Forestry, Garden, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the next best time in 1 year from now

That is my take on the ole chinese proverb.

This is a nice, succinct recap to conclude the long series of posts on mulch and compost and bacteria and fungi

Will all of the discussion on approaching food crops biologically, laying down a mulch of shredded wood at least a year before planting a woody species will create an ideal soil habitat for the plant whether it be a bramble. shrub or tree. Plants uptake nutrients via a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. A layer of woody mulch well before planting facilitates the fungal dominance in which woody species thrive as well as invigorate soils with nourishment from the decaying wood.


Fungal basics of mulching

How to think like a plant to be a successful cultivator

How to think like a plant to be a successful cultivator part 2

Mulch Matters 2: Different Types of Mulches for Different Types of Plants

Compost Matters: Garden Compost vs. Orchard compost

Forestry, Garden

Where to find mulch for your woody species

Wood mulch provides soils with the fungal dominance in which woody species thrive. Any cultivator of bramble berries, shrubs like blueberries and trees should be doing everything in their power to provide the roots of these plants with the mycorrhizal fungi that is critical for nutrient uptake. Good mulch can be quite expensive but hopefully I can provide some free avenues for you to explore.

Power companies…

…always need to clear brush and tree growth from their right of ways. Some are happy to deliver the mulch to save the disposal fee if you provide an easily accessible place to dump the shredded cuttings. It is usually free but a tip would help secure an almost endless flow of free mulch!

Local Governments…

…typically have a tree removal service that generates mulch from land development, road construction and general upkeep. Luckily mine allows citizens to take whatever they can haul themselves. If you aren’t lucky enough to have this, it is still worth contacting the local government so see if they will dump a load on your property.

Arborists, tree services and landscaping companies…

…are all in the business of removing problem trees or pruning existing ones. Tree cuttings are almost always mulched to facilitate efficient removal of the waste from project sites. With some savvy networking, you can work your way into almost unlimited sources of mulch.


generally shred waste wood from the milling process. I’ve never pursued this avenue so I’m not sure what to expect in regards to costs. Just make sure it is hardwood mulch!

Note: Sawdust is actually too much carbon and not a good plant mulch. However it is the best possible bedding for mature animals as it has the highest C:N ratio to bind to nutrients in the waste. Baby chicks will eat it so only use for mature poultry. The same properties makes it a great compost pile addition.

Buy or rent your own chipper/shredder

The best mulch comes from younger branches based on wood composition facts that I have not covered. Large stems should be used as heating fuel anyway so if you harvest your own firewood, buying or renting a shredder for the smaller parts of the tree canopies might make sense.


There are no guarantees that any of these entities will delivery the mulch for free. However the mulch itself is generally not graded and free as a result. If you do need to buy mulch from a commercial source, avoid:

  1. Dyed, biologically toxic mulches
  2. Pine based mulches due to chemical components that inhibit broadleaf plant growth

My plan for the arrival of emerald ash borer on the farm

I will do nothing.

To understand why, a discussion on the near-extinction of American Chestnut is in order. Arrival of the blight resulted in the loss of 400 billion trees that had originally made up 25% of forest composition in the entire eastern US and Canada. Logically, the government decided to salvage log every remaining American Chestnut that was accessible.

While I certainly cannot fault the logic here to harvest a resource before it is wasted, hindsight shows that trees with a natural resistance to the blight were logged along with their doomed brethren preventing any chance at breeding the resistant trees to repopulate the forest.

Organizations are currently breeding blight resistant but smaller Chinese chestnut into the humungous american chestnut, then backbreeding the Chinese chestnut out leaving the blight resistance but securing the american form. The only problem is it takes at least 10 years per generation so it is a staggeringly slow process. Having naturally blight resistant american chestnuts as a starting point would have saved literally a century in the breeding efforts.

Learning from this occurrence, the trees will be left unprotected for the improbability that the genetic information of any tree contains what is needed to ward off, pitch out or otherwise defend itself from the borer. Most likely I will have enough heating fuel for a few winters and enough carbon in need of processing that I will finally be able to justify buying a wood shredder.

An exception will be for the monster ash tree that I find so aesthetically pleasing at its location on the crest of a hill overlooking the Shenandoah Valley floor:



This post is a follow up to: I discovered a severe emerald ash borer infestation near Washington DC


I discovered a severe emerald ash borer infestation near Washington DC

It started with a visit to my friends house for the normal activity of watching hockey and sampling my latest homebrew. A tree had fallen across a neighbors fence and I was the extra body required to retrieve the tree back onto the property. Upon inspecting the base of the tree where the break had occurred, something wasn’t right.

