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food forest confusion

 
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Hi all,
Can someone explain to me the whole concept of a food forest and how it works?  I just don't get it.  I understand about fruit and nuts and berries.  But aside from those, you really can't find a lot of food for humans in a temperate forest.  The things we eat need sun.  Even most animals need "edge" to survive.

How in the world can you grow most of your food in a forest?  I watch videos, and I see people planting vegetable between tiny little fruit trees, and calling it a food forest.  But when those trees grow, they'll be too much shade to grow most vegetables.

Is this whole thing an overrated idea that just doesn't work in the real world, or am I missing something?  Anyone out there actually have a food forest that produces most of their food?
 
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When I first heard the terms food forest and forest garden I too was confused.

These are two separate concepts.

A person can have a food forest in their backyard in the city. Fruit trees, berries, and other perennial plants are planted.  Then annual plants are planted.

A person who already has a forest plants fruit trees, berries, and other perennial plants within that forest.  Other understory plants and annuals might be planted.

At least this is how I see these concepts.

Luing forward to hearing other views.
 
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Lori Ziemba wrote:Hi all,
Can someone explain to me the whole concept of a food forest and how it works?  I just don't get it.  I understand about fruit and nuts and berries.  But aside from those, you really can't find a lot of food for humans in a temperate forest.  The things we eat need sun.  Even most animals need "edge" to survive.

How in the world can you grow most of your food in a forest?  I watch videos, and I see people planting vegetable between tiny little fruit trees, and calling it a food forest.  But when those trees grow, they'll be too much shade to grow most vegetables.

Is this whole thing an overrated idea that just doesn't work in the real world, or am I missing something?  Anyone out there actually have a food forest that produces most of their food?



Food forests are not the type of closed canopy forest I think you are imagining.  If trees are planted close enough together that the canopies touch when the trees reach maturity, they are too close together.  Food forests have much more open space than a mature hardwood forest that you would find in nature.

Annual vegetables are generally only grown in a food forest in the very early stages, the "vegetable between tiny little fruit trees" you are talking about.  That is done while the food forest is becoming established enough to produce food.  Perennials take longer to reach a maturity level that it takes to produce food (and shade), so why not use the space to grow annuals while you are waiting?  As it matures, the food-producing shifts to trees, bushes, and other perennial edibles.

My early food forest has annuals planted in it, and I have annual gardens that are separate as well.  As my trees produce more and more fruit and nuts, and get larger, less and less annuals will be planted there.  Bushes and other perennials are already producing, and my trees are as well, but not like they will be.  But even at maturity, food forests are much more open than the kind of mature forest you find in nature.  That is by design, as well as due to the fact that many fruit trees simply don't get as big as say, an oak tree.

A person could easily make a small food forest with a few dwarf fruit trees (or my preference of standard trees heavily pruned), some bushes 15 or 20 feet out from the trees, with smaller perennial edibles and ground cover, herbs, pollinator plants between them.  Add some vining plants and you have a food forest.

As far as it producing most of your food, someone in the tropics could probably do it.  In a climate like mine, I grow as much as I can, both perennial and annual, and store a lot.  I still don't produce nearly all my food, but every year I get a little closer.  I'll never have cows to butcher, and I eat beef, so I'll never produce all my food.  That isn't really even a goal of mine, but I will be able to produce enough food that I could live on only what I produce if I had to.  
 
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I think it's related to permaculture concepts, but on a forest model. There are usually several levels - climbers, ground cover, root vegetables, herbaceous, shrubs, lower tree level, canopy level. The idea is to grow things from each layer -  For the canopy you might have larger nut trees like walnuts, fruit trees for the lower tree level, berry shrubs, perennial plants like asparagus and rhubarb and herbs, root crops like alliums and Jerusalem artichokes and ginger, ground covers like creeping herbs and strawberries, and climbers like grapes and beans. You plant them like they would be in a forest setting instead of in rows. You can keep or remove layers as possible in your garden (like it might not be big enough for a canopy layer).

I guess I see it a bit like companion planting? I've not done it myself, but I find the concept interesting! And I think you change things depending on your climate. (In another thread on blueberries it was discussed how blueberries can grow quite well in the shade of trees in certain areas, but maybe not in higher latitudes.)  
 
Lori Ziemba
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OK, I think I'm getting the idea a bit better, thanks to all these explanations.  Being Asperger-y, I have a tendency to take things too literally.  So yes, I was thinking of "real" forests, the kind I remember back in NY, or the ones we have here in California.

So, food forest is basically semantics.  It's really more of a modified, complicated orchard with an understory of more than just grass.  And as I suspected, annuals are pretty much a no-go, which, in a temperate climate, leaves out staple crops like grains and tubers.  Seems like, for it to really work well, you need quite a bit of space.  Sounds like if being able to feed yourself when TSHTF is your main goal, a regular type garden would be a better use of a small plot.  A FF would be good in more marginal area, like on a hill or where the soil is rocky or poor.  Sort of what they used to call a woodlot.  You could coppice/pollard a lot of trees to open the area up, and use that as firewood, meanwhile planting in small fruit trees and berries.  

I think some areas would be better than others for this, if human food is your goal.  Here in California, we get no rain for most of the spring and all of the summer: 6-8 months dry.  And the native vegetation is mostly adapted to that, but it's also very sparse.  Think Oak savannah.  The places along the coast that get a lot of fog have a few berries, but not a whole lot in the way of edibles.  You'd either have to water the whole thing, or live on acorns.  Watering all summer would probably kill the native oaks, if you have any.  

