The food forests, by many accounts, are a relatively recent (re)discovery from the works of David Holmgren and Bill Mollison regarding Permaculture. It should be noted that there are still food forests that have been in existence for literally thousands of years (in Southern Morocco) that are still producing ample and varied supplies of food even thousands of years after being planted and with very little human assistance … and literally going hundreds of years without being farmed at all … and still producing a surplus of fruits and vegetables.
Another relatively old example of a food forest exists in Vietnam that has apparently been growing for some three hundred years, and requires so much work that an eighty year old couple manages it without any assistance … meaning it practically farms itself. Geoff Lawton is a prodigy of Bill Mollison and runs the original Permaculture Institute in Australia. In his words, the food forests really are little more than a little piece of the Garden of Eden … but they can be built virtually anywhere, and are readily available to modern man.
While all of this may sound overly fantastic at first glance, some research into the subject has definitely removed any doubts about the efficacy and veracity of their claims. Food forests are established from the ground up, as entirely natural ecosystems, mimicking the principles of nature, though with a little help and guidance from humans. Granted, building the food forests will require both a lot of work and a substantial amount of time before they reach any meaningful level of maturity, generally taking between eight and fifteen years to more fully mature … though still providing an ample supply and variety of produce in the meantime.
The basics of the process are complicated if considered from the standing of a biologist or botanist, but they have been simplified in order to allow as many people as possible to duplicate these natural wonders. The forest, for the sake of construction, is separated into layers. The layers as set forth and established are the root crops, the ground cover or ground layer, herbs and other leafy plants that do not form wood insofar as they have no real boughs or branching other than through leafing growth. Cumulatively, these layers will provide for the larger portion of the ground cover and work to ensure that the soil remains healthy and lively. (Yes, fertile soil is very much alive)
Above these layers, the first is the bushy layer consisting of the shrubs and bushing plants. Among these will be many plants that produce smaller fruits, berries and other assorted goodies. Next we begin to see the smaller trees, generally ones that will produce fruits such as bananas, apples or oranges and other citrus. This moves into larger trees which will begin to form the canopy or cover layer of growth. This includes the larger and taller trees. Vines and crawling plants are considered to be a separate and unique layer all their own, and in some environments, there will be trees that extend beyond the canopy such as coconut trees in more tropical environments.
The first stage is the preparation of the watering, all done in accordance with permacultural design. However, care should be taken, especially when building within the USA, as the NORTH AMERICAN WETLANDS CONSERVATION ACT and/or the Endangered Species Act, can be used against the landowner … even in cases wherein the landowner has been the sole creative force behind the construction of the wetlands, such as through ditches or retaining ponds. However, this does need to be addressed, utilizing the natural flow of the land and the water runoff, in order to create a natural watering system for the food forest. Once that is established, or even at the same time, chickens are allowed to scratch and peck at the current soil, removing bugs, larvae and basically disturbing the natural cycle of non-productive growth to prepare for the commencement of productive planting and growth.
The first phase of planting is largely based on nitrogen fixing plants, generally in the form of legumes that will be liberally scattered on virtually every available spot of soil. These will be interspersed with the introduction of plants, each in accordance with their corresponding layers. Some of the ground crops such as sweet potatoes, many of the legumes and other smaller herbs and bushy plants will begin providing produce for harvest within the first year. As the growth of the early stages develops, it will also be necessary to begin topping growth, not so much to prevent it from growing tall and strong, but to begin providing a long-term, complete ecological system, including providing for the soil.
Within two to three years, a fairly steady supply of food will be growing naturally on the property. Within five or six years, depending on the size of the area planted, the production from the food farms will begin surpassing the needs of even a large family living on the homestead. Fully mature food forests generally provide an amazing abundance and surplus of goods, substantially larger than the average homesteading family will consume. Surplus goods can be canned and stored on the homestead, or even sold in local farmer markets, though this may require the homesteader to become licensed and subject them to all manner of jurisdictional regulations as well.
It is also imperative when building food forests on the homestead, to ensure that the “experts” being consulted are actual experts and know exactly what they are talking about. Poorly designed and implemented food forests not only will fail to produce an abundance, but will often require every bit as much effort as more traditional farming. Ideally, the experts will be recognized by the Permaculture Institute, and while it may be located primarily in Australia, they have taught people from all over the world. Viable and complete food forests have been, as was noted in the opening portion of this article, left alone for hundreds if not thousands of years and continue to produce an abundant surplus of produce, fruits and vegetables … without any need for farming them.