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!! Plant more shrubs in your food forest

 
gardener
Posts: 2081
Location: Olympia, WA - Zone 8a/b
917
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When you think about a food forest what comes to mind first? All the trees you could plant or the shrubs?

My guess is the trees. I know it’s what I tend to picture when I think about first when I picture a food forest.

But of course the power of a food forest comes from the stacking of layers. And there can be more than 7 layers in a food forest. Trees only make up 2 of these layers.

And here in western Washington and other temperate areas focusing on those 2 tree layers can result in less harvests not more.

You just don’t get enough sunlight in temperate areas to support a closed canopy forest that also has an abundance below the trees.

This week’s blog post—The Shrub Layer of a Food Forest – 5 Reasons Shrubs Are Awesome—dives into why you may want to put more focus on the shrubs and less on the trees when designing a food forest.

But just a note—if you live in a tropical or even sub-tropical area then you can put more focus on your trees. The amount of sunlight available for plants to grow increases the closer you get to the equator which makes the lower layers of a food forest more productive even with a dense tree canopy.

Let’s dive a bit more into what a food forest that focuses on shrubs looks like.

A Shrub Focused Food Forest



The blog post covers 5 reasons shrubs are awesome but I thought it would be helpful to share more about what a shrub focused food forest is.

A while back I wrote a blog post that broke food forests into 3 core types:
1. “Oak Savanna”
2. “Recovering Forest”
3. “Mature Forest”

What really defines each of these is how open the tree canopy is. An oak savanna type is mostly open and also has less shrubs and more non-woody herbaceous plants. A mature forest would be more closed canopy and while it has shrubs and herbaceous plants the trees are the dominate plants.

But the recovering forest is roughly in between these 2. Think of a forest after a forest fire where there are some large trees remaining but a good amount of light is reaching the ground.

Often a lot of shrubs and herbaceous plants pop up after a fire and the understory can be really dense.

I think in a temperate climate for the average person this is the type of forest to mimic to get the most out of a food forest.

That means that in an established food forest your trees might be planted 2-3 times further apart than the minimum spacing recommendation.

Obviously that means a fair bit less tree cover. Though you could coppice/pollard trees and keep them planted densely while still having an open canopy.

Instead of a dense closed canopy you will have a lot more shrubs and herbaceous plants such as perennial vegetables and ground covers (strawberries!) planted around and between the trees.

Shrubs have a lot of advantages which the blog post covers.

This sort of food forest could be up and providing great harvests in just a couple of years. And it would be filled in after just 3-4 years though of course the trees may need a bit more time to reach their full height.

But of course it won’t feel as much like a forest as the mature forest type of food forest. Though a food forest that follows the recovering forest model will still be stacking layers and will be a very resilient food system just like a food forest should be.

In temperate climates like here in western WA where sunlight is limited I think this sort of food forest has the potential to be more productive than the mature forest type.

What Shrubs Are You Growing in Your Food Forest?



I took that image from my blog post on the types of food forests. This is a logged forest where they left some trees standing. I always thought it was a decent example of a “recovering type” of forest.

Instead of the conifers imagine a mix of decent size fruit and nut trees. Some closer together to create shady areas and some further apart creating wide open sunny areas. Now imagine shrubs mixed in all over the understory and between the trees and then have perennial and traditional vegetables growing around the shrubs. Then just mix in some nitrogen fixing plants, ground covers, etc.

That could be a really awesome food forest and the extra sunlight will make all the layers very productive.

But I would like to know what sorts of shrubs are you growing in your shrub layer? Go over to the blog post and check it out to learn more about why shrubs are awesome and then make sure to leave a comment sharing your thoughts and what shrubs you’re growing.

If you are the first to leave a comment on the blog post you will get a piece of pie! The pie will get you access to some special features on perimes, discounts at some vendors, and you can use it to purchase some products on the permies digital marketplace.

If you leave a comment on the blog post make sure to leave a post here on permies too so I can easily give you the slice of pie.

Thank you and don’t forget about the awesome shrub layer when you’re planning your food forest!
 
gardener
Posts: 2533
Location: Pacific Wet Coast
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Living in the Pacific North-West, I think this concept is worth working with. A big chunk of our land is second growth cedar (in decline) and Doug Fir and the under-story plants in that area are mostly ferns (sword and bracken), a little Oregon Grape which produces little fruit, and invading English Ivy.

