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!

Garden, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

My slightly passive watering system in use on trees and blueberries

Note: I meant to publish my solar wax melter design today.  However the pop up thunderstorms prevented the completion of a batch of wax!

I use this system whenever I need to water my trees or blueberry bushes. But the little jets of water don’t penetrate crops that form stands with many vertical stems like my buckwheat.

But for trees and blueberries it is perfect. I just set up the buckets then haul a pair of 5 gallon buckets of water by hand. Over the next ~10 minutes or so, 5 gallons of water is slowly dispersed into a wide arc of the tree’s root zone. I like aiming the jets beyond the stems of the trees or shrubs because as the water pressure lowers as the water drains, the jets will retreat back in front of the stems more evenly covering the rootzone.

For blueberries, this system proves even more valuable as I can direct the arc to water two bushes at once, thus providing 2.5 gallons to each. I can add my normal 2 tablespoons of vinegar per gallon of water in order to ensure the soil pH is not brought up by alkaline (or even neutral) irrigation water. I would not be able to do this with hoses or drip irrigation, at least not without an expensive system. Plus this avoids dampening foliage which is important for crops susceptible to mildew diseases like grapes or asparagus.



Silvopasture and Agroforestry

You can do everything in your power to keep a plant alive, but…

Sometimes it dies like my little pawpaw tree while a few feet away this happens:




Granted it is a very easy to please Rhus genus (Sumac) tree. But it still drives the point home: you can provide that absolute ideal habitat for a plant but ultimately you are at nature’s mercy. Meanwhile other similar plants pop up in less than ideal conditions like sidewalk cracks, compacted gravel, etc.

Unfortunately, this is right against my little temporary cabin so it will have to be culled. But Sumac trees are invaluable in terms of ecological importance. I actually have a post written entirely about Sumac trees but it is waiting until I can capture some decent photos to be published.

Forestry, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

Tips for ensuring success with planting trees

Having studied urban forestry in college, I figured I would caution against the most common mistakes and share some tips to properly establishing trees.

Chances are the window has passed for the season on planting trees. But I hope use can be found by the readers in northern climates or those who like to crawl end of season nursery sales like I do. Otherwise I may re-post this in the fall and spring to align with tree planting seasons.

I have broken the tips down into categories based on how involved you wish to be with your trees:

Tips for casual tree planters:

  1. Mulch as deep as you want at the site of the planting well ahead of planting time. If you plan to dig the holes with a shovel, you will be vastly assisted by the change this brings on in soil composition and elimination of turf.
  2. Don’t bury the stem too deep. If grafted, keep grafting mark above the soil or else the roots will send up stems of their variety negating the graft.
  3. Don’t use ANY mulch at the base of the trunk. Leave a void to keep the base of the tree dry but pile as much as you want on the outer areas of the root zone.
  4. See here for mulch sourcing tips. Never under any circumstances use dyed mulches. Avoid most bagged mulches as they usually come from conifers like hemlock or other cedars, spruces firs or pines. Conifers contain high amounts of substances that inhibit deciduous trees allowing conifers to form dominant stands in nature.

Tips for a more involved tree planter:

Follow up to point 3 above, use fine gravel extending from the base of the trunk to the mulch. The source that lays out this recommendation and justification states any gravel smaller than 3/8 will keep the wood dry and rot/disease-free.

If possible, apply mulch or bury it at planting site well ahead of the actual planting. This will cultivate the fungi-dominant soil that trees require. Try to do this at least a year ahead of time, but don’t sweat it if you can’t.

Apply fresh mulch only a 90 degree arc around tree each year to give the tree access to nutrients that at are found in various stages of decomposition. Note the extra pile of mulch on the north side:


Don’t stake! Use very young trees so their stem can develop strength of their own through wind exposure. If you injured your leg and refused the doctors orders to work on recovering from crutches, your muscles would atrophy. Trees are similar.

If you must stake, us a large, rigid loop that doesn’t actually touch the tree but rather float freely to catch a tree when it sways too much in any direction. At the very least, make sure any part of the staking system that touches the tree is designed for that purpose to prevent injuring or girdling which can be fatal. Succinctly, no exposed wire and no wire wrapped in garden hose!

While contested in the arborist community don’t fertilize trees at the time of planting and don’t excessively water. Try and make a depression near the tree as a catch basin for water. Let the roots become established before adding extras.

Fertilize from the top only! Let the soil microbes and invertebrates make the nutrients bioavailable to the tree like natural cycles in a forest.

Don’t automatically pull any weeds! Plants with a taproot can help cycle nutrients are various depths in the soil. Others can provide a living mulch while not competing for the nutrients specific to woody plants like trees.

If you really want to get carried away, in early spring spray every surface from root zone to trunk to the smallest buds with a microbe-encouraging liquid like compost tea or fish meal. This will give the beneficial microbes a boost at colonizing every crevice of the tree allowing them to outcompete potentially harmful and destructive microbes in turn leaving no entry points for more serious pests. This is especially important for fruit frees! Think biologically, not mechanically!

