Starting a Food Forest for a Small Homestead in Zone 7
Nitrogen-Fixers, Other Support Species, Fruit and Nut Trees
It’s an exciting time for Emma and me: Spring is approaching in North Carolina, and this year will mark the beginning of the food forest at our homestead. Despite being incredibly busy building our cabin, we are wanting to get some productive trees in the ground so that we might see the benefits sooner rather than later. We are working under the maxim of the best time to plant a fruit tree was ten years ago, so a little diversion from building might be in order.
Our property is just at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Appalachian Highlands change to Piedmont. This puts us in USDA Zone 7, in a region well-known for its steady rainfall (getting steadier, they say) that averages 47 inches (1200 mm) a year. We also get 200-plus days of sunshine, and in the winter, we get a little snow (6 inches/150 mm), with the coldest night temperatures rarely dropping below 20F (-7C) and only a few chilly winter days that stay below freezing.
We bought a 4.67-acre (2 hectare) property, which is mostly forested but has about an acre (4000 square meters) cleared. Roughly a third of this space is being dedicated to a forest garden, which is to be located just downslope of our dam (to the west), a staple garden surrounded by berry hedges (to the north), and a privacy fedge (to the east). We plan to use semi-dwarf fruit and small nut trees as our central productive species, and of course, we want to layer the forest with support species. This is what we are thinking:
The way we learned it, at the beginning of a food forest, nitrogen-fixers need to far outnumber the productive trees. In that vein, we are going to turn to a groundcover that we’ve been using over much of the open property, as well as a food-producing, chop-and-drop shrub and local erosion-control “weed”.
- White clover has quickly worked its way into our heart. It grows well, covers a bare area quickly (We have “pond bottom” from cleaning up our dam spread over the entire food forest space), and fixes nitrogen. Furthermore, it is technically edible, though, to put it politely, we’ve not felt moved to eat it in abundance. We like the Dutch white clover because it stays low and acts somewhat like a living mulch.
- Goumi (Elaeagnus multiflora) are tough shrubs that tolerate many soil situations, fix nitrogen, and thrive in our climate. They are also long-living, lasting some 20 years, as well as relatively small if allowed to grow to maturity. (Of course, we’d plan to chop-and-drop.) It is in the same family as the Russian olive, but goumi berries have a higher edibility rating. There is also less concern about invasiveness with this smaller cousin.
- Vetch, low-lying vines from the pea family, grow extensively and just about everywhere in North Carolina, often used as a cover crop in fields and for roadside erosion control. We are considering putting it into the mix, too. We can (and have) collected the seeds for free.
Pest Repellent/Beneficial Attractant
Plants that repel pests and attract beneficial insects, the predators and pollinators, are also in the forest garden mix. We’ve got some particular issues we are worried about, i.e. burrowers and deer. While we’ll be protecting the garden with fences and hedges, we also plan on including plants helpful in battling these issues, while also attracting bees and butterflies.
- Bee balm and/or wild bergamot grows quite contentedly in the area, and we’ve managed to transplant it to other gardens successfully. It’s great for tea mixes and has plenty of medicinal uses. Obviously, as the name suggests it is good for getting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds around as well. It’s a no-maintenance perennial that is useful and beautiful.
- Dill, despite everything we read, is something that we’ve not managed to get well established in years past. We’ve grown enough for making pickles at home, but we’ve not had it in the same abundance as cilantro, mint, and basil. Nevertheless, we hope to put in some patches between the fruit trees. It’s believed to be a good companion for just about all plants as it repels the trouble-makers and attracts the do-gooders. It is supposed to self-seed well if left to flower, so we hope it can establish a stronghold.
- Comfrey, the diligent permaculturalists we are, had to make the list as well. A couple of years ago, I was able to transplant some from one of the gardens I take care of, and we’ve been multiplying it little by little. In addition to a bee attractant, it will be grown primarily as a dynamic accumulator to add to the mulch mix beneath our productive trees.
- Garlic grows like mad here, and we eat a ton of it. It’s a great companion plant for most things, so we’ve got it planted everywhere and will include it around the perimeters of the individual groupings of three to five productive trees. It’s good for repelling both subterranean and airborne pests.
- Horseradish will also be included in the protective ring around our productive tree plantings. Similar to garlic, it thwarts underground pests that might nibble on fruit tree roots. We’ve grown accustomed to eating the young greens in our salad mixes and stir-fries, and we hope to eventually get to using the roots more regularly. People don’t like it in vegetable beds because it persistently stays, but it’s a good companion in forest gardens.
- Daffodils, according to Tenth Acre Farm: Permaculture for the Suburbs, are another great addition to forest garden guilds because they help with pest control and pollinators. Additionally, it’s a spring ephemeral, which add to the early cycle of organic matter into the soil each year. We have access to free bulbs, more or less as many as we like, so it only makes sense to include them in the mix. They’ll be part of our trio of plants (with garlic and horseradish) that create a protective barrier around our guilds.
