Scythes are so complete and precise in their ability to effortlessly remove blade from stem that they encompass all the talent of weed whips and lawnmowers combined. One of my first essays for school was in fact a persuasive essay on why you should junk your lawnmower and get a scythe (yes I’ve been at this for a while). It was, not surprisingly, one of my highest grade papers of that whole school year.

It’s an easy comparison: the chintziest lawnmower costs anything from two hundred and up to suck gas and go on strike every time it needs repair. Scythes rarely cost up to three hundred for a high quality snath, blade, whetstone, horn to wet it, and all the accouterment to make quite a posh setup; but scythes don’t take gas, or take up near so much room in your garage.

In place of the voluminous dirge-like whir of lawn mowers, scythes whisper through the grass, and ring with glee after every stroke.

Rather than pushing the beast of a lawn mower around only to pull out the weed whip to finish the odd spots, scythes have the versatility of both. Whether nipping an errant grass-blade between flower stems, or swiping the excess growth from another level of ground, scythes can go anywhere you can.

The limiting factor is simply your skill level. David Tresemer and Peter Vido in The Scythe Book, give ample explanation on the techniques that make mowing with a scythe a pleasure for the body and mind.

Does it take more time to mow with a scythe than with a lawn mower and weed whip? It depends. Especially tough material, like dry, short grass takes a lot of skill, and a sharp blade more than time spent. Soft grass mown with a small hand pushed lawn mower take about as much time as scythe if you become proficient with the technique.

It’s when mowing taller material over small areas scythes outperform even large riding lawn mowers. For example, one of my first clients had a luscious field of clover for mulch he demanded must be mowed with his Xmark riding lawnmower to not waste time. The thing choked and gagged on the clover even on the driest of days. It needed de-clogged, the deck cleared. Miserable.

He just wouldn’t believe a scythe could do the job faster.

The keyhole beds in Mortal Tree ready for mowing

One day he was gone, and I was there to mow, so took the liberty of mowing with my scythe.

He later saw the mulching I completed that day looked satisfactory for the amount of hours I spent (I detest clients paying me by the hour, and always try to negotiate a one time contract payment. I usually complete work in less time than expected anyway). He let me use the scythe one day he was there working on his house-building project, and was blown away by the cartloads of clover piled high that came wobbling down the lane. We ditched the mower forever after, and I was given the title Scythe Jedi.

Mowed. It took me all of ten minutes to clear nearly 100 square feet of tall aster stems and grass.

In general, strategic approaches to mowing with a scythe that make use of its versatility, greatly improve its efficiency over that of lawnmowers. One slick tactic I learned for cutting around, and mulching, a tree all at once is to simply circle the mowing around a tree. The windrow forms a nice thick mound in just the spot I would have mulched anyway.


One must also be very careful that the path of the swing ends a couple inches away from the tree as shown in the drawing. Otherwise, its likely you’ll nick the poor tree.

Also, this only works when nothing is planted around the tree – a mistake I made in the early stages of my food forest. I should have started my planting by establishing ground covers, then moved up to trees, as I currently recommend for new clients.

Does it require a lot of strength to use a scythe? If using it like a battle-axe, yes. Good technique is almost entirely about relaxing the arms and allowing the blade to glide just above the crowns of the grass. In a report cited in The Scythe Book, scientists who compare the wear and tear of various sports on the body showed mowing with a scythe, if the correct technique is maintained, is far less stressful on the body than most high school sports -while delivering the benefit of exercise. Assuming you use a European snath and blade rather than an American, there isn’t even much wood or metal you have to move, as they are very light.

On that point, I do have fairly specific recommendations for what scythe you should get. While there are some really high-end custom snath builders you could go searching for, very superior snaths are sold online ready-made. There are also some really junky ones I would love to steer you clear of.

The snath sold by Peter Vido’s company is the best ready-made snath on the market. The handles attach with actual screws; and the design allows for one size to fit several users because the handle can be moved up or down a couple notches. I started with an American blade, sitting rusted and unused in the back of a garage. Too heavy, really, and quite difficult to get the knack.

