Temperate Climate Food Forests | Part 1 – What is a food forest?On October 27, 2019 by Vlad9 min read
Ever since we moved on our homestead we wanted to have a food forest on our property. Food forests make great use of space and, by using permaculture principles they maximize the yield of your growing space while also creating a self-sustaining ecosystem. I’ve always believed that gardening should be more about working with nature than against it, so I’ve always wanted to create a food forest that will look after itself, give me massive amounts of edibles and medicinals plants, all while improving the local biodiversity.
With that in mind, we took the decision to slowly convert our traditional orchard into a food forest. Most food forests take a few years to establish and although we have a head start with our mature orchard trees, I think I will take my time with this project and constantly add more species in our food forest with each passing season.
What is a food forest?
Unlike most gardening styles, the food forest movement did not start out of the need for a more efficient garden, but rather as a way to return fertility to our gardens. Food forests were a common agroforestry practice in tropical climates since prehistory. It was only in the 1980s when Robert Hart coined the term food forest after trying to mimic the abundance of the tropical food forests in a temperate climate.
Looking at the lush forest and woodland biomes in tropical regions one thing is abundantly clear: you can get higher, more diverse and healthier harvests than what you get from a conventional mono-culture agricultural garden or even a poli-culture garden. One of the most obvious reasons is plant density. While conventional gardens make use of only two space dimensions (length and width) food forests also access the third dimension (height).
Trying to mimic the forest ecosystem in a way helpful to us, lead to what we know today as food forests. Man-made ecosystems that combine a huge variety of edible, medicinal and otherwise helpful plants, such as wildlife attractors or nitrogen fixers. Making use of companion planting, a multitude of growing layers and symbiotic relations to create a self-tending high-yield garden.
Food forests are amazing at taking care of themselves. Most species planted in a food forest are either perennials or native annual plants that have no problem self-seeding each season. A mature food forest also provides enough biomass from its ground cover species and deciduous leaves to self fertilize and mulch.
What nature taught us about food forests
All our knowledge about food forests comes from observing the natural ecosystems around us. Looking at a woodland or a forest, you can see that some species are shared, others are unique. But whatever the case, they all live in symbiosis. They all make the best of their environment. Shade-loving plants will always grow under trees, mushrooms will decompose dead wood and leaves and the list goes on. All members of an ecosystem both help and benefit from their companion plants.
Similarly, when building a food forest you’ll want to create as many symbiotic relationships as possible. Some will need your input, like adding mulch or planting a nut tree, others will come voluntarily, like snails, bugs, birds, grasses, fungi etc. You won’t have to run to the store to buy springtails or ladybugs, just create a good habitat for them, and nature will take its course.
One of the first things that we learned about food forests is the importance of layers. Again, by observing nature, the pioneers of the food forest movement identified seven vertical layers within the woodland ecosystem. These range from tall trees such as nuts or oaks to groundcover crops and even roots. We’ll dive more into this a bit later.
Modern-day mechanized agriculture has proven to degrade habitats severely. One of the main culprits is for this are mono-crops. Biodiversity is key for having a healthy, sustainable and resilient ecosystem. By increasing the number of species in our garden or food forest, we help create hundreds of symbiotic relationships that help plants though it out in rough conditions. For example, having a good mycelium network under your mulch will help trees get access to water from further apart.
Benefits of having a food forest
If nature is so good at creating abundance, why don’t we just abandon gardening all together? Well, that’s because we want to encourage the growth of useful plants. The whole idea behind food forests is to have a low-maintenance way of producing food and other helpful products. So it’s our job to bring in a diversity of useful plants and integrate them correctly into the habitat.
That’s the first and the main benefit of a food forest: you control what species you bring in. So no matter who you are or what you like to eat or drink, you can make use of the food forest to grow more of what you love. Do you like apples? Then plant apples. Nuts? No problem. Blueberries? Go nuts!
