Understory Species for High Density Plantings
December 05, 2016 04:08PM
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 28, 2017 11:08PM
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
March 31, 2017 06:22PM
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 03:09PM
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 15, 2017 09:15PM
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.
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