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Maple Sap Ideas

Sap season is here, at least for those of us in the Piedmont of North Carolina. The maples trees in our area have begun the yearly ritual of the sap flow. While we don’t have a lot of sugar maples in NC, and none grow on our land, we do have plenty of red maples. Red maple doesn’t produce as sweet a sap as sugar maple and therefore is a less economical choice for tapping and maple syrup production.

However, syrup production is a time and energy intensive operation that I don’t really have a desire to get into just yet. Something I am interested in is maple water, aka straight maple sap. Maple water is an old concept that has recently been rediscovered by health food companies. It’s essentially the same sap that would be boiled down into maple syrup left unaltered and bottled. The result is a slightly sweet and clear drink with a dose of antioxidants and minerals. Different cultures have used maple sap as a cleansing tonic for a very long time, and it is well known to wildcrafters and foragers as a source of clean water.

maple popsicle

a delicious maple icicle, formed at the end of a trimmed twig

My interest in tapping a few of our red maples is part science experiment (especially considering Emma’s discovery last year of sugarcicles), partly a pursuit of fresh maple water to drink, and part fermentation experimentation. I want to make some maple wine and some maple beer.

I’ve read a few different recipes that use maple sap as a brewing/vinting ingredient and it seems that straight maple sap would yield a fermented beverage clocking in at around 1-3% abv. Now, if you were to either add some sugar or boil this down a bit to concentrate it, you could raise these to more traditional beer and wine levels (FYI: Don’t forget to check out our craft beer review show , Beauty and the Beerd).

Now, in order to get this sap, i’ll have to tap some trees. The standard rule of thumb is not to tap a tree less than 10″ in diameter. We have a few of those on our property, and i’ll probably tap them in the traditional way by drilling a hole in the tree and inserting a tube/tap that drips into a bucket or some other container. But what i’m really excited about is some recent research out of Vermont about tapping smaller trees.They coppiced young maple trees and used vacuum tubing to yield over 10 times the amount of syrup per acre.

I don’t have any vacuum tubes, but this is still interesting because it shows that even smaller trees can yield sap without harming their growth. My idea, and it’s not an original idea, is to try and harvest the sap from twigs and smaller branches on our maple trees. You simply prune off the end of a twig and either attach a tube or plastic bag to the branch to collect the sap. According to, some twig taps can equal the sap production of a trunk tap, and you can do many per tree.

maple sap twigs

a maple twig tap is less invasive and easy to use

This action is less invasive and harmful to the young trees, and actually stimulates growth due to pruning. I’m pretty excited to experiment with it and see how it goes.

Of course, not just maple trees can be tapped, but also birch, walnut, linden, sycamore, and many others. You can see how tree saps, and tree sap beverages can fit nicely into a permaculture system as a late winter activity. By utilizing these saps in for items other than syrup production, which can be costly both in energy and time, even marginal sap producing regions can harvest appreciable yields form their trees, and stack another function into their designs and homesteads.


Acorns/Oak Nuts: Food from the Woods

This year has been a good year for acorns in North Carolina, with almost every oak I’ve seen having a decent crop of nutritious nuts. The oaks on our property are no exception, and in particular the chestnut oaks have had a bumper crop of huge acorns this fall.  I gathered this pile of acorns from beneath a chestnut oak in about 5-10 minutes, and it ended up weighing about 5 pounds. Not too bad, and if you do some math, that would be 30-60 lbs. an hour.

chestnut oak acorns edible

5 pounds of chestnut oak acorns from our woods

Chestnut oaks make great acorns, some of the largest in our bioregion and also some of the least bitter. In general, the tastiest and sweetest acorns come from white oaks, while the most bitter tend to come from red oaks.

I’ll start processing these in the next few days and eventually get down to a nutritious and delicious product! Talk about nutrient dense food!

But before that can happen, the tannin will need to be leached out. This isn’t too complicated or difficult, but it does take some effort. I don’t know if we’ll be eating acorn bread on our tomato sandwiches next summer, but it should be a fun and edible experiment!


