What is a Food Forest? (And How to Get Started)
A food forest is a powerful way to grow food by mimicking the structure of a forest. That might sound a bit strange. A garden needs lots of sunlight, right!? But nature is a master of efficiency. By copying this natural structure, a food forest can help you work with nature to grow your more food with less resources. Keep reading to learn all about forest gardening and how to get started.
It goes without saying that when you look at the average garden, it doesn’t look much like a forest. In fact, in many ways a garden is the exact opposite of a forest. Throughout history, people have been removing forests to create space for food production.
But it turns out that there is actually a lot we can gain by working with nature to mimic a forest through forest gardening.
Food Forest Series
This is part 1 of a multi-part series all about food forests and forest gardening.
When you create a food forest, you gain several advantages over a regular garden.
- Increased harvests by stacking crops and growing vertically.
- Less pest issues because of the overall complexity of the system.
- No need for inputs once it’s established.
But what defines a food forest?
Definition of a Food Forest
A food forest (or forest garden) is a garden that mimics the structures of a natural forest, with multiple layers of plants stacked vertically to increase overall production.
Let’s unpack that definition a bit so you can get started with your own food forest.
But before we do, make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet which summarizes the basics of a food forest and guides you through the initial steps to design your own food forest. It also has some bonus info not covered in this post, including 2 sample fruit tree guilds (beneficial plant groupings) for your food forest.
The Basic Structure of a Forest
If you’re going to try to mimic the structure of a natural forest, then first you need to know a bit about forest structure.
This can get complex, since a tropical forest is very different than a temperate forest. To keep things simple, let’s stick with a classic temperate forest like the ones in western Washington in the US Pacific Northwest.
Don’t worry if you are not familiar with this type of forest—we’ll go through it together.
These forests tend to be dominated by large conifer and hardwood trees reaching 100 feet or more. (Don’t worry—your food forest doesn’t need to include trees that get that big!) Below these tall trees, you can often find smaller trees reaching up midway to the canopy, especially where there are small openings in the canopy to let in light.
Continuing down towards the forest floor, you’ll find a range of shrubs, both small and large. Below the shrubs, you’ll find a diverse mix of various non-woody plants.
This is the basic structure of a forest:
- Tall canopy trees
- Mid canopy trees
- Non-woody plants
From this basic forest structure, you get the basic layers of a food forest:
- Tall canopy trees
- Mid canopy trees
- Non-woody (herbaceous) plants
The final layer of non-woody plants can be further expanded to include climbing vines, ground covers, and root crops. But for simplicity, let’s just stick with this basic list of layers.
A natural forest also tends to have a decent amount of woody debris, both standing (snags) and fallen (logs). Along with rocks, this woody debris is a central part of the forest structure, and it’s important to include this in a food forest as well.
The basic structure of a food forest is simple enough, but why would you want this in the first place? And how would you apply that structure to the food crops you want to grow?
Let’s dive into the “why” first, by looking at the benefits of a food forest.
Benefits of a Food Forest
The core benefits of a food forest come from 3 main features. A food forest consists of mostly perennial plants, takes full advantage of vertical space, and fills all plant niches (growing spaces).
Perennial plants include trees and shrubs, but also include perennial vegetables.
By creating a system that consists mostly of perennial plants, you avoid having to replant each year as you would in your vegetable garden. The result is that you’ll need to water less (or not all). Also, since you’ll be disturbing the soil far less than in a traditional garden, your food forest will support more soil life than a regular garden.
A food forest can result in an increase in your harvest because you’re making full use of all available space, including vertical space.
In a regular garden, you’re probably only planting along the ground, with the occasional trellis for peas or beans. While this can provide a great harvest, it leaves a lot of space unused.
In an orchard, you get a harvest from the fruit trees there’s probably nothing growing beneath them.
Now imagine you plant a fruit tree. On the shady side, you add some currants and other shade-tolerant berries, and on the sunny side you add some sun-loving berries. At the base of the sun-loving berries, you plant some perennial and annual vegetables and herbs.
