We 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….
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.
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.
However, 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.
Well, 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.
So 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?
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!
So 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.
** ~*~ **
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
22 thoughts on “To Convert an Orchard to a Food Forest, Start with the Soil”
I’m guessing you are somewhere near Sequim (Dungeness Valley Creamery, Lazy J’s, Paul Gautschi).
Yes indeed! Are you close by?
Really interesting and inspiring as I begin our orchard transformation ?
Hi Wendy! It is definitely a process – always changing with the seasons; always evolving over the years. One of my biggest challenges has been efficient irrigation. I keep applying more mulch, and that helps a lot, but I have a tendency to scythe through the drip lines, and I find that a little emitter does not spread out far enough around the tree. The younger shrubs need a little extra attention for awhile until they can get better established. I continue with adding some compost around them, grass mulch, and topped with wood chips – sometimes encircling with cardboard topped with chips where the grass is particularly aggressive. But I haven’t done another layer of cardboard and wood chips around all the apple trees like before. I just pile up the grass cuttings around them. Every year, I add in a few more plants that I grow from cuttings. It is all helping! Best of luck to you!
Hi Blythe, I just stumbled on your site. Do you know how Paul trained his apple branches to hang low? I just planted an apple tree and I will like to train it to have hanging branches.
Hi Phyllis – I am no arborist (and Paul definitely is), but I, too, was very inspired by the low-hanging fruit. I cannot really advise you on a new young tree. My only experience is with untangling old neglected trees. My understanding is that you have to decide (or maybe the nursery has decided for you) whether to have a tree with a central leader, an open center, or something in between. You can train the main leaders outward using spreaders. I would consult an expert on training a very young tree, other online sources, or a good book, like Michael Phillips’ “The Holistic Orchard.”
Once the tree is older, you basically cut off anything growing straight up (water sprouts) or straight down (bad angle; likely to break) and let the ends continue growing. (Of course, also prune out crossovers and anything dead.) Every time you do an end cut (or “head cut”), it stops the growth at that point and stimulates side shoots. So – minimize head cuts and focus on thinning cuts that take out the shoot all the way to the main branch. In doing so, the branches grow quite long and gracefully arch downward, some all the way to the ground. (It is Paul’s theory that this might even add extra support.)
Of course, on a young tree, you might *want* to do head cuts to establish lateral branches – so it depends on the tree.
I have been experimenting with Paul’s approach. In the fall, I can step inside the circle of branches and be surrounded by a wall of apples. I have lost a few apples to rodents with this method; they can just reach up from the ground and take a nibble – but I’ve had plenty to spare – and it was totally worth it for my 4-year-old granddaughter to be able to pick her own. This last year, I noticed a lack of leaves on several of the ends of the lower branches. It took me awhile to realize the deer had eaten them. Easy access. The other thing to think about is whether the branch gets so long that it can’t support the fruit and might break under the weight. If a branch looks a little too spindly, an end cut might be in order to help stiffen it up (or some pole support.
Some will argue that a tree naturally wants to reach upward. Others will say that a tree pruned to grow downward will release hormones that stimulate more fruit production. Paul’s trees are supposedly dwarf varieties, but you’d never know it. They grow amazingly well under all that mulch. It allows the roots to spread out into an intricate network. At this point, they are growing in total compost. If you are in the area, he often welcomes visitors on Sundays. You could give him a call and arrange a visit. As noted in the blogpost, I went there with a class. The tour was inspirational on many levels.
Thanks for visiting my website. Hope this is helpful! Best wishes!
I am so happy to see there is some else out there that want to color outside the lines. I am moving to my homestead in May and will be planting fruit trees along our driveway which has been mowed for who knows how long. I plan to smother it with cardboard and straw this year. I will plant go ahead and plant my fruit trees but am considering planting the area with a combination of annual and perennial wildflower mix to help cut down on the mowing, provide compost and beneficial insects.
Thank you for the inspiration!
Oooh! That sounds beautiful! Annuals are a great way to fill in areas until the trees grow larger, and perennials tucked in here and there just get better and better. Have fun with this! Thanks for your comment. YOU are inspirational, too! I need more wildflowers!
You should watch the episode on Grasslands (can’t remember the series) with Attenborough narrating. You will definitely have a better feeling for the benefit of grass. It’s actually a pretty amazing plant.
I will definitely have to look that one up! The problem is undoubtedly the solution. Thanks, Kelly.
Update: I think I found it: The Living Planet BBC Seas Of Grass, David Attenborough. It’s about an hour long and looks excellent. Thanks again for the tip, Kelly. Will watch it tonight. 🙂
Thank you very much for your post and also for referencing Paul’s gardens. i want to start a vegetable garden for 2 years now (always no time), so his video and his method are incredible.
Although i still have a question: in all mulch/chips application guides said not to apply mulch around the tree truck as it could cause rot. I have lots of perennial flowers, so adding more and more on top is not really working, because plants just go deeper or mulch level is too high comparatively to plant base. In Paul’s video he only talks about veggies that are annuals, but i’m not very clear how to use his method with multi-year plats. Any suggestion would be appreciated.
P.S. if you would like to get rid of grass completely continue to apply cardboard and mulch every year. I had lots of weeds in the flower beds as we just moved to our house, and already the first summer after the application of cardboard and mulch, there were waaay too less weeds.
