Practical Permaculture – Planting Herbs Under Fruit Trees

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“Lemon Basil” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA

Backyard fruit trees are becoming increasingly popular as the locally grown food movement gains strength. A common question is what, if anything, can be grown in the area directly underneath of a tree? Traditionally, orchards were laid out in parallel lines to facilitate easy mowing and maintenance. Little more than grasses and a few native wildflowers could survive the regular mowing, this often resulted in an orchard that requires supplemental nutrients, as well as insect, fungus, disease and pest control measures.

Backyard trees often suffer the same problems that commercial orchards deal with, the only difference is the professionals have tools available that the backyard grower does not. In my personal experience, when it comes to backyard fruit trees, people want an organic permaculture based solution that will work instantaneously. You see, people who live in the city rarely ever stay in the same place for very long. Whether or not the next homeowner wants a fruit tree growing on their property is the issue, I believe many of the urban fruit trees have a lifespan of only a few years, for this reason, every year of fruit production counts…

Plum

“Plum Blossom” – Hamnett Place Community Garden – Jeanette Street – Wilkinsburg, PA

If you plant an apple tree… You want to eat an apple…

What can be planted under a particular tree should be assessed on a tree-by-tree basis, every tree canopy is different, no tree is the same. Fall is an excellent time to sow plants under a mature tree, once the leaves fall, water can easily reach the soil. Often times seeds sown in the fall right before the leaves fall, will sit underneath the leaves waiting till spring to germinate… Seeds that germinate before the tree leafs out seem to have the best chances of survival.

Successfully planting underneath of a fruit tree is simply a matter of timing, you want your plants to establish as they would in a natural forest, or while the trees do not have leaves. Many plants, including herbs, can survive extreme conditions once established. Likewise, the actual yield of a herb is often the leaves themselves, which does not require as much light to produce a yield as a fruit or vegetable… Making them perfect plants for an edible guild centered around a primary fruit tree…

Herbs, although extremely tasty as seasonings in our foods, serve a number of other purposes directly affecting the health and wellbeing of a tree. Everything from beneficial insect attraction, repelling pests, Nitrogen fixing, forage and ground burrowing prevention… Herbs can play a role…  Herbs can also be used in the creation of organic oils and solutions that may be helpful in the war against pests and diseases, as the popularity increases so will the availability of these types of products. The jury is still out with me as far as many of these organic/homemade products are concerned. Recent memories of me getting lit up by wasps after using a suggested chili powder and citric acid combo may be tarnishing my thoughts a little bit though…

I’m not one of those permies that will blow smoke up your ass as far as what is possible in the garden. Although plants will grow under a tree, they do not grow with nearly as much vigor as plants that are growing in sunny conditions. In short, don’t think you are going to be able to grow perfect show-worthy specimens under that 40′ apple tree. It is important to remember that what you are doing is primarily to benefit the tree, the fact that you can enjoy them is secondary.

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“Allium” – Hamnett Place Park and Ride – Center Street – Wilkinsburg, PA

Because everyone likes a list of plants… This is by no means the end all of lists… As always… It is just a starting point…

Allium – I’m talking from Chives to Ramps, plant them. Even the ornamental varieties will not only survive, but benefit the entire guild from canopy to root. When in full flower, an expanse of Allium can attract so many pollinating insects that from a distance the entire garden will appear to pulse and move. Allium, although tasty to humans, is typically not the favorite food of most foraging and burrowing animals, they will typically forage somewhere else if even the slightest presence of these plants is detected. Garlic is apparently effective as a peach tree borer deterrent, it may be useful as a remedy when planted in very close quarters to an affected tree.

Basil – My absolute favorite herb, cinnamon, lemon, lime, Thai, purple, red, large leaf, Minette, greek globe, spicy globe, sacred… I could go on forever… I grow it in every corner of my garden, I think it is beautiful when grown as an ornamental. Late in the season when the asters and goldenrod are blooming, basil will extend its wispy flower heads high above the other plants in the garden. These flower heads are different shades of pink, purple to white or yellow and attract beneficial pollinators… This year I have even noticed hummingbirds visiting my front yard Basil plants…

Comfrey – You can’t do a list of beneficial herbs without mentioning this storied plant. Comfrey is a well-known nutrient accumulator that has been written about by just about every organic garden writer. Tap-root grows deep, yadah, yadah, yadah… Makes great compost, yadah, yadah, yadah… It is all true… My gripe is really from removal… Because it is practically impossible… I have written about it before in a post titled – Comfrey Cautions – I’m not saying don’t plant it… I’m just saying plant it cautiously as it can get out of hand quickly… And it can become a nightmare for any future people who may occupy your house… Respect the Comfrey…

