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Mediterranean Understory & Guild Plants for Food Forests – Part 2

Please SEE Part 1 before you read this list!


Here is what a young Food Forest can look like in a part of your urban yard!

Linda’s List here is intended for a Mediterranean climate like coastal Southern California has, one of only 5 in the world. The list in your area may be different. Check out your local gardeners’ successes, check with your local nursery. This list is not tree specific yet. We’re working on that!

More than a list of plants, Linda’s List gives tips for good growing, eating, and usage!
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Once our fruit trees are planted in their water-saving basins in a budding Mediterranean food forest, it’s now time to think about what else to plant in these usually moist wells and swales. Or up the trees? Or nearby? We need these companion plants to increase our food and medicine yield, and also to enrich the soil, provide habitat, pull up minerals and other nutrients from deep in the earth, draw nitrogen from the air and bring it into the soil, attract beneficial insects to control pests, create shade for delicate roots — and to provide beauty, a critical psychological and spiritual yield in every garden.

Thanks to the members of the Permaculture Guild of Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Organic Garden Club for their ideas and input. Additions and corrections are welcome.  Please email lbuzzell@aol.com. Especially welcome would be input on what plants do best under specific fruit trees – so far I don’t have much information on that.

BERRIES
Blueberry. To grow well here, they need acid soil, so a container is often the best solution, since Santa Barbara soil and water tend to be alkaline. One gardener we know waters hers with a very dilute solution of white vinegar, plus puts pine needles, coffee grounds around the plant. Best in Mediterranean climates are the low-chill varieties like ‘Misty,”O’Neal,’ ‘Sharpblue’
Cane berries. Upright cane berries are fun to pop in here and there as understory plants and they take some shade. But we found out the hard way that you probably don’t want to put in sprawling, thorny berries (especially blackberry) that sucker underground – they pop up all over the yard and are hard to eradicate. When we buy new berries we limit ourselves to thornless varieties and our current favorites are ‘Navajo’ and ‘Apache,’ although the thorny varieties that still linger in our garden – and will probably be there for hundreds of years as they’re ineradicable – taste best. So we live with them and enjoy the berries.
Elderberry. Shrub. There is a California native variety. Produces edible fragrant white flowers (used to make elderberry syrup and wine) and edible small blue berries that the birds love. Ripe berries are safe to eat but leaves, twigs, branches, seeds and roots are toxic. Has medicinal uses. We use our elderberry as a sacrificial plant attracting birds away from other fruit trees.
Lemonade Berry (native). Rhus integrifolia. Can also control erosion.

BULBS AND ROOT CROPS
Placement of these may take special care, as you don’t want to plant them too close to delicate tree roots.
Carrots
Edible canna. Canna edulis –Achira. Flowers are smaller than most cannas and the root is edible, can be chopped and sautéed like potato.
Onions
Potato and sweet potato

EDIBLE FLOWERS (note: most fruit trees, veggies and herbs also have edible flowers. Always triple check the safety of any flower before eating!
Daylilies. Hemerocallis species. Buds are used in Chinese stir fry, Petals in salad.
Nasturtium (flowers, young leaves and buds that may be pickled like capers) Let the plants die back in place. They will reseed and form a straw mulch.
Roses (yield petals for salads, sandwiches, syrups, desserts; rose hips for tea, syrups, jam)
Scarlet runner bean
Scented geranium

HERBS (most have edible flowers in addition to other uses)
Borage
Chili peppers, including tree chili
Cilantro
Garlic
Italian parsley
Lavender
Lemon balm
Lemon verbena. A drought tolerant shrub with delicious leaves for tea.
Mint. Some fear its vigorous, spreading roots, but we welcome it into drier areas as ground cover, autumn bee food and a source of fresh leaves for cooking and tea.
Mustard (young leaves can be stir fried, flowers are edible, plus seeds for making mustard)
Pineapple sage (leaves and flowers make delicious herbal tea)
Oregano
Rosemary
Sage

SHRUBS/Understory trees
Guava. Psidium Tropical shrubs native to Mexico, Central and South America that yield white, yellow or pink fruit. Not to be confused with Pineapple Guava (Feijoa) Psidium guajava (apple guava) is one tasty variety. Also try lemon guava and strawberry guava.

VEGGIES (there’s no way to name them all – it’s fun to experiment to see what likes the soil under and around your fruit trees. Our favorites are those that overwinter and/or reseed themselves)
Artichokes. Plant away from tree roots, in baskets as the gophers love them.
Brassicas like broccoli, kale, collard greens.
Chard.
Dandelions. Leaves are great in salads and so good for us. Small birds like the seed heads.
Fava beans and other beans.
New Zealand spinach.

