What does a Mid-Atlantic Food Forest look like?
Updated: Feb 28, 2021
Food forests, also known as forest gardens, are an ancient way of practicing horticulture that has been used by people all around the world for thousands of years. Food forests mimic natural forests and include trees, shrubs, vines, herbs and tubers that create a multi-layered, diverse food growing system- some of which have been continually harvested for thousands of years!
In addition to food, other useful plants for fiber, timber and medicine are used.
So what does this look like in your own backyard?
Each food forest is unique to the place and people it belongs to. Here in the Mid-Atlantic we are blessed with a large selection of fruits, nuts, berries and herbs to choose from! Many of these are easy to grow, easy to maintain and totally delicious. These are the plants that I like to work with because I know they will do well whether they receive annual care by an attentive gardener, or are left to fend for themselves.
Let’s walk through the layers of a food forest to explore some of the options for our bio region:
Up high, in the canopy of our forests we have the nut producing giants- many of which are native to our area. These include chestnuts, black walnuts, hickories and pecans and require ample space to reach their full potential. They produce carbohydrates, fats and proteins and can be stored for months, making them a great step towards food security.
A little lower down, and the layer than many backyard food forests will start with, we have the sub-canopy ranging about 10-30 ft. Here we have a lot of our fruiting trees- mulberries, paw paws, asian pears, and juneberry to name a few. These trees can be left to reach their full height potential or pruned to a more manageable size.
At about eye level we come to the shrub layer. Here we find more fruits, especially berries like elderberry, nanking cherry, gooseberry, currants and blueberry. In addition to our shrubs we can include the wonderful cane berries in our region- raspberry, wineberry, blackberry and roses.
Down by our knees and feet we have the ground covers. We have so many options here. I like to fill this space with medicinal and culinary herbs, flowers and vegetables. Mint, lemon balm, bee balm, catnip all make great teas and they also put out flowers that pollinators love. Strawberries and lingonberries add still more berries. Flowers for beauty and habitat can be planted here to occupy the space until the canopy matures. Perennial vegetables like asparagus, globe artichoke, sun chokes and rhubarb come back year after year. The space can even be used to plant annual vegetables for years while the trees grow above.
The roots of all above plants, will of course, be below our feet and can also include edible tubers like potatoes, sweet potatoes, ground nuts and lilies.
Finally, we have the vine layer which can climb up fences, arbors, or our food forest trees. Grapes, hardy kiwis, honeysuckle, maypops and hops fill this opportunistic niche.
No ecosystem would be complete without animals, whether domestic or wild, but that conversation is for another day!
Well, feeling totally excited but not sure where to start? The process of design is how we determine which plants to use where. This has very much to do with the site conditions and the residents of the land. By considering sun exposure, water management, space requirements and the needs and desires of the people present we determine the plants to use and where to put them. And in this, I am of course, at your service.