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Orchards as Ecosystems

by Jeff Owens

This may be of interest to someone with a small orchard who is interested in applying the ecological principles of cycles, connections and sustainable habitat. Mostly it is a description of our orchard. The climate here consists of wet winters and dry summers which presents numerous problems for trees. The wet winter encourages fungal diseases and the dry summer stresses some trees in the fall. Our solution is to cut the grass in the spring and pile it around the trees. This grass is gathered in the fall and placed in compost piles.

During the summer sheep are grazed around the trees and they clean up all the early fruit drop. These fruit are often wormy so this helps control disease. The mulch around the tree provides nutriments and conserves soil moisture. If left over the winter it collects voles, moles, and disease so removal makes sense. The sheep are not allowed to over graze and leave some manure for the trees. The rest of the manure is left in the barn and eventually mixed with compost to create very productive gardens.

The use of heavy mulch in the garden eliminates most tilling because the weeds are simply smothered with new mulch. Garden plants inserted in the mulch.

Orchard prunings are also used in the garden without shredding. Two methods fit this lazy method of gardening. One is the German system of burying the limbs under raised beds. Another consists of a separate compost pile and waiting for a few years. We are getting tired of digging and now use the patient method.

The sheep are very happy with this and like to keep it clean around the trees while leaving habitat intact in other areas. Currently we are using small Shetland sheep that like to browse on the trees so some tree protection is required.

For a few years we tried tree tubes and wrapping trees but have given up on these methods. Deer replants and all the stuff sold in catalogues have been tried but given up on. What we do now is buy a role of fence wire and make free standing cages. These are easy to move around and can be adapted to different sized trees.

From an ecology perspective this system is mostly powered by the grass and sunlight. As long as the grass is healthy it will be sustainable. For this reason we do not believe in pasture improvement and rely on a variety of weeds. If one plant begins to dominate then we try changing grazing times or forcing the sheep to leave more manure in an area.

If the soil is depleted in minerals we currently just let natures diversity find a solution. We did lime one small area once but have stopped doing this. In areas with problem soil I've found alders and blackberries are quick to take over and have started working with Sitka alders and may try introducing the thornless blackberries. The sheep eat both of these and they both make substantial improvements to the soil.

These ideas are contrary to most modern agricultural systems but have been used successfully in some places. The use of alders to supply nitrogen and animal feed is called Alley Cropping and I've read reports about its use in India and Africa. Combining pasture and trees is often cited in Permaculture literature. I've not seen much written about blackberries but was amazed to find the roots at a depth of 20 feet once.

One disadvantage of this approach is an untidy looking environment. Mulch and weeds tend to be scattered around and plants that do not fit are allowed to die. Plants that develop synergy with other plants are encouraged and plants that try to dominate are discouraged. Not a pretty sight if we use a neatly kept small farm as our model of the ideal.

Another problem is occasional bug infestations and critters who decide they want to move in. This results in constant small problems and lots of laughs. Our store of skunk, squirrel, and racoon stories have doubled in the last few years. All this is a good sign from an ecology standpoint and often indicates opportunities for adaptation. Unfortunately we are slow adapting to the various excesses of animal, insect, or plants. I am not interested in eating bugs, small animals, and lack knowledge in use of many plants. Still, it is interesting making an effort.

In England similar ideas are being developed for small areas called "Forest Gardens". I have found two books on this topic and several web pages. Hopefully, more people will become interested and we can learn from each other.

jeff owens, ,
underground house, solar power, self-reliance, edible landscape
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