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Aggradation Barrens, PJ Chmiel’s Food Forest & Restoration Project

pj in the oldfieldPJ Chmiel is a graphic designer by day and forest gardener as time allows. Born in Paw Paw, Michigan, he now lives in nearby Lawton with his wife Maki and two cats. Before he discovered permaculture in 2007, he moved around the country and lived in big cities. After years of waiting for the right one, he finally took a PDC in 2013 with Mark Shepard at New Forest Farm. He initiated a local group called Van-Kal Permaculture, is active in the local Transition Town, serves on the village Planning Commission and on the Board of the local Conservation District.

Site Overview

This forest garden is a 3-acre parcel a mile away from my home, though I plan to buy and renovate a run-down duplex adjacent to the site, which would add an additional acre to the design and allow me to live on-site.

legitimate water catchment

Looking out across the property. One of 3 275 gallon tote collecting rain off the shed for watering.

There are a few houses nearby, and family members live in two of them. The property is nothing special, but it has been in my family now for 4 generations, so I chose to buy it and transform it from waste field into something beautiful and productive. This leads to some design challenges. There are marginal soils, no elevation changes or water source other than rain, few existing trees, lots of problematic weeds, and power lines running through the middle.

The goal of the design was to plant a wide variety of perennials and harvest a good portion of our staple foods from the land someday (my wife and I are vegan), especially in the form of nut crops. So primarily food production for ourselves and family, and as a demonstration site, with excess sold to local markets or used to barter.

Location and Ecology

The site is within the village of Lawton (pop. ~2,000), near the edge of town and a Welch’s grape juice factory. The area is described as USDA zone 5~6, but after this last winter, I’d say we’re still solidly a five. 42N latitude, with a climate made milder by Lake Michigan 30 miles to our west, and 37″ of rain/year.

Concord grapes are a major crop in the area, and my county boasts one of the most diverse agricultural sectors outside of California – Apples, Blueberries, Peaches, Asparagus, Strawberries and market vegetables are all grown commercially, in addition to the troublesome “Corn and Beans” standard.

barrens

An example of the soil degradation prior to amendment with organic material.

There are Beech-Maple forests nearby on better soils, but 200 years ago my site was a fire-dependent Oak savanna. If left to succession and not burned, it would become a closed-canopy hardwood forest; currently the soils are dry, sandy, and acidic.

In recent decades the site had been maintained as lawn or occasionally-mowed oldfield—previously there were some attempts at agriculture, including asparagus in the middle of the 20th century. This forest garden project began in 2010, many of my canopy trees were planted between 2010-12, but I continue to add to all layers, esp. the lower layers.

Design Inspirations

I was inspired by the major Forest Gardening texts. I fancy it a cross between Martin Crawford (acreage and general principles) and Mark Shepard (low-input practicality and colder-climate species), though it’s nowhere near as good as either. Other inspirations include Masanobu Fukuoka, Ken Fern, Robert Hart, J. Russell Smith, and Ken Asmus of Oikos Tree Crops (just a few miles down the road from here).

Based on the ecological state of the site and my goals, I set these priorities:

  1. Site map for aggradation barrens

    Site design map. Click to enlarge or download pdf

    Figure out which species might survive here by taking cues from the surroundings, local ecology, books, and other resources.

  2. Transform the site from a barrens to a resilient, three-dimensional ecosystem.
  3. Populate that ecosystem mostly with edible trees and plants, including some hardy “borderline” species that may do better as the climate changes and gets less predictable.
  4. Plant shrubs and trees around the edges of the land for screening and windbreaks.
  5. Attempt to keep most of what I’ve planted alive in the face of drought, poor soils and animal pressures.
  6. Build soil by adding and nurturing favored “pioneer” species, aiming to keep the soil covered with plants or mulch as best I can.
  7. As the site matures, use it to teach others about these plants, and as a propagation source for more plant material to distribute into the local community.

I’ve tried to balance the ample tree spacing recommended in Edible Forest Gardens with the “plant a bunch of stuff and let Nature sort it out” methodology of Mark Shepard, assuming some losses to weather, animals, neglect, etc. Initially, I went through the “Top 100 Species” for temperate forest gardens and tried to include most (Edible Forest Gardens, vol. 1 p. 305-337). Some have done well, some have died and been replaced—the design continues to evolve!

Observations and Techniques

The “Nurse-Log” Effect

A power line right-of-way runs down the edge of my site. On an adjacent oldfield which hasn’t been mowed in 15-20 years, there’s a striking illustration of the effect of laying woody organic matter on top of the soil. A row of ~16” diameter Red Pines growing too close to the lines was cut down about 15 years ago, with the logs left laying where they fell and the branches “windrowed” on top.

The diversity and abundance of life which sprang forth in this area is shocking, especially when compared with the similar oldfield just south of this, which had no trees felled and currently has very little growing there, mostly just Little Bluestem, with a few odd Sumacs and other pioneer trees widely scattered.

