Want an easy garden with minimal work? Try a forest garden. It’s a gardening technique that works with nature to create a large harvest in a very simple way.
At the outset, I had planned to write this intro for food forest gardening tailored for different regions. My backyard in CT doesn’t look like my parent’s backyard in VA, and it doesn’t look like my in-law’s in the UK, or like the backyard, we had in CA.
The more I thought about each of these different spaces and challenges at those planting sites, the more I realized it didn’t matter if I broke them down regionally.
The reason is that forest gardens emulate what nature does, which is basically the opposite of what traditional intensive gardening and agriculture do. This method is a type of permaculture, meaning that it works with nature.
Food forest gardens battle weeds, they suck up and store water for your plants (no watering!), they help ensure materials that would otherwise go to waste are put to work, and they cover the soil to avoid erosion (think, dust bowl) and the list goes on.
No matter where you are, this method of permaculture gardening is going to solve your problems because you are working with nature.
So ditch the tiller, fertilizers, and pesticides, and embrace nature! If I sound too much like an ‘as-seen-on-TV’ ad circa 1997, read on to see how food forest gardening really isn’t too good to be true.
What is a Forest Garden?
Think about the last time you stepped into the woods, think about the smells, the feel of the air, the springiness of the forest floor. That is all due to the yearly drop of organic material to the floor, left to decompose — a process is undertaken by a myriad of creatures like worms and arthropods (bugs) but also fungi.
These decomposers are the workhorses of the garden, they will be alleviating my back pain and doing to hard work for me in my newly established food forest for years to come.
To emulate this forest recycling or circularity, all I have to do is ensure a layer of organic material ends up on the garden floor every year.
No pulling, no weeding, no tilling, no hoeing, no irrigating, no fertilization.
It sounds simple, because you are working WITH nature, and not against it.
Forest Garden Set Up
Essentially, when you create a food forest, the setup is the hardest part. The hard work starts with sourcing a LOT of organic matter. You want this organic material to provide nutrients as well as drown out weeds because let’s face it, weeding is awful.
In my area, our trees are getting pounded by pests and diseases, so we have had 16 trees taken down on our lot this spring alone (over 20 in the 5 years since we moved here) and our neighbors are experiencing the same losses.
As a result of all of the tree carnage, wood chips are my organic matter of choice, and man, let me tell you that scooping and hauling wood chips is miles away easier than scooping and hauling soil or manure.
The moment I see a tree company truck drive down our street, I’m out there asking if I can have any and all of their wood chips!
With the ginormous wood chip piles we ended up with, I spread a 6-12” thick pad of wood chips over the footprint of the future food forest (Hubby is on to my plan to slowly turn the entire yard into food making paradise!).
This organic layer will kill existing weeds and other unwanted plants, and the decomposition (and nutrient release) begins!
And it is working! The worms have started coming in to do their job even though my food forest is only weeks old so far. I feel so bad disturbing them when I walk around or when I plant but am always appreciative of their ongoing work! What can I say, I’m a hippie through and through.
At first, I was actually worried, because the soil seemed to have a small worm population, but now they seem to be flocking to my setup.
Then, as the food forest matures, all that is needed is to keep up with some really basic maintenance, it gets easier and easier to maintain.
We will have to manage the amount of food produced, but also we’ll also have to keep applying the organic matter but this can happen more gradually over the course of the growing season and is nowhere near as intense as the initial application.
I still plan to compost as much as possible, because I still think it’s so cool to watch a bunch of kitchen scraps turn into ‘black gold’ as they call it.
When the plants die down for the winter, I’ll leave them in place, and in my situation, I’ll cover them with more wood chips.
How cool is that?! To me, it is the epitome of working smarter, not harder.
But I thought Wood Chips Were Bad For the Garden?
I had always been taught that wood chips were nitrogen sinks, sucking up the nitrogen and thereby starving surrounding plants.
But if you think about it, those trees have deep roots that access trace minerals way down into the earth, and they store those along with years and years of carbon, ready to be used as building blocks for your plants.
Still not convinced? Check out this link from the guy who piqued my interest in this method in the first place.
I love James because he’s a Jersey shore boy who is absolutely passionate about gardening, a juxtaposition I never expected. He is also extremely enthusiastic and generous about sharing his knowledge. Check out his channel. It is an excellent resource.
Why is this Better than What My Grandparents Did?
A lot of the gardening practices that have become popularized or normalized are intensive.
In the spring, we are told to till, and add amendments, like fertilizers.
Fertilizers are nutrients in their purest form and as we apply them, they can wash off before plants are mature enough to uptake all of the nutrients.
If you ever read the labels, the application process can be extremely complicated, necessitating soil testing, and adding amendments at specific quantities. I hate math, so I’ve always sucked at this part.
Both of these time-honored spring gardening rights of passage are in fact not so great. The tilling will disrupt the soil structure and tear your decomposers apart (not to mention your back).
This is not what nature does.
Fertilizing is contributing to dead zones, whether you are using organic or synthetic.
This is where one of the beautiful aspects of food forest gardening comes in. The organic matter you lay down, be it woodchips, grass, leaves, compost, straw, or hay, will break down more slowly, and at a rate that will coincide with the growth of the plants you have planted into the soil underneath them.
Everything in its Place
Today, we are getting rain coming down in sheets, but I know that with each rain event, the thick mat of wood chips and other organic matter I have laid down will be slowly feeding roots at a rate at which those roots are evolved to absorb nutrients. And even better, in times when we have less rain for long periods of time, the wood chips and organic materials act like sponges and will slowly release the stored water.
Everything is thriving so far, in fact, if you watch James’s videos, a recurring theme is how hard it is to resist the urge to increase the size of the garden or to cram more stuff into the confines of the existing food forest.
I love walking around and checking out what is going on because everything is happening so quickly. The plants are happy, the weeds are few, and the worms and other creatures are adding balance. What more could a gardener ask for?
I hope you can join me throughout the growing season to see how our yields are.