Image source: Permaculture a Beginner’s Guide, by Graham Burnett
We’re all familiar with the concept of forests — lush, abundant expanses of pristine wilderness, teeming with life, a richness of biodiversity and awe-inspiring to behold. Trees and plants intertwined, filling every possible space, the very well-spring of life itself!
Forests exist fine on their own. There’s no mowing, weeding, spraying, or digging required. No pesticides, fertilisers, herbicides or nasty chemicals. No work and no people either. They somehow do very well, thank you.
Now, imagine if everything in this lush, abundant, spectacular forest was edible!
If you can imagine what this would look like, if you can picture this in your mind’s eye, then you’re not far from the mark of what a food forest is like in real life.
By understanding how forests grow and sustain themselves without human intervention, we can learn from Nature, copy the systems and patterns to model our own forests — ones filled with trees and plants that produce food we can eat. We can design and construct the most sustainable food production systems possible; perfected, refined and cared for by Mother Nature herself.
If this concept brings up any doubts or scepticism for you as to whether this is something that works in real life, let me reassure you that food forests are a proven concept. Yes, they’re up and running around the world, and they even work in urban areas. I should know, I design and build them!
So, you’re probably wondering how it all works, what the benefits are, whether it’s more productive or cost effective than regular commercial agricultural systems, and so on. Well, we’ll address all these questions and more as we explore the case for food forests in this article, so I welcome you to read on!
It’s either this…
Or this…. The difference is obvious!
The difference is – LIFE!
Forests are life
- Forests are home to approximately 50-90% of all the world’s terrestrial (land-living) biodiversity — including the pollinators and wild relatives of many agricultural crops (Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2010)
- Tropical forests alone are estimated to contain between 10-50 million species - over 50% of species on the planet.
- Rainforests cover 2% of the Earth’s surface and 6% of its land mass, yet they are home to over half of the world’s plant and animal species.
From these basic facts, it should be evident that forests themselves are synonymous with life, biodiversity and fertility. Where life gathers, complex and mutually beneficial relationships are created between organisms; natural harmonious communities form, and life forms multiply and proliferate.
If forests are where most of the life on the planet is, then anything less than a forest is most likely less suited to supporting life. Life supports life, yet we have forgotten that we are in fact part of the web of life itself, and depend on other life to sustain ours.
Humans tear down forests to create ‘fields’. The word derives from the idea that everything in the area has been ‘felled’ – that is cut down and cleared. In these cleared areas we build cities and farms. How much life and biodiversity do you see in your surroundings day to day compared to what exists in a forest? The answer should be self-evident, and the concept that ‘forests are life’ axiomatic.
- Nature has been growing plants for 460 million years, and trees for 370 million years — Modern humans first appear in the fossil record in Africa about 195,000 years ago.
- Trees once covered nearly all of Earth’s land mass, today they cover about 3.9 billion hectares or just over 9.6 billion acres, which is only about 29.6% of Earth’s total land area.
- Today, there are only three great forests left on Earth: the Amazon Forest of Brazil, and the boreal forests in Russia and Canada.
Trees have been around for much longer than humanity. All the oil and coal we are burning away at a frantic rate was formed from the decomposed remain of ancient forests, millions of years old, which is why they’re called fossil fuels!
We are relative newcomers on this planet, yet we think from the perspective of a single lifetime, and so often from a much shorter time span. Forest have formed a balanced ecosystem that spanned the length and breadth of the planet long before humanity appeared, but now forests are in a pitiful state. What we seem to forget is that these forests were responsible for nursing and rearing all life on this planet at one point or another, and still function as the planet’s life support system.
Forests are the perfect design
- With 460 million years experience, and a 9.6 billion acre garden, Mother Nature has refined the way to grow self sustaining gardens better than anyone! No weeding, spraying or watering!!!
- Nature has supported, fed, clothed and sheltered humanity for 95% of its existence – agriculture only first emerged 10,000 years ago.
- It stands that Nature is obviously the best (and only!) model available for us to imitate for growing gardens.
Here is where some real perspective can radically change our view of the world and our sense of place in it.
In our day to day lives, when we want to learn how to do something, we usually (hopefully!) intend to do whatever it is that we want to do well! That is, with a degree of competency, efficiency and effectiveness. We may even strive towards mastery, chasing the elusive goal of perfection.
This seems to be the case whether we are learning to play a sport, take up a new hobby, or starting a serious enterprise. Obviously, the best place to start is to see if someone has already done what we’re trying to do, and then we look to the best to learn from. We look for people to model ourselves on – Exemplars. By definition, an exemplar is a model or pattern to be copied or imitated. If we’re learning to play a sport, we naturally won’t want to model amateurish or incompetent people. Instead, we choose to imitate the champions in the area. So, what makes them champions? Their scale and quality of their successes, their experience, and their credentials.
