Food forests, also known as food gardens, are man-made forests created through the diversified planting of edible plants that aims to replicate natural ecosystems and patterns. This practice is called permaculture and has gained plenty of notoriety in the past few decades, despite being around since old times.
By researching the forests of the world, experts have discovered that each thriving forest ecosystem has at least seven layers, with some tropical forests having more. In order to thrive, food forests also need to follow the same principle, developing the perfect ecosystem for all flora residing there. To achieve this, think of food forests as 3D designs, with life flourishing in all directions: upwards, downwards, and outwards.
For anyone willing to put in the effort, growing a food forest holds an abundance of benefits, including fresh, organically grown fruits and vegetables at your disposal and being able to do tremendous good for the environment.
This guide aims to teach you a few interesting things about food forests, why gardeners should consider them, as well as how to grow your own without needing acres and acres of land. Keep on reading and prepare your gardening supplies!
Growing a food forest. Why?
- 1 Growing a food forest. Why?
- 2 Understanding your surroundings
- 3 Level up – The 7 layers of a thriving food forest
- 3.1 1. The canopy layer – big native, fruit, or nut trees.
- 3.2 2. The understory layer – smaller trees
- 3.3 3. The shrub layer – bushes, currants, and shrubs
- 3.4 4. The herbaceous layer – herbs, beets, and comfreys
- 3.5 5. The ground-cover layer – plants that spread horizontally
- 3.6 6. The underground layer – bulbs and edible roots
- 3.7 7. The vertical layer – vines and climbers
- 4 Building the food forest, step by step
- 5 Bottom line
Forests exist as this perfect ecosystem: lush, plentiful areas of unspoiled wilderness filled with life, rich in biodiversity, and breathtaking to observe. Trees, shrubs, and small plants entwined, occupying every available area, but somehow never overcrowded – the very essence of life.
Forests can survive on their own. There is no need for mowing or weeding, nor do they need pesticides, fertilizers, or other harmful chemicals. They somehow seem to do a fantastic job without needing an ounce of our help. Now, what if you could achieve this perfect balance with edible plants? This is, in essence, what food forests can do with proper design.
For tens of thousands of years, nature has fulfilled our most basic needs. As we evolved and grew in number, however, modern agriculture seemed like a more effective approach to producing all the food we need for sustenance. However, the consequences may have been more concerning than we thought.
Agricultural fields are constantly reused, which means the soil will eventually lose part of its beneficial properties and become unable to feed the crops we continue to plant. And, because there is no ecosystem in place, pests can’t be kept at a distance effectively either. To compensate for this, farmers need to add fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals that will, in time, affect soil quality. With food forests, these concerns no longer exist.
Food forests are ecosystems able to thrive on their own, without the help of human hands. Each of the seven layers (which we will discuss in the following paragraphs) has its well-defined purpose which can be, for example, to shade the area, cover the ground to protect it, balance the soil, or attract pollinators.
The benefits of creating this ecosystem are plenty. Here are some examples:
- High productivity. While some people believe you need a lot of space to create a food forest, the reality is very different. With permaculture, you can grow up to 300 species of plants on just 1/4 acres of land, because every bit of the space will be properly utilized.
- Natural reactions. Similar to traditional forests, food forests are able to self-mulch and retain moisture inside the soil. At the same time, fallen leaves and fruits that cover the ground will attract decomposers (a class of insects), which will break down the organic matter and create natural fertilizers.
- Pest control. Food forests will attract and shelter natural predators, such as birds and good insects (native bees, ladybugs, butterflies), which will naturally eliminate pests. All you need to do is provide flowers that are rich in nectar and these friendly garden helpers will come in no time.
- Natural synergy. In nature, plants don’t grow neatly arranged in rows. Instead, they mix to create a natural synergy that allows them to live longer and healthier. They help and protect one another, keeping pests and diseases at bay.
