How to Create a Food Forest in New Zealand

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Are you thinking about creating a food forest here in NZ? Here are the steps you need to take to successfully plan and grow your own edible forest garden.

Reasons to use Permaculture principals to design your Food Forest

Permaculture is a fantastic way to reduce your workload, particularly on lifestyle blocks.

Permaculture design reduces workload by mimicking natural systems, natural systems maintain themselves, so that you don’t have to.

Permaculture can save money. Successful permaculture properties operate as a closed loop, requiring few products to be bought in to maintain it. Ideally all your fertility will be made or grown on site.

To provide resilience from natural disasters. Permaculture landscapes mitigate against flood events, resist the effects of drought, provide food security, enhance habitat for animals /birds / insects, process their own waste (turning it into a valuable resource), and provide can even fuel in winter if you have enough space to add a woodlot.

Reduce exposure to chemicals in the environment. Permaculture and organics go hand in hand – an organically managed property will be free from the potential harmful effects of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

How to create a food forest in New Zealand

Follow this process to assess your site and work out how to best create a food forest in your NZ garden.

Assessing your Food Forest Site

It’s most important to choose plants that are well adapted to your particular climate. While you may want to plant subtropicals (or even tropicals in NZ), if your section is subject to intermittent frosts you are wasting your time and money.

A food forest, once established, creates some protection and niches for frost tender species, but in the early stages this will not be the case.

Sun

What about sunlight? If you look closely you’ll notice a natural forest has varying niches for plants to grow.

There will be sunnier places at the forest edge, shadier places behind large evergreen trees, and intermittent winter sun/summer shade under deciduous fruit trees.

This is where your careful planning is essential, to figure out the relationship between deciduous and evergreen species and which plants will shade others out over time.

Watch the sun at your place. Where does it rise and at what time? What about when it sets? Are there large trees or buildings that shade the area you want to put your forest garden?

How many hours of sun do you get in midwinter?

Wind

Where is your predominant wind. How windy is your site, where are the sheltered spots?

Prevailing winds are a little easier to work with, not because fruit and nut trees love strong winds but because you can alter wind patterns by planting shelterbelts.

You can plant fast growing species like silver wattle, tagasate or pitasporum which can be seen as temporary and removed after 5-7 years, once more permanent shelter trees have established.

A forest of sufficient size will eventually create its own microclimate, but it is likely that you will need hardier species to take the edge off cold prevailing winds, especially in the early stages.

Water

Where does your rain fall go. Do you have ponds, swampy areas, dry patches, rivers that develop in downpours?

If you watch a lot of Geoff Lawton, you will know he is all about the swale. A swale is a mound of dirt placed on contour to slow down and stop the flow of water, encouraging it to sink deep in to the soil.

This is a great idea in the hot, dry areas of Australia, but most places in NZ get so much rain that a swale will just make your ground boggy and sad.

If you live in a drought prone area however, a swale or some hugelculture beds might be appropriate for you.

Temperature

How cold and icy/snowy does your site get. When is your first and last frost. How hot does it get, do you get droughts.?

What is the current ground cover?

More often than not, people want to establish a food forest on existing grassland.

Often in NZ this means that the existing cover is riddled with either kikuyu or couch grasses.

If possible you want to eliminate these grasses before you begin, and if (like me) you prefer an organic approach, it isn’t easy or necessarily straightforward. You can spray, but don’t be surprised if you need several applications.

The best options to organically remove these invasive grasses is to either lay down heavy plastic sheeting (we used recycled billboard canvas) for 6-12 months. And then add 20-30cm of mulch.

The other option is to lay down a double thick layer of corrugated cardboard, followed by 20-30cm of mulch.

Check your soil

Many long term problems come back to the initial quality of the soil, so choose your site wisely.

There are many things we can do to alter the structure of the soil. The only problem is they tend to be either slow to make change or expensive in terms of labour or monetary cost, such as ripping the soil, adding gypsum, adding organic matter, and growing green manure crops.

Grab a soil testing kit and see what you need to do to turn bad soil into good soil.

Designing your Food Forest

1. Draw a Map

You will want your map to show physical and intrinsic site characteristics (soil zones, climate zones, waterways, slope etc.)

You can use a screen shot of your land from Google maps and print it off. Many councils also provide areal maps on their websites.

2. Zone your map

Mark in your best living sites and intensive vegetable planting zones, in relation to living spaces and characteristics of the area.

You can use the permaculture zone principals for working out the best places for these things to go.

3. Choose fruit trees

Pick your larger fruit and nut that will suit these conditions, mark final spots on your map for your main fruiting species, leaving enough space around each tree that they can grow to maturity without over crowding.

4. Choose your supporting plants

Choose a wide range of species to become the guild to support your fruit trees and food plants, and design them into your forest with as many integrations and connections as you can imagine.

Begin with a wide diversity of legumes and mineral accumulators, including ground covers, low bushes, high bushes, low trees and canopy trees, suitable for the specific site, densely planted, keeping in mind final fruit tree spots.

Many of these supporting plants and trees can or will be cut out or chopped and harvested for mulch as time goes on.

They are only dominant in the juvenile stage of the forest growth to help get everything established.

7 Layers of a Food Forest

The Tall-Tree Layer

This the canopy – It is made up of full-sized fruit, nut, or other useful trees, with spaces between each tree to let plenty of light reach the lower layers.

