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Today, many of us want to reduce our carbon footprint and do what we can to renew our planet. For those of us with a bit of land who don’t mind a little dirt under our fingernails, permaculture is a really good option for doing our part.
Rather than a lawn with all that it requires, we can have a food forest. As you begin to transform your yard into a food forest, however, you can save yourself a lot of frustration by avoiding these pitfalls.
When you get your new plants, it may seem obvious that they will grow. However, you will be surprised just how much they do. Therefore, measure. I’m serious. Get out a tape measure. Crowded plants will not be as fruitful, healthy, or attractive, and it is so much easier to avoid overcrowding than to fix it afterwards!
So, what do you do with that space while the trees and shrubs fill in? There are several good options. The best way to promote the long-term health of your land is to fill the space with biomass crops, regularly chopping them down to promote soil generation.
The two best biomass crops I know of are comfrey and Jerusalem artichoke. Either can be chopped and dropped four or more times a year. Though I have never tried it, a nitrogen fixer such as alfalfa could be even better.
Another option is planting annuals in between new trees. Squash and melons are a good choice, because they can be planted far from the new trees while still using the space near the trees. The disadvantage of this option is that the annuals will use the soil without replenishing it. The advantage is that you will harvest a crop.
Yet another option is simply to plant the mix of ground cover, pollinator, biomass, and nitrogen-fixing plants that you want to eventually have there. This excellent option requires more patience than the other methods, but the least work. Make sure you mulch well with woodchips.
While not inherently a bad idea, using plants with thorns requires more planning. There are two issues with thorny plants, both related to harvesting.
First, of course, you will have to reach into a thorny plant to harvest its fruit. Therefore, if you choose to plant a thorny plant, don’t plant it in the corner—you will not be able to reach two sides of it and will have to reach all the way across or through the bush to reach half the fruit. The best place would be where you can access all sides. You might consider planting a row of all the various thorny things you want in a place where you can reach both sides.
The second main issue with thorny plants is that they will interfere with harvesting from other plants. It makes a lot of sense to plant shrubs under the dripline of trees to maximize the layers in your food forest. However, using thorny plants in this way is a mistake. Keep them separate or plant them with trees that don't need harvesting, such as nitrogen fixers.
All plants need nitrogen. Conventional wisdom says to use chemicals that pollute runoff, and organic gardeners say to import compost using fossil fuels. There is a better option, however: allocate space for growing nitrogen.
Nitrogen fixers come in all shapes and sizes. The options are dizzying. Pick a nitrogen-fixing groundcover, such as clover. Make it your lawn! It can also double as chicken fodder.
Siberian peashrub is a larger shrub that can also provide animal fodder. Goumi berry can make nitrogen as well as berries. If you want a shade tree in your yard, consider thornless honey locust, mimosa, or empress trees.
What gardener doesn’t want to try unusual or exotic plants? The wonderful thing about permaculture, however, is that over time you can create a self-sufficient ecosystem.
Exotic plants may require additional inputs and may be slow to take off, meaning a delay in filling in the canopy layer of your food forest. Does that mean you never try unusual plants? No. But don’t make them the mainstay of your food forest, and be ready to give them the care they need.
What is more bucolic than chickens of various colors ranging free through dappled shade? In your enthusiasm for this vision, you may be tempted to rush out and get some chickens to add to your new food forest. While animals are great asset to an established food forest, they can be quite a liability in a new one.
My poor persimmon tree has endured being dug up numerous times, and many plants have not been nearly so resilient. Again, there are several good solutions.
The easiest is to wait. Once you have established a groundcover, chickens’ pecking and scratching will be a benefit, as they scour for bugs. For the first two or three years though, chickens can be very destructive.
Another option is to keep the chickens confined. I always hate to see birds confined to a small area of dry dirt, but this can be done in a number of better ways. A chicken tractor will allow you to move your chickens from one area to another, while controlling what they have access to. Another way is to confine the chickens to rotating paddocks, allowing them fresh fodder from time to time. These, however, are labor-intensive options.
