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Creating a Permaculture Food Forest is Not Always the Answer

 
Chris Stelzer
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This is a post I will be publishing on my blog in a few days. Now keep in mind that a lot of my audience doesn't know what permaculture is, let alone a food forest. I'm trying to introduce them to these concepts. Here we go:

Many folks in the permaculture world promote food forests. What is a food forest? A food forest is a multi-layered, purposefully designed forest comprised of food producing species. Think of it like a very low maintenance “garden” that has a lot of trees, shrubs and ground species that produce something useful like fruits, nuts, seeds and herbs. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE this idea. I will create a food forest when I own some land. However, many people are trying to create food forests everywhere and see this technique as the “end all be all” solutions to our food problems. I’m of a different opinion.

I’m being the devil’s advocate for a reason. I want to present some new ideas and start some conversation.

How will a food forest produce protein and fat for me? These are two basic nutrients that every human needs in their diet. When I say protein, I’m talking about animal protein. This is not a place for a debate on not eating meat vs eating meat, eat whatever you want. However, most people in the United States eat meat. One way to raise animal protein in a food forest would be to graze animals within that system. Pigs seem like a natural fit. But, you’d need a big food forest to produce enough pork to feed even just your family. What about making a profit by selling to other families or becoming a pork producer? Can a food forest give you that? I don’t know, maybe. sepp holzer in Austria has great success with it, but lives in a different environment than I do.

I live on the plains of Colorado. Colorado is an semi-arid/high desert climate. Creating a large scale food forest would be challenging but possible. However, that is land that could be used to graze livestock. The great plains have historically been, well, plains or grasslands. Is putting a massive amount of energy into converting this area into a food forest worthwhile? On a small scale, I think so. On a commercial scale, I don’t think so. Would changing these grasslands into something “unnatural” help or hinder?

Properly managed grasslands can produce a massive amount of high quality and environmentally friendly animal proteins and fats. The fertile soils of the great plains were created by large herds of herbivores who numbered in the millions and moved quickly and frequently to new areas of fresh grass. Ranchers are using this technique on millions of acres around the globe.

I’m of the opinion that we need to manage and make decisions based upon the environment we are in. If I were to plant a coconut tree in my backyard, people would call me crazy. Rightfully so. Let’s work within the climate in which we live. If that climate historically lends itself to grazing livestock, why change that? Nature has already decided for us what the best use of that land is. Lets capitalize on it.

What do you think?
 
Theodore Heistman
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Yeah, well basically Toby Hemmenway says in gaia's garden to look and see what natives grow in your area and see if they have cultivated varieties. So where I live in Upstate NY, a food Forest totally makes sense because Cherries, Blue berries and Straw berries grow wild all over. So that's why We are building a cherry tree guild.

I've been to your area and I know Elk and Pronghorns and Mule deer live there, so basically you would be growing the cultivated versions of ungulates! Of course aren't there little groves of trees along creek bottoms? I see what you are saying, though.
 
Morgan Morrigan
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The only reason the plains aren't a forest, is because of fire.

The grass can reproduce quickly after a burn, and chokes down the trees.
Take away fire, and you will get a forest as the endgame.
 
Marc Troyka
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Morgan is pretty much spot on. The aridity of the plains (which 14,000 years ago had a giant lake around northern idaho) is the only thing preventing it from being rainforest. The grass is fire resistant and even promotes fire to eliminate competition from trees and non-fire-resistant forbs.

Also, the grazing of cows had only a small part to play in the fertility of the plains soils. During the current ice age (quaternary age) glaciers covered a large part of all landmasses, extending as far south as Arkansas. We're talking a single giant sheet of ice covering the entire of Canada and most of the central US. The rock dust left behind from these glaciers is what fertilized the Central US and allowed the deep soils to form. A lot of the rock dust is still in its original form in "loess hills" spread across the country.

I agree with your overall statement that food forests aren't necessarily feasible in every climate, nor always the best solution. You could probably manage to produce a good sized food forest in the midwest with enough water collection and generous innoculation, but fire would be a constant threat.
 
