Food forests are a fairly new concept to the main stream, modelled on one the oldest eco-systems of the planet-the forest or woodland. They are typically made from a multi-layered system to mimic a natural forest and increase bio-diversity and ultimately yield. People have created food forests in their back garden and some are acres in size, or bigger. The oldest Food Forest in the UK is on the Scottish borders and was created by Permaculturist Graham Bell and his wife.
It is over 30 years old and produces over 1 metric tonnes of food per year and only occupies 1/5th of an acre. This is a tremendous amount of food and just demonstrates how permaculture and regenerative growing is a way we can provide solutions to most of our food production and distribution issues. It shows us just what nature can do when we integrate and synergise with her rhythms and cycles. Becoming more heart centred and less mind motivated.
A food forest can become productive in its first year, however the higher layers of the forest will take time to mature. Although this process can be sped up, there is a limit to how old trees can be when being transplanted. So unless you have established trees that can be utilized as your canopy and understory it is wise to have patience. Fruit trees can be be bought or transplanted up to 4 or 5 years as dwarf trees. Any older and you will potentially damage to trees roots when transplanting them. A small orchard is an ideal place to give yourself a head start.
So, what are the layers of a Food Forest? The first layer is the root layer, this provides the the deepest connection to the soil. We can look at these as perennial root crops-carrots, welsh onions, valerian, Jerusalem artichokes potatoes and sweet potatoes. All of these if dealt with properly will come back year after year. Some are for nutrition, other for medicinal uses and even fibre for making and building. This can also include Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi which technically is underground until it fruits.
On the next level, sits the ground cover, this can come in the way of edible, nitrogen fixing and medicinal crops and includes, sweet potatoes, strawberries (alpine or cultivated), clover, alfalfa, vetch and many more. These are used for various reasons, including nitrogen fixation, soil armour, weed suppressant and of course food for yourself and animals.
The next layer are your creepers and climbers (also the 7th layer) including those that crawl along the ground cover, like Nasturtiums and climbers such as passion fruit, kiwi, jasmine, grape vine, magnolia vine and honeysuckle are all great additions to the temperate food forest. They will add, food, fragrance and pollinators to your space.
The Herbaceous layer is made up of deciduous plants that die back every autumn and come back again in the spring bringing fresh new growth. These plants bring vibrancy whilst the upper layers of the forest mature and produce a more abundant crop year after year. These can range from nitrogen fixers like lupins and vetch and mineral accumulators such as rhubarb and chicory, as well as delicious tasting globe artichokes (also my partners favourite vegetable).
The Shrub layer is next and each type of shrub will live in the forest for varying lengths of time. Short to long lived shrubs will benefit the food forest in different ways and change in their function as they grow. More well know soft fruit producing bushes or canes, such as raspberries, loganberries, tayberries and black currents bring sweetness and colour to the space, also bushes such as Juniper bring a different feel and look, as well as being medicinal as well as bigger longer living bushes such as Sea buckthorn, gorse and broom, all of which are great nitrogen fixers and will grow quickly compared to most trees and then beautifully scented plants like Lavender which are a magnet for bees.
The valuable understory is a spectacular slower growing layer which produces most of your food once the food forest is more established. With fruit trees from apples to plums and less cultivated varieties such as fig and cherry-plum. Nut trees can include the hardy hazelnut which is very robust and will live through cold and wet winters. This layer is designed to be a long stayer, sometimes taking years or decades to to reach maturity. By selecting the right trees for your climate, these trees will give year after year. They do need yearly pruning if you aren’t going to block out the lower layers from sunlight. However with careful consideration they will benefit your food forest immensely. Remember to benefit many fruit trees it is worth considering planting nitrogen fixing shrubs that will give your trees the boost they need.
The Canopy layer is one which takes the longest to mature and probably need the least amount of care. These trees are the protectors of the rest of the food forest and will give shade and shelter to other more delicate crops as well as accumulating a lot of carbon for the other members to feed from. These include, chestnut and alder and will produce a crop although it may take time. These tree should be reserved for larger food forests as their roots can get very big and could contend with the foundations of your house or your neighbours. They can be managed to stay smaller. However, if you have space then it is worth investing in these taller trees.