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Gardening with Gael: Food Forests: Part One



thumbnail IMG 7545-238Food Forests: Part One


“I don’t have time for Netflix anymore,” said Susan as we walked our dogs [Kara, beautiful obedient copper-coloured labrador. Barney, scruffy Border Terrier with selective hearing]. “I’m endlessly on YouTube researching food forests. I have decided to create a food forest on my property.”

“How much land do you need for one?” I asked, thinking of the little courtyard I have, the only flat piece of garden.

“Oh,” replied Susan, “they can be any size at all, just enough area to create guilds. Guilds are the many layers that create the mutually beneficial layers of plants. You need beneficial insect attractors, some deep tap root plants, and arborist mulch which mimics the forest floor and creates a fungal layer. We can visit my friend Deva who has a well-established forest garden if you like.”

My brain was working overtime. This was just the inspiration for the courtyard that I have been looking for.

Off to Deva’s garden to study a garden full of variety and diversity, dogs in the back seat [Kara noisy and restless, Barney quiet and perfectly behaved, just saying]. Deva’s garden was mind-blowing. Beginning with an apple tree she has created a complete food forest, the diversity of the layers apparent everywhere. Every plant has a purpose, either providing food, attracting birds and insects or regenerating soil.

The first layer of a food forest is a tall tree or canopy which is the overarching layer. Often a fruit or nut tree. The subcanopy or large shrub layer comes next, smaller apples and fruit trees. The third layer is the shrub layer, home to blueberries, roses [for their rosehips] gooseberries and any nitrogen fixing plants which help the fertility of the soil for nearby trees.

“This can be the ‘chop and drop’ layer,” explained Susan. Chopping and dropping is something I already do in the garden. The woody layer of debris adds organic material .

Under the shrub is the herbaceous layer – oregano, mints, daylilies, borage, onion, sorrel, fennel perpetual spinach etc. The fifth layer includes the ground covers – strawberries, garlic, violets, sorrel, nasturtiums, pumpkins. The sixth layer is the root layer – potatoes, kumara, garlic , parsnips , carrots. The seventh layer is vertical. Grapes and climbers.

It is important to mention here the work that is going on beneath the soil – the fungal or mycelial layer – those microbes which support the life of the soil and the roots of the trees.

Accompanying photos are of the layers in Deva’s garden.

Where to start with my little corner. I think I can fit one canopy tree and I have decided on a Billington plum. They are self-fertile and the one at the Block did amazingly well. Some plums from the Peach Patch recently reminded me how good they are.

I think I can espalier an apple against the retaining wall and I need room for two grapefruit, a lemon and an orange. My son in the US loves feijoas and sometimes times his trip home for them. I will need two early fruiting varieties for pollination. I think the retaining wall will be useful for my vertical space.

The dichondra lawn I planned is shrinking by the day. Nasturtiums are already clambering over nearby trees. I need another article to cover the numerous benefits of this and other plants.


A food forest, also called a forest garden, is a diverse planting of edible plants that attempts to mimic the ecosystems and patterns found in nature. Pictured are the layers in Deva’s garden.



In a well-established food forest the layers hopefully cover the ground preventing growth of unwanted plants – weeds. With all this rain it’s almost impossible to entirely discourage weeds. The best plan for buttercup, twitch, tradescantia and other undesirables, if spray is out of the question, is to put them into an old wheelie bin. Add water and rot them down completely.



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