Forestry, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

Getting tree planting sites ready for next spring

My oft spoken modified proverb: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the next best time in 1 year from now”

Laying down a mulch of shredded wood at least a year before planting a woody species will create an ideal soil habitat for the plant whether it be a bramble, shrub or tree. Plants uptake nutrients via a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. A layer of woody mulch well before planting facilitates the fungal dominance in which woody species thrive as well as invigorate soils with nourishment from the decaying wood.

Plus some of my trees planned for next year need a sulfur application to acidify the soil lowering it to the ideal pH for that species. Sulfur needs months to be broken down in order to actually have an effect on the soil.

My process was as follows:

Weed wack all plant matter to the ground, rake out the clipped plants if they are significant

Apply the calculated amount of sulfur (tables can be found in this post)

Return any raked clippings (if applicable)

Lay down cardboard or paper to smother the existing turf. This biodegradable barrier will breakdown to humus given time!

Pile on as much mulch as you can spare

Come spring time, your back will appreciate the more workable soil (although I don’t recommend amending the soil or loosening it mechanically by digging an oversized planting hole. See here)


Removing most of the above ground vegetation:


The clippings are then raked out, sulfur applied (for the sourwood planting sites), then the clippings are returned.

Cardboard or sturdy paper (paper grocery bags in my case) are laid down to smother the vegetation then mulch is piled on top.

The [almost] finished site looks like this:


More info:

More tips to ensure success with trees

Where to find mulch for woody species

Fungal basics of mulching

How to think like a plant to be a successful cultivator

How to think like a plant to be a successful cultivator part 2

Mulch Matters 2: Different Types of Mulches for Different Types of Plants

Compost Matters: Garden Compost vs. Orchard compost

Bees, GIS Planning, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

Trees for Bees 6: GIS Map and honorable mention

Other posts in this series:

Trees for Bees introduction

Trees for Bees 2: Planning

Trees for Bees 3: Sumac

Trees for Bees 4: Sourwood

Trees for Bees 5 : Basswood


You may notice one species mentioned in the first post is absent: Liriodendron tulipifera aka Tulip Poplar.

“Liriodendron tulipifera tulip close” by Dcrjsr – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons –

This species is an abundant nectar producer early in the season helping colonies build up food stores and population numbers. While other bee gardeners are full encouraged to consider this tree, it will not be planted on the farm for a few reasons. Tulip poplars require loose, fertile soils as their roots systems are small, fleshy, soft and to put it succinctly: weak. It is also susceptible to numerous pests and diseases. Combining these attributes with its huge form and full sun requirements, the decision was made to plant the more valuable (regarding bees) Basswood in the vacant locations despite the beautiful blooms that resemble tulips, thus the common name.

Final Plans and Map

Putting everything together, there will be sumacs planted on the hill that raises the farm entrance from the pasture as well as below the powerlines. Sourwoods will be planted between the farm entrance track and the main road as well as along the fenceline in the pasture. Lastly, Basswoods will occupy the areas where they have room to spread.

Note: I apologize for the low res imagery. It is used for faster processing as well as the only aerial image saved offline for when I work on maps at the farm where my cellular data is the only access to internet!

That concludes this series…I hope you aren’t sick of bee talk!

Bees, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

Trees for Bees 5: Tilia americana aka Basswood aka American Linden


Other posts in this series:

Trees for Bees introduction

Trees for Bees 2: Planning

Trees for Bees 3: Sumac

Trees for Bees 4: Sourwood

Trees for Bees 6: Final notes, GIS map and honorable mention (will be published in future)



Where sourwoods produce top notch honey that beats out even clover, there may not be a more prolific nectar producing plant in the eastern United States than Tilia americana as far as volume in concerned. With the limestone parents yielding alkaline soils, it is quite a relief to learn that basswoods prefer neutral to slightly alkaline soils. A major consideration is that these trees need space, and lots of it. Heights of 60-120 feet are commonly achieved while Tilia trees spreads out 50 feet. The bloom is only 2 weeks long between May and July but produces an incredible amount of nectar; the most of any plant native to the eastern US and likely the most heavy producer in all of the United States, though I have found no statistics to confirm this. Furthermore, the flower’s structure protects nectar from being washed away by rain! The last of its attributes to note is how it grows twice as fast as most native hardwoods including beech, oak, and hickory to name the geniuses that make up the most of our native forests here. Unsurprisingly, this also means that it blooms quickly!

With its huge spreading form, basswoods will be planted on either side of the road to the west of the powerline that ends to run underground. Aesthetically speaking, an “Elm Effect” is hoped to be achieved where the trees spread to meet in an arch over the road. Side note, but did you ever wonder why almost every town in the United States has an Elm Street? That arching canopy effect over streets is exactly why but sadly Dutch Elm Disease has killed almost ever American Elm in the US. Not many of these trees will fit on the farm and its ladscape, but if the scarce figures found in literature are true, a few trees should supply a huge surplus!

