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Lessons from a Young Food Forest: Taking Stock of My 12-year Permaculture Adventure

“Strap yourself to the tree with roots / You ain’t goin’ nowhere” – Bob Dylan

“[T]here’s a certain way that we all must swim / If we expect to live off
of the fat of the land.” – Bob Dylan

“Under that apple suckling tree, oh yeah! / Underneath that tree, there’s just gonna be you and me / Under that apple suckling tree, oh yeah!” – Bob Dylan

SUMMARY:  How many humans does it take to re-invent agriculture?  Just one…you!  Or me!  So that’s what I’m trying to do.  Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the past 12 years.  

IT’S THAT MILLION DOLLAR BASH

"Oooo baby, oooo weee / it's that million dollar bash" – Bob Dylan

Our wild, fossil-fueled industrial party is entering the wee hours.  Perhaps even the final hour.  The shrill cop sirens of economic and environmental collapse grow ever closer.  

The wise choice would be to make other plans, find somewhere to ride out the coming shit storm.  The unwise choice – the one we’ve selected -- is to pretend we don't hear the sirens, crack open another cold one, and crank up the volume a few clicks.

But a serious discussion is needed and… wait… what? …YEA!!! ...CHUG! CHUG! CHUG!  …What were we talking about?

So the party will rage on, even as the cops pull into the driveway, sirens blaring.  …Hey, these guys look more like storm troopers than cops.  …Ouch!  Stop!  Ahhhhhh!…

THE FUTURE OF AGRICULTURE

“This wheel’s on fire, rollin’ down the road / Notify my next of kin that this wheel shall explode” – Bob Dylan

But even more dire than the evaporation of jobs, bank accounts, economic activity, and cultural sanity that will arrive with the coming industrial collapse, is the inevitable evaporation of industrial agriculture and the true reckoning of its many failures.  

How will we feed ourselves -- all umpteen million of us in the US -- without fossil fuels?  How will we feed ourselves with vastly reduced industrial fertilizers; with soils that have been eroded, degraded, and poisoned; with seriously impoverished genetic diversity in our traditional crops; with a decimated farming culture and an agriculturally-ignorant population; with a destabilizing climate that pummels us ever more frequently with epic droughts, floods, wind storms, and temperature extremes?  

I don’t know. 

But I think being honest about our predicament is a good place to start.  I won’t go into all the background details here, but instead I’ll point you to what I believe are the starting points for any response to our increasingly sticky agricultural situation: http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-03-11/when-agriculture-stops-working-a-guide-to-growing-food-in-the-age-of-climate-destabilization-and-civilization-collapse.

In that essay (and others at http://www.resilience.org/author-detail/1151372-dan-allen) I suggest that an agriculture based on a polyculture of perennial food crops gives us our best chance at weathering the coming social, economic, and environmental storms.  In this essay, I just want to give an update on my modest personal progress in that vein and some thoughts on how to perhaps streamline the transition to a sane agriculture – an agriculture that stands a chance.

MY FOOD FOREST

“Lo and behold! Lo and behold! / Lookin’ for my lo and behold” – Bob Dylan

So what productive steps can we take when confronted with these kinds of skull-ringing economic and environmental predicaments?  Worrying about why our corporate overlords are not enacting the obvious solutions will only drive us crazy.  We simply need to fix it ourselves.

So that’s what I’ve been trying to do.  After some early research on ecology, perennial food crops, pre-industrial agriculture, and some early versions of food forests, I’ve started to transition my 6-acre farm in central New Jersey into a food forest.  Or at least something like that.  Twelve years into the process, it still doesn’t quite look like a forest.  But I can see the food forest taking shape and it both humbles me and fills me with joy daily.

When I moved in, there were tree-lines of cedar, maple, and autumn olive along the outside border of the farm, but little other woody vegetation; it had been a pretty intensively-managed sheep and goat operation.  Most sunshine that fell on the 6 acres fell on pasture grasses, which despite all my plantings, is still mostly true.  But in my twelve years here, I’ve planted over 80 nut trees, 80 fruit trees, 30 berry bushes/vines, and a smattering of other companion trees and bushes on the 6-acre property.  (Note: I’ve planted several hundred more food trees on the farms of various family members and township-owned land, but I’ll just focus here on my 6-acre piece.)     

