Saturday, August 11, 2018

O.K.I. Wild Plum Conservation Project

(Wild Plums in the O.K.I. region can be 1 of 6 different native species referred to as "Wild Plums")

What are Wild Plums? 

Throughout the United States there are small trees, often colonial, that bloom white in the spring, and give way to plum flavored fruit in late summer as small as a bit bigger than a dime or almost as large as a half dollar. These are referred to as Wild Plums, in the Prunus genus. The Prunus genus has given birth to many of our cultivated (bred for food) fruits like Apricots, Peaches, Cherries, Plums, Almonds, and Nectarines. Wild Plums refers to uncultivated (unbred, wild) that are native to the United States and within Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana these are Prunus americana - American Wild Plum, Prunus hortulana - Hortulan Plum, Prunus munsoniana - Wild Goose Plum, Prunus mexicana - Big Tree Plum, Prunus nigra - Canada Plum, and Prunus angustifolia - Chickasaw Plum. I should note that Canada Plum is only native to Northern Ohio and Northern Indiana when considering these 3 states (OKI). Follow this link for the current understanding of the ranges for these species, amongst other Prunus species in the U.S.

Wild Plums were widely cultivated by indigenous people, especially east of the Mississippi River where most of the Wild Plums are understood as native to. Some colonizer journals noted extensive Wild Plum, American Hazelnut (Corylus americana), Wild Crab Apple (Malus coronaria) thickets promoted and managed by indigenous people for food, so thick horses couldn't navigate through them. These fruit and nut bearing thickets would have required full-sun to be productive, so one can imagine these plantings within deep soil grasslands/prairies or previously forested land. Whether on flat land or hillsides these perennial crops would have produced well.

Before colonization, industrial agriculture, and the introduction of invasive plants from other continents, Wild Plums would have naturally grown in prairies, shrub/scrubland thickets, wetlands, and open savannas. They're an open habitat dependent species that cannot persist even in young forests due to shade intolerance.

The Crisis at Hand

Invasive Species

Invasive species, specifically Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii), Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) have overtaken the majority of the available environments that Wild Plums could have reproduced in. Pictured to the left are Prunus americana - American Wild Plum with Bush honeysuckle grow underneath them after a road management crew cut back the edge of the wild plum canopy. Behind these wild plums (not pictured) are Autumn Olives. Between the two of these invasives, the wild plums are surrounding on all sides. Though they still are flowering white on top, so why doesn't this colony produce fruit/seed?

Isolation of Wild Plum Colonies

If you were to walk into this thicket you'd see 3 perhaps 4 individual wild plum tree trunks supporting those white flowers, making it seem as though there are 3, perhaps 4 wild plum trees. As stated before, most species of wild plums are colonial which means these individual tree trunks were all at some point part of 1 trees root system that gave birth to new sprouts from the ground. This is aesexual reproduction, so each one of these trees are of the same genetics and same original wild plum tree. For a wild plum to produce fruit/seed, two genetically distinct colonies or two genetically distinct trees must be close enough for pollinators to cross-pollinate them in order to reproduce through seed/fruit. The colony pictured above is not only surrounded by invasives, but it's also isolated from the nearest wild plums which are over 200 feet away, so these never fruit. Invasives are mostly to blame for the isolation of wild plum colonies, as wild plums have more edge habitat than ever to be able to reproduce in, it's that their edge habitats are dominated by invasive shrubs primarily.

Loss of co-dependent seed dispersers (No one eats the fruit!)

Wild Plums are an unique fruit in our ecosystems in that they are a sugary fruit that is too large for most birds to disperse. The size of the fruit suggest that larger animals, particularly large mammals would be responsible for the swallowing and depositing of wild plum fruits around the landscape. Bears are notorious fruit lovers, known for gorging on pounds of fruits like American Persimmon in the fall to pack on fat. While Racoon and Possum will take some wild plums (some persimmon too), nothing can swallow down hundreds of wild plum seeds and disperse them like bear can wandering their large territories in search of an easy meal. Conveniently, Wild Plums also fall to the ground before they are ripe, and finish ripening on the ground further suggesting a ground dwelling animal, large enough to swallow them whole, should be the main disperser. In my observation, Racoon, Possum, and White Tail Deer will let the large majority of Wild Plums rot on the ground before they take on the duty of dispersing a significant amount of the seeds. Without hungry bears roaming the natural landscape, or humans stepping up to be the modern primary seed disperser, Wild Plum fruit/seeds most often will first become ant food as they rot, and then rodents will harvest the pits to extract the almond like kernel inside destroying the seed. Turkey may also swallow Wild Plums whole, but aren't as likely as bear species to be the missing/absent seed disperser of Wild Plums. Humans must fill this niche now.

A Local Solution (Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana)

The OKI Wild Plum Conservation Project, lead by Indigenous Landscapes

Being a person who is working to see native plant based agriculture movement become a future reality of the U.S. landscape, I'm interested in the opportunity to conserve Wild Plum species through letting them earn a place in our local foods systems. Most people have had bad experiences trying to grow non-native fruit trees, yet these Wild Plums existed without humans taking care of them for hundreds of thousands of years on this continent, so when they're properly placed and established, they take care of themselves. This is true of all native plants given that the environment meets their needs, with the exception that invasive plants must be managed to ensure their long-term survival.

1. Partnering with private citizens to plant small groves of cataloged/tracked wild plums that are all grown from locally collected seed (in our nursery), is a way to ensure at least for the next few decades no wild plum species will be extirpated (considered locally extinct). These colonies will all be tracked and registered through the Wild Plum Conservation Project into their fruition.

2. Partnering with parks, to volunteer to remove the invasive plants from around their existing wild plum groves, collect fruit/seed from those groves, and reintroducing more genetically distinct individuals of the same species around those groves will be another way to ensure long-term conservation. Part of this is making sure isolated colonies receive the correct species to cross pollinate with when we reintroduce the wild plums back into the parks in agreed upon areas. Arboretums looking to have a hand in conservation of these species will also be worked with to create protected groves for long-term seed collection and public display.