In our sunnier zones, I've been trying to plant around existing and added fruit trees to form poly-culture islands. At one point I planted an Italian Prune Plum and planted a little Seaberry in the same hole and some Iris and walking onion, but even with mulch this was too much for the poor soil, and since the deer liked the Seaberry, it never grew much and eventually died. Since then I radically pruned back in both height and width the cedar that was near, and added Comfrey to the north to chop and drop and expanded the circle of mulch much wider. Things are looking much happier.

I've got plans for a strip of fruit trees near a roadway and have been given two apple trees and a fig and I've started cuttings of Thornless Blackberry, Raspberry, Black Current, Seaberry, strawberry and oregano. First I've got to get the Himalayan Blackberry roots out and fencing up as our deer pressure is high. My established Raspberry canes easily grow 7 ft in my climate, so even "under-story" plants can look pretty big!
 
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I am process of converting my apple/plum/pear orchard into more of a food forest. The trees are between 5 and 30 years old and we chose big rootstocks because of deer pressure, so some of the oldest trees are quite large and shady. The grass cover is hard to keep on top of and I also wanted more space for perennial veg so now have 2 beds around a couple of smaller trees. Plans are for Aronia, ugni, gooseberries, currants as well as a variety of ground covers, but for this year it's potatoes and squash to help get the soil improved and hopefully get on top of some of the grass. Seems to be going ok at the moment but not helped by having the driest spring ever. I was inspired to start down this route by a visit to Martin Crawford's place in Dartford so I would echo your ideas on this. He has lifted the canopy of his tall alders which allows the fruit trees and shrubs more light. But he do
es do a lot of pollarding and coppicing as necessary to maintain the forest.
 
Posts: 157
Location: Providence, RI, USA
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Great article! I enjoyed reading it and am very glad to have found your blog.

One of my good friends once said that "food forestry is gardening like a forest, not in the forest". He went on to explain that he was talking about the forest edge, not the deep forest, since the forest edge (especially the southern edge, since we're in the Northern Hemisphere) was often the most accessible and productive part of the forest. In temperate zones, we are often trying to mimic the sunniest forest edge more than the deep forest. Therefore, stacked edges can be very useful as a design strategy, with the lowest growth on the south and the tallest on the north (and the reverse in the Southern Hemisphere).

If one looks at a sunny forest edge, bushes are key nutrient and sunlight collectors. They are often the most prominent plants along these edges. There are many reasons for this, but the upshot is that bushes can provide lots of fruit, at an accessible height, while often being relatively disease-resistant (at least in my humble experience). They provide habitat and forage for beneficial insects and animals, and take advantage of sunlight between other layers.

Thanks for drawing our attention to this valuable asset. We tend to associate the forest so much with the canopy that sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees! (Sorry, I couldn't help myself!)

Cheers,
Karl

Connect with me on Instagram: [url=https://www.instagram.com/foodforestcardgame/]@foodforestcardgame.com
[/url]
 
pollinator
Posts: 435
Location: zone 4b, sandy, Continental D
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Inviting more birds to nest nearby seems to have made a difference in the quality of our life and the quality of the vegetation we have. We have robins bluebirds jays, grosbeaks, yellow finches, hummingbirds, cardinals, orioles, brown thrush. You name it, we probably have it. They do not *all* eat bugs, but hubby and I were remarking on the larger number of all types of birds this year, and also how we can enjoy the evening outside without being bitten mercilessly by mosquitoes.
We still have too much lawn, which we do not fertilize or water. [This is Central Wisconsin: 35 ft of sand under our feet, so watering would be futile and fertilizing would mess up the quality of our groundwater: Most smart folks just let their lawn turn brown in the summer. So what?] Another thing I'm doing this year is "no-mow-June". It is incredible the number of flowers we have in our lawn. It looks more like a prairie with reds, yellows, occasionally a blue Ohio spiderwort. and the big pink pompoms of milkweed will be popping soon a little bit everywhere.
The forest we have is a lot of scrub red oaks that are dying of the wilt and some poplars that are giving us oyster mushroom [when we can reach them]. I'm replacing with sugar maples, juneberries, mulberries. I'm still hesitant to plant apple trees in the forest as we have a lot of deer, but I've taken to buying "deer apple" trees. [culled trees: they can be quite good, they just don't look good, so they go for $10 instead of the usual $30-50]. Placing them judiciously a little ways in the forest may keep the deer from eating our "better" apple trees. [On the other hand, it may actually attract them but hey, there is still venison sausage, right?]
Something I noticed that seems to run contrary to logic: The more vegetation of all type we have, the more *lush* everything is: With all these plants pulling on the water table, you'd think that they would have a hard time surviving. Well, quite the opposite. In this very flat land, the greener areas are the ones that are packed with vegetation.
I think the canopy is keeping things cooler and reducing evaporation, [like mulch but higher up vertically].
Perhaps trees and bushes pulling up moisture from the ground can't drink all they bring up and are making the upper soil crust overall damper, even near the surface?
 
