Living off the grid can be one of the best decisions you can make if you enjoy being more independent, paying fewer bills and being completely free.
In order to truly be self reliant, you have to develop systems that take care of you automatically. If you live off grid but you have to truck in your water every week, you’re not self reliant yet. The same can be said with food. If you still have to depend on the store to give you food, you’re not quite there yet.
The answer is agroforestry. (I prefer calling them food forests). This is when you plant a forest that produces crops for you on all levels. Highest you have fruit and nut trees. These are your anchors. Then you have short trees, bushes, and vines. Next you have stalks, shrubs, and sprouts. Then beneath the ground you have roots and tubers.
Plus walking around eating all the bugs and dropped fruit are chickens and turkeys that you can hunt for some of the healthiest meat around.
A food forest is a long term investment in your food stability and independence. It is a permanent food supply that after setting up, doesn’t take the effort of traditional farming to cultivate food from each year.
The downside: it takes up to 7 years to mature and really get rolling in food production.
Trees are the anchors for a food forest. Nut and fruit trees take about 7 years to reach an age to produce food for you. So if food independence is something you’re looking at, you need to plan for that now by planting the trees as soon as possible.
If you plant 50 trees per year for the next 7 years, then when you get your first crop 7 years from now, you’ll have 350 trees planted in your orchard. That’s not even one tree per week.
The good news is that once your trees are stable, you don’t have to wait for them to produce food for you to start the next layer in the food forest. You can plant your bushes and vines while you wait. This will give your trees time to grow tall, the bushes and vines will grow around and beneath them as they would in a wild forest.
The next year you plant the next layers of your forest and prune last years. As you go, your forest will start producing for you to supplement your grocery shopping until you can live off it completely.
So what kinds of things should you grow?
Things you’ll eat.
If you don’t eat apples, then planting 300 apple trees is not going to make for a happy camper. The same can be said for olives, blackberries or asparagus. Just because it's in my food forest doesnt mean it needs to be in yours.
Nuts should be the anchor point for your food forest. There are a few reasons for this that make them invaluable in growing on your farm.
Nuts and beans are the only food on earth that you can live off the rest of your life and stay healthy. Only veggies and you die from not enough calories (starvation). Only rice or wheat and you have enough calories but die from lack of nutrients (malnourishment). Nuts and beans have proteins, fats, and carbohydrates essential for life. They also have amino acids which are used to build the stuff your body needs.
Nuts grow on trees (peanuts aren't nuts, they are closer to beans). THis means you don't have to replant them every year. Some nuts (cough pistachios cough cough) also produce all year long so you don't have to wait for the fall to enjoy a harvest.
Nuts take up significantly less space and can be easily stored in a cool place in burlap sacks. Unlike fruit or vegetables you don't have to worry as much about bruising or going bad. Nuts are more resilient.
Nuts don’t go bad easily. They sit in a cool place and they'll still be there next week.
You can grind them into flour and have high protein nut flour as your base in your baked goods. (pistacchio tortillas… just saying… )
They transport easily. You can throw them in bags and put them anywhere without losing 10-20%of your crop every time you move them.
They sell for a high price point. Let's say you grow 250 nut trees in your 350 tree orchard. There’s almost no way you could eat all those nuts alone. So what does any farmer do with their excess? You sell it. Well when you sell apples or squash, you can sell them for 1-2$ per pound and you have to get rid of them as soon as possible or they go bad.
With nuts, you can sell them for 10-15$ per pound and you don't have the same time requirement in getting rid of them.
Nuts are God’s gift to the world. Use them as your anchor trees you’ll thank me (in 7-10 years).
So what else should you plant in your food forest? I'm so glad you asked.
Native plant species.
If you’re looking for a long term solution to the food problem, you need plants that will stick around and endure long term. If you plant trees that don't do well in your climate and environment, you’re going to get lower yields, spend money trying to keep them alive and in the end lose your trees and start over.
Instead, take your time and do the homework. Figure out what plants are native to your area as well as others from similar areas that will thrive in your area. (Pistachios are from Iraq/Iran/Turkey so I try them in New Mexico)
Keep records of what you plant, when, and where so that you can track progress and success as well.
Nothing says bad day like planting your trees then surrounding them with corn. Now you either truck through your orchard and lose half your trees to get to your corn, or you send troops of people to pick all your ears of corn in between young trees.
Oh, and then you have to cut them down and replant them for next year.
Try to stick with perennial plants whenever you can. These are plants that produce year after year naturally (think: trees) and you don’t have to replant every year (annuals- think: tomatoes).
This way you do all the work up front and get the spoils of the labor for years and years to come.
So what do these layers look like?
Tall flowering trees with deep roots pull up water and nutrients and attract pollinating bugs and birds. In hot climates like New Mexico, they also provide shade to the plants beneath them. This includes:
Arazole / Mediterranean Medlar
European Plum (Myrobalan)
Japanese Walnut (Heartnut)
Korean Stone Pine
Siberian Pea Tree
Tagasaste/ tree Lucerne
These can be shorter trees, dwarf species, and tall bushes can be in this group. These trees’ roots don't grow as deep and they don't provide as much protection to the lower layers. (this is a must in New Mexico where even sun loving plants can find themselves with too much sun).
Australian Round Lime
Banana (Lady Finger)
Fruit Salad Plant
Tamarillo, Tree Tomato
The Shrub Layer
These are your bushes that produce fruits and vegetables beneath the shelter of the two tree laters. These include all kinds of perennials that you can choose your favorites from. Make sure to pick the ones that will best help your homestead as a whole rather than just producing food. You may want natural mulchers in your forest to lay down layers of mulch for your plants every year. You might benefit from a few extra flowering plants for extra insects and birds to take care of your forest. You might need nitrogen fixers in your garden to keep things flowing well.
Large Kangaroo Apple
Perennial Chilli, Rocoto Chilli
The Herb layer.
These cover the ground to ensure a healthy environment for all your plants. These can be vegetables, herbs, flowers, or anything that grows just above the ground. Self-seeding (ex. squash) annuals are fine to plant here because the ones you don't pick will decompose on the ground and plant new plants for next year. That said, you want to be sure to include perennials here as well.
Pepino, Pepino Dulce, Melon Pear
The Ground Covering Layer
These cover the ground and provide shelter to insects and animals that help your food forest thrive. Just like in nature, a wild forest needs animals to complete its cycles, your food forest needs animals as well. These ground cover plants also leave no room for the weeds that would love to come in and take over the space.
Creeping Oregon Grape
The Vine Layer
These are the plants that will climb the trees and bushes and add extra life to the spaces between your plants. Be cautious with some of the perennial vines just because they may take over and choke out your other plants. Do your research before you throw all of them into you forest.
Kiwi Berry / Hardy Kiwifruit
Perennial bean (scarlet runner bean)
Sweet Potato (‘Bush Porto Rico’/’Centennial’)
The Root Layer
These are the roots and tubers I was telling you about. Pick the shallow ones when possible so you don't end up killing your other plants trying to get at them.
Oca, New Zealand Yam
Tree/Egyptian Walking Onions
And as always, pick and choose for your climate and location first. If something doesn't grow easily in your area, it will be more work than it's worth to you.
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