Oregano – Another staple that can simply be used fresh off the plant in all your favorite dishes, and it is easy as dirt to grow anywhere. Potted plants are typically the normal sales method, often times you can find these plants at a sharp discount late in the year… I like to wait until the leaves have fallen off the trees and then plug them in… It won’t look pretty… But the plants will grow normally in the spring often times starting well before nurseries have them available in the spring…

Sage – Regular old garden Sage, or Salvia Officinalis is often one of the first herbs to bloom in the spring, which in my garden is timed perfectly with many of the neighborhood fruit trees. The distinctive aroma of Sage is also supposed to ward off many pests, kids don’t like it either. When grown under a tree, Sage tends to stretch and grow horizontally instead of vertically. Where the stems touch the ground the plant will root creating a new crown, these can then be dug up and moved around your garden… Or left in place to allow the plant to grow in size…

Mint – Mint is an incredibly invasive perennial weed, I strongly urge you to consider all other options when contemplating planting any variety of mint. The menthol contained in the mint is a powerful insect repellent, it is a common ingredient in many organic insecticides. Mint has a tendency to grow very tall, believe it or not, I have seen it successfully outcompete a newly planted dwarf fruit tree on more than one occasion. Mint also has a tendency to grow thick in the early spring months, this is a problem when it shades the graft union on a dwarf fruit tree typically causing the scion to sprout roots and eliminate all of the dwarfing characteristics of the rootstock.

Lavender – If you have ever had the chance to see a field of Lavender you will not need sold on this Summertime favorite. The dark blue flowers against the silver foliage is simply stunning. Prefers full sun but will do just fine in the shade… Though the flowers are typically more sparse in the shade… Lavender repels fleas and moths, specifically the codling moth making it a perfect companion to just about any fruit tree.

Lemon Balm – You can’t do a list of beneficial herbs without good old lemon balm. Lemon balm contains citronella compounds that deter all sorts of insects… Including the disease carrying nuisance mosquitos that seem to become more dangerous every year. Lemon balm has a tendency to voraciously self seed, clipping the flowers before they go to seed is the only remedy for this.

Dill and Fennel – I am lumping these two together because Fennel is said to be allopathic and therefore should not be planted with anything, except Dill apparently. Both of these plants deter pests. Fennel attracts beneficial insects like ladybugs, wasps and hoverflies… It is also a good flea repellent. The flower heads of both of these plants are an excellent nectar source for a bunch of beneficial insects.

Thyme – Another one of my favorites… Available in practically every size, color and flavor imaginable. Some of them creep along the ground making a beautiful living mulch, while others grow more upright. Both types are simply stunning when they bloom in proliferation, and they too attract swarms of beneficial insects. My favorite is the variegated lemon thyme, I will purposely step on it to release the citrus smell.

Wormwood – The reason I am including this plant is because it keeps animals out of the garden, though it also has a tendency to be allopathic and will in turn kill plants that get to close to it. I only recommend planting it on the outside of the trees drip line to prevent accidents, better safe than sorry. Wormwood is said to repel slugs, moths, snails, black flea beetles and fleas rather effectively, as with all organic compounds I recommend research and experimentation before diving right in.

One of my gripes with permaculture is it offers very few immediate solutions to common fruit tree problems. Although garlic can repel the peach tree borer, it can often take several years for the effects to work, this can be too long for modern families that rarely stay in the same house their entire lives.

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

I am not affiliated with anyone other than myself, all the information presented in this blog is provided by me… If you find this information helpful, please consider purchasing a print or two from my online shop…

http://www.society6/chriscondello… Or you can contact me directly at c.condello@hotmail.com for commissions or locally/personally produced prints… Thank you for reading…

If you would be interested in reading more – Urban Herb BenefitsPlanting Under Fruit Trees

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Practical Permaculture – Planting Under Fruit Trees

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I believe that it is important for people to realize that all plants, trees, animals and humans have a physical and spiritual connection. When these connections are disturbed, chaos can ensue. But when these systems work in harmony, life is produced and sustained.

The purpose of this article is to hopefully shift the common paradigm that the space under a fruit tree should be kept clean, and plant free. A common belief is that very little will survive under a tree, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Many plants will not only grow under a tree, but will also benefit the tree for years to come.

Properly selected plants can serve many purposes, anything from attracting beneficial insects, to mining nutrients from the soil, plants can handle it.  In a natural setting, the space underneath of a tree can be filled with plants. Many of these plants serve a specific purpose in the micro climate the tree creates. I’m going to identify some, and transcribe their purpose for you…

The common term given to a group of plants in permaculture is a “guild”, basically any group of plants that are working together to achieve a common goal. Guilds are commonly created under trees in an attempt to lighten your workload, while still benefitting the tree with pest prevention, fertilization, and pollination. It is extremely important to remember that when creating a guild under an established tree, the plants will need regular watering for at least the first year to establish… I have established plants under conifer trees just by watering them for a year, once they are established they will grow… Slowly… But they will grow…

When creating a permaculture based fruit tree guild, it is important to remember and follow a few  simple guidelines…

Use the cardboard sheet-mulch somewhere else – I am constantly blown away by the fact, that anybody out their thinks it is a good idea to cover the ground under a tree in cardboard. Yet everyone does it… Cardboard, when used as a sheet mulch, takes a long time to break down. As long as that mulch is in tact, the amount of water required to penetrate it will be considerably multiplied… Excessive mulch under a tree will kill the tree… Don’t be fooled!..

