Designing Landscapes: An orchard in the front yard


    20110125_James YoungThis a continuation from the article, The Transition Movement, where I decided one of the ways I would like to add resilience to my family’s life is to plant a small orchard in our front yard. This is an immediate response to the problems of Peak Oil and Climate Change as we transition to a sustainable lifestyle.

    If you decide to plant an orchard, then you should start as soon as possible. To paraphrase a Chinese proverb, the two best times to plant an orchard are:

    1. Twelve years ago

    2. Today

    An Asian pear tree at the house I grew up in.
    An Asian pear tree at the house I grew up in.

    Unlike the annual staple food crops we grow so famously (like corn, wheat, beets, and soy) that bear their crop within the year of planting, long-lived woody crops all require a multiple-year period of establishment before bearing abundant food. These can be plants such as apple trees, cherries, berry bushes, pears, plums, peaches, nut trees, etc.

    However, once established, woody crops have many advantages over annual crops.

    Woody plants can bear graciously for many years with often much less effort than annuals.

    There is potentially less environmental impact with woody plants as we, the supposed caretakers of the land, don’t have to plow and damage the soil every year to plant fussy annual crops.

    Woody plants tend to play well with other plants, inviting a chance for mutually supportive planting schemes (guilds) inviting greater diversity into your garden.

    Woody plants often simultaneously bear a secondary “crop” or benefit such as the wood itself can be used as firewood or possibly crafts. The permanent structure of woody crops can be used to create microclimates such as a wind break and provide shelter for wildlife such as nesting places for birds.

    Woody plants use their year to year expansion to truly invest in the soil. This is very different from annual crops that typically make a mad dash for all the nutrients available in a small area then relinquish their few months of rapid growth into a rotting pile at year’s end. Don’t get me wrong, the rotting piles of last year’s annuals are one of Mother Nature’s methods for feeding the soil for next year’s growth. Assuming we don’t come along, sweep all the good stuff away, and truck it to somewhere else.

    However, that doesn’t compare with the commitments made by long-lived woody plants into the soil ecosystem. Woody plants have much larger root systems and also drop leaf litter and other parts to feed the soil yearly. Assuming we don’t come along, sweep all the good stuff away, and truck it to somewhere else.

    Woody root systems grow wide and deep. They store energy from year to year and continue their expansion like miniature fiefdoms. Most surprisingly they form symbiotic relationships with fungi in the soil (micorrhizal fungi) and with other plants. Like trading partners on the Silk Road, fungi is the mediator that trades with plants to each enhance the others’ survivability, each getting something it needs in exchange for surplus goods it produces.

    Or like little dwarfs mining their tunnels evermore into the fathomless abyss in search of valuable ores, these woody plant roots and helper fungi discover sources of water and nutrients that are unavailable to annual crops.

    When humans go about mining, it’s very different. It’s a one-way street. We strip out the soil, plants, and everything living along with the minerals we want and leave the earth bare and dead in the process. We spend massive amounts of unsustainable energy in the process and release pollution as a byproduct.

    Setting a much better example, woody roots mine an area for nutrients but in the process give back to the soil by continuously shedding organic root material which in turn feeds hungry microbes throughout the soil. These soil microbes turn the fertility switch to the ‘ON’ position and the soil lights up with abundant life. In this way, the renewable power from the sun reaches down into the earth to give life.

    The sun-powered roots also aerate as they grow through the soil, opening up veritable cathedrals of fresh air for living soil minutiae to exponentially populate. Miraculously, or actually quite normally and naturally, the soil gets healthier and healthier the longer these plants grow and commit themselves to a soil culture of greater abundance and diversity. What starts below ground determines what happens above ground.

    There’s a big lesson for humanity in this. Mother Nature has the greatest wisdom and has created the intricate conditions that make human life possible. All of humanity depends on the health of the plant kingdom. Plants give us life, not the other way around. The term ‘Mother’ has been earned indeed.

    Deep root systems that search for water may become very important if our climate becomes drought prone. It’s hard to predict the future but this seems to be the trend in many agricultural areas around the world and the devastation to annual crops has been undeniable the last couple years.

    The typically larger size, sturdier top growth, greater root systems, and soil environment continuously modified and improved by the plants for healthy growth make woody plants naturally more resilient to the tricky weather of a changing climate. This makes them all the better to rely upon in unreliable times. This is the resilience we are looking for.

