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Sustainable Forest Garden: Beat the heat and extend your harvest in a challenging climate zone


Everyone has heard regional variations of the phrase, but around here Will Rogers is credited with saying, "Don't like the weather in Oklahoma, wait a minute and it'll change." Our region presents a unique set of challenges that can shock even the most seasoned gardeners upon relocating here. Hail, drying winds, intense pest pressure, poor soil quality, brutal heat, drastic temperature swings, vigorous weeds, intense pest pressure.... (Did we mention intense pest pressure?) Most of the time, these elements are completely out of our control. You can't change the weather, no matter how hard you cry or loud you shout. No time has ever epitomized the frustration more clearly than this spring when we experienced several unseasonably late frosts, followed by daytime temps that soared into the 90's. These fluctuations caused many local growers to delay planting of summer crops like tomatoes and peppers, while putting unseasonable temperature stress on cool season plants that were already in the ground. Most of us here can commiserate with the devastating experience of dutifully planting crops according to the recommended dates, only to reap disappointment when the weather takes a turn. For example, carrots will not germinate above 80 degrees, while tomatoes can't set fruit above 90. Crops like lettuce and most brassicas will become stunted, bolt or develop unpleasant flavors when temperatures climb. When this happens so early in the season, what's a poor soul to do? Shade cloth is a popular strategy and can effectively lower soil temp by 15 degrees if implemented early, but for anyone attempting to grow on a large scale to feed their family, this method can be cost prohibitive and present infrastructural problems as well.

When we aren't lamenting drastic temperature swings, it's a common thing for us aspiring green thumbs to bemoan the "terrible soil" in our area. But if we go into any forest, move aside the acorns, sticks and rotting leaves, we are guaranteed to find something quite different hidden beneath. What we will uncover is a complex and beautiful system of beneficial insects, fungi, bacteria and organic matter, all working together in harmony to maintain a vibrant, thriving world, hidden from our skeptical gaze. Observation, rather than transformation of the natural environment, is key for growing in challenging zones. For us personally, the paradigm shift happened when we started to gain awareness of the plants and systems effortlessly humming along around us, independent of human cultivation or care. Prairie-lands are sustained through a miraculous underground network of grasses that prevent erosion and withstand drought and heat with incredible fortitude. Native fruits like sand plums, blackberries and wild grapes thrive, seemingly undisturbed by the regional insects we battle in our gardens each year. Even when temperatures soar and we experience periods of drought, forests maintain a comparably moist, cool environment through natural mulching from fallen leaves and shade from overhead branches. The questions lingered... How can we participate in those natural systems and share in their benefit, without disturbing the very things that had made them so resilient and adaptable in the first place? Do we take this beautiful soil from the woods and haul it to the garden? Or could we take the garden to the forest?


Last year, we began converting an old poultry foraging paddock into an experimental forest garden for spring and fall. Our hope was that the mature oak trees above would provide shade for cool season plants, extending their growing season in spring and allowing germination and healthy growth to take place in summer for a fall-winter harvest. It was a definite risk. We weren't sure how our domesticated vegetables would grow in limited sunlight, but the native plants seemed happy enough, so we decided to throw out convention and give it a try. We brought our goat herd in for a season to eat down the mature brambles and poison ivy, cleared the area of fallen limbs and set about preparing the area for planting. Much to our delight, we discovered quickly that the soil was already loamy and full of earthworms, a pleasant contrast to the sand and clay we started out with in our other gardens. All that this thriving space required from us was to support it, rather than subdue the ecosystem that nature had cultivated so masterfully.

Years of falling leaves had added beneficial carbon to the soil surface, creating a protective blanket that prevented erosion, retained moisture and improved texture. Being shaded for most of the day, the notorious Bermuda grass (bane of an Okie gardener's existence!) was not able to thrive here. The selective plants that did pop back up after the goats did their job were shallow rooted and easily pulled out or smothered with hay. The chickens, ducks, and turkeys that had roamed the area in previous years had added nitrogen as they foraged for insects among the leaf litter and underbrush. The result was a beautiful, living soil, full of vitality, nutrients and intricate mycelium networks running throughout, The stuff of dreams. And it had all happened with minimal interference from us. We scooped up handfuls. Smelled it. Felt it. You could sense the energy, life and potential contained in it. It felt like a miracle, but in reality, the creation of that soil was the most natural, commonplace process happening on our farm; Nature doing what nature does, designed with intricate, loving precision by The Master Gardener Himself. With the soil fertilization and preparation already done for us, the practical process of preparing the rows and planting was easy. While likely unnecessary, we did introduce one unnatural element into the space in the form of white agricultural plastic mulch. We didn't expect it to hold up well through subsequent seasons, but we were interested to test out this material as a budget friendly alternative to more expensive commercial weed fabrics or for use in situations where hay and wood chips are not plentiful. This specific barrier had the added bonus of reflecting heat and required no additional cost to secure it with stakes. Instead, we installed it by simply burying the edges on either side of our rows and cut holes in the top for the plants. So far, this infrastructure has held up well to 40+ mph winds. Although, we do recommend placing a handful of mulch or soil around the base of your seedlings to keep the material from flapping and disturbing delicate stems while they get established.

So far, the results of our forest garden experiment have been astounding!




It's now mid May and temperatures have already reached 80's and 90's. As you can see, the cool season spring crops like cabbage, head lettuce, broccoli and Brussels sprouts in the forest garden are thriving.

Some of the crops like lettuce, beets, kale and chard we overwintered from fall are still growing well and we are continuing to harvest from them. Meanwhile in another of our full sun growing areas, similar early spring crops like turnips, radishes and bok choy have already started to bolt in spite of ample rainfall, shade cloth, and heavy mulching.

Next year, we intend to plant spring crops exclusively in the forest garden. That's what we call success! Although this system may not work for more temperate climates or heat loving crops, for those of us attempting to grow in a challenging zone, forest gardening may provide a more sustainable and satisfying alternative to conventional methods. It's cost effective and requires far less amending, watering and weeding, Not only do the trees provide cooling shade, they also create a natural wind block and help to shelter your precious plants from hail and torrential downpours. The most alluring part of this method is how easy it is to implement, regardless of your budget or infrastructure constraints. If you have access to trees, you can totally do this, whether you choose to plant straight into the ground or use a raised bed system. We are excited to see how this system performs as we approach summer and will keep you updated as the season progresses. As always, if you live in our region and would like to visit our farm or receive free consultation about your specific growing situation, we are here for you! Feel free to reach out. Now let's get out there and start growing.


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I have been wanting to do this at my place, but I haven’t figured out how to make it workable for my situation. This is so awesome, though, I can’t wait to see it in action.

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