5 Tips to Developing a Permaculture Food Forest
Growing an Edible Forest
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Permaculture food forests, also known as edible permaculture forest gardens, are growing in popularity worldwide. A food forest is taking the old-fashioned monocrop orchard and adding many more layers of utility to it, while making it more self-contained and lower maintenance.
Using permaculture principles when you are designing your food forest will greatly increase your yield and decrease the amount of time and effort you will have to put into maintaining it. Permaculture recognizes that each plant fulfills multiple roles in its environment.
When you are designing your space, you should aim to include plants with multiple uses. For example, an apple tree might provide food for bees, a home for birds, pollen to pollinate another apple variety, shelter and shade for more tender plants, as well as providing apples for you.
The following are five tips that will help ensure that your permaculture food forest is a real success, giving you as much harvest as possible while keeping itself well-fed and well-cared-for.
1. Feed Your Soil
All the best gardens in the world have one thing in common — their soil is alive and healthy. More and more gardeners are beginning to realize that to get healthy plants takes a lot more than just regularly applying fertilizers from a bag.
Your soil consists of a living web of bacteria, fungi, nematodes, worms, beetles, and other bugs. The stronger this food web is, the better your soil will be.
Annual plants, like what you find in your vegetable garden, thrive in a bacteria-based environment. They take on the same role in nature that the small annual weeds do — they are there to grow fast and cover the soil. Mother Nature cannot stand to be naked, so she sends fast-growing annual weeds to cover herself and protect herself from the elements.
Trees, on the other hand, thrive best in a fungi-dominant soil. For your food forest to get the best start, you need to provide your trees with a rich, alive soil that is fungi dominant.
One of the best ways to move your soil quickly to being fungi dominant is to provide it with lots of woody material for the fungi to eat and grow on. A thick layer of wood mulch is perfect. The wood mulch should be full of different sized pieces of sticks, bark, and green leaves. You can often pick this up for free from your local arborist, or buy it for a small fee.
You can inoculate your mulch layers with spawn from some edible forest mushroom varieties, or just let nature do her thing with wild species that may or may not be edible.
2. Design with Permaculture in Mind
Permaculture encourages you to plan well and to embrace what nature is doing. Some principles to incorporate into your plan include:
Catch and Store Energy
Chop and drop cover crops are a great way to do this effectively. Grow some plants that grow fast, and chop them down regularly as a mulch around fruit trees.
Obtain a Yield
Make sure that everything you grow is useful in multiple ways. Culinary and healing herbs, fruiting plants, and perennial vegetables all fall into this category.
Produce no Waste
Keep your prunings to make your own mulch, compost weeds, and other scraps from your produce and basically keep everything feeding back into the system.
Use Small, Slow Solutions
Rather than importing fast fixes from far away, try to use local options, or make/grow your own. Cover crops have good mulching benefits if you can’t get it locally, and many plants can be grown from seed rather than brought in from outside sources.
Use and Value Diversity
Diversity builds resilience. Aim for several different varieties of each species of plant, and several types of plant to fill different roles.
3. Use All 7 Layers
A food forest traditionally contains seven layers — canopy, shrubs, herbs, ground cover, roots, and vines. The benefit to using all of these layers is that they do not interfere with each other’s needs, so you are able to stack functions within your space without losing out on production.
In a traditional orchard, you only grow trees and anything else is considered a weed. In a food forest of the same size, you can grow berries, herbs, roots and tubers, and climbing fruiting plants while still getting the same harvest from the fruit trees.
4. Choose Your Plants Well
One of the real keys to growing a successful permaculture food forest is to make sure that you choose your plants wisely. If you live in a tropical region, you will grow very different plants compared to a food forest in a cooler temperate zone. Hot, humid places can build their food forests around banana, mango, and papaya trees. Cooler, dryer places would be better off with apples, pears, and plums.
Try to include plenty of nitrogen fixing support plants — anything from the legume family is a great place to start. You can grow annual or perennial peas as cover crops, or plant some nitrogen fixing trees like tagasaste or black locust amongst your fruit trees.
5. Observe and Correct Often
Once your food forest is in the ground and growing, it is up to you to monitor it and tweak it as it grows. One of the other permaculture principles is to self-regulate and accept feedback. This idea encourages you to creatively respond to change. If you notice that certain species are doing well, you might like to include more of them, if one is taking over, you can chop it back to allow others some space to grow. If a plant is suffering from exposure or disease, you can take steps to remedy that. Remember that the problem is often the solution, for example, too many weeds make a great weed suppressant mulch.
If you are planning on growing an edible food forest, incorporating these five tips into the planning and management of your garden will help you see the best yield and greatest success.
Do you have experience in growing a permaculture food forest? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
Originally published in Countryside May/June 2020 and regularly vetted for accuracy.