Life Webs


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Starting with trees

Trees growing from a cliff wall on the New York State Thruway

Trees growing from a cliff wall on the New York State Thruway

We’ve all learned the stages of ecosystem succession: bare earth, annual grasses, perennial shrubs, pioneer trees, climax forest. In my part of the country, that’s what happens if you clear-cut a forest and walk away from it – the land will pass through all the stages and you’ll eventually end up with more forest. The reforestation of New England, following the abandonment of farming, has been one of the most talked-about ecosystem changes of our time.

But does it make sense to regard soil as the starting point? Soil is a complex living ecosystem and took a long time to develop.

On a recent trip to Boston, as we drove past mile after mile of rock walls – much of the highway was created by blasting through hills – I looked at the trees growing directly from the rocks and started to think differently about succession.

Trees live on minerals, water and sunlight, all of which are available on rock. (To be fair, lichen probably colonized the rock before the trees began growing, dissolving enough of the rock to make the minerals available to the tree roots.) Leaf litter from the trees then breaks down to become soil, making trees a more logical choice than soil as a starting point.

Annuals rush in where angels fear to tread

Does any of this matter? I think it does, if only as a matter of perception. If we regard trees as the starting point, it’s easier to see annuals as the anomalies they are – the ephemeral, opportunistic species that rush in after a disturbance (fire, windstorm, disease, timber harvest) to take advantage of a briefly unoccupied niche. They’re not a necessary step in creating the forest; they’re just fastest off the mark when there’s a niche to colonize.

Seeing annuals as anomalies helps us see exactly how bizarre the idea of annual agriculture is. Here are these fragile species that jump in for a brief moment when the forest is cut down and then get crowded out almost immediately – and we depend on them for our livelihoods? Talk about unsustainable!

And just as I was thinking this, I came across Janine Benyus’s comparison of human beings to annual plants in her book Biomimicry. Our strategy is to jump into a niche, reproduce as fast as we can, gobble up everything in sight, take up all the available space and resources, and then crash when there’s nothing more to eat. We’ve survived so far because our numbers were small and there were always new spaces to move to. But as we know, that’s no longer true.

To survive as a species, Benyus says, we have to become perennials. We have to dig in for the long haul, increase at a more reasonable rate and cooperate with the other species around us instead of trying to dominate them. We have to learn to be part of a sustainable ecosystem, as we were for so many years before the invention of annual agriculture.

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Puzzling over earthworms

earthwormEarthworms were the superheroes of my elementary-school science class. They aerated the soil, added organic matter, created structures that held water, turned garbage into gold. Seeing them and their lovely, rich castings in my garden and in the compost pile, all these many years later, makes me feel proud and virtuous.

But there’s more to the story. Here’s what they didn’t tell us in school: In the parts of North America that were glaciated (including the northeastern and midwestern regions of the U.S.), the glaciers wiped out all the terrestrial earthworms. Over the next ten thousand years, as the glaciers receded, the ecosystems adapted to this wormless state. Leaf litter piled up in the forests, and trees and understory plants evolved to gather nutrients directly from the litter, with help from fungi and bacteria. They also evolved to plant their seeds directly into the leaf litter. These forests had little or no topsoil, just mineral soil covered by a “duff layer” – leaf litter, twigs, bark, and so forth.

Fast forward to the 1600s, when the Europeans who settled the area unknowingly brought worm eggs in their cargo. They cleared forests and planted (mostly European) crops; the worm eggs hatched; fields and pastures filled up with earthworms and their castings. Today, there are some 15 species of earthworms in the area, all from Europe or Asia.

Earthworms damage the forests – we think

The worms are great for lawns and gardens (I think they’ve been poisoned out of most industrial-type farms), but – according to today’s accepted wisdom – they are making a mess of forests. They eat the duff layer, making it hard for trees and other forest plants to gather nutrients and for seeds to sprout. They eat tree roots, which weakens the trees. They greatly reduce the amount of carbon that trees can sequester. Forest scientists think earthworms cause as much damage as deer overpopulation.

I read all this recently, while I was trying to research the deer problem (see Regenerating trees), and I was horrified. Our compost pile is at the edge of the woods, and it’s full of worms. (My guess is that the worms come from the hay that we use as food and bedding for the rabbits – much of which ends up in the compost pile – but who knows.) Not only the compost pile but also the area around it is rich with worm castings. Suddenly, that stopped being a source of pride and became a source of anxiety. Are we setting off a worm apocalypse in our woods? Will all our efforts to re-create native woodlands be for naught?

