A free email agroforestry journal for practitioners, extension agents, researchers, professionals, students, and enthusiasts. One edition is sent each month focusing on a concept related to designing, developing, and learning more about trees and agroforestry systems. Focuses on trees and their roles in agriculture, natural ecosystems, human culture and economy.

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Overstory #9 - Observation

Letting Nature Show Us What Works: Observation

Sustainability is about working with nature, rather than against it. We can choose to impose our own agenda (often at great expense to ourselves and to the local ecology), or we can appreciate the forces and processes that exist on the land, and work with them to benefit ourselves and the environment at the same time. The way to begin working with nature is to start by observing it, noticing and appreciating what nature is doing on a site. The observation process is a key tool that means the difference between results that are ecologically sound, and ones that are not. Observation is about letting nature teach us what works.

A well known permaculture teacher, Lea Harrison of Australia, recounts that as she was starting out, she was unable to work on her farm for an entire year as a result of a motorcycle accident. She was forced by her injury to sit back and watch her fallow land from the balcony of her house, and she couldn't DO anything! While frustrating at first, in retrospect she realized that waiting that whole year to observe natural processes on her land enhanced her farm design tremendously, lowering her overall costs and resulting in higher yields and reduced maintenance.

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Overstory #8 - Mycorrhizae--Essential Partners in Plant Health

People have taken plants out of their natural environments to cultivate them in agricultural systems such as plantations, orchards and farms. However, we have not changed the plant's basic needs. Plants co-evolved with soil life over hundreds of millions of years. Many plant and tree species adapted to depend on some kinds of soil microlife. Soil fungi known as mycorrhizal fungi make vital contributions to plant and soil health. Mycorrhizae simply means, "root fungus," and refers to fungi which live in close association with the root systems of plants, extending out from the plant's own roots. By nurturing and, where necessary, re-introducing mycorrhizal species, we can cultivate an essential ecological connection that will benefit our crops, our environment, and our own bottom line in agriculture or forestry.

Mycorrhizal fungi have evolved in association with plants, acting to greatly increase the ability of plants to take up water and certain nutrients, while often protecting associated plants from pests and diseases. They live in and around the root zone of plants, extending far out from the plant's roots with their own network of thread-like filaments known as hyphae. This greatly extends the effective surface area of the plants roots. The association with mycorrhizal fungi greatly enhances plant health in most species, and has even become essential for the survival of certain types of plants. Avocados, bamboos, bananas, cassava, coconuts, coffee, mahogany, mangoes, palms, papayas, soybeans, and sweet potatoes are just a few examples of plants that benefit from mycorrhizae.

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Overstory #7 - Agroforestry: A way of farming that can work for everyone

There is growing concern throughout the world about the loss of species diversity.

Much of the destruction has taken place to make room for human agriculture, particularly pastures, plantations, and other monocultures. Is there a way of farming that can provide for human needs while benefiting all forms of life?

Agroforestry systems increase species diversity within farming systems, providing for human needs while supporting wildlife, soil microorganisms, rural communities, farmers, economic interests, watersheds, clean air concerns, biodiversity, and more.

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Overstory #6 - Introduction to Multipurpose Palms

Among the plants of the Tropics it is difficult to find a family of plants of more service to people than the palm family (Palmae, Arecaceae). In fact, this family has been called the most versatile of all due to its many uses. Palms seldom receive the recognition they merit, perhaps because the family is almost entirely of the tropics, and almost completely absent in temperate zones where there are more writers of books and magazines as well as researchers. This article aims to stimulate readers to grow and use palms with the belief that these plants can be of much, much more service.

Records Involving Palms

Palms beat records in many ways, as follows:

  • Most versatile plant family in total uses: Palmae
  • Most versatile plant family in food uses: Palmae
  • World's longest woody vines: Rattan palms
  • World's longest leaves: Raffia palms (over 10 meters)
  • World's longest inflorescence: Talipot palm
  • World's largest seed: Double coconut (Coco-de-Mer)
  • World's hardest seed: Ivory palm
  • World's tallest palm: Ceroxylon (65 meters)
  • World's single best starch source: Metroxylon
  • Most versatile plant in the world: Coconut palm
  • Most versatile plant in the world: Coconut palm

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Overstory #5 - Start Small...and Expand on Successes

First you make your habits; then, your habits make you. - Old saying

The first few months of a new planting form the foundation of the entire project. The more effort and attention that can be invested in doing things right in this crucial phase, the more smoothly things will go from there on. Even with large projects, we follow the rule: Start small.

We have found the "start small" guideline can be applied to all aspects of our projects including home gardens, orchards, forestry plantings, animal systems, tree nurseries, and even community development projects. It can be applied to brand new plantings, as well as projects that are being diversified. Start small and do it as well as possible. When an area we started in feels like it is going well and no longer requires much attention, THEN we are ready to expand to a new area.

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Overstory #4 - Nitrogen Fixing Trees--A Brief Introduction

Nature has many ways of creating abundance under adverse conditions. Imagine plants that accumulate their own fertilizer, grow extremely quickly, tolerate harsh climatic conditions, and are prolific. Many nitrogen fixing plants fit this description, and have numerous uses in gardening, farming and forestry.

Although many nitrogen fixing plants lend themselves to agroforestry, nitrogen fixing trees (NFTs) have perhaps the most use in sustainable systems. The uses for NFTs include windbreak, shade, fodder, organic matter production, mulch, fuel, timber and food. Chances are that if you live in the tropics, there are several NFTs already growing as pioneers in your area.

Nature has devised a unique path of nutrient cycling used by these trees. Air consists of approximately 80% nitrogen gas, which is normally unavailable to plants. NFTs utilize this atmospheric nitrogen. Through an association with Rhizobium, a bacteria which is hosted in the root system of NFTs, these plants biologically accumulate nitrogen, pulling this essential nutrient out of the air for their own use, and, if managed, making it available to other crops as well.

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