(Urban) Food Forest
Agriculture nowadays is one of the most harmful industries in the world. It is estimated that around one quarter of the world’s emissions is coming from this sector (1). If we were able to transform today’s techniques into a mindset and strategy that rather than exploiting the environment even has a positive impact on nature, we would be able to start regenerative processes on a big scale.
“We have disconnected ourselves from life on the planet, thinking that we are the intelligent ones.
But can’t see that we are just part of an intelligent system.”
from Ernst Götsch
A food forest, also called an edible forest garden, is a cultivation method that is inspired by a natural forest system and inhabits a large number of plants, ranging from vegetables and berry bushes to big fruit trees. Food forests benefit from the symbiotic interplay of the different plants and thus offer a large variety of crops without the need for intensive maintenance.
What is a food forest?
Conventional cultivation and gardening methods are exactly the opposite of what make the forest system work. In order to make the harvest easily accessible with large machines, only one species is cultivated in separate rows in each field. All dead organic matter is cleaned up and the missing nutrients are added through fertilizer or chemicals.
In a natural forest, plants automatically take up the space that is most suitable for them to receive the resources they need. Doing so, they also create or improve the habitat for other plants. The result is a deeply interwoven network of very different and complementary species benefiting from each other. Organic matter deriving from the plants and the plant’s fruit plays a crucial role in this circle. Left on the ground, it stores humidity and prevents the soil from drying out while it decomposes to nutrient-rich soil. In ideal circumstances, no human measures like additional nutrition or irrigation are required to keep this system working. The idea of a food forest is not to reproduce a natural forest exactly but to have it as a guiding model for creating a resilient and productive structure that is adapted to our needs. This concept shows how the basics of the forestial system can be applied to agriculture. It mimics the main principles of a forest and consists of perennial trees and plants that provide food. They are planted in such a way that the layer they occupy in their original habitat is respected, providing the ideal conditions in regards to sunlight (2). Every operation is done in order to reach an energetic positive balance in the system, so the system regulates itself.
What are the impacts of a food forest?
On the one hand, a food forest rewards its creators with many advantages. Similar to natural forests, human intervention can be reduced to a minimum because the system is mainly self-regulating. With a well-designed system also the harvesting process is not necessarily more time-intensive than in monoculture. On a smaller scale, where a food forest is mainly used for self-sufficiency, the variety of products supports a healthy and balanced diet. On a larger scale, this variety of products spreads the financial risk across many types of income opportunities by breaking the dependency on one crop only. In addition, the positive impact of cultivation led by food forest principles goes far beyond personal advantages. It does not just enrich the local biodiversity of plants, but by creating a natural habitat it also increases the diversity of animals, especially insects. Farming in a food forest way can kick-start and facilitate processes to save and recreate endangered ecosystems. Furthermore, as the enriched soil, the organic matter, and the plants keep humidity and bring shade, a food forest has an enormous impact on balancing the microclimate. Thinking big, the wide-spread use of food forest principles in agriculture could lead to a considerable effect on the climate.
The key principles of the food forest
Disposition of plants
The design of a food forest garden requires a long-term mindset with the attitude to look patiently into the future. In fact, the natural system takes some time to strike a balance between the species, the final forms of the plants and their proper growth. Nevertheless, it is possible to get fresh fruit and quick results from the smaller plants since the beginning of the process, as those take a short time to adapt and grow. These plants also help prepare the good soil and habits for larger plants.
A food forest garden is usually made up of layers of different plants that strategically help each other throughout their life. In good conditions, the plants themselves occupy the layer to which they naturally belong. In an agroforestry system, eight layers of plants usually have to be organized:
The Emergent layer is the tree layer that overtops the other trees, forming its crown above them. This shows us that they need maximum sunlight and do not tolerate shade. Usually, trees of this layer have only a few branches on the trunk, concentrating its growth on the crown where the sunlight is. Typical for this layer are the date palm, walnut, and pear trees.
The Canopy Layer is composed of large fruit trees, nut trees and leguminous species with large crowns that are providing a good amount of shade during the dry and hot period. Plants are not in competition for reaching good soil, but only for capturing sunlight: trees are actually able to adapt their shape and to grow in harmony with other species to reach the best light spot. Examples for plants of this layer are mulberry, olive, fig or apricot trees.
The Understory Layer consists of small fruit trees and nut trees. Species of this layer prefer a good amount of sunlight but tolerate some shade. Examples for this layer are almond, orange, plum, nectarines, pomegranates, and apple.
The Shrubs Layer is composed of trees that need to be protected from direct sun. Plants of this layer are hazelnut, most berry shrubs and bananas.
The Herbs Layer is composed of short herbaceous plants, often annual.
The Groundcover Layer contains grasses, creepers, and low growing plants that protect topsoil from erosion and drought. This layer slows the speed of raindrops to lessen their impact and protects the soil’s dedicated network of roots, sand, organic matter, and hyphae (fungal roots).
The Vertical Layer is composed of climber plants that grow up trunks and branches of the bigger trees.
The Roots Layer is really important because it pulls up minerals trapped in rocks to the plants: it is composed of tubers, rhizomes and bulbs.
Thanks to the layered diversity of species, food-forest projects provide diversification of products over monoculture cultivations: each layer is in fact offering a specific variety of food in different seasons, from fruits and berries to tubers and mushrooms. In contrast to a monoculture, that requires the fixed distance between plants, agroforestry allows us to reach a much higher density of cultivation, as plants overlap in layers.