There were a few apple, pear, and black walnut trees already planted near the house when I moved in, and those are already bearing well.  The trees and bushes I planted in the first few years are still smallish, but starting to bear nicely.  The more recent plantings are still just poking their heads out of their protective deer-tubes.  And I’m still planting more trees and bushes every year as some young plants die or new niches are identified.

I should note that, while I spend a good bit of time with my trees, it’s still just a ‘hobby’ food forest.  I also teach high school science, coach little girl soccer, grow a half acre of veggies, and help run the community garden, so there’s not loads of ‘food forest’ time available to me.  But still, whenever I get a chance, I’m out with the trees.

LESSONS FROM A YOUNG FOOD FOREST

“Alright, I’m alright / I’m a three time loser but I’m alright” – Bob Dylan

What follows are some lessons I’ve learned from my food foresting adventures over the past dozen years in central New Jersey.  They may or may not be applicable to your farms and yards, but this is a list I wish I had when I started growing trees.  Food foresting is one of those skill sets that really requires a lifetime to reach proficiency.  But maybe this list can help speed up the process for you.  …Good luck!!

I. Protect the trees the right amount – not too much or too little. 

About 18 years ago, I got a few hundred oak seedlings cheaply from a state nursery.  I excitedly popped them in the ground on my parents’ farm and, while expecting some losses due to deer, left them on their own.  There are about 20 still alive -- not a complete train wreck, but certainly not acceptable if you’re trying to start a food forest with trees that can cost up to $40 each.

For many parts of the country, you simply need to protect the trees for the first 10 to 15 years – and especially here in the deer-saturated Northeast.  There’s a lot of work involved in choosing, obtaining, and planting a young tree, and it just breaks your heart in half when you walk out for a visit and your little tree’s been bitten, chewed, or rubbed down to a tattered stick. 

I now use the 5-foot plastic tree-tubes with 74” fiberglass stakes, purchased from plantra.com.  The tube and stake combo runs $8.50 per tree – which is painful, but doable if you’ve got some cash laying around.  With all the deer around me, I simply would not have any trees if I didn’t use these.  So it’s money well-spent.  In addition, they allow me to plant food trees in my active sheep pastures.  I strongly suspect the 5-foot tubes are too small for planting in a pasture with goats and cows, however they do sell 6-foot tubes too.  I’ve also tried wood and bamboo stakes instead of fiberglass, but they’ve tended to rot and fall over before the trees can support themselves.

I’ve also made the mistake of over-protecting trees.  For my first six precious chestnut trees planted in the sheep pasture – before I discovered the tree tubes – I constructed a wire-fence barrier worthy of a maximum security prison.  And sure, it kept the sheep out – but it also made a wide un-grazed island around each tree that encouraged the meadow voles to construct underground condominium complexes under several of the trees, thus killing them.  Not to mention that it would cost me a ridiculous amount of money to protect all my trees that way. 

II. Get some named cultivars, but learn to start seeds & graft your own.

I have some named cultivars of each fruit and nut species, but most of my plantings are started from seed. 

The first reason is ecological.  Named cultivars – like Stayman Winesap apples or Bartlett pears – are gifts from the past.  They are the superstars of intentional or unintentional breeding programs carried out …in a climate, soil, and local ecology very likely different from your farm.  They might or might not be superstars on your farm as well – I’ve had it work both ways.  So I try to collect some named cultivars to both test them out on my farm and jump-start my own long-term breeding program.  But with the climate and local ecology changing as it is, I feel more comfortable investing in the genetic diversity of sexual reproduction rather than ‘frozen’ genetics of named cultivars, optimized for a distant and very specific time and place.

The second reason is financial.  My financial advisor (a.k.a., wife) already gets eight kinds of odgeda from the money I spend on tree-related stuff, so I try to be as frugal as possible.  A fancy named cultivar from a nursery with a tree tube runs about $40-50.  A seed-started or self-grafted seedling with tree tube runs about $9 – pretty much all of it for the tube.  Multiply that by several hundred trees and the difference starts adding up.  Happy wife, happy life.

