4 Steps to a Permaculture Backyard Garden this Spring

1. Map your garden.

If you haven’t done so already, create a basic garden map. This should include the property lines and any topography or other salient features like existing fences, trees, or water features.

Next, add an overlay or separate version of the map that indicates how much sun various areas get. Plants need the right amount of sun.

yellow tulip flower field during daytime
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2. Repair and maintain fences, raised beds, and any other artificial structures.

Walk around the garden. Inspect everything. There may not be much to do, or there may be quite a bit of wear and tear since last year’s growing season.

Depending on the climate, this step might also include replacing garden hoses or getting seasonal items out of storage. Garden items also include the picnic table and fire pit for my household.

3. Prune trees and mulch or compost the old growth from last year.

Oh, the first pruning of the apple trees. They were just planted last year, and the majority of the new growth in the branches had to be removed. This lets the root growth catch up, but it feels so brutal.

Not everyone feels the need to prune trees if they are approaching the garden from a permaculture perspective. That is okay too.

If all the old growth was left to over-winter, a certain amount of rearranging is in order, such as discarding the spent second-year berry canes from last year.

close up photography of yellow flowers
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4. Plan your plantings and start any seeds indoors that need a head start on the season

This is the fun part! For zones 8-10, late freezes are much less of a concern. Farther north, it makes sense to start a few seedlings indoors if you are so inclined.

As the garden matures, there will be fewer and fewer new plantings in the spring. In my garden, I just have to have annuals such as tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, and pumpkins.

Seed saving last year was limited to a few different legumes and some nasturtiums.

With hazelnuts, roses, apples, walking onions, blackberries, and a few other perennials coming along, it is set to be an exciting year!

Backyard Orchard Apple Trees

The backyard orchard starts with trying something

This year, I tried adding two apple trees to start a backyard orchard. I really hope they survive the winter. There are already hazelnuts and blackberries growing, but planting trees took a backseat since they are rather large and hard to move once in place.

net bag with ripe apples on sofa
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I am in Zone 5, which narrowed down the initial selection. Gala apples are one of my favorites and are self-fertile as well as relatively early ripening, so that ended up being tree number one.

The second tree took some thought. I wanted a jack of all trades variety that would also be a good pollinator combination with the Gala.

Ultimately, I went with a variety that was new to me, the Pristine early-ripening variety. It ripens as early as July which sounded appealing given our limited growing season.

Lazy permaculture to build the backyard orchard

Fruit trees take several years to produce, so I’m not counting on apples right away. But I have visions of snacks and pies and canned preserves. Maybe even cider.

Hopefully, both trees survive! I was able to get both into the ground the day after they arrived. They are in a semi-sheltered location that does not tend to saturate (in spite of clay soil) and I think they get adequate sun.

ripe red apples on grassy ground
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Protecting the apple trees

I sprayed once with neem oil after noticing aphids, but I think between rain and wasps they may balance out mostly on their own. I might introduce ladybug larvae in the spring as well.

There is fencing in place to ward off deer. Aside from that, I have not wrapped the trunks or sprayed dormant oil, mainly due to limited time and energy for this project.

Having read somewhere that alliums play well at the base of apple trees, I did introduce some Egyptian onions (aka walking onions). Those have been flourishing in a container planter for a couple of years now. They are well acclimated. They are a fairly indestructible perennial to begin with.

Anyway, several bunches of walking onions had sprouted in the mulch around the Gala especially. Now that the weather is turning in earnest, I hope those come back in the spring too.

Early beginnings orchard

The other big investment I considered was pears, but I wanted to be really sure if the desired site. Also, I couldn’t decide on a variety.

I did get a second small lemon tree, but of course those have to come inside over the winter.

I also came across a FIG variety that is marketed as being hardy down to zone 5.

Needless to say, a couple of those are dormant in the garage, but no matter how hardy they are, I think they have a better chance of survival being planted next spring.

two person standing between green leaf trees
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Mimicking natural forests

In nature, forests have numerous layers including a canopy and understory layer, smaller shrubs and ground cover.

So how did we incorporate these ideas in our garden this year? We added the apple trees. We continued to cultivate blackberries—which are amazingly hardy and productive.

I added the perennial alliums, walking onions, under the apple trees. For ground cover, I sowed white clover through the yard and garden.

Planting fruit trees is a slow starting way to grow some of your own food, but once established, the trees require less ongoing input than an annual vegetable garden. I think that if you have even a bit of outdoor space and select the tree variety carefully this is a great addition to the small homestead.

Hoping for the best! This was the last big project outdoors going into the winter. From here it’s up to the plants.

christmas table decorated with wreaths and candles
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Homestead Inspiration

Inspiration for the small homestead

Homestead inspiration in the suburbs

What is your homestead inspiration? Nutrition? Sustainability? Independence? Simple living?

With homesteading dreams, but practical constraints, it can be hard to focus on living a less consumerist life in the here and now.

Let’s live within our means.

Let’s produce more of our own food and keep our homes from being filled with a bunch of “stuff” without function or lasting value.

Finally, let’s cultivate free time, and spend it doing more than just watching TV. Yes, I love a good movie night, but I want to keep up skills and learn new skills.

red leaf on book
Photo by Davyd Bortnik

Homestead vs. practicality

Not everyone can up and move to the country, as many of us are still dependent on our jobs.

Country living homesteading (in the sense of having land and livestock) is a daily, time-consuming commitment that can take up a lot of time, effort, and resources.

It is worth counting the cost and making sure you want to do the work.

Living less wastefully

We live in a highly consumeristic, materialistic society. All too frequently, we buy things new and then send them to the landfill a short time later.

Planned obsolescence defines the lifespan of too many products.

Still, many items can be bought used (cell phones) or repaired (laptops) and a modern way of life enjoyed without fully buying into the production stream.

Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.

American proverb from the Great Depression era

Homestead inspiration for the small garden

Start small! You can do it. This is all supposed to be fun.

I believe that with life, homemaking, gardening, and even working, it is supposed to be fun. Without fun, something is not right.

I believe that in family life there is supposed to be fun in our day-to-day lives and interactions. Without fun, our relationships are out of balance.

orange fruit near pinecone gift wrap and maple leaves
Photo by Caroline Feelgood

Currently, I live in a suburb with a front yard and a backyard garden.

In our neighborhood, we get more wildlife than you might expect, which has been the primary barrier to food production.

There are also a lot of trees, which are beautiful and stately. They provide a lot of shade. Placement of plantings has to be very strategic to work around all that shade.

Now a few years into this, we are getting a few more berries, a few more squash and tomatoes, a lot more hickory nuts and just a couple of hazelnuts.

It is exciting to see our novice efforts at permaculture gardening starting to bear fruit, literally.

Here are a few of my sources of inspiration

  1. Tenth Acre Farm – Permaculture for the Suburbs
  2. Mother Earth News – 1-Acre Dreamin’
  3. Homestead.org – Permaculture Principles
  4. Atitalan Organics – Mapping Zones on Your Property
  5. Tenth Acre Farm – How to Develop the Permaculture Homestead in Phases
  6. Mother Earth News – 9 Permaculture Practices
  7. Food Tank – 16 Successful Projects Highlighting Permaculture Use

Whatever else is going on out there, when we’re on the homestead…

Let’s keep it cozy.

Fruit Trees for the Backyard

Thinking about backyard fruit trees?

Start by thinking about your motivation. What made you consider adding fruit trees to your yard in the first place? Are you interested in preserving your harvest, or just enjoying fresh fruit for a couple of months each year?

Next, what kind of fruit you and your family like to eat. If you already are eating some of your produce locally or in season, think about the types of fruit that you always look for or always notice when the season arrives. Consider some of the practical factors. Be realistic.

How much space do you have? How much work do you want to do? How long do you intend to stay at your current address? Most fruit trees take at least a few years to produce much, and many require another tree as a pollinator. Even self-fertile varieties will set more fruit if you have two trees.

It’s okay to start small. If you aren’t sure about the answers to those questions, a container plant is fine to begin with. A couple of strawberry plants, a Meyer lemon, or a fig tree, for instance. If you have a lot of area that is partially shaded, a shrub or bush may work better than a tree.

What is your climate zone?

Most of the time, it is easy to find the USDA hardiness zone for plants in the United States. Keep in mind that most food producing plants need full sunlight. I recommend making a map of your yard that firmly identifies which areas are in sun or shaded, and during which hours of the day. Then you know where trees can succeed.

You may be able to identify some generalities about the soil in your area. Is it clay, sand, or loam, primarily? Is it more acidic, or more alkaline? Often, there is a county extension service that will provide soil testing, and there are also online based services. Make sure you use a representative sample for testing.

red apples on tree

What are the benefits of fruit trees?

Fresh fruit in season, obviously. More bang for your buck in the long run, in terms of food produced per annual inputs.

Something you may not have considered is that even if you live somewhere with contaminated soil, the fruit will generally be safe to eat even if the soil contains heavy metals. While annual vegetables might need trucked-in soil with a barrier beneath it, trees are capable of filtering out this type of contamination.

Reference here: Monitoring and mitigation of toxic heavy metals and arsenic accumulation in food crops: A case study of an urban community garden

What is a fruit tree guild?

A common concept in permaculture design, a fruit tree guild mimics the way that different plants co-exist in nature. It is a community consisting of a fruit tree, understory plants, and ground cover plants, designed to produce food and herbs. The idea is simple, but this is something that I am just starting to learn about myself.

A popular blog post on the topic from Tenth Acre Farm here.

Where do I get fruit trees?

While I do advocate starting at a local nursery (if you are lucky enough to have one) or a local plant sale, I recognize that often the selection there is limited. At big box stores, the plants are often shipped all over the place and you may not really know what variety you are getting. I have obtained plants this way and had some fail, and others do just fine.

It is easy to order trees online, and I have found that there is a much wider and more specific selection of heirloom varieties and native plants such as highbush cranberries, online.

Let me know what fruit trees you might be thinking of planting. Are there other permaculture concepts catching your imagination lately?

September starts tomorrow and I am dreaming of all the kinds of pie…

Let’s keep it cozy.