In Community Design, Contour Map Generator, Earthworks, Farming, Food, Food Forests, Homsteading, Land Design, Permaculture, Plants & Living Systems, Soil & Compost

“Food forest” – “forest garden” – “agroforestry” – if you grew up seeing farms with single-crop fields stretching away into the distance, these terms may provoke some cognitive dissonance! Just imagine: forest bathing in green-filtered sunlight, feeling stress melt away as you listen to birds above you…and then reaching out to harvest a buffet of luscious nuts, fruits, berries, herbs, fungi, and root crops.

Feel that primal tug? This is how Indigenous peoples lived for millennia, and how some still live. Food forestry is in our human DNA…and, using permaculture principles, you can use it to feed your family, produce food for winter, and possibly run a business!

 

So, What Is a Food Forest?

Put simply, a food forest is an intentionally-created, self-sustaining forest ecosystem that produces food for human use. It replicates the multiple layers of natural forests, with plants and animals in mutually supportive relationships. 

Food forests are found all over the world: one in Morocco is said to be more than 2,000 years old, and evidence points to the Amazon rainforest itself being a massive, ancient food forest; other ancient examples have been found in Nepal, Africa, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. With the rise of permaculture practice, you can find modern-day examples on nearly every continent, in both rural and urban settings. 

 

Food Is Just One of the Benefits

So why would you want a forest bursting with food just outside your door? The question answers itself, of course (smile), but there are many additional reasons. Here are just a few:

  • Temperature balance – if you’re on the high prairie, your food forest can act as a windbreak, buffering winter’s icy blasts and sheltering your property. If you’re in the city or suburbia, a food forest breaks the heat island effect in summer, shading and cooling your property as well as filtering air pollution. 
  • Water cycling – the plants in your food forest will take up rainwater in the soil and transpire it through their foliage, helping to reduce runoff, flooding, and erosion. Transpiration adds moisture to the air, and with large enough forests, can enhance the local weather pattern: as old settlers used to say, “Plant trees to bring rain.” 
  • Biodiversityyour food forest will provide habitat to birds and insects, even wildlife, providing pollinators and beneficial predators to snack on pests in your gardens, increasing their health and productivity. In fact, this is why farmers traditionally left hedgerows between their fields
  • Carbon sequestrationif you worry about climate change and wonder what you can do to make a difference, this is one answer! In just one year, a single mature tree can sequester 48 pounds of carbon dioxide in its roots.
  • Soil repairas a food forest sheds its leaves and dies back every fall, the dead foliage decomposes and rebuilds healthy humus, repairing depleted or eroded soil. You can speed up this process by chopping and dropping selected ground-cover plants…but we’ll get to that in another post.
  • Community-building and educationif you’re in an urban setting and looking to make your property a permaculture demo site, a food forest is your best ambassador. Verge founders Rob and Michelle Avis began this way, and many of our grads have followed their example! From creating a unique first impression to providing tempting snacks for passing pedestrians, a food forest can attract your neighbours and start productive conversations. 

 

So how can you begin designing your own food forest?

1. Identify Your Goal

Before you begin anything, sit down and ask: what sort of food forest do I want? Are you envisioning an orchard with small fruit and nut trees and perennial herbs and vegetables, a living grocery outside your back door? Are you dreaming of towering trees and abundant plant life…a forest where you could harvest timber as well as food? Or are you looking for a front-yard forest garden to be your permie-business billboard? Your design, your strategy, and your timeline will vary based on your answer. 

Next, look at your local ecosystem for inspiration; stroll through any wild parks or old-growth forests in your area. What are the native fruiting plants growing wild in your bioregion? They will be the most resilient, and you can use them as a basis for developing your own productive ecosystem. 

2. Evaluate Your Land

When you’re embarking on any permaculture design, the first step is simple: walk the property and observe. First, how much land are you working with; what are its assets and limitations? You can create a food forest at nearly any scale, but your constraints on a 160-acre farm in the wide open spaces will differ from those on a 1/10th-acre suburban lot, crisscrossed by utility cables, where you’re required to keep trees below X height.