There’s no open area suitable for the compost pile, but we decided that, once the weather gets warm, we’ll move the pile up to the chicken coop. There, we can count on the chickens to eat the worms as fast as the worms can multiply. It will make the chickens very happy, too.

Confusion reigns

But the more I think about it, the more confused I become. The Northeast was largely reforested in the last century or two after farmers abandoned their fields and pastures. How did native forests arise successfully on these earthworm-infested lands? Do the trees or the fungi fight back with earthworm-inhibiting chemicals? Or are they evolving back to their pre-Ice Age, earthworm-friendly genetics? Or are the post-agricultural forests all inherently weak and unhealthy?

And then another question arises: How are agroforestry and permaculture possible in the once-glaciated regions of the United States? People are planting rows of canopy trees (oak, chestnut, hickory), understory trees (hazelnut, native and non-native fruits), berry bushes and vines, with alleys of grass and even annual crops such as squashes between them. (One person doing this type of agriculture is Mark Shepard, who describes his experiences in his wonderful book Restoration Agriculture. He’s in Wisconsin, and I was wondering how he managed this problem till I realized that he’s in the Driftless Region, a high plateau that escaped glaciation. So he probably still has native earthworms. However, people are using similar practices in once-glaciated areas.) Do these “artificial edge” communities have earthworms, or not? If the pasture/garden alleys have earthworms, what prevents the worms from getting into the wooded areas?

More research to be done….

And any insights welcome.


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Everybody eats

“Have a banana, Hannah,” Cab Calloway sang.*

“Try the salami, Tommy.
Give with the gravy, Davy.
Everybody eats when they come to my house.”

Outside my bedroom window, where I see it when I wake up each morning, is a miniature fish pond whose inhabitants all seem to be singing along with Cab. Everybody eats when they come to my pond, and I don’t even have to feed them. In fact, they feed us.

It’s amazing how little it takes to make a sustainable system – how little, in terms of how few species and how little knowledge. Of course, it helps that the ecosystem is only about 20 cubic feet.

Ingredients for a pond

We started with a problem – mosquitoes – and, in good permaculture style, turned it into a solution – a pond. Mosquitoes preferentially lay their eggs in the pond (if no standing water is available, they’ll lay their eggs in a puddle or even a drop of water). To vacuum up the mosquito eggs, we added the second ingredient – nine goldfish. Two of them are visible in the picture if you look carefully. The goldfish also eat mosquito larvae and pupae, so if they miss any eggs, they get a second and a third chance.

Fish, of course, produce fish poop. To absorb the ammonia, nitrates and nitrites in the fish waste, we added water hyacinth, an attractive plant that you can see floating on top of the pond, as well as some submerged plants such as anacharis, which you can barely see. The fish nibble on the water hyacinth roots and on the submerged plants.

Water hyacinth is amazingly prolific – it can be an invasive nuisance but also holds potential as a biofuel for the same reason – and in spite of the goldfish nibbling, it spreads quickly, threatening to block all sunlight from the pond. It’s edible, and is eaten in some places, but we haven’t tried it yet. I have tried feeding it to the rabbits, though, who were most appreciative.

We added two other plants that are fertilized by the fish waste but don’t give anything back to the fish – a watercress (left-hand pot) which is not only edible but actually gets eaten, and a hibiscus (right-hand pot) which makes glorious orange flowers, only not right now. Hibiscus flowers are edible, too, but I get more enjoyment out of looking at them.

The flowerpots accumulate small amounts of algae, which, like the plants, both filter the fish wastes and provide food for the fish. And the cinderblocks that the pots sit on shelter the fish when they need to hide from birds or other predators.

Visiting frogs

Regular visitors to the pond include four green frogs, one of which is on a rock at the left side of the picture. They’re well camouflaged – they always seem to be exactly the color of the leaf or rock they’re sitting on – and they spend most of their time waiting patiently for something edible to fly by. As far as I can determine, they don’t eat mosquitoes (too bad!), but beetles, flies, grasshoppers, butterflies and moths are all fair game.