Managing Woodlands, Woodlots, and Forests for Fun and Profit

The millions of acres of American Woodlands have, for the last 2 centuries, been mined not managed. They have been stripped, clearcut, set on fire, and replanted with short rotation mono-crops to the point that many of our mature woodlands and forests bear little resemblance to healthy and natural woodland communities.This has been done in the name of short term profits, and while the logging companies and sawmills made-out great, more often than not landowners received a stumpage price way too low, and were left with a degraded and less valuable piece of forest in the aftermath.

clear cut timber permacultre

clear-cutting forests is rarely the best form of timber management

It doesn’t have to be this way though. Forests can be sustainably managed and designed to produce income for generations. With proper thinning, forest planning, tree selection, and management techniques, forest owners can ensure that their woodlot is not just a commodity to be firesold to save the farm, but a profitable ecosystem that increases in value over time, and can be passed on to future generations.

To do this e will have to go into these abused forests and asses the damage that countless “highgrading” cuts (a logging practice where all trees above a certain diameter are harvested, leaving the worst adapted and least valuable species standing) have left only stunted, poorly composed timber stands. Sometimes we may need to replant, or perform shelterewood and seed tree cuts to ensure proper forest regeneration, but often some thinning of poor quality trees, which can release trees of higher quality to achieve their full potential, combined with timber best practices like crop tree management, silvopasture, and coppice regeneration can bring degraded and abused forests back into sustainable productivity and profitability.


These thinnings wont always be of high enough value for commercial loggers, but this material does not need to be wasted. In fact,it can be extremely profitable. These crooked, small diameter and low value logs can be used for mushroom production on logs, firewood,craft wood, or even be sawed to length on portable bandsaw mills. Other uses can include fence posts,biochar prodcution, hugelkulture, and round timber construction.


small diameter oak logs inoculated with shiitake mushrooms!

This is where the small woodlot managers have an advantage. It’s one thing to find uses for 2-10 acres of low value wood, but quite another when you are dealing with 1000’s of acres. Smaller forest owners, particularly those who live on the wooded acreage that they are managing, also have the advantage of constant contact and correction. They walk their property every week, sometimes every day and can notice things like diseased, dying and dead trees, and can quickly implement a strategy to deal with them. They can also easily diversify into many avenues of production. It’s very feasible for someone to combine a small shiitake mushroom operation on logs , a coppice grove for crafts, cut a few cords of firewood for home heating, put in a small food forest with edible tree and cane fruits, go hunting a few times a year for turkey, squirrel and deer, all while increasing the value of their timber, property and life.

timber management cruise nc

forest owners and managers should observe and interact with their woods in order to come up with goals, and management strategies

This is the key to timber management, the interaction between owner and forest. There cannot be a prescription for management until an owner knows what he/she want’s to achieve with their woodlot. After that, a timber inventory, and then a timber management plan can be created and implemented. From there, it transitions to the long and enjoyable phase of observations and interactions, all tailored to the goals laid out in the beginning. This can lead to many years of productivity, profitability, and sustainability, all from a woodlot that was worth only a fraction of it’s value, but with proper timber management, can be passed down for generations as it wealth accumulates.

Rhus copallina: Shining, Dwarf, Winged or Flameleaf Sumac

Rhus copallina, or shining sumac, was one of the wild plants on our property that puzzled me for the longest time. I could recognize its distinctive sumac-y look that meant it belonged in the Rhus genus that contains the more common staghorn and smooth sumacs, but it didn’t match any of the pictures I could find of those two species. I was worried for a bit that it might be poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) but a quick Google search told me that the best way to tell poison sumac from okay sumac is the color of the berries. Red berries = don’t worry, and white berries = don’t touch/eat/make sumac tea. So, I went on not knowing exactly what the plant was, and being intrigued by its interestingly winged leaflets.

shining sumac

You can easily tell this type of sumac by the winged margins between the leaves.

But then, out of the blue one day while researching different types of permaculture plants, I stumbled across an image that finally made it clear that this sumac was winged sumac. It’s a great plant, with many uses and a strikingly beautiful presence on the homestead, especially in fall. It’s leaves are the darkest, most robust red I’ve ever seen.