    However, the caveat alluded to in that Chinese proverb is that it’s common for woody plants to not bear any food in their early years. It certainly takes many more years for an apple tree to bear enough apples to earn box space in the cellar. So, to transform that Chinese proverb into a Western style colloquialism:

    We better get crackin’!

    Start of Our Front Yard Orchard, In Pictures

    James Young and baby Every landscape should start with a plan. Here I ask myself what every landscape designer should ask themselves: “How well does this plan work when a 100-foot-tall giant baby comes to visit?” It helps to model it with actual 100-foot-tall babies (in rough scale).

    This orchard will be there for my boy to enjoy in coming years. Planning for future generations, how fresh and novel that sounds. Let’s bring long-term thinking back to American culture before our current short-term thinking does us in.

    Speaking of babies, some people may poo-poo the effort needed to make a plan. Maybe they don’t know how to do it, they feel they won’t enjoy it, or they think it’s a waste of time.

    That’s a mistake because with a plan you can try many arrangements on paper and save a ton of work by avoiding mistakes. The first idea is seldom the best or at least can use refinement, which means it’s better to have tried it on paper rather than building it straight away.

    Yes, planning and design take skill and effort but even an amateur can learn a lot and avoid problems with a primitive sketch. So break out those napkins before breaking out the shovels!

    And even though your plan may have mistakes in it, that shouldn’t be taken as a sign the plan was a failure. A plan should be looked at as a way to accelerate past the early mistakes and get you to a better garden faster. That way you can tell yourself that the mistakes you do eventually make are at least very advanced mistakes!

    James Young trench

    Here is the first step after the design was finished; digging a shallow trench for the planting bed edging. The edging is to permanently separate the grassy space from the planting beds. It’s a higher cost up front but it will save many hours every year in maintenance to not have to tediously reestablish the edge where grass meets planting bed and there will be less soil disturbance in the long term, which is good for soil and plants as well as your wallet and back.

    A hard edge can also be a good design element that will faithfully preserve the intended shapes that make up the backbone of your garden design.

    And you might say: “Yes but I want a more natural feel to my garden and I don’t like edging. Also, didn’t you say we should heed Mother Nature’s wisdom? Since when did Mother Nature use plastic edging in the garden?” This is true, but in an urban setting where you can’t escape the built environment, the hard edging can actually create a connection from built environment to your natural garden if you tie it in well with the built elements on your land. And did I mention the easier maintenance?

    We don’t especially like lawns but I opted to keep some grassy space out front, at least for now. It’s a space for the kids to play and since it’s a front yard, it’s better to keep something familiar (grass) for the benefit of the neighborhood. You know there’s always that stodgy who’s against anything outside of convention. No matter if convention may lead us to wreck and to ruin, it’s unfortunately a comfort zone for many people.

    Transition after all is mostly about changing preconceived notions because we already know what we need to do, we just need to actually do it.

    Many gardeners have heard the horror stories of certain cities and covenant bound neighborhoods going ballistic over front-yard vegetable gardens, issuing fines with ultimatums that “Ye shall grow grass or off to jail!. Usually not a problem here in enlightened Edmonds and let’s keep it that way.

    Diversity and creativity should be the hallmarks of Edmonds. Let’s keep close-mindedness and rigidity out. Rigidity is a sign of age and death. Just look at a baby; so flexible even their bones can bend. Then, look at the young man, at the optimum balance of strength and limberness. Then, look at an old man trying to touch his toes. Then, look at the dead body as rigor mortis sets in — the
    Latin roots of the term literally meaning the stiffness of death. There is no positive reason to embrace close-mindedness unless you wish to speed the aging process.

    James Young edging

    Next comes the edging. In this case, I’m using salvaged 1 x 5 Trex deck boards laid “on edge”, spliced together, and staked to the ground. At first it was a challenge to try to bend these boards into such sharp curves. And the weather at the time was officially declared “freakin cold” which only strengthened the boards against my will to bend them. I tried heating the boards in a homemade heater to soften them (see below) but that was difficult, time consuming, and a waste of fuel; clearly not sustainable at all.