The first European snath I got was junk. It was a model for which they expect you to keep the handles in the snath with glue, or by sheer pressure. They give the lame excuse using correct technique should keep this in place, but I often will use the versatility of my scythe to pull or lift some grass I’ve just cut. Even if only used for the intended swipes, not all ground is ideal, nor is the material you are cutting. Get a snath that holds itself together.

As for blades, I got a bush and a grass blade when I first started from Marugg, and have not moved on, so have little long-term comparison to offer. I have worked with a Fux blade, and personally seen it has fine qualities. I have used friend’s blades that are really junk, so know there are some unworthy buys out there. Really good blades are made of delicate metal quite soft and pliable. This allows for the frequent, but quick sharpening that keeps the blade edge microscopically serrated for effortless cutting.

Bush blades are of course a little thicker in order to withstand the shock of hitting sticks and thicker stems; but grass blades should never be thick enough that you would ever dare sharpen it with a grind stone or the like. A whetstone briskly swished over the edge, with intermittent peenings (hammering the thicker metal thin as you progress into the blade due to wear of sharpening) is all that’s needed to remind a blade of what shape it should hold.

If you have a well made scythe as I have described, there is no reason you should not be able to mow your lawn and food forest alike. In the early years of a food forest especially, when grass is likely the predominate plant in the food forest scene, a scythe will be the most used blade for gathering mulch, managing weeds and the like. It was for me. As time goes on, other blades will be your best friend, as we will cover over the next few days in the posts that follow.

Mentioned in this post

The Scythe Book by David Tresemer

Scythe Connection -The company I recommend (I’m not sponsored to say that in any way whatsoever)

Making comfrey glycerite

I am enamoured with the idea of a farm factory -not a factory farm, rather a farm that produces not only food products, but many of our industrial, and medical products.


This was of course the case years ago, when practically everything but metal and minerals was derived from plants, usually from very close to home. Today, we have upped our standards, migrated to other resources, whatever you may call it, and grown accustomed to products that are mostly derived from petroleum. Machines convert and contort the molecules of this petroleum into the most exotic forms, mimicking everything from plastics to essential oils.

I am enamoured by the idea of plants transforming a raw material of sunlight and air into the products we use today. The fact is that plants, deriving hydrogen and carbon from the air, can and do serve many of these advanced functions as hydrocarbons in petroleum, minus much of the toxicity and detriment to ecology.

Of all the plants commonly used, comfrey has some of the most potential as a sunlight and air converting living contraption. Beyond any refinement of the contraptions used today, it yields excellent mulch for fertility and weed control (see my work in Mastering the Growing Edge for these functions), but also medical products.

Comfrey contains allantoin -a molecule which, in the human body, acts as a cell proliferant, i.e. helps tissue regenerate faster. Its use in this sense is ancient. Although this has not helped it in the present day, as it came out of the dark ages with plenty of superstition clogging its public image. But fast forward to the World Wars and mountains of comfrey were coming out of farmer’s fields for its patently proven ability to heal the wounds of war.


To apply these benefits, I usually grab a leaf, squeeze the midrib, and find a clear liquid gel appearing at the end of the open stem. It’s surprising how much of this can be applied, as it absorbs quickly. With multiple applications, many wounds that have befallen me have healed without even the slightest visible scar.


Before I go too far, and my trained herbalist friends reading this have to lecture me again on the delicacy of herbal healing, you shouldn’t apply comfrey to wounds or diagnose yourself without consulting a trained medical professional. Comfrey does have some contraindications for its use. For instance, if a wound is infected, or not cleaned, comfrey is not the herb for the job.

I’ll offer one situation comfrey was especially helpful to me: I was at a client’s, by myself, cutting a long, long row filled with some of the biggest, most beautiful comfrey when the blade I was using gave me a morbid bite. The wound was on my thumb, and penetrated even into the nail. Out in the middle of a field, I decided to gamble with my life (as it seems I often do) and staunch the bleeding with some yarrow (Alchillea millefolium), then got on with cutting comfrey, applying gel from the stems over and over again as the wound sucked it up.

