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What is a food forest, and how do I design one?

What is a food forest? How can you get one started? A food forests is permaculture in action. It is a layered ‘forest garden’ that features large, food-producing fruit and nut trees. These low-maintenance, self-sustaining systems have huge potential to be sources of sustainable food and livelihoods. 

Food forests are an example of companion planting. Companion planting means growing certain plants together in a mutually beneficial way. These benefits include attracting insects and birds, repelling pests, enriching the soil with nutrients, and providing shade or support.

Designing a food forest to fill various layers of the garden with productive support crops can be extremely rewarding. The result is a flourishing forest garden ecosystem, where plant communities work together to maximise productivity while minimising inputs. The focus of forest gardens (as food forests are known in the UK) is to provide food. However, plants may be included for other reasons. Nitrogen-fixers enrich the soil, while trees offer shelter, and flowering plants attract pollinators. Many people also include medicinal plants in the forest.

The seven-layer design of food forests

When designing a food forest, keep several key features in mind. Food forests rely on high biodiversity and hardy, disease-resistant species. In addition, food forests need perennials, deep-rooting plants, and nitrogen-fixers create nutrient-rich soil. Forest gardens use a natural seven-layer design. Trees, shrubs, herbs, vines, perennial vegetables, and root crops play different roles in each layer. 

Layer 1: Canopy trees

The canopy, made up of large fruit and nut trees, forms the highest layer of the forest. These trees provide shade and create an evolving micro-climate for the whole forest. They also provide structural support for the vertical layer.

Layer 2: Low tree layer

Dwarf fruit trees, large shrubs, and bamboos provide a secondary layer of shade that protects the forest floor from harsh sunlight. 

Layer 3: Shrub layer 

Compact shrubs such as currants, berries and flax fill the space between the trees and are key to a diverse food forest as they are shade-tolerant.

Layer 4: Herbaceous perennials

These smaller, leafy herbs and plants grow and die back in seasonal cycles. The dead biomass returns nutrients to the soil every autumn and winter. The roots remain dormant until spring, when the perennials grow and bloom again. Medicinal herbs are often a central component of the herbaceous layer.

Layer 5: Rhizosphere (roots)

Root vegetables like potatoes, onions, carrots, and turnips make up the rhizosphere. The visible vegetation is often part of the lower forest layers. The rhizosphere adds an extra ecological dimension to forest gardens.

Layer 6: Soil surface

Groundcovers like strawberries and ginger create carpets over the soil. This helps to protect topsoil from erosion and direct sunlight, and ensures that soil nutrients remain within the food forest.

Layer 7: Vertical layer

Climbers and vines grow on structural elements of the food forest. These often include including living and fallen trees. Grapes and kiwifruit require large trees. But, you can install trellises to support vines in young forest gardens. Other popular climbers include peas and beans.

FTFA Food Forest Seven Layers 2

How can I get help designing my food forest?

Projects are chosen for support by Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA) through applications and sustainability criteria. If you are interested in starting a food forest you can apply here. FTFA will match the project with funding and will then undertake a physical assessment. Such assessments include site selection, as well as confirmation of water, soil and human resources. 

Why should I start a food forest?

We take a broad view of food security at FTFA. We believe that it should be based on a diverse range of sources — much like a biodiverse food forest. Subsistence crops can help to support income-generating agriculture in many areas. There is always a place for both small and large-scale projects. Additional elements of the water-energy-food security nexus also have important roles to play. Food forests are a fantastic example of how food security projects can combine multiple outputs with a host of direct and indirect long-term benefits.

Long-term outputs

Food forests provide food security, health, and nutrition. They transform and enhance natural landscapes and act as carbon sinks, thereby helping to mitigate climate change.

This natural approach to agriculture not only encourages biodiversity. It develops an appreciation for natural ecosystems in the surrounding community. Green spaces beautify both urban and rural environments. In addition to providing long-term sustainable food and income, they promote mental well-being and physical health.

There is never a bad time to plant a tree or start a food forest. Donate to FTFA and get started today! 

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