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Last fall I had the chance to help GrowPGH plant some fruit trees at Miss Mary’s Garden in Homewood, hugelkultur style.

Never cover the base of the tree with mulch – I know you have all seen it when driving through the suburbs, trees mulched well above the base of the trunk. This is commonly referred to as a “mulch volcano”, this is the absolute worst thing you can do to a tree… Often this can be a death sentence for an otherwise healthy tree.

Plants can compete with a large tree – Certain recommended plants, when planted in specific climates, can and will become invasive… Research… Research… Research… Everything you plant… Or ask someone… preferably someone with experience… Like a Master Gardener…

A few of the plants commonly planted in a fruit tree based permaculture guild include…

Daffodils – Daffodils are one of my all time favorite fruit tree companion plants, they begin to bloom right before most fruit trees. Since these bulbs bloom before the trees, the early season pollen seekers will already be in the area of the tree when it blooms. Daffodils have come a long way from the past, they are affordable, and readily available in so many styles it will make your head spin. Plant them 6 inches away from the trunk, in a circle around the tree… You will not be disappointed.

Chives – Includes all Allium, but this is specifically about chives. Chives are the smallest species of all the edible onions, they can become problematic if left to their own devices though. Chives are a perennial plant native to North America, and is one of the most commonly used herbs today. Chives are absolutely repulsive to insects, yet their flowers are extremely attractive to beneficial pollinating insects. Historically, farmers would plant chives at the edge of their gardens to repel insects. The juice, when extracted, can be used as a spot insecticide.

Comfreyhttps://chriscondello.wordpress.com/2012/11/29/practical-urban-permaculture-comfrey-cautions/ – If you have some space… And like comfrey… Then I would say plant comfrey under your trees…. But I won’t be planting it anytime soon…

Bee Balm – I love bee balm, it is an aromatic herb in the family Lamiaceae. It is a very hardy perennial native to eastern North America in the mint family, plants in the mint family have square stems, and opposite leaves. Bee balm tends to grow in dense clusters and can get very tall, I personally recommend getting dwarf versions of this plant… Especially in urban environments. Bee Balm is used to attract beneficial, but it is also top-notch as an ornamental.

Dill – Depending on where dill is grown it is either annual, or perennial… Though in my climate it is an annual. Dill is used as a tree companion due to the amount of beneficial insects it attracts.

Echinacea – One of my all time favorite plants, I currently grow 15 varieties on my tiny urban lot. Echinacea is a herbaceous flowering plant in the daisy family, Asteraceae. It is an extremely drought tolerant plant, which makes it perfectly suited to being planted under a dense tree. The plant grows from a tap-root, because of this it has access to deep water reserves and has the ability to make nutrients available to the tree that would not otherwise have been available. Cone flowers are now available in hundreds of colors, sizes and styles, they make a great addition to any garden attracting beneficial insects all season long.

Lupin – Lupin is a genus in the Legume family, it is a herbaceous perennial plant with a few annual variations. It is commonly used as a cash crop alternative to soy, it is a beautiful plant when flowering. Lupin can fix nitrogen from the air into ammonia via Rhizobium root nodule symbiosis, fertilizing the soil for the tree. One of the primary ingredients recommended for fruit trees is nitrogen, in the long run, legumes could ultimately save you time and money in fertilizer application. Lupines are also a favorite food for several species of lepidoptera..

New Jersey Tea – A little less common, but rather beneficial shrub that is native to North America. NJT was named during the revolution because its leaves were used as a substitute for tea. The plants roots can grow very deep and large, this is a survival tactic developed to help it survive wild fires. It twigs are a favorite of browsing winter deer, and its flowers attract many species of lepidoptera.

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This is the hugelkultur serviceberry bed upon completion, it is important to note that the trees are not buried in the pile… They are planted on top of it… This mound will be filled with beneficial plants this spring…

That is obviously not the end all list of Permaculture guild plants, but it is a good list to start your research with. Remember any plant with a flower has potential to be used in a guild, chamomile, marigolds, clover, peas, beans, viola, vetch, salvias, yarrow, mint, onions, garlic, strawberry, hostas, ferns, foxglove, rose, clematis, monkshood, forget-me-nots, feverfew, oregano, even asparagus just to name a few. I guess what I am trying to say is be creative, think of the space underneath your yielding trees as valuable garden space waiting to be productive.

UPDATE 11/12/2013 – PLANTING UNDER FRUIT TREES – PART 2

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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