Thursday, 21 February 2013

Why Tree Crops?

Its February 2013, and here in Atlantic Canada, thoughts are turning towards the new growing season. Where we are, the growing season starts quite late for annuals but usually the tree season is a lot better. So in this post, I will go through some pros and cons of planning tree crops in to your growing plans for this growing season and many more to come.

First of all, lets get the bad news out of the way with the Cons of Trees;
You wouldn't believe how many people don't think about this, so that's why I'm putting it first. Find out to what size your favourite tree grows to before you decide you can't do without it, and if space is an issue always go by the maximum range. This makes checking the specific strain of the tree very important, as sometimes different strains of the same species are encouraged to be low-growing and others high-growing. Yes, certain kinds of trees can be pruned back quite severely, but fruit-type pruning messes up the growing patterns of trees and makes them quite reliant on human intervention. It's your choice either way, just be aware that once you start pruning you will have to continue that practice.
Knowing the size and the species/strain of the tree you're thinking of planting is very important for many reasons, roots can drill into house foundations for one example (Wheeping Willows have extremely extensive root systems that can be many times more the size of the actual tree), mistakenly blocking the winter sun from the house for another. You also need to plan in where your roads and paths between the planted trees are going to be and if you're going to be using equipment of any size in the area after planting. Even wheelbarrows can damage a tree if banged hard enough and if you don't plan in enough room between mature trees, there will be lots of bumping.
Which will inevitably lead to the next point;

Now, here is where people get things either a little bit backwards, or a lot backwards. People think that cankers and parasites and fungal disease attack healthy trees in healthy environments. Let me make something clear: Trees that succumb to rot and disease are not healthy trees in a healthy environment. Trees are, when left to their own devices, well able to look after themselves. But there's not a single tree anywhere within the reach of Man that is now left to its own devices. Whether it's through the poisons in the the air and the water, the concrete, the ashphalt, the knocks and scrapes and car fenders and drunken idiots tearing branches and strips of bark off for some moronic proto-amusement, trees around humans are badly affected every day, many are teetering every day. And when that last extra bit of weight lands on the wrong side of the scale, the tree succumbs and dies or has to be chopped down in an attempt to save other trees. This is what actually happens when an Elm is cut down for Dutch Elm Disease, it was a sick tree before the beetle arrived with the fungus in its mandibles, the fungus just finished it off.
Does this mean that the pests and diseases don't appear in natural populations? No, but in a natural system, only the weak and sickly trees are killed off, and there's no such thing as a monoculture in nature so pests and diseases don't get a chance to wipe out acres and acres of forest in one clean sweep e.g. the Spruce Budworm. A terrifying threat in monoculture plantations, a tasty treat for a bird in natural forests.

You don't want a monoculture plantation in your backyard, good for you. But
the lesson is still the same, healthy soil + healthy environment = healthy trees. The very best way to deal with pests and diseases  in trees is to make healthy trees. I will be going into the hows of doing this in a later post, but there's plenty of info on the Internet if you can't wait.

Now for the biggest con of trees of all:

Trees take time. Regardless of the purpose that you'll be putting the tree to, fruits or timbers, shade or mulch, it will take time to grow. Depending on the tree, purpose and climate, the time could be between 3 and 300 years. For the sake of your budget and peace of mind, make sure you know how long it will take to get what you want. Five years is not long to wait to get a bushel off a good fruit tree, but if you have it in your head that it you should get it after 1, well you're just giving yourself stress and headaches because it's not going to happen.

For this reason, tree crops (in other than a commercial setting due to sheer mass) will always be a medium and/or long-term component of your plan depending on the type and purpose, but not a short-term one. Plan for different food or income sources to get you through the lag time or you may not be able to enjoy the trees yourself when they're finally ready to repay your efforts.

Okay, that's the bad news in as much as I can see it. In later posts, we will detail how to get around much of those, opportunities, but for now, lets talk about the Pro's of Trees;

Saves you money and effort:

Picking the right tree and placing  it in the right spot can save you a lot of money. Trees break the impact of energies coming onto a site. (Remember the zones and sectors we talked about before in a previous post?) Trees are a valuable tool in deflecting or diminishing the impact of your unwanted sectors like wind, sun, sight, smell, noise and more. Using them to block cold winter winds and the hot summer sun from the house will save a lot of money in home heating and cooling costs, just to start with.   
Trees also directly benefit the hydrology of a site, how much water the soil can hold and in what form. Established trees with their massive network of root systems and vast amounts of leaf surface area, kick-start the hydrological cycle in any site that they are introduced to, simply by doing what plants do, photosynthesising and transpiring. By ensuring that your growing spaces are heavily mulched, you are working with your trees to keep as much moisture and organic matter in the soil as possible instead of loosing it to the wind and the rain and, if you put the right trees in, after a while you can even get your mulch from your trees too, zero cost or transportation needs. Just chop and drop.

Food Supply
Once fruiting trees become established, they provide a lot of food. Between drying, fermenting, canning, processing into jams and chutneys and pie fillings and even eaten straight off the tree, there are many ways to enjoy the harvest both at the time and clear through to the next spring. If you have enough, there's even an additional income stream.

It kind of goes without saying that trees bring wildlife of all kinds, though in the beginning it tends to "just" be birds and bugs. The best thing to do is to be aware and plan for that, because while songbirds are great, a caterpillar infestation isn't. Incorporating more predator habitats like birdbaths and amphibian-friendly niches will help ensure that along with the vegetarian bugs, you get their predators too, lessening the chances of a sudden plague. If you have chickens, feeding them around your trees once in a while will not only improve the soil but will also break the pest cycles as the chickens will eat all the larvae they can find.

Forestry products
Firewood is a well known use to put trees to, but there is a much less destructive method of harvesting than that used by the industrial model. It's called "coppicing" (low cut) or "pollarding" (high cut) and it involves chopping the top off certain types of tree (willow is most commonly used), letting it regrow until it's time to harvest again and the cycle continues. The really interesting part is that doing this actually extends the life of the tree. The oldest trees in Europe are coppiced trees. There are as many applications for this as there are for "normal" wood products too, from crafts to construction.

How to do this? At the right time of year, (check for your local area) you decide the height of the cut, take the whole top off (what to do with it is up to you, mulching or firewood etc) and wait. The tree will send out shoots and start re-growing dozens of twigs. If you want a straight piece of timber, cut out off all but the most central twig and let it go. If you want switches (for building or crafts), just let the lot go. Depending on the climate, you can do this every 5 to 150 years depending on your purpose. While the time of year is critical, do it right and you have a planned, sustainable source of whatever timber product you want to incorporate. Plant enough and you have an income source.

Well, there you have it, the pros and cons of incorporating productive trees into your plans for the coming growing season as I see it. If you think I left something out, or want some more information, please say so in the comment box below.

 In the next post, we will talk about how to go about planning a Food Forest.
Until then, ciao!

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