Posted by: terrapraeta | December 22, 2009

Food Forest


I hear her voice
calling my name
the sound is deep
in the dark
I hear her voice
and start to run
into the trees
into the trees

into the trees

Suddenly I stop
but i know it’s too late
I’m lost in a forest
all alone
The girl was never there
it’s always the same
I’m running towards nothing
again and again and again

The Cure, A Forest

I have spent much of my free time in the last week researching plants.

This tipi possibility is looking more and more like it may have the potential for long term, established community. At the very least, I hope it will give me the opportunity to experiment with permaculture design in the desert environment. Best case, we will be able to establish a series of “businesses” that will supply all of our needs either directly or through barter with other locals.

But that is getting ahead of myself. Right now, I am focusing on the permaculture design. I walked over by the place the other day and it was kind of a mixed bag. If the property consists of merely the central compound, most of my design work will be wasted. It is roughly an acre of land, 1/3 of which is taken up by a pen with a pair of burros (who will be staying, I believe), and another 1/3 acre encompasses the house, several outbuildings and the driveway. That leaves only a third acre for the tipi site, and everything else we want to do. On the flip, there is another enclosed area above the house, working its way up the hill, that is also fenced. If that is part of the usable property, then, while not ideal, it would give me 1/2 or maybe eve 2/3 of an acre to work with. The slope runs probably 30 degrees or a little less, so any other uses would be mostly excluded.

In any case, for now, I am working on the assumption that that upper area is and will be available for use. Worst case, I’ll have learned a lot more about local plant communities.

At this point, I have only looked deeply into trees and shrubs. Smaller perennials and annuals will not come until later. But already I am finding myself in a bit of a quandary. I very much want to work with native plants – not just native to Colorado, but native to my backyard. And there are a lot of useful plants in my backyard and that’s great. However, I also want to develop a food forest, I want to work with ecological principles to develop the soil, water retention, a layered canopy… and quite frankly, those things do not truly exist in my backyard. We average 10” of rain fall a year. This is a desert environment and the local plant life exemplifies this. (The mountains above us are a different story, as are the stream banks and riversides throughout the valley) So while I very much enjoy the pinon pine, the yucca, the squawbush and the sagebrush, the slow growth rates and limited provender does not make it a good choice as a central guild.

Let me rephrase that. For the hill we will be living at the base of, encouraging these plants on the slope will do tremendous things in erosion control, increased wildlife, and long term health of the hillside. In a hundred years the hill could once again look and behave like its neighboring slopes. And as rainfall patterns change, it may be that in a thousand years, enough plant materials and nutrients could accumulate to develop into a more complex, higher trophic level, higher succession, forest. (Keeping in mind that if I plant and nurture a pinon pine or a juniper tree, those trees will still be less than thirty feet tall a thousand years from now.)

On the flip, with swale and berm, organic supplementation, minor irrigation and appropriate nutrient accumulating plants and drought tolerant deciduous trees, I could develop a much richer soil capable of supporting a much more diverse and carbon intensive food forest. Still focusing on (relatively) local plants I could provide food for our community, increased habitat for local animals, and, eventually, a soil biota that could spread and diversify across the lower elevations of my backyard.

I am torn for a few reasons. First, I don’t want to create an ecology that requires continuing irrigation. (We will be operating off of a private well, so I expect most of the groundwater to make its way back into the well.) I see that as a temporary, ecology building technique, but not a long term solution. I have seen arguments that rainfall will increase in most areas East of the continental divide as global warming increases, so that may not be an issue, regardless. But those of merely projections at this point (although the last year we have seen far more rain than normal. So far almost 50% more than average! While last year we were up by 10%.) I also realize that if the system is developed properly, I will see increased water retention in the soil, such that less rainfall will be required. And I am looking at plants that have relatively low water needs. (Most of them in the 10-20 inches per year range) But I definitely need to find a good balance.

I also recognize that the desert ecology has its own value, in and of itself. And I don’t want to spurn that ecology. But I also recognize that one of the amazing aspects of this valley is the amazing range of ecologies existent in this small area. Because of the great diversity of altitudes, moisture levels, and soil qualities, this valley probably represents at least 100 different micro ecologies. So would one more really be any great stretch?

I dunno. Perhaps I am over thinking. I do that a lot, particularly when I am in planning mode rather than doing mode. At the end of the day, if I have the opportunity to do this at all, I will, of necessity, let the land tell me what will and will not work. But I am impatient. Always impatient 😉

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