Tuesday, May 10, 2011

'A' is for Alley Cropping, and Asparagus, and...

Astragalus, and Abundance, and perhaps...

Absent. Sorry to have been so scarce. It's just the time of year. There is so much to do, and so much to plant, and I have so very much on my mind. It's sometimes difficult to organize it all. I've been working on this post for close to two weeks, now, and here it finally is.

First off, the seasonal vegetable of the moment is -- drum roll, please --

Asparagus. Asparagus is the first seasonal plant available in many areas. As you can see by the photo above, our bed is just getting started. If you are fortunate enough to have an abundance of asparagus, blanching and freezing is the best way to save some for the future. And I've heard you can pickle it, believe it or not. I've not tried either of these preservation methods because I've never had enough of this wonderful vegetable. Hopefully, in a few years, we will!

Before I move on to the permaculture subject of this post, I'd like to mention another 'A' word, namely -- second drum roll, please --

Astragalus. Astragalus is something I use on a regular basis, sneaking it into my family's meals to support our immune systems and keep us well. I bought mine at a Chinese grocery. It looks like tongue depressors, don't you think? I throw one in with every soup, stew, or stock I make. I remove the soggy depressor before serving, but have infused the food with health benefits.

Astragalus works by stimulating the immune system. It has antioxidant effects that inhibit free radical production. In the body, free radicals damage cells and are linked to many health problems associated with aging. If you would like more information, google it. There is a lot of information available on the internet.

And now, for the star performer you've all been waiting on...

Alley Cropping!

Before diving in here, I have decided to put any permaculture terminology in bold type. There are a lot of new terms and concepts so this will help you (and me) to identify them. Also, please remember that I am summarizing most of the terminology specific to permaculture as it is described in the book entitled

the earth user's guide to permaculture, by Rosemary Morrow. The rest of the information presented here is based on our experiences as earth users striving to achieve permaculture goals on our homestead.

So, without further delay, let's talk Alley Cropping! I will begin this with a discussion of zones. In permaculture there are six zones:

Zone 0 is the home and office space.

Zone I is the kitchen garden.

Zone II is the orchard.

Zone III is the farming zone, whether orchard, nut trees, poultry, grain, beef, dairy, sheep, goats, or other large crops.

Zone IV is harvest forests, where trees are harvested sustainably for building, mulching, and firewood, and can include some grazing animals.

Zone V is the indigenous conservation zone providing protection for soil, water, air and indigenous plants of the region.

For now, I will focus on Zone III, or the farming zone. Alley cropping takes place in Zone III. Of course, how you use Zone III depends on your climate and other factors. Depending on where you live and how much land you use, Zone III is for growing staples such as grains and potatoes, larger scale fruit and poultry, nuts, raising market animals, or growing commercial crops. Alley cropping is also known as hedgerow cropping and is an effective technology for Zone III. It is characterized by a permanent structure of trees inter-planted with arable crops. The trees are grown in wide rows and the crops or animals are placed in between, in the 'alleys.'

Of course, how you might set this up depends on what kind of space you have, what your natural resources are, and what your goals are. Before we knew much, if anything, about permaculture, we put into action a plan to increase our area of cultivation. This area is the field across the creek and away from the house, in other words, our Zone III. Hubby started several years ago by planting an orchard of apple, pear and plum trees. He also planted blueberries and lingonberries, and later on I planted some raspberries. The place we designated as the orchard was on a sloping hill, facing mostly northwest.

We fenced in the orchard to protect it from deer in its youth. The second year, we extended the fence and planted a large garden at the foot of the hill. There we planted large crops of corn, beets, turnips, and potatoes. We also started sheet mulching with cardboard and straw, as much as possible. But it is hard to find enough cardboard and straw, much less hours in the day, to carpet your entire Zone III!

There were other parts of our field, unfenced, in which we planted large crops of oats, sunflowers, pumpkins, and radishes. This entire time, all the way through four growing seasons, our Zone III required regular mowing. We would catch the grass as much as possible and use it for mulching and composting, but the grass grew quickly, thickly and happily. In short, it was a pain in the butt.

