Growing our own produce is an important part of the homesteading lifestyle. However, planting and depending solely on annuals season after season can be exhausting and anxiety-provoking. A bad season can send you running back to the grocery store and several bad seasons can make you rethink whether or not you are cut out for self-sufficiency. I am not advocating getting rid of annual vegetables. I am asking you to take a long-term approach to your homestead’s food production. There is a technique that not only will provide you and your family with three times your current harvest, but protects and nourishes the land and allows you to create a legacy for future generations. I am talking about creating a food forest.
Food forests, or forest gardening, are not a new concept. Researcher Geoff Lawton discovered a 2,000-year-old food forest in Morocco. Hundreds of people farm the desert area, harvesting dates, bananas, olives, figs, pomegranate, guava, citrus, and mulberry. He also discovered a 300-year-old food forest in Vietnam that has been tended by the same family for 28 generations.
A food forest is a garden of edible plants that mimics the edge of a forest. If you can imagine the vertical layers of a forest, with tall trees, small trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, ground covers, and fungi, you can create a food forest of your own. Although the term “food forest” conjures visions of a wild area magically producing all the fruits, nuts, herbs and veggies you could possibly need, it is not magical. It requires a good deal of planning and work to get it set up. It does not occur naturally but mimics the beneficial relationships found in nature. Once you design your food forest, you will be managing diverse and productive ecosystems.
A food forest is good for your land. Perennial gardens help rather than harm the soil. They do this by continually enriching the soil with organic material as leaves fall and plants die back at the end of every season.
The biodiversity of a food forest is integral to food security and is much easier to manage for the farmer. A monoculture is difficult to manage and maintain, as single-species crops are prone to pests and disease. Single-species crops also deplete the soil of nutrients relatively quickly, as they are all competing for the same nutrients. With the standard planting method, there is one harvest opportunity. If it is destroyed by pests, disease or weather, you have no reward for your work. Talk about putting all of your eggs in one basket!
The basic design of a food forest begins with planting a row of tall nut trees at the northern edge of your property. Pecans grow well in my area, but always choose what grows successfully in your location. In front of the nut trees, plant 2-3 types of fruit trees. Between your fruit trees, plant nut- or berry-bearing shrubs. In addition to allowing naturalized herbs such as nettle and clover to grow between and under the trees and shrubs, seed a variety of herbs and flowers there as well. This will help build the soil, attract beneficial insects for pest prevention, attract pollinators for better fruit set and add variety to your harvest.
Because a food forest mimics nature but is not natural, there are a few steps that are highly recommended before you begin planting. Patience is going to be key. A successful food forest will take a few years to get fully planted but you will be consistently rewarded with large and diverse yields.
STEP 1: Decide what exactly you want from your food production. Are you on a journey towards self-reliance? Do you want unfettered access to fresh healthy food? Are you looking for an income opportunity that aligns with your homesteading values? Once you decide what your goals are, creating a food forest that meets your unique needs will be much simpler.
STEP 2: Explore, observe and analyze. Spend some time exploring the local wild areas, whether they be deserts, meadows or forests. Get an idea of what grows naturally in your area. It is a great idea to incorporate wild native plants. Do some research. A lot of the native plants and “weeds” are edible or medicinal. I tried for years to eradicate stinging nettle until I learned it could be eaten like spinach or made into a medicinal tea. Now I just wear shoes and gloves so I don’t get stung by this delicious weed.
Next, make a map of your land. You can do it by hand or use Google maps. Note everything you can about your site, including the water situation, climate, soil, slope, and wildlife.
STEP 3: Create the design of your food forest. You will want to start with the permanent elements of your food forest. This first include your water access and permanent buildings. Next, decide on any fences, sheds, patios, pathways, cold frames, greenhouses and animal pens or coops. Take all the time you need to carefully consider where you want your permanent elements. Good infrastructure will maximize productivity and decrease your workload and aggravation level.
STEP 4: Make a master list of the plants you want to grow. In addition to the plants you want to grow, consider the plants you need in order to fulfill specific purposes. Food production is the first consideration but you also want to add plants that assist in the formation and retention of soil nutrients, plants that provide beneficial insect nectar and ground covers that control weeds.
Once you have your master list of desired and necessary plants, create guilds. A guild is a grouping of plants that work well together, sharing resources and mutually supporting each other. Creating these polycultures is a core principle of permaculture gardening and it is key to a successful food forest.
STEP 5: Create a patch design. This is where you define your planting areas. A patch can be any shape you want – rows, contours or groupings of plants in a typical garden bed. The most important consideration is the distance between plants. Usually, trees are planted using the “crown touching rule”. This rule states that you plant individual trees a crown’s diameter apart. When creating a food forest, it is a good idea to add 30-50% more distance around each woody plant in order to allow your understory plants to receive adequate sunlight.
STEP 6: Prepare the site. Adapt the site to accommodate your patch design. This can involve clearing the land of what you don’t want and keeping any features that are conducive to your design. Most of what you clear can and should be turned into mulch.
Preparing your site also includes shaping the earth to aid in water retention. Consider adding ponds or swales if you don’t already have a natural water feature. The goal is to slow, sink and spread all of the rainfall you receive.
This step is where you set up the infrastructure you decided you needed in step three. If necessary, install water tanks and/or an irrigation system. Install pathways to decrease soil compaction in your planting areas. Fence the planting areas if wildlife is a concern. Add any secondary structures, such as work or animal sheds.
Finally, this is the time to build up the health of your soil. Look to the forest for inspiration. A healthy forest floor contains ten times more fungus than bacteria. You want to find ways to constantly push your soil toward this goal. You can do this by inoculating soil and fallen logs with mushroom spawn. Make sure the mushrooms you choose grow naturally in your locality. You can also cover crop with a green manure. Spread the woody mulch you made when clearing the site over the planting area to feed the fungi in the soil.
STEP 7: Source your plants and start planting. Although it is exciting to think about an instant food forest, this step is a good one to do in stages. Plant your tall canopy trees the first year. In year two, plant your fruit trees. Next, plant your shrubs and perennial ground covers. In the following year plant your climbing vines, biennials and perennialized annuals. Perennialize annuals by allowing these plants to reseed themselves. Good reseeders are dill, parsley, marigolds, tomatillos, amaranth, lamb’s quarters, cilantro, chamomile, and mustard.
During the first year or two, take advantage of the light and space available under and around your trees by planting your annual vegetables in that area.
Growing a food forest sounds like a lot of effort but by breaking it up into manageable chunks and following a solid, thoughtful plan, it is achievable. Once you have everything in place it is easy for you to manage and hard for pests, disease, and weather to destroy. But the greatest benefit is that you and your family will be able to enjoy a variety of fresh produce for generations to come.