The forest is one of the most successful and diverse ecosystems on our planet. As organic gardeners, we can learn a lot from forests. The lessons we learn from forest ecosystems can dictate the methods we use for food production in our own backyards. Urban forestry can allow us to create thriving, diverse gardens that meet all of our needs in beautiful and productive ways.
Why Create An Urban Forest Garden?
There are many reasons why forests make a good model for garden design. Urban forest gardens are an excellent choice for our planet, and for the gardener. Forest gardens:
- Introduce trees, which capture carbon from the air and help reduce the greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change.
- Help to store water locally, helping to ensure the healthy function of the world’s water cycle.
- Increase biodiversity, of both plant and animal life, thereby improving resilience in the ecosystem.
- Improve air quality and reduce air pollution, road noise etc..
- Create shade for human comfort, animal life, and water conservation.
- Provide abundant food yield and other resources for humans and wildlife.
- Provide an abundant source of biomass to replenish the ecosystem and complete the natural cycles.
- Improve general mental health and well-being by creating green, lush environments.
The Features of a Backyard Food Forest
A backyard food forest will resemble a natural forest ecosystem, yet the plants within it will be specifically chosen to meet our human needs and desires. While the plants selected for a forest garden will vary depending on geographical location and climate considerations, all urban food forests will share specific characteristics.
Food forests always have layers. The top layer will be the tree canopy. Beneath the trees, smaller trees and shrubs will create a second tier. Beneath and around these shrubs you will find a layer of perennial herbaceous plants. Soil will not be left bare, and ground cover plants will be planted to help retain soil moisture and protect the soil ecosystem. Root crops will utilize the topsoil environment, while fungi and bacteria will also do their work below the soil surface. Climbing plants may also be encouraged to wind their way up through these layers.
The establishment of a forest garden will begin with the selection and planting of trees.
Choosing Trees for Your Edible Forest
When choosing trees for your edible forest, it is essential to consider the conditions in your backyard. Think about how much sunlight space receives, and where it comes from at certain times of day and throughout the year. Think about whether your yard is sheltered or exposed to strong winds. Consider the temperatures experienced in your area throughout the year. It is also important to observe your local environment. Looking at which trees are already to be found in your area can help you to determine which trees may do well in your garden and can also give clues about the soil type and condition. Finally, think about which fruits you and other members of your household enjoy eating. Creating a wish-list can be an excellent place to begin when deciding which trees to grow in your edible forest – though of course, it is essential to be realistic and to do our research before planting exotic fruits that may not thrive where you live.
Fruit Trees To Consider for Your Forest Garden
In Texas, hardiness zone 8, the climate and conditions allow for the successful growth of a wide range of fruiting trees. Orchard favorites such as apples, pears, figs, plums, apricots, peaches, cherries, citrus trees, persimmons, and pomegranates can all do well in this area, though there are many other fruit trees that zone 8 gardeners could consider.
Carefully choose varieties that are suited to the particular climate and conditions where you live. Carter’s Blue is one apple variety to consider locally, and Maroon Crabapple is an excellent choice for cooked fruits. Pineapple and Golden Boy are excellent choices for pear trees. Gulf Beauty is a variety of plum suited to the climate zone. Texas A&M peaches have explicitly been bred for the Texas climate, and Gulf Crimson is another good choice. Local garden centers and plant nurseries will be able to further advise you about suitable fruit tree choices for your location.
When selecting fruit trees, be aware that some trees are self-fertile and can be planted alone, while others will require another companion tree of the same or a related variety to bear fruit. Make sure you are aware of the requirements of the trees you choose.
Other Trees To Consider for Your Food Forest
In addition to planting fruit trees, you may also wish to consider incorporating other types of the trees into your food forest. For example, you might consider nut-bearing or berry trees. Depending on the hardiness zone of your area, you may be able to grow varieties of almonds, chestnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, walnuts, hickory, salmonberries mulberry trees.
Not all the plants in your food forest will produce an edible yield. Some trees may also be included for their firewood or timber, or for their ability to dynamically gather nutrients which will benefit other trees and plants nearby. (Nitrogen fixers such as mimosa or acacias, for example). Native trees may also be selected due to their ability to attract beneficial native wildlife which can help with pollination and pest control.
Creating Guilds For Your Fruit Trees
Once you have selected and planted your fruit trees, you can begin to create the lower levels of your food forest. It is essential to carefully consider how you will build up the layers of planting to create a fully-functioning forest ecosystem that will help fruit trees to produce well. Guilds (companion planting) of shrubs, herbaceous plants, ground covers and other layered components are selected to benefit the fruit trees you have chosen in a range of different ways.
Many of the plants of other layers will also be edible or:
- provide different yields’,
- While others will be included for their ability to fix nitrogen or collect nutrients from deep below the soil,
- for their ability to attract bees and other pollinators, or attract predatory insects and other wildlife that can help keep pest numbers down, and
- maintain the forest garden ecosystem in balance.