Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Permaculture Design - Zone 2

And now we come to the design of permaculture zone 2 about the HDT cottage, which is mostly about food production. Let's talk some long term strategy here, and then work backwards to the short term.  

Your correspondent has been mostly reading Jacke & Toensmeier's Edible Forest Gardens and Solomon's Gardening When It Counts. EFG is focused on perennials, and GWIC is about annual vegetables, but these guys are all about the plants, and only the plants, for food.

However, I sense, central Minnesota is near the northern and western limits for productive horticulture. J&T:
"You can most easily grow forest gardens where forest, especially deciduous forest, is the native vegetation. This means a climate with ample rainfall during the growing season and relatively mild winters. This book focuses on the lands now and formerly covered by the eatern deciduous forest between USDA plant hardiness zones 4 and 7...those of you in the north, say, zone 3 and colder, have more limited species options, but you can still play the game."
Marc Reisner's classic book Cadillac Desert begins with assertion that North America west of the 100th meridian is "a semidesert with a desert heart." Solomon considers the rainier part of North America to be east of the 98th meridian. 

We are in zone 3, in a mixed deciduous and evergreen forest, at 96.7 degrees west, and about five counties northwest of the region covered by J&T's book. According to the Minnesota DNR, we get 9-11 inches of rain during the growing season, and the forest here is strongly dominated by jack pine.  Montalban the carpenter tells me that jack pine is the hardiest of trees, the last ones up at the tree line, before the tundra. They sure smell nice in the morning these days.  Anyways: Tricky area for gardening. (On the plus side, one of this region's great cultural strengths is the ability to talk big, Paul Bunyan and whatnot, and that ought to count for something.)

Long before propane, people lived in climates colder even than Minnesota, but as I understand it, not by eating plants. It seems that as the winter gets colder and growing season shorter, there just isn't enough energy for the plants to produce much in the way of a yield that is edible by humans. But ruminant herbivores like bison and reindeer have complex digestive systems and can eat very rough vegetation, so it becomes more practical to let them do so, and then eat them, instead of knocking yourself out trying to garden the tundra. Hence the old-time strategy of herd following. Actually I am not aware of any culture that succeeded by gardening the tundra. As far as I know, all the really far northern people ate creatures from the sea.

I imagine though, that herd following confronts you very directly with sustainability. Your tribe must not out-populate the prey herd, duh. Human fertility must be limited, or you're done for. I further surmise that this was done through social mores/commandments/laws that most of us disco ducks would find draconian. Nobody likes to talk about this. See the book Mother Nature, by Sarah Hrdy, about the history and anthropology of motherhood, for insight. Put yourself in the position of the Leader of the Great Northern Tribe. You might have to set a penalty of banishment for killing the wrong deer.

Vegetarians often point out that meatatarianism is a lot less energy-efficient, for the simple reason that the animals need a lot of the energy in the plant food to live their own lives. It's not so bad if they're eating stuff like grass that you can't eat, but feeding them rich food like corn, which you could just as well eat yourself, to fatten them up faster, is a big waste of energy and of their fancy digestive systems. This is a good point.

But at this point I ask, is that entirely applicable in a cold climate?  Here is a diagram to show what I think is going on:  

In a warm and humid climate, you have a lot of options for growing edible plants, so you get a lot of leverage from doing so.  You can sustainably support a large population of vegetarians, a smaller population of carnivores, or some combination.  In a very cold climate you can't support nearly as many people and might actually be worse off trying to garden.  I suspect Minnesota is in between.  There is still some percentage in gardening and eating a vegetable diet, but not as much as in a warmer, wetter place.  This is a rather academic way of recognizing that there's a reason this area is a big hunting and fishing ground, and is not an entirely agricultural area.  We should take this into account in designing our permaculture food system in this region. 

As we learn in The Omnivore's Dilemma, we humans do not have the specialized digestive tracts of true carnivores, nor the multistage stomachs of specialist herbivores.  As a matter of biology, we can eat both meat, and some kinds of plants.

I wish I knew more about how the Lakota and the Ojibwe ate, around here, back in the day? I assume whatever they were doing was more sustainable than what we are doing, but how many people did that support, ballpark?

Let me say again, in this moment, I am thinking of the long term.  Seven generations from now,  even by optimistic estimates, only small and hard-to-get reserves of fossil fuel will remain.  By and large, the seventh generation from now will probably be a solar-powered civilization, as were ancient Rome and China. I think the tradeoffs shown in the diagram are most likely to be true even if some nuclear energy or biotechnology is available.  Such inputs would shift all three bubbles to a higher sustainable population, but I don't think they would change the general picture unless there was some truly miraculous breakthrough.  

