We worked hard to add lots of organic matter to our Food Forest. We added extra carbons, especially local fallen leaves, to increase the fungal life in the soil. Our fruit trees will want a nice fungal soil. Then we plowed and tilled the organic matter into the soil. WHAT? TILLED? I was not crazy about the idea myself. Tilling increases erosion, breaks up the life in the soil, brings up weed seeds, and leads to oxidation of valuable nutrients. So why did we till? The main reason was that we had a large area of grass that we wanted to get rid of. Cardboard works best, but the area was too big for that. Tilling allowed us to break up the grass and incorporate the organic matter we added, into the soil. The area did not have too much organic life in it to begin with, so we figured that tilling just one time, might not be such a bad thing.
We wanted to counter some of the bad effects of the tilling. The first thing we did was try to get the area covered with leaves. The hope was that this would slow down oxidation of nutrients in the soil, support soil life, and reduce erosion. It took us much longer than we had hoped, but we are finally covered now.
The second, and more important thing, was to grow plants on the area. Growing plants improves humus and fertility, reduces erosion, increases the life in the soil, and reduces weeds. [Read Dr. Christine Jones’s fascinating work about how plants work with soil microbes to build, long lasting humus.]
We planted ground covers to cool the soil and retain moisture in it. The more ground we can cover with plants, the more we will be able to build long lasting humus, that stores water and nutrients for soil microbes and plants alike. We planted several native plants to attract beneficial insects. Many of these are good spreaders, so hopefully next year they will have seeded nicely throughout the area. We introduced New Jersey Tea, Bristly Locust and Smooth Alder to bring nitrogen to the soil. These plants associate with rhizobium, a soil bacteria that takes nitrogen from the air and converts it to a plant available form. Smooth Alder and Bristly Locusts are also woody pioneer plants that are known for their ability to break up compacted soil. Because our soil is calcium poor, we also planted dogwoods. They are good at accumulating calcium and making it available to other plants, as their leaves decompose in the fall. All of the plants we planted are plants that support beneficial fungal growth in the soil. All of the plants we planted will support our fruit and nut plants, that will be planted in the fall.
So far, we have had mixed results. It rained everyday over the 4th of July weekend. When I came in on the 5th, I found the whole area covered with mushrooms. So, we are doing well getting a nice fungal community in the soil. Also, because we moved so many leaves into the area, we found that we also moved many other organisms with the leaves. As we plant things, we are finding that the area has a really nice population of worms, now.
However, it turns out that a 10th of an acre is a very large space to cover with plants. We planted creeping thyme and strawberries as ground covers. The creeping thyme is doing well and is creeping already. However, it is very tiny and will take a long time to cover. Because we took so much longer to prepare the soil than we expected, the bare root strawberries were in poor shape when we planted them. We will be re-planting strawberries and other ground covers in the fall. In the mean time we are trying a temporary ground cover of sweet potatoes. They are not perennials, but hopefully will bring us some delicious sweet potatoes, in addition to their benefits to the soil. Unfortunately, we are not fenced yet. So, we have had some trouble with herbivores helping themselves to the sweet potato leaves. We are trying a little blood meal around the sweet potatoes to keep them away.
Because of our minimal ground cover, we now have large, uncovered areas of soil. There are two problems with this. The first is that the beneficial soil microbes need plants to live, and they can not produce the long lasting humus without plants. It is our hope that the plants we do have growing, spaced out throughout the area, will help with that. We are also hoping that the organic matter we added to the soil will help keep the rest of our soil friends alive, until we can get more ground cover in.
The second problem is that all that open ground area will grow any weeds that can tolerate the hot dry season. We have two plants that were already in the area, before we tilled, coming up like crazy.
Dogbane is the first. It turns out that dogbane is an excellent plant to attract beneficial insects. Not only does it feed many native bees, but it also feeds many predator insects that help keep pests in check. https://the-natural-web.org/2014/07/08/what-good-is-dogbane/ So, this is a good thing, and we are encouraging the growth of the dogbane.
The second plant is horsenettle. It turns out that horsenettle loves being tilled. Like the mop in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, when the roots get broken in pieces by tilling, each piece becomes a new life. Horsenettle is not especially good at attracting beneficial insects; it is extremely invasive, and pretty unpleasant to walk around in. So we will do our best to get rid of it. We are pulling it up the best we can and then covering the area with cardboard and wood chips to prevent the remaining root pieces from coming up again.
Other than that, the vast majority of our plants are doing well, and hopefully they will prepare the area for our fruit and nut plants, that will be introduced in the fall.
Finally, we are celebrating the good news that BG&E will be supporting our project with a grant that will cover the cost of the fruit and nut plants, as well as fencing.
If you are interested in helping, please contact us at ACLT.
Volunteers for this project are welcome! Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org