Arcadia Farms

  (Portage, Michigan)
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Planting Fruit Trees in Fall

Spring is always a busy and exciting time for gardeners. I’m no exception. Logically I spent a lot of time in the garden this spring, planting, prepping and simply enjoying the sights and sounds of nature waking up from her winter nap. One of the things I enjoy most about preparing the spring garden is the sight and smell of our neighbor’s apple tree. Apple blossoms are some of my favorite flowers! This spring, for the first time ever, as I looked around me I noticed that the deluge of beautiful white blossoms gracing my neighbors tree were echoed underneath a bramble of pine branches and other tree limbs at the back of our property.

After further investigation I discovered that in the back corner of our one-acre yard there was an apple tree growing! Sadly, the apple tree was growing in the shadow of a mulberry tree (planted only few feet away) which itself was growing in the shadow of a large, scraggly pine tree (just a few more feet away). All three trees were living but doing poorly.

I knew right away that I needed to rescue that poor little apple tree! Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have anything against pine trees or mulberry trees, but I’m an opportunist, and the idea of a ‘wasted’ apple tree already established on my own property was too much. The obvious first step was to cut down the two overbearing trees growing so intrusively nearby. That first step also lead us down the path of finally deciding where to put our micro-orchard. This back section of the property was also home to a medium-sized pine tree and a large cherry tree (not the kind with edible fruit). We never (ever ever) use that part of the yard for anything. (In fact, it probably only gets mowed a handful of times each year.) The area gets great sun so we decided to cut down the other two trees and replace each with an apple tree.

So down came the trees – Ryan and my father-in-law did most of the work (although my mother-in-law and I helped considerably with the clean up). My in-laws heat their home with a wood-burning furnace so the bulk of the lumber went to them. I kept a few logs for hugelkultur expansion and for edging a few mounded beds. I also kept some of the straightest branches to create tee-pees for caging tomatoes. But when all was said and done, the main thing we were left with was a big fat empty space.

It’s amazing how much larger that part of the yard looks without the trees there! Before I thought of it as a tiny sliver of space occupied by a random pine tree. Removing the trees has revealed its true identity – another sunny section so wide that I could easily fill it up by doubling the size of our already large garden. (In case you’re wondering, I’m not interested in adding any more space to our roughly 1,500 square foot garden.) It’s a great space for fruit trees!

Around that time we purchased two trees on sale from Lowes. We didn’t have a very big selection to choose from so we went with a good cooking variety (Macintosh) and a good fresh-eating variety (Golden Delicious). We were careful to read the labels to make sure they would pollinate each other (apples need another tree in order to pollinate and produce fruit).

And then… we got busy…

And then… the CSA season came to a close….

And then… the weather started turning cooler…

And then… it straight-up snowed…

And all the while that little voice in my head kept saying “Blerg… I need to get those trees planted!”

Finally this week we had a little warm up. (Ok, a big warm up followed by a quick cool down that caused massive storms in our corner of the Midwest!) You never know when the weather will turn in Michigan, especially during the months where seasonal transition are common (October and November are on that list) so I knew I needed to make my move this week or risk losing my chance completely.

I did some quick research about tree planting. Everyone recommends doing this in the early spring. Of course… Not surprisingly there were several cautionary tales about fall planting. But then without too much more effort I found instructions on planting trees in fall. I even found a few forums where experienced gardeners said that fall was an excellent time to plant fruit trees because it gives them a jump start in the spring. Really, I only had two other options. The first alternative idea was to “heal them in” which sounds an awful lot like just planting them to me (only in an area that will be more protected from cold and wind). I’m not a fan of planting them twice, thanks.

The other option was to overwinter them in the green house. I wasn’t a big fan of this either because of that time in late winter where the temperate outside are still very cold (mid-30s or colder) but the sun is warming the greenhouse to spring-like temperatures that might cause the trees to bud too early. I couldn’t think of a good place to move them to during this time period without sending them into shock.

So at any rate, I planted them. It was super-easy. Here’s what I did…

Planting Fruit Trees in Fall

Step 1: Dig a hole about twice the width of the root ball and just as deep as the root ball.

planting fruit trees in fall

I ended up widening this hole after taking the picture.

Step 2: Loosen the roots so that they are encouraged to grow outward.

planting fruit trees in fall

Before loosening the roots…

planting fruit trees in fall

After loosening the roots…

Step 3: Place the tree in the hole. For directions on how deep you should plant the tree, I recommend that you read this. Depth matters – big time! In summary, it’s better to err on the side of planting too shallow than too deep. Be sure to avoid planting soil above where the tree is grafted to the root system to avoid scion rooting.

