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Starting with an apple tree ... what next?


Joined: Apr 04, 2011
Posts: 2
So, I've got two apple trees in a small postage-stamp sized of a lot in suburbia. As much as I have a garden ...and I'm rethinking that, I want to make a run at permaculture, but use the "apple trees" as my starting point.

What do I put around or near the apple trees to compliment them? I've heard of grape vines to best utilize space and encourage the vines to grow "up" the apple trees. Easy enough.

I've read on here about black locust, used as a nitrogen fixer ... which I guess means that the Apple Trees need extra nitrogen.

Then, in my other searches I've seen smatterings of Dill, Acacia, Mulberry, Comfrey, Nasturtium, Iris and Clover with no real explanation as to why.

I'm new to this but been listening long enough to Paul and others to know that I want to make a go at it. Need to start somewhere. This year's goal is to SPREAD from the foundation of these two apple  trees and then dig some kind of a swill to encourage and improve on water retention and absorbtion of my sloped lot.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Got my soil cubes ready to go and just need to throw something in them and get things started for when it warms up.

Oh yeah, I'm in the Cincinnati, Ohio area.

Thanks, ya'll.

Chemtrail Inh@ler 
tel jetson

Joined: May 17, 2007
Posts: 3226
Location: woodland, washington
probably want to skip the black locust on a small lot.  many of the advantages they offer can be had from smaller plants.  the only thing you might miss out on is the durable wood.

as far as nitrogen, you've got a whole lot of options.  I'm partial to the Elaeagnaceae family.  they're mostly shrubs and small trees.  pick some with fruit you like.  they're very adaptable, which means they might escape cultivation in some places.  see if that's a problem where you're at.

chemtrailinhaler wrote:
Then, in my other searches I've seen smatterings of Dill, Acacia, Mulberry, Comfrey, Nasturtium, Iris and Clover with no real explanation as to why.

they're all useful plants for a variety of reasons.  insectary flowers, dynamic accumulators, pest traps, nitrogen fixers, critter food, medicine, human food and on and on.  if you want to know it all, you've likely got some reading ahead of you unless you can find a knowledgeable brain to pick.  if there's a plant you're curious about that you don't find an existing thread for, start a new one and you'll shortly have plenty of information.

I like your idea to use the apple trees as a focus for your design.  small lots are easier in some ways because the space often dictates more clearly what you can and can't do.  at the very least, limited space puts some constraints on a design that seem to inspire creativity.  you say "postage-stamp", but how big a lot are you working with?

if it were me, I would probably try to kill the turf with critters or mulch, then use seed balls to repopulate the area with my chosen species.  I would add nursery stock as I could afford it, relying more on propagation than buying everything.  swales are effective and relatively straightforward.  they can easily be combined with hugel techniques to increase the benefit.

if you can track a copy down, the appendices in Volume 2 of Edible Forest Gardens are extremely handy.

have fun.  keep asking questions.

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Joined: Apr 04, 2011
Posts: 2
Thanks much for your detailed response. You sent me off into a research quest before work, this morning. I'm eyeballing a BUffalo Berry and Goumi as two complimentary assets to the apple trees. And, I'll try and throw my grapes in there as well. All of the above appear to grow well in southern Ohio.

Beyond that, dill and nasturtium seem to be good compliments for attracting the right kinds of insects. If anyone has other suggestions, I'd love to hear it.

Especially eager to hear if other herbs would be appropriate as ground covering to mitigate the wrong kinds of insects or to assist in rich soil development. Would be great if these herbs can be used for food or medicinal purposes, but the real goal here is to augment the soil, improve water retention (can get a little dry in the heat of summer), etc.

Again, thanks so much for your help. Can't wait to hear what the next response says. This already has "Mr. Ignorant" motivated to pursue a path. That's precisely what I needed.


duane hennon

Joined: Sep 23, 2010
Posts: 446
Location: western pennsylvania zone 5/a

in addition to Tel's advise, I'd add to define the bed around the trees and mulch it to surpress the grass. plant perrenial herbs, flowers, groundcovers into the mulch. any that you can get easily and cheaply. the value is to establish the "underground community"
of roots, fungi, bacteria, critters, etc, that will work in supporting your "food forest"

the grape i would plant so to grow up one of the nitrogen fixers.
Here in west pa, we have an overbundance of the Elaeagnaceae family, notably Russian and Autumn Olive. I use them for supports for grapes and kiwi.
tel jetson

Joined: May 17, 2007
Posts: 3226
Location: woodland, washington
chemtrailinhaler wrote:
Especially eager to hear if other herbs would be appropriate as ground covering to mitigate the wrong kinds of insects or to assist in rich soil development. Would be great if these herbs can be used for food or medicinal purposes, but the real goal here is to augment the soil, improve water retention (can get a little dry in the heat of summer), etc.

