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Surely it can't be this simple? What's the catch?

 
Phil Hawkins
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Hi!

Having listened to the podcast for a while now, it turns out I like this sort of thing. So I have headed on out to forums at permies.com, where I'm hoping you'll tolerate my dumb questions aaaaall the time.

First off, a little background - I have a small "hobby" farm - 30 acres of pasture, and a few of native "wilderness" on a river.  We currently have a dozen beef cattle, and five egg laying hens.  Since buying the farm about two years ago, I have been planting native trees to provide habitat and improving "visual amenity" (I don't want to see the suburban sprawl of the town we are near in 10 years time).

More lately, I have been looking into "homesteading" (as I think you'd call it) as a means to offset our dependency on "normal life" (work, invest, retire, expire), which is clearly unsustainable and doomed to fail to a greater or lesser extent (depending on how much time you spend listening to Jack Spirko).  It seems that permaculture is going to provide what I am after from a self sufficiency standpoint, as well as what I was trying to achieve through my (non-food) tree planting efforts to improve my environment.  I have purchased a couple of books on the subject (Gaia's Garden, and sepp holzer's) but while I wait for those to arrive, I have one burning question:

Right now, I have flat pasture and hay (cut from said pasture).  Am I right in thinking that with only these two things and some seeds (oh, and sunshine, rain, and time), I can grow a food forest?  Surely it can't be that simple!?

I watch an enjoyable gardening show on TV, but almost everything they do starts with a load of compost or potting mix that comes out of a bag.  I'm sure that stuff is awesome, but it seems that bringing a whole bunch of stuff in is neither sustainable or scalable (how many thousand cubic feet of stuff do you need to bury an acre 6" deep, as they seem to do in their little garden beds).

I was thinking of fencing off a small area (perhaps up to an acre?) to get started.  Am I crazy?
 
                                      
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Location: Amsterdam, the netherlands
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is it that simple?

yes....
and: no!

the theory behind food-forests is quite simple indeed, but saying that creating a food-forest is an easy thing to do is (imo) not true.

the theory: a forest is super efficient in producing bio-mass, so creating a forest that produces edible biomass for humans (mainly) would be an incredibly efficient and resilient way to get food.

But is it easy?

That partly depends on the way you want to do this. There is an emphasis in permaculture on not doing anything and letting nature run its course (which i believe will become more and more possible when your system evolves towards maturity), but it creates this idea that you just scatter some seeds around and then stand aside.

Which, to be sure, would create a functioning forest in time. But the amount of edibles would be lower and the time it would take before it starts yielding bigger.

So what you want to do is speeding up ecological succession, and planning carefully which species will form you canopy, which will form the lower tree-layer, and which will form the shrub layer. You will have to start planning what herbaceous plants you want to grow, and how much annuals you want to grow here. This will influence the spacing between your trees, specially if you're in a temperate zone the spacing of trees is advised to be bigger than natural forests, so the lower layers get more sunlight.

Plan out every stage of succession from a pioneer forest to a mature forest, and plan in whát stage whích plants give you whát yield.

Also, just scattering seeds will not always come up with the best combinations of plants or trees together, of corse nature will sort out which plants will grow best togheter, but that might mean that you have a combination of trees and plants growing togheter for years, that actually compete a lot with each other, and thus yield little to nothing for a long time.

So planning what will grow and where is essential in my opinion. Some vines are great to grow in certain trees others not (kiwis, grapes and hops for example, one will go great with one tree, but another will strangle that tree and compete for nutrients.)

If you take this a step further you can start designing planting guilds, those are broader groups of plants that will support each other and have severall relations going on between them. In gaia's garden some is explained about this, but it is a young concept and most you will have to learn by observing plant commuities in nature.

Especially the first years work, by planting the trees and shrubs, the skeleton of your forest, and intervening by giving them the preference (in stead of grasses for example), cutting stuff back here and there, will be necessary.
Also, in those early years, you can use the space between the trees to grow lots of annuals, so it will start yielding early on. (which is what i am doing right now) Just like a kitchen garden this will require work like seeding, weeding*, etc.

Then another thing that needs conscious plannin: the paths. Building your super-healthy wild soils will be helped by not walking on that soil, and creating permanent paths, these paths can be going thru your forest in a way that every part that needs acces (for harvest and stuff) has acces. You will find that the build up knowledge about increasing edge will help you in this, and there are myriads of natural patterns from nature to be copied in this (dendretic, lobe's, winding, etc.).

