Permaculture and Edible Forest Gardening Adventures
I am turning my acre + watershed filled with junk palm trees into an edible forest garden, using permaculture and recycled materials. The journey begins Feb. 1, 2011.
Pruning is a point of contention with me. If you plant a plant in the right place, meaning that it has room enough to grow to its full potential without having to be constantly cut back, then you really won’t have pruning issues. So often I see trees being used as hedges right next to houses or pathways, so they have to be butchered regularly to keep in shape. Because the tree is supposed to be large it produces a lot of woody growth, and over time that is what you’ll see: lots of cut wood with a layer of leaves over the top. Or thorny plants right next to pathways. Or trees with invasive root systems, such as Ficus, California or Brazilian Pepper (neither from California), or eucalyptus, planted right outside a house or near the septic tank. These plants are aggressive in how they find water and they will lift pavement. So understanding the nature of the plant through research, not just what the employee at the garden center has to say, is important so that you aren’t planting an expensive and possibly hazardous problem. If I could wave a magic wand and eliminate 90% of the above-mentioned trees in this state and replace them with drought-tolerant native trees, I’d have no hesitation.
Back to pruning and away from my tree-placement rant.
During my consultations I hear clients say, “This tree needs pruning.” I ask them why they think so, and often they really don’t know. They feel that they have to control the tree somehow, or that human intervention is required. My response is usually, save your money and the preserve the health of the tree by NOT PRUNING. When you make a wound in a plant you open it up for disease and insects. If you continue to change the nature of the tree it will be stressed, and then you will have more insect and disease issues. So please, just leave the trees alone, in most cases.
A horticultural teacher once explained that lawns are partially there for stress control. A person rides through aggressive traffic twice a day, works at a miserable job with miserable people, comes home to messes, a cranky family and bills, has weight issues. So on the weekends he or she can break out the lawnmower and cut that grass down, keep it the same size and make it obey. They have some control over something in their lives, and making that grass immaculate is possibly the only thing standing between them and the loony bin. Over the years from what I’ve seen, I have to agree with that teacher, and extend the example to tree and shrub pruning as well.
When you have young fruit trees, you are planting them for production. You are using them as livestock, so manipulating them for maximum yield is probably on your mind; however, long life and chemical-free growing should also be on your mind, and again, resisting the urge to chop away at your trees is the best bet. Don’t take advice from those in the food-producing industry because they are maximizing their crop for sale using every means they can, including having a short life expectancy for their trees which they will replace at projected intervals. Backyard fruit production is different. You want fruit, but a nice-looking yard as well.
Before you begin, be sure that you have sharp tools that are up for the job. Hand pruners for small stuff, loppers for 1/2″ – 1″, and saws for larger branches. ALWAYS bring Lysol or a bleach solution to clean your blades so that you won’t spread any disease between trees, and treat your blades between each tree. Keep your tools sharp and don’t twist them when cutting or you will mess up your blades. Wear hand, eye, arm, and breathing protection because those little bits have a way of fighting back. For larger limbs, head protection as well. Its better to look like you are ready for a nuclear explosion than to be injured by snapping branches, thorns, falling debris, and even angry insects or birds.
Understand what you are pruning. Many fruit trees and berries fruit on second-year wood, so if you cut it all off, you won’t have blooms. Just because something doesn’t have leaves on it doesn’t mean that its dead; many plants have late dormancy, or go drought dormant in the heat of the summer. If you lightly scratch the bark with your fingernail and there is green underneath, it is alive.
Prune to a node. A node is a growth point. Aim for one that is facing out or to the side, rather than into the plant.
Cut close to the stem, but not right up against it. There is a collar at the base of each shoot, and if you cut just above that, then that will callus over. If you cut into it, it will leave a wound that can be infected. If you leave a stem, that will die back to the node and in doing so may bring in fungus or insects. If you are cutting something heavy, then make an undercut first, then make another cut on top further along the branch, and then the weight of the branch won’t make the bark tear and rip down the tree. Make a final cut close to the collar.
The basics for pruning are, for new trees, cut off dead wood. If you have large ornamental trees, you don’t need to do this unless there is disease or insects in the dead wood, or there is a threat of large dead wood falling on someone. Otherwise, don’t feel the need to ‘clean up’ the tree. Most of the insects and fungus that will inhabit that wood are benign, and actually help with the health of the tree and the ecosystem around it.
