The Islands of Hawai’i have a long history with perennial food forest systems. The first people to come to Hawai’i created a food forest system, known as an ahupua’a, that not only provided for its people but also for the land and sea as well.
Today we face potential starvation. With over 80% of Hawai’i’s food currently being imported from over 3000 miles away, we are just one week from experiencing empty shelves. It has become even more of a reality in the light of the recent pandemic.
Now, more than ever, the people of Hawai’i have to regain our unity and work towards a common goal of malama ‘aina. By caring for the land, we can care for its people. By creating food forests across all the islands, starting in our own backyards, the people of Hawai’i can accomplish food sovereignty once again.
Today we are going to look into what it takes to create a food forest on your homestead, whether it be in a small backyard or 200 acre spread. It’s time to take some action folks. After this article, I hope you are better equipped to break ground on your food forest project tomorrow.
Related: If You are looking for more on the subject, there is a good book by Florida permaculturalist David the Good. Great tips that apply to Tropical Food Forests
Why Food Forests?
Ok, what’s wrong with just planting tomatoes, kale and cucumbers? You know, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact I just spent the last 2 weeks building this huge raised bed protected from insects and rain just so I can grow a few of my own zucchini!
However, it shouldn’t be my main focus. Annuals are great, but it is very difficult to grow annual vegetables in a regenerative way. Part of why we are creating a food forest is to regenerate the environment, but more on that later.
Constant tillage leading to bare soil that destroys soil life and quickly erodes in any rainstorm, annual vegetable production has brought nothing but environmental desecration in its wake. On a small scale in the backyard, ok, but to feed your family? or the whole island? and to rely upon it?
That would require a lot of space and a lot of environmental impact.
Food forests accomplish the opposite. They create permanent, stable systems that improve environmental health year after year. Food producing trees in a forest setting mixed with overstory trees, edible shrubs, vines and root crops produce a rich tapestry of products that enhance the vitality of all inhabitants.
The soil no longer gets tilled every year, leaving it exposed to tropical rains. The leaf litter builds soil every year. The food from these trees provide for the people with minimal care, but with maximum abundance.
Let us steer ourselves away from an over reliance on annual food production. Let’s think long term. Let us cut our reliance on imports by growing edible food forests across all of the islands. Let us begin.
Identify Your Food Forest Goals
Whenever anyone mentions starting off on a new project, the first step that usually gets mentioned is for you to identify your goals. So it must be important, right?
With a clear goal, EVERYTHING becomes easier. One of the hardest things about creating a food forest is managing your time to be as efficient as you can. Clear goals will help you focus on your priorities as opposed to letting things of little importance take up too much of your time.
What is the reason that you want to create a food forest for? Are you trying to be self reliant? Do you want to turn it into a source of income? Just looking for something to do?
If you are trying to produce as much food as possible for yourself, it would probably be best to study up on ripening times for different varieties. But if your goal is to make money, then researching highest yielding crops would be where you should focus your time.
Take the time now to identify your goals for creating your food forest. Go ahead. Then begin to put a little research into obtaining your goals.
Observe and Interact
When designing a food forest, your best teacher is the local native forest. Spending time in a native forest will open the door to learning about how plants grow together in your local ecosystem and how you can mimic their growth and duplicate it on your landscape.
On Hawai’i Island, it is easy to notice that the soil is real thin, mostly lava rock. Trees here tend to have shallow root systems, growing in the thin soil layer as opposed to penetrating deep down into the ground. Because of this observation, I need to focus my efforts on tree species that do well in this type of environment.
Species selection is very important when trying to create a productive food forest that requires very little time to maintain. I like to grow what wants to grow on my land, not try and force something that doesn’t like it here. I don’t have time for that.
By allowing nature to be my guide instead of imposing my will, your food forest project will flow much more smoothly. Work with nature, rather than against it.
OBSERVE YOUR SITE
Take the lessons you pick up from your wanderings in your local native forest and begin to mull them over as you spend some time observing your own site. Find a nice spot that you like to hang out in and spend time there every day. Just sit and watch. Observe.
