On a late December afternoon, I took this image of the soil beneath my feet, asking myself: How do you regenerate life in soil like this? Compacted, eroded, lifeless, seemingly only good for grass?
I was on the edges of the Rosewood Community Orchard, a newly established orchard in my neighborhood that has had a rough first few years, to say the least. It was started with perhaps more enthusiasm than forethought: among other things, as it turned out, the soil at the site was compacted hard-pan clay. The varieties of fruit trees that were chosen were not that well suited for the hot South Carolina climate. At one point, during a period of heavy rains, an automatic irrigation system was left on for who knows how long. Before too long, the trees were essentially drowning in their poorly drained clay “bowls” and many of them died.
Not a promising beginning, right?
In 2013, our Transition Town initiative, Columbia Resilience, took over the stewardship of the orchard and began to try to rehabilitate it. Many dedicated folks put in a lot of hours during Saturday work parties and in between them. Truckloads upon truckloads of organic matter — including 300 bags of leaves last year alone! — were brought to the site to heavily mulch it and to “build up” more fluffy layers of soil in which tree roots could actually breathe. Some areas were sheet-mulched, others cover-cropped, invasive grass species removed.
A year and a half later, the orchard is doing much better. In November, I was asked if I would like to develop a design for it, and I jumped at the opportunity. Until then, I’d only had the chance to design on the scale of urban backyards and rural residential sites, but here was a half-acre orchard, one we wanted to turn into an urban food forest providing free food for foraging for the surrounding community, along the lines of Seattle’s inspiring Beacon Food Forest. It’s a fledgling, struggling food forest, to be sure, but at least it wasn’t lacking in either potential or challenges. If anything would stretch my abilities as a permaculture designer, this orchard would.
And so it has. My learning and understanding of orchard systems and the design process for food forests has grown exponentially during these winter weeks as I’ve been spending a lot of time observing and working at the orchard, poring through Jacke and Toensmeier’s Edible Forest Gardens, sketching maps, and talking to people in the area who are experts on soil hydrology, horticulture, and fruit tree cultivars suited to South Carolina and to the specific tricky conditions of our site.
And in the process… I’ve come to realize once again that I really, really love design work. To me, it’s the perfect blend of hard-nosed research, problem-solving thinking, creativity, and simply becoming attuned to the workings of nature. The Soil Food Web course I did over the summer has been an enormous asset, since most of the challenges on this site stem from the poorly drained, compacted soil.
To an outside observer, the orchard may still look like a fairly sorry little spot: the trees are not all thriving, and the ground may seem somewhat unorganized and messy due to our vigorous mulching activities. But I, through my design work, have come to see what’s possible for this site, and now that vision won’t let me go. I have fallen in love with the future shady, inviting nooks and abundant branches bearing fruit and colorful patches of flowers where the pollinators can get drunk with sweet nectar. Together with everyone else in our Resilience community, I want to try to midwife that potential into existence.
More updates to come!