Michelle Sutton

story by Michelle Sutton

Berna Ticonchuk coordinates the horticulture program at Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) and teaches the Introduction to Horticulture, Tree Culture and Maintenance,  Plant Propagation, and Certified Applicator Training courses. Prior to coming to FLCC in 2002, Ticonchuk had a 20-year career in public gardens in Rochester and Canandaigua. She brings a wealth of knowledge and professional connections to her FLCC students and to her service on the City of Canandaigua Tree Advisory Board and Sonnenberg Gardens Education Committee.

Ticonchuk with her dog, Jack
Photo courtesy Berna Ticonchuk

What were your connections to plants as a child?
Ticonchuk: I grew up in Owego on the family Christmas tree farm; it’s not in operation anymore, but my sister owns a parcel of the property. Remnant trees we planted there as kids 45 to 50 years are now 50 to 60 feet tall and forming a beautiful forest. In addition to running the tree farm, my father was what was then called a “tree surgeon.” I worked for him in the summers and enjoyed it so much that I knew I wanted to have a career outdoors.

What was your educational journey?
Ticonchuk: I started with my associate’s degree in what was then called the Ornamental Horticulture program at FLCC, back when FLCC was known as Community College of the Finger Lakes. Eventually I got a bachelor’s degree in plant science from Empire State College.

At FLCC, Dr. Ed Moberg was a hugely important advisor to me. He was an agronomist PhD who came from Penn State to FLCC to start the College’s first horticulture program with Dr. Dan Marion. Ed’s support and professional credentials helped me plan my own future versus my father planning it for me (he wanted me to come back and help him with the Christmas tree farm).

As a student, I was really taken with the subject matter and hands-on element of courses like tree maintenance. I learned a great deal about teaching styles and how to manage a classroom from observing my instructors. For instance, I took a field ornithology course with Frank Smith, who had a relaxed, informal way of teaching students; while Bruce Gilman, in his field botany class, was more formal. When I began to teach years later at FLCC, former department chair John VanNiel gave me many opportunities and very helpful constructive criticism. My mentor and dear friend Dr. Jana Lamboy taught me many things about the world of plant science as well as about life in general.

Ticonchuk’s mentor and dear friend, plant pathologistmDr. Jana Lamboy,nretired in 2011 from teaching at FLCC. Photo Courtesy FLCC
FLCC Main Campus in bloom last July; annuals in foreground are verbena ‘Scarlet Star’ from the Superbena series. Photo courtesy FLCC

What was your career trajectory leading up to FLCC?
Ticonchuk: After graduating I worked a series of jobs I hated before I landed on something I loved. I worked briefly for a landscaper, I worked at a beet factory in the evenings doing quality control, and I pruned grapevines in the coldest winter I could remember—oh my goodness, it was so cold. Mercifully, the following spring I got hired at Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua, where I worked happily for ten years, from 1981 to 1991. I started as a senior gardener and ended up being assistant horticulturist and supervising a seasonal crew while still weeding and planting and mowing all the large areas.

In the late 1980s my boss and mentor at Sonnenberg, head horticulturist Ginny Schirer, sent me to a tree academy held at George Eastman House (now called Eastman Museum). We learned tree physiology, climbing, and pruning—using the mature trees on the property for climbing practice—from world-class expert Dennis Ryan. After I became certified as a climber, I got more into the tree management side of things at Sonnenberg, including conducting a tree inventory.

Sonnenberg was so rewarding, but the pay was nominal and there was no health care coverage. I worked briefly in the grounds department at Nazareth College and brushed up on my knowledge and skills by taking the Master Gardener (MG) program at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Monroe County. It was there I met MG coordinator Pam Hyman, whose path I’d cross many times over the years. She was an important mentor and colleague to me and to so many people, and her untimely death in 2008 from lymphoma was a real loss to all who knew her. At FLCC we honored her posthumously, in 2009, with the Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award.

