Agroforestry (Forest Gardening), by Prepared in Maine

I’m going to say something shocking: gardening with annuals is expensive in terms of inputs: time, seeds, fertilizer, and land. You many exceptional but I’d bet that many would starve or be forced to leave home if you had rely on gardening (whether due to inexperience, crop failure, or lack of resources). Some articles here have touched on agroforestry concepts, but I hope this brings these together for mutual benefit.

What the heck is agroforestry? Agroforestry (or Forest Gardening) is gardening in three dimensions using perennial plants that provide food and useful materials for humans (fiber, medicinals, dyes, edible leaves, spices, poles, honey, fuel wood, fodder, mulches, game, sap products, etc.) or benefit the other plants (soil fertility). No, I am not talking about traditional gardening in the forest. An agroforest system is self-sustaining and efficient space where, once established, you only need prune and harvest. Agroforestry is building a layered garden from ground cover to canopy trees that are all useful to you and yours with little maintenance.

In the US and Europe, the majority of our food supply comes from a very small number of annual plants. These supply the food required for our existence. Agroforestry turns this upside down and adds diversity in terms of species used and by incorporating perennial plants. Perennial food (and other beneficial) plants, including trees and bushes, can be grown easily and without a lot of time and attention. I encourage all growers to try and integrate perennial crops with their normal annual vegetables to make a more productive and resilient growing system. If done right, it is not a lot of extra work and the yield is better.

Other than a few examples for your consideration, I won’t get into what plants you should use. You will have to decide that based on your climate zone, property, and the specific needs of your family. The books at the end provide more information to help guide your decisions. Instead, I present the pros and cons of agroforestry as it pertains to family preparedness. The benefits of agroforestry as a preparedness consideration is not in the texts, but I think agroforestry can be incorporated into a balanced, long-term family preparedness plan to help see you and your loved ones through hard times.

You design and build the agroforest to have what you need when and where you need it. Incorporating agroforestry techniques can be done in a way that affords concealment and a layer of protection and stretch your larder. (as mentioned in a recent SurvivalBlog post, blackberry patches can serve as a boundary and provide great fruit).

Incorporating agroforestry means less input from you (in terms of time, fertilizer, and seeds). These are all to your benefit, because in and TEOTWAWKI scenario, you won’t have a lot of any of these. I cannot realistically imagine weeding or hoeing if I was concerned about my security in some scenarios. I can see myself harvesting fruits, nuts, and greens as I walk the perimeter of the property. Properly designed, agroforests require no fertilizer inputs– you design with plants that will provide fertilizer (fix nitrogen, prevent evaporation of moisture, etc.). Agroforests are designed around using perennial plants– no need to have garden seeds each year. Perennial plants are often hardier than annuals once established. Perennial plantings in an agroforest system are designed to perform well together (like the three-sisters combination in the garden, but on a grand scale).

There are beautiful options available in edible trees and bushes that you can add without jeopardizing OPSEC. Most people don’t know plants and trees and few would recognize the bounty of a well designed agroforest. People will likely pass by your property without recognizing the bounty offered by your trees, bushes, and ground cover.

Another important feature of agroforestry is scalability. You can design an agroforest on a small scale (quarter acre) to many hundreds of acres. You decide how much or how little to add to your agroforest design.

Creating an agroforest takes time– planning time and time to mature. Also, bringing in trees, bushes, and ground cover is expensive and hard work (if done right). Don’t put a $10 tree in a $1 hole. You are planting for the long term, so do it right. Plan your planting based on not how it will look today or next fall, but in 5-10 years. You can harvest form many of the plants after 1 year, but their real bounty won’t be realized for several years. Amend your soil with good quality compost when planting and dig a hold three times the diameter of the root ball. Practice humanure (caveat emptor) as dug-in soil amendment in your fruit/nut arbor.

You may have to learn about pruning the fruit and nut the species you grow. Sure trees and bushes will produce some fruit and nuts if you just leave them alone. However, if you learn to prune them you can increase your bounty several fold. For example, coppicing (or regrowing trees from cut stumps) is a useful technique for agroforestry that can be used for some fuel woods. Also, Pollarding (or cutting the top off) to get vigorous new growth for grazing can also be very useful. Both of these techniques also increase biodiversity in your agroforest– allowing you to grow other species of plants. A few hours reading online and a weekend hands-on course on
fruit/nut tree pruning at your local extension office can really get you on your way. If you live in the boonies, I would suggest a textbook on tree pruning. Supplement that with a hire visit by a local arborist at your home and you’ll be set. Be sure to be there when he comes and ask questions so you can learn to do it yourself. Proper practice in tree pruning and arbor care can be a very valuable skill for maintaining your property and a marketable skill for the future.

Putting it All Together (Examples):
Here is an overview of how this works. When considering trees and plants to add to your landscape in a particular area, ask yourself what you want to accomplish: Do you want a plant that thrives under a canopy that provides food and spreads (hosta or Siberian purslane). Do you want something to limit approach on a steep hillside and provide food and pollen for bees (rugosa rose or blackberries). Do you want a plant that will increase soil fertility and provide a medicinal purpose (comfreys or liquorice). Or a hardy ground cover that improves soil and is also a graze food source (Austrian peas). Do you want a fast-growing windbreak or screen that can also be used for food (bamboo). Do you have a boggy or wet area that could supply food (arrowhead or cattail) and medicine/fiber/fuel wood (willow). How about a shady ground cover that is a food and medicinal (ginger). What about a fruit tree that is cold-tolerant to add to the apple orchard (hawthorn). What trees will regrow best to provide an ongoing source for my woodstove [given that I need so many cords per year] (coppiced ash, beech, or willow). How can I add a second layer to ensure sufficient graze for my livestock (pollarded maple, linden, chestnut). What about a bush to provide fruit and natural pectin for making jam (quince). How about a fruit-bearing, nitrogen-fixing, evergreen hedge for a privacy screen (autumn olive or Elaeagnus). The more diverse, mutually-supporting, and interconnected the plants in your system the stronger it will be–think of a spider web.

Then design a particular area with planting to maximize what you want to accomplish. For example, an over story of hazelnut apple trees with chokecherry understory and mint and rhubarb ground cover with grape vines trailing up the trees. The approach area (paths) could have a combination of clover and sorrel. This one example provides food, fiber, tea, and fertility. If you have diversity in your plantings you can extend your harvest through the entire growing season.

When you consider the importance of food and resources for civilization, it makes sense to work with your town planner to incorporate beneficial species into landscape design of public spaces. By encouraging your town to add these species you increase the supply of food or other important resources in your community. In most cases, these species cost no more than ornamental plantings and the benefits to the community are long-lasting.

I would encourage you to research agroforestry to incorporate it into your property design plan. I am moving my property toward more agroforestry as time and finances permit. In my case, this means replacing one-dimensional (ornamental, beauty only) trees and perennial plants with multi-dimensional (beauty + benefits) species and incorporating agroforestry into future landscape design. I hope this article convinces you of the benefit of this approach on your property.

You can read more about agroforestry from these texts: