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Seriously Mini Food Forest

 
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I'm brainstorming a gift idea for friends and family members who love gardening to introduce them to permaculture in a way, but more specifically the idea of a food forest.

I would like to source or build rather large planters (24" square?), then do a plant grouping that mimics a food forest on a micro scale, but I need plant ideas and suggestions! To make this a gift that I can duplicate in the future and that stays reasonable in terms of cost I would lean heavily toward plants I can propagate easily or that I already have. For the vining layer I would probably choose Apios Groundnut, for example. 1. I have them. 2. Plopping one little tuber in at the base of a taller plant and watching it vine makes me smile. 3. They're a nitrogen fixer

So the seven layers of a food forest are (as I'm sure y'all know):
Overstory
Understory
Shrub layer
Herbaceous layer
Root layer
Ground cover layer
Vine layer

Combine overstory and understory into one woody plant in the center of the plant? I'm struggling with this one. Plant suggestions?

Shrub layer: lavender, rosemary? Too small?

Herbaceous layer: purslane, oregano?

Root layer: I've got nothing. Especially in a planter. Call the Apios both the vine and root layer??? Help?

Ground cover layer: strawberries, really really want to do strawberries.  

Vine layer: Apios groundnut

 
pollinator
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I love this idea.   I'll be thinking about it the rest of the day.   What about something like a blueberry,  or a small serviceberry variety for the wood "tree" layer?   Like the idea of actual herbs for shrub layer.  Or a small lingonberry.   Purslane or an alpine strawberry groundcover?   Or  blueberry- lingonberry- wintergreen variation...    nasturtium vining layer?  are you considering annuals?   So fun..  I hope a bunch of people post ideas..   now I want to borrow this idea.  
 
master steward
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A word of caution:

Jane said, "Shrub layer: lavender, rosemary? Too small?



I planted lavender and rosemary together.

I love rosemary though I have to say when you said "too small?" I chuckled.

Rosemary makes me think of the cute kitchen herb sitting in a pretty little pot on the kitchen counter.

Then I look outside and see this over 3-foot-tall bush that is at least 5-feet-wide.

I know it is really rosemary because it smells so good.

I like your idea.  Are you going to build the mini food forest at the recipient's home?

Jane said, "
Combine overstory and understory into one woody plant in the center of the plant? I'm struggling with this one. Plant suggestions?



Maybe a fig would fit this description.

Or maybe hazelnut?  I have never seen this plant I have only read about it on the forum.

Best wished for your min food forest project.
 
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I often see hazelnut cited as a good canopy tree. And I know mulberry trees can get very large, there's one at my apartment that I like to climb.
 
Jane Payne
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I have also been cautioned about the water needs of the plants together, so the lavender and strawberry have very different water needs, so that wouldn't be a good fit.

I believe I would be assembling them at home, and maybe even letting it get established a bit so I know my gift isn't going to die or struggle too much.

The giant rosemary made me lol, I've seen them overwinter here rarely, but I've never seen one that big, and they tend to struggle outside. I'm in zone 7b.

I haven't decided yet whether or not to include annuals, or plants that could stay outside or would need to overwinter indoors? That might depend on the gardening skills of who I'm gifting it to? If I include annuals I would prefer varieties who readily re-seed.
 
pollinator
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Ooh, I like the idea of a tiny food forest. As for the root layer, jerusalem artichokes may be a consideration. The bonus is that one also gets such beautiful golden-yellow flowers from them.
As for rosemary, I, too, am in zone 7A-B and have a large rosemary in a large pot that is thriving. I give it absolutely nothing: no protection in the winter (we get snow 3-4 times/season that typically stays on the ground 1-3 days), no fertilizer, nothing. It isn't even in full sun. It gets sun maybe 3-4 hours/day, yet it's been thriving for many years already. What a hearty plant!
 
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Twenty four inches square isn't much room to work with.   But since it's in a pot it opens up the possibility of citrus even in a cold climate.   Mandarin varieties are very small trees naturally and are easy to start from seed.  Sweet potatoes all on their own are roots and a vining ground cover and completely edible. A prostrate rosemary variety could drape over the edge (i don't knoe if it would count as a shrub layer. Maybe some garlic or onion chives as a herbaceous layer.  At that point I think you would be maxed out on space but 6 out of seven layers of easy growing plants that I think can tolerate the same growing conditions. Three of them produce pretty flowers, too.

Editing to add... assuming you are patient enough to wait for fruit from a seedling tree, these are all plants that are easy to propogate from cutting, division and seeds
 
pollinator
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Beware of the weight of the assembled forest!  Make sure you have adequate equipment to transport them.
 
Anne Miller
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Both Tyler and Casie have brought us some concerns.

Casie said, "Twenty four inches square isn't much room to work with.  



