How to Plant a Food Forest | Part 2 SOIL

Preparing the Soil for Your Food Forest

Transitioning your decorative landscape into an edible one is much easier than you may think. Learning how to plant a food forest can be as simple as replacing one “inedible” plant at a time over a period of years, or it can be as complex as installing a productive food forest through intentional permaculture design. Either way, I am convinced that I am “winning at life” is when I can go into my backyard and pick a peach right off the tree OR fix a full garden salad right from my back porch. It’s true, there are few things more fulfilling than having friends and family over for wine and cheese, and then stocking your charcuterie board with nuts, berries, and pickled items from your property.

Before you start plopping your new fruit trees and berry bushes into the ground, it’s important to take time and assess the site. As a designer, I am convinced that it takes a year of studying the site before you can REALLY get to know it. However, a trained eye can definitely get a plan into motion and help you get started. If you want to look into a consultation to help you develop a site plan, click here. Planting a food forest is an invitation to know and interact with your site and learn to steward the land accordingly. Whether you decide to hire a permaculture designer to partner with you or assess the land yourself, there are a few initial questions to get to you started in selecting your location (CLICK HERE).

The Most Important Step Starts Right Under Your Feet

The single most important step you will take in this entire process will be how you prepare your soil before you even put anything into the ground. In fact, the best thing you can do is prepare the soil for an entire season before you even plant your first tree or shrub. There are multiple ways you can both clear the land and/or build organic matter in the soil. Some of these methods will depend on what you have available and how much land you need to clear and prepare.

Option 1: Animal and Livestock to Build the Soil

This is, perhaps, the best possible way to not only clear the land of weeds and grasses, but also build the soil at the same time. If you have a lot of bushes, shrubs, or undergrowth, then goats are the best way to clear this area. In fact, some of their favorite foods are things like Virginia creeper and poison ivy! They have amazingly strong digestive systems and will do a great job at turning the bushes and underbrush into fertilizer for the new plot. Once the shrubs are removed, then you can send in the chickens to take care of the grasses and smaller weeds. They will finish the job nicely, till up the soil, scratch up the dirt, remove bugs and pests… and again turn them all into fertilizer for you! Not only is this source of fresh feed better for your soil, but it’s far better for your animals that bags of conventional feed.

In order to control them and focus their energy, I like to keep them in a smaller area (which I rotate) using a solar electric fence. Personally, I use a set-up from Premier One Fencing Supplies and have had minimal escape problems or predator animal attacks. Once the animals have cleared an area, then move the fence to the next zone to keep them working and fertilizing.

Option 2: Light Tilling and Smother Cropping

If you do not have access to animals, then you will need plan ahead several months before starting your food forest. Another way you can clear the area and also build your soil is to lightly till the area to remove weeds and grasses. Get as many of them out by hand as you can, and then follow with a ground cover or smother crop. Ground covers for the cooler climates are listed here. My favorite smother crop for the Midwest and cold climate growing zones is buckwheat and crimson clover. If you are in a warmer climate, the primary ground cover I would use is Sunn Hemp. Plant this is June and let it grow to max height (6-8 feet), and then chop-and-drop it in August. This plant can easily be buried or tilled under in August and will not only build the organic matter in the soil, but will also repair nitrogen content. Because of its dense growth habit, it will often smother out other weeds and grasses. At the end of the growing season, till these under and then you’ll be ready for a fall planting. Otherwise, you can leave it over the winter to decompose in place and plant in the spring.

Option 3: Layer Mulching

This method works really well and provides fast organic matter, but it does require higher inputs into your system. Often called lasagna mulching, this is a much better alternative to the “Back to Eden” method, which only uses ramified wood chips. Starting at the ground level (and working our way up), here are the layer I would recommend.

  1. Cardboard (remove tape and staples)
  2. Chopped up leaves (using a lawn mower)
  3. Grass clippings
  4. Straw (not hay, because you do not want seed heads)
  5. Manure and/or compost)
  6. 4-6″ of ramified woodchips

Once you have this in place, you can either plant immediately or wait for a few months to let the worms and microorganisms do their job. My preference is to wait a bit and let the layer mulching start working before plant installation.

Option 4: Black Tarp

This method is fast working (during warm summer months), but is also one that does the most harm to the soil. Putting a black tarp down over the area will most definitely cook the grasses, weeds, and pests. However, it will also cook a lot of the good bacteria, worms, and microorganisms in the soil. I rarely, if ever use this method.

Option 5: Spraying

The least recommended method in my book is to use a chemical spray. The ONLY two organic sprays I would recommend for a weed and vegetation killer would be either orange oil OR horticultural vinegar (30-45%). Both of these are effective at removing weeds, but they also have a short impact on the soil. The downside is that vinegar and orange oil will both kill any insects (topically) and will impact the pH of the soil you are working with. Though they will remove the weeds, it will also cause more work in the long run to repair and rejuvenate the soil.

Food Forest at A Natural Farm in Howey in the Hills, Florida

Soil Regeneration is the Key to Your Food Forests Health

Spending adequate time in the stage of soil building is absolutely key to the longterm success of your food forest. However, keep in mind that a good garden or food forest will be a continuous journey of rejuvenating soil and creating more organic matter. Perhaps even more than producing a good crop for human consumption, the role of a gardener is likely better described as one who stewards the soil and all the life therein. I’m not saying that all problems in the garden (fungal, pests, insectary imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, etc.) can be solved by compost alone… but 97.3% of them can be. If the soil (and its microbial and fungal balance) is in healthy shape and rich with organic matter, the fruit and flowers that appear above ground will likewise be healthy. Inversely, it’s nearly impossible to maintain healthy plants at the expense of soil biology. Personally, I apply compost every spring and refresh my wood chips each fall. In (sub)tropical climates, compost is best applied in February, June, and September.

If I notice that plants are on the struggle bus, I almost always start with two steps. First, add organic compost and the secondly apply a foliar spray. Either way, building soil is the single most important step of planting a garden or food forest. Generally speaking, when applying compost, use a fungal dominated compost for hard stemmed plants (trees, shrubs, and bushes) and a bacterially dominated compost to soft stemmed plants (veggie gardens and perennial flowers). If you do not have a fungal compost available to you, you can introduce mycorrhizal activity by adding flour to your compost pile.

So, before you plant your trees, shrubs, and bushes – consider how you might improve your soil quality and build organic matter. Share your ideas for new site soil preparation below…

More Articles in the “Planting a Food Forest Series”

Part 1 – Food Forest Myths

Part 3 – Selecting and Planting the Layers of the Food Forest (coming soon)….

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