Food forests are the ultimate in organic and sustainable gardening. They are low-maintenance, bountiful, plant-based food-producing gardens that are inspired by forest ecosystems and provide useful and medicinal benefits to humans. Food forests incorporate a wide array of plant types that have beneficial, sustainable attributes.
Fruit trees, herbs, bushes, and perennial fruits and vegetable favorites are laid out in a manner in which the variety of plants help each other to thrive and produce a robust supply of fruits and vegetables with very little work. Creating a food forest in your backyard mimics the growth sequences that occur in naturally occurring woodlands to provide a continuous rotation of food supply for gardeners and their families.
By implementing food foresting into your landscape, you are giving wildlife habitats, establishing essential shade to counteract global warming, and creating an abundant food supply.
Essential Steps for Creating Your Food Forest
If you want to grow your own food with high production and light work, it requires some inspiration, planning, and a little bit of work to get it started.
Since food forests mirror nature, you can gain inspiration by taking a stroll through your local woods and taking in the details of the landscape. Watch how the species of plants and animals work to support one another. Pay particular attention to how the woodland areas continually create their own mulches, how taller vegetation shades lower growing species, and how the extensive roots of trees and bushes rely on nature alone to provide the water and nutrients that they need to thrive.
Scan the entire forest wonderland from the tallest trees to the lush ground covers and beneficial insects that are essential to the forest ecosystem. You can learn so much from immersing yourself in naturally occurring forests, and you will undoubtedly be inspired to initiate the process in your backyard.
Assess your yard for a beautiful open space that receives enough sunlight and has sufficient drainage.
Create a natural forest floor. You can start by pulling up invasive weeds and grasses without tilling the land. Add a nice thick layer of natural mulch such as woodchips, leaves, and pine needles across the area during the Fall months to snuff out the weeds and allow the mulch to break down naturally into the soil, enriching the soil with essential nutrients. By Spring, your food forest landscape will be ready for planting.
As you may have observed during your inspirational walk through the forest, there are several layers to vegetation in a woodland ecosystem. From tall trees and shorter trees to bushes, herbs, and groundcovers, there are many considerations to choose from when selecting your plants.
To mimic nature effectively, choose several varieties from each of these categories when creating your food forest. Take the time to find out what grows well in your local area. Your local garden center can be an excellent resource to field your questions.
Get your hands dirty and start planting! Dig your holes, place your plants, fill in the holes with compost, and then add organic compost as needed. Have patience as you wait for things to grow. It takes time for trees and bushes to establish themselves, but with time and patience, your trees will be abundant canopies full of bountiful edible treasures. Try an organic soil specially formulated for trees that is enriched with natural fertilizer for bigger, brighter trees.
Advanced Food Forest
Food forests often include edible plants that many gardeners have never heard of, so if you’re ready to venture out and try something genuinely different, keep reading. We’ve included the horticultural Latin names because the common names of these unique plants aren’t often enough information to locate them to plant in your own food forest haven.
- Blue Sausage Tree: (Decaisnea fargesii) We simply had to lead with this one — and trust me, you’ll want to do an internet image search on it. Also called “dead man’s fingers” and “blue bean tree,” blue sausage tree is an ornamental tree that has blue, sausage-shaped fruit that ripens in the fall. The fruit is peeled, similar to a banana, and has a fleshy pulp that has a delicate watermelon taste. USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8.
- Strawberry Tree: (Arbutus andrachne or unedo) Native to the Mediterranean, this ornamental plant is also popular in the northwest region of the United States. The little puffy balls look like lychee, and the plant’s name comes less from a strawberry taste than it does a similar strawberry appearance. The taste is actually a mild peach flavor and is delicious in jams and liqueurs. USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9.
- Toothache Tree: (Zanthoxylum planispinum) Comanche and other Native Americans chewed on the bark of this tree to help ease the pain of a toothache, hence the plant’s name. The leaves and berries of this tree will also produce the same mouth-numbing effect, but watch out — don’t swallow either leaves or bark, as they’re known to be slightly toxic. USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9.
- Hosta shoots: (Hosta spp.) Hostas are usually grown for their ornamental foliage, but did you know that the young shoots are also edible? When they are still small and rolled up, these shoots have a slightly bitter taste that can be fried up in oil, similar to squash blossoms. Who knew? USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9.
- Siberian Pea Shrub: (Caragana arborescens) This ornamental shrub has bright green leaves, yellow flowers, and green pea pods. The young green pea pods and flowers are edible with a light pea flavor, and the older seedpods are also edible after you cook them. Fun fact: when the pods are dried, they make a popping sound when they burst open, sometimes shooting seeds out several feet. USDA Hardiness Zones 2-7.