Most of the time, when I’m talking about starting a food forest, I’m explaining how to do it on a small scale, as something which would fit in a back yard or small plot of land
Why? Because that’s all the space most of us have available. Even if you could buy a plot of land somewhere, it’s not quite the same as having a food forest where you live. Driving to it to get a harvest just doesn’t seem right.
However, what about those people who do have more land that they’d like to make productive? What about local communities who come together and want to create a public food forest for all?
This post is for you.
You see, one of the greatest appeals of a food forest is having infinite, local food. Why not take it to the next level? A food forest can feed your whole neighborhood for free, and a large enough one can feed your whole community for free. If that’s not community service… I don’t know what is.
The Huge Benefits
There’s no single better use for spare land in a community than to create a large food forest. Health food is usually so expensive, but with a everyone having access to an abundance of free, healthy food, everyone saves so much money and becomes healthier as a result.
Healthier residents put less of a strain on healthcare systems, and, of course, save vast amounts of money that’d be otherwise spent on avoidable medical expenses. I’m talking about problems like obesity, diabetes, and illnesses caused by weakened immune systems from eating the utter garbage that we call “food.”
With less financial strain on everyone, suddenly, so many more aspects of life become accessible to people.
Super high stress levels from having to work overtime? Not any more. Almost entirely eliminating your food bills solves that for you.
Even comfort eating can be avoided when you realize that it results from having a stressful lifestyle. It’s too easy to just feast on unhealthy food when getting home from work. After being so burned out, it just seems like the only redemption your day can have.
That kind of comfort eating burns a hole in your bank account too. Costs add up, and that only makes you more dependent upon your paycheck. Yep, that means even more working hours, and even more stress.
So, How is It Done?
To create a large scale food forest, it’s actually simpler than creating a small scale one.
The reason? It’s easier to get the resources you need in bulk quantities.
For example, the single most important thing you’ll need is as many wood chips as possible. We’re talking “ramial chipped wood” here, which also known as “arborist wood chips,” and simply referred to as “wood chips” most of the time, even though it’s a pretty misleading name.
Why that stuff in particular? Because you can get it dumped for free from local tree services. It’s just a by-product of tree trimming services, so they just want to get rid of the stuff. However, to someone like you, looking to start a food forest… that stuff is pure gold.
It contains a whole lot more “green” organic material than the name “wood chips” would imply. That’s why the name’s misleading, like I mentioned before.
Basically, what tree surgeons end up with is large amounts of leaves, pine needles, twigs and small branches. These things have a much higher nitrogen content than larger branches and heartwood does, so what you end up with is much closer to the ideal ratio of 80% green organic material to 20% brown, woody material that you’re looking for.
Tree services chip this stuff up for easier transportation and usually just dump it wherever is most convenient for them. Phone them up and convince them to dump it at the site of your new food forest instead.
That’s the single most important thing you can do.
What Wood Chips Do
When starting a food forest, the key to everything is building the soil. This is especially true on a large scale. You simply can’t rely on buying vast amounts of compost like regular gardeners do.
Besides, you don’t need to.
You see, food forests are a kind of regenerative agriculture. They give back far more than you put in, and the only reason that they are able to do this is because they build soil rather than deplete it. Wood chips are the key to building that soil.
Like Paul Gautschi pointed out eloquently in the Back to Eden Film, everything in nature has a covering, and soil is no exception. Animals have skin, fur, scales, feathers… always some kind of covering. Go to any forest, and you’ll never see bare soil. Everything grows perfectly in a forest without any human intervention. There’s need of watering or fertilizer at all, and it’s all because of the forest floor. The forest floor is precisely what we’re trying to emulate with the wood chip ground cover.
Conventional agriculture is like the equivalent of removing your skin and trying to keep yourself alive by regularly applying a complex mix of chemicals. Sounds disgusting, but that’s what we’re basically doing to nature. We’re just so used to it that we’ve forgotten that our plowing of the soil and other destructive efforts are the direct cause of our soil’s health issues.
There’s no need to constantly try to stop soil from dying by mixing in compost, and no need to apply pesticides or herbicides to crops to prevent them from becoming overrun with pests and fast-growing weeds. All of that is caused by our own meddling trying to solve some other problem we’ve caused by working against nature rather than with it. As Masanobu Fukuoka, the founder of natural farming said, “whatever we do, the situation gets worse. The more elaborate the countermeasures, the more complicated the problems become.”