Watch the weather. Study the birds. Ponder your observations and turn them into ideas.
During the development of my food forest, I realized that the areas under the local junk trees, i.e. pioneer species, provided pretty rich soil in comparison to other spots on my property. These trees that everyone considered junk were the best at creating soil through their constant leaf litter.
Before I understood the concept of chop and drop popularized in permaculture, I began to use this soil building ability to my advantage. A regular routine of mine was to chop off branches full of leaves from these junk trees and drop them on the ground where I wanted to plant.
Over the years in the areas of my property where I did this, I now have rich soil where once there was only rock.
Another observation was watching how young fruit trees always seemed to be growing in the shade of their mother plant. I helped mimic this growth pattern by utilizing the shade of these junk trees to nurse the young fruit trees during their formative years.
This is one of the best parts about creating a food forest for me. I love to find the little interrelations that exist in the garden and slowly, over time, implement little tweaks that improve the system over all. It is so satisfying when a theory turns out to be true.
These moments of realization will come to you if you allow yourself to take a break from working from time to time and just watch for a little while. We tend to focus so much on the doing, that sometimes it is more helpful to step back and take in the bigger picture from time to time.
MOMENT OF ACTION
It’s time for action. Grab a notebook and pen and begin to take a survey of your property. Write down prevailing weather patterns, water flows, soil, slope, wildlife.
Walk your site during a rainstorm and watch where the water flows. Draw a rudimentary base map of your property and identify those flow patterns. Take note of the sun’s positions at different times and mark that down.
Making a survey of the different natural processes found on your site will help you better understand your property and how to design your food forest, taking advantage of your site’s strengths and augmenting its weaknesses.
Design: Create Layout
Ultimately, the design of your site will be unique to your goals and your conditions. In the book Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and EricToensmeier, they identify four types of layouts for a typical food forest project.
- Savannah Type System – Alley Cropping or Silvopasture systems. These systems are based on a broad scale, keyline design better suited for commercial fruit and nut production mixed with animals. These systems would be laid out with equidistant rows to allow for efficient use of machinery for production.
The broad ranchlands of Kamuela on Hawai’i Island would be a perfect candidate a Savannah type system.
- Orchards – Woodlands with regularly spaced trees. This is where most of us fit in. It is a hybrid between commercial orchard and native woodland. Instead of focusing primarily on productive fruit or nut trees, nurse species such as nitrogen fixers and unserstory crops are also mixed in.
On the Island of Hawai’i in the hills above Kona there once existed a 20 mile long belt food forest with ‘Ulu as its major tree species.
- Mid – Late Succession Woodland – This is where things begin to look a bit more wild, as if nature did the planting. You have forest edges with canopy trees. This is a typical food forest set up for most of Hawai’i.
- Closed Canopy Forest – Think native forest. Here the jungle is thick. Everything is in balance.
LAYOUT YOUR SITE
Regardless of what layout style you choose, almost every project can follow a simple procedure to effectively design their site as a food forest.
Create a base map of your site and draw on the elements from the survey you did earlier to identify location of permanent structures, access points and so on. Essentially draw the location of any homes, sheds, etc, location of watertanks, as well as driveways or fences that may already exist. Mark the location of existing vegetation that will remain onsite.
Now that we have all of the existing features labeled on a base map, we can begin to design the most important element into our system, water.
Everything you do on your property should be laid out on contour to the land. That means that your rows run level, across a hillside. Not straight up and down a hill or at an angle, but across the hill as if you are planting a cup that can hold water.
Plant the rain by incorporating swales, water harvesting basins or terracing to slow, spread and sink the water on your property. Go for a walk when it’s raining hard outside and watch where the water goes. Identify places you can slow, spread and sink the water.
Tropical countries throughout southeast Asia utilize terrace agriculture almost everywhere. The terraces harvest rainwater, conserve soil and keep it from being lost to erosion. Our intensive tillage across hillsides with no regard to planting on contour should be considered criminal.
