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From Forest to Food Forest

 
Posts: 52
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I've been wondering if there are any resources out there that talk about how to transition a fully mature forest into a fully mature food forest (i.e. one that doesn't have to pass through the traditional food forest phases).

I searched the forum before asking this, but I found only two threads with similar questions. Unfortunately, neither had satisfactory answers in regards to methodology. Does anyone have links to resources or personal experience that they can share?

For the record, this is more out of curiosity. I do not (yet) have a specific project, so I can't speak to types of trees, soil, etc. Let's just work through the process of establishing a food forest where an abundance of non-food species is already present.
 
Joseph Bataille
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To take this idea a little further to understand its potential value...

We all know that forests are valuable in and of themselves. However, there are many in our society that need to see the evidence of potential for human utility in the forests before they'd be willing to protect them. If forest-to-food-forest transformation can be more profitable than logging, we may have a winner in the debate.
 
pollinator
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In Mollisonian permaculture, the fully mature forest which needs preservation (Zone 5) is preserved for its ecosystemic functions, not for human use.  There's so much damaged land that needs restoration, I'm not convinced of the need to turn mature, functioning forests into food forests.  Mature forests generally don't produce much in the way of human food anyway, because the canopy shades too much.  This is why food forests except in the tropics are typically maintained as a young forest with a small canopy and lots of edge.

 
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How fully mature  is the "fully mature" forest?  I've got woods with very mature yellow pines and a  mature succession of early hardwoods (tulip poplar, sweetgum, black cherry). Some younger trees coming in (oak, black walnut). There's an extensive understory of invasive autumn olive. It's young in the sense that it's not the apex of local succession from cleared land, but it's certainly got a significant canopy. The autumn olive understory could function as "food forest" (except it's not my preference).  I think there are a good number of native edibles that could be introduced to skew the native woods towards native edible (and medicinal) forest plants. Admittedly i assume "food forest" generally means plants selected to be high calorie and conventionally tasty foods, but this is my plan for a food forest.

I want the autumn olive niche refilled with natives. My general impression is the combination of dense shade from the autumn olive and deer herbivory are keeping back many of the native plants from getting a foot hold. I've seen sassafrass seedlings that disappear quickly. In my protected garden the redbuds produce abundant seedlings, but i don't see any young ones in the woods.  I've not seen any black cherries between seedling and 20' tree.  In the shelter of the yellow pines and the tulip poplars and sweetgums the oaks are able to start growing. There are also wild black walnuts. I'm growing Dunstan chestnuts in my protected orcahrd and hope to be seeding those and pecans throughout the woods to join the oaks and black walnuts in the next generation of trees.

There are a good number of spicebush in some areas, a native woodland shrub with "edibile" qualities (less calories more flavor).   My intentions are to replant areas cleared of the autumn olive with native berries and fruits (human edible and not) and fence them to give them time to establish before letting the deer have a chance at them. I'm starting mulberries, pawpaws, persimmons, and blueberries in a deer-excluded and more open area as mother plants for future seedlings.  I had spring green sochan (Rudbeckia laciniata) sprout near a nursery grown native plant (i am suspicious it was a bonus plant and not a wildling.) Sochan is a woodland sunflower and i hope to establish it in the woods.  Spring beauties grow in some areas and are, per Euell Gibbons, a fine foraged food. The lady ferns are spring edibles although apparently not as fine as Ostrich fern.   I'm curious about fencing some patches of the forest floor to see how they do without deer pressure and see what might be in the seed bank. I also intend to coppice some trees that would be attractive deer forage in hopes of reducing some of the pressure. I've pollarded a black cherry in hopes to have black cherries in reach (but still out of deer reach). It's first year it's set out a fine bunch of new growth: my understanding is fruit sets on third year wood. I'm interested in introducing  shade plants ginseng, goldenseal, and thicket beans (Phaseolus polystachios) as well.

There are obviously many more plants for the edges, but these are my established woodland thoughts.
 