VINES
We often forget about vertical space in the garden, but it’s nice to increase your yield by growing edible vines up fruit trees, on walls and over arbors, fences and hedges.
Grapes. Note: the Permaculture Guild of Santa Barbara has a separate list of recommended table and wine grapes for our area. Contact lbuzzell@aol.com for details
Passion Fruit. A garden member says “mine is simply rampant, productive and trouble-free; gets little to no supplemental water.” The juice can be used to make a spectacular salad dressing (served at Los Arroyos on Coast Village Road in their tropical salad).

MISCELLANEOUS
Bamboo. Use clumping instead of running kinds to avoid it taking over your garden. Bamboo shoots are a delicacy in Asia.
Pepino melon.
Sacrificial plants. In permaculture designs we often plant trees, shrubs and other plants that are nitrogen-accumulators, “nurse” plants or fruit-providers for animals that might otherwise eat our crops. When they have performed their function, we “chop and drop” them around our fruit trees as a nutritious mulch.
Yucca. We’ve read that yucca yields edible fruit and flower buds. Anyone have more info on this?

BENEFICIAL ATTRACTORS AND NUTRIENT ACCUMULATORS
Ceanothus. Shrubs and ground covers that fix nitrogen in the soil.
Salvia, ornamental. These are treasures in the Mediterranean forest garden.
Tagetes lemmonii. Golden color is lovely in fall.

GROUND COVER
Easy-to-grow succulents can provide temporary ground cover for delicate roots. They can act as a living mulch until other plants take over that function. This crop is often free, as gardeners who have ground-cover sedums always have too many and are glad to share.
Pelargoniums and lantana are other easy, colorful ground cover that can be removed as needed.
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#1 Home Permaculture book in the world for seven years!

Per PatternLiteracy.com, Toby Hemenway’s home site, Gaia’s Garden has been the best-selling permaculture book in the world for the last 7 years. The enlarged, updated 2nd edition is the winner of the 2011 Nautilus Gold Medal Award.

The first edition of Gaia’s Garden sparked the imagination of America’s home gardeners, introducing permaculture’s central message: Working with nature, not against her, results in more beautiful, abundant, and forgiving gardens. This extensively revised and expanded second edition broadens the reach and depth of the permaculture approach for urban and suburban growers.

Treat yourself and your land to this incredibly efficient way of gardening. Wisely use ALL the space available to you in a good way. Nature is the Master Gardener – follow her lead.

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I used to be a total mulcher, covered my whole veggie garden. I’ve adjusted my coastal SoCal mulch* thinking to match the plant! Same goes for composting in place. That’s a good idea for some areas of your garden, other areas not at all!

If you are coastal SoCal, in the marine layer zone, your mulch, or composting in place, may be slowing things down a lot more than you realize. The best melons I’ve ever seen grown at Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden were on bare hot dry soil in a plot that had a lower soil level than most of the other plots. The perimeter boards diverted any wind right over the top of the area, the soil got hot!  It was like an oven! So, let it be bare! No mulch under melons, your winter squash, pumpkins except under the fruits to keep them off the ground, clean, above soil level insects.

For more heat, put up a low wind barrier – straw bales, a perimeter of densely foliated plants, a big downed log, be creative. Permeable shrubs are the most effective wind barriers. Let your peppers and jicama get hot! Eggplant are Mediterranean heat lovers! Okra is Southern, hot.

Tomatoes need dryer soil to avoid the verticillium and fusarium wilt fungi, no more than an inch of loose straw to allow airflow at soil level but keep heat down. Let ‘em dry nearby; water a foot or more away from the central stem. Let that tap-root do its job, get the water below the fungi, wilt/blight zone, the top 6 to 8 inches. Drier soil is not comfy for slugs.

Get cucumbers up on a trellis, then you won’t need mulch to keep the cukes clean and bug free, but rather because they have short roots. Preplant radish to repel cucumber beetles when your cukes bloom. The radish will provide a living mulch as their leaves shade the cuke roots. Eat a few radish, but let the rest grow out to keep repelling the beetles. In time you can gather their seeds. Plant heat tolerant lettuces at their feet to act as living mulch. They both like plenty of water to keep them growing fast and sweet, so they are great companions. Slugs and snails like peas and lettuce. You will need to use a little Sluggo or its equivalent if you feel comfortable to use it.

Clearly, no mulch, more heat, equals more water needed. In drought areas, plant in basins below the main soil level. Use your long low flow water wand to water only in the basin at the roots of your plant. Fuzzy leaved plants, tomatoes and eggplant, prefer not being watered on their leaves anyway. Since there is no raised mound, there is no maintenance needed for berms surrounding the basin, but you will need to keep the basin from filling in. Plant companion littles and fillers in the basin around the base of bigger plants. They will enjoy the cooler damper soil and provide living mulch to keep that soil more cool!

