An Introduction to Food Forestry


This piece doesn’t really have much original thought, but I compiled it to give a presentation at a skillshare at SMU, which has since been canceled. Nonetheless, I thought I’d post it here, because the information is very valuable. ____________________________________



Food forestry is about establishing plentiful garden-orchard hybrids that have all of the rich ingredients to make up a forest. A food forest will be rich in nut trees, fruit trees, berry bushes, flowers, herbs, roots, fungi, and other life beneficial to humans and one-another, when integrated as a whole. Imagine walking into a forest, filled with food that is both natural and delicious, being able to pick from a smorgasbord of the freshest foods, right off of the vine. One may imagine a sort of Garden of Eden, but this Heaven-on-Earth is a reality today in many parts of the world, where people have cared to cultivate it, and is not merely mystical speculation. It has been said that much of the Amazon rainforest itself is artificially constructed by terracotta-pot terraforming from the indigenous peoples, who took it upon themselves to be good stewards of the land. Humans have an incredible capacity to problem-solve. In more recent years, a man by the name of Yacouba Sawadogo has facilitated efforts to renew African soils, and stop desertification, by properly managing rainwater. This is merely the first step toward establishing food forests full of flavor and nutrition. Many people in the West as well, influenced by the permaculture movement, have started working toward such endeavors.



We live in a dying world. If we look at the world around us, and I mean seriously look, we will see that we are causing devastation of ecological systems and massive die-offs of species, largely because of our insistence as a culture, perpetuated by hierarchical decision-makers, that we practice monocultural and linear systems of food production, coupled with inappropriate technology, heavy in fuel costs and chemicals that are foreign to, or are overloading, the ecosystems in which they are placed.


One needs only imagine pictures of land that has life, of plants, insects, birds, mammals, compared to land that lacks life. Land that lacks life is called “barren”, as in a barren wasteland. There is nothing beautiful about it. An oasis amongst such a desert, however, exemplary of life, is quite beautiful indeed, and has been the setting for many stories in the past, which suggested joy once found, or pain when discovered to be a mere mirage.

We live in a dying world, and our own success as a species is largely to blame, but this should not incite feelings of despair or defeat, because those things that we do are things that we can stop doing. The beauty of humanity is our flexibility and problem-solving capacity.


Sustainability is about perpetuating life, especially for humans, but also for ecosystems on which humans depend. Without healthy plants and animals we are unable to survive. Sustainability is the capacity to last or endure. A sustainable system is one that is lasting.


Instead of a system based on monoculture, which dominates the land with a single seed, supplanting all others, destroying a possibly irreplaceable balance, sustainable systems are polycultural in nature, relying on the positive relationships that occur in a healthy ecosystem. Instead of linear systems, where the beginning is set at the point of production, and the end at the point of disposal, sustainable systems are cyclical in nature, and beginnings and endings are largely arbitrary.


Polycultural Methods of Integration


Polyculture is the practice of growing a number of different kinds of organisms together. Polyculture offers stability through diversity. By not relying on a single yield, one gains variety, which means that a single problem, such as a pest or disease, probably won’t destroy the entire crop. On a larger scale, polyculture promotes a variety known as biodiversity, ultimately composing a world ecosystem.

One simple example of a planned polyculture is a vegetable guild. Guilds are sets of companion plants. Companion plants help another plant in some way or another. They can provide extra nutrients to the soil, provide something to grow on, ward off pests, bring in beneficial insects, or a number of other beneficial relations.

A common example of a vegetable guild is one which was used by indigenous peoples of North America, called the three sisters. The three sisters are so-called, because they are composed of three plants that relate together to form a strong, cooperative unit, like sisters in a healthy family cooperate. These plants are beans, corn, and squash. The beans, as legumes, provide nitrogen for soil on which the squash and corn feed. The corn provides support for bean growth—the beans grow up the corn stalks. The squash provides ground cover, ensuring moisture retention and making use of space that otherwise would not be used.

