When it comes to growing plants in your food forest you always have two choices:
Option 1. Adapt the plants to your site conditions; OR
Option 2. Adapt your site conditions to the plants.
The option of adapting your site conditions to the plants is definitely one where you’ll need to continuously put extra effort into taking care of your plants in order for them to grow and produce an abundance of crops.
For example, if you want to grow blueberries in an arid climate, in a shallow alkaline soil, you’ll need to lower the soil’s pH, build soil depth (or create mounds), provide continuous irrigation… the blueberry plant is not adapted to these types of site conditions, so it needs help to grow.
Sometimes this additional effort might be worth the trouble, but more often than not, you’ll discover, after a few years of stunted growth, that you need to replace your plants with something different. That is, if the plants don’t die on you in year 1 and save you time…
To make growing your food forest easier on you, and your wallet, you’ll want to adapt the plants to your site conditions. This is the option where you’ll have lower inputs, perform less maintenance and where the plants will thrive almost on their own.
However, for this to work, you’ll have to choose the right type of plants.
Now, choosing the most suitable plants for your food forest can be a difficult task, primarily because there are so many different factors you need to consider. What’s your climate, what’s your specific soil conditions, what’s your plant hardiness zone, etc.
Although these are all important questions and ones you should always be looking for answers to, there is an easier way; a shortcut let’s say, to help you make this plant selection.
The best part?
It virtually guarantees that you’ll choose the right plants.
I call this “The not-reinventing-the-wheel approach to choosing plants”. With this method, you are using your native ecosystem as a model and, on this basis, selecting plants which are most likely to succeed.
For this, all you need is a notebook and a little bit of skill in recognizing plants.
To better explain this, I’ll give you a real-life example from my farm and we’ll work through this process of making a list together.
So when I go outside on my site, here’s what I see:
It’s a beautiful view but, admiration aside, let’s put our permaculture land assessment hat on and study it more thoroughly. Here’s what you would need to do.
Step 1. Prepare a notebook
You’ll need to write down your insights about the plants into a notebook – this can be hardcopy or digital, the choice is yours. I use a combination of both, i.e., when on the site I put my observations in the hardcopy notebook and, later on at home, I fill out a digital database where I collate all the info.
In the notebook, you should have three columns:
- First, species name – the observed plant species’ name.
- Second, layer – the layer it occupies: overstory (canopy layer), understory (shrub layer), herb and ground layer, vines.
- Third, observed preferences of the plant (sun, soil, location) – the specific microclimate conditions in which it grows.
You can also do this on your computer. Here’s a spreadsheet template for this kind of notebook if you prefer to use a digital one.
Step 2. Observe the native plants in the wild
Now the key to this method is to observe and find wild-growing “useful” plant species of your bioregion, your local area, your site. These are the plant species that are perfectly adapted to your climate and soil conditions. That’s what we’re after.
So every time you go for a walk around your land or anywhere else in nature, take your notebook and keep an eye out for anything interesting. You’re looking for food-producing trees and shrubs, edible and medicinal herbaceous perennials, food-producing ground covers and vines…
Let’s come back to the example from my farm and identify the plant species in the photo.
Now, while recognizing common fruit- and nut-producing plants is relatively easy and straightforward, other plants can be a bit trickier.
If you are having trouble with recognizing plants, you can either:
- get field guides for your region (they’ll have a list and description of species you can encounter), or
- take a photo with your smartphone and use online communities or smartphone apps to help you identify the plant.
Step 3. Write down your insights into the notebook
The final step is to note down the info about the plant species you’ve observed.
Write down the species names, the layer they occupy and add some details about the environment you’ve found them in, e.g., waterlogged soil, marshy land, south-facing slope… (everything you write down here we’ll be useful later on).
Okay, so the native ecosystem model method has shown me that the most suitable plants for my food forest are plums, hazelnuts, apples, and dandelions, and, in addition to that, (not clearly seen in the image), thyme, rosehips, elderberry…
These are the plant species I should be planting in my food forest and these are the plants I should be combining into guilds. Absolutely no reinvention of the wheel is necessary.
By using the method I just showed you, you’ll ensure that you end up selecting the best-suited plant species for your food forest. That’s a foundational step in the overall food forest design.
Once you are ready to plant, you will need to find commercial variants of these species in your local nurseries or propagate the wild variants yourself.