Broad Leaf Lupine
May 10th, 2014
Those who have spent much time with me know that over the years I've become an avid seed collector and dispersor. Everywhere I go I end up gathering seeds which become incorporated into custom crafted seed mixes for particular areas of our property.
Collecting seed is an amazing way to get to know a piece of land very intimately. When you're out tromping around, paying close attention to what the plant communities are like in different areas, microclimates, and soil disturbace conditions, you cannot help but develop a patterned eye for how the mosaic of plant communities shift and settles in the landscape.
I feel as though I know these plants quite well, they are my friends and allies. I have relationships with patches of grass, clumps of bushes and individual trees.
I know their smells, taste and texture; when they emerge in spring; how they grow through the seasons; when and how they bear fruit; what eats them and lived on, under, and beside them; what other members make up their communities; and the niches they appear to fill.
This year I'm focusing heavily on seed collection for three primary aspects of Windward's developing systems. In broad strokes the seeds and seed mixtures are for the silvo-pasture, early establishment of hedgerows, and forest garden support.
Below I describe the systems and plants, and detail the relevant ecosystem functions they perform.
Perennial Prairie and Pasture Forage
The silvopasture site is mid august. Almost no forage :(
As I wrote before, we're working to develop about 12 acres of relatively flat and open land into a silvopasture system. That is, a system of trees and pasture forages intended for animal forage production (pasture, cut forage from trees, and mast) and long term tree-based yields such as timber, pole wood, fuel wood, mulch, nuts, cider apples and other hardy fruits).
The land being developed as a silvopasture system was disced in preperation for planting ~20 years ago, before Windward added it to it's property. Most of the native perennials were wiped out at that time. While it has had a significant time to recover, our marginal dry and cold conditions mean that natural regeneration is a slow process. Currently the open field is not producing much forage at all and is in a patchy regeneration of annual grasses, mid-succesion deciduous shrubland and young ponderosa pines.
A side note: the topography, rocky-ness and presence of trees makes tillage or drilling of seeds unviable through most all of Windward's property. Because of this, we're utilizing seed balls as the utilizing seedballs is the best stratagy we have. Here's an article I wrote for PermacultureNews.org about seedballs.
The seed mixture the pasture is quite diverse and includes an overall profile of ~50% Grasses, ~30% Legumes, ~20% annual and perennial forbs.
Below I describe the species of these three components in more details.
Orchardgrass topping out the annuals.
I often refer to the dietary needs of animals in the same way we talk about human diets. A well balanced meal is composed of an energy source, a protein source, and a source of micronutrients.
Grasses are the carbohydrates of an unglates diet, forming the bulk of calories which fuel metabolic processes.
Grasses are very hardy, very productive, and cold tolerant enough to grow through seasons when deep freezing temperatures prevent most forbs and decidious perennials from leafing out. This is critical since it is in this period when we have ample moisture.
It is said that most cold-season grasses will be actively photosynthesising whenever the sun is out and the air temperature is above freezing. This gives grasses a huge leg up on many plant families in a pasture.
The grasses selected for this pasture are all perennial, bunching, and mostly native to the western United States. A few are not native, having escaped hay fields and become naturalized in grass communities. All grass seed was collected locally.
Pasture Seed Mix
Wheatgrasses (Agropyron, Pseudoroegneria, and Elymus spp.) generally very tall (upwards of 6 ft) very large (bunch diameter of 2ft or more at maturity). Some species are not as large or productive.
Most are coursely textured and not prefered forage for sheep and goats in all seasons. They make excellent standing winter forages however, which is of primary importance in this system as we move to decrease or eliminate our need for stored feeds for our grazers.
Meadow and Mountain Brome (Bromus biebersteinii, B. marginatus). Short growing (2-3ft) bunch grasses with relatively succulant leaves even through the summer.
Idaho and Sheep Fescue (Festuca Idahoensis, F. Ovina). Very palatable summer forage, short (~2 ft) fine-bladed, good seed producers.
Orchard Grass (Dactylis glomerata). A non-native, but very common forage crop. Very productive and highly palatable in the spring.
A side note: pretty much all of the grass seed I collected came from the side of the road. Surprisingly, some of the most diverse and productive areas around are road ways. Roads act as a seed dispersal corridor, bringing all sorts of stuff from far away places.
Roads are also impermeable to rain water, acting as large catchments that channel water to their edges, making the road side an moister microclimate. Being impervious, roads also act like mulch, preventing water loss through evaporation.
Roads are also heat sinks, collecting and storing heat in cold seasons and creating an envelop of radiant warmth which can allow plants to germinate and grow earlier in the season.
Nitrogen fixing legumes are generally higher in proteins than other forages, comprising a boost of dietary protein to help keep animals strong and growing.
The species composition of native legumes is quite diverse, however many are either not paleatable or are mildly toxic to livestock. There are many dozens of small, ephemeral kinds of legumes which I have yet to identify. Many of these less conspicuous legumes are included into seed mixtures in small part.
