Establishing a Food Forest Orchard Garden - But Will it Save Me Money

Developing an orchard or even planting a couple trees takes time as we wait for them to produce.  But if one is developing a food forest, the planning, implementing and then waiting for the ecosystem to develop can seem like an eternity.  I came to the conclusion that by incorporating high production annuals and perennials into a food forest layout I could see production whilst ensuring that the ecosystem is still being developed.  From this, my thinking of a food forest orchard garden was born.  It has been a struggle at times and I have asked myself occasionally if it is really worth it.  But by having a plan in place of what I wanted,  I had the flexibility to adjust things without adjusting the goal - a productive Food Forest Orchard Garden.


What is a food forest

In the simplest of definitions, a food forest is a multi-layered ecosystem that mimics natural forests to produce food.   Generally, if one were to look at most forest ecosystems they are made up of five to 9 layers depending on how you view the ecosystem and what part of the world you are from.  But all of them have the same main layers in common:

  1. The main or upper canopy - typically comprised of mature hardwood and/or softwood trees;
  2. The sub canopy - typically comprised of juvenile hardwood and softwood trees;
  3. The shrub layer - typically comprised of shrubs like Saskatoon Berry, Chokecherry, Beaked hazelnut, Rose spp, etc..  What species that will be present in this layer is dependent on your geographic location;
  4. The herbaceous layer - typically comprised of grass, sedges and herbs;
  5. The ground-cover layer - typically comprised of mosses, lichens and creeping types of plants;
  6. The under-ground layer - although this layer is not typically talked about in commercial forest operations, it provides a key factor in the soil health to support the growth of the layers above.  This layer is typically made up of various microorganisms, referred to as the rhizosphere, which, according to Wikipedia “is the narrow region of soil or substrate that is directly influenced by root secretions and associated soil microorganisms known as the root microbiome.”.

Depending on the course of study and where you live in the world, three additional layers may be included as outlined by the Permaculture Research Institute in their article The Seven Layers of a Forest:

  1. The vertical/climber layer - defined by the vining species that grow in the forest ecosystem;
  2. Aquatic layer - defined as the streams, rivers, ponds, etc. that can be found in a forest ecosystem;
  3. Fungal layer - this layer has a key function in the soil health of the under-ground layer plus throughout the many layers of the ecosystem.  Although only it's fruiting bodies are visible, the activities of this layer can not be underestimated.  For as stated in this article, “Fungal networks can live in healthy soil and also on and within the roots or trees of our other layers. This amazing system, which we are only beginning to understand, can transport nutrients and moisture from one part of our ecosystem to another.”.

Although I would suggest that forest ecosystems are in fact a food forest, it is possible to take an existing forest ecosystem and convert it to a more productive food forest with some selective thinning and specific, perhaps more desirable, plantings of productive species.  As Geoff Lawton explains in the video The Forested Garden: What is a Food Forest?  there is some mechanics behind developing a productive food forest.  But over time and with some effort, it is doable.  The key factor, in any climate, is to maintain the structure of the forest ecosystem whilst replacing existing forest structures with more productive species at each layer of the ecosystem.


My Food Forest Goals

On my boreal forest fringe property, the thought of having to go through the efforts to convert my forest ecosystem into a productive food forest was not very appealing mainly due to the efforts involved and the time needed.  So when I first bought this place, I simply planted a few apple trees along with some rhubarb and berry bushes to address my fruit and berry wants.  It seemed like the answer being that I view the forest ecosystem as a food forest already and I like to forage, as I explored in Wild food foraging of edible wild greens for supper. But as the years passed, the thought of converting the orchard over time into something more productive like a food forest became the new plan.  I would complete this by applying my own forest knowledge, establishing the forest ecosystem layers as discussed above, applying generally accepted Permaculture Principles and applying the research I did into the work of Geoff Lawton, Andrew Millison and Will from HoneyBee Hollow Gardens, to name a few.

But as I explored in Planting an Apple Tree Orchard and Fruit Tree Orchard with goal of a Self Sustaining Food Forest, this initial orchard was not a success and needed to be replanted. Although one could look at the first planting as a failure, it was actually an opportunity to reassess and fine tune the food forest goal.  The silver lining to my fruit tree demise was that I did manage to establish a bit of a shrub layer and I was able to take the knowledge gained and increase the diversity of fruits and berries in the next version  with the planting of another batch of fruit trees and various berries to make up the main and sub canopy layers.