Daron Williams
gardener
Posts: 2081
Location: Olympia, WA - Zone 8a/b
917
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Jay – Yeah, I think the PNW is a great area for this sort of food forest. I’m planning on keeping most of my food forests more open to let in more sun. I like your idea of poly-culture islands—could be a great way to add diversity to an existing forest.

If you look at the structure of old growth forests they often have open areas scattered throughout and other areas with a semi-open canopy. Then other areas that have a closed canopy. This tends to be caused when large trees fall and create openings.

But most of our forests these days are more uniform and all closed canopy. We can gain a lot just by trying to mimic an old growth forest structure which really is a mosaic of habitat types as opposed to just big old trees.

Chris – Thanks for sharing! Yeah, I think coppicing and pollarding is a key component of a lot of successful food forests. Another option is to space the trees a lot more but if you can keep up with coppicing/pollarding you can fit a lot more in without creating a dense canopy. Really appreciate you sharing!

Karl – Thank you very much! Glad your enjoying the site! That is a good way of looking at it. I often like coming at designs with the goal of creating a diverse mosaic of habitat. The resulting edges can be very productive and support a wide mix of plants.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on edges and stacking!

Cécile – I love all the birds that have moved onto my property over the last few years. They really do add to the quality of life as you shared. What’s interesting is that when they have young even seed eating birds will often feed their young insects—especially caterpillars. I’ve even seen hummingbirds catching insects!

Here in western WA a lot of people just let their lawns go dry in the summer too. Not everyone but it’s fairly common. I love that your lawn has so many other plants mixed in!

And thanks for sharing your experience with planting in your forest and adding “deer apples”. Hopefully that will work out for you! I also really appreciate you sharing your observations about more plants resulting in more lush areas. In addition to what you mentioned all those plants are also going to support more soil life and there is a lot of research indicating that when you increase soil life you also increase the amount of water and nutrients available to the plants. This could be a big reason why those more planted areas are also more lush—soil life really is key to creating abundance.
 
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Thirty years ago it was double dig, now it is food forest, but what about all the sun loving plant who do not like shade at all.
Asparagus & sunchokes, strawberries, blueberries. These perennials do much better in full sun. I have a plum tree that is shading part of my blue berry hedge & the shaded area has less than 20% of the loaded full sun side.
I will be pruning this tree back this fall, after the same problem for 2 years, it is time to get more sun on the blue berry plants. Light shade does not hurt my Raspberry plant, but heavy shade will stop them from bearing.
If I had 1/2 acre, then I would live with the low producion, but with over an acre I can aford to spread the plants out for maximum producion & with everyone messing with the food chain, I need every advantage that my perennials can give me.
 
gardener
Posts: 2934
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio,Price Hill 45205
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I have an urban lot that I had started to plant out with trees.
A fight with the city resulted in many trees being uprooted and tossed in a dumpster.
They sent me bill for the privilege.
I won't be paying it.

This gave me an opportunity to rethink my plans, plus many of my shrubs began to mature.
Now I'm planning for more nut bearing plants, and few if any additional fruit trees, but not anything much over 8 feet tall, the limit of my arms reach.
I might leave some space for overstory trees, but they are not my priority.
Anything that will increase the net shade is a no go, so it would have to be coppice/pollard friendly.




 
Cécile Stelzer Johnson
pollinator
Posts: 435
Location: zone 4b, sandy, Continental D
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William Bronson wrote: I have an urban lot that I had started to plant out with trees.
A fight with the city resulted in many trees being uprooted and tossed in a dumpster.
They sent me bill for the privilege.
I won't be paying it.