3. Selecting wild plums that have the largest yields and best flavors for native plant based agriculture, will also help secure the future of wild plums, which would require public promotion and awareness raising of these low-maintenance native fruit trees. We also have a local 6-10 acre native plant based agricultural project in the works which will feature a wild plum orchard grown from locally collected fruit/seed where people can experience the wild plums first hand.

How to Get Involved

1. Contributing Seed, learning how to recognize wild plum colonies is fairly easy. You need to search sunny edge habitats in April looking for profuse white blooms typically in rural areas, then work on getting permission from the land owner to collect the fruit that will form in August. Contributing seed to our nursery from as many colonies and species as possible will help increase the genetic diversity of the seedlings we grow to distribute back into the landscape. We'll identify the species for you, but we will need fruit, leaf, and bud picture-close ups or samples which we'll instruct you how to gather.

2. If you work for a park system alerting staff to be on the lookout for these white blooming small trees in April, and either growing the trees out yourself and managing the invasive plants yourself, or partnering with us for assistance in conserving your wild plum colonies would be a great way to contribute. If you work for an arboretum, getting a grove of at least 3 planted is significant, as when open grown these trees will produce a lot of fruit/seed for future conservation efforts. They're also a nice ornamental tree for an arboretum or park .

3. Become a protector and/or promoter of wild plums by educating the public about native plant agriculture, sharing or selling your wild plum jellies, and establishing registered wild plums from our nursery would all be good ways to contribute. Wild Plums earn their keep by producing fragrant showy blooms, attracting hordes of pollinators, and most colonies create good or great flavored fruits.

If either of these 3 options appeal to you, email Solomon Gamboa at for more info.

Please note that this year we have collected well over 500 wild plum seeds from different species and different colonies of wild plums, and will be growing them out in our nursery next year, but these aren't available in mass this year in our nursery.

Lastly, see this flickr album of the populations of Wild Plum we've located and conserved so far though seed collection, and soon through invasive plant removal. We've collected and labled seed for genetic diversity regardless of fruit quality/size, and we've also collected and labled seed based on fruit quality/size for indigenous agriculture. Click the photo below to view album.

Wild Plums of SW Ohio

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Oh, What We Can Do With This Land: Pt. 1 Food

Metropolitan Matters

Today we're living with cultural/collective individual disconnect between land/earth/nature and ourselves. This is exemplified in the ecologically destructive forms we grow the majority of our food, our desires to live high carbon footprint lifestyles, the pain/fear we often experience in nature in reaction to her elements, and more locally it shows in the way we manage our own properties/land.

Connecting with nature in such a way that our desires shift to a set that is more earth nurturing and ecological caring/inclusive is a shift in consciousness that can't be completed alone by educational programs and awareness raising events/workshops. Humans change through experiences, and in Metropolitans where 80% or 4/5 people live, our land touching our dear neighbors land, holds the potential to change people, if we, those already on a path to balance with nature/earth, can create positive experiences for people. We know that short-term (next 1,000 years at least)  the health of nature depends on human actions and inaction. So this is an ecological restoration shift in focus to the number 1 ecological cause of distress and destruction; our current dominant cultural/collective and individual disconnect.

Rural Matters

20% of the population lives in what is labeled Rural Residential, owning about 3.5-4 % of the land surface in America. Metropolitans as a whole occupy 3% of the land surface in America, together this is a mere 7% about of the land, some of which is under concrete, asphalt, or buildings. Per person, rural people own around 4 times as much land, so our potential to create more in quantity is higher, but due to the lack of population density per street, our opportunities to expand one's neighbors experience with nature may be more limited. I must say though, if someone wanted to show me 3 acres of edible native plants and medicinal native plants, I'd be out their 8 in the morning on a cold January day to see such extensive of a planting. I myself, one day hope to buy just 5 or so acres in Brown county, to create such a place where bounties of primarily medicinal native plants could serve Cincinnati, as a model. There's much potential for rural land supporting the local communities too, instead of being solely focused on exporting to cities, though it's hard to export corn, soybeans, and wheat to your local community as actual non-processed food, indicating a completely new agricultural approach needed for rural farms to directly be rural-supportive.

Oh, What We Can Do With This Land (Please Read this Part)

Have you ever noticed how even sometimes, the most nature-disinterested people, have grown or tried to grow tomatoes or peppers? There is a hierarchy created by degrees connectedness, in which food is the most basic, and most engaging stimulus to a human being. For example, some people would only go outside to water their Tomatoes and other gardening plants. Other people, could walk out in the morning dew, to see the arising pollinators buzzing from plant to plant getting a sort of spiritual food out of the experience of just observation. While some people can mostly only hold their attention on activities in nature like hiking, biking, climbing, kayaking. Wherever we are on this spectrum, we can all meet, where the food hits the ground, and at the dinner table.

Choosing native plants exemplifies an agricultural shift needed to make the land whole/in balance again. One may think, we'll if we harvest the fruit, seeds, and nuts of these native plants, what will be left for wildlife. What needs to be realized is the insect biomass produced by native plants + the micro environments they create collectively out weighs their fruits, and being the bottom of the food chain; insect biomass is often more important than the seasonal fruits of the land for ecology as a whole. Also, the pure abundance possible if just our 40+% devoted land to livestock land was converted to Agroforesty and native ecosystems with native grazers, is unimaginable. Once this was a nation of +100 million indigenous people living off the land with a very small fraction of the land-manipulation/ecosystem destruction and technology we have/have done today. We've moved away from that type of land management into modern industrial agriculture. If you want to save ecology, consider feeding people with it, help them to experience the fruits of the land. Our next blog post in this series coming Fall of 2017, will be healing with native plants focusing on another powerful way to help people connect with nature; medicine.


The potential in feeding one's self, or one's family from native foods quite high if we are willing to eat a plant based diet. Many of these plants are pleasing to the eye of the average passer-byer too. Thinking about actually feeding people, we have to consider what grows in abundance like edible leaves, roots, and stems, and what grows concentrated energy; seeds, particularly nuts with high nutmeat to husk ratios like Acorns, Chestnuts, and Hazelnuts. Fruits are important sources of many things the body needs too, but are more of a luxury if prioritizing with limited space. Seeds feed the world today, and will continue to in the future, proportionately. Let's just go through a few, highly recommended edible native trees, shrubs, and vines in particular, then we'll discuss a couple of potentially useful herbaceous plants. 

Woody Plants (Trees, Shrubs, Vines)

Hazelnuts - Nuts - Hybrids for now - (Corylus hybridized)

European Hazelnuts have long been cultivated for large nutmeat and thin shells. They face a dire future in America where a native blight kills many cultivars of European descent. Organizations like Badgersett are breeding blight resistance hazelnuts that produce heavy crops by crossing the native American hazelnut, resistant to the blight (EFB), with the European Hazelnut. Pioneer Landscapes will have over 100 of these special breeds for sale next year. 

Hazelnut shrubs are widely adapted to different soil types and moisture ranges, and these new hybrids can not only serve as some habitat for wildlife, but produce a ton of food for humans to reconnect with the earth through. I hear the fall color is stellar on them from a horticultural perspective. Being one of the densest foods in calories; +650 per 100 grams, these Hazelnuts promise to be competitive with soybean fields in the near future if not already. But no need to wait for them to end up in a farm field near you. Plant them as a hedge; 10 of them in full sun will produce a descent harvest in about 5 years. Eventually, American Hazelnuts will be bred for larger nuts and we won't need to have the European genetics present for high production. 

Oaks - Acorns - (Quercus sp.)

Pictured above is "Buck's Unlimited" Swamp White Oak bred for high acorn production of annual crops. Originally intended for deer hunters trying to feed the deer, the Agroforestry movement has adopted this tree as a prime cultivar for acorn production. Swamp White Oak matures best in at least slightly acidic soils, higher on the moisture spectrum. The local Cincinnati metropolitan has tons of this niche available in the glacial till deposit plains. These are not for local floodplains as those are alkaline. There are other oak cultivars bread for acorn production as well, and these can play a major part in the remaking of our agricultural system into one that is eco-inclusive, instead of eco-exclusive.

The way one makes an acorn palatable, is the leaching of the tannins. There are thousands of people doing this now, in this country, returning to a more indigenous people's diet, with this wonderful genus of indigenous nut producing trees. See how to process acorns here. 

Chestnuts - Nuts - Hybrids for now 

For those not in the situation to plan for the future with their space with Oaks, there are alternatives, being the Hazelnut shrubs previously written about above, and these very vigorously growing hybridized chestnuts. These are resistant to the blight that killed nearly all American Chestnuts in the 20th century. They don't get as large as oaks, and have low branching, wide spreading habit as a tree. The fragrancy of the flowers and aesthetic is sure to attract people ornamentally, but the real price are the nuts! Nutritionally they are more similar to a grain, high in starch, lower in fats/proteins.  If you have the space, I'd suggest still planting your oak crop for future generations, and planting Hazelnut and Chestnut Crops for tomorrow. Sometime in the future, perhaps, the American Chestnut breeding programs will produce blight tolerant specimens that can then be cultivated for production. As for now, we must plant the hybrids for chestnuts.

American Persimmon - Fruit

The American Persimmon produces one of the sweetest fruits known to man, complemented by a very agreeable flavor. There have been many cultivars created that have improved productivity, fruit size, and flavor that are worth considering over the wild type persimmon. Wild Persimmons are agreeable as well. The fruit comes down each year in high quantities from medium sized tree and is best canned or frozen in puree form for cooking with or using as spreads. I prefer to eat them raw over cooking. The pay off for a persimmon cultivar begins around 5-7 years depending on growing conditions, so it is closer to a Hazelnut in bearing fruit sooner than most trees. These trees tolerate acidic and alkaline soils, rocky shallow hillsides, as well as high moisture and saturated soils making them highly adaptable. The wood and tree size makes it a descent tree to line the west or east side of a 1 story high house with, while it will not cast dense, deeply cooling shade it will not significantly harm the house in a wind storm.

Wild Plums - Fruit - (In the Prunus genus of Cherries, Plums, and Peaches)

America has an abundance of wild plum species, most of which are not well understood even by botanists. Their characteristics are widely variable, as is their fruit aspects. The ones pictured above were found in Miller Eco Park, Lebanon Ohio, and are still unidentified as far as species. But naming the plant is not of supreme importance, the most important thing is understanding what soil and condition of the plant you're interested in growing, prospers. These in particular produce an abundance of huge (for wild plums) quarter sized plums, with 1 smallish seed inside each fruit. The skin is moderately tart, while the flesh is strongly plum flavored. Some wild plums are tart all the way through. Some have sweet skin, and sweet pulp. It all depends on who the mother is, and what species it is. 

There are so many different wild plum variations, that we could cultivate so many varieties for food production. Why would we do this? Plum's are one of the most pollinator supportive shrub/small trees we have, also cultivating native fruit trees supports the ecosystem through so many unstudied/unseen bacterial/fungal/insect/animal/plant interactions above and below ground. Indigenous peoples once cultivated thickets of plums and hazelnuts throughout the country for an abundance of nuts and fruits coming a different points in the season. 

Riverbank Grape - young green shoots, leaves, seeds fruits edible (Vitis riparia)

Vitis riparia, Riverbank Grape,  is unique among the wild grapes in that the astringency is so low in the leaves, that one can eat them raw, retaining all of the nutrients. Or you can look up recipes for grape leaf soups, cutting out the blanching step, as this species don't need that, which is a major loss of nutrients.  Drought tolerant perennial vine crops, that produce edible leaves and stems + fruits and seeds, like Passion flower written about below, can be highly versatile and highly productive food sources. Have you ever tried to grow kale, spinach, or swiss chard? There's work involved there. Where as with Passion flower and Riverbank grape, you really just need to give them something to climb on, and then harvest sustainably throughout the season so that they can still produce fruit and have enough leaves/stems to still thrive.  We (Pioneer Landscapes) likes to set up 8' tall to 16' tall 4"x 4" concreted 2'-3' into the ground, and run grape ochard wires in between them for a type of vertical growing. Grape leaves have been nutritionally analyzed as one of the most nutrient dense leaves available for us to eat. They have a higher amount of Calcium, Magnesium, and Iron (3 Common American Nutrient deficiencies) than Spinach, Kale, and Broccoli. They also have good amounts of Vitamin K, A, C, and some B-Complex. The seeds and fruit should be blended together into a puree, releasing the seed's nutritionally and medicinally valuable oils into the grape juice. The grapes will taste citriousy + a little sweet.


