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A Home for the Wizards - Norway Spruce Polyculture

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A Home for the Wizards - Norway Spruce Polyculture
by Christopher Schmitt - Wednesday, December 2, 2020, 9:26 PM

Polyculture Design Narrative

Christopher Schmitt at The Philosophy Family Farm

 "A Home for the Wizards!... supporting homes for trees, animals and family traditions”


Hi Everybody,

This is our polyculture design plan that we submitted for the assignment. We are curious to see what other polyculture combinations you all have created for your sites.

I own a 60-acre former Christmas tree farm with 18,000 conifer trees of varying sizes and species, including a majority of Norway Spruce. For this polyculture design, I have decided to focus on an area of the farm with approximately 500 4’ to 12’ tall Norway Spruce trees. Of that area, my design focuses on an approximately 30’ by 70’ section that includes 20 Norway Spruce trees. These trees currently are planted in rows approximately 10 foot on center. Currently, all that grows in this area other than the Norway Spruces is wild grass and Goldenrod. The design plan includes keeping the Norway Spruces and planting additional flora in between the trees at the shrub layer, herbaceous layer, ground cover layer, root layer and vine layer.

Since the goal of my design plan is to maintain the Norway Spruce trees at 12’ height or less without cutting them down, the plan includes coppicing these trees every 10 years in a rotational sequence within the design plan area in which we will coppice two of the 20 Norway Spruces every year. The coppiced trees either will be sold as Holiday trees or will be used for wreaths and decorations, medicinal purposes and/or for creating aromatic home goods.

My family and I call the theme for this polyculture, “A Home for the Wizards…supporting homes for trees, animals and family traditions”. For four years, we have been struggling with what to do with our Norway Spruce trees which grow huge branches with downward angled boughs my daughter calls “wizard sleeves”. If not cut down for use as holiday trees, they can grow to be 100 feet tall in 50 years. Currently we already have many Norway Spruces of this old age and large size; therefore, we would like to keep the Norway Spruces in this section of the farm at their current height of 4’ to 12’ through coppicing. It is for this reason that we do not include the canopy layer of 60’ to 80’ and the low tree layer of 20’ to 40’ in our polyculture design for this section of the farm.

We chose the concept of “home” for our theme to stack the ecological and social benefits of this polyculture design area. Our goals for this polyculture design area are as follows:

  • To provide a physical place and physical materials for existing animals to live and create homes.
  • To grow plants that can be used as decorations for family holiday traditions.
  • To provide a context for attributes of “home” for our family’s writing purposes (a research lab for inspiration and ideas)
  • To create regenerative progression within an existing habitat that attracts more species and provides for more diverse needs
  • To make amends to the land by planting regenerative agriculture of diverse flora.

The following is a description of the flora and fauna included in our polyculture design for this area:

Norway Spruce trees (20) maintained at 4’ to 12’ tall through annual shearing, and with each individual tree coppiced on a rotating basis throughout the polyculture every ten years. Home to nesting songbirds, such as Song Sparrows, American Robins, Prairie Warblers, and Chipping Sparrows. Also, tops of tree serve as bluebird perch for hunting insects.

The Winterberry Holly bushes (3) designed to be 6’ to 8’ tall and 6’ to 8’ wide at maturity. Provides cover for White-Tailed Deer, Wild Turkey, and gamebirds. Provides berries for Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, Blue Jays. Likes average to wet soil, acidic soil from pine needles, and full-to-part sun; also, it can tolerate partial shade and fully wet, acidic soil. Need two females and one male in order to have berries. Fall and Winter is when the berries emerge—berries are eaten by the winter birds mentioned before. Berries can be used for floral arrangements, wreaths, and decorations. It is deer resistant as well. Male needs to be within 50 feet of female—can pollinate five females. Also productive in bioswales, and in rain gardens because of love for moist soil. Pest-and-disease-free. Do not prune them—only at select times before they are completely finished for the year.

Honeyberry bushes (3) designed to be 2’ to 4’ tall and 6’ wide at maturity. Need at least two different varieties for cross-pollination—cannot self-pollinate. Great wildlife benefits—birds will devour the berries, and plant will go well in Zone 3 serving both wildlife and humans simultaneously. Also, helpful pollination source for bumblebees, honeybees, and other native species—wildlife species are overall helpful as well as the other varieties of honeyberries. Lots of mulching needed to retain moisture and for weed prevention.

Saskatoon bushes (3), small variety (Amelanchier alnifolia), produces berries in the summer, and reaches 6’ to 10’ in height at maturity. Does not do well in heavy clay soil—the soil at our project site will have to be amended with silty loam to ensure the wellbeing of the Saskatoon. Do not require another Saskatoon planted nearby; however, the planting of an additional bush will help generate bountiful harvest more than that from one plant by itself. Vulnerable to aphids, mites, leafrollers, and saw flies. Rabbits, rodents, and deer consume the bark, so would need to be placed near a companion plant that distracts these species from consuming the Saskatoon bark. Does not compete well against other plants.

Spring bulbs—Daffodils, Tulips, Hyacinths, Grape Hyacinths, Snowdrops, etc., all to be planted surrounding the Norway Spruces, underneath the boughs.

Coneflowers—seeds in the Fall are beneficial to birds. Drought-tolerant as well as heat-tolerant. Cut flowers to be used for home decorating.

Yarrow—human benefits (medicinal uses) as well as wildlife assets for pollinators. It is excellent as a soil accumulator, and it attracts helpful pollinators such as butterflies. Can be used for cut flowers to be used for home decorating.

Sow Thistle— (up to 3’ tall) can be used as a distraction to protect the Saskatoon from deer, as deer love the Sow Thistle. The Sow Thistle is helpful to pollinators. It also is edible to humans—cook the tender, young shoots, stem, and leaves (after washing out milky substance) before they become bitter, and mix them with salt, pepper, and butter—or eat them raw.

Black-eyed Susans—attract butterflies, are drought-tolerant, are native, bloom for a long time, provide beautiful cut flowers to be used for home decorating.

Nasturtiums—easy to grow, even in poor soil (aridity plus consistency of soil). Edible with peppery taste like watercress. Can climb up structures—can be useful to climb up sides of ladybug houses.

Wood Sorrel—groundcover, with edible, sour taste that can be sweetened in a drink, similar to lemons. Has three leaves like a mini shamrock plant. Good nutrient accumulator for Saskatoons, can grow in shade of boughs.

Creeping Thyme—Thymus praecox—perennial groundcover, deer resistant, bee-friendly, edible as an herb with teas. You can walk on it without disrupting the growth of it. Survives in many soils and light conditions. Good for use around Norway Spruces for foot traffic during tree shearing.

Crimson clover—nitrogen-fixer, attracts pollinators. Wildlife enjoys eating it (groundhogs, perhaps deer). Edible—tasty in salads and sandwiches with vitamin K and vitamin C—protein and fiber. Wild Turkeys attracted to clover, as well as insects on other plants.

Calendula—attracts bees and other pollinators and provides nectar food for various moths and butterflies. Attracts ladybugs, green lacewings, and hoverflies (which all eat aphids). Many health benefits—pain, sore throat, and rash relief.    

Ladybug houses – since I want a natural, organic way to control aphids that attack the Norway Spruces, we learned that ladybugs, lacewings and hoverflies eat aphids. My daughter researched and designed a ladybug house made from bamboo in a honeycomb pattern that provides a place for ladybugs to shelter. We have included these in our polyculture design.

The following questions remain for us to research and consider:

  • We recognize that some species included in our plan potentially could become invasive; we would need to monitor this to ensure nothing becomes overwhelmed.
  • Will Sow Thistle really distract deer from eating the bark of the nearby Saskatoon? How do we best balance our human needs with wildlife needs within Zone 3?
  • How will coppicing the Norway Spruces affect sunlight and shade for existing neighboring plants?
  • How will seasonal flooding affect newly planted low-lying plants? Will the flooding hinder their growth, or will they help mitigate the flooding?
  • When and how should we collect our share of harvest without hindering wildlife, since this polyculture design plan resides in Zone 3?
  • Will the ladybug houses work, will they need maintenance, cleaning, repair?
  • How can we effectively manage the use of imported or attracted beneficial insects as part of our integrated pest management plan?
  • How do we properly time the schedule for Norway Spruce shearing without impact to the trees, other flora and wildlife such as nesting birds?

Peggy Berk
Re: A Home for the Wizards - Norway Spruce Polyculture
by Peggy Berk - Wednesday, December 2, 2020, 9:54 PM

Wow, that's a lot of  plants to consider!

I love Norway Spruce but one of the reasons I haven't planted any is because I've read that they average 2-3 feet growth a year,  and in a good weather year can add up to 5 feet.  The height hasn't deterred me, but I've also read that their width will generally be 50-60% of the height at any given time and I've been concerned that they would block a fair amount of sunlight making it more difficult to have a diverse polyculture around them in a reasonable amount of space.

I'm wondering, since you have so many, if you could perhaps weigh in on some of these issues and let me know what your experience has been.

Regarding your ladybug questions - there are many "ladybugs, some of which have almost disappeared from their natural habitats.  Cornell is in year 1 of  a 3-year "lost ladybug" release project focussing on the nine spotted ladybug. I bet they have some good research data they might share with you.

Picture of Christopher Schmitt
Re: A Home for the Wizards - Norway Spruce Polyculture
by Christopher Schmitt - Thursday, December 3, 2020, 5:00 PM

Hi Peggy,

Thanks so much for sharing Cornell's ladybug program--we will be sure to check it out. As for the Norway Spruces, yes, they can get pretty large; we have 18,000 planted conifers, many of which are Norway Spruces, that are at least 50 years old, and around 75' in height. A section of our property has about 500 mostly Norway Spruces that are in the more manageable 4'-12' range, which we would like to coppice and use as Christmas trees so that they do not become a forest habitat. If you were to plant a Norway Spruce, we can certainly attest to the fact that they do get quite large and wide (hence my daughter's description of them as "wizard sleeves" since their heavy, huge limbs droop way down once they reach a certain age). For the past four years, we have sheared and trimmed the smaller trees quite successfully to keep them a manageable height, and the upside is that they provide a wonderful bird habitat.

Hope this helps!

Chris and family