining pea (cool weather) or bean (warm weather) seeds right around the trunk.  Larger, thicker trees can support tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, and squash of various sizes, as well as gourds.  Think about how to pick what is up there!  We allowed a alcayota squash to grow up a sycamore to see what would happen, and there was a fifteen pound squash hanging twelve feet above the pathway until it came down in a heavy wind!

These zuchinno rampicante, an heirloom squash that can be eaten green or as a winter squash, form interesting shapes as they grow. These 'swans' seem to be watching Marina.

These zuchinno rampicante, an heirloom squash that can be eaten green or as a winter squash, form interesting shapes as they grow. These ‘swans’ and Marina are having a stare-off.

Nature uses vertical spaces for vines in mutually beneficial circumstances all the time, except for notable strangler vines.  For instance in Southern California we have a wild grape known as Roger’s Red which grows in the understory of California Live Oaks.  A few years ago there appeared in our local paper articles declaiming the vines, saying that everyone should cut them down because they were growing up and over the canopy of the oaks and killing them.  The real problem was that the oaks were ill due to water issues, or beetle, or compaction, and had been losing leaves.  The grape headed for the sun, of course, and spread around the top of the trees.  The overgrowth of the grape wasn’t the cause of the problem, but a symptom of a greater illness with the oaks.

Zucchini!

Zucchini!

Some vines are not only perennial, but very long-lived and should be placed where they’ll be happiest and do the most good.  Kiwi vines broaden their trunks over time and with support under their fruiting stems can be wonderful living shade structures.  A restaurant in Corvallis, Oregon has one such beauty on their back patio.  There is something wonderful about sitting in the protection of a living thing.

Wisteria chinensis is a nitrogen-fixer with edible flowers (and poisonous other parts), has stunning spring flowers and can make a nice deciduous vine to cover a canopy. It does spread vigorously, but can be trained into a standard.

Wisteria chinensis is a nitrogen-fixer with edible flowers (and poisonous other parts), has stunning spring flowers and can make a nice deciduous vine to cover a canopy. It does spread vigorously, but can be trained into a standard, and are fairly drought tolerant when mature.

Passionvines can grow up large trees where they can receive a lot of light.  Their fruit will drop to the ground when ripe.  The vines aren’t deciduous, so the tree would be one where the vine coverage won’t hurt the trunk.

Dragonfruit aren't exactly a vine, but they can be trained up a sturdy tree.

Dragonfruit aren’t exactly a vine, but they can be trained up a sturdy tree.

Vines such as hops will reroot and spread wherever they want, so consider this trait if you plant them.  Because the hops need hand harvesting and the vines grow very long, it is probably best to put them on a structure such as a fence so you can easily harvest them.

So consider vines as another important tool in your toolbox of plants that help make a community of plants succeed.

Next in the Plant Guild series, the last component, Insectiaries. You can find the entire 9-part Plant Guild series here: Plant Guilds: What are they and how do they work? The first in a series. , Plant Guild #2: Canopy , Plant Guild #3: Sub-Canopy , Plant Guild #4: Nitrogen-Fixers, Plant Guild #5: Mining Plants, Plant Guild #6: GroundcoversPlant Guild #8: Insectiaries, Plant Guild #9: The Whole Picture.

Plant Guild #6: Groundcover Plants

Artichokes are mining plants, but also have a low enough profile to be a groundcover plant. They make excellent chop-and-drop

Artichokes are mining plants, but also have a low enough profile to be a groundcover plant. They make excellent chop-and-drop. Flanking are lavender, scented geranium (left), and borage.

In most ecosystems that offer easy food for humans, the ground needs to be covered.  Layers of leaves, organic matter from animals (poo, fur, carcasses, meal remains, etc.) , dropped branches and twigs, fallen flowers and fruit, and whatever else gravity holds close to the earth, compost to create soil and retain water and protect the soil from erosion and compaction.  Areas that don’t have this compost layer are called deserts.  If you want to grow an assortment of food for humans, you have to start building soil. Even in desert communities where there are some food plants growing, such as edible cactus, mesquite beans, etc., there is biodiversity on a more microscopic scale than in old growth forests.  In deserts the soil needs to absorb what little rain there is and do it quickly before it evaporates, and plants have leaves adapted to have small leaf surfaces so as not to dry out, and there are few leaves to drop.  Whereas in areas where there are large forests the weather is usually wetter, tall plants and thick underbrush provide multiple layers of protection both on the plants and when they fall to layer the earth.

Nasturtium reseeds itself annually, is edible with a bite of hotness, detracts aphids from other plants, and is charming. Don't let it get away in natural areas, though.

Nasturtium reseeds itself annually, is edible with a bite of hotness, detracts aphids from other plants, and is charming. Don’t let it get away in natural areas, though.

A quick way to build soil in plant guilds is to design for plants that will cover the ground. This isn’t necessarily the same groundcover as you would use to cover embankments.  For instance, iceplant can be used in a pinch, but it really isn’t the best choice in most plant guilds unless you are in a very dry climate, and your plant guild is mostly desert-type plants: date palm, etc.  Annuals can be squash or other aggressive food-producing vines such as unstaked tomatoes.  However you don’t need to consider just ground-hugging plants; think sprawling shrubs.

