Permaculture Plants Part 2. A Mid-Atlantic Food Forest Cheat Sheet
Expanding Island Food Forest at VSDB Educational Farm in Staunton, Virginia. 'Liberty' Apple surrounded by Echinacea Purpurea, Sea Kale, Red-Veined Sorrel, Chamomile, Goumi, Mountain Mint, Egyptian Walking Onion, Horseradish and more. (Photo by Trevor Piersol)
Food Forests or Edible Forest Gardens are a VAST topic - and one of the things we strive to do in our teaching at SPI is to simplify Permaculture to make it as practical and applicable to our students as possible. In this vein, I've come up with a "Mid-Atlantic Food Forest Cheat Sheet" to help you get off on the right foot with your Food Forest design dreams.
Essentially this is a list of Food Forest plants that I have found are most suitable to our region and to the diversity of a Food Forest system - that is low-maintenance, multi-functional, and native when possible (shout out to Ryan's blog "Plantin' Ain't Easy!). Most importantly, the cultivars chosen are disease resistant to most of our local diseases (for example, I like to plant Apple cultivars that are resistant to the "Big 3" apple diseases - Fireblight, Apple Scap, and Cedar Apple Rust). I've also arranged the fruit trees by fruiting window to make efficient layout easier, ala Stefan Sobkowiak's "Grocery Aisle Concept" at Miracle Farms in Quebec. This cheat sheet is useful whether you are planting out a large-scale "linear guild" orchard or a small-scale "expanding island" orchard. Also, I've thrown in some planting and maintenance tips just for the heck of it - because why go through all of the work and money of getting your orchard started if you aren't able to take care of the plants!
One last note - for the sake of easy maintenance you'll notice I like to simplify my Food Forests to include only Tree, Shrub, and Herbaceous layers. The more adventurous orchardist might want to throw in vines, groundcovers, fungi, etc. - but I like to start with small and slow solutions. I also tend to exclude a whole host of perennial plants from my Food Forest which I find require specialized maintenance strategies - think raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, seabuckthorn, pawpaws, American persimmons, and figs, to name a few. I haven't forgotten those gems but in general I like to plant them together in blocks interspersed throughout the farm, not in my orchard rows. As always, this is an ever-evolving document, but hopefully, it will help you avoid some of the mistakes I've made over the years. Enjoy!
Linear Guild planted on contour with alley cropping of annuals. Species, Arkansas Black Apple, Aronia, Goumi, Rhubarb, Echinacea, Comfrey ,Bee Balm, Locust, Serviceberry, Sorrel. Fennel and Cilantro in the alleys. (Photo by Ryan Blosser)
Mid-Atlantic Food Forest Cheat Sheet
By Trevor Piersol
The Tree Layer (Species/Cultivar by Approximate Harvest Date)
Early September Harvest
Late September Harvest
Tree Rootstock Recommendations
In general, I recommend semi-dwarf or semi-standard rootstock. Dwarf rootstocks will bear fruit sooner but are more fragile and shorter-lived.
Asian and European Pear Rootstocks
Asian Persimmon Rootstocks
The Fruiting Shrub Layer
I like to plant 2-3 fruiting shrubs around or between each tree. The shrubs selected are all fairly easy to grow and will have a height and spread of about 4-7 feet.
Although I see it as optional, it is nice to plant at least one Nitrogen-Fixing shrub around or between each tree. All will grow to about 12’Hx12’W with the exception of the Goumi which is 6’Hx6’W. Here are a few that are well adapted to the Mid-Atlantic.
The Herbaceous Layer
Herbaceous plants are interspersed around the base of each tree or within the linear guild rows. Make sure to mix up species and also plant along edges and in sunny, open sections. Many double as beneficial insect attractants that also produce a nice yield of culinary and medicinal herbs/vegetables. Below are some of my favorites.
Planting and Maintenance
When you are ready to plant make sure you follow proper planting protocols: digging a large planting hole, pruning damaged roots and spreading them out evenly, and not planting too shallow or too deep. Bare-root planting in fall or spring is much more successful than summer planting. I like to dunk the plant roots in a mycorrhizal inoculant slurry before planting
https://bio-organics.com/product/mycorrhizal-root-dip-inoculant/. I also amend each tree planting hole with approximately 2 lbs. azomite (for micronutrients) and 2 lbs. rock phosphate, mixed evenly into the soil.
Once trees are planted they will need an average of 1” of rain per week to get established. They also need a weed-free zone maintained around the drip line at all times. Dwarf trees will need to be tied to a stake. The cheapest option I’ve found is a ¾-inch EMT electrical conduit. Sink the stake 2-inches from the trunk of the tree on the upwind side and then fasten the tree to the stake using a flexible tree lock.
A tree guard placed around the trunk of the tree at the base is essential for preventing rabbits and voles from girdling the tree (I like the see-through mesh variety), and branch tips must be protected from deer browse with some sort of fencing/exclusion barrier. Proper training from the outset is important to minimize corrective pruning later on. Seasonal pruning is recommended to encourage proper airflow and branch distribution and maximize fruiting.
Pest and Disease Management
There’s no doubt that growing fruit trees organically in the Mid-Atlantic is a challenge. We’ve already gotten part of the way there by choosing disease resistant cultivars and creating diversity in the Food Forest. From there you can choose to target problems with organic sprays or experiment with pro-biotic and holistic sprays like effective microbes and neem oil. To learn more about holistic sprays I recommend Michael Phillips’ book “The Holistic Orchard.”
Sources for Plant Material
Here are some online nurseries I recommend for bare-root trees and shrubs: Raintree Nursery, Cummins Nursery (especially for apples on Geneva rootstock), and Burnt Ridge Nursery. Stark Brothers is a great source for dwarf fruit trees although they do not specify rootstock. Edible Landscaping in Afton, VA is the go-to place for Asian Persimmons and Paw Paws. Nourse Farms is a great source for berries. For herbaceous perennials try sourcing from local nurseries or starting from seed. You can also order in plug trays of herbaceous plants online from Richter’s.