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Planning the Other Layers in a Food Forest  RSS feed

 
Roberto pokachinni
pollinator
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Location: Fraser Headwaters, B.C., Zone3, Latitude 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
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Devin Lavign, brought up an interesting topic in another thread's discussion.
  a very important issue. That yes indeed many who construct food forests tend to go a bit too fruit heavy when deciding what to plant.
Also this thread has brought up how often discussion of food forests concentrates a lot on the trees, but tends to forget the importance of the other layers of this design. There are the shrubs, the herbs, the roots, the vines, the ground cover.
Many people put a focus on trees, particular fruit trees, in their design of a food forest, and there is not much discussion about planning the other layers.  Perhaps others have planned these layers, but focus on the trees when talking about their food forests? 

For my part, I do have some of the other layers in my 'plans' but I am guilty of being, at this point in my life, a poor designer as far as planning the whole thing out; but that's a separate issue.  There is a bit of a struggle for me to find good candidates for some of the other layers. 

I may be able to have an over story canopy of larger nut trees like Chestnuts, Walnuts (more off to the side because of juglans inhibitors), and tree hazels, but I have none of those planted because of lack of availability in my area so far.  I am presently leaving some other natives that are established in the garden, including conifers like pine, fir, and spruce; and deciduous like birch, alder, poplar, and shrubs like willows and thimble berry, though I may prune and chop and drop many of these to help other species thrive.

In general, I do not have as many perennials in some of my other layers as I would like, and very few vines.

For vines, I have none in the garden as perennials yet.   I could get grapes, hops, and kiwis as far as perennials and any other ideas would be appreciated, and maybe a native clematis vine which dies back annually, as well as annuals like scarlet runners, nasturtium, peas, and squash.

I have planted some wild ground covers and added cultivated strawberries at the base of my fruit trees, and use potatoes to build soils and get areas established.  The root layer could definitely use some additions. 

I do not have any ideas yet about edible nitrogen fixers for my zone, and am presently focusing on alders for this purpose, and clovers, alfalfa, vetch, and peas grow naturally. 

For shrubs, I am focusing primarily on berries, and willows/dogwoods, and hope to get some native hazels shrubs established. 

Herbaceous layer is easier, as my area grows a lot of annual greens, as well as many plants, like culinary and medicinal herbs.

Any help with ideas for my land in this regard would be appreciated, but also please discuss your own projects and incorporating these other layers in your plans.     
 
Tyler Ludens
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Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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I'm mostly thinking about the other layers for my Food Forest because it already has a canopy of large trees, so the fruits I'll be planting will primarily be shrubs.  But I also want to plant a lot of non-woody things, if I can identify some which can survive our extremes of drought and flood.  So far I have in the herbaceous layer just a few plants:  Cardoon, Chile Pequin, Canada Onion.  I plan to add Walking Onion, Garlic Chives, Devil's Claw, Sweet Potato and some edible natives such as Turk's Cap and Winecup.  Also Spineless Prickly Pear and Sotol maybe, and some Agave for drama.  The area is currently very rough and full of dead oak trees, some of which need to be removed before I can do much more with the space.  I can only develop a small portion of it each year because of lack of personal energy and limited budget for plant purchases.  Most things I will probably grow from seeds or divisions.





 
Devin Lavign
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Location: Pac Northwest
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I am still in the very beginning stages with my land, as I only bought my raw land last Summer Solstice. And am still in the process of adding infrastructure, clearing and preparing, and a lot of observation to see what will work where. etc..

But glad my comment has sparked this thread, and look forward to seeing some good thoughts and input here. Since I do plan to do some food forest design on my place and would love to hear how others have figured out the other layers besides the trees.
 
Casie Becker
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Location: Just northwest of Austin, TX
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I was actually pleasantly surprised to realize when I reviewed what I grow and plan, that I actually do have all seven layers. Much of my plans are still in the developmental phase. Only one corner is close to where I want it to finish. That would be under my pecan tree in the front yard.

My root layer consists of flowering bulbs, corms, and tubers. Most of these are just ornamental, but there are a couple of edibles.

