An Orchard of Babies
“How are the kids?!?” he would ask when we were long-distance. I’d tell him that I had cut their heads off again recently, on the advice of the horticulturist at the nursery. I’d express my concern that I had done it too late in their lives- the second summer instead of the first in my care. He’d say “Oh, don’t worry, kids are tough!” … He would know, having spent his childhood having endlessly rambled around the woods of MN north of where the St Croix River meets the Mississippi. It was really there that these dreams of ours were born. He owned substantial land in the area, and I remember sitting on a roll of hay looking across a meadow at where he wanted to build a carbon-neutral home…. … with me…. whenever I was ready…. which turned out to be about 15 years later and 1700 miles away, but to make up for lost time, man did we just drop it into turbo!
Now 42, I have never had the urge to make human babies, but the urge to make an orchard has felt like the same kind of biological imperative that drives some women to distraction. Orchards, however, being slightly less portable than humans, have necessitated in me the same kind of humble patience in my search for land that some women need in their search for a suitable mate. In my case, I sought the mate as well, for what is the point of such raucous abundance absent beloveds with whom to share? Slowly despairing but still confident and holding out for that perfectly imperfect someone, Joel eventually landed in my world again, and it has been marvelous to be able to love him again.
I had done a lot of reading of permaculture books in advance of buying this land, feeding the dream into reality, for years before Joel came back into my life. I also had consulted with Josh Volk, a gentleman who specializes in small farms of annual crops for market but is more widely knowledgeable and guided me as he could, since I couldn’t afford the attention of a true expert on food forests in my climate. Between research, asking this gent and Kirk the Forester, though, I think I have a reasonably good grasp of an appropriate design for my wishes. But it was not immediately obvious.
Because I have given in to the rambling nature of this post, let’s just start here: 2015, visiting the homestead of the Bullocks Brothers on Orcas Island for a weekend. My definition of heaven, and the weekend that drove me to say ok, I may be un-partnered, but this matters so much to me, I’m going to do it alone if I have to. My Pop and I started looking in earnest for land….
At my rented studio location off-site, I had requested a disused sloped area in which to establish a garden. The family friends had a horse, and I made berms of manure running perpendicular to the slope. I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to grow, but as next year suddenly revealed, I had a sweet partner and land and that was all rad, so I planted fruit tree “whips” into the aged manure. My hope and confirmed assurance was that I would be able to transplant them to their final home at the Woods at the end of 3 years. This proved stressful, but come that winter, I made it happen. In the meantime, I learned a lot about pruning. The nursery is now in wildflowers, which will hopefully also be transplanted as meadow plugs at the Woods at some point when appropriate.
Here is how the puzzle pieces of my orchard design fell into place:
NB I am not a professional gardener/ farmer, nor do I come from any family of such. Knowing my naivete is helpful to humility and prompts a lot of research and dumb questions asked of people who are happy to accept pottery for patient explanations that I may not be finding in books. My general impression is that I am indeed embarking on a project as committed as making a family, and as time-consuming. That’s fine. In my case, the controlled chaos has been guided by the following boundaries: 1- Neither Joel nor I want to spend most of our spring on a lawnmower. 2- I don’t want so much fruit that it goes to waste because I/ we have simply run out of time to deal with it all. 3- No mandatory twice daily milking of any animals, and no obligations to a dog (to deter deer and coyotes). 4- harvest has to be as easy as possible, because we are not spring chickens anymore, and this is not the only thing we want to be doing. 5- infrastructure of any sort (roads, fences) will be built right, and established before a plant is put in the way of feet and machinery. (I have inadvertently violated this already). 6- more than half of the area slated for the orchard is on a slope of about 7%, comfortable for walking in any direction but not really comfortable for things on wheels in every direction. 7- I want the flexibility of space to potentially grow for market, but have no grand plans to go into farming for a living. Trying to make pottery for a living is absurd enough, even if the twin pursuits could make sense in the right market.
A note of site-specific context: I mentioned the finger of 100 mature doug fir trees to get out of there. The other resource at hand is harder to get to: the accumulated sediment that slowly filled in the old mill pond (west of this tree finger, but you can’t tell it is water because it is mostly wetland grasses surrounded by alders now). This is the highest quality topsoil, and Kirk recommended dredging the pond to get that soil onto the orchard where it would need to settle for a year prior to planting. So at first we were looking at establishment tasks: remove untold tons of trees, uprooting or grinding the stumps, paying an excavator to move untold tons of sloppy topsoil 100+ feet, all in the span of two years at unknown price. And Joel still living/working elsewhere as he wrapped up his previous life prior to moving to mine.
