Permaculture in Practice: Use and Value Renewables

By now, perhaps you’ve read this article from NPR or a similar one: Recycling Plastic is Practically Impossible. From the article:

“Greenpeace found that no plastic — not even soda bottles, one of the most prolific items thrown into recycling bins — meets the threshold to be called “recyclable” according to standards set by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastic Economy Initiative. Plastic must have a recycling rate of 30% to reach that standard; no plastic has ever been recycled and reused close to that rate.

Read that again. Plastic is not recyclable. Oof. For those of us who take care to sort out our recyclables, this is hard news to swallow. I read this today and had to spend some time turning it over in my mind. What does this mean for each of us? What does it mean for the choices we make weekly on what to buy or not buy?


Another shocking statistic: the Wisconsin DNR has found that farm and maritime operations in the state “generate 20.4 million pounds of recyclable plastic wrap each year.”

“A 300-head dairy farm using plastic silage bags may produce as much as 6,000 pounds a year of waste plastic.”


A few days ago, I grabbed lunch with my friend Ben. Ben is an organic blueberry farmer in Southern Wisconsin. Ben’s little slice of heaven is on his family’s farm in a rural area which is surrounded by farms but also by rapidly approaching suburban housing developments.

Photo by Ben Lembrich

Ben is the type of farmer who is trying to do everything on his farm in the best way possible for the earth. His way of farming is labor intensive and slow-moving. Before he adopts a labor-saving technology, he carefully weighs the pros and cons of adopting it. It isn’t that he is anti-technology or anti-progress; it is that his background in environmental science means he understands that none of these technolgies are without cost.

For his first 5+ years farming, Ben did everything by hand, but this year he no longer could keep up. After much thought, he opted to add drip lines and weed barriers to the long rows of blueberries.

Photo by Ben Lembrich

How did Ben come to the decision?

  1. Weighing the Impact of Chemicals vs. Plastics. The blueberries on the farm are planted in mounds of pine straw which Ben collected and built into berms which he subsequently planted. In addition to acidifying the soil, the pine straw helps to keep the weeds down. But this year the weeds were still winning. Ben realized he’d either need to use chemical herbicides, hire a lot of people to weed, or invest in landscape fabric. Since he has worked hard for organic designation and isn’t yet profitable enough to hire labor, landscape fabric was the best choice of the options he had.
  2. Researching Recycling Opportunities. Ben was able to find a recycling facility for the landscape fabric he purchased. He did this before he purchased the fabric to ensure that his plastic would become part of that pool of less than 30% of plastic that does get recycled. He has a plan in place and knows what it will take to transport the fabric to the recycler when the day comes.
  3. Making a Pledge to Care for the Plastic. When we met last week, Ben was planning to spend the weekend removing the new landscape fabric. Why remove it after all of the time it took to install? We live in a harsh climate with cold, snowy winters and a lot of temperature changes. Plastic does not last long outdoors in this environment. By removing the fabric in the fall, storing it inside and replacing it each spring, Ben should be able to add a few more years of life to his landscape fabric, saving himself money and keeping it out of the recycling/garbage stream that much longer.

This last point is the one that got me really thinking about the “Use and Value Renewables” tenant of permaculture. What if the problem isn’t just that we need to value renewables more, but that we need to value plastics more? When we value something, we take care of it. We preserve it as long as we can. We think twice before buying it, because it often costs a little more.

Isn’t this how we should be thinking about plastics? Because, truly, they can be really amazing things. Plastics are light and can be durable. They are more difficult to break than their competitor glass. They can be formed more easily into complex shapes than wood or metal. They can be made in many colors and textures. In Ben’s story, there is no renewable material that will do as well at keeping weeds down as the landscape fabric,.

But plastics also persist in our environment for ever and ever and ever. So what if the answer isn’t to give them up but to use them more concientiously and deliberately than we often do? What if the answer is to value them more when we use them? To buy them conscientiously, take care of them and keep them for as long as possible to reduce their environmental impact?

Something to think about.

Garden Visitors of the Day: Busy as Bees

The bright greens, pinks, whites, and yellows of summer have given way to the muted purples, golds and olives of fall. Why have I posted a video of nothing happening you ask?

Look a little closer. Zoom in on the purple New England Asters on the left side of the video. They are absolutely humming with bumblebees and honey bees. I know it is a little grainy posted here – but can you see the way the bees work their way around the central disc of the flower, visiting each of the disc flowers around the edge in turn? They spend a lot of time on each because what looks like one flower to us is really a collection of many tiny little flowers. Lovely, isn’t it?

