What is a Permaculture Food Forest Garden?

What is a Permaculture Food Forest Garden?


Pikes Peak Permaculture, Inc. is designing and will be implementing the Crystal Valley Permaculture Food Forest Demonstration Garden in Manitou this coming Spring.

There are a multitude of benefits to creating a food forest garden including:

* Addressing locally significant, multi faceted environmental issues and aspects of food security through building long term perennial food gardens.

*Water supply is a limited resource. Water conservation will be directly demonstrated through legal rainwater management, design, plant selection – including native plants, building up sponge soil to absorb water and plant “training” towards less-is-more and water sharing in guilds.

*Creation of animal habitat along side the production of foods, increases stability for the local birds and insects, as well as creating a natural space for local students, visitors and neighbors to come observe nature in action, touch the earth and gain that exposure.

*Many (most?) of our American citizens no longer have any substantial direct contact with Nature giving rise to a variety of negative physical, psychological and emotional influences,  especially among our children.  (This is sometimes referred to as Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD).) This garden, without chemicals and toxins, will demonstrate organic gardening, the exclusion of unwanted potential pests such as mule deer or elk and will be on going research and experiments for on-going issues (like bears) that may arise.

*Once the garden is planted, it will begin to bring returns immediately.  We will be successful with food production, even in the first year, but on-going and increasing over the years into high value fruits, perennial foods and nuts.

*Visiting school classes and community members (from Pikes Peak Region and beyond) will tour the garden coming to see and understand Permaculture not only as a resilient design for food systems, but a design system of sustainability applicable to many other areas of life as well.

*Our goal is to inspire a new generation of eco-farmers who step into nature’s way rather than working against nature.  Many interconnected points of learning and understanding of our natural world will be made though this garden for use.   We will see for ourselves how valuable a community orchard and edible gardens can work to create tighter community bonds.

Although the model of the Forest Garden, or a Food Forest Garden was not developed within the system of Permaculture it is extensively used by permaculturalists because this model closely mimics the laws and dynamics of Nature or the natural world and therefore is necessarily a model of maximum yield and authentic sustainability.  A Food Forest Garden is a planned ecosystem which works the way Nature works.  If you observe Nature and the natural evolution of a landscape you will notice that there is a natural succession it follows from a bare (and generally barren) field to a mature woodland forest.  There are many stages in this succession and it can take anywhere from 50 to 100 years to reach the phase of a mature woodland forest.

By consciously designing and implementing a food forest garden that mimics the evolutionary stage of a natural young woodland forest when it is mature enough to provide top canopy benefits (such as windbreaks) and yet still allow enough open space and sunlight for the healthy development of the lower forest garden layers , the maximum amount of product yield can be delivered while maintaining the authentic sustainability of the ecosystem.

This includes food products but also much more such as the following :

  • Dye plants
  • Medicinal Plants
  • Sap & Wood Products
  • Firewood
  • Spices
  • Fruits
  • Poles & Canes
  • Basketry Material
  • Vegetables
  • Soap Plants
  • Nuts & Seeds
  • Tying Materials
  • Salad Crops & Herbs
  • Mushrooms
  • Honey

Here is more detail and history related to Forest Gardening:

Forest gardening is a low-maintenance organic plant-based food production and  agro-forestry  system based on woodland ecosystems, incorporating fruit and nut trees, shrubs, herbs, vines and perennial vegetables which have yields directly useful to humans. Making use of companion planting, these can be intermixed to grow in a succession of layers, to replicate a woodland habitat. 

Forest gardens are thought to be the world’s oldest and most resilient agro-ecosystem.They originated in prehistoric times along jungle-clad river banks and in the wet foothills of monsoon regions. In the gradual process of families improving their immediate environment, useful tree and vine species were identified, protected and improved whilst undesirable species were eliminated. Eventually superior foreign species were selected and incorporated into the gardens. Forest gardening is believed to be the oldest form of land use in the world

Forest gardens, or home gardens, are common in the tropics, using inter-cropping to cultivate trees, crops, and livestock on the same land. In Kerala in South India as well as in northeastern India, the home garden is the most common form of land use and is also found in Indonesia. These gardens exemplify polyculture (multiple species of crops planted together), and conserve much crop genetic diversity and heirloom plants that are not found in monocultures (planting only one type of crop such as corn or wheat).

Robert Hart adapted forest gardening for temperate zones during the early 1960s. Hart began farming at Wenlock Edge in Shropshire, England with the intention of providing a healthy and therapeutic environment for himself and his brother. Starting as relatively conventional small landholders, Hart soon discovered that maintaining large annual vegetable beds, rearing livestock and taking care of an orchard were tasks beyond their strength. However, a small bed of perennial vegetables and herbs he planted was looking after itself with little intervention.

Seven-layer system

The seven layers of the forest garden.

Robert Hart pioneered a system based on the observation that the natural forest can be divided into distinct levels. He used inter-cropping to develop an existing small orchard of apples and pears into an edible  polyculture landscape consisting of the following layers:

  1. ‘Canopy layer’ consisting of the original mature fruit trees.
  2. ‘Low-tree layer’ of smaller nut and fruit trees on dwarfing root stocks.
  3. ‘Shrub layer’ of fruit bushes such as currants and berries.
  4. ‘Herbaceous layer’ of perennial vegetables and herbs.
  5. ‘Ground cover layer’ of edible plants that spread horizontally.
  6. ‘Rhizosphere’ or ‘underground’ dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers.
  7. ‘Vertical layer’ of vines and climbers.

A key component of the seven-layer system was the plants he selected. Most of the traditional vegetable crops grown today, such as carrots, are sun loving plants not well selected for the more shady forest garden system. Hart favoured shade tolerant perennial vegetables. 

The Agroforestry Research Trust, managed by Martin Crawford, runs experimental forest gardening projects on a number of plots in Devon, United Kingdom.  Covering his twenty years worth of experience Martin has written an extensive volume called “Creating A Forest Gardening” accompanied by an hour-long DVD.

Forest gardening has been adopted as a common Permaculture design element. Bill Mollison, who coined the term Permaculture, visited Robert Hart at his forest garden in Wenlock Edge in October 1990. Numerous permaculturists are proponents of forest gardens, or food forests, such as Patrick Whitefield, Dave Jacke, Eric Toensmeier and Geoff Lawton. Whitefield wrote the book How to Make a Forest Garden in 2002, Jacke and Toensmeier co-authored the two volume book set Edible Forest Gardening in 2005, and Lawton presented the film Establishing a Food Forest in 2008.

One of the oldest (30 years) food forest garden installations in the United States exists near Basalt, Colorado at Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute (www.crmpi.org).