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Planning a small orchard in Kentucky

 
Posts: 40
Location: Lexington, KY
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Hello! And help. I've been following this site for a couple years, but this is my first post. I am starting a small orchard on a blank slate of land and feel overwhelmed by the possibilities. I would appreciate any and all advice on how to design the orchard and also how to prepare the soil. My dream is to have a 100x75 foot biodiverse patch of vegetation buzzing with life. What I’m afraid I’ll end up with is a rectangle with some straight lines of trees and a few scraggly bushes underneath.

Land description: Lexington, Kentucky (zone 6b). Pretty flat, high ground at the top of a gentle rolling hill, near a country road. Up until this past year, it was used as a tobacco patch (not by me). This past summer it was tilled under and seeded with grass. It is currently covered in grass. I have sent a soil sample off to the county extension office. The topsoil is deep and has a fair amount of clay in it.

My current plan of action: This might be a really dumb sequence of events. Feel free to point out any flaws and make suggestions.
1) In early spring I was planning to put down the “ultimate sheet mulch” from the book Gaia’s Garden, which includes layers of soil amendments, manure, cardboard, more manure, bulk organic matter, compost, and straw. My plan is to put it over the entire 100x75 foot rectangle.
2) In the summer or early fall plant a nitrogen fixing cover crop (clover?).
3) In late fall, mow down the cover crop and plant apple trees.
4) Put down a layer of ramial wood chips or straw.
5) The next spring plant locust trees, stone fruit trees.
6) Over the next few years fill in the understory with daffodils, comfrey, berry bushes, and as many different varieties of ground covers and bushes as I can.

My current design plan:
Plant trees in rows using the NAP arrangement developed by Stefan Sobkowiak. Use each tree as the center of a guild.

Any red flags here? Any sagely words of advice? I am a 36 year old suburban mom who has only grown small gardens. I’ve read most of Gaia’s Garden and The Holistic Orchard. I’ve watched Stefan Sobkowiak’s video. I am currently suffering from paralysis by analysis. Thank you for your advice!!!
 
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Hi Audrey,

I like your plan! I have heard it said the best time to plant an apple tree is five years ago. The second best time is today.

I like that you are doing what you can to improve the soil, without delaying getting the seeds/saplings in the ground waiting for perfect soil.  All of your plans seem very sound.

I planted some apple tree whips a few years ago that I bought from Century Farm Orchard in NC - southern heirloom varieties. They all survived, and I saw my first apples this year!  Good luck!
 
Audrey Lewis
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Location: Lexington, KY
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Hi Artie. Thanks for the reply! How cool that you finally saw your first apples. I'm glad they all survived.
 
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You have bit less than a 1/4 acres so maybe 50 fruit tree at 15ft centers.
I would select 25% of those to be N-fixers. (15ft adler/seaberry/goumi/etc). 25% Prunus spp, 25% Apple, Pear, Quince, Medlar, Aronia, etc. 25% others (gooseberry, jujube, elderberry, hazelnut, yollowhorn, cronus mas, chicargo hardy fig, dwarf mulberry, hybrid persimmon, pawpaw, bitter orange, honeyberry, grape, akebia, hardy kiwi, fuzzy kiwi (zone pushing), 5 flavor vine, maypop, etc
 
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Audrey,

Overall I really like your plan.  If I could, I would make just a couple of suggestions.  

Firstly, please get a soil test from a few different sites in your future orchard.  The reason I say this is that tobacco is absolutely notorious for making good soils barren thanks to their nutrient-hungry nature.  In fact, one of the reasons for the western land rush in the early history of the United States (particularly in the South) was that planting tobacco had basically sterilized vast sections of once fertile land (farmers needed new land after they wore their old land out).

Modern fertilizers changed this in the early 1900s, but there is no telling what is in that soil.  Is there NPK and basic fertility?  Are there pesticides or other chemicals that you will have to adjust for?  These are not deal breakers, but an orchard is a long term investment so go in with your eyes open.

As your orchard grows, prune very early for desired shape.  When I grew mine I did not want to cut off anything and now my trees are very low hanging tangled mess that needs a severe pruning from which it won’t recover for a couple of years.

Great big kudos for you on planning for comfrey and woodchips!  If at all possible, inoculate those woodchips around the trees with mushroom spores (wine caps or king stropharia are great) to help add fertility.

Lastly (and somewhat controversially here) consider adding in drip irrigation.  Like you, I live in zone 6b and I know how dry summer/fall can be.  I added a drip line irrigation system from Dripworks when I first put the orchard in and during dry months early after planting, this saved my orchard, required no work once installed (just turn it on) and used a minuscule amount of water.

These are only my suggestions and I think the basics of your plan are great.  The more information you have, the better and I wish you the best of luck and hope you keep us updated.

Eric
 
Audrey Lewis
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Thank you so much, Bengi and Eric!

Bengi, I appreciate your breakdown of tree and plant types. I will definitely keep your suggestions in mind when I draw up my final plans.

Eric, thanks for the reminder about drip irrigation and pruning. It's easy to focus on just getting the trees in the ground, but maintenance is just as important.

I appreciate your feedback!
 
