Food Forest: An Example from a Northern Michigan Forest
FOOD FOREST: AN EXAMPLE FROM A NORTHERN MICHIGAN FOREST
When trees arrange themselves into a forest, it is not a random activity. Principles and patterns emerge that reveal what has happened. The tree canopy permits a shaded growth of understory trees and shrubs, and those in turn provide an environment for ground covers and vines. At the edge are the sunlovers. And then there are the animals; the lizards, toads, birds, butterflies, bees, rabbits, racoons (Figure 1), weasels, and wolverines, the foxes, deer, wild turkeys, the white-tailed deer, and the majestic North American black bear who make a home in the forest - a home that that no single tree could provide. A food forest is a man-made forest that incorporates the essential principles of a natural forest and it invites animals in as well to pollinate, to perpetuate, to fertilize, to prune, and to share in the abundance. This is Graham Burnett perspective from.
Permaculture: A Beginners Guide: (1) "Work With Nature Not Against."
Here I will discuss the permaculture concept of building a "food forest" garden and also talk about the natural food forest in northern Michigan that was my childhood home.
Gardens by definition are usually not natural productions. They are made in spite of nature. They are plowed and weeded and planted with seeds or plants from foreign lands. A food forest, on the other hand, is specifically designed to mimic certain features of a fully develped or climax forest. Wells, et. al. (2) define a climax forest as, "one capable of maintaining itself on the same site indefintely, once established, given no dramatic climatic changes" (1999:12). A climax forest is one which follows a succession of plant communities to the point that seedlings "tolerate the conditions the parents create and thus are able to persist."
When selecting plants for a food forest design, it doesn't matter if the plants are the same kind that may have flourished in your area prehistorically. What does matter is that the structure and processes of a mature forest are replicated. These principles can be accomplished by designing the space around a single fruit or nut tree. In fact, Michael Lockman (3) has convincingly argued that you can plant a food forest in a wine barrel by layering a small tree, a shrub, perhaps a vine, and a perennial groundcover. The basic idea is to combine a layered group of plants that together perform as a functioning unit of mutual contribution. These units in the permaculture literature are called "guilds".
The technical considerations of guild building and lists of plants that perform these different functions can be found in the indexes of Tom Hemenway's Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture (4). Detailed techniques for designing a food forest can be found in Patrick Whitefield's (5) How to Make a Forest Garden. The 2 volume Edible forest Gardens. The Ecology and Design of Home Scale Food Gardens describes ecological theory and the design and practice of edible forest gardening. (6) An excerpt from that work is included in the references (6a).
Guilds are designed to mimic the natural layering or stratification of forests (7). The canopy, understory, shrub, herb or fern, and litter are layers formed in all forests. Recently, the importance of the rhizosphere, or rooting zone, has also been emphasized. In the plant world, one of the ways that parents create an environment favorable to their offspring's survival is by attracting colonies of mycorrhizae in their root zone that are favorable to dominant plants, but antagonistic to encroachers. This characteristic is called allelopathy. This can be one way that structured plant communities are created. (8)
A climax forest, once achieved, is the epitome of sustainability. It has the inherent characteristic of self perpetuation. The permaculture concept of a 'guild' tends to model the structure of the layers in a tropical rain forest, where lush viney plants may be more prevalent than in other forest types. But Northern Temperate Forest models may be more suitable for the temperate zones.
The "three sisters" combination of corn, beans, and squash used by horticultural Indians in the American Southwest is often cited as a classic example of a guild since each of the three plants contributes to the growth and well being of the other. Hemenway (1999:148) observes there may have in fact been a fourth sister in the American Southwest, since Cleome serulata, Rocky Mountain Bee Plant, is often found at Anasazi sites in the American Southwest. This plant attracts pollinating insects for the squash and beans. While the "three sisters" or "four sisters" analogy illustrates the interdependence and layering of a successful plant combination, the focus of a food forest guild would be perennial self sustaining plants. Most prehistoric American Indians did not practice horticulture. They were forest dwellers - food forest dwellers.
