Learning the land: soil remediation in the upper fields

With our baby trees and primary espalier orchard site on-track for a fall planting, our thoughts are now turning to Sandra and Noel’s upper parcel of farmland on the other side of Razor Point Road (top left photo). Our plan is to establish another orchard here, focusing on semi-standard (M111) trees because the land is quite soggy in the winter and spring—a difficult growing condition for weaker, dwarfing trees, but something the bigger trees can usually handle.

However, we have some work to do in terms of soil remediation and figuring out the best planting system for the land there. As Michael Phillips writes in our favorite holistic orchard guide, The Apple Grower (top right),  “the fertility of thin soils can always be improved when siting an orchard, but wet ground is hard to rectify once the trees have been planted”. We’ve taken a hint from the “presence of water-loving plants” in this area and have deemed it too wet for a typical dwarfing, high-density espalier orchard.

The heavy clay soils in these fields are incredibly mineral-rich, but apple trees cannot access these minerals without the aid of organic matter to break the clay particles down. As well, the water-logging in the wintertime would suffocate their roots. On one hand, one could install an extensive drainage system, along with years and years of cover cropping and tilling and/or adding compost. But we’ve been reading up on another option that would help both the issue of clay soils and the winter water-logging, with minimal impact on below-ground water flow: berms.

Berms have been used in wet orchard sites for quite a long time—you can still see the berms that many of the old trees at Old Orchard Farm were planted into. They are created by digging aisles (furrows) and piling that soil up into long, narrow raised rows. Lifting clay soil by even six inches post-settling has the effect of allowing for more drainage and aeration because the all-important “feeder roots” of an apple tree remain near the top layer of the soil. Berms work best in an area that is wet in the winter and spring, but dry the rest of the year, as the upper farm is—they wouldn’t work in an area that is waterlogged year-round, or an area where there is deep standing water at any time.    

The plan we are considering now is to till and cover crop, later tilling that cover crop in and creating the berms with the resulting soil, adding organic matter into the rows as we go. We would plant our semi-standard trees into this, mulching around them, and sowing a cover crop in the aisles and between the trees. Yearly cutting down of the cover crop and top-dressing with the compost we create on the farm—mainly thanks to our three new goats (Scrumpy pictured reading-up on the issue below right)—will continue to loosen and enrich the heavy clay soils.

With a lot of consultation with other farmers and locals who know the water table on Pender well, we’re putting together our cultivation plan. But we won’t be rushing to alter the landscape or plant until we are sure what the best route is, for, as farming sage Wendell Berry says, “Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch.”