So what if that enterprise we were undertaking was that of growing food?
Think of the best gardener you know, how much skill, experience and success do they have under their belt? What system of growing plants have they devised, and how sustainable are these systems? Are they energy intensive or energy neutral?
Now, lets reflect back to Mother Nature herself, hundreds of millions of years of growing every plant in existence, thriving without human intervention (without human existence for the greatest part), without any inputs of energy other than those supplied by natural systems — truly an exemplar to model.
What do we do then as a people? The most illogical thing imaginable, of course! We try to reinvent the wheel. But not only do we try to do the absurd and match nature, we delude ourselves that we can better nature in our insignificantly short lives, in our insignificantly short industrialised society, in its insignificantly short trial period where we are yet to determine whether this path taken by human society is even a viable one!
Humans in modern societies have the misconception that nature has to be fought, conquered and controlled. That’s a far cry from the ancient or more ‘primitive’ societies who see the Earth as their Mother. An interesting point to reflect on.
Why Food Forests?
Improve on Nature??? If this is an improvement on a forest for sustaining life, I think we’re in trouble….
Can we do better?
Here are some of the consequences of out inept attempts to ‘better’ nature (see pictures below). Modern agriculture creates unbalanced monocultures that are preserved through relentless chemical warfare. Not only are we doing a terrible job of it, but we’re poisoning Nature and ourselves in the process.
- Somewhere between 8500 and 7000 BC, humans in the Fertile Crescent in Middle East began the systematic husbandry of plants and animals – a system we call Agriculture.
- Surely we can do better than bare field row-planted monocultures after 10,000 years of practising agriculture?
Nature is referred to as ‘Mother Nature’ for a reason, it’s what mothered us; that is fed, clothed and sheltered us for most of our relatively short existence on this planet. Perspective can be a threatening thing to our slumbering minds! Somewhere along the line, we lost our reverence for Nature, our belief in the connection to all living things, and our sense of harmony with our surroundings. We discarded those ‘primitive’ beliefs because we gained ‘progress’. We had our supposed ‘Age of Enlightenment’, religiously followed the cult of rationalism where we swapped our reverence for Nature with a misplaced reverence for the human mind, and while we lay prostrated at the altar of human reasoning, we lost our place in the world. Regrettably, since we became convinced that nothing existed that was higher than the human mind, our arrogant thinking led us to believe that ‘our place’ was above Nature. Being in such an exalted place meant we ruled Nature, and if it disobeyed, we would beat it into submission.
We may laugh at the true story of the Roman Emperor Caligula had declared himself a god and had the sea whipped with chains for its disobedience, but how different is modern humanity’s approach to Nature – as something to be fought, conquered and controlled. The same brutal wars we wage on each other, with the same deadly weapons, we do to Nature also. We wage chemical and biological warfare on Nature and her creatures, and while it appears to be the most futile, pointless and destructive of wars, we persist even to our own detriment. Such is our short-sightedness as a species. With this anthropocentric perspective, where everything revolves around mankind, no good can come of this.
Humanity is collectively guilty of trying to twist and deform the facts about how nature works to fit into what are predominantly closed minds filled with ill-founded beliefs.
These distorted beliefs are very real. Biotechnologists firmly believe that humanity’s ‘salvation’ lies in them ‘engineering’ staple crops through genetic modification to provide all our needs and save humanity from starvation. This form of messianic thinking is seriously deluded, and their corporate overlords couldn’t care less other than from the profits these patented life forms could potentially generate. Call me critical, but these claims are not scientific, and as a person with qualifications in the sciences, I frankly find these claims offensive, for they are simply ‘faith based statements’ without any evidence to support the veracity of such claims, masquerading as science.
Meanwhile, traditional agricultural practices are destroying large tracts of land through soil erosion, salinity, overuse of chemical fertilisers, destruction of supporting ecosystems (that bring rain for example). If one takes off the ideological blinkers, and steps outside of the context of our current age and society, it is glaringly obvious we’re heading for a dead-end and quickly gaining speed, hastening an ominous conclusion.
Just to add a bit more perspective to the picture about how lost humanity is, I have heard academics arguing against the ‘green movement’, raising the preposterous argument that “nature (and therefore life) has no value above its usefulness to humanity” – need I say more….
Now, if anyone thinks our current path is “improving on nature”, and has placed their faith in this process, I seriously urge them to critically examine their world view. If you can see that things aren’t quite right, but want to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem, then read on!
There is a better way!
- Why reinvent the wheel when a better one already exists, look to Nature!
- We can design and build natural ecosystems full of life, that look after themselves, just like a forest — but which contain plants of our choosing.
