“Soooo, what have you been up to, you crazy little gardener?”
Well. Actually, I’ve been very, very busy.
Busy, busy, busy.
Mainly, because I don’t know how not to be. I fill my free time with projects and experiments. Once I get these ideas for new projects, I get a bee in my bonnet until I can work it out in reality.
I am a person who thinks in webs. My thoughts are so far from linear it isn’t even funny. I literally cannot follow directions. Me following a straight line is like me trying to read a phone book for pleasure. Not happening.
So, there’s exposure to ideas and my brain naturally kinda mashes those things into a mess, I chew on it for a few days and new ideas start spewing out like lines from those old 80’s impact dot matrix printers with the continuous, pin fed paper. Loudly and ingloriously chunking along, printing out my new understanding of life. Sometimes my ideas work. Actually, almost always they work, because I am also a huge researcher. (And, that one detail is why the net or web in my head works at all. Also: thank God for the internet because before, it was multiple trips to the card catalog at the library and rows and rows of books which was a pain.) But: sometimes my experiments do fail, which still feeds my stored knowledge for the next experiment. So, no failure, no matter the magnitude, is a waste of time.
My best friend from childhood used to say that I was “the queen of the segue”, because in my head everything is connected. This usually works out OK, just don’t ask me to do math. No kidding. No math. Not even counting back change. I also won’t remember your name. It’s not purposeful and it’s embarrassing. But, I get hyperconnectivity as a consolation prize. Most of the time I’m lost in my thoughts and that reinforces my introversion. Plants and animals (and a very few people) are my best friends.
Outside of my issues with my thought process: I have a lot of previous experience over the last couple of decades or so, in newer gardening ideas. I have dabbled in things like: lasagna, food forest, no dig, double digging, keyhole, worm tower, hugelkulter, permaculture, guilds and I’m essentially a short cut creator because of my exposure to Ruth Stout. (BTW if you’re new: this is mostly a gardening blog.) I’ve seen people deep mulch their entire property. I’ve seen people put rock across their whole yards and then wonder why it’s so hard to keep weeds out. I’ve seen my (ex)sister in law dig tiny little divots up against her house and stick trees in them. I’ve seen people over-plant and say it’s a “forest” but, in true forests, there are losers and winners, which these particular gardeners don’t seem to grasp. And then there’s the fact that plants are expensive and gardeners only have so much money to throw at experiments. In my case, I have almost no money for this, so I have had to be creative.
I thought I was done with my yard. It was planted. I was mostly happy with it. The plants were spaced well. I was ready to finally back off fruits and move on to flowers for pollinators. I’ve been adding and removing plants and building raised hugelkulter, vegetable beds down here, on my quarter acre south Texas lot, for about 12 years now. I saved cardboard boxes over the last year and started building a giant lasagna bed this spring. The last decade or so has been hard, but rewarding, work. Everything I’ve planted (that I’ve kept) is fruiting heavily and my life seemed blissful.
So, then, earlier this year: I saw a call go out for expert regional home fruit growers, from one of my favorite online nurseries (Raintreenursery.com) and I applied. Out of 300 applicants I was chosen to represent Texas. This has been a really great experience, however they paid me in plants.
Now, I’m a gardener, and a gardener who focuses on fruits no less.
So, I’m gonna be 1000 percent onboard if someone is offering me free fruiting plants. $80 tree? Heck yeah! Send me three or four, or you know, wayyy more. Even though my yard is fully planted.
Hmmm. Is there a problem here? Nahh. I’m sure it’s just those distracting squirrels.
So. As these plants start arriving (At this time I also freely purchased [of my own will] some trees from another company. I may have dementia. I don’t know where my head was with this.) I’m realizing that I need to get these in what I had planned on putting them in.
I had been watching Gardening with Leon and he is the gardening love of my life.
He is so much like my late grandfather. Leon is from Oklahoma, my family is from central Kansas. Only people from that area and age group say “sody pop”. So much fun to watch him. Anyway, he does wicking tubs. I love cinder blocks. I was going to marry his plastic wicking tubs with my cinder blocks and make permanent fruit tree wicking tubs. Yay! I’m so freaking smart! Go web brain!
This was all working out until I got to accumulating the cinder blocks. I don’t know if you guys know this, but I’m 50 years old. Stuff just doesn’t work the same as it used to. One of those things being my back. This project was going to require more cinder blocks than I could possibly move without a hernia and a slipped disk. Had I been 20. Or even 30. This would have been fine. I’m not 20, or 30. Or anywhere close to those ages. So all of the sudden my brilliant idea was a screaming disaster, and I was frantically trying to figure a work around or a completely new idea.
