• Publishers' Note Spring 2010

    Publishers' Note Spring 2010

    In May 2009, the Vermont Legislature took a bold step toward strengthening sustainable agriculture in the state. Our lawmakers passed a bill called The Farm to Plate Investment Program, which seeks to increase economic development in Vermont’s food and farm sector by creating food- and farm-related jobs, improving access to healthy local foods for Vermonters, and expanding local and regional markets for Vermont products. Since the bill’s passage, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund has taken the lead in working with a variety of ag-related groups to develop the 10-year strategic plan mandated by the bill.

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  • Gardening Like the Forest

    Gardening Like the Forest

    Modern gardeners have grown accustomed to segregating different types of plants into different places—herbs in one bed, veggies in another, perennials and flowers somewhere else, while the orchard stands alone. But this isn’t the way things work in a forest. Nature functions in wholes, enabling cooperation between species to generate robust, resilient systems that optimize the use of available sun, water, nutrients, and space.

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  • Set the Table with Switchel

    Set the Table with Switchel

    Long a staple in Northeast hayfields as a thirst quencher and restorative, switchel—alternatively called “haymaker’s punch” —was a colonial era proto-Gatorade, a source of both hydration and electrolyte replenishment. Recipes vary, but the most common ingredients were molasses, cider vinegar, and ginger, mixed to taste in a jug of very cold well water. While the concoction could have provided benefit to all manner of laborers and sporting folks, its use was particularly common among the workers of the hayfield and the children who carried the switchel jug to them.

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  • The World in a Glass of Milk

    The World in a Glass of Milk

    My first memory of drinking milk was walking through the lunch line in my grade-school cafeteria, picking up a red-and-white half pint carton of low-fat milk from an ice-filled service container, and placing it on my plastic tray. After sitting down at a table, everyone would pick up their wet carton and shake it vigorously to blend the frozen crystals with the unfrozen milk. It tasted cold and refreshing, like an unsweetened ice milk slushy, and was a perfect match for a sticky-sweet peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a bag of salty chips.

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  • Pie Local

    Pie Local

    Any critics of the local food movement—anyone who has ever insinuated that it’s elitist or indulgent—should know that at The Pizza Stone in Chester, a pie starts at $8.99. That’s for a large—eight slices—with extra local goodness baked right in: Vermont cheese, meats, veggies, and flour. What allows this new and popular eatery to keep its pies so locally sourced and reasonably priced?

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  • Mycelium Launching

    Mycelium Launching

    Terra Fructi. It sounds like perfect Latin. But Emily Bragonier and Liz Richards will be the first to acknowledge that they took linguistic liberties in creating a name for their new mushroom farm in Westmoreland, New Hampshire. “It’s actually grammatically incorrect,” Liz admits. “My mother, who is a Latin teacher, told us that terra fructi literally means ‘the earth fertile,’ which doesn’t necessarily say ‘mushrooms.’ But we hoped people would hear it and think of the fruits of the earth.”

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  • Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    “The farming of our fathers was exceedingly simple, content to draw from a virgin soil the supplies of simple wants, instead of aiming itself for their increase. With the impoverishment of the soil, with the forests almost swept off the face of the country and the consequent climate change, with the multiplied wants of society and development of so many new industries, the highest intelligence and energies are required to remodel our system of agriculture so that it may fully meet the demands made upon it.

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  • Red Hen’s All-Vermont “Cyrus Pringle”

    Red Hen’s All-Vermont “Cyrus Pringle”

    Those who have been following the various “Localvore Challenges” happening around the state will know that bread made from local flour has always been one of the biggest “challenges” for localvores. In 2006 and 2007, Randy George, owner of Red Hen Baking Company in Middlesex, produced special “Localvore Loaves” using whole wheat from Vermont, but each loaf came with a full-page disclaimer about why the bread didn’t meet normal Red Hen standards. In the disclaimer, Randy explained that he hoped someday he would be able to make an all-local wheat flour bread that he would be proud to sell alongside his other loaves. Most localvores thought the bread was pretty good, but Randy didn’t feel right putting the Red Hen name on it without his caution and explanation.