The ground cover is frogfruit (living mulch and attracts scores of beneficial insects)

Herbaceous is variable combinations of vegetables (this is the corner where I grow winter greens year round) as well as some perennial herbs and and flowers (including echinacea)

The shrub layer has american beauty berry, one phontina and a pomegranate that I've kept pruned small.

The understory are espalier asian pears.

I'm trying to establish a perennial scarlet runner vine to share the trellis with the espalier. If they don't work then I will keep experimenting with different vines.

Everywhere else in the yard I have to wait for other elements to grow (or be planted) before I can establish the other layers. For much of that it's getting the over story tree growing so that it will be big enough to shelter and/or support the other layers.  I actually suspect this is a large part of why so much food forest discussion focuses on the trees and ignores the other layers. By the time the other layers are installed it isn't the new thing we're talking about.
 
Peter Ellis
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Location: Central New Jersey
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My wife and I are not yet on our 20 acres of woodland in SW Michigan, but soon.  In our situation, because the forest is already there, our initial focus will not be on trees, so much as on the various levels beneath the overstory.  I suspect that, with so many people either building food forests from scratch on lawns or pastures, there's a natural tendency to think in terms of the long horizon overstory trees first and foremost.  I also suspect that some proportion of intended food forests really never get past the overstory elements, because how many really stay on the project for twenty plus years?

I also commonly see people talking about clearing existing forest to put food forest in.  This, imo, shows an excessive focus on the overstory elements, to the great detriment of all the rest of the pieces of the puzzle.

As we already have overstory trees, our focus at this time is on the other elements.  We can get shrubs and understory trees like pawpaws going in the existing forest.  We can send hardy kiwis up existing trees and not have to wait for trees big enough to support them. We can install herbaceous and ground cover plants, again, already in their forest environment. And we can work around the edges, putting in fruit and nut trees that may not do so well in the existing woods, or open up an area by harvesting some existing trees and create a grove of fruit/nut trees.

There's some pretty heavy lifting to be done in terms of researching through all the myriad plants that might potentially be useful and sorting out in terms of what is suitable to your specific site conditions.  I think there's also a possibly excessive concentration on perennials at the expense of self-seeding annuals.  I think naturalizing annual food plants are every bit as valid in food forests as perennials.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Posts: 1213
Location: Fraser Headwaters, B.C., Zone3, Latitude 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
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I think there's also a possibly excessive concentration on perennials at the expense of self-seeding annuals. 
  This sounds good in theory, but it seems to me, in practice that annual food plants will not naturalize/self seed unless the land is disturbed or regressed to an earlier succession stage than a thriving forest ecosystem.  If not outright disturbed, the ground would need to be bared (or nearly so) of mulch, which brings weeds into the picture.  This does work, in areas that are being 'worked', but otherwise not so much, in my experience.  Perennial plants, or heavy seeded perennial weeds, want to take up the space, if the mulch is cleared.
I think naturalizing annual food plants are every bit as valid in food forests as perennials.
I agree that too much focusing on perennials especially in my latitude would be wrong.  I have no problems with using annuals, but I would like perennial options to replace where I can, and in the food forest, I would likely predominantly be transplanting these annuals into place from the nursery, rather than seeding directly, although I will try to seed some directly as well as doing seedballs, pre-sprout and broadcast, and simply broadcast, etc, in annual polyculture areas/beds. but the idea of naturalizing annuals is, in my opinion and partly in experience, more of dream than a reality, their validity is mostly theoretical in my experience/location.  These plants have mostly evolved with human intervention, and... are not likely to thrive in places without intensive human interventions.  I envision the food forest as more of an intact system that produces by itself with no interventions.... but...  I'm not saying that that can not be incorporated in a food forest, but that annual gardening has to be almost a separate system within the food forest, rather than really integrated in the perennial matrix/fungal soils that the food forest area will become... so I would like to have more perennial options.

