In the midst of building frenzy, sometimes we forget that besides building a house, we’re establishing a home. Part of that home, for me, means growing food.
We didn’t go into this venture with preconceived notions of a particular life. Instead, the land in which we find ourselves has dictated some of our decisions and the character of our life. Our house is a good example of this: built from the trees that grew on that spot, it takes on the character of the land around it.
If we had bought land on a prairie or seaside bluff, we would have built a very different house.
Likewise the garden. We will not be planting row crops in our woodland home. Since our land wants to be woodland, we decided to grow a forest garden: aka an orchard.
We had heard the proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the second best time is today.” Which we took literally and hacked out places in the woods for fruit trees and bushes, really before we were ready or had prepared the land for them. Consequently, last fall the orchard looked like this:
Can you see any fruit trees? That’s because the woods was coming back to eat them up. We hadn’t lost any trees yet, but I knew before long the forest predecessors would march in and choke them out. Time for drastic measures.
So last winter I began reclaiming my orchard. When it wasn’t too cold, I would come out and cut brush with a loppers and saw. It was truly a delightful job–working hard enough to peel off my winter coat and feel the gentle warmth of winter sun, watching the swath of brush give way to the tidal wave of my mittened aggression. And besides making room for our orchard, I was piling all that brush into a gigantic windrow that would fuel our springtime maple syrup operation.
When spring arrived and maple syrup season was past, my hands got the itch to dig in the dirt, and my palate yearned for home-grown greens. I cleared a little spot on the south side of the orchard for a hot bed. I know what you’re thinking–but a hot bed is simply a garden bed that’s heated from below by a bank of composting manure. Usually it has a cold frame above it to capture the heat, like a miniature greenhouse.
I rolled together a frame of rotting logs from the orchard and filled it with fresh horse manure, then spread atop that a little soil, in which I planted a passel of hardy greens. It wasn’t long before they burst through their window-lid and started growing out into the fresh air of the orchard.
Back to the orchard. Now that it was spring, all the little lopped trees from my winter onslaught began to send out new shoots, and it was clear I needed a little help reclaiming my orchard. Enter this little beast, a “walking tractor”–pretty much a motor on two wheels to which you can attach tools, like this brush-mower, or a snowplow.
It made quick work of the regrowing brush.
I’m not looking for true order in my orchard, for the traditional landscape of apple trees in rows over grass. I’m trying to imitate Eden, where every plant in a jungle grows in harmony with the others, each contributing out of its nature: nitrogen-fixers feeding the soil, deeply-rooted plants mining nutrients, flowers attracting pollinators, and, of course, herbs, veggies, and fruit to feed us.
Since I’m a very lazy person, I’d like all these plants to do this work with as little of my labor as possible, so I look for cold-hardy plants that stay healthy without irrigation, compete with weeds but don’t become weedy themselves, and preferably are useful for more than one function. In fact, I’m so lazy that I’m a certified practitioner of Mark Shephard’s S.T.U.N. gardening method: Sheer, Total, and Utter Neglect. In other words, if the plants can’t survive without my input, they’re welcome to shrivel up and die.
Since I’m trying to imitate nature, the more variety the better. Nature is no cornfield. Every year I’ve been adding more diversity, but since I’m only beginning on my journey with this bit of land, here’s a list of what I have growing so far:
- Several varieties of apple, selected for cold-hardiness and disease resistance as well as variety of uses (cooking, drying, cider, storage…and eating)
- Pear and Asian pear
- Sour cherries (sweet ones aren’t hardy here)
- Various berries, including seaberry, raspberry, honeyberry, elderberry, highbush cranberry, strawberry, aronia, juneberry, currant, and buffaloberry.
- Walking onion
- Rose (hips for tea)
- Black cherry coppice (for wood)
- Willow (for fiber)
- Comfrey and horsetail (both for the nutrition of the orchard)
- Wild indigo (nitrogen fixer)
- Black locust (wood and nitrogen fixer)
- Poison ivy
This last one has caused some consternation/itching. I’m not, generally, horrified by the existence of weeds, especially when they offer some purpose in the garden, such as covering the soil, fixing nitrogen, or attracting pollinators. But I draw the line when one’s sole purpose is to keep humans away by causing an exquisite, nauseating itch. This spring, after recovering (via steroids) from blisters all over my ankles, I chucked my morals and sprayed Roundup at the ivy throughout the orchard. That done, I plan to relying on regular mowing to keep the vile stuff in check.
Between our baby trees, we have wide, sunny aisles that, although one day will be shaded by the canopies of mature fruit trees, for now need to be occupied to keep the poison ivy from taking that job upon itself. I decided to put in strips of hugelkultur beds between the rows of trees to capture a little more of that lost sunshine.
Hugelkultur uses chunks of wood piled beneath garden beds, which as they rot feed plants and keep their roots moist. And since I have, after all, wrested the place from a woodland, I had a lot of rotten wood.
After I had piled/raked/stuffed in as much wood as I could, I covered it with wheel-barrow loads of rotted horse manure and dirt from an unsightly pile we’ve been working to decrease for years. I planted a row of beans up the center and potatoes on either side, then mulched the plantings with straw.
In a second hugelkultur bed (not pictured), I planted squash seeds–mostly a pumpkin variety with edible seeds.
Someday when these beds are shaded by our mature fruit trees and not as useful for annual vegetables, they’ll still act as swales to capture rainwater and snowmelt, since they’ve been planted across the contours of our slightly sloping orchard.
So far, the only mammals to get much of a meal from this orchard have been the deer. They’ve taken it upon themselves to prune my baby trees, and in my opinion it’s a little early to start pruning. Beautiful as those deer are, my orchard is too young to be resilient to their browsing.
I’d been putting off installing a giant, ugly deer fence around our orchard mostly because it sounds like a lot of work, expense, and, well, it’s ugly. So I decided to try a minimal approach first. I pounded in stakes and strung fishing line between them.
The theory here is that the deer walk into the line without seeing it and it confounds them. So far, it hasn’t been a 100% success, but it has taken a bite out of the browsing (pun intended).
This year, despite my S.T.U.N. gardening method and deer pressure early in the season, we hope to start enjoying a few fruits of our labor. Pictured here are our first hazelnuts, some highbush cranberries ripening, aronia berries, and our first apple tree to fruit, a Haralson. We’ll see if the other creatures in our woodland will allow us to share this bounty with them.