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  • King Arthur Flour’s  100% Vermont Bread

    King Arthur Flour’s 100% Vermont Bread

    Wheat breeding for the past century has focused almost exclusively on high-yielding varieties suited to the climates of the Midwest and West, not to New England. Due to our thin and rocky soils, hilly lands, and increasingly wet summers, Vermont wheats don’t have the easy virtues of wheats grown in the Midwest; one might kindly describe them as developmentally challenged. For a long time, this served as an impediment to bakers, and breads were rarely baked exclusively from Vermont grains.

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  • Celebrate with “Vermatzah”

    Celebrate with “Vermatzah”

    Matzah has been used for centuries to celebrate Passover and the start of spring. Now it can be used to celebrate local wheat and heritage grains, too.

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  • A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    When Joseph Kiefer and Martin Kemple founded Food Works in 1987, phrases such as “food security” and “local food system” had yet to come into common parlance. It was ambitious—maybe even radical at the time—to think of using gardens and locally grown food to address the root causes of childhood hunger.

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  • A Nose to Tail Heart to Heart

    A Nose to Tail Heart to Heart

    If I seem a little distracted, it’s most likely because I have to finish an order of cow’s tongue, warm up a duck’s heart, or explain the difference between fat-back and bacon to a curious but suspicious patron. It’s not that I don’t want to sit and talk—I’d love to have a beer with you, talk about where our ingredients come from, let you know that the rabbits really do like to be fed carrots, note the difference between Muscovy and Peking duck. It’s just that right now, there’s a couple in front of the Belgian taps who are waiting on their cheese plate. Be right back…

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—Seeing Purple

    Farmers' Kitchen—Seeing Purple

    Many people mark the arrival of spring with the sighting of the first robin. On our farm, the true harbinger of spring is the sight and taste of the first asparagus that noses its way out of the ground. Growing outdoors is a challenge for all farmers in the Northeast Kingdom—where, as the saying goes, one is never sure if a July frost indicates the last frost of spring or the first frost of fall. Asparagus means that spring not only has arrived but is here to stay, a cause for celebration.

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  • Last Morsel—A Perfect Day

    Last Morsel—A Perfect Day

    Each year, Monkton Central School in the Champlain Valley holds its annual Farming in Monkton Writing Contest. Students in grades 3 to 6 are invited to write a sketch about farming, and entries are evaluated by a local judge. Following is the 2009 winning entry, written by 11-year-old Ashley Turner. It’s a fictional account, based on her real-life experiences on various Monkton farms.

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  • Editor's Note Summer 2010

    Editor's Note Summer 2010

    There’s so much about modern American culture that our farmer ancestors could never have imagined. The popular Facebook game FarmVille comes to mind. That’s where you sit at your computer “harvesting” corn and squash from your virtual farm while studying spreadsheets to make sure your farm is profitable. Yes… your farm… your computer farm.

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • Set the Table with Tortillas

    Set the Table with Tortillas

    I have to admit, having lived in California for more than 20 years, I have a soft spot for Mexican food. Actually, that’s putting it mildly; I could eat it every day. So when we relocated to Vermont to start this latest adventure in our lives, I figured I’d be saying adiós to some beloved friends. No more fresh tortillas steaming hot in a basket to accompany those creamy refried beans.

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  • Buried Treasure

    Buried Treasure

    A buried kimchi pot looks like a small bump in the ground.

    The buried kimchi pot at Laughing Lotus Farm looks like a small bump in the ground in someone’s dooryard, which a visitor could walk past without a second glance.

    “But imagine a field of buried kimchi pots!” Dave Brodrick enthused minutes after I arrived at Laughing Lotus Farm and walked past the bump in the dooryard. I imagined a field of the same small bumps.

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  • Mami and Papi

    Mami and Papi

    My partner, Meg, and I made our first journey to Mexico in the two weeks before Christmas 2009. We enjoyed some beach time on the Pacific, caught a couple of monster fish, and rode a few waves. We were joined there by our friends Isaac and Melissa, Craftsbury residents who are in the Peace Corps in Panama. After a week on the beach we rode the bus inland to Ixtapa. This is four hours southwest of Mexico City, in the state of Guerrero, and is home base for the Reyes Vargas clan. The Reyes Vargas have nine children, and we have gotten to know seven of them over the past four years.

