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Oaks and Permaculture in Sacto/San Joaquin Valley

by moth Friday, May. 07, 2004 at 5:47 PM

Dependency on petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides is part of the reason the US military is still in Iraq protecting corporations extracting petroleum from Iraqi oil wells. Growing oaks in the monoculture agribuisiness fields of the San Joaquin valley would help reduce our dependency on the petrochemically derived fertilizers..

Following report was written 4 a CCAT (Campus Center for Alternative Technology) class about organic permaculture farming at Humboldt State University. CCAT teaches students the benefits of solar energy, permaculture, composting, straw bale building, etc. yet is being paved over to make way for a new building from election bond money. The state looks like they're doing something for education, when in reality the recycling and composting programs (schoolwide, not just CCAT) are both being cut..

..and the defense contracters like Lockheed Martin in San Diego recieve billions to build military weapons to drop on Iraqi civilians unfortunate enough to live atop underground crude oil..

Below is mostly positive report on the benefits of growing oaks in permaculture gardens as source of summer moisture and cooling, winter warmth, leaf litter fertilizer, tap root essential element elevator, etc..

Mark Miller

Oaks and Permaculture in Sacramento/San Joaquin Valley

The great oaks of California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys could benefit organic permaculture farms. Agroforestry permaculture increases soil nutrient richness via tree leaf litter and increases moisture via transpiration of water from deep taproot into the local environment. Valley oaks (Quercus lobata), interior live oaks and blue oaks (Q. douglassii) are native trees to the Central Valley and provide habitat for beneficial wildlife like lizards, raptors and other insect predators of herbivores. An added benefit of oak agroforestry is the yearly crop of tasty acorns that contain carbohydrates, proteins and essential fatty acids. The tannins can be leached out with water, then the acorns can be added to soups, stir fry or ground into acorn flour. Throughout the world’s history, oaks play a central role in many Earth-centered cultures as a subsistence food.

Oaks and acorns were long valued by the indigenous people of Turtle Island (North America). Some First Nations people utilized oak agroforestry permaculture systems like subsistence farmers in other parts of the world. Beneficial healthy tree seeds were selected and planted similar to crops for their future harvest, sugar from maples (Acer) fruits and nuts from chestnuts (Castanea) and oaks (Quercus) (Gordon, 9). Insect and wind pollination and animal seed dispersers like squirrels also helped the genetic diversity of useful trees spread far and wide.

The Midwest consisted of open prairie grasslands with patches of oak groves interspersed between other trees. Oak groves provided windbreaks, shade and security for tribal villages living on the open plain. Indigenous people appreciated the diversity of flavors within the oak species. Bur oak acorns are sweeter than black and northern pin oak acorns (Miller/Lamb, 17). These differences in taste could lead to people selecting a preferred species for further propagation.

In Southern California not far from the San Joaquin Valley, the Kumeyaay people gave sprouted acorns to the chiefs who selected planting areas. The oak groves were taken care of by various groups within the community, some oak groves were family owned, band or community owned. Modern day oak groves of the region may be descended from Kumeyaay plantations (Gordon, 11). The acorn meal central to Kumeyaay life is called Sha-wee, milled in granite rock found at village sites (Connolly). Oak harvesting and caretaking was also central to the indigenous peoples of Northwestern Europe.

The pre-civilization landscape of Northwestern Europe was composed of mixed broadleaf deciduous forests, with oaks predominating. When the Roman Empire invaded Gaul, the military was not prepared for the lush thick northern oak forests. These forested wildlands were the opposite of their concept of civilization, which is based on the control and domination of nature. To reduce jungle warfare with “pagan” peoples, the mental dread of mystery, darkness and the possibility of an accurate enemy archer behind every oak tree, the Romans divided the forest with roads and fields. The grid of roads made the forests and their “barbarian” inhabitants easier to control. Before conquest by civilization, Gods, Gauls, Druids and wild boar lived in harmony within the oak forests. Oaks produced acorns, hogs fed on acorns and the Gauls fed on hogs (Miller/Lamb, 12). Modern day people are beginning to recognize the importance of maintaining healthy oak woodlands.

Southwest Spain’s dehesa region has random scattered oaks (Q. ilex, Q. suber, Q. faginea) intercropped with cereal and barley fodder crops. The trees are between 100-300 years old, though no new trees have been planted since 100 years. Regeneration of this oak woodland permaculture ecosystem is protection of young seedlings against animals. Perennial grasses grow more frequent under tree canopies than in open pasture, there is more nutrient material available under tree canopies. Urgent regeneration of this ecosystem is needed as erosion is already depleting the ecosystem of nutrients (202, Gordon/Newman). In the Central Valley, grazing cattle and deer chomp young oak seedlings before they can develop thick enough bark and leaves for protection.

Oaks generally don’t need much help with pollination; they can distribute their own pollen simply by causing localized wind currents. Windblown pollen follows a plumelike pattern caused by local convection currents in spring. The ground warms unevenly, shaded by oaks in some places and sunny in others. Warm air above the sunny patch rises and is replaced by cooler air from shaded patch, resulting in localized eddies called convection currents that transport oak pollen in the localized region (Keator, 114). This gives the pollinators plenty of time to work on spreading the pollen of the other plants in the permaculture garden. This cooling breeze also helps the plants breathe and transpire in the hot summer.