    Finally I settled on the time honored trick of cutting slots across the width at narrow intervals (about an inch at about 40 percent depth) to effectively thin the boards and make them easier to bend. My worries about the cuts being unsightly were unwarranted as you can’t really see them unless you’re up close and they don’t really catch your eye in my opinion.

    James Young Trex heaterHere was the Trex board heater I built. It’s a long lidded box with an opening in the bottom center for a propane heater. Metal shielding keeps the wood from burning. If you heat them evenly through, the boards can be bent quite a lot. Not as easy or quick as it sounds.

    It was a failure because it took too much time and fuel. This is supposed to be a sustainable project and this was wasteful. The tinkerer in me got outta control but it kind of shows how easy we (OK, just me in this case) fall back on the use of energy to accomplish our goals. Energy increases our productivity (maybe not in this case) but we should learn to remove our dependency on it knowing now that it will eventually become scarce.

    James Young plow

    Next, plow (or roto-till) up the unwanted grass to create planting beds. I love tearing up grass for something more exciting. We’ve waited a long time to do this at our house.

    A lesson learned here: We had problems later with the grass coming thru the mulch in these planting beds the following growing season. Good advice is to plow twice to remove the grass (I only did it once here). Do the 2nd plowing approximately 3 weeks after the first to kill the grass roots better. This little tidbit I learned from the book, The Resilient Gardener , by Carol Deppe. Great book, by the way.

    I tried double plowing on another project later and it does help a lot to keep the grass from sprouting right back again.

    James Young woodchipsHere are the orchard beds with the wood chips laid down. Why the two colors? The lighter stuff is free and fresh wood chips I sourced from arborists working in the area. It wasn’t enough so I had to buy wood chips from a commercial dealer who had composted wood chips (dark color).

    Many people hate the pale color of wood chips and I agree that dark mulch looks better. However, commercially bought mulch can’t always be verified to be from a safe source. Much of it can be recycled consumer waste which can contain any and all sorts of weird chemicals and junk. There’s no one checking. There’s no mulch inspector. There are no safety tests.

    I even found a used condom amongst the other junk in the commercial mulch. A good time was not had by all as I gingerly extracted the used prophylactic and placed it in the garbage. Who said gardening can’t be glamorous. I paid for that experience by the way. Thank you mulch company!

    Sarcasm aside, fresh wood chips, especially from deciduous trees with the leafy branches, are the best choice if you can get them because they encourage the fungal root systems we want for our orchard. Micorrhizal fungi in the soil is greatly beneficial to long lived woody plants.

    Although it’s true that, short-term, wood chips rob the soil of some nitrogen as they decompose, in the long-term it’s given back again as decomposition finishes. Considering it encourages good fungal growth, wood chips are a net positive gain.

    On the other hand, compost, rightly touted for its many beneficial effects encourages a more bacteria dominated soil which favors shorter-lived quick-growing plants that need higher fertility. It has more nitrogen available for plants but it doesn’t favor root fungi as much, which is what we want in an orchard more than we want large amounts of nitrogen.

    Lots of fertility is not necessarily good for long lived woody plants. It can lead to a deceiving lush and beautiful growth that is actually weaker, has increased pest attraction (bugs love the extra soft and juicy stems you’ve grown for them!), and results in less root growth as the roots don’t have to grow much to get the nutrients needed.

    It’s like a spoiled child raised on chocolate cake, as my horticulture instructor used to say.

    This is especially bad if the source of nutrients (like copious amounts of compost) cannot be maintained. This means less resilience as the tree is left with lots of needy top growth but without the extensive root and fungal system needed to support it. Chemical fertilizers are even worse in this regard as they tend to kill off the beneficial microbes in the soil, making for a drug addicted landscape utterly dependent on you for its next hit. Don’t make your ‘Granny Smith’ the botanical equivalent of a crack whore, just say no to plant drugs.

    If you’d like to learn more about taking care of orchards biologically, an excellent book is Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard.

    Now we just need to colonize the soil ecosystem with roots. Time to plant!

    James Young planting

    Here it is in early spring. You might say: “Where’s the Orchard?” Did I mention an orchard takes patience?

    It may not look like much now, in fact it’s kind of a ‘Where’s Waldo” picture of orchard trees. However, think of this as an unfinished canvas with the first strokes fleshing out the basic outline. In a few more strokes the grass will be top dressed and reseeded, more happy little shrubs and support plants will be dashed in as time and money permit, there is more hardscape to dabble in thru the plantings, and finally the serious joy of just growing plants.