Cut off diseased wood. If there is a black or brown ooze from a branch, have it identified. It is probably a fungus or an insect. It may be easy to control, but you have to know. Burn, hot compost (150F – 170F), or bag up and throw away that wood so that you aren’t spreading a pathogen.
Cut crossing branches that are rubbing up against each other and will open wounds on the bark. Also, trim some branches that start at one side of the tree and grow through the middle to the other side. They aren’t doing the plant any favors.
After you do these quick pruning jobs, usually you have very little to do in the future for maintaining your trees. If you have pine trees, please research the type you have to know if they will regrow at the pruning points or not. So often pines are butchered and they won’t grow back where cut. Or the idea is to ‘give them air’. We have Santa Ana winds, for heaven’s sakes, not muggy conditions that build up fungus like Chicago. Most non-native pines (to S. Ca.) thrive with humidity, so ‘cleaning up’ the pine to allow air flow will just stress them out even further by drying them out. (Also, many pines such as sequoias won’t thrive in S. Ca. because of our alkaline soil and alkaline water. They will live for awhile, and then their root base just can’t feed the growing top of the tree which is supposed to be huge due to the inability to obtain the nutrients they require from our non-acidic soil conditions.)
Many people prune their fruit trees down for height so that you can pick them. This should be done within the first two years after planting a tree so that its hardwood forms low, and then the greenwood sprouts can be pruned yearly to keep it low. Again, if you plant a dwarf or semi-dwarf tree, then you won’t need to stress out the tree every year.
When you stress a plant, just like when you yourself become stressed, you will have to treat it. Usually people resort to a series of chemicals, each of which incur more issues that will need to be treated with more chemicals. If you stress a tree and it is covered with insects you then spray those insects, which then also kills off all the hundreds of native preditory insects, so that you will have more bad insect and disease issues in the future. The best policy is to plant the right plant in the right place (permaculture is 99% design, remember), understand the needs of the particular plant and meet them, do any corrective pruning at the beginning (they are children and need gentle correction to help them grow strong!), and then provide them with appropriate soil and appropriate water from then on. No chemical sprays! No systemics! No tree torture! Less stress for the plants, and less stress and expense for you.
If you feel the urge to prune, take up adult coloring books or yarn dying, labyrinth walking or birdhouse building instead until the urge passes. When you really don’t feel like pruning then you can logically evaluate your tree’s needs and won’t hack away at it. Its like not shopping while hungry. Enjoy the healthy beauty of your plants and the nature they support instead.
At our house we already repurpose and recycle, and mend as much as we can. The COVID-19 pandemic made us wonder about supply availability, food security, and even more about our footprint on this planet. As we live in a fire zone, and with the longer, hotter summers and drought the thought of burning is always with us now. Fire season is everyday, not just in the fall. Although if we and our animals were safe it would be enough, the idea of losing the possessions which are touchstones with loved ones hurts. I’m not one to just take a photo of a thing and then give the item away; I rarely take time to look at photos, and seeing the small clay pots, paintings, books and kitchenware on a daily basis links me with loved ones past and elsewhere. So in 2010 we began some habits which we will continue, most of them started by my marvelous daughter, Miranda. Here is a short list:
- Washing and reusing plastic bags. We’ve been doing this for years on a smaller scale, but I wasn’t as diligent about single-use plastic bags when they came my way. Now we also wash and dry any aluminum foil, single-use bags and plastic cling-wrap. We try not to accumulate plastic, but we have frozen a lot of harvests and as we use the supply the bags become available again. Unfortunately the pandemic postponed the new practice in CA of bringing your own bags for groceries; instead of accumulating more I put my supplies back into the cart and bag them in the parking lot.
2. Folded napkins. We stopped using paper napkins at mealtime and shifted to using cloth. My daughter began folding them using a book and the Internet as guides. Every meal feels posh now, and the idea of having to wash them makes me a more careful eater! Why not celebrate every meal?
