Anyone following my blog might get the sense that I'm independently wealthy due to all the fruit and nut trees that I've planted this year alone. Any person making that assumption would be wrong, I'm simply very cheap. Doing a rough estimate, I've come to the conclusion that over 60 perennial fruit and nut trees, vines and bushes have cost me somewhere just south of $250. When you look at a big name nursery catalog and do the math, I've avoided costs of close to $1000.
In the spirit of teaching and helping us, as Americans and people, I'd like to share some of my secrets to gathering the plants necessary to start a food forest that will sustain you and yours for many years to come.
1. Free trees from nature.
This one is the least expensive method but it is also the one that is the hardest and least accessible for some of us. The fact remains that the plants that grow best are either native species or invasive persistent species. For example, throughout much of the country persimmon trees grow wild. While is isn't feasible or advisable to try and dig up a 10 foot tree (or larger), there are ways to get seedlings with this knowledge.
The method is as follows: Between late spring and early fall find land in which persimmons may be thought to reside and convince your way onto the property. Beforehand, gather as much intelligence on the tree species as possible. Know what the shape of the tree is. Does it grow in a pyramid shape or does it spread? Know the leaf shape and habit. Know when it sets fruit. KNOW EVERYTHING POSSIBLE. Search the property for a large tree and then making spiraling circles outward, find smaller specimens. In most if not all cases the leaves and bark will be similar or the same as the larger tree. The tree make reproduce through simple fruit and nut drop or through suckering. Suckering is the act of tree reproduction through root sprout growth. Either way, the offspring remain somewhat close to the parent in proximity.
This next step is important. Resist the urge to take shovel to dirt. Simply mark the tree. Moving it when it has leaves on it or even worse--fruit--is foolhardy at best. What you want to do at this point is to mark the tree and wait until it turns dormant which in the case of deciduous trees is late fall through early spring (with variances). The marking can be done with contractor flags or any other device that will persist through weather and the elements.
When the dormant time comes, go back and dig the tree up. If the tree is small enough, the roots can be gently cleaned of dirt and wrapped in a very damp newspaper or placed in a bucket of water. If the tree is large, the entire root ball can be removed, dirt and all and potted until time to plant.
2. Free trees from the grocery or market.
In the case of some stone fruits such as peaches and apricots, seedlings can be grown from the fruit pits. It should be noted however that only some of these offspring may not be true to type. In other words you may not get an Elberta peach from the pit of an Elberta peach (but lots of times you will). [JWR Adds: Because of the time and effort required to grow a seedling to fruit-bearing age, you must weigh the cost/benefit ratio. Generally, for most of us, it is best to expend some cash to start with "known good stock", rather than invest your sweat equity is raising a bunch of "maybe" hybrid seedlings!]
The process is as follows:
Remove the pit from the fruit and let it dry. Crack the pit carefully and remove the seed. Stratify the seed. Stratification is the act of replicating the cold damp conditions of winter with the seed by placing it in a cold damp environment such as a refrigerator (or simply letting nature do it). Then the seed can either sprout in place or be placed in sterile medium to do so.
The best article I've found for doing this is located here.
Whether you transplant existing trees or grow new ones from seed, you really should plant them before the dormant stage ends. That means early spring. Though some people do have luck planting in late fall.
3. Cheap trees from your state.
Many many people are unaware that many states have a forestry division that sells trees at extremely affordable prices. For example, I recently purchased 20 Pecan seedlings and 20 Pawpaw seedlings for less than $50 from Kentucky's Forestry Division.
Please be aware that my state fills out of state orders at their discretion. You should check with your local forestry division first. You can generally find your state's by typing "(your state's name) forestry" into any Internet search engine.
The best part is that these trees are native to your state and grown in your state, making them ideal for your conditions.
4. Cheap trees from Arbor Day.
It is no secret that The Arbor Day Foundation deals in trees. What is lesser known though is the fact that Arbor Day sells fruit trees. These trees are extremely affordable through a $5 membership which pays itself back very quickly. I recently purchased standard apple and plum trees from ArborDay.org for less than $10 each.
5. Cheap trees from the big name nurseries.
Wait, didn't I say above that doing so would be expensive? Yes I did. However all rules have exceptions.
Gurney's and Henry Fields send out catalogs with $20 off $40 purchases throughout the season. I find and take advantage of these offers. But even if you miss them you can search "Gurneys Discount Code" through a search engine and find a working code with a little work. Punch it into the checkout box and voila! cheap trees.
In conclusion, growing a food forest doesn't have to be a huge up front investment. For the clever and thrifty, an orchard can be had for pennies on the dollar. I hope some of the things I've learned can benefit others looking for food independence. I'm sure my readers have their own methods. How do you obtain inexpensive trees?