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  • Farmer Brett

Birth of a food forest: a forest garden

Updated: Jan 16, 2021

When Shaun and I were living on Beacon Hill, he spent time at the Beacon Hill Food Forest, learning and harvesting. We both were taken with the idea of a food forest and as we’ve gotten to know the particular piece of land where we are building Our perfect Farm, we’ve had an eye toward how we might use the principles of a food forest here.

It didn’t take very long for it to be clear that the area just east of the house where there are already cottonwoods, red alders, salal, and native blackberries was the perfect place to develop our own food forest.

There are so many models of food production to learn about and gain inspiration from. Farming calls to mind long, precise rows of the same crops, tilled and harvested by heavy tractors. Mention an orchard, and people are likely to picture similar endless rows of apple trees. My very white American worldview is drawn to the tidy lines of that model of agriculture. Our food forest isn’t going to look like either of those things. While I am compelled by straight lines and tidy rows, that isn’t how plants want to grow.

Forests – like the coastal rainforests Washington is known for – build productive, nutrient-rich soils. They are home to a multitude of diverse species of animals, plants, and fungi. They maintain themselves for eons without human intervention. Certainly, most forests aren’t designed on purpose to produce delicious food, but the food forest model asks us to learn from the way plants and animals work together in a forest to regenerate and improve their environment.

The trees and fruits we’re growing in the food forest garden at Our perfect Farm are meant to work with each other and with the land. Instead of needing irrigation, greenhousing, or chemical soil amendment to thrive, our food forest will be full of plants that help each other and the land where they grow.

We’ve planted strawberries, a ground cover, which will help keep valuable moisture close to the earth – but their shallow root system can only draw nutrients from the first few inches of soil. We’re leaving dandelions where they are so they can send their taproots down deep. Those same dandelions will leave mulch when they are done growing for the year, so the nutrients they drew up will become available to plants closer to the surface of the soil.

We planted yarrow to attract beneficial insects, clover to fix nitrogen in the soil, chives and daffodils to deter pests, columbine and rudbeckia to attract pollinators, and echinacea for the bees and for its drought tolerance. All those are growing alongside the white currants, apples trees, pear trees, cherry trees, hardy kiwis, hibiscus, thyme, and oregano you might expect in a food producing garden area.

The idea is for all these plants to collaborate to help the fruit trees flower at their best, producing the biggest and most abundant harvest –without the insecticides, chemical soil amendment, or soil depletion so common in modern orchards. Learning from nature, and planting an orchard-forest, is about careful consideration of how plants will work together. We’re still figuring this all out, to be sure. The sage I planted died a slow, painful to watch, death.

We have plans to keep adding plants. Shaun’s been keeping an eye out as he runs errands – checking the stores he visits for plants on our list. I don’t always get a new plant when he comes home, but when I do, it’s a wonderful surprise. I love the excitement of deciding where to plant it and watching our garden grow.

And we planted raspberries that Shaun collected from the Beacon Hill Food Forest—with the forest stewards’ enthusiastic consent. So we have a little piece of that food forest right here on Our perfect Farm.

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