Food forests, also known as forest gardens, are a type of agroforestry system that incorporates trees, shrubs, perennial vegetables, herbs, and other plants into a productive human-guided ecosystem that is modeled off of the patterns found in nature. The patterns we gain inspiration from are both spatial and temporal. We layer the system spatially with different size and types of plants in beneficial relationships (guiding) similar to a forest while utilizing the temporal phenomena of forest succession to establish the system and guide its management.
Food forests have their origin in traditional agroforestry and permaculture, and are often used in a permaculture context. In Southwest Florida, the food forest concept has taken root in many communities, gaining popularity in recent years as a practice and experiment in its own right, as more people are looking for ways to create sustainable food systems that provide fresh, local, and organic food to the community. Our tropical savanna climate in Southwest Florida is quite warm year-round, making it an ideal place to establish a food forest. There are a variety of native plants that can be incorporated in a food forest, including palms, pines, cypresses, and oaks. Exotic fruit trees, such as mangoes, jackfruit, and avocados, are common favorites.
Establishing a Food Forest
If you're interested in creating a food forest in Southwest Florida, there are a few important considerations to keep in mind. First, it's crucial to carefully select the ideal site. Opt for an area that receives full sun, and make sure that the soil is well-drained and not susceptible to flooding. Additionally, it's important to be mindful of the frost and freeze potential of the property. While this becomes more of a concern for properties further inland from the coast, it's advisable to have a plan in place to protect tender tropical plants during few cold snaps we get in the winter months. We recommend surveying your property in August or September to take note of any areas that tend to collect standing water. By identifying and avoiding these areas, or modifying them with earthworks, you can ensure a successful food forest without having to deal with the headaches of having to move and replant it later.
Food Forest Design
Second, it is important to have a plan. One could go to Youtube University to learn from mostly people who are still in the experimental phase of forest gardening themselves, then draw a map of the area to be planted, and decide what type of plants will go where, prepare the ground, and hope for the best. Another more preferable option (in our humble option) would be to hire us at Edulis Designs to work with you on your project to ensure its success. We are leading experts in permaculture and food forest design, installation, and maintenance. Whatever your edible landscape desires are, we got your grounds covered!
Right Plant, Right Place
Third, it is important to choose the right plants. Native plants are always a good choice, as they are adapted to the local climate and soil. Now, you could plant just Florida natives, but you will then find yourself still going to the produce section of your grocery store for most of your fruit and veg. And what about the natives that were displaced from the monocrop farms that produce was grown on? Fruit trees can be a bit more challenging to grow, but they will provide the bulk of the harvestable yield in your food forest, keeping you out of that produce section. Always focus on the fruits you love to eat, as you'll have a lot! Select perennial vegetables, herbs, and support plants that will nourish the ecosystem and your diet as well.
There are several types of what we call support plants that are always included in a food forest design. Support plants, particularly nitrogen fixers, are crucial for the success of a food forest for several reasons. Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plant growth, and it is often a limiting factor in tropical soils. Nitrogen fixers are able to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use, thus improving soil fertility and supporting the growth of other plants in the food forest. Common nitrogen fixers included in tropical forest gardens include pigeon pea, ice cream bean, and Gliricidia.
Benefits of Foods Forests
There are many benefits to creating and maintaining a food forest from improved nutrition, creating a habitat that benefits wildlife, to having a sanctuary space to enjoy and relax in.
Diverse Yield and Nutrition
Food forests easily provide a more diverse yield per acre than conventional farming methods, and require less inputs (such as water, fertilizer, and labor) to do so. The diversity of yield leads to a more diversified and nutritious diet than what is typically available from monoculture farming. This is because food forests are typically planted with a wide variety of fruits, nuts, and perennial vegetables, as well as herbs and spices that can provide vitamins, minerals, protein, and carbs for your diet.
In addition to providing food, a food forest also provides a habitat for wildlife. Birds, butterflies, bees, and other animals will find refuge in the forest ecosystem, and will benefit from the ecosystem services in the same way they would in a naturally occurring forest. Being a forest ecosystem, food forests also have the potential to serve as carbon sinks and help to mitigate the effects of climate change. Additionally, food forests can help to regenerate degraded landscapes, which would include the majority of properties in Southwest Florida that have been cleared previously.
A food forest can be a productive and diverse landscape that is also low-maintenance. The majority of the maintenance from year 0 to 5 will be maintaining the groundcover in a preferred state, because if you don’t, nature will provide! This period is typified by the phrase “win the spatial race against the weeds.” Once the trees and shrubs are established, they will require little care other than occasional pruning and the trees will begin to provide shade to the ground which slows down the growth of ‘weeds’ or volunteer plants. Being a polyculture system, food forests are less susceptible to pests and diseases than monocultures. Monocultures are like an all you can eat buffet for pests due being a simplified ecology which does not harbor the predators of the crop pest. A food forest ecosystem becomes home to many beneficial predators that will keep crop pest populations in check.
Beauty, Relaxation, Food for the Soul
With a little planning and care, a food forest can be a beautiful and productive addition to any landscape that provides a space for recreation and relaxation. Many exciting opportunities exist while designing a forest garden to create spaces such as shaded places for kids, outdoor family spaces, tree swings, hammocks, wildlife viewing areas, ponds for aquatic life, sun-traps for gardening, privacy screening, and more. A mature forest garden, being a mix of various wild and domesticated plants, creates a genuine forest ecology which is very inviting and, hence, a wonderful place to spend one’s time. We are a part of nature and forest gardening is an ancient and profound way to strengthen our connection to the natural world. Using forest gardening and permaculture design we can work with nature by empowering natural processes without overriding them to meet all our needs in an enjoyable and sustainable way.