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  • New to America,  Old Hands at Agriculture

    New to America, Old Hands at Agriculture

    There’s something exciting happening at the Intervale. “So what else is new?” you might say. “There’s always something interesting happening at the Intervale.” But not every day do you see families from more than four different countries, speaking a mix of different languages, planting lenga-lenga, molukhia, or Asian mustards side by side in a lush valley in Vermont. This summer that will be the scene at the gardens at Ethan Allen Homestead, a field at the Intervale Center in Burlington, and on farmland in Shelburne.

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  • Human Manure

    Human Manure

    In gardening, we cannot escape cycles—not that we’d want to, since they’re what keeps the whole party going. There are the obvious cycles, like the eternal cycle of seasons, and the accompanying growth cycle from seed to seedling, to plant, flower, or fruit, and back to seed again. But there’s another cycle taking place in every garden and on every farm that is the most fundamental of all, but nearly invisible.

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  • Farmer's Kitchen—Strawberry Fields

    Farmer's Kitchen—Strawberry Fields

    There’s something exciting happening at the Intervale. “So what else is new?” you might say. “There’s always something interesting happening at the Intervale.” But not every day do you see families from more than four different countries, speaking a mix of different languages, planting lenga-lenga, molukhia, or Asian mustards side by side in a lush valley in Vermont. This summer that will be the scene at the gardens at Ethan Allen Homestead, a field at the Intervale Center in Burlington, and on farmland in Shelburne.

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  • Last Morsel—Three Weeks in June

    Last Morsel—Three Weeks in June

    We arrived at the campground in Watsonville, California, long after dark. Stepping out of the van, I paused, tilting my ear toward the distant sound of crashing waves. Overhead, the moon gleamed, half full beneath a thin layer of clouds. I turned toward the west—at least where I thought west was—and gazed at the ocean. It was glinting, shiny, and mysteriously still. I gazed at it for a long time, absorbing the distant calm of the water. Waves, I thought to myself, must not look the same from a nighttime distance, in hazy moonlight.

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Gardening Like the Forest

Garden illustration

Written By

Mark Krawczyk

Written on

March 01 , 2010

Modern gardeners have grown accustomed to segregating different types of plants into different places—herbs in one bed, veggies in another, perennials and flowers somewhere else, while the orchard stands alone. But this isn’t the way things work in a forest. Nature functions in wholes, enabling cooperation between species to generate robust, resilient systems that optimize the use of available sun, water, nutrients, and space.

With this understanding, we can model the inter-connectedness of the forest in our own backyard. When we plant an edible forest garden, we create a “cultivated ecosystem” composed of a wide diversity of primarily perennial plants (trees, shrubs, and perennials) that work together so that the needs of one species (minerals, mulch, pollination, and pest and disease suppression) are filled by the products of others (nitrogen-fixation, mineral accumulation, mulch, beneficial insect attraction, etc.). In time, the garden becomes largely self-maintaining, minimizing work for us while providing us with food. To be clear, we aren’t talking about establishing a garden in the forest. This is designing, installing, and maintaining an ecosystem that functions like the forest, while providing myriad yields sometimes referred to as the “Seven Fs”—food, fiber, fodder, fuel, fertilizer, “farmaceuticals,” and fun.

While annual gardens are very effective at producing large quantities of food for humans, they require a significant amount of work—much of it devoted to fighting against the natural process of succession (the evolution of field to forest through a shifting mosaic of species over time). Additionally, annual gardens are often planted in single-species rows or blocks, making them far more susceptible to pests and disease. As forest gardeners, we ask, “Instead of motoring against succession with each passing season, why not put up a sail and follow along?” So with this in mind, we design our gardens to develop and evolve over time, requiring no tillage and little to no watering or planting once established, all while letting the garden grow more productive with each passing season. Following is a very basic overview of what it takes to establish your own backyard edible forest garden.

