I'm planning on buying a large quantity of Sheffield fruit (or nut) tree seeds to stratify outdoors in a bucket (containing sand, open to water, draining) over the winter, before planting in the spring. I'd like something that will do well without a lot of care and mulching. Conditions on my property vary, but the seeds would be getting good soil and probably some shade. I can buy most fruit or nut trees pretty cheaply from the VA or MD state forestry websites, so would prefer using something that's either not available there or will come up really easily, without a lot of care. Thinking that Apple, Persimmon, Pear, or Plum may work best.
It'd be nice if they were somewhat deer-resistant, as only half of my property is fenced in. Also would be great if they could compete well in a somewhat wooded area with lots of competition from young oak and hickory seedlings.
Location: Zone 7a, 42", Fairfax VA Piedmont (clay, acidic, shady)
Part of this project will involve opening up a two-acre woodland to more light. In contrast to most of my property, which has extensive clearing by chainsaw, this will all be done by hand tools with a very light touch, as I figure out ways to gradually modify a zone 4/5-ish area. Maples and Tulip poplars 6-10 inches wide are girdled with a hatchet. Smaller trees get coppiced by pruning handsaw. Beeches are getting heavily pruned - they put out low, long branches that heavily shade ground and kill pretty much all life. So I'm pruning all branches I can reach by hand (the trees are still very healthy). I've also coppiced a bunch of dogwoods.
My current overstory is mainly oaks, with some hickories and poplars intermixed. Much of the new growth coming in is hickories, as they can live pretty well in the shade. The goal is to transition the forest to be more hickory/oak dominant while moving the understory to shade-tolerant fruit trees - persimmon, pawpaw, and mulberry. So far I've some some really great regeneration from just modest openings in the canopy - tons of hickories and oaks coming up, with much denser ground cover, which is great for the soil.
I may eventually pollard a bunch of the young oaks that range from 3 to 8 inches (but do so in early March of next year, which I think is the right time in this climate - before the sap flows back into the branches). I could even remove the young oaks to favor the younger hickories and (notional) fruit trees - there are several hundred-year old oaks in this area that will probably live much longer than me, so I think the oak component of this ecosystem will be well-represented for a loooong time). The oak overstory is great because it's so much taller than the rest of the trees; doesn't really cast much shade and block that much new growth. So I think my goals of some eventual fruit production are quite doable.
Other things I could try to introduce into dappled shade are hazelnuts, currants, and berry plants (maybe mountain laurel or Japanese arrow bamboo as a shade-tolerate hedge in parts to reduce deer pressure). The wild chokecherries and ferns will probably migrate here too once it opens up.
I am in zone 6b, Rhode Island, so I don't know how well my experience will translate for you region. However, in my region, some of the trees you mentioned would take a lot more care than it sounds like you want to give. For instance, many plums and cherries are disease prone and get lots of pressure from pests. Some hardier varieties include Nanking bush cherries and beach plums.
European pear trees are also a challenge.
Sound, clean apples are very difficult to grow without pesticide and fungicide, but there are some varieties that withstand pest pressure fairly well - Liberty being a stand-out in that respect. Apples probably won't look pretty, without maintenance, especially if you grow them from seed, since apples are notoriously random when grown from seed. If you don't mind eating tiny, wormy apples, or making protein-rich cider and vinegar, go for it! Otherwise, buy a named variety and care for it.
Like I say, I can't specifically speak to Virginia, but you are not that far away. If you lived in Rhode Island, Connecticut, or Massachusetts, I would suggest the following perennial edibles as low-maintenance plants to grow from seed:
Trees Asian pears (but I don't know if you can buy reliable varieties as seeds)
Chestnuts (hybrid varieties or select, blight-resistant, varieties)
Linden - you probably already have some of these. Their leaves are edible
Bushes Beach plums
Bush cherries (Nanking and other)
Vines Concord grapes
Groundnuts (very aggressive in a garden but not so much in the wild)
Other Hostas - very tasty spring shoots and flower stalks/buds
Strawberries (domesticated "wild" varieties like Attila - which spreads better than some)
Sunchokes (be careful, they are very aggressive native and can get out of hand)
Thyme (creeping varieties)
Generally, my experience has been that nature tends to take back the land when you don't maintain your food forest. That said, you may be able to seed aggressively enough to give your edibles the edge they and to add a large quantity of edibles to the landscape.
Best wishes and good luck! Keep us posted, this sounds like a very interesting project!
