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Amy Saunders
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Hi All,

I have always wanted to farm, and I just purchased my first land. 14 acres is all I could afford, as we live in a semi-populous suburban area. I've been reading all I can on permaculture principles and design, but still find it difficult to imagine the principles in actual function on my particular ground. I don't want to set it up wrong, though, and have to redo it as money and time are both in short supply around here. My husband works full time, so my 8 kids and I are going to get this going. We have a broken-down old tractor that came free with the property, that I suspect will never work, so let's just say I have no tractor, but I do have two strong teenage sons.

Anyway, I am in Northern Utah, I think zone 6, level land that was used to grow alfalfa and has been vacant for about 20 years. It looks pretty clay-ey, dry and worn out, and part of what I would like to be pasture was used for heavy equipment, so it grows absolutely nothing. We have a 100'x50' poorly-executed, man-made, dry pond bed that is just a mess, which I would like to fill with trees and stuff (can you put carp in a hugelkultur?) before I fill in, and make it the vegetable garden, as it is right behind the house. I would worry too much about my little ones to ever use it for a pond.

We have an irrigation well for water, but are only supposed to pull out our 2 acre feet allotment, which barely waters the yard. I need to improve the lawn somehow so it requires less water. I want to plant an orchard, if I can capture water somehow and not have to irrigate it too much. I am thinking of a small 100 tree orchard. About an acre yard/garden. The rest I would like to become pasture for my cows. Their feed about breaks the bank, and that would help tremendously. We usually have two dairy cows, a yearling, and a calf which we raise, use, and butcher yearly. So four/five cows usually. We have eight Nubian does and whatever offspring they have, 30 chickens, bees, and we'd like to add pigs. My neighbor says his 70 acre pasture barely keeps his 3 horses, but I know that can change with managed grazing. I'm just not sure how to translate it to my own situation.

I need to improve the pastures, make the irrigation water stretch, and plan an orchard that will be pretty self-sustaining. I would greatly appreciate any advice, ideas or suggestions. I'm very in love with hugelkulture, except that here in my desert we don't have trees. I would have to buy them. We have sagebrush, and I can get pretty cheap bales of moldy alfalfa.

This is such an exciting, grand adventure for me, and I have greatly enjoyed reading through all of your posts!
 
Barry Fitzgerald
Posts: 43
Location: Welland, Ontario, Canada
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Hi Amy, You sure have a lot of work to do and given the conditions that you described, I do not know how you could ever do it all. The 4 or 5 cows on somewhere around 11 acres would never be self sustaining and I hope the mouldy alfalfa hay supply is always available because 2 to 3 acres of poor pasture per cow can never be feasible with any pasture rotation plan. I see that the feed bills are killing you, I guess the up side to that is you are importing nutrients to your land. I would advise you to scale back some of your plans until you can manage what you already have.
I would suggest you focus on finding things that do not require a lot of water given the limited supply.
I don't want do discourage you, just keep your expectations realistic. I wish you the very best of luck!
 
John Elliott
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Welcome to Permies, Amy!

Adam will probably be along with the expert opinion on how to pasture cattle in the arid west, but until then I would suggest you look into some grasses that do well in your area with no irrigation. Like this crested wheatgrass from Great Basin Seeds, or this Indian ricegrass from Sharp Bros. Seeds. Those are only two examples, and there are many other grasses that would be good candidates for improving your pasture. Part of your problem is that since the land was put into alfalfa and then left fallow, there has been no recolonization by native grasses that would do well. Recolonization is a slow process, and nature may not get around to it on our timescale, so you are left looking at 70 acres that barely supports 3 horses.

On the subject of hugelkultur, you don't need trees to bury; sagebrush and moldy alfalfa will work as water retaining filler material in the mounds. You might also keep an eye on what is headed to the local landfill, and if it looks like organic material that will decompose, divert it to your orchard-to-be. What type of trees do you want to plant? Those choices will dictate how much water harvesting you will have to include in your plan.
 
