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

Beginning a holistic orchard

The first chapter of Phillips' The Holistic Orchard introduces the author's philosophy of creating a healthy ecosystem holistically rather than fighting to mask the symptoms with allopathic treatments (such as using organic, but still harmful, sprays).  His goal, he writes is "not so much to destroy problems as to create health."

So, how do you start an orchard so healthy it can be maintained with simple mulching and foliar sprays of fish oil?  First, you need to realize that fruit trees and berry bushes thrive in a forest edge habitat, where the soil is dominated by fungi over bacteria at a ratio of roughly 10:1.

Crimson cloverTo get there, Phillips first tills, then plants a cover crop of red or crimson clover.  These two species have an affinity for mycorrhizal fungi, which will stand the trees in good stead a year later when they finally grace the soil.

Phillips' cover crops go into the ground in the fall, and they grow for a solid year before being scythed and allowed to rot on the soil surface over the second winter.  Organic matter added to the earth from the top down is a great way to promote beneficial soil fungi, so you definitely don't want to till the clovers in.

Since clover is perennial, you'll either need to fork out the roots come spring number two, or lay down a kill mulch (cardboard topped by wood chips) the autumn before.  Either way, Phillips recommends preparing a circle of vegetatation-free soil about four to six feet in diameter for each future fruit tree.

Once the trees are in place, mulch is key.  Phillips swears by ramial wood chips, which come from deciduous twigs and branches less than 2.5 inches in diameter, meaning that the C:N ratio is quite low (30:1).  For those of us who can't be as discerning, I think it's nearly as good to just let any kind of deciduous wood chips rot for a couple of years before using. 

Haphazard mulchHaphazard mulching is handy to keeping the diversity of soil life high, so Phillips lays down heavy mulches on only one side of the tree each year, using spoiled hay and straw in spots around producing trees for even more diversity.  Right up against the trunk, a three to four inch deep layer of pea stone extending a foot or so out from the tree in all directions keeps the young trees dry.

I'm ashamed to say that I've never been able to think a year or two in advance to fully prepare the soil for perennials using cover crops, but this first chapter of The Holistic Orchard has inspired me to try prepping areas I want to house perennials in 2014.  I think I'll tweak Phillips' technique a bit, though, since I'm working on a backyard scale rather than running a commercial orchard --- kill mulches always trump tilling in my book.  But since I'm starting in the fall, that means I won't be able to plant until the spring, so I'll probably run back to back buckwheat cover crops, then either put in my perennials in fall of 2013 or plant clover then to give the soil another year of fertility building.

Weekend HomesteaderI'm curious to hear from others.  How have you prepped the soil for fruit trees, and did your technique bear fruit?  Are you a believer in simply replacing chemical sprays with organic alternatives that do the same thing, or do you try to garden holistically?

We'll be discussing chapter two next Wednesday, and I have to admit I've read ahead and find that section equally inspiring.  I hope you'll join the book club and read along!

My publicist tells me that preorder sales are quite good, so he's sent off my paperback to a slew of potential reviewers.  Maybe I'll get lucky and it'll be reviewed in The New York Times.  (I'm not holding my breath.)

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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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Is the clover for an entire field, or just individual spots where new trees will go?

I'm new to fruit trees myself, but I'd forget the cover crop and just plant as soon as possible. For fertility, you can always mulch with compost and seed clover outside of that area. Phillips' method might be best, but I'd rather not lose all that growing time and have to deal with killing the clover before the trees are even in the ground.

Comment by BeninMA Thu Oct 4 02:00:46 2012

BeninMA --- He generally seeds entire fields, or at least that's what it sounds like in his book. It does seem like a lot of work, but I suspect it might be worth it. A lot of old orchard books recommend running cover crops for a year or two before planting, but I can't seem to find any controlled experiments online with data about the effects.

I've actually got a very small side by side comparison going since our new gully kill mulch is right next door to our new Celeste fig and will have figs in it in a year or two. Maybe then I'll be able to tell you whether cover crops improved the soil enough to make up for losing that time to mature the trees.

