Nobody talks about the the ugly duckling phase of getting a permaculture system established, but I don’t think we can be the only ones who are fighting it. Or more properly, trying to grow out of it. When the bindweed is is the lushest thing in the future food forest. When the irrigation system takes months longer to figure out than planned and the watering by hand is getting really old. When a raccoon instructs you on the weaknesses in your chicken defense strategy.
And yet the trees are growing.
The books actually dance around this ugly duckling period by recommending that one start small and expand outward. Sound advice, unless you already have 300 custom grafts on order when you find a model (Miracle Farm in Quebec) that helps you figure out a way to permaculturate your orchard. (Yes, I made up that word, it sounded better than permculturize.) There is no starting small when the trees are coming regardless.
Some permaculture-crazy college-aged kids from permies.com dropped by this May as we were planting the last of the trees. I’m sure we did not make a good impression. A bunch of leafless 3 foot high trees is not what a food forest is supposed to look like. The fecund forests of many layers pictured in the books take years to mature; we haven’t gotten through the first one. We will need to propagate thousands of plants to do the intermediate plantings. Until we get our water situation sorted, our understory planting consists of alfalfa, wild asparagus and weeds. We have made plenty of mistakes (I should have dumped a hundred pounds of clover seed down last winter at least), even so the framework is in the ground.
Nevertheless, the trees are growing.
Because of our naive belief that we could easily find guidance on how to switch over to a modern irrigation system, the stop-gap measure is me watering the Bluebird orchard from a 275 gallon IBC on a trailer. The result is that three months later, I spend about 25 hours a week pouring water out of a hose. The month of June is our hottest, driest month and it seemed I couldn’t keep up. I said to someone that if I hadn’t overcommitted, I wouldn’t know where my limits are. I have pushed up against them so many times this summer, they have stretched me and sometimes bounced me back on my butt. Don’t overthink it. Fill the tank, empty the tank, weed around the trees, listen to podcasts and audiobooks. Try not to think about the failures too much.
Despite ourselves, the trees are growing.
The July day the monsoons started was when I knew we could make it and not lose the trees. Of course, not everything has survived. The mainframe of the system is doing shockingly well, but we lost half of the plants in the fedge. That will get replanted when we can get it on the irrigation system. The 30 grape vines are down to 28, a satisfactory survival rate as far as I am concerned for varieties that haven’t been tested here.
We had to declare an amnesty on the annual garden. I just haven’t had the energy to keep up and it was drowning in weeds and sunflowers. The corn we grew last year is barely half the height it should be. Last weekend R went in with loppers and assaulted the larger weeds, to the delight of the geese, who devour entire sunflower plants. But we are going to have to do the farmers’ market walk of shame and buy tomatoes to put up for winter.
Every day, the trees are growing.
This summer is only going to happen once in my life, one in which I have time to count native bees and butterflies while I water. I saw the ladybugs appear on the alfalfa in May and the hawk moths arrive this week. Goldfinches are all over the place now. I noticed the cottontails squeezing through the deer fence and hiding in the alfalfa. I keep looking but haven’t seen a snake yet. Thunderstorms build up over Boulder Mountain and it starts to get hot. Wild sunflowers burst onto the scene all at once. My neighbors wave as they drive by. Sometimes they even stop to chat.
Yesterday we irrigated the Kingbird orchard. I haven’t spent much time there observing this summer like I should. Holy cow, there are trees out there that are 10′ tall! Two years ago those trees looked like the puny things I am watering every day in the other parcel. The bird life in the established orchard is already changing-this year we’ve seen woodland species like orioles and tanagers and grosbeaks moving through, displacing the meadowlarks and goldfinches. And we ate our first homegrown apple this week, a variety called Pristine. It was awesome. We have a few Redfields and one Calville de Blanc coming along too. After the late freeze this year, we are grateful to have any fruit at all.
I know that by Halloween, this drama of the establishment year will be over. The Torrey irrigation canal will shut down for winter, we will cut the alfalfa alleys one last time and overseed it with something for early spring soil building. Next year the new trees will really take off. We can spend some time shaping the understory. We will have tomatoes next year. The spreading limbs of mature trees will change the ecology in due time. The ugly duckling stage won’t last forever. Let’s just not pretend that all permaculture systems start out as swans.
Get the trees in the ground, where they can start to grow.