Step 4: Cover the roots with quality compost. Ideally the compost would be aged. I ended up using a mixture of mulched fall leaves, rabbit manure (not composted) and compost from this year’s pile (garden clippings, food scraps, etc.). Be sure to tamp the compost down as you go along. The purpose of this is to reduce air pockets which can cause root issues.

planting fruit trees in fall

This baby apple tree has been planted with a compost mixture and tamped down to get rid of air pockets.

Step 5: Water your trees and add a layer of mulch to keep them warm and retain moisture. I didn’t read this anywhere, but for the same reason as Step 3 (scion rooting) I made sure to keep the mulch away from the base of the tree. Ironically, our mulch comes from the large branches of the trees we cut down to make room for the new apples.

planting fruit trees in fall

Ironically the mulch used to surround this tree came from the branches of the trees that came down to make way for the micro orchard.

planting fruit trees in fall

This apple tree is ready for winter (I hope)!

So after putting it off for months and months… about 30 minutes of work (maybe less) has finally made us the proud owners of a micro orchard. I can’t wait for the beautiful flowers next spring – and the amazing fruit in the future!

More to Do

Want to know a little secret? I still have a cherry tree and two blueberry bushes to plant! I planned to plant them on the same day as our apple trees but ran into some questions. The cherry tree is destined to take root very (very) near a place in the front yard where we previously had a diseased ornamental cherry tree. (We cut that little guy down at the same time as the trees out back.) I want to do some research to find out how to safeguard the second tree from the same health issues that overtook its predecessor before moving forward. Part of me is worried that I just may not be able to plant there at all (the original tree stump is still there… rotting as it sits in the ground). As far as the blueberry bushes go, I just wanted to check one last time that the site I had chosen for them gets enough sun. Hopefully they’ll be in before this weekend! I can’t wait for all the delicious fruit to come!

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.   

 
 

Poultry Personnel

Despite being someone who likes to plan, I’ve developed this trend during the last several years of my life where I put things off until the last minute. Getting my garden ready for fall (and really, winter and spring) has sadly been no different. Last fall I was able to invest lots of time in the garden while Owen was at school. This year we’re blessed to have a precious 2-year-old foster child with us so my time in the garden is significantly more limited.

I have gotten some work done. I spent time digging up and mulching a couple of aisles. Two beds have been weeded and mulched with grass clippings. And I’ve also pulled up all of the summer plants. (Some of them, like summer squash and peppers, didn’t come out until after our first frost.) At this point there are three main areas I need to focus on:

  • Pulling weeds (which is a very extensive job on the hugelkultur side of the garden)
  • Mulching beds with shredded leaves and manure
  • Dealing with weeds in the aisles

I felt really good about the two beds I was able to take all the way through weeding and mulching. But then I looked around the garden at all the work left to do and I felt overwhelmed. As I mentioned, the hugelkultur beds in particular are just overrun with weeds. And in some places there were so many tomato “droppings” that I wasn’t sure how I’d get them all up. (I’m not interested in volunteer tomato plants next year.) And that’s when I thought of it…

Maybe a chicken could help me?

one chicken

We have a little portable cage we use for Nacho (the rabbit) to have outdoor time. I brought that out and set it up around half of a bed. Then I brought out one of the hens and placed her in it. She started scratching right away – yeah! But after an hour or so, she hadn’t made nearly the progress I was expected.

So I brought out a second chicken.

Two Chickens

Still not making the kind of progress I was hoping for… and also the more adventurous chicken showed the first how to hop right out of the cage. Now I was chasing chickens around the garden to keep them away from the few plants I don’t want them eating: Winter crops which include lettuce, kale, kohlrabi, endive, frisée and a handful of beets. And that’s when I thought of it (again)…

chickens in the garden

I placed clear plastic row covers over the beds with winter crops growing in them. Then the next morning I brought all six of the chickens out to the garden and let them feast. Of course if I could speak chicken, I’d tell them to till my hugelkultur beds first – or else! But since I can’t give them quite such clear direction – and clearly caging them in a certain area wasn’t going to work – I let them eat whatever they’d like. I figure that even if they spend time eating from the aisle space, that will still help me in the long run. In addition to quite a salad bar, they’ve also had their pick of crickets and other bugs who’ve been calling the garden home. They’ve also done a marvelous job cleaning up the tomato mess and have tilled several of the beds. And (so long as I’m motivated to move them early in the morning) allowing them to forage in the garden keeps them out of the paddock and gives me a chance to actually start growing things in there. Woot! I wish I’d thought of this a few weeks ago.

