Dry Cold Permaculture
Homesteading in the Northern Rockies
by Thomas J. Elpel
The apricot tree burst into full bloom in early April this year, about six weeks before the native trees leaf out. Most of the blossoms froze, but two survived to grow into big, beautiful apricots. Unfortunately, the birds ate them before I could. But that's life on the edge. I am admittedly envious when I see before-and-after photos of permaculture projects showing bare ground transitioning into overhead fruit forests in five or ten years. Life happens more slowly here in the Northern Rockies. In the mountains above my home, I've counted fifty years of growth in one-inch diameter, six-foot tall trees. Trees grow faster down where I live, but compared to other permaculture projects, my homestead grows in slow motion. Nevertheless, after twenty-seven years of relentless tree planting, I am beginning to see the fruits of my labors. Maybe next year I'll grow three apricots.
Hiking in the mountains above Pony, Montana, there are places where the snow piles six feet deep in winter. All that moisture should be good to fuel rampant growth come summertime, but as soon as the snow melts in late June, the ground is dry and barren. The "soil," such as it is, consists of decomposing granite, i.e.: sand, which lacks nutrients and doesn't hold water. At higher elevations, it rains frequently in summer, yet the ground dries out almost as soon as the rain stops. Lodgepole and whitebark pines grow infinitely slower in this cold desert, while the ground underneath is either completely barren, or sometimes carpeted with grouse whortleberries. The plants are dwarfed versions of huckleberry bushes, typically less than a foot tall, and the fruits are dwarfed as well, an adaptation to the extreme environment. In a rich patch it is possible to pick one cup of huckleberries per hour of labor--if you can resist eating them in the process.
My five-acre homestead is somewhat less extreme. Situated at 5,600 feet above sea level, slightly more than a mile high, winters aren't harsh, except that they linger until the end of April. The trees leaf out by mid-May, and the land is vivid green for almost two months before it starts to dry and bake. The south-facing hill where I live is great for solar exposure, but the sandy soil doesn't hold moisture. Other than my hard-packed driveway, I've never seen a puddle here. My "permaculture" wouldn't survive July and August without drip lines to bring life-giving water to the trees. September brings the first frosts and a welcome reprieve from the heat of summer, followed by a crisp descent into another endless winter.
Springtime always brings hope and promise, and I've been wooed into planting hundreds of trees over the years, imagining they would all grow and thrive. But scorching summer days and irregular watering were not enough to keep them alive. I've often planted trees and attempted to care for them, yet they became shorter and shorter each year until they finally expired and I planted new ones. I've probably lost 90 percent of the trees and shrubs I've planted. Nevertheless, I learned to plant trees faster than they could die, and along the way I eventually learned to grow trees bigger instead of smaller each year. Other than the dry and crunchy lawn, my yard is now an oasis of green on a barren hillside, and sometimes I actually harvest a few apples, plums, and raspberries. Someday I will harvest apricots, though I make no predictions about quantity.
What to Plant, What Not to Plant
My neighbors kept a walnut tree alive for fifteen years, and it was still only three feet tall. That's just the way it is. However, Montana has an excellent climate for plums and apples, although they grow more slowly than in moderate climates.
Wild plums are native to eastern Montana, and often cultivated here on the western side of the state. My wild plums form a nice hedge, separating the driveway from the chickenyard. They grow well, but the fruits are mealy and unappetizing, perhaps because they don't get enough water. Two other plums that grow here are much tastier, and sometimes quite productive. Nanking cherries, native to China, are small, but prolific in my yard--or they were until the cottontail bunnies girdled the bark and nearly killed the bushes. Sand cherries are my favorite, but they don't like it here. I'm lucky to get a dozen cherries a year.
Good apple cultivars don't survive on my place, but I have a nice crabapple, planted here twenty-seven years ago. It is about twelve feet tall and produces several buckets of tasty fruit every year. I've also transplanted feral apple trees. Apples grown from seed seldom produce good eating apples, but anything that plants itself and survives has merit. I should try grafting good tasting apples onto the hardy rootstock.
Much of what constitutes permaculture here has little to do with food. I get excited about any tree or shrub that won't die. Lilacs and caraganas grow well, providing greenery, a windbreak, and a degree of shade to start other shrubbery. The caragana, also known as Siberian pea shrub, is a legume that helps fix nitrogen in the soil, and the seed pods explode when dry, casting seeds several feet away. I like to think they provide supplementary food for the chickens. Ten years ago I discovered Siberian elms, which grow remarkably fast for this climate and survive with little supplementary water. I've also had success with Siberian almonds, which are five years old and already full height at two-feet tall. They actually produce a few almonds, although they are too small to economically process them. There is a theme; if it grows in Siberia, it will grow here. Cotoneasters, from the Himalayas, also thrive, providing fruit for birds. The fruit makes passable survival fare for humans, if needed.
