Richard Roati likes to brag that he and his wife, Susan Silverman, have a private fruit-of-the-month club.
That’s because he can harvest seasonal fruit from his landscape year-round: pineapple guava, blood and Valencia oranges, grapefruit, prickly pear, jujube and pomegranate.
The trees are a part of the Reid Park-area residents’ edible landscape. It’s so productive it could be called a food forest.
Food forests and edible landscapes are steps beyond the formal vegetable garden bed, says landscape designer Jason Isenberg.
“A vegetable garden is a defined, controlled area...specifically devoted to cultivated plants,” says Isenberg, whose business, REALM, focuses on what he calls sustainable landscape designs.
“Your landscape, which can very much look like a conventional landscape, yields a return” in the form of food, he adds.
Full-fledged food forests “are controlled systems that are meant to mimic natural systems,” he explains. “They mimic relationships of natural systems that invariably are productive and healthy.”
From treetops to rootballs, food forests encourage an ecological harmony among beneficial animals–think pollinators and microbes–along with soil, water, temperature and air circulation to grow edible plants that grow, in our case, in the natural Sonoran Desert.
Roati says the couple fell into the idea of food forests by accident, starting some 20 years ago with the desire to grow citrus trees.
Irrigation was costly, but they noticed that rain helped the trees a lot. It was time, Roati says, to collect that water to lower the water cost.
“We sort of retrofitted in a rain harvest system with Watershed Management Group,” he says.
Among other activities, the nonprofit cooperative helps residents lower demand for resources from municipal utilities. It encourages people to collect rainwater and reuse household water.
Watershed Management helped the couple install a system to store 3,400 gallons of rainwater collected from the roof. They contoured the land to guide water directly to plants. Gray water from the laundry and sinks do the same thing.
Now the couple can grow all of their native and non-native plants without using city water. That has transformed their yards that surround their home, including the front porch and back patio.
Nearly every plant, either in the ground or in a container, provides food. That means much of what they eat is freshly picked. “We’re sort of a no-can, no-freeze household,” says Roati.
They pick chiltipins, Indian figs, Peruvian apple cactus fruit, wolfberries. They turn mesquite and carob pods into flour, basil into pesto, Hibiscus sabdariffa buds into tea.
They also grow cherry tomatoes, turmeric, rosemary, oregano and parsley in pots. A tiny, in-ground winter garden yields romaine lettuce, Chinese greens, Japanese greens, golden ball turnips and garlic.
They await the fruits of their labor as they tend young agaves and a natal plum shrub.
Most food forests are vertical gardens, says Isenberg, who did not design the Roatis’ landscape. Locally, his food forest designs consist of arid-adapted, low water-use plants that grow in enriched soil, feed on harvested and reclaimed water and are protected from heat and cold.
“Layering is really important,” he says. For example, a small food forest could include a tall ironwood or mesquite tree; small fig, apricot, jujube or pomegranate trees; desert hackberry, chia or rosemary shrubs; and prickly pear or barrel cactus.
Isenberg says some people are turned off by the unkept, crowded look of a food forest. It’s a look that some, like Roati, proudly embraces as a badge of sustainability–growing food in eco-friendly ways. Others just see a mess.
“Sustainability is not a style,” Isenberg assures potential food forest growers. He strives to make food forests blend into the surrounding look of buildings and natural desert.
He reasons that food forests can exist as part of a person’s lifestyle and ideas of what private property is used for. Food forests can be carved out to create private sitting areas or planted to surround a gathering space.
“We don’t have to reside in the preconceived idea of what this stuff looks like,” he says.
A less intrusive option is an edible landscape.
Many plants that you might find in a desert food forest already are popularly used an ornamental landscapes. It just takes a change of perspective on what your plants offer beyond color, texture, shade and aroma.
“Considering long-term care,” Isenberg says, “there is almost no discernible difference between an edible and a traditional landscape. You can have your mesquite-flour cake and eat it, too.”
Isenberg suggests gardeners consider adding serrano chiles in an edible landscape. They add bright red color to the mix. Amaranth also is a good edible choice for its flaming burgundy leaves and seed stalks.
YARD TO TABLE
Isenberg speaks of edible landscapes and food forests as part of the yard-to-table movement. He calls it an extension of farm-to-table efforts to eat locally grown food.
Desert Harvesters has released a new book that focuses on that movement in the Sonoran Desert.
“Eat Mesquite and More: A Cookbook for Sonoran Desert Foods and Living,” (RainSource Press, $35) expands on the nonprofit group’s first book that covered only mesquite recipes.
Desert Harvesters is probably best known for its events to grind mesquite pods into flour. It educates people on the bounty available from Sonoran Desert plants.
“This new cookbook focuses on mesquite and over 20 other native wild foods,” says Brad Lancaster, a Desert Harvesters co-founder. They include saguaro, acorn, prickly pear, devil’s claw, hackberry, cholla, greens, flowers and–for the adventurous omnivore–meats and insects.
More than 60 cooks and chefs contributed over 170 recipes. They include mesquite ice cream, sprouted ironwood stir fry, wolfberry bread and butternut-barrel cactus rice.
Desert Harvesters is credited as the author of the 352-page hardback book, but 10 writers contributed gardening essays and plant information, Lancaster says.
“The ‘basics’ section of every chapter gives growing tips on the food plant covered in that chapter,” says Lancaster, one of the authors.
The book is available at the Desert Harvesters’ www.desertharvesters.org website.