3. Using the good stuff. My parents worked their way up from absolutely nothing. When I was in elementary school my mother went back to formal work as a manager in the new May Company department store in Carlsbad. She ran thirteen departments, and I spent many a sick day sorting yarn in the stockroom. She used her discount to buy beautiful things, including glassware. My parents loved entertaining; my mother would make everything including homemade baguettes, and serve drinks in lovely glasses. I inherited most of the glassware, where it languishes in my cabinets. I don’t entertain often, and when I do it is mostly informal. Miranda started a tradition of serving our morning juice in fancy glasses. She squeezes orange juice and grapefruit juice. We have a shot of grapefruit juice and a little more of the orange juice, which makes the use of shot glasses, tiny beer steins, champagne flutes and cocktail glasses so much fun. Its a little like having my parents at the table again, and I’m sure my mom would be so happy to see the glasses being used.
4. Soaking in appreciation. Every moment is transient, and to make it last I must recognize it before it becomes the past. More than ever I work on changing the negatives and the fear in my thoughts. Deep breath in, deep breath out. If fire burns everything we have to ash, if I lose my ability to earn an income due to illness, injury or age and our lives change drastically economically, if even more tragedy comes to our doorstep, having lost so many friends these last years and suffering along with their families, I have this moment right now to appreciate. Right this moment I am okay. I have food, water and shelter, which is beyond what so many people have. Beyond that, its all cake. Health, loved ones, income, safety… all cake. Complaining about what I have or can’t have is as much of a sin as any other. So I try hard to have quiet appreciation of my life. It can’t be made ‘better’ with additions or subtractions, it can only change. Whether that change is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is purely opinion. Deep breath in, deep breath out. This goes a long way towards helping deal with the stress that has been raining from the skies instead of water this past year. Being appreciative when grieving, when hurting, when overwhelmed is a much more challenging task. Shaking my fists at the sky raging at the unfairness and injustice helps just a little, but if I hold onto the emotion I become ill. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Soak my soul with appreciation. So much cake.
This year has been a long series of kicks to the teeth. So I was thinking, what could be a better way to close it out than like a Jackie Chan action movie from the ’90s? — with a blooper reel.
All year, we’ve had wonderful sightings, fascinating behaviors, and amazing interactions play out on the wildlife cameras. Not all of these have evoked the majestic spirit of nature. Sometimes, we just be livin’, amiright?
Please enjoy — and have a very caring, safe, and happy 2021.
Through the fall so far, the wildlife cameras have continued to offer an enchanting insight into the usually unscrutinized, quiet shiftings of our habitat.
We’re obviously looking for animal activity on the cameras, but sometimes late or wind-blown-plant triggers capture some beautiful moments from the little ecosystems the cameras overlook.
Daily, nightly, a lot of the same animals appear over and over, filling up the SD cards with hundreds of iterations of the same pieces, in snapshots or 15-second installments, of the same stories. This can be challenging to process, but we love the way we’ve come to know the patterns of some of our wildlife’s lives, and even know individuals.
We love this opportunity to learn about and appreciate each little story: the summer evenings where spidery crane flies fill the creek’s small barranca well with their dramatic bumbling — skittering, over-exposed, in the capture of the infrared lights;
the black phoebe caught, again and again, in Muybridge frozen energy, in aerial sallies on winged insects attracted to the big pond in the afternoon warmth;
the long, still moments as an animal just stands, and looks, pulls in the air and lets its carried scents and noises sink in.
And, of course, we do still covet the unusual — even, playfully, the impossible: as any kid knows, dreaming (im)possibilities is half the fun of any endeavor (“Iron-flanked and bellowing he-hippos clanked and battered through the scudding snow towards us as we passed Mr. Daniel’s house.”). What could come here? I want rare birds to thoughtfully pose, in focus, on the cameras — and also to see a weasel. Maybe lots of weasels. And a scissor-tailed flycatcher would be great. Mom wants hedgehogs and foxes. Reasonable, right?
Well, turns out the foxes are pretty reasonable!
Who knows whether foxes have come through the property before. Who knows if one ever will again — or if it will pass through in a place and fashion that allows our cameras to record it. Tantalizing and wonderful!
(And my weasel dream looks brighter than ever!)