“But, crazy gardening girl, why not just put the trees in the ground where you were going to put the giant wicking pots?”
Because there’s an evil oak tree that sucks up all the water, over on that side of my yard, and it kills EVERYTHING! It was the reason I came up with the wicking idea in the first place!
And…(quietly, and slightly crazily, whispers:) it’s where the squirrel family lives.
Suddenly and loudly… definitively: “They have distracted me long enough!”
“OK. Well why not build the wicking tubs out of something lighter and thinner?” I don’t have time or the cash to back out now. (I am starting to feel like I’m in an I love Lucy episode.)
Argg! This was a disaster!
I considered grafting. I’m not especially experienced with grafting. Plus, that is a fall/spring thing, not a last minute, do it all now thing. I thought of two dimensional espalier but I have so much going on already and I hate fiddly things. I considered killing some of my less favorite fruit off and moving starts elsewhere. I still had enough cinder blocks to do a couple of wicking pots or maybe something else. But I have a mess load of new trees to deal with (I am of the opinion that pruning creates small trees, not rootstock. There’s some information backing that idea up, here: https://www.sfgate.com/homeandgarden/article/Intensive-effort-creates-orchard-in-any-backyard-2825658.php )
The main issue I have IS actually squirrels, and not just pictures of them. They sit up in my trees, take a bite out of a fruit and then throw that fruit at my dog and laugh. Evil, fluffy tailed, tree rats. Hundreds of pears lost over the ripening season. Last year I got zero pears out of hundreds. Hundreds of pears! So I want lower trees that I can walk around, and net.
I have horrible native soil. Nothing will live in it without ammending it. I literally had to use a mattock to dig the trench I’m now working with. Maybe I’ll rent a jackhammer next time. Or light some TNT. I hate this “gumbo”, potter’s clay, limestone fragment, horrible, garbage soil I have! I am so sore I want to cry, but this ammendment is going to make me happy for a very long time.
Anyway, I was realizing, as I went, that my initial choices were slowly working out to be not so perfect ideas. I was going through anything I could think up, to try and find a solution. Now, remember. These trees I’m working with were (mostly) free or I wouldn’t have tried what I’ve come up with. I am MOSTLY confident that this will work. And as per my usual: I am not working linearly. I am doing things out of order, because: I realized just how wrecked this project was after I had already started work on my yard for the year.
I initially planted two trees at either end of where I eventually dug the trench. Originally, I was going to keep the pollinator trees in pots and take scion wood from them in the fall and graft them onto the other variety next spring, so that I had a two variety tree. This is where the slow chugging of my impact printer brain created problems. I realized after planting these two trees that I had essentially made a small, skimpy, hugelkulter under them.
Steps up to imaginary podium, proudly addressing millions of adoring and interested brain cells… From this day forward: I am dedicating my new trees to a hugelkulter, high density planting experiment! Mic drop.
Whhhaaaahhhh! The crowd goes wild!
Bright undulating spot lights and glitter confetti canons everywhere. Someone is shooting off bottle rockets from the orchestra pit. (Zip, zip, pow!) We’re getting down to “Celebration”, by Kool & The Gang. Everyone is doing the “Walk Like An Egyptian” dance. Twirling ribbons and some Stevie Nicks scarf waving:
Web brain explosive majesty!
Yep, sometimes it’s just that good!
I’m telling you, being an introvert rocks. We have full on explosive brain parties on the regular! Extroverts: You are totally missing out with your running about, all over the place, conversing with random and potentially boring people. Y’all have to go find someone to entertain you. What if you strike out? I’d hate that! Plus, I’m too lazy to constantly try to find someone who would appreciate this awesome humor. I’m a weirdo. Weirdos are like puzzle pieces from another puzzle box. We don’t fit this picture! So, have an indoor, like really indoor, party! Can’t be beat!
Anyway, I came up with this final idea after doing some research. Per my usual. The cherry I put in, in particular, was going to have problems with: my slow draining soil and cherry’s tendency towards root rot. When I am ready to put the other two trees in, I will carefully lift the ones already in the ground, gently spray off the soil from the roots with a garden hose and build the trench up underneath them and resituate them. Then I plan on cutting everything off evenly at knee height for a low canopy and go from there. Eventually the trench will have 4 trees in it. Two low chill cherries and two low chill apples.