I sometimes forget parts of posts such as this.  I was visioning a rectangular planter that might be built at the home of the recipients.

Jayne have you considered using bonsai plants?  A bonsai food forest?

Here is someone's start of one:

https://www.foodforestgarden.org/mushrooms-and-bonsai/
 
master gardener
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A friend of mine's husband built her a raised planter out of Heat Treated (HT) packing pallets with 2"x2" posts going up the corners and above to about 6 ft, which made it easy to surround it with deer fencing which in our ecosystem is required. Pallets are normally 40" wide, but you can't always salvage the edges, so I recall it ended up just over 3 ft a side, which is 9 square feet of planting space.

It's amazing how quickly a pair of tomato plants take over that space! If you're thinking 2 ft square, I think you will have to look for midget versions of many of the plants. I have a number of 1/2 barrels that I use beside a shed as there's gravel there but also sun which I'm generally short on. A 1/2 barrel is about 2' across and there's a number of people who grow surprising things in them. I've got potatoes started in one, and by the end of the day will have a tomato planted in another. I'll often plant beans with the tomato, but it would be a small variety like Maxibel Filet. I regularly add walking onions near the edge (if I'm not adding beans - beans and onions don't play nice), and try to get some early lettuce going if the weather permits.

One thing I do with the barrels and taught my friend to do also, is to put punky wood at the bottom to act like a hugel sponge. Some sort of wicking water system would make it easier to care for. As much as I don't like importing things, a small bed like this would benefit from the addition of coir to help hold the water. I'm trying to use more biochar in place of coir, but so long as I only use a little coir and it helps me feed my family, it's at least a natural, biodegradable, and renewable resource.

Also be aware that some "trees crops" aren't self-fertile, so you'd need two planters! In that space, I'd certainly lean towards a tree on dwarf root-stock or something that's naturally shrubby in your zone. A different friend planted a Mulberry in a 1/2 barrel and it's now so root bound, I figure it will take a saw to extricate it.  The only thing that's growing with it is walking onions. We just had a particularly bad winter, and I'm hoping it made it through. This is an issue to consider also - we had atypically cold weather and a raised planter is going to freeze harder than the same space in the ground. The planter may need insulation (think bags of leaves or organic hay or straw) around it for the winter. I lost a 6 year old Hazelnut in a small hugel and the only apparent reason was that it froze harder than other plants in the area due to it being higher up with less insulating soil.

I recently saw a post where people take a whole plastic barrel and make a wicking bed out of it, using a saw to cut planting pockets and heat the plastic and use a wine bottle to stretch the plastic into a pocket shape. This would give you other places to add layers - like strawberries/oregano on the sunny side, walking onions on the shady side, and a larger central shrubby tree out the top. It looked interesting, but I've never tried it and I'd prefer to see how people like them 4 years from now! In my climate, I tend to be pretty suspicious that the plants at the bottom will be too wet, and the ones at the top dry out too fast. Or that people water it twice a day, which I don't have time for!

So I understand your desire to make it a true representation of food forest cooperation, but you may need to consider focusing on a healthy poly-culture of herbs and perennials (I've got some asparagus in a barrel for example), without trying to represent all the layers.
 
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It's not container gardening, but someone who wants a small food forest should look at David the Good's Grocery Row Gardening (or watch his videos).  
 
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I too , think poly culture is a very gentle introduction to permaculture … it’s a first step off the conventional pathway

Right now, I have volunteer lettuce providing a closed canopy in a perennial bed.  A friend was over and she admired the beauty of it, said “I am going to do that next year “. This is a lovely woman, lives and breathes community, but she is slow to take up the broad concept of permaculture… or even the interconnectedness of all activities.

I’ve been thinking about how my garden came to look like that, and if I can guide her efforts…

I decided to give her a few packs of lettuce plants in various textures and colors, encourage her to plant them where they will thrive, and allow them to go to seeed.  This seems to be the hardest part for many,  allow it to go to seed, and not only allow the seeds close by, but take the seed stalks and beat the ground with them wherever you want those plants to join what already shows up.

Then the next hard part is to allow seeds to sprout and grow, resisting the temptation to kill all seedlings, either by hoeing or mulching.

There are a couple great results with inter planting lettuce.  You get salad automatically, and the lettuce (and other greens, like spinach and the brassicas and cool soil germinators ) shade the ground from late winter , and by the time the warm soil germinators have warm soil, , germination is suppressed by the shade.
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Jane Payne wrote:I'm brainstorming a gift idea for friends and family members who love gardening to introduce them to permaculture in a way, but more specifically the idea of a food forest.



To me, a tiny food forest would be one in a typical backyard, versus in a field on a farm. I wonder if the gift could be a really well thought out guild, rather than a food forest. A guild would still be educational (and teach about permaculture) in that you could include plants that fulfill all the roles/niches (and could even attach little labels with explanations to the container).

