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Understory Species for High Density Plantings

Posted by Nick Segner 
Understory Species for High Density Plantings
December 06, 2016 12:08AM
Here's the deal: After three seasons of chipping up our coppice-able hedges, pruning the fruit trees back 1/3 each season, and diminishing chip deliveries from the power utility district; we've reached a situation we call Peak Chip.

The new game plan: prioritize some rows to receive the mulch from our haying and limited ongoing chipping of prunings. The rest of the orchard will be "haphazardly mulched" (I get that now!) after June scything in the orchard, but the remainder of those rows will reinvade with grasses if we don't establish a new understory.

Now, there's already quite a few beneficials that we will allow to remain: dandelion, white and red clovers, vetch, cleavers.

We have been planting hundreds of daffodil bulbs into the orchard directly into vole holes as we find them whilst moving mulch back from the trunks this weekend. Those should serve a great function for us as we fight root girdling.

Also, we've started an herb nursery garden with others to plant into the orchard as understory: oregano, peppermint, thyme, anise hyssop, lemon balm, skullcap, Prunella Vulgaris, and others.

We grew a cover crop of phacelia last year and saved seed, super impressed with this plant as a bee forage: it'll definitely make an appearance in the orchard understory! As will tried and true all stars Borage and Comfrey.

Now we look to acquire seed of additional species for spring seeding. One that has multiple functions comes to mind: yarrow. The permaculture folks consider it a "dynamic accumulator", and as found in so called eco-lawn mixes it can outcompete/hold it's own among grasses, and perhaps best of all it hosts parasitoid wasps!

What other species have you all tried and can recommend us to try in the orchard?

Nick Segner

Wildcat Valley Farm
Zone 8b
Olympic Peninsula Rainshadow
Port Angeles, Washington
Re: Understory Species for High Density Plantings
March 29, 2017 06:08AM
Hi Nick,

Since nobody has added anything yet, I will add what I am planning. In the wood edges locally, we have wild gooseberry, elderberries and black cap raspberries. I was planning to add a few of these since they are local, they survive here and I am sure they are adapted to the local micorrhizal fungi. All species have a purpose in their habitats. Since these species and apples are pioneer plants as field turns to woods, they may benefit one another especially considering how the micorrhizal fungus functions between plants. I have also seen some Autumn Olive locally so I was planning to add a few of those especially since they fix nitrogen. Siberian Pea shrub is also on my list as it to is a nitrogen fixer. When they get too big, they will get pruned back and become ramial chips. I have a good microclimate where my orchard is located. I have two older trees (30 years plus) that show southwest damage. My plan is to plant these other pioneer species and nitrogen fixers to the southwest of new apple and pear trees to act as "shade" for tree trunks in the winter.

I have not yet done this. But this is what I am planning.

Has anybody else tried something like this?

Your thoughts?

Russ Martin
Zone 4b Extreme west Central Wisconsin Hager City, WI
Re: Understory Species for High Density Plantings
April 01, 2017 01:22AM
My advice for a lot of the understory is to pay attention to what occurs locally. These plants, and there will be many, are well adapted and serve many of the functions of what the permaculture books are gushing over. You will find this particularly evident in herbaceous species. The dynamic accumulators, nectaries, etc are probably already trying to make inroads into the orchard. That said, there is not need to avoid some neat things that are out there and that my be more useful to a specific grower.

In my experience, for nitrogen fixers, pea shrub is a lot more user friendly than many. Alder also, if you have some wetter areas. The oft mentioned sea buckthorn and locust do their job for the soil somewhat, but they are a pain, literally. I put up with some of these species, but grab a handful of locust or s.b. when cleaning up the floor, and you will know what I mean. I love autumn olive, but it and sea buckthorn are going to attract some animosity with those in the natural resource world, and region by region they are being restricted as an invasive species. I am not sure I agree, but it is becoming a battle in some areas.

Also, plan on a lot of pruning so you get root die off. Just because a plant fixes it, doesn't mean excess will be exuded (this is why farmers till legumes). Furthermore, if your orchard has ample nitrogen, many so called nitrogen fixing species won't bother fixing it (it is costly in terms of resources).

