A Pruned Mulberry Tree

cut-peach

Victor sent pictures of his mulberry tree, post pruning:

pruned-mulberry-tree

In my previous post, it looked like this:

Mulberry1

I told him he could hack the living daylights out of it, but in his words:

“Like Moses tapping the stone, however, I hedged about cutting down to 4 feet and it’s more in the range of 5. Reverse of a rule in illustration- it’s always easier to add something to an image than edit it out- I feel like I’m in a position to cut some more if you think I haven’t gone far enough.”

He’s right – if you cut too far, you can’t add back. However, I had to learn that with mulberries (and peaches, incidentally), what seems like severe pruning rarely is. Most of the time, I wish I’d cut farther. By mid-summer I’m always saying “wait! Slow down, tree!”

Look at this peach for example. That sort of low, spreading form happens when you prune the young tree to around ONE FOOT from the ground. That’s severe! But it makes for a very manageable tree.

Victor’s mulberry will grow back and jump for the sky. And there’s always next year to prune more. I would probably take off a lot more of the small branches if it were me, but I didn’t start off pruning that way. I learned how much trees could take over time and had to be encouraged by people like Paul Miller of Rainbow Star Farm in Gainesville to see just how much potential a tree can have when tightly controlled. It feels like you’re going to kill it but you probably won’t.

Probably.

‘Tis the Season for Planting Bare-Root Trees

planting-bare-root-trees

My sister Stephanie bought a variety of fruit trees and has been busily planting them in her Delaware yard.

planting-bare-root-trees-1planting-bare-root-trees-steph-3

Hard work, but she had some help:

planting-bare-root-trees-steph-2

Bare-root trees are truly amazing. A lot of fruit trees, including apples, pears, and stone fruit, can be dug during dormancy, have the dirt knocked off their roots, have their roots pruned to almost nothing, be shipped across the country, and re-planted – and they’ll act like nothing happened in the spring, bursting into beautiful growth.

It’s still amazing to me. Trees sleep HARD!

My favorite source for bare root trees is Peaceful Valley in California, AKA Grow Organic. I’ve never had one of their trees fail on me, and I’ve planted at least a dozen. Willis Orchards, TyTy Georgia and Gurneys? Not so much. Avoid.

I have to admit, I’m a little jealous of Steph. I love planting trees. And look at that beautiful soil!

Pruning Mulberry Trees to Keep Them Small

mulberries-header

Mulberry trees are one of my very favorite fruit trees, providing a huge amount of berries for very little work.

However, they also grow like mad and can become a tangled, unruly big mess of a tree if you just let them grow.

With this in mind, Victor wrote me to ask about pruning mulberry trees to keep them small:

“I am feeling very fortunate that I came across your YouTube vid on mulberry pruning as I have been reading through a number of Google sites regarding the matter and they are very discouraging regarding pruning. I dare say you are almost at odds with everything I have been reading online. 

I planted a mulberry tree in one of my gardens 2 autumns ago along with a cherry. The mulberry is of the red/purpleish variety. We experienced a warm winter that first year after planting and she went ballistic by the springtime. The fruit was very tasty but the birds managed to get the majority for themselves. I had intended to keep the tree from getting out of control so that picking wouldn’t become a complete hassle and with an eye on keeping it netted somehow to discourage the birds. 
I was hoping to prune it this winter but then started reading the negative info online regarding consequences, etc.. I just need some pointers how to maintain the girl so it doesn’t run away from me and overwhelm the garden. Would it be possible to send you some shots of the tree and you could explain the do’s and don’ts to me? Would really appreciate it.”
Here are some pictures:
Mulberry2 Mulberry1
As you can see from the first photo, that mulberry tree can’t get too big or it will cause some trouble with the gardens.
As it is, it’s not a bad size; however, they’ll grow 6′ in a year, easily.
If it were my tree and I wanted to keep it small, I’d do something like this:
mulberry-pruned
Take it down to 3-4′ and get rid of a lot of the little tangly branches as well. It should still make a decent amount of mulberries on the new growth this spring. Right now, before it wakes up, is the time to prune. It’s easy to see and shape the structure.
And remember – you can chainsaw a mulberry to the ground and you won’t kill it. They’re amazing.
Here’s an article I wrote back in November with some more ideas on pruning mulberries. That covers “festooning” as well. Here’s a mulberry which I treated that way:
FestoonedMulberry3
That would still be too sprawling for Victor’s garden space, but it’s a good way to keep the trees shorter and the fruit in reach.
Finally, Victor isn’t just your average gardener. He’s also a highly talented illustrator currently working for Rolling Stone. When I saw his portfolio linked in his signature I thought, “hey, I’ve seen that guy’s work before!”
Just attack those mulberries with a little artistic pruning and they’re going to do great. Unlike some other fruit trees, mulberries can take a ridiculous amount of pruning and shaping.