- Soil repair. Most plants are perennial so you will not have to till, dig, or disturb the soil periodically. If the soil is left to its own devices, its natural structure is preserved. Soil is a complex and intricate system that supports an array of important life forms some are tiny – bacteria, fungi, and some are easy to observe – insects, and earthworms, and even small mammals. When plants die off, they don’t magically disappear from nature. Instead, they rot in time, provide food and shelter, and their roots creating channels for air and water to flow through the soil.
To reap all these benefits, of course, you need to understand some rules that have been carefully researched by observing the best gardener at its work: Mother Nature. To do so, you will need proper planning and a solid understanding of your surroundings.
Understanding your surroundings
Understanding how forests grow and sustain themselves without human interference allows us to learn from Nature and model our own forests, which will be filled with trees and plants that generate food for us to consume.
This way, we have the ability to design and build the most sustainable food production system, honed, improved, and cared for by Mother Nature herself.
To begin, you will need to understand your land. Whether you already have a site or plan on purchasing one, you will need to start asking a lot of questions and taking notes.
While the right piece of land can make a big difference, don’t stress too much about perfect soil quality. There are plenty of natural ways to upgrade it using mulch or soil mixtures.
Once you are settled on the land, start gathering as much information as you can about the surroundings. Ideally, your research should be able to answer the following questions:
- What type of plants grows best around there?
- What are the temperatures and how does the weather behave?
- Are there any type of nasty pests to be concerned about?
- How is the feral animal situation?
Knowing all these aspects will help you plan for and develop a thriving forest that is able to sustain itself. However, don’t rush to start planting just yet.
Take some time to observe the land and draw your own conclusions on aspects such as wildlife, shade, rain, and sun – between a few months and a year should be enough to form an informed opinion.
If planting an entire forest sounds overwhelming, these questions can also help you identify some native trees that thrive in the area.
Why native? Because the pollinators here are used to them and will be instantly attracted to your forest. Plant some of these and gradually build around them.
Whichever way you choose to proceed, arm yourself with a lot of patience. Food forests take years to develop so there won’t be much room for instant gratification here.
Level up – The 7 layers of a thriving food forest
Permaculture pioneers and experts following them have studied nature and determined forests develop their ecosystems in at least 7 layers. Following nature’s example, food forests also need these levels in order to thrive. When you will start working on your list of fruits and vegetables, make sure you tackle all of these layers to fulfil your forest’s needs.
1. The canopy layer – big native, fruit, or nut trees.
The first layer is your food forest’s greatest encompassing layer – a cupola. It is made up of trees that reach a height of at least 9 meters (30 feet). It can contain bigger nut tree species such as walnut, nitrogen fixers such as locust trees, or non-edible wood species such as oak and pine.
Based on the scale of your food forest, you may not be able to plant trees that grow too large, so consider this aspect before making your choice.
2. The understory layer – smaller trees
When completely grown, trees in the understory layer reach heights of 3 to 9 meters (10 to 30 ft).
Fruit trees such as apple, pear, cherry, and apricot are typically found in this food forest stratum. If bigger trees are not practicable, these trees will serve as the forest’s canopy layer.
3. The shrub layer – bushes, currants, and shrubs
Shrubs are known as perennial plants which grow bigger than most herbaceous crops but not as tall as trees.
These plants can grow to be 3 meters (10 feet) tall. You can choose from blueberries, raspberries, currants, and almost any other type of fruit shrub. This stratum also includes smaller nut species, in addition to therapeutic herbs such as elderberry, witch hazel, rose, and hawthorn.
4. The herbaceous layer – herbs, beets, and comfreys
While trees and shrubs lose their leaves during the winter season and keep their branches and general structure intact, plants in the herbaceous layer and the layers below will die in the winter and then regrow in the spring. This happens because they lack the strong woody stems their more established forest friends have.
Asparagus, garlic, kale, rhubarb, and horseradish are all edible plants that can be added to the herbaceous layer. Actually, you will discover most of the veggies you’d expect to see in a home garden can be added to this layer.
5. The ground-cover layer – plants that spread horizontally
Plants in this layer grow closer to the ground than those in the herbaceous layer. They are more shade tolerant and fill in any gaps where herbaceous plants have not yet established themselves.
