Why food forests are a climate winner

GROWING AN URBAN FOOD FOREST: A food forest mimics the diversity of a natural forest where a variety of plants grow together as an ecosystem. Pictures from Good Life Permaculture.
GROWING AN URBAN FOOD FOREST: A food forest mimics the diversity of a natural forest where a variety of plants grow together as an ecosystem. Pictures from Good Life Permaculture.

"Urban" and "forest" are two words (and realities) that don't generally go together, so when we talk about having urban edible forest gardens, also known as food forests, people scratch their heads and ask how?

What is a food forest?

A forest garden mimics the diversity of a natural forest where a variety of plants grow together as an ecosystem.

By modelling this concept in our own garden, the plants that are grouped together complement each other, to form a functional, edible, resilient and perennial food system, increase biodiversity and ensure healthy soil and plants. And not only does it looks beautiful, it also provides us with food.

Food forests increase biodiversity and ensure healthy soil and plants. And not only does it looks beautiful, it also provides food.

Food forests increase biodiversity and ensure healthy soil and plants. And not only does it looks beautiful, it also provides food.

Overall, food forests are one of the more quintessential examples of permaculture in action. Developed by Robert Hart in the UK, a forest garden has seven layers of functional plants, maximising space by "stacking" crops (above and below the ground) which do not compete for the same space or resources (minerals and nutrients).

Learning the layers

The seven layers include: canopy layer (large fruit trees), understorey (smaller nut and fruit trees), shrubs (berries and large perennials), herbaceous (herbs and plants), rhizosphere (root crops), groundcover (clover and strawberries) and vines (climbing beans, peas etc).

You don't have to use all seven layers for the plants to benefit from each other though - in our garden there isn't room for a canopy, so we've started at the understory level. But each plant is still chosen to provide at least three uses in a garden - such as a plum tree providing fruit, food for the bees, plus wind shelter for other plants.

Establishing our own forest garden in urban Hobart saved us money, stabilised our soils and over time, provided us with a permanent food system.

Plants that are grouped together complement each other, to form a functional, edible, resilient and perennial food system. Picture: Hannah Moloney.

Plants that are grouped together complement each other, to form a functional, edible, resilient and perennial food system. Picture: Hannah Moloney.

Contrary to most design approaches for edible forest gardens, we arranged our key plants in rows in order to help stabilise the steep bank and to create easier access in a relatively small space.

As an ever-evolving space it's always changing from season to season.

Being a perennial system, the maintenance is significantly lower than our annual garden beds.

While we're currently busy weeding our spring vegie beds and keeping them under control our forest garden only needs occasional attention.

Our main jobs are pruning and harvesting to keep this tight space productive. For example, two or three times a year I'll go through and "clear-fell" patches of mint to dry for tea, plus give the neighbouring plants a break from being swamped by it.

Perennial landscapes, like food forests, are more stable and on a large scale can help store significant amounts of carbon in the ground which in turn helps counter the climate emergency.

Perennial landscapes, like food forests, are more stable and on a large scale can help store significant amounts of carbon in the ground which in turn helps counter the climate emergency.

How food forests help build climate resilience

Food forests also help build climate resilience. As perennial plant systems there is minimal disturbance to the soil and abundant soil cover with a diverse range of plants. Overall, perennial landscapes are more stable and on a large scale can help store significant amounts of carbon in the ground - great for countering the climate emergency.

When it comes to food production, once established perennial food systems, like food forests, can produce more crops with less inputs for longer amounts of time. This is highly useful to build resilience into our food production patterns.

  • Hannah Moloney and Anton Vikstrom are the founders of Good Life Permaculture, a landscape design and education enterprise regenerating land and lifestyles.
  • Hannah is also the author of 'The Good Life: How To Grow A Better World' available now at all good book stores.