Author's Introductory Note: As I read through page after page of food items and materials that preppers should stock up on, I have to wonder, “Have people really thought out what is coming?” I believe we are heading for at least a collapse of the US dollar, if not all fiat currencies. We are looking at a financial collapse greater in magnitude than the Great Depression. I have spent the last four years studying economics in my spare time, and though I understand that my sources can be (and are) biased, I have looked at a lot of writings from a lot of very smart people, and none of them have given me a way out. Our economic future ranges from really ugly to apocalyptic.
For the last three years, I have sought and prayed for a way out of what I see coming. This is not a one off event that a few years of stored food will see us through, this is a collapse of such a magnitude that our concept of “normal” is going to undergo a radical adjustment. How do you deal with such an event? How do you plan to deal with decades, even generational time frames? Storing food is not enough. Every supply you can stock will be exhausted long before we see “normal” again, if ever. After three years of looking and praying, this is the best answer I have found.
An Australian, Bill Mollison, coined the term permaculture over two decades ago. His work is almost unknown inside the U.S. (Go ahead, talk to your local land grant college and see what they can tell you about permaculture and food forests. Outside of the Northwest and possibly North Carolina you will probably just get blank looks.) Permaculture is a concept that encompasses many ideas about culture, sustainability, and agriculture. One of its big ideas is using perennial plants as in a forest setting, rather than the annual plants that provide most of our food today.
Think about the amount of energy that is required to produce a crop of corn or wheat. The fields are cultivated before planting to kill the weeds, then the seeds are drilled into the soil. You may cultivate a few more times before the plants are up to kill weeds and add fertilizer, then you spray pesticides throughout the growing season to kill insects and herbicides to reduce weed competition. Finally, you harvest the crop and send it to be dried down, sorted, graded, and finally sold for a profit, generally a very small profit. Do you think this method of agriculture will survive a currency collapse? Farmers will likely have priority for fuel in a financial crisis, if they are big enough. How will you be able to afford their crop?
A food forest attempts to create an early succession ecosystem comprised of a wide variety of edible plants, nitrogen fixing plants, bio-accumulators, fiber plants, and other plants useful to humans and animals. A forest ecosystem is the natural state of the environment in most temperate regions. It requires no fertilizer or pesticide, it takes care of itself. A forest garden attempts to mimic the natural environment, in doing so, all the inputs and energy that modern agriculture requires are eliminated.
Where do you begin?
The first thing you need is land that is owned outright. My wife's family has a piece of property that has been in the family for 70 years. It is six acres of mostly pasture with about two acres of pine woodlands. In a failing economy, it is entirely possible that the land will eventually be taxed out from under us, but that is a concern for another article.
How much can you put into six acres of land?
Here is what I have done over the last two years. I presently have:
8 apple trees
3 peach trees
2 pear trees
2 sweet cherry trees
2 mulberry trees
2 pawpaw trees
3 chinese chestnut trees
4 pecan trees
2 hazelnut trees
15 blackberry bushes
5 raspberry bushes
1 goji berry
1 aronia berry
2 fig trees
6 grape vines
2 muscadine vines
8 blueberry plants
8 varieties of edible bamboo
I can expect a yield somewhere in the vicinity of 3,000 pounds of fruits and nuts, based on what I have in the ground right now. I will have just under an acre planted when my current plants are mature, most of that will be bamboo. I am only about 1/3 of the way done. I have a list of 63 edible plants that I plan to incorporate into my food forest. The most practical guide to creating a food forest I have found is Martin Crawford's book Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops
. There are a number of other books available, but Martin's book provides an extensive list of edible plants and detailed descriptions of each of them. His book is a practical how-to guide for creating your food forest. He lists over 500 species of plants in his book, most suitable for zones 9 through 5.
What do you do first?
Plan. Plan your forest canopy before you start putting trees in the ground. You want an open canopy with light or dappled shade. I started putting plants into the ground before I had Martin's book in hand. I have planted my nitrogen fixing trees to close to my fruit trees. I will end up coppicing the nitrogen fixers every few years because of this mistake. Plan for your nitrogen fixers and accumulator plants before you put your trees into the ground. Plan for your tall trees to be behind your smaller trees in relation to the sun's direction. Plan for your shrubs to grow up and interact with your trees. Plan your ground cover layers and how you will implement them.
I have Mimosa trees (Chinese silk trees) all around the property. These are nitrogen fixing trees that will grow to 40 feet. Since these trees were already present and growing, I did not feel the need to seek out additional nitrogen fixing trees. Also, when I tilled an area, seedlings sprang up in great abundance. I have used my crop of nitrogen fixing seedlings by interplanting them with my fruit trees. I still have a great abundance of them which I will disperse throughout my bamboo groves. In his book, Martin calculates that you want about 40% of your forest canopy to be comprised of some sort of nitrogen fixing plant. Mimosa trees grow to a very open canopy which is perfect for a forest garden. Other climate zones would probably do better with some type of locust tree or acacia. I believe in using what I have first, it costs less.
I will add comfrey as a bio-accumulator sometime this year. Martin discusses comfrey in his book and comes up with roughly six plants per semi-dwarf fruit tree. Comfrey is a chop and drop plant. Several times during the year, you cut the plant down and spread the leaves and stems around the base of your fruit trees as a sort of fertilizer/compost. There are other accumulator plants, but comfrey is the most well known, and will readily sprout from roots and re-grow.
How do you clear the land?
I have used cardboard to smother and kill off grass, I have tilled areas, and I am trying tall cover crops of buckwheat, all in an attempt to clear an area for planting. As an area is cleared, first your trees and shrubs are put in place, then the ground cover of choice is seeded into the newly opened area. An area might be mulched for a year before your ground cover is planted. Oregano, wild strawberries, mustard greens, creeping brambles, and others are mentioned as effective, edible, ground covers. Mostly what I have right now is white clover as a nitrogen fixer to help prepare the ground for a more desirable crop. I am eager to see how my buckwheat area develops this year. I have seeded with buckwheat in the hope that it will out-compete the grass without any additional inputs.
Putting your shrubs in place
I have numerous blueberry bushes interspersed with my fruit trees. I have planted the blueberry bushes to close to my fruit trees and in some locations, I have placed them in the shadow of the trees. These will need to be moved at some point in the future. I have only recently added gooseberry and aronia; these will tolerate much more shade than my blueberries. In fact, many shrub species are able to tolerate a decent amount of shade, which allows them to be planted more densely inside a forest garden. Saskatoon, sea buckthorn, currants, goji berries, and many others can be planted into the shade of your forest garden. Sea buckthorn will actually do double duty as a fruit bearing plant and a nitrogen fixer.
Things you learn along the way
There are many ways to create a forest garden. I have started out in a systematic way by clearing ground and planting first my trees, then my shrubs, and finally ground cover plants. I am planting one variety at a time. Martin walks you through each of these phases in his book, but I have since learned that there are other ways to accomplish your objective.
Sepp Holtzer and other people doing permaculture and forest gardens often put together a large and diverse collection of seeds and plant everything all at once. I believe they mostly do this with ground covers and shrubs. They start out with an entire ecosystem growing competitively in the lower layers. You will get a lot of nitrogen fixing and carbon sequestering going on all at once. I think you will have a difficult time harvesting until the plants have sorted themselves out, but I think you will get establishment much more quickly. I have only just learned about this approach, and I will likely give it a try on some corner of our property.
After almost four years of searching for a way to deal with the coming tidal wave of debt and destruction approaching us all, a food forest garden is the best idea I have found. The idea is to build a complete ecosystem, that is geared toward producing food for you and your family, and sustaining its own fertility. You can incorporate whatever you need into your food forest. There are plants that will produce fiber, plants that will produce dyes, medicinal plants that I didn't even mention, food, timber, whatever you need can be incorporated into your forest garden design; if it will grow in your climate.
My goals are maximum sustainability and maximum self-reliance. To achieve these goals in a world of limited fuel and money, I had to look outside the box of conventional thinking. There will be no more runs to home depot for bags of mulch and compost. There may be very few runs anywhere in the future. What we have on our own property is what we will have to work with. A close community of like-minded individuals will/may offset our own shortcomings, but being as prepared as we can possibly imagine is the best way to achieve optimal results.
JWR Adds: I recommend planting bamboo and other invasive plants only in the most secure planters with solid bottoms. (Preferably cast concrete!) Letting bamboo find its own limits on your property is an invitation to expending countless hours of toil and gallons of sweat. The same can be said for some berry bushes, especially in damp climates. Plan ahead!