As I’ve mentioned recently, I’ve spent the winter months reading about native plants and permaculture. Permaculture isn’t a new concept to me, but it’s one I hadn’t spent a great deal of time thinking about until I discovered Colette O’Neill’s Bealtaine Cottage blog (now website and vlog) in the winter of 2016. Looking at her photos and reading her posts about the transformation of her land in the west of Ireland from a boggy, rush ridden field devoid of trees and wildlife to the magical, wonderful food forest she’s created over the past 13 years was nothing short of mind-blowing.
Prior to finding her blog, I’d pick up a book on permaculture or peruse a website, and get so bogged down in technical details and what seemed to me to be overly formulaic planting that it seemed to suck the life and fun out of gardening. I admired and wholeheartedly agreed with the underlying principles of permaculture, but it didn’t capture my soul and make me want to run out into my yard and try a new way of gardening. Colette’s blog did.
I embraced a more permaculture way of thinking last gardening season, Colette style, and planted more trees (cherry, crab apple and maple predominantly), willow, and dogwood; planted more pollinator friendly perennials; and let the grass grow tall in the orchard (photo above) to attract beneficial insects. And although a few of my fruit trees (many 5-7 years old) finally blossomed and produced last year, many still haven’t and they really should have started to produce by now.
Which brings me to permaculture guilds…I have to assume that despite my pampering them with fish fertilizer and manure teas, and keeping the grass at bay by religious weeding and mulching, that my trees are still lacking something essential to their well-being. So taking a page from the permaculture playbook, this year I intend to “guild” the orchard; well, at least some of it. I also need to practice the permaculture concept of “chunking”, as in try new techniques and plantings in chunks to see what works, rather than planting out a huge area. So I’m going to incorporate a guild around the first row of trees in the orchard. This row contains the oldest of the trees; 2 plum trees and 2 apple trees. It also has some black currant bushes and the asparagus bed within feet of it for a little more, nearby plant diversity.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of a guild, it can be described as “a group of plants and animals harmoniously interwoven into a pattern of mutual support, often centered around one major species, that benefits humans while creating habitat.” (from Toby Hemenway, Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2d ed.) Below is a conceptual diagram of an apple tree guild that I found on the Internet (credit to whomever created it; the image didn’t state the source). It clearly shows the various elements of the guild and lists some examples of each, although the variety of plants that can be used in each category is quite large and your selection will depend on your zone and preference.
I’ve selected a variety of plants for each category and intend to grow all from seed this spring, except for the daffodil bulbs that will be used to inhibit grass and keep away the voles and such that like to nibble on the bark (no tree girdling allowed!). The various elements combine to lure in beneficial insects for pollination and pest control, boost soil health, reduce root competition, conserve water, balance fungal populations to counter diseases such as scab, create wildlife habitat, and provide food for the humans.
I plan on building a little rock cairn or two in the midst of the guild to provide a home for the garter snakes and other reptiles. I had a decent sized snake hanging in among the currants last season because I had laid down cardboard all around the currants and topped with compost and leaf mold; apparently I created quite a comfortable habitat because the snake stuck around all summer. We would respectfully give each other a little distance when I was collecting berries, but she never seemed overly disturbed by my presence.
For my selection of plants, I plan on choosing from the following (most of which I already grow):
Pollinator-attractors: yarrow, fennel, dill, bee balm, lovage, feverfew, anise hyssop
Dynamic Nutrient Accumulators: chicory, chives, borage, comfrey, lemon balm, lupine, mustard, valerian, yarrow and sunflowers
Nitrogen fixers: sweet peas, beans, Baptisia australis, lupine and clover
I’m going to take some cuttings from my batch of Ribes nigrum (black currants) and interplant those throughout the guilds next year (they will spend their first year in the potager), and I have some red currant bushes coming from St. Lawrence Nurseries which will get planted into this year’s fruit tree guild.
I plan on introducing a few other permaculture techniques, but more on those at a later date.