As part of my MG training, I did my community volunteer hours at Eastman Museum. I was offered a job by the very knowledgeable then-landscape curator Deirdre Cunningham as the groundskeeper and kept that position for ten years, working closely with a treasured colleague, then-head gardener Andy Joss. It was wonderful to be working among the mature trees that I once climbed in the tree academy, and I really enjoy historic horticulture. One of my favorite aspects of my time there was working with volunteers, where I got to hone some of my teaching/instruction skills.

Ten years into my work at Eastman House/Museum, Andy brought in a job announcement to show me for a conservation/horticulture technician position at FLCC. It was an incredible match. I had every qualification—even boat-handling skills—except for radio telemetry (think collaring bears). I applied for the position and was hired in 2002 and have been very happy there advising students, teaching, running the greenhouse, coordinating the horticulture program, and more.

How has your student population changed over the years?
Ticonchuk: The program’s students are majority nontraditional—age 25 to 55, sometimes up to 65. That is a big change I’ve seen over time. I really enjoy the older students—they are so motivated and interested—but I would love to also see more young people studying horticulture. Partly the number of traditional-age students is down because the over-all population of that age group is declining; partly I believe young adults are less interested in\ manual labor than they used to be.

What do you want to be sure folks know about FLCC’s horticulture program?
Ticonchuk: This is an excellent plant science–based horticulture program, with strong environmental themes (for instance, Environmental Science and Ecology are required courses). There are hands-on opportunities for sure, but it’s also rock-solid with the science. One of the strengths of our program is the deep and longstanding connection we have to green industry professionals around the State who we can put students in contact with. That professional networking, along with keeping up with urban forestry research and practice, are the main reasons I go to the annual New York ReLeaf Conference and to regional ReLeaf events.

We have turned students on to a wide array of careers; often, what students come in planning to do changes as they are exposed to more facets of horticulture. For instance, a person could come to the program thinking they want to be a landscape designer, but graduate and start a lavender farm. Or someone will come thinking they want to do plant propagation or hydroponics but leave really juiced about plant pathology and go on to get degrees in that.

I also want to highlight that our full-time horticulture faculty, Dr. Shawn Kenaley, is superb. He started teaching here last year and has been a huge addition to our program. His breadth of knowledge is impressive. He’s a forest pathologist who has taught all ages about just about every facet of horticulture, and he’s down-to-earth and approachable. Having worked at Cornell as a research technician earlier in his career and more recently as a post-doctoral associate, he has strong Cornell connections that our students can benefit from in terms of knowledge, advising, and networking.

Another thing that I would like people to know is that we have recently started a three-course cannabis track as a result of student and societal demand. Our provost, Jonathan Keiser, suggested it and horticulture department chair John Foust encouraged us to create it. I think it will be in demand and will help keep our horticulture program populated.

What’s a trend in arboriculture you feel especially good about? What’s been a surprise?
Ticonchuk: I’m very interested in how research entities like the Morton Arboretum are monitoring trees to see how climate change is affecting them. The level of sophistication of the instrumentation is truly amazing, including the use of drones to capture images way up in the tree canopy. 

I’m pleased and actually quite surprised that electric chainsaws have become so prevalent in the arboriculture industry. Running a noisy gas-powered chainsaw has historically been considered a macho enterprise, but I see that arborists are switching to the quieter electric ones. I think that’s a smart move on so many levels.

Lespedeza thunbergii hedge outside Berna and Beth’s home. Photo courtesy Berna Ticonchuk

Do you garden at home?
Yes, indeed—I have to, for my sanity. I’m into vegetable gardening and my wife Beth and I do home canning and freezing. Lately, I’ve been obsessed with peppers. I also love to grow older varieties of ornamental plants. For instance, on the bank behind our house, I planted nine Vanhoutte spirea (Spiraea x vanhouttei) seven years ago, and they’ve now fully covered the bank. Sally Jean Cunningham turned me on to bush clover (Lespedeza thunbergii) that has beautiful fuchsia pea-family flowers and tolerates road salt. I have a 15-foot hedgerow of it by the road and it thrives there as a subshrub, dying back to the ground in the winter.

Anything else you want to share?
Ticonchuk: We have a two-year-old dog named Jack who is three quarters mini-Poodle and one quarter Shih Tzu and a real character. We never thought we’d have a little dog—we always had big dogs, like German Shepherd mixes—but we are crazy about Jack.

