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Nature provides us with everything for free, and it is completely possible to harness resources to economically grow a food forest.
Sourcing your forest garden the “free” way may take more time than buying it. Either dedicate time to making your food forest or spend time on something else to buy you a food forest quickly.
To grow a food forest free of money; you’ll need crafty ways to
After doing all these things, an established food forest can be nearly maintenance-free and capable of doing the ongoing work.
A careful scan of each section will ensure you don’t miss the best tips because a lot of juice has been added to this post!
Related post: How Much Will it Cost You to Start Your Food Forest?
Find plants for free or cheap in 7 ways
1. Learn to save seeds
Seeds are abundant and free for the taking and spreading by all creatures.
If you don’t know the techniques for extracting seeds, I remember how time-consuming and overwhelming it feels.
The Seed Saving Bible is an in-depth guide that covers everything for saving your own survival garden.
- Deciphering the best plants to save seeds from
- Cleaning and storing seeds so they’re usable
- Checking germination rates
Gain this skill, and save any seeds (even for free) from annuals, perennials, cultivated, or native.
2. Grow a small nursery from seed
A whole forest garden can be grown in a few pots of clustered cuttings and seeds and a personal nursery doesn’t have to be a grand-scale greenhouse.
You can grow thousands of dollars worth of plants by saving and sowing your own seed.
Related post: How Long Does It Take To Grow a Food Forest?
While growing from seed may not guarantee you delicious fruit, genetic diversity is important to preserve. If you don’t intend to eat fruit from a particular plant, grow it uniquely from seed.
3. Propagate your plants
Propagation is to clone a plant so you have more than one of the same. If you love a particular fruit from a tree, propagation is the only way to create another plant with the exact same fruit.
Various propagation techniques exist for all plants. Some methods are easier than others. A book like this will show you how to propagate all sorts of plants in the easiest ways. If you have a large space to fill with a food forest, it’s worth learning these techniques.
If you’re only looking to propagate the odd plant here and there; Youtube also has a wide selection of content.
4. Learn the many ways of grafting and try it out
Grafting requires sharp tools for clean cuts for higher success rates. Grafting tools don’t need to be expensive but a kit with everything you need makes for a more straightforward process.
This article illustrates and explains 8 ways of grafting and when to use each technique.
5. Trade local plants from neighbors and friends
Plants that have adapted to your area have an advantage over storefront options. Store-bought plants are often shipped from distant and controlled-environment nurseries.
Not only can you cut costs to get plants from neighbors, but create opportunities to get to know a community. Find a fair and mutual way to trade and you’ll foster useful relationships.
6. Wait until the late season for store discounts on plants
If you’re starting from nothing, plant sales is a good way to pick up plants you don’t have.
Since we have most of the common plants now, all the unique options that we don’t have are gone by the time sales begin.
7. Join local and national social network groups
Unique plants are found from unique people! I’ve found great trades in country-wide groups and local groups.
I’ve been able to score saffron bulbs by shipping a fair trade in an envelope for $4.
Even just chatting with friendly people in the group, I’ve need offered free tree saplings and actually received free seeds of ramps, ginseng, pawpaw tree, and hardy kiwi.
Good groups can be found on Facebook:
To search and find a group, specify the country (or city/town) and find free trade for seeds and cuttings.
Good forums include (but are not limited to!):
Personally, I’ve had the most success with swaps on Facebook Groups because:
- People reply faster on Facebook
- More people are engaged on Facebook
- It is easier to find organized and managed communities of people in your specific country. Trading plants or seeds is not feasible internationally, nor should it be
Build soil with (4) free and (3) low-cost methods
A self-sufficient forest garden system needs to include plants that grow vigorously for long-term soil building—especially if the food forest isn’t near an established natural forest.
1. Make compost out of weeds
Weeds make a nourishing and balanced compost on their own. Typically they have a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of 25:1 which is about right for a compost heap to break down.
To kill weed seeds you can try hot composting, or not worry about it by applying it beneath sheet mulch later.
For us, composting weeds is an easy solution since we can never keep up with them. Unused areas we let grow wild and try to chop down before they seed to make a big compost pile.
2. Use leaves as mulch
Extra leaves can be collected from neighborhoods before the scheduled collection day.
We love getting free leaf bags because they serve purposes beyond compost as well. We get them to have mulch for our fresh fall-planted garlic, to save the paper bags for sheet mulching new areas, and tarped full-leaf bags can insulate carrot beds from freezing over winter for accessible in-ground root storage.
3. Find free wood chips
A few organization types have woodchips as a byproduct.
