I've been doing one of my favorite things this past week--planting forest garden plants! It takes a lot of mapping, researching, designing, planning, redesigning, reresearching, and replanning (part of that whole prolonged & thoughtful observation rather than prolonged & thoughtless action thing) before I finally get to the point of actually putting a shovel into the ground. So it's always rewarding to pat down the soil around a newly homed plant.
There are two sites I've been planting--our own yard of course, plus the already partially planted food forest at Theressa's dad's place (Jay's). At Jay's, we planted 18 trees last spring, but very little of the other layers (10 shrubs, and no ground or vine layers.) We simply didn't have time last spring to finishing designing the tree understories, obtain plants, and get them into the ground before the end of the rainy season...and since we only make it over to Jay's about once a week, we figured it was better to grow his plants in pots at our house for the summer instead of putting them into the ground late and not being able to baby them to ensure they thrive. Now that the rainy season has begun (and oh boy but has it begun!), I planted another 13 shrubs and 3 echinaceas as understories, which makes the whole area look much more like an actual multi-storied food forest instead of trees stuck in a sea of wood chips. It's very exciting, and I'm looking forward to small (but tasty and real!) harvests next year of gooseberries, currants, barberries, chilean guavas, and maybe even blueberries, plus perhaps some pears, cherries, plums, apples, and peaches (though I need to decide whether to allow the trees to set fruit next year, or remove their flowers and fruit to let them invest all their energy in growing for another year.)
I did most of the planning for Jay's last winter while still living at the Portland Permaculture Institute, designing understory patches for trees both at his place and at the Institute. I made some last-minute changes, primarily adding a few extra gooseberries and currants, but mostly implemented the designs as-is. It was really nice to be able to just pull out the old designs, find the appropriate plants in pots, do some minor measuring on the ground, and put in the plants.
Here at home, a lot more planning has been necessary over the last couple of months. The mapping was pretty easy--the lot is a simple 50' x 183' rectangle, with the house in the middle dividing the lot into two distinct design areas. There are a few tall trees (30-40') at the south end of the back yard: an evergreen on the neighbor's lot to the east, essentially at our southeast corner, a seedling cherry on our south boundary about 8' in from the east edge, and a black walnut on the neighbor's lot to the southwest. There are also many black locusts and one more seedling cherry along the east boundary of the lot in both the front and back yards. Other than those, the lot is a blank slate.
Since we have tremendously destructive miniature dinosaurs roaming the back yard, pecking at anything which moves or doesn't move, scratching anywhere there may be roots to destroy, and ignoring the paths we carefully lay out to instead trample across any vegetation they can find, we decided the back yard would be primarily trees and shrubs and large perennial herbs. I designed a layout with:
- 4 main trees (2 plums, 1 cherry, one fig), with 15 understory shrubs (gooseberries, currants, serviceberry, chilean guava, blueberry, salal, honeyberry)
- a 10-shrub thicket of medium sized shrubs approximately 6' x 6' (blueberries, honeyberry, serviceberries, wolfberry, pea shrub, chilean guava, goumi)
- a continuous evergreen hedge along the entire east boundary to act as a windbreak for the cold winter winds. Evergreen huckleberries on 6' spacing under the black locusts (which are nitrogen fixers), and nitrogen fixing Silverberries (Elaeagnus sp.) on 6' spacing in non-locust areas, plus salal halfway between all the 6' spaced larger shrubs
- one lone mulberry which is going to hate the spot we're giving it 4' out from the north wall of the neighbor's garage (but which, if it grows up tall, will one day hopefully get enough sun to fruit nicely). No understory for the mulberry, as this area is where we plan to keep the hen house, duck and rabbit housing if we ever raise them, wood for burning, etc
- an experiment with semi-espaliered Autumn Olives all along the west fence with various vines trained up them--pruning them flat against the fenceline to be living trellises and more effective chicken barriers than our current 3.5' fence, and giving them 1' of space towards the yard with a 2' path beyond that. This attempt to corral the autumn olives in such a small space may prove to be a maintenance headache and/or a mess, but if it works it'll provide nitrogen-fixing, tasty berries for humans and birds, firewood coppicing, and trellis space.
