The rules of spacing

I was at a Christmas party in conversation with a local Timken engineer who, hearing I design food forests, wanted to pick my brain on apple trees. He had six trees in two rows of three, well spaced in his backyard. He was throwing out terms about the mainstream organic sprays he was using, and framed his questions expecting me to know some super organic spray, or spray regimen, that would fix his problems of pests and low vigor in general. I don’t think he expected the answer I gave: ‘What’s planted around the trees?’

We often think of the rules of spacing as rules for keeping other plants away from each other. In practice I find the lines blur between species, and enters a much more broad science: it’s what should be included near the plant, as well as what shouldn’t. Between these two aspects, you make or break the majority of fruit tree problems.

The lines often blur between species because, let’s face it, plants don’t grow in a vacuum and always have something growing up against them. In this guy’s case, his trees were planted right into his lawn. They were in competition with the grass.

Looking at their history, grass and trees are in most cases nemesis of one another. Trees make forest; but grass needs open space. The setting in most yards of trees with grass between is quite artificial, and only exists because we keep the grass mowed. In any other situation, trees would take over.

The prairies are the kingdom of grass, and these occured because of rain shadows, or areas where circumstances such as the Rocky Mountain range messed with the winds that carry rain, creating droughts in one part of the year, and near flooding in another. Trees don’t like that, because most have relatively shallow roots, as much as 80 percent residing in the top three feet of soil depending on the kind and its conditions; but prairie plants, such as the grasses, and N fixers like senna hebecarpa, put roots down unusually deep, so reach the water table whether rain comes or not.

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An experiment showing the root growth of Red Delicious apple tree two years after planting.
Have you ever wondered as you pass woods how the trees survive so close? If you were planting an oak tree in your yard that would someday reach a hundred foot tall, can you imagine the spacing recommendations? They would be over fifty feet apart. Most yards couldn’t fit more than one tree. But in the woods they stand on top of each other, growing for hundreds of years, happy, and healthy.

Studies have shown that trees can grow their roots deep into the ground, but prefer to keep their roots higher in the soil if possible. There is more organic matter, hence nutrients and water, in this layer. If there isn’t, trees will try to put in the work to grow deeper. This is a lot more work, and certainly isn’t their first choice.

What trees really prefer is building networks in which they share and preserve resources. For instance, trees have what is called hydraulic redistibution, which is a fancy term for moving water not only up for their own use, but back down into the soil for storage, and horizontally to other plants. Peter Wholleben, in his book The Hidden Life of Trees recalls his surprise when he found a ring of roots from a beech tree that must have been cut down well over a century beforehand, but still had green, living roots showing above ground. It had no leaves, and the stump was gone. As he explained, citing various studies, the living trees around this ancient (should be dead) tree were feeding it sugars made in their leaves, keeping it alive. Likely, they got some kind of kickback from the extended root system because it allowed them access to more resources.

This is in ancient, established forests, so conditions aren’t quite the same for our young transplants. We can get some similar effects by growing fruit trees in more open settings, or riparian zones. These are zones similar to fencerows and overgrown fields where grasses are just converting to trees. These zones are iconically untidy and wild; but skillful gardeners know the elements of these zones, like clay in a potters hand, have the best potential to form the most beautiful, lush gardens.

Riparian zones have many layers, with notably high numbers of low growing herbaceous and woody shrubs, many of which are nitrogen fixers. The quickest way to simulate this ecology is making ‘guilds’ of plants right around your fruit trees. Here is my manual of bed building for info on quickly clearing grass without tillage. Plan on expanding these plantings every year until the beds around your trees meet. If the tree is older, and larger, the bed should extend at least a couple feet beyond its drip line.