- Local tree removal companies – Notice dangerous trees, request removal, and offer a woodchip dumping site
- Chip drop – works excellent for some, unavailable for others
- Hydroelectric companies – Often available for those who aren’t in chip drop vicinity, but live in the woodlands. Hydro often needs a nearby woodchip dump site.
- Freemulch (about trees)- similar to chip drop
4. Forage, buy, or trade nutrient accumulators
In a food forest, you’re going to want plants that serve as many functions as possible. “Accumulators” typically grow fast and produce a lot of body.
Sumac is great at carbon sequestration meaning it turns the elements quickly into wood and plant matter. They aren’t harmed by frequent cutbacks. They can be used to produce volumes of mulch, and biochar, or left standing for shade, and berries for birds.
Comfrey is famed for its vigor, nitrogen, and phosphorus content. After established, comfrey can be “chopped and dropped” for mulch or compost building up to 4x per year.
Mullein is medicinal and can be used in teas. They also have large taproots. When plants with deep roots die, organic material decomposes deep into the earth attracting worms and areas for water to permeate farther into the soil.
Rhubarb is a massive and fast-growing edible perennial. A single leaf can cover a patch of bare soil like a small tarp. The living plant is shaped to catch and funnel water and is best partnered with other water-loving species.
Way more accumulator plants exist than mentioned here—I suggest you use some of these and include a mix of native accumulators from your local area.
5. Buy bulk clover seed for a multi-purpose ground cover
Letting live is always less work.
It cost us $20 for a seemingly infinite bag of clover seeds. Growing a ground cover (such as clover) is a more passive way to build soil than going out to source non-living mulch. After being established with water, it grows without needing you until it’s time to reseed in a few years. It may even reseed itself.
Clover flowers can be collected for nourishing tea, left for the bees, greens eaten, mowed for soil building, or left alone to naturally cycle.
6. Check online marketplaces
Sometimes people nearby are selling or giving away free topsoil or fill from a recent landscape project on their property. The cost depends on what you can score and how far away the item is.
Organic soil builders I’ve seen for sale or for the taking include:
- Topsoil (soil on the top of the site)
- Fill (organic scrap mix that can include rock, roots, clay, sand, silt, etc)
- Brush piles
- Leaves to rake and take
- Spoiled hay or straw
- Some occasionally give away animal manure
Keep a general eye on your local markets. Facebook, Etsy, Kijiji, Craigslist, local marketplace sites, etc
7. Learn how to grow mushrooms
Lastly, diversifying your soil medium could look like growing mushroom beds and using spent chips or straw as soil-building material.
Growing gourmet and medicinal mushrooms is not only a reward for you but a compliment to your food forest health.
Purchase spore once, start a mushroom bed, and propagate it next year into a new mushroom bed to spread and keep your edible mushrooms growing.
Honor habitat with 7 inviting no-cost ideas
Wild habitat is required for a functioning forest garden. Inviting animals into our space takes the workload off us.
Self-sufficiency only exists where the community works together. Communities can work together when resources and shelter are available.
Various forms of habitat shapes, heights, and mediums allow diverse forms of life. So while you include trees of multiple mature heights, include the following free elements as well:
1. Add log piles
You know firewood-size logs? Before they are split?
We have a couple of little log piles of those around the forest garden. Even if they were split it would work fine.
While hospitable for spiders and other bugs we haven’t even noticed, they break down into healthy hummus over time.
Firewood is cheap to buy if you can’t chop some yourself, and it doesn’t take much to make one or two useful shelter checkpoints.
2. Find or make snags to add
Snags are unique pieces of dead wood either standing or fallen with crevasses, cavities, or holes. The various shaped and sized dens created by snags are an essential part of an inclusive forest. They are a large provider of “safety nooks” for all sorts of beneficial critters of all sizes.
You can find them in mature forests or properties with mature trees.
You can make snags from any normal log either fresh or old.
This guy shows how you can make a snag. Now you certainly don’t need to do this to a live or standing tree as he does. You can take any log and cut a little den in it and allow it to sit and rot in your food forest.
This article was originally published on foodforestliving.com. If it is now published on any other site, it was done without permission from the copyright owner.
Make several versions of snags! Even a small “perfect” log could lay above a shallow dug hole in the ground.
3. Add rocks to your food forest
Rocks have several uses that improve a food forest.
