Ian Richards

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since Mar 28, 2011
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Recent posts by Ian Richards

So, in the spring of this year I planted 12 new fruit trees on my property and my girlfriend's property in the northern AZ high desert. Six apples, two apricots, two pears, one cherry, and two peaches. Each tree went into a hole prepped with a bed of wood and horse manure (see that process here), with the intent of reducing irrigation needs and frankly just getting them to survive at all. Our annual rainfall here is about 14-16 inches per year, with a significant chunk of that coming in the late summer monsoon season. Well, we're heading into the end of that monsoon season, and so it looks like we'll have to start irrigating again soon (in the last few months, the trees have only been watered once, thanks to the regular rain we get this time of year). The seeds I planted around the saplings have done pretty well, despite receiving literally zero attention. We actually harvested food (real food! from the property!) this weekend, including green beans, turnips, and a nice squash.

Here are some photos:

My two oldest apples, planted two season ago. The left one has never done great, and now looks like it's dying. The right one is very happy, though. Beans are climbing the fencing, and there are some turnips or radishes amongst the local weeds as well.

One of the peach trees, with lots of blooming squash vines.

...like this big ol' squash vine.

Native heirloom squash (I need to check my notes to see which variety; I planted several different ones). Tasted good in a stir-fry Saturday night!

According to my kitchen scale, this is a 2lb turnip. It grew in some really gunky ash/clay soil (we have big deposits of volcanic ash here) near an apricot. It was half in and half out of the ground, and right next to a second one nearly as big.

A single stalk of corn from the packet of heirloom local corn that I planted. Most of it probably got eaten by rodents before sprouting. This one has no hope of actually producing a mature ear, but it's still neat to see it surviving without any assistance.

Holy crap, something edible growing!

The happiest tree of all; a peach. With lots of beans to keep it company.

This is the lone cherry tree, which has completely died (I think its irrigation line failed in early summer, before the monsoon started). The beans like its fencing, though. I think this will probably be replanted with another peach next spring.

Overall, I am extremely happy with the performance of my hugel/woody beds. Everything is green right now because of the monsoon, but the tree beds have all become little epicenters of fertility. The companion plants were intended simply to fix nitrogen and provide ground cover to retain moisture - that I was able to actually harvest food from them is just a huge bonus.

Next spring, I will skip some of the species that didn't grow at all, and really go nuts with squash, melon, bean, and pea plants. I think we will also add in more root veggies - onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, and more turnips and radishes. Assuming they grow, we'll harvest some and leave some in the ground to help improve the soil.

Just to recap on why I'm so excited about this progress, here's what the place normally looks like:

7 years ago
So, I want to get an orchard going to have some long-term free fruit - but I'm up in the high desert, at 6000 feet elevation and with about 11 inches/year of precipitation. So preparation and planning are essential. I have two apple trees that seem to be doing fairly well (aside from being exuberantly pruned by some elk last spring) and are going into their second full year, so I'm pretty sure this plan isn't totally hopeless.

The next batch of trees will be arriving in a couple weeks, and I've been getting things ready for them. In addition to a really thick layer of mulch, I'm prepping an individual woody bed for each tree. First I dug a hole roughly 3x3x3 feet for each tree (using a backhoe). Then each hole was filled with a big pile of wood. Mostly juniper - because that's what is available here - but also some scrap pine from pallets (no plywood, though). I tried to include as much partially rotted stuff as I could get, although there isn't much rotting going on in this climate.

Once the wood was in place, I backfilled each hole with the dirt that had come out, plus some composted straw and horse manure from a neighbor. The soil in most of my holes was pretty decent (more sand than clay, and well drained) but hugely lacking in organic matter - so in addition to the wood each tree has about a half a backhoe bucket of manure mixed into the backfill.

I brought the holes back up to the point that they are about a foot below ground level, and ready for the bare-root saplings. Once the trees arrive, they'll go in and I can finish filling the holes as necessary.

For irrigation, I am putting together a 1/2" water line with T junctions running to each tree, and I'm putting it on a sprinkler timer type of system (haven't gotten the parts for that yet, though). The idea is to plug it in and have it automatically irrigate the whole orchard on a predetermined schedule. I can only spend weekends at the property right now, so this will ensure that the trees don't get neglected. I'm planning on once-weekly deep watering for now, with hopes of weaning them off supplemental water within a couple years.

