Food Forest part 2: Field prep and setup


In this blog post I’ll review what we did to set up the food forest. We had the land, we had 3 people to work and we had a big idea; this post shows the start of the activities to make our idea happen. I’ll cover how we farmed “big” last year, the “small” multi-species food forest idea for this year, what trees and crops we picked, digging holes, the soil test and results, applying soil amendments and planting of the first crops.

There’s a lot of pictures below so I’ll try to keep this intro short and start describing the setup process through all the pictures. If you’re thinking of questions or comments as you read through please share them below; I appreciate them and they help us learn by putting me on the spot to come up with answers. Really I’m just learning about all this stuff myself through trial and error; I’m no expert.

Ok, let’s see how the setup goes:

This is Modou and I sowing millet seeds last year. We tried to grow a lot of food and had a huge farm plot to work with (1.5Ha/3.7acres). Looking back I remember that it seemed like a good idea – grow a lot of food on a lot of land. But the labor was too much for us and we fell behind. The 2014 rain was also weak so we didn’t end up with much food given all the work we did.


Fast forward to 2015 and we have a new idea for our food forest: smaller land, more food. ‘Overstack’ the system with many different species, tight spacing and manage a smaller amount of land to build fertility. At least that was the idea. We planned to have 5 lines/alleys of nitrogen fixing trees, with 5 big trees in each alley and crops in between. The picture below is our starting point, the blank slate.


So the first thing to do was select the ‘big’ trees that would grow into our tall food producing trees. These were the trees that were drought tolerant and would hopefully survive the hot season until the 2016 rains came. We had 40 or so possible tree species and then narrowed it down to 19 species, 14 of which would provide some type of food. And so the 25 stars of our show were cared for over the last 4-12 months in order to be ready for out-planting. In a future blog post i’ll introduce you to the trees we picked and give some information on why we think they’ll work well. Here is a picture of our food forest tree nursery; we called it the ‘tree hospital’ because these trees needed the most care.


So we started digging “outplant” holes for the 25 big trees. The land was cleared and we didn’t burn any of the brush; instead, we just raked, threw it over the fence and made it into a new compost pile (seen in the left center of this picture).3

Holes were dug for a couple hours in the morning and a couple hours at night. We would pour water to soften the hard packed dirt then come back and dig down another 15″ or so. The manuals recommendation for outplant holes was anywhere between 20-100cm wide and 20-100cm deep. Most of our outplant holes ended up being  70-90cm wide and 80-100cm deep. The picture below shows a clean field with red dirt piles from digging.


My counterparts and I dug the dirt out and put it in piles, each pile is 1 bucket worth of dirt. This was done so we could see the amount of dirt in each hole, then we could put the right amount of compost, manure, biochar etc. back in the hole. In total we dug out 545 buckets of dirt, what weighs out to be 7630kg or 16,820lbs. It wasn’t horrible to do, just monotonous and slowwww…with some blister type hand pain and aches.


Let me give you an example of how the “outplant hole” thought process went. The picture below is an outplant hole for an indian jujube tree; the hole is about 90cm wide and 100cm deep. We pulled 32 buckets out of this hole (8 of black top soil, 24 of red clay type subsoil). To fill it back up we decided to try using around 25% soil amendments and 75% original top and sub soil. There’s some different ideas about what amendments to put back in the outplant hole but we’ll just need to experiment to see what really works. Some say put 75% compost/manure/etc. in the hole, some say put a cow bone and handful of biochar. We first wanted to put a huge amount of manure etc. to speed up growth/root development before hot season but then later chose to put less amendments, thinking that a lot of these trees were native and used to infertile sandy soil anyways.(It was also a well timed piece of email advice to say something like “whoa, that’s way too much, be careful! It could create ammonia and be growth negative, etc.” It’s true, I wouldn’t want my living space filled up with 75% manure etc. So, again, thanks to Bob Shaffer for that save; I owe ya yet again and wouldn’t be doing very well without the mentoring of smarter farmers like you willing to share and help me.) So, to fill this hole we ended up mixing together the following: 8 buckets black top soil,19 buckets red subsoil, 2.5 buckets rice husk biochar (‘activated’ with cow manure first), 1.5 buckets compost, 1 bucket wood ash and a handful of powdered oyster shell. Stir well and hope for the best, maybe add a prayer or two! As i type this i’m thinking “that was a lot of biochar…” but I remember thinking I want a lot of water retention and as much growth as possible before the rains stop so that’s why I went heavy on it. I thought “if i can make a 1×1 meter sponge and soak it with 3 months of rains, then that’s gotta stay damp way past when the rains stop.” We’ll see if it works.


