A larder for all creatures

By Meg Liptrot

Food forests provide food for wildlife as well as humans, writes Meg Liptrot.
Abyssinian bananas growing at the Unitec Hortecology Sanctuary Food Forest. Photo / Meg Liptrott
Abyssinian bananas growing at the Unitec Hortecology Sanctuary Food Forest. Photo / Meg Liptrott

A orchard made for more than humans

A food forest is an orchard the way nature intended. Humans get the benefit of fruit, nuts, herbs, fibre (and sometimes firewood) and wildlife get a home.

The main difference between a food forest and an orchard is that fruit trees, edible plants and other species are planted together in a naturalistic way where plants coexist or benefit each other.

The objective of a food forest is to support more than just humans. They are there to benefit wildlife and support birds, bees, butterflies, lizards - any living thing in need of a habitat.

They are designed to be low-maintenance and require less work than an orchard. But don't be fooled, they do need management and a dash of know-how.

The idea is to mimic the way a natural forest works with a canopy, subcanopy and understorey of plants that evolve and work together.

Food forests come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and space, location, climate and aspect will all have an effect on the approach you'll take with planting.

Getting started: Plant pioneers

Pioneers are plants that colonise bare landscape first. They are hardy opportunists that provide shelter - and leafy mulch - providing conditions for other plants to survive. Over time pioneers get shaded out by other longer-lived trees.

Each site will have its own restraints and opportunities.

Trees that require high light levels, such as citrus and deciduous fruit trees, can be planted on the outer edges.

Ideally, you should plant pioneers as shelter, then place more sensitive species on the north-facing, sunny and sheltered aspect.

Deciduous trees: An exposed food forest

Deciduous fruit trees require slightly different management in a food forest as they prefer good air flow and light.

They are better suited to an open area, compared with the needs of tender subtropicals, which suit the dappled light of a leafy canopy.

In 2005 we started a "deciduous" food forest on an exposed site at our environment centre. We were challenged with clay soil, wind and frost. Shrubby evergreen pioneers were planted first.

Feijoa, karamu (Coprosma robusta), Hebe stricta, Corokia, and tagasaste (nitrogen-fixing tree lucerne with flowers the bees love) were chosen to provide a buffer to the wind, and are kept trimmed to head height.

Muehlenbeckia has wound its way through some of the native species and provides wonderful habitat for birds, native copper butterflies, plus nectar for bees.

Karamu has tiny edible orange fruit the birds enjoy, and early settlers once ground up the seeds to make coffee.

Hebe is a well known medicinal plant in rongoa Maori. Nashi pear serves as a beautiful canopy tree here, alongside jonathan apple (which is a good pollinator for other apples), and a heritage beurre bosc pear from a historic orchard near Hoani Waititi marae in Oratia.

The subcanopy includes smaller trees such as persimmon fuyu, a double-grafted plum and a monty's surprise apple on dwarfing root stock.

Another chance seedling apple appeared several years ago and, fortunately, produces sweet apples.

At ground level we have boysenberries, herbs, strawberries, comfrey, spring bulbs and cardoon - a bit like globe artichoke with purple thistle flowers - plus tall kale palm tree di toscana.

The food forest connects with our bee garden, so we've planted pockets of flowers in the sunny parts of the garden. The fruit trees produce beautiful blossom in spring which the bees love.

As long as you keep the ground mulched and fertile, the sky is the limit to what you can try growing.

Subtropicals: Beat the odds in a frosty location

A much larger food forest that I helped design at Unitec's Hortecology Sanctuary has evolved over 15 years into a subtropical oasis, despite the location being prone to frost.

We started in 1999 with a bare paddock of kikuyu, and were lucky to have free-draining volcanic soil.

The first step was to divide hay bales into quarters and randomly place them where we intended to plant the pioneer trees.

Dense hay is one of the few things that will kill kikuyu. The result in a few months was spots rich in organic matter and abundant with worms.

Hardy pioneer tree species such as acacia were planted.

Over the years, pioneers require management to allow light through to the fruit-producing plants, and should be selectively coppiced for polewood or mulch.

Now, giant Abyssinian bananas reign supreme in the sheltered heart of the food forest. Banana leaves and trunks are great sources of biomass, enriching the soil for other plants.

Jerusalem artichokes grow on the sunny edges of this sanctuary alongside citrus trees. Differing from purple globe artichoke, these plants have cheerful sunflower-like flowers.

They produce tubers that are a great source of carbohydrates.

Other ground-level plants include golden chillies, taro, edible ginger and pepino - all contributing to a veritable food forest feast.

- Herald on Sunday

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