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Ellen White tree planting method evaluation

 
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Location: 7b, Chapel Hill, NC. Heavy, acidic clay soil.
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Also known as White method, or planting by the blueprint

I’m still in the early stages of planting out my food forest - so early that I don’t have any new trees in the ground yet.  While listening to a podcast, my wife ran across the “Ellen White” planting method for trees from the podcasts of this blog - https://www.azurefarmlife.com/farm-blog/2019/5/29/tree-planting-like-a-boss.  The resources I’ve examined have universally boasted extremely impressive growth and fruit production.  I’ve done some cursory research on the internet, and there are some variations on the process.  I’ve added them all together (roughly) below so we can examine each step from all of the different instructions I found.

  • Dig a 3’x’3x3’ hole, separating the topsoil from the subsoil
  • Take a few sections of 4” drain tile, plug the ends with stones and place them in the bottom of the hole.  This is called a “breather,” and is to trap oxygen down deep for use by soil microorganisms.  PVC pipe, old cans, etc could also be used for this purpose.
  • Fill the bottom foot of the hole with a mix of equal parts topsoil, peat moss, and compost (also referenced leaf mold), then add 5 lbs of rock phosphate and/or additional gypsum and/or additional dolomite.  Other additives have been referenced as well - sea salt, kelp, molasses, biochar, alfalfa, etc.
  • Add a thin layer of small stones, like gravel.
  • Add a large rock (with a little soil on top), and spread the roots of the tree over the top of the rock.  Face the low angle of graft union of the tree to the northeast in the northern hemisphere (away from the afternoon sunlight)
  • Add the last foot of the mix referenced earlier, and throw a bunch of earthworms in with it
  • Cut both ends off a tin can, cut in half lengthwise, and wrap around the trunk of the tree
  • Mulch with an inch of compost and 3 inches of leaves.  Plus more stones “if desired"
  • Use any remaining subsoil to form a berm around the tree 6 to 9 feet in diameter
  • Water.  A lot.

  • Let’s take these steps one at a time.

    Dig a 3’x’3x3’ hole, separating the topsoil from the subsoil
  • That’s one big hole!  My back is aching already.  Seems like a good step though - I can’t think of a reason not to dig a hole this big except for the work involved.  I’d also be a bit concerned about soil settling with a hole this big, but I think if you make sure to gently compact as you go, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

  • Take a few sections of 4” drain tile, plug the ends with stones and place them in the bottom of the hole.  This is called a “breather,” and is to trap oxygen down deep for use by soil microorganisms.  PVC pipe, old cans, etc could also be used for this purpose.
  • I’m undecided on this one.  We all know roots and microorganisms need oxygen to survive, but trapping air at the bottom of a hole?  I’m not completely convinced that the holes in the drain tile won’t get plugged by soil over time, or that the oxygen can even permeate to any reasonable degree out of the pipe.  Also not thrilled about putting plastic in the ground.  I guess aluminum cans wouldn’t be bad.

  • Fill the bottom foot of the hole with a mix of equal parts topsoil, peat moss, and compost (also referenced leaf mold), then add 5 lbs of rock phosphate and/or additional gypsum and/or additional dolomite.  Other additives have been referenced as well - sea salt, kelp, molasses, biochar, alfalfa, etc.
  • Seems good in theory, but I’m undecided.  My understanding has always been that the hole you plant trees in shouldn’t be significantly amended with bulky things like peat moss and compost, as that encourages the tree roots to just grow into those more nutritious areas, and causes them to not spread out in the soil.  On the other hand, a cubic yard is a pretty big area for the roots to grow into.  I think that the additional amendments (rock phosphate, gypsum, etc) are likely to be more dependent on the area you’re planting in, but if you’re replacing 2/3 of the soil in the hole with outside material, I’m not sure about this either.  Biochar certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing.