Joseph Bataille
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Tyler Ludens wrote:In Mollisonian permaculture, the fully mature forest which needs preservation (Zone 5) is preserved for its ecosystemic functions, not for human use...



I get it, and I can agree in large part. The wilderness is kept wild and we take lessons from it as we tweak and develop our own systems. That's not a new lesson. However, human beings are not the only living organisms that modify their environment to suit their needs. We just need to learn to do so without destroying it.

On top of that, referring to my former point, some only see nature as valuable so long as it serves human utility. We may not agree, but we must recognize that we are far from convincing the world otherwise. In that case, is there a way to make wilderness (in this case, a forest) "more useful" without destroying it? Can we adapt to the environment while also adapting it to us?

What happens when man moves into the wilderness, whether by choice or by force (i.e. forced migration, population growth, etc)? What advice is given? We know what the status quo is and we don’t want that…
 
pollinator
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Joseph Bataille wrote:

Tyler Ludens wrote:In Mollisonian permaculture, the fully mature forest which needs preservation (Zone 5) is preserved for its ecosystemic functions, not for human use...



I get it, and I can agree in large part. The wilderness is kept wild and we take lessons from it as we tweak and develop our own systems. That's not a new lesson. However, human beings are not the only living organisms that modify their environment to suit their needs. We just need to learn to do so without destroying it.

On top of that, referring to my former point, some only see nature as valuable so long as it serves human utility. We may not agree, but we must recognize that we are far from convincing the world otherwise. In that case, is there a way to make wilderness (in this case, a forest) "more useful" without destroying it? Can we adapt to the environment while also adapting it to us?

What happens when man moves into the wilderness, whether by choice or by force (i.e. forced migration, population growth, etc)? What advice is given? We know what the status quo is and we don’t want that…



I don't see a way around some amount of clearing.  You could try replacing large dead trees with edible trees, but my feeling is that they probably won't get enough sun.  If I were going to do what I think you are trying, I would first clear a fairly large area for a garden.  The trees I removed would be used (in my situation) as follows:  Everything larger than my wrist would be used for firewood.  Limbs between thumb and wrist sized would be used for biochar, and thumb sized and smaller would be used for wood chips.  Adjust as necessary for your needs.  After that, I would simply start making clearings of existing trees and planting in edible and support species following the zone method.  The farther from my dwelling, the less I would disturb anything.  Depending on the amount of land you are talking about, a large garden and  food forest of a couple acres would supply an enormous amount of food, and you could leave the rest of the land more or less untouched.  For one person or a couple, a couple acres is probably all you could manage for a number of years until you had it very well established.  After that, if you needed more food forest area, you could slowly expand more, but for most people, I think more than an acre or two would be more than they could maintain.
 
Joseph Bataille
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Trace Oswald wrote:I don't see a way around some amount of clearing.



That’s the way I saw it at first, and, yes, some clearing would probably be necessary at some point, even if slowly. However, I thought of the root layer and the fact that in many parts of my country root crops are extremely popular. Perhaps there’s a way to grow them without too much clearing. Perhaps their nutritional value would be enough to escape the need to clear too much at once.

At this point I’m just thinking out loud...
 
pollinator
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To me so much depends on the size of the mature forest that is under my control, what my immediate use is and how much resources I have at my disposal.

A) If I only had a 1/4 acre of forest, I would clear cut it build my house, plant a perimeter of fruit trees(Food forest), and a tiny herb/vegetable garden + beehive
B) I would still clear cut 2 acres to turn it into 1acres of 15ft fruit/nut trees, 1/4 acre fish pond, 1/4 acre house-site, 1/4 acre vegetable garden, 1/4 acre pasture for chicken run+sheep barn/etc.
C) If I had 3 acres I would use 2acres as above and keep the last acres as a forest for firewood/windbreak/privacy/etc.
D) If I had additional land and I was into cows/horses/etc I would start looking into silvo-pasture, leaving 30ft strips of native forest followed by 90ft of clearcut soon to be pasture. Maybe 17 acres for this for a total of 20acres.

