I remember being flabbergasted the first time I heard about the pawpaw fruit. I’d lived my whole life in North America and had no idea about the existence of something called an "Indiana Banana”—apparently, it was growing quite prolifically on my continent.
The pawaw (Asimina triloba) is the largest edible fruit native to North America. It turns out, I never had the chance to taste one in Canada because they weren’t hardy to my zone, they don’t transport well, and they don’t keep well either. Pawpaws are unusually high in protein for a fruit. They’re custard-like, and taste like something between a mango, banana. and cantaloupe—too musky or fragrant for some but highly sought-after by others.
My fascination with this tree—though nurtured without a taste-test and over a great distance once I moved to Europe—led to my creating a seed distribution and research endeavor, simply called the Paw Paw Project. I partnered with Kentucky State University’s Pawpaw Program and managed to get free seeds distributed to thousands of people around the world.
Most gardeners have popped a squat once or twice in the garden, especially when going indoors was otherwise impractical.
Unbeknownst to many, however, this action enriches the soil with both macro- and micro-nutrients.
Vermont’s Rich Earth Institute recently made news with a pilot project to divert urine from the septic system to agricultural use, joining Germany, China, Sweden and many developing nations in experimenting with urine diversion and re-using human waste for practical and productive ends. This movement is broadly called "ecological sanitation.”
Mistletoe isn’t just one plant, rather a collection of hundreds of species of hemiparasitic plants—those that parasitize for water and nutrients but can still photosynthesize—in the Santalaceae, Misodendraceae and Loranthaceae families. Bundles of these odd tree-dwelling shrubs have long been a staple Christmas decoration, marking a spot for a kiss. However, the tradition of hanging mistletoe in the house around the time of the winter solstice goes back at least as far as Iron Age druidic customs on the British Isles, and the enduring association of mistletoe with midwinter has followed Europeans around the globe.
The structures analogous to roots in the fungal world are called hyphae, which form a network called mycelium. The interactions between plants and fungi are both expansive and poorly understood, but as ecological and agro-ecological scholarship interrogates these complex life webs, it becomes more and more apparent that cultivating with fungi in mind also benefits plant life.
Studies have shown that trees in a forest ecology use mycelial networks like an Internet to send chemical signals to one another about predation or environmental conditions, as well as to share nutrients. Insects, like bees, sip water from fungal mycelium to upregulate their immune response, giving them extra armour against colony collapse pathogens and pesticides. Around 90 percent of known plant species have some sort of specialised fungal symbiont intertwining with their roots, in an arrangement collectively referred to as a mycorrhizal association.
In the garden, fungal associations can be carefully cultivated with a little bit of knowledge and a lot of experimentation.
Pollinator decline is one of the most pressing global environmental issues facing our food system. It’s common to hear about honeybees (Apis mellifera) and issues like colony collapse disorder, but the decline of pollinators in general—including 20,000 other species of bee and creatures like beetles, wasps, butterflies, bats, moths and even monkeys—doesn’t make the headlines, despite the fact it’s been happening at least since the beginning of the 20th century.
Most people—even non-gardeners—have a vague idea about the process of nitrogen-fixation. This knowledge usually stems from hearing about planting clover to rejuvenate the soil in between rotations of crops. Clover is a classic "green manure” that acts against soil depletion, but it is merely one of many plants that can remediate worn-out earth.
Most—but not all—of these nitrogen-restorative plants are legumes, meaning they’re in the Fabaceae (pea) family. The nitrogen fixation they exhibit is a process whereby bacteria (called rhizobia) exist in a symbiotic relationship with the plant. The bacteria live in nodules on the plant’s roots and convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that is bioavailable.
Although these symbioses primarily exist on the roots of members of the aforementioned Fabaceae family, there are plants like alders (Alnus spp.), sea buckthorns (Hippophae spp.) and gunneras (Gunnera spp.) that also have symbioses with bacteria or cyanobacteria.
In Canada and the United States, about 45 million trees are cut down at the beginning of the Christmas season, only to spend a few weeks dying in someone’s living room. Many of those trees are cut from native pine and spruce stands, instead of being farmed.
