Autumn Olive: the herpes of the permaculture world.

Permaculturists, stop this!  Stop recommending that people actually plant Autumn Olive on land where this evil, invasive, non-native, destructive, allelopathic plant has not yet taken hold!

I don’t know why, but environmentalists always seem to want to import plants and insects from Asia to solve some problem here “naturally.”  Now, I’m all about doing things naturally and avoiding chemicals, but have you ever noticed that the plants and insects that are imported from Asia always end up wreaking havoc? From the aggressive, biting Asian Lady Beetle (imported by environmentalists to kill aphids without the use of chemicals) that ended up killing all our own cute, non-aggressive lady bugs, to the Tree of Heaven that sprouts like foul-smelling weeds in every untended suburban or urban area, to the vile Autumn Olive planted by the Forest Service to control erosion – these plants and insects are adapted to the ecosystems in Asia, not North America.

Here they destroy everything in their path, reducing diversity to nil.  Perhaps environmentalists do not care about eco-diversity, but one of the tenets of permaculture is supposed to be about encouraging ecological diversity!

Anyway, this is why I am a gardener and small-hold homesteader who uses permaculture practices but am not actually a permaculturist.  When your attachment to dogma overrides good common sense, you might want to stop and reevaluate your goals and the reasons you are putting your hands to the soil in the first place.

I believe the people who are encouraging young, naive gardeners to just give Autumn Olive a try once, what can it hurt to try it once, go on, kid, all the cool permies plant it…fall into two camps.

  1. the ones who may or may not have planted it but don’t yet realize how evil the plant is.  These are analogous to freshman girls on campus who are just learning about feminism but haven’t yet experienced all the glorious empowerment of following in Lena Dunham’s slutty footsteps and
  2. the ones who’ve already planted it and secretly know how evil the plant is.  These folks are analagous to sex-positive feminists who have already contracted an STD like herpes and want every other girl to catch one too so they don’t feel so bad about their awful, life-long, incurable, diseased state.

Let’s say you, the permaculture virgin, have just decided to avail yourself of Autumn Olive-positive planting.  You’ve done the deed, you’ve planted one, harmless little bush.

Next year, it’s grown.  A lot.


But it has berries on it in the late summer/early fall, nice red berries that actually don’t taste very good.  You decide to let the birds and wild creatures have the berries.  They eat them with gusto and poop out the seeds all over your land.

Next summer you notice it’s getting difficult to walk through your forested areas because of all the thorny Autumn Olive shoots popping up EVERYWHERE.


A pasture you’d let lie fallow has shoots coming up too.

Well, you think, I’ll use them as chop-and-drop for soil improvement.


Hmmm, that’s an awful lot of chop-n-drop…

You try to chop and drop, but it’s hard to get near the shrubs now that they’ve quickly grown to ten feet tall, with multiple, thorny branches tangled together and arching over, making it difficult to get at the thick shoots, which by now can only be cut with a saw.


You get stabbed in the arm with one of the thorns…


…which is when you learn that many people have a strong reaction to Autumn Olive scratches.  The scratch swells and is hot like fire for several weeks after that.

You run the branches through your mulcher and spread the wood chips around some new saplings you planted to take the place of the Autumn Olive. All the saplings die. That is when you learn a new word: allelopathic.

Oh man, I’m done with this stuff, you think.  I’m cutting it all down come spring and burning it.  And you feel satisfied with this eradication plan.

You manage to get it mostly all cut down, but it sends up suckers faster and faster the more you cut on it. Horrified, you sneak to Lowe’s wearing big sunglasses and a hat to conceal your identity before engaging in this most shameful act…you are going to buy some…some…oh you hate to confess it but you are going to buy some Round Up to spray all over the Autumn Olives. You cannot believe you have been reduced to spraying chemicals all over your organic land. You feel great shame but also great relief.

You spray and spray and it all dies.



Ha ha ha!

