I have had a number of people ask me for a basic description of an Edible Forest Garden (also known as a Food Forest or Forest Garden). I usually write for people who already have a basic understanding and foundation of Permaculture, and I often jump to that next level in many of my articles. So here is an overview of the concept and practice of designing, creating, and managing an Edible Forest Garden.
I’ll kick this off with the following quote (two paragraphs), used with permission from Dave Jacke, author of Edible Forest Gardens:
The Vision of an Edible Forest Garden:
Picture yourself in a forest where almost everything around you is food. Mature and maturing fruit and nut trees form an open canopy. If you look carefully, you can see fruits swelling on many branches—pears, apples, persimmons, pecans, and chestnuts. Shrubs fill the gaps in the canopy. They bear raspberries, blueberries, currants, hazelnuts, and other lesser-known fruits, flowers, and nuts at different times of the year. Assorted native wildflowers, wild edibles, herbs, and perennial vegetables thickly cover the ground. You use many of these plants for food or medicine. Some attract beneficial insects, birds, and butterflies. Others act as soil builders, or simply help keep out weeds. Here and there vines climb on trees, shrubs, or arbors with fruit hanging through the foliage—hardy kiwis, grapes, and passionflower fruits. In sunnier glades large stands of Jerusalem artichokes grow together with groundnut vines. These plants support one another as they store energy in their roots for later harvest and winter storage. Their bright yellow and deep violet flowers enjoy the radiant warmth from the sky. This is an edible forest garden.
What is an Edible Forest Garden:
Edible forest gardening is the art and science of putting plants together in woodlandlike patterns that forge mutually beneficial relationships, creating a garden ecosystem that is more than the sum of its parts. You can grow fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs, mushrooms, other useful plants, and animals in a way that mimics natural ecosystems. You can create a beautiful, diverse, high-yield garden. If designed with care and deep understanding of ecosystem function, you can also design a garden that is largely self-maintaining. In many of the world’s temperate-climate regions, your garden would soon start reverting to forest if you were to stop managing it. We humans work hard to hold back succession—mowing, weeding, plowing, and spraying. If the successional process were the wind, we would be constantly motoring against it. Why not put up a sail and glide along with the land’s natural tendency to grow trees? By mimicking the structure and function of forest ecosystems we can gain a number of benefits.
Basics of an Edible Forest Garden
- Incorporates Multiple Layers. Robert Hart initially described 7 layers of the Forest Garden:
- Canopy Layer
- Low-Tree Layer
- Shrub Layer
- Herbaceous Layer
- Ground Cover Layer
- Rhizosphere or Underground Layer
- Vertical layer
I have updated the layer system to include the following:
- Canopy/Tall Tree Layer (this includes any emergent plants that would tower over the main canopy)
- Sub-Canopy/Large Shrub Layer
- Shrub Layer
- Herbaceous Layer (these are plants that “die back” every year to the ground in freezing weather)
- Groundcover/Creeper Layer
- Underground Layer (these are plants whose main use/product is formed underground, e.g. potato, ginseng, etc.)
- Vertical/Climber Layer (these are vining, rambling, scrambling, and climbing plants)
- Aquatic/Wetland Layer (this includes any plants that can tolerate or requires very moist to submerged conditions)
- Mycelial/Fungal Layer (includes edible and medicinal mushrooms)
- Incorporates Guilds or Companions. Many people are familiar with companion planting in an annual vegetable garden, such as planting tomatoes and basil together. When it comes to trees and shrubs that will be in place for years to decades, we have to be a bit more intentional. There can be positive, neutral, or negative interactions between plants. For instance, Walnuts (Juglan species) produce chemicals that inhibit many other plants from growing near them, so we need to be sure to put tolerant species near our Walnut trees. Some plants have deep taproots; some plants have expansive, shallow roots. Some plants are tall and thin; some plants are wide and short. Some plants need early Spring sun and then can be shaded out later in the year; other plants need sun all year long. All these things should be considered in your design phase. It makes the planning one big jigsaw puzzle to solve! Click here to download a copy of Midwest Permaculture’s Plant Guild E-Book!
- Sustainable/Regenerative. This is a system that should be continually building soil, plant, and ecosystem health. This is often translated as being “organic” or using no synthetic/man-made chemicals, and some will occasionally use certain chemicals in an “emergency” situations. But sustainability and regeneration go way beyond this. Each year, we should be seeing more life in our Food Forest. There should be more worms, more spiders, more birds, more pollinators. We should be having deeper and richer soils each year. After a few years, most commonly at about the fifth year, something changes. Permaculture teacher and author Toby Hemenway describes this as when the “garden goes pop!” The Food Forest becomes a vibrant, dynamic place teeming with life. The Forest Garden seems to become its own entity.
