The comfrey I planted throughout the orchard did not spread as I had been warned. We experienced our area’s driest summer in history. We don’t have clay soil like the Japanese farmer, Fukuoka, but quite the opposite; our orchard soil is classified as Hinckley, an exceedingly rocky, fast-draining soil. It is definitely not choice soil for an orchard. The young trees struggled just like the comfrey. Only the older trees, with deep roots, tapped into water. I realized that if I wanted to plant more herbs and wildflowers, and create a natural environment like Fukuoka, I would need to have some way of delivering water to all the trees.
We applied to the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) for a grant to put in an irrigation system, and our grant was accepted. They knew that with our Hinckley soils, the apple trees would surely benefit from irrigation. We installed the system ourselves, pumping the water from the surrounding wetlands. Now I could plant all kinds of beneficial and medicinal plants in the orchard—plants that would be good for our soil, and that might help with pest management.
The beauty of the orchard delighted me as the summer progressed. Sunflowers, rudbeckia, mountain mint, asters, goldenrod, bee balm, and echinacea flowered and fed the pollinators. When Blase asked if he should mow in the orchard, I replied, “Not yet, no.” The Jerusalem artichoke flowers were six feet tall, and the valerian stalks were covered with delicate white flowers. A few weeks later, he said, “I really should mow the orchard.” Again, I said, “No mowing. Not yet.”
The orchard was beginning to feel like a natural woodland. The trees were loaded with fruit, and it seemed like an abundant crop. I finally asked Blase to mow between the apple tree rows to accommodate the pickers, but we left all the wildflowers and natural growth between and under the trees. We had a great harvest season, the farm quieted, and Blase and I turned to other pursuits.
Heavy snow fell during the month of January. The drifts were over three feet high, burying the lowest apple limbs. In early February, warmer temperatures brought a thaw, and I went for a walk among the trees. Snow melts first around the trunks, and my eye caught sight of gnawed wood close to the ground. It glowed a bright orange color. Shocked, I reached down and brushed more snow away. The gnawed wood went deeper.
Voles! They had scampered across the crust of the deep snow, climbed over the 18-inch high hardware cloth fence that encircles every trunk, and dropped down between the trunk and the protective screen. There they made soft, grassy nests, and ate and lived in the safety of their cozy burrows with a pantry of food close by. In tree after tree, especially in the back of the orchard, these rodents had eaten the bark, chewing their way around the base of the trees and down to the roots. Many trees were completely girdled. Girdling, when it is complete, kills the tree by cutting off the sap flow between the roots and the crown.
I panicked and called in reinforcements. With a couple of friends, we started shoveling the snow away from every trunk.
It was exhausting work. There was no way we could remove that much snow from around every tree. When we were too tired to shovel, we stomped the snow down with snowshoes. It felt like a war zone. Our hats, coats, shirts, and gloves were scattered everywhere.
After a short break, we got back to work, shoveled more snow, heated up and stripped to tank tops, but it was too late. The damage was done.
Paige O’Brien, one of our farm workers, made a detailed map of all the injured trees and numbered them on a scale of one to four. One was one-quarter girdled, two was halfway, three was three-quarters, and four was completely girdled. We cut down the threes and fours, because they would either die or struggle mightily. A weak tree would attract more disease and pests. In all, fifty trees out of three hundred needed to be cut down. A saw blade to each trunk, and the task was done. Such quick work compared to years of cultivating growth.
Later, I learned it had been a bumper year for voles. Nature is like that—a bumper year for acorns, for apples, and now, for voles. Commercial growers knock down the vole population every fall with pellet poison. I had done the opposite. I had created a perfect vole habitat by growing delicious herbaceous perennials and cultivating long grasses and flowering plants. Following the irrigation drip lines, the voles had scampered freely from tree to tree.
So much for a wild orchard. I would have to rethink my approach and mow down all the perennials in the fall. Now, we mow several times throughout the season to dissuade the vole population from even considering making the orchard their home, but we leave patches of herbs and wildflowers growing between the trees. In preparation for winter, even these plants get mowed down to the ground. We also pull the drip lines away from the trees. In the spring, the hardy plants come back. I can already see the healing herbs like comfrey, valerian, and mountain mint unfolding their leaves. The orchard is not wild, but it’s not a monoculture either. We are trying to live peaceably with the other creatures who make their home nearby — definitely not offering them apples trees to chew — but encouraging a diversity and abundance of nature.
The challenge remains, however. I check on trees that aren't growing as well as I would expect and discover they are partially girdled, and two days ago I cut down a Crimson Crisp, a three-year-old ready to take off, but completely eaten around the graft. I'm discouraged. Then I smile at a dove sitting on a young tree as a blue heron flies by. I see pink buds on almost every branch of some eighty varieties of apples. I am blessed.