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Volume Two Chapter Six - Garden Establishment  RSS feed

Burra Maluca
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6: Garden Establishment
The Order of Events
Staking Out
Acquiring Plants
Organizing Tools, Material, and Helpers
Planting Day
Aftercare: Proactive Plant Establishment

Neil Layton
Posts: 632
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
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I give this chapter 10 out of 10 acorns.

After nearly 700 pages of design theory, and probably weeks of work and possibly a year of mulching and cover-crop management, you are finally ready to start planting. You have come a long way, and now a forest garden stretches out in your mind.

The authors, and I concur, want you to think about something first. I share their view that we are facing a decline in planetary health (although I dispute the suggestion that we ever had much resembling a civilised society). In planting a forest garden you are acting in your power to act creatively for all. To me, planting a single tree is a spiritual act, which may surprise those people who read my posts and see a very hard-nosed, practical, even scientific approach to agroforestry. I actually see no contradiction between the two. A purely reductionist approach to food production is part of what got us in to this mess in the first place.

Just as the organisms in our forest garden are interconnected with each other, so we are connected with them too. Whenever I read someone on this site talking about “my property” I cringe a little inside. This sense of ownership, the notion that this is a thing that is yours to do as your please with, regardless of the interests and needs of others, human and otherwise, is also part of what got us into this mess in the first place. Needless to say, our relationships with the land, not to mention each other, are deeply dysfunctional.

Mindfulness, and the way we think about what we are doing as we plant our (even our very language encourages to think this way!) trees and the other plants that will make up our garden is key to the process of creating a healthy habitat.

This could be quite a big construction project, depending on the size of the garden you are planting, and every such project has an optimal Order of Events, starting with broadscale preparation, the staking out of paths and beds, moving on to the planting of woodies through to the planting of herbs and mushrooms and aftercare.

The first project is Staking Out, and this may be an important aspect of many people's Detailed Design process, a reflexive process between ground and paper. Start with the things that have the most exacting locations – major trees, paths, windbreaks, water lines and so on, but don't just stake: stake and evaluate. It may be worth referring back to the section in Chapter 3 on Basic Mapping for Landscape design. It's important to triangulate to benchmarks, known points on the site, on the ground. Your plan is flat: the actual distances on a slope will differ (if you know the degree of slope you can calculate this, but it's probably better to measure: measure twice, from two points, then stake).

Colour code your stakes for different features, either with flags or paint – one colour for single features or trees, another for paths, another for water, and so on. Tree stakes can be coded to species and rootstock, to ensure they are properly spaced. A one-hectare plot may have hundreds of these, so you can always use the survey stake as a support stake later (but see below), enabling you to tell at a glance what sort of tree you are looking at when it comes to pruning. Tree staking should not be understated: planting trees too close together seems to be the single biggest mistake most forest gardeners make.

Remember, however, that stakes suggest a straight line, which is fine for a motorway, but much less use for a path following the line of least resistance (which breaks up wind tunnels!) or a water line following gravity. As I have pointed out to those people I have introduced to hiking in wild places, there is a logical route for a path to follow, and natural paths usually follow them. For this it's worth using some sort of powder, such as lime or rock phosphate.

Now do a walk-through. Fill a cart with mulch, and see if you can move it effectively. Are tree crowns going to get in the way? Can you reach all parts of the site? What will happen if it floods? Are there wind tunnels to break up or shelter? How much mulch will you need? Compost? Irrigation tubing?

Now we can think about acquiring plants. This is also worth thinking about properly. There are false economies. Species and variety decisions will probably have been made as part of your plan, at least to some degree, and you will have some idea about pollination for those varieties that need a pollination partner. A one-hectare site is 10,000 square metres. Exactly how many plants this will add up to will depend on many factors, and any estimate I might give could be off by something approaching an order of magnitude, but you are still talking several thousand plants. If you get this wrong you will pay for it in time and trouble later.

One thing this chapter is good at is pointing out things about plant acquisition that they think most people don't know. Perhaps I'm not most people. Anyway, there are advantages and disadvantages to container-grown, balled-and-burlapped stock (just don't, unless you want immediate landscape effect!) and bare-root trees, and these need to be considered. Many plants can also be grown from seed, and on a large plot this might be particularly appropriate. Alternatively you can use a STUN system ( (I seem to be talking about that a lot!), even for plants from seed (although you will need a lot of seed) which may be an excellent way of breeding climate-disruption-resistant varieties.

Some species are only available as seed: where I'm considering moving to in Iberia, it may be possible to grow Moringa, one of my favourite plants, but this is mostly a tropical species. There are, however, strains that grow in Nepal, and these may be suited to a microclimate in a subtropical location. Other species and varieties may be equally hard to find, but this is part of the fun, and part of the challenge. Again, on a large site it is perfectly possible to have hundreds of unique varieties, and creating a seed ark is not only within the bounds of possibility but a socially and environmentally responsible action. If you are going to spend a couple of seasons, even a year, with the site under mulch it is well worth growing on as many plants as possible in a polytunnel.

The authors have some strong views on, and these are views I agree on, over transplanting wild plants (JUST DON'T!). Here in Scotland and, I suspect, across much of the rest of Europe, this is illegal anyway. Remember, however, to make the distinction between “nursery propagated” (suspect: may have been taken from the wild and then grown on in the nurdery) and “nursery grown” (probably fine).