So, simple? yes.
Easy? no 


O yeah, about this nice, store bought, compost from the gardening series. No,  you dont need to haul that stuff to your place. Start with composting everything you have at hand. So your kitchen waste, and all manure, you could even plant (encourage) plants that will build soil fast like comfrey and nettle's. (we have this wrecked japanese knotweeds growing everywhere, this would be a nice candidate for compost-building) You said you have a dozen beef cattle and some hens, they will help making great soils with you. Start reading about building soil, mulching and composting, there is a lot of info in the books you ordered and here on this site.

Have fun!



*weeding yes... conscious weeding. but weeding nonetheless.
 
Phil Hawkins
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Thanks Joop for that very generous answer! I guess I should have been a bit more specific though - I understand the importance of design (although I guess the 'how' is what my books will teach me), I guess I wanted a reality check on the 'what' - namely what inputs are required beyond those I mentioned.

I could start collecting the chook manure from their roots easily enough, although they free range from sunrise to sunset (I laughed out loud when listening to Paul's podcast on chickens and the mess they make - we know it only too well!). With the cows though, I guess I worry that collecting their manure will affect how well their pasture regrows (right?). We currently move them every few days to a new paddock, probably in about a two week cycle. We don't harrow, so the grass is usually longest and greenest in little clumps around where their dung fell. They won't eat grass near 'fresh' manure, so that gives it a chance to grow before it becomes appetizing to them (maybe on the next cycle).
 
Brenda Groth
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you have invested in some great books to get you started. You CAN plant trees from seeds..but to get a headstart you might want to put in some already growing fruit and nut trees and get some starts of berries..pretty much the rest can be grown from seeds, but if you have avail starts you can use them as well

what area are you in? there may be people willing to share starts of some plants to give you a good start..here I would be willing to share some things like Jerusalem Artichokes, etc.

I'm in Michigan though

you are fortunate to already have animals feeding your soil
 
Tyler Ludens
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If you bring free-range animals in at night to paddocks or coops, they will leave you plenty of manure where it's easy to collect.    Letting them fertilize where they are in the fields is fine, no need to collect that manure.

 
                                      
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hmm, yes good point... i have no experience with livestock whatsoever.

to come back to the gardening programms and their perfect, loose, crumbly, fertile 'soil from a bag´ to start gardens with. normal top-soil will look somewhat like that (better actually) after a few years of adding (any) organic matter

Theoretically all you need is organic matter and seeds. since you seem to have top soil already you can provide this organic matter from your own site.


other investments could be

- the seed for yield plants
- yearling tree's and shrubs.
- sheets* for covering your grasses and letting them die.
(of corse grass will die down over time anyway with shade inceasing over years. But grasses are heavy competitors for fruiting trees, so i would personally speed that up and get rid of them from the start.
- labour


Mulching will fertilise and increase your topsoil slowly, also when you determine your paths, scooping out the topsoil from them, adding this to the place where stuff wil grow will increase your top soil.



*
i know the generall consensus on this site is cardboard being bad, i dont really agree with that, specially since it is usually a one time import on your land anyway. I gues expensive commercial eco-sheets for mulching would do the same thing.

 
Kay Bee
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Location: Jackson County, OR (Zone 7)
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Lots of caveats in answering your questions... it definitely can be simple, but may be challenging depending on your location and background knowledge of plants and horticulture.

That being said, spend some time reading the books and lurking around places like this to get familiar with the concepts. Also, if you haven't already done so, start looking at what is being grown in your local area.

Time is also the biggest factor, in my opinion.  If you are willing to try new things and see how they work over a period of several years or more, it makes the whole process much more enjoyable.  It is tempting to throw money at obstacles and try and circumvent the basic problem, but tackling it yourself may be much more sustainable.

Starting some deep mulch beds and putting in some fall plants this year can get you started.  Over the winter, look in to which types of plants can grow in your area and which of these tend to come true from seed or are easily grafted.  Grafting stock is relatively cheap compared to buying nursery stock.

Have fun!
 
joe pacelli
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I think that Paul would say, work with nature rather than against it. 

