Guest Post: Building a Food Forest (Part 4)

Continued from: Guest Post: Building a Food Forest (Part 3)

Well, that was a busy summer! We made some mistakes, and not everything we planted survived, but overall I’d say we made out pretty well.

I’m not sure that we could have picked a more challenging year to attempt a project like this. We’ve come through a record-setting drought this past growing season, which really put a lot of stress on the trees and plants we’d been trying to get established this year.

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That “Record Dry” red blip at the Kingston mark is where our farm is, and the drought continued well past the date this chart was taken from. As it stands currently, the Cataraqui Region is still under the highest warning level issued by the local conservation authority.

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In the end, we were left to water the fledgling food forest manually by hand to keep everything alive through the summer. It was hot and exhausting work which took us about 3 hours every second day, but I’m glad we stuck with it. As a result, most of what we planted survived the drought conditions.

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Lessons Learned after year one:

1) It’s all about the mulch!

One of the most valuable lessons I think I learned this year was the value of mulch. Sweet, sweet mulch. This summer was so hot and dry. Most days were ~30 degrees Celsius with humidity bringing the temperature closer to “feels like” 40 degrees on occasion. The ground was just baking under the incessant sunlight and it was almost impossible to keep moisture in.

So, tree-by-tree, we added protective Big “O” tubing around each of them, along with a healthy serving of wood chip mulch about 4″ thick. Just that alone brought the soil temperature down by about 15 degrees Celsius, and helped to keep everything from drying right out.

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The tubing also keeps the mulch away from the base of the tree itself, which helps prevent the development of insect and disease problems.

2. Beware of allelopathic trees!

Some trees have a very potent competitive advantage over other plants. Think of it as nature’s version of chemical warfare. Certain species release natural herbicides into the surrounding area in order to kill off neighboring plants who might try to steal their resources (light, water, nutrients).

I discovered (too late) that I’d planted some of our trees quite close to a series of allelopathic Bitternut Hickory trees, which produce a chemical called Juglone. The effects of this were devastating to a number of Black Alders that were planted in that vicinity, which are particularly susceptible to that chemical. Example below:

Once they were hit by the Juglone, their deaths came swiftly.

The solution is simple enough. Be careful of what you plant where! There are other species which are quite resistant to the effects of Juglone, just as Pawpaw and Mulberry, which could have been planted in that area instead. Had we done that, they’d have acted as a buffer between the hickory trees and the more susceptible species planted further in. Live and learn!

3) A little shade can be the difference between life or death for some species

Some of the casualties of the harsh conditions this year were our Pawpaw trees, kiwi vines, and much of the raspberry we planted. I’ve learned that these need more shade cover than what we’d provided them the first time around. That, coupled with the blazing summer sun was just too much for them to survive. We’ll be replanting those this spring, though, hopefully in spots where they’ll have a bit of tree cover to help them survive the establishment phase.

4) Insects, deer, rabbits, and voles – Nature’s a$$holes

Just kidding. Sort of. They’re all a very welcome, and necessary, part of the ecosystem we’re working at establishing. They do, however, present a very real threat to young saplings which aren’t well established.

In the spring, caterpillars tried to eat all the leaves off the saplings. Later on, it was the grasshopper’s turn. We’ve had deer come through and browse some of the trees into oblivion, and I dare say that they’ll be back once winter hits along with added pressure from rabbits and voles looking for something to eat.

I’m hoping that the protective tubing goes a ways toward helping to protect the trees from those threats.

As for the insects, my plan at the moment is to get some lumber and take a stab at building some nesting boxes to hopefully encourage a troop of Eastern Bluebirds to set up shop in the area. Their diet consists two thirds of insects, and they’d go a long way toward keeping those leaf-eating buggers in check.

4) Climate change is a bitch

Global warming increases both extremes of Earth’s water cycle. Heat waves & droughts on one hand directly from the warming, but also, because a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor with it’s latent energy, rainfall will come in more extreme events. There will be stronger storms & greater flooding.

James Hansen, head of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies from 1981-2013

This past summer provided a somewhat disturbing glimpse at what kind of impacts climate change can potentially have on the sustainability of our local habitat. We went without any meaningful rainfall for months on end this past growing season. This caused a number of wells in the area to go dry, some farmers lost their crops, and even mature, well-established trees withered and died.

As time goes on, I believe it’s important to acknowledge the potential threats that a changing climate brings with it, and do what we can to try and mitigate those impacts as best we can.

Two of the main focuses for us at the moment center around:

  1. Water catchment. When it does rain, we want to develop systems which will capture as much of that precipitation as possible and store it. The swale system we planted our trees on would be one such example. The swales harvest rain water and force it to percolate into the soil, while also helping to guard against some of the impacts of flood-level precipitation events which would otherwise wash out and erode a landscape. We’re hoping to do more on this front as time goes on and include projects which will also capture rainwater from the rooftops, and look at other gardening systems like wicking beds which make much better use of water as a resource.

wicking-bed-112. Species selection. Another important piece to ensuring the longevity of our environment in the face of these changes it to attempt to select and encourage the establishment of species with a wider range of climate tolerance. We are currently classified as living in USDA hardiness zone 5, but as time goes on that may vary.

If it does, we want to have productive tree and plant species which can survive a more volatile environment whether that be hotter, dryer summers, or colder, harsher winters.

The establishment of Sea buckthorn on our property this year is a good example of a climate-resilient plant. It can survive anywhere from climate zones 3 to 7 which gives us a very wide range to operate in before the plant would fail. It is also very drought tolerant, with minimal water requirements.

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Another example (pictured below) are black locust trees. Hardy from climate zones 3 to 9, nitrogen fixing, excellent hardwood for construction or firewood, and also very drought tolerant. Here’s a black locust tree which was planted as a root cutting no higher than the black tube at it’s base and within a matter of months grew to around 8′ tall or so despite the poor conditions. Not bad, all things considered!

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Summary:

Overall we had good, productive year. Our first attempt at a project like this had been quite the learning experience, and I’m already looking forward to what next year might bring.

As time goes on we’re hoping to continue to work at establishing more perennial food systems on the farm and continue our shift from being net consumers toward being net producers, while also trying to be a positive influence on our local environment.

I hope you enjoyed these last few posts. It’s been my first crack at it, and writing stuff like this isn’t really my forte. I think, though, that it’s important to try and make this type of information more readily available, along with the mistakes we make and the lessons we learn as we go. Leading a more sustainable lifestyle is certainly possible with all of the modern technology and research available to us, and it doesn’t mean having to live a life of austerity in order to achieve it.

We’ve got plenty more projects planned for the months and years to come. Beekeeping is probably one of the next ones we’re hoping to tackle. Maybe I’ll post something on that once we get there.

Cheers!

 

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