An example guild: 1. Fruit Tree 2. Comfrey 3. Siberian Peashrub 4. Amorpha fruticosa 5. Japanese Wineraspberry 6. Honeyberry 7. Blueberry 8. Turkish Rocket 9. Crambe cordifolia 10. Stepping stones, (or in this case, stepping logs). The green base is a ground cover of mint.
Any guild should include at least 2 woody nitrogen fixing plants, about 5 plants that do not fix nitrogen but can be cut for mulch, such as comfrey, or a groundcover of something like mint, then several fruiting shrubs like raspberry or honeyberry, and some perennial vegetables.

This is the best method if you already have fruit trees in the ground, like our engineer friend. If you’re just planning your food forest, Robert Hart, the father of the northern food forests, recommended planting full size or standard fruit trees at recommended spacing for their size, in rows like any orchard, but then semi standard or medium trees, then dwarf trees, then shrubs, then herbaceous plants, then vines to climb and fill in the cracks between them.

Photo credit: Graham Burnett.
I’d recommend mulching as much as you can, and planting that area with a complete planting like this. The space should be completly filled with plants, and will establish faster with less work overall.

This system gives quite attractive results that are increasingly less cost and labor than serial applications of even organic, clay-based sprays, pyrethrums and neems, let alone the more harsh chemicals. There is work later on, but this is of course dabatable, because its mostly harvests of fruit. Sounds like pleasant work to me.

Growing Amorpha

Deep purple petal over bright orange stamens of Amorpha fruticosa melt into green, spotted little crescents of seed. These ripen in the sun to a dark brown, then white-gray and hold. I kept thinking these seeds would fall off, but even in January when I lately picked some, they were tightly attached.

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They have a peculiar ability to sprout without cold -unlike most woody perennials that need months of subfreezing temps. They just need heat above 70 degrees F, and up pop little green leaves. Usually I soak the seed for a couple hours before sowing into flats. I start them in February in some years, March in others, but for my climate these both mean heat has to be provided.


I have to be careful with the dry air of indoor heating to keep the seeds wet, so usually cover with some plastic, and water often. We begin heating a small portion of our greenhouse about that time for garden vegetables, so these seedlings can soak up real sunlight from day one.

They are wise little seeds, and spacing their sprouting time -which outdoors would be a fail-safe against late frost and other catastrophes. For me, it’s a great convenience. Out of one ‘source flat’ as I call it, sprouts pop within three days after planting, but keep popping up for several weeks.

Usually I wait until the first true leaves show before I begin transplanting, then clear the flat of any sprouts with true leaves once a week.

Out of the hundreds I have grown, I find it’s best to start the seeds with potting soil, or compost with good levels of nitrogen. From here I separate into small pots or cell flats no larger than 2 inches across, filled with the same kind of nitrogen rich potting soil they sprouted in.

The heat and rate of drying in smaller pots, where the roots can quickly reach the bottom and be air pruned, has given superior results for me. They still develop very deep taproots once in the ground, but this root pruning while in the pot is helpful -in part because it stimulates more branching of the root system. Planting in extra large pots with nitrogen rich soil, many seedlings rot, and must be replaced two or three times over before each pot successfully grows a plant. On the other hand I have tried planting them this early in nitrogen poor soil, and they make little headway.

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I think this best mimics the situation they would find in nature. Forests and grasslands have a thin layer of nutrient rich, fluffy soil on the surface usually, which quickly becomes clay or whatever the base soil of the area. I want to get the seedlings into nitrogen poor soil to induce nodulation (aka hosting nitrogen fixing bacteria as evidenced by the formation of little nodules). This is spurred on by a lack of nitrogen in the soil. The catch is it takes time for the young plants to find the bacteria and get the symbiosis set up.

Nature’s way seems to be nutrient rich soil at first, then less rich soil as the plant gets bigger, the roots deeper. My contrived biomimicry that gives best results is moving the seedlings once they have filled their small pots and gotten a bit root pruned (not pot bound, as in roots turning back on themselves) into larger pots of whatever size you choose, filled with nitrogen poor soil about 1/3 rd coarse sand. I usually mix nutrient-rich rock powders, such as carbonitite or granite, into this before filling the pots.

Usually I transplant into 4inch pots at this point so they are filled with their roots in a couple of weeks -about the time nodules start to form. Usually this is early June -plenty of time for establishment before fall. Those I don’t get in the ground the first year go into gallon pots by August, which they usually have amply filled by next spring.

I try to avoid keeping Amorpha in pots more than a year. They grow best put in the ground as soon as possible after they have acclimated to the nitrogen poor soil. After years of refining this method, I’ve had transplants pushing 5ft by the end of year one -well on their way to exploding every spring with growth, providing some of the best organic matter for fueling your plant projects.

Where to get the seeds? You might have a plant nearby, which I recommend you snatch some seeds from. Otherwise they’re very affordable, and widely available from Sheffield seeds (my first choice), Oikos Tree Crops (They advertise A. californica, but I’ve gotten their seed -and plants, and compared it against pictures and attributes on the USDA plant database, and they have the name wrong. It’s species fruticosa), or even Amazon if you shop there.

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Success for your plant purchase: Top 5 tactics

FYI, the frantic Black Friday deals for plants is during July -September, not November, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make some major cuts on your “consumption” of resources (I mean that in an environmentally responsible, as well as haphazard money saving way) using these time-refined strategies for getting, and successfully establishing, productive plants.

1. Plants or seeds?

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This one is huge. Some plants really sprout easily from seed, providing stronger, less expensive plants, for which you have lugged far less material around the globe to get; other plants are a regular joke to sprout from which you should by no means expect an actual plant.

This is because the perennials parents grow for years, and don’t want their progeny choking them out. As a result, the seeds aren’t really meant to sprout, and do so only after their puzzlebox-like seeds have been unlocked, which can take years. Many have germination rates which, even in synthetically pumped conditions, soaked in gibberilic acid, only reach single digit percentiles. You might be fighting a losing battle per the dictum of the parent plant.

My general rule is that potted, already established plants are the golden ticket to abundance. With perennials, I study their habits, and usually opt to get just one really healthy plant (or two if they need a pollinator) and let the plant self seed, or harvest the abundant, free seed to carefully plant myself, or propagate by divisions etc. in time. The long span of time, and higher price, are often better choices than the smaller, reoccuring price of seed year after year.

This is not just thoery. I have several plants with whom three years of seeds marked equal cost to getting the plant. After these serial failures, I just got the plant and started gathering succesful progeny in a year. In effect, I’ve payed double. Just pay up front for plants, and take this post as a 50% discount code for your future self.

There are few, but dramatic, exceptions to this rule, which I can’t ensure will be the same for you (that’s the hard part), but here you go.

Crambe cordifolia has been sky high on my want list for quite a while, and I payed matching prices to get my hands on two year old plants from the few sources that offer them.

I have forgotten how many I even got. They invariably died. None even made it through their first winter.

This year I begrudgingly tried seeds, which I read take years to finally bloom, are small, and all that dreadful stuff. I already had bad experience with the closely related sea kale (Crambe maritima) from seed. The success it had with Eric Toensmeier catapulted it into what I consider an extremely inflated fame. It’s meant for the rocky shoreline.

I half expected the same with cordifolia, but got some hefty, thick little sprouts resulting in two plants astronomically larger and healthier than the older, far more costly plants. I have no worries about them growing through the winter. What’s more, I see how luscious these plants are, and can’t wait to share my experiences on cooking and eating them. Their leaves are like green steaks.


So do homework, but in general, get plants.

2. Don’t let it get out of hand

There is a funny little principle that the fewer things you put your energy into, the more effective the energy. The result? You get more with less. You’re not a saviour of the planet letting your paycheck evaporate into a pile of tree seeds if all they do is evaporate back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

My rule is don’t let the number of new/risky plants you try exceed the number of fingers on your hand -five. You’ll really progress much faster this way.

3. Get promiscuous plants

I love weeds. They are astoundingly efficient, little (you hope) masters of the growing edge, and I adore every one of them. One of my foremost jobs as a designer is just weedling out their true service for mankind.

