An edible forest, food garden, forest garden, orchard or similar forest is a complex agroforestry system that mimics the architectural and functional structure of a natural forest, using native and non-native plants that directly or indirectly benefit us humans. Edible forests represent the best way to combine ancestral and scientific knowledge to create agroforestry production systems, they are also undoubtedly a great opportunity to increase global food production while regenerating soils, with all the benefits that this entails.
The main function of Permaculture is to design environments that are close to natural ecosystems, the forest being one of those great ecosystems par excellence.
Food forests are undoubtedly a powerful tool for change in many ways. Being designed with natural forests as an ecosystem to imitate, they enhance biodiversity, provide food and other raw materials (medicines, wood, fodder, spices) as well as being a large carbon dioxide sink; it is not uncommon for it to be one of the iconic elements in any classic permaculture design, and in my opinion the best tool for adapting and fighting climate change.
They are low-maintenance systems compared to their possible production, this does not mean that nothing has to be done, but rather that the energy invested is always more than returned, contrary to what happens in industrial agriculture, which is only possible thanks to fossil energy and the overexploitation of natural resources.
Who has not ever imagined enjoying a paradisiacal orchard? What if this also contributes to the regeneration of Nature that we so much need?
A brief history
Forest gardening is a technique that our ancestors already used in prehistory. In almost all parts of the planet and especially in tropical and subtropical regions, the human being carried out this strategy using different techniques. They all sought the same goal, to promote plants for different reasons of our interest and to create an environment of abundance to ensure everything necessary to cover their basic needs, whether it was food, medicine, fuel, construction materials, etc. Thus humans improved their environment, identified, protected and improved tree species, shrubs, herbs and useful vines, eliminating species that were not so interesting or were undesirable. Later, they also selected and incorporated non-native or exotic species with interest.
It must be taken into account that in prehistory, the planet had a much larger area of primary forest, so in addition to having these forest gardens, they had everything that the original forest provided them at hand. These cultures enjoyed, and some still enjoy, a high level of food security, both because of what the agroecosystem offered them, and because of their high degree of knowledge about the beings with whom they lived.
There were two ways to do it, modifying the forest or designing the plantation in a deforested area for agriculture, or housing. Today, in most places, modifying an area of primary forest to convert it into food forest would not be ethical in most cases, since we have too much deforested and mistreated land surface to continue cutting that surface, especially primary forest.
Examples of traditional forest gardening still remain, especially in tropical areas. They receive various names, domestic garden (home garden) in Nepal, Tanzania or India, pekaragan in Java, family gardens in Mexico…
One of the pioneers in deepening the concept and to whom we owe the most contemporary vision of it, is Robert Harp, who adapted the technique to the temperate climate of the United Kingdom during the 1980s, developing a system based on the observation of the forest differentiating the 7 layers or strata they have and creating agroforestry systems that mimic that structure. He used intercropping to convert an existing small apple and pear orchard into an edible polyculture landscape made up of the following strata or layers:
- Tree canopy layer, composed of large fruit trees.
- Low tree layer, composed of small nut trees and fruit trees
- Shrub layer, composed of fruit bushes, such as currants and berries.
- Herbaceous layer, composed of herbs and perennial vegetables.
- Rhizosphere, or subterranean dimension, composed of plants grown for their roots and tubers.
- Ground cover layer, composed of edible plants that spread horizontally above the ground.
- Vertical layer, with vines and climbing plants.
Bill Mollison visited Robert Hart at his forest garden at Wenlock Edge in 1990. Since then, Hart’s seven-layer system has been incorporated as a common permaculture design element and many permaculturists promote forest gardens or woodlands. of food, such as Graham Bell, Patrick Whitefield, Dave Jacke, Eric Toensmeier, Geoff Lawton, Rosemary Morrow, Gisela Mir, Sepp Holzer, and many more.
Kevin Bradley named the concept edible forest in the 1980s as the name of his five-acre nursery, garden and orchard in northern Wisconsin, USA. After more than two decades of Bradley’s “Edible Forest Nursery” and the 2005 publication of Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeirer, Bradley’s example has become a worldwide movement of small “edible forests.” The two-volume publication of Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier provided a well-researched, focused reference on North American forest gardening climates, habitats, and species. The book attempts to root forest gardening in ecological science.
In Spanish we recently have the book forests and food gardens by Gisela Mir and Mark Biffen who have made a book on the subject adapted to the Mediterranean climate, recounting their experience near Barcelona.
Analog Forestry (Senanayake 1987) is a tool based among other things on the understanding of traditional forest gardens in Sri Lanka, called forest home gardens. Analog forestry in Sri Lanka builds on the strength of this traditional paradigm. Many wooded home gardens mimic the natural succession of species found in local forest vegetation. Analogous forests are used in this agroforestry design system.
Senanayake’s ideas of creating an agricultural system adapted to the local context have been further investigated by the Neo Synthesis Research Center (NSRC) in Sri Lanka. In 1995, Analog Forestry was accepted by the international scientific community as a methodology integrating biodiversity protection in the context of landscape-scale management during the “Open-ended intergovernmental meeting of scientific experts on biological diversity” held in Mexico City and financed by the United Nations.
