From hedging our bets to betting our hedges

Low-input, low-maintenance, low-cost solutions to managing Seven Trees Farm are always under development, and security is on the list. While we’ve ticked off the more obvious measures, such as cameras, fences and lighting, it never hurts to have extra layers of protection when times get tough.

The hedgerows we started back in 2006 are maturing nicely, providing shade for pets and livestock, food for wildlife, and summer privacy for people. Now we’re extending the project to include deterring 2 and 4 legged varmints from the house yard, while adding bee/hummingbird food, medicinal plants and lovely, fragrant flowers.

Our robust rugosa rose inspired the first pick for the new hedge – Marie Bugnet. High Country Roses describes it as “A lovely rose with elegant pointed buds that open to fragrant, snow-white double blooms. One of the earliest to bloom in spring, repeating well into fall. The shrub is compact, reaching 3 feet tall and wide. Canes are a rich red in winter.”

Marie Bugnet:
From High Country Roses

Rugosa roses are generally hardier and require less fussing than ‘fancy’ roses, and the smaller size hopefully means less pruning too. We like this variety for a variety of reasons – fragrance, manageable size, long bloom time, and wicked thorns.

From Wikimedia Commons

There are some good lists and articles on defensive plantings, like this one, but each home and microclimate are unique, so not all plants listed work for everyone. We’ll add some evergreen shrubs for winter privacy (this hedgerow will screen the house from road view) and encourage previously planted herbs, like lemon balm, field mint, and catnip, to fill in the gaps. One top contender for evergreen addition is California lilac (genus Ceanothus) as it draws pollinators like bees to honey 🙂 It may not be hardy in our Fraser-outflow impacted microclimate, but it’s too pretty not to try.

Image result for california lilac
From Wikimedia Commons



Respect your elders

Elderberries that is…

It’s been a few years since we started planting edible hedgerows and thickets here & there on the property, and now many of those itty bitty “twigs” are productive trees and shrubs. One thriving plant is a domestic elderberry (the tag has long since been lost, so no idea which particular variety it is) that goes as far as setting fruit, but never seems to finish the job. Elder_flowersSo instead of fighting nature, this season we’re planning to work together, cordially. All those fluffy, creamy, aromatic flower umbrels are going to be picked and bathed in a vat (well, quart jar anyway) of Costco vodka and a little sugar. In a couple of weeks we’ll have elderflower liqueur to augment our arsenal of herbal, fruity goodness, and remind us of summer’s bounty all through the dark & dank rainy season ahead.

Elderflowers also have a long history of use in traditional medicine, as summarized in this article. Can’t hurt to try 🙂

Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook has a great post/recipe here that we plan to use.

Hedge Fund

For nearly a decade now, the humans of Seven Trees Farm have been buying plants at the county conservation district sale. Most of their offerings are natives, chosen for their hardy restoration capabilities, and sold very cheaply in multiples. We wanted to add some buffer zones along the perimeter fences, plus maintain habitat for beneficial wild critters.

South hedgerow last year.
South hedgerow last year.

The picture above shows one planted area along our south fenceline. It’s grown exponentially in the year since this was taken, with understory plants really filling in the low gaps. The paddock to the left was planted more recently, and there is another paddock to the left of that one, out of picture, that we just planted up this spring. We also added more plants, mainly elderberry, serviceberry, crabapple, hawthorn and rose along the east perimeter. The north east corner of our lot was heavily planted our second year here with shore pines, cascara, red osier dogwood, birches and rugosa roses. The idea was to grow a windbreak to divert the blizzard nor’easters we get most winters. Our neighbor has a woodlot adjoining this corner, which also lends habitat and protection.

This summer we realized that corner was a bit overplanted, and so thinned out quite a bit. It’s still a nice shady nook, enjoyed by critters domestic and wild, but also easier for us to navigate around to reach our feral blackberry patch.

Rugosa rose, black hawthorn & Pacific crabapple fruits.
Nootka rose, black hawthorn & Pacific crabapple fruits.

When deciding which species to plant, food production was a top criteria. Judging by the size of the ‘apples‘ to the right in the picture above, it’s evident that the food being produced is more for critters than people. It must have taken uncounted generations to breed domestic crabapples from wild trees, and even longer to develop supermarket staples like Fuji and Delicious apples. The fruit in the center is from a black hawthorn tree. This species is reputed to have medicinal value, but we like it for it’s protective thorns. As the trees mature, the branches intertwine and help keep ‘bad guys’ out. All kinds of wildlife take advantage of the copious fruit, and the tree itself thrives in all kinds of weather and soil conditions. Hips are just starting to form on the scrappy Nootka rose, another fruity-thorny hedge stalwart.