I put together a hypothetical guild for you, with tomatoes as the centerpiece, which would be composed also of basil to repel flies and mosquitos in a garden close to the home, and to apparently improve the tomatoes’ flavor; marigolds, nasturtiums, petunias, cabbage, chives, garlic, and onions to repel aphids, rust flies, Japanese beetles, horn worms, and other pests; carrots to fill in space between; melons and greens as ground cover; and various kinds of peas to add nitrogen.

A food forest is an example of a large-scale guild that utilizes plants on many scales, in a stacked manner. Food forests are the biggest kinds of guilds. As seen by the vegetable guilds there are many purposes vegetables, legumes, and flowers can provide to one another, but that is just on the floor of a forest! Trees, shrubs, herbs, fungi, roots, and climbers all provide different benefits to one another.

In a food forest, rather than a simple vegetable guild, one will find more than annuals that die once they are harvested. A proper food forest will be rich in woody plant life, such as trees and shrubs, as well as green-stalked vines, vegetables, tubers, fungi, and more. There will be short plants, tall ones, plants with big leaves, and plants with small ones, plants mostly underground and those above.

“Edible forest gardens can provide more than just a wide variety of foodstuffs; the seven F’s apply here: food, fuel, fiber, fodder (food for animals), fertilizer and “farmaceuticals”, as well as fun.”


Cycles of Give and Take


I will get into stacking, plant selection, and zoning, but first, we need to understand our foundation-resources— nutrients and their cycles. The ultimate goal of food forests is to promote the cycles which generate life. It’s important to understand these cycles to ensure minimal entropy, or loss. I will go over the three most important. These are firstly, the hydrogen, or water cycle, then the nitogen, or green matter, and the carbon, or brown matter, cycles. Other cycles can be experimented around, or researched upon discovering a problem, such as low calcium abundance.

The hydrogen cycle is in regard to water. A food forest encourages saving water by decreasing evaporation and runoff from the garden. A well-drained and loose soil is encouraged to soak up as much of the moisture as is possible. Much of this is done by shading, promoting precipitation before longer-term evaporation (as in catching it on the way up with big leaves, etc.), and directing waste water into the water table of the garden. This is oftentimes encouraged by the use of mulch, groundcover, layering, or swales. When taking natural ecosystems into account rivers oftentimes come straight off of mountain ranges as run off. You don’t have to have a real mountain or hill to direct your river into the garden, every roof, bath, or sink can play a role in the ecosystem of a food forest (though, if possible, green roofs are best) by taking their place. Instead of lakes we can have aquaponic systems, ponds, and storage bins and it can rain when we want it to.

The nitrogen cycle is in regard to, what is referred to by composters as, green matter. Green matter, rich is nitrogen, is so-named because fresh, green, plant material is higher in nitrogen. The nitrogen cycle is taken into account when creating a food forest, because plants rely on it for survival. Nitrogen is released by volcanoes into the atmosphere. It then goes back to the soil through lightning, algae, and legume use. Dead organisms and their waste also add to the system with the help of decomposers. This nitrogen is then passed back up to plant roots or to denitrifying bacteria. That is why we want to encourage rich compost for our garden’s use. Fresh plant material contains a lot of nitrogen, and so does animal waste. In our food forest we can use the animals we want instead of the ones we don’t, the most essential being ourselves. That is one reason it’s important to, excuse my language but, take our shit back. Literally. We should be using our wastes, batch composted, as manures just like what happens on the forest floor. It’s extremely wasteful (pardon my pun) to flush our excretions offsite when we could be using it in our food production right at home. People pay a lot of money for rich compost.

The carbon cycle is a reference to brown matter. Like green matter, brown matter, rich in carbon, is so-named because of its abundance in the dry, woody material found in plants and decaying leaves. Carbon is passed on from fuels and animals to the atmosphere. A lot of it is rained back down onto the soil, but plants use carbon in photosynthesis (when they create oxygen). Animals will eat the plants, and the animals (and the plants) will die and will be broken down by decomposers and released back into the system. In a food forest we keep our carbon cycle going through the use of mulch from the forest itself. To increase the quick decomposition of carbon, in a mature food forest floor, mushrooms can be grown. Any woody and dry plant material is high in carbon and it is also needed for compost alongside nitrogen and water. It should be the most prominent in terms of volume.

