With traditional farming methods, it’s hard to keep costs down while growing your own vegetables. Fertilizers, pesticides and machinery are expensive. That’s why farms are so huge; they have to scale things up to keep the costs low.
Fortunately, there’s an alternative to mass production, and one which will easily fit in your own backyard. That alternative is to start a food forest.
Wow. I bet you weren’t expecting that, considering the name of our site.
Jokes aside, your food forest can even be as small as a single raised bed. It’s technically called a guild rather than a food forest at that size, but the principle is exactly the same.
Let’s say you’re going for a single raised bed. You’ll want to have a dwarf fruit tree in the middle that’ll act as a trellis for a fruiting climbing plant like peas, grapes, tomatoes or cucumbers. At the foot of that tree, you’ll want a shrub such as a blueberry bush to fill in that vertical space below the tree’s canopy, and your vegetables will be grown around the outside.
That’s a guild. It’s the single most space efficient way to grow your own fruits and vegetables, because you can pack everything so close together. There’s no need to worry about crop spacing: plants with different heights have different root depths, so they don’t compete for nutrients. That’s what lets you get away with it, combined with their different heights letting each of them get enough sun without being shaded out.
It’s like the seats in a movie theater. Each row can see the screen no matter how many people are sat in front, because they do not compete for height.
A food forest can have up to 7 layers, from the fruit tree canopy high up, right down to the root vegetables in the ground, but don’t worry if you want to skip any of the layers. It’s free choice. You can just pick and choose what you want to eat. The layering thing is just to get the most you possibly can out of your space.
Now, the thing you must know about this is that the single most important thing about forest gardening is that the ground must be covered at all times. This is only the layer of a food forest that you can’t skip. Bare soil lets water evaporate, which is why you need to water your plants all the time, and constant weeding causes the soil to be depleted of nutrients rather than regenerated.
The single best ground cover you can get is wood chips with about 80% green content to 20% brown, woody content. This stuff is something you can get for free by phoning up local tree surgeons, which is why it’s often called arborist wood chips, even though the proper name for it is ramial chipped wood. It’ll keep the weeds down and protect the soil from dehydration, while it breaks down over time and fertilizes your plants with the decomposing organic matter that it becomes. Wood chips do everything at once by just being left there on top of your soil as a covering. They’re pure gold.
Now, when you’re planting your seeds you want to make sure that you plant them in the soil below your wood chips. The wood chips are just a mulch – a covering, not a growing medium like soil is. Don’t bring the wood chips right up to your seedlings until they’ve become strong enough to handle it.
Leave them with just a little bit of room, or even a few inches more if your wood chips would damage your seedlings if they came into contact. Wind doesn’t blow wood chips away, but they’ll have some movement over time due to the rain. I also have a cat that knocks my wood chips about, so I give my seedlings extra space to avoid them getting flattened by the odd stray wood chip.
With this method, you’ll easily be able to save money because there just aren’t any maintenance costs. Seeds are ridiculously cheap, and you often get hundreds of them at a time. Naturally, a food forest rather than just a guild in a raised bed would save you even more money, but no matter how little space you have, just know that it’s always worth it.
When Can I Start?
Any time of year. There’s always stuff that grows in each season.
That’s right. You can even start in fall or winter. If you start in spring, you’ll need an extra layer of compost below your wood chips because your soil won’t have had time to develop, and planting in compacted soil isn’t ideal.
Check out this post for a guide on how to do all that. It only takes a weekend to set up.
As for the wood chips, it’s pretty straightforward, though it is true that there a lot of things out there that are classed as “wood chips,” even though they’re not as ideal as proper ramial chipped wood. I wrote about what makes good wood chips good, and what kinds to avoid over here.