Then last year, Hubby participated in a permaculture seminar, taught by Midwest Permaculture, an amazing team of teachers, namely Bill Wilson and Wayne Weiseman. Hubby actually got certified in the process. After an intensive, intoxicating, eight-day workshop that changed Hubby's life, we started thinking about things differently. Now we have several related and lofty goals for our Zone III. One goal is to plant more food-producing trees and perennial herbs, and vegetable crops in our orchard. Another is to heavily practice sheet mulching, or to virtually carpet the entire area of open grass with whatever mass of cardboard, kitchen scraps, compost and straw we can get our hands on. Eventually we'd like to add some chickens to the mix, and perhaps a few grazing animals in the future.

Another thing we need to do in our orchard is dig some swales. I haven't discussed swales yet, since the term begins with an 's,' but essentially it's a method of digging a trench in a strategic spot, level with the landscape. The earth from the trench is piled on the downhill side and planted. The trench then catches rainwater and holds it, causing that water to gradually seep into the ground and take care of plants below. Without the swale, water runs downhill and misses all the plants on the way. Since our orchard lies on a a sloping hill, we really need a series of swales to help maximize its success.

We don't have animals, yet, but will add chickens to our mix, soon, I hope. For now, our alleys will consist of the apples, pears, and plums already out there, plus some new trees and bushes that will be dynamic accumulators, also to be discussed in a future post. The additions to our Zone III include hazelnut, chestnut, nana beech plum, and umeboshi plum trees that Hubby planted this spring; there will also be currants and wild strawberries (Hubby's planting those as we speak); and the food crops that I will plant on top of the sheet mulching project. Some of those food crops will be planted in the 'curbs' created by digging the swales. All of this can seem sort of overwhelming, so here are the steps we're taking to try to accomplish our goals, one chunk at a time.
  1. Plant nut, fruit, and berry trees.

  2. Surround each planting with a layer of cardboard and straw.

  3. Weed around each existing orchard tree and berry bush, then surround each with a layer of cardboard and straw.

  4. Dig swales.

  5. Cover open ground with layers of kitchen scraps, cardboard, compost, and thick straw.

  6. Plant vegetables in the straw. Specifically, I plan to plant potatoes, butternut squash, a variety of annual flowers, bush beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers in the straw, as weather and resources permit.

  7. In rings surrounding each established tree, plant perennial herbs and bulbs that work well together and complement each other. This part requires some research, and depends on the specifics of your Zone III.

I know this sounds like a huge amount of work, but it's amazing what happens when you work in a team and focus your intention. Hubby has been tackling the bulk of tree and bush planting, while I focus on the market and kitchen gardens. When we can't plant because of weather, we work on fencing or sheet mulching. There is never a lack of work, that's for sure.

But, there is never lack of abundance, either. Which brings me to the last 'a' of this post, namely, abundance. It never fails... while I am tending my garden, I envision the results. It's just natural. While planting peas, I envision them climbing the trellis. I envision stir fries and a neighbor stopping by for dinner. I see pea blossoms and pods. I talk to the critters in the field, asking the rabbits, moles, and groundhogs not to eat too much. I see the kids helping me pick and eat the peas. I envision abundance. I don't know if every planter does this... it's just what happens in my brain. I mulch an apple tree and see a pot of apple sauce on a crisp autumn morning. I plant onions and picture them hanging in braids in the cellar. And so it goes.

Why am I mentioning the inner workings of my brain? Because I think that envisioning amounts to intention, which ends up manifesting the resources we need to accomplish our work. This year, already, Hubby found a free source of paper:

and our neighbor, a farmer, offered us all the round bales of straw we could hope for! They are older and deteriorating, but that makes them perfect for our needs. What an amazing gift! Last year we couldn't get our hands on enough cardboard and straw. This year we are swimming in it. Perfect for all that sheet mulching.

