What is a “Food Forest”?  

 It has been defined as a permaculture forest garden that mimics the architecture and beneficial relationships of a natural forest. Food forests are designed and managed ecosystems that are very rich in biodiversity and productivity.  The food forest concept is a cornerstone of permaculture that instead of using the standard 2 dimensions, maximizes space and returns by utilizing all 3 dimensions.  Trees are often left out of the garden picture, and if they are there are at all it is usually because they were there in the first place. But, as Toby Hemenway points out in a great article on the subject:

“Trees have an unmatched ability to produce soil-enriching leaf litter, fill the earth with humus-making roots, quell temperature swings, hold moisture, arrest erosion, and offer tiers of wildlife habitat. And you can’t beat trees for productivity. An acre of apple trees can yield 7 tons of fruit, and an acre of chestnut trees may offer up 10 tons of protein-rich nuts–without annual replanting.”

Whether you call it a food forest or an edible forest garden, the benefits of gardening with trees should be considered. The primary goals a forest garden can help you achieve are:

1. The seven “F”s  – High yields of diverse products such as food, fuel, fiber, fodder, fertilizer, ‘farmaceuticals’ and fun.

2. A largely self-maintaining garden.

3. A healthy ecosystem.

4. Carbon sequestering.

What is Edible Forest Gardening and how do we design it?

It is a gardening technique or management system that simulates a woodland ecosystem but substitutes edible trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals.  Fruit and nut trees are the upper level, while below are berry shrubs, edible perennials and annuals.  Companions or beneficial plants are included to attract insects for natural pest management while some plants are soil amenders providing nitrogen and mulch.  Together they create relationships to form a forest garden ecosystem able to produce high yields of food with less maintenance.

Often the 7 layers approach is often mentioned in design of a Food Forest.  Within this practice, the positioning of species depends on many variables, including their requirements for shelter, light, moisture, good/bad companions, mineral requirements, pollination, pest-protection, etc. The seven layers consist of:

  • Canopy trees – the highest layer of trees. These are generally full size fruit and nut trees.  30 foot and taller.  Choices might include Persimmon, Standard Apples and Pears, Pecan, Mulberry and Chestnut trees
  • Small trees and large Shrubs – mostly planted between and below the canopy trees .Hazelnut, Elderberry Plums, Paw-Paws, Cherries and Almond
  • Shrubs – which are also shade tolerant. Including  common species like currants [Ribes spp] and berries [Rubus spp], plus others like chokeberries [Aronia spp],
  • Herbaceous perennials –  several of which are herbs and will also contribute to the ground cover layer by self-seeding or spreading. These  include Comfreys [Symphytum spp], Balm [Melissa officinalis], Mints [Mentha spp], Sage [Salvia officinalis],
  • Ground covers –  mostly creeping carpeting plants which will form a living mulch for the ‘forest floor’. Some may be herbaceous perennials like creeping Thyme, others include wild gingers [Asarum spp], Strawberries (Fragaria) cornels [Cornus canadensis], Gaultheria spp, and carpeting brambles (eg. Rubus calycinoides & R.tricolor).
  • Climbers and vines –  These are generally late additions to the garden, since they obviously need sturdy trees to climb up. Including the likes of Akebia and Kiwi
  • Root zone or rhizosphere –  Which  takes in  account of different rooting habits and requirements of different species, even if root crops are not grown much.

Permaculture food forests rely heavily on “polyculture” versus monoculture production. Polycultures can be understood as dynamic, self-organizing plant communities composed of several species. In this approach plants are grown in groups known as “guilds” which support each other through various different functions. Guilds are a harmoniously interwoven group of plants and animals that are of benefit to humans while also creating habitat for other organisms.

It helps to understand the concept of a food forest by looking at what kinds of relationships can exist around a single tree. For instance, below an apple tree you could plant white and red clover to help fix nitrogen and  comfrey to act as a dynamic accumulator which brings up nutrients from deeper down and makes them available to the other plants. Tulips, chives and daffodils will use nitrogen in the spring when it isn’t wanted by fruit trees. These plants will also attract beneficial insects by flowering through the seasons and repel unwanted pests.  Most will help to suppress grass at the tree’s base. All will work in harmony to benefit each other, and the apple tree.

Although not all plants are directly edible by humans, they all function together to bring in the larger cycles of nature to create a healthier permaculture food forest landscape.

So edible forest gardening is the art and science of putting plants together in woodland-like patterns that forge mutually beneficial relationships, creating a garden ecosystem that is more than the sum of its parts. You can create a beautiful, diverse, high-yield garden and if it is designed with care and a deep understanding of ecosystem function, you can also design a garden that is largely self-maintaining.

Why make a Food Forest?
The benefits of creating a permaculture food forest are many! The most obvious one might be that if properly planned out, a permaculture food forest practically runs and maintains itself.  It creates a habitat for local wildlife, pest control, pollination and wildlife viewing opportunities. Since permaculture food forests do not require chemical fertilizers or pesticides, they produce much healthier foods and products. These benefits might include products such as fibers, fuels, green manure, materials for crafts, food for domestic animals and can help reduce water usage in the garden.  By it’s nature of not tilling the soil and replanting you are saving and sequestering carbon.  This concept has been studied and researched here for about 25 years and has shown that food production per acre is can match current “conventional” farming while at the same time repairing the earth

How you garden is a reflection of your world view. This more harmonious approach to nourishing people also provides nourishment for the earth. It allows you to achieve a means of more independence from the more destructive modern agricultural methods, while at the same time providing you with a more direct relationship to and deeper understanding of the interdependence that is required to support all life.

This article was written by Brandy Cowley-Gilbert co-owner of Just Fruits and Exotics Nursery, and is a member of the University of Florida IFAS Leon County Extension Advisory Committee.

 Life in a Food Forest

  Have you ever wondered how a forest supports all the plants and animals that live in it, without any help from mankind, while we gardeners work so hard, and spend so much, to produce one tomato?  Pondering that question has sparked several related gardening movements, including permaculture, food forest gardening, and edible forest gardening. These movements are based on mimicking the natural processes and beneficial relationships within a natural forest. They spring from a desire to live a little lighter on this earth, and take their cues from Mother Nature.

Think about how a forest evolves. It begins with an open piece of ground. The first plants to colonize are the annual native weeds and grasses. After a few seasons these pioneer plants support a colony of worms and soil bugs that convert their rotting leaves into rich organic matter that begins building soil. Their flowers attract insects and their seeds attract birds and animals. The birds and animals bring with them the seeds of longer living plants like blueberries, wild plum, crabapple and persimmon and nut trees. Over time these larger stronger growers work out their place within the forest. The taller nut trees colonize in groups, while the shorter, sun loving crabapple, wild plums and blueberries find life on the edges of the forest. The grasses and wild flowers become the pioneer force on the outskirts, building new soil to continue the advancement of the forest. If a tree is blown over in a wind storm, or a fire wipes out a section of the forest, it is soon healed by the pioneer plants and the process continues. It is the co-working of the group that makes a forest thrive; the plants and animals working as a whole create a guild that sustains them. And notice, nobody has tilled, irrigated, or fertilized anything.

We can use this model to create beautiful gardens, full of plants to feed ourselves, while creating habitat for beneficial insects, pollinators, small farm animals and wildlife. By creating guilds of plants and animals that we as humans find useful, and following the same practices that a forest uses to create rich soil, we can avoid the back breaking labor of tilling and weeding our gardens. These guilds are just groups of plants that work well together; a guild can be a food forest that covers acres, or a 2×6 flower bed in your back yard.