Urban Food Forest | Building A Productive No-Maintenence Food Forest

Urban Food Forest | Building A Productive No-Maintenence Food Forest

The beginnings of a food forest
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An Urban Food Forest is self-sustaining and mimics what nature does naturally. For instance, the plants in the forest take the dead leaves, pine needles, fallen trees and uses the nutrients to grow big and strong.

On the other hand, my garden takes a lot of time, and additives just to get a bare minimum amount of production. Therefore, our next garden at Homestead Wishing is going to be an urban food forest method.

Today we have the blessing of having Elle Meager as a guest blogger. She is a permaculture teacher, and I’m so happy to have her come and teach us one of the coolest ways to garden.

So, I just want to thank Elle for guest posting and sharing her knowledge with us. Now then, let’s get started!


How To Build A No-Maintenance Productive Food Forest

Gardeners obsess over soil nutrition. in particular, we top beds with compost, brew compost teas, and fertilize generously with amendments like bone meal, Epsom salts, manure, and seaweed. 

We’re constantly adding nutrition to the soil so that we can just as rapidly deplete it again through our vegetable growing practices.

Now, imagine a forest. 

Trees, shrubs, ferns, mushrooms, and mosses all coexist simultaneously in excellent health.

However, no one walks through the forest armed with watering cans of compost tea. There’s no need to cart wheelbarrows of manure into the woods. 

What’s happening here?

The forest is a balanced ecosystem. This same concept can certainly be applied in edible gardens. It’s called a food forest. 

What Is An Urban Food Forest?

A food forest is a self-sustaining ecosystem of edible plants. What sets an urban food forest apart from a traditional garden is the way that it adds nutrition to the soil at a greater rate than it uses it. 

History shows us that food forests can last hundreds of years. Permaculture expert Geoff Lawton encountered a 2,000-year-old food forest in Morrocco and a 300-year-old one in Vietnam.

Perennials are the bread and butter of the food forest. These plants come back year after year, often becoming larger and more productive each year.

Food forests require work upfront to build the soil, plan your space, and do your initial plantings, but once your food forest is established, it will take little or even no work to maintain.

The 7 Layers Of A Food Forest 

Part of what makes a food forest incredible is the density of the plants. Plants are close together yet in a balanced system. Therefore, every tree and shrub gets exactly what it needs. 

Most food forests include seven layers. Below you will find a description of each layer along with some examples of crops that could be in each layer.

Layer 1. High Trees (Upper Canopy)

Typically upwards of 30-feet tall, these are the tallest trees in the system. They form the upper canopy. More shade-tolerant organisms, like mushrooms, can grow beneath them. 

Layer 2. Smaller Trees (Upper or Secondary Canopy)

These range from 10-30 feet tall and form the understory of the food forest. The majority of fruit trees are in this layer. 

In smaller food forests, these trees may create the upper canopy.

Coconut tree circle for permaculture garden
Dwarf banana – beautiful and super useful! These guys fruit at 5ft tall, perfect for kids. Great mulch, chicken fodder, horse food….

Layer 3. Shrubs 

This layer includes berry and nut bushes as well as large medicinal or beneficial plants. 

Layer 4. Herbaceous Layer

This layer includes perennial vegetables and lots of herbs. Kitchen gardeners will take great joy in harvesting this layer. 

Layer number 4 of the food forest

Layer 5. Ground Covers

Ground covers help the soil retain moisture and suppress weed growth. Some ground covers, like alfalfa and clover, can even fix nitrogen into the soil.

Strawberries provide ground cover in an urban food forest

Layer 6. Root Crops

As the name suggests, the root layer of a food forest is below ground. Unless you choose a crop like horseradish, which can be rather invasive, you may need to do some annual sowing of crops in this layer.

Multi-purpose plants in the urban food forest
Plants with multiple purposes. These plants aren’t just ornamental. They provide shade for the chicken coop (which you can barely see), the choko provides the chickens with food, the palm fronds are bedding and mulch.

Layer 7. Climbers

These plants climb lattices or even some of the trees in your forest. Peas and beans are a great choice because they fix nitrogen in the soil.

Tips For Growing Your Own Food Forest

A food forest works best when you choose plants that flourish in your climate. Once your food forest is established, you will be able to extend the variety of crops you grow, because it naturally creates a microclimate.

Urban Food forests are predominantly comprised of perennials, so you’ll want to make sure that your crops can survive seasonal storms and weather conditions, year after year. 

