Welcome to our new orchard and pollinator garden! Just a few months ago, this part of our property was nothing but a barren, weedy, sandy hillside. After terracing the hill with permaculture-style berms, it’s now full of love and life with fruit trees, California natives, and other drought-tolerant pollinator plants. This transformation has been one of our largest and most labor intensive projects yet, but one of my top favorites as well!
Come along to see how we transformed the space over several months. In this post, you’ll find a video tour of the new orchard on a hill that also includes footage of all the work we did to create it.
I’ve also included a written summary and plenty of photos to outline the steps we took to design the space, clear weeds, contour the land to make natural terraces or berms, use burlap as natural weed fabric, select fruit trees and other orchard companion plants, install a solar-powered irrigation system, add mulch, rock and steel borders, and more. Your bound to pick up plenty of useful tips along the way!
If you’re here from YouTube and looking for the full list of plants I promised, jump to the complete plant list here.
Video Tour and Transformation
Watch this video to see our new orchard on a hill, including all the work and steps we took to create it.
Location and Design
Our new orchard on a hill is located on the far side of our property on a sunny, south-facing slope. The previous owners used it as a goat and horse pasture, thus keeping the weeds in check. After being here a couple years now, invasive weeds grew back with a vengeance. We wanted to put the space to much better use – and grow some food!
With any new garden project, I always consider wildlife and pollinators too. My goal was to add plenty of native and drought-tolerant plants to offer food and habitat for them, as well as increase pollination and fruit production in the orchard for us! Plus, they look pretty darn beautiful too.
I knew right away we’d need to figure out a way to terrace the hill. Terraces help create level areas that are more easy and comfortable to work and spend time in. Even more, the water runoff was quite significant on this hill! Especially paired with our super sandy native soil, which has terrible water absorption and retention. Terracing hills reduces water runoff and therefore increases the water absorption and availability to the plants growing on it!
At first, I contemplated bringing in a bunch of stone or blocks to build up rock wall terraces. Yet after terracing a much smaller area at our last property, I quickly realized that would be far too costly and laborious on this much larger scale, especially because we intended to do 100% of the work ourselves (and I’m not getting any younger over here)! So, we decided we’d try our hand at contouring the land and creating permaculture berms to terrace the hill instead.
The first step in the orchard hill project was to clear the area of weeds – which we did entirely by hand, shovel, and rake. This stage took several weeks, working for a few hours and a couple days a week. We definitely could have brought in a tiller or tractor to make the work much faster (and easier), yet we wanted to avoid tilling and also pull up as much of the roots and seed heads as possible. Plus it was an extraordinarily rainy winter, so I enjoyed being outside and getting my hands in the soil whenever I could.
After clearing the weeds, we played with math, stakes, and drew lines in the sand to plan and outline key features: where the berms, trees, and pathways may go. This enabled us to determine how many terraces to create, how wide each level would be, how many trees we could fit while still providing adequate space between them, and finalize other decisions before “breaking ground” and starting to terrace the hill.
Terracing the Hillside (Making Permaculture Berms)
Next, it was time to start forming the terraces and berms. Let’s back up and break this part down a bit:
What is a berm?
A berm is a natural or man-made mound of earth (usually made from compacted soil, rocks, and/or other natural material) to create a terrace or shelf, most often on a slope or hill. In landscaping and permaculture, berms are used to contour the land, break up and add variation to a space, create planting zones, and most importantly, to divert water runoff in a more favorable way.
Berms are often used in conjunction with swales, which are low depressions or shallow ditches that also help to facilitate improved drainage, water retention, and vegetation in an area. The middle of our terraces have a slight depression, and we also created one rock-lined swale to divert runoff from the steepest slope to a nearby tree.
Forming berms for our orchard hill
We created berms with a combination of native soil and bulk soil and compost we brought in. Adding higher-quality bulk soil and compost served two purposes: 1) to better help level and build up the berms (reducing the amount of native soil we had to move), and also 2) offer more nutrients and microbial life to the trees and plants that would grow here.
- First, we used sturdy 36″ wide landscape rakes to scrape and dig into the uphill side of each terrace, pulling the native soil downhill several feet to both level the space and form the berm below. Again, our native soil is super sandy so it was possible to do this with rakes and muscle power alone, though different tools (e..g shovels, backhoe) may be required for different soil types.
- We started at the top of the hill, forming the shape of the top terraces and berms first. Then we moved down to the next terrace, where we cut and dug into the base of the berm above, pulled back the soil, and repeated the process moving downhill. See photos below.
