No-till Gardening, Permaculture, and Food Forests

Many of you might be wondering why I call our new home ForestFare Homestead.  Well, it’s because one of our major long-term goals is to cultivate a food forest on our property.  Much of our land is already heavily wooded, but there is a spot that we’d like to intentionally turn into a food forest.


What exactly is a food forest, you ask?  Well, in my own imperfect words, it’s a space where trees, perennials, and annual plants thrive together, in relationship with one another.  This idea, of course, is very closely related to permaculture (a word derived from the phrase permanent agriculture).  I have long had a fascination with native plant species and have worked at consultant companies and a watershed district in roles that specialized in installing and caring for native plantings.  And I love gardening.  But a food forest is beyond natives and edible plants.  When well cultivated, a food forest will bear witness to the fact that plants (and insects) are meant to be in relation to one another, to help each other, and to be in symbiosis together.  It is a place where plants thrive in ways you might not expect, beneficial insects are given a chance to out-compete bothersome ones, and resources are used in a most efficient way.  Certain plants attract the pollinators needed for the apples and cherries, trees or a vining plant on a trellis provide shade for more delicate plants, deep-rooted natives help regulate the moisture level in the soil, while bringing up nutrients from deep in the earth for other plants to use.  It is, some might argue, the way our land is supposed to function.


I first heard of “Back to Eden” (BTE) gardening years ago when a documentary about the main proponent of this style of gardening, Paul Gautschi, was released and received many accolades.  I read about this method then, but living on a quarter-acre suburban lot, didn’t look into it in depth.  Then recently, as we were talking with family members about our plans for our acreage, my brother brought up the idea of a food forest.  We excitedly watched videos of permaculturists from different parts of the country talking about their food forests.  There was one guy in Jersey who was particularly informative.  They talked about no-till and BTE gardening and I started to remember what I’d seen years ago.  It was on…I wanted a food forest on our homestead.

As a quick summary of BTE gardening, it is basically a heavy-mulch, no-till style of gardening.  Instead of tilling up your soil each year, which disturbs the soil’s biome, you add a layer of woodchips, and sometimes organic material such as high quality compost, composted manure, blood meal, etc, each year.  Again, you do NOT till up the soil each spring.  If done properly, over time you will start to see the production of black, fertile soil where there once was none.  Over the years with this method, the soil becomes more fertile, more pH balanced, and production actually goes up without the use of synthetic fertilizers.  There will be a tremendous amount of earth worms and other beneficial insects, and disease should be minimal.


To prepare for this large garden/forest, we are planning to take down a few trees that need it, chip them up, and leave them in a pile over the winter to compost.  If the chips are allowed to sit over the winter, they will be in good shape to spread over the garden area in the spring.  Here is a link to simple instructions for starting up a BTE style garden.  It is important to not plant directly into the wood chips, but rather move the chips aside and plant in the soil below.  This garden prep is a lot of work during the first year, but it should be easier with each passing year.  As you can imagine, the amount of wood chips needed on a regular basis is quite large.  This style of gardening won’t be as cost-effective if you have to buy chips.  Good thing we have a wooded lot with a bunch of dead/unnecessary trees.  Many people get the wood chips they need by checking with the local municipality or tree trimming service for free chips.

While the fall preparation of getting our pile of woodchips is our first task, over the winter I will need to decide exactly what plants I will incorporate next year. I know I’d like apple and cherry trees, vegetables, berries, medicinal herbs, and native flowers that will attract pollinators.  We have some neighbors who have horses, so I’m going to see if I might be able to get composted manure from them. In the future I plan to use the manure from our chickens to add to our gardens.  Guinea fowl, along with eating exorbitant amounts of ticks, will also help keep pests at bay in the garden, without damaging the plants as much as chickens do.

The area of our property that we plan to use to start our food forest is a low-lying spot.  I learned from the previous owners’ realtor that they used to keep horses in this area, so I am hoping the soil is better than the clay soil we’ve found near the house.  Also, while I would normally be apprehensive to garden in a low-lying area, the BTE method has proven to regulate soil moisture so well that I think it will actually work to our advantage…let’s just say I hate wasting precious water if there is a way to keep a garden hydrated without using the hose.

Can you blame me if my dream is to say, when my kids are begging for a snack, “Just go outside and pick something for yourself!”


Have your ever heard of BTE gardening, or food forests?  Let me know what you think about all this and ideas you have!

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