The second big benefit of having a food forest is the low-maintenance and man-hours you have to put in, compared to your yields. Plants that correctly fit into the habitat you plant them in, will naturally reseed, multiply and further improve the habitat around them, without any input on your behalf, other than planing and planting them. Perennial plants will re-grow from their stocks, annuals will flower and drop their seeds, mushrooms will spread, ground-covers will crawl, bushes will take over, doing most of the heavy work. Only requiring your occasional pruning and mulching.
Having a food forest near your house will also improve your living conditions. The trees will provide shade, give you fresh oxygen and filter the dust and fine particles from the air. They also help protect against noise pollution and replace it with bird songs. If you’re just starting out a food forest, you can also position big trees to block a view you don’t like (like an ugly building or road) or to provide a windbreak for your property.
And most importantly, having a food forest is therapeutical. Having a nice natural setting to chill out every summer day, maybe string a hammock and read a book, gives you peace of mind.
The 7 layers of a food forest
It’s time to dive in deeper on what it takes to make a food forest and what’s the deal with the seven layers I mentioned earlier. The seven layers of a food forest are: the canopy layer (think about big trees that could tower above an orchard such as walnuts or chestnuts, the lower tree layer (this includes most fruit trees that don’t grow big enough to be part of the canopy layer), the shrub layer (our favourite layer! berries and currants would fit in this layer), the herbaceous layer (vegetables, flowers, perennials), the groundcover layer (strawberries or other edible plants that spread horizontally, the underground layer (roots and tubers). Some food forests might also include the eighth layer by adding in vines that grow vertically and climb on trees.
I could go ahead and add a list of plants for each layer, but I have something better for you! There is a free 7000+ plant species database with an amazingly detailed search that will allow you to pick the best few hundred species for your location and climate. I’ll go in greater detail with what species we will add to our forest in part 2 of this series.
The canopy layer
Each layer has it’s purpose and fills in space on the vertical axis, which is not exploited in other gardening methods. The tallest trees in a food forest, provide the most shade and are great at attracting birds. More tall trees will mean less sunlight reaching the lower levels, so take this into account when planning. Also worth to mention that you should always take into consideration the full size of the tree at maturity, which is often much bigger than the “10-year size” you find on labels.
The small tree layer
The small tree layer of the food forest is probably the most iconic one. An abundant orchard filled with a variety of fruit-bearing trees, nuts, and nitrogen fixers. In our case, we already have an orchard with apples, plums, pears, cherries, and sour cherries. But you don’t need to have an orchard to start a food forest. Some say you can start with as little as three closely planted trees. A nitrogen fixer and two fruit trees.
The shrub layer
Underneath these small trees, the light conditions are just perfect for a lot of shrubs, such as berries or currants. Aside from the delicious fruits for breakfasts, smoothies, and pies, this layer will provide an amazing habitat for all sorts of beneficial insects and plenty of food and nesting spaces for birds. This, in turn, will help protect the food forest from harmful insects. All things considered, this is not intended to be a pest-free environment. If something is not eating a plant in your garden, it’s not part of the ecosystem.
The herbaceous layer
This layer is the most diverse and abundant layer in a food forest. Here you can find flowers that bring in pollinators, vegetables, and herbs for tasty food, medicinal plants, and mulch producers. Both perennial plants such as mint or asparagus and annual plants that can easily re-seed, such as dill or marigolds are found in this layer.
The groundcover layer
Tiny crawling plants that like to spread horizontally are both a great habitat for insects and worms and a natural much layer that shades the ground from the Sun. These ground hugger plants will slowly invade your food forest and stop most weeds from growing, replacing them with something you can make use of.
The underground layer
Plants such as garlic or potatoes can be grown in food forests, just make sure not to pick anything that requires too much digging to harvest, since you don’t want to disturb the other plant roots.
Starting our food forest
There’s a lot more we have to share on the topic of food forests and plenty of amazing books you can read on the subject. We already started working on converting our orchard to a food forest and we’ll share more in-depth tips as we progress with our project. In future parts, I will try to provide more insight into the thought process that went behind the species we chose and the results we got.
I hope this piece helped you get a better grasp of what forests are all about, but this is just the tip of the iceberg! If you have any questions, leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.