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bare soil in a food forest versus cover crop

 
Joe Paul
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Hi guys, quick question for you in regards to bare soil versus a cover crop as we attempt to establish productive food trees and privacy from the road with a food forest setup. Basically, we have a cover crop consisting of herbal ley with things like Alfalfa,Phacellia, Buckwheat, Red Clover, Subterranean Clover, White clover, Yarrow, Plantain, Chicory, Sorrel, Dandelion and Parsnip.

When we hired in a company to assist us with the privacy planting portion of this food forest they asked that we spray out the cover crop (which is already established) first so that they can plant these trees without competition from the other plants that are coming up from the cover crop. They told me it will be much preferable and desirable to have bare soil (with mulch around them) for these trees to grow in - at least until the point when they are established. At that point they argue that the tree will shade out the weeds and it won't be a problem from there onward.

Could they be right here that the cover crop will compete with the trees?
 
Tyler Ludens
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In my opinion, the cover crop would only compete where it is growing right above the root zone, so I can't imagine why they would request that you "spray out" (shudder) the cover crop. If there's any concern about competition, the area immediately around each tree can be kept clear of plants. Personally I am strongly against bare soil. They're asking you to erase all the work done up to this point.

geoff lawton grows a ton of plants around his baby trees, and they seem to do fine.
 
Joe Paul
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I agree with you bare soil just doesn't seem "right". They suggested we put mulch around the tree to avoid bare soil/weeds there, and to leave all spaces in-between the trees with bare soil. They said one could use mulch there too but it would be too costly and not really needed since once the tree grows to a certain height all the weeds would be shaded anyways.

Mind you, this is a typical landscaping company who is giving us this advice so they are not permaculturally inspired. I am trying to integrate their expertise into our goals for a permaculture orchard/property and when advice conflicts like this it is hard sometimes to know what to do since I am new to it all.

Their other concern was around the long term goals of the spaces between the trees. They said that they would prefer dirt and leaf-litter rather than to have things like the clover and plaintains (which are visible now) continually re-seeding themselves in and around the trees. Their fear is that it will create a maintenance nightmare trying to keep the cover crop where we want it - thinking it will spread to other areas we don't.
 
Tyler Ludens
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A food forest typically has plants growing under and between the trees, like an actual forest. I'm not convinced the landscape company has expertise which is useful to your endeavor to have a food forest. Maybe you can show them some pictures or videos of food forests, so they can understand the concept better. And from my point of view, spraying for weeds in a food forest (or anywhere, actually) is strictly a no-no.
 
Kyrt Ryder
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Last I checked the herbicides used on broadleaf weeds [such as plantain] have a pretty distinct impact on trees as well.

bad idea all around.

As for the competition, there's no real harm in mulching out some space around the tree to give it a headstart.
 
Travis Schultz
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Tyler Ludens wrote:A food forest typically has plants growing under and between the trees, like an actual forest. I'm not convinced the landscape company has expertise which is useful to your endeavor to have a food forest. Maybe you can show them some pictures or videos of food forests, so they can understand the concept better. And from my point of view, spraying for weeds in a food forest (or anywhere, actually) is strictly a no-no.



I agree with Tyler here.

Also, bare soil is the last thing you want. I can really attest to that in my own garden. The amount of compaction that happens with bare soil as apposed to mulched (either living mulch or dead mulch) is night and day.

And when it comes to competition, a lot of the competition that is happening is below ground at the root level. Most trees have much deeper root systems than most short broad leaf cover crops. There may be some competition at first, but just put a little stress on the cover crops around your trees and do as much as you can to not stress the tree. Give it a season and it will work itself out.

Please do not spray, kill, or remove your hard work so they landscape company has an easier time planting. Because thats most likely what it comes down to. Also they may have a guarantee that the trees you buy from them, if planted by them, will survive the first year or something. There are similar companies near me.

Check out my mulched beds here . They were double dug 2 years ago and have only been mulched (either living or sheet mulch) and I can slide my hand in half way to the elbow on all of my beds. Further if I push harder. Mulch means worms and bugs have a party under there, and they just loam up any soil.
 
Joe Paul
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Thanks for the support guys!

What do you do with your cover crop when it goes to seed? Do you let it? Do you mow it down before then to keep it short?
 
Tyler Ludens
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Personally I would let it go to seed so it replicates itself. I wouldn't mow it.
 
Joe Paul
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What if those seeds start spreading around where you don't want them - such as in adjacent pastures?

Also, some of the plants in the cover crop I've used come up quite high (waist height) making it difficult to walk around in between the trees. Would you still leave them all at that height or just mow a pathway?
 
Kyrt Ryder
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Joe Paul wrote:What if those seeds start spreading around where you don't want them - such as in adjacent pastures?
Everything you listed, with the possible exception of buckwheat, is something I *want* in my pastures.
 
Tyler Ludens
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I would be thrilled if useful and edible plants would spread around!

 
Shawn Harper
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Joe Paul wrote:What if those seeds start spreading around where you don't want them - such as in adjacent pastures?

