Have you been thinking about taking gardening to the next level? Do you want to produce more food off your homestead but don’t have the time to spend maintaining a large conventional garden? There are only so many hours in the day and a food forest may be the answer to increasing your overall food production without having to spend more time tending a larger garden.
What is a food forest?
A food forest is based on the idea of permaculture, which is the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. Basically that’s a fancy way of saying that permaculture is the “Set it, and forget it” of gardening.
The biggest difference between your typical backyard garden and a food forest is that your garden requires a significant amount of labor each year in order to grow food. You have to plant, water, fertilize and protect a garden from the elements. A food forest on the other hand is completely self-sustained and requires very little upkeep once it’s been planted and starts producing.
What do you plant in a food forest?
Most people think that a forest is made up of just trees. Although trees are a vital part of a food forest, they are definitely not the only part. Shrubs, vines, cover plants and bushes should also have a place in your food forest as they can provide you with a whole new set of plants and food that you can grow while still doing very little upkeep.
What you plant in your food forest really just depends on your personal preferences and what will thrive in your location. Obviously if you’re in northern Illinois or Michigan for example, you’re probably not going to be growing very many citrus trees since they cannot survive the harsh winters.
Be sure to check what will thrive in your USDA zone and pick plants that you’re already eating regularly. For example, Apple trees are a staple for many food forests. The right varieties can grow and start producing very quickly and will yield a lot of food every year. However, if you don’t eat a lot of apples then it’s probably not a good idea to grow them unless you have a plan to get rid of a couple hundred pounds of apples every year!
(Hint hint…apple growers can make really good money at farmers markets)
Planning your food forest
When planning your food forest, it’s important to utilize the space you have wisely. Anyone can plant some trees in a big, open area. However,that’s not really an effective use of space. To really maximize the amount of production you’re receiving from your food forest, you should do your best to grow as many plants in as little space as possible.
For example, if you’re going to plant (or transplant) 5 apples trees into an area, you should also be thinking about what to plant AROUND those trees as well. You could easily plant berry bushes, an herb garden, or even a small conventional garden around a tree. This way, you’re not only getting the production from the tree, but you’re also getting production from the space right around the tree instead of wasting it with useless grass.
Obviously there are going to be some restrictions of what you can plant around a tree in your food forest, mainly because of the lack of direct sunlight. You’ll have to do some research into what plants will thrive in your area without a lot of sunlight since the canopy of the tree will likely be preventing these plants from getting a lot of sunlight.
How to prepare an area for planting
Planting your food forest isn’t as easy as just tossing some seeds on the ground and hoping for the best. Even with conventional gardening, the best practice for planting is to use a ground cover or cover plants.
Cover plants are simply a plant that covers up the ground (pretty self-explanatory huh?) it’s important to use ground cover plants as they will help prevent soil erosion and will hold in more moisture in your soil.
There are literally thousands of cover plants that you can use in your food forest. Personally I would use a mix of herbaceous plants with medicinal and culinary uses and alfalfa. Not only would the herbs be extremely useful in cooking and herbal remedies, but the alfalfa would also attract wildlife like deer and rabbits; which if you’re a hunter, is a pretty big bonus.
Those who garden regularly understand that there’s a certain connection that you begin to build the more time you work outside in the dirt. However, many of us don’t realize that conventional gardening is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to co-existing with nature and using it to produce self-sustaining food. Permaculture, especially food forests open up a whole new world of opportunities to gardeners or anyone looking to lead a more sustainable lifestyle.
For more information about food forests please check out the resources below.
USDA Hardiness Zone Finder – Find out what grows well in your area
Permies.com – The largest and (jn my opinion best) permaculture site out there
Edible Forest Gardens – Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about food forests
Thank you for reading today!
Until next time, stay safe out there