A person who is planning to design a food forest, however limited, for their property would do well to consider what a natural forest is for their local environment and how it works. You could use the 'armchair' approach. Around the turn of the last century there were many government sponsored surveys: geological surveys, botanical surveys, and soil surveys. These are excellent documents produced by the best scientists of the day. In archeology these are the documents that we use to construct a base-line environmental statement about the prehistoric cultures we are investigating. They give a thorough assessment of relevant environmental variables. In Alabama, the classic assessment of plant communities was Charles Mohr's (1909) Plant Life of Alabama. (9) Soil inventories produced at this time are very useful in that they identify the plants that characteristically grow on each type of soil.
One useful approach for background research in my opinion is to find out if there is a Soil Survey for your county. This will provide information not only on your soil type, but also its potential for woodland development. Older surveys made around the turn of the the twentieth century are a gold mine of information on original forest composition and wild life habitats. (10) Or, you could go to a forest and observe what is happening there. There are State and National Forests if you don't have one of your own.
This is the woods were I grew up in Northern Michigan (Figure 2). There was plenty of food for man and beast. So come with me and see what happens.
The woods where I grew up technically is known as the Northern Deciduous forest. (11, 11b) The dominant trees were maple used for maple syrup and beech [Fagus grandifolia] which has an edible nut.
There were a variety of other trees as well, such as birch, tulip poplar, cherry, elm, and northern pine. While one might think of a forest or woods as a 'bunch of trees', in fact it is a highly organized space. Vertical layering was present in this forest, but the horizontal and differential spacing of plants was much more obvious.
Our farm faced the county line road. The farmsteads along this road - my grandparents' and my cousins' - were carved out of the forests on the old terraces and flood plain of the Manistee River.
The High Roll Way (Figure 2) is an historic log roll (12) and Indian overlook on the Manistee River. It is actually a National Reserve that runs along the the southern boundary of our property. The Manistee is really a "food river" within a food forest. Here is a list of Manistee River fish species (1989:79, scroll to Table 2). (13) And here are some happy fishermen!
We had a tiny house, a big barn, and a well. Behind the barn were two cow ponds for our cows. The furthest one was large enough to be a swimming hole, except for the leeches in it. We built a raft and spent a lot of time sailing the pond. The cows had to be taken to the woods daily, except in winter and except when leeks in the woods would ruin their milk. Taking the cows to pasture in the woods every day Spring through the Fall was a job for me and Dicky - our collie dog and my constant companion. I should say the cows led us to pasture in the woods.
Generations of cows had cut the trail no more than 12 inches wide. The cows knew exactly where to go. I never did figure out how a 3 ft wide cow could follow such a narrow path. The woods nearest our barn was kept relatively open since the cows grazed there every day. They pruned away any weedy brush.
To the east was a lone crabapple tree by the gate into the woods. And beyond that was a field of bracken ferns and beyond that was the Pine Tree Hideout. A group of tall pines had formed a series of 'rooms' carpeted with a deep layer of pine needles. It was a cool place in summer and a safe place to wait out a winter snow-storm. My brother saw eagles (14) nesting in the tops of the pines one year. (Eagle chicks) (14a) In late summer wintergreen berries, Gaultheria procumbens, appeared in the pine straw there. This was the only place in the woods where they grew.
To the west was a low ridge of maple trees that we tapped for maple syrup in late winter when the sap of the trees started to rise. It was my job to check the buckets - sometimes twice a day - to make sure that all of the sap went into the horse tank where it was rendered down into maple syrup. The best was the maple sugar in the bottom of the tank once the syrup was removed.
The Ojibwe who lived in the woods before my family came there may also have tapped the maple trees for syrup. Ken Weyaus, Sr. talks about the Ojibwe sugarbushing tradition. (15) And maple sugar production is featured in Ojibwe mythology: How the Ojibwe got maple sugar.
At the western edge of the sugar maple trees were the Juneberries, Amalanchier arborea. Juneberries grow in thickets of dozens and dozens of 30 ft trees - a heavenly place in spring when the trees were in bloom, and even more sublime in mid-summer when the Juneberries were ripe!