Even a miraculous breakthrough on energy supply might not lead to a world we would wish on our descendants.  As Richard Heinberg points out in Peak Everything, we have already run the free-energy experiment in the oil age, with the discovery and mobilization of vast amounts of energy at 100 to 1 energy profit ratio.  This resulted in huge population increase, and an avalanche of cultural and scientific achievements unprecedented in history.  Motown Records is one of my favorites.  But that high population is now bumping up against limits on other ecosystem services for which we have no replacements.  Heinberg concludes that a vast new energy source would not help at this point, because it would only result in further degradation of the environment on which we vitally depend.  The 1971 novel Half Past Human imagined a future in which nuclear fusion has been mastered.  The world population is in the trillions, but they all live in underground cities so that the entire surface of the earth can be farmed by robots.  It's not an appealing vision.  People eat a lot of gruel, and never get to go skiing.

Therefore I suggest we plan for a future solar-powered civilization.  Something along the lines of Plan 9 from Limits to Growth.  Post-carbon visionaries expect that the impending lack of cheap transportation fuel will throw globalization into reverse - it just won't make any sense to ship chicken feed from Iowa to Japan, as depicted in the recent Cargill TV ad.  A grass-roots movement for relocalization, food security, and anti-consumerism arises, as we speak.

I would bet you a steak dinner that our Brainerd Lakes region here is a net importer of food, even when it's not tourist season.

So, all things considered, what would be the best long-term food strategy for this little cottage in central Minnesota?  As a general matter I would like to follow the forest-gardening route, meaning most of the food comes from perennial trees, shrubs, etc.  Research-wise this will make a nice comparison to the adjacent field which is undergoing soil building in preparation for annual cropping of the organic kind.  Let me turn to J&T:
"In North America, savanna communities form the transition between forests and grasslands at the northern and eastern edges of the Great Plains...savannas have continuous grass and forb cover in the herb layer, scattered shrub clumps in the woody understory, and tree cover between 25 and 40 percent.  ... Some computer models indicate that this vegetation type may expand as our global climate changes in the coming decades. ... Mimicking such an ecosystem should be relatively easy with such useful trees [oak & hickory] as models.  Alley cropping and silvopastoral systems that mix trees with annual crops or pastures are two examples."
Silvopasture or agrosilvopastoralism combines forestry and the grazing of domesticated animals in a mutually beneficial way, as Wikipedia puts it.  Some form of this sounds to me like the right thing to do in this region.  It dovetails with what I discussed above about the usefulness of animals in a cold climate, for processing human-inedible plants into yummy shish-kebab.

Let's talk about the plants first, then the animals, for our long-term situation, or what J&T call the "horizon habitat."  

Your correspondent is exasperated by gardening books which rave about the high percentage of your vegetables you can get from whatever method (not including staple foods.)  Well staples are by definition mainly what you need to live.  Sure the spinach and the carrots have vitamins galore, but if I don't get enough grams of carbohydrate, fat, and protein, I'm going to starve to death, and I was really hoping for died-laughing, mobbed-by-fans, or at least heart-attack-shoveling-snow.

Ahem.  Hence my interest in nut trees, which bear for many years and are good sources of oil and protein.  Good large-tree candidates for this area appear to be:
  • Whitebark pine Pinus albicaulis
  • Siberian stone pine Pinus cembra var. Sibirica
  • Limber pine Pinus flexilis
  • Korean nut pine Pinus Koraiensis
  • Bur oak Quercus macrocarpa
  • Silver maple Acer saccharinum
The Bur Oak and Silver Maple I believe are native.  The Korean nut pine is one of J&T's Top 100 species.

Hazelnuts are native and various berry bushes are also hardy here.  I haven't gotten very far in identifying candidates for understory plants, except for Groundnut (Apios Americana).  Does anybody know where we can get Groundnuts?

Let us now consider the animals for our ultimate agrosilvopasture.

As I understand it, the history of humans-eating-animals has basically followed a path of ever more intensive human management of the animal's life cycle, in pursuit of higher yield. Steps on the scale:
  1. Hunting of wild animals who eat wild plants
  2. Hunting of wild animals who are eating your cultivated plants
  3. Ranching of fenced-in animals who eat wild plants
  4. Pasturing of fenced-in animals who eat selected forage plants
  5. Factory-farming of boxed-in animals who eat prepared chow
Your correspondent is aware that the treatment of animals is a value judgment, and therefore political.  I observe that The Pope, and probably everyone to the left of him, is against this factory-farming.

