Saving the Planet in Backyards and Unused Spaces
Caring for a piece of land is one of life’s great pleasures, and a homegrown harvest is a tantalizing proposition. But what about the time and maintenance that it takes to grow a traditional vegetable garden? What if the garden is expected to benefit the ecological community as well as the gardener? A food forest might be the answer.
A food forest is an edible garden that mimics a forest ecosystem and is designed to integrate a variety of plant species. In a food forest, the principles of permaculture are used to create a self-sustaining ecosystem that also provides food for humans. Permaculture makes use of perennial plants that will return year after year and annual plants that will go to seed and self-propagate. The trees and plants that make up a food forest are arranged into guilds, or groups of plants that will benefit each other. A food forest is generally made up of several guilds but could be as small as just one.
Starting a Food Forest
Acres of land are not required to start a food forest. In fact, food forests are popping up in urban areas all over the United States, including Seattle, Boston, and Atlanta. People who are thinking of planting a food forest might try visiting a nearby community forest garden to see how a new food forest might contribute to a wider community network.
When deciding to start planning a food forest, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the possibilities, especially if starting with a clean slate. Food forests don’t happen all at once. It takes time for fruit trees to mature and plants to fully establish in a new ecosystem.
When assessing a potential site, take time—even a year—to get to know where the light hits during the day. Take stock of all the plants and trees. Observe where soils are wet or dry and make note of any seasonal changes. A soil test will also help determine which plants and trees are suited to thrive once planting is ready to begin.
The Seven Layers
Like a wedding cake, food forests come in layers. Most forest gardeners recognize seven layers in a food forest—canopy trees, low trees, vertical plants (vines), shrubs, herbaceous plants, rhizosphere (root vegetables), and ground covers.
Some gardeners are now making a case for an eighth layer to include the role of the fungal/mycelial soil layer in forest garden health.
Knowing the layers will help create the plant guilds that will make up a food forest.
Canopy or Overstory
From a bird’s eye view, the canopy is the first layer of a food forest to greet the eye. The canopy’s size and composition will depend primarily on how much space is available. There may already be a large tree on hand. Native oak trees thrive in many parts of the US, and although an acorn might not be the first nut that comes to mind for a tasty snack, they will provide a lot of food for small mammals and birds in the new ecosystem. (And, with a little preparation, humans can also cook and eat acorns.)
Look closely at what fruiting trees grow in the area. Also consider that trees like a walnut or hickory require a great deal of space, not to mention time to grow. For example, it can take up to fifteen years for a black walnut to bear fruit.
An understory tree can grow below and in between canopy trees; however, if the plot of land is small, an understory tree might make up the top (canopy) layer. Many familiar orchard fruits are understory trees, including apples which grow in all fifty US states. And, if there isn’t room for a full-sized tree, many fruit trees come in dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties.
The canopy and understory layers will serve as support for the third layer of the food forest, vines. Grapes are a great choice, but be sure to seek out a variety that thrives in the area. Also consider flowering vines such as clematis to attract pollinators.
Small fruit like blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries will be a tasty addition to the shrub layer of the food forest. Be sure to match the fruit with the soil composition and moisture levels in the garden. An elderberry will appreciate a damper spot, and a blueberry bush requires acidic soil.
The herbaceous layer will consist of perennial plants that die back seasonally and return in the spring. This layer also includes plants that live for only a season but seed vigorously and self-propagate.
Many garden herbs such as mint and chives fall into this category as well as perennial vegetables like asparagus.
The groundcover layer consists of low growing plants that will spread laterally across the forest floor. Edible plants in the category include strawberries and sorrels, but consider nitrogen-fixing plants like clover, beans, and peas.
The rhizosphere will contain perennial root crops like wild carrot, chicory, and dandelion. What you grow will depend on how much light reaches the forest floor. Many root crops require a lot of sunlight. In the early stages of a food forest there may be many root crops that are gradually shaded out as the canopy grows.
The mycelial layer is the fungal layer that grows beneath the forest floor. The threads of fungus throughout the soil will create the fruiting bodies of mushrooms. Whether you add mycelium to your soil, or just encourage it by adding lots of organic matter, a healthy amount of beneficial fungus will help support your forest ecosystem by engaging with plant roots to provide them with better nutrient and water absorption.
Why Food Forests?
There are many things to learn and consider when designing a food forest. Luckily, several excellent guides to forest gardening exist, including: Gaia’s Garden (2009) by Toby Hemenway; Integrated Forest Gardening (2014) by Wayne Weiseman, Daniel Halsey, and Bryce Ruddock, and The Food Forest Handbook (2017) by Darrell Frey and Michelle Czolba. Enjoy this early part of the process, get to know the plot intimately, and then consider all the possibilities.
Growing a food forest is having a front row seat to the creation of an ecosystem. In time, the forest garden will be a welcome sanctuary for the gardener and others. Food forests reduce fossil fuels and harmful inputs associated with large-scale farming and create habitats for animals, including pollinators.
But they also offer people the opportunity to see themselves as an intimate part of nature, allowing themselves to nourish and be nourished by the Earth.
*Mal Cole is a freelance science and nature writer based in Massachusetts.