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Can You Build a Food Forest on Your Homestead or Farm?
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Can You Build a Food Forest on Your Homestead or Farm?

Maybe you have a couple of acres you cannot successfully farm or even a one-half acre plot that you thought was too small to do anything with? Maybe there is a section of your property so steep that farming is impractical? Perhaps you are more concerned with living peacefully in semi-retirement on your homestead and not interested in farming that can easily become a full time occupation?

What if someone could demonstrate to you a means to create fresh food supplies year round with very little manual input once the growth has reached a certain level of maturity? Do you want to know more?

Understanding the Nature of Food Forests

Food forests are largely natural, albeit man-made ecological systems that are fully sustainable in nature. Depending on the climate and the area in which they are grown, the food forests can produce a literal non-stop supply of fresh foods including fruits, nuts, vegetables and more.

Food forests may be as small as a half-acre in size, making them an ideal solution for many homesteaders. Permaculture, by its very nature, denounces the destruction of existing environments for the creation of man-made, though natural ecological systems. The ideal solution as generally accepted, seems to be to use open spaces for the planting of these miniature gardens of Eden.

While more controversial in traditional terms, large-scale food forests have been promoted as a means to conduct reforestation efforts, and also to aid in food and agricultural security. Some proponents of large-scale food forests even suggest that these ecosystems may ultimately replace much of the monocrop agriculture that is currently so detrimental to the earth.

Food forests tend to take between eight and fifteen years to reach full maturity and production levels, but can still produce a surplus of goods during periods of growth and building. Food forests are generally built in “layers”, precluding the need to become an experienced biologist to create one.

 

What are the Different Food Forest Layers:

  • Palm-Coconut Layers – Will extend above the canopy with emergent palms or below the canopy with some other palm plants, generally restricted to the tropic and subtropical environments

  • Climax Layer or Shade LayerTall trees such as avocado trees and other taller wood growth

  • UnderstorySmaller or shorter trees

  • Shrubs and bush layersmall, woody plants and bushes

  • ClumpersPlants that clump together in groups

  • Vertical layerconsisting of vines and climbing plants such as grapes

  • Herbaceous LayerThese are where herbs and smaller plants will grow (May include two "taller" and "shorter" layers especially in colder, northern environments)

  • Ground CoverNitrogen enriching plants for the soil that serve as a living layer of mulch (May include woody and non-woody plants but those that lay across the ground

  • Root Yield LayerLegumes, tubes and other root producing crops

What is the History of Food Forests

Can You Build a Food Forest on Your Homestead or Farm?Food forests are largely attributed to the permacultural heritage of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren back in the 1970s, though they are in fact much older than that. Their work has been continued through the efforts of many of their original followers like Geoff Lawton, though to gain a fuller understanding of just what the food forests really are, a trip further back in time becomes necessary.

While Geoff Lawton is getting close to the point of entering old age, he is as good a resource as any to begin examining the nature of food forests and for showing some viable examples of just how beneficial food forests can be for both the environment and humanity. Given the nature of Permaculture and the lack of “industry specific” standards, this will also help to maintain a more consistent approach as you learn more about the food forests.

[NOTE: While the author does possess the following videos in their entirety, he was unable to find them posted on YouTube for a direct link.

The Australian Permacultural Institute Food Forest (is almost 50 years old)

The Permaculture Institute in Australia was perhaps the most modern, mature food forest constructed in recent times, though there have been many others built since then. In this one hour and twenty-two minute video from Geoff Lawton, he goes through most of the basics of the process as they constructed the food forest at the Australian Permacultural Institute he helped Bill Mollison to build back in the 70s.

At the end of the video, he revisits the food forest after it has been left wholly unattended for nearly two decades to see how nature has taken its course. Despite all this time without human intervention, or perhaps because of all the time without human intervention, the food forest functioned exactly as any natural, unattended, biologically diverse ecosystem would.

Not only is the continued production of a surplus of produce impressive, but the food forest actually expanded, blending into surrounding ecosystems. The man-made ecological system, being all-natural by design, sustained itself completely, including the continual replenishment of the soil imperative for the continued growth and production.

Video from Geoff Lawton

The Vietnamese Food Forest (is more than 300 years old)

In this excerpt from a visit to an older food forest in Vietnam, the local history claims the growth is at least three hundred years old, though the biological conditions indicate that the site may be much older. The work load to maintain this food forest is so intense, that it continues to be “farmed” by a couple well into their eighties, without the need for outside assistance.

