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).
We realized had a water problem in our basement the first autumn after we bought our house. You see, I live in Portland, Oregon, and it rains a lot here. It rains and rains and rains for 9 months of the year. And then we have a dry season July-September. And then it rains again. Sometimes the grey, rainy weather feels endless.
Our house and 1/4 acre had once been part of a larger 1/2 acre plot, but the previous owners flag-lotted the property, and built their house on the back where an orchard had been. Because the flag lot consumed our house’s previous driveway (and garage, which was torn down), the previous owners poured a double-wide driveway in our house’s front yard, taking up enough space for 4 minivans. A huge section of our front yard suddenly became a non-porous surface. It was a disastrous choice for the house.
You can see in the picture above that our house is downhill from the houses across the street. Remember that we live in a rainy climate? And that asphalt and concrete are non-porous surfaces? When it rains, the driveway across the street – and moreso, the street ending in a cul de sac to its right – collect massive quantities of rainwater and funnel it downhill across the street….and straight into my yard.
Now, this water coming onto my property would be less of an issue had the previous owners not poured a giant honkin’ concrete pad right where a garden had been. And even worse, they angled the new driveway toward the house foundation. That first autumn, when heavy rains came, we discovered that this had effectively created was a series of chutes, funneling water from several houses across the street, down the cul de sac road, across the street, down our impermeable driveway…and straight into our basement.
Every time it rained heavily, the area in front of our steps was flooded with 4 inches of water that would work its way down the foundation and into the basement. We put in a sump pump and dehumidifiers – but that still didn’t fix the problem – a problem we battled for years.
The Problem is the Solution
In permaculture, we say, “The problem is the solution.” How can we creatively respond to change? How can we take a difficult situation and turn it into an opportunity?
For years after we bought the house, I would get so frustrated every time heavy rains were forecast. I knew what was going to happen in the coming hours or days: a river of water would come streaming onto my property, down into my basement, damaging my property and creating mold issues inside my home. Instead of getting ticked off and shaking my fist at the weather, I decided to take this as an opportunity to make changes in our yard design, and fix the issue.
As I said, concrete is impermeable. It’s just a chute for water. But rich, fertile soil is highly permeable. And plants drink up water through their roots. And swales slow the flow of water so that plants have time to drink it up before it moves on its way. As I observed how the water was flowing, and how various surfaces in my garden impacted water flow, I began to realize what changes I needed to make: rip out the half of the driveway where most of the water flowed toward the house, and plant gardens carefully design with swales and other ways to slow and sink the water coming onto my property.
Here you can see the driveway removal in progress and the details of my design and thought-process. We hired a professional to cut the concrete into 2ft squares, and then we removed all of them by hand, and I busted up many of them to use as urbanite -(Urbanite is the term coined for pieces of concrete removed from existing structures, and repurposed as an alternative to stone or other building blocks.)
From Concrete Nuisance to Vibrant Garden Space
Where we had removed the driveway, I built 3 sets of raised hugelkultur beds, contoured to further slow and sink the water. I also added a spot for my greenhouse, using cut up urbanite as the foundation (again, not a solid concrete foundation, but blocks that allow for water to sink into the soil below).
The beds were planted with perennials, focusing on fruiting shrubs and pollinator-attractors. Where room allows, I tuck in annuals like pumpkins and inca berries.
The benefits of ripping out half my driveway have proved to be many. Since we added the new garden beds, not one drop of water has reached my basement. My front steps no longer flood when it rains. And I have increased the productive space on my property: increasing food production, pollinator habitat, and furthering shielding my house from an unattractive view of the street and car/city bus noise.
While this project was an investment we had to save for, and took a large amount of sweat equity, it has solved a major problem in our lives, helped restore a functional basement to us, and increased our quality of life, and the beauty of our garden. It has been such a win for our family, and I’m so glad I took the time to observe, follow permaculture design principles, and turn a problem into a multi-faceted, highly-effective solution.
The self-sufficiency movement is big right now. It’s understandable – we live in times of economic uncertainty, high costs of food, and a culture of toxic individualism. So, of course the solution Western culture posits is, “Do it all yourself. Don’t trust anyone else. Take care of your own and be ready to stand alone in the coming apocalypse.”
