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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Celebrating A Job Well Done

In 2017, I received an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. This grant pays part of my costs for the tree seedlings and seeds I needed to purchase to transition this land from corn/soy fields into tree crops and other perennial crops. It came with some restrictions, but the only restriction that concerned me was time. It was a huge project, and the grant required it be completed in only two years. Well, luckily for me I was awarded a one year deadline extension last year, because I fell a little short of that deadline. But today I planted the last tree and I can finally say it is complete!

These are the projects I’ve completed in the past three years, under guidance of my encouraging and knowledgeable NRCS representative and with help from my wonderful husband.

  • Grown a buckwheat cover crop in my three non-flooding fields, to help shade out weeds and provide good summertime forage for pollinators (but for one summer only).
  • Planted a permanent pasture grass blend in the same three fields, consisting of mixed grasses and legumes. This planting will reduce erosion on that land, keep the soil aerated so it can absorb maximum water, add biomass to the soil (mulch), and someday provide food for sheep, when we are ready for them. The clover included in the planting mix will also provide food for pollinators for years to come, and nitrogen to naturally fertilize the grasses.
  • Planted a native plant food forest on our two acre riparian flood plain. This project doubles as both an orchard and a wetland restoration. The soil is no longer bare, but now contains a tree every 10-12 feet, mown grasses down the tree rows, and strips of native herbs and wildflowers blossoming between rows. Not only does this planting help to clean and filter flood waters, reduce erosion, and create food and habitat for pollinators and wildlife, but when fully established, we expect these two acres of diverse native plant species will generate thousands of pounds of food per year with minimal human intervention.

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Summer in the Riparian Buffer

One mowed row in the riparian buffer

The Riparian Buffer Native Food Forest project is well underway. It’s an ever-evolving work and while it will never be “finished”, the initial planting phase is on track to be complete this year. With every new year, we gain new knowledge and encounter new obstacles. This year, the dominant obstacle has been mowing. Little growing trees are not as tall as weeds, and they need help to get their quotas of sunlight and fresh air. Most farmers in a similar situation would likely spray herbicides to control weeds around the young trees, but we won’t do that here because we value the diversity of our ecosystem.

If I could start this project over again, I would have been mowing this area regularly this whole time with a regular riding lawn mower. But I had some misconceptions at the start: that I could maintain the area by mowing infrequently with a scythe, that frequent mowing wouldn’t be necessary, and that I’d be able to delegate the bulk of my mowing work to a few happy little sheep by now. I’m a natural researcher, but there isn’t a lot of documentation available on this subject, and none of those hopes panned out. Now I’m facing some pretty serious weeds. Three year old saplings, chest-high invasive grasses… add to that driftwood and large miscellaneous debris that regularly floats into our field on floodwater currents, and you’ve got an expert-level mowing situation. We have a riding mower with a pull-behind brush hog, which is able to handle the rough terrain. We’ve used it a few times to mow large spaces between planted rows, but the handling is not precise enough to be trusted anywhere near the small trees, and the operation is a complicated, multi-day effort involving two people guiding and coordinating the unwieldy beast. The riding mower alone could get fairly close to the saplings, but the deck cannot handle this much overgrowth. I was almost about to purchase an expensive new machine, when I saw my husband using our tiny electric battery-powered push mower to mow down some sturdy mulberry saplings near the rooster coop. I knew immediately that this unassuming little machine was up to the task.

An American Elder sapling, hidden among weeds

And so began the painstaking work of reclaiming the planted rows. Of course, the first job is locating the saplings, so I don’t accidentally mow them over. As you can see in the photo to the right, they’re hard to find. Especially because most of the stakes I used to mark them with last year floated away in one flood or another.

How do I find the trees? This treasure map! Actually, it’s a modern day treasure map, in the form of a google sheet. Every cell represents a 5’x5′ square. Text inside the cell tells me what species might be planted in that square. Highlighted colors denote topography. I’m able to update this sheet in real time from the field on my mobile device.

I use a surveyor’s tape (300′) to mark the row, joining the first tree in the row and the last tree in the row based on my spreadsheet notation. Then, I reapply marking stakes to any trees in the line that lost their stakes to flood currents. After the trees are all marked, I run the mower along the right side, then the left side of the planted row, coming as close to the little trees as possible. I often have to angle the front of the mower upwards, like a munchy mouth, then chomp it down over tall, tough weeds. After mowing along both sides of a planted row, I make a final pass to clear the area between planted trees. It takes 2-3 battery charges and about a day to complete one 300′ row. The maintenance work is much easier though, as long as the weeds stay short. I’m leaving wild strips between the rows, for wildlife habitat. These wild strips host important wildflowers such as milkweed, and give small animals safe places to hide, nest, and rest.

