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Agroforestry in Action

By Nancy J. Hayden and John P. Hayden

This is an excerpt from Nancy and John’s book Farming on the Wild Side, published by Chelsea Green Publishing.

When we decided to expand our fruit tree orchards around the farm, we wanted to deliberately incorporate more agroforestry practices into these perennial polyculture orchards. We weren’t new to the concept of agroforestry. Establishing hedgerows, growing trees for biomass, and enhancing and maintaining riparian forest zones next to streams are agroforestry examples that we had already been practicing on the farm with great results.

Our riparian zone of trees and shrubs has created bird and pollinator habitat that benefits the farm and gives us a lot of enjoyment. Bees and other pollinators use the early pollen from the willows, silver maples, and other trees. The diversity of pest-eating birds visiting and nesting there is a designed part of our ecological pest management strategy. The economic and ecological benefits are many.

Creating hedgerows as windbreaks is another valuable agroforestry approach that can enhance biodiversity, reduce soil erosion, and protect animals, buildings, and crops. Our dominant winds blow from the west, so we’ve been planting a north-south oriented hedgerow that bisects what used to be called our back pasture and is now called the pollinator sanctuary. We grow black locusts, honey locusts, elms, hawthorns, osage orange, elderberries, dogwoods, and black walnut trees as a future windbreak and resource. This mixture of tall trees and shorter shrubs will eventually create a layered canopy, which is beneficial for bird and wildlife diversity as well as blocking wind. The hedgerow will serve as a wildlife corridor for connecting the river to the forested area north of our farm. We want to encourage the movement of higher-level predators such as coyotes and foxes across our farm to help keep deer and rodent populations in check. Birds and insects can also take advantage of this flower, berry, and insect source, while moving through the cover of this ribbon of connectivity.

A Perennial Polyculture Orchard: The Fruit Trees and Guild Plants

In 2012, we started planting two small orchards in our pollinator sanctuary: a one-acre orchard of primarily heirloom apples (Knoll Orchard) and a half-acre pear orchard called Pear Corner. We also have a few rows of commercial and native plums alongside the apples in the Knoll Orchard, and Plum Alley contains another twenty plum trees. Other crops are mixed into these orchards, but the fruit trees are the foundation. We jokingly call this whole setup the “conventional orchard,” as we would love to see these regenerative practices that make economic sense, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, slow down runoff, and increase biodiversity become the new dominant conventional agricultural and land-stewardship model.

For optimal soil health and to reduce erosion, all our crops are grown without disturbing or tilling the soil. The trees are planted twenty feet (6.1m) apart in rows twenty feet apart. The rows run east-west, allowing the sunlight from the southern aspect to be available for the plants between the trees. Many of the apple trees are on standard rootstock (Antonvka or Bud 118) and should reach at least twenty feet tall, hence the twenty-foot spacing. Likewise, the pear trees will grow to at least twenty-five feet tall on their pear rootstocks (Old Home x Farmingdale, 97 or 333). The primary goal of these orchards is to produce unsprayed fruit for hard apple cider and perry (pear cider) production.

The Knoll Orchard is planted on a silty-loam knoll deposited when the farm was under a glacier-meltwater lake, eleven thousand years ago. The silty soil is not so desirable for apples as is the sandy loam of our Front Lawn Orchard, where we planted twenty-four apple tree years ago. The silty, heavier soil seems to have slowed down the trees’ growth a bit in comparison. Many of the Knoll Orchard trees are standard apple trees, which also are slower growing and less precocious for bearing fruit than the semidwarf rootstock trees on our sandy front lawn. The sunny side of the knoll, however, is ideal for both wter and air drainage, which makes it a good site for trees and intercropping. The newer pear orchard is planted in a higher, drier sunny location int eh back meadow (Pear Corner).

While the Knoll Orchard started with twenty-four heirloom and cider apples, we’ve been adding to it ever since, planting different varieties each year. The biodiversity of apple trees allows us to collect scion wood for selling and grafting new trees, and for getting to know, taste, and use different apple varieties in our products. Biodiversity can also be promoted within a species by the genetic diversity of the different varieties and will confer resilience in the form of different flowering times, pest resistance, fruiting cycles, ripening times, and fruit-storage potential. Since standard apple trees can live up to one hundred years, we also see these trees acting as a repository for heirloom apple variety genetics. Hopefully, the Knoll Orchard will remain a legacy long after we’re gone.