But as I explored in Converting an Apple Tree Orchard and Fruit Orchard to a self sustaining Food Forest, there were a number of questions that I had to work through as to my ultimate goals for the orchard and the mechanics of establishment.  With the lack of time in the summer of 2022 to work on converting the orchard to a food forest, it allowed me to really think, research and design about how the food forest would be developed. 

Finally though, in the spring of 2023, development of my food forest orchard garden commenced.


Development of the Food Forest Orchard Garden 

In planning for the development of the Food Forest Orchard Garden I needed to make a decision as to whether I wanted to convert the whole thing to a Back to Eden garden as I did in Achieving a Permaculture Design Principle with the Back to Eden Gardening method, or simply keep the approximately 1000 sq ft (92.9 sq m) orchard worked with maybe using some woven weed fabric to control the weeds.  Also entering the thought process was the fact that I wanted to be able to plant some vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs that would not only beautify the space but also help add the various layers to the ecosystem.  After considering evaporation, weed control and my ultimate goal of developing a food forest I decided that a Back to Eden method would be the best.    After all, a forest floor does not have exposed dirt.

Although it would be possible to cover the entire area with wood chips and call it good, I also wanted to be able to plant sooner than later.  To accommodate this want I decided that establishing mounded beds using the lasagna garden methodology would make the most sense.  I would then cover the non allocated areas of the food forest orchard garden with cardboard and a thick mulch of wood chips to control grass, weeds and moisture loss whilst allowing for the possible establishment of a fungal layer and fertilization as the wood chips broke down.

So with these decisions in mind, I sat down and drew out the plans. While drawing up the plans, I decided that because the area was sloping to the south east, putting the beds on contour would be a good idea and thereby create swales of sorts. As explained in the Verge Permaculture article Swales: The Permaculture Element That Really “Holds Water”, “swales are water-harvesting ditches, built on the contour of a landscape.” and goes on to further explain that “Swales, however, are flat on the bottom because they’re designed to do the opposite; they slow water down to a standstill, eliminate erosion, infiltrate the surrounding area with water, and recharge the groundwater table”.

Food Forest orchard garden plan

I felt satisfied that I had established, at least on paper and with my fruit tree plantings, a food forest that replicated a natural forest ecosystem.  The main canopy was represented with the standard fruit tree varieties; a secondary canopy was created with the semi-dwarf fruit tree varieties; the shrub layer is represented with the Saskatoon, Nanking Cherry, Goose berries and Black currant bushes; the herbaceous layer is represented with asparagus, rhubarb and various other perennial and annual plants; the ground-cover layer would be accomplished through wood chips, creeping flowers, the squash plants and various herbs and flowers; and although the under-ground layer could not be “planted”, the hope is that with everything I would be doing it would establish itself.

With vision, plan and plants in place, it was time to get to work implementing the Food Forest Orchard Garden.


Implementing the Food Forest Orchard Garden

Being that the entire area of the orchard was covered in grass I decided that breaking it up was the thing to do. Not only would it afford me the opportunity to do some leveling and to create the beds on contour, it would allow me to remove some of the quack grass roots that have forever tormented me in the gardens.  What I should have done first though is whipper snip the grass to ground level. At the mowed height  the grass continually plugged up my 60+ year old tiller my Dad gifted to me years ago.  Funny how some things just trigger memories.  While tilling up this area I had a flash back to being a teenager and tilling a section of grass for the family garden with this same tiller. I had to smile because it was tough going then too. 

Food forest orchard garden - tilling

 But eventually, I got it worked up.  The unworked portion is an existing 30 year old asparagus patch.

Food forest orchard garden- tilling

After raking and removing countless wheelbarrows of roots and debris, the area was now ready to finish establishing the food forest orchard garden.  I thought about covering the entire area with a black plastic sheet to solarize the soil and kill the grass and weeds but with limited time, I carried on. The next step was to add some additional asparagus to the existing patch for the herbaceous layer of the ecosystem.  On May 10th a trench was dug about 12 inches (30.5 cm)  wide and about 9 inches (22.9 cm) deep.  Because of our cold winters the asparagus crowns need to be planted deeper than I see many doing in other parts of the world.

food forest orchard garden - asparagus trench

For this new patch I decided on two varieties, Millennium and Eclipse, which I purchased from West Coast Seeds.  The crowns were layed in the row about 12 inches (30.5 cm) apart and covered.