So, plant diversely. If you have a wide variety of plants in each layer of your food forest, you will certainly have some success. One might fail, but another will flourish. Therefore, it is a little bit of trial and error, and a bit of letting nature do its thing. 

Find as many nitrogen-fixing and mineral accumulating plants as you can to plant in your food forest. Since these plants will naturally help you build your soil. 

Chop & Drop Compost Method

Use the chop-and-drop method. This involves chopping back things like inedible rhubarb leaves and leaving them to decompose where they fall. This helps build the soil and is less work than bringing them to a compost pile.

Chop and drop for easy composting an urban food forest
Chop and drop is one of the easiest and cheapest ways of providing carbon for your soil. This is a bed I’ve been preparing for more coconuts. The plant I’ve used for chop and drop is canna – it grows fast, constantly renews itself, and breaks down quickly. 

Plant some trees that produce a lot of leaves for the chop and drop. Then, about twice a year chop a lot of leaves and branches off. Don’t pick them up, leave them where they fall because they’ll break down and add carbon to your soil. As a result, they will also act as a natural mulch.

Include plants that naturally attract pollinators or repel pests in your food forest. Subsequently, this will increase harvests and save you work.

Harvest Management

To avoid being inundated by large fruit harvests, choose varieties that ripen at different times. Consequently, preserving the harvest will be more manageable and you’ll have a great variety of food for a longer period of time. 

I’m blessed with twelve 100-year old mango trees. These offer a bounty harvest every year, so much so that I struggle to process it all.

However, it’s all fast and furious. I get tons of mangos in 3-4 weeks. My kids love mangoes so I’ve planted two other varieties.

One early fruiting and one late fruiting. Once they start fruiting, we should have mangoes for 3-4 months of the year. 

Furthermore, work smarter not harder. Prioritize perennials and self-seeding annuals over annuals that you will need to add to the forest each year.

In Conclusion,

Food forests don’t happen overnight. It takes years for an ecosystem to establish itself. However, you can potentially see great results in only 6 months. For example, I’ve included a photo of my 6-month old food forest. The Sandpaper Fig is starting to fruit, the Hawaiian Guava is about 6ft tall, and we’ll have a bumper crop of pumpkins. 

The beginnings of a food forest
The beginnings of a food forest. This forest is about 6 months old. The chicken tunnels go right through the forest, so they keep the edges weed-free and provide fertilizer.

Lastly, the parsley, basil, and lemongrass are ready to harvest. In addition, the beans, Choko, and jicama are covering the fences, the grapes are coming along nicely, and the Kei apples have started to form spikes. 

Finally, after a few years, the ecosystem should be well-established, there’s little weeding, planting, and soil amending to do. Consequently, your main task will become enjoying the beauty and bounty provided by your food forest.

Get To Know The Author!


Author bio picture: Elle Meager

By Elle Meager. Elle is a Permaculture Teacher, food forest promoter, mom of 2 girls, homesteader, and owner of Outdoor Happens – a blog that focuses on self-sufficient backyard homesteads. She hopes to inspire everyone to become more self-sufficient and to enjoy nature’s bounty. A better world really does start in our own backyard!


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11 thoughts on “Urban Food Forest | Building A Productive No-Maintenence Food Forest”

  1. This is an interesting idea for a garden. I find myself thinking that it’s kind of like a secret garden. Which I’ve always wanted to have, doesn’t every girl? I imagine you could build one sort of out of the way so it totally could be a secret garden!

  2. My wife and I are studying different types of garden design. This urban food forest is a unique idea. We are getting older so I like the idea of very little maintenance.

    1. Hi, Carla! I will let Elle know that you are asking for updated pictures. I know she said she had some issues with her camera and that’s why we don’t have updated images just yet. Check back in a few weeks for new images, or maybe after the holidays.

      Thanks!

  3. Using perinneal plants is a great idea, you won’t need to plant back. I like this food forest garden design. Thank you.

  4. It seems like a bit of work at first, but I can see where in the end it would really work itself and you wouldn’t need to add fertilizer constantly like I do my garden now. Next year we are planning a new garden. I think I may go with the food forest idea. It’s great. Thanks!

  5. I love this garden design idea. It sounds so much easier that a traditional garden type. I’m really interested in trying out this method. I like the idea that it can self compost, and regenerate itself with perennial plants.

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