Any potential problem can almost always be rendered a potential power source. It’s when a plant is weakly and does nothing in either direction that you have no potetial at all -and far more potential of your single plant dying.

Lambsquarter (Chenopodium alba), for instance, is a lovely vegetable weed that come up on its own. The vegetable mallow I wrote about lately is a fantastic leafy green that comes up gangbusters on its own in the fertility of late season tilled (or properly mulched) gardens.

All the malvas below self seed. Read about them here.

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Always pay attention to comments on how easily a plant self propagates. If they say it’s invasive, find out how. Often, different conditions will render a horendously invasive plant sterile, so consider carefully whether it will actually be a propagation monster.

If it is, use it. We have thousands of uses for soybeans and corn -not because it’s useful, but because we figured out a thousand ways to use it. The whole reason for figuring these uses was because we had it, and a lot of it. It’s a pretty smart tactic.

4. Focus on where it will grow.

I have a confession to make: I tried to grow kudzu. Yes, the plant that ate the south is actually a crazy powerhouse of nitrogen fixation, which, if you know me at all, you know I’m a sucker for.

It died.

The most ferocious plants will at best do nothing if planted into a chink of grass-covered clay out back. A major component of a plant’s success is figuring how it will be worked into a guild, in cleared, fertile ground. Everything else -the decisions of what kind, what form, and what stage of plant/seed to get, comes after.

One bed a year is wise -or whatever your mulch supply can handle. This, for me, makes one bed I then plan my puchases around. Is it sunny? Shady? Sandy? Get plants that will grow in those conditions and use the niche of fertility and moisture the fresh mulch will provide, getting a good groundcover in place, and you are ten times more likely to succeed in establishing your plants and never order them from a catalogue again!

5. Look close to home.

Unfortunately, perennial vegetable and rare fruit enthusiasts are still too rare to be on every street corner. A not so rare occasions is when desirable ornamental and edible goddess type plants meet, making it far more likely to show up in the popular skin-deep ornamental garden.

Keep an eye out for what grows in your friend’s and neighbor’s yards, considering what plants might be of use, that you could trade for, or that are rank weeds somone else wishes were gone. The many insanely sweet possibilities here are amazing, especially if you posses the techiques to handle the plants well. Check this post here for one of them.

When I am glutted with a ton of plants, the ‘getting out of hand’ rule often applies. Taking up the resources and time to plant all you removed from someones yard (sometimes the deal for getting the plants is that you remove them all ) can lead to none of the plants living. It seems heartless, but sometimes picking out the one that looks best to plant and mulching around it with the others is the surest way of success.

It in a way combines all the former tactics, using all your resources for the single most likely specimen, and working towards propagating multiple plants from that one as soon as possible. It’s the biggest bang for your metaphorical -and literal- buck.

For example:

Green is always so tender and lush as it erupts from its hard, drab seed coat. Thankfully this only marks the beginning of much more growth to come if handled right. Take this scenario for example:

Just finishing its second year at one of my client’s home, right outside their front door, is the first installed PASSIVE-perennial vegetable garden fusion.

It is about 2/3rds perennial polyculture and 1/3rd PASSIVE annuals. The perennials provide much of the show, while the annuals give a small smatter of color and the bulk production at which they so excel.

The new placement of the garden is a major improvement of what they had. Their old garden was far behind the house, where they got little enjoyment and use of it because it was in a literal blindspot of their everyday life.

The new garden started by merely laying path. This we made of ceramic block, left over from some of the previous owner’s building projects on the property, which until then did nothing but take up space in a pile, unused.

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Design I had roughly figured and drawn beforehand, which we discussed and moderated as suited our needs in process of laying the block. The final product is a series of large curves, or spirals, if you will, within each other. This created curved beds about three feet wide for easy access. Where the paths were further apart, we made small islands of stone, which had the added effect of breaking up the large spiral design, besides being a pretty addition itself.