If you are looking for a plant that sustains the bees through the fall, consider the New England Aster. This and Goldenrod, plus perhaps some hardy geraniums, will keep them fed.

Plants of the Prairie: Northern Red Oak

One of the trees which I believe was planted on purpose in prairie #1 is a Red Oak. Red Oaks are native to Wisconsin. They are distinguished from white oaks by the sharp points on their leaves (as opposed to the more rounded lobes of the white oaks, which seem to be preferred for planting around here). In the fall, the leaves will turn a beautiful, deep cranberry red in fall.

Wisconsin is not one of the prairie states, but large swathes of the state were covered in prairie before European settlement. Alongside the prairies were oak savannahs, which are a blend of pairie and woodland. They are estimated to have covered about 20% of our state. To be considered a savannah, a prairie must have less than 30% tree cover. As you can perhaps see from the photo above, the Western prairie patch at GDS may be on its way to exceeding that percentage, due to the volunteer trees that have taken root next to the red oak tree. Typically, the dominant trees in oak savannahs are, unsurprisingly, oaks but other trees pop up. This is a great resource to read up on the typical trees of the oak savannah.

In our prairie at GDS, rather than the black cherries, hickories and pines that tend to pop up in savannahs, we see aspen, field elm, and box elders. Perhaps this is due to the disturbed nature of the prairie and the mix of trees in the nearby hedgerow? The fact that these prairies have not been burned is also likely a factor. Wildfires played a hugely important role in both the prairies and the savannahs. Oaks dominated the savannahs because they were more likely than other trees to survive a wildfire. A lack of fires on restored prairies like the ones at GDS means other trees, which are not resistant to fire, can take hold and eventually turn the prairie into a woodland. This is where the western patch of prairie at GDS is headed.

Let’s get back to the red oak, though, and why it is important. Oak trees support a huge number of species. I’ve seen resources that list the number of species dependent on them from 2,300-4,000. Whoever is right, I think we can agree that it is a huge number! This includes everything from black bears down to micro-organisms. And don’t forget us humans! While few of us eat acorns anymore (although perhaps that number is growing with current interest in foraging), we do seek oak trees out for their strong, beautiful wood.

In addition to using the wood, oak leaves, bark and galls can be used to make dyes of varying shades of brown, grey, ochre and mauve.

The bark can also be used to make tea to treat arthritis, diarrhea, and colds. The inner bark can also be applied to the skin to reduce inflammation. In both cases, the tannins seem to be the active ingredient.

Plants of the Prairie: Blackeyed Susan

Scientific Name: Rudbekia hirta

Black eyed Susan growing in the Western Prairie at GDS

It’s time to talk about a native plant in the prairie. Black-eyed Susan’s cheerful face is a familiar sight in Midwestern prairies and gardens. In the prairie it grows as single stems amongst the grass; move it to your garden, and it forms lovely clumps. It is easy to grow and will migrate across your garden beds, moving in wherever it is comfortable. While it is usually considered a biennial or short-lived perennial, it is very hardy and reseeds easily. I have several patches in my yard that all came from a single plant I purchased 17 years ago. The original clump is still in place. Because it is such a cheery and adaptive plant, it has spread from its traditional home in the central and eastern parst of the US to all 48 contiguous states.

Black eyed susan is apparently a great plant for bees and butterflies, but I have to admit I rarely see either landing on them in my yard. Perhaps they just prefer the purple coneflower that I grow in masses nearby and would use the black-eyed susans if they needed to? Or maybe I’m just not looking at the right times? I do see finches grabbing seeds from the dried seed heads in the early fall.

They make a lovely long lasting cut flower and the seedheads, which look like small black pompoms, can be used as an accent in dried flower arrangements. Perhaps I’ll save a few this year and add them to my Christmas planters? You can also apparently make a yellow dye from the plant, although photos I’ve seen of actual dyes made from the flowers ranged from grey to green, so I’m not entirely certain what parts of the plant you would need to use for a yellow dye.

Like echinacea, Black-eyed Susans are used in herbal medicines to treat colds and the flu. It is considered an immunity booster and anti-bacterial. The seeds are apparently poisonous, so only the leaves, petals and rools are used.

In the garden, the Black-Eyed Susan looks charming with phlox, hyssop and sweetspire.

