Food Forest Starter Bundle: How to Care for and Maintain your Garden
How to Care for the Plants and Maintain your Garden
This article is designed to help you maintain your garden and care for the plants. To keep this as accessible and approachable as we are able to, we are discussing the basics and not going into too much detail. The reality is that growing and caring for these plants is relatively simple, especially because we’ve chosen many of the easiest to grow and easiest to care for plants that produce a lot of food in Florida! This article is broken up into these key categories of care and maintenance:
- The main reasons I see gardens struggling
- Plants with more specific water, sun or nutritional needs and “pest” issues
This is our recommended method for planting the Food Forest Starter Bundle. There are other methods that others would recommend in the Florida region. None are necessarily right or wrong, just different preferences and strategies. We have laid out this simple method to be of service in helping you to establish your food forest garden. We have tried to keep our recommendations to the basics, so as to not overwhelm you with too much information, yet enough information to ensure the highest likelihood of success.
We also want to say that we will make mistakes in our teaching. We are not experts. This guide was written by me, Robin Greenfield. My team and I have grown a lot of food and have had a lot of success. I did grow and forage 100% of my food for a whole year after all! But, I have made plenty of mistakes and am sure that I have shared some information imperfectly. However I am confident that if you follow this guide exactly, you are setting yourself up for a high level of success. If some things fail because we steer you slightly wrong, that’s ok. We’re working with the abundance mindset and that includes some plants that don’t make it!
Plants need sun. They all do. Plants that are producing a substantial amount of food need a substantial amount of sun. Sun is the food source of the plants. Greens, fruits, tubers, etc. are a manifestation of the sun. Plants that produce fruit and large vegetables generally need substantially more sun than plants that produce herbs or leafy greens. This is a general rule of thumb to keep in mind when choosing where you’ll place plants.
We recommend most of your plants receive full sun, which is at least 5-6 hours in Florida summer and ideally 7+ hours in Florida winter.
How frequently we recommend watering:
- Water daily for first 2 weeks
- Water every other day for first 2 months
- Water once/week for first 6 months
How much water we recommend to give each plant at each watering:
- For plants transplanted from a one gallon pot: 1 gallon of water, up to 2 gallons
- For plants transplanted from a 4-inch pot: half gallon of water
- For trees transplanted from a 3-gallon pot: 3-5 gallons of water
- For seeds that have been planted directly into the ground: the top of the soil should be consistently moist so the seeds stay point.
- For cuttings planted directly into the ground: keeping the soil moist is ideal, large quantities of water is not needed when the plants have no roots to pull in the water.
How to water:
Our preferred method is to get the plants established and thriving through consistent watering during the first two months and then transition away from frequent watering. Many of the plants once established can thrive with very little to no watering.
Of course, how much you water will depend on how much water the plants are naturally receiving from rain. Rain certainly helps plants to thrive, and during times of drought your plants will benefit more from watering. During the months of consistent rain, much less watering will be needed. An important note is that all rains are not equal in meeting the plants’ needs for water. When the plants receive substantial rain that penetrates deep into the soil, I consider that to be a watering. However, if you pull back the mulch after a rain and see that it is dry just below the surface, I do not consider that a watering and will still water, at least during the establishment period.
Deep watering, not shallow, encourages more resilient plants. When I water, I use a hose or buckets at the base of the plants to ensure that the water goes deep. Where water goes, the roots will grow. Watering deeply encourages deep root growth, which encourages more resilient, drought-tolerant plants.
Deep mulch will drastically cut back your watering needs. The mulch holds onto the water and also protects the soil from the sun.
I have been to perhaps over 100 gardens in Florida and I have seen many people who choose to design their garden with drought tolerance in mind and to need very minimal water input. I have seen others who choose to use substantially more water to create their abundance. There is no right way. That being said, for new gardeners that want abundance, I choose to err on the side of watering more, rather than not enough. Many of these plants can thrive with very little water, but many of these plants are far more productive with water. If you want high productivity of food and a thriving, established garden, then be diligent to observe the plants in the establishment period to make sure they are getting the water they need.
On that note, I’d like to share a little bit about rainwater. The more we can work with rainwater, the more we aren’t actually even “using” water at all. When we harvest rainwater, we are simply holding onto it for a period of time and then releasing it to the Earth, at a delayed time. This can actually be beneficial to the land, because rain often just runs off to where it is less needed. I highly recommend using 275-gallon totes, and ideally multiple totes, to harvest rainwater, and designing passive rainwater harvesting as well. See our rainwater harvesting guide here.
