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The Wealth of Abundance: Explore the Food Forest!

In my previous blog post, I described our passion and dream to one day create a food forest. But what does it really entail, such a food forest? Is it a big dense forest where the food falls on your plate? In this blog post, I outline the picture of opulence called a food forest. We'll look at how the food forest is constructed, how big it is, how long it takes to harvest, what the place of the vegetable garden is, what we do with "weeds" and keeping animals on the land. We also briefly dive into terminology and food forest as a movement. By the end you will be able to get a clear idea of what a food forest looks like.

What is a Food Forest?

A food forest is a large area of land covered with edible perennials, such as trees, shrubs and climbers, aimed at sustainable food production as well as increasing biodiversity. The inspiration is a natural forest or tropical rainforest, a kind of "garden of eden," where abundance prevails. This ecosystem maintains itself without human interference. A stable ecological system contains plants, soil fungi, insects and other animals such as hedgehogs, toads, birds and birds of prey living together in harmony. To this end, the food forest consists of multiple height layers, making it more similar to a forest edge than an actual dense forest. A tropical rainforest is also a good example, where bananas, mango, coffee, cocoa, pineapple and various herbs grow together.

The food forest is a collaboration between man and nature. A human-designed self-reliant ecosystem, where humans render themselves subservient and flexible rather than controlling every detail. It goes beyond organic farming, allowing no pesticides or fertilizers to be used. Food forestry involves working with nature, taking into account natural characteristics of the plants, their neighboring plants and animals and soil life. So that they work together toward a resilient and resistant crop. This makes food forests a form of nature-inclusive agriculture.

Image from Unsplash

How large is a food forest?

There are some conditions attached to actually calling a land a food forest. Factors that come into play are the size of the land and the age of the plantings. The official size of such a food forest varies based on how "ecologically rich" the environment already is. This means that the piece of land may or may not be surrounded by natural landscape with high biodiversity. A resilient land, which can withstand fluctuations in climate. In such a very rich environment, 0.5 hectares is enough to call it a food forest. You could think of land of 0.5 hectares directly adjacent to a nature reserve that is being developed into a food forest. In a very impoverished environment, such as in the middle of a huge patch of grassland and fields, this could be as much as 20 hectares. There are substantial differences. That said, you see smaller food forests sprouting everywhere. People call them the "small edible gardens," "edible ornamental gardens," or "edible forest gardens," as I wrote about our own garden earlier. Each little food forest contributes to making our beautiful globe more sustainable, cheering you on just for greening every square meter you are willing to green.

Overview of 'De Middengaarde' and its food forest located near Utrecht, The Netherlands

Layering the food forest

Now, what does such a food forest look like? The idea is not new and has been around for centuries. Early researchers and philosophers were already writing about mimicking natural systems in order to do good and healthy farming. And frankly, a food forest is more like a food forest edge. In fact, at the forest edge you will find several layers of vegetation. Each layer looks abundant. As you go deeper into a forest, the tall trees take over the landscape and the soil gets little light. The vegetation then consists of fewer different layers. You won't find many wild herbs there, for example.

A food forest should consist of about 7 layers. The number of layers mentioned varies. After all, it is a pioneering movement, where people are still learning and experimenting. There are even 9 layers named in Madelon Oostwoud's book "Food Forest." It's just how you look at it.

Image created by Rosanna Denis using Canva

The layers from top to bottom are as follows:

7 - Canopy Layer. Contains the tallest trees, as seen in a dense forest. In it you often see the walnut that grows to about 20 to 30 meters tall. There are trees such as the Douglas fir that can grow as tall as 50 meters in our climate.

6 - Smaller trees and tall bushes. This category includes many fruit trees, such as apple and pear, which often do not grow taller than 3-5 meters.

5 - Shrub layer. This is the layer above the herb layer that is often more densely vegetated and grows to a maximum height of 2-3 meters. You will find here, for example, the elder, berries and blackberries.

4 - Vine layer.

This category includes climbers such as hops, kiwi and kiwi berry, which can use an existing tree to grow.