Quotation from A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
Delightfully, the streambed wildlife camera has also been picking up an adorable owl visitor these last couple of months. Western Screech Owls (Megascops kennicottii) are certainly present in the area, but much less common to see than Barns and Great Horneds — they’re more reclusive than those much larger species, hunting mostly different prey and small enough to be at risk from larger raptors themselves. The ones on our property have made themselves known by the distinctive “po-po”, ping-pong-ball-bouncing call that only ever rises up from the tangle of trees in the streambed. We’ve only seen one in person on the property once, when a tour stop under the Big Oak above the stream woke it from its chance nap inside the disheveled old owl box dangling from a branch.
But we seem to have at least one — apparently very dirty — screech owl hanging around this summer, taking baths at the camera point at least a couple times a week. And it’s just the cutest darn thing.
Here in lower elevation areas of Southern California, screeches stick near waterways because those habitats are where we have large trees; as cavity nesters that have adapted to have cryptic coloration and patterning that allows them to blend in with bark, large trees are essential. Happily, we have some big trees extant and growing in our little slot of land. And we have a number of conservation organizations locally who are working to preserve wild land and especially land connected to waterways, as these are always areas of higher species density and diversity. And they say that Western Screech Owls readily use owl boxes made to their dimensions. Wish list!
Lots has been happening on the wildlife cameras recently. We still have camera 1 in its original spot, overlooking the north bog on the big pond, but we’ve been playing around with the positioning of camera 3 in the streambed and shifted camera 2 to the top of the stairs that lead under the Big Oak and down to the streambed where camera 3 is. Let me tell you, this has been a very rewarding set of adjustments!
We have to start our series of catch-ups, though, with the charismatic megafauna, and our most unusual visitors. They’re not regionally unusual; it’s simply our more urban, road-locked setting that makes them unusual on-site. Luckily, the little unnamed seasonal waterway that links numerous properties in a little strip transecting East Alvarado seems to be a relatively unrestricted roadway for many species. Healthy, natural waterways are important in so many ways!
Back in March, we shared our first ever sighting of a bobcat on our property with you. Well, we were absolutely staggered and thrilled when we pulled these videos off the cams recently:
If those didn’t play for you, do visit our YouTube channel to check them out!
We’re very excited by the cutie kitties, although we’re taking extra care with the door of the Fowl Fortress!
This year Finch Frolic has been particularly beautiful. Of course, this year we had to close down throughout the spring. Fortunately we’ve been able to reopen for limited-capacity tours with safeties in place. However, I really miss sharing how lovely the garden is, and I want to let you have a little tour right in your home.
These photos were taken this morning before the temperature rose; its in the 90’sF here today, in North San Diego County. I apologize for the phone camera, as my good camera is in for repair. I only wish that you could also smell the moist mulch from the light overnight dew, or hear the clug-clug of the crow, the tittering of a flock of bushtits and the scuttling of lizards through leaves, which I experienced as I walked around the garden. All of these friends and so many hundreds more are working the garden today and every day, keeping it in balance.
Our food forest is a low-water-use garden, on poor soil, using no additives to the ground other than occasional compost. There are no herbicides, pesticides or other factory-made chemicals used here, and there are two of us who care for the garden. Most of the seasonal beauty this year is due to the diligence of my daughter Miranda who took seed sprouting to a whole new level even before the pandemic arrived. We rely heavily on the insects, birds, lizards, frogs, soil and water microbes and creatures to do all the work protecting the plants, and the plants themselves to create good soil. All we add is a low dose of salty well water which the humus cleans, and leaves or sheet mulch on top. Our fruit trees receive a dose of blender compost once in awhile. Miranda and I hope that these photos bring you peace and lift your spirits, and that knowing you are looking at a safe habitat that is thriving with life gives you a feeling of security as well. It can be done. Permaculture must be done. Best of health! Diane
At this time we are in month #2 of the Corona-19 virus quarantine. Many people are concerned about food shortages, and purity of what food they are eating. Suddenly the availability and the sheer cost of buying ‘organic’ food is not looking so sustainable. But what can you plant?
First of all, if you have an organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) or food stand near you, or farmer’s market with organic food, please buy from them as much and for as long as you can.
If you want to grow food, the here are some tips:
Plant what you want to eat. That may sound simplistic, but if you don’t eat yellow summer squash, then don’t plant it. If you really don’t like kale but think that you should eat it, you may want to use the space for something you will eat. If you are thinking of perennial foods such as fruit trees, evaluate your space and also what fruit you really want to grow. Some things are just better off purchased from a farmer than given the space and water in your yard. If you use limes once a week, growing a big thorny lime tree in a small backyard doesn’t seem practical, but if you have half an acre its fine. See what its growing requirements are and if you have enough heat or chill factor or water to grow that specific tree.