So while they’re not quite as efficient as a team of two or three humans would be, I’m still pretty pumped about farming out my labor onto someone else… even if that someone else is a chicken.

Do any of you use chickens in your garden for tilling or pest control?

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally. 

 
 

Hugelkultur on a Micro-Farm

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that we’re planning to double the size of our market garden this coming spring. The plan is to have one or two volunteer days in the spring where we can build raised bed frames, move compost from the front of the house to the beds and put up the fence. Might sound like a lot of work but with five to ten volunteers (and a farm provided lunch!) it’ll go by super fast!

Then something happened that put a kink in my plans. I learned about a new-to-me gardening method called hugelkultur which requires a significant amount of fall work to implement in time for spring.

What is Hugelkultur

Hugelkultur is a German term that roughly translates to “mound culture”. The hugelkultur gardening method has been used in Eastern Europe for centuries and is essentially a sheet-composting method that involves burying woody debris (logs, branches, sticks) and other organic matter under a mound of earth. This gardening method mimics nutrient cycling that occurs in nature. When trees and branches fall to the floor of a forest, they act like a sponge as they decay. That sponge-like property allows the wood to soak up rainfall and then release it slowly into the soil use by surrounding plants. Hugelkultur beds are designed to take advantage of this natural water-retention cycle – so much so that some gardeners who use this method claim they never water at all. (Others say they have to water every few weeks or just once per season.) Wouldn’t that have been a handy drought-fighting benefit this year?

Click here for a video explanation and examples of low- or no-watering hugelkultur beds.

Benefits of Hugelkultur

In addition to water retention, hugelkultur has other benefits. The composition of the bed helps to improve drainage. The use of rotting logs and brush provides a way to turn what would otherwise be a yard work nuisance into a naturally occurring resource. As the wood breaks down, it adds nutrients to the soil and it also leaves behind small air pockets which are essential for root health. (Think of this as the ‘self-tilling’ benefit of hugelkultur.) Decaying wood also attracts worms to the bed, which help to till the soil and leave behind more nutrients as they eat. And in the first couple of years, the bed may provide for longer growing seasons since the massive amount of decomposition happening below will warm the beds slightly. And don’t forget that this is still a raised bed, which means all the benefits of raised beds come into play as well – no soil compaction (you don’t walk on the bed and squish out the air pockets), warms faster in the spring, is more ergonomically accessible (don’t have to bend all the way down to the ground to tend it) and allows for intensive planting (i.e. square foot gardening). [For source info for these proposed benefits, see the list of resources at the end of this post.]

So – at least in theory – using hugelkultur can dramatically reduce my irrigation needs, help me fight back against drought, improve my site drainage, improve my soil fertility, avoid tilling, continue intensive planting and get rid of several unsightly piles of rotting logs that can’t be used for anything useful otherwise? Sign me up!

Challenges of Hugelkultur

So this gardening method has a hip-sounding foreign name and a long list of potential benefits, but there are two sides to every coin. What are the challenges?

First, there’s the initial work involved. Lots of digging and moving of resources like compost, grass clippings, leaves, logs and manure. (Does your back hurt thinking about that, because mine does…) But like a lot of gardening methods that are popular today, the purpose of all this upfront work is to setup a system that can maintain itself going forward with minimal gardener intervention. In other words, more work now and less work later!

Next, there’s the size of the beds. In essence, the bigger they are, the greater the water-retention benefits. And I’m talking B.I.G. – upwards of six or seven feet tall!  That size requires a lot of resource (logs, soil, organic matter, etc.) and could be considered unsightly by neighbors. Of course smaller (2-3 feet tall) hugelkultur beds still have water retention abilities (weeks between watering) but those who claim to go without any water at all love to be called Big Poppa. The enormity of the height can be decreased by partially burying the bed. It is also mitigated by the fact that the bed will shrink in size as decomposition takes place, although I’m not sure how much. You can read more on all of that in the How To section of this post. I know we’re talking about challenges here, but I do want to point out that although there are challenges to a six-foot tall garden bed, the benefits are that you have more surface to plant in and the height makes for super duper easy harvesting (see picture below).