If you have a bare area, olives and grapes might be a good idea?  Altho I don't know of any traditional people who grow them together---don't grapes need full sun?  Would they produce growing up a tree?  All the Mediterranean food plants I can think of need a lot of sun.
 
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I have only a "folk" understanding of food forests,  but from that perspective,  you would have to change what you eat to feed yourself from one.

Nuts and products from animals that feed on the forest trees are both staples a food forest can provide.
They are also valuable commodities, so they can feed you indirectly,  through trade.

It's been suggested that the prehistoric europeans garnered most of their calories from hazelnuts.
Many native american tribes ate acorns.
Running animals through a forest let's you collect biomass and turn it into fat and protein.
To this day, pork raised on tree crops is a valuable delicacy.

I think a woodland with trees in densely planted rows allows for harvesting of trees which in turn lets in sunlight.
Rows facilitate access to the forest products, but they needn't be homogenous.
Alternating what kind of tree is planted offers advantages such as lowered disease transmission.
 
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I think of my yard as a small forest garden, or food forest. I do make space for annual vegetables, but more for the trees, vines, and bushes. By growing food plants at different levels vertically I can get more food value out of a small space. The backyard fruits produce a large amount of high-value food at different times of the year. For example, I have loads of different berries in late June and early July, when there aren’t any annual veg of consequence ready to harvest.

By replicating a forest edge, I believe you also improve growing conditions for many crops. The roots of trees and shrubs bring up water and minerals from deeper in the soil. The fallen leaves and other plant materials from the nearby trees provide nutrient rich mulch for annual beds. The early spring flowers of the fruit trees feed the pollinators needed for many crops.

It’s just new words to describe how people all over the world have gardened for ages, though. Visit old castles in Europe and you’ll find a courtyard with an orchard, herb garden, and vegetable patch, and maybe some grapes growing up the walls.

To my mind, this plant diversity builds resilience. Annual planting and harvest cycles are easily disrupted by bad weather, disasters, war. (Look at what invasion of Ukraine has done to global supply of wheat and sunflower).  The trees and other perennials are more likely to be there for you after a disruption or even a disaster. They are what you fall back on.
 
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While looking for something else I found this thread concerning light levels that might help:

https://permies.com/t/27836/Food-Forests-Light-Levels

And this thread explains about the layer:

https://permies.com/t/180402/Mini-Food-Forest

So the seven layers of a food forest are (as I'm sure y'all know):

Overstory
Understory
Shrub layer
Herbaceous layer
Root layer
Ground cover layer
Vine layer



This have been an interesting topic, thank you, Lori.
 
William Bronson
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Here's my most food foresty  bit of garden:
It has hardy orange,  raspberry and Siberian pea shrub,  plus a bunch of self seeding mustard greens and some alliums.
Those are the things I planted.
There is a lot more life here, and that's good.
I occasionally "weed" things, but it's not a priority.
IMG_20220520_145340.jpg
front-yard-food-forest-garden
One of my front yard beds
 
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Food forests are also managed environments. You don't just plant it and walk away. They take careful human tending to stay productive and give worthwhile yields.

And they have a much more diverse mix of perennial plants than a typical forest. There will be a few large trees - maybe - for fruit/nuts, but I would anticipate a careful selection of plants that are more human scale. Fruit trees with crops nearer ground levels. Vines, with fruit. A productive shrub layer.

And edge effects are critical - you don't want a closed canopy, generally. Think about a stroll along a wide woodland path. Sunlight streaming on the path, transitioning to dappled shade and then deep shade. Productive plants in appropriate positions through that transitioning environment.

 
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One video I've shared with folks on youtube is Geoff Lawton's "The Forested Garden; What is a Food Forest?"     It's only 13 minutes and people seem to get it.  I like his stuff, it makes sense to me.



 
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It is simply not true that "temperate forests do not produce much food." We need to know where to look, and distinguish between ecologically complex forests and glorified tree farms. Much of the west coast of North America was a food forest for millennia, stewarded by native cultures, which in return were blessed with huge amounts of salmon and their kin. Abundant fish is an oft under-appreciated bi-product of any healthy Pacific Northwest (including Northern California) forest. Archeological and biological evidence shows many centuries of human driven plant selection around dwellings, travel corridors, and trade hubs from NorCal to BC and Alaska.

It's hard to go to any old-growth forest in the Pacific NW and not be surrounded by a dozen or more edible or medicinal species of plants, not to mention mushrooms. It is correct that edges host the most diversity and abundance, and the best example may be the old growth forest-stream edge. Here caloric, protein, and fat intake would be heavily supported by fish that were vastly more abundant before 96-98% of the forests were cut. Forests provide fish shade, water table and temperature moderation, deadfall that creates cascades for aeration as well as sediment traps and shelter, and many more essential habitat benefits.

Prairies and oak stands amidst the vast conifer dominated forests were maintained with fire by native cultures also provided beneficial edge with the forest that facilitated hunting of elk.

I concur with many of the responses above as well, but just wanted to point out that food forests have been done here before, and on a grander scale than we can probably fathom.
 
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Lori Ziemba wrote:Can someone explain to me the whole concept of a food forest and how it works?



One important aspect of food forests is, well, the aspect — sun aspect or orientation. In other words, one designs a food forest so that the taller trees will be planted "at the back" so they don't block the sun for lower plants, and then smaller fruit and nut trees in front of them (to catch their share of the sun), and so on, smaller and smaller, so that every plant at every height gets the sun it needs.

 
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