Eric Hanson
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Audrey,

You are totally welcome!  About the drip line, I had to trench mine out from my yard, around a pond and to my orchard.  I think I have 1000' of mainline tubing laid out.  This was actually not as difficult as it seems.  I just got a flat bladed shovel and started making little steps into the ground.  It took several days, but in the end all the line was laid out.  For drip emitters, I only use the 1/2 gallon per hour emitters.  Our clay soil will really hold on to the moisture and I certainly don't want to flood the land, nor do I want the trees dependent on irrigation.  I only turn it on when it is very dry or I am just starting out a tree.  Dripworks offers enough different types of fittings that you can turn individual lines on and off if you choose.  I also got a timer.  You can get really expensive timers to go on and off several times per day, but I was satisfied with a 2 hour wind up timer.  It was cheap and effective.

Eric
 
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Hi Audrey.  I would make two small suggestions.  For your step one, if you are new to this type of thing, you are going to find that it takes a really, really tremendous amount of material to cover an area that size.  If you have enough to cover it, by all means, do it, but I would make a small area first, say 10ft by 10ft, and cover it, just to see what amount of material you are looking at.  My second suggestion would be to cover everything with wood chips as soon as possible, and when you want to plant your apple trees, just move the chips aside and plant the trees in the soil.  Planting some guild plants around the apple trees at the same time you plant them will keep you from getting that rectangle with lines of trees look you are talking about.  Eventually, your guilds will connect and your paths will make themselves apparent to you.
 
Audrey Lewis
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Eric, I like your advice to mainly use irrigation for new trees and very dry spells. I think that makes a lot of sense. Luckily this area is only about 75 feet up a slight incline from a water hose line. That sounds a little easier than the maze you had to run your line through.

Trace, you're right! I might be biting off more than I can chew. I have covered two small 4x8 foot raised beds with cardboard and topsoil and was shocked at how much material it took. I should probably go ahead and start scanning Craigslist for people throwing out their moving boxes and start a stockpile. As for the compost and woodchips, I think I'll have to bite the bullet and pay to have some truckloads dumped near the orchard. It will still be a huge undertaking to get it all spread out. Your comment makes me think I should do it in smaller sections. Thanks for your input!
 
Eric Hanson
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Audrey,

I looked back at your original post and I had a thought or two for you.  Firstly, I applaud your decision to cover your ground with mulch, but as has been pointed out already, 75 x 100 is a LOT of mulch, even if spread only 1 inch deep (and you will want it much deeper).  It sounds like you are not planning on planting your trees immediately.  If this is the case, then could I suggest building up your soil first?  In particular, I had two crops in mind as a temporary cover.  Both are annuals so they will die on their own.  First off, consider Crimson Clover.  It fixes a lot of nitrogen and gets a good root system that will help break up that clay, bring up nutrients, and get some carbon into the soil.  Secondly I suggest Daikon radish, also known as tiller radishes.  These are huge radishes that send their roots deep and really help to break up any hardpan.  After they die, leave the radishes in the ground so they rot there.  The radish will help soak up some of the nitrogen fixed by the clover.  This is a very simplistic list and I made it simply because you have a nitrogen fixing agent and a nitrogen absorbing agent.  If you do this, it is critical that you mow, or otherwise kill off the crop before it goes to seed.  If you don't kill before going to seed, then you will get another crop the next year.  This is especially true for the Crimson Clover.  Now, if you are planning on taking some time to plant your orchard, maybe you want a couple of years worth of growth and this would be perfectly fine, desirable even.  You could follow these with lower growing plants and eventually smother everything with wood chips if you wanted.  You can make a much more diverse seed combination, these two are merely a suggestion.

Going back to the irrigation system, I am glad you have nowhere near the amount of lines I had just to get to my acreage.  One option you can go for (and it costs less than $5/tree) is to make a small ring around each tree with dripline.  Again, I only used 1/2 Ga/hr emitters and that is all I would recommend for you.  You can set up your system so that you can turn individual lines on and off, or even set up so that each tree could be turned on or off.  Though I rarely had to use this feature, I built it in so that I could water ONLY the trees I wanted and give them ONLY as much water as I thought they needed.  It can really help keep the water usage to a bare minimum (kinda a permie principle).  Some summers I did not have to use the irrigation system at all, but I installed EVERYTHING for under $300.  I think it is money well spent.  I got the system from Dripworks.com.

Best of luck and keep in touch,

Eric
 
Audrey Lewis
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That's not a bad suggestion, Eric. I have been torn between putting down sheet mulch and doing cover crops, or a combination of both. Just building the soil up through cover crops would be the easiest route, but my goal is to build the soil as much as possible before starting planting in the fall. If that could be done with cover crops that would be great. Do you think I could get two rounds of cover crops in before October?
 
Eric Hanson
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I am not certain that you can do two rounds of the mixture I suggested, but I see no reason you can't have a cover crop going alongside your trees.  Do you think you will plant the whole patch all at once or will you stagger the planting over time?
 
S Bengi
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Why do you want to mulch?
I like the idea of growing two set of 60days 12ft tall corn, and then turning those into biochar or just "chipping them" and leaving them on the soil.

