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How to start your food forest and what to plant

Are you struggling to figure out how to start your food forest? It can be hard to know what and where to plant, so taking the first step can be daunting. But if you know how to design your food forest, the planting process will be much easier. Familiarising yourself with local conditions takes time, but helps your decision-making when it comes to getting plants into the ground.

Know your space

The longer you spend observing your site, the better. “Watch where water drains and collects, which areas get more sun, whether there are prevailing wind patterns, and what types of plants grow well naturally in the area,” says Mike Pierce, Food & Trees for Africa assessment specialist. “Your food forest can then take advantage of the local environment, making your job that much easier when you start planting.” Once you know your environment, don’t be shy to ask for advice from knowledgeable friends in your permaculture group or the staff at your local nursery about which plants grow well in the area.       

Paths invariably get compacted by foot traffic, creating runoff or preventing water from penetrating the soil. Before planting, plan your access routes to take advantage of any slopes, ground contours and swales. These can then direct, capture, and harvest water for the plants in your food forest

Chop and drop to build soil organics

It’s no good trying to plant larger slow-growing productive species like nut and fruit trees into a system that lacks robust soil biology. If your soil is degraded, you will need to build up the soil organics to support a healthy microbial ecosystem. How you do this will depend on your timeline and finances, but it is best to leverage natural processes.

Planting fast-growing weeds and pioneer plants allows you to ‘chop and drop’ them. Cutting them down puts organic material into the soil, boosting its vitality, and you can follow this with nitrogen fixers like legumes, cereals, and runner beans if necessary. During these initial stages, the roots of these plants will break up compacted soil and boost the nutrient cycle. 

“Mulching is one of the most powerful ways to restore soil biology. Covering the ground with this thick layer of organic material prevents exposure to the sun and retains moisture,” says Pierce.

By fast-tracking natural processes, you build up the full suite of natural soil microbes. This will help large food-producing trees to grow. If you get your soil right naturally, you should never have to fertilise! You should also avoid digging whenever possible, as it is very destructive. If you have enough time, your pioneer plants will break up even the most compacted soil.

It is a good idea to combine approaches by supporting your fast-growing, hardy pioneers with soil drenches rather than dry fertilisers. These often contain biological elements and help to hydrate the soil, acting almost like an inoculant rather than a fertiliser. 

Planting the food forest’s seven layers

There is a tendency to overthink what plants to use in your food forest, and when to plant them. If you have good soil organics, you can usually start planting all your layers simultaneously. Over time, the ecosystem will sort itself out through competition, especially between slow-growing productive canopy species and understorey trees. A good rule to follow is to plant what you like and what you’re going to use and eat, as well as using plants with a variety of uses.

Food forests are great levellers of conditions: the canopy shades and protects sensitive plants, while in cooler climates the forest provides heat as it matures. Larger trees ward off frost and increase humidity, which can create a sub-tropical microclimate.

Size doesn’t matter

Size should never be a limiting factor for your food forest. You can plant in a space as small as one square metre, and urban food forests are rapidly gaining popularity.

Rather plant too densely than too sparsely. Natural forests thrive on competition, so plant more than the space can handle. Certain plants will flourish, while others will be phased out naturally and contribute to the soil organics. This will also indicate which plants cope better with the conditions and can inform your planting if you expand your food forest. So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, start small and see what works, then scale up at whatever pace suits you.

It is never too late to start a food forest, or even simply plant a tree. Donate to FTFA and get started today!

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