Growing an edible, urban ecosystem one backyard at a time

What an Urban Food Forest Looks Like After One Year

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Last month, I posted an update on our property, showing how I’ve begun to implement a permaculture design and how the backyard has changed after moving in one year ago. Today, I want to give you a closer look at our baby urban food forest. I’ll talk about how we planned and started our backyard food forest, what we’ve planted so far, and what we’ve planned for the future.

Our Urban Food Forest Design

I didn’t create a detailed design or plant layout for the food forest. What I did was get clear on our goals, choose the best location to start in, and choose a few plants to start with (in alignment with our goals).

Goals For the Food Forest (Why We Want One)

Pumpkins in the understory provide prolific vegetation and food, even when the food forest is young.

One of our main goals with our food forest is to grow our own food. My family loves fruit, and the idea of being able to walk out our back door and pick fresh berries, apples, peaches, or whatever is in season, is like a dream for us.

We also want to have a beautiful backyard that’s comfortable to spend time in, pesticide and herbicide-free, and relatively low maintenance.

Pumpkin vines extend around an artichoke and across the food forest floor to climb up the fence.

Plus we want to create a habitat for beneficial insects, wildlife, and ourselves. To me, a food forest is the ultimate outdoor human habitat.

Finally, I want to use our property to learn, teach, and experiment with different types of plants and permaculture systems.

Siting (Where We Located the Food Forest and Why)

In my property update last month, I talked a little bit about why we put the food forest where we did. It’s in the middle section of our backyard, mostly on the left side. It gets part shade in places but that will evolve as older trees come down. We reserved the sunniest area, the far back left, for an annual veggie garden, so that section wasn’t an option for the food forest.

View of the main food forest site with the house in the background.

Eventually, the food forest will fill the bulk of the middle section of our backyard, but for now, we’re focusing on a couple of areas within the larger area.

I have a vision of the path to the back passing through the food forest framed by mature fruit trees and berry bushes. 

Starting Our Urban Food Forest

Building Soil

One of the first things we did to start the transformation was to put down a thick layer of woodchips. I want to be clear. Woodchips aren’t always the best way to start a food forest. Whether or not to use them depends on the climate, the starting state of your land, your own goals, and available resources.

Why We Use Woodchips in Our Food Forest

We chose to put down woodchips to start our food forest for several reasons.

Deep mulching with woodchips is an appropriate strategy for our dry, temperate climate. Woodchips catch water, hold moisture like a sponge, and reduce evaporation.

The decomposition of woodchip mulch adds organic matter to the soil, improving soil structure, providing food for microbes, and increasing soil fertility.

Putting down woodchips also mimics a forest floor, kickstarting the succession from turf to forest that we’re after.

Finally, woodchips are readily available in our area. Boise is the City of Trees, after all.

Most cities have trees that need pruning and removing, even in areas that aren’t heavily wooded, so woodchips are often easy to source. Chipdrop in the US and Mulchnet in Australia are services connecting arborists with gardeners in need of woodchips.

What We Planted and Why

From left to right: white currant, pumpkin, two young apple trees (one behind pumpkin foliage, one in foreground with strawberries beneath), young cherry (in background), comfrey (below the cherry), mature hawthorn, young peach, currants and gooseberry along the path on the right.

The First Autumn

The first fruit trees we put in last fall were three apple trees of different varieties and two fig trees. We also planted two autumn brilliance serviceberry shrubs. I talked about these in a post about fall planting last year.

After planting these first trees and shrubs we sheet mulched the whole area with cardboard and woodchips, for the reasons outlined above.

We didn’t want to leave the fruit trees growing by themselves, so we added a few support plants to the mix. We planted garlic as an aromatic confuser, flower bulbs to attract early-season pollinators and clover seed to fix nitrogen.

Beyond these root and groundcover plants, we didn’t add any other layers to the food forest at that time because it was too late in the year, and our plant budget was running thin.

The First Spring

But come spring I got busy planting. I added currants, gooseberry, thimbleberry, blackberry, yarrow, artichoke, comfrey, asparagus, lemon balm, bee balm, clary sage, tarragon, catnip, strawberries, and more.

We also added to the canopy layer — pear, peach, apricot, bing cherry, nan king cherry, plum, sea buckthorn, and autumn olive.

Annuals in the Food Forest

Perennials aren’t the only plants that have a place in a food forest, although they do form the bulk of one. Especially in the first year when the trees are small and the spaces between trees aren’t filled out with many other plants yet, it’s a great strategy to plant fast-growing annuals. This builds biomass and increases photosynthesis.

We chose to plant pumpkins and winter squash in the spaces between trees because they grow quickly, create a lot of biomass, and cover and shade the ground. They also grow well as an understory plant and produce a lot of food that our family likes to eat.

Obtaining a yield, even in the first year when the food forest isn’t producing much else is also an important reason to add annuals.

All in all, we planted a lot. And we’ll plant more this year. Most of what we planted, other than the bare root trees, were small starts.

Some of the herbs I started from seed in February. Others were young transplants. We only planted one or two of most things and will count on them spreading enough to divide next spring. 

Our Plans for Next Year

This year has only been the beginning of our urban food forest. We’ll continue to build on it with the following:

  • Continue to build soil organic matter by adding more woodchip mulch as needed and chop-and-drop mulching.
  • Improve soil fertility by planting more dynamic accumulators. Our two comfrey plants have grown profusely and are ready to dig and divide. I’ll plant comfrey near each fruit tree.
  • Improve soil fertility by planting more nitrogen fixers. I’ve already planted some nitrogen-fixing shrubs, clover, and scarlet runner beans. Next year I’d like to add a goumi berry shrub to the mix and plant some legumes such as cowpea or fava bean, and more scarlet runners.
  • Focus on managing the plants we already have by pruning, relocating, and dividing.
  • Experiment with propagating our favorite plants from cuttings.
  • Implement some design changes such as relocating a few plants to places better suited, removing woodchips in one location, and sowing no-mow lawn pollinator seed mix for a turf replacement.

Conclusion

It’s been a lot of fun, starting our own urban food forest this first year. Although it’s a far way off from my vision, the transformation has begun, and I’m excited to see how it evolves in the future.

My hope is that this peek into our backyard gives you an idea of what you can expect the first year after starting a food forest. It can be slow going, especially if you don’t want to spend a lot of money on plants right off the bat. But year after year it will mature and fill in, becoming a productive, beautiful, and self-supportive system.

If starting a food forest interests you, I encourage you to give it a go. Start as big or small as you like. You can plan it all out on paper, or skip that and just start with a single fruit tree guild.

Let me know in the comments about your food forest or food forest plans.

Happy growing!


Comments

2 responses to “What an Urban Food Forest Looks Like After One Year”

  1. Charlene Avatar

    Cory, I was excited to read your comments above re your food forest in Boise. I’m in Middleton and just this month have started a food forest too! It’s funny, but we have similar plants so far. Just a Hardy Chicago Fig, an Autumn Brilliance Serviceberry, a Rising Sun Redbud, and a Goldspire Ginko. Laid the cardboard, had two loads of mulch brought in and now anxious to see what will survive and can’t wait for spring to start filling in the holes. I’ll be following you for sure. I don’t have the experience you do. I just read a lot and pray a lot that things will come together! Thanks again for inspiration.

    1. Charlene, I’m so glad you’ve gotten started. Just keep at it and it’ll come together!

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