Thursday, December 27, 2007

Food forests

This is a first draft of part of some notes I'm writing up to go with my workshops, I will probably include a lot more of my own experience in the finished version.

What are they?

Food forests are food producing landscapes loosely modeled on natural forests. Fruit tree’s and other useful species replace the trees of a forest and a variety of useful species replace ground covers present in forests.

Like natural forests the ground is constantly covered in a food forest. This is done through the use of living ground covers such as nastirtum and also through the use of dead materials such as straw or chipped wood. As the forest garden matures the trees will increasingly shade out the living ground covers and contribute to mulch from their leaves and pruning.

Because food forests are multileveled diverse landscapes they can be far more useful that conventional orchards or conventional field cropping methods. Food forests have been extensively used in traditional horticultural systems but are relatively new in the western world. As is becoming increasingly clear a well designed food forest requires minimal weeding, watering or fertilization.

The Unitec Food Forest

Food forests are artificially kept in a state of interrupted succession; trees growing overhead are spaced to allow a lush carpet of greenery to develop. Instead of the thick darkness of a New Zealand native forest we aim to create a relatively open environment conducive to fruit production.


A food forest is typically made up of seven levels; these levels stack plants according to how much light they require.



The principles behind forest gardening can be applied on any scale in any space. On an inner city balcony a dwarf fruit tree may be grown with mint and nasturtium around its base. A suburban backyard may have 10 or 15 trees with passionfruit climbing through them and comfrey across the ground. A rural property may have several acres of useful fruit or nut trees for market.


The edge of a forest is far more productive than the center; on the edge sufficient light is available to support lush vegetation and to support forest species. Creating this rich edge zone is one of the major goals of a design. Trees should be spaced so that light is able to penetrate throughout the forest garden and light wells can be created which herbaceous annuals can be clumped in.


Even a suburban backyard has a wide variety of microclimates, these can be exploited to grow subtropicals like babaco, to help species mature early etc.


On highly exposed sites windbreaks may need to be planted, these can be a mixture of useful species which provide a variety of products.

Wind levels and directions should be carefully observed before planting and trees should be placed according to the levels they can tolerate.


Varying amounts of site preparation will not to be done depending on fertility and soil type. Very poor soils will need proportionately more nitrogen fixing species and species grown for their biomass.

Signs of nutrient deficiencies should be carefully looked for and if necessary soil tests done. It is generally much easier to treat imbalances when the site is being established than when trees are looking sickly down the track.


Wet soils can be used to grow mints, bananas, taro and other water loving plants. Dry spots can be used to grow rosemary, fig or…

Dry sites may require swales to catch rainfall running across slopes and help it infiltrate into the soil and a constant cover of mulch is probably a must.


North facing slopes are ideal for food forests as trees will not shade each other as much as on flat sites. South facing slopes can be used but if deeply shaded trees will have to be further spaced apart. To prevent erosion swales may need to be put in and the ground should be not be unnecessarily cultivated.

Species selection

Fruit trees should be chosen according to

- How suitable they are for the climate
- When they fruit
- What other functions they might play (medicinal, mulch etc)
- How big they are when mature (dwarf species, full size etc)

Smaller plants should be chosen according to

- Shade tolerance
- Medicinal use
- Whether the attract beneficial insects etc

Other species to include

- Mulch producing species (eg Abyssinian bananas, wild ginger)
- Food for chickens and wildlife (silverbeet etc)

Things to keep in mind

Placing your forest garden is crucial, will the avocado you want to plant eventually shade out your vegetable garden or block crucial winter sun? Through careful placement the same plant can provide welcome winter shade and block cold southerly winds.

When designing your food forest think about how to enhance and maintain fertility, provide habitat for wildlife and grow variety of useful species which can be harvested throughout the year.

Flowers like lavender and wild carrot which attract beneficial insects should be included to improve the overall health of the forest garden.

Nitrogen fixers like tagasate or wattle should be included at planting; these can be eventually thinned and removed for firewood as the rest of the trees mature.

Placing a bathtub in your food forest filled with water and aquatic plants will benefit bird’s insects and lizards.

Establishing the forest

Before you begin a thorough site plan should be developed. The best time to plant trees is in spring or autumn.

Once you have a plan for your site the first step is to remedy any deficiencies or problems with the soil.

Next allow weeds to grow and sheet mulch the site as described in (yet to be written)

Covering the weeds with paper then vegetation

In the sheetmulch rough seeds such as potato and broad bean can be grown planted and grown in the first few years. These plants will gradually be shaded out as the forest develops.

Once sheet mulched trees and groundcovers should be planted, around 20% more trees should be planted than you want at the end to make up for plants which do not do well or which die.



In the first few years herbaceous weeds may be a problem; these can be managed through the use of chicken or duck tractors or weeded manually. Many weeds will be shaded out as the food forest grows, useful groundcovers will also suppress weeds.


Pruning of trees in the food forest is primarily done with light in mind and also to remove diseased or unnecessary branches. Trees should be pruned or thinned out as necessary to create light wells for light loving understory plants.

A Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka famous for his so called “natural farming” techniques did no pruning in his orchards and believed this made for much healthier trees. As far as I am aware these techniques have not been trialed in New Zealand.

Ducks and Chickens in the food forest

Chickens can be let into the food forest periodically to eat faller fruit and insects but they love mulch and will scratch up anything that’s loose, soil and seedlings included.

Ducks are very suitable for larger food forests as they do not scratch up mulch. They will however eat green like silverbeet and may need to be managed carefully.

Retrofitting an existing orchard

Conventional orchards are planted in long straight lines or with trees spaced regularly with grass growing between them. One plan for increasing the productivity is to plant nitrogen fixer’s small bushes and plants like borage and comfrey in the rows. Alternately in some agro forestry systems the gap between rows can be used to grow annual vegetables if the trees are sufficiently spaced.

