I confess: I am probably a bad neighbor.
No, we don’t blare dubstep or dancehall or ghettoslam (or whatever the current sonic terror may be) at 200 decibels…
And we don’t burn piles of tires and carpeting in the front yard…
And, most certainly, we’re not dumping diesel into the local creek…
However, we have – oh, the horror! – utterly given up on maintaining the front lawn on our semi-rural piece of the South; instead, it’s been replaced with a nascent food-generation machine. Compost Everything: Th... Best Price: $10.16 Buy New $11.09 (as of 02:25 EDT - Details)
Out with the lawnmower – in with a food forest.
The idea of a “food forest” or an edible “forest garden” is as old as Eden, but only in recent years has it started to make a comeback as a food-production strategy.
The concept is simple: instead of a patch of annual vegetables that needs constant weeding and attention, you plant a perennial forest of long-term edibles that can take care of itself for a long period of time with little or no intervention.
Create Your Own Florid... Check Amazon for Pricing. Take a look at a natural forest. It’s not planted in rows, it doesn’t have patches of naked soil and it doesn’t need constant watering and fertilization. Instead, a forest is a living patchwork of species ranging from wildflowers and fungi to towering trees and soaring vines, all hosting a wide range of animal and insect life.
If a tree falls it’s recycled into the system. If rain is delayed, the trees still thrive by pumping water from beneath the soil via their deep and ever-searching roots. If a cold snap ruins your spring watermelons the forest shrugs it off thanks to layers of leaves and a canopy that holds in warmth like a frost blanket. If one species succumbs to an imported blight, another will take its place.
A forest, as Nassim Taleb might put it, is antifragile.
The Backyard Homestead... Best Price: $4.65 Buy New $6.00 (as of 03:05 EDT - Details) Front lawns are a classic example of boom-era resource mismanagement. Maintaining a patch of grass requires labor and resources while returning nothing. They are a time-eating green blanket woven from the dubious threads of conspicuous consumption, suited to a time when cars were big and women were slim, when ambitions were limitless and silver sky-searing rockets graced placemats at diners.
In a wheezing and syphilitic economy, attempting to hold up the aesthetic frivolities of a happier time makes about as much sense as welding gleaming tailfins onto your aging Honda Civic.
Don’t get me wrong: I do like the look of a lush green lawn… I just don’t like having to pay for it and maintain it. I also like a friendly edible forest much, much more.
Gardman R710 Tube Trellis Best Price: $19.91 Buy New $21.41 (as of 08:40 EDT - Details) A lawn feeds the chinch bugs and mole crickets; a food forest feeds you and your children.
When I walked out of my front door back in 2010, I faced a patch of hot and sandy grass spattered with red oaks of dubious health. Now I walk out into a lush young forest. To my left is a black cherry, loaded with better-sweet fruit, neighboring a newly-planted Pineapple orange tree. In front of me are pomegranates, plums, pears, mulberries, chestnuts, Japanese persimmons, nectarines and other wonderful trees. To my right are scrappy rabbiteye blueberries and a pindo palm which will soon bear pineapple-coconut flavored fruits next to a native Yaupon holly tree we use for delicious caffeinated tea.
Beneath the trees are edible perennial vegetables and shrubs too numerous to name; strawberry guavas, arrowroot, cassava, malanga, edible cactus, Mexican tree spinach…
Etna 50-Gallon Portabl... Buy New $49.99 (as of 05:30 EDT - Details) …and beneath those are edible groundcovers including sweet potatoes and Seminole pumpkin vines (which I planted on top of the remarkably powerful Native American-inspired compost pits I describe in my book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting – pick up a copy and I guarantee you’ll rethink pain-in-the-neck compost piles and expensive tumblers!).
Meanwhile, edible yam and grape vines climb into the trees.
I started planting this Eden when we bought our house and it just keeps getting better as it grows into a true forest.
Some years the figs bear well, some years they don’t. Last year we got olives, this year we didn’t. Something killed one of the peach trees but we still got lots of peaches off another one. A late frost burned the loquats but didn’t effect the late-blooming Fuyu persimmon which is now Amazon.com Gift Card i... Check Amazon for Pricing. loaded with fruit.
Redundancy, diversity of species and resiliency define a forest garden system. At this point I’m confident that most of these trees would still be thriving if I walked away for a year. You can’t say that about a patch of cabbages or sweet corn!
The neighbors do wonder what in the world is happening in my weedy species-rich jungle yard… and have made a few comments about how crazy it all looks… but I’m hoping one day they too will give away their lawnmowers and start planting fruit trees.
Getting started is as easy as sheet-mulching an area (also covered in my book), then planting a couple of tall edible trees, such as pecans or chestnuts, then surrounding them with 3-5 or more smaller edible understory trees such as black mulberries, persimmons, plums, apples or figs, then surrounding those trees with edible shrubs such as thornless blackberries, blueberries, tree collards, gooseberries or hazelnuts, then surrounding those shrubs with your favorite herbs and vegetables (If you’re a Floridian or from the Deep South, I cover species lists and suggestions in my inexpensive little booklet Create your Own Florida Food Forest).
Plant a few edible climbing vines in the middle of your island if you wish, then keep everything watered until it establishes, and you’ve got a self-contained calorie-producing island that has the capability to yield organic food for generations.
Your lawn can’t do that.
The neighbors may think you’re nuts but you’ll be picking sweet peaches and rosemary while they throw atrazine on the dandelions and curse the ethanol-lacquered carburetor on their oh-so-expensive riding mower.
I’m done with those days.
In these uncertain times, why not say goodbye to fescue and hello to food security? Trading a liability for an asset makes sense – and a food forest is one of the best assets I’ve ever had the fortune to manage.