Another exciting aspect about these orchards has been the opportunity to create supportive guilds by planting a variety of shrubs and perennial flowers within the orchards. These provide benefits to the fruit trees, the farm, and us. We plant the guilds between the fruit trees, within the tree rows. We don’t always follow a standard pattern, but a row might look like this: A nitrogen-fixing tree or shrub is planted in the center between the apple or pear trees. On either side of that nitrogen fixer –about seven feet (2.1m) from the fruit trees – we plant shrubs that bear fruit for the benefit of us or of wildlife. The shrubs that mature more quickly than the trees can take advantage of the space (and light) while the trees mature.

Black currant bushes, for example, take only a year or two before their first harvest, while the apple trees could take ten or more years to bear a fruit crop. We’ve harvested black currants from the Knoll Orchard for the past two years. The sunny location and open spacing help the berries ripen and bit earlier than the other denser hedgelike plantings in fields 2 and 3. The open spacing also makes for easy picking. Black currants don’t mind shade, so even when the apple or pear trees are fully grown, the currants should still be quite happy in the partial shade of the big trees.

The nitrogen-fixing trees fix atmospheric nitrogen and may help provide nitrogen to the fruit trees over the years. When the trees and shrubs are older, we plan to chop and drop their branches to provide mulch and long-term fertility for our fruit trees as the leaves and branches decompose. When plants are cut or pruned, there is a corresponding shedding of roots that also occurs. We hope this provides extra nitrogen from the pruned plant roots to be used by nearby fruit trees. For now, it is hopeful thinking. Quantifying this potential source of nitrogen would be a great area for agroecological research. Bayberry may also provide its own viable crop someday, as the fruits are used in candlemaking and other crafts. Other shrubs, such as different species of dogwood and wolf willow, have value as cuttings and products for the floral industry.

Nonwoody perennials are planted between the shrubs and slightly off center of the row in the southern direction to minimize shading. These include native flowers that provide beneficial insect habitat. A plant like comfrey, when planted near the apple trees, not only provides nectar and pollen for bumble bees, other pollinators, and predatory wasps, but will also be scythed to provide a green mulch around the trees and shrubs. Comfrey has a large taproot, which brings up nutrients from deeper soils and returns them to the surface in the leaf mulch. Most of the fruit tree feeder roots are close to the surface, so there is likely little competition. When the leaf mulch decays, it releases nutrients that can be used by the trees. Comfrey can also be used as a medicinal and dye plant. When we raised chickens and rabbits, we often fed them comfrey leaves as well.

Besides providing alternative agricultural products, the guild plants provide biodiversity in the orchard. Most of these shrubs and perennial flowers are great pollinator plants. They bloom at different times during the growing season, thus providing nectar and pollen resources for bees and butterflies over the course of the season. Most guild plants are also native to Vermont. This means they will be host plants for a whole range of native insects that have coevolved with them, including butterfly and moth larvae, beetles, and more. In turn, these insects provide food for insect predators (which will also eat apple pests), birds, and other wildlife. By creating a thriving biodiverse orchard ecosystem, we are creating a thriving ecological pest management system as well. These perennial polyculture systems can be applied to many scales, from backyard to large farm.

To keep learning about methods for implementing agroforestry, and more regenerative farming practices, find Nancy and John Hayden’s book Farming on the Wild Side: The Evolution of a Regenerative Organic Farm and Nursery at the Acres U.S.A. Bookstore.

About the Authors

Nancy J. Hayden is a writer, farmer, artist, and former environmental engineering professor. She’s earned degrees in biology/ecology, environmental engineering, English, studio art, and creative writing. She was awarded a Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant to work on this book and has published numerous articles about food and farming.

John P. Hayden has been working to design and implement agricultural systems with positive environmental and social outcomes for over 35 years as a researcher, extension agent, university educator, international consultant, and practicing regenerative organic farmer. His farming and business experience include organic livestock, vegetables, fruit and nursery production, and marketing. He has an MS in entomology with a focus on ecological pest management and has served on the Vermont Pollinator Protection Committee and several non-profit boards.

The Haydens’ farm website is www.thefarmbetween.com.