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Into the Woods

Building an edible forest that mimics nature and may even fix environmental damage

“We worked hard to create good soils,” says Birgit Sharp. “Last spring we piled on tons and tons of organic matter, leaves, manure, wood chips and put ground cover over it all to help feed those microbes and let them do their thing.”

An edible forest sounds like something out of Willy Wonka. Ripening pears and bright berries drip from trees. Branches brim with cherries, blackberries and blueberries.
    The food forest is an idea ripe for the picking. It’s an idea Birgit Sharp, of Fairhaven, is already planting.
    The one-time biology teacher imagines a fruitful upper story of pears, persimmons, plums and fig trees side by side flowering trees like dogwood and locust buzzing with pollinators. The understory is productive, too, with grapes and berries. At ground level, strawberries grow all season long.
    Delicious in its own right, the forest Sharp imagines is good for more than eating.
    “I’m interested in farming that is not only sustainable and easier on the environment but that also actively helps the planet,” says Sharp, who is both a Master Naturalist and a Master Gardener. “This food forest does that by improving soils, expanding habitat and holding large amounts of carbon in the soil for very long periods of time.”
    At the American Chestnut Land Trust’s Double Oak Farm, Sharp found the place — and partners — to make her Wonka-ish dream come true.

Connecting with the Land
    The first grassroots community-based land trust in Maryland, American Chestnut Land Trust has pooled will, know-how and resources to buy, preserve and protect more than 3,000 acres in mid-Calvert County.
    Once fields of corn and soybeans, Double Oak Farm reopened in 2010 as an organic farm.
    “The Trust has taken a real educational approach to gardening and farming,” explains Jeff Klapper of Prince Frederick, who transformed Double Oak Farm. “We look back to the Native Americans and early Europeans to see how they grew crops before we had heavy machinery or chemical fertilizers and pesticides.”
    Since the Green Revolution of the 1960s, ever-stronger pesticides and more efficient fertilizers have helped farmers worldwide grow more. Average corn yields, for example, increased by 400 percent from 1930 to 2002 — and are still rising.
    But, as we’ve learned in four decades of trying to clean up the Bay, those high yields — and the adoption of high-yield methods by home gardeners — have an environmental cost.
    “While conventional tillage, fertilizers and pesticides can be beneficial to crops, their excessive use pushes nutrients and sediment into waterways,” Sharp says.
    Finding ways to minimize those problems and encourage sustainable practices is what excites ACLT’s executive director Greg Bowen.
    “We’ve been working on this concept of how humans can raise food in the most ecologically friendly way possible,” Bowen says.
    “Gardeners were having great success growing fruit trees at the edges of forests,” Bowen says. “The forest has these great fungal soil systems that are perfect for trees and brambles that bear fruit. It’s a symbiotic mix of plants.”

From Field to Forest
    So Sharp is busy trying to mimic that symbiosis, creating her own fruitful forest at Double Oak Farm.
    “We worked hard to create good soils,” Sharp says. “Last spring we piled on tons and tons of organic matter, leaves, manure, wood chips and put ground cover over it all to help feed those microbes and let them do their thing.”
    Once the soil was right, volunteers began planting strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, lingonberries, pear trees, plums, persimmons and serviceberry. Those flowering plants should attract wildlife and pollinators, further helping to establish the ecosystem.
    “I am hopeful we will have some strawberries in the spring, possibly raspberries and blackberries, too.” But, Sharp says, “We may have to wait a few years. Like a garden, a food forest is a real lesson in patience.”

A Fruitful Harvest
    If the success of Double Oak Farm is any indication, that patience will be well rewarded. Once a Community Supported Agriculture program, Double Oak now donates nearly 75 percent of its harvest to help feed the hungry at St. John Vianney Church’s food pantry in Prince Frederick. Volunteers also get to take home some of that bounty.
    “In 2016, we donated over 4,200 pounds of naturally grown vegetables and fruits,” says the Trust’s Pam Shilling. “We support at least 65 families per week. At a 28-week season, that makes 1,820 families we feed each year.”
    More broadly, the Trust, the farm, the forest all work to bring people closer to their food by stretching traditional ideas of where and how food can be grown and how to replicate the results at home.
    “People are always coming down to walk our 20 miles of trails,” Bowen says. “The farm and the food forest are visible from the trails so people can stop by and talk with volunteers working on these projects and learn more about these techniques they may have only ever heard about in magazines. It’s a chance to see it in action — and taste the fruits of our labors.”