- Once we created the rough terraced berms with native soil alone, we brought in bulk soil and compost to augment them. We dumped loads throughout every terrace, and then used the same wide landscape rakes to spread and smooth it out – focusing the majority of the material on the top and face of the berms.
Helping the berms hold shape
When making natural terraces or berms, there is always a small risk that they could shift or settle with time – and even more so on a slope. I was definitely concerned about this, especially since our native soil is so soft and sandy. So, we did a few things to help our berms hold shape:
- After building up the berms with bulk soil and compost, we gently compacted the soil by laying down plywood and lightly stamping on it. (The soil was far too soft to use a traditional tamper, the edges of the berms would have just collapsed).
- We covered the entire orchard space with burlap (explained more below), including an extra layer on the face of the berms. The burlap is tucked tight against the front of the terraces, hugging and holding the soil in place until the plant roots grow in.
- Next we planted dozens of low-growing, trailing plants along the front face of the berms along with several shrubs and trees on top. As the plants grow in, their roots will really help to stabilize the soil.
- Finally, the addition of mulch will help the berms stay more moist, encourage plant root expansion, and further support the terrace structure. We’ll also avoid walking on the berm edges until they become more established.
Burlap Ground Cover
After forming the terraces and berms, we immediately covered them in burlap – especially because it kept raining on us, and I was afraid all our hard work was going to wash away! We chose to use untreated burlap as a natural alternative to traditional weed barrier fabric in this project.
Burlap is biodegradable and will break down within a year or two, feeding the soil organic matter as it does. So while it won’t offer long-lasting weed protection, it will be enough to help smother the weeds for the first season or two, plus help support the berm structure until the plants get established. Burlap also acts like mulch (which we added on top later) and helps with runoff and water retention too.
Originally, we ordered several long rolls of natural untreated burlap (similar to this burlap but even wider) from a local landscape supplier. The shipment kept getting delayed, and delayed… and eventually we were told it was lost in transit. With significant rainstorms on the horizon and sandy soil sloughing more every day, we changed plans and decided to use burlap squares we could readily source locally instead. You may also be able to find burlap coffee sacks (for free!) from local coffee roasters, which are ideal for smaller projects.
The burlap we ended up using was a bit thinner than the rolls we’d hoped for, so we laid down two layers across the entire orchard area, and four layers (two squares, folded in half) across the front face of the berms. The burlap is held in place with 6″ galvanized landscape staples.
Fruit Tree Variety Selection
Believe it or not, narrowing down (and locating) our selection of fruit tree varieties was one of the more difficult tasks of this entire project! I feel like every time I settled on a “final” list of varieties, we either couldn’t find a certain one or I found something even more tantalizing (which then threw off the pollinator partner varieties I’d selected too). I also really wanted some almond trees, but ultimately accepted they’re not known to do well in our area.
When considering fruit tree varieties for your garden, there are so many things to consider. In addition to sounding tasty, it’s important to choose varieties that are compatible with your growing zone and chill hour requirements, tree size and spacing needs, and also if they need another variety for cross-pollination to produce a respectable crop. Learn more about choosing the best fruit trees for your climate here, or dive into this lesson all about fruit tree chill hours.
Here on the Central Coast of California (San Luis Obispo county, zone 9, about 400-500 chill hours) the fruit trees varieties we chose for orchard hill include:
- Red Baron peach (pollinates with Pinamint)
- Panamint nectarine (pollinates with Red Baron)
- Blenheim apricot (self-fruitful)
- Golden Dorsett apple (pollinates with Anna)
- Anna apple (pollinates with Golden Dorsett)
- Pink Lady apple (pollinates with King David)
- King David apple (pollinates with Pink Lady)
- Monterey pear (self-fruitful, but would bear better with a partner)
- Fuyu persimmon (self-fruitful)
- Desert King and Celeste figs (self-fruitful)
- Loquats (self-fruitful)
- Hass avocado (pollinates with Fuerte)
- Fuerte Avocado (pollinates with Hass)
We were able to source all of our trees from a handful of local nurseries, with the exception of the Desert King Fig (my fave), which we got online from Nature Hills Nursery. We were honestly thrilled at the quality and condition of the tree when it arrived! Fast Growing Trees is another excellent reputable online tree supplier.
In addition to the fruit trees, we also planted several pineapple guavas, blueberries (Emerald, Jewel, and Sunshine Blue), and kiwis in the new orchard hill space. Fuzzy kiwis have male and female plants, and both are required to set fruit. So, we planted two females (Saanichton and Vincent) up our gorgeous moongate trellis, and a Tomori male kiwi along a nearby fence for pollination. In other parts of the property, we also have plums, limes, lemons, oranges, pomegranates, apricots, grapes, and several more fig, peach, and apple trees.
