fruitful landscapes: the start of a food forest, with michael judd

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THE TERM “food forest” from the permaculture world sounds big—like if I suggested you start one, you’d probably say, “I don’t have room for a forest of any kind.”

But today’s guest bets that most of us who garden have room for at least a little bit of fruity deliciousness in the form of a tree or two, underplanted with some carefully chosen companions. Maybe where a portion of the front lawn is right now, and maybe emphasizing native fruiting species.

Maryland-based Michael Judd is a longtime champion of edible landscaping, the author of various books, including “For the Love of Pawpaws” (affiliate link), and hosts an annual pawpaw festival each September. Lately he’s even the creator of a new app called Fruit Patch to help you get started on your own little food forest. (Above, flowers of one of Michael’s favorites, the pawpaw; photo by Jonathan Palmer, KYSU Land Grant Program.)

Plus: Comment in the box near the bottom of the page to enter to win a copy of “For the Love of Pawpaws.”

Read along as you listen to the Aug. 14, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

making room for fruiting plants, with michael judd

 

 

Margaret: Is harvest time going on down there?

Michael: Oh, yes. Harvested a bunch of American elderberries and beach plums today with my little girl, and we’re going to make some popsicle juice out of it.

Margaret: I know, you make the most interesting recipes because of course elderberries, you don’t kind of take them off the plant and shove them in your mouth at most points in their ripeness. But yeah, you make syrups and juices and popsicles and all kinds of great stuff.

Michael: Yeah. One of our favorites is food forest jam, which varies with the harvest season, but one of the bases of that is sort of black currant and black aronia, elderberry. And then we sweeten that up with some goumi or some beach plums or Nanking bush cherries. And so there are all these different combinations that are exquisite. Very, very tasty.

Margaret: Not that you have a lot of fruit or anything over there [laughter].

Michael: Gotta do something with it.

Margaret: How many pawpaw trees?

Michael: Oh gosh, at least a hundred.

Margaret: Uh-huh? And how many persimmons, American persimmons? [Laughter.]

Michael: Oh, American persimmon. You’re hitting on my sweet notes now. It’s probably a similar number of American persimmons. And if you’ve never had a select American persimmon, it is one of the most exquisite fruits on the planet, it is delicious. Not like a lot of people’s experience with a native American persimmon, which sometimes if eaten before fully ripe will feel very stringent and tacky in the mouth. And even some of those, even fully ripe, do that. But select cultivars are absolutely delicious dessert like jelly with all kinds of aromatic notes in it. Yeah, two of my favorites right there, pawpaws and persimmons.

Margaret: You’re making me hungry. And so I mentioned food forest in the introduction, so what’s a food forest and then what’s a fruit patch? Just sort of give us the idea of what this is on whatever scale.

Michael: So a food forest [above, a young section of Michael’s] is not growing food in the forest. It’s growing food like the forest. When you take a very healthy ecosystem forest, you see a lot going on. You see overstory trees, mid-story, understory trees. You see vines running up through it all. You see herbaceous ground-level layers running, and it’s all working together. It’s all pumping and working symbiotically.

So when we take that observation, we see that pattern, and when we come to plant something on our landscape out in the open lawn, you want to plant a fruit tree, instead of sticking that fruit tree sort of out there in the middle of the sea of grass at the whims of weed whackers, what you’re doing is you’re creating a group for it, what we call a guild in permaculture. Typically these are perennial companion plants that support that main fruit producer. So we’re not necessarily going to stack that upper, mid-story and understory, but we’re going to take the concept of putting plants together to support each other.

And in that case, we often will put in something that fixes nitrogen, something in the legume family, something like the, was it the wild Baptisia, with beautiful blue flowers, and there’s all these other benefits as well. But fixing nitrogen through the roots to the plants around it is like planting your fertility in one go.

Then you’re also thinking about, O.K., well, let’s draw in beneficial insects. So let’s put something like yarrow in there, which has this great architecture, great habitat for all kinds of beneficial insects.

And then you’re also going to want something that’s like a mulch plant, something I love to use, like comfrey, which is also medicinal. So multipurpose plants, but also things that I can chop and drop for mulch or that can die on their own and pulse that soil level and feed that tree long-term. And then you might have something like Echinacea, a little gas station for the pollinators to land on.

