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Adding to an existing forest instead of starting from scratch

 
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Hello! I was thinking about the fact most of my land is wooded, yet what I've read on food forests (admittedly not a ton, no books, strictly online) seems to assume starting from scratch - planting fruit and nut trees, shrubs, vines, etc in an open field that eventually grows into a food forest / forest garden. I'm wondering if there are resources (including your personal experience) about tending existing forest to increase biodiversity, both food and medicine.

There is already some food in my forest - maples for sugar, hazelnut, some fruit/berries though they do best at the edges and in clearings. There is game, too, like turkeys and grouse, small number of deer, but I don't have skills or gear to hunt. I'm open to doing some clearing to encourage more of what I want and to plant some bigger nut trees. I don't want to add non-native plants to my woods (though I'm fine with growing them in my small yard). Thoughts? Links? Past threads? Thank you!!
 
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Hi! This is just about exactly what we're planning to try. We just bought a piece of land in coastal Norway, where we'll try to fit a forest garden into the existing forest. Cool that you are thinking about the same thing! I made a post about our project a few months back (https://permies.com/t/155012/Forest-garden-forest) and got some helpful input. It does seem like not a whole lot of people have actually tried this, though. But, well, give it a few years and we'll know more. It would be nice to compare notes from time to time (what works, what doesn't).

Of course, no two places are the same, especially not if they're on different continents. For instance, we'll sort of have to use some non-natives in our garden, because the number of good, native Scandinavian edibles suitable for a forest garden setting is, well, limited to say the least (Ice Age, arrgh...) For us it's more a question of choosing species that can be gently integrated, without doing harm, into our not terribly diverse (when it comes to tree species, at least) Scandinavian woods. Although I have to say I do envy you people across the Atlantic your wide array of native foods...

It sounds like you have a good start, though. Hazelnuts are brilliant, and from what I've understood they also fruit better with more sun exposure. Could it be an idea to gently thin the forest around some hazelnut bushes, and see what happens?

Also, even though people don't do it today, things like this have been done a lot in the past, and it seems various Native American groups were experts. There's a book called Tending the Wild that gets mentioned sometimes. I haven't read it, but it sounds like it might be a good resource (even though it seems to be specifically about California). There is also a recent topic on Permies with a link to a cool (but perhaps overly academical) article on Native American forest gardens (https://permies.com/t/160251/Pacific-Northwest-forest-gardens-deliberately)

I suppose the reason that most people making forest gardens start from scratch is that the ecological "gain" may be bigger if you start from some form of degraded land, but it would be brilliant if there was more information out there for those of us who do otherwise. After all, it might not be possible for everyone, everywhere, to get a piece of urban wasteland, especially not if you don't actually want to be close to a city and/or are on a limited budget. Low value forest may in some cases be cheaper or easier to get than land that is usable for either farming or building... Plus, if we actively use one hectare of our 18 hectare property, that still leaves 17 hectares for the wild. Given that we couldn't afford two properties, I prefer this to buying an already degraded piece of land, and leaving some forestry company to mow down and degrade all 18 hectares of this one. Sorry, I'm rambling.

Anyway, super nice to hear about your project!
 
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I'd recommend Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel's book "Farming the Woods".
 
pollinator
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You could also try Ben Law's book 'the Woodland way'.
 
Marisa Lee
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Thanks all, for the ideas! Eino, your thread from a few months back is especially helpful! Thank you for linking to that. It'll be great to see how that develops in the coming years. I think my climate is not that different from yours, even though I am not as far north.

I live a few miles inland from Lake Superior, so we have fresh fish here, and wild rice from the lakes and slow rivers. There are a lot of orchards near me and some small farms raising beef and pork, sheep for cheese, etc. I keep chickens for eggs. One limitation is my forest drains well, being on high ground with a lot of sand in the soil. Many of our native fruit trees/shrubs like it wetter. Then again, I can grow what will do well on my site and acquire other things from neighbors on lower ground! I think it would make sense to invest in some nut trees, since they are not widely grown here yet should do well, walnuts, butternuts, hickory and chestnuts all grow here (native to areas south of me, but close enough that I do not mind planting them). I like the idea of getting more light to my hazelnuts too. They grow at the edge of the woods, yet the woods have encroached into their space. Oh! I also ordered spore plugs to grow mushrooms in my woods but need to prep logs and get that set up ASAP. They should fruit next year.

One thing you discussed in your thread is root crops for the forest. This makes sense to me. I will have to look into good options here. One I know of is wild ginger, which I am thinking of growing in a shady part of my yard, where rainwater runs off my roof and I can easily water it during a dry spell, since it needs more moisture than my woods provide. It grows at my dad's place, so I can transplant some for free. You mentioned marsh woundwort, a plant I'm familiar with, but did not how it's used. Can you tell me about it or point me to a source where I can learn?
 
