Food Forests are human-designed garden systems utilizing patterns found in nature. Whether your food forest is small like mine (1/4 acre or even smaller) or expansive (5-100 acres!), there are key trees that you can consider adding to your forest design this year. I’ve got 3 trees that work for ANY size temperate (zones 4/5-10) forest garden, 3 trees reserved for larger designs, AND 2 bonus trees for those of us in warmer temperate zones (7-10).
These folks getting their hackles up in the comments section don’t yet understand: permaculture is not gardening. And my work revolves around permaculture. So no, I won’t “stick to gardening” and leave 75% of what permaculture is collecting dust on the shelf.
What is Permaculture, Then?
Permaculture as a term is actually a portmanteau of “permanent” and “agriculture” anda portmanteau of “permanent” and “culture”. Its focus is on creating permanent, resilient systems for people, and the food they grow.
Coined by Bill Mollison in the 1970s, permaculture is a design system for creating robust communities of people that live in a way that heals our relatioship with the planet, increases the quality of life for all, and creates permanent, regenerative ways of feeding those communities. To limit it to “just gardening” would be reducing permaculture to something far less integrated and effective.
Mollison – along with his student and co-founder of permaculture, David Holmgren – sought to create a set of ethics and principles that could be used to guide any design, from growing food to building homes, from urban planning to creating healthier social relationships. The obvious benefits of this system for gardening and farming helped launch permaculture into the consciousness of the ag world, especially since the founders “borrowed” heavily from proven traditional indigenous agricultural techniques.
The benefits of growing food using this system are often the way folks are first introduced to permaculture. So it is understandable that people new to permaculture would only have heard that it can be a frugal, natural, and productive way to grow food. But permaculture is so much more. It can do so much more to improve our communities and personal lives.
The principles and ethics of permaculture are not confined to the production of food. Rather, growing food is but one integrated component of building resilient human communities. The three ethics of Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share guide all our design processes. In permaculture, we make a conscious choice to interact with the world in a way that cares for the Earth, cares for all people, and uses a fair share of resources (the third ethic obviously reinforces the first two).
The 12 principles of permaculture are a box of tools to help us craft gardens and homes and communities that will thrive. Using effective strategies that have evolved in nature as a guide, the 12 principles are a launching off point to get us to think about creating more interconnected and successful ways of being human beings on this planet. The 12 principles help us improve the ways we grow food and shelter ourselves, in the ways we interact with nature, in the ways we interact with other humans. (I will dive deeply into these incredibly helpful 12 design tools in a future post.)
Does Permaculture Really Work?
If permaculture is such an expansive and sweeping design system, does it really work? The answer is both “yes” and “not yet”.
The beautiful thing about permaculture design is it is scalable. The principles work whether you’re applying them to a small veggie garden, or to entire economic systems. They work whether you’re designing a whole new “green” housing development, or looking to retrofit portions of your 100 year-old house for greater efficiency.
It does not matter if you’re new to permaculture and only know its application to gardening, or whether you’re an old-hat like me, searching for the ways permaculture can help us create healthier, more compassionate, and stronger societies – permaculture design principles will work for both of us. The more we use the tools in our permaculture tool box, the more ways we can create those resilient connections in our lives, our homes, our food systems, our societies. Doing so will benefit us right now on the small scale. And the the potential is there to make large permanent systemic changes using permaculture that will only increase our resilience, our positive impact on the planet, and our quality of life as human beings.
Permaculture is about connection, and so it makes no sense to isolate the gardening aspects of it. The more we see the connections in all things, the more we realize that strengthening other elements benefits us, and makes the whole system stronger. Permaculture says, “integrate, don’t segregrate.” The more we learn that we can not partition our gardens and farms from everything else in life and in nature, the more we see the potential to harness the connections that already exist to build a better world for us, our neighbors, and the Planet.
My Yard Got Meme’d and Went Viral. Folks Doubted The Garden Was Real.
When Strangers Think They Know Your Garden Best
A few days ago, a meme of my front yard garden went viral on social media. I didn’t make the meme, and it’s been incorrectedly credited several times as the garden of a man in the UK, but it is, in fact, Parkrose Permaculture.