Paul Cereghino
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Location: South Puget Sound, Salish Sea, Cascadia, North America
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It sounds like you have two systems here. In your near the house system you are leveraging every bit of waste water, from roofs, laundry, sinks, showers, etc... and combining it with your suburban waste stream to develop an intensive system that maximizes output where you have irrigation. Then you have your semi-arid to arid desert landscape where you are paying attention to topography and aspect and growing what will grow without irrigation.

I'd concur that it sounds like you have too many hoofs for a small piece of dry ground. I suspect rabbits might be a natural critters that can nest into your system more efficiently.

EXTRA NOTES - You might want to check into the natural vegetation of your site... depending on your elevation, you might not be able to support forest. Wind can be a tremendous source of drying. Two acre feet might not get a single acre through the dry season. Access local knowledge about salinity... in dry lands you can salt you soils by adding small amounts of barely salty water, which evaporates, leaving salt on the surface.
 
Chris Badgett
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Location: Whitefish, Montana
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Hey Amy,

Good luck with your land in Northern Utah! We filmed Michael Pilarski planting a food forest in a very dry region of Montana here:




You may get some good ideas from the intro video. The full course is here if you're interested: http://organiclifeguru.com/course/how-to-grow-a-medicinal-food-forest/

That's great you're working the land with your kids!
 
Amy Saunders
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Chris Badgett wrote:Hey Amy,

Good luck with your land in Northern Utah! We filmed Michael Pilarski planting a food forest in a very dry region of Montana here:




You may get some good ideas from the intro video. The full course is here if you're interested: http://organiclifeguru.com/course/how-to-grow-a-medicinal-food-forest/

That's great you're working the land with your kids!


Thank you for posting that video. I should really take a class. If I could only take one, is that the one you would recommend?

I was hoping that a hugelkultur orchard would consume much less water than a traditional one, so that when I rectify the vast and thirsty lawn, using the technics learned here, I would have enough water for it. Not so? Each acre foot of water here is $6k. Not doable for now, even if I could find some rights for sale.

So is seeding the only way to improve my pastures? My reading made it seem that managed grazing would improve them far more quickly than seeding. My neighbor told us to seed as well. He is putting all of his alfalfa fields into the gov. CRP program this summer. I told him about Allan Savory's TED talk on managed grazing and the photos of Africa he had shown, and he, my neighbor, warned me that it was all hogwash. My neighbor has been farming alfalfa and livestock all his life, but I still hoped there was a better way than his vast irrigation systems and machinery, and that I would be able to achieve with careful thought and planning at least a bit more sustainability. Do I need a tractor to disc and seed, or can you just broadcast the seed by hand and have it take? Discing really seems contrary to permaculture principles.

I am a determined sort of person and always want to find a way around what everyone says I cannot do, and I have also learned enough hard-headed lessons over the years that I know better to continue to jump into all of these projects against your expert advice. Would it be wise to start with my yard? It is landscaped with a huge, thirsty lawn and about 50 fully-grown shade trees from locusts to evergreens to aspens. We have a ton of birds, including a pair of great-horned owls. The hummingbirds are pests, we have so many of them. If I could make the lawn less thirsty, and figure out how to collect the greywater, and plant layers in among my yard trees... Will fruit trees grow under a canopy of 60' tall trees? Our shade is not too dense, the lawn is thick and lush.

 
Amy Saunders
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Paul Cereghino wrote:It sounds like you have two systems here. In your near the house system you are leveraging every bit of waste water, from roofs, laundry, sinks, showers, etc... and combining it with your suburban waste stream to develop an intensive system that maximizes output where you have irrigation. Then you have your semi-arid to arid desert landscape where you are paying attention to topography and aspect and growing what will grow without irrigation.

I'd concur that it sounds like you have too many hoofs for a small piece of dry ground. I suspect rabbits might be a natural critters that can nest into your system more efficiently.

EXTRA NOTES - You might want to check into the natural vegetation of your site... depending on your elevation, you might not be able to support forest. Wind can be a tremendous source of drying. Two acre feet might not get a single acre through the dry season. Access local knowledge about salinity... in dry lands you can salt you soils by adding small amounts of barely salty water, which evaporates, leaving salt on the surface.


Although our current trees aren't native, they have been growing 30 years and seem healthy. We have about 20 trees, maybe cottonwoods, not sure planted in a row North of the house, perhaps as a windbreak? We have wind, but not bad. And then we have another 30 or so trees of differing varieties in the lawn through the yard.