- Holistic. The first goal is always on total forest health. The byproduct is a useful yield. By focusing on total forest health and increasing variety (with guilds), an Edible Forest Garden will be managed in a more holistic manner than a conventional orchard or garden. Conventional agriculture will use pesticides to target pests but end up killing the majority if the insects in the garden/orchard; we will attract beneficial insects, birds, and other predators of our pests to deal with them. Conventional agriculture will use herbicides to get rid of “‘weeds” and unwanted grasses; we will encourage a wide variety of “weeds” for their composting benefit, culinary and medicinal uses, and ability to attract beneficial insects. We will use mulches to smother “weeds” and build soil in the process; we will use covercrops and groundcovers to outcompete “weeds” and build soil or harvest a yield in the process. Conventional agriculture will use fungicides to prevent loss of plants and yields from fungal infections, but will destroy the majority of the fungus in the garden/orchard; we will encourage a healthy population of beneficial fungus in the soils, roots, and plant surfaces of our Food Forest that increase nutrient availability to our plants, improve their ability to ward off and defeat harmful fungi, and provide us with culinary and medicinal mushrooms. We will accept some loses on occasion by learning to work with nature instead of fighting against nature.
- Low-Maintenance. This is not a NO-maintenance system. Don’t let someone tell you otherwise. Edible Forest Gardens require regular work to keep it from progressing to an unproductive system. A person can significantly reduce their work with some good design, but there is a fairly consistent work input to yield output ratio… in other words, if you do perform regular maintenance and management, you will likely obtain higher yields.
- Cumulative Yield. Tying right into the point above, the cumulative yield is where Edible Forest Gardens excel over conventional agriculture. But you can’t quite compare apples to apples here. For instance, a conventional apple orchard will have a higher yield of apples per apple tree when compared to apple trees in our Edible Forest Garden. That conventional orchard will have trees spaced 8-12 feet apart, at a minimum. There may be some grass growing under the trees, but nothing else. However, in our Forest Garden, right under and near our apple trees, we can grow strawberries or blackberries or hazelnuts or culinary herbs or medicinal herbs or mushrooms… maybe all of them together! Our apple tree may decrease its yield by up to 50% due to some competition of soil or nutrients or light, but all the other fruits, nuts, herbs, etc. will increase total yields of that area to more than a monocrop system could every consider. When you add up all the individual yields over an entire Edible Forest Garden, the total yield can be significantly higher per area than a conventional system. Another way of saying this is that we can produce significantly more calories per acre than conventional agriculture by using this approach.
- Produces the 8 F’s. Each Food Forest has its own goal and purpose depending on who is designing it. No two are identical. But we have the potential to produce all of the following:
- Fodder (feed for our animals)
- Farmaceuticals (plant derived medicines)
- Framing (timber materials for building)
History of Edible Forest Gardens
The concept of an Edible Forest Garden is not new. Many peoples in tropical climates have used mixed plantings and animal systems as common practice. There has been a more recent understanding of how indigenous peoples have “managed” wilderness for thousands of years across most continents of the world, and I am sure there have been many other mixed planting systems which have been lost to history. The majority of these systems have been in tropical, Mediterranean, and non-Western parts of the world. Here are a couple videos showing old Edible Forest Garden systems:
Bringing Edible Forest Gardens to the Temperate Climate
J. Russel Smith published a book in 1929. It was titled, Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture. (I highly recommend this book. It is as revolutionary as it is readable, and it is still pertinent today.) In his book, Smith documented numerous trees that could be used for perennial cropping to replace annual agriculture which destroys topsoil and depletes agricultural land. This book inspired Toyohiko Kagawa, a Japanese Christian evangelist, scientist, novelist, poet, linguist, political reformer, and one of the founders of the Japanese trade union movement. Kagawa spent many years in prison, was nominated multiple times for both the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Nobel Peace Prize, and Robert Hart spoke of him stating he “will surely come to be acknowledged as a universal genius on a par with Leonardo da Vinci”. Kagawa implemented a system he called Three-Dimensional Forestry or Forest Farming which was used in the Japanese uplands to reduce erosion.
