After realizing how much I love planting/creating forest gardens, I’ve decided to make a large forest garden in about 5-10 years for my ‘retirement plan’. I don’t have the money now and am not sure exactly where the farm will be, but I know the power of positive thoughts, confidence and persistently working toward a goal.
This blog post will outline some of the steps I plan to use to create a 320 sq. acres = one half-section (1.3 sq. km) tropical forest garden somewhere near our current farm. I would use the best ideas from our first two forest gardens, and hopefully even improve on the process. There’s always room for improvement, and even small improvements would be significant on a large farm. (That’s one of the main reasons for this blog post – to get my thoughts organized and solicit feedback.)
The plan is to buy more cheap, degraded land as we’ve done in the past because land like this is plentiful and affordable. There’s no shortage of farmland with dead/depleted soil that’s been destroyed by industrial agriculture fertilizers and petro chemicals. Farming with these chemicals kills soil organisms over a few decades until nothing but noxious weeds will grow. Fortunately, there are dozens of amazing techniques that can restore soil vitality and create productive farmland. So this message is one of HOPE! Our blog has profiled many of these techniques that you can read about by searching for keywords Degraded soil or Forest Gardens. (See search engine on the right side of this webpage.)
Before I get into the details, I first want to do a quick recap of what a forest garden is and some of the benefits. Forest gardening or ‘food forests’ is an ancient agricultural method used around the world. You can still visit some very old forest gardens (search our blog), because once established they can be self sustaining, unlike annual crops that must be continually replanted each year. The main idea is to simulate what nature has done in a regular forest except use only fruit producing trees and other beneficial plants such as berries, spices, etc. When done correctly, the end result is your own Garden of Eden. This is my favorite activity and favorite place to be. I often stop and marvel at the birds, butterflies and other creatures who join me in this tranquil setting. Gardening like this in the fresh air and sunshine in the shade of lush fruit trees is wonderful beyond words. Gardening has also greatly improved my health and enabled us to produce the best tasting, healthiest food I’ve ever eaten in my life.
Below is the basic outline of how to create a ‘mixed agroforest garden’ in the tropics. Agroforestry is a type of forest garden that aligns the garden beds and trees in straight rows with paths in between to maximize production. As I’ve explained in previous blog posts, agroforestry can boost the entire process 100-fold. It’s the logical way to do things for farm-scale operations.
– We live in a rice producing region where fields are flooded during the monsoon season. Fruit trees would drown in these conditions so the first step is to raise the site about 2’. That’s a lot of earthwork! The most efficient way to do this is to excavate ponds and use that soil to raise the surrounding land. The ponds supply irrigation water through the long, hot summers, and would be stocked with fish and water loving plants. Some of the ponds could be situated near home sites, where houses for the children could be built in the future. Building the houses right next to the ponds or partially above the water on stilts would help keep the homes cool and comfortable.
– Add access roads to the home sites and now you’ll have nice, flat areas for making compost with agricultural by-products such as rice hulls, rice hull ash, sugar cane mulch, leaves, chopped coconut husks, and manure from local farmers. Create large quantities of mulch in windrows using Korean natural farming practices with live cultures taken from soil near old growth trees. These future home sites also provide space for parking equipment and temporary bamboo housing for workers. Add compacted road base on top of the home sites and access roads so they’re serviceable year-round. Otherwise, equipment would get stuck in the mud.
– At the same time the earthwork is going on or shortly before, you’d want to fence in the area to keep livestock and trespassers out. This could be barbed wire fencing supplemented with an impenetrable living fence of thin bamboo. This type of bamboo is easily chipped into mulch to provide extra silica for plants. A living bamboo fence would create hundreds of truckloads of free biomass every year indefinitely. (It grows like crazy with no special care.) A good chipper would shoot the chips directly into trucks to save labor. Trucks in our region have drop down sides and tail gates that make it easy to unload. You could spread the chips and other amendments around trees or make compost in long windrows. Even without a chipper, thin bamboo could be chopped and dropped as mulch around fruit trees to block weeds and keep the earth cool.
– Trucks dump the excavated soil from ponds in piles as a tractor comes behind and levels the land. After a section is leveled, the tractor shapes the land into forest garden beds and swales. The raised beds help prevent the trees and other plants from drowning. The swales serve multiple purposes: they drain excess water away very slowly in the rainy season (this minimizes erosion); they can be flooded with pond water in the dry season; and, the swales are wide enough for a small tractor or small pickup to deliver soil amendments such as mulch and compost, and collect produce for market. The spacing of everything is determined by the type of trees you plant. Plan for mature trees to just barely touch.
– Ideally you would start making compost up to a year in advance so it has time to thoroughly break down. If not, make it as soon as possible.
– The next step is to use a small tractor with a backhoe attachment to dig tree holes and level the beds. The backhoe will save many hundreds of hours of backbreaking manual labor. Fill the tree holes with a mix of fungal-rich compost and soil. Add extra soil on top to protect the compost from erosion, and because it will settle over the next year. You could start planting easy to grow/hardy trees, including nitrogen fixers, the first season right as the rainy season starts, along with bananas and certain other plants. Plant bananas in between tree holes. They make excellent nurse plants to protect fruit trees. After a few years, many of the banana plants will be removed to make room for the trees.
– The next key step is to spread some compost and start growing soil building plants such as sunhemp, vetch, beans, etc. Use whatever grows best in your climate.
– At this point it’s important to plant hardy groundcovers such as alfalfa, peanuts or sweet potatoes. In our area, sweet potatoes are my favorite because they grow like weeds effortlessly. Sweet potatoes create a dense tangle of roots that help prevent erosion during the monsoon season. The leaves shade the soil and help retain moisture in the summer. The roots may not produce many edible potatoes since the soil will still be poor at this point, but it doesn’t matter. Gradually the sweet potato plants will build the soil. And, they’re hardy enough that you can add quite a bit of compost on top without smothering the plants.
– Once the soil building plants are established (probably after the first rainy season), you could add chickens. They would be contained within electric fencing for their protection. The chickens excel at eating all the pests, and fertilizing and activating the soil. Gradually move the fencing, the chickens and their ‘chicken tractor’ shelters where they sleep at night down the line.
– Right before the 2nd monsoon season (about one year after raising the site), you can start planting the rest of the fruit trees. Again, you could plant them the first year. But if you do, you’ll lose more trees because the soil/compost mix hasn’t had time to break down. We did our first forest garden as quickly as possible in one season and lost quite a few trees (dozens). That rate of loss would be impractical on a farm-scale operation. You want to buy the highest quality fruit and nut trees you can afford, and aim for near 100% survival rate. This is achievable because by the 2nd year there will be plentiful mycorrhizal fungi and other soil organisms to support growth. To better protect against erosion, add a mounded cap of clayey soil on top of tree holes and spread bamboo mulch around the trees.
– Create some vegetable gardens beds in full sun – at least one near each home site. Again, the soil has to be built up gradually over 2-3 years using chickens and lots of compost and soil building plants.
– Repeat the process in stages year after year until the forest garden is complete. Use multiple tractors if you can afford it, or just figure on taking longer. There’s no urgency. This is fun, enjoyable work to keep you busy in retirement. Judging by the benefits from the first gardens, I estimate I might live 10 years longer by planting this large forest garden. And, of course, you’d be leaving behind a large forest of food producing trees for generations to come. All of your kids would have a place to build their own homes surrounded by fruit trees, ponds and vegetable gardens!