Forests and farms are exclusively separate in the present western world. Modern agriculture involves rows and rows of open fields, chemical inputs and machinery. Forests are viewed upon as primarily a source of timber or are largely protected as conservation land. What most people fail to realize when looking at our current food systems is that agriculture as we know it is a relatively recent way of interacting with the Earth. And often a very destructive one. For time immemorial, people lived and sustained themselves in rich ways within forest garden systems. This took place in nearly every part of the world, and still do in many parts today.
The question of how can we feed the world without destroying the Earth presses deeper into our current reality. An even more important question to ask is how can we feed the world in a way that makes the Earth even healthier than before our interaction?
At Northern Food Forest, we are obsessed with possibilities of how we can give back to the forest, meadows, and wetlands that surround us. Planting trees and plants that produce fruit, nuts, and other edible things is a natural impulse of this desire.
Trees are carbon sinks. They are homes to a plethora of wildlife. They don’t need to be ripped out of the ground every year. Once they grow a little older, they become resilient defiant beings that don’t need to be coddled with irrigation, fertilizer, or weeding. The simple act of planting a couple of Apple trees could then transform overtime into hundreds of thousands of apples that could feed your family, birds, the soil, and contain seeds that have the potential to create new unique apple trees. The story of the landscape could change indefinitely.
Cultures all over the world of the past and present emanated forest gardening principles in their lives. This included Native Americans, the Chagga people who resided on Mount Kilimanjaro, the Maninjau people in Sumatra, people of the Maya Forest , the Baka people of the Central African rain forest, people of Portugal, and countless others. They all embodied methodology of forest gardening for meeting their most important necessities of life.
The connection of forests as food and the indigenous people of North America became most apparent when I came across a book by Kat Anderson called Tending the Wild. It’s an incredible book about the relationship indigenous peoples of California had with Nature, and it challenged what I had always been taught in school about the history of many Native American tribes. It is often regarded in anthropological documents and history that indigenous people were living a passive hunter gatherer life style and that they did not include agriculture in anyway.
As I discovered more of this book, I learned that this is simply not true. Indigenous people were deeply engaged with the land, planting seeds, pruning trees, initiating controlled burns, and harvesting in ways that gave back to the plants that they gathered from. They were saving seeds from plant beings that exhibited positive traits and planting them out. They drastically changed, diversified, and enhanced the landscape around them. They often stayed in one particular area for their entire lives.
Beyond the scope of hunter gatherers, they were/are also horticulturalists and intensive managers of the forest landscape around them. This way of partnering with forests are not only roots in their way of life. They are the whole tree, and the entire forest. Could it be that forest gardening is actually a much more sound way of creating abundant food bearing landscapes that were rich in healthful ecology?
What is a Food Forest?
Food Forests, or forest gardening is essentially planting trees, shrubs, perennial plants and self seeding annuals in a forest biomimicry system. All of the species are adaptable to their chosen environment, and are useful for either food, medicine, biofuel, fodder, mineral accumulation within the soil, beauty, or as fiber.
These species are designed to grow together in beneficial mutualism. They also encourage land forms to heal, water to resuscitate, animals to feed, and everything to become greater than the individual pieces that make up the whole.
If you spend enough time in the forest, you will see the diversity and layers of different plant communities growing together. There are plants growing deep into the root zone, plants sprawling upon the ground, flowering plants, vines, shrubs, spring ephemerals, and trees in the overstory.
The key is to design your system similar to the ecological processes of a forest, but with more space in between each plant or tree than in a typical competitive forest- especially in northern climates where our light accessibility is more limited. This will allow your trees, shrubs and perennial plants to produce more food, receive more sunlight, and nutrients. Rather than grouping plants in separation, forest gardens aim to design trees and plants in relation to one another. How do plants benefit one another and enhance the system as a whole? The strength in these systems lies in many wells, but their strongest asset is their diversity and holistic connection with one another. We are most often taught this survival of the fittest mindset when learning about nature, but truth is that the pieces of nature are often in unison and in many ways the species can benefit one another.
Putting every part of a forest garden in place involves a lot of thought, observation, interaction, and hard work. However, the goal is that the system becomes regenerative and able to mostly sustain itself with only minimal interaction from humans. It does not require any fertilizers or pesticides. It does not need expensive outputs of energy every year. Instead, the system relies on nutrient accumulative plants, organic matter, and diverse inter-cropping of species that encourage beneficial insects and resilience.
To put it into perspective, here’s a design example of a small section of a edible forest garden:
Before you start to grow anything, find out what grows well on the given area you want to create a food forest in. You’ll be blown away by the edible plants that already grow well in your area. If wild hazelnuts grow in the forest nearby, there’s a good chance that more productive hazelnut cultivars will also suit your site. Including species that have mutiple functions in your design is a really important part of forest gardening. For instance Echinacea is a great pollinator plant, the flower seeds feed birds, and it is highly medicinal for our immune system.
Why Are Food Forests So Important for Our World?
