By Heather Jo Flores
I can't stop eating them. There's a fig tree at the place where I am staying and I can't seem to keep them out of my mouth! It's a huge tree, maybe 50 years old, sprawling across the low wood fence and dropping down into the neighbours' yard. They don't mind. Every October, both houses get more figs than they know what to do with, just from the one tree. It's a Black Spanish, and it's famous among fig aficionados as being one of most prolific, cold-hardy and easy to grow varieties.
If you don't have figs in your garden, you should plant one immediately! Plant 10! Figs are not only beautiful, delicious, nutritious and easy to grow, they also provide shade and privacy, create habitat for birds and insects, and are star players in food forests from Vermont to Arcata to Spain and back again.
The sprawling nature of a fig leaves space between for annuals and perennials. Try currants, comfrey, seaberry, canna and blueberries, for starters.
Fig trees can definitely take up a good amount of space, so give it to them. If you live in town or space is limited, plant the figs on an edge, against a back fence or on the parking strip. In the country, plant a patch to create a circular grove or establish a border. I have never had problems with deer eating figs, though your results may vary.
But not all figs are created equal. Many types of figs will literally drown in a wet winter and/or die back all the way to the ground every time it freezes. Here are my four favorites. Each of these bears fruit at different times, so plant one of each and you'll have an extended bounty. These are available online and at most of the local nurseries.
Black Spanish, as mentioned above, is always a winner. It loves hot summers and wet winters, and can be quite prolific, even in a marginal site. The fruits are medium-sized, dark, firm and juicy, and delicious fresh or dried. Naturally smaller than other varieties, in the right spot it can produce two crops a year.
Desert king is one of the best varieties for maritime gardens because it resists late spring frosts and ripens in mid-summer, even in cooler microclimates. Trees can get quite large.
Lattarulla, aka Italian honey fig, is more of a golden color, excellent for drying and can bear two crops in one season, one ripening in late July and the second in mid-September.
Vern's brown turkey fig, not to be confused with plain brown turkey, was developed by Oregon gardener Vern Nelson and is widely known as reliable, productive and prolific in temperate gardens from British Columbia to the Bay Area. It bears large, sweet brown figs and will often produce two crops a year.
Neverella, also called Osborne prolific, makes stunning, opalescent fruits. Naturally a smaller tree that is more shade-tolerant than other varieties, this is an excellent choice for urban gardens.
Petite negra grows only 3 to 4 feet tall — perfect for your container garden! Medium-sized fruits are reddish black and come twice a year.
You could also just take some cuttings from an existing tree in your neighborhood. Figs are super easy to propagate. If you know of one that does well where you live, just wait until it's done fruiting and then ask to take a few cuttings, either from the tips of the young branches or from the suckers around the base of the tree. If you get lucky, some of those suckers will already have roots growing! Get the cuttings established in pots and plant out in early spring while they are still dormant, or if you can keep the soil evenly moist for a month or two, then you can just stick the cuttings directly in the ground.
Once established, figs can be extremely drought tolerant, but, as with most trees, they need to be watered regularly for the first three years. Use this young-tree time to establish companion perennials before the shade canopy of the fig begins to spread. They respond well to an annual top-dressing of rich compost, but aren't especially needy when it comes to maintenance, fertilizers or pruning. In my experience, figs don't take kindly to being pruned, and whole sections can rot if a cut is made improperly. Prune if you must, but be sure to do it only when the tree is completely dormant: after Thanksgiving and before Groundhog Day.
Fun fact: Figs are an inside-out flower, and some varieties are pollinated by the aptly named fig wasp. Other types of wasps don't pollinate but simply use the figs as a nursery for their larvae. These wasps are also known to hunt insects that are harmful to plants, so having figs benefits your whole garden. "I wish I wouldn't have planted that fig tree" said no one, ever.
#permaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #growyourown #foodnotlawns #DIY
with Tao Orion
Excerpted from our double certificate design course.
Permaculture design is all about mimicking natural systems. It is possible to work with ecological succession to create biodiverse and functional landscapes. In order to go about this, it’s helpful to understand the ways that natural systems organize themselves. This mini class will explore the details that will help you to make the best decisions.
Mimicking the forest at home: guilds and forest gardening
When we’re designing the home landscape, we can think of fruit and nut trees as the late successional species in our garden ecosystems. In natural ecosystems, there are generally many types of species assemblages that lay the groundwork, allowing for these larger, longer-lived species to thrive.