Mulch eradicated the grass lawn on the plot. This was mostly fallen branches and mowed grass from the lawn, which for the client was formerly just another waste product they had piled for compost.

They also applied select vegetable waste to the mulch, which has popped up to their delight as cilantro, pumpkins, basil, dill, and many others we didn’t expect. Right by the house, they got some of the finest cantaloupe I have ever seen grown in this area. On my parent’s farm nearby we have tried for years to get good muskmelons, trying black plastic for heat, and irrigation to combat the dryness. So I was a bit envious when I saw these just appear from the mulch. They were smack on the southeast corner of the house though, just out of reach of the spouting which overflows in heavy rains, soaking the spot. Microclimates rule.

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With minimal identification from me, the offensive weeds like quackgrass and thistle were casually plucked whenever found, and the garden has been a serendipitous mass of vegetables since.

Quick growth of a cover crop mix planted that fall, and continued additions of grass mulch they got from the lawn, with a chance find of some straw the husband, Hans, got at his work, bolstered the store of the organic matter ready for breakdown over winter, effectively blocking anymore weeds.

This left us with a clean spread of grass mulch, with patches of green herbs and vegetables popping up. It was quite nice for what could have been an awkward establishment phase. This year, it only got better.

Over winter I designed the planting, ordered seed and plants, starting out many of the plants for the client in my greenhouse. Transplanting happened as the plants were ready,  such that I completed the list by June. A picture of the initial planting list I sent them is below. A few things we skipped, a lot of things were added.

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When out shopping at a local greenhouse for example, a couple artichokes somehow tagged along home and made themselves happy in the new garden. One of these bloomed, and gave two smaller buds for eating.

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At the top of a hill, the garden has a wonderful microclimate. Of course, being close to the white brick house helps too. So I figured lots of things normally too tender for our climate might even overwinter here. The artichokes are just one of several accidental warm climate additions that slipped in. I’m chaffing to see how they fare.

In the annual planting area, there is comfrey and Cystisus scoparious for the permanent mulch making system. Cystisus stays low, so won’t block the view across the garden. At the east edge, Amorpha is planted in a row of wild daylilies to provide ample mulch for the perennials, and a small surplus for the annuals. Across the driveway, to the west, is a long line of Amorpha with comfrey at its feet to block wind and provide further mulch if necessary.

We added a bamboo bean tipi for a focal point this year, with tomatoes around the base.

These were mostly heirloom slicer tomatoes. We would have planted some cherry tomatoes, but the variety they planted the year before, “Matt’s Wild” had taken propagation into its own hands and now their persisting progeny couldn’t be chased out of the garden with a stick.  Fruits thickly festoon the bramble of branches they make though, so this isn’t too much of a problem. If anything they choke out the less desirable weeds.

Self seeders like this, and perennials that provide stock for annual propagation, are the next step in the PASSIVE method I want to refine, so keep an eye out for more examples like this.

Annuals such as calendula, and biennials like salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius), good at self seeding, were planted nearby in the perennial polyculture to cover the ground between the young perennials. A very pretty variegated mint is more permanently filling in the cracks. In the annual area we planted mache as a self seeding groundcover. See my post on its use here.

With all the mulch poured on the garden from the yard, there was descent fertility, although higher later on. This wasn’t until the end of the summer, because it was dry and bound up and not feeding the soil until we got rain. It’s fascinating to note that, although watered a few times with a sprinkler, this did not have a noticable effect on the mulch and its breakdown -hence fertility. One good summer’s rain, and the mulch suddenly changed color, and so did the garden.

The compliments are starting to roll in from my clients’ friends on how the garden looks so nice. The wife, Elora, is an artist in several media, and lately made a series of really cool macro lens pictures of the plants titled “A Garden Meditation.” Check it out here.

It is, as they tell me, their new entertainment to sit on the porch and watch the bees and butterflies flit around the lush growth and radiant colors. They have sent me several pictures of salads and tomato harvests they have made thus far, and posted a good bit to their social media pages if you want to take a look.

