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Starting a food forest, and then leaving it to fend for itself?  RSS feed

 
Tony Hallett
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Hi everyone, I'm planning a trip out to our new bit of land  in central Portugal at the end of March and was wondering if it would be worth starting a food forest on our biggest terrace (approx 150 square metres). By "start" I mean put in some fruit trees and ground cover, unless of course it would be worth while planting up some of the other layers at the same time (I'm totally new to all this so please excuse my complete ignorance on the subject). The thing is, we'll only be out there for 2 weeks and probably won't be back until the end of summer so we won't be there to water the plants while they settle in and I'm worried that everything will just die in the summer heat. We have plenty of water available from a spring at the back of the terrace which I'm thinking could be rigged up to irrigate the terrace through the summer but then comes the issue of maintaining the balance between wet and dry!
Whatever happens I'd like to plant the terraces to start building the soil but if we can get some fruit trees in at the same time it would be nice to give them a head start so we don't have to wait so long for them to start producing when we move out there in (hopefully!) 2 years.
Any advice would be greatly appreciated, I understand that I've not given you much to go on, I'm just brain storming at the minute to try and work out a plan of action to make our 2 weeks as productive as possible!
 
Tyler Ludens
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Will rain harvesting earthworks be built?  If not, I would not expect the trees to survive, unless you get plenty of rain during the Summer.  A permaculture food forest is part of a designed system based on rain harvesting.  This is the case even in moist climates.



 
Casie Becker
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I took a little bit of time to look for information online about the climate in central Portugal. I suspect, with the mild, wet winters that your best method of establishing healthy trees that can survive the summer would be fall plantings. That is the standard practice in my area and I think we have somewhat similar climates. Where the ground doesn't freeze over the winter, trees and shrubs spend all those months developing strong root systems that make them better able to handle the stresses of hot dry summers. I would be very wary of investing much money in immature fruit trees that I couldn't monitor the health of, especially going into the most stressful season of the year.

An exception in fruit trees that would be low cost in both labor and money, would be to plant many tree seeds and then let the nature thin to those that survive without your attention. Most stone fruit grows well from seed and produce at a very young age. Peaches (for example) could easily be fruiting in two years.  Even if the species takes years to produce they can serve as root stock which you can later graft productive scions to.

Even before you start planting, make sure you completely understand the lay of your land. Every land has various microclimates depending on the land structure, slopes, angles of prevailing wind, and sunlight. You can benefit from using these or take the time now to alter conditions that just won't work for you.

I see, in another thread, that someone has already talked to you about protecting the recharge zone so the spring doesn't eventually dry up. Do you have earthworks planned to distribute that spring water to your plants? Alternatively are you planning on laying pipe for irrigation systems or even carrying buckets? With smaller plants you have more flexibility to move and replant them as necessary, but trees are much harder to move.  

I would make the necessary plans for water control (providing water and necessary drainage) while I plant seeds and starts of native and adapted plants that can build the soil; native legumes to fix nitrogen, deep rooted plants to pull nutrients up to the soil, anything to build organic matter. Many of these are probably already growing there and could be dug up and divided from the property itself to encourage the spread of favored species.

Two weeks doesn't feel like much time to me, but  earthworks that control and capture water accumulate benefits over time. That means that the more time they are in place the more benefits they provide. If there are any that you know you're going to want, then getting them in place earlier will only help you in the future.

Sorry I'm not supporting the idea of planting fruit trees right now. I know how long the wait for trees to produce can be. I still expect to be waiting close to a decade for some of my trees to produce. I have seeds coming for others that aren't readily available in my area.
 
Kyrt Ryder
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Location: Graham, Washington [Zone 7b, 47.041 Latitude] 41inches average annual rainfall, cool summer drought
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Tyler Ludens wrote:Will rain harvesting earthworks be built?  If not, I would not expect the trees to survive, unless you get plenty of rain during the Summer.  A permaculture food forest is part of a designed system based on rain harvesting.  This is the case even in moist climates.

Depending on the catchment above it, a Terrace IS a water-harvesting earthwork. In fact concentrating too much water into a Terrace can cause it to slip.

That being said, as usual, the answer is 'it depends.'

