Things have been very exciting around here at Hillside Gardens over the summer. With the help of several wonderful interns and friends, we have been building a Food Forest – which is a Permaculture Design technique integrating orchard with 7 layers (heights) of plants – tree canopy, tree dwarf, bush, herbaceous, ground cover, root and vine? The trees of the orchard provide the anchor for the rest of the plantings. The beauty of this kind of garden is that once it is established, all the plants in it are perennial or self seeding and need no more input than harvesting and the occasional pruning unlike annual gardens that require so much continuous work and energy. We can go back in 10 years and still get food and herbs.
This technique follows nature in that in a natural setting, plants tend to grow on all 7 levels using the space in the best way, catching the sun’s rays and making the most of each inch of growing area. You wouldn’t find a mowed orchard in nature. You’d find all kinds of plants growing around the trees, and you do in a natural forest. The difference is that in a Food Forest, you are planning exactly what you want to eat or use for medicinal herbs, and you are planning it so that all the plants in the setting have multiple uses. Also every need you have is met in multiple ways.
The ‘Guild System’ of companion planting is used so that each element in the food forest does something for each other element. For example, a good ‘guild’ would contain pollinator attractors – for beneficial insects like bees, butterflies, certain wasps, and hummingbirds to eat – which are usually flowering.
Then there would be plants that repel the enemies of that guild like bad bugs, deer, and bunnies etc. – beneficial plants like marigolds, calendula, garlic and the like – which keep the pests away. Usually it includes some kind of legume plant – there are 500 plants in this plant family – all of which capture nitrogen from the atmosphere and deposit it into the soil so the other plants have fertilizer at the root level. Often there are plants that use other plants for support – like using a vine plant by a tree so the tree supports the vine and the vine perhaps being a flowering one, attracts the pollinators that pollinate the fruit of the tree. Sometimes there are just plants that help the other ones be stronger or have better flavor, or they just grow better being in the same space.
Here in our Food Forest, because it is on a steep hill, we’ve used the trees and bushes to help stabilize the hill and prevent erosion, and we’ve used deep wood chip pathways to capture rain and keep it in the soil rather than run off down the hill and be lost to the plants there.
The wood chips were free from the electric company’s tree clearing contractors. We usually have over 4” of wood chips in the paths.
Then around the base of the trees, carefully sculpting them so harvesting of the trees won’t require stepping in the growing space of the other plants – usually placing the trees in the corners with growing space in between – we have created herb and flower beds. We have included fruit trees and bushes, herbal trees like witch hazel and crepe myrtle, nut trees, and pollinator attractors like butterfly bush. Many of the herbal plants in the rock enclosed beds are culinary such as basil and chives. Most of them are multiple use plants that provide medicinal values for making tinctures, infused oils, aromatherapy, ointments and such, as well as being edible, beautiful, bee friendly, deer unfriendly or in general helpful in the guild system.
We are incorporating aspects of several methods of gardening such as Lasagna Gardening, Square Foot Gardening, “Back To Eden” video, and all aspects of organic gardening, with heavy emphasis on Permaculture Design techniques to bring it all together into a cohesive whole. As each bed gets added, we layer the space over the Bermuda grass with 10 or more layers of newspaper then two layers of cardboard to kill it off. Eventually all the paper breaks down and is eaten by worms, but meanwhile it is killing off the invasive grasses and weeds, absorbing moisture, and giving a good base for pathways and beds.
In the beds themselves, we are building the soil with ‘sheet mulching’ aka Lasagna Gardening. This begins with piling a layer of well composed wood chips – very black and soft – over the cardboard and newspaper. Then layers of organic matter like compost, leaf mold, kitchen waste, coffee grounds and egg shells, rabbit manure (doesn’t need composting) or composted horse manure and bedding or composted cow manure, sprinklings of wood ash, and inorganic matter like crushed granite, and Georgia clay that has been sifted leaving a few small pebbles.
The organic matter is either ‘green’ or ‘brown’ in a ratio of 25% green, 75% brown. Green consists of grass clippings (from chemical free lawns), kitchen waste, fresh leaves, manures, and other things which provide nitrogen. The brown consists of high carbon content material and dead organic matter like leaf mold, straw, composted wood chips and the like. Each layer is spread fairly thinly, interspersed with native soil like clay, more green and brown, some sand, some wood ash spread very thinly, some more green and brown, more clay or sand, till you have a bed about 8 to 10” deep.
Once the sheet mulching is complete, we have some good mixed organic garden soil ready for planting. We use a little hand tool to make a hole in the sheet mulching, throw in a couple handfuls of garden soil, or if we have it compost from our own garden, then plant the seedling or seed in the good soil. As the plant develops, its roots help to break up and decompose, as well as mix the sheet mulching. After one season, between the roots and the worms (that come in happily), that sheet mulched soil is black rich loam you couldn’t tell apart from the most expensive bagged garden soil – except it’s a better mixture and more fertile than that.
We’ve also used some wood box raised beds for raspberries and blackberries at the bottom of the Food Forest and planted some herbs such as lemon grass, fever few and mint in with the berries. We’ve been eating raspberries all summer already. These beds are high enough to help with harvesting and provide deep enough soil for the berries. Eventually we’ll let the wood boxes rot and pile up more wood chips around the base. The soil in them was sheet mulched and already has settled down enough that the top layer of the double high box is not necessary to hold the soil. But we’re leaving it in to provide some bunny protection.
We’ve had some deer destruction but we’ve used tall tomato cages as supports to hold up deer netting around the most sensitive of the deer delicious plants, and to provide corridors for them to walk through the garden without access to the more delicate plants. I see deer prints in the beds now and then, but the destruction has been minimal.
We have 3 cats of our own and half the neighborhood cats, who think this is cat central, roaming the garden. A couple of days ago we were entertained with my youngest cat, Rascal, chasing a bunny across the garden one direction, then dashing back across, with the bunny disappearing into the wild raspberry bramble at the side of the yard. We haven’t had much bunny destruction as a result.
I purchased a very nice dehydrator to replace my old one that finally died after about 35 years, L’Equip brand, and have been busy drying herbs, seeds, flowers, and such, and soon to start making jerky and fruit leathers again. It’s an indispensible tool for a gardener if one plans to utilize their herbs and have a very storage friendly source of food preservation. Otherwise I was setting things out on framed screen but it never gets quite dry enough for worry free drying of herbs, and not nearly dry enough for fruits and vegetables.
The annual sections of the garden somehow have gotten planted, though quite late this year with all our rain and draw of energies towards the Food Forest. But we’re getting some greens and fresh herbs, already, and soon to have beans, tomatoes, okra, kale, and squash. The corn has been somewhat picked and dried already. I planted Hopi flour corn this year, mostly for the seed as my seed supply of it was very tiny and not enough for a really good planting. Hopefully there will be enough viable seed this year for a really good sized crop next year.
We’re already getting
apples from the earlier planted tree, and for the first time,
pears are in abundance though still too green to pick from a 5 year old tree. I didn’t have time enough this spring to spray the peaches with organic pest control so they are a wash. The worms got them. However, we have had a bumper crop of blueberries which are still being harvested in abundance.
This year I put in artichoke but that takes quite awhile to mature and it’s a small plot. The strawberries did well this spring considering they are so overgrown that they can hardly fruit. Perhaps in the fall we’ll redo that bed. And we are getting some hot peppers already. The tomato horned worms attacked my potted peppers on the deck and ate most of the leaves off 3 plants before I realized what was happening. It’s very unusual to have them on peppers. Usually they attack the tomatoes. They are now in bug heaven.
For some reason the wasps have been really aggressive recently. Both my husband and I have been bitten repeatedly. We found the yellow jacket nest in a potted plant on the front porch and it was sprayed with the meanest bug spray my husband could find. He doesn’t like pain. I was also bitten repeatedly by a particularly venomous black wasp which swelled up my hand like the ‘dough boy’ commercial on TV. They had formed a nest on the underside of the kitchen deck. That nest was likewise sprayed. We simply don’t use chemicals in this garden, but we both had nasty allergic reactions, so we’re taking no chances. The places we sprayed are not in garden beds or near food supply plants. We leave the paper wasps alone as they are not aggressive and are beneficial. They are a kind of orange color.
It’s not too late to plant many of the annual garden plants if you have been late in planting because of the rains and weird weather. Go ahead and put in tomatoes, beans, summer squash, greens, radishes, garlic and onions, beets, Swiss chard, collards, basil, nasturtiums (edible leaves and flowers), marigolds, other annual flowers, carrots, cucumbers and herbs. You might not have a really long harvest of tomatoes but some of the best ones are late harvesting ones. Don’t bother with corn though, not enough time now.
Some of the plants are best planted every two weeks for continuous harvest like bush beans, radishes, and head lettuce.
The recent rains have been both a blessing and a bane. It has meant cooler weather for longer when last year we were cooking by this time and had been for two months. It has allowed us to plant trees much later than usual and get the heavy work of sheet mulching and planting of perennials done under cloud cover or light rain (which I love working in since it’s very refreshing). But it has also meant not a lot of sunshine for the sun loving plants like tomatoes. Some of my gardening friends are saying their tomatoes are still green, here it being mid July when tomatoes usually are red by mid June. Only in the green houses are they maturing well as a rule. The good news is we aren’t seeing the kudzu bugs of former years which decimated the bean crops. Only a few showed up this year and we hand picked them off the porch or a few other plants.
Remember to look at your garden this year, keeping good notes in a journal of what is doing well and what not so well. Remember what you did that was right (fertilizing at the right time, watering, any changes in normal routine), and what didn’t work. Do a diagram of your beds, drawing in what crops and plants where with notes of perennials and their botanical names for future reference.
If you are keeping track of production, keep notes of the weights of your crops. I don’t do that as I am primarily not at the moment interested in yield as much as guild relationships. Plant diagrams is particularly important for crop rotation because it’s good practice to not plant tomatoes and some other plants in the same bed but every 4 years because of some soil conditions like nematodes and especially heavy draw of some plants on the mineral content of the soil, being heavy feeders like tomatoes are.
As a rule, I walk every bed of my garden every day noting growth, any indication of pests eating leaves or yellowing or rotting fruits (indicating need for feeding or infestation), any harvesting needed (I usually walk with a basket and a pair of pruning sheers), and the odd weed that shows up.
My beds are basically weed free because I never let them get beyond the tiniest seedling before pulling them up. Usually I just pull them out, lay them root up, and move on. If for some reason I am pulling up invasive plants (like wild strawberries that took over my east terraced pathways), I pile them in a bucket or large container and either compost them directly or put them in a black plastic contractor grade bag and leave it in the sun to kill off living plants, then compost it. It’s valuable bio-mass except Bermuda grass that gets tossed in the garbage. Those roots will revive even after they look totally dead.
Take a moment to enjoy your garden, smell the good smells, experience the tranquility and life force in your garden, and if you believe that plants have emotion and life essence, remember to tell the greenies how beautiful they are. I thank them when I pick the fruit or pull the root. And when I plant a new plant, I tell it how well it’s going to do, how happy it will be in its new location, and how beautiful it is.
I thought you’d like to see what 5 months and 4 people working hard can accomplish on a 43′ x 45′ expanse of hillside to create a working in progress food forest. Most food forests take 2 to 3 years to create. This one will be done or mostly so before fall.