| Permaculture – An Introduction to Food Forest Design
by Stacey Tress
How many fruit crops do you think grow in the Prairies (Zones 1 to 3)? We are known for our large scale mono-culture production (wheat, canola), but we are also blessed to have access to over 50 different kinds of perennial fruits/herbs/edibles such as apples, cherries, haskap, grapes, and more!
Before we talk about a “Food Forest,” we need to get an idea of where the concept came from.
What is Permaculture?
We look to Permaculture: A Designers Manual by Bill Mollison for a definition. Permaculture: “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.”
I usually refer to permaculture as a design system for a sustainable habitat.
History of Permaculture
Permaculture had its humble beginnings in the 1970s from Bill Mollison and David Holmgren of Australia. Now, three decades later, it has become a worldwide movement. They observed the devastating effects that agriculture and human settlements were having on the ecology of their homeland and they asked the question, “How can we meet human needs by patterning human developments after natural systems, rather than destroying natural systems?”
Permaculture has a foundation based on ethics and principles—it is about taking responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.
We need to get our house and garden in order so that they feed and shelter us. This is where we answer the question, “What can we do?”
Here is your four-fold job description -> plant trees, store/conserve water, save seeds, build soil. It’s really that simple. It’s not about how much land you have, it’s about how much land you can control. So, grow as close to home as possible, decrease your annual system and increase your perennial system, use high intensive systems at the doorstep. A small varied system is the most productive.
“Trees are the lungs of the earth.”
Farm Forestry—as energy becomes more scarce, forestry will become the most important farm activity. Turn back to the forest. I could spend a few hours just talking about trees. Urban forests, food forests, wild forests. Forests are sites of maximum biodiversity. One of my PDC instructors, Kelly Simmons, said, “We humans rest on the shoulders of plants.” They turn sunlight into carbohydrates—FOOD—and who doesn’t like to eat food? Through photosynthesis, plants convert solar energy into chemical energy… for FREE.
Trees clean our air, provide nesting places for birds, provide wind and shelter breaks, give us food, and build soil and support diversity. Trees slow water movement, the whole design of the tree from the canopy to the trunk to the roots is designed to slow water movement and absorb water. Trees retain ten times the moisture as bare ground and two times as much as grassland. A mature tree has a massive leaf surface, 20–30 acres in its canopy. A very simple act that all of us can do is go out and plant a few trees. And I don’t mean that all our urban lots need to be thick forests—I’m suggesting that we diversify our lots with mixtures of trees and shrubs mixed in with our perennials, herbs, and foods. There are many “dwarf” varieties out there now that are perfectly suited for the urban landscape.
Some excellent choices for trees/shrubs for the prairies are Saskatoon berry, red osier dogwood, hazelnut, wolfwillow, common juniper, potentilla, pincherry, chokecherry, prairie rose, highbush cranberry, caragana, sea buckthorn, pear, Russian almond, honeysuckle, red elder, crabapple, bur oak, linden, ash, spruce, pine, poplar, lilac, cedar, ninebark, box elder, aspen, forsythia, and many more.
So we’re not talking about planting a forest. You’ve heard of companion planting, but to take it one step further we use permaculture terms such as “guilds or Food Forest.” A guild is a group of plants that work together to benefit each other by warding off pests or by supporting each other in some specific way. Each plant has inherent characteristics that benefit an entire plant community.
A food forest is a forest that has been planted with species for fuel, food, and forage. A food forest can be done easily in an urban space—the design is flexible and can be expanded accordingly. The beauty of a food forest is by “time stacking” you can have a seamless production of food crops from two years on; year one is when you consider the annual food crops (usually a root crop or perennial/annual herb crop).
You’ve got your placement of the big trees, like crabapple or Manitoba maple (or walnut, given the increase in zone hardiness, it’s reasonable to say that we could be producing sugar maple and walnut in the near future), surrounded by smaller fruiting trees like apple and plum. Each apple tree, for example, has berries around it such as currants, blueberries, raspberries, and nitrogen fixers like sea buckthorn and buffalo berry; maybe a grape vine growing up the trunk. The lowest part of the food forest is for the clumpers and spreaders—rhubarb, comfrey (which adds nitrogen to the soil), lilies, chives, and annual herbs like dill. The below-ground crop is for annuals like carrots, potatoes, garlic, and self-seeding annuals like parsnip. So, really in the first year of planting, you could have a harvest in the herb layer and from the clumpers and spreaders, and the root crop, too. In the next 2–5 years, the berries and some of the fruits are now ready to be harvested. Could be 5–10 years have passed, but now the apples and plums are ready for harvest. So you begin to see the potential for this seamless production. You’re still harvesting from the clumpers and spreaders, your berries, your fruits for many years and say, after 10–15 years the Manitoba maple is ready to be tapped for syrup (25 years for walnut). We can all harvest something now while having vision for the future.
