Of all my goals for 2014, finishing the permaculture plan for the Bluebird orchard is most critical. The apple trees are coming whether we are ready or not!
The looming deadline adds urgency to my winter reading list and book club. Our number one limitation has been and will always be water. We want to keep water in the soil at all costs. The swales are part of the long term water strategy, as is planting mulch crops, spreading organic material from wherever we can get it, and getting the trees themselves to shade the soil as quickly as possible. Eventually, the trees will help create their own forest ecology, but we have to give them a reasonable chance of success.
Water flows through the soil to the tree roots and exits to the atmosphere through the leaves—perhaps 50% of the water in the soil in a mature will be transpired away according to Mollison. But what about our desiccating winds? The wind is always blowing in Torrey. How much more are the trees transpiring in the wind? I have no idea, but it stands to reason that it is more, a significant amount. The first fact that got my attention, in a USDA agroforestry publication on shelterbelts, is that livestock raised on sheltered pastures demand 15% less winter feed. Winds that cool also dry, so if windbreaks should help reduce water demand as well. I read on.
It turns out that irrigation requirements are in fact reduced. And there are a lot more benefits to installing windbreaks around orchards. Bees can pollinate more effectively in lesser winds. Spraying equipment, if you use it, works better too under less wind. Windbreaks trap snow (more soil water!) and less wind means less soil blown away. Wind can even blow fruit off the trees- -I wouldn’t doubt it in our frequent spring gales. http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_PLANTMATERIALS/publications/wapmctn6337.pdf
The Kingbird orchard is planted in the lee of a cottonwood windbreak. R paced out a cottonwood that fell in 2012 and estimates the windbreak to be over 125′ tall. That should offer protection to about 1,000′ downwind. The Bluebird orchard site is completely exposed on all four sides. We need to plant more trees!
But what to plant? Growing up in California, I remember the eucalyptus windrows around the orange and avocado groves. Cottonwoods and poplar are traditional around here. They grow fast, yield firewood but don’t have much else to recommend them. They aren’t the strongest wood, don’t yield anything edible, don’t feed any pollinators and use a lot of water. Can we do better?
If we cast about for new ideas and think about it, we can probably do a lot better. What if we planted a dense hedge using a mix of trees and shrubs? The Bluebird parcel is 400′ long, so we need only reach 40′ high to benefit our apple trees. The English have been doing that for centuries in their hedgerows. What if we deliberately include food crops into a hedge? Someone (not me) coined the term “fedge” for that system. What if we bias our plant selection for home-brewing and wine-making? We just invented the fermentable fedge!
Before we get into the fun part-picking out the plants and trees, we need to set out some design criteria:
- 4-season wind break
- Choose drought-tolerant species (we will irrigate but in low water situations the fedge will have second or third priority)
- We will start with 200′ on the west side, which gets the most extreme winds.
- The fedge will get extremely little maintenance. No annually pruned wine grapes here. Fussy plants need not apply.
- The fedge zone soil will be left uncultivated to provide habitat for ground-nesting native pollinators.
- A long season of blooms will feed our native pollinators and beneficial insect populations.
- Birds, especially insectivorous birds, will be welcome here.
Suitable plants for our marginal Zone 6 climate and alkaline soil (no blueberries or cranberries. Elderberries need a more heavily watered spot-we are working on that!)
- The fedge should produce its own nitrogen and mulch through use of support trees and shrubs.
- When available, select a variety useful for beer, cider, mead or country wine-making.
The last item is, of course, the most fun. I have been mining though Keller’s country-wine making recipes for ideas. People have made wine out of almost everything (banana wine, anyone?) but there is a dearth of information about cultivar selection. Which plum? Which cherry? And those are ones that are widely grown for table. There’s almost nothing written about mountain ash, other than it ferments. As per standard operating procedure at Stray Arrow Ranch, we don’t know now, but we will know something when we find it out.
The plants under consideration:
- Black locust (nitrogen fixer, firewood, mulcher, honey bee feeder)
- Alder (nitrogen fixer, firewood, fast-growing)
- Pinon and Korean pine (winter shelter, nuts, wildlife)
- Honeylocust (may fix nitrogen, smells wonderful in bloom, copious amounts of leaf litter)
- Black cherry (totally experimental here, used for furniture and wildlife. Will it ferment?)
- Poplar (planted for fast growth with the expectation to remove as other trees fill in)
- Serviceberry (fruit)
- Mountain Ash (fruit)
- American plum (fruit)
- Siberian pea (nitrogen fixer, end-of-season chicken fodder)
- Hazelnuts (will these produce here? no one can say they won’t!)
- Rugosa rose (hips)
- Juniper (birds, crucial ingredient in gin)
- Lemonade Sumac (berries)
- Currants and Gooseberries (isn’t there a song about gooseberry wine?)
Herbs and ground covers
- dandelion (for wine and dynamic accumulation of minerals; the one thing I won’t have to plant)
- perennial arugula (bee magnet, salads)
- nepeta faassini (bee magnet)
Vines and brambles
- Honeysuckle (pollinators)
- Blackberry (in later years; I have concerns about its water needs. It will have to be a thornless variety too)
There you have it, plans for a fermentable fedge. We won’t be able to fit all of these trees into 200′, even planting a little over-dense to allow for abject failures. And some of them are hard to find or too expensive in quantity. But we will plant more next year, until we have the place well sheltered at least from the prevailing west and hardest winter winds. Naturally, it would have been better to have planted the windrows 20 years ago. And as the saying goes, the next best time is now! Now I must get back to perusing nursery catalogs. If there’s a country-wine making fruit you are hankering to try, get your request in now.