Starting a food forest may sound like it requires more space than many of us have to work with, but the reality is even gardeners with small yards can implement this permaculture growing method. To share food forest methods and principles, my guest this week is Darrell Frey, a sustainable design expert.
Darrell lives in Western Pennsylvania, where he owns Three Sisters Permaculture and a market garden farm, Three Sisters Farm. He has 40 years of permaculture experience and is a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement. He has also penned two books, “The Food Forest Handbook” and “Bioshelter Market Garden,” and he’s a board member of the Permaculture Institute of North America.
Darrell has had a long interest in living off the land, going back to hunting, fishing and foraging with his father, and he’s gardened his whole life. He recalls picking up a copy of “Five Acres and Independence,” a seminal book on small farming, which furthered his interest in raising food. After high school, Darrell met homesteaders who were raising goats and chickens and making compost, and they helped him to get his farmhouse fixed up and to start his organic garden.
Darrell started studying permaculture in 1980. He says that after reading an interview with Australian permaculture advocate Bill Mollison in Mother Earth News, he just knew that’s what he wanted to do.
“Permaculture was this idea of taking our knowledge of environmental science, environmental studies, and applying them to human habitation and communities,” Darrell says. “It just really pulled together all the stuff I was doing and interested in and kind of gave me a direction of how to have a positive impact on the planet.”
What Do ‘Polyculture’ and ‘Food Forest’ Mean?
Polyculture means mixing many types of plants together in a garden or farm field, rather than one single crop. Having a wide variety of plants leads to higher yields and more resistance to pest and disease pressure.
The classic example of annual polyculture is the “three sisters” method of growing corn, beans and squash together, a Native American tradition. The corn stalks provide a trellis for the beans to climb up. Beans are legumes that fix nitrogen in the soil, which benefits the corn. The squash spread out, suppressing weeds.
Milpa, based on the agricultural methods of Mayans, puts food-producing trees, shrubs and vegetables in the same shared space. It’s an example of perennial polyculture.
The concept of a food forest or forest garden goes back thousands of years. Darrell says native people observed forest edges and recreated the ecology. It started with a clearing that was planted with fruit trees plus annual vegetables and herbs. More plant diversity was added each season, and once the trees got big the annual plantings would be moved to a new plot. The French Creek Valley in Pennsylvania is an example of a native food forest with a documented history dating back to the French-Indian War, he notes.
According to Darrell, a food forest is a well-managed, integrated system that includes groups of plant species that grow well together and interact in a mutually beneficial way. This includes fruit, vegetables, herbs, medicinal plants and plants that promote beneficial insect habitat and balance nutrients. This managed forest ecosystem also provides valuable ecological services.
Layering Food Forests to Make The Most of Any Size Property
Darrell and his co-author, Michelle Czolba, wrote “The Food Forest Handbook” with the small-scale homeowner in mind. “We wanted to make what appeared to be complicated concepts more accessible,” he says. “So basically we kind of see it as a next stage of gardening.”
Darrell points out that a problem in modern society is that people don’t own their homes for that long. As a result, homeowners aren’t keen on planting slow-growing fruit trees. However, he says there are fruit trees that produce in one or two years, such as elderberries, and others that produce in three to five years.
One small-scale food forest that Darrell installed included serviceberries and gooseberries surrounded by even more useful plants such as bergamot, mint and fennel. It also includes lamium, which is deer resistant and attracts beneficial insects, and it is edged with a woodland sunflower that is similar to a Jerusalem artichoke.
Even a small food forest can be very productive by using all the available layers, from tree canopies down to the root level. A tall tree such as a black walnut, heartnut or pecan hickory can provide the top layer. Under that, grow shorter trees, such as pawpaw trees, for example.
Even though walnut trees are allelopathic, which means they put a chemical into the ground that suppresses other plants, there are plants that can tolerate the chemical, such as rose of Sharon, which has edible flower buds, or raspberries. And underneath those, grow strawberries and sweet woodruff on the ground layer and sweet potatoes in the root layer.
There is also a vine layer. Up his apple trees, Darrell has grape vines growing, though he keeps the vines pruned so they don’t overwhelm the tree. Peas and beans can also climb up trees, though he warns that hardy kiwi is a vine to avoid because it can take over the whole area.
Designing a Food Forest
Darrell notes that design is important in creating a food forest, especially considering the expense of planting trees. Be conscious of how large trees will grow and where the dripline will be. Draft a plan on paper, he advises, and figure out where every plant should go.
“Bill Mollison in his permaculture designer manual says it’s better to plant 10 trees and take care of them than to plant a hundred and lose them,” Darrell says.
When Darrell designs a food forest for a client, the considerations are: What does the landowner want out of it, and what is the capacity of the land?
Start with a land assessment and ask these questions: Which way is the wind blowing? Is there wildlife coming across? Is it in a floodplain? How much sun does it get? What’s the soil like? Are windbreaks necessary?
A tree that produces just a few weeks a year should be sited far from the house. Plants that produce more often should be closer. Darrell likes to have berries with his morning yogurt so he has a number of nearby berry plants that produce in succession: red raspberries, blackcap raspberries, blackberries, etc.
Another “plant palette” is his fruit trees: He has Summercrisp pears, summer apples, fall pears for cider, and fall keeping apples. So he’s never without fruit. And apple trees can be grafted with multiple varieties he points out, so a few trees can provide many types of apples.
Darrell suggests making a list of the plants that are important to you to have. Then consider your site assessment to determine what can actually fit on your property. Also consider the path of the sun and which plants need full sun and which can tolerate shade.
A food forest will also require mineral-rich soil, so get a soil test. Darrell uses a number of soil amendments, including greensand, rock phosphate, lime and kelp meal. And he tops the soil with wood chip or leaf mulch. Even cardboard can be used while you find a source for wood chips.
Plan a space where tools will be stored, consider fencing in a property that faces deer pressure, and plan a composting area, Darrell says. It’s also important to plant small flowers that attract beneficial insects from spring through fall. And be observant of what succeeds in the forest garden, what struggles and what creatures visit.
Food Forests Should Not Be Intimidating
“I think some people think that planting trees and shrubs is kind of daunting,” Darrell says. “They’ve been gardening for years, but they think they’re going to get into something more complex — but really it’s not that complex.”
He says to expand your horizons, plant some fruit trees and practice companion planting. You’ll see how easy it is to create a more productive planet.
“As a permaculture designer, environmentalist, I have people often express their concern for society in the future and the present day,” Darrell says. “And I still believe that the future is abundant. I’ve seen so much good stuff happen in the last 30 years that I’ve been involved in — permaculture and rain gardens and native trees being planted and food forest parks. There’s just a lot of good things happening if you look for them.”
I hope after listening to my conversation with Darrell Frey you feel more confident about broadening your gardening horizons. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
Do you practice polyculture in your garden? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Tomato expert Craig LeHoullier joins me in leading this course on how to grow healthier, productive tomato plants and how to overcome tomato-growing challenges.
“Food Forest Handbook: Design and Manage a Home-Scale Perennial Polyculture Garden” by Darrell Frey and Michelle Czolba
“Bioshelter Market Garden: A Permaculture Farm” by Darrell Frey
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