Woman harvesting from tall hugelkutur bed

One advantage of a tall hugelkultur bed is that harvesting and generally tending becomes much less of a back-straining task.Image credit:
The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia

The next challenge has to do with the type of deciduous (woody) matter used. First, in most of the reading I’ve done, it is recommended that you use big logs rather than a large amount of smaller branches or brush. I presume the bigger logs retain water better. Also, some types of lumber work better than others. For example, you would want to avoid black walnut as it contains a natural herbicide. Other lumber like pine or oak may contain significant tannins that might ‘sour’ the bed. And still others like cedar take a loooong time to decompose and would significantly delay the benefits of hugelkultur. In the case of lumber that contains tannins or takes a long time to decompose, you can avoid most (possibly all) of their drawbacks by using well-rotted wood. For example, pine that has already rotted substantially has probably lost a lot (most?) of its tannin. You would also want to avoid lumber that has been treated as this will introduce chemicals to your garden bed.

The last challenge I’d like to discuss has to do with nitrogen drawdown. Nitrogen drawdown refers to the fact that the logs (which contain much carbon) will need lots of nitrogen to decompose. That means during the first couple of years of a hugelkultur bed, the decomposing logs may rob your soil of some of the nitrogen that would otherwise be used by the plants growing in it. There are ways to mitigate this as well. For starters, using wood that has already been rotting for a while helps. This wood will likely have already taken on a significant amount of nitrogen – so much so that it may now be carrier of nitrogen rather than a taker! Also, adding lots of nitrogen-rich matter to the bed along with the wood will help to feed both decomposition and plant growth. This includes adding manure or ‘greens’ (like grass clippings and table scraps) to the bed. Another way to add nitrogen to the beds is to plant nitrogen fixing crops in it during the first growing season. These plants include crops like alfalfa, clover, rooibos, lentils, beans and peas. And lastly, you can fight back against first-season crop nitrogen deficiencies through natural fertilizers.

How to Build a Hugelkultur Bed

So now that you’ve read the benefits and challenges of hugelkultur, want to know how to build one? It’s pretty easy. The basic steps are:

  1. Create a pile of logs and branches that fits the dimensions of the bed you want.
  2. Add other organic matter such as grass clippings, leaves, kitchen scraps and manure. This step is option but highly recommended.
  3. Water thoroughly.
  4. Cover the entire pile with soil/compost to create a mound and then mulch the top. Use a mulch that will add nitrogen as it breaks down, like grass clippings or compost, rather than a carbon-rich mulch like wood chips that might take even more nitrogen out as it decomposes.
  5. If desired, you can use logs, rocks, boards, etc. as retaining walls, but these are not necessary.

Here are some optional steps you could insert.

  • If a super high mound doesn’t work for you, consider partially burying your hugelkultur bed. Dig 2-3 feet down and then start at step one above.
  • If you’ve dug a trench for your bed, add the freshly dug sod face down on top of the logs as step 3½ before adding soil to create the mound.
  • If you know where your walkways are going to be, consider digging up that sod as well and placing it on top of your logs. Double bonus – you add nitrogen rich material to your bed AND you don’t have to worry about controlling the grass and weeds in the aisles! (I would mulch the pathways after you dig up the sod so that new weed seeds can’t make your freshly cleared walkway their new home.)

Although you can plant in them directly after creation, hugelkultur beds work best if they cure for a while. As a best practice, build them in the fall for use the following spring. This allows time for some decomposition to take place before you begin planting.

Hugelkultur at Arcadia Farms

As I’ve mentioned, I planned to double the size of the garden in the spring of 2013. I’ve been focusing most of my efforts on converting our existing raised beds to hotbeds for winter growing, and let me tell you, that has involved no small amount of work! I could care less if I ever dig another 2 foot pit again!! (I’m thoroughly sick of digging!) But all this fall as I’ve been digging up earth and replacing it with manure, I’ve been learning about hugelkultur and came to terms with the fact that it would be a beneficial method to use in our garden expansions. Yeah, that’s right – in mid November I decided that it would be a good idea to dig up 1,728 cubic feet of earth before the ground freezes, then fill all the holes with logs and move the dirt back. (Have I mentioned how thoroughly sick of digging I am???)  I was convinced this was the best way to expand our garden for all the reasons I’m about to share with you, but I practically fainted at the idea of doing all that digging by hand. (Have I mentioned how thoroughly sick of digging I am??????)

