The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

A forest garden island grows

Young forest garden island

I started my most successful forest garden island very simply.  I planted the tree in a raised bed, then dumped weeds around the bed's edges for three years.  The mounds of weeds rotted down to expand the original raised bed, creating rich dirt that extended beyond the tree's canopy.  I highly recommend this method since it requires you to maintain your focus on the centerpiece tree, giving it a few years to get established before the tree has to compete with anyone else.

The photo above shows the three year old peach tree in August 2009.  At this point, my well established peach was ready to handle understory plants, so I transplanted comfrey and bee balm into the partial shade beneath the peach's canopy, and fennel, echinacea, rhubarb, and Egyptian onions in the sun.

Peach forest garden island

Mushroom in forest gardenMay of the next year, the forest garden island was in full swing.  In less successful forest garden islands, I had planted comfrey under younger peach trees in poor soil, and the comfrey stole nitrogen from the tree.  But this more established peach had no problem shading the comfrey enough that the understory plant behaved.

You'll notice that fennel, echinacea, and rhubarb have disappeared --- these plants didn't like being transplanted in the summer heat.  However, the Egyptian onions were thrilled with their new home and thrived even during my summer neglect.

That spring, I seeded poppies amid the Egyptian onions, which added a lot of beauty, but won't be repeated.  I love puttering in my forest garden islands in the winter, but in the Peachsummer I'm too busy in the vegetable garden to give them any care.  Since annuals tend to require bare ground, which has to be weeded, they're out of the running as forest garden plants.

This second year of the forest garden island was when our peach started producing --- over half a bushel that summer.  Meanwhile the ecology of the island seemed to come into its own, attracting birds, insects, and wild mushrooms.

Comfrey in forest garden

Last year was the third year of forest garden experimentation.  The peach had achieved its mature size and was starting to shade out the comfrey and bee balm closest to the trunk.  That allowed me to add another type of understory plant --- shade lovers.  I transplanted ramps right around the tree's trunk and daffodils helter skelter throughout the island.  Both of these plants are early spring ephemerals, which are active in the spring before the tree canopy shades them out, then die back when summer arrives.

Forest garden in winter

Where will the island go from here?  I'm experimenting with more shade-loving species this spring --- goldenseal and ginseng.  Meanwhile, if I get around to it, I plan to transplant some flowering perennials into the sunny zone --- probably bee balm, echinacea, and fennel, since I have them around in excess.

A wild elderberry sprang up at the edge of the forest garden island a few years ago, and I left it alone since it seemed to be far enough away that it doesn't compete with the peach.  Daffodils in the forest gardenPollinators seem to love the flowers, and the birds enjoy the fruits.  (I know elderberries are edible for humans too, but I'm not enough in love with the taste that I feel the need to fight off the birds, who really love the taste.)

The island has stopped expanding since the peach has achieved its final size, and I can feel the ecosystem starting to reach a steady state.  Annual maintenance is now about the same as it would be for any other fruit tree, but I suspect the tree is healthier for the diverse ecosystem under and around its canopy.  Plus, we get to enjoy a bit of beauty right outside the kitchen window.  This is one of our most successful permaculture experiments, and I highly recommend you try it out around your own fruit trees.

Our chicken waterer keeps the backyard flock healthy with POOP-free water.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I noticed many of your lines are bolded. Not sure if you intended to do this. No need to post this if it was accidental. I look forward to your email reply.
Comment by Maggie Fri Feb 3 09:16:22 2012

I was actually just discussing that with Mark to see what he thought. I felt the post was going to lose a lot of people's interest because of its length, so I bolded the highlights. Not sure if the strategy worked or not....

Gotta go get the golf cart unstuck before the driveway thaws, then I'll email you. :-)

Comment by anna Fri Feb 3 09:49:22 2012
Very inspiring!
Comment by Brian Fri Feb 3 10:01:09 2012

How can you plant a raised bed around a tree without burying the crown and killing the tree?

BTW - I really enjoy your blog.

Comment by J Thu Feb 23 13:47:52 2012
Excellent question! I started the tree in a small raised bed, and then each year I simply expanded the bed outwards. So, the crown isn't impacted by expanding the raised bed; only the roots are given more growing area. (In other words, the bed is expanding horizontally, not vertically.)
Comment by anna Thu Feb 23 15:33:23 2012

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