Dreaming an Orchard

Posted in Vol 13 No 4 by bsaab on November 4, 2010

The Lurker

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The project: A permaculture orchard, or forest garden, to be sited within the Lampson Brook Agricultural Reserve in Belchertown, Massachusetts, a publicly owned farmstead managed by the New England Small Farm Institute.

The designer and farmer: Susanne Hale, an agroecologist and graduate student at UMass Amherst.

The land: Susanne’s parcel is in two parts: a sunny southwest-facing open field sloping down from the road and, across the way, an uphill wooded lot. The orchard will be planted with a wide variety of fruit- and nut-bearing trees and bushes, demonstrating sustainable agricultural practices—the point of permaculture is to create a self-maintaining, self-regulating ecosystem. The crops will be distributed to the shareholders of a CSA (community-supported agriculture co-op).

9:40 Susanne drives from her house to the orchard site. Once the engine temperature reaches 180°, her car switches to run on filtered vegetable oil, recycled from local restaurants.

10:02 Clipboard in hand, Susanne begins a survey of the field’s perimeter. She is interested in learning what this piece of land naturally wants to do and is searching for pioneers—brave plants that have jumped in and established themselves—and successful marriages—plants that seem to love each other and enjoy living side by side. What does the mix of plants suggest about the character of the soil?

10:07 Pokeweed. Bramble. Jewelweed. Grapes. Something Susanne doesn’t recognize; she pulls Peterson’s Field Guide to Wildflowers out of her backpack and identifies it as bouncing Bet. Goldenrod, cow parsnip, wild rose. Wood sorrel. The mix of plants confirms the acidity of the soil.

It’s like devising a seating plan for an intricate dinner party, considering not only conversational pairings but also who will want to play footsie under the table.

10:18 Still cataloguing the first 15 feet or so of land, Susanne notes a number of nitrogen fixers—plants with microbes on their roots that naturally fix nitrogen into the soil, a process that otherwise takes an intense burst of artificial energy, such as a lightning strike. Susanne will take cuttings and spread these valuable plants through the orchard. She will also coppice them—prune them back—to encourage them to release their nitrogen into the soil and will use the prunings as a nitrogen-intensive mulch.

10:24 Dandelions—the nuisance plant of the suburban lawn—are welcome assets here. Susanne categorizes them as "dynamic accumulators": plants that typically have a deep taproot that accumulates minerals that other plants draw on.

10:27 Poison ivy. Lots of it.

10:29 A wild cherry tree, just outside the perimeter of Susanne’s land. A terrific asset: it will be a good pollinizer for her fruit trees, and its fruit will help to divert birds away from her crop.

10:33 Common alders—trees that are great nitrogen fixers. Susanne will plant more of these along the perimeter of the land.

10:34 At the bottom of the slope, a wild raspberry bush. Susanne wants to plant a berry patch down here, so this is confirmation that the site will be hospitable.

11:05 Susanne crosses the road to survey the remnants of an orchard of Chinese chestnut trees. They were planted here as part of the last big community orchard movement—sparked by the energy crisis of the late 1970s—and have been neglected since the ’80s. Chinese chestnuts are blightresistant, but their introduction, around 1900, brought the blight that killed off most American chestnuts.

11:08 Slowly climbing the shady hillside, Susanne looks carefully at each of the 11 remaining Chinese chestnut trees, making notes on their condition and trying to get a sense of which ones are struggling least. Which have burrs? Which get the most light? One tree’s low branches are bare, but it has thick leaves and burrs up above, which indicate that it is still bearing nuts. Susanne notes sympathetically that it is working very hard; despite its scraggly appearance, there is something healthy there.

11:14 Overall, this old orchard is a cautionary tale about the hazards of planting too closely. There’s a gap in the line of trees—probably a space where a tree didn’t make it—and then, just beyond it, a tree burgeoning with thick glossy leaves and crowded with burrs, clearly having benefited because it hasn’t had to compete for light and nutrients.

11:18 Not surprisingly, the trees that are deepest in the woods are stunted and too far gone to be saved. Yet, as she looks down at the lines of trees, Susanne is pleased at the general level of health she has observed. She is beginning to figure out which trees to take out and which to keep. She will put in nitrogen fixers and intensive sheet mulch to nourish what’s here; and she will clear land and plant other trees, including a new species of blight-resistant American chestnut trees.

