Human 2.0 Project

Permanence * Adventure * Culture

The Permaculture Orchard - a review

2014-06-02 00:00:00 Erik Lee


I just watched my copy of The Permaculture Orchard, and I was extremely impressed. This is a very well put-together film about how to make a commercial scale orchard (or smaller if you want, the same ideas apply) using permaculture design principles. The presentation was great, and it clearly comes from extensive personal experience. There is a lot of hard-won practical knowledge in here, presented in a simple, clear, straightforward way that really gets the message across without the pretentiousness or self-promotion that sometimes seems to seep into projects like this. I definitely recommend this to people who are interested in growing productive trees in an orchard-like setting. With that said, let's get into some details!

Orchards vs. Food Forests

The subject of this film, as you probably guessed from the title, is orchards. These are not the same thing as food forests, but they have a lot of features in common, particularly the way Stefan has presented them here. The basic overview of his process (and I'm really skipping a lot of detail here) is to use a simple guilding pattern to plant a diverse collection of trees and understory plants in a way that's simple to manage for harvests, maintenance, and watering.

Stefan uses plastic mulch with drip tape laid underneath to manage water and weeds. At first, I was a bit disappointed in the critical dependence on plastic products (after all, I want permaculture to be able to bootstrap itself without depending on massive infrastructure), but on further consideration I'm totally cool with it now. The reason goes back to the fact that this is an orchard not a food forest. Orchards are agricultural systems designed to produce farm-scale output from perennial plants, usually for commercial purposes. That means they need to be efficient, easy to manage, and simple enough to run as a business. Labor is the biggest limiting factor in agriculture in today's world, so any design that needs to be commercially viable has to take that into account as a prime consideration. The use of plastic and drip tape here I think is a master stroke in that field - he put down one application of very heavy duty plastic, with similarly heavy duty drip tape laid underneath. This setup will probably last for decades with very little maintenance. During that time, there will never be a significant problem with weeds or grasses, water will be easy to apply whenever it's necessary (and you could run soil inoculants in there too), and you don't have to cover every square inch of soil surface with ground cover or tree canopy in order to stave off the grass. Plastic mulch is used here to stop succession before you get all the way to the forest stage - so you can get the benefits of low undergrowth, but keep the trees smaller and easier to manage. In a food forest, you can achieve a similar outcome overall but your total plant canopy has to be denser to keep the weeds down. So the tradeoff there is whether you use trees, shrubs, or aggressive ground covers to do the shading for you. With the plastic mulch, you can keep the site a little less packed to the brim, which allows you to walk around between the plants and do your harvesting and maintenance much more easily.

After watching this film, I'm modifying my site plan for my 20 acres to include an orchard like this. I think it'll probably be most of my zone 2/3, to be shared with the chickens and ducks occasionally. I'll push the food forest out to zone 3/4, as it will be more self-sustaining but also more difficult to harvest.

The film from 10,000 feet

Stefan covers a wide variety of topics:

  • Pest control - he talks about their strategies for pest and disease control based on plant diversity, fertility management, and spraying (non-toxic, obviously). The spraying was interesting, because he talks about using whey as his spray, to act as a probiotic for the foliage of the trees. I hadn't seen anybody do that with whey, but I thought it was a brilliant idea, because as he says, the safest spray is one you can eat.
  • Water - I already mentioned the plastic and drip tape above, but he goes into some detail about how to arrange the parts, how to securely install the plastic, and then how to take advantage of the layout of the drip tape for establishing transplants reliably. This is one of the places where years of experience clearly came through in the film.
  • Pollinators - He showed some of his contraptions for attracting and protecting native bees (and honey bees of course). Native bees are wildly effective pollinators, so it was nice to see somebody acknowledge their place in the world of agriculture with more than a side note. If you want to learn more about native bees, by the way, I highly recommend checking out Crown Bees.
  • Grafting and rooting - A small portion of the film discusses when and how to take cuttings and get them grafted or rooted in soil. He also talks about managing and propagating rootstocks.
  • Training and pruning- Now here's something I wasn't very familiar with before: training your trees. He demonstrates a simple way to train your fruit trees, basically getting their branches to grow at a downward angle rather than upward, in order to drastically limit the need for pruning and get earlier fruit yields at the same time.
  • Seedling management - He didn't spend much time talking about this part, but he did show his seedling bed a few times in the film. It's structured like a micro-version of the orchard proper, with small, newly-grafted trees spaced maybe eight inches apart with plastic and drip tape to keep them weed free and watered. This is an arrangement that I will be duplicating on my site soon. I've had plans in the works for a seedling bed for about a year, but seeing it in action really boosted my motivation.
  • Cultivar selection - One of the things that is very important for a non-toxic orchard is to pick plants that can take care of themselves. He talks a bit about disease and pest resistant cultivars, and about how to take an old monoculture orchard and transform it using over-grafting and guild interplanting. One of the things Mark Shepard talks about at length in his book (Restoration Agriculture) is the idea of STUN (Sheet, Total, Utter Neglect). While this approach is not part of the film, the adventurous orchardist might benefit from adding it in as a way of developing new cultivars by mass-selection. One thing that we can do as permaculturists to really impact the world is to create crop plants that don't need so much help, so using existing resistant cultivars and breeding new ones is near the top of my list of "things to do to change the world."

That's only a sampling of what's in this film, but hopefully it gives you an idea of what to expect. He says the goal is to give you what you need to start your own project, and I think he definitely delivers.


One of the cool things about his setup is that it's great for setting up a pick-your-own orchard. In the section on guilds, he talks about picking plants that will all be yielding at the same time and planting them together. This makes a great system for a pick-your-own orchard, where you basically open up sections to your customers one at a time through the season. It makes it much easier for them to find stuff that's in season, and also keeps people from wandering all over in search of the elusive ripe fruit. Probably more importantly than either of those, it makes your farm into a full-season destination with new stuff happening all the time.

One of the keys of successful marketing these days is increasing customer engagement, and having an orchard that's safe, clean, and convenient will really help with that. If you can have a new thing going every month or so, and maybe combine that with some sitting areas and picnic spots like Sepp Holzer talks about in his book, you'll end up with a community hub and a great source of low-labor farm income. Add to that the fact that no poisons are used at any time, so that they can just pick things off the trees and eat them without fear, and that it's organized so that finding what's ripe is extremely easy, and you have a real hit.


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