The tree broke cleanly…extremely cleanly. Have you ever dropped a glass bottle and had the resulting shatter left the bottom almost perfectly intact? That was similar to the manner in which this tree fell. If there hadn’t been some chunks irregularly distributed across the break, it could have passed for a sawn tree.

It was a young but mature white ash tree with a Diameter at Breast Height (DBH) of about 4”. Alarmingly in the tiny sliver of forest that had thus far survived urban sprawl, nearly the entire canopy was also white ash. As were two large trees right next to the house.

About this time is when I noticed the tree closest to the house had an extraordinary split in the bark. It was almost cartoonish like when an animated character flexes and rips his shirt. See for yourself:


Underneath of the split bark were so many insect tracks that the phloem and cambium of the tree was almost uniformly absent:



An arborist came, confirmed the suspicion and immediately took down the tree before its now extremely brittle structural wood had a chance to fall onto the house. They are also in the process of cutting down the entire forest.

Majority if the over story was ash and most on that property has been cleared. You can see the remaining dead trees to the right of the frame:


Now that this destructive pest is within 100 miles of my farm, the need to formulate a plan to protect the forests and pasture that is primarily white ash. Stay tuned for that plan!


Pleasant surprise

It should be apparent by now that I have an unreasonable love of trees. My girlfriend, usually the recipient of unwanted tree knowledge and rants, sent some pictures asking for a tree ID stating that they were everywhere along the hiking trail:



Immediately, I knew what the tree was resulting in unreasonable excitement due to my unreasonable love of trees. After all, my favorite tree that can still be found in the wild commonly forms understory colonies which is the case here. Truth be told I’ve never found a specimen in the wild; only what forestry teachers led us to for instruction.

An aside: my favorite tree on the planet is and forever will be the American Chestnut.

It is the Asiminia triloba, commonly known as the Pawpaw! 

What an amazing and unique tree! It is the largest fruit native to the United States and ranges east of the Great Plains. What makes it so unique is the texture and flavor of the fruit. Both are described with the dominant characteristic of “overripe banana”. It is like custard with each tree having a different tropical flavor influence. Pineapple and mango are two of the flavors produced by bred trees. I’ve even read one theory that the trees originate from when the eastern US was tropical and were able to adapt or evolve with the changes in climactic conditions.

Here is a picture of the fruit pulled from wikipedia:

Chilled Pawpaw was a favorite dessert of George Washington. He, Thomas Jefferson and George Mason cultivated them in their vast individual orchards and gardens.

Most importantly, the bare root Pawpaws I planted this spring are leafing out!




Why I love and collect animal poop (stratification and scarification of tree seeds)

Stratification is applying winter conditions to tree seeds to break the dormancy of the embryo. Typically completed by layering seeds within moist soil and subjecting them to cold temperatures for a specified amount of time, the term was coined in the 1664 publication Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber available for free here. The book is in the public domain but I have not yet been able to dive in fully. However this process does not explain my love for seed-laden animal scat.

Scarification is another phenomenon many tree seeds need to undergo in order to germinate. In nature this is typically accomplished by fire, microbial life or by exposure to the acids in an animal’s digestive tract. The last of those examples is why I enjoy finding fox or coyote (unconfirmed presence but wouldn’t be surprising), possum, raccoon or deer scat containing persimmon trees. Seeds in scat can be immediately planted while nature provides the stratification.

Otherwise, seeds need to be scarified in any number of ways. Mechanical scarification is the act of sanding, filing, etc the outer layer of seeds making them permeable. Chemical scarification like subjecting seeds to solutions in extreme pH levels (acid or base) can yield similar results. Lastly exposing seeds to hot water is also effective. However they need to be planted immediately as seeds are unstable after this process!

There was a nice mound of small canine scat in front of my garden bed. Maybe the animal was attracted by mice who had made homes in my composting manure layers? I hope it is still there when the snow melts!

Forestry, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

Silvopasture Tree Species: Persimmon (Diospyros spp.)

There is another tree species that is dominant in my pasture: the native persimmon Diospyros virginiana. Every wild species from opossums to deer to canines to birds flock to these trees when the fruit falls. Currently, the base of all my existing persimmon trees have the snow dug out by deer because most of their other food is under an foot of crusted snow.


J Russel Smith in Tree Crops (1929) (pp 99-100, 303) outlines 5 main points in favor of persimmon trees being grown as tree crops:

  1. Little preference to soil structure
  2. Little preference to soil fertility
  3. Length of Fruiting season (Late August to February)
  4. Automatic storage, most fruits are held until after the first frost when animals generally have switched to stored feeds
  5. Most nutritious fruit grown in the Eastern US at time of publication (Shown below)


To demonstrate point 3, here are my persimmons photographed on the first of March still bearing fruit.