By taking “gentle measures,” he said, “instead of using man-made chemicals and machinery to wage a war of annihilation, then the environment will move back toward its natural balance and even troublesome weeds can be brought under control.” The ground cover of wood chips, consisting of around 20% brown material and 80% green material, is precisely the kind of gentle measure he’s talking about.
In fact, it’s the single most effective gentle measure that you can take. That’s because it restores the biggest missing piece of the puzzle behind how soil is built naturally over time.
This stuff isn’t just philosophy. It actually works.
A ground cover, such as that found in a natural forest, really does build soil by itself.
There are two ways in which it does this.
1. Wood chips stop the soil from drying out.
Soil can’t be built without moisture.
That’s because soil isn’t the same thing as dirt. Soil is a living organism in itself. It’s full of microbes, and those microbes are what break down organic matter into nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and all the other essential plant nutrients that we’d call “fertilizer” if it came prepackaged in a bag or a bottle.
These microorganisms can’t build soil without constant moisture. The biggest cause of water loss from soil is evaporation, so it’s vital to keep your soil covered at all times.
An amazing thing about the woody part of the wood chips is that it’ll absorb moisture when the ground is too wet, allowing your plants’ roots to get the oxygen they need, and then when it’s too dry, they release the moisture into the soil again. This isn’t magic; it’s junior high school science. It’s nothing more than simple osmosis.
Anyway, because of this there’s another huge added benefit of using a ground cover, in that you won’t be needing any form of irrigation system at all. This one is big, because it basically eliminates upkeep costs. There’s no need to build any pipes or set up any sprinklers.
Even in the case of drought, a food forest can easily retain its soil moisture once it’s been developing its water-holding capability for a couple of years. Studies have shown that even just a 5% increase in organic matter in the soil can increase its ability to hold water by 20%, and that’s not even counting the moisture-retaining action of the “brown” part of your wood chips.
If you think the idea that a food forest doesn’t need watering sounds far fetched, then remember: natural forests don’t need watering either.
2. Over time, the wood chips will break down and feed the soil below.
If there’s one thing that’s obvious about natural forests, it’s that they certainly don’t order compost on the internet every year.
Buying or preparing compost is unnecessary in a mature food forest if you add another 3-4 inches of wood chips each year to replenish what’s been broken down.
Where do all those nutrients go? Why, into the soil of course. There’s absolutely no need to mix your wood chips into the soil, and in fact, if you do, you’ll cause a huge amount of problems.
First of all, your soil structure would be ruined by mixing it all up. Second, the wood chips will tie up nitrogen if they’re mixed in the soil. Third, they’ll not be able to act as a ground cover anymore, because bare soil would be exposed. Fourth, plants can’t grow in raw, uncomposted wood chips. They need soil, which is a growing medium. Wood chips are just a mulch, not a growing medium.
I could go on and on, but the point is: all you have to do to build your food forest’s forest floor is literally just lay 3-4 inches of ramial wood chips on top of it each year.
However, when you’re starting a new food forest from scratch, you want to begin by throwing down at least 6-7 inches of wood chips on top of a “sheet mulching” layer of brown paper, cardboard or many sheets of newspaper.
The sheet mulching layer smothers the weeds and grass before they themselves break down too. That’s the way to ensure there’s nothing strong enough that survives your thick layer of wood chips and ends up growing through.
Having said that, even if something does grow through, just chop it above ground and leave it where it lands. Weeds add to the “green” nitrogen-heavy part of your wood chips just fine.
In fact, you can build your soil even quicker by adding even more nitrogen if you grow a “green manure” such as clover among the other crops, and do the chop and drop method I just mentioned.
And no, clover isn’t a weed; it’s a nitrogen fixer. It gets its nitrogen from the air and accumulates it in nodules in the roots.
When you cut clover down, it releases the nodules of natural fertilizer in its roots and fertilizes the soil and plants around it. With the tops that have been cut, they can lay where they land, and add back to the “green” material of your wood chips to replenish your ground cover. This will break down and fertilize your soil too, as if you had added manure. That’s why it’s called a green manure.
Interestingly, clover was originally considered to be a healthy part of a lawn, and clover seed was deliberately included as a standard part of virtually every kind of lawn seed all the way up until the 1960s. It was only when we started using herbicides to kill weeds in the grass that clover started to be seen as a weed too, because it would die from herbicides just like the weeds do, leaving the grass by itself.
