All About Fruit Trees: Permaculture Food Forests, Weekend Three

By Julia Herring, Permaculture Food Forests Course Participant

On January 11th, the Santa Cruz Permaculture Food Forests class met for our third weekend to learn all about winter pruning and fruit tree propagation. Our weekend was full of classroom-based and hands-on learning experiences, including lectures from fruit tree expert and lead permaculture instructor John Valenzuela; the chance to plant a new food forest at a beautiful property in Aptos; and a visit to the annual scion exchange at Cabrillo College hosted by the Monterey Bay Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Grower’s Association


Our weekend began at the beautiful Aptos Beloved Community in Aptos, California, founded by Phoenix and Ocean Robbins. Molasses, a member of the community, introduced us to the property and shared that the community is located on six acres of land at the base of the Porter Gulch watershed, which was originally stewarded by the peoples of the Awaswas Nation. The property is home to oak trees that are hundreds of years old and are believed to have once been pruned and tended by the Awaswas. Today these lands are represented by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band who are the descendants of the Awaswas and Mutsun Nations.

Oak trees at the Aptos Beloved Community, originally tended by the peoples of the Awaswas Nation people prior to white settlement. 

Fruit Tree Form & Function

Next, lead permaculture instructor John Valenzuela provided our class with a thorough introduction to deciduous fruit tree form and function, an important precursor to learning how to prune. John explained that in the winter, trees store energy within their root systems, and this stored energy is then used to form new above-ground growth and branching in the spring. This is why winter pruning is an effective method for changing deciduous fruit tree structure; as the tree comes out of dormancy, stored energy causes vigorous vegetative growth to occur in the axillary buds below the terminal bud that was recently pruned off. (Learn more about winter pruning & training in this article on our blog.)

John Valenzuela gives a lecture on deciduous fruit tree form and function.

Planting a Food Forest

On Saturday afternoon, our class had the pleasure of planting an actual food forest on the Aptos Beloved Community property. Before the weekend, John worked with community members to select and place more than 15 fruit trees, including figs, persimmons, nectarines, apples, pluots, pears, cherries, and mulberries. Heat-loving varieties were placed toward the top of the orchard slope, where cool air and frost are less likely to settle. Species that need more winter chill were placed at the bottom of the slope, ‘the frost pocket’, where they can utilize the cold microclimate. (Learn more about tree selection in this article on our blog.)

To prepare for planting, our class dug swales on contour (perpendicular to the slope of the orchard) in order to slow, spread, and sink the rainwater that would otherwise run downhill into the field below. By placing each fruit tree on a berm on the downhill side of a swale, water that would otherwise have caused erosion will now sustain these young trees as they form extensive root networks beneath the soil. (Learn more about berms and swales in this article on our blog.)

The Santa Cruz Permaculture Food Forests class digs swales on contour for a new fruit tree orchard at Aptos Beloved Community.

Before planting the bare root trees, John gave the class a demonstration on proper tree planting technique. Gophers are a problem in California, so our method of tree planting included placing each tree in a gopher wire basket. We made custom baskets from gopher wire to accommodate a wider root system than the pre-made gopher baskets allow. A key takeaway from this planting demonstration was to dig a shallow, broad hole, and to always plant our fruit trees above grade to avoid crown rot. This is called planting “proud”. (Learn more about how to plant fruit trees in this article on our blog.)

John Valenzuela gives a fruit tree planting demonstration, placing the bare root tree in a gopher basket and ensuring that the tree’s root crown is above grade.

Now came the exciting part—planting the orchard! Our class split off into pairs to dig each tree hole on the downhill side of our swales (aka the “berms”). Then we carefully placed each tree within a gopher basket, backfilling with native soil. To finish, each tree was top-dressed with 2 inches of compost, then 4 inches of mulch. We also sprinkled bell bean seeds (which had soaked in water overnight so they would be pre-germinated) beneath our mulch layer to act as a cover crop for the winter, prevent compaction and erosion, and suppress weed competition.

Bell bean seeds sprinkled on top of a layer of compost at the base of each fruit tree.

By the end of the day, our class was able to plant a new orchard with 15 new fruit trees that will someday provide fruit for the growing Aptos Beloved Community, all within an afternoon! Incredibly satisfying.

A new fruit tree orchard on the property, mulched and ready to grow!


On Sunday, our Food Forests class met at Cabrillo College in Aptos to attend the annual Scion Exchange hosted by the Monterey Bay Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Grower’s Association. Cabrillo College was founded in 1959 and offers associate degrees and certificates in more than 70 fields of study.

Our day at Cabrillo College began with a continued classroom lesson on fruit tree physiology and pruning techniques with John Valenzuela. We had the opportunity to dive deep into recommended fruit tree varieties and the various flowering patterns of each species.

John explains which tree species grow fruit on second-year growth.

Scion Exchange

Later that morning, our class had the opportunity to help set up and participate in the annual Scion Exchange. This event happens every year in January and is organized by the Monterey Bay Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Grower’s Association. Food Forest class participants helped volunteers place labelled bags of dormant scionwood of hundreds of varieties of apple, pear, peach, nectarine, and other species in alphabetical order onto display tables. 

Scion Exchange attendees choose from hundreds of varieties of dormant scion wood to take home.

Rootable cuttings of figs, pomegranates, and grapes were also made available, as well as various exotic cuttings, seeds, and seedlings that can be propagated during winter. This dormant plant material can be grafted onto appropriate rootstock, or planted directly into the ground to create a new fruiting specimen, depending on the species. Scion Exchange attendees pay a small entrance fee to attend, which allows them to take home as much scionwood as they’d like to propagate at no additional cost.

After lunch, our class was treated to two live grafting demonstrations from principal instructor John Valenzuela and Fred Menge of Epicenter Avocados. Both demonstrations explained the physiology of fruit tree wood that makes it possible for a chosen variety of dormant scionwood to be grafted onto appropriate rootstock in order to produce a new fruit tree. They also emphasized the importance of safety when handling a sharp grafting knife.

Fred Menge demonstrates a cleft graft to Scion Exchange attendees.

John and Fred both showed a variety of grafting methods, including cleft grafts, chip bud grafts, and the whip-and-tongue technique, each of which should be wrapped in at least one layer of masking tape to prevent dessication. The goal for each of these graft types is to allow the cambium layers of the scionwood and rootstock to touch, creating the ideal conditions for the graft to heal and grow into the desired fruit tree variety.

A key takeaway from weekend three of Santa Cruz Permaculture’s Food Forests class was that with healthy scionwood, the right rootstock, a sharp grafting knife, and a roll of masking tape, anyone can propagate and plant a fruit tree!


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Permaculture Food Forest Course Reflections

This article is the third in a series about the Permaculture Food Forests Course. Read the previous articles on our blog here.

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