Food (non) forests: Permaculture on the Prairie

How do you do a food forest respectfully when you don’t live in a forest? I love permaculture ideas and ethics but, as you may have noticed, I’m wrestling with the practices.  I’m out on the tall grass prairie, far enough west that it’s not much further until the mixed grass prairies kick in.

sunflowers in tall grass prairie

Sunflowers in the prairie, late September.

Of all the ecosystems in the world, the tall grass prairie has lost the greatest percentage of its original acreage.  98% of what used to be tallgrass is now something else- cities or roads or farms or even just heavily over grazed by livestock who nutritionally need grasses in the mix that don’t belong in (and don’t easily co-habitate within) a tallgrass prairie.

Trees here concentrate themselves along the streams and in the bottoms of the sloughs where the rolling terrain will shunt every rain drop possible past their roots.  (You can see the tops of three trees over the crest of the hill to the right in the photo above.) We get ALMOST enough rain for a forest here, but that 27 inch average is just that, an average.  Some years there’s more than enough rain for trees, some years there’s absolutely not enough, at all.   I’m not even getting into the fire issue here.

There are plants here, flowers (forbs) and grasses, and there is a vibrant swath of wildlife, from butterflies to birds, beetles to bison, and more reptiles and amphibians than you could shake a stick at.  (World’s oddest idiom.  If somebody knows the source of this one, do share.)

You could, very grossly, sort animals into two habitat needs: edge species and interior species.  Edge species thrive at the junction between two types of landscape.  The white tailed deer, for instance, is an edge species: the more forest | lawn interfaces suburbia creates, the better the deer thrive.

Blue whales, on the other hand, are an interior species: they need to be inside the saltwater biome, and so far inside that we call their home not just a lake or a sea, but an ocean.  They need to live in the interior of the ocean.

lesser prairie chicken

Lesser Prairie Chicken, getting ready for courtship

That’s a silly example, but the problems with asking a whale to live in the river systems that feed the Chesapeake Bay are clear enough that a person can compassionately understand the NEED for interior spaces without necessarily understanding the specific “why”s.

Similar to the whales, there are birds here who simply don’t visit fields where the trees are closer than a mile apart.  So how do I design a food forest HERE?  What is appropriate permaculture HERE?

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2 Responses to Food (non) forests: Permaculture on the Prairie

  1. Prairie’s shouldn’t have trees – or at least, in the way that permaculture dictates. And this is my main problem with permaculture; permaculture should not be touted as a one-size-fits-all solution to more sustainable farming practices. What should be encouraged is taking note of what plants naturally do, and have done, in the place where one is trying to produce sustainable food, and then emulating those ideas. Take, for example, what the Land Institute people are doing with perennial grain crops within regions that used to be prairies. And, if you want to follow permaculture ways with trees, then do it where the trees do thrive – along the waterways.

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