Warm in January? Prune that rose!

It’s the warm week in January!  Quick!  You want to be outside, your roses are all sound asleep…  Prune them!

I call this Rose Pruning Week for exactly that reason:  your rose bush and everything else in your yard is ripe for the snipping.*  You can snip a little, you can snip a lot, it’s up to you.  There’s just one group that you should NOT snip this week:  do NOT prune your spring bloomers.  Azaleas and lilacs and magnolias and other spring blooming woody plants got their flowering outfits laid out last fall.  If you prune them now, they won’t replace the lost flower buds until this next fall, so you’ll miss a year’s bloom.  Spring bloomers get pruned after they are done blooming.

This is crap.  Don't prune at an angle- you'll let more moisture out and more disease in.

This is crap. Don’t prune at an angle- you’ll let more moisture out and more disease in.
Image from U. IL. Extension

There are three kinds of pruning:  shaping, maintenance, and rejuvenation.

Shaping is just nipping off the tips.  With my houseplant ficus trees, they keep trying to grow up, but my windows only go so high, so I prune off the terminal buds in general and especially the highest ones.  The terminal (end) buds usually get the lion’s share of the growth hormones, so with them gone, the axial (side) buds get a nice boost.  I end up with a fuller, thicker tree…. that fits in my window.

On less woody plants (begonias, geraniums, jades), this kind of pruning can be done with your fingers by pinching off the top growing bit, or sort of wiggle-snapping it.

Maintenance pruning can be thought of as “aggressive shaping”.  Here the goal is not just to encourage a particular sort of growth, but a particular sort of RE-growth.  You actually remove lengths of stem.  For sidewalk hedges, this means thinning out the top and pushing it back so you have more of a trapezoid than a rectangle, which lets the whole shrub receive sunlight.

For blackberries and lilacs and forsythia, this means removing some of the older “trunks” in order to let the younger ones take over (blackberries fruit on two year old wood, so don’t take the “not young but not old” stuff).  Yes, lilacs and forsythia are spring bloomers.  It’s your call on the lilacs.  On the forsythia, there are going to be so many blooms anyway, if you are itching to prune it mid-winter, go for it.

serrrate rose leaf margin

The leaves of rose family members have distinctive margins.

All three of those examples happen to be ones where you’re removing the oldest branches all the way down at the ground.  A different maintenance pruning example would be fruit trees.  Many of our favorite fruits are in the rose family, and that family is fairly susceptible to molds.  A great way to keep molds at bay is to improve air circulation, which has a nice side effect of also letting more light deeper into the tree.  With apple trees, the old rule of thumb is that you want to be able to throw a basketball through the tree.  Perhaps with cherries, quince and other smaller fruits, we can say tennis ball or baseball instead, but the gist is the same.

Rejuvenation pruning is not something every plant tolerates.  The older particular pieces of wood get, the less receptive they are to rejuvenation pruning.  In this snip-style, you take the whole thing to the ground (or a few inches above) and it resprouts with vigor and health.  This is great for forsythia gone wild, lilacs that have really dwindled, and all the decorative grasses.  Just like in coppicing, what comes back is generally very slender and straight at first, and then branches again later, higher up.   Fall (or late summer) raspberries fruit on one year old wood, so this is great for them.  Do you have a good mid-summer raspberry crop?  Those fruits are on 2nd year wood, so DON’T do this to them.

So there you have it: winter pruning for fall and summer bloomers.  Now go outside, enjoy the reprieve!  Winter will be back, whether you enjoyed this break or not.

*Yes, quite a few rose books will tell you to wait until bud swell or when the forsythia bloom or what not to prune the roses.  The assumption there is that it’ll be easier for you to see the buds and so prune to leave an “outer bud” as the top bud.  (a) That’s an aesthetic consideration relevant only to shrub roses and (b) you can see the freakin’ buds right now.  Look at that branch and tell me you can’t tell where the leaves are about to come out.  Of course you can.  

Great Plains Growers Conference: the journey there

sunrise essay new years
In order to get to the Great Plains Grower’s Conference on time, I got up at 4 am, left the house at 4.30.  To many people, this is a normal workday.  To me, in the winter, this is not normal.  Even in the summer, this hour is a little extreme.  I drove through the dark, undulating across the Plains. In Missouri, it was still dark, but enough starlight gave form to my constant companion:  the sudden escarpment that marks the edge of the mighty Missouri Rivers’s true claim upon the earth.

