June 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Scutellaria ovata/Heartleaf Skullcap and its subspecies
The delicate blue flowers of Heartleaf Skullcap provide a refreshing sight in late spring and into summer. Their bloom time compliments well in the landscape with other wildflowers that stop blooming sooner, and this overlap helps to provide food for pollinators throughout the summer. When happy, these reliable perennial herbs spread quickly into large stands through their rhizomes, like many other species in the mint family. They are easy to propagate by digging and replanting the roots, and though they can spread into large clumps, they are not particularly aggressive when growing with other plants. Heartleaf Skullcap is one of various Scutellari species that grow in Texas, and prefers slightly more moisture, soil, and shade than the average hill country plant to truly thrive.
Yet, they are still very hardy and can survive a drought even in poor/shallow soil once established, though their growth will be reduced in those conditions. In deeper soils, Heartleaf Skullcap can more easily thrive in full sun, and it often prefers well-draining soils over heavy clays.
This wonderful woodland edge plant follows a cool season life cycle, and in fall it will begin growing out many different stalks from its roots, which then maintain themselves as a low groundcover over the winter. This growing habit is very useful to incorporate with warm season plants that go dormant in the winter, so that both groundcover and photosynthesis/feeding of soil microbes can be maintained over the winter.
Heartleaf Skullcap starts to grow its stalks out in early spring, reaching anywhere from 1-3 feet in height before they bloom, depending on their growing conditions. Depending on latitude, light, and moisture conditions, they usually begin to bloom anywhere from April to May, continuing into summer, and will continue blooming longer with wetter conditions. Heartleaf Skullcap loves the cool weather, and typically goes dormant as the summer heat settles in, unless prolonged by cooler weather and periodic rains, or if growing in a cooler and moist microclimate.
Scutellaria ovata is becoming more common in nurseries thanks to its various beneficial qualities and growing habits. The beautiful silvery-blue-green, fuzzy foliage and soft blue blooms create a pleasant visual contrast in the landscape. Like many other Scutellaria species, Heartleaf Skullcap also possesses useful medicinal compounds, and can be used similarly to Scutellaria lateriflora, though they have their differences.
April 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Pictured: Penstemon cobaea, Penstemon triflorus, Penstemon baccharifolius, Penstemon tenuis
Family: Plantaginaceae (Plantain)
Written by: Kirby Fry
All Images © Woody Welch 2019
A permablitz is an event where a group of volunteers works together to install a permaculture (permanent + agriculture) garden for a friend, a neighbor, a school, and/or a community garden. The garden can be an annual garden made for annual vegetables, or it can be a perennial garden made for fruit trees and other perennial food crops such as asparagus, brambles, and grapes.
A permablitz can also include installing a rainwater collection system, a gray water harvesting system, and/or building a chicken coop, trellis, or espalier.
How did we find out about permablitzes, and when did permablitzes get started here in Central Texas?
The permaculture community in Texas may have first learned about permablitzes from Dilek Wise, a graduate from a Permaculture Design Course that I helped teach with the Austin Permaculture Guild in 2011 or so. Dilek found out about an organization called Permablitz Melbourne, in Australia, that was helping their community to install permaculture gardens. Permablitz Melbourne had by then installed scores of gardens, and did a great job of documenting their work. They’ve also made some very helpful videos about how to run your own permablitz – a few are linked below.
When I learned about Permablitz Melbourne’s community effort working together to conserve soils and grow food locally, it reminded me of the work I had done as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala. In the Highlands of Guatemala, north of Huehuetenango, we built and kept up 5 tree nurseries (each in a different village), implemented soil conservation methods, and planted woodlot trees in those villages, as well as 2 others. After getting out of the Peace Corps, it always seemed to me that we could and should be doing that kind of work here in Central Texas. Permablitz Melbourne demonstrated that indeed such a community effort was possible.
Then, during the winter of 2011, while I was helping to teach a class called Food Forests for All, at The Whole Life Learning Center, I shared with the students of that class what Permablitz Melbourne was up to. The students were enthusiastic and we had our first permablitz at Austin Ecoschool that very next January of 2012. Many of the people in that class have since had multiple permablitzes at their homesteads, and at community gardens that they were associated with.