But all this requires that I can whip up a seedling from scratch …which I can!  There are two ways to do this.  One is collect or buy seed from productive plants and hope its seedlings will also prove fruitful.  Guaranteed success? No.  But neither are most named cultivars without their accompanying toxic industrial sprays.  I’ve been saving my collected or purchased fruit and nut seed over the winter in wet-newspaper-filled ziploc bags in the crisper drawer of my fridge (to my wife’s joy), but I think I could also store them buried outside in the soil.  Badgersett Research Farm, Oikos Tree Crops, Empire Chestnut, and Horizon Herbs are places I’ve purchased my fruit and nut seed.

The second way is grafting.  Some of my seed-started trees (in half-gallon pots) just go right into the ground, but some of them I clip off near the base and graft on a twig of a named cultivar.  I’m not even close to being good at this yet, but I have enough successes to provide a steady flow of grafted trees.

Overall I start more than a hundred trees a year in half-gallon pots.  I’ve had success with a soil mix of peat (1 part), topsoil (1 part), compost (half part), and perlite (half part) – but lots of other mixes would work.  I fenced off a 10’x30’ rectangle near the house to use as my tree nursery, and I pop them in the ground pretty much any time from March through November, here in NJ.  Protection with a 5-foot tree tube and occasional watering in the first few months if it’s really hot and dry are all I do for these trees.  (Although I really should mulch them too.)  If they die for some reason (as maybe 15% do), I just replace them.

III. Have a general plan, but don’t be afraid to go off-script.

My general plan was to go heavy on nut staples (mostly Chinese or hybrid chestnuts), but to incorporate a lot of fruit diversity.  Chestnuts are nutritionally similar to corn, producing a good calorie yield, and can be stored by drying or other types of processing.  And a diversity of fruits can spread out the harvest/sales window and help my low-tech operation avoid the need for mechanized harvesting or processing equipment.

Well that was plan, at least.  Pretty soon, I realized that some of the places that I wanted to put chestnuts didn’t really want chestnuts; the clayey soil was either too wet or too droughty for their liking.  I also had trouble with Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica) getting trapped inside some of the tubes and making swiss cheese out of the leaves.  And, as mentioned earlier, the meadow voles took out a few of the over-protected trees.

So…I had to adjust on the fly.  After a couple futile attempts to replace dead chestnuts with soon-to-be-dead chestnuts, I smartened up.  The dead chestnuts were replaced with pears, pecans, and hazelnuts, which have fared better, at least in their early years.  The Japanese beetles have been pretty well controlled by putting the little plastic nets over the top of the chestnut and hazelnut tree tubes – something I should have done from the start.  Live and learn.

Overall, I think the changes have ended up better anyway, with more diversity on the farm and giving me a better understanding of what different food trees require.

Every farm or yard will have their own general food-forest plan to start out with – even if it’s just a vague notion.  But in the end, it’s the land and trees that will have the final say.  Listen to what they’re telling you and work with them.  I’ve found that some trees and bushes will do just fine in places that surprise me – or totally shit the bed in places I thought were perfect. 

Just remember that they’re not little machines and you’re not as smart as you think you are.  …It’s kind of like raising kids!

IV. Keep looking for new niches to exploit.

My wife takes great, good-natured pleasure in mocking the many new bush and tree seedlings I start every Spring.  “Where the heck are you going to plant all these, honey?  There’s. no. more. room!  [smug chuckle]”  And she does have a point: there are a finite number of trees and bushes that will fit on the six acres.

But I’m not there yet, baby!

The first reason I can fit more plantings is the semi-experimental nature of a lot of my fruit and nut genetics.  As I mentioned earlier, many of these seedling trees are not proven cultivars.  So, due to unlucky genomic mixing, some may not end up as productive food trees.  But since they’re relatively cheap for me to produce, I can plant them at closer spacings than the mature trees would prefer and then just use the less-successful of the trees for firewood.  I can re-use the tree tubes, so it’s no net loss.

The second reason I can fit more plantings is that the more time I spend with the trees, the more un-filled niches I can identify on the property.  For example, there are some plants that can be fairly productive even in the partial shade of the larger trees – like pawpaw and gooseberry.  So lately I’ve been starting and planting lots of them between the other fruit and nut trees. 

