I grew up on a farm in Miragoane, Haiti where i would go to the fields to harvest sweet potatoes as soon as I could walk. However, moving to the city gave me limited chances to reconnect with the soil apart from planting a few bushes in Prospect Park (Brooklyn, NY) during a field trip in 6th grade. But I've always imagined that I would someday return to the land... growing food efficiently, encouraging biodiversity and reconnecting with nature. Starting a food forest just made the most sense.
A food forest is a system of gardening using a diversity of mostly perennial plants chosen and arranged in such a way that they compliment and support each other, minimizing weeds, pest and maintenance while providing a variety of edible and medicinal harvests.
However, you'll most likely be starting out with a bare field like we did and the task of getting started can feel overwhelming. Our land was completely devoid of organic matter and nutrients in the soil thanks to modern agricultural practices. Even the weeds were having a hard time growing. It was a bit frustrating at first, but with a bit of work, care and patience, we now have a forest that self-fertilizes, is rich in fungal growth, harbors an abundance of wildlife, retains water in the soil and is rich in plant diversity. By allowing nature to be our teacher, we learned how to get a greater output while putting in minimal input.
We learned a lot from our trials and errors and realized that you don't need to over-think the creation of your food forest as nature will always find a balance. Looking back on our experience today, we were able to break down our process to some simple steps that should help you go from that bare field to a fully-functioning ecosystem.
1. Make a choice.
Sounds easy enough but this is actually the most crucial part of the process. Before starting your food forest, you should take a considerable amount of time reflecting on what your reasons and motivations are and what exactly you’re wanting from it. Do you want to earn an income, be more self-reliant, educate other, produce healthy food, or just want a fun project to work on?
Depending on what motivates you, the resources you have available, list of skills, time and capital; how you move forward may vary. Having a clear understanding of your priorities and capabilities will ultimately help you decide how your entire food forest will come together.
With a clear goal in mind, everything step after this will come easier. Our primary goal for our food forest is to maintain a living seed bank with as many fruits, nuts and herbs as possible in order to continue planting and sharing more food producing trees from our nursery.
2. Get to know the land.
It's important to assess climate and soil conditions when determining what your primary tasks should be and what can be included in your forest. Spend some time on the land, explore, observe and analyze. This step is important, because if you want to create a successful forest that requires less work to maintain, you’d need to grow species of plants that are suited for your climate. It’s much easier to work with nature than against it.
Start simply by observing your land and the land around you. Watch where the sun shines, water flows and wind blows. Once you have a basic idea of what you have to work with, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to draw a basic map of your land and keep notes on things like soil quality, existing plant/animal life, and whatever other observations you made.
Taking the necessary time to be mindful will save you money, time, and unnecessary labor and help put things into perspective while providing you with a wealth of information about your land.
3. Prepare your soil.
I’d like to think that most people reading this would prefer their garden to be organic. Meaning no pesticides, herbicides, or even non-organic fertilizers. Keep in mind that the previous care takers of your land may not have shared these sentiments. Because of this, you food forest may take a few years to become established and find the right balance.
I’d highly suggest taking the time, whether it be a month or a year, to do any soil remediation before planting anything. This will surely make your job much easier in the long run. We started by creating swales on contour lines to optimize water retention on the property while minimizing soil erosion. Anything you can do to help keep your soil in place and distribute water on your land more efficiently will help.
Growing a cover crop, chopping and dropping, and bringing in woody mulch will accelerate the natural process that takes place in a forest environment. The goal here was to create a rich top layer of decomposing organic matter on the forest floor. This helped bring in earthworms and other beneficial insects, it kick started fungal and microbial growth, and it contributed to the overall health of your forest by nourishing the soil.
I know how tempting it is to immediately want to get your trees in the ground, but the soil is truly the foundation of your forest and should be the first thing you pay attention to. You can rest assured that once you establish healthy soil, you can look forward to a healthy forest ecosystem and you will never have to think of doing any real work ever again because in a natural environment, organic matter from the plants go back to the soil to help feed the soil biology.
4. Start sprouting seeds.
Now that all the prep work is down, you can finally start planting. You’ll have a few options depending on your budget. Start off by making a list of all of your desired species that are suitable to your climate and grow from there. You can then either go the easy route of buying your plants or go the more sustainable route of starting a nursery of your own like we did where we not only had plants for our forest, but also plants to exchange with others. Just keep in mind that the better adapted the plants you choose are to your environment, the less maintenance and overall work will be require to keep your forest thriving.
The advantage of purchasing is simply giving your forest an instant head start. Purchased trees will already be a year or two old and some may already be grafted but learning to grow your own plants and trees is a very valuable skill to have. You gain a better connection, appreciation, and understanding of your plants. Sprouting seeds is pretty straightforward and takes up a lot less space than you’d expect.
Regardless of what you decide, it's a good idea to start off your forest with hardy plants before you start planting delicate trees. Allowing them to grow before planting your trees will make your land more hospitable by adding more nutrients to the soil, acting as a wind block or sun filter and creating a better micro-climate.
Once everything is planted, it’s good practice to continuously mulch around the base of your plants. This will maintain adequate moisture in your soil while blocking out weeds as your trees’ root system develops. You’ll basically have to baby them for the first year, but by the second year, you should have better soil and your trees will be strong enough to grow on their own. With the right balance of plants, the entire forest should work together cohesively with the least amount of effort possible.
5. Continue to grow.
Planting a forest can reap bountiful rewards and delicious harvests. But did you ever take the time to realize the wonders plants have done for you?
We have a subconscious need to be near nature, being in constant contact and communication with plants seem to come natural to just about everyone. We as a society couldn’t exist without plants. We wear them, sit on them, use plants for fuel, write on the pulverized plant parts, and even go as far as eating them. Plants generate oxygen needed for human survival, and medicines for healing. Don’t fight the urge to reconnect with your environment.
Have patience and continue planting with the knowledge that creating a food forest can happen any number of ways. The idea behind this post is to give you a basic outline from our experience creating our own food forest. At first, the idea of combining so many different plants together may seem like chaos but nature will bring a surprising amount of order. Your forest may take a while to get going, but once it get started, it will continue to maintain itself.