Blackberry and Raspberry Species

We've all had Blackberries and Raspberries. They also have a long lineage of cultivation. I emphasis using uncultivated plants as much as possible, or cultivars of native plants as much as possible. This can bring about a sort of ecological inclusiveness in our agricultural system, as written about in the opening paragraphs. Pictured to the right is Rubus pascuus, Chesapeake Blackberry. It is heavily throned and grows densely creating good wildlife habitat, especially when growing with co-exisitng native shrubs to climb/lean on like silky dogwood in a moist soil, or Hazelnut in a drier soil. These fruits are sweet when ripe, and don't have the tart element of most blackberries. This particular blackberry, if cultivated to have "less" thorns overtime, would be an excellent addition to the world of blackberry and raspberry crops. Either way, the pollinator support in May-June, and the fruit make for an excellent, low maintenance native plant. This won't won't require any kind of spraying being native to Eastern American environments, these grow wild and produce abundant fruit without human influence.


A Few Herbaceous Plants 

Jerusalem Artichokes - Root - (Helianthus tuberosus)

"Sunchokes" are a pernnial sunflower, that has already be cultivated to produce sizable tubers, comparable to russet potatoes. Naturally these plants grow in deep soil, moist prairies, wood edges, and creek/river side. Pollinators utilize the September blooms to store up on resources for overwintering, late season reproduction, or migrating. This is one I haven't had the honor of eating, but I have the honor of planting, wild ones. Just planting small tubers from one colony out in a deep silty sunny soil in unmoved lawn, two years later created 6x6 foot wide colonies towering over 10 feet tall quickly expanding out into the lawn. Their biomass production is good for composting carbon and building the soil in an intensively managed garden setting. There are so many roots we can cook and eat, Jerusalem artichokes are just one of many, and one that happens to already have cultivars developed for high production.


Wild Sweet Potato - Vine - Root (toxic without proper preparation)

Unlike Jerusalem Artichokes, the native wild sweet potato has not been cultivated (improved for agriculture) yet. It is in the same genus as russet potatoes, morning glory, and sweet potatoes (Ipomoea species), and can easily produce tubers over 5 lbs in weight, maxing out around 25 lbs. With two changes of boiling water, one can leach the purgative biochemicals out of the roots, which would naturally prevent animals from eating the plant's large tubers. With those chemicals leached out, similar to how one must leach acorn tannins out before eating, the tuber becomes completely edible. The picture above shows the vegetative vigor, and in a garden setting, this vine would do well to be allowed to grow vertically like the River Bank Grape which would allow it produce sizable tubers, much faster. The floral display can be pretty spectacular, though like other morning glories, the blooms close up in the hottest part of the day. 

This is a plant to consider cultivating and breeding so that it's better qualities are promoted. Even as is, indigenous people at the Wild Sweet Potato as part of their diet. See this blog post for more about the cooking/eating of the Wild Sweet Potato. 


Passion Flower - Vine - Fruit (Passiflora incaranta)

The Passionflower is plant of many qualities/potential uses. The leaves/stems contain a compound called Chrysin, a flavonoid, which can have a sedative effect on the mind/body system if a tea or tincture of passionflower is taken on an empty stomach. In Europe, our American native Passionflower is widely prescribed by doctors as a sleep aid and anti-anxiety remedy. 

What's more; the native people ate the leaves/vines as a cooked green. You may wonder, wouldn't they overdose on the Chrysin and simply fall asleep after eating a soup of passionflower? The indigenous people learned that cooking the vine with fat, and other greens, nullifies the effect of Chyrsin as again it must be taken on an empty stomach to reach the brain. If you've ever seen a passionflower grow vertically, you could see how the potential for a perennial drought tolerant leaf/stem crop is very exciting for this plant.

And......the fruit are pretty awesome. People have a hard time learning when they are ripe. The one pictured above is a bit overly ripe or perfect, and they still taste really good at that stage either way. If you open it up and it's hollow, you're too early. If you open it up to see clear, fleshiness around white seeds, you're still too early and it will taste tart. The seeds should be dark brown or black when the pulp is ready to consume. 

And.....the seeds are edible too, but would need to be cooked to be digested.

And.....the rind is edible too, and is also best cooked, so one, like the indigenous people did, could get creative in cooking a ripe fruit, seeds, rind, and all in some kind of sweet soup to receive maximum nutrient from the fruit.

So, plenty of potential food fun here. And pollinators love the exotic flowers!


Groundnut - Vine - Root (Apios americana)

The Groundnut, is a moderately moist soil preferring legume vine, tolerant of saturated soils. Being a legume it produces it's own nitrogen, and being a vine, it is another candidate for vertical growing like passionflower, riverbank grape, and wild sweet potato. Most parts of this plant are considered edible, beans, leaves/shoots, and roots. The picture selected above is from a blog post featuring the plant being cultivated by permaculturists in partnership with Louisiana State University which provided them cultivars of Groundnut that are in experimental stages. As this plant progress in cultivation, like it's cousins have in other parts of the world, this could be another native root crop to add to the list of plants that could transition our agricultural system back to an ecologically inclusive format. The blooms are favorited by native bees too :-)    


These plants just scratch the surface for the potential for us to connect with nature while healing the land through transitioning agriculture back to native plants in ecologically restorative formats. See Daniel E Moreman's Native American Food Plants book, and his Native American Medicinal Plants book to glimpse a fraction of how much potential abundance our land could produce with foods, medicine, and ecologically healing.