Margaret: Yes. Yes. Yes.

Michael: Yeah. And augment that pollination. So you’re creating diversity. A guild is not just the plants, it’s the life that it attracts as well. So it’s going to affect ecology balance. And really what you’re doing is taking yourself off the hook for having to really care for that tree because you’ve done a little bit of design upfront by putting plants together, they help serve each other’s needs, and that gives you more time to do yoga, swing in the hammock, play with your kids.

Margaret: Wait for the harvest [laughter].

Michael: Wait for the harvest, or go do more of these. And I call these fruit patches. Of course, they could be a nut patch, it could be a bush fruit, but it’s a very simple concept. So it takes that larger idea of a food forest, and brings it down to something that could be eight, 10 feet in diameter only. And you can fit-

Margaret: Like at the canopy of the tree, so to speak, and underneath it like that, with that size?

Michael: Right.

Margaret: Not of the whole yard. It doesn’t have to be the whole yard. It could be this one area.

Michael: Right. And then if you did have more space, and you wanted to have less lawn, you could start spacing these patches out 12, 15, 20 feet apart and have your other fruit trees in those spaces. And then over time, if you want, you could kind of keep doing what I call sheet mulching, which is like lasagna gardening. It’s like laying down cardboard and newspaper and straw and wood chips and mulch, whatever sort of material that you have, organic material around you, floating around us. Put that down. And that helps extend those patches, so that over time your lawn disappears and you’ve got this cornucopia of plants. And when I do something like that, I’ll often put in sort of running plants that will help sort of cover that space and not have to maintain it.

Margaret: Yeah, it makes sense. So we recently did a “New York Times” garden column together, and you were talking about this. It was about the subject of kind of fruit patches turning into food forests and a lot of the native species. And one thing you taught me that I didn’t know because I’m not… A lot of these terms come from permaculture, the tradition of permaculture. And I didn’t know that the tree, like if we say did a persimmon, an American persimmon tree, that’s our centerpiece. And beneath it, like you said, is the guild of companions and so forth. What are some other sort of centerpieces that you, especially like for those getting started?

Michael: Well, the elderberry that I mentioned earlier is a favorite. I like to get people started with fruits that they’ll have success with, so that they’ll continue to plant. So I don’t usually encourage some of the more challenging fruits to grow, which can be like peaches. Many apples can be quite a bit of input. So if you’re not ready to be very hands-on, then pick something that’s going to grow very quickly and easily. And elderberries, oh my, they’re one of the fastest-growing plants I’ve ever seen. And you can literally take a cutting at the end of winter and stick it in the ground and boom, it will explode into a bush.

Margaret: Now, we should say you’re in Maryland [laughter].

Michael: Yes.

Margaret: So the explosion, it might be a little slower explosion up here in Zone 5.

Michael: Yes, that’s true. But eventually, I tell you is elderberry, I’ve been up in the Catskills and areas in New York, and I’ve seen big, beautiful, and they bloom gorgeous. So you’re getting this edible landscape.

Margaret: A division of them is because they spread, the roots spread sideways, and they’re easy to keep in check if you just go around the perimeter that you desire with a shovel every so often. But I grew them always as bird plants, because they’re so beloved by wildlife, by birds especially. And so as you’ve said earlier, you use them in your jams and syrups and popsicle liquid and things like that. But yeah, they’re great wildlife plants, too. And pollinator plants.

Michael: Yeah. Another thing that goes for most fruit, most of your fruiting plants, you’re having all these multiple benefits, so you can plant for yourself and for wildlife at the same time. And that way if you don’t get to harvest, you’re not worried, something else is thriving from your efforts of putting it in. And those flowers also, you can bake those or you can batter and pancake those. The flowers themselves have a lot of medicinal value, and they can be eaten long before the fruit shows up.

Margaret: Yes. So elderberry is another possibility. And when we did the Times story, you mentioned using another plant that I have for the birds in my landscape, a lot of them, is the Amelanchier, or shad or juneberry. And I said to you [laughter], I said, “Well, I’ve never tasted their fruit because a flock of birds always comes in before they even ripen, really.” I mean, they’re just so beloved by cedar waxwings, for instance, the fruits of the juneberry. But that’s another possible centerpiece, right?

