What are the specifics of how to start a food forest?
Like with all edible gardens, usually the starting point of installation lies in choosing the location. Ideally the food forest will be planted in a space with full sun, rich-well draining soil, and ideally away from large trees with aggressive root systems (banyan trees as an example). If the soil isn’t rich it can later be improved with the addition of compost, organic fertilizer, and mulch, however, it is important that the site receives at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight throughout the whole year. Trimming trees that make shade is one way to create more light for a site. Also bear in mind that once fruit trees become taller they will receive more light.
Once the site is chosen, one should decide on the overall size and shape of the food forest, particularly the outer edge. It is often a good idea to mark the edge on the ground using a shovel, hoe, or a hose (particularly helpful for planning large curved edges). At this point, it’s good to decide the placement of the fruit trees and larger growing plants. As a general rule, the tallest plants should be positioned on the north side of the food forest. Often the size and shape of the food forest will be determined by the amount and type of fruit trees planted, and the amount of space one would like for growing the other edible plants by the fruit trees.
The next step is preparing the soil for planting. There are multiple approaches to doing this. Often the sunny areas of sites will be lawns or have non-edible, ornamental plants planted on them.
When it comes to the existing lawn on a food forest site, one has the option to physically remove the grass (using heavy duty shovels or hoes) or sheet-mulching, a process of killing the grass by covering it with cardboard or paper (non-glossy). It can also be a combination of these, manually removing the grass in areas where fruit trees are to be planted and sheet-mulching the areas in between.
When in comes to existing non-edible plants on an existing food forest site, one needs to decide whether to remove all of them or to leave some to be integrated with the edible plants of the food forest. Non-edible ornamental plants can enhance the overall aesthetics of a food forest but they also take up space that otherwise could be used for edible plants. Also consider integrating plants that may not be edible for humans but are edible for wildlife (many of which are “native” plants).
The next choice one has is whether to till the soil or not. Either choice has its advantages and disadvantages. Tilling is particularly useful in areas where the soil has a lot of roots, is rocky, and/or compacted. Manual tools used for this are pick axes, shovels and heavy-duty hoes. Roots from nearby trees can compete for nutrients with the food forest’s edible plants, so it is often nice to reduce this competition by removing roots in a food forest site. Another option for those that would rather not till the entire food forest site would be to till the perimeter and the areas where the fruit trees are planted. Tilling too much can also disturb the existing biology of the soil.
The next step is to bring in additional compost/organic fertilizer, particularly for sites that lack fertility which have usually sandy or rocky soil. When planting fruit trees, a good idea to make a hole a bit larger than the existing root ball of the tree. This is usually done with a shovel and a pick axe, and sometimes a digging bar (when particularly rocky). If adding compost to the hole for the tree, it is a good idea not to add too much, generally 50% or more of the mix in the hole should be existing soil, and 50% or less should be compost. Additional compost can also be added in a ring surrounding the fruit tree, typically at a distance reflective of the fruit trees dripline.
Now its time to plant, usually a food forest consists of a selection of fruit trees, perennials, annuals and cover crops. I recommend starting with the largest plants first, then the medium plants. After the large and medium plants are in the ground, it is a good time to mulch the site. After the site is mulched, it is easy to plant small plants, seeds, and cuttings moving the mulch out of the way when necessary. Watering both before and after planting is recommended. Now the installation is complete!
In terms of caring for the food forest in the time immediately following the installation, the main task will be to make sure the food forest receives enough water. In our rainy summers, many days one may not have to water their food forest. However at least for the first month after planting the food forest will still need to be watered on days when it doesn’t rain or doesn’t rain much.
Besides watering, the main care that the food forest will require will be pest management, harvesting, pruning and periodically adding mulch/organic fertilizer.
Sources for food forest plants:
Plant Matter – (sold at Upper East Side Farmers market, Sat., 9-2 at Legion’s Park) – plantmatter.net, firstname.lastname@example.org, 305-336-0722