Persimmons have a few drawbacks as well. Its slow growth and deep root system yields expensive nursery production and difficulty in transplanting. However livestock seem to have a distaste for the persimmon leaves which allow them to grow without protection or interruption of pasture activities. Each livestock animal loves to eat the fruit though!

For now, I will be collecting persimmon seeds for planting into deep containers to provide rootstock for grafting. Once they are grown, I will graft either the best native trees in my pasture, or experiment with grafting other varieties or species of persimmon. To conclude, here is my youngest stand of persimmon. The most prolific bearers will likely be cloned for additional fodder trees.


Forestry, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

Sustainable Sugar Source? The Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)

Since I started researching the practice of silvopasture, the Honey Locust has become one of my favorite plants. Some of the amazing properties: good burning wood fuel, mildly rot-resistant lumber, food for humans and animals, fast growing, nitrogen fixing, erosion control and many more advantageous properties. At least in the plants that existed in 1929, the bean pod fruit of honey locust has a higher sugar content than any other plant, produces more heavily and requires very little labor. J Russel Smith says it best in his 1929 book Tree Crops (warning: large PDF):

Several generations of Caucasian Americans have called
the sugar maple the “sugar tree.” It had been done before
by countless generations of American Indians. Rare indeed is
the person who will not say that maple syrup and maple sugar
are delicious.
The sugar maple is a fine tree. Its spring sap has from 3 to 6
per cent. of sugar. It grows over a wide area of cold, rough,
upland country with a poor agricultural surface and in some
cases a poorer agricultural climate. Possibly plant breeding
could do with the maple wonders similar to those it has
already done with the sugar beet—namely raise its sugar
content several fold in a century and a quarter.
But why wait? Behold the honey locust! Look at Figs.
34 and 36! There is a wild tree, native, hardy, prolific, and
yielding beans more than a foot long.
The beans from some of these unimproved and unappreciated
wildlings carry 29 per cent. of sugar. This is equal to
the best sugar beets and more than the yield of the richest
crops of sugar cane. This, too, after man has been struggling
with the sugar cane for centuries.
And Mr. Secretary of Agriculture Jardine tells me that
his department has no time for such new things as honey
locusts, that they are busy with the bugs and bites and blights
of crops already established. Such is the scientific side of this
Who will apply science and horse sense to this wonderful
bean tree, which may hold a hundred thousand gullying hills
with its roots while its tops manufacture the world’s sugar
without the arduous toil of women and children on hands and
knees pulling weeds from among the pesky little beets?
Consider the history of the sugar beet, and it seems perfectly
reasonable to picture, fifty years hence, a thousand mountain
farm wagons hauling locust beans down to the sugar factory
in some Carolina valley.
This sugar factory should also sell thousands of tons of cow
feed, rich in protein and having enough molasses left in it to
make the cows fight for it.


Forestry, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

Silvopasture Tree Species: Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)

Many nasty, thorny specimens of Honey Locust grow wild in my pasture already so the many agricultural uses of this tree have gotten me quite excited.

Nitrogen Fixation

First off, Gleditsia triacanthos is a leguminous tree meaning it fixes nitrogen into the soil from the atmosphere. Most legumes complete this process through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria performed through root nodules. But wait, honey locust does not have root nodules and thus cannot fixate nitrogen?

That has been the scientific consensus since the lack of root nodules on these trees was documented. However much evidence is being made apparent that even non-nodulating legumes fix nitrogen via a process that is not yet understood. It is actually a very controversial subject that has been fun to track. This 1996 Honey Locust Newsletter from the University of Virginia department of agroforestry documents the first scientific dispute to the idea that non nodulating legumes cannot fix nitrogen. Summarized, Jim Bryan in his 1995 doctoral dissertation at Yale’s Forestry department found evidence that Honey Locust (among many other non-nodulating legumes) fix nitrogen. His finding were confirmed in this 2006 issue of the same publication,

Direct evidence was also noted that Honey Locusts fix nitrogen in this laughably expensive source.

Honeylocust leaves and seeds contain more nitrogen than they should. Even higher than nodulating legumes at the same site (another paywalled source) which brings me to the next point.

Leaf Drop

Honey locust leaves are high in nitrogen and their small size means they are quickly broken down then incorporated into soils providing an improvement.  Similarly the


of Gleditsia is one that minimizes the shading of pasture and resulting decrease in growth of pasture grasses. The same small leaflets and open form of the tree provide some shade that cools the pasture and lessens water loss from evaporation without blocking all light. The following image shows a tree nearing maturity and the tendency for grasses to grow right up to the trunk.