Also, some of the plants in the cover crop I've used come up quite high (waist height) making it difficult to walk around in between the trees. Would you still leave them all at that height or just mow a pathway?


If the plants are in your way then just use chop and drop till they aren't.
 
Joe Paul
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Thanks for that. If the plants are growing right up to and around the trunks of the trees, would you pull those back and mulch around with bark? I have had mixed messages on this one in the past. Some people would leave it there to help add back to the soil, some would take away from the root zone to avoid competition. What are your thoughts here?
 
Casie Becker
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One of the near absolute rules of trees (though I'd be interested in hearing exceptions) is that you don't mulch up to the bark of trees. Doing so increases pest and disease pressures on the tree. I'm pretty sure live plants don't cause the same problems, possibly because the plants are employing their self defense strategies against the same issues.
 
Joe Paul
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Hi Casie, when I refer to mulching up to the tree I meant leaving a rink around the bark itself so it is not physically touching. For sure though, the other plants that are growing above the root zone are touching the trunks. I never even thought that would be an issue but maybe I'm wrong?

I am more worried about nutrient competition between the tree and the herbal ley.
 
Travis Schultz
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Joe Paul wrote:Hi Casie, when I refer to mulching up to the tree I meant leaving a rink around the bark itself so it is not physically touching. For sure though, the other plants that are growing above the root zone are touching the trunks. I never even thought that would be an issue but maybe I'm wrong?

I am more worried about nutrient competition between the tree and the herbal ley.


All plants, shrubs, and trees have different style roots and different depths of soil that they grow and live. Most of these cover crops you mention have shallow root systems compared to most trees that are non alleopathic. You should,nt have much competition from the tree to the cover crop unless the trees are shorter than the buckwheat or such. And if they are just trim the plants around your trees back a few times in the year and you will be fine.
 
Casie Becker
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I tend to take things very literally. I also try to never overestimate someone else's knowledge base, so when I saw that I thought someone better make sure you knew better.

I do think you're probably okay with most plants touching the trunk. I think it's having a damp media sitting against the trunk that does the most damage. Another plant brushing or even growing against the trunk would be an entirely different situation.

As far as competition between the surrounding plants and your trees.. when I plant trees I deep mulch an area just a little wider than I expect the new tree's drip line to be and try to give it a full season to establish it's roots before installing other plants. No herbicides required. After that point I plant whatever I want around the tree. I'm more worried about building the fungal webs that amplify the root capacity of the tree than I am about competition with other plants.

I have a very productive pecan tree in my front yard and it's not had a off year since I started planting gardens along it's drip edge. Usually pecans are alternate bearers. Within it's drip edge is mostly lawn with a small circle of perennials and flowering shrubs around the trunk. Of course, this is an established tree so is more of a long term example than immediately useful.
 
Cal Burns
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Interesting thread. I've got a grove of 85+ pecan trees. Cutting the grass and weeds around the trees is a hassle. I'm slowly putting wood chips around the tree's with cardboard underneath to the dripline with nothing at the base of the trees. Problem is, with my irrigation near the base it causes lots of weeds (evil sandburs, thistle) and grasses to grow.
Would like to grow a useful low growing edible perennial at the base of the trees that if it exists would do the following: be beneficial to the pecan tree, provide ground cover at the base of the trees and not get in the way when doing irrigation maintenance and not have to cut grass/weeds around, be edible by us, not be affected by the juglone, not soak up water like a sponge, and squirrels/deer not be interested in it. The only thing I can come up with other than a couple of cover crops for our harsh central Texas climate is spineless cactus....
 
Tyler Ludens
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Cal, this document indicates that understory in your conditions isn't "natural" - because of the deer, there just won't be much growing under pecans in nature, so if you're trying to emulate the native forest of pecans, you probably already have it.  Anything edible by humans will be edible by deer.  Deer are eating my Spineless Prickly Pear, so that won't work either.  You'll need to exclude the deer if you want to grow edibles under the pecans.

https://digital.library.txstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10877/3137/fulltext.pdf

You might try seeding with some deer-resistant wildflowers, if you want more diversity for the smaller critters. 
 
Cal Burns
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Tyler Ludens wrote:Cal, this document indicates that understory in your conditions isn't "natural" - because of the deer, there just won't be much growing under pecans in nature, so if you're trying to emulate the native forest of pecans, you probably already have it.  Anything edible by humans will be edible by deer.  Deer are eating my Spineless Prickly Pear, so that won't work either.  You'll need to exclude the deer if you want to grow edibles under the pecans.

https://digital.library.txstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10877/3137/fulltext.pdf

You might try seeding with some deer-resistant wildflowers, if you want more diversity for the smaller critters. 


Tyler, thanks for that will look at. Good to hear from you. Don't see a way to get rid of the deer unless I spend $$$ on taller fencing. Always looking for multiple benefits. Maybe can find a wildflower that reseeds that will benefit the pecans at the base by providing ground cover. Would be good if it accumulated something that the pecan needed.
 
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