So our days filled with sorting the dirt for each outplant hole and organizing what we’d fill it with. All the holes we’re supposed to be prepped 1-2 months before the first rains and we finished them on July 7th then outplanted our trees on August 9th. Our outplanting was a few weeks later than I would’ve preferred but the work was much. At the end of the day, not counting compost/biochar/manure/ash/oyster shell preparation, we figured  out that it took us 54.5 hours to dig the 25 outplant holes.


The first rains had come, the outplant holes were ‘maturing,’ and now it was time to take care of the field. We had sent a soil test out and got the results back; in short, everything looked very deficient and the land would need a lot of help for several years before it would recover. pH was an acidic 5.6, organic matter was 0.9% and very low levels of N,P,K, Ca,Mg, etc. But we gotta start somewhere; i emailed Bob on big island again and we set about making discussing and brainstorming a plan. First thing we did was top dress the 5 alleys with compost. Below you can see the 5 rows where are 25 trees would go and the space between where we would sow crops.


Next up was powdered oyster shell to try increase the pH. We spread 50kg on the field and would add another 50kg 3 months later.


Gotta take a moment to give credit to my friend and counterpart Modou Kassama – he really stuck with me through the whole tiring process. To his credit he was extremely open to the idea of the food forest and has been supportive the whole time. He’d brew attaya, help me with my mandinka and work hard.


Oyster shell is down and we wait for another rain to mix it in.


My other counterpart Momodou Jatta waters our compost pile (for you nature farming folks, we had put OHN in the watering cans to help charge up the compost). This was the pile that we would spread over the food forest floor.


Bucket by bucket we threw the big compost pile over the wall into the food forest. We would later fix a door, but until then, the fastest way was to throw it where it needed to go. On the plus side we got to count and weigh how much compost we had: 191 buckets, weighing 5895lbs. We thought “this has to be a good start” and we’re happy because we made the pile for free.


The compost was now in the food forest plot and ready to be spread. When people felt the compost they really we’re impressed by the texture and color. When we told them we had 2674kg of it and it was all free they were surprised. We heard great “one-liners” from people: “O! This soil is very nice!” and “that’s it! I will never buy chemical fertilizer again!”


The compost is evenly spread around the field.


We then raked out the compost.


Next up was the biochar. I gotta give yet another shout out to Josiah Hunt of Hawaii Biochar Products for helping support with ideas and recommendations. We took the advice and first activated out carbonized rice husks with manure, composting it for a couple months before applying it to our field. This is the pile of biochar we ended up with.


We had about 76 buckets of biochar, with 4 sections to cover, so each section got 19 buckets worth.


Piles of biochar arranged at the foot of each section.


The biochar is raked out and now the field is well covered.


At this point the field is prepared: outplant holes are dug and the soil amendments are spread around. There’s 110lbs of oyster shell on the field, 5895lbs of compost and 500+lbs activated biochar. It was now time to plow.


Jatta (left) and Kassama (right) start plowing the land with our school’s donkey. The hope is that we’ll mix in all that good compost, oyster shell and biochar we put on the surface.


It’s really true what they say about donkeys: very stubborn. You can get a lot of animals to keep working far past when their comfortable but at this moment she was completely done and it was getting hot anyways so we were all ready for a break. She worked really hard for us though, especially given the fact that she was pregnant.


By this point, the rains have been coming for a few weeks so everywhere is changing to green. It took us a few days to plow the whole field. Still, it’s better than having to hire the tractor to plow those 3.7 acres like we did last year. I wasn’t really any good with the plow or the donkey so my counterparts took charge of this project; to them it’s like riding a bike given that they’ve done it since the time they were about 10 years old.


We also had to keep up on fence maintenance so animals don’t get in. We cut lots of neem branches for this reason.


Jatta helps take care of the fence. You can see the wide gaps at the bottom of the fence – very easy for a baby pig or goat to pass through. It’s not a huge concern now, as animals are better controlled during the rainy season, but will be during hot season (especially if our food forest ends up being one of the few remaining places with green things to eat).