In other words, once the food forests reach a certain level of maturity, the actual upkeep necessary is limited to selecting a portion of the produce for consumption, while leaving the rest to continue naturally. In some programs, the title given to the “farmers” is restricted to “gatherers” as there are no traditional farming requirements for the upkeep of the mature food forests.

The Moroccan Food Forest (is more than 2000 years old)

It is difficult to imagine a family farm being continually owned and operated for anywhere near two thousand years uninterrupted. It may be more challenging still to imagine a lush farm that has likely been left completely unattended for hundreds of years at a time continuing to be productive. Yet such is the case for a food forest in Southern Morocco.

The best estimates put the age of this food forest at around two thousand years old. Given the history and difficulties of life throughout the dark ages, it seems highly unlikely that this area was maintained by humans throughout its history. Still, the food forest in Southern Morocco continues to produce an abundance of crops, attracting wildlife at the same time.

How Big is Big Enough for a Food Forest?

Complete and natural food forest ecosystems can be built on as little as one-half of an acre or 0.2 hectares. Traditionally, food forests and other principles of permaculture seek to work around existing ecological systems, though the view of some is that these can be viable replacement ecological systems for otherwise “non-productive” ecosystems in terms of a more symbiotic relationship with humans.

Some individuals are introducing a new view of permaculture where not only reforestation efforts focus on the introduction of wholly sustainable food forests, but also to a limited degree, replacing existing ecological systems with food forests in order to ensure agricultural security and assist in the ultimate eradication of poverty.

There is not any definitive limit on the size of the food forests in terms of creation, other than limitations of available land and resources necessary for the design and implementation. Examples of existing food forests also show that after a sufficient level of maturity has been attained, these ecosystems will naturally grow and expand, integrating themselves into the surrounding areas if left unchecked.

Where to Plant Your Food Forest

Food forests can be planted in areas that are sparsely planted or that have scant growth already in place. Food forests can also be planted in hilly locations that may otherwise be unsuitable for more traditional farming. It should be noted that heavily forested areas should not be planted directly adjacent to the home or other buildings as it may present a fire hazard.

Furthermore, food forests are an excellent option for previously over-farmed lands where the nutrients have been robbed from the soil through constant monocrop farming. The creation of these natural, man-made environments will ultimately serve to replenish the soils and create a beautiful, productive forested section of land while replenishing the earth. 

How to Get Started Building Your Food Forest

The first step will be clearing the area of any large rocks that may interfere with the tilling, though rocky areas within the food forest can serve as a habitat for animals and insects at the same time. The ground should be well tilled and chickens turned loose in these areas to eat grubs and further till and fertilize the soil.

Temporary or portable chicken pens can be used to allow the chickens to be more controlled in which areas they work. This is especially helpful when large plots of land will be used for the location and there is a need to ensure that each area has been effectively cleansed of unwanted grubs and other insects.

Chickens are not generally a viable choice for long-term inhabitants of the food forests, though ducks, turkey and other fowl may be depending on the local pests inhabiting the area. It may also be beneficial to introduce beehives and other locations for insects which may help with pollination and otherwise serve a practical purpose.

While the food forest will ultimately yield all of the necessary items for the creation of viable soil, there will need to be a sufficient amount of top soil and fertilizer to commence operations. There should also be a good supply of straw or other materials to hold moisture and serve as mulch as the initial growth commences.

How to Dig the Swales and Ditches to Automate Watering

In areas where the ground is angled, it is possible to dig a large dam or to build surrounding ditches or swales that allow for the soil to remain moist enough to sustain continued growth. There are additional means for using swales on flat ground, though the process is intensive and can be challenging for some. Drip systems are another option, but not ideal as they will require being replaced numerous times over the expansive lifespan of the food forests.

There may be additional concerns in the United States given the Environmental Protection Agency and the endangered species act. A veteran living in Montana was jailed for digging ditches on private land more than forty miles from the nearest navigable waterways. His name was posthumously cleared but it is doubtful that this did anything to improve his situation while he was alive.

The endangered species act also encompasses some fifteen hundred varieties of plant, animal, and insect life. This should have been taken into consideration before the land is even purchased to begin with, though if it was not, it would behoove the landowner to ensure that compliance with all relevant laws, statutes and other regulatory agencies is complied with in full. Failure to comply can result in an effective forfeiture of the land, or worse still, the inability to do anything with the land.

The largest swale, a dam, or even a retainer pond should be built along the outer edge or in the center of the proposed site, ideally on the most elevated point of land. The layout of the ditches should be such that it keeps the ground moist between the swales and prevents the need for manual irrigation.