- They absorb heat
- Contain minerals that add texture to humus which becomes a ‘complete’ soil over time
- Adds unique visuals to a garden
- Can be found free or cheap
- Beneficial insects such as crickets, worms, and spiders live beneath
4. Pile up the brush
Brush piles can be used for:
- Mulch if you have a woodchipper
- Hugel bed material
- Or long-term compost
5. Rake up and leave leaf piles
“Leave the leaves” is a growing movement in an effort to preserve all the life that hibernates in whole fallen leaves.
People often rake, bag, and remove leaves from the property leaving no habitat for the plethora of critters that rely on leaves. (not recommended)
Some keep their leaves but mow them to shreds to feed their grass—a better solution than starving your property of the resources it expended energy to create. (still not recommended for the sake of wildlife preservation)
Some rake their leaves up against all their perennial plans and onto their annual beds for the winter and leaving pathways clear. (recommended)
Others make a big mineral-rich leaf pile, allow it to compost down to leaf mold, and add it to any garden when ready. (recommended)
6. Let native flowers grow and bloom
“Weeds” grow for free, and many of them are useful and even native to your area.
Identify as many weeds as possible and read up about each one. The more you learn what already grows, the more you discover that you have—for free!
We have several natives and non-natives that we let grow, even cultivate, and harvest for medicinal teas, tinctures, and meals.
Examples for us in Ontario Canada include; self-heal, golden rod, mullein, dandelion, blackberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, black raspberries, oyster mushrooms, turkey tail, bear’s head tooth, fiddleheads, morels, nettles, chickory, asters, and so much more… and more to learn!
I enjoy and drink free tea year-round because of all the medicinal herbs I forage and dry in summer. Fun fact, I’ve lost all unnecessary weight by switching away from expensive creamed coffee.
7. Slow the flow of water with swales, wells, & water features
Digging some contour in your land doesn’t require you to spend money (assuming you already have a shovel!) And water might be expensive where you live.
Keep in mind, they aren’t for everyone, but Geoff Lawton talks a lot of good about swales.
It doesn’t have to be a swale. Having areas that catch water in any way reduces your time cost of manual watering.
We make little moats around annuals and bigger moats around unestablished perennials. These encourage a plant’s roots to stretch outward from the base and toward the moat where more moisture has been absorbed.
See more about swales: Prepare the Ground for a Food Forest Properly (Full Guide)
Protect plants, thrift for man-powered tools, & grow low
1. Protect young plants from wildlife
Prevention reduces setbacks which fuels continued growth.
Fencing is expensive, let’s get that out of the way. But we learned firsthand that it’s more expensive to not fence or protect your food forest.
Our unprotected food forest story goes like this . . . Once upon a time, we planted $1000 worth of trees and shrubs on a woodland property teeming with cute deer. “Invite the wild in,” permaculturists said, “reap the droppings of the wild who graze,“ they said, we took it all literally and the next thing we know, our trees’ growth made no progress.
Okay, we did know deep down that deer are damaging. Everyone knows that and says that. But we mistakenly didn’t heed well-known advice. (We should have made a separate area of plants to attract grazing deer and encourage them away from the interior of the food forest.)
I’d actually say our trees made backward progress. We likely need to wait 5 years starting from the time we fenced them instead of 3 years from the original planting for fruit. Excessive and consistent grazing takes energy out of any unestablished plant.
So my advice here is to heed well-known advice and skip wasting time!
We even planted potatoes from the grocery store the first time we grew them. Well-known advice is that grocery store potatoes are treated for a longer shelf-life. With lush green growth, we were optimistic that it would work only to disappointingly harvest far less than we planted.
Protecting your young plants is a huge time saver particularly if you have deer or birds out and about.
We’ve purchased second-hand fencing and stakes at a steal price by keeping an eye on local people-to-people markets. For $550 we got x50 8ft T-posts and 240′ of 8ft galvanized steel deer fencing.
At Peavey Mart (which used to be known as Tractor Supply store) we got a 150ft roll of chicken wire at 5ft tall for $80 each on sale. Original pricing was $110 each.
Most areas can get away with those light-duty materials successfully and I do recommend them. Our deer have had a taste of our grapes while unprotected so they were bold enough to discover they can rip through the black mesh and get into the area we had blocked off.
So if you do opt for these lighter-duty materials, I recommend (1) wrapping individual plants with them rather than using them for large-area fencing and (2) avoiding letting deer get a taste to begin with by protecting new plants right away.
If deer aren’t a problem in your area, perhaps you need mesh nets to protect the fruit from birds when the time comes.
Find out if insect pests are strong, and choose pest-resistant trees at local nurseries. Avoid big box stores that sell well-known fruits (such as McIntosh apples). We found Liberty apples that are described as similar to McIntosh’s flavor but are a pest-resistant tree.
