Modeling Sustainable Food Systems
Modeling our food production techniques off of existing ecosystems is a powerful notion. It fundamentally shifts the understanding of how we need to modify our home landscapes to feed ourselves. Much lingo and terminology has been developed to describe these efforts--permaculture, perennial polycultures, forest gardens, agroforestry--and they all have slightly different meanings and associations.
The terminology is less important than the underlying concept: Growing food (as well as medicine, timber, fibers, animal forage and craft materials) in a self-sustaining ecosystem.
What would a food-forest ecosystem look like?
It depends greatly on the region. But it should not look much different then what is there naturally. The trick is to select the species so they sill the appropriate ecological niches, while also provided additional benefits. Here, on this high plateau in south-central Washington, we have a forest full of micro- climates that will support:
- deep rooted, cold-hardy fruit and nut-bearing perennials
- drought tolerant coniferous trees
- spring bulbs
- tap-rooted biennials
- leguminous bushes
- ground-covers and vines
- cold and/or heat tolerant leafy greens
- ephemeral and bunch grasses
- thicket producing deciduous shrubs and trees
Planting for Future Generations
Perennials are a long-term investment in future generations, particularly in temperate climates. Some species can take decades to bear fruit, but then they can live for hundreds of years. Fortunately others species are much quicker to provide tangible (and tasty) results. We are just a few years into our own efforts, but every year we expand to include new species as resources allow.
Our goal in the short term is to provide a model of methods and strategies for establishing a temperate food forest on marginal land. Since we are in the beginning stages, we are in the unique position of being able to share as we learn, giving real time updates as to what is working well for us and what isn't. In the long term, we hope to be able to serve as a sort of living seed bank, a warehouse of genetic diversity that can provide plant material for others living in similar ecological conditions.
Across cultures, a deep connection runs between humans and trees, likely because trees have provided an array of necessary materials for our existence, from food to fuel, and are a source of awe and humility. In a post fossil-fuel world, trees will once again become a cornerstone of our livelihoods.
Here on the plateau, the forest is our primary biological resource, capturing the abundant solar energy and converting it into the materials we need to live. It is our responsibility as co-collaborators to help shape the diversity and productivity of this forest through the species we plant and how we encourage them to grow. A Greek proverb states, "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in." While true, our circumstances demand that we do more, that the young and old work side by side in sewing the seeds for a future worth inheriting.
There are an increasing number of resources available for people interested in growing food forests of all sizes, thanks to dedicated and enthusiastic individuals. In time, we will provide more information here about how and why we are incorporating particular species into our home landscape, to help others in their decision making process.
Black walnut seedlings
Strategies for Marginal Landscapes
Throughout the world, people have long been growing food in what most would consider a forest-like setting, and these practices are still quite common in many tropical regions. There is much common sense involved in this strategy, and certain techniques have prove particularly important in marginal environments. In general...
Deep rooted perennials to...
- maintain soil stability
- decrease erosion potential, and
- increase access to water.
Planting multiple species...
- increases system resilience and thus food security
- increases the variety of available nutrients
- minimizes pest problems and competition between plants, and
- promotes beneficial relationships, such as providing shade or nitrogen fixation.
Selecting Perennials that...
- increase soil organic matter and fertility
- create their own mulch
- create habitat for beneficial insects and micro-organisms, and
- require minimal water inputs once established.
Each of these characteristics contributes towards a self-maintaining system. Particularly on marginal lands that are susceptible to erosion, have shallow or nutrient-poor soils and/or have minimal rainfall, this method of food production is perhaps one of the few methods that can provide sustained nutrition without compromising ecosystem health.
Species we are currently working with:
Oregon White Oak
Species we're looking to incorporate:
Cold hardy citrus
a grafted apple
How to Help
If you are interested in contributing to these efforts, we are always looking to incorporate new species suitable for our climate, and we welcome donations.
If you are interested in working with perennials and are thinking of joining us as a participant with the Windward Center, the activities you would be engaged in vary from season to season.
Early spring is grafting and planting season, and is a great time to prepare new growing spaces, start seedlings indoors, apply mulch, and put in the necessary fencing.
Late spring through early summer is a time for propagation of many varieties through cuttings.
Summer means we need to routinely water the trees, and as our growing spaces increase so does the time it takes to ensure they all have water.
Fall Once the soil softens again in the fall we can begin to prepare planting spaces.