Saturday, February 22, 2014

Yardening and Food Forests

While we've been seeking permanence at the Fairgrounds, it seemed appropriate to begin a demonstration project at home. What better way to invest in your future than to plant fruit bearing trees and bushes! Fortunately for us, our house sits on approximately 5 city lots. I'm not sure what that is in terms of actual acreage, but we've got plenty of space for an urban food forest/farm.

Strangely enough, I met the landowner before I ever had any intention of living here. At that point in time, she had placed one hugelkultur bed and a handful of fruit trees, which included two apple, two peach, and two plum trees. There also existed on site, two extremely old apple trees, a crab apple tree, an abundant plum tree, a choke cherry, and a handful of lilac bushes. To my surprise, I was offered space to grow edible crops, and jumped at the opportunity - mind you, at this point in time, I was living in a studio apartment and had only a 15X15 rented garden space.

Hugel bed #1, after 2013 fall planting
I immediately focused on the hugel bed. What is a hugel bed you might ask? In the simplest of terms, a hugel bed is a raised garden bed filled with rotting wood. The rotting wood provides nutrients and organic matter to the soil and ultimately raises the water holding capacity of the soil. The greater the water holding capacity of the soil, the less irrigation necessary. That being said, I quickly identified and purchased four cold tolerant blueberry species, one gooseberry bush, and a few raspberry roots. Blueberries prefer a rather acidic soil ~ 5 pH, so before planting, I tested and amended the soil pH. Here in the Missoula Valley, our soils are typically on the basic side ~ 7.5, thus, we addamendments of sulphur, coffee grounds, and compost to help pull the pH down.

Also on the property at this time, in addition to a handful of tomatoes and peppers we planted, were rhubarb, horseradish, garlic and raspberries. That's how the plot stayed for the next two months, until the previous renters decided to move and I decided to move in. The first thing we did after moving in, was to remove a row of ornamental juniper trees between our property and our neighbors to the east.  We then covered this area in wood chips and let it rest. At this point, it was September and the leaves were beginning to fall. After the garlic was harvested from a garden plot on the north side of the property, we began hauling as many of the fallen leaves into the area as possible. The idea was to bring in as much organic matter as we could, and let it compost over the winter and into the spring. After filling the garden space with roughly 3 feet of leaves, we laid our shovels and rakes to rest for the season.

Come February, things began falling into place. We received a clutch of chickens from a friend who could no longer care for them. The most natural place to house the birds was in the garden area where we had stocked with fallen leaves - suddenly we were adding nitrogen to our carbon supply and the compost engine was started.  Bear in mind, for efficient composting, we must have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about 30 parts Carbon to 1 part Nitrogen, otherwise written as 30:1. Now in addition to a completing our compost circle, we also had a bi-product of eggs!

The next step for planning our urban food forest/farm was to map out our available area. Once mapped, we were able to identify space for new fruit trees, shrubs, and hugel beds.
The first map of our urban food forest/farm - the original is drawn on graphing paper and each square is equivalent to 4 feet
When I drew up the original diagram above, many of trees (circles) did not exist. Once I had diagramed where everything was in the yard, I began proposing other trees/shrubs to plant, drawing a circle to represent their canopy. The idea here was to fill the vertical top of my growing space with fruit producing tree canopy. As the trees grow, we can manipulate them through pruning - creating space for sunlight to shine through, prompting some trees to grow taller and others to bush out more, whichever the circumstances call for. With the new plantings suggested, the next step was to identify which species we would purchase.

On the issue of plant selection, we must consider our climate. The USDA has designated hardiness zones which outline the average lowest temperatures for a given location. For instance, here in Missoula, they've identified -15 as our lowest average temperature. Thus, when selecting plants, we need to make sure they'll survive temperatures as low as -15. Fortunately, many nurseries will have this information and can help you choose the right plants. Perhaps the best case scenario for obtaining new plants is to chose a nursery close to your location.  For us, that nursery was Cloud Nine Farms. Due to their proximity and location, they were already producing cultivars that were tolerant to our climate, which made our selection super simple. By spring, we had obtained and planted another 16 trees/shrubs, including Seckel Pear, Pioneer Chinese Apricot, Pipestone Plum, Golden Currant, Saskatoon Juneberry, Jostaberry, Northland Blueberry, Red Lake Currant, Patriot Blueberry, Consort Black Currant, York Elderberry, Pixwell-Green Gooseberry, 2 American Hazelnuts, and 2 Lewis' Mockorange to help entice pollinators.  The diagram above includes all of these.
Hugel bed #2, after the wood has been buried

Once the new plants were in the ground, we began to scheme. We wanted more hugel beds, but needed the supplies.  Slowly but surely, we were able to acquire logs from around the neighborhood throughout the summer.  By late summer, we were on our way to digging in the second hugel. When it was complete, we decided to identify more plants for a fall planting. This time around, we worked with Blackfoot Native Plants and paid particular attention to pollinator plants.

Pollinator plants, or flowering plants, are essential to any farm operation, as they usher pollinator insects onto the farm, and ultimately increase production. The trick with pollinator plants is to make sure you've got something flowering during every moment of the growing season AND to include as many colors as you can. While this seems easy enough, it does call for some research. Fortunately, Blackfoot Native offered a complete list of every plant they had in stock, including flowering times and colors.  This made our work extremely easy!

Our last planting of the 2013 growing season included our purchases from Blackfoot Native and a handful of perennial herbs, which we started from seed.  These include: Anise Hyssop, Flat-leaf Parsley, Monarda, Sphmun, Bear Grass, Oregon Grape, Sage, Georgia Sunshine, Clematis, Mountain Big Sage, Smooth Blue Aster, Yucca, Yellow Praire Coneflower, Great Basin Wild Rye, Bitterroot, Little Bluestem Grass, Rubber Rabbit Bush, Blue Grama, White Prairie Aster, Fringed Sage, Tufted Hairgrass, Bluebunch Wheatgrass, Pulsatilla, Lucifer Crocosmia, Silky Phacelia, Colorado Columbine, Yellow Agoseris, Lewis Monkeyflower, Chives, Roundleaf Alum Root, 2 Thimble Berries, Rigid Goldenrod, Canada Goldenrod, Chocolate Mint, and a handful of Raspberries.  You can imagine our feeling of accomplishment as we wound chicken wire around our beds, finding that we had just enough to keep those wonderful birds out of our freshly planted areas!

As the growing season came to a close, we continued the leaf gathering practice we had began a year prior. This time, however, we gathered enough leaves to cover the chicken/garden area AND the entire food forest/farm area. As the final loads of leaves were brought it, snow began to fill the air and eventually cover everything we had planted. The true test of our labor will be successful growth during the 2014 growing season.  As the snow melts away, we'll measure our placements and note our progress on the yard map. Once the plantings of the 2013 fall are documented, we'll identify more planting locations and set in on more shrubs, hugel beds, perennial leaf vegetables, and perhaps a few more trees.  As always, we'll bring you along on our journey! Thank you for reading!
Urban Food Forest/Farm after fall planting, before leaf speading