In a quest to increase our self-sufficiency, my husband and I discovered permaculture. We immersed ourselves in permaculture literature and videos and came away inspired to try some new techniques for resilient living.
Our ultimate goal in life is to decrease our consumerism and increase our ability to live off our land and enjoy the fruits of our own labours. Permaculture, an agricultural ecosystem intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient, looked to be just what we were searching for.
We were particularly struck by the concept of food forests and permaculture orchards. We purchased the DVD from Stefan Sobkowiak (The Permaculture Orchard: Beyond Organic, 2014) and were inspired to begin our own orchard.
Prior to discovering permaculture, we had pondered creating an orchard of heritage apples for hard cider, however, a monoculture of apples is neither sustainable nor self-sufficient and would require many inputs. A permaculture orchard, on the other hand, has multiple layers of vegetation that not only produce something edible, but also improve the soil, and can either attract the beneficial insects or repel the harmful ones.
The Nitrogen, Apple, Plum/Pear Method of Orcharding
We liked Sobkowiak’s N.A.P. method of alternating the trees so that one kind of tree is always separated from another of its kind. Using N.A.P., a nitrogen-fixing tree is planted, then an apple tree, and then a pear/plum tree — this pattern is repeated to several times to complete a row of trees. The rows to the left and right would start with either the apple or pear/plum to ensure the separation between kinds is maintained across the rows as well.
The separation of like kinds can restrict the spread of diseases and pests, but still allow pollinators to do their job. For our orchard we expanded upon N.A.P. by adding another “A”, apricots, and another “P”, peaches.
After drawing up a plan to replace 1 acre of lawn with three rows of 12 trees each, we purchased 36 bare root trees and shrubs. The fruit trees consisted of:
• 10 apple (two each of Calville Blanc, Golden Russet, Kingston Black, Ribston Pippin, and Michelin);
• three plum (two each of Black Ice and a single Toka);
• four pear (one each of Sunrise, North Brite, Clara Frij, and Magness);
• three peach (two each of Flamin’ Fury and a single Veteran);
• and three apricot (two each of Sugar Pearl and a single Harlayne).
The nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs consisted of: six sea buckthorn shrubs; two honey locust trees; two autumn olive shrubs and three Siberian peashrub.
Providence smiled upon us, because the weather for our planting was overcast and cool, with barely a breeze. The week following planting was also cool and wet. And with the exception of a single apricot, which sprouted leaves from its base and not from the branches, all of the trees appear to be thriving — even our struggling apricot passed the scratch test, and hopefully, we will see leaves on its branches next spring.
Silage Tarps for Understory and Orchard Irrigation
Beneath the trees we laid down used silage tarps given to us by a dairy farming friend. The tarps not only smother the grass and weeds, but also motivate weed seeds to germinate in the warm and moist environment; however, these seeds soon die back with lack of sunlight and leave a relatively weed-free plot of soil ready for planting.
Under the tarps we ran soaker hoses with drip irrigation and connected these to a 1,000 L water tote that catches rain water. On top of these silage tarps we’re spreading a thick layer of wood mulch. This task is taking longer to complete because we either pick up loads of free mulch ourselves or a tree service kindly dumps its load following a job nearby.
In the future, we hope to remove the silage tarps and use only the wood mulch as an understory in the orchard. Towards this end, we are making progress and adding the lower layers to our permaculture orchard, and if these plants can thrive, future competition from weeds and grasses will be more manageable.
To date, we’ve added comfrey, red currants, and honeyberries. Each fruit tree has a comfrey planted next to it because the plant’s long roots draw nutrients from deeper in the soil up to the surface, making them accessible to the nearby fruit tree.
Although our orchard is newly planted, and will take some years to become “fruitful”, it has already supplied us with currants to eat and comfrey to feed to our chickens. The work of planting and overseeing the young trees is an exercise in delayed gratification, but we already find joy in tending our orchard and watching the trees and shrubs grow.
Photo by Greg Harrold
Rebecca Harrold homesteads and homeschools on a 23-acre property in rural Ontario, where she is engaged with all types of wiser living skills. She believes that restoring the land to its healthy, sustainable state will increase its resilience, and in turn, the resilience of the people who depend upon it. Connect with Rebecca at Harrold Country Home and on Instagram.