The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

San Francisco forest garden

Forest garden fountain


The food at my brother's wedding was superb, but I'm afraid I didn't eat much.

You see, I'd filled up on apples, trying to sample every currently-ripe variety in the father of the bride's forest garden.

Ira in his forest garden

Forest garden entranceIra Steinman has been forest gardening in the San Francisco Bay area for forty years, and the result is a masterpiece that will inspire those of us nurturing our first little trees.  I'm afraid I was only able to grab him out of the crowd for a few quick questions, but in many ways the garden spoke for itself.  Come along and we'll walk through together!

Ripe apple

Grape arbor

Ira had clearly put a lot of thought into structural elements --- I could tell because I barely noticed anything except plants until after I got home and started flipping through the photos.  Instead of jumping out at you, paths, arbors, and steps drew you down into the garden and enticed you to explore.

Dwarf trees don't block the view

BuddhaThe property boasts a stunning view of the San Francisco Bay (or perhaps more technically the San Rafael Bay, but it's all connected).  Not wanting to block the view, Ira planted dwarf apples in the upper part of the garden, then graduated into what I'm guessing are semi-dwarfs further down the hill.

The garden location that permaculturalists would call zone 1, right outside the house, was a more formal area with benches, a lawn for gatherings (and marrying off their kids), and huge buddhas brought home from Asia to inspire conversation.  Just as tree size increased as you ventured further from the house, so did the garden become less formal and more wild.

Forest garden steps

Kiwi vineI liked the fact that Ira stuck to brick pathways throughout, even in the less formal areas.  Despite being located in zone 8 in a microclimate that hasn't seen a killing frost for 22 years, the Bay area garden still has to contend with cool summer temperatures that can make ripening summer fruits a challenge.  I suspect that capturing heat with these stone pathways helps the summer garden, even though Ira reports his citrus still tend to be on the sour side.  (Most citrus fruit need summer heat to pack away sugars, which is why dwarf Meyer lemons are likely to give those of us growing citrus indoors better results than most other choices will.)

Asian persimmons

Pear on the treeSo what's growing in this stunning forest garden?  The apples are what captured my eye and what seemed to be doing the best, perhaps because Ira had chosen most of them from a nearby heirloom apple nurseriest who knew just what would thrive north of San Francisco.  But there were also lots of Asian persimmons, pears, and figs sporting unripe but luscious-looking fruit.

Fallen apples

Algerian mandarinIra's garden was also dotted with ripening citrus orbs.  I couldn't identify them all, but Ira pointed out an Algerian mandarin as he passed by doing his hostly duties, and a friend of the family shared a pomelo, which was a bit like a grapefruit.

The sheer quantity of fruit being produced by this 1.5 acre garden was astonishing.  I could tell from the apples littering the ground that the bounty was more than Ira could handle, and I fed lots of guests hand-plucked fruit without seeming to make a dent in the wares on display.  In fact, my stepmother stuck a few fruits in her purse to snack on later, and I suspect she wasn't the only one.

Take home fruit

Roman artichokeOne of the things I liked the most about Ira's forest garden is that the trees were clearly king.  I think that many of us who read the forest gardening literature come into our gardens thinking that we can fill all five levels with delicious edible trees, shrubs, and herbs that won't compete at all.  But Ira didn't read any of those books (perhaps because they didn't exist when he got started), so he focused on trees in most of his garden, separating herbs like this Roman artichoke out into sunny clearings.  Knowing your priority in each part of a garden helps you mix and match secondary plantings without lowering yields from the plants you care about the most.

Despite focusing on the trees, Ira's landscape still felt like a forest garden, not like an orchard.  Trees were planted close enough together than they produced a nearly closed canopy, and grapes, kiwis, ornamentals, and shrubbier plants like figs were interspersed.  (Guests who had been to the garden before it was manicured for the Bee hivewedding also told me that our ability to stroll down the paths is a new affair --- I suspect the garden had more of a jungle feel previously.)

I left the garden with more questions than answers.  What did the early stages of the garden look like?  Did Ira have to amend the soil heavily?  Does he water his trees with drip irrigation?  How long did it take before the forest garden began overflowing with bounty?  Did he face special challenges due to his location?  Are there species and varieties he particularly recommends for the Bay area?

The specifics aside, though, the garden itself told me everything I needed to know.  Forty years later, a forest garden does look like a forest while being as productive as a garden.  The idea has merit --- let's plant some more trees!

Our chicken waterer kept the flock hydrated, but not out of trouble.  They got in the garden and scratched up all the mulch!

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I got this additional information just this morning from Ira:

"It took three to five years for most of the apples to start to fruit; the lower--and some of the upper--apples are standard, but heavily pruned.

"There is drip irrigation everywhere, but I tend to wander around with a hose and clippers an hour a week and water each tree and grape in the heat. Mulch is everywhere mounded around everything.

"One thing you might think about is the beauty of planting veggies under fruit trees. Especially in the shadier areas, lettuces grow year round.

"I did amend the soil a lot. Most of the area was covered with 80 very tall cypress which I cut down and allowed to moulder into the soil. I then brought in 10 truckloads of mushroom compost--about 120 tons and gradually threw it into the garden.

"French intensive gardening from the 60s was one of my prime intellectual forebears, as was growing up in the wholesale fruit and produce business.

"The good figs began to provide fruit within six months. Don't forget, there are also about 800 rose bushes and allees from which to observe them.

"Feel free to use any of this material.

"Lovely meeting you Anna. Feel free to contact me with any questions or plumb my gardening acumen as you like."

Comment by anna Tue Aug 21 08:29:40 2012

Definitely aspiring. I have seen in a myriad of places the 'productive live' of various trees and fruiting bushes. After 40 years, I would think that maybe some are reaching past their prime. I wonder if he has any experience with the need to replace or seriously rejuvenate any of this trees. I wonder if the major pruning on the standard apples keeps them 'young and vibrant.' I have read that coppicing hard woods can extend the lives of trees and wonder if the management of the fruit trees has had a similar effect, or if productivity has declined at all.

I also love how the design starts more structured near the living areas and gets more informal further into the garden.

Comment by Charity Tue Aug 21 18:04:06 2012

Mona --- I'm not sure standard apples would be past their prime in 40 years. These guys definitely didn't look unhappy.... Things like peaches probably would be long gone, but Ira reported he didn't have luck with them in his climate anyway.

Interesting idea about the heavy pruning rejuvenating fruit trees....

Comment by anna Wed Aug 22 08:36:10 2012
You know you're my own personal celebrities, so how could you come to my neck of the woods for a wedding and not have some sort of press event over it so i would be able to meet you!?! Just teasing completely. But knowing you live on the opposite side of the country from here, and then that you were just spitting distance away last weekend (I live in Novato, 10 minutes from the San Rafael area) makes me pout just a bit, wishing I could have met you guys. Glad you were able to experience our weather and see some beautiful views and gardens, as well as the wedding!
Comment by jen g Thu Aug 23 12:33:52 2012

Jen g --- I guess a more extroverted person would plan a book signing or something while on the road to take advantage of being a celebrity. (Ha! I had to laugh at you calling us that. :-) )

It was definitely beautiful country out your way. Sorry we missed you!

Comment by anna Thu Aug 23 13:04:23 2012

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