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The Perennial Promise

By Sarah Merfeld

Last week we had the chance to work in the orchard here at the AMI farm. We spend the majority of our time tending to our annual production gardens, so it was refreshing to shift our perspective and focus on a perennial, long term project.

Annual crop production requires an intense amount of energy from both the gardener and the soil. Each season gardeners lose precious topsoil through the cultivation process, as most annual production involves tilling. This disruption of the soil also leaches nutrients and disturbs vital soil biology. There are steps that gardeners can take to minimize and remediate these negative effects, but it is hard to deny the amount of human labor that is involved in annual crop production. It is so intensive that most Americans have opted out of growing any significant percentage of their own food.

Food forests offer a plush alternative to growing annuals. A food forest is essentially a diverse low-maintenance system designed to mimic native ecosystems. They are often comprised of fruit and nut trees, shrubs, perennial vegetables, herbs, vines, and ground cover layers. Each layer fills a niche role, just as all the elements in the forest create a healthy ecosystem.

The initial drawback to these systems is that it takes years before they are productive. The beauty is that there is a negative correlation between the labor required to establish the food forest and the yield the system produces. This means that with each passing season the food forest is less work for you and your harvest increases. Once these systems are established they crank out a diversity of edibles and provide a food system in modern society that is reminiscent of our ancestral past as foragers.

Our orchard is in early stages of development. It was first planted by the 2013 AMI Farm Fellows and each sequential cohort has added new elements. It currently contains a variety of peach, apple, pear and cherry trees, along with an assortment of native and medicinal berries.

Under the guidance of AMI Project Manager and former AMI Farm Fellow, Trevor Piersol, we planted “guilds” around trees in the orchard. A guild is a collection of plants that support one another and together create a healthy ecosystem. Each plant in the guild fills a niche that supports the mini-ecosystem. Some of these roles include fixing nitrogen, attracting beneficial insects, accumulating difficult to access nutrients, or providing us with medicinal benefits. Some of plants we chose were Horse Radish, New Jersey Tea, Tulsi, Marshmallow, Bee Balm, Skullcap, Maximillian Sunflower, Mugwort, Motherwort, and Meadowsweet. Many of these plants are native and offer several beneficial functions.

As this is a perennial system, we must consider how our guild will grow in the coming years. How big will each plant get? Which plants need full sun? Will one of these plants spread like crazy? How far will the drip line of the tree reach? We had fun piecing these parts of the puzzle together as we planted the guilds.

It is satisfying to contribute to the orchard, knowing that though we will not physically reap the benefits, we are playing our role in the multi-generational project. Metaphorically, it is a role we all play, making choices today that will effect our children and our children’s children.

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