Food forest orchard garden - planting asparagus

Once the asparagus rows were well watered and filled in with the soil, I covered the entire patch with some old rotten hay to act as a mulch to help with weed control and evaporation.  

It was finally time to start establishing the planting beds.  To do this, I established small lasagna gardens by laying down a sheet of cardboard over which I dumped numerous wheelbarrow loads of well rotted horse manure.  The cardboard will help smother the grass and weeds that I did not get removed allowing for a weed free seed bed in the rotted manure layer.

Food forest orchard garden- lasagna garden

After many hours and many wheel barrows of horse manure, I had the mounded beds established.  I was quite pleased with the finished product and felt certain that the beds would act like swales to slow the water down. Although the average rainfall per year is only 19.8 inches (50.3 cm), we do get the odd down pour and the swales will help manage that run off.  Plus they will raise the planting surfaces closer to the level of the mulch layer.

Food forest orchard garden - established lasagna beds

With some final levelling and topping up the beds to ensure a minimum of six inches (15.24 cm) of manure to plant in, I then mulched them all with well rotted clean hay.  They were now ready for planting on May 22, 2023, around two weeks after I started the project.

Food forest orchard garden - mulching lasagna beds


Planting the Food Forest Orchard Garden

With the mounded garden beds established and mulched, it was time to start planting them.  When I did the planning of the food forest orchard garden I decided I wanted a number of high production vegetables in the garden coupled with perennial and annual herbs and flowers, thereby achieving the herbaceous and ground cover layers of the food forest orchard garden.  To accomplish this I seeded four different varieties of squash to help with ground cover and the vining aspect of the ecosystem and four different varieties of dried beans for their nitrogen fixing abilities.  Scattered within and throughout the rest of the beds were annual and perennial herbs, shrub roses and annual flowers, some of which were edible. 

Establishing, seeding and planting this space by the end of May was something I wanted to get done and I accomplished this goal, in part.  Although I did not get the unallocated areas covered with wood chips as I had planned due to wood chip availability, the grass that returned covered the ground to accomplish the herbaceous and ground cover layers of the Food Forest Ecosystem.  Not what I wanted, but I  decided that I would keep  it whipper snipped throughout the summer and try to get the mulching done the following year.

Within a couple weeks everything was up and growing and by the first part of July, the food forest orchard garden was doing well.  I was well on my way to my goals for this space.  The front half of the garden was looking good.

Food forest orchard garden - July garden

The back half of the  food forest orchard garden was a little behind but I was still happy with it's progress. The 30 year old asparagus certainly liked the attention it got in the spring.

Food forest orchard garden - july garden


Harvesting From the Food Forest Orchard Garden

And by September, things were looking pretty decent.  I was enjoying the beauty.  But I had also been harvesting all sorts of herbs including chamomile, peppermint and lemon balm.  Back in June, I had harvested 10 Kg (22 pounds) of rhubarb as I discussed in Every garden should have this perennial vegetable.  But there was still more to harvest.

Food forest orchard garden - September garden

With the first frost looming on September 14, it was time to start bringing  in some of the squash and pick what beans were dry.

harvesting the food forest orchard -  September 2023

Although the frost was light, shortly after it was time to pick everything I could and bring it into the house to cure and/or dry in my living room.   

harvesting the food forest orchard

Once the harvest was brought in and the killing frosts finished off the gardens,  a final clean up was done and I put the Food Forest Orchard Garden to bed for the winter.   I typically leave stems standing for winter feeding of birds, but I wanted this garden cleaned up this time.

Food forest orchard garden - cleanup

Overall, I was quite pleased with the harvest.  But the question that is asked more often than not is if it's worth it.


Food Forest Orchard Garden Save Harvest Analysis

There are many reasons why a person does a garden as I discussed in a recent article titled Does Gardening Save Me Money - A Year In Review.  However, the main question that is generally asked is whether gardening saves me money. So to answer this question, as I did with my main crop garden, I weighed all the main crops I harvested from the Food Forest Orchard Garden and determined that it weighed a total of 115.285 kg (254.16 pounds).  I did not weigh the herbs and cut flowers though as it would not have made a significant difference to the overall weight.  

Based on an average selling price of $3.00 CDN ($2.20 USD) per pound at the local Farmer's Market, the harvested value would be $762.48 CDN ($569.89 USD).  If I was able to purchase the produce for $2.00 CDN ($1.47 USD) per pound the value would be $508.32 CDN ($373.26 USD).  And finally, to determine the in-store value of the produce I grew, I gathered prices online from a local store and determined the in-store value to be $433.55 CDN ($318.36 USD).

