Landscape behaviorism: maintenance of self and soil

"Liar" landscapes tell a fake truth to the passing participant.

Clear-cut forest landscape with roadside “liar lines”. Image by Joel Jacobsen

The operative landscape is as focused on behaviors as it is on objects. This behavioral focus is two fold: there is the behavior set we would normally call maintenance, i.e. is this a place that is mowed, burned, tilled, or abandoned? And then there is the behavior set induced in the typical person interacting with the site. Is that landscape participant awed, filled with reverence for the natural beauty, or delight in the resplendent abundance of their setting? Or is that person encouraged to ignore their surroundings, discard their litter wantonly, and turn a blind eye to the salt stricken spruces at the edge of the parking lot?

Common to both behavior sets is a capacity for cumulative impact. A hillside tilled every fall will be vulnerable to the eroding winds and melting snows. It is at risk of developing a till-pan, which is a layer of subsoil suddenly compact when everything above it has been fluffed and stirred and lost all structure. Such contrasting soil layers share neither water nor nutrients nor encourage root penetration by the plants above.

A landscape participant steeped in sites that demand to be ignored develops an ecological cataract, a blind spot in their interactions with the natural world. When you only see a cluster of trees from within your enclosed car, how can you know the scent of healthy leaf duff on a forest floor? And ignorant of the scents that signal vital new soil being created, how does a roadside ditch filled with standing, algal stuffed waters convey to you its distress?

A landscape that is not functional is not operative, which seems obvious, but more than that, a landscape which is not generative is not operative. If the maintenance procedure is a fundamentally destructive, either of that landscape or of the landscape participants, then that landscape is not operative either. We will not measure this in tiny little parcels.   There is nothing inherently evil in a small organic lawn, nor vitally wrong with tilling your garden plot. Our concern here is the larger mosaic, the interlocking pieces that aggregate over space and time.

Operative landscapes versus productive landscapes

We already know what we mean when we talk about productive landscapes: these landscapes are manipulated by humans with the intent of producing high yields of the target “crop”. This “crop” could be coal, could be beets, could be timber. This places the emphasis on the productive capacity. We measure, center pivot irrigation crop circles agricultural landscapeassess, and value our productive landscapes according to their ability to produce the target crop with the most efficient use of our labor and materials.

A sustainable farmer once explained to me that his true crop is soil, and the lettuce is just a nice side effect.  An operative landscape is one in which every crop, indeed every growing thing, is a sustainable crop.

An operative landscape is one in which human interaction is happening with the entire ecosystem that is in progress. There is never not an ecosystem in progress. Life is a dance and everything is a dancing partner. Whether we’re talking restoration agriculture, ecoagriculture, or restorative forestry, permaculture, biodynamics (possibly… I’m still exploring this one but like it better and better over time), or the daylighting of a stream, these are landscape scale interventions on par with the humility of the horse whisperer.

One of my favorite ecological texts is Supply-Side Sustainability by Allen, Tainter, and Hoekstra. In this book, the authors take trickle down theory, which was an unmitigated disaster economically, and place it in its proper context: ecology. It didn’t work economically because trickle down theory never accurately understood the mechanism or rather the fertile soil from which our abundance and prosperity actually arise.

When applied to ecology, trickle down works because we actually know from whence our abundance springs: the fertile soil, the clean rain, and the bright sunshine. If we take the care of our water, air, and soil as a baseline given in any equation, then the fundamental yardstick by which we measure, assess, and value a landscape’s productivity is already greatly healed.

Operative landscape theory asks us to go a step further and value the fundamental ecosystem in play.  Let’s use an orchard as our example. When measured for productivity based entirely upon the bushels of apples produced per acre, the health of the bees and the stream is not captured by that math, let alone the productivity of the ground plane, herbaceous layer, or any shrubs or vines.  Is that narrowness of focus a necessary given for an orchard?  No.

An orchard could fit one of several ecosystem premise models. We could consider it a fruiting forest, we could consider it a woods pasture akin to a variant on an oak savanna, or we could consider it an edible garden. Obviously, “an edible garden” is not actually an ecosystem, but I include it here as a placeholder for the social and cultural landscape. It’s an idea I’ll have to come back too and flush out further later.

