In response to the unsustainable practices and negative externalities of the modern industrial monocrop agriculture complex, there has been growing interest in permaculture and food forests as a sustainable way to produce food. Permaculture is a philosophy and set of practices that aims to create regenerative ecosystems that are self-sufficient and promote biodiversity. Food forests, also known as forest gardens, are an example of a permaculture design that mimics the structure and function of a natural forest ecosystem.
So, what exactly is a food forest? Essentially, it is a type of agroforestry system that combines fruit and nut trees, shrubs, herbs, and perennial vegetables to create a diverse, low-maintenance food production system. The idea is to mimic the layers of a natural forest, with a canopy layer of tall trees, an understory layer of shorter trees and shrubs, a herbaceous layer of groundcovers and herbaceous plants, and a root layer of bulbs, tubers, and other perennial vegetables.
The goal of a food forest is not just to produce food, but to create a self-sustaining ecosystem that benefits both humans and the environment. By using permaculture principles like companion planting, nutrient cycling, and species symbiosis, a food forest can increase productivity and resilience while reducing the need for external inputs like pesticides and fertilizers.
One key aspect of food forests is the use of species symbiosis, or the interdependent relationships between different species in an ecosystem. In a food forest, each plant plays a specific role in the ecosystem, whether it is fixing nitrogen, providing shade, attracting pollinators, or repelling pests. By selecting plants that complement each other and create mutually beneficial relationships, a food forest can become a thriving, diverse ecosystem that supports a wide range of species.
Another key principle of permaculture and food forests is the idea of “stacking functions.” In other words, each element in the ecosystem should serve multiple functions to maximize productivity and efficiency. For example, a fruit tree can provide shade for an understory crop like berries, while also producing food and providing habitat for birds and insects. These species may act as predators to crop destroying pests.
Here are a few examples different species relationships that can be used in a permaculture food forest:
- Nitrogen-Fixing Plants and Fruit Trees: Nitrogen-fixing plants like legumes capture nitrogen from the air and convert it into a form that other plants can use. By planting nitrogen-fixing plants in and around fruit trees, the trees can benefit from this natural source of fertilizer. In return, the trees can provide shade and support for the legumes, creating a mutually beneficial relationship.
- Pollinator Plants and Fruit Trees: Most fruit trees require pollinators to produce fruit. By planting a diverse mix of pollinator-friendly plants like clover, borage, and comfrey around fruit trees, the food forest can attract bees and other beneficial insects that will help pollinate the trees. At the same time, these plants can provide habitat and food for a wide range of other beneficial insects and birds.
- Pest-Repelling Plants and Companion Plants: Some plants have natural pest-repelling properties that can help protect other plants in the food forest. For example, marigolds are known to repel pests like nematodes, while garlic and onions can help repel pests like aphids and spider mites. By planting these plants in and around other plants that are susceptible to pests, the food forest can reduce the need for synthetic pesticides.
- Groundcover Plants and Trees: Groundcover Plants: Strawberries, clover, and mint can help prevent soil erosion and retain moisture in the soil. By planting these plants around fruit trees and other tall plants, the food forest can create a natural mulch layer that will help retain water and nutrients in the soil. At the same time, the groundcover plants can provide food and habitat for a range of beneficial insects.
Food forests are also designed to be low-maintenance and require minimal inputs once established. By using perennial plants that come back year after year, a food forest can reduce the need for tillage and other soil-disturbing practices that can damage the ecosystem. And by mimicking the structure of a natural forest, a food forest can take advantage of natural processes like nutrient cycling and water retention.
Food forests are a promising example of how permaculture principles can be applied to agriculture to create sustainable, diverse ecosystems that benefit both humans and the environment. By using species symbiosis, stacking functions, and other permaculture techniques, food forests can increase productivity and resilience while reducing the need for external inputs and minimizing negative impacts on the environment. As we continue to face growing challenges in food production, food forests offer a promising alternative that can help us build a more sustainable future.
If you are interested in developing a food forest on your property, call Tannenbaum Design Group today and let’s start planning your garden and dinner table today!
Jacke, D., & Toensmeier, E. (2008). Edible forest gardens. Chelsea Green.