Pruning & organic matter
As mentioned before, food forests are designed to reproduce a sustainable and working forest system in which external help and additional human activities are limited, except one: pruning. “Chop and drop” is the key activity that provides the quantity of organic matter that becomes compost to fertilize the soil, extremely important to increase root activities and feed the plants. Pruning plants is also essential to help plants to breath, grow more and reach a good amount of sunlight, encouraging chlorophyll photosynthesis. The photosynthesis is pushing the mycorrhizae, a symbiotic association between a fungus and a plant, playing an important role in plant nutrition, soil biology and soil chemistry.
The fertilization of the soil is constantly influenced by the production of new organic substances: the pruned branches that remained on the ground become water collectors in the rainy season and release moisture and water in dry periods. Following food forest principles is a good way to fight the soil exhaustion on a small or large scale. In fact, the use of different plants determines a symbiotic interplay in the use of the soil and is balancing nutrition resources. Every kind of soil could be defined as a “good” one: what matters is the amount of organic matter that determines the continuous fertilization of the soil. The soil is, also, acting as a sponge being a water and minerals container. Understanding of the importance of organic matter for the water management of the system can be found in the following numbers: If the amount of organic matter in the soil is increased by only 1%, an additional of 175.000 liters per hectare of water can be stored in the soil.
Interview with Sheila from The Southern Lights Project
Food Forest had been proven a successful phenomenon on a smaller scale on a personal as well as on a commercial base. An amazing example for a prosperous sustainable business is the food forest farm The Southern Lights in Skala, Greece. Based on the organic farm of her father, Sheila introduced food forest features into her place, now cultivating more than 80 crops from which the farm and its employees can have a reliable income.
What do I need to start a food forest?
“There is no minimum size, you can start a food forest on a spot as little as one square meter. It is helpful to have or gather some knowledge of the plants you want to put, especially their layer. And finally, you need to add a lot of organic matter..”
Are there any plants that are not so suitable for food forest?
“Some plants might be not so easy to work with, like for example grains or rice and you will not get too much crop from this. But it is important to know your plants and things that might work out in some other conditions might not work out for yours.“
Should I be afraid of invasive species?
“If a species is invasive in your place, that means something is missing. Actually, those so-called “invasive” or pioneer species prepare the soil with their organic matter for other plants that have higher demands on the soil.”
Can I combine a food forest with animals?
“Animals can be very helpful for your food forest. They help to decompose the organic matter as they eat it and literally poop fertilizer. But I would rather keep my place welcoming to every species that feels comfortable in my place instead of bringing animals from outside.”
How can I know if my soil is good soil?
“Your soil should look like the soil in a forest, meaning you find a lot of organic matter on the ground, even if the very surface is dry, it is humid within deeper layers. And if you can find worms, mycelium and mushrooms it is a very good sign.”
What is the difference between “permaculture” and “food forest”?
“Permaculture is a design technique, which can be applied to any kind of context. Its main ideas are Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share achieved through many principles, for example, to observe and interact or integrate rather than segregate. A food forest is a good example showing this principle being applied.”
Extract from her lecture, to see the whole presentation check our YouTube Channel
How to bring these principles to a larger scale?
A common prejudice concerning the adoption of the food forest concept to a larger scale might be the assumption that due to its unregulated structure, a forest-inspired agriculture might not be workable with large machines. But projects started and inspired by Ernst Götsch, a swiss botanist working in Brazil, had shown that large scale agriculture and the principles of a forest can go astonishingly well together.
He developed the concept of syntropic farming [Gr. syn, together with, trepein, to turn.]: usually, a minimum of 30 different species will be planted, taking into consideration their suitability to the local conditions, their ecophysiological function, their lifetime as well as the farmer’s productive goals. To make it workable with bigger machines and tools, most of the plants are cultivated in rows. In contrast to traditional farming, these rows not only consist of one single species, set apart for a few meters but follow the principles of agroforestry and food forests. These means, companion plants and trees from different layers are densely combined together to facilitate the supporting networks. Mostly fast-growing support species (like eucalyptus or mulberry) are mixed with income-generating fruit-bearing plants and trees. Natural processes are accelerated through heavy pruning of the support species in order to generate vast amounts of organic matter which will decompose to nutritious soil for the fruit trees and plants.
“What all of them have in common is that the harvest is a side-effect of ecosystem regeneration, and vice versa – ecosystem regeneration is a side-effect of the efforts to produce a harvest.”
from Ernst Götsch
Bringing food forest to urban contexts
In view of the many advantages of a food forest, the question arises, how this principle could be brought into the urban context. Similar to existing gardening projects, food forests can contribute to make cities greener, bring communities together and reduce food transportation. The benefit of a food forest is that also perennial species are used. This means, once the structure of the food forest is in place, less work will be required than it may be the case with the replanting of annual vegetables. “Upgrade” existing urban gardening projects is a good start to bring the principles of a food forest into the urban environment, but also introducing it to the yards and gardens of school and kindergartens has been proven to be a good starting point so far.
But the most practical way to bring a food forest into the city is by starting one of our own! Thanks to the introduction to the concept and the following workshop from Sheila Darmos from The Southern Lights, our very own little food forest is growing in our workshop’s backyard.
(1) [Hannah Ritchie, Max Roser] “Environmental impacts of food production”, January 2020, online available at: http://ijsetr.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/IJSETR-VOL-6-ISSUE-10-1364-1369. (Last accessed in June 2020).
[Sheila Darmos] “The Southern Lights Project”, lectures and workshop, January 2020, online available at: http://thesouthernlights.org/. (Last accessed in June 2020).
[Ernst Götsch] “Syntropic Farm Project”, online available at: https://agendagotsch.com/en/. (Last accessed in June 2020).