    From experience I know we need to look at it in the time frame of years, not weeks. It will become more and more beautiful and abundant over the years. It will continue to build itself and it’s own health. My role is to help it along by encouraging it’s own innate systems of health and abundance. The less work I need to do means the more resilient the system.

    Hopefully I’ll get around to an update soon as construction of paths are in work. Meanwhile, here is a litany of first wave orchard plants:

    • All-In-One Almond (reportedly hardy for the Pacific NW, we’ll put that to the test, placed in a hot spot with reflected heat)

    • Tehranivee Cherry (a late ripener to avoid wet weather splitting, not from Tehran, rather from a guy named Tehrani)

    • Early Laxton Plum (careful, eat too many and it’s an Early Laxative)

    • Dayton Apple (red and delicious, in other words, what a Red Delicious is supposed to be)

    • Mount Royal Plum (a Royal Flush, if you eat too many)

    • Hardired Nectarine (this is a case of wanting it badly but maybe inappropriate to our microclimate, placed in a hot spot with crossed fingers.)

    • Queen Cox Apple (self-fertile and self-humorizing)

    • Rescue Pear (Rescue me!)

    • Honey Sweet Pear (this lil’ sweety kicked off and died, which left a bitter taste, looking for a replacement)

    • Pristine Apple (an apple without reproach? we shall see…)

    • Atago Asian Pear (chosen for its tolerance of cool weather, atta-boy!)

    • Tompkins King Apple (all bow down to the king of freshly eatable, cookable, ciderable, and long lastable apples)

    • Karmijn de Sonnaville Apple (Holla! this one’s from Holland, high sugar content)

    • Chojuro Asian Pear (it’s a keeper, in the cellar)

    • Leikora Sea Berry (an experiment, using as a fruit bearing hedge, reputedly a profuse bearer of fruit after many years of establishment, thorny)

    • Poorman Gooseberry (was free as part of a promotion, using as part of the hedge, has some good sized thorns)

    • Golden Sweet Gooseberry (If there is a parable with the golden goose here, let me know, again for the hedge)

    All of these I purchased from Raintree Nursery, shipped from Morton, Wash.

    Now just try to go to your supermarket and buy the fruit of the delicious varieties above. It’s not gonna happen in our industrial farming system as I reflect on how far we have not come and how much technology has not “served” us well.

    James Young sprout

    This is just the start of our projects in Transition. It specifically addresses how we will increase resilience in our lives today.

    Is there more work involved in an orchard than what was previously spent mowing all that grass? I don’t know yet but an orchard will certainly give more back than the grass. I’ve known apple trees that were not just neglected but practically abused and still gave considerable fruit that was certainly good enough for at least apple sauce or cider. If you’re looking for perfect crops, more work is involved. We’re not expecting perfection, that should never be the goal. The goal is to act now and to live better.

    Would annual crops yield a greater quantity of food than the orchard? Yes in the short term but long-term, we are always restricted by the inputs of sunlight and fertility. It’s about thermodynamics as much as biology. So short-term, bringing in fertility from outside this front yard system, then definitely annual crops deliver more food crop. However, long-term, looking at the math, I’m pretty the edge goes to the orchard due to the increased soil health created by the plants.

    We will learn our way forward but we can’t do it by just thinking and talking about it. Or waiting for other people to do something. We need to get out there and do it ourselves. We need to get out there and make mistakes. For our mistakes shall point us in the right direction and be the fastest way forward.


    We are moths in the night.

    Our olfactory sense finds the midnight flower.

    With faith in fragrance, we fly not a straight line,

    but back and forth and up and down,

    then around again if we lose the scent.

    We adapt to the vagaries of an invisible current.


    What moth knows its destination

    before leaping forth, curv’ed in flight?

    We simply await the next breeze,

    adjust our direction, and eventually succeed.

    Save we avoid the high wattage lights!

    — By James Young

    James Young is the owner of Blue Wheelbarrow Landscaping in Edmonds.





    1. What an informative and well-written article. Did I hear some lessons for humans in between the lines, for how to peacefully create symbiotic relationships with each other? Thank you!




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