- The design system of Permaculture looks at natural systems and patterns, and emulates them to design food production systems and human settlements that integrate harmoniously with Nature.
Why dig like this?
When the experts are available….
How Nature grows plants
We look at Nature’s system, and we copy them, so nature does our work for us, just like using earthworms to dig! That’s the spirit of Permaculture. No need for hard work…
Nature grows in a highly optimised pattern, utilising multiple layers and making the most of both horizontal and vertical space.
A food forest typically is comprised of seven layers, the uppermost layer being the canopy layer. The canopy layer is comprised of tall trees — typically large fruit and nut trees. Between the tall canopy layer trees, there is a layer of low growing, typically dwarf fruit trees. Mind you, a dwarf fruit tree can be up to 4m (12’) tall, so don’t think these are necessarily very low trees! Nestled between all the small trees are the shrubs – which are well represented by currants and berries. Filling the remaining space are the herbaceous layer, these are the culinary and medicinal herbs, companion plants, bee-forage plants and poultry forage plants. Any remaining space is occupied by ground cover plants. These form a living mulch that protects the soil, reduces water loss to evaporation, and prevents weeds growing. We can still go a level deeper to the rhizosphere, or root zone, the underground level which is occupied by all our root crops, such as potatoes, carrots, ginger, yacon, etc. While that might seem like a lot of plants in one space, we still have one more to fill, the upright vertical space. This is filled by climbers and vines, which can be run up trellises, arbours, fences, trees or any other vertical support. This category includes grapes, climbing beans, many berries, passionfruit, kiwi fruit, climbing peas, chokos and many other species that love to climb.
Now there are a lot of misconceptions about what a food forest actually is that I would like to clear up.
- Rows of trees are not food forests. They are instead what is described as an orchard.
- Rows of trees with some other plant underneath are not food forests, they are orchards with under-plantings.
- Rows of trees with rows of other plants alternating between them are not food forests, they are orchards employing intercropping.
A food forest my not necessarily have all seven layers, but it does have multiple layers, and even more importantly, it is a virtually self-sustaining living ecosystem.
In terms of form, the very thing that differentiates it from a two dimensional field of lettuce or any other monoculture is that it is a three dimensional structure.
In terms of function, being a living ecosystem gives it properties and attributes that are not present in agricultural systems and many gardens.
The benefits to be realised from food forests are as follows:
- High density planting ensures high yields.
- Biodiversity ensures continuous food supply throughout the year.
Natural Mulch, Compost & Fertilizer
- Just like a forest, food forests are self-mulching and cover the soil on their own to retain moisture.
- With such a high plant density, a high volume of fallen leaves accumulates and rots down to add organic matter to the soil.
- Decomposers, the class of insects that break down organic matter, such as earthworms, wood lice (pill bugs, slaters), and millipedes, work to help the natural composting process.
Natural Pest Control
- No chemicals required! Food forests use natural predators to get rid of pests – letting the experts do the work, naturally.
- Predatory insects have a permanent home (a natural ecosystem) and abundant food sources (nectar rich flowers) in a food forest. Provide these and they will come on their own! A regular veggie patch is a home only for pest insects, there’s nowhere for good bugs to live!
- An abundant, living ecosystem will attract birds and other larger predators, further contributing to natural pest control.
Resilience Through Biodiversity – Strength in Numbers
- Nature does not grow large areas of one plant species (or plants in neat rows either!), Nature prefers biodiversity, not monocultures! Mixing different types of plant together makes them grow better, period. It creates a natural synergy that benefits all the plants involved. The plants as a result are more resistant to pests and disease, and are more productive (and nicer to look at!).
- The use of Companion planting allow us to recreate nature’s biodiversity to gain these benefits
Easy Soil Repair – Chop n’ Drop
- In Nature, when plants die off, they stay in place. They’re not uprooted and binned! Don’t uproot annuals that have finished, cut the stem at soil level. The roots rot away to create thousands of intricate air and water channels in the soil. The tops of the chopped plants create a natural sheet compost system like the forest floor
- Preserve your soil, build paths. Don’t step in your garden beds, the soil is alive!!! (It’s actually a more complex ecosystem than anything that exists above ground). Stepping in your garden beds compacts the soil, closing all the air and water channels, making it harder for water and air to reach plant roots, which impairs the growth of plants.
Putting it all together…
A Food Forest is built to emulate a real forest — only we fill it with the food plants and trees that we want.
Real forests don’t need any work, they self-maintain — no pesticides, herbicides, weeding, crop rotation, mowing or digging. Food forests don’t need any of this either! Less work, more food, all natural! Why would you do anything else?
In conclusion, if we look beyond our modernised culture to Nature’s most advanced and life-abundant plant growing systems, it is clearly evident that working with Nature is the wisest and most productive path to sustainable food production.