Missouri Herbs

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Disturbing the Edge

Intentional wild space along edge of path in new orchard

For a time I lived on the edge and walked the line between hell and disease, an out of balance waking nightmare that ended in collapse. But the darkness in that edge proved fruitful, though I wouldn't know it for  years.  The old way of being and thinking were broken down, the seeds planted by books, friends and through meditation; and that wouldn't have happened without a total physical collapse and change of the old paradigm.  A new edge had to be created.  Now 13 years later I am closer to finding balance and am certainly more fruitful.  The edge can be a most productive place.

A wild space nature created along edge of burnt place

The creation of edge means the death or absence of one thing and life for another.  The edge for all life changes and is the transition point.  As the shrubs and then the trees eventually move into a field, the edge changes, new shadows are cast, soil changes and it means the death of some plants for the life of others. 

Many wildflowers grow on the edge and I've watched them very closely the last few years. This year it’s been almost obsessively every day. What bugs like them, which do not and at what stage of flowering and time of year?   How are the plants around them different than those same plants somewhere else?  Where do they grow and where do they grow best? What did I do and what happened in this area last year?  Which plants seem to thrive in extreme conditions when the others fail?  Which groups of wildflowers like to grow together and which like to be near the trees, or the water, or dry desolate clay piles, or rocks, or rotting logs, or out in the field?  These were questions I asked myself of the All-stars that required no water, and no attention when it was 110 degrees during a drought.  Yet they were swarming with bugs and produced an abundance of harvestable produce, medicine and seed.  

110 on the North side that is in shade all day!

The wildflowers I watched like the disturbed edge.  To disturb an area you can cover and kill the grass or burn and then scratch the surface.  The more disturbed edge spaces, the more flowers, the more beneficial bugs, more harvestable medicine, and the fewer "pests" or prey insects. The edge is the sweet spot, the magic place where forest meets pathway, where land meets water.  It’s the fractal outer edge illuminated through flower.  It’s where the bugs that I have been learning about because of the garden thrive.  It’s brushy and dense, feathery and soft, short and tall, fragrant and always flowering and moving with activity.  

Frost weed and Soldier Beetles (the good guys)

We don’t till and are gardening without using commercial sprays, even organic store bought ones. So we have come to rely heavily on the support the wildflowers living in the disturbed edge give us.  These are the power house flowers that take on a good many of the garden's pest bugs, shelter the beneficial bugs, make the medicine that heals our bodies, repair the soil, feed the wildlife and that are killed by the thousands every day as common practice across this country by herbicides.  
Volunteer Monarda I use as a spicy oregano and the insects love it

Making the care of the soil and the comfort of the beneficial bugs number one priority, things begin to find a balance.  The bugs we gardeners think of as "bad" are going to be out there.  If you till up and mow down all the wild growth, plant single non-native annual crops in a row and then surround that garden with a green desert of unproductive, one-dimensional green grass; where do you think the bugs will go first?  The only place you have given them,  your garden.  If you leave them all the flowers that they love, in my experience anyway, in most cases they would much more prefer the native wildflowers. These natives in turn tolerate the partaking of the bugs much better and in many cases it barely makes a dent.  I thought for sure the squash bugs had eaten the tops of the bull thistle so badly that they wouldn’t flower, but they flowered profusely and I harvested more seed than I can use without making a dent on the seed heads that were left in place to take their chance, as all wind born seeds do, on a current of air.  This is with sharing about a third of what I harvested with a neighbor so she could make cheese for us using the bull thistle flowering tops for rennet. It was a delicious cottage cheese that had the twang of cheddar. 
Bull Thistle
I’ve found a much easier way to garden is to plant my ideal garden plants early and few in number just to see what pests will arrive.  When the pests arrive the signals start going out to their predators.  Like all prey/ predator relationships, there are fewer predators and you have to give them time to find the prey.  I also leave all the “weeds” that I can in and around the garden. Then I try very hard to do nothing and allow the natural signals to go out  “NOTICE TO ALL LADYBUGS:  False cabbage aphids on Kale at top garden”. Then wait for the troops to arrive.  I did spray some patches with a garlic/ cayenne spray I made so that I’d have some to eat for myself but left much of the distressed Kale for the ladybugs to find.  I also pulled the leaves that were absolutely covered in aphids for the chickens to eat.   There were also cabbage worms and cabbage loopers on the Kale.  I would pick some for the chickens and leave some for a predator bug to find.  It took a little while, but they arrived and the Kale now looks great.  In some spots the Kale took quite the beating, but now you would never know it.  When the lady bugs arrived, they not only had the false cabbage aphids to nibble on, but a dense ring of insectary plants to support them.   The tide began to turn when I found lady bug eggs under the leaves next to the patch of aphids.  I have no idea what is taking care of the worms, but I"m grateful.  To make sure that it's not just a seasonal disappearance of the bugs, I check with friends and neighbors in the area that also garden and so far, when my "bad" bugs disappear, they are still fighting with theirs.  Here is a Kale leaf with a small amount of False Cabbage aphids and a leaf typical of one I would leave unpicked in the garden.

