To reach the patch of land he manages near Bowie, MD, Lincoln Smith crosses a cul-de-sac and a soggy cornfield left bare in winter but for the tender shoots of a cover crop.
This is what most food-growing fields in the Chesapeake Bay watershed look like in late winter, he noted as he slushed through the mud during a recent visit.
But, in the field next door, Smith and his business partner, Benjamin Friton, are growing an alternative.
“This is a forest garden,” Smith said as he stepped inside a towering fence that separates this field from the other and protects burgeoning plants from the region’s ravenous deer.
At the end of a long winter, this portion of the 10-acre plot managed by their Forested, LLC, looks more like an abandoned farm field than a forest or a garden. Volunteer trees have cropped up alongside native ones planted for their fruit or nitrogen-fixing properties. Long grasses and even a few carefully managed invasive plant species fill in the gaps.
Resident geese and ducks, along with human visitors, have trod the grasses and leaves into a foliar carpet of sorts, the kind that most farmers would till under to plant food crops. But, here, it’s part of the plan.
The woven grasses mimic the forest floor and provide a solid foundation for a perennial garden where food grows on trees and logs.
“We’re trying to push the envelope with as much ecosystem function and food production on the same piece of ground as we can,” Smith said.
To do that, they are growing food in a forest. Forests, which once covered far more of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, are, after all, unmatched in their ability to filter water and efficiently use natural resources. So what if a forest could grow a diverse food supply at the same time? What if it could produce more pounds or calories of food per acre — not to mention more diversity and ecosystem services — than a field of wheat?
Four years into their ambitious project, the forest garden is beginning to bear fruit, both in the forested canopy on the plot’s perimeter and in the field where trees — once cleared to make way for crops like tobacco, corn and hay — are being grown for products and education.
Persimmons, paw paws and mulberries, fruits with a history in these sandy Maryland soils, have been harvested from their still-maturing trees in recent years. Members of the nearby community and school groups regularly visit for presentations on the concept even as it’s taking root.
Smith and Friton also work as consultants with farms and communities in the region that are reconsidering the role trees can play in a landscape. Whether presenting the concept at urban gardening conferences in nearby Washington, DC, or consulting with landowners interested in growing more than a few shrubs on their shoreline, the pair is trying to spread the concept to more fields and backyards in the watershed.
“It’s a holistic way of thinking about it,” said John Munsell, an associate professor and forest management extension specialist at Virginia Tech, of these types of agroforestry practices that intentionally combine agriculture and forestry into more sustainable land uses.
He added that such multistory agroforestry systems are often complex to manage, requiring creativity to design, maintain and use the varied products they can produce.
But, “in that complexity, you stand to benefit if it’s managed well,” he said.
Nut flours & food
Smith hopes that the added benefit of the project will be proving the concept that a forest can grow enough food to more than justify its existence amid a growing population.
“A forest garden that is a few nibbles here and there — that isn’t as compelling to me as if we can actually prove that we can produce the same amount of food per acre as we’re relying on from wheat,” he said.
To compete with this staple of U.S. cuisine, Smith could look to almost any of the nut-bearing trees and their potential to produce flours. But he sees the most potential in the oak and its humble acorn.
If paw paws are the region’s forgotten fruit, the acorn is its neglected nut.
Acorns and acorn flour were staple foods for many Native Americans, and Smith has traveled as far as Korea to see how other cultures use the nut today. He is growing dozens of oak species that show particular potential for high acorn yields and is harvesting unwanted acorns for his food experiments.
He and Friton gathered about 1,800 pounds of acorns across the region this fall, milling them in small batches into flour for bread and cookies. They talk about building a larger mill that would allow them to build a market for farmers’ acorns by producing a suite of acorn-based products.
“It’s very forward looking, because there is not a market for acorn food right now,” Smith said. “But there will be.”
The acorn is one example of the way a small contingent of food producers is putting the crops that are best for their natural ecosystems first, and then finding a market for them. Chef Dan Barber, of the restaurant Blue Hill in Manhattan and the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, advocates for this approach in his 2014 book “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food,” arguing that chefs should help producers develop new cuisines and markets for good-for-the-land products.
Katie Trozzo, a doctoral student at Virginia Tech studying agroforestry, said the concept, known in ecological circles as “market-based conservation,” could help wean farmers off government subsidies that encourage them to grow trees for water quality purposes. Along those lines, some of her colleagues are researching the potential for products such as paw paw pudding cups and hickory nut milk.
Smith has both types of trees, and hundreds of others, growing on his plot, and an intricate system for how they fit together.
