This Instructable is meant to introduce the concept of agroforestry, or the combined practice of agriculture and forestry. This is a practice that is starting to be introduced around the world, but has yet to take off very much in the United States. Much of this is due to the size of agroforestry so far; it is still seen as a small-scale practice that many large-scale farmers cannot adopt at this time. Much of these instructions are meant to inform the reader on the details and benefits of such an idea, and how to implement it at your home, such as in a backyard garden. This fairly new practice will be important for the future of agriculture and environmental awareness, as it is a more sustainable form of growing crops and trees. The time scale for this project will vary for each person; it will depend mostly on location and size of your project. Achieving a fully-functioning agroforestry system can, and many times will, take a few years, as it involves waiting for plants to mature fully, but success can be experienced within the first growing season. This project will require a certain amount of patience, and perhaps a bit of a green thumb, but the reward you can get out of it is far worth the wait. By practicing a sustainable form of gardening and agriculture, you will be paving the way for future endeavors and shaping the face of agriculture as we know it today.
Step 1: Purposes of Agroforestry
There are many benefits to practicing agroforestry, no matter its scale; it can have lasting impacts on local and national economies, environments, and worldwide food growth. Integrating two environmental areas has been shown to be effective, especially in less-developed countries where it is being introduced for the first time.
Some of the benefits of agroforestry include:
- improving soil quality
- reintroducing nutrients into the soil
- increased yields from crops
- increase in local biodiversity
- reforestation in local areas
Determine what your goals are in tackling this agroforestry project; this will help you to organize your thoughts and materials later on, and make the process easier.
Step 2: Materials
The materials required for you agroforestry project will differ for each individual situation; however there are some materials and resources that will be necessary for anyone:
- Plot of land
- Good, arable soil for growing plants
- Seeds or young plants ready to be planted
- Adequate sunlight on the land
- Ability to water field on a regular basis
Some materials or resources will depend on the type of agroforestry you will be incorporating, and you will need to decide for yourself if these are things you may want to acquire for your own situation. Some of them you may have already, and it will just be a matter of applying them to your new, sustainable plot of land. These may include:
- Farm animals (cows, pigs, chickens, goats)
- Irrigation materials (hoses, sprinklers)
- compost materials (recommended for fertilizer)
Farm animals that are incorporated into an agroforestry plot will, again, depend on the size of the plot and the method you plan to use. We will go into more details later on for suggestions of animal incorporation. Remember that with animals comes additional materials, such as feed, cleaning supplies, and shelter.
Irrigation will depend on your region and how much rainfall you have. Irrigation may be necessary for you, so it might be beneficial to research some additional materials and practices that go into irrigation.
Another thing to consider is adding compost to your land; it can be used to fertilize the soil, and can reduce your garbage output. Research what kinds of foods or waste products can be composted, help your garden grow even better.
Step 3: Choosing a Method
There are a few options when it comes to approaching physically introducing agroforestry into your home. Each option will depend on your own plot of land, what you would like to do with the plants, and what plant species you will be incorporating (we will touch on this more later). Each of the options has its own benefits, and requires different attention and materials; some may be more difficult to achieve, in which case it would be suggested to try another method.
Rotational Fallow - This method is probably the most difficult to do, and requires the most materials. It will require much attention, as you will need to rotate crops and livestock every season, so you will be planting in a different spot on your plot of land every year. This means you will need a large enough piece of land where you have the ability to let livestock (most likely cows or goats) roam around a portion of your land, eating grass and leftovers from last season's crops, and dropping fertilizer in the form of feces. This will prepare the soil for the next time it will have crops on it, replenishing some of the nutrients that might have been lost before.
Benefits: less stress on the soil's nutrients, easy organization of livestock, crops, rangelands
Boundary Planting - If you are looking for some privacy, or to keep animals out of your garden, planting a boundary may be the choice for you. Often this method is called the "living wall", as it is used to separate the garden or field from the outside. Plant tall trees very close together, which can provide a form of food for any farma nimals that may wander near the border. If smaller animals are a problem, such as rabbits, you can weave a wire fence along the base of the trees.
Benefits: privacy, less animal interference with crops, biodiversity
Windbreaks - In areas that have extreme wind, planting tall, dense trees can help to prevent soil erosion and damage to the crops. Be careful not to choose too tall of trees, as they may create a down-draft off the top of the canopy, and cause even more erosion and damage.
Benefits: soil protection, crop protection
Alley Cropping - Possibly the most common form of agroforestry, alley cropping is popular when someone wants to improve soil quality. By integrating taller trees and shorter crops, you can obtain a cycle of nutrient usage and replenishing, as well as provide shade for more sensitive plants. If you want, you even have the ability to let vines or climbing plants make their way up the taller trees, and have a multi-layered system.
Benefits: nutrient supply, shade, biodiversity
Trees in Cropland - This one may be the easiest, as you simply place taller trees randomly throughout a field. It is very easy to let animals roam this area, and use the trees as shade and a source of food. One big downfall is that it is difficult to grow crops in this system, as there is very little organization to it.
Benefits: plant-animal integration, few materials needed, biodiversity
Step 4: Choosing Your Plants Based on Layout
As mentioned before, the specifics of your own personal agroforestry system will largely depend on your specific situation and needs. Possible the most important step is being able to choose which kinds of plants you want to grow on your plot of land. A popular word used in agroforestry is polyculture,that is, a simultaneous production or growth of multiple plant and animal species within the same environment or ecosystem. What we are trying to create is a polyculture on a smaller scale, confined to your own yard or plot of land. Some questions to ask as you are considering the characteristics for your own polyculture might include:
- How do the taller, woody trees interact chemically and physically with the crop plants?
- What effect do the crops have on the soil quality?
- How do the animals interact with the crop plants?
- How do the animals interact with the taller, woody trees and/or bushes?
- What kinds of produce or crops do I want to grow?
- What is my intended purpose for the crops after harvest?
Knowing the kinds of plants you are putting into the ground is imperative for success in this endeavor. If you own cows, and you have a tree whose leaves are poisonous to cows, this could prove problematic.
As shown in the diagrams above, there are a number of different characteristics you can be looking for in an agroforestry system. Some popular and useful qualities about taller, woody trees are that they are nitrogen-fixing (meaning they put nitrogen back into the soil), they can provide shade to shorter plants that do not like day-long direct sunlight, and some can work as wind breaks. If soil runoff is a big problem in your area, or if it is a very windy climate, consider the qualities of these plants for your polyculture. Conversely, crops such as corn take nitrogen out of the soil, so it may be a good idea to pair this crop with a woody plant that does not provide too much shade, as corn can handle full sunlight. These are just a few ideas of what different plants offer you. To get more suggestions and ideas, and to download more information on plant species, you can visit treesforthefuture.org.
Step 5: Construction and Maintenance
When you believe you have the necessary materials, it is time to build your sustainable field. Remember that you should know how you plan to water the plants (rain-fed, sprinklers, drip irrigation, etc.), and if you will be using any pesticides or specific fertilizers. Do not forget to give attention to your plot of land regularly, so it does not fall into disarray. It would be helpful to continue research into the kind of farm or garden you desire, to achieve the best results for your work. Keep researching plant species, soil quality in your area, and examples of successful agroforestry systems as you look to grow a sustainable and efficient polyculture of your own. With a little bit of time and a lot of love, you can obtain the field of your dreams.