Differentiating Agroforestry Part 3- 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 Forest Garden?

A forest garden, also known as an edible forest garden, is a type of agroforestry system that mimics the structure and function of a natural forest ecosystem while also providing a variety of edible plants for human consumption. It is a sustainable and low-maintenance approach to gardening that combines trees, shrubs, perennial plants, and sometimes annual crops in a layered and diverse planting design.

The forest garden concept is based on permaculture design principles, which aim to create self-sustaining and productive ecosystems inspired by natural patterns. In a forest garden, plants are carefully selected and arranged to develop beneficial relationships and maximize the use of space, light, nutrients, and water.

The design of a forest garden typically consists of several layers, similar to a natural forest, though focusing on a minimum of three layers. The canopy layer is formed by tall fruit or nut trees that provide shade and create a high vertical structure. Below the canopy are usually smaller fruit trees, shrubs, and climbers. The ground layer includes herbaceous plants, ground covers, and root crops. In contrast, the lowest layer consists of ground covers and fungi.

The diversity of plants in a forest garden is essential for creating a balanced ecosystem and reducing the need for external inputs like fertilizers and pesticides. The plants work in relationships, benefiting each other through nitrogen fixation, pest control, enhancement, sacrificial and soil improvement. The system also promotes biodiversity by providing a habitat for various animals, insects, and microorganisms.

Forest gardens offer numerous benefits. They can provide a sustainable food source, including fruits, nuts, vegetables, and herbs while requiring less maintenance than traditional gardens. Forest gardens also have environmental advantages, such as improving soil fertility, conserving water, sequestering carbon dioxide, and supporting wildlife habitats when married with the soil type and climate. Additionally, they can contribute to local food security, promote food sovereignty, and enhance resilience to climate change.

Overall, forest gardens are an innovative approach to food production that integrates ecological principles with human needs, aiming to create productive and sustainable landscapes that benefit both people and the environment.


The Pros and Cons of a Forest Garden

Here are some pros and cons of forest gardens


  1. Biodiversity: Forest gardens are characterized by a diverse range of plant species, including trees, shrubs, herbs, and ground covers. This high biodiversity provides habitat for various animals, insects, and beneficial organisms, promoting ecological balance and resilience.
  2. Sustainable food production: Forest gardens utilize the principles of permaculture and agroforestry, emphasizing sustainable food growing practices. The intercropping and layering of plants maximize land use efficiency, allowing for producing a wide variety of food crops within a small area.
  3. Soil improvement: The use of perennial plants, including deep-rooted trees, helps to improve soil structure and fertility over time. Forest gardens also incorporate living mulching and composting techniques, which enhance soil organic matter, nutrient cycling, and moisture retention.
  4. Low maintenance: Once established, forest gardens can be relatively low maintenance compared to conventional vegetable gardens. The diverse plant community creates a self-regulating ecosystem, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and excessive watering.
  5. Climate resilience: The multilayered structure of forest gardens provides microclimates that buffer extreme weather conditions, such as wind, heat, and heavy rainfall. This resilience can help protect crops from climate-related risks and maintain productivity in changing environmental conditions, though climate conditions will affect productivity.


  1. Initial establishment and planning: Designing and establishing a forest garden requires careful planning, including selecting appropriate plant species, understanding their growth patterns and interactions, and considering long-term maintenance. It can be a time-consuming and knowledge-intensive process.
  2. Slow maturation: Forest gardens typically take several years to fully establish and reach their optimal productivity. During the initial years, it may be challenging to balance the needs of young plants and achieve a productive balance within the ecosystem.
  3. Space requirement: Forest gardens are space-efficient compared to food forests or monoculture systems, but they still require access to land to be effective. An excellent alternative for more urban and densely populated environmentsUrban or densely populated areas may need to be improved in implementing large-scale forest garden systems.
  4. Limited crop selection: Forest gardens may have limitations in growing certain crops that require specific conditions, such as full sun or specific soil types. Some high-demand annual crops, like grains or root vegetables, may not thrive in the shade and competition of a forest garden.
  5. Management and harvest: Harvesting food from a forest garden can be more challenging than in traditional gardens, as plants are often intermingled and have different growth cycles. Careful management and planning are necessary to ensure efficient harvesting and prevent plant overcrowding or competition.