Using the permaculture principle of working with and enhancing succession, we can mimic this process by planting different types of plants that enhance the ecosystem that the trees will grow in. This type of planting is known as a guild, which refers to an association of plants that are all working together toward a common purpose: In this case, enhancing the growth of the fruit or nut tree. In permaculture we are always looking to maximize yields, so these support species always have their own intrinsic value and yields.
In the pear tree guild pictured above, the pear tree is the central element. It is surrounded by fruiting shrubs including gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa) and currants (Ribes sativum). Nitrogen-fixing plants including autumn olive (Eleaganus umbellata) and Siberian peashrub (Caragana arborescens) add fertility to the soil, and provide nectar for pollinators. Autumn olives are edible (and delicious!), and Siberian peashrub pods are great forage for chickens.
Underneath the straw mulch, comfrey (Symphytum officinale) and rhizomes are planted. Comfrey makes an excellent perennial living mulch that can be chopped and laid down around the base of the plantings. Over time, this aids fertility and keep grasses and weeds at bay. Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) is also planted under the mulch. With its deep taproots, horseradish helps penetrate compacted and heavy soils, allowing water and organic matter to move deep into the soil, right where the pear roots need it most. Horseradish is also delicious!
In summary, this guild consists of pear, gooseberry, autumn olive, Siberian peashrub, comfrey, and horseradish.
Each of these plants is multifunctional, and all together they create a very diverse ecosystem centered around the pear tree. Eventually, many of these species will die or become less productive as the pear tree canopy grows and the leaf shade deepens. But in the meantime, there are plenty of yields!
Guild plantings are part of the concept of forest gardening, which mimics the layers of a natural forest ecosystem with species people want in their home garden spaces.
Layers of a guild:
Another key element of forest gardening is keeping the soil covered at all times. In a natural forest ecosystem, there is a deep layer of mulch laid down over time from decomposing leaves and needles. This mulch layer maintains fertility and moisture, and provides habitat for microorganisms that contribute to the health of the forest.
Many permaculture-based gardens employ this deep mulch strategy in beds designated for annual production. Pioneering gardener Ruth Stout popularized the deep mulch system for annual gardens, which eliminate the need for tilling or otherwise exposing the soil.
A permaculture-based approach to food production seeks to meet our needs for food, medicine, fiber, and building materials, without diminishing the natural world. Planting guilds and forest gardens are part of the solution, but examining how annual crops are grown is also important.
Identify three or more plants you would like to include in a guild or forest garden section of your permaculture design. What are their functions and / or level in this section. How do these plants support each other and the broader system around them?
This miniclass is excerpted from the Plants, Forests and Cultivated Ecologies module of our double-certificate design course, taught by Tao Orion.
Tao Orion is the author of Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration. She teaches permaculture design at Oregon State University and at Aprovecho, a 40-acre nonprofit sustainable-living educational organization. Tao consults on holistic farm, forest, and restoration planning through Resilience Permaculture Design, LLC. She holds a degree in agroecology and sustainable agriculture from UC Santa Cruz, and grows organic fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and animals on her southern Willamette Valley homestead, Viriditas Farm. She teaches the “Plants, Forests and Cultivated Ecologies” module in the online permaculture course offered by Permaculture Women’s Guild.
Further reading on this topic:
Orion, Tao. Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015.
Stout, Ruth, and Richard V. Clemence. The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book. Rodale Press, 1975.
Anderson, Kat. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources University of California Press, 2013.
#permaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #guilds #forestgardening
By Heather Jo Flores
In a forest, the plants collaborate. They take turns blooming, share space, distribute different nutrients and succeed each other over generations. In our home gardens, we can create diverse, low-maintenance food forests by mimicking these patterns. In its most basic form, this is called companion planting, and gardeners have been doing it for millennia.
You probably know the classic "Three Sisters" example. Native Americans grew corn, beans and squash in a shared space because together they repelled pests and provided a successional yield. I have heard from some old-timers that there was actually a fourth Sister: lupine, a self-seeding, nitrogen-fixing biennial that was planted all around the corn patch to repair the soil.
Ironically, as much as I am a true believer in perennial polyculture gardening, I don't grow the Sisters. I like to hill my corn (like potatoes) and that disrupts the baby beans and squash. I also find that the corn patch needs more than just the beans (and/or lupine) to repair the soil. So I plant the corn, let it get a few inches high, then plant potatoes in between the stalks. Every week or so, I hill up the dirt around the corn and potatoes with a hoe. I do plant squash, but only on the ends of the rows, so that they can sprawl out away from the patch.
Then, after harvesting corn and potatoes, I cover crop the whole thing with fava beans over the winter to repair and hold the soil for the next rotation.