So does the surface salt help the soil retain moisture? And are you suggesting we farm rabbits? What would I do with them? I can see keeping a few for meat and fur, and I'm not against it, although I'm not sure it would be very popular with the kiddos, but you'd have to keep an awful lot to make a dent in the amount of manure my acreage requires for improvement, right?

My topography is flat. The foothills of a small mountain range end right behind us, and in front of us descends into a wide valley, which, surprisingly has several springs (owned and jealously guarded) and some year-round swampiness. We are higher than Salt Lake City and Provo, which are the nearest large cities.

Thank you for your suggestions and help!
 
Amy Saunders
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John Elliott wrote:Welcome to Permies, Amy!

Adam will probably be along with the expert opinion on how to pasture cattle in the arid west, but until then I would suggest you look into some grasses that do well in your area with no irrigation. Like this crested wheatgrass from Great Basin Seeds, or this Indian ricegrass from Sharp Bros. Seeds. Those are only two examples, and there are many other grasses that would be good candidates for improving your pasture. Part of your problem is that since the land was put into alfalfa and then left fallow, there has been no recolonization by native grasses that would do well. Recolonization is a slow process, and nature may not get around to it on our timescale, so you are left looking at 70 acres that barely supports 3 horses.

On the subject of hugelkultur, you don't need trees to bury; sagebrush and moldy alfalfa will work as water retaining filler material in the mounds. You might also keep an eye on what is headed to the local landfill, and if it looks like organic material that will decompose, divert it to your orchard-to-be. What type of trees do you want to plant? Those choices will dictate how much water harvesting you will have to include in your plan.


Good to know, thank you! Can you seed without a tractor? Disc-ing seems contrary to permaculture principle. We want apple, peach, pear, plum, apricot, and some nut trees. They seem to grow well in neighbor's yards, so I think water is my only problem there. Do any of them require more, or less water? Oh, and we want fruiting shrubs as well. Cherries, grapes, blackberries, etc...
 
Amy Saunders
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Barry Fitzgerald wrote:Hi Amy, You sure have a lot of work to do and given the conditions that you described, I do not know how you could ever do it all. The 4 or 5 cows on somewhere around 11 acres would never be self sustaining and I hope the mouldy alfalfa hay supply is always available because 2 to 3 acres of poor pasture per cow can never be feasible with any pasture rotation plan. I see that the feed bills are killing you, I guess the up side to that is you are importing nutrients to your land. I would advise you to scale back some of your plans until you can manage what you already have.
I would suggest you focus on finding things that do not require a lot of water given the limited supply.
I don't want do discourage you, just keep your expectations realistic. I wish you the very best of luck!



Thank you! I am famous for biting off more than I can chew.
 
Chris Badgett
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Location: Whitefish, Montana
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Hey Amy,

Michael's class on how to grow a medicinal food forest is really good. It's not just about medicinals, and it's filmed mostly in Hot Springs, Montana which is quite dry. His style of teaching is very hands on and tactical which seems like a good for for your situation.

Here's a free more theoretical introduction to permaculture online video course:

http://organiclifeguru.com/free-permaculture-organic-farming-online-course-with-will-hooker-from-nc-state-university/

Best wishes on your adventure!

 
Bill McGee
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2 adults and 8 children, that's a lot of humanure you can add to the goat, chicken and cow compost. Take a look at Dave Omicks site www.omick.net who does desert humanure systems.
 
Paul Cereghino
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I'll be the first to admit I have NO idea exactly how to farm 14 acres in a desert, let alone with 2 acre feet of water. And I suspect it depends on what you mean by "farm".

With the rabbits I was imagining the kind of creatures that naturally survive in you landscape at the 14 acre scale. However most people seem to grow rabbits in a hutch system, although I have heard rumors of semi-natural colony systems. Animals are just a way of converting widely distributed ruffage into protein, and it sounds like you are looking for a way to get protein without trashing your land. In general killing animals is unpopular with kids, with the cute fluffy ones being worse.

I suspect you may be drier than Montana foothills... I remember lots of sagebrush-bunchgrass step in the flats below the Wasatch range.

