Ashleigh Smith + photo

Ashleigh Smith

Dec 28
7 min read
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Woman walking down a dirt road carrying a basket

You may have some experience with allowing plants to self-seed, but have you graduated to the level of starting your own food forest? If you love planting heirlooms and using organic gardening practices I have a feeling you are going to want a food forest of your own.

Food Forests, also known as forest gardens, are something practiced by few gardeners around the world. It is basically the practice of letting nature take over and maintain your garden for you by using natural processes. This means that once established you don’t have to replant each year.

At this point you might be thinking this sounds kind of like extreme organic gardening right? Right! But..there's a bit more to it. Gardening with organic processes means you are applying products that usually increase organic matter in the soil and limit (not forego) pesticide control by people. You still play a huge role in this type of gardening.

Food forests are a great step towards using more sustainable practices to encourage a healthy ecosystem outside of human influence! To do this we are going to have to give up some control that we have become very comfortable with in our gardens.

What Does A Food Forest Do?

A food forest helps us create balance between plants, food, water regulation, insect balance and control, as well as other creatures roaming the earth. We share the Earth with every living, and non-living thing. This means we all have a place and some purpose to creating this balance we are seeking.

Food forests take advantage of the naturally existing relationships between all living things to self-promote growth. The practice of allowing plants and animals to maintain each other's life cycles has been happening for lifetimes. Literally!

This is not a new idea, it is the main idea. But somehow people have grown accustomed to controlling every little thing. We simply think our way is the best way. This has led to seeds being planted in GPS monitored rows, food production relying on machinery, and the development of substances to kill any pests that stand between you and your future food.

These new tools are good and I don’t want to discount the value they have in providing food at the increasing rate we need. However, if you are someone who wants to get back to the most natural way of producing food, a food forest is what you are really looking for.

These new developments in agriculture are happening at any cost to the soil, air, and water that is responsible for creating your food in the first place. The biggest danger these methods pose is the erosion of soil faster than it forms. On average soil forms at a rate of 1mm a year. If you are willing to give a tried and true method a chance, you just might find it is better than the way you have been running your garden for the last few decades.

I’m just telling you now, don’t be surprised if Mother Nature has a greener thumb than you do. And, the Earth manages to do it all with zero waste. That means the earth has a recycling rate of 100%. Try and top that.

I might sound like I am bashing traditional growing methods, and I guess I am a little bit. But there is a more natural, sustainable, and effective way of growing things. I think we overthink gardening way too often.

Don’t get me wrong I am totally a part of the crowd that uses raised beds, containers, garden plots, row planting, companion plants, etc. A part of that is because I have a hard time giving up control, and I enjoy some of the manual labor that goes into gardening. But if you actually care about helping the environment, you might want to dive into all the good things food forests can do for us.

If everyone became invested in creating food forests we could probably abolish world hunger, combat the increasing droughts affecting many parts of the world, reverse global warming, clean the air, and reverse the effects of our deforestation work. Just to be clear, I’m not saying this is an immediate fix. It definitely isn’t. It takes years to establish a food forest. Planting your trees, shrubs, root plants, groundcovers, and vines is just the start my friends. Then you have to allow all of these layers to become established and self-reliant after that.

The first several years will require work on your part just like any other garden. The roots have to develop in networks that communicate together, plant material has to drop and decompose for use in coming seasons, and seeds have to be able to drop and germinate for each growing season. And that’s just to get past the point of planting new seeds each year.

In addition to this insects, fungi, bacteria, and other decomposers need to build populations and be able to self-regulate. This means that a healthy food chain is established where beneficials maintain healthy levels of pests.

We attempt to do this in our gardens, but we tend to prevent any balance from being reached because we assume any insect population to be dangerous to our crops. In reality there should be a population of both beneficials and pests that maintain some level of control without human intervention for a healthy ecosystem to exist.

Yes there will be bugs and bacteria. This is a good thing. They are what turn your fallen leaves and fruit into nutrients for the new season's growth. You don’t have to heavily fertilize once your food forest is established, because it will fertilize itself. Sure, you may need to add some extra nutrients here and there, but for the most part you can be hands free as the bugs and natural elements help you out.

Now I would be surprised if I got you this far without worrying about the weeds. If you are growing with a hands free mentality after several years there have to be weeds right? Well that depends on what you call a weed.

By definition a weed is an undesired plant in an undesired location. We tend to think of weeds as those plants that show up in our gardens without producing a harvestable product. But by the definition of a weed, that corn sprout that showed up in a random spot from last year's crop is a weed right. Yeah…but you're going to call it a volunteer instead. Why?

When it pops up in your raspberry bush it's pretty undesirable isn’t it? But you know it produces a similar product that would be desirable if it was in the spot you put it. When this happens you’re just going to think, “look at what that silly corn did.” A weed is only a weed if you don’t appreciate its existence and what it has to offer you.

In the concept of a food forest there can be weeds, but these weeds can also provide nutrients when it is decomposed into the soil. It can have the potential of taking over a large space, but learn about it first before taking action.

I would first look into what the weed does, how it spreads, can it cause harm to your food forest? Or will it prevent a large pest issue and encourage better growth in the plants around it? After researching, make a choice to leave it or remove it.

If you are removing a weed consider replacing it with seed or starts of a desirable plant. Covering the soil with plants will prevent the undesirable seeds from germinating and taking over.

Check out tomorrows article for information on how you can make one of these food forests.

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