Cascara berries.
Cascara berries.

Our two cascara trees (one inherited when we bought STF and one was a free Arbor Day promo) are very prolific flower and fruit producers. All kinds of bees love pollen-harvesting in late spring, especially native bumblebees. The entire tree canopy is literally abuzz at certain times of the year. The dark purple fruits are mainly eaten by birds as summer starts turning to fall. Back in the day, bark from cascara trees was collected by country-dwellers and sold to make a laxative. Local tribes also used cascara for this purpose, with the added lore that peeling the bark up to harvest made a vomit-inducing purge, and peeling the bark down created a purge at the ‘other end’. Botanical literature claims no information on the effects of cascara on wildlife, but anecdotal evidence hints that eating animals that have eaten cascara berries can also be purgative.

Rugosa rose hip.
Rugosa rose hip.

The rugosa roses planted just outside our northeast fenceline have grown into a mighty hedge. Just as mighty are the persimmon-like hips they produce. The flowers themselves don’t have a fragrance, unlike the more domestic rugosa variety we have planted closer to the house. Rose hips are a power-packed vitamin source, enjoyed by wildlife and people alike. (We even get human foragers ‘poaching’ hips as they walk past the house.) The hips can be dried and used for tea, or made into cordials and syrups for a taste of summer any time of the year.

These are just a few of the plants we have in our ‘hedge fund’ that add so many benefits to our habitat, with little maintenance required. The Washington Native Plant Society has some helpful resources for identifying useful native plants. We try to choose our new additions by reading about how local tribes used them, in addition to wildlife needs and our microclimate. Although we’d rather not have to resort to cascara purges, it is comforting to know that Seven Trees Farm is hedged in by food, protection and medicine.

Rough around the edges

It’s been a few years since we worked on cultivating our wild spaces here at Seven Trees Farm. In 2008 we started planting some native habitat restoration shrubs and trees around the perimeter of our lot, some of which took off and some, not so much.

Since then, we’ve been caught up in our domesticated species endeavours – bees, cows, chickens, corn, wheat, beans, herbs, and so on. Some of which took off and some, not so much.

Now that we don’t have large livestock (i.e. horses or cattle) to worry about, we decided to expand those original hedgerows into cover plantings for our chickens. This winter, while those planning discussions were underway, we noticed the unmistakable buzz of a hungry hummingbird.  In previous years the hummingbirds would pack up and fly south for the winter in late August, not to return until late March. But between climate change and habitat destruction, all bets are off. We dusted off the hummingbird feeder and gave thanks for the Costco-sized bag of sugar in the pantry. (One part sugar to four parts water. Heat and stir until dissolved.)

Not long after that initial brave winged soul appeared, we were swarmed by ravenous Rufous hummers. We broke out the back up feeder, since one male was so fiercely defending ‘his’ feeder no one else could fuel up. Those two feeders were immediately overwhelmed with hungry birds, so we had to resort to the usually-unloved third feeder, hung a bit farther off under the carport roof.

This onslaught luckily coincided with the annual Whatcom County conservation district plant sale, so one of us braved the cold, wind & rain (not to mention the crowds of pushy people) to buy hummingbird-friendly hedgerow material. Oregon ash trees, native blue elderberry, crab apple, mock orange, and ever-so-popular red flowering currantRedFloweringCurrant We also protected most of our new plantings with blue CREP tubes. CREP stands for Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, a federal program that pays landowners to preserve critical habitats. In our area it is common to see new plantings protected by these reused blue plastic tubes, so having a ring of them around the lot perimeter means habitat reconstruction.

Not that we still don’t have livestock management issues. Stay tuned for the next update which might very well involve the one species that has never planted cloven hoof upon the soil of Seven Trees….far baaa it from me to let the sheep out of the bag about that 😀

Hedging our bets

When you live in a small space, one method of getting the biggest bang for your buck is to make sure everything serves more than one purpose. Combining that guiding principle with an ancient agrarian practice is even more satisfying. Which brings me to today’s topic – Hedgerows!
According to U. C. Master Gardener, Nancy Wilson: “A hedgerow is a line or grouping of trees, shrubs, perennials, herbs, annuals, grasses and vines planted along fence lines, property lines or water areas. Using a diversity of plant materials lures insects, which in turn bring beneficial predators such as other insects, birds, toads, frogs and lizards.

A poster of this beautiful NW hedgerow is available from Good Nature Publishing as well as other wonderful and informative nature-based art. The Seattle Times says: “To visually entice gardeners and farmers to consider hedgerows, King Conservation District recently commissioned a poster-sized field guide from local Good Nature Publishing Co. To capture the essence of hedgerows, Montreal artist Suzanne Duranceau shot six rolls of film at Ebey’s Landing on Whidbey Island and Tolt-McDonald Park near Carnation. Her composite painting is a lovely hybrid of locations featuring more than 25 species of native flora and fauna found in or near Puget Sound hedgerows. With deer and ladybugs, cattails and wild roses, the poster illustrates a hedgerow separating farmland from wetland.” The rest of the article has a lot more about creating urban hedgerows, especially in the PNW.

We’ve been intermittently working on hedgerows and/or habitat areas here at Seven Trees for the past few years. One year we planted shore pines, red-twig dogwoods and rugosa roses. The next year we added blueberries under the front fir grove, another rugosa, a climbing rose and 3 thornless blackberries (from the neighbor) along one fenceline. We also started adding native plants to our “mitigation zone” under the back fir grove, an area that had been abused by previous occupants parking cars there. Those plants include vine maples (one of my all time favorite natives), sword ferns, evergreen huckleberries, kinnikinik. Non-native additions are wintergreen, and assorted herbs (just to see if they’ll like it there) like sage, calendula, moonflower, thyme, oregano & mugwort. And we also were joined by some bird-donated red elderberries. Speaking of birds, Bosky Dell Natives has an incredible page on which native plants attract what wildlife.

Native plant species often require less care once they are established, but food-producing plants can often be integrated in a hedgerow just as easily. The hedge we are working on at the end of our pasture includes Pacific crabapple, which is loved by birds, but also makes a tasty jelly and the juice can add a nice zip to cider. We also have mountain ash, with it’s bright orange berries. A little less tasty to humans, but still edible, and another avian favorite. We have a few red alders which add nitrogen to the soil and can even provide firewood someday. There are little wild alders that sprouted in the herb bed and got moved to the corner, near the incense cedar we got for free at the co-op on Arbor Day. We’re hoping they will break the flow of the southern monsoon winds, but are still far enough from any buildings to be safe if they blow over.

From a very informative article by Macphail Woods Nursery on Prince Edward Island: “Hedgerows, also called windbreaks or shelterbelts, once divided Island farms into a pattern of small fields. They provided shelter for livestock, protected houses and barns from winter winds and helped cool the buildings in the summer. The micro-climate in the fields was improved as the trees provided wind protection for the crops; the soil held heat and moisture and wind erosion was minimal. As farm mechanization increased the number of hedgerows decreased. Larger machines needed larger fields in which to manoeuvre. Soil erosion increased and important wildlife habitat corridors were lost as hedgerows were cut.”

This year we’re going to take advantage of our county’s Conservation District plant sale and fill in any gaps in our hedgerows (as far as larger shrubs are concerned – smaller plants come later). On the shopping list are: black hawthorne (more edible berries and a nice thorny barrier), mock orange (because they smell lovely), some native roses, red flowering currants, serviceberries, beaked hazelnuts, Garry oak (our only native oak), and paper birches.

The conservation district mainly grows bulk native plants for replanting disturbed areas and mitigating wetlands. But each spring they sell to the public. The plants are small, but very cheap, and if you pre-order $100 or more, you can pick them up instead of fighting the crowds on sale day. Many areas of the US have similar programs. The National Association of Conservation Districts will point you in the right direction. Another great source for PNW natives is Burnt Ridge Nursery. They also sell fruiting plants and nut trees suitable for an edible landscape.

We’re working with two main directions to the hedgerow plan – growing native plants, to take advantage of their natural hardiness and suitability to our climate; and filling the niches certain natives would normally fill with similar, food-producing varieties. This means where a native plant community would have huckleberries or twinberries in the undergrowth, we’re planting blueberries. They have similar growing requirements, but produce much more food than the wild species. The medicinal/culinary herbs we’ve planted in back are an experiment in replacing the usual perennials and wildflowers with hardy adaptable plants we can make thorough use of. We’re also learning ethnobotany (how the local tribes used all these native plants) as we go.

For people with smaller planting areas, this substitution method might be a workable way to add some habitat while increasing human-edible food production, with a minimum of care once the plants are well-established. For advice and ideas on how to plant your own hedgerow, check out the Master Gardener program in your area. Your local native plant society can also be a good resource in figuring out what to plant in your hedgerow.