Isaac Hill
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Nuts.

[EDIT] Usually when somebody asks a permaculturist about something the answer is: It depends. Permaculture does not advocate a one-size fits all approach to designing systems, quite the opposite. Of course a food forest isn't going to be the most useful thing in every area, but on the other hand, as implied above, nuts are a fantastic source of both protein and fat and most people integrate animals into their food forests anyway.
 
daniel smith
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Chris Stelzer wrote: Pigs seem like a natural fit. But, you’d need a big food forest to produce enough pork to feed even just your family. What about making a profit by selling to other families or becoming a pork producer? Can a food forest give you that? I don’t know, maybe. Sepp Holzer in Austria has great success with it, but lives in a different environment than I do.


A 300lb pig will produce at least 150lbs of meat for the freezer. I would think you could have at least 2-3 pigs per acre in an established food forest. How many pounds of meat do you eat per month?
 
Tyler Ludens
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I live in a region which was tallgrass and midgrass prairie savannah 100 years ago; now it is mostly forest, because the conditions which made it grassland are gone (native peoples setting fires, and bison). In this region we can work to restore grassland, and raise grazing animals, or we can work with the conditions that are presently here and plant food forests. Either/or a combination would be appropriate, in my opinion. After a great deal of pondering and some experimentation with grazing animals I've decided to go with the forest, since most of my land is already forest and we don't have a large enough acreage to raise grazing animals. I think one of the main things permaculture tells us is to work with the conditions we have, to work with, not against nature.

Here's a Colorado food forest:



http://www.crmpi.org/CRMPI/Home.html

 
osker brown
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From a writing standpoint, I think there are some gaps in your article. As Isaac pointed out, nuts are a great source of protein and fat, but your statement of "I'm talking about animal protein" seems very limiting. I understand the point of most people eating meat, but are you trying to feed most people? Are most folks creating food forests trying to feed "most people"? My guess would be no. Also, a food forest will inevitably produce a much wider array of food sources, with a much better overall nutrient profile than any grassland grazing operation (i.e. there's a lot of grazing going on already, but humans need more than meat to survive). Food security for your bioregion will not be improved if you follow what everyone else is doing.

Seems like savannah is the obvious compromise. With miniature clumps of food forest you will have a much higher yield diversity, as well as diverse niches for various animals, whereas grasslands alone will support only grazers.

peace
 
Tyler Ludens
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osker brown wrote:
Seems like savannah is the obvious compromise. With miniature clumps of food forest you will have a much higher yield diversity, as well as diverse niches for various animals, whereas grasslands alone will support only grazers.



That kind of clumpy habitat with lots of edge will encourage a lot of deer and squirrels, possibly rabbits and other critters, all good sources of protein.

 
Chris Stelzer
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Morgan Morrigan wrote:The only reason the plains aren't a forest, is because of fire.

The grass can reproduce quickly after a burn, and chokes down the trees.
Take away fire, and you will get a forest as the endgame.


So, you are saying all areas of the world, regardless of climate, would eventually become a forest? I couldn't disagree more, if that's what your saying. It's pretty naive to think that a forest or trees is the ultimate succession of any ecosystem.
 
Chris Stelzer
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M Troyka wrote:Morgan is pretty much spot on. The aridity of the plains (which 14,000 years ago had a giant lake around northern idaho) is the only thing preventing it from being rainforest. The grass is fire resistant and even promotes fire to eliminate competition from trees and non-fire-resistant forbs.

Also, the grazing of cows had only a small part to play in the fertility of the plains soils. During the current ice age (quaternary age) glaciers covered a large part of all landmasses, extending as far south as Arkansas. We're talking a single giant sheet of ice covering the entire of Canada and most of the central US. The rock dust left behind from these glaciers is what fertilized the Central US and allowed the deep soils to form. A lot of the rock dust is still in its original form in "loess hills" spread across the country.




This sounds like mineralization. Glaciers don't leave behind organic matter. How is there 4+ feet of organic matter in many parts of the midwest? The glaciers created organic matter? I think large herds of herbivores created the organic matter by tampling grass on the ground and feeding the soil life.
 