Forest gardens offer numerous benefits regarding biodiversity, sustainability, and resilience. However, establishing and managing effectively requires careful planning, time, and expertise.

The time required to maintain a forest garden can vary widely depending on several factors, including the size of the garden, the diversity of plants, the climate of the region, and the level of establishment and maintenance you’re aiming for. A forest garden is designed to mimic the structure and functions of a natural forest ecosystem. It can lead to reduced maintenance compared to traditional gardens but still requires attention. Here are some general considerations:

  1. Establishment Phase: The initial establishment of a forest garden can be labour-intensive. Planting and nurturing young trees, shrubs, and other plants will require regular care and monitoring, especially during the first few years.
  2. Diverse Planting: Forest gardens typically contain various plants, including trees, shrubs, perennial vegetables, herbs, and more. Each plant may have different requirements, so initial research and planning are needed to ensure proper care.
  3. Mulching and Soil Care: Applying mulch and maintaining healthy soil is crucial in a forest garden. Mulching helps suppress weeds, retain moisture, and provide nutrients to the soil. Regular checks and adjustments are needed to ensure optimal soil conditions.
  4. Weeding: While forest gardens aim to reduce the need for weeding by using ground covers and dense plantings, some level of weeding might still be necessary, especially in the early years.
  5. Pruning and Thinning: Pruning and thinning are essential to maintain a healthy structure in your forest garden. Regularly removing dead or diseased branches, shaping plants, and thinning out overcrowded areas can help promote growth and prevent disease.
  6. Harvesting: Forest gardens provide a continuous supply of edible and useful plants. Regular harvesting is essential to prevent overgrowth and enjoy your garden’s benefits.
  7. Pest and Disease Management: Monitoring pests and diseases is crucial to maintaining a healthy garden. Implementing integrated pest management strategies and practising good garden hygiene can minimize the impact of these issues.
  8. Observation and Adaptation: Forest gardens are designed to be more self-sustaining as they mature. Observing the ecosystem dynamics will help you make informed decisions about interventions and adjustments.
  9. Annual Maintenance: Even to create a low-maintenance system, there will still be yearly tasks such as pruning, mulching, and evaluating the health of plants that require attention.
  10. Experience and Expertise: The more experience and knowledge you gain about your forest garden’s specific plants and ecosystem dynamics, the more efficiently you’ll manage it.

While a well-established forest garden might require less maintenance than traditional annual vegetable gardens, it’s not a hands-off endeavour. The initial years require more effort, and as the ecosystem matures, maintenance needs may reduce over time. However, some level of ongoing care, observation, and adaptation will always be necessary to ensure the health and productivity of your forest garden.

The difference between a food forest and a Forest Garden


Yes, there is a difference between food forests and forest gardening, although the terms are often used interchangeably. Both concepts involve the cultivation of edible plants in a manner that mimics the structure and functions of natural forests. Still, they have some distinctions in their approaches and emphasis.

  1. Food Forests: A food forest is a designed agroecosystem that imitates a natural forest ecosystem. It consists of multiple layers of plants, including tall trees, understory trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, ground covers, and root crops. The main aim of a food forest is to create a self-sustaining and resilient ecosystem that provides a diverse range of edible plants while promoting biodiversity and ecosystem services. Food forests typically include a mix of perennial crops and self-seeding annuals.
  2. Forest Gardening: Forest gardening, on the other hand, is a broader concept encompassing the cultivation of various crops, including non-food crops, in a forest-like system. While it shares similarities with food forests, forest gardening can incorporate ornamental plants, medicinal herbs, and other valuable plants. Forest gardening integrates different plant species to create a balanced and productive ecosystem miming a natural forest. The emphasis is on creating a sustainable and low-maintenance system that provides a variety of yields.

In summary, food forests primarily focus on producing edible plants and mimic the structure and functions of a forest ecosystem. Although similar, forest gardening has a broader scope and includes a more comprehensive range of edible and non-edible plants, focusing on creating a sustainable and productive system.

Differentiating Agrorforestry Part 1

Differentiating Agrorforestry Part 2

Differentiating Agrorforestry Part 4