Sorry that was a bit repetitive.     
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Location: Fraser Headwaters, B.C., Zone3, Latitude 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
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I also commonly see people talking about clearing existing forest to put food forest in.
  In my case, my food forest is utilizing the meadow/forest transition edge.  The conifers were planted by the previous owner about 20 years ago, and although I do want to encourage the natural regeneration (allow small natural trees to grow up), to a degree, I also think that if I don't intervene, then much of my food forest area will succumb to their vigor and shade.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Location: Fraser Headwaters, B.C., Zone3, Latitude 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
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I'm mostly thinking about the other layers for my Food Forest because it already has a canopy of large trees, so the fruits I'll be planting will primarily be shrubs.  But I also want to plant a lot of non-woody things, if I can identify some which can survive our extremes of drought and flood.
  Tyler's quote makes me remember a discussion on food forests where people were trying to define it and create truisms.  I think that Tyler's example, and what Peter is describing, and what I am describing are all food forests that are specific to the location/ecosystem and desire/limits of the horticulturalist involved.  There really isn't a right or wrong way, in my opinion, but... also in my opinion, we should be considering getting as much diversity, and as many long lived system in place as possible, not only to reduce work but to create resilient and long term fertile soil systems.   
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Location: Fraser Headwaters, B.C., Zone3, Latitude 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
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Casie Becker wrote:
I actually suspect this is a large part of why so much food forest discussion focuses on the trees and ignores the other layers. By the time the other layers are installed it isn't the new thing we're talking about.
  I think that this thread can be a place where we discuss these later additions as a recently incorporated element that is new and worth mentioning.  If you get your perennial scarlet runner beans happening, Tyler might be interested to know, for instance.  For me, runner beans are not going to be perennial unless in a heated greenhouse.

It's also worth mentioning that if we chose to wait to get something happening, why that was.  

Sometimes, for me, it's just limited time.  If I can get fruit trees and get them in the ground, and get them established then I really think I've accomplished something, and everything else is a bit more finicky and harder to accomplish in a way, but I can work around the trees that are existing as I develop further. 
 
Nicole Alderman
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My food forests are also still in the developmental phases, due to lack of funds and my trees still being very small. But under/around my fruit trees I have:

Nitrogen fixers: Trefoil, clover, peas, green beans.,

Roots: Comfery, rhubarb, daffodils, dandelion, walking onion (I ended up moving the onions because they didn't like my soggy soil, or something)
Ground cover: Strawberries, nasturtiums, trefoil, clover, grass and creeping buttercup that I don't want.
Vines: Peas, green beans, trailing blackberry (it's sort of a vine, right?)
Herbaceous: sheep sorrel, echinacia, calendula, fennel, plantain
Shrubs: nothing
Small trees: apple, cherry, peach, plum,
Over canopy: My garden is surrounded by wetlands, so I'll just call those trees my overcanopy: Western Red Cedar, Western Hemlock, Big Leaf Maple, Cottonwood, Red Alder. Evenually two of my apple trees with grow to the natural 20-30 foot height, but that'll be a while!


Interestingly enough, our native wetlands actually have edibles at most every stage. In just my wetland, there's:
Roots: supposedly sword fern roots are edible, as are siberian miner's lettuce... Since it's wet, though, not much tried to grow down deep....
Ground cover: wild violets and Siberian Miners lettuce
Vines: Blackcap raspberry and Trailing blackberry
Herbaceous: I can't think of any edibles in this category, but I'm sure there are some.
Small shrubs: salmonberry, red huckleberry, oregon grape, salal, thimbleberry
Small trees: service berry, elderberry, hazelnut, cascara buckthorn (edible/medicinal berries that make one go poo)
Large trees: Big Leaf maple (for syrup and every part is edible)
Growing in the trees: licorice fern (edible roots)

If I added the other edible natives, (like camas, duck potato/wapato, cattail, cascade blueberry and mountain blueberry, bunchberry, lingonberry, alpine and wild strawberry) we could probaby get a native edible in each layer.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Location: Fraser Headwaters, B.C., Zone3, Latitude 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
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Nice work, Nicole.  It's a good list of stuff you have.  It sounds like you have a good opportunity to use natives as your shrub layer, with all of those berries.  I am familiar with the trailing blackberry and have seen it climb up old cedar stumps, but I mostly would consider it a ground cover by habit; it would be interesting if you could get it to climb your fruit trees.  By vines, I think the food forest guru's are meaning things that climb trees or go vertical.  It might actually produce more berries.  Your red alders are also nitrogen fixers and could be encouraged to create edge transitions with your surrounding forest and your forest garden and be present in the garden itself near your fruit trees.  You might have local wild pacific crab apple that you could incorporate as well. 
 