Small Fruit & Nut Trees
While we have grander aspirations of including over a dozen types of fruit and nut trees in our mix, we are planning to start with pairings of six different choices that are proven to work here and are more familiar, i.e. easy to access. Due to space restraints and easier harvesting, we plan to stick to semi-dwarf and/or naturally small trees, and we are going to start by planting them in clumps of three to five trees, sharing the plants from the aforementioned guild.
- Apple, cherry, peach, and plum will be our initial fruit trees, two of each. We’ve researched each of these fruits and chosen varieties that are well-suited to our climatic zone. For apples, we are looking for Cox’s orange pippin, a favourite for flavour, and Stayman Winesap, a good storage and all-around apple. For peaches, we are hoping to try Harvester because they are highly productive and freestone, thus easier to process. With cherry, we have to be a little more careful as we are on the cusp of being too warm, but we hope to stay sweet with Stella and Sweetheart trees. As for plums, Emma is hoping for Victoria plums (though we’ve not located a local source of them) and Methley plums are one of the recommended varieties for our area.
- Hazelnut (Filbert) and Chinquapin will be the first nut trees we put in the mix because they are both diminutive in stature and quick (relatively) to produce. Jefferson hazelnuts (Corylus avellane) were developed by Oregon State University and are promoted as being resistant to blight and insect damage. It’s considered an all-arounder and our area is right in the middle of its wheelhouse. We’ll pair it with a Theta hazelnut tree, another late-blooming variety that can help with pollination. Chinquapin (Castanea pumila) are smaller—both in size and fruit— siblings of the chestnut, and they are native to our area.
Other Varieties Coming Soon
Essentially, we are trying to limit ourselves a little here at the start so as not to become overwhelmed with understanding and nurturing everything into production. That, and we are still trying to build a home. We do, however, have a list of other, sometimes more experimental additions we hope to add in the future.
- Wine cap mushrooms (Stropharia rugosoannulata) will be a part of our staple garden this year, cultivated on wood mulch pathways. Assuming this is successful, we’ll be extending their growing zone each year by spreading our inoculated wood chips, and ideally, they would become part of the forest garden.
- Fig, pomegranate, almonds, and pears are all trees that we’d like to try later on down the road, perhaps next year. For figs, we are interested in Chicago Hardy for its cold tolerance and brown turkey for its commonality in the area. Russian pomegranates are supposed to be able to withstand our winters. And, there are some cold-hardy almond varieties to choose from—Hall’s Hardy, Oracle, and Bounty—but our high humidity levels might be a problem. Pears, in general, are well-suited to our climate.
- Borage, cilantro, assorted mints, and oregano are all plants we’ve had lots of success with in that they keep themselves going, so they’ll likely get dotted into the mix at some point. I’d guess they’ll be thrown in at the get go because we’ve got easy access to them for free.
- Other productive trees—bay, Kousa dogwood, redbud, mimosa, tea, cold-hardy bananas (blue java or cavendish) and so on—will be included in other design spaces. And, of course, I could go on, but…
What we’re hoping to do is successfully establish a good ground guild for getting things going: A groundcover (clover), vine (vetch), and shrubs (goumi) are fixing nitrogen, while “roots” (horseradish) and bulbs (daffodils, garlic) are repelling pests and herbaceous (dill, bee balm, comfrey) plants are attracting pollinators. All the while a dozen productive trees are being put into play. We have left plenty of room to adjust/expand, and should our first run prove viable, we’ll be harvesting a diverse, perennial bounty in the next few years.
I started mine 13 years ago in zone 4a, slowly, since I was 60 at the time and it’s now a fully grown food forest with all kinds of edibles, wild and not so wild. My property is just 1/3 acre but half of it is the food forest, and the rest is mostly vegetable beds and two buildings. Most of the planting is now being done by birds and some small creatures.
I WISH I had started this project at 60, but now that I’m 72, I’m giving it a go! I, too, am on a 1/3 A suburban plot. I would love to see what you’ve done!!
Nice! I have 2 1/2 acres of land in the South West corner of NC up in the mnts. I think Elev. is between 3 and 4 thousand. Wanting to build a food Forrest on it. Looking for info. And help on doing this. Right now I live in Fla. But go up there quite often and have cleared a good part of it and cleared out some of the rest. I also have a stream that runs the whole length of the property.
I would very much like to see a planting diagram layout drawing of the plant locations in proximity to your trees.🙄
I’m starting a food Forest this year and I too live in the Piedmont in north Carolina.
I need so much help with this. We live in kopperl texas and i think we’re in 7b. My great uncle had luck with 2 acres near lake tawakoni, plums, peaches, pears and an assortment of veggies but Im at a loss as where to start
We would like to start a small food forest in zone 7b. This is new to us and we welcome any advice for beginners. We have about 40 acres. Some of the groundwork has been laid with the previous owners of the property having planted apple, peach, pear, and cherry trees, grapes, elderberry, walnuts, and assorted herbs. Where do we go from here?