Now, this might sound strange if you’re not too familiar with permaculture, but fall and winter are actually the best time to start a food forest.
“But nothing can possibly grow until the year after! Aren’t you just wasting your time? You’ll have to do all your weeding twice if you do that.”
Funnily enough, you’ll actually save time if you start in fall or winter.
Also, you’ll never have to do weeding in the first place. Here’s why:
How to Start a Food Forest in Fall or Winter
You’re going to need three things to start your food forest: a rake, rolls of brown contractor’s paper, and a whole load of wood chips.
“What? No shovel?”
The idea is simple. It’s a classic permaculture technique called sheet mulching.
Essentially, no plant can survive without sunlight. Sheet mulching deals with weeds by blocking out sunlight completely, in a layer thick enough so that they can’t grow through.
You know why that’s so much better than pulling weeds?
It’s because every time you pull weeds out of the system, the system loses some of its nutrients.
Think about it. Plants seek out and absorb nutrients. All those pesky weeds are just taking it all for themselves. That’s why you don’t like weeds in the first place.
But here’s the thing: all of those nutrients are still there. They’re in the weeds. They’re only lost when you take the weeds away.
So with sheet mulching, you’re allowing the weeds to decompose so that they can give their nutrients back into the soil. Essentially, this means that it never mattered that there were any weeds in the first place.
And, of course, there’s the other huge advantage of sheet mulching which is that it takes only a couple days’ work, rather than torturous weeks and weeks that the painfully slow traditional weeding process takes.
So, let’s take a look at how it’s done…
How to Sheet Mulch
First of all, you’re going to need to make your garden space somewhat flat.
If it’s a lawn that you’re converting into a food forest, then mow it and leave the grass clippings where they land. Like I said before, you want all that nutritional goodness to make it back into the soil.
If you only have weeds around, you can just rake them down to get more of a flat surface. “Chop and drop” is what that’s sometimes called. It doesn’t matter if you mix them into the soil or not. Sure, you can rake the soil around if the ground is a bit uneven, but that’s just down to personal preference.
The next step will make you see why you’ll need the area to be roughly leveled out.
You see, now you’re going to line the area with contractor’s paper. If you don’t know what contractor’s paper is, it’s the large brown rolls of paper that contractors and builders use to line the floor of a room to protect it while they work on construction stuff, painting walls and all that. You’ll often hear it being called builder’s paper as well.
Once the paper’s down, you’re going to pile at least 3-4 inches of wood chips across your whole gardening area. If it’s kinda windy outside, then you’re going to want to do this in sections, otherwise the paper will all just blow away.
You really can never have too many wood chips.
However, let me just be clear about what I mean by “wood chips,” because the name is definitely misleading. When you hear me say, “wood chips,” you’re probably imagining something that’s 100% brown. That is, literally just chipped up wood.
However, the problem with that stuff, which is often called “ornamental wood chips” or “landscaping wood chips,” is that it just doesn’t break down, because there’s not enough green stuff in it. The carbon to nitrogen ratio isn’t right, so it won’t compost down properly and build soil.
What you’re looking for is 20% brown to 80% green. That’s consistently the best ratio. For the green, basically any green garden waste will do.
If you find yourself with too much brown, then you can always grow some red clover as green manure, which you just chop down and leave on top of your food forest’s floor of brown chipped up wood or uncut straw.
Ideally, if you’re looking to get some wood chips with the right carbon (brown) to nitrogen (green) ratio, you would be getting them from a local tree surgeon. The perfect kind of “wood chips” are actually called “ramial chipped wood,” and are sometimes also known as “arborist’s wood chips,” because of course, it’s what arborists (tree surgeons) end up with.
The great thing about getting your wood chips from a local tree surgeon is that they’ll give the the stuff away for free. To them, it’s just tree trimming waste that they need to get rid of. You see, they chip up all the leaves, twigs and small branches together, and it’s all that small stuff that has the right carbon to nitrogen ratio.
When branches get too big, they become way too much leaning on the “brown” side. The tree trimming waste that you’re looking to use in your food forest will have so much more nitrogen feeding into your soil than if you were using purely chipped up wood.
Anyway, with these ramial wood chips, the idea is that after they’ve been sitting there, being weathered in for at least 3 months, the bottom layer of wood chips will become composted and feed the soil down below. By then, your contractor’s paper will have dissolved away and the weeds below will have broken down.
The longer you leave your wood chips the better. Your soil will just get better and better over time, until eventually even the most compacted of soil will become soft, airy, and unable to be compacted no matter how hard you stamp on it. You want your soil to be as airy as possible because the plants’ roots need oxygen.
When spring comes around and it’s time to plant your seeds, just measure out some rows with a couple of garden stakes and some twine between them, and rake back the wood chips to expose the soil beneath. Plants can’t grow in wood chips. They’re just a mulch, not a growing medium.
If you have enough wood chips, as I highly recommend you have, then you can use a 1/2″ garden sieve to screen your composted layer of wood chips, and use those screened chips as a gentle mulch for your delicate seedlings. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait until your crops have grown strong enough to handle moving your wood chips back around the base of them.
That’s not a problem by any means, but they’ll do extra well if they have those screened composted chips feeding them and locking in moisture right from the get-go.