How to: build permaculture fruit tree rows

All permaculture books emphasize the need for guilds around trees.  The guilds are the collection of plants that work together to support the tree and each other.  Even through the books have diagrams on how to build them, I was still confused (maybe it’s that first level of learning thing!).  Today, we built one together with our coach, David Homa, who came down for the day, and now I understand!  It is so cool.


  • Fruit trees
  • Nitrogen fixing shrubs or trees (one for every two fruit trees)
  • Comfrey (one for every tree and N-fixer)
  • Lots of alliums
  • Daffodils
  • Insectenary flowers – can be various
  • Organic Plant-tone (all purpose plant food).


  • Garden rake
  • Small trowel
  • Possibly a shovel

1) Plan your fruit tree rows in a drawing.  I planned my trees fairly closely spaced at 6′ apart, because I intend to prune them to remain small and grow into a fruit hedge.   Every third tree has to be a nitrogen fixer (marked as SB in the drawing).  You want to keep trees of the same fruit separate so pests and diseases for specific trees have more difficulty jumping from one to the next tree.


2) Amend the soil as proposed in by your soil test (yes, it is really a good idea to do a soil test and send it off to your local agricultural center).  Rake the soil in your row out to be fairly even.

3) Mark where you are going to plant each tree, say with a little flag.  This makes your work easier (sorry the flags are a little hard to spot in the photo!)




3) Plant your tree.  You can plant each tree and plant herbs around it, or all your trees at once, and then all your herbs.   Dig a hole about twice as large as the roots (my trees were bare-root trees, so these were small-ish holes), carefully put your tree in, giving the roots room, and making sure that the soil-level will be just above the roots, and below the graft of the trees.  Back-fill the tree with the soil you dug out, and tamp down to get out the air pockets.


4) Add a rim of 6-8″ of gravel around the truck of the tree.  This is to make sure no herby plants or mulch will grow and butt up against the tender trunk.





5) Trace a second circle about 28-24″ from the trunk of the tree with your little trowel.  This will be your allium and daffodil ring – daffodils to deter furry critters, and both because their bulbs allow them to pop up early in Spring to out-compete grass, and they sort-of die back in summer when the tree wants all the water near it (see “Suppressors” in this article).  We also gave the alliums a little bit of plant-tone, an all-purpose plant feeder.


7) Halfway between each of your trees/Nitrogen fixers, plant a Comfrey – this is a basic permaculture workhorse plant that pulls minerals from deep in the earth, puts it in the leaves, which you can chop throughout the summer and drop on the ground as green, beneficial mulch.  In your imagination, draw a circle around your little Comfrey plant with a 3′ diameter (see “Accumulators” in the article for alternative plants)

8) Now you have a line of circles — the allium rings with the trees in the center, and the Comfrey plant circles.  In the spaces left by these circles, put your other herbs and flowers.  Mix in ones that are aromatic to deter pests, that attract pollinators, accumulate more minerals.  David suggested we use yarrow, echinacea, chamomile, borage, calendula, but for more options, see lists for “Attractors”, “Repellers” and “Accumulators” in the same article.

9) In our case, we have to make sure plants that were there before don’t come back (like daylilies or bittersweet).  In this case, lay a barrier, like wet newspaper around all of the plants (a little like puzzling).



10) Put mulch over the newspaper and around the plants, except where the gravel is around the tree.  I also added some decaying wood inside the allium circle, to promote mycelial growth.

In an experiment, we are also trying an alternative to steps 9) and 10) where we have laid down 4″ of aged horse manure to suppress weeds and retain moisture — following the gardening advice of Gene Logsdon in the book Holy Shit. We will report back on which experiment worked best.

Happy guilding!



The keys to happiness

The other day, I discovered the keys to happiness.  It is so simple.  I can’t believe human beings spend so much effort running after all kinds of fancy baloney – big houses, fancy trips, terrific jobs– when all the time, the keys to happiness are right in front of our noses.  Do good work. Eat good food.  In good company.

