Over the past two months, a lot of hard work was done in the city of Hoogerheide. Many hands and spates dug hundreds of holes, planted a few thousand trees and shrubs and sweat getting woodchips on site, installing wooden poles and tearing down old fences.
Following the design and development phase in summer 2018, this was the next step towards establishing the economically viable production food forest envisioned by Cor van Oorschot and his company. This agroforestry system is aiming at showcasing the financial potential of a rationally designed and well manageable food forest, utilizing all the benefits of a perennial, successional multi-crop system.
During the implementation it became clear that this planting setup holds great potential to gain new insights and inspire further systems to rise, where the function of biomass trees and multiple layers on the same spot, are applied purpusefully.
As with each planting setup time will show how it grows and how the future farmer is going to further develop it. We are excited to watch the economical and production performance over the next years. Curious on more details about this food forest? Read on to find out more.
Food production as the main goal
When Cor van Oorschot first approached The Forest Farmers, it became clear quickly that he was looking for a cutting edge design for a highly productive system which similarly works with natural succession and species diversity. The aim is to serve as an example that agroforestry – in this case a multilayered food forest – can be a source of stable revenues for those involved, while at the same time restoring soil health and fertility, fulfilling ecosystem services and offering habitat and food to wildlife and biodiversity.
Biomass trees are key to high production
In order to achieve high production in the long term, we have decided to focus on improving the soil quality and the health of the system on site by intensively producing biomass that builds up the soil.
This is to a great extend achieved by planting about 5000 biomass trees spread over a 2-hectare surface, this mimicry of a natural forest rejuvenation will lead to an increased growth rate especially in the early years. Not each of these trees is planted to reach its full height. Some are going to be regularly heavily pruned for biomass, others will just give way to the healthier plants. The fact that not all young plants grow into future tree giants is a natural process that we use and steer in our sense. The biomass trees are planted intentionally either in fields around f.e. future canopy trees such as walnut, pecan or sweet chestnut, or as alternating strips between fruit trees or as single dots in a row of berries. The future management of these consists mostly of pruning, thinning and chipping in order to stimulate new growth, photosynthesis and improve soil conditions.
Next to the just described biomass trees such as alder, birch, poplar, willow, maple, lime tree, bird cherry, black locust and more, there is one shrub with special attention in this agroforestry system. That is the autumn olive Elaeagnus umbellata, a fast growing shrub, resistant to many weather conditions and thriving on most soils, as a nitrogen fixer this plant adds great value, for once growing extremely fast itself but also providing nitrogen to neighbouring plants which makes it an excellent inter cropping shrub for nitrogen loving plants such as plums. The autumn olive can be pruned heavily, provides a lot of flowers for pollinators and even delicious berries for human consumption, rich in vitamins and minerals, protein and even essential fatty acids, to sum up this plant can be seen a true regenerative agroforestry hero!
And that’s why we decided to plant some 450 autumn olives, of which most are large fruiting cultivars.
Another aspect on soil fertility and production is the herbaceous layer which will be established in spring 2019, come back in springtime to read more on it.
Successional design, multi-layer and new polycultures
How to achieve more production per hectare? Organize with a perspective on time and space, stack and combine different species and let them benefit as much as possible from each other.
With this mentality we aimed at developing several successional designs showing the state of growth and crop distribution at the age of 3, 15 and 50 years from now. This allows whole new insights into production at a certain point but also makes sure there is no time spot where the space isn’t used at its full potential. As one example, all canopy nut trees are planted at 200% final density which will lead to 200% production capability in the early years when the trees are not grown up yet but already producing. After, about 20 years, the best ones can be selected and you end up with 100% density.
My favourite row in the food forest so far is the combination of hand plums, big fruiting autumn olives together with maple, birch, poplar and willow. Imagine this setup in 6 years from now, the biomass trees have grown high above the half stem plums, all branches up to the height of the plums have been cut and mulched, the autumn olives grow between the plums and biomass trees, being regularly pruned and the plums have started to produce great amounts of delicious crops, happily receiving all the biomass that is dropped around them as well as the protected and sheltered microclimate. To their feet, a deep rooting, aromatic and flowering groundcover, the air full of sound from buzzing insects. If I went too fast, check back on our website to see this and further systems develop over time.
First field almost completely planted
As of this writing the first of the two fields is as much as finished. This was achieved by many great volunteers and the family of van Oorschot. From the beginning of November, every weekend was planting time and from sunrise till sunset rows were measured and marked, holes were dug, trees and shrubs were planted and accompanied with a nice layer of woodchips to give them a good head start. Some berry rows received a gift of organic compost to support early fruit production under the relatively harsh soil conditions.
At the same time a pond was dug on the lower field and coated with clay, a big hedge row of cherry laurel removed to make space for a mixed wildlife hedge, old fences were torn down and wooden poles for black- and raspberry put into the ground.
It was a smooth process, each week great changes could be seen and the whole system started to take shape. We guided the implementation, advising and making sure every tree got planted in the right spot at the right time. After all, the sourcing of all this planting material throughout Europe was a task in times where many nurseries experience ever increasing demands for certain agroforestry plants. Seeing the complete assortment being planted, we are greatly satisfied with the quality planting materials we could attain.
In 2019, from the 12thof January onwards the implementation will continue every Saturday and Sunday. Are you interested in this project, you want to start your own or come and join as a volunteer? Get in touch with us via the contact site!
More updates and posts on this and other projects will follow soon.