My first question would be what's the soil like on that terrace? Is it rich and humic, dead and barren, or something inbetween?

Second question is how much catchment feeds it, and how well vegetated that catchment is [the better plant cover, the more of that catchment will become groundwater running through or under your terrace, rather than across it.' if there's little catchment [say your terrace is high up towards a ridge for example] expanding that catchment with a swale may make sense.

Third question is the orientation of the slope on which the terrace sits. A north or east facing slope has better prospects for establishing un-tended trees during the Mediterranean summer than a West or South does.

One safe bet would be to sow a richly diverse cover crop [ala Gabe brown] with a focus away from grasses [and towards self-seeding forbs for your climate and soils], and plant cheap but tough and drought resistant N-fixing trees throughout. When you come back in two years it should have far better soil, and be well stocked in nurse trees for shade and chop'n'drop
 
Tony Hallett
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My apologies, I should have given a bit more detail in the first post!
The terraces are facing sw, the surrounding landscape slopes down towards the terraces from 3 sides so the top terrace is effectively in a bowl opening to the sw.
The soil is barren towards the sw edge of the terrace (the drop to the next terrace) but has grass and mint growing at the back edge which is shaded by a large tree (I wish I knew what it was!) and very boggy where the spring pool is overflowing.
I've got a picture that shows it pretty well, if anyone can identify the tree that would be great!
The spring itself isn't the one I was given advice about in the other thread, this one is about 10 times bigger in terms of both pool size and flow rate, it's right in the back corner of the terrace (shaped like the letter V). It has a 1' high stone wall that's been built up to hold the water back although it leaks like a sieve! It's also spilling over in one place, lots of water with nowhere to go!
Any form of earthworks on this terrace for catching water would probably just cause issues, it's held back by a 20' tall drystone wall that I don't want to be putting any unnecessary strain on!
There's enough water coming from the spring at the back for irrigation of all 3 terraces so any earthworks are going to have to be designed to spread the water rather than collect it. The slope to the nw of the terrace will be having lots of work done to help store water as it's currently a fairly barren rocky area with a cluster of eucalyptus at the top. I'm assuming that making this area able to retain more water won't cause the spring to dry up? 
I'm going to be laying a length of pipe for the overflow to go to the 2nd terrace so while the trench is there, would a temporary perforated pipe backfilled with gravel provide enough irrigation to get the trees started? I can always take the pipe out again once the trees have been able to put down some roots, there's enough water there for a grid of perforated pipe to irrigate the whole terrace if need be.
DSC_0673.JPG
[Thumbnail for DSC_0673.JPG]
 
Casie Becker
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From the look of that picture and description of what trees you already have growing, it sounds like spreading the water need to be a top priority. Having that spring on the top terrace is an amazing resource in a wonderful location. I'm fairly sure that encouraging the water to soak into the ground across the other terraces will not have any detrimental effect on your spring.

It's also very clear that you've put a lot time and thought into your land already. I look forward to seeing it develop and progress over time. Thanks for bringing us along from the start.

I think your description of a perforated pipe actually sounds like it would work.  I can see how your fruit trees can survive with this kind of care even if you just plant them and abandon them for the summer. It uses abundant natural resources, no moving parts, and simple engineering that would be hard to break. There is always a danger in things going wrong while you're not there to oversee them, but this sounds as reliable as you could make it. It sounds like any trees you plant are going to have a more comfortable life than the trees I plant in my yard with direct human supervision.
 
Tony Hallett
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That spring was the reason we chose to look at this plot of land in the first place, water was the top priority!
I have done nothing but research and plan since we put the deposit down in October, it's the only way to get myself through a days work now, plan plan plan! It's become borderline obsessive!

I can't see any reason for the perforated pipe not to work except possibly over watering but I can always add a valve for adjusting the flow rate.  I work as a fabricator /welder so I have access to all sorts of pipes and fittings, it shouldn't be too difficult to rig up something with half a chance of working.
Hopefully once the trees are established and I've got some ground cover it won't need the irrigation so I can dig it up and move it down onto the second terrace and do the same again!  ideally I'd like to get a food forest started on the top 2 terraces within the next year or so, that way it should be settled in and starting to be productive when we move out there so we won't have to rely on shop bought food quite as much!
 