On this day, Josephine, Ruby and I were home together.  Josephine was puttering around the house, and offered to prepare lunch for us.  While she was doing this, Ruby and I were outside, building the second Hugelkultur.

Building a Hugelkultur is good work in part because it is enjoyable (although it can get a bit tedious), but also because it takes a waste product (wood that is not good for building or burning) and puts it to good use (building up better soil, and sequestering carbon).

We had dug out its bed – about a foot deep, 6′ wide and 20′ long.  On the bottom, we laid down large logs and stumps.  We covered them with some compost and loam, and then we spent a lot of time working on the second layer of wood.  This is where you take smaller branches, and you kind of weave and puzzle them together to make a dense, thick woody mat.  While we were doing it, we both felt a very, very old part of our brain stir  – we were good at weaving sticks into a mat, it came very naturally, and was very satisfying.  Could it be a slumbering innate ability to build nests, a hold-over from, say, when our ancestor mini-mammals in the dinosaur age, were scurrying in the under-brush?  Or from when our primate ancestors were building sleeping-nests in trees?    We giggled at the thought, imagining the ancient primates and ourselves.

Then Josephine called us to lunch, which we had inside.  It looked like it was going to be delicious!  She had made refried beans with guacamole and fried eggs and it was all outside on the deck table.  As I was taking off my boots, a Big Wave of Happiness flooded right over me.   ZAPPO!!  Holy canoli!   This is the life!!!  I was on cloud nine!   It was an intense physical wave; it almost knocked me off my socks.

I was having a pretty nice time before, but what just happened?! 

What happened was: a perfect confluence of the three keys to happiness – having done some good work outside, I was coming in to have some good food, in the very excellent company of my little tribe, Josephine and Ruby.

Imagine our ancestors on the African savannah — having done the good and hard work of gathering berries, making spears, or weaving together a bed of grass — a little band of people who are super-connected to each other comes together for a meal.  Pleasure ensues.  This would be one of the natural highlight of the days – and humans who would appreciate and seek this out, well, they would more likely be the ones to pass on those work-food-company appreciating genes.


Raising the food forest

When a very large project needs to be done, in traditional communities, everyone gets together for a day or a weekend, to do it together.   The Amish or Menonites in this country still do this.  A small community of skilled people can build an entire barn in just a weekend (see the chapter on this in a lovely book by an MIT grad who goes to live with a Menonite community for a year: Better Off).   In the permaculture community (can we call it that?), we do something similar.  A group of people gets together and spends the afternoon making a big push on a garden project.  Call it a permablitz, or a garden raising, or raising the food forest.

Last November, I participated in my first garden raising with the Boston Food Forest, when we planted out 40 trees and more at the Ellington Street Food Forest.   Yesterday, I went to another one in Dorchester.    Just last week, we had one of our own at Big Foot.  It was posted as an event by the Boston Food Forest Coalition (thank you!).   Who would have believed it: ten people – 7 adults and 3 kids – who I had never met before, who had no relation to me, showed up on a beautiful Sunday, based on nothing more than the promise of working hard together outside, and getting lunch.   There was Mark with his daughter Ruby, who often goes to gardenraisings; Alison, who’s interested in healthy food; Lana, who was in Newton and just checked out what good Meetups were around; Monica and her family who are starting a food forest in Canton; Taylor who is moving back to West Virginia to start a food forest there; and Alex, who splits his time between helping to set up the next FIFA World Cup and doing permaculture.  Ruby and Izzy from Olin came as well.   And Mark said he would make us all lunch.

I had expected just two people to show up but at the last minute found out via Facebook that many more were interested.  A little frantic rush around the neighborhood procured more shovels and wheelbarrows – thank you neighbors!

