How to Plant a Food Forest | Part 1 MYTHS

How to start a food forest

Part One: Food Forest Myths

There is a growing desire in the gardening and regenerative agriculture movements to grow low-maintenance gardens that still offer productive abundance. Learning how to start a food forest is one way to have a productive area with minimal long-term maintenance. Since there are many ways to build these areas, the system described in this series of articles is intended to be adapted to your individual space and growing zone. Keep in mind, there is not a perfect copy-and-paste method of how to build a food forest, but there some key points to keep in mind. Before explaining a few of those broad-brush stokes, let’s talk about a few myths regarding food forests.

Food Forest Myths

  1. “Think about plants before thinking about soil.” – This is, perhaps, the easiest trap to fall into when it comes to building a food forest. Yes, it is GOOD to get excited about the plants, varieties, colors, and textures. Gimme all the plants! However, if we do not first think about soil health and biology, then we cannot expect it to provide abundance in return. The more we partner with the ecosystem by building soil, the more the soil will give back to us by nourishing our trees and shrubs. By skipping the step of soil building, we are essentially taking nutrients from the ground without offering something in return, which will be detrimental in the long-term. Before you put in any plants – add organic matter to your soil.
  2. “Get the trees in the ground, then figure out water later.” – No matter how many beautiful trees and shrubs we put in the ground, if we don’t water them enough in their establishment phase – the trees will suffer and possibly die. Moisture retention in the soil is what will help increase mulch decomposition and soil microbial activity. This moisture will also help increase the needed mycorrhizal fungi in our soil structure. Remember, new plants are often very sensitive (and young), so they need extra care when they first go into the ground.
Food Forest at A Natural Farm and Educational Center – volunteers from one of the PermacultureFX Design Courses.
  1. “Plant things closer together so it looks better.” – Remember, when building a food forest, the goal is to partner with nature in establishing a system in 3-5 years that might take 50 years under natural conditions. With that in mind, it’s important to carefully consider the spacing of the plants to allow for their mature growth and height. Over-planting generally results in a lush green system, but lower levels of fruit and production because the excess shade does not allow for fruiting and pollination. Plan your spacing for mature plant height, and be patient in the initial years while your system gets established. To fill in space during the initial years, use nitrogen fixing ground covers and pollinating wildflowers to provide visual interest.
  2. “You will get fruit the first year.” – This goal may be possible if you spend hundreds of dollars per fruit tree to get specimens that are 5+ years old, however in most cases it will take 3 years to get substantial fruit and 5 years to reach near maximum productivity. Generally speaking, plant growth follows this pattern: Survive – Grow – Thrive. Year one the plant will work on survival and establishing its root system. During the first year, it’s advisable to remove any fruit to allow the plants energy to go to the root system. Next, during the second year, the plant will grow slightly and possibly produce a few small fruit, but most of the energy is focused on the plant becoming established in your specific growing conditions. Finally, in years 3+, the plant will begin to thrive and flourish. At this point, you should begin to see a significant increase and the yield and production levels.

“The Garden was the birthplace of partnership and stewardship. It continues to be a place that is centered upon connection.”

Kris Edler

More Food Forest Myths…

  1. “Food forests do not require any maintenance or upkeep.” – Unfortunately, nothing in life is free. We simply never get something for nothing. The purpose of gardening, specifically in permaculture, is recognizing that we are an active part of the system. Which means, the human element and stewardship greatly increases yield and can help build and regenerate the system. Just like we have the power to destroy a system quickly through mismanagement, we also have the ability to quicken its rejuvenation. The goal of a food forest is NOT to remove ourselves from the equation, but rather to integrate intelligent design in a way that our involvement results in a healed ecosystem. Though a food forest may require less maintenance long-term than a traditional annual vegetable garden, the human connection is still essential in proper stewardship of the land.
  2. “Mowing and tilling the soil are always bad.” – Though there are benefits to a low-till or no-till methods of gardening, they are often necessary in the first 3-5 years in order to help the system reboot. Mowing allows you to bag up nutrients and mulch around trees, creating a microclimate and nutrient dense soil covering that is rich in biomass. It also helps remove invasive species in order for the native plants to have a better chance. Tilling (in small doses) can help remove invasive weed species and can pave the way for replanting in larger areas (i.e. native prairie management or pasture maintenance). Controlled burning methods were used by the First Nation tribes all over North America and arguably around the world over the last thousands of years. These methods may not be an everyday tool, but are often necessary to help restart a damaged system and bring it back into balance.
How to start a food forest
Permaculture in Central Florida (second year example of a small food forest installation)

