Book Notes: The Permaculture Handbook :: Chapter Sixteen

Continuing my highly personal notes on Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook (2012), here’s Chapter Sixteen: Trees and Shrubs, Orchards, Woodlands and Forest Gardens. Any misrepresentations of Bane’s words or work are mine alone and completely unintentional. Notes on each chapter linked here.


“Some of the most cold-hardy wild fruits will not grow in regions much warmer than zone 4, but others stretch all the way to zone 9. I will not remark on those that should be removed from the list as we proceed southward, except to say that when you can grow figs, you become much less interested in cranberries, even if they tolerate your climate. Judge accordingly.” — Peter Bane

What? Figs? But cranberries are beautiful and delicious! Even these Viburnum trilobum highbush cranberries, which are different from Thanksgiving cranberries, which are vacciniums.


Trees provide us food, fiber, and energy.

“… when vandals strike (and they have been striking for as long as there have been grain-based surpluses), it is possible to grab your seed corn and flee over the horizon to live and perhaps to plant another day. Tree cultivators live by the virtues of their ancestors and work for the benefit of their descendants. Fire and the sword can undo in one season many generations of care, and recovery is slow. To embrace permanent agriculture based on woody perennials, we must enter into uncharted territory. Tree cropping is not wholly unknown: humans have been cultivating tree fruits for nearly 7,000 years[; the] past century, however, has seen an enormous explosion of scientific and agronomic research into the intensive cropping of grains, legumes and oil seeds, and secondarily into the mass production of a small number of livestock species. These crops have become the basis of industrial food. Adopting tree crops is part of a broadbased citizen initiative to correct the imbalance of research effort in our food system.”

Coppice: A way to “Cut and come again.” Using hand tools, can cut [non-conifer] trees to the stump and allow them to regrow. Trees don’t have to grow tall before their wood is harvested:

“Instead of allowing trees to grow to a mature height and girth, under coppice systems they are grown only to the dimension that meets the need of the products for which they are cultivated. If you need stove wood of three-inch diameter, it makes no sense to fell and split a two-foot-diameter tree. Better to cut the stems when they are the right dimension for the job.”

coppicing example from Bane’s book

Coppicing frees trees to cover their trunks, limbs, and branches with new cambium cells, so energy in the roots can create new growth; it resets the tree’s life clock.

Tree roots: Most of soil life and nutrients is in the top 12 inches of ground, and that’s where tree’s roots predominantly are, except in arid lands. Tree roots can spread 3x the diameter of the crown. For many trees, the branches on one side of the tree are fed from roots on the opposite side. Trees have structural roots, which anchor them, and feeder roots, which bring them food, and these latter roots are often sloughed off.

Ramial wood: Ramial wood is the young growth of woody plants. [I think we read elsewhere that the wood diameter should be no more than 3″.] It can be cut (it often is cut anyway, for pruning and such) and applied as mulch, breaking down into humus quickly, usually in less than a year. Woody plants are a prime source of fertilizer and mulch to maintain fertility in gardens and farm fields, especially those species that fix nitrogen and those with lots of leaves attached.

my ramial wood pile, April 2015

Some shrubs and trees to consider for coppicing and ramial mulch: “Willows are prolific wherever water is available. Poplar and aspen are fast-growing and respond to coppice. Elaeagnus species, especially the widespread autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) and Russian olive (E. angustifolia), are often seen as dispersive problem plants: make them work for you rather than spend energy trying to exterminate them. We had two autumn olives show up unbidden in a neglected section of our garden. We cut them back every year for mulch and nitrogen, and they have become fertility anchors for the crop species around them. They will eventually provide edible berries.”

swallowtail butterfly on an autumn olive, nearby rail trail in NH, June 2014

Consider planting the legume shrub caragana (Siberian peashrub) in cold climates (zone 2-10, can get 20′ tall, yellow flowers in May).

taller shrub shown here is Siberian peashrub, at Paradise Lot in Holyoke, MA, June 2016

Take no more than 1/3 of a shrub at a time unless you’re cutting it to the ground to grow more stems.

We need trees and shrubs architecturally in the garden, as windbreaks, as visual screens, as part of integrated pest management to confuse pests, to anchor plant guilds, to attract birds.

Woody nitrogen-fixers are listed in Appendix 3.


Trees for Food:
Nuts: hazelnut (corylus), pine, walnut (juglans), hickory (carya; Carya ovata, shagbark hickory, is among the best-flavored), gingko, chestnut (castanea), and in southern climates, pecan, pistachio, almond. Most reach 40-140 feet tall and take 10-20 years to bear, but most hazels are shrubs and bear quickly.

[My hazelnut shrubs are about 4′ tall now and bore a few nuts, which wildlife nabbed, last year, their 3rd year.]

one of 2 or 3 hazel nuts, mid-July 2017

Difference in size in one hazelnut shrub from May 2016 to June 2017:

Hazelnuts: “American and California hazels (Corylus americana and C. cornuta), European species (C. avellana) and the many crosses between them (hazelberts, filhazels) show a compact, shrubby form and can be coppiced. Hazels will begin bearing after about four years and may live for half a century. They may reach 20 feet at maturity but can readily be maintained at 8–10 feet for cropping purposes.” Hazelnuts can make a dense screen and can be interplanted with tree or cane fruits. They fruit on one-year-old wood.

More on nut trees:
I did my own research on some of these, looking for the best for my zone 4 climate and smallish yard — hazelnuts were the winners:

  • Chestnuts: Take 8 years or more to bear nuts. Need two varieties for cross-pollination. Chinese, 40′ tall, zone 4, blight-resistant. Dunstan, 50′ tall, zone 4. Colossal, zone 5.
  • Hazelnuts: American hazel, 6-12′ tall, zone 3. European, 12-25′ tall, zone 4. Beaked (the kind that’s wild here), 6-12′ tall, zone 3. California, 25′ tall, zone 4. Hybrid Filazel/Hazelbert, 12-15′ tall, zone 3, takes 3-4 year to bear.
  • Walnuts: Walnuts are allelopathic (lots of plants can’t grow near or under them). Butternut, 40-90′ tall, very cold hardy zone 3, can take 20 years for nuts, gets a fungus. Heartnut, 50-90′ tall, zones 4-6. Buartnut, a fast-growing hybrid of butternut and heartnut walnut with nuts in 3-6 years, 50-60′ tall, zones 4-7. Black, 50-70′ tall, zones 4-9, takes 12-15 years for nuts.
  • Shagbark Hickory (common in New England in the wild): 70-85′ tall, can tolerate some shade, zones 4-7.
  • Gingko: 75′ tall but can be kept short with pruning, zones 3-8, should use only male plants (females stink).


A few of these trees found in the wild or planted other places:

gingko, Longwood Gardens (eastern PA), June 2013
shagbark hickory tree, Middlebury, VT, Nov. 2016
shagbark hickory tree nut, Odiorne State Park, Rye, NH, Aug. 2017
beaked hazelnuts, Butterfield Pond trail, Wilmot, NH, Sept. 2016
‘Fort McNair Red Horse Chestnut’ blooming at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, Boothbay, ME, June 2017


Fruiting Shrubs and Vines:
Grapes need 90% new growth removed (when dormant) each year, and they need full sun to fruit well. [We have some growing wild and fruiting in the yard with no care:]

“If you didn’t plant your fruit trees ten years ago, the next best time to do so is today, provided it is late winter, spring or a moist autumn.”

Tree fruits:
Pomes: apple, medlar, pear, quince, hawthorn. Pears: Plant three or more varieties together. Bees are not very interested in pears.
Stone (self-fertile; 2/3 of the time, a seed will grow to resemble its parent): plum, apricot, cherry, peach, almond, and crosses of nectarine and pluot

Bane has several pages on grafting methods that I didn’t really read.

Selecting trees for your climate: Fruit tree species listed by USDA zones. I noted only those to zone 5 (my best, warmest microclimate) and only those I was interested in:
Zone 0 (near tundra): Saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia); wild pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica), chokecherry (P. virginiana), northern mountain ash (Sorbus decora), highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum).
Zone 1: mountain ash (Sorbus americana), northern mountain cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), some crab apples, a couple small apple varieties.
Zone 2: more cultivated apples and crab apples, apricots (Prunus mandshurica), Canada plum (P. nigra), currants, gooseberries, lowbush blueberries, cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon), elderberries (Sambucus nigra), hawthorns, some sand cherries (Prunus pumila), nannyberry (Viburnum lentago).