The water harvesting features that you implement will become a permanent part of your landscape and will guide how all future elements are placed into your design.
After planting the rain, plan your access. I have built a few food forests in my life and one thing I have learned is the importance of access. If you cannot access a portion of your property, it won’t get maintained. No compost dumps. Last on the list for pruning. It will not happen no matter what you tell yourself.
Layout your roads and pathways that work with your water harvesting earthworks. For example, build your driveway on contour to the slope of your land as close as you possibly can, crown the driveway so that water will run off to either side and build water harvesting swales on either side of the road to infiltrate that driveway runoff directly into your landscape.
Think this part through because once all of your elements actually get installed on your land, there is no going back.
Now is the time to identify fencing for your project. Do you have garden predators that you need to keep out of the garden? Or maybe you have livestock that you need to keep in? A good fence goes a long way towards ensuring a good start for your food forest.
On one project I fenced each tree individually to keep them safe from pigs and such, but then would never weed around their base, leaving the trees neglected. Finally I just fenced the whole garden and freed the trees and they love me for it.
Save unneeded expenses. Plan your fencing well, it will save you money in the long run.
Finally, locate any buildings that have yet to be constructed. Your new home, an addition, an Ohana unit or greenhouse out back, put these elements onto your base map now. Be sure to orient them in a way for maximum solar exposure for solar electricity as well as proximity to your gardens, water tanks or other infrastructure that needs to stay close.
MOMENT OF ACTION: Do this now. Get your base map, draw off your observations and begin to create a refined site plan incorporating all of the elements mentioned above. Many people pass over this all to important step. Take your time and really think through all the possible combinations of where certain elements are located and how they are designed.
Make a Master Plant List
Here’s where the fun part begins, choosing what you will plant in your food forest. I like to create a spreadsheet where I list out all of the possible plants that can grow on my property. Start with overstory trees, mid sized trees, shrubs, groundcovers, root crops and vines.
As you identify the plants you would like to grow, begin to take note of their specific usage in your food forest. Are they strictly fruiting plants, do they fix nitrogen or mine valuable minerals from deep underground? Begin to highlight their possible benefits so that we can create a plant guild out of them.
Here is a little tip, grow what you like to eat. Sure, I can grow tons of exotic fruits such as sapote or jackfruit, but I don’t like them very much. What’s the point in growing them if the fruit is just going to go to waste? I have seen so many people plant these exotic fruits because they sound cool, then regret it when it comes to harvest.
Hawai’i is filled with a variety of microclimates. What does well in one spot may not work so well just a couple of miles away. Make sure you talk to neighbors, ask questions in groups like Homesteadin’ Hawaii on Facebook, really research what will grow well and fruit on your property.
I planted a mango 18 years ago from a seedling I picked up just 10 miles from my home. The tree grew but has not once produced a single fruit. It is a beautiful tree, but I wish there was something edible in its place.
To help you find the right plants to grow, go back to your observations in your local native forest. In Hawai’i we don’t have very many native edible plants, but we do have edible plants that have naturalized. In my area avocados, coconut, guava, mountain apple and a few others all grow in the wild. For me, that’s a great place to start.
CREATE YOUR PLANT GUILDS
Now that you have your list of plants you would like to grow and their associated benefits, you can begin to form planting guilds. These are essentially plant associations or companion plantings.
I like to pair 2-3 nitrogen fixing overstory trees with one edible fruit tree. Eventually the nitrogen fixers will be paired back to one plant as your fruit tree matures, but in the beginning stages of your food forest, the nitrogen fixing trees provide much needed shade and nitrogen to your young fruit trees.
Let me run down an example of a guild that I have going on my property on the eastside of Hawai’i Island. With the Avocado as the main Fruit tree, I planted 2 ice cream beans near my avocado that grew quickly and provided much needed shade and fertility for my young avocado. At the same time I planted a dwarf lemon tree and surinam cherry. All within a 15 ft diameter to one another.