The best way to manage one’s waste in regard to these essential plant nutrients is to take into mind systems of use and storage. Rainwater harvesting and collection, use of gray-water, composting, repurposing of old resources, and more can contribute to a more cyclical, and less linear, system of production.

Levels of the Forest


Food forests, being composed of many different kinds of plants, with differing characteristics, involve proper planning in order to function as an ecosystem. Without understanding the reasons for stacking, one will create a system which is self-imposing and unsustainable. The reasons to stack are:

1)     Sunlight management: By growing in layers, one can make use of more sun, by catching light missed by trees, with shrubs, herbs, and groundcovering. Trees can ensure that sunlight which would otherwise fall off of the property, onto a house or driveway for instance, is caught up high, before given the chance.

2)     Water management: The above principle works as well for water, which will evaporate and become wasted if allowed to sit in puddles on a driveway, instead of hit leaves and fall to a well-drained soil.

3)     Space management: If we are restricted to growing in a horizontal fashion alone, as is done in traditional vegetable gardens and orchards, we are restricting ourselves from using a lot of space, which holds tremendous amounts of potential for food production. Vertical growing, planned in terms of volume rather than pure area, offers a more productive approach to land stewardship.

A food forest is traditionally composed of seven layers, the canopy, subcanopy, shrubs, herbs, groundcovers, shallow roots, and climbers. The canopy should be planted as to catch light and rain that would otherwise fall off of the property. It shades the forest and keeps water inside of the property, as well as provides mulch. This layer is composed mostly of fruit, nut, mulch, and legume trees. The subcanopy is planted to catch the light that would fall on the trunk of the canopy trees, or fall past them. They also provide mulch. Smaller flowering, legume, nut, or fruit trees often compose this layer. Shrubs are planted in the same manner as the subcanopy to the canopy, and also provide mulch, at a lower level. Flowering and fruiting shrubs are prominent in this group. Herbs share a similar relationship, at a lower level, and plants in this group oftentimes have wide leaves which may provide them extra energy in dense conditions and so can be grown more compactly. Flowers in this group bring friendly insects or deter unfriendly ones. Plants such as vegetables, flowers, kitchen herbs, and legumes are common examples of this level. Groundcover lives up to its name, covering area rather than growing vertically, and being low to the ground. Fungi break down the carbon to be reused in the system and nitrogen fixing plants (legumes) such as clover or vetch offer the soil nitrogen. Shading may be offered by crawling plants such as squash or creeping berries, and grass may provide a living terrain for walking. This group provides rich compost. Shallow roots are used to grow between vegetables and to get all of the energy which would otherwise be wasted below and between the other plants. This group is generally good at using low light levels for food production. Climbers can be close to other plants to grow on them and may offer some of the same benefits as the shrub layer. Utilizing all of these levels together, in a beneficial manner, constructs a food forest.



Zones are important for human stewardship, and are organized around the comfort of a garden’s owner, rather than on necessarily pure natural organization, although it is planned with natural organization in mind. There are six zones, the home, close proximity, low-maintenance pleasure crops, main crops, semi-wild, and wild. Zone 0 is the home. In this zone, one should focus on proper home economics, reducing, reusing, and recycling energy and resources. Zone 1 is close proximity to the home. Kitchen herbs and high maintenance pleasure crops such as soft fruits, as well as annual staples such as salad greens are good for this zone. This is a good area for a kitchen compost area, possibly vermicompost. Raised beds, square-foot gardens, self-watering containers, herb spirals, all belong here. This is the best place for “must-haves” that otherwise don’t do well, and any other high-maintenance plants which require constant attention. These should be planted close to the home to avoid transportation costs. Zone 2 is lower-maintenance pleasure crops. This is the area that will need less weed control, and will have more perrennials such as herbs, bushes, vines, dwarf trees, and maybe a few large fruit trees. Larger composting projects belong here. Zone 3 is the main crops. In plains areas this may include grasses such as wheat, spelt, or maiz and in richer climates will likely include lush greenery beneath a canopy of trees. On the edges where light still exists will be planted the high energy-needs plants such as tomatoes, peppers, etc. and in the partially shaded areas will be herbs and tubers. The rest of the sunlight will be caught by the canopy and subcanopies as they transform that energy into fruit, nuts, oils, gums, dyes, and more for the houshold to use. Weed control should be low, as all ground should be covered by creeping and low growing plants or by the shade of the canopies. Zone 4 is the semi-wild. This will hardly ever be weeded, if at all. It will be maintainted minimally, but stewardship should be promoted if wild materials will be harvested, such as animals, wild nuts, gums, dyes, timbers, medicines, fungi, timber, etc. Zone 5 is the wild. Leave it alone. This is not for humans, but for nature to experiment without us.


