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Yikes! Kind of scared to plant Black Locust!

 
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Getting ready to restore 3/4 acre of old pasture this spring, which is surrounded by 40 year old forest. I was intending on planting black locust to help the soil, but am a little gun shy after reading some posts on permies! Some serious regrets from people due to suckering to the point of being invasive.

Looking for some more thoughts from people?  I have a huge supply of seed from a seed program which should germinate fine to get some seedings going indoors.

Any insight appreciated, thanks!

edit: all the birch is now down since this photo was taken
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Pasture
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pollinator
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Before I could answer this, I would need to know more.

Where are you located?

What are the soil and water conditions of the area to be planted?

What is the purpose of the planting? How do you foresee using this in the future?

You removed birch from the planting area. Why? Disease? Or?
 
Michael Adams
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-zone 6b

-sandy loam-ish well drained soil

-purpose is for nitrogen fixation and possible help with deer control as it will be on forest edge in conjunction with solar electric fence

-removed birch to make room for 100' beds



 
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I would set aside an area for the BL, as they will spread from the roots to form a grove.   This area would be separate from your vegetable beds, and could be a wood-lot for posts/firewood and pasture.  BL's lose their thorns as they grow, so may not help much with deer.  I've found that cutting one down produces about 10 little seedlings suckering up from the roots (and that is in partial shade!).
 
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For me, black locust is a barely viable species. It sorta grows here, but it doesn't thrive, and it's not invasive.
 
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I planted one. Sulked for 2 years and died.
 
gardener
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In a post about native plant enthusiasm (link below) Paul said something that resonates with me in situations like this:

"But my thinking goes like this: It is a tree. If you don't like it, a chainsaw will fix your problem. It's not like you have to chase them. Nor does a 40 foot tall tree show up in the middle of the night."

Obviously, trees like black locust can sucker and spread, but even so, I think that some of these things can be well worth planting so long as they're not terribly invasive (how you define that is another topic). Around here I've seen locust trees that don't spread nearly as aggressively as their reputation suggests. Besides, the wood has many uses. So long as you tap into those either for yourself or marketing, you will probably be cutting it back fairly regularly as part of your system anyway.

https://permies.com/t/41008/dark-side-native-plant-enthusiasm
 
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I grew up in an area where BL thrives, but I never heard anybody complaining about it. Yes, when you cut one down it will sucker but so what? It's not like it grows overnight. Just visit once a year and decide if you want to keep it or not.
A good use for BL is a border or shade for roads and pasture.

Thanks
 
pollinator
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I had suckering with these, but it averages out more as a benefit than an annoyance.  Even the 90 year old tree that I had to rip away from my septic line only had a few dozen suckers spread out over 50 feet - snipped in 10 minutes if not wanted..
 
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Black locust is an interesting tree and seems to be brought up a ton in permaculture circles. In many ways that is justifiable but at the same time I feel that people can jump to it because it gets talked about a lot as opposed to it being the best option for their design.

Let's talk about the benefits of black locust.

- Fast growing
- Slow to decompose
- Nitrogen fixing
- Easily coppiced
- Sends up suckers (free trees)
- Edible flowers (other parts too?)
- Great for bees
- Provides shade
- Provides leaf litter (but very small leaves)
- Provides cover for birds and other wildlife
- High BTU so decent for firewood
- Young trees are thorny (good against deer though they still eat it some in my experience)

I'm sure I missed some advantages but this list can get us started.

But there are some disadvantages too:

- Slow to decompose (can be both)
- Sends up suckers (especially if cut)
- Not native (this will be debatable as a negative depending on view point) depending on where you are located.
- Young trees (and suckers) are thorny
- According to USDA it is classified as a low to medium nitrogen fixer (amount per acre fixed)

Now let's look at the benefits again and see which ones are fairly universal to trees not just black locust.

- Provides shade
- Provides leaf litter
- Provides cover for birds and other wildlife

So that leaves us with 8 benefits and 5 disadvantages. Makes the black locust look fairly good! Especially since the question about native or not depends on you view point and location since it is native back east.

But it really comes down to what you are going to use it for. Being a nitrogen fixer is great but let's compare that to say red alder which is native to my area but there are lots of other species of alder - I'm just familiar with red alder.

- Fast growing
- Quick to decompose
- Nitrogen fixing (medium to high according to USDA)
- Does not sucker
- Provides leaf litter (medium sized leaves)

Comparing these 2 trees I see 2 very different uses. The alder is fantastic for building soil since it decomposes quickly and fixes nitrogen. If you let an alder grow and cut it down the branches, logs, and leaves will all break down very quickly building great soil.