The Last Few Food Forest Myths

  1. “Only plant native species.” – This one is controversial for sure. Personally, I prefer to use as many native plants (especially pollinators) as possible, because I know it’s best for the birds, bees, and butterflies. Generally speaking, the native plants are also known to be far more disease resistant and tolerant of local weather conditions. At the end of the day, native species will always require less maintenance. That being said, traders have been moving species around the planet for as long as we have historical records. In Europe, the seeds of tomatoes, brassicas, and beans were saved and traded among pre-historic tribes. Sailers, traders, and merchants brought squash, corn, and pumpkins with them to North America 600 years ago and have been used here ever since. So, as long as a species is not invasive or damaging to the local ecosystem, they may actually provide human and wildlife benefit when properly introduced. If in doubt, grow your new plant in a pot for 3-5 years and test it out. Better yet, call your local extension office to ask them about any questionable species.
  2. “Summer is the best time to plant my food forest.” – For most of us, the summer is the time we are up and moving, full of energy, and ready to be productive. The same is true with plants – this is a time for them to be productive, but it’s rarely the best time to plant. Summer heat and drier weather can be hard on newly transplanted stock. Generally speaking, the best time to plant is when the trees are still dormant. In USDA Growing Zones 3-8 that would be either September – early November OR March – April. However, in Growing Zones 9-11 the best time to plant is in the winter months. That being said, winters in the Southern US are often dry, so some people prefer to wait until March – April. The ONLY benefit of planting in the summer in the south is that it’s rainy season. However, sometimes that helps and sometimes the heat + rain is actually harder on the plants. For those of us who garden in Florida… it’s a toss up!
How to Plant a Fruit Tree or Berry Bush
  1. “Dig a hole, put the tree in the ground, and you’re done. “ – There is actually a best practice process when planting fruit trees and berry bushes. Most of the time they prefer extra water while they are getting established, but like to dry slightly out between waterings. Secondly, fruit trees should never just be planted in the grass, because the grass will both compete for moisture and nutrients. Click here to read the blog post about “How to Plant a Fruit Tree or Berry Bush.” The primary exceptions to these are citrus and mango, because they prefer sandy and well drained soil. They like compost top dressings, but don’t do well with traditional wood chip mulching.
  2. “We should randomly plant unmaintained food forests in the city.” – In theory, the fruit trees will provide free food for the community and for the poor. In theory, these trees will thrive and produce food for inner city kids. In theory… HOWEVER, in actuality, fruit trees and bushes need maintenance to not only keep their shape and overall health, but they need to be appropriately harvested. Fallen fruit that is not properly harvested can actually feed rats, raccoons, and other city pests. Food forests are an incredible tool, but they are not a magic cure-all for every scenario. They require proper stewardship, and like all living things… they require connection.

NEXT ARTICLE: How to Plant a Food Forest Part 2 – SOIL

How to Find and Harvest Chaga Mushroom

how to find and harvest chaga

Mushroom hunting is something that many foragers and homesteaders want to try, but for some reason are put off by the fear of being poisoned. However, I would suggest that although mushroom identification can be challenging at first, there are a few species that are easy to identify, hard to miss, and have very few (if any) look a-likes. These species are great starting points for those who want to get starting in the mushroom world. Lion’s Mane, Chaga, Chicken of the Woods, Morel, and Oyster mushrooms are among some of these species that are both easy to identify and use. In this article, we’ll give you a step-by-step process of how to find and harvest chaga mushrooms. A later article (after ours have dried) will be created with tea and tincture recipes for chaga and a few bonus tips on how to use chaga in your coffee.

Health Benefits of Chaga – The King of Mushrooms

  • Nutrient-dense superfood. …
  • Slowing the aging process. …
  • Lowering cholesterol. …
  • Preventing and fighting cancer. …
  • Lowering blood pressure. …
  • Supporting the immune system. …
  • Fighting inflammation. …
  • Lowering blood sugar.

How to Find Chaga

trees for chaga

Step One: Find White Birch

Though chaga will grow on a varieties of trees, the most common is the white (or paper) birch tree (Betula papyrifera). In fact, when growing on this type of tree, the chaga mushroom is the only species that has this growth habit, so you don’t have to worry about mistaking it for another species. Often times, these species of trees grow in sandy soil near pine and oak trees. Because of the bright white bark pealing from the tree, they can be easily seen in the distance. The white bark also makes chaga easy to spot on the side of the trunk.

identifying chaga

Step 2: Look Up

More often than not, chaga will grow 8-10′ or higher in the tree. When hunting, bring a ladder and leave it in the truck while you are looking. Then either mark the tree with bright ribbon OR by dropping a pin on your GPS. You have found a specimen, you can go back and get the ladder. Generally speaking, the larger and healthier species will be higher up in the tree, so be sure to bring a friend with you to help hold the ladder while harvesting. It’s also helpful to have someone to hand the chunks to as you cut them, so you don’t have to drop them on the ground.

How to Identify Chaga

How to identify chaga

Step 3: Look for back and red

When you cut open the chaga, a healthy specimen will have a rough black exterior that resembles burned wood. The interior will have a red / burned orange umber. If the interior looks like wood and has rings, you have found a birch canker which is not edible. However, the black and umber coloring are your primary indicators for a healthy chaga specimen.

How to Harvest Chaga

Step 4: Think about safety

It’s highly recommended to have two people harvesting chaga. One person to hold the ladder (preferably with a helmet and glasses) and a second person who is climbing and chopping. A safety helmet is wise, in case the axe is dropped during harvesting, and the eye protection is best for the person below because chaga tends to come off in hard chunks (with lots of dust).

How to harvest chaga mushroom

Step 5: Use a hand axe to remove

Chaga is nearly impossible to remove with just a knife. The black exterior is extremely hard and the high moisture content makes it like removing part of the tree itself. Use the axe to cut it off in manageable chunks. At this time, you’ll see the healthy and living red interior of the mushroom. Only remove <80% of the mushroom, as it may continue to grow in the years ahead. Often times, the same tree will produce more mushrooms.

foraging chaga

Step 6: Bag it up

As you harvest, because of the way chaga breaks free, you’ll have a variety of sized chunks. I try to bring a few gallon zip-lock bags for the smaller pieces, because I don’t want to waste any. In some cases, you can even bring a tarp for the base of the tree to help collect the smaller chunks as they fall. Don’t worry, if you miss any pieces, the wild turkeys will eat them and be thankful.

