Foxes are renowned for being clever and nimble — elusive when sought as prey and very hard to keep out of a chicken coop when on the prowl. Many years ago, sitting at dinner with some long time "Hill Country" (AKA central Texas USA) farmers, I learned something about foxes that’s stuck with me ever since. A fox’s tail weighs as much as the rest of its body and thus when the fox needs to make a sharp turn, or stop on a dime, it can throw its tail one way or another to help counter balance the movement.
The context of this lore was in response to the arrival of fall and how in central Texas farmers must be ready for anything. Torrential downpours, no rain at all, hot days, hard freezes, strong winds, or perfect growing weather. You just never know what this bio-region is going to throw at you, especially in the fall. Since at the time I was working on a row crop farm after completing a PDC, I had plenty of time to dream of more resilient systems but I didn’t really realize exactly how hard it could be to design for all of those potential conditions! The first farmer I ever worked with was fond of the saying, "The devil’s in the details", when something would end up being more complex or challenging than we had initially imagined. Over the years since, I’ve heard his voice in my head saying those words innumerable times. I’ve always been more inclined towards implementation than trying to design out all the potential kinks before taking the first step and as a result I’ve learned a lot from making mistakes. I’ve learned that, although the principles of permaculture are sound and applicable, learning the intricacies of the practice can be very challenging.
Row cropping in Texas
In the late summer of 2011 I had the good fortune to meet Mitch, the owner of a 4-acre property in central Texas. Self described as an engineer from birth, he’s a meticulous designer and all around great guy. He and his business, a local nursery, provided an environment where I could make a living wage doing nursery work while running permaculture experiments to discover which plant varieties best suit our bioregion.
A lot of plants look good on paper but don’t perform in the ground. We also noticed that much of the information about food forestry is based in tropical or temperate climates and we wanted to develop specific food forest techniques that could be implemented successfully here. We got right to work in establishing a food forest, starting with just 6 inches of poor clay over 500 feet of lime stone. We decided to work with the native overstory to help us establish the productive trees. In the summer it can be 80°F (27°C) even through the night and many plants simply transpire when their leaves reach 90°F (32°C). So we use the native overstory to allow morning and evening sun to reach the younger plants and protect them from the scorching 110°F (43°C) afternoons.
Interestingly, now that some of our productive plants are established some of the native overstory trees, specifically the ash junipers, are dying off, opening up the understory to more light. It’s nice when something goes right! Alternatively, you could steadily trim back the overstory to let in more light though this can be tricky as there’s a danger of branches falling on and damaging more delicate plants below.
We’ve vastly improved the soil, the biology, wildlife forage and overall diversity while growing long term reliable food sources and enjoyed the process too.
Food forest 2011
Food forest 2012
Food forest 2013 — freshly planted veges on forest floor
Food forest 2011
Food forest 2012
Food forest 2013 — swale function stacked to also be a path
The most challenging thing for me still is designing for all of the shifts in conditions we receive. Each season is a new adventure that keeps us on our toes, constantly re-evaluating and improving our designs.
Diversity helps tremendously to mitigate our shifting chill hours, long drought periods, extremely heavy rains, sudden insect population growth and many more. Basically if you have enough different things growing something will always be able to enjoy and benefit from the current conditions and you just have to get it established through the less favorable times. In a perfect world the plants in the ground at our site would relish all of the different conditions but very few do well, on their own, right off the starting line.
Some of the species that perform the best for us are, figs, jujubes, plums, pomegranates, mulberries, loquats, blackberries, elderberries, grapes, mesquites, acacias and most other legumes.
Encouraging the roots to break up the heavy soil and even begin converting the limestone into a more porous structure with fissures of organic matter has been one of my favorite experiments. I look up at the canopy and imagine a similar structure of roots beneath the ground and know that after 6 inches its all rock and these trees, some of which are 20 feet tall now, are working hard and accomplishing things we couldn’t in an efficient manner.
We also allow a succession of native sunflower varieties with deep rooting behaviors to grow each summer season. When they die back so do those deep penetrating roots, leaving pathways of decomposing organic matter for water infiltration and other roots to follow in the future. In the meantime, they provide flowers for the bees or your vase, seeds for the birds and when they die back, mulch for the trees. When the seeds are mature I spread the seed heads to any place we want them to grow and next year they pop right up.
Because my background is in organic vegetable farming, I’m always looking for ways to stack functions and provide an immediate yield. As a farmer I was always battling an undesirable seed bank. Bermuda grass, Johnson grass, sticker burs, and the list goes on. We would weed out all the plants from the roots, and by the time we got to the other end of the field the side we started on would have already sprouted new weeds from the seed bank. Attempting to turn a problem into a solution I’ve been working on establishing a vegetable seed bank on the forest floor. Eventually, I want to see veggies popping up voluntarily with every spring or fall rain, so prolifically that you would have to weed them out for years to win a battle against the seed bank. Because we’ve strategically planted to allow morning and evening sun into the understory I think we might be able to get them all the sun they need to produce even as the food forest matures. Many of the Swiss chards, kale and collards I’ve planted have gone perennial and are now two years old, still producing delicious greens.
We have minimal slope and lack the soil depth to do significant earthworks so we did mini berms and swales dug by hand with a hoe. Since the swale was pretty much just a rock ditch, so we couldn’t plant anything into it, we filled it with mulch and now it’s an easily visible to visitors, low maintenance path. We couldn’t put the earthworks on contour due to pre-existing trees. So we installed check dams every 10 ft by laying branches, naturally resistant to bio degrading, across the swale under the mulch. Even in the largest rain event in 30 years — nine inches in two hours — we only had one small overflow and caught the vast majority of the water. Normal rains do not stress the system at all and we expect to see improvements in the speed of in-soak as we create more soil depth and continue to encourage mulch on the forest floor.