Permaculture has been around for centuries and yet it has only become a… trend within the last few years. People steer away from pesticide sprayed fruit and vegetables and get more and more passionate about growing their own food. A food forest will provide you with much more food than a simple vegetable patch would. In this post you’ll find all the expert-based information you need to start a food forest and experience abundance.
To learn how to create food forests, we should look at nature as our teacher. How come we put so much effort into growing a single plant that struggles to grow and produce fruit, when forests thrive without our help? Simply by observing the natural world, we can find all the solutions that we need.
How nature does it 1. Ground cover/Mulch
The soil doesn’t like to be bare. This is why nature always tries to keep it covered. In forests, leaves, branches, and twigs fall onto the soil to cover it, and after a while this results in very rich, very dark-colored soil that is full of life and doesn’t need to be watered. How can we expect our plants to thrive while the soil is bare and soil microorganisms can’t thrive?
We can use all kinds of materials for ground cover. Among the best are straw and wood chips. But you could also use newspaper, tree bark, nut shells etc. Any ground cover should be pure and not contain any pesticides of insecticides as this will harm the soil life instead of improving it.
2. Multiple layers
Most farmers will plant monocultures: rows and rows of one single plant category. The traditional vegetable patch is made up of only one layer, or maybe two. If we look at how nature does it though, we’ll see that a successful ecosystem is generally made of multiple layers and resembles something close to a forest.
You see, with the exception of deserts, prairies and a few other low moisture areas, nearly every ecosystem wants to evolve into a forest. When the soil is left bare after a natural disaster or human intervention, we notice that the first plants to appear are weeds, or otherwise called pioneer plants. These are the only plants that can thrive in poor soil and they’ll aerate it and enrich it with nutrients.
Next, bushes start to grow, followed by trees and other layers like vines, bulbs and herbs. Where did all these seeds come from? From birds, the air, etc. Nature is magical, right? We only need to imitate it as best as we can and we’ll surely be rewarded with its abundance! Naturally, planting a single layer of vegetables won’t work without our intervention for fertilizer, weeding and insect control. Why?
It’s simple. There are “good bugs” and “bad bugs”. To put it simple, to have good bugs in your garden, you need to provide them with habitat. Shrubs and mulch will provide habitat for most of them. Trees on the other hand will provide habitat for birds who will also control the “bad bugs” and fertilize your garden. As mentioned earlier, nearly every ecosystem tries to become a forest. If you try to keep the ecosystem at just one layer, various seeds will continue to come and find space to grow, becoming weeds. You get the idea.
In nature, no plant or animal is left to multiply in such numbers that it becomes a pest. In a new garden you shouldn’t be surprised to notice sluggish growth and experience various insect problems. As humans have a mostly negative impact on the nature, we usually have to wait for 7-8 years from the moment we start building an ecosystem, until it comes to balance.
What I am trying to say is that during this timeframe, the good bugs will have discovered your bad bugs and have them under control. There will be birds in your garden but they won’t be eating all your fruit because owls will be present. The natural predators of all creatures will be present as to not let any creature become a pest and destroy your produce.
I highly recommend watching the movie “The Biggest Little Farm” if you haven’t already. It’s a great documentary about a couple who wanted to have a farm. They struggle and get very frustrated at the beginning as nothing seems to go smoothly, but are then rewarded with abundance once they achieve that balance.
4. Soil builders
In nature there is no need for fertilizer. Why?
Every ecosystem consists of plants that fulfill different purposes. There are “mulch plants”, ground covering plants, insect attractors and nitrogen fixing plants among others. There are many plants that are considered to be beneficial for the garden and make nitrogen available for other plants nearby.
But in general, the roots of many trees reach deep in the subsoil and make many nutrients and water available for their neighbors. This is another reason you may want to include these layers in your garden.
You’ve probably noticed that forests and many other plants in nature survive without the need of irrigation. Even the smallest amount of rain is enough to keep them going. Why do our vegetable patches need gallons and gallons of water every day, rising the water bill? Let’s look at how nature does it.