When the snow was gone and Spring was finally here, it was the season for morels in the woods. Their presence was fleeting: only a few weeks at the end of April and into May. (16a through 16g) Beyond the wooded pasture was a very strange meadow. It separated the near woods from the far. We called this clearing "Homer's potato patch". I don't know if there ever was a Homer who lived there. There were vague stores that my ancestors came from Quebec before Michigan was a state, and they were the ones who first settled our property. I think it may have just been a natural clearing leading into the deep woods.
Homer's Potato Patch was always a place where you could find summer berries. There were wild strawberries in the woods, but blackberries, raspberries, black raspberries, blueberries and gooseberries all flourished in Homer's Potato Patch. Here is Beatrice Taylor of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe remembering Summer Gathering (17)
Another prevalent anomaly was large oval patches of green moss occurring randomly throughout the woods. These patches, which might be 3 or 4 ft in either direction, were a prime location for Indian arrow heads which could be sold for 5 cents each to the old doctor who had a drugstore in town. My brothers told me the mossy patches were "Indian burials". In retrospect, I think they were tree falls, or the sites of old rotted trees that once stopped an Indian arrow to two.
The Indians who lived or hunted in our woods were the Ojibwe. (Some non-Indian people call them Chippewa.) According to Ken Weyaus, Sr. of the Minnesota Mille Lacs Band these are the Ojibwe winter traditions. (18)
Beyond Homer's Potato Patch was the deep woods and then the quick- sand lakes. It was a swampy place and it was close to the river. This is where the wild cranberries grew. I didn't go there often because of the quicksand which could be treacherous. There were a few things intelligent people did not do and one was to go near the quick sand lakes. Everyone knew horrible stories of cows going down in the quicksand.
Another rule was not to try to swim the Manistee River. Nearly every year a tourist would try it, but they were pulled to the bottom by the under tow. Then they had to be fished out of the river and sent home in a coffin.
November 15th was the beginning of deer hunting season. The woods was flooded with hunters from the South. It was not safe to be in the woods - not safe for cows, dogs, or little girls.
But when hard winter came and the hunters were gone, there was much to be done. My uncle had polio, so it was my job to check his traps and reset them - and bring him the frozen bodies of any animal that had the misfortune to be caught. Most often the animal was able to retrieve the dried corn cob from the box trap without getting ensnared. Then all I had to do was reset the trap with a fresh corncob.
One winter morning my Dad said to me, "There are lumberjacks in the woods. Now don't you bother them." The farmers often hired lumberjacks to clean out dead and dying trees and any scrub trees that would prevent the growth of the best trees. The lumberjacks improved the health of the woods.
It didn't take me long on my skis to find where they were. Their camp was just the other side of the Pine Tree Hideout near Homer's Potato Patch. Dicky and I hid behind a tree thinking they could not see us. There were three of them. One even had a wooden leg! He was the cook. They were making breakfast. The cook cut thick slabs of bacon from a hind quarter hanging in a tree. The others sat close to the fire, sharpening tools. Finally, they were ready to eat. The cook said, "Little girl, would you like some breakfast?" Oh. I was discovered. But I was not about to turn down breakfast! These guys really knew how to eat! There was bacon, pancakes and maple syrup.
They started to tell me Paul Bunyan stories and I believed everything they said. Someplace in Minnesota there was a giant lumberjack and his crew was so big that they greased their griddle by tying hogs onto their feet and skating around! I knew then that I would be a lumberjack when I grew up.
* * * * * * * * *
Even though I went into the woods almost every day, it was always a place of wonder and discovery. There was something new to see on every visit. I still miss changes of the seasons - the tapestry of maples, beeches, and poplars in the fall and the blanket of snow in winter, the lacy canopy of blooming Juneberry trees in spring, and the taste of the juice from ripe prickly gooseberries in late summer. And today I try to capture the essence of that wonder in my backyard garden, by re-creating small scenes from the woods I once knew.