But it’s not just a pretty plant! It also, like all of the safe sumacs, has a very high amount of vitamin c in it’s berries. You can soak them in water to pull out the vitamin c, and then freeze the tangy juice and use it like you would lemon juice. It’s also common for people, especially in the south, to make “sumac-ade” or pink lemonade out of the berries as well. I’ve heard of fisherman using a sprig of sumac berries in place of lemon when baking fish as well. In some countries, the berries are dried and ground up to make a spice that adds a red coloring to many dishes, and the pithy stems were often used in pipemaking.

winged dwarf flameleaf sumac

We love the beautiful fall color of Rhus copallina!

Shining sumac can grow in a wide range of climates, from zones 4-10, and can tolerate full sun or partial shade. It really is a pioneer species that thrives on the forest edge, where it leads the advancement of meadow to woods. It spreads by suckers, can quickly fill up an area that has been cleared, and it is often planted as both a wildlife cover species and as a shrub to stabilize soil and prevent erosion. All sorts of birds enjoy the berries, and they help to spread the seeds as well. One more interesting thing about  flameleaf sumac is that it often colonizes after fire events, which makes me wonder if the small stand we have used to be somewhere a burn or brush pile was kept by the previous owners.

In any event, I’m glad to have identified this plant, and even gladder to know that it’s so useful. I have been encouraging it wherever I see it growing, and hope to transplant a few into our backyard food forest this upcoming year and make a bunch of sumac-pink lemonade!


Black Walnut Trees in the Home Landscape and Garden

The other day, I was asked a great question in the comments section on my post about what wood to use in hugelkulture about planting black walnut trees. Specifically, about the ability of black walnut trees to “poison” other nearby plants with “chemical warfare.” I figured I would write up a post about some things to consider before planting these magnificent trees at your home or homestead.

First off, why do we even need to be concerned that a black walnut tree might kill our plants? Well, black walnut, along with hickory and pecan trees, produce a chemical called juglone. This chemical is toxic to many, but not all, species of plants and even some animals if consumed in large quantities. This gives black walnut trees an advantage in the wild, helping it to compete among other trees, vines and shrubs for sunlight, nutrients, and water. But not all plants are sensitive to juglone. In fact, many plants that co-evolved in the same areas with black walnut are not affected by the alleopathic effects of the juglone.

walnut trees in the garden


Furthermore, there are many factors that can influence a plant’s ability to live near a walnut tree and not succumb to the juglone poisoning. A few of the factors are related to soil and site conditions (pH, moisture, soil life), while others have to do with proximity to the tree. Because juglone does not travel very far in the soil, only plants immediately around black walnut trees are susceptible to poisoning. Also, by planting buffer trees, or trees that are not affected by juglone such as black locust, mullberry, elderberry, and black cherry, you can essentially contain the juglone to the area immediately under the tree.This area is particularly high in juglone because of the accumulation of leaves, nuts, nut hulls and roots.In this area, it’s best to only plant plants that are tolerant of juglone (check out a great resource here).

Plants that are not juglone tolerant include:

  • apple
  • azalea
  • birch, white
  • blackberry
  • blueberry
  • chrysanthemum
  • crocus, autumn
  • forget-me-not
  • grape, domestic
  • lily-of-the-valley
  • linden
  • mountain laurel
  • peony
  • pine
  • potato
  • rhododendron
  • thyme
  • tomato

Keep these far away from your black walnut tree, and make sure that when it drops its leaves in the fall, that they don’t settle down and decompose around these plants.

Personally, I think that there are a lot of options when it comes to using  black walnut in the landscape, particularly  in a food forest setting. With a little research, and some planning, anyone can take advantage of its majestic shape, delicious nuts, and extremely valuable timber. The nuts are easily planted in the fall, 3-4 deep and covered with a layer of either straw or leaf mulch. After freezing and thawing all winter, they should germinate in the spring. Just make sure to mark them off so you don’t mow them down next year!

Plant Propagation: Principles, Practices, and Planning

As summer starts to think about turning to fall, the season for propagating woody perennials, trees, bushes, and shrubs gets closer. This spring we planted a bunch of fruit trees and berry bushes as part of our backyard food forest. Some of these plants, especially the ones we planted later in the year, did not appreciate the dry summer we had and will need to be replaced. This can add up when you are buying plants form a nursery, and while the value of a fruit tree investment is immense, it’s nice to be able to keep costs down by propagating new plants from trees and bushes you already own.