The Missouri River runs southeast here, and so do the bluffs, and so does the highway, so did I, and so does the state line.  The river came first.  Eventually, the sky before me relented, melting from black to navy blue, and dark steely clouds gained a faint mauve dusting.  Navy blue became royal, royal blue shifted to peach, to gold.  The clouds breathed in the mauve and swelled up, blushing crimson, then rose.

All the while, there I was riding the hills down into dark cocoons lit only by the headlamps, and up to spectacular views of silhouetted landscapes, bright snow sprinkled fields edged in black trees all dancing in the wind.  (Usually the hours around dawn are calm, but not this day.  This day a new pattern was pushing the cold before it, faster and colder.)

The drive is a metaphor for my life right now: I’m heading toward a gathering of people concerned about producing our food, I’m doing slightly absurd things to get there, and sometimes I can see the beautiful vastness of the life in front of me and sometimes I can’t.

Brené Brown speaks of the inability to numb ourselves selectively.  In my early morning road-trip metaphor, it’s the inability to selectively ride a road that only goes up.  Either your road is smooth and you avoid the valleys, or you accept the valleys and get the hills as reward.  I say that from within my car, in which hills are not effort and valleys cannot see the sky.  If you are a person who prefers the cool streams of the valleys and dislikes the upward trudge into the hot sun of the hillcrest, the metaphor still works, just in reverse.  You still need your hills to gather the water and frame the valley.

It’s January, a new year has dawned.  Many of us have not reached the climatic peak of the winter season (indeed, for the calendar addicted, winter is barely 20 days old), but we’re already gathering seed packets, plotting out our fields and garden, arranging and rearranging the fourth dimensional puzzle of plot size, frost dates, crop type, mature size, and days to harvest…

Behind me, in the dark of its own morning, there is a tray of lisianthus already developing a second set of leaves.  Midwinter decadence in the form of micro greens sleep in a tray of soil until the timer turns on the grow lights.   (I don’t have the room or lights for full size greens.)   Last week, as the wind threw snow against the windows, I flipped open seed catalogs, defiantly optimistic.  Spring is coming, dammit.

Earlier this morning, I remembered about not numbing myself, not walling off from the less excellent bits of life, as I braced myself against the wind while the gas tank filled and the overarching night hunkered down around the edges of the brightly lit station.  It was cold through my jeans and long johns, cold above my collar and under my hood.  It was deeply cold, but would only be for a few minutes, until I got back on the road.  I am lucky: I’m not a cow or an outside dog, a deer or a person with out a home or a fire.   Two minutes of blasting cold won’t hurt me.   I took a good breath and accepted the night.

Eventually, as I drove, the rose pink clouds and the golden sky mustered enough oomph that I crested a hill to be greeted by a flaming magenta stripe of clouds lit up from within; I whooped involuntarily, filled with the joy of the new day.  We live on a beautiful world.

Learning in the moment: my first vegan friend

social permaculture

Beautiful, but not vegan

I think I was offended the first time I bumped into a vegan dietary restriction with a friend. We were in our 20s and I had grown up vegetarian, making me the default winner of the most restrictive diet award everywhere I went.

Up in that pool hall, though, while drinking beers that we stashed on the windowsill between shots, Claudia said she couldn’t eat something with cheese on it and it was really the first time I’d been on that side of the exchange. When I was a kid and vegetarian in the early 1980s, there weren’t other vegetarians that I knew. Now, as an adult I was surprised at having the appetizer choices narrowed by somebody else- I’d always been inside the zone of narrowing before that moment. It pinched.

I can’t say as I “got it” instantly. Claudia hadn’t been vegan before, now she was, but we used to like nachos before, so why couldn’t we like them now? I was the very picture of puzzled intellectual (name that song…)

Claudia noticed the moment, too. “I’m surprised you’re surprised,” she said, “you’ve been vegetarian so long.” Other people had been on learning curves and adapting party food and camping meals to me and my diet (some brusque and dismissive, some curious and open), and now I was on the flip side of that: I could respond openly or close off.

I don’t actually remember what happened next. I assume we picked a more neutral appetizer (hummus or french fries or something) and continued playing pool. It was a great learning moment on two fronts: one, the particulars of that situation (oh hey, there are actually people who draw a more refined line around their food choices than I do) and two, the power of the moment. It’s that second one that I’m thinking about today.

All of the learning about personal and social issues that I’ve ever done happened in precise moments like this. Perhaps it took a string of precise moments to bump things forward meaningfully enough for other people to see any progress in my thinking and behavior, but each little bit added up, and each little bit was crucial to the whole.