Comment by anna Thu Oct 4 08:20:31 2012

So far I am really into what the author is saying, except for the spray schedule he has. Even if what he sprays is natural, organic, holistic or whatever, there's no way I'm going to be able to do more than maybe one spray a year. I would much rather take the approach of getting them into good soil in the first place like he describes. I'm really enjoying learning about the soil.

I'm also bummed that the wood chips he wants are hardwoods, because most of what we cut and chip are pines. I'm using them anyway on trees and such, maybe I'll regret that....

I've never spent a year prepping for trees, but I have tried it for garlic. I did not have a side-by-side comparison, but I was not impressed enough at the time to do it a 2nd time. Now though, I am going back and leaving one of those original beds fallow for next year while I build the soil. Three years later, it's still a clay pit.

Comment by De Thu Oct 4 08:53:45 2012

De --- I'm with you on the sprays. I'm actually not entirely sold on his sprays being harmless, either. Of course, he has to have at least some pristine apples to sell, so I'm hopeful that we an keep our apples healthy enough without sprays to meet our far less stringent criteria.

I'm not sure that softwood chips will actively hurt. Maybe they'll be more acidic? I'll be curious to hear what you think of them after a few years.

Interesting to hear about your garlic bed prepping experiment. I don't think that letting land lie fallow does much good, but actively pushing cover crops can build up a lot of organic matter fast. (That assumes your soil is good enough that the cover crops will grow, of course.) This year, I've seen huge differences in the beds that went through three rounds of buckwheat over the course of the summer. Of course, that's definite work --- once a month, you need to cut and reseed.

Comment by anna Thu Oct 4 13:07:58 2012
Oops, I didn't really mean fallow - I'll be growing some cover crops, although I didn't get much in for the fall, missed my planting window I think. I threw some daikon seeds around but only in a small area - the rest will be mulched heavily for the winter. What do you think would be best for planting early spring? I have some serious red clay...
Comment by De Thu Oct 4 18:13:18 2012
De --- I'm still looking for a good no-till cover crop to fill that early spring niche. If you come up with one, I hope you'll let me know!!
Comment by anna Thu Oct 4 19:53:59 2012
I haven't had a chance to get this book yet (have a loan request at the library but apparently it is very popular!) so I am chiming in without having read for myself, but I am wondering if he mentions, or if anyone has tried, using cover crops like clover or buckwheat as part of the process of rehabilitating an old orchard. I recently bought a little "farmette" of my own (yay!) and it has several very neglected fruit trees on it - cherry, apricot, plum, pear and mulberry. I would really like to get them healthy and productive but am not sure where to start. Maybe planting clover as a cover crop at a 6-10' diameter around the trees (they are big trees)?
Comment by April Wed Oct 10 11:01:24 2012
April --- I haven't hit a section with any extra information on cover crops yet, but I'm hopeful it will come up soon! And if it does, it will definitely make it onto the blog since cover crops are one of my major interests at the moment. So, no real answer for you yet, only --- stay tuned! :-)
Comment by anna Wed Oct 10 15:10:17 2012

Since I've read this book any of the sticks or limbs that blow out of the large trees in our back yard I break up into 6" or smaller pieces and throw them around our fruit trees. It's a much easier task than having a stick pile and having to spend a day chipping them. Anything that is too big to break I am going to try hugelkultur on one or two of our raised vegetable beds.

As far as prepping before planting the most I've done was dug the hole 4-5 months before the trees were to ship and mixed in the amendments and compost.

One thing I am quickly learning though is to plant your trees high because all this mulch will break down into great soil and eventually raise the level of the ground around the trunk and could cause other problems.

Comment by Brian Thu Oct 11 10:05:37 2012
Brian --- Good idea about use-as-you-go sticks. And excellent point about planting high if you're using lots of unrotted materials. Thanks for the tips!
Comment by anna Thu Oct 11 16:31:51 2012

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