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Planting Edible Landscapes for a Sustainable Food System

Painting by Gabriel Tempesta, courtesy of David Fried

Painting by Gabriel Tempesta, courtesy of David Fried

By David Fried

As you walk the hills and valleys of Vermont you will see apples, hazelnuts, butternuts, rhubarb, raspberries, juneberries and the occasional plum or pear tree. Almost every home, every farm, every road has some of these fruits and nuts growing. Long before “edible landscaping” became a popular idea, Vermonters knew and understood that fruits and nuts that come back every year without doing anything are good to have around.

Every spring we have to start our seeds, till or turn over our garden or field, and plant vegetables or grains. Plant a fruit tree or a nut tree once and it can provide bountiful crops for over a hundred years! The squirrels, the blue jay, and the deer know it. They spread the seeds of the fruits or bury the nuts here and there, and voila! A fruit grove appears! Now they will have food to stock up on before winter. We can learn from these locals.

As I picked up a heavy nut yesterday, that had fallen from a black walnut tree, I told my visitor: “wow, I planted this tree 30 years ago and I have been harvesting walnuts for 20 years now and I dont have to do anything to feed or take care of it. The main thing is for us humans not to hurt the tree with mowers or vehicles or string trimmers and to protect them from animals when they are young.”

You dont have to be a squirrel to plant nut trees. Simply gather a nut or two (or a few handfuls), make a hole in the earth with a stick, and drop them in. “Double the height of the nut deep” is a good guide. You can plant them in forest clearings, in parks, or on the edge of fields. Imagine if everywhere we went, there were nut trees growing!

If you have a home and some land, you can plant them in October or November in garden beds or in a row, a few inches apart. Cover the nuts with a piece of hardware cloth (strong metal mesh) to keep squirrels and voles off the nut seeds. Mark the individuals or the rows with a stake, so you can remember where they are planted. When they come up in the spring, flag each one. You can move them to their permanent spot later, whenever the leaves are off the trees.

Although deer and other animals inadvertently plant apple and pear trees as they move about eating them, you will probably be happier planting a great proven cultivar from your local nursery; nurseries grafti the tastiest ones that have been proven already in your area. Fall is an excellent time to plant, as the ground is moist until summer. You have to water a lot less and your new trees will not be stressed by the heat of an oncoming summer.

Last week I designed a “forest edge snack walk” for a customer. As they leave their home for a walk, hazelnuts will on their left, and purple raspberries to the right. Going up their hill they will have the choice of pine nuts, haskaps and aroniaberries. In the wetter areas there will be elderberry and wild raisin to taste on their walk. Reaching the top of the hill, there will be a bench with a view between two apple trees.

This is the kind of homegrown sustainable food system that will not require any care other than keep a mowed or well-worn foot path, leading to the great outdoors and a trail with many interesting and tasty destinations along the way. Thirty years from now, these fruit and nut and berry plants will probably still be producing food. The deer, blue jays and squirrels may have exported some of their favorites over to your neighborhood by then, too.

David Fried has been planting and growing fruit trees and nut trees and berry plants and natives in Elmore, Vermont at Elmore Roots Nursery for 35 years. Learn more at www.elmoreroots.com or (802) 888-3305

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