You might call that quite a rash decision, which is why I don’t recommend anyone do the same. To this day I can’t even find a scar.

Assume you do have the green light for comfrey’s use from a trained medical professional, but aren’t in the middle of a comfrey patch? It is possible to infuse an oil, glycerine, or alcohol with this comfrey gel for long-term storage, and quick, simple application.

Such processing may sound complicated at first, but just the other day I made a comfrey glycerite you may find surprisingly simple.

I gather fresh, true comfrey (Symphytum officionalis) in early morning, simply rip off the stem, and upper parts of the leaves, leaving the lower parts where bugs and dead leaves accumulate.

I took a small portion of this big bundle, twisted and ripped the stems into 4 inch lengths, and placed in a stainless steel bowl. I poured certified organic glycerine over this (derived from organic soybeans) and began to knead the comfrey leaves with the glycerine. At first, the mixture went very dry, then became very wet. The clear glycerine turned green as comfrey gel began to spew from the crushed stems.


Once this first bundle was crunched, I added another, mixed, crushed until moist, and repeated. The whole bundle broke down to a very small amount, and the glycerine turned a reddish-black-brown from all the comfrey stuffed into it. It actually resembled iodine.


To get all the goodness from this slurry, a press would have been helpful. Lacking that, I simply gather all the comfrey to one side of the container, and pressed until I lifted myself off the floor. The glycerite oozed from the mess into the empty side of the bowl and could be easily poured through a sieve into mason jars. After much gymnastics, I got well over a quart.

With so much of the stuff, I intend to supplement the Bovidine© my parents use for the teats of their dairy cows for at least the post milking teat-dip. Another portion of it I mixed with unrefined wheat germ oil, several essential oils, and tinctures for a mixture I apply to my skin daily. Good stuff.

It is likely many more products could be derived from comfrey alone if we applied ourselves to its study. As such, it offers an opportunity to fill a vital role in a more sustainable, healthy future.


N-fix 8: Albizia julibrissin

Terrible Tree #1 — Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) What’s wrong with it: Weedy, short-lived, insect- and disease-prone, invasive roots, unattractive most of the year.

Comment: Yes, I know. You grew up with mimosas in the yard (sniff), they remind you of Meemaw’s garden (sniff, sniff), and they’re so pretty when their fluffy pink flowers open in early summer. But let’s get real. The flowers last about two weeks. Then they’re replaced by scads of these large, ugly, brown seed pods that hang there until the next spring. So for two weeks of beauty you get 50 weeks of gross. Plus, seedlings from your tree will sprout in everyone’s yard within a quarter-mile.

-Southern Living Magazine

Once the naysayers settle down to let me get a word in edgewise: Mimosa -specifically Albizia julibrissin or silk tree -in my climate at least, does not own up to any of these accusatory standards. To boost, it’s quite a proficient N-fixer.

As to their longevity: There are several specimen of silk tree in my area, many of which are over 30 years old, some, in really protected areas, nearly twenty feet tall, and only all the more gorgeous for it. Perhaps we are outside the range of its pests. On the other hand, winters around here often frost silk tree back to the ground. Such dieback actually extends their likely lifespan, because the wood is renewed. For plant cells, this is the equivalent of turning back the biological clock, and can be done over and over again.

Short lived flowers? Perhaps it’s the cooler weather, but the bloom lasts far more than two weeks around here. Some do only bloom for three or four weeks, but several I see start in late July, and continue without stop until October.

I should mention some trees of course have more color to their plume-like blossoms. The one below my neighbor found as a seedling even further north, from a parent tree whose flowers were this undesirable color. It came out alright I think.

As to “ugly,” “brown,” pods: They’re tan, if not gold. I find them very attractive. In fact, even less attractive pods like these on any plant are often highly sought by advanced garden designers for “winter interest” they provide. Of course, a barren landscape in winter is more a northern problem than a southern.