Naturally, this has made lawns even higher maintenance than they already were, and they were already pretty high maintenance considering we remove the grass cuttings from the lawn every time we cut it and then wonder why it needs so much fertilizer.
I think you get the idea by now. The key is to use a ground cover that feeds the soil. The woody part of wood chips breaks down slowly, so it keeps the ground covered for longer, while the green part breaks down more quickly and feeds the soil. That’s why it’s best to have as much as 80% of your ground cover as green, nitrogen-heavy stuff.
What About the Crops?
That part’s simple. You’ll want as many fruit trees, dwarf fruit trees and fruiting shrubs as you can fit in the space, and then fill the rest of the space with annuals.
Variety is the key. Plants of different kinds don’t compete with each other. They actually work together once the mycorrhizal association has been built up among their roots, like in a real forest.
That’s why it’s worth getting some mycorrhizal fungi to sprinkle in the hole you dig whenever you want to transplant in a mature fruit tree. It’ll drastically reduce transplant shock, and at the same time, increase the tree’s ability to absorb water and nutrients by as much as 50 times.
The way it does that is by colonizing the plant’s root system and creating an extended root system that expands itself out into the soil. That extended root system also joins the mycorrhizal “root systems” of other plants, and forms an underground fungal network.
You might have heard how trees are able to “talk” to each other in a forest and pass on warning signals to each other to help defend against infestations and diseases. Yep. That’s this stuff. You can click here to check it out on Amazon.
Oh, and you can inoculate any plant that’s in the ground by just sprinkling some of the fungi above where its roots are and watering it in. All it has to do is make contact with the plant’s root system in order to colonize it.
It’s just worth mentioning though, that brassicas are one of the only plant varieties that don’t form a mycorrhizal association. Basically every other kind of crop does though. Brassicas are members of the cabbage family, which includes broccoli, cauliflower, kale and mustard, so don’t waste any of your mycorrhizal fungi by trying to inoculate your brassicas, because nothing will happen.
How to Grow Your Plants From Seed
All you have to do to plant from seed, is rake back your wood chips to expose the bare soil, and drop your seeds right on top.
For this, you have to make sure that there’s no big wood chip pieces mixed into the soil. However, if you’re using ramial wood chips, which has the right carbon to nitrogen ratio, then the bottom layer of your wood chips will become composted over time anyway, so this won’t be an issue.
As a rule of thumb, after your first year of using the right kind of wood chips, you’ll be able to plant directly in that bottom layer of dark compost that’s been developing. It’ll look like what you’d expect to see in a forest, still quite woody, but full of broken down organic matter. It’ll be clearly full of life.
Each year, this compost layer of your food forest will expand, making it easier and easier for your plants to reseed themselves.
However, If you have lots of big pieces in your wood chips or too high of a carbon to nitrogen ratio in your mulch from it being too woody and not having enough green material, then you’ll need to take an extra step. You’ll need a garden sieve to screen out the raw wood chips, leaving the actual soil behind for you to drop seeds onto. Here’s a good quarter-inch one on Amazon.
Once your plants have grown past the “seedling” stage, and aren’t so delicate that a stray wood chip could cut them down, gently bring your wood chips back around them.
That’s it. You don’t need to do anything else.
Well, other than harvest all the delicious food you’ll get when the time is right.
In fact, after your food forest has been developing for 5 years or so, you won’t even need to plant nearly as many seeds.
Remember how I mentioned that your plants will be able to reseed themselves into that ever-growing compost layer at the bottom of your wood chips?
Eventually, the seeds from the plants you never got around to harvesting will be able to easily make it through your wood chips into that layer, and come right up through the wood chips. It’s widely known among people who have had mature food forests, that after enough time, the work shifts from “planting seeds and getting it going” to “having way more harvest than you could possibly eat,” struggling to keep on top of all the bountiful produce that the food forest keeps giving you back, year after year.
Truly, a food forest gives you back much more than you put into it. The focus upon perennials in particular really builds that foundation of guaranteed harvest that just increases each year.
These are “woody” plants that survive winter and give you a guaranteed harvest each year. Fruit trees, dwarf fruit trees and fruiting shrubs are what’ll be the foundation of your food forest because of this.
The only disadvantage to perennials is that many of them require a few years of growth before their first crop. For example, blueberries typically crop from their third year onward.
