Growing a Better Life

This morning I ate handfuls of raspberries, mulberries, strawberries and Nanking cherries on my daily walk around the garden. I also stopped to nibble a few bites of mint, some cilantro flowers, and hyssop.

This ancient culinary herb seems to change flavor significantly through the seasons, something our ancestors would have been familiar with as they used it to flavor their meals. 

Since we use good Permaculture design and strategies like heavy mulching, polycultures and self-organizing plant communities, our garden doesn’t require much of us, but it gives back a great deal: beauty, diverse nutritionally dense foods, fuel wood, craft materials, medicines, aromatherapy, and a deeper understanding of nature, human systems, and life itself. 

But a Permaculture garden’s gifts go beyond one individual or even a family. A few days ago, a man who used to live a few houses down stopped by to say how great our garden looked, and to take a few pictures on his phone. He said that we inspired him to grow edible landscaping at his new place further down the street. Now he wants to have a yard like ours and teach his grandchildren about gardening. Other neighbors yell compliments to us from the road as they pass by. We take pride in knowing that our garden is giving gifts to others in our community. 

But it doesn’t stop there either. We understand that when we can meet our needs directly through nature, sustainably harvesting the excess of natural systems, we lessen the burden we place on ecologies and other people. Every carrot we grow ourselves is a carrot that won’t have to be grown with degrading agricultural practices, sprayed with chemicals, picked by under-paid and poorly treated workers, shipped 1,200 miles with fossil fuels–the actual US avereage for carrots, refrigerated for weeks with fossil energy, and transported home for more refrigeration. Each step along the way requires mining, the destruction of rain-forest, exploitation of humans around the world, and contributes to climate change, mass extinctions and ecosystem collapse. If I can use a little bit of my leisure time to grow a large amount of my own food, this probably has the most positive impact on the environment, community health and social justice of any single thing I can do. 

We’re also happy to know that, while it isn’t a “native garden,” a Permaculture garden is the ultimate habitat restoration garden for wildlife. Our garden is filled with a large variety of native plants–one native plant landscaper suggested we likely have a greater variety of native plants than most “native gardens” in the city! But not only does our garden produce excellent habitat on site, but far more importantly, in a Permaculture garden every single foot, even those planted with “native plants,” is used for productive space. And every foot of garden space used for production inside or near a human settlement means that a much, much larger space out in “the country” doesn’t have to be tilled, burned or clear-cut to meet human needs. A garden where we live gets the benefit of constant, easy human interaction making it both very energy efficient and very productive, and flourish while cooperating and sharing with nature. But a farm out in “the boonies” will have to dominate and exclude nature, take more land for the same production, and have to make up for a lack of human-scale energy with fossil fuels, heavy machinery and chemicals. 

At the same time, human settlements make relatively poor wildlife habitat, since they’re disjointed, lack the scale for large animals and are inappropriate for the “shy” species that are often the most endangered. So using our home gardens for production means that large, contiguous tracks of high-quality habitat far from human activity can go “back to nature.” Our Permaculture garden puts both places to their “highest and best use.” 

Who knew that being good could taste delicious?


Living with a Forest Garden

Our scholars are learning that forest gardening has been nearly universal amoung human cultures, “the oldest human land use,” it’s being called. It’s certain that some form of “Agriforest gardening” system has been a large part of the way that most humans who have ever lived have met most of their needs, right up until very, very recent history. 
Becoming forest gardeners, we re-take our rightful place as the gentle, kind “keystone species” of our ecosystems, learning to work with nature, as a part of it, rather than against it as an outsider. 
How to start? You already know. We evolved doing this, making healthy, rich ecosystems that support all forms of life. Our eyes, ears and all our senses tell us when we’re in such a place and we know it by its “beauty.” We instinctively know healthy soil, good compost and healthy forests when we see them. 

A forest garden doesn’t have to be your only garden, you don’t have to give up your veggie patch. But if you’ve got a garden you’re struggling to keep up with, a patch of lawn you’re spending your precious time mowing, or a spot you want to “landscape,” then you can turn it into a beautiful, productive ecosystem that grows food in cooperation with nature. 

