Notes from Windward: #69


Sylvaculture Notes

Lindsay's notes on diversifying our forest

  February 13:

     We have a few more trees to add to our forest: a mulberry tree and 2 one year old black walnuts. We have started a few bare root mulberry trees in previous years but they didn't take well. Over the years we have learned to adapt our strategy by potting bare root trees in 5 gallon buckets for a few months to ensure a good root ball before transplanting which has had a much higher success rate. This most recent mulberry tree, however, was large enough, with a healthy root system to plant directly into the moist ground—so we are hopeful she will survive to be the first living member of our Mulberry grove.

     Since the black walnuts were still small, we potted up the saplings in a 5 gallon bucket to grow for another season before transplanting to their permanent location.

the first of the mulberry trees
goes into the park below the Landing

MULBERRIES (Morus spp): Mulberries are a hardy tree in the fig family (Moraceae) that produce edible berries that are great for jam and wine. Mulberry leaves also are the preferred and only food source for silkworms, with silk serving as an important fiber for clothing. So a grove of mulberry trees have the potential to both provide food and clothing.

[Walt: Windward's mission involves figuring out how twenty people can be fed, fueled and clothed on one hundred acres of marginal land. Given our latitude and elevation, the only notable fiber options we have are wool, linnen and silk. Because we shear our sheep by hand, our wool doesn't have the tiny "second cuts" that plauge wool when cut by shearing machines, but it's still not something you'd want to make underwear from. Linnen can be subtle, but it doesn't start out that way. Silk blends well with both wool and linnen, and there's no stronger, longer lasting natural fiber than silk--so being able to grow silk would open up a variety of fabric options.

     In the 1860's wagon trains of women headed west looking for husbands and a place where they could raise a family. After passing through a seemingly endless pagent of dreary, ragged communities, they were shocked to find women in Utah wearing beautiful silk dresses. Many did the calculus and decided it would be better to be a junior wife dressed in silk, than a senior wife dressed in rags doing all the home work alone.

     Since silk, pound for pound, is stronger than steel it has a host of non-intuitive uses. One reason the Mongols were such effective warriors was that they wore silk shirts capable of stopping arrows. An arrow might well puncture the skin, but it rarely broached the shirt, so it was a relatively simple matter of just tugging on the shirt to remove a partially buried arrow head. Since silk was much lighter and both warmer in winter and cooler in summer than steel armor, it was a key part of the Mongol weapon set.]

  March 2:

Italian Plums: Bringing Home a Favorite

     On our most recent trip into town, we brought home a few new plum trees to add to our stock. The abandoned plum patch that provided us with such an abundance of fruit in the fall of 2007 has also begun to naturalize, with volunteer trees growing adjacent to those planted many years ago. Since the trees produced such delicious plums and any volunteer that has survived to the sapling stage is clearly well adapted to the region, we decided it would be nice to have a few a little closer to home. We dug up a patch of shoots that were about 4-6 feet in height. They all were growing from the same root system, so separating them out, without damaging the roots, proved to be a difficult task.

the transplanted plum in its new home

     I planted the two largest shoots that were growing heartily out of the taproot, just north of the main garden. Eventually, we will want only one shoot to grow from this root system so that it will have access to sufficient light and nutrients, but since the move/transplant has probably stressed the tree, it is not clear to me that they will both survive. So, the plan is to wait for the leafs to bud to see which one (if not both) Nature chooses, and then we will prune back the second. I was able to separate three other shoots from the main root system, while still maintaining at least some roots in tact. So these are now planted as well, with the hope they will recover from the stress and grow up to be healthy, plum bearing trees.

  March 4:

Walnuts and Chestnuts Oh My!

     The other night I heard the frogs down at the creek sending out their mating calls. Their calls filled the March night air, a striking contrast to the silent nights we have been having, where the clouds and snow seem to absorb all the sound. Well, I'll take it as a sign that spring and warmer temperatures are coming our way. Which means it is time to plant the walnuts and chestnuts that have been stratifying for the past few months.

lots of stratified seeds ready to germinate

  March 9:

     There are several black walnut trees growing down by the Klickitat River that seem well adapted to our climate; so last fall Opalyn gathered up several seeds and tucked them away in moistened peat moss to be stored in the fridge. The Colossal and Spanish Chestnuts, from trees in Vancouver and Portland respectively, had also been tucked away for a winter rest. Now, with over 90 days of cool, moist conditions, the nuts/seeds are ready to be planted.