Photos from our January 2019 Permablitz at the Multicultural Refugee Coalition’s New Leaf Farm
Since 2012 we have had well over 50 permablitzes, averaging about 9 per year, being held from September through May. In 2015 Earth Repair Corps was incorporated, in part, to help promote and run the permablitzes. If we have learned anything over the past 7 years, it is that we are not just building gardens, but communities that garden.
Since I was leading many of these events and heavily invested in them, there were at least six design elements that I tried to include in each and every permablitz.
- Soil and Water Conservation. As I’ve said during many of my talks and classes, soil and water conservation is the cornerstone of permaculture design – that which all else is built upon. Usually, whether we are planting trees or making annual gardens, we build some sort of earthworks on contour such as conservation terraces or raised annual garden beds. These earthworks serve to slow, spread, and sink surface water running off the garden site, make that water available to the plants in the garden, and catch any soil sediments and detritus that might also be running off of the site.
- Perennial Food Crops. Perennial food plants are the key stone of permaculture design – that which holds it up over time. A perennial food crop yields fruit, nuts, and berries year after year, unlike annual food crops that produce for 1 or 2 seasons and then have to be replanted. In Texas we have been planting mulberry, pomegranate, Asian persimmon, fig, apple, peach, plum, pear, pecan, pineapple guava asparagus, artichoke, grape vines, and blackberry brambles.
- Support Species of Plants. Another aspect of permaculture design that distinguishes it from organic farming is that we are creating agriculturally productive ecosystems, so not every plant we establish in a permaculture garden is a food crop. We use cover crops extensively, like clover, winter pea, rye grass, buck wheat, black eye pea, and millet to improve soils, and help vegetate bare soils. Farmers trees like black locust, acacia, golden ball lead tree, Eve’s necklace, and arroyo sweetwood are all native leguminous trees that offer dappled shade, have deep root systems that bring up minerals from subsoils, and many of which fix Nitrogen into soils. Lastly, deep-rooted herbs like comfrey, sorrel, and dock are added to some of our gardens for their soil-enhancing properties.
- Soil Amendments. Many of our soils in Texas have been eroded and do not have the available mineral content nor the organic matter in them available for agricultural crops to flourish. Bill Mollison was an advocate of adding soft rock minerals to soils to provide crops with needed elements, including soft rock phosphate, agricultural lime for calcium, pelletized sulfur, green sand for potassium and magnesium, and trace minerals. We also add a slow release organic fertilizer in the hole of every tree we plant which is inoculated with mycorrhizal fungi, and beneficial to the roots of most plants.
- Drip Irrigation. Fruit trees in Texas need supplemental water if they are going to flourish and be productive, even when they are perched on a berm just below a swale. The most efficient way to deliver this supplemental water is with drip irrigation. I have become a huge fan of Ewing Irrigation here in Central Texas. Each fruit tree needs about 4 gallons of supplemental water delivered to it every other day from May through early October, or for about 5 months.
- Mulch. At the base of each tree a heavy mulch should be applied annually. Wood chips from trees seems to be what is most readily available for us here in Texas, though if you look around to the north of Austin, from late spring through the summer, wheat straw is available. A good mulch cover will help to keep soil temperatures cooler than the ambient air temperature, suppress weeds, and slow down the evaporation of soil moisture which can be significant under the Texas sun and winds.
Photos from our September 2018 Permablitz at Proffitt Ranch in Marble Falls, TX
The costs for a permablitz can range anywhere from $700 to $4,000 and is usually paid for by the host site. A commitment from the host site is also needed to finish up any tasks that were not completed during the permablitz – finishing up the irrigation system seems to commonly be one of these tasks. The host site is also expected to provide volunteers with lunch during the work days.
Participating in a permablitz is a great way to meet like-minded people, learn more about sustainable design, and (after attending 3 permablitzes) have a permablitz at your home.
The permablitz schedule is announced on our calendar.
Earth Repair Corps is publishing a series of interviews with Permaculture Design Course graduates who have used the education & resources they gained from the course to further their careers in the world of sustainability.