The black locust on the other hand does not breakdown quickly so you get some benefit from nitrogen fixing and the leaves but the leaves are fairly small and don't make a great mulch (I have 2 large trees next to my driveway and the leaves never build up much of a mulch layer). But it is fantastic for building with especially fence posts and decent for firewood. But I would not focus on it if all I wanted it for was soil building. Other nitrogen fixing trees like alder will likely work better.

If I was starting a new food forest I would want a lot of trees like red alder. These would grow, fix nitrogen, drop leaves and branches, and help build the soil. Then 5 to 10 years in I would cut most of them down and chop-and-drop them and perhaps build hugel beds. More productive trees like fruit trees would take their place.

In that situation, black locust would not be as good unless I was wanting rot resistant wood or good fire wood. But getting wood for those uses would come at the cost of poorer soil building. So in a food forest design I would only include a few black locust that would just meet my rot resistant wood or fire wood need and coppice them on a regular cycle. Trees like alder would make up the base of my soil building efforts.

Any black locust shoots that showed up would just get cut down if they were located where I did not want them but since it would only be a few trees this would not be awful. I think where people get in trouble is if they plant a lot of them and don't make the time to manage the shoots when they coppice them. The shoots can grow very fast and if you wait a year or more to manage them you could have a bit of work.

Bit of a long post but my main point is look at the benefits and costs that the plant brings. Look at what functions / uses you need. Then ask the question does this tree or other plant provide what I need without having costs I don't want to deal with. If the primary role is to build soil then black locust is not bad but not the best. But if you also need fire wood and you also need fence posts then black locust is great.

Just don't use a tree or any plant just because it gets talked about a lot. Use it because it serves a role you need to make your place abundant.
 
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Michael,

I think that BL is one of those plants that are either highly advantageous or highly troublesome depending on ones goals and objectives.  Around me, BL (Southern Illinois, zone 6b) grows like mad. I find it all over my property.  For my purposes, BL is a terrible nuisance, mainly because of its wicked thorns.  I have a small tractor and I have had to do several tire repairs due to BL thorns poking through my tires.  To be clear, this was a diesel tractor with R4 industrial tires and not a riding mower, so in my case, I have no use for BL and wish it did not grow on my property.

On the other hand, I have a neighbor who loves BL for its strength as a building material and as a source of excellent firewood.  To boot, as a building material, the wood just will not rot like most other woods.  If you want to eventually harvest the BL wood, then this could be a great option.  But if you are planning on working near it, beware the highly aggressive thorns.

If it were me just looking for a tree to reclaim an empty patch of ground, I would personally think seriously about finding a hickory species to plant.  It grows fairly fast on questionable ground and produces an extremely strong, resilient wood that burns slow, hot and long.  If I just wanted to get trees growing and let them grow indefinitely, I would not plant a mono culture and instead look at planting a variety of trees, each with its own purpose.

I apologize if I made this issue more rather than less confusing complicated, but best of luck on your project and please keep us updated.

Eric
 
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hau Michael, first thing I'll address is that you want to put in 100 foot beds per your second post.

Building beds sounds to me like you want to grow vegetables in this space.
Putting in trees that will shade the space would be counter productive to your end goal wouldn't it?
Birch grow where there is ample water, so we know your land has the water for growing just about anything you want to grow.

If you are in an area that Black Locust grows naturally, then  you still should look at the better Nitrogen fixing plants, since you plan on growing vegetables, trees are not a great choice for this space.
If you need to build the soil, you want to use plants that are considered cover crops, these will grow, fix nitrogen via nodules then that nitrogen will become available for your desired plants when the cover crop is cut and used for mulch.
If you are growing trees, you aren't going to see the N benefits as quickly as you will see it from cover crop plants, and your microbiome isn't going to develop as quickly either.

If you need to have a newly planted fire wood producing area, then black or honey locust is indeed a good choice, since their suckering is well documented you know you will end up with groves of these trees for free over a ten year period you would have enough for coppice fire wood for the rest of your life.
The problem with such a wood lot is the amount of space such a wood lot will take up (that cleared area in your photos would all need to be fire wood trees for a consistent supply of wood for a wood stove.

Planning is going to be your main key element. What do you really want to produce in this newly cleared space? How much of this space will that actually take? How much work do you want to do over the next ten years for this space to make the production you expect from it?
Answering those questions is a major point of contention for most people who are just starting out.
Being honest with yourself is the other major point of contention for most first timers.
From that point on, decisions start becoming easier to make.

