Permaculture is a method of gardening that asks the gardener to work with nature rather than against it, with the aim to design ecologically, socially, and economically healthy communities for humans, plants, and animals. It is rooted in thinking of the ecosystem as a whole in order to ensure all parts of the system are healthy and working in harmony (Fox, 58).
Food forestry is a type of permaculture that I get really excited about. A food forest is “a planted garden that aims to mimic the ‘closed loop’, self-sustaining biological system of a natural forest with the added benefit of growing food and medicine” (Walker, 11). Richard D. Walker is one of Canada’s most renowned food foresters. He has over 40 years of experience in farming and food foresting. In the late 1980s, he created the first food forest in Canada in Grand Forks. I was thrilled to visit him in Osoyoos this August where he has countless edible plants flourishing in his arid-zone food forest. Most references in this article will be from his 2015 book, Food Forestry North of the 49th.
A well-planned food forest should ideally begin to be self-sustaining around the 5 year mark. Of course, many of your trees will still be young then, but even at maturity, you will have a thinner canopy than a natural forest. Richard bases his food forests on a layering concept that allows the forest to have multiple layers of plants while still allowing light to the lowest lying plants.
In an ideal world with a city-block sized piece of land, Richard recommends 7-8 layers, but you can play with that to suit your own space. To begin with, layer 0 will be root crops and tubers, ie. beets and carrots. Layer 1 is herbaceous perennials and annuals, ie. herbs and edible flowers. Layer 2 is vines like grapes, layer 3 is berries and cane fruits. Layer 4 is small shrubs and layer 5 tall shrubs. Layer 6 is small fruit trees like cherries, and layer 7 is tall fruit trees like the mulberry. Finally, layer 8 is tall trees like hazelnut or walnut (Walker, 12). If you can’t fit all these in your garden, not to worry! If you have beets, lavender, raspberries, and hibiscus you have a 4 layer food forest right there. For a medium-sized residential garden you can likely fit in 4-6 layers with careful planning
One of the stumbling blocks for many new gardeners is not knowing where to start. Richard’s book is specifically about growing in Canada so he has great tips for choosing your site wisely and working within your climatic zone. Here in the South Okanagan, we are in Zone 6. Knowing your zone makes it much easier to pick out hardy plants at the nursery. Other things to keep in mind are light, slope, wind, terrain, and water requirements and restrictions of your site.
With literally dozens of plants growing in his forest I asked Richard to share his favourites with the Western readers: the beautiful and delicious Mulberry tree; the clove currant which is native, has flowers that smell like cloves, and sweet little fruits; and the Saskatchewan cherry which comes from the University of Saskatchewan who bred it by crossing two varieties to make a very cold hardy tree.
There are many methods of gardening that fall under the umbrella of permaculture. I encourage you to read up and find your favourite. As long as it encourages a healthy ecology, you can’t go wrong. Food forests delight me in that they feed us but also end up becoming self-sustaining. They are a great model for community gardens and other large common spaces. There are a plethora of options when it comes to the plants themselves, making the forest fun to design and eclectic to eat.