Managing food 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.
One of the most sustainable, long term ways of getting food out of your yard is by developing food forest. Starting a food forest can seem like a complicated thing, but really once you have designed the main layout, you can continue to keep adding to your food forest over the coming months and years.
WHAT IS A FOOD FOREST?
A food forest is built of seven layers.
Low tree layer
Root crop layer
A food forest mimics a forest edge that is 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. Correspondingly, smaller trees peek out from underneath the tall trees to catch the sun’s rays.
Shrubs step farther out into the sunshine, along with herbs, flowers, and ground covers blanketing the sunniest edge.
THE CANOPY LAYER
This layer is made up of the tallest trees in your food forest.
The trees that are the tallest will obviously change based on how much size you are working with.
If you have some space to work with, your trees can be very tall like the Live Oak trees we have all around the north and central Florida.
But if you’re only working with a small backyard, something like a loquat or bananas might be your canopy layer.
LOW TREE LAYER
These are trees that are smaller than your tallest trees. They like the support the bigger tree gives them.
Depending on how big your canopy layer is, they could be things like apples, Figs or mulberries.
This layer is useful for nitrogen-fixing plants.
They are beneficial bug attractors that provide natural food. These get tucked in and around your two tree layers.
Plants to use could be things like cassava or blueberries.
This is where you can get lots of herbs or veggies planted. These get tucked into any space that you have left.
Things like basil, ginger, and longevity spinach are perfect for this layer.
ROOT CROP LAYER
Lots of things that you can plant as your ” herbaceous layer” are also part of your root crop layer.
Things like carrots count as both. Sweet potatoes are a root layer crop but also a ground cover and a vine!
So there is some flexibility to all of these layers.
GROUND COVER LAYER
The ground cover layer really helps protect the ground. It acts as a living mulch and helps the sandy Florida soil stay protected from the hot sun. Sweet potatoes and mint are super easy options to grow as your ground cover.
This layer creeps up and grows on your trees, shrubs and any other support you provide.
This layer maximizes space.
A vining layer could be grapes, passion fruit or the versatile sweet potato again!
A healthy forest doesn’t need humans to weed or fertilize.
An example food forest might include chestnut trees as a tall canopy tree layer. Apple trees grow below the chestnut trees.
Meanwhile, currant bushes grow as an understory layer beneath the apple trees.
A host of edible herbs and mushrooms grow underneath, and perhaps even grapevines use the apple trees as trellises.
The Benefits of an Edible Perennial Forest Garden
Perennial gardens don’t disturb the soil regularly as annual gardens do. Rather, they continually enrich the soil with organic matter as leaves fall and plants die back for the winter. Consequently, the food forest model can help to restore land, biodiversity, and habitat while creating an edible yield.
A forest is one of the earth’s most stable ecosystems, and if we can mimic this ecosystem as a food production strategy. Meaning, we get all of the ecological benefits of a forest PLUS food.
There are many benefits to starting a food forest at your place, or in a community garden. Some of these benefits are as follows:
- Produces food with minimal input
- Produces forage for animals and serves as habitat for beneficial insects, pollinators, chickens, goats, and songbirds
- Creates a valuable wildlife habitat
- Provides nourishment and medicine for us through herbal teas and concoctions
- Creates beauty and sense of well being, a lovely place to go and spend time
- Creates shade and increase ambient humidity in hot dry summers
- Becomes a self-sustaining ecosystem
Things To Consider When Planning Your Food Forest…
Sun: You need to become familiar with your site, and your local area. Watch where the sun goes, where is sunny, where is the shade. How many hours of the sun do you get in midwinter?
Water: Where does your rainfall go. Do you have ponds, swampy areas, dry patches, rivers that develop in downpours?
Wind: Where is your predominant wind. How windy is your site, where are the sheltered spots.
Cold: How cold and icy/snowy does your site get. When is your first and last frost? How hot does it get, do you get droughts.
Plants: Look at your garden, which grows well. What struggles. Look at local forests or other backyards, what sort of plants and trees grow well there.
Formulate A Plan
Step One – Draw a Map
Either print off a google maps view of your section or draw a rough plan on some paper. Add measurements and things that you observed from step one.
Step Two– Make a Plan
In your plan, you need to put your non-movable things in first – access ways, gates, fences, ponds, swales (mounds of dirt designed to slow down run off the water), buildings/sheds, existing trees.
Food forests make the most of every layer and spot available to plants. Nature does not like the bare ground, any bare patches will grow weeds. So any gaps you simply cover in the deep mulch.
Step Three – Make a big list of plants
The types you really want to grow and others necessary to fulfill a certain purpose in your food forest. Think about ecological functions needed throughout the garden such as food production, the gathering, and retention of specific nutrients, beneficial insect nectar plants, and ground cover for weed control.
Annuals that self-seed are perfect to include in your food forest. You will need open-pollinated or heirloom varieties for this to work.
Create groups of plants that work well together. Try a nitrogen fixer tree between every two fruit trees. Then add some shrubs, berries, or nuts are good choices.
Next, something to grow lower down again such as comfrey or other herbs.
Step Four – Prepare your Land
If you need to get a digger in to move dirt or create paths or ponds NOW is the time to do so.
Look at creating swales on (or slightly off) contour – following what is level for your land. Ideally, these mounds of soil (anything from 1-4ft high) will catch the water as it runs on the ground and slows it down.
Then they can direct it towards a pond, or the next swale. This is a great way to ensure this precious resource stays on your land as much as possible and avoids the water washing away the topsoil and all its nutrients.
Step Five – Plant your Plants
Start slowly. This isn’t a race. Buy and obtain plants as you can afford them. Look into growing your own from seed, or grafting your own trees.
As you plant your trees and their surrounding plants, mulch the area deeply. The aim is to re-create that amazing forest floor. Thick with mulch, and teeming with fungal and bacterial life.
Watch and observe as your plants grow (or die) and change things as you need to. Some plants may do better elsewhere, others just won’t suit at all. Still, more will do wonderfully at your place and you can divide them and plant more of them around.
Understand that often nature knows best, and unless a weed is particularly invasive or annoying, it may just be filling a much-needed role right where it is, so try leaving it where it is.
Step Six– Harvest and Maintain your Food Forest
As your plants grow and develop you can harvest from them. Fruit and nut trees may need to be pruned to increase yields and encourage good growth habits. For the first few years, you will need to maintain a layer of mulch, but as the plants grow they will naturally start to mulch themselves.