Stumping Avocadoes

EddysAvocado3

I linked to this article on “stumping avocados” in yesterday’s post, but it’s worth linking further here:

 

“If you drive through Southern California and look at the hillsides where avocados are grown,  you will see acres of white stumps.  These are the avocados that have been cut down and painted to protect the trees from sun damage.   The stumps take less water while they regrow,  and will produce beautiful avocados again in about 3 years.  Sometimes we graft a different variety to the stump and when it grows back it produces that variety of avocado.  I’ll write more about that at a different time.

We have stumped several times over the years. Taking acres of avocado trees  out of production for several years is a challenge financially,  but it also helps to save water and is considered a good practice in avocado farming” (click here to keep reading)

 

Rejuvenating or grafting an unproductive tree is often a better investment of time than removing it and replanting. Think of the root system of a mature tree – it can reach for dozens of feet beneath the ground. A baby tree takes a lot of time to get established.

Though stumping an avocado tree is drastic, if it’s working for commercial producers, it’s worth trying. Check out the pictures on the article – it’s fascinating.

Reviving Old Mango Trees

Reviving-old-mango-orchards

This is fascinating – look how much you can cut!

Pollarding can also be done with avocado trees.

Additionally, I used the method to keep a sweetgum tree small in order to use it as a living trellis for yams.

It takes some faith to cut back a huge tree, but it seems as if it works well with mangoes. The orchard density on our current property is quite high so I have been researching ways of decreasing the canopy size and making harvests easier. This looks like a good option, plus I get wood I can use for charcoal.

The Galvanized Compost Digester

Galvanized-tub-compost-bin

The kids found a big galvanized tub of some sort:

Galvanized-tub-compost-bin-empty

 

It was probably the casing for something, but I have no idea what.

That doesn’t matter, though, as whatever its original purpose was, it has now been repurposed as a compost bin.

Galvanized-tub-compost-bin

You can see the video here:

As I remark in the video, my Dad built a compost bin in his back yard that continually digests all the kitchen scraps from the house without being turned. Nature does it for you. This bin is a great size for making lots of compost.

I have lots and lots of leaves available thanks to the cocoa orchard.

Cocoa-leaves

 

Local farmers often rake up all the leaves beneath their cocoa trees and burn them. I was told this makes it easier to find all the cocoa pods when they harvest, but I find that management method to be a terrible waste.

Trees are designed to cycle nutrients. Old leaves drop, are digested by soil organisms, then the trees reabsorb the nutrients. Since I have started managing the cocoa here, I have let nature take its course in rotting the leaves – except for the occasional tarp-load of leaves I “borrow” for composting.

The soil beneath the cocoa is no longer cracked clay. Instead, it’s darkening and softening as it’s filled with humus and crisscrossed with fungal hyphae.

Cocoa leaf management aside, I am excited about this new no-turn compost bin. We’ll just keep chucking in lots of good stuff and in a year or so I’ll dump it out and start sifting.