The FLCC A.A.S. in Horticulture Curriculum

Program Core
• AGR 100 Soil Science
• BIO/CON 103 Environmental Science
• BIO 221/CON 202 Principles of Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecology
• BIO 251 Plant Structure and Function
• HRT 110 Introduction to Horticulture
• HRT 150 Herbaceous Plant Materials
• HRT 151 Woody Plant Materials
• HRT 220 Field Experiences in Horticulture
• HRT 260 Applied Plant Pathology with Integrated Pest Management
• HRT 280 Field Entomology with Integrated Pest Management

General Education
• BIO 121 General Biology I OR BIO 125 Foundations of Life Science
• CSC 135 Core Excel
• ENG 101 Composition I
• ENG 103 Composition II
• MAT 145 Survey of Functions I
• 3 credits SUNY General Education approved course in Basic Communication: Oral
• 3 credits SUNY General Education approved course in American History, Western Civilization OR Other World Civilization
• 3 credits SUNY General Education approved course in Social Science

Approved Electives
Choose 8 credits from the following courses:
• CON 235 Wetland Science and Practice
• GIS 130 Introduction to Geographic Information Systems
• GIS 227 Applications of Global Positioning Systems
• HRT 111 Tree Culture and Maintenance
• HRT 130 Introduction to Floriculture
• HRT 131 Floral Design
• HRT 135 Regulations of Cannabis Cultivation
• HRT 160 Unique Horticulture Facilities
• HRT 201 Landscape Design I
• HRT 202 Landscape Construction and Maintenance
• HRT 203 Turf Management
• HRT 204 Plant Propagation and Nursery Management
• HRT 210 Landscape Design II
• HRT 221 Horticulture Topics I
• HRT 222 Horticulture Topics II
• HRT 223 Horticulture Topics III
• HRT 230 Certified Applicator Training
• HRT 235 Cannabis: Biology to Industrial Application
• HRT 236 Cannabis Cultivation
• VIT 100 Introduction to Wines and Vines

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.


story by Michelle Sutton; photos courtesy Ellen Krzemien unless noted

Sunrise over the flower fields

For weeks after my interview with Ellen Krzemien (pronounced CRAZE-men), the beautiful produce I bought from her and her husband Jon stayed crisp in my fridge. Growing vegetables with her father’s expert guidance, The Krzemiens are helping to preserve their century-old family farm in the village of Springville, southeast of Buffalo. In recent years, Krzemien’s flowers and her already-iconic Flower Stand have emerged as a key resource for the farm as well.  

In 2007, Krzemien moved back to the family farm to help her parents. Always interested in home décor, she formed the Home Staging Source, one of the few companies of its kind in western New York. She prepared occupied homes for sale by working with the homeowners on simplifying and beautifying their décor so that potential homebuyers could better see possibilities for themselves. In the early years of the business, she would also pull from her own warehouse of furniture, accents, and art to stage vacant homes on the market. In the off-season, she still does occupied home staging, but she let go of the vacant home staging, which proved too labor-intensive to be profitable.  

The Flower Stand’s logo with an ethereal view on to the flower fields

 An avid gardener since childhood, Krzemien began growing flowers on the family farm to supply her home staging business. “Eventually I started putting bouquets out on the veggie stand and found they sold out quickly,” she says. “Then I was asked to provide flowers for weddings and other events; that evolved into having a U-Pick, which we keep expanding, and beginning in 2017, we started offering CSA flower subscriptions.” A blog post about the Flower Stand appeared on stepoutbuffalo.com in 2018 and went viral, reaching more than 10,000 readers. “Things really blew up after that,” she says. 

Reliable gomphrena blooms well into fall
Daucus carota ‘Dara’ is Queen Anne’s lace, spun out into several colors

So successful has Krzemien’s enterprise been that last fall she was awarded a $25K Ignite Buffalo grant, part of a regional million-dollar Facebook Community Boost grant. As part of the competition, Krzemien presented her business plan (and showed off jugs of her flowers) to the grants panel and community members. She’s using the majority of the money to purchase a flower truck so that she can sell flowers at WNY markets, festivals, and other events and to make deliveries to CSA members and other customers.  

