When I told people I was moving to Ecuador I said I was going to farm, when really there is more to it than that. I was going to farm using permaculture techniques.
Permaculture is the practice of emulating nature to produce food, and is the most sustainable, environmental, healthy and efficient method of agriculture (it just has high initial investment of effort!). The concept that first captivated me is the food forest; by stacking layers of tall and short plants to create a three-dimensional space of production, with each element harmoniously supporting others. It’s beautiful. Function and form are so intwined it is divine.
I’ve wrote this article to share what inspired me to undertake this massive life change; and the good news is if you are inspired as well you don’t have to emigrate to do it!
*Any words in all caps are noteworthy terminologies used in permaculture concepts.
Depending what sources you read there are seven to nine different LAYERS in a food forest. When I began to learn about permaculture, all these ill-defined layers, with their ill-defined purposes and a whole world of plant species to choose from made this as difficult to comprehend as the number of stars in the night sky, so initially I will simplify things. The example that I am first going to use is of a tropical climate and using just four categories:
- Production Palms
- Legume Trees
- Fruit Trees
- Understory Trees
Productive palms shoot up into the sky, breaking above the green sea of the jungle canopy. They have large leaves but no real branches so they little interfere with blocking light to the lower plants. This great height is why circa 150 people die annually from falling coconuts!
Legumes are a family of plants that even casual gardens should be aware of. The main minerals plants require are known as NPK; nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (typically valued in that order, but alter at different phases in life cycle). Despite the air being predominantly nitrogen, plants are not very good at absorbing this – except for legumes. These are referred to as a NITROGEN-FIXERS, by capturing the atmospheric nitrogen and releasing it into the ground for other plants. Living fertiliser. Of legumes you are likely aware of are peas, beans and clover, but there are many trees in this family as well, such as olives and the ice cream bean. In addition to revitalising the soil, they also typically have only a patchy canopy, allowing light to the lower plants whilst providing the shade that some need. The Madre de Cacao (mother of cacao) tree is a specie historically used to this purpose for cacao.
Fruit trees are typically either cultivated to be within reach of a person to allow for ease of harvesting, or pruned for such (but not always!). Many fruit trees require full light so a canopy parasol of a legume may be detrimental but their nitrogen bearing roots would rarely go amiss if nearby.
Understory trees are those that require shade, such as cacao (chocolate) and coffee. Some cultivars of coffee have in recent times been engineered to not require shade, but I recently spoke with a farmer who said the coffee plants under legumes have the greatest yield and taste.
Trees do not always fit in distinct height bands such as described, in fact, it is preferred that they don’t. The more variation is size and shape, the more niches there are, and the more niches the more birds and predatory insects there will be to act as pest control without the need of pesticide.
As mentioned there are other layers that can be added to a food forest but they do not take as long to mature so can be added as your forest takes shape (unless such a layer is the primary focus). If an unwanted plant such as a weed is able to grow on your forest floor, then you have not utilised all the light available to you. Conversely, if a plant is dying from drought then you can engineer canals for irrigation. Once the factors of nutrients, light and water are neither demanded or wasted, then your forest has reached zen.
Although tropical soils are inherently less fertile than the temperates, the tropics do have the advantage of light, heat and more rain than even Yorkshire. This allows for greater STACKING, so may raise the question: just how much can be stacked in other climes?
Wherever you are in the world you can grow a food forest, and the best way to determine the layering/stacking potential is to go to the nearest natural forest to your site. Bill Morrison, the co-founder of coining permaculture, describes it as “thoughtful observation rather than thoughtless action”. In your natural forest, observe if there are different canopy layers; whether there is plant ground cover; how many different species can you count; are there any vines; what plants are growing on the edges, etc.? You can then mimic the forest with productive trees, creating EDGES to grow crops that will benefit from your forest.
In drylands, artificial oases can be replicated. The trees shade the water to reduce evaporation and the water nourishes the trees. This principle is then diversified and expanded to create a durable ecosystem with its own microclimate/s.
Now, a mature forest obviously does not appear over night, or even over a year. Yet somehow, for example, we need to grow shade-loving trees without mature legumes to provide the loved-shade. Rather than delaying by years and planting in stages, intermittent trees are used that are fast growing with large leaves. This typically takes the form of a banana plant that can reach full height in only one or two years. These herbaceous plants (technically not trees) have the added benefit of reducing soil erosion and providing quick production. Once the legume is mature enough, the banana plant can simply be destroyed to provide more space for the intended species. In addition, palm trees can be grown close to other trees as their canopies little compete for light – just be mindful of root competition.
All trees are usually planted to follow slope contours, to reduce erosion and to facilitate the construction of SWALES. A swale is just a fancy word for a thin ponds on slopes that reduce erosion, capture washed nutrients and dissipate the water safely by allowing it to seep back into the earth and irrigate your forest.
Conventional agriculture is referred to as MONOCULTURE, where rows of a single plant are grown. This is done so that machines can be used to harvest large areas of farmland. Monoculture however inherently produces many problems.
These tidy rows of crops are prone to pests and diseases for such can spread from plant to plant uninterrupted, which is why pesticides are used. The bare earth between the rows allows weeds to pioneer, so herbicides are used. Nutrients are taken from the soil without being replaced by an ecosystem, so fertilisers are used. Most of the crops we habitually consume are annuals, so must be sewn every year. Problems manifest from this high energy farming in which conventional thinking is to put more energy into compensating for them, to the degradation of human health, nutrition and the environment.
All these issues do not exist in a balanced food forest, and once mature (after 8-15 years) the only effort required is to harvest your sumptuously superior sustenance. So why does everybody not do this? There is an initial investment of time and materials which you have to stake for a return in 8-15 years time. It’s that simple. Farmers do not, or cannot, plan to wait that long for returns. The feeling of risk is prevalent for even if they accept this is an all round better arrangement, what their parents did and their grandparents did, worked well enough. Why gamble with your families livelihood!
There is hope though. More and more people in a position to experiment are demonstrating the benefits and a greater percentage of farms are being converted to permaculture. What was seen as a gamble is now becoming a “green rush”, as rich and poor alike are flocking to the wild best.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are living in the beginning of an agricultural renaissance!