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Under-stories: Growing Fruits and Nuts in a Small Space

By David Fried

What if you could grow nine types of fruits and nuts in the space that you would need to turn around with your arms outstretched? If you have one spot in your yard where you can do this and it gets at least one half to three quarters of a day of sunlight, you will be amazed at what you can harvest. Let me tell you how.

All plants that make fruit and nuts need sunlight. If you can arrange them so the tallest ones are to the north and the shortest ones are to the south, you get a great vertical wall of sunlight penetrating to the leaves of each of your plants and trees. The leaves are like little efficient solar collectors, so they maximize the sun’s energy that they get and turn it into fruits and nuts.

Let’s start with the shortest choices for trees or bushes. The American Lowbush Cranberry, Swedish Lingonberry and Lowbush Blueberry can all share the mulch layer and only rise up about six to eight inches from the earth. Set them one to two feet apart and they will fill in the spaces under the shrub layer above them. Plant two Half High Blueberry bushes above them – different varieties for pollination – about four feet apart. (Remember to plant the taller plants to the north so that their understories all get some light from the south).

Above the blueberries, but to the north, you can plant hazelberts and elderberries, two of each, about five feet apart. They will hover above the blueberries but not shade them out, because they are planted to the north. They also do not mind a bit of shade from the trees that you will plant above them.

Paintings by Vermont artist Gabriel Tempesta

Paintings by Vermont artist Gabriel Tempesta

Now plant an apple tree. The local pollinators will find another wild apple or flowering crab to pollinate your apple tree. Or, plant two different cultivars of pear trees. Be sure to plant either of these trees to the north of the hazelberts and elderberries. Space these trees about eight feet apart.

That could be the top of your canopy of fruit and nuts, or you can take a few steps to the north and plant a Korean Nut Pine. It is slow growing but over time will grow into a great specimen, visited by birds and squirrels. This tree will also produce your own pine nuts one day, here in the northeast.

Growing tips: keep the ground mulched with bark mulch or grass clippings and add compost each spring.

Before long you will have a fruit and nut grove in a small area. As you sit on a bench nearby, all the songbirds will sing their thanks to you, the squirrels and butterflies will visit you more often and the now rich soil life will twist and turn in their rich and fluffy earth world. You are now the creator and director of this simple but intertwined new creation called “under-stories.” The trees and shrubs will now do the work while you enjoy the view and the harvests.

David Fried is the propagator, grower and writer at Elmore Roots Nursery in Elmore, Vermont.

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