Seeding all over the place: In the south silk tree is considered a noxious weed, per its willingness to pop up everywhere. It’s doing its job of turning open space into riparian field, to become productive forest. Shame on you for hogging up petroleum, riding around a growling hog to keep open spaces it’s just trying to repair. But I’ll stop my rant there.

If this seeding were an issue in northern climates I would only be all the more delighted to grow this plant; but I can say from experience that we only find a seedling or two every year, quite close to the parent tree. These do not always survive to adulthood, and so are quite precious, usually given as gifts.

There are rumors of a few trees in this climate that seed especially well, but these are interestingly enough, ugly white-flowered specimens.

These considerations are for tall trees though. My neighbor has allowed her tree to reach the upper story of her forest garden between a magnolia,  Montmorency cherry, and serviceberry tree. For most food forests, silk tree has much more practical functions.

Soft design aside, the tree makes N. It grows footage of branches every year, which in our climate helps it bounce back from winter-kill. In the case of a food forest, this means lots of delicious mulch for healthy soil.

The USDA cites this plant as a medium level nitrogen fixer. One study noted it made far more nodules than other N-fixers, although only had medium level bacterial activity as pictured below. (Notice all the species aside from silk tree are decidedly tropical). View the full study here.


This study in particular pointed out that nitrogen fixation is heavily dependent on sunlight for enough energy to run the nitrogen-fixing process. As a result, cloudy climates may not see such vigorous growth. But Ohio certainly isn’t the most sunny state; and many fast growing silk trees I have come across do so in half day’s shade.

I recommend taxing the tree of its growth for mulch at about time of bloom. You could just snap off the flowering branches with your bare hands. In the case that your tree has not reached blooming age but is getting out of reach for easily collecting mulch, just wait until about midsummer to begin snapping off branches.

One more practical accusation to address is the invasive roots. This refers to roots choking out plants below it, and roots becoming new plants. I should also mention that many accuse mimosa of allelopathy -manufacturing poisons for the surrounding plants (See Notes on Juglone for more info on allelopathy). Soil type, and climate can have major effects on how these attributes are expressed. I must report I find they don’t show up with the local specimen. My neighbor in particular has ferns, hosta, and tree peony below her mimosa. They have no complaint but for the slight dryness due to the thick branches above. Otherwise, they’re quite happy.

Studies have been conducted on mimosa and its relatives’ ability to inhibit germination in seeds. Although only a limited range have been placed in controlled studies, this study, for example, did not find any inhibition of germination.

View the rest of the text this image came from here.

The best way to propagate mimosa, aside from seeds which just need water, warmth and soil in most cases, is actually to dig up pieces of the root and let them sprout branches. I have tried cuttings, and they don’t root. If you are hacking up the ground with a shovel around the base of a silk tree, then perhaps you’ll get a sprout. We never have been lucky enough for this to happen around here.

When placing mimosa in design, I give it especially visible positions, where people can interact with it. For one client, I have mimosa at the corners of a grotto design where they will be allowed to grow as large as winters allow. The intent is to create a dome of arching branches. In winter these will quietly rustle with golden pods.

Placed where you might brush by the leaves, silk tree is especially entertaining, because it folds its leaves in response – a character which in plant terminology is called thigmonasty. The tree also folds its leaves at night, or in the dark before storms. This response to light is called photonasty. Below are some photos taken by my client of her young trees.

My client asked why the mimosa had stopped folding its leaves when she petted it. The fact is they can learn.  In The Hidden Life of Trees a study was cited which used dripping water as a means for stimulating a mimosa’s thigmonasty, causing it to shut. After many days of applying water in regular intervals, stopping, applying again, it learned this was not a threat, and got on with photosynthesis.

An intelligent tree like this is most desirable for adding to food forests as pleasure for the eye, delight for the curiosity, as fountains of mulch and fertility, for vibrant, healthy, cold climate jungles. Thank you for letting me state my position.


How your food can grow from air

I gave a talk at my family farm’s plant sale two weeks ago, that was supposed to center around PASSIVE Gardening. I thought it would be rather tacky to give a condensed version of the book, so decided to give a side glance of the method, by explaining the little known art of pulling nutrients from air. This is actually the basis of the method in my mind; but I often get some queer looks when I explain it that way. I’d love to know your take on it.