Our climate is rated zone 4, almost zone 5 according to the US Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Trees rated for zone 4 do well enough most years, except for the anamolous years with temperatures cold enough to kill zone 4 trees back to their roots. We expect -20°F weather here most winters, and the trees handle it well enough. But the rare -40°F cold front distinguishes the truly hardy trees from those who are not cut out for this environment.
Extreme cold isn't the only challenge to tree survival here. Weather often fluctates wildly throughout the winter, rising to t-shirt warm weather for a week or two, then suddenly plunging below zero in a single day. Many trees cannot handle the shock. Moreover, the ground is often dry and bare in winter, dry enough that it is sometimes possible to dig a hole in frozen ground, only because there is no water to freeze. Trees can die from drought stress even while seemingly dormant. A lack of snow cover also allows frigid temperatures to penetrate more deeply into the soil.
From experience, I rarely bother with trees that are not zone 3 hardy. Unfortunately, not all zone 3 trees survive here either. Autumn olive, and many other zone 3 trees, are adapted to humid environments with deep snow cover to insulate the soil. They may handle cold weather well enough, but not our crazy mix of constantly fluctuating warm and cold, often very dry winter weather.
Climate change is giving us a noticeably longer growing season and warmer temperatures all year long, even teasing the prospect of one day growing zone 5 trees. Yet the reality is that we are always at risk for a short, but lethal, unimaginably frigid cold snap.
Among native choices, buffaloberries and junipers do well on the homestead. Junipers provide welcome greenery in the middle of otherwise bleak winters. As for buffaloberries, we just grew our first substantial crop, nearly twenty years after planting them. We picked two gallons of fruit and left that much more for the birds. Box elders, a type of maple native to eastern Montana, are also fast-growing and great for producing maple syrup. Unfortunately, a heavy snowstorm broke mine down, and now I'm still twenty years away from having a tree big enough to tap for syrup.
I'll plant just about anything I get my hands on, so there is considerable diversity on my place. There is a Douglas fir that we dug up as a Christmas tree in the mid-1990s, then planted outside. It didn't grow at all for a long time, but is now thirteen feet tall. A Colorado blue spruce, planted in memorial to the kids' grandmother, is of similar height after twenty years. I have two imported maples that maxed out at about fourteen feet tall and don't seem to grow anymore, plus some ash trees that might actually provide substantial shade someday. I have several hardy roses that survive here, and a golden current that flowers but doesn't produce much fruit. There is also a healthy, yet stunted golden willow surrounded by aspen trees, which require more water than anything else on the place. Some young black locust trees show great promise, although I made the mistake of mulching around them to hold in moisture, and mice girdled the bark and killed eight of the ten trees.
Other species are just not meant to be here. I tried red osier dogwoods early in the landscaping process. Every year they grow, and every winter they die back again, never gaining forward momentum.
Being on the barren, south-facing side of a hill, my homestead is baked by the sun and blasted by the wind. Yet there are many microclimates around the homestead that provide varying degrees of shelter for more sensitive species. For example, I wasn't able to grow raspberries when I first moved here, but now they thrive in the shade of a feral apple tree and on the shady north side of a hedge of caraganas. Ditto behind the chickenhouse, where raspberries benefit from the shade of the building as well as the rainwater dripping off the steel roof. I would have had a bumper crop of raspberries this year, several cups at least, if the bunnies hadn't mowed them all down over the winter.
South-facing microclimates can also be beneficial. My stone and log house is built into the hill and there is a retaining wall around the patio, ten feet tall in the back, and eight feet tall on the west side. The walls protect a small patio garden from the wind and cold, and the stonework absorbs solar heat, creating a warm oasis. That's where my nicest apricot tree grows, and it gains about three-feet per year, mind-boggling growth for this climate. One year I grew six apricots where a branch touched the stone wall. The mass of stone held just enough heat to keep those blossoms from freezing. Unfortunately, a sudden below-zero cold snap in October abruptly ended the growing season and killed most of the tree, before it drew down its sap for the winter. Now that the tree has regrown, I'm starting to see apricots again. I might get a real harvest one of these years.
There is a deep gully cutting across my property, providing northeast and southwest facing microclimates. A gully is theoretically created by precipitation and erosion, yet I've never seen standing or running water in it, not even in the hardest rains. Trees in the gully were more difficult to water because they are farther from the house faucet, but a good system of drip hoses and timers near the guest castle now gives the shrubbery regular sips of water to keep them from dying.
