Food Forest – Sustainable food production and low maintenance gardening
Since 1950, the Green Revolution -that is green only in its name- has made most people believe that the most productive way of producing food would be only through the massive use of machinery, chemical pesticides and fertilizers and huge farmlands of monoculture. But what if we had it all wrong?
Let’s say you are a farmer. As you learn in school, conventional farming is the only way to efficiently produce food and be economically viable. So you usually have to take out a loan, buy a big plot of land, a variety of machines, plant monoculture and harvest it easily with your fast machines.
But by using intensive monoculture, the plants get weaker, increasing the need to buy more pesticides to make them resistant to diseases and pests, while the soil becomes less fertile so you need to buy more fertilizer and seed them back every year.
After a few years, the land loses its biodiversity, rich soil, potential for retention of water, while the nearby water is polluted and you can hardly pay back the loan you did to buy and the machinery and products… sometimes only thanks to the state subsidies if it provides one!
This might sound exaggerated but it’s the hard truth that many farmers are currently struggling with.
But what if there is a more productive system that permits the growth of more food on a smaller piece of land, by keeping a strong biodiversity and regenerating the soil and ecosystem, all without using machinery, pesticides and fertilizers? It exists, and it is called a food forest!
What is a food forest?
A food forest, also called a forest garden, is a diverse planting of edible plants that attempts to mimic the ecosystems and patterns found in nature. Food forests are three-dimensional designs, with life-extending in all directions – up, down, and out. It’s a high-level permaculture (permanent agriculture) design.
Where does it come from?
Forest gardening is a prehistoric method of securing food in tropical areas. In the 1980s, Robert Hart coined the term “forest gardening” after adapting the principles and applying them to temperate climates.
How does it work?
We estimate that there are in average 7 layers in a forest, and so in a Food Forest we try to make these layers as useful as possible :
1) The overstory or canopy layer, composed of fruit and nut trees.
2) The understory or lower tree layer, composed of dwarf fruit trees.
3) The shrub or bush layer, composed of currants and berries.
4) The herbaceous layer, composed of perennial herbs and veggies.
5) The rhizosphere layer, composed of root crops.
6) The soil surface layer, composed of ground cover crops.
7) The vertical layer, composed of vine or climbers.
Why is it useful?
Forest garden design can reduce inputs of agrochemical products and improve nutrient and water retention in various ways, including :
- Placing emphasis on trees, shrubs, perennials, and self-seeding annuals,
- Planting thickly and using ground covers to shade the soil and suppress weeds,
- Utilizing nitrogen-fixing and nutrient-accumulating plants, chop-and-drop techniques, and returning organic wastes to the land to create healthy soil (by making compost, biochar or hugelkulture) rather than applying fertilizer.
- Planting a diverse array of plants that attract beneficial insects to pollinate the fruit crops and keep pest populations from exploding and causing damage,
- Utilizing several ground-shaping techniques to retain rainwater on the site,
- Designing the placement of plants to create micro-climates thanks to solar tarps and windbreakers effects.
A food forest does not have to be re-planted year after year. Once it is established, it is generally very resilient.
The total production of the garden is greater than the output of a monoculture of any one of its layers could be. This is due to but not limited to:
- The beneficial effect of such diversity on the health of the plants
- Forest garden makes maximum use of the resources available.
A recently rediscovered ancient technique that convinced many people!
Numerous permaculturalists are proponents of forest gardens, or food forests, such as Graham Bell, Patrick Whitefield, Dave Jacke, Eric Toensmeier and Geoff Lawton. Bell started building his forest garden in 1991 and wrote the book The Permaculture Garden in 1995, Whitefield wrote the book How to Make a Forest Garden in 2002, Jacke and Toensmeier co-authored the two-volume book set Edible Forest Gardens in 2005, and Lawton presented the film Establishing a Food Forest in 2008.
Here is an example by James Prigioni, who transformed his backyard garden into a food forest in 5 years :
Any other advice?
Yes, there are a few :
- For a successful food forest, the plants selected to compose the layers should be native to the region you want to build the forest.
- You should learn about the intercropping (companion planting) principles to place plants that collaborate better together closer to each other.
- Be careful with the kind of tree you use for the canopy. You need to have a light shade to avoid bad weeds growing but trees that cast heavy shades, such as chestnut, should be avoided in a food forest.
- A healthy ecosystem will take several years to establish itself, especially in a city or open farm area. You have to be patient and let nature run its course. (While providing the necessary food, water, and optimal habitat for all the components of the ecosystem).
What about the animals? Won’t they eat all the food??
Some animals might come and munch some of the edible plants, but most species will not, as the plants won’t be palatable to them or will be out of their reach.
Not only will they usually grow right back, since many will be perennials and have healthy underground systems, but the trees, shrubs, and vines should be undamaged.
For more insurance for ground-level plants, you can use a chicken tractor system to decide where the chicken will have access in the Food Forest.