We’re all familiar with the idea of a forest. A place where nature thrives, a lush green, abundant expanse of life, an infinite number of species both plants and animals living together in harmony. The cradle of life itself!!
There is no need for any human intervention in this place to enable life to flourish. There is no need for digging, transplanting, weeding, adding fertilizers, or any pesticide. The natural ecosystem takes care of all this. All trees, plants, shrubs, birds, insects, and animals work in close harmony to make that forest thrive. They work together in resisting diseases, fighting harmful pests, and surviving during harsh seasons.
Now, using the same concept, if we can grow fruit-bearing trees, vegetables, greens, tubers, etc. on a farm without using any age-old farming practices that use pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides or nasty chemicals. Viola! You have your Food Forest ready.
So, what is a food forest?
A food forest is a farm/garden with a diverse planting of edible plants that are grown in such a way that the entire farm mimics a natural ecosystem. Unlike traditional farms, a food forest is a three-dimensional system, with crops growing in all directions.
Source:: “Permaculture A Beginners Guide” by Graham Burnett
Generally, we recognize seven layers of a forest garden –
- Overstory tree layer – This layer consists of full-sized fruit, nut, or other useful trees, with spaces between to let plenty of light reach the trees/shrubs in lower layers.
- Understory tree layer – This layer sits underneath the canopy layer. Here are many of the same fruits and nuts as in the canopy, but on dwarf and semidwarf rootstocks to keep them low growing.
- Shrub layer – Also called the brush layer. This tier includes flowering, fruiting, wildlife-attracting, and other useful shrubs.
- Herbaceous layer – This layer usually contains non-woody plants such as vegetables, flowers, culinary herbs, and cover crops, as well as mulch producers and other soil-building plants. The emphasis here is to grow perennial plants.
- Root layer – This layer is also called the rhizosphere. This layer is unique as well because we can design a root layer for the production of food and soil life creation. Most of the plants for the root layer should be shallow-rooted, such as garlic and onions, or easy-to-dig types such as potatoes.
- Ground cover layer – These are low, ground-hugging plants—preferably varieties that offer food or habitat—that snuggle into edges and the spaces between shrubs and herbs.
- Vine layer – Vines have adapted to use the other species in other zones as structural support and climb up them to maximize sun exposure. When designed with food in mind, this layer can work with the different layers for maximum abundance.
- Some also like to recognize the mycelial layer, layer eight (mushrooms). Using these layers, we can fit more plants in an area without causing failure due to competition.
The understory, shrub layer, and herbaceous layer can sometimes be confusing because there are some small trees that look like bushes and some herbaceous plants such as bananas that look like small trees of visa versa.
Source: National Geographic
Benefits of a food forest?
Waste is a concept that does not exist in nature. Every tree, plant, animal, bird, or insect irrespective of their size is an essential part of the ecosystem. Everything becomes part of the soil to nurture it. Just like this, in the food forest, nothing should ever be wasted. Plants waste is used for composting, which in turn, used for soil amendment and fertilizer.
Food forest techniques encourage rainwater harvesting at the site. It is done not just for maintaining moisture content in soil but also to create Water features that often attract beneficial insects, birds, frogs, and other small wildlife creatures, and many of these will feed on pests in the food forest.
Food forests require less maintenance. Once a food forest has established itself, you do nothing but water and harvest crops or add occasional mulch. Food forests are beneficial for nature and humans alike.
In conclusion, if we look beyond our modernized culture to natural and life-abundant plant growing systems, it is evident that working with nature is the wisest and most productive path to sustainable food production.