We were recently contacted by a group of fellow Angelinos that have an amazing food forest. After touring this diamond in the rough, we are happy to share its design with you. It has been established for about 7 years now with 25 fruit trees with a layer of berries and herbs happily beneath them. To achieve such a dense food web on their typical suburban lot, dwarf varieties and annual prunings were utilized. The way their system was designed allowed for them to walk away for weeks, only to return for harvesting and checkups. It was a great pleasure to see such an effective model clearly working!
Some of the most obvious questions people have when considering growing food in the cities..
1. What about weeds? How can I stay ahead of them if I just don’t have the time?
They successfully accomplished this by using large square stones for walk ways. These hard surfaces block weeds, but serve many other functions to the system as well. Stone is massive. We learn this when we first try dead lifting a medium sized boulder! This means that they act as a thermal mass. A rock can store large amounts of solar energy during the day, and slowly release it in the evenings. This equates to a slight bump in evening temperatures that may be just enough to keep your plants from frosting. I place large rocks next to my strawberries and herbs for this very reason. Also consider that a rock is nature’s most simple condenser. They collect water, specifically dew. When the air temperature reaches its dew point, water droplets form onto suitable surfaces: rear view windows, laundry that was left out hanging, and also rocks! Given enough rocks, such as a 100 large square pavers, the water advantage becomes clear. Rocks also contain the base components that create soil, so over a long period of time, they gradually erode, giving back trace amounts of parent rock to the plants that need it.
These pavers have about a 2″ gap around all sides, with a thick bedding of clean (not dyed, or plastic) wood/bark chips. This small gap allows water to drain back through the landscape. They sewed the seeds of small creeping herbs like oregano and thyme in this leftover space. If you get the jump establishing these useful plants first, then the weeds will have more difficulty competing with them. This small gap between pavers allows for even and natural water absorption into the soil, preventing wasteful and toxic runoff from the property.
2. What about watering? I don’t want a high bill and I don’t like watering!
The answer is two fold. Water smart, and plant smart.
They ran drip lines that water directly to the base of plants using a simple timer. Voilà! This method may seem daunting but it can be a good investment with a sharp learning curve. Drippers can be purchased at every home center or online. Instead of sending your precious H20 out into the air like a proud 1950’s lawn owner, you can snipe it directly to your target. Whenever you see a fine atomized mist being sprayed into the air out of your neighbors’ sprinklers, that is waste. Large amounts of water are flying away, and not being used. This means the pressure is too high because the pipes, fittings, and/or nozzles are not correctly being used. Installing a drip system is easier in some ways, because it can lay resting on the soil surface. This makes installation and maintenance much less intensive than conventional pvc piping.
They also use a self watering raised bed. These are very efficient designs that allow you to pour water into an above ground funnel, where it is stored below the soil. The plants suck up water as they need it. This trains your plants’ roots to seek deeper water, developing a stronger root zone than can withstand more stresses. I am eager to see this design proliferate through DIY circles! The plants inside them seem to be saying, “Yes. I approve.”
Choosing drought tolerant varieties and species is key when growing in Southern California. Less rain is falling, and the city junk is becoming more expensive. I am here to tell you, this doesn’t have to spell disaster. Some plants actually thrive in these conditions. Not just cacti, but food and medicine plants can also be drought tolerant.
Artichokes are a great plant that is tough and perennial. These plants can cover a large area and produce heavily. Moringa trees have also become more widely known in the west for their drought tolerance and superfood qualities. Goji berries are a great candidate for dry weather farming, in addition to being loaded with nutrition. Who can forget rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage, and lavender? All of these are tough plants with a lot of beauty.
I will not list them all here, because there are that many. I will however provide some great links which offer more expansive lists.
Using Vertical Spaces
This design utilizes some of my favorite plants…passion vines and grape vines! By training these vigorous climbers onto walls and arbors, we can start to see how much free real estate there is all around us. This particular arbor was loaded with fresh green growth, enclosing the viewer into the urban cottage experience. What joy. Both of these plants are widely available at most nurseries or on craigslist.
In closing, we were very impressed with the efforts of our fellow food forest dwellers. I would like to see more people taking the brave step toward food independence and habitat restoration in the home. Stay tuned for more updates as we find more food forests in LA.