There has been a lot of interest lately in food foraging. A nature walk in the woods can turn into a bountiful buffet of forest produce when you know which plants are edible along the trail. Plenty of resources exist out there for finding wild edible plants, but, as a gardener, I like to be able to do most of my foraging right in my backyard. Thankfully, there’s a way for gardening and food foraging to meet in the middle: Grow an edible food forest on your own property! Here are the basics.
Quit working so hard. As the name suggests, a food forest largely centers around trees. Plant a couple of fruit and nut trees, and you are well on your way. One of the best aspects of a food forest you plant yourself is that the idea is to keep it very simple — a food forest should require minimal inputs from you once it’s established. As Florida food forester David Goodman puts it in his blog, “Quit working so hard!” Goodman explains that rather than planting beds, you plant trees; rather than tilling, you plant edible perennial groundcovers.
A gift that keeps on giving. This adage should guide your efforts, and points to the second aspect of food forestry: Plan for a perennial yield. When I plant tomatoes, lettuce and squash, I’m planting for only one season of production. But when I plant acorn oaks, mulberries, blackberries, and marjoram, I’m planning a system that will provide fruit, nuts and herbs for years to come without much yearly fuss. You may find yourself planting a few unfamiliars in your forest, such as elderberry, but that doesn’t mean you will give up on veggie-patch favorites. Asparagus is long-lived and productive, returning year after year (expect to wait two to three years to get your first yield). Jerusalem artichoke, rhubarb and sea kale will also make yearly showings. Perennial vegetables allow you to grow more food with less work.
Layer it up. Think about a natural forest’s structure. It’s not very uniform with all trees growing to a standard height and spacing (unless the forest has recently been clear-cut and replanted). Instead, forests are stratified into layers, from canopy to understory and forest floor. Hardly ever does nature leave soil exposed. Plan for each of these forest layers. Plant some taller trees, such as apples, and as they mature work your way down, planting shrubby herbs such as lavender, thyme and chamomile around the base. An important bonus: Interspersing many different species confuses pests and provides habitat for beneficial insects, cutting down on any need to make or purchase organic pesticides. Trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, edible flowers, and even a few annual vegetables mixed in will mimic a forest, creating an abundance of food the way nature does it.
Take cues from nature. If you are unsure what’s going to work in your region, take a nature walk and make a few observations. Do you see hickory trees growing? Well, then hickory’s cousin, the pecan, may also work in your area. In fact, if you know a good place where wild elderberries grow, for example, it can be easy (and free!) to replant a few shoots or save some seeds for planting next year. (This berry guide will get you started growing saskatoons, elderberries, and other less common native berries.) A little studying about plant families can go a long way when deciding what perennials may work well in your food forest.
Develop your permaculture mind. Permaculture gardening and farming is a system in which all elements within the system interact with each other, working together in harmony. There is no such thing as waste, but only resources. Decaying fruits and leaves become food for the system. Following a few permaculture guidelines will produce a productive system that largely takes care of itself. Think about the multiple functions of the system (trees provide nuts and fruit but also shade and water storage capabilities); intensive planting produces big yields from a small area; use the edges of your forest wisely; diversity is better than monocultures. Permaculture is a simple philosophy that works itself out in myriad ways in your garden. Learn more to develop your “permie” mind in this permaculture guide.
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