I’ve been kicking around the idea of a mini-food forest in the front garden ever since I read Gaia’s Garden several years ago. I already have two dwarf apples, a dwarf cherry, and a large circular vegetable garden out there, so I’ve made a start.
A central part of the food forest idea is creating multi-use beds (“guilds”) around each of the trees. I’d plant daffodils or other bulbs around the dripline to help hold back encroaching weeds. Inside that line, I’d add plants that serve specific functions:
- I’ve finally tracked down a source for comfrey, so I’d plant several of those. I can slash them down several times a season to act as mulch for the tree, use some as fodder for the chickens, and make compost tea from the leaves. Plus they fix nitrogen and add other nutrients to the soil whenever you cut them back.
- To lure in beneficial insects, I’d add some dill plants (also good for pickles) and yarrow (a drought-tolerant butterfly plant). Fennel does the same thing.
- Bright nasturtium are edible and reputed to repel certain insects. Apparently, you can use the seeds to deworm your chickens, which is knowledge I hope never, never to have to use.
- Parsely is edible; accumulates potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron in the soil; and is a valuable food for butterfly caterpillars. I’ve also heard that the juice is supposed to repel mosquitoes, although I’ve never tried it myself.
- Clover provides blooms for bees and a green, nitrogen-fixing ground cover.
This is a very basic guild, and it’s a tiny one, since it has to fit under a dwarf tree. If I were designing for a full-sized apple tree, I’d add some small shrubs (currants, maybe, which do well in shade), and possibly some sort of vine. (For more about guilds, I highly recommend Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden.)
Oh, I had such plans. The three fruit trees would be surrounded by guilds, and in between, I’d fit in honey berry (a vaguely blueberry-like fruiting plant), salvia to lure in insect-eating birds, and lots of zinnias and sunflowers for color. And because the average food forest is a bit wild-looking for my aesthetic tastes, I’d create tidy mulch paths through the garden and around the existing vegetable bed. And that spot directly in front of the house where I ripped the lilacs out last year? It’s a deep-mulch bed waiting to happen.
My friends, this is what winter gardening delusion looks like. It sounds great to replace all the grass with actual garden. And if I plan it correctly, I can keep the long-term maintenance to a minimum (that’s one of the benefits of a food forest). But my 30′ x 40′ front garden is still a lot of space to cover and keep weeded and mulched, especially as I’ll be doing it after full days in other people’s gardens.
And then I did the math. Say the mature width of my dwarf apple trees is 12′ (a 6′ radius around the trunk):
Area = π(r)^2, so (3.14)(6)(6)= roughly 113 sq feet per tree. That is a BIG bed, at least if you’re trying to fill three of them with new plants on a budget.
Even experienced gardeners often take on more than is smart. So this year, before I stick a shovel in the ground, I’m breaking these projects down into a timeline. This year, I will do one, maybe two of the tree guilds. And if I’m really ambitious, I may start sheet mulching that path around the vegetable garden.
But mark my words. That turf grass is going down.