Oaks are monoecious with both unisexual flowers (males with stamens and females with pistils) on the same tree. To avoid self-pollination, they time their pollen to release at different times from when the female flowers have their receptive stigma. Small female flowers blossom behind petal-less male catkins, petals are not needed because wind is used for pollination (Keator, 102). During summer the female flowers slowly become acorns and young fresh leaves become thick with accumulated nutrients and minerals.

The heat and dryness of the Central Valley requires a large amount of water diverted from local rivers like the Sacramento/San Joaquin. Diversion of river water can have disastrous effects on the riparian ecosystem, noticed by the 30,000 dead fish on the Lower Klamath River. Oaks may increase the moisture of the microclimate and reduce the localized heat, thereby reducing the excess water useage of the current agribusiness monoculture fields. Valley oak (Quercus lobata) survives in the valley bottoms of the Sacramento/San Joaquin basin. Broad deeply lobed leaves form a jigsaw puzzle pattern that allows sunlight to filter through the opening of lobes to the forest floor. The large broad leaves also indicate large amounts of water evaporated during transpiration. When the tree pulls up water through capillary action of the xylem and out the leaf, the leaf surface is cooled as the water evaporates. This allows the delicate chloroplasts to survive the intense heat of the Central Valley (Keator, 70).

After a decrease in sunlight and cooler autumn temperatures, leaves are signaled to fall. Hormones in the abscission layer cells sever the connection from the leaf to the branch. Loss of green leaf color is the absence of chlorophyll cells. Fallen dead leaf blankets hold in soil moisture and warmth, providing a home for soil decomposers like beetles, fungi, and bacteria. These decomposers slowly reduce leaves to frass, a humus-like powder rich in minerals and nutrients (Keator, 77). Gradually the decayed leaves become the soil of the future, with vital minerals like iron (Fe) and magnesium (Mg) returning to aqueous form and becoming available for plant uptake.

Hyphae of fungus are minute branched tubular threads that absorb water and release enzymes to break down leaf litter and animal matter, obtaining nutrients and minerals. The hyphal tip is walled off and detached from the rest of the hyphae, eventually it penetrates the tree’s root and is engulfed by the root’s living protoplasm, the root absorbs minerals, nutrients and water from the penetrating hyphae, the fungus gains sugars from the tree’s photosynthesis flowing down to the roots via the phloem (Keator, 26)

Along with the benefits of symbiosis between the fungi and oaks, there are some ecto-mycorrhizal fungi that are edible to humans. The cepe (Boletus edulis) and truffles (Tuber spp) are the above ground spore producing fruiting bodies of the underground hyphae.

Diverse microorganisms and plant photobionts are involved in the nitrogen cycle, from symbiotic nitrogen (N) fixers like Genus Rhizobia that bond with legume roots and other nitrifying bacteria that are independent like Nitrosomonas (NH3  NO2) and Nitrobacter (NO2  NO3). N-fixers convert atmospheric N2 into ammonia (NH3), and the two above convert NH3 into nitrite (NO2) and nitrate (NO3). This community of microbes would live happier and healthier within an oak permaculture garden than a monoculture clear-cut plantation agribusiness farm. The effect of industrial fertilizer (petroleum based product, another reason the US military is still occupying Iraq) in agribusiness is tragic for the riparian ecosystem as fertilizer run-off causes eutrophication of the watershed, depriving fish of oxygen after algal blooms die off. As more topsoil from the upper soil horizon is washed away in the run-off, more industrial fertilizer is needed, though eventually this cycle will exhaust itself. We need a long-term permaculture system that renews itself without outside input from petrochemical based fertilizer.

Oaks are the most ecologically hospitable of all temperate trees, yet their grand stature does not dominate other life forms, instead oaks are givers of life. Broad horizontal branches have nooks and niches for birds, small mammals, insects and grubs. Their deep tap roots draw up water and minerals from subsoil, injecting Calcium (Ca) into deficient soils. The scientific knowledge we have now that tells us oaks are important species in the ecosystem and can help with permaculture was also known hundreds of years ago by indigenous peoples of the temperate forests.

For thousands of years Druids worshiped oaks as a symbol of Gaia, the Earth Mother (Hart, 12). Across the Atlantic Ocean, indigenous people of North America held the same wisdom of the sacred oaks. When John Muir was offered acorn cheese prepared by indigenous people, he remarked it was the most sustaining and tasty survival food he ever had (Hart, 176). Somewhere along the way we got lost, forgetting the value of the oak woodlands. As we wake up and see the destruction of oak woodlands around us, we are again motivated to save the oaks. Modern day groups like the California Oaks foundation are working to pass legislation that will protect the oak woodlands ecosystem habitat from needless development. The potential for oak restoration on currently barren soils of the Central Valley monoculture farms is still an idea waiting for its time. Permaculture farming with oaks could bring people to a reconnect with a beneficial tree that gives plants and people moisture, shade, minerals, nutrients and tasty acorns!!


“Oaks of North America” by Howard Miller and Samuel Lamb Naturegraph Pub Inc. Happy Camp, CA 1985

“The Life of an Oak” Glenn Keator Heyday Books California Oak foundation 1998

"Forest Gardening" by Robert Hart

Chelsea Green pub 1996 White River Junction, VT

"Temperate Agroforestry Systems" ed by Andrew Gordon and Steven Newman

1997 CAB Int.

featured article;

"Agroforestry in North America and Role in Farming Systems"

Williams Gorgon, Garrett, Buck

“Precontact Culture” by Mike Connolly on Kumeyaay website;

California Oaks Foundation

Agroforestry Conference

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