3 - Herb layer. Many herbs die in the winter, serving as protection and nutrition for the soil.

2 - Creepers and ground covers. Protect the soil from drying out and against the cold. A strawberry is a beautiful ground cover.

1 - Mycelia, mycorrhiza and mushrooms. This is the layer present below the surface in the soil and with edible mushrooms above. The white truffle or morels are fine examples in this layer.

There are also two other categories: 8 - aquatic plants and 9 - roots & tubers. In food forests, a water piece is often added. Water plants have a specific place in this type of system, namely in and around the water. Each food forest handles the water supply differently, so this category is not always relevant. For tubers and roots, you have to turn over the soil, which does not quite fit into this form of "agriculture". Improving soil quality and structure is done by leaving it alone and letting nature take its course (or helping a bit by 'mulching' the soil with organic material).

In addition, in the categories of canopy layer and small trees and shrubs, you can still distinguish between the heights of the shrubs and trees. This creates a four division: low shrub layer, high shrub layer, crown layer and emergent layer (high crown layer). It's just how complex you want to make it. And really, it's mostly related to the choice of plant species and the interpretation or purpose of the food forest.

To make the food forest and its various crops accessible, each designer does add a custom walking route with a winding path or tight paths here and there in between. That way you don't easily step on everything or have an easier time accessing the fruit or nuts during harvest. The work that goes into designing, building and maintaining a food forest literally bears fruit for many years. This usually not only for the initiators, but society as a whole.

Peter Jan (left) and me during the planting of the standard orchard for food forest of 'Ons Dorpje Overeind'.

The place of the vegetable garden in a food forest

As for vegetable gardening, that doesn't seem to fit so much within food forestry. Primarily, perennial crops grow and the soil is left alone. Annual crops such as tomato, carrot, zucchini and celery could fall within the herb layer, though, because they die off at the end of each season and provide nutrition and protection to the soil. It is very intensive to plant and harvest this in food forests, especially if the structure is laid out in a more "romantic" way. At the very least, the wild herb and grasses that grow in abundance will oppress and overshadow them if you don't get there in time. Also, you often disturb the soil with regular planting anyway, which again is not desirable in the food forest. Therefore, in the layout of your landscape, you could consider a separate vegetable garden, or several smaller pieces of vegetable garden. You could also think of it as a temporary interim solution, as shown in the image below. By alternating a row of vegetable garden with a row of food forest plants, you can give the new perennial planting a gentle start by not giving the dense grass a chance.

Of course, there are perennial crops that we see more often in vegetable gardens. These could therefore have a really nice place in the food forest, as long as you don't have to dig up the soil before harvesting. Some examples are the artichoke, green asparagus, sorrel, strawberry, and perennial purslane. Many woody kitchen herbs also fall into this category, such as rosemary and thyme.

Within permaculture, which includes food forests, there is a place for vegetable gardening. A mixed-crop vegetable garden would fit beautifully with a food forest and I would definitely implement it if we can ever realize our food forest. This mixed cultivation consists of several crops, which are good neighbors of each other. We call this combination cultivation in the vegetable garden. You also use decoys, or trap plants, such as marigolds, calendula or garden nasturtiums, so that the insects that want to attack your planting material are distracted by these. The right plant combinations protect each other from pests and provide each other with the right nutrients. For example, forget-me-nots would combine well with cabbage. Also, while sowing, you already keep in mind that you can harvest year-round.

In addition, you cover the bare soil with organic material, which prevents drying out, provides the soil with extra food and ensures that no new wild herb will grow through it. Quite a study in itself, but a very fun and useful activity. This will also make your vegetable garden look a little "messier." Personally, I think it looks beautiful. All those height differences. There never seems to be an empty spot. A greenhouse could also be nicely applied to the land. Then you could also adhere to the principles for vegetable gardening within permaculture, and you would also be completely in line with the food forest ideals. My personal dream is the "passive greenhouse". Just take a look at the greenhouse of Martijn Aalbrechts, Holland's Food Forest Boss (De Voedselboss). Then you'll probably understand me!

