Elegant living architecture: An interview with Zev Friedman

Friday, 05 February 2016

Elegant living architecture: An interview with Zev Friedman

So Zev, what kinds of plant use strategies are you most excited about lately?

I'm working on a couple things right now, a kudzu-based polyculture system and a living mulberry and black locust fence around the "milpa" at Earthaven. These are two examples of living architecture – one of the best techniques for utilizing useful plants to address climate change (using fast growing woody plants that draw a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere and then turning that wood into charcoal that’s used in biochar buried in the soil is a long term form of carbon sequestration) and integrating woody plant polyculture with crop production.

But isn't kudzu an invasive plant that needs to be eradicated?

Ah, I was wondering if you might say that… kudzu, like many invasive plants, has been turned into a problem instead of an ally because we’ve treated the plant as an enemy. It’s actually one of the most useful plants that grows in temperate climates in the world. Every part of the plant has economically valuable uses and in Japan where the plant is from there are industries around each of those uses.

The most valuable use is the starch from the giant perennial roots, which is the base for an entire cuisine and was a main carbohydrate source in Japan before rice was domesticated. It’s an alkalinizing food and one of the most important Chinese medicinal herbs as well as helping with blood sugar balance and digestion.

Kudzu also is a nitrogen fixing plant that pulls nitrogen out of the atmosphere to enrich the soil and physically creates deep friable soil through the penetration of rocks and compacted subsoils. We’ve discovered that the best kudzu roots grow where the vines trellis up into trees so the plant puts all its energy into one large root rather than spreading it between multiple small roots.

It also grows well with black walnut trees which are allelopathic (they create compounds that prevent other plants from thriving). So we’ve begun experimenting with establishing kudzu/nut tree polycultures in which kudzu vines will be deliberately trellised up nut trees such as walnuts, pecans, hickory, chestnuts and improved oak varieties. Kudzu fixes nitrogen to fertilize the trees, vines are removed every two to three years for animal fodder and basketry and to prevent trees being smothered by the kudzu, and the nut trees and kudzu provide long-term, high-quality food as well as valuable hardwood timber.

This is a great example of the permaculture principle of finding an opportunity in a challenge and bringing an invasive plant into balance by creating a human relationship with it that incentivizes us to work at the edges of kudzu patches and thereby limit their spreading. To learn more, join me for Kudzu Camp ~ February 25-28 in Sylva, NC.

Why go to the trouble to plant a living fence when you can just buy a fence and put it up?

This ties back into climate change as well; every manufactured material that we use in modern societies is the result of a long supply chain based in fossil fuel extraction and use. Mining of raw materials, and fabrication of metals and plastics for fencing material require large amounts of greenhouse gas release to be conveniently available to us. By using living architecture where living plants, instead of manufactured materials, meet our homesteading needs, we are actually doing the opposite and sequestering carbon through the photosynthetic life processes of the plants. Itt might not seem like this practice would make a big impact, but if adopted widely as replacement for manufactured materials in these applications as well as others, it could.

In addition, the living fence serves many functions; in the example of one that we’re growing around a “milpa” at Earthaven, we’re using alternated black locust, hazelnut and mulberry “pollards” as living fence posts to contain a 2/3 acre agricultural area. The black locusts fix nitrogen (like kudzu), provide high quality honey nectar, better animal fodder than alfalfa, wood for charcoal and firewood, and long term rot-resistant posts for building projects. The mulberry provide delectable, juicy fruits for two months in early summer, fodder for animals, fiber for rope making and basketry, and coveted wood for crafting. Hazelnuts provide high value nuts with an oil nutritionally similar to olive oil, and their wood is famous for furniture, basketry, homegrown fencing material, and high quality charcoal. The pollard pruning style creates a dense shade on the fence-line that slows the growth of vines and other weeds, thereby reducing fence maintenance labor. In a wet section of the field, we're using willow instead of the other species because willow loves wet soils and grows a fast living fence.

In our case, this fence is enclosing a milpa (a traditional Native American polyculture system using corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, tobacco, amaranth, and up to 15 other plants in an annual crop ecosystem). An integral part of this system is adding charcoal each year to the soil in the form of biochar (charcoal that has been “charged” with a dense plant nutrient source such as manure, urine or compost). An elegant feature of the living pollard fence around the milpa is that we’re growing our charcoal material for the milpa right there next to it. If you want to learn more about milpa farming, I’m teaching a Milpa Farming Series: Growing Staple Foods On A Village Scale In A Forest Ecosystem, an eleven day class from April through October where you’ll get to participate in all stages of the cycle including charcoal production and preparation of milpa cuisine via outdoor fire cooking.

You can see how these two examples,the kudzu/nut tree polyculture and the milpa's living pollard fence, are just two ways to work with useful plants and living architecture for many yields and climate adaptation. There are many other ways that people around the world have discovered to replace manufactured materials with friendly plants.

Zev Friedman is a leading permaculture designer, researcher, teacher and writer in western North Carolina. He grew up in a patch of kudzu in Sylva, NC and received his B.S. in Human Ecology from University of North Carolina Asheville. Zev specializes in hands-on, in-depth education in permaculture and earthskills and has been doing residential and community-based professional design and installation throughout Western North Carolina. Almost a decade of study with world renowned teacher Martin Prechtel help feed his passion for re-growing our own diverse indigenous lifeways through youth initiation and ritual.

Contact Zev through www.livingsystemsdesign.net

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