In more progressive cities, these trees are recycled by being made into chip mulch or compost once kicked to the curb, but this is a stop-gap solution that doesn’t get to the root of the problem inherent in logging for seasonal decor. Such an enormous seasonal destruction of habitat—and waste of timber—constitutes an environmental disaster, the wastefulness of which is rarely mentioned in all the consumption-driven coziness of the season.
Trees, vines, and shrubs are focal points in any garden, but most backyard orchardists aren’t blessed with enough acreage to match their ambitions. It’s a constant fight to cram all those spectacular specimens spotted in the nursery into increasingly crowded plots, and to do it beautifully. The only solution to this conundrum is to efficiently use the only space remaining: Get ready to go vertical—and sculptural!
While art forms like topiary and bonsai are established ways of making living sculptures of ornamentals, there is also a world of possibilities in making fruiting plants into Axel Erlandson-esque works of art. It’s the perfect marriage of form and function.
An herb spiral is a compact, low-maintenance raised bed garden that works with what are called microclimates, small areas of cultivation that provide uniquely suitable conditions for carefully selected plants.
"Herbs” in the sense I’m referring to them comprise a culinary—not botanical—category. These are fragrant plants that have historically been used to season food, often containing essential oils with strong flavors and antimicrobial properties.
In ecological terms, a meadow is a biome nearly devoid of woody plants, favoring grasses and herbaceous plants instead. These sunny spaces are vital yet diminishing habitats, often traded in urban areas for monocultures of lawn grass.
Meadows and grasslands have an evolutionary relationship with grazing animals and human activities. Far from being pure, untouched biomes, the life of a meadow is contingent upon the removal—via grazing and browsing or clearing—of tall woody plants that would shade out the lower-growing life. Along with large herbivores, we humans have helped create an ecological niche that nourishes pollinators and provides habitat for an array of other creatures, especially birds and small mammals.
The New Year is the perfect time to start thinking about and planning next year’s garden, and if you’re planning on trying your hand at grafting next spring and summer, winter is the season to be tracking down scion wood for desirable cultivars.
Scion wood is basically a dormant limb from a tree that is used to propagate the same tree’s genetics on a new rootstock. These pieces are usually as thick as a pencil and about 6 inches long. The wood should come from a healthy, disease-free tree, and also from a cultivar that performs well in your bioregion.
Winter is the perfect time to think about pruning trees and shrubs, especially those that have been hit with disease during the growing season.
A common bacterial disease of pome fruits—including pears quince, apples, hawthorns and serviceberries—is fire blight. The bacterial pathogen—Erwinia amylovara—makes both branch and foliage look as if they have been burned, and young trees or new growth are especially vulnerable to infection and severe damage. Older trees can live with the disease but with reduced productivity.
I’ve often found myself staring down at a half-germinated seed in my apple, contemplating the potential contained in such a small kernel. Each and every one is a potential tree, but up until a few years ago in my garden, most of them ended up in the compost.
I started planting many of the seeds of from commercial fruit a few years ago, when looking to furnish my forest garden with a diversity of productive trees. What better place to start finding unique trees than inside of fruit already eaten and enjoyed?
Planting the seeds of commercial fruit is like playing the lottery: Because single cultivars of orchard trees need to be pollinated by another cultivar, each potential seedling will grow into a totally unique tree, with a new kind of fruit that incorporates the genetics of both parents.
Because I work mostly with trees and shrubs, I take inspiration primarily from the Edenic "food forest” concept in permaculture. However, in terms of vegetable gardening, I’ve learned much from emulating the French potager-style ornamental kitchen garden. In essence: I try to make food production look beautiful.
This means choosing the fruiting trees and shrubs with the most exuberant and unique blossoms, and the vegetables with the most interesting foliage and harvests. It also means training plants into aesthetically pleasing forms: Sometimes this can come at the cost of production, but compromise between these values is constant when working in a limited space.
This approach has benefits beyond the aesthetic: My garden is always buzzing with a diversity of pollinators and beneficial insects. It’s become a sort of agro-ecological habitat space, rather than a tilled field with rows of crops.