Pre-Forest Garden Checklist

  1. Observe Your Ecosystem
  2. Build Soil
  3. Conserve and Route Water

Observe Your Ecosystem

Build a garden. Eat veggies and bring bees and whatever onto your property. BUT, have patience for your sweet forest garden child. Think about how long forests take to develop. Even just one orange tree takes about three or four years before you get fruit.

Take a step back from your intended forest garden zone. Trust. I totally recommend testing and prototyping, but please take at least four seasons to see what nature is doing in the ecosystem that you want to contribute to. This ecosystem is (likely) doing fine without you. So please be mindful.

Observe and identify the native biome and climate along with the plants, animals and fungi within it (for us, in Arroyo Grande, USDA 10A climate in a temperate oak woodland and chaparral). Ask yourself: where does the water flow naturally? What type of soil do I have (soil test)? Why are there so many flies? What eats flies? How can we introduce those? How can we introduce more pollinators? What are the birds doing? Is there mycelium? What type of brush and trees live there? What habitats exist?

Wait an entire year, preferably two or three.

Build Soil

Now, we are ready to begin growing: growing soil. “We are what we eat eats” – Michael Pollen. Soil tests are crucial to nutrition of both your soil and your plants. Looking into NPK nutrients and the ideal pH for your plants to receive nutrients will bring a wealth of health into your yard. Make sure the soil holds water, add compost (or just manure with carbon-heavy mulch on top to decompose over several months), ground cover (or green manure), adding organic matter by itself and top with mulch (always) – this will hold water, especially after compost and organic matter has been added. Once all these layers are set, give the ground cover water regularly and let nature work. Let the ground cover grow over a fall and winter (at least) or, preferably, a year or more to observe how it grows. Then, chop and drop the ground cover and plant your crops!

What type of ground covers?

These are plants that thrive in relatively poor soil, produce a prolific amount of biomass (or foliage), and quickly improve the soil quality.

The goal of ground covers are to hold moisture by protecting bare soil from the sun and build soil from the roots seeking nutrients, then decaying. As well as, providing natural mulch and organic matter during and after growth. Plus, you can eat many of these crops!

By Season:

  • Rye and Hairy Vetch: late Fall to early Winter
  • Sorghum: Spring
  • Buckwheat: Summer

Weed Control (Between Plants):

  • Clover

Nitrogen-Fixing and Nutrient-Mining:

  • Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
  • Hardy legumes
  • Hairy Vetch
  • Clover

Non-Ground Cover

  • Empress Tree (Paulownia tomentosa) – keep it pruned to less than 8 feet tall for soil building
  • Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)
  • Stinging Nettle
  • Bush Indigo (Amorpha fruticosa)

Conserve and Route Water

After you have observed your ecosystem and built soil, you are now ready to conserve and route water to your intended planting zones. This will feed your ground cover in the meantime, but will also help with planning. Ponds and natural water features are best for restoring biodiversity and will help your forest garden thrive naturally. Features like these will allow storage of water, routing, and deep watering for trees and stubs.

And, always try your best to savor that stuff. Use water catchment tanks, ponds, and swales. Make sure that your water does not just run off of your soil (see step above for building soil). Your plants should have aerated soil that still retains water within slight indentations to allow some natural slope for water. Enjoy! See you back here next year for the next article 🙂

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