My food forest is about 7500 feet above sea level, zone 5, steep, low nutrient, poor water retention, short season, alkaline, shallow, and located in the dry western United States.
Not ideal for food gardening as Americans know it.
What these factors mean to me starts with the elevation. I work in Albuquerque, a desert. Here, high elevation is equivalent to water. I chose a natural water source above all other factors.
The Rio Grande is used for farming under the desert sun but it’s water is always fought over by New Mexicans, Texans, Mexicans, and First Nations. I left that battle to the Big Boys and chose high elevation rainwater.
All high elevation is not equal and the best determination of water is to look at the trees. Some exposures have thin tree cover, some have thick tree cover. My property has thick tree cover. I get some rain from the Pacific Ocean and more from the Gulf of Mexico. I get 16-24 inches of rain a year. Even better, I get my “monsoon” rains during the summer growing season. No kidding, that 2 inches of rain in July really is called a monsoon around here!
I got 5 acres up here where rain actually exists! It is raining right now, and I love the sound of it.
I do want to grow some plants that require more water, so I spend time looking at the steep ground looking for moisture. Starting in winter, I watched snow accumulation and melt. With so many evergreens, the snow stayed on the north side and that stayed moist longer throughout the winter. Also, close to the north edge of melt would get more sunlight in summer for healthy growth. I have planted several native trees like wild plums and wild cherries. This is cooler than a south exposure and they bloom later, saving severe freeze back during late freezes and loss of blooms.
I also have some small runnels that have not yet made gullies. I have planted several things along them with a half circle of stones to catch the water and hold a bit more soil. I have planted prickly pear this way in some open areas that are too dry for trees. They get enough water to produce a lot of fruit but are dry enough to stay healthy.
I have one area that is already damaged by a bulldozer with about a half foot deep water channel. I have put out about 50000 wildflower seeds along its pathway and it looks like a yellow river all summer. This helps stabilize the soil. Additionally, starting at the top (150 feet up) I started moving a few rocks at a time to make small pools between drops. It slows the flow down, and this year they are flat spots that stay damper and allow more water to soak in. I planned to enlarge them, but plants have colonized them already. I will add to the system as I go and delay water and soil loss along the bulldozer slash.
I have other areas as well. One spot had a cut for a road and I made an 18 inch tall by about 15 foot long berm for a garden bed of some sort. Still in progress.
Living in a desert guided many decisions on my property. Water is crucial, especially on a steep slope. I need to hold on to it for plants and plants hold the soil.
I have endless water projects but most important is a cistern. This will hold enough rainwater for a few high water use plants around the house like blueberries in a raised acidic bed. I also plan a solar water distillation unit to clean some of my dreadful city water for drinking. Most people drink bottled water but I want a simple distiller for the long run. Solar distillation does not make flat dead tasting water like boiler distillation does.
My water plan includes a native food forest consistent with natural rainfall, higher water at specific locations that will grow plants with higher moisture needs and a cistern for a smaller, more traditional garden. Because I am a gardener, it is perfect now and will evolve with time. It is a delight every day of the year.