Permaculture Element – Empress Tree – Support Species

Today we’ll look at a possible “element” for use in a Permaculture design.  In this case, we want to emphasize how a “support species” is used to nurse a more important “production species” into better health and higher production.  For our example, we’ll use the Empress Tree.  This is sometimes called the Foxglove Tree, among other names.  The scientific name is Paulownia Tomentosa.

I chose this tree, because of a conversation I had with my “plant identification” mentor.  The backstory on this is that I am in the middle of doing a Permaculture design for a client.  I visited the client’s property to walk with them as part of the design preparations.  When I walk a property, I’m doing several things.

First, I’m looking at the slope and orientation with my own eyes.  Second, I’m looking at the wildlife already there.  I look at the plants to give me soil indicator information, and I look at signs of wildlife to give me indicators on what animals might be beneficial vs. what might be considered “pest” for the site.  I try to catch things the client might not, such as noise sectors, and eyesore sectors.  I look for how the water sits or flows.  I take in a lot of information when I walk a property, and all of it is important for doing a “good” design, as opposed to an “okay” design.

On this particular property walk, we came across this tree.  I’d never seen one before, and I had no idea what it was.  It was near a stand of honey locusts, in an open field.  The tree is deciduous, and all I could see on it were these nut like seed pods.  They are shaped kind of like a green walnut (fleshy part outside the walnut shell) but smaller, and not fleshy.  The size reminded me of pecans, but it definitely wasn’t a pecan tree.  I pulled down a pod and peeled back a corner of the papery “shell” to find a nut like structure inside, which added to the confusion.  Why was this confusing?  Because the “nut” obviously was not the “seed.”  It was packed with lots of tiny seeds with a white, feathery disk like structure around each seed.  I was perplexed.

I tried to find what this might be on my own using google terms to describe what I found, but came up with no useful information.

Fast forward a week or three, and I finally ask my mentor if she knows what this could be.  I sent her a picture of the seed pod partially opened with seeds inside, and her reply was priceless.  I won’t give the exact phrasing, but she did not think highly of this tree.  She did use the term “trash tree” at one point, and mentioned a popular synthetic pesticide product for the removal of said plant.  I thanked her for the information (I now had a scientific name to look it up,) then went to work on researching it.

This tree (by reference definitions) is actually a very GOOD tree for Permaculture purposes.  It would be used as a “nurse” tree, or a “support species” if the inherent properties I read about are correct.

A support species is often planted to provide for the needs of a production species.  In a hypothetical design, we might have a species that doesn’t prefer direct sunlight (such as an understory tree like the paw paw.)  This tree would want at least some shade during the heat of the day, especially when it is still quite young.  We could plant a faster growing shade tree near it on the sun facing side.  Ideally we would want to be able to cut this support tree back a bit in the cooler months, and also ideally, it would provide some fast decomposition to produce more soil at the base of the production tree.  This is called a “chop and drop” system.  Usually our support species are legumes, because we want to also place nitrogen into the soil, and every time we chop a nitrogen fixer, we force it to let go of some of its nitrogen to the soil.

The Empress Tree is “the fastest growing tree on the planet,” according to reference sources.  It also has a high nitrogen content in its abundance of large leaves, which means when we chop it and drop it, we are not only adding carbon to the soil, but nitrogen rich material, as well.  And some sources claim it is also a nitrogen fixer in the traditional sense.  If this is true, then it should be dropping nitrogen nodules in the soil itself every time we cut it back some.  Being a fast growing tree, the wood should be “soft” (even though it is a hard wood in the traditional sense, since it is deciduous.)  Softer woods break down faster in most cases.

So what we have is a tree that grows faster than the shade loving plants, is high in nitrogen, coppices/pollards very well, breaks down into soil quickly, and is also shade intolerant itself.

Being shade intolerant means we can force it to die off once it has lost its use by planting another tree on ITS sun facing side to shade it out, then do our twilight years of chopping and dropping.  Eventually due to heavy shade, it will stop sending up new trunks, and just die.  The dead material will continue to feed the soil, and it will serve a support role its entire life cycle.

The leaves are great animal fodder, as well, which means it can be used for more than just supporting one element in the system.  We can gather some of the leaves to supplement feed for our livestock.

Finally, the tree really is gorgeous during the flowering season.  It would improve the view for some folks, which always helps when neighbors find our “jungle” of a food forest to be too “ugly” for the neighborhood.