Figure 1. raccoon. Photograph from: Michigan Mammals - Learn about Whitetail Deer, Elk, Bats and more! Used by Permission ZacharyTrost of outdoor-michigan.com 9/22/09
Figure 2. High Roll Way. On the Manistee River. Wexford, Co. Michigan. Photographer: Dawn Raymer with Permission. Thanks Dawn!
Figure 3. Sparrows in Crabapple Tree. www.wikipedia.org.
"Female House Sparrow chasing male away, protecting her food source." October 2007. Photographer: Calyponte. "Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.
Figure 4. Eastern cottontail. Jumping Rabbit. Wikipedia.org.
eastern cottontail. File:JumpingRabbit.JPG - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Photographer: Hardyplants. Released into the Public Domain by the author
1. Burnett, Graham. Permaculture: A Beginner's Guide. Spiralseed. Other articles. 35 Rayleigh Avenue. Westcliff On Sea. Essex SSO 7DS.
2. James R. Wells, Frederick W. Case, and T. Lawrence Mellichamp. Wildflowers of the Western Great Lakes Region. Cranbrook Institute of Science. Wayne State University Press. 1999. 12. ISBN:0877370427.
3. Michael Lockman. Food forest in a Barrel. Natural Home Magazine. March/April 2003.
4. Hemenway, Toby. 1952. Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. Chelsea Green Publishing company. White River Junction, Vermont. ISBN I-890132-52-7.
5. Whitefield, Patrick. How To Make A Forest Garden. Permanent Publications. East Meon, Hampshire GU32 1HR, UK. 2008. ISBN-13:978-1-85623-008-7.
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6a. An excerpt: Edible Forest Gardens: An Invitation to Adventure. The Natural Farmer -Spring 2002. www nofa org.
7. Stratification. www mightytrees com
8. David Hartnett and Gail W.T. Wilson. Influence of Mycorrhizae on Plant Community Structure and Diversity in Tall Grass Prairie. Ecology. June 1999.
9. Mohr, Charles. Plant Life of Alabama: p. 100 ff.
10. Soil Survey. USDA NRCS Soil Surveys. United States Department of Agriculture. Natural Resources Conservation Service. Soil Survey.
11. Northern Deciduous Forest.
11a. Michael Pidwirny, Lead author. World Wide Forest Biomes. Temperate Broadleaf and Mixed Forests. Encylopedia of Earth.
11b. Biomes of North America. www plantsystematics org.
12. Historic photograph of "Canfields Rollway": COVER: Rozich, Thomas J. 1998. Manistee River Assessment. Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Fisheries Division, Special Report Number 21. Ann Arbor, Michigan. "Canfields Rollway" on the Pine River - Lake County, T20N, R12W, Section 12, NW1/4 of NW 1/4. Date of photograph unknown, but thought to be in the 1880s. Photo courtesy of Wexford County Historical Society Museum from Merlin "Red" Anderson collection donated to the museum.
13. Table 2. Fish species Native to the Manistee. Rozich, Thomas J. 1998. Manistee River Assessment. Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Fisheries Division, Special Report Number 21. Ann Arbor, Michigan. Table 2. List of Fishes in the Manistee River. www michigandnr com
14. Eagles. American Bald Eagle. en wikipedia org
14a. Eagle Chicks. www.wikipedia.org.
15. Sugarbush. Ken Weyaus, Sr. Mille Lacs Band Elder. "springtime sugarbushing".
The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe
16. Morels, 'Morchella'.
16a. Morchella. Morels. wikipedia.org morels.
16b. Index to Morel articles. mushroomexpert.com at www.treehuggers.com.
16c. Kuo, M. (2006, April). Black morels (Morchella species). MushroomExpert.Com
16d. White and black morels. www naturealmanac com.
16e. Morel hunting season - University of Michigan News Release.
16f. Morel kit for giant cloned morels. Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply.
www groworganic com.
16g. The White Morel "Morchella Esculenta" video. www metacafe com
17. Beatrice Taylor. Summer Gathering. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
18. Winter traditions. Ken Weyaus, Sr. Mille Lacs Band Elder. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.