I just learned about something you may be able to implement in your landscape called food foresting.
It ends up I was doing my own version of forest gardening when I lived in California. More on that in a minute.
Also known as forest gardening, this low-maintenance, highly sustainable method taps into the natural cycles of forest growth to produce fruit and nut trees, as well as edible herbs, perennial vegetables, shrubs, and vines. It is currently considered the most resilient agroecosystem, and you may be able to put it to work for you.
We all know that forests are critical to planetary and human health. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “one large tree can provide a day’s supply of oxygen for up to four people.” They also provide renewable materials, cushion climate change, sequester carbon, and support biodiversity. They’re pretty nice to walk through, too. And forest gardening may solve problems associated with modern agriculture and provide bigger harvests from your landscape.
Food forest ecosystems
We all know that forests are dominated by trees. In the shade of those trees, other plants grow. Many of these plants are not edible, but they can be replaced with edible plants. There are different types of forests (boreal, temperate, tropical, and others), but we will skip that for now.
Trees provide shelter for birds and other critters. They also provide food for other plants, herbivores, and soil-dwelling organisms. When trees die, they fall. This mulches the ground below and creates openings in the canopy. Those openings allow young saplings to grow. The nutrient cycling and intercropping support of forest plants make them sustainable. Forest gardening taps into that cycle with perennial herbs, shrubs, trees, vegetables, and vines.
Did you know the majority of a forest’s biomass is underground, in the form of roots? I didn’t either.
The history of forest gardening
From the 1500s through the 1700s, Genoan landowners were required to plant four trees each year: olive, fig, mulberry, and chestnut. As a result, that area has rich, productive forests and farmland. [Imagine how productive your yard could be if you plant 4 food-producing trees each year!] But food forests go back much further than that.
I was surprised to learn that forest gardening has been around since ancient times. Prehistoric humans living in tropical regions used it to supplement the naturally occurring food they would glean from the jungle. They did this by protecting and nurturing favored plants growing close to their settlements while eliminating the undesirables. Some of those cultivated areas are still in use today. These mostly annual plantings are more similar to modern agriculture than one might expect.
In a far colder region, First Nation villages of Alaska have also used food forests to stabilize their food supply. They added non-native berries, herbs, and stone fruits to forest edges and next to existing trees in an early example of intercropping, or companion planting.
The indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest clear areas of forest to grow medicinal herbs, Pacific crabapple, rice roots, soapberry, wild cherry, and wild ginger. Unlike the annual growing cycles used by their jungle-bound cousins, these gardeners collected perennial plants and cared for them over many years. They used controlled burns, coppicing, fertilizing, and pruning to increase their harvests.
In the 1980s, Robert Hart used these principles and adapted them to temperate regions. Since forest floors do not get much direct sunlight, Mr. Hart focused on shade-tolerant plants. Since many of the plants used in forest gardens are perennial, forest gardening has close ties to permaculture.
Plants suited to food forests
Food forests have layers, just like other forests. Each layer is suitable for a specific type of edible plant. Look at the various layers of your yard. Does it already have a canopy? How and where can you add fruit and nut trees? Just be sure to keep their mature sizes in mind. Once you have trees in place (literally or on paper), consider the understory. There are a surprising number of herbs, shrubs, and vines that you can integrate into your backyard food forest.
Here is a list of the layers and examples of good plant choices for food forests:
Back to my California yard
When we bought a house in California, there was already apple, apricot, nectarine, and orange trees. Nothing else was particularly edible. By the time we moved 11 years later, my prim suburban backyard had been transformed with a shopping list of edible plants. Here’s a partial list: almond, artichoke, arugula, basil, beans, carrots, chives, cilantro, dill, eggplant, fennel, garlic, groundcherries, kale, lettuce…I could go on, but you get the idea.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that I now live only 10 minutes away from the U.S.’s largest food forest, Beacon Food Forest. Do you have a food forest near you?
Maybe I'll create a balcony plantation.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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