Beyond the garden: Into zone 4

Back in 2007 when I took my Permaculture Design Course (PDC) at the Farm in Summertown, TN I learned about an important leguminous plant that at one time had proliferated throughout the East Coast. It had been an important food source for various groups of Indians and according to Samuel Thayer in his book Forager’s Harvest was cultivated near their villages as a source of starch. Apios americana (hopniss or ground nut are common names for it)was that plant and ever since learning of its import and potential as a perennial food source it has been a goal of mine to begin reintroducing it to Pennsylvania in numbers that would allow it to proliferate thus increasing the carrying capacity of wild lands. An action like is what I consider doing permaculture in Zone 4. A modest intervention that increases the productivity of woodland or forest edge ecosystems.

Recently, I was lucky enough to meet Dale Hendricks the owner of Green Light Plants, a nursery full of various woodland species both native and introduced, that can be used to increase biological diversity, add further beauty to the landscape, or provide food and nitrogen fixation (as in the case of hopniss). Dale is also a  student a practitioner of permaculture and unbeknownst to me when I sent my first email query to him, a student of my teaching partner Ben Weiss, with whom I am now working with again here in Lancaster, PA. He let me know that he had multiple varieties of Apios at his nursery so my wife and I drove an hour through the country side of SE PA to his nursery in Landenberg. Dale’s place is a magical one and his conscious design is evident to the ‘permaculturist’s eye’ .  From the passive solar design of his home to the various gardens and forest gardens scattered around his 12 acres of heaven it is clear that what he has learned from Ben’s classes and his many years of horticultural experience has been put to excellent use.

While there, I purchased 15 hopniss plants from him that were beginning to send their vines skyward. When he showed them to me I felt like a kid in a candy store, such was my excitement at finally finding this wonderful species.  Dale gave me a rundown on their habitat and the need to plant them close to something that they can climb up so that the tubers form well. Today I had the opportunity to take 5 of them in to a wooded area that is a favored foraging spot where I looked for a gap clearing suitable to plant them in. It only took a few minutes of walking to find a suitable spot next to an old downed tree. As I dug into the soil with my hori hori, I found rick black earth near the top with reddish clay below. It seemed a likely place to put them as the sun there was good and the soil looked rich as well.  As I pulled the hopniss out  of their temporary homes I noticed that they all had multiple tubers which I think will help them to spread well. They do spread a lot so I planted them several feet apart and tried to give them each something to climb up as recommended. I imagine in a couple of months there will be a profusion of vines covering the fallen tree and by next spring a nice harvest of the tubers.

Why is planting something like this important?  Being a perennial, these plants will not need further inputs of energy like an annual vegetable or tuber such as potatoes. In a future of energy descent this could be imperative. It also increases the productivity of wild lands thus increasing the carrying capacity of those lands. In other words there is more food there for people who know where to look for it. I will know where to look and am also happy to trade money to proliferate this wonderful species for future generations to harvest. This is what Earth Care and People Care are all about to me. I am on a mission to make my home bioregion more ecologically diverse, more sustainable, and more beautiful. Planting hopniss is one way to do that.

Right between my fingers is the vine.

Right between my fingers is the vine.

Tools of the trade.

Tools of the trade.

Slender hopniss vine ready t climb

Slender hopniss vine ready to climb

Nice sized tuber sitting close to the surface.

Nice sized tuber sitting close to the surface.


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