A farm near me in zone 5a has planted thousands of nut trees in a restoration agriculture-style alleycropping, with master line design for water management. So far around 10 acres have been planted out. There's a couple of acres worth of alleyways, and the farmers intend to approximately double the scale of this alleycropping layout. Any recommendations on how to use the alleyways?
We're discussing alleyway crops, with interest in small grains and cover crops. I'm thankful to be helping them document their efforts. The goal is to improve soil active carbon and utilize the area for local provisions (food, selling for fodder, fuel, fiber if possible), selling to local mills, co-ops, aggregators, or other options (open to recommendations). Field crop farming is relatively new to these farmers and myself (my background is more in forestry, we all have other day jobs), so although we have a good conceptual understanding about alleycropping, we don't have all the specifics for field crops that can grow in alleyways. The farm does have an orchard tractor already with a brush hog, a couple of plows, and a front loader bucket. We know local farmers with other equipment and can access or purchase other attachments as needed, we just need to know what we're looking for and what are wise starting approaches for field crops.
Alleyways are approximately 34ft wide, mostly meadow in between swales and berms, with young Chinese Chestnuts 10ft downslope from each alley's uphill berm. So we have swale, berm, Chinese Chestnut, then 34ft of alleyway. Soils are predominantly silty clay loam. Zone 5a. Rain is about 1,100mm/yr, and a pond and IBC tanks enable drip-tape irrigation for the trees. Soil is somewhat compacted as it had been stagnant with Japanese honeysuckle until that was bulldozed and brushogged a couple of years ago.
Crops being explored so far, based on what other local farms are recommending or having success with at similar (around 10-100 acre) scale:
Small grains - Barley: winter kills in sub-zero temps, makes good mulch or poultry fodder.
- Oats: good option, offers food and hay, seems labor intensive and moisture-sensitive harvest
- Danko rye, cover crop cereal rye. Seems like a good cover crop that could go to market, but not the easiest to start out with.
soft white winter wheat, Glenn hard red spring wheat,
- Flint corn
- No-till roll-down soybeans
Cover crops - Hairy vetch
- Pennycress for winter cover
- Red clover
Would you Permies have any tips on crops to start with, tractor attachments needed or that we should focus on starting with, or other suggestions around managing alleyways in nut tree restoration ag systems? Thanks!
I am pondering a similar project. Large nut orchard in zone 8a. Here are my thoughts that work for me:
It seems fungi are the most beneficial input for trees (even plants.) I am focusing on getting my severely degraded soil back to health before focusing on above ground growth. I will plant a section of the property in a fungal host mix and another in winter mix to include clover, legumes, and brassicas to see which gets the root net stimulated the most. You may not have degraded soil, but your trees will prosper most a soil up approach to a new orchard.
Since you are looking at crops this late in the year, you are probably looking at a winter mix to get planted in the fall. Zone 5 crops may not have time to establish before frost. There are some fast grow quick turn around crops that could be interplanted now and get to maturity before first frost. The nitrogen fixer Sunn Hemp, buckwheat, some annual clovers, You might check you local sources and see if oats and barley would have time to set, as they are frost hardy. Also Rye grain is fairly hardy in the fall.
Here are some seed source with mixes or straight commercial crop seeds. I don't have any preference or association.
Turner Seeds out of Texas.
Green Cover Seeds out of Nebraska
Petcher Seeds out of Mississippi
and of course Handcock Seeds has a big online presence.
All that being said, here is some advise. Don't plow. It breaks up the fungal net and the roots it feeds upon. No till whatever you plant, either borrowing a no till seed drill; or lightly disturb the surface and broadcast. Whatever method, make sure you firm the soil after seeding with a roller, cultipacker, weighted drag harrow; or as another member here recommended just a log with a chain on either end behind a tractor. Don't let the soil sit uncovered at anytime during the year. Use annual clover if necessary to keep a living root in the soil between crops and the soil shaded from sun and cushion the rain (prevents erosion and surface compaction.) Use a fungal tea to inoculate the ground, especially near your trees. The trees need this nurse structure to help quickly take up water and nutrients, especially while establishing.
I would be interested to know more about your chestnut varieties and orchard plan. Are you finding American varieties that are blight resistant or asian varieties adapted to zone 5?