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"The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings." ~Masanobu Fukuoka

Imagine strolling out of the hot summer sun and into the moist, cool and dappled sunlight of a mature forest.  At eye level you are surrounded by fruits and nuts of all variety.  At your waist are bushes heavily laden with currents and berries.  There might even be tomatoes and artichokes growing.  The ground is blanketed in wild herbs and grasses and topped in native flowers in full bloom.  The air is full of sweet smells, the call of birds and the chirping and squirrels.  The forest is alive with butterflies and other insects.  Oddly enough, you are in the middle of a large city walking down the sidewalk towards the entrance of a public building.  Better yet...maybe you’re on the grounds of a public park....or a public school...or your own backyard....

This is the food forest.

In The Food Forest Part I – Strategies for Green Urban Infrastructure, I defined the concept of a "food forest" (or ‘forest garden’), literally ran through the history of this concept, traced out its structure with an example from my own yard and, finally, linked to some shots of a food forest installation outside our local public swimming pool.

Here, in The Food Forest Part II, I will give you a brief run-thru on how you can begin to create your own food forest, including vision, design, guilding and evolution.  Lets be honest, this is a very complex subject and books can and have been written on it.  My intention in this diary is not to lead a full course that covers every possibility for forest gardening but rather to give a general overview and point you to resources that you can follow up on.

(In The Food Forest Part III (look for it next week) I’ll get into some detail on the process of "guilding". Guilding is VITALLY important in designing your food forest so be sure to tune in!!)

Two of those resources are the Bible of forest gardens "Edible Forest Gardens"  and "Gaia’s Garden"  , both of which I have relied upon quite a bit to write this diary.

**NOTE** There may be many other permaculturists here on Dkos.  Permaculture honors diversity, experiment  and inclusionary inputs.  So please, other Dkos permaculturists, jump in.  Agree, disagree, add, subtract, comment, critique and help build a better diary **

Jacke and Toensmier:

Edible forest gardening is not necessarily gardening in the forest, it is gardening like the forest. You don't need to have an existing woodland if you want to forest garden, though you can certainly work with one. Forest gardeners use the forest as a design metaphor, a model of structure and function, while adapting the design to focus on meeting human needs in a small space.........Edible forest gardening is about expanding the horizons of our food gardening across the full range of the successional sequence, from field to forest, and everything in between.

Permaculture design rests on observation. It is in the observation of relationships, patterns and cycles that problems are solved and the doors of possibility are opened. It is in the careful attention to the details of your ecosystem that we can learn to design in the dynamic way that nature works.  These dynamic systems and interconnections are known as "patterning".

Well, what are some of these natural patterns?  Bill Mollison the "inventor" of permaculture pointed out that spirals, waves, branches and circles are ubiquitous in nature.  We see spirals in the heads of flowers and in the way sap flows through trees.  We see branches in rivers and on trees.  We see waves at the sea, in air flow and in the gentle movement of sand dunes. Circles?  Everywhere.  These patterns serve to move energy in an efficient manner. Using the right patterns in your garden will aid in efficiency and productivity. Two examples of patterning in your garden that you might want to look at are the concepts of the herb spiral and the keyhole garden.

I’m going to say it again and again here. Draw a map of these patterns.  A "base map" is a drawing that captures everything currently on in the project area.....buildings, fences, trees, hedges, pathways, driveways, power lines, etc, etc......

Also include things like:

- The movement of the sun – what is the sun’s path in the summer? In the winter?

- What are the prevailing wind directions and in what seasons?

- Where does the rain come from?  

- What are the principle areas of human activity?

- Where are the existing paths?

- How do people and animals move across the project area?

- Where is north?

- Where will/does water come from?

- How the water moves over the project area,

- What are your soil type(s),

- Are there any slopes? What about aspect?

Also note where noise or ugly sites that you might want to block comes from. In Permaculture we call this a "sector analysis" (see example here). Finally, observe what resources are available for your project. For all of this, I suggest you draw a map (he said it again!!) as part of your sector analysis.  By mapping your project area in detail you will learn an amazing number of important details about the site that you may not have known.  For me, making a map puts me in intimate contact with the land. Observation will also tell you...what do I have to work with? What are the positives and negatives of this site? What do we want it to look like?  That last question gets to the visioning. What do you want this garden to look like?

Jacke and Toensmier:

While each forest gardener will have unique design goals, forest gardening in general has three primary practical intentions:

•High yields of diverse products such as food, fuel, fiber, fodder, fertilizer, 'farmaceuticals' and fun;
•A largely self-maintaining garden and;
•A healthy ecosystem.
These three goals are mutually reinforcing. For example, diverse crops make it easier to design a healthy, self-maintaining ecosystem, and a healthy garden ecosystem should have reduced maintenance requirements. However, forest gardening also has higher aims.

Return to the vision I laid out in the opening to this diary.  With time, concern and an understanding of ecosystem functions you can create that or a similar vision in your area.  The forest garden is a mimic of woodland ecosystem structures, functions and mutually-beneficial relationships.  This is not gardening IN the forest but gardening LIKE a forest (as Jacke and Toensmier make a point to say). But what are your unique design goals?   What is it that you would like to get out of the creation of your forest garden?  Will it be to shade a hot playground? To teach children where food comes from? To bring bio-diversity in to your yard or an urban center?  Aesthetics?  Medicinals?  Food security?  How is your site situated?  How much sun does it get?  How much water? Ultimately, when your garden matures....what do you want it to be? You will want to consider all of these questions as you set to design your garden.  Your goals will help to narrow your focus, pick an orientation for your forest and will give you an idea of what to consider in your plant choices.  Your vision will dictate function, tasks you want your design to perform, and the products you want your garden to produce.

Toby Hemenway in "Gaia’s Garden":

Many yards already contain most the elements of a forest garden: a few tall trees in front or at the back edge, some shrubs for a hedge or berries, a vegetable patch, a few herbs, and a flower bed.  But in the typical year these elements like separate and disconnected.  A forest garden simply integrates all these pieces into a smoothly working whole.

Next comes the planning.  How do you make it happen?  What do you need?  What goes where? How do we put it together and in what order? Here we want to take the observed patterns and visions and overlay them on the project area.  Remember though.  You are not imposing your vision on the land.  You are working WITH the land to find the appropriate ‘tool’.  Your design should solve problems, not create new ones.  You are combining the vision (function, tasks, products) with what you’ve observed in the project area.

From the general we go to the specific and start talking details.   These are the spaces, materials, species and individual components that will make up the whole. Here, you will really want to look at the relationships created by the individual components of your design (Again,....I’ll talk about this in more detail in PART III – GUILDING to follow next week).

As you move to this development stage, keep in mind that there are a few things specific to the forest garden you need to take into account. Toby Hemenway (paraphrased here by myself) points out that, as you design your forest garden, there are a few specific points that you want to keep in mind ON TOP of the more "meta" observations you’ve made about your site and your resources.  These are:

  1. Consider a south-facing U-shaped forest design that provides a warm and sheltered center space;
  1. Keep the shading in mind. Place your taller trees to the north so that they wont shade out the other vegetation;

3, Wind barriers.  In places where the wind blows a lot (like at my house) wind barriers such as fences or hedges will help get your plants establish more rapidly;

  1. Trees and other woody plants should be planted first.  They, of course, take the longest reach maturity and also help define the shape of the garden;
  1. Remember to design for the mature size of the trees.  Leave enough room between trees for sunlight to get to the ground;
  1. Include soil building plants into your design – particularly lots of nitrogen fixers. Also, take a look at this article I wrote a few months ago on soil quality;
  1. Watch the budget. Purchasing all your own plants can hit the wallet hard.  Consider growing your own from seed, cuttings or other forms of propagation.  After a year or two of nuruturing you can move them to their permanent homes. PATIENCE!  For most of us, our forest garden will take several years to install because of time and money issues.  But remember what my permaculture teacher said: "never underestimate what you can do over time";
  1. As your forest garden matures, your species composition will change as might the shape of your garden.  In the first few years the lower layers of your garden (annual veggies, etc.) will provide most of your "take".  Later, your upper story will become the main providers,

9.Finally, keep in mind the discussion of the seven layer garden from Part I and be sure to plan on using each niche in the garden to its maximum potential:

Forest gardeners often talk aboutthe Seven Story Garden.  These layers or stories make up the food forest.  They are the:

  1. Tall-tree layer: an overstory of multifunctional fruit and nut trees (apple, pear, plum, chestnuts, pinyon, etc.) and/or nitrogen fixing trees (locust, mesquite, alder, acacia, etc.)
  1. Low Tree layer: dwarf fruit and nut trees and/or naturally small fruit trees (nectarine, almond, peach) and/or flowering and nitrogen-fixing trees (dogwood, mountain ash, mountain mahogany)
  1. Shrub layer: flower and fruiting shrubs (blueberry, rose, wolfberry, currents, gooseberry, Siberian pea shrub)
  1. Herb layer: these are perennial non-woody plants such as vegetables, flowers, kitchen herbs and soil building plants.
  1. Ground cover layer: low-growing plants that offer food or habitat and that push their way into the empty edges and spaces between plants. (strawberries, nasturtium, clover, thyme, etc)
  1. Vine layer: these are plants that will climb the trunks and branches of the trees (grapes, hops, passionflower, honeysuckle, squash, cucumbers, melons, etc.)
  1. Root layer: these are the shallow rooting foods (garlic, onions, radish, carrots, etc.)