Am I afraid that the hugelkulter part of this trench will settle and the trees will shift? No. I didn’t build a giant one and I have t-posts that I’ll stabilize the trees with wire and garden hose. This isn’t the kind of hugelkulter you see on farms that are created with tractors that are 40×12 feet. I did this by hand with the help of a wagon cart (Plus, I couldn’t dig anything that big without explosives, and Lowe’s was fresh out of C-4.) This is enough to regulate pH, moisture and fertility. And like your high-school chemistry class instructor hammered into you: all changes in matter (including fire and decomposition) are simply chemical reactions. I am building the fuel for the trees to burn over their life spans. The soil they are planted in will never be like the surrounding soil and if I break up the sides of the trench at a 90° angle with a potato fork for a couple of years the trees will not get root bound. As far as having nitrogen issues with decomposing logs, leaves and straw? Hugelkulter has several layers to it and one of those layers is a nitrogen layer. I used composted manure in mine.
I am following spacing and cutting the bare root tree height exactly as the nursery below recommends. This idea goes against everything I know as a gardener, but this is also the simplest solution that I’ve seen to my problem and solves all of my future squirrel/insect issues. So. Too many, mostly free plants? Yeah. New techniques (untried by me before), are now on the table.
People other than me have tried each of the pieces that I’m using but, of course, nobody but me has put everything together like this before (at least, that I know of). This is truly the biggest experiment (as far as cost/risk) I’ve run in my yard and I’m both excited and in some serious dread at the possibility of outcomes. So, this is what I’m doing in total:
1. I had a part of my yard that had been taken over by a pomegranate thicket and I’m killing the mother plant (it froze back to the roots last winter) and I’m moving some starts around to a less annoying area. I also had an incense bush for the bees. I am crazy allergic to the pollen. So, since it also froze back to the roots: I’m just going to kill it. The two removals open up a large area of my yard, but not enough for what is now here, in big pots, thinking it’s planted permanently. (I happen to know, from a lot of experience, that it is really hard to keep a fruit tree/bush happy in a pot in our heat. I can do it, but it requires a timed drip line and then it’s still not a permanent solution.)
2. I have an area that I am building a single permanent cinder block wicking pot (a la Leon. “Hello, fellow gardeners” I just really love Leon!) for a peach tree. I had a beautiful peach tree that was really flourishing that I had to cut down several years ago because it wasn’t getting enough chill hours. (If you don’t have to deal with chill hours, count yourself lucky. However, my spring corn planting date starts in late February. So there are plusses to living in the south.) The peach was in a raised bed. (This is how I know fruit trees do well for me in raised beds.) The wicking pot is my attempt at water regulation, because: I am on city water and there are a couple of parts of my property that are consistently too dry to support a tree.
3. I found these two videos from Dave Wilson Nursery on high density fruit tree planting:
This one shows you what you end up with, with this type of planting/pruning technique: https://youtu.be/lo3_u08CwdY
This one shows you how to actually start this bed by explaining how to space and prune bare root, high density fruit beds: https://youtu.be/W0WM0HFduXI
Here’s what I did, in pictures:
I am creating a raised bed, cinder block lined trench, underlain with hugelkulter. This is the first real (instead of my own interpretation) hugelkulter I’ve built and it was so freaking much work I may never build another one, mainly owing to the digging. (I’m not getting any younger.)
This trench does not drain well and the native soil has super high pH. The pear tree I have in native soil is constantly chlorotic and I have to drill it and place iron implants in the holes every two years to keep it alive. I do not want to do that with the rest of these trees. So, this is why I’m spending so much time working on the soil, trench and the raised hugelkulter bed part.
So. Starting out: I dug a 11 foot by two foot trench. At the bottom of it I added pelleted Sulphur (to bring down the pH, at the soil level.) and gypsum which is a soil conditioner and also does some pH work. Some people hate gypsum, some people (like me) love it. I think it has to do with the soil God deals you. Everywhere I’ve lived with heavy clay: gypsum has been an answer to prayers for better soil. I usually use a potato fork, to loosen the area across a bed that I am ammending, add gypsum and water it in. Sometimes I’ll turn it in, sometimes I’ll just say that it’s good enough. Then I cover it and leave it alone for a year. When I come back it’s completely different soil. If you have clay, try it and see if it helps your situation. It may not. But if it does, it will work wonders.
Since I had not planned on planting this area with trees, I had just finished a rather large new lasagna bed there that started with cardboard.
You can’t dig through uncomposted cardboard. And ammending underneath the lasagna bed with gypsum was something I was kicking myself for skipping, later. In the end, I had to pull a lot of this back by hand to get down to where I could dig. (This is the out-of-order, nonlinear drawback to my sticky, weird, spidey, web brain.) I laid cinder block down along the trench, around this time too, so my hugelkulter could be taller and narrower than it could have been without the cinder block support. So many little points that I wish I’d come up with at the beginning, instead of in the middle. But. I got there.