Inevitably, when someone shares a single image like this and it spreads rapidly on social media, criticisms, “gotchas”, fault-finding, and definititive judgments flood the comments section. Everyone becomes an authority and makes confident assertions and declares “this is how it really is” based on one image.
I responsed to the most common declarations in my video today (see below), but I wanted to take some space in this blog to address in detail one particular “hot take” that I didn’t address thoroughly on YouTube (perks of reading the blog!). It’s a question folks have asked long before this meme was made, and today I’m going to answer it, so let’s dive in.
Your Garden Isn’t Real, Angela.
The skeptics came out of the woodwork on each and every share, calling the images “faked.” They were confident that this garden must be photoshopped. It couldn’t be real. No one could really transform their front yard like that, right? Total strangers became “experts” on my garden based on a single meme showing a small portion of the yard. As the French say, “Trop beau pour être vrai,” and being manic with our skepticism sure is en vogue.
OK, OK. Maybe It IS Real, But She Definitely Doesn’t Have 32 Fruit and Nut Trees on 1/4 Acre.
While the confirmation bias of folks making these assertions on the internet was intensely strong, several lovely humans did return and say, “Gah, my bad! I should not have made assumptions,” after viewing more pictures of the garden or finding my YouTube. It takes integrity in our modern society to say, “Welp, I goofed that up. I’m sorry!”, so I appreciate it when folks admit they’re wrong and want to do better going forward.
To be fair, the transformation of the garden is profound. I look back at pictures of the house when we first moved in, and it doesn’t feel like my house at all. Although, even back in 2009, in my mind’s eye, I could see what the garden would look like in time. I had faith in the process, and have enjoyed every step of getting from there to here. It may seem too good to be true, so I understand the skepticism. But perhaps ask questions instead of assuming. Afterall, you know what they say about that…
Ok, but seriously…32? Impossible.
If folks believed that the images weren’t fake, they still called me “dishonest”. According to these guys, based on one image, they knew I was clearly “exaggerating” how many trees I can carefully fit on the property. It simply didn’t mesh with their mental image of how trees should be positioned in the landscape. It didn’t fit with the image of how horticulturists and modern farmers tell us we must grow fruit trees. Afterall, if you haven’t seen it done, it can be difficult to imagine another way. It’s easier to disbelieve than ask for evidence that might change your mind.
If You Really Grow 32 Fruit and Nut Trees, What Are They, Hm? Hmm?!
I have compassion for the level of skepticism happening in response to this meme, and I thought perhaps the most helpful thing to do here – both for doubters, and folks interested in adding trees to their own gardens – would be to list out for you all of the trees I grow here. I’m going to be totally honest right from the get-go: The youngest tree is 2. Most are over 10 years old, and a few are 15 (purchased as 1-2 yr old trees, or squirrel-planted before we moved in). It’s not actually 32 trees, but check for yourself:
Plums, European (Prunus) x5 – Shropshire Damson, Stanley, Early Laxton, Bavay’s Greengage, Early Italian
Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) x3 – Allegheny, Rappahanock, and Suquehanna
Elderberry (Sambucus) x2 –Nova and York (I used to have a Blue elder, but removed it)
Apple (Malus) x6 – Ashmead’s Kernel, Hudson’s Golden Gem, Roxbury Russet, Honeycrisp, Liberty, Cox’s Orange Pippin (again, I used to have more. It was too many apples)
Medlar (Mespilus germanica) – Breda Giant
Pear, Asian – triple grafted (In a pot)
Pear, European – Seckel
Fig (Ficus carica) x2 – Desert King and Negronne (the latter is superb)
Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) x3 – (this is technically a shrub, but grows very very large and I treat it like a tree) 2 females, and 1 male
Hazelnut (Corylus) – my lone nut tree. I coppice it for firewood and plant stakes. Nuts.
Persimmon (Diospyros) x2 – Early Fuyu and a hybrid persimmon, Nikita’s Gift
Quince (Cydonia oblonga) x3 – Aromatnaya, Krimskaya, and an unnamed variety
Mulberry (Malus rubra) x3 – Illinois Everybearing, Contorted, and Dwarf
Purple Robe locust (Robinia) – this tree’s seeds are not edible. It is an important nurse tree in my food forest, produces edible blossoms, but will eventually be cycled out.
