Food Forest Gardening

Popcorn cassia. A nitrogen fixing legume that produces beautiful yellow flowers that smell like freshly popped popcorn. It provides a source of nitrogen rich mulch, useful for establishing a food forest garden.

Popcorn cassia.

A nitrogen fixing legume that produces beautiful yellow flowers that smell like freshly popped popcorn. It provides a source of nitrogen rich mulch, useful for establishing a food forest garden.

Food forest gardening offers an innovative, ecologically beneficial model for growing edible crops, timber, fibre, and fuel. By allowing nature to do most of the work, there’s little need for weeding, digging, or controlling insect ‘pests’ in the garden. A healthy system of self-supporting plant communities maintains soil fertility. They don’t have to be huge either, because the ‘forest’ refers to how they are designed, not their size. Their natural appearance is both beautiful and pleasant to be in. With so many benefits, it seems silly not to plant one!

What is a food forest garden?

The Seven Layers Of A Food Forest Garden Image Credit: Graham Burnett, Spiralseed Permaculture.

The Seven Layers Of A Food Forest Garden

Image Credit: Graham Burnett, Spiralseed Permaculture.

Whatever name you use, food forest, forest garden, or woodland garden, it’s composed of mostly food bearing plants such as nuts, fruit, and vegetables designed to mimic the distinct layers of a young or middle-aged forest.

If we look at a young forest, we can see plants arranged on one of seven layers. There are usually tall trees, smaller trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, groundcover plants, underground plants, and climbing plants. We might also notice a forest can grow without human involvement. The diversity of plants on multiple layers creates an ecosystem of plants, fungi, and animals that is self-fertilising. We can design food forest gardens in a similar way by swapping fruit and nut trees on the top levels and berries, vegetables, and herbs on the lower levels. Mutually beneficial and multipurpose plants arranged alongside each other to help maintain the overall health of the garden.

Unlike a wild forest, a temperate climate food forest is intentionally open and spacious so more light reaches the groundcover layer, allowing crops like annual roots and vegetables to grow there.  In the tropics, canopy trees grow much closer together but still allow adequate light to reach ground level because there is more sun. More shade is needed in these regions and less shade is needed the further away from the tropics.

Comfrey (foreground) and lemongrass (background) serve multiple functions in a food forest garden. Both can be used as a mulch source while comfrey can also be made into a liquid concentrated fertiliser. Lemongrass can serve as a weed barrier on garden edges or provide shelter for vegetables from wind and sun when planted in the right position.

Comfrey (foreground) and lemongrass (background) serve multiple functions in a food forest garden. Both can be used as a mulch source while comfrey can also be made into a liquid concentrated fertiliser. Lemongrass can serve as a weed barrier on garden edges or provide shelter for vegetables from wind and sun when planted in the right position.

While the history of food forest gardening is rather brief in North America and the UK, it’s hardly a new concept. There are many examples of food forest gardens worldwide, particularly in tropical and subtropical regions of India, China, Southeast Asia, and Central America, some of which are thousands of years old!

In the 1980,’s UK vegan horticulturist, Robert Hart, pioneered food forest design for temperate climates and created the term ‘forest gardening’. Robert’s work has inspired many people to plant food forests of their own.

Why Grow a Food Forest?

As Robert Hart pointed out, most of us lack the means to restore the forests because we live in cities, but many of us have gardens or can access spaces to plant trees on an individual or community level. By planting food forests, we can provide some of our needs and create habitat and food for other creatures too, reducing how much land is cleared and used to produce our food in ways that are less friendly to our earth and the animals that share it with us.

Food forests are sprouting up more often in urban areas. Take Beacon Food Forest, in Seattle, Washington, for example. It’s a community initiative started in 2009 on a 7-acre site located in the Beacon Hill neighbourhood, 2.5 miles from downtown Seattle. The goal of the project is to “design, plant and grow an edible urban forest garden that inspires our community to gather together, grow our own food and rehabilitate our local ecosystem”.

So why not start your own food forest garden, or organise a community garden on public land? It might be one of the best things we can do to help create a positive future for all earthlings.