How to Prepare Chaga for Use and Storage

how to prepare chaga

Step 7: Cut it up

Chaga has a very high moisture content, so it needs to dry well before consuming and storage. Using a band saw, cut the chaga into chunks about 1″ each. This is possible using a knife, but will likely dull the blade, because the black exterior of the mushroom is extremely hard.

preparing chaga

Step 8: Lay it out to dry

Chaga needs to dry for 6-8 weeks before storage and use. Spread your 1″ chunks out on a sterile surface and turn them weekly to help them dry on all sides. This step should be done in a warm, dry location (i.e. on top of a refrigerator). Once dried, chaga can be used and stored for years.

Your chaga mushroom is now ready for storage and use. There are many ways to incorporate chaga into your diet. In a later article, we’ll give you more tips on how to process, store, and use the chaga.

This is just one of the many topics that will be covered in our winter permaculture design certification course. For more information on this course or upcoming events, click here.

Cancer Fighting Food and Medicinal Forest

In this article, we explore the possibilities of a cancer fighting food and medicinal forest, which has been specifically designed for the Midwest USA.

Food forests are a low-maintenance agroforestry system that mimic the natural production of a woodland forest edge.  Plants in a food forest are arranged in a way that work in synergy with the natural succession of species in an ecosystem and maximizes their food producing potential.  The practice of permaculture (permanent agriculture) seeks to work in harmony with the natural growth processes in order to create a system that speeds up the natural growth pattern of an area.  What might take over 100 years in a natural, untouched system, permaculture systems can accomplish in a matter of 3-5 years.  After just a few years, there could be a food and medicine producing forest that would provide for those fighting cancer.  The food forest creates an ecosystem of productive abundance and is both low-maintenance and long-lasting.  This type of system can last hundreds of years, once established, and can provide abundant healing foods for generations to come.  

In our cancer fighting planting guild, we have strategically selected plant varieties that have specific anti-carcinogenic properties and immune boosting benefits.  We have designed a system where each plant can serve the one planted next to it.  For example, nitrogen fixing cassia plants help fertilize walnut and plum trees.  Locust trees provide compost and living mulch, creating biomass for elderberries and goji berries.  Cancer fighting herbs are also used to attract beneficial insects to help pollinate the berry bushes.  

Each and every element in this system have been selected for growing US Growing Zone 6, but the pattern could be mimicked in other regions as well by swapping out certain species.  This Cancer Fighting Medicinal & Memorial Garden is designed specifically for climate in Kansas City, MO.

As someone who has battled cancer, I have designed this system using elements that were beneficial me in my fight against cancer.  Though natural health remedies have not been approved by the US Food and Drub Administration, there is on-going research taking place across the globe and growing anecdotal evidence regarding the benefits of natural health and food as medicine.  

Cancer fighting food and medicinal forest
Cancer Fighting Food and Medicinal Forest (Diagram above is for zone 9a)

Goals of the project

  1. To create a productive food system to benefit those who are currently in their own battle against cancer.
  2. To create a learning garden for students, kids, and families.
  3. To create a Memorial Garden for those of us who have lost loved ones to this horrible disease, and who believe that the cure for cancer may lie beyond the pharmaceutical industry.  

In essence, this Cancer Fighting Medical Garden is being planted to inspire hope, remember loved ones, and to provide productive abundance for those battling this sickness.

Elements of the Cancer Fighting Food Forest

Layer 1: Top Story Trees

Black Walnuts in a food forest

Walnuts have multiple cancer fighting benefits, and are the only nut that contain a significant source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) (2.5 grams per ounce). Walnuts also contain a variety of antioxidants (3.7 mmol/ounce) and numerous vitamins and minerals.  Walnuts have fatty acids are also shown to have cancer fighting benefits.

Siberian pea in a food forest

This nitrogen fixing tree help fertilize the soil using nitrogen fixing nodules on the roots.  It can also be “chopped and dropped” to provide biomass and much for other elements in the food forest system.  The tree provides edible seeds which have 36% protein, which is comparable to soybeans

plum tree cancer fighting

Shown to have cancer fighting benefits including high fiber and polyphenols.  They have high levels of anti-oxidants and vitamin C.  There is ongoing research specifically for colon and breast cancers.  In the food forest, plums are a delicious over-story tree, which also provide pollination for insects.

Layer 2: Small Trees and Shrubs

elderberry benefits for fighting cancer

Flowers and berries have been traditionally used as an immune tonic to help strengthen the natural defense against disease.  The berries are also high in vitamin C, which is a known cancer fighter and immune system booster.  In the food forest, it’s an excellent pollinator as well as shade producer.

Layer 3: Small Shrubs and Bushes

Goji berries and cancer fighting

High levels of vitamin C, strong antioxidant, and all around superfood.  This plant in the food forest has stunning flowers and provides not only food, but also pollination .

