Week 15: A Lesson on Agroforestry

08-17-2016 CTGTT Sunflower, tomato harvest
Amidst late summer tomato and sunflower harvests, we welcomed a visit from Meghan Giroux of Vermont Edible Landscapes.

 

08-17-2016 CTGTT Megan in the edible forest
Meghan, among many other things, designed and executed an edible forest corner of the Community Teaching Garden at Tommy Thompson. Here’s Meghan in the corner speaking of the need for this style of planting — perennial crops planted to mimic the structure of a forest — to spread through the entire garden. One giant, shared edible forest, she suggested, with annual veggies growing along the perimeter.

 

08-17-2016 CTGTT Tansy is nice to look at but sure spreads quickly
As for the tansy, Meghan promises that it wasn’t something that she planted. She suggests never planting tansy, which is an ‘opportunistic’ plant, willing and able to spread itself with great vigor! Even though Meghan was cutting the plant down, and speaking on its prolific nature, Meghan emphasized the importance of keeping all of a system’s nutrients within the system. That means taking the tansy plant and laying it down as mulch. Meghan assured the class that even out diseased tomato leaves were okay to leave in the garden – healthy soil should be able to handle that plant’s disease. ‘Leave the detritus on the forest floor,’ she said. ‘It’s a little love shack for all the critters who live in the soil.’

As for the lesson on agroforesty, here’s what I gleaned:

An edible forest is designed using two parameters. One is structure, the layers that make up the forest composition. The second is plant archetypes, the polyculture that works together to create a nutrient rich system.

The agroforest is made up of an overstory, an understory, a shrub layer, an herbaceous layer, a rhizomatic layer, and a vining component. We quickly discovered that each of these categories are loose and relative to the other crops housed within the system. While the red currant bush is most commonly used in the shrub layer, it could easily serve as an overstory in an edible forest of a smaller scale.

With regard to the plants, there are three important archetypes to include: nitrogen fixers, dynamic accumulators, and insectaries & nectaries. Nitrogen fixers have the capacity to pull nitrogen out of the air and send it down into the soil, providing nitrogen for itself and allowing that nitrogen to be captured by nearby plants so long as its needs are met. Dynamic accumulators have long tap roots that reach down into the earth and pull nutrients up into the top soil where it can be accessed by shorter root systems. Nectaries keep non-desirable insects away, insectaries attract the beneficials. Meghan suggested that gardens and edible forests alike should have flowering plants through the length of the season. These flowers should be diverse in terms of color and shape so as to attract the greatest number of beneficial insects.

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Week 13:What a key, the bumblebee

It’s a fruitful moment, rounding the corner to late summer now. With each visit to the garden, I am amazed by the generous green jungle that has emerged from the beds that were bare just three months ago.

08-08-16 CTGTT Winter squash is coming for you.JPG
We planted beans in the squash bed just one month ago. We planted the beans because our squash was taking a beating from a combination of squash bugs and cucumber beetles and we didn’t know if the squash plants would make it. We placed an aluminum foil barrier around the two little plants & hoped for the best. Here they are – bearing fruit and unwilling to stay within the confines of their bed. Carnival squash on the loose!
08-08-16 CTGTT HuskCherry.JPG
On a smaller note, but of a similar shape, the husk cherries have begun to fall from our two husk cherry plants. Sweeter than candy, with wrappers that will biodegrade, this fruit inspires curious conversation among its consumers — what is that flavor?

It’s easy to forget about the little things when the garden gets so big. The little things – those little pollinators so crucial to the fruit bearing wonder of the moment. For the tomato, the potato, the eggplant, and the blueberry, it takes a particular pollinator to unlock the pollen that facilitates the plant’s reproduction. According to biologist Anne Leonard, with buzz pollination, ‘the flower is almost like playing hard to get.’

Check this out

08-08-16 CTGTT Rainbow in the beneficial inset garden.JPG
Yes, we are delighting in the harvest and yes, we are clearing space for fall planting but this morning, watering our beneficial insect garden, I found myself thinking of the bees — relentless, buzzing, organized, clever, key.

Week 10: For the cabbage that longed to be a sea flower.

Of all the shared beds at the Tommy Thompson teaching garden, I have a soft spot for the cabbage patch. It was one of the first beds we planted – a row of green conehead cabbage on one side, a red cabbage row on the other. As the season went on, we planted a row of beans down the center – offering a wonderful combination of color on the thin growth of the bean stalk to contrast the sturdy round of a head of cabbage. What I love about the bed though, is within the red cabbage row itself – eight heads of cabbage, all of which were planted on the same day, from the same tray of starts, into the same bed, tended by the same gardener with the same regularity and yet, demonstrating the entire spectrum of growth.

07-21-16 CTGTT The famous cabbage bed
                   For me, this is the ultimate lesson of the teaching garden.                                                       What explains the variation in growth when all variables are kept the same?
07-16-16 CTGTT Cabbage patch.jpg
There’s nature, there’s nurture, and then there is the unique personality of each plant.    This cabbage on the top left is testament to the fact that there are some cabbages who simply long to be sea flowers.

I’ve loved this cabbage bed as a reminder of the unpredictability of the garden. It is a comfort on days when my own bed shows distress and it is humbling when I begin to take credit for the growth of what I’ve planted.

As it goes in the garden, even our favorite beds have their time. And this was the time of the cabbage bed:

07-21-16 CTGTT Cabbage holding wedding party.JPG

07-21-16 CTGTT How many heads?

Alas, with communal cabbage harvest, there comes communal sauerkraut:

07-21-16 CTGTT Shredded cabbage.JPG

07-21-16 CTGTT Kraut