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Food forests are an essential part of most permaculture designs, and even for spaces as small as the typical suburban lawn, there is the potential to put into motion an abundance of free food for the years to come. In fact, food forests can supply much more than that: wildlife habitat, firewood, mulch, shady sitting areas, and low-maintenance “lawns.” In some form or fashion, yours can begin tomorrow.

Food forests, for those who are new to the concept, are a collection of productive trees and plants that have been assembled in such a way that they help one another thrive, as well as provide their cultivators with pounds upon pounds of food. Because most of the flora in these systems are either perennial plants or self-seeding annuals, it also means that there is very little work to be done after they are initially set up.

It Begins With The Soil

Having good, lively soil with plenty of nutrients and biota is how forests thrive, and for the most part, they handle this situation themselves. Unlike vegetable gardens or grass lawns, we don’t have to go into forests with fertilizers or even organic compost, we don’t need to weed, water or replant, to ensure their survival. Forests handle these issues themselves, dropping leaves, twigs, branches, and even entire trees to feed the soil life, which in turn creates fertile, rich soil to grow new trees and plants. Trees prevent evaporation and, in fact, transpire water into the atmosphere to keep things moist. This is how nature works.

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To start a forest then, we need something for the plants to grow in, and we can create a very rich medium with natural inputs. The food forest floor begins before the forest is there. Instead of grassy, weed-free landscapes, we want to pile up organic material where we plan to grow our trees. We can start with a thick layer of leaves, grass clippings, pulled weeds, and even kitchen waste. Wherever a tree is going to be planted, mulch the space around it so that new growth will be snuffed out and organic matter decomposes to enrich the soil.

It Begins With Support

Initially, it seems pertinent to get fruit and nut trees in the ground as soon as possible. After all, it takes years for an apple tree, a mulberry tree, a chestnut tree, to yield a crop. But, it is equally as important to establish a good environment in which these trees can thrive. Forests generally don’t begin with one type of plant, and they generally don’t end that way either. Nature usually carefully crafts a collection, or guild, that works well together, filling open niches within the system and providing particular services for each other.

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In general, a food forest will have several supportive components built around either a large fruit or nut tree or several smaller dwarf or semi-dwarf varieties. A rule of thumb for starting from scratch is to grow about 90 percent nitrogen-fixing trees — black locust, mimosa, acacia, mesquite, Siberian pea tree (to name a few) — that will be coppiced and cut for firewood and organic material as the fruit tree develops.  This nitrogen and organic matter will naturally fertilize the productive trees.

In the understory of all these trees and along the edges, there will be a collection of plants. Culinary herbs are great pest deterrents, as well as health-promoting foods and appealing fodder for bees and butterflies. Groundcovers can be edible, nitrogen-fixing plants like red clovers, that will carpet the ground to prevent it drying out. Deep-rooting shrubs like comfrey and borage can provide medicines, flowers for pollen collectors, and minerals for the shallower soils. Different types of berries can provide protective hedges, food, and habitat for small predatory animals that help with pests.

It Begins With a Sequence

Fruit trees, obviously, are much larger when they reach maturity than they are in those fickle, developing years. Once mature, their ample spread of branches will likely shade out many of the plants the system begins with, and this is part of the plan. Like those nitrogen-fixing trees, which are periodically cut or coppiced to provide the food-producing trees more space and fertility, the other support species will lessen as the forest develops. This time-sequencing will equate to productivity in the early years, as well as the later.

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In the beginning, everything should be planted at the same time. While the fruit and nut trees are young, much of the bounty will come in the form of edible greens, fresh herbs, and opportunistic vegetables. Then, once the forest is up and lovely, these things will likely only grow on the outskirts, but the apple trees will start giving a hundred pounds of apples, the hazelnut trees twenty-plus pounds of nuts each. All the while, there has been no lawn to cut, but rather a largely self-supporting, budding forest to forage from.

All we have to do is provide a little guidance (the seeds and saplings), give it space and time to grow, and occasionally go in for a little chop-and-drop pruning. Within a few years, a food forest can really start to hit its stride and fresh food will abound!

Lead image source: j_arlecchino/Flickr 

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