Now lets say I just want to turn a 30+ acre of forest into an apple orchard to run an enterprise. It would be the same process for a mix species apple orchard with some legumes+prunus+nut+groundcover. aka clearcut.

Now lets say you wanted to turn it into an enhanced hunting land, with better forage. I would put in multiple 1/2 acre+ ponds. With perimeters of fruit+nut trees and groundcover.  
 
 
gardener
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I've never done a full conversion of forest to food forest, but I've done some small manipulations in a forest setting to allow for food production.
One suggestion is to start at the edge and work inward. This will give you access to more sunlight and the other benefits commonly associated with edges in permaculture. Plus, it should help with pollination on the edge, as the pollinators from both sides will be drawn to the food species (and I continue to live/breed near them) so, as you slowly work deeper into the forest, they (theoretically) should follow the food source; while a clear-cut in the middle of the woods would be harder to initially find. Also, the edge will typically have younger trees & more of the "pioneer," faster-growing species, so clearing the area doesn't set back the mature forested area by too much if you decide to scrap the plan.
When working inside the forest, observation is key. Before clearing anything make note of the existing trees that would be useful as wind breaks, shade, biomass, etc. That way you don't clear them just to find out you really need them later on.
Finally, I would start small and selectively thin the FF area versus doing a clear cut. As soon as the ecosystem is disturbed, nature is going to send in the pioneers, which may include thorny and/or itchy stuff, to take over the spot & fill it back in. By working in small areas you can fill the spots with the desired edibles before the other stuff takes off. Otherwise you would probably just have to do the work of clearing it again if the pioneers have a chance to get established.

Of course it all will depend on the type/age of the forest, the climate, and other variables.
 
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Joseph Bataille wrote:What happens when man moves into the wilderness…



It's no longer wilderness.  

I'm not trying to be crass, I'm concerned we've put the cart before the horse.  A food forest is a simplified representation of a natural ecosystem, not the other way around.  Better yet- the food forest represents what we understand about the way wild ecosystems are structured.  The forest-forest represents the enormity what we don't yet understand.  

As good as a food forest is, it's still a construct of our imperfect knowledge.  We can account for what's valuable now, we can't be certain of what'll be valuable in the future.  The folks wearing beaver hats 200 years ago didn't understand their value as ecosystem engineers.  The folks plowing prairies and draining wetlands a century ago modified those landscapes to make them more useful, and we're living with the consequences of those decisions.  Wildlands aren't just reserved for plants and animals, they're reserved for the future.  When the generation time of food forests is decades or centuries, you're tying the hands of future generations.  Deciding for them what is and isn't valuable.  Decisions they can't un-make.  
 
Joseph Bataille
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Kc Simmons wrote:One suggestion is to start at the edge and work inward. This will give you access to more sunlight and the other benefits commonly associated with edges in permaculture...

When working inside the forest, observation is key. Before clearing anything make note of the existing trees that would be useful as wind breaks, shade, biomass, etc. That way you don't clear them just to find out you really need them later on...

Finally, I would start small and selectively thin the FF area versus doing a clear cut. As soon as the ecosystem is disturbed, nature is going to send in the pioneers, which may include thorny and/or itchy stuff, to take over the spot & fill it back in. By working in small areas you can fill the spots with the desired edibles before the other stuff takes off. Otherwise you would probably just have to do the work of clearing it again if the pioneers have a chance to get established...

Of course it all will depend on the type/age of the forest, the climate, and other variables.



Great points and observations. Very helpful for this discussion. Edge-work is key where possible. And I originally considered selective thinning to be the better option to clearing, and you gave language to that reasoning. Thank you!
 
Joseph Bataille
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Tom Worley wrote:

Joseph Bataille wrote:What happens when man moves into the wilderness…



It's no longer wilderness. ... ...

Wildlands aren't just reserved for plants and animals, they're reserved for the future.  When the generation time of food forests is decades or centuries, you're tying the hands of future generations.  Deciding for them what is and isn't valuable.  Decisions they can't un-make.  