This gave me an opportunity to rethink my plans, plus many of my shrubs began to mature.
Now I'm planning for more nut bearing plants, and few if any additional fruit trees, but not anything much over 8 feet tall, the limit of my arms reach.
I might leave some space for overstory trees, but they are not my priority.
Anything that will increase the net shade is a no go, so it would have to be coppice/pollard friendly.



I wonder what reason the city used to trample your 4th Amendment rights. Was it an invasive species? Were their roots invading city sewers? Do you have personal enemies on the City Board? What? This is the first time I hear of this sort of thing. Once in a while, folks plant tall trees under the electric line and the city comes and butchers them so bad that folks might as well cut them off: After the 'treatment' the tree that has been shaved to the trunk is such and eyesore that it is just not worth keeping. Torn as they are, they invite diseases too.
Besides hazelnuts, which you can coppice once in a while, but which will invite rodents/squirrels/ gophers, how about *understory* trees, like serviceberry [Amelanchier Canadensis]? They do grow taller but do not produce a lot of shade, and because the trunk is somewhat spindly, it bends down easily so you can harvest your fill. They make beautiful masses of white flowers in the spring too, so they are quite decorative. If they are loaded with fruit, you may even want to place a tutor nearby. They sucker abundantly so you can let them grow for a few years, then choose the best replacement from among the suckers and coppice the original. Repeat. Plant extras as the birds love them also! Any more mature trees that would have the city's favor could still be planted later and offer a bit of shade for that understory tree. I have half a dozen of these and they are in full sun.I'm short-but just on one end ;-) so I like trees that are a bit shorter too so I can take advantage. They just grow a little shorter than their woodsy brothers and sucker a bit more.
As I see you are looking at nut trees, on an urban lot, check how much juglone you dream tree would generate. Black walnut, for example makes a lot of it and there are not too many bushes or [anything else for that matter] that will tolerate juglone.
[On the plus side, you would not need to mow the lawn because grass would not grow there ;)]
 
William Bronson
gardener
Posts: 2934
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio,Price Hill 45205
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My city cited me for  having garbage on the lot,  because I was growing in barrels and buckets and had fencing and other materials stored there.
The minor who complained could only see the yard because he had asked me to NOT build a privacy fence on his side.
I lost in court and they tore out trees along with removing a bunch of other stuff.

Anyway,  I will look into service berry trees along with thegoumi and seaberries,  etc.
One tree that I have been successfully  pollarding at my home garden is mulberry.
I skipped one year of pollarding and this year it seems to have set fruit.
At the same time,  the grape vine next to it has invaded the branches and also set fruit.
It will be instructive to see if I can grow the two of them together on a bi-annual cycle, harvesting cuttings one year and fruit the other.

We have some black walnut trees on the edge of our property, and frankly I don't see the appeal.
It takes a too much work to harvest their nuts for it to be worth it to me.
Fortunately they are in an area with almost 0 sun,  so we will be building a shed there, rather than trying to grow stuff.


My dream nut tree is the dwarf chinkapin oak, because  I think it will generate unique products to sell.


 
 
Cécile Stelzer Johnson
pollinator
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Location: zone 4b, sandy, Continental D
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William Bronson wrote:My city cited me for  having garbage on the lot,  because I was growing in barrels and buckets and had fencing and other materials stored there.
The minor who complained could only see the yard because he had asked me to NOT build a privacy fence on his side.
I lost in court and they tore out trees along with removing a bunch of other stuff.
Anyway,  I will look into service berry trees along with thegoumi and seaberries,  etc.
One tree that I have been successfully  pollarding at my home garden is mulberry.
I skipped one year of pollarding and this year it seems to have set fruit.
At the same time,  the grape vine next to it has invaded the branches and also set fruit.
It will be instructive to see if I can grow the two of them together on a bi-annual cycle, harvesting cuttings one year and fruit the other.
We have some black walnut trees on the edge of our property, and frankly I don't see the appeal.
It takes a too much work to harvest their nuts for it to be worth it to me.
Fortunately they are in an area with almost 0 sun,  so we will be building a shed there, rather than trying to grow stuff.
My dream nut tree is the dwarf chinkapin oak, because  I think it will generate unique products to sell.
 