Our hope is to convey what a life-changing opportunity the Permaculture Design Course can be, while learning more about what first attracted these former students to sustainable design and how they have applied those principles since taking a PDC. Learn More about the Permaculture Design Course and check out our upcoming Fall 2019 PDC.
We’re continuing this series with Jim O’Donnell of The City of Austin’s Wildland Conservation Division – read more below.
My degree is in education from The University of Texas. I was a teacher in Dripping Springs for 28 years. During the summer, I worked monitoring endangered species for different contractors. The Vireo Preserve in the 1980’s was home to the largest breeding population of Black-capped Vireos in Travis County. I was able to get the 214 acres of the Preserve set aside in 1989. So, we manage Vireo as endangered species habitat that also includes the addition of rare and unusual plant species.
For the past 10 years, I have been working for the city’s Wildland Conservation Division which manages 13,000+ acres to protect habitat for endangered species. I continue to monitor endangered species, but now with the addition of lots of restoration work. Volunteers are the key to our work and success. I love working with people who come out to Vireo to learn how to manage their land in a more regenerative way!
1. How did you become interested in sustainable design?
I grew up in the Bull Creek watershed in northwest Austin. As a teenager, I was able to hunt, fish, and camp in our Ashe juniper-oak woodlands. Even though the landscape had been dramatically altered by a history of clearcutting and overgrazing, there was still incredible beauty in this recovering system.
Observing our Hill Country landscape for over 50 years now, it is clear that some areas are so degraded that only a thoughtful and knowledgeable design can bring them back. Most land managers use fire and herbicide with the mistaken belief that the land requires such techniques.
Our approach on the City of Austin’s Vireo Preserve is to demonstrate that real regeneration begins with soil health, rehydrating hillsides, and adding diversity at all levels of the system.
We have been successful enough that we are beginning to apply our designs and techniques on to other properties within the City of Austin’s Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.
2. What were you looking to learn when you signed up for a permaculture design class?
Over the years, I have witnessed numerous re-vegetation projects that usually end in failure. I was intrigued with the permaculture design system that incorporated a holistic approach to interacting with the landscape to promote sustainability.
3. Who taught you your permaculture design course and when?
I finished my permaculture design course in 2014 at the Whole Life Learning Center. The instructors were Kirby Fry, Caroline Riley, and Taelor Monroe. I was very impressed with the instructors’ knowledge and commitment to earth repair and sustainability.
4. What other courses, if any, have you participated in to help you learn more about and implement sustainable design systems?
I have taken Elaine Ingham’s classes on soil biology.
5. Have you been able to apply what you have learned to your life and business?
I have been heavily influenced by the work of Dr. Elaine Ingham on how to build healthy soils. I am also collaborating with colleagues Dr. Brian Pickles and Monika Gorzelak, former graduate students of Dr. Suzanne Simard (University of British Columbia), to investigate the role of fungal networks in distributing resources among plants within forest ecosystems (“world wood web”). I am also supporting research by Dr. Moriah Sandy (University of Texas at Austin) on potential medicinal and ecological properties of endophytes on Ashe junipers. All of this research supports further knowledge on how to build regenerative ecosystems.
All Images © Woody Welch 2019
6. Have you had the opportunity to teach, mentor, or pass on information about sustainable design?
I have had the opportunity to work closely with several area Master Naturalist chapters to teach about design. The Capital Area Master Naturalists have been extremely helpful in recruiting volunteers for our project and giving us a platform to speak at presentations. I’ve also been a guest speaker at St. Edwards University and recently at the University of Texas. I am very excited to be a speaker at the Global Earth Repair Symposium in Port Townsend, Washington, in May. And finally, I want to express my deep appreciation to the local permaculture groups for all the knowledge that they impart, their good work, and dedication to community.
March 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Tinantia anomala – False Dayflower
False Dayflower is a delicate perennial herb native to central Texas that loves to grow in the forest understory, in woodland meadows, slopes and edges, and in riparian areas and their margins. It grows very well in the rich soils made by the leaf litter of trees but is hardy and adapted to the various kinds of rocky limestone soils common in central Texas. They like to have some extra shade and moisture, but are also highly drought tolerant once established in a suitable spot.