Running a CSA serves a practical purpose for every type of grower: subscriptions are purchased in the winter months, funding the acquisition of seeds and supplies at the time they are needed. “It also helps greatly with planning and infrastructure to know in advance how much income you’ll have coming in,” says Krzemien, a Master Gardener with the Erie County Cornell Cooperative Extension. 

The plywood black bear, a perennial fixture at the back of the flower fields, gets a double-take from new visitors. Photo by Michelle Sutton

Krzemien says she enjoys the CSA and U-Pick sides of the business equally. The CSA is time-consuming in summer and fall in terms of making deliveries, while the U-Pick is labor intensive in the spring. “The U-Pick is up to one-and-a-half acres of flowers and every seedling is planted by hand, so that’s all we do for the month of May and well into June,” she says. “We do staggered plantings every three weeks of things like sunflowers, zinnias, and snapdragons. We also have two rows of perennials (including ornamental grasses), a few shrubs (mostly butterfly bushes), and one whole row of tuberous plants like dahlias that have to be dug up in the fall. The latest addition is 350 perennial lavender plants that will be ready for U-Pick in 2020.”  

Krzemien chooses to plow up the U-Pick field (minus the shrubs and perennials) entirely each spring, creating rows anew and reseeding grass in the aisles. “We like to have wide pathways so that the rows can be accessed by tractors for watering, wagons, strollers, and wheelchairs,” she says. “It’s important to me that this be a place families can come, take pictures, and have a relaxing time.” To that end, Krzemien has a free “Little Library” outpost, where grandparents can select a book to read to kids while their parents are cutting flowers.    

Krzemien is herself a grandmother to her daughter Jessica’s kids, Milana (5) and Luis (Tre) (3), who live nearby. Her daughter Jordan lives in Italy with her new husband. “In early June we went to Italy for their wedding,” Krzemien says. “For obvious reasons, Jordan assured me she would not pick a date in July or August,” she says, smiling. 

Krzemien working at dusk … (and past sunset!)

When poring through seed catalogs in January and February and ordering seeds, Krzemien tries to ensure a selection of annuals that, along with her perennials, will give her flowers from Mother’s Day all the way to Thanksgiving. Penstemon, red hot poker, peonies, delphinium, and yarrow shine in June for early season bouquets, while gomphrena, snapdragons, and rudbeckia are fall stars. “Little bluestem, if picked before seeds dry out and start dropping, is nice as a filler for a fall bouquet,” she says.   

In picking which selections to grow, she looks for good stem length (like tall zinnias instead of compact ones) and finds good options—except for mums. “I do wish I could find a mum that has a decent stem length, but I haven’t had luck with that,” she says. “Also, I make sure to trial things on a limited basis to be sure that their stems grow as described. Sometimes our microclimate doesn’t suit a plant that would grow in a nearby microclimate, or our soil isn’t just right.” 

Celebration of yellow

Weather in greater Buffalo can indeed be a challenge, and Krzemien is subject to the weather-related stress of any farmer. Her biggest challenge, however, is deer damage. “One year they ate the whole 200-foot row of sunflowers,” she says. “It was distressing not so much because of the cost of the seed, but because of the lost growing time.” Repellents tend to be too smelly for a U-Pick setting, and she hasn’t found the perfect fencing solution. “If I use a tall fence, it would absolutely detract from the charm and beauty people come here for—they take pictures of the gardens with the rolling land behind them,” she says. 

Krzemien is proud to be part of the resurgence of locally grown flowers. “I embrace the principles of the Slow Flower movement,” she says. The customers do, too. “They like coming here as a family and knowing they are supporting a local farmer. They understand that buying local flowers is helping Western NY agriculture as a whole. Plus, most people find that fresh local cut flowers are superior in terms of beauty and longevity.”  

Dark velvet pincushion flower (Scabiosa atropurpurea) is prized for both flower and seedpod. Photo by Michelle Sutton
Scabiosa stellata seedpods are popular with florists. Photo by Michelle Sutton.

