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- Orchard Companions
Companion plants encourage natural processes that benefit the overall health and vitality of fruit trees. This means less work lugging around sprayers, buying fertilizer, spreading compost and worrying about pollination. These plants help us do the work and they do it well. Five important roles companion plants can play in the orchard:
- Living Mulches produce large quantities of organic matter that can be cut back to decompose around tree bases, enriching the soil.
- Dynamic Accumulators have long taproots that bring up minerals from deep subsoil. Cut foliage throughout the season to break down around trees, creating dark nutrient-dense soil.
- Nitrogen-Fixers transform nitrogen from the air to the soil where it can be absorbed by tree roots.
- Beneficial Insect Accumulators contain nectar sought by predatory insects (aka beneficial insects, including braconid wasps, syrphid flies and lacewings) that feed on fruit-tree pests. BIAs also attract orchard pollinators.
- Pest Confusers have bitter aromas that deter and confuse insect pests from eating fruit.
Orchard Companions for Neatniks
Most of us know someone with a passion for bushhogs, lawn mowers and weed whackers. You know, the gearhead gardeners who just can’t resist gas-powered grooming methods. The idea of letting a patch of comfrey, or even worse, a stand of tansy, grow in the middle of the orchard is unfathomable to the neatniks of the gardening world.
As a typical “wild gardener” I prefer to plant something someplace and if I don’t like the results, I simply dig it up and set it somewhere else. Gearheads are emotionally challenged by such planting methods and in their efforts to keep the landscape neat and tidy, often mistake intentional plantings for weeds run amok. The moment I hear the high-pitched buzz of the weed whacker I drop what I’m doing and race towards the sound to make sure that my newly planted bee balm isn’t a casualty in the war against weeds. If this sounds at all familiar, you might be thinking that planting orchard companions is a little too challenging for you and your whack-happy family and friends. Au contraire! You can create a beautiful dynamic ecosystem for the orchard using plants meant to be cut down regularly. Even the most addicted zero-turn mower driver will be satisfied.
Here are a few planting suggestions that allow for the best of both worlds.
At the base of the tree: Plant low-growing spreading groundcovers. Choose varieties tough enough to fend off impending grasses and withstand the heavy foot traffic required to care for and harvest from your trees. For young trees, choose sun-loving plants like arnica, creeping thyme, chives and lemon balm. For beneath mature tree canopies, choose shade-tolerant plants like wild geranium, lady’s mantle and wood betony. All these plants will spread fairly quickly if you let them go to seed the first few growing seasons—eventually they’ll form an easy-to-mow ring around the tree.
On the edge or in the center of the orchard: Prepare soil beds along the edge of your orchard or large circular beds between rows of trees. The goal is for these plants to multiply, offering their rich nectar to the pollinators and giving nutrients back to the soil, so plant each variety with plenty of room for it to sprawl.
When to cut the living mulches? Cut the plants down to the ground immediately after the flowers look their best. Spread the plant material around trees, shrubs and in garden paths to mulch and feed the soil. Cutting plants right after the first bloom often allows time for a repeat bloom.
A glimpse at my 2015 Orchard Companion field notes:
- April 26: Used mattock to cultivate 3 planting beds along the treeline. Left a 5' mowing path on either side of beds. Seeded Dutch white clover between beds. Planted tansy in the middle bed and Monarda in the other two beds.
- May 10: Prepped 3 more soil beds along the orchard edge. Seeded Dutch white clover between beds. Planted boneset, Monarda and yarrow.
- May 12: Prepped soil under 3 young fruit trees. Worked up a 10' circle around the base of each tree. Planted creeping thyme, chives and lemon balm 2' away from the base of each tree.
- June 10: Comfrey blossoms at peak bloom. Tons of bees! Wait to cut.
- June 14: Comfrey flowers nearly spent. Cut foliage & used to mulch around the young lemon balms under cherry tree.
- July 15: Comfrey 4' tall again! Cut & used as mulch.
- July 20: Yarrow at peak bloom. Bees and bugs everywhere! Wait to cut.
- July 17: Lovage at peak bloom. Time to make lovage syrup!
- July 25: Monarda and yarrow flowers nearly done. Cut & used as mulch around the young creeping thyme under apple trees.
- July 26: Boneset and tansy flowers at their peak. Buzzing with life—starting to see syrphid flies! Let it stand to attract more beneficial insects.
Espalier [eh-spal-yer, -yey] refers to trees trained to grow on a two-dimensional plane, also the practice of this technique. It’s a form of art using live plants to optimize their qualities in a relatively small space. On a flat plane, all parts of the tree are exposed to the sun, which enhances fruit and blossom production. Bending and pruning allows you to direct the plant’s energy where you want it. Espalier forms can range from large-scale informal patterns to diminutive highly stylized designs. Thought to date back to the age of the Egyptian pharaohs, espalier became popular with the Romans and medieval fortress and monastery dwellers who found that the warmth from the stone walls created a microclimate, which allowed them to grow fruits that were otherwise too tender for their region. Espaliers were not uncommon in early American gardens. The method continues in Europe today.