Propagation Book

So, I pulled out an old book that we bought at an estate sale a while back called Plant Propagation: Principles and Practices. It’s a textbook for the nursery industry but also has many uses for the home orchard or permaculturalist. My copy is the 3rd edition from 1975 and I think it was 50 cents. Compared to the $132 for a new edition, I think we did pretty good, and if you are interested in this publication I would suggest buying a used copy of an older edition.

Grafting Book

try and find an older edition to save a few bucks

The book covers everything from building greenhouses and cold frames, to starting root-stocks for fruit trees from seed and grafting scion wood onto them to clone specific cultivars. It’s very easy to search the book for specific information on how best to propagate certain plants. I was able to quickly find out that layering is the best method for blackberries, softwood cuttings for blueberries, root cuttings for elderberries, and hard wood cuttings for currants. There are entire sections on how to each technique, with pictures, charts and more detail than you would ever really need to know. Each chapter has a list of less than useful scientific resources and references as well.

budding book proapgation

Easy to understand text and diagrams for every propagation technique

I definitely recommend Plant Propagation: Principles and Practices to anyone interested in propagating any sort of plant material, from fruit trees to house plants. I’d also suggest searching amazon for a used older edition to save some money on it. While it is written for a college level course, it reads easy, and is full of useful information for home gardeners and laymen. For anyone who finds themselves wanting to propagate multiple types of plants, having this book as a reference can save a lot of grief and effort.

The Value of a Fruit Tree Investment

I wrote yesterday on how to plant fruit trees and it got me thinking about the potential value and return on investment that a food forest, or even just 1 fruit tree can provide. Today I want to look at what an apple tree can yield during it’s lifespan, and maybe try and persuade you that planting one just may be the best investment opportunity around.

value of an apple tree

One of our heritage apple trees with a tomato cage to protect from deer, and fava beans planted around it to produce mulch and fix nitrogen.

Okay. Let’s look at a semi-dwarf apple tree, like the William’s Favorite apple that I showed in the pictures of yesterday’s post. A semi-dwarf apple tree will cost anywhere from 15-40 dollars and you can definitely find a high quality, heritage variety for under 30 dollars. After planting, you can expect some yield in 2 years, but 3-5 years is when this tree will really hit it’s stride.

How much does a semi-dwarf apple tree produce? Around 4-7 bushels of apples per year. A bushel of apples is about 45 pounds, so that makes 180-325 pounds of apples every year. That’s a lot of apples. It’s actually 500-880 medium-sized apples, and would likely satisfy your “apple a day”.

How much are these apples worth? Well, first off, go down to a store and try to buy a beyond organic, no spray William’s Favorite apple. How much is it? It doesn’t exist. You can’t buy it at a store, but we’ll substitute organic apples for our calculations. So, organic apples run anywhere from 1.99/lb. to 3.99/lb., but I’ll use the lower number to be on the safe side. So, at 2 dollars per pound, 1 tree will produce $360-650 worth of apples per year.

But what can you do with hundreds of pounds of apples? Well, you could make homemade apple pie, 60 -100 pies per tree actually.

What about cider? Did you know that President John Adams would drink a tankard of hard cider every morning to prevent gas? Well, your mature apple tree can produce enough apples to make 12-24 gallons of cider per year. That’s 128-256 bottles, or 21-42 6 packs of craft cider. If you’re not a cider drinker, I’ll tell you that a 6 pack of quality cider costs about 10 bucks, and most of these are made from the rejects of the fresh fruit market.

Now, for how long can you expect this investment to return? While standard apple trees, those grown on full size rootstocks, can easily live 100 years, semi-dwarf apples typically live from 20-25 years. So your $30 apple tree will produce around 5000 pounds of apples, enough to make 1500 apple pies, or 600 6 packs of apple cider. And thanks to inflation, who knows how much these will cost in the next 25 years.

