To Convert an Orchard to a Food Forest, Start with the Soil

Orchard path at Barbolian FieldsWe have this old orchard on our homestead – how old is anybody’s guess. The house is over 100 years, so perhaps the trees are as well? How long do they live? It comprises 9 trees (apples, pie cherries, and an Italian prune), and despite its age, produces more than we can use, but not really enough for any kind of commercial enterprise.

The trees, like a lot of neglected orchards, are fraught with a tangle of suckers and twisted branches growing contrary to common sense. Gradually we have been pruning them back into shape, opening the centers to more light, and mowing the grass around and around. We are not ones to spray copper, sulfur, and assorted pesticides; nor have we added any fertilizers. In fact, we have rarely even watered them (they have obviously survived quite well on their own thus far, being situated alongside an irrigation ditch). It has been a learning process for us, too, and sometimes there is only so much you can do. The apples have a lot of scab. Pill bugs and earwigs enjoy them a lot. I think 4 of them are heirloom Gravensteins. They taste great.

And then one day, in reading Michael Phillips’ “The Holistic Orchard – Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way,” I began to realize that the typical orchard, planted in rows and surrounded by grass, produces in spite of the conditions we put them in. The descriptions were painfully familiar. It struck me that with a little help, this orchard could be so much more. Toby Hemenway’s book, “Gaia’s Garden,” was another eye-opener. Obviously, there are simple things we can all do to work with Nature, rather than against her.

Thus began the mission to let Nature “reclaim” the orchard.

“Reclaim,” meaning, I want Nature to take back this orchard that we have only taken from for so many years. Not to say we don’t want to harvest fruit – on the contrary. But by helping Nature do what she does best, i.e., nurture, the benefits will multiply for all concerned. Sometimes we need to learn how to step out of the way.

Ultimately, I would like to convert the orchard to a “food forest,” which I talked about in a previous blog post on Food Forest Beginnings. But what does that mean exactly? Just planting things all over the place and turning the orchard into a weedy-to-organized jungle, depending on your level of effort? I mean, it’s an old orchard, for Pete’s sake. Planted in 2 neat rows for ease of maintenance and harvest. Seemed to make sense.

However, the more I read, the more I envisioned transforming the large grassy area into meandering pathways lined with an assortment of berries, herbs and flowers, beneficial insect attractants, nitrogen fixers, and mulch makers. It was an image of prolific productivity with everyone living in harmony. (Tra-la-la-alert: Reality might be more of a pandemonium of vegetation where only the strong survive!)

However, I was not willing to cut down any of these matriarch trees, contorted though they may be, to make room for other types of shrubs, nor did I think it a good idea to clutter the ground beneath them with plants that could block access to pruning, thinning, harvesting, and other tasks that need to be done. I am sure there are other ways of building health, diversity, and resiliency into the system.

For starters, though, I definitely needed to get rid of this gawd-awful grass. It serves no positive purpose, other than what some would consider aesthetics, and I would argue with those neat freaks. IMO, grass is the plant-version of a zillion leeches, sucking nutrients and water from the soil. Its maintenance sucks oil and gas from the mower, which makes a lot of noise and sucks dollars from our pocketbooks, not to mention the time that is sucked from our weekends. It just plain sucks. The use of that word will probably get me all kinds of porn stats and spam mail, and I don’t care. I so hate grass.

Now here is the thing about grass that I learned from Michael Phillips: clipping the grass repeatedly only serves to make it grow stronger. As you cut it back, the root density just increases proportionately, almost defiantly, I’d say. Eventually, these roots form such a thick mat, that they block the tree’s “feeder roots” – those hairline roots that seek out the upper layers of soil to bring nutrients back to the main tree. AND, as do all living things, the grass breathes – and in the process of their heavy breathing (being as by now they are quite dense, right?), they give off so much carbon dioxide that they send the tree feeder roots downward (call it bad breath aversion). So, if we favor a “mown grass” look, we are, in fact, favoring the grass growth at the expense of the trees. And yes, the trees will still grow, as ours have obviously managed to do – but they won’t be what they could be.