And there’s more!  The cedars along the perimeter fences won’t live forever, so I can plant fruit and nut trees in between them.  Those swampy places near the pond and along the back fence could use some bamboo or swamp white oaks.  The briar-patch strip along the road could use a hickory and pawpaw mix.  This odd-shaped triangle in the side yard looks perfect for hazelnuts.  I can put these elderberries along the garden fence.  Oooo! -- I can get cattails started in the pond.  And so on…

And even when I’m maxed-out for these initial plantings, there will always trees and bushes to replace as some kick the bucket or I identify those not working as well as I want.  It’s certainly possible to have the mature plantings too densely spaced, but as long as I pay attention to what’s going on, that won’t be a problem.

…So hand me a few more of those tree pots, would you!    

V. Have patience with perennials, and rely on annuals at first.

It took my family just a few years to learn vegetable gardening well enough to sell $10,000 worth of organic veggies from a little honor-system farm stand at the end of the driveway.  Ten years later, and we’ve doubled that.  Yea for us!  …But the point is this: both the learning curve and the return for annuals are relatively quick. 

In contrast, a dozen years into my food forest experiment, and the fruits (and nuts) of my perennial plantings are just starting to find their way to the farm stand.  …Such is the required patience of a food forester! 

One problem is that, on my farm at least, catalog estimations of when different species of fruits and nuts will start bearing are always a bit exaggerated.  Part of that lies in the inevitable hyperbole of advertising.  But I think a big part of the problem lies with me; I haven’t been able to properly mulch and water most of my young perennial plantings.  I know I should, but just haven’t had time – or at least that’s what I’ve told myself.  If I could go back and do it again, I would definitely put more effort into mulching.  It’s not that much more work, and I think it would definitely speed up the learning and production curves.    

But even if everything was to bear ‘on time’, there’s still a pretty big time lag for these perennial plantings until they start producing anything close to the bounty you’d get from an annual vegetable garden.  And there’s an even bigger lag required to fix anything that didn’t work out the first time: replacing trees that mysteriously died, shifting the species mix towards those that are giving better yields, finding more pest and disease-resistant varieties. 

So patience is definitely required.  In my weaker moments, I have to resist the urge to tell certain seedlings to ‘grow faster!’ or ‘come on, girls, let’s pick up the pace!’  But in my better moments, the slow pace of “tree-time” is a great teacher, helping me at least partially detach from our frenetic human culture and learn to, in the spirit of Aldo Leopold, think like a tree.

But it’s been nice to see my pears, apples, peaches, beach plums, and blueberries finally making it to the farm stand, after all the time I’ve spent watching them grow.  Chestnuts, hazelnuts, gooseberries, pawpaw and persimmons are right on their heels, and many others are on their way. 

…But patience.  All in good time.  …And until then, we’ve got some damn good heirloom tomatoes for you!

VI. Embrace diversity, because it’s uncertain what will work on your farm.

I have 7 species of nuts and 15 species of fruit growing on my 6-acre farm.  And after twelve years, I’m still not sure what’s going to work best.  …But I like the odds that I’ve got at least a few winners in there!

Because as much as I like to think I know about the ecology and natural history of each fruit and nut species on the farm, I increasingly find out that we’re really at just the ‘casual acquaintance’ stage in our relationship.  Ditto for the hydrology, soil ecology, insect cycles, and the rest of the myriad ecological relationships on the farm.

We really are flying in the semi-darkness here, trying to fashion a functioning food forest ecosystem almost from scratch.  So it’s silly to think we can plan it out perfectly from the start.  Thus, for beginning food foresters (which is just about the only kind of food forester at this point), our mantra should be: “This is not best or final version – just a learning experience for future plantings.”  …True dat!

And as such, the rule of the day should be diversity. 

Now, I don’t claim to be doing this perfectly; I have more of some species than others, and there are still some species I need to add.  But I do have a pretty good mix so far: 30 chestnut trees, 13 pecan, 12 black walnut, 12 hazelnut, 12 oak, 5 shagbark hickory, 2 heartnut; 25 apple, 20 pear, 20 pawpaw, 7 peach, 6 mulberry, 6 elderberry, 5 gooseberry, 4 persimmon, 4 seaberry, 4 grape, 3 apricot, 3 blueberry, 3 blackberry, 3 black raspberry, 2 kiwi, and 1 sour cherry.

