Growing A Food Forest In Michigan

A forest garden is just what it says, a garden in the forest.  A forest garden is designed using mostly native species to provide abundant supplies of food using perennial plants.  Over the long term a forest garden should be extremely low maintenance compared to traditional gardening methods, while providing an extremely diverse food supply with a long range of harvest times.  Because we have a decent sized wooded area on our property I’ve decided to get started on making a food forest in Michigan.


 Gardening Vs. Forest Gardening:

For many years I have considered planting a large garden.  Usually I plant tomatoes and peppers, and a few times I have planted pumpkins and strawberries.  The largest our garden has been was 8′ X 16′ and the smallest 4′ X 4′. Traditional gardening has a few major drawbacks.  For starters, you have to plant stuff every year!  Every year you have to put in a ton of work to reap a really small harvest.  These gardens are also havens for weeds, and if not focused on weed removal your plants will die; once again a lot of work. These plants also typically need full sun, which greatly reduces your options for location. Because I live in the fruit belt I thought it might be a good idea to plant some apple trees, so 2 years ago I bought a couple apple trees and put them in the ground.  As I researched growing apple trees I found a couple interesting quotes that inspired me:

“The best time to plant fruit and nut trees is 20 years ago…the second best time is today”

“A man grows a garden for himself, fruit trees for his children, and nut trees for his grandchildren”

My Starting Point:

My house sits on 3 lots of about 1 acre a piece.  Behind my house is a wooded area with an old railroad bed running through it.  I purchased the 3 contiguous segments of this railroad bed for a total of $6,500.  In total this is 1.1 miles long by 66 feet wide, a total of just over 8 acres.  All of this land runs through a wooded area with a small creek meandering though it and a large creek at one end of it.  Along the way there are over 70 acres of woods owned by MDOT and various farmers.  I’m not going to be trespassing or growing any food in these areas, I just wanted to point out that the railroad property I have goes through a deeply wooded area, it isn’t just a small trail with trees on the sides.

Food Forest 2 Full SunMost of the railroad property has filtered sunlight, with a few fairly large gaps that offer full sun for several hours a day.  The actual track runs mostly North to South and the middle of the track has an opening in the canopy, which will also allow for partial sun for a couple hours a day for a good portion of the track.  I will work hard to make sure that I am planting shade tolerant plants in the darker areas and reserving the areas that do get decent sunlight for the plants that need it.

In my yard I have several mature sugar maple trees, and along the railroad bed I bet I have well over a hundred maple trees, I have a couple mature Oak trees, and a couple Chinese Chestnut trees.  There are a few mature Walnut trees throughout the forest.  I cut a small trail through the entire railroad bed and along the sides there are several patches of wild blackberries.  Directly behind my house there is a small pond that has some tiny fish in it, and at the end of the property there is a large creek that is known to have Salmon in it at certain times of the year.  Overall, I have a pretty good starting point.

What I Plan To Do:

Food Forest 4 Trail1.  Re-carve my trail:  What do you think happens to weeds and plants when left alone for several months?  They grow!  I need to go through my trail again and cut down the weeds.  I did so much work building the trail last year that this should be a relatively fast process, as there aren’t any actual trees or woody plants in the way, just young green growth.  I started working on this last week with our youngest and my allergies went into overdrive.  The next time I go out I will make sure to take some Flonase before hand and wear a dust mask.

Food Forest 3 Paw Paw2. Inventory what I currently have: I want to know how many maple sap taps I could install to figure out what I could yield in maple syrup. I want to know how many oak trees, chestnut trees, and walnut trees I have on the property.  I need to pay more attention to the paw paw trees growing along the river bank to see how well they fruit in the fall. I just picked up the book Farming the Woods, which actually details how and when to pollinate Paw Paw trees by hand.  Unfortunately I just missed the window, but I will be ready for next year.

I’m actually drawing out a map of where the trees are as I inventory them to make it easier to locate in the future.


