So, what is a food forest anyway?

I'm you all have been hearing that catchy word being thrown around lately, that intriguing and innovatively enticing idea, the food forest. Even though this concept is a fairly recent practice in the U.S., these large-scale perennial food gardens have existed for thousands of years.

Geoff Lawton, a highly informed permaculture educator and activist, has been a pioneer in seeking out these beautiful examples of nature, survivalism, and heritage across the globe. Food forests have been created and cultivated throughout the generations anywhere from Morroco to Vietnam. One of these food forests discovered in Vietnam by Geoff Lawton dates back a whopping 28 generations! You can watch the 5 minute video detailing the experience here.

In a family or village group, generation after generation will manage and harvest from this amazingly well organized phenomenon. It’s been said that this form of ‘agriculture’ has existed for even longer than modern agriculture we know today because it cannot be identified in the archaeological record. They appear to be just simple naturally existing forests. Food forests have a very interesting relationship of an extreme mimicry of nature combined with cultivation of medicinal and food sustenance. These are the very base principles in permaculture design and practice.

Through many other permaculture pioneers like Geoff Lawton, Bill Mollison, and David Holmgren, we have learned of a very well functioning system established to support this age-old food forest style cultivation. This system is commonly known as the berm and swale system.

Pictured above is a great visual example of how this system works. Firstly, it is important to measure out the contours on the piece of property where this system is being built. You can do this very simply by using a DYI tool called a bunyip.

From there you dig out a large ditch, the swale part of the system along said measured out contour. You would then move that soil immediately downhill of the ditch to create your planting space, which looks like an elongated mound. The swale could be roughly anywhere from 40ft to 100ft long and 8-15ft wide. The swale would have the same measurements but is generally a few feet wider than the berm.

With this system, the gardening area, or berm, is situated perpendicular to the flow of water on your property. The swale then catches the water like a holding tank allowing the water to effectively soak straight into the planting area. This makes this system exceptionally useful in Central Texas where water is a very precious resource. Even though we do not get a large amount of rain here this system does also allow any additional watering via hose or irrigation system to efficiently soak into your planting space and not run off.

The berm and swale system is just the base building block for creating your own forest style garden. Another key piece of this perennial food garden design is modeling everything you plant after the existing layers in a naturally existing forest. It is also very key to use native and cultivated trees and plants to fill out these layers. These layers are as follows along with native and cultivated examples of each:

  1. Canopy Layer (Large Fruit and Nut Trees)

    1. Pecan, Texas Persimmon, Date Palm, Black Walnut
  2. Low Tree Layer (Low Fruit and Farmer’s Trees)

    1. Fig, Pomegranate, Pear, Mulberry, Loquat
    2. Nitrogen fixing farmer’s trees: Mesquite, Mountain Laurel, Acacia, Fragrant Mimosa
  3. Shrub Layer (Berries and Shrubbing Natives)

    1. Agarita, Blackberries, Rosemary, Raspberry, Yaupon Holly
  4. Herbaceous Layer

    1. Comfrey, Nettles, Herbs, Artichoke, Asparagus, Sorel
  5. Rhizosphere (Root Crops)

    1. Garlic, Onions, Ginger, Sweet Potatoes, Jerusalem Artichoke
  6. Soil Surface (Ground Cover Crops)

    1. Nasturtium, Clover, Buckwheat, Cow Pea, Rye, Vetch
  7. Vertical Layer (Climbers/Vines)

    1. Passion Flower, Jasmine, Malabar Spinach, Grapes, Cross Vine

It is also very important to incorporate companion planting in your food forest design. Companion planting uses all of the needs and outputs of each plant to pair them with other plants to feed those needs. A wonderful companion planting guide can be found on Edible San Marcos’ website here.

This is all just skimming the surface of how to create your own basic food forest system in your own backyard. Believe it or not you can accomplish this with a very limited amount of space and money.

If you are looking to learning more about how this system works, come out to the upcoming Permablitz at Kealing Middle School in East Austin. We will be installing a full berm and swale system complete with each forest garden layer as well as an irrigation system. We will also be teaching a workshop on all of these subjects through out the weekend. This workshop and work day event is Saturday, September 14th and 15th with a sliding scale fee of $10-$20. You can also check our facebook page for more information and you can always email me at monroe DOT taelor AT gmail DOT com for direct questions about this event.

The Austin Permaculture Guild is also hosting a two-week intensive permaculture design course at Heirloom Blooms from Novemeber 2nd to November 15th. Here you will learn even more in depth how to implement one of these systems as well as all of the many other skills associated with permaculture – natural building, aquaponics, watcher catchment, grey water systems, and of course all of the permaculture design ethics and principles. This course will also qualify you to teach permaculture on your own as well! Please see our website for more information and registration.

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