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A forest garden & self sufficiency

Published 1/5/2015 on by Barbara Scheltus - van den Berg

When you want to have a (food) self sufficient life, an edible forest garden can be a great “tool” in achieving this. It is easy to go to a supermarket for your food, and gardening for food is regarded as the hard way. Maintaining a food forest is something in the middle. A relatively easy (and cheap!) way to get lots of vitamins!

Having a vegetable garden is for most people* a battle against weeds, slugs and bugs. (* people that haven't heard of permaculture, mulching, no-dig, raised beds and companion planting)
They break their back in fall (digging) and spring (weeding), and in summer they break their back on picking their harvest.

If you have ever had a walk in a forest, you know that there is usually not much human labour involved to keep everything going. A forest is an eco system that maintains itself. No human backs involved.

So what is a forest garden (or food forest)?

A forest garden is a woodland with edibles. Like a woodland it is built up in layers that are beneficial to each other. The highest trees (canopies) give shade for the shrubs under it. The vines use the bigger shrubs or smaller trees to climb in. The herbs attract bees that pollinate the fruit trees. The ground covering keeps the soil relatively cool and moist in summer.

Our food forest (20x30 metres, inland Croatia) has a canopy of wild cherry trees and mullberry, with small apple trees under it. In between you can find hazelnut shrubs, elderberry shrubs and wild roses. Chards, marigolds and several herbs are growing below them. The soil is covered with winter purslane and lambs lettuce (winter, spring), wild strawberries (spring, summer), and tym (summer, fall). Around the forest garden we have a branches wall with raspberries and blackberries climbing over it, and gooseberries reinforcing the hedge.

Besides fruits, there are also other usefull things growing in our food forest. In general, a forest garden can grow the 7 F's: Food Fuel Fiber Fodder Fertilizer Farmaceuticals Fun.

A forest garden uses the wisdom of natural woodland. When set up properly, it is a harmonious ecosystem that functions long term, low maintenance. Your biggest worry will be how to collect the harvest in time!

Design of our forest garden

Our first forest garden design was made with too much enthousiasm. On a 20x30 metres area we planned (not planted; only planned) 160 trees, shrubs and plants! But by the time the season was right for planting, we realized that it was a bit too much.

So we started simple. With lots of ground covering plants that were already growing on our terrain, like thym, wild strawberries, winter purslane/claytonia, lambs lettuce and mint. The trees (cherry, chestnut, mullberry) were already there, except a dwarf apple tree that we planted. In between the trees we planted hazelnut and elder, of which we had many babies growing in our nursery. On the edges (next to the branches walls) we planted the baby raspberries and blackberries, and some gooseberries we propagated.

Follow Barbara's board My forest garden inspiration on Pinterest.

Learning from nature

Now it is time to monitor how everything grows, how all trees and shrubs are doing together, and which spots need attention or different solutions. We're making notes for next year and I already noted that I'm glad we didn't stick to our initial plan!

The crowded first design would probably have worked for a year or 2 when the shrubs were still small. But when they grow bigger, they still need light and air.

It would also have been a birds walhalla with all the berry shrubs. And since our food forest is situated on a 2 minutes walk from our house, the birds would probably have taken over.

The food forest in our self sufficiency

Some people live a few minutes away from a supermarket; we live a few minutes away from our (starting) forest garden.

When I go shopping I bring a bag; when I visit our forest garden I bring a bucket. And usually I come home with many surprises! A bunch of peppermint with a small bucket of wild strawberries, a bucket of apples with marigold flowerheads (nice on salads and the rabbits love them).

At the moment our forest garden is still in baby phase, but the raspberries and blackberries are already producing many jars of jam. We can harvest mint enough for a year's supply of tea, enough lambs lettuce and claytonia for our late winter/early spring salads and we harvest many sweet chestnuts in fall.

I'm looking forward to our food forest growing into maturity!

At Permaculture homestead Bogata Suma in Croatia Barbara gives forest garden design workshops once or twice a year.
Mail or call +385 95 5555 677 if you have questions or want to make a reservation!

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