There are some hard choices staring at us from our near future. You know the stats, you know the earth is warming, either you already know our current agricultural system is a major culprit or you’ve just read that string of words for the very first time right here. Which ever the case may be for you, it is what it is. We cannot keep going the way we’re going, we cannot keep eating the way we are eating.

Collectively, the industrialized countries need to reel in their meat consumption. We don’t need to all be vegan- that doesn’t make sense for Barrow, Alaska (at least until the world warms a heck of a lot more)- but there is a lot of room between never ever and 24-7. We do all need to learn how to talk about things with each other. Not how to “score points” or “win” an argument, just how to exchange ideas.

No, not even “ideas”. We need to learn how to exchange authenticities with each other. My authenticity and Claudia’s authenticity bumped into each other. We weren’t hindered by defenses or shame or fear. That was the crucial piece: she was real with me. I was real about my response. She was real about being surprised by my response. I was real with myself about my own experiences, and all of those things allowed me to see how this moment stepped outside that pattern.

I ask you to remember that: remember that the person in front of you will only think over a subject and come to a new place on a topic in the precise moment that they do. They won’t get there faster for you yelling or being condescending. Most of the time they won’t get there today, no matter how long you stay online pressing your point. They’ll get there when they are open to getting there. So is this discussion you are having opening them, or closing them down?

When we were farmers, our love of Earth was a talent

Peace on Earth

Peace on Earth by HeartStarkArt.org

When we were farmers, our love of the Earth was a talent.  It called forth in us skills of observation and attention. Farming bound groups together into  communities, communities into civilizations.  It also kept our group separate from other groups.  It kept us scared of crop failure and starvation, so it called forth from us a scarcity mentality, division, fear, and hatred. When we moved to cities, our Earth-love talents became unappreciated and we stopped seeing, even as our food sources were becoming ecological wastelands. We forgot about them in the excitement of getting to know other people. Far from totally free of earlier distrusts, we have still made huge strides down the road to acceptance of difference and great gains in our ability to separate our response to difference from our response to scarcity. Now we need to put the two back together. We need to become gardeners, and tend to our planet like we tend to our friendships, tend to our neighbors like we nurture our gardens. Uncovering our love for Earth will call up those talents and through renewed attention we can learn about the million little plants who’d be happy to feed us. We can create ecologies of our food sources and share this abundance this each other, all of us. In the abundance of natural bounty, the final walls of fear can come down.  We will know friendship in a way that the scarcity mind is unable to grasp. Peace on Earth.

Biodynamic Preps: why am I looking into these?

biodynamic preps 502-507 go into compost

Compost piles get hot from all the microbial activity. (image from Wikipedia)

Biodynamic agriculture is most tangibly distinguished from other beyond-organic farming methodologies by the use of the Preparations developed by Rudolph Steiner.  It didn’t used to be true that you had to use the preps in order to be certified biodynamic*, but that changed around 2012.  So the preps, which may or may not confer advantages to the farm, have become central in ways they weren’t before.

My personal favorite aspects of biodynamics are the consideration of the farm as a whole organism,  the attention to detail, and the attention given to fertility via making the best doggone compost possible.  There are 9 preps, 5 of which are to be added to the compost, 2 of which are to be applied in the field (one on the soil, on as a foliar spray) and a final one that can be used in either setting. Intriguingly, this last one is left out of most of the research trials I’ve seen.  No clue why.

The initial scan of research projects focused on biodynamic compost indicates increased microbial activity and a higher retained soil carbon level.  Good!  Good composting habits are crucial to creating ACTUAL fertility (applying plant soluble nitrogens to the soil is FAKE fertility).  The rub:  nobody quite knows why.  Yes, this is applying a mechanistic world view to a holistic farming practice, but hang with me here.

When you do an experiment, you have the thing you are trying to figure out (the variable) and the thing that is a known entity (the constant).  If the results of the plot with the variable differs from those of the plot with the constant, then there is something in there that is making a difference.  Scientists get all picayune with the details because they are trying to prove that the only thing that was consistent different across all the times they did it this way versus that way was in fact the variable being researched.

If all the shrubs with more leaves are also all the shrubs that are downhill and therefore have moister soil, then you can’t say that adding X to the soil around the shrubs is what’s making the difference because the moister soil is probably also a factor.  The research has to “isolate the variable”.

