A food forest, or edible forest garden, is a food production strategy that mimics a woodland ecosystem. Find out how to create a low-maintenance, perennial, permaculture garden with edible rewards!
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What is a Food Forest?
A food forest mimics a forest edge, planted with edible plants. Picture all of the vertical layers of a forest growing together: Tall trees, small trees, shrubs, herbs, and ground covers. Tall, canopy trees grow inward from the edge, with smaller trees peeking out from underneath the tall trees to catch some of the sun’s rays. Stepping farther out into the sunshine are shrubs, with herbs, flowers, and ground covers blanketing the sunniest edge.
A typical forest edge can look a little busy, sometimes with vines growing up the trees and even mushrooms growing under the tallest trees in the shade. All of these layers of the forest are stacked together, each situated for sufficient sun exposure, and intertwined to produce a vibrant, productive, low-maintenance, and relatively self-maintaining ecosystem.
In a healthy forest setting, humans aren’t needed for weeding or fertilizing.
An example food forest might include chestnut trees as a tall canopy tree layer, with apple trees below them as an understory tree layer, followed by currant bushes, a host of edible herbs and mushrooms grown underneath, and perhaps even grapevines that use the apple trees as trellises.
Swap out my selections above for your favorite nut trees, fruit trees, berry bushes, and herbs to make your own system!
Photo Credit: ideath Flickr
History of the Food Forest
Managing forests for their edible benefits to humans is an ancient practice, with evidence and existing food forests having been found in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. As the New World was colonized, many of the first colonists and anthropologists didn’t know that they were looking at managed systems. To them, the forests in front of them looked like untouched forest.
What we realize now, of course, is that these early, native hunter-gatherer societies didn’t wander around aimlessly in search of food. They knew which areas produced which desirable foods (or medicines) and at which time of year, and it informed their movement. As they moved through forest and prairies areas, they would encourage edible plant species by cutting back the growth around them and giving them the space to grow abundantly and reproduce.
It was an early form of forest gardening.
They wouldn’t have spent a ton of time or effort, and it wouldn’t look pristinely weeded, but the desired plants would certainly be given an advantage over other plants.
Geoff Lawton found a 2,000 year old food forest in Morrocco. 800 people farm the desert oasis that includes, among other edible plants, date palms, bananas, olives, figs, pomegranate, guava, citrus, and mulberry. He also found a 300 year old food forest in Vietnam that has been cultivated by the same family for 28 generations.
With these ancient stories in mind, we can create vibrantly abundant and healthy edible perennial gardens that require a lot less maintenance and that can become a legacy into the future. This is the inspiration behind the modern food production strategy called a food forest.
Would you like to learn more about using permaculture techniques to improve the biodiversity of your garden, reduce maintenance, and increase yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
The Benefits of an Edible Perennial Forest Garden
Perennial gardens don’t disturb the soil regularly like annual gardens do, but rather, they continually enrich soil with organic matter as leaves fall and plants die back for the winter. The food forest model can help to restore land, biodiversity, and habitat while creating an edible yield.
A forest is one of earth’s most stable ecosystems, and if we can mimic this ecosystem as a food production strategy, we get all of the ecological benefits of a forest PLUS food.
Food Forests vs. Orchards
Imagine planting a 0.10-acre site with about 30 apple trees to create a mini orchard. For the home gardener, this would obviously yield a lot of apples! But a single-species orchard can be a tough space to manage, as it is a monoculture of sorts and could attract pests and diseases that discover the smorgasbord of their favorite food. This would require you to spend time and money on pest/disease treatment.
The standard apple orchard arrangement also doesn’t take advantage of the vertical space above and below the trees. There is a single harvest opportunity of apples, and if it’s wiped out by disease or pest, there would be no reward for your efforts.
The single species—all needing the same nutrients in the soil—would, over time, deplete the soil and need imported fertilizer.
If we take the same site of the apple orchard and plant it with a food forest, we might be able to triple the yield in the same amount of space.
How would that work?
Imagine the northern edge (if you’re in the northern hemisphere) of the orchard being planted with a row of tall nut trees. Instead of rows of all apple trees, we could alternate apple trees with plum trees and cherry trees, for example, or whichever fruit trees would be appropriate to the climate. If it were a commercial area, we would also choose fruit crops that have high economic value. In the rows with the fruit trees, we could plant some nut- or berry-yielding bushes.
Underneath and between all the trees and shrubs we could seed a variety of herbs and flowers that help to add nutrients to the soil (fertilizer and soil building), attract beneficial insects (pest prevention), attract pollinators (for better fruit set), and add potential harvests in the form of cut flowers and culinary or medicinal herbs.
I call this an orchard on steroids!
Because we’ve created a biodiverse ecosystem instead of a monoculture, we’ve lessened the threat of pests, reduced the need for fertilizer, lowered the amount of maintenance required, and hopefully, increased and diversified the yield. This diversity encourages more stability in the system.
In the backyard, this is great news, because few households will be able to use 30 bushels of apples! It would be nice to have a diversity of edible products.
If you’re growing apples or any other fruit for commercial purposes, you’ll find excellent examples of successful food forest commercial operations by Mark Shepard of the 106-acre New Forest Farm in his book Restoration Agriculture and by Stefan Sobkowiak, who shares his experience of transforming a conventional apple orchard in the feature-length educational film Permaculture Orchard.
Fruit tree guilds are one way to start building a food forest. Check out my article on building a fruit tree guild for more information.
You’ll also find some great ideas for plant selection in my article on planting a hedgerow.
Books to check out:
- Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops by Martin Crawford
- Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 2: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier
- Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel
- Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape by Robert Hart
- Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway
- How to Make a Forest Garden by Patrick Whitfield
- Integrated Forest Gardening: The Complete Guide to Polycultures and Plant Guilds in Permaculture Systems by Wayne Weiseman, Daniel Halsey, and Bryce Ruddock
- The Suburban Micro-Farm: Modern Solutions for Busy People by Amy Stross (shameless plug!)
Need more ideas for growing a permaculture garden?
- 20 Perennial Crops for Wet Soil
- How to Grow and Use Currants
- The Cherry Tree Guild & Natural Pest Control
Have you created a food forest? What edible crops did you select?