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my forest garden project - vision, strategies, problems

 
Posts: 196
Location: Harghita County, Transylvania, Romania
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Hello Permies,

I’m sharing with you my Forest Garden project, which has been ongoing for 5 years now.  I have had some successes and plenty of failures.  I thought this might be a good time to draw the line and take stock of where I’m at, and bounce some ideas off.

Our climate is continental, Hardiness Zone 5.  The site is SW facing, exposed on all sides, with a 10% slope.  Heavy clay soil.  Fairly healthy herbaceous layer.

I’m aiming to have an established and productive forest garden within another 3-5 years from now (that’s 8-10 years from when planting was started).  We would have a mix of fruit and nut producing trees / shrubs, as well as woodland species that provide shade, firewood, and habitat & food for beneficial creatures.  The fruit / nut / wood yield is intended for own consumption.

My vision is to create something in between a "forest garden" and a "pleasure park".  The area is around 1.5 acres in total. Along the perimeter of the property we planted a hedge of mixed species. We also have contour swales, which should end up planted densely with trees and shrubs, behaving like very lush and very productive hedgerows. The interswales are intended as wide corridors receiving full sunlight punctured by “islands” of trees/shrubs planted fairly densely.  This will create a pattern of alternating zones of humidity and dryness, light and shade.


Problems / challenges:

- Severe, concerted pressure from several types of pests: voles, chafer grubs, mole crickets… Every year since 2013 I have been loosing between 5 and 10% of the planted trees / shrubs to these buggers.  (There are rabbits and deer as well, but my fences have kept them out so far.)  

- Heavy clay soil, which is poorly tolerated by some species (cherries grafted on certain root stocks, chestnuts…) and cracks really badly in dry hot weather, potentially killing feeder roots.

- Changing climate, erratic weather – creates unfavourable conditions (very high temperatures in early spring, long periods of drought in summer) which make survival of young trees incresingly difficult

- Trees and shrubs available from local vendors are of mixed quality. You can pick and choose the best plants in the local nurseries, but on-line purchases are hit and miss.  

My strategy: spare no resources and no effort until the desired result is achieved !!!

- Keep planting like there’s no tomorrow.  I planted 400 trees in 2013, then about 200…300 each year since.  (Some of the subsequent plantings replaced trees that had been killed by voles / chafer grubs.)

- Improve the soil by all possible means. Mulching, manuring, digging, plowing, rototilling if/when necessary. I have improved water retention by creating contour swales and planting along them.  (With mixed results – many fruit trees along the swales have been killed, as voles are attracted by the swale berm… I keep re-planting…)

- Plant a variety of species, including some that are vole-resistant, even though they may not be the most desirable – e.g., black locust.  Also, I’ve been trying to select species that tolerate our clay soil, but the temptation is strong to try plants that are very desirable but better suited for other types of soils … !

- Use the best available planting material. I try my best to choose healthy and vigorous plants, when they are available. Sometimes I need to compromise, e.g., when I need plants of a certain desirable species which are difficult to come by, I may have to settle for second-rate plants. The age / size of the young trees is important – I have been planting 1…1.5 m tall saplings, so that the plants don’t get lost in tall grass and I can use tree guards around their trunks.  

- Protect the best plants / key specimens from voles by planting them in wire mesh baskets, mulched with plenty of compost and wood chip. Unfortunately, the wire mesh doesn’t protect against chafer grubs, which come from underneath and eat the young roots / feeder roots…

- Distribute the plantings throughout the season.  Planting in early spring allows me to purchase the plants just before they break out of dormancy, so by seeing the swelling buds I can more easily estimate the plant’s vigour (and reject any plants that are weak / sickly / have suffered significant dieback of branches).  If I plant out potted trees in late spring / early summer, I’m more likely to catch the chafer grubs when digging the planting hole – so the young tree will be spared the attack in its first season. And by planting in late autumn / early winter, the plants will establish faster and will require less watering the following spring / summer.

- Zero tolerance of voles.  I have spent a little fortune on vole bait, and I keep applying it wherever I notice vole activity.  Sadly, the neighboring fields are teaming with voles, so there is a constant supply of them.

- Water the young trees during dry spells. As I don’t have an irrigation system, watering is done with a hose and/or watering cans and buckets.  Time consuming and exhausting, but necessary.  

- Spend as much effort and resources as necessary, in order to get the best results within the shortest time.  No ifs no buts. If necessary, I throw money at each problem as it emerges.  I select the best trees that I can get, so as to ensure the highest possible survival rate… I buy vole bait as needed… I purchase compost, manure, and mulching material (wood chips) … When I cannot cope on my own, I hire people to manage the herbaceous vegetation and apply the compost/mulch. Having said that ... this doesn't mean blindly throwing money at the project - I do re-assess the project continuously, and replace or re-design elements that turn out not to be appropriate for this place or for achieving my goal.  

… I’ll be back soon with photos, more details, and more ruminations.  Till then, feel free to share your thoughts.
 
Posts: 51
Location: The Balkans, Sofia
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Hello!

My experience with grafted trees that people sell here is really negative, they grow really slowly, they invest too much into fruit very early and that cost them a lot, also they grow in really strange shapes, like they dont know what they are doing, I water regularly and have put some effort in improving the soil, but these trees kind of dont appreciate all that.
On a contrary I have trees that I have started from a seed or I have collected small plants under some trees, at first I grow them in containers and then I plant them when they are tall enough(like above 60 cm) to be able to survive the shading of other plants. They grow much better and know exactly what they are doing!
Sure some may not end up that edible, but I have planted many and I will remove some later, its not that big of a problem since they cost me almost nothing.

