Three months ago I posted a simple question on a local community facebook page: “Is there a local gardening group? I need somewhere that I can ask questions because I don’t know what I’m doing.” That same afternoon I got a response from a local artist and amazing lady, Margot Solstice. She said “This may not really answer your question but if you’re interested, I have my permaculture design certificate and would be happy to mentor you. We could work out at barter system and exchange time, as I really need some help in my garden.” We quickly got in contact again (I knew Margot already though we weren’t in contact a lot) and worked out a plan.
And so began a life changing journey into permaculture.
Let me back up a little. All winter Ivan and I were discussing what to do on our acreage. We knew didn’t really want to just own an acreage and work away from home and buy lots of “toys” to fill up our acreage with. We are also interested in self-sustainability and self-sufficiency. We looked at several possibilities like raising cattle for beef or dairy, raising goats or sheep, chickens, pigs, etc. We also began discussing the possibility of growing some kind of crop, but we just don’t have enough land. And of course an orchard or something like that was just out of the question in Alberta. But was it? One evening Ivan googled fruit to grow in Alberta and discovered Haskaps, also known as Honeyberries. Haskaps looked like a promising new market and they are extremely hardy (zone 2). It was something unique and interesting, which we love the idea of. So we did more and more research and began to measure and plan. We discovered that we could fit about one thousand haskap bushes on our property. And having berry bushes for our bees to pollinate was a good thing for the honey. But wait, Haskaps flower in April and Fruit in June and then they’re done, so what would the bees have for the rest of the season, except forage from however far they could fly? It was about this time that I began to talk with Margot and she introduced me to permaculture and the concept of tree guilds.
What is permaculture? You can search the web and find all kinds of definitions for permaculture like this one: “The development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient” and many others with words just as big. If you would like a really great and well thought out definition of permaculture, check out Margot’s blog here. She writes a great article titled Permaculture, Defined. At any rate, we were hooked when we realized that this was a whole system of agriculture based on the same values that we had: working with nature instead of against it, and being self-reliant and sustainable.
Margot came out to my place in April to give me a consultation and she introduced us to the idea of tree guilds. Rather than growing haskaps (or any other tree or bush) in mono-culture rows, then weeding and fertilizing the bushes to grow better, to instead grow the haskaps in guilds. What this means is simply that you surround your tree with plants or bushes that are beneficial to that tree: Pollinator attracting plants, pest repelling plants, nitrogen fixers, and other plants that enrich the soil and also help to take up ground space so the dreaded prairie quack grass doesn’t take over. The idea with permaculture systems, food forests and tree guilds is that while it is planning and work intensive to start with, you will eventually reach the point where you can step back and let the ecosystem you have created do its work.
Another suggestion Margot made was to look at adding more diversity to our orchard. To consider the possibility of having multiple crops throughout the season rather than one crop in June. This diversity also helps to balance things in case one crop fails, or succumbs to a disease or pest one year, it also helps retard the spread of any diseases given the space and other species of trees/bushes between each tree or bush of the same species. It also struck me that here was the answer to the nectar question. With a diversity of trees, bushes and plants, flowering and fruiting at different times throughout the season, we would have pollen all season long if we planted the right things. And so began the development of our orchard plan over the next two months, and yes it did take us that long to collect all the information about each tree and bush and draw out a plan for our one acre orchard.
Breaking ground for our orchard
To put it in a nutshell, We will be producing sour cherries, haskaps and goji berries as our main crops, we will also have roses(for season long flowers) and black currents (shade tolerant) and a ground cover of clover (season long flowers) and mint as well as field peas for nitrogen, and anything else that we find necessary for the healthiness of the orchard. We are really excited about this new development and didn’t waste any time getting started.
Margot invited me on a field trip to Sherwood’s Forests. If you live in the Edmonton area, especially west of the city, I would strongly suggest you visit Sherwood for your trees. He is amazing. He really knows his stuff and he cares about helping you learn about the trees. He’s not trying to make a quick sale and as much money as possible but he is trying to help you find the right trees that will work for you and your plans. Margot and I were both really impressed with his knowledge of the trees he had, and the questions we asked. Towards the end of our visit Sherwood mentioned sugar maples. “Sugar maples?” Margot and I both asked, “Do they grow here? Can you get syrup?” Sherwood assured us that it was possible to grow your own sugar maples and tap your own trees, though you wouldn’t get as prolific a harvest as Quebec since our winters are different. We made a note of that and continued on.
The next day I mentioned to Ivan that it was possible to grow sugar maples here and he reminded me that we had been thinking of getting a special tree to plant for each of the kids, wouldn’t this be a great tree to do that with! So we headed off to Sherwood’s forests to buy two sugar maples. Well… Ten baby sugar maples and four sour cherry trees later, we headed back home, ready to plant our first few trees for the orchard, as well as more than enough sugar maples for the kids.
Ten baby sugar maple trees.
It took us a bit to gather everything needed, and have time for planting but finally, May long weekend, we began.
Our cherry trees and haskaps were planted in their prescribed formation, along with the three rose bushes I got for Mother’s Day.
The children were delighted to help, most of the time anyways, watering the trees, putting them in the ground, finding worms, bringing various items and generally being quite useful and asking lots of questions.
It is our family orchard, so Ivan and I were happy the children were involved right from the start.
We already love what we are doing and we are so excited to see what will happen in the future as we continue our work with the acreage.