Notes from Windward: #70


Trees for the Forest


      Earlier this week, Mary Lou and I took a road trip up to Morton, Washington where we joined other plant enthusiasts at Raintree Nursery. I have long since admired Raintree's inventory of edible perennials, as they always seem to have both heritage varieties from all over the world and "new" discoveries from the centers of diversity (e.g places of origin) for the various edible species they offer.

     So, I was very much delighted to learn that we would have the opportunity to visit Raintree and bring home some of this year's remaining bareroot trees. And while it was a full day of effort, with 8 hours in the car, 3 hours standing in a cold storage facility and more time loading the pick-up with the chestnuts and raspberries, asparagus and grapes, apricots, apples and almonds, all the real work was yet to come.

grapes for the garden

     Ahead of me, and those who care to join me in the process, is the task of transforming this piece of the plateau into a forest that is as similarly well adapted and resilient to the summer droughts and clay soils, burrowing ground squirrels and insatiable deer, as the native pines and oaks but a forest that also produces food for our bodies, forage for the working animals and the materials with which we will build and fuel our lives here.

more baby nut trees (black walnuts)

     What does this process look like? Well, first it looks like many months of observation and research‒how are the trees and the soil, grasses and pollinators, fungi, bacteria and moisture all interacting to make this native forest function? What are the sources of nitrogen, what are the patterns of growth‒both above and below ground?

     These questions are endless, and as I learn and observe more, I simply am more curious and have more questions. But this initial observation process is critical, for the vision is to create an ecosystem that is similarly self managing and abundant. We have both the burden and great fortune to be starting not with an open field‒an empty canvas‒ as many other forest gardeners seem to start with, but with a forest full of trees that started turning sunlight into sugars well before the turn of the twentieth century.

     Simultaneous to the observing is the necessary step of propagation‒what trees and vines, bushes and shrubs do we want to fill this forest?

grafted apples putting on leaves

     A forest is by definition a long term commitment‒trees invest great resources in building their below ground biomass for the first several years so that that they will be well prepared to grow for the next several decades.

     Propagation is similar. When time, not money, is my most abundant resource (even though it too feels quite scarce), I am better enabled to propagate the plants myself than buy them from someone else. And so inevitably this means investing now in learning how to propagate apples and grapes, walnuts and blueberries to be able to share in the future abundance.

     And so propagating a forest of food, forage and fiber looks like time spent grafting, taking cuttings and starting from seed (whatever method is best suited for the particular species you are working with) species by species, variety by variety the plants that will grow to create the forest. I am not able, nor would want, to do all the varieties (or volume) at once, and so my hope is that every year I can propagate a few more species and learn from mistakes made in previous attempts.

the planting crew gets going

     This year the focus has been apples, grapes, locusts, walnuts and hazelnuts. When working with perennials such as nut and fruit trees, I am constantly humbled by the time frame of my efforts‒some trees such as chestnuts and walnuts can live for hundreds of years, yet this means they can take many years before they begin to flower and fruit. I am thankful that I have only seen two decades of my life pass by so that there exists a very real likelihood that I will be able to be part of the harvest, as seemingly so few avid tree planters are.

     Yet this trip to Raintree certainly jumpstarted these efforts as we brought home several dozen trees plus 5 varieties of grapes, 4 varieties of raspberries and still even other perennial edibles. The challenge with dealing with so many trees, is finding a place to put them all in the ground where they will be safe from sheep and cattle and can be easily watered through the dry summer months.

Sarah, Celeste and Andrew setting bare root trees in our nursery

      Bareroot trees are extremely vulnerable to drying out and have to be planted immediately if they are to survive. So over the past few days, we have been preparing ground to plant these several dozen fruit and nut trees. We are digging a series of trenches and filling them with compost and planting the trees at close intervals‒this way they will be easy to tend to this summer and can be transplanted to more permanent locations in the spring.

Sam adding lots of mulch to the new trees

      Planting this many trees is no trivial task, and the work goes fairly quickly when there are many hands. As John so aptly noted‒this would be so much work for one person to do! Indeed, it takes a small village to plant a forest, and thanks to everyone's help over the past week, we are many trees closer a diverse and productive canopy.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 70