Old trees which are diseased or unproductive should be removed and replaced with desirable species. Small orchards may be sheet mulched whilst in larger orchard living mulches can be planted.

More Resources

Robert Hart

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Bill Mollison - The Global Gardener (C00l Climates)

Part One of Three


Part Two of Three


Part three of three

Urban Sustainability Group DatesDraft Timeline/Calender 2008

Heres the draft plan for Urban Sustainability Group workshops in Auckland early next year. Most of the workshops will be carried out around central Auckland but some will be carried out in the outer suburbs. To find out more details or get added to the email list contact

Times and Locations to be Finalised

. :)January12th (sat) - Seed Saving

15th (tue) - Film night

17th (thu) - Chutney preserving workshop

27th (sun) - Meeting and social/sports/pot luck/eating

28th (mon)- Walk the walk leaves from Auckland --> walking to the South Island

February12th (tue) - Film night

23rd } Finn teaching workshop24th (sat and sunday)

End of march - 6 session urban organic course

This is an article I wrote for Auckland Animal Action, the newsletter its from can be downloaded here

Industrial Agriculture.

Farming isn’t typically seen as being relevant to animal rights however the production of all food in our society is intertwined with environmental destruction and animal abuse. The increasing industrialisation and growth in scale of farming are rapidly causing desertification across the globe and rapidly falling food production is already harming the worlds poor. At the same time the modern farm provides no habitat for indigenous plants or animals and the few hardy species that can survive such as rats and weeds are quickly poisoned. To end the exploitation of animals and to prevent irreversible damage to the earth requires a radical reshaping of how we grow food.

Rows of crops planted by laser guided tractors, farms that stretch for hundreds of kilometres, monocrops of chemically dependant vegetables. To grow one calorie of food on the modern farm requires between ten and one hundred calories of fossil fuels. To some extent we are no longer getting our energy from the food we eat but rather from the fossil fuels used to grow that food. These fossil fuels are used to manufacture the fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides which are all fossil fuel based and to power the tractors and irrigation equipment upon which the modern farm depends.

As more fossil fuels are used farms get larger and result in huge areas sometimes the size of small countries being planted in one crop. These monocultures are a perfect habitat for a few highly adapted insects and result in vast quantities of pesticides being used to fight a losing battle. These pesticides move through the food chain killing birds which eat the insects and larger predators which eat birds. These chemicals also affect those that eat the produce, while you as a vegan may not suffer from the colon cancer and heart disease which plague meat eaters but you are still eating food which is to a very real extent poisonous.

Monocultures provide almost no habitat for wildlife and any animals which do find a niche on the farm are brutally exterminate. Birds which eat crops are shot, rats and mice living in fields are killed by huge harvesting machines and insects are soaked in chemicals. Worse perhaps though than the animals killed directly through farming is the habitat destruction upon which farming depends. As global population increases the pressure to increase land under cultivation is fuelling the destruction of the last remaining forests bulldozers and chainsaws push into the Amazon for international soy barons. The smoke from Indonesia’s forests was visible from space as settlers burn offs went out of control and raced through the rainforest wiping out hundreds of species of plants and animals. The burnt off land is used for palm oil production but as rainforest soils are poor quality the land must be regularly abandoned and burnt off again. South America has lost 70% of its forests Africa 79% Europe 80% and North America 85% and this loss is only increasing in many parts of the world.

In any wild area bare soil is a rarity, caused by fire, flood or landslides it is quickly covered by low growing herbaceous plants before bushes and finally trees become established. Bare soil mean erosion, a loss of fertility and eventually desertification. Our entire food supply however depends on growing a handful of annuals which require bare soil. These crops wheat, soy, rice etc require ploughing every year, a process which kills off the bacteria, fungi and insects crucial for healthy soil. Do this long enough and eventually no soil is left. This process has been carried to completion in what was once the Fertile Crescent Iraq; Israel Lebanon etc were all once heavily forested, covered in oak and cedar. These tree’s were cut and the land put into agriculture. The land left without any soil cover suffered from heavy erosion and rising water tables eventually becoming a desert. This process of desertification is well underway across many of the worlds primary food growing areas including major areas in America, Africa, Australia and Russia.

To all the problems with agriculture the average vegan response is that being vegan requires less land than being eating meat and that thus their environmental impact is lessened. While there is truth in this argument it ignores the fact that human population is directly related to food supply. Extra grain freed up by a vegan diet will be invariably dumped on the developing world at prices which send local farmers out of business and the abundance of cheap carbohydrates invariably fuels a population explosion. Eating a vegan diet does not mean you are necessarily eating an ethical diet.

So what can those wanting to eat ethically do? The first step is to choose carefully where you buy your food from, local and organic farmers typically take far more care for the land than international conglomerates. Part of most Organic certification schemes is a requirement that land is set aside for wildlife and that farming practices do not negatively affect animals in the area.

The next step is to grow as much food yourself as possible. Besides the knowledge that your food is not covered in a layer of chemicals you will know that rainforest was not clear felled and wild life shot or poisoned just so you can have cheap vegetable products. You can also find out about and practice permaculture, one of the key philosophy’s guiding permaculture is to enhance biodiversity and to provide habitat for as many species as possible whilst still providing for human needs. In permaculture ways of growing food which do not rely on annual clearing of the soil are encouraged and re-establishing forest cover is seen as vital to ecosystem and human health. In the end the entire industrial system rests on the exploitation of all life, human animal and plant, boycotting any specific group of products does little to change this system. Instead we need to create alternatives to the current system in our own lives and in our communitys.

If you are interested in getting involved in organic gardening, community gardens or permaculture in Auckland contact the urban sustainability group via