The Food In The Forest

One of the iconic paradigms of permaculture is a food forest. The idea is as follows:

“By understanding how forests grow and sustain themselves without human intervention, we can learn from Nature, copy the systems and patterns to model our own forests — ones filled with trees and plants that produce food we can eat.”

Angelo Eliades, Permaculture News Magazine

Food forests are beautiful in concept and application, and many indigenous cultures throughout the centuries have practiced agroforestry techniques along these lines. If you’re starting with a lawn or a farm field, then planting a food forest is kind of like planting turbo-charged garden, and it’s likely to be a major ecological, environmental, and aesthetic improvement over what was there before. But what if your lot is already wooded? Should you cut down existing trees to replace them with food-bearing trees?

I encountered this very dilemma on the land I steward. Strawberry Moon Farm is about 10 acres in size; minuscule compared to all of the neighboring farms. Of this, we have 2.4 acres of frequently flooded wetland, 3.6 acres of woods, and 4.4 acres of former corn fields and lawn. By mainstream thinking, that equates to 4.4 acres of “good farm land”. At first, I believed this misconception about good and bad land, and I was not sure if the 4.4 classically-appreciable acres would allow enough room for all the plantings I had in mind for this farm. I briefly considered cutting down some trees in the woods to make space for more “food trees”. Ultimately, the idea of cutting down lots of trees made me feel a little sick. But don’t we need food? Aren’t there hungry and undernourished people in our community? Isn’t it important to reduce food miles? And, if I plant new trees, does that make up for cutting down existing trees? The old ones? The native ones? Is a food forest better than a wild forest?

Luckily, I was not forced to make that impossibly heart-wrenching choice. And if you are facing a similar tough decision, relax. There is really good news here. The forest is already made of food.

If you have a wood lot on your property, go to your library and borrow a nice field guide for tree identification in your locale. Take it with you as you walk through your woods. Identify as many trees as you can, and write down their names. Later, employ high technology to its highest purpose, and google those trees. Learn all you can learn about them. Search for them in the Plants For A Future database. Search for them in ethnobotanical databases, such as BRIT. Find out as much as you can about the ways indigenous people use them for food, medicine, tools, and fiber. Learn any modern uses. Learn which mushroom species can be cultivated on the fallen branches from each tree. Learn about its importance to wildlife and pollinators, about its lifecycle, and about its impact on soil, water, and air quality. Learn about its native range, and find out if it is endangered. Chances are, most of the trees in your woods have at least one wondrous purpose, and your only real task is to learn how to responsibly partake of their gifts.

In my case, the woods provide walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, beech nuts, sweet syrups, cherries, grapes, mulberries, fresh greens of many types, edible flowers and seeds, blackberries, raspberries, herbs, and spices. And I am convinced that is not all, that there is much more value in my woods that I have not yet learned to see. We are not talking about a token yield of a few snacks here, but rather about buckets and buckets of harvest every year, for which we need do no work other than learn what it is and be present to gather it and give thanks. In the future, when I have the time available, there is ample opportunity for me to engage with these woods in a more meaningful way. If I remove some of the invasive undergrowth, I could cultivate many more food and medicine herbs, brambles, and shrubs under the shade of the old canopy. I could inoculate fallen logs with edible mushroom spawn, and harvest the fruiting bodies. I could plant young saplings to replace dead and dying trunks, and eventually harvest their bounty. I could reintroduce numerous species of endangered or threatened native plants. I am only beginning to scratch the surface of all that is possible in these woods.

The key skills in farming the woods are to observe with attention and intention, to learn to recognize gifts of great worth, and to learn how to harvest responsibly and sustainably. One cannot approach a woodland with arrogance and a closed mind and expect to leave with an abundant harvest. Unfortunately, that’s what the first colonists of my county did, and it resulted in most of our old growth forests being cleared, most of our wetlands being drained, and a labor-intensive, resource-intensive monoculture imposed over the ashes of a once great land.

“Tall trees covered the whole county with their wide-spreading branches, depending to the ground, and the shrubbery below arose and united with the branches of the trees…In the open space, in the valleys, grew either prickly ash or nettles, both equally armed with sharp, fiery prickles…Where spice-wood did not grow to thickly, male fern formed a solid mass three feet in depth, covering logs and pit falls so completely” …

“During a dry time, two or three men might, by merely sowing and deadening over with fire, burn up the whole superincumbent covering over eight or ten acres in a single day… till the whole county, in an incredibly short time, was brought into cultivation.”

-Judge Franklin Harden, “A Historical Sketch of Johnson County” (1881)

Had Judge Harden (one of the first colonists of my county) and his people made a priority to learn from the indigenous people who were already engaged in a longstanding fruitful and reciprocal relationship with this land, perhaps we would all be living a more abundant life today. If he had studied more deeply, he might have learned that prickly ash, nettles, spice-wood (spicebush), some species of ferns, and many species of tall trees already produce premium quality food, and some of those plants have useful medicinal applications as well. Furthermore, there were likely many other magnificent species that he overlooked in his haste to slash and burn.