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Edible forest gardens will thrive at just about any scale; an urban or suburban backyard (or front yard!) is just about perfect. As for a specific site, many of the species you’ll want to highlight in your forest garden are much more productive in full sun, so paying close attention to the patterns of sun and shade will pay off greatly. (Generally, if possible, I plant trees and large shrubs along the northern boundary of a property to reduce the effect of their shade on the rest of the yard and garden. In this way, the garden takes on a “stepped” character, with plant height increasing from south to north.) You’ll also want to test your soil, especially if you’re in an urban setting or planting a garden for the first time; it’s incredibly helpful to know the status of your soil’s mineral reserves, and in urban areas it’s vital to test for contamination, namely lead. (The University of Vermont Extension offers soil testing services.)

Once you’ve chosen your site, it’s time to develop a plan. To do this, let’s look briefly at the components of a forest garden. We simply break it down into two primary categories: structure and function. Consider a natural forest. Its vegetative structure is made up of vertical layers—trees, shrubs, perennials/herbs, annuals, ground covers, roots and vines—and it’s this stacking of vegetation that makes natural forests immensely productive. We can do the same thing with our gardens. So start off by making a list of the multi-functional plants you like most (plants that provide at least a few of those “Seven Fs”), and categorize them into layers. When approaching design for backyard-scale forest gardens, I typically begin with the “overstory”—the trees that will comprise the canopy of the system—and here, Vermonters have an impressive array of fruit and nut trees from which to choose. Depending on your local microclimate, you could plant peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots, quince, apples, pears, walnuts, hickories, hardy pecans, paw paws, and many others.

Once you have canopy trees chosen, you can begin to select a complementary “guild” of species that fill in the structure and provide some of the important functions—fertilization, pest control, pollination, and mineral cycling—that make for a healthy, resilient plant polyculture. You may choose to include a native nitrogen-fixing perennial vine like groundnut, a couple of fruiting, shrubby currants, a white clover ground cover, patches of mint for tea and pest deterrence, and a few tomato and basil plants to fill in the gaps while the guild is still young. While the process may seem overwhelming at the outset, if we approach it systematically, we develop gardens that thrive in beauty and productivity, while we become intimately connected to the guilds we create. As our forest gardens grow and evolve, our role as gardener changes as well. Because the garden is primarily composed of perennials, it regrows each year, minimizing our need to start seeds and to plant. The diversity and varied structure of the garden make it much more resistant to pest and disease outbreaks, while providing habitat for a healthy and balanced insect population. And since trees, shrubs, and perennials, once established, are much hardier and resistant to fluctuations in soil moisture, they don’t need to be watered after the first year. We even begin to question the concept of “weeds,” instead recognizing them as gifts of “green manure” that we can use to mulch our precious fruit trees and shrubs. This isn’t to say we won’t ever find unwanted plants (a.k.a. weeds) emerging in our gardens, but in this system we learn to appreciate the contribution they make, in light of the work they create for us. A stroll through an edible forest garden takes us on an ecological adventure, allowing us to meander from observation to harvest to mulching and fertilization (“weeding”) to relaxation.

Edible forest gardening is really about building connections between natural elements. As we actively and knowingly participate in our gardens, we create living legacies that nurture, maintain, and evolve themselves over time. And what could be more rewarding than leaving a little piece of the planet more diverse, healthy, beautiful, and productive than it was when you found it?

For more information on edible forest gardens, Mark recommends Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier’s Edible Forest Gardens, Volumes 1 and 2, which he calls “the most extensive work on edible forest garden design and species selection.” For plants, he recommends East Hill Tree Farm in Plainfield, Elmore Roots Nursery in Elmore, and St. Lawrence Nurseries in Potsdam, N.Y.

Illustration by Mark Krawczyk

About the Author

Mark Krawczyk

Mark Krawczyk

Mark Krawczyk is a permaculture designer, educator, traditional woodworker, natural builder and community organizer. He owns and operates Keyline Vermont, a permaculture and ecological land planning design company that specializes in the design and installation of edible forest gardens. He also works as the cofounder of the grassroots community nonprofit Burlington Permaculture. He lives in Burlington.

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Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.

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