When the next spring comes, you cannot believe your eyes. From the dead Autumn Olives are springing…new shoots!  This plant…it is literally an unkillable zombie eating everything in its path!

And at that moment the realization suddenly dawns on you…just like the herpes your hairy-legged, sex-positive feminist college roommate has for life, just like the zombies from an apocalypse…

Bitch, you are never, ever getting rid of it.



The permaculture principle of “stacking functions” (plus a tree farm recommendation)

This past weekend we cut down a bunch of enormous invasive shrubs on part of our property.  I decided I wanted to plant some sugar maples in their place, with dreams of homemade maple syrup dancing in my head (despite last year’s sad attempt at making syrup after tapping one lonely tree).  I looked on Stark Brothers and on the sites of several other large nurseries I’ve ordered from, and 3-4′ trees run around $18 a piece.  I decided I could afford four of them.

Continue reading

First garden order of the year: fruit trees and shrubs.

I went grocery shopping yesterday and was a bit startled by the increase in food prices, fresh produce in particular.  One of our purchases was garden seeds, which I’ll be starting in my little toilet paper roll seed-starter pots soon:

Last year I ordered cedar-apple rust resistant cultivars of apples — Empire, Enterprise, and Liberty — and a peach tree from Stark Bros, which I believe is the oldest nursery in the country.  I ordered these at the end of the summer when they were having a clearance sale.  I ordered the larger sized (“supreme”) ones but was shipped the smaller-sized trees because they ran out of clearance stock.  No problem, but they still charged me for the larger trees.  I emailed them to ask why and they replied they still felt I was getting a good deal since it was a clearance price.  I was a little startled by that response but I didn’t care enough to raise a big fuss.  The trees were good quality and arrived healthy and well-pruned, so I give them an A+ for their products but I’d have to give them a C for their customer service.

I’ve been planning since fall to do this year’s spring order from Raintree Nursery.  They are a well-respected nursery in Washington that carries many unusual cultivars.

Here is what I am ordering:

1. One cherry tree.

How to Grow Sweet Cherries, found on the Vegetable Gardener website, was an extremely helpful article for deciding what I wanted to buy.  Based on the author’s experience and recommendation, I’m choosing a semi-dwarf self-fertile called Lapins Cherry / Gisela 5.  Gisela rootstock was developed in Germany and requires a license to sell, so these trees are not easy to find.  Raintree is currently the only place I’ve found offering them.  The tree can be kept at about 10 feet tall and is resistant to cankers.

The rest of the items I’m ordering may sound a bit unusual to you.  However, the reduction in the diversity of our diets, a by-product of large-scale industrial monoculture farming, is concerning and my little way of fighting back is to plant a wider range of less-common fruit and vegetables.  If this interests you, the Unusual Fruit Plants for Gardens in the North-Central Region from the Michigan State Department of Horticulture is a wealth of knowledge.

2. Two huckleberry shrubs

Huckleberries are mostly found growing wild in the Pacific Northwest but can also be found in Michigan (see: Michigan huckleberries: small berries, big local history for more information plus a tasty-looking huckleberry pie recipe).  Sadly, wild huckleberries in Michigan aren’t easy to find due to habitat destruction.

Because these are mostly found in the wild and are impossible to plant from seed and are difficult to transplant, very few nurseries other than Raintree carry them, which is why I’m willing to pay nearly $20 per small plant.  I’m ordering Tall Mountain (some varieties of Huckleberry won’t survive our chilly Michigan winters, but this one should).

3. Serviceberries (also called Juneberries or Saskatoons):

My reason for planting serviceberries is because they are a fruiting shrub (or they can be pruned as small trees) that can grow in somewhat shady conditions, making them perfect for the second layer of a permaculture food forest guild:

I’m ordering the cultivar Thiessen.  I’m tempted to buy more, but serviceberries are in the same family as apples and thus are also susceptible to cedar-apple rust.  We’ve been working on cutting down all cedars on our property, but neither of our neighbors has done so, which means we can’t totally eliminate the problem.  I am planning to spray Immunox on my two non-resistant apple trees and will also spray my serviceberries.