It was fantastic!  There is such an energy buzz when a group of human beings get together on a joint project.  We are hard-wired to do this.  It sets off a gzillion positive neurons, firing all over our bodies, sending the message, Yes, this is good!  What we raised is Hugelkultur beds — more on those in another post (basically, these are raised beds with a core of wood to increase moisture retention and soil fertility).  I put out all the tools together in a clear location and added a little “sign-in” table, where you could list tools you brought (to be sure you took them home) and give us an email so we could stay in touch.  Then, together, we dug out lilies and asters where the Hugelkultur beds were going (putting the plants in a pile to be transplanted on to the hazel hill).  Some of us dug out a base of one Hugelkultur bed, then brought in wood and discussed how to best arrange it.  Another group of us went to the base of the hazel hill where we arranged large pieces of trunks to create a long ridge that will ease the end of the slope.  We talked, we dug, we laughed.  We moved piles of stuff that we thought “No way!” could we move those.  Appropriate technology indeed: many helping human hands.  Someone always kept an eye out for the kids.  At about 1 o’ clock, Mark called us all in for lunch and we sat on the deck, eating piles of food, and all of us happy with our work, happy to be eating, and doing lots and lots of talking.  Then we went out for a few more hours and did some more work finishing our Hugelkulturs.  Really, it was pretty cool.   This day deserves LOTS of pictures.  Here they are.



Four levels of learning: reading, sharing, doing, practicing.

Learning from David – showing us how to prune elderberry trees and then making us do it.


The other day, David Homa came to work with Ruby and me for a day and walk us through a couple of aspects of building a permaculture food forest: amending the soil based on our soil tests, sheet mulch over an existing lawn, and building a hugelkultur. As I was doing these things, I could literally feel my brain taking it in, learning making new synapses – it’s a bit of a buzz, a happy feeling.  Humans like learning; we have a positive emotional response to it (research has found).

Doing the actual thing with someone is what I might call my “third level of learning”.  On the first level of learning, I read – lots and lots of books and many hours of scouring the internet for this or that specific topic.   At the end of this, I have a ton of information in my head.  In conversations I can bring up no end of interesting tidbits, but there are often little gaps in the stories.  On the second level, I take classes — like the Permaculture Design Course at Orchard Hill.  Sitting in a class — with other people and getting the information from real people — the same or similar information (as from the books) gets connected to different parts of my brain, the ones linked to “shared with people”, as well as “place”, and “experiences”.    I can sense that this solidifies the information, makes it more accessible, integrated, and organized in my brain.  On the third level, I do things with an expert.  I am (outside) on a site, and actually move my body and stuff, in the real world.  Now, the part of my brain that deals with tactile memories is activated as is the “do it this way” prioritization.

With just the first level of knowledge, I do go out and try things – in fact, I’ve gardened in this way for years — but I’m hesitant, waffle between doing it this way or that way, and do lots of all over the place internet searches.  By the time I get to the third level, I am focused, intentional, and efficient (not to mention confident).   If I keep doing it a couple of times, eventually I will actually remember it long-term – that is a fourth level.

You don’t have to do all four levels to learn something.  For example, I am learning play the violin, only on the third and fourth levels – taking lessons with Esther, doing the playing, and then practicing.  In schools, we do things mostly only on levels one and two.  Hm… is that the right way to teach all the world’s children?  But that’s another topic.

How to: lay out easily lay out paths in the garden

What you need:

Materials (see post on collecting on how to get this).

  1. Cardboard
  2. Woodchips


  1. Shovel
  2. Rake
  3. Box cutter
  4. Wheelbarrow
  5. Long stakes
  6. Long measuring tape

1) Mark the main points of your paths at strategic places with stakes.  You can find these points by measuring out two perpendicular lines with a long (say 25′) tape, and starting from locations you knew – like the property line, or the end of the driveway.  The points are the two lines cross.  Once you have these strategic points, visually lay out the rest of the path on the ground – we used 6′ tomato stakes n the ground.   Then step back and seeing if you like the curve.   If not, nudged the stakes a bit one way or the other.    This part is easier to do with two people.

2. Lay down cardboard along the path.   If this is a main path in a garden, think about its use. For example, in our garden, we maee the paths wide enough to turn a wheel barrow around.