Fruit Bearing

Honey locust is a regular bearer and rarely fails to crop for a year. In fact, every second year the fruit yield is massively increased. The tree produces from the age of 3 to the age of 100 years old (Source). Average annual production for 9-10 year old ‘Millwood’ and ‘Calhoun’ cultivars was 59kg according to a 1940s Auburn University study (source). Pigs, birds, goats sheep and cattle all relish honeylocust pods but sheep and [maybe] goats are the only animals to fully digest them. The large size of the pods makes them very easy to gather and they reportedly store identically to grains. Livestock that cannot fully digest the pods will disperse the beans via manure.

With some processing, sugar is easily extractable from the pods for use in food, beverages and fermentation. The waste of this processing is molasses rich fodder for livestock.


Sprouts from undigested beans in undesirable locations can easily be moved as honey locust is easily transplanted. Root suckers and grafts are both well suited to this tree and clone the genes of the parents tree. So heavy producers can be cloned for the rest of the pasture. Honey Locust leaves and the soft thorns of young plants are also a great food source for grazers. Direct browsing or cut and carry of leaf filled branches utilize unwanted saplings. Additionally the tree grows very fast and produces early (3 years after planting).

The roots and form of the tree also contribute significantly to eliminating soil erosion from precipitation and wind. Similarly, North-South rows of the trees are effective windbreaks in pastures. Honey Locusts are well adapted to even the poorest and rockiest soils.

Bottom Line

Soils classified as rocky outcrop are extremely well suited for the honey locust trees. As the goal of my pasture management is to build soil quantity over the exposed limestone, the roots will help hold soils in place as they are build and the leaf litter will supply nitrogen-rich biomass. Over 100 pounds of fodder loved by my livestock that is dropped by each tree is a bonus that negates any negative effect the shading of the trees has on pasture grasses. Lastly, if the trees don’t work out for whatever reason, I have hard high-quality timber to harvest.

The pasture is full of these trees already and I have personally watched deer devour the bean pods. It is already a perfect fit without any management efforts.

Forestry, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

Tree Crops, A Permanent Agriculture – best find yet in the public domain

Tree Crops by J. Russel is a fantastic book and available for free as the copyright has expired.

J. Russel was so ahead of his time as the book was published in 1929. His thinking aligns with my goals so much that he has moved into my top 3 list of deceased people with whom I would like to have a drink. Grafting trees is fascinating and I wanted to dedicate a portion of my garden to growing my own root stock. This book is invaluable in providing the guidance I need to determine which trees to propagate for myself and my animals.

Keep in mind that the publication of 1929 predates the Dust Bowl Era in the united states and Russel’s main argument is that tilling land is destroying our soils through erosion. His right to a “told ya so” is possible the greatest depressing one in the history of ecology and agriculture. By extensive travelling all over the world, Russel noted two main points:

  1. Tilling land is arguably permissible in flat terrain with absolute perfect and consistent weather scenarios but has been dangerously adapted to sloped terrain or regions with inconsistent precipitation resulting in every precipitation event washing away topsoil leading to deep gullies.
  2. Observing throughout the world that areas with staple diets of tree crops have the least erosion and are the most sustainable farming model through all of recorded history.

He goes on to list many viable species that begs for experimentation in hybridization. However he notes figures of production by the genetically unaltered native parent trees, even averaging all qualities of specimens in entire countries. Economies developed around sustainable agroforestry of chestnut trees in Spain and France, Carob trees in Hawaii and the Mediterranean nations, etc. are compared to corn economies in different US regions. Spoiler alert: the tree-based economies win by a landslide. He argues that research in to breeding hybrids with more variety like every other crop in human history would only increase the viability, profitability and value of tree crops. Also noted is the need to develop mechanized post-harvest processing equipment to add even more economic potential to tree crops.

Tree Crops can be summarized as a collection of observations and anecdotal evidence as well as private orchard data Russel compiled after being continuously rejected in his pleas for experimentation, research and funding from the US Department of Agriculture and other agricultural entities. He seems to have a bone to pick with Secretary of Agriculture Jardine as he continuously responded to J Russel’s request for science by saying they need to devote all of their resources to existing crop diseases. The science presented in the book is solid such as noting that American farming practices are destroying soil 8 times fast than any other civilization in history or that Chestnuts in the mountains France and Spain outperform corn in the matching climate mountains of Appalachia.

I’m only a quarter through the book and wish I had more to learn from this author. I can’t imagine the anguish he went through when his unanswered pleas led to the dust bowl era or when the American Chestnuts of his childhood went all but extinct.

I plan to order 2 hardcopies, one to mark up then keep in my library forever and one to loan out.