  • Add a thin layer of small stones, like gravel.
  • Skeptical of this one as well.  From what I’ve read, this is explained away as having to do with electrical currents, ion exchanges with the rocks, or directing electricity into the tree somehow.  I could see this providing additional nutrients as my understanding is that roots like having some rock content in the soil so they can mine minerals, but I’m not knowledgeable enough to know if this would really make a difference.

  • Add a large rock (with a little soil on top), and spread the roots of the tree over the top of the rock.  Face the low angle of graft union of the tree to the northeast in the northern hemisphere (away from the afternoon sunlight)
  • I’m torn on this one too.  Putting a rock right under the base of a tree?  That will certainly provide a solid base for the tree to sit on, and would prevent it from sinking down.  If you have a fruit tree with a very lateral branching structure, it might not interfere with the root system.  I definitely wouldn’t do this with a taprooted tree though.  Facing the graft angle away from the afternoon sunlight is supposed to help prevent sunburn on the trunk of the tree.  I don't know if sunburn would actually be a concern, but I don't see a reason not to do it either.

  • Add the last foot of the mix referenced earlier, and throw a bunch of earthworms in with it
  • Sure.  Fill it up!

  • Cut both ends off a tin can, cut in half lengthwise, and wrap around the trunk of the tree
  • Or do a wire cage for deer.  Other people have also buried these for gophers/voles.

  • Mulch with an inch of compost and 3 inches of leaves.  Plus more stones “if desired”
  • Dunno about the stones here, but mulch is certainly good.  I would probably use wood chips too for a more “forest floor” type litter.

  • Use any remaining subsoil to form a berm around the tree 6 to 9 feet in diameter
  • This would probably be dependent on your area for the amount of precipitation you get.  I’d probably skip it in my area.

  • Outside of these steps, I the only additional thing I would add is a mycorrhizal slurry to the tree at planting time to get the fungi cranking.

    Taking the time to write this out and think about the individual steps, I think there’s a lot of good stuff here, and also some things that are questionable.  Regardless of whether or not each individual step works, the results are hard to argue with.  Since I’ve yet to start planting trees, I’d of course like to do everything I can to make them grow as quickly and healthily as I can and have them be integrated into a larger permaculture ecosystem.  I’d be curious to hear other’s thoughts on the method overall, as well as the individual steps, especially those that are more well versed in soil science than I am.  Also, please note that my list above is not any specific formulation of Ellen White's method - it's just one that I created by compiling steps from different resources.

    References:
    http://www.timeandbeing.com/application/CountryLiving/EGWTreePlanting.pdf
    https://www.azurefarmlife.com/farm-blog/2019/5/29/tree-planting-like-a-boss
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUaviX9xuwo
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3G09VwtN-00
    https://highbrixgardens.com/phocadownloadpap/pdf/Fruit%20Trees%20On%20Steroids.pdf
    http://www.thetomatoproject.net/about-us/project-history
     
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    I have not done it myself but know folks who have with awesome results and it makes sense, giving the tree everything it needs to reach its' potential.

    Good post.
     
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    Hey Chris.

    Nice and interesting post.
    I would have loved to to read more responses and view points on the Ellen G White method and on your thoughts about it.
    Yes, this method provides for sure some extra work.

    I might have just tried it out one day and if the trees would grow exceptionally well, believe that it must be the method (especially the breather pipe:) and not maybe just good soil an a year with beneficial weather.

    on our property we have a 1,50m. layer of sand on top of the deep soil, so when planting a tree, I mostly dig a big hole and ad wheelbarrows full of earth anyway.
    I will try out this method in thew coming Southern hemisphere summer.

    I am wondering how much sense this method and its effort make, when being surrounded by sand ( because all the goodness might leach out very fast)


    Greetings, Aaron


     
    pollinator
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    According to the link you posted Ellen White invented the system for school children to use grow food to eat.  I am pretty sure that the system is for annual crops, quick bearing berry bush. So they would operate similar to double tilling or raised beds.
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