Forest gardens are something you might expect to find in the tropics, but the concept has taken hold in temperate areas as well. Forest gardens are one of the oldest and most resilient agroecosystems. The concept might be one of the most important tools to help us feed our planet. Food forests are one of the elemental design principles of permaculture. It is modeled to be like the edge of a mixed forest, but it’s filled with edible plants. Sunlight levels are somewhat limited because of the layers of plants, so it is important to consider edible plants with a tolerance for some shade. It is a vertical system. The key is to model how a healthy forest works in nature, how it sustains itself without intensive involvement from anyone. A food forest is the antithesis to the felled field.
Biodiversity should always be our goal. Given the chance, in a temperate climate, every ecosystem will end up a forest, or on its way to becoming one. In a food forest, the goal is to achieve and maintain a relatively self-perpetuating, low-maintenance ecosystem. It is a system constantly in motion. Fungi helps break down dead and dying organic matter. Wildlife helps promote balance and combat pests, and water stays in the soil, rather than running off like it would in a cleared field.
The food forest is made up of inter-cropping seven layers.
Canopy layer is made up of tall nut trees such as walnuts or chestnuts, and tall fruit trees. They require full sun for the day, which isn’t really a problem as they reach 50 feet or so at full maturity.
Understory or low tree layer is the smaller nut trees and the majority of the fruit trees. Many fruit trees will produce in partial shade. Some of the most shade-tolerant fruit trees in Ontario include persimmons, pawpaw and mulberry.
Vines in our food forest include crops such as grapes, or two types of Canadian Kiwi called Arguta and Kolomikta.
Next are fruiting shrubs, including service berries, currants, gooseberries, and elderberries. Again, this is a forest, so we’re focusing on plants that can thrive and produce in partial shade.
The next layer is all the herbaceous leafy plants that go dormant during the winter and regrow in the spring. This list is extensive, but includes most herbs like oregano, mint, sage, but also perennial vegetables like artichokes, rhubarb, and asparagus.
Groundcovers are perennial, and spread out. Alpine strawberries and perenial groundcovers such a sorrel are two examples.
The rhizosphere is comprised of the root crops, but it’s not completely a separate layer, because what grows above ground can be vines, leaves, shrubs, groundcover, or herb.
We need to change the way we do things worldwide in order to feed the estimated 8.5 billion people projected to inhabit the planet by 2030, or 9.7 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion by the turn of the century. Understanding food forests, and other essential elements of permaculture, might help us face that challenge.