Ever leave your yard alone for a few weeks? Or a few months? Or a few years? The smoking remains of the housing market have given us some insight into what happens to a lawn when folks lose their over-mortgaged “pride of ownership” and leave their underwater houses for friendlier shores.
First, the grass grows long and sends up seed heads. Opportunistic weeds start to appear. Vines grow over the fence. Buried acorns sprout. Black cherry and wild plum pits dropped by powerline-straddling birds germinate amidst the unraked leaves. I have a friend who picks loads of berries from his local “blackberry patch” – which just so happens to be the front yard of a neighboring house abandoned in the ongoing real estate bust.
As soon as our management ends, complex biological webs begin their assault on imposed order and HOA regulations. A lawn – however lovely and enjoyable – is a very low-level ecological system. Nothing stands still for very long in nature. If you take a look around, you’ll usually see mature ecosystems. Oaks, pines, hickories, sumacs, birches, mulberries, ash, basswoods, etc. fill empty lots and roadsides across the nation. And between them grow a host of other species. Can you say the same about your yard? Only if you leave it alone… and sometimes the results aren’t pretty for a long, long time. Dog fennel, anyone?
Maintaining grass or an annual garden is tough. You’ll almost never see trees naturally growing alone in a field of grass… except in the African savannah. And there they have frequent wildfires and grazing animals that keep forests from forming. Here we generally have lawnmowers and weedeaters. You have to slave at your yard work or your patch of corn because you’re trying to maintain something that doesn’t want to stay where it is.
There’s an opportunity in here, if you choose to run with it. We’ve touched on it a few times here at The Prepper Project, because we believe this approach is truly the garden of the future.
What if you created a forest ecosystem piece by piece? But rather than letting birds and squirrels start it – you plant it. Granted, this isn’t what we imagine when we think of “survival gardening” or homesteading. But, particularly for those with limited space, a “forest garden” or “food forest” allows you to create an Eden filled with food. The more species you add, the more ecological niches you’re creating. Different plants attract different insects, birds and other friendly creatures. And with a wide variety of organisms, it’s hard for pest or disease problems to destroy your system. Predators have hiding places and species-specific pests like aphids can’t jump plant to plant as easily. Chinch bugs can wipe out a lawn. A late frost can wreck a citrus grove or strip the blooms off your apples. Drought can ruin a wheat field. But if you’re growing dozens or even hundreds of different species, the chances of the system failing completely are practically nil.
What you want to do is create an ecological web rather than a monoculture of grass or mass planting of a single groundcover. English horticulturist Robert Hart is probably most responsible for the modern interest in edible landscaping and forest creation. He took a tiny orchard and filled it with edible perennial species, stacking herbs, vegetables and berries into every corner until the system matured into an amazing food-creating machine. His work has since been improved upon and expanded by permaculturists such as Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton (look these guys up… it’ll blow your mind).
In terms of work, forest gardening beats annual beds hands down. Think about how much work it takes to weed, hoe, till, plant, spray, and harvest a garden. Talk about labor! Now think about how easy it is to pick up grapefruit, apples, cherries, chestnuts or pecans from beneath a mature tree. When a tree gets big enough to take care of itself, it becomes a long-term producer of food… without all the murderous work. Forests are self-feeding, self-mulching, self-watering and self-perpetuating. Ever dig into a forest floor? It’s usually covered, beneath the leaves, in rich compost. That’s compost YOU didn’t have to make. Put in some hard work now… and you’ll reap the benefits later.
Now you may be looking at your grass and saying “where in the world would I start?” Start small – but not too small. Get yourself a handful of fruit trees and some edible shrubs and perennials. Tear out some grass and plant a little orchard with the trees. Then surround those with shrubs – and surround the shrubs with small perennials. Mulch and water heavily and try to keep the grass out until the shade does the job for you. Don’t throw away leaves, twigs and grass clippings. Drop them right around your new plants as they become available – covering the ground is very important for the soil’s health and fertility. If you can trees and shrubs that are nitrogen-fixers, plant those in between your other plants. What is “nitrogen-fixing?” It’s the process by which certain bacteria form relationships with certain plant roots to take atmospheric nitrogen from the air and turn it into a form the host plant – and its neighbors – can use. Remember how George Washington Carver planted peanuts to restore ground made infertile by years of cotton growing? Peanuts add nitrogen back into the ground… and many other plants can do the same. Another way to add nutrition to the soil? Let chickens run through your food forest, once it’s established. They’ll find their own food, add manure, and break the breeding cycle of nasty bugs like the “plum curculio.”
What you’re doing here should eventually become a little chunk of woods. (Check out Chet’s food forest plans here) If you have more space, start with some great big trees in the middle; pecans, for example. Then surround those with location-appropriate trees. Up north, that might be cherries, pears, apples, hazelnuts, etc. Down south, you might look into persimmons, pomegranates, loquats, figs, etc. Tree crops are king, long term, but they take time to get going. For the shrubs, think of things like Jerusalem artichokes, blueberries (dig in some rotted pine bark or peat when you plant them), thornless blackberries, prickly pears, goumi berries (they taste like cherries and fix nitrogen in the soil), bush cherries, gooseberries, etc. Then around those, add in native plants, edibles and herbs. Things like sage, coneflowers, rosemary, mints, etc.
Remember: this is a long-term forest you’re making. The first few years are going to require watering, feeding, trimming and weeding. Some pieces won’t survive. But then… magic happens. The forest begins to take over… and soon you have a sustainable food producing garden you can pass onto your children’s children – which isn’t something you can say for the weed patch left after summer’s corn harvest.
So – what are you waiting for? There’s no time like the present to start thinking things through. Books like Toby Hemenway’s “Gaia’s Garden” and websites like permies.com can get you started. But even more important – get your hands in the dirt and start learning. Walk around in the woods and look at how trees and plants interact. Start spotting the different layers of a forest and see how all the spots are filled.
And… by all means… tear up a piece of your grass… or sacrifice a piece of your potato patch in the name of long-term survival.