Frogs also eat small fish – and I can’t say for sure that they haven’t eaten some of my fish – but for them the pond is not so much a food source as an escape hatch. When they hear me approaching, they dive into the water and hide almost before I’ve seen them. The pond is also where they lay their eggs. I haven’t seen any tadpoles yet, but that may just be because the black pond liner makes them hard to see. Or it may be because the tadpoles (which eat algae) are getting eaten by the goldfish. Some say goldfish will eat tadpoles only as a last resort, but of course, the goldfish aren’t reading discussion forums on the Internet and may well have their own opinions.

As Cab Calloway put it,

“Don’t be so picky, Micky,
‘Cause everybody eats when they come to my house! ”

 

 

*Lyrics are by Jeanne Burns even though Calloway made them famous.


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Lazy gardening

Ruth Stout, lazy gardener extraordinaire

Ruth Stout, lazy gardener extraordinaire

 

Ruth Stout’s lazy gardening method appealed to me when I read her books in the 1970s, even though I was still full of energy and ambition in those days. She advised not digging, not tilling, avoiding a host of other unpleasant gardening chores, and, at least as I understood it, skipping straight ahead to the good part – harvesting a ton of delicious vegetables.

(This wasn’t too different from my approach to writing at that time, which called for me to wake up one morning and discover that I’d written a terrific book.)

I tried out Stout’s method in a small suburban lot almost entirely shaded by the trees from my neighbors’ yards. Grass would barely grow there. The patches of bare earth where I tried to plant tomatoes, peas and beans were smooth and hard, compacted by years of neglect. My year’s harvest amounted to a handful of peas.

Forty years later, I have better reasons to be lazy, as well as a better understanding of vegetables’ sunlight requirements. Our current vegetable garden, now in Year 4  of its existence, provides about three-quarters of our vegetables for the year. (We’re simultaneously building an edible food forest, but that’s another story.)

Creating the garden infrastructure turned out to be a lot of work (the lion’s share of it done by my partner), but we’re trying to be as lazy as we can in terms of ongoing maintenance. We’ve gathered information from many sources over the last few years. One thing we’ve learned is that maintenance has to be done – but the gardener doesn’t have to do all of it, or even most of it.

As the radical farmer Joel Salatin says, “Let the animals do the work!” In our case, most of the animals are very small, and we let vegetables do some of the work, too.

Letting nature do the work

Other than not tilling, here’s some of what we are doing to minimize planting, weeding, watering, fertilizing and pest-control chores:

  • Use vegetables that self-sow. So far, we’re having good luck with mache (corn salad), arugula selvatica, radishes and tomatillos, all of which returned this spring. You have to let a few plants go to seed at the end of the season, of course, to make more plants for next year.
  • Use perennials. Asparagus, some herbs and strawberries (OK, strawberries are fruits, but they’re in the vegetable garden) are all long-lived plants. We’ve tried a couple of other perennial vegetables but didn’t like them enough to eat.
  • Plant catch crops (no, not cash crops). If you start lettuce and other salad greens along with bigger vegetables, the greens get a head start while the main crop is still small. Then they stay cool and shady (ideal lettuce conditions) once the main crop gets big enough to shade them. Meanwhile, the greens crowd out most of the weeds and hold the moisture in the soil. Lambs quarters, an edible weed, can be left in as a catch crop. When it’s young, it’s delicious in salad, and when it gets older it can be cooked. It’s especially good with green beans.
  • Plant cover crops. If the main crop isn’t a legume, plant legumes (vetch and clover) as “weeds” alongside the main crop. In our garden, vetch and clover plant themselves; all we have to do is not pull them out. Like catch crops, they crowd out weeds and hold in moisture, but instead of making salad, they capture nitrogen from the air and use it to  fertilize the soil. Purslane, another weed, is also a good cover crop.
  • Build hugelkultur beds. If you’re making raised beds, instead of putting in a full load of soil, start with a layer of rotting logs and sticks, followed by hay and compost, then cover the top with dirt. The dead wood soaks up water like a sponge, which reduces the amount of watering you need to do, and it releases nutrients into the soil over several years as it decomposes. (Fungi and bacteria are doing the decomposition work for you.)
  • Mulch with “chop and drop” plants. If you’re mowing a lawn, pile up grass clippings and leaves around your garden vegetables. Or use plants, like comfrey, that grow quickly and can be chopped down every few weeks. Like catch crops and cover crops, dead grass and leaves keep the ground cool and moist and prevent weeds from growing. They also make great habitat for those giant spiders that hunt and eat garden pests.
  • Add fungi to the soil. Mycorrhizal fungi work best with most types of vegetables, except for brassica (broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), which prefer elm oysters (Hypsizygus ulmarius). Elm oysters have the advantage of being edible – a bonus crop. This is our first year using the elm oysters, so I can’t report on how they taste. The fungi digest other soil microbes and spread nutrients around the garden. And, of course, they hold water in the soil, too.
  • Plant herbs and edible flowers to attract beneficial insects and spice up your salads. Larger flowers attract pollinators (native pollinators are very efficient – you don’t have to keep honeybees unless you want honey), and small flowers attract the insects that eat the insects that munch on your vegetables.


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Saving the rainforest

Inga trees in Central America

Inga trees in Central America

The experiments of the Inga Foundation in Central America offer a realistic hope of sustainable agriculture in a rainforest environment.

Mike Hands, a Cambridge University-based ecologist (and farmer), has developed an alley cropping system based on the inga tree, a leguminous tree native to Central America, and is now working to get local farmers to use his system.

The problem: To feed their families, Central American farmers haven’t had much choice other than slash-and-burn agriculture. They clear rainforest trees, plant corn, quickly wear out the land and move on. Slash-and-burn can be sustainable, even positive, when there’s a lot of land and very few people – it mimics natural cycles of disturbance. With heavy population pressure, and especially with the thin rainforest soils, nutrients are quickly lost and the land can’t be restored before the farmer needs to plant there again. The result is ecological catastrophe. Huge carbon reserves are lost into the atmosphere as the rainforest is burned, and agricultural productivity declines – farmers say their yields are only 10 percent of what they used to be. Often invasive grasses take over the fields and prevent any productive use or restoration of the land. That sets up a downward spiral, as ever more rainforest trees must be cut down.

By planting their corn between rows of inga trees and using inga leaves and branches as mulch, the farmers can maintain permanent fertility in the same cornfield and prevent the growth of invasive grasses. The inga, which grows quickly and re-grows quickly after cutting, also provides edible fruit and wood for cooking. Rainforest trees can be replanted in ruined areas, and farmers may be able to plant other areas with fruit trees.

The foundation is supported by several funding organizations, but accepts donations from individuals as well.


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What to do with spicebush

A spicebush in winter

A spicebush in winter

[Written February 2 but for some reason not published till February 10. It’s been too cold and snowy for the last week to continue my census.]

Inspired by the first warm day of the year (a balmy 39 degrees!) and by the amazing book Tending the Wild by the ethnobotanist Kat Anderson, I began my plant census this morning.

After all, permaculture, and gardening in general, shouldn’t only be about planting. The flip side is learning to care for, manage and use the plants already in place – at least those that are usable. If you’re starting with a suburban lawn and a couple of foundation shrubs, that may be an insurmountable challenge. In our case, though, we have a very rich (though neglected) environment, and there should be plenty to work with.

Between the first European settlement in the late seventeenth century and our initial gardening efforts in 2010, I doubt that anyone deliberately planted anything on this land. As far as I know, the land was used only for logging, gravel mining and deer hunting. So every plant that we did not introduce – whether native, naturalized or invasive – is a “volunteer” whose seeds were carried here by wind, water, birds, pollinating insects or truck tires.

We haven’t ignored what we found growing here. Every spring, we’ve happily foraged on dandelions, wild cress, wood sorrel, fiddlehead ferns and daylily shoots, and every summer on wild grape leaves, black raspberries and blackberries (and this year, we ate autumn olives in the fall). We’ve tried a few other edible weeds and learned the difference between “edible” and “good to eat.” We’ve picked wildflowers for bouquets. We’ve flagged the sugar maples, though we haven’t tried tapping them yet, and we’ve made tea from red clover blossoms. We’ve even discovered the favorite foods of the chickens and rabbits.

But what we haven’t done is taken a census of what’s here and tried to understand how the plant communities work – and how they could be made to work better.

So this morning I began in the southwestern corner of the property, at the edge of the creek and the border of our neighbor’s hay field, and immediately realized that early February is not the ideal time to be taking a plant census. Without leaves, flowers or fruit, most plants are unidentifiable to an amateur, if not invisible altogether.