Click here for Diagram by Grahm Burnett

Again, I suggest you make a map. Again?!?!. Yes. I suggest you do this as you assess your project area and perform your sector analysis and I suggest you do this as you design your garden and what your project area will become.  You may want to think in terms of zones.  In Permaculture design we plan using the concept of Zones.  In the simplest terms Permaculture ZONING is this :

Zone 1: The area that is most intensively used and is closest to the living area. This is an area you visit and/or pass through multiple times a day. This will contain your most commonly used shrubs, herbs, garden items, greenhouses, chickens, etc.;
Zone 2: This is your next intensively used zone, an area that you don’t visit multiple times a day. This will contain your canning crops, your small fruit and nut trees, your bird and insect habitat and maybe the tool shed;
Zone 3: This area is used just once or twice a week. This could hold your firewood, pasture, larger fruit and nut trees, animal forage areas, seedling production, cover crops, ponds, goats and so on;
Zone 4: You will only visit this area on occasion.  It could be an area full of native plants that you don’t have to maintain.  It could be an area that you use for gathering and hunting. It could be an area of selective forestry and pasture, lakes, creeks, and grazing animals;
Zone 5: Wilderness – self-willed land.

Sketch in existing vegetation you plan on keeping, major landscape features, paths, patios, raised beds, etc.  Next sketch in your two tree layers and placement.  Remember that the spacing will take into account the mature size of the trees.   Given that, initially, you will want to plan on planting lots of annual and perennial vegetables and flowers in the lower layer as well as your fruit-producing shrubs as your tree layer matures. Keep these closer to the house for ease of access. The maturing trees will be further away as you will not need to take care of them every day. Then play with it.  Think about how it will work for you and don’t hesitate to move things around.

I don’t want to go too tooty-fuity on ya but....It’s a o-r-g-a-n-i-c-a-l-l-y.

Finally, the implementation.  Dont kill yourself here. Remember: never underestimate what you can do with sufficient time and patience.  For most of us, budgetary constraints (not to mention ecological realities) simply not allow us to hire a landscaping company to come in and plop down a food forest over a weekend. This is a process that will take time.  Also keep in mind that...once you start working you’ll learn even MORE about your project area and you may be forced to adjust those finely-tuned plans.  Don’t worry, be happy.  Go with the flow.

As with all landscaping....start with the contours and major earth moving.  Dig your swales and ponds, put in the irrigation pipe and so on.  Next, the hardscape.  Lay in your patios, benches, paths, spiral gardens, raised beds, etc., make any final adjustments to the contours, form up your keyhole gardens at this point,  then lay in your sheet mulches.  Next up are the large plants (trees, big bushes) and then your ground covers, flowers, annual vegetables and cover crops.  Over the first few months you will find a need to adjust your irrigation system and possibly some of your soil amendments or mulching.  Give your plants extra care to get them solidly established.


Your forest garden is an ecosystem.  It is in and of itself and living being and it supports living beings.  Life is born, it grows, it seeds, it consumes and produces and ultimately it dies. Your forest will be in a constant state of flux and change, forever seeking a dynamic equilibrium. When the garden is new, the sunny spaces between the seedlings will be filled with annual vegetables, perennials and flowers.  After a couple of years the shrubs and bushes will be at their most productive and should remain so until the garden starts to shade in after about ten years.   Your annual vegetable beds will shrink over time as the forest shades.  You will have fruit and nuts after three years or so. At the same time, your forest garden will support itself as soil fertility increases, the soil’s capacity for holding water grows and so on.  The forest wont reach full maturity for about twenty years.  Given that many of the lives in your forest garden will go on for decades, the garden’s character will change every year as I’ve pointed out.  You will need to adapt yourself to those changes.  You will need to constantly observe your forest to find new opportunities, new awareness and new lessons.

As I mentioned up front, this series is intended as a very general overview of a rather complex subject.  I could go into a lot more detail but my intention is to give a taste and hold a hope that many of my fellow activists will delve further into this subject and consider it for your own yard and for the public spaces in your town.  As I said in Part I....I am open and available to help and advise where I can.


Finally, please check out these additional resources.  These are a series of online articles I wrote on watering your garden:

The Importance of Soil Quality
The Importance of Mulch
How To Water Seeds and Seedlings
How To Water Trees and Shrubs
Benefits of Irrigations Systems
Watering the Vegetable Garden
Rainwater Harvesting
Using Rain Barrels
How To Water During a Drought or Dry Season

Also, check out the comments section in the the first diary of this series for a large number of links to very interesing and related websites. Finally, some videos:

Originally posted to environmentalist on Wed Jul 07, 2010 at 12:36 PM PDT.

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