Next I would unlock the mineral in "rock dust" in the soil. Soil is made from 50% "rock dust". So to unlock it I like spraying "compost tea".
I make it from water kefir + milk kefir + worm compost + "healthy soil from nearby that has alot of mycelium". Then make compost tea for 26hours and then spray within 6hrs. I like to repeat this every 4weeks. For leaves and soil and everywhere. Adding molasses/sugar and insect/crustacean/mushroom residue helps alot.

I would drop a bit of dutch clover and daikon radish with the corn. For Nitrogen fixation and soil aeration, but with all that "compost tea" worms will be showing up non-stop.

Next I would do all of my fruit tree plantings in late fall, that will give the bareroot/etc max time to get it's roots establish before the leaves start demanding water+nutrients.  



 
Eric Hanson
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Audrey,  

Also, if you are thinking that you will have a significant number of trees in the ground starting in October, maybe you could follow the crimson clover with red clover or even Dutch White Clover.  Dutch White Clover, especially grows close to the ground and would give you a nice carpet to keep soil in place, weeds down and wildlife (insects) near.  DWC won't dig as deep as the Crimson Clover, but its not too bad.  It is a perennial, so it won't just go away at the end of the year, but it might be OK to grow till you get your mulch in there.  In fact, the DWC could make for a good permanent living mulch if you were so inclined.  You could grow DWC along with a fescue grass, perhaps a few flowers and they would serve mighty fine as a living mulch.  You could still bring in wood chips around the base of the trees along with a guild of comfrey.  Get some mushrooms growing in your mulch and give your tree chop and drop comfrey and you could have a mighty nice permie orchard.

Let me know what you think, maybe we could brainstorm a bit more.

Eric
 
Audrey Lewis
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You guys are giving me so much to think about. Thank you! I am definitely now leaning more toward growing tall corn, daikon, clover, etc, rather than trucking in external materials. I also love the idea of compost tea. I had been planning to read more about that. I thought with my desire to plant as early as this coming fall I wouldn't have time to improve the soil enough without external materials, but perhaps it can be done. My plan is to plant as many trees, bulbs, or shrubs that are better off planted in the fall as I can, then fill in as many other trees and plants as I can in the following spring. I do have one question. I'm going to include some black locust trees. Would it be wise to go ahead and plant those this spring so that they can start putting nitrogen in the soil, or would it be better to wait until the fruit trees have established themselves before planting the locust trees? Since locust trees grow quickly I didn't know if they might outpace the fruit trees too much.
 
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I'd recommend contacting Cliff England (also in KY) and get some material for a few jujubes, pawpaw, Asian pear, or hybrid persimmons. He's a wealth of information and could really help you in cultivar selection.
 
Michael Wyrsch
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I think the Sobkowiak strategy is very solid. That's what I'm going with as well.
 
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Audrey, this is the start of an adventure, there are so many things you find out as you go, and fortunately most are recoverable.

Water seems to be well covered on here. Be careful with too much, in your climate there should be no reason to need it after the first year. Make the plants develop roots, and a little stress is OK.

Minerals/tilth: I am a big fan of mulch, but I killed a lot of trees with it. There are some that love it, and some that hate it, especially fresh chips anywhere near the drip line. I'm especially thinking of persimmon. Aged chips are a different story, but not against the bark. If you can afford to wait a year I put down a foot or more of mulch where the trees are going, then a year later plant the tree and pull the mulch back from the trunk and immediate roots. It gives the tree some air exposure but they can send feeders into the area under the chips if they like. I don't water anything with this technique, and with early spring planting I lose almost no trees. YMMV. I provide a mix of minerals the first year with greensand, DE, and rock dust- stuff that won't burn but will be concentrated enough they get some in the starter roots.

The big one- varieties and spacing. I think half of what Stephan does with all the spraying is because it is a commercial orchard. I have mint and other aromatics and onions at the bases, but I also start with resistant varieties exclusively. Especially the apple family, this is a big deal. Spacing too, let them breathe until they can duke it out. The one bug that is a massive pain is the cerculio, which you will definitely have. I've got nothing, the only thing I haven't done is kaolin because I'm lazy. Just have a strategy for it.

I have done some trees in lasagna mulch, and just be aware its great for retaining moisture, sometimes too good. I had 100% mortality a couple springs ago on the lasagna plants because it was so wet.

Nothing beats trying a couple things, and seeing what works in your soil type.
 
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Your part of KY is "hit or miss" with cedar trees. If your property has a lot of cedar trees then make sure you at least consider getting "Cedar Apple Rust" tolerant apple trees.
 
S Bengi
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In a 1/4 acre food forest I prefer adler over honey locust they both give alot of nitrogen. But dutch clover beats them both and dutch clover releases it's nitrogen much faster and more often.
 
Eric Hanson
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Audrey,

You are getting a lot of great information here, and I bet it is like drinking from a fire hose by now.  I will try to keep my comments brief.

First off:  personally I have a love-hate relationship with black locust.  Mostly hate.  I love it for its nitrogen fixing qualities.  But I hate the thorns.  I have had black locust thorns puncture my tractor tires.  Not riding mower tires, I mean a diesel powered tractor.  Around me they are a fast growing weed tree.  Personally I would suggest another pioneer tree.  I strongly agree with S Bengi about the alder trees.

