Planting a Food Forest on a Shoestring Budget

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Growing food doesn’t need to be hard or expensive. You don’t need a bunch of raised beds or expensive planter boxes. If you have an area in your yard about 30 feet long and 10 feet wide give or take, you can grow a pretty good amount of food for very little money and take care of it in an hour or two a week.

When I’m planning a food forest, I consider a few things:

  1. What do I like to eat?
  2. Space available.
  3. Budget. For this project, my budget is less than $100 so I want to maximize actual food production and minimize anything I purchase.
  4. Ease of care. It’s okay to have a few fussy plants after the food forest is established but for now, I want it to be as easy as possible to get planted and thriving before taking on a challenge – like heirloom tomatoes.

Make a Plan

Outline the area that you’re designating as your food forest first. An easy way to get started is to draw a plan on paper first, making sure to take some measurements and place fruit trees at their mature size on the plan so you leave room for growth. If you’re having trouble visualizing the boundaries, try using a garden hose or rope to outline the garden spaces or mature tree canopies. One of the biggest mistakes that people make is over-planting, wasting time and money with plants that are too crowded to look good or produce well in the long run, which definitely doesn’t follow our shoestring budget goal.

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Foundation First

A successful garden always starts with the soil. Our soil in Florida is pretty sandy and nutrient-poor for the most part. You’re going to need to improve it for most plants. Start by calling a few local tree services to get on their list to deliver a free load of mulch to you. Then start composting. In a few months, you’ll have a big heap of rich soil ready to nourish your fruit trees and veggie plants.

You can use cardboard, compost and mulch to start sheet mulching and Building Your Soil to get rid of the grass as you plant your trees. In a nutshell, sheet mulching is using layers to smother the existing plants in the garden. The goal is to improve your soil while blocking weeds. Make sure to overlap the cardboard by 6 inches. The bigger the cardboard pieces, the better. If you are using a bunch of little boxes, be sure to use two layers. Several layers of moistened newspaper will also work. Try to get free mulch from a local tree service to remove that expense from your $100 budget.

Fruit Trees

You’ll want to focus on growing trees at first. They take less work and generally produce more food than annual vegetable plants. Plant them once and they’ll keep producing for years if you take care of them. One of the easiest trees to grow from seeds is a papaya. It can be eaten green like a vegetable or ripe as a fruit. Buy a papaya fruit from that store. Eat it. If you like it, save the seeds. You can grow tons of papaya in small spaces, such as along a fence, walkway or at the back of a garden area.  I recommend planting at least seven plants at first. Papaya can be male, female, or hermaphrodite. Only the female blooms produce fruit but they need male blooms for pollination. Once tree gender has been established (by observing the blooms) you get decide if you want to keep all of them or not. You’ll need one male tree for every 7 females.

Banana trees also grow really easily although not from seeds. The best way to get a few banana trees is to ask someone with a stand of them to give you a young banana tree, called pups. Get a few, plant them in compost or in a banana circle,  water regularly, and before you know it, they will multiply and make large racks of bananas that you can use green or ripe. You can store excess bananas in the freezer for later.

These banana racks (the clusters of hanging fruit) were so heavy we had to prop up the trees with some 2 by 4’s. Plant them once, feed the soil, provide water, and you’ll have bananas likely within a year. Bananas grow in a stand (cluster), producing baby banana trees called pups. Make sure that you give them at least a space that is at least 10 feet wide to accommodate their gigantic leaves!

Would you like to know how to choose and plant trees that will actually produce? Take our virtual course, High Yielding Fruit Trees which is designed for Florida gardeners

Other trees that you can purchase if you have the space and budget are mango, starfruit, Barbados cherry, and dwarf mulberry. You can start loquats from seeds but they’ll take several years to produce. If you have to choose one tree to buy, get a grafted mango. If you have two choose two get mango and mulberry. The mango produces a lot of fruit that can be preserved in various ways to stretch the harvest and the mulberry tree is very hardy. Its fruits taste similar to a blackberry and it can be easily propagated by cuttings to make more trees.

Smaller Plants

Start going to the farmers market and buying whole pineapples and sweet potatoes. Twist the tops off the pineapple and plant them, either in pots or directly in the food forest if you’re ready for them. Keep in mind that they’ll get about 3 feet across and the leaves are pretty spiky so don’t place them too close to walking areas or fruit trees that you may need to walk under for harvest. You can’t have too many pineapples! They take a few years to produce fruit and each plant only makes one pineapple a year, so plant them liberally. I have about 40 pineapple plants at my house.

