I design and install edible and ecological landscapes in Frederick, Maryland for my business Deeply Rooted Design and for Ecologia, a business owned by designer and author Michael Judd. We strive to create permanent, self-reliant systems that regenerate themselves while providing food for people.
Unfortunately, the majority of food sold at the grocery store does not come from self-reliant systems that regenerate themselves. Fields of monoculture crops require massive yearly inputs of fertilizer, pesticides and diesel to run machinery that tills, seeds and harvests. Even a backyard annual garden that can produce plenty of nutritious food for the family still demands yearly fertilizing, seeding, weeding and pest control. But by modeling our food systems in nature’s image, we can achieve abundance with less work.
The species that we employ in our food forest may be different than those in a natural forest, but the three key features of the design remain the same.
Vertical Stacking: A healthy forest packs in life and biomass at every level—upper canopy trees, understory trees and shrubs, herbaceous plants, groundcovers, fungi, roots and vines that climb through it all. The majority of these stacked plants are perennials, with some annuals in the understory.
Diversity: The vertical stacking nature of a food forest allows for much greater diversity. One small plot can provide nuts, fruits, perennial vegetables, medicinal herbs, edible mushrooms, edible tubers, vine fruits and even useful fibers and firewood. A more diverse system is also less susceptible to pests, diseases and crop failures.
Soil Building: Fungi, invertebrates and bacteria living in the forest soil break down leaves, fallen wood, plant material and dead roots into rich humus that builds fertility and water-holding ability. A forest produces its own fertility; no need to import it from off-site. In contrast, the soil in an agricultural field is tilled annually and left uncovered, resulting in the loss of nutrients to the atmosphere and the loss of soil through erosion. Chemical fertilizers are applied to make up for this annual loss of fertility.
In comparison to an annual garden, a food forest may seem complex and intimidating, but it’s actually easy to get started. Whether creating a small urban edible landscape or a large food forest, you can jump in by making one food forest patch.
Once your food forest is established, it will create and maintain its own fertility. But, when starting from a lawn or field, you will need to give the soil-building process a boost by sheet mulching (aka, lasagna gardening). Gather up some organic materials—cardboard, newspaper, compost, lawn clippings, food scraps, manure, wood chips, straw and leaves.
Sheet mulching is a flexible strat- egy; different materials can be used in different orders. I start with a 1- to 3-inch layer of compost or manure over the top of whatever vegetation is already on the ground. Next, put down a thick layer of newspaper, followed by a layer of overlapping cardboard. The compost and newspaper help draw up earthworms from the soil, while the cardboard kills the grass underneath. At this point you can finish off with straw, wood chips or leaves. To give your patch an extra fungal boost, you can try out Michael Judd’s Deluxe Sheet Mulch recipe by adding a 4-inch layer of wood chips, followed by more cardboard and mulch material on top.
Ideally, wait at least six months for your sheet mulch patch to break down into fertile soil before planting. It may seem like a long wait, but you will be blown away by the black gold created underneath those layers. If you already have your plants and haven’t sheet mulched yet, you can also plant, then sheet mulch around your plants. This is much easier than trying to plant directly into fresh sheet mulch.
Fruits Of Your Labor
If you have the space, you can choose a nut tree as the centerpiece of your patch. The American chestnut was once a staple for East Coast Native Americans, and it could be again with the American-Chinese hybrids now available. Other high-canopy producers include oak, pecan and American persimmon. If you’re working with a smaller space, choose a small fruit tree as your centerpiece: The traditional apple, peach or pear will be less susceptible to pests in a food forest than in a monoculture-style orchard. Or try out a hardy and pest-resistant fruit producer such as paw paw, Asian persimmon, mulberry or jujube.
With adequate space, a couple of smaller shrubs can be planted around your central tree, such as goumi, sea- berry, hazelnut, bush cherry, currant, gooseberry or blueberry. Just keep in mind each species’ spacing and sun requirements when planting. And don’t forget fencing or tree shelters around any plants that are not deer resistant. Once the trees are big enough, fencing can be removed and reused.
Next, choose beneficial plants to fill up all that remaining space in the patch. The central tree along with these supportive plants is called a guild. Companion plants provide the central tree’s basic needs. The key benefits of companion plants are mulch, insectary services, pollination, nitrogen fixation and ground cover. Here are a few of my favorites.
Comfrey is an absolute permaculture all-star plant. It is a dynamic accumulator, meaning that it sends taproots deep into the soil to draw up minerals and nutrients into its leaves. Chop those deep green leaves with a machete or scythe a couple times a year to provide a nutrient- rich mulch to go around your central tree (but keep it at least 6 inches away from the trunk).
Yarrow is the prime insectary plant. Its intricate fern-like leaves provide habitat for parasitic wasps, spiders
and other pest predators. It’s also a dynamic accumulator, and some varieties make for good ground cover.
Plants in the Agastache, Salvia and Coreopsis genera are my personal favorite pollinator plants because they are very deer resistant. But there are lots of others, such as those in the Echinacea genus, black-eyed Susan, bee balm, catmint and more.
Blue wild indigo and lupine are beautiful nitrogen-fixers, but both get nailed by deer. Lead plant is one deer resistant option. It gets quite tall but can be cut back a couple times a year and used as a fertile mulch. Goumi and seaberry are two nitrogen-fixing shrubs that can be used with adequate space. I plan to experiment more with establishing clover, alfalfa and milkvetch that will double as nitrogen fixers and groundcovers.
Mint is just about the easiest groundcover to establish in a food forest. It spreads quickly, deters rodents from munching bark and even helps deter deer. Because runner-type mints are vigorous spreaders, they are best used in an area that is mowed around or contained. Other good groundcovers include white clover, yarrow, pink tick- seed, nettle, strawberries and violets.
This article was originally published in the NEW PIONEER ™ Summer 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.