Permaculture principles would dictate not to plant the serviceberries because I already know I’m probably going to face problems.  One tenet of permaculture is to minimize unnecessary effort by thinking through and planning things in a analytical way.  However, I also think it’s sometimes worth taking a risk to see if you can make something work if the pay off could potentially be worth the effort.  So I’ll start with one serviceberry and see how it goes.

4. Lingonberries

The National Gardening Association has a helpful article about growing lingonberries.

The lingonberry is a 12- to 18-inch-high evergreen shrub native to northern temperate, boreal and arctic regions of Europe and North America. In addition to inherent cold-hardiness (to -10°), once covered with insulating snow, it survives northern winters from New England to Minnesota…

Lingonberry plants spread by underground runners to three feet. The glossy, dark green leaves are 1/8- to 1/2-inch long and usually tinged red when new. This shrub is handsome enough for ornamental use — as a small-scale ground cover or informal edging around larger acid-soil plantings, for example. It is also attractive in containers…

hese fruits are tart. Make them into jam for a superb roast goose and venison topping. Pancakes covered with lingonberry syrup are a Swedish tradition. Use them in any recipe that calls for cranberries. Lingonberries are very rich in vitamin C.

I’m ordering Balsgard (developed in Sweden) and Red Pearl (grows wild in Holland).

Gardening is fun and enjoyable, something I would do as a hobby, regardless of any other reasons I may have for doing it.  However, the total for my order including shipping comes to $129.40.  As I put things in the ground, make infrastructure improvements, and set up our second attempt at raising chickens, I’m going to give you the dollar amounts that I’m investing.

The reason for that is because I want to make a point about how difficult this time period that we are in is; we need to start developing small-scale food independence but it’s expensive to do so, in some cases requiring two incomes.  Because I have to work full-time to pay for all this (though I’m lucky because I have much of the summer off), it cuts into my time to work on things around here.  It’s a tough time right now, but our agro-business food supply is simply disgusting and our supply web is only one Serious World Event away from major disruption, so it’s worth it.  Whatever your circumstances are, you can do something to raise food; folks did so during other difficult times in our history and we can do so again now.

Figure out what you can do now and start making a plan for this spring.

Happy gardening!

The chance to be human: homesteading while working full time.

Phil and I realized as soon as we moved here last year that whenever we weren’t at work, at church, or at a family function, we would be working hard around here to create the kind of small homestead we envisioned.  Still, I’ve sort of had a hard time conceptualizing exactly what we are doing; we’re sort of feeling our way along as we go.  But total self-sufficiency isn’t likely and we don’t intend to be actual farmers, and we both work full-time (though luckily I have summers off), so what’s the end goal?

Recently in The Christian-Agrarian Work Ethic, Herrick Kimball (The Deliberate Agrarian) quoted Willis D. Nutting‘s essay The Better Life, which is part of a book of essays entitled The Rural Solution: Modern Catholic Voices on Going “Back to the Land”:

“The opportunity for real, soul-satisfying work, so rare in our day, is found abundantly in rural living. Here a man can make long-range plans and can carry them out without exploiting his fellow man; for the things that he uses are things that exist to be used: soil, plants, animals, building materials, etc. he can live a whole life of work without once using another man as a mere means for carrying out his plans. And neither does he become a tool of someone else. With the materials at hand he can employ the splendid coordination of mind and hand to create something of value for his family. He can fulfill his real nature in real work. And this work is much more joyful than any mere recreation. As a matter of fact this work carries with it its own recreation, so that the man who works does not have to worry about how he is going to have his good times. The work itself is a good time even though it be hard […]

Around me live several men who are “homesteaders.” They work in town or in school and live in the country. They spend long hours in the evenings working on their land. Their companions on the job or at school go to the movies or play poker in the evenings, but these men work at home. Their companions spend money; they save it. And when you talk with these men you come to realize that their interest, their real life, is in what they do at home. On the job they carry out someone else’s plans. That is drudgery. But at home they are their own masters. They are exercising their autonomy which is necessary to human dignity. These few hours of autonomy constitute for them their real life. Their rural homes give them their one chance to be human.”