These ditches may, in some circumstances, also serve as “fish ponds” housing tilapia, bluegill or other more hearty species of fish. In areas where mosquitoes are prevalent, and there is a retaining pond or other largely still water, the fish can also assist in keeping the mosquito population in check. If that is not enough, the fish also provide a ready source of protein and an additional food source. 

How to Begin Building Food Forest Layers

Can You Build a Food Forest on Your Homestead or Farm?The preparations for planting can commence while the ground is being prepared for the food forest. Initial planting should include seeds, seedlings and even a limited number of more mature plants. This will help to create a more natural feeling environment and a less “engineered” look and feel for the area.

The root-yield and ground cover should include a heavy layer of legumes which will serve to introduce large volumes of nitrates into the soil. The understory and climax or shade layer trees can also begin being planted at this stage, though eventually more plants will be introduces, including the shrub layer. If there is a palm layer to be included, these trees should be planted at this time as well.

It should be noted that growth will occur in phases, and a great many of the original plants will die along the way, providing necessary nutrients for the soil. The smaller the plant life, the larger the original planting should be, and the more expansive the mortality rate. This process will last for the first few years as the many different layers are added and growth becomes more natural and systemic.

How to Maintain the Food Forest Through to Maturity

Top, chop, and drop. The majority of the maintenance during the creation phase of the food forests will consist of balancing out the different layers and topping, chopping and dropping over-growth. It is during this phase of creation that the overall balance should be implemented between the layers, establishing a natural and complete ecological system.

Since the many trees will have different growth rates, many of these will need to be continually maintained through topping, so they do not block out the sunlight to additional layers during more crucial periods of growth. Topping the trees and trimming the bushes is made somewhat easier since the materials cut can be summarily dropped in strategic locations.

Smaller plants that have been removed can be placed directly at the base of other plants as mulch. Larger, more fibrous materials should be left in more open spaces where they can rot naturally. The ground should be moist enough to allow for the growth of fungus, the proverbial teeth of the woods. The fungus should be noticeable on the wood that has been left to rot.

The overall structure of these entirely natural ecological systems will begin to appear more apparent, even to the casual observer as progress is made during the initial planting. Yield production should continually increase as more of the plants begin to mature, though farming a food forest is not going to be the same as more traditional, monocrop farming efforts either.

The Dangers of Over-Farming the Food Forest

One of the greatest challenges people who are new to the concept of food forests will face, is the farming and maintenance of these ecological systems. Most people will try to work harder than they have to in order to maintain the food forests, often leading to counter-productive results. To put this into a little perspective; how much effort is put into the maintenance of large, national forests?

Generally one person is assigned to keep a fire watch over tens of thousands of acres in the national forests. This is because natural ecological systems are largely self-sustaining. That is, they require very little in the way of physical maintenance and farming. The same principles hold equally true for the food forests as well.

There is a need to gather dead growth and fallout, placing it more strategically to be used as natural mulch, but there is no need to constantly dig, till, replenish or fertilize soils, water, or even to harvest the food forests in a single effort. Given the constant nature of growth and production, daily trips may be made to enjoy the scenery, or even to pick that which may be desired for daily rations, but there is no need for traditional farming once maturity has been reached.

It is also important to realize that excess or surplus growth should be left to rot on the vine, both literally and figuratively speaking. If a larger yield is the more desirable result, plant a larger food forest. If there is only a need to provide for a single family and perhaps a few friends, a smaller area of growth should be sufficient.

Honey from the bee hives or berries may be harvested in a more traditional manner, being processed and stored for later consumption, but the properly designed food forest will provide a wide variety of foods on a daily basis, all year. There is no need to harvest large quantities of produce and go through all the added work of preserving and storing.

Crops left to rot in the field will continue to enrich the soil, providing much needed nutrients, and at the same time allow for the natural growth and expansion of the food forests as it integrates itself with the surrounding ecological systems.

Old growth timber from trees that are no longer productive can eventually be used to create lumber or even firewood, though with careful planning, these can also be included as part of the regular growth pattern.

At the end of the day, the food forests are in virtually every sense, a potential garden of eden. The ability not only to mimic nature, but to improve upon it and to increase the symbiotic relationship between humanity and the earth we rely on to survive.

The properly designed food forest will provide the homesteader with a fresh and ready supply of a variety of foods literally all year long, with very little work output. How does life on the homestead get any better than that?

Let us know what you think please!

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