Bees, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

Trees for Bees 4: Oxydendrum arboreum aka Sourwood aka Lilies of the Valley tree

Other posts in this series:

Trees for Bees introduction

Trees for Bees 2: Planning

Trees for Bees 3: Sumac

Trees for Bees 5 : Basswood (will be published in future)

Trees for Bees 6: Final notes, GIS map and honorable mention (will be published in future)


From Oregon State University

Sourwood nectar yields one of the most prized honeys on the east coast. Oxydendrum arboreum tolerates shade well but requires acidic soils. It typically forms a cone shaped canopy that is between 25-40 feet tall with a width of 25 feet.  An important note is that these trees are notoriously hard to transplant successfully. If transplanting is successful, sourwoods grow (relatively) very slow so careful consideration of planting sites is prudent. In fact, an arborist I called to the farm for professional advice on an unrelated matter basically told me I was wasting money by trying to grow sourwoods. He was friendly and incredibly knowledgable. Regardless, challenge accepted!

Similarly, the range of the sourwood is shown below:

“Oxydendrum map” by U.S. Geological Survey – Digital representation of “Atlas of United States Trees” by Elbert L. Little, Jr. [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Notice how the natural distribution swings around the Shenandoah Valley. “In the Garden: Sourwood” from the nearby Crozet Gazette notes that exact point and speculates that the soil is the limiting factor in this region of Virginia. I would agree, especially noting how the tree grows through the Roanoke and New River Valleys to the south. Geology is what I believe is the differing factor. Where the limestone parent material of the Shenandoah Valley yields alkaline soils, the two valleys to the south are sandstone/shale which produces acidic soils. Moral of the story: it will be a fun challenge as a passionate but amateur botanist and silvoculturalist!

It could be a candidate for under the power lines, but total removal would be needed if it encroaches. Have you ever seen trees under powerlines that commonly get butchered by an untrained “arborist”? It looks like this:

Those epicormic sprouts shooting for the space opened to sunlight by awful pruning practices lead to a never ending battle. Plus removal would waste its slow growth rate and difficult establishment! So for now, it will be planted between the farm entrance road and the fence along the main road where it’s form won’t reach out to disturb vehicles on either. It also could be planted beneath the huge and fast growing basswoods where its slow growth rate would keep them from competing vertically but the different soil requirements make this plan more work than it is worth. Instead, sourwoods will also be planted to form the border of the pasture along the fenceline so bees can maximize the June to July nectar flow.

After seeing the blooms of sourwood for the first time while researching some specifics of this post, I then noticed this specimen in my parents’ neighborhood located in Northern Virginia. I confirmed the identity by tasting the leaf!



Bees, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

Trees for Bees 2: Planning

Preface: This series is 7 posts long. As this blog is pretty much my diverse diary of starting a sustainable farming business that attracts readers interested in many different subjects. Thus I will break them up over time so I don’t spend an entire week talking solely about bee trees.

Other posts in this series:

Trees for Bees introduction

Trees for Bees 3: Sumac (will be published in future)

Trees for Bees 4: Sourwood (will be published in future)

Trees for Bees 5 : Basswood (will be published in future)

Trees for Bees 6: Final notes, GIS map and honorable mention (will be published in future)

Having a successful farm enterprise on limited acreage depends on putting every nook and cranny to productive use. There are some areas where fruit trees cannot be grown or cannot be accessed for harvest. Spaces such as these can be put to use with nectar and/or pollen producing trees, both of which come from flowers so it is no surprise that the best producing trees are also quite beautiful. Thus either side of the entrance track is a prime location for planting the bee trees. A challenge is posed on the pasture side of the entrance track by the overhead power line. Fear not, this challenge just adds an extra fun layer into the planning.

That road was constructed on fill dirt that more gradually spans the grade from the lower-lying pasture to the road. The resulting hill on the pasture side of the road has exposed rock and is un-plantable with anything that requires harvesting. I’ve considered leaving it wild and utilizing the hill as a goat exercise pen, but the logistics of fencing such a rocky and steep drop off proved the idea unattainable. However the hostile terrain will not support many trees thus requiring a grove of pioneer species, if anything. There is one pioneer species that produces abundant nectar and pollen and will be the first plant discussed on the morrow.





Forestry, General Pasture, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

A new to me tree complete with a feral beehive

Part of my year long to do list was to remove the entire population of invasive Ailanthus (tree of heaven) that have creeped into the pasture. Tree of heaven is incredibly hard to get rid of once the roots are established as they will continuously send up new stems.

Three of these specimens are right up against a power line so I called an ISA certified arborist to come give me an estimate on their removal. Unsurprisingly when two tree lovers meet for the first time…well we spent about 3 hours chatting about trees, sharing news, discussing my master tree planting plan and about 10 minutes actually discussing the project that brought him to the farm. In the end, he added me to their list of free mulch dumping sites, a stern warning that there is little chance my sourwood plans will work in the alkaline soil of the Shenandoah Valley, news that Emerald Ash Borer has been confirmed in nearby Harrisonburg and taught me a new tree I had been mis-identifying for years.

There is a large oak species that makes up much of the older forest on the property that looks like a chestnut oak, but with white oak bark. I was content in thinking it was a chestnut oak but the arborist informed me it was a chinquapin oak. Even better, as we approached one so he could teach me the identifiable characteristics, we noticed bees flying in and out of a hole about 25 feet up the trunk. Feral Honeybees!