Mr. Kimball explains (highlighting mine):

Willis Nutting’s essay does not imply that everyone should be a farmer, or that one need be a farmer to experience the human fulfillment found in agrarian work. He himself was an educator and, according to his biography, lived an agrarian lifestyle. His essay speaks of men working their industrial-world jobs for the necessary income and then, instead of pursuing industrial-world amusements, recreations or leisure in their spare time, they pursue productive, creative work on their homesteads.

Perfect. Without being able to put it into word, this is what Phil and I have both felt.  We work for money in the outside world, and though we like our respective occupations well enough, our real joy is in the countless hours of hard manual labor we put in around here sinking fence posts, building raised garden beds, weeding, mulching, learning about forestry, felling trees, learning to hunt and fish and then clean and cook what we hunt, refinishing or building things we need or want, building the chicken yard and coop (stay tuned for The Thirys and Their Poultry, Part II next spring, when we will hopefully have better success than last year’s attempt), and on and on.

Will we ever be self-sufficient here?  Doubtful.  We’ll certainly try to raise as much of our own food as possible.  And we’d like to add a word burning stove in addition to the fireplace so we can use some of the dead trees on our land as a source of heating fuel.  But what we’re really doing here, as Mr. Nutting put it so well, is seizing our chance to be human as God made us to be.

If that kind of thing interests you, too, then I can point you in the direction of others who are like me (us), who work in the outside world but then retreat to our homesteads where the the work is hard but deeply satisfying.  Here are just a few:

Feel free to mention other blogs if you know of any similar ones.

Also, I just learned about Steward Culture Magazine, a free online magazine which…

“seeks to promote Bible-based stewardship agriculture. This simply means we advocate for creation-friendly thinking that emphasizes the fact that we don’t own the Earth or even some small piece of it. Creation is simply a gift given to humans who are commanded to be its stewards as God’s representatives.”)

The plus side of “the decline” and hopeful signs in local agrarianism.

I am noticing more small family and cooperative farms in this area which rely on organic production methods, permaculture, and pastured livestock. Interestingly, a number of these farms in this area are explicitly Christian, which is remarkable given the liberal and secular bent of this part of the state (things tend to get more conservative and religious in Michigan as you head north and west).

I don’t know financially how they make it work; maybe they can live really frugally and earn a living from these little farms or (more likely) one or both spouses work outside the home.  In our case, even if we started turning our little homestead into a business, we’d still need outside income.  My husband would still have to keep his job although we could probably replace my job with the fruits of my home labor; my husband is strongly encouraging me to move in that direction, but I am a worrier who lacks confidence in this area, so I’l probably keep my paid job for now.

Here are three little farms not far from where I live that have caught my attention; two of the three are run by Christian families.

C & C Micro-Farm in Gregory doesn’t have a website yet, but you can find them on Facebook.

Growing By Faith Farm in Stockbridge offers classes in the sorts of skills that farm folks might have had 100 years or so ago.  Examples include things like butter-making, how to start a fire with a bow drill, raising and processesing (i.e. killing and prepping) pastured poultry, how to weave a basket out of cattails and the like.

Robin Hills Farm here in Chelsea offers classes, farm tours, and CSA shares of organic produce.