The gardening show you are watching, with their compost-in-a-bag, has several inputs (including petroleum products for the bags themselves) that you will need to factor into your place on the wheaton eco scale.

In order to begin your food forest, look at what you have available.  Hay/long grass/native trees.  The trees benefit visually but are they nitrogen fixers as well?  Are they functioning as a wind break, or perhaps a distraction crop for birds that might become interested in your food forest once you plant it?

As far as developing good soil with what you have available... what if you were to just mow down (or scythe) the hay/straw and leave it where it is.  Don't harvest it at all.  As it grows, continue to allow it to grow and the scythe it and let it decay where it lies.  You'll have great soil in just a few years and you will have brought in few inputs. 

I think Paul would say, look at the resources available to you, and work with those resources. 
 
Phil Hawkins
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Thanks for all of your replies. Brenda - thanks for your offer to share, but I am in Australia

So it seems to sum up so far, I could just mulch using my old hay, and plant from seed, but that would take a long time.  How about this for an initial step?

I could herd the cattle into my "future food forest" area at night for a while and feed them the bales, which would help me distribute the hay (they are messy) and concentrate manure where I want it.  I guess after doing for a while, I would then have a concentration of bio material to work with?
 
Tyler Ludens
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That sounds like a great idea, philbert! 
 
Kirk Hutchison
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I have only one point to emphasize : SWALES WITH MULCH PRODUCING PLANTS ON THEM.
 
Phil Hawkins
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Swales? I like the idea of anything that reinforces my desire to own a tractor

Seriously though, it seems like "naked soil" is to be avoided at all costs, but if I have flat pasture then I would create naked soil to build swales.  Is this a case of the ends justifying the means?  Is tilling, etc., only "bad" when it is part of the cultivation cycle, but acceptable as an upfront investment to reshape the land to better suit sustainable practice in the long term?

Here's a picture of the area I am looking at - it's the teardrop shaped land to the right of the trees, and left of the 'natural swale' (I live on a flood plain).  I included the scale from Google Maps, having decided to use the 'third ethic' to justify stealing some of Paul's work at Digital Globe...

I'm sharing your surplus, man!
Picture 7.png
[Thumbnail for Picture 7.png]
 
Hugh Hawk
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What is your location Philbert, and what is your climate?

By the way, Paul has asked that people use their full name here (see http://www.permies.com/bb/index.php?topic=1621.0 ).  While you're in account settings you could add your location and/or climate to the 'Personal Text' in your profile.  It helps a lot when answering people's questions.
 
Tyler Ludens
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They only stay naked for awhile.  You can put some seed on them if you want.  

 
Kirk Hutchison
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If you sow some cover crop on them right away, they will get covered pretty quickly. The swales will damage the soil in the short term, but will begin yielding positive results very quickly. Swales can enable much greater plant growth during dryer times, and provide beneficial microclimates. The amount of soil destroyed by tilling once is small - yearly tilling is what is bad.
 
Phil Hawkins
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Hugh, cool/temperate I guess?  Profile updated.  Sorry, but my full name is a bridge too far in the world of Internet identity fraud - I'll compromise with an initial

Kirk - thanks for that additional info.  I think one of the tricky parts of this journey is trying to weigh up all the mass of information, and then finding the parts that suit me and my situation.  Sometimes I feel like if I asked five permaculture experts the same question, I'd get six opinions and they'd all be different whilst still no doubt being "correct"!  I grew up in a household where composting was normal, but it was an discrete activity done in a compost bin, which was periodically plundered for the benefit of a largely manicured garden.  No doubt that was 'better' than buying in compost, etc., but people like Paul don't endorse composting as such.
 
                                      
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I could herd the cattle into my "future food forest" area at night for a while and feed them the bales, which would help me distribute the hay (they are messy) and concentrate manure where I want it.  I guess after doing for a while, I would then have a concentration of bio material to work with?


Yes that would work, good idea.

Is tilling, etc., only "bad" when it is part of the cultivation cycle, but acceptable as an upfront investment to reshape the land to better suit sustainable practice in the long term?


Yes it would become very hard to start any cultivation and food production on certain plots. Also, permaculture tends not to be dogmatic, so when it is said to preferably not use tilling or (fossil) fuel based recources, it doesnt mean: never use them.

But generally, when a certain intervenence based on bad practice needs to be done perpetually (or on a cycle) you can prbably find a better practice for that aim.

building a hugelbed would become very hard without disturbing the soil.

anyway, cover crops can be established very soon on a new swale.

