What is a Food Forest?

A food forest is an agroforestry model or agroecosystem that incorporates fruit or nut trees and shrubs, herb plants, vines, perennial vegetables and even some fungus, into a low cost, self-sustaining, mutually beneficial companion flora layered system, aimed at food production.

Historically, many cultures have maintained home gardens that provided the household and local population with food security and maintainable income. One of the earliest proponents for food forests in the temperate climes of Britain was Robert Hart, who experimented and documented his learning in his book Forest Gardening (find it on Amazon US, UK, IN). Another recognizable pioneer is Patrick Whitefield who’s published books such as How to Make a Forest Garden (find it on Amazon US, UK, IN) which explains how to closely mimic natural ecosystems, and The Minimalist Gardener (find it on Amazon US, UK, IN) which details no-dig gardening.

Forest Gardening with Robert Hart

Food forest layers

The seven-layer system developed by Hart is an intercropping companion planting method, which is an essential food forest design and planning model. The layers include:

  • The canopy layer which comprises local trees, preferably those which have originally established themselves into the area. Strong canopy layer trees provide other plants in the system protection from strong wind and rain or hail, while catching most of the harsh sunlight. Besides being productive, they also provide a core ecosystem for beneficial insects, birds, small animals and even other plants. These trees tend to be over ten meters tall.
  • The low-tree layer comprises short trunk fruit and nut trees which benefit from the protection, mulch and nutrients provided by the canopy layer trees. These trees must be shade tolerant and be able to thrive in partial shade. Many of these trees maintain a separate leaf-out or flushing period, before the canopy trees get their leaves. Being sheltered, the low-tree layer must also like higher humidity and have robust resistance to mold, birds and animals. These trees tend to be between five and ten meters tall.
  • The shrub layer is usually composed of shade loving fruit or berry bushes and some young trees meant to replace the taller layers. Since this layer occupies plants which are between two and five meters tall, the layer could be further divided into low and high bushes. The shrub layer requires hardy plants which easily fend off leaf eating ground animals. Bush nesting birds love the shrub layer since the foliage provides them with adequate shelter, protecting them from the larger birds in the taller canopy, while providing easy access to ground and shrub food sources.
  • The herbaceous layer is usually made up of perennial non-woody vegetables and herb plants which usually do not grow over a meter and a half. This layer may contain young tree seedlings. Depending on the climate, these plants, especially those which flower, bloom and flush before the overhead canopy takes over. These plants tend to aggressively store nutrients and water.
  • The vertical layer comprises vines and climbers which utilize established trees and plants, or other structures onto which they extend or coil themselves using tendrils to attach to surfaces.
  • The ground cover layer comprises eatable cover crops and/or soil enriching plants which spread horizontally. These include legumes which are nitrogen fixers, cereal grasses which scavenge and concentrate nutrients, and brassicas which improve rainwater penetration and root penetration by the next crop.
  • The rhizosphere or rhizome layer comprises roots and tubers which actively interact with the microbiome of soil microorganisms in the vicinity. Root secretions and sloughed off cells feed a myriad verity of microorganisms, which in turn produce nutrients for the host and allelochemicals to either encourage or discourage other flora in the area.

Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden (find it on Amazon US, UK, IN) and Ben Falk’s The Resilient Farm and Homestead (find it on Amazon US, UK, IN) are highly sought after books that guide on building agroecosystems which closely mimic nature.

Layers of a Food Forest

A food forest tour

Rawtreat, Costa Rica. Food forest tour.