The edible savanna takes shape!
To recap – We’re building an orchard on the former farm terraces at Draco Hill. We removed 215 trees – mostly box elders, cherries and ash, using the wood for firewood, and the slash to help with soil erosion on two long roads elsewhere on the property. Our neighbors used the stumps to slow down erosion in the creek on their property as well, so just about all the solar energy of those trees stayed on or near the place.
Then we hired a backhoe to shape two swales out of one 45-degree terrace in two places and one swale along the farm access road at the bottom of the hill. Between these terraces is a prairie restoration project (converted from corn/bean production). We know we’ll be burning the prairie, but plan to mow very wide fire breaks around the terraces. We also know the prairie will inevitably seed the floor of the orchard. Still, we want to see if all this can work together somehow in a nature-friendly food production model.
Why? We’ve dubbed it an “edible savanna” and hope some day a young farmer will be able to mob graze the prairie, harvest the fruit trees and farm prairie strips on our best flat land near the river. Someday, we hope, Draco Hill will become a perennial training ground for farmers in the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust.
What we planted and where
Each set of terraces presented its own challenges and surprises, so we’ll go from highest elevation to lowest.
In the highest elevation terraces: (730 feet above sea level)
- Asian pears – three varieties
- Gooseberries – three varieties
- Elderberries – local (neighbor Margaret!)
The Asian pears from Cummins Nursery have done very well. But the gooseberries must have felt all the ambivalence that went into planting them! Gooseberries have horrible sets of thorns of many lengths, making it almost impossible to grab a branch and not have one go through your leather gloves, and they are a nuisance in our woods where they grow a handful of tasteless berries but making navigating the woods a nightmare a times. So it took a lot of convincing to plant a cultivar that’s supposed to be “as sweet as strawberries.” Unfortunately, they don’t seem to like where we put them, and all the mulching and fertilizing doesn’t seem to be making a difference. Here’s what they looked like mid-summer, and they haven’t improved much since then. Plus, keeping the prairie from moving in on them has been quite a chore.
The first weed to arrive after the berms were built was velvet leaf, but knocking back the heads before it went to seed really made a difference this year.
Here’s what it looked like before the weed eater got it last year.
We seeded a cover crop last fall, of tillage radish to break up the hard clay, winter rye which grows fast to hold the soil but then dies back, and white clover that we hoped would live on as the floor of our orchard. In the upper terrace the radish and rye grew best with clover barely showing up, causing a lot of weed problems this year. We’ve reseeded the clover this fall. Here’s how it looked in the spring.
But we’re still having trouble with the clover getting beat out by the taller bigger weeds most of the time. We’re hoping it will grow in more densely if we keep trimming the weeds off above it before they go to seed.
Late season photos that illustrate the issue.
We’re planting comfrey around every fruit tree in an effort to hold off the worst weed pressure in the long term. Russian Bocking 14 is noninvasive and its roots don’t compete with tree roots. It serves as a nutrient accumulator and natural mulch.
In the lower terraces we planted: (700 feet above sea level)
- Paw Paw seedlings
- Honeyberries – three varieties
- Ground cherries – Aunt Mollie’s from Seed Savers Exchange
- Hazelnuts – local
The lowest of these two berms is much easier to navigate because it’s not as steep as the others. I can drive our 12 horse BCS tractor along it and get most of it mowed, whereas the other berms are all too steep for that and I have to do it by hand with a weed eater. We’ve invested in a Stihl with a harness and bike handles making that job a little less onerous. Still, I’m looking forward to the day when the clover or the trees win out enough that I don’t have to do that job all the time.
The struggle here, as it has been since we conceived of this, is operating on a hillside. The Chinese figured this out centuries ago, but the folks who dug our swales and berms were working with a limited amount of space in which to make two berms, and little knowledge of what we were trying to accomplish, so we’re facing steep challenges so to speak. Just getting the ground ready to seed last year was the first hint of our struggle.