Martijn Aalbrechts' production food forest with alternating rows of permanent plants and then rows of vegetable garden..

What about wild herbs?

In my opinion, the wild herbs, what we like to call 'weeds' in the Netherlands, have definitely earned their place in a food forest. On a large site of 20 hectares you do not actively 'weed' on a daily basis, that would take too much effort and also you would be working against nature.

You may welcome the wild plants on your property with a warm welcome, because they come for a reason. Many wild herbs and plants are useful in a food forest as green manure or growth enhancers for the roots of trees. For example, clover, vetch, lupine, buckwheat and yellow mustard are ideal green manures, which eventually die off themselves. They thus serve again as "mulch" on the land, by forming a soil-covering layer of organic matter. Plantain's root system is rich in mycorrhizae, which promote nutrient uptake for plant roots in exchange for sugars and other nutrients from the plant with which they are in contact. These rascals are extremely beneficial during the planting and early stages of the food forest. In addition, some wild herbs have deep taproots, such as dandelion or cow parsley, and can thus bring up nutrients in a short period of time, which are stored deep in the soil.

Another function of the wild herb is to protect new growth, as the stinging nettle does. If you pay close attention, you will find that animals avoid a place with nettles. Thus, that expensive little tree with lots of leafy greens might just be spared the curious tongue of the deer.

Another very nice thing about wild herbs is that they can also serve as indicator or signal plants of your soil. Every plant does have his or her own preference for a certain type of soil. This allows you to see what kind of soil your food forest is established on. White deadnettle and cleavers grow on moist, fertile soil. Ground elder grows on more acidic soil. Willow grows on wet soil. And big burdock root and buttercup grow on chalky soil. Ground elder and sorrel deacidify your soil. Likewise, mugwort, deadnettle, horsetail and garlic mustard would all help suppress mold that is harmful to your plants. All are also edible.

Many of these plants provide pollen and nectar for butterflies, bees and other insects, or serve as host plants, a breeding ground for insects. Additional values that contribute to the biodiversity of the piece of land!

Besides these plants having positive effects on the soil life of the food forest, many wild herbs are also edible, medicinal or usable for applications as cleaning agents or dyes. These days I make shampoo from ivy, among other things. A friend uses the red dye from poppies to dye with. Edible species that I encounter in abundance around here include stinging nettle, chickweed, bittercress, white goosefoot, cow parsley or miner's lettuce. By involving them in the food forest in this way, you increase the amount of goods you produce, biodiversity, soil life and reduce the amount of labor on your property.

Yellow rocketcress. A vitamin C bomb!

Keeping animals in the food forest

Opinions are divided about keeping animals in the food forest. They are a nice addition on the one hand, because they can do some work for you. On the other hand, they are not really natural, because they are domesticated species. They can inhibit the succession on your land that you really want to accelerate. Cows graze your grass, which saves you the work of mowing, but also leaves your property quite bare and promotes grass growth. Pigs plow your land, a desirable effect for planting or regular vegetable gardening, but you also prefer not to have this on your large meadow full of tasty crops.

Animals with slightly more food forest benefits are chickens, turkeys, ducks, bees, cats and dogs. Chickens eat your slug infestation, fertilize and improve the soil and lay eggs that in turn are food for us humans. They also like to feed on your plantings, but they really won't peck your property bare. With that, I think a group of chickens or ducks could be quite a fun and beautiful addition to your food forest. I also got very excited about these turkeys in Sjef van Dongen's Incredible Harvest food forest. And a bee colony pollinates your fruit-bearing plants and will provide you with honey, provided you leave enough for the bees to overwinter abundantly. So you have the dog that protects your yard from gluttons or invaders, and provides you with love and attention. And the cat who likes to keep the number of mice in your yard under control. You might also consider keeping animals for sale while letting them roam wild on your land. It could even be a revenue model of your food forest. It's just how you handle it and how you look at it. I would find it quite difficult to sell an animal since I prefer to eat very little meat myself. But when I think about how much more valuable a super healthy and happy chicken is than a plump chicken or even a free range chicken, I think I would be very happy to offer the world meat that really truly knew nature. Healthier for humans and animals, shall we say.