Once you have identified your stock you need to evaluate it. This can be done by examining such factors as root-to-shoot ratios: nurseries often blitz their stock with fertiliser, because top growth sells plants, but this is not necessarily a healthy plant that will do well in your savannah. They actually have a useful table for evaluating this: the kind of information usually restricted to professionals. What sort of form and branching does your tree have? Any sign of disease, pest infestation or damage or general lack of vigour is cause to reject the plant. There is a strong case for quarantining. The authors give a list of things to look out for, from trunk girdling to root-ball strength to girdled roots. The plants then need care between purchase and actual planting out, which may take days to weeks on a big site (in which case you should consider buying over a longer period).

Now you have a lot of plants to go in the ground. This needs to be organised. Remember I said you could easily have thousands of plants? For this you need to Organise Tools, Materials and Helpers. The authors give a long list of necessary tools and materials they recommend keeping in a box while you plant.

Planting goes more quickly, and can be more fun, if you have your friends around to help out. Beyond that, the actual time required will depend on the number of plants you need to get in the ground, the condition of the soil and the condition of your workers. Some “helpers”, especially juvenile ones, may need more supervision than their immediate extrinsic value as labour, but this is also an educational opportunity which should not be underestimated. Martin Crawford got 30-40 trees planted per day. The authors found they planted 140 trees over 25-person hours in good conditions. One bagged-and-burlapped specimen can take hours to get in the ground.

Get everything organised first, or you will waste an incredible amount of time. Sort out strategic materials, from mulch to food, in advance. Heavy-duty gardening like this requires between 400 and 600 calories an hour, so you could burn through most of your day's recommended calorie intake by lunchtime, and a workforce with low blood sugar is an inefficient, irritable, no-fun-at-all workforce. A sandwich and an apple for lunch isn't going to cut it. A workforce with no water is no fun either. A plant with no water is a dead plant. Plan the order of planting – running a hose through an area you have just planted is a bad idea. The ideal planting weather is cool and overcast, perhaps with light showers but no downpours. If it's going to chuck it down it's worth suspending work until the soil dries out a little.

So, Planting Day has arrived. You have a design and a plan that would make General Eisenhower conclude he was woefully underprepared.

The authors compare the result of your labours to a layer cake, from subsoil to mulch to the beginnings of your canopy. You want to firmly establish all your ecological niches and smother the rest in mulch, giving competitor species minimal space to grow (I've seen too many dead trees, even on here, because of a simple stick-it-in-the-ground-and-it-will-grow attitude). If you get it right, maintenance should be minimal for the lifetime of the forest, leaving you with plenty of time to do more interesting things.

The authors recommend practicing on a small area first, enabling you to make mistakes on a small scale relatively cheaply rather than fouling it up on a couple of acres. That said, the first thing to do is to get the woodies into the ground, then mulch, then plant perennials, possibly through the mulch. A mistake I've made in a garden involves failing to maintain the soil profile. I had to start off with an appalling soil profile with a few centimetres of topsoil over an impermeable layer of clay. I made the mistake of trying to mix topsoil, clay and organic matter in order to extend the depth of topsoil. Stupid boy. Anyway, you also need to plant to the original groundline, so the top of the rootball is at the natural surface of the soil. This prevents settling and waterlogging. Before you dig the hole, decide how you want to orient the plant in terms of sunlight and so on. There are instructions on getting the hole right, from width to depth and a range of other factors: any idiot can dig a hole, but digging a good hole for a plant is a mix of science and artistry.

Then there is a whole catalogue of things you need to do with the roots, from pruning to spreading. This is about maximising the amount of nutrients the plant can forage for. Another mistake I've made is leaving peat (or in my case other organic matter) pots with the rim above the surface: this wicks water and kills the plant. Better yet, remove the pot. I've also made the mistake of amending backfill soil – again a matter of bad, out of date advice (mum, I mean you!).

Label the plant carefully. As I mentioned above, tagging the tree while colour-coding the tree stake has definite merits, although it may spoil the naturalistic look. That said, these authors have good reason for questioning the need for staking at all. Water, possibly with the addition of an emulsion of seaweed extract, and possibly add amendments on the surface before mulching. Mulching depths can reach 25cm, and this is an art form in its own right.

In many areas you need protection from the local wildlife, whether rabbits, deer, wallabies, boar or any of dozens of other herbivores. The correct solution for this may depend on which herbivores you need to deal with (one friend at one point replied to an advert to rescue a “domesticated” (ha ha ha) serval but, while it would certainly have taken care of her rat and rabbit problems, I'd consider this excessive!). Fencing may be considered, but is expensive, while hedging is always a good idea while having multiple functions, but takes time to mature.

Right, the trees are in the ground, and the mulch is down. Now you can plant perennials through the mulch. This is also a good time to inoculate your mulch with mushrooms, which speeds decomposition and provides a crop. You can also seed into your mulch by adding a layer of compost or soil on top of it.

Then you are into aftercare. The biggest job is going to be watering (just one newly-planted tree needs a lot of water, but some sources grossly overestimate this, and it is possible to waterlog!). The critical phase is the first few weeks, and it's worth checking the root ball of your trees daily. You also need to fertilise, weed and mulch. Vigorous weed control is particularly important in the early stages. Monitoring is also likely to take up a lot of your time. This will tell you what any given plant needs at any given time. It also gives you the opportunity to wander round, check for what you might have missed, and begin to appreciate what you have created.

All in all I find this a very satisfying chapter. Much of it is material even the moderately experienced gardener will be familiar with, but new material and contradictions to what you thought crop up often, so it's important to read all of it, just to make sure you haven't missed things or been misled by mainstream thought. It's been hard work reading to this point, and I'd expect it to be even harder implementing it all, but it's certainly well worth it. There is now an end in sight for both the book and the hard work of creating a wood to live in.

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