The term may seem vague, because, well, why would you want to eat a forest?
Ok. Back up, back up. Nobody’s shoving pine boughs in their sad mouth. At least I hope not.
A “food forest” is any perennial-based garden that is harvested for food. It resolves to create more and more food year over year, and it comes in many shapes and sizes.
See, a “forest” is really just a structure pattern. It’s one that that “agro-foresters” (forest farmers) use to “garden” with. In the larger scheme of things, a forest is actually just a stage of growth of an ecosystem. But for the sake of humans – at least those who care what happens to their fresh air, water, and food – a “forest” is both an old and new way of thinking about farming.
For very long periods of time, forest structures thrive. Tall trees form an overstory layer, blocking large amounts of sun from penetrating the earth’s surface, and thereby preventing large amounts of water from evaporating. When water slows down, it can be received and used by organic creatures. When it speeds up, it can erode and carry away massive chunks of life and land. The river carries life and death wherever it goes. Every part of Nature is a tiny little river. Sort of. Forests are really just many many organisms of all shapes and sizes using the slowed down water.
A forest takes care of itself. Over many millions of years, countless species have formed some competitive, but largely cooperative relationships, by filling certain basic and fundamental niches that, together, balance the flow of water, nutrients, and energy in a given area. Think of it like the pie piece in Trivial Pursuit. Once all the colours are collected, the forest exists, and thrives.
Over the last half century or so, many incredibly intelligent farmers, ethnographers, and specialist scientists have studied what those basic and fundamental niches are, so we can duplicate them with our own choices.
For instance, we see that in the structure of a forested land there are:
- larger pioneer trees that tower over the patch.
- smaller trees forming a lower level of branches
- shrubs living close to the ground
- a herbaceous layer
- ground cover
- substrate layer
So, instead of the mighty Jack Pine, we might want to choose Swiss Stone Pine for its pine nuts.
Instead of little groves of Poplar, we’ll decide to plant all sorts of fruit trees.
Where Dogwoods would appear naturally, we’ll try berry shrubs, like Serviceberry, or Raspberry.
Normally, we’d find Thistle and Hogweed. Let’s instead try to get Rhubarb, and Asparagus, and Mint to take its place.
Covering the ground, we’ll apply Alpine Strawberry, Thyme, and Clover.
So all of these various species of plants work together, along with fungal mychorrizae, to keep care of each other, as every type of creature both provides for another and needs something from yet another. And now we have a vested interest in their success, because all of these plants benefit us.
Food forests to me mean a way of thinking about our systems of production. I mean to say, it is in our best interest to have an ever-lasting foundation of basic nutrition at our fingertips. It is in our best interest to learn and subsequently teach our children how to improve and simplify our processes of reaping what we so diligently worked at creating.
We shouldn’t have to struggle to eat. And so much more than that, we should work to form a functional bond with the environment around us, and learn to adapt to that environment if we wish to have any longevity as a species at all. And in the very least, we’ll eat.
Happy eating. Try the forest. It’s delicious.
And also sometimes poison. So be careful.