Key Points of this Blog post (Repeated Info)

"Connecting with nature in such a way that our desires shift to a set that is more earth nurturing and ecological caring/inclusive is a shift in consciousness that can't be completed alone by educational programs and awareness raising events/workshops. Humans change through experiences, and in Metropolitans where 80% or 4/5 people live, our land touching our dear neighbors land, holds the potential to change people, if we, those already on a path to balance with nature/earth, can create positive experiences for people. "

"There is a hierarchy created by degrees connectedness, in which food is the most basic, and most engaging stimulus to a human being. For example, some people would only go outside to water their Tomatoes and other gardening plants. Other people, could walk out in the morning dew, to see the arising pollinators buzzing from plant to plant getting a sort of spiritual food out of the experience of just observation. While some people can mostly only hold their attention on activities in nature like hiking, biking, climbing, kayaking. Wherever we are on this spectrum, we can all meet, where the food hits the ground, and at the dinner table."

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Maximizing Tree Growth - Health - through Root Zone Management

Imagine a world in which at least the drip zone of Tree Root Zones were managed for health/longevity and vigor.

This blog post will cover a few things you can do to maximize tree growth, survival rate, health,  production (fruit/nut), and longevity.  The following instructions should lead to the following benefits to your tree.

1. Reversing soil compaction around the tree, increasing percolation of water, porosity, bettering soil structure and water + air holding capacity which benefits ability to photosensitize and grow. 
2. Minimizing root competition from lawn which boosts growth, health, and longevity especially during the immature years of the tree. 
3. Inoculating your tree with host-specific mycorrhizae, proven to boost tree growth/health. 
4. Localizing an abundant reservoir of bio-available (plant absorbable) minerals and nutrients, while creating a biological hot zone around the tree providing natural benefits to the soil. This includes the restoration of a very biologically active O layer.

This is our current, most common state of root zone management, lawn up to the trunk...or perhaps a small mulch ring. Small in comparison to the canopy of the tree. 

Negative effects of managing tree root zones with lawn or small mulch rings + lawn.

  1. Mowers + the weight of human traffic (we're big animals!) maintains a level of compaction one does not encounter on a forest floor. That is why you can "sink" an inch or two into the topsoil of a forest floor, but in a lawn, it is more sturdy, solid, compacted. Compaction means less pore space, less pore space means the soil has a lessened ability to hold air and water, both essential to plant photosynthesis. Compacted soil can be one of the most limiting growth factors that a plant faces. Newly constructed developments, especially within the past decade or so, are notoriously compacted, but we can reverse that. Compacted soil not only has poorer pore space, but directly related to that issue, water has a more difficult time percolating, so more water runs off the surface instead of seeping into the soil.
  2. Lawn gets an early start in up taking available nitrogen and other nutrients from the soil. Because most lawns in the midwest are composed of cool season grasses, they begin growth in late march/early April in many springs, just when many of our native trees are sending sap back above ground, but well before our native trees begin to leaf out. Turfgrass then continues rampant growth throughout May and June trying to reach flowering height so it can set seed by July, we interrupt that cycle through mowing causing the turf to perpetually attempt to reach flowering height absorbing significant amounts of nutrients as long as the soil is moist enough to promote new growth. One positive thing though is, since we mow lawn, it has very short root systems, and tree roots can often monopolize moisture in the subsoil. 
  3. When we're trying to establish saplings or even large balled and burlap trees, the trees have to send roots that fight through the tight sod of lawn, inching year by year to find underground niches of available water/nutrients that either the lawn isn't using or the tree outcompetes the lawn for. This competition that lawn provides to establishing trees, is one of the main retardants of tree growth while immature. Most trees if planted correctly and sited well, eventually over come the lawn and establish their dominance, but the lawn still played a retarding role in each of those tree's establishing growth, and possibly the tree's longevity. 
  4. Lack of O layer; the O layer (Organic matter layer) within the soil profile is different from ecosystem to ecosystem. A prairie O layer is very thick and well developed unless it's a glade like prairie. O Layers of temperate forest soils are often rich of partly decomposed leaves, twigs, branches, and logs, all the while relatively shallow compared to a Prairie O layer. The O layer in a wetland or boreal forest is often very deep, as organic matter has a hard time breaking down due to too much moisture (anerobic conditions) or not enough heat and unfrozen moisture (boreal forest). The O layer of a lawn (thatch) is typically plain pitiful in comparison to the O layer of a real ecosystem. So our trees are growing without the most biologically active, and nutrient rich layer of the soil profile. We'll talk about reviving the O layer later in the blog. 

The Short Version (Recap)

The Many Effects of Compaction
Mowers + human foot traffic maintain an unnatural level of compaction, reducing pore space in the soil which reduces available soil moisture, air holding capacity, and reducing percolation all of which are retardant factors affecting of growth, health, and longevity. 
Nutrient and Resource Competition
Cool season turfgrass gets an early jump on available nutrients, and spends a lot of energy spring and early summer trying to flower causing the grass to continue to compete for available nutrients. Turfgrass roots/sod must be conquered by every tree we're trying to establish in a lawn, traditionally, (we're going to discuss a new way) therefor in the establishment years of a tree, they're forced to fight inch by inch through the already established, perennial turfgrass to create their own root zone retarding growth and vigor. Imagine putting a Zinnia in a lawn, and a Zinnia in a container, which will row faster, mature larger, and possibly even live longer?
Absent O Layer
Outside of Deserts, nearly all ecosystems have significant O layers (Organic Matter Layer) which often hold the largest reservoir of bio-avaialble nutrients and biologically activity (soil life). The O layer of lawn is a very thin layer of thatch that cannot start to compare with the value of a forest, prairie, or wetland O layer. Our trees are essentially missing a very important layer of their original soil profile. Lack of O layer also creates highs and lows in soil temperatures and lessened ability to hold moisture in the A layer (topsoil), which is not good for anyone :-(

So we need to flip all of these limiting factors, into reasons why our trees are thriving, live long, and grow vigorously. This requires biomimicry with some modification to speed up, maximize , and sustain nutrient availability + humus production. 

Instead of planting our new fruit tree, native tree, or ornamental tree in a lawn subjected to mowing, foot traffic and lacking an O Layer, we're going to give our newly planted tree a patch of forest-like soil conditions and add some deer protection, which is often lacking but completely essential in Midwestern metropolitan property open to deer browse and rubbing.