     We planted the Black Walnuts two to a small one gallon pot. Internet sources suggest that about half of the seeds will germinate this year, while half will germinate the following year. With the chestnuts, we just planted one per pot. Hopefully over the course of the spring months, these seeds will germinate, and grow to develop a healthy root and shoot. The next step will be to transplant these seedlings into either larger, 5 gallon, buckets or into the nursery area where they can grow larger throughout the summer and fall. In all, we recently potted up more than 40 seeds.

  March 10:

     As a frequent reader of these notes, you may already understand that one of the challenges that Windward faces during this turn of the wheel is bridging the gap between generations, between the fifty-somethings with skills, experience and capital, and the twenty-somethings with energy, interests and potential. This gap creates many challenges for us as we build the strength and integrity of our community. But the one I want to focus on now is experience and knowledge.

     Over the years of my formal education, of sitting in classrooms and learning theoretical concepts from books and lecturing professors, I grew increasingly aware how much better I learn outside of a traditional classroom, how much better I understand when I engage my body and my mind together to experience or practice an idea. When I can slowly digest the information that is coming to me to the point where I can internalize it and know it as part of my physical body--because I have touched it and created it and seen it with my own eyes and then touched it again in a different light, in a different season and have seen how it has changed and how I have changed--I can truly understand it. Windward provides an excellent platform for this process of experiential learning, and I am ever grateful for the pace and depth of learning that this lifestyle affords. Part of the point of culture, of societies, is to accumulate the assets, skills and capital that will make the lives of our children more pleasant and enjoyable. This includes accumulating knowledge and experience that will inform and improve their lives, so that the knowledge that each individual holds comes not just from their own experiences but from the experiences of others, and the many that came before us. As a culture grows older, and the generations accumulate more knowledge, the trick question becomes how best to pass this information on to those whom it will benefit in such a way that is meaningful and relevant? Most of what we "know" does not necessarily come from our own experience. Which brings me back to books and classrooms.

     So what I am posing here are two ideas, neither of which are particularly novel, but that I think are profoundly important for an endeavor such as Windward's which, at its core, is an attempt to accumulate and pass on knowledge. On the one hand, information gains meaning, depth and relevance when we experience it firsthand, and the process through which we learn something greatly impacts how we store the information (short-term vs. long-term memory) and how we can then access it later (contextual vs. disconnected?). But on the other hand, there are classes of knowledge that we do not want to have to learn for ourselves, experiences that we would never wish for individuals, communities or cultures to have to repeat.

     The world of food provides some simple examples for this second point. Curiously, many of our crop plants have closely related relatives that are quite poisonous, such as carrots and poison hemlock, tomatoes and deadly nightshade. Likely, as our ancestors were determining which foods were edible and which were not, there were those unlucky individuals who bit into poison hemlock, or nibbled the berries of deadly nightshade that look so much like tomatoes. And while they suffered the consequences, they also provided the valuable warning that those plants weren't edible. For those not around to witness the aftermath of little Johnny biting into the deadly nightshade berry, how can we convey the absolute importance of not repeating this mistake? Language and what we name things can play a key role in passing on meaning, knowledge and practices, from generation to generation (e.g. deadly nightshade and poison hemlock). Yet our use of language has become rather imprecise, with popular meanings of words deviating significantly from their origin.

     While recognizing the role of learning by observing, by doing, by making mistakes and fixing it, what role is there for trust, faith and respect in the experiences of others? Can we believe what have not seen? Can we imagine what we have not experienced? Can we remember something we have never known?