LIVING MULCH  is triple productive! It mulches, provides companion plant advantages, and is a crop all at the same time! Closely planted beets, carrots, garden purslane, radish, turnips act as living mulch to themselves and bigger companion plants you plant them by. The dense canopy their leaves make lets little light in, keeps things moist. Cucumbers under broccoli are living mulch while the brocs repel cucumber beetles! If you cage or trellis your beans, most of the plant is up getting air circulation, keeping them dryer, more mildew free, if you don’t plant too densely. They, cucumbers and strawberries, also have short feet that need to stay moist, so do mulch them – your beans and cukes with clean chop and drop, straw or purchased mulch.

Zucchini, doesn’t care. They are a huge leaved plant, greedy sun lovers, that are self mulching. But, you can feed their vine up through the largest tomato cages, cut off the lower leaves and plant a family of lettuces, carrots, onions, salad bowl fixin’s or basil on the sunny side underneath! Especially preplant radish to repel cucumber beetles! All of them like plenty of water, so everyone is happy.

Cooler crops, over summering Broccoli, Kale, Chard like moist and cooler, so mulch deeply very early in spring.

Pallet Garden Strawberries Boards as MulchBoards as mulch! Your strawberries like slightly acidic soil, and acidic mulch – redwood or pine needles. Also, you can lay down boards between mini rows of strawberries to keep the soil moist under the boards, the soil between the rows that the berry roots have access to. It’s a variation on pallet gardening. The advantages of using boards are you can space or remove your boards so you can easily access the soil to add amendments, you can add or remove boards to make a bigger or smaller patch, you can make the boards the length you need or want, space them as needed per the plant. Planting between boards can be used for lots of other plants too if you won’t be planting an understory! As for your strawberries, as they leaf out and get bigger, in addition to the boards, they will be living mulch for themselves!

If you are going to mulch, do it justice. Besides wanting to cool your soil, keep moisture in, prevent erosion, keep your crop off the soil and away from bugs, and in the long-term, feed your soil, mulching is also to prevent light germinating weed seeds from sprouting. Put on 4 to 6 inches minimum, tomatoes being the exception. Less than that may be pretty, but simply make great habitat for those little grass and weed seeds! Mulch makes moist soil, where a rich multitude of soil organisms can thrive, including great fat vigorous earthworms! You see them, you know your soil is well aerated, balanced, doing great!

Mulching is double good on slopes and hillsides. Make rock lined water-slowing ‘S’ terrace walk ways snaking along down the hillside. Cover your berms well and deeply to prevent erosion and to hold moisture when there are drying winds. Be sure to anchor your mulch in windy areas -biodegradable anchor stakes are available.  has some clever ideas on how to keep your mulch on a slope. Plant fruit trees, your veggies on the sunny side under them, on the uphill side of your berms. Make your terrace wide enough so you don’t degrade the berms by walking on them when you harvest.

If you mulch, make it count!  Mulch with an organic degradable mulch. Chop and drop disease and pest free plants to compost in place, spread dry leaves. Spread very well aged manures. When you water, it’s like compost or manure tea to the ground underneath. Lay out some seed free straw – some feed stores will let you sweep it up for free! If you don’t like the look of that, cover it with some pretty purchased mulch you like. Use redwood fiber only in areas you want to be slightly acidic, like for strawberries or blueberries.

COMPOSTING IN PLACE  Build soil right where you need it. Tuck green kitchen waste out of sight under your mulch, where you will plant next. Sprinkle with a little soil if you have some to spare, that inoculates your pile with soil organisms; pour on some compost tea to add some more! Throw on some red wriggler surface feeder worms. Grow yarrow or Russian comfrey (Syphytum x uplandicum) near your compost area so you can conveniently add a few sprigs to your pile to speed decomposition. It will compost quickly, no smells, feeding your soil excellently! If you keep doing it in one place, a nice raised bed will be built there with little effort!

Mulch Straw Plant Now!

You don’t have to wait to plant! Pull back a planting space, add compost you have on hand or purchased, maybe mix in a little aged manure mix, worm castings, your favorite plant specific amendments. Sprinkle some mycorrhizal fungi on your transplant’s roots (exception is Brassicas), and plant! Yes!

*Mulch is when you can see distinct pieces of the original materials. Finished compost is when there are no distinct pieces left, the material is black and fluffy and smells good.

Mulch is magic when done right!

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara’s community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are often in a fog belt/marine layer most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

Love your Mother! Plant bird & bee food! Think grey water! Grow organic!

