Building a food forest begins with looking at how wild woodland ecosystems can be enhanced by careful selection and inter-planting of berry bushes, fruit and nut trees, shrubs, herbs, vines, and perennial vegetables.
With a larger vision, a food forest can also offer materials and resources like fiber, teas, cooking herbs, medicine, dyes, building materials, firewood, and hideouts for small animals and kids.
History of Food Forests
Though food forests have gained popularity over the last few decades, the idea is rooted in ancient methods and traditions. Native Americans propagated millions of fruit and nut trees in the southeast United States for generations and enjoyed a rich, high-calorie mix of nuts and dried fruits for winter sustenance and travel.
In highland New Guinea, settlers replanted the best wild bananas approximately 40,000 years ago. Today, forest tribes in India harvest hundreds of wild foods, all rich in essential micronutrients. An agronomist in Ghana developed a year-round, forest-based food system that starts with a grassy sub-Saharan savannah of tall African acacias. Each climate area is unique and has its own needs.
Why Aren't There More Food Forests in the World?
In a food forest, food-bearing trees and shrubs add plentiful habitat for pest-devouring birds and wildlife and for beneficial insects and pollinators. Trees provide cooler conditions in summer and shelter from beating rains that wash out nutrients.
So, what’s not to love? Several things. First, forget about instant gratification. A forest garden thrives slowly. It’s best to start with some native trees and gently cultivate around them. You don’t want to damage the great soil, colonized by fungi and microorganisms, that has developed undisturbed over time under those old trees.
Second objection: a food forest is complex. There’s a lot to learn to maximize productivity. Boost results with careful planning, constant learning, and compulsive tweaking to get it closer to right. And any move you make toward establishing appropriate perennial food plants is sure to yield either great results or a good lesson in what won’t work.
Third, and possibly most challenging, is that success takes a new way of thinking, especially if you’ve been gardening or farming for some years. Most of us struggle to claim new ways to view familiar things.
Food Forests: Where to Start
So, where to start? Picking the right site makes a huge difference but any land can be upgraded mightily with your input. In a new place, bring in as much free mulch as you can claim.
"First, forget about instant gratification. A forest garden thrives slowly. It’s best to start with some native trees and gently cultivate around them."
While that’s happening, talk with old gardeners with local experience. Listen. Walk around the place. Help with a project. Ask questions:
- What works around here?
- Is it hot enough for melons?
- How about apricots? Walnuts?
- Have any nasty pests?
- Got wild turkeys? Feral pigs? Snakes?
Old-timers love telling stories about how they learned to make it all work. Then go home and study. In addition, the World Wide Web pulses with inspiration, facts and figures, great ideas, and videos by successful practitioners.
Online, I came across forest farming pioneer Robert Hart’s description of the seven levels of the forest garden, which are as follows:
7 Levels of the Forest Garden
Start at the top with an open canopy of big native, or fruit and nut trees
With luck, in addition to nuts, blossoms or fruit, some will also provide sweet sap to collect. Where I am in Oregon, we have native maples, black cottonwoods, white oaks and several types of fir around us, and we grow food near and beneath them.
So, what’s all the hype about natives? Local insects, birds, wildlife and soil biomes have evolved along with those trees to create thriving, symbiotic relationships that enhance survival by sharing food, shelter and protection. Plus, native plants and trees do well with neglect. They need no fertilizers, no careful pruning, and no pest control or weeding.
Second comes the understory—trees that thrive in filtered sunlight
Well-chosen small or dwarf fruit and nut trees fit the bill here. Apples, cherries, wild plums, Italian prunes, figs, and pears do well in partial shade on our bit of Oregon earth. This year we’ll add some new small hazelnut cultivars. Since elderberries grow on the edge of nearby forests, they too could be worth planting.
Below the small trees, shrubs and bushes thrive
We have excellent outcomes with rhubarb, raspberries, rosemary, wild currants, and blueberries. To keep birds from devouring all the blueberries, we hang an obscene number of old CDs that flash as they twirl in the breeze. Elsewhere, I’ve seen silver mylar ribbons dancing among the ripening cherries.
