Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Selecting Plants for a Food Forest

With 10+ years of experience in observing planned food forests and similar "wild" ecologies, as well as 3 seasons of co-evolving with a home food forest, I'm just starting to form some good conclusions about what makes a really good forest garden in the Great Lakes bioregion. Interestingly, some of those opinions are quite different now than they were a dozen years ago when I first became passionate about the concept of forest gardening.

When first introduced to the concept, here are some of the criteria I would have had for a successful food forest:
--High yield.
--Would focus on productive trees.
--High percentage of the common fruits I liked to eat--a true "fruit forest."
--Lots of sunny edge for the annual veggies I was used to.
--Focuses on the future potential of a mature forest garden.
--Low maintenance. 
--Could produce a large percentage of my dietary needs.

With experience, that hasn't exactly been changed so much as refined to a more nuanced set of goals. Now, my ideal forest garden would be:

--Appropriately and flexibly yielding. A good forest garden provides things in amounts you can use, when you can use them, without becoming a burden. A really good forest garden is flexible enough that it can be scaled back to produce for a family's needs without becoming a chore, but could be quickly adapted to provide a yield large enough to provide excess for distribution if needed for friends, trade or income.
--Focusses much more on the understory. This is, afterall, what differentiates an forest garden from a regular "orchard." At least early on, the understory is capable of providing much more of value than young or middle-aged trees. Think about your diet now, the vast majority of it doesn't come from trees. When I go foraging in mature woodlands filled with edible canopy species, it is still largely the understory species that I'm there to collect!
--Appropriate and well-planned selection of trees, focussing most on easy, no-spray tree species and support species that provide ecological functions. Right now, on an acre, I'd focus 95% on species that are both very easy to grow without spraying or extra care, and also easy to harvest and use with minimal processing, such as Paw Paw, Persimmon, Honeyberry, Blackberry, Raspberries, Asian pear, Heartnut, Hazelnut, Mulberry, Nanking Cherry, Elderberry, and Hardy Kiwi. I'd also focus on plants that provide greens, such as the Toon Tree, White Mulberry and Linden. Only then would I plant a few more difficult things like apples or plums, focussing only on the easiest and most disease-resistant species. Personally, I'd probably save difficult specimens like dessert apples and green gage plums for green-houses, espaliers or zone1 treatments. 
--Lots of sunny edge for a large variety of useful plants, mostly perennials. This would include a lot of high value perennial vegetables, self-sowing annuals, medicinal plants, fiber plants, plants for fuel, plants for crafting materials, etc. Oh, and room for a few high-value annual vegetables.
--Focusses on "succession" and getting an early yield every year.
--Flexible maintenance. Can provide yields with little "work," but can be quickly "scaled up" to provide high yields with higher levels of input. 
--Can help me meet a wide variety of my needs, including building materials, heating, spices, herbs, and medicine as well as food. But more importantly, it greatly enhances life by providing high-quality, high value foods for relatively little burden. And perhaps most importantly, it provides an extremely beautiful living space and creates a very rewarding relationship with nature and the ecologies we inhabit.

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