I did, however, establish that the southwest corner is full of spicebush plants.

The spicebush, native to the Eastern U.S.,  is an attractive shrub (attractive even in winter, because it has a graceful form) that grows in the understory of the woods. It can supposedly reach 20 feet, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen one taller than 8 feet. Even in shade, it has deep-green leaves and abundant yellowish-green flowers. In the fall, the female plants bear hard red berries that have an allspice-y scent.

Here’s what I’ve learned about spicebush:

– The berries can be crushed and used to flavor meats and baked goods. You can’t dry them, because they’ll go rancid, but you can freeze them for storage over the winter.

– The berries, leaves and twigs can be used for tea. I tried making some tea today from the twigs and buds; it smelled lovely but didn’t taste very good. The tea has medicinal qualities (like all natural remedies, it cures whatever ails you).

– Berries make good sachets for closets and clothing drawers.

– The plant reproduces clonally for the most part, putting up suckers in the spring that can be cut and transplanted.

– It is a favorite of butterfly larvae and birds; deer browse it too, but apparently not very much.

– It is not nitrogen-fixing.

– It isn’t noxious to other plants or to animals.

Still to be determined:

– Are the branches suitable for anything? Basket-weaving? Barbecuing?

– Does pruning help or hurt it?

– Most important, what other plants does it want to be near? It’s a mid-level plant; what’s appropriate for the upper layer and the lower layers?


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Adam and Eve Were Cold

adam&eveThough we aren’t religious, my partner and I sometimes feel our permaculture project is creating a Garden of Eden. We’re busily planting one or two of “every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food,” and if they all grow, and we live long enough, we can spend our golden years moseying around the garden, picking fruits and nuts without too much in the way of labor. (In the Bible, God thoughtfully does all the tree-planting before installing Adam in the garden.)

Of course, right now, in mid-January, our new, young fruit and nut trees, and even our “pleasant to the sight” trees, like dogwoods, are just sad little sticks. One of the persimmons seems to have disappeared altogether. After a warm October and a late first frost, we’ve been having a brutal winter, thanks to the polar vortex that descended on much of the Northeast and Midwest – the result of global warming, we’re told. We’ve stayed warm, bundled up in layers of clothing and running the furnace at full blast. (I don’t even want to see what the next heating bill will look like.)

Meanwhile, our chickens and rabbits are living happily out of doors or in unheated sheds. The chickens fluff up their feathers and go out to peck in the snow. The rabbits grow a little extra fur. I saw a deer ambling down the driveway the other day during a storm; he hadn’t even bothered shaking the snow off his back, though about a half-inch of it was piled on top of him.

Only Humans Need Heat

Why do only we need heat? Clearly, because we’re the only species that lives outside the ecological range it was adapted for. And why can we live outside our original niche? Because we have the technology to stay warm in the winter. Current thinking is that hominids, and probably homo sapiens in particular, evolved in equatorial East Africa, an area with mild climate. That’s why we have little body hair. Those who migrated out of the tropics did end up with less skin pigmentation (presumably to enhance synthesis of Vitamin D when less sunshine is available), but didn’t end up with significantly more hair (presumably because they could procure clothing, shelter and fuel).

All of which makes me wonder again about Adam and Eve. In the story, they eat from the tree of knowledge so they can be like gods – and it actually works; God says, “Behold, the man is become as one of us.” (The myth seems to date from polytheistic times, something I’d never noticed before.) But the experiment backfires. God throws them out of the garden before they can achieve immortality in addition to knowledge, and he condemns them to work for a living, among other things.

The first thing they notice after gaining knowledge and “becoming like gods” is that they are naked and need clothing, and they immediately sew clothes for themselves out of fig leaves. This is usually interpreted as the discovery of sexual modesty, and Adam and Eve’s transgressions are usually understood to have something to do with sex. But in the story, sex is a good thing. They had been told to be fruitful and multiply, and they had not been ashamed of their nakedness.

Here’s my thought: Adam and Eve were cold. They noticed they were naked because, with the knowledge they gained from the tree of knowledge, they ventured outside of the tropics for the first time. They had become like gods – they could go anywhere, do anything – but they now needed fig leaves to stay warm.

The last thing God does, before stationing angels and a flaming sword at the gate of Eden, is to give Adam and Eve a set of clothes that will keep them warm as they travel even farther from Eden. “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them.”