By LyOr Rabinowiz
To conclude Food Forest Month, our Food Forest and Vineyard Coordinator LyOr Rabinowiz explains the benefits of companion planting and tips for implementing it on a small or large scale.
Let’s talk about planting! What’s involved in planning and planting a food forest? A key theme is diversity, and the resulting symbiotic plant relationships. Just as a natural forest is rich in biodiversity, a food forest mimics this diverse architecture. The difference between the two is that a food forest is intentionally designed and managed to benefit from that biodiversity. In food forests, trees grow alongside herbs, veggies, vines, and groundcover. This design practice—combining plants to work together for the overall benefit of the whole forest—is called companion planting.
Beneficial relationships between plants can save time, energy, and resources while creating a thriving ecosystem with a variety of useful outputs. Farmers designing a food forest—whether in their own backyard or on a large area of land—may want to use companion planting for a variety of functions, including:
- Food: A diversity of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and mushrooms will ripen at different times of the year and provide a steady supply of fresh food while strengthening food security.
- Medicine: When used correctly, medicinal plants help us heal from a variety of ailments.
- Fertility: Nitrogen fixing plants and dynamic accumulators bring nutrients into the soil, which then become accessible to the surrounding trees and plants.
- Pest control: Certain plants repel potential pests or attract pest predators.
- Pollination: Flowering plants attract bees and other pollinators, which then enhance crop yields.
- Mulch: Plants that shed their leaves and cover the soil help build top soil and maintain moisture.
- Fuel: Certain trees are good sources of wood for burning.
- Building materials: Other species of trees make excellent building material.
- Fiber: Plants and trees can provide the raw materials of both clothing and shelter.
- Animal feed: Depending on the animal, plants can be chosen to provide a healthy diet for both domesticated and wild animals.
- Habitat: Creating ecological niches with plants encourages a variety of animals to visit, mate, reproduce, and build homes.
- Carbon sequestration: Plants and fast-growing trees capture carbon in the atmosphere and store it in their biomass, which mitigates climate change.
Many plants provide multiple functions in this complex and cooperative ecosystem. Let’s take a basic example from our Coastal Roots Farm logo: the pomegranate! Bees are essential for pollination, so planting herbs, flowers, and berries near a pomegranate bush will attract bees and other pollinators. In our food forest, we intersperse pomegranates with nitrogen-fixing, fast-growing cape wattle trees. The cape wattles not only provide nitrogen to soil around the pomegranates, they also protect our young trees. Other nitrogen-fixing pioneer trees include leucaena, which can also be used for animal fodder, and the mesquite tree, which provides edible pods and is an excellent source of wood for building and burning.
Planting comfrey, a dynamic accumulator herb, also enhances the soil. It not only brings minerals to the top soil from down below, but also produces mulch and provides medicinal benefits. To deter pests, garlic, chives, marigolds, and nasturtiums are great options. Dill, cilantro, and fennel will attract pest predators. These plants are edible, have medicinal properties, beautify the landscape, and add a pleasant fragrance as well.
The principles and practices of food forestry can be applied on both a large and small scale. If you’re a backyard food forester who doesn’t have room for large nitrogen-fixing trees, nitrogen-fixing plants like clover, beans, and peas serve a similar purpose. Or, choose dwarf fruit trees suitable to our Mediterranean climate such as figs, mulberries, and pomegranates. Learn about your trees’ needs in terms of sun, water, and potential pest problems. Then, match your tree with with diverse understory shrubs, herbs, vines, and groundcover to take full advantage of the space under the tree. The right companion plants will help you grow more food, build healthy soil, conserve water, and minimize pest pressure.
Want to learn more, get your hands dirty, and help us build out the food forest? Join us for weekly open volunteer hours on Wednesdays from 8-11 a.m. or become a Volunteer Corps Member. You can also tour the food forest every month. The next tour is Sunday, December 17 at 3 p.m. And save the date for our annual Tu B’Shvat Food Forest Festival on January 28!