Common apple types found in grocery stores undergo unsustainable and health-compromising pesticide treatment because they are not bred for resilience.
Finally, protect trees by ensuring they grow strong. Provide them with compost and mulch around the base (on top of the ground, never in the planting hole).
2. Use fuelless tools
To minimize or eliminate recurring costs, such as fuel, invest in man-powered tools to perform any desired maintenance.
Here is a table that shows all the tools you’ll need for a food forest. The overall cost is steep, but it’s likely you’ll have most of them already. Plus, fuel-driven tools will always cost most than the basics.
Unless you’re turning your food forest into a business, it doesn’t take much to feed your family. Fuel-driven tools can be avoided by breaking a big project into small sections. Start small with what you can handle and expand as you go.
3. Ditch grass for low-growers
Minimize maintenance needs with thoughtful choices.
You could eliminate the cost of mowing by replacing grass with low-growing ground covers such as clover. Some clovers don’t grow beyond 6 inches at their mature height.
4. Stop by at thrift stores every few months
Brand-new shovels and such, usually start at $50 or more.
We have found basic tools like shovels, rakes, pitchforks, and even sickles for $5 (or less!) in local thrift stores. Some tools don’t need to be new. Also, it isn’t a bad idea to have extras on hand.
5. Go to garage sales when you see the signs
While most garage sales are full of kids’ items, good stuff can be found in houses with big backyards.
I find thrift stores easier to find garden tools in, but garage sales in the right neighborhoods offer valuable homestead items. When you happen to be in a less condensed area, keep an eye on the outskirts of town for garage sales.
Save time by learning 5 things about forest gardens
Above, we’ve talked about all the ways you can spend time to save money.
Now, I’d like to explain topics to know about so you can save time by spending it wisely.
With good book knowledge, you’ll have a better idea about what to experiment with and what not to bother with.
1. Observe carefully before taking action
The first step of permaculture is observation.
Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison a worthy investment for those serious about transforming their property into paradise—particularly if you live in warm, temperate, and tropical climates.
If you live in a cold climate like me, the Edible Forest Garden books by Dave Jacke are cheaper, and just as amazing. In fact, (unless you’re in the tropics) this is my most recommended book series (parts 1 and 2) for anyone looking to grow a food forest.
I recommend these books so you can understand what to look for when observing your own space. Otherwise, you can observe all you want and not get very far. Today’s available knowledge is a worthy investment to avoid poor property layouts.
We live on an unplanned property and know all about how much more expensive and time-consuming day-to-day operations are, and how difficult it is to plan new projects in a sensible way. Poor property design makes homesteading WAY harder than it has to be.
Not only will the books help you avoid that, but help you see all the ways to make the best of what you currently have.
2. Design a manageable food forest
The above books also teach design. So once you’ve identified the opportunities on your property from observing; you can look through examples for implementing the best design elements.
Your design will be unique and based on your orientation to the sun, the wind, seasonal elements, and general topography.
You’ll save loads of maintenance time by learning basic garden designs as well. Pathways versus growing space need careful consideration to avoid complicated trimming, mulching, walking, or weeding.
3. Know your plants, and keep an eye on growth and health
Plants can be particular about their environment. Some plants thrive anywhere while others demand certain conditions and relationships.
Speaking of relationships, the easiest way to companion plant an annual garden every year is via this genius matrix.
Create guilds of perennials that are known companions.
Healthy plants demand less care, and attention, and prevent early replacement.
Pruning techniques can also improve yields and gain quicker results. This book is a great starting place, but of course, people like Stephen Sobkowiak have created in-depth pruning courses for serious growers.
4. Understand what a food forest is and the 9 layers
The 9 layers encompass the multiple levels you can include in your food forest. The more layers you have the more opportunity for diversity you can include.
Diversity enables self-sufficient resilience.
When a system becomes “self-sufficient” by its community of critters; you are no longer responsible for its function as a food-producing system.
Therefore, your food forest becomes “free” as it no longer demands gobs of any human time.
The more layers you neglect, the fewer homes will be created for delegation.
The Biggest Little Farm is a documentary that showcases how miraculously these components can come together.
5. Ask questions and find answers
Asking questions to find answers could look like typing to google, reading a book, having a conversation with your neighbors, or conducting a personal experiment.
All of these options are helpful when it comes to growing a food forest!
Like I said prior in this post, heed warnings that everyone says don’t work to save time experiencing well-known failure. Mistakes can be time-consuming and while they are inevitable no matter what you do—Many can be avoided by learning from others.
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