How to start a food forest

Food forests:

  • Can be squeezed into the smallest of plots
  • Can be built around an existing tree
  • Create a balanced ecology
  • Pump out fruit, nuts, flowers, herbs
  • Are simple to create and maintain
  • Provide habitat, pollination, fertilizer & pest management

The idea here is that you are designing and planting to help meet the fruit or nut tree’s needs at the beginning. Combining four or more companion plants around the fruiting tree results in higher plant production, reduced pest and disease problems, and increased soil fertility.

Eco-Logical

By observing how natural ecologies function, we can imitate their patterns for the things we need in a human habitat: food, fodder, fiber, medicine, and building materials. A well designed system supports itself, without much human energy and material input. This may sound dynamic and complex, which it is, but getting it started is easy.

These companions known as guilds in permaculture can be a very colorful array that adds color, texture and shape to your otherwise stagnant fruit tree planting. A few of our favorites are:

Comfrey: is planted as the mulch plant to be cut and dropped around the fruit tree throughout the growing season. Comfrey is a dynamic accumulator with a deep tap root that draws minerals and nutrients from the subsoil into its lovely, deep-green-lobed leaves. Beautiful bell shaped purple/blue flowers throughout the season also draw in pollinators.

Yarrow: as the insectary — or beneficial insect plant — yarrow has amazing architecture that all kinds of beneficial critters love to live in and pollinate from. Aside from being beautiful yarrow attracts parasitic wasps (not dangerous), lady bugs, and spiders, which help to balance pest populations. It is also a good mulch and fertilizer plant.

Echinacea: a.k.a., the pollinator, is the indigenous wonder that just won’t stop flowering. It acts like a gas station to our winged allies who stop off to fuel up, munch a bug or two, and spread the love to your fruit flowers.

Blue Wild Indigo: then there’s the wildest of the four all-stars: the blue wild indigo, the awesome nitrogen-fixer plant. She is the powerhouse of beauty and fertility as she simultaneously spikes her blue florescence into the sky and nitrogen nodules deep into the soil. Just don’t chew the seeds, or she becomes a toxic beauty.

To Start

You can sheet-mulch your patch at any time of the year. Ideally the patch is left to decompose for at least one season in advance of planting (i.e., in the fall for spring planting, in spring for fall planting). Leaving it for a full year will yield even better results.

Where the strength of weed or grass is tough, add a cardboard layer on top of the newspaper that will act as further worm food, a moisture retainer, and weed blocker. If you’re retrofitting an existing tree with sheet
mulch, layer out to the tree’s drip line (area on the ground over which the branches extend) and leave 3 or 4 inches around the trunk)

For the Hardcore Ninja Food Forest Enthusiast, I recommend Mike’s Deluxe Sheet Mulch which gives you over two years of soil-building at once. Start by following the initial directions above–chuck down your compost layer, newsprint, and cardboard.  Follow by adding four inches of untreated wood chips[1] (this is called the “fungal layer”), another layer of cardboard, and your choice of topping (mulch, more wood chips, leaves, or leaf compost). If you leave out the second layer of cardboard because it is a windy site,[2] or you’re worried it will become exposed, then double up on the topping.

Other favorite fruit tree companions:

  • Lead plant: nitrogen fixer; deer don’t eat
  • Lupine: nitrogen fixer
  • Garlic, Egyptian Walking Onion:
  • Horseradish: chop and drop mulch
  • Rhubarb: chop and drop mulch;
  • Nettle: mulch; compost; tea
  • Black-Eyed Susan: insectary
  • Sweet Anne’s Lace: great insectary
  • Rocks and wood: pile them up as habitat
https://permacultureprinciples.com/principles/_10/
https://permacultureprinciples.com/principles/_10/

Finding a balance in the garden

Replicating natural systems can reduce inputs and maintenance to our gardens. Anni Kelsey uses a mix of perennial plants; including vegetables, herbs, flowers and some ‘weeds’ in a polyculture to create a mini-ecosystem and boost biodiversity. Adding ‘chop and drop’ mulch and leaving the soil largely undisturbed supports the soil life-cycle, initially by feeding the fungi and bacteria and then in turn the micro-organisms, insects and animals that helps keep the system in balance.

This is an excellent article on why a food forest is the way to go:

Why Food Forests?