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Small Scale Nursery Applications: Reflections from Loping Coyote Farms Nursery (NV, USA)

by Neil Bertrando , Eric Toensmeier

Plant materials are a critical component of any homestead or agroecology site, and by using the permaculture design concept, we can figure out many yields to pattern into our management activities. I want to explore some opportunities presented by integrating a small scale nursery into the process of site development, based on my experiences in a high desert climate context on sites of <2 acres (<1 hectare).

When we began development of a three-quarter acre demonstration site, we wanted to plant out a wide variety of perennial crop plants, but were unable to find many of the species or varieties we desired at local retailers or other distributers. So we poured through seed and nursery catalogs to find sources for our desired species list which was a great self-education process, and as part of our strategy to expand local food production, we decided to become a local source for plant materials not currently offered.

We identified some needs and yields by conducting a brief functional analysis.

Needs:

  • Water
  • Protection: animals, elements (shade and windbreak)
  • Pruning/training
  • Soil fertility
  • Soil medium
  • Potting materials
  • Labels
  • Access
  • Marketing/outreach

Types of yields (*revenue potential):

  • Propagules*: seeds, bulbs/sets, divisions, cuttings, scion, bare root
  • Food*: seeds, leaves, stalks, fruits, roots, flowers
  • Fodder
  • Mulch
  • Education*

After jumping in head first and running into many complications and unexpected details, we are now moving forward with a variety of layouts and market approaches that are working in balance with our passion for plants, our desire to have a diversity of lifestyle activities and income streams, and our interest in demonstrating and supporting perennial polycultures as one model of local food/resource production.

For infrastructure, our criteria are low cost, mobile/temporary, and modular/semi-modular. This manifests as grids of in-line emitter drip irrigation, t-posts, tie wire, fencing and shade cloth. Depending on plant sizes we usually plant on 1′ or 2′ centers where each plant gets one emitter. This infrastructure was developed in response to bare root overstock and has worked so well, we are expanding it as a model and replicating it at other sites. Plants grow rapidly in the shady environment and it provides them with a chance to acclimate to our low relative humidity, high temperatures, and gusty winds. Due to snow loads we remove the overhead shade in the winter but leave the wind break.

To meet our goal of a ‘part-time’ nursery business, we have chosen to limit our sales to 2-3 sales per year, which focus on planting during the early spring when our climate is most mild. We primarily sell bare root nursery stock, divisions, and seedlings. When our sale season is over, we put most of our inventory in the ground and only use pots for seedlings. This allows us to minimize our imported materials and labor costs. We have also experienced that plants in the ground are more resilient. For the potted plants, we use deep pots (i.e. d-pots) to promote deep roots for our arid climate.

To define how our operation fits into our local context and connects to larger scales, we have drafted a simple Plant Materials Feedstock Supply Chain and defined three phases that match our operation: Mother Herb Gardens, Field Grown Nurseries, and Long-term Site Polycultures (Figure 1). These phases have emerged from design elements from our experiences and adaptations on what was working for us on our particular sites.


Figure 1

Our Field Grown Nursery inventory began by planting in blocks of single species for ease of management and inventory counting, but now we are expanding to trialing other models. In particular we are adapting a model based on a ‘mother herb garden’ (MHG) concept that was shared with us by Michael Pilarski . This model uses a leapfrog type of planting strategy starting in Zones I and II where densely planted guilds are grown in small areas where water, soil fertility and intensive management can be provided. These guilds are then propagated through divisions, cuttings, or transplants to larger areas or expanded nursery plantings. Enough plant materials are left in the original guilded forest garden to maintain its functional values and get a spectrum of harvestable yields. From the MHG we propagate to larger Field Grown Nursery areas which are guilded and employ Three-Layer Minimum forest garden pattern(1). Usually the layers are: Small Tree, Shrub, and Herbaceous/groundcover. These Field Grown Nursery areas serve both an ecological and a marketing role. We hope to minimize competition with varying rooting and growing layers, trial new plant guilds, educate people about the planting guilds, and offer a ‘guild sale’ option.

This is our first year trialing the guilded nursery concept and we hope to expand it in the future. The multi-layer space filling is working well, but we have experienced some access and maintenance difficulty, so we are planning to plant some of the layers in blocks rather than a checkerboard pattern to make access and inventory simpler.

