just a jot

A semi-whenever series of posts

Starting a food forest

2015-02-11 permaculture

The moment I learned about permaculture and what is possible, I was hooked.

I’ve never been incredibly interested in gardening for aesthetics alone. It has never drawn me in enough for me to take action. I know it can be a peaceful process - a meditation - but I’ve always had other things to do (like running). So when I discovered a whole system of design for plantings to work together and feed off each others inputs and outputs, I was hooked. It plays directly into other areas of my life I’ve been interested in for some time - namely, the design of software.

About a year after my wife and I bought our first house, I learned about permaculture’s existence. I took a year to casually learn more and observe as much as possible at our property. Where the sun shines, the warm and cool areas (microclimates) at various times of the day and in each season, which direction the winds typically blow, where the rain runoff is directed, etc. And then I was ready to start.


For the past two months I have been sheet mulching in patches. Each of these patches is where I plan to plant either a tree or a shrub. The first row of patches is situated on contour, and I will dig a swale on the uphill side of the patches so that the trees will stay well watered.

Here is how the back yard looked before I started:

(picture coming soon)

And here is how it looks now:

(picture coming soon)

Ideally I would have startd this process of improving the soil the moment we moved in. But I didn’t know what I was doing. In fact, the first fall, I dutifully raked and bagged up all the leaves that fell from the trees and set them out on the curb for trash because that’s just what everybody does. What a colossal waste of time and effort. And the plants and trees - I deprived them of large amounts of organic matter.

The next year was completely different. By then I had started a few compost piles. I still cleaned up a lot of the leaves because I was trying to keep the grass alive, but I didn’t bag anything up. I simply put everything in the compost pile. Better, but definitely not the best.

And this past year has been completely different. For the most part, I just left the leaves alone. I have a small area of grass I’d like to keep for a play area, but other than that, 4000 sq. ft. of lawn is being converted into a food forest.

To do this, I needed much more material than what the trees on my property were going to give me - especially since most of them are live oaks. I had tried for months getting a local arborist to drop a dumptruck full of wood chips on my property. It was like pulling teeth to get this arranged. And then one day, they arrive and a dumptruck full from a day of tree trimming was dumped on my driveway.

I don’t even remember how many wheelbarrow-loads of wood chips, raked up leaves and sticks I moved to the backyard, but it was a lot. The following weekend I went around the neighborhood and picked up 70-80 bags of leaves that were left out for trash. A few days later I had 5 cu. yds. of compost delivered. And after months of keeping cardboard boxes from various shipments, I was ready to make the patches.


For each patch I first wet the ground. Then I covered the ground with cardboard in an 8x8 ft. patch. I wet the cardboard then added a layer of 2-3 inches of compost. On top of the compost I put a layer of 2-3 inches of mulched leaves. Then I wet them down, and added the final layer of 2-3 inches of wood chips.

Ideally I would have used more compost and more leaves, but I had a lot of patches to do (~22 in total) and only so much material to get started. It was more important for me to get all the patches in rather than worry about the ideal amount of material to use. We shall see if 6-8 inches is enough to do a sufficient job.

Next up is actually buying the trees and shrubs for the patches. After that, I’ll be digging the swale and filling with all the extra sticks that I pulled out of the wood chip collection. Also, I’ll be covering the rest of the grass with cardboard and hopefully a few more loads of wood chips from a local arborist. I really need those wood chips! Then, I’ll be ordering a lot of seeds and plants to support the trees and shrubs - making guilds so that everything can better take care of itself rather than me having to do all the work.

That’s the plan and theory behind this madness anyway. I’m excited to continue observing how well (or not so well) things turn out.