Food Forestry: Start Small with a Large Container Garden

The concept of food forestry can be overwhelming to a typical household. A food forest is an edible landscape modeled after the ideas of layers of a forest including a canopy formed by tall trees, shrubs, vines, low groundcover, and all of the associated wildlife.

Planning a food forest in a backyard can be a difficult task for a homeowner, especially since availability of sunlight to the understory is an important aspect and placing the tall trees in the wrong location can significantly reduce the yields of the garden.

One way to tryout the concept of a food forest is to start small with a container garden. The first step is to find a suitable container; ideally you will want to use a 15 to 25 gallon container that is at least 18 inches wide at the top and one and a half feet deep. A half of a wine barrel is a perfect option because it has suitable drainage and is large enough to accommodate a dwarf tree. You may also consider reusing and up-cycling old horse troughs, large galvanized buckets, or even and old bathtub; however, you will need to ensure that drainage holes are part of any container you decide to use.

The next step is to fill the container with soil. A good potting soil mixed with compost works well as does a sand, peat moss, compost, and loamy soil mix. Avoid soil heavy with clay as water drainage will be problem. At this point, don’t fill the container with soil; simply add a few inches of soil into the bottom of the container.

The urban forest container garden can now be planted. Select a dwarf variety of fruit tree that grows well in your local climate. Place the tree root in the middle of the container and add a few more inches of soil around it. Next, add the shrub layer by planting a small berry bush and surround the tree and the shrubs with smaller herbaceous perennials, groundcover, annuals, herbs, or edible flowers. A suitable combination of plants and the animals, insects, and fungi associated with them are often referred to as a “Guild.”

An example of a suitable guild of plants that can be grown in a container garden includes: Dwarf apple, pear, or peach tree; blueberry bush, sage, basil, or parsley; lettuce greens, strawberries, and edible nasturtium vines.

Some plants will require more maintenance in a container garden. Plants such as bee balm, mint, raspberries, and strawberries can quickly overtake the other plants and these should be cut back on a regular basis to prevent overgrowth.

A small food forest can provide fruits, vegetables, herbs, and beauty. Have fun with the combination of plant guilds and experiment to see what works best in your local climate. -KATHY FAIRCHILD

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