Our food forest recently had it’s first birthday, and I thought it’d be a good time to reflect on a few things we’ve learned.
First I should say that we’re taking a very passive approach. We’ve planted a large number of species and although most are doing quite well, many have withered into mulch. Luckily most of these were purchased at low cost and are well worth the educational value gained.
What we’re aiming for is a very low-input system, and this requires us to find those species that will do well in this specific location with minimum maintenance needed. It’s something that tends to puzzle those accustomed to a production-first mentality. What we’re focused on is not production, but net energy.
energy produced – energy used = net energy
As most modern agriculture is running on huge energy deficits, our goal is to develop systems that create significant net energy gains. In another word, sustainable.
It is absolutely true that many of these plants could have been saved with more input – more frequent watering, fertilizer, pesticides, etc. Others were simply put in the wrong place–wrong soil type or wrong amount of sunlight. With each error we learn a little more, but the idea is maximum bang for the proverbial buck.
So the first year has been filled with a lot of experimentation, but really overall it has neither costed much in money nor time. The thought is in the end we’ll end up with a forest of species well-adapted to living in this particular spot without much help from the humans.
Last fall we planted a cover crop of white clover which has worked out great. It’s very thick and most of the “weeds” we had last summer have moved on to weaker pastures.
One notable plant that has not been discouraged much by the clover is Galega officinalis, here called Galega and known in other parts as Goat’s Rue, French Lilac or Professor-Weed.
A few facts about Galega (Goat’s Rue):
1) Fast-growing and hardy
2) Nitrogen fixer and dynamic nutrient accumulator
3) Beautiful flowers, attracts bees and other beneficial insects
4) Great mulch plant
5) Useful forage crop for cattle and goats (hence, Goat’s Rue), increases milk production
5) On the USDA “Noxious Weeds List”
6) Is the bane of the mono-cropper’s existence. It’s opportunistic nature results in a constant battle to eradicate this horrible threat to one’s livelihood using all available within one’s chemical arsenal.
I won’t need to spell this out for you permaculture people. Instead I’ll just show you what’s going on in the food forest.
Pictured Right: Patch of Galega “invading” a nearby wheat field
Here’s the cover crop of white clover and galega. So far the system has maintained a seemingly healthy balance between the two as you can see here. About once a month (during the height of the growing season), I’ll cut back the cover crop with a scythe (weed whacker would be 5x faster but less exercise).
Here you can see the food forest mid-chop:
I just rake the cuttings toward my plantings for mulch. So far its worked out just about right to maintain a nice thick mulch around each plant. If I were to have any extra I’d just throw it in the compost.
Of course lots of little bits end up right where they fall when I cut them and that seems to work out fine. The clover, which I’ll cut down just a little bit, bounces back fast and the deadfall is reabsorbed into the soil.
So as for the Galega situation, I can’t help but think we may have stumbled into a core permaculture principle: the problem is the solution.
So far I’m putting in about 6-8 hours a month, including time planting new bushes, trees, cherry tomatoes and herbs, cutting back the cover crop by hand and watering. The blueberries are ripening, quite a few peaches and nectarines already, and without a doubt so much more to come. And this is a system so far from being fine-tuned.
I’ll be posting more as the season progresses, stay in touch!