Kale with False Cabbage Aphids

Queen Anne's Lace with insects
This goes back to edge.  The edge where the forest meets the pathways, where the garden meets the pathways, these are the areas that are naturally disturbed by our human presence and the mechanism by which an area for wildflowers is created.  Where we burn at the fire pit, where we walk and pull carts, where we spill water and where our clothes inadvertently drop seed, where the chickens poop and scratch along the edge of the compost pile because some of the straw usually blows out and they know there is food about.  

By intentionally creating these amazing disturbed edge places, you can get closer to living the way humans did for thousands of years.  In areas around the garden and in between pathways, we like to cover and kill the grass (as much as we can), or burn and then scratch the back of the land as an animal would do, throw out wildflower seeds in the fall that were collected from plants that were observed all year to be beneficial, and then throw down a layer of light mulch as the forest leaves and dead grass would do in the fall and winter.  Just the act of disturbing the soil will create an environment for flowers to grow that we didn't plant.  An easy way to create an edge space if you have chickens without much effort at all is to mow short around the compost pile, lay an old blanket/ cardboard/ sheet of black plastic or something down till the grass dies, then pull the blanket up and sprinkle loose straw down.  My chickens will always scratch if straw is on the ground.  Then do nothing, don't sprinkle seeds (unless you want to) just wait and see what wonderful things sprout.  Doing things like that is how I began to have wild plants to harvest seed from, just disturbing the edge and letting mother do her thing.  

I did work harder on the squash plants this year because that is our "meat" vegetable and I used the trap plant method where I place plants out early, wait for the squash bugs and then burn the plants.  Then after that, I kept no mulch around the squash and watered the base every day which will bring the squash bugs to the surface and I'd pick them off.  I also carefully removed all egg patches that were found.   But the Bull thistle did take a good bit of the squash bugs on.

I"m not talking about changing an area that is already in balance.  My focus is in changing the areas that were created by man to be hay fields, just planes of grass where trees were bulldozed down.

By waiting for the troops or predator bugs to arrive, sometimes I do loose entire crops, like with the potatoes. I could have used diatomaceous earth, some concoction with oil and garlic, banana peels and a host of other all natural suggestions to help, but I wanted to see what would happen when I did nothing.  Well in the span of 2 days I found out!  So now I know to really focus on companion plants for them like perhaps horseradish, rue, sage or the favorite of the flea beetle, Chinese Daikon.  Perhaps I'll grow wormwood just outside the fence from the potato patch. 

Goldenrod with Goldenrod soldier beetles

Butterfly weed

Observing the systems here that are finding balance and working with the land using natural methods, usually means standing at and using the edge as a focal point.  Growing using permaculture methods and then using the herbs or “weeds” that grow along that edge as food and medicine are two faces of the same coin.  To me there is not much difference between being an herbalist and a permaculturist.  They are both a study in living the way humans should live with plants that are around us and how people have been doing it for thousands of years.  Before the labels of organic or permaculture were even thought of.  Permaculture or nature based growing systems by other names are the only truly sustainable methods to grow the plants that you then can use as medicine, as food, or just as part of the natural balance.  I love that funny cartoon that says “Organic food, or as my grandparents called it... food”. 

“Both the man of science and the man of action live always at the edge of mystery, surrounded by it.” - J. Robert Oppenheimer   So find some space along the edge and get to disturbing!

Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) w/ Soldier beetles

About 1/4 of the wildflower seeds I collected for neighbors, friends and myself

1 comment:

Marqueta (Mar-keet-a) said...

This was another wonderful post, Jamie! Your "edge" looks beautiful! Each year I'm sure it will become even better, and all those kinks will be worked out. Aren't those soldier beetles something? They come in droves! Good thing they're good guys. :)