Converting an Apple Tree Orchard and Fruit Orchard to a self sustaining Food Forest

I have heard it said over the years, that one of the first things that a person should do after buying a property, if they are so inclined, is to plant fruit trees because establishing an apple tree orchard or fruit tree orchard takes time.  And over time, things may not go as planned.  Something may happen within the orchard to make you have to sit back, assess, adjust your plan and start over.  This is what happened to me. And that process has made me really think about what I want out of my orchards and to some extent, pivot my goals.  

Backstory on my orchard

When I moved here 30+ years ago, I knew that I wanted to take the advice I had heard of starting an orchard as soon as possible. So when I finally got things developed a few years later to the point that I was able to start my orchard in it's simplest of forms, I planted a couple apple varieties and a couple crabapple varieties.  And over time, I added some other fruit supplying plants to the small scale orchard.  As I explore in Establishing an Apple Tree Orchard and Planning an Orchard for a self sustaining future a number of factors occurred that ultimately ended in the demise of my initial apple tree orchard.

But that demise of the apple tree orchard, a blessing in some ways, gave me the opportunity to really sit back and assess what I wanted to have in the orchards and adjust my plans to including more apple trees, crabapple trees and other fruit trees.  It also gave me the opportunity to think about how I was using my yard site and whether I could develop things in a more efficient way that would generate a more self sustaining food supply, a food forest, if you will.  As I explored in Planting an Apple Tree Orchard and Fruit Tree Orchard with goal of a Self Sustaining Food Forest, in the spring of 2021 I put my new plan into action and implemented the orchard design I had toiled over in the months previous.Converting an apple tree orchard - orchard design

Next steps for the yard orchard

With the implementation of the orchard design I spent the summer watering in the trees and shrubs to ensure that they had the best possible start to establishing.  And through the summer it gave me the opportunity to really think through what my next steps with the orchards would be, if anything. What would things look like in a few years time?  I found myself thinking through questions like:

  1. Should I leave the apple tree orchard as is with other fruit trees scattered around the yard to make a yard orchard or should I incorporate more fruit trees?
  2. Should I underplant the trees and shrubs with ornamental and/or medicinal type flowers and herbs?
  3. Should I let the grass encroach onto the trees and shrubs?  
  4. Should I put a sprinkler system in to get the water to everything?
  5. Should I plant herbs and ornamental flowers within the dripline of the trees and shrubs or plant them outside the dripline?
  6. Should I haul in some more topsoil and/or compost?
  7. Do I cover the apple tree orchard and fruit orchards with landscape fabric?

But for that first summer, everything will stay as I planted them and as summer came to a close I continued to water the trees and shrubs to ensure they had moist soil going into the winter.  Although the Early Gold pear tree prematurely dropped all it's leaves, the berry bushes, cherry trees, plum trees, grapes, apple varieties and crabapple's looked good.  Going into winter and through the winter I felt encouraged that I had established myself an apple tree orchard and a fruit orchard, all included as a yard orchard.  Winter set in as it always does and so through the winter months it gave me the opportunity to delve into the questions I had been asking myself throughout the summer and fall.

As part of my garden plans I was thinking about through the winter months, I had been exploring various options to help me deal with the weeds and quack grass growing everywhere.  Although a weed is technically just a plant that grows where we don't want it and a surprising number of them are edible as I explored in Wild food foraging of edible wild greens for supper, the fact remains that when you are trying to produce a large amount of food in a garden space, having things be taken over by weeds is not a good thing.Converting an apple tree orchard - over run with weeds

And so it would also stand to reason that having a yard orchard being overrun by weeds and grasses would not be desirable and possibly counter productive.  Granted, all the fruit trees, once established have deep roots and are not necessarily affected by a carpet of weeds and grasses, but despite the competition for water they would create, it does not look the best and mowing is difficult under the trees and shrubs.

To compensate for the carpet of grass and weeds and ensure successful establishment and subsequent production from my yard orchard, I could certainly overhead water from my dugout as I explored in Rainwater collection - essential water for use on the homestead but the idea of supplying enough water to supply the trees and berry bushes was overwhelming at best.  But also, the resulting growth that would occur for the grass from the overhead watering would result in more mowing that would need to be done.  And, I don't need more mowing.  I could put in a drip line watering system to water the trees and berry bushes which would possibly slow down the overall grass and weed growth but the associated cost and maintenance for this type of system was less than appealing.