I join others in worrying that 4 square feet can't do the food forest concept (or the plants) justice.

Julie
p.s. Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden includes lots of info on guilds to get you started.
 
Jane Payne
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I've been carefully reading through everyone's responses, and I truly appreciate your input and thoughts. I agree that a guild will be the way to go, and I will work on relating that guild to the larger structure of a food forest to my gift recipients.
 
Thekla McDaniels
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It’ll be a wonderful gift, no matter what form it finally takes

❤️❤️❤️
 
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re...So the seven layers of a food forest are (as I'm sure y'all know):
Overstory
Understory
Shrub layer
Herbaceous layer
Root layer
Ground cover layer
Vine layer

Maybe......Think like a bonsai?.....
(Whatever that would be like....)

Since this is a smallish area, I would suggest thinking in terms of fewer than seven layers, so as not to overcrowd. Like maybe 4-5.....

First go with the essentials, the ones you really really want, like the strawberries. Make them the stars of your design concept. Place them first in the heart of the design, and see what comes up next.
By heart I do not mean a physical location, but a creative idea.

Then  taking those one or two layers as givens, what other layers fit around them, creating useful microclimate layers?
Like for instance, go for maybe one of Overstory... or understory.... Seems like whichever is the taller is your Overstory, and you would not need both in a small garden.

Who are the players that would cause your strawberries to smile?
Is that any help?
Anyway I think this is a fabulous concept, and I look forward to seeing more of how it turns out.
 
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All depends what will be eaten!
There are lots of plants will supply in summer, autumn and some leftovers for winter. What's really prized are crops for late winter. Leeks and brassicas for those prepared to tend to them, alexanders and hardy alliums otherwise. Roots like Apios, burdock, sunchoke store best in the ground, fine if your ground isn't frozen when you want a crop. Extracting them may disturb the greens, and get soil in your leeks.
 
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Good idea! Maybe officially it isn't a real Food Forest. But anyway it's a Permaculture concept. The recipients will be happy with such a gift!

 
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A guild with a very small shrub as the overstory is in scale with this project. I used to be a landscape designer with a specialty in container gardens of native plants, and I would give three cautions: 1) Soil volume is a serious limitation here. 2) It's essential to choose one ecosystem type and stick with plants from that type of situation. 3) In most of the country, this container will have to be watered, so there is labor involved here for the recipient, even if you can find a grouping that excludes weeds.

About caution 1: I have seen trees and shrubs literally fill a container with roots until it bursts, with the entire container turned into woody root mass, and no room for anything else. Trees can be , and are, grown in containers, but it requires serious fertilization, and/or root pruning. If you want it to be self-sustaining, it has to be very small in total volume.  Remember that the roots of any plant are at least as big in total mass as the top. So if you couldn't fit the top portion of your guild at maturity into a similar container, it will not be a sustainable situation.

About caution 2: Sticking to one type of biome is  simpler if you start with one plant and think of its associates. So if strawberries are really important to you, start with them, not with your overstory. First off, I would use Alpine (wild type) strawberries but if you can't get those, use something that local gardeners recommend or will give you starts for.

If you start there, you have the stage set, and your biome chosen--woodsy soil in the sunny clearings of deciduous forest. Europe, the Eastern US, Eurasian mountains, all have this type of area, so you have a lot to choose from. Violets like the same habitat. For that matter, the miner's lettuce of western oak woodlands would like that soil and exposure as well. https://www.quailseeds.com/store/p2/Miner%27s_Lettuce_%28Claytonia%29.html   For a larger plant, you're going to want something from a woodsy deciduous habitat, not the dry limestone scrub where rosemary, sage and lavender live. A wild rose would be more adapted to this type of area. A gooseberry or currant would be at home there. Or for that matter a raspberry. Or just stick in a piece of wood for it to climb and go with the apios. The more shade-adapted you make the planting, the fewer weeds there will be to deal with. However, if you want to go with the raspberry and want it to have enough sun to bear fruit, one idea would be to use a combination of purslane and miner's lettuce(which in England is known as "winter purslane". You could get your larger plants in, and the soil all stable , then scatter seeds for both. The purslane will sprout when there is heat and moisture. The miner's lettuce will sprout when there is cold and moisture. (Int the west that is the winter rains.) They should mesh.

Another take on this theme would be to have blueberries (lovers of acidic peat/sand soil) with an understory of ligonberries, which are also from sunny peat-based ecosystems. The Ligonberry, aka lowbush cranberry, is hugely productive and beautiful, with shiny evergreen leaves and glossy red berries that are the classic accompaniment to Swedish pancakes. https://raintreenursery.com/collections/lingonberries I would add Labrador tea to these for a fantastic evergreen tea plant from the same peaty areas.