Tony Hallett
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Just a little update for those who are interested...

The website that we found the land advertised on is giving away €50 for trees to anyone who bought / buys land through them so we're definitely going to try planting in the spring. If it doesn't work out then we haven't really lost anything but the time it takes to dig the holes. If it does work then we get a head start with free trees!
I found this online, I need to ring the company to find out if it works on low pressure but if it does I think it could work quite well. Made from recycled car tyres too!
http://www.waterirrigation.co.uk/gardener-s-choice-100m-soaker-hose-13mm.html?utm_campaign=ShoppingFeed&utm_source=google&utm_medium=merchantcenter&utm_content=Hort%20>%20Irrigation%20>%20Garden%20Hose%20Pipes%20>%20Soaker%20Hoses&gclid=Cj0KEQiAt9vEBRDQmPSow-q5gs8BEiQAaWSEDiiGeYDivx8VJwelkFWdAMahKFfw-mvENE6FpALMCo4aAsTh8P8HAQ

I've also had a big box of seeds delivered so we can add some life to the terraces. For the top terrace we have a mix of lupines for n fixing (I may be wrong on the functions on some of these so please correct me if I am!) red clover for some living mulch around the trees and then a mixed bag of mustard, tares and Rye grass for some green manure to start building the soil and add a little extra nitrogen as we go.
We also have a big bag of wildflower seed for the lower 2 terraces to bring a bit of colour and some wildlife back onto the land.

Only 49 days until we get on the ferry, 52 days until we're on the land!
 
Denise Kersting
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The soaker hose you have shown should work with low pressure, it lists the optimal working psi as 7.5 which is low (standard house psi is 40-80). I bought a standard soaker hose but had to remove the restrictor in it to get it to work with my rain barrel. Those are designed to take standard water pressure and reduce it at the inlet so that it doesn't damage the hose. I have this working on a small scale from my rain barrel, through a regular hose about 25ft long to get it to the garden, and then split to 2 lengths of soaker hose each about 25ft long. My barrel does have some pressure, it is elevated about 10 inches, and the barrel itself is about 4ft tall, so that does create a reasonable psi, however even when it nears empty the soaker hose still was working (just took longer to get to the end of the hose). Hopefully, with your spring being at the high point, will provide the small psi you need. Good luck!
 
Tony Hallett
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That's good to know, thankyou!
We should be alright for pressure then as we'll have about 1' of water above the outlet from the spring and around 1' of head from that into the trench for the hose.
Do you leave yours on permanently or do you have a tap on the barrel? As we're only out there for 2 weeks (8 days if you take off the travel time ) and won't be going back until September/October Im hoping it'll be alright left to it's own devices. Don't want to spend time fitting an overflow to the spring only to end up flooding the terrace with the Soaker hose anyway!
 
Denise Kersting
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Hi,
I have a valve at my barrel, and only open it when I want to water, since it would just drain the tank till empty if left open. I think with a continuous system such as a spring that wouldn't be as much of an issue. However, I think it could be possible if you went to a tank from your spring and added a float-type setup, you could make something that would open (let water flow) when the tank was full and shut a spillway to the weeper hose connection when low. This would at least give you a "series of watering" that you could control the frequency by the feed pipe from the spring to the holding tank, I'm kinda thinking of almost a modified toilet tank setup. A pipe the size of a straw would take awhile to fill a 55-gallon drum, but a 1 in pipe would fill it much faster. Are you building a spring house and spring box to contain the water? reason I ask is that 2 ft. may not give you the psi you need (unless any restrictor in the inlet is removed). A static column of water 2.31 feet tall = 1 pound per square inch pressure, but if you were able to fill a raised holding tank from your spring (I am really spitballing here-I'd look for someone with experience) that had an overflow for protection, you might be able to build the pressure needed. The drop to where you intend to water could also be used to give you more height, if you had a solid pipe running 10ft lower than the start point, coupled with your original 2 ft, you'd be close to 7psi (I think). But again the flow from the spring might be enough psi on it's own, the figures I am referencing are for standing water. I wonder if a continuous system might flood your terrace as you mention if the spring never stops flowing. Standing water creates psi on a sliding scale, and I'm probably closer to 5psi with my setup here's a link for a static head to psi conversion ruler https://umd-files.instructure.com/courses/969642/files/27532357/course%20files/Images/Fig-IR-BH-2.html. I'll be interested to see what progress you make, I have a property that I am only at maybe 2-4 weeks out of the year, and I haven't done any intensive planting for just that reason. We have a spring on our property but it is on the lowest point by about 30ft, and since there is a stream that flows year round just a few feet from that, we have always just pulled water from there for drinking and cooking, but haven't looked into irrigation possibilities.
 
