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Help with starting a food forest!  RSS feed

 
Eileen Seton
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I live in the Southern California high desert, a small town called Acton. My husband and I are starting a food forest and are really beginning from scratch with only some research under our belt.

We are in a zone 8-9 area and have a lot of dry land to play with. There are two apple trees and one oleander growing abundantly in our backyard already. There are lots of native weeds and junipers growing in patches across the 1/2 acre property. So far we've started to collect all the dead tumbleweeds and piles of organic material to layer on top of the land. We have access to horse manure for our compost and are going to start a worm compost area with the manure and our vegetable scraps. But we want to lay out the area and get the decomposition process started so the land will be ready to go.

Do we need to dig our swales first along the slope of where our land is or just build raised beds with decomposing material along the pathways? Will that be enough? And once we figure that out, do we start planting from seed or transplant everything? And not to mention is this the right time to do all of this?

I'm looking for a good clear set of how-to beginner instructions. So far I have found a lot of information, but not a clear set of helpful directions on how to start this up from nothing. Any help is valuable and much appreciated.

Thanks so much!

Light,
Eileen
 
John Elliott
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I've zipped by Acton many times on Highway 14, but I don't think I've ever stopped. I have landed at the Agua Dulce airport and wandered around though.

Given the terrain there, I would suggest laying out your swales and water catchments first. Have an idea of how many rungs or steps of raised beds you can have. If you space them around 8'-12' apart, then you can pile up biomass behind the berms of the catchment and start planting it.

Now is a great time to start planting; the weather has cooled off, and in another month or two the rains will (cross your fingers) come and you will be relieved of some of the daily watering chores. Starting trees from seed is a chore, so for any fruit trees you may want to plant bare root trees in the spring, or do some cuttings in a month or so and see if they will take. Your area is a great for stone fruits (apricots, plums, peaches, almonds, cherries, etc.) and some are very easy to propagate from hardwood cuttings. Here is a link that tells you how to go about it.

How is your land oriented? If you are on a south-facing hillside, that would be optimal in terms of sun exposure, but your food forest will have to be prepared for those long dry summers.
 
Eileen Seton
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Hi John!

Wow such an awesome response. Your advice is so helpful thank you thank you!

Our yard is directly facing north east, more north than east, and a pretty huge mountain just behind us. We're pretty exposed to the sun and right now our yard definitely doesn't have much shade-providing trees to protect the intense heat we get during the day. Trees are a huge part of our plan.

We've set up the design plan and started digging about 4 raised beds to start. I figured that each of the beds would be pretty high and start about a foot under ground, layered with compost, cardboard, the massive tumbleweed/organic material from the yard we've collected, and more compost. Should we make separate hugels and swales other than these massive beds or will they capture lots of water already? In your post you said, "piling biomass behind the berms of the catchment." I'm not sure exactly what you mean by this, but it seems like very valuable information!

We are definitely going to propagate our trees from cuttings. Any personal experience with this? Should these be started in a greenhouse or will under a shade cloth be ok? The link you sent was very helpful.

And as for preparing for long dry summers.. Any advice on how to do this as best as possible?

Thanks so much for the help!
It's so much fun already!

Eileen
 
John Elliott
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I would say see how those 4 massive raised beds perform and you may not have to add more swales. One thing you have going for you is the groundwater hydrology in the area. Those big mountains to the south of you? When it snows and rains on them, the precip percolates into the ground and ends up running under your property. If you have well established trees, they are going to be able to tap that resource. When I lived in Las Vegas, I had a mulberry tree on my property that was planted maybe 30 or 40 years before. The trunk was maybe 8"-10" in diameter. The roots of that tree managed to find the aquifer that underlies Las Vegas, and it needed no additional watering -- even in Las Vegas!

You might want to consider a walnut or pecan tree as a shade tree for the house. Pecans develop a very deep tap root (that is why seedlings are sold in a plastic pot that is 2-3 times as tall as other trees), and they will find that water under your property. Pecans grow very well in the Pecos river valley of New Mexico, an area with a climate that is very similar to yours. They will need a regular irrigation in the summer, but as long as they have water, they will take the 108 degree summer days. If you don't know which one to choose, you can graft a walnut onto a pecan or vice versa and have a tree that gives both.

If you start things like figs and grapes and plums from dormant hardwood cuttings, I don't think they would even need the shade cloth. The only advantage of having them in a greenhouse or special area is that they would get more of your attention and be less likely to dry out. Once you see the buds start to swell in the spring and they leaf out, you can coax them along with compost teas.

You can probably also have olive trees in your area, but since they don't go dormant, you need a different technique to start cuttings. Here is a link that describes that. Olives are shallow rooted though, and while I have seen some nice specimens in Barstow and Las Vegas, they were on lawns with automatic sprinklers. If a place gets foreclosed and the water supply is shut off, the olives are the first trees to bite the dust. They aren't survivors like my mulberry tree was!

As far as preparing for the long, dry summer, mulch and horse manure are your best weapons. As long as you have a ready supply, you should be well prepared.

 
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