Secondly,  from personal experience, whenever I plant a tree I give it a generous supply of water and I make sure it won’t dry out as it establishes.  I know some want to stick bare roots into the ground and just let them be, but this has never worked for me.  I like to start the bare root soaking in a bucket with a rooting agent dissolved in and later plant into a nice hole filled with good amended soil (I like to amend with bone meal, rock dust and greensand).  This early time is when your irrigation system really pays off.  I would have your main line run right along the trunk with a 10’ line branching off with a valve (for future water control), ringing the tree.  That should give you plenty of water without soaking the ground.  Also, make certain the drip line is in contact with the soil but under your mulch.  This will prevent evaporation, reduce water consumption and preserve the life of your drip line.

Thirdly, since you have an ambitious project and you want to plant trees in October, I think the time to start your project is now.  Find out the very earliest you can plant a cover crop—any crop.  My list was only a suggestion.  Your local extension office may be able to give you a better one.  Start finding mulch now.  Maybe start digging at least a part of the drip line now before you get really busy in spring or gets scorching hot in summer (I live in your climate zone too and I know what summer can be like).  Doubtless there are other aspects you know of that I forgot.  My point is start ASAP.

So much for brevity.  Audrey, you sorta remind me of myself a few years ago when I first started my orchard.  I hope you can learn from my successes and avoid my failures.  As always, if you have questions, please ask.

Eric
 
Audrey Lewis
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Eric, yes it is a ton of information that I'm receiving, but I'm so thankful for it. As Tj said, there are many things I'll find as I go, and fortunately most are recoverable. I'm sure I will have plenty of set backs, but hearing all this great advice will help me avoid some mistakes and perhaps know what to do when things do go differently than I had planned. I'm fortunate in the sense that this orchard is just a labor of love and not something I need to rely on. I'm also glad to hear you say that you don't like black locust trees. I've been teetering back and forth on them, hearing some people tout them as the best thing ever for planting near fruit trees, while I've always thought of them as a thorny nuisance as well. Maybe I just dislike them so much since I stepped on one of those stupid thorns barefoot as a kid. I will check out alder trees and dutch clover as S Bengi suggested.

Lon, thanks for pointing out that I need to consider getting apple trees that are tolerant to cedar apple rust. There are a few cedar trees on the 10 acre property. I definitely plan to choose fruit tree varieties that are as well adapted to this climate and disease resistant as possible. I've been learning a lot from the Peaceful Heritage nursery website (http://www.rootofdavidnursery.com/index.html). They are located about an hour from me and have great information about which varieties do well here. I'll probably order some of my trees from them. I appreciate Michael's comment to contact Cliff England. I had written down in a notebook somewhere that I need to go out and visit his orchard, and then of course I promptly forgot. Now that I'm actually about to start DOING rather than just RESEARCHING it would be a good time to contact him and see if I could visit him in person.

Thanks for everyone's comments, and if something else pops in your mind that you think would be good for me to know, please don't hesitate to post it. I'm reading everything and taking notes! I'll post my progress on here regularly.


 
Eric Hanson
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Audrey,

You have me interested in this project like it was my own when I first started my orchard years ago.  I hope you don’t mind if I obsess a bit over it.

After a bit of research, I found a good pair of plants for a ground cover.  First, orchards are increasingly using Dutch White Clover as a nitrogen fixer because it grows almost anywhere, withstands shade, adds nitrogen, holds soil in place, attracts insects and the list goes on.

Apparently sheep’s fescue is a good complimenting grass.  It grows laterally & spreads to fill in gaps, soaks up nitrogen, needs little water or nutrients grows close to the ground and the list goes on and on.

So a thought for you would be to plant crimson clover and daikon radish early, mow those down before they seed, and re-sow with a permanent DWC/sheep’s fescue mix.  This potentially gives you a very nice combination of plants to help work in some fertility both before you plant and continue to do so after you get your trees started.

I did see a previous comment about using corn as a green manure.  I respectfully disagree with this point.  Corn needs a LOT of nitrogen, especially if the plan is to get it 10’ tall, and for a plant so tall, it has a puny root system.  Also think about how you are going to reduce all that corn.  I doubt you can mow it and trampling it would be arduous and just would not break down quickly.  Maybe you could find someone to mow it with a rough cutter and tractor, but you still won’t have the benefit of a nice root system. Though you are of course the person making the decision, I think you are much better off with a deeper rooting legume.

I hope this gives you an idea of possibilities and of course I hope this is helpful.

Eric
 
S Bengi
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From germination to flowering corn only goes thru 50% of it's nitrogen budget, the other 50% is used for seed production so if the corns plants are killed then, it doesn't require as much as in the books. Also corns can be planted with legumes (3sister). Actually most holistic pastures are planted with 50% legume and 50% grass/corn. I would dry the corn then turn it into bio-char, but using it as a green manure is another great idea.

Here is a weed wacker like device that can cut the corn

https://www.amazon.com/Teeth-Steel-Brush-Cutter-Trimmer/dp/B007MW0MSE
 
Audrey Lewis
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Ha ha, Eric, feel free to obsess over my orchard! Then I won't be alone in my obsession. I've talked to a few friends and family about the details, but their eyes glaze over. Plus, the few people around me who garden or who have lived on farms are only familiar with the standard chemical based, tilling, mono-culture style of growing. I don't have anyone to get input from in person.  