Tropical Gardening in Vero Beach

vero_beach

Don wonders about tropical gardening in Vero Beach:

“Hi David,

I recently moved to Vero Beach, and was delighted to find that we are in a 10a climate zone. I heard that Vero is in a microclimate area. You;d you consider this to be a tropical zone? or one that may be open to setting up a system where we may be able to push toward a 10b or even an 11a depending on how we set up our garden?

I am currently on 5 acres, and I am mulching over about 2 1/2 acres of it. I plan on planting fruit trees in just about 3 weeks.”

You are in a great place, Don. Gardening in Vero Beach is life on the easy setting.

Vero’s climate is close enough to the tropics that you’ll be able to plant an abundance of species that people an hour inland from you would struggle to grow.

2.5 acres is a ton of space, too. With Vero Beach’s mild, year-round growing season you’ll be raking in produce if you plan well. Even if you don’t, it will be hard to fail.

Though zone 10a suffers through occasional freezes, the close proximity of the ocean keeps them rare and brief.

The Power of the Ocean

As I write in Push the Zone: The Good Guide to Growing Tropical Plants Beyond the Tropics:

“If you live near the coast, consider yourself blessed. The climate of Jacksonville (Northeastern Florida) is comparable to that of Groveland, despite the former being located farther north. This is why there are coconut palms growing inside Tampa bay but not in Orlando.

Like the barrels of water in my greenhouse, the ocean functions as a huge repository of warmth on chilly nights. The farther you get away from the ocean, the worse the overnight lows become—and the hotter the summer highs. The center of the state of Florida is a ridge with rolling hills and little to moderate the heat of summer or the cold of winter. In my previous location south of Gainesville, I could drive an hour east or an hour west and see a lot more tropical foliage growing than would survive on my homestead.

More than one person in the Ocala area told me “I could never live in South Florida—it would be way too hot.” I’d just laugh. I grew up in Ft. Lauderdale and I can tell you from experience: it never, ever gets as hot there as it does during the middle of a Central Florida summer. The ocean keeps it both cooler and warmer. Where I currently live in the tropics is even milder. Temperatures normally range between 74 and 87 degrees, even though you’d think its equatorial location would lead to sweltering misery.

tropical gardening in vero beach

If you’re not tied to a particular location, you have a few options in finding a place where you can grow warmer climate plants outside with little or no protection. You can move southwards towards the equator… you can move into a warm, urban area… or you can move towards the coast. Heck, you could combine all three and move to Miami; however, the crime rate down there takes some of the fun out of gardening. There’s nothing that dampens horticultural enthusiasm like having some hoodlums steal all your mangoes or break into your tool shed three times in one week. No fun.

Getting close to the ocean or into the city is more expensive than living in the country, unfortunately, which is part of why we moved into the middle of my home state. Land is abundant and the soil can be pretty decent by Florida standards, depending on where you settle.

If you already live in the city, I recommend trying some trees and plants from farther south. Patios and pool areas are excellent for planting small fruit trees. If you’re in an apartment, try growing some tropical plants in large pots on your deck or garden area.

I’ve seen queen palms growing in North Florida between an apartment wall and a pool. If those palms were planted out in the open, they would be toasted by frost. By the building, in that urban heat sink along with the additional thermal mass of a big swimming pool they looked as happy as if they were in Tahiti.

The way to find out what works is to plant a lot of things and see how they do in your area. I’ll bet there are places in your yard right now that are warmer because of their location.

I once visited a friend about seventy miles east of my old house in Marion County. He lives in Ormond Beach, right near the ocean, which was actually a little north of me. In his neighborhood people were growing royal poinciana trees and sea grapes—both decidedly tropical species. The ocean made all the difference.”

Mangoes: The Tropical Canary

One of the species I look for to determine if an area is tropical enough to grow plenty of tropical fruit is the mango.

So – can mangoes grow in Vero Beach?

