Food Forestry on a budget checklist:
- Find seeds and start your own backyard nursery.
- Plant smaller trees that will be better established in the long run.
- Invest in plant protection and salvage materials when possible such as used fencing or scrap metal to make tree cages.
- Focus on hardy plants that don’t need lots of maintenance or require you to bend over backwards to make them grow in your climate.
- Be as cheap as possible and go big with seedlings if you have the space. You might just be surprised at what ends up succeeding in the long run.
Paying For an Idea
Whatever reason you get into growing your own food you end up with the same questions as so many others. Is this really worth the effort? Do I really want to grow the $100 tomato? Could I actually come close to growing everything I eat without breaking myself physically. Growing perennials helps alleviate some of these worries in the long term as they trend towards greater self maintenance while simultaneously producing larger yields. Though that's not how an edible tree begins. In reality you are paying for an idea the first few years that won't be providing you anything besides extra work and less money for the current grocery bill. Over the years, if you're diligent and faithful to land management practices that help your young trees to survive, hopefully you'll start getting real amounts of food off some of the trees and bushes that you planted. Though not all of your trees survive and some hard lessons are usually learned before you ever get a yield so it's not surprising that many people just give up trying or don't feel the need to bother with perennial foods at all.
(Eventually your patience will be rewarded!)
No risk free shortcuts
At least with vegetables when you make a critical error you only lose one season of growing. If you lose a 5 year old tree that hurts a lot more and so people tend to want to get a head start with larger trees closer to production age that limits the vulnerability a young tree faces in its formative years of life. Though there are rarely risk free shortcuts in the tight feedback loops of the natural world, trying to skip ahead usually comes with major consequences. Buying a tree that has been jacked up on fertilizers its entire life and forced to grow in a pot in a climate south of you is a recipe for failure. Big box nurseries use cultivar varieties that probably won't have anything to do with being adapted to your climate is common practice and in particularly does damage to folks that require a northern adapted species (like everyone trying to grow edible trees in Canada.) But by all means buy that special plum or pear variety because sometimes they will work. Some species (like apples) are better at surviving the transplant shock of going from a large root bound pot to the ground during the middle of the growing season. Other species (like walnuts) will surely have a deformed tap root strangling itself if grown in a pot and might survive the transplant for the first few years but eventually could suddenly die with no explanation, until you dig up the root ball and see that it made no progress beyond cozy home of its perfect fertilized soil container.
(A root bound plant that outgrew its container during the growing season)
On top of all these drawbacks the large shortcut trees aren’t cheap. I’ve seen 5 year old walnuts for $250, ouch, especially knowing that it probably won't have the healthiest root system. The result of failing with expensive shortcuts is usually to give up on growing perennials altogether. I understand that it's frustrating to have to be patient enough to receive yields establishing edible perennials on your property that is costing you hundreds to thousands of dollars while taking time to plant, protect and water them for years with no tangible returns. We have to make planting trees more profitable for people and the best way to accomplish this is to bring the high embodied costs of growing these plants down to a realistic level. Less work, less money, less risk but no shortcuts.
(One of our small bare root cherry trees)
Dirtbag Food Forest
Using dirtbag common sense to plan and plant your own food forest is the best way to achieve a realistic planting. What I mean by dirtbag here is to pay as little as you can by being resourceful and keeping it simple. Start by developing real patience and reasonable expectations. Smaller trees are cheaper and a tree you start from seed you find is cheapest. Seedlings can be grafted onto or cut for mushroom logs if you don't find a winner. Smaller trees that are bare root are not as sexy as the big specimens grown in pots for a lot of money but in reality they will establish much better if given proper care and time. Sure a smaller tree is more vulnerable to drought, weeds and animal damage the first few years but these are small obstacles to overcome that result in a healthier plant in the long term. Often a young, let’s say 2 years old, bare root tree will catch up to a 5 year old potted tree when put onto your property at the same time. When I put out small bare root trees onto my landscape its easier to take risks and become less attached to their outcomes because my planting experiment was relatively cheap.
(I planted this Turkish Hazelnut 3 years ago as a 14 inch bare root seedling)
Ultimately the best thing to do is plant your food forest with a diverse approach of mostly simple affordable planting experiments with some special higher costs projects thrown in for a healthy balance if you can afford it. I encourage being stoked about a special variety of apple tree or wanting to specifically plant an American Chestnut, but I would also encourage folks to plant plenty of seedling experiments of what's available or at least grown and genetically sourced in Canada to go along with your costly trees. Most importantly stay motivated and don't break your body, brain or bank trying to put in a food producing perennial system.