I really like your suggestion of planting crimson clover and daikon radish first, mowing it down, and then sowing in the dutch white clover and sheep's fescue mix. That sounds much less labor intensive than sheet mulching or trying to use corn as a green manure. Do you think it would be a good idea to bury some logs and branches in the paths, almost like a lazy hugelkultur, to provide food for fungus before I start planting the crimson clover and daikon?
 
Audrey Lewis
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Thanks for your follow-up on the corn, S Bengi. How do you go about turning dried corn into bio-char? Do you just put it in a pile and burn it, then spread it out over the field?
 
Trace Oswald
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Audrey Lewis wrote:Thanks for your follow-up on the corn, S Bengi. How do you go about turning dried corn into bio-char? Do you just put it in a pile and burn it, then spread it out over the field?



Audrey, there is a forum dedicated to making biochar here.  There are several good ways to make biochar, each having advantages and disadvantages.  All work, but if you just put corn stalks in a pile and burn it, you'll just get ash and no biochar.  
 
Audrey Lewis
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Thanks, Trace. You can tell I know nothing about bio-char, ha ha.
 
Eric Hanson
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Audrey,

If it were me, I would not go the "lazy hugel" route, as you put it.  I think that you will get ample fungal activity by having a ring of mulch on the surface, but I would make certain I got that mulch inoculated with stropharia mushrooms.  If you are really ambitious, maybe you could lay a couple of short logs around your mulch ring, inoculate and cover with mulch.  Solid logs will continue to produce mushrooms longer than mulch alone and the fungi will get well and truly established.  Also, don't forget about that comfrey.  Comfrey will send roots down deep and bring up nutrients for years and generally add plenty of fertility to your trees.

Biochar is some interesting stuff and while you might be able to make use of it, it may be difficult on the timescale you are talking about.  Biochar is made (or at least starts with) by burning wood in the absence of oxygen.  You end up with a little carbon skeleton of whatever you put into the "fire."  You can make charcoal by burning in a pit and then covering up, but this is a dirty, smokey and really inefficient process.  In order to make biochar efficiently you will need a kiln.  I once made a kiln out of a paint can and 3 soup cans.  I could only make one soup can of biochar at a time, but it worked for a proof-of-principle setup.  For you, more realistically you would need to get a hold of a 30 and 50 gallon barrels and do some metalwork to get everything right.  It is not hard, and biochar can be some really neat stuff, but given that you want to plant in October, my opinion is that you would be better off growing crops than corn.  My personal opinion is that biochar would indeed be something worth pursuing, but I would start that next season as you will have your hands full in October when you would want to make use of the biochar.  Now, if you are really eager and want a project between now and spring, making a biochar kiln and producing some initial biochar would be a productive use of time and you could have some ready when you need it in October.  To boot, you would also have time to have the biochar age in some compost (put the Bio into the Char) and really get the biology going.

I mean absolutely no disrespect to S Bengi as I think that every other comment he has made regarding this thread (and others I have seen) are absolutely sage, but I would focus on crops that got their roots deep into the soil, something corn won't.  Perhaps if you wanted to grow a little bit of corn to add some biomass and kill it before it started to fill the seeds this would be a great way to add biomass, but since you are positively itching and rearing to go, I would plant the crimson clover and radish which could be started much earlier in the spring.  Corn is terribly sensitive to frost and by the time the last frost date passed, your crimson clover would likely already be shading out the corn.  However, there is nothing saying you can't start the clover/radish mixture and then throw corn into the mix later and what comes up comes up.  You could then mow down the whole patch and then plant trees into the residue (you will have a lot).  Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think that you should hold off on starting a permanent living mulch until after your trees are in.  That way the seeding won't be disturbed when you are putting in your trees and dripline in.  You could then plant sheep's fescue and especially Dutch White Clover in the fall and it would have some time to establish over fall and winter before really coming into action the next spring.

Please let me know what you think.  I am enjoying this conversation and look forward to your response,

Eric
 
Audrey Lewis
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Thanks for your informative feedback, Eric. I will have to read up on bio-char sometime. I don't foresee myself learning about it in the immediate future just because I have so many other thoughts swirling around in my head at the moment.

I have lots of questions about the crimson clover and daikon radish process. Brace yourself.

First, I have to battle the existing grass that was planted this last summer. It's still new, so it's not incredibly thick, but it most definitely covers the ground. How would you recommend killing it off? Perhaps black plastic for a few weeks? I don't like the idea of creating waste, especially plastic, but that might be something I could repurpose if it didn't get too torn up. I also could easily borrow a tractor and till the soil.

Second, how early could I plant the crimson clover and daikon radish? The little reading I've done about crimson clover mostly talks about planting it in the fall.

Third, would you recommend including other seeds in the mix, like oats or peas or hairy vetch?