Permaculture Guild Area
This area was an attempt at a “Permaculture Guild” style design, and it was the hardest to mow. The trees aren’t planted in rows, they’re planted in concentric circles. That made them really hard to find, and created a lot of extra mowing work. This area was an experiment that will not be repeated. Yet, I mowed it!
Me standing next to a 3 year old pecan tree
This three year old American Pecan tree is nearly as tall as me! Delicious pecans in T-7 years!
All the hard work is worth it when I find a healthy little tree thriving with new growth like this yearling Swamp White Oak! Edible acorns in T-19 years.
A tiny American Cranberrybush hiding amongst the weeds. Hard to find, but worth it! T-3 years to fruit! This plant is a whole topic unto itself, and I’ll write a lot more about it. For now, suffice it to say, it’s not a cranberry.

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The Flow of Permaculture

When people find out I’m starting a farm, the first question they usually ask is, “What are you going to grow?”  After I’ve told them about the extensive gardens, orchards, vineyards, woodland crops, wetland crops, animals, and honey bees in the plans, most people respond with a comment along the lines of, “that sounds like a lot of work”.  And yes, farming is undeniably a lot of work.  But raising a wide variety of crops can actually make the small farm more efficient.  By strategically designing a self-sustaining ecosystem, the farmer harvests more, wastes less, and diversifies her workload rather than increasing it.  Take a look at the flow chart below, showing the complex relationships between the various crops and animals planned for Strawberry Moon.

Permaculture Farming Flow Chart
In the system above, the farmer does a wide variety of jobs, but each task sets multiple other tasks in motion.  I personally find it more enjoyable to spend small amounts of time doing many different things than to spend a large amount of time doing one thing.  Additionally, many of the least desirable jobs can be delegated.  For example, look at how the chickens fit into the farm ecosystem.  The farmer does spend time and money buying food for the chickens, caring for them, and building a safe shelter for them.  However, in return, the chickens will prepare new garden beds, provide fertilizer for the crops, control insect pests, clean up and “compost” damaged fruits and vegetables, and as if that wasn’t enough, they also reward the farmer with eggs and feathers!  And if you are someone who eats chicken meat, then that can be another benefit as well.  Even if the chickens did not provide eggs, they would still be valued partners on the farm.  Now, take a look at the chart below.  This shows a less complex system with fewer elements, but notice the additional tasks that now fall to the farmer.

Non-Permaculture Farming Flow Chart In the first chart, the farmer was responsible for 13 tasks, but some of them were one-time jobs such as building shelters for the animals.  In the second chart, the farmer is responsible for 13 very significant, ongoing tasks.  Yet, the farmer no longer receives wool, milk, honey, wax, eggs, or feathers.  The farmer is not purchasing chicken feed, however the farmer is now purchasing fertilizer and pesticides.  The farmer is not responsible for caring for the sheep, but she must now spend hours per week mowing grass.  By omitting the farm animals, the farmer must do the animals’ work*.

This method of designing an interdependent, self-sustaining farm ecosystem is called permaculture.  The concepts of permaculture are based in nature and in traditional family homesteads.  If your great-grandparents farmed, they may have used some of these techniques.  Permaculture farming is less common in modern times, perhaps because modern farming is usually done on a very large scale in which machines are necessary to keep up with the work.  It would be very expensive to maintain factory grade equipment for so many different crops and animals.  However, on a small ten acre farm such as Strawberry Moon, where we do our work with hand tools anyway, this is a compelling farming system to consider.  In addition to optimizing the rewards for the farmer’s labor and purchases, this farming style is incredibly earth-friendly and sustainable.  How would you rather spend your Saturday afternoon: watching some fluffy little sheep chow down on your orchard grass while you refill their water trough, or breathing in diesel fumes from your noisy lawn mower?  I definitely know a few people who would prefer the mower, but for me and my farm, I choose the sheep!

* Please keep in mind, farm animals are living beings.  It is a great responsibility to enter into a partnership with an animal, so first please be sure you can accommodate their needs appropriately.

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