Plant enough for your family to eat. One or two strawberry plants aren’t going to give you the crop that you want, or will one been plant. If space is limited, then decide what you want to grow a lot of, and limit what you are growing per season to those crops.
What season is it? Don’t be fooled by what plants are for sale in box stores, hardware stores, and even nurseries which should know better. You can’t grow corn planted in the Fall: there isn’t enough day length or warmth for them to mature. Depending upon where you live, there are windows of opportunity for planting, down to here in the valleys of Southern California where you can plant something all months of the year. Which is pretty exhausting, actually.
Plant food that not only can be eaten fresh, but also those which can be dried, frozen, canned or otherwise saved for off-season. Its great to eat fresh salads, but plan for protein and flour sources as well. Grow pinto, black or other ‘dry’ beans, those which you leave on the plant until the pods dry and then you harvest and keep the beans. There are so many beautiful beans, with so many different textures and flavors! And they have great names, like Christmas Beans, Goat’s Eye Beans, etc. As most of these are tall-growing, you can put these beans on poles or other vertical supports and save room in your garden. Remember that legumes are nitrogen fixers, so don’t pull up the plant, cut it at its base to leave the roots and their nodules to feed the next crop.
Don’t forget about pumpkins and other ‘winter’ squash. Kabocha is a Japanese winter squash that is delicious, not too ‘squashy’, and keeps its shape when in tempura or in a soup or stew. Delicata is mild and delicious. Spaghetti squash has a mild flavor and is fun to eat, but usually needs some pizza treatment to make it interesting. There are a lot of winter squashes with a myriad of flavors, sizes and textures. Pumpkins and other winter squash can keep for a month or more, depending upon their variety. If you have large ones, prepare to have to ‘butcher’, prepare, use and store a lot of food. Pumpkin pancakes, bread, soups, stews, baked pumpkin, pumpkin chai…. mmmm.
Yes, you heard me right when I said flour. Growing wheat is possible, but growing enough to make a difference, then separating the chaff and grinding it finely enough to use for flour is quite the endeavor. However, you can easily grow corn and make cornmeal. Hard corn is the same as those pretty ears you see at Thanksgiving. You allow the corn to dry on the stalk, and then separate the kernels from the ears (shucking), and store them as is, or put them in a high speed blender and grind them finely. You may need to sieve the results a few times and repeat to get a fine flour, or even use a mortar and pestle for some stubborn bits, but the flour is excellent and can be refrigerated or frozen.
Colored corn makes colored corn meal, too. We’ve grown Black Corn and had dark purple corn bread, absolutely love blue corn meal pancakes, and this year are growing both Hopi green dent and red corn. Can’t wait for green cornmeal for Halloween!
Don’t forget about tubers, either. ‘Irish’ potatoes, which don’t come from Ireland, grow from swollen stems and can be planted in containers and then hilled up around the growing stems. More potatoes will grow from the side stems. You can plant ‘trash can’ potatoes, or have a bed especially for them. These potatoes don’t mind some cold. There are white, yellow, red, blue, purple, red-skinned, purple-skinned… so many different potatoes with slightly different textures and flavors. I love the purple-inside variety; it makes great colorful mash!
Sweet potatoes and yams, which are basically the same thing, are a tropical plant best put in the ground when the soil and temperatures warm up. If you are iffy about eating sweet potatoes… grow your own and taste them without all that marshmallow gloop all over them. They are absolutely amazing. And their leaves are edible as well (not so with the ‘Irish’ type!! Those are related to tomatoes). There are colorful varieties of sweet potatoes as well, and they can certainly be grown in the house as a lovely house plant under the right conditions, and then dumped and eaten!
Don’t forget about growing herbs, not only that you can eat fresh such as basil, but those you can dry such as oregano and dill. Don’t forget medicinal herbs that you can make into tea whether fresh or dried, such as chamomile, catnip (it works as a pick-me-up for humans!), mint (anti-depressant and stomach soother), rosemary, and more. Perennial herbs can go anywhere in your landscape; annual herbs can have their own bed or be tucked in between your veggies as companion plants. Allow some herbs to go to flower to attract the tiny beneficial insects.