As discussed, nature makes sure the soil stays covered. Soil with vegetation keeps water like a sponge, whereas water that falls on bare soil not only slides away as if it would fall on concrete, but it also takes away the upper layer (or hummus) causing erosion! Also, by having those taller layers of trees and shrubs, water is made available from the subsoil.
creating water bodies for water harvest and conservation
covering the soil with mulch and clover
planting trees and shrubs
creating swales to guide rainwater
Now that we know how nature does it and how we can imitate her, it’s time to look at the steps we need to follow to create our very own food forest. And while having the theoretical knowledge and excitement are great to start with, getting practical can be intimidating! Where do you start? This is a big project, but don’t get overwhelmed! You’ll get there, one step at a time!
How to start a food forest
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t very observant before becoming interested in Permaculture. But in order to be a good gardener, you’ll need to be a good observer. It’s really as simple as that. Sepp Holzer, the famous Austrian permaculture father, noticed that the strawberries growing next to rocks were sweeter, at the age of 7! He then exchanged them at school for other goodies. Only by constantly observing your garden, you ‘ll learn, solve, and discover!
Hence, the first step towards creating a great food forest is observing. Find a quiet space near the place you’d like to plant your forest and seek answers to these questions:
-What do I want from my food forest?
Your food forest can be as individual as you are. Would you like to grow all your produce including luscious fruit and healthy vegetables? Or do you prefer assembling a forest of beautifully colored flowers & wonderful smelling herbs? Perhaps you could combine the two or create a food forest to provide income from craft wood or medicinal tinctures!
-Where does the sun rise and set?
The sun plays a very important role in any garden. You’ll want to plant your food forest taking the path of the sun in consideration.
-Are there strong winds? If so, are there any natural windbreaks or buildings present?
Planting windbreaks will greatly speed up the growth of the food forest and protect sensitive plants. If there are already natural windbreaks or buildings present, consider planting the most vulnerable plants under their protection.
-Are there different microclimates on the property?
Do you notice any colder/warmer spots or drier/humid places as you walk through the property? Taking advantage of microclimates is key to successful gardening. Different plants have different needs.
-What kind of wildlife visits the site?
From the smallest insects to the biggest predators. Knowing what you are dealing with can help you adjust your permaculture design accordingly. For example, you may plant shrubs to distract deer or get ducks to deter snails.
-How does rainwater flow on the property?
Does water accumulate somewhere in particular on your property? Are there gullies that direct water that falls on the land or do some areas flood? By observing the flow of the water, you’ll decide if you should direct it or slow it down with the help of swales.
It is said that to properly observe a site for permaculture design, you need to spend at least one year. It’s best to avoid investing in anything permanent like structures or trees before you have thoroughly observed the property.
Here comes the fun part, which is landscape design. One of the first things you should decide on is the position of any water bodies. Everything else will be positioned around them. Design ponds, lakes, bore holes, etc.
The possibilities are endless. I highly recommend the books Permaculture, a Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison and Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway for great ideas and inspiration.
A permaculture garden is divided into growing zones according to how frequently you visit the different areas, and your plants are placed in these areas according to how much attention they need.
The food forest should be placed in zone 2-3. Look for a spot that gets a lot of sunlight. Too much sunlight can’t be a problem, as the big trees in your design are going to cast shadow on the lower layers.
3. Prepare the soil
The second major task is to prepare the soil. As a food forest mainly consists of perennials, it’s important to improve the soil quality early on.
Also, if you are planning to do any major landscaping using machinery, this should be done first. The big machines will deplete the soil, and they will need lots of room to pass through.
In zones 1 and 2, you may cover the ground with the sheet mulching method, while in zone 3 and beyond it’s better to plant ground cover.
Sheet mulching, or composting in place is a method of eradicating weeds that needs no herbicides or tilling. Sheet mulch can be as simple as cardboard topped with a foot of straw, or it can be a more elaborate stack of soil building layers, as shown here.
