The following article was kindly contributed by Kip of Victoria Farm, and describes the planning and initial establishment of his Certified Stockfree-Organic forest garden in Geneva, Florida.
Our forest garden site is located on a trapezoidal-shaped piece of bahia grass pasture land near Orlando, Florida. The Atlantic coast is about 20 miles to the east and the elevation above sea level is approximately 30 feet. It measures 330 feet north to south and 225 feet along the east to west midline.
There is a pond on the southwest section of the site that cycles (over the 7 years we have been here) from dry to 10 feet deep and 125 feet in diameter, with a 100 foot by 50 foot adjacent triangular area that is wetland at high water. The terrain slopes gently up from the pond to the north, east and south, leaving much of the grassy area high and dry. Native oak, pine and magnolia forest borders the east and north sides of the site. The grassy area had been cultivated from the late 70’s to early 80’s and then left fallow. It has been mown regularly with the cuttings left in place for the past 7 years. The hardiness zone is 9b with an average of one to five frosts per year from December to late February. Frost rarely forms under or near existing forest canopy, but is widespread over the grassy area. Temperatures can fall into the mid to high 20’s for several hours during more severe frosts, which occur every second or third year. There are about 250 cooling hours in the winter. Soils are loamy sand with about 5 % organic matter. Soil tests indicated low potassium, manganese, magnesium, copper and zinc with a pH of 4.9 to 5.3. Soil compaction was noted in the grassy areas. Due to the sandy nature of the soil and high rainfall during the summer months, nutrient leaching is common. Rainfall averages 7 to 8 inches per month during the summer, but in tropical conditions can receive over 20 inches in a week. Yearly average rainfall is 48 inches. The area is subject to high winds from any direction during tropical storm season. Windbreaks exist on the east and north sides but still will be required on the south and west. Spring months of April and May bring drought conditions with temperatures reaching into the 90s, often accompanied by hot dry winds. The area is home to a fairly large herd of deer with a taste for young tender leaves, requiring tree protection.
Research and Planning
The initial plan for the site when it was acquired was to plant a mixed fruit and nut orchard and grow annual vegetables. When planting began, we were still unaware of forest gardening techniques. In the interests of diversity, a few trees high on the wish list that were marginally hardy in the climate were selected on an experimental basis with knowledge that workload would be increased and success not assured. The demanding conditions on the site indicated drought tolerant, hardy stock and these were sought out for the majority of plantings. Research was done and many unusual species of interest were put on the list. Grapefruit, several oranges, limequat, avocados, figs, loquat, persimmons, low chill nectarine and apple made up the 14 trees that were selected for the first year. Since available labor was limited to family, a phased orchard establishment was made by default.
Windbreak already existed on the north and east sides of the site where it was believed the tropical winds of an Atlantic storm would blow in from, so the initial planting was in this semi-protected corner. As more trees were added, a suitable windbreak would need to be added to the remaining two sides. No windbreak would withstand a strong hurricane, but this was a risk that came with the area.
Site Prep and fertility
In order to establish trees quicker, it was decided to plant into the grassy area with little site prep. Fertility would be purchased and brought in via lime, greensand, phosphate, azomite and other non-animal-product amendments. Due to drought conditions, an irrigation system was installed for the first group of trees.
What is now the canopy level was initially planted as a mixed orchard, using a diamond pattern. The spacing of the first 15 to 20 trees turned out to be a little too close for a good forest garden, which will either limit what can be grown underneath or will require a little more management to thin or trim back. Pollinators were planted next to each other, something that would be done a little differently today. Each tree was mulched and fitted with an individual round 48 inch by 48 inch welded wire deer fence. As the operation expanded beyond 100 trees and shrubs, the costs of bringing in soil amendments and limitations of further irrigation system expansion required a different approach. New additions to the canopy were established during the summer rainy periods and hand watered on an as-needed basis during droughts. Locally available soil amendments such as compost, alfalfa meal, kelp meal and lime were used initially followed by foliar feeding and actively aerated compost teas later. Nitrogen fixing clover mixes were broadcast onto the bahia grass cover crop to continue shifting towards on site fertility. Research was conducted into additional nitrogen fixing plants as well as nutrient miners. The hay/clover cover crop was mowed several times per year and the first cutting used to make compost for the year. Chipped wood mulch was brought in as needed from a local tree service.
When the canopy tree grid had nearly filled the remaining grassy area, windbreak trees were put in on the western edge and the shrub level was started. Elaeagnus x Ebbingei and other Elaeagnus varieties (shade tolerant nitrogen fixing shrubs that produce edible fruit) were planted in an alternating pattern between existing trees in the least fertile section of the site. Other nitrogen fixers such as black locust, (which is also a mineral accumulator) and alder trees were planted, with more to be added each year until cropping trees are all adequately supported.
Herb, root and ground cover understory
When the nitrogen fixing and mineral accumulating trees and shrubs are all in, further attention will be given to fertility in the herb layer. Russian comfrey has been chosen to be a major fertility source for the herb level, and several hundred plants will eventually be needed. These are currently being propagated and will be planted under or near the cropping trees. They will be cut and left in place a few times per year. As the canopy and shrub layers continue to grow and make more shade, the time will be at hand to finish the understory. This is when the nearly finished greenhouse will be fully utilized. The insectory plants (food, habitat and aromatic pest repellers/confusers) as well as perennial vegetables, culinary and medicinal herbs and other ground covers will be needed in fairly large numbers, which would be quite expensive to source from nurseries. Propagation from seeds or cuttings will be the plan. The herb, root and ground cover layer is usually done in stages or patches. Sheet or smother mulch will be applied around and under the existing trees and shrubs, at a rate of between 3 and 5 thousand square feet per year. When the underlying vegetation has died out from lack of light, transplants from the greenhouse can be brought in and deer fencing put up as needed. Mulch will be used initially to suppress weed growth until transplants are established.
Since the site has existing woodland, fungi could be cultivated at any time, most likely after greenhouse construction when workload permits.
There is maintenance required through all stages of forest garden establishment. At our site, mowing between trees, seasonal pruning and topping off of mulch around trees has been required from the beginning. Fertility support is also ongoing, but in diminishing amounts as the nutrient cycles mature. Plantings continue, as will replacement of plants that have succumbed to deer, flooding or freeze pressures. Mature system maintenance will be minimal in comparison with establishment work. Spring weeding, fall pruning or trimming back of over ambitious species as necessary, replacement of short lived plants, path upkeep, harvest and food preservation are all that are anticipated.