My Food Forest

My Food Forest

Here it is. It’s not looking very foresty yet, as it’s quite new. I’ve been reading up on Food Forests, which as far as I can tell is a permaculture idea developed by Bill Mollison, though maybe he adapted it from somewhere else. The basic idea is that it’s planted according to the principles of naturally occurring forests, but with species of plants that are good for us humans to eat. In theory, such a forest should be self-maintaining, like the forests in the wild, with a canopy of tall trees mixed with smaller trees, and underplantings of shrubs, groundcovers and roots, with some vines in the mix to clamber over everything. It sounds great doesn’t it? Bill Mollison really sells the idea, though I have a bit of a gripe about permaculture, and that is that it appears to be a theoretical method of gardening/planning, and no-one seems to be doing any ongoing testing to see which of his ideas work and which don’t. Now I’m fairly sure that the food forest presented by Bill Mollison wouldn’t quite work in practice, mainly because he appears to disregard issues of tree root competition and the amount of shade cast by trees. Think of big trees you know that cast a lot of shade on the ground. Grass doesn’t grow under them, and nothing else will either. The other reason I think it doesn’t make sense is that we have bred the wildness out of our favourite food plants, so that they will give us delicious food, but only if we give them the attention, sun, water, and weed-free environments that they need. They aren’t really the tough survive-anywhere kind of plants that tend to flourish in a forest.

So I’ve been a bit sceptical, but I am seduced by the idea regardless. I did find a book by Patrick Whitefield who lives in England and who does actually have practical experience with his own food forest, and his book sets out concerns and limitations in a way that match with my own experience of gardening. I can’t use it to help me select plant species though, as many of the plants he recommends really work best in England, and it’s unlikely they’d be good choices for an Australian climate. However, I got a lot of ideas from him, and I’m now experimenting with my own version of a food forest. Here’s my take on a food forest:

A food forest is not something you plant and then enjoy while it self-manages. Because food species are not hardy, we need to do a lot of management. Patrick Whitefield suggests daily is is what’s required. Each day you wander through the forest, picking your dinner, and as you go you check out how the plants are doing. If a plant is looking too vigorous, threatening to take over and smother the other species, cut it back. You can just break off a bit and drop the results on the ground to become mulch. If a plant is not doing well, cut back its neighbours to give it a bit more light and root space. With this kind of management you can keep a variety of species going strong in the forest. Without management you’ll end up with your trees, and then a few vigorous understorey plants that dominate everything like weeds. If they’re climbers they might smother your trees too.

A food forest is something that can evolve over the years. For example, you start with baby fruit trees, and surround them with short lived perennials like berries, passionfruit, and artichokes. You could add in some annuals in the early years too. As the fruit trees grow bigger, they will gradually shade out the other plants, which will be at the end of their lives anyway. At this tme the soft-fruit harvest is replaced by a decent harvest from the trees. The trees need protecting in the early years to help them get established without too much competition.

Here’s what I’m doing in my food forest:

I’m planting five fruit trees. I could fit in more but I want to let sunshine in for the long term so that I can always grow other plants as well.

I’ve marked off a one metre diameter space around each fruit tree as a no-competition zone, which I’ll mulch well and ensure no other plants can take root in there.

I’ve measured out a 2 metre ring around each tree, which I’m assuming will be the eventual root zone of the tree. In this ring I’m planting short lived perenials including artichokes, comfrey, fennel, perennial beans and alfalfa. Amongst these I’ll add in groundcovers such as chammomile, thyme, nasturtium, mint and more. In one of these rings, the one closest to the entry to the forest, I’m planting herbs, so Paula will be able to easily find and help herself to them as she needs them.

I’ve marked out a couple of areas that are not within an eventual root zone of a tree, and in one of them I’ve planted root vegetables (I’ll let several go to seed, hope they self-seed, and then do daily management in the hope I can maintain a thriving diversity), and in the other I’ll plant self-seeding leaf and fruiting annual vegies. Mostly I won’t do any regular digging in my forest, but I will need to dig the root zone from time to time. Every few years I’ll swap the root area for the annual self-seed area, as a kind of crop rotation, but only if I think it needs it.

I’ve marked out paths that will enable me to reach most of the areas I need to access (but not the no-competition fruit tree zones – I figure by the time there’s a harvest the trees will be reachable from the path), without standing on any planted areas. I’ve dug the paths to make them lower than the rest of the garden, to give visitors a cue for where to walk and where not to walk. I’ll plant ground covers along the edges of the paths, so hopefully they’ll run right over the paths and give continuous green. Some of them, like the thyme, will be nice scented plants that smell good as we walk on them.

I’ve designated the furthest end of the forest as a thorny zone and put my thorny black berries, raspberries and stinging nettles down there. All these plants, including the apricot tree in that part of the forest, should fruit early summer, then after that we won’t need to go there again. In the midst of the thorny zone I’ve left a sunny spot to plant vines such as melon, choko or pumpkin. By the time we’ve finished our December harvest, it will be getting big and can take over that entire area. I’m particularly pleased with the synchronicity of this part of the design, though I’ve yet to see how well it actually works.

I’ve kept several spaces for raspberries and blackberries that should still be good for growing berries even when the fruit trees are grown up – I don’t really want to forego my berries.

Next to the forest is a rather bleak looking area where we’ll park Bertha, our campervan. To make that area prettier I’ll plant a passionfruit next to the edge, and let it clamber right down into that space, and even get walked on if need.

For this year, while I’m waiting for plants to grow, I’ve added several annuals such as broadbeans, brassicas, and other leftover seedlings from my vegie garden.

I’m hoping to harvest from my forest:
–  tree fruit (2 varieties of apple, peaches, pears, and apricots),
–  soft fruit (summer and autumn fruiting raspberries and blackberries, passionfruit, strawberries and watermelons),
–  leafy greens (warrigul greens, perpetual spinach beet and other greens),
– some perennial vegies (artichokes, fennel, beans),
– herbs (lemon grass, perennial basil, chives, spring onions, thyme, oregano, curry plant, horseradish, stevia, nasturtium, marigold, valerian),
– chook and rabbit food (tree lucerne, alfalfa, comfrey, chamomile, apple branches, as well as vegies),
– root vegies (jerusalem artichokes, beets, onions, garlic, spring onions, carrots)
and as well as this I’m hoping to end up with plenty of material to use as cover materials for my composting toilet; to be able to use the mint planted right next to the compost pile as a “toilet brush”; and to attract predators to deal with pests, thanks to the variety of herbs and flowers included.

One thought on “My Food Forest

  1. Pingback: Tour of my garden 2010 | Asphyxia

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