Peach –Oregon Curl Free
Jujube (Zizyphus jujuba) – Lee and Lang
Lemons – Meyer and Variegated Meyer in pots (they live in the greenhouse in winter)
Sweet Bay (Laurus nobilis)- also in a pot, and sheltered in the winter outdoors
Like I said, not 32. That list makes 40. I generally don’t count the trees in pots, but they are an important part of our system and do produce important yields for me and I should. I did not include bush cherries, large shrubs like goumi and aronia and tallbush cranberry. Perhaps smaller fruits are a topic for another post in the near future.
I hope that information is helpful for folks. In the coming weeks, I’ll continue to lay out how I fit all these trees, why I need them all, and what my design process is. It is my sincere hope that I can help illuminate how permaculture – real world permaculture, not a thought exercise – functions. Hiccups and all. That’s my goal in blogging and making videos: to share the design process of permaculture, explain the principles, and how the work in the context of our real, hectic lives, and in our real gardens. For me and my family right now, 40 trees works in that context. It enriches our lives and feeds our bellies, and creates habitat for wildlife.
In an extractive world, regenerative ways of living can seem really foreign. Our knee-jerk reaction can understandably veer toward skepticism when someone tries something far outside the cultural norm. It’s my hope that permaculture – and other resilient design systems – can become accepted and normalized. Goodness knows we and the Planet need them.
If anything, I’m grateful that despite all the hater-ade I got from this meme blowing up (as much as permaculture memes can blow up?) on social media, it has helped more folks discover permaculture design, and helped more folks question the status quo when it comes to our gardens, our neighborhood design, and how we organize our society. I love sharing my garden, and am glad this experience has given me the opportunity to share it with more people, and explain in more detail how the system is designed and functions.
2022 thus far has proven to be a difficult year for fruit growers in my part of of the world. Coming out of multiple years of drought, we started off the year with record cold snaps. We had a freak 3 inches of snow after our last frost date. In fact, the snow hit so late that stone fruit were already blooming in the Pacific Northwest. Frozen blossoms are nothing short of a disaster for orchardists. Many gardeners liked me had to face the harsh reality of a year with no cherries, no peaches, and few plums. Even early apples and breba figs yields have been hit.
On top of the freeze, a cold rainy spring kept pollinators hunkered down. And heavy rains created unusually high fungal pressure. Blueberry crops have disappointed many, since they bloomed while temperatures were too cool or the weather too rainy for bees to be out foraging. Decade-old raspberry patches have root rot for the first time ever. Even my blackcap raspberries – a reliable crop with consistently large yields – had poor pollination.
A Resilient Berry in Hard Times
While the weather has absolutely crushed many harvests in my garden this year, all is not lost. In fact, one of the reason I grow a huge diversity of fruits is so that if one – or 6 – crops fail, I have many others that are likely to produce well for me. Building diversity into our systems increases our resilience. And one such insurance policy that has yielded fantastically for me over the years it the mulberry.
Mulberries (Morus rubra, Morus alba, or Morus alba x rubra), are a genus of trees known for their production of deep reddish-purple fruits that are reminiscient of blackberries (Rubus genus). (White mulberries are, obviously, white or pale pink). The fruit is delightfully sweet, and lacks the acidity of blackberries.
These beautiful trees produce profusely, with berries ripening over several weeks to months. This results in a reliable daily harvest for long periods of time. I pick for a f ew minutes daily, and quickly fill multiple gallon containers in the freezer, with lots leftover for fresh eating each day. In July, dessert in the evening often looks like a handful of mulberries straight off the tree.
(Note, unlike blackberries and raspberries, the stem of the mulberry runs the whole length of the inside of the fruit. It’s totally edible! You can eat it, or not. Your choice, but the fruit is melded to the stem at its core and the stem cannot be removed.)
For me, growing mulberries has been a critically important part of our resilient design. When other berries fail, no matter the weird weather, my 3 mulberry trees produce reliably. There is plenty to share with wildlife (and my poultry – ducks love mulberries). When we build diversity into our permaculture systems, we create insurance policies for ourselves. My mulberries are my berry insurance policy: when more fiddly and delicate fruits fail, I can count on mulberries to give me a yield.
