Gaia Grows a Sustainable Food Forest

Kathleen Miller

Gaia’s Farm and Gardens

Sustainable living, gardening, and farming is based on an understanding of ecosystems, the study of relationships between organisms and their environment. It has been defined as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices that will last over time. Having a harmonious relationship with Gaia (Mother Earth) provides food for people, enhances the natural environment upon which the community depends, makes efficient use of resources and integrates natural cycles that sustain economic viability as well as enhances the quality of life for the community as a whole.





Creating a Sustainable Food Forest



A food forest is a self-supporting system with several layers that mimics a forest ecosystem but is largely made up of edible trees, shrubs, and plants.  By growing your own food forest, you create an entire ecosystem for you and a wide variety of species of wildlife.  You can grow varieties of fruit for freshness and a range of taste that can’t be compared to store-bought fruit. It is not that difficult to grow your own fruit in Northern Colorado if you have the space for fruit trees and berry bushes.  Even for the urban gardener or small-scale farmer dwarf and semi-dwarf trees are available at local garden centers and nurseries as well as mail order/online companies. Semi-dwarf and dwarf fruit trees are favored for their abundant fruit crops without taking up much space and a person can harvest a majority of the fruit from the ground, without needing a ladder.  Semi-dwarf and dwarf fruit trees need tree stakes in areas with high wind. With proper care and pruning, semi-dwarf and dwarf fruit trees and shrubs can be the perfect fit for a sustainable farm or garden, and they are even suitable options for being grown in containers. Fruit needs less care than flowers and vegetables; though fruit-bearing trees can take one to five years before they come into production, with a little nurturing they will keep on producing for years to come.  

The first step in starting your food forest is to purchase your fruit trees, shrubs, and plants at your local garden center, nursery online or mail order.  Fruit trees are probably either growing in a container of soil or balled and burlapped or B & B. Stock from mail-order nurseries, offer a far wider range of varieties and will arrive as bare roots packed in moist moss or paper.  For balled and burlapped or container-grown stock, planting is easy: make the hole as deep as the root ball and a foot wider, place the plant in position, loosen the top of the burlap, and replace the soil. Ideally, stock should be planted as soon as it arrives.  If that is not possible, you can store it. B & B stock can be held for several weeks by placing it in a shady location and keeping the root ball moist. Bare-root stock can be kept up to two weeks by keeping the roots moist. If kept over two weeks trees should be “healed in” until ready to plant: remove the plants from their package, place the roots down in a shallow trench, and cover the roots with soil.  Keep out of the sun, and keep soil moist. When planting, do not expose roots to sunlight or air any longer than necessary to prevent them from drying out. It is a good idea to keep the roots immersed in a bucket of water until the hole is ready for planting. Fruit stock can be planted in either spring or fall provided the stock is dormant and the soil is not frozen. Choose a site that has at least eight hours of full sunlight during spring and summer.  The best sites are on high ground or on slopes to enable cold air to drain off. If the soil is poor, mix peat moss or compost with it before planting. Give newly planted stock plenty of water during the first growing season. If you don’t have much rainfall make sure that you give a bucket of water once a week. Young trees have thin bark that is easily injured by winter sun. To avoid sunscald, wrap the trunks of newly planted trees from the ground to their lowest branches for the first few years.  Use burlap, kraft paper or semirigid plastic spirals obtainable from nurseries. You can remove these in summer or leave on year-round as protection against deer, rodents or farm animals. The soil around your newly planted tree or shrub should be mulched from the trunk out to the end of the branches or drip line. After the first year, fruit trees and shrubs can be lightly fertilized. Overfertilization makes them produce an abundance of leaves and branches with poor fruit quality. Manure, compost, wood ashes and fertilizers high in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are recommended.  Sustainable and organic fruit growers are willing to accept some blemishes instead of using sprays. There are alternative natural insecticides available at most nurseries and garden centers. 

What makes a food forest so productive and sustainable is its diversity.  In a forest, you have a high canopy of trees, lower layers of small trees, large shrubs, small shrubs, herbs, ground covers, plus climbers that grow on the trees.  If you create a forest made up entirely of food plants how abundant would that be? It is not the number of species that is important, but the number of useful connections between them.  There is a beneficial effect on plant health because the food forest garden makes maximum use of the resources available to it. A food forest makes the most of the sunlight available to it because the different layers come into leaf at different times of the year ensuring that there is an abundance of fruit at its peak of ripeness throughout the growing season.  Always remember to select varieties that ripen by early October to avoid early frost fruit damage. Just about any deciduous fruit trees can be grown in Northern Colorado (apples, pears, apricots, sweet and tart cherries, peaches, nectarines, and plums). All of these can handle minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit winter temperatures except peaches and nectarines, which get damaged starting at minus 12-14 degrees F. 

Gaia’s Grow Tips-Favorite varieties that do well in Northern Colorado 

  • Apples – Golden and Red Delicious, MacIntosh, Gala, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, Honey gold, Sweet Sixteen, Johnathan and Lodi
  • Pears – Bartlett, and Summercrisp
  • Apricots – Tilton and Moorpark
  • Cherries – (Sour) North Star and Montmorency (Sweet) Stella and Gold
  • Peaches – Alberta and Reliance 
  • Plums-Stanley and Mount Royal
  • Currents-Alpine and Red lake
  • Gooseberries- Camanche and Welcome
  • Strawberries-Fort Laramie and Ogallala
  • Raspberries-Anne and Golden Harvest
  • Grapes-Concord and St. Theresa
  • Rhubarb-Victoria


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