“I’d like to offer something rather uncommon in the gardening world…..”

View the talk here


The why of fruit thinning

I noticed one of the apples in the food forest had finished blooming and now had tons of tiny apples clustered on its branches. I took the situation in hand and started to pick them off.

13217562 - close up of bee pollinating apple blossom
photo by Jenella

Five flowers form on each spur, leaving five small fruits after pollination. They naturally fall off, one by one, until a single fruit is left to make seed. Contrary to what we might think, an apple has grown to its maximum potential within thirty days after the flower drops its petals. From this point, any ‘growth’ is just cells filling up with sap like balloons. The number of balloons to be filled with juice resulting from cell division is already decided.


I was pulling off all but one fruit on each spur. From this, I expected each apple left on the tree would have more nourishment from the tree, be larger, and better shaped. If I had waited for the tree to pair down the fruits itself, it would have divided that nourishment between all those extra apples that would never stay on the tree anyway.


Is there a drawback to this unnatural thinning? Perhaps.

When plucking off the fruits I noticed a few had codling moth damage. I have gotten fine harvests of apples from my trees, with very little, if any, codling moth damaged in years past. Whether this is an especially good year for codling moth population or not might explain this damage. Or perhaps the tree had dropped much of the fruit with codling moth damage so I never noticed? It quickly occurred to me the tree grows the extra fruit in part to increase the chances at least one will make seed -as codling moths eat the seeds of the apples they infest.


Codling moths have several generations through a season, so we will see if the moths come back for more later.

Another effect of thinning apples is more regular fruiting. The seeds in each fruit create a hormone that blocks fruiting the next year. Some varieties of apple are notorious for their violent fruiting cycles -one year not a fruit on the tree, the next (or year after that) the branches break for the myriad fruit clogging the works. By thinning, a moderate amount of hormone is produced every year, allowing a moderate amount of fruit every year.

Perhaps such staggered fruit production in un-thinned apples is a tactic for cutting down on codling moth population?

As is, thinning delivers better results for me. But my trees are also quite small -just barely above my head. Thinning falls into what I call pleasurable interaction with the food forest, or work I enjoy, and usually only takes five minutes or so to complete.

I may quit it in years to come, and just trade thinning time and larger fruit for hacking out the good hunks from myriad smaller fruits. Masanobu Fukuoka, when his students asked how they could grow good apples without equipment and sprays, said to simply feed the poor quality fruit the students thought eminent to pigs. I’m not so skeptical as Fukuoka’s students; I have seen my trees produce quite healthy fruit already, so we’ll see what they give as the system builds. Below are some of my Fuji apples last year.


You may wonder how the heck massive orchards ever thin their fruit one by one. By machine? No, by chemicals. Hormones in trees largely dictate the quality and growth of the fruit. We have developed an array of synthetic hormones, of which there are no counterparts in nature, that cause apple trees to drop their fruit. Run some experiments to properly calibrate the dosage, and you have thinned trees by simply spraying. Some of the hormones they have developed even increase the cell proliferation process beyond what the fruit tree offers, resulting in abnormally large fruit. I’ll let you research the health effects of these synthetic hormones.

When I first came across this information years ago, I went on a long search for an equivalent that could be derived from plants. I didn’t come across one, or any information on a hormone pathway that could cause the fruit to drop, accept for stressing a tree, or simply reducing pollination. I am suspicious there is an even more elegant answer:

I find that increasing the health of trees and their ecology in general can can at times truly transform their character. Mortal Tree is still a long ways from being notably fertile. But Fruiting factors are building on their own in some places. So perhaps the good effects will get out of hand, and produce some good results I never would have expected. 


Making sense of wild seeds

I’m not quite sure what it takes to sprout Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis). Last year I posted a fairly certain observation that a couple weeks in cold temperatures does the trick, only to find in the comments from the ever apt Wooddogs3 that she had sprouted quite a few straight out of the packet in warm weather.