Redhawk
 
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I'm going to go out on a limb and post this from memory- always a dangerous thing,

Black locust I think is a seed that does not germinate without special treatment. --feed to a horse and plant the manure, or boil water and pour over the seeds-let sit till cool- remove the seeds that have swollen and do it again with the remainder. until you are tired or all the seeds are swollen- note , do not boil the seeds, that slightly hotter temperature will kill them

I plan to plant thornless honey locust, it is a forage crop for cattle-- black locust is a forage more for turkeys.

both black and honey locust are highly durable wood, and will outlast treated lumber in the ground, maybe outlast you.

Honey locust (probably black locust also) are of a class known as farmer's trees. At about 20-30/acre they will form a root network under the soil, as well as a taproot that mines deep minerals. This root network catches nutrients before they goes below root depth and brings them back as leaves, so any fertility you add to the soil stays there. Estimates of as much as 100% increase in crop or pasture, the low estimate is 50%. you can plant grass or crops right up to the base of the tree and they are not adversely affected.

 
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Yeah, I live in the heart of native black locust territory (Central KY near Appalachia), and I can say black locust is one of my favorite trees and one that is useful for a myriad of practical purposes.  I will tell you, it will not really repel deer. It only stay "thorny" (nothing compared to honey locust) while juvenile and then loses most of them.  Regardless, planted 6-8ft apart would make excellent living posts for any electric fence.  The suckers on black locust are great to have around because they can be cut for excellent posts and also firewood.  If you are not planning on utilizing the trees for anything but want the space open they might be too much.  They get quite tall also, around 50' here or more.  Here in Appalachia they are common but actually considered short-lived (20-30 years) and some think it's the proliferation of (an also native) parasitic shelf fungus that are on many trees.  Locust firewood is of course amazing.    
 
Michael Adams
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Wow, thank you to everybody for the thoughtful replies, there's nothing like having advice from direct experience! Its been extremely helpful to read these replies.

To answer some questions, first off to Dr. Redhawk:

- Yes, I definitely want to start with 50 and 100' beds this season. I should've been more clear in my original post. My thoughts were to plant locust on the edge of plot, to help with Ni affixation and also possible living/extra fence to go alongside electric deer fence on the perimeter. The suckering would perhaps be a benefit; we are off-grid and use wood stove heat so good firewood is always appreciated. Just behind this edge is 40 yo white spruce (can be seen in 2nd photo) on one side, and 60-70 yo white pine on the other. These trees wont be coming down for a few years, so I was thinking the BL could be started to help in the interim. I factored in the edge shade as it grows, but perhaps I was being too conservative as to what BL will put out. The intention for this particular plot is high density market garden beds, so every inch will count.

Another key point is that BL is nowhere to be found on my 200 acre plot, nor is it prevalent in my area. It does grow in certain places in my province, but not in abundance around here. However, red alder does. Great points, Daron. I do have various alders throughout the property, and it's evident what a terrific benefit they are to the soil and surrounding trees.

I think after reading these replies that I will stick to cover crops for the plot (which I was planning on doing this spring) alongside continued comfrey planting. The nice thing about this land is I have a few spots to experiment, so I would still like to see what a section of BL can do in regards to fencepost and firewood production. Of course any Ni spinoff is always great. This area will be offsite, approx 750m down the road where I think it will be suitable and relatively manageable.

Thanks again folks!!!
 
bob day
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I just wanted to clear up my post after checking the course video,   the black locust is not mentioned as a farmer's tree, (it is a different genus from honey locust which is an FT)  Again, Farmer's trees can double garden production according to Bill Mollison

I tried to verify the BL germination since it may be different from the recommended process for the FT seeds, and saw everything from a guy doing them at a rolling boil (he didn't show them actually sprouting) to just putting them in moist soil in the refrigerator)  I would likely try both, the refrigerator method and repeated treatment as I specified in the earlier post. But not the rolling boil of the utube guy.
 
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I look at the OPs pictures. They tell a lot. Everything is green. The trees look healthy. I see that and question why black lotus is needed.

Is it reasonable that the baseline is to do nothing, and work from there?

If nothing is needed, and this tree causes concern, don't plant the tree.

If there are side benefits (firewood,  fence posts) from the tree, the act of harvesting for that benefit will keep it in check.

Permaculture is not about specific plants, yet we tend to shift to specific plants. Many parts of the country will support (and thrive) orchards with minimal inputs. Water and a natural mulch may achieve 95%. Its what we do for that last 5% that is probably wasteful and not needed.

 
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Joseph Lofthouse wrote:For me, black locust is a barely viable species. It sorta grows here, but it doesn't thrive, and it's not invasive.