Every fall, pretend you are Tom Sawyer and cover every bit of bark you can reach with a whitewash of interior paint and equal parts water. This helps prevent winter injury caused by pest (both bugs and microscopic types) from entering the woody tissues.

Learn how to properly prune! Basically, prune only during the dormant season and prune branches outside of the branch collar (show below). The tree will naturally callous over the exposed wood in an effort to heal itself.

Retrieved from Red lines added by me in MS Paint

Retrieved from Red lines added by me in MS Paint

Forestry, Garden, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the next best time in 1 year from now

That is my take on the ole chinese proverb.

This is a nice, succinct recap to conclude the long series of posts on mulch and compost and bacteria and fungi

Will all of the discussion on approaching food crops biologically, 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.


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

Garden, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

Compost Matters: Garden Compost vs. Orchard compost

I’ve beaten to death the idea of fungal dominance in the posts of the last week:

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


Yet one concept remains unaddressed: compost.

Garden Compost

Most composters find pride it minimizing the time it takes to turn waste into black gold for the garden. Processes to do so typically consist of encouraging high temperature and frequent aeration by turning the pile.

What did we cover in the last week about microbial dominance of disturbed soils?  Bacterial dominance!

So a composter who does what I listed above has created bacterial soil that is great for annual vegetables, not so much for any species with woody stems.

Orchard compost

Composed identically to compost for the garden, orchard compost differs by a procedure that encourages fungal dominance. Based on the last week’s posts, you may have ascertained that this means:

Nitrogen and carbon materials are layered or mixed, then let sit unmoved for months as the fungal decomposers go to work! Once composted, fruit trees, berries, etc. are top dressed with the amendment that works with the biological goal of fungal dominance.


Simply put, use whatever means necessary to compost as quickly as possible for use in gardens but patiently allow fungal decomposers to produce orchard compost by working undisturbed.

As such, I have two compost piles side by side:

  1. One with careful temperature monitoring to find the ideal instance to aeate the pile in order to minimize the time it takes to compost. This is used in the garden.
  2. One with layered brown/green (carbon/nitrogen) that is left to its own devices. This will be spread in the orchard every fall.


Garden, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

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

Glossary for organization of this post:

Broadleaf woody species- any deciduous plant that has a woody stem: fruit trees, deciduous trees, shrubs (eg: blueberry), grapes, and most bramble berries.

Non-woody species- any plant that does not have a woody stem (eg: all annual vegetables)

Softwood species – any evergreen/conifer (eg: cedars, pines, hemlocks, etc.)

Many of these ideas are expanded from those in this book that I introduced here.

Use Softwood Mulches on Softwood Trees only

To understand why I never recommend buying boutique mulches including bagged, dumped or loaded from retail sources, a discussion on the decomposition of softwoods is required. Most commercial mulches are from cedar and hemlock trees, both softwoods. These woods breakdown in a process called “brown rot” releasing polyphenols and other compounds that inhibit broadleaf species while nourishing softwoods. So only use softwood mulches on softwood trees!

If you make your own mulches or get it from one of the sources I’ve listed and are worried about the presences of ground softwoods, rest assured that 20% inclusion will not damage deciduous species as it will still be a “white rot”. If majority of the trees in your area are broadleaf, you are fine sourcing mulch from the sources I listed in the linked post.

Use woody broadleaf mulch on all species

Broadleaf mulches undergo a process called “white rot” that produces fulvic and humic acids that nourish just about all species of plants. Remember the ideal mulch comes from young wood on trees as well as all the other benefits that were discussed yesterday. Laying down a thick layer of broadleaf mulch on any soil, even well established turf, will yield excellent soil for cultivating plants they next year.

Coarsely ground, even unshredded mulches are ideal for the fungal activity that builds soils. Don’t mind the unshredded limb ends and larger chunks of wood in the mulch!

Grass-based mulches for Non-woody species

Hay, straw, dried grass clippings, etc. have a similar C:N ratio as woody broadleaf mulch but lack much of the humus building compounds found in young wood growth. They can still be used for water retaining characteristics for the annual plants when woody mulch is unavailable. Additionally, they will contribute organic matter as they rot as well as trace nutrients with larger relative proportions of potassium to the soils.

In between exceptions

As noted in the previous sentence, dried grass products can be worked into majority wood-based mulches for fruiting perennials to replenish the significant amounts of potassium that is removed in the annual fruit harvest.



Hardwood mulch from the small limbs in the tops of broadleaf trees is the mulch of most utility for all plants. If only softwood mulches are available even after checking all the places I recommend to get free mulch, let them rot for a year or two before use on broadleaf plants. Basically, treat softwood mulches like raw manure!

One additional type of mulch is worth noting in tomorrow’s post. I know, I know, this is such a riveting subject and I apologize for making you wait!