With Fietje, our dog, we found several examples of Ceps in the woods!

How soon can you harvest from your food forest?

Many enthusiasts want to plant quickly with their food forest, because they know that it can take quite a while to harvest. So it's a little different from a vegetable garden with permanent plants. For example, a pear tree can give full fruit 3 to as many as 7 years after planting. For a sweet chestnut it is even 10 to 15 years. In addition, the trees often have not yet reached their final size and the landscape does not yet look like a forest. That only happens after about 30 years. That's all quite some time.

So you are not planting your food forest for this moment, but for the future. A beautiful ideal. With that, you do benefit directly from restoring the land and planting more trees. Your land immediately stores more CO2 and quickly biodiversity will increase. This can already increase significantly within one year, depending on the environment. Harvesting leafy vegetables will also be possible quickly in the first year. To have a hefty harvest, you would have to allow for at least 5 to 7 years' time. The advantage is that after that you can benefit from it for hundreds of years. Especially if you start measuring and planning properly. Replacing your fruit and nut trees on time could ensure that your land always turns a happy production.

Food Forest as a movement

The food forest and food forestry symbolizes a revolutionary movement in the fields of nature, environment and agriculture. In it, common interests and ideals are expressed. Important pillars in the food forest movement are:

  1. Increasing biodiversity is the common thread

  2. The soil and its quality are central

  3. You can harvest all year round

  4. There is cooperation with nature

  5. Planting is mainly perennial (permanent)

  6. The ecosystem is self-reliant

  7. It contributes to climate improvement

  8. It has a penchant for 'circular thinking' (what you prune you leave as mulch or is composted)

  9. The food forest should be productive

The movement is becoming more and more organized. Where first there were enthusiastic individuals and groups getting involved, now they are increasingly joining forces. Some time ago, for example, ' Voedsel uit het Bos' started connecting food forests and offering a standard education. If you have some land at your disposal and turn it into a food forest, you will be able to go there for registration, help with your plans, budgets and education. Seminars will also be organized, including a collaboration with Wageningen University (WUR). The WUR is also doing research on food forests and biodiversity to make it measurable.

Under the guise of "Measuring is Knowing'. It is all somewhat new and revolutionary territory, and for food forests we need more space, practical experience and some adaptation of laws and regulations. With this in mind, governments, policy makers, pioneers and facilitating partners have come together through a 'Green Deal Voedselbossen' to make agreements about the concept of food forests. This will allow us to expand this acreage of food forests with greater ease in the future.

Image from Unsplash

The connection of food forestry with other terminology

There are numerous names in circulation for what we have outlined here. You may come across terms like a "food garden," "edible (ornamental) garden," or "food forest border". In the Netherlands, we stick to the terms "food forest" or "edible forest garden. The food forest movement is closely related to terms such as permaculture, agroforestry and nature-inclusive agriculture. Food forestry even is a category under permaculture - which stands for permanent agriculture. Human and animal working together in harmony with nature. Permaculture requires the land to be ecological, sustainable and economically viable. Permaculture, however, is much bigger than food forestry and includes many concepts around living and working together sustainably, recycling, reducing use, and redefining waste.

A nice song to introduce you to it a bit is “No such thing as waste” of Formidable Vegetable. Another word for food forestry is agroforestry: the use of trees and shrubs in combination with food cultivation. And food forestry is then a form of nature-inclusive agriculture, where the natural functioning of the animal and plant kingdom is valued and increasing biodiversity is central. As you note, this goes many times beyond organic farming, where the main interest is not to use harmful pesticides to produce food. In food forestry, which goes in cooperation with nature, these substances are not needed and should therefore be omitted.

The value of the food forest at a glance. Source: Heather Jo Flores

In the next blog post, I'll take you through the story behind the food forest (and permaculture) movement: because why would you want to start a food forest now or why would the Netherlands want to see an increase in food forests?


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