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The Forest Food Web and What It Means in Your Edible Forest Garden

forest-garden-food-web

Successful forest gardens and food forests are all about recreating the ingenious design principles that natural ecosystems were created with in the first place. 

The more we go out and observe nature, the better gardeners we can be because, as our understanding deepens, we can apply that understanding to improve our garden design.

Here, we take a look at a few examples of how you can apply your understanding of forest food webs to give your forest garden that extra boost towards self-sufficiency.

owl-food-forest-web
Shy, predatory birds like owls play an integral role in your garden’s food web – and those precious glimpses are a joy to behold

Everything Starts in the Soil

Everything starts in the soil. Healthy soil is itself a living organism made up of billions of micro-organisms. Without interference, a healthy balance in the soil will always gradually emerge under natural conditions. 

We can however help fast-forward the soil’s recovery from the ravages of industrial farming or misguided garden methods by boosting micro-organism populations in the soil from the beginning.

Mycorrhizal Fungi are one of the key players in a thriving soil and do heroic work at keeping almost every family of plant happy – from the tiniest herbs to the most towering of trees.

They form networks of underground white “roots” called hyphae which link up the roots of different plants, enabling access and transportation of nutrients to where they are most needed. They also help plants resist disease, and some of them are even edible to boot! 

Mycorrhizal-fungi-hyphae
Mycorrhizal fungi hyphae latch onto plant roots and vastly extend the plant’s reach of water, nutrients, and even signals from other nearby plants. GIF credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f3/Arbuscular_mycorrhizal_root_tuber.GIF

Chanterelles, Truffles, and Boletes are some of the most sought-after of all gourmet mushrooms and each of them can only be grown in association with living plants. Harvesting mushrooms from your forest garden can be the cherry on top of the bountiful harvests you’re already receiving from your plant allies.

Boletus-Edulis
From the depths of the soil… Boletus species are among the most prized of all edible mushrooms and will form a symbiotic relationship with a wide variety of tree species

Incorporating mycorrhizal fungi in the form of gels, powder, or inoculated charcoal into the plant’s roots during planting time is a great way to get your soil and plants off to a running start. There are many proven products on the market for this, and the results can be quite dramatic. 

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On the Ground

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Ever had a problem with slugs? Who hasn’t?!

It’s well known that amphibians – frogs, toads, and newts – love to eat slugs and snails. But you may be surprised to learn that small snakes, ground beetles, glow worms, and thrushes prey upon mollusks too.

They can all be encouraged by creating a garden pond and including plenty of rocks, logs, and overgrown areas for them to hide in. 

Common-brown-frog-Rana-temporaria
Creating a pond for amphibians is one the biggest steps you can take to tackling mollusk problems in the garden

Don’t forget that slugs and snails also play their own important role in the garden. They tend to focus on clearing away weakly plants that are not thriving anyway – so can be considered an indication rather than a cause of an unhealthy ecosystem. 

And before putting them all in one basket (perhaps literally) – it’s worth noting that some species of slug actually eat very little living plant matter. 

Feeding instead on fungi, dead plant material, and even other mollusks, some slugs may even become your friends! Understanding these nuances will greatly help you understand how to respond to epidemics in your garden.

Limax_maximus_Estonia
Leopard slugs won’t cause any damage to your crops – unless you are growing mushrooms! Image credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ee/Limax_maximus_Estonia.jpg
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Other ground “pests” perennial gardeners may suffer from in the beginning is burrowing rodents, especially mice, voles, and shrews. These creatures can cause havoc in the short-term – their burrowing and root nibbling habits can seriously set back or even kill young plants. 

mouse-garden-food-forest-web
Mice can be friend or foe in your garden, but epidemics normally settle down with time

The trouble is that the mulches we tend to use in permaculture gardens: straw, woodchip, or even sheet materials, create a perfect habitat for rodents. In the early years, their numbers may multiply exponentially, but here, patience is key. 

In time, predators such as owls, hawks, snakes, and larger mammals will move in to have a feast – and bring things back into balance. 

The vacant burrows can be utilized by useful insects such as bumblebees, meaning that along with all the mayhem, the little critters may have done you a service!

Perennial gardening is all about playing the long-game – so accepting short-term losses can be an important part of yielding a long-term gain.