Support species are put in to help nurse a young element into a stronger long term production element in a shorter amount of time.  This tree shows its ability to perform this role quite admirably, if the sources are correct.  It provides fast shade, nutrient from chop and drop, fodder for livestock, and a great view.  It is also easy to control with the right conditions in play.

In the end, it didn’t tell me anything about the soil in the area I didn’t already know (from the nearby honey locusts.)  It’s an indicator of poor soil, and its job as a pioneer plant is to fix the nutrient deficiency.  The honey locusts were doing the same.

I gave my mentor some of this information, by the way.  She said she had no idea “that monster” had so many good qualities.  I’m grateful that she was able to help me discover this element and all its potential uses.  It’s in my design element database now, for future efforts.

Easter

We are approaching Easter weekend.  It’s not my personal favorite, but it’s an important holiday, nonetheless.  It is a time of renewal, and new life.  We let the colder months of winter and early spring drift from our minds, and embrace the warmer months of late spring and the coming summer.  Children hunt for eggs, sometimes colorful boiled and dyed or wrapped, and sometimes fake plastic with small treats inside.

However you choose to celebrate the season, enjoy the time with family and friends, and pay attention to the way the seasons are changing.  It’s a good time to pick flowers for a wild salad, or unopened buds to make capers.  Blackberries are usually in full bloom at this point, and are making their way toward producing early season berries in some locations.  The honey bees are active, and everything seems to express its aliveness in full glory.

The rains of early spring should be subsiding a bit as we approach late spring.  Gardens should be lush and producing early season yields.  It’s a great time of year to take a dip in a lake, or local creek.  Enjoy life.  It’s what the holiday reminds us to do.

Permaculture Zones

Anyone who has done any gardening or farming in the United States knows that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a map of “zone” called the USDA Plant Hardiness Zones.  This gives a general idea of climate conditions for different areas of the United States, mostly determined by minimum extreme temperature.  The Ozarks in Arkansas are in zones 7a and 7b, for example, and the southeast portion of the state is zone 8a.  There are a few spots of 6b near the north edge.  These are useful, but they can be confusing to a newcomer to the topic of Permaculture.

Permaculture has its own set of “zones,” and these are based on how much time is spent in that area over a given period of time.  For example, the home is “zone 0.”  You are in your home most of the time, because you most commonly eat, sleep, and relax in your home.

The first “outside the home” zone is “zone 1.”  This zone is where you might plant a kitchen garden, near the back door. Then zones 2, 3, and 4 are where your design would have plantings and structures that may not be visited as frequently.  Some of the higher numbered zones’ plantings are purely to provide fodder for your grazing animals, if you incorporated them into your system.

The last zone is “zone 5” which is supposed to be a small piece that you leave for nature to do whatever it likes.  It remains untouched from an agricultural perspective, but you might go into it very rarely in order to observe, forage/wildcraft, or hunt.  It is important to leave at least a little bit of untouched ground.

We will cover different concepts of these zones in more detail, and we’ll reference them occasionally when discussing placement of elements in a design.

Permaculture – Sector Analysis

At its most boiled down essence, Permaculture teaches us to view the world as “flows.”  This can be energy flows, or matter flows.  This is not some mystical, magical, chakra, chi, spiritual energy thing.  This is physics.  This is about identifying how energy and matter enter our property, making a choice to retain it or remove it, and then implementing design that does just that.  If we want to retain it, we focus on keeping it on the property as long as possible, and reusing it.  If we want to remove it, we either attempt to block it as early as possible, or redirect it back off of our property as quickly as possible.

This analysis of each flow is called “Sector Analysis.”

What kinds of things do we look for in Sector Analysis?

Where does water enter and exit the property?
What is the annual average rainfall for the property?  What does a 100-year flood look like on this property?
Where does wind enter and exit the property?  During what times of year?  Does it bring overly cold or hot air from that direction?
Where does the sun rise and set?  What angles does it reach as it passes over the sky throughout the year?
Are there any cyclic wildfires near the property?  What direction do they come from?
Are there any views that should be blocked?  Are there any views that should NOT be blocked?
Are there any sounds that need to be muffled?

We also analyze efficiency, which is where we come up with placement of items for Zone analysis.  Zones measure “how many visits to this spot on the property per day, week, month, or year?”  Sectors measure “what direction and how much of a good or bad thing is entering the property?”

The “good” flows, (especially water) are generally designed to meander across the property for as long as possible.  We slow it with things like swales, and soak it into the ground.  We stop it with dams and ponds for use during dry spells.  We sometimes put in pumps to lift water from a low spot to a high spot on the property.  We shade exposed water to reduce evaporation.  We store roof runoff in tanks.  We force it to move the way we want it to move, and make it as passive as possible.  Every drop that enters should take the longest route it can before exiting our property.

