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The beginnings of a food forest…

I have a big empty hill behind my house. It’s too much of a pain to go up there every day, but I wanted to use the land for something.  I decided to start starting a food forest.

The concept is pretty simple: you plant food-bearing trees together to create a forest and then put low-maintenance crops in between them. So you might have a large nut tree surrounded by apple and pear trees, with strawberry plants in between them. (Amaranth would also be a good addition).

It’s what Nassim Taleb would call an “anti-fragile” system. A traditional garden has to be cultivated, weeded, and watered regularly, but once a food forest is established, it can be left to its own devices. The book Gaia’s Garden is a good reference for starting a food forest.

Yesterday, I received the two one-year-old Dunstan Chestnut trees I ordered over the summer. The chestnut tree is a great resource of both wood and food and was once a key resource to Appalachia. Unfortunately, the American Chestnut was wiped out in the early 20th century by a fungal blight. If you try to plant one now, it’ll die from blight within a few years. However, a single blight-resistant American Chestnut was found and piece of it were grafted onto blight-resistant Chinese chestnut trees, creating the Dunstan Chestnut tree.

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I already had my tools and other gear in my truck ready to go. I started by using my scythe to make a clearing in the tall grass and weeds and then used a string trimmer to eliminate as much grass as possible in a large circle.

I then used my Root Slayer shovel to dig a hole for the tree. I love this shovel. The saw teeth on the sides make it easy to dig into the hard ground here. I really needed it yesterday, because some sort of tree has started to root in my field. I cut through the roots and ripped out all the tree roots I could find.

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I put the tree in the hole, covered it up, and then slid a tree tube over the top, which acts as a miniature greenhouse and protects the tree from deer. I fixed it in place by zip-tying it to a piece of bamboo.

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Finally, I watered the tree in with liquid compost, put some compost around the tree as mulch, and then dumped some saved kitchen scraps around the tree. They’ll also serve as mulch and will feed the tree as they break down over time.

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Next, I’m set to receive three mulberry trees. They’re cheap and should start producing berries within a year. I’m also going to put in some apple trees this fall.

Hopefully, within a couple of years, I will have a steady supply of food that will require no work other than just walking up and taking it.

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  • Comments (13)

    • 5

      I’d be careful in which fruit trees you add to this project, if you don’t already have experience growing them.  Many are attacked by disease & require spraying.  In my experience apples can be especially challenging.  A lot depends on your area of the country but even then one should pick out varieties that are known to be disease resistant in your specific area.  I’ve found many “disease resistant” varieties really aren’t… at least where I live.  If you’ve ever grow roses & experienced all the diseases that can attack them, well welcome to growing apples.  Apples are a rose & are readily attacked by all sorts of fungus, rusts, fire blight, etc.  I don’t know of any apple grower who would say they require no work.

      This fall I have several varieties of Jujube (Chinese date) coming & plan to give them a try.  They are supposed to taste like a small, sweet apple and since they are not actually apples, are supposed to be easy to grow.

      • 4

        My grandma has a small orchard and doesn’t put any work into caring for her trees except for pruning once a year. Guess she is lucky. 

        I never knew they were so prone to disease. I was really looking forward to having apple trees one day. Guess i’ll have to put in my research and work to make sure they work out well. Thanks for the tip!

      • 2

        If you research, you will find commercial apples are one of the most hazardous things you can eat.  The commercial growers just spray tremendous amounts of chemicals to get those beautiful, flawless apples you see in stores.  I spray mine a few times a year and they have all sorts of defects from scale & fungus… but that is the way a real apple looks.

      • 3

        Thanks for the heads up. I probably should have said “less work” rather than “no work,” because a regular garden is a lot of regular work. I’m going to do some research on the hardier apple trees. Really the only reason I’m growing apples is because my kids eat tons of them.

        What zone are you in? I’m in 7a.

      • 3

        7a myself.  I get most of my apple trees from Century Farm Orchards.  David is VERY helpful.

        https://www.centuryfarmorchards.com/

      • 4

        Being in 7a, have you planted Rabbiteye blueberries?  They are very hardy & I’ve never had any disease in mine.  My plants are around 7′ tall and produce large crops.  Another low maintenance crop I recommend are thornless erect blackberries created by Univ. Arkansas.  Muscadines also do well and are very low maintenance except for winter pruning.

      • 2

        Thanks, I’ll add those to my list of things to plant between trees. And I’ll check out Century Farm.

    • 4

      The history of the chestnut tree is so interesting! Thank you for sharing. I like learning something new everyday. I also liked that clear tube you put over the tree! Really great idea.

      I’ve never eaten a chestnut before, i’ll have to try and find one and see if that is a tree I would be interested in. 

      How long do you think it will take your little chestnut trees to produce?

      • 3

        They arrived at a year old, so hopefully I’ll start getting chestnuts in three years or so. But sometimes stuff fruits early. I planted some raspberry bushes this spring and didn’t expect anything for a year, but got a small batch of raspberries out of them.

    • 3

      Hey Josh, as others have mentioned, you will need to consider disease, but also pests and animals, if your hope is to have edible fruit.  I have several fruit trees, and when left alone they do “fine” and produce a lot of fruit, but without a lot of water and soil maintance the fruit doesn’t taste good at all. And without intervention, bugs, deer, racoons, squirels, and other critters will eat it all long before it’s ripe enough for you to eat.  I have all but given up on my pear tree – it produces plenty of pears, but they taste terrible and are almost always maggot infested before they’re close to ripe.  That is, the ones the racoons don’t eat!

      Also, judging by your photos, I’d like to suggest checking your “compost mulch” which looks like it might be some recent food scraps from your kitchen.  You need to let that stuff process first and actually turn into compost, otherwise it will just rot and not do much good.  Plus, it will likely attract deer or racoons, who I promise will be smart enough to figure out how to get into your tree tube after their appetites have been perked with the snacks you’ve left them!  Get a bag of real mulch or compost from your local gardening store- you can get a couple cubic feet for just a few bucks.

      Also, if you want an unstoppable and hardy fruit plant, try blackberry bushes.  They are nearly indestructable, so much so they can be invasive and will take over your yard/hillside before you know it.  But boy do they produce with little to no maitainance.

      • 3

        That was my thoughts when I first read about this project.  Didn’t want to rain on his parade.  🙂  Around this area, deer, coons, squirrels, etc. will eat most of the goodies & maybe kill some plants.  My orchard, with around 150 trees is fenced in to keep the deer out.  My blueberries & muscadines are in the corner of the orchard & are fenced in with bird netting on top.  My home garden is up next to the house & likewise fenced in.  Seems the fence plus nine dogs keeps the deer & coons away but a rabbit got in a few weeks ago and ate all my young bush beans.

        Without fencing, I remove my recommendation for thornless blackberries.  Matthew is correct… you need the thorns.

      • 2

        I put compost down and then kitchen scraps over it. The compost is well broken down.

    • 2

      I’m utterly fascinated. Excellent solution with the grafting. This has been done with a number of different species of fruit- and nut-bearing plants.

      I can’t help but wonder if the concept could be blended with something like Johnny Appleseed-ing.

      Many cities and towns have reforestation areas, so, I’m thinking, something like gorilla food forestry.