Why You Should Plant a Food Forest

3 Reasons Why You Should Plant a Food Forest

Most of us think of a farm or garden as the exact opposite of a forest. So why should you plant a food forest? It turns out when you mimic the structure of a forest to create a food forest, you can actually get more food from the same area. But that’s just one reason to plant a food forest. And for me, it’s not even the biggest reason. Let’s dive into 3 reasons why you should plant a food forest.

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What do you think of when you picture a garden? If you’re like most of us, I’m guessing you picture a relatively flat, square, sunny area with a series of defined beds and paths between them.

Now, you can get more creative and add curves and keyhole beds, but in general, a garden has defined growing beds with paths, and it’s open and sunny.

But when you picture a forest you probably think about an area that, while beautiful and full of life, is also more chaotic-looking (at least compared to a kitchen garden,) and it’s often cool and shady.

Not exactly what people think about when picturing a garden. And let’s face it, it’s not the environment that most food crops would be happy in.

Food Forest Series

Want to learn more about food forests? Check out this series to learn more about food forests and how to plant your own.

But not all forests are the same. What most people think about is a mature forest with lots of big, tall trees and a closed canopy overhead.

But what about a young forest that’s just starting to regrow after a forest fire?

These forests are open, with a decent amount of sunlight reaching the forest floor. There are still large trees scattered throughout, but they’re not close enough to form a canopy. And that openness leaves a lot of room for shrubs and non-woody plants (herbaceous), such as flowers, to fill in and thrive across the forest floor.

Here in western Washington, these recovering forests are a great option for designing a food forest for your property.

Wild Tip:

This recovering forest model is just one of 3 types of food forests you could plant. Check out our blog post – Types of Food Forests – Which is Right for You? – to learn more.

Just picture having a series of large fruit trees growing 20 feet (6 meters) or so apart, with some berry shrubs growing around and between the trees, along with lots of perennial vegetables and traditional annual vegetables growing in the open spaces.

Wild Tip:

Don’t forget to add in some native plants to your food forest. This will help support a large diversity of wildlife, keep pests in balance, and even provide food for your family and community.

Now just add some nice nature trails and sit spots between the growing areas and you have a vibrant, productive food forest.

Truly a place of abundance for people, plants and wildlife.

But it’s much different than a traditional garden, so why should you plant a food forest? There are 3 core reasons why you should plant a food forest.

  • More food for Your Family and Community.
  • Support wildlife and heal our living world.
  • Build healthy soil.

Let’s dive into each of these reasons. But before we do, make sure to grab your free cheat-sheet all about starting your own food forest which includes 2 sample apple tree guilds.

Why Should You Plant a Food Forest? – More Food for Your Family and Community

Grow native vegetables around the shrubs in your shrub layer

These rose checkermallows provide food during the spring, summer, fall and winter—all without watering, or really without any maintenance at all. Checkermallows are a great example of a fantastic native vegetable that you can grow in a food forest.

One of the biggest reasons why people love food forests is that you can grow more food in the same amount of space than in a regular garden.

The reason is that a food forest is like vertical gardening on steroids.

A food forest is generally thought of as having 7 core layers that mimic the layers of a forest. But we can simplify it to the following based on our sample food forest from earlier:

  • Canopy layer (your fruit, nut and other large trees)
  • Shrub layer (your berries and other shrubs or small trees)
  • Herbaceous layer (your veggies, root crops, groundcovers and other non-woody plants)

Even if you just go with this simplified food forest, you are now able to stack 3 different growing layers over the same area. A regular vegetable garden generally only has the herbaceous layer, and potentially some climbing vegetables on a few trellises.

In an established food forest, you’ll be getting fruits, nuts, berries, veggies, and root crops all from the same area. This setup can easily result in more food than a garden planted in the same area.

But as a perennial food system, a food forest will take time to get established. You won’t get all those harvests in the first year.

A food forest is an investment in your long-term food security.

While you can plant annual vegetables in a food forest, these are perennial systems. That means you don’t have to replant every year once it’s established. Though you can also scatter annual veggies in open areas.

Wild Tip:

Annual vegetables can be a great way to improve your harvests during the first few years of your food forest. Over time, your perennial food plants will fill out and replace your annual plants. But mixing in annual vegetables is a great way to get started early on.

This also means no tilling, and generally, very little weeding and watering. Perennial food systems, once established, tend to take care of themselves for the most part—just like a forest. Though you may still want to do some chop-and-dropping to build soil, and do some pruning as needed.

Wild Tip:

A food forest is also a climate-resilient way of growing food. Want to learn more about climate change and growing food? Check out this presentation I gave to the South Sound Fruit Society in early 2021 to learn more.

All this means that if you get hurt and can’t go out and plant, you’ll still know that you’ll have food growing.

So why should you plant a food forest? To invest in a long-term perennial food system that will provide food for your family and community for years to come, without the need for regular inputs from you.

Why Should You Plant a Food Forest? – Support Wildlife and Heal our Living World

Why you should plant a food forest - heal our living world

This food forest used to be my front lawn. Now it’s a place filled with abundance for people, plants and wildlife. Planting a food forest is one way to help heal our living world.

Our living world is struggling. And a big reason is the destruction of native forests for food production. But a food forest not only provides food for people—it also provides for and supports your local wildlife.

Growing food in a traditional garden through traditional means (tilling, monocultures, etc.) doesn’t leave a lot of room for wildlife.

But food production and spaces for nature don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, indigenous peoples in the US and around the world have been cultivating abundance for people, plants and wildlife by growing food in perennial systems like food forests.

But when you grow food in a food forest, you’re mimicking a forest, which means you’re creating space for wildlife in addition to providing food for your family and community.

