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Forest garden experiments

White peachI'll end my run-down on 2010 experiments with the ones nearest and dearest to my heart --- the forest garden.  My forest garden trials are by far the most experimental, so it's no surprise that most of them didn't do all that well.  You should also keep in mind that I planted my primary forest garden in the worst part of the yard, where the topsoil eroded away under the care of previous owners leaving behind solid clay with an abnormally high groundwater.  Quite possibly, these techniques would have worked in more prime garden soil.

Comfrey as a living mulch under a nectarineI've read in several books that comfrey makes a great living mulch beneath fruit trees, sucking up nutrients from deep in the subsoil with its taproots and then depositing the hard-to-find minerals right by the tree roots.  Unfortunately, my experience with comfrey around fruit trees is entirely negative --- the tree with comfrey around its base seems to be growing slower and its summer leaves were yellowish, suggesting that the comfrey is fighting the tree for nitrogen.  While this experiment has no control (I put the comfrey around my only nectarine and can only compare it to the closely related peaches planted in another part of the yard), I'd be leery of planting comfrey around any other fruit trees, and am planning on putting down a kill mulch to try to eradicate the comfrey from around my nectarine.  It's possible that comfrey makes a good living mulch around the drip-line of more established fruit trees, but for now I'm sticking to planting my comfrey where it won't fight with anyone, then cutting the leaves for mulch.

Swale filled with waterMeanwhile, I installed swales around several fruit trees in an attempt to drain a bit of water away from their roots and keep the forest garden from turning into a morass of mud in the winter.  In areas where the groundwater is extremely high, the swales just made the muddy area larger --- ditches would have been a better choice.  On the other hand, in moderately problematic area, the swales nearly did the job, just leaking a bit of water to the downhill side.  When I find enough organic matter, I plan to fill the good swales up with mulch and also to add an extensive kill mulch around each fruit tree in this trouble area so that the tree roots can benefit from the concentrated water in the dry period of summer.

Building a hugelkultur moundMy hugelkultur mounds --- rotting wood topped with soil --- did what I wanted only too well.  I hoped they would keep plants out of the groundwater in the trouble spots, but the small amount of soil and large amount of not-yet-rotted wood in the mounds meant that during year one, they were too dry for anything except rosemary.  Also, Lucy loved digging my mounds up in search of small mammals.  On the other hand, I think that hugelkultur has a lot of potential for my forest garden if I can put them in spots where nothing needs to grow for a year or two until the wood really breaks down.  This year, I'm creating hugelkultur extensions to each tree mound to give my fruit trees more dry ground to spread out, and this time I'm putting a layer of cardboard below each mound so tenacious weeds won't grow up through.

Forest garden islandAs you can tell from the photos, my favorite part of the forest garden is that I get to play with it in the winter when a dormant vegetable garden combined with the garden itch would otherwise itch drive me nutty.  The forest garden pretty much takes care of itself for the rest of the year, so it's hard to complain about some growing pains.  And, lest you still become disheartened from this dismal list of problems, I should also tell you that my forest garden island (in the portion of the garden with good soil) is huge and provided masses of fruits for us --- clearly, permaculture concepts have a lot of merit even if they have to be tweaked a bit to work in the most problematic parts of the yard.



This post is part of our 2010 experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:





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