Fall Planting at the Food Forest!

We are getting excited!  Fall is arriving and we will be planting many of our fruit trees and shrubs soon!

Thanks to a wonderful group of volunteers we cleared the area of weeds a few weeks ago.  Also, several volunteers amended the soil for blueberries, cranberries and lingonberries.

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Wonderful ACLT volunteers

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This Sunday we are putting up a fence, to keep the deer out.  Helpers are welcome!

Soon we will be seeding in dichondra repens.  As a ground cover, it will help build humus, and improve soil fertility and beneficial soil life.  It will keep the soil at more moderate temperatures and help retain moisture in the summer.  And, it will also provide and keep detritus for natural mulching, prevent erosion, and build beneficial insect habitats.  It is recommended that we wait for days to be in the 70’s and night’s in the 50’s to plant these.

We will also be seeding in more native herbaceous plants to attract beneficial insects.  We have some nice ones blooming right now, but want to add some more clusters.  Many of these seeds need a period of cold in order to sprout.  So, as nature does it, we are planting them in the fall, and hopefully they will start growing in the spring.

Next week (Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on when they arrive) we will be planting strawberries.  Yay, our first fruit producers!  We are planting a variety of strawberries.  Some will be native strawberries, with the added benefit of supporting native wildlife.  They are supposed to provide small, but very flavorful berries.  I can’t wait to taste them!  We are also planting some typical spring bearing berries,  everbearing berries (give fruit in spring and again later in the fall), and day neutral berries (provide fruit throughout the summer and into the fall).  If all goes well we will have a long season of strawberries.  Strawberries are originally forest plants, so the hope is that that they will do well with the trees, and support a healthy forest soil life.

On Saturday, September 17th, we will be building a Hugelkultur mound, a second area for blue berries, cranberries and lingonberries.  Hugelkultur is an ancient European practice of burying logs under raised beds.  These mounds build a rich soil life which is incredible for fertility, moisture retention, heat retention and just plain amazing growth.  We have had some amazing results with hugelkultur mounds in our EDGE garden.  We are looking for help building this mound.  So, if you are interested in this method of gardening, come join us for a morning of digging and learning.  You can also check out all the things growing on our EDGE garden hugel mounds.

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Sweet Potato from EDGE garden Hugelkultur

Around the 1st of November, we will be receiving many other fruit plants: pears, plums, raspberries, blackberries, service berries, persimmons, cherries, and others.  It will be a fun project to plant these bushes and trees in their new home.  We would love for you to join us.

 

 

 

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The First Plants in the Food Forest

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.

Mark Tilling

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.

Jeff Planting in the Food Forest

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.

Mushrooms cover the Food Forest

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.

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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.

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Horsenettle

 

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 info@acltweb.org

Preparing the Soil for the Food Forest: It’s Just Dirt, or is it?

 

Just as we are learning about the important health implications of the human microbiome (beneficial microorganisms that live in our bodies), scientists are also discovering the many ways that soil microorganisms support plants.  Plants are well aware of how beneficial these tiny creatures are.  As we all know, plants conduct photosynthesis to make sugar.  Plants use these sugars to build themselves, and to get the energy they need to do what plants do.  And yet, they give away 40% or more of these precious sugars to the microbes in the soil.  Plants would never do this, unless they were getting something pretty good back.  And boy, do they!

Plants produce something called exudates, from sugars and different proteins, to make a variety of meals for microbes, based on what the plant needs.  One exudate might attract microbes that bring nitrogen to the plant.  Another will bring microbes that fight off a certain pathogen.  Soil microbes provide a wide variety of services to the plant.

They can bring micronutrients to the plant, so that the plant can make phytochemicals which help the plant fight diseases.  Many of these plant phytochemicals are used by humans, to produce their own disease fighting chemicals.  For this reason, plants grown in good soil are more nutritious than plants grown in soils found in conventional farms.  Many of these soils have lost their microbes, due to the application of fertilizers (which only bring Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium and a few other nutrients to the plants), herbicides and pesticides.  On the other hand, microbes in healthy soils can bring the plant all of the nutrients it needs, for optimal health.

Some microbes can actually make plant growth hormones that promote root growth, root branching, and greater density of root hairs.  This allows the plant to access more nutrients and feed more microbes, making the plant’s overall vigor much better.

Another thing that soil microbes do is build humus.  Humus can last in the soil for centuries.  It holds water and nutrients so that they are available to plants and microbes.  Therefore, soil with high levels of humus, are drought and flood resistant, and are a constant source of nutrients for when they are needed.  Since humus is made of carbon, plants and microbes naturally work together to draw carbon dioxide out of the air and store it in humus for the long term.  Thus, amazingly, good soils can actually reduce climate change.  Read about  “4/1000 Initiative: Soils for Food Security and Climate” from the Paris climate talks.
So How Do We Create a Good Soil Ecosystem for Our Food Forest?

We know that good soil ecosystems can provide all of the nutrients our trees will need, maintain water in the system so that we won’t need to water much, and protect our trees from diseases and pests.  So how do we build these soils?

Different ecosystems have different soils.  Grass and annual plants like soils with lots of beneficial bacteria.  Forest soils have beneficial bacteria, but are far more heavy in beneficial fungi. Because of this, we want a soil that has a high fungi to bacteria ratio to support our Food Forest.

If you are a gardener, you know that good compost will build healthy soil.  High carbon materials are called “browns”, and they include things like leaves, paper, and wood.  High nitrogen materials are called “greens”, and they include things like grass, manure, coffee grounds and other food wastes.  When you get a good mix of browns and greens your materials compost nicely, and encourage the growth of beneficial microbes.   In our Food Forest we will encourage fungi, by composting a slightly higher portion of carbon materials (browns), to nitrogen materials (greens) than usual.  Read “Teaming with Microbes”, by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis to get a great explanation of how this all works.

We are adding wood chips, leaves, partially composted manure and saw dust, grass clippings and coffee grounds to our existing soil.  The leaves at this time of the year already have a nice fungal community working on breaking them down.  So we are adding LOTS of leaves.

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Jeff adding woodchips

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Marty adding leaves

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Mike from Lucky Cricket Horse Farm donated horse manure

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Birgit adding manure

We will be incorporating all these things into the soil.  The microbes will do the work of composting these into good soil, and reproducing like crazy.

We also have a worm bin.  We will use this to make compost teas that are rich in fungi.  By spraying these on our soil and plants, we can greatly increase the beneficial fungi in our system.  (I will talk more about compost tea in a later blog.)

Finally, we will inoculate our soil with microbes from similar plants that are already growing well in other locations.  For example, I will take dead leaves and soil from under the healthy mulberry that is growing in my yard, and include it in the soil when we plant our new mulberry tree in the Food Forest.  In this way we will be transferring microbes that are particularly mulberry friendly to our new mulberry.

The soil is the foundation of the entire Food Forest.  So, as anxious as we are to start planting things, first we will build our soil.

If you are interested in helping, please contact us at ACLT.

Volunteers for this project are welcome! Contact us at info@acltweb.org