Turn Your Yard into a Food Forest

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Thankfully, spring is approaching. It’s time to start thinking about your yard!! This year, consider this. Would you like to mow less? Water less? Use less expensive and potentially dangerous chemicals? How about going out in the yard and picking fresh food any time you want? Try Permaculture!! What exactly IS Permaculture, you ask? Although “Permaculture” would be a great name for a reggae band, it is actually a term coined by two Aussies, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren back in the 70’s from the combination of the two words, “permanent agriculture.” Permaculture looks at a given area, like your yard, as a whole system made up of lots of interconnected parts. Patterning designs on a natural system like a forest or a prairie, “Permies” (as Permaculture fans refer to themselves) aim to create a personal environment that mimics nature. They combine plants that are beneficial to other plants and beneficial to the local environment, including the inhabitants, like birds, butterflies, bees, and even humans! Like a forest or a prairie, once a permaculture garden or yard is established, it is self sustaining, with very little maintenance.

A Permaculture "Guild." courtesy of backyardabundance.org
A Permaculture “Guild.” courtesy of backyardabundance.org

If done properly, a conventional suburban lawn can be converted into a “food forest,” with attractive and edible plants and fruit bearing bushes and trees. I have a friend who actually designed his entire yard from scratch using Permaculture principles, and as it has become well established, he has to do no mowing, no fertilizing…in fact, very little maintenance, other than picking the food!

This "Guild" features a Cherry tree and Gooseberry bushes.  courtesy of backyard aboundance.org
This “Guild” features a Cherry tree and Gooseberry bushes. courtesy of backyardabundance.org

I met Fred Meyer a number of years ago when he was just making the transition from a “normal” job into full-time work in the field of Permaculture. Fred, a self described “treehugger,” was taking master gardener classes with the modest goal of learning how to water his garden less. Then, he discovered the book Gaia’s Garden, and the ideas of Permaculture.

“When trying to improve the health of my garden and the environment, I discovered that I wasn’t even asking the right questions!” says Fred. “Permaculture doesn’t teach you exactly what you have to do, but it teaches you to ask the right questions.”

Fred Meyer in his own "Food Forest."
Fred Meyer in his own “Food Forest.”

In 2005, Fred received a Certificate in Permaculture design, and set off on a his quest. In 2006 he founded Backyard Abundance, an Iowa City-based non-profit with the mission of “build(ing) vibrant communities by creating beautiful, resilient landscapes that provide healthy food and habitat.” Fred began by setting up tours of local yards that grew an abundance of food, supported wildlife and pollinators, and managed rain water in ways that prevented flooding and erosion. Now, Backyard Abundance has expanded to offer a range of services including public presentations, gardening workshops and design consultation.

Fred was very aware when he built his own house, that despite his own personal love of wild environments, his design would still need to fit into the basic aesthetic guidelines of the suburban development he chose to build in. He says that he is also “Blessed with great neighbors” who appreciate the beauty of something other than mowed grass.

Fred suggests that if you want to try transitioning your yard to Permaculture, you should “Think Big and start small. Look at your yard in a holistic way. Then start in one area and expand it.”

He suggests starting by doing an “inventory” of your yard. Is it shady on the North side of the house? You can think about planting Ostrich Ferns, which will come back year after year, and they provide delicious edible “fiddleheads.”

A sad patch of unused grass about to undergo a transformation. Photo: Fred Meyer
A sad patch of unused grass at the local rec center about to undergo a transformation. Photo – Fred Meyer
The "After" pic shows a cherry tree surrounded by bush cherries and beach plum shrubs. It has a ground cover of strawberries.
The “after” pic shows a cherry tree surrounded by bush cherries and beach plum shrubs. It has a ground cover of strawberries. photo – Fred Meyer

A popular idea in Permaculture is that of “guilds.” Guilds are groupings of plants that “work well” together. Fred suggests a Cherry tree, planted with an understory of gooseberry bushes (that grow well in the shade of the cherry), and ground cover of strawberries, chamomile and creeping thyme and garlic chives. These can all be planted together, in a relatively small space.

Luckily for you, you don’t need to live in the Iowa City area to benefit from Fred’s knowledge. You can visit his website below and download an excellent free publication on designing edible landscapes. There are seven sample designs that you can look at and read about, including a Medicinal Herb Garden, A Berry/Blueberry layout, a Carefree Herbs design (perfect for a small space), Gooseberry/Cherry, Herbal/Apple, Herbal/Cherry and Sweet’n’Sour Gooseberry designs. Let us know how your permaculture adventure goes, along with any favorite tips, in the comments section below.

More Info - via BackyardAbundance.com

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About Rich

Rich Dana loves to build things, to tinker on things, and to grow things. After more than a decade as a historic building remodeler in Brooklyn, New York, he and his wife Ericka moved to their back-to-the-land dream home (and fixer-uper nightmare), an 1870s farmhouse on 15 acres in eastern Iowa that they call “Catnip Farm.” For the last 18 years, Rich has specialized in super-efficient historical renovations and solar PV installation. He is working to convert much of the farm into perennial food crops like nut trees and berries, and he helps Ericka out with her heirloom seed project. His latest passion is learning to sew.

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3 thoughts on “Turn Your Yard into a Food Forest”

  1. More great info! Thanks. I’ve got a small “High Densisty Home Orchard” (google) groups of 4 fruit trees planted in a 4’x4′ that are kept pruned to around 6′ less wasted fruits on the ground and longer fruiting season ~by planting different varieties. I’ve been slowly transforming my yard into a permaculture after watching video “back to eden” (google) using free bark chips from local tree companies that chip the trees they cut and plain brown cardboard boxes/brown bags from local stores as weed bloc.


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