Food Forests - Design modern solutions from ancient traditions

Friday, July 15, 2011 by: Isaac Harkness
Tags: food forest, gardens, health news

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(NaturalNews) The human practice of growing food from and amongst the trees goes back millennia. There are examples of food forests, or forest gardens, in Vietnam and Morocco stretching back hundreds and thousands of years respectively. Much of the east coast of North America was managed this way by the native peoples before the arrival of Columbus. Forest gardening is the most sustainable and ecological way of producing food known to man. In the past 30 years, forest gardening has become popular thanks to the efforts of dedicated people.

Forest gardening is not about just taking your annual vegetable garden and putting it into the forest. It is about designing a system based upon productive trees as the primary source of food. These include fruit and nut trees, and trees that nurture or support them. A forest garden can contain berry bushes and other shrubs. The understory contains plants such as herbs, mushrooms and vegetables that are shade or partially shade tolerant. These plants form guilds (mutually beneficial groups of plants) with the trees and shrubs to create connections that strengthen the overall resiliency of the system and to lessen or eliminate the need for outside inputs.

This is something that can be done in a backyard. These principals can be applied from small to large scale. An example of a backyard forest garden style guild is an apple tree with a ring of daffodils around the drip line and a ring of comfrey around that. Inside these rings can be planted dill, fennel, nasturtiums and yarrow. These plants will attract beneficial insects, accumulate nutrients from the soil to be deposited in their leaf litter, deter pests, mulch the ground, prevent moisture loss and erosion and suppress grass, which is harmful to apple trees. In amongst these plants will also grow dandelions, chicory, plantains and others that naturally spring up here too. Adding a nitrogen fixer such as alfalfa or clover is always a good idea as well. This guild is also successful with nectarine, peach and plum trees.

Work from the canopy down. Plan your canopy trees and then the shrub layer, then the understory herbaceous layer. As you decide which trees and shrubs you want, you can work out the spacing and plan which other plants you would like and see where they can go. Small open areas in the canopy are good as they maximize edge and allow light and air in. Remember to plan for the fully mature diameter of each tree in the canopy. Dwarf varieties are often better suited to backyards.

After a few years of establishment, the system begins to evolve on its own and to form all sorts of new connections between the elements. This is the key; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is mimicking natural ecology, and as you well know, no one goes out and waters or weeds in the forest; it seems to do pretty well. Once established, a largely perennial system will need minimal maintenance and virtually no outside inputs. This means no need to add fertilizer or water, to replant each year or to cultivate and disturb the soil and its life giving organisms.

It is designing for permanence and resiliency, for low input and for high total output systems with forest gardens. They are beautiful and relaxing, ecological and productive. People need to give nature a break by growing more food in this manner and at the same time by strengthening the health of our neighbourhoods, towns and bioregions.


Edible Forest Gardens, Volumes 1&2, Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier, Chelsea Green, 2005
Gaia`s Garden 2nd Edition, Toby Hemenway, Chelsea Green, 2009
Establishing a Food Forest, DVD, 85 minutes, presented by Geoff Lawton,
Forest Gardening, Wikipedia article

About the author

A teacher and permaculture designer, the author has traveled the world seeking and creating sustainable systems for self-sufficiency. Visit North of Superior Permaculture at

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