Fruit Tree Polycultures: Summer Pomona Feature

POMONA
The Member-Written, Quarterly Journal of North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX)
Vol. XLVI, No. 3, Summer 2013

Fruit Tree Polycultures
Trevor Newman
tnewman92@gmail.com
(P) 248-535-9419
(F) 248-625-7676
The Fruit Nut | http://www.thefruitnut.com

Unlike monocultures, polycultures contain diverse mixtures of species growing together in symbiosis. Creating polycultures around fruit trees can reduce the need for offsite inputs, increase biodiversity in the orchard, and provide various secondary yields such as medicinal herbs, perennial vegetables, and much more. Establishing polycultures around fruit trees is all about analyzing the needs of the tree and matching those needs to the functions of various support species or ‘companion plants.’ The aim is to provide the basic needs of the tree (fertility, pest management, weed control, etc.) by using biological
resources. Instead of ‘planting a fruit tree,’ we can think of this integrated approach as ‘planting an ecosystem’.

Dynamic accumulators are plants whose deep taproots mine hard-to-reach minerals from the soil and deposit them in their aerial parts. These plants can be grown around the base of fruit trees and managed on a ‘chop-n-drop’ basis whereby their aerial parts are occasionally cut and spread as mulch directly beneath the trees. Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is a great example of a dynamic accumulator that is high in calcium, phosphorus, and manganese. I put at least one comfrey plant at the base or around the
drip line of each tree and generally cut them back for mulch 3-4 times throughout the growing season.

Nitrogen-fixing plants are commonly used in organic agriculture as cover crops and green manure. The same principles can be applied to the orchard by using nitrogen fixing trees, shrubs, and herbs to act as nurse crops for young fruit trees. A great multi-purpose nitrogen fixer is goumi (Eleagnus multiflora), which produces an early-season berry and provides an abundance of nectary flowers which honeybees
love. When goumi and other nitrogen fixers are cut down, their roots respond by releasing a plume of nitrogen into the surrounding soil. Fruit trees and other crop plants can tap into this fertility source.

Groundcover plants are excellent weed suppressors and should be integrated throughout the orchard understory to act as living mulch while excluding any potential for weeds to grow. Applemint (Mentha suaveolens) and white clover (Trifolium repens) are two groundcovers that can be effectively integrated with orchard grass to create a dense mat. Creeping comfrey is an excellent groundcover that spreads
indefinitely, can tolerate shade, and also serves as a dynamic accumulator.

Another class of functional plants are known as insectaries. These are plants that provide fodder for beneficial and predatory insects. By attracting these ‘good guys’ to the orchard we can increase pollination and limit pest outbreaks by encouraging a balance among predator and prey populations. Plants in the Apiaceae family (carrot, lovage, etc.) and plants in the Asteraceae family (yarrow, coneflower, etc.) are especially good at attracting predatory insects like parasitic wasps, lace wings, and lady beetles. Having insectary plants flowering at different times throughout the year ensures that beneficial insects will have a plentiful supply of food and reason to stick around.

The core of good polyculture design lies in a basic understanding of ecology and plant functions. Polycultures mimic functional interconnections found in natural ecosystems while producing an abundance of yields and reducing off site inputs. Visit www.apiosinstitute.org to see numerous case studies and find out more about designing fruit tree polycultures.

photo

 

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October Update: New Podcast, Articles, & More!!!

Now the autumnal shift is fully present and unavoidable as the trees show their gorgeous display of fall colors and days get cooler. However this is still a busy time of year…even with some 75% of the fruit crops wiped out there is still a bit to harvest. Before we take a look at that, I’d like to announce the addition of two new pieces to the Articles page, one titled Making Ink From Berries by guest writer Dana Driscoll, and the other a small-scale alley crop photo essay by yours truly. Speaking of new content, I am also excited to share with you my latest audio podcast with the American persimmon fanatic, Jerry Lehman! Click here to listen to the podcast and stay tuned for Episode 3 with Michael Phillips, the author of The Holistic Orchard.