Scratch that idea. I figured something else must have deterred my Turkish rocket sprouts; but then, in later conversation, Heather mentioned that more Turkish rocket sprouted after the pot sat out over winter. (?)

I think the fact of the matter is we are working with fairly wild, unselected seeds. With them, variance is the standard. At the same time, it offers several little known benefits.

Varying the time of germination increases the likelihood at least some of the seeds will sprout in a ‘sweet spot’ of a season, or at least avoid catastrophes, and make it to adulthood. What if an unusually late frost hits or some animal nips off the tender sprouts?

This is a very helpful character for love-in-a-puff vine (Cardiospermum halicacabum) which I’ve grown on a large scale for the last couple years. It’s a warm climate plant, and can’t take frost. I nevertheless plant it in mid April, when we still have a chance of frost. While a few will come up as early as three days after planting and get nipped, the majority of the plants take about two weeks to sprout, and will continuing sprouting up to three months after.

Cardiospermum sprout back when I tried growing them in flats. Because their sprouting time was so varied,  I watered the flats a lot longer than expected for all the seeds to sprout. They don’t transplant very well anyway, so I now direct seed.

The mechanics that govern this variance can vary, but are usually based on the activity of certain enzymes releasing nutrients necessary to wake up and nourish the embryo that will become the new plant.

Health conscious readers may be familiar with the discussion of improved nutrition in sprouted or soaked grains because the phytates present in these seeds have been removed (see here for more info). This is because in the seed, phytates bind up nutrients -phosporus in particular- keeping them off limits for the embryo (1). Water is one factor that initiates the enzyme phytase, which is responsible for breaking up the phytates (2). In the right temperature range, phytase completes the breakdown of the phytates, releasing the nutrients the embryo needs for growth. In most cases, the need for adequate water and longer durations of certain temperatures ensures the plant can grow to maturity once it sprouts.

Of course, many of our perennial vegetables also need cold, moist temperatures, or dry and warm temperatures, in addition to a later stage of warm moisture to successfully sprout. Phytates are one example of the mechanics generally at work in seeds -enzymes releasing nutrient.* Differences in the genetic makeup can dictate the time each seed takes to activate these enzymes, and release the nutrients for sprouting. Its variance in genetics that often gives such extreme variance in sprouting time, and what conditions are necessary to induce germination.

Most of our garden vegetables were the same way at one time, with lots of variance. They’ve just been selected. If over the next ten years I only saved seed from cardiospermum that sprouted two weeks after planting, this character would soon be the norm.

Although it’s nice to have an idea what’s going on in those drab looking little seeds as they deny us a happy sprout, what can we do to improve the likelihood that we, at some point, actually get a sprout?

Heather had the right idea leaving her Turkish rocket in the pot to see if any more sprouts would show up. Just give the seeds time, and changes in temperature.

I know from experience that keeping a little empty pot of dirt safe for seasons at a time is not easy. As a first step, designate a spot where seeds are protected -by mandate of heaven -or whatever works for you. Tell this to anyone that might come along thinking your untidy plant-keeping needs tossed in the trash.

Rodents seldom care about the mandate of heaven, so cover the seeds with some mesh, or build a hanging tray well above the ground, as Martin Crawford does, to keep them out. I hung some trays in our greenhouse last year which did the trick keeping mice out of squash seeds. The only problem with hanging trays I find is their fluctuating temperature: pots placed on them can easily dry out on a hot day.


Seeds are more likely to stay moist and live if they’re in more temperate climates surrounded by bricks in a shady corner. My favorite spot for sprouting is on the east side of our garage, or on the north side of our greenhouse. I’ll bring the trays from these temperate spots once in a while to the hot greenhouse. For a short time here, I watch them, and keep them watered, while transplanting any sprouts that appear. Once the sprouts stop appearing, I move them back to the less intense climate.

This system is very effective at getting around the errant nature of our prized perennial vegetables and trees. With such complexity, it’s better to just offer a variety of situations to seeds, and wait, rather than trying to guess what’s going on in those drab little seed’s dreams.

*There are even several kinds of phytase. See here for more info.

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.

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.