Backyard Permaculture, Edible Landscaping, Mini-Orchard or Something Like That.

I’ve been on the fence about where I see myself living in the long term and this year I decided that I’ll probably stay here for a while.   I have a few fruit trees in the ground and some other edible perennials, but I’ve been a little hesitant to put things in the ground just because of the likelihood that I was going to move somewhere else.    There’s a lot of good reasons for me to stay put in this house (for one, I’ll have it paid off by the time I’m 39 at the current rate) and unless I do something like marry Mrs. Duggar, it’ll probably meet every need I’ll have in the future.

Not only was the prospect of moving on my mind, I also told myself that I needed my lawn for my dogs.    This is true, but it dawned on me that the majority of the tree exists in the air and underneath the ground and there’s usually only a small trunk at the surface level.  No shit, Ryan.    Putting in a few trees wouldn’t take hardly anything at all from the dogs.   They might even like having more things to run around, more things to observe and more shady spots in the summer.

I’ve had my order out for plants for quite a while and I’m fine-tuning my plans for where things are going.   I called the utility companies the other day to get them to mark out the lines, so hopefully they get here tomorrow.   Then over the next few daysI’ll put the trees and shrubs in.

I have the following trees coming:  Plum, Crabapple, Sweet Pit Apricot, Cherry, a 5-in-1 Pear and a mini-dwarf apple.    I picked up a few more container-sized trees – two Evereste Crabapples and a Necta Zee nectarine.

I have raspberries, several currants, elderberries, sea buckthorn, gojis, Nanking cherries, kiwi, Rugosa roses, maypop and a few other odds and ends coming too.

The plan this year is to put down the trees and start working on a food forest where I’ll have the trees surrounded by layers of shrubs, herbs, roots and vines.    I’d like to put in a brick path that leads to….somewhere and have this path lined with shrubs and mini-dwarf trees.

My front yard is fairly shady with a few partial-shade spots and a bit of full sun areas.   Right now I have a little bit of catnip, a dwarf peach tree and about a dozen or two strawberry plants here and there but I’d like to get more production out of the front.   Right now I’m thinking of taking a sunny space about 3′ x 20′ on the side of the house and filing it with edible ornamentals as well as putting in crabapple and cherry trees and maybe elderberries.

Another project I’d like to tackle is the issue of my deck.   It’s a nice deck and very big but it’s kind of miserable during the day in the summer just because it’s so damn hot.   I’d like to make the space productive and nice to hang out in, but it’s hard to get things to grow in containers with the sun constantly beating down on it.    It’s really nice at night though.   I’m not sure if I want to build a trellis over part of it but I suppose that’s an option.

I’ve drawn up a rough plan for what I have and have coming and will post pictures and updates as I go as well as some of my thoughts and anything I come across that I feel is worth sharing with the world.    The more I think about it, I have a lot of possibilities with my less than a quarter acre lot and no reason NOT to go wild.   My neighbors probably already think I’m a little weird, I don’t see myself trying to sell the place anytime soon and my dogs will be fine.

My Mini-Orchard and Backyard Fruit Production

The third time is a charm.    Two years ago I planted two mini-dwarf Jonagold apples in containers.   They looked great until one windy fall day a strong wind snapped them in two.    Last year I ordered several mini-dwarf trees and ended up killing them all due to the weather and a few really stupid mistakes (like forgetting to put drainage holes in the containers and then getting a torrential downpour, possibly over-fertilizing with rabbit manure, poor mulching and not having enough organic matter in the soil to allow oxygen to circulate).       So I’ve made some expensive mistakes, but I figure that if I don’t learn from then and try again it will be a complete waste…. This year is going to be different.

So far I’ve put in two mini-dwarf Jonagolds and an Enterprise.   I just picked up a two year old columnar apple from a garden center as well.   I’m planning on visiting that garden center again right before they close on the 4th of July to see if they have any more of these trees on sale.    I also put a Pix-Zee mini-dwarf tree into the ground in my front yard and right now it looks great.      I ordered three beach plums, which are kind of like a shrub.    Only one of them is growing, but that’s ok.   They were only a couple of dollars and if one takes, I’ll be happy.        My crabapple and stella cherry I put in the ground last year are growing, although they didn’t grow as much as I would’ve liked last year.

I have four or five large containers open that are suitable for mini-dwarf trees and I’ve been doing what I can to get the soil ready for trees.    I’ve been stirring up the dirt and trying to work more carbon material in.   I drilled a lot of holes into all of my containers so they should have good drainage and I’m hoping to get some good worm activity in each one, so they’re more like an extension of the earth rather than a large plastic bucket with a lot of dirt in it.      Hopefully I’ll be able to fill them this fall.

I planted three currants (two red, one black), three lignonberries and one gooseberry in containers.   I put one blueberry into the ground and that’s doing well.      My blackberry patch is three years old now and going apeshit.   I can’t remember if I started with two or three canes of two varieties and now there’s probably about a dozen including a few black raspberry canes that made it over from the guy next door.    I have three aronia bushes which are growing kind of slow due to limited solar exposure.   I tried to transplant them the other day to a sunnier area, but their roots were too deep so I gave up – I guess that’s a good sign.  Hopefully this year they bear fruit.    Last year was rough because it got warm quickly and then we had a late frost while everything was flowering.