At the base of these trees I planted some pineapple as a short shrub and perennial peanut as a nitrogen fixing ground cover. This area no longer has nitrogen fixing trees, the avocado is now the dominant tree, with surinam cherry just under the avo, a lemon under the surinam and pineapple and perennial peanut covering the ground. Lately I have been mixing in some comfrey to increase weed suppression and add fertility.
In other areas of the food forest I have sweet potato acting as a root crop and ground cover. Other spots still have vines such as lilikoi growing. The point is, I am not trying to cram all the different plant types within each tree guild. It’s ok to spread the love. Not every situation calls for every plant.
MOMENT OF ACTION: Open up Google Spreadsheet or excel and begin to compile a master list of all the various plants you’d like to include in your food forest. Make sure you include nitrogen fixing trees, shrubs and ground covers, fruit trees of various size and harvest times, shrubby plants, groundcovers, tuners and vines. Include each plant’s benefits and needs.
Next take that master plant list and begin to combine them into plant guilds. Start with your main fruit tree and guild out from there. A savannah or orchard type food forest may require slight modifications to fit within their design constraints.
An example would be a beneficial hedge row that can be easily maintained by machines rather than planting them in haphazard arrangements.
Implement Your Design
Design time is over. It’s time to put all those ideas into practice. If you already have a blank slate, an open field or lawn that is ready to plant, then you are ready to go. But most properties don’t start that way.
You may have to clear some existing vegetation in order for you to establish a food forest. Consider keeping some of what is already existing and work around it. For everything else, consider how you will use the waste.
Will you use a wood chipper to dispose of trees and shrubs? How about building hugel mounds popularized by Sepp Holzer?
The material you clear is a resource. Try to keep it onsite where it can break down and add more fertility to your soil.
PLANT THE RAIN
It is time to install any water harvesting earthworks that you have decided to add into your design. It is important for any site to have an effective water management plan. Planting the rain in the soil should be a major startegy for water harvesting on your landscape.
Think of the soil as a sponge, the more you infiltrate water into it, the more it can soak up and absorb for you to “squeeze” out later when you need it. This “squeezing” out happens through deep tapping roots that can access the water that has now been stored underground.
Take the elements in your design and install them onto your landscape, making tweeks to your system as they develop to ensure success.
I created a farm that was laid out on contour utilizing water harvesting swales. The client had a big budget. We took a rotary laser level and marked our level line on the landscape with stakes. Then I ran the excavator and dug out my swales, depositing the soil I dug out to create a berm on the downhill side.
This system allowed us to harvest water off of driveways, overflow from roofs, gutters and other water flows that showed themselves during rain events. This water was allowed to spread out across the landscape as opposed to being piped directly into a gully or wash, causing erosion.
As the water filled the swales, it slowed its speed and was able to percolate into the ground on my property, increasing water availability to the plants and keeping valuable topsoil from washing away during rainstorms.
If you are looking at creating a savannah type system or orchard, you can think about using a Keyline Plow, which is a simpler form of swaling by creating on-contour ditches using a mechanical plow, speeding up the process over larger acreages.
Not every site needs to implement any of these strategies. Where I live in puna where we have rock for soil that happens to be really porous, we rarely get flooding. Even during a recent 100 year rain event where other properties north of us were experiencing massive flooding, our site infiltrated all of that water with no flooding at all.
The difference was the other properties have thick clay soils and we have porous lava rock.
Related: You have to get the Bible on harvesting rainwater through Earthworks. This will dramatically change the way you grow your food.
INSTALL PATHWAYS, IRRIGATION, FENCING
Once the earthworks are in place, it’s time to install your pathways and other hard infrastructure.
Installing your pathways actually dictate the overall layout of your food forest. When we created ours we started with the pathways. We marked them off using landscape paint and built our planting areas wherever we didn’t have a path.
Be sure to make your pathway work for you. On the site I am at now, we have a small half acre parcel that is mostly flat. Instead of straight paths, we have meandering pathways that invoke a feeling of getting lost, even on a small half acre parcel.