Fourth (I told you - lots of questions), at what point do I cut the clover and radishes down? It seems like the radishes would have gone to seed and died long before the fall, and I don't know what clover does over an extended period. My understanding with green manure is that you cut it down just before it goes to seed. My life would be easier if I could just plant the crimson clover and daikon radishes in early spring and not touch it again until Fall, but I feel like there would need to be some interim mowing and replanting somewhere in there.

Fifth, I'm going to let you off the hook with a fifth question because this is getting a bit lengthy :)
 
Eric Hanson
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Audrey,

No worries about lengthy questions.  I like lengthy answers so in this case we are pretty well matched.  

1). I don’t think I would kill off your existing grass so much as work with it.  Do you know if it is a fescue or bluegrass (or some other grass)?  You can work with either.  I recommend always keeping a living root in the soil as long as you possibly can.  Those living roots will work with the microbia in soil.  Killing the root starves the microbes.  There is a really great you tube video by Gabe Brown who goes into wonderful detail about the relationship between surface life and soil life.  I highly recommend watching it.  And its lengthy to boot so it works with the theme we are developing here.

But back to your question, I would first mow the grass as close as possible to the ground and then spread your seed right into the ground.  If the grass residue is too thick, maybe wait a bit for it to dry out, rake into piles, seed in between, then spread the piles out and seed where the piles were at.

2). I recommended Crimson Clover and Daikon Radish because they are both cool season crops.  Cool season crops tend to get a burst of growth in the spring before becoming dormant and going to seed when the hot weather hits.  Being a cool season plant, the Crimson Clover has a tendency to grow well in the cooler parts of fall and go dormant over winter.  The root is still alive and well and actually strengthens during winter in preparation for a really showy performance the following spring.  This is why many articles are telling you to grow it in fall.  This is another case where your extension office can be a valuable resource.  Check with them for more exact timing.

3). By all means, include other seeds into your mix.  My recommendations were to simplify the concept that you want a nitrogen fixer and a nitrogen “sponge” (but the radish tap root really does help break up deep soil).  Oats and peas are another obvious choice, so if you are so inclined, run with those as well.  The more diversity you work into your ground the better.  The more I think about it, the more I am liking some corn in the mix, but not as a primary crop.  Please let me explain why.

If I were seeding a pasture, I would have no problem with corn.  As strange as it may sound, the single greatest determinant of your soil’s fertility is soil carbon.  Soil carbon serves as a home for microbes, as a sponge to help soak up nutrients and most importantly as both storage for water and improving drainage.  An amazing factoid:  a 1% increase in soil carbon can yield upwards of a 25% increase in soil fertility.  Carbon is just that important.  Corn is an extremely fast grower in the warm weather and it will take up and store the soil nitrogen and release it back so long as it died and began decaying while still green.  If you had animals munching on it, this would be perfect (but I don’t think you do).  Since any biomass is going to contain carbon, the more biomass you can grow, the better.  But as a primary crop, I would be concerned that the corn would demand too much nitrogen so I would feel safe with corn being thrown in at a fairly low rate.  Let it grow as much as it can but kill it before it starts to develop a seed cob.  But back to the seed mix,  I would err on the side of fixing nitrogen and working deep roots into the soil.

As if this answer were not long enough already, I will comment on hairy vetch.  This too could be planted, but do so with caution.  Hairy vetch produces biomass—LOTS of it.  It likes to leave a sprawling vine crawling over the ground and if planted with any density, it tends to smother out everything else.  This might be beneficial and if you want to go this route, who am I to say this is a bad idea?  Hairy Vetch will also fix a LOT of nitrogen, so this can be a very useful plant, but like corn, it might tend to smother out other crops.

To sum the whole complicated answer up, I would try to balance out nitrogen fixers with nitrogen sponges and make sure your seed mix includes plants that play nice with one another.  Also, consider balancing seeds that have both a deep root system and a fairly shallow root system.  Please note:  this initial seed mix is something that I was thinking was only for an initial smother crop and soil builder in preparation for planting trees.  You will want a different mixture for your permanent cover crop as you will want something that is not so sprawling on the floor of your orchard.

4). Again, check with your local extension office about exact mowing dates, but consider killing just as the Clover goes into full bloom or maybe a bit earlier.  Since plants need to flower in order to seed, terminating them at the flower stage should do it.  A shame though as Crimson Clover can be really beautiful stuff.  If you kill it early enough (and this is a judgement call you will have to make), you could try a second, warm season cover crop of maybe beans, corn, and some  buckwheat.  These should get some growth pretty quickly, especially the buckwheat.  Just make certain to mow before it too goes to seed, which it will quickly.

5). I told you this would get long.  Have you thought about how you plan to kill the crop?  Do you have a weed eater with a blade like S Bengi showed us?  Do you have a push mower?  A riding mower?  I don’t want to pry into your personal life, but your profile mentioned that you have kids.  Can/would they be able to help?  The reason I am asking is that mechanical removal of your cover crop will be a chore unless you have a tractor with a rough cutter or better yet, a flail mower.  Maybe you could rent a brush mower to mow down all of this material.  These are just thoughts to consider before you have a huge cover crop to tame.

You mentioned that you have access to a tractor.  While I would avoid tilling, if you could use this for mowing, you could save yourself a lot of back breaking work.  

Audrey,  I am glad you like long answers because I like giving them.  Please keep me updated.