If you suspect that your soil may be contaminated from a former agricultural or industrial business, such as a paint factory, that was on the land before your home was built, please have your soil tested for lead, chromium and arsenic at the very least.
Growing your own food is very rewarding, and well worth the work. Protect your food from hungry animals with wire, over and if necessary, under. Make sure the plants have regular water, so hooking up a watering system on a battery timer is a smart move for busy people. Place your veggies close to the house so you will run out and harvest when you want something. Make sure your site has enough sun even in the winter so that, if weather in your area permits, you can grow outside then as well.
Don’t forget that all of those veggie scraps can be saved and then used to make a really amazing broth before they are finally composted. The broth can be frozen.
Have fun with your veggies! Stay healthy! Best wishes to all of you from Miranda and me.
A WALK ON THE TINY SIDE
Remember this image of a sneaky syrphid fly larvae? Well, what I didn’t point out before was that there’s an even sneakier attendee at this aphid-nomming party. And she’s that little black line across the white leaf vein in the top middle of the photo: a parasitoid wasp.
Parasitoid wasps are pretty full-on — their simple life functions can include grotesqueries you thought only originated in the imaginations of sci-fi script writers. But they’re part of the complex web of ecological checks and balances in their systems.
The difference between parasitic and parasitoid is that a parasitic animal generally doesn’t kill or even directly seriously harm the host; it needs the host to continue functioning so that it can support the parasite. A parasitoid uses the host up in the process of supporting its own growth and/or reproduction.
That sneaky parasitoid lady and her cohort are the authors of the scene of destruction above. What look like little brown bumps on my Brussels sprouts leaf are in fact the corpses of aphids: the dried, hardened exoskeletons of used-up hosts. You can even see a small, round hole in the top of one — the door the exiting parasitoid punched out and left open behind it.
Parasitoid wasps like this one home in on the distinct chemicals released by the feeding and typical drama (like terror over a syrphid fly larva attack) of an aphid colony. Fertilized females settle on leaves and begin their prowl.
They’re looking for nice, juicy aphids that will be able to feed their grubs to adulthood. With a quick stab of her ovipositor, a female wasp injects a single egg into a chosen aphid, then prowls on. Once that tiny egg hatches, however, the aphid will slowly be hollowed out from the inside by the hungry, growing grub, until only a husk is left and the mature wasp breaks its way out, exercising its brand-new wings in flight for the first time.
The world is made up of opportunities being taken: everything is a resource and every resource is a chance for an existence to bloom. Sometimes, that existence is just really horrific. But it works for them and it works to create a functioning ecosystem — dynamic equilibrium — so we can all actually be very grateful for the parasitoid wasps.
Creeped out, but grateful.
A WALK ON THE TINY SIDE
Another blooming colony of cabbage aphids (Brevicoryne brassicae) on my brave Brussels sprouts: a familiar sight, especially as the weather warms.
But wait — what’s that?
That! The green thing!
It may look a lot like a cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae) caterpillar, but it’s definitely not. Take a closer look and you’ll see that rather than a mouthful of sprout leaf, this little green guy is munching on aphid.
One of the most numerous, in terms of species, groups of animals on Earth are the flies, order Diptera. Like any large family, there are some gems, some bad apples, some neutrals — and of course, all that depends on your point of view. To aphids, larvae of some Syrphid flies (family Syrphidae) are stone cold bad-‘uns.
Also known as ‘flower flies’ and ‘hover flies’, these natty little fellows pull a lot of weight (each species in its own way) in both natural and altered ecosystems. Their secret is in their adaptable nature: they’re able to take to human-made environments, so are often some of the only native wildlife in housing developments.
Most species in North America as adults mimic bees with yellow, black and striped uniforms and certainly rival and even surpass native bees in pollination services (bees are generally more sensitive in many ways and so are more often excluded or eliminated from habitats). They eat nectar and pollen, as bees do, thus the common name ‘flower fly’.
And of course, most syrphid fly larvae are voracious predators of aphids, making them powerful elements of any garden’s pest management system (a.k.a. ecosystem). Be sure to make friends with yours!