Balconies—Use the vertical spaces with trellising made from bamboo or re-use items like tire wheels on the walls for vining/climbing foods to cling to, hanging baskets with vining tomatoes and edible flowers like nasturtiums.
Container Gardening—Basically, use all the container ideas and apply to balconies and any restricted space. You can still get a good food crop out of containers. Most foods grow well in containers including carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, herbs, etc. You just need to consider your light availability and the fact that they will need more watering—so you can go away for long periods of time like you could with a garden in the ground. Although you can jimmy up a slow drip watering system (pop bottle with little holes and put in container). Consider the soils—potting soil versus heavy garden soil.
Urban Food Forest and Large Acreages—Both benefit from your own nursery stock. Learning how to propagate your own nursery stock, such as fruit trees, herbs, and shrubs will save you a lot of money! The only real difference from an urban food forest and a large acreage is the size and you will have more variables on a larger acreage (animals eating new growth, flooding).
Starting a New Plot—Sheet mulching—ok, so you’ve got a new spot that you want to create into a new garden space or food forest. Basically, you use materials you have access to easily or have on hand like cardboard, drop cloths, newspaper, mulch (straw, wood), chopped greens (without seeds), and water.
If you check out my Prairie Permaculture Facebook page under Sheet Mulch Album and Garden Shots, you will see examples of how this was done.
Two options that are effective: 1) plant your stuff and then cover with cardboard/newspaper around existing plants, and 2) if this area is to be planted the following year, then just straight cover the entire area with cardboard.
Next step for both—soak with water heavily (helps to break down the cardboard and the lack of light will start to decompose the below existing ground “weeds.” Next, toss heavily with green matter, more newspaper if you wish, straw….whatever you happen to have to create a nice thick layer to keep the weeds covered. MULCH is your best friend! (Conserve water and build soil.)
For a finishing effect, I like to use wood chips. Again, give a good soak to get it all going. You can then toss with soil and seed heavily with things like clover, peas, etc. which will add some accumulated nutrients once chopped down; plus a food harvest.
If you are interested in learning more about permaculture, I invite you to subscribe to my events on “Prairie Permaculture” Facebook, where I will be offering a series of FREE online (event) info sessions coming up later in March and April.
Haskap Berry Chutney
Very good with pork, wild meat, sausage, or any kind of cheese or cream cheese on crackers. Also try as a topping for baked brie cheese with pecans.
3 cups of fresh or frozen haskap berries (I usually use frozen as haskap are a June harvest)
1 large onion
2 cloves of garlic
1 cup of sultana raisins (can also dehydrate your own grapes… a bit more tart, but it works!)
1/2 tsp each of cinnamon, allspice, curry powder, ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup cider vinegar (for those that brew kombucha—you guys can make your own vinegar)
- Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan.
- Bring to a boil, then turn down to simmer for at least an hour, stirring often to prevent sticking until it has reduced down enough to slightly thicken.
- Ladle into sterilized jars OR cool down and freeze small portions in an ice cube tray.
Edible Forest Gardens (Vol. 1 & 2), Dave Jacke
Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, Bill Mollison
The Permaculture Handbook, Peter Bane
Haskap Berry Chutney recipe from www.haskap.ca
Stacey Tress, a Holistic Nutritional Therapist (HNT) and Young Living Essential Oil Distributor (#2282633), lives in Yorkton, SK with her husband and two daughters. She is the owner of Garden Therapy Yorkton which offers fermentation workshops, permaculture design work, organically-grown produce, and more!
She also offers essential oil support and carries a wide variety of Young Living Essential Oils and products
for sale. To learn more, call 306-641-4239, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.gardentherapyyorkton.ca, or on Facebook “Garden Therapy Yorkton.” Also see the display ad on page 9.