Key Learnings from Permaculture Food Forests, Weekend One

By Julia Herring, Permaculture Food Forests Course Participant

During Santa Cruz Permaculture’s first Permaculture Food Forests class the weekend of August 10-11, twenty eager students had the opportunity to visit three different sites that share the same goal: growing food and medicine.

A Santa Cruz Food Forest

First, we visited a mature 20 year old food forest. For a family living in the San Lorenzo River Valley of Santa Cruz, California, growing an abundance of delicious, organic food means creatively dispersing a collection of fruit and nut trees throughout their multi-acre property, with the goal of feeding their family and sharing with friends. 

While at first glance the distribution of fruit and nut trees, bushes, vines, herbs and flowers appears somewhat chaotic, a closer look and a little insider knowledge reveals the genius behind this multi-level system. 

Fifty+ feet tall redwood trees establish ideal conditions in the canopy for the plants growing below. Citrus trees create structure for grape vines growing in the small tree layer, and large mullein leaves shade the ground to prevent moisture loss in the understory. 

A redwood tree, two citrus trees, a grape vine, and mullein provide an example of a food forest in Santa Cruz, CA.

Food forests mimic how plant guilds operate in natural settings. A highlight of this weekend was learning that instead of competing, each of the plants occupying these layers provides a service that benefits another, while also improving soil quality and producing an abundance of edible food in a small, densely packed space. This makes planting a food forest a great option for those with little space to work with! We also saw examples of animal integration (a rotational grazing system of chickens in the understory of various fruit trees) and alley cropping. 

Organic Medicinal Herb Nursery

On day one we also got to hear from Cameron Saloman of Kindred Herbs. She reminded us that our gardens (and food forests) are a fantastic place to grow our own medicine in addition to our own food! Cameron’s goal in starting Kindred Herbs is to contribute to the growing movement of regenerative herbalism by providing rare and organic varieties of herbs to help prevent the over-harvesting of medicinal plants in the wild.

Permaculture Food Forests course at Kindred Herbs. Photo credit: Cameron Salomon

15+ Acre Fruit Farm

On day two we visited Andy’s Orchard, a 15+ acre fruit farming operation in Morgan Hill, which boasts one of the largest private collections of stone fruit trees on the West Coast. Andy’s is famous for their rare, high quality varieties of stone fruit. They offer multiple fruit tastings throughout the summer, which is a fantastic opportunity to try different varieties of stone fruit before deciding what to plant in your own yard.

Plums, pluots, peaches, nectarines, and apricots on display for tasting at Andy’s Orchard in Morgan Hill, CA.

Compared to a food forest, walking through Andy’s Orchard creates the feeling of structure and order. Plum, pluot, apricot, peach, cherry, and nectarine trees are grouped by variety and evenly spaced in vertical rows. Great care has been taken to prune each tree into a productive “open center” form, and the soil below each tree is mostly bare, besides the weeds that exist between rows. After spending time in a food forest, seeing this more conventional farming system makes me wonder what permaculture concepts can be incorporated into large scale agriculture operations.

Peach trees aligned in neat rows at Andy’s Orchard in Morgan Hill, CA.

Community Farm Park

Next, our class visited Emma Prusch Farm Park in San Jose, CA. This 47-acre park is home to large fruit orchards, multiple community gardens, and Veggielution Community Farm. Their International Orchard includes more than 125 rare and exotic fruit trees, including citrus and other sub-tropicals. We had the pleasure of taking a guided tour of this orchard with Permaculture Food Forests lead instructor John Valenzuela, a fruit enthusiast and long-time member of the California Rare Fruit Growers

The International Orchard at Emma Prusch Farm Park. Photo by the UC Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County

Non-Profit Neighborhood Fruit Project

During our time at Emma Prusch Park we got to hear from Craig Diserens, co-founder and volunteer with Village Harvest. Village Harvest is a nonprofit volunteer organization based in the South Bay Area whose mission is to provide food for the hungry, preserve our heritage and skills, and promote sustainable use of urban resources.  They organize and coordinate backyard fruit harvesting, and provide education on fruit tree care, harvesting, and food preservation. 

Through volunteer labor, they’ve found a way to harvest and distribute the fruit abundance growing in people’s backyards that may otherwise go uneaten. Hearing from Craig made me realize and appreciate how much fruit we already have growing all around us, and highlighted my favorite permaculture principle – use what you have!

Craig Diserens explains the process of harvesting and distributing backyard fruit through Village Harvest.

Community Farm

Finally, our weekend ended with a tour of Veggielution Community Farm, a 6-acre plot located in the northwest corner of Emma Prusch Farm Park. Veggielution was founded in 2008 by three San Jose State University students, and their mission is to connect people from diverse backgrounds through food and farming to build community in East San Jose. Their organically managed farm proves what is possible when community members voice their desire to use public space to grow food and facilitate human connection within their neighborhood. 

Overall, our first weekend of Permaculture Food Forests was full of rich examples of the different methods, scales and structures on which food can be grown and shared. I can’t wait for our next class during the last weekend of September when we’ll learn how to preserve the fall harvest, witness an example of integrating animals into the agroecosystem, discuss the possibilities of cover cropping, and more!


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