Taking shelter under a pop-up tent from an early March drizzle, Smith wielded a map that was more colorful than the field that was still thawing from a recent snow. Multi-colored circles representing “the big trees” of pecans, chestnuts and oaks overlapped with smaller circles that stood for an understory of paw paws, plums and apples.
Not pictured on the map was yet another layer of potential foods: ferns that produce edible fiddleheads and clusters of mushrooms growing on logs. Just beyond the portion of the property they manage, an unnamed creek flowing into the nearby Patuxent River benefits from the added filtration their tree garden provides.
If the barren cornfield next door represents quintessential monoculture — growing one food crop at a time — this map of dozens of different plants per acre represents polyculture.
“Polyculture is growing multiple species together on the same piece of ground the way you’d find it in a forest,” Smith said. “In a production sense, you may only have one or two of those crops that you’re actually harvesting, but you’re trying to let the growth happen for all of those ecosystem services.”
The National Wildlife Federation defines ecosystem services as positive benefits that wildlife or ecosystems provide to people. With a forested landscape that also produces food — and can grow in the midst of an urban setting — there are many.
Smith has designed several other projects with this in mind, including the Greenbelt Food Forest in Greenbelt, MD, funded by the Chesapeake Education, Art Research Society and the Chesapeake Bay Trust in collaboration with the local government and the University of Maryland. For starters, the 2013 project alongside Indian Creek expanded the existing tree canopy and its water quality benefits — and included water quality testing to boot.
In an urban setting, planting almost 30 trees such as persimmons alongside bayberry and cranberry bushes, shiitake mushroom logs and tea plants provides both food and educational opportunities for the local community.
The same concept is taking hold at Forested’s 10-acre farm, which serves as a demonstration hub for visitors and those interested in propagating the food forest concept elsewhere.
To start managing the land he leases from a nearby church, Smith had to get permission from the neighborhood that cozies up to the landscape. Some bristled at the esoteric concept of a forest garden at first, but residents have since embraced it.
“The neat thing about being right here in a community is that the majority of the people who live in this neighborhood are involved,” Smith said.
Some jog on the trails running through the property, teenagers are hired to help move mulch and a local schoolteacher takes care of the ducks in the summer.
“Maryland could really benefit from a lot of forest gardens on a community scale,” Smith said.
Friton said that he’d like to see these gardens serve as nurseries for the concept of multistory food cultivation and for its dissemination into the backyards that surround it. Native fruit-bearing trees could replace invasive species and cookie-cutter landscaping, and residents could look to the community forest managers for growing advice.
‘This field wants to become a forest.’
Smith stumbled into forest gardening after working as a landscape architect for high-end residential and government customers in Annapolis, such as the governor’s mansion, for five years.
He learned about native plants through the experience, but “became more interested in the whole human footprint on the environment.” Friton came onboard last year.
The soils they’re growing on now are well-suited for forestry, which could do wonders for its poor organic matter — less than 1 percent in some places — and its ability to clean water and sequester carbon. Like most of Maryland’s agricultural lands, the area was cleared of trees and has been “tilled for hundreds of years,” Smith said.
“Essentially, our agricultural practices are just keeping the ground from doing what it wants to do,” Friton said.
Taking the opposite approach, Friton and Smith have welcomed volunteer trees where they sprout and studied them for cues about what to plant next.
They were thrilled to see dozens of native persimmon trees shoot up on their own soon after taking over, and they’ve allowed non-native Bradford pear trees to grow a sturdy stump before grafting trees that bear better fruits into the bark.
“This field wants to become a forest,” Friton said.
By managing the landscape with this in mind, the pair can use the existing tree stand as a springboard for fostering species that are beneficial for both food and the broader ecosystem.
They’ve gotten permission to do the same grafting technique beyond the deer fence where Bradford pears have sprouted along the perimeter of the other farm field. They hope to reduce the invasive tree’s spread while using its stumps to give other species a head start.
But if there’s one place to build on what’s already there, it’s the forest.
Cultivating useful species in an existing forest while selectively harvesting for forest health, firewood or fence posts is agroforestry 101, said Trozzo, whose research focuses on non-timber forest products as well as the social and economic dynamics of agroforestry.
“Forest farming is usually when you plant something in the understory of a forest — and that can be shiitake mushroom logs or woodland medicinals that require shade,” she said.
Forested, LLC, is growing all that and more among the trees even as they work to cultivate a newer forest in the field.
After the superstorm derecho hit the area in June 2012, downing several large trees, Smith took the opportunity to plant more fruit-bearing species in their opening. Now, he can compare how paw paws and blueberries grow in the forest, where they benefit from rich soils but have less light, versus in the field where the tallest trees stretch just overhead.
But perhaps the best part about his forested concept is that it will only get better at its multi-tasking job — producing food while serving the broader ecosystem — with time.