Second, what are the location and contours of your property? Are you perched on a hill, nestled in a river valley, exposed on a wind-swept high prairie, or crowded next to a high-traffic sidewalk? Does your property slope downhill, or do you face hills on one or more sides? Where do you have maximum sun exposure or hillshade? All of these will affect the design of your forest garden and the plants best suited to your land. groundwater with glass ball

Third, does water enter your property, and if so, how? Is it in the form of roof runoff from precipitation, a creek or river, snowmelt and groundwater, or surface runoff tainted with your neighbours’ lawn treatments? Are there streams under your property, or are there utility pipes to beware of?  Your local municipality should be able to provide this latter info.

Next, where does the water go? Are there wet or dry spots, or barren slopes where water carries off topsoil? These can indicate microclimates, or places where soil restoration is needed.contour map generator image on ipad

Next, what is the state of your soil? Are you starting with rich dark humus, or does your shovel bounce off hard, compacted clay? It’s a good idea to do a soil test to identify the ratio of sand:silt:clay, and a percolation test to find the absorption rate of water into your soil.  

soil types in traysFinally, what are the climatic conditions of your property? Are you sitting in the cross-hairs of hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, or blizzards in season? This may affect where you place your food forest, how you fence it off, and how you arrange your water features.

Once you have a detailed understanding of your land, your soil, and the type of forest garden you want, it’s time to start mapping your property as it is. You can begin by contacting your local government for a plat map and sketching your observations directly on it, or by using Verge’s Contour Map Generator, which will help you to place your property within your greater watershed, see the slope of your land, identify where to put water-harvesting features, and more.
contour map generator plan

3. Plan Your Layers

When you’re replicating a forest ecosystem, it’s important to understand how a natural forest is structured! Wild woods usually include seven layers, from the towering canopy to the below-ground rhizomes. Your food forest design should follow the same general template, using plants that produce crops for human consumption (with variations, of course, depending on the size of your property). For example:

  • Canopy: tall fruit and nut trees such as oak, walnut, chestnut, beech, pinon pine, pecan, pawpaw, persimmon
  • Understory: dwarf fruit and nut trees such as apple, plum, peach, pear, cherry, fig, hazelnut, almond
  • Shrubs: berry bushes such as sea buckthorn, blueberries, raspberries, currants, gooseberries
  • Herbaceous plants: perennial or self-seeding annual herbs such as lemon balm, beebalm, echinacea, borage, comfrey, red clover, and more
  • Groundcovers: strawberries, creeping oregano and thyme, nasturtium, creeping violet, chickweed, purslane, and more. Also, edible fungi such as winecaps!
  • Roots: garlic, onion, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes
  • Climbing vines: grapes, passionfruit, sweet potato

4. Design Your Ecosystem

In conventional agriculture, struggle is the norm: you fertilise the soil, plant your plants, fight off pests and predators below and above the soil and in the air, and hope for a crop at the end.  A food forest, however, is completely different: it’s a self-sustaining ecosystem, where every element serves a purpose, and where pollinators and beneficial predators support your crops, with minimal to no struggle or chemical treatment. 

To achieve this, you need to select and group plants strategically, based on their roles in the ecosystem. For example, you would want to include:

  • Grass-suppressing bulbsthese plants multiply thickly to crowd out sod grass, repel pests, and protect against disease. Examples include leeks, onions, chives and garlic chives, daffodils, and iris.
  • Dynamic Accumulators – these plants have deep taproots that absorb minerals from different soil levels and draw them up into their leaves: these help to break up compacted soil and add mineral content to the topsoil when they die and decompose or are chopped up as green mulch. Comfrey, horseradish, dandelions and Daikon radish are examples.
  • Nitrogen Fixers – often considered “weeds,” these are nature’s first responders in helping to restore damaged soil. Absorbing nitrogen from the air through their leaves, they store it in their tissues and nodules on their roots, releasing it back to the soil when they die, or when you chop back their leaves as green mulch. Examples include trees such as locust, alder, and sea buckthorn, as well as bushes like Siberian pea, winterberry, and California lilac, and legumes such as groundnut, scarlet runner beans, lupines, and clover.
  • Insectariesthese are the plants that attract pollinators to your gardens. Sometimes showy and sweet-scented, they may also provide foliage for egg-laying or shelter for larvae. Examples include catalpa, plum, chokecherry, hawthorn, and elderberry trees, bee balm, cornflowers and chives, echinacea, milkweed, yarrow, and many more.
  • Soil Fumigants and Pest Repellentswhether by taste or smell, these plants discourage hungry pests such as insects, groundhogs and moles, and deer. Examples include marigolds, nasturtiums, daffodils, and alliums.

Time-tested groupings including plants from each of these categories, placed around a central tree, are known as guilds. For example, you may have an apple-tree guild, a walnut guild, and so forth. Learn more about Building Your Own Permaculture Fruit Tree Guild.

5. Sketch Out Your Design

Now that you know your land and the structure of a food forest, you can begin to craft your strategy and design. 

Water

This is always the first priority: ensuring your food forest has the water it needs to thrive. That involves sourcing, storing, moving, and finally sinking the water into the soil where it’s needed. Using your property map, chart a path for swales, hugel berms, snow fences or other water-harvesting devices, set on contour, to transport and sink water from the highest point of your property to the lowest. 

(See how one farmer used a snow fence as a water-harvesting device here:) OR – (If your water source is at the lowest point of your property, such as in a stream, you may need the help of a ram pump).

Access

Whether your food forest is a section of your backyard or a portion of your acreage, you’ll need access paths or roads to navigate it. Be sure to include them in your design now! Factor in the mature width of your trees or shrubs to be sure you or your vehicle will have space to manoeuvre, and place your roads along ridgelines, so water will drain off quickly. 

Edge Effect

Now that you know how the water will flow across the area you’ve designated for your food forest, you can lay out your actual planting…but where should you begin?

One of the reasons for the rich productivity of forest gardens is the “edge effect”: the overlap between two ecosystems (say, a pasture and a forest) that increases the biodiversity of both. Where the plants far within a forest are deeply shaded, those at the edge receive more sunlight: thus, giving your crop-bearing trees and bushes more “edge” will increase their productivity. 

One way to achieve this edge effect is with the silvopasture “trios” technique developed by Stefan Sobkowiak, where you plant one nitrogen-fixing tree to support two fruit or nut trees, surrounding them with perennial herbs that attract insects and provide soil nutrients. This technique can be scaled to fit a property of almost any size.

You can also use the alley cropping technique, in which you plant your trees and bushes in rows with wide alleys of perennial vegetables between the rows. See how Mark Shepard planted his rows along the contours of his sloped property, while also capturing rainwater rolling across its clay soil, here.

Both silvopasture and alley cropping designs can also support grazing livestock and poultry, which help to fertilise your crops and control pests. 

If you already have mature trees on a smaller property, take inspiration from Carmen Lamoureux, who created a suburban woodland garden around her mature apple trees and berry bushes, using compatible perennial herbs to provide nitrogen, minerals, and pollinators.

Whichever design you choose, it’s important to take the sun into consideration as you lay out your planting. How is your property aligned to the compass points? As you’ll typically get more sun from the south side, it’s important to plant your tallest trees at the northernmost point, so they will not shade out the smaller shrubs and herbaceous plants. If you’re using the Verge Contour Map Generator, you can also factor hill shade into your design.

 

Ready to Learn More?

We hope this post has whetted your interest in designing a food forest on your property! To learn more about the design and implementation processes, be sure to check out our further resources HERE.

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