Scented geraniums are a great 'placeholder plant'. These Pelargoniums (not true geraniums) come in a wide variety of fragrances. We've found bird nests in these!

Scented geraniums are a great ‘placeholder plant’. These Pelargoniums (not true geraniums) come in a wide variety of fragrances. We’ve found bird nests in these!

When guests tour through Finch Frolic Garden, they often desire the lush foresty-feel of it for their own properties, but have no idea how to make it happen.  This is where what I call ‘placeholder plants’ come in.  Sprawling, low-cost shrubs can quickly cover a lot of ground, protect the soil, attract insects, often be edible or medicinal, be habitat for many animals, often can be pruned heavily to harvest green mulch (chop-and-drop), often can be pruned for cuttings that can be rooted for new plants to use or to sell, and are usually very attractive. When its time to plant something more useful in that area, the groundcover plant can be harvested, used for mulch, buried, or divided up.  During the years that plant has been growing it has been building soil beneath it, protecting the ground from compaction from the rain.  There is leave mulch, droppings from lizards, frogs, birds, rabbits, rodents and other creatures fertilizing the soil.  The roots of the plant have been breaking through the dirt, releasing nutrients and developing microbial populations.  Some plants sprawl 15′ or more; some are very low-water-use.  All of this from one inexpensive plant.

Squash forms an annual groundcover around the base of this euphorbia.

Squash forms an annual groundcover around the base of this euphorbia.

Depending upon your watering, there are many plants that fit the bill, and most of them are usable herbs.  Scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.), lavender, oregano, marjoram, culinary sage, prostrate rosemary, are several choices of many plants that will sprawl out from one central taproot.  Here in Southern California, natives such as Cleveland sage, quail bush (which harvests salt from the soil), and ceanothus (California lilac, a nitrogen-fixer as well), are a few choices. Usually the less water use the plant needs, the slower the growth and the less often you can chop-and-drop it.  With a little water, scented geraniums can cover 10 – 15 feet and you can use them for green mulch often, for rooted cuttings, for attracting insects, for medicine and flavoring, for cut greenery, for distillates if you make oils, etc.

Sweet potatoes make a great ground cover. Choose varieties that produce tubers directly under the plant rather than all along the stems so that you don't have to dig up your whole guild to harvest.

Sweet potatoes make a great ground cover. Choose varieties that produce tubers directly under the plant rather than all along the stems so that you don’t have to dig up your whole guild to harvest.

Groundcover plants shouldn’t be invasive.  If you are planting in a small guild, planting something spreading like mint is going to be troublesome.  If you are planting in larger guilds, then having something spreading in some areas, such as mint, is fine.  However mint and other invasives don’t sprawl, but produce greenery above rootstock, so they are actually occupying more space than those plants that have a central taproot and can protect soil under their stems and branches.  Here at Finch Frolic Garden, we have mint growing freely by the ponds, and in several pathways.  Its job is to crowd out weeds, build soil, and provide aromatherapy. I’d much rather step on mint than on Bermuda grass, and besides being a superb tea herb, the tiny flowers feed the very small bees, wasps and flies that go unsung in gardens in favor of our non-native honeybees (there are no native honeybees in North America).

Here’s a general planting tip: position plants with fragrant leaves and flowers near your pathways for brush-by fragrance.  You should have a dose of aromatherapy simply by walking your garden path.  Mints are energizing, lavenders calming, so maybe plan your herbs with the pathways you take in the morning and evening to correspond to what boost you need at that time.

Consider groundcover plants and shrubs that will give you good soil and often so much more.

Next up: Vining Plants.

You can find the entire 9-part Plant Guild series here: Plant Guilds: What are they and how do they work? The first in a series. , Plant Guild #2: Canopy , Plant Guild #3: Sub-Canopy , Plant Guild #4: Nitrogen-Fixers, Plant Guild #5: Mining Plants,  Plant Guild #7: Vines,   Plant Guild #8: Insectiaries, Plant Guild #9: The Whole Picture.

What makes up a plant guild.

What makes up a plant guild.

 

Podcasts with Diane Kennedy

Two podcasts with me talking about permaculture, Finch Frolic Garden, and how you can save money and the world through gardening! 🙂 Please let me know what you think:

This is a podcast with Sheri Menelli of earthfriendlyhomeowner.com, where I talk pretty much without a pause for breath for about the first ten minutes.  Recorded in May, 2015.

Ep7: Interview with Diane Kennedy of Finch Frolic Gardens and Vegetariat.com

This is a podcast with Greg Peterson of Urban Farm Podcasts, released Jan. 7, 2016, and you can listen to it several ways:

Urban Farm U:  

Plant Guild #5: Mining Plants

The beauteous taproot.

The beauteous taproot.

In the last post we explored one way plants take nitrogen out of the air and fix it in the soil.  Now we’ll explore how plants take nutrients from deep in the soil and deliver them to the soil surface.  This is another way that plants create high nutrient topsoil.

