Food Forests Are Found Across Tropical & Sub-Tropical Regions And Claimed As Relatively New In The UK. They Contribute To Food Resilience, BioDiversity & Engender An Understanding Of Food & Natural Systems

Cherries can be grown in a food forest or woodland forest
Cherries can be grown in a food forest

Perhaps the best known Food Forests, aka Forest Gardens, Edible Forests or Permaculture Food Forests, are to be found in the Indian State of Kerala where this form of Agri-Forestry is widely practiced. There are apparently several hundred thousand of them and they feed huge numbers of people.

Food Forests are also found in Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia and Mexico. The common factor here being that they are all warm climates. However, Nepal and Alaska are colder areas and both are areas known for their food forests. The food forests surrounding abandoned  First Nation villages in Alaska were examined many decades after they were abandoned and found to be full of nut and fruit trees, medicinal herbs, perennial vegetables, and vines, many of these plants  were not endemic rot the Northwest Pacific region.

Perhaps more surprising are the food forests found in semi-arid Utah. Interestingly, plants found in both regions cannot be explained by chance. Many had to have been transported in from hundreds of miles away. This indicates how the food forests were “intensively” managed to provide everything that the local inhabitants needed.

Food Forests are of increasing interest and popularity in the UK. Interest was rekindled by Robber Hart who, it is claimed, adopted frost gardening to British conditions in the 1980s. In my view this is incorrect. Food farming was practiced in the UK well before the 1980s. Indeed my own family owned a large food forest in the 1930s and beyond. More on this later.

Food Forest, Woodland Forests: the Seven Layered System

Jungles, forests and woodland have many features in common. The vegetation is layered and complex. Food forests replicate this and are biodiverse because of it. There are of course adaptations of the seven layered principle. A silvi-pastoral approach is one such adaptation.

The silvipastural approach is to use animals to graze within the frost ore woodland setting. Its common across Europe with examples being the production of Iberico Serrano ham (jamones ibéricos). The pigs are grazed on the open woodland pastures, the dehesa, where they fatten on acorns from the Cork Oaks. The practice was also common in the UK at one time and is still practiced by some. It was William the Conquer who first granted pannage rights in the New Forest in 1079.  Pannage is the right to graze your pigs on acorns and beech mast!

As I write this the New Forest pannage season is well under way and will last from September 23rd to November 14th.

Food Forests: The Canopy Layer

As with most forests the most noticeable trees are those forming the canopy. It’s almost like the woodlands skeleton, around which all else is built. These trees consist of mature trees producing fruit, nuts and timber.  In previous times they were pollarded to produce timber for buildings and boat building. Pollarding was common in the UK and Europe and is still practiced today in some regions. In some areas it has led to the bocage practices of Northern Europe.

I especially like to see walnut and chestnut trees grown as canopy trees.

Food Forests: The Vine Layer

Climbing through the trees we can grow a mix of vines and climbers. Grapes, hops, beans, passion fruit, cues, tomatoes and kiwis are all examples of plants from the vine layer.

Food Forests: The Low Tree Layer

Low Layer trees are those of naturally diminished stature such as elder. Coppiced Hazel is another tree of the lower layer. Coppicing should not be confused with pollarding.

Many apple, pear, cherry and plum trees fit the low tree layer definition as do sloes and elderberries.

Food Forests: The Shrub Layer

Shrubs are woody plants without a noticeable trunk. they include plants such as Cydonia oblonga (Quince), Fig, (Ficus carica), Goji berry, Ribes (currants, gooseberries, jostaberry), Rubus (blackberries, raspberry etc), Rosemary, Sage,  Vaccinium species (Cranberry, Blueberry Lingonberry) etc.

Food Forests: The Herbaceous Layer

Rhubarb, asparagus, garlic, perennial kale, and horseradish are good examples of herbaceous layer plants.

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Food Forests: The Ground Cover Layer

These are the more shade tolerant plants, though remember plant density may vary from area to area in your wood and shade will therefore vary. Plants include strawberries, creeping or prostrate thymes, mints, wintergreen, nasturtium, oregano and sorrel.

Food Forests: The Underground (Rhizosphere)  Layer

So many plants grow underground. Some stay underground during most parts of their life, such as fungi, and we only see the fruiting bodies above ground for short periods. Others largely show above ground but it’s the underground portion that’s eaten. Eg some alliums, Jerusalem artichoke, ginger etc.

The Benefits of a Food Forest

  1. Food Forests are polycultures. That’s as far as it is possible to get from a monoculture. This means that instead of one planned crop being grown in an area, we can potentially have hundreds if not thousands of different plants being cultivated.
  2. The diversity of plants in a food forest creates a longer and more sustained harvest season.
  3. Greater plan diversity also provides greater biodiversity.
  4. The range of plants being grown provides a wider range of crops any traditional kitchen garden. This increases food security with less effort.
  5. Forest Gardens help stabilise the soil, decrease the chance of flooding and help prevent waterlogging.
  6. Forest Gardens increase soil organic matter, due to the recycling of leaves and other vegetation, and are therefore more drought resistant.
  7. Food forest offered more than just food they can also provide timber, fuel, herbal medicines, natural dyes, and a host of beautiful plants.
  8. Because the soil in a Food Forest is not cultivated it captures for more carbon than cultivated land. Passive carbon sequestration such as this is possible in any garden or allotment.
  9. Producing our own food in a food forest cut down on food miles and reduces plastic waste.

The Disadvantages of Food Forests

There are many types of food forests, or perhaps it’s better to say there are many types of forest or woodland that can turned into food forests. From oak woodland to hazel coppices.

  1. Food Forests can take a long time to establish. Or at least it seems a long time to the impatient gardener.
  2. The amount of food produced may not be as high as promised by some advocates. There is little doubt that monocultures can often produce more (at s cost of course).
  3. Traditional annual veg crops tend to produce far less in a woodland than in a traditional garden.
  4. Some systems require grazing animals. these aren’t always available and many gardeners don’t have the skills required to manage them.

A U.K. Food Forest From The Last Century

Those that say food forests and sylvopastoral systems are new to the U.K. don’t understand our food and farming systems. In Devon and other parts of the U.K. West Country the grazing of sheep and even cattle in orchards goes back centuries as does woodland grazing by cattle and pigs.

My own family also practiced food farming in the 1930s and beyond. My grandfather had a five acre orchard in Devon that was primarily used to produce cider apples but had multiple extra crops within it.

Planted amongst the cider apple trees were eating and dessert apples, plums, cherries, damsons etc . Under the trees daffodils had been planted and these made a good cut flower crop for bartering at the local grocer shop (if you can’t grow tea then barter something for it).

Plenty of grass was grown between the trees and this fed sheep at certain times of year. Pigs in the pig pens, next to the apple store, were free to scrump left over apples after the cider apples were collected.  And chicken had free range during the day, close to the hen house.

The hedges consisted of hazel for nuts and coppicing, blackberries, sloes, wild roses  for hips and a wide range of wild plants that could be eaten. There were also mature trees that had been pollarded to build the linhay and apple store.

Amongst the orchard trees were the other layers. From watercress in the brook that bubbled and gurgled through the orchard to the herbs and shrubs for kitchen and table.

One especially delight was the nettle patch that was harvested in spring for nettle tips that was served as a cooked vegetable in the same way as we eat green crops today.

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