But grass around trees is beautiful, right? (or is this just another misguided concept of beauty perpetuated by society?) And the trees, with their deep roots, get their nutrients beyond the grass zone, right? (a resounding FALSE on that one! Read below!) And grass has its place, right? (a reluctant “maybe in small doses”).

Check out this article published by the University of Minnesota titled, “Trees and Turf – Are They Compatible?”, which blasts many of our preconceived notions about trying to grow trees in park-like settings:

There is a misconception about the location of tree roots: most absorbing roots are in the upper few inches of soil. The root systems of trees are quite shallow, and they spread well beyond the dripline when unrestricted. It is a myth that a tree’s root system is an underground mirror of the crown.

To repeat: Most ABSORBING roots are in the UPPER FEW INCHES! And yes, I was one of those who believed the root systems were like the upper canopy, only in reverse.

And here’s another true confession: I thought I knew soil and compost and what it meant to grow a decent organic garden. I became very strong double-digging French Intensive beds back in the 70s when I was considered weird. Ok. I am still considered weird. But for some reason, I had never really applied this knowledge to an orchard, even though I had spent a dozen years in Eastern Washington, the heart of orchard country (which, now that I think about it, the prevailing wisdom back then was to obliterate “pests” with DDT, which I highly suspect gave me a miscarriage. I learned to stay away from orchards!) But lest I digress….

Gautschi-Pruned Apple Tree with Black Cat Patrol (photo by blythe)My visit to Paul Gautschi’s farm changed my view of what an orchard can be. Over the years, he piled a good couple of feet of woodchips around his trees, which at this point, are growing in compost. The roots spread out unencumbered, relatively close to the surface. They don’t struggle to find the nutrients they need. The soil is so soft, so full of microorganisms, and so full of organic matter, that every rainfall is like feeding the trees a measure of compost tea. His trees are incredible.

I realized I had a lot to learn about soil. It was humbling.

The grass in our orchard was not only stealing water and nutrients, but more importantly, was creating a bacterial-based environment, as opposed to a fungal-based environment.

Why does this matter?

Because fungi have the incredible ability to bring minerals and nutrients to the microorganisms of the soil and to the roots of plants in a form they can readily absorb. And they will travel miles and miles to do this.

Because the ultimately profound amazing thing about the orchard (and all of the garden) is that whatever is growing above ground is indeed incredible, useful, important on many levels – but it is * nothing * – and I do mean NOTHING – compared to what is going on in the soil below – where a single teaspoon (a TEASPOON!) of soil can contain a BILLION bacteria, a MILLION fungi, and 10,000 amoebae (Yes! Amoebae!). That info is taken directly out of Hemenway’s book. The DIRT IS ALIVE. And when you walk on it, you are walking on living things. And dead things. And on living things consuming dead and living things and creating more living things.

Almost makes me want to tiptoe.

I feel like we have entered some kind of Men in Black episode where there is an entire universe in the little ball hanging from a ribbon on a cat’s neck.

When we feed a plant, we are actually feeding the microorganisms that in turn, feed the plant.

So if we want our plants – our trees – to be all that they can be, we need to start with the soil – and THAT is the beginning step of turning an orchard into a Food Forest.

You will be mesmerized by this short YouTube video clip by Paul Stamets titled “Fantastic Fungi: The Spirt of Good,” which just may lead you to listen to a mind-blowing explanation of the importance of fungi on our planet, his TED talk on Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World.

Click to purchase Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets
Stamets’ book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, begins, “There are more species of fungi, bacteria, and protozoa in a single scoop of soil than there are species of plants and vertebrate animals in all of North America…. Mycelial architecture is amazing: one cell wall thick, in direct contact with myriad hostile organisms, and yet so pervasive that a single cubic inch of topsoil contains enough fungal cells to stretch more than 8 miles if placed end to end.” These little hair-like threads form a web beneath the surface, aerate the soil and basically hold the soil together, and in Stamet’s words, are “the interface organisms between life and death.” If that sounds dramatic, it IS. In his words, “All habitats depend directly on these fungal allies, without which the life-support system of the Earth would soon collapse….Now is the time to ensure the future of our planet and our species by partnering, or running, with mycelium” (Mycelium Running, by Paul Stamets).

