Last time you took a stroll through some of our native bush what did you see? Lots of vegetation no doubt! If you examine any naturally growing bush closer you will find that the bush is made up of different layers of plants. At your feet they may be composting leaves, peaty soil, mushrooms, moss and groundcovers. At chest level you see bushes and shrubs. Above your head you see the canopy of taller trees and vines and epiphytes growing amongst them. These layers together make up a forest and this is the nature-inspired concept to follow when you are planting a food forest.
This type of permaculture food system can be incorporated into any sized garden and once established can be incredibly productive. A food forest is a way of growing food and other plants for human use. This can be for food but also medicines, fibre, dyes and fuel. Imagine being able to walk outside your door and pick a plum, collect some berries, pluck some mushrooms or collect some plants to naturally dye some clothes. On an amenity level a food forest can provide screening from neighbours, shelter from winds, shade from the sun and a property barrier.
To start a food forest choose an area which gets at least eight hours of sunlight a day. Lay thick layers of newspaper down and cover with a thick (at least 20cm layer) of compost. This keeps invasive grasses at bay. Cover the compost with a layer of straw or other mulch. To help conserve water and make the best use of what falls from the sky you can create swales. A swale is a ditch which is built on contour. They are particularly effective on any sort of slope. Swales are common in permaculture design and are basically water harvesting ditches. They are designed to slow water, eliminate erosion and infiltrate the surrounding area with water and recharge the groundwater.
Begin with the tallest growing plants. Remember when these trees mature they will stretch upwards and outwards so give them room. If you are short of space choose dwarf growing fruit species. Next plant the shrubs, groundcovers, herbs and nitrogen fixers. Even fungi can be incorporated. If you are a mushroom lover you can place old deciduous tree logs which have been cut and seeded with oyster or shitake mushrooms. Place under the shaded canopy in amongst the natural leaf litter. These logs will add to your food forest giving you fresh mushrooms over several years.
The first year will require a certain level of maintenance. Larger trees will need to be staked until their root system can support them, plants will need to be watered during dry spells and weeds removed and the area mulched as necessary. Over the years the area will become more self-sustaining as plants become established and groundcovers spread to stop invasive weeds from seeding. If you have planned your food forest well you may be lucky enough to enjoy the fruits of your bounty throughout the seasons whilst creating a very natural space.
The wonderful thing about this type of planting design is that you use perennial plants. This means plants which are long lived. Once established they will go on to produce food for many years, with very little maintenance. A well-designed food forest will not require spraying and only weed control during the early years. This is quite a different concept to the high maintenance prima donna ways of a vegetable garden which requires replanting throughout the growing season.
Here are some ideas of types of plants you can use in your food forest (this is just a start as there are many more out there!):
Janet Luke is a regular contributor to Organic NZ magazine. Get a year's subscription to this iconic magazine from shopgreen.co.nz for just $45.
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