For the knee-high level, plant perennial vegetables, leafy greens and herbs
We get good production from parsnips, parsley, French sorrel, marjoram, golden oregano, collards, sages, winter squash and more. Kales and chard do fine with three or four hours a day of sunshine. On the east side go for celery, carrots, and bush beans that prefer morning sun and afternoon shade
Ground covers grow low and spread horizontally
My favorite is a hardy violet, with flowers and leaves rich in vitamin A and great in salads. Tough and tasty mints are so invasive they’re best planted in pots. The borage family has edible blossoms and the leaves are a good spinach substitute when steamed, but can be toxic in large quantities. Borages thrive in shade but want to take over. To slow that, I yank off leaves to use as mulch, rich in minerals brought up by long taproots.
Fruit trees especially appreciate a nitrogen-fixing ground cover. All the bean family of legumes, alfalfa, clover, and such have bacterial nodules on their roots where atmospheric nitrogen is converted to the nitrogen molecules plants need to produce proteins that build their bodies.
Tubers and underground edible roots come next
Bulbs—alliums like leeks, chives, shallots etc. of the onion clan, plus edible day lilies and hardy daffodil and iris corms— provide ground cover, forage and flowers. For the bees, in sunnier areas add bergamot, oregano, sage, marjoram, thyme, rosemary and other flowering herbs. The big job of the bulbs is to absorb excess nitrogen in spring, when it harms trees.
Climbing vines can hide ugly spots, give needed shade, and provide food while conserving space
Edible leaves are common in vines that like shade. Hops and grapes need some sun. Climbing beans and peas, and outdoor cucumbers do well with morning shade and afternoon sun from the west.
Some shady-land growers swear by reflective mulches to brighten things up under trees. Most agree that trimming tree branches up fairly high up works to let in more light. The real challenge is to choose plants that like the conditions you can offer and that nurture complete and balanced ecosystems.
The long-term goal is to get closer to the infinite complexity of nature’s own system for recycling all nutrients, perfectly attuned to the seasons, with in a community of strong protective interdependencies that block invaders.
Add some wood ash if soil is too acidic. Put all food scraps, all you prune from plants, and ground litter back into the soil. When trees disrobe in fall, gather every leaf and mulch deeply.
Sure, it takes time. And you can start today with one rhubarb root-ball or a single berry plant under a tree, and grow your ambitions. Books on soil science set you up for success.
My favorite dirt-lover’s primer is Teaming with Microbes, by Jeff Lowenfels.
Soil Science Simplified by Neal S. Eash is another good one.
On creating a forest garden, try Robert Hart as mentioned, Dave Jacke, Martin Crawford, or Toby Hemenway. For perennial vegetables, the guru is Eric Toensmeier.
While focusing on marvelous cultivars, don’t ignore the hardy survivalists most call weeds. Loving your weeds is a sure strategy for upping more than food production.
Strongly flavored dandelion greens, and a long list of regional edible weeds, deliver far higher vitamin and mineral levels than their mild, tender garden descendants that have been bred for monoculture farming, tender tongues, and easy transport.
I make salads that include young curly dock leaves, purslane, watercress, sedums, nasturtiums, calendulas, chickweed, wild scallions, wild sorrels and mustards, and other locals in spring.
Trees are part of nature’s systems. So why not make them part of your own? Growing fine fruits and nuts can be as easy as choosing good stock, planting at a time and place that will meet tree needs, and keeping an eye on saplings for a few years.
You may need deer protection too. Our little apple tree—a gift from a friend eight years back—is a joy, giving us all the crispy sweet fruit we can consume plus some for the squirrels and deer too.
We are drowning in raspberries in June, figs and blackberries in August, and plums plus a second crop of raspberries in September, but we never have enough blueberries, pears, or cherries. I wish we’d planned with a bit more foresight, but if you’re starting out you can remedy that from the outset.
Do Your Homework
First step when you want to try something new is due diligence. Nursery ads and colorful catalogs can mislead. You need to know what thrives where you are.
Visit lots of websites, hang around local tree nurseries, chat with your extension agent. Your local insects, birds, air quality, microclimate, and weather cycles hold unique challenges and the people who have been at it for a while are your best advisors.
Keep in mind that real success, in working with nature or any other complex community, comes easiest when you work with Mother Nature. She teaches us to be diverse, nimble, fact-based, and not bound by ideology.