Achieving Food Independence
Table of Contents
1: Industrial Food and the Homestead Alternatives2: Soil Fertility3: Organic Matter4: Minimizing Tillage5: Garden Year--Spring6: Garden Year--Summer7: Garden Year--Fall8: Garden Year--Winter9: Orchard and Woodlot10: Forest Garden11: The Lawn12: Livestock13: Poultry14: Ruminants15: Closing Thoughts on Livestock16: Local Foods17: Bringing It All Together
9. Orchard and Woodlot
I have spent so much time on the garden because that is where most of us will start with homestead food production, but also because it illustrates some of the challenges of soil care and other issues. With that as background, we can consider some of the other potential areas of homestead food production in shorter order.
For those with the space—and truly, you don’t need much—an orchard should be a key part of the homestead. I am not myself the world’s best orchardist, so I won’t pretend to be. I will advise strongly that you should plant your fruit trees as soon as you can—they take awhile to begin fruiting. Also, most (not all) fruit species need a lot of discipline—that is, they need more pruning than you might at first think wise, every year. Pruning is as much art as science, and I’m not very good at it. A major goal of pruning is to open the tree up to more light and air circulation—that’s the easy part. Pruning to guide future growth—that is, to shape the architecture of the mature tree—is more challenging. Get a good book and keep trying. Better yet, find someone in your area who’s an experienced hand at the game, and offer to help with their pruning in order to learn.
The small orchard we’ve established at Boxwood illustrates the point that not much space is required for one. At present, we have apples Jonagold (our favorite), Winesap, Albemarle Pippin, William's Pride, Liberty, Black Arkansas, Yellow Delicious, and Macfree; pears Magness (usually considered the highest quality dessert pear resistant to fire blight), Moonglow, Tyson, and Seckel; plums Shiro, Stanley, and Mount Royal; cherries Stella, Ranier, Sweet September, and Ulster; Oriental persimmons Sheng, Ichi Ki Kei Jiro, and Smith's Best or Goboshi; pawpaws (three Davis seedlings); and mulberries (one white, two black). (The mulberries are nice to ``graze,'' and Ellen freezes some, but they also have value as a ``trap'' fruit: The birds prefer the mulberries, so tend to leave the cherries alone.)
In the past year or two, I have planted some less common fruit trees and shrubs: bush cherries Jan and Joel and Nanking (white and red), Asian pears Hosui and Korean Giant, jujube Li and Lang, che, gooseberries (three varieties), currants (two varieties), jostaberry, and elderberries (from wildlings in the area).
Other small fruits include plantings of brambles (three varieties of blackberries, four of raspberries, plus wineberries or “Japanese raspberries”), grapes (three varieties), blueberries (nine, each a different variety), and strawberries.
One thing I learned only recently: Apparently grass is not the best ground cover under orchard trees. I have read that Michael Phillips (orchardist and author of The Apple Grower) has replaced grass under his trees with comfrey, which he finds a greatly superior ground cover. I have started replacing grass in my orchard with comfrey, clovers, and other species.
Don’t forget nut trees when planning an orchard. One of my greatest regrets is that I did not plant nuts when we first moved onto our place two decades ago. Now I am determined to get some nut crops going, so will be planting a large number of nut trees over the next two years. What a pity that some species can take 10-12 years to come into bearing! Fortunately, many grafted selections (named cultivars) come into fruiting considerably earlier than seedlings.
If you have any woodlot at all, there are further opportunities for producing food for your family. I have been growing shiitake mushrooms for years, and can recommend them as quite easy. Hardwoods are best for shiitake cultivation, oaks are better, and white oaks are best of all. Note that the shiitake mushroom naturally grows in trees that have just died—it does not colonize wood that is long dead, and further along in the decay cycle. Thus you should cut your logs from living young trees of an appropriate (i.e., easily handled) size, during the dormant season (only!). Say you cut in early February. In early March, you drill holes in the logs, inoculate with the mushroom mycelium in some form (there are several options), and rack the logs for the “spawn run” or incubation period, during which the mycelium is spreading through the softer tissues of the wood (the cambium layer just below the bark, and the sapwood) and converting the cellulose and lignin to stored energy. During this period the logs—kept in woods-edge conditions, about 85 percent shade—should be watered occasionally to keep the tissues in which the mycelium is growing from drying out. The following spring—or possibly even the first fall—the mycelium has stored enough energy to enable fruiting—i.e., make babies. A period of soaking lasting two or three days (which mimicks a period of heavy rain, which would trigger fruiting in wild shiitake) induces fruiting. That is, mushrooms (which actually are not the shiitake fungus itself, only the reproductive structure it grows for making spores) start popping out, right through the bark of the logs. Imagine the sight of up to two dozen beautiful mushrooms posing on a single log. And the quality when the conditions are right cannot be beat: I’ve compared my own production with shiitake on offer at Dean & Deluca for $12 per pound, and it’s“no contest”!
I’ve expanded a bit on shiitake production, but actually there are a number of mushrooms of easy culture—oyster mushroom, blewits, king stropharia, and chicken-of-the-woods. Some such as oyster mushroom are cultivated like shiitake, others like blewits and stropharia can be grown in landscape and garden mulches. A number of species, including chicken-of-the-woods, can be inoculated in stumps of recently felled trees, an excellent substrate, since the roots help retain the moisture in the stump. Harvesting mushrooms from stumps in this way greatly speeds their breakdown.
I really love getting a harvest without doing a lot of work, since as I told you I’m a lazy homesteader. So I’m excited about the prospect of inoculating for mushroom production when doing clearing operations in woods—with every cut of the chainsaw. That’s right—one can now purchase “mycospore” oils, that is, vegetable based oils loaded with spores for various edible mushrooms. You just use the spore oil in the chainsaw in place of regular bar oil, and proceed as usual. In my case, I’ll be using oyster mushroom spore as I cut down ailanthus (heavenwood or tree of heaven), a major invasive weed tree species in my area. The wood is not dense enough to make good firewood, so I will leave the trunks where they fall, just making cuts into the trunks here and there to further inoculate with spore. The slash I will cut small enough that it’s all on the ground. The contact with the ground should help the felled trees to remain moist enough for mycelium establishment with no further effort from me. After the appropriate interval, I should start getting flushes of mushrooms after periods of rain. I won’t be in charge of the harvest schedule as I am with the shiitake logs, but there’s something to be said for reaping where I (almost) didn’t sow!
Long term management
Before leaving this section on woodlots, I must bring to your attention a national organization called Healing Harvest Forest Foundation. This is an exciting and inspiring group of people who do two things: They work with landowners to harvest timber from their woods, but in ways which keep in place a living, healthy, and productive forest throughout the years of harvest and management. And they log with horses, which means greatly reduced impact on the forest and shorter recovery time following the logging. If you have a woodlot of any size whatever and would like some assistance in managing it wisely and sustainably, get in touch with the folks at HHFF first.