In the latest podcast Jerry Lehman tells us about his work breeding and developing the American persimmon in Terra Huate, IN. Photo courtesy Jerry Lehman
One of the collection screens Jerry has devised for gathering fallen persimmons…Photo courtesy Jerry Lehman
In a new article Dana Driscoll teaches us how to make natural ink from pokeberries and other berries.
Alley crop just the other day…nice shadows from the nanking cherries. Click here for more.

That pretty much covers the latest in terms of new content. Was at a client’s site the other day doing a check up and found some exciting things. This was a site we installed 3 years ago and haven’t gone back much since then, so whenever we make a visit its always surprising to see whats done well. While visiting we also decided to harvest autumnberries from a bountiful population along the edge of her street. Here are some photos from that adventure…

CLICK HERE to learn more about this project!

‘Amber’ is an autumnberry cultivar that produces yellow fruit…yum!
These autumnberries are much larger and juicier then most…
This multi-stemmed ‘Q-18’ peach provides nice shade when sitting on the bench.
Mark standing next to a happy pawpaw tree with it’s companion comfrey…
In just a few years time the swales and soil building plants turned compacted, gravely soil into beautiful humus…
Fall-bearing red raspberry…not sure which cultivar.
This ‘Illinois Everbearing’ mulberry has grown rapidly in a short time…
Wild autumnberries growing along the street…

Autumnberry is a truly abundant wild food that is loaded with nutrients and so widely available. More people need to start harvesting it. There is a big debate with autumnberry and many other plant species— some folks believe eradication is necessary because these plants are “invasive”, which is an entirely non-scientific claim that lacks any ecological footing. This is a big issue and we won’t get into it too much right now, but I would like to point out one thing. In the case for autumnberry, the plant arrived to NA back in the 70’s and was promoted largely by the USDA and conservation districts, NOW the same folks who encouraged the planting and dissemination of autumnberry are the ones promoting its eradication…SO, to me it seems only rational to NOT put full trust in these organizations and institutions. Who knows what will happen 30 years from now if herbicide applications are continued in radical attempts to eradicate opportunistic plants? All I am saying is we need to be incredibly mindful when we intervene on this level and have great forethought into potential future outcomes…good or bad. That concludes my rant for now.

Harvesting lycopene-rich autumnberries…which I later made into tasty jam.
Foley food mill worked wonder for separating the pithy autumnberry seeds…
As the autumnberries cook down they turn a beautiful reddish-pink color.

Speaking of jam, just the other day I harvested some mountain ash berries from a tree my parents planted some 25+ years ago. The yields were down this year but there was

The berries are much more attractive to the eyes then the taste buds.

enough to experiment making a small batch of jam. If you’ve ever tried mountain ash berries then you know they’re incredibly astringent and barely palatable(there are some varieties and hybrids which are better for eating). In past years I’ve made mountain ash mead and used the tree as a rootstock for shipova(more to come on that soon). But I never really ‘ate’ the berries. So I tried making a batch of jam…and…it tastes awful. No matter how much sugar you add the astringency just intensifies. Supposedly the berries get sweeter with a frost… and they are said to be high in vitamin C. I think its more useful as medicine then food.

Another not-so-edible berry…is the yew berry. Which in fact contains a highly poisonous seed…but the red jelly-like flesh is said to be edible. And it is edible, I am living proof. Out of curiosity I began nibbling on the berries this fall and I found they’re actually quite good! Very sweet with a mild flavor. The texture is slimy. An interesting relative that I’ve only read about is Japanese plum yew(Cephalotaxus harringtonia); this one is said to produce larger fruits that are fully edible, seed and all.

Yew berries are ornamental and delicious…just be very careful not to eat the seed, or the ‘pip’ as the brits say.
Chestnut season is upon us! Look for a chestnut post next week…
Hickory nuts in husk…good luck getting ’em before the squirrels!
‘Szukis’ persimmon working its way to the top of the tree tube…
Gorgeous fall colors…embrace the beauty!

