Growing Seedlings and Skills for Agroforestry: Integration of woody seedling and annual vegetable production

Progress report for FNC20-1211

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2020: $8,988.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Kelly's Working Well Farm
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Jessica Burns
Kelly's Working Well Farm
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Kelly's Working Well Farm (KWWF) is a small-scale, diversified educational farm. The 6-acre farm is run based on permaculture principles, and hosts a small mixed group of sheep and goats, laying hens, guinea fowl and ducks. The farm features annual vegetable gardens, hugelkultur mounds, swales, silvopasture, and mushroom production. Local food waste is delivered weekly and transformed through the addition of locally sourced wood chips into compost. Crops are planted and tended by hand; irrigation is minimal. Many fruit and nut-producing trees and shrubs have been inter-planted in swales with herbaceous perennials and wildflowers, though most of the trees are not yet bearing.


Agroforestry systems have the potential to increase both food production and environmental quality, mitigating challenges generated by climate change and land degradation.  Can agroforestry practices be applied to nursery production to increase income and ecological benefits? This project will grow a nursery at Kelly’s Working Well Farm focused on research and education around agroforestry.  We will examine whether raising tree seedlings in polyculture nursery beds affects their growth and vigor. We will focus on chestnut and pawpaw, two woody species with potential in our ecoregion, the Erie-Ontario Lake Plains.  Seedlings will be grown both in monoculture and polyculture with familiar herbs and vegetables. Intercropping annual crops and woody seedlings in nursery production could provide income while seedlings grow to saleable size, and foster mutualistic ecosystem benefits.  After two growing seasons we will measure seedling top growth and root systems, and conduct soil tests and microbial assays to examine differences between the monoculture and polyculture plantings. We will observe the success of the intercropped annuals and track amounts harvested.  A series of workshops targeted at small-acreage landowners and beginning farmers will exhibit our research and teach propagation and planting skills to advance adoption of agroforestry.

Project Objectives:

Assess the viability of intercropping annual herbs and vegetables with two species of woody plant seedlings in nursery production.

Build two 25’ x 4’ protected nursery beds at Kelly’s Working Well Farm.

Design and implement a program of four hands-on workshops for small landowners and beginning farmers, based on the seasonal rhythms of plants and propagation.  

Promote on-farm tree nurseries and integrated farm practices.

Build KWWF nursery inventory based on Northeast Ohio’s diverse ecosystems and to mitigate challenges related to climate change and land degradation.

Generate interest in agroforestry and perennial crops within the community.


Materials and methods:

Seeds of two woody species, chestnut (Castanea dentata x mollissima) and pawpaw (Asimina triloba), will be stratified and planted spring of 2020.  They were chosen for their economic potential in local markets, ecological value, and morphological habits lending potential advantages in polyculture.  Each will be planted in two sites, one monoculture and the other a polyculture with row-intercropping of annual crops. Pole beans, basil, tithonia, and zinnias were selected for market potential and lack of obvious growth habits that might hinder the tree seedlings.  The beds will measure 25 feet by 4 feet. Trees will be planted in a zig-zag fashion, with intercropped annuals on either side in the polyculture bed. Existing farm soil will be amended by the addition of compost and sand to provide 8-10 inches of loose, well-drained medium, protected by electric fencing to minimize predation.  To ensure we are selecting for resilience, no synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides will be used, and irrigation will be reserved for extreme weather that might result in total crop failure.  Mulch will be applied as needed for weed suppression.  Tree seedlings will be dug and measured in late fall 2021 to compare root collar diameter, height, root to shoot ratio, bud size, and root system fibrosity and volume.  Soil tests will be conducted in spring and fall of 2020, and fall 2021. Standard soil analysis will be completed by Logan Labs in Lakeview, Ohio. Soil biology assays will be conducted each season by Earthfort Lab in Corvallis, Oregon, to analyze bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematode populations.   

KWWF will host a series of four hands-on workshops to share our research and connect with farmers and small landowners interested in agroforestry.  Workshops include seed propagation of woody and perennial plants, spring planting and seedling care, seed collection, storage and stratification, and fall planting and site preparation.  Participants will take home plant material and printed handouts.

Jessica Burns-Soil-20200820-124405

Research results and discussion:

Our results will not be measured until the trees are dug up at the end of next season (2021).

We harvested about 25 flower bouquets and 25 bunches of basil over the season, as well as 6 pints of beans.

Soil tests and soil biology assay are attached in a different section of this report.

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 On-farm demonstrations

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

We did not carry out our workshop program in 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions and local zoning issues that made it impossible to have visitors on site.  We will host workshops this season, hopefully on site, and if that is not possible through webinars.

Learning Outcomes

2 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

We are still in the middle of the project, so it is a bit early to assess what we have learned from the grant.  However, in light of the nature of farm projects as well as the challenges faced by humans across the Earth in 2020, we definitely have an appreciation for adaptability and resilience. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.