Having done her own experiments with flower preservation, Krzemien is a bleach fan. “I know that might make some florists cringe, but of all the industry and home methods, I’ve found that the vase with a couple of drops of bleach has the longest-lasting, healthiest flowers.” (She recommends that folks recut the stems and change the water every third day at least.) 

Currently, Krzemien’s excited about the ornamental qualities of Nigella seed pods (“I have local florists come pick from me”); Daucus carota ‘Dara’ (produces white, burgundy, and pink Queen Anne’s lace flowers); lavender; geum; and Calla lily foliage. She grows all her own seedlings except the notoriously fussy Lisianthus, which she buys in plugs. If you visit The Flower Stand this fall or next season, you can talk flowers with her yourself. 

More info:

A Few of Krzemien’s Tips on Staging Your Home for Sale:
Landscape and Flowers
– You need to be able to see all or most the house. If you have overgrown trees and shrubs, they have to be tamed. Take down trees and shrubs that are blocking the windows or big ball shrubs that are no longer pleasing to the eye.  

– When using fresh flowers inside the home, stick with whites, browns, and greens—they tend to mesh best with peoples’ belongings and with wood and fabric. White flowers are best to prevent clashing with the surroundings. If you choose a yellow daffodil or something colorful, stick it with lots of earthy green foliage and/or brown grasses or seedpods. 

– For outside curb appeal, whether you do a container planting depends on the house. If you have a big porch, you might want two pots flanking the entry. However, there’s a hierarchy of needs that comes first before containers: are the outdoor lights clean? Is the flag tattered? Is the doormat new and porch swept? Address these first, and then see if containers will enhance the entrance or not.

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.


by Michelle Sutton 

Homesteaders Sean Dembrosky in Trumansburg (Tompkins County) and Akiva Silver in Spencer (Tioga County) are making a full-time living growing nursery crops within a permaculture system. At its most essential, permaculture aims to mimic the structure of natural ecosystems to maximize productivity and sustainability. Food forests are a form of permaculture in which a woodland ecosystem is created with edible plants at every layer—trees, shrubs, climbing plants, perennials, and annuals. 

In these conversations with Dembrosky and Silver, the concepts of permaculture and food forests begin to come to life. There’s so much more to explore. Fortunately, both men are passionate about sharing their extensive knowledge. 

Sean Dembrosky (left) used his YouTube platform, Edible Acres, to introduce viewers to Akiva Silver’s channel, Twisted Tree Farm.

On Dembrosky’s YouTube channel, EdibleAcres, he and his wife Sasha have posted nearly 400 how-to videos for more than 40,000 subscribers; see also their website, edibleacres.org. Silver recently released his first book, Trees of Power: Ten Essential Arboreal Allies and posts technical and philosophical writing on his website, twisted-tree.net. He also hosts a YouTube channel, Twisted Tree Farm, and an online course—both focused on woody plant propagation.  

The forest-nursery at Edible Acres. Photo courtesy Edible Acres


I grew up in northern New Jersey where my Mom converted most of our tiny yard into food production, so I was always immersed in growing plants. I went to college for fine arts with a focus on computer graphics, but I was always gardening on the side wherever I was renting or in containers if no land was available. 

The direction of my life was greatly influenced by an amazing professional photographer named Jon Naar who had traveled all over the world. A World War II vet who had met Gandhi, John was in his mid-80s when I met him. At his house in the middle of Trenton, he had a concrete backyard upon which he grew abundant veggies and fruits in massive soil-filled containers. When I came to a crossroads of either going all in on computer graphics or pursuing my interest in farming, John pushed me towards the latter. He saw where the world was heading in terms of fossil fuels and food security and thought that farming and sustainability would be a better use of my life.  

Edible Acres happened over time; it wasn’t a buy-the-land-and-start-the-nursery sort of thing. I bought degraded, very low-cost land on top of a hill in Enfield, New York and started planting trees everywhere, training myself in permaculture, and making an unlimited number of mistakes! One key connection was with Stephen Breyer of Tripple Brook Nursery in Southampton, MA, who showed me his nursery system. It was very feral and loose, a wild food-forest style that he would dig up plants to sell from. It helped me see what was possible; before that, I always thought nurseries had to be high plastic tunnels, drip irrigation … lots of inputs and extra work.  