While doing the research for my gardens, I rekindled an interest in the world of Permaculture and ultimately ended up taking a short course with Homesteading Family called Permaculture for your homestead: A crash course.  And during this course I had a bit of an ah-ha moment when I realized that all the design principles I was working to apply to my gardens would apply to my apple tree orchard and fruit orchard, the entire yard orchard in fact.   In this course the importance of covering your soil was stressed, whether that be through cover crops or mulch, because covering the soil not only helps to build soil and control weeds, it helps to maintain soil moisture.  It seemed so simple, but yet how was I going to apply this to the larger scale of my yard orchard?

And again another ah-ha moment when I realized that one of the things I was looking at for parts of my gardens to satisfy my want for weed control and soil moisture retention would also apply to the yard orchard. Namely, wood mulch and the Back to Eden gardening method.  I could certainly put a commercially sold landscape fabric down or use my homemade woven weed fabric as i did in Woven Landscape Fabric - A Homemade Woven Weed Fabric DIY project but at the end of the day I would still be putting something like a wood mulch down to protect the landscape fabric or woven weed fabric.  So why not skip a step, save some money, save some effort and create soil at the same time.

Benefits of a Back to Eden yard orchard

The soil on my property is a very sandy loam and although the water table is quite high, the roots of plants and trees do have to make an effort to get into that moist soil and during the heat of the summer will visibly show their stress.  If I can keep enough water on the soil, it grows great but enough water can sometimes be a challenge.  So, if I can avoid having to water as much, that's perfect.  One of the best parts of doing the Back to Eden gardening method as Josh Thomas from Homesteading Family pointed out in Back to Eden Gardening with Paul Gautschi is that "The premise is a basic no-till gardening method where you layer on fresh woodchips every couple of years that slowly break down, feeding the plants, trees, and fruit with a perfect 7.0 pH balance." .  But also that "Back to Eden gardening method is mimicking nature, like that of the forest floor that gets covered in layers of leaves, decaying wood, pine needles, etc. If you dig down into the forest floor you’ll find rich soil that’s just bursting with life.".  It seemed like a huge win to me so in spring of 2022 I established my first Back to Eden bed in the flower bed on the north side of my garden with Achieving a Permaculture Design Principle with the Back to Eden Gardening method which encompassed the two Crimson Passion cherry trees in the fruit orchard of the yard orchard.Converting an Apple tree orchard - cherry trees in back to eden garden

Although the Back to Eden gardening method addresses an important Permaculture Design Principle of covering the soil, it also affords me another benefit that other methods of covering the soil do not.  By covering the entire apple tree orchard and fruit orchard with wood mulch, it will allow me to stack functions where ever I want to.  By stacking functions it will allow the apple tree orchard and fruit orchard to not only produce fruit, but it would also allow me to integrate garden vegetables, plant other fruits or give me the perfect home for the medicinal herbs I had started over the winter as part of my journey with herbalism I explored in Home Remedies using Natural Medicines - a glimpse into my Apothecary and use of herbal remedies.

The bed I planted in the spring of 2022 and explored in Achieving a Permaculture Design Principle with the Back to Eden Gardening method is an example of how stacking functions can work with the fruit trees, medicinal herbs, ornamental flowers and beans growing harmoniously in one Back to Eden garden bed.  But also,  how it is important to use and value diversity and thereby it "reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides."Converting an apple tree orchard - stacking funtions

Although I have 80 acres of land on which I could plant any number of orchards, I fundamentally needed to keep everything close to the house for efficiency purposes.  If I can stack functions within the same area of my yard to increase that efficiency and perhaps save steps, improve and/or create soil and save myself time, to me it seemed like a huge win. For as it states in the seventh Permaculture Design Principle - Design from patterns to details,  "By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.".  And I can't help but feel that that is exactly what I am doing and have done with the new plan for converting an apple tree orchard and fruit orchard into a self sustaining food forest.  But first spring 2022 had to arrive. 