Tinantia anomala will grow out its fine, grass-like leaves from fall through winter, eventually sending out stalks that can reach a height of up 1-2 feet, and then the small purple blooms begin to brighten the forest floor, usually starting around mid-March. This herb prefers growing during the cool season and will often go dormant once summer heat sets in. Tinantia’s cool season growth habit complements that of the warm season plants that emerge later, helping to maintain photosynthesizing plants and their roots in contact with the soil for longer.
While the most common flower colors seen are the varying shades of purple, they also occur in white and blue. Their soft flowers sprinkle the awakening forest floor with a soothing display, along with the blooms of many other small herbs of similar habit that Tinantia is fond of growing with, such as: Baby Blue Eyes/Nemophila phacelioides, Golden Groundsel/Packera obovata, Heartleaf Nettle/Urtica chamaedryoides, and the related Spiderworts/Tradescantia and Dayflowers/Commelina species.
All Images © Elenore Goode 2019
Tinantia makes a wonderful groundcover, quickly spreading through its rhizomes to send out new shoots. One small transplant can easily spread over a foot or more in one year without any nurturing beyond choosing a good spot. At the same time, it is a gentle plant that does not tend to overtake gardens, and is easily pruned if overgrown. It grows easily from seeds as well. False Dayflower is an excellent choice for habitat restoration projects where hardy plants that can reliably succeed from transplant without extra care are able to be utilized.
The finer, fibrous part of their root systems interweaves gracefully with the varied root structures of other plants to create greater structural complexity in the soil. Tinantia‘s roots, though delicate, are still wonderful at holding soil together and spreading to stabilize loose soils. Tinantia anomala is another wonderful native plant we can easily incorporate into landscapes to increase biodiversity and provide early season pollinator and wildlife forage.
Written by: Kirby Fry – All Images © Woody Welch 2019
Read our 2015 post on Festival Beach here.
Three years after the design and installation of the Festival Beach Food Forest in Austin, Texas, Woody Welch and I had the pleasure of revisiting this amazing parkland food forest. The trees and plants were doing exceptionally well, a wheel chair accessible decomposed granite walkway has since been added, along with several other mulched paths and park benches. Woody got his drone in the air and was able to take some amazing shots of the site showing just how close the food forest is to the center of Austin, Texas.
- In late October of 2015, Earth Repair Corps partnered with Festival Beach Food Forest and Tree Folks to assist with the installation of a food forest in a public, highly-visible green space just north of Lady Bird Lake and east of Interstate Highway 35 right in the heart of growing Austin, Texas.
- The Festival Beach Food Forest team, Pete VanDyck, and I spent days surveying this site with laser levels and landscaping flags. First, we found the lowest spot on the site and then marked contour lines every 6” and up from there in elevation. What was revealed by that survey was that the park is shaped like a shallow bowl with a large drain passing through the middle of it that drains almost all of the water from Festival Beach Community Gardens and the apartment complex parking lot adjacent to the community gardens.
- Three conservation terraces were installed above and out of the way of the drainage system, 2 on the north side of the food forest and 1 on the south side. A tree boomerang / berm was built up with Geo Grower’s “berm builder” soil around one of the prominent live oaks, and 2 large berms were built up with the same material along the park’s perimeter that would eventually shield the site when planted from the automobile traffic along IH 35.
- Here is a good aerial shot of the Festival Beach Food Forest. Festival Beach Community Garden is right next door to the food forest.
- During this most recent visit, I thought that one of the most successful design elements was the hedge row planted on the perimeter berms. The Arizona cypress trees, and sable palms (both evergreens) had at least tripled in their size, and in just three years were doing a really great job of sheltering the park from the interstate highway.
- Another one of my favorite elements is the fruiting calendar that was planted on the longest terrace on the south east side of the park. If you’re standing in the center of the food forest and looking at the terrace, from left to right you will see – loquat, mulberry, peach, plum, apple, pear, pomegranate, and Asian persimmon. That is the same order that they will fruit throughout the calendar year.
- A new addition to the food forest since the original planting, olive trees.
