Food forests – fashion trend or sound option?

Mark's recent directions in the old vegetable garden may unwittingly be well down the food forest track

Mark’s recent directions in the old vegetable garden may unwittingly be well down the food forest track

Food forests. Trendy. That was enough to make us raise our eyebrows and sniff, even more so when we saw a patently absurd attempt on an earlier series of BBC Gardeners’ World to plant a so-called food forest. But we realised that they were in vogue. It was time to have a closer look.

If you are into raised vegetable beds, ultra-tidy gardens, mown lawns and general orderliness, the food forest concept will not appeal. It is not going to be an easy fit for somebody who buys their veg seedlings by the plastic punnet and on the way out, picks up a heavy grade plastic bag of compost. Nor is it overly practical in a tiny back garden.

In its simplest form, the food forest is modelled on the tropical forest and traditional methods of achieving ongoing food production with fewer inputs and less hands-on work. In a forest, you have three layers. The top canopy is the tallest trees (maybe mango, coconut palm, avocado). Beneath that are the mid canopy plants like the banana palms, maybe citrus trees or figs. At ground level are the crops that will grow in semi shade and with root competition – the likes of cassava, yams and physalis. Clambering up the trees are the climbers – think passionfruit.

The whole thing about the tropics is that you get fantastic rates of growth because of the warmth and the moisture. It is a bit different in a colder climate and, to be honest, the more temperate food forests I have looked at on line are somewhat less purist with the layers. That is because, the colder the climate, the more important sun, warmth and light become. We just won’t get the food production without them.

Parsley, bluebells and self-seeding brassicas. Why not?

Parsley, bluebells and self-seeding brassicas. Why not?

The contemporary, temperate food forest appears to be more about building a sustainable ecology. So the top layers of maybe the walnut tree, the pear, the olives and plums get pushed back to the boundary where they become a productive shelter belt, rather than a canopy.

In appearance it may look somewhat chaotic, untidy even, maybe unkempt. Crops are not usually put into tightly managed rows. Garden beds and edgings disappear. Plants are placed where they will grow best and often dotted around in a visually random manner. There is a heavy emphasis on permanent plants and on varieties which will seed down to regenerate themselves. Ornamentals and vegetables are often inter-planted, though the ornamentals will usually be there for a purpose other than aesthetics – maybe to provide food for the bees or the native birds or to contribute as a green crop.

Traditional practices of crop rotation don’t feature in this style of food production. As far as we can see, the range of plants that can be grown also contracts. You are not likely to get marginal crops through. While pumpkins may seed down and adapt, the rock melons probably won’t. Aubergines will want more hands-on management and for much of the country, tomatoes are not going to be a reliable crop in such situations.

But neither will you be working as hard (a good, traditional vegetable garden takes a lot of work and time) and the environment you have created is going to be a great deal sounder ecologically. Maybe those positives make up for any drop in range or volume of produce.

If you like rules and a tightly defined philosophy, look into permaculture. It will give you a great deal more detail. It is a recent movement, founded on principles of sustainable and ecologically sound food production and ways of living. It still sits outside the mainstream as a somewhat fringe movement, even though the driving principles are very hard to fault.

As we talked through the whole food forest concept here and peeled back the layers of romanticism, of philosophical purity, the higher moral ground and the occasional flaky spirituality, we came to the conclusion that Mark’s efforts on the old vegetable garden here probably qualify. He has relocated the pickier crops to his sunny terrace gardens as increasing shade has created problems. There is the top canopy of assorted citrus, a side dressing of espalier apples of venerable vintage (including a Golden Delicious, no less), banana palms, a feijoa. Self seeders include yams, Cape gooseberries and parsley and there is a rich middle layer of plants grown predominantly as butterfly and bee food. Not to forget the sugar cane. It is all a bit chaotic but largely sustainable and very pretty in summer.

Mostly the food forest concept is about finding a balance in producing food and sustaining nature – about not stripping so much goodness from the soil that you have to keep bringing in fertilisers and soil conditioners, about not growing crops that need spraying and intensive care to get a harvest while keeping labour to a minimum.

It is mighty hard to argue against those principles. This might be a garden trend to be considered with an open mind.

Not such a great view in winter, but what can we expect? Navel orange trees. swan plants (for the monarch butterflies) and physalis

Not such a great view in winter, but what can we expect? Navel orange trees. swan plants (for the monarch butterflies) and physalis

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

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2 thoughts on “Food forests – fashion trend or sound option?

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