Every time we plant a food forest project, I make the same mistake.
We fail to plant all the support species at the beginning.
This is understandable, since the exciting part of a food forest is the fruit and nut trees. However, the nitrogen-fixers and the chop-and-drop plants really kick the growth of the system and the life of the soil into gear.
Every time we start a food forest, we’re always short on the soil-building goodness.
Geoff Lawton claims that a food forest system should contain about 90% support species at the beginning.
Does that look like your food forest? Or have you just planted a bunch of edible plants together?
This is really a two-fold problem, as I see it.
First, is of course, the enthusiasm for planting the “good stuff”
The exciting stuff is the draw, as I’ve already mentioned. We dream about baskets of mulberries, not slashed up piles of mimosa branches.
We tend to plant meandering edible landscaping or orchard-style food forests instead of concentrating on the soil and life-building species that really kick those systems into high gear.
Second, we lack the support species
The second issue is our common lack of nitrogen-fixing tree species and other chop-and-drop plants. We can get bare-root apples easily, and potted figs are everywhere, but black locust? Enterolobium cyclocarpum? Siberian pea shrub? Tithonia diversifolia? Kentucky coffee tree? Mimosa trees? Casuarina cunninghamiana?
A lot of these plants you have to grow on your own, usually from seed. And that’s why we end up planting lots of fruit trees before we get the nitrogen-fixers and chop-and-drop species going.
Right now I have a bunch of honey locust seedlings in the nursery, and some Tithonia cuttings rooting up. We’re also spotting mimosa seedlings in the food forest area and marking them so they don’t get mowed. We’ve also planted some pigeon peas out there.
Yet it’s not nearly enough. We really need to PACK that space with life so the fruit trees take off and the soil is constantly receiving new infusions of nitrogen and organic matter.
I wish I had dozens of cassias and black locusts and other species ready-to-go, but I don’t. When you have to drag in mulch it’s not nearly as good as just being able to slash down some plants and throw them around the base of the nearest fruit tree.
When you have lots of plants growing, you also get the benefit of lots of root exudates going into the ground, unlike with trucking in mulch.
It’s just better all around. If you don’t have support species in your food forest, start planting them now and use the power of pioneer species to kick the forest into high gear.
It makes a huge difference.
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If you’re in Florida, you’ll appreciate this book, where I share tons more information on building food forests as well as cover a multitude of wonderful species and how to grow them: