Create your own self-sufficient edible food forest to feed your family year-round.
Food forests are thought to be the world’s oldest form of land use and most resilient agroecosystem.
The concept conjures up in my mind beautiful Garden of Eden-like scenes of trees heavy-laden with fruit, birdsong and wildlife all around, and dappled light filtering through the trees. A utopian dream.
Food forests or forest gardening is a style of gardening that is based on the natural concept of the layers that we see in natural forests. On the ground we’d usually see composting leaves, moss and ground covers. The next layer would be bushes or shrubs, then above in the canopy layer we’d find taller trees and vines. It’s these same types of layers that make up a forest garden – the inspiration drawn directly from nature. One of the many benefits of growing a food forest is the large variety of food you can grow, and that, in the long-term, it can become a self-sustaining and low-input way to garden.
Based on permaculture principles, food forests are designed to work with nature, and for each plant to ideally have more than one use (for example, provide fruit to eat as well as leaves for mulch). By selecting these practical plants that serve multiple functions we build diversity in all the strata of the forest garden. Another permaculture principle employed is ‘closed loop’, in that what is produced on the land stays on the land, requiring minimal outside intervention.
Depending on the amount of space you have, you should be able to set up a food forest in some form, which, once established, can be incredibly productive. To begin with, figure out what size forest you can create based on how big your site is, how much sun it gets, and also what existing plants you have that could be incorporated into it. Once you’ve decided on these elements you can choose which fruit, berries, ground covers, and canopy trees will work best for it. Many people choose heritage or heirloom varieties of plants as they are known to be the hardiest (and often most interesting, e.g., purple carrots, or black tomatoes). It’s also important to select plants that you not only like to eat but that are naturally suited to your climate and your site.
As well as providing your family with sustenance, food forests also create a habitat for local wildlife, pollination, and add shade and privacy to your garden. They can also give you other products as well as food – firewood, mulch, seeds, materials for trellis, and can help to reduce water usage and regenerate the land.
A typical food forest is made up of seven layers of vegetation:
1. Tall canopy trees
This layer is made up of full-sized fruit, nut, and other useful trees, with spaces between each tree to let in plenty of light to the lower layers. Ideal trees include apple, pear, cherry, chestnut, quince, macadamia or walnut.
2. Lower layer canopy
This layer is usually made up of similar trees to the tall canopy layer but in dwarf varieties or naturally smaller fruit trees such as apricot, nectarine, bananas or persimmon.
If you are working with a limited area this layer can act as your top canopy.
This is the perfect layer for plants such as blackberry, blueberry, currants, raspberry, guava, lavender, or rose.
Try to lean towards ones that possess beneficial qualities such as attracting insects and birds, providing mulch, or adding nitrogen. You also want to choose ones that don’t mind living in the semi-shade.
4. Herbaceous layer
This layer is best for non-woody vegetation like vegetables, flowers, culinary herbs, and cover crops, as well as mulch-producers and other soil-building plants. Ideal types of plants include borage, comfrey, calendula, garden mint, lemongrass, marigold, oregano, and phacelia.
5. Ground cover
This layer comprises low, ground-hugging plants. These play a vital role in preventing weeds by occupying ground that would otherwise be taken over by invaders. Ideally, choose varieties that offer either food or habitat for beneficial wildlife, such as strawberries, nasturtium, clover, creeping thyme, ajuga, and verbena.
This vertical layer is made up of climbing plants that will use the tall trees as their climbing frame. Varieties include fruits such as kiwifruit, grapes, rockmelon, cucumber, passionfruit, and vining berries, and then those that are for wildlife, such as honeysuckle and trumpet flower.
7. Root crops
Ideally these plants should be either shallow-rooted or easy-dig types so as not to disrupt the roots of the other plants too much. Examples include garlic, onions, potatoes, chives, ginger, parsnip, and carrots.
If you take notice, all forests are places teeming with life, and so too will be your food forest – providing richness and biodiversity. Eventually your forest garden will produce its own ecosystem, with birds, insects, fungi and the like all working together. A forest garden is a long-term project but well worth the investment.