Chris Stelzer
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daniel smith wrote:
Chris Stelzer wrote: Pigs seem like a natural fit. But, you’d need a big food forest to produce enough pork to feed even just your family. What about making a profit by selling to other families or becoming a pork producer? Can a food forest give you that? I don’t know, maybe. Sepp Holzer in Austria has great success with it, but lives in a different environment than I do.


A 300lb pig will produce at least 150lbs of meat for the freezer. I would think you could have at least 2-3 pigs per acre in an established food forest. How many pounds of meat do you eat per month?


I eat lots of grassfed meat. LOTS. However, we need to feed people other than our family, so how would a food forest produce as much meat as a well managed grassland? I don't think it can. Grasslands and grassland Savannah's co-evolved with herbivores. Without one, you can't have the other.
 
Chris Stelzer
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Tyler Ludens wrote:I live in a region which was tallgrass and midgrass prairie savannah 100 years ago; now it is mostly forest, because the conditions which made it grassland are gone (native peoples setting fires, and bison). In this region we can work to restore grassland, and raise grazing animals, or we can work with the conditions that are presently here and plant food forests. Either/or a combination would be appropriate, in my opinion. After a great deal of pondering and some experimentation with grazing animals I've decided to go with the forest, since most of my land is already forest and we don't have a large enough acreage to raise grazing animals. I think one of the main things permaculture tells us is to work with the conditions we have, to work with, not against nature.

Here's a Colorado food forest:



http://www.crmpi.org/CRMPI/Home.html




Yes I've seen that food forest. That is in the Rocky Mountains. I clearly stated in my initial post that I was referring to prairie/plains/grasslands. Creating a food forest in the environment of the video you posted makes sense. I'm also speaking about a time period before natives were "setting fires". Fire increases plant spacing, and leads to desertification. What was happening before native people? Giant herds of herbivores. And I 100% agree with you when you said we need to work within the conditions we have. Planting a forest on the plains, you could argue, "would be working against the natural state of the ecosystem."
 
Chris Stelzer
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osker brown wrote:From a writing standpoint, I think there are some gaps in your article. As Isaac pointed out, nuts are a great source of protein and fat, but your statement of "I'm talking about animal protein" seems very limiting. I understand the point of most people eating meat, but are you trying to feed most people? Are most folks creating food forests trying to feed "most people"? My guess would be no. Also, a food forest will inevitably produce a much wider array of food sources, with a much better overall nutrient profile than any grassland grazing operation (i.e. there's a lot of grazing going on already, but humans need more than meat to survive). Food security for your bioregion will not be improved if you follow what everyone else is doing.

Seems like savannah is the obvious compromise. With miniature clumps of food forest you will have a much higher yield diversity, as well as diverse niches for various animals, whereas grasslands alone will support only grazers.

peace


I clearly stated that the debate of whether or not to eat meat should be left out of this discussion. You didn't catch that I guess. Large grazing operations can offer most of the nutrient needs of a human. Alongside a bountiful diet of fruits and veggies of course, when you could grown in a food forest or garden. Yes, I am trying to feed more people than my family. If people aren't willing to do that, then we are in serious trouble.
 
Jordan Lowery
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I think your limiting yourself to what a forest garden could be. Most people think nothing but trees and bushes. Where as a REAL forest has annuals, biennials, and perennials. A healthy properly designed forest garden should have it all. Like someone mentioned climate will tell how your forest( if it's a true forest at all ) will be designed, grown and maintained.
 
Marc Troyka
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Chris: plants will grow fine on soilless loess, the mineral content of which is the primary contributor to fertility. The organic material in the case of soils under grasslands was formed from the remains of the 10ft deep roots which most of the native plants produce. Organic material does not equal fertility, although it can contribute in certain ways.

You're right about succession though, in the midwest the tallgrasses and shortgrasses are the apex flora, and in their natural environment they are more productive and competitive than trees. I don't know that raising, say pigs, in a fertile forest would necessarily be less productive than grasslands though. I would want to see some real data to back that up.
 
