Cultivating Canopy Food

Gill scents the air while his flock nibbles blackberry in our future cotton patch geese enclosure. Spring bloom and blossom spreads leaf and flower as awakenings about. The damp moss underfoot confirms recent rain, but swales remain empty, confirming the 4th driest year on record for our state. We’re 4 inches behind on rain averages, and that means fire season this summer could be awful. Instead of worrying about the future, we remain in the present with grazing, weeding, planting, and observing. Our fruit trees from Raintree Nursery have all survived, and come alive with stretching daylight. From cherries to aronia, our orchard is expanding and diversifying into tasty new verities to further our experimentation with climate resiliency and soil compatibility.

We’ve had an 80% success rate in our fruiting selections, and continue to irrigate these plantings through the dry months to support survival through the first few years of the vulnerable young tree’s life. In time, canopy will shade the orchard enough to protect moisture in the topsoil. Mulching also helps with retaining water, as does companion planting. We’ve layered cardboard to push back grass and are currently adding mulch to create fresh planting space for such understory companions as comfrey and chives- both of which become well established and do not need much tending to thrive. Our electric mesh fencing allows the sheep to graze in between the young plantings now, with intention to allow some browsing of the mature growth in future. Aisles of alternating hedge fruit and grass will offer diverse eating for us and our stock, as well as access to tend and harvest, and offer open space to ventilate and maximize sunlight catchment on our south facing gradual slope.

Vertical growth adds production to landscape. Forests produce much more diverse ranges of food, medicine, and materials. Trees also weave complex ecology for a more resilient and thriving environment- but you can’t industrially harvest within a forest system, so our industrial agriculture continues blindly off a cliff with mega monoculture madness. Even in commercial timber forests, the science points to better yields with diverse plantings. There are many studies showing that cooperation between species in the environment creates more abundance and adaptation, therefore, layering plants with lower, mid, and upper canopy producers creates enough difference that no one or two things failing will drastically reduce overall food security.

Our fruit and nut trees are scaffolding, shaping the framework of our agricultural design in hand with replanting of native forest and transition zones throughout EEC Forest Stewardship. For the next 20 years, apples and pears, along with chestnut and hazel stands are scattered through the landscape. Most of our fruit trees are near the house, with access to irrigation and stronger protection from browsing predators like deer. The nut trees are further afield, and we don’t expect much nut production for another ten years. Below is a general map of orchard production zones at EEC.

When planning your orchard, note the different production ages of fruit and nut trees- they don’t all age and produce at the same times. Apples usually age out the fastest, but pears can produce for a hundred years with the right care. These timings determine recession in your food forest, and should be layered in much the same as the canopy. Transition zones are woven around grove and stand edges, as well as some open pasture where full sun graces grasslands and garden beds. Here in Western Washington, there is a lot of damp times (for now), and fruit does not do well soaking, so open spaces to encourage airflow is also imperative for orchard health. Hemming in the trees without airspace circulation will cause rot and mold in fruit and vegetation. This is why a lot of our food forest planning is done in rows with open space either side. The other pattern of planting is dotting a savanna landscape. Island trees in an ocean of pasture space. Chestnuts have such spanning canopies as the mature, keeping a lot of space between each tree is important in allowing the full canopy to mature.

Fruit trees also provide much needed food for pollinator species. Take a moment to listen while standing under one of our mature Asian pear trees. The canopy’s abuzz with the sound of feasting insects. This variety flowers quite early in Spring, acting as a beacon of sustenance during early days of waking hibernators in warmer temperatures. EEC fruit forest planning takes into account which species are early budding and which develop later to encourage production across the entire growing season. This also covers adverse weather events like a late frost or spring hail storm. Staggering your bloom time prevents a massive loss in one event- another reason monoculture leaves your fruit trees vulnerable. Climate change will make agriculture much harder over the next few decades. Diversifying and multi-story growing help prepare cultivation for the unpredictable future, while providing delicious taste, and ecological stability.

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