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Starting a forest garden

 
Sandrine Coosemans
Posts: 25
Location: Matarranya, Teruel, Spain
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Hi, I'm Sandrine, I've been lurking on this forum for a few years now and recently decided to become a more active member. I seem to never make enough time to do research and really think about the proper way to handle things (often I just plant whatever I have / I can find and just wait and see what comes out...), so I'm hoping posting on this forum and interacting with other members will help me take a step back and look at things from other perspectives - I also hope that by posting here, my ramblings could help or inspire other people as well.
I'm originally from Belgium but now living in the beautiful hills of Spain, where we're having a house built & trying to establish a permaculturish piece of paradise on our 3,65ha (9 acres) piece of land. Most of our terraces have olive and almond trees with gras in between; we've had chickens running around for a few months now, getting goats as a test (borrowing a couple from friends) later this month, and hopefully getting a pair of kune kune pigs (if I can find some in or close to Spain or France) in the spring. And our dogs (Greater Swiss Mountain Dog + a small one that follows the big one and yaps when he's barking) are very good at keeping / chasing away foxes, wild dogs and wild boars.

My main dilemma is our (future) food forest.

(looking a bit glum in the winter sun...)

2 of our fields didn't have anything but grass when we purchased the property; they're 2 terraces just above each other and are part of a "baranco" - when it rains, they turn into kind of a (very broad) river - and when it doesn't rain, the (very clay-y) ground retains water very well and stays moist (under the upper layer) for a really long time. The neighbour, who owns the 3-4 terraces just above ours, has succeeded in turning his into a properly producing orchard, so we thought we'd turn ours into a food forest.
So far, we've planted quite a lot of young fruit trees: apples, nectarines, peaches, pears, figs, plums, pistachios, hazelnuts, pomegranate and kaki. Since June, we've been growing all kinds of (annual) veggies in between them: lots of beans, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, melons, zucchinis, corn and probably a few I'm forgetting; at the moment we still have kale, sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, endives, spinach, celery and lettuce growing (not producing anything at this moment though). And I'm planting garlic tomorrow.
I've been trying to find out what kind of "guild" every tree would need. I already found a few suggestions - like for the peach trees, I would need lemon balm, daffodils, lupine, alfalfa, comfrey, stinging nettles, chives, fennel, thistles (?), asparagus, yarrow and probably more... A few of those I tried to grow last spring, but they just died (either in the heath or due to the rain, the last one due to night frosts). So I struggle a little - most of the things listed when I look up guilds are not easily found locally, and when I buy things (mostly by internet) I'm never sure that they will be able to adapt to the weather conditions here.

I'm thinking my next step should maybe be to purchase some bush trees to form a lower canopy, and offer more protection to other stuff I might want to plant. But I'm not sure what this should be; I could order berries and stuff (from webshops in other parts of Europe), but what to get? Most of the lower canopy in the "wild" around here seems to be made out of strawberry tree & young oak.

Does anybody have an opinion or ideas on this?
 
Neil Layton
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Hi

You are trying to do what I want to be doing (and would have been doing had certain things not gone wrong).

I suppose it's possible to do things the way you are trying to do them, but it's not advisable. There is just too much to think about, and too much you can easily do wrong.

If you go to the Global Resources thread there is a discussion about the main reference for planting forest gardens, Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier. http://www.permies.com/forums/f-183/

The discussion will give you some idea what to think about, but if you want to do the job properly you need to read, think about and apply the content of these books. Time spent getting this right now will avoid a lot of time, money and heartache later.
 
matt hogan
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Location: Tennesse, an hour west of Nashville, zone 7
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If it were my project, I would start by using earthworks to control the water. That way, soil isn't washed away and your plants don't all get wet feet. I would probably use swales, overflowing into each other, maybe with ponds if appropriate. This will give you some texture and variation in soil conditions so plants can be planted where it is moist or where it is drier.
 
Sandrine Coosemans
Posts: 25
Location: Matarranya, Teruel, Spain
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Hi Neil and Matt,

Thank you both for thinking with me!
Sorry to hear things didn't go as planned for you Neil, hope that will change soon.

I've been reading all that I could for the past few years, and it turns out I'm not very good at remembering all that I've read so maybe I'm not always saying the right things. I admire people who are able to read many books on complicated matters and reproduce all that information for years afterwards! I did get a lot of inspiration from my book collection though, and I know what book (or website) to use when I have to look something up. I'm just writing all this to clarify that it's not that I don't want to read; I just think I've read so much it makes my head spin and I could really do with some hands on experience right now I don't really feel like skipping another planting season in order to do more reading. Also I think it would be really beneficial to the trees to have the right plants planted around them...

