News: March in the Forager’s Patch: Editing the Landscape for the Long Term
Grateful for the sunny, windy pre-spring day, we settled into our morning huddle sharing some signs of the changing season we had been witnessing over the past few weeks. Raccoons, peepers, frog eggs, bees, and even gnats were harbingers of the changing season we’d been observing.
Before setting out on our day’s tasks in the forager’s patch, program co-lead Taylor Roman led a session on tool maintenance. We all had guilty looks on our faces as Taylor talked about the importance of keeping a sharp clean blade on your knives, snips, lawnmower blades and even shovels. “Neglecting to clean and sharpen your tools will take years off the lives,” he warned. We got a basic tutorial on honing the blade we’d get to practice next week, and also why a sharp blade was important: A clean cut, whether on a plant or a person, is easier to heal.
We grabbed some tools and the bucket of elderberry cuttings that had been steeping in willow water for the past fortnight and headed outside. Ruffly, light green leaves had sprouted and were starting to unfurl from the plant’s bud nodes, ready to start capturing the sun’s waxing energy.
We were here to learn how to manage the land for the long haul, rather than just this year’s yield. It was a different mode of thinking than many of our systems, built toward quarterly profits rather than long term sustainability. As we looked around our forager’s patch, we could see certain plants had been left to flourish that might have been better nipped in the bud in order for others thrive. This prompted an ethical discussion: Were so-called non-native species, many of which contained medicine or other beneficial attributes, something to be vilified? If a plant could adapt so well and quickly to a new place, who was to say it didn’t belong?
Left on their own, both existing and newly introduced species will eventually adapt and evolve; the ecosystem would rebalance itself. In the meantime, we would be shaping this little corner of the world to our vision of it, which mean that the well entrenched Amur honeysuckle would have to go to make room for our elderberry babies. After hacking out the honeysuckle, we took a step back at the space to think about placement of the elderberry plants. While just baby branches today, over time they would grow to need several feet clear below and above, so we decided to plant three to four with wide berth between them.
The now-disturbed soil was surprisingly dark and fluffy, a good sign that the fungal mycelium and decaying organic matter turning to humus, a sign of soil fertility. In many cases a soil amendment would be recommended to help give our new plants a nutrient boost, but Taylor had faith in their survival skills in this new environment.
We buried the branches with at least two buds below ground, where they would become roots rather than leaves – a plant trick I kept marveling over. We also made sure to pick branches without too many buds above, as it would be hard work for the plant to maintain their growth while trying to establish itself below ground, a tricky balancing act.
We then switched gears into practicing tree identification skills with program co-lead Lacey Walker. She pointed out two different species and had us point out similarities and differences. One had rough bark, stout twigs, alternating branches and a heart shaped leaf scar; the other had smoother but still mottled bark, an arrowhead-shaped leaf scar and branches that angled up to the sky. We also cut open a branch of each to look at the pith, the soft tissue at the heart of the branches. Species A had a chambered pith with ridges, and species B had smooth pith with a nutty odor.
Many of us knew Species A from the deeply furrowed bark as a black walnut, but none of us recognized Tree of Heaven, Ailanthus altissima. I had known the species to be aggressive and undesirable in the cityscape, giving it a not-so-nice nickname, but Lacey helped to reframe my perception of it by telling us of its treasured place in Asia, where it’s been used as medicine for centuries and also a host plant for silk moths.
We put our ID skills immediately to use in prepping a mini-orchard of wild Callery “Bradford” pears, which we decided to just call Pear Hill, for next month’s task of grafting a more desirable variety onto the trees. We committed the look of the Bradford and its plump buds to memory to hone in on the right trees to clear around, wincing as we grappled with thorny bush honeysuckle whose sharp teethy thorns stuck out at all angles. Mindful of our conversation about how we talk about plants, I tried to reframe my thoughts from “These jerks are attacking me!” to “This is a pretty smart plant to have developed such a good protective mechanism,” not an easy task as little spurts of blood appeared on my arms. Luckily their sharp thorns meant clean cuts that would easily heal, harkening back to our earlier talk of tools of the trade.
In the process of making these minute changes to the land, I could feel a sense of belonging and connection welling up, knowing these changes would in some small way change the course of this little piece of the world forever. We saw how some past grafting had been done too high in the pear trees to be beneficial for those of us now trying to get at its fruit. Taking the long view in thinking about how the future generations of plants and people would interact with the landscape we were tinkering with was a theme we would certainly be revisiting throughout our year together at Fox Haven.
Written by April Thompson, @prillytee on Instagram
April Thompson is a Washington, DC based writer, gardener, foodie and forager. Working as a freelance writer for more than 20 years, April has covered food, travel, sustainability, gardening, foraging and other subjects for dozens of publications, including her ongoing column in Natural Awakenings magazine. She has taught workshops on wild edible plants, fighting food waste and related topics for Knowledge Commons DC, Rooting DC and other organizations. She is a founding member of the Bruce Monroe Community Garden, a member of the Mycological Association of Washington, and an alum of the UDC Master Gardener program. She currently serves as Director of Marketing and Sales for Bloom, a recycled biosolids fertilizer developed by DC Water.