Our Food Forest Startup

Mission: The creation of an integrated Permaculture growing space that facilitates a multitude of yields over time leveraging our splendid sandy loam soil and past developments.

Honestly, I don’t know what to call it because it’s so many things; A Permaculture Garden, Food Forest, Orchard Garden, Alley cropping orchard, Agroforestry lines, Forest Garden extraordinaire. The space is comprised of hedges and food forests previously planted (starting 2018) flanking agroforestry orchard lines planted food forest style of many layers (2021/22 planting). These orchard lines are planted 25 to 27ft apart with 20 to 22 ft wide cells (alleys) between for alley cropping.  The alleys are filled with beds of nursery propagations, vegetables, flowers, chicken or duck tractors, weeds, and sometimes burnt field. It is a massive work in progress.

Evolution of the Field

Here is how it started.  For some unknown reason, some think it was from a meteorite, this field perched above the backwaters of the Ohio river is full of the sandy loam Petersburg is known for.  Its quality is dreamy and was used for farming on and off I am sure for millennia.  In more recent times, it was farmed for tobacco in the 50’s-70’s like so much land here in Kentucky.  It really had no agricultural use until I burned the field in 2012 and planted an orchard with trees I received as payment for teaching in SE Ohio that winter.  But life took me back to Europe and with no cages, not enough care and protection, that failed eventually.  Some survived enough to the point when Annie Woods started Dark Wood Farm in 2017 here, she had to uproot a couple of struggling or most likely just rootstock by then.  She then created 50 ft long beds in the field which those quadrants, 4 sections of 50 ft long beds that were about 150 to 250 ft wide. She grew a successful market garden here for years allowing me to observe it under the eye of production. I learned a lot from Annie and grateful for the time she had here, the garden development, and the improved soil she left behind.

This continued through 2020 and eventually she found a farm of her own an hour away.  This left the field to begin the process of succession in early 2021.  Some vegetables were left in the field from fall 2020 planting and was fun to watch them bloom and self-seed.  Annual weeds took over and then the perennials crept in.  My friend Allison in 2021 planted a couple of rows of Dhalia flowers and I supported with some chicken poo from our poop deck and general care.  I was so overwhelmed with the launching of the landscaping business that I could only pull off a small garden of my own.

Orchard Gardens at Treasure Lake, Jan 2023

2021 Fall Planting Start it Off

But those gardens got me thinking about what could be along with the flowers, the veggies, the sheep grazing back parts, and the landscaping motifs that were being implemented at clients’ houses. So as the planting season wound down in late 2021, we as a crew launched the framework for an orchard garden.  Lines of trees were planted with different layers in between within the rows whilst leaving the alleys in between to be planted in the spring.  We made the tree crop rows around 6 ft wide with log borders from the arborist who also drops woodchips. Those rows were planted with fruit trees like peaches, apples, European pears, plout, and apricot.  The idea was to trial as many different cultivars as possible and see which ones could handle this intense growing climate of heat and humidity and cold snaps, late frosts, and plenty of challenges.  In between the trees within the row went different cultivars of elderberry and/or currants, gooseberry, and honeyberry.  The later are meant to be grown as mother plants to clone cuttings off of.  The fruit trees, if they prove successful for this climate, can provide scion wood for future grafting.

Our fall 2021 endeavors were limited to quadrant one, the southernmost quadrant.  This is also the same quadrant I had been working the edges of for about 5 years with fruit trees, berry bushes, perennial vegetables and blackberry trellis’s.  These edges taught me a lot about what this soil can handle and how to manage it.  You know when you read a description of a tree in a catalogue, it almost always says prefers well drained soil.  That we have here in the sandy loam, maybe too much at times because the sand doesn’t hold a lot of organic matter/ fertility.  So mulching is ultimately the biggest test of scale.  Deep layered mulching is necessary to feed these soils and suppress weeds.  Honestly, I abhor weeding, so we spend a lot of time mulching. We feed the soil religiously because that is what it takes to regenerate and produce food.

Dialing in More of the Food Forest

2022 was indeed about scaling up and taking on quadrants two and three with more plantings of agroforestry lines while also creating the field nursery cells.  Quadrant two was planted intensively with about ten tree rows totaling 38 trees (Nectarines, tart cherries, apples, Asian pear, peach, plum, grafted paw paw). Meanwhile quadrant 3 was more for clearing and preparing with a bit of planting. One of the first things we did to prepare quadrant two was to burn.  Honestly the tree growth in quadrant two post burning was remarkable.  It might also have to do with the vast quantities of sheet mulching with cardboard, animal bedding with manure (mainly goat), woodchips, handfuls of vermicompost, and chicken poop from the poop deck wrapped in pdz. What is permaculture? Moving organic matter from one place to another is what we say here as we build inches and inches of soil for these grow beds. And the trees responded to all strategies and techniques showing from finger sized twigs 3 ft. tall to some being forearm sized trunks and 13 ft. tall at the end of one growing season. Furthermore, in quadrant 3 we slowly cleared the vegetation with mowing and silage tarps and got one row implemented before we ran out of planting time.  That row was figs, something that could handle being planted in June with the heat and dry coming.

