A Food Forest is, at its core, a method of gardening design that attempts to mimic how natural ecosystems sustain themselves, while also providing its would-be gardener with a healthy, sustainable supply of edible plants. It’s not uncommon to find gardening enthusiasts who refer to the concept as “an apocalypse garden”. In fact, it’s the entire basis for small movements like the Zombie Gardening community.
If you’re already familiar with the basics of permaculture, then many of the concepts behind Food Forests should sound pretty familiar to you since they’re arguably synonymous with one another in concept. According to Graham Burnett from Project Food Forest, the basic structures of Food Forest design can be broken down into 7 main levels of plant life:
(Image Sourced from Project Food Forest)
- The Overstory: An area for your tall food producing trees (ex: apples, almonds, and plums)
- The Understory: Exactly like The Overstory, except for shorter trees
- The Shrub Layer: The area for all of your “bushy” foods (ex: most berries and certain spices like rosemary)
- The Herbaceous Layer: This is where some of your smallest edible plants will go, and they spread out to encourage pollination spread.
- The rhizosphere/Root Layer: CARROTS and POTATOES (Or any root food really).
- The Ground Cover Layer: The collection of grass, nutrients, and bugs that you let develop to serve as an everlasting source of compost for the rest of the garden.
- The Vine Layer: Though not as necessary as the other layers, it’s a good way to make the most of your space and attract insects that can help pollinate the garden.
Each area of a Food Forest is intended to be synergetic, regenerative, and more or less self-regulating. Needless to say, this means that most of the plants involved with the garden will have to have similar environmental origins, or at the very least, have complementing functions. While you’ll still have to go through some routine maintenance and pruning, with the right array of plant life, a Food Forest can take care of itself for quite awhile.
That said, even if you get the basic idea behind Food Forests, actually creating a successful one for yourself can easily prove to be a very daunting task. It’s honestly pretty easy to feel like you’re reliving your 8th Grade Environmental Science class when you get into the details of literally creating an agricultural ecosystem in your backyard, and oftentimes, you’ll find that it can cost a ridiculous amount of money to get your project moving.
As you read the success stories of thriving Food Forests in various eco-friendly blogs or lifestyle articles, you’ll quickly begin to realize that many of these people are either professional botanists or wealthy people with lots of time on their hands.
This dynamic can make it difficult to see the practical benefits of permaculture farming for the everyday person, which is mostly due to the fact that there really aren’t any. While it would be wonderful for all the households of the world to become self-sufficient sustenance silos (points for alliteration), at the end of the day, that kind of dependence is just a luxury that can’t reach everyone.
Of course though, this is where we get to the short and sweet “however” part of the story…
While its usefulness might be fleeting for personal use, Food Forests have shown a lot of promise when it comes to large-scale agricultural projects. For one, by being self-sustaining in its own soil, permaculture crops don’t create the same nutrient depletions as their factory farmed counterparts.
This means that the land used with permaculture techniques can last longer and potentially produce more food output in the long term. While the data on industrial Food Forests is still relatively small, recent development projects in industrialized countries have shown how beneficial these agricultural methods can be in practice.
(Image Sourced from The Wild Abundance Organization)
Since March of 2020 a Blue Mountains researcher, Sam Parker-Davies, has been documenting their highly successful Permaculture Design Course in the Phelleus plains of Greece. So far, permaculture techniques have done nothing but increase crop yields and improve the overall health of local ecosystems. In the southern regions of the United States, Dr. Pete Campbell‘s Jubilee Initiative has been showing similar results.
Additionally, while it isn’t directly related to food production, permaculture has also been proposed as a way of restoring ecosystems that have been damaged by deforestation and urban sprawl. So in the long-term, it could easily prove to be the key towards more sustainable global development as the human population continues to grow.
Ultimately, I think there’s a bit of a lesson to be learned from these facts. While I would never dissuade someone from trying to make their own personal Food Forest, I do think it’s important to recognize that permaculture is far more than a trendy outdoor project. While it’s always nice to work on your own personal forms of self-sustainability, real ecological change has to be systematic in order to actually help our environment. So in the end, Food Forests are indeed very useful, they just need to be used at the right scale.
Hannah R. Leonard | Current Graduate Student in ASU’s Global and Environmental Security college and UNITAR’s Master’s in International Affairs program.