Currants in the food forest

Help create healthy bacteria in the gut as well as having high amounts of anthocyanin, which have an ‘anti-tumour’ effect on some cancers.  Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.

gooseberries and cancer

Contain alma, which is being studied by the European Cancer Institute as a ‘wonder berry’ to combat tumor growth in several types of cancers.  High in antioxidants, and as a plant is cold-hardy and disease resistant. 

Layer 4: Herbaceous

echinacea purpurea and cancer

All parts of this plant can be used to make an herbal tea to boost the immune system.  It’s an excellent pollinator for beneficial insects and bees, and provides natural beauty and color in the food forest.  There are several native bees and caterpillars that use this plant as their host plant, all of which are beneficial in the garden.

oregano medicinal herb

Anti-viral, anti-fungal, cancer fighting properties.  Helps boost the overall immune response.  Provides pollination and ground cover benefits to keep the soil protected.  Keeps away garden pests and repels deer and other animals who would eat the tree branches.

rosemary to fight cancer

Rich in carnosol, rosemary has been found to detoxify substances that can initiate the breast cancer process, and it’s a rich source of vitamin E (alpha tocopherol), another powerful antioxidant.  Serves as a pollinator and insectary plant.

Layer 5: Ground Covers


 It has immune-stimulating effects and may help to reduce side effects from chemotherapy, and boosts the immune-response of the body.  In the food forest, it’s an excellent pollinator, ground cover, and insectary plant.  

red clover ground cover

 Extracts act as an estrogen agonist and stimulates proliferation of ER-positive breast cancer cells in vitro.  It’s also used for skin cancer treatment and as a tea to detoxify the body and boost circulation of the blood.  In the medicinal garden it is not only a nitrogen fixing plant, but also a colorful pollinator. 

Layer 6: Roots and Mushrooms

turmeric for fighting cancer

Curcumin, the constituent in turmeric has been shown to inhibit bone cancer cells while promoting growth of healthy bone cells.  It also has strong anti-inflammatory properties.

garlic in the food forest

Several compounds are involved in garlics possible anticancer effects. Garlic contains allyl sulfur and other compounds that slow or prevent the growth of tumor cells.

reishi mushrooms to fight cancer

Research in cancer patients has shown that some of the molecules found in the mushroom can increase the activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells. Reishi mushroom can enhance immune function through its effects on white blood cells, which can help  fight infection and cancer.

turkey tail to fight cancer

The polysaccharopeptide found in turkey tail mushrooms, inhibited the growth and spread of human colon cancer cells.  A certain type of polysaccharide found in turkey tail mushrooms called Coriolus versicolor glucan (CVG) may suppress certain tumors, specifically breast cancer cells. 

Layer 7: Vines

Hardy Kiwi midwest food forest

Kiwi is a little hand grenade of cancer-fighting antioxidants, including vitamin C, vitamin E, lutein, and copper.   This cold-hardy vine is a high producer, great pollinator, and does well in a food forests part shade.

purple yams

Climbing vine and support species that has also been shown to benefit breast and colon cancer patients. Promising research suggests that two anthocyanins in purple yams — cyanidin and peonidin — may reduce the growth of certain types of cancers.

Sample of a Full System

NOTE:  The diagram below is actually for a similar guild for Zone 9a/b, but the concept of placement and repetition is similar for a Midwest planting

Ground Covers for Midwest Food Forests

Using Ground Covers to Repair Nitrogen, Pollinate, and Create Beauty

Things to Consider

  1. Succession of plants and species –  When you first plant your food forest, you’ll likely have much more sun available because the trees are thinner and there is less canopy creating shade.  This gives you the opportunity to plant more sun loving, nitrogen fixing plants, which will help get your food forest off to a great start. For more articles about starting a Midwest Food Forest, click here.
  2. Annual vs perennial benefits – Obviously having a plant come back year-after-year is less work on our end, but at the same time, we shouldn’t overlook the benefit of annual crops to help meet specific functions.  Sometimes those functions need to serve a short-term purpose, which is where annuals play a really important roll.  For example, does the soil need tilling or aeration?  Consider annual root crops like turnips, dandelion, or daikon radishes.  Does the soil need biomass?  Consider buckwheat or something in the vetch family.  Does the area need fast pollination?  Consider creeping thyme or a crimson clover.
  3. How the area will fill out over time – Some species may work really well for a few years, but as the over story canopy grows, production increases, or as new plants are introduced small adjustments are often needed to the original species.  As the canopy of top story trees thickens, the succession of species around it will need to evolve with it.
  4. Where ground covers are located within the forest – Some ground covers can get tall and lush, but also serve as a chop and drop mulch.  Comfrey (the bocking 14 variety) is great for this, because it creates substantial biomass, but will still still stay localized.  It works great at the base of young fruit trees and provides needed pollination.  There is some debate as to what it provides for the soil, but at the very least it is proven to increases minerals in the top soil region and provide shade for the tree roots that it’s planted by.  At the same time, other ground covers need more sun, so will do better away from the base of the trees.  For example, planting clover varieties in the alleys between orchard rows will help keep grass at bay, prevent the need for frequent mowing, and provide pollination sources. For more on selecting a location in your food forest or permaculture orchard, click here.