We don’t see much of this Old World gardening fashion in the States. But if you poke around a bit, you might find a hidden delight where you least expect it. In downtown Belfast, ME, in back of the Consumers Fuel building is an apple tree gracefully sprawled out against the southeast-facing red brick wall. You would never know it is there unless you happen to drive down the unfrequented side street and turn your head at just the right moment. I’ve been driving past this tree for years. Often, I’ll pull in behind the building and stare at it awhile, studying its lines and letting the wonderful feeling I get from looking at its elegant form quietly sink into my bones. In every season, it’s a beaut: In spring, it’s a wall of blossoms; in summer, it’s covered with lush green foliage and clusters and clusters of fruit. Wintertime might be my favorite, when the dark grey branches look like veins sculpted against the masonry. Recently, I decided to knock on the door and find out how it got there, and how it stays there.
John Holmes is the steward of this lovely tree. He’s been caring for it since the ’80s. Every few years, he looks at the new growth, selects the branches he wants to keep, pins them down to the mortar, and prunes away the rest. Pruning happens whenever there is a mechanized man lift on site—this is a full-sized standard tree with branches that want to reach up over the top of the two-story building!
And how did the tree get there? This tree is a chance seedling—a wild volunteer—that sprouted next to the old foundation window. Mr. Holmes began tending the tree when it was young, inspired by a wall of espaliered trees he saw in France. The tree has responded well to the loving care he has provided. The foliage is green and profuse and it produces large quantities of smallish not-too-unpalatable apples. It’s an amazing combination of art and function. When I commented on the rarity of espaliered trees like this one in our country, Mr. Holmes responded, “Many people want instant gratification these days, and these things take time.”
Thinking about trying this at home? Consider the points below, do some further research, and then go for it. You’ll want a detailed handbook to guide you through the steps. (See Additional Resources below.)
Why espalier? To make good use of vertical space when you have limited room to expand, to create a privacy screen, divide areas of your yard, or because you love the way it looks.
What kind of plants can I use? Tree fruits like apple, pear, peach, apricot and plum; ornamentals like flowering quince, roses, forsythia. Across the south of France, it seems like every little stone train station has espaliered roses growing against the wall. Experiment and see what works for you.
Does rootstock matter? Espalier forces the branches of the tree to grow horizontally. This directs the energy into creating fruit-bearing spurs. Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees accept this treatment a little better; they don’t want to grow over the top of the building. It’s hard to keep standard-sized trees small and because they want to grow tall, they do better as larger structured espaliers, like the one in Belfast. However, we have friends who are getting fruit on low-growing standard trees. It’s possible, but your yields may be smaller.
Are certain apple varieties better than others? Most of our apple varieties will work in espalier. Some sources claim you need spur-bearing types rather than tip-bearing. Don’t worry about this. Most apples are spur-bearing. You may want to think about whether the tree is an annual or a biennial bearer. If you have limited space, you may want a tree that fruits every year.
Supporting the espalier: If you don’t live in a stone castle or have a brick wall, you’ll need to create a support system for your espalier trees. This can still be against a building but with a trellis that keeps the plant away from the wall, to allow for airflow and prevent problems like rotting of your wood shingles. You will need wood or metal supports and sturdy wire, whether you leave the support in place permanently or remove it after the trees have matured, creating a freestanding fence. We built a wooden trellis on the south wall of our wood-shingled cottage for grapevines, which provide great window shade in summer. Keep in mind that certain vining plants, like grapes, can be a nuisance to shingles or to mortar in brick walls.
How difficult is espalier? Simple informal patterns will be easier to manage than complicated ones. Slow-growing plants might be preferable while fast-growing types will keep you on your toes. Early training of the plant is critical and most intensive in the first 3–6 years. After that, it’s about maintenance. Pruning will become an extended-season activity, not just a once-a-year duty. However, in cool climes, you still want to avoid late-summer pruning. Planting instructions and care are per usual, as outlined in the beginning of the catalog.
Additional Resources These books provide easy-to-follow instructions and all the details you need to get started on your espalier: Hedges, Screens and Espaliers by Susan Chamberlain, and Living Fences: A Gardener’s Guide to Hedges, Vines & Espaliers by Ogden Tanner. Of course, there are endless resources online with photos to inspire you. Check out Lee Reich’s 1999 Arnoldia article “Fruiting Espaliers: A Fusion of Art and Science” (vol. 59, no.1).
