One of the things I love about living in the beautiful hills of Dundee, is the many talented, passionate, creative people who live here as well. Our next door neighbor Bryan, just put in a vineyard, Savannah across the street has a little B and B, Dennis makes beautiful furniture out of old barnwood and wine barrels, and just down the road and around the corner live John and Jeremi, the talented duo behind The Dundee Hills Food Forest.
I guess the first thing to talk about is, what exactly is a Food Forest? Just as in a natural forest, a Food Forest is the idea of multi-layers: growing multiple species of plants of varying sizes and root systems with varying needs that make varying contributions to the system. It’s about companion planting and diversity and creating a healthy balance in the soil so that plants help each other, attract beneficials, and create places for insects, birds, and other critters to thrive. When this happens and the ecosystem is in balance, insect pests won’t take hold and the soil will replenish with each cycle, so there is no need for pesticides and only a minimal need for soil amendment. John compared this to our own personal ecosystems: good, nutrient-rich soil for plants is the same as good, nutrient-rich foods for us -- both help to grow healthy living things. If the soil is healthy, the plant will be healthy.
I knew a little bit about companion planting, and permaculture from previous reading and experiences, but I had never heard of a food forest before -- until I saw their posts on social media. I was first drawn to their beautiful Instagram pictures, but what really hooked me were the insights and wisdom that went along with the pictures: both the lessons they shared and the love that went into their project were captivating. And because I not only want to learn more about permaculture and food forests, but also want to meet more of my talented neighbors, I sent them a message, asking if I might barge in on them sometime to see their work. Thankfully they said yes, so on a cloudy and cool Fall Monday morning in November, I headed down the street to meet them and see what they were up to.
It turns out they are up to quite a lot, actually. John and Jeremi have lived at the Food Forest for five years now, and in that time, they have transformed a manicured, park-like, grass field into a beautifully diverse compilation of both rowed plantings of lettuce, fennel, broccoli, collards,etc, surrounded by meandering paths lined with lime balm, thyme, Dyers broom, redwood sorrel, dahlias, love-in-a-mist, ginkgo, hawthorn, and many many other trees, perennials, flowers, shrubs, and herbs. A Food Forest, full of life and diversity. There are also bat boxes and bird boxes scattered about, a beautiful, tall arbor that will soon support grapes, a fire pit, and tucked away places to sit and contemplate. And as we walked and talked, we also sampled many of the gifts of the land. I ate my first Dahlia (it tastes like carrots), nibbled on a cornflower, and inhaled the sweet scent of lime balm. I was in heaven. But it wasn’t all chatting and eating flowers. I was there to learn, by golly! And learn I did.
Here are just a few lessons from my visit:
1. There’s a whole lot going on under our feet. As John and Jeremi explained it, there are millions of little organisms working together below the ground to support everything we see above the ground. Jeremi compared it to the New York City subway system. All that great stuff we see above the ground wouldn’t exist without the underground infrastructure that keeps everything moving. So it’s just as important to care for everything below the ground as everything above the ground. One of which is the fungi we don’t see.
2. The fungus among us...is important: You know that white stringy looking fungus you dig up every so often out in the garden? Well, it’s actually a vital part of that underground system. It’s a hollow fungus called mycelium that is a part of something called a Mycorrhizal network (also sometimes called the Wood-Wide Web). A Scientific America article explains how the mycelium fungus “infiltrates the plants’ roots. But it does not attack — far from it. The plant makes and delivers food to the fungus; the fungus, in turn, dramatically increases the plant’s water and mineral absorptive powers via its vast network of filaments.” These fungal networks also aid in the decomposition process, break down toxins, and allow plants to share resources with each other. AND these networks allow older trees to share resources with younger trees until they are established. Amazing! The lesson here is that...
3. Tilling hurts: John explained how when we till or dig up an area of soil, it breaks the Mycorrhizal networks, interrupting not just nutrient supplies but also communication between plants. For example, one study showed how the network acts “as a conduit for signalling between plants, acting as an early warning system for herbivore attack.” John gave an example of how plants that had the network in tack were able to warn other plants of an aphid infestation, so the plants further down were able to “invoke herbivore defences” to keep the aphids at bay. So when we break up the soil all of the plants in the area are weakened.
4. Let it lie: I was getting ready to do some clean up around here, but as we were talking, I realized how important it was to keep some spaces untouched until the spring, allowing for some of the beneficial insects to have places to go through their life cycle. Basically, the more ladybugs and other beneficials you can overwinter in your garden, the fewer infestations you will have down the road. That’s also why having perennials is so important. A plant that lives in the garden for years instead of months will offer a more consistent and safe place for those beneficial critters to live.
5. Enjoy the journey: As John and Jeremi talked about their journey, from a kid who took over his mom’s garden (John), to buying their property and transforming it into this beautiful place, I was struck by the joy on their faces as they talked about how important each step has been and how they were still learning, experimenting and growing along with their food forest. This really resonated with me because as I work on our little lavender farm, I sometimes become impatient with how slow everything seems to be moving. But these two were a great reminder to enjoy each step, learn from each day, and connect more deeply with the earth and with those around us. Thoreau once said: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation…” John and Jeremi are the reminder that we don’t have to live our lives that way -- that each of us has a song to be sung, which is often drowned out by the clamor and clanging of our world, but that if we are brave and listen and follow our hearts, we can sing a really beautiful song that touches everyone around us.
So a big thank you to John and Jeremi for so generously sharing their journey and their forest. I can’t wait to see it in the spring when everything is blooming! In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy my journey, learning more every day about this big beautiful planet we live on -- and about the many miracles under our feet.