A fruiting forest is a denser, shadier place than a standard orchard. The trees are closer together and at times form a contiguous canopy. Our apple trees are joined by other fruit varieties, tall nut trees, and shade appreciative berries like currants, wine berries, and elderberries.

sylvopastoral silvopastoral woodspasture

woods pasture (image from the FAO)

A woods pasture is a much more open place. These trees are further apart, and are joined by more sun loving plants such as grasses, which are grazed upon by livestock, or an abundance of raspberries, asparagus, rhubarb, and other perennial edibles in the shrubs and herbaceous layer zones.

The primary landscapes structure that distinguishes these two ecosystems is tree spacing. There will be further implications for the structure of the individual trees (it would be silly to grow dwarf apples in proximity to goats) but in neither case is the productivity of this orchard compromised when the overall biomass harvestable is measured. Only a measurement that focuses in on the production of a single type of fruiting crop sees these ecosystem mimics as problematic.

In an operative landscape, there is room for vibrant life: multiple abundances that support each other and sustain the community through out the year.

Beautiful, blooming, soil boosting tree

Chain of white Cladrastis blooms

Footlong “flower-sicles”

To say that a tree is only useful for its nitrogen-fixing capacity is still to call that tree quite useful in a gardener’s eyes. Add to that talent the rich, buttery yellow heartwood of the aptly named American yellowwood, plus a potential for some very interesting dyes, and foot long chains of white flowers in the early summer, and this becomes a cool tree indeed.

Naturally rare, Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentuckea) is native only to the limestone cliffs of Kentucky and its neighbors, but the tree is willing to grow in a huge range of soil types and pH balances. It even survives winters fairly north of “home”, making it a darling of landscape designers.  We like it all the more when we are tired of Zelkova (Yellowwood is similarly vase shaped and similarly mid-sized) and hoping for something less completely foreign to our ecology than laburnum. (Truth be told: Yellowwood won’t bloom for you every year. The years it blooms, it’s awesome, but other years it just rides the bench.)

See the pinched bark where the branches meet?  Half of this tree will fall in a storm.

See the pinched bark where the branches meet? Half of this tree will fall in a storm.

Yellowwood is cousin to my other favorite summer-herald, the black locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia). Unlike black locust, though, yellowwood is a medium to slow grower. You’d think with the extra time it takes, it could manage a decent branching angle, but alas. Beware the included bark, my friend, and too many branches from one juncture.

Like black locust, it burns fairly hot (locust still wins) and it’s willing to sprout from cuts, but that slowed growth rate makes it a poor coppice option.

More interesting to me is the urban potential for Yellowwood.  As increased species diversity becomes more and more the mandate for cities and towns across the country, Yellowwood has some interesting mix and match capacities with other popular “trees about town”.

cladrastis is alternately pinnately compound.

See how the leaflets trade turns? That’s unusual in a compound leaf.

The compound leaf and the seed pod both look like smaller versions of the Kentucky coffeetree (until you look close and realize the Yellowwood is alternately pinnate!) The smooth grey bark is less showy than the Zelkova’s but not out of range, and a very good pairing indeed with many beech varieties. The fall color is akin to that of hickory and other not-ostentacious yellows. In short, pick the season or experience where you want your uniformity, and let the rest of the year undulate in the spice-y variety of life.

Pawpaw blooms: hidden in plain sight

If I said there was a tree in bloom here with red, bell-shaped and nearly golf-ball sized flowers, you’d think you’d notice the tree from the road as you passed. Especially since the leaves are only just starting while most other trees here are nearing full summer canopy!  Alas, not only are pawpaw* (Asimina triloba) flowers a dark brick red (so dark many authors call them “lurid purple”), they face downward. They end up being very subtle, despite their size and the naked branches.

Asimina triloba blooms dark red

Pawpaw flowers

It’s such a strange strategy for a flower.  The only bloom close to it in color that I can think of is Carolina allspice  (Calycanthus floridus), which comes in closer to true summer, but faces upright and has a host of thin petals more akin to a very small spidermum flower.

So what’s that about? Who is the object of such a quirky attempt at seduction? A close whiff hints at carrion, so I’m thinking there’ll be flies to do the work.  Fortunately for humans, the scent of the pawpaw flower is so faint that I really have to lean in to get it at all.  In fact, many pawpaw enthusiasts hand-pollinate because the (flies? beetles?) don’t do the job very reliably.