Salt is a bad thing. In our landscape evaporation is greater than precipitation over a year. So more water is going from the ground into the air, than running downward through the soil column. When the water evaporates from the soil surface it evaporates anything that was dissolved in the water. These salts (lots of different kinds of salts not just sodium cloride) can build up in the surface soil. Plants pull water into their roots by osmosis... by maintaining a high salt level in their own tissue, they draw water from the soil into the root. If the soil is salty this gets hard, and plants can start to show drought stress and other problems even if there is water. Adding lots of little bits of irrigation can excacerbate salt problems. I bet you could find an agricultural extension agent who could give you an earful about managing salininty in desert soils under irrigation. I don't know much more than the existance of the risk, since I live in the exact opposite kind of climate.

I don't think using a tractor and disk is inconsistent with permaculture principles. I think the permaculture-identified problem would be using more energy to maintain the system than the system produces is the issue, such that your system becomes a drain on surronding systems. There are all kinds of people who dislike tillage for many reasons. In your case, in the scenario given, you'd be using equipment to trying to reestablish a strong native grass cover that could last for generations. Different grasses require different germination conditions, but I have always found a seed bed and harrowing superior to broadcasting on the surface... I suspect this would be even more so in a desert climate. You might investigate seed pellets as an alternative, or drilling--I understand dryland range restoration is often done with seed drills (a tractor attachement which inserts seeds in rows slightly below the soils urface, but I would experiment with broadcasting at smaller scales.
 
Peter Ellis
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Location: Central New Jersey
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Amy, you are in some challenging terrain
A couple of thoughts: Despite appearing flat, it is pretty certain your land has a slope to it, generally down from the foothills toward the valley. I would strongly urge you to put some effort into determining the contours of your land. A good quality topographical map can help get you started and then some low tech surveying can help you identify contour lines for placing swales. You are probably going to want swales, as you are in an arid environment and want to grow trees. I suggest looking into geoff lawton, who is constantly saying "swales are a tree growing system" and who rather specializes in arid climates.

Hugelkultur is not generally recommended for growing trees. You put dead trees in them and live trees go near, but not on, them. Jennifer Wadsworth, who posts here, is in an arid region (Arizona) and has found that elevated hugelbeets are not very effective in her climate - they tend to dry out due to their large surface area. Burying the wood below ground level and working beds over the buried wood, with the beds sunken relative to the normal ground level, has worked for her.

You might want to look into the keyline plow, as a method for getting your land to absorb more of the water that does come through and for decompacting your soil.

Lots of people have opinions about lots of things, as your neighbor has about Alan Savory. I think that Savory has plenty of evidence that proves his ideas are not hogwash, and your neighbor might have some pretty clean pigs over there himself. Mob grazing has been proven to improve pasture quality. Read up on it and do some experimenting yourself.

You are in a classic situation of needing to capture and hold every drop of water you can on your land, so keyline plowing and swales strike me as high priorities for your situation. I do not know what your local regulations are about capturing your roof runoff, if it's permissible, I would say you should be all over that, too.

Remember you do not need to do it all at one time. Indeed, it is probably a good idea not to try and do it all at once, but rather to take some smaller, experimental steps, observe the results, and then adjust/expand appropriately.

Good luck on your adventure.
 
Cam Mitchell
Posts: 108
Location: W. CO, 6A
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Amy,

Your property sounds a lot like mine. Zone 5B, and I get 9 inches of rain (in a good year) and have sand, rock, sagebrush, and a few pinyons.
"Greening the Desert" by Geoff Lawton has become very influential for me since buying this place.


Also, sepp holzer at Tamera


May I also suggest the Masanobu Fukuoka seed balls technique for pasture seeding? It's what we're planning on doing for our pathetic pasture.
Seed Balls

I agree with Peter. Swales and trees, totally. Cut the drying winds and increase humidity. Also agree with the arid hugelkultur beds modification of burying them.
Yep, a water level or A-frame level is a great way to survey at low cost.

Good luck!
 
