To Convert an Orchard to a Food Forest, Start with the Soil — 18 Comments

  1. 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!

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. Hello, Blythe!
    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!

  5. 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

  6. 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!

  7. 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!)

  8. 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!

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