3. Plant the following items:

Hazelnut Trees: Hazelnut trees actually grow more like a bush and can be successful in filtered sun.  I can buy 100 saplings from my conservation district for $90.  Hazelnuts are loaded in good fats and have over 600 calories per 100 grams. Hazelnut bushes can grow in partial shade and they can produce nuts in as little as 5 years.  Once they reach maturity each bush can yield 25 pounds.  For my setting I would expect a much lower yield because I can’t provide full sun.  If I got even 2 pounds from each bush, that would still be 200 pounds from buying 1 set of 100.  Most likely I will plant several sets.

Fruit Trees: Apple trees and plum trees: I will plant these fruit trees along my north border, where they will get full sun from the south.  Eventually I will plant a row of hazelnuts underneath them. I currently have 2 apple trees and 1 peach tree that I planted 2 years ago.  They are both doing well currently and I should get apples this year.

Chestnut Trees:  I planted 4 Dunstan Chestnut Trees that I bought from Walmart 2 years ago.  These are growing nicely now and I should soon see some production from them.  I will likely plant a few more so I have a variety of nut species.  Chestnuts are a much lower calorie nut than Halzenuts and have more carbs than fats or proteins.

Berries: I plan on expanding the berries we already have by propagating our mulberry trees which fruit early in the year.  I will also be planting several varieties of black berries (including some without thorns), gooseberries and elderberries. These berry plants thrive in the shade, which is great for a food forest. I have already started this process.  Our youngest who just turned four helped me with taking cuttings, applying root hormone and planting the cuttings in a shaded area we tilled up with a Garden Claw.  I was amazed at how involved he got, he had no problem handling the cuttings, despite the thorns.

Food Forest 6 Blackberries

Vines:  I have read mixed reviews about how well grapes can do in filtered sun.  Along the railroad bed I have a fence that runs the entire length, that’s about 2 miles of total fencing!  It’s an old metal wire fence with concrete posts about 4 foot tall.  I plan on planting some grape varieties on this fence to see how well they will grow.  There are several massive vines in the woods, but I have yet to see any fruit on them. I may also try for some hardy kiwi plants.

Root Crops: Root crops are high in caloric density.  I plan on growing some potatoes and sweet potatoes, as well as sunchokes, hog peanuts, and ground nuts.

Annuals: There are some annual plants that I will grow, including sunflowers, spinach, and broccoli.  The greens are early season and the sunflowers of course provide seeds, which contain a lot of good fats.

4. Look Into Harvesting Animals:

PRMS0010Meat and Fish:  The large creek that I have over 200′ of frontage on has Salmon running through it at certain times of the year.  The small creek directly behind my house feeds a tiny pond, which contains tiny fish.  I have seen many wild turkey on the property, and have caught several deer on a game camera. There is also a large population of squirrels and rabbits on the property.IMG_2104

What is My Goal?:

I want to be able to supply a large portion of our diet from our woods.  I want to grow our food forest with such abundance that it could become a large source of food capable of sustaining many people.  I want the food forest to attract animal life, including deer, turkey, and squirrel. I built up quite a bit of food storage a while back, but the question kept coming up of…What happens when that food runs out? I would either need to expand my food storage to several years worth, which is highly impractical from a space and financial standpoint, or work on developing perennial sustainable food sources. From a personal finance standpoint, rather than a prepper standpoint if we are able to replace 50% of our food with food we grow ourselves, this would amount to a yearly savings of roughly $4,200.

If all goes well with propagating our blackberry and mulberry trees we may put up a roadside stand and have the kids sell 1 – 3 year old plants. Even if we don’t sell that many its a way to get the kids more involved in working with plants and taking effort towards earning money through work,  which is certainly a win.

 Have you planted food trees or other perennial food sources?  Any tips?

John C. started Action Economics in 2013 as a way to gain more knowledge on personal financial planning and to share that knowledge with others. Action Economics focuses on paying off the house, reducing taxes, and building wealth. John is the author of the book For My Children's Children: A Practical Guide For Building Generational Wealth.

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