What is a food forest?

An agricultural system based on natural principles

Everyone can imagine something about the concept of a food forest. Usually, the imagined food forest is a somewhat romantic, heavenly landscape that is very similar to what most of us associate with nature. Although these ideas are romantic, they happen to be very accurate in the case of food forests.

However, what we mean by food forest, is mostly an agriculutural system based on natural principles. It is a forest that is full of tree and shrub species that yield delicious produce, as well as species that help the system develop (by fixing nitrogen, or attracting pollinators, for example). In a food forest, all forms of life are welcome and feel at home. 

At the same time, a food forest is also a rationally-designed, economically-profitable agricultural system. Its’ design requires knowledge of plant interractions, and of the land it is on. Its profitability comes from the large harvests it can yield, and the little maintenance work and external inputs it requires. No fertilizers, pesticides, oil or tractors are part of a food forest system. You may wonder how it is possible for so little maintenance to be needed if there is a large production? Here, the credit goes to the numerous birds, hedgehogs, foxes, martens, insects and other life forms, who eat insects and live in the food forest. 


What forest systems do we alreade know?

Most people know forests as dark places that host mostly tall trees. Or, they know of orchards, with trees that are all of the same size and age and meant to produce fruit. Both forests and orchards are plantation systems and monocultures, and have all the advantages and disadvantages of sameness. 

The long tree trunks in a production forest are all the same age and have the same straightness, and are thus very easy to harvest at the same time. However, if a pine beetle comes along, or a hefty storm, the sameness of these forest trees means they are all affected in the same way by the disruption. Moreover, in a pine forest, it is often very quiet. This quiet is due to the lack of food present in such systems for insects, for birds, and all other life.

The same applies to orchards, especially if you look at intensive fruit production: it contains lots of densely planted fruit trees that produce beautiful, uniform apples. However, that comes at the cost of constant spraying and fertilization, seriously polluting the groundwater, and a high vulnerability of these systems to diseases . Orchards are also very poor environments in terms of biodiversity. 

A food forest system is productive, but not a monoculture

A food forest is based on the principles of a natural forest, and is thus always a polyculture. In the food forest polyculture, the many species form a much more robust and biodiverse system that builds up the soil rather than depleting it. The food forest system is composed of (repeated) systems that mimic ascending forest edge(s). This layout allows optimal sunlight to reach as many of the forest layers as possible, which optimally ‘activates’ the conversion from sunlight into biomass, sugars, and H20. Within the “ascending forest edge” there can be repetitions and rows of the same species, but the whole system should contain a fair amount of variation. It is only with varied species that a robust system can be created for natural pest control, pollination and soil structure. 

The layers in the system are:

  • The high canopy layer, which could include sweet chestnuts or pecans for example. These species grow 40 meters high and have very deep roots.
  • The low canopy layer with, for example, apples, cherries and pears, that reach a height of 20 meters.
  • The tall shrub layer, with hazelnuts for example.
  • The low shrub layer, most berries such as blackberries and raspberries are included.
  • The herbaceous layer, all non-woody species that often die back above ground in winter but can reach 30-120 cm in height. For example, in this layer you can find the stinging nettle, mint, sage, lemon balm, or chervil.
  • The ground-cover layer, the non-woody species that are very low to the ground. Think of bear garlic, valerian, or thyme.
  • The climbers, think for example of grapes.
  • And then there are the tubers, or underground layer, such as ground-nut, and the aquatic plant layer.
The planting at Schijndel food forest, the Netherlands

Take a step back, let a food forest be, but monitor how it develops from the beginning

Once your food forest system is planted you should leave it alone for at least 4/5 years. In these first years, little tree sprigs and shrubs grow up amidst weeds like thistles and sorrel. And, because food forest species come from forests, they feel better among all those weeds than if they were in the full sun.  

Above ground, things may seem agonizingly slow by our standards, but in the meantime, the (forest) soil life is building up, and this is going to ensure that a healthy foundation for a long-term food forest system can emerge. You can already tell a lot about what is going on underground by the changes in the weeds (or herbaceous layer). That is why we emphasize that monitoring biodiversity levels is very interesting right from the first year of your food forest. Feel free to create a food forest project on this platform and start monitoring this harvest with very young food forests. It’s free and you’re helping science.


Martin Crawford's food forest in Devon, UK

From the 5th year onwards, harvests take off

From the fifth year onwards, an acceleration occurs in the food forest system. Trees that at first hardly seem to move suddenly shoot up several meters per year. Food forests that started in fields, meadows, or forests all behave a bit differently. We learn the same thing when it comes to soil types. Therefore, with our monitoring system, we are very curious to learn how land types, soil types, and other context differences, play out in various food forests which are reaching this acceleration point. So, keep participating in our food forest monitoring by measuring the various harvests from your food forest. Now, harvests such as CO2-sequestration, or soil animals, are becoming more and more interesting. Moreover, today, harvests in kilograms (such as fruit, nuts or roots) are also starting to get interesting.

In the years after the 5th year, you can really see the exponiential growth of the food forest system in its harvests. Foxes, frogs, and special species of birds come live in your food forest. There are kilograms and kilograms of crops being produced. The economiccs get interesting, you establish relationships with your local food chain to pass on the kilograms of harvest, and biodiversity and carbon sequestration continue to increase. Even then, keep filling in how your food forest is doing every year in the monitoring tool. If you do that, we can work together to show the scientific world how food forests are developing and what their incredible harvests are. 

Frequently asked questions about food forests

This is a logical question. When you begin a food forest, you want to give your expensive plants a good start. To do so, many food forests begin with a mulch layer that is brought in from an external location. Some go even further by adding champost (Spent Mushroom Compost), compost tea or charcoal to the mixture.