Depending on your region, there are a plethora of options to choose from when it comes to ground covers for a food forest or permaculture orchard.  Before spreading seeds, it’s important to research and study your site thoroughly, because some ground covers can be harder to get rid of once established.  It’s also important to pay attention to the sun and moisture requirements these species need to really help your ground cover be a show stopper. Lastly, be sure to research the ground cover you have selected so you prepare the soil correctly before seeing. Doing research beforehand will save time and money in the long run.

However, to get you started, here are a few suggestions for those of you who live in the Midwestern USA.

Ground Cover Comparisons

Species Annual vs
Height &
Benefits Drawbacks
Dutch White Clover

Hardy perennial 3-6”, but can be easily mowed. Nitrogen fixer, soil builder, dense foliage to cover soil.  Great for sunny areas in food forest and for alleys between rows.  Can also be used as a forage for animals and poultry.  Can spread easily to other areas if allowed to flower and go to seed.  Should not be planted next to other plants it’s name height, because it can choke them out.
Ladino Clover Perennial (4-5 year max) 4-8” Nitrogen fixer, soil builder, dense foliage to cover soil.  Great for sunny areas in food forest and for alleys between rows.  Can be used as a forage for animals and poultry.  Does better rebounding after animal pasturing and often more economic. Spreads easily.  Attracts deer more than other clover varieties.  
Red Clover 1-2 year perennial 6-8” Highest nitrogen fixing among the clovers, great for bees and honey flavor, excellent for adapting to a wide variety of soil types.  Easily tilled under.   Short lived, does not do well in shady areas.
Crimson Clover Annual 5-8” Stunning flower display, similar nitrogen fixing to other clovers.  Excellent source of nectar for bees and butterflies.  Great for areas that need a temporary ground cover. Short lived, attracts a full spectrum of insects (some good and some bad), including moths in southern regions. 
Hairy Vetch Tender perennial Up to 3’ Very high nitrogen fixing ability and an excellent pollinator.  Great for larger areas that do not have bushes or understory, fields, etc.  

Best used in larger fields, livestock areas, and places that are not farmed multiple times per year. Great for soil stabilizing along water areas.
Hard to get rid of, because the vines can grow to 12’ long and get wrapped around smaller farm equipment.  It’s best to till them under in April, before they are too invasive, and will likely need additional turning to terminate them (in a commercial or large scale setting).
Cow pea Annual 2’ tall areas, but vines can be 12’ long. Excellent at fixing nitrogen, but also gives an edible crop for dried beans.  Easy to harvest, dry, and remove at the end of season. They are a great no-till cover crop that can be “mowed over” at the end of the season. Not a great pollinator.  Can climb up nearby trees and bushes if allowed.  However, this is easy managed and pruned back.
Buckwheet Annual (self sowing) 30-50” Pollinator, usable seed for ancient grain, excellent bio mass producer.  Great at choking out unwanted species. Some animals will use it for forage. Thick, harder to harvest the seed without equipment.   Will resow itself if you let it go to seed before chopping and dropping.
Tokinashi Turnip Annual 12” Greens are edible when cooked and roots are a pleasant food source (raw or cooked).  Greens are excellent for animal and poultry forage.  Excellent understory crop that can tolerate dappled shade.   Needs sunlight and space to grow if you are harvesting the roots.  If you are harvesting greens, they are very easy to grow, even in lightly shaded areas.  
Comfrey (Bocking 14) Perennial (4-5 year max) 12-18”  Very resilliant, pollinator, medicinal usage for humans (bone and muscle healing), roots for tea and tonic.  Biomass and mineral accumulation, chop and drop mulch, excellent forage for animals. Hard to get rid of once established.  Do not use anything other than bocking 14 or it will spread at a near uncontrolable rate.  
Creeping Thyme Perennial (4-5 year max) 3” Herbal use, excellent pollinator, hardy once established, and great for areas that need lower growth.  Needs sun to flourish.  Can be walked on and moderate tolerate foot traffic. Needs sunlight to do well and get established.  It can be harder to get established in mass plantings, but once it has take root, it never needs to be mowed and covers the ground well.
Sweet Woodruff Perennial 3-5” Flowers can be used as a tea or added to white wine, pollinator, shade loving. Spreads once established.
Wild Ginger Perennial 4-5” Shade loving, wild edible, small flowers under leaves. Does well for smaller areas, but not ideal for large scale.  

March Gardening To-Do List (zones 3-8)

Here’s a list of what you should do in your garden in March, if you live in the Midwest (specifically in USDA zones 3-8). Granted, weather isn’t exactly a science… well it is… it’s just not an exact science. Just keep a close watch on your weather and plan your planting accordingly. If you are not sure what your growing zone is (or how to use it), watch this tutorial video. If you are in a warmer climate, don’t worry, you can CLICK HERE for the Zone 9-11 March To-Do List.

Without further delay, ladies and gentlemen, here is your completely arbitrary March Gardening To-Do List!

crocus bulbs in bloom
Crocus in the spring garden

In the Garden

  • Take soil tests and send to your local extension office. Take samples from each area of your yard and make sure to get the detailed report. The most important part for me is not the NPK… it’s the amount of organic matter! Generally speaking if you have a higher percentage of organic material in your soil, the rest of the soil health will follow suit.
  • Make minor amendments before the spring rains (add bone meal, blood meal, etc.).
  • Spread chicken poop and hay from the nesting boxes on the compost pile and get it working before it’s warm.
  • Start planting some frost friendly veggies (radish, Swiss chard, cabbage, broccoli, some lettuces, etc.)  We recommend direct sowing a little every week, so that way your harvest is staggered.  It also helps to insure a diversified crop and give extra insurance that if one round dies… another one will do just fine!