Yep!

Though the frosts will remove fruit from mango trees in some years, you will have great success in other years.

If the property you are developing has established trees – no matter what the species – they will help moderate the climate. If it is a wide open space, I recommend planting fast-growing species as quickly as possible to help moderate the climate and protect your tropical trees from the cold.

One of my favorites is the guanacaste tree, AKA enterolobium.

You don’t have to let them get huge, you just want to get some canopy edges that will help hold in warmth on a frosty night. Slowing the movement of cold air helps as well, so hedges, fences, buildings – think about where they are or where they could be. South-facing walls will create fully tropical microclimates along their sides.

But… as mangoes already grow in Vero Beach, your work is much easier than mine was in North/Central Florida.

Tropical Fruit for Vero Beach

Here are some species I would definitely hunt down and plant:

Chocolate Pudding Fruit / Black Sapote

Starfruit

Lychee

Papaya (easy to grow from seed)

Mulberry

Loquat

Cashew

Cattley Guava

Tropical Guava

Cherry of the Rio Grande

Jaboticaba

Canistel

Bananas (many types!)

Barbados Cherry

Pineapples

Tamarind

Fig

Olive (Arbequina)

 

There are many more options as well. More “tender” trees could be planted after these somewhat frost-tolerant trees get established. The collective canopies will create a warmer microclimate in your yard over time.

Covering the Area

One mistake I made at the beginning of my food forest process was not planting enough nitrogen fixers and plants to keep the ground covered.

Most of Florida wants to be forest. If you put down that mulch – plant more species in it that will keep life in the soil and provide you with new mulch material. If you have pain-in-the-neck invasive species, like Brazilian pepper, I would chop and drop it, but not kill it right away. If you keep it cut it won’t seed and you can use the limbs and leaves as mulch around other trees.

For quick ground-covering species I like cassava, Tithonia diversifolia, pigeon peas, black-eyed peas and big crazy seed mixes.

Coverseedmix3

The more life you get going on the sand, the better.

Perennial peanut is also a very nice ground cover for orchards and food forests.

Frost Protection

Little trees are very susceptible to overnight lows. Go to the local thrift store and buy cheap blankets and sheets and be prepared to cover those trees for at least the first few winters. If you keep them fed and watered well during their first few years, they’ll soon get big enough to live through a cold night, usually with minor damage. I have a lot more ideas in Push the Zone, but the bare bones of it is: baby young tropicals and they’ll take care of themselves in adulthood.

Vegetable Gardening in Vero Beach

My recommendations for top crops as shared in Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening hold firm for Vero Beach. Start with tough stuff that handles the humidity and the sand and move out from there.

African Yams

Sweet Potatoes

Cassava

Pigeon Peas

Yard-long Beans

Black-eye Peas

Seminole Pumpkin

Mexican Tree Spinach

Longevity Spinach

Malanga

Those will get you started and will do great – and there are many more options as well. Beefsteak tomatoes are tough, but Everglades tomatoes are easy. Get the forgiving plants growing first and making you food, then branch out.

I also encourage you to hunt down tropical fruit growers and enthusiasts in your area. Visit the local agricultural extension. Drive around town and any time you spot a tropical fruit tree, see if you can meet the owner and talk to him about how it has done over the years.

Good luck, Don, and if you have any more questions – shoot them my way and I’ll help as best as I can.

 

*Map image via Google Maps

Gardening Failure (And How to Beat It!)

Gardening_Failure-Cucumber

Gardening failure happens to the best of us:

And trust me, I’m by no means “the best.” I’ve failed my way to gardening success over the years.

Gardening Failure - distorted cucumber

As I wrote in a previous post:

“Every failure is a chance for us to reassess our gardening methods, our pest control, our crop varieties and our own thinking. It’s good to fail now, before things get any uglier in our country. If you’re not actively growing and learning now, you might be in for a rocky road in the future.”

