"Grazing" the trees on your garden farm
To reach its full potential, a garden farm should embrace four areas: garden, pasture, tree grove, and the watery domain of pool, pond or creek. Only then will the full compliment of the food chain and the full orchestration of natural beauty be achieved. Of the four parts, the tree grove usually receives the least attention from garden farmers, which is why I have been writing about it so much, plus the fact that in winter that’s where most of the action is. We graze our pastures and gardens in summer; we should be “grazing” our woodlots in winter. And of you don’t have one, start one. Your children will honor you in the latter days. Any timber that needs to be cut and moved out of the woods should be completed now, before mud time. The maple syrup season has begun now. And as the days get above freezing and no ice lingers in the bark to dull chain saw blades, it is now comfortable to cut firewood, fence posts and furniture wood.
Two weeks ago in this space, I mentioned an unusual way to graze trees, using juniper berries to flavor a meat sauce. We finally got around to making that sauce, using a recipe from Bon Appetit in the October, 2008 issue, and substituting juniper berries from our red cedar trees (Junipera virginiana) for the larger and more succulent berries of other juniper trees that the recipe called for. We had to improvise other ways too— we did not have fresh rosemary, so used dried. But we did have fresh thyme from the garden, surprisingly green where the February snow had just melted away. The meat sauce was recommended for venison, but we put it on barbecued steaks. Since our juniper berries from red cedar were smaller than other junipers, I handpicked sixteen of the plumpest ones I could find to substitute for the eight the recipe called for. The sauce turned out to have a subtle, piquant taste different from anything I had experienced before. The flavor of the red wine dominated the more delicate juniper berry flavor a little too much, I thought, but the combination was very tasty. I’m fairly sure that the juniper berry flavor would have been more pronounced if we could have used the bigger berries of other junipers.
But to apply the idea of “grazing” your trees to the nth degree, here’s what a really full-rounded garden farm could have made of this situation. We did not have venison but easily might have. All winter, right outside our bedroom window a herd of deer grazed on the white oak acorns that had fallen from our yard trees. Hunters tell me that white oak acorns are like candy to deer. I could have “harvested” some venison easily enough just by opening the window and blasting away. Needless to say, our sheep love white oak acorns too and will flock into the woodlot all winter until the acorns are gone. (They also love honeylocust pods and eat them as fast as they fall from the trees in winter.) I mention the sheep because I’m sure the meat sauce would go very well with a rack of lamb too. I wonder if wine from the wild grapes that grow in our woodlot could not also have been substituted for the red wine of the recipe. A farmer I worked for years ago in Minnesota made wild grape wine. It was a little foxy to my taste but reduced to a glaze for the meat sauce, I have a hunch that the result would have been just as much a delightful taste adventure. And, come to think of it, what an interesting sauce the cherries from the wild black cherry trees in the woods would make in place of juniper berries.
What I’m suggesting is a whole gamut of gourmet adventures all from imaginatively “grazing” what your tree grove supplies for free. Don’t forget all the hickory nuts and black walnuts that we “grazed” last fall and which are now coming out of the freezer for toppings or ingredients in a score of my wife’s heavenly pastries. The canned peaches from our volunteer wild seedling trees taste, I think, even better than plumper peaches of grafted varieties. And we don’t know half the number of delicious mushrooms that we could “graze” from the woodlot.
In terms of trees beyond the ones in the orchard, I think the garden farmer should cherish and nurture oak trees most of all, if for no other reason than the succulent morel mushrooms that grow under them, especially under pin oaks. Hundreds of species of insect, bird and animal depend on oak trees for all or part of their survival. The native Americans, especially in California, used acorns extensively for human food. Here in Ohio, huge old chinquapin oaks still grow in forgotten ravines where tractor and plow can’t reach. Their acorns have no bitterness and can be used for human food directly, that is, without any special soaking to remove the tannin that makes other acorns bitter. The white oak family provides the next sweetest acorns, and are eaten voraciously by all kinds of wild animals and birds, not to mention cattle, sheep and especially hogs. The acorns of other oaks are consumed too, if not quite as eagerly. Tree Crops by J. Russell Smith, the classic book on “grazing” trees piles up convincing evidence to show that growing oaks for animal and human food is just as practical on hilly farm land as growing corn would be.
Grazing oaks does not begin and end with the acorns. We “graze” the leaves for use as mulch. This year, we “grazed” off four big white oaks as veneer logs at a very good price of $3.50 a board foot. From dead or dying red and black oak and from the tops of harvested white oaks, we have “grazed” at least $200 worth of firewood every year for the past thirty and another $300 per year in saw logs for lumber. That amounts to about $15,000 over 30 years and the ten acres is worth more now in land value than it was when we bought it. With judicious management and selective cutting, the stand of trees also increases in value every year.
There is better reason now than ever to think about maintaining a garden farm that has garden, pasture, pond, and tree grove. Such a place, well-husbanded, will brim with all manner of food and fuel— more life than we know how to calculate. It may sound abhorrent to think about opening a window and shooting a deer in your yard but we are entering an period in our economic history with many unknowns. Scarcity of both food and fuel might be more threatening than we yet realize. If we prepare for that possibility, if we cover the land with garden farms, we have the best chance of avoiding disaster. And you won’t have to go to a national park or an Amish community to see all the wildland and farmland beauty your heart desires.
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Excerpted from At Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream 1994
Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons
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