- Underneath the live oak tree with the tree boomerang below it, I noticed a lot of beautiful native Texas plants had been established. Here is a shot of one of my favorites, sweet almond verbena.
- Also in full bloom, not too far from the sweet almond verbena were several loquat trees. I don’t think that I’ve ever really experienced the fragrance of loquat flowers before, they smelled wonderful. The loquats’ flowers had sure gotten the attention of the honey bees on this warm sunny winter day.
- The visual rock stars of the food forest were the arroyo sweet wood trees which were still holding on to their fall leaves.
January 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Elymus/Wildrye genus – Prairie/Canada Wildrye and Virginia Wildrye – Elymus canadensis and Elymus virginicus, etc.
Elymus is an agriculturally and ecologically important genus of mid-size cool season perennial bunchgrasses, and many different species are found in a variety of habitats throughout Texas. Cool season grasses grow starting in fall and winter, when the warm season grasses are beginning to go dormant. Elymus canadensis (featured in the pictures) and Elymus virginicus are two of the most common species that are fairly widespread across the state. While these two species are generally distinguished by their drooping (canadensis) vs upright (virginicus) seed culms, Elymus species may also have multiple varieties that occur within them (as with canadensis), have been found to hybridize, or have been said to be simply different forms within the same species (Guide to Texas Grasses – Robert B. Shaw).
In Central Texas, the versatile Wildryes are frequently found growing in shade or sun along lowland and upland riparian areas, woodland edges, meadows, prairies, forests, etc., with quite a bit of variability between all the species as to preferred moisture and sun conditions. Though they love to grow in the moist and deep soils and creek banks, they aren’t actually too picky when planted elsewhere. Even within one species, such as Prairie Wildrye/Elymus canadensis, some stands are happy in full sun when they have enough soil and moisture, and many others love to grow in the shaded understory of large trees, especially if they are in shallower soils or further from water.
Elymus species are very hardy grasses that are still common and somewhat abundant in the wild compared to many other native cool season forage plants. Their habit is to go dormant in dry summers unless they are in a moist area, but these grasses will otherwise have green growth for much of the year. Cool and moist conditions at the end of spring will prolong their growth into summer before going dormant.
They are important forage grasses that reliably provide food for wildlife, livestock, and soil microorganisms during winter when green forage is otherwise scarce. These grasses are generally grazed in rotational systems from fall through spring, but then avoided after their long seed culms go to seed at the start of summer, as these seed culms are said to be potentially problematic to livestock due to possible fungal growth. But while the livestock avoid it, the thatch and seeds they produce will be used by wildlife for nesting material and food.
Wildryes are also an excellent grass to use for pasture re-vegetation and habitat restoration projects, since their seeds are easy to find, collect, and germinate, even in poor soils. Their seeds establish exceptionally well and quickly compared to many other native grasses, and love shade or sun. Elymus stands can be very prolific in combination with deciduous forests that protect them in summer and then let the sunlight through in winter. Wildrye species are all-around great for improving degraded habitat conditions by revitalizing disturbed soils and bridging the temporal fragmentation of food sources that is exacerbated by low species diversity.
December 2018 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Juniper species, Juniperus ashei etc
To understand the current distribution and overabundance of Juniper trees relative to other species, we look back to the ecological and land use history of the area, and at current land management methods. Junipers in many habitats are frequently the innocent targets of misguided scapegoating campaigns to blame them for the ecological disasters that they are simply cleaning up after.They are the bandages on the open wounds caused from centuries of overgrazing, burning, and denuding hills of all their vegetation.
Juniperus species act as nurse trees across many different habitats by protecting more palatable plants under their branches and creating rich organic matter from poor substrates for other plants to grow in. They are an integral species in ecosystems that have lost their historic plant diversity, and that are still under unnaturally high deer and livestock browsing conditions due to the feed supplementation of these populations beyond what the local carrying capacity of the land can handle.
October 2018 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Plateau Goldeneye, Toothleaf Goldeneye, Chimalacate – Viguiera dentata
Plateau Goldeneye is a 3-6 foot semi-woody perennial herb/subshrub that can be seen blooming profusely in October through November, often forming large colonies to make vibrant displays of yellow flowers. It branches out widely into a bushy and airy form, and each plant produces showers of blooms, followed by seeds that are wonderful for helping birds and other wildlife through winter with the timing of their availability.