The more plants the merrier, but if we are all replacing a volunteering native, we should have a good reason. Adding some more productive berry bushes, or a more heavily flowering (developed) plant makes perfect sense. So does a little aesthetics. But, there are some champions that emerge by just getting the hell out of the way.
Re: Understory Species for High Density Plantings
June 21, 2017 10:09PM
I live in Missouri and my oldest trees in my orchard are 4 years old. I like yarrow because it does spread and can handle competing grasses. I have also planted worm wood which is a large sage type plant, lots of comfrey, horse radish and rue. Other than the comfrey, I started everything by seed finding it much more economical. I am going to work on adding daffodils, borage and rhubarb this next year. I also plan on planting some garlic. I have some chives as well. So far I have been impressed with how both the comfrey and yarrow have worked to help keep out competing grasses. I have lots of burdock that grows and I have been letting it go and cutting it down before it seeds (hopefully). I leave the cuttings in place. I understand they have a deep root system and would be pulling nutrients up . I have wondered about hostas underneath the trees. I wonder if anyone else has planted hostas?
Re: Understory Species for High Density Plantings
July 16, 2017 04:15AM
Hi David,

My wife plants hostas around our larger trees in our lawn. These are maples and a crab apple. All are 20 plus feet high. They do quite well in the shade. and they compete with lawn grass well in the shade. Quackgrass will grow in them in high sun areas. I think daffodils would compliment hostas around a tree as daffodils start early in the spring while hostas start later. We have had no issues with voles wiping out or even "taste-testing" hostas. I know deer love hostas especially later in the summer. Slugs in hostas can be a problem too.

I had never thought of using those even though they were right under my nose. I will try some when my wife has extra plants. Very good idea!

Thank you.
Re: Understory Species for High Density Plantings
February 10, 2021 11:43PM
We are aiming at the daffodil and allium tree row planting with mints and comfrey and yarrow also in the list. we have usually identified the yellow dock as a target species for removal but have recently been reconsidering as we learn more about soil qualities and root zones.
Re: Understory Species for High Density Plantings
June 19, 2021 06:58AM
Hello all!

I will add more species I have tried in my understory. French Tarragon competes very well with cool season grasses. I have some purple cone flower, rhubarb, Beebalm, and mint in wetter areas. Chives compete and have returned year after year. Daylilies do well and compete. I have added horse radish and asparagus this year. I suspect these will compete well with grasses. I even have a few irises that my wife wanted out of her flower bed. I allow all clovers and alfalfa to thrive. I also have Creeping Charlie. It competes well and can take over. I would never recommend adding this noxious plant but it is not a grass and honeybees will work the flowers. Of course I have burdock and it shades out grasses. I also try to cut it before it goes to flower. I also fight with Curley Dock and Broad Dock. It competes well but will spread like wildfire if allowed to go to seed. Comfrey (Bocking 14) does well , of course. It is a boon for bumble bees which I have an abundance this year. I am a honey bee keeper and have mason bee tubes and houses, but having a third tier of spring apple blossom pollinator cannot hurt.

I also plant shrubs on the southwest side of my apple trees. These shrubs are used mainly as a way to prevent Southwest Injury but I suspect and hope that they contribute to the apple trees by way of Mycorrhizae and sharing of useful compounds. I like the local woods edges shrubs like purple and red elderberry, gooseberry, red dogwood, and honey suckle. I do buy some shrubs like highbush cranberry, Nannyberry, Nine bark, Gray Dogwood, snowball bush and Viburnum. I have added tag alder and goat willow to my wetter areas. I have tried some Autumn Olive but find it is hard to get started and will winter kill in my area. I also have some pea shrub and am starting some Japanese Maple. Some of these species are very aggressive growers so I have to be a very aggressive coppice-r.

I like the idea of Rue and wormwood. and will research those for next spring additions. I also would like to add some St Johns Wort and New Jersey Tea. Again these are planned for next spring.

As you can see, I like plant diversity.

Let's keep adding lists of companion plants for our apple trees and our experiences growing these plants.

Does anybody have garden plantings they grow along side apple trees in the understory? How do you prepare the beds and control quackgrass?
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