I never thought I could get so excited about something like cardboard. Yet... I am, and equally so about straw! Here is an example of sheet mulching in action:

As we work to accomplish our goals, the beauty of permaculture sinks in. The thing I am perhaps the most excited about at this moment is planting crops in the straw. This practice accomplishes so many goals at one time, and leaves the earth better than when you start. Here's how it goes:

  1. Laying down cardboard and straw chokes and kills the weeds.

  2. The cardboard and straw attract worms and help them to multiply.

  3. Over time, the earth underneath becomes rich and soft and crumbly... perfect for growing and nourishing crops and plants.

  4. While time is passing, use the top of the straw to plant seeds.

  5. The seeds grow, producing food in a virtually weed-free environment, thereby minimizing your work.

  6. At season's end, you have a food crop and improved soil!

  7. Beautiful!

Last year, kind of by accident, I ended up completing a successful cycle like the one above. It went like this:

  1. I planted two rows of butternut squash in the garden at the base of the orchard.

  2. I laid paper and straw in the rows, surrounding the plants.

  3. I then covered the field below with black landscaping cloth, followed by a two or three inch layer of straw.

  4. I trained the squash vines to go down the slope over the cloth.

Here's how that all worked out:

  1. My butternut squash thrived, with minimal weeding.

  2. The earth underneath the landscaping cloth cooked and softened and improved.

  3. After harvesting our bumper crop of butternuts in September, we pulled back the cloth and planted garlic there.

  4. Now the garlic is big and strong and there is barely a weed or blade of grass impeding it.

  5. Once again, beautiful!

Here's a picture of that garlic, just so you can see:

I guess that about sums it up. While we are working, the process becomes intuitive. We see what works and we communicate with the land we are using. What seems extremely complex in the beginning becomes beautiful in its simplicity.

I want to say that I intend to post as much as possible here, but time runs thin during the growing season. We could spend every waking moment in Zone III. My permaculture entries will take a lot of time to prepare, but it is my goal to continue them and learn in the process. In between, I will post other garden progress, canning adventures, recipes, and seasonal harvests from our homestead. My hope is that some of you will learn alongside me, take your own journey, define your own Zone III.

I can say this much for certain: I believe practicing permaculture may be the only solution to saving our Mother Earth. Won't you join me?

Next up? 'B' is for Biomass... I'll bet you can hardly wait!


  1. awesome suzanne... thanks for posting this////:-) - rachel

  2. Thank you for sharing photos of the beautiful land and plantings you have. Your asparagus makes me so excited about spring (only a few months to go!).

  3. Holy cow, this was educational. I had never heard of zones and swales and all that good stuff.

    We only have a small amount of space on our piece of land (1/4 acre), so I will not have an opportunity to try all these things like you have.

    It sounds very rewarding! Do you find use for everything you harvest?

  4. Love the post!!! Can't wait to see your garden in person sometime.

  5. Do you have to remove tape and stickers from boxes when using them for compost?

  6. Kim, yes we do.(Or suffer having lots of trash on the garden once the cardboard turns to dirt) That's why the new source of paper is so welcome (no tape, staples, or stickers). If I had more financial resources to throw at the problem, I would buy huge rolls of heavy craft paper and cover the ground with it, then straw over it. It would be so easy. But, we like the idea of recycling, and we love the fact that it is Free ! Check with your local newspaper, or printing company and see what they are doing with their scraps...

  7. Sassafrass, I bust my hump trying to use all we grow, and mostly manage to do so. We share a bit with neighbors and people we visit and such, but I do a LOT of preserving. We try to have bumper crops of things we love to eat and know we'll use, whether in cold storage or as a part of a favorite pickle, relish, soup, salsa, or stew recipe. I give some canned goods as gifts every year. I freeze some things, as well. We store onions, garlic, potatoes, red cabbage, and butternut squash in our cellar for use until the next growing season or until it runs out. I also keep records of all I preserve, so I can adjust what I grow and put up the following year. Following this practice helps me figure out exactly what it takes to provide our own food. This year we are also selling some produce at a local market and growing for a friend's CSA. There will be a lot of harvesting this year, depending on the weather.