My driveway, and another small road cross the gully, create protective holes behind the earthworks. In one hole I am nurturing a thicket of black hawthorn, wild plums, and Saskatoon serviceberries. Twenty years after planting the first shrubs, I still haven't harvested any fruit, because the birds always get them first, but as the thicket thickens, there is the potential to produce more fruit than the birds can consume in one pass. More than anything, I just want a thicket for wildlife habitat and to provide good cover for games of hide and seek.
Siberian elms are astonishing in their ability to grow with little or no supplementary water. Far from the faucet, I placed a partial sheet of plywood on the hillside, directing rainwater to one Siberian elm, and it seems to thrive, though I seldom give it additional water. I planted other Siberian elms in the gully, where the soil is richer and slightly wetter. Siberian elms are considered invasive in many forest habitats, but here they have potential to grow on marginal land where little else can survive. They grow quickly, and someday these will be real trees providing significant shade for plants, birds, and kids. The immature green seeds are edible and delicious, like eating a sweet, fluffy salad. If I'd known about them twenty-five years ago, I would have big trees by now. I planted them only about ten years ago, and so far the big ones are only ten or twelve feet tall. Once in awhile we get clobbered with a heavy, wet snowstorm when trees are fully leafed out in spring or fall. The last storm broke tree branches all over town and shortened my nicest elm tree by a third. Ah, but life goes on, and I'm slowly gaining on it.
I'm not too picky when it comes to planting. Bouncing bet, otherwise known as soapwort, is another import, a plant that can become mildly invasive in some habitats. There is no danger of that on this dry hillside, but soapwort does well below the dripline from the roof my shop, and I love the sweet smell of the flowers. True to its name, the plant contains saponins, which can be used as a soap substitute. Beat the vegetation in a blender and add it to the washing machine for all natural laundry soap. If an apocalypse comes, it is good to have a soap garden to keep the laundry clean!
Long, long ago, I planted a wild grape vine from eastern Montana behind the retaining wall around the patio, near the apricot tree. It is positioned so the vine could hang down the stone wall and benefit from the warm thermal mass. It is too far from the hose to water it regularly, but after cutting back the grass and smothering it with mulch, the grape vine is starting to prosper. I am optimistic that it might yet grow grapes.
The best microclimate here is an expansive greenhouse attached to the front of the house. The first year, the tomatoes grew to the ceiling, seventeen feet tall, and produced delicious tomatoes all year long. However, it is difficult to maintain soil fertility indoors for tomatoes over time, so I primarily grow an ornamental jungle of really exciting but largely useless plants like bougainvillea, guava, a lemon tree, orange tree, avocado, hibiscus, banana, geraniums, and such. I love the tropical smell of the orange blossoms, although the one-inch diameter fruits are more sour than lemons. Better tasting oranges are highly susceptible to aphids and black fungus, and seemingly impossible to keep alive.
Gardening outside is much more problematic, with crops subject to the ravages of rain, snow, hail, blistering sun, wind, grasshoppers, chickens, deer, and a really short growing season. One year the grasshoppers were so thick that they ate whole zucchinis, then they ate the tips of spruce tree needles, the black plastic off the garden, and even the notebooks of students in my hide tanning class. Fortunately, we haven't had a bad grasshopper year in awhile.
I built two raised garden beds, separateing the garden from the lawn, but making the garden beds chicken-proof also makes them people-proof and difficult to weed or manage. The best way to grow anything in this environment is to grow it indoors, so I ereected a small greenouse over one of the garden beds. Sometimes I wish I could erect a greenhouse over the entire property. Then I could grow just about anything!
A key component of permaculture is low-tech geoengineering that improves the soil and better utilizes rainwater. For example, digging a trench across a slope and piling the earth on the downhill side creates a swale, basically a long, shallow dam to capture rainwater or snowmelt. Concentrating moisture in these swales facilitates growth of trees and shrubs where they might not otherwise survive. One danger in swales is that some have held back so much water that they burst and flooded neighboring homes. That's not an issue here, since water sinks into the soil without forming puddles. There was an existing swale when I first moved here in 1989 in the form of an
abandoned irrigation ditch crossing part of the property. The grass is slightly greener in the bottom, and wild roses barely cling to life there, but by itself, it doesn't hold enough moisture for trees. A friend and I filled the ditch with mulch to see if we could improve the water-holding capacity. Hardy feral plums and apricots sprouted there, but died in the mid-summer heat. We'll need to add water to keep them alive.
Another popular permaculture technique is hugelkultur, that is mounds built of alternating layers of soil and logs. The slowly-decomposing wood matter helps hold moisture and slowly release nutrients, making it possible to grow abundant vegetation without irrigation... except in dry, sandy soil like we have, where supplementary water is required for growth and decomposition. Without a sprinkler system to wet the mounds, the surface would dry out and blow away.