Planting Fruit Trees
Learn best practices for planting fruit trees in this comprehensive guide. In summary, dig a hole that is about twice as wide but only as deep as the existing root ball or pot. Maintain the top of the rootball and root collar at or just above the surrounding soil level when planting, and never bury a tree trunk or pile mulch up around it! It’s best to backfill the planting hole with mostly native soil, though we do also like to add some higher quality soil and well-aged compost as well. Do not fertilize at the time of planting.
It’s best to space fruit trees at least 10 feet apart (e.g. smaller varieties or those that will be kept pruned) and up to 20 feet for larger varieties. Maintaining about 12 to 15 feet between them, we were able to fit 9 fruit trees on the terraced portion of orchard hill, along with several more off to the side and along the lower fence line. We planted the fruit trees closer to the berms and left a wider pathway behind them on the more flat portion of the terraces.
Gophers are rampant in this area, so we have to plant every tree in a large durable gopher basket to protect the root ball. Learn how to make a DIY gopher cage from hardware cloth here, or buy sturdy gopher baskets here. I also put together this list of over 50 gopher-resistant plants for California and beyond.
Orchard Companion Plants and Pollinators
Next up: it was time to plant all the beautiful native and drought-tolerant pollinator plants. California poppies, rosemary, rock rose, catmint, lavender, sea daisies, CA buckwheat, fuchsia, comfrey, and more! We also scattered California native wildflower seeds in the open fields around the perimeter or the orchard. See the complete list of orchard companion plants below.
Honestly, planting these was one of the most physically taxing jobs from the entire orchard hill project, but also SO rewarding to see once they were all in the ground! We chose to plant them after the burlap went down – so the soil and berms would hold in place, and so we wouldn’t have to try to tuck burlap all between them after the fact. It was easy to cut holes in the burlap where needed. I also came up with a super handy hack for planting on a slope to prevent the holes from collapsing! Check it out below.
Comfrey in a Permaculture Orchard
Comfrey is a fantastic multi-purpose companion plant in a permaculture orchard. So much so, it deserves its own little spotlight here! Comfrey is known as a “dynamic accumulator”. With its deep taproot, comfrey is exceptional at drawing up nutrients from the soil and storing them in its tissues.
We plan to use comfrey for “chop and drop mulch”. Once or twice a year, we will cut the comfrey back, chop it up in small pieces, and use it as green mulch around the base of the trees – where those concentrated nutrients will return to the soil and feed the fruit trees. Even more, comfrey can be used in herbal medicine and topical healing salves, to make nutrient-rich fertilizer teas, and native bumblebees absolutely love the flowers!
NOTE: Readily spreading by seed, common comfrey is considered invasive in many environments. We grow Russian Bocking 14 comfrey instead. Many permaculturists consider Russian Bocking 14 the best orchard companion variety because it grows very robustly but isn’t invasive. The seeds are sterile, so it can only be planted from rhizomes.
Complete Plant List
In addition to the edibles and fruit trees (listed above), here is a complete list of the other companion plants we chose for the orchard hill space:
|Common Name and Variety||Species|
|Aloe Vera – Coral||Aloe striata|
|Blue fescue – Tomales Bay||Fesuca idahoensis*|
|Blue fescue – Elijah blue||Festuca glauca|
|Bush monkeyflower – Eleanor||Mimulus x aurantiacus ‘Eleanor’*|
|Bush monkeyflower – Vibrant Red||Diplacus aurantiacus var. puniceus*|
|California poppies||Eschscholzia californica*|
|CA Red Buckwheat||Eriogonum grande rubescens*|
|CA Fuchsia – Sierra Salmon||Epilobium (Zauschneria)*|
|Catmint – Nepta Walker’s Low||Nepeta x faassenii|
|Ceanothus – Yankee Point||Ceanothus griseus var. horizontalis*|
|Ceanothus – Ray Hartman||Ceanothus arboreus X Ceanothus griseus*|
|Ceanothus – Concha||Ceanothus impressus x papillosus var. roweanus*|
|Comfrey – Russian Bocking 14||Symphytum x uplandicum ‘Bocking 14’|
|Gold Coin Daisy||Asteriscus maritimus|
|Lavender French||Lavandula dentata|
|Lavender – Pinnata||Lavandula pinnata buchii|
|Lavendula – Goodwin Creek||Lavandula x ginginsii|
|Lavender Spanish – Primavera||Lavandula stoechas|
|Lavender Spanish – Blueberry Ruffles||Lavandula stoechas|
|Lithodora – Grace Ward diffusa||Lithodora diffusa|
|Penstemon – Foothill||Penstemon heterophyllus*|
