One of gardening’s newest trends includes the humble ‘food forest,’ an ancient art that’s been picking up speed over the past few years. Understanding how to build a backyard food forest could change your entire garden for the better. Here’s what we’re going to cover:
- What a food forest is
- Understanding food ‘guilds’
- How to make a food forest
- A word about the law
- Where to go for help
What Is A Food Forest?
Sometimes called permaculture gardens, food forests are unique growing patterns that mimic naturally formed diversity in wild forests and fields. It is the art of creating a man-made forest that continuously yields fresh fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Unlike our usual garden designs, food forests are built to grow up, down, and out. In other words, it’s a bountiful yield with life in all directions!
One interesting fact about food forests is that they are 100% sustainable. Because of the way they are designed and planted, permaculture (permanent culture) gardens can grow year after year with extremely minimal upkeep. They do not require irrigation, tilling, weeding, or any other kind of support. Food forests are self-mulching, provide their own pest control, and have extremely high yields that are difficult to overlook. If you have even a little space in your yard, you can start planting a food forest of your own!
Understanding ‘Food Guilds’
Every naturally occurring ‘food forest’ has seven different types of plants. Sometimes called ‘food guilds,’ each of these seven plant types need to be present in the ‘forest’ to make it self-sustainable. They include:
- Overstory trees
- Understory trees
- Herbaceous plants
- Ground covers
All of these plants must be grown together to qualify your space as a ‘permaculture’ garden.
But is it possible to fit all seven guild varieties on the same plot? Absolutely! Here are some examples:
- Walnut or Apple trees are larger canopy options.
- Raspberries and Elderberries make phenomenal understory shrubs.
- Garlic, chamomile, and sage are herbaceous plants with many uses.
- Horseradish and artichoke are some of the most popular root varieties.
- Strawberries, thyme, and mint create flavorful ground covers.
- Many vines, including kiwi and grapes, can be grown in temperate areas.
Food forests sound complicated in theory. However (with just a little planning), they are only a matter of funding and planting. Once you get the forest started, you will likely spend less than an hour a week on maintenance.
How To Grow A Backyard Food Forest
Food forests are somewhat similar to ‘normal’ gardens, except with more plants. They will need lots of attention and upkeep for the first few years, then gradually become self-sufficient. When building a food forest in your backyard, you’ll want to follow these helpful steps:
- Pick your plants well in advance. Bear in mind that you will need to have adequate space for all your choices, including tall canopy trees! If space is a concern, choose plants that conform to a smaller area.
- Check, amend/restore, and survey the soil in your yard. Soil tests are relatively inexpensive and can be done by your local extension office.
- Flat planting spaces are not required for food forests. In fact, try choosing hilly areas that may increase the natural biodiversity of the area.
- Research, research, research! Source your plants from a local grower if possible. Remember: you don’t want invasive species.
- Consider making your forest ‘creature friendly.’ Ponds, birdhouses, and bug hotels are all fun options that add to the natural environment.
You’re almost ready to start planting a food forest of your very own! There are just a few more factors to consider, like legal requirements.
The Legal Requirements Of Food Forests
Now that you know the basics of food foresting, you can get started on one for your own yard, right?
Well, not quite.
Food foresting is a recently revived form of gardening. As such, the legal logistics behind it can be tricky. Up until a few years ago, it was illegal to grow any kind of food plant around Atlanta, GA residential properties. Even today, many American HOAs and residential properties prohibit the planting of gardens. If even tomatoes are banned, how can you expect to grow a food forest?
It’s important to talk with your city council or neighborhood management about legal requirements for food foresting. Check to see if your town implements a ‘Right to Garden‘ law, or if they have documentation about garden size limitations. It’s better to be safe than sorry, especially with a major project like food foresting!
Food Forest Support Groups
Maybe you’ve been gardening for a long time. Maybe you have a little experience in the outdoors but are looking to increase your abilities. Maybe you’re just starting to learn the ropes. In any case, there’s always going to be something new to learn about gardening, which is why finding a support group is paramount for your success.
Today, permaculture support groups are more common than ever before. Some groups exist in person and can be found through your local garden club or extension office. Other support groups may be located entirely online, and are found on platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and MeetUp. Still, others are based in volunteer-type organizations, including the Food Forest Project. If you are really interested in getting into food foresting, you should try and immerse yourself with people who are actively trying to establish one around their property.
If you find yourself struggling to find a place to go, or if you can’t seem to get integrated with permaculture groups in your area, consider joining a branch of the Master Gardening Association. MGAs are community-oriented programs that provide ways to try new skills and learn from fellow gardeners. Best of all, they allow you to gain access to growing experts from all walks of life.
Food foresting is an intricate gardening art that deserves to be celebrated. Give it a try on your property, and reap the rewards for years to come!