The reason I find these little farms to be a hopeful sign is because even in places like Greece that have been experiencing a fairly length financial collapse, we don’t see total mayhem. People still have basic sustenance and it is not total anarchy.  I think, barring unforseen catastrophe (EMPs, for example, or having Iran someday drop nuclear bombs on us courtesy of the Obama administration’s foolishness), what we’re really in for here is a long, protracted, economic decline in which our collective standard of living is significantly reduced over a period of time.  As that happens, people will naturally return to older methods of food production, with each family finding ways to keep small livestock (chickens, rabbits) and eke out a small garden.  It sounds scary to moderns but it was only three generations ago that this was the normal state of affairs, and it is nice to know that there are already a number of people, a small but growing minority, who are rediscovering old skills and melding them with new ideas from permaculture.

This kind of small-scale agrarianism is a hopeful sign for the immediate future.  When I look at this, I don’t mind the idea of “the decline”; in fact, I rather welcome it.  Why?  Because it is as Herrick Kimball wrote in Light in Our Dwellings ten years ago:

The plain truth, like it or not, is that, in order to succeed in this modern world, on its terms, you must sacrifice your family on the altar of Industrialism.

Yes, I know that is a harsh thing to say. Many people will disagree with me because the industrial model of family life is seen by the masses as normal and, therefore, good. But it is neither normal nor good. It is the spawn of 19th century Industrialism and a historical aberration. It weakens and destroys families. That is the truth and the truth can hurt. Believe me, I know.

The saddest aspect of this situation is that so many professing Christian families willingly buy into the materialistic hubris of our industrial culture.

…I’m convinced that if God’s people are going to be an effective witness to those in the dying industrial culture around us, we must do more than believe in a personal savior, and we must do more than proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. It is imperative that we also live our lives set apart to God. That does not mean that we can simply Christianize the ungodly industrial model and, in so doing, somehow become immune to its pernicious evils. It means we must separate ourselves and our families from the ungodly culture of industrialism.

The only way I know for Christians to effectively separate from the culture of industrialism is to embrace Christian-Agrarian life and culture. Christian-Agrarianism (sometimes called Biblical-Agrarianism) is Christianity lived within an agrarian paradigm. It is trusting God, His word, and His promises more than the false promises of materialistic industrialism in all its manifestations.

Let the decline of materialistic industrialism come, then.

My first food forest guild.

One of the reasons I find permaculture so useful is because it provides a systematic framework for what I have already instinctively been doing in a hit-or-miss fashion for years.  For example, my husband used to think it was kind of weird that I mulched in all my flower and vegetable beds with grass clippings all summer; neither of us had heard of other people doing that, but it just seemed instinctively right to me.  Lo and behold, I find lots of permies do this too!

However, there are many novel growing techniques that I’m learning from permaculture, and the one that fascinates me the most is the idea of planting a food forest in guilds.

Here is a good explanation of what polyculture food forest guilds are:

Permaculture is based on natural systems like those that we see in forests.  In a forest system, there are mulitple layers of vegetation growing together in a very diverse setting.  We see many types of trees, shrubs, plants, insects, animals, and various other things all living together in a system that continually strengthens itself.  All of these components of a natural ecosystem serve a function (or several functions) that support each other like the strands of a web.  One strand on its own may be weak, but the combination of all the strands together add to the overall strength and usefulness of the web.

In order to mimic these natural systems and to provide for human needs (i.e. food, building supplies, fuel, fibers, etc.) we must learn to identify and work with the various functions of our natural resources.  This is where the concept of the “Permaculture Guild” comes from.  A guild is usually defined as an association of people working toward a common goal.  In Permaculture, a guild is a grouping a plants, animals, insects, and other natural components that also work together to help ensure their survival.  Instead of planting gardens, Permaculture teaches us how to “build guilds”.  Instead of teaching about specific plants, we teach about the plant’s functions.  This is why Permaculture can work throughout the whole world.  It is a guide for design rather than a “how-to” type of agriculture.

