What is a Food Forest?A Food Forest is a collection of fruit and nut trees, vines, berry shrubs, fungi, groundcovers, and herbaceous perennial plants, such as herbs, ferns, and edible greens, all growing together like the plants in a forest do. In a food forest, however, each plant has been selected for the many uses it offers to human life, whether as food, medicine, or material for building or making useful items such as baskets & dyes.
A Food Forest does not require the tilling, machinery, herbicides, pesticides, or crop reaping that conventional agriculture requires. A Food Forest can also be grown in a relatively small area such as a quarter or even an eighth of an acre, and still produce valuable amounts of food and resources. In fact, once mature a Food Forest requires little traditional maintenance at all, such as weeding, planting seeds, or adding mulch or manure. All that is required is harvesting the shoots, fruit, nuts, greens, tubers, and other vegetables it produces.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of a Food Forest is that it serves the unique function of providing an intensive amount of food and resources for human life while simultaneously providing a rich and healthy ecosystem for insect, bird, animal, fungal, and microbial life- a situation which is impossible in conventional agricultural or even vegetable gardening systems.
What services does a Food Forest provide?
- A reduction in food costs.
- A reduction the labor time and outsourced materials (such as fertilizer, seed, and manure) required by typical vegetable gardening.
- A potential reduction in health-related costs.
- Potentially lower energy costs.
- Potential for increased security via community investment
- Increasing soil health over time, including an increase in hummus, soil minerals, and the diversity of microbial and fungal life which makes plants resilient to stress and disease.
- Providing habitat for diverse insect populations, including predatory insects, honey-bees, and other pollinators.
- Providing food and nesting habitat for birds and other small animals.
- Increasing ability of the land to absorb and hold rainwater, eliminating the need for irrigation, and decreasing rain-water run off.
- Exponential increase in the surface area of photosynthesizing leaves and biomass, which filter air, reducing air-born pollutants and increasing the output of oxygen.
- Providing a center for community activity for all ages.
- Creating an environment which fosters community self-organization, team-work, and shared values with the outcome of producing food & other resources for all participants.
- Increased security of the neighborhood due to greater community activity and site investment.
- Offering a site for educational opportunities, such as learning to harvest and cook under-utilized foods such as Jerusalem Artichoke, hazelnuts, and Hopniss, as well as education about ecosystem dynamics, botany, mycology, and ethical use of resources.
- Providing a free and enjoyable opportunity for outdoor activity and exercise for community members.
- Providing a place of peace, shade, relaxation, and a natural, beautiful looking environment for the community and passersby.
- The site can function as a model, as well as a seed bank and source for cuttings and other plant propagations to aid in the creation of similar community or private Food Forest projects.
- Local food security & self-sufficiency, community pride, improvement in health of community members, culinary expansion, and development of valuable teachable skills among community members.
What kinds of specific foods and resources does a Food Forest provide?
- Conventional fruits, such as apples, pears, peaches, plums, & grapes.
- Lesser known or native fruits such as American persimmon, pawpaw, hardy kiwi, passionflower, muscadine, & quince.
- Conventional berries, such as blackberry, raspberry, & blueberry.
- Lesser known or native berries, such as bush cherries, goumi, currants, mulberries & gooseberry.
- Nuts, such as English walnut, hazelnuts, pine nuts, chestnuts, pecans, acorn, & hickory.
- Perennial edible roots & tubers, such as Jerusalem artichoke, hopniss, wild ginger, & Solomon’s seal.
- Spring shoots, such as asparagus, fiddleheads, ramps, milkweed, passionflower, hopniss, Solomon’s seal, & pokeweed.
- Perennial greens, such as sorrel, basswood, dandelion, chicory, stinging nettle, perennial spinach, & comfrey.
- Edible flowers, such as comfrey, daylily, black locust, hopniss, & milkweed.
- Conventional annual greens & vegetables such as beets, carrots, lettuce, & tomatoes.
- Lesser known annual gourmet greens such as chickweed, bittercress, wintercress, & purslane.
- Gourmet mushrooms, such as oyster mushrooms, shiitake, wine-caps, chicken-of-the-woods, lion’s mane, chanterelles, & morels.
- Medicinal herbs & roots, such as peppermint, rosemary, thyme, comfrey, licorice, dandelion, wormwood, stinging nettle, garlic, chickweed, yarrow, Saint John’s wort, & redclover.
- Materials for fiber & crafts from plants such as stinging nettle, willow, & honey locust, and dyes from plants such as black walnut & yarrow.
How much food can I expect to harvest from my Food Forest?
The volume of harvestable food depends mostly upon the design of the Food Forest, its acreage, and its age of maturity. Since food forests are composed mostly of perennial plants, shrubs, & trees, the amount of food it produces increases over time as those plants reach full maturity. This is particularly different from vegetable gardening or conventional agriculture, which relies on annual plants that reach maturity within a single growing season, and which produces either the same, or decreasing yields each year.
The overall yield of an entire mature system will depend on the initial plant selections, but we’ll try to give some perspective here. In a Food Forest we design for cubic feet. So, if we have, say, one semi-dwarf apple tree in a 12’ x 12’ space, we can occupy that same twelve foot by twelve foot spot with peas, tomato, bush cherry, hardy kiwi or grape, passion flower, cucumber, parsley, gooseberry, leaf lettuce, sorrel, daisy, radish, asparagus, oyster mushrooms, insects, birds, and a bench to sit and eat your fruit upon. That would result in about 500+ pounds of food, herb, & medicine production and flowers for the table.
How much time & maintenance will my Food Forest require?
Your Food Forest will require the most care and attention for roughly the first three to five years, which are considered the installation phase of the Food Forest. During these first years your trees, shrubs, and woody vines will be expanding their foliar reach, and perennial plants and groundcovers will be spreading and thickening beneath them, and becoming mature and stable enough for harvest. During this time of growth we encourage the use of semi-conventional annual vegetables to be planted in companion to the perennials. This method utilizes annuals that can support the growth and health of the perennials while filling gaps and providing community members some immediate harvest, while also helping them to build a relationship with their Food Forest system.
Initial plant selections, and the initial state of the land and soil of your site will greatly affect the kinds and amount of care, work, and attention needed in the early years of your Food Forest garden.
How much will creating a Food Forest cost?
Design & installation costs for your own community based food forest in the Baltimore area depend upon variables such as the state of the current landscape, your community’s needs, your community’s available hours to maintain the system, and the community’s savvy in gathering resources and materials from within that community.
All of these variables can be addressed with a preliminary meeting with all team members who are interested. As a general consideration, the more initial plant material which can be funded to go into the Food Forest, the less start up and long term maintenance will be required. That is, a greater initial investment at planting will mean less expense of time and labor down the road. Assuming the workforce is primarily volunteer energy we can provide a design and the plant material, and oversee the installation for a ¼ acre project for roughly $5,000.00 – $7,000. Since every micro-detail is taken into consideration for the design process it is difficult to provide a “cookie cutter” cost analysis for any one size project. Project costs can be slimmed down where needed and should be bulked up when possible.
(1) Quercusrobur at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons
(2) Quercusrobur at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons