New permaculture orchard demonstrates WMU devotion to sustainability

contact: Paula M. Davis
| WMU News

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—What was previously a parking lot and, for a long time after, hard pack land on WMU’s west campus is being naturally rejuvenated by a nascent grove of nearly 70 fruit trees—apple, peach and plum—and other plantings. 

WMU’s landscape services team, known for its out-of-the-box campus land-care ideas, envisioned remaking this “unproductive” site between Haenicke and Welborn halls into a biodiverse landscape by installing in spring 2017 a permaculture orchard—perhaps among the first of its kind at a university, according to Nick Gooch, WMU horticulturalist and one of the project’s managers.

The land, once the site of Knollwood Tavern, was acquired by the University in the late 1990s. The building and asphalt were removed, but the highly visible land has not looked much like a typical swath of campus lawn. Due to poor soil quality, grass has struggled to flourish here.

“That was the challenge. Can we take one of, arguably, the poorest soil sites on campus and make it beautiful and bountiful,” Gooch says.

Permaculture explained

The plot’s plantings will seem, well, kind of haphazard at some points in the season. Clover, peas and other nitrogen-fixing plants are arrayed in hummocks at the foot of fledgling trees. Radishes dot the landscape. But there’s a methodology at work here.

Gooch explains that permaculture is an agricultural technique designed to engender features observed in natural ecosystems. Rather than fostering a single-use, aesthetic-based system—so, not a manicured carpet of grass—a permaculture landscape provides food, habitat, fertility, and health benefits in a self-sustaining system, he explains. 

“Instead of buying fertilizer, we’ve put in nitrogen-fixing plants that will take atmospheric nitrogen, put it in the soil and make it available to other plants.”

The tillage radishes planted here and there send taproots down deep, break up the gravely, compacted soil, eventually decay and create organic matter to build soil fertility. Other cover crops on the site, including buckwheat and oats, also create beneficial biomass. 

No chemicals will be applied. And there is no yard “waste.” Everything feeds everything else, Gooch explains. The decaying matter feeds the soil, the fecund soil feeds the plants and the plants feed people, insects and animals. And, as living organisms die and decay, they feed the soil, restarting the cycle.

Very soon after the orchard took root, the area was alive with several species of bees, butterflies and other insects.

“This previously was a site that was almost sterile and void of any life,” Gooch says. “I was amazed that all that insect activity and life came here in that short period of time.”

Fruit and fruitful lessons

Years from now, the campus community will be able to enjoy the orchard’s fruit, including several varieties of heirloom apples. In the meantime, the permaculture orchard offers formal and informal educational opportunities and an example of sustainable land stewardship. 

There are general botany lessons to be learned and research studies to be pursued as a result of the project, says Dr. Todd Barkman, a professor of biology who researches plant systematics and molecular evolution.

“One of the main uses will be to show students what grafted trees look like. Each and every tree of a particular breed of fruit tree is a graft from some other tree,” Barkman says.  

“For instance, a branch is removed from a red delicious tree and then it can be grafted onto a more-hardy rootstock—trunk—from a different, even non-desirable apple breed.”

Usually, Barkman says, orchards are comprised solely of grafted trees to ensure that each tree produces the exact type of apple desired.  

As for applying research to the orchard, he says it would interesting to experiment with different types of cover crops and soil-busting plants to determine which plantings result in the best soil conditions and best-yielding trees. 

“One obvious research study would look at the effect of planting legumes that could enhance the amount of nitrogen in the soils as compared to planting species that don’t enhance the nitrogen levels in the soil,” he says. “Since nitrogen availability is the main limitation to plant growth, that is a logical study to perform.”

Gooch says the site has already sparked curiosity among passersby. He installed a sign explaining permaculture as well as the orchard’s origins and purpose. 

“This gets people to think and if they have objections, that’s a great opportunity to educate somebody. If they say, ‘I don’t like that.’ You ask why and explain what the plants do and why. That’s the educational component, and that’s what we’re here for.”

Read more about WMU’s unique programs in the fall 2017 issue of W Magazine, a publication of WMU's Office of University Relations.