These hardy plants are ideal to begin the ecological succession of disturbed soils, where they quickly improve the soil conditions and act as nurse plants so that other less resilient species can begin to grow.
We may also look at these seemingly minor insect and plant interactions as a vital transport of nutrient and mineral exchange across the landscape, with each organism involved in the moving and cycling of nutrients through their consumption and wastes.
Sources for medicinal use information:
Earth Repair Corps will be publishing a series of interviews with Permaculture Design Course graduates who have used the education & resources they gained from the course to further their careers in the world of sustainability.
Our hope is to convey what a life-changing opportunity the Permaculture Design Course can be, while learning more about what first attracted these former students to sustainable design and how they have applied those principles since taking a PDC.
Paul Oveisi, owner of Cosmic Coffee + Beer Garden in South Austin, helps us kick off this series. Read more below.
1) How did you become interested in sustainable design? Please describe to us any moments in your life that piqued your interest in sustainable, regenerative, and holistic systems.
My interest was an evolution that likely happened over the course of my entire life but I can think of a few ”tipping point’ moments that led me to take sustainable design more seriously as a way of life. The first was an impromptu, almost accidental, visit to the Earthship Community near Taos, NM. I was awestruck that these experimental, sustainable, whole-system homes could be both so strikingly beautiful and functional. There was connection between design, science, and artful creativity that struck a chord with me that stuck with me for years. Years later, having left my lifelong home of Austin, TX to live in New York City, I couldn’t let go of what became an obsession. I read every book by Michael Reynolds which led me to other forms of sustainable architecture which led me to sustainable agriculture. I stumbled on some old videos of Geoff Lawton and Bill Mollison and spent several years reading everything I could on permaculture, regenerative agriculture, and related fields. Working in hospitality I found a little community of like-minded chefs and farmers who were implementing some of these strategies. Moving back to Austin, I decided to drop everything, get my PDC and work on a plan to incorporate sustainable design into a new way of life.
2) What were you looking to learn when you signed up for a Permaculture Design Course?
Honestly, everything and anything. Having read dozens of books on the subject I wanted to get some hands on experience and meet like-minded folks. I was also hoping to find some work outside the PDC to further hone my skills and expand my knowledge.
All Images © Woody Welch 2018
3) Who taught your Permaculture Design Course and when? What did you appreciate about that course, and what would you have like to have learned more about?
My course was taught by Kirby Fry and Caroline Riley in the Fall of 2015. I thought it was a well-designed course, by dynamic and well-rounded instructors who were extremely knowledgeable and engaging. I would have liked a bit more information on the architectural components but that’s splitting hairs – it was a fantastic course.
4) What other courses, if any, have you participated in that have helped you to learn more about and implement sustainable design systems?
I’ve taken a Grow Green course by the City of Austin which was informative. Notably, I enjoyed input from a meteorologist from LCRA and fire-wise design from a Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center representative. Informally, I’ve found particular interest in soil microbiology and have watched countless hours of advanced composting techniques and soil microbiology analysis – most notably by Karl Hammer and Dr. Elaine Ingham, respectively.
5) Have you been able to apply what you learned from the Permaculture Design Course to your life and business endeavors? If so, please elaborate.
A resounding yes. After my PDC I spent a couple of years working in the field doing various landscaping and design related projects for both landscaping companies and non-profits. The knowledge I obtained from my PDC and beyond very much informed my decision to combine my experience in hospitality to create a permaculture inspired business model – but I wanted to spend some time getting my hands dirty first.
6) Have you had the opportunity to teach, mentor, and/or pass on information about sustainable design to friends, family, or employees?
Yes, too many to count. We do a formal training/walk-through of all employees of my organization on basic permaculture principles and I’ve had countless conversations turning many people onto the discipline – whether sharing books by Holmgren, Shephard or Fukuoka, or sharing Geoff Lawton videos. Again, too many to count.
Thank you so much for your involvement and initiative.
It is my pleasure.