The pivot on creating a self sustaining food forest

And with the arrival of spring 2022, I got busy implementing the plans I had mapped out over the winter of 2021.  I established one Back to Eden bed as I mentioned earlier but also established another around my shed as I explored in Back to Eden Gardening, Homemade Woven Weed Fabric and other projects - An Update .  But because of the way the spring went, I found that by the end of June I had not gotten all my medicinal and culinary herbs planted out yet and so I decided to pivot my goals and not worry about converting the main apple tree orchard and fruit orchard into a food forest for this year.  I took all the starts and started planting them anywhere I could find a spot to put them in, including under the dripline of my apple varieties and fruit varieties.  Although I had decided that planting under the dripline would not be the best and was planning on not doing this, it will work for now.  After all, it worked well for this Brown-eyes Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) I planted under a Parkland apple in 2021.  I had to remind myself that although I had to pivot my goals for 2022, and it is not exactly as I had planned , I was still converting an apple tree orchard and fruit tree orchard into a self sustaining food forest, albeit on a smaller scale..Converting an apple tree orchard with brown-eyed susan

By not implementing the yard orchard plan as I initially planned it gave me the opportunity to assess what was happening and view the foundation for a self sustaining food forest that I had created thus far..

 Assessment of the yard orchard

When I took the time to assess the foundation I had created thus far what impressed me the most was that I never lost a single apple variety, berry bush, pear, plum or grape.  Even the Early Gold pear I was concerned about made it.  It never bloomed, but it survived and was looking good.Converting an apple orchard - early Gold

However, the Golden Spice pear did die back to about one foot above ground.  I thought about ripping it out, but then it sent out shoots from the woody material above the graft union.  Being that the root stock survived the winter and the shoots started growing above the graft union means that the root stock is established and that the resulting shoots will be true to form for the Golden Spice pear.  Although it will take longer for the shoots to get to a productive size, having the root stock established is half the battle.   I gave Boughen Nurseries Ltd. a call to talk to them about this, and they agreed with me.  Being that both pear varieties are self pollinating means that this pear is not required for the other to set fruit.  I will make a decision probably next year on which shoot to allow to grow.Converting an Apple tree orchard - Golden spice pear

The Gemini apple did well, but it did not bloom.  I suspect that it had something to do with the little bit of sunscald it had.  But none the less, it seemed to recover and looked healthy.  As the article Sunscald on Trees published by the University of Arkansas explains, sunscald is caused by the " Death of cells in the bark is caused by rapid fluctuations in temperature.  Research suggests that during the winter, frozen tissue on the south or southwest side of the trunk which is also being heated by the sun, thaws and then rapidly refreezes."Converting an apple tree orchard - Gemini Apple

However, the sunscald on the Parkland apple was quite a bit more severe and I thought for certain it would die during the summer.  The bark looked rough and was separating from the main stem right above the branch.  It has made the summer thus far and hopefully it recovered enough to make another winter.Converting an apple tree orchard - sunscald on Parkland apple

As suggested in the article What Is Sunscald: Learn About Sunscald On Plants, "Some old-time fruit growers used to paint the trunks of young trees with white paint to protect them. This method works, but you’ll end up with an unattractive tree with an odd white trunk, which won’t fit in with many landscaping designs.".  Being that it is more important to me to protect the trees, I will be getting some white paint and painting the south and southwest sides of the stems.

But in the meantime, although the leaves on the branches above the sunscald location were a bit smaller, the number of flowers was amazing.  And equally amazing was the number of apples that formed despite the damage.  So much so that the weight of them was bending over the branches and so I went through and thinned them down to just a few apples to prevent breakage and give the trees more energy for root development and repair.Converting an apple tree orchard - Parkland apple

There are many thoughts on whether a person should let fruit trees set fruit the first year after planting.  As stated in the article Planting Bare-Rooted Fruit Trees, "don’t forget to remove all blossom from the tree in the first year. Although it’s tempting to let some fruit develop, doing so will again place more stress on the tree as it establishes and forgoing the first year’s fruit will result in a much healthier tree and better harvest in years to come.".  Although I picked the blooms off in the spring of 2021 when they were planted, I was thinking I would pick them all off in 2022 as well.  However, when I seen the number of apples that were set, I decided that because this recommendation was for younger trees than mine, I would let a few of the apples mature. But to prevent breakage and encourage more root growth, I took off all but a few of the apples, therefore resulting in a few apples for me to try. 