11:26 Continuing to climb the hill, Susanne looks at a section of open land where she will build a pond. There is an old farm building—a root cellar—in the woods nearby. Susanne plans to install roof gutters to collect rainwater, which she will pipe to the pond. She will also build a hoop house for propagation and to extend the growing season; rainwater from its roof will also feed the pond, which in turn will be piped out to irrigate the orchard.

12:07 Susanne drives home for lunch, thinking about a trip she’s planning to an old-growth forest in Monroe, Massachusetts. There, a southwest-facing section will help her imagine what her own piece of land used to be like before all the trees were cut down for farming. The forest will tell her a lot about long-term happy marriages—plant pairings that have grown up naturally and thrived over several centuries together.

1:27 Susanne clears a pile of books (Edible Forest Gardens; Managing Alternative Pollinators; Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands, vol. 1) off her kitchen table and unrolls GIS photos and plans of the land, overlaid with a sheet of tracing paper on which she has sketched a plan of how the orchard might look at maturity, 25 years from now.

1:30 She tapes a clean sheet of paper over the plan and begins tracing dots to mark the tree trunks. Working backward from the earlier sketch, which showed the full tree canopy and helped her calculate how much room to leave between trees, she’s now starting to imagine what she will use to fill the spaces and nurture the trees as they grow. Many of these initial plants will phase themselves out as the trees mature and create more shade.

1:41 At the far end of the sunny open field, she dots in mulberries, persimmons, pawpaws, all low-maintenance native plants. She dots in the fussier trees—apples, pears, plums, peaches, apricots—closer to the entrance, where it will be easier to give them more attention.

1:50 Pecans, walnuts, American chestnuts, buartnuts (a cross between butternut and heartnut). A problem: she has placed some of the nut trees within a strip that is a statemandated open-view line. She erases and starts to think about moving these taller trees elsewhere, juggling them with shorter plants that won’t obstruct the view from the road across the open fields. But she also needs to consider irrigation, clustering plants whose water needs are similar.

2:04 She traces over a large boulder. She plans to go out with a metal bar to probe the underground depth and width of the rock—are we talking iceberg? If so, she won’t be able to plant near it, but it might make an ideal turtle nesting site.

2:14 In an empty corner of the sheet, she sketches a cross-section of slope. She’s working out how to make room—horizontally and vertically—for an efficient mix of canopy trees, pollinizers, nitrogen fixers, and dynamic accumulators. A lot of the ecosystem is under the soil, invisible: the relationships between microbes, roots, and fungi. Some plants will do double and triple duty: berries, for instance, are crop plants and pollinizers. How to arrange the plants so they take care of one another and don’t compete for sun and nutrients? It’s like devising a seating plan for an intricate dinner party, considering not only conversational pairings but also who will want to play footsie under the table.

2:30 Considering elaeagnus x ebbingei, a nitrogen fixer that produces berries in April. The problem: the berries may not be popular in the CSA. People don’t eat them raw, though they’re nutritious and can be mixed with apple juice. They’re very hot now in Europe. Is it wiser to anticipate something that might catch on later in the US, or to keep things simple and appealing? Is the plant’s value as a nitrogen fixer enough to offset the possibility that it might not earn its way as a crop producer?

2:49 Susanne has drawn a row of tall Italian alders, excellent nitrogen fixers, next to the road, but she’s forgotten the mandated open-view strip. She draws a line through the alders, crossing them out. She’s at the boggle stage, temporarily stymied by the complexity of juggling all the different variables. But she has several more months to work out the design. She will also prepare and mulch the land. Her seedlings will be grown from nuts and cuttings, incorporating mycorrhizal symbiosis, or beneficial associations between plant roots and underground fungi. She’ll begin planting a year from now.

Meanwhile, she will continue to think about how to make the best use of the land. She will consider space, time, climate, water, soil, plants, animals, microbes, minerals, ecology, economics, history, food, and beauty. In other words, pretty much everything.

Photo by Joan Wickersham.

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  1. […] Dreaming an Orchard, By Joan Wickersham […]

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