An interesting Stamets concept – that the whole foundation of the foodweb is fed by mycelium. If you think of habitats having immune systems, just like people, it is easy to understand how these fungal relationships can fight disease, strengthen plant and animal communities, and taken a step further, heal our planet. Here is something that is literally underfoot, untapped, and for the most part, unappreciated. “It is the beautiful poetry and irony of nature that the very solutions that we so desperately need are literally all around us.” Paul Stamets, Vision of Paradise (a short video on YouTube).

To summarize in one word the key to transforming our orchard: SOIL.

My neighbor, Nash Huber, who, to my knowledge, has the largest organic farming operation this side of the Cascades, has been saying this for years: “It’s all about the soil.”

Without good soil, there is no life. Soil is alive. A billion microbes in a single teaspoon. Mind-boggling. I can’t even grasp that.

We need to revere the soil.

It feeds us.

We need to feed those that live in it that make our lives possible.

I suddenly realized how very urgent it was to help Nature take back our orchard.

First step: kill Orchard Enemy #1: Grass

I began by laying down a big piece of black plastic on the outer perimeter. I hate plastic, it was incredibly ugly, and I left it there an entire year. I hoped it would sunbake that grass into oblivion, and in its place, I would plant currants, gooseberries, josta berries, some ground covers, like clover and wild raspberries & strawberries, and maybe a Siberian pea shrub or two, a wolfberry, some Saint John’s Wort, more comfrey, some sorrel, and hey, while we’re at it, why not a Mimosa tree. And these things I eventually did. These plants would border an existing herb garden of rosemary, oregano, thymes, some madder, yarrow, a struggling cardoon, and my mother’s roses. It would be a beautiful combination.

Cardboard mulch in orchard at Barbolian FieldsHowever, I also needed to smother the grass around the trees. It seemed like a monumental task. I went on a quest for cardboard and laid down huge overlapping sheets around each tree. I topped it with “green grindings” – not-quite-fully-composted shredded material from a local tree and composting farm (thank you, Lazy J Tree & Compost Farm!). The stuff isn’t free, so I didn’t do a couple of feet, a la Gautschi, but I figured a few inches was better than none. Around each tree, I also added a few shovelfuls of composted manure from the raw milk dairy down the road (Thank you Dungeness Valley Creamery!). All in all, it was no small effort.

Lastly, I planted daffodils here and there near the base of the trees, tossed garlic bulbils about, and added some extra comfrey (it grows wild down by the river).

And then I stood back and let it go.

What happened?

weedy orchard at Barbolian FieldsWell, this year, we still had grass. It even came up through the cardboard, but not as thickly. It looked weedy and wildly free-spirited, in a meadow sense. In fact, the entire orchard pretty much looked like I wasn’t taking care of anything at all.

On the contrary! By “doing nothing,” I was actually “doing something,” which is my kind of work!

Here is another important thing I learned from Michael Phillips about trees: these “feeder roots,” which are hair-like roots that seek out the nutrients in humus in the upper few inches of the soil, are born twice a year: first in the spring, when they are key to providing the nutrients needed for fruit production. Then they die back and a second flush of growth begins around harvest time, when they provide nutrients to the cambium layer of the tree, which is key to storing energy in buds for the following year’s growth. When the leaves fall in autumn, nutrients seep into the earth to feed this second flush of delicate roots. Nature has a way of providing.

The idea is to time the mowing to be more in tune with this natural process.

