Not an orchard, a food forest!

This is the seventh article in an ongoing series that I’ve written in our town’s alternative paper, the Madison County Crier. The series is intended to be an introduction to permaculture, often illustrated by examples taken from our homestead. When possible I’ve also made it a point to link in to the potential for a permacultural approach to town and community life as well as the prospects for easing our town’s transition into this new future we have before us.

In my previous articles I’ve touched on the idea of learning from natural forest ecosystems to aid us in our gardening. I’ve discussed no-till sheet mulching which emulates the thick layer of decaying materials found on the forest floor as well as the benefits of using native plants to foster a healthy population of pollinating insects and other critters. I’ve also discussed the idea of creating guilds of trees and plants which work well together. I’d like to build on these previous articles to discuss the importance of including fruit trees, fruit bushes, and vines as well as perennial vegetables in the design of a food producing system that goes beyond the standard fruit tree orchard.

Before I really delve into the article let me ask a question that’s been nagging at me for quite awhile: why do we not have fruit trees and fruit bushes planted in every yard and park in America? For a very small investment of time and money fruiting trees and bushes will produce a fantastic amount of fresh, tasty and healthy food for many years. I suppose you could say that money really does grow on trees. Now, let’s get to it.

A food forest is not an orchard. The standard fruit orchard is often planted in neat rows of trees of the same species surrounded by a tidy lawn of grass. There are several problems with this scenario. First, fruit trees do better when they do not have to compete with grass lawns. Such lawns do nothing to support the pollination of the fruit trees nor are they much use to other beneficial insects which can help control the populations of insect pests. Even more, the lawn is a waste of growing area which could be producing even more food for us. The orchard is really a model for large scale agriculture which provides easy access for quick maintenance and harvest of one primary crop.

The food forest is a completely different model with a different goal: a healthy forest-modeled ecosystem with a diverse yield. While food forests can be quite large, anyone with at least a small yard can easily create a highly productive food forest that will yield not just fruit but also herbs and salad greens for medicine and food. The food forest starts with one or two fruit or nut trees. If limited space is an issue these can be semi-dwarf or dwarf trees. The area surrounding these trees should be heavily sheet mulched from the start. As you add to your “forest” you can easily poke through the mulch with a spade or shovel.

Imagine the structure of a natural forest. Large canopy trees are surrounded by a lower layer of smaller trees which are in turn surrounded by a layer of lower shrubs which are surrounded by a layer of plants which are often surrounded by ground covers. Interspersed in these layers are vines which often grow up the largest of the trees in search of sunlight. In our food forest we will create these layers and by doing so more efficiently use the vertical space around our fruit trees. We can surround our full size fruit trees with semi-dwarf or dwarf trees and around these we can plant a fantastic variety of berries: currants, gooseberries, blueberries, juneberries, and black elderberries are a few to choose from. The next layer would be comprised of perennial herbs, vegetables, flowers as well as self-seeding annuals: comfrey, fava beans, borage, loveage, good king henry, chives, dill and cilantro. This layer provides us with food and medicine as well as insect habitat which will increase pollination and control of insect pests. The next layer would be the lowest growing plants such as strawberries, nasturtiums, lingonberries, and thyme. The vine layer might include hardy kiwis, grapes, clematis, wisteria, cucumbers, peas and beans.

In designing such a food forest we want to think about the best use of vertical space as well as light and the evolution of our system through time. In the early years of our food forest our fruit trees and bushes are smaller and offer little shade. During this time we can take advantage of the sunlight by planting a variety of large leaf annuals such as squashes which will not only offer us a high yield of vegetables but also provide ground cover. At the end of the growing season the plants can be chopped and dropped for an excellent fall mulch. Four or five years into the system and we’ll begin to see far less sunlight as the system matures and any sun loving annuals will have to be planted along the southern edges.

Of particular note when planning a food forest (or any garden really) is a very special plant: comfrey (which probably deserves an entire article do discuss the many benefits). Easy to grow from seed, after it is established for a couple of years this fast growing perennial will develop a fantastic root system which draws up minerals and nutrients from deep in the soil and accumulates them in its thick, fleshy leaves. Three to four times in a growing season you can chop it down to the ground and use all of those leaves as mulch around your fruit trees. In four to six days they will turn into a goopy brown sludge that delivers all those minerals and nutrients to the top levels of the soil providing a great benefit to your trees, bushes and other plants. You can also dump the comfrey leaves into buckets of water at let them stew for a couple of weeks into a tea which can be strained into a sprayer and used as a foliar spray which can be directly applied to any plants in your garden for a quick boost. The high protein leaves can also be fed in small amounts to chickens though there is some debate about feeding them large amounts over long periods of time as it may be toxic to the liver.

Other considerations in choosing our trees, shrubs and plants might be soil conditions and use of plants which might be invasive. If soil is poor a bit more time might be required as a succession of species can be planted that will help improve the soil for the fruit trees. In addition to comfrey, nitrogen fixing plants such as alfalfa, clover, peas, blue false indigo or shrubs such as siberian pea shrub and autumn olive or tree legumes such as black locust will all improve the soil. When choosing soil improvement species special care should be taken with non-native species which may be invasive such as autumn olive which can quickly get out of control and spread to other properties. Our permaculture homestead has well established and large population of autumn olives and they do produce an abundance of very tasty berries but I will be gradually cutting them back as the majority of them are replaced with less aggressive fruit bushes. Other strategies for soil improvement include heavy mulching and rainwater harvesting with swales.

In the early years of a food forest a bit of care is required, mostly pruning and mulching but this work is made easier by planting mulch materials nearby for quick chop and drop. Once established a food forest is, for the most part, self maintaining thanks to the increasing shade and leaf litter of the trees and bushes that contribute to the mulch layer. All that is required is a bit of pruning, harvesting and cut back of plants of established plants. If left alone the system might become crowded but will still continue to produce an amazing amount of food with absolutely no energy or time input from us.

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