     Yes. We do it all the time, sometimes too much and without enough scrutiny or skepticism. My generation of twenty-somethings questions authority, older generations, and much of what we are told, perhaps because we grew up in an age of information where we receive so much irrelevant information from so many unreliable sources. Because of the sheer availability of information, my generation (and maybe this is a perpetual challenge of youth) has a hard time grasping how much we have yet to see, the vastness of what we still do not know and the amount of knowledge that can be accumulated in a lifetime. Without this recognition, we have little reason to try to learn from the experiences of others or to respect the knowledge gained by seeing the seasons through.

Lindsay learning to use a pneumatic staple gun

     The knowledge and understanding that Windward has gained over the past twenty years of life here on the plateau is integral to its survival--the challenge is how to pass it on. Some things are straight forward enough to teach and to learn experientially--how to mix concrete, milk goats, chop wood, fix the plumbing--and with enough time and practice those of us in the younger generation will acquire the necessary skills and confidence. But what about the knowledge gained through experiences we do not want to have to repeat ever--let alone every time someone new joins us here on the plateau? How to convey all the understanding about human nature, the nature of life, and how things work--knowledge that comes from building a homestead up from raw land, living without potable water on site, surviving a forest fire, and living for so long in community--with all it joys and challenges?

     Can we use words to convey a lifetime of understanding? Can we feel the experiences of others so deeply that it's as if we experienced it ourselves? Can we learn from the mistakes of others and not have to face the same struggles over and over again? We must. It is what enables a culture to survive and prosper. Each generation can build off of the previous generation's successes, learn from their mistakes and avoid starting anew with every turn of the wheel. But it means we need to actively seek mentors in all walks of life that have our best interests in mind, listen to them carefully and critically, and recognize that sometimes we need to take it on (well-informed) faith that their advice and directions are based on well grounded and tested observations.

     For twenty-somethings who've learned to live with rapidly changing technology, it's a challenge to pick out and embrace the things that don't change.

  March 15:

Seed Snatchers

     This morning I walked into Vermadise to find a squirrel hole tunneling up from beneath one of the worm beds. The soil in a few of the pots in which we planted the chestnuts had been disturbed as well, with a few remnant pieces of chestnuts lying on top. The squirrel seemed to have left the black walnuts alone, but snacked on six of our Spanish and Colossal chestnut seeds.

     In the process of determining which pots still had seeds and which did not, I discovered that several of the chestnuts have begun to germinate, which is very exciting. To protect the remaining seeds from critters, I have temporarily covered the pots with metal grates that hopefully will prevent the squirrels from eating our chestnut seedlings. Andrew is working on building a wooden trap to further protect the chestnuts and other seedlings we will have in Vermadise later this spring from critters.

     It is very humbling indeed to confront the fact that we humans are not the only ones interested in making use of the resources around us. We are continually reminded of this throughout the seasons here. In the summer, the peacocks think that the garden tomatoes are a delightful addition to the landscape, and come winter the deer have an affinity towards the hay barn. The native forest resources--the acorns, pine needles, mushrooms etc.--are no more our resources than they are the resources of our fellow woodland inhabitants, and as stewards of the forest we endeavor to enhance the forest's health and productivity for all.

     However, I feel more protective and possessive of that which we put time, effort and capital into cultivating, as it is a reflection of our attempts of intentionally bringing forth new life. Even still, I can't blame the squirrel for gathering the together resources for its own interest, which is all I am trying to do as well. It's just that we have different ideas about the best uses of the chestnuts--the squirrel wants a meal now and I want a forest of food several years from now. I can't nor want to do much to change the squirrel's nature--for its his gathering that propagates the oak forest. I just have to adopt new strategies to ensure the integrity of our efforts and maybe plan for sharing a little too.

  March 27:

Observing the Experts & Grafting Apples

     Last week I had the opportunity to tour Carlton Plants, a nursery located about 30 miles south of Portland. Carlton Plants specializes in propagating fruit, nut and ornamental plants for sale at garden centers and to orchard growers throughout the Pacific Northwest and across the country. As we move forward with the efforts to increase our fruit and nut production on site, we are trying to balance the financial viability (outright costs of the materials), with diversity and quality of the tree varieties as well as the long term health of the orchard/forest.