At Edible Acres we are particularly interested in providing rapidly replicating plants for food forests. I see food forests as human-stewarded spaces that closely mimic forests or hedgerows, with an eye towards making food and medicine. Food forests are about the perpetual management of young forests; you’re hitting the reset button lightly, fairly often, to create the highest density, diversity, and number of interrelationships among all the species in the system—the plants, mammals, bugs—the whole shebang. This dynamic approach creates a really resilient and alive system.  

Our little permaculture nursery in Trumansburg fully funds our whole life and that’s pretty exciting. We like the place we’re at and don’t want to grow the business just for the sake of getting bigger. This spring we’re shipping almost 300 separate orders from our tiny garage to places around the country. 

This past year I’ve been particularly psyched with elderberry (Sambucus spp.) and black currants (Ribes nigrum), in part because with the massive deer and rabbit pressure that many people like us experience, these are shrubs that readily regrow after browsing. They are also easy to plant by cuttings by direct sticking in the earth; we can plant 15 to 20 per minute. The demand for nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa)—from people and rabbits—is astronomical as well. 

Humans love Nanking cherry fruits, and rabbits love to gnaw on the bark in winter. Photo Courtesy Edible Acres
Edible Acres grows sea kale (Crambe maritima), a perennial green hardy to Zone 5. Photo Courtesy Edible Acres

Plants have to be tough to grow here, and they grow stronger for it. Our main nursery has only one 10-x-30-foot area that has rabbit protection; other than that, 100 percent of the nursery is exposed to deer, rabbits, voles, and mice. We plant enough cuttings and seed to weather that pressure and still meet our financial needs. We have no irrigation, really poor soils as a starting point, very little sunlight, and the land floods in the winter and gets bone dry in the summer. In this way, it’s an intense testing ground! Once these tough plants get to gardens with cushier conditions, they really flourish. 

There’s this limiting idea that in order to practice permaculture you have to design everything out in advance, an idea that can keep people from starting. Speaking from my experience after 15 years of not designing, it’s fine to just start planting and learn as you go. Permaculture overarchingly is a wonderful framework, but more than anything it’s the principles (permacultureprinciples.com) and ethics that I feel have the most value.  


Akiva Silver on his land in Spencer. Photo by Michelle Sutton

I became really interested in wilderness survival about 18 years ago and started spending all of my time in the woods to try to learn how to live off the land. However, the more time I spent in wilderness areas, the more I started to see that humans can have a positive impact on the world, like through planting trees. About 12 years ago, I started teaching myself plant propagation, focusing on trees and shrubs with food value for people and wildlife and medicinal and lumber value for people. It went from a hobby, to side income, to now selling more than 20,000 bare root seedlings of more than 100 varieties each year. 

However much I produce, I can sell, but I don’t care to grow the business any larger; I want to keep life simple, and I choose to be satisfied where I’m at. I have help in the busy spring grafting and fall harvesting and shipping times, but most of the year it’s just me. Being able to work from home is what I always wanted, and really it was building a website and doing mail order that made this all possible. My wife Megan homeschools our three kids: Forrest, eight, Cyrus, six, and Oren, three.  

Those who buy trees from us are gardeners, homesteaders, permaculture folks, wildlife conservationists, other nurseries, and even doomsday preppers. The wildlife conservation folks plant more trees than anyone, I find. They plant hundreds of thousands of chestnuts and chinquapins (Castanea spp.), hazelnuts (Corylus spp.), persimmons (Diospyros virginiana), apples (Malus spp.), pears (Pyrus spp.), and the like. 

Hazelnut is a permaculture staple because of its nuts, pollen, rapidly regenerating shoots, wildlife cover, hedgerow suitability, and more. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, Fir0002, CC BY-SA 3.0 

Spring is grafting season, planting the whole nursery, getting it all mulched, and then by May I weed and water and check on things. In the fall we dig up everything. We have a big festival in the fall called Nut Bonanza, a celebration of nut tree crops. There are stations for people to experience different tree crops, so we do hazelnut oil pressing, make hickory milk, crack black walnuts, roast chestnuts, and make acorn flour.  

For someone who’s new to permaculture, I would suggest focusing on really easy-to-establish things that are high reward, like black currants and raspberries. These will build confidence to try more things. Start with building the soil and then putting in the smaller berry bushes. Eventually you can work your way up to fruit trees. Either way, you’ll want to spend significant time building your soil, much like you would prep soil for growing tomatoes—you’re striving for the crumbly, rich, well-drained soil that organic matter makes possible.  

Fruit trees don’t have to be difficult; it depends on the type and the site. Persimmons and mulberries (Morus spp.) are very easy to grow, as are some apple tree varieties. If someone is wanting to put in a chestnut orchard and they’re on a clay hillside where wholesale amending of soil is not realistic, I would encourage them to create big berms or mounds by scraping any available topsoil downhill, then plant on those berms. If you’re growing in sandy soil, the task is to get as much organic matter into the system as possible. It could be raking up all the grass clippings in the area. Use what’s around you and nearby—I live near a saw mill so I use sawdust, which works great, and I use manure from a local dairy farmer. There’s not one right amendment or planting method; it depends on what you’re trying to do and what’s available.  

In permaculture, I think the most important thing is to keep the soil covered. If you look at nature as an example, the earth naturally wants to be covered, either with plants or with leaves. If it’s not covered, all the organic matter is burning off really fast and nutrients are leaching out. Keep piling on the mulch, using materials around you, to protect the soil. The bacteria and worms and fungus are going to start working on that mulch, and that will make your soils alive. You can’t put those organisms there but you can create really good habitat and then the organisms will flourish—and they do the work of feeding the plants. 

You know how you get inspired about different things in your life, but the feeling can pass fairly quickly? If you can act on it, it can grow into something amazing—and those amazing things are what’s going to heal the earth. You can’t know what chain reaction your actions will set into motion. For example, scientists introduced wolves back into Yellowstone Park with the initial intent of controlling elk and deer populations. Cognizant of the wolves, the elk and deer stopped feeding in open areas, including along riverways. The vegetation along rivers then exploded with growth, erosion was controlled, beavers came back, and the actual course of rivers was changed—all because wolves were reintroduced. In growing plants or in life in general, it’s important when you have those inspiration bombs to light them—don’t just put them away. 

Trees of Power:
Ten Essential Arboreal Alliesby Akiva Silver

(2019, Chelsea Green Publishing)

Silver’s first book, Trees of Power, is broken down into two parts. Part One teaches about propagation and planting skills. Part Two explores ten trees (Arboreal Allies) in depth: 

Chestnut: The Bread Tree 
Apples: The Magnetic Center 
Poplar: The Homemaker 
Ash: Maker of Wood 
Mulberry: The Giving Tree 
Elderberry: The Caretaker 
Hickory: Pillars of Life 
Hazelnut: The Provider 
Black Locust: The Restoration Tree 
Beech: The Root Runner

In the section on black locust, for instance, Silver explores how many different kinds of insects feed on the leaves and how important those insects are for bird populations, and how the flowers are edible and produce a huge nectar flow (Silver says they taste like sweet peas). “Black locust transforms landscapes, like places where they blow the top off a mountain and leave a wasteland, black locust is able to come in and transform no soil into soil,” Silver says. “It can fix carbon and nitrogen out of the air at extremely high rates. It’s pulling stuff out of the sky and putting it into the ground to set the stage for other things to grow again in abandoned pastures, roadsides—anywhere that’s been degraded.” 

Another thing that makes black locust so valuable, Silver explains, is its rot resistance, which makes it ideal for boardwalks, docks, picnic tables, playgrounds, etc. New rules around docks, for instance, prohibit the use of treated lumber, so the options are tropical hardwood or black locust. “The demand for black locust is super high right now,” Silver says. “Fortunately, they grow so fast that by age seven to 10 you could be cutting the trees down and harvesting fence posts and they will regrow, giving you an endless supply. The regrowth on black locust with an established root system can be 10 feet in a year.” 

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor living in New Paltz.