Meanwhile, the area where the pines are rotting into the ground has seen an explosion of life: various Oaks, Quaking Aspen, Scots Pine, Black Cherry, Catalpa, Sassafrass, Mulberry, Crabapple, Walnut, Serviceberry, wild Hazelnut, Autumn Olive, Honeysuckle, wild Strawberry, Blackberry, and much more.

truckfuls to aggradation

Since my site resembled the barren field in the anecdote above, this observation inspired me to bring in countless truckloads of organic matter in the form of discarded logs, woodchips, cardboard, brush, leaves, Xmas trees, manure, and whatever else I can get for free on the roadside or the township recycling center.

To Till or Not to Till

Time will tell if my Fukuoka-inspired “minimal disturbance” strategy of not tilling / re-seeding (in order to control the groundcover) was a foolish one, esp. in the back 2 acres—it would take many tillings to kill the brambles and the soil was poor to start with. In those areas, not mowed in years and dominated by Dewberries (a prostrate, thorny, tip-rooting bramble), allelopathic Spotted Knapweed, and an aggressive rhizome-type grass, it’s been a challenge to keep my young plants from being overwhelmed, especially when I’ve sheet mulched with woodchips or leaves on top of cardboard—the brambles and grasses grow right through within a year.

single cardboard sheet mulch

mulching with thick cardboard held down by bricks and logs

The few desirable species which exist there (Little Bluestem, Yarrow, Ironweed, Goldenrod, Rabbitsfoot Clover, a few wild Asparagus and the occasional wildflower like Milkweed) may have just as easily been sown or transplanted back into a more stable and diverse system (than the Dewberry-Knapweed-Grass-Yarrow ground layer).

For now I’m hand-pulling, scything and mowing some areas, esp. around new plantings, but it’s basically growing whatever wants to grow (and showed up first, including some pioneer trees like Black Cherry, Winged Sumac, wild Crabapple, various Oaks, Mulberry, Scots Pine and Eastern Redcedar), just to keep the ground covered.

Overseeding of clovers and soil-improvers hasn’t had much effect, very few took root and survived—periods of drought seem to always follow my seeding. I’d like to try burning some areas in the future to see what pops back up, esp. in the Oak Savanna.

Recently in the back 2 acres I’ve been mulching with just thick cardboard held down with a few stones or bricks. This does a better job of controlling the weeds underneath and gets less grow-through. After a year or so I revisit and do a better sheet mulch with woodchips.

Future Care

It feels like I’m off to a slow start, but I find encouragement in every single thing that stays alive for one more season, from any new wildflower or animal which appears, and recently, the first (actual, edible) fruits of my labors.

I need to build more structures and ponds for water catchment (currently only ~1,000 gal. tank storage from a few small sheds), work the new acre/homesite into the design, continue adding organic matter everywhere to help with soil water retention and reclaim parts of the site from being like a desert, keep fighting / mowing / steering the weeds, adding more species overall and more shade-loving plants as the site develops more shade.

Currently it still looks like a lot of tree tubes sticking out of a weedy field, but a few things are finally taller than me and soon “outdoor rooms” will start to take shape and give the site a much more inviting, abundant, dynamic feel.

Plants

I developed a full site map (pdf) to keep track of my plantings and modify it as things change.

Herbaceous Layer

In the front acre of the garden I’ve done more “guilding” of plants: lots of comfrey, strawberries, alliums, native wildflowers, mints and herbs, daffodils, etc. In the less-visited and wilder back 2 acres, I’ve basically let whatever is growing there grow, trying to favor the plants I like and chop/pull those I don’t, with mixed results. I’ve planted species like Monarda, White Prairie Clover and Milkweed, and over seed clovers, daikon radish, buckwheat, and other cover crops, all over.

oregano and nannyberry

Expansive oregano ground cover beneath a nannyberry.

I’ve planted several beds of native wildflowers throughout the property and will propagate those plants out (hoping they reseed themselves to become “weeds”).

For expansive groundcovers, I’ve had the most luck with Oregano, White Clover, Catnip, Wood Nettle and (non-Alpine) Strawberries. Others that I haven’t planted which are prominent include Sheep Sorrel, Yarrow, Deadnettle, Evening Primrose and Cat’s Ear. Mints aren’t very rampant on account of the dry soil, and Comfrey struggles (and competes heavily with my young fruit trees!), except in heavily-amended areas.

I’ve made several small hugelkultur beds and have used logs and woodchips quite a bit overall. After several years I realize that you either have to grow aggressive groundcovers or forever pull weeds and grasses out of your woodchip mulch—so now I’ve started seeding Dutch White Clover and wildflower seeds right into the woodchips when I mulch a new area, with hopes of “heading the grass off at the pass.”

Overstory

Since I’m designing based on an oak savanna, I’ve got 10 various low-tannin Oaks planted at ~50′ spacing, so that their canopies can spread out enough to produce well and have a savanna-like feeling. I’m leaving the understory of this grove mostly open, save for prairie species.

oak and little blue stem

Oak growing in a field of little blue stem.

