What is a food forest?
A food forest is a permaculture concept, best explained by the following quote from My Smart Garden:
A ‘food forest’ is a system of gardening using a diversity of mostly perennial (long-lived species, as opposed to annual vegetables) chosen and arranged such as they compliment and support each other, minimising weeds, pests and maintenance while providing a rich variety of harvests.
(What is permaculture? Find out more here)
The more I read about permaculture and using perennial plants, the more I wanted to develop a food forest. I also watched a DVD called The Permaculture Orchard : Beyond Organic (affiliate link), which shows how perennial plants and bushes can be grown amongst fruit and nut trees. I also read some books about perennial food plants (see post here) and have been working on incorporating perennial food plants into my garden.
The only thing holding us back from starting a proper food forest or permaculture orchard was water infrastructure. It takes a significant amount of water to establish fruit trees, although the water needs should then decrease as the trees grow and the system develops its own eco-system. As we can have very unpredictable rainfall and I know of people locally who have bought lots of fruit trees only to lose them all during a hot dry summer, I didn't want to start planting until we had water organised.
Water for our food forest
When we bought this property in 2012 we knew that water infrastructure would be a priority. Water is necessary for growing a garden, keeping livestock and, of course, a functioning house. We have three methods of water collection for different purposes.
For drinking water for the house we collect rainwater from the roofs of the the house and sheds in large plastic tanks. Until recently we were also using this water for the chickens and the garden, so that limited the amount of garden we could develop (not wanting to run out of water for the house).
The property had a five dams when we bought it, and we've added five more in strategic locations. We use these dams primarily to provide water for cattle. The dam in the house yard is also fire-fighting water for the house if necessary. These dams are located to collect rainwater run-off in the various valleys on the property and can get low when we have long periods of hot dry weather and/or too many cattle drinking from them.
Finally, we have also developed bores on the property. When we bought it, there were two "divined" bore sites, however both of those proved to be dry. We were able to drill a good bore near an old windmill site in 2014. This bore is located at a low point on our property and some distance from the house. After we proved that the flow was significant and water quality adequate, we started working on getting the water to the house.
Solar bore pump
Our preferred solution was to install a solar bore pump rather than a windmill or a petrol pump. We sized the pump so that it could pump the water up to a high point on our property, and then we could use gravity to move the water to the house or to other locations for cattle water.
The pipeline is 1km from the bore to the tank at the top of the property, with a total height of 40m. It took us several years to get to the point where we could irrigate our food forest because in the meantime we were also working on renovating our secondhand house and selling our other house!
First we laid the pipeline (and connected the fittings) up to the tank location and proved that the pump could get the water to the top of the hill. Then we installed the tank. Later we had to undo all the fittings to lay the pipe properly (using the tractor and a pipe-laying implement). Then we had to lay a pipeline down to the house and install another small holding tank near the shed.
The last step was a pump and a manifold so that we can use the bore water on the garden, the food forest and to fill up chicken water buckets. After 5 years we were able to use the water from our bore! And for the most part we are relying on solar power and gravity to move the water (with an electric pump for extra pressure if we need it).
Where is your food forest?
Finally we had water close enough to the house to start working on our food forest. We were going to put it further from the house, but then decided to keep it in zone 1 (permaculture zones) so that a) it was close to the water (no more pipelines!) b) we would remember to water it and could monitor progress easily (this is our first time planting trees and we need to observe and interact).
The purpose of this garden is to provide food and herbs for us and for the chickens (we left 4 m between rows so that the chicken tractors will fit between the trees to eat fallen fruit), food/flowers for bees and native insects, habitat for birds and lizards (and hopefully not snakes), shade on the western side of the house in the afternoon, fire protection (due to lush green growth) and something nice to look at from our kitchen window and patio.
Irrigation fittings in the food forest
It was important to set up irrigation so that we weren't having to walk around with a hose regularly. I find that if I water with a hose I don't spend the time to give the plants enough water, and I don't do it often enough, we wanted to give these trees the best chance of survival and also start to grow some plants in between, so they were going to need consistent water. Also because we were able to make use of gravity, it is easy to let a small trickle of water from irrigation fittings continue to water the area for a long period without risk of draining our drinking water supply. The irrigation system will supply whatever the solar pump is pumping from the bore.
We used 13mm black irrigation polypipe the length of the row of trees, with drippers set about 100mm from each tree stem (trying to water the roots not the trunk). We put 360deg sprayers between each tree and will add more if required to get some other plants established. We used bungs at the end of each line, and t's and elbows to connect, as well as a hose connection into the manifold.
I recommend drawing out your garden/orchard before going to the hardware to by fittings, as the range is quite overwhelming! You can use an online tool or just sketch it on paper, but do make sure you take some measurements. Work out how much 13mm polypipe you will need (it comes in 50 rolls). Work out how many drippers and sprayers you want. Make sure you get a filter if your water is not 100% free of grit, as the sprayers will block easily. Buy the little tool that you can use to punch holes in the polypipe, it makes life so much easier.
What did you plant in the food forest?
So far our food forest is a range of plants that we have got for free, that have been in pots for way too long and just needed to be planted. We spaced them at 2m, which is too close for most plants, but the ideas is that they will gorw and start to shade other plants below, and we may have to thin them out or prune them in a few years. The plants are as follows:
- A miniature lemon tree that I have had in a pot for about 6 years
- Avocado trees grown from seed (5) - unknown species
- Flame tree and Crows Ash that the council was giving away as tube stock
- Silky oak (everyone has told me that these are huge, this is a candidate for thinning later) - grown from a seedling
- Neem trees grown from seed (5) - apparently bees love them
- Banana trees (2)
- Bottle brush from seed
- Mango from seed
- Mulberry given to me as a seedling
Underneath/between trees I have already planted sweet potato, ginger, turmeric and aloe. I intend to add strawberries, lemon grass, comfrey, pepino, basil and other perennials that I have been hoarding.
We have space for another row of ten trees, these will likely be selected more carefully and be fruit and nut trees that we eat.