Cath Brown
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How exciting!
I'm also just about to put an offer on a piece of land (with spring) in central Portugal. I can't stop obsessing either!
I wish you all the best and look forward to more news on your journey.
 
Tony Hallett
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I like the tank and float valve idea, that could work well for the second and third terraces. Unfortunately the spring on the top terrace is more like a pond, as you can see from the picture above the surface only just sits above ground level so I'd have to get the water to go uphill to fill a tank.
Might be a really bad idea, but what about making lots of little streams to irrigate the terrace? We have clay in abundance so we could dig a series of trenches, line them with clay and have the spring run into them, across the terrace and then off into the overflow. I'm thinking the clay would work as a wick to allow water into the soil in a similar way to the Soaker hose, but the banks of a stream aren't always boggy. Or am I missing something here?
 
Tony Hallett
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Cath Brown wrote:How exciting!
I'm also just about to put an offer on a piece of land (with spring) in central Portugal. I can't stop obsessing either!
I wish you all the best and look forward to more news on your journey.


Congrats! I hope all goes well for you. Unfortunately the obsessive research and planning gets worse once the deeds are signed!
Whereabouts is the land?
 
Denise Kersting
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Hi Tony, I really have no experience to offer re clay trenches, I think it might be a viable answer for you, but hopefully someone more knowledgeable can offer insight. I like the concept because it would also allow local wildlife to enjoy a drink too. I also thought about the "ooze tubes" you see around many newly planted trees, but they need to be refilled weekly (from the ones I saw), there is a larger one designed for gardening, but it only offered 3 weeks of watering. http://www.gardenersedge.com/ooze-tube-tomato-watering-system-40-gallon/p/TWK40/. If I am correct from your description of the spring retention wall if you placed a pipe just under the average high water level through the retention wall, it shouldn't drain your spring too much or over-water the trench or perforated pipe hopefully. I'll be looking forward to how you tackle this, please take some pics and share when you get back!
 
Marco Banks
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I'll take a crack at the Q in the OP.

Is it possible?  Yes.  Will it be productive and lush and wonderful?  Doubtful.

The illusion of planting a food forest and spending only 2 hours a week to maintain it is, in my experience, completely unrealistic.  The myth of the noble hunter-gatherer who walks among the trees and finds all the calories at his fingertips necessary to survive is romantic but highly unlikely.  Life is a struggle.  In the wild, life is a struggle for even the most adaptive and resilient animals.  Why should human life be any different?

We get about 60% of the calories in our diet from our integrated food forest.  We live in a Mediterranean climate that allows us to grow year round (Southern California), with chickens, bees, rainwater harvesting, swales, hugles, and just about every other common permaculture techniques.  I spend at least 10 to 20 hours a week in the garden, and more during the peak summer growing season.  Harvesting, drying, canning, preserving food takes a lot of time.  Watering even the most drought tolerant species of plants is necessary, as we don't get hardly any rain for 9 months of the year.  If you want any sort of production, you can't simply wind-it-up and walk away.  We grow both perennial greens like chaya and moringa, as well as traditional annual veggies . . . both take a lot of effort to maintain.

Fruit trees need pruning.

Root crops need to be planted and harvested.

Mulch doesn't just transfer itself from where its at to where its needed.

Compost doesn't turn itself.

Chickens need to be fed, watered and cared for.  I can't just turn them loose, as there are predators (hawks, coyotes) and if I want to eat their eggs, I need to have they laying them in a nesting box where I can find them.  They get to free range a bit, but usually I'm the one picking up the spoiled fruit and tossing it into the chicken tractor.  The chicken tractor doesn't move itself.

