In times of uncertainty such as these, becoming as self-sufficient as you can is a smart idea. One of the best ways to start your journey toward self-sufficiency is to produce your own food. And one of the most sustainable ways to produce a continuous food source for yourself, your family, and your community is to grow a food forest.
Growing a food forest may seem like a lot of work and it is true that a food forest takes several years to produce to its capacity. Why put in that much planning and effort when this pandemic will pass? Because food security was an issue before the COVID-19 coronavirus and it will continue to be an issue until the world restructures the food system. The virus we are dealing with now has only put a spotlight on the problem.
It takes work and it takes time, but it is relatively simple to grow a food forest. Regardless of the amount of land you homestead on, you can grow a food forest. Not only will it continue to feed you and your family for generations, but it also increases the health and diversity of your soil and creates an environment more akin to the natural world, which attracts and sustains wildlife.
There are seven layers to a food forest and each layer supports and benefits the other layers. When deciding on what to plant, make sure you choose a good cross-section of plant functions. Your top priority is probably human food but other important plant functions are soil improvement, insect attraction, wildlife habitat and food, farm animal fodder, and medicinal uses.
The Seven Layers of a Food Forest
The first food forest layer is the canopy. This is your tallest layer and it is comprised of standard size nut and fruit trees. Walnut and pecan trees are good choices for the canopy, as they will develop slowly, giving the layers underneath the time and sunlight needed to establish themselves.
The next layer is the sub-canopy. This layer is filled with semi-dwarf fruit trees such as pears, figs, pawpaw, and citrus, and smaller nut trees such as hazelnuts and chestnuts. Other good choices for this layer, if you are in the correct zone, are olives and coffee. If you are working in a small area, the sub-canopy layer might be your first layer. Establish these plants around your canopy tree, giving each tree plenty of room to grow up and out.
Plant your canopy and sub-canopy layer in year one. When planting these trees, increase the spacing by 50-100% as compared with conventional orchard spacing. Keep a large area around the trees mulched. The mulched area should protect the space around your trees and extend wide enough to keep the area for the third layer mulched.
The third food forest layer will be filled with fruit-producing shrubs such as currants, gooseberries, honeyberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, and junipers. Rosemary and lavender are great herbs to include in this layer. Because your forest is going to grow thick and you are going to want to harvest the produce you’ve grown, look for thornless varieties. You also want to choose pest and disease-resistant varieties, as lack of air and sunlight can be an issue.
Plant your fruit-producing shrubs in year two. Mulch well, extending the mulch to include the area for layers four and five. Every three years, you can propagate your fruit bushes from cuttings.
Surrounding your fruit bushes are your herbaceous culinary and medicinal herbs. Think carefully about the type of herbs you use as well as the herbs that grow well in your immediate area. Other herbaceous plants that can be grown here are plants for bees and poultry. Some plants to consider are comfrey, borage, mullein, sorrel, parsley, rhubarb, and asparagus. This area will support both annuals and perennials, but most of the plants in this layer should be perennials or self-seeding plants. This is the layer you should start seriously considering the sun and shade requirements of your plants and take care to plant sun-lovers around the edges of your forest.
The next food forest layer is a groundcover of edible plants. Not only does this area provide food, but it works to out-compete undesirable plants. Strawberries are a popular choice and so is sweet woodruff. You can also plant lingonberries, mint, oregano, alfalfa, and clover. This is the area you want perennials to play a starring role. Perennials not only require less work from you, but also work to slow soil erosion and provide good nutrients to your soil as they shed their foliage and die back each season.
Plant the fourth and fifth layers in year three. Include a good amount of perennials in both of these layers. If some of your perennials do not establish, replace them as soon as possible. These areas provide a thick cover over the soil, protecting the plants in the previous layers while providing nutrients.
The sixth layer in the food forest is the rhizosphere. These are your root crops and, depending on where you live, can provide a substantial amount of food from late fall to early winter. The roots should be relatively shallow so harvesting does not disturb the roots of your other plants. Culinary and medicinal mushrooms can be included in this area. Good root crops and mushrooms to try growing are ginseng, horseradish, ramps, peanuts, shiitake, lion’s mane, and oyster mushrooms.
The seventh food forest layer is the vertical layer and it is made up of climbers and vines. Chayote squash is a prolific vine squash and a good choice for this layer. Other options are muscadine grapes, Malabar spinach, kiwi, nasturtium, passionfruit, peas, and beans.
Plant your root crops and your vines and climbers in the fourth year. Your soil should have enough added nutrients to grow healthy tubers and root vegetables and your canopy layer should be strong and established enough to support the vines.
Utilizing Livestock in a Food Forest
Now that you have the plants in your food forest, it is time to consider the animals you want to incorporate. Even if you are a strict vegan, adding animals is an important aspect of a thriving, sustainable food forest. Mother Nature never gardens without animals and neither should we. Animals, when used correctly, can reduce your workload and your fossil fuel consumption. Tilling, mowing, grazing, controlling insects, and clearing dropped fruits from the ground are part of a happy life for farm animals. Let them do it.
Different animals perform different functions, so you need to be clear on what your specific needs are before deciding on the type of animal you want to add to your food forest. Hogs are great at tilling, mowing, grazing, and cleaning up spoiled fruit that has dropped to the ground but they will damage young trees and can cause substantial damage to your understory by digging and rooting. Goats mow, graze, and clear brush but they are another animal that will damage young, not-yet-established trees.
Chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, and guinea fowl mow, graze, eat bugs, and clean up fruit droppings. Guineas are especially nice to have if you have young children, as they alert to snakes. But these birds can cause damage as well with their scratching and digging. Until your food forest is well established, it is a good idea to let your animals do their work while enclosed in portable fencing.
Once you have your food forest up and running, you will easily be able to see that not only have you created a sustainable and continuous source of food for your family and community but that you now have a continuous source of income for your homestead. Year-round produce allows you to participate in your local farmers market; start a CSA and plan out a product line of value-added items that you can include with your CSA or sell online. Because you have a year-round source of produce, you are well-positioned to sell to local restaurants, catering companies, and grocers. Animal products—whether meat, eggs, milk, cheese, and other dairy products—will increase your profit margin, especially if most of their feed cost is being absorbed through grazing.
If you spend the remainder of this year surveying your property, researching both the plants that grow well in your area and the market demand for what you can grow and raise, and creating a plan, you will be ready to start planting your food forest in the fall. Planting a layer or two each subsequent year will ensure you have a sustainable, thriving food forest by the end of year five. You will be able to take cuttings from your established plants from the third year on, and you can add them to your established forest or start a new one.
Growing a food forest is a good investment of your time, effort, and money. The assurance that you will be able to feed yourself and the ones you love, no matter what happens, is reason enough to get started on this longterm homestead project.