Experimental Homestead

Bulbs Under Fruit Trees Part II: Understory Progress Report



This is an update to my previous post on experiments with fruit tree understories using flower bulbs.  I get quite a few page hits from people searching for information about fruit tree understories and bulbs under fruit trees and wanted to get this update out there for anyone who is working or thinking along similar lines.  To summarize my project, the goal is to establish an understory for fruit trees which grows up quickly at the start of the winter rainy season to smother weeds, but then goes dormant in late spring/early summer leaving a matt of dead leaves to shade the soil and to slow moisture loss during our long, dry summers.  This whole plan is to address specific problems of a Mediterranean climate with wet winters and dry summers, and may not have much relevance to climates with significant summer rainfall.
The bulb growing season is about to start again.  I’m digging stuff up and figuring out what the next moves are. The bulbs have not filled in enough to be sure of how the experiment is working quite yet, but I have enough preliminary information to warrant a short post on my experience so far.  I’ve planted experiments to just Amaryllis, just Narcissus, Narcissus and Amaryllis mixed, and one that is Snowflakes, Bluebells and Oriental Poppies together.  The Oriental Poppies, Snowflakes, Bluebells and almost all of the Narcissus varieties that I’ve tried are now off the list.  They either have foliage which is not dense or wide enough, or they die back too late in the season.  It is important that the understory go dormant early in the season so that as much water as possible is left in the soil.  The Snowflakes and Bluebells die back too late.  The Oriental Poppy also dies back late and turned out to make poor cut flowers so it also does not add any economic benefit. The only real contenders I have here at this point are the two original ones- the Chinese Sacred Lily Narcissus in both double and single (see edit below) and the Amaryllis including Naked Ladies and some cool hybrid Amaryllis.

Oriental Poppies, Bluebells and Snowflakes under Karmijn de Sonneville Apple (tasty!). The Poppies came up early and were beautiful, but made extremely short lived cut flowers and died back too late. The Blubells practically sprang out of the ground with the first rains, but died back too late in the summer. The Snowflakes emerged late and died back late. All are pretty much out of the race, but I may leave this planting for a while just to see what happens.

The Single Chinese Sacred Lily is behind the Double variety by at least a year, so it looks somewhat weaker so far and I’m not sure it’s going to catch up.  Only time will tell.  It is also possible that I have Constantinople, a similar flower to the Double Chinese.  The single and double chinese are identical as far as I know excepting that the flowers of the double are different, it being a sport of the single type, but maybe they aren’t quite..?  They Have the earliest and densest foliage of the narcissus I’ve tried so far and they die back quite early as well.  By Mid May they were yellowing significantly and they went down pretty fast from there being pretty crispy by the first of June.  That’s good because the first of June was sort of my goal for complete die back, although I was skeptical that I could achieve it.  The early die back was also in spite of adequate moisture which carried other varieties for at least another month.  Early die back in spite of adequate moisture is just what I wanted; a plant that is on it’s own clock, early to bed, early to rise.   That should not be surprising though as the Sacred Lily was really my original inspiration for the project.

Double Chinese Sacred Lily under Suntan Apple on March 5th. It is filling in nicely, but still too sparse to smother weeds and so requires weeding.

Same as above on May 12th well on it’s way to dormancy

The tree the Narcissus are under, a Suntan Apple, is not doing very well, but I’m inclined to think that its poor performance is due to other factors.  I think a few more plantings of the Sacred Lily are in order. The one big bummer about the double version of this flower is that even with a light rain (almost guaranteed in February when they bloom) every single stem bent and fell over.  Not just drooped, but kinked in the middle and gave it up.  The weight of the water gathered in that double flower is just too much for the weak stems.  I do have access to more of the single version, so I may expand those plantings once I decide if they are going to be vigorous enough.  they are lovely anyway and they smell awesome.  The Erlicheer and Early pearl narcissus did not perform well for the experiment.  They don’t seem particularly early emerging so far, and certainly not early to go dormant.

Double Chinese Sacred Lily stems broken from weight of rain trapped in the flower petals. That makes them pretty useless for cut flowers since it always rains when they start blooming in February.

