This is the story about starting my pilot/testing orchard on a piece of land next to our cottage, located on northern slopes of Fruska Gora mountain range overlooking Danube River. It is a home of modern off-grid greenhouse futuristically called Greenhouse 2081 and a pilot orchard with water management system.
I am following methods of natural horticulture and I firmly believe it is possible to have sustainable and profitable approach following organic principles. Within this context, growing fruit is not supported by pesticides and there are no fabricated chemicals that make things easy. We have to let orchard function as a natural ecosystem. The first principle which allows us to have an abundance this way is to include diversity. We have to imitate nature and nature rarely, or never, gives birth to monoculture ecosystems (same plant). By introducing different species in a polyculture orchard (many different plants) we gain multiple advantages, like pest control. Everything in nature follows an exponential curve and so does the pest multiplication that is significantly reduced when there are no grouped plants that the same catepillar, for example, likes to eat. Furthermore, if we face with unstable early spring weather crushing gentle apricot trees we will not lose all as something else will flourish.
Preparing the land was done with an excavator. The plot was overgrown and I made an effort to keep all debris on the land which I used later on. Water management is crucial, especially in early stages of tree development. I tested famous permaculture method of cutting trenches on the contour lines: swales. The idea is focusing on slowing downstream rainwater and thus keeping it on land. When it is raining, water stops and feeds the land preventing it from fast rushing down while removing rich topsoil in the process. This is especially effective during summer when we face with long dry periods with only rare storms during which we have water in abundance. Adding to that I made a pond which is used for storing the water when we have it and using it later when it is needed. I wanted to build the pond naturally by compacting the ground. The method was not fully successful as water is slowly dispersed in the ground and I plan to work on improvements. I strongly believe that direct watering for trees is good only short term, as the plants I want to grow have to be suitable for my micro climate and soil. With avoiding regular watering I can easily see what works and what does not and I water plants only during extreme droughts.
Debris left by cutting initial overgrown plot was put in lines and covered with earth from swales -swales mound. This way additional boost with hugelkultur principle is achieved. In short, the woody material is getting decomposed thus feeding the land around it. In the swale mounds, I planted trees so they have access to water and rich soil. There is a practice called food forest which is striving towards imitating natural forests with plants chose to grow as a difference. One of the principles implements vertical alignment with the top reserved for trees, while within its shade you grow shrubs, herbs, berries. Food forests are often used as a method with 0 care. The method produces no order getting us back to the jungle and this is something I did not like. In general, for all the methods I test, I am implementing only things that fit my logic and needs.
Next challenge lies in choosing plants. The topic of old species that are localized and adapted to the narrow region is amazing to me and it is a project I will definitely work on in the future. You could theoretically get a local passport with the plants that like the soil and climate of the area which you can easily multiply and grow. Often it is hard to get such plants and for pilot orchard I planted as much as I could, while for the rest I used what i could find. When I buy a tree I focus on good root development, I prefer fruits I like to eat and plant everything in autumn.
For the maintenance, i work on yearly tree pruning and mulching. Neighbors are often disposing of organic material nearby, which is perfect for heavy mulching I prefer (at least 20cm). Just recently I covered one swale with a perfect mix of pine needles, bark, and grass. As I have different separated properties, I want to make all of them completely sustainable without moving material from one to another. Therefore I like to grow wild plants along with grass in between swales for the longer period of time before cutting it. This way I have my own biomass for mulching swale mounds.
Besides mentioned I planted nitrogen-fixing trees in combination with trees and shrubs. Trees having the ability to establish symbiosis with beneficial bacteria in their roots which generate nitrogen as a nusproduct. With this setup, you can increase nitrogen as one of the most needed microelements.
With all the measures mentioned above, I planted first plants 2 years ago. I worked on maintenance and for this year I will have detailed review of the project - summarizing what went good and what was bad. Then I will add more plants and slowly transition into a period where I can expect significant yield, in years 4 and 5.