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August 2nd, 2011

Saving Seeds

paigepluckett60x60by Paige Puckett—
In the spring, I invent reasons to go to home-improvement stores so I can slip a couple of seed packets into the cart, hoping I don’t get in trouble with my husband. He’s not stingy; he just knows I have a shoebox full of seed packets already. However, one of my goals of applying permaculture principles to our small kitchen garden means it isn’t enough for me to start from seed; I want to buy those seeds only once. Extreme? Maybe. Fun? Yes. I have been saving tomato and flower seeds for several years now, and last year I started saving lettuce seeds, too
.cosmos-seed-head-paige

The lettuce was bitter from the getgo this spring (I probably should have tasted it before donating several bags to the Food Shuttle), so I pulled most out to compost, leaving only a couple heads of each kind to keep growing. Those remaining heads have finally flowered just in time for fall planting. This week, I had my preschooler help me pluck the flowers that had already “poofed” and we scattered them in a newly turned-over section of the garden. Most of his seeds were lifted by the breeze and landed on the path, but he loved participating and explaining what he was learning. The way he phrases it is, “Those seeds want to become plants, right?” He’s learning right along with me.

poofed-lettuce-seed-head-paige

The trick to saving flower and lettuce seeds is making sure they have time to fully develop. This was our first year to grow cosmos, and I’ve been deadheading it all summer to keep the blossoms coming. I knew at some point I had to let it go to seed so I could enjoy the plant next year. I didn’t know what to expect, so I kept plucking off seedheads and opening them to see if they were ready. This evening, I discovered that it is quite obvious when they are ready. They poof, just like the lettuce!


Paige Puckett and her husband Joe, both in Land and Water Engineering fields, grew up with hands-on experience helping parents and grandparents in vegetable gardens and creating wild adventures in their expansive backyards and nearby creeks at their respective country homes in Tennessee and North Carolina. Now that they have two boys of their own, they try to engage them in the outdoors despite the obvious confines of downtown living in Raleigh, NC. Paige shares their lessons learned, garden projects and photos at her Love Sown blog.

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May 25th, 2011

Forest Gardening: An Investment in Your Future

Duane Marcus

Duane Marcus

What we now call food forests have been cultivated all over the world for centuries. Many indigenous cultures manage their forest resources to provide themselves with a continuous supply of foods, fiber, medicines, and craft materials. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed permaculture, a combination of the words permanent and agriculture, as an alternative to large-scale monoculture of annual crops. The concept of “forest gardening” was developed by British horticulturist Robert A. de J. Hart more than 30 years ago. He observed that it was much easier to maintain mulched beds of trees, shrubs, and perennials than it was to plant and maintain annual vegetables year after year. He wrote the seminal book on the subject, Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape, in 1996.

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The edge where a forest meets a field or open space is a highly productive space with a large diversity of species of plants and animals. Forest gardening seeks to emulate and capitalize on this. Hart identified seven layers in a forest garden:

1. The first layer is the canopy of large trees that provide nuts, leaves for mulch, and wood for fuel and building materials.

2. The next layer is the understory where smaller trees produce fruits. Apples, pears, plums, and cherries are part of this layer.

3. Below the understory live the woody shrubs, such as blueberries, blackberries, boysenberries, and others.

4. Next are the herbaceous perennials that grow from the ground, flower, produce seeds, and die back to the ground each year. In this group are many of our herbs and medicinal plants. Rosemary, bee balm, lavender, yarrow, and echinacea are a few examples.

5. Groundcovers make up the next layer in the food forest. Wild strawberries, thyme, and perennial clovers are useful groundcovers.

6. The rhizosphere, or root zone, is where some plants produce their parts. Sunchokes, various alliums like garlic and leeks, ginseng, yellowroot, and others provide us with food and medicines.

7. Hart’s final layer is the vertical layer, the vines that climb up into the trees. Grapes and kiwis give us fruit. Honeysuckle and even kudzu provide craft materials. There is a group of immigrants from Bhutan living in our area who weave beautiful and functional baskets from kudzu vines.