Find a variety or two of sweet potato that you like and buy a few extra. Let them sit for a while in a paper bag so they’ll sprout. You can plant the whole sweet potato or put the end in a cup of water to get more sprouts, called slips, and plant those. In other words, sweet potatoes aren’t fussy at all. Keep in mind that you’ll be digging the sweet potatoes up, so you don’t want them too awfully close to the roots of trees. They like loose soil and can even be planted in a few inches of mulch. Sweet potatoes are great because they can take our hot Florida summer sun and you can enjoy eating the leaves of the plant either cooked or raw before the actual potatoes are done.

Grab a bag of dried beans at the grocery store. I like black-eyed peas personally. They like our Florida heat and can grow in the poorest soil imaginable. Simply buy a bag of dried beans at the store, eat most of them, and plant the rest. You can eat the young beans in the pods like string beans, take the beans out of the green pods and eat them raw in salads or let let dry on the vine. Once dried, it’s easy to save them in jars for later. They are legumes, which take nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil, which will actually help to improve your soil. Win-win. There are a number of heat-loving beans. If you like beans, you can definitely grow them year round in central and south Florida!

If you have enough room, watermelon and Seminole pumpkin also love the heat and will grow in the summertime. Plan on planting them in the early spring to avoid pest issues. They make some pretty long vines – watch out! You can fold them carefully back on each other which also encourages pollination. Other melons, squash and pumpkins are possible to grow from seed, too, if you start around February or September. They aren’t as heat tolerant as the watermelon or Seminole pumpkin though. If you really want a particular melon or squash, it’s best to buy seeds because they easily cross-pollinate with each other, so you may end up with a hybrid.

Cucurbits, including squash, cucumber, melon and gourds, develop blossoms that are either male or female. The plants will produce only male blooms first, then the female blooms. You need both male and female blooms for fruit to form.

Spice it Up!

Herbs are a kitchen staple. If you are buying them either fresh or dried, you’re spending too much money. Many of these herbs growing easily from seeds. Others are pretty cheap to buy. You can get cuttings from friends and put them in water to root. Everyone needs a rosemary bush. They thrive on full sun and general neglect. Basils, parsley, sage, lemongrass, lemon balm, mint and chives all grow well here in fertile soil and varying amounts of sun. Grow them, use them fresh and prune them liberally. If you aren’t ready to use the pruned herbs, dry them and refill your spice jars. Before you know it, you’ll be able to make your own spice blends and teas. Save small glass jars to store them. Add a fancy ribbon and piece of cloth to the top and you have a DIY gift that anyone would love!

Between the climbing bean vines, the sprawling sweet potatoes and watermelons, and the towering leaves of the banana and papaya trees, you will be well on your way to enjoying a bountiful harvest and beautiful tropical paradise in just a few months after spending minimal money to get started. As your plants become established, you can add more seasonal annual vegetables, tropical perennial plants and move some of the baby banana trees around.

Ready to Expand?

The suggestions above will help you get a thriving food forest started for less than $100. If you eat the food you’re growing, you’ll see a difference in your grocery bill and fresh produce consumption within a few months. When you’re ready to add more to your food forest, here are some budget friendly suggestions:

  • Find a friend who is a few steps ahead of you in their food forest and get cuttings or seeds of their favorite plants.
  • Consider planting some annual vegetables. If you don’t have space for a raised garden bed, consider a vertical garden. Our favorite is the GreenStalk Vertical Garden.
  • Talk to other friends and neighbors who are growing food. Decide who’s growing what and swap! I regularly swap my plentiful starfruit, Asian greens and calamondins (small sour oranges) for hot peppers and tomatoes.
  • Visit a local Asian market and get some tropical veggies that will grow easily. I recommend ginger and turmeric for starters. Many roots, rhizomes, and tubers can be grown from the parts you buy at the store. Choose organic if possible or try to find small growers who are less likely to put growth prohibiting substances on their produce.
  • There are so many types of tropical and subtropical vegetables that will grow far more easily than the traditional veggies we buy at the grocery store. Longevity spinach, katuk, moringa, okinawa spinach, amaranth and molokhia are a examples that grow from cuttings and can handle our Florida summers. These are often advertised as tropical perennial greens or permaculture plants. Plant them once (except molokhia and amaranth – they’re annuals) and they will grow for years!
  • Try to join a local seed and plant swap group. You will learn so much and get free additions to your food forest. Don’t forget to bring something to share!

Would you like more information or assistance on designing your food forest?

We have an online course that we developed as an extension of this article. You can find it HERE along with several other gardening courses. Living Roots Eco Design also offers virtual and in-person consultations and design services. For a detailed list of our services, visit our website or contact us by email or phone.

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