Enter Luka Schemenauer of Schemenauer Farm! Looking at the enormous task before me and the reality of my time constraints, I realized I needed some serious earth-moving machine power to make this work. I looked into renting a bobcat but it would have cost $200 and with my non-existent experience, I imagined it taking ten million years to get the job done. So I hopped onto www.craigslist.org and found Mr. Schemenauer listed as someone who could do bobcat work. He was accommodating, pleasant to work with and has very reasonable rates. (He got the job done for about half the money as it would have been to do it on my own and in considerably less time than ten million years!) If you need similar work done in the southwest Michigan area, I highly recommend him. He also shared a little bit about his farm with me – you should look him up during blueberry season for a great deal on u-pick berries! [Luka (Luke) Schemenauer, 269-214-0837, luka@i2k.com]

I think hugelkultur will be helpful at Arcadia Farms because it:

  • Is a helpful defense against drought, which was a significant burden in season one
  • Can potentially reduce our water usage and expense
  • Can increase our soil fertility
  • Provides a way to get rid of lots of rotting wood we inherited when we moved here
  • Costs less than building conventional raised beds because we have most of the resources on hand and don’t need to build retaining walls
  • Is overall more sustainable than our conventional beds (will require fewer resources in the future)

Some of our site-specific challenges include:

  • Lumber type – our logs are primarily maple (good) and pine (not as good)
  • Suburban setting – I imagine that six-foot tall mounds would draw some unfavorable attention and we desire to be good neighbors
  • Nitrogen draw down – because it’s December already, we have a very limited amount of ‘greens’ to add to the beds to reduce nitrogen draw down. In addition, I don’t have enough manure to add to the beds. The time it would take to find and get more manure is desperately needed just to finish the beds.
  • Time. It’s December for Pete’s sake! Thank God for unseasonably warm weather, but I’ve got to get a move on if this thing is going to happen, mainly because the ground could start to freeze any day now.

Here’s my plan to take advantage of hugelkultur benefits while addressing our site-specific challenges:

  • Beds will be buried three feet below ground and raised up approximately two feet above ground. This results in a five foot deep bed that only appears to be two feet tall and that can be added to over time with new organic matter.
  • Most of our pine lumber is well rotted (at least seven years old, but probably much older) and our maple is two or three years old. This should decrease the amount of nitrogen draw down. Also the tanning should have leached out of the pine many moons ago. Four beds will contain only very rotted wood so that hopefully nitrogen draw down is a non-issue. After that I’m out of really old wood. The remaining six beds will contain newer (2-3 years old) wood so that I can concentrate the limited ‘green’ organic matter I have to those beds that need it most.
  • Planting in the fall (winter?) rather than spring should get the process of decomposition going, which hopefully means a portion of any nitrogen draw down will take place before I plant in them.
  • Beds will consist of logs and branches on the bottom, leaves and any greens we have next, topped with upside down sod (from digging up trenches and from the aisle ways) and then a layer of dirt from the holes. In this spring we’ll add composted manure and plant compost for planting in and to add nitrogen. I may also plant some nitrogen-fixing plants in the beds this winter. If we have a mild winter (which I actually hope we don’t!) these will add some nitrogen to the beds as they grow, even if there is no harvest.
  • To address the time issue, I enlisted the help of an experienced contractor with a bobcat to save me from the dreadful task of hand digging 14 holes that are each 144 cubic feet in size. (Ohh… the thought of it makes me ache…)

Resources

Interested in creating your own hugelkultur beds? Here are some resources you might find helpful.

Hugelkultur: The ultimate raised garden beds by Paul Wheaton (start here!)

The Art and Science of Making a Hugelkultur Bed – Transforming Woody Debris into a Garden Resource

Hugelkultur: Using Woody Waste in Composting

Hugelkultur: Composting Whole Trees With Ease

Half-Ass Hugelkultur

Hugelkultur on the Prairie (Or Learning from Our Mistakes)

Here are some photos of progress so far. I’ll be back with more soon!






 
 

How to Use Leaves in Your Yard and Garden

I’m pretty sure we’re the only family on the block whose lawn is still covered in leaves. Why? Because leaf pick-up happened at least a week ago. In our suburban neighborhood, leaf pick-up is where everyone rakes or blows their leaves into the street and on a specific day the city comes along and sweeps them up. And what does the city do with them? They contract with a local waste management company which composts them and then sells the compost to individuals and organizations. But we have different plans - We can use leaves for so many other things on our micro-farm. And that means there are many things you can use your leaves for as well.

  [Read More]
 
 

October 2012 Update

As much as I really dislike being cold I have managed to drag myself outside several days and accomplish some goals. (And thankfully we’ve also had a few sunny days in the midst of all this rain!) Here’s a quick update on what’s happening at Arcadia Farms this October.  [Read More]
 
 
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