Last year my kiwis didn’t do anything because of that cold snap.   All they did was stay alive, which I guess I should be thankful for.   I think they’re starting to grow this year and hopefully I get some kiwis out of them.      I put in two grapevines this year, one that I’m going to train to climb my deck and one that I want to train along a privacy fence.    Both are growing, so we’ll see what happens there.

Last year I didn’t get any strawberries, or at least not many.    I think this was in part due to the cold snap and a puppy that trampled them.   I think there was also a bit of confusion between me and the wife over who was going to water them and pick them that year too.     This year I have about twenty plants in whiskey barrels that are starting to put on baby strawberries.  They’ve also spread outside of the barrels into the ground around them.    I put in about fifteen plants, including a few everbearing varieties into a rockbed on the front of my house.    Hopefully they go nuts.   The nice thing about a sprawling plant like that is that they’ll go anywhere they can grow.   My front yard is shady so planting anything can be hit or miss – the strawberries themselves can determine the right spots to grow better than I can.       I don’t know if I’ll get much out of the new plants, but if so that should be a pretty good haul.

The funny thing about having all of this is that my average-sized yard really doesn’t seem all that busy.     Here in Zone 5, there’s all kinds of things that can grow here.    There’s all kinds of things that grow anywhere.   If people would open up to the idea of putting in plants that produce fruit over purely ornamental ones as well as the idea of eating a wider variety of fruits, we probably wouldn’t need to fly in as many strawberries from California or Mexico or apples from Chile.

Another cool thing about most of these plants is that once they’re established, they don’t take much work.     My blackberries, for instance, I took about five to ten minutes to prune back the canes this year.   I haven’t watered them at all (but then again, we’ve had a ton of rain).   I know where they’re going to grow every year and when.   That takes away a lot of the guess work/planning that comes with annual plants.

Right now I’m working on the soil in a few of the containers and hopefully I’ll fill them with some more mini-dwarf trees in the fall.    I’ve been stopping by a certain garden center to see if they have trees on sale – if there’s a good enough discount, I’ll clean them out of columnar apples.

I also planted about a dozen ground cherry plants around the yard, hoping that they end up taking off on their own next year.   They are a wild edible in this part of the world.

Here’s a few photos:


A line of mini-dwarf apple trees behind my raised beds.   The first one is a columnar something-or-other and then there’s the jonagolds and enterprise.   Further down the line are currants and gooseberries.




Pix-Zee mini-dwarf peach tree with some strawberries in the rock bed.

The Mini-Orchard Is En Route

After racking up a large shopping cart at Raintree Nursery, I finally pulled the trigger and ordered some trees.   Off the top of my head I ordered the following:


3 mini-dwarf apples –   Jonagold, Enterprise and Honeycrisp variety

5 columnar apples – Scarlet Sentinel –   these are a couple feet wide and 7′-9′ tall when mature.

1 Stella dwarf cherry

2 dwarf Empress peaches

1  Necta Zee dwarf nectarine

1  Centennial semi-dwarf crabapple  –

1  Chicago Fig

1  Russian Tea plant

From a different company I ordered miniature orange, lime, lemon and tangerine trees as well as a miniature pomegranate and a “cold hardy” banana.   These (along with the tea and figs) will have to come inside during the winter.   I plan on putting in the effort to maintain these trees, but to be perfectly honest I’ll consider any produce received from these trees as a blessing.   The price for these plants was low enough to take a chance on them, but I’m a little skeptical.   I know for sure they’re not going to be loaded with fruit like the trees in the picture.   If it does work out, how cool would that be?

All of these trees/plants (with the exception of the crabapple and cherry) can be grown in containers.   This makes sense for me because I would like to not be at my current location in a few years and it would be nice to be able to move the trees within my yard and possibly to a different location if we do move.  The plan right now has us keeping this home as a rental, so if we put in a couple trees we will still more or less have access to them.  Worst case scenario, we’ll have done something nice for the new owners and be out $50 (unless they add to the property value and appeal?).

We won’t get any production this year from the trees, but there’s a chance that we could start seeing fruit next year.    The trees in addition to everything else going on will keep us busy, but it should be a rewarding endeavor.    They should arrive around the middle of April and I’ll have containers and soil waiting for them…

First Plantings

The other day I decided that it was time to plant some spring vegetables.   I had a small area with swiss chard, dill, radishes, spinach, arugula and butterhead lettuce planted in a cold frame a week earlier, but with what looks like a weeks worth of unseasonably warm temperatures, I think we’re in the clear to start some things without the aid of the cold frame.

I planted beets, radishes, arugula, fava beans, snow peas, spinach, salad greens, mustard greens, carrots, fennel, parsnips, collard greens and swiss chard.