This particular patch of ground under design is probably too small (1 acre) to support any large animals, but campus-wide (70 acres), no problem.  The nice thing about large animals is they can do some work around the 'stead too.  Rabbits might do nicely near the cottage.  

I have mixed feelings about chickens.  On the one hand, they are a well domesticated and understood species.  On the other hand, they are originally tropical forest dwellers, and are therefore kind of high-maintenance in Minnesota.  They need strong protection from the weather, and from dogs.  

It seems to me it might be better to eat the hardier native animals like deer and squirrel.  I'm drawn to something like level 2 on the animal management scale listed above.  I don't know the right word for this but I'm picturing something like beekeeping, where you provide nice habitat and plant forage, but the animals are otherwise free to do their thing, until hunting/harvest season.  When I describe this people usually call it "baiting" like it was a bad thing.  But I think you could also look at it as super-free-range ranching, I mean, there's no fence keeping them in.  This was actually one of the first things I thought about, from the point of view of turning a problem into a resource, since deer are such a plague to gardens.  This varmintkeeping may work better in the intermediate term than long, and is maybe better classified as a zone 4 thing than a zone 2.  

It will take several years for nut trees to get big enough to bear, and at least one year for the smaller perennial plants.  For the short term I envision a fertilized annual vegetable garden focusing on potatoes, along with hunting and fishing.  I think the overstory trees should be planted right away.  I see no reason to delay.  At savanna spacings there won't be a whole lot of them, so it should be possible to coddle each one of them with companion plants, starter fertilizer, and protective cages.

For the very short term I would put in a pantry and a root cellar, and start stocking up at the grocery store.

* * *

So far I have been talking generalities and working backward from the long-term to the short-term.  Let me now lay out specifics for the site, going forward from the present.  This is still somewhat of a laundry list of brainstorming ideas, and no visual aids yet.

Phase 1 (by 30 June 2008)

Soil testing
  • Compaction
  • Mineral
  • Life
Mulch depot on trailer site - L-shaped trellis to block view from drive (E and N)
PV array on trailer site.

Earthworks & irrigation
  • Decommission west side parking
  • Chisel plowing
  • Mounds and miniponds, clay lining
  • Berms and swales?, clay lining
Crater rescue
  • Fill/shallow?
  • Warm microclimate N side
  • Redirect runoff from driveway
  • Terrace?
  • Pond? (Koi, Firefighting)
Annual and Perennial plantings
  • Experiment split plots.  Different mulches, amendments, tillage
  • Spread out berm?
  • Plant fruit trees on berm?
  • Drivable ground cover in forklift exclusion zone - Dandelions, Clover
  • Mulch garden, over drainfield
  • Vegetable garden /annual crops, between drainfield and forklift exclusion zone.  Potatoes, corn, field peas, soybeans, flax, buckwheat, oats, squash, amaranth, lambs quarters, sweet alyssum.
  • Forest Garden, west field (perennials)
  • Tree layer: Nut pines, Bur oaks, Silver maple
  • Shrub layer: Hazelnuts, Berries
  • Herb layer: Prairie stuff, wild strawberry
  • Ground layer: Groundnuts
  • Mushroom logs, N side of cottage
  • Sunflowers bordering driveway, turnaround, mulch depot, skycrapper, pad 3
  • Perimeter hedge to keep deer out of forest garden - brambliferous berry bushes
  • Soil building perennials elsewhere, esp. pad 3.
  • Preliminary garden path design laid out in straw.  Keyhole beds.
Phase 2 (by 23 Sept 2008)
  • Implement plantings
  • Power from existing small wind turbine

1 comment:

Anthony said...

Im doing what youre doing in Alexandria, MN. I would highly suggest a large high tunnel hoophouse or dome greenhouse so you can grow some trees otherwise too fragile for our climate.

I like your idea of ultra free range ranching too!

You could always have goats or a minature jersey cow for good quality storable butter. Chickens in a greenhouse work well too.

I like the use of the pines in permaculture, have you found some good ones locally? I had such bad luck buying them online, and really only had success with the local trees I bought. If you buy online, make sure they arent bareroot - Ive had nothing but problems.

Good luck man! My stuff is on