Differentiating Agroforestry Part 2- Food Forests, Forest Gardens, Syntropic Farming, Holistic Orchards

(While there is much diversity within agroforestry, for this series we will be focusing on the 4 most popular ones in Permaculture for the minute)

What is a Food Forest?

A food forest is a type of agroforestry system that mimics the structure and function of a natural forest ecosystem while incorporating food-producing plants. It is designed to provide a sustainable and self-sufficient food source while promoting biodiversity, ecological balance, and resilience.
Plants are strategically chosen and arranged in different layers or vertical zones in a food forest, similar to a forest ecosystem. These layers typically include tall canopy trees, understory trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, ground covers, and root crops. Each layer serves a specific purpose and contributes to the overall productivity and sustainability of the system.
The diverse array of plants in a food forest provides edible fruits, nuts, leaves, and roots and offers a range of other benefits. For example, the canopy trees provide shade, support climbing plants, and help create a microclimate conducive to plant growth. Nitrogen-fixing plants can enrich the soil while flowering plants attract pollinators and beneficial insects.

Food forests are designed to be low-maintenance and resilient, relying on natural processes and ecological principles to minimise the need for external inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides. They are often based on permaculture design principles, emphasising integrating different species and creating symbiotic relationships within the ecosystem.
Food forests can be established in various environments, including urban areas, suburban gardens, and rural landscapes. They offer numerous advantages, such as increased food security, improved soil fertility, enhanced biodiversity, and the creation of green spaces that promote community engagement and education about sustainable food production.

The time required to maintain a food forest can vary depending on several factors, such as the size of the forest, the number of plant species, the climate, and the establishment level. In the early stages of establishing a food forest, more effort will be needed for planting, mulching, and initial care. The maintenance tasks may decrease once the food forest matures and becomes more self-sustaining.

Generally, food forests are designed to be low-maintenance systems, emulating natural ecosystems where plants support each other and create a balanced environment. However, more intensive care may be required in the first 2-3 years, such as watering, weeding, and pest management.

On an ongoing basis, maintenance tasks in a food forest may include:

  1. Watering: Especially during dry periods or for young plants, regular watering might be necessary until the plants become established.
  2. Mulching: Adding mulch around plants helps retain moisture, suppress weeds, and improve soil fertility. Mulching is an essential practice in food forest maintenance.
  3. Pruning: Periodic pruning of trees, shrubs, and other plants is needed to shape growth, remove dead or diseased branches, and encourage better fruiting or flowering.
  4. Weed management: Though food forests are designed to minimise weed growth, some weeding might be necessary, especially during the establishment phase.
  5. Pest and disease control: Monitoring for pests and diseases and taking appropriate measures to manage them is vital for plant health.
  6. Soil fertility: Maintaining soil health is crucial for the success of a food forest. This includes compost, organic matter, or other soil improvement techniques.
  7. Harvesting: Regularly harvesting fruits, vegetables, and other produce is necessary to keep the ecosystem in balance and ensure optimal yields.

The time required for maintenance can decrease as the food forest matures and becomes more resilient and self-regulating. The need for regular watering and other intensive tasks may significantly reduce in well-established food forests.

It’s essential to observe and understand the specific needs of the plants in your food forest and adjust your maintenance schedule accordingly. Additionally, incorporating permaculture design principles can reduce the time and effort required for ongoing maintenance.


Here are some pros and cons associated with food forests:

Pros of Food Forests:

  1. Biodiversity: Food forests promote biodiversity by incorporating diverse plant species. This diversity enhances the ecosystem’s resilience, supports pollinators and beneficial insects, and helps protect against pests and diseases.
  2. Sustainable Food Production: Food forests provide a sustainable source of food production. They utilise natural ecological processes and reduce the need for external inputs like fertilisers and pesticides. This makes them environmentally friendly and less reliant on non-renewable resources.
  3. Soil Improvement: The multi-layered structure of food forests helps improve soil health. Deep-rooted plants bring nutrients from the lower layers, and leaf litter from the upper layers enriches the soil. The diverse plant species also enhance soil structure, prevent erosion, and increase soil organic matter content.
  4. Climate Resilience: Food forests can help mitigate the impacts of climate change. Their diverse plantings and dense vegetation act as carbon sinks, sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide. Additionally, the shade provided by the tree canopy can moderate temperature, reduce evaporation, and conserve water resources.
  5. Food Security and Accessibility: Food forests can provide a sustainable source of fresh, nutritious food. They can be established in various settings, including urban areas, which improves food access and security, especially in food deserts or areas with limited access to healthy produce.

Cons of Food Forests:

  1. Initial Establishment and Maintenance: Establishing a food forest requires careful planning, design, and implementation. It involves site preparation, selecting suitable plant species, and ongoing maintenance. The initial investment of time, labour, and resources can be significant, especially for large-scale projects.
  2. Space Requirements: Food forests typically require considerable space due to their multi-layered structure. This can be challenging in densely populated urban areas or with limited land availability. However, smaller-scale adaptations like backyard food forests or community gardens can still be practical.
  3. Time to Maturity: Food forests take time to reach maturity and fully develop. It can take several years before the plantings begin to produce significant yields. This delayed gratification can be a drawback for those seeking immediate returns or short-term solutions to food production.
  4. Management and Pruning: Food forests require ongoing management, including regular pruning and maintenance of plants to optimise productivity and prevent overcrowding. Certain species may only dominate or overshadow others with proper management, affecting the system’s overall productivity.
  5. Limited Crop Selection: While food forests offer a diverse array of edible plants, some staple crops may need more time to include them due to space limitations or specific environmental requirements. Depending on the region and climate, certain crops or varieties may not be suitable for a food forest setting.

Overall, food forests provide numerous ecological, social, and economic benefits. However, careful planning, ongoing management, and adaptation to local conditions are essential to ensure their success and maximise their potential

Differentiating Agrorforestry Part 1

Differentiating Agrorforestry Part 3

Differentiating Agrorforestry Part 4