Before we began to design our garden here at the Funny Farm, we did what permaculturists call a zone and sector analysis of the property. We mapped where the sun was throughout the day and throughout the year. We took into account the physical structures, our house and the neighboring houses, the driveway, the street, the neighbors’ trees, and other plantings. Since we live in a well-manicured suburban neighborhood, we were sensitive to the possibility that all our neighbors might not approve of our turning our former lawn into a food garden.

View from the street—fig, self-sowing yarrow and Ammi magus. You can barely see our house in the background.

View from the street—fig, self-sowing yarrow and Ammi magus. You can barely see our house in the background.

Our first design decision was to create a buffer along the street. We planted fig trees 12 feet from the curb and filled the space between them and the curb with perennial and self-sowing annual flowers and herbs, including several large clumps of tall-growing sunchokes. Then we planned and started work on the rest of the perimeter. Our neighbors to the west have some mature oak trees, and the afternoon shade they cast determined how far toward our driveway our vegetable garden could go. Along the drive, we planted two persimmon trees, a nanking cherry, and, this past fall, a plum. On the other side of the drive, there is a 4-foot strip between it and our neighbor’s property line, just enough room for a row of blueberries. There is a nice stand of mature dogwoods, my favorite tree, and a beautiful Japanese maple near the house with a small sunny space in between. In that space, we added another plum, more sunchokes, and perennial welsh onions.

Pomegranite, yarrow, sunchoke guild, & our neighbor's house in the distance.

Pomegranite, yarrow, sunchoke guild, & our neighbor's house in the distance.

So what we have is a vegetable garden in the center of the front yard surround by a food forest. Our neighbor’s oaks form the canopy layer. Plums, figs, persimmons, and a cherry fill the understory. Blueberries occupy the shrub layer. Two falls ago, we divided and transplanted herbaceous perennials from our bugscaping bed (more about that in a future post) into our food forest. Bee balm, yarrow, and goldenrod provide food and shelter for many beneficial insects, both pollinators and predators. We added sunchokes and welsh onions into the rhizosphere. Wild strawberries and clover cover the ground. The strawberries keep the chipmunks occupied, and the clover provides a home for rhizobium bacteria that capture nitrogen from the air and make it available to the adjacent plants. Our next addition will be an arbor with a grapevine to define the entrance into the garden.

Each plant was chosen because it contributes something to the garden as a whole. Permaculturists call these purposeful groupings of plants guilds. The more functions a plant can contribute to the guild, the more valuable it is. The clover produces edible leaves and flowers. The flowers attract many different beneficial insects. The roots anchor the soil and provide a home for the beneficial rhizobium bacteria. Lady beetles overwinter at the base of yarrow. Its flowers attract many beneficial insects and also look good in flower arrangements. Yarrow is also a medicinal plant. It is an astringent. It can be used to stop bleeding and is said to improve digestion and reduce fevers.

This spring, we harvested 10 pounds of cherries from our nanking cherry tree. The persimmons are covered with flowers now. The figs have many tiny fruits forming on the branches. Our 2-year-old blueberries will produce a modest crop this year. With each passing year, we will harvest more and more from what would be considered by many gardeners to be marginal space. We tuck food-producing plants wherever we can find a space. If you have room for flowering trees and perennials, why not have them do something for you besides look pretty? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could obtain a yield from your garden beds? You have to maintain them anyway. Why not turn your garden into an edible one? Our next-door neighbor who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years told my wife not long ago he thinks of our garden as the Garden of Eden. You can create your own Garden of Eden. Try it—it’s easy.


Duane Marcus practices permaculture at the Funny Farm in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. He grows vegetables, fruit, herbs, worms, chickens, insects, mushrooms, microorganisms, and anything else that is edible or promotes the growth of edible plants and animals. He also teaches workshops on gardening and sustainable living and manages two local farmers’ markets. You can read about his shenanigans on the Funny Farm.

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