In the Greenhouse

  • Plant seed trays: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, kale, broccoli, cabbage, etc. Start perennial seeds for food forest planting: goji berries, gooseberries, trees from seed, etc.
  • Add black 5-gallon buckets of water (with lids) for radiant heat source, if you do not have a heated greenhouse.
  • TIP: Always plants more than what you think you’ll need. The worst case scenario is that you have some to share with neighbors, friends, or gorilla plant in a local park.

In the Food Forest

This hori hori tool, from Barebones Living is one of my new favorite gardening tools.
  • Break up any large sticks and twigs. They will decompose much faster if they are in direct contact with the soil.
  • Remove leaf cover from the soil and use as a mulch around the base of trees / bushes (cover the sticks). You can chop it up a bit with the mower if the leaves are still crispy.
  • Plant alley crops between rows and plantings. In our area I often use a blend of red clover, white dutch, yellow closer, and crimson clover. I plant this between the rows.
  • Plant living mulches around the base of the trees (turnips, bocking 14 comfrey root, berries, herb roots, etc.).
  • Feed native wild birds before nesting season starts in order to encourage them to live in your area. They are fantastic bug control and leave behind little bits of birdie poo.
  • Hang wild bird houses and bat houses before nesting season begins.
  • Set out orange halves and grape jelly to attract early migrating orioles.
  • Last chance to prune apple trees (before buds open)!
  • Spray your spring foliar spray on every perennial in the food forest! Get our recipe here.
  • Add fresh mulch to trees and shrubs (up to 5″ thick). Remember to always keep the mulch away from the trunks of the trees.
  • Get a permaculture consultation to help you come up with a game plan for your overall property, garden, and food forest. PermacultureFX now offers both in-person and digital consultations (at a reduced rate).

In the Shed

  • Sharpen mower blades and all cutting tools.
  • Oil any metal that rusted over the winter. Remove tarnish with steel wool. Ax heads should be treated with bees wax.
  • Check for broken pots from winter cold.
  • Set a few extra mouse traps in the shed, greenhouse, and garage.
  • Start up the mower, weed whipper, and other tools for the first time. If you have difficulty starting them, you can always use a bit of Sea Foam to get things moving. Use two ounces per gallon of gas. It will work wonders!

In the Chicken Coop

  • Remove winter bedding, if you used the deep bedding method.
  • Deep clean…deep clean…deep clean! We use Shaklee’s Basic H2, because it’s organic and will also take care of mites, lice, etc.
  • Lower fat content (corn) and increase protein sources. If you are doing a mealworm farm, it’s a great time to give the girls an extra boost!
  • Feed extra omega-3’s. Get some feeder fish (minnows) from a local pet store and put them in a shallow pan. Watch your chooks go nuts for them!
  • Use honey, garlic, and ACV in their water once per week to give them an extra immune boost before the springtime. I also add a product for livestock by SCD Probiotics based out of KCMO.

Around the House

  • Clean out the gutters from any winter debris.
  • Remove winter window treatments and wash windows (inside and out).
  • Power-wash the sides of the house, cement, and garage doors. We use Basic H2 for this as well, because it organically takes care of mold and mildew easily.
  • Oil doors (interior and exterior).
  • Prune any trees around the yard before leaf buds begin to open.
  • Get hoses ready to bring outside.

In the Perennial Flower Beds

  • Finish cutting back any dead growth from last year.
  • Trim back winter ferns and greens (holly, lenten roses, etc.)
  • Remove leaves or debris from the top of bulb areas, leaving only compost or wood chips. The debris should be composted and added back to the beds later.
  • Start planning mulch and compost deliveries now. Look for sales or companies to bring it to you in bulk.
  • You can also plant cold season annual flowers at this time as well. Snap dragons, violas, pansies, and calendulas do great this time of year.
  • Spring sow any native wildflowers. One of my favorite Midwest companies for this is Prairie Moon Nursery (online), because they do seed mixes geared toward your specific sun exposure and soil type.

  • TIP: Never use mulch that has been colored or dyed (red or black). Let’s just use our heads on why that’s a bad idea.

How to Select a Location for a Food Forest

food forest planning
food forest planning
Food forest planning

Knowing how to select the location for a food forest or perennial garden is possibly just as important as knowing what to plant. Before you start digging, take time to examine your site. Study. Watch. Learn from the environment around you. Take notes on some of the topics below to help you decide which location will be most suitable for your new food forest or perennial garden.