Another benefit of the guilded nursery is that these areas can be transitioned towards perennial polycultures with a mix of permanent and propagation plantings. On a small scale with the MHGs we have experienced good success with harvesting a diversity of yields at the same time as managing for propagules. We use a management pattern of grade-as-you-go to separate seeds, cut flowers, herbs for drying, vegetables, divisions, fodder, mulch, scion wood and other yields.

We are utilizing the Edible Forest Garden Pattern Language 1 as a management tool in our nursery development (Figure 2). All three phases of our nursery operations on small scale sites can be integrated into the Shifting Mosaic Forest Gardens pattern. Mother herb gardens are essentially Microforest Gardens that feed Field Grown Nursery areas that we have designed to oscillate between Gaps and Clearings, Temporary Shrublands , and Woodland gardens depending on the specific Disturbance and Maintenance Regimes for each Field Grown Nursery area. Field Grown Nursery sites spend most of their time in the Temporary Shrublands successional stage and optimally are disturbed by transplanting to the broader site (Zone II-III) or sales soon after reaching a Woodland Garden stage. This action sets them back to Gaps and Clearings which are ideally repopulated quickly from MHGs . Some areas stay closer to the Gaps and Clearings stage, in particular, where we have Pits and Mounds, which we are trialing for root and tuber production in an attempt to make digging up the harvest easier. Our broader sites are designed primarily as Woodland Gardens, so we may decide to create more Gaps and Clearings as the plantings mature and we begin to experience Nuclei that Merge.


Figure 2

We always plan with multi-functionality in mind, so the nursery plantings, shade structures and propagation tables are often situated to benefit the surrounding developing forest gardens and site functions. Some multifunction aspects of nursery plantings and layouts/ strucutres are:

  • Position as windbreak for establishment plantings
  • Position uphill from establishment plantings to use excess water
  • Planned succession: interplant with permanent plantings to provide shade and fertility
  • Temporary/mobile infrastructure allows flexibility as microclimates change
  • Provides for acclimation period, trialing of new plants and guilds
  • Habitat for beneficials
  • Staggered harvests
  • Feedstock for larger site development

The high diversity of herbaceous and woody perennial species and varieties common on small scale permaculture and agroecology sites connects well with the needs of developing larger scale and commercial sites. The small scale sites function as Zone I and II with high intensity of management and cultivated diversity which allows us to trial new species and varieties at a low cost of failure before planting them out at the Zone III and IV scales of commercial polycultures. This method follows as an expansion of the MHG concept from providing for a single site’s development to becoming a local resource feedstock for plant materials. We would like to integrate this model into the Plant Materials Feedstock Supply Chain.

To meet the larger quantities needed, we are expanding our in-ground stock and seedling propagation to multiple sites. We saw this model working locally for CSA production and liked the added opportunities of increased microclimate diversity provided by having multiple nursery sites. This strategy is working for us because we have partners in residence at each site. Another potential benefit of having multiple sites is application of the Nuclei that Merge pattern at a broader scale.

Originally, we were selling a wide variety of fruit, berries, nuts, herbs, insectaries, n-fixers, and timber perennials, but after a couple of years, we are choosing to focus on fruit, berries, nuts, herbs, and perennial vegetables based on customer feedback. We still stock many support species, just at lower numbers, and we are continuing to trial new plants and educate people about the utility of many species, which keeps our work fun and interesting. Our primary customers are homeowners, so we have found that plants with smaller mature sizes (semi-dwarf fruit trees and smaller) are better sellers because they are easier to fit in an existing landscape. Currently, we consider our operation as a local retail nursery that links wholesale nursery production with local markets, as shown in Figure 1. To minimize competition, we try to maintain a unique inventory and not replicate what is being offered locally at other retailers. As mentioned above, we are working towards increasing our stock quantities to be able to provide plant materials for larger site development.

Below is a list of some species we are currently excited about offering or growing out in trials. We also cultivate and offer many of the standard productive perennials such as apples, pears, cherries, plums, peaches, cane fruits, rhubarb, and asparagus.

Table 1. Perennial polyculture plant list.

Scientific Name

Common Name

Tanacetum balsamita

Costmary

Armoracia rusticana

Horseradish

Althaea officinalis

Marshmallow

Allium fistulosum

Onion, Bunching ‘He Shi Ko’

Diplotaxis muralis

Sylvetta Arugula

Achnatherum hymenoides

Ricegrass , Indian

Agastache sp.

Giant Hyssop sp.