Eric

 
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Eric Hanson wrote:Biochar is some interesting stuff and while you might be able to make use of it, it may be difficult on the timescale you are talking about.  Biochar is made (or at least starts with) by burning wood in the absence of oxygen.  You end up with a little carbon skeleton of whatever you put into the "fire."  You can make charcoal by burning in a pit and then covering up, but this is a dirty, smokey and really inefficient process.  In order to make biochar efficiently you will need a kiln.  Eric



While biochar making in a covered pit can be a polluting, messy method, if you use the open pit method it can be as efficient or even more efficient than using a kiln.  The Kon Tiki folks have measured the emissions from the open pit method and have found virtually none.  Here's another example of metal "open pit" systems.  For me, I just dig a hole in the ground and make biochar via the open pit method and I teach others to do the same whenever possible.  Then you don't have to worry about having a metal kiln and where to store it and what to do with it when it's corroded away.  When I do make biochar in a kiln I've noted that the volume shrinks by about 50% during the conversion.  When I measure my pit made biochar vs the volume of wood used it likewise is about 50%.  This, of coarse, will be dependent on the biochar maker keeping up with the fire.  You just start a fire in the pit, then keep adding wood over any location that starts to look like ash will form.  In effect you end up a few layers of wood on the surface of the fire with charcoal that has formed being in the core, protected by the flame that burns the pyrolysis gases coming off the wood on the surface....what we call a "flame cap".  That flame cap is like the walls of the kiln, keeping out all the oxygen that would otherwise get to the charcoal.  You just keep it going until you've filled the pit.  Start with small diameter wood to get it going, then move to larger stuff, then back to small stuff at the end to keep the flame cap going while the last of the larger stuff finishes converting.  

Here's a few pics from my pit plus a few other pics from the web showing that the pit's heat could be used to fire pottery, or could go into an oven.  Heck, you can send the heat to a greenhouse, hot tub (or hot tub in a greenhouse) or pool if you wanted....lots of good things to do with heat!  So if you're making heat with a fire why not also make biochar?  Heck, I can't see why this can't be the front end of a thermal mass heating system like a RMH.  I'm planning to set mine up to boil maple syrup next month while also making the char.  I also want to set it up for pottery making in the not too distant future.  My pit makes about 1 cubic yard in about 4 hours of active burn time.  A good recommended starting point for soil addition is about 1/2 gallon per square foot, so that cubic yard will cover about 405 square feet.  At that rate you'd need about 19 yards to cover your whole forest garden.  But there's no rush.  Just add it over time as you can whenever you do any mulching.  I just spread mine on the soil surface and mulch over it.  I also always add it to my compost pile at about 10-20% of the pile volume.  Whenever I empty my kitchen compost bucket I put a couple inches of biochar at the bottom of the bucket and it absorbs any gick and keeps the smell down.  Then when I empty the bucket the biochar gets incorporated throughout the pile.  To me biochar is a lifelong gardening activity and there's no rush to set it all up at the beginning of a garden build.  It will work it's way down into the soil over time.
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Hey Audrey here's a cool site with a nice plant list,
http://tcpermaculture.com/site/

John Kitsteiner farms somewhere in Kentucky I think. He's the site author.

One other consideration is wildlife pressure. And Edible Acres has some YouTube videos that show how he defends his high value seedlings against predation.


Is your orchard for home use only?
 
Eric Hanson
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Greg,

Interesting post.  I stand corrected.  It looks like you have a nice furnace set up there for making charcoal.  I have seen these types of setups before but I thought these were more work (but a whole lot prettier and much longer lasting) than a metal kiln.

Eric
 
Audrey Lewis
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So much good information.

Greg, thanks for the overview of bio-char. Your description definitely demystifies it for me. I will take your advice and incorporate bio-char when mulching in the future. Thanks!

Kamaar, I had not heard of John Kitsteiner. His website does look useful as he is located in a similar climate. After some digging I saw that he is now in Tennessee, although he did mention spending time in Kentucky. Still, lots of useful stuff on his website about permaculture in a temperate climate, so thanks for the reference. My orchard is for home use only, at least that's the plan. I'd like to preserve as much as possible through a solar dehydrator, canning, and freezing, and give away excess to friends, family, and the food banks, but if it ever got to a point where it was producing an exorbitant amount I would not be opposed to selling some. That might be a good mini-business for my kids when they're in high school. My primary goal for now is to breathe some life into this land, produce food for my family, enjoy time outside working with my hands, and get my children involved in gardening. We currently live on a 1/3 acre on a busy road in the middle of Lexington, which has a population of over 300,000. The 10 acre property where I will be planting the orchard is in the rural southern part of the county, about 25 minutes away from us. Living in the city and working an office job is about to drive me crazy. This isn't the life I want for me or my kids, so I'm doing everything I can to get us interacting with nature until we can maybe build a house out there, finances willing. In terms of wildlife pressure, there are plenty of dreaded deer. At this point they avoid that part of the property, but I have no doubt they will discover it as soon as anything tasty is in the ground. We also have groundhogs, moles, voles, raccoons, possums, birds galore - the usual. I will definitely check out the YouTube videos from Edible Acres. Thanks for that reference, too!

