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 Syntropic Farming?

Syntropic farming, also known as syntropic agriculture, is a farming system that mimics the structure and function of natural ecosystems to cultivate crops sustainably and regeneratively. It was developed by Swiss farmer and researcher Ernst Götsch.

The main idea behind syntropic agriculture is to create highly diverse and productive agricultural systems by leveraging the principles of ecology. It involves the intentional arrangement of different plant species to encourage beneficial relationships between them and enhance overall ecosystem health.

Critical features of syntropic agriculture include:

  1. Successional agroforestry: Syntropic agriculture imitates the natural succession of plant communities, starting with a diverse array of fast-growing pioneer species and gradually transitioning to longer-lived and more valuable crops. This approach establishes a multi-layered system with different plant heights and growth habits.
  2. Intercropping and plant diversity: Multiple plant species, including fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, and cover crops, are cultivated together in a harmonious arrangement. The combination of diverse species helps to create a balanced ecosystem, reduce pests and diseases, improve soil fertility, and increase overall resilience.
  3. Nutrient cycling and soil regeneration: Syntropic agriculture emphasizes recycling organic matter and nutrients within the system. Biomass from pruned plants and crop residues is returned to the soil to enhance its organic content, improve its structure, and promote beneficial microbial activity. This approach reduces or eliminates the need for synthetic fertilizers.
  4. Minimal soil disturbance: To preserve the integrity of the soil structure and its beneficial organisms, syntropic agriculture avoids excessive tilling or ploughing. Instead, a “no-dig” or minimal tillage approach is followed to maintain soil health and prevent erosion.
  5. Syntropic pruning and management: Regular pruning is essential in synthetic agriculture. Plants are pruned selectively and strategically to manage competition, stimulate growth, and encourage the continuous regeneration of the system.
  6. Syntropic farming embraces the innate potential of weeds as valuable players in agroecosystems. Weeds, often perceived as nuisances, can play a pivotal role when integrated strategically. In this system, weeds aren’t eradicated but managed. Their vigorous growth is harnessed to enhance soil structure, capture sunlight, and nurture beneficial microbial life. Certain weeds accumulate nutrients, acting as dynamic nutrient pumps, while their deep roots break compacted soil layers. An ecosystem emerges by selecting compatible weeds and companion plants, reducing the need for external inputs. Syntropic farming leverages weeds’ resilience and biodiversity, transforming them from adversaries to allies in sustainable food production.

The ultimate goal of syntropic agriculture is to create self-sustaining and resilient ecosystems that produce abundant yields while conserving natural resources. It aims to restore degraded land, increase biodiversity, sequester carbon, and provide long-term food security in a sustainable and regenerative manner.

Here are some Pros and Cons of Syntropic Agriculture:


  1. Biodiversity: Syntropic agriculture promotes high levels of biodiversity by incorporating various plants. This can enhance ecosystem resilience, support beneficial insects and wildlife, and reduce the risks associated with monocultures.
  2. Soil fertility and health: Synthetic agriculture can improve soil fertility and structure by using diverse plant species and incorporating organic matter. It can enhance nutrient cycling, increase water retention, and reduce soil erosion.
  3. Climate change mitigation: Syntropic agriculture has the potential to sequester significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Trees and perennial plants in this system can store carbon for extended periods, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  4. Water conservation: The dense vegetation and organic matter in syntropic agriculture systems can help retain moisture in the soil, reducing water runoff and enhancing water infiltration. This can contribute to better water management and conservation.
  5. Resilience and adaptability: The diverse nature of syntropic agriculture systems can make them more resilient to pests, diseases, and climate variability. The intercropping of different species can reduce the spread of pests and diseases. At the same time, the presence of multiple crops can provide a buffer against crop failures.


  1. Knowledge and skill requirements: Implementing syntropic agriculture effectively requires a deep understanding of ecological principles and careful planning. Farmers must acquire knowledge and skills to manage complex interactions between plants, pests, and soil conditions.
  2. Initial investment and labour: Transitioning to syntropic agriculture may require an initial investment in infrastructure, such as tree plantings, mulching, and irrigation systems. Additionally, the initial establishment of these systems can be labour-intensive compared to conventional agricultural practices.
  3. Market challenges: Some challenges may arise in marketing and selling products from synthetic agriculture systems. Consumers may need to become more familiar with or willing to pay a premium for products grown through regenerative practices. Farmers may need to educate consumers and establish niche markets or value-added products to overcome this challenge.
  4. Scale limitations: Syntropic agriculture systems are typically more suited to smaller-scale operations due to their complexity and the need for hands-on management. Scaling up these systems can be challenging and require additional planning and coordination.
  5. Time to maturity: Compared to conventional agriculture, syntropic agriculture systems may take longer to reach total productivity. Trees can take several years to mature and provide significant yields, requiring farmers to have long-term planning and financial stability.
  6. The use of “weeds”: With the focus on species that are high in energy, the potential for these species to turn weedy if not managed properly can be a risk for long-term commitment to this system.

It’s worth noting that the pros and cons can vary depending on the specific context, local conditions, and management practices employed. Overall, syntropic agriculture shows promise as a sustainable farming approach. Still, careful consideration of site-specific factors and long-term planning is necessary for successful implementation.


It’s worth noting that the pros and cons can vary depending on the specific context, local conditions, and management practices employed. Overall, syntropic agriculture shows promise as a sustainable farming approach. Still, careful consideration of site-specific factors and long-term planning is necessary for successful implementation.