On the other hand, we treat threats such as wildfire areas with care.  We plant trees and shrubs that are known to be naturally fire resistant at the edge of the property.  We allow a buffer between those trees and the productive ones further in.  We hydrate that section as much as possible using swales, ponds, dams, and other water features vigorously.

We harvest the good, and we deflect the bad.  This is how we treat the energy flows to benefit ourselves and the land.  This is how Permaculture works.

Speaking Engagement – Permaculture Class

I’ll be teaching an introductory class on what Permaculture is on April 29th.  The class will be at 9:00a.m. at the little country store located at

H & W, 659 Hwy 225 East,
Greenbrier, Arkansas

This will be a basic introduction to Permaculture for the Centerville Community Group.  Some of the members have already been introduced, but the material presented will depend on where people are already at in their understanding of the subject.

I tried for the previous weekend (Earth Day,) but there was another function at the facility already scheduled for that day, so we moved it out a week.

If you’ve been reading and enjoy this content, and you live near central Arkansas, this is an opportunity to come join us and learn more.

Permaculture elements

A fundamental building block in Permaculture is the “element.”  Every element is either a plant, an animal, or a structure.  Each element has inputs, outputs, functions/behaviors, and intrinsic qualities.

The “inputs” are things that element needs in order to function or survive.  For example, all animals need food, oxygen, and shelter of some sort.  All of these are “inputs” in one form or another.  A “dirt road” might need gravel in places where ruts are causing erosion, in order to keep the road maintained and reduce or prevent further erosion.

The “outputs” are things that element provides naturally, that may be used by the system.  Chickens provide feathers, meat, eggs, and heat, for example.  A small flock of chickens in a greenhouse in the winter can help keep the grow space warm on cloudy days.  A barn might provide water as a side effect of its intrinsic property of having a roof with gutters that drive water to a storage tank during a rain.

A chicken “functions” as a natural tiller due to its intrinsic quality of needing to scratch at the ground in search of food.  Roads “function” as both access to important areas of the property, as well as providing hard run off to direct water to swales or other catchment devices to keep ponds topped off.

Trees provide shade, act as wind breaks, produce food, and lumber, and give shelter to wild animals on the property.

Sometimes qualities of a specific breed might come into play.  Some breeds of chicken do well in cooler climates than others.  Some lay more eggs.  Some produce higher qualities and quantities of meat.

A barn with a steep almost A frame style roof holds up to lots of heavy snow seasons better than a shack with a flat roof.

All of these characteristics are important when choosing when and where to use an element in design.

First day of Spring was this week

The first day of Spring was this week.  The equinox marks the season change, and the date was March 20, this year.

Spring brings with it new growth.  The spring beauties have been blooming for a couple of weeks now, and other early starters have cropped up.  The daffodils have bloomed for some, but not the ones in our front yard.  The magnolia tree has been in bloom for a while, but it’s just now starting to get leaves again.

The birds are back, too.  We’ve seen a couple of cardinals, some robins, and a few bluejays hanging around.  Hummingbirds should just start showing up, but we haven’t put our feeder out, yet.  We need to make sure it’s sterilized well before hanging it, since we don’t want them to get sick.

It won’t be long before the lemon balm takes over the little mint plot in our back yard.  It’s already peaking out, but a week or three from now and it’ll be trying to prove that it’s a shrub instead of an herb.  I need to rescue the peppermint plant from the bed before it does.  It needs to move to a location where the lemon balm won’t dominate, so it can grow better.

It’s a bit late to be planning for the kitchen garden, but I’m thinking I’m going to start some Jerusalem artichokes and probably some chinese artichokes this year.  There’s a reddish variety of sunchokes that has caught my eye, and I’ve been wanting to try the chinese artichokes for a couple of years, now.  I just haven’t pulled the trigger, yet.  This year should be the year.

I hope everyone is paying attention to the beauty that’s unfolding as Spring wakes up and says “hello” to the world.

The importance of mentors

This site will mostly cover topics revolving around Permaculture, but that is by far not my only hobby.  Other hobbies WILL be discussed, so now is a good time to mention the subject of “mentors.”

No matter what your hobby, profession, or interest, the best thing you can do to improve yourself is to find a mentor.  In HAM Radio, we call our mentors “Elmers.”  Other hobbies don’t necessarily put a label on the name, but they all have them to some degree.