In my writings and my videos, I push back against this kind of mentality as it bleeds into permaculture groups. Preppers, libertarians, self-sufficiency types can be intrigued by many components of permaculture. But instead of diving in and learning the 3 Ethics and 12 principles, they tend to glean little snippets that fit their worldview, all the while bring their ideologies to permaculture communities, creating confusion.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s wonderful that different communities interested in finding alternative ways of living can share information, communicate, and even collaborate. But I believe the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” toxic individuality that can permeate self-sufficiency movements is harmful to the pursuit of truly sustainable communities.
The modern “homestead” or “prepper” mentality operates around an anachronistic view of our foremothers and forefathers. It crafts a narrative rugged individualists striking out on their own, emboldened by “do-it-yourself” gumption and the pursuit of “freedom”. But the reality for our ancestors was not romantic, nor did most folks live in isolation, doing it all by themselves.
The misunderstanding in prepper-type movements is in failing to see where true sustainability lies: not in the power of one person or household tackling everything alone and declaring themselves self-sufficient. That is simply exhausting and unsustainable long-term. No person is an island. We are, in fact, sustained in community. It is in the connections interwoven between humans, businesses, neighborhoods, food systems, that we discover the fabric of resilience.
This is the fundamental difference between permaculture and other sustainability movements is this: we are striving for community interdependence, not self-sufficiency. Our bonds make us stronger, our connections make us better able to withstand adversity. When we create robust local economies, strong community connections, infrastructure with safety nets and support, we build the bonds that hold the fabric of society together, and offer each of us a safety line. Like the Gungor song says, “We are better together. We are the oceantide. The Freedom and the Anchor.We are stronger.”
Let me repeat: permaculture is not a self-sufficiency movement. When we look into the design principles of permaculture, we are encouraged to seek out the connection between all things. We observe the ways that organisms depend on each other, and the way increasing connectedness can increase the resilience in an ecosystem. That same connectedness can also increase the resilience of human-made systems like communities and economies. We design from patterns to details: and nature gives us the pattern: connection, connection, connection. When we design human systems that value the bonds between us, we will create resilient neighborhoods and cities.
Community-interdependence is what we are striving for with permaculture.
You Don’t Have to Grow It All. Support Local Producers.
The “I need to grow it all myself” fallacy is one we can sometimes tumble into along our permaculture journey. In our desire to reduce our carbon footprint, to produce our food locally, and to have a diverse and abundant permaculture design, we can get a little over-zealous. (As someone growing 40 fruit trees and countless berry bushes, I am not immune to this tendency!)
I want to encourage you that you do not have to grow it all yourself. You are not into self-sufficiency, remember? You’re into community-interdependence. If we want to build those strong local food economies, we can and should support local producers.
The reality is that most of us do not have the ability to grow all our own food. We lack the space, the time, the physical ability, the desire. And that is totally ok. I can’t grow all the onions I need every year, but I sure can buy from a farmer in my state. I can’t raise cattle on 1/4 acre, but our family buys a local grassfed sustainable cowshare every year from a rancher about 45 minutes from our house.
We are striving to build communities of people that can weather hard times. A key component of that is making conscious choices to support local farmers, mom-and-pop shops, local textile producers, local businesses. Supporting local economies keeps diverse supply chains local and active right where we live.
Slow, Small Solutions. Your Small Choices Build Local Sustainability.
Permaculture principle #9: Use slow, small solutions. When we choose to support local food chains – especially buying direct from small family farmers- we are taking those slow, small steps toward resilience. When we chose to give our financial to support to micro-producers and mini-farms in our area, rather than to big box stores, we are helping support a functioning local economy.
Sourcing food locally not only means are we supporting a local business, but we are also diversifying our food chain right in our own backyard. ALL of that adds resilience.
You may think that your small actions don’t have an impact, but I can say that as a small business owner, they absolutely do. So look for those small struggling businesses, look for those less-trendy, under the radar little farmstands and minifarms. How can you support them, keeping that hyper-local food production going while you feed your family from producers in your community?
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.