It’s a quiet revolution, but a real one nonetheless. Many gardeners are rejecting the usual way of growing food and embracing permaculture – a form of holistic gardening aimed at creating harmony in the environment. One of the techniques of permaculture is to create a food forest. That’s what I did in a part of my property and I haven’t looked back.
When you create a food forest, you embrace a planting method that’s not only holistic but requires little input once you’ve planted your garden. You’re creating an environment that is more like one that would exist in nature, instead of gardening in the modern way using in beds and rows.
Forests grow and survive without input from humans. They die and regenerate all without someone watering, fertilizing, and weeding them. Forests have multiple layers of plants that support each other and don’t require maintenance. It makes sense to take some inspiration from the forest environment when growing your food.
A food forest is an area you can plant the seven layers in a way that mimics a wild forest. This creates a natural environment for the plants that is self-sustaining and provides constant food throughout the seasons with minimal input from you.
If you’re feeling adventurous and want to try something that could totally change the way you grow food, this article will help you on your way. You don’t have to start big. Choose a small area of your property and experiment a little – though I bet you’ll want to go all-in after getting a taste.
What is a Food Forest?
Don’t let the word ‘forest’ concern you. We’re not talking about a garden the size of a forest. We mean emulating the natural cycles of a forest such as using leaves fallen from trees to feed the soil, allowing plants to provide nutrients, and harnessing shade to create a self-sustainable environment.
Put simply, a food forest is an area where you plant multiple levels of plants that are all edible. It’s part of a concept called permaculture, which is basically a term for a growing system that is both sustainable and self-sufficient – like a forest. When planning, think about how a forest grows, and then adapt those principles using edible plants.
There are seven layers in a food forest:
- Tall trees – This is your forest canopy. It should be made up of large fruit trees like apples, pears or nuts. Plant them with plenty of space between them to allow light and airflow.
- Low trees – Plant smaller trees like peach and almonds here. You can also use fruit trees on dwarf rootstock.
- Shrubs – My favorites here include blueberries, hazelnut, gooseberries, and raspberries.
- Herbs – You name the herb, you can plant it. I use mint, sage, rosemary, thyme, dill, and curly parsley.
- Ground cover – I use strawberries because I love them and they send out their little runners and self-seed every year. What more can you ask for? I avoid plants like nasturtiums unless the forest covers a large area, because once they start, nasturtiums never stop growing.
- Vines – This level features your climbing plants – think kiwi fruit, grapes, and passionfruit. I’ve also planted melons, pumpkins, and cucumbers at this level.
- Roots – Shallow roots like garlic, onions, and potato are next. Plant these with some distance from your shrubs and trees, because you don’t want to disturb the roots of the plants of the other layers as you harvest. Also, consider perennial vegetables that grow year after year like a rocket.
You don’t have to have all of those levels in your forest. The number and type will depend on your size forest and what you want to grow.
Planning Your Food Forest
The main difference between a food forest and a garden is that a garden has distinct borders, plants are planted in rows and you need to constantly weed, fertilize and replant. You can forget all that with the food forest.
Planning a food forest can be a time-consuming process, but better to plan well than to discover you didn’t establish your layout properly. Determine which plants will grow in your area and plan accordingly.
Draw a map of your area and sketch the plants you want and where they’ll go. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, you’re only looking to create a rough guide.
Remember though, this is a long term project, just like a real forest. Plant the layers once the previous layer has established, or plant hardy plants before more delicate ones. You may want to skip layers and return later.
Select an Area
First, decide where you want to plant your forest. Remember, permaculture and food forests are meant to be a permanent thing. Imagine planting an entire forest and then, once it’s established, moving it. That’s impossible.
Ideally, you’ll pick a spot that isn’t shaded by other mature trees or tall buildings. You also want to avoid swampy areas, unless you plan on focusing on water-loving plants. You’ll also need to consider wind – if you get hit from the north frequently, you may want to plant a windbreak to mitigate it.
I chose a small corner of my property to experiment with and changed multiple times before getting the technique and planting right. I still have traditional gardens as well because I enjoy both, and because my food forest still has a way to go to be truly self-sustainable.
Prepare the Soil
In a food forest, the larger trees drop their leaves, as in a natural forest. Other plants also add nutrients to the soil through their roots. As a result don’t need to remove leaves and spent plants and then add fertilizer, as you might in a modern garden. The leaves and plants are a natural fertilizer.
In the short term, when you’re getting started, ensure your soil is well-fed and healthy. I dug in well-rotted animal manure, old leaves, and straw. The next step is to cover the ground in the mulch. I use straw and peat.
Choose your Plants
Consider the plants on all seven levels and what your goals are in creating your food forest. A food forest to feed a family is smaller and has different plants than one to feed a community. Also, keep in mind the foods your family likes to eat or the ones you want to sell at the market.
Plan to use different size trees such as large pecan trees and smaller mulberry bushes. Underplant with smaller shrubs and then at ground level, plants like herbs, mushrooms, lettuce will thrive in the partial shade and rich soil.
You have to make sure that the plants you use for your food forest are suitable for your zone. Think about the length of seasons and temperature variations. You should also walk around local forests and see what grows naturally. Use these as inspiration for the plants you choose. For instance, if you see blackberries growing in the forest, choose cultivated blackberries for your food forest.
Consider Additional Water
Although this sounds contradictory when creating a self-sustaining environment, I set up irrigation in my garden for a couple of reasons. I live in a hot and dry area and any young garden – no matter how well planned – wouldn’t survive without extra watering. I’ll remove my drip system once the forest is established, but I put one in place to help things get started. If you live in an area that rains frequently, skip this step.
If you have the time and resources, set up a natural system by allowing the water to drain naturally from your roof or driveway and divert it to your forest.
Plan Roads and Paths
This is a vital step in your planning. You don’t want to trample your plants as you move through your forest. I simply laid old bricks down that I had sitting around. I didn’t make elaborate footpaths – a path that meanders through the area is all you need.
This is the real beauty of a food forest. Pests are taken care of with little to no intervention from you. It doesn’t take long for predatory insects to move in to handle pests. Since you’re mimicking mother nature, issues like molds and mildews tend not to take hold. The forest feeds itself naturally so the soil stays healthy.
The only thing I have never been able to prevent is snails and slugs, so I have to remove and squash them manually because I don’t want to use any chemicals.
Planting a Food Forest
Lay out your infrastructure first. Put any water, pathways, and any structures – such as trellises – you plan to include in place first. Next, clear the space and enrich the soil to prep it for plants.
Now it’s time to plant. You can plant everything at once or start with a few layers and go from there. If you decide on the latter, which is the easier way to go, pick a few hardy fruit trees and let them get established. Later, add shrubs and vines. Finish off with herbs, ground cover, and roots. This is a long term project so let the plants get established and begin the natural cycle before moving forward.
Finally, it’s time to get your plants in the ground. Space the plants in the bottom layers further apart than you might otherwise, since these plants won’t get as much sunlight as they would in a row planted system.
The Last Word on Food Forests
I see a food forest as a great experiment and a chance to get the family involved. In my food forest, I plant some smaller annuals, but if you want a true food forest with no intervention, only plant perennials.
It helps to remember this is a long term self-sustainable project. Don’t go out and buy all the plants you want for all seven layers. Start small. Let plants establish themselves and add as you go. the forest or do as I do and use both. It really is a rewarding way to grow food.