There are many contributions that allow us to understand and develop food forests or food gardens in almost all regions of the planet. Lots of inspiring projects and lots of accumulated information, in this article I refer to some of those that a server knows best, but there are many more people, both scientific and not, who have contributed to the fact that today we have this powerful tool, all of them, many Thank you.
“Land spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees higher than 5 meters and a canopy cover of more than 10 percent, or with trees capable of reaching this height in situ. It does not include land subject to predominantly agricultural or urban use. (FAO definition)
For ecology, a forest must be understood as a much more complex ecosystem, where trees are the cornerstone species, but there are many species of plants, animals, fungi and bacteria that co-evolve in it, especially if we talk about primary forests. The forest provides endless ecosystem services of vital importance both for the forest and for the rest of the biosphere.
Some of the ecosystem services that forests provide us:
- Protection of water resources, behaving as a fundamental part of the hydrological cycle.
- soil protection
- Local Weather Dimming
- Reduction of the impact of gas emissions
- Conservation of natural habitat and biological diversity
- Recreational and social functions of forests
- Protection of forests against cultural erosion
Food forests are made up of large trees, small trees, shrubs, perennial herbs, vines, root crops, mushrooms, annual crops, etc. All these species are planted in such a way that positive interactions are maximized and negative interactions are minimized, seeking synergy between them to achieve balance in the system. Soil fertility is obtained thanks to the flora and fauna that make up the agroecosystem, which is designed following the logic of the natural ecological succession of forests.
The plants that are used in an edible forest are mostly perennial and multifunctional plants, which can have a main purpose or product and also fulfill other functions. In this way the food forest has a high proportion of useful plants living together in a carefully designed association, providing abundant resources of all kinds while maintaining and enhancing the natural ecosystem.
Designing and creating a food forest can seem like a daunting task with so many factors to consider. However, if we analyze other conventional or traditional agriculture systems, we will see that the initial work required to establish an edible forest is compensated by the drastic reduction of inputs, the increase in production, the resilience of the agroecosystem and, above all, because not only does it not cause the typical problems of other agricultural systems, but it also helps in the regeneration of the natural environment.
A fundamental thing if we really want to create a permacultural edible forest is to coordinate our design with nature, not only through its understanding to imitate it, but also by developing the art of merging our design with what Nature is doing on its own. This intention is present from the beginning in theory, but we will see how our polycultures begin to be colonized or begin to spread through places where perhaps it was not foreseen, understand these patterns, get to know the plants very well, their cycles, their tastes … it will be very important to learn to take advantage of them and live with them, without falling into a meaningless fight that will only take up time and money. The same will happen with wildlife and any living being that comes to live in the edible forest, we must bear in mind that we are creating a very rich and diverse ecosystem.
Imagen del libro Permaculture a Designer’s Manual de Bill Mollison
Products we can obtain from a food forest
There are many products that can be harvested in a forest, even more so in a forest designed for this purpose. In addition to fruit, vegetables, fodder and wood, there is much more, from medicinal plants to natural antibiotics, mushrooms, oils, dyes and an almost endless list if we think of products holistically.
- Nuts and seeds
- Leaves buds and flowers
- Medicinal plants
- Animal products
- and much more
What minimum area do we need to implement a food forest?
There really is no minimum size, we can have a food garden or edible forest in the garden at home, or we can talk about several hectares or hundreds, we will have to adapt the design as always, to the scale and intrinsic characteristics of each project.
Of course, the larger the scale, the greater the regenerative potential, especially in terms of ecosystem services provided by the forest ecosystem, and if we manage to create an edible forest large enough and well adapted, it can also provide them.
Some examples of food forests implemented in different places and with different objectives:
Small edible garden inside a church garden.
Plot dedicated to the monoculture of irrigated olive trees in lagar de trigueros, when we arrived at the farm. Chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, plowing were used… It was a perfect place to apply permacultural design and learn a lot.
Incipient edible forest in Lagar de Trigueros (Málaga), a farm managed by ecoluciona between 2013 and 2017. Plot of 500 m2 of monoculture olive grove after 3 years of implementation. With an experimental garden focused on improving the land while the tree plantations were arriving and growing. We were very surprised by the amount of life that we were able to generate in a very short time, taking into account the poor and poorly structured soil, and especially the absence of life due to the continued use of toxic substances..
Edible forest of the Human Forest project in Coín (Málaga) It used to be a cultivation of mainly avocados and olive trees, today it is a mini-paradise on a 2-hectare farm, with a multitude of plant species and abundant food production.
I hope you liked this article and that you find it useful. If you have questions or if you want to contact me, you can find me on Linkedin.
Author: Miguel Ruiz
- Robert Hart publica Forest Farming en 1978 y Forest Gardening en 1996
- Bell publicó el libro The Permaculture Garden en 1995.
- Whitefield publicó How to Make a Forest Garden en 2002
- Jacke y Toensmeier publicaron Edible Forest Gardening en 2005
- Lawton presentó su documental Establishing a Food Forest en 2008
- Gisela Mir y Mark Biffen publican bosques y jardines de alimentos 2021
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