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Perennial Food Forest
Demonstration site for urban wildlife habitat and food production

Urban Food Forest 1.jpg
Urban Food Forest 2.jpg

In this project, I converted a small suburban plot from a modern grassy lawn with some garden areas into an experimental food forest. It is largely self-sustaining, sequesters carbon, supports beneficial insects, enriches the soil, and provides hundreds of pounds of berries, fruits, nuts, greens, aromatic herbs, and vegetables every year. After the initial installation of plants, the cost and labor dropped essentially to zero. Prospective research is discussed at the end of the article.


No-Till: Healthy soil is full of refined organic material called humus, which is fluffy, retains moisture, holds nutrients, feeds billions of microorganisms, and sustains long term nutrient cycles. Many growers till their soil in order to bury weeds and release nutrients. But tilling destroys the humus in the soil. The soil becomes hard, dry, compact, and easily flooded. Nutrients leach out into the air and rainwater. Beneficial microorganisms are killed, which permits pioneer species like pests and weeds to subsequently proliferate. The remaining bacteria rapidly consume the destroyed humus material, which further damages structure, aeration, moisture retention, drainage, and nutrient exchange capacity.


Natural fertilizer and Zero-Waste: Many households throw food waste in the trash and put yard clippings out for municipal collection. This material is often mixed with industrial garbage or road debris, burned, dumped in waterways, or processed. This involves large machines, hard labor, financial costs, corrosive chemicals, etc. Waste is also frequently processed anaerobically, which produces methane that contributes to climate change. I redirect these waste streams into nutrients for the food forest, scattering yard materials into the understory and putting food waste in a compost pile. I have also pulled over 5,000 pounds of organic food waste form a local coffeeshop in town. The compost pile is never turned. It passes through all four stages of decomposition that destroys many pathogens and breaks down even bone and wood. I only add leaves to the pile occasionally to balance the nitrogen-carbon ratio. As a result of all this, the material decomposes aerobically, which produces CO2 that is then utilized by the food forest. The product is rich with humus and well-balanced nutrients. It increases the strength of the food forest, avoids many waste issues, benefits the greater environment, and eliminates the need to purchase fertilizer along with the associated issues of manufacturing, pollution, root burn, and soil-food-web damage. The only labor involved is making a pile of leaves in fall and scattering the final compost in spring.


Minimal Irrigation: I planted perennials that develop strong root systems for water resilience. I water by hand once, only in the first season, and only to prevent death, which forces plants to put down deeper roots and eliminates those that are overly domesticated, weakened, or in a poor location. This establishment eliminates need to irrigate. As an additional benefit, runoff from the roof was directed into gently sloping trenches that run into the food forest. This converted water issues like municipal runoff and flooding into a natural deep soaking irrigation system. The trenches required no heavy machinery, plastic tubing, plastic filter cloth, buried drums, etc. They require no maintenance, cost no money, and will not need to be adjusted for many decades or centuries. They reduce the need to water, increase the health of the forest, and use only natural water. They also therefore avoid issues with well-water mineralization/pollution or municipal water additives.


Diverse Species: Modern growers plant in simple rows or sections. But then the plants become vulnerable to pests and nutrient imbalances. Plant species consume some nutrients more than others and if they are all in separate clumps, this disrupts the nutrient cycles in the soil. Pests have multiple generations in one season, they easily spread from one vulnerable plant to the next, and they can hibernate in the soil in that area and come out later. If you mix plants together, the pest numbers are reduced at every step. They have a hard time finding their target plant, cannot hop to adjacent vulnerable plants, the shady moist environment harbors predator organisms (like spiders, frogs, praying mantis, beneficial fungi, etc.). In addition, the mixed plants become stronger through their shared ecosystem. They coordinate in terms of exchanging nutrients, building top-soil, pollination, and pest defense.


Weeds: Many growers spray chemicals, hire labor, use machines, and spend many hours eliminating weeds. Applying techniquest from successful growers Eliot Coleman, Robert Guyton, Bhaskar Save, and Masanobu Fukuoka, we embrace weeds and only selectively tend to them. This view helps us reduce labor, provides additional creative foods for the kitchen, increases the health of the garden, feeds pollinators, and supports the greater environment. Many weeds are edible, nutritious, aromatic, and delicious. Some of them fix atmospheric nitrogen that fertilizes the soil. They all cover the soil, which protects the moisture level, soil structure, and microbial life. Some of them have deep taproots that mine nutrients. Almost all of them have flowers that feed beneficial insects. When they die back in winter, the decaying plant material returns nutrients to the soil, sequesters carbon, and builds humus. Thus, I only occasionally discourage some plants in gentle and efficient ways; clipping flowers to prevent reproduction, briefly stepping on the crown to hinder growth; or chopping them in place to form a natural mulch. In fact, harvesting and weeding have become the same activity. Plant growth occurs in meristematic tissue, which is usually the part that is edible, so as a plant/population increases it also becomes edible. I simply harvest from the populations that are expanding and then cook them in meals.


Pests: I almost never spray anything. The ecosystem of the food forest manages pest populations naturally. Pests have difficulty finding edible targets among the many diverse plant species and aromatic herbs. Beneficial organisms compete with pests and keep them from proliferating. The shady, moist environment with diverse flower shapes also harbors predators like spiders, wasps, ladybugs, frogs, praying mantis, etc. Pest populations are reduced, causing less damage, and requiring little to no intervention compared to conventional pest control methods. The diversity of harvests also insures us against the loss of any one crop. This system is surprisingly adaptable and resilient on its own. Planting only one crop and spraying with broad-spectrum chemicals would damage all of this.


Landscaping: In developing a more eco-friendly and productive landscape, I began by mowing high and mowing dead leaves and grass clippings into the yard rather than removing them. I seeded clover to enrich the soil with nitrogen, low-growing wildflowers to feed pollinators, and additional salad greens/tea for consumption. I then added more ramps, ferns, bushes, shrubs, and trees into the yard to provide many additional benefits while maintaining a landscaped appearance. These days the landscape is lush, fruitful, never requires weeding, and I only rarely mow some pathways with a quick pass of a scythe.

Prospective Research

I hope to objectively measure the soil/plant nutrients, output, nutrient cycle, water management capabilities, and production of the food forest as it reaches maturity. This could have a beneficial impact on public spaces, market growing, and residential landscaping industries. It may also provide support for public outreach projects and extension work.

I have anecdotally noticed that some water issues appear to improve through mature natural systems with fungi, soil carbon, plant tissue absorption, hydraulic lift, and guttation. However, research has shown examples of additional complexity and minimal impact, and I would like to determine whether some techniques may perform better than others in different circumstances and implementations; whether different compositions like thick and diverse herbaceous layers with fast growing, domesticated, fruiting trees may take up additional nutrients; the impact of ecosystem maturity over time through increased biomass, soil carbon/conditions, root systems, fungi, and other interacting elements; and whether green water management areas may create productive output of some kind as part of a filtration cycle.

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