Nicole Alderman
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The trailing raspberries do seem to better when vertical. I have mine trellised on salmonberry bushes, a wooden dog kennel, and a tiny cherry tree. Being up and sheltered from the rain (by the leaves of the trees) seems to make for a much healthier plant (less mildew and less of those flies that breed in the berries). Getting them vertical isn't that hard, either. All I have to do usually is have at least two canes and criss-cross them over a branch. In the salmonberries, the usually go vertical by themselves, since they start out growing up and get held up by the salmonberries branches, allowing them to grow up further.

We sadly don't have the pacific crab apple, though I'd love to get one growing!

Oh! and in my privios list I forgot the currants and gooseberries. We have Stink Currant and Swamp Gooseberry. Both edible but I'm pretty sure there are yummier native currants/gooseberries.out there! And, yes, as my fruit trees get bigger/ more established, I definitely intend to introduce some of our native edibles!
 
Regan Dixon
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Location: Zone 4b at 1000m, post glacial soil...British Columbia
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Hello Roberto,

Following in Nicole Alderman's fashion I will list what I have in different layer categories, and maybe some of this will be of use to you.  Not everything is in guilds.  Often I just stick something in the ground in what "should" be the right conditions, and hope for the best, instead of overthinking, and then having the whole thing crushed by a falling tree.  I've had a lot of failures, so I try not to invest myself too much in any given plant or its guild.  Not sure if I'm a lousy gardener, or trying to do too much too soon with abused soil, or just have had bad luck...am trying to pick the brains of others in a similar climate.  I'm at the intersection of montane coastal and boreal forests, and dry interior forests are not far.

Overcanopy/existing woods:  Sitka and Engelmann spruce, and balsam poplar (leaf mulch factory) in the wetter areas; lodgepole pine (all parts edible; nice lumber and good firewood) and Doug fir in the drier areas; aspen groves on the drier, sunny slopes (very soothing places); and subalpine fir, here and there.  Where previous owners cleared the land for whatever purpose, that's where I tuck in apples, plums, hardy pears, Manchurian apricots, to be the new, shorter overstorey--some of these are facing their first winter, so I've yet to see how hardy they really are.  Honeycrisp, Liberty, and September Ruby apples are hardy to date, as are greengage and peach-plum.  I got the pear and apricot whips from T&T Seeds in Manitoba, where they survive, so that looks promising.  Will try domestic cherries again; voles got the first ones.  I trim back native volunteer saplings from time to time as they start to block light, but otherwise, I let them be.  I've also planted slips of sugar maple, which won't mature in my lifetime, but they have survived one winter already.  Those were from Tree Time, in Alberta, where winters are not known to be warm.

Undercanopy/scrubby trees:  pacific and Scouler's willow, both of which make hot, smokeless barbecue fuel; Sitka alder (N fixer as you know), red osier dogwood and twinberry (not edible) in damp places; saskatoons (yum) and hushum (yum) in drier places.  That's Amelanchier alnifolia and Shepherdia canadensis, in botanical-speak.  The willows AND the hushum are both nitrogen fixers.  The hushum berries are an acquired taste, and I have acquired it; I make sure to freeze tubs full of them for winter use.  It grows widely, and might already grow in your area.  In former tilled garden beds, I'm trying American persimmon, white mulberry, and autumn olive as new scrubby trees; this is their first winter.  These I obtained from Tree Eater Nursery, on Denman Island.  (They "get" permaculture, and are specifically trying to offer permie plants.  They are cognizant of the fact that not everyone lives on the mild coast, and know what zones their stock may be hardy to.)  From elsewhere, I am trying to get hold of Xanthoceros for nuts, and some other things; have got an order placed with a place back east, and am waiting...and waiting...backorder hell.