If you are in a smaller yard, you can skip this layer.

Dense, spreading species like the classic shade trees such as maple, sycamore, and beech don’t work well in the forest garden because they cast shadows over a large area.

Better choices are multifunctional fruit and nut trees. These include standard and semistandard apple and pear trees, European plums on large rootstock, and full-sized cherries.

Chestnut trees, Chinese chestnuts, Walnut trees are excellent options, especially if they are pruned to be open to let the light through.

Nitrogen-fixing trees will help build soil, and most bear blossoms that attract insects. These include black locust, mesquite, alder, and, in low-frost climates, acacia, algoroba, tagasaste, and carob.

The canopy trees will define the major patterns of the forest garden, so they must be chosen carefully and planted with plenty of space to let the light through.

The Low-Tree Layer

Here are many of the same fruits and nuts as in the canopy, but on dwarf and semidwarf rootstocks to keep them low growing.

Also naturally small trees such as apricot, peach, nectarine, almond, medlar, persimmon, pawpaw and dwarf mulberry work well here.

In a smaller forest garden, these small trees may serve as the canopy. They can easily be pruned into an open form, which will allow light to reach the other species beneath them.

Other low-growing trees include flowering species, such as dogwood and mountain ash, and some nitrogen fixers, including golden-chain tree, silk tree, and mountain mahogany.

The Shrub Layer

This tier includes blueberry, rose, butterfly bush/swan plant, bamboo, the nitrogen-fixing Elaeagnus species, and many others.

There are a huge range of shrubs available – try to lean towards ones with beneficial qualities – attracting insects, birds, provide food, mulch, nitrogen etc.

The Herb Layer

Herbs in this layer simply means non-woody vegetation: vegetables, flowers, culinary herbs, and cover crops, as well as mulch producers and other soil-building plants.

Emphasis is on perennials, but we won’t rule out choice annuals and self-seeding species.

The Ground-Cover Layer

These are low, ground-hugging plants—preferably varieties that offer food or habitat— Ideas species include strawberries, nasturtium, clover, creeping thyme, ajuga, and the many prostrate varieties of flowers such as phlox and verbena.

They play a critical role in weed prevention, occupying ground that would otherwise succumb to invaders.

The Vine Layer

This layer is for climbing plants that will use the trees as their climbing frame. Here are food plants, such as kiwifruit, grapes, hops, passionflower, and vining berries; and those for wildlife, such as honeysuckle and trumpet-flower.

These can include climbing annuals such as squash, cucumbers, and melons. Some of the perennial vines can be invasive so they should be used sparingly and with caution.

Check what grows where you live!

The Root Layer

Most of the plants for the root layer should be shallow rooted, such as garlic and onions, or easy-to-dig types such as potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes, otherwise you disrupt the other plants roots too much.

Here is a big list of different plants for each of these layers

Food Forest Tree Spacing

You need to understand the final sizes of your trees before planning where to plant them.

Your food forest may look sparse when you first plant it, but it is better to space your fruit trees 4-5 meters or more apart and fill in the spaces with shrubs and herbs than it is to have to cut out or remove crowded trees later.

If a tree description says that it grows 4m wide, draw a circle on your map that has a diameter of the scale equivalent of 4m and make sure that any other circles on the map don’t overlap with it.

This will ensure that plenty of light gets down to the ground level plants.

Planting your Food Forest

To start a food forest choose an area which gets at least eight hours of sunlight a day. Lay thick layers of newspaper or cardboard down and cover with a thick (at least 20cm layer) of compost or woodmulch. This keeps invasive grasses at bay.

To help conserve water and make the best use of what falls from the sky you can create swales. A swale is a ditch which is built on contour.

They are particularly effective on any sort of slope. Swales are common in permaculture design and are basically water harvesting ditches.

They are designed to slow water, eliminate erosion and infiltrate the surrounding area with water and recharge the groundwater.

If you need to put in drainage trenches or ponds, now is the time to get them done. Remember that in most areas in NZ swales are not necessary, and rain catchment ponds might be a better option to help you survive dry patches that occasionally occur.

When planting your trees, begin with the tallest growing plants. Remember when these trees mature they will stretch upwards and outwards so give them plenty of room.

If you are short of space choose dwarf growing fruit species instead.

Next plant the shrubs, ground covers, herbs and nitrogen fixers.

Even fungi can be incorporated if you make mushroom logs, or have lots of wood mulch down that you can innoculate.

If you are a mushroom lover you can place old deciduous tree logs which have been cut and seeded with oyster or shitake mushrooms.

Place under the shaded canopy in amongst the natural leaf litter. These logs will add to your food forest giving you fresh mushrooms over several years.

The first year of your food forest garden will require a certain level of maintenance. Larger trees may need to be staked until their root system can support them, plants will need to be watered during dry spells and weeds removed and the area mulched as necessary.

As time progresses the area will become more self-sustaining as plants become established and ground covers spread to stop invasive weeds from seeding.

The wonderful thing about a food forest garden is that you use predominately perennial or self seeding plants. This means plants which are long lived, and offer food much of the year.

Once established they will go on to produce food for many years, with very little maintenance.

A well-designed food forest will not require spraying and only weed control during the early years.

Next – Food Forest Plant ideas

How to create a food forest garden in your backyard - food forest design ideas

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