Amy Saunders
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Peter Ellis wrote:Amy, you are in some challenging terrain
A couple of thoughts: Despite appearing flat, it is pretty certain your land has a slope to it, generally down from the foothills toward the valley. I would strongly urge you to put some effort into determining the contours of your land. A good quality topographical map can help get you started and then some low tech surveying can help you identify contour lines for placing swales. You are probably going to want swales, as you are in an arid environment and want to grow trees. I suggest looking into Geoff Lawton, who is constantly saying "swales are a tree growing system" and who rather specializes in arid climates.


Hugelkultur is not generally recommended for growing trees. You put dead trees in them and live trees go near, but not on, them. Jennifer Wadsworth, who posts here, is in an arid region (Arizona) and has found that elevated hugelbeets are not very effective in her climate - they tend to dry out due to their large surface area. Burying the wood below ground level and working beds over the buried wood, with the beds sunken relative to the normal ground level, has worked for her.

You might want to look into the keyline plow, as a method for getting your land to absorb more of the water that does come through and for decompacting your soil.

Lots of people have opinions about lots of things, as your neighbor has about Alan Savory. I think that Savory has plenty of evidence that proves his ideas are not hogwash, and your neighbor might have some pretty clean pigs over there himself. Mob grazing has been proven to improve pasture quality. Read up on it and do some experimenting yourself.

You are in a classic situation of needing to capture and hold every drop of water you can on your land, so keyline plowing and swales strike me as high priorities for your situation. I do not know what your local regulations are about capturing your roof runoff, if it's permissible, I would say you should be all over that, too.

Remember you do not need to do it all at one time. Indeed, it is probably a good idea not to try and do it all at once, but rather to take some smaller, experimental steps, observe the results, and then adjust/expand appropriately.

Good luck on your adventure.


Precious, precious gems! Thank you! I don't know the laws about roof runoff but our rain gutters run into beds anyway, if I can just structure the beds to capture and hold onto it. How can that be impermissible?

I will read up on keyline plowing, and look for Jennifer Wadsworth's posts. Thank you, all of you, So, so very much for your time and wisdom!
 
Amy Saunders
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Cam Mitchell wrote:Amy,

Your property sounds a lot like mine. Zone 5B, and I get 9 inches of rain (in a good year) and have sand, rock, sagebrush, and a few pinyons.
"Greening the Desert" by Geoff Lawton has become very influential for me since buying this place.

May I also suggest the Masanobu Fukuoka seed balls technique for pasture seeding? It's what we're planning on doing for our pathetic pasture.
Seed Balls

I agree with Peter. Swales and trees, totally. Cut the drying winds and increase humidity. Also agree with the arid hugelkultur beds modification of burying them.
Yep, a water level or A-frame level is a great way to survey at low cost.

Good luck!


Thank you, thank you, thank you! I will check out those survey technics, and the seed balls. My land is sloped from the foothills to the valley floor, for sure, although it is nearly laser-level flat. So if I placed swales strategically, I could capture the Mountain runoff. Brilliant! I think we get about 14 inches of precipitation annually, and my soil seems clay-ey, but not rocky. And I certainly have many fewer issues to deal with than Geoff Lawton in that video of Jordan, so certainly I can improve my situation.

May I ask what you have done with your property and how well these methods are helping?

 
Amy Saunders
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I have been pondering and praying over your wonderful information and will continue to do so. I have a few more questions right now, though.

1. Does meat work in hugelkultur? I could get a truckload of carp for cheap or free. Maybe several truckloads. The gov. added carp to Utah Lake for some reason many years ago, and it became invasive, and now they are removing all of the carp, to the tune of millions of dollars. Ha, ha!

2. Could I plant fruit trees under a 60' tall canopy of shade trees? I have lots of wonderful, mature shade trees in my yard. The grass growing under it is thick and lush, although it does require lots of water. Since I'm watering it anyway, could I plant the fruit trees within and around the shade trees? And could I still plant fruiting shrubs around and within the fruit and shade trees? My yard is an acre by itself, and that much lawn takes me several hours per week to mow. I'm watering and caring for all of it, I would prefer it be productive. If I could even get 50 fruit trees (enough space, if they will grow under and around shade trees) into my yard that would eliminate the need for a separate orchard space elsewhere and free up more pasture. I really prefer not to take out the shade trees, as my home and yard stay so cool and enjoyable.
 
John Elliott
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Amy Saunders wrote:
1. Does meat work in hugelkultur? I could get a truckload of carp for cheap or free. Maybe several truckloads. The gov. added carp to Utah Lake for some reason many years ago, and it became invasive, and now they are removing all of the carp, to the tune of millions of dollars. Ha, ha!


That's certainly an excellent source of nitrogen! Maybe too good. Can you also get a truckload of charcoal to go with it? That way you could mix the two, and the biochar would hold onto the nitrogen until the plants need it. Biochar hasn't been mentioned in this post yet, but maybe it is time to bring it up, since it will help the problem of limited water.

2. Could I plant fruit trees under a 60' tall canopy of shade trees? I have lots of wonderful, mature shade trees in my yard. The grass growing under it is thick and lush, although it does require lots of water. Since I'm watering it anyway, could I plant the fruit trees within and around the shade trees? And could I still plant fruiting shrubs around and within the fruit and shade trees? My yard is an acre by itself, and that much lawn takes me several hours per week to mow. I'm watering and caring for all of it, I would prefer it be productive. If I could even get 50 fruit trees (enough space, if they will grow under and around shade trees) into my yard that would eliminate the need for a separate orchard space elsewhere and free up more pasture. I really prefer not to take out the shade trees, as my home and yard stay so cool and enjoyable.


If the grass is thick and lush, as you say, then fruit trees will probably get enough sun. I'm dealing with a problem that the trees lining the road shade my fruit trees too much. Fortunately, when they widen the road, those big tall shade trees will be going away and then my fruit trees will get enough sun.

Can you seed without a tractor?


That's what they did before tractors were invented. It's a little less efficient to broadcast by hand, and you have to use 50-100% more seed, but it can be done. Be sure to study the information sheet that comes with the grass seed. It usually gives a rate for seed drilled and applied by tractor and another rate for broadcast.
 
Cam Mitchell
Posts: 108
Location: W. CO, 6A
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Amy Saunders wrote:May I ask what you have done with your property and how well these methods are helping?

I'm embarrassed to admit that I have not done swales or hugel beds yet on this property. I did small hugel mounds and swales on the last property, and was able to cut way way back on summer watering.
We acquired the new place last year going into winter, and there's presently snow that is over my knees when I step into it with my muck boots on. Brrr!
Needless to say, frozen ground is hard to dig, but I'm jonesing to start plants and get my hands into the ground.
I have it in the budget to rent an excavator and buy a few hundred trees from the state forest service's Conservation Seedling Tree Program. They probably have something similar in your state.
I also am planning on buying a bunch of black- and honey locust, as well as a few fruit trees and bushes for personal use. This is only for the 2-3 acres around the house, which will be plenty enough work for a while. Don't know when I'll expand into the other 40-ish acres.

I plan on making my small changes where I know the water flow, wind, and slope. I'm only doing zones 1-2, maybe a little into zone 3.
I'm not doing major dams or huge swale systems, and I may even decide to hold off on the earthworks until next year.
The plan is to create some pastures, maybe some silvopasture, and some food forest areas. It's certainly going to be a lot of work, but I'm excited to start.

It's funny, the more I walk the land, the more I notice water flow patterns and wind zones, also sun tracks and animal behaviors.
Not sure if you've heard this, but "they" say you should live on the land a whole year, observing, before doing any changes to it. I don't think many people do that, though I'm sure that's where some errors come from.

Amy Saunders wrote:2. Could I plant fruit trees under a 60' tall canopy of shade trees?

IIRC, most fruit trees like at least a half-day full sun to crop. It takes a lot of energy to grow fruit. Of course, this generalization is highly dependent on species and variety. The grass may grow fine, but that doesn't necessarily mean fruit trees will. Would it be possible to selectively thin a shade tree or two to let in some more sun?
 
Tim Malacarne
Posts: 226
Location: South central Illinois, USA
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Dear Amy,

Well dang, I sure admire your pluck! I'm very much onboard with previous comments, do it in small pieces, see how it goes. I do know that it's easier to grow stuff that wants to grow there. native plants are always a good bet!

Best, TM
 
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