I want to first thank all those who have pioneered the way for growing forest gardens. Special thanks to Geoff Lawton, Robert Hart, David Holmgren, Bill Mollison and Sepp Holtzer. Their permaculture books and videos have been immensely beneficial even though our food forest is unique, as partially explained below. I also want to emphasize the importance of permaculture and encourage readers to learn as much as possible in order to develop more sustainable practices.
A few weeks ago our land looked like bombs had blasted dozens of holes in the ground. Shortly afterwards the site turned into a giant muddy mess with all the rain we’ve been having. Fast forward a few weeks and things are now taking shape (although it’s difficult to capture good photos since the plants are still small). This project has been a lot of work and at the same time very rewarding. What we’re doing could feed our family organic healthy food for the rest of our lives as well as create some additional income from selling excess produce, and so the effort required is definitely worthwhile and then some.
The actual planning and layout of the food forest has been one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done. Just like designing houses, I realize now there are infinite possibilities in designing forest gardens/food forests (also called mixed agriculture, agroforestry, etc.). A forest garden is not an orchard and it’s not a typical garden as most of our readers probably know. A forest garden is a self-sustaining mix of trees and garden that create a symbiosis with each other. Big trees shade smaller plants. Nitrogen fixing plants and other soil builders such as comfrey fertilize the soil. Neem tree leaves and other plants fend off pests naturally. Properly designed food forests need little or no watering, fertilizing, weeding, spraying, etc. once established. They’re much like forests in nature except only the most desirable/beneficial plants are chosen.
Summary: We’re turning inexpensive, subsistence-level rice farmland into an extremely productive food forest. Every step of the way we’re doing things inexpensively. Here’s the cleverest part. We didn’t have to buy expensive fill dirt to raise the land. (That would have cost more than the land.) Instead, we dug large tree holes and filled them with lots of compost and topsoil. The tree roots only have to go down about 2’ before hitting good soil. When the tree roots hit the fertile soil and reach the water table, they should grow very rapidly and never need watering. The hard work of planting trees is over. The main challenge now is building soil quality on the surface.
Our food forest specifications: We have six 4m wide x 17m long forest garden beds, one 2m x 20m raised bed along the driveway and one 4m x 20m tree belt next to the road. There are fruit trees and other types of trees and plants around the perimeter of the property. There’s also a small garden by the house and 3m x 12m shade house for plant nursery, potting and earthworm bed. Our pump and garden tools are stored in an earthbag pump house that’s built just like an emergency earthbag shelter.
Types of plants we’ve chosen: 1. what we like most (mangoes, bananas, moringa, papaya and other fruit trees, plus two or three dozen common veggies and herbs), 2. easiest, fastest to grow (it’s not practical to baby lots of delicate plants in a garden so large), 3. some wild/indigenous plants that take very little maintenance and add variety to our diet. 4. multi-purpose non-food plants such as insect repelling plants, medicinal plants and soil builders.
Forest garden design: Everything we’re doing is an experiment based on what I’ve read and learned over the years. It’s a little different than a typical forest garden; it’s more a mix of ideas that work in our climate and suit our needs. There are numerous areas or pockets throughout the garden for experiments: trellised pole beans, papaya on mounded road base, hugelkulture mound, moringa ‘hedge’, cover crops between trees, etc. There are lots of temporary banana plants to help shade the main fruit trees through the long dry season that lasts about seven months. A combination of the long dry season and intense heat requires careful planning that includes selecting hearty plants, using lots of mulch in the dry season, and having a good well with water piping around the perimeter. Eventually the forest garden will need very little watering, but in the early years it will need irrigation. We might use drip irrigation or soaker hoses with some watering from a garden hose.
How we planted our trees: Our land used to be a small rice field. Most trees and plants will not grow in a flooded rice field, and so we raised our land 24”- 30” (60cm x 75cm) with inexpensive clay subsoil. This also raised the site so we could build a recycled wood house and other structures. Trees (and other plants) obviously don’t grow well in heavy subsoil, so we dug tree holes 2’ wide x 24”- 30” deep (60cm x 75cm). We dug down until we hit the black soil of the rice field under the subsoil. The black soil was chopped several inches and then the holes were filled with a mixture of top soil, compost (see recipe below) and a small amount of subsoil (a little clay in the mix is good because clay has lots of minerals). Additional soil, mostly subsoil, was mounded around each tree to prevent flooding.
Unlike most food forests, we started by planting our trees first since they take the longest to get established and because we wanted to speed things along as much as possible. We’ll add cover crops, soil builders and many additional plants over the next 2-3 years to complete the food forest. Eventually we’ll have all seven layers of a typical forest garden. We believe this is the best method for our tropical area, although it’s actually an experiment and we realize we may make some mistakes. Be sure to research the best methods for where you live.
Low cost planting mixture for trees (from an old time farmer with productive fruit trees):
3 parts rice hulls
2 parts aged manure
1 part burned rice hulls
1 part or less chopped coconut husks
Mix approximately 60% / 40% top soil/planting mix in the planting hole (gradually add some of each and mix together)
Water as needed once tree is planted
Plant in late afternoon to avoid shock to plants
Old, composted materials are best if available.
Optional: add one small bag (weight = 5 kilos) of quality potting soil or compost around root ball for most valuable trees.
Important note for rainy climates such as ours: Tilling the top soil and adding lots of amendments such as rice hulls, straw, manure, coconut husks, etc. would create a thick porous sponge on the surface that would absorb and retain too much water and kill all the plants. Solutions for our climate include mounding soil around fruit trees to prevent waterlogging and planting one veggie plant here and there between trees. We’ve been told we have to build the soil gradually and wait for the trees to get strong before adding too much compost.
Rant about how the food supply is very unhealthy and rapidly getting worse: The forest garden is the main reason we bought our land. I’ve primarily eaten healthy food since I was about 23, but now almost everything has junk in it. Many plants are GMO (some say around 80% of major crops), and most food is refined/processed/tainted in some way. Supermarket food is the worst, of course. But even healthy foods like vegetables in the farmer’s market are often grown with artificial fertilizers on dead soil lacking in minerals, sprayed with pesticides, and handled by workers with dirty hands. Also, many foods lose around 70% of their nutrients within the first day or two. Obviously it’s best to eat fresh from the garden. There’s no getting away from all these issues unless you grow your own food, so that’s our plan. We’ll also save a bundle of money and have better tasting food. Peaceful work in the garden is a bonus, which hopefully means I’ll be less likely to write rants like this in the future. Why is food independence more important than ever? Read this shocking article to find out.
European Commission to criminalize nearly all seeds and plants not registered with government (Don’t be surprised if this evil agenda spreads to other countries. It’s time to get ready folks!)
Must-read article that Jay found the other day: Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food
Read the article and learn why we should eat the wild/heirloom varieties and get 10x the nutrition, save money, plus they grow like weeds and are almost unphazed by plant pests and diseases. As most gardeners know, modern varieties can be real fickle. In summary, highly nutritious, easy to grow wild/heirloom varieties match the philosophy of forest gardening and organic gardening. They’re the perfect choice for anyone seeking a healthier lifestyle. This could lead to incredible health if you eat the plants fresh and mostly raw, and/or make smoothies because liquid nutrients are absorbed by your body much faster than nutrients from solid food.