Food forest orchard garden -harvest analysis


Food Forest Orchard Garden Costs

What should or should not be included in the cost of production was open for discussion.  At the end of the day I decided to use the same expenses I did for growing the garden.

To determine what it cost me to grow the 115.285 kg (254.16 pounds) of produce I included the following expenses:

  1. Seedling care from March 1 - May 31- 1 hours/week for a total of 13 hours;
  2. Maintenance and harvest from June 1 - October 1 at 1 hours/week for a total of 18 hours;
  3. Planting of garden - 2 hours;
  4. Garden development - May 7 - May 22 - 24 hours 
  5. Salary total - total of 57 hours (point 1, 2, 3 and 4 combined) at $20.00/hour= $1,140 CDN;
  6. Seeds - approximately $20 CDN;
  7. Asparagus crowns - $182.63 CDN;
  8. Watering - I use a gas powered pump to water from the dug out I discuss in Rainwater collection - essential water for use on the homestead.  Total fuel cost = $60 CDN.

With these expenses, I determined that the 2023 food forest orchard garden cost me $1,402.63 CDN ($1,029.96 USD).  Certainly not cheap, but with the mounded beds created, this expense will be removed in subsequent years.

However, as the food forest orchard garden also focused on the establishment of the main canopy and sub canopy layers, I felt that I should mention that the trees and berry bushes I bought for the reset of the orchard would cost me about $639.60 CDN ($469.66 USD) in today's markets.  Thus making the expense to establish this Food Forest Orchard Garden in the neighborhood of $2,042.23 CDN ($1,499.62 USD).


Does a Food Forest Orchard Garden Save Me  Money

Based on the data, the short answer is, no, not yet.  As I have illustrated with the data from my 2023 food forest orchard garden and the subsequent analysis, by growing my own 115.285 kg (254.16 pounds) of produce rather than going to the store, I could have saved myself $1,608.68 CDN ($1,181.26 USD) by buying the produce.   By comparison, I could have saved $1,279.75 CDN ($939.73 USD) by going to the Farmer's Market and buying the produce at $3.00 CDN ($2.20 USD) per pound.  


Final Thoughts

Although in this instance, it would appear that I could have saved a sizeable amount of money by shopping at the store or Farmer's Market, I think it bears mentioning that like a forest ecosystem or a food forest ecosystem, the amount of produce this Food Forest Orchard Garden will produce will be changing, and hopefully increasing as the fruit trees, berries and garden beds improve.  Call it a gardener's justification,  if you will, but I view this as a long term investment.  Whether my investment will pan out is yet to be seen.  Over time I may find that I need to adjust and add the perennial and annual plantings to more adequately reflect a food forest ecosystem and/or higher food production, but in the meantime, I get to reap the additional benefits of the gardening as I  discussed in Does Gardening Save Me Money - A Year In Review.

One thing for certain though is that in this coming gardening year, I  will certainly be trying to get the mulch layer over the remaining unallocated area to add/enable the rest of the ground-cover and under-ground layers which will hopefully allow for the fungal layer to take hold.  I am also considering inoculating with some mushroom spawn to speed up the process.   If I manage to reach my goal this year, I feel I will have achieved a replication of a forest ecosystem in my Food Forest Orchard Garden with only maintenance and monitoring to be undertaken in the years that follow.  The Food Forest Orchard Garden may not be as “wild” as a natural forest ecosystem but I can't help but feel that the structure of the “garden” will work nicely with the wildness of the “forest”.

Overall, with the $2098.42 CDN ($1549.73 USD) savings realized from the main crop garden over purchasing in-store and the $1,608.68 CDN ($1,181.26 USD) loss experienced in the Food Forest Orchard Garden compared to in- store purchasing, the 2023 gardening year still realized an overall savings of $489.74CDN ($368.47 USD).  A great illustration of how gardening in any form, coupled with the additional benefits, does save me money.  I am pretty happy with that!  But more importantly,  it also answers my lingering thought of “is it worth it” with a resounding yes. 

I would encourage you to establish your own Food Forest in whatever form, big or small, complex or simplified, so that you can enjoy the many benefits that they can give.  I hope you found this information to be useful and that you consider planting your own garden, in whatever magnitude, not only for the produce but also for the many benefits that gardening provides. 

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Additional Resources

Food forest orchard garden - Pinterest




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