Fun fact!:Food forests are three dimensional designs, with life extending in all directions – up, down, and out.
If you have ever wandered through a tropical developing country, you know that many of the locals grow much of their own food. You may also have noticed that their gardens do not consist exclusively of small annual vegetables planted in straight rows, as they do here. They are usually wild-looking plantings of edible trees, shrubs, vines, and ground covers that blend together effortlessly, as if Mother Nature had laid out the garden according to her own plan. They are literally forests of food.
Forest gardens have been the standard in many tropical regions for thousands of years, but it’s also possible in more temperate climates. A Brit named Robert Hart first popularized the concept among European and North American gardeners with the publication of his book Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape in the 1980s. Food forests also play an important role in the permaculture movement, an approach to designing agricultural systems that mimic natural ecosystems.
Why food forests?
Food forests are like the ultimate organic garden. Does a forest need to be plowed, weeded, fertilized or irrigated? No. And that’s exactly the goal.
Since they are mostly perennials, there is no need to till the soil. Not tilling preserves the natural soil structure, prevents the loss of topsoil, and allows all the little microbes and soil creatures to do their work, circulating nutrients and maintaining fertility. The deep roots of trees and shrubs make them much more drought resistant than annual vegetables. They shade the smaller plants below and keep everything lush and moist in a self-sustaining – in other words, a highly sustainable – system.
Step 1: CHOOSE PLANTS
The first step in creating a food forest is choosing plants. The largest plants will reach into the sun, so most fruit-bearing trees and shrubs will do well. The smaller plants usually need to be more shade tolerant, since they will be in the understory. But you can leave sunny spots here and there – like small glades – to accommodate species that need more light (but see Step 3 for a trick to making the most of available sunlight).
Winter is the ideal time to start planting because most edible trees, shrubs, vines and perennials can be purchased and planted during winter dormancy, which is better for the plants – and for your bank account. It’s better for the plants – and for your bank account. That’s because at this time of year, they are sold as “bare-root” plants, meaning they do not have soil or pots, which gives the roots a more natural structure and costs nurseries less to produce. Bare-root plants are usually ordered in January or February and planted in early March or as soon as the ground thaws in your area. Of course, you should choose species that are well adapted to your region.
CANOPY: This layer is primarily for large nut trees that require full sun throughout the day, such as pecans, walnuts and chestnuts, all of which mature to a height of 50 feet or more.
UNDER STORY TREES: This layer is for smaller nut trees, such as filberts, and most fruit trees. Among the most shade-tolerant fruit trees are native North American species such as the black mulberry, American persimmon, and papaya, but many other fruit trees can also produce a respectable crop in partial shade.
Vines: Grapes, kiwis, and passion fruit are the best known edible vines, but there are many other obscure species, some of which are quite shade tolerant, such as akebia (edible fruit), chayote (a perennial squash), and peanut (perennial root crop). Kolomitka kiwi, a close relative of the fuzzy kiwi from the supermarket, is one of the most shade-tolerant vines.
SHRUBS: A variety of fruit-bearing shrubs thrive in partial shade, including gooseberries, currants, serviceberries, blueberries, elderberries, chokeberries and honeyberries, as well as the “superfoods” sea berry and goji. Blackberry and blueberry bushes do well here in the US.
HERBS PLANTS: This category includes not only plants commonly called herbs – rosemary, thyme, oregano, lavender, mint and sage are some of the best perennial culinary herbs to consider for your woodland garden – but is a catch-all term for all foliage plants that go dormant underground in winter and sprout from their roots again in spring. This layer also includes perennial vegetables such as artichokes, rhubarb, asparagus and “tree cabbage”.
SOIL COVERS: These are perennial plants that spread horizontally and colonize the soil level. Edible examples include alpine strawberries (a shade-tolerant delicacy), sorrel (a French salad green), nasturtium (has edible flowers and leaves), and watercress (requires moist soil), all of which tolerate partial shade.
RHIZOSPERE: This refers to root crops. It is somewhat misleading to call them a separate layer, since the top of a root crop can be a vine, shrub, ground cover, or herb, but it is Hart’s way of reminding us that we should consider the food-producing potential of every possible ecological layer.
. Most common root crops are annuals that love the sun, so you’ll need to look for shade-tolerant varieties, such as the famous Andean roots oca, ulluco, yacon, and mashua.
Step 2: PREPARE THE SOIL
Choose an open, sunny site for your forest garden. It can be as small as 100 square feet – a single fruit tree and an assortment of understory – or as large as several acres. At the larger, commercial end of the spectrum, the forest garden is often referred to as agroforestry. A number of tropical crops, including coffee and chocolate, are grown commercially in this way, although commercial agroforestry is rare in North America (except in the context of timber plantations).
Unlike a conventional vegetable garden, a forest garden doesn’t require you to till the soil and shape it into beds. Instead, you dig a hole for each individual plant, just as if you were planting ornamental shrubs and trees. However, if the soil quality is poor, you should “cover” the entire planting area with a few inches of compost before planting.
One situation where raised beds are desirable in a food forest is when drainage is poor. Instead of going to the trouble of building conventional raised beds out of wood, you can shape the soil into low, wide mounds at the tree locations. Smaller plants can then be placed on the slopes of the mounds. A variation on this approach is to shape the soil into long, linear “troughs” consisting of a raised berm (to create a well-drained planting area) and a wide, shallow trench (to catch rainwater runoff and infiltrate into the soil below the berm).
Before planting, you’ll need to remove any weeds, grass or other existing plants. You can do this by hand or by smothering them under a layer of mulch. This permaculture tactic involves placing sheets of cardboard with several inches of mulch over the plants so that the plants no longer get light and compost in place. A layer of compost can be added between the cardboard and mulch to add additional nutrients. Permaculture farms often use mulch film in conjunction with swales to improve the area before planting.
When you’re ready to plant, simply sweep the mulch aside and cut holes in the cardboard just large enough to dig a planting hole at the site of each plant. Then you push the mulch back around the newly planted plant. A deep layer of mulch is key to preventing weeds, maintaining soil moisture, and promoting organic matter – all things that will help your food forest maintain itself and sustain itself
Step 3: PLANT
The next step is to arrange your plants in the landscape. Place the tallest species (i.e., the “canopy plants”) at the north end of the planting area and the smaller plants at the south end. This way, the taller plants will cast less shade on the shorter ones, especially at the beginning and end of the growing season when the days are shorter and the sun is lower in the sky.
Of course, truly shade-tolerant plants can also be interspersed in the understory of the woodland garden. You might even consider growing mushrooms in the shadiest areas once the large trees are mature. Edible vines can be planted along any accessible fence, arbor or wall, and you can also grow vines up trees just like Mother Nature does – just make sure the tree is significantly larger than the vine so the tree doesn’t get smothered.
The edges of the food forest are suitable for sun-loving annual vegetables if you want to grow them. Also keep in mind that it takes decades for a large tree to reach full size, so there will be plenty of sunlight in the first few years of a food forest. Plant sun-loving species in the open spaces between trees, then replace them with more shade-tolerant plants as the forest matures.
Well that’s all! I hope you have enjoyed and i will see you in the next blog!