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Is performing a tree-massacre necessary to turn my yard into a permaculture garden?

 
Heath Waller
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Location: Brighton, Ontario, Canada
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Hi - I'm hoping some people wiser than me might be able to advise on the viability of my new yard becoming a good area for a permaculture garden.

I bought this property without the opportunity to do much research on the yard (long story). All I knew was that is was larger than average. And it is. But it is also heavily-treed with predominantly mature silver maples, along with some big white birches, Japanese maples and mountain ashes. One of the silver maples is over 50ft tall. And one of the white birches is about 40ft.

I am also situated on a lot that is surrounded by road on 3 sides. And adjacent to a large park that allows in heavy westerly winds.

I have moved 4 times in the past 3 years trying to find the right area in Canada that suited my needs and preferences. The good thing is I have found that here in Eastern Ontario. However, I am not convinced this yard is the right one for starting my permaculture dream. (One that will include a food forest, and a greenhouse). I fear that I'll have to go over my budget to get many of the silver maples removed (as I know they have big root systems and suck up a lot of water), then I'll end up with a very exposed, potentially very hot and windy, yard until I can my garden established. (Not to mention tsk-ing neighbours for killing perfectly lovely trees).

I can fix up this house and move again to a more suitable situation if necessary; but right now I am just weary of the process of buying/fixing up/selling. (And this weariness could be unduly influencing my decision-making).

I also need to put up a fence for my dogs, so I'll need to know before then if I am going to be cutting down any/all of the trees. I just don't yet know enough about how these established trees could affect my gardening efforts, and I've had trouble finding information on this kind of situation elsewhere.

Any help or advice would be sincerely appreciated!

Heath


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top view of yard
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another shot of the trees in the yard
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trees in the yard
 
Galadriel Freden
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Hi Heath.  In my opinion, it would be a shame to cut down those trees, and like you say, would probably expose your house to heat and wind.  I would think they provide a bit of privacy, too.  Is your yard in full shade because of the trees?  If not, I would just work around them.  If it is, I might suggest replacing a few of the smaller trees with fruit trees--maybe dwarfs;  it is also possible to prune bigger trees to let in more light.

I have to work around two mature trees in my garden;  I can't afford to cut them down, and they shade about half my backyard.  They do provide benefits, despite the fact they aren't edible:  they provide shade and a windbreak, habitat for birds and insects, and lots of biomass (leaves) in the autumn, among other things.  I grow vegetables in the sunny parts of my garden, berries and other perennials in the part-shade, and chickens and mushrooms in the full shade. 
 
Abbey Battle
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Location: Wealden AONB
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My initial response is no, you don't need to fell all those trees in order to create you permaculture forest / wood garden.

Do what you have to do in your first year with regards to securing your garden for your dogs but just sit on the rest and let the ideas / design come to you.
Observation.
I can't tell you what trees you'll want to get rid of and what trees you'll want to keep. The timber will obviously come in handy for lots of things. Fuel, hugel, fencing.

The garden looks very open with a lot of sunlight coming through. If the trees are providing shelter and leaf litter, they are providing a service to your garden.

I do think you need to rest and relax before making any firm plans. You sound slightly stressed or unhappy in the tone of your post. Or is it just disappointment? Don't be disappointed. It's a challenge but one you can rise to.
 
Glenn Herbert
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The biggest silver maple is giving summer afternoon shade to your house, as well as some wind buffering. When you said "mature", I visualized something like 2' diameter for the silver maples; what you have are some respectable and attractive trees, but nothing like big enough to be a problem removing if you decide to. Only the biggest would justify professional attention, in my opinion. I could see taking out several of the smaller trees (could be done with a good bow saw and a little care), but I would do it at the same time as you start other improvements, not before, to avoid upsetting your neighbors. The silver maples will continue to grow, though (I've seen 4' and 5' diameter ones), and the biggest one could eventually get to shading most of the yard.

Speaking of the neighbors, your site appears to me to be perhaps too small and exposed to turn into a good "forest". You will need some enclosures aside from dog fencing to feel comfortable and to avoid the "messiness" that permaculture gardening can entail from disturbing neighbors. It's not generally a good idea to make the neighborhood unhappy with you.