Allium × proliferum

Onion, Tree / Walking

Allium cernuum

Nodding onion

Allium sativum

Garlic

Amelanchier alnifolia

Serviceberry, Saskatoon

Amelanchier canadensis

Serviceberry, Canadian

Amelanchier grandiflora

Seviceberry , Apple

Amorpha californica

False Indigo, California

Amorpha canescens

False Indigo, Lead Plant

Amorpha nana

False Indigo, dwarf

Apios Americana

Groundnut

Asclepias speciosa

Milkweed, Showy

Centranthus rubra

Red Valerian

Chenopodium bonus- henrius

Good King Henry

Cornus mas

Dogwood, Cornelian Cherry

Corylus americana

Hazelnut, American?

Corylus colurna

Hazelnut, Turkish Tree

Crambe maritime

Sea Kale

Curcurbita foetidissima

Gourd, Buffalo

Dalea sp.

Prairie Clovers

Desmanthus illinoensis

Illinois Bundle Flower

Dioscorea opposita

Yam, Chinese Mountain

Eleagnus multiflora

Goumi

Eupatorium purpureum

Joe Pye Weed

Helianthus maximiliani

Sunflower, Maximilian

Helianthus tuberosus

Jerusalem Artichoke

Lespedeza virginica

Bush Clover, Slender

Lonicera caerulea var. edulis

Honey Berry

Lycium barbarum

Goji Berry

Maclura pomifera

Osage Orange

Morus sp.

Mulberry

Physalis sp.

Ground Cherry, perennial

Prunus americana

Plum, American

Prunus maritima nana

Plum, Beach Dwarf

Prunus nigra

Plum, Bounty

Ribes aureum

Currant, golden

Ribes uva-crispa

Gooseberry

Vitis labrusca

Grape, American

Vitis sp.

Grape, Hybrid

Xanthoserus sorbifolia

Yellowhorn

Yucca bacatta

Yucca, Banana

In order to improve our ability to cultivate climate appropriate agroecology systems, we are also collaborating with a local non-profit, Urban Roots, to host a modular Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) Course. This course will consist of several two day modules to be offered over the course of a year, each of which can be taken as an individual unit or compiled to complete the PDC curriculum. We are honored to be collaborating with professionals in the field, and our first guest instructor will be Eric Toensmeier , who will be teaching two days on Edible Forest Gardens and The Commercial Food Forest. The course will be held at Urban Roots in Reno, NV on Oct. 5-6. For more info visit www.urgc.org.

You can see plant lists from Loping Coyote Farms’ bare root sale last year here.

References:

  1. Jacke , D., and Toensmeier , E. 2005. Edible Forest Gardens, Vol.2: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture . White River Junction, Chelsea Green Publishing Company

Mother Herb Garden Timeline:

Nursery Start Table and Field Grown Nursery Connected to
Swale-Forest Garden Timeline:



Beginning a Guilded Field Grown Nursery


Nursery Propagation Tables with Deep Pots


Using Long-Term Site Polycultures for Nursery stock development
(bud grafting seedlings)

Eric Toensmeier

Eric Toensmeier is the award-winning author of Paradise Lot and Perennial Vegetables, and the co-author of Edible Forest Gardens. He is an appointed lecturer at Yale University, a Senior Biosequestration Fellow with Project Drawdown, and an international trainer. Eric presents in English, Spanish, and botanical Latin throughout the Americas and beyond. He has studied useful perennial plants and their roles in agroforestry systems for over two decades. Eric has owned a seed company, managed an urban farm that leased parcels to Hispanic and refugee growers, and provided planning and business trainings to farmers. He is the author of The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agricultural Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security released in February 2016.

5 Comments

  1. This is a great article and an encouragement to me! I have had similar thoughts running through my head about how to turn permaculture plant propagation into a larger source of income. Without owning any of my own property, living in an apartment with a single large south-facing window and being in a deer-infested area, I have learned lots about how to propagate perennials (lovage, anise hyssop, grapes, gooseberries, currants, JAs, comfrey, sorrels, turkish rocket, walking onions etc.) and make them presentable for market. It is profitable selling plants and books to friends, and at permaculture courses and related events like seed swaps and activist gatherings. And this is while living in an apartment! I just say that to encourage those who would like to start doing this but don’t think they have the space. There is much to learn even in a small space.
    – In eastern Canada.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. I always appreciated thoughtful feedback and sharing ideas and stories about how we can improve systems or retrofit them to fit other site contexts.

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