If you have a sloped property in which you are installing swales, your pathways may be different. On another project of mine, I made the bottom of the swales double as my pathways because access across the slope was tricky otherwise
This allowed for me easy access to my trees during the dry times, but limited access during the wet times. However, it rained very little at that location.
If your project is in a dry location and you require supplemental irrigation, this is the time to get that installed as well. A well designed irrigation system makes life a whole lot easier. Plan out your irrigation to make it easy to control from a central location.
Once your pathways and irrigation are set, you can focus on some fencing. In most locations around the world, fencing in your food forest saves you more in the long run from crop loss due to wild animals. I have seen many trees ruined by pigs as well as domesticated animals such as goats and even chickens!
Most people I know who have tried to start a garden have regretted not having a fence installed from the very beginning.
A fence doesn’t have to be fancy. Keep it to the area of your food forest as opposed to fencing your whole property if that is an issue for you. You can use t-posts and agricultural fencing instead of chain link or wooden fences which cost more.
As your food forest matures, maybe then you can consider removing the fence to incorporate animals into the system. But even then you have to be careful.
BUILD YOUR SOIL
Focusing on building the health of your soil in year one before planting the next year actually increases plant yields.
Building soil in the early years can be difficult. The landscape is quite often barren without readily available inputs to feed the system. You have to bring much of it in.
Build compost piles. Bring in mulch from local tree companies or local green waste centers. Shovel manure from the local horse stables. Find whatever you can and add it to your garden.
We built our food forest on ripped lava rock in puna. We do not use shovels to dig, we use o’o bars to remove rocks. I started by letting the weeds get tall and chopped them. Then I smothered everything with layers of cardboard.
From there I spent a good year building out our grow beds across our ½ acre property. Every time I went to town, I loaded my small pickup with fill soil from county projects, horse manure from the horse stalls and mulch from the green waste center.
We planted a cover crop first composed of nitrogen fixing legumes inoculation with mycorrhizal fungi. A food forest is dominated by fungi in the soil. Encouraging mycorrhizal fungi in your soils is one of the keys to building rich, healthy soils.
Adding woody mulch helps feed and spread the growth of fungi in the soil. As your system ages and trees grow, you have more woody material that you can chop and drop to encourage fungal growth with onsite resources.
It’s finally time to get your planting on, but where do you get them? You can purchase fruit trees from your local nursery, at the farmers market or even on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist. Stay away from the big box stores, most of their plants are not locally adapted.
To save money, you may want to think about propagating plants on your own. And why not? So many plants grow very easily from seed or cutting. I have probably only purchased about $200 worth of plants for my half acre, most of them harder to grow fruit trees.
The rest I have planted by seed. I have done this for my avocados, mountain apple, surinam cherry, abiu, ice cream bean as well as all of my annual vegetables. All of the trees have fruited amazingly quick having been grown from seed. Some of them fruiting before their fifth year and reaching amazing heights within the same timeframe.
From cutting I have grown kalo, bamboo, sweet potato, katuk, hibiscus, banana, sugar cane, ti leaves, comfrey, mulberry and more.
It is really hard for me to buy a plant at the store knowing how easy it is to grow on my own.
When it comes time to planting in the landscape, most likely you will stagger the timing of your plantings. It takes time to build out a guild.
I like to focus on getting in my nitrogen fixing trees and fruit trees planted as soon as possible. This gives them time to start growing. Then I begin to fill in the understory.
Plant out your shrubs, then your ground cover and root crops. Save your vines till the system is more established.
As things grow out, your food forest will have a lot of available sunshine and open space. During this time you can focus on filling those spaces with annuals at this time.
Once we had the main elements of our food forest in place, we began filling the empty space with short lived annuals such as kale, collards, squash, etc. As the food forest evolves and available light decreases, so does the presence of annuals in your food forest.
Two times a year, I would refresh the woody mulch, covering all exposed soil. IMO’s, Compost teas, etc. should also be included in the fertility management of your food forest.
Eventually, it may get to the point for your food forest to naturalize and sustain itself as you introduce animals into the system.. But until then, always remember to constantly feed the garden.
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