The ecology that comes with food forests is transformative. Seeing all kinds of dragon flies, moths, butterflies, and birds on the piece of land you call home feeds the soul in the same way that a delicious piece of fruit feeds our need for quality food. And then one year, you notice a bird you’ve never seen before. The news is out! It is amazing how many birds an Elderberry shrub will bring in, and how many bees a Linden tree in bloom will invite in. In having more long term species like trees and perennials, many insects and animals have new places to create life in for the long haul. In addition to that, humans as a whole have largely depleted top soil in our landscapes- which is the very soil that forests create over time.
Wood chips and leaves utilized as mulch in a food forest encourages beautiful fungal relationships within the soil. Mycorrhizae fungi attach themselves to the roots of a tree and they are able to expand further and reach nutrients and waterways that they never were able to before. You’ll notice masses of white root like hairs within the soil. These fungal relationships are essential in maintaining a healthy ecosystem for plants and trees to thrive. Mycorrhizae fungi are known to benefit the plants in countless other ways including increased resistance to many soil borne pathogens.
In allowing the plant to have increased absorption of nutrients and water, plants are much healthier. Healthy plants are more able to maintain vigour in the face of many adversities, whether that is flooding, drought, or disease. In addition to that, edible mushrooms like King Stropharia (Wine Cap) can be grown beneath the plants and trees too! This is a great way to add yet another food source to the ground layer of a forest garden system.
The Same Production As Modern Agriculture While Supporting the Whole Ecosystem
There are many ecologically sound food alternatives to many of our annual crops like Wheat, Corn, and Soy.
Chestnuts, Hazelnuts, Oaks, Walnuts, and Hickory are all great opportunities for food security that actually enhance the ecology of a given area. These trees offer roughly the same amount of calories (often much more nutritionally dense calories) without the tilling, fertilizing, pesticides, and irrigation needs of annual crops. Not to mention they don’t need to be planted every year. All of these trees are powerful vacuums to carbon. If we switched even a somewhat small percentage of wheat, corn, or soy farms to diverse ecological forest farms teeming with tree crops, we would solve many climate issues we face.
Organic Matter Accumulation
After establishment, these plants and trees shed their leaves year after year and organic matter begins to accumulate. Soil is improved greatly with repeated additions of organic matter naturally produced by the system. Many shrubs and perennial plants can be cut back and spread throughout the system as a mulch. Some examples of trees and shrubs that can be cut back regularly are Willow, Poplar, or Alder. This greatly adds to the overall health of soil microbiology, and in turn the plants and trees.
Soil Erosion and Flooding Solutions
In large annual agriculture settings of the 21st century, one of the biggest issues is soil erosion. When a field is plowed for growing annual crops, erosion is certain in the event of a large rainfall. Because of the lack of trees and other plants growing, all of the nutrients and content that the soil once possessed are leached away in water ways. There used to be layers and layers of top soil many years ago; now there’s barely anything left in many areas of the world.
In addition to that, flooding is a direct result of modern agricultural systems, too. Felling of forests and draining of marshes have massive ramifications. Rivers and streams become suddenly swollen, ripping away the sides of river banks. On top of that, when we press the reset button with annual crops and scrape the Earth in harvest, water has nothing to hold onto.
Food forests create many resolutions to this, as they are full of plants and trees that are like magnets to water. Trees absorb water in the air from far away oceans, lakes and rivers. They also collect rain water, releasing it back into the landscape slowly, in the forms of gentle streams. In areas where desertification is a harsh reality, trees bring up the water table in revival. Trees embrace the soil, preventing runoff and keeping everything in place, acting as the bones of the Earth.
The End of Harmful Pesticides and Fertilizers
Chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are used every single day in the growing of our food. We eat these things. We become these things. The amount of toxicity and pollution these things cause is beyond comprehension. Every civilization that has relied solely on annual agriculture has collapsed. This is demonstrative of how vulnerable our current food systems are. What’s no longer in the soil is no longer in the food we eat. Crops have less nutrients in them than ever before.
Organic food production is moving in a positive direction, but I have seen acres and acres of organic wheat being grown in a monoculture. Organic pesticides are still very harmful to the environment and are still applied in an organic system. More and more, large organic farms mimic the very system they were at first trying to divert from. Organic just isn’t enough in many settings.
Food forests shatter the common notions that we need pesticides and fertilizers to grow food. In food forest systems, many mineral accumulative plants are designed into the system. These plants and trees actually pull up nutrients out of the deeper parts of the Earth and make the nutrients more available to the entire system. Others are able to fix Nitrogen from the air and bring it into the soil. Some examples of plants that perform these services are Comfrey, Sea Buckthorn, and Alders.
Pesticides were never used before the modern day, and people were still able to grow and harvest healthy abundant food for themselves. In alternative to pesticides, forest gardens look at the holistic health of the entire ecosystem involved, rather than using pesticides to try and kill an insect that’s decimating a particular crop. These insects are often a symptom of a much deeper issue.
Things like compost tea, compost, manure, and regular mulching all help to contribute to the greater whole health of an ecosystem. These forms of nutrition can be sprayed or applied throughout the year, and are allies to plants and trees in the face of adversity. Compost tea is beautiful way of adding an incredible amount of microbes to the foliage and root zone of a given plant or tree, which can help with it’s overall resistance to disease, insect pressure, and other stressors in the environment. A healthy tree is a result of healthy soil, and is far more resilient to any adversity it may experience.
