Although the fields are still (mostly) covered in snow, I’ve been working hard to push the farm forward. A big focus for me in 2017 will be the planting of several different varieties of trees and shrubs. I feel a great sense of urgency to get them into the ground so that they can begin the long process of maturation.
I’ve written about my vision of rows and rows of alley crops before, but over the last 60 days, I have made some great progress in fully articulating the game plan. In fact, I’ve even drawn a map of where I want the initial trees to go. And while the plans will inevitably change when Mike Tyson punches me in the mouth, it’s reassuring to have my thinking down on paper before the trees and rented equipment show up at my doorstep.
If you spend a lot of time looking at the planting diagram above, you’ll probably notice that, except for the chestnuts and mulberries, the trees are all mixed up and inter-planted. For the past year, I’ve been studying the practices of Stefan Sobkowiak, an orchardist in Quebec who creates “permaculture orchards. “ One of Stefan’s core tenets is to interplant tree species as a way to prevent disease and enhance soil nutrition. I’ve tried to build on that philosophy with the plan.
Most of the trees will be planted on a sloping hill. I plan to do some significant digging with an excavator to create swales and berms along the natural contours of the hill before the trees are delivered to the farm. This work will make the land better at retaining water and help the trees grow better.
Once the necessary digging is complete, we will plant the trees in late fall, when they are dormant. The trees that I ordered are all roughly one year old and will be delivered bareroot. I fully expect a frenzied week of work getting all of the trees into the ground. If anyone is interested in coming up to Peacham, I plan to throw a big tree planting party. It will be like when a friend throws a moving or painting party at their new house, but only 1,000 times worse. On the upside, I’m pretty sure I’ll have free extra seedlings for anyone who helps out.
This is going to be a massive undertaking, but I’m really excited about it. I think that this will create long-term value for the farm.
Added Bonus: Here’s some additional info on what I’m planting.
Chestnuts! I want chestnuts to be the backbone of our perennial crops. I think they are an amazing variety of tree. At one point, in the 20th century, they were on the brink of extinction. I like the idea of helping their comeback. The trees grow to 30-60 feet tall and can last for thousands of years. They produce plentiful amounts of a tasty nut that is nutritionally similar to brown rice. The trees will take roughly 5-7 years to begin producing nuts.
Hazelnuts are rugged little shrubs that produce an outstanding nut. They are hardy to zone 3. (I’m in zone 4). Rather than intermixing the hazelnuts with the other tree crops, I’ll be setting up a stand-alone orchard for the hazelnuts. Because of the thicket like nature of how hazelnuts grow, this clustering will facilitate easier management and harvest. Hazelnuts are a highly nutritious food, with delicious kernels that have roughly the three times as much protein as a soybean. You can eat hazelnuts fresh or toasted. You can also use them in baked goods, grind them into nut butter or press for oil. They also make for an outstanding livestock fodder crop.
Elderberries are hardy plants that bloom white flowers in late spring, which transform into dark berries in the late summer. The variety I’m planting grows to be roughly 10 to 12 feet tall. Personally, I love the taste of elderberries. They make great pies, jams, wine and syrup. Their flowers can be made into fritters. They are also beloved by birds. Elderberries are also believed to have powerful immune-boosting qualities.
Mulberries are a great food source for people, wildlife and livestock. The trees usually grow to 30-40 tall. They are fairly hardy trees that can grow in a wide variety of soils. The trees love manure and chickens and other livestock love the berries, so it makes for a nice symbiotic relationship. The berries have many different uses. They can be eaten fresh or dried. They also can be turned into jams or wine.
Apples, of course. This one probably doesn’t need a write up because pretty much everyone has picked apples before. What is unique about the apples I’ll be planting is that they are grown from seed. Most apples are grown from grafted trees and will not be true to seed, meaning that if you plant a seed from a Gala apple, you will not get a Gala apple. I will probably graft common apple strains to the trees that I plant, but there is a part of me that wants to just roll the dice and see what these apple seeds produce. Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire covers this topic in great detail.
Walnuts will be an experiment. When I was placing my tree orders one of my neighbors had asked me if I would be willing to get her a few walnut trees. It’s looking like I’ll have roughly five trees leftover for myself. I didn’t quite know what to do with them in my big tree plan so I decided to scatter them around the property and see what happens.
Black locust is an incredibly valuable tree species that is critically important to my overall tree game plan. Black locust trees grow very in just about any non-swamp soil. They fix their own nitrogen, and share it with surrounding plants. They provide heavy nectar for pollinators. The flowers are (supposedly) edible. We’re planting roughly 80 black locust trees because they are needed for their nitrogen by the other trees. The dense, rot-resistant wood that they produce is an added bonus. The trees can be cut multiple times and they will the sprout back from the stump.
Siberian Pea Shrubs are the most obscure perennials in my planting plans. Like black locusts, these shrubs bring nitrogen into the soil and help support the growth of the other trees. They also produce pods filled with peas. Native to Asia and Eastern Europe, it’s rumored that peasants used to eat the peas in times of famine. The peas can be eaten fresh or dried. I’ve never personally eaten them, but I hear that they are kind of bland and flavorless. They will make for a great food back up plan after World War III starts next year! I also plan to use them as a fodder crop for livestock.