Thanks, Karl. I'm growing apples elsewhere, but I don't think they will do well in an understory. I'm still growing them more for baking and animals. The hazelnuts have done great here in the clay soil and with good amounts of sun. They are growing faster than my trees, but I haven't tried them in a forest setting yet. I just tried mulberries and paw-paws in my cleared area, so will see how they go. The deer seem to love the hazelnuts, so I'm probably not going to get them going in the woods, though VA state forestry has them cheaply.
Hostas could be fun to try in the woods; I have a bunch in my yard already. I got a few daffodils going in the woods, so I think I will get a bulk pack of about 300 this fall and plant them all through the woods. Not sure if I have enough light for berries and they are not cheap; I planted a few small blackberries this year in the back yard, and will see how they go. I'm also going to experiment with rhododendron, which in the Blue Ridge mtns get real thick and big in full shade.
Anyway, if all my seed plantings efforts fail, I'll still be happy to have a hickory-dominant forest with some shade-loving non-food natives here and there. Sure beats the dead zones in much of my woods from maple/beech canopies.
First, I love Sheffields. Very reasonable and so far the seeds have been true.
Secondly though, I think your plan is a little, um, ambitious. The native trees are dropping how many hundreds of times the seeds you are looking to plant? Unless you are managing a lot, I don't think you are likely to see many planted seeds show up. If you really want to do it, I would consider tree tubes with seedlings to keep the deer off and give you a way to check what you need to replant. I did that for a couple years and it worked, but at a high per-tree price. The areas I just spread seeds (I didn't cold stratify them, I don't believe in it. I just put them out in fall and they can stratify themselves) I got a few per thousand seeds with big seeds like trifoliate, and zero from small seeds like mulberry (I planted morus alba, only had rubra which is native and nigra which is forest service). It was pretty much a wasted year and a small amount of wasted money. I had some success making a nursery bed area which was cultivated and seeded, then seedlings transplanted.
I would consider what the end goal is a little more clearly. A zone 5 area by definition is unmanaged and wild- a reservoir of nature. Zone 4 is what I would consider areas in light modification, and would generally be native-ish plants and systems unless you are kind of making a brunch of your 3/4 areas (which I am doing though herbivores- 3 more intensively, 4 once a year). Apples and most fruit will need zone 3 level treatment, please reference this well written document to save you much grief. Some fruit which I avoid need more intensive therapy, and they aren't worth my time. I have some specials in my zone 2 like olives and hardy citrus as experiments.
Standing on the shoulders of giants. Giants with dirt under their nails
Location: Zone 7a, 42", Fairfax VA Piedmont (clay, acidic, shady)
Thanks, TJ - and it's nice to know that mulberries don't take very well. Do you think you had a lot of rodent browse, planting seeds in the fall? As much as I've thought about propagation from seed, it may not really be worth it, as the MD and VA nurseries sell bare roots for so cheap (though this year the VA one sold out very quickly). I had tried tree tubes in my yard and was not very happy with the results - trees came out long and spindly and couldn't support themselves. I switched over to protection made out of welded wire, which works on a small scale, but is more expensive and time-consuming.
As for the forest modification stuff, I may just skip the seed efforts and plant small bare-roots as experiments, to see what the deer allow to grow and what can compete in the dappled shade (I'm guessing those are the two biggest factors). Maybe I will try to document it better.
Thanks for the Living Energy book! I just visited those guys last fall and got to enjoy some of their persimmon harvest; they definitely know what they're talking about.
BTW, my chinese chestnuts and persimmons from the VA forest service and Twisted Tree have done great so far, in a mostly-grasslands zone 3-4 area with occasional shade. They got interplanted with a whole lot of Black Locust plants that are also doing well. Have you had success with American Plum? That's something I wanted to look more into.
While pawpaws are low maintenance after about year 3 or 4, before then I wouldn't call them easy. They require 90-120 days of stratification, and then are slow to germinate with germination rates tending to be lackluster. Then, they need sun and water -- but not too much -- or they die. They also grow quite slowly and are susceptible to being trampled/mowed/crushed/shaded out for a long time.
This was quite fortuitous - I found several huge groves of paw-paws while hiking today a few miles from my home. They form large groves in natural clearings left from trees falling, and seem very shade-tolerant - most of them only got an hour or two of sunlight at the most, and competed with very aggressive trees like Beech. I've heard they may need more sun to fruit, but these were doing quite well - groves of about 6 to 30 trees, with some going up to 30 ft. I definitely have enough dappled shade in my woodlands, after clearing maple/poplar and trimming back the smaller oaks and hickories.
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