Grow Your Vegetables Like Weeds and Thank Your Weeds for the Mulch (and all of this under Fruit Trees!): The Experimental Food Forest at the Huntington Ranch
Think of a wild forest. What does a person need to do for an undisturbed wild forest to grow? Well, mostly just stay out of the way. A forest does not need to be fertilized, because the cycle of plant growth and decay provides the nutrients needed to maintain productivity. This is how it has been since the first forest. A forest does not need to be sprayed for pest control. Interactions between forest creatures keep population levels in a dynamic balance. Creatures eat plants, creatures eat other creatures, soil life eats everything eventually, and the cycle begins again. While occasionally a population of one thing may spike, eventually, except for catastrophic disaster (naturally or human caused) or long term weather changes, balance is restored. In this dynamic balance, the forest system will change over time, but the complex balance of soil life, soil nutrients, plants, animals, and microorganisms continuously maintains a resilient wild system.
Compare this to a modern food garden. We usually do most, if not all of the following, often multiple times a year: fertilize, spray or dust something for pest control (organic or not), till, water a lot, weed, and then replant much of the vegetable garden every season. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a forest grow our food, doing most of the work for us?
To the modern gardener who wants to eat out of their garden, it may seem like there is a catch. There is not that much out of any model of a forest system that most of us would want to eat on a daily basis compared to our maintained vegetable gardens and orchards. Even if we were interested in adapting our palettes to more traditional wild diets, the land area required to gather from such a traditional system is far greater than what most urbanites have access to today.
BUT what if we can build a garden which uses the model of a resilient, wild forest system AND assemble it based around plants which we want to eat or use for other purposes? We can, and this approach to gardening is called “food forestry” or “forest gardening.”
There are a number of functions our food forest plants must provide. Minimally, a food forest must composed of plants that are useful to us (food, medicine, wood, etc.); they must build soil through producing mulch or directly adding nutrients to soil; they must provide food and habitat for beneficial insects to keep our pest insects in check. Some plants can do more than one of these. The trick to a food forest though is not just the functions of the individual plants. The true beauty is in the relationships between all of the plants, supported other forms of life including humans, soil, and water to produce this resilient edible system where nature does most of the work for us. In this ecosystem based paradigm of gardening, every element can be appreciated for its functions. For example, plants deemed “weeds” are less of a nuisance and more of a grown in place mulch to be harvested and left on the soil to decompose, improving the soil until it is ready to host other plants.
Is all of this sounding complicated? While the interactions may be complex, we don’t need to understand every aspect of what goes on to be successful food foresters. It is surprisingly simple to set up a food forest system with understanding some basic principles and then just doing it. Once one understands the idea, the real work is simply putting down mulch, scattering seeds, putting some plants in the ground, and watering a bit. The KEY is having a hunch as to what to do when and where to put what. But, beyond all the words, it is really not hard to do. Actually, it is much easier than building and maintaining a “traditional” western-style garden.
Food forest systems growing soil in place.
A food forest can be based around a planting of diverse fruit trees, growing along with other trees which provide mulch and soil fertility. Under and around those trees are shrubs and herbaceous plants which provide mulch, food, medicine, or other useful products. Underneath that is usually, a ground covering layer, holding together soil, smothering unwanted weeds, and providing additional yields of useful products. Finally, self-seeding plants grow over the rest of the ground, also providing yields.
A food forest looks like the wild and weedy system that it is. They are hard to photograph for this reason. The amazing beauty of these systems must really be experienced firsthand, walking through among the web of life, surrounded by food, lazily picking a mouth full of incredible tasting salad as you see the interactions of plants and small animals doing the “gardening” work for you.
Tomatoes and tomatillos growing as ground cover between guavas.
Blog posts over the next few months will cover how we are setting up the food forest as well as going into detail regarding the principles and theory behind our food forest. Crops are added to the system as broadcast seed or transplanted when small. After that, we walk away and let the system take over, except for occasional watering (MUCH LESS than a traditional garden) or to harvest food or mulch.
To tide you over until we really get into it, here is a list of trees we have planted and other crops we have grown as we are setting up this system.
Fruits: oranges, mandarins, tangerines, lemons, limes, kumquats, and grapefruits, loquats, mulberries, strawberry guavas, lemon guavas, pineapple guavas, figs, pomegranates, and more.
Vegetables: chard, kale, chicory, Italian dandelion, radicchio, endive, tomato, tomatillo, ground cherry, broccoli, mustard, daikon radish, amaranth, bell beans, cowpeas, and many edible weeds to be detailed later.
This is in addition to a multitude of plants to build soil and attract and nourish beneficial insects.
Scott Kleinrock is the Ranch project coordinator at The Huntington.