It looks like my spinach from last fall overwintered well.  In fact, we had a spinach salad last night.   Right now that spinach is going nuts growing, which is a plus.    There are some collards and chard that made it through the winter, as well as some kale plants that are beginning to regrow after being harvested last fall.    A good amount of kohlrabi that I planted too late in the season last year made it through the winter and looks like it will be ready shortly.   I also see a few leeks sprouting back up, as well as some garlic and a random onion (every little bit helps, I guess).

In January I intended on lining a repurposed small animal cage that I had filled with dirt to grow lettuce with plastic to make a greenhouse.   I had some difficulty making that work, but I planted some lettuce and radishes during that time.   Obviously they didn’t do anything in January, but I’m now seeing these seeds beginning to sprout, which is a pleasant surprise.

I had some problems with getting my cabbage and other brassica seeds to sprout possibly due to using water from a bucket that had vinegar residue (for cleaning) to water them.   I’m debating on whether or not I can pull off cabbage in the spring, but at any rate I’m going to get some new seeds going for tomatoes, some herbs and peppers shortly.

I still have some work to do on building new beds and acquiring soil.    Mushroom dowels have been ordered and I found a good source of logs.    So far things are looking up, all things considered.

Early Progress in the 2012 Gardening Season

So far things are looking good and all the warm weather has me thinking that spring will be here at any moment, but I know that mother nature can throw a curve ball every now and then.   I’m hoping that in the next two weeks I can start things from seed like radishes, beets, turnips, greens and lettuce.   We’ll see.

Last night I picked up enough lumber to build 3 4×8 garden beds.   I’d like to have those clobbered together within the next two weeks and then start procuring soil/yard debris to fill them in.   Last year I used a ton of sticks and leaves as filler material at the bottom of the beds, which meant that I needed less soil.  It also means that I’ll have more decaying organic material and a store of water, per the principles of hugelkultur.     I’m not sure if I’ll have enough room for a fourth bed (bringing the grand total to eight beds), but if I do I’m sure I’ll put it in.     The beds are fairly easy to construct, so that’s not a big deal.  It’s just a matter of finding the time and decent weather.

While going through my current beds, I found some carrots that appear to have overwintered, as well as a lone onion.    It appears as if my kale, spinach and swiss chard overwintered as well and is beginning to show signs of life again.

In my woodworking class I finished my cold frame – this thing is a beast.    I came into the class with a general plan based off 99% of what’s out there on the internet, which is “clobber together a box, get a window, put some hinges on it and fasten it on”.   That idea wasn’t good enough for the instructor, so he got out the drawing board and designed a plan for it (I’ll post pictures shortly).   As far as posting plans, I’ll have to see if I can come up with something to modify some of the cuts as equipment that is probably not readily available to the average DIYer was used.      Five or six people signed up for the class and for the past two sessions, I was the only one that showed up so the instructor was able to put a lot of time and effort into the plans.    I think this one is definitely sound enough to get some things through the winter.

I put the cold frame out and started some spinach, butterhead lettuce, dill, swiss chard and radishes.   So far nothing has sprouted, but it should be a matter of days before I start seeing things.     It would be nice to start getting a few things from the garden around the first-middle part of April – we’ll see.

The soil cubes are off to a good start and I’m getting some sprouts.   I’m going to start some more shortly to get some herbs going.    Right now we have cabbage, a few Italian broccoli plants, a couple cauliflower seedlings and brussels sprouts as well as a mustard, collard and swiss chard seedling.   I should be looking good there.   In a few weeks I’ll start some tomato and pepper plants.

I haven’t ordered my trees yet, but it’s looking like we’ll have the largest mini-orchard in Central Iowa.    I have about $600 worth of plants in my Raintree Nursery wishlist.   I’ve been sitting on it for a few days to see if I *really* think I need everything, but I think we can handle all of those trees, I think they’ll be worth it, we’ll be able to take them with us when/if we move and it should be fun.     Planting that many trees into large containers will be a chore, but manageable.

I need to get a new rain barrel after last year’s collapsible one broke.   This was my fault – I put it on uneven ground and it filled up during a storm and fell over – the force of the water tore the top off.   I bought a collapsible one because I thought I was going to use it at an offsite garden.   Had it been on level ground, I think it would have actually been a good piece of gear to have, considering you can easily store it away in the off season and it would be good for temporary situations (renters, offsite gardening, etc).  Here is a link to it:   Smart Solar Rain Barrel  .    Iowa Prison Industries was taking reclaimed 55 gallon drums and adding the necessary hardware to them and selling them at a low price ($20 if memory serves me right).

I also need to procure some hardwood logs soon in order to get some mushrooms started.   I totally dropped the ball on this one last year.   Mushrooms do better in wood harvested early in the spring, so I need to start getting serious about this one.    I know of a property I can check out for fallen/about to fall branches and if that doesn’t work, I might contact a park ranger and ask if he knows of any recently fallen trees I can take from.   You never know…

So everything is starting to come together right now.    I think we’re set for a good year in 2012.