In 2022, Quadrant 1 tree rows were managed with intensive mulching and also planting in many guild plants.  This added a layer of beauty and weed suppressing functionality and of course the pollinators loved it.  It really helps to fill out the layers of the food forests with fruit trees as canopy, elderberry shrub, currant bush layer, comfrey and flowers like grey headed coneflower and strawberry running underneath.  Again, the focus of this is not so much production of fruit, which is a byproduct, but more about plant material for propagation. It was also about further developing a pattern for the edible landscaping work.  For example, at the Gordon Homestead in Central Indiana, we created essentially the same pattern. Tree rows with mixed layers of plants with alleys in between of about 25 ft.

Field Nursery Startup

Also in quadrant 1 was the laying out of nursery propagation beds in the alley cells post burning.  To prepare and manage the beds, it was much like a market garden bed; broad fork, rake, plant, compost, water, weed, harvest.  The harvest, bare root nursery stock, takes a year to grow. To achieve that, we did put a massive effort into mulching the pathways and laying compost mulch (as Jesse Frost calls it just south of here in the Lexington, KY area) around the cuttings. The compost mulch was applied a couple of times in the grow beds of the cuttings throughout the season feeding the soil life and suppressing weeds. Some cuttings that measured 12 inches when we put them into the ground turned into 6 ft. tall bushes in one growing season! The cuttings also got chicken manure from the poop deck as the season went on handling the boost of nitrogen wonderfully. Overall, the nursery propagation and general growth was successful even though we got the irrigation system set up later than desired.  We had a dry part of April that probably should have been mitigated with irrigation, but voila, Rome was not built in a day. Sales are beginning through our shop already!

Yields of the Food Forest

Besides nursery stock in the alleys and agroforestry lines, there was another set of implementation and management occurring. Not all of this is just about plants as we have integrated sheep in quadrant 4 and the back hedgerow to help maintain and fertilize.  We also raised meat birds and while they were supposed to remain in quad 1 and 2 it got way too hot early in the summer and we moved them to the back hedgerow/ trellis vine area.  That old backstop of my grandfather’s now holds 3 hardy kiwi vines and 2 Akebia that were well fertilized by the chickens.  We grew about 55 meat birds this year thinking to eat one each week.  After the meat birds were done we raised ducklings and layer chicks together in the garden until the layer chicks became pullets and could handle being with the adult chickens across the way. The ducks are currently in quadrant 3 producing duck eggs on the daily!

Also, in quite a few cells we planted vegetables, herbs, flowers, and also perennials.  We ended up producing quite a bit as I really like focusing on staples like root vegetables such as sweet potato or turnip, paste tomatoes (still tons in the freezer), squash, watermelon, and corn. Some vegetables were also planted in the agroforestry rows that hadn’t been filled up with tons of perennials like the okra in the cherry bed that was missing two sweet cherries that will arrive spring 2023. With all these trees and shrubs planted for sure we harvested fruit this year.  I mainly pick the fruit off when the trees are young but one or two stay on just to peak the curiosity of the passerby.  And with stacking in space and time the food forest way, yields from plants like elderberry and aronia happened as they were quite mature plants when put in the ground. Finally on the edge just outside the garden we housed goat rotations several times last year.  It brings the goat manure bedding even closer and combines trips so to speak.  Both the tomatoes and goat meat will be staples in our upcoming Winter Weekend PDC. 

Allison grew Dahlias once more in 2022 with the growing space being the eastern part of quadrant 3.  She scaled up, which was good for her, but due to extraneous forces she couldn’t manage as intensely as she would have liked.  However, I think it was a great lesson for her and us as a collective.  The small-scale intensive principle is a lesson to be learned by all gardeners at some point.  For another phase of implementation this 2023 spring, 7 lines of trees in quadrant 3 will be planted. These trees have been ordered and will arrive starting in early March. One such is Jujube, which I think will love the sand, and produce its sweet and medicinal fruit. There will be more apples, Asian pears, peaches, Asian plums and grafted paw paws. Just in Apple cultivars alone between the agroforestry lines and back hedgerow it will already be up to 30 different cultivars. The back hedgerow was originally planted out in 2018 and continues to evolve each year.  It currently is also getting heavily mulched and now that we have burned quad 4 it has become one big contiguous garden! Since clearing that vegetation and now being able to see the whole space, it really brings a new recognition of all that we have done.  A special feeling and I want to express gratitude for all who contributed.

Ramping up for 2023

Furthermore, the design of the food forest in terms of what goes where is still coming.  This year will allow for more scale since we aren’t putting up a 1000 ft. of fence like we were last year as well as setting up the water system.  We learned a lot from that 2021/22 season; start small and grow.  We actually have already started doing cuttings as we have prepared much of the field this year with a subsoil plow behind a BCS walk behind tractor.  Thanks to Jason at Harmony Creek Hillside Farm for letting us borrow his machine.  He has been one of our landscaping clients and it makes for a nice trade value.  The BCS speeds up the decompaction process with the subsoiler.  We still are using silage tarps to solarize more upcoming sections of plantings.  We are organizing where staple vegetables will go, kitchen garden vegetables and herbs, cut flowers, nursery beds, animal rotations.  It’s actually a quite complex puzzle but with that old Holmgren adage of observe and interact, well the observation unlocks the keypoint to the algorithm. A plan is a formula, a mathematical equation with so many variables that only a farmer can comprehend this form of calculus.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: