The tree of life, or the sycamores that haunt the afterlife in the Egyptian book of the dead, Christmas trees, the Bodhi tree, the ogham tree-alphabet - trees, with roots delving deep into the earth and and branches reaching to the sky, have long been revered by mankind.
For good reason. Long-lived, steady, they are our ancient companions. They are the super-producers that convert sun into some of our most valued foods. They have built our houses, kept us warm in the cold, cooked our food, given us shade. We etch the names of our dear ones into their bark so that our love will be so long lived. But more importantly, trees are the tenders of ecosystems, providing varied transactions that enrich all, build soil, grow fertility, and provide shelter.
Forest gardens work because they invoke this ancient kinship and harness this power of trees.
But for a forest garden to really work, it's important to pick the right trees, and grow them in the right numbers.
Here's the short of it: for this mini-course, we're going to pick one of two top-recommended fruit trees and we're going to build our starter-gardens around those:
1. Chojuro Asian Pear: Fireblight resistant, beautiful lanscape tree with few pests, delicious apple-like fruit with a taste of butterscotch. Recommended Nursery: Stark.
2. Mango Paw Paw: The fastest growing paw paw tree, with fruit similar to a mango, if you use your imagination, but delicious in its own right. No pests, no diseases, no maintenance.
So, FOR THE FREE MINI-COURSE that's the super-easy option for beginners who don't want to get overwhelmed. For the Complete (paid option) Forest Gardening Course members, we'll be looking into customized options and coming up with a plan for your site.
But since I think this topic is so important, you can visit the in-depth, super geeky article that really gets into the nitty-gritty on tree choices for a family or homestead.
Next time, we'll start talking about planting your tree.
What trees should I plant? How many?
Before we get into WHAT trees to plant, lets answer the more important question: how many?
These days, the "new" wisdom is that - 100, 400, 1,000 - "you can't plant too many fruit trees!"
Not surprisingly, this advice most often gets repeated by nursery businesses that sell trees. And as a guy with a small nursery business, in one sense, I agree with it, but I add a HUGE caveat: it depends on what kind of tree you're planting.
The problem is fruit trees are work. To get a better understanding, let's break down trees into how much time, energy and care they require to produce a yield, "Intensive" trees, that require a lot of work, "Semi-Intensive," and "Extensive," which produce fruit with almost no care.
The important thing here is the "Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility." Up to a point, having more fruit is GREAT, but after that point, the value of each fruit diminishes as you add more. One apple tree can provide a family with all the fresh apples they'll eat, plus some for gifts, trade with neighbors and cooking or storing. Having a few apple trees means the family will have to spend some serious time doing orchard work, and probably have to use chemical means to maintain their fruit, but if they work hard they can be complete self-sufficient on fruit. Beyond that, they'll have to put time and energy into an orchard business, or else they'll have a massive mess of rotting apples and wasps, create disease and pest problems for their neighbors. Still more trees? Now you HAVE to use chemicals, manage a labor force, advertise and market your apples, find shipping, purchase insurance for crop failures.... Still MORE? Now there's a glut in the market and each new apple - and the time you spent growing it - is worth less and less.
Looking at historic sources, old-time homesteaders understood this very well! It was the standard recommendation that - unless you wanted to run a full-time orchard - each family had a few fruit trees, depending on what worked best in the region. Beyond that, more fruit meant more work with less and less to show for it! In our region it was common for each family to have a workhorse apple, usually a cooker/keeper, possibly a pear, or maybe a cherry or two. A few berry bushes rounded out the homestead fruit selection. This was the standard in England, too, where allotments and cottage gardens typically had a plum or cooking apple like the Bramley. Actually, this pattern looks very similar world wide.
But not all fruit and nut trees are equal in this regard. Some take more work than others. So, while a few too many "INTENSIVE" trees, like apples, can become a menace, it really is almost impossible to have too many "EXTENSIVE" trees like service berries. They produce wonderful fruit that's rarely buggy with almost no work. And if you don't harvest them, the birds will, so you won't end up with a stinky rotting mound of wasp food making the neighbors mad.
Keeping this in mind, a well-planned homestead will "bulk up" on "extensive" trees that will provide great benefits but won't become a burden, and have just a few, well-chosen "intensive" trees.
After reviewing historic and modern recommendations, here's how I'd break these down:
Intensive Fruit Trees (my recommendation, 0 - 2 per family, unless you're operating a pro orchard.)
Only plant these if you really love the fruit and you're going to make a commitment to work for it. For most homes and home-owners they're more trouble than they're worth. There are probably over a dozen apples and half dozen pear trees within a mile of your home that never get picked. Since forest gardens rely on a no-spray regimen for their health and pest prevention, in the Great Lakes region, plan on bagging fruit from these trees to protect them from pests, by putting paper bags or "wedding favor " bags on the young fruit. They will also require pruning and other maintenance and may experience disease issues. Generally, I look for varieties selected for "no spray" or organic treatment. I also recommend dwarf varieties to make bagging and picking fruit easier.