Note: Some people use drip irrigation setups. These can be highly successful and can be highly efficient with water. They can save an incredible amount of time and allow the freedom of being able to travel. The downside is they can result in a hands-off approach, where the plants are not getting the care they need and you are not getting the dedicated time in the garden you need to become an experienced gardener. They also use technology and plastic and for many, including myself, this is not ideal.
The key to maintaining your garden is to stay on top of it. I recommend spending a little bit of time in your garden every day taking care of it, rather than letting it all build up and become overwhelming. I recommend a minimum of 15-30 minutes every day in the garden and a 1-3 hour session weekly. That’s three to seven hours in your garden per week. But it doesn’t have to be a chore. You want to be in your garden with the plants, don’t you? Let your time in the garden be your escape from the computer and social media, your connection to Earth, your education and growth, your exercise. Let your time in your garden be a time for healing and breathing and growing your practice of gratitude. And, of course, your time to provide yourself with the sustenance you need to live! A quality existence takes time!
Here are some of our general recommendations for maintenance of your garden.
Consistently check plants to make sure that the mulch hasn’t covered up their trunks/ bases. Pull the mulch back so the plants are not covered.
Consistently pull out the plants that you do not want in the garden, also known as “weeds”. When these plants are small and have small root systems they are easy to pull out and I find it more joyous. When they get established, that’s when it feels like a chore for me. Consistently “weed” and it won’t become a huge chore or overwhelming.
Bring in mulch yearly or twice per year. In my experience of visiting likely 100+ gardens, substantial mulch is absolutely the key to a thriving and abundant garden. Mulch breaks down often surprisingly fast and turns into soil and nutrition for the plants. A foot layer of mulch can break down in one year under some circumstances. Keep on bringing in mulch during the first few years. Over time with an established canopy and established plants, it will be less needed as you create your own biomass.
Keep all of your biomass on site. Not only do your plants produce food and medicine, they perform the miracle of sucking carbon out of the air and turning that into more plants. This is often referred to as biomass. Many people put this on the curb for the municipal compost and many people even throw it in the garbage. This is free material for building your soil and fertility. Compost it! Banana pits are excellent natural compost systems. Simply dig a hole inside of a ring of bananas and continuously fill it up with all biomass. That feeds or bananas, or you can harvest that soil and add it to other areas of your garden. Moringa branches and papaya trunks make great short-term raised beds that break down into soil. All of this creates homes for our animal friends which help to create a bio-diverse, thriving garden.
Consistently prune to create more productive plants. Most of the plants we work with in the garden today have co-evolved into what they are through the work of humans. Although many plants can be in their most abundantly productive state on their own, our pruning can be key to highly productive, healthy plants. For example, Moringa can turn into a large tree where you can’t access the leaves to eat, but through proper pruning, it can be maintained to be highly productive and accessible to make an incredible amount of Moringa powder. See the pruning section below.
“Pests” One of the keys to establishing a resilient, easy to manage garden is selecting the plants that naturally have the fewest “pests.” That is exactly what we have done with the Food Forest Starter bundle. You will likely experience substantially fewer “pests” with these plants than you would with many other plants. Annual plants tend to have more “pest” issues than perennial plants.
My recommendation is to pay close attention to young, establishing plants for insects that are eating or damaging the plants. I recommend manually removing the insects daily on these young plants. I simply squash them into the soil, where they will nourish the plants and continue the circle of life. Most of the “pests” you are likely to deal with will be on the young, establishing plants. See “The plants with the most ‘pest’ issues” section for details on individual plants.
During my year of growing and foraging 100% of my food in Florida, I didn’t use a single pesticide or herbicide, not even an organic one, and still have never used any in my life.
The main reasons I see gardens struggling:
- Not enough water
- Not enough mulch
- Not enough nutrition in soil
- Not enough sunlight. This is often the case when people try growing under oak trees.
- Starting too big and spreading oneself too thin. I see people who are excited during planting time and end up starting larger than they then make time to manage. For this reason, I recommend checking in with yourself honestly and planting accordingly. My general recommendation is starting small (whatever is within your capability) and expanding each year. I also recommend starting in one area and expanding outward, rather than spreading out throughout the whole area available, as the more spread out a garden is, the more time it generally takes to care for it.
