by Megan Cassidy
So you’ve decided to start your food forest, and you have a bit of space to do it in. Congratulations! Making the commitment to start growing your own food is a big step. But what to do next while your enthusiasm is pumping?
First, you have to understand the space you have to work with, its possibilities and its in-built limitations. This requires observation, research, patience and planning, but don’t let that put you off. It’s an exciting time imagining what your future garden will look like, and the produce that you will collect from it!
The garden I have now is fairly close to the vision I had of my kids picking their fruit for the day as they walked through our front yard on their walk to school. New ideas from my family and friends, and the limitations I discovered as I went along forced me to experiment and innovate. If you want to read more about my Food Forest story, Part 1 – an Overview is there for you to read.
When looking at a space that you want to turn into a garden, it’s worth spending lots of time sitting in that space at different times of the day across several months or even a year. Take photos and make notes focusing on 3 key areas:
If you have this information, it will help you to make better decisions about which plants and trees should be placed where, for the best chance of success, and what you can do to mitigate pests and maintenance issues later on. Let’s start with the weather.
Every site has its own unique weather patterns, microclimates, and concerns. Does the space get morning, afternoon or all-day sun? This information helps you decide what foods you are more likely to grow successfully in that space.
Fruiting plants (tomatoes, apples, strawberries, etc.) generally need more sun than leafy plants (lettuce, silverbeet, kale, etc.). If you put tomatoes in a spot where they don’t get enough sun, you may have a disappointing harvest. Further, if the plant cannot cope with hot afternoon sun at all, you will find that they don’t survive in those conditions. You will need to consider providing some shade for them, putting them in a different place in your garden, or choosing a different plant entirely. This is the kind of knowledge that only experience can provide.
Where does the hot afternoon wind come from and how does it move through your space? This will help you plan for windbreaks or other mitigations. There’s nothing worse than having your tomatoes break off right before they turn red because they were not protected from the wind and the fruit was just too heavy for the stems.
Will the plants be under cover from building overhangs in this space? This will determine how much natural rainfall they will receive, and whether you will have to manually intervene with hand watering or a watering system. This then raises further questions of how much time you have available to tend your garden, and whether you have the money for automation.
As you are observing and analysing the weather, you can also be looking at the physical features of your space, including slope, utilities and structures.
The slope of the ground across your available space is a really important factor to note. If it is a steep block, you are going to need to install some structures such as swales and retaining walls, to slow the movement of water across the garden. This is essential so that you don’t lose your top soil in a torrent of water, and you capture as much of the rain that falls as possible, reducing your reliance on other water sources. Conversely, if the space is flat, you will need to consider drainage, so that your plants don’t drown in a downpour.
What type of soil do you have? Sand, silt or clay? Do you have enough organic material in there to support all the micro-organisms that make it soil, not just dirt? This soil texture calculator will help you determine what type of soil you have. You need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each soil type, in order to grow the best produce you can. The health of your soil plays a big part in how well it absorbs and retains water and nutrients.
How big is your space? This is critical because it will determine how many trees and plants you can fit in. If you squeeze too many trees in, they may not get enough sun to fruit, and/or you won’t get enough airflow to prevent some diseases like powdery mildew. Both of these will likely curtail fruit production due to too much competition.
I have a dwarf nectarine that has unfortunately found itself in a shaded position, and the fruit just stop maturing before they are ripe enough. I will move it to a sunnier position during its winter dormancy because there is no point leaving it where it is.
Your space limitations will be greater if you are working in an urban yard compared to acreage in the country, but that doesn’t mean you can’t produce a good proportion of your food if you have a smart design. Looking into Permaculture to help with your design is a good option.
If you are in an apartment, you may only have a balcony, a community garden plot, or a windowsill. If this is the case, you can look at dwarfed or espaliered fruit trees, or your focus is on the smaller plants that can give a great bounty, like herbs, lettuces and strawberries.
Don’t be discouraged if you only have a small plot, however. Whatever space you have is better than none, and it can be good to start small and build your skills and knowledge, before moving on to a bigger opportunity when it arises. And it will arise if you are out there looking for it!
