Food Forest Abundance: How to Garden With the Trees

Sue Senger
Sep 16, 2022

More and more science is verifying what most of us already know: that time in nature is good for our mental and physical wellbeing.  Few things epitomize these benefits like time in a forest, or forest bathing. But there is whole other level on which forests can improve our mental and physical wellbeing, and that is when that same forest is generating an abundance of food.

Food forests, or garden forests, are not new.  Humans have been generating food in association with forests for centuries.  You can create your own food forest by learning to garden WITH the trees, instead of without them.

Let's explore what a food forest is, what grows in a food forest, and how much land is required.  Then you can decide if creating food forest abundance is a priority for you.

What is a food forest?

A forest is a landscape that is dominated by trees.  Therefore, a food forest is a landscape dominated by food producing trees.  It is that simple.

To create a food forest, you need to have food producing trees dominate your landscape, providing shade and vertical complexity which increases the number of other plants and animals that can also live in that same space.  

Convention agriculture typically removes all the trees and shrubs from the land and focuses on whatever can be grown as the ground layer in full sun.  This is closer to a 2-dimensional garden.   Yes, there is a small height-above-the-ground component, and perhaps even some trellising, but that is a far cry from the vertical distance created by a tree canopy.  

Conventional agriculture removes all the trees and shrubs (Photo by Chris Ensminger on Unsplash)


A food forest, on the other hand, operates in a much deeper 3-dimensaion space in which there are more opportunities to grow food.

If you think about conventional orchard production of tree foods, these are often arranged in rows with very little growing beneath them, usually just a mowable ground cover.  Orchards are not food forests.  Although they have a tree layer and a ground cover, they lack the understory plants and shrubs that fill in the gaps to create the diversity seen in a food forest.

Conventional orchards have trees and some ground cover, but lack shrub layers and diversity (Photo by Chris Ensminger on Unsplash)


Food Forest Abundance is Like the “Jar of Life” Video

Food forests create abundant food supplies by working in the same way for a landscape that the “Jar of Life” video does in terms of what you prioritize in your life.  You may recall, in the “Jar of Life” that the jar represents the time you have and the sand, gravel and rocks represent what you focus on in terms of priorities.  If you fill your time (jar) with all the small stuff (sand and gravel), there is no room for the for the most important priorities in your life, which are the rocks.  Focusing on your priorities lets you fill your jar with everything you want in your life.

Jar of Life Video Link

Now image that the jar is your landscape.  If you fill your landscape with only the small growing food plants, there is no room left for the trees, which would be the rocks in this analogy.  If instead, you plant your landscape (the jar) focused first on the trees, and then fill in the space between first with food shrubs (the gravel) and then with food ground covers (the sand), suddenly it all fits in.  Now the food production capability of that land far exceeds what can be grown if you focus only on the low growing foods.

Food forest contain more diversity than conventional agriculture systems (Photo by Leandre CHASTAGNIER on Unsplash)


In fact, the part that cannot be easily shown in this analogy is the creation of food forest abundance because the food trees and shrubs will produce ample food year after year with very little work from you once they are established.  Where as if you focus on lower growing foods only, you have a lot of annual work and maintenance to create food.

Food forests create abundant resources, usually with less work over time than more conventional gardens and orchards.  You can let a little wild into the food forest, and still get amazing results and abundant food.

What grows in a food forest?

What you grow in your food forest depends on your priorities and goals for food production, as well as what plants can grow in your specific location. 

If you love nuts, but they won’t grow in your climate or region, then those are not going to be in YOUR food forest.  However, if you love nuts and live in an area where nut trees can be maintained, then include some nut trees.  

It’s really not any more complicated than that.  The basic steps to deciding what grows in your food forest are:

·        What foods that grow on trees do you like to eat?  
·        Which of those can grow where you live?  
·        Repeat this with food-producing shrubs, ground covers, rhizomes, vines, and medicinal plants.
·        Arrange your selected plants synergistically on your available land.  

If you are struggling a bit on what can grow in your area, remember that this is affected by your location, local climate conditions, water availability, and how much effort it is to maintain these plants where you live.  

Once you’ve got your list of potential food plants for your forest garden, then start to imagine how these plants that (a) you like the food from, and (b) can grow in your area, can be arranged on your landscape to work synergistically in the space that you have.  And voila, you have a food forest!

Add in some mulch , brush piles, rock piles, rotting logs and water features and you can create your own biodiverse garden forestTrack your blooming times in your forest, and you can work to fill in the gaps and create continues flowers for bees and other pollinators, which will help improve your forest yields substantially.

Fruits, vegetables, nuts and even fungi (mushrooms) are part of Food Forest Abundance (Photo by LuAnn Hunt on Unsplash)

Of course the challenge in creating a food forest, especially if you are starting from scratch, is that growing the tree layer takes time, sometimes years, before you will get the food you desire.  Keep that in mind as you start your project, and watch that “Jar of Life” video, to help decide if a food forest is one of your priorities!


How much land do you need for a food forest?

The size of your food forest is limited only by the amount of land you have available and your imagination. You can create a forest effect in your backyard if want to.  Or you can plant any number of acres using food forest principles.  

In reality, you can create a food forest effect INSIDE your home or apartment by adding food producing trees to the plants you are already growing in containers.  The exciting part of this concept, is that you are no longer limited by climate! Consider adding plants like bananas, figs, dwarf citrus, dwarf pomegranate and many other food producing “trees” into your home through container gardening.  

For an indoor food forest, look for cultivars that a) produce edible and delicious foods, b) are suitable for container growing and c) work with the amount of light you have in your home.   You may be surprised how many tropical-ish foods can grow without full-sun south-facing exposures given the right kind of care.

Check out Tropic of Canada for great examples and excellent information on how to grow tropical plants indoors!  I’ve just put in my first order for bananas, pomegranate and figs.  You can follow me on this adventure at the Food Abundance Revolution (FAR) Community.

You can even create a food forest INSIDE you home by growing food plants like bananas, citrus, dwarf pomegranate and more in containers (Photo by Jane Duursma on Unsplash)


Food Forests Mimic the Abundance of Nature

Food forests produce an abundance of food by creating a highly productive and highly diversified landscape that is dominated by food-producing plants.

Because many of the individual plants in your food forest are long-lived perennials, food is created year after year without the same kind of effort that is required in an annually-based food crop system.

It can take some time to create a food forest, but the benefits both to you and to the natural environment make food forests an incredible investment in food security and food abundance.  And in time, you will even be able to forest bathe in your food forest!

Don’t wait – start planning your food forest abundance today!