I notice the drainage swale surrounding your yard along the road - if water is of any concern, you may be able to divert some of that to create water sinks in your yard. You may need to leave the drainage element as is depending on how far the road right of way extends.
 
Heath Waller
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Location: Brighton, Ontario, Canada
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Thank you @Galadriel and @Abbey for your replies.

It isn't shown in the Google images, but the trees do provide a whole lot of shade (I'd say about 40% of the yard is in full-time shade). But I do appreciate it during these hot days.

But I think you are both right. I should be spending some more time just getting acquainted with the property before making any drastic decisions. (Abbey, you rightly picked up on my stress, I guess it has been almost 4 years of constant moving from one side of the country to the other, and updating scary homes along the way so as to not lose money in the process - and wanting to settle down but being out of practice...). It felt as though a decision had to be made before I got the fence in. But I guess that's not necessarily the case.

It is good to hear that others are sharing their spaces with established trees, and hearing that I could be looking at them through the lens of opportunities (i.e. for future hugelkultur or for providing compost material or homes for birds etc.).

Thank you both for giving me the perspective I needed. I think that in a year's time I'll have a greater understanding of what I need to do here.

The care and time you took in responding to my questions is sincerely appreciated. I feel so grateful to you both.



 
Heath Waller
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Location: Brighton, Ontario, Canada
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@Glenn - yes, one of the silver maples is at least 4' wide and does shade a good portion of the yard. The others are about 1' (the Google image was taken a few years ago so they've grown since then). But the little ones could still be taken down without much fuss.

But it is a very exposed yard, and I've ended up in a very cookie-cutter neighbourhood where everyone's yard looks like a golf course. And, because the  yard requires so much fencing I've had to go with chainlink over something more private. So it could be an issue with the neighbours (I've always lived in ratty neighbourhoods where anything went - so not sure how things might go when it gets messy in here). So that's some good food for thought.

It is a big drainage swale all around. I hadn't thought of diverting some of it!? Great insight!

Thank you so much for all this information and new stuff for me to think about.
 
Mike Jay
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I agree with the posts about relaxing and letting the design come to you.  A simple temporary fence might be an option for the dogs for now.  Where I live (and maybe Ontario too?) silver maples are not considered an extremely valuable tree.  The large one looks like it's shading the house and providing westerly wind protection.  But the smaller ones on the North side may be easy enough to remove and give you a good portion of yard to work with.  As you plan all of this out, be sure to watch for legal set-back distances from the road for the greenhouse.  The ditches along the road may provide some microclimates if you can plant in them.
 
Heath Waller
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Location: Brighton, Ontario, Canada
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Thank you @Mike. I've heard silver maples are best grown near water, so they're not so great in yards. Plus they're prone to cracking etc. But I just hate the thought of killing any trees unnecessarily.  Someone who just wanted a yard for their pets or kids to play in might just love this set-up... (Which might mean this property would better serve someone else - leaving me free to try and find a more suitable place).

I have considered taking over the "hellstrip" as a way of adding to my growing area (knowing the town could mow it at will). Again, might incense the neighbours who treat their strips like their lawn - and keep them golf-ready.

Lots to think about. But everyone here has been so generous with their insights... it has given me a good foundation upon which to ponder over the coming weeks and months.

I consider my original question fully answered by all you wonderful Permies. Thank you all so much!

 
Marco Banks
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Silver maples are such horrible trees.  Evil, really.

There -- I said it. 

You've got a lot of space along the outside of your yard, beyond the existing trees.  I'd start aggressively mulching that all the way out to the street, taking out all that grass.  Cover it with cardboard and wood chips.  What is nice about your location is that chip trucks can dump the wood chips right where you need them.  Fantastic access.  Then as the soil gets great, start planting veggies, bushes and trees.

Plant your new trees in a year or so . . . space them out, but you have the advantage of being able to push them out toward the road and take advantage of all that light that is currently being wasted as it falls on asphalt.  From the looks of that picture, I'll bet you could plant 20 or more trees just on the outside of your existing trees.

Then, selectively kill (MURDER!) those silver maple.  Use the wood for mulch or hugels.  Silver maples are sewer-line cloggers.  They are water sucking pigs.  They easily splinter in wind storms.  Blah, blah, blah . . . perhaps they've already served their purpose for you as a pioneer species that has conditioned the soil with a fungal network.

