Food Forest Context of Terra Alta

Really the whole land is a continuous food forest as the remnants of past land use and native vegetation combine with our earthworks and plantings for bio-diversity. We work in layers, diversity abounds, the nuclei are merging and the yields are flowing.  Our first plantings were only in 2011 with a major one in 2012 and 2014.  Our system is one of layers just like any food forest as we are still trying to figure out what is the best combination in this unique microclimate.  Here we are less than a KM from the sea so we experience very little frost but do receive sea spray and tough winds.  Being in the Mediterranean context we will also go around four to five months with no rain yet we have an abundant spring that we can gravity feed to just about every spot on the land. So we search for those who perform on this north facing slope, sub-tropical in some ways yet temperate in other facets, drylands in the summer and cold and wet during the winter site. We develop different motifs for each zone here as the mosaic of anchors and guilds is becoming quite blurry.  Annuals have their pockets and we stake in space and time to keep the site improving while connecting tour water resources, leverage appropriate technology, develop our soil more and utilize our earthworks.


Due to zone planning, slope planning and the zones more hydrated by water, we are again planting for themes and motifs to deal with all these interrelating factors.  Caminhoa Das Fadas, the walk up to the water tank with a small stream along its borders, provides a warm zone and more moist so we have choosen to focus on sup-tropical species such as feijoa, white sapote, avocado, tamarillo, and Anona.  While another area that receives less water, goji berries and olives and hazelnut dominate since they need very little water. The different zones are dynamic so we continue to plant, mulch, prune and watch our chickens work through them.

The Layers

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1. The Canopy- Cork and English Oaks dominate this layer at Terra Alta.  Their age is unknown but give shade to species below, some shrubby, some fall bulbs.  We have begun to collect their acorns to begin to see how viable of a food source they are for us as a community. Also on site we have some older and majestic English Walnut trees that are recovering from years and years of neglect.  Also a hedge of two very mature plums forms a nice canopy in one section of the land.  Finally the willows near the tank really do create a microclimate below with its deciduous habit. We hope that our Avocado’s and White Sapotes will occupy more of this layer in the future as well.

2. Sub Canopy- Apples and pears of local grafted origin (low chill hour varieties) form the anchor of this layer.  Some are in the shadows of the cork oaks while others stand-alone and our apple circle is a unique feature on the land.  We get quite a harvest from our two varieties of pears and the apples are mainly for cooking and cider varieties. We have also added in citrus, persimmons, olives, Annona, and pomegranate which are common in the meditteranean.  We also have a nice abundance of stone fruits including cherry, peach, nectarine, apricot, and plum.  Their fruits and spring blossoms are equally delightful for us and the bees.  Furthermore, the New Zealand Native known as Lemonwood emerges in the sub canopy as it was planted for windbreaks.  We do coppice them from time to time so their position in the food forest layer context is dynamic. 


3. Shrub Layer- With their smaller and multi-stemmed growth, these layers often form dense foliage and provide unique habitat as well as fruits and nuts.  One multifunctional plant we enjoy on the site is Eleagnus.  Its drought hardy, a nitrogen fixer, has amazing smelling flowers and provides a small berry.  Also we have been planting Feijoa with its ability to produce winter fruits, withstand frosts and deals with the sea spray and wind well.  Hazelnuts also form one of the anchors in our Mediterranean garden motif as we love the idea of a easy to harvest nut full of nutrition. Tamarillo’s are all over the place in the young years of the system since it produces quickly and demonstrates the principle of time and plant stacking. We have planted two Salmonberry, a west coast classic from North American on the banks of our stream to replicate its native habitat. Also quince trees are quite prominent as they were the rootstock of the pears that were planted before we ever arrived.  When the graft of the pears died the rootstock sprouted into a jungly mass. Finally the native cherry spreads year after year and gives a nice architecture to our more wild areas of the land along the edge. 

4. Bush layer: This layer falls in and amongst the shade of other trees more often than not as they don’t need the same amount of light as some of the other species.  We are cultivating raspberries in several spaces and other berries like currants and Aronia or chokeberry are also dotted around. The raspberries require extra moisture so we put them in relative location to our spickets, which distributes water in the land in numerous areas or in sunken beds. Physalis, the tomato relative also clambers around and does becomes a bit woody as it ages.  We have also added the tasty evergreen known as Chilean Guava in the drier part of the land while thimbleberry grows in our sunken bed.  

Flower of Physalis or cape gooseberry

Flower of Physalis or cape gooseberry

5. Grasses Layer: In this context grasses form an important part of the ecosystems.  A cane grass known here as Canas proliferates on the edges and is a great soil builder.  However it is a running species so its control can be difficult.  It does make a great building material and great chop and drop material.  Also the clumping grasses are featured in the form of Sugar Cane which now is thriving greatly after years of growth.  Also lemongrass helps to form our guilds quite often for its chop and drop possibilities. The annual grasses that spring forth in the Mediterranean winter are an important chop and drop species.  the whole site goes green and its like having a free cover crop along with the herbaceous plants that germinate as well in these favorable conditions. 

6. Herbaceous Layer- this layer is extensive and includes a mix of annual vegetables, perennial vegetables, medicinal herbs, biomass plants, and nitrogen fixers.  From Comfrey in our wetter zones to Globe Artichoke in our drier zones, we have a great diversity and are continuing to acquire more and more plants to make our system more diverse and thus resilient. We love harvesting herbs in the garden for culinary purposes.  These plants also feed the bees and attract lots of beneficial insects.  

7. Rhizome layer- Our root crops come in the form of some annual vegetables like beets, sweet potatoes, and potatoes but also perennials like Horseradish and Jerusalem Artichoke .  The later likes moist climates like the one that it is native in the USA so we are growing it in sunken beds where our soils are quite resilient.  They also produce lots of biomass for composting and provide a nice fall time display of flowers and food for the bees. We also have our greenhouse involved in this layer with the Jerusalem Artichoke relative Yacon enjoying the conditions more there.  

Jerusalem Artichoke Flower

 8. Groundcover layer- some of these plants are seasonal as the dry season limits the proliferation of these furthering.  Clovers thrive in the cooler wetter months as well as New Zealand Spinach, a wonderful sub-tropical low grower that is eaten like a spinach.  Strawberries are spreading while types of mints and Mediterranean herbs such as thyme and oregano and growing quite well.

9. Vine Layer/ Climber: We have both native species that climb in the cork forest and also cultivated species.  We utilize grapes mostly for their dry hardiness and have expanded into hops as well. The tomato relative known as Pepino Dulce is a climber as well that we have planted extensively.  Also in the greenhouse we are cultivating Chayote, a perennial squash that grows prolifically especially in the added moisture of our greenhouse shower. 

10. People Layer: An unmistakable part of any food forest is the human interaction.  In times of early establishment we have used annual vegetables as gauges for soil water content to remind us to water our young trees and guilds.  Also humans prune, humans mulch, humans build terrace stone walls, humans harvest, and humans admire and have an energetic exchange.  The canopy trees really provide a lot of shade in the summers so our comfort is greatly aided by them so our presence can be seen amongst them in the form of cob benches and also terraces for tables. Finally our main presence is to expand and expand the food forest, full of biodiversity and deepening soils!