Michael: It’s a wonderful centerpiece. I mean, it’s a very ornamental tree whether you eat the fruit or not. And you’ll often see them in parks. I harvest them at playgrounds. I’ve seen them outside of fast-food restaurants. They’re very common because they’re very beautiful as a very sort of small, very delicate branching and habit to them. And then they have gorgeous, early seasoned flowers, like all white, these little plumes all over the tree, which then very quickly turn into these little blueberry-sized fruits that have the flavor of sort of cherry pie to me when I eat them, with a little bit of almond aftertaste. And so they are exquisite. I hope you can get some.

And year to year, some years they will be wiped out by birds. But then this year, for some reason, the birds weren’t hitting them. And we got-

Margaret: Oh, interesting.

Michael: We got a huge harvest. I’ve made delicious juneberry jam. It will make great pies. Or you can soak it in vodka; it makes a great infusion.

Margaret: And they really have to get kind of dark-colored [the ripening fruit, above]. I mean, before they’re ripe and delicious.

Michael: Ideally, yeah. They seem to be sort of reddish and then they’ll start to go sort of a purple-y. You can get them a little early, and they’re still pretty pacey, especially if you’re going to make jam or sort of cook them down a bit.

Margaret: O.K. Now, with the pawpaws, not that you like pawpaws or anything with your annual pawpaw festival with 600 guests and oh my goodness, at your Maryland homestead farm, etc. You need two, correct? Because we need a little cross-pollination. Unlike, I think, with the persimmon, it’s I can only have one. How does that work with pollination with some of these things?

Michael: So with pawpaws, more the merrier. They grow in patches and groups for many reasons. But the cross-pollination is very important for pawpaws. Now, you might hear they have that there’s a few cultivars that might have the potential to self-pollinate, but that’s not what you want necessarily, anyway. You want genetic diversity.

The one or two cultivars or rare specimens that might pollinate themselves are not going to have a heavy fruiting set. And over time, their fruit’s not going to be the same quality. So even though there’s a potentiality for them to self-pollinate, generally speaking, you definitely want to have cross-pollination at least two, and you want to have them within 20 feet of each other.

Now, the other caveat with pawpaws in general is you don’t want them in strong winds, for a couple of reasons. One, because they have this huge tropical leaf, gorgeous edible landscape specimen here. We’re talking like a foot long, 6, 8 inches wide. Oh, absolutely beautiful. And being that large, it loses a lot of water very quickly. So it doesn’t want to be in the wind, and it wants to have enough moisture. Now, that doesn’t mean wet soil, because they will not grow in wet soil. They need moist soil, out of the wind. And that also helps with the pollination, since they’re pollinated by sort of flies and fruit gnats and spiders and beetles and all these shady characters that wouldn’t really thrive in the open as well.

And then I also go ahead and plan a diversity, of course, all around them so that I’ve got life going on to stimulate that pollination. Because since it’s not bees, it’s these other characters, you want to just kind of be inviting them in. So at the same time, black currants for me are flowering and bringing in life around my pawpaws, goumi bushes, which is another one of my favorite bush fruits, is also heavily flowering at the same time and drawing in just that activity in the zone. But you can also hand-pollinate pawpaws very successfully.

Margaret: O.K. And one of the other, besides that big tropical sort of oversized foliage, it also, they can potentially get great yellow fall color [above], which is beautiful, and is another sort of ornamental attribute of them. So they are handsome.

Michael: Very beautiful. And now, they’ll take on different growth habits depending on where they’re at. So commonly they’re known as an understory, and are found throughout the eastern zone, throughout the woods. And the understory often has a patch, which is one mother plant with lots of suckers, and they can extend up to a quarter of an acre in some areas. So they can really dominate a zone. Right.

Margaret: Wow! [Laughter.] That will do in the front lawn.