Leah prepares a temporary home for the root stock

     For fruit trees, the fastest way to establish an orchard is probably to buy 3-4 year old trees from a trusted nursery and plant them into the ground, a common practice for commercial orchards and home gardeners. However, with each tree costing between $15-20 here on the west cost, the costs can add up quickly if you want a few hundred trees. The fruit trees that are available in garden centers and seed catalogs are all propagated either through grafting or budding—two methods that allow the grower to know what exactly what variety of apple they are growing (Apple seeds are not true to type, so if you plant a seed from the Golden Delicious you had for lunch it will not necessarily grow into a tree that bears Golden Delicious). So by using these methods to propagate the trees ourselves, we can significantly reduce the costs of increasing our fruit production.

     Last summer I took a grafting workshop at the Northeast Organic Farming Association Conference in Massachusetts, and learned a great deal about the process from Bill MacKentley who owns and manages St. Lawrence Nursery. However, I wanted to observe more grafting before I attempted to do it myself. Carlton Plants, from whom we purchased our rootstock, was kind enough to let me shadow them for a day, to watch the experts at work.

1/4" diameter MM111 root stock

     In grafting, you are essentially dividing the tree into two categories—the shoot which photosynthesizes and bears the fruit and the root which gathers the nutrients and water and provides the structure to stabilize the plant. In apples, by choosing rootstocks that are smaller and therefore cannot gather as much water and nutrients, you are effectively limiting the size of the tree—creating the dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties that grow to between 8-20 feet compared to a 40 foot standard apple tree. It is easier to harvest fruit from dwarfed trees, but they often need staking, have a shorter life span and are more susceptible to damage from drought, cold and wind. We decided to order MM111, a semi-dwarf rootstock that grows to about 20 feet, and should develop a root system hearty enough to make it through our dry summers and will not need to be staked.

scion wood

     The scion wood, or graftwood, is taken from an existing tree—most commonly they are known and named varieties (Gala, Macintosh, Ida Red etc) but you can also gather from volunteer or “wild” trees that you find along the side of the road or in an abandoned orchard. The scion wood is taken from 1 year old growth and needs to be gathered while the tree is still dormant (January-February). I gathered scion wood in early February from some of the trees that are already established here. I packed them in moist sawdust to keep the wood from drying out, wrapped them in a plastic bag and stored them in the fridge (34-38° F) until the rootstock arrived.

graft wood meets root sock

     We received the rootstock earlier this week, shortly after my visit to Carlton Plants. To get started, I grafted about 1/5 of the rootstock with the help of my sister Leah who was visiting for a few days. Most apples are grafted using a whip-and-tongue graft. Part of the trick is making sure that the scion wood and the rootstock are of a similar diameter—if the scion wood is too small, the larger rootstock will overwhelm the scion wood and you won’t get the fruit type you wanted. So once I knew the size of the rootstock, I took out the scion wood from storage and used those pieces that best matched (~ 1/4 inch).

a graft held together with a rubber band

     The ends of the rootstock and scion wood need to each be cut diagonally but in opposite directions so that they will fit together. The cut should expose about an inch of wood. Then you make a small vertical cut (parallel to the length of the tree), on each piece so that they will slide together. Making these cuts well requires a good sharp knife and quite a bit of practice. Its also a good idea to protect your thumbs and index fingers from being cut (masking tape or athletic tape works well). Then wrap the grafted area with a rubber band (we ended up using strips cut from an old bike inner-tube which worked fine) to keep the two pieces of wood together.

grafted apples trees ready to go to the nursery

     In order for the callus cells to form—the cells that will connect the two pieces of wood together and make them one individual—the newly grafted wood needs to be stored between 50-60° F, and the cells take a few weeks to grow. So, we potted up the trees and brought them into the kitchen. Both the folks from St. Lawrence Nursery and Carlton Plants reminded me not to get discouraged if the graft does not take, as it takes many, many grafts to learn the technique well. So, I will be quite content if a single graft takes (I grafted 8 trees). If any of them do take, the next step will be to transplant them outside into the nursery.

     Leah and I planted the remaining rootstock in the nursery. I plan to use the budding technique, which is similar in concept to grafting but uses a different piece of the fruiting tree and needs to be done in August, for the rest of the rootstock.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 69