So who would grow such a funky tree?  Pawpaw is North America’s largest native edible fruit.  It’s a member of the custard apple family, producing large-ish round or oblong fruits that turn brown and black when finally ripe (generally in September).  The flavor is akin to bananas but with hints of Continue reading

She’s back!

eatcology explores the intersections of agriculture, the environment, and designIt’s been a long while since I was able to post regularly, but it is my intention to return now. Never fear, the in-between has not at all been dull.

Briefly: I spent sometime as the landscape designer and land-use specialist at a civil engineering firm, then I lectured part-time for a year in the landscape architecture department of a local university, teaching studio courses to undergraduates, and simultaneous to that (and on-going now) I’ve been helping with research projects in the horticulture department of the same university. We’re working on organic production methodology, primarily of specialty cut flowers but also of some vegetable crops, in both high tunnel and field scenarios.

Even briefer version: wow! Awesome! Lovin’ it! Holy crap I need sleep!

One of the things that eatcology has been able to do for me is to focus my thinking, allowing me to align with my inner-happy place. Now that there’s some semblance of breathing room, I have all kinds of thinking to crystallize here.

There are changes coming for eatcology. I have plans and ideas for it that will be revealed over time. The first step is that I’d like to make this a more clearly multi-author setting. If you’ve a hankering to write about topics pertinent to operative landscapes, edible and medicinal plants, and/or the design of spaces and places (of any scale), please contact me at info(at)eatcology.com. Please remember that I have worked as an editor and am very good at it. If your writing is too precious for polishing, eatcology is not a good platform for you.

From Fencing to Fancy: the Hedgerow in your House

What if I said there was a hedgerow in your house?  Okay, there’s not, but it’s likely that you are familiar with the aesthetics born of longstanding cultural interactions with hedgerows and coppice lots.  Hedgerows are not boxy rows of squared off shrubbery; those victims of suburban plant harassment are just plain ol’ hedges.

laying hedgerows

This newly laid hedgerow will be a scruffy abundance in a decade.

Hedgerows are a line (or two) of trees that have been cut not-quite through while young and then bent over, and woven into / tied to their neighbors, a process known as “laying”.  The trees re-sprout, forming a dense network of branches.

Laying a hedgerow is hardly speedy work.  The farmers would spend the winter working on stretches of their fenceline (hedgerow) but would never have gotten to even a 10th of the farm’s hedgerows in a single winter.  After 10-20 years, the hedgerow trees have fully recovered and the fence is quite tall and vigorous but perhaps not as tight as it used to be.  By now the farmer has worked their way around to the starting spot and down goes the hedgerow again.

This is part that garners the most attention, this living line.  It’s what’s cut off, though, that wound up in your kitchen.  Known as “small wood”, what comes off a hedgerow is typically long, thin, straight, and rarely more than a few inches in diameter.

hedgerow small wood craft

Chairs, banisters, balustrades, table legs and braces: all small wood crafts.

Think of all the spindle backed chairs, all the banisters and balusters, the tool handles, window mullions, wooden spoons, wicker furniture…  Actually, I’m not sure about the wicker, but you get the idea.  Hedgerows begat a whole economy and culture.

Why were the effects so pervasive?  Because the hedgerows themselves were so pervasive, and so very much not controlled by any large organized entity.  Small wood based craft houses formed a cottage industry, each acquiring from the farmers the lengths and diameters suited to their particular creations, from picket fences to chair backs to axe handles.  From these craft houses, the hedgerows filtered out and into our homes.

We’ve largely lost the thatched roofs and the technique of bundling very similar diameter sticks into “logs” to produce an even burning cooking fire suitable for baking bread.  Even so, a lot of what Western civilization considers “normal” is influenced by these hedgerows and their brethren, the coppice lots.

Hedgerows gone wild: the Osage Orange

Osage Orange: Maclura pomifera. AKA "brain tree"

Osage Orange: Maclura pomifera.   AKA “brain tree”

Before there was barbed wire, there was Osage orange, a sturdy tree with comical “green brain” fruit and an intriguing orange strip in the furrows of the bark.  And thorns.  Tire flattening, predator thwarting, enthusiastically vicious thorns.  Those thorns helped change the landscape of the tallgrass prairies: before Osage orange became the hedgerow plant of choice, it was difficult to farm in Illinois what with all the livestock running amok.  (I exaggerate.)