One other thought: I see that you've got a ditch there that catches water from the street.  If you could contour your land so that water drains into deeply mulched pits (see Brad Lancaster's techniques), that would save you a lot of money in watering.  You might have to rent a bobcat for the day to move some dirt around, but it would be very significant in the long run --- so start first with your earthworks, swales and catchment system.  Trees come after.

While you've got that bobcat, you could cover those stupid silver maples -- hugleculture.
 
John Weiland
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If the birch are anything like aspens, there may be some sucker/sapling sprouts that come up that you may be able to dig and transplant to a different part of the property, then remove the large parent birch tree from the middle yard.  With the birch tree out of the way, you may have enough central space in the yard to begin some design ideas......or just fill the open space in with more silver maples   .  (Sorry, Marco B......have a soft spot for that tree from my youth....    )    With regard to gardening efforts with the trees nearby, there is something called "root pruning" on one side of a tree, but this will not gain you permanent freedom from the negative affects of the neighboring tree from my understanding.
 
Susan Quinlan
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Please dont cut the trees. You already have your over story. Birch trees take a lot of water,  but are very important to bees.  A good pruning might  surprise you! A good pruning would also leave rotting underground roots to feed the soil while leaving your trees available to shelter you from wind. Your new plants will need that shelter.  As for nitrogen fixing trees you can always go with pea shrubs, nitrogen fixing berries, and ground covers.  I live w wind and assure you it can dry out my yard very fast. Go back out there and spend some more time observing how these trees might be an asset ? answer in problem?
 
steve bossie
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your big trees are well spread out. as the sun moves around i stilll think you would have enough light to provide for other plants. i have 6  75ft norway spruces on the western edge of my property. the boughs go right to the ground. i only get fun sun on my yard till' noon then full shade. yet my blueberries, blackberries and raspberries are doing great! so are my apples and hazel trees! all are very sun dependent! i think you would be ok leaving the trees as they are and do what you want.make sure to mulch everything well and you shouldn't have to water. good luck!
 
K Putnam
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I think you trees have curb appeal, so I probably wouldn't be dropping them if you're unsure about how long you're going to be there. 

You should have plenty of light to garden to your heart's content.  If you're unsure of how long you'd like to be there, I'd start with something small and pretty that isn't going to give you heartache if you want to list the property in short order.  Then, if you decide you want to stay, then edit the trees once you've gotten to know the site a bit.

Maples provide early food to wild bees, so they are serving a role, even if they aren't the ideal tree for the site long-term.
 
Michelle Bisson
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First of all, you have a very beautiful property.  Most property has limitations of various sorts. 

Our land has many limitations too, such as large mature trees of red maples and hemlock and a few others kinds.  We have decided to keep all of our red maples and some of the hemlocks that support the red maples.  If we cut all the hemlock the prevailing winds might knock over the red maples in stormy weather since the canopy is high.

That being said, 2/3 of our property will only have partial sun.  We are cutting what we can of the popular & hemlock trees. We know that many of our fruiting trees will have partial shade.  We hope that they will have enough sunlight to fruit well enough.  We will try to work around our overstory trees.  There is a risk that we will still not have enough sunshine on our apple and cherry trees for enough fruiting and might have to make some hard décisions in the future.

All this to say that I sympathize with you as you try to make some difficult décisions. geoff lawton says something like this. "The more limits on the property, the more creative we have to be"  I believe that you can do something incredible on your property even if you keep most or all of your trees.  You will choose plants & trees to work with the situaltion you have, which will be different than if you have no trees on the property.

Take you time.  Time has a way of us seeing things differently.  There are many good thoughts in the above threads to consider.

 
Michelle Bisson
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"Is performing a tree-massacre necessary to turn my yard into a permaculture garden?"


I would say no it is not necessary.  I would evaluate each and every one of the trees to see if they add value to your property and take it on a case by case decision.  A thirty year old tree cannot be replaced just like that.  Mature trees can add value to the property value if they are well care for and not a threat of crashing down on the house.  Dangerous trees or limbs would be wise to get rid. 


In permaculture there is no such thing as one size fits all.  Every property is unique and every property owner is unique in what their goals are.

