What comes to mind when you hear the word “Food Forest”? Does it sound alien to you, or can you assume something? Well, first, let me clear up the biggest misconception that forests and food forests are the same. No, both are two different verticals with some similarities.
Forests are a natural ecosystem that functions without human intervention. Whereas food forests are man-made and it is a significant part of permaculture.
But technically, how does a regular forest differ from a food forest? Do food forests impact biodiversity? I am aware you will have a lot more questions.
No worries, I will walk you through everything you must learn about food forests, their origin, and how they benefit the living beings on Earth, and I will also address the misconceptions.
What is a Food Forest? How is it Different from Forests?
Normal forests naturally exist on their own in a lush, abundant state with a richness of biodiversity. No human intervention is needed, and everything happens automatically.
But you can’t claim every nook and corner is edible, isn’t it? Also, the forest doesn’t necessarily grow to feed people or animals.
Now imagine the same lush, rich and abundant forest resources that are edible and feed human beings and balances biodiversity. Amazing right?
We can replicate the natural systems and patterns by designing and constructing our own forests that grow trees and plants that produce food.
For instance, food forests do not naturally have rivers or streams flowing through them. So they are watered and controlled by humans through a robust permaculture design.
There was a permaculture experiment done by Jeoff Lawton and Dr. Elaine Ingham on planting trees and greening the desert.
Dead Sea Valley was not only a desert but also full of salt because it received about 2” of rain annually. This desert was made a lot greener using permaculture methods and trees to provide shade and protection.Just to say it can be done even in the desert, then what’s stopping your imagination to think that it can be done in your locality.
A food forest is also widely known as a forest garden or permaculture forest. It comprises diverse planting of edible plants that try to imitate the ecosystems and patterns found in nature. Food forests are created to produce food for humans and everyone around in the ecosystem. In short, it’s a win-win system.
What Are The Food Forest Layers?
Food forest plants are planned and grown intentionally to look like a forest site. It uses trees and shrubs of different heights at different canopy levels to maximize production.
There are seven different food forest layers. In particular order, they are
- The canopy layer has large fruit and nut trees
- The Understory layer has smaller nut and fruit trees
- Shrubs have berries and large perennials
- The herbaceous layer has the herbs and plants
- The rhizosphere or the root zone grows the root crops such as Cassava, sweet potato, etc.
- The groundcover layer has clover and strawberries
- Vines are the last layer that involves climbing yarrow,tarro etc.
These food forest layers encourage growth and prevent plants from failing to grow because of competition for nutrients.
But do understand that food forests necessarily don’t need to have all seven layers.
Rows of trees are not food forests; rather it is an orchard. Also, rows of trees with rows of other plants alternating between them are not food forests. It’s called orchards employing intercropping. If you find trees with some other plant grown underneath, again, they aren’t food forests. They are orchards with under-planting.
Permaculturists have designed these forests to have their own ecosystem and live on their own without much human indulgence.
Types of Food Forests
Just like how natural forests come in a variety of types, food forests come in three main types.
- Oak Savanna type of food forest
- Recovering Forest type of food forest
- Mature Forest type of food forest
If you plan to start edible food forests, you must learn about each type in depth.
How is a Farm Different From a Food Forest?
The act of working the ground, planting seeds, and growing edible plants in a repeated process is called farming. But think of deforestation, excessive use of agrochemicals, poor soil conditions and living conditions, and hygiene for livestock. This is what regular farming leads to, and it’s human-intensive.
Unlike farming, a food forest doesn’t require planting yearly. Once it is established and given basic support, it will nourish and cherish itself with time.
It doesn’t require any chemicals to grow plants. Rather, it enhances biodiversity, has natural pest control, and easily repairs soil on its own.
How do Food Forests Impact Biodiversity?
Have you seen forests with only one type of plant species? Technically, you won’t call it a forest, right?
Nature loves biodiversity more than monocultures. So mixing different types of plants together makes them grow better. Also, biodiversity brings nutrition, soil health, and climate resilience and thus helps every living organisms survive better.
Food forests create natural ecosystems where the tree roots help store carbon in the soil and thus improve nutrient circulation. And since the soil remains covered, it prevents water loss and erosion.
Overall, natural synergy is created, making the soil healthy soil, more resistant to pests and diseases, and more productive.
How do Food Forests Relate to Permaculture?
The permaculture concept mainly focuses on working with nature instead of against it. That said, permaculture here entails its design strategies for approaching land management more aligned with nature.
Food forests help achieve many goals of permaculture, such as regenerative agriculture and creating a more resilient piece of land. Besides, permaculture forests produce food with maximum nutrition in abundance.
How Much Land is needed For a Permaculture Food Forest?
A permaculture food forest can be designed to grow in any available space. These food forest gardens can be small enough to sustain your family, or they can be operated for commercial purposes.
- If it’s a backyard-scale food forest to feed your family, you need 1/30th of an acre per person. This comes to around 1450 square feet or 38 by 38 feet.
- Homestead scale food forests need 1/10 acre to a 1 acre stretch of land or bigger.
- Small farm-scale food forests can be of any size, from 1 acre and bigger.
Food forests or permaculture forests highly depend on a healthy ecosystem. But a healthy ecosystem takes several years to establish itself, especially if you are planning for a backyard food forest. However, food can be harvested from 6 months onwards. It’s all in the planning according to local needs.
So I recommend you to be patient and give time for nature to figure out things on its own while we continue to give the basic food for all the components of the ecosystem. You will be amazed what 2 years can do for a planned food forest.
Managing forests mainly for their edible benefits to humans is not a new concept. It is an ancient practice, with evidence and existing food forests having been found in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
But permaculturists have been responsible for the increased popularity of food forests over the last decade. Being a permaculturist consultant, I am excited about my journey of creating a better sustainable planet and educating and creating more awareness about the same.
Food forests are well known to perform on social-cultural and environmental criteria by building capacity, providing abundant food, enhancing biodiversity, and healing soil. So they contribute to sustainability.
Hopefully, this blog clears up some confusion about food forests.