The most prominent of Western approaches to polyculture is a philosophy developed, largely, by Bill Mollison.  Permaculture stands for “Permanent Agriculture” or “Permanent Culture”. A society that can endure, or sustain, is one that describes a permanent culture. Permaculture puts a great emphasis on integrating humanity into natural systems, and working alongside, rather than dominating, nature. To better understand, think of this in terms of sailing. One sails well by catching wind however it comes, not by fighting the wind and wishing it was another way. This philosophy, applied to gardening, is the philosophy of permaculture in a nutshell.

One exemplary set of principles, which demonstrate the ideas behind permaculture, is the twelve developed by David Holmgren.

“1. Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.”

This means to check things out before deciding to rearrange everything. Permaculture is a “use what you’ve got” philosophy. When you see a group of coworkers or fellow students talking, you don’t find an easy “in” by cutting off the conversation and starting a new one, but by actively engaging the topic already in place.

“2. Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.”

This applies to energy sources such as sunlight and wind, as well as water and minerals, such as those in food waste that can be put into compost.

“3. Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.”

This means, make sure the benefits outweigh the costs. If costs are too high, the system is unsustainable, and will not last.

“4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.”

This means to be a good steward to the land, and take notice of your effects on it. Control your own habits, and make sure they enrich, rather than detract from, the land.

“5. Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.”

Think about thinkers in longer terms than their first use, and choose products and relationships that will continue to give back, even after they have gone by.

“6. Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.”

Nothing should be considered waste, but only secondary resources. If there is waste, one should consider alternative methods of solving problems, either through using different resources, or finding new ways to benefit from their dispersal.

“7. Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.”

This is a kind of “think-big” design approach. One has to have a healthy foundation on which to build, or their work will fall apart. In permaculture, we look at soil types, sun exposure, rainfall—the patterns—and then think about implementing the details, such as what kinds of swales to dig, what kinds of plants to grow, and what the best way of storing water is.

“8. Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.”

We should be using solutions which reinforce each other. If our solutions are impeding on each other, they will be unsustainable. By creating proper relationships between our plants, animals, and households, we can create a much more lively and beautiful planet, and eat much healthier food!

“9. Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.”

Permaculture is about letting nature do the work, and just helping it along its way when it gets stuck. If we’re exhausted from working too hard or too fast we’re doing it wrong! Work should be an investment that frees up time in the future! If one tries to start too fast or too big, the workload will be heavier, and losses will be more prominent, where a more organic pattern of growth can perpetuate livelihood.

“10. Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.”

Try to find multiple purposes for everything. Your tree can also be a trellis for other plants to grow, your house can also act as a tree canopy, by harvesting the sun’s rays with solar panels. The more purposes we can find for things, the more value the things we already have hold, and the less we need more.

“11. Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.”

Use up all of the space that you have, and don’t worry about experimenting until you find a solution.

“12. Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.”

Notice changes due to seasons and the climate, as well as responses to the things you are doing. If you can understand the effects of your actions, you will be able to make better choices in the future, and possibly save your system from collapse.




At times it may seem overwhelming to become so acquainted with nature and its cycles. It seems rather difficult to have a personable relationship with something so large and all-encompassing, but it really is possible to be friends with nature, and use its processes, rather than fight them. Permaculture is a philosophy of design, where one fills in the details after understanding patterns, the most important of which we have discussed. You now have the foundation from which to work from and experiment off of. No one text will give you all of the answers, but I hope to have given the bare essentials to get started in food forestry, or at least to begin further research. Happy growing!


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