Have you ever "potted up" a young tree? This means to move it from a 1 gallon to a 5 gallon pot, or a 5 gallon to a 15 gallon pot. When this happens the tree has a chance to expand it's roots, which corresponds with an increased ability to grow above ground in stem/leaf form. When you plant a tree sapling, or 1 gallon or 5 gallon or whatever sized tree into a lawn, you're essentially potting it up, except the pot has no bottom.....or edges.....but this new pot (the lawn) has water and nutrient thirsty turfgrass.....and heavy animals called humans compacting the soil.....and the sometimes heavy machinery, mowing the thirsty grass.

So what can we do to give our new planting a easier time expanding it's root system?
Get rid of the grass. How? Smothering with cardboard if organic, herbicide by the label, if not. Organic method is better for soil biology in the short-term, at least. Tilling and Solarization with black or clear plastic damages soil biology in the short-term, at least.

We've stopped mowing, and stopped walking around the tree. We've also gotten rid of the grass within the recommended diameter circle pictured above.
Ok easy enough, so what's next?

Next we work on restoring the O layer.

We're concerned with restoring a biologically active, moisture retentive, nutrient dense O layer which doesn't significantly form within a lawn, but was part of all of our major ecosystems soil profiles excluding deserts. If you used cardboard to kill of the grass in the rootzone, remove it before adding the below recommended materials. 

If you're installing the zone in the fall, get as diverse amount of tree leaves as possible. Some tree leaves aren't very carbon dense and break down quickly like Hackberry, Silver Maple, Black Cherry, Black Locust, Black Walnut, and Honeylocust. Sugar Maple, Black Maple, Oaks, Hickories, Beech
Trees, and a few other trees produce leaves heavier in carbon, and longer lasting. Try to collect more of the latter than the carbon-lite leaves.

If you use a strong push behind or walk behind mower that can bag the shredded leaves or mulch them in place, go for a a <1" application of shredded leaves. This is a bit more than would naturally fall in one area, but since they're shredded, they shouldn't last more than 1 year which means the soil biology is releasing their nutrients through decomposition into the root zone of your new tree.

If you can't shred your leaves go for a 4-6" application of un-shredded leaves, but be sure to not pile the leaves directly around the trunk, as that can promote negative fungal activity on the bark of your tree and rot it to death. By the end of the winter the 4-6" application should look like a 2-3" matted application of tree leaves. Shredding the leaves is best for quicker release of nutrients aka decomposition. Though unshredded leaves may be better for attracting benefical insects due to the micro-habitat created within layered leaves.

If you're installing the zone in the spring, utilize straw bales going for a 4-5" layer somewhat loosely laid, perhaps 2-3" if  straw is compacted well. Straw won't have the mineral quality of tree leaves, but will provide some trace minerals, nitrogen, and carbon for humus (o layer) formation. Alternatively apply 1-2 inches of leaf compost, or 3-4 inches of regular compost throughout the root zone with 2" of straw on top.

Pictures to the right: Fill the Root zone with fall leaves from as many different species as possible. Then mow all of the leaves up in place or bag them with a mower and spread the shredded leaf matter throughout the zone. Your finished product should have turned the leaves into not much visually, rest assured, there is an abundance of nutrients ready to be released from those leaves.

Maximizing Available Nitrogen + Other Nutrients within the No Mow Zone

The tree leaves or straw will be providing a broad spectrum of minerals as they decompose over the course of 8-12 months after applying. Again, shredding is best, though it is more difficult to shred straw without an actual leaf shredder. These materials are high in carbon and many minerals, promoting the formation of the O Layer (partly decomposed organic matter). These materials are not very dense in nitrogen though, and to make sure your tree has an abundance of this key nutrient available, the rootzone will need some nitrogen rich materials added throughout the growing season (Late March-September).

After the first growing season

The rootzone of your tree should be developing humus (mostly decomposed organic matter). It should also be inhabited by beetles, ants, spiders, and many other insects moving throughout the O layer. You can add a log or two into the root zone which may attract beneficial insects. As long as it's not buried, it wont' significantly affect your Carbon : Nitrogen ratio balance, though it should be colonized by the fungal community over time which may be connected with your establishing tree exchanging nutrients and biochemicals. If you're limiting your walking in the zone, you should also feel the soil softening/aerating after the first growing season, perhaps you can push your finger into the soil a bit, or a lot, if you're so lucky to have a burrowing animal tunneling through your root zone! All of this soil life, burrowing/tunneling activity, and insect activity are positives for our key goals: nutrient availability, reversal of compaction, moisture retention ability of the soil profile, humus formation, and water percolation.

Supplemental Watering

Throughout the summer months (May-August), if you're local area is falling behind on average rainfall, give the whole rootzone 1.5" of water, twice a month. You can measure that setting up a sprinkler, and placing an open evenly shaped container in the zone watching to see how quickly it is reaching 1.5" of water in the container. Tuna cans work great for that or just a rain gauge.  

By the end of your first summer, your root zone should not have an O layer thicker than 2". Also un-decomposed organic matter, again, should not be pilled up or in direct contact with the trunk. It would be best to add only shredded leaves each fall, this will ensure quicker breakdown of the leaves, preventing the O Layer from being "too thick" and carbon dense. How thick is too thick? I'm not sure. But the objective isn't to create a compost pile around your tree. Revisit the soil profile picture above. 2" is probably the thickest you want the O layer,  after the first summer has passed.  This recommendation may change as my own experiments mature or as I receive feedback from others' trials.

After 7-10 years (Growing seasons)

Keep the root zone protection in place to protect the drip line, and instead of adding tons of carbon and nitrogen rich organic matter, simply add enough tree leaves in the fall to maintain a 2-3" thick O layer. There's also no need to shred the leaves at this point, they can decay at natural rates, gradually becoming available to your very well established tree. 

At this point you can also expand the root zone, to give you're maturing tree more biologically active, non-compacted soil, if you can afford to loose more lawn, the tree will be most appreciative. 

