What is a food forest?

An agricultural system based on natural principles

Everyone can imagine something of the concept of a food forest. And usually it is a somewhat romantic, paradisiacal image that also strongly resembles what most people associate with nature. And that is all true. However, a food forest as we mean it is a farming system based on natural principles. It is a forest system full of species of trees and shrubs whose products we like, but also species that help develop the system. All life is welcome and feels at home there. At the same time, a food forest is also a rationally designed, profitable agricultural system. Profitable because a lot can be harvested from it, but also because a food forest requires hardly any maintenance and no inputs from outside. No artificial fertilisers, no pesticides and no oil and tractors. The latter can/will happen because, while we and lots of birds, hedgehogs, foxes, martens, insects and everything else that wants to come and live there are harvesting from it, food forests are making the soil healthier instead of exhausting it.

forest production systems

What forest production systems do we already know?

Most people know forests as dark places with only tall trees. Or they know orchards, where there are also only trees of the same size and age. Both are plantation systems and monocultures with all the associated advantages and disadvantages of uniformity. The long tree trunks in a production forest are the same age, the same straightness and can easily be harvested at the same time, but if a letterbox beetle comes along, or a heavy storm, they are all affected in the same way. Moreover, it is often very quiet in a pine needle forest. That is because there is actually very little to eat. For insects, and therefore also for birds and all other life.
The same applies to orchards, especially if you look at intensive fruit cultivation: lots of densely planted fruit trees that produce very cool, uniform apples, but which in return require constant spraying and fertilisation, seriously pollute the groundwater, are very vulnerable to diseases and form a very poor environment in terms of biodiversity.


the seven layers of a food forest

A food forest system is productive, but not a monoculture

A food forest is based on the principles of a natural forest, and therefore always polyculture, in which multiple species form a much more robust and biodiverse system that builds up the soil rather than depleting it. It is composed of a (repetition of) ascending forest edge(s). In this way, optimum sunlight reaches as many layers of life as possible and the system for converting sunlight into biomass, H20 and sugars is optimally 'switched on'. Within this ascending forest edge, there may be rows of the same species, but the entire system must have a great deal of variation. Only then will there be a robust system for natural pest control, pollination and soil structure. 

The layers in the system are:

  1. The high canopy, for example chestnuts or pecans of around 40 metres in height with very deep roots.
  2. The low crown layer of, for example, apples, cherries, pears that go up to 20 metres high
  3. The high bush layer, e.g. hazelnuts
  4. The low bush layer, most berries and blackberries and raspberries
  5. the herb layer, all non-woody species that often die back above ground in winter but can reach a height of 30-120 cm. Examples are the stinging nettle, but also mint, sage, mountain claw or chervil.
  6. The creeping layer, the non-woody species that are seen as ground cover. Think of wild garlic, coltsfoot or thyme. 
  7. The climbers, think for example of grapes
And then there are the tubers, or the underground layer and the aquatic plant layer.
The planting of food forest Schijndel

Leave food forests alone, but measure their development from the outset

Once the food forest system is planted, it should be left alone for at least 4/5 years. During these first years, small sprouts of trees and shrubs grow up amidst weeds like thistles and sorrel and, as food-forest species originate from forests, they feel better among all those weeds than if they were standing in full sunlight.  


Above ground it seems to go agonisingly slowly by our standards, butmeanwhile the (forest) soil life builds up and this increasingly ensures that a healthy basis for a long-term food forest system can arise. The changes in the weeds (or herb layer) can already tell a lot about what is going on underground. That is why we say that the biodiversity test in particular is very interesting to do every year, even in young food forests. Feel free to create a food forest project on this platform and start monitoring very young food forests. It is free and you help science enormously.

Martin Crawford's food forest in Devon UK

From the 5th year onwards, the many harvests begin

From the fifth year onwards, an acceleration occurs in the food forest system. Trees that at first hardly seemed to move at all suddenly shoot up metres every year. The berries and raspberries start to give serious yields and the herb layer is sometimes quite interesting too. Food forests that have started in fields, meadows and forests all behave a little differently. We learn the same thing when it comes to soil types. Therefore, in our monitoring system, we are very curious to see how those differences really play out in all those forests that are now slowly but surely reaching this acceleration. So keep participating in the food forest monitoring, because now harvests are becoming interesting as CO2 storage, and more and more and new species of soil fauna can be seen. Moreover, from now on, the kilograms of harvest are also starting to become interesting.

And in the years after the 5th year, you can really see how the food forest system is growing exponentially. In all crops. Foxes and stoats and special species of birds come to live. There are kilos and kilos of crops. The economy becomes interesting and you enter into relationships with your environment to get rid of that harvest, and biodiversity and CO2 storage continue to develop. So keep filling in the blanks every year about how your food forest is doing. Because then, together, we can show the whole scientific world how food forests develop and what their amazing harvests are. 

Frequently asked questions about food forests

This is a logical question. When you start a food forest, you want to give your expensive plants a good start. So many forests start with a mulch layer that is supplied externally, or go even further by adding, for example, champost, compost tea or charcoal.

However, if you look at nature - and food forests are based on natural principles - it is a system that always looks for balance on the way to abundance. Nature will automatically make poor soils richer and over-fertilised soils move back to a healthier nutrient balance. Nature does this in ways that we humans often barely understand, but in any case through the first pioneering plants and animals that come to the area of their own accord. And, the less you add, the harder the soil life present in the soil will work itself out.