|Penstemon – Margarita BOP||Penstemon heterophyllus*|
|Rock rose – Silver Pink||Cistus x argenteus ‘Silver Pink’|
|Rock rose – Purple||Cistus Purpureus|
|Rock rose – Henfield brilliant||Helianthemum|
|Rock rose – Hartswood Ruby||Helianthemum|
|Rock rose – Fire Dragon||Helianthemum|
|Rock rose – The Bride||Helianthemum|
|Rosemary – trailing culinary||Rosmarinus officinalis Prostratus|
|Rosemary – upright, BBQ and Pink||Rosmarinus officinalis|
|Salvia – Hummingbird Sage||Salvia spathacea*|
|Salvia – Big Red||Salvia pentstemonoides|
|Salvia – Smoky Lavender||Salvia greggii|
|Scabiosa – Vivid Violet||Scabiosa columbaria|
|Seaside Daisy (Beach Aster)||Erigeron W.R.*|
|Sea daisies – Santa Barbara||Erigeron karvinskianus|
|Thyme||Silver, English, and Red Creeping|
|Verbena – De la Mina||Verbena lilacina*|
|Verbena – Homestead Purple||Verbena canadensis|
|Yarrow – Mini moonshine||Achillea millefolium|
|Misc Annuals||Cosmos, Bachelors Buttons|
Drip Irrigation System
And now one of the most essential elements: water! During the time we were working on contouring the land, we were also working on installing a drip irrigation system on the side. That included tapping into the main water line at the top of the hill, installing a 4-station valve manifold, a solar powered control panel, PVC lines down to the site, and then a 4-zone drip irrigation system weaving about the entire space. I put together a separate post and video tutorial on that process – check it out here. We did this before mulch went down, and then covered the lines in mulch.
Mulch is an essential part of an organic garden and landscaping. It offers numerous benefits including suppressing weeds, reducing runoff, improving soil’s organic matter and moisture retention (and thereby reducing water needs) and insulating plant roots against temperature extremes. It also makes the landscape look polished and sharp – like the final cherry on top!
For the orchard hill project, we chose to use a “walk on bark” (sourced locally in bulk) that is like a blend of irregular shredded wood chips and chunkier bark bits. It is longer-lasting than shredded mulch (like gorilla hair) but holds in place better than classic bark mulch, especially on the slopes. We opted to not use local tree wood chips or “chip drop” for this project, just to be extra cautious as to not introduce any tree diseases to the orchard.
After planting all the plants, we spread mulch about three inches thick around the entire space, with the exception around the base of trees. It’s best to avoid piling mulch up right around a tree trunk, so leave a couple feet of clear space around it. We plan to refresh and top it off with more mulch as needed every few years. Read the pros and cons of 8 common types of mulch here.
Rock & Steel Borders
Though we opted to not build rock wall terraces, I still wanted to bring in some landscaping rocks to add dimension and further define the space. We added a row of large cobbles to top of each berm, which also helps us keep track of where the irrigation lines are and prevents us from stepping on the edge of the berm. The rocks also provide ideal habitat for western fence lizards, who help keep the insect population in check too!
We also installed steel edging along the uphill and outer edge of the orchard hill space. The edging will hold in mulch, help keep weeds out (like the creeping invasive ice plant), and also stop water runoff – forcing it to infiltrate along the uppermost terrace instead. We like to use the hammer-in corten steel edging from Edge Right. We used the same edging around our raised bed garden project too.
The Finished Space + Before-and-Afters
Now it’s time to sit back, relax, and watch the space grow. Well, there will be a tad more maintenance and upkeep to come (pruning, deadheading, fertilizing, refreshing mulch…) but it sure feels good to have all of the heavy lifting done!
Thank you for touring our new orchard on a hill!
Ooof! I told you this was one of our largest projects ever. I realize that was a lot of information to digest, and many the things we did may not exactly apply to other sites or climates. Yet I hope this gave you plenty of fun ideas and useful tips nonetheless! Please feel free to ask any questions or just say hello in the comments below. I really appreciate you tuning in today!
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- Tree Planting Best Practices
- About Fruit Tree Chill Hours + Chart
- How to Build a Raised Garden Bed
- The Benefits of No-Till Gardening
- How to Kill or Remove Grass (and Grow Food, not Lawns!)
- Raised Bed Drip Irrigation System
- Solar Powered Drip Irrigation Controller