Building Hay Mulch Beds in our Food Forest | Part 2On December 25, 2019 by Vlad6 min read
In part one of this food forest experiment series, I talked about food forests, what they are and how to build one. Going forward I will mostly share only advice that I’ve put into practice in our own food forest. Like I tried to explain in the first part, the way you design your food forest will always depend on your climate, microclimate, land layout and size, grow zone, etc. But the main principle stays the same: work together with nature to create a rich biodiversity of plants and fauna that produce useful products for yourself.
Another important factor in how you design and build your food forest is without any doubt money. Most of us who dream of having a food forest will want to build it in a sustainable way, using readily available materials. For us, one of the reasons behind growing our own food, whether it’s in our vegetable garden or in our food forest, is to lower our grocery bills. Therefore, investing a considerable amount of money into materials such as compost or mulch would be counterproductive.
Food Forest Floors
One of the staple marks of food forests is their ground floor. Regardless of how you want to design your food forest’s layout or what plant species you will include, the heavily-mulched ground floor will always be a defining aspect of this type of gardening.
Forest top-soil is one of the most nutrient-rich soils you can find in nature. This soil doesn’t get tilled or amended with fertilizers, yet it has great tilth and its full of microfauna and nutrients. So how does Mother Nature do it? Pretty easy actually – it keeps layering constant, thick layers of mulch on the ground.
Deciduous forests shed their leaves every autumn, covering the forest floor with tens of centimetres of leaves, riddled with the occasional fallen branches. Pine forests, although evergreen, constantly shed pine needles, keeping a consistent layer of mulch throughout the year.
The bottom part of this mulch layer is where the magic happens. Where all the microorganisms: bacteria, fungi, ants, worms, springtails (and many more) come to feast on the decomposing mulch layer. Down here the temperature and the humidity levels remain constant, protected by tens of centimetres of mulch. This helps fungi extend vast networks of mycelium that, along with other bacteria, feed on the carbon-rich mulch and turn it into food for other small critters.
Their collective byproduct is basically the highest grade compost you could find out there. This is what makes forest top-soil so amazing.
Hay Mulching our Food Forest
Most gardeners who have a Food Forest will tell you to cover the whole area in 20-30cm of wood chips. But we don’t have woodchips. And buying enough to cover our whole orchard would be very expensive in our area.
We do however have a lot of hay readily available that we already use to mulch our vegetable garden, to build Ruth Stout garden beds and to make compost. So the first step, now that we decided to make a food forest will be to lay a thick hay mulch layer to build up the forest floor.
I started this process back in spring when I started mulching large circle areas around our fruit trees. By summer, most of the hay was broken down and as soon as I saw new plant growth peeking through I added more hay on top. By autumn, this second layer was showing signs of decomposition, it was time for a new layer.
I was already thrilled with the results. Having mulch around our fruit trees meant no grass was growing next to them. Which meant the trees had less competition for water and the ground around them remained moist for longer since it was protected by the mulch. And the best part – I didn’t have to get close to the tree trunk with my weed waker when I was cutting the grass.
But simply mulching around the trees was never going to be enough. You see, trees and fungi can form a very special symbiotic relation, that makes that whole microsystem more resilient. Fungi’s mycelium can join with the tree’s root system, creating a larger water catchment system that can transport resources from longer distances. In a forest, this mycelium lives and spreads through the ground cover of decomposing carbon material.
To recreate this extensive network it’s essential for us to join the mulch areas of each tree into one big mulch patch. However, we still want to maintain a meadow in our orchard, so we decided to go with garden beds that connect all the trees instead. This will also create more edges for planting stuff and ease of access.
With that in mind, I laid long strips of hay, connecting the previously mulched circles into rows of garden beds. Then I connected them all at one end, creating just a few big networks. The plan is to continue to add 30-40cm of hay over the course of each year, keeping it constantly mulched and decomposing.
Our food forest layout is catching shape
With the garden beds in place and the paths established, it’s now also easier for us to decide where each plant will go. We reserved a spot for the asparagus we plan to plant this spring and for the strawberries that we had already established there.
We’ve also planted a few more berry bushes here and there when we added the new fruit trees this year. I love volunteer plants and I want to encourage self-seeding as much as possible, so I also threw a few dried out herbs from our vegetable garden into the food forest, hoping for some mustard, radishes, savory and marigolds to pop out on their own next spring.
Last year we had a kale plant that survived the winter in a pot we forgot outside. Now that we know we can grow kale overwinter, we planted a bunch of kale plants in our new food forest garden beds and we hope they’ll produce most of next year.
The hugelkulture bed we’ve made is right in the middle of our food forest, and this spring will be its first planting season. We might go for another round of beans while we wait for the wood logs inside the hugelkulture to start breaking down even more.
Why should you make a food forest?
Building a food forest, in my opinion, has more to do with the love for nature and the thrill of applying biology lessons to gardening, then it has to do with the actual food. Of course, food forest provides insane amounts of consumable goods, but these can be grown in a conventional vegetable garden as well.
We chose to build a food forest because I love to experiment with nature and to observe how microclimates and ecosystems change over time. The food forest will always be my favourite place for experimenting with new plants and adding biodiversity.