Mulch around trees creates paths at Barbolian FieldsSo I patiently waited until the fruit was actually setting on the trees. By this time, farmers were starting to mow the neighboring fields. In contrast, I got out my trusty scythe and, circling the tree counter clockwise, made a series of sweeping cuts, piling the stems neatly around the dripline in one easy step (more or less). Instead of creating fast-decomposing grass clippings via a loud obnoxious gas-guzzling mower, I was quietly and peacefully harvesting a hay mulch that would break down over time. In the process, I found myself defining some very nice pathways. They were grassy and quite beautiful, occasionally punctuated by a plantain (which I was careful to scythe around). Amazingly enough, I also came across a few other plants that I thought had long ago been destroyed: lovage, sweet cicely, and costmary. These plants had grown quite unruly at one point and were all tilled under to make the area easier to mow. (….sigh. The ignorant things we do in the name of creating order!) But now – what a surprise! Excellent beneficial insect plants, all of them, although with invasive tendencies under the right circumstances. I was provided yet another opportunity to allow Nature to return the orchard to a healthy chaos!

Ok – So – The Big Question: Did It Work?

damaged crabapple tree

As mentioned, we did not eradicate the grass – but it did suffer a serious setback. Dandelions also grew through the cardboard; however, I consider them an asset. The daffodils were not effective in keeping back the grass – at all – perhaps I need more of them.

When I removed the black plastic sheeting, yes, the ground was mostly bare beneath – but not for long! I planted berries in the naked ground, along with some squashes, and they managed to produce fruit their very first year. Unfortunately, though, morning glory (aka bindweed), grass, wild geraniums, and other opportunists immediately moved in wherever they could sneak a foothold (where did those poppies come from? Nice!). The clovers and berry groundcovers did not grow quickly or thickly enough to keep them out. With a little more work, I think I can help the right plants be more dominant, but I will need more mulch. Maybe some hay bales?

I also planted a beautiful little crabapple tree that I found on sale. It would attract more bees. Unfortunately, though, it got damaged by (I think) a young buck who wanted to rub his antlers up against something – or maybe a deer decided to take a taste from the tender trunk. These things happen, and I am hoping it can survive. I surrounded the base with dog hair sheddings and hung reflective CDs from the branches.

But the most important change: take a look at these pictures! Mushrooms grew everywhere around the trees!

Amazing! Success! YES!

garden mushroom in orchard: fruiting fungus! golden mushrooms in mulch around apple trees Morels in orchard. Mmmm! orchard mushrooms in mulched soil at Barbolian FieldsSo this fall, as the temperatures started to dip into the 30s, I repeated some of this process. I scythed the grass and piled it around the perimeter of the trees, being careful to leave breathing room at the trunk. Then I took more of the “green grindings,” which by now had turned into some pretty good compost, rich with white mycelial threads, and spread two cart-fulls around each tree. I don’t have a lot left, but as the temps are now dipping into the teens, I am happy to have accomplished what I did. Eventually I would like to cover the paths with woodchips, but for now, the woody material is going directly around the trees. At least the grass provides additional mulch material. (Attention family members: Christmas present idea – compost and/or woodchips! Some mothers want jewelry; this one wants stuff more valuable than gold!)

Ahhh, but for all my efforts, the orchard is still not a self-sustaining “Food Forest” or a “Permaculture” site. Rather, it’s more like an orchard with a series of under-plantings. I still need to add layers that provide multiple functions. I am realizing that the more I plant, the more it will create its own leaf litter, which will feed the microorganisms in the soil that feeds the plants that create the leaf litter that falls and feeds, and so on and so forth. I will plant more comfrey, more insect-loving plants to help with pest control and to attract pollinators, more nitrogen fixers. Bit by bit, we are getting there. The apples will probably still get scab. I am ok with that. They are still tasty. I don’t require “perfect” fruit by supermarket standards. There is plenty for our own use and plenty to share with friends and the birds and other wildlife over the winter.

Plus, it just keeps getting better. To improve the health of the entire tree, improve the soil. And we’re going to keep on doing that.

Mother Nature: Take back our orchard. Please. I will help. Thank you.

**  ~*~ **

References:

Food Forest Beginnings and Fall Tasks in the Orchard – a Barbolian Fields blogpost – which was the beginning of this saga

Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway – an easy-to-digest book with a TON of practical hands-on info about permaculture. You’ll never look at your garden the same way.

How to Prune an Old Apple Tree – another Barbolian Fields blogpost about the next task coming up. It’s a good refresher. Also refer to Michael Phillips’ book, The Holistic Orchard, for common-sense advice from someone who knows what he’s talking about!