Almost every property could benefit from a hedgerow, a traditional forest garden system, loaded with flowers, wildlife and fruit like these nanking cherries. Or perhaps a few fruit trees, guilded with diverse vertical layers of fruits and vegetables. And the whole natural community around you will be healthier for it. 
In return, this healthy ecosystem will supply you with food, medicine and beauty throughout the year. At the moment, ours is giving us amazing daily salads with mixed greens, self-sown butter lettuce, flowers and strawberry vinaigrette, a weekly pot of soup or stew, and more veggies for cooking and fresh eating than we ever get around to picking. 

Here’s a spire of Babington’s leek, a perennial wild leek, finally flowering in its third year, and we’re hoping its seedlings will join the dozen or so other perennial alliums in our garden. 

Welsh onion is another beautiful perennial allium. Having such a variety means they are available throughout the year, as a source of healthful food, a potent source of calories and flavorful meals. 

In fact, variety might be the single most important key to a successful forest garden. Variety means you’re giving mother nature the tools she needs to create a healthy, functioning ecosystem, rich with connections and a vibrant “economy” between elements. 

And that diversity should extend to the “architecture” of the garden, with “hetrogenous” textures and spacing being the norm, rather than “homogenous” ones. Such diversity virtually guarantees that SOMETHING will work and your garden will begin to reward your work with low-maintenance yields. 

(Perennial Chamomile flowers)
And you’ll begin a journey of co-creation with nature, evolving along with your forest garden, as one part of a self-organizing, natural system… a uniquely human experience you’ll share with almost all of our human ancestors going back to the dawn of time. 
It’s my sincere hope that this blog can help inspire others to become forest gardeners and join the journey back to this lost way of human being

Lillie House Forest Garden Tour Saturday at 1:00

This Saturday we’ll be giving some free tours of our garden, with a discussion on the basics of Forest Gardening. 

It’s a nice time of year to see our young forest garden, as the summer flowers have begun their show and the pollinators are taking full advantage. 
If you have questions about starting a forest garden or where to begin, this weekend would be a good time to chat about it. 
We’ll also have a few plants for sale/trade, including valerian, blood-veined sorrel, marshmallow, comfrey, bellflowers, bee balm, anise hysop and a few others. If you don’t have the cash or anything to trade, bring some empty pots and there might be something you could pot up and take home. 

A forest garden is a “procreative asset,” an investment that replicates itself, growing wealth naturally. We take pride in knowing that our forest garden is helping to create other forest gardens, making our whole community wealthier, healthier, and less reliant on an ailing corporate system that poisons both people and nature. 
Here is a beautiful little shady garden area on the north side of our garage and on an east-facing slope. It’s loaded with strawberries, mulberries, black raspberries, sunchokes, mushrooms, herbs for cooking, flowers just because, and greens like kale for daily salads. If I only had a few hundred feet of shady yard to garden and limited time to do it in, it would look a lot like this. 

Just throw in a multi-graft paw paw, a shade tolerant and virtually maintenance free fruit tree, and possibly a few more  berries, and it would be just about perfect. 

(Shingiku, “chop suey greens”)

If you live west of Kalamazoo, you can also visit Rustling Knapweed Forest Garden in Lawton. We team up with PJ, who manages that garden, to provide educational opportunities and promote forest gardening. 
To RSVP for a tour and get directions, call (269) 350-3407

Mulberry Truncheon: does it work?

(Contorted Mulberry)

A “truncheon,” which sounds like something Captain Caveman might have used to beat people over the head with, is actually an old-fashioned form of vegetative propagation or “cutting” that’s ocassionally useful for a variety of tree species including willow, hazel, certain dogwoods, and allegedly all species of Mulberry (which we would report is false.) 

