Imagine a forest where each element has been carefully planned so that it offers food, medicines and fibre. Imagine choosing every plant – from roots, to ground cover, herbs, shrubs, trees, big canopy trees and vines – so that each was of benefit to the other, thus creating a stable eco-system while providing many of our human needs.
So you might have yam, kumura, potato in the underground layer and lingonberries, strawberries and wintergreen as ground cover. Comfrey, beets, Artichoke and herbs would make up the next layer, then currants and berries would be some of the elements in the shrub layer.
As you move higher you’ll find what we think of as orchard trees followed by the large fruit and nut trees at the canopy, and fruiting vines finding their places to climb through it all.
Why might we do this?
Our long-standing forest systems are mostly self-sustaining, needing little or no human input in order to maintain themselves. They don’t generally require inputs of water, fertiliser or pesticides, and in their maturity, will build soil as the forest’s leafy and woody material drops to the ground and breaks down.
Forests are known to have greater capacity to retain water in the soil, unlike open fields which are quickly impacted by the drying effects of wind and sun. They are far more resilient to the extremes that we are beginning to experience more frequently now.
We may not be able to grow the same types of vegetables as we have done in our market garden systems, but a food forest system is likely to still be producing food long after the market garden has poisoned and depleted its soil, or run out of fossil fuel energy to keep up with the demands of ploughing and harvesting to grow annual crops.
A mature forest system can produce more per hectare than the intensive open field agricultural model, and on the energy-in vs calories-out equation it wins hands down.
Given the climate mitigation opportunity through regenerating ground and tree cover on this precious planet, I can imagine food forests being a significant part of the solution for providing food as we move into our post-carbon era.