The basic design of a guild generally follows some variation on this theme:

I’ve put together the beginnings of my first guild and I thought I’d share it.  Behind our house is a mature full-size pear tree, which is currently loaded with baby pears:



I did not add a dwarf fruit tree because the area is rather shady and prone to deer visits.  Instead I put in red currant and gooseberry shrubs because they like partial shade:



I was thrilled to find the currant shrubs; when I lived in Russia one summer, I learned to love red and black currants as Russians are crazy about them.  They go into the forests and gather large pails of them, and you can buy them in all the open-air markets.  I always wondered why we don’t have currant bushes in Michigan as our climate is not dissimilar to some parts of Russia, so I did a little investigating, and it turns out that for many years, it was actually illegal to grow currants in the U.S. due to a fungal infection they can carry which completes part of its life cycle on White Pines.  The fungus does not seriously harm the currants, but it causes a “rust” on the pines that eventually kills them (you can read more about this here).

However, several varieties of red currants and gooseberries have been bred that are resistant to White Pine Blister Rust, and it is once again legal in some states to grow them.  In Michigan, black currants can only be grown with a special license, but red currants and gooseberries can be grown without a permit in certain counties provided they are the resistant cultivars:

Under the currants, I planted rhubarb:


Rabbits, deer, and other critters do not much care for rhubarb, and the leaves are toxic (we only eat the stalks), so there was no need to fence around these.  Rhubarb is one of the few perennial vegetables (yes, it is actually a veggie and not a fruit), so I think it’s a natural fit in a permaculture (“permanent agriculture”) guild.

I then mulched everything heavily with grass clippings to keep down weeds, keep the soil moist, and to nourish the rhubarb, which is a heavy feeder.

So here’s my guild thus far:



I still want to add a “ground cover” layer which may end up being strawberries if I can’t figure out something better to plant, though strawberries may not love the partial shade here.

The only harvest I’ll get from the guild this year is pears, but next year I hope I’ll be making and canning lots of pectin-free strawberry rhubarb jam!

Plant your garden, grow your family, and pray.

I have long practiced the gardening technique of dense planting not only because I like the way it looks but also because I don’t want to spend my time weeding.  Thick plantings keep weeds at bay:


An old pair of rain boots has been repurposed to house the only annuals I ever plant: marigolds. Marigolds repel nematodes and draw beneficial insects that prey on aphids.  Here I filled the boots with soil and mulched in the top of the boots with grass clippings:image

Visitors are invited to contemplate Scripture as they stroll through:



Perennials draw pollinators such as bees and butterflies, which is why it is important not to use insecticides in your gardens:

imageimage      image

Here on a shady side of the house under some tall oaks and black cherry trees, I’ve put in a variety of ferns running down the hill toward the woods, trying to tie the cultivated and wild edges together. One tenet of permaculture is that the edges and boundaries are where the most interesting and productive things happen; many of these trees have wild asparagus growing behind them:


We’ve had a bumper crop of wild rabbits this spring and they’ve been feasting on my herbs at every opportunity; we stationed this little stone rabbit at the entrance to one of the children’s gardens to stand guard:


He must be doing a good job because this is the only bed containing basil that hasn’t been stripped clean.

Being able to move through the gardens in a constrained way is a pleasing sensation; I’ve built two pathways this week. The first is shredded mulch with stone circles leading through a bed of ferns to an outdoor faucet:


The other is terracotta squares that I set into river pebbles leading from the front walkway to the walkway on the east side of the house.  I moved 750 pounds of pebbles and squares by myself to make this but it will require zero maintenance, so it’s worth the sore muscles:


Plants that are both beautiful and edible are always welcome here.  Matteuccia struthiopteris Ostrich ferns, which produce edible fiddleheads, grow well along the northwest side of our front porch:


We in the West dwell now in a spiritual Babylon.  Whatever are we to do?  Shall we withdraw and become bitter and hate-filled?

 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 

Jeremiah 29:4-7

 Plant your garden.  Grow your family.  Pray for Babylon.