Maybe I should have given out a little more information as well. We've done the basic design of the land when I did an online PDC about 3 years ago, and we've dug out ditches and trenches to divert and / or retain the water (last spring & summer) and on the lower terraces, there is a pond that gets most of the water when it rains a lot. (it doesn't hold the water for really long, but that's something we're hoping to do something about when we get the pigs ). So those terraces are still where a lot of water flows through; they flow through the trenches and towards the pond now though. On the upper terrace, soil hardly gets washed away anymore; we had the chance to see that when in November there was a big flood just days after I planted some tiny little seedlings, most of them weren't affected. Here and there our dams got damaged and one wall even caved in, but we repaired them and made them better and are hoping next flood the water really goes the way we'd like it to go On the lower terrace, we are still refining the trenches, I've just planted / sown stuff (mostly cover crop and legumes) on top of the first 2 swales and am hoping to finish this and do the third later this week. (I've got a day job as well though, so never sure when I get to spend time working on the land)
In the design, we reserved a spot for the toolshed (they're starting to build that next week), a second compost heap (the primary compost heap is near the house, next to the veggie garden), and kind of decided where to put the paths (although those got overgrown as well, so maybe we should really make some kind of delineation... Or maybe just leave it the way it is and see how it goes).
In the past 6 months, we've done our best mulching the land and planting cover crops. The original plants (weeds) came out anyway and grew a lot faster; I'm not too bothered about those, as I think weeds grow where the soil needs it to grow and it doesn't make much sense trying to kill them as long as you don't have a plant that will make a decent replacement for them. We did have them strimmed though in early winter (a week or 2 before the above picture) so we could at least walk around, plant some trees and get a perspective on things.

Am I wrong in thinking we're now at the point where we should start planting shrubs and other guild plants?
 
Neil Layton
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I have a couple of thoughts.

First, you need to work out what horizon habitat you want to be aiming for. To do that, you need to understand the ecological processes involved. The only resource I've found for that is Jacke and Toensmeier. If you read anything else you'll just need to go back to them for the details anyway.

I think you need to address the weed problem properly. This means mulching, probably quite heavily. You can plant and then mulch, and then plant other things through the mulch, but you need to get rid of those competitor plants or they will compete with your crops. Grasses require a different soil biology (predominantly bacterial) to trees (predominantly fungal). You can certainly plant your mid canopy through that mulch, but you do need to mulch.

I think the pigs are a really bad idea. I've given this a lot of thought, and I don't think there is a place in a proper forest garden for herbivores. They will eat your crops. This means finding some other means of dealing with things like windfall apples and so on in order to break pest cycles, but having pigs running around is going to be outright counterproductive in a forest garden. You need to be taking the place of large herbivores in the ecosystem.

This probably means a shift in consciousness in the forest gardener, from "property" to "ecosystem" and ecosystem functions. Don't think simply about what you want but about what the ecosystem needs. If you have pigs, yes they will eat your windfall apples, but they will also have your Jerusalem artichokes, and trample your ground covers. There might be a place for ducks (but probably not chickens), but there is research that needs to be done in that regard.
 
Sandrine Coosemans
Posts: 25
Location: Matarranya, Teruel, Spain
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Neil Layton wrote:First, you need to work out what horizon habitat you want to be aiming for. To do that, you need to understand the ecological processes involved. The only resource I've found for that is Jacke and Toensmeier. If you read anything else you'll just need to go back to them for the details anyway.

Are you saying it's not possible to start a forest garden without reading that book? And it's worth waiting another year to plant trees, just so I could read this book first? Really, it is just too much for me to read in just a few weeks (and even then, I'd be stretching the timeline).

I have no idea what a horizon habitat is, and googling it hasn't helped me either (looks like it's a project developer in the States...). I see you have used the term a few times on this forum (I used the search mode) but it's not clear to me exactly what it entails, could you maybe help me with that? I would really appreciate it!
I do know what a habitat is - I am assuming the animals living in the nearby woods and the neighbouring terraces would just come down and start living in our little piece of forest garden as well, especially since we mainly have the same base trees as the neighbour. Or does the choice of shrubs / lower canopy trees really mess that all up?

Neil Layton wrote:I think you need to address the weed problem properly. This means mulching, probably quite heavily. You can plant and then mulch, and then plant other things through the mulch, but you need to get rid of those competitor plants or they will compete with your crops. Grasses require a different soil biology (predominantly bacterial) to trees (predominantly fungal). You can certainly plant your mid canopy through that mulch, but you do need to mulch.

We are planning to handle the weed "problem" when we get to the specific places where it's growing. Thankfully there is very little grass left now (only a patch here and there, we use a hoe on those and try to plant things that will keep the grass at bay). Every time we plant a crop, we clean up that particular patch first and mulch it heavily; once we've done that, they don't seem to come through much anymore. At this moment we can mostly find the original plants on places we haven't planted anything yet (only sown some cover crops). So that's why I said I wasn't too bothered about them.

Neil Layton wrote:I think the pigs are a really bad idea. I've given this a lot of thought, and I don't think there is a place in a proper forest garden for herbivores.