A mentor can be someone you know intimately.  You’ve met them face to face, maybe shared a meal or two with them, and possibly gotten physical (such as on a training mat in martial arts, for example.)  A mentor can also be someone who doesn’t know you from Adam or Eve, and you observe from afar.  People who have taken the time to set themselves out there as mentors for anyone interested in the hobby can be found on social media sites such as FaceBook, YouTube, Twitter, and so on.  They can also be found on personal websites or social blog sites such as wordpress.com, blogspot.com, or livejournal.com.

No matter how you feel about a subject, you need a mentor.  There is always someone who knows more than you about a subject, and even students bring learning to their teachers over time.  You will grow in your field or hobby much faster if you don’t try to teach yourself everything.

A few of my mentors are below:

  • Shirley Pratt – Wildcrafting and plant identification.  Also a good friend.
  • Jack Spirko – Owner of thesurvivalpodcast.com.  He’s got a small duck based permaculture farm in Texas.
  • Geoff Lawton – My instructor for my Permaculture Design Certification.
  • The members of the Faulkner County Amateur Radio Club (FCARC) – HAM radio related issues, questions, and insights.
  • TheCombat KnifeThrower and Xolette – Two YouTube mentors that have great content for beginners to advance knife throwing topics.

There are many more.  I look for multiple mentors in every discipline I decide to pick up, and you should, too.

Find something you think might be fun.  Go find a mentor or three.  Learn the subject, and enjoy!

Permaculture – Indicators and Function

In my Permaculture Design Course (PDC,) my mentor (Geoff Lawton) mentioned that if you take a patch of ground, and you mark it into quarters, then damage each quarter a different way, you get different seeds that germinate based on the needs of that damaged ground.  These pioneer “weeds” are what pop up to repair the damage.  That is their “function.”  In his example, he said in the quarter that we burn, plants like bracken fern would pop up.  These are pot ash (potassium) accumulators that thrive in low potassium environments, and gather it from deep in the soil.  When they die, they provide that potassium back to the soil for other plants to use in succession.

The “over-cropped” patch would have legumes pop up.  Plants like peas, beans, lupines, and vetch produce nodules that interact with soil bacteria, and provide nitrogen to the soil.  When animals come along and graze on these, those nodule fall off inside the soil for a burst of nitrogen that also invigorates the plants around that legume.

The “loose” soil patch would have plants that have a hair root system spring up to help hold the soil in place, stabilize it, and rejuvenate it over time.  These plants prevent erosion from wind and rain.

Finally, the one I wanted  to talk about today, is soil compaction.  When soil is heavily compacted, and possibly clay heavy, it makes things difficult for most plants to take up residence.  The water hits this compaction and runs off as a hard surface, and roots struggle to gain a foot hold.  Plants that pop up here are things like dandelions, wild carrots, and other deep tap root plants.  These plants help break up the compaction, and when they die, it creates carbon pathways for soil life to get in and interact with other plants that come along in succession.

The reason I wanted to talk about indicators today is I wanted to share an example of how true this theme holds.  A couple of years ago, we tore down a small shed in our back yard that we deemed hazardous since it had severe roof damage, and was not worth the cost of repair.  The ground under this shed was heavily compacted, clay like material.  We went ahead and tried to aerate it a bit before we planted some hazelnut shrubs in the location.

Today, I went to check on my hazels, and the area is lush with plants.  It’s the most lush area of the yard, probably because we did add a large layer of organic compost to the spot before planting the hazels.  This year, about fifty percent of the space is taken up by wild carrots.  The soil is too compacted there, and I am ecstatic to find these “weeds” in my grow space.  They will help break up that clay heavy compaction, aerate the soil, and given the lushness of the other plants that have found a foot hold, the ground will maintain a good level of moistness through the summer months, because it is a thick mat of natural ground covers in with those wild carrots.

The hazels all have healthy buds, by the way.  That was the purpose of checking on them, so I thought I should share since people might want to know.

Knowing the indicators that plants provide helps determine what is going on with a patch of soil, without having to try to dig there first.  Learn the indicators, and you can see at a glance what’s going on with your property.

I’ll be sharing some of these indicators over time.  Until next time…

Thanks for reading!

Hello friend!

Welcome to the Hobby Farm, where we raise discussion about multiple topics I’m passionate about, but mostly we’ll focus on Permaculture.  Grab a sweet tea, lemonade, or other favorite drink, have a seat on the porch, and let’s get comfy for an evening of whatever we feel like talking about today.

Warning.  I ramble sometimes.  It usually just means I love the topic.