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Food forests are all the rage, and they have many homeowners digging up their lawns to plant micro-farms in the back yard. But, what is a food forest, and how do you start one?
A food forest is a permanent, self-sustaining ecosystem comprised of plants that provide food for humans. Food forests include trees, shrubs, perennials, reseeding annuals, groundcovers, and vines. When you plan a food forest include ways to attract beneficial insects and animals for pest control and pollination.
Establishing a food forest requires a substantial amount of planning, labor, and patience. Before you get started, read through the following tips for a smoother process.
Is a Food Forest a Vegetable Garden?
Not really. While a food forest contains vegetable plants, it is not a traditional vegetable garden.
Vegetable gardens are generally planted each spring and either mowed over or tilled under each fall/winter. The process repeats each growing season.
While a vegetable garden technically contains fruits, like tomatoes, cucumbers, and watermelon, it does not include established fruits and nuts like peach trees, walnut trees, or blueberries. These are all permanent plants outside the scope of an annual vegetable garden.
A food forest is a self-sustaining ecosystem made up of plants that provide food. Ecosystems need different levels of plant growth to support the biodiversity that keeps the microclimate functioning.
Food forests have seven layers (source):
- Overstory trees.
- Understory trees.
- Herbaceous plants.
- Ground covers.
Each layer provides a home and food for beneficial insects, animals, and bacteria that then provide food or services to the other layers.
Food forests are always organic. There is no such thing as a food forest that uses chemical sprays or pest control methods. Food forests depend on an active, diverse insect and animal population, which should keep pests under control.
Ground covers provide weed barriers for the above-ground layers, trees and shrubs prevent compaction for the root layers, flowering plants provide food for pollinating insects, and other plants provide shelter for birds that snack on pests.
Is My Backyard Right for a Food Forest?
Most backyards are suitable for some kind of food forest, although it may not work for the foods you want to grow.
Walnut trees, for example, take 10-13 years to mature and produce nuts. They will reach up to 150’ tall over their lifetime. This tree produces a lot of shade, so unless you have a large backyard, this is not a sustainable option.
Before you install a food forest, plan out what kind of foods you would like to produce. Expand beyond typical fruits and vegetables; look into fruit trees, nut trees, edible vines, and groundcovers.
Not all plants in your food forest have to be edible. Some groundcovers, like clover, may provide a food source for bees and fix nitrogen in the soil. While clover is edible in small amounts, it plays more of a supporting role in a food forest.
If you have a small backyard, you may want to look into vertical growing options. Arbors with vines, larger containers with multiple plantings, and hanging planters can provide a miniature food forest setting.
Tips for Creating a Backyard Food Forest
If you have decided your backyard is suitable for a permanent food forest, it’s time to start planning and installing your plants. Use the following tips as a guide:
1. Check local laws.
Most residential areas have no law against a food forest for personal use, although some HOAs may prohibit large backyard gardens.
The problem many growers encounter is when they want to expand their forest into the front lawn and sidewalk area, and when they decide to start selling produce. Avoid doing either until you talk to your local extension office.
2. Do a soil test.
Food forests are permanent, so it will be very difficult to amend the soil once the plants are established. Do a soil test before you plant so you can start with a healthy foundation. You can purchase a soil test online (link to Amazon).
3. Amend the soil.
A soil test may indicate low phosphorous, iron, or other nutrients. You can use specific amendments to fix deficiencies before you plant.
4. Add compost.
You will need to till the entire area you transform into a food forest, which is a perfect time to mix in rich, organic compost. Unless you are establishing an ecosystem that needs poor, rocky, sandy soil, adding compost is always a good idea. Click here for our complete guide to active composting.
5. Make a list.
Write down at least one plant that fits into each of the seven food forest layers. Then, start researching the plants and how they may benefit or harm each other.
Some plants, like walnuts, produce a chemical from the roots that kill surrounding plants. Others may become invasive in your area.
Look up the light, water, and soil requirements for each plant. Most plants can coexist under less-than-ideal conditions, but it will be difficult to establish a large prickly pear cactus next to a blueberry bush.
6. Research mature sizes.
This is the most overlooked part of landscape design, and it can quickly lead to pest problems in a food forest that becomes overcrowded.
If you buy a young tree that is currently 4’ tall, it is tempting to plant it quite close to another tree, shrub, building, or fence. However, that tree may mature to a size of 20’ and shade out surrounding plants.
Plants spaced too close may grow into each other, shade each other out, and struggle to get the right amount of water or nutrients from shared soil space. While properly-spaced young plants may look lonely, they will be fuller and healthier as they mature than their crowded counterparts.
7. Don’t forget terrain.
Part of creating a food forest is creating a topography that encourages an active beneficial insect and animal population. Try creating areas of the yard that are raised and lowered to create natural paths for drainage and pools to provide moisture pockets.
8. Install homes for creatures.
Insects and animals are a huge factor in making your food forest sustainable. Provide small, simple homes for them to increase a diverse habitat for beneficial creatures.
Consider using the following (links will take you to an example product on Amazon):
- Ponds. This gives a home to frogs, helps maintain humidity, and provides a water source for other insects and animals.
- Bug hotels. This cute hotel provides a place for insects to breed and overwinter.
- Birdhouses. Birds can be a pain when you’re growing fruits and nuts, but with enough insect activity, birds should be too occupied with hunting to do much damage to your food. Plus, they keep harmful pests in check.
- Caves/Hides. Reptiles are a major player in the realm of pest control, but many gardeners and homeowners are terrified of them. Provide a few caves/hides for small reptiles like lizards and garter snakes to help manage rodents, but make sure they aren’t enticing to venomous species in your area.
9. Branch out into new foods.
Most commercial food crops are bred to thrive in a monocrop environment. Food forests are the exact opposite of a monocrop, and sometimes it is difficult to find a familiar food to fill a layer in your forest.
Contact a local nursery in your area and ask about wild edible plants or local fruits, nuts, and vegetables you can plant in a food forest. Many wild plants are edible, and native species are already perfectly suited to your climate and soil.
10. Plan a supplemental irrigation system.
Ideally, a food forest will become completely self-sustaining. However, you want to have a system in place to supplement water as new plants establish root systems and during times of drought or water stress.
The type of irrigation system you choose will depend on your area, but drip irrigation is the most efficient and low-profile setup.
11. Use permeable materials.
Gravel paths and stepping stones allow water and oxygen to permeate as much soil as possible, which creates a healthier foundation for surrounding root systems. Try using permeable materials for paths and patios to encourage healthy soil life.
This couple on YouTube walk you through their backyard food forest including their choices of plants, soil and watering practices, as well as the benefits of just being outside working with the plants.
Food forests are an incredible way to provide more diverse habitats for wildlife, increase food independence, and cut down on lawn maintenance costs.
If installing a food forest sounds intimidating, start with the big plants first. Plant a few trees and shrubs, and then each year add a few more elements until your backyard is a flourishing natural farm.