All rooted plants gather nutrition from the soil, store it in their leaves, flowers and fruit, and then create topsoil as these products fall to the ground. Every plant is a vitamin pill for the soil.  When you pull ‘weeds’, clear your garden, prune and otherwise amass greenery and deadwood, you are gathering vitamins and minerals for your soil.  Bury it.  All of it.  If its too big to bury, then chip it and use it as top mulch.  Allow that nutrition to return to the soil from whence it came.  No stick or leaf should leave your property!  Period.

Fiberous roots hold soils together, and taproots dig.

Fiberous roots hold soils together, and taproots dig.

There are mainly two kinds of root systems: fibrous (like many grasses) and taprooted.  Some taprooted plants grow very deeply.  Those plants that are deemed ‘mining’ plants go the extra mile.   I envision mining plants as the gruff gentlemen of the plant guild: tough and weathered, dressed in pith helmet and explorer clothes with a larger-than life character and a heart of gold.

A monument to Sir Henry Morton Stanley.

A monument to Sir Henry Morton Stanley. I don’t know if he had a heart of gold or was gruff.

Okay, too many old movies on my part. The roots of mining plants are large taproots that explore the depth of the soil searching for deep water.  Depending upon the size of the plant, these roots can break through hardpan and heavy soils. They create oxygen and nutrient channels, digging tunnels that weaker roots from less bold plants and soft-bodied soil creatures can follow.  When these large roots die they decompose deep in the ground, bringing that all-important organic material into the soil to feed microbes.  Meanwhile these Indiana Jones’s of the root world are finding pockets of minerals deep in the soil – far below the topsoil and where other roots can’t reach – and are taking them into their bodies and up into their leaves.  When these leaves die off and fall to the ground they are a super rich addition to the topsoil.  Often the deep taprooted plants have a sharp scent or taste.  Many weeds found in heavy soils are mining plants, sent by Mother Nature to break up the dirt and create topsoil.  Dicotyledonous (dicot) plants have deep taproots, if you are into that kind of thing.  The benefits of a plant having a deep taproot is not only to search for deep water, but to store a lot more sugar in the root, be anchored firmly, and to withstand drought better.

So who are these helpful gentlemen adventurers of the plant guilds?  Comfrey and artichoke are two commonly used mining plants.  Also members of the, radish, mustard, and carrot  family such as, parsnip, root celery, horseradish, burdock, parsley, dandelion, turnip, and poppy to name a few.  There is also milkweed (Asclepias), coneflower, chicory, licorice, pigeon pea, and for California natives there is sagebrush, Matilija poppy, oaks, mesquite, Palo Verde and many more.  Most deep taprooted plants don’t transplant well because their straight taproot is often much longer than the top of the plant.  Check out a sprouted acorn. The taproot is many times as deep as the top is high.

Three day's difference in germinating acorns. Talk about taproot! Image from www.landscapeonline.com.

Three day’s difference in germinating acorns. Talk about taproot! Image from www.landscapeonline.com.

Yet some mining plants such as comfrey and horseradish can be divided or will sprout from pieces of the root left in the ground.  Deep taprooted weeds seem to all be like that, at least on my property!

Horseradish: the root is edible and medicinal, and the leaves are a spicy treat!

Horseradish: the root is edible and medicinal, and the leaves are a spicy treat!

Grating horseradish for sauce, and still tearing up!

Grating horseradish for sauce, and still tearing up!

Now for a little comfrey prosthelytizing:  Comfrey keeps coming back when chopped, so it is often grown around fruit producing trees to be chopped and dropped as a main fertilizer.  Its leaves are so high in nutrition that they are a compost activator, an excellent hen and livestock food (dried it has 26% protein), and have been heavily used in traditional medicine.  Also called Knitbone, the roots contain allantoin, a substance also found in mother’s milk, which among other benefits helps heal bone breaks when applied topically.

A handsome comfrey plant working in the garden.

A handsome comfrey plant working in the garden.

The plant also has flowers that bees and other insects love.  It spreads by seeds as well as divisions, and non-permaculture gardeners don’t like it escaping in their gardens.  I only wish that mine would spread faster, to create more fertilizer.  Comfrey grows the best greens with some irrigation and better soil, so it is perfect for use around fruit trees.

So when planting a guild you can easily plant miners that are edible.  If you harvest those deep taproots, such as carrots or parsnips, then be sure to trim the greens and let them fall on the spot, so the plant will have done its full duty to the soil.  Unless the plant can take division, such as the aforementioned comfrey, then planting seeds are best.  Deep taprooted plants in pots are often stunted and either don’t survive transplanting well, or will take a long time to grow on top because they need to grow so much on the bottom first.

Next up: the exciting groundcover plants!

You can find the entire 9-part Plant Guild series here: Plant Guilds: What are they and how do they work? The first in a series. , Plant Guild #2: Canopy , Plant Guild #3: Sub-Canopy , Plant Guild #4: Nitrogen-Fixers, Plant Guild #6: Groundcover Plants,  Plant Guild #7: Vines,   Plant Guild #8: InsectiariesPlant Guild #9: The Whole Picture.