Which is what I’m still looking for in this research.  So pretend you are looking at a row of compost piles.  They are all horse poop and wood shavings from cleaning out the horse barn.  They are all on level ground, all get the same amount of sunlight, all the same size, all have the same wind exposure…  after a year of decay, they should all have all the same properties.  So we tested nothing.

Now pretend we starting over and this time we are going to add the biodynamic preparations to all but two of the piles.  Now we have variables (the preps) and two constants (the “plain” piles).  So any differences between the piles after a year ought to mean the preps did something, right?  But what if the difference is just the adding of ANYTHING at all?

We know that biodiversity matters.  It matters deeply, intricately, vibrantly.  Horse poop and woodshavings is not very biodiverse, so maybe only a few types of composting critters (microbes, fungi, earthworms, etc) are needed, but if you add anything at all (a loaf of bread), then the whatevers that breakdown bread suddenly have to show up, et voila, the pile with the bread has different results.

There are ways to control for this in an experiment.  The “we’re not adding anything” piles are known as “negative controls”, but we could have a “we’re adding something, just not the thing we are testing” pile and that would be a “positive control”.  So far, I haven’t found anybody testing with a positive control.

biodynamic preparation 500 cow horn with cow manure

Prep 500, pre fermentation. It’s not added to compost, but who can resist a proof-you’ve-been-playing-with-poop photo? (shot by Stefano Wines)

What would that look like anyway?  To really get it right and test for whether or not these biodynamic preparations positively impact the composting process, we’d have to make up a fake formula.  Luckily, they basically follow a pattern: animal bit + plant bit + fermentation process.  One of them has powdered quartz rock in place of the plant bit, and another is basically tea, and there are other variables, but if there’s a pattern, it’s that.

So a fake preparation (509, as it were, since the others are known as 500-508) would follow that pattern but not use the ingredients specified.  Horse hoof (the preps use no horse bits) and basil flowers (the preps use no other herbs from the Lamiaceae [mint] family), fermented underground for a season would be a “fake prep” or a “fake 509″.

Now if we add our official preps to all the piles except two, and add 509 to one, and nothing to the other, we’re closer to really finding out what those preps do, right?  Almost.  We’ve added increased biodiversity to our “positive control” pile, but the biodiversity of adding the 5 preps to the other piles is, obviously, higher than adding the one to the control pile.  And that’s where science becomes a pain in the ass.  To really do this right, you have to add one prep to each pile, plus a do-nothing control pile, plus a fake prep pile, plus a pile that is all the official preps together, and one with all the official preps plus the fake prep, and then maybe even some piles with various combinations of official and fake preps.

See?  That’s a lot of piles of horsepoop and woodshavings, and we’re still trying to keep them all the same, which gets trickier and trickier…  BUT!  I have good news.  They do not have these same European plants and animals in Brazil (at least, not natively) but they do have a Brazilian biodynamic association.  So the next question is, what do the Brazilian preps look like?  What does the research on the Brazilian biodynamic preparations reveal? ooooo.  I’m like a geek in a new library.

Community food systems and the #BlackLivesMatter movement

It is with gratitude that I am watching (and participating where possible) the 2nd Civil Rights Movement grow from the long running tragedies of police brutality and systemic racism.   I am 100% pro-this.  Our first Civil Rights Movement made important changes to the legality of most forms of discrimination: housing, education, voting, and ostensibly the physical occupation of space (who can walk on the sidewalk, who can sit where in the bus, who can go to trial).  Now there is a whole ‘nother level of work to be done, and while the problems are absolutely more wide spread than an overly simple A+B=C equation, beginning with the most flagrant violations of reasonableness makes sense.

So here I am, thinking about this issue and thinking I would like to do a blog post and how can I explain the intersectionality of my interests and this moment in history?  With gratitude, then, I received this article in an email from the US Green Building Council, talking about the role of racism (and classism) in where we allow environmental pollution to happen and/or persist.   Eddie Bautista gets it!  Asthma is higher in inner cities by accident, but we allow that accident to remain true due to racism.

The 2nd Civil Rights Movement is about exactly this level of “subtle”, hidden in plain sight pattern of the same people being asked to “put up with” stuff (pollution, housing standards, air quality problems, police brutality) that certain other groups would never be willing to put up with, never be asked to put up with.

Whether it’s Majora Carter‘s work with Sustainable South Bronx, or the notion of food sovereignty, the work at the intersection of community food systems and oppression is already underway.  Part of understanding that Black Lives Matter is understanding that people have a right to healthy food, a vibrant community, and an abundant , fertile, resilient, functional ecology.  Song birds.  Fruit trees.  Clean Air.  Neighbors that you know by name.   None of that is too much to ask, and asking for only some of that is asking for too little.  We all need it all.