I’ve planted 6 various Walnuts (but not Black Walnut, since those grow everywhere in the area and can be had for the taking) and a couple dozen Chestnuts, with a few of those planned as coppice. I’ve also got about 10 hardy Pecans in the ground (may remove half once they start bearing and I see which do best), one Shellbark Hickory, and 60+ American Hazelnuts.

I’d hoped for more Nut Pines, but so far have not been able to keep them alive on my site. They require more work for the calories anyway, so only a few remain.

There are 30+ American Persimmons in a grove. Those are off to a slow start because of losses to animals and weather, but I love the fruit and it’s a great sugar source. Speaking of sugar, I’m glad I didn’t include Sugar Maple in the design for the 3 acres, because when I buy the additional acre, it already has 7 mature Sugar Maples, which should provide for our household sweeteners.

I’ve recently planted a running Moso Bamboo, we’ll see if it’s hardy. The most distant end will have a section of evergreens for screening and aesthetics.

understory plants for apple tree

herbaceous layer beneath an apple tree.

I’ve got a couple dozen named fruit trees, many in the “front” acre of the garden since they need more care, and I hope to do more grafting and variety trials in the future. Lots of different Plums, Euro and Asian Pears, Apricots, various Cherries, several Peaches, Quinces, etc. The site already had a fruiting Mulberry.

Since I was born in nearby Paw Paw, I’ve planted a dozen or more of those trees, even though they struggle to establish on this site. The fruits are delicious and sell for $10/lb at the local health food Co-op, a market waiting to be served!

Shrubs

I’ve planted 1000+ feet of hedgerows with species like Hazelnuts, Serviceberries, Nanking Cherries, Elderberries, Ninebark and Red Osier Dogwood—the latter two for wildlife. These are spaced at 6-7′ and planted mostly underneath power lines, chosen for mature height, fast growth, and site adaptation (based on what did best in year 1).

flowering nanking cherry

Nanking cherry flowers

Other fruiting shrubs include Nannyberries, Aronia, Sandcherries, Currants and Gooseberries, Blueberries, various Blackberries and Raspberries, native Roses, Highbush Cranberry, Black Haw, Lilac, Littleleaf Lindens as a pollarded leaf crop, and more.

An evergreen hedge of Holly and Arborvitae near the road hasn’t quite established even after replanting. Moles and deer keep killing them, so I’ve also brought in Cup Plant and Giant Miscanthus as screens.

I’ve planted 6 varieties of Sunchokes and may add more, as they’re a good hardy, expendable crop for under the power lines.

Woody Nitrogen-Fixers

I’d planned to use Italian Alder as a primary pioneer/N-fixing tree, but had much difficulty sourcing plants or even seeds (got ripped off by two different online sellers!), so I gave up on those and am instead using a wide range of plants.

A few Honeylocust are already growing on site. These may not even fix Nitrogen, but I will coppice them occasionally for fuel. I really struggled with whether or not to introduce Black Locust to the site, but hopefully the benefits will outweigh the potential problems. To help with management, I’ve only planted them in one area.

Catalpa is not a heavy N-fixer, but a fast-growing native tree with high wildlife value and rot-resistant wood which can be coppiced for fenceposts. I am using them to give quick shade to my Pawpaw plantings in one area, and for coppice later.

Autumn Olive was already on site and prolific in the area (sorry Nativists). I utilize improved varieties and cuttings from exceptional local specimens. esp. near Walnuts, because many other N-fixers can’t hang with Juglone. I cultivated a dozen or so Sea Buckthorn. A few are grafted plants, but mostly unnamed seedlings from Oikos.

Silver Buffaloberry is a native from the high plains, similar to Eleagnus. I’m looking forward to tasting them once they fruit. New Jersey Tea is great wildlife and bee plant. It is slow to grow for me and gets browsed by animals. There are also a couple of Goumi cultivars, as well as a lot of Leadplant and False Indigos, which are native, rangy-looking small shrubs

PJs pawpaw tree

Pawpaw guild including vetch as a nitrogen fixer.

Herbaceous Nitrogen Fixers

These plants include White Prairie Clover, said to fix more N than any other non-woody native plant, Lupine, White Indigo and Wild Senna, all native prairie plants. Perennial Sweet Pea was already on site and more was planted. Hairy Vetch already on site as well, but is only active for a couple months during the summer.

Other nitrogen fixers I have been scattering widely include White Dutch Clover, especially in paths, and Vetches. Red Clover and Alfalfa are still not growing in many places, despite extensive broadcasting.

I also plant Fava beans or other garden legumes around newly-planted trees for a quick shot in the root zone. Groundnut hasn’t done well so far. I think it likes more shade and better soil. I’ll keep experimenting as the site further develops and the soil structure changes.

Explore Van-Kal Permaculture to learn more about the permaculture community in South-west Michigan.

All images courtesy PJ Chmiel

 

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