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Miracle Farms – a 5-acre Commercial Permaculture Orchard (Southern Quebec)

Twenty years ago, Stefan Sobkowiak bought a commercial apple orchard with the intention of converting it to an organic orchard. He did just that, but eventually understood the limitations of the organic model originating from monoculture. He then decided to tear out most of the trees and replant in a way that would maximize biodiversity and yield while minimizing maintenance. Inspired by permaculture principles, the orchard now counts over 100 cultivars of apples, plus several types of plums, pears, cherries, and countless other fruits and vegetables.

30 Comments

  1. This is why I find, permaculture, polyculture, ecological gardening the most exciting thing on the planet. I have been doing the same thing on our 465sqm block but now we have sold and are moving on but at at the very least we are leaving a legacy that has already started a thinking process in our neighborhood.

  2. Great video! First I’ve seen of someone taking a monoculture orchard and applying permaculture principles. I’m pleased to see this confirmation of what I had believed was possible.

    1. Stefan from the video here: Wow what great discussions emerge from a slip of the tongue. I can see the telephone effect at work here. Re ‘honeysuckle’ as a nitrogen fixer I mixed up my honeys (honeysuckle, honey locust, honey berry, honey and my wife, my honey). What I meant to say was honeylocust. Yes there has been disagreement about it’s ability to fix nitrogen. However I can’t argue with RESULTS, no fertilizer in 6 years and a commercial crop with vigorous growth. I can’t ask for more. I chose honey locust for this orchard block simply because I had it in the nursery when I planted. Period. We now have a whole range of nitrogen fixers (robinia, caragana, eleagnus angustifolia, eleagnus commutata, hyppophae rhamnoides, new jersey tea and lead plant) I may be missing some.
      The kickstarter is over 85% funded after just 6 days (anyone want to get the DVD download first, $25 pledge) so the film is certain to go ahead, we will reach our goal and surpass it. Then we will add translated versions with subtitles (you can vote for the language of your choice on the kickstarter). Sorry we don’t have French honeysuckle but a lot of French members. Thanks for the comments.

      1. Ha ha, you sent me on a bit of a scurry with the honeysuckle comment, I must admit. I was guessing Siberian pea shrub.
        Despite what some say about it not fixing nitrogen, legumes are dynamic accumulators of nutrients, and represent significant nutrient cycling in the ecosystem, being relatively short-lived and fast growing.
        Keep up the great work, and let me know if you’ve read Fukuoka!

        Peace,

        Steve in Bermuda

  3. Honeysuckle is a nitrogen fixer????? I don’t think so. From the image, I think he means honeylocust. It’s not clear whether in fact honeylocust is a nitrogen fixer. The one piece of research – Toward a new concept of the evolution of symbiotic nitrogen fixation in the Leguminosae a Yale PhD thesis by James A. Bryan is now 18 years old. It contains information on conflicting studies. As far as I can tell, there has never been further research on Gleditsia triacanthos as a nitrogen fixer.

  4. Hi DeepGreenGreenie,

    It is not clear on the video, but the tree in question is probably honey locust as you comment. I reckon you may be wrong though because at the very least, the leaf litter (which is high in nitrogen) will go towards building top soil and accumulating nutrients. A different mechanism than bacterial associations, but perhaps the same outcome.

    If it works on the ground then that is no reason to raise uncertainties as if they were a truth. That is a cheap rhetorical trick. Permaculture teaches us to look at the bigger picture.

  5. Chris,

    The video is talking about fixing nitrogen from the air. Nitrogen in leaf litter does not mean that the plant fixes nitrogen from the air. If the nitrogen in the leaves is coming from the soil, then the plant is competing for nutrients. The fact that it is re-cycling them while building soil might be more than offset by the fact that the plant is also competing for moisture.

    If you can point me to any studies that show the source of the nitrogen content in Gleditsia triacanthos leaves, I’d appreciate it. As I said the only research that I’ve been able to uncover is that of Bryan in 1996. Other research in the area tends to refer to Bryan. For example, see https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/gtr/gtr-p-24%20papers/63vansambeek-p-24.pdf

    Without a doubt, permaculture teaches us to look at the big picture but we must also be careful not to accept constructs because they fit into permaculture. To do so opens permaculture up to charges of pseudoscience. Best that we keep uncertainties as uncertainties until they are shown to be otherwise.

  6. A quote from here:
    “Honeylocust … lacks the root nodules where bacteria symbiotically fix atmospheric nitrogen. For this reason honeylocust was thought not to fix nitrogen. Recent research at Yale University in the USA suggests that honeylocust does fix nitrogen directly in its roots without the formation of nodules.”

  7. Hi DeepGreenGreenie,

    Are you trying to suggest that just because something that has been observed as working on the ground, but not well understood, should be dismissed outright? The basis for your dismissal is lack of research – if I understood you correctly?

    I recommend that you examine your own motives as not everything can afford to be researched. We cannot wait around while someone takes a good long look at a specific issue.

    It is just not a good basis with which to dismiss an idea, especially if it has been observed to work on the ground.

    Regards

    Chris

  8. Thanks, Leslie for the link. I do think it’s important to have the facts straight (re: honeylocust) and it is so exciting that Olivier and Stefan are doing this project. When people share their permaculture successes via the internet it expands the possibilities for the rest of us.

  9. DeepGreenGreenie, I also was very surprised by that comment about honeysuckle. I’ve done some checking around. Of course, there is the normal information about the Japanese honeysuckle being an invasive. Here is different info about FRENCH honeysuckle:
    “French honeysuckle plants are able to fix nitrogen. Certain soil bacteria that form nodules on the roots aid the plants in this. The nitrogen can then be used either by the French honeysuckle or by any other plants nearby.” https://www.abouthoneysuckle.com/french_honeysuckle.shtml
    Considering the diversity on the rest of his place, I would not be surprised if this is just one of the nitrogen fixers he uses. Hence, the confusion with the disparity between the picture they flashed of honey locust (?) and the honeysuckle nitrogen fixer he named shortly after.

  10. Chris,

    You believe that honeylocust is a nitrogen fixer but cannot support your belief. I question that it is because the existing research is limited to one 18 year old study that has never had any kind of follow up research. In addition to the links that I provided up thread, there is this research done by Dr. James Duke shows no nitrogen in the plant – https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1xMmQCpucG4U2M5ZnB2cUhSUmc/edit?usp=sharing.

    What Stefan is doing with the honey locust is brilliant design but it’s not the only tree available to him. He could be certain of nitrogen fixing by using Caragana arborescens which doesn’t get too tall and wouldn’t overpower surrounding fruit and nut trees. Another nitrogen fixing possibility would be Robinia pseudoacacia although it would need coppicing to keep it to a controllable size. Searching the USDA plant database is a good place to find plants that fit specific characteristics – https://plants.usda.gov/java/AdvancedSearchServlet?n_fix_pot_cd=Medium&n_fix_pot_cd=High&dsp_vernacular=on&dsp_n_fix_pot_cd=on&Synonyms=none&viewby=sciname

    I’m not sure why you are so aggressive in this discussion. Did a permaculture teacher extol the value of honeylocust as a nitrogen fixer and you see me as attacking permaculture because I question a bit of what is being taught???

    Peace

  11. Hi DeepGreenGreenie,

    > You believe that honeylocust is a nitrogen fixer but cannot support your belief.

    If you re-read my comments, you’ll note that I have never stated that I believe that honeylocust is a nitrogen fixing plant. This is an assertion that you have attributed to me. I stated that if people observe that it has beneficial associations – whatever the mechanism whether it is understood or not – then perhaps it should not be dismissed. Nitrogen is not the only game in town for plants and we would do well to consider that.

    > but it’s not the only tree available to him.

    Of course. There are many beneficial plants. I plant the local acacia melanoxylon (a favouriet of Masanobu Fukuoaka, I believe) and tree lucerne as just two among many.

    > I’m not sure why you are so aggressive in this discussion.

    I see no agression in the dialogue, can you point it out to me and I’ll happily apologise? I’m questioning your initial assertion which was delivered as an unquestionable truth. I’m also questioning your faith in science as an absolute which you are consistently displaying. It would be good for you to consider that research is not the only game in town. I’d suggest that observation, plain good design and implementation are other tools among many which are equally valuable.

    Regards

    Chris

  12. My initial assertion, It’s not clear whether in fact honeylocust is a nitrogen fixer, does not seem like an unquestionable truth to me.