- Not enough care! Building a productive garden does take work. It’s work that you can love and you can enjoy. It often may not feel like work and you may do it while you’re taking a break from your other work. You don’t need to call it work. However, it takes real effort and diligence and time to build up a garden like this! We’ve saved you an incredible amount of work by providing you with the curated easiest-to-grow foods and the most time- efficient and effective strategies to grow this type of garden, but it still takes work.
I highly recommend visiting the places that you want your garden to resemble. Thousands of people have highly successful gardens across the state of Florida. Visit them, learn from them, create your dream around what you see working! Volunteer at gardens, homesteads and farms and soak in the knowledge. Learn your mistakes through others, rather than doing it yourself. Well, of course, you’ll need to learn from mistakes in your garden as well. That’s how you become an experienced gardener! Grow your community. This does not have to be a lonely path. Your garden does not have to be an island. Community is the key to resilient, abundant gardens.
Some of my top recommendations for getting involved include:
Orlando Permaculture community, ECHO, Josh Jamison’s, Florida Permaculture gatherings, Andy Firk, Gulfport Food Forest, FGCU Food Forest. All of these are listed and linked in my Guide to Gardening in Florida.
We give gratitude to our community in St. Pete: Sustainable Urban Agriculture Coalition SUAC, The Urban Harvest, Little Tree Nursery, EarthSong Nursery, Moonlanding Nursery, Deuces Food Forest
Pruning and Individual Plant Care
I have created a simple numerical system to attempt to share effectively how important pruning is for each plant. This pruning is focused specifically on encouraging the most productive and thriving plants. All plants can use general pruning of dead, dying or diseased branches, vines and leaves. The first column focuses on the establishment period. The second column is for mature plants that are already established.
0 – No pruning is needed
1 – Minor pruning is desirable but not needed
2 – Some pruning is generally desirable to establish the most productive plant
3 – Pruning is very important to establish the most productive plant
As I share in the claimer above, this is based on my personal experience. It won’t be perfect in all scenarios. It won’t always match up with your experience. Other gardeners may tell you otherwise. However, these simplified guidelines are highly likely to help you establish a successful garden, and if a few of these were not the ideal recommendation, that’s just fine.
For most of these plants, we’ve also provided a link to our friends at Sow Exotic Nursery for their recommended care information.
During Establishment Long term
- Cassava/yuca 1 – 0
- Chaya 2 – 2
- Lemongrass 1 – 2
- Sweet potato 1 – 2
- Elderberry 2 – 1
- Mulberry (native variety) 3- 2
- Mulberry (dwarf ever-bearing) 3 – 2
- Cuban oregano 2 – 2
- Tithonia (sunflower) 2- 1
- Toilet Paper Plant 2- 2
- Nopal cactus 2- 1
- Okinawa spinach 2 – 2
- Longevity spinach 2 – 2
- African blue basil 2 – 1/2
- Katuk 2 – 2
- Rosemary 2- 1
- Galangal ginger 0 – 0
- Turmeric 0- 0
- Pigeon pea/gandules 1/2- 1/2
- Moringa 3 – 3
- Southern/Seminole/cow pea 0 – 0
- Seminole pumpkin 0 – 0
- Everglades tomato 1 – 1
- Papaya 2 – 1
- East African/Ethiopian kale/Amara 0 – 0
- Cranberry hibiscus 1 – 2
- Molokhia/Egyptian spinach 0- 0
- Hopi Red Dye Amaranth 0 – 0
- Bidens alba 0 – 0
- Sorrel/Roselle 1 – 1
- Luffa 0 – 0
- Daikon radish 0 – 0
Details for specific plants or groups:
Moringa: Unmaintained, Moringa will generally turn into a large tree, 40+ feet. At that stage, the leaves are not accessible and it is not in the most productive stage for leaf production. For highest productivity, during establishment, wait until the tree is about head height and then cut off the top foot or two. It will then branch out. Continuously do this to create many branches.
Once established, during peak growing season, about every six weeks I will prune off all, or nearly all, of the branches at about chest or head height. I then make large batches of Moringa powder (actually I just dry the leaves to store and then make the powder in smaller batches for peak freshness). This keeps the tree small, produces the highest yield, and makes it the most accessible for harvesting. This method of pruning at about chest or head height is called pollarding.
