Stewarding our food forest

There is no failure only feedback. ~Stefan Sobkowiak, Miracle Farms
Training fruit tree branches below vertical minimizes the need to prune, Photo: Maureen

We plan on trialing many different species and experimenting with regionally sourced heirloom apple scions. We’re not going to pamper our orchard. Instead, we’ll select species that we hope will thrive in our soil conditions (Napanee clay) and in association with each other. We’ll give the trees 3-4 years of care to get them off to a good start then practice Mark Shepard’s STUN method (sheer, total, utter neglect).


Our focus on feeding is getting the tree guilds right so that the plant community supplies the nutrients and increasing the organic matter in the soil to build a thriving soil web.


For the first 1-2 years we’ll mulch with cardboard and a 10-15 cm layer of woodchips. Woodchips help increase the fungal dominance of the soil (which reduces weeds), introduces mycorrhizae (which partner with tree roots to increase ability to absorb water and nutrients from the soil) and feeds the soil food web which in turn help de-compact and improve the soil. We’ll slowly replace the woodchips with living mulch (hostas or comfrey).


If possible (depends on sourcing), we’ll plant trees in the fall as 85% of root growth happens after leaf fall. This also reduces watering.

Diversity is key. We’ll sow seeds and plant seedlings of many different beneficial plants, herbs, flowers, fruits and ground covers. As our forest develops and the mix of sun and shade shifts, changing microclimates means changing plant composition. We’ll be able to grow new varieties of plants, while others will disappear or be relocated to a more suitable location.


Investigate foliar sprays. Michael Phillips uses a custom foliar spray to feed and protect his trees. Stefan Sobkowiak uses only a whey spray.

  • To protect trees from rodents & rabbits in their first few years, we’ll wrap them with using either hardware cloth (24′′ hardware cloth with 1/4′′ mesh) or screening
  • To protect from pests we’ll plant alliums of all types (chives, garlic chives, Egyptian onion, perennial bunching onion, perennial bulbing onion, wild garlic); grow plants that trap insects pests; add bird houses; include plants that attract predator insects
  • To protect from disease we’ll buy disease resistant cultivars and use Stefan Sobkowiak’s NAP planting philosophy (nitrogen fixer, apple, plum or pear) to make it harder for disease and pests to migrate between trees

Training & pruning

Our pruning philosophy for fruit trees is minimalist, focusing instead on training:

  • using spreaders to attain a crotch angle of 90-120 degrees
  • hook training in July when the tree is 2-3 years old (using weights) to ensure branches are below the horizontal from point of attachment on the trunk (except pears) and when mature to control final height of the tree
  • we’ll host a pruning & training day biannually

Brambles and vines need annual pruning.


2.5 cm a week is ideal for maximum fruit production (and essential for the first year or two to establish the trees). However, if we take a STUN approach, we may decide not to water after the trees are established. Our goal instead will be to capture and store as much water on site by improving soil organic matter (thus increasing water holding capacity of the soil) and by using mulch basins around the trees to hold rainwater and slowly release it to tree roots.


We’ll welcome most weeds (dandelions, lambs quarters, plantain may help accumulate certain minerals). Many of these weeds are also edible or medicinal (dandelion, lambs quarters, plantain, sow thistle, purslane, chickweed, pigweed). Others support beneficial insects (dandelion and creeping Charlie bloom early when there are few other flowers to support the beneficial insects needed for the trees).

We’ll learn more about our soil which weeds grow as their presence often points to a problem. Dandelion, for example, indicates either a calcium deficiency or compaction. As the fungal dominance of our soil increases, we expect fewer weeds as they prefer disturbed, bacterial dominant soil.

Once a month over the growing season, we’ll monitor for weeds. Weeds we’ll remove include: Canada thistle, bindweed, garlic mustard and dog strangling vine. We’ll chop and drop any weeds that haven’t yet gone to seed or without invasive roots.