Cj Sloane
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Chris Stelzer wrote:
I live on the plains of Colorado. Colorado is an semi-arid/high desert climate. Creating a large scale food forest would be challenging but possible. However, that is land that could be used to graze livestock.


I'm surprised that a semi-arid/high desert climate has enough for livestock to eat.

Perhaps you could paint a better picture of what grows "naturally" in the area?

The food forest concept doesn't really have to be a "forest." I've heard that mangroves are the most productive areas on the planet. No one is saying "turn that mangrove into a food forest." No one is saying turn the plains into a food forest. The idea is to mimic the most productive environment of your area.
 
Marc Troyka
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The natives set fire to the grasses for hunting purposes, and their actions did NOT cause desertification. The grass naturally gets exposed to fire in that climate, and even requires periodic fire to grow properly. What destroyed the midwest was its conversion to farmland by US Americans between 1900 and 1930. By that time heavy ploughing and chemicals were standard, but without the 10ft deep roots of the native species all the topsoil blew away at the first sign of drought.
 
Tyler Ludens
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It's possible that people setting fires in Australia might have caused some of the desertification in parts of the continent during the very long period humans have lived there, with climate change being another factor. Not all practices are equally beneficial in all climates, for very long periods of time. It's only now that humans have this knowledge of different practices in different places over different lengths of time. No other humans have ever had this advantage of so much information about different practices under different conditions. We can use this information to decide what's most appropriate and most beneficial for our own area.
 
Tyler Ludens
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The "food forest" of the prairies might contain a lot of the staple foods of the native peoples. I'm trying to get some of these established on my place.



 
Marc Troyka
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Tyler: Australia mostly has fossilized oxisols, which are extremely poor (and rock hard) to begin with, but the global climate changed considerably during the end of the last glaciation. I don't know if Australia was particularly any wetter prior to that, but humans had little to do with its current aridity. Many Australian plants are well adapted to fire, so I'd say the climate has been like that for a very long time.

I think midwest Native Americans grew primarily corn, runner beans, chia, sunflowers, and squashes, as the modern Tarahumara indians do. They developed a number of techniques for making corn more drought resistant, along with deep rooted breeds well suited to that climate. Many of those crops originated in the Americas, although it's hard to say wherein, since most of those crops were established already from Peru to Canada by the time Europeans arrived. Chia is definitely a native of the Texas/Mexico area, and since corn is a grass species, I wouldn't be surrpised if it did come from the Great Plains region.
 
Tyler Ludens
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I agree, M. It's hard to know how much effect humans had on that environment, though they were there much longer than in North America (as far as we know). I think most of the research of human effects on grasslands has been done on the eastern North American prairies, in which the human influence was huge, and apparently beneficial.

Incidentally I was not talking about the "crops" of the plains peoples, but about the native plants they foraged. As far as I know there were never any native farmers in my region. Not sure about Colorado.

 
Marc Troyka
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I found out corn, sunflowers, and chia are all native to the Mexico area. I don't know about your area, but Colorado had quite a few native groups.

Humans arrived in North America through Alaska, so in order to colonize South America they would have had to forage the plains at one time. I doubt anything the original people ate would be considered food by people today, but I really have no idea what they might have eaten. I can't find any cultivated crops that have specifically come from the Great Plains either, but that doesn't mean there aren't any.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Many were apparently cultivated in the sense of horticulture, not agriculture. That is, they were selectively harvested and propagated "in the wild" by the people, not grown in fields. And yes it's true most native foods aren't what we're used to eating. I'm not used to eating Sotol, Buffalo Gourd, or Winecups, for instance but I hope to eventually make them part of my diet, because they grow here on their own.

I'm trying to link to a document about native foods of the Great Plains here, but not able to because it's a pdf: www.slowfoodusa.org/downloads/raft/​Bison.pdf?​phpMyAdmin=12c48b5a... · PDF file
 
Cj Sloane
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I think this is the essence of permaculture - not horticulture. And if we've talking about perennials then that's the food "forests" we should be striving towards.

