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How much weed and grasshopper stress can a Forest Garden tolerate?

 
Linda Ford
Posts: 32
Location: Southwestern New Mexico
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Hello, Anni. I hope to win your book but will surely need to get a copy either way. My first 2 questions are about how much natural stress can this type of garden tolerate or how much human intervention is required. The 3rd is about how to make the best use of a Hugle-hill.

I planted fruit trees last winter and have been adding other plants to build guilds as the year progressed. Where I live, in southern New Mexico, we have a dry spring and wet late summer which seems backwards for most food plants. But what that does mean is that I get lots of "weeds" all at once that seem to take over. I tried to keep them cut down right around the new plants (in their "wells") to allow light and used them to mulch, but there seems to be some question as to how much weeding I need to do. It appears that permaculture looks at the competition of plants differently than traditional, remove everything you didn't plant, rules. What is your recommendation?

Besides a visit by a marauding deer a couple of times when the gate was left open, the main predators have been bugs and grasshoppers. With an exceptionally wet year came exceptional numbers of both. I am concerned whether the trees can survive the defoliation. Since I am hoping for that "no work" garden, how aggressively do I need to go after these munchers? By next year there will be chickens rotating through these gardens to help keep the grasshopper numbers down but they will never get them all. Yet, there is no insecticidal soap out in nature and somehow fruit still grows. As this was the first summer, there wasn't much fruit production anyway. Just enough to tease my taste buds.

I started this project with berms/swales to capture and direct the rain water which seemed to work given the massive growth of the weeds. I also put in a couple of small Hugle-berms sunk about 3 feet into the ground and about 2 feet high. I put Jerusalem Artichokes on them planted on the top but they got droopy between rain storms so I felt they needed watering. My question on this is if it would be better to put these lower on the hillside or if they will develop a deep enough tap root beyond the tubers? It seemed like they needed the pile of dirt but perhaps my lack of gardening experience made an unnecessary assumption and they would do better nearer the wet wood.
 
Anni Kelsey
Posts: 25
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Hi Linda

Those are such good questions - they go to the heart of a lot of things.

As all gardens are different in so many ways, I think the best way to think about this is to consider the principles behind what we are doing (or not doing) and use them plus observation and experience to determine which way to go.

One of the fundamental things I was testing out as I did the research for the book was from Masanobu Fukuoka - was to follow the questions he asked himself - how about not doing this and not doing that? What I found was that a lot of the time I can leave the garden to just get on with growing, but there are some times when it is absolutely necessary to intervene. Our seasons are different to yours but I recognise your problem with a lot of weeds growing at a particular time of year. Here it is May - when the spring growth turns into an absolute riot and some plants start swamping others. I do deliberately let a lot of weeds (wild flowers) stay in the polycultures but even those I happily tolerate the rest of the year can get far too large at this time of year, plus it can change from one year to the next. Something that was okay one year is terrible the next. I used to find it a bit worrying when the garden exploded into such growth and think that I had missed the point or something. But what I have found is that for a few weeks from the middle of May to the start of June that there will be a lot of extra growth that I just have to take out, be it annual or perennial wild flowers (weeds) or whatever. After this point in the year the rate of growth is much less and most things manage to stay in balance. But not always.

It is neither an art nor a science, but a bit of both I think. Potentially and theoretically there is a composition of plants that could exist that would never need any work, but we are unlikely to be able to create this ourselves using only the plants we really want, or think we want. My answer is to watch things very carefully. Always to watch before intervening. As gardeners we love gardening, we love fiddling in the garden, it's enjoyable. But it's not always necessary, only sometimes. I wrote in the book about balance and give examples of how I have judged what to do and why. But it's an ever evolving balance. If your weeds are taking over then you have to deal with them or they will. That is what I do when something gets too "thuggish". As your perennials start to get bigger and more established they will be better able to stand up to the competition from the weeds. You could think about planting a ground cover that you know will not threaten the developing plants and will provide some additional benefits like flowers for insects. I can't suggest anything as I don't know your part of the world.

About the bugs and grasshoppers - they must be your equivalent of slugs and snails and caterpillars in our damp climate. Again, it's a matter of judgement. If the component parts to support an ecosystem are in place then a variety and balance of predators / prey should evolve in time. I have tried different approaches at different times. In part it's related to how important the plant is that is being attacked. I have not had a problem with any trees being under threat and I think I would be less tolerant of things that might kill one than of things that might kill a kale. There's a sliding scale of intervention from leaving completely alone to intervening in unhelpful / nasty ways with chemicals. I would try to work out what is the least intervention I could do that would make pretty sure that the tree / plant survived in the short term and do that. At the same time, I would watch very carefully what happened next. I guess your chickens will help a lot next year.

About the hugel bed and Jerusalem artichokes - I would put them lower down where they are going to be nearer the ground level. I have some growing on a raised bed and they are the first thing to wilt in dry weather.

In the end it's all about time and experience. But given that you are thinking about the best ways to deal with things, that is half the answer as well. You are right - it's a different approach to conventional gardening and on top of that every place is different. You will get to know your garden so well that in the not so distant future you will know all sorts of things you cannot even guess at right now. It doesn't matter all that much if something goes wrong, because some things always will. As gardeners we need to learn a lot about letting nature teach us what she knows.

Anni





 
Lisa Lebeau
Posts: 3
Location: Bitterroot Valley, MT
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Chickens and Guinea fowl are great for keeping weeds and bugs under control. But don't let them in the area where there are tender annual crops just starting or they will get gobbled up. It is great to let your poultry forage in mature vegetable gardens or in your perennial food forest. They will eat weed seeds, bugs, slugs and worms, and they will keep the area well protected and aerated. Muscovy ducks are wonderful grasshopper and fly control in the garden or food forest, and a very sustainable source of meat and eggs. The females are prolific layers and brooders to keep it going.
 
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