QUESTION: What is a food forest? I heard it mentioned on the radio, but it was the end of the segment and then I never figured out what it actually was. – Jenna F
GARDENING CHANNEL REPLIES: A food forest is a garden that mirrors nature. It mainly consists of perennial plants to avoid disrupting the soil as annuals commonly do.
As with a forest, a food forest has multiple layers. Let’s discuss each layer and what it may consist of:
The overstory layer is the top layer of this style of garden. It’s where taller plants live and receive the most sunlight. This story mainly consists of full-size trees such as fruit or nut trees.
The understory is the second layer of the food forest. These plants will receive only partial sunlight. The best plants for this layer of the garden are dwarf varieties of fruit and nut trees.
3. Shrub Layer
The shrub layer receives partial sunlight at best. However, with the taller trees out of the way, there’s now room for bushier plants. This story is a great fit for fruit-producing bushes.
4. Herbaceous Layer
The herbaceous layer is where smaller herbs and perennial vegetables can grow. Good selections for this layer are perennial herbs, rhubarb, and asparagus. Sprawling crops that are considered groundcover would also work at this layer as well.
5. Root Layer
As the name suggests, this is the area of the food forest where root crops thrive. You could incorporate potatoes, carrots, parsnips, beets, and most other root crops into this layer of the food forest.
6. Vine Layer
The vine layer is a great spot for climbing crops that also do well in shaded areas. Some of the most common crops used for this layer are grapes and runner beans. You may also consider adding vining flowers to this layer for added beauty.
7. Mushroom Layer
The final layer of the food forest is the mushroom layer. This is where you can grow a variety of mushrooms.
Benefits to Food Forests
Now that you understand what a food forest is and its different layers, you may wonder why people garden in this way. What are the benefits?
There have been numerous gardening methods presented to the public over the last few decades that mimic nature. The reason being is because we know that nature works and requires minimal effort. So if you’re trying to grow a low-maintenance garden, why not copy the system surrounding you and see if you can grow things you love without breaking your back for them.
This is where a food forest comes into play. The design of a food forest takes care of managing pests as the layers provide protection.
Due to the plants going through their natural life cycles in the same soil and decomposition taking place, the plants receive fertilization naturally. Also, due to the different layers of this style of garden it helps stifle weeds and helps the soil hold moisture. This all happens naturally due to the layering process.
Plus, all of these plants can grow in a smaller area without competing with each other as each plant receives what it needs from its surroundings due to the layering process.
Finally, if you’re interested in growing a food forest and you have a wooded area nearby, don’t feel like you have to start all of this from scratch.
You can begin growing edible plants in a wooded area and see how this process works for your gardening goals.
Hopefully, you now have a better idea of what a food forest is and what plants may work well in this type of garden.
You may also understand the benefits of this type of garden. If you’re looking for a garden with a little less maintenance and something that mimics nature, a food forest could be for you.