Creating a Healthy Annual/Perennial Orchard Garden

Jon Kean
Thursday, 15th September 2016

Jon Kean From Pennerley Permaculture explains the learning curves that come with creating a forest garden, and how he has created a balance between annuals, perennials and orchard fruit.

Our plot is at 304m (1000ft) and we generally have decent rainfall throughout the year. We have about 2 hectares (6 acres), roughly half grass and half trees. We moved here in 1999 and started a forest garden without much research, and planted apple, pear, plum, blackcurrant, raspberry, strawberry, honey berry, goji berry (has anybody ever got a crop?) and comfrey, and hoped for the best. No science, we just liked the term forest garden. We wanted to show that this Grade 5 marginal land could support something other than sheep. By 2007, it was clear that the tall trees to the immediate north had got a lot higher (and I mean a lot higher) than expected and the very thin soil meant that this forest garden was not really thriving. By then we had also researched other people’s experiences and visited their forest gardens.

In 2007, after a re-assessment of needs as our teenagers left home, we started from scratch on a 30 x 15m (98 x 49ft) patch at the far end of our holding which had full sun light and slightly better soil but had been permanently grazed throughout living memory. We planted plum, pear, apple, apricot, cherry and several other fruit bearing shrubs, and loads of hazels and willows as wind breaks, nectar sources and nut bearers. We loved it so much, we doubled its size the next year. We planted Italian alder, comfrey, Russian olive and Siberian pea tree as feeder plants. We added strawberry tree, Chinese dogwood, cornelian cherry, saskatoon, sugar maple, choke berry, thimbleberries (that struggle on and produce little) and other species that failed completely.

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We have always struggled a bit with the ground cover – the couch grass wants to stay where it is and out competes mint – and how much mint can one couple use? So we have experimented with growing annuals in the more open areas in semi-raised beds using no dig. Potatoes are always the first crop, as this keeps the soil covered and therefore weed free, while helping the soil structure establish. Effectively, we started adding a small annual bed a year.

Looking more closely at the ground cover we had, we realised we needed to see ‘resource’ not problem. Chop and drop led us in the right direction. We had established Russian comfrey around the fruit trees and were already chopping in situ. We just added the growth – whatever it was – grass, mint, nettle – to the piles. This got us thinking. I was regularly mowing the paths and feeling that I should do something useful with the mowings.

Grassberries

The move from strawberries to ‘grassberries’ was a breakthrough. Using grass cuttings as mulch for our strawberry beds has seen good, consistent crops for several years now. Visitors to the LAND Centre often ask about nitrogen robbing and slugs. Our experience is that nitrogen robbing is a bit of an urban myth. We now use all grass cuttings as a mulch and future soil across the holding and see no detriment. As for slugs – we get in front of them. As soon as the strawberries pink, we pick them and finish them off on the south facing window sill back at zone 0. This beats the blackbirds too.

We do a similar thing with the hazel nuts. As soon as the squirrels take the first nuts, we harvest and ripen on the window sill. The squirrels tell us when it is time to pick. Thanks squirrels.

Trees, Shrubs and Annuals

We had grown much of our annuals in a neighbour’s garden that we called the ‘allotment garden’. We have tried to organise the LAND centre in smaller plots that are replicable and scalable so that people leave here with something relevant to them. To this end we have a square foot garden, pot garden, window sill, herb garden, etc. 

When the neighbour moved we had to re-assess our whole plot against our current needs. Our need for grazing was diminished – down to nil in fact as nobody in the family rode ponies anymore – and we are vegetarian. We kept sheep and goats to keep the grass in good condition and used the ponies’ manure for the garden as only they could convert surplus grass to a collectable resource without resorting to more mowing. We have now let the grazing to pony owners as a small cash crop and to restore grass conversion to our system. However we found we were short of annual growing space. So we took an area equal to the forest garden and said let’s design something that plugs all our gaps – more annuals with additional fruit and nut trees that were not in our current forest gardens. We did not need another ground cover though we could use more grass cuttings as mulch for the new area.

This led us to develop what we call an orchard garden next to the forest garden. This consists of 6 x 5 x 2m (19 x 16 x 6ft) raised beds established by no dig. These run north to south and are in three rows of two. Between each row there is a 2m (6ft) gap. In the centre of these gaps we planted fruit trees, bushes and comfrey. At the end of each row are Italian alders to establish a canopy and fix nitrogen. This has rapidly become productive. We have not planted any ‘exotic’ bushes in this bit – the only one that thrives and produces an edible and tasty crop in our growing conditions is the salmonberry that comes earlier than the raspberry but not in profusion. We know that raspberry and blackcurrant will thrive and be consistently productive. We have no strawberries in this plot as we have plenty. We have added cherry plum and damson which we love but do not have in the original forest gardens and have also added Shropshire prune. The apples we have planted are to compliment other plantings – they are longer keepers or earlier ripening varieties. We have added a hybrid mulberry inspired by one we saw in a forest garden near Brighton.

The rows make the job of mowing paths so much easier; the beds are handy to receive the cuttings. 

There are six beds to follow our biodynamic rotation and we leave a bed fallow every fifth year, covered in a green manure. The biodynamic rotation we work for growing annuals are four beds with the plantings related to the part of the plant we want to use. So we have a root bed, a leaf bed, a flower bed and a fruit bed. These rotate annually. The sixth bed is for perennials such as rhubarb – again a tasty, reliable cropper that we like.

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We tried weighing our produce but found no joy in that – it was just a labour. So our measures of success are that we eat something at every meal that we have produced, and the feedback from the steady trickle of visitors that come to the site. Fifty percent of our visitors come from abroad and there is usually room for visitors to camp in the fields. It took seven years for our second forest garden to be properly productive – we felt we turned a corner that year where effort started to reduce and reward increase. The orchard garden was instantly productive for annual roots, climbers and leaves, the other layers of the orchard garden of bushes and fruit trees will probably take seven years to become productive, so watch this space! The orchard garden is replicable in any space and scaleable to any size. I am not sure the same of the forest garden. It is also easier to mow.

A common puzzle with forest gardens is how much space should there be between plantings. Too close and the trees are stressed and become diseased. Too distant and docks and nettles invade. The orchard garden seems to have answered this conundrum and as the trees and bushes grow we expect the beds to narrow.

Back in the first 1999 forest garden the apple and plum trees produce crops and the blackcurrants, strawberries and raspberries never let us down.

We feel we have proven that Grade 5 land can produce much more than sheep even at over 304m (1000ft) by careful selection of species and varieties even though it is observable that gardens as little as 30m (100ft) lower will have four weeks more growing season. Perhaps we are benefiting from climate change. Forest gardens in the south and at lower altitude will be able to produce a greater variety of plants than we do, but the variety we consistently manage to crop is wide enough and we really enjoy being in our forest and orchard gardens as do a wide range of birds and small mammals.

Jon Kean, Pennerley Permaculture

Further resources

How to Make a Forest Garden

Forest gardening - does it really work?

Watch: Living with the land - forest gardening

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