I’d say that’s a pretty good deal. And after the first year, once the tree is established, it will require very little maintenance. Now if this 1 tree is surrounded by support species plants that fix nitrogen, attract pollinators, and provide mulch and predatory insect habitat, and maybe a small swale to hydrate the soil and reduce water needs, then this 1 tree becomes a self-supporting, and highly valuable aspect of your property.

And while you can drive out right now and buy a 2-3 year old apple tree to plant, you cannot buy a 10 year old tree that is in full production, with a root system 20 feet deep and capable of surviving drought like no corn field or garden can. All of these, and many more, are reasons to consider planting a fruit tree or two on your property. It’s not that hard, and can be an extremely profitable investment.

Planting Trees: A Quick How To

As we wrap up the initial planting of our backyard food forest, I thought it made sense to put together a post on how exactly we plant our fruit trees. We already uploaded a video about protecting fruit with tomato cages, so check that out if you haven’t already, but today I’m going to give a quick how to on planting bare-root fruit trees.

apple tree location

This spot in the front yard is just out from the dripline of a big oak tree and should get plenty of sun.

First off, decide where the best place to plant your fruit tree is. Some things to consider are the directions of your primary winds, how much sun the tree will get, what sort of shade the surrounding trees or structures may provide, and also how much shade your tiny fruit tree will provide when it is mature. It’s also nice to be near a source of water for both irrigation and planting if you can.

Next, I like to scratch off the top layer of sod or leaf litter, depending on where I’m planting, with either a mattock or shovel. This makes it easier to break ground, and also disrupts weed and grass growth in the area right around the young tree. Now it’s time to start digging. I like to dig a hole that is bowl shaped, with gently sloping sides, and a little deeper than the root ball on the dormant tree. For most of the trees we planted this year, this turned out to be a hole that was two and a half to three feet wide, and 18 to 24 inches deep.

fruit tree hole

Make sure your hole is big enough and you don’t cram the roots in!

After the hole is dug, I like to rough up the sides and bottom a little to make sure the tree roots can grow out into the native soil. I now backfill the hole a bit, and place the root ball of the tree on a small pile of dirt and see if the depth is right.

I try to plant the tree at the same level is was planted at in the nursery, a couple inches below the graft union. This is important because if you accidentally plant the graft union below ground, the tree will grow as a full size tree and you will lose any semi-dwarfing or dwarfing effects. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you spend money on a dwarf apple tree that only gets 6 ft. tall, you probably won’t be happy when it ends up being 60 ft. tall.

planting apple tree

Start packing in the dirt around the roots, making sure to bust up any big clumps.

Once I have the right depth, I pack dirt around the roots of the tree, being careful to try and break up any large clumps of our beautiful, red Carolina Clay. At this point, I may add a handful of our native forest soil, in order to inoculate the young tree’s roots with mature soil bacteria and beneficial fungal mycelium to help with the uptake and cycle of nutrients.

heirloom apple tree planting

Fill in the rest of the hole and water deeply to remove any air pockets.

After that, I fill the hole in completely, and perform any grading or minor earth shaping to channel runoff and rain water. Ideally, now is when you would plant a few support species next to the tree, to help it grow. It’s also the best time to add a thick layer of mulch around the base of the tree, and then give it a good long drink to water it in.

And that’s pretty much it. All in all, after you get a few under your belt, it takes about 15-25 minutes per tree, depending on the size of the roots. Not too bad when you consider the value of a mature fruit tree, and how much food security it provides.

food forest details: keeping our plants safe and thriving

if you have looked at jason’s post from yesterday, detailing the why and where of our food forest, you know about our plans for planting over 100 fruit trees and bushes on our land.

the below video shows a few of our plant species and explains where we chose to plant them, as well as includes a demonstration about how to add a layer of protection around your own precious trees!



The Where and Why of Our Backyard Food Forest

Over the past few weeks Emma and I have been busy planting over 100 trees, vines, bushes and shrubs as the foundation for our new food forest. A food forest, for those who may never have heard the term before, is a forest designed to provide food for its stewards. They often consist of perennial species, like fruit and nut trees, and are therefore inherently stable and resilient.