J. Sholto Douglas met Kagawa in Tokoyo and then began implementing Kagawa’s 3-D system in southern Africa in conjunction with UNESCO. Douglas went on to author Forest Farming: Towards a Solution to Problems of World Hunger and Conservation in 1978.
But it was the work of an Englishman, Robert Hart, that brought the concept of Edible Forest Gardening to temperate climates in the Western world. Hart was caring for his brother who was born with a severe learning disability when he came across an article written by Douglas. He was inspired to use take this concept from broad scale agriculture to his smallholding (small farm). He created a a 0.12 acre (500 m²) Forest Garden, and then wrote a book titled after the phrased he coined, Forest Gardening.
Bill Mollison, co-creator of Permaculture, visited Robert Hart and his Forest Garden in 1990. Mollison quickly incorporated this system into his teaching. Subsequently, Edible Forest Gardening has been closely associated with Permaculture.
Martin Crawford, manager of the Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon, England, began planting his 2 acre Food Forest in 1994. He now has over 400 species of plants on this plot, and he continues testing and sharing the results of his research on Forest Gardening. He is also the author of a fantastic Food Forest book I’ll discuss below.
There are a number of books on the subject of Edible Food Forests.
Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape. Robert Hart. This is a good book for what it is, the first Food Forest book for temperate climates. It is rather revolutionary, and it is an enjoyable read, but I would not use this as a guide for creating an Edible Food Forest.
How to Make a Forest Garden. Patrick Whitefield. This is also a good book, but not one I would routinely recommend. It also is an enjoyable read, and I am a big fan of Patrick Whitefield. It was the first book to really give a “how to” on Forest Gardening. However, I do believe that more recent research suggests better design options than outlined in this book.
Creating a Forest Garden. Martin Crawford. This is an excellent book for planning, designing, planting, and maintaining a Forest Garden. I included a tour of Martin’s Food Forest above. He has one of the oldest, continually managed Food Forests in the Western world, founded in 1994. I highly and routinely recommend this book to those interested in getting started with Forest Gardening.
Edible Forest Gardens (2 Volume Set). Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier. I call this the bible of Forest Gardening in temperate climates! It is the most thorough and robust book on the subject. If you want to go deeper than picking a few trees and shrubs, than I cannot recommend these books enough. Be warned, these are thick, information dense books. But I have read them cover to cover, more than once. They are readable and enjoyable.
Farming the Woods. Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel. This is an interesting book that is focused more on products that can be grown in an existing forest. I think there is a fantastic ability to translate this information into a designed Food Forest.
Perennial Vegetables. Eric Toensmeier. This book is focused more on individual plants than putting them all together, but that is definitely included. The only problem with this book is that the many of the vegetables listed are not for truly colder climates. I say that because I know some people who have been frustrated with this. However, I do still think it is a great reference for temperate climates, and I definitely recommend this book.
The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way. Michael Phillips. As I said before, the more work you put into your Food Forest, the more yield you will harvest. But how do we do this? How do we prune? How do we handle pests and diseases, because they will come. I do not think they will be nearly as bad as a conventional orchard, but they will come. We can just accept it, and probably lose some plants and lose some harvests, and this is a valid option. But if we are going to try and increase our yield, we need a solid plan that works with nature instead of against it. I believe Michael Phillips has put together about as good a plan as they come.
Restoration Agriculture. Mark Shepard. This book is mostly about broadacre Permaculture for farmers; however, many of the principles outlined in this book readily apply to Food Forests.
Landscaping with Fruit. Lee Reich. This book is more focused on homestead plantings, but it also provides a lot of good information on common and less than common fruiting trees and shrubs.
There are many online videos about Forest Gardening, and I have included many of these above. I will also highly recommend Geoff Lawton’s video: Establishing a Food Forest the Permaculture Way.
The Temperate Climate Permaculture Plant Index. This is my own listing of plants that gives very detailed information on the species, history, planting, care, and uses of many plants I plan on including in my own Food Forest.
Plants for a Future Database. I highly recommend this site. I use it often. Probably the most complete online resource for the widest variety of useful plants.
Apios Institute. Their site states “The Apios Institute is a collaborative network of farmers, gardeners, and researchers focused on integrated perennial-crop agroecosystems (variously known as homegardens, food forests, and forest gardens). There are critical knowledge gaps regarding the design and management of these systems. Our website is a crowdsourced research platform for sharing experience and knowledge about perennial crop polyculture systems for all climates.” This site has a lot of promise to be a fantastic resource.
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