I dont know where in australia you are, but i would consider reading up in the aims and purposes of swale's. How do they work? And why would you use them. (this isnt meant patronizing, but there are enough stories of people just building swales because it seems a permie thing to do, and it sais so in the handbook)

A swale will only work on sloped terrain, since your in a flood plain a swale can also hold the water in, but be wry for keeping to mmuch water in.

In arid regions, yes swales are a good idea, in wetter regions less so. If, like in my region, surpluss of rain (drainage) is a bigger problem than lack of rain, they are less advantegous. ditches and mounds could still be, but then off-contour, so slowly diverting the water in stead of trying to hold it all.

But yeah it alle depends on your site; arid/wet temperate/cold/hot, slopey or not so much, etc.

PS, i think a full name is a lot to ask for from paul, i use a pseudonym, i am well fond of my privacy.

PPS
paul is just one person, like you said ask five people and get 10 opinions. However i think when establishing a system composting is a good way to go. When your system matures it can start to rely on just mulching. just composting is never enough, in the end you need the soil life to fed there where you want it as well. But composting is a fast way of building fertility.
 
Hugh Hawk
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I'm more concerned about people showing their climate, but I think the real name (at least first name even if it is a pseudonym) is a good idea.

Phil (how did I already guess that was your first name?), have you read any Jackie French?  She does good stuff for your sort of climate.  She talks a lot about groves, basically her version of a food forest, a planting of trees and associated underplantings:

http://www.jackiefrench.com/groves.html

One of the things Jackie has done a lot is planting trees from seed (as opposed to grafted/dwarf varieties).  While I know that Paul thinks a seed-planted tree will only give good results occasionally, Jackie claims to get good results 95%+ of the time.  I don't know if Paul's statements are based on his personal experience or on the common understanding.

You've already picked two great books but I'd also recommend The Wilderness Garden by Jackie - it's only about $30 and a really easy read.
 
Phil Hawkins
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Thanks Hugh - I'll seek out for Jackie's book.  I have heard of her (probably on Gardening Australia I guess) but wasn't familiar with her area of expertise.  EDIT: Now I know why - She's the 'iary of a Wombat' author! We love those books!.

Looking at some of the pictures on her website has made me think of another concern I have.  I think every piece of successful permaculture I have seen in pictures, books, and videos seems to be on sloped land.  I can see how this would be advantageous (microclimates, more surface area per acre, easier stratification, and so on) but it does leave me concerned that my own efforts will be less effective because of the flat land.
 
Tyler Ludens
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I don't think they will!  You can vary the topography a bit by digging basins and swales. 

 
Paul Cereghino
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The catch is that after we make our flawed observations and rash actions, nature does what it wants. 

Nothing wrong with tillage (or intensive grazing) to create a disturbance to create bare ground that allows you to introduce a more useful groundcover like clover...
 
Hugh Hawk
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I wouldn't worry about flatness.  I suspect a lot of those permaculture techniques for sloped land have come about simply as ways to solve the problems of that slope.  For example, swales stop moisture running off the land, which causes dryness and erosion.  On flat land you won't have that particular challenge (swales could be used on flat land to concentrate water, but that doesn't sound applicable to your situation either).

Usually you can apply permaculture thinking to almost any landscape.  If things aren't working, it probably just needs a different way of attacking the problems.

One thing discussed about slopes in the Edible Forest Gardens books is that a little bit of undulation in the landscape may be beneficial because it causes different microclimates like you say.  This means there are dry and wet spots, spots which get more or less sun, etc.  If you really want to you could create a few undulations in your land but I probably wouldn't bother too much.  Your map showed some undulations already so I guess it's not perfectly flat.
 
Phil Hawkins
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Hugh H. wrote:Your map showed some undulations already so I guess it's not perfectly flat.

Strangely, it is!  Those undulations are ... I dunno, natural drains?  I guess they were probably formed over centuries of this area flooding, and then draining back into the river along them.  In the time we have been here, they have filled up with water a couple of times when the river has burst its banks.  Here is a picture from July.  This is facing south east, from the left hand side of the map I attached earlier
FloodedPaddock.jpg
[Thumbnail for FloodedPaddock.jpg]
 
Leila Rich
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Phil, have you joined the Aussie PRI?
You're bound to get lots of geographically and climatically relevant info.
 