3. Bring in your wood chips with your wheel barrow and make piles on the cardboard





4. Spread out the wood chips to an even depth of about 2 inches with your rake and your hands.





5.  And this is final result!

We make paths

Finally, late in March, the snow melted, and we were able to get back out into the garden.  Our first effort was to lay out the paths.  Paths are a garden’s arteries, ideally guiding us on pleasant and efficient ways to get from one part of the site to the other.  The also delineate the different parts of the site: the chestnut grove will be between the two main paths; the fruit grove will be to the right of the west path; the pasture starts and the end of the paths, and so forth.  This was also the first activity where we actually transformed a part of the design into real, full-size, three-dimensional space.

On March 30, Ruby and I took the design drawing outside and used the 10′ grid I had laid beneath it to measure exactly where the paths would go.  First, we measured strategic points, say,  where one path meets another, or, where there is an inflection in the curve.  Ruby thought of this, and it made our work much easier.    We carefully found these points by measuring out two perpendicular lines with a 25′ long tape, and starting from locations we knew – like the property line, or the end of the driveway.  The points would be where the two lines crossed.  Once we had these strategic points, we could visually lay out the rest of the paths by placing some of our 6′ and 8′ long tomato stakes on the ground, then stepping back and seeing if we liked the curve.   If not, we nudged the stakes a bit one way or the other.   Then, we put down cardboard as a weed barrier and covered the paths with wood chips.

The most fun was going up to the third floor and looking out Ruby’s window, and seeing our handiwork.  It was the on-paper design coming to life!   With the paths, Big Foot has taken possession the yard, given it it’s new structure.  Below is a picture from Ruby’s window.  We have been using these paths for two weeks now and they are fantastic – they are exactly where they need to be.   I always enjoy the slight meander, and I’m never tempted to take a shortcut because they connect just the right points.

The new paths in our garden.



Shoveling dirt

The past couple of days I shoveled 15,000 pounds of dirt and poop.  Yep.  And I — a moderately fit, middle-aged lady — did it with a shovel.    I know, because the weight-limit on the rented flat-bed truck was 3,000 pounds, which I reached four times, and nearly reached another 3 trips.  OK, I had some help.  The dirt and the poop was loaded into the back of a truck with a front-loader, and I drove the truck into our driveway.  But from there, all of it got hand-pushed on to our driveway with my shovel.

I had a good time meeting people who traffic in dirt and poop.  The dirt came from the Needham dump (recycling and transfer station, RTS).  I walked into the office and found a bunch of guys in neon jackets converged there — morning break — so everyone heard that I wanted a very large pile of loam (usually it is sold to residents by the bucket, not the truckload).  A guy named Dave volunteered to get it for me and he loaded the truck with a little front-loader.  Then I went home, shoveled it all off the truck, and drove back to the RTS for more, five times.  Dave did four of my loads and a guy whose name I did not catch, did one.   They were all super nice about it, and we had a good time!   The loam is composted from Needham’s fallen leaves – fall trash.  The horse-poop came from a horse farm – Sunny Ridge Farm — where it was loaded on to the truck by a no-nonsense woman my age, who gave it away for free.  Horse poop happens!

Dave loading loam into the back of my truck at the Needham RTS

Shoveling 15,000 pounds of dirt by hand takes time — about 7 hours, so I was able to hone my shovel-dirt-and-shit-off-the-truck skills (always handy).  First, I tried using the short shovels.  Way too hard on the back!  Ouch!  I recalled a description of using knees and legs with a long pitch-fork from the book “Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind“.  Indeed, the long-handled shovel worked much better.  I experimented with swooping motions, like a scythe – that works pretty well.  Then I tried scooping the dirt, using the shovel a bit like a canoe paddle – good for getting stuff from the back of the truck.  Pushing the dirt – like in curling – works pretty well for those last couple of feet.   Initially, I worked from the end of the truck to the back.  This is great at first – all the dirt goes right off in a single swoop – but then stinks when you get to the back of the truck and have to take two passes – one to get the dirt to the end of the truck and the second to toss it off.  Double work right when you’re getting tired.  Better to work your way along the side of the pile in 3 or four passes so you distribute that back of the truck nastiness.   I can tell you, I felt like I had moved mountains, I was very, very proud of myself.

Shoveling dirt off the flat-bed truck using the “push” method. 🙂