So I’ll keep planting and watching…  and planting and watching…  and planting and watching…  etc.

And maybe one day I’ll know what I’m doing.

VII. Keep spreading the word, but don’t get down if it seems like you’re not getting through to anyone.

I remember once in my college ecology class when I invented permaculture.  …That’s right!  After learning about the ravages of the plow, I had the brilliant idea that maybe we could feed ourselves mainly on perennial fruits and nuts.  I made a whole list of species we could use.  I couldn’t believe that I was the first one to come up with this.  …I must be brilliant!!

But of course, I wasn’t – not the first and not brilliant.  Perennial agriculture is just a fairly obvious solution to one of the most fundamental problems of any human civilization: annual agriculture works well for a while, but inevitably leads to collapse and ruin.  And various forms of permaculture have been practiced, at least patchily, for thousands of years on all continents.

So why don’t my people get it?  Why can’t we, as a scientifically-literate, technologically-advanced society, recognize the tragic folly of annual agriculture?  Why aren’t otherwise-reasonable people filling their yards with food trees?  Why aren’t governments enthusiastically mandating a phased transition to perennial agriculture in the spirit of Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry’s 50-year Farm Bill?  What is wrong with everybody?

Well that’s the million dollar question. 

And the million dollar answer is this: that’s just humans doing humans.  We’re not nearly as smart as we think we are.  We can invent technologies, -- like annual agriculture, plastics, nuclear reactors -- but that doesn’t mean we can understand them holistically or wield them safely.  It doesn’t mean we won’t use them to off ourselves and countless other species on Earth. 

 …And that doesn’t mean we’re evil – just way, way, way dumber than we like to admit.  It’s a lack of humility.  And it’s really just too bad.

But where does that leave you and me?  If you see something a lot of people are doing wrong, what can you do to fix it?  How can you get them to change? 

You start with yourself.  You start doing the right thing and offer your life as an example.  That’s what you can do.  That’s all you can do. 

…And have fun doing it.  Because there’s a better chance of people following along if they see you having a ball.  And of course, there’s a good chance that not many will follow along anyway, so you might as well enjoy the ride.  There’s a fair to middling chance we only live once.

“A LIVING EXAMPLE”

“The natural state here in Devon has been, for most of the past million years, a permanent arctic winter.  …So why should I fret over the destruction of a countryside that is, at most, only a few thousand years old and soon to vanish again?  I do so because the English countryside was a great work of art; as much a sacrament as the cathedrals, music, and poetry.  It has not all gone yet, and I ask, is there no one prepared to let it survive long enough to illustrate a gentle relationship between humans and the land, a living example of how one small group of humans, for a brief spell, did it right?” – James Lovelock (The Ages of Gaia, 1995)

Look, I’m under no illusion that my food forest will save the world.  I strongly suspect that nothing I do will influence whether my children and grandchildren will inherit a healing Gaia or a Gaia thrown into spastic fits of illness. 

But that’s not really why I spend so much time planting and communing with my trees.

I do it because it’s beautiful.  Because I feel that, in my own bumbling, imperfect way, I’m making something so damn pretty that it sometimes brings me to tears. 

I do it for that one moment on a warm Spring morning when a bluebird alights up in one of my chestnut trees and belts out his crazy warbling song, with the rich smell of fungus drifting up from the leaf litter.

I do it because the land on my farm tells me it wants trees.

I do it because the sweet, buttery taste of a ripe American persimmon is what I strongly suspect food tastes like in heaven.

I do it because I like to sit in the cool shade on a hot humid day in July.

I do it because the dead-tired feeling in my muscles at the end of a long work day with my trees is one of the best feelings I know.

I do it because I will never stop being floored at the beauty and mystery of a chestnut sprout poking itself defiantly up through the soil.

I do it because I want to be remembered by my grandchildren as the totally awesome dude who planted this one peach tree that makes the most incredibly delicious fruit you’ve ever eaten in your life.  Come here, taste one…

I do it because it makes me feel alive.

I do it because it makes me feel part of something bigger that’s alive.

I do it for love.

And that’s really the only reason to do anything.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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