- a row of larger shrubs/small trees (including 2 yellowhorns, 2 Cornelian Cherries, and a medlar) a few feet out from the west boundary, plus another goumi and pea shrub
- A row of buried bathtubs about 6' out from the future house boundary, to allow us to experiment with aquatic plants and to provide extra winter sunlight into the house
The front yard, not cursed with hunt-and-peck feathered killing machines, will feature a large open area of about 1200 square feet, used for annual vegetables, herbs, nursery plants, and some smaller shrubs. In addition, we'll have:
- 3 Pawpaws and 2 Chinese Dogwoods (Cornus kousa) in the morning-shaded area just off our east boundary of tall locusts and cherry.
- 2 asian persimmons and 2 olives in full sun
- east boundary evergreen hedge with the same pattern as the backyard, except for one full sun area where we'll plant two Darwinian barberries (Berberis darwinii). The front yard currently has a laurel hedge all along the east boundary, so we hope to rip out sections of the laurel hedge to plant the replacement plants, with ongoing pruning and knocking-out of the rest of the laurel hedge as the new plants grow
- 2 large nut trees on the north boundary of the lot, taking advantage of the fact that shading out the street doesn't matter. Probably 1 english walnut and 1 chestnut, if we can convince a neighbor to plant a chestnut for pollination; otherwise 2 chestnuts.
- 2 hazels as nut tree understories, plus a few sun-loving shrubs on the south edges of the nut tree canopies.
- A material zone 10' wide x 14' deep to act as an unloading zone, receive future wood chip drop-offs, and possibly serve as a parking spot for soil-crushing cars
- bike rack, probably set in concrete and with a roof covering, for visitors to secure their bikes
There is essentially no area on the east side of the house for planting. There is an area approximately 11' wide on the west side. A black walnut (or english walnut if we wind up planting two chestnuts in the front yard) will be planted approximately even with the south edge of the house, 8' from the house, for future summer shade (and, of course, nuts). North of that, a line of Russian Olives 8' out from the house will be trained to form an archway to the house, serving as a sun-screen for blasting summer sun, support for trellising vines, possible coppiced firewood, nitrogen fixation, and possibly future sheltered nursery space once there's sufficient shade.
We plan to run some hardy kiwi vines up some of the existing black locusts and maybe the seedling cherry trees. Eventually we'll use kiwis and grapes as summer sun-screens for the south side of the house, though first we'll have to tear off and rebuild the south addition. We may also experiment with either non-living trellises over the main 4' path in strategic spots, or living trellis (autumn olive?) trained to form archways over paths, with grapes or kiwis growing on those as well.
I'm following one of Dave Jacke's forest garden patterns for trees in which a 2' path circles the expected mature canopy dripline, with 5 1.5' paths evenly spaced from the perimeter of the tree to its center, like wheel spokes. This creates full access to the tree and understory for maintenance and harvest, while leaving as much of the rootzone area as possible untrampled and uncompacted. The 2' path around the outside of the tree allows extra sunlight to penetrate into the understory, making it more productive, and also allows a margin of error in case trees get larger than expected.
Once we had the design on paper and Theressa gave her first-pass thumbs-up, I measured things out on the ground and "planted" bamboo poles of the approximate mature height of the given tree or shrub. I used metal sign-stakes to mark off the perimeters of the trees and delineate the paths (one main 4' path through each yard, plus 2' paths to access almost every tree and shrub from all sides.) The backyard picture on the top is from the roof looking south, with the shrub thicket at the bottom of the photo, taller trees in the middle of the yard, and the mulberry sticking up over the orange garage at the back. You can sort of make out in the pictures the stakes for the tree perimeters, and the main 4' path on the right side of the picture. The front yard photo on the bottom, looking north from the roof, is less dramatic. The bottom part of the photo with the existing garden beds and extending further into the middle of the yard will be open space, with a few bamboo stakes towards the street indicating the trees and shrubs to be planted there. For the trees to be planted in the driveway once it's ripped out, I used pots as the plant markers, which aren't nearly as much fun as 15' tall bamboo stakes.
I've started planting the back yard with the plants we already have in our nursery. All in all, I'll be able to plant about two dozen trees and shrubs and several vines now, with more to follow once we receive plant orders later this winter. A few plants will have to wait until house renovations are completed, as they're too close to the expected construction zone.
I hope to get the yard designs for both our house and Jay's place scanned and posted, but the last time I tried the scanner it wasn't working. :/ I'll get them up eventually, but don't hold your breath! I welcome questions about the designs, plants, implementation, etc...