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That's mostly what I'm doing too.

If you live in the US:

--Use wildflower.org as a jumping off point to find native plants that you want in your area & do further research on the ones you like.
--I attempted to put together a list of all types of native edible in North America in its own thread, if it happens to help. Just keep in mind, it may not be perfect, but I think I got a mention of at least species of most native edibles in there.
--If you live far enough north to naturally experience a winter, there are some plants that require special soil conditions that your forest may or may not have anymore. If no, there's no real way to fix it & you'll have to artificially recreate those conditions.
--If you're going with seeds, collect the seeds you want throughout the year, keep them in your fridge & put them out roughly between late November- early February. Only sow root stocks or bigger seeds into the dirt, for the rest just incrementally throw them around.

If you live south of the snow line, then different measures may be in order. All in all, you don't have to do too much work to clear things out to encourage what you do want to grow, but some people work a lot harder to up their land's productivity with a few tricks here & there & turn it into a full on jungle. Just depends on how far you really want to take it.
 
Eino Kenttä
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Nice to hear it was useful!

Regarding the marsh woundwort: It's one of my favorite wild foods. In autumn the stolons/runners thicken to fleshy, white tuber-like things, that are quite easy to dig up, at least if the soil is light. When raw they have a wonderful crispy texture, and taste (in my opinion) rather like slightly bitter radishes. When boiled or fried they go more towards sunchokes in flavor. Marsh woundwort is a cousin of crosnes/Chinese artichoke, which is used similarly. Apparently (as the name implies) marsh woundwort leaves can also be used medicinally, but I've never tried.
 
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My wife and I bought 20 acres of wooded land in SW MI four years ago. We are in the process of doing exactly what you are asking about. I've also been somewhat frustrated by the lack of other examples of people trying to do this.

In addition to insinuating loads more "human productive" plants into our woods, we're also building our house and the rest of the homestead infrastructure as we go, so it's a bit slower going than if I didn't have to build a house along with developing the woodland

In my view, the first thing is to become well acquainted with what you already have growing. You may be surprised how many useful/valuable plants your forest already has. Ours has blueberries and wintergreen in abundance, witch hazel, a few beech. Look into the historical makeup of your bioregion. What was the composition of the forest when Europeans arrived in the area? This information can help guide choices of what plants to add, and perhaps what animal interactions will be appropriate.

Most of the fruit producers, shrubs, canes, vines and trees, are going to be edge community members, rather than interior forest. So you do want to think in terms of designing for those edges, creating and/or optimizing clearings to enhance production of those things. Large nut trees are forest canopy elements and they will grow up despite being deep in a closed canopy forest, but you can help them out. I'm working to favor our beeches by making sure they're free of climbing vines and by clearing some of the other young trees from around them. Give the ones I want to win out a bit of advantage.

We've just planted several dozen different trees and shrubs to create a food hedge and visual screen between our house site and the nearest neighbor. The location is edge, with the clearing for the house on one side, and largely untouched woods behind it, and then their driveway and building complex. There's a decent distance between us and them, but I can improve on the situation  Aronia, Currants, Elderberyy, Service berry, Chinese chestnut, American hybrid chestnut, Littleleaf linden, American Persimmon, along with Mallow, Sorrel, Oregano, wood nettle, walking onion, mint. Paw paw seeds went in last year, hopefully we'll see some results from those, and the plums from store bought fruit that I put in because why not? Hazelnut and black walnut also went in this spring. In another area we have goji berry and boysenberry. Then there's an area that I planted in last year intending to start a bit of a nursery area - that was black walnut, currants, elderberry, hazelnuts and willow. Those plantings are not doing as well as I had hoped, and the area is NOT suited to being a nursery

In terms of a plan of action - once you have a sense of the varieties you want to grow, I suggest getting nursery stock from local sources, so that you know the genetics fit your region. Get a few of each variety, plant these pioneers someplace where you can give them lots of tender loving care and use them as your nursery, propagating hundreds, even thousands more for planting out into wider areas of your landscape.

When you start having a good supply of your own home grown plants to distribute into your woods, it gets much easier to just stick a little tree seedling in the ground and walk away, leaving it to make it on its own - just like Nature does.

With regard to doing clearing and thinning work - try to get a yield from that process as well. I do a variety of woodworking, so some of the trees we cut get made into a range of things from chairs and benches to spoons to things like my workshop and the wellhouse. Some get used for growing mushrooms. Some will be used as fuel. I may or may not rent a woodchipper for a week and deal with some of the piles of tree top limbs. Our raised beds are made from weedy sassafras trees that we have in superabundance.