Edible living room: a new slant on houseplants

fish pepper plant inside the house

My fish pepper, with baby pepper in tow.

I’m a houseplant nut.  I have a small forest inside all winter, and a veritable Streuobst on my porch all summer.  There are ficus trees and a ficus shrub, aloe, jade, spiderplants, snake tongue, schefflera, a smattering of dracena, begonias, flowering cactus…. you get the idea.

Mine is the sort of porch that receives mystery deliveries in the middle of the night from people who are moving and can’t take their large houseplants with them.  I also fetch them from death beside the dumpsters.  But change is in the air:  I’ve started to sell and otherwise “re-home” a number of plants.

Do I have fewer plants now than 6 months ago?  Yes, but though 12 left, there are several new ones already.  I dug up my favorite garden pepper and brought it in.  We’ll see how that goes- the garden is heavy clay.  I added some lighter soil, used a clay pot (for moisture balancing help) and threw an earthworm in, too.  Maybe the little guy can help me get that soil mixed and the pepper transitioned.

apartment farming grow ginger root

Ginger root, ready to sprout. Any day now.

I also bought a good looking bit of fresh ginger and popped it in some water to sprout.  I’m scouting around for a nice lemon tree (Meyer lemon or regular) and then maybe a kumquat or tangerine.   The aloe is already edible (and good for  tummy ache), and I’m hearing rumors about the jade plant.

So maybe this is a two way street- learning to grow the tropicals I love to eat as houseplants, and learning which classic houseplants I can eat.  It’ll take some taste testing, no doubt, but that’ll be part of the adventure.  What I know for sure is that it feels good to be expanding my apartment farming skills rather than waiting for the day when I have some actual land.

Grain Place Foods: farm visit to a local processor

Grain Place Foods in Marquette Nebraska

Mike Hammond of (and at) Grain Place Foods

Grain Place Foods in Marquette, Nebraska, has been a vocal advocate for the organic food movement since the 1970s, if not earlier.  Crucially, when Dave Vetter rejoined his father on the family farm 30+ years ago, he had a vision that is just as fresh and cutting edge and vital now as it was back then:  we need more mills to process organic grains.

It makes sense that Vetter got there before the rest of us: Marquette is a small town in Hall County, which is corn-behemoth Nebraska’s hot spot for high quality, high yield corn production.  Low and snug in the Platte River’s historic flood plain, Hall County was gifted deep, rich soils; a high water table; and one of few navigable rivers in Nebraska, making it able to get products to distant markets even before the railroads cut through the Plains.

Commodity farmers here rotate between corn and soy, with the adventurous few dipping into oats or wheat for a year here and there.   Unlike vegetable crops, which can go directly from the grower to the consumer, with perhaps a brief detour through a co-op or farmer’s market, commodity crops generally have to be processed somehow before humans can eat them.

The majority of the grains grown here get processed by the cattle that have swarmed the state (thanks to the drought, Texas has handed Nebraska the title to being the biggest beef production state in the US, and now slaughterhouses, feedlots, and CAFOs threaten the state’s water supplies every bit as much as the Keystone XL pipeline would.)  But even that which is targeted for direct human consumption needs to be sifted, cleaned, and perhaps rolled flat or milled into flour.   If you want your organic grains to become organic flours, they have to go through an organic mill.  This is where the Grain Place steps in.

The local food movement has focused on getting more people to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, which has meant setting up farmer’s markets and working with the produce departments at local co-ops and, increasingly, supermarket groceries.   Local eggs have joined this parade, and increasingly local meats, often grass-finished with no grains at all, have too.  But where are the local flours?  What about the local rice for the stir-fry?  The local barley for the soup?

I don’t mean to imply that Grain Place Foods is focused on local foods- they’re not.  With too few informed customers in their own backyard, they survived their early years exporting to Europe.  They still buy and sell nationally, making private label pet-bird foods and tasty flavored popcorns.   They do, however, highlight the clear next step in the maturation of the local foods movement: processing.  Even without grains, the bulk of what we grow cannot be stored long enough to make it through a winter without some sort of preservation effort, be it drying, freezing, canning, smoking, pickling, or what have you.  We need to improve our processing capacities, locally and regionally, if we are to truly develop resilient food systems.

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 landscape 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.