If you want a sundried tomato next winter, you need to start one in the cold frame, transplant it to the location it will grow, water and feed it, stake it up, all before you get the chance to pick it.  But wait --- there's more.  You pick it, put it in the solar dehydrator, watch it to make sure it's getting dry, package it, store it . . .  all that for the few calories you'll enjoy in the months ahead.

Heck, even bees, the most self-sufficient of creatures STILL need to be monitored from time to time.

So yes, on the most basic level, I suppose that you could design a low-maintainance food forest that requires minimal care, particularly if you had your watering system on a timer.  But you will not experience even a fraction of the abundance your land is capable of unless you get out there regularly and work in concert with nature and livestock.  There are few places on this earth that have the perfect combination of soil, rainfall and temperature to set it up and walk away (Hawaii?).  The rest of us get fed by the sweat of our brow.

But you know what?  It's not work.  I love it.  I enjoy those 10 - 20 hours a week of maintaining and caring for the garden.  The trees love it.  The chickens love it.  The strawberries love it.  I love it.


 
Tony Hallett
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I'm by no means under the illusion that I'll be able to just turn up, unpack our suitcases and start harvesting when we move out there. Hard work is a given! However, if it's possible for me to plant up a food forest now and allow it to mature for a couple of years before we move out there then I'm all for getting a headstart on the game of growies. For the next couple of years I'm not worried about yields, or even a few plants dieing, I'd just like to get something in the soil in order to start the life long quest for self sufficiency.
All I'm asking is if there's a way to keep the garden alive through the dry summer without me being there to nurture it. If it makes it that long then it'll have the autumn and winter to put down some good roots and hopefully give it a better chance at surviving the next summer.
 
Denise Kersting
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Hi Tony,

I still think you can gravity feed something that will deliver water to your new plants, take a look at this video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=my8_4C1x0DI in it, he is gravity feeding from a spring box (in your case you could tap a hole through your retention wall) to a tank and then to a lower location, but for your purpose if you even just had the smallest weeper hoses coming off the gravity feed line to individual trees on the upper terrace, and the rest of the line to a holding tank for some of your lower terraces you might get the watering that you need. There are 2 schools of though regarding pruning fruit trees, some say you should, and some say let them go. Either way, the first year especially if you buy younger trees they shouldn't need it. I have had some small success planting and not monitoring up at my cabin, but it never gets that hot or dry there, my biggest problem is a lack of sun. Worst case even if the trees fail to thrive, you'll have put in 2 weeks of hard work getting to know your new land purchase, which isn't a loss, but you'll be out some cash from the tree purchase.  You might (if you haven't already) want to look into making and taking some seed balls, that will "plant" themselves after you have left. You would have to determine what plants would work with your location and timing of "drop off" but it could be a viable way for you to plant some of the cover crops and fixers you are looking to add. For your reference, http://permaculturenews.org/2014/06/18/making-seedballs-ancient-method-till-agriculture/. Best of Luck!
 
Tony Hallett
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That's pretty much what I had in mind for the final setup with the water tanks on the 2nd and 3rd terraces, really simple and low maintenance with little chance of anything breaking.
I'd also been thinking about short pieces of Soaker hose connected up by normal hose to feed the trees, would need a bit of trial and error to work out the correct length to deliver the right amount of water to the trees without making things too wet but I'm sure it's possible to get it so that each tree gets a steady supply of a couple of litres a day. Would save us some money on the Soaker hose too as we could get away with buying the smaller roll!
As for the pruning, hopefully it will only be a couple of years before we move onto the land so I'll probably just leave the trees alone until then. I can't see it doing them any harm.

I really like the seed balls! They will be perfect for when we start planting the slope behind us. It's the councils land but I'd like to try and make it greener. At the moment it's pretty barren and the water just runs straight off, into our spring and then floods the terrace so I'd like to try and help it hold a bit more water.
 
Casie Becker
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Did you see the thread where some posted an explanation for how to mass produce thousands of seed balls? It's a huge improvement over hand shaping. If not, I'll try to hunt down a direct link when I am not on my phone.
 
David Good
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The mistake I made with my first big food forest project was to think fruit trees would do okay without a lot of input or soil improvement ahead of time.

