Imagine a story book forest – it’s mostly filled with sprawling, lichen covered, live oak trees, there is plenty of room to wander around, maybe there’s a stream nearby. It’s straight up magic out of a fairytale and you can’t tell me otherwise. Okay so imagine you are a kid running around in there, but everything around you is edible! How much cooler did that forest just get? My 3 year old daughter will certainly be doing that very thing this summer. (The girl thinks she is a ballet princess.)
My very first goal when we moved to this house was to build a food forest that my girls could run around in and play imaginary games. The original version was going to be a more orderly forest with a heavy orchard vibe, the trees would be in rows and while they wouldn’t be grouped according to their fruits they would have a pattern to where they were placed. There was going to be a large grape arbor in the middle that would have a table underneath it where we could eat dinner in the shade. I had a whole list of all the medicinal and culinary herbs I would have growing everywhere. I even drew it all out on graph paper after measuring my whole yard with a 25 foot measuring tape. (My yard is 187 feet long, btw.)
In a traditional food forest rather than having orchard grass everywhere – a tall, nutrient stealing, weed – I would have put down wood chips throughout the whole orchard. Wood chips do many things, they suppress the weeds which knocks out competition for soil nutrients, they help retain moisture so that even during a dry spell the trees won’t suffer, and as they slowly break down they provide new nutrients to the soil. That would have been a lot of wood chips (And cardboard – you lay down cardboard under the woodchips as an initial protective barrier between the wood chips and the grass.) While we did get woodchips, a few other things changed and we didn’t think we would be building a food forest. We decided to just get a cherry tree and call it a day.
But then my husband told me he ordered a couple apple trees. Then he ordered a plum tree. And he picked up a hazelnut from the Tractor Supply. And a friend sent me an elderberry. And then he ordered a peach tree. Aaaannnndddd some trees needed extras to help with pollination so we got some more stuff. So in total that’s one plum, one peach, one cherry, two apples, two hazelnuts, and two elderberries. This winter we insisted we weren’t planting any more trees. No mas. Then someone blessed us with more trees. Y’all in the next three years if the drive up to my house doesn’t look like driving into the 100 Acre Wood then I have done something wrong. Slowly but surely my front yard is turning into the food forest I have been dreaming of.
This year the next step will be to add in more of the herbs and vines. A true food forest has all the different layers you would find in a naturally occurring forest in order to replicate that symbiotic relationship which fosters a healthy environment. This means that everything has a purpose and helps something else grow while providing food for you. For example an herb I would add would be mullein. Mullein draws nitrogen into its leaves so when it dies back at the end of the year you can take its leaves and spread them around the roots of a tree and over the winter it will release nitrogen back into the soil to feed the tree.
Our property was originally a farm and there are some huge, abandoned concord grapes growing on the old fence line in the back. Last spring, a little too late in the spring, I took some cuttings from those vines and tried to grow them on our new arbor. Unfortunately there was a random late frost in the middle of May that killed the grape cuttings (and damaged my peppers). An arbor with nothing growing on it just looks weird. I’m giving the grapes one more go this year. I took some cuttings a few weeks back and this time I put them in some water in a jar. The goal is to see if I can get them to root first, and then we’ll plant them at the arbor.
If the grapes don’t make it there is always passion flower. For two weeks in a row when we passed the seed displays in the grocery store my daughter has picked out the passion flower seeds and asked me to get them. I said no the first time because it is a fast growing and aggressive annual. But secretly I really, really want it anyway so I said yes. Passion flower is going to be grown this year, the only thing I don’t know is where I’m going to grow it. It could be the arbor, it could be the fence line around the garden. We shall see.
I need to know something from you. Have you heard of a food forest before? What is your preferred gardening style? Tell me in the comments!