It has begun! We have owned our land for just over a year, and have lived here for almost 9 months. We have experienced all four seasons. We are significantly more tuned in to our land. We are finally ready to start designing our food forest.
A food forest, also known as an edible forest garden, was one of the first unique ideas that introduced me to Permaculture about 15 years ago. While forest gardens are not the sole domain of Permaculture, an affinity exists between the two. And this concept, a small forest containing plants which provide for our needs (the 7 F’s: food, fuel, fodder (feed for our animals), fiber, fertilizer, farmaceuticals (plant derived medicines), fun), was so intriguing to me that I soon became a bit obsessed with Permaculture.
The first goal on our farm was to start producing food for ourselves. We started with animals as they have a fast turn around and could be started on our land as it was. We are finally really getting into a rhythm with their care and maintenance. Any overages (chickens and eggs) are sold for a small profit – well, more of decreasing a small bit of our costs at this point. The next stage is to start our plant production systems. Trees are going to stay put for a long, long time, and so we wanted to make sure we knew the right place to put them. This is why we took a full year before we even started the design process of our food forest. Of course, there are many plant systems other than a food forest, and we plan on incorporating many of these onto our farm. But we are going to start with the food forest.
We chose a location that was close to our house. It is a southeast facing slope (we are in the northern hemisphere). It is one of our more flat (i.e. less steep!) areas on the farm, so managing it for decades to come will not be as taxing as other locations. There is also an area of lower elevation that holds a lot of water and is just begging to become a wetland/marsh. This will allow us to grow plants that like drier roots up top and water-loving plants down low. Diversity is king… and it’s a whole lot more fun!
We are currently pulsing our animals through this area. Of course they will be adding a fair amount of manure to the soil, and this is great. Another reason we will be using the animals is to remove the grass in this pasture. The geese and sheep primarily will go after the grass, but the chickens, ducks, and pigs will also eat their share. After this is done, the geese and sheep will be moved off. The pigs will rotate with the chickens and ducks to remove as much of any grass and other plants in this pasture. We will of course be supplementing the feed for these animals at this time. But the goal is to let the animals do the plowing and rototilling for us. I know that there are some folks who do not want to use animals to do this kind of work. I understand. I love to give my animals fresh, green pasture as often as possible. But this is not a permanent set-up. They will get in, do their thing, and we’ll get them out. The pigs will especially enjoy it.
I highly recommend DaftLogic.com when you are working on design plans. This is a free site that allows you to measure area and distances. I use it frequently, and it is very user friendly. As you can see, our future forest garden is right at 2 acres (0.81 hectares). This is not small! It will take a lot of work and many years to “complete”, but we are so excited to get started!
You can see we’ve already been improving the soil with our sheep and pigs (far left) and our chicken tractors (center). The patchwork appearance is due to the daily, or sometimes twice daily, moves of the tractors. As mentioned above, this rotation will become more intense as we near the time of planting.
It’s important to have a basic scale drawing of the land we are designing. This drawing will be used over and over again as the master template that all mock-ups and samples and ideas are based on. This particular drawing is very simple. It took me about 5 minutes to make. It was made by shooting the google map image onto a wall with a projector. I simply traced the important features onto a piece of paper. The only slightly difficult part was zooming in and out until the scale matched a usable distance on my architect scale.
These are the main features on this drawing:
- Fence – The entire property has a nice, tight woven fence of about 5-6 feet (152-182 cm). This fence was put up by the original owners to keep coyotes IN. They ran a coyote hunting farm. The bottom of the fence rolls toward the interior of the property (see the photo below). This worked for a hunting property, but causes some trouble when we want to grow something (or clear weeds!) next to the fence line. We are still trying to decide what we want to do about it, but it does work to keep rabbits and other unwanted creatures out of the forest garden area.
- Main road
- Bottom of the valley – This is where water collects and flows during the rain. The closer you get to the lower portion of the property border (bottom left), the more water there is and the longer it stays after a rain.
This is a basic topographic map (not drawn to scale by any means). I made this just to show the general lay of the land. #1 by the house and the #1 on the far upper left represent hills. The land slopes down and then back up at #3 toward the back of the house. If you keep going along that interior road, the land would continue to rise. But that is out of our area of interest for this project. #2 represents the start of the valley floor. A line connecting from #2 to #4 represents the run of this valley. When it rains, there is water in this location running from #2 to #4. After the rains stop, there will be standing water at #4 for 1-2 weeks, sometimes longer.
- The soil around the house is decent. Much of this soil was either placed back after excavation for the house or it was trucked in. All of the area from #1 down the long, steep driveway to #7 is currently planted to lawn. The soil here ranges is depth from a few feet deep before hitting rock around the house, to fairly shallow toward the lower and northeastern (right side) of the drive.
- The slope is steep in this area. The soil in this area is poor. It is only about 1/2 – 1 inch deep before hitting a lot of rocks. There is space and soil between the rocks, but not much. This is a difficult area to regenerate, but not impossible.
- As the slope is a bit gentler here, and we are a bit further downhill, the soil is deeper. I can dig 6-12 inches before hitting rock. And the rock is spaced farther apart.
- Toward the lowest end of the field, the soil is the deepest. I can dig to 24 inches before hitting rock. This area has no standing water after a rain, so the drainage is still good.
- This is toward the highest part of the valley floor. This has running water during rains.
- This is the lowest part of the valley floor. This has standing water after the rains.
- These are areas that were planted to grass (just like #1 above). These areas have fairly deep soils.
The soil on this property is generally poor. It has a very high, reddish-brown clay content. Little organic matter. All areas that are currently pasture have been compacted to some degree by tractors and continuous, open-grazing of cattle. It would be wonderful if the soil was great, but that’s not how it is. We deal with what we have, and fortunately, with good management, there is a lot that can be improved. Our animal rotation is one way we are going to improve the soil. The second is with cover crops. We will take about a year to grow cover crops with a variety of functions. Here are a few plants we will be using, for example: buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) for biomass; clover (Trifolium species) for biomass and nitrogen fixation; borage (Borago officinalis), chicory (Cichorium intybus), and radish (Raphanus sativus) as deep-rooted/tap-rooted plants to break up the deep layers of the soil. Also, these plants are ones I don’t mind growing in the established forest garden if any of their seeds survive and reseed. We are still toying with the idea of spreading rolls of old/less-than-prime hay over the area to further suffocate/mulch the existing pasture. Of course, these rolls of hay will come with their own seeds, but we will use the chickens to de-seed as much as possible as well. These are just a few of our strategies for improving the soil of our forest garden before ever place a permanent plant.
Next week, we will be taking the next step. We will be collecting soil samples to be sent off to a few labs for analysis. Fun stuff!