In 2014, we bought a house on 2.6 acres in Brevard County Florida and I immediately set out on a mission to turn our property into a food forest and grow as much food as I could. The day we closed on it, I ate a mango and planted the seed. Today, it’s growing just outside my front door. Although it hasn’t fruited yet, it is a beautiful, healthy, 10-foot tall tree.
Our garden is so much more than I ever imagined.
growing a food forest
Growing a yard of food sounds great, but there is so much more to it.
In addition to planting edible plants, you should have a good understanding of the following concepts:
- The most important thing you can do is care for and increase the number of microbes in the soil. Understand that soil is alive with trillions of tiny, living organisms that break down organic matter into nutrient-rich plant food. Healthy soil leads to healthy plants that are less prone to disease, pest attacks, and nutrient deficiency.
- Plant the right plants in the right place – know your wet/dry areas, understand the path of the sun, not just East to West, but also North to South.
- You should plant a combination of plants – not just edibles – including pollinator plants, host plants, and native plants.
- Understand, identify and respect the value of insects, weeds, and pests in your garden.
- Have a creative water supply so that you don’t have to rely on city water.
The whole process is very educational. There is so much to learn.
Most concepts that apply to our Florida food forest also apply in other regions, but you need to dedicate some time and effort into learning as much as you can – usually simply by experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t in your area.
one: improve the soil
Growing healthy plants is a slow and patient process because you must take the time to improve your soil.
There are many ways to produce your own nutrient-rich resources to feed the soil life.
I use compost bins, I collect leaves and twigs from around the property (which I refer to as biomass), and I use the nitrogen-rich water from our pond and fish tanks to water the plants.
two: plant the right plants in the right place
soil conditions: wet vs dry
When we first purchased our home, the neighbor warned us that our field flooded. He even said it flooded so much, that he rode his kayak back there. My excitement overrode my sense, and within the first month of moving in, we purchased and planted multiple citrus trees and fruit trees throughout the field.
Then the Florida rainy season came and the entire acre field was 2 feet underwater. I saved what I could, but we lost a lot and learned a lot. After a few years, I got a much better understanding of the dry and wet areas throughout the landscape and can now plan accordingly.
To overcome the flooding in the field, I am creating rows across the field by stacking logs, palm fronds, invasive pepper trees, branches, debris, and whatever other natural resources I can get my hands on.
The plan is to dig a pond back there and dump the dirt on the mounds. Until I have the time, money, and resources to do this, the mounds serve as a wildlife habitat for critters as it slowly decomposes and improves the soil.
the path of the sun: sun vs shade
We all know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west each day (in North America, at least). But I learned the hard way that it also shifts from the north to south throughout the seasons.
This means that locations that receive full sun in the summer may be completely shaded in the winter- which is what happened to me.
We built a fairly large raised bed out of railroad ties (which I don’t recommend) on the southern part of our property. This was going to be my main gardening bed. I planted a few fruit trees in it and spread some seeds.
It was all going well until wintertime…when the sun is at its southernmost point, and the entire corner planter was completely shaded by a row of trees.
The strawberry fruit tree died during hard freeze and I’m assuming lack of sun and warmth played a big part in that. So, now I just throw extra seeds in this space and hope for the best.
three: grow a diversity of plants in your food forest
We started our food forest with easy-to-grow plants for our area (Florida zone 9b), my favorites being gandules, mulberries, candlestick cassia, and milkweed. Once these “easy to grow” plants were scattered throughout the yard, the harder to grow plants could utilize the existing plants for protection from the wind and sun while benefiting from the microorganisms that are naturally attracted to plant roots (this is a good thing).
Native Species – Before you start tearing plants out, know what they are, and try to keep as many native species on your property as possible. Plants that we consider native to our food forest here in Florida may not be native to your area, so make sure to check first.
As they grew, I would cut them back and use throw the leaves and branches into our chicken coop. It is amazing how fast they turn it to compost.
Then, I’d randomly toss seeds in the planters and stick cuttings wherever there is space. The goal is to fill it all in. Nature does not like bare soil, soil-building microorganisms are attracted to roots and most importantly, all your success will motivate you to keep going!
four: respect insects and weeds
Every plant and insect has a purpose in your garden. Take the time to learn about the bugs and weeds you find, and what benefits each one serves in the garden.
Spraying a bunch of chemicals to try and kill everything is not the answer. If this is your answer, you probably shouldn’t be gardening.
Bill Mollison stated it best, “You don’t have a snail problem, you have a duck deficiency.”
five: have a creative water supply
Water Sources – Easy access to water is extremely important for a successful garden. We have rain barrels on every downspout, and I hooked up a pump to draft water out of our 1/4 acre pond.