What is a Food Forest?

“A three dimensional garden of useful plants, all selected to maximise beneficial interaction and minimise competition.” - Martin Crawford

Forest gardens are biodiverse, productive and regenerative systems modeled after natural forests, with careful species selection to suit the needs of the human inhabitants of the area. Thus they bring together the resilience and productivity of a forest with the human needs for food, timber, medicine and so on.

Forests are some of the most productive ecosystems on earth, their structure is such that they are constantly creating more abundance and more diversity.

Some Key Features of a Forest Garden :

  • Recognition of the crucial role of trees in healthy ecosystems – trees provide mulch, protect the soil, act as windbreaks, host beneficial wildlife such as bees and birds and much more. They are also vital to the creation of stable systems of nutrient cycling and drought resistance.

  • Biodiversity – Biodiversity is an essential component of any resilient and abundant ecosystem. Diversity between and within species will allow the agroforestry system to remain balanced and stable, and will also contribute to dietary diversity in the area.  

  • Forest farming – This involves mimicking the forest’s tiered structure and growing produce at varying heights. I.e. the canopy, bush, herbaceous, vine, ground cover, and root levels. This way the use of space is optimized and each niche and microclimate can be occupied and utilized. A key factor of forest gardening, therefore, is light management.

  • Multi-functionality and complexity – Ideally, each plant and tree performs more than one role or function. For example, Malabar Neem (Melia dubia) are multipurpose, they provide timber, fodder, and green manure from leaves and fruit. In an agroforestry system, the Melia dubia tree would also act as a trellis for vines, create a habitat for birds, protect the soil and other crops from drying winds, provide cooling shade and so on.

  • Resilience – Due to the diversity of such a system, polycultures are far more resilient to pests, disease and climatic changes than monocultures. Resilience is hugely important in an increasingly erratic climate. Forest gardens are an important part of food security, as they can provide food all year round even when most crops fail (as we have seen this year in many parts of the country).

  • Low maintenance – The idea from the beginning is to design a system that is well balanced and increasingly able to look after itself. In mature forest gardens the only work to be done should be harvesting.

  • Mutual benefit and companion planting– Forest Gardens are all about creating relationships. A diverse range of food and timber producing plants will be planted that work together and nourish each other. One part of this, for example, is to Include plants which increase soil fertility e.g. nitrogen fixing legumes such as Sesbania grandiflora, Gliricidia sepium and various beans grown as vines as well as in the undergrowth.
    One can also make use of dynamic accumulators such as Moringa oleifera – deep rooting plants which can tap mineral sources deep in the subsoil and drop them onto the topsoil in their leaf litter, making them available to other plants.

  • Integrated soil fertility management – In a biodiverse system, various elements work together towards soil restoration. Over time the percentage of organic matter, humus – the living part of the soil, increases. This has multiple benefits, including improving plant growth and immunity as well as the water retention and water release capacity of the land.

  • Regenerative – Ideally, any new forest garden should within the first few years be at the stage where it produces more than it consumes. The idea is to collect and build up resources, rather than deplete them (which leads to a requirement for external inputs). All that the system requires, from water to manure to mulch, will eventually be provided by the system itself.

  • Focus on native and naturalized species – Indigenous plants tend to be well adapted to local climates and conditions, particularly in the initial phase of planting it would be beneficial to focus on native plants and native plant communities.

  • Work with succession - keeping in mind that the soil goes through stages of ecological succession - moving from being bacterial dominant to fungal dominant - and that plants have preferences when it comes to soil type, it is important that the forest garden is planned and planted in such a way that takes this into account. Plants should be introduced in succession, the soil should be ready for the canopy trees before they are planted.

Below is a Food Forest that Ananas planted with help from the Jakkur Lake community. Feel free to visit the forest and let us know what you felt.


Kirian Meili