    You assume that I have a faith in science simply because I point to research. Let’s look at that in context. Is honeylocust a nitrogen fixer or is it not? One can look at the various blogs and howtos that say that it is or one can look to see if there is any research to support the statement. If some of the bloggers are making the statement based on personal evidence based observation, that is good information. But much, if not most information these days on the net is cut and paste. Therefore, I choose to try to validate what I read. You make a statement that the leaf litter is high in nitrogen. I asked you if you had a source for that statement. You chose not to answer the question directly. What should I conclude from that? Should I just take the statement at its face value and repeat it or should I look for more information as I did?

    You are right that you never stated specifically that honeylocust is a nitrogen fixing plant. That was a conclusion that I incorrectly reached based on your comment that the leaf litter is high in nitrogen. So I’ll ask the question again, how do you know that the leaf litter is high in nitrogen?

    Since you raised my motives as a subject for discussion, I’ll quote another poster in the thread that it’s important to have the facts straight.

    In the video, Stefan has shown a very powerful construct that at it’s very basic level is instinctively appealing. Within that video, he makes the statement that “honeysuckle” is nitrogen fixing. He may in fact have some observational evidence that it does but we don’t know. Regardless, people will walk away with the view that honeylocust is a nitrogen fixer because of the power of the video. They will build on that information and maybe/maybe not get the results they are looking for. It seems to me that it would be better to put honeylocust nitrogen-fixing aside as a question yet to be confirmed and focus on species that have been confirmed to fix nitrogen.

  13. Hi DeepGreenGreenie,

    > You are right that you never stated specifically that honey locust is a nitrogen fixing plant.

    That was at best a weak apology for your earlier comment regarding “aggression”. I was less than impressed by that comment.

    It is a simple deduction. Most deciduous species leaves are high in nitrogen. Some species draw that nitrogen into the trunk at leaf fall, whilst others will let it fall with the leaves so that it is available in the soil the following Spring for uptake by the roots. Nature favours a diversity of responses.

    If people are observing beneficial relationships with that species, then something must be going on and this was my best guess. For all I know, it could be something else altogether. Who is to know whether the tree itself accumulates boron, for example. You don’t know either and it would be far better if you stated that you don’t know.

    As you are so fond of research papers, please point me in the direction of one that says that this is not the case!

    It is considered polite to address relevant points that people raise with you. You have not done so. To save you any hassle. I’ll redirect you to a serious issue that I raised:

    > Are you trying to suggest that just because something that has been observed as working on the ground, but not well understood, should be dismissed outright? The basis for your dismissal is lack of research – if I understood you correctly?

    I am interested in your view on this subject as it is relevant to some of the larger issues facing our society.

    Regards

    Chris

  14. Chris,

    It’s clear that all you want to do is argue. Regardless of what I post, you will nit pick it. Not sure what I’ve done to cause this but I apologize.

    Time for me to move on.

    Peace.

  15. I looked at the citations that Deep Green claimed showed no nitrogen, and I’m afraid he is mistaken. Aside from the absurdity of the idea of any seed or whole plant containing zero nitrogen, you will find that “protein” is listed in both listings. Over 24% in the case of the seeds. Protein, of course, is made up of amino acids, which are nitrogen-containing organic molecules. And what better form of nitrogen than bound into an organic form, which releases with decomposition?

    Actually, chlorophyll and other organic compounds also contain nitrogen. That’s why composters always want a good mix of green in with the carbon materials.

    1. @HalFiore,

      I’m not a botanist so I’ll acknowledge that I’m way over my head here but don’t all plants metabolize protein/amino acids?? That doesn’t mean that they are nitrogen fixers which is what this discussion is about.

  16. Can anybody tell me if there is yet experience with large-scale, commercial permaculture garden designs in a cold climate? I, being a monk in a Dutch Benedictine abbey, would be very interested to know or to get into contact with people who have experience or knowledge about this. Thank you very much!

    1. Hi brother Thijs,
      Dave Jacke’s book (with Eric Toensmeier), Edible Forest Gardens, is an excellent resource, and details a lot of their work. Dave runs his own firm, Dynamics Ecological Design, which he founded in 1984.
      Peter Bane, of The Permaculture Activist, said “This book will define the intellectual territory of its subject for at least a generation.”

      Take care, and please feel free to make contact if you have any questions.

      Peace,

      Steve

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