Thanks a lot!
Hi Anastasia – I know exactly what you mean. It seems like we need to apply a lot of mulch to really suppress the weeds (and apply it often), but we have to be careful to keep it away from trunks and stems, and also be careful that we don’t suffocate the smaller plants. In Paul’s case, after years of applying the woodchips, they have decomposed to the point where it is like planting in compost. Any weeds that manage to try to get a foothold are easily removed. How much he still applies every year, I am not sure. In my garden, though, which spreads out over about an acre, I can never seem to have enough mulch, and I am always battling invasives. I am trying to plant more perennial groundcovers, and perhaps eventually they will reign supreme, but in the meantime, it is difficult to keep adding mulch around them without covering them up! I think it can be done, though, and in time, all will become a rich soil. I do not have a lot of woodchips, though – and those I do have, because they are rather coarse, I like to put in pathways or around the more established shrubs. My mulches around other plants tend to be whatever I have on hand. So maybe I am just planting more weeds! Either way, the mulch has to be strategically applied, and in some places, only a thin layer will work, which is still better than bare soil. Hope I’ve been some help. It’s like you say, you have to apply it every year to make a difference. Good luck!
Bit by bit, we are getting there.
This is true.
I am trying the same with an abandoned orchard in western germany. Love it!
Guten Tag, Anne! I should post an update to this – it has been 5 years already! I have since planted a lot of comfrey, currants, gooseberries, and herbs around the orchard and wherever I can squeeze them in but where they won’t interfere with pruning and harvesting. I have also planted more sun-loving plants around the outside edges. I thought the cardboard and bark mulch would keep out all the grass, but no! It all came back! I should have been more diligent about weeding it out when it first started appearing. Now, the grass grows as tall as me if I let it and is as thick as ever – maybe more so – and I am simply amazed at its tenacity! I think this cardboard method could still work (although I have mixed feelings about cardboard), but it takes a lot of cardboard and the key, I think, is to keep applying more mulch every year. I think ramial woodchips (which contains both branches and leaves) would be ideal because they support fungal communities, but I have not yet found a reliable cheap source. So – what I do now is allow the grass to grow tall and then cut it down with a scythe and pile the grass around the trees. The soil is improving, it better retains moisture, it still supports microbial communities, and in the process of scything, I create a path through the trees to get in there. It is quite beautiful!
Nice to hear from someone in Germany! Would love to see what you are doing. Thank you for stopping in to my blog, and best of luck to you on your orchard and other gardens! ~blythe
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, it has been 1 1/2 years since your post. How have your efforts been with the technique of scything the grass to use it as compost?
Hard to believe it’s been almost 6 years since I first laid down the cardboard! That was a lot of work – and I just couldn’t keep up with putting down woodchips every year. The scything is always a work in progress. I don’t get to it as often as I’d like. And this is key: I often don’t get to it before the grass goes to seed, because everything is going to seed all at once, so there is a lot of grass seed in the clippings. Which means, because I don’t compost it separately, I need to be careful about where I use it and how. I usually just pile it in a circle around the trees. Grass continues to grow; I’d like to think not as thickly. But I will say, the soil does, indeed, seem to be improving, and it most certainly conserves moisture. I also rake the leaves around the trees in the fall to give them a bit of added insulation for winter.
Last year, I did a little experiment. On one of the trips through with the scythe, I piled everything into huge piles off to the sides. After awhile, the piles settled down. I left them there all winter.
So – because of your good question, I just went out to check on everything. The clippings around the trees are very flat. The grass beneath is smothered, but I am sure it will grow up through it. Still, the layer on top offered protection from a winter that was at times unusually warm and then switched to cold and more snow than we’ve seen in more than 15 years.
The great piles look like small mounds now and I seriously doubt that anything is going to grow up through them. They are very dense. In digging in, some of the grass is still somewhat green (no light to fade them) and dry (perfect winter housing for rodents!) – also, there are tons of seeds, which I am sure would sprout if I spread them around. The piles did not turn to compost. However, the ground beneath is moist and rich and semi-composted. The grass here is dying if not gone already (yay!)
So – in conclusion – it’s a slow process, but we’re seeing progress. I am no longer mad at the grass. I am working toward a more fungal environment (a la woodchip base), but at least for now, the grass provides me with lots of mulch for building the soil, conserving moisture, and moderating temperature swings. The piles seem to be a good way of killing the grass, and placed strategically, could be good spots for new plants (more comfrey? a berry shrub? something early blooming to attract bees at about the same time the trees bloom?) Otherwise, though, I think I prefer spreading it around the trees to keep the moisture in where it’s needed.
I continue planting more things here and there. Lemon balm, in particular, is doing quite well under the trees, competes well with the grass, and doesn’t get in the way. Daffodils are planted near the trunks and are beginning to bloom. I have planted more shrubs around the perimeters.
I love the scythe for keeping the assorted garden paths open. It would be very difficult to get a lawn mower in and about (and I wouldn’t want the gas fumes). We also scythe one area of the field for the mulch. Can’t ever seem to get enough mulch! It keeps on disappearing wherever I put it down, so I keep putting more on top. And we go ’round and ’round. 🙂
Thank you, Barbara, for asking!
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!)
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!