Ground cover plants may also withstand being trampled on, which makes them an excellent cover for bare pathways in your food forest. Plants in this layer also serve as a living mulch, keeping weeds away. Some options for this layer include spearmint, thyme, wintergreen, creeping rosemary, strawberries, and oregano.
6. The underground layer – bulbs and edible roots
Any plant that produces a root crop is typically considered to be part of the subterranean layer. But as you will notice, these plants do not only grow underground. This sometimes causes a lot of overlap with plants in the herbaceous and ground-cover layers.
Examples of plants suited for the underground layer include onion, garlic, leeks, scallions, and the Jerusalem artichoke – a hardy North American plant that produces edible tubes underground and little sunflower-like blossoms above, attracting pollinators.
7. The vertical layer – vines and climbers
This stratum of the food forest comprises any climbing and vining plants. Consider this layer to be a ladder that connects all the previous layers, as vining plants may grow from the ground layer all the way to the crowns of your highest trees.
These plants provide another layer of production to any food forest since they utilize the current higher layers as support. Just be careful not to choose species that can suffocate other plants.
Grapes are the most popular choice for a vining plant, but beans, tomatoes and cucumbers make for some pretty great climbers as well. If you happen to live in a warm climate, kiwi and passion fruit can be a great addition to this layer.
Each forest is unique, so you may need to adapt some of these layers to the conditions of your land. Some growers choose to eliminate the canopy layer to save space, while others may choose to plant fewer understory trees.
Whichever way you choose to design your layout, make sure you understand the role of each layer and make adjustments in a way that does not affect the ecosystem you are trying to build.
Building the food forest, step by step
Now that you have a clear idea of which plants do and don’t work in your area and the layers which comprise a food forest, it’s time to get the actual work done.
Unless you were magically handed over a bare field, you will most likely already have some plants growing on your land. Do a thorough inspection and clear any unwanted weeds or vegetation but don’t throw it away. Instead, use it to make compost and mulch, which will help improve the soil.
Next, you will need to decide on the actual product you want to harvest. After all, the main purpose of this forest is to provide you and your family with food, so plan(t) accordingly. Of course, take into consideration all you have learned by now when making your selection. Your family may be massive pineapple lovers, but a Minnesota food forest may not be the best-suited place to grow it.
When you do the plant selection, your goal is to create polycultures that support each other and grow together. While creating random mixtures can work in some cases, it’s best that you create a habitat based on what you know works together. Keep in mind the 7 layers mentioned above and choose suitable options to cover all.
Make sure you properly plan the spacing as well. You want trees to gently touch crowns when they mature, but you should avoid planting them too close to each other. This may work well for shrubs and hedges, but limits growth when it comes to trees.
Before you begin planting, take care of the infrastructure. This means fences, a potential cabin, an access point, paths and roads, as well as room for water tanks. Choose the right spots for all of these and stick to that layout, because once your forest starts growing you don’t want to disturb it by constantly building or adding artificial elements.
Food forests should develop naturally, but that does not stop you from aiding yours a bit. You can create a pond, create a sitting area for when you come visiting, or even plan on adding rabbit hutches and a few bird feeders to invite wildlife in.
The layers of a food forest aim to emulate the structure of a real forest seen in the wild. The key distinction is that they have been altered to accommodate plants that are valuable to humans, with an emphasis on edible and medicinal plants.
Each layer of a food forest serves a vital purpose. When creating your own food forest, be sure to include species from each stratum. This will result in the most resilient and self-sustaining food forest.
Keep in mind that it takes time to plan, plant, cultivate, and build permaculture food forests. And, while you may want to finish yours in a single season, you are probably better off letting each layer of the food forest establish itself for a season or two before adding the next one, especially if you are planting a big food forest area.
However, given enough time, your food forest will provide you with enough food to last for many years. While a food forest is not a fast remedy, it is a long-term investment with several benefits!
Are you growing a food forest? Share your journey with us in the comment section!