It’s good to ask questions about your mistakes. Such as:

Why Did This Failure Happen?

 

In the case of my beds down the hill, they have problems because they are… beds down the hill.

It’s a trek to get down there. On rainy days, the slope is slippery. On sunny days, it’s still a walk… and it’s hot.

As I note in Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening:

Grow_Or_Die_Cover_Web“If you plant your gardens near where you live, work and play, you’re going to see problems as they appear. If you make it a point to walk the rows daily and keep a half an eye on your crops, things won’t get out of control. Pest problems go from tiny to huge almost overnight – watch and you’ll be able to nail them down before you lose a harvest.

When I notice stinkbug eggs glued on the leaves of a squash plant, I crush them. When I see a tiny hornworm on a tomato, I pick it off. When the aphids are sucking the life out of the new growth on my bean vines, I blast them off with the hose.

You can also walk around with a little container of soapy water. Any insect you knock into it will drown rapidly and bother your garden no more.

If you’re not in the garden, you’re going to miss problems that could have been stopped early on. Keep your eyes open and keep your garden as close as you can.”

In the video, I state the same idea. The cucumbers are doing poorly because I got busy and didn’t pay close attention. If I had weeded, fertilized and staked them a few weeks ago, they’d be doing great now. As it is, I’ll be lucky to pay for the seeds in the cucumbers yielded.

How Can I Avoid this Problem in the Future?

 

Obviously, planting closer would be a good idea. But also, I should have realized that I have too little time at the moment to take care of a lot of gardens. Instead, it would have made sense to really work on some smaller areas and get their yields way up before utilizing a bunch of the space available by planting it and then getting poor yields because I didn’t give the area enough care.

Another big help is to plan your homestead in a way that keeps the high maintenance plants near at hand right from the beginning.

These cucumbers should be planted in Zone 1.

As stated succinctly in a good article at Deep Green Permaculture:

“Zone 1 is the area nearest to the house, and also includes the most frequently accessed areas , such as alongside often used paths.

Keep in mind that this zone is defined by access, so if there is an area near the house that you don’t visit, or is hard to get to, even if it sits next to the house itself, then it is not included in Zone 1.

If you leave your property daily to go go work for example, then the path from the street to your house and the immediate areas alongside it will be included in Zone  1, as you visit these areas twice daily.”

Our current homestead has an informal orchard covering most of Zone 1.

Ideally, fruit and nut trees should be in Zone 2 or Zone 3 since they require much less attention than vegetable gardens.

We’re constrained by the current design; however, I’m not going to complain about it all that much as the tree crops are still marvelously productive. It’s just not great from cucumbers.

Next time I’ll plant the cukes in the small beds out back that I visit daily and leave the downhill area for the corn, pigeon peas, pumpkins and okra, all of which are much less touchy.

Conclusion

 

Your gardening failure is just a springboard to future success.

Learn from it.

Roll with the punches.

Adjust and attack again until you have abundance.

I made my video on purpose to show you that even good gardeners like myself screw things up.

 

Such as trying to use a pruning saw to cut through the thick plastic top of a barrel.

Don’t do that.

It doesn’t work and it just makes you look silly, particularly if you have the ill luck to attack it with optimism while on camera.

Florida Garden Consulting: Help My Homestead!

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H. D. wrote last week asking for some Florida garden consulting. Here are a couple of photos of what she’s done so far:

florida garden consulting florida garden consulting

Since there’s a lot to cover here, I will interject my answers in between her questions:

“Hi! I bought all of your available books to date [thank you!] but I am in desperate need of your opinion.