 Several vital practices must be implemented and monitored to maintain a syntropic farming system. Here are the steps you need to take:

  1. Site Selection and Design:
    • Choose an appropriate site with suitable soil, climate, and water availability for the desired plant species.
    • Plan the layout of the farming system, considering factors like sunlight exposure, wind patterns, and water drainage.
  1. Species Selection:
    • Choose a mix of plant species with complementary growth patterns and functions, including trees, shrubs, herbs, and ground covers. These could include nitrogen-fixing plants, pest-repellent species, and those with deep or shallow root systems.
    • Opt for various plants with different growth rates to create a multi-layered canopy structure.
  1. Succession Planting:
    • Implement a succession planting strategy where plants are introduced in stages. Faster-growing plants are typically planted first to provide shade and shelter for slower-growing species.
  1. Mulching:
    • Apply organic mulch, such as leaves, straw, or wood chips, around plants to improve soil moisture retention, suppress weed growth, and add organic matter.
  1. Companion Planting and Polyculture:
    • Employ companion planting by intermixing plants with mutually beneficial relationships, such as plants that deter pests or enhance nutrient availability.
  1. Pruning and Thinning:
    • Regularly prune and thin out plants to maintain the desired canopy structure, ensure proper light penetration, and reduce resource competition.
  1. Soil Health Management:
    • Avoid tilling to preserve soil structure and minimize disturbance to beneficial soil microorganisms.
    • Add organic matter regularly to enhance soil fertility and structure.
  1. Integrated Pest Management (IPM):
    • Use natural pest control methods, such as planting pest-repellent species, encouraging beneficial insects, and employing physical barriers if needed.
  1. Water Management:
    • Implement efficient irrigation systems, such as drip irrigation, to minimize water wastage.
    • Utilize rainwater harvesting techniques to capture and store rainwater for irrigation.
  1. Continuous Monitoring:
    • Regularly observe the health and growth of plants, as well as any signs of pests or diseases.
    • Based on observed outcomes, adjust the planting arrangement, species selection, and management practices.
  1. Education and Skill Development:
    • Stay updated with the latest practices and research in synthetic farming through workshops, courses, and publications.
    • Continuously improve your skills in plant identification, soil health management, and ecological understanding.
  1. Adaptation and Flexibility:
    • Be prepared to adapt the farming system based on changing conditions, such as shifts in climate or unexpected challenges.

Maintaining a syntropic farming system requires a deep understanding of ecological principles and a commitment to regenerative practices. It’s important to note that this approach is holistic, and success may depend on your farm’s specific context and local conditions. Consulting with experienced agroforestry practitioners or agricultural extension services can provide valuable guidance tailored to your situation.


The difference between Food Forests, Forest Gardens and Syntropic Farming

 Food forests, forest gardens, and syntropic farming systems are all approaches to designing and managing agricultural systems that mimic natural ecosystems. While they share some similarities, they also have distinct characteristics and goals. Here’s an overview of the differences between these three systems:

  1. Food Forest:

A food forest is an agricultural system that is designed to replicate the structure and functions of a natural forest ecosystem. It typically consists of multiple layers of plants, including tall canopy trees, smaller understory trees, shrubs, herbs, groundcovers, and sometimes vines. These layers work together to create a self-sustaining and resilient ecosystem.

Key features of a food forest:

  • Diverse plant species are intentionally chosen to mimic the biodiversity of a natural forest.
  • Emphasis on perennial plants that require minimal annual planting.
  • The focus is on creating a balanced and stable ecosystem with minimal external inputs.
  • Nutrient cycling is a central concept where plants contribute to each other’s growth and health.
  • Designed for food production, providing other ecosystem services like habitat for beneficial insects, soil improvement, and water conservation.
  1. Forest Garden:

A forest garden is similar to a food forest, and the terms are often used interchangeably. However, some proponents emphasize particular distinctions. A forest garden also mimics natural ecosystems but can be more flexible in design and structure. It might not strictly follow the distinct layers found in a food forest. It could have more of a mixture of plants arranged to suit the local environment and the gardener’s goals.

Key features of a forest garden:

  • Similar to a food forest, it aims to replicate the dynamics of a natural forest for sustainable food production.
  • It can be adapted to various climates, soil types, and cultural preferences, allowing for greater customization.
  • While still emphasizing perennial plants, there might be more freedom in choosing plant species and arrangement.
  • Forest gardening can incorporate ornamental plants, medicinal herbs, and other valuable plants.
  1. Syntropic Farming Systems:

Syntropic farming is a specific farming methodology developed by Ernst Götsch. It is based on principles of syntropy, which refers to the self-organizing tendency of natural ecosystems to move towards greater complexity and organization. This principle is applied to agriculture in synthetic farming to create highly productive and regenerative systems.

Critical features of syntropic farming:

  • Involves the deliberate arrangement of plant species in specific succession patterns to maximize beneficial interactions.
  • Younger plants are positioned closer together, providing shade and protection for each other as they establish.
  • As the system matures, the spacing between plants gradually increases, allowing more light and resources to grow food-bearing plants.
  • Pruning and biomass management are essential to provide organic matter for soil improvement and to enhance nutrient cycling.
  • Focuses on accelerating succession and creating conditions where the system becomes more self-sustaining.

In summary, while food forests and forest gardens are broad concepts that aim to replicate natural ecosystems for sustainable food production, syntropic farming is a specific approach within agroforestry that emphasizes control and carefully planned plant successions to optimize productivity and regenerative potential. Each of these systems has its nuances and can be adapted to different contexts based on local conditions and the goals of the farmer or gardener.

Differentiating Agrorforestry Part 1

Differentiating Agrorforestry Part 2

Differentiating Agrorforestry Part 3