  1. Sun and soil requirements:  What pH will be needed for those plants?  How much organic matter exists on site already?  Does the site meet the sun requirements for the species selected?
  2. Identify precursor species:  Knowing what plants are already thriving will tell you about the site, soil, and environment.  For example, if there are a lot of dandelions or tap root plants, the soil is trying to rebuild minerals and nutrients.  If there are signs of plants with shallow, hair-hair-like roots, the soil may be trying to stabilize itself from erosion or drying out.  Do you see acid or alkaline loving plants growing native?  
  3. Space to grow and fill out:  Do the plants have room to thrive and have airflow at their mature size?  Do you have room to move among the plants or rows?  Do you need extra or protected space to make allowance for animals or livestock?
  4. Ease of watering:  Is there water access?  The first 30 days are often the most important as the plants establish, so you will want to have easy water access points.
  5. Ease of maintenance:  Is the area something that you frequently visit or drive by?  Is this area one that can be easily maintained or get tools and equipment to as needed?  Will you need truck or tractor access?
  6. What is the long-term use for this area?  Consider mapping out 3-5-10+ years.  Is your current use of the space preparing the site adequately for those goals?
  7. Ease of Harvesting:  Will you or others be able to quickly and successfully harvest?  Are there rows or adequate spacing between key areas?  Are 90% of the crops within arms reach?  Will you see and be able to easily use the crops you have planted when the harvest time arrives?

How to Create a Food Forest in the Midwest – Part 1

Why a Food Forest?

In a culture that encourages us to have more money, bigger toys, larger savings, new cloths, and an endless supply of technological gadgets, we should be stepping back and asking, “why?”  Do we really need one more gadget?  Do we need another nick-knack?  Do we need the latest cell phone or computer?  Do we actually need the new shirt or pair of shoes or could we just simply wear the ones we already have?  We have been trained by a consumer-based culture that more is better.

The reality is that most of these items we are collecting have a short shelf-life.  Even our savings accounts, retirement funds, and inheritances we will fade in a relatively short time.  Maybe they will last a few years, a few decades, or if we are are extremely wealthy they might last a generation or two.  In the context of a century… our stuff will be gone in a heartbeat.  But, what if we could pass on a legacy that would last 50-100 years or more?  What if our legacy could provide food, shelter, and play areas for your children or grandchildren?  What if our legacy provide pollination for wildlife, shelter for birds and animals, and purified the air?  What if we could leave a legacy that actually provided a source of LIFE?

In my humble opinion, one of the most practical ways to accomplish a legacy of this caliber is to plant a midwest food forest.  In permaculture, we use this phrase to describe a forest of edible and restorative plants working in harmony with one another.

Food Forest Design

What is a Food Forest?

Generally speaking, every forest is jam packed with edible fruit trees, nuts, berries, and fungi.  Over hundreds of years, natural succession helps establish these systems and create a healthy and balanced growing environment.  Using permaculture, we are essentially designing a system that works in tandem with nature to speed up the process.  Instead of productive abundance taking 100 years to be established, we can design it to take only a handful of years.  A food forest uses intelligent design to restore and remediate land that would otherwise take centuries to return to a normal state.  Instead of working against nature to maintain a mono crop, perfectly green lawn, or a patterned landscape of tropical annuals, we use perennial species that will last foe year.  This is especially useful in areas that have suburban forests, because in most cities our forested areas are only 50-70 years old (at best).  Historically speaking, many wooded areas were harvested between 1940-1975 for lumber and then either naturally regrew or were replanted.  Even the city land behind my house in Kansas City, MO is a fairly young forest and only has a handful of old growth oak trees that are older than 100 years.

Food forest summary

A note on removal of invasive species:

Most of the forests in the Midwestern city areas are in similar shape and are nearly all facing the invasive honeysuckle bush invasion.  Amur honeysuckle, or Lonicera maackii, was introduced to gardens in New York in the late 1800’s and by 1924 was already labeled as “weedy species”.  Since then, it has spread throughout the east coast and midwest and it’s shrub-like structure shades out low growing species in younger forests.  It’s red berries are generally ingested by bird species and the seed spread in their stool to other areas.  Removing this species is often the first step for Midwesterners starting a food forest.

Once the invasive species has been removed, the land is ready for replanting and reforestation.

Invasive Amur Honeysuckle

How to Plant the Food Forest – Part 1

1 – Land Preparation:  In our recent project, we had a great deal of invasive honeysuckle to remove, which was obviously very time consuming.  Digging it up is the most effective way, but you can also use a chain saw and cut it off at the ground. When you cut it, you will have to use chemicals to kill the root or it will simply grow back.  Obviously, I prefer NOT using herbicides, but there are some natural alternatives that contain orange oil, agricultural grade vinegar (15-30%), and epsom salts.

It’s imperative to properly rid the area of the invasive species, because skipping this step will allow the old species to return and choke out all of your design work. When removing undergrowth species, I prefer to do it in early spring so it’s warm enough to work and you don’t have to worry about ticks or fighting through the leaf growth.  If you are fortunate enough to have goats, they will take care of the leaves and branches, but you’ll still need to dig out the root or it will grow back quickly.

The second step in preparing the land is to examine your soil and structure.  This is your time to consider amendments.  You can bring in compost from a local company, collect fallen leaves from your fall clean-up, add bone or blood meal, or sulphur for acid loving areas.  Before adding anything to the soil itself, make sure you are testing and observing your site.  Get to know the land you are working with and begin with the end in mind.  Know the type of soil your plants will prefer, so you can create the right environment for them.

midwest food forest
Cleared plot for a newly planted food forest in Kansas City, MO

2 – Plan out your design:  For every project, I generally need about 10-15 hours of preparation and research before I even begin planting.  Winter months are a great time to do this, because we often are not outside as much.  Research species according to your soil type (acidity, organic matter, etc.) and carefully consider how much water will be retained in that area.  Factor in sun exposure both in it’s current state, but also imagine the area once the plants have reached their mature sizes.  How might this change your design?