I have been turning 1 and a half acre into a food farm over the past year. I have planted:

2 kumquat
1 loquat
3 persimmon
3 mulberry
4 banana
4 fig
2 pomegranate
3 guava
2 papaya
4 peach
1 avocado
1 cherry of Rio Grande
1 traditional cherry
2 apple
1 meyer lemon
2 honey mango
and 2 pecan trees.
I am located in Ocala and have decent soil.
You will have some trouble with a few of those selections in your area. Though Ocala isn’t the coldest spot in the state, it’s definitely out of mango range, unless you have some very good microclimates in the yard. You will likely lose the guavas to frost as well, unless they’re cattley guavas like this one:

I tried true tropical guavas on my previous homestead and they couldn’t take the Ocala winters. Papaya will die as well unless they’re right next to the house.
One more thing: if you have a traditional cherry tree, it probably needs a pollinator. I’m not aware of any self-pollinating true sweet cherries. Also, there are only two types that allegedly will grow in Florida: “Minnie Royal” and “Royal Lee” – they pollinate each other. Unless it’s a black cherry (Prunus serotina), which is suited to the area.
Back to the questions:
“I am spacing everything out and have based my layout on the anticipated size of each tree/shrub. I am concerned that I need other plants to help avoid certain issues with the plants I am growing or to complement them.
 
Also, I would like any suggestions as to what beneficial plants/trees/shrubs you feel that I should have that will grow here??
Certain books, videos, anything… any and all advice is and will be greatly appreciate. I would love a food forest but my other half is one of those people that likes things perfectly uniform and as a result, I have to put my trees and plants in locations that he can live with.”

The Current Plan

H. D. sent me the current plan for her homestead, along with a plant species key:

Plantagram_web

Plant-List-key

That’s some planning, there. I like it!

Food Forest vs. Orchard

My philosophy on growing gardens and trees in particular is “mix ’em up and stuff as many species into a space as possible!”
Don’t plant a citrus next to a citrus or an apple next to an apple. Plant them in a big mix and you’ll make the bad bugs work harder to make the jump from one tree to another. Apple pests usually only like apples, citrus pests usually like only citrus. Put gaps between the trees that are the same or even similar species and you’ll give things a little protection. To add more protection and good insects, throw in other edible, medicinal, insectary and nitrogen-fixing species. You can grow a ring of gingers in the shade of a loquat tree… or plant a chaste tree between fruit trees for medicine and to attract more bees. Cassias fix nitrogen and will improve the soil from below and from above as you cut them repeatedly for mulch. I share some species lists in the appendices of my book Create Your Own Florida Food Forest which will help.
The problem: if you can’t go “food forest” style, you’re looking more at a traditional orchard, which isn’t the easiest thing to grow in Florida. Florida wants to be a rambling, scrubby forest, so unless you have sheep, you’ll need to keep the grass down and mulch around the bases of the trees to get them established properly. Messy is better, unfortunately for those good people like your husband who want to keep things orderly.
As a husband myself, my advice is to do whatever he says. However, if you can talk him into letting you simply mulch the trees in big rings and plant some nice plants around their bases, you’ll be partway there.
I didn’t always pick plants and place them according to what I thought would be “perfect,” I just went for maximum diversity and food. If I was at the market and saw a butterfly plant I liked, I bought it and planted it next to one of my fruit trees. I did the same with herbs, flowers, vines and all kinds of roots. Anywhere I had a gap, I popped in a plant.
My place:
FoodForestAfter-Un14florida gardening help
All we mowed were the paths and all the extra logs, leaves, clippings and other yard “waste” was piled on the sides of the path where they were rapidly consumed by vines and flowers and returned to the earth.
Jungle gardening like this will drive some people nuts… but boy was it easy and fun. I never knew what was going to pop up next or what rare species would appear spontaneously. So much life!
Now – judging by the plan, I’m assuming these trees are already all planted, so mixing up the species is no longer possible easily. My recommendation is to plant herbs, flowering shrubs and other perennials in “guilds” around each tree to add space for the good guys to live and to mix up the pests. More species = less problems, generally speaking.

What Plants are Must-Haves?