Ornamentalizing the Root Zone

Above is the wild native sunflower, that was cultivated into the plants that occupy the sunflower fields we know and love. When you grow the wild uncultivated Helianthus annus - Annual sunflower, they bloom with more heads per plant, and smaller heads with brownish centers. Using weakly rooted perennials and native annuals may enhance the soil biology within the Root zone, through the addition of plant diversity. Using only native plants maximizes diversity in fungal, bacterial, and insect interactions with the plant through evolution-based established relationships. Once again, bio-mimicry is almost always the best solution because nature is perfect like that.

Here is a list of native plants that can ornamentalize the root zone area while adding some valuable plant diversity-enhancing the soil biology, without strongly competing with the tree roots. Try to keep 40-50% of the rootzone free of plants, for the tree to quickly (without competition) establish it's root dominance. This also means no rhizomatous plants like mistflower or obedient plant, which can quickly occupy the whole root zone within a few seasons through running rhizomes.

Non Root Competitive Non-Rhizomatous Native Perennials for the root zone

May-June Bloomers
Wild Geranium
Hairy Wood Mint 
Sand Coreopsis
Foxglove Beardtongue

June-July Bloomers
Long-headed Coneflower
Nodding Onion
Purple Coneflower
Wild Bergamot - Limited
Mountain Mint-Limited
Early Sunflower-Limited
Marsh Blazing Star-Liable to flop

August-September Bloomers
Cardinal Flower
Great Blue Lobelia
Gentian species
Meadow Phlox

Dwarf Goldenrod
Frost Aster
Aromatic Aster - Limited
New england Aster-Limited

Grasses-Native Ryes
Native Sedges-limited

The plants noted with "limited" can be root competitive with the tree if they are allowed to take over the root zone, or if planted too densely. 

If you're going to use annuals, stick to native annuals, or annuals native to this continent. They tend to be used heavily by local pollinators when at least native to the continent. 

Native Annuals (At least native to this continent) 

Helianthus annus (Wild Type)- search for Wild Helianthus annus on google to find smaller flowred “origninal” uncultivated sunflower with black or brownish centers on 4-5” wide flowers. These will have non-competitive root systems. Wont’ bloom until August.

Partridge pea germinated in Late April in a small pot will be ready to plant my Late May, and will flower in August. Fixes nitrogen, and since it is an annual it releases that nitrogen upon dying each year. Should reseed each year, depending on how thick the O Layer is. 

Rudbeckia hirta-germinated in april in a small pot again will be ready to plant by late may, flowering in June-July, a reseeding it self each year afterwards depending how thick O layer is.

Bidens aristosa will get 4-5 feet tall, so must be stragetically placed, and won’t be bloom until September, but will with an outstanding show of larger yellow blooms.

Zinnas- Because Zinnias are native to central america, southwest America, the least manipulated flowers attract a lot of native pollinators. Look for Zinnia varieties that are not “double” and “tripple” flowered/petaled, pollinators find thickly "petaled" flowers confusing. Chose Orange or Yellow or White over Red and Maroon which are not colors that attracts most pollinators.

Salvia farinacea- cultivars such as Victoria blue are good selections. Bees love these plants, which are native to southern United States as perennials and into Mexico.

Cleome serrulata- most cultivars of Cleome are really popular with bees, this is another annual native to the united states, that pollinators agree with, at least in the midwest. 

Agastache foeniculum-there are a few cultivars of this native annual as well, that remain favorites among pollinators, likely due to the plant's origin within the united states. 

If you decide to help your tree breathe easy, and grow vigorously using these Root Zone Management techniques please email so we can exchange information and hopefully exchange success stories/pictures. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Big Picture Land Use and High Impact Local Action/Outreach

(The millions of acres of farmland and pasture in-between metropolitan areas colored light green)

This post is about overall land use in the U.S.A. and is meant to deliver a large picture. The dark green streaks in the picture above represent private and publicly owned forest-land likely on topography that didn't favor agriculture which is all of the light green colored land in between these Indiana and Ohio Metropolitan areas. 

Not counting Alaska which has effectively no agricultural land, at least 43.5% of the total U.S. Land was devoted to livestock grazing or cropland growing silage and/or fodder in 2002.

To find this number you must find out how much Corn, Silage, Alfalfa, Soybeans, Sorghum, and Wheat were grown for livestock, which is part of the cropland land use but not attributed to livestock. Where as Rangeland and Pasture are directly attributed to livestock use. One must also add the 134 million acres of Grazed Forests under the Forest-use land category.

Also, when you don’t count the 375 million acres in Alaska which are again, mostly unusable to agriculture, agricultural purposes in total (including grazing) occupied over 62% of the U.S. Land Area in 2002.  Counting Alaksa, the number is 52%.

(Overview of Urban-Suburban and some Rural Residential land in NKY/Cincinnati Metro Area)

In comparison, Urban Land (2.6% - 60 million Acres) and Rural Residential Land (4.2% - 94 million acres) only occupied a total of 6.8% of the U.S. Land’s surface.  Lawn occupies an estimated 40+ million acres of that land (26%). Here’s the bad news, 6.8% of a highly fragmented land surface will not save biodiversity through native plant landscape renovation and invasive species removal alone, the footprint is too small and spread out throughout the country. But the people! Here’s the good news; 100% of the population is concentrated on 6.8% of the land!

Why does this matter so?

Our ecological integrations on our hometown properties could quite possibly be the most effective cultural outreach ever attempted on behalf of the environment/nature. Why focus on cultural outreach? Because it is our collective culture that is indifferent to/unaware of/or ok with 43.5% of the land being used by livestock, and 62% of the lower 48 states being occupied by largely unsustainable, ecologically destructive/limiting forms of industrial agriculture.

Though I don’t think it’s going to be as simple as education and giving people “facts”. People know that climate change is happening, they’ve heard plenty of facts, that hasn’t translated into cultural change/reaction that shows we as a society are ready to face this dilemma.  The majority of the country is still carrying on with our energy wasting lifestyles for the most part. Education and awareness campaigns have their place, but if they’re not bringing about a grassroots transformation, literally, then they’re likely supplementing/attracting the people who already would support more sustainable land management-the people like you and I who are reading and writing blog posts like these,  leading/attending conferences and workshops, and putting these earth balancing methods into practice.

