I mentioned in my previous post, about a trip to the Dominican Republic. It was here in Cabarete that I first learned about permaculture and Taino farm. In my personal life I was on a journey to learn about herbalism, and this concept of an ecosystem of symbiotic relationships amongst plants and animals was incredibly intriguing.
In the almost decade since visiting, I am only a little bit closer to becoming a permaculture practitioner as I build a food forest. That being said, let me back up a bit and tell you what I know.
What is permaculture?
Permaculture is set of techniques and principles based on mimicking nature used to design agricultural and ecological ecosystems. With one of the key principles being Observation, we find patterns in the way nature behaves, and implement these patterns in our human design of systems.
What is a Food Forest?
A food forest is an example of implementing permaculture principles; it is a technique of growing plants together that compliment one another’s strengths by being part of the same system. This design can result in a higher yield of food that can create sustainability and resiliency.
We can see permaculture design in the pairing of plants. For instance, a tall canopy tree can provide shade and support for the smaller trees and shrubs below it, and can act as a structure for vines. Ground cover plants and nitrogen fixers can improve the soil for the whole system.
Remember my Moringa Tim?
My Moringa tree Tim was the start of my food forest. With my house, the front door faces south, the back door faces north. So my backyard with minimal trees gets full sun. My neighbor along the back had several trees along the fence line that offered some shade. But overall I didn’t have much shade to write home about. I needed to find something that could stand the Florida heat, offer an edible food source, could handle excess water or drought, and could get me some shade. A benefit would be if it was fast growing. That’s where my adventure with Moringa began.
When I planted my Moringa tree, I also thought about what types of plants I could grow with it. I had had success with lemon grass in a full sun setting in my front yard, and quite honestly it was on sale at the nursery. So I grabbed one up. In my mind I had contenders for the start of my tree and shrub layers!
Where do I put my food forest!?
I mentioned before I have minimal shade in the back. Being from Ohio originally, I never considered how important shade really was. But when you live so close to the equator, full sun doesn’t mean full sun anymore! It means you might as well be on the surface of the big gas ball.
Year after year, I plant something in the winter/spring and by summer it’s fried to death. I still haven’t entirely learned my lesson but I wanted to be thoughtful with this consideration when planning my food forest location.
Additionally, I have crappy soil so I needed to find a spot where I had the best of the worst- and that was where I formally had my chicken coop! This spot was towards the back of the yard, under some of those lower trees from my neighbors yard, and on the side of my shed so it didn’t get all of the morning sun but got the afternoon sun.
This location for me has been FANTASTIC!
All of my plants I have put in this spot have thrived. This spot gets runoff water from the shed, dappled sun in the afternoon, thanks to the quick growth of my Moringa and thick, tall lemon grass. I’ve been able to create different layers in the little food forest that give new plants the opportunity to thrive so they are protected from the overbearing Florida sun.
What’s in my Food Forest?
Right now I do have a couple of trees in my food forest: moringa, an Ice Cream Banana tree, and a JuJuBe Tree. They do vary in height, and as they grow, I plan on integrating more plants around the base- especially the banana. I’m going to explore a banana circle (a type of permaculture guild) in the upcoming year. For the shrub layer, I have my thriving lemon grass, which has actually done really nice, as you can see in the picture above with the moringa as it’s partner in stability. The lemon grass has actually gotten really tall and seeded – it has nice healthy stalks on it.
What I really love though about my budding food forest, is the herb layer. Hidden under that mass of lemongrass (which I think also qualifies as an herb), is some really hardy rosemary, and cinnamon basil. It’s LOVING living under the moringa and lemongrass in my natural shade I’ve been able to generate. In addition, I have feverfew, clary sage, hyssop, bergamot, chives, and spearmint. I have tried and failed at St John’s Wort (it faltered in the heat), and valerian root. I did have a really healthy bounty of lemon balm that I harvested before the heat decimated it. Calendula did fantastic here in the food forest, but it is an annual so I harvested what I could from it.
I do. have a couple more beautiful edibles in the food forest that are forming their own cult following in permaculture spaces – Longevity Spinach and Okinawa Spinach. I did have to have these shipped from Healthy Harvesters. The Longevity Spinach specifically is acting as a really interesting ground cover, and I have actually propagated a cutting successfully in my composted straw bale. It was purely by accident, but it speaks to the resiliency that probably gives it its name. Both of these Perennial spinaches are touted for the “Super Food” qualifications and I’m happy to have them in my edible forest.
It’s a growing work in progress… literally
My little food forest is growing every day. It started as a plot of grass, and in the past year I’ve been able to take practices I’ve learned from my own research on permaculture and think through thoughtfully (albeit not always with successful results) on how I can mimic nature to bring abundance to my home. In the year I have been working on my food forest, I’ve seen more wildlife in my backyard, a huge variety of pollinators, and I have been able to take food and herbs from my garden and create beautiful infused oils and flavor my meals.
My ultimate goal is to get more fruiting plants so I can start incorporating fruits and vegetables from our garden into our meals.- I should be doing this now with the moringa and spinaches but have not ventured out on that limb yet.
To that end- stick with me on my journey of sustainability and use of permaculture principles to bring more green to the world.