Food Forest

Building the food forest on our hill.

Building the food forest on our hill.

In her book ‘A Georgia Food Forest’, Cynthia Dill defined it: “(a word) coined by Dave Jacke in Edible Forest Gardens, refers to a varied community of perennials that produce food for both people and nature.” In practical application it is a plant environment created to produce food and intentionally useful plants for many generations with a high yield and with minimum outlay of energy once it is established. If done right, one could come back 10 years or several decades later after placing it and still have the benefits of the food and medicinal plants in it without much further effort.

Here at Hillside Gardens in Auburn, Ga., I have been collecting a variety of perennial plants for 3 years in anticipation of making a food forest. We have a pretty steep piece of property which has made gardening a tougher than usual proposition. It builds the calf muscles but wears out the body with too many trips up and down. So, keeping things on the effortless side, or at least cutting down on how much work things take has been a key part of designing what goes in here.

But it being Springtime, it has come time to actually roll up the sleeves and do the work of putting it together.

I really consider lawn a big waste of space and resources. We gave up years ago trying to keep down the weeds in order to create a perfect lawn. Our neighbors around us spend tons of money on chemical applications from the landscaping companies who come on a regular basis and wash the hills covered with lawns with various chemicals. But here I sit looking out over the lawns, ours and theirs, and ours is greener and healthier. Of course, ours has a relatively very low percentage of grass but then who cares. If it’s green it gets mowed. I like the fact that I’m not polluting the ground water or the streams with pesticides, herbicides, and other ‘icides’ to kill off the things that are really nature’s band-aids for depleted and worn out soil. Well, if there was any actual soil left over after the developers of this sub-division sold off all the topsoil to make just a few thousand more bucks in building on this land.

The task of mowing it has fallen to my husband who dreads mowing in the heat of summer without a riding mower. I actually think it is dangerous to use one on this hill for fear of toppling over. However, after 7 years of working with what we have, and creating terraced beds in sections, we are now at the point by putting in the food forest, of eliminating about half the lawn on the property – maybe more as we progress putting in more trees and perennial areas.

A planted blueberry bush going in the clay surrounded by rocks, cardboard and mulch.

A planted blueberry bush going in the clay surrounded by rocks, cardboard and mulch.

My wonderful interns and I have been digging in lots of trees and bushes, sifting the hard Georgia clay, mixing in compost and sand, and planting things which will give us blueberries, plums, pears, apples, pomegranates, persimmons, elder berries, raspberries and blackberries, sweet cherries and some other things out there that lost their labels – mystery trees. Then, in amongst the bigger growing things are going flowers, herbs, some perennial vegetables, and maybe even some root crops and vines.

The beauty of a food forest is that everything fits hand in glove, integrating those plants which provide nitrogen to the soil (alfalfa and clover), pest protection (marigolds and some other herbs), pollinator attractors (many kinds of lovely perennial flowers), and some which even enhance the flavor of other plants like peppermint and such.

Newly sheet mulched and planted herb garden and perennial flowers at the top of the hill.

Newly sheet mulched and planted herb garden and perennial flowers at the top of the hill.

Besides planting things in the ground, we have put in above-the-ground planting using Lasagna Gardening type techniques where layers of organic material both green and brown, and natural soil, some sand, and even ash from the fireplace, are layered over cardboard (to kill off the Bermuda) to build up soil. One whole garden bed 7’ x 9’ has been planted with various herbs and flowers as well as a holly bush that feeds the birds in the winter with berries. Another area has raised beds with deep wooden boxes which now house 3 kinds of raspberries and some herbs.

Each section as it goes in and enough of an area created to make a coherent space will get the spaces between the plants covered with more cardboard, then filled in with 4 to 6 inches of wood chips. This has the advantage of holding in moisture to cut down on how much watering needs doing during hot summer months, as well as holding in top soil and hindering erosion. Eventually it will all break down and become its own top soil over which ground covering plants with more yield for human use can grow. Now the top soil is non-existant. It’s a wonder even Bermuda grass will grow, which is probably why the tap root weeds have taken over. They are really trying to re-establish a soil layer the only way nature can do it – tough weed cover.

We invite you to come by, pick up a shovel and help us make this garden a success, and learn a lot while you’re at it. You may come visit but don’t be surprised if you get the bug and want to pitch in. We’re really having fun with this. It’s exciting.

A Georgia Food Forest

If you are interested in the subject of food forests – get a copy of Cynthia Dill’s book. Just send a check for $22 to Hillside Gardens – 922 Wexford Way, Auburn, Ga. 30011 and add $4.50 s&h. It’s really innovative and ground breaking – pun intended – gardening information.

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