Plant Propagation and Subtropical Fruit Trees: Permaculture Food Forests, Weekend Four

By Julia Herring, Permaculture Food Forests Course Participant

On May 16th and 17th, the Santa Cruz Permaculture Food Forests class met for our fourth and final weekend to learn about propagation, to revisit the orchard we planted in January, and to discuss best practices around planting and maintaining subtropical fruit trees and berries. Our weekend was a hybrid of both in-person and online learning experiences, following social distancing guidelines while providing a rich learning environment.


Our weekend began once again at the beautiful Aptos Beloved Community in Aptos, California, on land represented by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band who are the descendants of the Awaswas and Mutsun Nations. We connected to the land by starting our day with a gratitude circle, sitting at the base of a beautiful oak tree.

Food Forest course participants enjoy a socially distanced lecture under the shade of a Coast Live Oak at Aptos Beloved Community.

Plant Propagation

After greeting the day, we dove into the subject of plant propagation with fruit tree experts John Valenzuela and David Shaw, who explained the complex mechanisms behind sexual and asexual plant propagation. Focusing mainly on asexual propagation methods, we learned how to create new plants using cuttings, division, corms, bulbs, tubers, and layering. John gave a live demonstration of these methods using various common plant species.

John Valenzuela demonstrates plant propagation techniques.

Taking cuttings

Next, our class had the opportunity to gain hands-on experience taking semi-hardwood cuttings. We toured the site looking at all the plants available to take cuttings from, and discussing how and where on each plant to do so. Then each student chose a plant to take cuttings from with pruners. We cut from salvias, lavenders, tree kale, rosemary, and more. When choosing which sections of a plant to take cuttings from, it is important to remember the mantra “low and lateral,” and to make sure that the plant is established and abundant enough to replace the material you plan to take.

The Santa Cruz Permaculture Food Forests class takes cuttings from designated native plants.

John & David taught us that once a cutting is taken, it is best practice to cut off most of its remaining leaves to prevent loss of water by evapotranspiration, and immediately place the cutting in a moist pot filled with a sterile, lightweight material such as a 50/50 blend of perlite and vermiculite. If taken care of properly, these cuttings will grow new roots within the next few months and be ready to pot up this summer.

White sage cuttings placed in a moist perlite mix.

Tending the food forest

After wrapping up our discussion about plant propagation, we transitioned to a very exciting topic: checking on the fruit tree orchard/future food forest we planted in January! We were thrilled to find that most of the fruit trees we planted, including apples, nectarines, pluots, apriums, persimmons, figs and mulberries were thriving, and responding well to the initial winter pruning cuts we had made 5 months prior. The first 12 month establishing period is a very important time for a new orchard, and after seeing the progress of our trees during their first winter and spring in the ground, we are feeling confident and happy that these trees will grow up to provide delicious and abundant fruit for the folks living at Always Beloved Community. We did some light “finger pruning” or thinning of branches we knew we did not want to keep so that all the energy from “the grand flush of growth” this spring could go into the branches we know we want.

The new fruit tree orchard showing excellent growth and good signs of health since January.

Planting an avocado orchard

For our final class activity on Saturday, we had the pleasure of once again planting a new orchard on site. This time we planted an avocado orchard in a warmer microclimate on the property, uphill from where the original fruit orchard was placed. Since cold air settles, sunny hillsides farther upslope from a valley floor are ideal places to plant heat-loving subtropical plants such as avocados.

To prepare for our class, ABC residents Phoenix and Tomás spent many hours putting up a deer fence and gopher barrier, creating swales, installing irrigation, and cutting shade cloth wraps to give these young avocado trees their best chance at survival. By the time we arrived, most of the hard work was done, and our class had the joy of planting 21 avocado trees – Carmen Hass, Hass, Reed, Bacon, Zutano –  into their new home soil. Avocados are susceptible to crown and root rot if planted in areas with poor drainage, so it is important to place each tree in the crest of the berms beside each swale. As we did with the fruit tree orchard down the hill, we added at least 3 inches of compost and 3 inches of mulch to the base of each tree to provide extra nutrients and moisture retention.

The Santa Cruz Permaculture Food Forests plants avocado trees to create a new orchard.

If all goes well, these avocados will grow vigorously for the next 3 years, and begin producing delicious avocado fruit within the next 3-5!


Due to rainy weather, our final day of class was held online via Zoom. During our last class, John gave an in-depth lecture covering the ins and outs of growing and maintaining citrus trees and berries. We also discussed common pests & diseases to watch out for when tending fruit trees and other edible plants.

John leads a discussion on citrus growing essentials over Zoom.

Wrapping up class

To wrap up, each class member shared a bit about the edible landscaping projects they are working on in their own homes, with the opportunity to receive advice and feedback from the class.

Over the course of the last 9 months, our Permaculture Food Forests class was able to explore a comprehensive breadth of topics related to edible landscaping and food forestry. We celebrated summer abundance with stone fruit tastings, learned techniques to preserve the harvest in fall, dove deep into pruning techniques for invigorating fruit tree growth in the winter, and finally rounded off our knowledge of subtropical fruit tree species in the Spring. Even with the sudden changes presented by the pandemic we adjusted and made things work so that we could continue learning and practicing permaculture. Thank you to John and David for all the wisdom they have imparted on us, and to my fellow classmates for all the experiences we have shared. If you are at all interested in food forestry, I recommend taking this class – you will not regret it!


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Registration is open for our next cohort of Permaculture Food Forests! This course begins August 8, 2020. Learn more and register at

You can also join us for weekend workshops about fruit trees and more in our Permaculture Design Certificate course. Learn more and register at

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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