We say that you can add some mulch at the very beginning, but it is not necessary. Everything on top and after will disrupt that natural movement rather than help your forest. Food forests start differently on every soil type, but all move towards a balance and a soil that is primarily based on biomass and healthy soil life, no matter what the original starting position was: heavy clay, poor sand, acidic forest soil, etc etc.

So the best news is: the less you do, the better it is for those nice expensive plants. But beware: sometimes the starting position of your land is so bad that it is better to first improve the soil with pioneer species and a fine hedge than to plant very expensive nut trees right away. In our training courses, you will learn much more about this, because succession and soil structure is perhaps the most important thing you need to understand to realise successful food forests.

If you keep track of the progress of your forest in our food forest monitoring tool, you will see it happen and together we will show it to the whole world.

See the question above: it does not matter for the soil itself. The beginning in both species is really different, but in both soil types you work towards a mature food forest. In terms of regulation, however, there are major differences. In the Netherlands, nature is governed by very different legislation than agriculture. You can read more about this at Legislation and regulations.

This is not really a question, but a whole day's course, but we will deal with this big discussion in one question. Some people think that food forests are nature in which only indigenous species are allowed to grow. Others already know that there will be very little to eat, both for us and for wild animals.

Food forests are a farming system based on natural principles. So, we want easy-to-crack and big nuts, sweet tasting apples, and thus cultivars (specifically bred or cultivated species that offer guaranteed shape and taste) that guarantee these harvests. At the same time, we want resilient systems that can take a beating, so people who want to work with seedlings to develop new cultivars are very welcome, but then the outcome is not guaranteed, because each seedling will be different from its parents and from its sibling.

The exotic species discussion runs right through this. Which is actually about invasive exotics, species that can develop as pests. Not every plant that does not originally belong here is invasive. In fact, if you look around you, whether in gardens, forests or in agriculture, most of what you see is an exotic species, which fortunately is not invasive at all. 

Food forest owners must abide by the law and be aware of the Red List of invasive species and not plant them. Read more about this on the website of the Greendealvoedselbossen.nl

Food forests are becoming more and more popular, but many farmers and neighbours still do not understand it and see a lot of weeds, a mess or feel that something is about to happen to their view. This is a very big question, but we will pick out a few elements:

  • If your food forest lies between fields and meadows that are sprayed, at least make sure that there is a dense hedge that you do not harvest from and/or other forms of buffer zones, especially in the dominant wind direction. This also helps with the next point.
  • If your neighbours (might) complain about weeds, a good hedge will also help to avoid the notion of 'blowing over'.
  • Stay in contact with your neighbours as much as possible from the start, but don't overdo it. Invite them, tell them what you are planning, show them nice pictures of the possible end result, but if they do not understand any of this (yet), leave it alone and wait for a moment of extreme weather or beautiful blossoms or a rich autumn harvest to pick up the communication again. Because that is when you see the power of a food forest.

A food forest is agriculture and nature. And in nature you have animals. Mice, worms, snails, birds, snakes, frogs, beavers, foxes etc. etc. These wild animals are not fed by us and they all have territorial behaviour in their own way. In fact, these animals are needed to achieve the ecological balance that prevents pests from getting out of hand. So they are very welcome in a food forest.

Livestock is another story. Chickens, ducks, pigs and cows do not fit into a system based on no external input (as they are almost always fed extra). Moreover, territorial behaviour does not play any role and therefore, even in small numbers, they are very quickly disruptive to the soil and herb layer of a food forest.

Keeping cattle with trees is another form of agroforestry, not a food forest. If you have enough space, you can of course keep cattle next to your food forest, but not in it."

This is a very broad question and the answer is certainly yes, but that yes means looking at land use, market, income, time and production in very different ways than usual. And that is exactly why so many strong opinions and disappointments and sometimes even arguments arise. See also earlier in this article: a food forest needs time to start. It needs that time to build up the soil. So, do not try to get income from a food forest in year 1, that will only start after 5 years or so and even then it is far from complete. Keep your job during that time, or do something else on a piece of land next to it, or work with volunteers.

In our annual training, module business plan is about exactly this and we have already seen many interesting, beautiful business models that tell us that this answer is yes, but also that there is no such thing as one recipe, one answer. Even stronger, that this is exactly the way of thinking that you first have to learn to let go of, if you want to arrive at a beautiful new business model. 

We come from an agricultural and natural system full of generic solutions and straightforward monocultures. That is exactly what we as humanity need to break free from. And that is what this course is also about to a large extent: food forests are about learning to look at landscape, food and nature differently. Only then can you move on to learning to do things differently, budgeting and earning.

Otherwise, take a look at our four food themes and their business cases.

Want to learn more?

Do you want to learn more about food forests and how to create and manage them? We give a modular year training that consists of three modules: basic, design and business plan. In the basic module you learn all about the system described above; in the design module you learn how to design food forests and in the business plan module you learn how to budget a food forest and make a business plan. Not everyone needs to learn everything, which is why we offer you the possibility to take this year-long course in separate modules or combinations of modules. 

As of 2012 we also offer a course in propagation. In this course, in addition to the annual training, you learn how to propagate your own planting material. 

Always wanted to know the origins of food forestry? This video from Stichting Voedselbosbouw and the Green Deal Food Forests gives a brief overview.