Okay – so what plants are “must-haves” beyond your current list?
If you have space, I would add the following plants:
Ginger (Good herb)
Lemon grass (Good herb)
Flowering almond verbena (Great for pollinators)
Chaste tree (Great for pollinators)
Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia diversifolia): Great for compost
Moringa (Marvelous for your health – many uses)
Chestnuts (Excellent tree! Get “Dunstan” trees)
Cassava (calorie crop)
African yams (calorie crop – vines will grow right up trees – plant by big ones!)
Chaya (GREAT green)
Milkweed (as many varieties as you can find – for insects!)

Here’s a subtropical fruit tree guild I created for another client:

Subtropical_Fruit_Tree_Guild_Layout
I realize some people like a lot of planning and want to know what they must plant. Guides like the one I created are helpful in this case but nothing is set in stone, just as nature itself is always changing. I add a lot and see what happens, but whatever you do – more plants and more species = good practice.

What Books Would Help?

Since you already have my book Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening, I recommend checking out the book Gaia’s Garden.
Though it’s not a manual on Florida gardening, it will help you think in brand new ways about your yard and trees.

And one final question:

“Oh, and I have to ask… what did you graft your persimmons to? I ask because one of the persimmons I got from you was a mower casualty a looooong time ago, and it returned looking like a persimmon but the leaves are no longer glossy”
Mine were all on American persimmon root stocks, which may be male or female. You can graft the top without too much trouble if you do it in the spring – or just see if you get American persimmon fruit instead. Both are beautiful and useful trees.
florida garden consulting

Female persimmon in bloom

Good luck on your projects and thank you for writing. Stop on by the forums any time to ask more questions of the sharp gardeners over there.
If you are another gardener reading this post and want some help, I am always available as a paid consultant if you need deeper advice and am happy to help.
Tomorrow I’ll share more on fertilizing that’s tailored to her yard and trees.

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A Subtropical Fruit Tree Guild

subtropical fruit tree guild

A few weeks ago I designed a fruit tree guild for the subtropics for a client in Central Florida. Today I’m going to tell you how I did it and give you an in-depth look at how fruit tree guilds work.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of plant or tree guilds, it’s a permaculture idea that serves multiple functions (as permaculture ideas often do!). Plant guilds combine intercropping or “companion planting” with pest control and insect habitat, nitrogen fixing and stacking more food and medicine into the same space that would normally contain just a single tree.

Wild Tree Guilds

 

In a forest, trees are almost never all alone. They share their space with mosses, ferns, creepers, shrubs, epiphytes, herbaceous plants, and lots of creatures. A fruit tree guild mimics nature’s patterning and builds upon it in a planned way.

For instance, you might see an oak by the road with a mimosa tree (nitrogen fixer) beneath it, a sumac (insectary and wild wildlife feeding understory tree) beside it, wild grapes (vines and wildlife food) climbing it, wild mint or bee balm (insectary plants and possible pest repellent) beneath it, along with who knows how many other species… and that’s not even including the resurrection ferns and Spanish moss in the tree’s branches or the fungi interconnected with its roots. The forest creates a huge amount of biomass via these wild tree guilds… and feeds itself and the animals quite well.

subtropical fruit tree guild garden bed

My perennial garden bed is basically a miniature planned forest. Lots of species, lots of good insects.

These are unimproved trees and plants, however. With man’s ability to tweak and breed and select trees and plants for great traits such as high fruit yields, sweetness and production… well, you can seriously get a lot of food going by creating your own planned fruit tree guilds.

Planning a Fruit Tree Guild

 

Here’s where I think people fall apart. By wanting “perfect” results, they instead end up getting nowhere. Look – you can spend ALL your time planning and no time planting!

I like to do things the other way around. All these plants are just here for ideas. You could literally blindfold yourself, throw 10 darts at a wall covered in pictures of plants, pick the ones you hit, plant them together around your fruit tree, and you’d probably do fine. The biggest thing seems to be not leaving your fruit tree alone.

