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What is a Food Forest?

Forests are ecosystems with a diversity of plants, animals, and fungi. They were designed by nature to provide a perfect balance. A food forest is a version of this in which the different, balanced components produce food. When we understand how nature creates its ecosystem, we can model that with productive species to produce food sustainably, with minimum inputs for maximum outputs.

Food forest

Forests have seven layers. At the top is the canopy layer followed by understory trees, bushes and shrubs down to herbaceous layers. Under the ground, there are root yields and at the surface, there are groundcovers. There are also vertical layers of climbers. These layers work to occupy all the space. In designing a food forest, we use these layers to work for our benefit.

For designed food forests, the plants change from climate to climate. In the subtropics, tamarillo functions as an understory and within this layer are productive trees, such as feijoa, guava, and citrus. Taro, coco yam, and cassava are root yields. There are also large herbs, like bananas. 

The food forest would also include large support species such as ice cream bean, tipuana tipu and casuarina that support the forest by cycling nutrients as well as understory support trees like acacia, leucaena, cassia, and albizzia. Most of these support species will eventually give way to large, productive species: rose apples, mulberries, jackfruit, bunya pine, pecan, and mango. The system remains very stable when all the layers are occupied.

We can plant foods by cultivating the support species at the same time as the fruit trees, then managing the support species to shelter and boost the productive species. Or, we can start with support species, but we shouldn’t just start with the productive species because it would require lots of input and hard work to keep them healthy. Support species can be up to 95% of the mass in the early years, and most of them will be nitrogen‐fixing species. 

We speed up their life cycle by managing the support species, pruning when there is more rainfall than evaporation. Over time, less mass will be from support species and more from productive plants until, ultimately, the forest is 95% productive species. This is how we use time and space efficiently.

So, we are manipulating the way a forest grows, particularly speeding it up to work in our favour. We can pollard nitrogen‐fixing legumes to allow sun in during rainier times and then, through regrowth, supply shades in drier times. We can eventually reduce these legumes to yield their space to productive species. Finally, we can cut them to ground level and remove them altogether. This is how we rapidly feed the soil with a fallen forest.

We can also use animals to help in the process. Larger grazing animals can graze to clear areas until we put in our small plants. Chickens and ducks can prepare the ground. With established trees, chicken and ducks can return to clean up the area and speed the cycle of low‐lying plants. We must keep an eye on the system and use the animals for a planned improvement in productivity.

Food forests work as a diverse and stable living ecosystem. The production of soil is constant, and fertility is constantly growing. The production is nonstop. The system will replicate itself over time. This type of garden can make us the most beneficial animal on the planet whilst supplying our own needs. View Geoff Lawton’s film 'The Forested Garden: What is a Food Forest?' for more information.

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