What happened in the face of this ambitious beginning was this: Joel got a new saw and went after the trees, initially leaving the stumps at 4’ tall so that an excavator could push the root ball out. But Josh had said that one of the hardest things for soil health is disturbance. Compaction seemed inevitable to remove the wood, but Joel took it to heart that I wanted to at least try to avoid deep disturbance. The plow may have facilitated a great leap forward for western civilization, but permaculture takes a huge cue from indigenous cultivating techniques and South American perennial agriculture, which eschews wholesale soil disturbance in favor of the slower work of hand and foot, often more effective on sloped lands. (Toensmeier)
(These next three paragraphs are very similar to the previous post entitled timber and tractor)
So what to do about a hundred stumps? One early thought was to inoculate them with Turkey Tail mushroom spores to hasten their disintegration. But that would be done best in a moist and shady location, not in a spot being rapidly revealed to the full sun. At some point, Joel tried his hand at an idea- he had a heavy-duty long-handled hoe (Rogue Hoe) that I had bought for uprooting blackberry, and with that he first pulled backwards the grass and soil from around each short stump. Then he thwacked at the bark with a few well-placed swipes of his ax (Minnesota farm-boy skillz) to remove the potential for the soil that dulls saw blades, and then he cut the cleaned wood at or below the average soil level. While this was slow and hard on the hands, it eliminated the need for expensive stump grinding or excavator. Of course we consulted on the question, because the roots remained: how big of a problem was that for me, he wondered.
I didn’t know, but found the answer a bit later with another tool: I’d been exploring the use of Josh’s other tool recommendation: a broadfork (Meadow Creature). I had established a small shade garden in the winter of 2017/8 after having mulched it for the year with cardboard to kill the grass. Even in winter, the soil is generally not frozen around here, and I found the broadfork a delight. It loosens soil to assist young plants trying to grow deep roots without breaking up the soil structure the way a cultivator would. Instead of the plow literally turning soil, the broadfork stabs and lifts it down to 14” in my case, aerating it, but leaving it largely in place. So I took my broadfork over to where Joel was and tried it as close as I could to some big stumps. If I hit a big root, I moved over two feet. Even in an area between four closely spaced stumps, I was able to fork loosen a nice 4’ wide area for a new tree without trouble. So what if the new trees weren’t going to be in tidy perfect rows- that wasn’t my wish anyway.
He proceeded with the new plan at a pace that didn’t hurt his body, and when we got the tractor, I moved many of the stumps into a large hole created by an old fallen tree just outside the fence line, to create a habitat area for pollinators and other beneficial insects (Xerces book). The rest we slowly burned up as the yule logs of so many brush bonfires as we also burned down the branches of so many trees. PS- One more note in praise of the broadfork: I can use it in winter when the soil is very heavy, unlike any cultivator or machinery. Joel and I found ourselves in a winter wonderland, a storm having dumped a nice foot or two around the property but it was beautifully partly sunny after that. He felled trees and I exercised on my fork, outside in the sparkling white but warmed by work.
As to the dredging of the pond, that will have to wait. When and how we do that is a mystery at the moment, but the soil will go onto a completely different area which was at some point scraped by a dozer, and is going to be absolutely hammered by equipment but eventually turned into tidy rows of annuals. It will need topsoil more than my baby fruit trees. Plus we have this whole plan of co-incidentally digging a new watercourse for the spring-fed creeks that circumvents the dam, but that is definitely a story for a future year...
Another aspect of how the orchard design came together related to the slope of the land and how we need to anticipate a tractor serving the area: how and where will the tractor climb the slope, how will it turn safely broadside to the slope, and then descend. I could draw it on paper, but it was only when the stumps were gone that I was able to truly survey a path that worked with the contours as they presented themselves. Add to that a joke the Joel and I had which concerned the location of a southern section of fence supposed to be along the future driveway to our dream house (the studio is temporarily our home). I asked him where he wanted the drive. He said on the other side of the fence. He asked me where I wanted the fence, which I said should be along the drive. Only by surveying the contours of the land could he know best where to put the drive. Once he had decided, my orchard had grown by a third of an acre! So the sauna was incorporated into the site plan instead of floating around in our theoretical dreamworld. Then the fence came to the sauna corners, and from there, I was able to measure distances on the ground to where trees could actually be planted. (NB, this sauna location has already changed, but that’s the name of the game)
But perhaps the most salient point of the design came as I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the notion of both pruning and harvesting as an 80 year old while balancing on a rickety ladder. I don’t know how many pretty computer-designed drawings I’ve seen in these books with their overlapping circles of delineated plants that seem to imply that come harvest time, I am going to do it like a bird would. How am I supposed to avoid stepping on the strawberries when I go after the persimmons? The soil compaction that comes from a footprint is intense, Joel says it can be as much psi as a tractor- what am I supposed to do, both prune and harvest from the confines of constantly overgrowing footpaths?
