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Achieving Food Independence

Table of Contents

1: Industrial Food and the Homestead Alternatives2: Soil Fertility3: Organic Matter4: Minimizing Tillage5: Garden Year--Spring6: Garden Year--Summer7: Garden Year--Fall8: Garden Year--Winter9: Orchard and Woodlot10: Forest Garden11: The Lawn12: Livestock13: Poultry14: Ruminants15: Closing Thoughts on Livestock16: Local Foods17: Bringing It All Together

10. The Forest Garden

We’ve discussed garden and orchard and woodlot. Wouldn’t it be neat if there were a way to make a Garden of Eden which combined all three into a single garden space that was pleasing to the eye and the soul, and still provided a bounty of harvestable food? There is: Welcome to the world of forest gardening.

Forest gardening is relatively new as a concept, though in various places indigenous peoples have used some elements of the concept to manage forests for food. For instance, the native tribes of eastern North America used fire and other strategies to manage the forest, control disease, and encourage greater production of food such as acorns, butternuts, berries, etc.

A forest is typically a plant community established in three layers: a canopy layer of trees, over a layer of shrubs, over a herbaceous layer at ground level. Since the shrub and herbaceous layers evolved in the shade of the taller trees, those that produce edible food are able to do so in partial shade. Through appropriate choices of species, we can capitalize on that evolutionary history when designing our forest gardens.

Mimicking natural forests

A major emphasis in forest gardening is imitating natural forests. Four characteristics in particular need to be mimicked: They are largely undisturbed habitats; they consist largely of perennials; there is a diversity of species; and needed fertility is captured and recycled in the system, without the need for fertility inputs from outside.

The mix of plants in a forest typically is a perennial polyculture, that is, a diverse mix of perennial rather than annual plants. Annuals have evolved to exploit disturbed sites, where the disturbance has opened the ground up to full sun. The annuals exploit the abundant sunlight to fuel their explosive grow-quick-and-die life cycle, and rely on seeds to renew their kind in the following seasons. As the area becomes more shaded, however, the shift is toward the more conservative perennials, which do well with shade or partial shade, often tend to reproduce vegetatively rather than via seeds, and do not like soil disturbance. If we wish to imitate natural forests in our edible forest gardens, we need to select perennial species which can establish for the long term in undisturbed soil.

But the fact that the site will remain largely undisturbed means that it is essential to imitate the forest in another crucial way as well: Provision must be made for the capturing and recycling of fertility in the site, without additional inputs from us after the system is up and running. Remember that one of the miraculous things about forest soils is that they become more fertile over time. We must adopt their strategies in order to attain needed levels of fertility in our forest gardens.

Nitrogen fixers

For example, we’re familiar enough with clovers, alfalfa, beans, and peas as nitrogen-fixing legumes. Many of those species, however, require full sun to thrive. Fortunately, there are many perennial nitrogen-fixers—some of them not even leguminous—in each of the possible forest layers. Lupines are a good example in the herbaceous layer; Eleagnus, in the shrub layer; and black locust, in the canopy layer. Judicious inclusion of these species helps maintain the fertility of the forest garden, even if they do not provide edible food for us directly.

Dynamic accumulators

Another class of plants important in forest garden nutrient cycles is the dynamic accumulators. Comfrey is an excellent example of a dynamic accumulator in the herbaceous layer: Its roots go as deep as 8 to 10 feet to “mine” the subsoil of minerals that otherwise are not available to roots higher in the soil profile. Examples of dynamic accumulators in the shrub layer are flowering dogwood (cornus florida); and, in the canopy layer, hickories, black walnut, and black locust. An important thing to note is that it is not necessary for the plant to die to release the fertility brought up from the depths. Annual foliage—leaf fall of deciduous trees, the foliage of perennials such as comfrey which die back with the onset of winter—decomposes and delivers its mineral load to the soil. In many cases, minerals brought up into living leaves will actually wash off in the rain and help nourish the soil even before the foliage has died.

Diversity equals balance

Diversity of species in a natural forest helps maintain the balances of life within it, keeping in check herbivorous insects and disease organisms. In the same way, we must disperse throughout the forest garden a diversity of flowering plants to provide pollen, nectar, and shelter for beneficial insects. Not only must these species be planted throughout the forest garden, they must include species that flower throughout the growing season.


Orchard to
Forest Garden


Future Plantings

A start at Boxwood

I have made only the smallest beginning at forest gardening, but am quite excited about the prospects. I have begun preparations for first converting my existing orchard to forest garden, by spreading the layered mulch described earlier to kill the established sod without disrupting the existing soil food web. I have eight filberts and two heartnuts ready for setting out as soon as possible in the spring. I will soon be starting numerous perennials—some of them edible like crambe maritima (seakale), Good King Henry, and multiplier onions—some of them as habitat for beneficial insects—some of them nitrogen fixers (lupines, Dutch white clover) or dynamic accumulators (comfrey, dandelion, sorrel, vetches)—all of them beautiful. A larger project will be conversion of some existing woodlot into forest garden. That is a more challenging proposition, but I hope to make enough progress this year to be able to plant nut trees next year.