Papaya: Papaya trees can grow productively with no pruning, however, they often become too tall to easily reach the fruit and are susceptible to being blown over from strong storms. To remedy this, you can cut the top off the papaya tree when it is still developing but is productively growing (generally when it is a few feet high). It will then put out branches that stay lower on the plant and the plant will not grow so upright. Another option is to let it grow high and produce fruit. If it becomes too tall, or if a hurricane is coming, you can always cut it back. The trunk is soft and this can be done with a machete or ax. I generally cut mine at about chest height and some people cut them down to waist height. You can do it at a strategic time when a crop has finished and there are no fruit on the trees. Or at a time when you want to harvest a bounty to make papaya kraut. Papaya trees generally live 3-5 years.
Mulberry: Pruning during establishment is especially important for all fruit trees, as they are the longest living and longest food producing. Pruning helps to create higher productivity, accessibility to the fruit and health for the plant.
Generally, prune off all branches that are growing downwards and inwards. This will create openness, space and accessibility. Prune towards the stem / trunk, leaving just a small nub of the branch. Leave branches that are growing upright and outwards in the shape that you can imagine you’d like the tree to take.
Once established, “top” the tree as needed to keep it at the desired height by pruning all branches that are growing taller than you’d like. See our fruit tree pruning guide.
Pruning and maintaining shrubs and bushes- chaya, elderberry, tithonia, katuk, toilet paper plant:
- The key to growing a lot of food/medicine with these plants is to prune the plants to become bushes/shrubs. If you neglect the plant and it becomes one long branch you will not have much yield. Again, these plants can survive under many conditions, but if you want to work with these plants as a means to break free from the grocery store, then pruning is key for maximal yields.
- For plants that flower: When the plant is young, prune off the flower spikes, so that the plant’s energy and resources are put into leaves and roots. Once the plant is developed, flowers can be on the plant year-around. We recommend pruning off the flowers until your plant has at least 5-10 established branches. Prune the flower spikes off by clipping off the developing stem at one or two leaf nodes below the flower stem. This will help to produce a bushy plant at the same time.
- Pruning a branch will generally result in two new branches branching out. So what you do by pruning a branch is you turn one branch into two. If you do this continuously over the first year, you will turn what could have been one upward stick into a plant with 30+ branches in the first year. More branches means more leaves which means more food and medicine. Note that sometimes plants will naturally bush out on their own, but strategic pruning ensures the highest likelihood of productivity.
- Mature branches are at least partially brown and woody. Young branches are green and bendable. Branches are ready to be pruned once they have some brown and woodiness. We recommend not pruning the young green, bendable branches unless there’s some need to such as a broken branch.
- Cut just above the set of leaves/leaf nodes that you are leaving on the plant. Their will not be a chunk of stem above the leaves that you leave on.
- In the early stages, when pruning for maximal productivity, we recommend leaving a few branches unpruned. We recommend pruning a few branches at a time, not the entire plant. With this method there will always be some new branches forming from where you have freshly pruned and some branches that are older and stable.
- With a developed plant, it is possible to prune the entire plant way back. This is sometimes necessary as the plants can get out of control.
- Prunings are cuttings. Share them with your community to grow the abundance! Taking cuttings as needed is an organic form of pruning.
- For specifics on the toilet paper plant see this page
Small plants – Cuban oregano, longevity spinach, Okinawa spinach, African blue basil:
Follow the same guidelines for pruning and maintaining shrubs and bushes, only keep in mind these are smaller plants. All of these can produce an abundance of cuttings to share with others as you prune and harvest them.
Cassava: Starting with cuttings that have 6+ nodes, numerous branches always have occurred on their own for me and I don’t recall pruning cassava. This plant can be highly productive with no pruning. You can also prune branches as desired to make a more bushy plant that will produce more leaves and harvest more sun. Those pruned branches are cuttings, which allow you to grow more cassava plants or share with others!
Pigeon pea: Pigeon pea generally lives for one to a few years and loses its productivity by two years. I tend to continuously replant them. Pruning is not necessary with this method. Some people prune pigeon pea back to chest height the following spring after it has produced seed. Some people work with it almost like a hedge, pruning it heavily to form a hedge like row that can be compact, yet productive. I tended to let my trees grow to full size.
Lemon grass: I like to do occasional harvests where I prune the plant way back to about a foot high. Then I pull out all the dead blades of grass. I like to keep my plants lively and showy in this way. But others let them grow into huge clumps, often full of dead leaves and they can still be highly productive this way. Pull the “root divisions” out at the base to use for propagation and thin the plant if it is overcrowded.
