Food forests may take a while to develop, but they are certainly worth the effort. Even better, though the systems do take a while to reach maturity, they can be planted to be productive from beginning to end. And, at the end, there should be a stand of permanent food-producing trees, big and small, which are accentuated with other sources of food, beauty, and habitat. This system, like a forest, will take care of itself, all the while yielding delicious harvests.
One mistake people make when thinking of food forests is picturing landscapes solely composed of large trees, but in reality, forests aren’t so simple. They are a complex combination of flora and fauna, both above and below the soil surface, that take years to develop. Our food forests need to be the same, but we are stacking these layers of life with species that provide us with food the entire way. In the end, we can use all the different layers to provide a well-balanced diet.
1. Canopy Trees
Canopy trees act as large linchpins to food forests; however, most of them take a long time to grow — sometimes years, sometimes decades — into production. Nonetheless, these trees — apples, pears, chestnuts, cherries, mulberries, pecans — eventually provide us with huge mountains of food. Canopy trees, in a way, are the point of the food forest: We are nursing these trees to maturity so that we can receive their massive yields, and we are designing our forest around them.
2. Understory Trees
Understory trees are often either secondary crop yields to the canopy trees that tend to provide food earlier or support species for the productive plants. This isn’t to say they don’t provide huge amounts of food. A dwarf or semi-dwarf fruit tree produces enough fruit for a small family. The other, highly important trees to include here, are nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees (around 90 percent of the initial forest trees), which can provide food but, more importantly, offer fertilizer and biomass to support the productive species. These will be thinned out as the forest matures.
3. Shrubs and Bushes
Woody shrubs and bushes are the next layer in the garden, and again, with smaller plants often comes faster growth. Berries occupy a huge part of this layer, and in temperate climates, ranging from Louisiana to Michigan, there are options. The berry family is vast and varied. These will grow well throughout the forest while the trees are small, and once mature, berries naturally thrive at the edges of forests.
Herbaceous plants are often edible, such as culinary herbs, or medicinal, like comfrey and St. John’s wort. In addition to being productive as food and medicine, this layer is often great for attracting beneficial insects, repelling crop pests, and adding biomass to the forest floor. “Weeds” — comfrey, plantain, burdock, and dandelions — often have deep taproots that mine minerals from far beneath the surface and deposit them on the topsoil when they drop leaves. This is good for the other plants.
Since there are productive trees, there might as well be productive vines growing up them. There are many perennial vines that would enjoy having a home on a food forest, just as less desirable vines, like poison oak, enjoy living in natural forests. Grapes, kiwis, scarlet runner beans, passion fruits, and many other options are there, and vines are a great way of adding an extra layer of production.
Groundcovers are usually herbaceous plants, but in this instance, we are choosing plants that have the tendency to spread out low and cover the soil, acting as a living mulch. Strawberries are a good, fruit-producing choice. Other options include things like crimson clover, which is edible and adds fertility; creeping thyme, which is a culinary herb; and/or sweet woodruff, which clumps rather than spreads and smells great.
Lastly, we shouldn’t forget that there is plenty of action underground, and many of our favorite foods—carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic—come from below the surface. Because food forests tend to lean towards perennial production, including things like groundnuts and Jerusalem artichokes might make for huge added harvests. Harvesting these will also help to naturally turn soils for a bit of oxygenation.
These are the seven classic components of food forests, but they shouldn’t limit the lines of imaginative thought. We haven’t included mushroom production, which is perfect for food forests, in this list. We haven’t thought about all the wild animals we want to be roaming around, adding fertility with their manure, turning soils with their foraging, and spreading seeds for the next incarnation. Ultimately, these forests will have such abundance from so many different sources for such a long time that … well, why wouldn’t we grow them? They are Eden!
Lead image source: yaquina/Flickr