Water is definitely the main thing you need and it's good you have it. Before I went nuts with fruit tree, I would first concentrate on planting a lot of nitrogen-fixers and chop-and-drop species to build up the land and increase the biomass on it. I wish I'd done that the first time around. After dropping loads of tree company mulch and planting lots of support species, most of my fruit trees pulled through and began to thrive - but for two years they basically sat. And I lived on site and did water and mulch them a bit. Just not enough.

Most fruit trees are highly bred over thousands of years to be food producers for man. They're not scrappy pioneer species that can be left to themselves.
 
Casie Becker
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Was doing something else and stumbled back into this thread to see I'd forgotten to post the link to the mass seed ball production technique. https://permies.com/t/974/Seed-Balls-good-winter-project Hopefully it's not too late to do you some good.
 
Tony Hallett
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We've been back in England for almost a week now, so too late for the spring visit but just in time for planning the autumn excursion! Thankyou

Bit of an update for all those interested.
We went a bit mad with fruit trees, the voucher I got from the website that was advertising the land gave us enough for 4 varieties of apple, a plum, a pear and 2 cherry trees (please don't ask what variety, it's in our gardening folder 1500 miles away!) my girlfriends mum came along with us and bought us a persimmon, another plum, an orange and a pink grapefruit (again, please don't ask, the labels were in Portuguese and are also 1500 miles away!) not to mention the blueberries, raspberries and gooseberries we took over with us!
Planted everything up on the top terrace, cleared the grass from the planting areas and built up guilds where we could with what we had. We were given some walking stick cabbages by (the girlfriend) kris' grandad, and we have plenty of mint and lavender growing on the land already so we spread these out amongst the trees. After everything was planted we sowed a spring ground cover mix (need to check the website to remind myself what was in it!) some red clover and a mixed bag of legumes, and covered with a good 30cm of grass cuttings, leaf mold and dried leaves to try and keep some of the moisture in. In total there is now 6 lengths of hose fitted into the pond wall just below the outlet for the overflow pipe I put in. The hoses run in pairs to water 3/4 trees each so they basically run from the pond, round the trees and then back to the pond. I figured this way it would minimise the pressure drop created by each section of Soaker hose.
Although water does seep out, I don't have much hope for the trees at the front of the terrace! However, even after putting in the overflow pipe the back edge of the terrace still has plenty of water in the ground so it wasn't all just spilling over the top like I'd hoped! This does help the trees at the back though and I think they'll have a much better chance of survival. We dug a hole to get some clay to seal up around the overflow pipe and the next morning there was 30cm of water sitting in the bottom, hopefully this'll keep them alive but time will tell!
 
Casie Becker
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I'm still sorry I missed the spring planting window. So that all the information is in one spot for your convenience, I'll also note that in this thread https://permies.com/t/480/14353/Reforestation-Growing-trees-arid-barren they found clay balls had to be a minimum of three centimeters to retain sufficient moisture to actually germinate. It's a long thread, but you might find it relevant. They're experimenting with large scale direct seeding with minimal inputs, including no watering.
 
leila hamaya
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i second the idea of starting from seeds ( free/cheap!), and direct seeding them exactly where you want them to grow.

and start a LOT of seeds this way. like several mason jars in volume at least, and that just for an small intensive garden area.

seed bomb, or just directly scatter, some time when you expect light rains. some tree seeds would do well with some extra intensive soil preparation before hand, and to poked down deeper. plant tree seeds in fall, and let them overwinter to cold stratify them.

if you planted a bunch of trees seed now...they would just wait until next spring to sprout, but plant them very deeply, in a depression or another spot for frequent moisture...but they can usually be ok with being drier when they are still dormant or dry, soaking them over night before planting.

the advantage of the direct seeding plants and trees is that whatever makes it -they are survivors of intense survival of the fittest conditions, they either make it or break it on their own.
they are the most suited to growing for you well, and nature and luck does the culling, with insects and animals eating them or the seeds, and all the other losses that happen when direct seeding.
thats why you have to plant 100 times more seed than what you want growing...

i also second the idea that you need to plant established trees in the fall, just as they go dormant, and this allows them all winter to develop roots.
then they are more likely to survive the summer heat and with less water, having deeper roots.
 
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