Now, why would a guy in South India read a book titled, ‘Create Your Own Florida Food Forest’?
For starters, the Florida climate is kind of tropical and similar to that of Tamilnadu. Alright, maybe the summers are a lot milder but it still is close enough.
Second, I love to hear from a man who has already set up two full-fledged food forests. Experience trumps everything else. I have always had an inclination to read from people who have actually done things rather than academic information.
Third and the most important is the intention. I had just made up my mind to convert 4 acres of my 13-acre Vaksana farms into a dense tropical edible food forest. The timing was perfect.
I finished the book on my flight from Chennai to Srinagar. Here are some important notes that I had highlighted on my Kindle.
We can create that flowering jungle again – and tailor it to serve us by growing plants and trees that provide food, beauty, wildlife habitat, building materials and fuel.
If you’re in south Florida where it only freezes once in a blue moon, I envy you: the great bounty of the tropics is open for your plunder. Rather than 20-30 fruit trees, you can literally grow a thousand species, along with a plethora of exotic spices and perennial.
What if you created a forest ecosystem piece by piece? But rather than letting birds and squirrels start it – you plant it. The more species you add, the more ecological niches you create. Different plants attract different insects, birds and other friendly creatures.
English horticulturist Robert Hart is probably most responsible for the modern interest in edible landscaping and forest creation. He took a tiny orchard and filled it with edible perennial species, stacking herbs, vegetables and berries into every corner until the system matured into an amazing food-creating machine. His work has since been improved upon and expanded by permaculturists such as Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton (look these guys up… it’ll blow your mind)
Healthy forests are self-feeding, self-mulching, self-watering and self-perpetuating. Ever dig into a forest floor? It’s usually covered, beneath the leaves, in rich compost. That’s compost YOU didn’t have to make. Put in some hard work now… and you’ll reap the benefits.
Along with these seven layers, a “palm layer” for the tropics has also been proposed by Geoff Lawton and Bill Mollison, since many palms will happily grow up through a tropical forest canopy without causing too much shade beneath. Others have proposed an “aquatic layer” for pond plants added to the mix.
If you can find trees and shrubs that are nitrogen-fixers, plant those in between your other plants. What is “nitrogen-fixing?” It’s the process by which certain bacteria form relationships with certain plant roots to take atmospheric nitrogen from the air and turn it into a form the host plant – and its neighbors – can use.
Another way to add nutrition to the soil? Let chickens run through your food forest, once it’s established. They’ll find their own food, add manure, and break the breeding cycle of nasty bugs.
Remember: this is a long-term forest you’re making. The first few years are going to require some watering, feeding, trimming and weeding. Some pieces won’t survive. But then, magic happens. The forest begins to take over… and soon you have a garden you can pass onto your children’s children.
When you consider that pomegranate trees sell for $20 apiece… figs in one-gallon pots are often $10.00 each… and other trees and shrubs all bear price tags of their own, you can save a lot of money really fast. It takes an hour to make yourself a couple hundred bucks worth of baby plants. Time well spent. Plus, if you manage to grow more than you need, you can give away the extra or even sell and barter plants here and there. I did this for years and eventually opened my own little plant nursery to sell what I grow. Win!
Yes, when you plant things close together you get less production per tree… yet you may get more production from the space as a whole.
“Too many trees” can be solved in a variety of ways over a weekend or two… but building a dense and productive ecosystem takes time.
The biggest benefit to having bees around is the increase in fruit you’ll get. Pollinators make a huge difference. I’ve heard you’ll get 30-40% more from a fruit tree when bees are present. For that much yield, taking the time to make some nests is a pretty good trade.
I’ve added two birdbaths, a bird feeder, and a bunch of little houses around the yard for various species. Birds will eat some of your fruit, sure, but they also eat a lot of insects through the year. Another benefit is that they bring a lot of fertility into your system by consuming seeds and insects from all over your neighborhood, then dropping the resulting rich manure beneath their perches in your food forest.
Analyze The Native Forest If I were to plant a food forest in North Florida, I’d first take a look at what was already growing wild in the region. Hickories? Oaks? Persimmons? Wild plums? Rhododendrons? Pay attention to where these plants are growing in the forest and which ones are next to each other.
Every time you cut back a nitrogen-fixing tree, nitrogen is released as the root mass declines in response to the loss of canopy. Secondly, you can use the chopped branches as mulch around the base of your fruit tree… which leads me to my next point.
If you add nitrogen-fixers, nutrient accumulators and pollinator-attracting plants around your fruit trees, you can support those trees better than you could with just mulch.
If you have a forest, you have a lot of resources. One mistake I see people making all the time: they cut down trees and shrubs, then burn them to clear the ground. Don’t do that! You’re literally sending your soil fertility up in smoke.
In my yard, I’ve got a great variety of edible berries and fruit, many of which I planted with children in mind. Jamaican cherries, blueberries, mulberries, strawberries, figs, kumquats, Simpson stoppers, beauty berries… the list just keeps going.
When you plant fruit, you’re making an investment in your children’s health. Of course, they won’t know its a nefarious plot to get them nutrition… they’ll just think you’re great for planting those delicious things!
I have seen multiple food forest projects that miss the benefits of density. They’ve made the transition from standard annual gardening to a more permaculture approach.
Sometimes I play seed fairy and throw handfuls of seeds all over the food forest. When I’ve got more time, I make seed balls and chuck those around.
Throwing seeds around lets nature pick and choose what works and what doesn’t. I like a mix of flowers, brassicas, beans, grains and assorted tree seeds.
Strolling through my yard is like taking a botanical tour. Weeds are happy alongside rare perennial vegetables and butterflies drift past in a constant dance shared with bees, dragonflies, beetles, and wasps.
Along one path is a loquat tree next to a fig. Below the fig are edible elephant ears; behind it is a root beer plant at the base of a young queen palm. Beyond that are shampoo gingers, blackberries, native pawpaws, bananas, Singapore daisies, an orange tree, more figs, Jerusalem artichokes, black-eyed Susans, watermelon vines, yacon, a magnolia tree, cassava, Confederate rose, pears, a bottlebrush tree buzzing with bees, dwarf mulberries, a honey locust, Mexican sunflowers, Christmas cassia, sumacs, St. Christopher lilies, a Key limequat, rambling sweet potatoes, turmeric, firespike, African blue basil, apples, wild plums and other species. And that’s only 1/4 of my food forest project… just a slice along a single path.