Also take note of where the water taps and power outlets are. You need to know whether you will require a long hose to be able to water effectively and easily. If watering isn’t easy to do, you will find it harder to keep up your commitment to your growing garden.
Knowing where the taps and electrics are also help you get an idea of where the pipes to avoid underground are. Contacting dial-before-you-dig is also a good idea if you are unsure.
And don’t just look down, look up! Are there any overhead wires above you that you shouldn’t grow a tree under? These can also get in the way of any tip-truck deliveries, or be a problem if you plant a tall tree under them, so it’s good to know and plan around these.
Look at the elements of your space that could provide shelter or create a micro-climate for those plants that need it. Some plants like bananas like extra heat to thrive, so a brick retaining wall could provide the thermal mass they need to be grown in places you wouldn’t expect to find them, like Melbourne.
Finally, what fences, existing structures and boundaries are already in place and can they be moved? We had a brick retaining wall across usable space, so we moved it back and used natural stones instead, to make sure we made the most of the space, and added some habitat for skinks and lizards.
Our yard didn’t have a fence originally, which became a problem when we wanted to put the chooks into the space. We had a temporary fence for a year while we worked out a design we were happy with. We used chicken wire strung up between wooden posts, so that we could grow a vine on it easily. The passionfruit vine and raspberry canes are working very well along this feature of our garden, while keeping the chickens in, and protecting the soil from the westerly sun. Three jobs, one solution!
The surrounding, or ‘borrowed’, landscape refers to looking beyond your own property lines at what is growing in other people’s gardens, and how their plants can be a backdrop or visual extension of your own garden. For those of us in suburbia, this means your neighbours’ yards, while out in the country it could mean natural bushland or a neighbouring property.
It can be really helpful to take a walk around your neighbourhood and see what grows well around you. It will give you clues as to the plants that are suited well to your particular climate and situation. If you need to introduce yourself to those neighbours and get to know them, great! Being able to swap seeds, plants and produce with others is a really positive experience that builds a sense of community and camaraderie. They may even give you free seedlings they’ve grown, or help you start your food forest.
If you can get your hands on some locally collected seeds, you will find that they are generally more resilient, because they have adapted across the local climate. Seed libraries are popping up everywhere as people realise how important this resource is. Not being reliant on seeds from big companies (which have often been treated with various chemicals, unless you get organic ones), increases your resilience and allows you to take back some control of the food you eat.
Indeed, when COVID hit, nurseries around the world reported that they had had a run on stock, and the suppliers could not help them replenish because they were saving seed for the farmers so they could grow commercial crops.
In talking to your neighbours and building those friendships, you may also find that there are opportunities to coordinate what you each plant, so that you don’t end up with a glut of the same thing at the end of the season. Talk to each other, plan and negotiate what you plant, and share the bounty. It truly is a wonderful feeling!
The other important benefit of knowing what others are growing, is that some plants and fruit trees require pollination from a different plant or tree, to produce fruit. If you only have space for one apple tree, but your neighbour has one too, you can save some space for another tree. If they know what type of apple they are growing, you can get a different type that cross-pollinates readily with that type, and increase the likelihood for both you and your neighbour of a good harvest!
When our big liquid amber tree in our front yard falling down, it exposed the bare canvas of a brown, dead lawn for me to imagine anew. I focused on the vision I had of my kids picking their fruit on their way to school. This vision has now become a reality, and I love that my family can now enjoy the fruit that I imagined all those years ago.
It’s important to understand that you may not achieve everything you dream up because of the limitations you will encounter. But the new knowledge, skills and connections you build during the process, will allow you to grow your vision organically, at a pace you can handle, and might even turn out better than you originally imagined.
Everything starts with observing your space, getting to know its limitations and possibilities, and the quirks that make your space unique. When you have that information, you will be clearer about the questions you need to ask, who you might ask them of, and you can be more assured that the garden you are envisaging is possible. This early work will set you up for success down the track, so spend the time and have fun with it!
This is Part 2 of a series of posts about my garden. Later posts will explore more details of the food forest, and will dive into the data that I have collected.