Quit Working So Hard – Plant a Food Forest Instead!

Reader Contribution by David Goodman
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Many of us are killing ourselves right now digging garden beds and getting ready for the spring rush. However at the same time we’re doing that, we can also plan for a future where we no longer have to fight the weeds, till the ground and toil for a few basketfuls of veggies. No, I’m not talking about entering the pearly gates – I’m talking about planting long-term, edible perennials.

I took my family to the local Taco Bell one day last fall and we had a little picnic out back beneath some large trees. (Caveat: My wife wants me to mention that we almost never eat Taco Bell and our children are generally fed nothing but the purest and healthiest whole-bran tender handpicked certified incredible organic free-trade manna.) Anyhow, as I was eating my amazing organic five-grain sustainably harvested 7-layer burrito, I wandered around, not paying much attention to the greenery around me… until I spotted a squirrel-gnawed pecan shell on the ground and looked up. The tree we were beneath was a beautiful, large pecan… still producing food years after it was planted. I found out later that a chunk of the neighborhood used to be dedicated to pecan orchards and specimens remain here and there, dotted about through neighborhoods and industrial parks. A friend of mine gathers bags and bags of free nuts each year thanks to the work of some long-forgotten farmer who planted these trees. Once you’ve planted a pecan… or a persimmon… or a pear tree… or another long-term species… and gotten it established, you can almost walk away. Your grandkids and great grandkids could likely eat from the same tree. Houses may be built and demolished, highways run through, Taco Bells built – and this tree could still be providing fruit or nuts. How many can say that about their cabbage bed? Or their radishes, potatoes or tomatoes? Heck, if you even look at a cantaloupe sideways it’s dead.

Permaculture buffs are sold on the “food forest” idea – and it’s no wonder. A long-term, perennial forest of edible and medicinal species sounds more like Eden than what we generally consider as a “garden.” Rather than planting beds, you plant trees. Rather than tilling, you plant edible perennial groundcovers and nutrient accumulating species that can be “chop n’ dropped” as mulch.

Don’t have a big yard? You can pick a corner, plant a fruit tree, plant a ring of small edible shrubs around that, plant herbs around that, and “voila!” you have a small, highly-productive space. Don’t even own your property? Or live in a restricted area? Think container gardening on a bigger scale. Grab a few whiskey barrels or cut 55 gallon drums in half, use bathtubs, an old wheelbarrow, or whatever you have lying around, then plant them with dwarf fruit trees or blueberries/figs, etc., and plant lettuces and edible herbs around the bases of those. By incorporating long-term plants, you won’t have to replant constantly – and if you ever do move to a place with dirt, you can plant your tree or shrub there.

Thinking long-term about your property and your food production is a way to find freedom not only from a lot of hoeing and weeding, but freedom from the tenuous food supply lines and the cost of food. As has been said before, the best time to plant a fruit tree is ten years ago. Start today and you’ll put in motion something that could feed future generations and make the world a nicer place to live.

Of course, the big question after making the decision to go with perennials is “so… what in the world do I plant?”

Up north, try apples, chestnuts, walnuts, comfrey, filberts, honeylocust, cherries, blueberries, mayhaws, pears, raspberries, rhubarb and horseradish.

In the south, go for plants such as goumi berries, tithonia diversifolia, persimmons, citrus, figs, pomegranates, peaches, almonds, mulberries, jujubes, pindo palms, loquats and rabbiteye blueberries.

There’s a lot of overlap, of course, depending on your zone. A highly productive tree such as a mulberry works wonderfully through most of the country – and there are even decent low-chill apples for the south.

As you plan your food forest look at what already grows in your area, both commercially and in the wild. Do you have wild plums locally? Think about adding plums to your plot. Are there hickory trees in the woods? Think about planting a shellbark variety – or hickory’s cousin, the pecan. Blackberries? Elderberries? Grab thornless blackberries or an improved elderberry variety for your yard. Let the natural world be your guide as you get started with your core species, and then add to those. And plant seeds… lots and lots of seeds!

My own food forest is located in zone 9 (though despite the USDAs rosy claims, it regularly touches zone 8 temperatures during the winter). In planning it, I’ve tapped species that thrive from zones 7-10 to add redundancy. In cold winters, my apples, blueberries, pears and plums get more chill hours and fruit well; when we get warm winters, my more tropical species reward me with more growth and fruit. Unlike a fragile monoculture garden bed, a mix of plants is tough and will yield something every year.

At this point, I’m three years into this project and we’re just starting to reap the rewards. It’s been a tough few winters with lots of warmth, then crippling frosts that knock back new growth. Despite the setbacks, I’ve watched things grow and it’s really getting exciting now. For the first two years, most of our harvests have been from the cassava and sweet potatoes I planted between longer-term trees and shrubs. This year some of our trees will come into production… and next year they’ll produce more… and the year after that… even more. I can’t say that for my annual beds out back! We rely on those for most of our produce right now; but in the future, the food forest will start to catch up and will likely surpass the annual beds.

There’s plenty more to be said about edible food forests. I’m no expert at this point, but I’ve been learning as I go from the writing and experience of others. Added to that, I experiment regularly and ask tons of questions. (Incidentally, the forums at www.permies.com are a great place to interact and ask questions about food forests and other permaculture topics.)

I also recommend you look up folks such as Sepp Holzer, Robert Hart, J. Russell Smith, Geoff Lawton, Toby Hemenway, Bill Mollison and Eric Toensmeier.

And, as always, to see my own experiments or to ask questions, visit www.floridasurvivalgardening.com.

Bottom photo by Jennifer Perry

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