 

Comfrey For The Garden & Orchard

Comfrey is a plant with a multitude of uses not only in the home apothecary but also in the garden. There are several species in the genus Symphytum, all of which merit special attention, but generally S. officinale, or common comfrey, and a hybrid species S.x uplandicum are most often used. The ladder of which is particularly suitable for the home garden because it is sterile and doesn’t spread by seed. The most available variety is called ‘Bocking 14’. These are upright comfreys which can grow 5′ tall. There are also rhizomatous species which only grow 6″-1′ high and spread to form a dense groundcover.

Comfrey is prized amongst herbalists for its incredible healing powers. Comfrey leaves and roots

Comfrey leaves and roots chopped for making an herbal salve.

contain a high concentration of allatoin– a substance that speeds cell renewal. It got the colloquial name ‘knitbone’ for its use in treating wounds and reducing inflammation from broken bones and sprains.  It’s not a surprise that comfrey fulfills a similar ecological niche working to heal wounded and degraded soils. Comfrey is referred to as a mineral accumulator or dynamic accumulator for its ability to mine nutrients with its deep roots (which also loosen compacted soils). Those nutrients are then deposited in the aerial parts of the plant; being especially high in potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and nitrogen. When the aerial parts die back in the fall those nutrients assimilate into the surrounding soil. Gardeners can facilitate this process by intentionally cutting the plant down at strategic times for use as mulch around fruit trees, berry bushes, or in the veg garden. In the permaculture world we

Close up showing comfrey mulch around trunk of tree.
Comfrey mulch chopped around the base of a young peach tree.

refer to this process as ‘chop-n-drop’. Plant comfrey at the base of your fruit trees and simply chop-n-drop the material right in place; breaking the leaves and stalks into smaller pieces will accelerate decomposition but is not necessary. This is an effective way to build topsoil rapidly and reduce off-site inputs. From my experience I’ve been able to get anywhere from 3-5 cuttings throughout the season. One fella recently told me he cuts his back 7-8 times! I like to wait for the first flush of flowers in early summer because they provide excellent bee fodder.

Preparing comfrey tea brew.
Finished comfrey tea will be slimy on top. Discard slimy material and use as mulch or add to compost.

Another strategy for utilizing comfrey’s amazing mineral accumulating capacity is to brew a fermented comfrey tea. This is a very easy procedure which entails chopping up a few handfuls of comfrey leaves and placing them in a 5 gallon bucket with water. Cover with a lid and let the mixture ferment outdoors for 1-2 weeks. Alternatively, start the batch by pouring boiling water over the plant material and letting it steep for a few hours then adding room temp. water to fill the rest of the bucket. The hot water method seems to extract more of the nutrients. You will know its ready when it has a strong stank…a good stank! Apply with a backpack sprayer diluted or undiluted. This fermented tea can be used a foliar feed or applied directly to the soil.

‘Dwarf Yellow’ comfrey

I grow comfrey around my compost bins and periodically add it to new piles or existing piles to jump-start the decomposition process. I also like to think that the comfrey roots capture any leached nutrients from the compost pile. One reason some people bash on comfrey is because its nearly impossible to get rid of as the tiniest piece of root will put on adventitious buds and sprout into a new plant. Easy to propagate? Ooooh yes! Aside from comfrey’s amazing medicinal qualities and numerous garden uses, it is also a very beautiful plant that can tolerate almost any soil type and will grow well in partial shade. Some ornamental varieties include ‘Goldsmith’, ‘Hidcote Blue’, and ‘Dwarf White’. I would love to hear how you’re utilizing comfrey in your garden! Cheers.

Short video clip: Comfrey Chop-N-Drop Timing

Since adolescent pawpaw trees require dappled shade, comfrey is a great multipurpose companion.
Comfrey and mint at base of young persimmon tree.
‘Bocking 14’ comfrey flowers
Comfrey showing itself in early spring by a compost bin.