Michael: Yeah. Yeah. You don’t that. But that’s more in the shade. And what it’s doing is it’s self-propagating itself, not with fruit, but through its rhizomes, and that’s how it’s growing. It’s a very adaptive species. We’re talking about the only member of the custard apple family that migrated over millions of years into the cold north. So it’s an incredible, very unique species. And the fact that we’re able to grow a tropical fruit here just blows me away. It’s just phenomenal.

Margaret: And it’s native in a lot of states. I mean, I think it’s like-

Michael: Good 26 out of-

Margaret: 26 states, I think. Yeah, half the country.

Michael: But it’s busted out of that. It’s busted out and it’s growing all over the continent. They’re growing them in Europe. South Korea has planted a ton of them. I mean, they are becoming sort of this international, dare I say, phenomena. I mean, there really is a lot of excitement and a lot of pawpaws are being planted around the temperate globe.

Margaret: Yeah. So I want to ask you about a couple of things. One is deer, which always comes up no matter what I ever talk about on the show or write about in the Times or on the blog or whatever: deer. And I remember when we did the Times story, you had one fun guild, one fun assortment of companion plants, around something or other that, certain centerpiece that you used as sort of a deer deterrent. Any other… You’re in 25 acres where you are, on your property. Now, what’s the deal with the deer? Do you have a lot of deer?

Michael: We have a resident herd. I’ve actually never seen a site with more deer than ours. And I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve worked around a lot. And this site is packed with the deer, partly because we’re sort of on the edge of the woods and then you come out into suburbia. So they love that edge. Plus our site is loaded with plants, and they’re welcome here. So that has to be a key part of design, always, upfront. You have deer, you have to design for deer first. And luckily they don’t eat the pawpaws. They do not eat pawpaws. Now, that said, if pawpaws are not growing in your area and you plant a young pawpaw tree, the deer will try it because-

Margaret: They’ll browse it. Yeah.

Michael: They’ll browse it to begin, just to try it, because it’s not in their memory bank, but as soon as they try it, they’re not going to eat it again. So you can fence it for the first couple of years, and then once it gets up and once it’s mature, it can handle that initial testing. They will not eat it. They will not eat it. I guarantee it by watching where I’m at and all the pawpaw trees I have. It’s one of the reasons I have a lot of pawpaw trees, because we’ve got so many deer and they don’t eat it. So definite positive there.

But you’re mentioning a guild that was in the article that I designed early on for a juneberry, which they most certainly would love to eat. So to get that juneberry going, I did a sort of a 10-foot-by-10-foot fruit patch, and I planted the juneberry in the middle and then ringing around it, I did Egyptian walking onions, which are really cool, and the deer don’t eat alliums, so they’re not going to eat that

Next to that, I had a spiky gooseberry bush. So they’re going to come up to that, they’re going to poke their nose and they’re like, “Ah, this sucks,” and they move on. And next to that is a sage, a culinary sage, and they’re not going to eat the aromatic herbs either. So they’re like, “Ah, nothing here,” and they go along. And I had a wormwood, another medicinal plant, next to that. And then they’re like, “Ah, there’s nothing here,” and they moved on and they never saw that young juicy juneberry tree in the middle. So you can be creative.

Margaret: So you fooled them on that one? Yeah.

Michael: Yeah. I got them. I got them on that one.

Margaret: So some of the other… I don’t know if they eat elderberry. I have a fence around-

Michael: They do. They do eat elderberry.

Margaret: They eat elderberries [above, elderberry fruit, background, with aronia berries]?

Michael: You betcha. That’s a challenge because I love growing elderberries. So what I typically have to do is I’ll get sort of welded wire fencing and I’ll make a good four foot, 3 to 4 foot-

Margaret: Like a fence, so to speak? Yeah.

Michael: Yeah. Just a circle, and tie it around and stake it. And you want those to be ideally 60 inches tall, and you’ll have to grow your elderberries out of that and then have your elderberries be rather tall, which is challenging because most people don’t realize, like most of your shrubs, you want to renew those stems to get ideal fruiting. So if you don’t… Like for you, you have a fenced-in area. Ideally, you’re taking out the wood, the stems of the American elderberry after their second year. So anything over two years you’re taking out, so you only have first and second year canes, primary and fruiting canes. And that way you keep your shrub rejuvenated, and you’re getting maximum fruit. Otherwise they become large and sort of crowded, and you’ll get less fruit production and health decline will happen, so good to be interactive with your elderberries.