(Birds eye view of a section of the suburban-city Mason, Ohio)

My question is, given our small piece of land that homeowners own, work in, attend school/church/events, shop, and commute about (6.8% of the U.S.), how do we engage the masses? If provided the proper directions, anyone can construction a native prairie planted with edible fruit producing trees and shrubs, and tree/shrub nut-crops, but how do we involve our communities who are mostly compromised of people who would never think to engage in such lively land management. I don’t mean to paint them as hopeless or aversive to these ideas, but I certainly mean to express the tasks we are given as people wishing to reconnect the masses to nature culturally who are currently disconnected.

When I say we are disconnected I mean I would bet that 9/10 of my neighbors can’t describe the destruction that Bush Honeysuckle is doing to our local ecology, 9/10 of my neighbors can’t list any health risks to their families, wildlife, or the watershed of applying pesticides and herbicides to their lawns, and 9/10 of my neighbors can’t identify 3 of the native trees on my street, on their properties with the 1/10 being myself.  I’m also willing to be that 9/10 people don’t have a basic understanding of land-use in the U.S., any idea of how much land is devoted to livestock production, the carbon footprint associated with non-local/regionally sourced foods and meat production, soil degradation associated with industrial agriculture, the 6th mass extinction, or even name 3 trees that may have once grown where their property now sits.

We can supply that kind of information to paint a vague picture of a scary reality that us earth-conscious people must bare, but I again emphasis the point that education campaigns and awareness raising campaigns have had very variable and many unsuccessful results. A study done on a community based tree planting program in California showed that the community members who were involved with tree selection, organizing the planting events, and executing the planting the tree were much more likely to nurture the tree they received.  That demonstrates that a bond was formed, and care for this “other” life form had become desirable to an individual. Where as community members who received trees, but weren’t involved in selection, planting, planning, or event execution were significantly less likely to nurture the trees.

(An infographic of a temporarily shelved pilot program to engage people in nature)

Back when I was working 40 hours a week at Cincinnati Parks as a Horticulturist, while building Pioneer Landscapes LLC after work and on the weekends, I naively but innocently attempted to pioneer a community based tree planting program that would later grow to include native shrubs, native wildlfowers, native grasses, and edible native and edible non-native plants for food production. Our target was to work with non-profits, churches, and business that were interested in being more involved with their communities and carrying out environmentally positive actions. I along with a few volunteers even completed a piolot project in which a non-profit grew over 70 Oak trees and distributed them freely to those who wanted them. The idea of Oak trees turned out to be scary to our big-tree wary culture and perhaps only 20 were adopted, but we had to go with Oak trees as the pilot project was rushed and that was the only seed we had available that spring. In the future when I have the free-time to revive this project, we’ll be focusing on the most nature/people bonding plants such as those with outstanding beauty like Black Gum, Eastern Redbud, and Flowering Dogwood, as well as those that produce human edible foods like Persimmons, Hybrid Hazelnuts, and PawPaws, as well as canopy sized trees like Hickories, Oaks, and Sugar Maple.  The quick instant gratification of native wildflowers and grasses will also be distributed through a model like this to directly engage people (-video link) in the growing, pot loading, planting, and nurturing of plants while reaping the fruits of the labor figuratively and literally. This model was also very economically affordable, costing the community organization partner only 25 cents to produce a native shrub, wildflower, or grass and $4.25 to produce a native tree of which about $4.00 was for deer protection.

(Oak Saplings being grown and nurtured by Happen Inc.- A community focused non-profit)

I felt like that model had many of the ingredients to engage communities actively in the physical/natural environments of their neighborhoods attracting those interested in ecology, aesthetics, and food production to be leaders/facilitators, while also being educational, unique, and fun enough to attract school and community youth participation. After breaking down under the stress of leading that non-profit program, while building a for-profit business, and working a 40 hour week job, I had to shelf the program but I believe it is experience based programs like these that can effectively connect people to nature, as opposed to just education/awareness focused programs. Letting nature be the teacher…..bees pollinate,  grasses dance in the wind, butterflies flutter, fruit tastes sweet…… one our jobs as people interested in saving nature I believe is creating the landscapes or programs that create the landscapes and experiential opportunities; that allow nature to change the minds and hearts of those who experience her in good health.  

In closing I’d like to tell a short story. I was walking the Cincinnati Botanical Zoo a few years ago in early spring. Forsythia, a non-native with no local genetic ties to our pollinators, was in full bright yellow bloom. It blooms so thickly and early in the season, one would think people would crowd around them in a high traffic area like the Zoo to see the spectacle. But to the left of the patch of forsythia stood one small cherry tree. Even though the Cherry tree wasn’t a native or native cultivar, since Cherries (Prunus species) have close genetic ties to local cherries species (Black Cherry and Wild Plum species) local pollinators have adapted well to landscape cherry trees. I must say, I do not advocate the planting of non-native ornamental cherry trees as there are strains locally that are shade tolerant and becoming dangerously invasive in local forests out competing Beech and Sugar Maple in the understory. Anyways, there were 2 or 3 ladies standing directly under this cherry tree, who bloomed a modest soft whitish pink, enamored by the activity occurring in, around, on, and through it. The tree was buzzing  with easily over 100 pollinators with native bees and honeybees well represented which was deeply captivating to the pedestrians. Meanwhile the brightly colored patch of forsythia may have briefly caught a few wandering eyes, it did not stop people in their tracks and captivate their minds like that little cherry tree covered in life, pollination in action. Native plant landscapes integrated with food producing tree and shrubs have the potential to reconnect people back to the land/life. Let us focus on building these cultural connections, and keep in mind, we have the whole population concentrated on 6.8% of the land, that is an opportunity to move people, an opportunity to change culture, an opportunity to save nature through paradigm shifts.

I digress with this parting note, without competing with other social action movements or threatening the art of horticulture creating opposition, we with bonds already developed with nature must be the ones to cultivate a greener tomorrow, today. Think about it, if not us, than who would care enough to?

Pioneer Landscapes Website:

Facebook Website: Pioneer Landscapes LLC

Pioneer Landscapes Latest Newsletter
Click Subscribe in top left of Newsletter link to receive a monthly production of it.

Our Youtube Videos and other Blog Posts