Yet another option is to protect new plants. This can be done in several ways as well. Chicken wire can be laid down on the ground around the tree, corners covered by rocks and woodchips. This is the only way to protect a hugelkultur. Another method to try is using a barrel—such as a tree might come in—with the bottom cut out and placing it so as to surround the tree or bush. Yet another way is to make a wall around each tree, so that when chickens scratch, the dirt and mulch stay near the tree.
It is so tempting to start planting before setting up automated watering. After all, won’t the woodchips prevent moisture loss? The unfortunate reality for those in dry climates is that woodchips aren’t enough. Regular watering is necessary.
If you plant first and then start planning the irrigation, you will likely be struggling to find the time to get the irrigation put together, as you are spending so much time watering. I’ve made this mistake several times, as I’ve planted new sections of the yard without a watering plan. Eventually, I end up neglecting my plants for a few days, as temperatures reach the 90s, just to get the irrigation in place.
I know permaculture purists would say that aesthetics are not important, but in a suburban setting, they are. This is especially true in the front yard.
Thankfully, I live in a neighborhood where my neighbors have been almost 100% supportive. But I have worked very hard to try to keep it that way. This has meant keeping the weeds out of the front yard, especially sidewalks and walkways. I use 20% or 30% vinegar for this, available at local garden centers.
Woodchips keep 99% of the weeds out, but I work hard to keep the bindweed at bay. Also, I have a lot of flowers, and I have tried to arrange my trees and shrubs artfully around a large strawberry patch.
Flowers play several important roles in permaculture and can be used to make your yard aesthetically pleasing to neighbors as well as pollinators. Plants like yarrow and purple coneflower attract pollinators and other helpful insects and also happen to have medicinal value. Many herbs have pretty flowers and, in addition to culinary uses, can help repel harmful insects. Along with flower color, consider varieties in foliage.
Finally, consider the value of aesthetics for its own sake. You may be surprised at how much pleasure you derive from beautiful flowers. Also, I find that I enjoy having guests over more when I believe my yard (front and back) is beautiful.
This pitfall is a recipe for a huge weed patch. Be thoughtful about how much time you will need to take care of the areas that you convert to food forest.
I spend most of my time watering (yes, I still haven’t gotten that down) and abating the bindweed. I had no idea when I started that bindweed can be so tenacious. I can easily spend four hours every week trying to eradicate it. I probably spend another couple hours watering the places that don’t get watered by my irrigation system.
During the growing season, I spend another 10 hours deadheading in the front yard and 10 hours chopping and dropping biomass crops. Including chicken upkeep, I can plan on averaging at least eight hours a week, and I haven’t even planted all of my fifth of an acre.
However, there is a way to start a large amount at one time in a way that will minimize upkeep. This method involves using sheet mulch—assuming you have a watering system in place. This will allow you to prepare a large area in a way that eliminates most weeds and makes weeding much easier. Be thorough with the newspaper or cardboard, and you will have a low-maintenance food forest.
This can be surprisingly difficult to avoid. Assuming that you have avoided the fourth pitfall by planting plants that are well-suited to your climate and soil type, the biggest variable is water requirements. The easiest way to group plants is to designate areas for drought-tolerant and thirsty plants, planting the thirsty plants in places with the best access to water.
I have already mentioned several good uses for woodchips, but they are no panacea. Though they can help with water retention, they can also prevent water from getting to the soil. With enough green matter, they can decompose into compost, but this takes at least a couple of years, if not more.
Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to grow seeds in woodchip mulch (which is why it makes such good mulch). That said, woodchips are an amazing and inexpensive resource, so read on to learn how to avoid the pitfalls.
In order to make sure your plants receive sufficient moisture, rely on less frequent, deeper watering. This will maximize your water resource and the benefit of the woodchips. Whenever you are digging for planting or other reasons, verify that your watering system is getting water deep in the soil.
Because decomposition is slow, do not rely on the woodchips to nourish your plants for the first several years. Put about 4 inches of compost under the woodchips. Make sure to plant biomass crops to continue to create nourishing soil.
These are the 10 biggest pitfalls of small-scale permaculture. Now that you know how to avoid them, you can make your yard an abundant, fertile, self-sufficient food forest. Be patient; it takes the better part of a decade for a food forest to mature. It takes discipline to avoid all these pitfalls, but it is well worth it.