Using Small Slow Solutions: Harvesting Fall Fruit and Update on Produce Bags

TL;DR: Produce bags were a huge success. I highly recommend trying them as an alternative to spraying fruit.

September is when the fruit floods in. First come the Bartlett pears, then the Seckel pears and Honeycrisps, followed by the Chojuro Asian pears, and finally the Esopus Spitzenburg apples.

From left to right: Seckel pears, Chojuro asian pear, Bartlett pears

Bartlett pears are best picked when they are still underripe. Left to ripen on the tree, they get a mealy texture and brown around the core. Ripened on the counter, they are perfect.

Chojuros should be left on the tree until they are ripe and have taken on a beautiful rich, carmely color. The left side of the asian pear in the picture above is just starting to get this color. Leave them too long, though, and their skin will darken and the flesh will brown and take on a fermented taste.

Seckel pears and apples all stay on the tree until they are ripe. Spitzenburgs benefit from a few weeks of storage before eating – in my mind they are the absolute best eating apple around if you wait to eat them until 2-3 weeks after picking.

As I mentioned in Permaculture in Practice: Use Small, Slow Solutions, this is the first year I am using produce bags. There are many options, but I went with a synthetic mesh bag I found on ebay. I try to avoid synthetics when possible, but in this case – where the goal is to keep out insects without harmful chemicals – it seemed like the most effective option and a fair trade off. With any luck, I will get multiple years of use out of them, too.

The bags worked well on the peaches, but how did they do on the pears and apples?

First the Bartletts. Here is this weekend’s harvest:

150+ pears from one 12 year old semi-dwarf tree – not bad!

I sort my pears into 4 categories. We can call them “Grade A”, “Grade B”, “Grade C” and compost.

Grade A pears are practically perfect in every way. Even the pickiest pear eater who likes perfect store bough fruit will likely be OK with it.

That’s one beautiful pear! Grade A.

Grade B are almost perfect. They might have a dimple or two that are close to each other and need to be eaten around, but they are still lovely and perfectly edible and most people wouldn’t turn them down.

Those are cute dimples you’ve got there! Grade B

Grade C are the pears with a face only a pear sauce maker can love. They have dimples that are spread out across the surface of the fruit. They might have scars or a spot where the skin has broken. They will need extensive paring to use. Most people won’t be interested in eating them out of hand.

Grade C has a nice personality

Now for the numbers. I picked 102 usable pears without bags (a dozen or so ended up on the compost pile). 30% were grade A, 30% grade B, 60% grade C. Not bad for fully organic pears, but over half would need extensive paring to use and will end up being pear sauce or dried pear chips.

From left to right: 30 Grade A, 30 Grade B, 42 Grade C (not shown – a dozen or so that went straight to the compost pile)

Now for the bagged pears. There were 28 total. 50% were grade A, 46% were grade B, and only 4% were grade C. Wow! What a difference! Definitely worth the 10-15 minutes it took to tie all of the bags on earlier this summer.

From left to right: 14 Grade A, 13 Grade B, 1 Grade C, and the compost pile starved

How about the others? The bags did not make a huge difference with the Seckel pears. They are just starting to come off the tree, but every one I see up there looks good for eating, with or without the bags. I don’t think I will bother to use them on that tree next year. It’s possible I just got lucky this year, but the Seckel pears usually look great and it seems better to save the bags for trees where they actually make a difference.

With the apples, the bags literally made the difference between having apples we will eat and apples we will not. I am still picking them now, but I did not have a single edible apple without a bag, and the apples in the bag were almost all good enough to eat.

Honeycrips – without and with a bag

Spitzenburg – without and with a bag (to be fair, I will use the lower apple for sauce or dried chips, but will need to cut away a lot of the apple)

The bags are not foolproof. There was a limited amount of insect damage to some of the bagged apples. It may be I put the bags on too late, or that the insects found their way inside, like this little wasp.

I also lost a little fruit to chipmunks, who chewed holes in a couple bags to get at the ripening fruit inside. I suspect that it was only so few bags ruined because there were many more unbagged (and easier to get) fruits to choose from.

I don’t mind losing some fruit to the insects and wildlife. It’s important for us to take only what we need – even from our own trees in our own yards – and leave food for the wildlife. And I’m especially heartened to see things like this little ladybug walking safely on the harmless bag, when it would be just as likely to be harmed by sprays on the fruit as the harmful insects.