4. Create guilds
A food forest basically consists of many tree guilds placed next to one another. A tree guild resembles nature in the sense that in the natural world trees are not on their own. They are usually surrounded by other shrubs, roots, herbs and often vines.
And although harvesting could become a little more challenging, the food yield will be much grater, and the garden space is used to the maximum, as you take advantage of many dimensions. In addition, the vegetation around the tree will fertilize, mulch and protect it from unwanted visitors!
Apple tree Guild by Toby Hemenway
Now is the time to design your guilds and start assembling your food forest. It is best to grow plants that naturally grow in your area. To learn which these plants are, simply go for a long walk, or consult a university library or database index , and look for “Plant Communities (your area)”. Then, choose some nut trees (canopy trees), fruit trees, and nitrogen fixing trees.
Again, by consulting books, the internet or other sources, find out which guild would fit your chosen tree. Choose plants according to your needs, their benefits and your climate.
5. Plant the trees
I read somewhere “The best time to plant a tree is yesterday”!
Contrary to what some people will suggest, trees should be planted early on. Waiting until the soil is highly improved and fertile is seldom necessary. Most trees will take a long time to grow and produce fruit. More than anything trees help the most at balancing the ecosystem. You can always add good soil and compost to the hole you’ll dig for each tree individually.
You need a balanced ecosystem to avoid disease and pests and to experience abundance. Hence, the sooner you get the trees in the ground, the sooner your garden will pop and start producing heavily and plentifully!
6. Include animals
Animals are a very important part of any food forest. Whether it’s insects, birds or other small animals we are talking about, they play an important role in its structure and function. You can attract birds using several different methods. Plant shrubs and trees that produce fruit they like and provide them with shelter, or build little houses for them.
Image from Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: a Designer’s Manual
You can even incorporate chickens or ducks in your food forest. And while they may harm some of your annual plants, they generally won’t affect most perennials. Chickens and ducks will help keep any garden free from harmful insects, they’ll till the soil and fertilize it.
Another way to benefit from these animals, without letting them destroy your annuals is to fence your food forest and have them patrol it. They can wander just outside your food forest, catching any harmful insect that wants to trespass!
There you have it! In this blog post I’ve done my best to provide you with all the necessary information you need to create your very own abundant food forest.
And while it’s definitely no easy job, and it’ll take time to enjoy the fruit of your labor, it is so worth it. Because after an initial period of sluggish plant growth, pest problems, and some unavoidable frustration, a permaculture garden that resembles nature and is created with love, respect and care, will eventually “pop”.
A garden “pop” is when the garden suddenly explodes into life: healthy plants, rich, fertile soil that is full of life, and beneficial wildlife. Diseases happen very seldom if at all, and only one word can describe it this phenomenon: abundance. There is a lot of everything and finally the hard work pays off!
Don’t waste any more time! Design your food forest and start planting it as soon as possible!
It doesn’t matter if your garden space is only big enough for one or two tree guilds. Are you on a budget? You can set up a small tree nursery and propagate your own trees! Everything is possible! All you need is willingness and some basic gardening knowledge!
How I started trying to get a good catalogue of native plants going was by consulting a website called wildflowers.org, which goes on a state by state basis for what kinds of flowering plants are known to exist in your state. It's not perfect-- it doesn't bother with non-flowering plants & may not provide a complete catalogue, but gives the scientific & virtually every known common name. It does tell you whether or not plants are classified as native or invasive, but it goes by what that state happens to legally say, so even that can be a bit problematic. For instance Ohio does not classify any plant which grows anywhere within the continental US as an invasive species if it happens to take to the wild here.
But, anyway, I used that site as a jumping-off point to find plants I liked, then did further research on range, usage & habitat. If I couldn't find a useful range map, I looked to see if I could find one that stated range by state/ territory to see if both my own state & all neighboring states were on the list.