Ohio must be weird. In Wisconsin, if you want to build a privacy fence, provided you build it 6 feet in from the property line, your neighbor has nothing to say about it but you must put the 'finished' side toward your neighbor. [If you both agree to have a fence, you share the costs 50-50]
Seaberries. I don't have experience with them but from what I hear, "Have spines, can travel" should be their motto, so make sure you can stay on top of it and not allow re-seeding or for sure your neighbor is going to find fault with that!
In Ohio, you might be able to grow bigger acorns that have less tannin. The chinkapin does not grow here and the acorns have to be processed to remove the tannin to make the acorn edible, so I kinda gave up on the oak, especially that our red oaks all have the wilt.
I have 26 mulberry bushes/trees. What I love about them is that you can train them either as bushes or trees. Mine had a lot of die back this past year in spite of a mild winter, so I'll have to figure out why. Birds will carry the berries to your neighbor's lawn and stepping on them sticks enough to the shoes that many a good carpet has been ruined. Maybe if you have the white kind? We have 7 acres so it is not a problem but still...
Yep, black walnuts are no my fave either. If it has reached any size, though, that lumber is precious and fetches good money! Good luck to you.
This is the best site i no nonsense commentary that I have found on mulberries: It should help you decide when to coppice or pollard.
https://harvesttotable.com/how-to-grow-mulberries/#:~:text=Mulberries%20that%20have%20been%20trained,on%20spurs%20on%20older%20wood.
 
Daron Williams
gardener
Posts: 2081
Location: Olympia, WA - Zone 8a/b
917
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Joe – That’s the advantage of what I call the recovery forest style of food forest. There are lots of areas with full sun but then also areas with less sun. This mix can provide more overall production than just full sun. There are plenty of great perennial crops that don’t like full sun and do better in semi-shade or shade. The goal isn’t low production but to build an overall resilient system that requires less work while still providing an abundance of food.

William – That sucks that the city responded that way… especially when there is so much evidence for the benefits that trees bring to an urban environment. But I’m glad it sounds like you’ve been able to adjust your plans and still move your property forward.

Cécile – Serviceberries really are great. I’ve got a few growing here and I think I’m going to get some berries this year! They grow fine in semi-shade too. The wild ones in my area are often growing on woodland edges and back under the canopy. But the ones under the canopy of the forest don’t produce as many berries as the ones on the edge of the forests. Gooseberries are also a good option in any semi-shady area. I got some along the west side of my house in my front food forest and they’re already producing berries despite this being their first year.
 
William Bronson
gardener
Posts: 2934
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio,Price Hill 45205
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Cincinnati has been pretty punitive to my efforts to grow food, but the fencing law is/was in my favor.
The neighbor was concerned he wouldn't get any natural light into his basement mancave, so I obliged his request for a chain link fence.
He in turn used his privledged view and the civil code to try to force me to be a proper grass tending serf.
He has cost me a lot if money and heartache,  but now he has 6 feet of opaque fence 5 feet from his basement window.
But I digress.

I am hoping to grow dwarf chinkapin oaks because the are said to grow as a bush/hedge, produce acorns in just a few years and have little or no tannin.
They are mostly sold as food plot trees for turkey and deer hunters.

Just yesterday my daughter sold all of her raspberry muffins, made with berries from her own canes.
Between berries and nuts there are a lot of opportunities for value added products.

I'm seriously thinking about "adopting" some strays cats to run off the rodents,  when I get the nuts trees producing.
 
pollinator
Posts: 192
Location: Missoula, MT
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My shrub layer collection (zone 4/5);

Caragana arborescens
Cornus sericea
elaeagnus multiflora
elaeagnus umbellata
elaeagnus commutata
Elaeagnus rhamnoides
Hamamelis virginiana,
juniperus horizontalis
Lonicera caerulea
Lonicera spp.
Mahonia aquifolium
Malus spp
Philiadelphia lewisii
Picea glauca conica
Pinus mugo
Prunus cistena
Prunus spp.
Prunus virginiana
Ribes spp.
Rubus leucodermis
Rubus occidentalis
Patycladus orientalis
Salix discolor
Sherpherdia argentea
Syringa vulgaris
Thuja occidentalis
Ulmus siberica (coppiced)
Viburnum opulus

 
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Intrinsic: An Agriculture of Altered Chaos
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