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Nasturium (Tropaeolum major) flower, chive (Allium schoenoprasum), “Matt’s Wild” cherry tomato, salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) and vegetable mallow (Malva verticillata), harvested fresh from the bountiful garden. Photo credit: Elora Toews

The best thing about the situation is it’s just year two, and only the beginning of what should become a very long lived, productive, PASSIVE-perennial gardening system.

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Book update: I know some of you can’t check my posts released on Fridays until Monday, so I am offering PASSIVE Gardening as a free gift again today.

Almost any device -smartphone, tablet, desktop -of almost every brand, can download the Kindle app that allows the device to display kindle books. Just click on the “Read on any Device” next to the book picture. At any rate there is no need worry about having a device that can support it.

I do understand some do not like extensive reading on an electrical device though, so will have a soft cover copy out soon.

The book had 700 downloads last time. No reviews yet, so the race is still on to see who shatters the silence. In whatever order they come, I am particularly excited to see a review from you.

PASSIVE

I’m giving a talk today on growing annuals in sustainable, no-till systems. I’m calling it PASSIVE gardening, or permanent agriculture systems sustaining intensive (annual) vegetable ecology. More on that later. For now, I thought I’d share the talk trifold.


Any thoughts?

Propagating Comfrey

Few plants can boast as many niche filling functions as Comfrey; which is why I have well over a hundred around the farm and in my food forest (so far).

Less than half of those were purchased or dug up from elsewhere though, thanks to its amazing ability to propagate.

I have Symphytum officionale –the pure species propagated from seed. But the majority of my Symphytum legion are the sterile bocking varieties (a cross between S. officionale and uplandicum). No seeds.

Then there’s the normal method of propagation, dividing the roots. I often get a whole ten plants from one when doing this –the original of course coming back without any attendance. I’ve only done this with two plants though.

IMG_1931 My favorite way to propagate Comfrey is to pick a bouquet of the flowering stalks in late spring, stick them in a vase, and let them sit until they grow roots.

I much prefer this method because the only loss in mulch production and time is the loss of a few flowering stems; whereas you have to wait most of the growing season for seed to ripen; and while waiting for the seed the plant can’t be cut.

Digging disturbs the soil and puts the parent plant out of production until it resurfaces. Although I have to admit that isn’t long. Overall it just takes less effort to throw a few choice stems into a jar and let them grow roots.

IMG_1932 With roots grown, I transplant into pots, and wait for the pots to fill before transplanting out to the system.IMG_1936

In the jar, usually there is a fifty percent success rate for root growth. I have had further losses after potting up, but usually it is one hundred percent success once potted.

Just to illustrate how easy cuttings can root, I have had success just removing the developing flowers from a stem, sticking the stem directly under some fresh mulch, watering, and leaving. Mind, this was in the willow garden, so it was a good situation to begin with. Even compared to the other Comfreys in the willow garden, the resulting plant has been one of my best.

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A true Comfrey from seed on the left and the Comfrey from a cutting stuck directly under the mulch to the right. They’re both a little under three feet tall.

It’s just another plus of Comfrey that besides all its uses, it’s easily gotten.

News of half success

I got an update from my friend as to how the work from An off site project is handling the spring weeds.

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Obviously some weeds popping up at some spots, but considering all the potential weeds under there not popping up, I’m quite impressed.

What’s more impressive is that even though weeds are getting through, for instance Thistles, there is so much mulch for them to grow through that a large part of their stem is soft, white, and easily pulled. See the weeds my friend pulled out by just reaching into the mulch.

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So the Thistles are under control. He mentioned they’re just the beginning though, and that the whole things is ready to burst. So we definitely still need to to execute part 2 of the plan when we rake up all the mulch and hack off the offenders.

With the insurrection finely minced and re-smothered under carbon rich leaves, we’ll plant some Comfrey for mulch, pile on grass clippings over this summer for more mulch, and I imagine few of those weeds will be back again.

So I plan anyway.