Make sure to throw in some climbers, a few root crops, some edible groundcovers like strawberries, plus some nitrogen-fixing plants like lupines to help fertilize and support the other plants.
This system can give you fruits, nuts, berries, vegetables, herbs, and more, all from the area around a single fruit tree. If you repeat that setup a dozen times with more fruit and nut trees, now you have a true food forest.
This food forest would result in a truly immense harvest that would dwarf what a regular garden the same size could provide. Plus, the food forest would result in a much more diverse harvest.
By filling all the plant niches intentionally, a food forest greatly reduces issues with weeds and potential pests. Plus, with the high diversity of plants providing a harvest, you will still have a large range of plants to harvest even if you do lose 1 crop to pests.
The overall result is a system that produces abundant, diverse harvests that require less inputs and less maintenance than a regular garden.
Summary of the Benefits of a Food Forest
Food forests provide a number of wonderful benefits over a regular garden or orchard, thanks to the use of perennial plants, taking advantage of vertical growing space, and filling all available plant niches.
- Increased harvests
- Improved soil life
- Less issues with weeds or pests
- Requires less watering (or none at all!)
- Less maintenance
How to Start Your Own Food Forest
So now that you know the what a food forest is and why they’re amazing, let’s dive into how to start your own.
The first step to starting your own food forest is to determine where to place it and how big it should be. When deciding where to place it, you need to think about what you will be growing.
If you’re going to be growing a lot of annual vegetables in your food forest, then keeping it close to your house (in permaculture zone 1 or 2) makes the most sense. But if you’re going to focus on perennials and self-seeding annual vegetables then the food forest could be further out, in zone 2 or 3, or potentially even zone 4.
When you’re first starting out with a food forest, I recommend keeping it small. Plant 4 to 6 semi-dwarf fruit trees with the recommended spacing in an area near your house in zone 2. This would need to be roughly a space 36 x 24 feet in size, assuming 2 rows of evenly spaced semi-dwarf fruit trees with 12 feet between them.
Wild Tip #1
While rows work and make it easy to plan I like to mix things up a bit and add some curves so the rows are not so obvious. Rows are great for harvesting machines, but mixing it up will make the space more enjoyable for people. Finding a contour line and planting on that, even if it’s only a very gentle slope, is a great option that will also help retain water in the food forest.
Wild Tip #2
Adding a little extra spacing will let more sunlight reach the ground, making it easier to grow more food crops around the trees. You can also make every other tree a dwarf tree or a smaller tree like a hazelnut, which lets you keep the original spacing while still letting more sun reach the ground.
Now you can start adding berries and other shrubs around your core trees. Try adding shade-tolerant ones like currants on the shady sides of the tree. Raspberries can do great in partial shade. Add some sun-loving shrubs to the sunny side, but make sure they won’t get too big and shade out your tree.
Wild Tip #3
Make sure to leave space for you to get in and harvest. Too many shrubs will make this difficult.
Next, add some non-woody (herbaceous plants) around the shrubs. These can be your vegetables, edible ground covers (strawberries!), root crops (garlic, onions, etc.) and culinary herbs. But it’s also great to mix in some native flowers to support local pollinators and other beneficial insects.
Finally, I like to add a good layer of mulch (fall leaves or wood chips), some woody debris in the form of logs or snags, and sometimes a nice rock pile. These features are critical parts of a healthy natural forest. They will benefit your food forest by reducing your watering needs, building the soil, and providing habitat for beneficial critters.
So what are you waiting for?
Now that you know your way around food forests, it’s time to start designing and planting your own. Here are some great books that can help you take the next step towards growing your own food forest.
- Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests
- Edible Forest Gardens (2 volume set)
Also, make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet which summarizes the basics of a food forest and guides you through the initial steps to design your own, (plus some bonus info not covered here, including 2 sample fruit tree guilds to get you started!)