Each tree will have at least 6 inches of straw or wood chip mulch (this appeared to work wonderfully last year), and will also have individual small swales to collect water. Given that our heaviest average month (not single rainfall event, but whole month) of rainfall is about 1.5 inches, I don't think I need (or would really benefit from) the larger 3' tall sort that seem to be standard in wetter climates.

Anyway, I figured I'd post the plans and photos so folks can see what I'm trying, whether it turns out to be something to copy or an example of what not to do. Hopefully in a couple years I'll be posting photos of cherries, pears, cider apples, peaches, and apricots!
7 years ago
I'd be quite happy to do that. How much wood do you think, and how deep in the ground?
8 years ago
I have some acreage in the northern AZ high desert, and would like to put in an orchard this fall - a bunch of apple trees for brewing cider, and also pears, peaches, and nuts. I'm thinking about 20 trees total.

My thought right now is to get bare-root trees shipped in after they go dormant for the winter, and to put in a buried irrigation system. I'm in zone 5, but up at about 6000 feet elevation - it's pretty windy in the spring and dry all the time. We get some snowfall in the winter, and an annual monsoon season in late summer, but I anticipate needing to irrigate any productive trees at least for the first few years if not perpetually. That's fine; I have a well and decent water supply to do it with and I would really like some productive trees on the property.

The area where I'm planning to put they is in a 1-acre or so patch of fairly large (8-12ft) junipers that grow stronger than anywhere else on my property. The new trees will be partially shaded during the day (we get excellent sun during the summer, and the high altitude makes it a bit harsh) and at least partially sheltered form the wind.

Does anyone have suggestions for giving these trees the best possible shot at thriving? I have three nursery-bought potted apples right now, and only one is healthy. One died over the winter (not sure why - it produced just a couple leaves this spring and then bit the dust) and one was doing well bit has had about half its leaves die (again, not sure why). The third looks healthy with lots of deep green leaves, but hasn't really grown since it was planted 15 months ago. To be fair, all three were chewed over a bit by elk shortly after planting (after which I added fencing around them and haven't had that happen again).

From the reading I've done, it sounds like I should not really amend the soil around the new trees, and just mulch them heavily. I'm thinking about an in-ground drip irrigation system on an automated timer - what do you think about that? What is a good watering regimen to use?

Finally, any suggestions for varietals that are more likely to survive in my rather arid climate would be appreciated. Thanks!

8 years ago
Bump - can anyone at least give me an idea if I'm on the right track here?
9 years ago
Hi, folks. I found this forum after listening to Paul Wheaton on the The Survival Podcast talking about irrigation and hugelkultur, and it really got my ears perked up. I'm going to be planting 6-10 trees this summer, and I would really like to do it without needing a permanent irrigation system.

Some background - I'm in northern AZ, in zone 5 and at about 6500 feet elevation. We get about 12 inches of precipitation per year, with almost half of it in the late summer monsoons. I have a well and could run in-ground drip irrigation, but I'd much rather not, if I can keep the trees alive and productive without it. My soil is pretty sterile...the largest naturally occurring plants are junipers 5 to 12 feet tall, followed by ~3ft brush and low clumps of grasses and some wildflowers.

I have a gently sloping north-east facing hillside that I planning to use (my neighbor's trees are out in an open meadow, and almost always bloom before the last frost and then lose all their buds). The majority of my trees will be apples (I want to have a large apple harvest to make hard cider with), but I am also planning on a spattering of almond, pear, and apricot.

The plan I've worked out is to dig a nice big hole for each tree (I have a backhoe, so this isn't much work) and drop some big tree segments in the bottom. Then fill the hole back in with a mixture of straw, horse manure, and the original dirt. I'll form a water retention mini-terrace around each tree to help slow runoff and let is sink in, and set up a nice pile of rocks near each tree to hopefully add a bit of condensation moisture.

Folk who have some experience with trees, do you think this will be sufficient in a high-altitude semi-desert? Any suggestions of how deep the hugelkultur wood needs to be buried, or how much? The only local wood would be deadfall juniper, but I could also head up to the mountains and get some pine, if that would be better. Can you recommend a good ratio for mixing manure, straw, and sandy red dirt?

I've attached a photo of an area really close to my place (there's lots of clay in the shot, but my place is much more sand than clay).

Any advice would be much appreciated - thanks!
9 years ago