Sorry I wasn't clear about that either - no way we are planning on letting pigs loose in our food forest (nor in our veggie garden, nor near the herb pyramids). Same thing for the ducks, goats and chickens. There's plenty of animals around that will come and eat our berries and fallen fruit, without the help of our own animals... The pigs will mostly roam the almond fields, and I'll gladly pick up fallen apples for them so they don't have to come and get them
I've read up about using pigs to make a pond retain water though; so far we haven't planted anything in the area around the pond (we only did waterworks and some cover crop planting on the swales in the lower terrace, we'll leave planting trees and such to a next phase in a few years or so). We'd like to try and have the pigs live in and around the pond for a while (maybe in summer, it's one of our cooler terraces), but we will definitely put a fence up so they can't get to the upper terrace! And hopefully they will work our pond as they use the mud to cool down in...
 
Neil Layton
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Sandrine Coosemans wrote:
Neil Layton wrote:First, you need to work out what horizon habitat you want to be aiming for. To do that, you need to understand the ecological processes involved. The only resource I've found for that is Jacke and Toensmeier. If you read anything else you'll just need to go back to them for the details anyway.

Are you saying it's not possible to start a forest garden without reading that book? And it's worth waiting another year to plant trees, just so I could read this book first? Really, it is just too much for me to read in just a few weeks (and even then, I'd be stretching the timeline).


Oh, it's possible, but you are going to make a lot of avoidable mistakes. The flipside to that is that if you have already done a lot of planting then you are already going to be fixed in terms of much of what your garden will eventually look like so yes, have a really good think about what you want to grow and get on with planting it.

Sandrine Coosemans wrote:I have no idea what a horizon habitat is, and googling it hasn't helped me either (looks like it's a project developer in the States...). I see you have used the term a few times on this forum (I used the search mode) but it's not clear to me exactly what it entails, could you maybe help me with that? I would really appreciate it!
I do know what a habitat is - I am assuming the animals living in the nearby woods and the neighbouring terraces would just come down and start living in our little piece of forest garden as well, especially since we mainly have the same base trees as the neighbour. Or does the choice of shrubs / lower canopy trees really mess that all up?


Put a little oversimplistically, a habitat's natural process of succession leads to a mature point, in the case of a forest garden where the canopy closes and you end up with the maximum levels of shade. I'm having to simplify thousands and thousands of words on this. Basically (very basically), what will any given patch in your garden look like when it is mature? That is your horizon habitat. You also have to consider that the horizon shifts: trees die, or may be more competitive than you expected, and so on.

The choice of trees and shrubs could in theory mess that up, but in practical terms a diverse forest garden with multiple patches, wildlife corridors and microhabitats will attract a broad range of wildlife. If you have a problem with browsing animals you'll need to think about fences and stock-proof hedges.

In terms of weeds, it sounds like you more or less have the problem under control. I'd still mulch around your trees and shrubs (you can plant other things on top of the mulch and let it grow through, provided you get the layers right, but there is plenty of material on that).

I mean, I would definitely design more intensively, but I also know that at some point you need to get plants in the ground, and at this time of year that's something you need to be doing, at least in terms of woodies, not thinking about.
 
Sandrine Coosemans
Posts: 25
Location: Matarranya, Teruel, Spain
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Thanks for the explanation! I do have a future vision of how my food forest should turn out to look - but definitely, the best laid plans...
As for the visitors to the garden, we're definitely expecting small mammals, frogs, snakes, birds - so far our dog has had a lot of fun chasing away the wild boars though, but if they start coming back we can always put up a fence!
I think I'm definitely getting "Edible Forest Gardens" as summer literature. I definitely have a few more years' work before it becomes a forest or even a garden

Still not sure what to plant as shrubs though. I'll probably take a day off next week to drive to the nursery and see if they have anything nice and berry-like and suitable for our climate...
 
Neil Layton
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Sandrine Coosemans wrote:
Still not sure what to plant as shrubs though. I'll probably take a day off next week to drive to the nursery and see if they have anything nice and berry-like and suitable for our climate...


I think you have two options, of which this is one, but it's going to be the less interesting and probably more expensive.

The other way of doing it would be to find a list of shrub layer plants, of which there are several, and buy online. It means you can't check quality, but it should provide volume more affordably.

If you have time, plant some now and grow others from seed.

What would be worth considering if you think the boar are not a problem now but may become so is invest in stock-proof edible hedging.
 
Courtney Siebken
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Location: Seattle, WA
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Hi Sandrine,

I'm at the very beginning of a couple of lofty projects myself and I'm sure it's going to be a highly experimental road, which is half the fun

I think there's a few things that certainly couldn't hurt even if you have already started planting are:
-Soil analysis: send some samples into a lab to learn your deficiencies and help determine what's going to live happily there; simple soil shake test is good too
-Water infiltration test: easy to do yourself, good to know exactly what you're dealing with so you can plan exactly how much remediation to do for your flooding issue (I believe a soil analysis lab can do this test too)
-Add organic matter: mulch, green manure, compost...it's (mostly) all good. Build up the humus and health level of the soil and it will do better no matter what you end up putting there.

Looks like some beautiful land you have to start with, good luck!

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