comfrey is a popular option to suppress grass and accumulate calcium and phosphorus.  it's good medicine, too, and bugs like it.  nettles, dandelions, and alfalfa are also popular accumulators of various useful elements.  lupines fix nitrogen, bear insectary flowers, look nice, and produce food.  borage is good medicine and food and it's insectary.  valerian is medicine and insect food.  the Umbelliferae family (including the dill you mentioned) is great for insects and includes quite a few food and medicine plants.  but none of those are really ground covers.

most of the culinary herbs are good for friendly bugs.  the thymes are perennial creeping ground covers.  there are some low lavenders that are real nice.  oregano.

a lot of annual vegetables that tend to be a little bit poo pooed by permaculturists can be great for insects if they're allowed to flower.  brassicas, carrots, lettuce, cilantro, fennel, &c.  letting some flower can also lead to them naturalizing in your garden so you don't have to plant them again every year.  which is nice.

some of my favorite ground covers are strawberries.  garden strawberries (Fragaria x ananassa) are likely the easiest to find, but the fruit is mushy and bland, they wear out quickly, and they don't make a thick cover.  beach strawberry (F. chiloensis) and Virginia strawberry (F. virginiana) cover much more completely, spread quickly, and have tasty fruit, but aren't typically very productive.  alpine strawberries (F. vesca) are delicious, productive, and live a long time, but most varieties spread only by seed, so they'll take a bit longer to fill in unless you can forgo eating them in favor of letting the berries fall to propagate.  musk strawberries (F. moschata) probably taste the best and they spread quickly and thickly.  they're June bearing, though, which is frustrating.  if you're the sort of person to get excited about these things, strawberry polyploidy is interesting.

as far as water retention goes, the apple trees should help with that, as will most plants with relatively deep roots.  they'll have access to correspondingly deep water.  as you build up the biological community that duane mentioned in your dirt, some of that water will be shared through fungal interactions with other plants that don't have the same deep roots.  ground covers and mulch will keep things moist.  incorporating organic matter into the dirt will help hang onto moisture.  if you get around to building those swales, they will certainly help.  digging pits and filling them with organic debris can capture some water that would otherwise run off your property.

getting carried away now, so I'll leave it at that.  have fun.
Brenda Groth

Joined: Feb 01, 2009
Posts: 4433
Location: North Central Michigan
you are getting some good advice..I have herbs and multplying onions under some of my apples and do grow some of my annual vegetables under them and some of my other apples have been planted among my ornamental beds that were already established with hostas, violets, perennial flowers (most edible) and other..


Bloom where you are planted.
Dan D. Lyons

Joined: Feb 08, 2011
Posts: 15
Hi, all of the previous posters have given you some good advice. As an experienced orchardist, let me throw in my 2 cents.  If you are on a small lot in suburbia, I would definitely avoid anything that can propagate onto, over, under or across to your neighbors property. So that eliminates black locust and comfrey. A seeding type comfrey can get extremely invasive and over time so can black locust. You can do a non seeding type comfrey but for now lets do something quick and easy. You are on the right path though thinking about a beneficial planting to augment your apple tree. Depending on your zone and to add a quick fix for the short term (this growing season), the very first thing is to put some mulch in a ring of about a 3' radius around your apple tree and about 4-6" thick. Use what you can, grass, hay, wood chips but get something down as a welcome mat for worms and nematodes to start working your subsoil. Next, I would consider planting a ring of giant sunflowers under that mulch around your tender apple tree to give it some much needed shade from the coming July/August sun. I know it says to plant the apple tree in full sun, but please trust me on this one, I have had lots of experience killing young trees by baking them in the sun Once your sunflowers are about 1ft tall, then plant a planting of pole beans/bush beans intermixed in the spaces around the sunflowers and apple tree. The pole beans will use the sunflowers (that are now about 2-3'' when the beans are sprouting) as a natural lattice and also quickly add nitrogen to the soil and give you an edible crop. The birds will give you some very rich 'guano' fertilizer when they show up to eat those mature sunflower seeds. You can even save a few of the sunflowers and beans to use as seeds for next year .  This planting will look very nice a be a good conversation piece in suburbia. After harvest you have a ton of biomass (leaves and stalks) to mulch your apple tree with. Then in the fall you could go with a more perennial companion planting to accomplish the same thing that your sunflower/pole bean guild did but on a longer term basis, many of the things Tel Jetson mentioned in his post to you.

This is my version of the "Three Sisters Guild" that I have used very successfully on several fruit trees.  It was a guild planting popularly used by some of the plains Indian tribes but instead of an apple tree they used squash plants and instead of sunflowers, they used corn
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subject: Starting with an apple tree ... what next?