Tyler Ludens wrote:Many were apparently cultivated in the sense of horticulture, not agriculture. That is, they were selectively harvested and propagated "in the wild" by the people, not grown in fields.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Here's an essay discussing the meaning of the word "horticulture" as I use it: http://kennysideshow.blogspot.com/2008/05/agriculture-or-permaculture-why-words.html
 
Brenda Groth
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I live in a food forest and we have plenty of meat proteins, and I do NOT raise livestock. We have deer, game birds like turkey, pheasant, doves, partridge, etc. We also have a lot of rabbits, squirrels and other small animals that can be eaten. If I chose to have livestock I certainly could have chickens or guineas in my food forest and ducks and geese on my ponds.

Of course I do not live in and am not familiar with colorado either.

 
Cj Sloane
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I do think the reason d'etre of this post hinges on the meaning of "forest." That essay was a little to in depth to clarify the difference between horticulture and permaculture.

I think "food forest" is a catchy term but there's no reason why the concept can't apply to a prairie - it would just be the prairie version.
 
Tyler Ludens
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What most of us call "permaculture" is called "horticulture" by anthroplogists. The article is about the difference between horticulture/permaculture and agriculture.

Cj Verde wrote:
I think "food forest" is a catchy term but there's no reason why the concept can't apply to a prairie - it would just be the prairie version.


Exactly.

Tyler Ludens wrote:The "food forest" of the prairies might contain a lot of the staple foods of the native peoples. I'm trying to get some of these established on my place.



 
Chris Stelzer
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Cj Verde wrote:
Chris Stelzer wrote:
I live on the plains of Colorado. Colorado is an semi-arid/high desert climate. Creating a large scale food forest would be challenging but possible. However, that is land that could be used to graze livestock.


I'm surprised that a semi-arid/high desert climate has enough for livestock to eat.

Perhaps you could paint a better picture of what grows "naturally" in the area?

The food forest concept doesn't really have to be a "forest." I've heard that mangroves are the most productive areas on the planet. No one is saying "turn that mangrove into a food forest." No one is saying turn the plains into a food forest. The idea is to mimic the most productive environment of your area.


The livestock here eat grass.
 
Chris Stelzer
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M Troyka wrote:The natives set fire to the grasses for hunting purposes, and their actions did NOT cause desertification. The grass naturally gets exposed to fire in that climate, and even requires periodic fire to grow properly. What destroyed the midwest was its conversion to farmland by US Americans between 1900 and 1930. By that time heavy ploughing and chemicals were standard, but without the 10ft deep roots of the native species all the topsoil blew away at the first sign of drought.


Yes, it does and did cause desertification. Look @ Africa, the entire country is burned every year by the people there because they think grass will not grown back unless they burn it. Fire increases plant spacing, burns most of the carbon up, releasing it into the atmosphere and overall, for most situations is not a good idea. Just cause native people did it doesn't make it correct.
 
Marc Troyka
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Erm.. you can't really have a "prairie version of a food forest". A prairie by definition is a grassland with virtually zero tree cover. If you add a few trees you get a savanna, add a few more and it's something else entirely.

@Chris: Africa isn't a country, and I have no idea what you're talking about. Some regions in Africa are very droughty and the vegetation is adapted to growing within a short wet season. They also have horrible termites. The soil type in central Africa is also much more similar to the soil in Australia (ie crappy, nutrient-free) than the soil in the central US. Those soils were created by weathering over geological time, not by humans.
 
Chris Stelzer
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Brenda Groth wrote:I live in a food forest and we have plenty of meat proteins, and I do NOT raise livestock. We have deer, game birds like turkey, pheasant, doves, partridge, etc. We also have a lot of rabbits, squirrels and other small animals that can be eaten. If I chose to have livestock I certainly could have chickens or guineas in my food forest and ducks and geese on my ponds.

Of course I do not live in and am not familiar with colorado either.