The Hybrid Amaryllis that I purchased from Bill the Bulb Baron have started to send up flowers.  So far I’ve only had some hot pink ones bloom.  They are an intense rich pink very unlike naked ladies.  These are crosses that Bill has made between the standard naked ladies and some more exotic amaryllis.  They should be coming up in other colors as well from white through salmon and dark pinks.  The growth from all the Amaryllis is still somewhat sparse as they are just becoming established, but I’ve seen what they can do in other places when well entrenched.  It is not uncommon to see patches of them so thick that there are no weeds at all.  They come up pretty early and they die back pretty early, though they did die back somewhat later than the Sacred Lily Narcissus.  The small bulb sets, or “chips” that I got from the Bulb Baron grew in a garden bed for two years during which time they divided a great deal.  The average increase is around 5 bulbs per each planted.  With the most prolific bulb having 22 offsets around a nice sized parent bulb.  Since I have a lot of them to work with now more will probably be planted under fruit trees this year just gambling that the plan will work.  I have taken a few hybrid Amaryllis and Naked Ladies to the farmers market and they seem to be popular enough.  I can also get as many Naked Lady bulbs as I want, but I’m not sure I want them now that I’ve seen the more awesome and unique hybrid Amaryllis.   I’m impressed with the Hybrid Amaryllis color so far, although there are quite a few flowers with odd extra petals and accompanying flaws in form, so we’ll see how they look when they are blooming more.

Hybrid Amaryllis in hot pink. So far, these are pretty awesome and very fragrant.

Your run of the mill pale Naked Lady for comparison to above.

One other development here is the arrival of chickens.  We currently have 30 Chickens in a range of ages who have the run of most of the place.  We hardly have to feed them except for our kitchen and food processing scraps and some kitchen scraps that we pick up from a local source a couple times a week.  They eat a lot of bugs and grass seeds and whatever is available around the place.  But, in doing so, they predictably scratch and tear the place all to pieces.  Part of the understory plan is to have a dying mulch which stays put all summer, but not if the Chickens have anything to say about it.  The Suntan apple tree with the double Sacred Lily narcissus under it is now barren dirt.  Not a trace of dead foliage remains.  With the Chickens under there scratching and eating dropped apples, there is just nothing left.  On an adjacent tree they have actually scratched some Narcissus bulbs all the way out of the ground.  They are fortunately banned from the garden where a lot of the experiments are planted.  It is best though, not to ban them from the orchards completely because they eat dropped apples which are often wormy, helping to disrupt the breeding cycle of fruit pests.  Of course the drops can be picked up and thrown over the fence but, except when they are eating my cherries and scratch up my mulch, I like the Chickens foraging in the orchard.  I actually knew this would happen and was hesitant to get Chickens because of it, but tonia spearheaded the effort for Chickens determined to have our own eggs and I’m glad we made a move to start figuring the problem out.  They don’t just scratch the bulb beds either, but the tree mulch too and everything else.  They move a lot of soil around and are having a considerable negative impact moving soil down hill sides, filling in drainage ditches along the road and exposing bare soil to floating thistle and other noxious weed seeds.  The ultimate solution may be reducing numbers, but locking them up in a pen all day has become a non-option.  I’ve had chickens a lot and these are the most free ranging as well as the happiest and healthiest looking by a long stretch.  The egg and meat quality are way above the sad grain fed chicken eggs and meat.  We are what our food eats.  Still, something will probably have to give eventually.  I woke up last night with anxiety approaching terror having dreamed that they had excavated a bathtub sized hole in the hillside. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO…

Speckled Sussex Chickens doing their job of eating dropped fruit and then some. Note the bulbs laying on the ground. Normally they would be planted deep enough to stay put, but these are planted shallow for later removal.

Barren soil under the Suntan Apple after routine Chicken exposure. So much for the mulch effect in this case.