Semi-intensive (1- 4)
These options provide big, sweet, valuable fruit without such a problem with bugs. It's possible to get descent fruit without spraying or bagging. The biggest work problem with these after establishment is harvesting, and storage, which can become a burden.
Jujube (zone 7 and up)
Nakita's gift persimmon (the only persimmon I can currently recommend for home owners.)
Cider and cooking apples and perry pears. (if you don't mind buggy fruit.)
Quince (A known fireblight host, Aromatnaya's the only variety I recommend.)
High-value Extensive (Plant lots of these.)
You almost can't plant too many of these. Where it seemed appropriate, I made recommendations to feed a family of 4. Having extra could provide the opportunity for trade, sales, or value-added products without creating a burden. These have almost 0 maintenance requirements and if they're not harvested they won't create a huge mess.
Goumi ( 4 bushes)
Hardy kiwi (Issai only variety I recommend, 2 vines)
Paw paws (3 - 4 trees)
Honeyberry (5-10 bushes)
Strawberries (25 plants)
Nanking cherry (4-5 bushes)
Medlar (1. Beautiful tree!)
Mulberry (Illinois Everbearing. 1 tree.)
Cornelian Cherry (2 bushes)
Hazelnut bushes (look for selected varieties that are blight resistant and have large nuts.
Lower value extensive
These add diversity to a system, but are not highly recommended.
Blueberry (valuable fruit, but yields suffer without spraying)
Kousa dogwood (selected fruit varieties only, 1-2 trees. Beautiful.)
Linden (edible leaves)
Toon tree (edible leaves)
Staghorn sumac (edible "berries" for tea.)
Recommended Nut trees
I made nuts their own category. Again, they are generally problem-free, but usually take work to process and store. They're also generally very large and only appropriate for the largest forest gardens. Gardens under an half-acre could look into duel-purpose trees, like Chinese Apricot, which produces an apricot and an almond all in one. Larger that an acre, large nut trees should probably part of your planting.
Black walnut. Valuable tree, difficult nuts to crack. Select easy-to-crack varieties.
Hickory nuts. My favorites.
Chestnuts. Staple carb crop highly recommended for larger gardens or forest systems.
Monkey puzzle tree. Generally too large and slow-to-mature to recommend for forest gardens. But very valuable future crop.
What does it all mean?
Well, putting that altogether, what would my recommendations for a tree planting look like?
Let's start with a typical suburban lot between 1/10th of an acre and 1/4 of an acre.
1 clump of 3 paw paws.
2 Asian pears.
1 mulberry, Nakita's gift persimmon or medlar
MAYBE 1 dwarf multi-graft apple or other intensive fruit tree.
5 or 6 "extensive" fruit bushes.
That collection would look very much like the 1/10th acre Holyoke Edible Forest Garden, one of the most famous forest gardens in America. It's interesting to note that they have removed all their "Intensive" fruits like apples and cherries, saying "it's not worth it!" and replaced them with asian pears, paw paws and persimmons.
With more land, I might add a few more "intensive" or "semi-intensive" trees, but mostly, I'd look to add more "extensives." Over a half-acre I would probably add large nut tree or two, and I'd fill in the understory with appropriate shade tolerant "extensives" like paw paw, elder and serviceberry.
Much beyond an acre, or possibly a few acres, we've really outgrown the idea of a "forest garden" and into the concepts of "managed forest," "agriforest systems" or Permaculture orchards. At that scale, I would either be looking to create a commercial orchard of some kind or an extensive forest of "extensive" fruit and nut trees with high-value wood.
Again, this arrangement describes and reflects much of the historical practices of land management prior to the age where fossil energy transformed our landscapes by making environmentally degrading practices cheap and easy. What worked well for people in the days prior to cheap energy is likely to work well for those of us who wish to lower our environmental impact, save money, and grow our food organically.
SELECTING TREES FOR A FOREST GARDEN.
Here's th complete geeky, super-detailed, and deeply researched rundown on what trees to pick and how many.
FOREST GARDENING COURSE SUPER SALE!
Since the Saturday course has filled up, we will be expanding to offer a Thursday evening, 6:00 - 9:00 section. To make sure I have a viable class size, I'm offering a big discount to the next 4 people who help me out by signing up - almost as low as the price for our program members.
The course is normally $400 for the season, but the discount price is $250. Since the class will come with a few plants and gifts, that's about $30/class or $10/hour - a great deal for this kind of class. And the classes will be avalable online if you can't make it in person:
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