You can do better than blind darts with a little planning, but don’t get too hung up.

Here are some suggestions for your subtropical fruit tree guild.

Add The Fruit Tree

If you want a nice fruit tree guild, first pick yourself out a fruit tree. Since I’m located in the subtropics, let’s go with that climate. You can pick trees and plants that fit a temperate or tropical climate, too, – it’s the same system. Look around for what does great in your area.

A fruit tree that don’t cast a huge shadow is great (sorry, mulberry and loquat – I’m looking at you!) unless you want to grow shade-loving plants beneath it.

Japanese persimmons, small citrus, pears (until they get huge), plums, peaches… all are pretty easy to deal with.

Add Small Fruits and Berries

Then pick out a few other smaller fruits you’d like to eat. Thornless blackberries, blueberries, strawberry guava, natal plum… the choices are endless. Pop a few of those in near your tree.

Add Herbs

Then grab some herbs for (hopefully) repelling some pests and spicing up your kitchen. Rosemary, oregano, lemon grass, turmeric (in the shadiest spot beneath the fruit tree)… you get the idea.

Add Greens

Now I like to add some salad and greens. Mexican tree spinach (AKA chaya), Surinam purslane, cranberry hibiscus – these are all good and don’t take up tons of space.

Add Tree-Feeding Plants

Now let’s add something to feed the tree. Pick a nitrogen-fixer or two and plant them right by the fruit tree. As it grows, chop it back over and over again and drop the branches as mulch. Every time you do this the roots will release some nitrogen for your fruit tree. In the subtropics, mimosa trees, black locust, coral bean, pigeon peas, autumn olive, cassias and plenty of other species work well. If you want to create more mulch and add other nutrients, you can also plant a great biomass producer like Tithonia diversifolia nearby (watch out – they get huge – be sure to cut them back regularly and drop the mulch around your fruit tree!) or, if you’re luckier with keeping them alive than I am, plant a bunch of comfrey like temperate climate pemaculturalists are apt to do.

Add Insectary Plants

You can also pop in pentas, flowering almond, African blue basil, milkweed and other blooms for the butterflies and bees. There are lots of options here. I like them for the beauty and the fact that the more insects you have buzzing and creeping around, the less major pest problems you seem to have. An active ecosystem tends to be self-policing, keeping problems from getting too out of hand.

Add Edible Groundcover

Sweet potatoes and Seminole pumpkins work really well for this. You can also plant Okinawa spinach and longevity spinach, among other good edible ground cover plants.

Voila! You’ve put together a guild. Mulch well, keep watered until it establishes, and you’re set.

Now – here’s the design I did for my client:

Subtropical_Fruit_Tree_Guild_Layout

A subtropical fruit tree guild. Center tree will likely be a Japanese persimmon.

The soil is acid, so the blueberries should be very happy. One area not shown is the ground cover layer, but that will likely be seasonal in this guild. It’s getting planted this fall, so sweet potatoes will not be appropriate until the spring weather kicks in.

Conclusion

 

FloridaFoodForestsCoverNewBLSm

My book has lots of tested plant species listed in the back. $2.99 = cheap gardening success.

Creating a fruit tree guild is easy. This subtropical fruit tree guild didn’t kill me to design, though I do admit that drawing it out neatly took a bit of time.

If you don’t have the money to buy plants, propagate your own from seed and cuttings. Don’t worry about getting everything together at once, just start from where you are and start popping things in. I’ve always got plenty of herbs, berries and other cool things getting started in pots… just take cuttings now and again, pop seeds here and there, and pretty soon you’ll have lots of plants for your fruit tree guilds. Even the fruit trees themselves can be started from seed if you don’t feel like paying and you have some time to wait.

Soon I’ll show you one I designed to fight citrus greening… but until then, get reading, check out all the species listed in the back of Create Your Own Florida Food Forest, doodle some of your own guilds and most of all – go plant some fruit trees!

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