With the advent of a self-renewing fence line that was durably “horse high, ox strong, and hog tight”, not only were livestock corralled in (or out) of specific fields, but the steady winds of the region were abated, changing snow drop patterns (it tends to drift into the leeward side of a windblock, meaning more moisture there when it melts) and providing some protection from late spring chills swirling down from the Arctic.

A significant number of these hedgerows died in the spate of unusually harsh winters of the 1880s (many of which still hold “Coldest Year” records).  They were not replaced because barbed wire had been invented (grows faster), thus the former hedgerow tree were demoted to fence posts (so durable it’s joked that the wire wears out first). By then, however, they were seeded into the region and endure today, showing up in wild lots and waysides.

Mulch on the Mind: Responding to “The Holistic Orchard” by Michael Phillips


I’m reading Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way
right now: great stuff!  He spoke at the MOSES conference a few years back and made it possible to dream again.  I love orchards, I love fruit trees and pruning, I love dappled shade, I love fruit.  I hate chemical sprays, and the abiding mantra out there is that organic apples can’t be done.

Yes they can!  Apparently the trick is to march right on past organic into the realm of holistic. Organic at this point (in the US, where it is a highly regulated word) means “no chemicals.”  It ought to mean respecting the overall system and healing the soil and what not, and for the majority of organic farmers it does, but we can’t seem to get there with the requirements.  Recently I read somebody trying to sell the idea that GMOs would mean fewer chemicals, but I’m not buying that noise, and I’m sure as heck not eating it.

Holistic, on the other hand, says ailments are symptoms and a healthy system can right itself.  It’s all about viewing the farm as an ecology (biodynamics does this nicely, too) and looking for the underlying weakness that needs support.

Favorite tidbit thus far: Ramial Mulch.

ramial mulch and ramial wood chips are the same thing

Didn’t know this was gold, eh?

Ray-whoo? Ray-mee-ell.  These are the skinny bits from the tips of deciduous hardwood trees.  “Skinny” = no more than about 2 ½ inches (6cm) across.

The crucial detail here is the ratio of lignin (the wood that is alive and actively Continue reading

From warming earth to the color of butter: why 40°F is so wonderous

Onion_Grass-by-Max-LeGranAs the snow melts, the soil warms.

As the soil warms, it becomes 40° Fahrenheit (and then warmer).

As the soil hits 40F, the bacteria that convert atmospheric nitrogen to plant soluble nitrogen wake up.

As those bacteria wake up, the soil is suddenly flush with new food for the plants.

As the plants eat, the plants start to green up again.  One of the earliest is grass (right there in the surface of the soil…).

As the plants green up, they become more nutritious and more tasty.

rotational-grazing-we-raise-grassAs the grazing animals (like cows) eat, they aim for the tastiest plants.

As the cows eat the spring grass, they get flush full of fresh nutrients.

As the cows get a healthier diet, they have more ability to produce fatty milk.

As milk gets fattier, it turns a golden hue.  (There’s some variance by breed.  Guernseys have the best reputation.)

The golder the milk, the golder the butter.

Ta-da!

In the winter it works in reverse.  Of course, if the cow is not eating green grass, the color of the milk never changes.  Since folks fresh off the farm in the 19th and 20th centuries knew that the brighter butter is better, the industrial scale butter makers (and cheese makers) started adding annatto, a seed, to change the color of butter and cheese.  They got a little carried away and now we all think bright orange cheese is normal.  All because of marketing departments wanting to imitate the color of +40° Fahrenheit.

Crane drain?

sandhill crane migration

Sandhill cranes in hiding.

(Reposted from last year.  I meant to be there this weekend, but alas, snow.)

I had it planned like a cat burglar: where would the Sandhill cranes be? when would they be where? how should I get there? when should I leave the house?  This was overkill.  It was like plotting out where in the city  I might find the rare and exotic pigeon.

I traveled out into the Sandhill crane flyway this week and realized I’d over thought it.  My first clue?  I pulled up at a highway rest stop to use the facilities and gather my bearings, and there were 30 or so in the farm field beside the rest stop.  Another twenty across the highway.

The migration paths of somewhere on the order of 500,000 cranes intersect for about a month every spring along the Platte River in central Nebraska.  The flat farm fields are littered with spilled Continue reading