However, if you look at nature – and food forests are based on natural principles – then you see systems that are always searching for a balance on their way to abundance. Nature will make a poor ground richer on its own and overly-fertilised grounds will eventually return to a healthy nutrient balance. Nature does this in ways that we humans barely understand, but we do know the important role of pioneering plants and animals that come from themselves to the land. And, the less you add, the harder the already-present soil life will work on its own.

We state that you can, at most, add mulch when you first begin, but it is not obligatory. Everything added on top of, and after that, will disrupt the natural inclination of your forest, rather than support it. Food forests start up differently on different kinds of soils, but are all moving towards balance and a soil that is based on biomass and healthy soil life, whatever the original starting position was.

The best news is: the less you do, the better it is for those beautiful expensive plants. But keep in mind that sometimes the intitial state of your soil is so poor that it is better to begin by improving the soil quality with pioneer plants and a hedge than to plant expensive nut trees right away. In our trainings (for now only in Dutch) you learn much more about about how to begin a food forest with these methods, because succession and soil buildup are maybe the most important things for you to understand to create a successful food forest. If you keep track of your forest’s progress with our measuring tool you will notice this too, and together we will prove it to the whole world.

See the question above: for the soil itself, it does not make a difference. The beginning on each soil is very different from the other, but on all soil types you are working towards a mature and healthy food forest. Regulation differences, however, are significant. In the Netherlands, a natural area is dealt with differently than agricultural land, in the legislation. In other countries this differs, but then also: check your own laws and regulations before you start. 

This is actually not a question, but an entire course day. We will still address this big discussion in just one question. Some people think that food forests are natural areas in which only native species should grow. Others know that if that was so, there would be very little to eat for both us and animals.

Food forests are agriculture systems based on natural principles. In a food forest, we want easily crackable nuts, sweet-tasting apples and that means cultivars (specifically bred or grafted varieties that guarantee shape or flavor), that can guarantee good harvests. At the same time, we want resilient systems, and cultivars do not always guarantee that, so those who want to work with seedlings to develop new cultivars are welcome. But when you do so, your outcome is not guaranteed because each seedling will be different from its parents and from its siblings.

Then, we tackle the exotics discussion, which is really about invasive exotics that can become pests. It is far from the truth to say that every plant that is not native is invasive. Furthermore, if you look around you in gardens, forests, or in agriculture, the majority of the species present are exotic species which are fortunately not invasive.

Food forest owners should follow the law, and not plant any plants that are on the red list of invasive species. You can read more about this (in Dutch) on the website from Greendealvoedselbossen.nl.

Food forests are becoming increasingly popular, but many traditional producers and neighbors do not yet understand and see mostly many weeds, a mess or feel that something will happen to their view. This is a big question, but here are a few key points:

  • If your food forest is between fields and pastures that are sprayed, you want to provide a dense hedge that you don’t 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 helps conceal the plot and keep potential frustration at bay. 
  • From the beginning, keep good relations with your neighbours, but do not overdo it. Invite them, tell them what your plans are, show them beautiful images of the possible end result, but if they do not understand any of this (yet), then let it rest. Wait for a moment of good or especcially bad weather (affecting their and not your crop), beautiful blossoms or rich harvest to pick up communication again. Then, they will see the great potential of food forests.

A food forest is both agriculture and nature. In nature, you have animals such as mice, worms, birds, snails, snakes, frogs, beavers, foxes etc. etc. These wild animals are not bothered by us and each have their specific territorial behaviour. These animals are, in fact, needed, to achieve the ecological balance that keeps pests from getting out of control. So they are welcome in a food forest.

Livestock is another story. Chickens, ducks, pigs and cows do not fit into a system that is based on zero-input (they almost always need supplementary feeding). Moreover, they do not have territorial behavior, and even in small numbers can quickly become dispruptive to the soil and herb layer of the food forest. Often, they can severely disrupt the process of soil formation. 

Keeping cattle in combination with trees is another form of agroforestry, that is called silopasture and is 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 broad question, and the answer is certainly yes, but it means looking at land use, market, income, time and production in very different ways than usual. And that is precisely why there are so many fierce opinions and disapointments, and sometimes even arguments. See also question 1: a food forest needs time to start and it must be given that time. So it is unrealistic to try, in one year, to make income from a food forest. That usually only starts after 5 years or so and then possibly not fully. Keep your job during that time, or do something else on another piece of land, or work with volunteers.

In our annual trainings (in Dutch), the business plan module is precisely about this and we have already seen many interesting, beautiful business models that tell us the answer to this question is yes. But, there is no such thing as one recipe, one answer. In fact, you must learn to let go of that if you want to arrive at a beautiful business model.

We are coming out of agricultural and nature-maintenance systems full of generic solutions and straightforward monocultures. That is exactly what we, as humanity, need to get away from. And, that is what our courses are, to a large extent, about: food forests are about learning to look at landscape, food and nature differently. Only then can you move on to learn how to do things differently, how to budget and eventually earn an income.

For inspiration, take a look at the four Food Forest themes and their business cases we share here. Here you find not only an inspiring plant list but also hard figures.

Want to learn more?

Want to learn more about food forests and how to plant and manage them? We provide a year-long training that consists of three modules: basic, design and business plan. In the basic module you will learn everything 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 for a food forest and make a business plan. We also offer you the opportunity to take this annual training in separate modules or combinations.

From 2o22 we also offer a propagation course. In addition to the annual training, you will learn how to propagate your own planting material yourself.

In this short video, Marieke Karssen explains what a food forest is, and delves deeper into the importance of monitoring your food forest yields from year one.