Saturday, April 1, 2023


If you’ve ever driven down a back road in a developing, tropical country, you’ll notice that many of the locals grow a large portion of their own food. You may have also noticed that their food gardens aren’t entirely made up of small annual vegetables planted in straight rows like ours. They usually have a wild look, with edible trees, shrubs, vines, and ground covers all growing together as if Mother Nature had planted the garden herself. These are literally food forests.

Food forests are comparable to the ultimate organic garden. Is it necessary to till, weed, fertilize, or irrigate a forest? Nope. And that is the goal.

There is no need to till them because they are mostly perennial crops. Without tilling, the natural soil structure is preserved, preventing topsoil loss and enabling all the little microbes and soil critters to do their jobs, cycling nutrients and maintaining fertility. Trees and shrubs are more resilient to drought because of their deep roots, and they also shade the ground beneath them, preventing evaporation and keeping the lower plants lush and moist in a self-sustaining, environmentally friendly system.

Read on to learn how to start your own food forest:


Choose a location for your forest garden that is open and sunny. It can be as small as 100 square feet, with one fruit tree and a variety of smaller plants, or as big as many acres. Agroforestry is a term used to describe forest gardening on a larger, commercial scale. Commercial agroforestry is used to grow a variety of tropical crops, including coffee and chocolate, though it is rare in North America (other than in the context of timber plantations).

Unlike a conventional vegetable garden, a forest garden does not require the ground to be tilled and shaped into beds. Instead, as if you were planting ornamental shrubs and trees, dig a hole for each individual plant. If the soil is poor in quality, you may want to “top-dress” the entire planting area with several inches of compost before planting.

Raised beds are especially useful in food forests where drainage is an issue. Instead of making the effort to build traditional raised beds out of wood, you could sculpt the earth into low, broad mounds at the location of each tree. Smaller plants can then be planted along the mounds’ slopes. A different way to do this is to shape the land into long, narrow “swales” that have a raised berm (for a well-drained planting area) and a wide, shallow ditch (to collect rainwater runoff and force it into the soil beneath the planting berm).

Prior to planting, remove any weeds, grass, or other existing vegetation. This can be done manually or by smothering them under “sheet mulch,” a permaculture technique in which sheets of cardboard are overlaid with a few inches of mulch on top of the vegetation, depriving the plants for light and causing them to compost in place. To add extra nutrients, compost can be added as a layer between the cardboard and the mulch. Permaculturists usually use sheet mulching and swales together to improve the area before planting.

Brush away the mulch and cut holes in the cardboard just large enough to dig a planting hole at the location of each plant when you’re ready to plant. Then, recirculate the mulch around the newly installed plant. Maintaining a deep mulch layer is essential for preventing weeds, conserving soil moisture, and increasing organic matter—all of which will assist your food forest in being self-sustaining and self-sufficient.


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