A well designed and established food forest is able to cycle nutrients, capture energy, and produce a yield with few human inputs, such as irrigation, fertilization, and planting. Our food forest will take some time to reach this mature, self supporting state, and for now we will have to nurture our young plants to ensure that they become well established and provide for us for decades to come.

food forest

Last year, the forest edge, the location of our new food forest, was an impenetrable tangle of small trees and shrubs.

This longevity is one of the key benefits of forest gardening. There are food forests that are over 2000 years old which have provided for many generations of humans caretakers. This is what we are shooting for. Designing a system that will feed not only us, but our progeny for years and years.

Our new food forest is only the home base for our future plans, and is located right outside our back door, in, what in permaculture is referred to as zone 1 or zone 2. The backyard area forms a u shaped, open glade that faces south, and is bordered by native woods made up of oaks, poplar, hickory, maple, and pine among others.We are expanding out from this hardwood forest with our fruit trees, replacing the shrubby undergrowth, and following the curved shape of the woods. This was a conscious design choice and has numerous advantages.

First, we replaced many undesirable and inedible species with productive species. As anyone who has ever walked into a forest knows, the edge is usually where you encounter the thickest undergrowth of thorny bushes and vines that seem impenetrable.

Second, by planting along the forest edge we, and our plants, are able to tap into the complex and well developed fungal network that supports and coexists with our woods. Plants usually prefer to grow in 1 of 2 environments.The first is a bacterial one that is primarily found in grasslands, meadows, and prairies. These environments rely on grazing animals to digest large amounts of plant material and poop out partially decomposed manure that is full of bacteria that complete the nutrient cycle from plant-animal-plant.

The other is a fungal environment, where moist, and shady conditions, as well copious amounts of woody material support millions of miles of fungal hyphae, that break down dead wood, help tree roots obtain and take up nutrients in the soil, and act as a sort of internet that connects the trees in a forest. Thus, by planting our trees on the edge of the forest, their roots are able to seek out the fungal network that forests and woody trees depend on to thrive.This is much easier than having to establish this fungal network from scratch by mulching with woody material, or trying to establish a fungal based system in the middle of a bacterial environment, like a lawn.

food forest edge

forest systems rely on fungal networks to cycle nutrients , maintain balance, and grow large trees

Third, in addition to tapping into the fungal network of the forest, our new food forest will benefit from the established nutrient cycle that is already in place. Our towering hardwood trees have roots that have driven deep into the soil, and are able to pull up nutrients and minerals unavailable to most plants. They then store these nutrients in their leaves, and when fall comes, shed huge amounts of organic fertilizer and mulch all around our young food forest.

In addition to gathering and cycling nutrients, these massive trees are also able to soak up and “sweat” out water. This dew will fall directly on top of our new food forest, supplying it with a decent amount of moisture and reducing our need to irrigate.

All of these benefits are part of the reason we planted our food forest on the hardwood forest edge. Because the mature system can provide so much for our new, immature system, we won’t be planting as many support species. There will be some, but no where near as many as would be planted in a typical food forest.

This diverse forest system will be made up of an extremely diverse group of fruiting and medicinal plants. In addition to the overstory of hardwoods (which also provide shade and moisture for our mushroom logs), we planted apple, pear, peach, pluot, plum, paw paw, cherry, and asian pear trees as the main food species. We then planted shrubs and bushes like raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, currants, gooseberries, seaberry, autumn olive, goumi, goji berry, aronia, and elderberry. We also planted a few vines, like groundnut, grape, and passionflower, as well as herbaceous species like sunchokes, comfrey, fava beans, and, soon, a dozen more medicinal, perennial herbs like black cohosh, astragalus, marshmallow, yarrow, and valerian. Among these will be nitrogen fixers like honey locust, black alder, and siberian pea shrub, as well as a mix of clovers.

All of these species are in an area smaller than an acre, and primarily along the border. Most are perennial, and should provide for food for many years, as well as serve as nursery stock for propagation, ans the expansion of our food forest to other spaces on our property. It has taken a great deal of effort to plan and plant, but our new food forest should start paying dividends in a few years, and then on for as long as there is someone here to harvest.

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