Margaret: So you’ve recently introduced this app, the Fruit Patch App, I know. And I don’t know if you get analytics, so to speak, data from… I don’t know if you know what people are interested in, or have you had feedback from people or what kind of… Because what it does is it kind of leads you through the basics of this process we’ve been talking about, about picking a centerpiece depending on your sun or shade conditions, and then picking some guild members to go around it.

And by the way, there’s other “guilds” that you could do. You encourage us to do what we’re going to use or eat. You mentioned some before that have ecological value, but you also say we could plant our favorite herbs underneath it, right?

Michael: Right. So there’s no set science in all of this. It’s a concept, and you plant what you think you’re going to use and harvest. Ideally you do get in some nitrogen fixers and some habitat plants, but even if you don’t, at least you’re creating diversity. You’re creating habitat no matter what, by putting in other perennials around your plants. But by adding in the nitrogen fixer, you’re helping balance the need for that fertilizer. But I also deeply mulch all the time.

So I’m constantly feeding my soil. If it doesn’t have a groundcover, a strong groundcover on it, and then I’m mulching it, and that feeds the soil. The fungi are releasing nutrients to your trees. So it’s not necessarily a sense of competition that’s going on if you have sort of a juicy zone for everything, there’s plenty there and they’re supporting each other. So that’s one concept. You have to deal with that whole competition, and “Oh, I’ve got to have things all spaced out.” In a sort of linear, non-fertile system that’s being fed, yes, but when you’re really sort of creating a nice soil base, you have enough there for your plants to thrive.

Margaret: Well, in the way that’s speaking of forests, in the way that the forest before it got decimated in most places, the way that the forest would drop its leaf… The trees would drop their litter leaves every year, that leaf litter would degrade, continue feeding the soil, all the creatures that lived in the soil… and so on and so on and so on. It was a system, as you said earlier.

Michael: And with lots going on, a very packed system. So yeah, it’s taking that concept and observation. But the Fruit Patch is something I’m very excited about. I’m always working toward seeing the change that I want in the world by really helping people feel confident in planting fruit trees, nuts, these medicinal plants, and having success with it, and how to do that, how to meet everybody where they’re at and starting out. So I try to keep it simple and how-to.

And the Fruit Patch is a tool for that where it’s starting out with just basics. You can have full-sun or partial-shade options, and you can have a main fruit, and you can choose either like a culinary herb companion group for your tree or a sort of more of a native pollinator group for your tree or your fruit bush. And we’re soon going to add mushrooms to that, of course, because another one-

Margaret: Of course.

Michael: … of the big categories that I’m in love with, but easy-to-grow mushrooms and wine apps and things. So yeah, very excited about that. Right now we’ve started out, it’s on the Apple phone, the iPhone. We’re going to get it eventually to Android. There’s a learning curve with creating this software, but we’re pretty proud of where it’s at.

Margaret: It’s fun.

Michael: We certainly encourage everyone to check it out. Yeah, it’s a tool. It’s actually a tool for a larger vision we have, which is the Food Forest Transformation Network, which we’re starting out along the eastern side of the US. And you’ll see a map on the app of the area that we’re starting with as far as your choices for growing. But then as we grow this, we’re going to create links and sort of a social network as well that shows how collectively through our fruit patches, we can create this food forest network.

Margaret: Not that you have big goals or anything like that. Or a hundred of these and a hundred of those trees [laughter].

Michael: Right, right. Well, we need so much, don’t we? We need so much. And we need practical things that we can all do. And that’s where I’m focusing.

Margaret: Yeah. Well, Michael Judd, I’m always glad to speak to you, too. And I had such fun doing the Times story recently, as I said, because I really didn’t know many of my fruiting plants are just for the birds, I thought. So I didn’t know these other ideas of how I could utilize them as a harvest for me, too [laughter]. So that was kind of fun. And I hope I’ll talk to you again soon.

Michael: Wonderful. Thank you, Margaret.

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Aug. 14, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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