Thanks Tom. You've further strengthened my point and brought us back to the reason for the original question.

Men will move into or make use of the wild and when they do, they will fundamentally change it, purportedly for their benefit (just like the beaver that you mentioned when she moves into an ecosystem). The question is how do we make it useful for today without jeopardizing tomorrow? Can we derive value from the forest without making it a plain or a desert?

I recently heard a podcast that spoke of how beavers are wreaking havoc on northern ecosystems as global warming pushes them northward, further exacerbating conditions for warming. This National Geographic Article explains how invasive beavers are ruining large swaths of Argentinian forest and other ecosystems. Beavers can't help but be beavers... They modify the ecosystem to suit their needs. Humans do the same, but we have a capacity for reason and foresight. With this reason and foresight, what can people learn to do differently when they move in?

More specifically, what can be done in an already sustainable forest that will permit it to sustain thriving human beings for many generations? Our friend KC got to the heart of the question providing some very practical advice. Is there anything that you would add?
 
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It would seem you just have to meet the  forest where it's at in succession and start planting useful-to-you plants that fit those successional niches. That.might be root or.herb plants that prefer deep shade, it might be eventual over story trees that need the dense forest to sprout in, it could be any number of things depending on the specific site situation.
The main thing to me is that you have two options, either start introducing plants you want that match the forests current stage OR create disruptions that set the forest back to the stage of succession you want for the trees plants you want to introduce
 
Joseph Bataille
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s. lowe wrote:The main thing to me is that you have two options, either start introducing plants you want that match the forests current stage OR create disruptions that set the forest back to the stage of succession you want for the trees plants you want to introduce


That's a good way to sum it up. Thank you.
 
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Joseph Bataille wrote:.... transition a fully mature forest into a fully mature food forest



What do you mean when you say "fully mature"? When I think of a "fully mature" forest, I think of old growth, and I'm not aware of anywhere that you can just buy some old-growth forest and move in and do what you like with it. The forests around where I'm at are usually only 50-100 years since their last bad fire or clearcut when people start casually referring to them as "mature", but even then I don't think they're nearly as developed as the "mature" forests of most of the planet's history.

All quibbles about the definition of "maturity" aside, I've faced similar difficulties to what you describe in that there don't seem to be a lot of resources for how to turn any non-food forest into a food forest in general. I'm kind of playing it by ear in my own projects, but one thing I think about a lot is my role of accelerating processes that would happen on their own in the forest if it was given enough time. For instance, conifers would eventually fall over, either individually or in groups due to freak weather events. Animals would eventually haul in seeds from edible plants, and so on. But part of the bargain between us humans and the plants we've selected to be great eating is that we take actions to give those plants a bit of an advantage, and in return they give us stuff to eat. If you accept humans as being parts of nature ourselves, there's nothing unnatural about us helping out the plants we like more than others.

The land I'm currently working with used to be a homestead about 100 years ago, and has been managed as timber most of the time since then. I've found feral plants that clearly descended from plants that the homesteaders brought in -- there's a thicket of some sort of plums that go from inedibly sour to all gone in about a day, and a couple apple trees that probably grew from seed or rootstock because the fruit tastes like cardboard and the trees have 2" spines, and hawthorns all over the place despite there being none in other nearby sections of forest. Nobody put these individual plants where they are or cared for them; their presence is just a side effect of what happens in a forest when people introduce food plants and then quit taking care of them.

If the flow of permaculture starting from a field is "build soil then grow a forest", the flow of permaculture starting from a forest seems to be "find light and then grow food in it". Field-started permaculture has unlimited light and tends to be badly constrained on soil; forest-started permaculture in my limited experience so far seems to be the opposite: A happy forest has soil that's hospitable to most trees without amendment, but intervention is needed to start little food trees out in locations where they have a chance to succeed. Additionally, wild-ish and timber-managed forests select for the fastest-growing trees instead of the tastiest ones, so food trees tend to need a bit of help keeping enough light throughout their lives.
 
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