In the Air

In the forest garden, no component of the eco-system is overlooked. The air is a rich habitat for all kinds of creatures, great and small. Some of these we may consider friends, others foes – but in reality, it’s all about striking a healthy balance.

Birds and wasps may “steal” your fruits, greenfly and black fly may prey on your precious herbs, and certain species of butterflies and moths will raise their young on your fruits and vegetables. Yet, if these species are kept in a healthy balance, they can actually add to the all-round diversity and wealth of your garden’s ecology.

Song-Thrush
Members of the thrush family love to devour most kinds of fruits from the forest garden. Yet, don’t forget that bird droppings in turn act as a significant natural fertilizer!

If you notice these species becoming too numerous and causing a problem in your forest garden, consider what would control their populations in nature. 

An excess of fruit-eating birds can be balanced by providing or protecting good habitats (such as breeding boxes or hollowed trees) for predators such as hawks, owls, and predatory mammals.

Wasps and hornets can be controlled very effectively by dragonflies. In fact, providing a pond for dragonflies to breed in is a big step towards insect control in general. As these aerial masters scour the garden’s skyline, other flying pests such as cabbage white butterflies will rarely get out of hand.

Sap sucking insects such as aphids and mites are the prime sustenance for predators such as hoverflies, ladybugs, and lacewings. 

Hoverflies and ladybugs can be encouraged into your garden by offering them their favorite plants such as umbellifers, alliums, and elder tree species to feed on. 

hoverflies-on-calendula
Hoverflies can play an important role in both pollination and aphid control. Here one feeds happily on Calendula. Image by Charlie Morton

Lacewings and other beneficial insect species can also be encouraged by providing them with “insect hotels” or simply by allowing them to overwinter in the hollow stems of your garden plants rather than cutting them back. 

Insect-hotels-on-garden-trees
Insect hotels do the same job as the standing remains of hollow plant stems in the winter – providing a dry, sheltered habitat for beetles, bugs and other invertebrates to make it through the winter

Most species of bats are also incredibly useful in a food forest and will help to keep insect numbers in a healthy balance. Installing bat boxes is the ideal way to boost their populations. 

Bats may also help keep mosquito and gnat populations in check, meaning less predation to a key part of the garden – you!

…And the Big Guys!

Deer, moose, wild boar, and other large mammals may also be a significant consideration as part of your food forest web, depending on where you’re located. In the early years especially, these fellows can do some significant damage!

If you’re backed onto wild moorland, bush, or forest, the chances are these herbivores will be just thrilled by all of the new trees and shrubs that you’re planting on their doorstep.

mule-deer-bucks
Deer are surely among nature’s most graceful creatures, but limiting their access to your garden may be crucial to its long-term success

If you have a large surrounding population of large herbivores or omnivores, it may be a worthwhile investment erecting a deer fence around your entire land

There are however some alternatives following our understanding of nature’s food webs…

Remember that, historically, one of the biggest predators for these species was…us! Therefore, even the smell of humans can be enough to deter small populations of garden-busting beasts in your garden.

If you’re using a compost toilet, try locating it in the part of the garden that large mammals would normally enter. Pee around your garden’s periphery. And when you next have a hair cut, try hanging up your hair in places you’d rather deer and pigs wouldn’t go. 

As far as other predators go, there may not be many forest gardeners out there who would welcome wolves or mountain lions into their plot! But, if you have a fast and fearless dog who doesn’t mind playing wolf once in a while, it might fill the niche of a large predator in your ecosystem very nicely. 

Permaculture Is All About Thinking Long-Term

Understanding nature’s food webs will allow you much greater power to implement natural systems of restorative control and provide perennial resilience in your garden’s eco-system.

Leaving out pesticides and intrusive methods may seem risky at first, but the long-term benefits you’ll be providing for yourself and your entire ecosystem will far outweigh any short-term gains. 

Dragonfly-on-a-plant
The sights and sounds of a garden in harmony will also be sure to yield one of the most important harvests of all – gladness of heart

Thanks for reading! How are you keeping a balance in your garden? Do you have problems with pests or is nature helping you out? Let us know in the comments!

Keep an eye out for more from Charlie, including an article on mindful foraging, coming up soon.

Last update on 2020-12-01 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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