Easy DIY Food Forest Fall Planting Guide

Reader Contribution by Joshua Burman Thayer and Native Sun Gardens
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Photo by Flickr/Jeff Wright

Fall is the best season for planting many perennial evergreens. As the days shorten, the stress of the sun is lessened. From the time of this writing until the 3rd or 4th day of our first big storm, when the soil will begin to saturate — thus thwarting digging attempts — is the prime window for planting plants that will provide edible abundance year after year. Plant them now and then “turn them loose” to provide harvests in the years to come.

Sub-tropic perennials that do so well in our communities: Olives, Pomegranates, Citrus (Lemon, Lime, Kumquat, Mandarin, Satsuma) Pineapple Guava, Currants, Loquat, Avocado, and more

Oversized holes. Here in the East Bay, we have a ton of clay. For those of you blessed with sandy loam (i.e. Alameda, California area) or rich alluvium, disregard this section. For many the East Bay Clay needs conditioning. While sheet mulching can help break up and enhance clay over time, over sizing your holes will help right away. Generally holes dug should be three times the width and two to three times the depth of the pot they come from. Thus a 1-gallon plant has a hole dug the size of a 5-gallon pot.

Root crown height placement. The most important part of a young plant is the interface between earth and sky. This important place is known as the root crown, where all the disparate roots align to become the base of the truck of the plant. For Mediterranean species, this root crown must be planted slightly higher than the flooded flatlands around it. This can be achieved simply by mounding the root crown’s planting height 2 to 3 inches higher than the surrounding ground level. Measure this by taking a second stick/ruler and laying it across the hole. This will give the surrounding soil height. From there, create a dome mound to ensure that the new root ball is covered.

Use a stick or ruler to measure hole depth. Take the plant gently out of pot. Measure from bottom to top/root crown. Measure hole plus 1 inch for wet species like Avocado, plus 3 inches for Mediterranean plants like olive. If depth is too much, now build a volcano mini-mound in bottom of hole and tamp down with fingers. Sit root ball on top of this mound.

Re-measure and check so that the plant sits 1 to 3 inches above soil (depending on plant type).

Open up the roots to stimulate growth. Use a hori hori (see below) or a butter knife to gently stab into root ball. Do not remove an excessive amount of the root ball’s soil, as this will allow it to adjust in the hole. Use a stick or ruler to recheck root crown height one last time.

Banded soil Layers

Now that the plant is placed, begin to fill hole with appropriate soil mix (see below) in layers, like stacked doughnuts.

Native soil cap. Cap the last 1 to 2 inches of the planted hole with sorted local soil. Start by sorting or removing the large chunks and pieces bigger than ball bearings. The native soil is able to withstand the impact of a rainstorm and not compress and erode. Bagged soil mixes will run away with the first rains if not capped in either native soil or wood chips.

Sheet mulch. Now that you new plant is planted, you can protect it by mulching it 3 to four inches deep. The wood chips or straw will: conserve moisture, reduce weeds, slow release nutrients. Be sure to take your finger and remove mulch from being directly on the root crown. The root crown must be free to breathe fresh air. When the root crown is buried it runs the risk of rotting.

Mulch alternative. If you don’t wish to purchase wood chips, you can take advantage of the autumn bounty and collect fallen leaves. I’m sure someone on your block with deciduous tree canopy would be thrilled for you to “harvest” a few trash bags worth. Avoid Eucalyptus and Sycamore as they spread disease.

Tools Needed

Hori Hori: Available at Hida Tool on San Pablo Ave, Berkeley, CA
Metal Rake
Mattock: It’s like a super pick and the best thing for East Bay Clay
Shovel: Duh.I like the all steel shovels made by Fiskers.
Steel Digging Bar: For larger trees, this amazing tool can often be the only way to penetrate hard clay and rocky soils.

Joshua Burman Thayer is a landscape designer and permaculture consultant with Native Sun GardensHe is the Urban Agriculture Supervisor for Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, Calif. Find him at Native Sun Gardens and read his other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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