Evan, I love your idea to mow the grass as short as I can and then sow the seeds for the cover crop right on top if the clippings aren't too thick. That seems the least disruptive to the soil. I think I will use a mix of nitrogen fixers and nitrogen sponges, as you suggest, including crimson clover, daikon radish, and others, and I appreciate your warning about hairy vetch's sprawling tendencies. That's good to know. The way you described the benefits of carbon in soil and how you might sparsely add some corn gets my creative juices pumping. Now that I'm getting an understanding of the big picture of prepping the soil I feel a lot more confident about experimenting with various plants like corn, buckwheat, beans, or any others this summer. When it comes time to kill the crop I've got a few tools at my disposal, as well as the means to purchase some that are on the cheaper side. My husband, my 8-year-old son, and I can do quite a bit of labor by hand (I'm sure my 5-year-old daughter would help for a few minutes before picking some lovely flower arrangements for us). I also have a push mower, a riding mower, and easy access to a tractor that has a mowing attachment. It sounds like the tractor might be the way to go.

I will start shopping for seeds soon. Next on my list is actually designing the layout. I understand the whole idea about vertical layers of tall trees, shorter trees, shrubs, and ground covers. I've read about various types of plants that serve all different functions and plan to incorporate as many varieties as I can partly by mimicking what others have done and partly by fun experimentation. But when it comes to actually drawing up a plan for the paths and trees, I hit a roadblock. Some options I'm considering are plain old rows of trees with a walking path between each row. I've also seen a pattern that goes tree row, nitrogen fixing bush row, tree row, path, repeat. And then there's the interesting looking designs with winding paths based more on circles than lines. I like those because they look softer, more like something nature would create, and are probably more intriguing to walk through. However, I wonder if they make maintenance or harvesting more difficult. Does anyone have any insight on a good layout for a 30-40 tree orchard?
 
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Don't forget about possibly planting some native fruit trees. They can be useful as trap plantings for pests. I think Toby did this in Gaia to give the deer something to eat instead of his retail type fruit trees. Every State has a State Nursery although Kentucky's doesn't seem to have much of a selection. You could try neighboring States as well. I think most, if not all ship seedlings and they're CHEAP. Buck or two per seedling at most. Usually two year old seedlings.

http://forestry.ky.gov/statenurseriesandtreeseedlings/Pages/SeedlingFactSheets.aspx

Some of the native/wild stuff is actually good eating for humans and being native, they don't require as much input. Hazelnuts, Elderberry, many fruit trees in general. Some might only be good for jam/jelly.
 
Greg Martin
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Hi Eric, I just have the pit in the top two pics.  The other pics are just web pics I've saved as ideas for what to do with the heat generated....there is a lot!  I'd love to send the heat in the winter into a thermal mass in my house like a bathroom floor or the whole north wall, but I'm sure my insurance agent wife would not allow me to (but how fun would that be!).  But I'm sure I could get away with doing that to a greenhouse or small building away from the main house.
 
Eric Hanson
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Audrey,

Sounds like you have a good source of labor for your initial stages!  I think you will have the best luck mowing your green manure crop with a tractor.  I don’t know how much you will need nitrogen fixing trees/bushes if you have a carpet of Dutch White Clover, but if you want to try it, by all means, give it a shot.

When I grew my orchard, it was just slanted lines to ease mowing and allow me to pull a tarp over a row in case of a late freeze.  Many years ago we had an extremely mild winter and early spring.  Just about every plant started putting out foliage far too early and then a late freeze hit.  Our peach crops were ruined (both mine and commercial orchards), greenery on trees wilted and then turned black (and stank!) and the growing season for all plants was put back by almost a month!

Now I have my trees in rows so I can set a pole on each end, run a line between them and set a long tarp over the whole row.  For additional freeze protection I can set out a 5 gallon bucket of very hot water right by the tree, just enough heat to protect from freezing.  I could also set out a candle in a coffee can, or both.  Having the heat source under a tarp only helps keep the heat.  True,  the layout is not exciting, but the tarps go up quickly and easily.

I hope this helps,

Eric
 
Audrey Lewis
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John, yes I plan to plant some native fruit trees, although I hadn't considered using them as trap plantings for pests. What a cool idea. I had looked at Kentucky's Division of Forestry tree order form before (http://forestry.ky.gov/statenurseriesandtreeseedlings/Documents/Seedling%20Order%20Form%2018-19%20Season.pdf). They have one or two varieties I might be interested in. That's a good idea to look at neighboring states. I hadn't even considered that.

Eric, I have no idea why I called you Evan in my last post - sorry about that. I can see how having trees in rows would be easier to maintain just based on your use of poles and tarps. Decisions, decisions...
 
Eric Hanson
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Audrey,

Lines do make for easier planting, watering, pruning, mowing and maintenance--that's why commercial orchards have trees in lines, but this is your orchard and as you put it, is a labor of love so you do with it what you want.  Personally, I find the idea of a meandering path through a grove of fruit-bearing trees irresistible.  This would also facilitate planting flowers, and multiple layers of canopy.  

I thought the Evan comment was just a typo.  Truly, no offense taken.

Eric
 
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