Tips for Growing Mulberries
In my temperate climate, both red (M. rubra) and white (M. alba) grow well, but in many places white mulberries are an invasive species, spreading vigorously and displacing native trees and shrubs. Check before you plant, or consider only red mulberry species.
Fruit size, color and quality vary considerably across varieties, but all are sweet and good eating. My Contorted Mulberry produces rather small fruit in moderate quantities, but my Illinois Everbearing is a workhorse: cranking out huge quantities of good-sized fruit for weeks on end. The Pakistani mulberry produces elongated fruits prized for their unusual length, but can be a bit less cold tolerant, so I chose not to grow it here.
Consider that birds will love your mulberries, too. I count on 20% of my harvest going to wildlife and plan accordingly when it comes to pruning.
More cold hardy varieties can be grown in zones 5 and 6-8, with less tolerant varieties 7-9 (In cold snaps, the trees can get die-back, particularly in areas pruned during the previous year.)
Trees range from 6-20 meters (20-60+ft) at maturity, depending on species and variety. Choose carefully I don’t care what the catalogs tell you, mulberries are fast-growing, vigorous trees, and mine needs diligent pruning (pollarding) to keep it an appropriate size for my garden (see video above for more info).
Mulberries like a sunny spot, and can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions. Once established, they are extremely drought tolerant. I never water my mulberry trees.
One of the beautiful things about permaculture design is that it is site-specific. This means you tailor your design to your needs, your yard, your community. Mulberries are not the right choice for every garden design. As I mentioned earlier, the trees can get quite large. If I were not committed to yearly pollarding, Illinois Everybearing would not have been an appropriate tree for my yard.
Mulberry juice stains. Everything. Hands, clothes, concrete, roof tiles. When deciding if this tree is right for your design, plan accordingly. Don’t plant over a driveway, for instance. I pick berries wearing dark-colored clothes so they aren’t ruined by any falling fruit or the juice that gets all over my hands.
In permaculture we design with stacking functions in mind. This concept means we try to have every element in our garden do as many “jobs” as possible. We looke for the connections in different elements in our system to increase resilience. In order to address the issue of stainy, fallen fruit, prevent fruit flies, and keep the area under the tree tidier, I planted my largest mulberry in my poultry run. Ducks and chickens relish mulberry fruit and quickly clean up every fruit that hits the ground. So my mulberry tree feeds not only our family, but also provides weeks of snacks for the poultry with zero effort on my part. And it stacks another function in nicely: The birds enjoy the shade the tree provides as it effectively cools the chicken run in summer.
When planning your permaculture system or homestead, perhaps a mulberry might be a tree worth planting. Understanding the pluses and minuses of this tree, how would it work into your design to increase your food security when other crops might fail? Consider the mulberry, a tree that has served our family well and is a crucial component of my resilient garden design.
I did not intend to reboot my blog after a several year absence with a post like this. But life is full of surprises. Some welcome, and some not. It’s how we respond and adapt that makes all the difference.
This week, a documentary film company made a meme of my 14 year-old permaculture garden in Portland, Oregon, USA, using “before” and “after” images, taken more than a decade apart. It immediately went viral and was shared thousands of times across multiple social media sites.
I didn’t make this meme, and had no control of what happened to it when it was set adrift in the swirling garbage patch that is the internet. That being said, watching the descending swarm of commentors attacking a garden I have poured my heart and soul and sweat and energy into for almost a decade and a half felt like watching my baby be thrown to the wolves.
Strangers Know Your Garden Best, and They’ll Make Sure You Know It
In a matter of hours, I’d been bombarded by comments sprinkled around social media as this meme gets shared over and over: -interested folks asking how they can learn about my garden
-other gardeners sharing their gardens which look similar
-total strangers boldly declaring the images were faked or that based on ONE picture, they were sure my garden must be overrun with snakes and mosquitoes and my water bill must be astronomical
– and hundreds of insults and offensive comments. “Looks like a foreclosure.” “I’d move if this was my neighbor.” “What a mess.” “She wouldn’t know a pretty garden if it bit her in the ass.” “Looks like shit.”