Original design thoughts had trees at 30’ spacing, with sheep beneath, acting as lawnmowers in the growing months and then harvested in turn, late in the year. I still like this idea, but not with the fruit trees. One problem with this arrangement is that I wanted to grow all kinds of plants other than fruit as well, all of which would simply be eaten by sheep. Another problem was that the sheep would ideally need rotational pasture, making for some complication with fencing on the site, and what if coyotes and cougars got the best of me? I’d have staked my whole design on a premise that might be abandoned?
Full-sized trees also require full sized maintenance, plus they make a lot of fruit, each, and I didn’t have so much space that I could know exactly what I wanted so decisively that I could have only that variety because that’s all the space available… not to mention that some varieties may fare better in certain years, some are worth the risk to grow despite being disease-prone, some varieties need pollinators, some fruit is a long shot like peaches and figs, but absolutely worth the garden space in a good year. Moreover, permaculture research tells me that I ought to have at least one nitrogen-fixing plant in proportion to 3 of my more delicate ones, so I needed to account for that space in the plan…
So,…..I was firing a beautiful wood kiln in Port Orchard, WA with a crew of all women. One day around the fire, I mentioned my project in the works, and the woman I was speaking with told me the name of a book called “Grow a Little Fruit Tree”. I probably said something to the effect that I was sick of reading books, but she pressed me. And thank god, because this brilliant little thing is so unassuming while beautifully summarizing or blowing out of the water what so many of these overly-academic tomes are saying in 100 times the words: prune early, prune brutally, prune in summer, prune in winter, mulch thoroughly, and if you are having an emergency, use worm compost. If you prune like you mean it, you can keep your standard or semi-dwarf fruit tree at six feet tall or less! Suddenly, pruning happens with your feet on the ground, as does harvest. This on its own was a revelation. But better yet, it suddenly opened up the option of growing so many more varieties than I thought I could previously, because each would simply take up less space. I had my two year old trees in an in-ground horse manure nursery at the rented studio (in battle ground), exploding from the nitrogen, and I promptly went out and cut them down to about a quarter of their height. Hence the conversation with Joel that begins this blog post: “ how are the kids?!” .. “I cut their heads off again…”
The kids seem to be doing fine: at three years old now, they look like miniature trees, with a stocky trunk that ends at about 18”, wide branches, and lots of air. The plums are much happier than the pears, and a deer got into there to prune the cherries right after they were recovering from my own mutilation, so many of the limbs will grow up to be less than gracefully spaced, but such is life. They are off to a good start, I think. Certainly they have lots of well-developed roots, and are coming up from the nursery with all their roots. I am spacing them at 12’, and in the kind of layout that allows for a nitrogen-fixing shrub to be nearby. I am enamored with guomi’s leaves and size as well as its nutritious berries, so I intend to use a good number of them. I became enamored of the colutea, also know as bladder senna, a legume in shrub form that seems to be inherently in proportion to my miniature trees. Arbitrarily, the pome fruits are getting colutea, planted in the same hole, while the peaches and cherries are getting a guomi, nearby. A row of plums is getting lupin. Eventually everyone is going to be under-planted with red clover and lupin, two wonderful nitrogen-fixers which I hope would be able to survive being heavily stepped and mulched upon.