One thing that can possibly be done on your property is to grow a Fedge around the perimeter of your property. You have quite a bit of flexibility since you do not have bordering neighbours on 3 sides of your property and you could choose a variety fruit trees as your foundational plants with fruiting scrubs around them.  The trees could be planted every 10 feet or even closer if you would like a tight knit more traditional hedge.  You would have an incredible amount of fruiting trees this way.

check out Dave wilson nursury videos on Youtube about using fruiting trees as hedges.

Plus it would eventually give you protection from the winds if you and additional privacy.


---
Before cutting down trees why not do several drawings of your property with different scenarios such as : keep all trees, cut some trees down, cut all trees down etc... a make a list of all the pros & cons of each scenarios.

If you decide to cut down some trees, and since the larger ones are likely to pose more of a danger risk, you might cut them down but keep the smaller trees to eventually replace the taller trees.  You could also pollard the trees which is practiced in Europe to control size in urban settings or for other purposes. Or you could coppice some trees and allow some regrowth.  There are many ways you can design your property.

---

Keep us posted on the progress of your property as it is very interesting to see how things progress and the reason why you will make certain decsions.  If so desired, you will have a story to share.


 
Ken W Wilson
Posts: 340
Location: Nevada, Mo 64772
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I can't think of a worse type of tree to try to garden around. The roots are very shallow and everywhere. They grow fast. The limbs are very brittle and break from wind or ice. I'd gradually take out all but the one on the south side, over a few years.

I have always wanted to try making syrup though.
 
Donna Lockey
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Location: Ontario Canada
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Hi Heath.

Existing trees can be a pain. Especially large trees that suck up the nutrients and water from your nearby veg and fruit gardens. Not to mention they can mess with your septic bed, if you have one. Brighton has tons of deciduous trees for collecting leaves for compost.

I put in a cedar hedge around my property for privacy and a wind break. You can let them get as tall as you want or keep them at 6 feet. They are shallow rooted so not as invasive as large trees. I also planted shrubs for 60 feet around my front.  I was going for fall colour and food.  Lilacs, burning bush, service berry, saskatoons, rugosa roses, and several kinds of spreading junipers also create bird habitat and privacy. I also planted fruit trees, apples and cherries.  Your lot is very similiar to mine when I started 20 years ago.   Brighton is a big apple location. Sorry for the pun.
I know that this area is like a mini micro climate much like Pelee Island.  I am north of you by about an hour. I am jealous! lol  If you like bigger apples, go for the standard size to create shade. But there are also cool techniques for training fruit trees, eg cordons, espaliers to really pack in the food production.

Hardy Fruit Tree Nursery in Que sells a large interesting selection of zone 3 trees and shrubs. I have been checking out their hazelberts and shrub cherries to stuff onto my shrub border.  Who says you have to have a cookie cutter yard, right? Though, I would check by-laws on cutting down trees in your area. You may have to do some 'staged' pruning. 
Good luck!
 
William James
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The existing trees can be
chaperones - providing protection for young trees.
scaffolding - vines grow on trees. you can attach things to them like birdhouses.

You might prune, but I would wait until I had small trees growing well underneath.

The idea is you have a 10-year plan in which the current trees become chip mulch or hugelbeds in the end. Just not in the first 3-5 years. Design a smooth transfer between current tree grown and future mature trees.

One thing I would look into first is growing stuff that blocks the west winds. Eleagnus would be a good choice since it has its own nutrients, can grow into a hedge, and provides nutrients for other plants.

Another thing to look into is importing soil to grow on top of the current soil if aggressive roots are an issue. Trees growing on mounds would give them a head-start.

If you were to grow annuals I would do it in raised beds that I shifted every couple years. Try square-meter gardening with compost layed down in the fall and then grown up in the spring.
William
 
sue bee
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as far as having to use chain link fence, you could always grow useful vines, such as grapes or whatever you desire to cover the chain link. i think that would look nice and serve a purpose at the same time. as far as your shade goes, use those as your canopy. maybe not all, but you could also grow your shade loving plants in that area. maybe start some shrooms?  fungi is good.....
 
