Today we’re going to talk about a food forest, also sometimes known as a forest garden.
Food production is a big part of most people’s lives around the globe, excluding the first world.
Many of these people live a subsistence (i.e. barely enough to stay alive) farming lifestyle. Annual crops, especially without mechanization, take a lot of time – prepare the soil, plant, tend crops, remove weeds and pests, and irrigate manually.
If you grow your own garden, think about how many hours you put into growing a garden during the year. Now take away irrigating with hoses, and substitute hauling water in small containers.
Of course, with hugelkultur you can reduce or eliminate watering.
Then take away MiracleGrow or any other synthetic fertilizer. Next remove the ability to go to a big box store and buy ready-made fencing. Last, try to eat only what you grow.
That’s tough. Really tough.
Oh yeah, and if you fail, you and your family starves. Sorry.
One low-maintenance way for food production to be at least sustainable (maintain and keep going long-term), we can look to the food forest. The food forest/forest garden is another technique in permaculture. It’s not a “requirement” to “be permaculture” any more than having an herb spiral or swale.
A food forest is a system of interrelated plants and animals that naturally produce a surplus of food for human consumption.
Notice the word “interrelated” in the last sentence?
Interrelated is a common thread in permaculture, just assume that everything in permaculture is about interrelations, because it is. You might think it’s just trees and plants growing together, but you would be wrong.
Food Forests Come From Forest Succesion
A food forest is designed based on the cycle of forest succession. The idea goes like this:
- In a mature forest system, a wildfire or other cataclysm comes through and decimates the forest
- Starting from bare ground, the first plants to try to recolonize are the “pioneer” plants, commonly referred to as weeds
- As the weeds begin to take hold, woody bushes and shrubbery start to populate the land.
- Eventually, small hardy and fast-growing trees take hold…
- Followed by larger softwoods…
- Finally followed by even larger hardwoods
The time to cycle can vary between climates and species, but 100-200 years is a rough estimate. It really depends on the climate and amount of water. Some especially dry climates (like where I live) will never success through to a top-canopy forest naturally because they don’t get enough water.
Now that we know the way nature does it, we just need to emulate it on a faster time scale. Most people can’t wait 100 years for a food forest to start producing food, so we need to speed up the process.
Also, most natural forests are not optimized for human food production. They don’t contain food-producing plants in all the different niches. We can use the idea of a climax forest and select the species we want to grow.
Food Forests Are More Than Just Trees
As I said above, food forests (or forest gardens as some call them) are not just trees, though they can contain many trees. Food forests include vining plants, self-sowing annuals (for pollinators and predator insects), and perennial shrubs and bushes, to name a few. According to Wikipedia, “…three main products from a forest garden are fruit, nuts and green leafy vegetables.”
This form of agro-forestry (agro from agronomy or growing food, so growing food in a forest) is probably the oldest form of agriculture. It was usually implemented on more fertile ground, like next to rivers. The “gardeners” selected favored food and medicine plants, and removed undesirable plants.
The modern idea of food forest is a 7-layer…no, not a burrito…sorry…c’mon, stay on task…a 7-layer guild system. A guild is just a collection of plants that work well together.
Here’s the layers of a food forest:
- Canopy Layer – large long-lived fruit and nut Trees
- Low Tree Layer – dwarf fruit trees
- Shrub Layer – brambles (rasp- & blackberries), currants, other berries
- Herbaceous Layer – herbs, most shade-tolerant Vegetables
- Rhizosphere – root crops – sweet & white potatoes, beets, sunchokes, horseradish
- Soil Surface – ground covers(clover, low chamomile, strawberry
- Vertical Layer – climbers & vines – grapes, kiwi, passionflower
Food Forest Planning
So when planning and planting a forest garden, not only do you need to consider the space and height requirements of the desired plants, but also consider how each plant will grow over time. Sun exposure, shade, and light requirements will change over time. depending on height and number of trees, which you must consider.
Under trees, sun exposure decreases and shade increases as the trees get larger. Slow-growing large fruit and nut trees will eventually tower over the fast-growing leguminous and nitrogen-fixing “nurse” trees you initially plant as pioneers.
Food Forest Maintenance over time
When you start, the ratio of N-fixing trees to food trees should be 10 to 1. As time passes and trees grow larger, some nurse trees can be removed. Eventually, the food forest is at climax, and there are only a few nurse trees left.
It’s a complex idea and several authors wrote books on just this subject. The end of the article under the More Reading section has suggested books. If you do it right, it will be a self-sustaining system. See the videos here for awesome examples.
One food forest was abandoned for several years. Not only was the food forest producing, it became bigger and better than when it was being maintained!
Imagine a food production system where all you do is harvest right off the tree. No watering, no fertilizer, no planting, just picking fresh better-than-organic produce and veggies!
This is much less work over time than tending an annual garden, though they do still have their place. Until I find a tomato tree I will still be growing a garden!
Just a little enjoyable walk through your forest, some chop-and-drop, pruning, and harvesting.
Building a food forest is one of my goals for the Rehovot homestead. It’ll be awesome to see.
OK, that’s all folks! Do you have any questions or comments about food forests? Ask your question down below and let’s talk! You can also use the contact form, or email me at info at thepermaculture dot life.
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