If one of your passions is to become more self-sufficient, there is no better way than creating a Food Forest garden. This is a self-maintaining, self-producing ecosystem made up of largely edible crops, which provides you with a prolific food source with minimum input and maximum gain.
What Is A Food Forest?
To find the answer, we need to refer to a naturally occurring forest. These ecosystems are made up of many layers, each adding to the overall productivity and health of the forest. Let’s start with the plants. In a forest, there is the very top layer, the canopy; this provides shelter and shade for the plants below as they establish. Over time these large canopy trees may fall, which provides new opportunities for the plant below to take up more room and access more light. The next layer down is the understory plants then followed by the shrubs. Then there is the herbaceous layer; these plants have non-woody stems. Herbaceous plants grow to their full height and produce flowers all within the year before dying back down below soil level in the Winter and then re-emerge in the Spring. Then there is the root layer, plants that produce long tuberous roots and finally, the groundcovers. In some forest, there will be vertical layers, with climbers growing up the trunks of trees. There will always be plants in a forest that will be suffocating other species, which may sound unpleasant, but these plants keep the overall balance making sure other species don’t overrun the whole system.
When starting a food forest garden, it is essential to plant supporting species, such as ornamental trees and shrubs, at the same time as the fruiting trees. This may sound counterproductive because our goal is to have a garden full of edible crops; however, by managing these support species, they will help boost and protect the productive plants as they begin to grow until a stable upper fruiting canopy has established. You don’t want to start with many productive plants and work hard to put a lot of time into maintaining them to keep them healthy because the support species can do this for us. They do the hard work to provide up to 95% of the biomass, whereas the productive species produce only 5% in the early stages.
What is Biomass?
The organic material made from plants and animals such as wood, plant material, and animal manures is a renewable energy source. A great example of this is when a support species might need to be pruned, and the offcuts can be used in compost or shredded down to make a mulch. Nitrogen-fixing trees are ideal candidates as a support species for the canopy layer because they provide nitrogen in the soil to aid beneficial bacteria.
The rhizome bacteria draw nitrogen from the air and soil, delivering it back into the plants’ roots, and when that plant eventually dies, that nitrogen is then added back into the soil. Nitrogen is an important component of chlorophyll which is what makes the green pigments in foliage. When plants have good chlorophyll, they can photosynthesis to use sunlight to synthesise nutrients from carbon dioxide and water to survive. The beauty of a food forest is that we can speed the process up by sacrificing the support species, such as those nitrogen-fixing trees, as long as it is done gradually with good timing. Over time as these support species are sacrificed, they allow for new opportunities for productive plants by creating more light and room for them to grow. Surrendering these plants will also help condition the soil by adding humus as their matter breaks down and fertiliser for the fruiting species. Thus, keeping the overall health of our food garden in balance, just like a forest.
When is the best time to cut down the supporting species? One of the secrets to success is to wait for the correct time of year when there will be a lot of rainfall. It is best to wait until there are long periods of heavy rain because it will speed up the decaying process in a shorter period of time. The middle of Autumn is always a great time to begin the process. When sacrificing the support plants, you can choose to remove the plant completely or gradually over time. By doing this, you can choose how quickly you want the fruiting plants to take over that space. Eventually, your Food Forest will become 95% productive species and 5% supporting species as it has established. By changing how the plants grow, manipulating them to best benefit us, we are making them grow in our favour towards a more sustainable and productive mini-ecosystem in our backyard.
A common practice in food forest management is to use animals to help maintain the space.
For large gardens using bigger animals such as cows can help reduce weeds, but you would want to make sure they are grazing in an area where they won’t stampede down young or newly planted plants. Alternatively, having chickens or ducks can help prepare the soil as the scratch for seed and help to maintain pests.
A food forest runs on being a living ecosystem that is extremely diverse and stable for a long period. The fertility is always increased, production is non-stop, and there are no other systems that produce as much per square metre with the smallest input like a food forest garden.
What Are The Layers To A Food Forest Garden?
- Canopy (Tall Feature Trees
- Sub-canopy (Semi-Dwarf Fruiting Trees)
- Bush/Shrub (Fruiting Bushes)
- Herbaceous (Culinary herbs, companion plants, pollinators and annuals)
- Groundcovers ( Edible plants such as Strawberries and Thyme)
- Root/Rhizomes (Root crops such as Radishes and Carrots)
- Climbers (Fruiting vines, Grapes and Passionfruits)
Almost all Food Forests designs follow this system. However, the designs can vary because of the climate and the space dedicated. Not every single Food Forest can have every single layer, and you may choose not to as well. You might not wish to have climbers running through your Food Forest and opt not to plant any. Alternatively, you might not have the main canopy layer of taller fruiting trees as it might not be suited to the space dedicated or climate, so ultimately, this Food Forest may only end up having layers 2-7. A Food Forest garden needs to be designed to best suit your climate and your circumstance. In more humid climates, allowing for more airflow through spacings between planting and opening up any tree canopies will help reduce potential fungal issues. In colder climates, having fewer canopy trees and plant sub-category trees such as dwarf fruiting trees instead allow for more sunlight. These garden styles are all about maximising and using every space available because if you don’t plant that ground cover, a sprawling weed will take its place.
The best spot to start with is an area that already gets a decent amount of sunlight per day; a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight is ideal. We can always provide shade by planting support species, but you can never grow more sun.
Once the site has been selected, there could be a few obstacles in the way. If the chosen site is a lawned area, there are a few ways to tackle it. The best way is to smother out the grass over a short time. Starting this process in AUtumn is usually recommended as it will be more effective. To smother out the grass, make sure the grass has been cut before starting and leave clippings on the grass because they will naturally break down into the soil. Once the grass has been cut, place layers of cardboard and a thick layer of wood chips; this will naturally kill the grass over some time. If the layers are not thick enough, there will be a risk of the grass growing back. Lay the cardboard down on top of the grass, leaving no gaps. It is essential to overlap any edges; otherwise, the grass could potentially grow through later on. Once the cardboard has been laid, add a thick layer of well-aged organic compos roughly 2-4inches thick. Add wood chips to the top layer 2-4 inches thick. The compost will seep through the layers every time it rains, helping break down all the materials over Winter. By the time you are ready to plant in Spring, the soil should be rich in humus, micro-bioactivity and friable.
For areas where the soil is of heavy clay or rock texture, the goal is to restore the soil life and condition in a short space of time. Adding 3-4 inches of compost, with a layer of woodchips on top of 2-4 inches, will help insulate the compost making a good healthy environment for the soil organisms and earthworms to work the soil, helping to condition it overtime.
The layers of compost, mulch, and cardboard placed in the Autumn should have composted down over the Winter, creating rich, friable soil. If the cardboard hasn’t broken down, that is fine, just cut a section out if needed and plant away. When preparing to plant, move the woodchips out of the way as they are not a growing medium; they will continue to act as a mulch around the plants as they grow. Start with your canopy layers, as this will be the foundation of the garden design. Choose fruiting trees which you enjoy eating the most; there is not much point in growing an edible plant if you do not plan to eat its fruits. Near the base of each tree, plant the shrub and herbaceous layers. Shrubs can include Blueberries, Gooseberries, Guavas and many more. For the herbaceous layer planting companion flowers such as Borage, Phlox, Echinacea or annual flowers. Up next plant out the groundcover layer, this can be anything from edible Thyme, Strawebbries, Oregano, Mints and much more! If your Food Forest has room for edible growers, look at planting Kiwi fruits or Passionfruit.