When you stop tilling the soil, the life that calls it home will begin to thrive and build soil for you. And then, planting a diversity of perennial plants, including trees, shrubs and non-woody (herbaceous) plants, along with annual vegetables, provides homes for all sorts of wildlife.

Planting perennial plants is a great way to improve your soil.

And since you’re mimicking a forest, you can easily add flowers throughout your food forest to support beneficial insects.

Wild Tip:

Adding native nitrogen-fixing plants like lupines is a great way to support beneficial insects while also building healthy soil. Here in western Washington. bigleaf lupines (Lupinus polyphyllus) and riverbank lupines (Lupinus rivularis) are great options.

While mimicking the living structure of a forest is a great way to support wildlife, you can take it a step further by including the non-living elements of a forest.

Logs, rocks and snags are all fantastic for supporting wildlife. I’ve included log and rock piles and snags throughout my food forests and I often see wildlife visiting them.

Wild Tip:

Logs, rocks and snags can all be called habitat features. Adding habitat features throughout your property is a great way to support wildlife and reduce pest issues. Here are some posts to help you get started:

Imagine an area filled with fruit and nut trees, berry shrubs, and perennial and annual vegetables, along with native plants, logs, rocks and snags. Now compare that to a traditional garden with rows of annual vegetables.

It should be easy to understand why a food forest will support far more wildlife than a traditional garden.

But that food forest will also provide food security and even more food from the same area than the garden.

This is a great way to help heal the living world, and it’s a big reason why you should plant a food forest.

Why Should You Plant a Food Forest? – Build Healthy Soil

Moderate climate extremes by building soil and planting perennials

This area used to be a gravel parking lot. Today it’s a food forest, and the soil is steadily improving.

Building healthy soil is a core part of our 5 pathways to abundance, and it’s key to helping heal our living world. But often, modern ways of growing food damage the soil and the life that lives in it.

Every time you till the soil, you destroy the life within it. Earthworms and other soil life don’t tend to survive tilling. And over time, you can also create a layer of compaction just below the depth that the tiller reaches.

The result is that the soil becomes poorer over time, with less and less life. This is often mitigated through the addition of chemical fertilizers and other inputs.

It creates a vicious cycle that not only damages our living word, but also makes your garden dependent on outside inputs.

A food forest does the opposite. It builds soil over time.

Food forests are perennial food systems, which means that you don’t till them.

And this alone is a big reason why they help build healthy soil. When you don’t till, you give space for soil life to thrive and do what they do best—turn dead plants and animals into rich, healthy soil.

But there is more going on than just not tilling.

All plants, but especially perennial plants, actually feed and encourage soil life. They do this by releasing what are called root exudates—basically packets of sugars along with some other compounds—into the soil.

These exudates feed soil life, which further helps to build healthy soil.

There are a lot of reasons why plants release root exudates. But a big reason is to encourage soil life that helps the plants thrive.

Bacteria, fungi and other soil life can access nutrients in the soil that your plants can’t. But over time, when the soil life naturally dies or releases waste (think worm castings as an example), those nutrients become available for plants.

So by not tilling, and by planting perennial plants, you’re encouraging this complex relationship between plants and the life in the soil.

The result is rich, healthy soil that helps your plants thrive.

And finally, perennial plants in a food forest help build soil by keeping the soil covered as a living mulch, and by dropping their leaves, and even branches, adding a constant flow of organic matter back to the land. You can speed up this process by chop-and-dropping some of your plants each year.

Basically you’re creating a forest floor filled with leaves, branches, and life.

So what does this all mean?

It means that, over time, a food forest will build up a layer of rich, healthy soil filled with life. This layer of healthy soil will hold more water, which will help your food forest weather droughts and heavy rainstorms.

Your plants will also have all the nutrients they need, and you won’t need regular inputs to help them grow.

The end result is a healthy, resilient food system that isn’t reliant on regular inputs and that is filled with abundance for people, plants and wildlife.

Getting Started with Your Own Food Forest

Work with nitrogen fixing plants

When we bought our property 4 years ago, this area was all grass. Today, it’s a thriving food forest filled with abundance. You can do the same. Just start small, with a couple trees, and build from there.

Why should you plant a food forest? The core reason is to create abundance for people, plants and wildlife.

And while a food forest may seem too complex, I believe they’re actually easier to manage and grow than a traditional kitchen garden.

Perennial plants are just more resilient and forgiving than annual veggies. Plus, each year a food forest gets more resilient and better able to weather shocks.

I could walk away from mine and they would keep growing and thriving for years to come without any care.

Though they would become a bit more “wild.”

But how do you get started?

A great way to start is to just plant a single fruit tree. But don’t stop there!

Next, add some shrubs around it. Nitrogen fixing shrubs like goumi berries are a great option, and gooseberries are great to plant on the shady side of your tree.

I also like to add native nitrogen fixers like lupines around my fruit and nut trees.

Then add some strawberries, flowers, perennial vegetables and/or annual vegetables around your tree and shrubs.

Finally, make sure to cover the space between the plants with mulch and add some logs/rocks and even a snag or 2.

Wild Tip:

Don’t forget to include native plants when planting your food forest. Native plants will help you create a balance between pests and the predators that eat them. And many native plants are also edible. Some of my best food crops are actually native plants. Here are some posts to help you get started:

The result is a vibrant, abundant food system centered around a single fruit or nut tree. Now just repeat this process by planting another tree roughly 15 to 20 feet (4.6 to 6.1 meters) [depending on the size of your fruit tree] away from the first.

You can add paths or more plants to the space between to help fill it in—and make sure to mulch it all.

Now just repeat this process, and before you know it, you will have a food forest.

So are you ready to start your own food forest? Let us know in the comments.


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Daron

Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.

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