Maybe you can try planting some of the nut trees directly where you need them and see what happens, it will cost you almost nothing in money and labor, and it will be a good experiment.
Try different species and varieties and strategies, sometimes it is really amazing how nature works in a very different ways than what we imagine in our heads, so stay open minded for all options.

 
Levente Andras
Posts: 196
Location: Harghita County, Transylvania, Romania
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Borislav Iliev wrote:Hello!

My experience with grafted trees that people sell here is really negative, they grow really slowly, they invest too much into fruit very early and that cost them a lot, also they grow in really strange shapes, like they dont know what they are doing, I water regularly and have put some effort in improving the soil, but these trees kind of dont appreciate all that.
On a contrary I have trees that I have started from a seed or I have collected small plants under some trees, at first I grow them in containers and then I plant them when they are tall enough(like above 60 cm) to be able to survive the shading of other plants. They grow much better and know exactly what they are doing!
Sure some may not end up that edible, but I have planted many and I will remove some later, its not that big of a problem since they cost me almost nothing.

Maybe you can try planting some of the nut trees directly where you need them and see what happens, it will cost you almost nothing in money and labor, and it will be a good experiment.
Try different species and varieties and strategies, sometimes it is really amazing how nature works in a very different ways than what we imagine in our heads, so stay open minded for all options.



I too have experimented with growing trees from seed and cuttings.  With mixed results.  

I've sown walnuts in a seed bed, then transplanted the seedlings when 2 years old.  I found it very difficult to dig out the seedlings without damaging the tap root - which was already 30-40 cm long, while the growth above ground was barely 15-20 cm tall.  One year from transplant, it seems that most of the growth is still under ground, having gained only about 5-10 cm above ground ...  Not sure if there's a better way to do this...

I've also sown acorns from 2 or 3 species of oak. Sowed them in (a) bald patches where the grass had been killed off by thick hay mulch (mulch removed so as not to attract voles); and (b) under wood chip mulch, near other young trees.  (I know that oak is better kept well-distanced from other trees, so situation (b) is not ideal - but I felt there was a niche in the mulched areas where at least I could get the seedlings started.)  That was 1 year ago.  They all germinated well and have grown quite nicely, but... keeping the vegetation at bay around the unmulched areas, without hurting the seedlings, has been a pain in the neck. And if I decide to move some of the seedlings - e.g., from near other trees to more open ground - I will probably be struggling again with similar issues to the walnuts - i.e., very long tap root that can get injured in the process.

Have also sown mountain maple.  Out in the open, similarly to the way I described for oak.  Great germination rate, slow growth rate, easily swamped by grass, and as a result many of them have been mowed down by mistake... Very few left!

Have done willows from cuttings... Some caught on better than others, depending on the vigour of the variety.  Will do more next spring

Have dug up, nursed and replanted volunteer seedlings of various species such as plum, apricot, elder, and goat willow.  Still early to make a judgment.

 
pollinator
Posts: 3218
Location: Toronto, Ontario
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It sounds to me like you might want to add some gypsum grit to your clay.

Perhaps choose out a section that becomes dessicated first, and when this happens, add gypsum grit to the top so that it falls into the cracks. You can also fork it in.

If, as I suspect, there is a calcium deficiency, that will be the cause of your cement-when-dry clay soil, and the gypsum will fix that without unduly affecting your pH.

-CK
 
gardener
Posts: 6361
Location: Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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The best way to get good results faster as well as controlling vole activity is to build the soil first. With the soil microbiome healthy and active, you will draw in worms to help distribute any organic materials you spread and that will begin to condition the heavy clay.
If you haven't already, give my soil threads a read, you will find lots of information on methods and techniques to get your soil healthy, friable and rich in nutrients. Throwing money into the wrong things at the wrong time, rarely give great benefits.

As Chris mentioned, a calcium deficiency is prominent in heavy clay soils so amending with gypsum will be a good thing.
You can also use fungi infused wood chips for mulch to prevent moisture loss and the fungi will be available to work on the clay and organic materials.

Redhawk
 
Levente Andras
Posts: 196
Location: Harghita County, Transylvania, Romania
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Chris Kott wrote:It sounds to me like you might want to add some gypsum grit to your clay.

Perhaps choose out a section that becomes dessicated first, and when this happens, add gypsum grit to the top so that it falls into the cracks. You can also fork it in.

If, as I suspect, there is a calcium deficiency, that will be the cause of your cement-when-dry clay soil, and the gypsum will fix that without unduly affecting your pH.

-CK



Thanks for the tip.  Letting Gypsum fall into the cracks is a technique I can work with - I've been doing that with compost.
 
Levente Andras
Posts: 196
Location: Harghita County, Transylvania, Romania
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:
You can also use fungi infused wood chips for mulch to prevent moisture loss and the fungi will be available to work on the clay and organic materials.

Redhawk



It was nice to see that the fungus population shot up 2 years after I started distributing wood chip mulch around the young trees.

Sadly, when the weather gets really hot and dry, and stays so for long periods of time, sooner or later the soil starts cracking up under the mulch as well.  The wood chips first delay the cracking, then they disguise the cracks, and finally the cracks show and bits of wood chips fall into the cracks (annoying...)

And when the soil actually stays nice and moist under the wood chip mulch, earthworms obviously like it there - then the moles strike - and when they do, they turn over the soil searching for the worms, burying the wood chips in the process !!!
 
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