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Planting a Food Forest: A Step-By-Step Guide

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How to plant a food forest – the ultimate in sustainable gardening…

When you think of growing your own food, you may think of a traditional garden with neat little rows or beds of single crops, but in many countries, the reality looks a lot different. For example, in many developing countries – especially those in warm climates – growing your own food may look more like a “forest” of various species of edible and fruiting plants mingled together. In fact, this method of gardening goes back thousands of years, although the term “food forest” is a more recent development. Food forests appear often in the permaculture movement, a modern approach to designing agricultural systems that mimic natural ecosystems.

Food forests are perfect for the sustainable agriculture model as they are mainly self-sustaining – meaning no tilling, fertilizer, or irrigation are necessary. Interplanting deep-rooted crops such as trees and shrubs with smaller plants provides shade and protection while reducing the need for watering. This gardening method also helps to cycle soil nutrients and improve soil fertility.

Food forests are cropping up in a number of cities across the U.S., and winter is the ideal time to plan and start planting a food forest. If you are interested in planting your own food forest, here’s a step-by-step guide:

Step 1: Choose Your Plants

The first step in establishing a food forest is to choose your plants. The largest plants will reach into the sun, so most common fruiting trees and shrubs are fair game. The smaller plants generally need to be more shade tolerant, as they will be in the understory. But you can leave sunny patches here and there—like little forest clearings—to accommodate species that need more light (though see Step 3 for a trick to make the most of the available sunlight).

Winter is the ideal time to get started, because most edible trees, shrubs, vines, and herbaceous plants can be purchased and planted while dormant, which is better for the plants—and for your bank account. That’s because at this time of year they are sold in “bare root” form—meaning without soil or a pot—which gives the roots a more natural structure and costs less for nurseries to produce. Bare root plants are typically ordered in January or February, for planting in early March, or as soon as the ground thaws in your area. Naturally, you’ll want to stick with species that are well-adapted to your region.

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Step 2: Prepare the Ground

Choose an open, sunny location for your forest garden. It can be as small as 100 square feet—a single fruit tree and an assortment of understory plants—or multiple acres…

Unlike preparing for a conventional vegetable garden, there is no need to till the earth and form it into beds in preparation for a forest garden. Instead, dig a hole for each individual plant, just as if you were planting ornamental shrubs and trees. However, if the soil quality is poor, you may wish to “top-dress” the entire planting area with several inches of compost prior to planting.

One situation in which raised beds are desirable in a food forest is where drainage is poor. But rather than make the effort to construct conventional raised beds from wood, you may opt to sculpt the earth into low, broad mounds at the location of each tree. Smaller plants may then be positioned along the slopes of the mounds…

You will need to eliminate any weeds, grass or other existing vegetation prior to planting. This can be done manually, or by smothering them under a “sheet mulch,” a permaculture tactic in which sheets of cardboard are overlaid with several inches of mulch on top of the vegetation, starving the plants for light and causing them to compost in place. Compost may be added as a layer between the cardboard and the mulch to add extra nutrients…

When you’re ready to plant, simply brush aside the mulch and cut holes in the cardboard just big enough to dig a planting hole at the location of each plant. Then slide the mulch back around the newly installed plant. Maintaining a deep mulch is the key to preventing weeds, conserving soil moisture and boosting organic matter—all things that will help your food forest be self-maintaining and self-sufficient.

Step 3: Plant

The next step is to arrange your plants in the landscape. Position the tallest species (i.e. the ‘canopy’ plants) at the northern end of the planting area, with progressively smaller plants toward the southern end. This way the taller plants will cast less shade on the smaller ones, especially at the beginning and end of the growing season when the days are shorter and the sun hangs lower in the sky.

Of course, truly shade tolerant plants may be interspersed throughout the understory of the forest garden. You might even consider cultivating mushrooms in the shadiest zones once the large trees have matured. Edible vines may be planted on any accessible fences, arbors, or walls, and you can also train vines up trees, just like Mother Nature does—just be sure the tree is significantly larger than the vine to avoid the tree getting smothered.

The edges of the food forest are suitable for sun-loving annual vegetables, if you wish to include them. Also, keep in mind that it takes decades for large tree to reach their mature size, so in the early years of a food forest there is ample sunlight. Plant sun-loving species in the open spaces between trees and then replace them with more shade-tolerant plants as the forest matures.

Read more about creating your own food forest – including types of plants to try – at ModernFarmer.com

 

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