Diversity of crops is also an answer to pesticides. In having a diversity of crops, a diversity of beneficial insects are also present in a forest garden system. Many of these beneficial insects will feed on insects that are undesirable to us humans. In fact, these insects people often try to eradicate are very important food sources for beneficial insects. In having a more passive approach, Nature can take its course in the way that it’s meant to! Many herbs and perennials seem to know exactly what to exude so that a colourful array of pollinators and predatory insects arrive, and stay, keeping balance in check. Native plants to your area in particular are important characters to choose when planting your food forest.
In addition to that, plants are hidden or not as easily seen amidst complex relationships with many other plants, whereas a massive patch of cucumbers are an easy mark for insects to feed on.
And after all of these measures are taken, there are still options for us as growers of food forests when faced with insect pressure or disease that just won’t cease. When I worked on an organic farm, we used a lot of insect netting and it was extremely effective and keeping out unwanted insects or animals. This is always an option that doesn’t involve pesticides. It’s also about time that we give up our incessant need for perfect looking fruit that is so far from reality. Many studies have shown that antioxidant levels, sugars, and medicinal compounds are much higher in produce that has been nibbled on by insects. Ugly food is the new healthy!
Ultimately, if we look at the source of symptoms (the soil), rather than try to eradicate symptoms through harmful pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, ecology is given a chance to renew itself and become strong again.
Less Maintenance and Watering Necessary
One of the most important principles of the food forest is mulching, especially when developing the system early on. Laying down mulch around trees and plants in the food forest aids in the nutrition of the whole system. As the mulch breaks down, it feeds every organism around it. It encourages beneficial fungal associations among plants which strengthens their ability to absorb nutrients and water, as well as increasing their resistance to disease.
Mulch also lessens the need for irrigation, as water is able to really soak in while keeping plants cooler in summer heat. Additionally, mulch suppresses unwanted plants within your system. Unwanted plants can be easily removed and won’t occur nearly as often as a site without mulch. Wood chips are the most effective at doing this, but you can also use compost, leaves, hay, straw, green materials, and manure.
Resilience in Climate Change
Food forests create many different levels of resilience in the face of climate change. If one factor, such as drought, destroys a certain crop, you have dozens more to fall back on.
After the first 1-3 years of care and babying, perennial crops and trees are a lot more resilient to climate stresses like drought, flooding, and other harsh weather patterns than modern agricultural systems. Think of a drought tolerant Oak tree vs a Cucumber plant that needs watering every day in periods of drought…Think of water loving Aronia in a flood vs a Tomato plant.
Who will prevail? Continually, perennial and food forest gardening proves to be more resilient, especially in a day and age where such drastic weather is becoming more common. We are all experiencing climate change, and many areas of the world have been for a long time. Having our entire crop wiped out means no food to feed our communities with. In having a diversity of established perennials and tree crops, we would have established food sources that are much tougher and stronger to fall back on in times of food insecurity.
The more you plant in your food forest, regardless of how small, you will buy less food from the grocery store and save hundreds of dollars. As it progresses, it’s more like thousands. It is astonishing how much a single Apple tree will produce. You will never pay a single cent of taxes for these trees and plants, and every year they will gain in value. The foods from the store are nowhere even remotely close to the nutrition, flavour and satisfaction that the food you grow for yourself can.
In a broader scale, food forests can be a the new model for agriculture. To some like Mark Shepard, they already are.
It is amazing to see food return with new growth each year. This is a life long discovery that comes with endless fascination. If you’re interested in giving back to Nature and becoming more self reliant in your sources of food, food forests are an incredible path to explore. In a world that is so uncertain, creating resilient systems of food, fuel, and medicines all around you is the most adaptable act you can make.
It doesn’t matter if you are in a small suburban space or a massive one. There are always opportunities within communities, and if there aren’t, there is space to create them. Food forests are an ever deepening outlet of artistic expression and growth. They not only provide for our basic needs abundantly, but they feed us in beauty and sense of place, too.
As more food systems look to forests as a blue print, the more adaptable and creative they can become. Look beyond the degenerative agricultural system. Move far from what you’ve always been told about the world “needing fertilizers, pesticides, and tractor culture to grow enough food to feed the world”. These are lies promoted by fossil fuel corporations. Tell that to the cultures of the world who have always thrived in food forest settings, and who also never added to the devastation the Earth is experiencing right now.
Imagine how different and amazing the earth and all of us would feel if we actively planted and tended food forests in our local communities and homes? Nut trees, fruit trees, berries, vines, and other perennial plants are our guides, our home makers, and a story from our past that is beginning to catch wind, like the pollen of Oak flowers that reaches another tree and creates fruit. At Northern Food Forest, we imagine bountiful abundant food forests all of the time, and feel high on the rawest stuff of life after planting a nut or fruit tree. So many of our most pressing issues can be solved through adopting food forest systems, like so many of our ancient ancestors.