Believe it or not, the best time to start a food forest is in the winter. You may be wondering how that could be. Aren’t you going to double your work? Actually, it’s the complete opposite.
Food forests are becoming more common as edible landscaping and neighbourhood community gardens have gained popularity. While standard gardens require continuous labour and care — turning over the soil every spring, weeding, and fertilising — food forests that are layered correctly can cut back on much of that hard work.
What Is a Food Forest?
If you can imagine walking in a forest of edible canopies and bushes that you could pull fruit or vegetables off, that’s precisely what food forests set out to do.
Food forests are a sustainable method of producing plant-based food while mimicking natural forests with a wide variety of trees, herbs, shrubs, and other types of plants.
Also known as “forest gardens,” food forests don’t require tilling, fertilisation, or pest control. It’s essentially a manufactured ecosystem designed to care for itself — or, at least, requires very little human care.
As part of the permaculture movement, food forestry can yield edible plants without depleting vital soil nutrients, allowing natural resources like rainfall and sunlight to promote year-round plant growth.
How to Build a Food Forest in the Winter
But why build a food forest in the winter?
Many edible plants, trees, and herbs can be bought in their “bare root” form and planted while dormant. In this form, plants can more easily adapt to colder temperatures and withstand winter weather. When temperatures rise to the mid-40s again in the springtime, plants can begin growing.
1. Choose Your Plants
The first step in growing a food forest is to choose the types of plants you want to use. Typically, perennials are ideal for food forests and don’t require reseeding or replanting each year. Planting perennials also prevents soil disturbances, such as carbon loss, erosion, and nutrient seepage.
There are seven layers of a food forest:
- Canopy: Large trees, such as nut trees, that grow 50 feet or higher and require full sunlight throughout the day.
- Sub-canopy: Smaller nut trees and fruit trees that are usually shade-tolerant.
- Vines and climbers: Shade-tolerant vines, such as grapes, kiwis, and chayote.
- Shrubbery: Fruit shrubs, such as currants, elderberry, goji, and blueberries that do well in partial shade.
- Herbaceous plants: Include common herbs — rosemary, sage, oregano, and basil — and other leafy plants like collards and artichokes. Herbaceous plants die back completely in the winter and regrow in the spring.
- Groundcover: Shade-tolerant plants that grow horizontally on the ground, such as strawberries, watercress, creeping thyme, and sorrel.
- Root crops: Any plant that produces an underground crop and those that grow in the ground-cover and herbaceous layer. Common root crops include onion, garlic, and scallions, in addition to ginseng and ginger.
2. Prep Your Grounds
When choosing a location to have your food forest, consider a manageable spot that gets enough sunlight. It’s recommended you start small at 100 square feet or less and expand your food forest from there.
Although a food forest isn’t as laborious as conventional gardens, you will still want to remove any weeds or grassy vegetation from that location.
Many gardeners use simple “sheet mulching,” which is a composting technique that prevents sunlight from hitting weeds. Sheet mulching consists of placing cardboard down on the ground and covering it with a layer of mulch. Eventually, the cardboard will compost into nutrient-dense soil for your food forest to thrive. Of course, this may be a much slower process than you’d want, but it’s a method that works.
3. Plant Your Food Forest
Once you know your food forest’s location and have prepped the grounds, you are now ready to plant. Begin by positioning your plants from tallest to smallest to see how each will receive the appropriate amount of sunlight and shade.
Vines and climbers can be placed along fences, arbors, and even up the canopy and sub-canopy of trees — however, make sure that the trees are large enough to withstand being smothered by vines as they grow.
Remember that canopy plants can take years to grow and reach their maximum height. The first few years may be an excellent time for cultivating some annual vegetable plants that require more sunlight.
Ready to Begin Your Food Forest?
These fundamentals should get you well on your way to a productive food forest in no time! Now is a great time to become more self-sufficient and produce healthful foods using one’s own land.