Plants of the Prairie: Fleabane

Scientific Name: Erigeron annuus, Erigeron philadelphicus and Erigeron strigosus

While there are almost 200 species of fleabane in North America, three types are most common here in Wisconsin: Common (Erigeron annuus), Philadelphia (Erigeron philadelphicus and this kind, Eastern Daisy (Erigeron strigosus). While it is difficult to tell varieties apart, I believe that the varieties in the prairie are Eastern Daisy and Philadelphia.

Fleabane is a pioneer species, which means that it thrives in an environment that has been highly disturbed. Pioneer species can sometimes mimic the behavior of, and be mistaken for, invasive species because they can be so successful in an area that in out of balance. That’s a fancy way of saying they sometimes act and look like a weed when they are actually doing very important work getting an area ready for pickier natives. Other examples of pioneer species that you might be familiar with are aspens and fireweed.

Pollinators love fleabane, so in addition to getting the soil ready for other natives, they provide a good source of nectar.

Traditionally, Fleabane was used as an eyewash, an astringent, a mild stimulant and a treatment for sore throats, inflamation and menstural issues.

You can eat the leaves and flowers, but they are said to be bitter and can be hairy depending on the variety you choose. I’ll give it a try one of these days and report back.

Permaculture in Practice: Use Small, Slow Solutions

Sometimes we overwhelm ourselves. In an attempt to do everything perfectly, we end up doing nothing at all.

That’s what happened to me with produce grow bags. I’d read up on them and knew they could be used to grow nicer fruit without chemicals. But there were too many options (waxed paper, nylon bags, and one option that looked like sticky pantihose). And then there was the cost. I had so many fruit trees producing hundreds of pieces of fruit a year. Was it worth it? I didn’t spray my trees anyway, so wasn’t the carbon footprint of the bags worse than what I was doing already (which was essentially doing nothing).

Of course as I found myself having to pare around what seemed to be an ever-increasing number of wormholes and blemishes in my fruit, and figure out creative ways to use fruit that my family wouldn’t eat, I decided that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to finally try a few of the bags. And so I found a vendor on eBay and decided to try them. The bags I bought looked like this and were under $10 for 50 bags.

They come in three colors from this vendor: white, green, and orange. I bought 3 packages (150) of the green, thinking they would blend in nicest with the foliage on the tree and be least noticable.

When the bags arrived, they were not the natural olivey color you see in the photo above. They were the tackiest shade of bright Christmas green you could imagine. I balked at hanging them out in my trees, which are all very visible from the sidewalk. Finally, I decided to swallow any pride I had in how the garden looked and use them anyway.

After a few false starts, I found they were very easy to use. Slip a bag over an imature fruit (here in Wisconsin, I did it in late May/early June just after the late spring fruit drop), pull the drawstrings tight from either side, tie a small bow to keep the bag in place. I did not have enough for any one tree, so decided to spread them out across 2 apple trees, 4 pears and the peach tree; the most promising trees for the year.

They looked more like wonky party decorations than leaves. I kid you not – every group of pedestrians I heard walk by the yard commented on the bright green bags hanging in the trees. They could not be missed. It worked out to 10-20 bags per tree, with a few left over to share with a friend in the neighborhood. Why should my yard be the only one getting all of the attention after all?

The first fruits, the peaches, finally came ripe this past week. So what’s the verdict? They worked fantastic on the peach tree!

I’d thinned the peaches well this spring to give the tree a chance to rest after a bumper year last summer, so there were only a couple dozen fruits on the whole tree. Ten were in grow bags.

Of the fruit that was not in a growbag, about a third of the fruits were absolutely perfect and beautiful. 2/3rds were still delicious, but had significant scarring and blemishes. Of the fruit in the grow bags, 1 was blemished and 9 were perfect. A huge difference!

I will definitely be using them again on the peach tree next year, and will likely add to my collection of bags so I can protect more of the fruit on the tree. It was worth starting out small this year, but next year it is time to go a little bigger with an experiement that worked. It remains to be seen whether they helped with the apples and pears, too. If they were not as successful there, I can use all of the existing bags for the peach tree. I’ll keep you all posted as the apples and pears ripen!

Making Space: Monarchs and Milkweed

By now, you’ve probably read about the dire situation for Monarchs. Maybe you’ve wondered what you could do to help ensure that 20, 30, 40 years from now we will continue to marvel at the annual migration these beautiful butterflies make?

5 years ago I made a commitment to allow milkweed to grow in my garden wherever it happened to pop up as one small way I could help. As you probably already know if you have a garden, milkweed doesn’t always choose the most convenient spots to take hold. Common Milkweed is a big plant. It often reaches 3 feet tall and seems to like the margins – the front of flower borders and gardens that are really much too small for them. It can take a shift in thinking to be comfortable with the aesthetics.