Or to go the other direction, start with the more Mediterranean plants. Culinary Sage is super easy to grow, more cold-hardy and less fussy about drainage than lavender or rosemary, beautiful in all seasons, and started easily from cuttings. I started mine from leafy twigs I got in a package in the produce section of my local grocery chain. ("fresh cooking herbs")  I stuck them in pots and now two years later they are covered with gorgeous purple flowers and butterflies of many kinds. Any evergreen however, will cast shade all year, which makes it hard to fit anything else in a small space. A trailing plant that goes over the edge to find sun might be the answer. Oregano? Thyme?  Maybe even strawberries?

Perhaps the closest to your original idea would be a dwarf cherry or plum with strawberries underfoot. I would add a nitrogen fixer for both of those heavy feeders, and caution your friend not to remove the fallen leaves, as they will be important in maintaining fertility. For a nitrogen fixer, I don't know. Lupine? Sweet clover?

Easiest to keep going in the long run would be a prairie guild--Jerusalem sunflower or echinacea, grasses, and legumes. Maybe not what people would choose visually, but a perfectly balanced self-sustaining group.

Bottom line, it is hard to come up with a self-sustaining guild in such a small space. Or let me amend that. It's hard to come up with a self-sustaining guild that fulfills our desires in a small space. Most low growing food plants will be crowded out by grass after a season or two unless we intervene. So if the idea is to have a self-sustaining group that the recipient doesn't have to maintain, I would use an understory plant that is evergreen, has a dense canopy, and is at least 8" tall. Winter savory is a handsome one. Some oreganos and many sages would work. But in my career with plants, I have seldom seen plants lower than that compete with wind-sown grasses in a sunny situation. In nature, strawberries live where it's too shady for grass, or they are hidden in grass and seldom bear fruit.

It's all good, it just may not be what we as humans want from the plants we choose.
 
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I think this would work in a cold environment, too! Although I'd choose different plant to make it easier in my Zone 5.

Here is a pallet bed I made a few years ago with the intent for a mini food forrest. So far, I have a Dwarf plum for canopy, alfalfa for shrub, garlic for the root layer, and I'm thinking nasturtium for the vine/ground cover layer.

That was just for a nice tree guild, but to adapt to the food-forrest-to-scale-on-the-cheap idea, I might select a gooseberry, Nanking cherry, or dwarf Russian Almond for fast fruit and easy propagation. How about yarrow for the herb layer? And these green onions are self-seeding, which poly-cultute nicely with strawberries, flower beautifully, have all about the same water needs, and fill most of the layers very inexpensively!
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Tiny raised bed from pallets
Tiny raised bed from pallets
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Yarrow
Yarrow
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Green onions
Green onions
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Gooseberry and strawberry together
Gooseberry and strawberry together
 
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I just discovered a new book on this topic:

Mini-Forest Revolution: Using the Miyawaki Method to Rapidly Rewild the World by Hannah Lewis

https://www.amazon.com/Mini-Forest-Revolution-Miyawaki-Method-Rapidly/dp/1645021270#:~:text=In%20Mini%2DForest%20Revolution%2C%20Lewis,those%20planted%20by%20conventional%20methods.
 
Thekla McDaniels
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What a find!

I read an excerpt at

https://www.resilience.org/stories/2022-05-20/mini-forest-revolution-excerpt/

Isn’t it wildly encouraging to have so many independent projects world wide?
 
Inge Leonora-den Ouden
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I know about mini-forests (or 'tiny forests') they plant here in every town. But those are not food-forests. That concept is: a few square meters densely planted with trees (native trees)
 
Jamie Chevalier
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If you like the tea, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is extremely easy. It casts a dense weed-excluding shade and in our yard has out-competed serious weeds like grass and burr clover. Beautiful mint-like habit, glossy healthy green leaves, and sheaves of flowers that pollinators love ("Melissa" means honeybee in Greek.) Grows to 2 ft. would be a complete grouping with a nitrogen-fixing shrub and maybe a root.
 
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As has been said, the soil volume and capacity to hold enough water for many plants will likely be your biggest limitation. For this reason, I would recommend against a dwarf fruit tree or anything huge in the middle/ over story.
Likewise sunchokes/Jerusalem artichokes would be too much; they grow a lot in one season and will drink a lot of the water, putting smaller plants at risk.
A big berry bush or two would probably be your safest bet for the biggest component. Gooseberry or Tayberry, or hopniss (Apios) if willing to put a teepee of poles up the middle.

Two things that might help with the water issue ( other than automatic feeding systems) are ollas and biochar.
When filling any raised bed, pot or planter, add a large proportion of compost or other organic material to help hold water, preferably with some biochar ( maybe 10%?).
And then at the end, place one or more terra cotta ollas to slowly release water. Great for vacations!
 
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