Short bushy things include thimbleberries (yum), and what a fast-growing ground protector they are; wild raspberries (yum); wild roses, and waxberry (bleagh).  I'm adding black currants and hazelnuts where I can find them--try Nature Tech in Langley for EFB resistant plants--I've ordered, but won't pick mine up until spring.  I have one young hazel that is still alive after a couple of winters.  No beaked hazelnut growing here, alas.  I've added so-called highbush cranberry, actually Viburnum, and these are doing okay, though no fruit yet.  Domestic raspberries do well.  Gooseberries are still alive after a few years and producing modestly; haskap looks happy, but no fruit whatsoever, even with pollinators.  Chester blackberries are not supposed to be invasive like Himalayan blackberries, so I intend to try that again...killed the last one by letting the sun shine on its root while planting.  Domestic blueberries have failed to die, and have even given a couple of berries.  Although I dislike the appearance of caragana, there is some growing feral nearby, so I transplant a whip into the same planting hole as a fruit tree, as advised by Mr. Osentowski.  It too is a nitrogen fixer, and will grow in bitter climates.  I've also planted Nanking cherries in amongst the wild roses, and some have taken/failed to die.

Vines:  Ornamental hops grow happily without care, smothering the house and coop in summer for a few months.  I am not certain that they play well with others, but I like their smell.  Peas and fava beans are technically vines, if annuals.  Most of the time, snap peas are very happy to grow.  I know the little blue clematis you speak of, but so little of it grows around here, I wouldn't want to disturb it.  I've had crappy luck with grapes and kiwis, but that might me being inept.

Groundcover:  kinnikinnick and common juniper grow wild.  To this I add rhubarb as a groundcover beneath new plantings, liberated/rescued from an abandoned property nearby, and offered a better life.  A bit of composted chicken manure will lift their spirits greatly.  I let their leaves compost in place.  (These rhubarb plantings are distinct from my prize rhubarb patch, which is grown specifically for eating.)  For additional chop and drop, I'm attempting to grow comfrey from transplanted bits including the roots, which I am told will guarantee that the property will be overrun, but I've had lousy luck growing either comfrey or mint....  Common thyme is another, easy care groundcover choice, and the bees will thank you for it.

Herb layer:  ignoring the forest plants (except the cow parsnips (edible) by the creek), just looking at the disturbed area, springtime brings me great joy in the wealth of plants that nature has chosen for my soil's needs.  Battered soil it is, with a wealth of dandelions (yum) and N-fixing clover, both of which the bees love; also mineral accumulating yarrow in dry places, and plantain in soggy places.  In the wilder areas, nitrogen fixing lupines, which I'm trying to import to the yard proper.  Fireweed, edible when asparagus size and sort of like raw asparagus in flavour, and the bees like it when in bloom.  (I cannot grow actual asparagus, because something always removes all trace of it.  It grows here for luckier people.)  After the fireweed flowers, the chickens and goats get it.  In the garden, nutritious chickweed, which is like a watermelon treat for the chickens in the heat of summer.  Shepherd's purse, and lamb's quarters (yum).  These plants tell me that my soil is pretty poor, and I probably shouldn't expect miracles without a lot of work and soil building, but I am impatient, and an optimist in spite of myself.

Bulbs:  tiger lilies grow in the subalpine meadow, but I leave them be.  I plant garlic and scallions around new trees and shrubs in hope of deterring critters (and use lengths of plastic pipe around the bases of their trunks to try to deter voles).  In view of the house, in the former lawn, I plant deer resistant muscari and mini daffodils, to be pretty, and also to break up the dirt a bit.  Daylilies have bulb-like things too, and are pretty hard to kill.  Crocus, and deer resistant varieties of tulips.  I haven't had luck with daikon yet.  There are things in the soil here that love root brassicas.  Horseradish is another rooty plant to consider.

Books I appreciate having are Pojar & MacKinnon's "Plants of Coastal British Columbia" and its companion "Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia" by Parish, Coupé, and Lloyd; Beverley Gray's "The Boreal Herbal", and various dye books, so that when the food forest isn't looking foody, it looks like a source of dyes and medicines, at least.

I can't include photos right now, because even before the blanket of white arrived, I didn't see a whole lot of ta-da material.    I hope there is at least something of use to somebody, in this post.
 
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