Tall milkweed near the front of a flower bed
This well-established clump chose a better spot near the back of the bed, but still flops over into the walkway from time to time

I think you’ll agree that if we weigh helping an endangered species against having a perfect garden, the endangered species should win.

Where I may have to make an exception to my rule of never pulling milkweed is in the veggie garden. What started as one small plant has become a huge colony in one of my raised beds. This is the bed I’ve been using for salad greens and snap peas, so when the greens are growing in early summer the milkweed does not get in the way. By late summer, when the weather is too hot for growing salad greens or peas easily, the bed is taken over by milkweeds and sunflowers (planted by the birds, since my birdfeeder is close to the bed). This system has worked out well so far, giving me something from the garden in early summer and the wildlife in our yard something in late summer. The balance is starting to tip, though, and the day is coming when I will not have enough space to grow my early season veggies here. I think I will need to thin the milkweed next summer.

This raised bed has a mix of milkweed, sunflowers, and gourds this time of year. In early summer, it holds lettuce and snap peas. Can you see the monarchs?

I’m under no delusion that my milkweed is enough to save the monarchs, but it is one small thing I can do to make things a little easier for them. My house is in between Glacial Drumlin School, which has larger patches of milkweed, and McCarthy Park, with its acres and acres of prairie. I like to think of it as a stepping stone that helps monarchs and other wildlife move between the areas that hold food and shelter for them. If enough of my neighbors recognize that their yards can be a critical piece in helping the other species that call our community home, imagine what we can do! And how about you? Can you make your own space a stepping stone for monarchs? Could you commit to leaving milkweed grow where it will?

Morning Mystery

The trail cam was a little wonky when I checked it today. Who or what was the culprit? I had to scroll back a few hours to find it, but find it I did…

I later caught this little chippy – I assume it was the same one – up in my peach tree trying to work out how to steal an almost-ripe peach. I fully expect it to succeed. I did pick a few underripe fruits just to make sure he doesn’t get them all.

Permaculture in Practice: Apply Self-Regulation and Feedback

Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to reflect on what is working and what is not. Sometimes our environment gives us no choice but to perform that reflection.

About 7 years ago, I planted a Northern Catalpa in our backyard. Northern Catalpas are native to the Mississippi River valley, just a ways southwest of here. They have big, beautiful heart-shaped leaves that are surprisingly tropical looking for a northern tree. They have interesting rough bark, and gorgeous white orchid-like flowers that cover the trees in late June. In the winter, they drip with long seed pods that look like foot long beans made of chocolate. They are not a boring tree by any means.

Unfortunately, my tree has avoided being boring not only with its stunning looks, but also by the way its unpredictable behavior keeps me on my toes. About 5 years ago, shortly after I admired its beauty and perfection to my dad as we talked on the phone, it started abruptly wilting. In was mid-summer and a little dry, so I picked up the watering, but the wilting was not helped.

I suspect the tree somehow contracted verticillium wilt. Maybe it happened when I knicked a root while digging nearby once. Or perhaps I did not cause the problem at all. I noticed a poorly made pruning cut when I first bought the tree, but bought it anyway because it was the only catalpa left by the time I went shopping for a tree. Could that have introduced the disease?

Whatever the cause, the tree is a roller coaster every year – sometimes looking devastatingly beautiful, other times looking droopy and sad. I’ve considered pulling it out more than once because there is no cure for verticillium wilt, but have read that some trees will overcome the disease eventually and so have held out hope that mine will.

This year it has really outdone itself, though, and lost nearly all of its leaves after a hot, dry spell in mid-July. I bring you the catalpa in June of this year just as it came into bloom and the same catalpa in July:

Now the hard part – listening to what this tree is telling me. I desperately want the tree to survive. It is in the perfect spot to provide a spot of shade in the summer. We’ve spend lovely afternoons sitting under its branches. Its flowers make me smile every summer, and its huge leaves are glorious. Just a month ago, we had tables set up under its canopy for my son’s high school graduation party.

Up until now, I’ve been able to believe that perhaps this tree would be one of the rare survivors. After all, it wilted every year in late summer, but came back as beautiful as ever in the spring. But I think it is more likely that it is telling me that it is time torecognize that this tree is not going to make it.

What do you think? Give it another year or cut my losses and take it down?