These cuttings, alternately called “live stakes” are large branch cuttings, about the size of an arm, or the perfect size to beat someone over the head with. (A coincidence?) The leaves are removed, and the stakes are buried or driven deeply into the ground. 
In short, we have had no success in rooting a single truncheon from red or white Mulberries. I surmise that this information is simply a mistake rooted in the fact that there is a great deal of confusion over Mulberry species in the trade, and that only Morus Nigra can be reliably cultivated from truncheons. 
3 years years ago, we tried planting 10 truncheons from 3 different mulberry trees, all red/white hybrids (morus rubrus x morus alba) as the two readily cross and both are present around our yard. These were planted in 5 different test locations in our yard. (This is essentially the common American Mulberry, the same species as “Illlinois Everbearing.”) About half were more characteristic of white Mulberry, and the other half red. We hoped to rule out various soil and light conditions in our trial. 
At the time, there was very little information available about this propagation technique, and that which was available suggested that the technique would be a preferred method for propagating Morus Rubra crosses. I could find no experiments or reports from anyone who had ever actually tried the technique with Morus Rubra. 
Since then, we have tried a few more times in a more informal way, but to this point, I can safely say that although they have all leaved out and remarkably lasted much of the summer, none of them ever struck root and none returned the following year. 
I will report that we unintentionally had some truncheon-sized stakes of lilac and catalpa take root, indicating potential for those species to be propagated via live stakes. 
And finally, I tried 3 small live-stake cuttings of contorted mulberry*. These were too small to be true tests of the truncheon technqiue, however, none of these did anything that would indicate that success would be likely with larger cuttings. 
Hopefully this quick report will be useful to others looking for information on truncheons and live-staking. If you have any success or reports on truncheons with Mulberry or any other species to share, I hope you’ll comment and I’ll update this post to include your data. 
*Contorted Mulberry: usually labeled as ‘Morus Nigra’ by nurseries, but most likely Morus Austalis [Morus Bombycis,] or Morus Alba or some other single-sex Mulberry, as contorted Mulberry has widely varying reports of its fruiting habits in the nursery trade.) 

Permaculture Plants: Allium Unifolium

Now that’s a flower that looks so good you could eat it right up. And as it turns out, you can! In Permaculture, we’re always looking for good multi-purpose perennial plants and in that regard you can do no better than the beautiful North American native wild onion, allium unifolium, or “single-leaved onion,” which in actuality is neither an onion (it is not in the “onion” species Allium Cepa) nor single-leaved (it usually has 3.) But never mind that, just look at it!
It’s a star in the garden, soft-colored, delicate and detailed up close, but at the same time vibrant enough to catch your eye from across the street. And it tastes as good as it looks. As Perennial alliums go, this one is stand-out for flavor, beating both garlic chives, and chives in our tastes tests here at Lillie House. Every part of the plant is edible, with a sweetness that (in my experience) surpasses other vegetables in the allium family, paired with a mild “onion” flavor and a spicy zing that gets your attention then quickly fades. The flowers make a zingy garnish and the leaves can be used like chives, but the best part is the flower stalk, which has the potential for a truly gourmet vegetable. 

There it is above. It looks similar to asparagus, but has a delicate crispness similar to a freshly picked pea pod. This is similar to the gourmet use of garlic chive stalks, though the unifolium stalks are much larger, sweeter and, in our opinion, have a nicer flavor. 

One potential drawback is that Allium Unifolium is likely to be less productive than other perennial alliums, as it spreads less quickly than weedy plants like chives. But it makes up for this with a willingness to grow in dry soil, an (alleged–we’re still testing this) ability to compete with grasses and an ephemeral growth pattern (it dies back in summer and returns the following spring) that could make it very useful  as a “catch crop” in polycultures and no-dig gardens. For example, we’re testing this flower on the edges of our annual no-dig garden beds, knowing it will help keep weeds at bay in the spring, then politely fade back rather than compete with our tomatoes or squash. 
And finally, while it’s not strictly native to the Great Lakes region, it gives many of our native insects a food source that would be familar to them on the western part of their range. Sure enough, the bees and native pollinators seem to love Allium Unifolium as much as I do. 
Single-leaved onion, One leaf onion, American onion, Allium Unifolium
Bulb, grows in a grass-like clump similar to chives. Probably produces larger stalks if thinned somewhat. 
Habitat: Mediteranean climate with dry summers, prefers clay soils but will grow in sand. Potential to grow well in garden habitat where top soil levels (where the bulbs grow) dry out in summer, such as where drip or hand irrigation are used–or where no irrigation is used. Will rot if too wet in the summer. 
Zones: (5)6-10. Mixed reports, but it has overwintered without loss in our coldest Kalamazoo (zone 6, was zone 5) winter in over 40 years. 

Cultivation: Easiy grown from seed, or divided from clumps in the Spring or Fall as with chives or garlic chives. Probably requires cold stratification. 

There are presently few resources on this uncommon allium. If you know of any, please let me know.