As far as health and function of the trees goes, we don’t have good controls, so it’s hard to be sure of much.  My impression so far though is that the trees with bulbs, even bulbs that die back later than desired, are doing alright.  The trees are mostly bearing heavy crops this year and it was not the wettest year ever, so the circumstances are somewhat informative if also somewhat sketchy.
To summarize my thoughts at this point-  being that the primary goals are early heavy foliage, early die back and marketability as cut flowers, the hybrid Amaryllis are looking pretty good.  Naked ladies would be second and the double Chinese Sacred Lily (or preferably the single if it catches up) third since I’m not sure the foliage will be adequately dense.  I had hoped to find other narcissus that could work, but so far no good.  I plan to keep collecting them in the hopes of finding more, but am not that hopeful.  If the plan works at all, it will be using very select varieties planted at an adequate density.  The quantities of narcissus bulbs involved are large, but once up and running bulbs to transplant or share out will be abundant due the the factor of exponential growth.  Bulbs approximately double every year, so that’s 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 or if one started with 100 bulbs, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1,600, 3,200 in just 6 years.  It may not play out just like that in real life, but it gives us an idea anyway.  The narcissus will not reproduce that fast if you start with landscape sized bulbs or “chips”.  Those smaller bulbs will mature into larger bulbs the first year and then start dividing.  The Amaryllis appear to have, on the average, reproduced much faster even when starting with chips.  The next 3 or so years should be telling.

EDIT MARCH 2013:  The single chinese are not looking as vigorous this season as the double or constantinople, whichever it is, but I’m still hoping it will catch up.  All foliage is predictably thicker, longer and denser this year as plantings become established, but they are not yet thick enough to smother all the weeds.  That means weeding and or fertilizing etc.. for a few years to establish them as quickly as possible.  I was able to plant 5 new trees to the hybrid amaryllis filling a 6 to 8 foot circle under each.  I started the project with “chips”, the smallest available non-flowering size, and increased them in the garden for two years to about 5 for every 1 planted.   Those are good numbers and very encouraging  I had also planted a patch under a persimmon tree, so I had enough bulbs to do 6 trees after two seasons of increase, and if I had increased all for two years before planting, I’d have a lot more, probably more like ten trees worth?  Unfortunately, I can’t remember for sure how many I started with, but I’m pretty sure it was 200, 80 or so under the persimmon and the rest increasing in the garden for two years.

RELATED POST: An Experiment in Using Winter Bulbs to Create Fruit Tree Under-Stories


September 20, 2012 - Posted by | Food Trees Fruits and Nuts, Garden Stuff | , ,


  1. Great permaculture thinking, liked it a lot,
    i stay tuned for any improvments in your design. Maybe coupling your bulbs with a hanging groundcover would help, but i dont know any that die as early as bulbs

    I too am in a steep slope with summer drought (i’m SW france, not the mediteranean part though)

    Comment by Le chant des cerises (@chantdescerises) | October 16, 2012 | Reply

    • Hi: what do you mean by hanging ground cover? I haven’t come up with many plants that fit my criteria. I’m sure there are more out there with millions of species in the world. I was wondering if there might be a perennial legume of some kind that dies back early, but most plants are not so much on a clock as they are ready to use available resources like water until they are depleted. I would like some plants with various attributes, and just more of them, but just haven’t found them yet.

      Your site looks interesting, too bad I can’t read it. I find that people get stuck in dogma with permaculture like everything else and it can become a practice of sticking a bunch of known techniques together instead of the intelligent adaptation to ones environment that it should be. I’m not very good at it, and I’m not sold on the food forest as most people conceive it, but I think the idea that we should use careful observation of, and intelligent adaptation to, our specific environments and the elements we put in them difficult to argue with.

      Comment by Stevene | October 16, 2012 | Reply

      • Hi, for me an hanging groundcover is a plant that spread on ground with its vegetation but not by rhyzome or runners, like milkvetch. I don’t know such a plant that die back early. Maybe a spreading rosmarinus (like Huntington carpet) would be beneficial on the water (more conserved by blocking evaporation than taken for growth) ?

        I’m sorry if i wrong labeled your work under permaculture, for me its an example of creative thinking in the permaculture way. I understand your point of view, here in France permaculture is young and most of the time associated with a technique of vegetable gardening. David Holmgren (co founder of permaculture) is not found of food forest either, and grows a traditionnal european orchad (but interplanted with N² fixers) for a better air flow. BTW its the first time i see the technique you’re experimenting, great creative idea, you just need to find the good plant. Maybe asking to the folks of PFAF (http://pfaf.org would help)

        (google translator is good to translate my blog but i doubt you’ll learn things)

        Comment by Le chant des cerises (@chantdescerises) | October 18, 2012

      • right, I was thinking that might be what you meant by hanging ground cover. I did think of plants like that. Including some succulent plants that will form a thick ground cover (thought I don’t think they would take walking on), but I haven’t come up with any candidates.