So next spring, I am going to set up a swarm trap in case that feral colony splits as honeybees typically do each spring. A swarm trap is basically just a box coated with scents that lure the bees scouting for a new hive location. Once the swarm arrives, the bees can be transferred to a new hive.

Back to the subject at hand: the arborist recommended I paint the exposed vascular tissue of the freshly cut Ailanthus stump with roundup to kill the entire root system. While I typically avoid –icides, that sounds like an acceptable use of synthetic chemicals as I apply it directly to the target plant, have no chance of overspray, won’t contaminate any animal/pollinator food supplies and will prevent these badly invasive species from seeding or cloning thousands of new trees.

Bees, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

Trees for Bees

I am a huge advocate of planning trees ahead of time, especially if they are to be established where turf dominates. By laying down a biodegradable barrier like cardboard and covering it with mulch, the turf is smothered while the mulch encourages the fungal dominated soil in which woody-stemmed plants thrive.

In regard to honeybees, the small volume of garden plantings of flowers sadly do little in the way of nourishing the hive. After all, a single bee visits 50-1oo flowers per day, and 2,000,000 flowers to produce 1 pound of honey of which 100 pounds are produced per healthy hive in a good year. Bee-attracting flowers still feed smaller native bee populations and lure bees to your valuable crops so there is still great value in a pollinator garden!

Trees on the other hand, are a different story. And would you expect anything else from me? With my passionate love of trees, I plan to use them instead of (well, in combination with) pasture to feed humans, animals and insects alike. Honeybees focus their foraging efforts on areas with a high density of blooms as evolutionary biology encourages as efficient behavior as possible. So blooming trees are an ideal nectar source.

The trait of cyclical production of trees that affects fruit yields holds true for nectar yields as well. Where fruit trees see bumper crops followed by small yields the next year(s), trees follow a cycle of 2-8 years between massive nectar flows. So like always, diversity is key. This resource produced by NASA is great for determining what is blooming in your region.

Take the basswood for example. A single Tilia americana tree can produce huge surpluses of top quality honey during a 2 week bloom in June or July. I’ve seen numbers of 20 gallons per mature tree, or 800-1,100 pound per acre of planting.

The next tree to consider is one I have fond memories of from college Dendrology class. The class was once per week for 4 hours outside in ANY weather. Finals week of the fall semester in the mountains of southwest Virginia is when the whether turns from crisp calm autumn to blustery cold winter. As it happened, our outdoor dendrology final was in the midst of a brutally cold freezing rain storm. People cried, hands were numb, scared mumblings of frostbite were uttered but only when the “Rain-proof” paper started dissolving did the teaching staff take action. The next tree was to be the last!

One of the useful traits for identifying plants is taste. Obviously with Toxicodendron radicans being one of our subjects, a compromise was made where we were allowed to ask the teachers if a leaf from the quiz subject was safe to taste. Carefully tiptoeing the line between an B+ and an A- in the class, the last quiz tree of the final exam was critical. And I was stumped.

Most of the other stumped students just wrote Black gum, which was our default for generic looking tree, in haste to return to the warmth and dryness of their vehicles. After milling around trying to control the nerves and adrenaline leaving me as the last remaining student, I finally asked the instructor if I it was safe taste the long, ovate brilliantly red leaf. With a smile that revealed the answer, I wrote Ericaceae Oxydendrum arboreum Sourwood to secure an A- for the semester.

Once I started researching sourwoods, I found that they are quite beautiful when flowering and as I already knew, a brilliant red in the fall as this image from Oregon State university demonstrates:

Better yet, they are shade tolerant which will be an important attribute in my design. Even their slow growth rate is advantageous.

Sumacs are another tree that requires consideration for both honeybees and the native pollinators. For both types of pollinators, the three months of bloom supplies ample pollen and nectar. Here is a study that recorded bee activity on staghorn sumac stands in canada. It found that bees worked the male flowers for pollen in the morning and female flowers for nectar in the evening. For the native bees, the soft pithy stems of Rhus trees/shrubs provide nesting sites as the wood is easily bored. With aesthetics in mind, sumacs also turn a brilliant red in the fall.

Tulip poplars produce so much nectar that it stains concrete walkways beneath urban plantings. The beautiful cup shaped flowers of the Liriodendron tulipifera give bees a nice platform to land and drink from as they resemble tulips, hence the common name. It blooms early so it helps feed colonies and pollinators as they build up their nests and populations in the spring.

Black locust are already all over my pasture and the surrounding woods. In fact the time that my bees lost interest in the provided feeder coincided with the locust bloom. No additional considerations will be made for locust plantings as they are already numerous on the farm. I also let most locust trees grow because they fix nitrogen into the soil as they are a leguminous tree and they provide wood that is incredibly hard and rot resistant. On my land at least, the black locusts commonly lose limbs and break apart negating the need and labor required to fell them. Out of the local natives, locust wood makes the best fence posts and firewood.

I’ll expand on these trees and my plans for them in the near future!