Before I had a Food Forest, I had a pecan tree guild in Texas. In my large suburban yard in Texas I didn’t have room for a forest and I had a demanding job that limited my time.
Most of the Dallas area has alkaline Vertisol clay soil known to destroy home foundations because it swells to 14 times it size with water and shrinks back to zero when dry. It does this at different rates depending on which side of the house it is on. Foundation repair is a huge market economy business in Texas!
What did this mean for me as a gardner? Vertisol clay retains water for plants but needs a lot of compost added to be workable. I never dug or plowed into this gumbo but composted on top of the soil. Starting in fall with all of my own leaves and those donated by neighbors, I laid out large beds and covered with cardboard to kill weeds and grass. I piled leaves and other compost material on top a foot or more thick. I finished off with pine bark mulch. By spring this was soft, rich soil. This was the base layer out of which a pecan tree guild grew.
I loved my quaint old house with its big yard and large trees. Even better, my large trees were limbed up to about 20 feet. I am talking huge shade trees that were planted a generation ago to moderate the 100+ degree weather by 10-15 degrees around my home. Initially I bought under trees for the sheer physical comfort of shade. Two out of nine of them were pecans. All of them donated leaves to enrich my soil.
I planted tree guilds under these massive old trees. For ease in picking compatible plants, search online for “pecan biome” or “oak biome” and so on. Scientists have made lists of native plants that work together and create healthy and food producing combinations or guilds. The more native companion plants you use, the healthier your guild. I used no pesticides and no fertilizers other than compost and mulch. Never had a problem with pecan webworms even though some of my neighbors did.
Tree guilds under pecan trees were especially easy because the pecans leafed out late and allowed a lot of spring sun to reach the plants beneath them allowing them solid growth before the fierce Texas sun burned them. Spring bloomers put on a fabulous show. Just in time, the pecans leafed out and provided dappled shade.
For my second layer I inherited a plum tree. It was a good choice that could even survive renters once it was established. I got piles of plums off that tree, I made plum butter, canned plums, plum sauce, everything I could think of. Then I spent the rest of the year putting plums into everything else I made. Plum sauce, like apple sauce adds moisture to baked goods with less oil needed.
With plenty of room I added three native persimmon trees which has fruit very late in the year, getting sweet after the first frost when everything else is dying back. It is also an understory forest plant and happy in a tree guild. It has a narrow profile and does not cast dense shade. I planted three of them. I love persimmon and it is hard to wait for them to get a good frost. I like to dry them… it is like candy.
I planted Dolgo crabapple and had it fruit a year after planting. The kids and their friends loved the tiny red apples… but it makes exceptional apple juice and applesauce. It is used for apple cider, which I have nor yet made. I planted it because few apples really do well in Texas heat. Fuji will but I prefered the higher nutrition of small Dolgo apples.
For Dallas gardens, the redbud tree was de riguer. Astonishing edible purple blooms in spring followed by edible green pods followed by edible seeds. The pods are much like snow peas and I cook the seeds like lentils. If you think you cannot grow enough calories in a suburban yard, you haven’t tried redbud.
For shrubs, I had a wide variety like Oregon grape, aronia, blackberries, raspberries, wild roses, anything I wanted except acid lovers like blueberries. I kept it easy and stuck to things that grew in alkaline soil.
I had great luck with tomatoes under pecan trees. The early sun gave them a good start, and dappled shade in the burning Texas sun kept them producing all summer. Tomatoes don’t flower over 95 degrees, so pecan shade is perfect. I still had tomatoes well after leaves started falling.
Texas is not the best place to grow lettuce. For years I kept six to ten one gallon containers of leaf lettuce inside in a north window and had good production. Too much work.
A better solution was to eat greens that do well outside in Texas. Under trees and shrubs I had an endless supply of native violets. They are commonly called a lawn weed and poisoned, so don’t eat poisoned ones. In the shade, they get fuller and have larger leaves. A half cup has more nutrition than spinach, no oxalic acid like spinach (causes stones), and as much vitamin C as four oranges. I loved the mild taste, perfect for salad greens. Wild violas grow all over the US.
Once I got the soil rich and friable with leaves from my trees and those from neighbor contributions, I could grow a wide range of plants, including flowers mixed in everywhere.
Keep in mind that sunlight is measured in lumens and that part shade in Texas is full sun in other places.
Most failures to grow under trees have more to do with lack of deep watering and with raking leaves and throwing them away. Every year I kept the leaves in place under these trees. Composting in place was easy in Texas because the heat sped up the process. For kitchen materials, I ran vegetable matter through the blender, dug a small hole under a tree, and poured it in.
If you have existing trees of any type in southern heat like Texas, it is easy to garden under trees and in a tree guild.