The Heyer 12  apple wintered well and produced some nice tasting fruit.Converting an apple tree orchard - Heyer 12 apple

But being Heyer 12 matures early, I picked off the few yellowish skinned apples early to ensure that they did not drop off the tree and rot. Quite the contrast with Parkland apples.  But both are good eating.Converting an apple tree orchard - Heyer 12 apples

And the Norland apple is looking really good and produced some very nice, crisp, great tasting apples.Converting an apple tree orchard - Norland apple

The Rescue crabapple, nestled in beside the old hay rake from the initial orchard is doing very well and produced a few nice tasting crabapples.  Even the medicinal herb, Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) planted under the dripline likes it's location.Converting an apple tree orchard - Rescue crab

But I have to say that the most impressive was the Kerr crabapple that was left over from the initial apple tree orchard.  For the first time since it's cross pollination partner was taken out by a plow wind many years ago do I have so many apples on it.  I guess my attention to bloom times paid off.  I am thinking it has some severe sunscald issues, but I am hoping I can deal with it.Converting an apple tree orchard - kerr crabapple

Despite the grass intensity, the Nanking Cherry continues to thrive.  It did not bloom this year, but it put on some great growth.Converting an apple tree orchard - Nanking Cherry

Despite the fact that it did not bloom, seeing how well the Crimson Passion did in the new Back to Eden Garden bed I made during my exploration of Achieving a Permaculture Design Principle with the Back to Eden Gardening method confirms in my mind that I am on the right track with my plans of converting an apple tree orchard and removing all the grass and weeds.Converting an apple tree orchard - Crimson Passion cherry

Equally liking the new Back to Eden bed is the Valiant Grape.  It did not bloom this year, but all of the greenery is new this year.  I will have to get a trellis built for it very soon.Converting an apple tree orchard - valiant grape

And although the Beta Grape was somewhat damaged in 2021 by the mole that thought it's root system was a good home, it came back and is doing okay. Even the self seeded beans on the right side of the picture are looking good which certainly helps confirm my thoughts I am on the right track to establishing a food forest.converting an apple tree orchard - beta grape

And that food forest can include medicinal herbs such as this mullein (Verbascum thapsus) which grew fantastically under the Brook Gold plum which also looks good.Converting an apple tree orchard - Brook Gold plum

The Brook Red plum is also looking good and shows promise of blooming another year.Converting an apple tree orchard - brook red plum

Despite the success of the other apple varieties and fruit varieties, I did have one learning opportunity.  The raspberry canes I planted failed to com back save for a couple.  I am not sure if it was lack of water, weed competition, competition from the surrounding hardwood trees or a combination of all the factors.  As I have had trouble establishing a raspberry patch in this location, I am making plans to expand the garden and move the raspberries to the west edge of the garden.  Won't be this year that's for sure.  For this year, I think adding some mulch to the row will help and will be heeling in all the plants that did not find homes this year to fill in the voids in the patch.Converting an apple tree orchard - raspberries

The food forest completion

The fact remains that things did not go as planned this year with converting an apple tree orchard and fruit orchard into a self sustaining food forest.  But that's okay. I may have to adjust the implementation of the plan, but I don't have to adjust the goal. 

For now, I am seeing confirming glimpses of what it will look like when it is done.  And overall, I am very happy with how things are starting out.  Sure I have a few issues with some of the apple varieties and fruit varieties but I will deal with those as they arise. In the meantime, I view the whole process as a learning opportunity into my personal self, the natural systems that are developing and the plan as I currently have it set. 

In the meantime, I will wait for spring and take the slower winter months to think about what I observed this growing season and creatively use and respond to change, another of the Permaculture Design Principles,  by adjusting the plan, if necessary, for converting an apple tree orchard and fruit orchard to a self sustaining food forest.

If you enjoy this content, please consider joining the My Boreal Homestead Life community.  By supplying your email address at the bottom of the page and hitting "sign up" or by clicking Join, you will ensure you get an email notification when I post new blogs to the My Boreal Homestead Life site. 

Thank you for joining me on the front porch of My Boreal Homestead Life as we explore this Homegrown, Homestead life, In a modern world.


Additional Resources:

Converting an apple tree orchard - Pinterest link





Leave a comment