Same
 
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wayne fajkus wrote:I look at the OPs pictures. They tell a lot. Everything is green. The trees look healthy. I see that and question why black lotus is needed.



x2.  With black locust the first question I would ask is:

- how much work do I want to do?  If it's a small acreage near the house, black locust suckering can be kept in check with pruning 1-2 times a year.
- is my soil nitrogen limited?  If not, maybe the benefits of firewood and fence poles still justify planting black locust.  But if I don't need additional nitrogen in my soil, maybe black locust isn't worth the trouble.  

That said, I love them.  To me it's worth having one or two big ones just for the masses of white flowers crawling with bumblebees come mid-April.
 
Myrth Gardener
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bob day wrote:I'm going to go out on a limb and post this from memory- always a dangerous thing,

Black locust I think is a seed that does not germinate without special treatment. --feed to a horse and plant the manure, or boil water and pour over the seeds-let sit till cool- remove the seeds that have swollen and do it again with the remainder. until you are tired or all the seeds are swollen- note , do not boil the seeds, that slightly hotter temperature will kill them

I plan to plant thornless honey locust, it is a forage crop for cattle-- black locust is a forage more for turkeys.

both black and honey locust are highly durable wood, and will outlast treated lumber in the ground, maybe outlast you.

Honey locust (probably black locust also) are of a class known as farmer's trees. At about 20-30/acre they will form a root network under the soil, as well as a taproot that mines deep minerals. This root network catches nutrients before they goes below root depth and brings them back as leaves, so any fertility you add to the soil stays there. Estimates of as much as 100% increase in crop or pasture, the low estimate is 50%. you can plant grass or crops right up to the base of the tree and they are not adversely affected.



Not to be picky, but black locust is noted as toxic to horses. Cattle seem to be able to eat it without incident. At any rate, one would not want to feed them to horses in order to plant it in horse manure.
 
bob day
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sorry, I wasn't specific in my second post about that.  feeding to horses was something done with the farmer's tree  seeds for propagation, so feeding to horses would not apply to the black locust, but the boiling water technique likely will, although black locust propagation  was not directly referred to in the Mollison video, I got the specific techniques for black locust  from the internet in my second post, and even that was a bit ambiguous.  Thanks for that correction.
 
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Eric Hanson wrote:For my purposes, BL is a terrible nuisance, mainly because of its wicked thorns.  I have a small tractor and I have had to do several tire repairs due to BL thorns poking through my tires.  To be clear, this was a diesel tractor with R4 industrial tires and not a riding mower, so in my case, I have no use for BL and wish it did not grow on my property.



Are you talking about black locust or honey locust? I've never seen black locust thorns get very long. They look about like rose thorns, just a little bigger. I have never found them a nuisance but we have only couple of mature black locust trees. They might get bigger in other places, I don't know. Honey locust thorns are much more difficult to be around.
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honey-locust-thorn.jpeg
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Eric Hanson
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Rebecca,

It’s not impossible that what is being called black locust around here is in fact a different species, but whatever we have has a dark bark and 3 inch long wicked sharp and incredibly strong thorns.  When they scratch, they seem to irritate and leave behind welts on the skin unlike a rose thorn.

It is very hard and grows quickly, almost weed-like.  Those who burn it say it burns slow, long and hot so it does make a good firewood.

I would send a picture but presently I have no suitable examples.

Maybe this helps explain the difference between our experiences.

Eric
 
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Black locust has dark, rough bark, but the thorns are only on twigs and small branches, and only a half inch long. They are sharp, but strong and not likely to break off in flesh; more likely to break off of the branch whole.

Not sure what kind of tree you have. Honey locust has wicked huge thorns, but they are multiple branched clusters, not single thorns.
 
Eric Hanson
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Glen,  

I definitely have the wicked thorns and they can be in cluster.  I suppose I will have to find one and take a picture for more positive identification.  I probably have one along a fence post. When the weather clears up I will try to get a picture and post it.

Eric
 
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Eric Hanson wrote:
It’s not impossible that what is being called black locust around here is in fact a different species, but whatever we have has a dark bark and 3 inch long wicked sharp and incredibly strong thorns.



This really does not sound like black locust (robinia pseudoacacia).

Honey locust (gleditsia triacanthos) wood is similar to black locust with regard to burning and durability for posts etc.
 
Glenn Herbert
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If it is a species of locust, I think it has to be honey locust with the thorns you describe. Black locust is native here, while honey locust is not, so I have seldom seen a honey locust in the flesh (and fortunately never IN the flesh ).
 
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