Spring is a time of regeneration on the farm. Dormancy is replaced by growth, and one of the farmer’s many tasks at this time of year is to tend to perennial plants and trees. This matters to me as a chef because I know that in the height of summer, I will be receiving bin after bin of perfectly ripe apples, cherries, currants and sarvisberries. The fruit of the trees and bushes in our fruit forest is among the most precious commodities of the farm. From blueberries to black currants, each is handpicked and barely processed before being used in our value-added products or being served at one of our on-farm lunches and dinners. We would not be able to enjoy such a harvest without first providing the fruit trees with everything they need for optimal growth including pruning and nutrients.
Yesterday we helped the cherry and apple trees in the fruit forest by pruning their neighbors. In this case the neighbors were Siberian pea shrubs (Caragana arborescens) which are a member of the legume family. These shrubs, in addition to yielding edible young shoots, provide the benefit of being ‘nitrogen fixing’ plants. Virtually all plants need nitrogen in the soil to survive. Although it is possible to add nitrogen to soil with fertilizers, nature must have a way of providing nitrogen without human intervention. This is the role of the nitrogen fixing plants.
The air we breathe contains almost 70% nitrogen, and the Siberian pea shrub takes in that nitrogen through its leaves and stores it as nodules on its roots below the surface of the soil. When the shrub is pruned it sheds some of its root system, releasing the nitrogen nodules into the soil to the benefit of the nearby fruit trees. This technique was used extensively throughout antiquity as cultures planted a crop with heavy nutrient needs like corn or wheat alongside a nitrogen fixing legume like beans or peas. The Mayans of Central America are known for their ‘three sisters’ co-planting of corn, beans and squash. The shrubs can handle aggressive pruning which makes them perfect companions to the trees. Cutting back the shrubs at the beginning of the season also ensures the trees will have enough room and sunlight, in addition to the nitrogen-releasing benefit.
As a chef I have developed an eye for the best produce over many years. When I choose which fruits and vegetables to buy, I use all five senses to determine what is likely to be the most flavorful, the most aromatic and the freshest. Now, on the farm, I am learning why the good stuff is so good and will share that knowledge with you. When it comes to Elkstone Farm’s perennial fruit and berries, mindful co-planting and pruning is at the core of that process. Next wee we will be pruning the fruit trees themselves and I cannot wait to share what I learn!