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establishing a diverse understory

Posted by Michael Phillips 
establishing a diverse understory
February 03, 2017 04:30PM
A very detailed grower guide focused on “Wildflower Establishment using Organic Site Prep Methods” has been put together by the Xerces Society and can be found at http://www.xerces.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Organic-Wildflower-Establishment_Oct2016_FINAL-web.pdf.

What have you done in this regard? Let's make this a thread for sharing tips and insights for fellow growers just getting a tree planting underway. This document details soil prep methods during what I call the biological compromise phase. The mycorrhizal fungal piece could be better reckoned as relates to roots in the ground. Choice of plants for different bioregions is detailed in Farming with Native Beneficial Insects (also put together by the folks at the Xerces Society) which can be purchased on the GrowOrganicApples Bookshelf.

Frost seeding and use of soil balls also serve to introduce new plants into the orchard ecosystem without turning the soil. I often take avail of ramial chipped wood "mulch pockets" the following spring to plunk a comfrey root or transplants of mountain mint and the like.

Lost Nation Orchard
Zone 4b in New Hampshire
Re: establishing a diverse understory
June 21, 2017 10:40PM
I would love to see pictures from others showing their orchards at different stages. Specifically, I would like to see what others are doing between rows and also understory development at different times of the year. Does anyone know if there are any sites were this info. could be seen?
Re: establishing a diverse understory
February 07, 2018 08:57PM
David, you can view a few photos of our bouquet here -

[waldenheightsnursery.com]

A point I will make when putting together ideas for the understory is to get a good feel of where you are. Location is a big factor. My personal bent is on creating as dynamic an ecosystem as possible which plays right into understory choices. Soil and climatic factors are going to play a large part in the ease of establishing certain species. In fact, a very rich system can evolve almost by itself if managed wisely. For instance, although we have planted a large number of production species in the orchard, a good deal was "allowed" to become established, or remain. When starting from scratch many growers are going to be saddled with an open field, and the first options are usually going to be herbaceous/grassland species. This meadow ecology in a wider sense is more akin to a prairie ecology, and will need more managing in places like the humid east. In our area of northern Vermont, for instance, the climax ecosystem is forest, not grassland. There are naturally occurring species that do very well here, and are a good aid to soil dynamics, and aerial habitat for beneficials. (We have an inventory of naturally occurring species on our farm if anyone is interested in viewing it.) So, along with the plants we are all likely to sock in the ground, there is help already out there. With a little homework you can find out what service each plant can provide, then figure out what we may need to introduce to get the rest of the job done.
Re: establishing a diverse understory
May 25, 2021 12:33AM
We began our orchard with the question, can an orchard and a prairie exist in the same place? Probably it will not look exactly like either, and three years into it we can already identify some mistakes and likely will be learning through the life of this adventure, but here’s more or less how we got to this point.

We started with a declining alfalfa field next door that was slated to go into a corn rotation. Not wanting to suck on glyphosate for the foreseeable future we offered to buy the land and planned to transition it to prairie. At this time I was finishing planting our homestead orchard and had gone graft crazy like many newbie fruit explorers, so we started playing with the orchard/prairie question. Prairie Moon nursery in Minnesota was happy to develop a custom seed mix for us based on a short grass prairie native to our region heavy on the pollinator plants and nitrogen fixers. We bought enough of this seed mix to plant in the tree rows we were preparing, (1/2 of the orchard) and gathered from local natural areas, roadsides, and friend’s flower beds seeds to overseed the space between the rows.

In the rows we planted the prairie mix with an oats/peas cover crop, and later broadcast some radish to try and help with all of the hard pan I had created with all of my earth work. For two years we over seeded the remaining alfalfa with small amounts of gathered seed. This year we burned the other half of the prairie and repeated the process. Our maintenance plan is to burn 1/2 of the orchard prairie annually, and to mow minimally. Our rows are 25-30’ center to center, so right now that gives the prairie plenty of room to grow, but I’m not sure how easy it will be for them to coexist down the road. I am nervous about burning near the developing trees, but have good friends in the prairie industry who have worked with us to develop a burn plan. This year I am beginning to see a lot of the plants we seeded come in much more strongly, and we were advised to expect not to see much from these for three years as prairie plants tend to spend their energy developing their roots first. There’s barely any alfalfa left, but the single most populous species is one we didn’t plant- Canada goldenrod, an aggressive native, also a good last season bee food and soldier beetle favorite.

This would have been easier, (though more expensive,) if we had started with a cornfield- basically a clean slate. This year, though, I’ve been feeling satisfied with the over seeding we did, and Prairie Moon now recommends overseeding and annual burning as an effective way to establish a prairie amongst noninvasive pasture.

I am also a bit nervous that the massive prairie root systems will be too much for the trees, but after seeing so many healthy and happy pasture apples, I am not so worried about the standard trees we planted, the dwarfs and stone fruits may be a different story. I also wish we had begun burning earlier, but we’re just weren’t ready. In the meantime, many aggressive woody plants have moved in, and have gotten to the point that burning will only knock them back, if I want to kill them I need to use a shovel. If folks are interested I’d be happy to try to post the composition of the seed mix we bought, as well as some photos, but I’m pretty computer challenged and am not sure how to do that right now.



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 05/30/2021 01:04PM by Prairie Sundance.
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