elderberry shrubs, Aug 2017

Zone 3 (includes some parts of the Adirondacks and Maine, northern Minnesota and
upper Michigan, high elevations in the mountain West, plus lots of Canada): tart cherry, American plums, some Japanese plums, some bush cherry, some roses (including R. rugosa), European mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia var. edulis), American hazel (Corylus americana), blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium), more apples and crab apples, a few pear
Zone 4: most apples, most pears, butternut and black walnut, many grapes, hardy kiwis (Actinidia arguta, A. kolomikta), more apricots, some European plums, white mulberry (Morus alba).
Zone 5: hardy varieties of peach, some northern pecans, buartnut, gingko, highbush blueberries [there are actually some cultivars that do well in zones below 5], sweet cherry, Damson and prune plums, red mulberries, American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), Cornus kousa, and pawpaw (Asimina triloba).

“Order only as many plants as you can plant within a week, and begin preparing your planting holes in advance.”


How to Plant a Tree:
I’ve planted a lot of trees and shrubs but still found useful tips, e.g., to turn the prominent side branch, if there is one, to the prevailing wind (here, it’s NW) to give it extra protection; to stab the sides of the hole so roots can head off horizontally; and to tamp the roots and soil as you go, so as not to leave large air pockets.

Here are the full instructions:


Pruning: “A young apple, pear or peach needs about three dozen leaves per fruit, or six to eight inches of stem per fruit. A 3- to 4-year-old tree may do well with about 50 fruits, a number that will increase from year to year. About four to six weeks after flowering, you can see which blossoms have been pollinated, as these will be showing small fruits.  Remove all but one or two in each flower cluster, favoring those that are largest and have no blemishes or insect damage. If you cannot tell which are going to fill out, wait another week or two to allow them to swell. With young cherries, plums and apricots, there is less concern about thinning the crop.”  [I’ve also read to thin peaches out to about one peach fruitling every 4-6″ on a stem, and do it early and perhaps twice.]

“Pay particular attention to the time of blooming and record this each year for each tree or major block of trees. Notice also what wild plants are then blooming, what birds are migrating through, what frogs are mating at the same time and other climate-sensitive phenomena.”

(Quechee Gorge, VT, May 2011)

Benefits of trees in the garden/farm:
Shade, protection, windbreak, cooling, lowering a high water table, soil building, visual screening, fencing, mulch as leaves and twigs drop, fuel, fruits/nuts, nitrogen-fixers, fertilizer, forage for bees and wildlife, habitat. Never plant a tree that can’t serve at least three functions.

arborvitae ‘Emerald Green’ windbreak/hedge, Bedrock Gardens, Lee, NH, Sept. 2016


Forest Gardens: Polyculture – mix of species. Structure of a temperate forest garden is based on canopy elements, i.e., trees like apples, pears, cherries, walnuts or chestnuts. Other tall elements could include nitrogen-fixing trees for fertility (e.g., black locust, alders, mimosa). The middle layer could include shrubs like serviceberries, elderberries, hazels, Siberian pea shrub, autumn olive. Ground cover layer could include mints, alliums, nasturtiums, comfrey, burdock, sedums, horseradish, lovage, yarrow, fennel, annuals, clovers, lamiums. He talks specifically about fruit tree guilds on p. 331.

[Below, just a few of the ground covers and middle layer plants in my fruit guild: ]

Using weeds: “An important shortcut to successful forest gardening is to learn about and use a good range of friendly weeds. These are expansive or dispersive plants that are easy to use or to live with. They don’t have thorns. If they show up where you don’t want them, they’re easy to move or to get rid of. They’re pretty or edible or make good compost or medicine, so that you don’t mind having lots of them. Lettuce is a friendly weed in our garden. … Chickweed, mache and lambsquarters are friendly weeds. Dandelions are a bit stubborn but basically OK.” But you may also have to suppress weeds you don’t want — for instance, creeping euonymous, poison ivy, Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose, maple seedlings, hackberry, black cherry, ashes, some grasses, or whatever is vexacious in your region.

[Below, a few of the weeds that have emerged in my garden and have been left to beautify and nourish it: ]

“Forest gardening is part of a larger strategy to create productive woodland mosaics in our inhabited landscapes.”


Featured image (top image) is some sort of mountain ash (Sorbus sp.), Sunset Hill Trail, Newbury, NH, Aug. 2014

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