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Food Not Lawns is all about raising veggies not grass.  Studies show they both take about the same amount of water, but veggies pay back sustainably with fresh highly nutritious food on your table and no-food-miles or pollution.  Plus they make seeds for their next generation, adapting to your microclimate niche!  http://www.sbfoodnotlawns.org

  • Do I have to rip up my lawn?  You can do lasagna gardening/sheet composting right on top, start with cardboard/newspaper. 
  • Do I have to do a major portion of my lawn?  You can do any part you want, big or small, your call!
  • But I don’t want to do my front lawn.  You don’t have to!  It’s yours, do what makes you happy!  You only need 6 to 8 hours of sun to grow veggies, any space, corridor that has that, works.
  • Is it really hard work?  Using the lasagna/sheet composting method is no harder than gathering the materials to do it!  There is NO DIGGING!  And you don’t have to build raised beds.  Building soil on top of your lawn can make a lovely undulating landscape.  Frameless raised beds have plantable sloped sides!  
  • Is it ugly?   Could be, but how you do it is up to you!  It can be integrated along/among border landscaping plants, you don’t have to have raised beds at all.  If you want to though, you can make really attractive raised beds with beautiful materials, ie a lovely rock wall, terracing.  You can  cover an unsightly area like the edge under a south facing deck.  There are so many lovely options! 
  • I don’t want to wait months before I can plant!  You can plant the same day!  Just pull back a planting hole,  throw in compost, bought or made by you, plus any amendments you want, just like usual, and plant NOW!  No waiting at all!

                            Sheet Compost/Lasagna Garden Layers                           

Mulch or Tarp or not
Optional – Compost, Sprinkled Soil
Repeat layers until 18” to 2’ deep
Greens – Garden chop & drop
Browns – twice as deep as greens
Greens/Wet – kitchen veggie scraps, garden trimmings, grass, manure
Browns/Dry – leaves, straw for air circulation, alfalfa for Nitrogen
Well wetted Cardboard/Newspaper
Existing surface – Lawn

Wet green layers go above dry browns so the juicy decomposing stuff seeps down, keeping the brown stuff moist!  Straw is good in a brown/dry layer because air can pass through it, keeping the pile aerated!  Throw in some red wriggler worms to work the pile, make castings!  Maybe toss in some soil to ‘innoculate’ the pile with soil organisms.

Don’t worry overmuch about exactness of ingredients in your layers as you chop and drop greens from your garden/yard.  In fact, you can mix them up!  But do put in manures for Nitrogen (N).  Decomposing plants use N to decompose, so add a little so your growing plants will have an adequate supply.

If you can, make your pile at least 18” high; it is going to sink down as it decomposes.  Thinner layers, or layers that have been mixed, and smaller pieces, decompose faster.

If you like, cover the whole pile with some pretty mulch when you are done!  Or tarp it to keep things moist until ready for use.

When you plant, especially in ‘new’ soil, sprinkle the roots of your transplants with mycorrhizal fungi!  The fungi make micro filaments throughout your soil that increase your plants’ uptake of minerals, especially phosphorus that builds strong roots and increases blooming, fruiting!

Anybody can lasagna garden/sheet compost in any garden, any part of a garden, any or all the time!  It’s a time honored soil building/restoration technique!  Happy planting!

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Reminder:  My campaign this fall is for garden cleanup, and turning the soil to expose the fungi that affects our tomatoes, and other plants, so the fungi dries and dies!

Vibrant Yellow Chard!

November, though cooler, is a rich planting time!   

First do remaining fall cleanup of lingering summer plants still at it with the warm weather we have been having.  Now is a perfect time to weed and clear pathways. 

Last chance to plant wildflowers from seed for early spring flowers!  Germination in cooler weather takes longer, so don’t let the bed dry out. 

More transplants of winter veggies.  That’s Brassicas – brocs, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, turnips!  Plant super low calorie nutritious chard, a fast grower; and from its same family, beets.  Beets and carrots are a two in one – you eat the bulb/carrot, and can harvest the leaves to steam as greens, or chop and drop into your stew!  Bright Lights chard is a favorite of mine – it’s as pretty as any flower with its bright easy-to-harvest stalks.  Carrots near peas!  Celery near the water spigot.  Fava, parsley, potatoes.  The fru fru thin leaved varieties of lettuces, that are too tender for hot summer sun, now thrive!  Plant in easy to reach places, so you can continually harvest the big lower leaves.  

Plant seeds of onions for slicing.  Bare-root artichoke, strawberries.  Strawberry and onion varieties are region specific, strawberries (more to come on this soon) even more than onions.  So plant the varieties our local nurseries carry, or experiment!  Get your bare-root strawberries in between Nov 1 to 10.  

Fillers and accents, unders and besides, can be red bunch onions, bright radishes!  Try some of the long radishes, like French Breakfast, said to have a ‘delicate crunch and gentle fire’ or a quickie like Cherry Belle that matures in only 22 days – that’s only 3 weeks! 

Check out the amazing Health Benefits of Eating Radish

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