As a small-time YouTuber, but dedicated garden educator whose real life is lived in blissful anonymity, I’m not accustomed to being pelted with disgraceful behavior like this from hundreds of total strangers. Performative cruelty lobbed straight at me and my home is not a daily occurence in my life. Needless to say, it’s been a rough couple of days.
The Problem is the Solution
My heart feels a bit beat up, and my idealistic belief in humanity shaken a bit, but I wouldn’t be a permaculturist if I didn’t choose to see this experience as an option to design for a better world. In permaculture we have a saying, “The problem is the solution.” This simple phrase means that hidden in the problem are the keys to designing solutions that heal. When we break apart and examine the problem, when we reframe the “problem” as an opportunity to observe and learn, we can begin to understand and craft solutions. Pain, hardship, failure all can lead us toward solutions if we let them.
Let’s start with reframing. I don’t have a “slugs are eating my greens” problem. I have an “abundance of duck food” solution. Similarly, I don’t have a “windy spot where every plant gets windburn” problem. I have a “chance to design a windbreak and create shelter” opportunity.
So, what is the solution in this situation? As I kept sifting through the comments, two areas for improvement rose to the forefront for me.
The Solution is People Care
1. What can be learned when folks feel entitled to weaponize their loneliness, anger, bitterness and denigrate a stranger and her work in public? What can we do to help improve our People Care when we interact with each other?
As the parent of 4 kids, I see the solution in our youth: in the ways they’re normalizing therapy, working on healthy communication and empathy. They’re learning to set boundaries. They actively work on healing from their trauma. They’re growing into the kinds of adults who can make a better future.
Those of us who have positive relationships with kids can help encourage the permaculture ethic of People Care and promote a culture of nontoxic and empathetic interaction. You don’t have to be a parent to work on your own issues and help instill non-toxic masculinity, strong boundary setting, and compassionate communicate in kids. In fact, doing so helps you heal from the trauma we hope to never strap our kids with in the first place.
We have an opportunity here to be better people, and do better by each other going forward. When we heal the ways we think about and relate to other human beings, we are on the road to creating resilient communities.
Shifting Our Expectations of Front Yard Gardens
2. Why is it that the dominant (particularly American) mindset is that a lawn with a row of boxwoods is “pretty” and “tidy” and “good”, and a vibrant, productive garden that creates habitat for wildlife, and food and resilience for the family who lives there is seen as “ugly” and “messy” and “trashy”? We’ve been so indoctrinated we have lost sight of what truly diverse and thriving gardens look like, and boring, resource-heavy lawns have been normalized. The solution is to retrain our eyes,, our hearts, our cultural norms.
Those of us who already garden this way, should do it proudly and work to shift the culture and our expectations to see permaculture systems for what they are: a way to improve the lives of the folks who live there and increase resilience and biodiversity. We have an opportunity here to educate and a chance to expand our view of beauty so that we can become resilient people in an increasingly unstable world.
Am I saying I expect everyone to like my way of gardening? No. Am I expecting every unique individual to love my lush, abundant permaculture garden when they’ve been conditioned their whole lives to see flat grass and shapeless blobs of ornamental shrubs as beautiful? Not by any means. In fact, permaculture is site-specific design. Every garden is tailored to the needs of the gardener and her land and climate. So, I don’t expect anyone’s garden to look just like mine.
But I do hope we can learn to do better by each other and by the planet. We are better than the worst of these comments. These folks who took their time and their energy to behave in public with performative cruelty toward a stranger not only show the rest of us how not to be, but they themselves have the opportunity to do better going forward.
I don’t think I could have made it more than 20 years doing permaculture in late-stage capitalism, a warming climate, and a divisive culture if I wasn’t an idealist. I couldn’t do what I do if I didn’t eternally hope for the best for people and the planet. I’m glad to be back to blogging, and while this isn’t quite the topic I had intended to relaunch my blog, I’ll take it and learn the lessons along the way.
I’ll be posting regularly here while I continue to make YouTube videos and work on writing my book. Lots more to come on permaculture design, practical resilient gardening, and community connection.