“There were wild plums, strawberries, grapes, pawpaws, persimmons, crabapples, and many varieties of berries. The acorn of the bur oak, Indian potatoes, and tubers of the water chinkapin, arrowleaf, and Jerusalem artichoke supplied starch. Common milkweed, flowers of the mulberry, early shoots of skunk cabbage, sour dock, wild onion, and a number of other plants were prized as greens. Teas were made from spikenard, spicebush, sassafras, and several other plants.”

-Stewart Rafert, an account of the wild local bounty known and enjoyed by one of Indiana’s largest indigenous tribes, the Miami. From “The Miami Indians of Indiana, A Persistent People” (1999).

I wish I could have seen my state covered by that old and abundant forest made of food. Past harms cannot be undone, but we can choose to learn from the mistakes of our past and to make a better decision today. I’m grateful for the wild spaces that remain, and I will do what is in my power to do to preserve and restore them. The woods on my land are not old, but they are becoming old. A token few trees may have lived a century or longer, but most are 50 years or younger. It is likely that someone of my grandparents’ generation planted the majority of these trees. That planting was a great gift. I hope someday, when a future generation inherits the new native tree forest that I have planted, they can recognize the inherent worth of it, and steward it on into the future. And as I begin to plant the 4.4 “good” acres on this farm, I find my plans evolving towards more and more native food-bearing trees and plants over the more common (mostly Eurasian) orchard crops. The native plants offer a brilliant package of joy and nourishment for the entire ecosystem. Perhaps one day, the old forest of abundance will return to these ten little acres in Johnson County.

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Becoming A Garden Superhero: 6 Skills To Cultivate For A More Resilient Garden

Last year, the pandemic and its accompanying shutdown produced a record increase in home gardens. By April, we saw shortages of garden supplies, seeds, plants, and food preservation supplies. Although the supply shortages were inconvenient, most people I know were still able to grow an abundant garden. I believe gardening is a positive, empowering, healthy and healing activity, and I hope this trend of increased gardeners continues. So far, it looks like it is continuing, evidenced by signs of overwhelm brewing in garden supply businesses. Baker Creek has already needed to temporarily suspend web orders while they catch up on their backlog, Seed Savers Exchange is reporting a three week shipping delay, and several seed varieties I was hoping to try this year have already sold out. So if you need garden supplies, don’t delay. But you may need less than you think, and just a few basic skills can transform you from a consumer of garden supplies into an all-around garden superhero.

#1: The Power of Cooperation

Do you have at least one friend or neighbor who gardens? Most seed packets contain more seeds than one gardener can use. Offer to share your extra seeds, or ask about combining your orders and splitting the cost of any new seed packets that you both want. Established perennials need to be divided every few years to keep them healthy. Instead of buying all your plants new from a nursery, offer to trade cuttings and divisions of plants with friends. This can all be done through contact-free drops, and may also help us feel more connected during these (hopefully) last few months of distance.

#2: The Power of Regeneration

Learn how to collect and save seed for free. Many popular garden plants are very easy to harvest seed from, and if you learn that skill, seed packets become a once in a lifetime purchase. And in addition to those new seeds being free, they can actually be better. Each year you grow and save seeds, you have an opportunity to choose the seeds from the plants that performed best in your specific garden. Those seeds will be a little more adapted to your local growing conditions, and the seed children of those seeds can be better still!

#3: The Power of Transformation

Learn to see everyday waste products as garden supplies. Flattened cardboard boxes make great weed blocker. Plastic clamshells, yogurt cups, and tin cans can become planters. Soda cans can be cut into beautiful DIY plant labels. Some food scraps can be replanted to keep on growing. Other food scraps and yard waste can be composted to create free fertilizer.

#4: The Power of Preservation

Learn to take good care of the garden supplies you already have. Oil your wooden tool handles. Sharpen your digging tools and your cutting tools. Don’t leave stuff out in the rain and sun. Keep your seeds in a sealed jar or bag in the refrigerator to extend their life. Take good care of your plants so they will thrive and produce new seeds or divisions for your next garden expansion.

#5: The Power of Selection

Learn to choose wisely. There are many alluring garden gadgets that are really unnecessary. Don’t buy the hype. You really don’t need much to grow an abundant organic garden. When you do need to buy a tool, choose a tool that you won’t have to replace. Limit your seed packet orders to a quantity that is realistic for you.

#6: The Power of Abundance

Gardening is one way for we humans to increase abundance. When our needs are met with abundance, we gain the freedom to relax into a great peace. Our needs are met. The land provides. When we have plenty to share, we can share our plenty with joy, nourishing our bodies as we nourish our relationships to the land, to each other, to our truest and kindest selves.

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider showing us some love! You can help us and our cause of Earth-positive agriculture by sharing this article with your friends, following us on social media, and interacting with our posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss us a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi. It’s easy to use and processes through PayPal so you don’t have to create a new account.