Someday, we’ll talk about the irony of a rural land man that lives in town. But for today, we’re going to take a quick look at a short and easy permaculture strategy you can utilize, even if you live in town. Probably not if you live in an HOA, though. 🙂
What you’re seeing in the pictures below is a pecan tree race. Now, a pecan tree race is much slower than, say, NASCAR. It takes a lot of patience. Originally, I put some swales in to capture and hold rainwater. And they worked wonderfully. Every time it rains in my neighborhood, the ancient waterway begins to run, and I capture and hold a magnificent amount of rainwater.
What I did NOT take into account was the planting succession. For whatever reason, my system of swales would not hold any of the useful food crops I planted. Everything died. I tried blackberries, figs, peaches, mushroom logs, and a couple of willow trees. (Willow trees aren’t edible, I know – But they are useful. And my daughter wanted one.) Nothing lived in any of the locations I tried. Finally I gave up, and let mother nature claim her own. Even buying fruit trees on sale became an expensive and losing proposition. And what DID grow there were native and some adapted species that thrive in North Texas. I’ve got a couple of species of ragweed that grow well here. Both the obnoxious kind that makes a gazillion seed heads if left unattended, and also the greater species of ragweed that burns your skin when you try to pull it. And, the greater ragweed grows really nice and tall, and the city will, in fact, bust your chops on that one.
But the best thing that started growing in the yard was native pecan trees. Now, we already have two mature pecan trees on our 1/2 acre. There can only be so many trees on such a small parcel. But they propagate like weeds! If you were to leave one pecan tree out alone in nature, in one year’s dropping, you’d have thousands of seedling pecan trees. I’ve seen it happen, year in year out since we moved here.
Well, this one particular area of the yard is pretty far back, and pretty well unused, and the swales make it hard to mow back there. So rather than beat up my head up against the wall trying to keep Mother Nature at bay, I decided to embrace her and let her do whatever it is she’s going to do. And in this case, Mother Nature wants to grow pecan trees.
I’d go out there and look at the new shoots, and the ones that seemed to grow best, and thrive hardest, I’d trim their lower branches so the strong ones would grow just a little taller and a little straighter. Then, a couple of times a year, I’d go out and look again, and trim again. I’d trim back hard in the fall, and then trim again hard in the early spring. (And when I say, “trim hard” remember that the tree was first pencil big, then finger big, then stick big, etc. We’re not talking about days worth of brush clearing)
Now, 4 or 5 years later, I have what looks like a pretty clear winner. I’m going to keep the contest going for another few years, just in case something happens to Mr. Big, but at some point, all the non-winners will have to be trimmed back and turned into compost. To use permaculture nomenclature, this whole area of my yard would be like a Zone 4/Zone 5. Zone 4 being lightly managed for timber (or nut harvest) and Zone 5 being completely left unattended. Let me give you a brief tour, by way of a couple of pictures.
Now, if you’ll take a closer look at the photo, look beyond the pecan tree grove and you’ll see a chaste vitex tree and a wall of overgrowth. This is the top swale in my landscape, the highest portion of the property. This is where the water from the streambed enters the property. Over the years, various homebuilders and developers have modified and altered the waterway, to the extent that they dumped their fill and excess there, but, generally speaking, the waterway still runs between the two rows of homes. This is really “the wild area” of the yard. I did plant a native persimmon tree back there, and it does well back there. I shaped that portion of the land to have lots and lots of edge. By “edge,” I mean I built small, curvy islands with lots of shoreline (relative to the size of the space). I am hoping that frogs and toads will begin to habitate that area. The Chaste Vitex tree is not native to North Texas, but has been grown in North America for over 300 years. [Chaste vitex] I like the Vitex because it does well in Texas, and provides ample habitat for all types of pollinators. I compost all kinds of stuff back here. Pizza boxes and other pure brown cardboard compost easily, and no one can see them. They soak up the water that comes through the waterway and fall flat to the ground, in short order. I also compost large tree branches and/or logs, scrap lumber and anything that’s too large or bulky for the normal compost heap. This system has been in place for several seasons, and you can easily see all the organic matter developing behind the swale.
The area in front of the Chaste Vitex tree is the pecan tree race track. The pecan tree that’s winning the race is nearly square in the middle of this small plot. This small parcel, in particular, has been the biggest challenge to keep mowed and looking somewhat neat. Well, neat isn’t the right word. “Neighbors less likely to call the city” is probably a better way to say it. I finally broke down, and re-shaped the swale, so that I can get the mower back there. It won’t hold water as well as before, but I had to do something to knock the jungle back ‘some‘ considering I do, in fact, have neighbors. In this area, in addition to the pecan trees, I have lantana, which is a Texas native, and native sunflowers. I’ve got some native sunflowers that grow higher up in the yard, closer to the house. When these go to seed in later summer, we always cut the heads off and throw them down here. They grow if they can. There’s also some a mustard plant you can see if you look to the right, at the corner of the barn. I tried a keyhole garden here, and it didn’t work. I’m letting the mustard plant go to seed before I dig the whole thing up. The mustard plant will provide early spring food for pollinators. I keep thinking I should just break down and go buy a small bag of Texas highway mix. Bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, Mexican hat, and primrose line almost all of Texas highways and provide food for native pollinators, and are pretty to look at.
Ultimately, what I’m creating here is a space of native North Texas forest. A small patch, yes. but a spot nontheless. I saw a video on FB the other day, and there is a new growing method that’s taking Europe by storm, and the idea is to create hundreds and thousands of these “micro-forests.” I didn’t know it was a trend, but that’s exactly what I’m doing, only slightly less intentional. Rather than intentional, massive plantings, I’m largely relying on what wants to grow there. In other words, I’m lazy and don’t want to cut the grass. 🙂
A few weeks ago, we were taking a family walk in a park near us. In some locations of Dallas/Fort Worth, they’ve done a good job with creating public spaces that remain more wild than bulldozing everything in sight. Bear Creek Parkway in Keller is one such area. As I was walking, and thinking, and observing, I saw my backyard in 50 years. I’m unlikely to ever see that area reach it’s climax, and the bulldozers may get to it before it can get a chance to fully mature, but I hope not. I’ve created a little tiny, native micro-forest that if left alone, will provide native flora and fauna for generations to come.
I would encourage everyone to think about little a portion of their yard, no matter how small, revert back to nature. You’ll be amazed by the results.