Once I have the basic questions answered, I can then start looking at individual species and seeing what looks good together on paper.  I will go through 3-5 different designs and purposely make myself change out some of the species in order to think outside of the box.  Here are a few factors to consider:

  • What is my top story tree?  Will it produce nut or fruit? Will that impact my soil acidity over time?  How tall will my center piece trees get?  Will that impact my shade?
  • Do my understory trees or shrubs have compatible soil requirements?
  • How it my spacing? What will this look like in 3 years?  In 10 years?
  • Do I have at least 4 layers in my food forest?
  • Have I including at least one nitrogen fixing plant in my system (legume, locust tree, clover, etc.)?
  • Is there multi-seasonal interest for the eye?  For nature?
  • Have I considered season-long pollination?
  • Do the plants that I have selected require a male and female plant for fruiting?
  • Do my colors and leaf textures work well together?

Finalizing Your Midwest Food Forest Design

Once you have created a few different drawings of your layout, I would recommend sitting on it for a few days and then coming back to it later.  Run the ideas by a friend and get their feedback.  When I was initially planning my layout, I incorporated too many alkaline loving plants next to my blue berries, which do best with slightly acidic soils.  I was so focused on the fruit and berries that I liked, and the way they would look together, that I missed a pretty big piece of the puzzle.  The result would have been an environment where likely neither would have thrived, so I was relieved to have the insight from another permaculture eye.

Before planting, plant on spending at least 10 hours of researching and planning out your design.  As you plan, research various species, their growing zones, and read the reviews of others online.  Often plants will say they will work in certain zones, but after a few years of consumer reviews, they change the rating on the species.  For this reason, I tend to stay away from varieties that have not been tested in my region or ones that I am unable to find adequate reviews.

Personally, I like to order plants from places with one zone colder climate, so I know they can take the various types of weather we experience in the Midwest (KCMO).

The second part of this article will be available next week, including a few options in planting species for a wood-edge (sun/shade) area with clay soil structure.  In the upcoming article you’ll learn how to amend the soil, perform bio-remediation for areas that may have had pollutants, and how to space the plants appropriately.  The next article will include pictures of a newly planted food forest and close up pictures of the various species used in it’s design.

Late Spring Orchard Foliar Spray

apple orchard care in kansas city

Whether you are growing apples, peaches, cherries, or plums, this is a recipe for an organic late spring orchard foliar spray.  Learn to spray holistic and organically in order to keep away from pesticides, herbicides, and other nasty toxins.  This spray will feed the plant, the soil, and healthy microorganisms.  This method works both on the small or larger scales, and will prevent / treat a multitude of bad fungus, insects, and blights.  Not to mention, this incredible spray will help feed the “good guys” and healthy microorganisms within your food forest or orchard.  Get ready to kick some butt with this one.

What you’ll need:

  • 5 Gallon backpack sprayer (or a smaller one will do, but amount will need to be adjusted accordingly)
  • Emulsified fish / kelp (I use Neptune’s Harvest brand) = This helps give nutrients to the leaves, nitrogen to the stems, and feed microorganisms and healthy bacteria.
  • Liquified Mushroom inoculant (Mushroom Stuff by Earthright is often readily available) = Feeds the soil and increases mycorrhizal activity in the soil.
  • Compost Tea (CLICK HERE for my recipe) = It’s all the nutrients, minerals, and food your plants needs to kick butt.
  • Neem Oil (concentrate is fine, but always best to order online because greenhouses will charge an arm and a leg) = helps get rid of the bad bugs, treat blights, etc.
  • Free & Clear Dish Soap (I use 7th Generation) = serves to mix all the ingredients together, especially the neem oil into the other water-based additives.  

Easy Steps for an Organic Late Spring Orchard Foliar Spray

apple orchard care in kansas city

  1. Add 10 tablespoons of emulsified fish / kelp
  2. Add 8 tablespoons of Mushroom Stuff
  3. Add 10 tablespoons of compost tea
  4. Add 8 tablespoons of neem oil
  5. Add 3 tablespoons of soap (to help it all blend together)
  6. Fill the backpack sprayer up with water.  Use higher water pressure or move the hose around inside as it sprays to mix the ingredients well in the tank.  Bubbles from the soap are normal – just make sure it’s all mixed well, otherwise you’ll need to get out a whisk.
  7. Close the sprayer and strap up.  Give it a few pumps so you are ready to go.
  8. Spray leaves, branches, trunk, and soil around the drip line of the tree.  It’s best to do this in the morning, so it can dry out during the day.  Ideally, you want to spray on a cooler day, otherwise it will “cook” the nutrients.  I like to do it on a day when it’s supposed to rain 2-3 days later, because then the nutrients get washed into the soil as well.
  9. Clean out your backpack sprayer by rinsing it out and then filling it back up 1/2 way and swishing it out.  I clean it out a second time and run clean water through the sprayer a bit to keep the nozzle clear.  This will really extend the life of your sprayer.

Good luck and happy orcharding!  Let’s get cracking on these food forests!

Leave a comment below if you have some great orchard spraying tips for those of use looking to keep it organic and holistic.

Like what you are reading there?  Maybe you should read our article on what else you should be doing in your garden in early June?  Get ready to become a dirt ninja…