Permaculture by Nature – observations during a visit to Paul Gautschi’s farm. Here is a website for more info on Paul Gautschi and the Back to Eden film, and you can even watch the Back to Eden film for free.

Scytheworks.com – Looking for a quality European-made scythe? Go to Scytheworks and tell Alexander Vido I sent you!

Paul Stamets: Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World – a TED talk; “Fantasic Fungi: Spirit of Good” – a short video with some amazing time-lapse photography; Mycelium Running – the book that explains it all in depth.

The Holistic Orchard by Michael Phillips (book review & where to buy)

“Trees and Turf – Are They Compatible?” – article from the University of Minnesota


Comments

To Convert an Orchard to a Food Forest, Start with the Soil — 7 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this post! I loved all of it! I just finished my permaculture design course and can’t wait to apply these techniques!

    • Thank you! The orchard is still a work in progress – and of course, always will be. I have to say, though, the cardboard did not stop the grass. It is currently over 3-feet tall and seems unstoppable! Perhaps I did not apply a deep enough layer of wood chips. I no longer get angry at it. I just sharpen my scythe and pile it up around the trees. Last year, we grew squashes under the trees, some of which climbed up and over into the branches – which was quite a sight, to see a large melon hanging down! We also planted a grape vine to climb up one of the old cherries. Other plants and shrubs are slowly filling in. It is good to be reminded that these things don’t happen overnight.

      Congratulations on completing your PDC! Would love to hear more about what course you took, your project, and where you plan to take it! The more people planting ecosystems – whether in their backyards or throughout their communities – the better! Best wishes to you!

  2. I love your ideas – it seems that we’ve all let that mindset of keeping everything ‘neat’ has poisoned the earth, even though we all refuse to use chemical herbicides and deadly stuff. I hope you post an update for 2016!

    • Ahhh! It sounds like you, too, embrace the chaos in your backyard! A quick update on the orchard: the grass continues to threaten world domination! Layers of cardboard and piles of mulch make it more determined. HOWEVER, now there are nearly 50 different kinds of plants in the orchard area, and it just keeps getting better. I will post a listing soon. And as for the grass…I just wait until it gets tall enough and then I scythe it back to make more hay around the trees. (Thanks for taking the time to post a comment!)

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  4. Hi, how is the forest garden coming along now? I am in the U.K and I have a small old neglected orchard just like yours with a stream bordering the far side. We have similarly renovated the trees, pruning little by little, opening up the centres so they have more light and air. We are much further behind you in that we have only planted raspberries so far but we also sythe pathways and have let the grass grow and it is thinner. We have a lot of nettles which we cut to make a liquid plant feed. Love your blog.

    • Hello Angie – First, my heart goes out to the people of Manchester and all those facing terrorism and violence. There are those of us here who feel Mayor Khan is doing an excellent job in communicating and ensuring safety!

      And as for my little “forest garden,” such as it is, it continues to amaze me with its abundance. Everything is getting bigger and bigger – and I just keep on taking cuttings, sowing seeds, and planting more plants. I figure if I just keep on cramming as many things out there as I can, eventually there will be no place for the quackgrass, morning glory, and thistles to grow. So far, though, that is not the case, and those 3 thugs, in particular, have been the bane of my existence! They have really tried to take over this year. I am about to go out right now and scythe a pathway to try to find some of my shrubs and berries that I know are out there somewhere. The orchard, despite all the work with cardboard and woodchip mulch, is once again overtaken with grass (we live in the middle of pastures, so it is to be expected perhaps). So I no longer fight it…I just scythe what I can. I figure I am doing my small part to build soil, create habitat, and combat climate change, even if others seem to be in profound denial. The garden continues to be my sanctuary from all the craziness in this world, and it certainly keeps me busy. I wish I had more time to write about and share its wonders. It always seems to be teaching me something new!

      It is always great to hear from people “across the pond.” Hearing about other people’s gardens always makes me smile. Great idea with the nettles! I should do more of that.

      All the best ~ and thanks for stopping in!
      ~blythe

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