Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Apple Guild Is Coming Up...Sweet Potatoes

     This is the starting photo for my poor, neglected apple orchard. Pretty pathetic. It looked even worse before we pruned the overgrown trees back really drastically in March.

     The few plants I’ve added at this point are hardly noticeable. I tossed in lots of lemon balm to fill some of the empty space. Why lemon balm? Because it was available. Then I added some rhubarb. Bought some hardy kiwi. It’s in there somewhere but needs a fence or trellis to grow on. I discovered some strawberry plants that escaped from my mother-in-law’s garden decades ago and have been hiding in the trees next to the family vegetable garden. I’m curious to see how they’ll do in the guild. Then I stood back and tried to figure out what to do next.
     What I saw was a big, empty canvas to work on. Oddly, I found myself framing the canvas before focusing on the interior. I planted the north edge (left in the photo) with a border of daffodils. The south side has a lot of chives and a few comfrey on the orchard side of a pathway which follows what I expect to be the drip line. On the other side of the path, between the expected drip line and the open field, is a wide planting of day lilies.
     The paths make it clear where it’s safe to walk, give structure to the project and make visualization easier. They also cut down on the area that needs to be planted. Whew!

                                                What Is An Apple Guild?

     As I understand the idea, a guild is a mini ecosystem. The plants support each other, each plant serving more than one purpose. Once established, the whole thing pretty much takes care of itself, a self-sustaining, ecologically friendly solution to managing an orchard. A guild can have any kind of tree as it's centerpiece.
     The challenge is getting the right mix of plants. To attract beneficial insects, some suggested plants are dill, fennel, and bee balm. To attract insect-eating birds, plant salvia nearby, but not directly under the trees. To bring up nutrients from deep in the soil, plant yarrow, chicory, plantain, dandelion, and burdock. I’ve already put in some yarrow. It forces nearby ailing plants to release something that helps them recover their vigor. For living mulch, use comfrey, artichoke, nasturtiums, rhubarb, and clovers. To fix nitrogen choose clovers, alfalfa, lupines, cowpeas, beans, peas, and vetch. Include large rocks or piles of smaller ones to encourage snakes and lizards, which help control rodents. Use spring bulbs, camas, garlic. chives, and comfrey at the drip line to suppress grass.
     Notice how many of the options are edible.
     I’m working on a limited budget, but I refuse to plant plantain, dandelion, or burdock! There are enough of those growing here already. Here’s what I have planted so far: asparagus, borage, daffodils, catnip, chives, comfrey, daisies, day lilies, dill, hardy kiwi, lemon balm, nasturtiums, rhubarb, strawberries, sweet potatoes, and yarrow. Some of these aren’t listed above, but they are what I have–except for the kiwi, which was purchased for the project.
     At first I found the prospect of planting such a large area to be daunting, but marking the pathways was tremendously helpful. I planted a lot of nasturtium seeds and am experimenting with sweet potatoes as a ground cover. It  looks like ivy! And is supposed to be easy to grow. I’ll talk more about that in another blog.

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