The great news of the year in the orchard was getting our first crop! Ground cherries. Yep, unless your grandmother cooked with them, you’ve never heard of them, but they’re wonderful. A member of the tomatillo family, they grow low to the ground just hanging above it with little paper-like lanterns hanging off of them. Inside is a sweet and nutty fruit. It’s a self-seeding annual so we hope to see them come up regularly after this year. If we get a bumper crop next year we’ll gladly give it to a farmer who’s already at the market to re(introduce) to the general public.
The downside is that the Spotted Wing Drosophola (SWD) has already found some of the plants. This is a fruit fly that lays its eggs inside the fruit. Most of our plants weren’t touched, but some were, meaning we have to check each fruit for a tiny tell-tale hole before popping it on our mouths! The ground cherries are also too close to the prairie and not far enough from the paw paws to be able to drive down the swale in summer, so they may get relocated next year.
In the berm along the low farm road we planted: (685 feet)
- Heartnuts from Stark Bros.
- Honeyberries from Honeyberry USA
This is a long row – nearly 700 feet – and our first mistake was to plant all of one variety of honeyberry and then all of the next etc. I believe they’re having trouble with pollination because of that, and we harvested a sum total of 3 berries this year! The leaves are brownish gray as well this fall, and they haven’t grown much at all, despite two applications of compost including in the hole while planting.
Elsewhere on Draco Hill we had planted some honeyberries that we accidentally ran over with the flail mower in mid-summer (that’s how high the brome was around them) and they have come back looking exceptionally happy – bright green leaves, healthy bushiness. So we’re cutting back all of the honeyberries on this last row and I’ve mowed the ones below the paw paws to see what happens. Quite honestly, it can’t get much worse, and we’re hoping after a summer of building a root system they’ll bounce back nicely in the spring.
The heartnuts on the other hand are doing quite well. These are Japanese walnuts and yes that means they do like to poison things around them, but we assumed it would be quite some time before they grew to a size that would matter, and in the meantime we would get a honeyberry crop each year.
Lessons learned so far:
Build to your equipment – We heard this advice first from Mark Shepard but didn’t listen well enough. Our Polaris EV and BCS tractor can navigate all of the berms, but mowing is too difficult on the sides of the swales. Doing it over again we would’ve made sure no swales were so steep. We know harvesting is going to be an issue and require another ingenious solution when the time comes!
Hire people familiar with what you’re trying to accomplish or take the time to teach. Our earth movers are well-respected hard-working folks, but they could not see what we saw when we looked at that 45-degree farm terrace. They never asked to look at our equipment. They didn’t know anything about the upkeep we would have to perform. They had no reason to, because we’re the first folks around here to be doing such a thing.
Never underestimate the power of the prairie – “Weed control” is an oxymoron. No one really controls weeds and of course many of these “weeds” are the very prairie species we planted 5 years ago! But we’re coming up with what we hope are common sense, long term answers to give our trees the room their roots need to grow.
Mulch, mulch, mulch! We bought straw from a wonderful farmer in Mechanicsville just north of us and that made a big difference. We already have it in the plan for next year.
It takes a village. We thank everyone from Practical Farmers of Iowa, Backyard Abundance, the Iowa Native Plant Society and the Organic Fruit Growers for their helpful suggestions. We tried to incorporate their advice into our particular landscape. And special thanks to Paul Otten in MN who gave us a tour of his amazing currant farm. We chose not to go with currants because we decided we had more choices in our hardiness zone and they weren’t something we enjoyed the taste of out of hand, but he’s the Guru of Elderberry and Currant production!
Everything takes time – While we’re out there topping off weeds (velvet leaf, ragweed, thistle) before they go to seed, we’re just thinking about giving the clover a chance, or setting back the prairie long enough for the trees to grow, or getting the comfrey in so it can get started or keeping the cages on until the trees are big enough to tolerate deer pressure…but we’re thinking in terms of years, not weeks or months. And we’re trying to imagine balance and dynamic forces at work. And just about every day Suzan wishes she had taken at least ONE ecology course in college!