We added more sticks each week and soon the fence began looking tighter and more solid. A goat or two did get in but it’s been about 6 weeks without any other animals entering.


We had grown a plant called sisal to use as part of our ‘live fencing.’ The sisal looks like agave and is very stiff and thorny, not to mention drought tolerant. The plan was to put it on the outside of the fence to block out animals. This is a bed of sisal plants. We removed them and transplanted them on this day.


We put 314 sisal plants around the outside perimeter of the fence.


We had other ‘live fencing’ species that we would plant on the inside of the fence. These were mostly acacias – drought tolerant, thorny, nitrogen fixing trees that do well in poor soil.


We put 90 live fencing trees around the inside perimeter of the fence. We didn’t dig any special type of outplant holes for these trees. These two trees are acacia nilotica (“baano” in mandinka).


We needed a door to get into the food forest. We also wanted the door so we could completely fence the field, as our makeshift wood gate was chopped up for firewood last year. Luckily the guys at the welding shop have no problem quickly making a door. From left to right we have the sheep being fattened for tobaski, the door for a food forest and the grinder shooting sparks. In Gambia there’s always an interesting mix of things happening.


We painted the door this day and when it was dry I brought the wheel barrow to roll it back to the school.


On it’s way…


Modou Kassama is also a mason so he was the one to fix the door. You can see where the old wood gate was on the left and where the new door will be.


A couple days later the new door is there. We close off the food forest completely and are relieved to do so. Now we just need to keep the fence tight.


Another thing that happened during this time was our attempt to kill this neem tree. The tree is next to the food forest and has no real use or benefit for us, except maybe some shade. While we did feel bad for trying to kill it (ok, it was only I that felt bad for killing it, my friends were apathetic and yelled “kill it. burn it, it has no use here!”). I said my apologies and justified that it was ok because we started 100+ new trees in the same area. Still, to be hacking away at it with a hand hoe, covered in dirt and bark, it was a somewhat brutal experience. That tree was here before me so who was I to come along and kill it. Etc. etc. etc. Ok, so yeah you get it – we wanted this thing dead. Even now, it’ll take up to a year before it dies and we may have to go back there to hack it up more.


My teva shoes also died during this time. These shoes held up pretty well and i gotta thank teva for that, i think they even provide a discount for pc volunteers. Anyways, i’d had these sown up and repaired too many times and retired them to my little brother.


The door is in, the field is plowed and now we start digging holes in the 5 alleys for our nitrogen fixing trees. We’ll put various trees and plants in between our 25 big trees to help aerate the ground, stabilize soil, fix nitrogen, provide drainage and feed bees.


These are some of our sesbania bispinosa seedlings – we got these seeds from ECHO seed company (who supply 10 free seed packets/year to active aid workers). These trees can grow to 4 meters tall in 4 months, provide seed in 6 months and are great for quickly fixing nitrogen. We were all really excited to try these in the food forest and they’ve turned out to be really impressive. They will die this year but we have another type of sesbania (s.grandiflora) that will live on. Other trees we used to alley crop include moringa, pigeon pea, mother of cacao and leucaena.


Vetiver grass sends it roots deep to loosen up hard soil or stabilize it in high wind and rain areas. I wanted to put as many plants as possible in the food forest so we added these thinking “the more roots and activity we can get going below ground, the better.” To ‘overstack’ the system was the goal and these vetiver filled in a lot of space for us as well as provided a low windbreak.


We had sowed the entire field with the grain ‘findo’ last year but this year we decided to do just a small section.


Final picture. So, at this point we’ve done the following: prepped the outplant holes for our 25 big trees, prepped the field with compost/biochar/oyster shell, planted our alleys with the big trees and nitrogen fixers, sowed the findo in the center section, sowed sesame (jatta in blue shirt is sowing), we have beans in the other plots, have put ‘live fencing’ on the inside (acacia species) and outside (sisal) of our ‘dead fence’ (neem) and are trying to keep up with the weeding. As seen in the pic below the outplant holes are filling up with water and hopefully holding a lot of it deep down where the sun can’t get to it.


In the next post I’ll go through the trees we decided to outplant and the reasons for doing so. Thank you for reading and your support of the work happening in our small corner of the world. Till next time,


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