In permaculture, we use food forests to grow as much as possible on a small piece of land. Using those principles, we design garden beds with a collection of complementary perennial trees, shrubs, herbs, ground covers, roots and annual vegetables called "guilds" that are placed in a microclimate landscape best suited for the group. The idea is to group plants together for specific reasons, encourage them to spread into permanent, self-managing landscapes, and thus reduce the amount of effort it takes to grow food.
You don't have to plant a whole food forest at once. You can carve out niches and build one guild at a time. As they grow, these plantings will attract birds, pollinators, microorganisms and fungi. Over time, as you add more and more guilds, your entire space will yield to nature, becoming your own handcrafted Eden.
How to Build a Guild
So exactly which plants do we group with which other plants? It takes a lifetime to learn all the differing functions, get familiar with the size of plants at maturity, with their growing patterns and individual needs. There are some great books on the topic, and any search for "companion planting," "food forests" or "perennial polycultures" will keep you busy reading and designing all winter.
For now, I offer you a handful of my personal favorites from years of experiments with hundreds of plant combinations that yielded mixed results. These are the guilds that I continue to plant in every food forest I design.
Blueberries, strawberries, valerian, yarrow, spinach/lettuce/orach
Blueberries are slow-growing, water-thirsty and thrive in an acidic mulch like sawdust. Strawberries also enjoy the acidic mulch, and can get well established as a ground cover before the mature blueberries shade them out. Valerian and yarrow are clumping, blooming medicinal perennials that attract beneficial insects and help build soil for the berries. Together they look great and share space without much intervention. Sow the spinach between the spaces and alternate with patches of lettuce and orach.
Apples, horseradish, clary sage, kale
Apples cast deep shade and only a handful of plants will thrive under them. Horseradish repels diseases common to apples, and the two are a classic pair. Because I often use it in my apothecary, and because it doesn't mind a bit of shade, I add clary sage. The fuzzy, aromatic biennial, which grows up to 6 feet tall, glimmers throughout year two with huge plumes of purple flowers. Interplant a few different kinds of kale and you will have a rainbow of foliage.
Figs, seaberry, canna, comfrey, squash
If you have space, this guild is epic in every way: year-round harvest, giant flowers, mulch crops and vegetables. Visually, it's Jurassic. Figs can get quite large at maturity and tend to sprawl. Between those sprawling shoots you can plant comfrey, which will fill the space with fuzzy foliage and tubular flowers that pollinators love. Seaberry fixes nitrogen and also produces a tart, seedy fruit that can be dried or added fresh to a wide array of dishes. The canna has edible roots (similar to tapioca) and needs a bit more sun, so plant it on the southern edge. Poke in your squashes around the border to give the tendrils room to run.
Peaches, rosemary, marigolds, arugula, zinnias, cucumber
Peaches don't cast a ton of shade. They tend to be sparse with skinny leaves. This means that companions that wouldn't do well under other fruit trees will do just fine under a peach. I like the way rosemary looks, especially when joined with annual plantings of marigolds, arugula, zinnias, and other tall, showy annual flowers. Cucumbers do enjoy full sun, but smaller varieties can thrive in mottled shade, and I have grown some beauties as a ground cover in this guild.
Pears, echinacea, beets, poppies
There is something about a pear tree in bloom that always reminds me of the iconic Virgin of Guadalupe image that I grew up with. To me, the way a pear tree holds its blooms looks like an angel. As a sort of tribute to that beauty, I plant echinacea with pears. Echinacea is a clumping perennial with fancy daisy-like coneflowers in purple, green, white and pink. It's medicinal and beneficial to gardens, with a network of thick roots that help to break up the soil and increase nutrient distribution. Beets fit perfectly in the spaces between, and the foliage is visually splendid in this combination. If you want to make it really beautiful, add some poppies, but keep in mind that poppies are heavy feeders, so you'll need to compensate the soil.
Generally speaking, as a nitrogen fixer, I habitually sprinkle white subterranean clover seed, both as a cover crop and as a living mulch in beds and paths. It makes an awesome cover, attracts pollinators, and can be easily removed when you decide to plant something new. For best results, mix organic clover seed — coated in bacterial inoculant — with fluffy, finished compost and keep it in a bucket for easy access. If there's a spot with bare soil, sprinkle the seeded compost around and make sure it gets evenly watered until the clover is established.
Finally, please remember that just because plants in a guild support each other, that doesn't mean they don't need your support. You need to weed, prune, mulch and clear. You need to harvest the food, save the seeds and participate in the cycles and seasons. A food forest is an ecosystem, and the gardener should be a part of that. In fact, for the first three years, your newly planted guilds might need some extra attention. Think of the baby plants like little puppies — you have to train them, nurture them, and raise them, but if you do a good job, they will be your best friends for many years to come!
#permaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #growyourown #foodnotlawns #DIY
By Heather Jo Flores
People often hire me to prune their fruit trees this time of year. While I appreciate the work, most basic pruning, especially on young trees that haven't been previously damaged or badly pruned, can be done by anyone with some basic information. Once the leaves have fallen and fruit trees are dormant for the winter, is the perfect time to give them a pruning that will determine the size and shape they will grow into next spring.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
The main reason to prune trees is to increase air circulation, which protects against insect infestation and disease. An air-congested tree will also stop fruiting, so it generally makes sense to remove anything that is growing toward the center for a better flow. But before you start hacking branches, try this simple system for figuring out what to cut and why.
Follow the Leaders
First, find a tree's vertical leaders. Most have two to five leaders that split from the main trunk and should be balanced with each other. Choose no more than five leaders and plan to remove the others to leave room in the middle for air circulation and for fruit to grow.
Working from the vertical leaders, determine which of the horizontal branches will make up the fruiting scaffold. Remember that these branches will eventually be weighted down with fruit and will fall into a horizontal position.
Now that you have developed a basic vision of how you want the tree to look, you are ready for the Seven Ds to help determine your next move:
Dead: This is obvious. If it's dead, cut it off.
Dying: Less obvious. Look for brittle, black tips.
Damaged: Broken spots, torn places, maybe damaged by a storm, etc.
Diseased: This can be tricky to spot. In general, moss and lichen are not diseases, but mildew, mold and fungus are.
Deranged: Look for weird angles, branches twisted around others, limbs growing in the wrong direction.
Doubling: If two branches are growing parallel and close together, remove one. If two branches are competing for space, choose the one that looks healthiest.
Dangerous: Anything that could smack somebody in the face or fall on a building.
Tools of the Trade
In general, start with the biggest cuts and work to the smallest, so you'll probably begin with a saw, move to loppers and finish with hand pruners.
Pruning saws come in all shapes and sizes but I prefer a long-handled saw with a curved blade. Invest in quality tools to get quality cuts. Just like humans, trees heal much better when cut with sharp, clean blades. So make sure all of your tools are sharp, well-oiled and in prime working condition. Use a clean rag and some rubbing alcohol to clean your blade between trees.
You will also need a good pair of bypass loppers. I use titanium ones with a curved, parrot-beak blade. Straight blades seem more likely to damage trees. And, of course, the most essential tool for every gardener is hand pruners. I am a snob about hand pruners and only use Felco brand, which are easy to sharpen and come in a variety of sizes. The $60 pair I bought almost 20 years ago are still in great shape.
In my opinion, chainsaw work or any pruning that removes more than one-third of the tree should be done by a professional or at least with their supervision. Invest in a certified arborist if you're not an experienced pruner and your tree seems to need major surgery.
Making a Proper Cut
It is possible to kill a tree with bad pruning and the most common cause of this is when a bad cut becomes infected. To avoid this use sharp, clean tools and make a smooth, clean cut.
Cut limbs more than one inch in diameter back to the branch junction. Half-cut limbs that hang awkwardly from the tree don't thrive. New growth will shoot from the dormant bud-node just below the cut, so choose where you want the new shoot to go. For small branches, cut back to the branch junction or within a quarter-inch of a node. Again, choose where to cut based on which direction the bud faces.
If possible, angle cuts so the exposed wound faces toward the ground. Wounds can get sunburnt or in wet weather collect water that seeps under the bark and causes decay.
Cut right up to the branch collar, which is the raised ridge in the bark near where the branch comes out of the mother branch or trunk. Cell division occurs rapidly in this collar, sending out healing tissue to cover the wound. Do not cut off any portion of the branch collar, but don't leave a big stub either. Determine what is too much and what is too little then split the difference.
Once you decide exactly where to make the cut, square off your posture, double check your angle and commit. Make the cut in one smooth motion. If you are using loppers, put your weight into it. If you are using a pruning saw, work steadily and with enough power to remove the branch without having to pull the saw out until it's done. When using the saw, make an undercut one-third of the way through the branch from below, then saw the rest of the way through from above. If you do get a rip, clean it up by making a new, full cut.
Learn From Your Mistakes
Watch the way the tree responds to the pruning work. It will grow in the directions you sent it, but it may also surprise you! Make notes of what you observe and adjust your approach accordingly. Don't freak out if you realize halfway through the season that you messed up! Just let the tree do its thing and wait until it goes dormant next year to try again. Good luck!
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Permaculture Women's Guild, and Heather Jo Flores.
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