- In Admiration of Old Trees
A single mature tree often lends feeling to a place, and when in just the right spot, it’s hard to imagine the scene without the tree there. I often get overly excited thinking about all the different kinds of trees I would like to plant and where they will all go. From nuts and apricots to Katsura and oak. But then I notice how one giant beautiful tree can be just right. Not crowded by other trees, just planted in the perfect spot where it has plenty of open space to stand up to its fullest potential. Sometimes these grand trees were planted by forward-thinking persons, but often I think they just got there on their own. I think of all the different things that have happened around the tree since it was young, and how over the past few hundred years it has seen more changes than I ever will in my lifetime. Lately I’ve been admiring the stand of old Eastern White Pines that grow straight and high above the house, giving a feeling of security and comfort whether it’s freezing and blowing at –10° or a hot and humid 95°. On a trip to Japan last year I got to see the oldest trees I’ve ever laid eyes on, including a 700-year-old cedar and an ancient ginkgo well over 3' in diameter. Although there was nice understory and other shrubs and plants around, the big trees were planted in such a way that they could be admired without interference for many generations to come. Something to think about while out planting tiny little trees.
- Plant Exploring on the Allagash River
Whenever I dip my paddle into the Allagash River of northern Maine, I get excited to think about revisiting some of my old plant friends, hardy gems of the rugged north. Jutting out into the river on little islands and peninsulas are massive elms and silver maples in full graceful form. I can barely wait for that point in the trip when my canoe will round the bend and I see them again, standing tall like kings and queens of the river. There’s also the old Moir farm, an abandoned homestead leftover from the logging days. Beyond the stands of highbush cranberry, the house and barn have nearly collapsed but beside them grows the largest elderberry shrub that I have ever seen. I’m sure someone who used to live there made an elderberry pie or two. In the field, a rhubarb patch continues to grow as if nothing else around it has changed. Farther down the river, corridors of balsam firs cool the air and bathe passing canoeists in their sweet aroma. Among all the treasures along the river are the many little flowering plants, some growing in the water, some on the gravelly banks. I don’t know many of their names and I don’t even care. They are lovely reminders of why I keep returning.
- Hedges: Thinking Outside the Boxwood
Hedges for Conservation, Diversity, Food and Beauty
Peach, raddle and plash… Along pasture lines throughout England, hawthorn hedgerows seem to go
on forever. These impenetrable fences were twisted together with woody stems (pleached, plashed or raddled)
and laid in certain patterns resulting in some of the branches grafting to each other. Not even the boldest
livestock would think of busting through these thorny barriers. In the county of Devon, 33,000 miles of
hedges—some over 800 years old—have been preserved, thanks to the continuity of traditional
farming. These hedges host 600 species of flowering plants, 1500 species of insects, 65 species of birds
and 20 species of mammals while also serving as berry gardens, defining property lines and providing
coppice wood for cooking and heating. Evidence suggests that people have planted hedges since the Bronze
Age, maybe even earlier.
Natural Hedges and Modern Agriculture
Take a walk along the edge of a field where it meets the woods. You’ll find plants growing along
this boundary that don’t grow on either side: blackberries, juneberries, hazelnuts, elderberries
and more. They escaped the mower blade and are enjoying the benefits of a nice sunny field. A convergence
between two ecosystems, these natural edges are very high in species diversity. Leaving native
perennials, shrubs and trees intact along the edges of our lawn, field or house creates natural
“shelterbelts” that benefit our landscape, especially in areas where wildlife and
biodiversity are threatened by development and monoculture. U.S. farmers are recognizing these benefits
and using hedges in the form of alley cropping, silvopasture and riparian forest buffers in their
Hedges can be so much more than symmetrical rows of level-topped yews or a single line of conifers.
While these are respectable options, we think it’s fun to mix it up and do something a little
Hedges can be:
- straight lines, wavy lines, undulating layers or zigzags
- single- or multi-species plantings
- free form or sculpted
- annual or perennial or a combination of both
- tall or low, erect or rangy
- forage for birds, bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, moths, beneficial insects and humans
- protection for nesting birds and migratory animals
- erosion control and water conservation
- privacy screens, windbreaks, mazes or secret gardens
- texture, aroma, character and color in a cultivated landscape
- renewable material for kindling, crafts, bouquets and wood chips
Mix and match and layer! Consider combining:
- nuts, fruits, flowers, vegetables and herbs
- early, mid- and late-season flowering plants (give the bees a hand!)
- dark and light contrasting foliage (like evergreens with deciduous trees)
What to plant in your hedgerows? In England, traditional hedges often combined:
- mountain ash (rowan)
Fedco grower Sharon Turner of Washington, ME, specializes in designing hedges. A few of her
favorites in layered plantings are:
- Highbush cranberry
- Nanking cherry
- Buttonbush for damp areas
- All Cornus species including dogwoods and cornelian cherry
Things to consider before getting started:
- How much space do you have?
- What purposes do you want your hedge to serve?
- Which sizes and habits do you wish to display?
- How much pruning do you want to do…or not do?
- Carefully choose your site. Some plants fill in by colonizing suckers and may be best some
distance away from your veggie garden. Planting near a road? Choose salt- and
- Layering: think about planting taller trees in one row flanked by shorter items on either side.
Remember, forest trees can be kept smaller by pruning. Be creative. There are no rules. Experiment!
- If possible, take some time to prepare a site by cover-cropping in advance. If not, just dig holes,
plant, mulch heavily and water until the plants become established. In time, they will fill in and
suppress surrounding weeds.
- Seedlings make great hedge plants.