Food forests: what are they?

The term “food forest” has entered the lexicon of home gardeners, permaculturists, off-gridders and greenie beanies recently, conjuring up a mixture of trees, plants, insects and flowers, all bathed in dappled sunlight and delivering forth a magical harvest of fresh vegetables, herbs and fruit. But is this correct? Or more prosaically, what exactly does the term entail?

A food forest is a gardening technique or land management system which mimics a woodland ecosystem by substituting edible trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. Food forests are based on the observation and understanding of the forms and patterns found in forest ecologies and applying these principles to a selection of plants safe for human consumption.

Forests in their natural, undisturbed condition present a complex system of life, biodiversity and fertility, where mutually beneficial relationships are created between organisms; natural harmonious communities form, and life forms multiply and proliferate.

If we emulate nature, we can design and build natural ecosystems full of life, that look after themselves just like a forest ~ but which contain plants of our choosing.

Nature grows in a highly optimised pattern, utilising multiple layers and making the most of both horizontal and vertical space.

To achieve a low maintenance abundance of fruit, nuts, berries and herbs you will want to create a forest-like system where fertility comes from various sources, where you are aided by fungi, where wildlife is your primary pest control, where soil holds water like a sponge, and where you have a high diversity of plants.

A food forest typically comprises seven layers, the uppermost layer being the canopy layer.

The starting point is to decide what you want to get out of a food forest ~ why are you doing it? Options include being more self-reliant, making an income, producing healthy food, educating others or having a fun project for the whole family, for example.

Then observe your proposed site. If you have a small forest in your area, it would be good to study that to see what grows in your area and how you can grow similar plants.

Study your land and make a map of it. Permaculturists urge one to read the landscape, making notes on your water situation, climate, soil, slope, aspect, natural vegetation and wildlife.

Then plan your layout. In Gauteng we are likely to choose a Savanna type system, which involves alley cropping and a silvopastoral system.

With alley cropping, crop strips alternate with rows of closely spaced tree or hedge species. Normally, the trees are pruned before planting the crop. The cut leafy material is spread over the crop area to provide nutrients for the crop. In addition to nutrients, the hedges serve as windbreaks and eliminate soil erosion.

Silvopasture or wood pasture is the practice of combining woodland and the grazing of domesticated animals in a mutually beneficial way. Recall a few years ago the hype around growing tree lucerne as a forage species.

You will look at the infrastructure that you already have, if any, to see how you can incorporate them into your plan. If you have none, then plan your water, access and structures.

Next make a master list of plants ~ your desired species and others necessary to fulfil a certain purpose in your food forest. The very core of forest gardening is to create guilds of plants, by bringing together plants that meld with one another in a balance. All survive and flourish; weeds are excluded.

You have to consider how you will improve the soil before you plant anything, building it up and improving the soil structure. Finally, source your plants and start planting.

This land management system needs patience and dedication to long-term goals.

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