Do you eat squirrels and rabbits that you hunt in this food forest? I was directing this more toward *GASP* commercial production. We need to feed more people than our family if we want to continue as a species. Usually, deer, turkey pheasants etc are scarce, making feeding just your family from those sources challenging. Hunting them too much could lead to some population problems. I remember talking to an old-timer in Missouri when I was interning there, he told me that there were no deer during the great depression, everyone had killed them out. He resorted to eating skunks, squirrels and coyotes to survive. But, you did challenge my view of a food forest, there are food forests that already exist, and most of us just them of them as normal forests. Thanks for that =D
 
Chris Stelzer
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M Troyka wrote:Erm.. you can't really have a "prairie version of a food forest". A prairie by definition is a grassland with virtually zero tree cover. If you add a few trees you get a savanna, add a few more and it's something else entirely.

@Chris: Africa isn't a country, and I have no idea what you're talking about. Some regions in Africa are very droughty and the vegetation is adapted to growing within a short wet season. They also have horrible termites. The soil type in central Africa is also much more similar to the soil in Australia (ie crappy, nutrient-free) than the soil in the central US. Those soils were created by weathering over geological time, not by humans.


Ok, the continent of Africa, where grasslands are dominant are burned every year.
 
Chris Stelzer
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M Troyka wrote:Erm.. you can't really have a "prairie version of a food forest". A prairie by definition is a grassland with virtually zero tree cover. If you add a few trees you get a savanna, add a few more and it's something else entirely.

@Chris: Africa isn't a country, and I have no idea what you're talking about. Some regions in Africa are very droughty and the vegetation is adapted to growing within a short wet season. They also have horrible termites. The soil type in central Africa is also much more similar to the soil in Australia (ie crappy, nutrient-free) than the soil in the central US. Those soils were created by weathering over geological time, not by humans.


Also, some people, myself included, use the word "country" to describe where they live. For example someone might say, "Your welcome to come take a look at the country we have down here." or "He ranches in rough country." Meaning that, "Your welcome to come see the type of environment/ecosystem we have down here." It's frustrating to see you nit-pick at a grammatical error and neglect to address the real issue.
 
Tyler Ludens
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M Troyka wrote:you can't really have a "prairie version of a food forest".


I think one can, but it might not properly be called a food forest, which is why I used "food forest" in quotes. I mean a perennial polyculture. A food prairie.



 
Cj Sloane
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Food prairie just doesn't have the right ring to it but M - can you see the bigger picture?

Chris, still waiting for that list of natives...
 
John Saltveit
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I think the basic point is correct. If you live in a prairie, plant things from a prairie, savanna etc. Of course I grow service berries, autumn olive, coneflowers, sunflowers, pomegranate and quince. They are all more properly accustomed to a savannah. Some plants will produce more with more sun and less water. THe shrubby low bushes are easier to harvest than really tall trees from a forest. For example bush cherries are easy. Our native 50 foot tall trees are hard to harvest from. You can still do polyculture sustainability for long term productivity. In many cases, the soil is even better in these areas, because the plants by nature have deeper roots to withstand the dry hot season. We can usually adapt things that are reasonably close to our biome, but not too far away. I live in a temperate forested area, so coniferous forest and grassland plants are fairly easy to adapt. Tropical rainforest is really difficult, as is arctic tundra. Some desert plants are really hard, some not too bad.
John S
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Marc Troyka
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Cj Verde wrote:Food prairie just doesn't have the right ring to it but M - can you see the bigger picture?


I wonder about that. 15,000 years ago the midwest US held the world's largest lake, and was probably significantly more humid. During its time as a grassland, the moisture retention was significantly improved by the action of Bison digging out mud holes to wallow in. The age just prior to the present one saw continuous El Niño conditions. Not only has the 'natural state' of the area changed considerably (and regularly catastrophically) even in recent history, but human intervention has changed things even further. Just when you think you know what the 'big picture' is, it changes just to spite you.

Supposedly during the warmer periods of earth rainfall is also more abundant. Will global warming increase rainfall in the midwest or will it become even more arid instead? Who knows, really.
 
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