It’s perennial vegetable planting season – the perfect time to begin your permaculture food forest!
Welcome to the Forest
Food forests are a new innovation in edible landscaping. Imagine walking through a beautiful yard where nearly everything around you is edible. But not only are the plants useful and delicious, they are also all working in harmony to form a balanced micro-ecosystem.
In designing a food forest, it is necessary to consider how a natural, wild forest grows and thrives. These principles are then applied to the cultivated landscape plan. One of the key qualities of these gardens is their preference for perennial crops over annuals. Just like a forest, a perennial-based garden will keep growing over the years instead of annually needing planted anew.
Perennial vegetables are cornerstones of permaculture food forests. Producing year after year with only a little effort, these veggies also provide an excellent value for the budget gardener. Yummy harvests aside, these vegetables are valued for the benefits their permanent root structure gives to the soil. As the seasons change and other crops come and go, these roots provide a constant element in the soil food web. Their aerial parts also provide a stable habitat for beneficials.
Annual vegetables and herbs also find their home in the food forest. In the cool “understory,” plan for shade tolerant plants such as arugula, chard, and kale. In bright, sunny “meadows,” plant heat-loving plants such as zucchini and tomatoes. Climbing plants such as pole beans and trombetta squash can be trained up tree trunks. Try to encourage self-seeding of annuals such as orach, so even these veggies can become “perennial” in your garden.
If you have the space, you will want to add some fruit and nut trees to your permaculture landscape to make a real forest. Any edible-bearing tree will work. Some of the more popular choices are apples, cherries, persimmons, and figs. However, food forests are not all about the trees! As long as your garden is designed using the habits of forest ecology, it can be called a “food forest” whether it has trees or not.
Let’s get planting!
The first step is on paper, getting your design ready. Some things to keep in mind while planning include mature size of your perennial vegetables and trees, sunlight requirements and availability, seasonal progression (such as peas in the spring and beans in the summer), and easy access for harvesting. For your ecological experiment to work, consider how the plants will work best with each other, such as planting a nitrogen-fixing legume near a nitrogen-hungry squash. Also consider planting some mushrooms, such as Garden Giants or Elm Oysters, which are extremely helpful to their plant neighbors.
Now that you know the plan, it’s time to get planting! Winter is the ideal time to begin planting your food forest. This is when perennial vegetable crowns should be planted. Rhubarb is good for nearly every planting zone, with its promise of pie for years to come. Artichokes are a great perennial for warmer climates. For a uniquely colorful addition to the landscape, plant some Jerusalem artichokes (and better yet, get double duty out of them as living trellis for pole beans!). For the brave of palate, plant some horseradish. Asparagus takes some patience but is well worth the wait, and their showy fern-like leaves add texture to the landscape in summer.
If you are planting trees in your food forest, winter is also the best time to get those in the ground. Bare root trees are the most reliable and economical way to plant trees; their state of dormancy means that they will suffer less from transplant shock than potted trees. Order them now and plant them anytime before the leaves swell in the spring. For further instructions on selection, planting, and caring for your trees, check out our Fruit Tree Central.
Once your winter crowns and bare roots are in the ground, you will need to water them periodically to keep them alive and kick-start their underground growth. When spring comes, and they suddenly spring to life, it’s time to plant your annuals. Select heirlooms and varieties that will “breed true” (not F-1 hybrids) because these can reseed themselves to produce the same varieties year after year.
Come spring, a little work can help keep your forest productive and healthy. Strengthen your soil’s health by inoculating it with mycorrhizae and planting cover crops that will add nitrogen and organic matter. Keep pest problems to a minimum by planting hedgerows or plants that attract beneficial insects.
And last but not least, enjoy the fruits (and veggies) of your labor for years to come!