Alfalfa (Medicago sativa var Ladak) The primary legume in the mix. Probably 60 percent of the legume seed is alfalfa.
Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens). A short growing perenial groundcover, spreading by rhizones. Highly nutritious, but less hardy to drought and full sun conditions. Will likely take some time to establish, and may only be able to grow after the pasture has time to build soil organic matter.
Nevada Birds-foot Trefoil (Lotus nevadensis). Native, prostrate, radially spreading, very hardy and highly palatable through the summer.
Vetches (Vicia americana, V. villosa, V. cracca), short growing annuals and perennials. Difficult to collect seed, but worth trying to establish self-seeding populations.
Everlasting pea (Lathyrus latifolius). A non-native aggressive spreading perennial vine. Many would not consider this a pasture species, and would be apalled that I have chosen such an obnoxious plant.
However, Lathyrus is a very productive plant, and will be able to colozine and spead along the ground. Creating much need shade and biomass. While it is not the greatest forage, it is definitely eaten by livestock and deer.
Concerns about toxicity exist because of the concentrations of amino acids which inhibit the bonding of Collagen. The disorder is called "Lathyrism".
Other native legumes include Lupines (Lupinus lepidus var. aridus, L. latifolius, L. leucophyllus), and Milkvetches (Astragalus barrii, A. cicer, A. agrestis).
Lupines and Milkvetches are known to be toxic in large quantities. However they are edible in small quantities and will serve an ecosystem function supporting nitogen availability and native pollanotors.
When most people think of pasture, they think of grass. However, most ungulates will (and actually prefer) to eat a significant amount of broadleafed herbacious plants. I know from obsrvation that our sheep (typically thought of grazers prefering grass) will eat a lot of forbs through the summer when the grass is courser and/or dry.
In terms of the analogy of creating a well balanced meal, forbs are like veggies for ungulates. They are accumulators of essential micronutrients and often have medicinal qualities. Livestock with good instinct will commonly be seen seeking out certain plants for minerals and medinal properties.
Dandelion and Chicory
Deep rooted decompactors such as Chicory (Cichorium intybus), Salsify (Tragopogon dubius), Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale ) and Common Mullein (Verbascum Thapsus). These species are an important part of the remediation of this pasture site. Since chisel plowing is not an option, we have to use bological methods to break up the heavy clay soils which pervade the site. Mullein and Chicory are two of the best forbs for the job, and all are palatable for livestock.
Native Forbs including Lomatiums (Lomatium cous, L. macrocarpum, L. nudicaule, L. columbianum, L. dissectum), Arrow-Leaf Balsam (Balsamorhiza sagittata), Western Sunflower (Helianthus anomalus), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Common Camas (Camassia quamash), Cluster-Lilly (Brodiaea coronaria), Wild Buckwheat (Erigonium spp.), California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
As I have discussed in previous articles, this silvopasture system is patterned similarly to western european systems of small fields enclosed by multifunctional hedgerows acting as living fences, windbreaks, habitat for all sorts of beneficial organism, pollination support for beeds, as well as providing diverse woody crop yields.
Black Locust and Live stake of Scouler Willow
I will be propagating several kinds of upland and prairie willows including Scoulers Willow (Salix scouleriana) Coyote Willow (Salix exigua) and Peach-Leaf Willow (Salix amygdaloides), as well as Western Balsam Poplar (Populus tricocarpa) from live stake cuttings, and taking some root divisions of thicket forming sucking plants including Black Hawthorn (crateagus douglasii) and Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides).
All of the above species are generally fast growing, fair to excellent forages which will form clumps and thickets hopefully dense enough to keep animals in/out. The are also coppiceable so management for a shorter, bunchier, more impenetrable growth form will be simple enough.
Along with the backbone species being transplanted and live-stake propagated, I will be propagating more species of which I have collected seed. Again, seedballs will be employed because of the challenges of the terrain. Since each of these species require different seed treatments/scarification, and because many of them also need colonization by specific nitrogen fixing species and/or mychorriza, each will have their own seed balls made special for each species.
Black Locust (Robinia psuedoacacia) probably one of the best plants around for pioneering agroforestry systems. very hardy to cold and drought. Good forage, mast and bee fodder, and provides dapples light which enables pasture to grow underneath.
Grey Alder (Alnus incana var. tenuifolia) a fast growing, purportedly drought tolerant nitrogen fixing tree/shrub. I have collected seed from native populations along the Klickitat river. I am yet to be convinced it will survive outside of sheltered riparian conditions.
A good patch of Deerbrush regeneration after a fire.
Deerbrush (Ceanothus integerrimus) is one of the best woody forages in the region. It is highly paleatable in all seasons, fixes nitrogen, and as a chief pioneer in the native ecology it is very tolerant of hot, dry, infertile soils. It also accumulates minerals such as calcium and potassium in high concentrations in it's leaves and buds. One of the hidden gems of our native ecosystem. Soil will be collected from the root zone of mature stands to innoculate seeds with the Frankia spp. needed for nitrogen fixation.