Phil Hawkins
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Leila Rich wrote:
Phil, have you joined the Aussie PRI?
You're bound to get lots of geographically and climatically relevant info.


Sorry, I'm new to all of this, so the acronyms are lost on me.  I'm going to guess the P is for Permaculture?

Thanks for the tip.  I guess at this stage the specifics (which species, etc.) are less important to me than the processes.  I know that my black wattles are nitrogen fixing, and I have a few that I planted as 8" tall saplings last October that is now over 7' tall, and I'm guessing that most folks outside Aus (and perhaps the extremely eastern states across the Tasman :wink have never heard of them.  When to plant a nitrogen fixing tree relative to annuals, etc., is where the mysteries are.

By the way Leila - I was a bit freaked out by your email address.  About three hours ago, I was watching our bull scratching himself on one of our two feijoa trees, and wondering what the hell I should do with them when they fruit again, and found a recipe for feijoa chutney ... 
 
Paul Cereghino
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By growing a complex planting you are increasing your plant costs, which is why many of us interested in synthetic ecosystems grow our own stock and go slow.

Standard methods uses fuel and machines to supress everything but the single target crop.  Permaculture methods uses community design to enhance ecosystem structure while providing diverse yields.

The trick is to have an idea of where you want to end up, and then think backward in time.  With trees that takes longer term thinking.  So maybe 50 year target for saw logs, 25 year target for full yielding food forest, 10 year target for shifting from herbaceous to woody canopy in patches, 5 year target is to have a largely self-regulating system installed, 2 year target for an installation sequence (cover crop, plant, preplant, adjust)...

Of course it never works that way, but having a plan can make us more effective.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Phil H wrote:
Sorry, I'm new to all of this, so the acronyms are lost on me.  I'm going to guess the P is for Permaculture?


Permaculture Research Institute:    http://permaculture.org.au/

 
Todd Hoff
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You might also like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYihr7zfGHc - Harvesting Water the Permaculture Way. My notes at: https://plus.google.com/105744372055117875664/posts/GYcQZmcdAby?hl=en
 
Phil Hawkins
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We were about to put some pumpkins and watermelons in on the nature strip (grassy verge ... road easement, whatever you call them elsewhere in the world) so I thought I'd test this theory by fencing the cows in and adding some hay.
CowsMulching.jpg
[Thumbnail for CowsMulching.jpg]
 
Leila Rich
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PRIs full of Ozzies and there's bound to be someone actually in your area.
Permaculture as we know it originated in Australia, so there's plenty of local books. Rosemary Morrow's a good start. Bill Mollison's the grandaddy of them all. Not an easy read.
Darren Doherty's a name worth looking up.
I'm taking this thing right OT, but feijoas are too important not to discuss! Generally comments on my email addy go something like "that's rather long, please spell it".
My folks grow feijoas commercially and I turn boxes of them into other things when I can eat no more
Actually, I find feijoa chutney a bit intense. They've got loads of pectin, so make awesome jams. Feijoa, lemon and ginger marmalade rocks! But I think feijoas are best just bottled. Breakfast, icecream, cake, smoothies...
 
Phil Hawkins
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I won't lie - I had to look up how to spell feijoa   I wondered if they'd dehydrate like apricots or banana actually?

I should probably sign up to PRI forums (I had a quick look - recognised a fair few names from here actually) if for no other reason that I'm sure there's lot of regulations that I could stung by not being aware of.  I know that you have to pay water company if you want to put in a dam, and probably a pond of any size would constitute a dam to a water company looking for some extra cash...
 
Phil Hawkins
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Hugh H. wrote:One of the things Jackie has done a lot is planting trees from seed (as opposed to grafted/dwarf varieties).  While I know that Paul thinks a seed-planted tree will only give good results occasionally, Jackie claims to get good results 95%+ of the time.  I don't know if Paul's statements are based on his personal experience or on the common understanding.

You've already picked two great books but I'd also recommend The Wilderness Garden by Jackie - it's only about $30 and a really easy read.

Jackie's book arrived today (from fishpond.com.au for any other Aussies watching this), so I look forward to getting stuck in to reading it.
 
I agree. Here's the link: https://richsoil.com/wood-heat.jsp
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