Hans Quistorff
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Check out this channel.[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7XYsCA4dn2z57JwAJYv-Ww[/youtube] He is documenting everything and his garden would fit in the clear space to the north of your house

I had very good success with growing a grape vine along the top of a chain link fence along the street in our suburban lot. Kept it pruned to mostly a single vine 40 feet long. The fruit on the outside was for the neighborhood walkers and the fruit on the inside was for us. Because it developed over some years and became a summer favorite to the walkers nobody complained that we had hidden the corner of the lot from public view.
 
Melody KirkWagner
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I'm envious of how much sun you get and how open the trees are! I live in an evergreen forest, and yes, it's a been a bit of a struggle, but I'm successfully growing vegetables and some berries in shade or part shade. I visited a permie garden in seattle that was almost ALL shade. You have your over-story already in place, plus you can tap them for syrup. You can start building your understories and give over the shady areas to greens, and lots of berries. There's a lot of variety available for the shade, and you can set aside the shadiest area for a little water feature and sitting area. On thing I'm thinking of trying is keeping my fruit trees small, either by coppicing or espalier, in order to preserve the sun. No idea if it will work well, but I thought I'd try.
 
Ken W Wilson
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The roots are going to be more of a problem than the shade. A lot of plants like some shade. The roots are very shallow. My mom has one in her front yard. It's very difficult to get a shovel in the ground.They even grow above ground some. They've cracked her driveway and are lifting it.

Morels like silver maples.  You could put some spawn in the roots. It'd work even better on a tree you plan to cut in a few years. Getting morels to grow is a gamble though.
 
Tyler Ludens
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One answer to root competition is to root-prune the trees on the side where one wants to grow.  Digging a deep trench, even using a Ditch Witch type trencher, to cut through the feeder roots beyond the dripline of the tree.  If the tree is an aggressive grower, this might need to be repeated after a number of years.  My vegetable garden is right next to some trees, and there is some root encroachment, but not serious as far as I can tell.  In this climate, most plants prefer some shade in the summer, and my old garden away from trees would die each summer because I couldn't water it enough.  This might not be an issue further north.

 
Melody KirkWagner
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The solution for me has been to build hugel-based berms. They aren't as steep and tall as a true hugelkultur bed, but they do a good job of holding water and I don't have to try to dig through the roots. I imagine you'd have to be careful in this circumstance because you wouldn't want to either rot existing surface roots or give them an invitation to take over your bed. In one area I'm putting in a decorative hugel-based raised bed that I'm going to line to try to keep the birch roots out. wish me luck with that...
 
Nick Blonigen
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It's funny how many people here think you can garden between those silver maples.  I have a half-dozen silver maples in my side yard, about 40 ft tall, and my first thought was a wooded 1/4 acre under them.  No such luck.  That area has the driest soil, despite the shade, no matter how much mulch I apply.  I'm finally having half of them removed this fall, and the others next year.

Silver maples are water hogs of the worst degree.
 
Marco Banks
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Nick Blonigen wrote:It's funny how many people here think you can garden between those silver maples.  I have a half-dozen silver maples in my side yard, about 40 ft tall, and my first thought was a wooded 1/4 acre under them.  No such luck.  That area has the driest soil, despite the shade, no matter how much mulch I apply.  I'm finally having half of them removed this fall, and the others next year.

Silver maples are water hogs of the worst degree.


It's good to hear that I'm not the only one with a grim view of silver maples.  It's better to kill a snake when its small than to wait until it's taken-out half of your chicken coop.  When is the best time to take out a silver maple?  Last summer.

If the concern is curb appeal, then take them out selectively, but make sure you are planting your new trees  ASAP.  This isn't a good time of year to plant new trees, but if you cut the trees down and inoculate the log with mushroom plugs, it's a good time to get your mushroom project established (hint: what to do with useless trees, 101).
Honestly, I don't think that curb appeal will suffer much, and if this person wasn't planning on sticking around for some time, he wouldn't be making permaculture plans for a long-term food forest system.  I doubt he'll be selling any time soon.

There are much better over-story plants and trees than a silver maple—hundreds of them that will work with your system rather than suck all the moisture out of it. 

Perhaps you might look at it this way: is this a tree that I will EVENTUALLY want to take out?  If so, then there is no better time than the present to bring it down and utilize that space better.
 
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