Then I laid the logs. These are logs from my oak and peach tree that I cut several years ago that have been sitting around working on decomposition. If you don’t have anything on your property to use, you could try firewood that has not yet been cured or kiln dried. Make sure if you buy from an arborist, firewood supplier, a forestry management company or your city that what you are getting is not diseased.
Next, I stuffed all the crevices with spoiled straw. If you leave the areas between the logs open and just keep building you will have large air pockets and your bed will dry out too fast in the first few years. I recently bought a wood chipper but it’s been super rainy this year and I just haven’t had time to use it. It was also a feel like 90 degrees week and I didn’t know it was going to cool off into the 50s later. This has been such a weird spring. I’ll probably mulch the top of the bed with my pile of chipped branches. I did not add branches to the hugelkulter. That would have left too many air pockets. Unless I stood there and cut everything back to straight branches (which is too much work) it would not have served my project well.
I dumped a bunch of oak leaves over the top of that.
Next: I added two bags of Koww brand composted manure to take care of the nitrogen draw that the decomposing wood is going to create.
Then I took two bags of garden compost/soil, Gypsum, Sulphur pellets and native soil and mixed it in my large garden cart with a hoe. I dumped that on the accumulating pile.
The next step is adding garden soil/compost. I will be compacting as I go by walking over it and then I’ll get my trees in. You want some compaction to keep your trees stable.
I’ll cut the trees to knee height (per the instructions from the above videos) so that my canopy can be maintained at a height I can reach from the ground (and tent with a net that is both bug and squirrel resistant). Then I’ll mulch it and keep it all watered. Then… Cross my fingers and wait. Might be a bumpy ride in the beginning, but I’m pretty confident, in the end: I’m going to love this.
I’ll keep you posted on my progress.
So. As this panicky project is winding down I’ll move on to project number two and show you my permanent cinder block wicking pot instructions. Again. Something I’ve never seen anyone else do. Should be fun! Just need to learn how to…
…Stop getting distracted.
7 thoughts on “Hugelkulter High Density Fruit Tree Bed (Or Heather’s Humor Odyssey)”
Oh my! They are already foliated. They do not seem to mind though. I ‘just’ finished pruning apple trees that were ‘about’ to bloom. I know better than that, but I could not get here earlier. Technically, I ‘sort of’ finished in time. Anyway, although I prefer the old fashioned way of growing fruit trees, it seems to me that your technique sort of necessitates proper maintenance. I mean that you can not allow the trees to get overgrown with such an intensive technique within such limited space.
This was panic fixing from improper planning. Luckily I have low temperatures for our time of year right now. Hopefully it gets around the squirrels. I may hate this. I certainly wouldn’t have come up with this idea on my own. But it seemed to work for the nursery that recommends this planting technique. It’s always an experiment in my backyard. We’ll see how this one goes! Thanks for coming by! I always appreciate your comments.
The intensity of this technique is comparable to ‘summer pruning’, except that it is more compliant with the natural dormancy of the trees involved. I disliked ‘summer pruning’ when it became a fad years ago because it is so abusive to the trees. It is effective though, particularly for those who want to grow fruit trees in confined spaces.
Yes. I’ve heard of summer pruning. I also dislike forcing my plants into doing unnatural things for short term gains. Like when people go around committing “crepe murder” cutting crepe myrtles back to stumps to force more new growth and flowers in the spring. However, I am at a juncture where I will have to start doing something more aggressive with our squirrels if I want any fruit and I am still trying to avoid that. This is my current attempt at a compromise. I need a couple of outdoor cats. That would help. But spacing everything out and letting it get to it’s full size just made it a squirrel circus in my backyard. I guess we’ll see. It’s frustrating and my mismanagement of plant orders may have forced me into a compromise I can appreciate and live with.
Around some of the old orchards of the Santa Clara Valley, sporadic mulberry trees provided mulberries as a distraction from the important fruit within the orchards. Birds preferred the mulberries. Cultivars were selected to produce fruit at the same time as the trees within the orchard. It would be nice if this technique could work for squirrels.
I have a mulberry. Unfortunately I enjoy it’s fruit too! It’s an ever bearing one though. So I bet if I pull the netting when I want different fruit that would work. I use my fig tree in much the same way.
Oh, I do not intend to recommend the technique. I just mention it as an example of an interesting means by which to protect fruit. In the formerly vast orchards, there was too much fruit for the wildlife to eat, so even without protection, there would have been major abundance. If I were to grow mulberries, I would not want to share with birds.