by Shira Lynn
It’s spring in my suburban food forest yard! I want to be outside all of the time, but there’s actually very little that needs doing.
One of my guiding principles is, “No poison. No product. No pollution.” This is the aspiration that nothing I do in my yard should negatively affect life elsewhere. Thus, I seek to harbor life, to create no waste, and to work with the labor of my own hands rather than by means of machinery. My yard design enables me to honor these commitments. Here’s an offering of what I am up to to welcome in the season:
But first, let’s be clear about what I’m not doing. I call it, “Lending a hand by doing less.”
I’m not removing leaves. This degrades the soil, destroys food and habitat resources, creates terrible noise trespass, and is unnecessary except perhaps for high priority already-minimized lawns.
I’m not “treating” the lawn. This is poison even if it’s organic. It impoverishes soil communities.
I don’t cut back dead stalks until the new green appears. They provide winter beauty, insect overwintering sites, soil protection, and food for birds.
I don’t clear ground unless I am preparing directly for a planting.
I am not even thinking about mowing for another month and not until the ground is firm and there is truly significant growth. Then I use a reel mower, manual hedge trimmers, and a sickle and do so only occasionally during the course of a season.
The only place I generally “weed” is in the annual vegetable boxes. I invite a combination of natural and planted understory to fill in under naturally-shaped shrubs. I also allow spreading plantings to fill in everywhere I don’t need to walk.
So what am I doing?
Has the spring bird song begun? Have the turkey vultures returned? Are the sparrows and chickadees finding places to make their nests with plenty of organic yard detritus to do it with? What am I offering them from the last growing season that they need for this moment?
What insects are flying? Where have they overwintered and where will they be wanting to raise their young? What am I offering them from the last growing season that they need for this moment? How do I stay out of their way so they can find what they need now?
What’s starting to grow?
I see spring ephemerals in the understory pushing up through the leaves. Crocuses dot the ground. The rhubarb is beginning to reach up with red fists as well as the crowns of the horseradish (whose early leaves I will eat).
What can I eat?
Self-seeded mache carpets a raised bed along with various yummy sorrels and garlic shoots. The brassicas are leafing out from the overwintered stalks that I did not pull. I may decide to leave some of these biennials to grow for seed saving. I should start looking for dandelion greens and chickweed.
What can other creatures eat?
The hazelnut catkins began unfurling first and are starting to make yellow pollen along with the pussy willows and the spring witch hazels which have already been flowering for quite some time. The birds are poking around in the fallen leaves while others bore into standing tree snags for goodies. In the evenings and early mornings, we spot our first skunk, then raccoons, groundhogs, chipmunks and bunnies.
Cutting back the dead.
We had a heavy late snow that broke many branches, so I am cutting out the dead and adding them to the brush pile which I may make into a hugelkultur mound eventually. What’s important to me is to keep all nutrient resources cycling on site where they can decompose while offering shelter. I cut back the dry raspberry canes and pile them where nesting insects can still hatch out or make new nests uninterrupted.
I can also prune crossed branches and watersprouts on fruiting trees and shrubs. This will help with air circulation for fruit health. Spring pruning tends to stimulate growth while dormant pruning does not. I make sure that I do not interfere with fall setting buds that will open in spring. I do not touch spring flowering plants until after they have bloomed if at all.
While there were still some snowflakes drifting down, I could have planted new bare root trees and shrubs and grafted scions onto existing ones. I did pot up runners from the cornelian cherry and the carolina allspice shrubs to give to friends. I may dig up and divide some of the herbaceous plants such as bee balm to share too.
While I plant many annual seeds directly into the ground (such as snap peas, squash, pole beans, corn and cucumbers), my sweeties does start plants (such as peppers, tomatoes and eggplant) for us inside under lights on heat pads.
Playing around with the compost piles.
Since I never have enough to do in the yard, I play around a lot with my compost piles. I love helping to make soil! I’m emptying out the bins to top off the annual garden boxes and to top dress fruiting plantings such as the currants and haskaps. This also allows me to evict rodents that may be enjoying the cozy warmth of the bins and also to pick out plastic stickers that may have come in with food scrap donations.
I’m setting up my rain barrels and banging leaning fence posts back in.
Maybe I’ll invite friends over for a rotating work party to put down wood chips around plantings (but never right against the bark!) and as pathways. Chips come for free from a local tree company that would otherwise have to pay to dump them.
I’ll pick up neighborhood litter and then hang out in the yard in the sunshine with a chicken on my lap.