On a suburban Kansas lot at the corner of 55th and Mastin streets, an experiment is underway: A food forest is growing crops, creating economic value and, most notably, doing most of the work on its own.
The 10,000-square-foot garden is not tended to daily, at least not by human beings. Insects do the job of managing pests, some plants act as natural fertilizer, releasing nitrogen into the soil, and other plants form deep taproots that mine the soil for nutrients, bringing them up to the surface for the tree roots.
The area doesn’t have to be mowed, it doesn’t get sprayed and it doesn’t just survive — it thrives.
What is this system? The trendy term is permaculture, but it’s nothing new. It has been around for thousands of years.
“This is how nature manages itself,” says P.J. Quell, the property owner who has lent the site to Cultivate Kansas City to design, install, manage and harvest food grown from guilds of trees, shrubs and plants. Volunteers come annually to prune trees and spread wood chips. That’s about the extent of work involved.
Of course, it took much effort at the beginning of the project, designing for maximum sunlight, digging swales to capture and hold water, and planting. There are 39 varieties of fruit and nut trees and 12 varieties of shrubs, several with which people are familiar — pears and plums — but also many that are relative unknowns: pawpaws, jujubes, serviceberries and aronia.
Steve Mann, a consulting agroforester and permaculture designer as well as Cultivate KC volunteer, gives guided tours at the site to a growing number of interested individuals. As the organic food movement has gained momentum, so has a new generation of gardeners interested in the idea of food grown with less maintenance and no chemicals.
Diversity is its strength, with multiple beneficial relationships and multiple functions built in.
“We build in redundancies so that if one thing fails, we have a fallback, as opposed to industrial agriculture, where if one thing fails, that’s it,” Mann says. “If we don’t get peaches, we’ll have apples.”
The system can be applied to small urban/suburban properties, like Cultivate KC’s, as well as broad acre farms, such as Steve and Nancy Moring’s 44-acre Vajra Farm.
Steve, a former biotech engineer, teaches permaculture Design Certificate courses that cover aspects from ecology to the built environment through the Kansas permaculture Institute and offers on-site training and workshops. Five acres of his property have been developed to include a vineyard, keyhole garden, suntrap garden, vegetable garden and healing garden.
Moring’s own interest began after he attended a Bioneers conference in California in the early 1990s, where he acquired the book “permaculture: A Designer’s Manual,” by Bill Mollison, widely considered the father of permaculture.
“I learned what’s behind the shortcomings of industrial agriculture; that we’re depleting the soil, depleting the aquifers and poisoning the earth with pesticides,” Moring explains. “It’s a dead end.”
permaculture, on the other hand, is meant to sustain. Regarding food, it’s perennial and mimics natural forests by using harmonious layers: a fruit tree with a fruiting shrub under the eventual canopy, with a fruit, herb or ground cover under that, and possibly a fruiting vine that climbs the tree. Unlike with stand-alone fruit trees, you may have three crops to harvest instead of one.
“You are increasing the yield potential per area,” says Robert Glinn, owner of Earth Care Farms. “More importantly, you are developing a more diverse habitat, which leads to more diversity of life, such as frogs, butterflies, bees, mycelium, worms, spiders, etc., and contributing toward a healthier soil.”
A new beginning
The food forest’s origin is in the tropics, where mangoes, papayas and coconuts grow symbiotically, and the system is being tested in our temperate region. Will apples and peaches grow as synergistically? That’s still to be determined scientifically by the data produced at sites such as Cultivate KC’s food forest, but so far, the results are promising.
Whether it actually requires less maintenance is another claim that needs to be validated by data.
“It could possibly produce more fruit without a lot of work once it’s established,” Mann says.
One verified truth is the economic value the site produces. Cultivate KC has earned about $5,000 over the last four years, even with some of the trees not yet to maturity. Quell benefits, too, with a freezer full of food. But her favorite part is the low-maintenance aspect. She loves not mowing and has returned the job of seeding to nature.
“If only I could get back all the time I’ve spent weeding dandelions,” she says with a sigh. “I’m not fighting nature anymore. I’m not going to work so hard. A food forest fits well with my philosophy of letting nature dictate what should be here.”
Permaculture design can mean a wild look that outsiders may interpret as unkempt. “Weeds” like dandelion and burdock are doing an important job, however, if only we would let them be. Ironically, the weed most permaculturalists worry about is grass. One key to a healthy food forest is to employ ground covers and heavy mulches to keep grass from sucking up nutrients that could benefit trees.
Grow your own
What do you need to know to get started building your own food forest? First, check with your homeowners association and/or city zoning laws, as many have rules against growing crops in your yard.
If you’re good to grow, consider what you like to eat, then choose cultivars that will produce the best results, such as trees with disease resistance. Start swapping out non-producing trees in your landscape for ones that provide a crop.
“Instead of a silver maple, use a tree of similar stature, like a Chinese chestnut,” Glinn suggests. “Instead of a Bradford pear, use a Bartlett pear; instead of a lilac bush, use a similar-sized serviceberry or highbush blueberry; instead of hostas, plant Russian comfrey; instead of an ivy ground cover, use strawberries, oregano or sweet potatoes.”
If you have enough space, why not try some foods you don’t know? Aronia is a chef favorite and doubles as a pretty landscape bush. Glinn’s hands-down favorite fruit is the jujube, which when fresh resembles an apple and when dried tastes like a date.
In smaller settings, three or four trees planted 18 inches apart will naturally dwarf themselves and proffer 50 to 75 fruits each. Choose early-, mid- and late-ripening varieties so you aren’t inundated with 20 bushels of fruit all at once.
Don’t just mow or mulch around trees. Pair them with plants that will support their health, such as nitrogen-fixing shrubs like goumi or ground covers like clover instead of feeding them manufactured fertilizers. Moring uses black locust trees that grow tall and fast. Redbuds will do the trick, too, and your neighbors won’t complain about their appearance.
Add some flowers to attract insects that will eat the bugs you don’t want so you don’t have to spray earth-damaging chemicals. Cute little ladybugs are actually voracious killers. Praying mantis and predatory wasps are other beneficial insects to invite to your garden to destroy pests. Of course, you also need flowers that attract bees that will pollinate your trees and bestow you with fruit.
The permanent, or perennial, culture of the system includes vegetables, so work in some asparagus, rhubarb and Egyptian walking onions. Hardy annuals like kale will overwinter if the weather is mild, and if you leave a tomato on the ground in the fall, you’ll surely get some volunteer plants come spring.
It will take a new point of view, a new way of doing things and a lot of patience, but the results of utilizing permaculture principles in your own food forest will benefit not just the gardener but the entire interconnected ecosystem.
See for yourself
Cultivate KC Homegrown Happy Hour, 5-7 p.m. May 26 at the Merriam food forest, 55th and Mastin streets. Tickets are $5; food and drink are extra.
Cultivate KC Urban Farms Tour of 30 sites, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., June 25; noon-5 p.m., June 26. Two-day tickets are $8 a person, $20 a family. For more info on both Cultivate KC events, see the event calendar at cultivatekc.org.
Kansas permaculture Tours & Potluck, July 16-17. $15 person. For more information, go to kawpermaculture.org.