There is a new trend or idea taking root among garden philosophers, it’s called a Food Forest. Maximum Yield says, “the goal is to implement a system of land use that behaves like a forest ecosystem and is designed to yield edible harvests through sustainable and low-maintenance agroforestry.”
The idea seems to be a fertile, productive edible garden where bountiful harvests of heathy food are there for the picking without any work. Sounds good huh? I’m all about more gardening fun and less gardening work (Principle #1) so I had to check it out. Turns out that by being a sort of “laid back” about the garden work (maybe “lazy”) I’ve created Food Forest without really trying.
Natural forests grow without any human intervention so applying the way a natural forest grows to a food garden should result in a work free harvest, at least that’s the theory. The proponents identify that natural forests grow in seven different layers.
So without even trying my garden reflects the layers that that mimic the way a natural forest grows:
- the canopy, which consists of fruit and nut trees
- Got that – big old crab-apple in the middle of it all.
2. the lower tree layer, where you’ll find dwarf fruit trees
- I hadn’t really intended the cherry and plums to be a dwarf trees but, but that’s what they seem determined to be.
3. the shrub layer, where you’ll find things like blueberries and raspberries
- Yep, couple of red current bushes under the sprawling crab-apple branche
4. the herbaceous layer, where perennials, herbs, and leafy greens grow
- Lots of self-seeded annual flowers and herbs (See “Eat the Weeds” and never plant Borage!)
5. the rhizonosphere, where root crops grow
- .. maybe the parsnips I forgot to dig as well as a few escaped carrots I was growing for seed would count? Of course I will intentionally plant some root veggies as well.
6. the soil surface for cover crops
- Uhm… too bad Quack Grass isn’t edible. Do you think Lambs’ Quarters and Pig Weed count? See point #4
7. the vertical layer, which includes vines
- Often the nicest crop of various mixed breed squash grow from seeds in the compost pile.
It seems to me that one would have to understand the unique characteristics of the land and climate on which one wishes to create a food forest. Obviously the plants that make up a forest in, say, the Amazon region, or even the Pacific North West, would not be successful in my Zone 1b area. Even among the species I usually grow, some plants will grow with less attention than others. My garden loves to grow asparagus and raspberries, but struggles to produce beets; and of course many of the veggies I grow cannot reproduce unaided in this climate.
If I look at the natural forest around my farm (there is still a little of it) there are not all that many species that are edible by humans, and those that are edible have limited production seasons as they are adapted to the short growing season. A vegetarian would have trouble living off the land in this area without some tillage. Even in pre-Columbian times, humans here depended mainly on animal flesh for their sustenance. I really don’t think there are sufficient native plants or imported ones that can grow unaided to replace the veggies I grow here in Zone 1b.
While the Food Forest seems like an interesting idea, I expect I will have to continue to engage in some hoeing and digging to produce the bountiful crops I have come to expect from my little plot of garden. But that’s alright; it is a labour of love.