I must also tell you about an incredibly helpful day with Micheal who owns Burnt Ridge Nursery. I was intending simply to pick up my plants, and found him for just one little question. But he was so welcoming and relaxed that I ended up spending the day with him, helping out in faint exchange for a tiny treasure chest of his opinions. I described my plans and he confirmed many of them. He also debunked a ton of the recycled tidbits of these same overly academic books, some of which were informing the details of my plans. Thank you! He turned me on to filberts after I had expressed my doubt that they were worth the energy trying to get them before the squirrels do. He said yes, squirrels are relentless, but here is the trick: filberts ripen all at once, within a week on the bush. All you need to do is see if one nut will rattle in its husk at around the time, and if any do, you can clear the whole bush. The branches are extremely flexible, so you just bend them down, rip the nuts off and drop them in a bucket; he estimated that he could get a five-gallon bucket of nuts (in the husks, mind you) in 15 minutes. The bushes, native here, are extremely low-maintenance. He went on about how excellent the proportion of oils and starches make as a pie crust, and even showed me a propagation method as easy as pie. I went home with a small selection of cultivars that he pulled for me. They are now planted near the northern fence line
Micheal made me re-think mulberries, shifting my thought of them as a crop difficult to harvest and a tree that disliked pruning to a crop that I could easily see myself planting en masse whose delicious berries have marvelous health benefits. He also had some extremely helpful advice about the spacing of chestnuts in my intended pasture with the sheep, as well as intriguing notes about how to graft preferred scions onto the hundreds of pin cherries in that location as well as onto the chestnut “seedlings” that I had ignorantly started growing. I didn’t realize that “seedlings” are catch as catch can, not a reliable tree size, quality, nut quality, disease resistance, etc. But no matter, he says, just hack the thing down and when it re-sprouts, select one shoot, keeping only it, and graft your preferred cultivar to it. With all the energy of the root ball behind it, it will go ballistic. Same with the pin cherries on site, except that in their case, he recommended a double graft: first a dwarfing stock like Colt, then the preferred sweet. Brilliant! And what of elderberries? Go for the black ones- they have slightly better health benefits, but mostly, they stay within reach of harvest.
In Portland, I had done some experimenting with shade-tolerant re-seeding tasty greens, and carried that info to Battle Ground when I moved there. I cleared 3000 square feet of blackberry in part shade and seeded with the toughest greens I could find. These have survived well in un-amended soil without irrigation past the time of establishment: salad burnet, sorrel, sweet cicely, chervil, mint ( of course), sculpit, violet, perennial leek, arugula, miners lettuce. Only the miner’s lettuce, burnet, and cicely re-seed without help. I think all of these plants would be happy if they were mowed once in summer and then when the fall rains return, they could re-start. I will plant these as a ground-cover around the filberts. They may not love being stepped on, but maybe filberts are easy enough to harvest that trampling would be minimal.
So imagine the orchard from north to south. All along the north is a hedgerow of shrubs that are mature at about 15 feet dominated by red osier dowgood, a favorite of the four-legged marauders, which would hopefully distract them from trying to get into the orchard. Also: mock orange, tall oregon grape, blue elderberry, aronia, indian plum, and lovage. This hedgerow is intended to provide visual block to the orchard, habitat and food for beneficial insects (Xerces), and some windbreak. The fence was going to be 8’ tall, 4x4 posts 4’ into the ground, strung with high-tension wire at one foot spacing. I will get into the details of how we arrived at that decision in another post, and try to de-tangle how the decision changed. Inside the fence, moving south, is a ramshackle “permaculture” area of shrubs, small fruit/nut-bearing trees like medlar, filberts, and woody large herbs like rosemary, underplanted with the aforementioned spring salad greens in some areas and wildflowers in others. There is an area for a few figs and other tropical-looking plants like hardy ginger. I am considering sinking a small pool into this area, for growing water-loving plants.
Looking west towards the secret garden, a meadow of wildflowers separates this wily area from the intended privacy of this garden, but a small concrete pad will be poured in the meadow for the display of sculpture. Imagining southward again, a line of 9 plums borders the access road, which is teardrop shaped with a gate all the way to the south. Inside the loop of the access road are the peaches and cherries, some pears and a tiny runt of a doug fir that looks like a bonsai made by deer nibbling its growing tip for 50 years. Joel imagined a miniature giraffe grazing the lowest branches, and now I am trying to figure out how to make that area look discreet and comical- mini mondo grass, I think. And violets.
That is as far as I have planted, or have trees to fill. About half the orchard remains to be built, and all the fence needs to go in, though the materials are now near each hole. Goji berries will run along one fence line to provide their mild need for support, and I have planned 100’ of trellis for kiwis and other vines; I have yet to decide what kinds of apple to purchase. The mulberries will need to go somewhere, and an herb garden close to a gate, near the sauna, so it will be quite some time before that area is completed since that construction would need to happen first. As it stands, all the doug firs within the orchard area are felled but the stumps remain. The access road is marked but it remains to be decided if it will be dry season access only, or built up with crushed rock laid down for 4 season use. I am, as ever, trying to do a lot without spending much, and rock is expensive. And Joel has plenty of his own ideas, so he is doing his thing now… :)
So that’s the story, as of summer, 2019! If you have any comments or questions, please share or email..