        I think the term permaculture is broadening out. Mollison didn’t want it to. He had an idea of what it should be and attempted to keep it that way with certification for teachers. I think it has to grow in what it encompasses by it’s nature. I know that Mollison gives lip service to the idea that it is open ended, but I was still left with the impression after reading his stuff that it was somewhat dogmatic. I think that the prime directives it works off or are good ones and reflect good values, but at the end of the day it was largely theoretical as far as application goes. I actually think that it is a beautiful, elegant and well thought out philosophy, but applying the practical ideas in real life over the long term is an experiment and the jury is still out.

        Permaculture is huge over here right now. I’m surprised to hear that it is mostly associated with vegetable gardening there. Here it is mostly associated with food forestry. For the most part I see a lot of enthusiastic young people that have been indoctrinated in PDC’s (which are usually all lecture) or by books etc… but don’t have any real practical experience. They’re sure it works, but when asked for a solid working example there seems to be very little out there. I find that people disregard some important ideas in food forestry plans that I think will probably be deal killers, but I’m hoping we can see some results that show what can and can’t work in 15 to 20 years from now. My interest in food forestry is pretty much limited to planting nuts. The idea of setting up a semi-natural tree arrangement as a somewhat self sufficient forest doesn’t seem very applicable to fruit. At least not if you actually want to be able to reach any of it before it falls on the ground. Nuts make more sense, but I’m skeptical that it would work well for them either and have not felt confident or experimental enough to make take the leap given my limited working area. I may still though. All the early adopters of permaculture I knew gave it up for the most part. Some seem bitter even.

        Anyway, the term permaculture is loaded now and clearly means different things to different groups and individuals. I think we can go far with the basic core values and philosophies of permaculture and hopefully those will stick. Typically though, the more popularized something gets, the further it strays from the source ideas. I think the best thing to do is take the prime directives and realize that the ideas for application are just ideas that need evaluation and expansion. The most important thing I think people miss is the tailoring of those ideas to specific environmental realities and the real needs of people. We could go on and on about permaculture, but lets not :)

        Comment by Stevene | October 18, 2012

  2. Thanks for your thoughts abour permaculture. [i skip my comment on permaculture]

    It is not a surprise you’re not fond of food forest, beeing in a mediterranean climate. Food forests are more for (sub)tropical or humid temperate climate. Maybe a food forest for your climate is fruit or nut trees, n² fixers and nutrients accumulators, ground cover and shade casting canopy. Food forest is not a forest, it is a mid succession forest cause all our fruit trees are in the mid succession phase.

    I’m not for the common seen food forest (here in France a food forest = lots of structural diversity), maybe because most of my land is steep dry slope, so like you i’m not keen on putting a lot of plants in a small space, i’ll rather try to put good pionneers that are often expansive (jujube, honey locust, persimmon) and thus not doing well in polyculture. That said, i’ll try to mix fruit trees families, root patterns, …

    Comment by Le chant des cerises (@chantdescerises) | October 19, 2012 | Reply

    • I mostly go with what I’ve seen work. Old homesteads here have old fruit trees that are still producing on wide spacing. They are simply free standing well spaced trees that are well established. They get lots of light and sometimes the canopies are slightly overlapping. I figured that is what I want my orchard to look like in 50 to 80 years. I thought with the understory that I could give the trees an edge that would continue to benefit them for the long run. It sounds like we’ve made similar observations regarding the spacing of trees in a mediterranean climate. My site is quite variable too in terms of soil depth, available water, excess of water in winter, slope, exposure, etc.. so I try mostly to imagine what trees of those I’m interested in will do the best in a given area and plant things largely on that criteria. I’ve made some mistakes already, but mostly it seems to be working pretty well. In othe rwords, I let the site select the tree to a large extent. The real test will be how the trees do over the next 10 to 20 years.

      Comment by Stevene | October 19, 2012 | Reply

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