What is a food forest?

The seven layers of a food forest
There are seven layers to a food forest garden as illustrated above.

A food forest is a metaphor describing a form of land management that mimics a forest. Forests are the most productive terrestrial ecosystems on the planet, and have existed on their own without human management since time immemorial.  There is much evidence to suggest, however, that we need forests in order to survive.  What if humanity were to adopt an ethic of ecosystem conservation instead of our historical habit of clear-cutting forests until cultures collapse? Perhaps a central purpose of human life on earth is forest regeneration and conservation.  Are we destined to be Mother Nature’s caretakers?  At Assiniboine Food Forest, we imagine that the answer to that question is “Yes.”

Using permaculture techniques, food forest builders try to copy nature’s patterns in vertical and horizontal space, weaving food-bearing trees into a matrix with native species of trees found naturally on the local soils.  Shrub, forb, and ground cover layers are incorporated, again mixing human food-producers with a wide spectrum of native species.  Ideally, the design of a forest is not an enterprise for a single mind, but is rather a collaboration of the widest possible cross-section of humanity.  After all, how often has this ever been attempted?  Who can pretend to expertise in such a complex domain?  Since the science/art of forest design is so young, we must do our best to include the visions of many stakeholders.  Be sure your family and friends join our team of forest-loving members, biologists, researchers, permaculture students, and food growers.  Get involved with food forest planning!

A food forest will take many years to plant.  But once finished, it is hoped that a web of stable, beneficial relationships results, creating a diverse and beautiful community space that supports not only humans but the widest variety of native wildlife.  Once established and mature a food forest, like any forest, should be self-sustaining. A central premise of food forest creation is that we are a part of nature, and we work with nature, using natural, sustainable means. All is connected … life gives life.

What is Permaculture?

The term permaculture or permanent agriculture/culture was first coined by Australians David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in 1978, inspired in part by the post-1930 natural farming philosophies of American Joseph Russell Smith (Tree Crops: a Permanent Agriculture), Masanobu Fukuoka of Japan (The One-Straw Revolution), and Australian P.A. Yeomans (Water for Every Farm).  It is a system of land management that mimics and incorporates the design principles found in nature.  The three core tenets of permaculture are: 1) Care for the Earth … without a healthy Earth, humans cannot flourish; 2) Care for the People … people must be able to access the resources necessary for their existence; 3) Return of Surplus, or Fair Share … we take no more than what we need, as in Nature, where there is no waste and no surplus, all is recycled back into usefulness.

Permaculture is characterized by the use of organic methods, applied systems ecology, eco-forestry, and water conservation.  It has proven to be a highly effective method of restoring damaged and depleted landscapes.  Permaculture is like agriculture in that food is ultimately produced, but in permaculture the soil is never broken after the initial planting.  Only organic/holistic techniques are used, never chemicals or pesticides.  And permaculture, like Mother Nature herself, conserves all precipitation falling on the landscape.  For this reason, permaculture projects often perform earthworks at the outset … small ditches on grade, called swales, or earthen dams are used to capture runoff before it can escape, doing the job that a natural ecosystem does on its own.  On the AFFI parcel, thirty acres of former mixed oak woodland, after clear-cutting and 60 years of non-intensive grazing, is no longer the natural sponge it once was.  Every spring the snow pack melts, accumulates in the central basin, and then runs off into the river, so step one of our vision is to build an earthen dam across the draw at the outlet.  A small pond excavated above the dam would anchor an upstream wetland of amazing bio-diversity … small fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, and uncountable insects … a thriving prairie pothole ecosystem!  The pond and wetland would also increase accessibility of ground water to the roots of trees to be planted after earthworks are finished.