It is tempting to import semi-truck loads of good soil or clay additives to improve the sandy soil, except that doing so would be very expensive and fossil fuel intensive. Nevertheless, I improve the soil with anything I can get my hands on. When utility crews trim and chip trees along the power lines, I ask for the wood chips. I haul old straw and hay bales home from the community dumpster for mulch. All straw and chicken manure from cleaning the hen house goes to the landscape. I scatter used clay cat litter across the pasture to improve water-holding capabilities.
I long ago used my entire collection of old Mother Earth News magazines as mulch to hold moisture in the soil around some young trees, and I've even recycled old clothing as mulch. These additives help in small, sometimes almost immeasurable ways. My homestead was once a dry, grassy hillside. Now it grows so much shrubbery that I trim nearly a truckload of branches every year, which is also added to the landscape. Scattered on bare ground in the pasture, the sticks create micro-micro climates, providing enough protection to the soil to reduce freeze-thaw drying in winter, which enables grass seedlings to successfully root in spring.
More than anything else, my homestead is dependent on supplementary water to get through the hot months of July and August. I am blessed with a gravity-fed spring, so I have free water with no need for a pump or electricity. But the supply is limited to one hose running about eight to ten hours per day. By alternating dripline circuits, the hundreds of trees and shrubs get a drink about once a week.
To improve the water supply, I capture rainwater from one section of the house roof, channeling it into a buried tank for watering the precious apricot tree on the patio. I also started constructing a pond fifteen years ago, which could make a significant difference here. I lined it first with bentonite carpets, like those used to waterproof landfills to prevent toxins from leaking into the groundwater. Through winter and spring, the pond naturally filled about eighteen inches deep with snowmelt and rainwater. However, adding additional water caused leaks through or between the bentonite carpets, which makes me question how effectively they lock toxic fluids into landfills. The pond wasn't particularly pleasing either, since the bentonite dissolved into the water, creating a muddy, brown puddle. Unfortunately, this bentonite ladden water killed healthy trees when siphoned out of the pond. Bentonite clay forms when volcanic ash falls in seawater, so I killed my trees with salt!
Someday I will apply a layer of shotcrete to make a permanent pond six-feet deep and big enough to store excess spring water from the wet season to the dry season. It may not be enough to grow more trees, but at least the trees I have will get a healthy drink when it is needed most.
Other people have produced more successful and productive permaculture homesteads than mine, but I don't know of anyone who has tackled the same dry cold extremes. I continue to plant more new trees than ever before, but only a few at home each year. I typically order 100 - 200 trees per year from a wholesale nursery catalog, and in recent years have planted our river property (1,200 feet lower in elevation), a public campsite farther down the river, and most recently, my daughter's new house. From experience, I know not to scatter new trees all over my property, but to concentrate on small circuits that can be easily managed and watered intensively to get them started. Slowly, steadily, my permaculture effort grows and expands across the property.
In the meantime, I've learned that it is easy to travel and harvest fruit elsewhere while waiting to grow it at home. This year we spent a week picking and canning blackberries, apricots, and plums on public lands on the Idaho-Oregon border. We brought home more than 100 jars of fruit for the cellar. Sometimes we go back to Idaho in the fall to harvest wild rice, and we could also pick apples, pears, and walnuts there. These adventures provide a good supplement to the meager homestead harvest. Indeed, knowning what I know now, I might have homesteaded in western Idaho if I wanted quick and easy permaculture results. But I built my home here because the extended family is here, and I am immensely attached to my homestead, family, and community.
Heart of the Homestead
The most successful part of this permaculture homestead has always been the house itself. It is the "permanent" in permaculture, a passive solar home built with hefty stone and log walls. Guests frequently comment that the house feels "real" in a way that other houses don't. It has substance. It is a permanent shelter, built to last. Being nestled into the hill, we can leave in winter with no backup heat and not worry about freezing pipes or plants. With gravity fed spring water and a wood cookstove, the house functions well even when the power goes out. Hot water is provided by a solar water heater and a simple boiler system built into the cookstove. The house is grid-connected, but photovoltaic panels run the meter backwards and produce about as much electricity as the house consumes each year.
Having built the house on a shoestring budget without a mortgage, I've had the freedom to live life my way, without being dependent on a regular job. Not needing an income allowed me to indulge in tree planting and nurturing my writing career until it could pay for itself. Now, if I can grow a legitimate crop of apricots, then my permaculture homestead will be truly successful indeed!
Thomas J. Elpel is the founder and director of Green University® LLC and the author of seven books, including Living Homes, Participating in Nature, and Foraging the Mountain West.