Nopal: Continuously harvest the pads that you want to eat and the plant will bush out and become more productive.
Rosemary: Harvest strategically to encourage the growth form you’d like. It will probably not branch out if you cut at the woody section below. Instead, prune at the section of the branch where it is still partially green on the outside and bendable.
Sorrel and cranberry hibiscus: These plants can become highly productive with no pruning. I don’t recall ever pruning mine for productivity. If plants became too thick or unwieldy, I would prune for accessibility and aesthetics. Cranberry hibiscus is long living so I find myself pruning dead and dying branches to keep it more productive.
Plants with more specific needs
In this section I share the plants that have more specific needs and that a new gardener is most likely to struggle with. My hope is that by sharing which plants a new beginner is most likely to struggle with, it may help to alleviate some stress if these plants don’t succeed. Also to provide you with the heads up so that you know that if you want these plants to succeed, you will need to provide some extra care and consideration. Perhaps do some research on how others have had the most success with them in your region.
Plants that prefer partial shade: blue spur flower, katuk, galangal ginger, turmeric
Plants that can do well in partial shade: longevity spinach, Okinawa spinach
Plants that are more nutrient intensive for high productivity: turmeric, papaya, sorrel, seminole pumpkin, everglades tomato; and in some gardens, Okinawa and longevity spinach.
Plants that are more water intensive for high productivity: elderberry, turmeric, papaya, seminole pumpkin, luffa and sometimes Okinawa and longevity spinach
Given these categories, I would like to reiterate that in my experience all plants thrive and produce more food when they receive the water and nutrients they need. Sweet potato in my experience has a much higher potato yield with substantially nutritious soil and substantial water, but can absolutely survive and in some gardens produce substantially even in poor soil.
The plants a new gardener is most likely to struggle with: katuk, longevity spinach, Okinawa spinach, papaya, sorrel, Hopi amaranth, Seminole pumpkin
The plants that are less likely to take from cuttings: mulberry, katuk, rosemary,
The plants that may prove more difficult to grow from seeds: papaya
The plants with the most “pest” issues:
Sweet potatoes can have weevils that eat the potatoes. Potatoes with weevil damage are still edible but will not store long term. Simply cut off the damage and eat in the short term.
Papaya can have a wasp that lays their eggs in the green fruit. The eggs hatch into larvae that can destroy the fruit. You can always eat green papayas to remedy this issue and simply not have ripe papayas. Some people never deal with wasps, others always have them.
Seminole pumpkin deals with “pickle worms.” These can destroy whole crops. They are especially susceptible when plants are young (when the leaves are tender and there are few leaves). At that stage, I recommend daily crushing the caterpillars with your hands to prevent an infestation and so that the plants can establish. Planting earlier in the season helps the plants to establish before the insects are back for the season.
Squirrels will dig up freshly planted seeds. Protect them for 1-2 weeks until the plant has multiple leaves and you will be past squirrel issues.
Cut worms can cut right through the stalk of the plant while it is young, killing the plant entirely. If you have issues with cutworms, you can wrap the base of the stalk in tin foil or cut the bottom off a plastic nursery pot to make a cuff around the base. Stick the post one inch into the soil to prevent the cutworms from digging under.
Luffa is similar to Seminole pumpkin, only my experience is that there are far fewer “pest” issues.
Everglades tomato is the most hardy of all tomatoes in Florida. Tomato hornworm can substantially damage young plants. Watch for these and remove them on young plants. I’ve never seen an issue on established plants that have substantial leafage.
Longevity spinach and Okinawa spinach get a disease sometimes that can knock the whole plant back. I recommend having multiple patches growing around your garden to reduce the risk of all of your plants being affected. If this disease takes over, you can try cutting the plants way back and removing all the diseased materials. You can also take the healthiest cuttings and put them into pots to nurture and restart your plants.
When young and tender: These plants when young and tender are the most likely to be eaten by deer, rabbits and other creatures: mulberry, possibly katuk, longevity spinach, Okinawa spinach, sorrel, cranberry hibiscus, Ethiopian kale, amaranth, Southern pea, daikon radish. If you find this to be an issue, surrounding them with a chicken wire cage can allow them to get established until they are no longer so desirable. Just like we humans like young and tender leaves, so do many animals and insects.