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Planning out Orchard Succession is important because it takes a while for a fruit tree to start bearing, usually about 2 or 3 years for the first fruits, but 4 or 5 years before you really start seeing any significant harvests. With nut trees it takes even longer before you see the fruits of your labor. It could be 10 to 20 years or more before a stone pine, monkey puzzle, or chestnut starts bearing significant crops of their delicious nuts. So what do we do in the meantime while we wait for them to mature? Just keep them watered and play Scrabble? No way! We plan out an entire succession of plantings so that we are getting a yield the same season we planted our fruit or nut trees.
There are many different strategies for planning out your forest garden or orchard succession. It can be as simple as planting squash or any cucurbit underneath the tree. This suppresses weeds to some extent, gives you a harvest of delicious food that same season, acts as an indicator plant for when the soil needs water, and functions as a human attractant so you actually get out there to see how your trees are doing. But we can get much more detailed and dynamic than just planting out a squash plant underneath our young trees, although that is a great start.
What if we utilized the permaculture concept of a fruit tree guild. A fruit tree guild at the simplest level is a collection of plants that are chosen and placed in relation to each other based on what the needs of your fruit tree are and the functions those other plants can provide.. In the drawing below we can see a young tree planted with Comfrey, Lupines, and Strawberries. The comfrey acts as a weed barrier to runner grasses, as well as a dynamic accumulator that pulls nutrients up to the surface from deep in the soil, which is very important if you live in a climate like ours West of the Cascades where winter rains leach out a lot of nutrients from the topsoil. The lupines are perennial legumes, meaning they fix nitrogen in the soil and come back year after year. They also put on a beautiful display of flowers that attracts pollinators, and if you choose the right kind of lupine you can even grow edible lupine seeds! Wowzers! Throw in some strawberries as a groundcover and you have yourself a wonderfully simple little fruit tree guild that is immediately producing something of value, not to mention beauty.
Is this photo on the left some kind of crazy SeaBuckPine GMO!?? Nope, it’s a stone pine planted with a seaberry. The seaberry provides nitrogen and yields fruit for years before the stone pine eventually shades it out and begins producing nuts! Polyculture can be as simple as that.
This style of planting can also help you achieve a much fuller look in your landscape compared to if you were to just plant your desired fruit tree or bush and then walk away. For example, we could have just planted blueberries in the example that is pictured below, but instead we threw in tons of strawberries that produced fruit their first year, also included in the understory planting are arctic raspberries, white clover, kinnikinnick, saffron crocus, and lingonberries. The blueberries are now mature and cranking out berries and the strawberries thrive underneath them and don’t seem to mind the acidic soil conditions that we’ve provided for the blueberries. Here is a simple sketch for how you can plant your own blueberry polyculture.
Try messing around with different species. This isn’t an exact science. For the blueberry polyculture shown above we got the idea from walking around the huckleberry fields in the Gifford Pinchot wilderness. Huckleberries are very close relatives of our cultivated northern highbush blueberry, genus Vaccinium, so we thought maybe nature could provide some hints as to how we might grow blueberries in a more ecological manner. There are many species that thrive alongside the huckleberries in the wild, but one we always notice are lupines. Well it turns out blueberries actually need a good amount of nitrogen to be happy so planting nitrogen fixing lupines alongside them seems like not too bad of an idea. We then put some lingonberries, another Vaccinium species, between the blueberries knowing that they could handle the acidic soil conditions we would be providing the blueberries and then stuck in some strawberries or arctic raspberries beneath the blueberries. When you put it all together it looks a whole lot nicer than the blueberries would on their own and you get multiple yields off of the same space! Sure, you might need to water a little bit more to compensate for the competition between the roots of your different plants but the diverse yields more than make up for it.
You can take this same polyculture planting concept and apply it on a larger, less detailed scale. Say you want to be a paw paw farmer, so you go out and you buy 500 paw paws and stick them in the ground in full sun. You’re probably going to have 500 dead or struggling paw paw trees very soon, and even if they did survive their establishment years, you are now waiting on a tree that will probably take 5 years before the orchard is yielding much of anything. But what if, in your infinite pawpaw farming wisdom, you decided to interplant your paw paw orchard with a quick growing, nitrogen producing, and fruit yielding plant, such as sea berries. You could throw a seaberry plant in between each paw paw planting. The sea berries would not only provide the much needed shade for your young paw paws, but they would also increase soil fertility over the long run, and produce an incredibly nutritious crop of berries. Five years down the road you might see that your pawpaws are really starting to come online so you might start hacking your seaberries back to provide more light as well as nutrients that are released in the soil through the corresponding root dieback events. In five more years your pawpaws are really cranking and you can then cut your seaberries down entirely. Take the wood and put it through a wood chipper, spread it all beneath your pawpaws and then sit back and watch as your paw paws explode with vigor as they eat up all the nutrients left below ground by your former seaberry orchard.
One thing to keep in mind with these diverse high density plantings, especially if you are in an area with wet springs like we are in the Pacific Northwest, is that not every species will perform well under high density plantings. Species that are susceptible to fungal pathogens already will be even more susceptible if you crowd them and reduce airflow between branches. For example, don’t go throwing an apple tree into your food forest unless you want a super scabby and anthracnose ridden tree. But you can certainly still plant low growing ground covers, grass barriers, and nitrogen fixers with those species that are more susceptible to diseases and fungal pathogens.
Go find examples from your local ecosystem. Do you notice assemblages of plants that grow together in the wild? Try growing those plants, or closely related ones, in similar relationship to one another and see what happens. Observe nature, try to mimic it, and something cool will probably happen. At the very least you’ll learn a ton.
Let us know if you’ve found polycultures, guilds, or an Orchard Succession that has worked well for you, or maybe more importantly those that have not worked for you and why!