Step one: Observe and identify
Step two: Choose your plant varieties
Step three: Establish your own nursery stock so you can propagate the numbers you will need
Step four: Manage your existing woodland to favor varieties you desire. Use that process to introduce varieties you desire. (create a clearing and plant the edge communities, thin younger trees in an area and introduce desired canopy trees)
Step five: Watch and enjoy for decades, because we're creating multi-generational systems
 
Marisa Lee
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D Tucholske wrote:That's mostly what I'm doing too.

If you live in the US:

--Use wildflower.org as a jumping off point to find native plants that you want in your area & do further research on the ones you like.
--I attempted to put together a list of all types of native edible in North America in its own thread, if it happens to help. Just keep in mind, it may not be perfect, but I think I got a mention of at least species of most native edibles in there.
--If you live far enough north to naturally experience a winter, there are some plants that require special soil conditions that your forest may or may not have anymore. If no, there's no real way to fix it & you'll have to artificially recreate those conditions.
--If you're going with seeds, collect the seeds you want throughout the year, keep them in your fridge & put them out roughly between late November- early February. Only sow root stocks or bigger seeds into the dirt, for the rest just incrementally throw them around.

If you live south of the snow line, then different measures may be in order. All in all, you don't have to do too much work to clear things out to encourage what you do want to grow, but some people work a lot harder to up their land's productivity with a few tricks here & there & turn it into a full on jungle. Just depends on how far you really want to take it.



Thank you! I pulled up your thread on native foods and will have fun looking through it. I may even have something to add, since I've done some work around indigenous foods & beverages in the past (catering small events & doing education).

I do get plenty of snow & real winters. If you look at a map of Wisconsin, I'm at the tip of that little peninsula that pokes up into Lake Superior. My soil does have some limitations - it's rocky, sandy soil on high ground, probably a bit acidic due to the pines. That's great for some plants, but a lot of our little fruit shrubs need more moisture. Those will have to be close to the house, where I can give them attention, not in the woods.

I will check out the wildflower.org site. I haven't used it before, even though I'm fairly wildflower obsessed. (I use minnesotawildflowers.info to help me identify plants and then wisflora.herbarium.wisc.edu to check county maps and see if it's present, but both sites have their limitations.) Thanks for the recommendation and all your advice!
 
Marisa Lee
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Peter Ellis wrote:
In terms of a plan of action - once you have a sense of the varieties you want to grow, I suggest getting nursery stock from local sources, so that you know the genetics fit your region. Get a few of each variety, plant these pioneers someplace where you can give them lots of tender loving care and use them as your nursery, propagating hundreds, even thousands more for planting out into wider areas of your landscape.

When you start having a good supply of your own home grown plants to distribute into your woods, it gets much easier to just stick a little tree seedling in the ground and walk away, leaving it to make it on its own - just like Nature does.

...

Step one: Observe and identify
Step two: Choose your plant varieties
Step three: Establish your own nursery stock so you can propagate the numbers you will need
Step four: Manage your existing woodland to favor varieties you desire. Use that process to introduce varieties you desire. (create a clearing and plant the edge communities, thin younger trees in an area and introduce desired canopy trees)
Step five: Watch and enjoy for decades, because we're creating multi-generational systems



Your entire post was very helpful and interesting but this.right.here. I love it. Thank you so much.

I have a good sense of what is present. My woods are primarily white pine, red oak, red maple, paper birch, balsam fir, big tooth aspen. (I'm fortunate someone planted a few sugar maples in the yard, too, and white spruce along the driveway.) My shrubs-vines are juneberry, sumac, hazelnut, dogwood, pin cherry, raspberry, dewberry, thimbleberry, bush honeysuckle, and honeysuckle vine. Oddly I do not have blueberries or sweet-fern, but I think they'd both do well here. Herb layer food/tea: milkweed, fireweed, wintergreen, fiddleheads/bracken, wild strawberry, etc.

So I guess I'm in step 2. I got some nice cuttings and plants yesterday at a swap - black elder, black currant (they both need more moisture than they can get on their own here, but I think they can do well in my garden), sunchokes, anise hyssop, and others. There are some (non-hybrid) American chestnut trees up here than never got the fungus, because they are isolated from the tree's natural range and were planted here before the fungus arrived. I am hoping to get a baby or two, think I have a hookup on that, or at least nuts that are hopefully viable. Walnut, butternut, or shagbark hickory would all grow here I think, so that's some decision-making to do, because I don't know enough about each to make a choice. We do not have beech here, but that would be cool to bring some in. Black cherry would be really nice, yet I could bring in sand cherry for free. Blueberries are a priority.

I should spend this spring-summer-fall getting to know the interior of my woods better, not just the edges, so I can identify places that make sense for trails and clearings to cut during dormancy. That'll be burned, as I have zero woodworking skills but that is a good point, to get value from it. I will also have to learn more about taking cuttings and propagating.

Thanks again!
 
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