This island-making approach could also be called “tree guilds,” though we’re rather random about the species we plant together, allowing nature to pick and choose and just distributing species with abandon. The following is an excerpt from Create Your Own Florida Food Forest (2nd edition)
The “Island Method” of Planting a Food Forest
Though you can start an entire food forest all at once, you may not give it the care it needs. We’ve found that working with highly improved islands of ground works better than planting a field and trying to keep it all happy. As much as I wish we would all get a great, happy mix of support species growing first, most of us aren’t good at it. In my first two food forests, I never had quite enough support species at the very beginning so I still had to haul some mulch and amendments and a hose around from here to there to keep young fruit trees happy.
Do as I say – not as I do!
I’m sure you feel the same way about fruit and nut trees as I do. Sometimes they just jump into your shopping cart. They cry out to you as you pass them at nurseries, promising you wonderful harvests if you just buy them right now and take them home. And they’re much more fun to imagine in your yard than a big mess of support species. So, like me, you sometimes plant big fruit trees right in a big bare spot of ground… and then you have to baby them like an orphaned lamb.
It works better to use what I call “the island approach.” Others might call this creating “plant guilds,” but I’m not all that organized about it. I’ve just found that it’s easier to manage a small oasis than it is to try and keep fifty fruit trees happy without irrigation and tons of mulch.
If you don’t have a bunch of good support species all over your new food forest space, just start small – but not too small. Get yourself a fruit tree or three and some edible shrubs and perennials. Tear out some grass and plant a little informal grouping of trees. Then surround those with shrubs – and surround the shrubs with small perennials. Mulch and water heavily and try to keep the grass out until the shade does the job for you. As you plant, stick in some nitrogen-fixers and T. diversifolia cuttings, or pigeon peas, or whatever you have that can be chopped and dropped. If you can gather chopped materials from the edge of your yard, or grass clippings, or rotten produce from a road-side stand, coffee grounds, water hyacinth or whatever, and sheet mulch that space right at the beginning, it is way easier than weeding. That island will then thrive and create its own little living ecology.
I once made a super fertile island in the middle of my front yard by dumping about a ton of rotten produce on the ground, then heavily mulching over it. The worms and soil life had a bonanza under there! And as a bonus, I got some interesting volunteer plants, including chestnut seedlings.
Once your first island is happy and/or a few more fruit trees have somehow shown up at your house, do the same thing again.
This method also keeps you from having to tear out an entire lawn and go through the “bad haircut” phase of a food forest system. If you deal with HOAs or annoying neighbors or code enforcement, you can treat your growing food forest like little sections of landscaping, mulching to the edges and then mowing around them.
Over time, just add more islands until eventually you have an entire forest.
You can build an island every weekend or two and make great progress!