Seed needs to be heat scarified. I have found this resource from the University of Washington about using both hot water and oven treaments for scarification. It claims,
Roses(Rosa woodsi, R. Nootka, R. rugosa) and highly paleatable to sheep and goats, despite the thorns. Also provide a lot of pollinator support. They will hopefully help fill in the lower sections of the hedge. Soil will be collected from the root zone of well established patches to innoculate with Ecto-Mychorrizal fungi.
Roses also make "hips", high in vitamin C. Good winter food for ungulates, humans and birds.
Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus latifolius). As stated before, it is a very prductive plant. I have witnessed it's power to create a weed blocking ground cover in many conditions. I anticipate it being a powerful support species.
Since it is primarily tap rooted it will not be competing much with the more lateral orientation of many of the other species. As the suckering shrubs expand it will likely be forced to the fringes of the hedge.
Forage Turnip and Alfalfa
Short lived Support Species Alfalfa, White-Clover, our home-developed cultivar forage Turnip (Brassica Rapa) and Radish (Raphanus sativus) will be included as supporters of the other woody plants. Their combined influence increases soil nitrogen, shelters soil organisms, decompacts heavy clay, and charges biomass into deeper realms of the soil. They will go on living and self-seeding for a while, but eventually will fade out.
Young Food Forest Support Species
Windard's "Courtyard" food forest in late spring.
Windward has burgeoning food forests of a variety of ages. Our courtyard garden has some apple and plum trees that are about 10 years old and producing well amidst younger but larger varieties. Even this relatively old system still has a very open canopy, and is too harsh an environment for many perennial vegetable to be able to grow.
The support species come in two broad categories. The first are those that work on the soil, to build organic material, increase nutrient availability, and loosen layers of compaction. The second are those that grow quickly and help establish a sheltered environment in which the young productive trees can grow.
As we continue to develop and grow all of the diverse growing systems at Windward, we are definitely in the phase of working primarily with the supporting species (which, in reality, are also highly productive in their own right) and earth works to lay the ground work necessary for the rapid and healthful establishment of a mature, diverse and productive agro-ecological systems.
Comfrey growing out of barren clay
Hardy Soil-Conditioning Allies
Typical in the Western us are the golden summer hills. That golden color is what replaces the green of actively photsynthesizing plants as they go dormant in the dry season. To me, gold means their is a gap in the productivity of the system. A time when that system is not capturing the suns energy
We're working to change that by selecting and establishing hardy perennial plants which can continue the work of converting sunshine, soil moisture, and carbon dioxide into biomass, and ultimately into useful goods and most importantly soil which is the prime resource in terrestrial ecosystems.
Many of the species listed in the above sections are also being employed in our journey to builder ever richer, deeper, and more life-harboring soil. Of particular note, there are a few all-stars which we've either found directly, or observed in other systems, to work really well.
Alfalfa and Comfrey are two very productive biomass huckin' plants which have already worked wonders in our systems. They cannot be praised enough for their hardiness and potency as plant allies.
Curly Dock (Rumex crispus) is a hardy non-native biennial-ish forb with a strong taproot and tolerance for conditions with seasonal innundation followed by drought. Comes up early in the spring and produces a weed blocking basal rosette of leaves. Young leaves and shoots are edible.also produces an abundance of seed which many birds enjoy.
In old abandoned homesteads, we've also observed the Everlasting pea (Lathyrus latifolius) work wonders to shade soil, provide cover for little critters, build biomass, fix nitrogen, and supress the growth of aggressive annual grasses.
The native Ceanothus integerimus is also a very productive nitrogen fixer which appears to work wonders on the soil in a short period of time. The fine mulch and soil shade mean that moisture is retained longer into the dry season It's tap-root structure does not appear to compete much with more shallow rooted trees. After forest fires it is typical to see swaths of ceanothus spring up and quickly forming a shrubland out of which light loving deciduous trees emerge. It is this pattern that we hope to immitate as we instigate the successions of plants in our developing systems.
Common Mallow (Malva neglecta), and Kinnickinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) are two perennial ground covers which have proven hardy enough to establish themselves, and will continue to expand as our tillage-free practices in the courtyard continue.
Sunflowers, decent fast-establishing shelter
One of the often overlooked components to tree growth and the retention of moisture in the landscape is the the influence of wind. Windward is a windy place where prolonged bouts over 30-40 MPH are not uncommon, and the upheaval of trees from their root bases due to high speed bursts of wind are a typical event in the native forest.
Creating shelter belts of thick trees is becoming an increasingly recognized point of learning for us. In large part, my focus on hedgerows come out of the observation of how clumps of trees seems to grow much more quickly and solitary trees, despite their supposed competition for the scarce water resources.
In our courtyard woodland garden, and our zone-1 hugelkulture garden, we'll be putting a lot of focus this fall, winter and spring on the establishment of better shelter.
As I have written about above, we'll be taking livestake suttings of members of the Salicaceae family (willow, poplar, aspen) to provide the fast-establishing backbone of the shelter systems.
Black Locust is another species which I can procure seeds from local populations, and will be a part of the shelter systems increasingly as time goes on.