It was like all my Christmases came at once, when, a couple of months ago, my husband’s grandmother offered to pay for $400 worth of fruit trees. I spent a whole day browsing nursery websites, researching the varieties on offer, and researching whether they would grow here. Oh, the joy!
The chill factor was a big deal. We don’t get many chill hours but I still like to grow apples, pears, nectarines, and the like. They generally need lots of cold hours so I needed to find the varieties with ‘low chill’ requirements.
Anyway, I ordered my fruit trees and they arrived a week later, honestly, it was nearly as good as my wedding day. You see, my dream, for a long time, has been to create a food forest. A wild edible garden, a messy jungle of fruit trees, perennials, creepers, vines – all growing crazy, tangled, but oh so useful.
I could meander around, never needing to return to the house for lunch, just snipping a strawberry here, a nectarine there, and oh, a handful of pecans wouldn’t go astray. Freshen the breath for a few leaves of mint, 2 leaves of Gotu Kola because, well, health! And off I’d go.
I was well on my way to a food forest backyard. Then we decided to move. It was sad leaving those gardens behind, but the struggle had gone on long enough. The soil at the old place was so incredibly hard to work with, needing a huge amount of improvement before it would encourage plants to grow.
We didn’t just move around the corner, that would be too easy, we moved 8 hours north. We went from dry, rocky soil to prime sugarcane country. Rich, brown, loamy soil. Green pastures. Mountains, and gorilla’s in the mist. (That’s when there are clouds across the mountains, looks amazing!)
Guess what I’ve been doing for the past year? Building gardens! I got the chance to start all over again, this time with a good chance of success, too. This soil would grow anything at all, and grow it well.
I’ll walk you through the steps of creating one of these wild food forest gardens for self-sufficiency, because everyone should have one. You can do this is the tiniest of gardens, and on massive scale.
How to Grow a Wild Food Forest
Step 1. Plant in Groves
This goes against anything anyone has ever told you. Fruit trees need to be 4m apart, facing 70 degrees north-north-east, with golden ribbons tied around the roots. No! They don’t.
Plant them together. Trees love to grow together. They will create a microclimate, which, miraculously, creates the perfect environment for every fruit tree or edible plant you choose to plant there. Or, sometimes they, themselves, choose to grow there, from seed.
You’ll find that you can grow non-cold loving plants in quite a cold climate. That super-tropical plant might actually succeed, because it is protected by the others. A shade lover will love being protected by the canopy of the other plants around it, and a sun lover will grow faster than you’ve ever seen.
Planting in groves creates competition and in plants that’s not a bad thing. The trees themselves will choose whether they reach for the sky, or stay protected below. I had a Fig Tree and a Bamboo planted right next to each other, and I’ve never seen growth like in these two.
They were truly having a race. The Fig would shoot up, a foot above the Bamboo. Then, Bamboo, not wanting to come in last, shot up a foot above the Fig. On they went, to 5m in 2 years. In poor soil, it was amazing to see such growth, and fully validated my wild gardening approach, in my eyes.
The idea of a grove is to start with the hardiest plants, and you only plant them a couple of meters apart. Then, once they’ve grown up a bit, you plant smaller or less hardy plants in between. Plant creepers and climbers in between them, so they can use the existing trees for support. Never build a trellis ever again!
2. Useful Lawns
I mean, we all love lawn, the kids love lawn, the dogs… but there are always areas of lawn that aren’t growing well. Or maybe aren’t private enough, right on the road where you wouldn’t peacefully sit and read your book. Or those steep slopes where lawn mowing is risky business. Use those areas for harvest!
Plant mint instead, especially in shady areas. Plant Pennyroyal – no, you can’t eat this, but it’s excellent for flea repellent in dogs’ beds, in cupboards to keep other bugs away. Swap out the grass for lucerne. The more you mow lucerne, the nicer it gets. You can cut lucerne and feed it to the chickens, horses, cows, goats, they all love it. You can make tea out of lucerne.
Plant strawberries. Yes, they won’t appreciate being stepped on, although they can handle a fair bit of treading on, but place some stepping stones with strawberries in between and they’ll grow beautifully.
Grow a lawn of thyme. A thymeless lawn for all eternity! Not only do they smell incredible when you sit on them, they might even help the dog get rid of fleas when it rolls on it. For a lawn of thyme, you’re looking for the small-leafed prostrate type, not the varieties that turn woody, as many of the culinary thymes do. Something like Creeping Thyme, Thymus albus or Thymus minimus.
Lawns of thyme attract bees, helping you get more fruit to harvest, and they’re drought hardy. And the good thing, once you are growing 1 thyme, you can rapidly grow more for free, from seed or cuttings! Both are easy enough to achieve.
3. Use Your Fences
For the self-sufficiency garden, it’s all about using all the space you can. No wasted space. We have a lot of fences, as many a homestead does. Obviously, you’ll have the use the fences where livestock and horses can’t get to your edibles, unless you’re growing the plant for them (there are some great edible plants to grow for animals!)
My favorite edible plants to grow on fences are passionfruit, raspberries (spiky, so only fences where there is no foot traffic), chokos, sweet potatoes, and grapes. An edible fence is amazing, and you’re using structures you’ve already built, no need to build another support, saving in resources.
Other plants for your fence:
- Any type of climbing bean, particularly perennial climbing beans. They’ll come up by themselves year after year.
- Chilacayote. These are super strong growers and they will cover a fence quickly. Their small fruits taste like zucchini’s, and that’s my favorite time to harvest them. The bigger fruits are not my favorite, but you might like them in stir-fries or stews. Chilacayote fruit doesn’t, in my opinion, have a lot of flavor on its own, but it will take on any flavor you cook it with, making it quite versatile.
- Hops. For making your own beer, making hops tea, or eating the young shoots. You can even make pillows from their flowers.
- Berries. Any form of rambling berry is great on fences. Choose non-spiky ones in areas where you might brush up against it, and put the spiky types further back.
4. Edible Hedges
Use fruit trees for hedges, no more standard conifers! Use pine nuts, avocados, citrus trees, pears, peanut butter trees, feijoas, plums… The options are endless. Cut them back ruthlessly so they grow tall and narrow, not wide.
These edible hedges give you privacy, protection from wind, protection from sun, and a decent harvest to boot.
5. Use Naturally Hot Areas
You can grow varieties of fruit trees that normally wouldn’t grow in your climate in naturally warm areas in your garden. If you have a brick house, for example, the brick holds heat and will create a warm microclimate for plants.
You might be able to grow bananas there; they might not grow in your climate normally, but plant them closely together near a brick wall, and you’ll find that they perform wonderfully.
The same applies to rocky paths and big rocks you might have in your garden. Our farm has a pile of rocks down the back, they were already there when we moved in. At night, place your hand on them and you’ll feel that they’re still releasing warmth!
Hopefully, this article gives you inspiration on starting your own wild food forest and self-sufficiency garden. There’s a real asset to your homestead or garden!