Perennial Food Crops

Our perennial food cropping systems are - or rather, will be - the backbone of the farm. This is where we've really drank the permaculture kool-aid. We're planting out a system where we only have to plant it once, do a bit of maintenance to help it get established, and harvest from it for the rest of our lives. The aim is to establish a cropping system that will become self-sustaining - even self-replicating - so that our grandchildren's grandchildren can continue to reap what we've sown.

The only way to do this is how South-East Asian, Central American, and reportedly indigenous North American cultures have done for thousands of years - with perennial crops.

It's called a food forest. A a forest where almost everything is edible. There's a lot to unpack from this seemingly simple concept. 

The first thing you probably think of when you hear "forest" is trees. Lots of trees. Some tall trees up in the canopy, with smaller trees growing in the patches of light that make it through the tall trees. For us, this means nuts and fruit. Nut trees will form the upper canopy - black walnut, hickory, hardy pecan, butternut, chestnut, stone pine, and oak to name a few - can grow for thousands of years. All of them produce high protein, high fat nuts that are incredibly useful humans and animals. The nut trees will be supported by some nitrogen-fixing trees - honey locust and Kentucky coffee mostly. Underneath and around these giant canopy trees will grow fruit trees - apple, pear, apricot, plum, cherry, peach, paw paw, and mulberry. We started planting this "tree layer" in 2019, and add a bit more every year. We expect the fruit trees to bear fruit in the next year or two, and the nuts in 8-10 years. Once they start producing, the yields will continue to increase for decades.

Vines will grow up the trees - especially the non-fruiting "support" species - grapes, groundnut, hardy kiwi, and mountain spinach mostly. Mushrooms will grow in the deepest shade of the trees.

Underneath the tree layer are the shrubs. Most of these will be fruiting  as well - elderberry, Saskatoon berry, blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, sour cherry, currant, gooseberry, haskaps, roses (rosehips), seaberry, and spicebush. Hazelnuts will live here too, along with support species like New Jersey tea and speckled alder.

Below the shrubs will be a dense carpet of herbaceous plants and root crops, growing together so tightly that it's difficult for weeds to get a foothold. Some of these will be familiar - strawberry, mint, thyme, oregano, daylilies, lemon balm, coriander, chives, garlic chive, dandelion, Egyptian walking onions, wild arugula, dill, sorrel, horseradish, and asparagus. Others will be strange to us - saffron, sweet cicely, sunchokes, skirret, sea kale, Turkish rocket, chickweed, hyssop, salad burnet, mitsuba, lovage, and good king henry to name a few. This layer will include support species like comfrey, and native plants to support pollinators.

Our key influences for the food forest are a mix of Martin Crawford's temperate climate "Forest Garden" and Geoff Lawton's sub-tropical Permaculture Farm,  with a healthy dose of structure and cold-winter adaptations courtesy of Stefan Sobkowiak's "Permaculture Orchard". 

The food forest will be our nursery and starting point. Not every plant will thrive here, especially since after their first year, the plants will largely be neglected. The ones that grow like weeds will be propagated  - and those are what we'll eat more of. The ones that struggle will be culled, and replaced with a different variety. From the food forest, we will grow seedlings from the strongest specimens, and that's what will be planted out on the commercial farm-scale, along the lines of Mark Shepard's farm-scale permaculture.

Integration with Other Systems

Our perennial cropping systems will be integrated with all of our other food sources. The food forest is the hub around which the other food sources rotate.

 

Our laying hens and meat birds forage between the planted rows in late summer and early fall, cleaning it of bugs and rotting fruit, and leaving fertilizer in their wake. The laying flock's composted winter bedding feeds the newly planted trees and shrubs in their first couple of years. Some perennial food crops - like the pea shrub - will form a major part of our hens' winter diet.

When we add pigs and geese, we will time their rotation around the pasture so that they're underneath the various trees as the fruit or nuts drop. We hope to have cattle grazing between the farm-scale rows of tree crops. 

In the early years, we fill full-sun gaps in the food forest with annual field crops - sunflowers, squash, corn, potatoes, etc. In later years, the trimmings and excess produce from our food forest will be composted to feed our annual gardens.

Propagating the Model

The most difficult aspect of raising perennial food crops is patience. Tree crops take 5-10 years to come into production. Perennial vegetables take 3-4 years to be sturdy enough to produce a meaningful harvest. It's even harder when you're on a budget, and have to grow your whole patch out from seeds, or one or two little transplants from a plant swap. We're writing this on the cusp of our third season, and even though the hard part is over - the planting and tending the transplants - the wait is killing us. We'll say things like "Oh man, I hope we get a peach this year. Even one peach would be amazing!!" However, 5 years from now us will be very grateful to present us for having the patience to see it through.

There's not a whole lot of information out there about food forests in our cold climate. Once we've refined and improved our system, we hope to empower our community to replicate it in their own space, to their own tastes. There's no reason why it shouldn't be taken for granted for every house to have a fruit or nut tree, and a patch of rhubarb and asparagus. Once established, they take almost zero effort, and produce for decades.

We hope to contribute to a shift to a perennial-based diet - and perhaps help to develop a regional cuisine along the way. It won't be easy to carve new foodways, but judging from our grocery bill, the time seems to be ripe for change.

We will pass on our lessons learned in vlogs, blogs, farm tours, and seedling sales, and hopefully make a few new garden friends along the way. 

We hope you'll join us on the journey!!