There’s an easy way around this, of course, but it’s definitely more work intensive on a larger scale. Simply just transplant mature trees and shrubs to skip the waiting period, and inoculate their root system with the mycorrhizal fungi I mentioned. This way, they’ll adapt quickly to their new home, avoiding transplant shock, and regrowing the tiny roots that have been inevitably damaged in the transplanting process.
A nice time to do this is in winter, because you can order bare root trees to save money. They also have the added benefit of not being root bound, which is where their roots choke themselves out from circling round and round a pot from being left in there too long with no room to grow. When you plant bare root trees after soaking their roots in water for 8-24 hours, you can point the roots outwards to encourage them to grow as they would have done if they were grown from seed.
These are your main crops. Think cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, grapes, carrots, and so on. Pretty much every kind of vegetable you can think of will belong in this category.
Annuals die off in winter and need to be seeded each year, and for the most part, you’ll want to sow your seeds any time after the last frost date for your local area.
You can use this website to find out your local last frost date with either your zip code or just your overall area. With this tool, look for last 32° under the column 10%, in the first table. The one that’s called “in the spring.” This is the date at which you’re pretty much guaranteed to not get any more frost, so there’s no chance your seedlings will get destroyed.
However, you can push it earlier, like most of us growers do. Look at that last 32° column, and ignore the others. The percent chances, running from 10% to 90% on that table are simply the chance that you’ll get a killing frost in your area if you plant at that date. If you want to get a head start on the growing season, simply plant out cold hardy vegetables first, and hold off on the summer ones like zucchini and tomatoes until they’re guaranteed to… well… not die.
If you want something more visual, down below a handy map by NOAA that’s based on 30 years of gathering data. The data collection ended at 2010, but it’s still a really accurate reference for finding out your local last frost date, because they don’t really change that much over time.
After four or five years, you’ll have at least a few inches of woody compost at the bottom of your wood chips which your annuals will be able to self-seed into. This is the tipping point when the food forest starts doing all your work for you.
At that point, it’s all about keeping on top of it. You’ll end up removing extra plants each year after that, and barely planting any at all.
Fencing in your food forest is worth it, unless it’s so big that you don’t mind animals taking a fair amount of your harvest.
It’s basically down to personally preference then. Truly, a food forest can be the best way to bring wildlife back into a region, because you’re creating a habitat with an abundance of food.
However, if you want to maximize what you are able to harvest from your food forest, then fencing it in is a good form of “insurance” for your harvest.
Just don’t forget to use your fence as a trellis for growing grapes, peas, cucumbers and other vine crops to make full use of the space available.
It also makes your food forest look from the outside like it’s overloaded with food, even more so than it already is. If you want to attract people to come and share in the bounties of your food forest, there’s no better way to entice people to venture in.
There’s two ways to go about this.
First of all, there’s Masanobu Fukuoka’s method of naturally growing fruit trees from seed.
His method involves doing exactly nothing at all. That’s right. No pruning.
However, it only works if the tree is able to grow in its natural form. If you do any pruning at all, the tree begins to cross its branches over one another in response to the unnatural change, and requires pruning each year. Otherwise, it’ll cause a whole host of problems, including shading itself out with its tangled branches, experiencing unnatural growth such as water spouts and suckers, and of course, becoming susceptible to disease as a result of its weakened state.
The only “downside” to this method, is that a fair amount of the fruit of trees that take their true natural form won’t be reachable by humans below. Masanobu Fukuoka called this an advantage though, because it allows the birds to have an abundance of food from the fruit on top, and when the fruit drops, the critters and microorganisms down below get their share.
The other method, is to keep on top of your pruning each year. With the twigs and branches that you cut off your trees when pruning them, you can simply chip it up and leave it on the ground to add to your wood chips. Here’s a perfect wood chipper for the job. It has all the safety features you need and the self feeding, wide chute and minimal setup design makes it easy to chip large amounts of brown or green waste without needing a larger chipper.
Anyway, the advantage to pruning your trees is that you can encourage your trees to focus on extra fruit production rather than growing more foliage. However, trees that are pruned to an open center will definitely take up more space than they would if they grew naturally, even though the amount of reachable produce is higher.
It’s really up to you whether you want to take the hassle-free zero-pruning, growing trees and shrubs from seed approach, or whether you want to have them produce fruit as much fruit as possible, at the cost of requiring a few days’ pruning each year.