Monday, April 22, 2013

Building a front-yard orchard

Jay and I moved into our new home on Feb. 16, and a week and a half later I had surgery, after-which I was largely home bound for four and a half weeks.

Needless to say, I had a lot of time to think about what to do with our new front yard. When put together with my desire to cultivate community on our block and the little I had already learned in the first class of the permaculture course, building an orchard in the front yard seemed like a perfectly outrageous thing for us to do. So naturally I began planning.

Building community around me, in the place where I live, has always been a deeply held value of mine. I attribute this to the wonderful community of people that my parents built around my brothers and I as we grew up on a small family farm in rural western Wisconsin. The idea of community where I live was also fostered by memories of the wonderful community I built around me when I first lived on Madison's East side in my house on Upham Street.

I'm calling this front-yard idea "An orchard for birds and bees, you's and me's." The idea is that as the fruit trees mature, we want people to come to our yard, pick some fruit, visit with us and other neighbors and get to know one another. It's part of watching out for one another, growing food to share, and sharing ideas to grow. 

Little Free Library
And our orchard will get along perfectly with the "Little Free Library" that our neighbor across the street will be installing later this spring. I have a fantasy of putting a sign near her library that says "Grab a book, cross the street, pick an apple and sit for a spell."  Admittedly the apple trees won't be producing for several years, but maybe next year someone can pick a gooseberry, jostaberry, honeyberry or contorted quince.

Cement bench finds a permanent home
Those who visited my house on Upham Street, Jay's house on Rae Lane, or helped me move from Upham or Rae Lane know that I have been carrying around a 400 pound cement bench for the last six years. You'll be happy to know that it's final resting place will be somewhere in this orchard.

Orchard installation details
The Orchard will be installed on Saturday, April 27 in the morning. Partly because I am still restricted to what I'm able to do following hip surgery, and partly because planting even a small orchard with just five trees and a dozen small shrubs is a large task, we are enlisting all kinds of help for what's commonly known as a "garden wheel." Think of it as a barn raising or a quilting bee for green thumbs.

The reason this is a larger task than simply digging five holes, is because we're going to be doing much more than planting trees. We're going to smother the grass by burying it in coffee grounds and cardboard and compost and hay, build earthen berms to divert water and dig swales to capture it before it runs into the street and storm sewers. And only after all that is done, we'll tackle the easy job of planting the trees and fruiting shrubs.

If you're at all interested in learning about permaculture and this orchard installation, or if you'd like to dig in and help, you are invited to join us. And if you happen to be a member of Dane County TimeBank, you can earn hours for participating in this garden wheel.

April 27, 8 AM to noon, and then a vegetarian chili and sloppy Joe lunch!

1933 E. Mifflin St., Madison, WI.


  1. You've been hard at work, Josh! Clearly you have great taste because you've chosen a lot of plants I have in my yard. ;-)

    One question: Why are the berms/swales straight lines? Wouldn't curving them catch more water and allow it to sink in?

  2. Dale, the berms/swales have evolved since I scanned that image. They will now gently (1%) dip and go from driveway to driveway, slowing, spreading and sinking the water into the soil.