Utilizing permaculture principles, building a food forest is a great way to maximize space utilization, minimize inputs and create a wealth of abundance. By creating food forest guilds, we can begin to foster closed loop systems that will produce not only food for us and wildlife, but for the plants themselves as well!
What is a Food Forest?
A food forest, also known as forest gardening, is the strategic planting of edible plants in such a way as to mirror natural patterns and ecosystems. Plant diversity is key in a food forest.
Since perennials are the main type of plants utilized in forest gardening, the idea is to play a long-term game, rather than focus on the short-term. We want food production for years, not just a season.
Food forests are constructed using a number of layers.
Generally, there are seven layers utilized in forest gardening. However, it is becoming more prevalent to acknowledge the presence of an eighth layer.
- Tall (overstory) trees
- Shorter (understory) trees
- Shrubby plants and bushes
- Herbaceous and low lying plants
- Ground cover and sprawling plants
- Vines and climbing plants
- Mycelial (mushrooms)
Why is a food forest important?
First, It helps maintain and build good, healthy soil through the diversity and multi-functionality of the plants utilized within it. Think of the plants used for mulch and as fertilizer.
Having healthy, robust soil results in the abundance of production we are looking for. In addition, it helps reduce the need for external inputs of chemical fertilizer.
Second, as a rule, food forests are also more resilient to environmental stresses such as pest and disease pressure.
Because of this resilience, it greatly reduces the amount of time needed for hands on maintenance. Just think about it! A resilient garden equates to less bad bugs and less disease.
Who doesn’t love that?
Third, food forests provide the perfect location for birds and other wildlife to dwell. Not only is this beneficial to the environment, but it also benefits your garden.
The birds help keep the pest problems down by eating the bugs. Deer help by leaving their droppings, which are a wonderful fertilizer.
When it’s all said and done, having a food forest has a wealth of benefits both for you and the land you are stewarding!
What is a Guild?
Keeping these different layers in mind, we can begin building our forest garden using guilds.
Focusing on a specific space, a guild utilizes each layer of a food forest in order to maximize beneficial relationships between the plants, specifically targeting the central tree.
What does this mean?
Well, we begin with a specific tree as our center. It could be a fruit or nut tree. You could theoretically utilize any type of tree, but for the sake of creating a food forest we are going to stick with fruit or nut trees in this example.
Once you have established what your guild will have at its center, you will begin to work out from there, underplanting a variety of plants that are multifunctional and mutually beneficial for the central tree.
The goal with this is to work with plants that either can be found growing together in the wild or that have synergistic effects on each other.
In practice, this would look like plants that could be utilized as fertilizer, mulch, insect repellant or attractant, weed suppression, etc.
The goal of underplanting with this variety of useful plants is to reduce labor, assist your central tree, and reduce the amount of outside inputs required.
Starting to Build a Guild
First, you must consider the amount of space you have available. This will help determine whether you will utilize larger (standard) trees or smaller (semi-dwarf or dwarf) trees in your guild.
For extremely small spaces, bushes can even be utilized as the center of a guild!
Observation is the next thing you will need to do. Watch your space throughout the seasons: where the light falls most, how the water drains, where the frost stays longest.
Taking the time before planting to really get to know your land is critical to finding the right place to plant your guild.
You will save yourself a lot of headache by doing the hard work of observing ahead of time, rather than learning too late that the ‘ideal’ spot for your guild just happens to be a muddy bog most of the spring.
Once you have figured out the best place to put your guild, you will want to establish/measure the drip line area of your tree.
What is a drip line?
The drip line of a tree is generally defined as the outer circumference of the mature tree, where collected rainwater on the leaves will drip off onto the ground.
What plants to use?
To begin, we obviously need to decide on a fruit or nut tree. When we moved into our house, there were two existing peach trees on the property. Over the course of this year (and next) I’m working on establishing a guild underneath the two trees.
I started it this year with comfrey. It is excellent for chop-and-drop mulching several times a season.
Not only that, but you can also utilize the leaves and make a wonderful fertilizer tea for the other plants in your garden!
Next up is white clover. This lovely little plant fixes nitrogen in the soil and also attracts beneficial pollinators.
It is also fairly resilient to being walked on, which makes it a popular pick for fruit tree guilds and garden walkways alike!
To help repel unwanted insects, we will utilize nasturtium and chives around the perimeter of the drip line.
I might also try adding yarrow to help act as an accumulator and an attractant for beneficial insects. It works conveniently for me, as yarrow grows native here in Oklahoma, so it isn’t hard to grow.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with different plants as you create your guild. Find native varieties or more exotic plants that will add a little bit of spice to your forest garden.
The possibilities are as endless as your imagination!
What have you tried in your guilds? What plants are your favorites?
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