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Not your typical garden, they can help us reimagine how we produce food in a warming world.
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By Somini Sengupta
I am writing today from my apartment in New York City, on a windy winter’s day. Not a leaf is green on our roof garden. There is no canopy. Only skyscrapers.
It’s a far cry from the garden that Ana Gaspar Aguerri and her husband, Ian Macaulay, showed me in the tropical rainforest of Costa Rica a few weeks ago.
Theirs is a garden that imitates the architecture of a natural forest, one that they say produces all the food they want to eat. There are towering breadfruit trees, ginger as tall as me, sweet potato vines, spinach, taro under the ground. All perennial plants.
I visited Gaspar and Macaulay in late December. It was pouring rain that morning. I snaked uphill on an unpaved winding road in a rental. My teenager was with me, singing Janelle Monáe at the top of her lungs (again). We sat for a while in Gaspar’s kitchen, drinking tea and waiting for the rain to subside. Finally, when it did, I borrowed rain boots from Gaspar and we went walking. The ground was muddy. Heat rose from the wet earth. Howler monkeys leaped through the trees. A toucan had left a half-eaten papaya under a tree. Gaspar didn’t mind. There was enough for humans and wildlife.
Fine, I thought. A food forest in a rainforest. Fascinating. But niche.
Only when I got back home and started poking around did I realize that food forests aren’t niche at all. They’ve been around forever, mainly in the tropics, though enterprising gardeners have created food forests in very different habitats across the United States, from vacant city lots in Philadelphia, public parks in Seattle and Asheville, to schoolyards in South Florida.
The reason I want to tell you about food forests is that they can be useful in reimagining how we grow food in a warming world.
That’s one of my goals for Climate Forward this year. To help us reimagine how to do things. With or without toucans.
A food forest is neither wilderness nor an orchard.
“A food forest is what it sounds like — a forest you can eat,” said Cara Rockwell, a Florida International University professor who studies food forests.
It stems from the multilayered, multispecies gardens that have existed for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years, in the tropics, she said. Often, they served as kitchen gardens. Women tended to them.
Like a wild forest, they have trees both short and tall, shrubs and vines, ground cover and fungi. They can have animals, too. Even cattle can graze among fruit trees. The idea is to build healthy soils, create shade, allow beneficial insects to thrive. The idea is not to produce the highest yields possible of one crop, which is the goal of modern industrial farming. Nor are they exactly backyard or neighborhood gardens, with rows of annual crops and flowers. They have several layers, from underground tubers to vines to shrubs to short and tall trees. All play different roles. All, or most, are perennials.
There are many food forests today in the United States, including on public land. I haven’t found anyone who tracks their numbers, though researchers told me that it’s become ever more popular in the last 15 years.
Can it feed us?
Gaspar insists that it’s possible to produce enough food for two people on 2,000 square meters, or about half an acre, at least in their part of the world where crops grow year-round. She and Macaulay teach their techniques — based on the principles of permaculture (short for permanent agriculture, which relies on perennial crops) — on their farm, called Finca Tierra. If you go, be prepared to stay in bamboo cabins open on two sides. (They provide mosquito nets over the beds.)
Gaspar, who is Costa Rican, ditched her career as a human rights lawyer to work on Finca Tierra. Macaulay, an American, grew up in Ohio and trained to be an urban planner. Growing food is only part of their goal. Gaspar says the farm eased the pressures of making money to buy food. It freed up more of her time. “It’s about creating a sustainable lifestyle,” she said.
Food forests can meet other goals.
Elaine Fiore has a different mission. She has helped to create 24 food forests on school grounds in Broward County in South Florida. They give children a place to sit still, she said, and learn about how things grow. “I’ll pull a leaf off a plant and I’ll eat it,” she said, “and they think it’s crazy!”
She is planting soursop, jackfruit, cranberry hibiscus, mint. It’s her second year doing it, so the trees are still young. Kids sometimes do yoga in the food forest. They learn about microclimates. They decorate the grounds with toy dinosaurs. At one school, they learned how much iguanas love young sweet potato vines. The reptiles decimated a third of their garden, Fiore said.
Eventually, she said, she hopes the fruits of the food forests can be used in the school cafeterias. In the long run, that can persuade kids to eat a more varied, more nutritious diet, she hopes.
Food forests are no walk in the park.
They don’t need a lot of land, but they need that land for a long time, long enough for trees to grow and mature. They also need to be weeded and mulched — a lot, especially in the beginning — and then, trees need to be pruned to keep fruits within reach. They need caretakers. And managers to figure out who gets to harvest, how to staff, whether paid or not.
Nature can impose its own limits. Jose Ramirez, a Los Angeles-based artist and gardener, has devoted his yard to fruit trees — mango, avocado, fig — with some perennials in the understory, like nettles. But it’s Los Angeles. The earth is dry. There’s not enough water to mimic a forest of the tropics.
There are many models. Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest is open to public picking. The Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill is owned and managed by the city of Atlanta. The Philadelphia Orchard Project works with community groups to manage each orchard. (Some are designed as food forests, while others contain only fruit trees.)
They can be hardy.
Rockwell, the professor who studies food forests, says they are especially well-suited to a climate-changed era, including in Miami, where she lives, where early summer can be scorching hot and dry.
In her own yard, she has 10 edible species in a six-square-foot patch. There’s taro in the ground, longevity spinach close to the ground, passion fruit vines that climb up a trellis, shrubs of mint and chaya. She allows herself one annual crop: collard greens. A mulberry tree filters the sun. On the edge of the yard is a star fruit and a dwarf mango. Both provide shade. Compared to a row of annuals, a food forest like hers can withstand higher temperatures and longer dry spells. “For providing protection from heat, it’s really a no-brainer,” she said.
Food forests can include nonnative species, she said. But they should steer clear of invasive species that can displace native plants. Consult your state or local environmental agency for a list of invasive species.
Want to learn more?
Catherine Bukowski produced this guide in 2019: “The Community Food Forest Handbook: How to Plan, Organize, and Nurture Edible Gathering Places”
Cara Rockwell published tips for South Florida.
Essential news from The Times
The shrinking Colorado: States that depend on the river are nowhere near a deal for reductions in water use. The federal government may be forced to impose painful cuts.
Trade wars on the horizon: As countries pursue new solutions to mitigate climate change, policy clashes point to a future of more frequent cross-border trade fights.
Alaska’s rainforest: The Biden administration banned logging and new roads on millions of acres in Tongass National Forest, North America’s largest temperate rainforest.
Minnesota’s lakes: The administration also said it would set a 20-year moratorium on mining upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Sacred land: Indigenous groups are fighting a copper project in Arizona that companies say is crucial for producing batteries and reducing the use of fossil fuels.
Rats and recycling: New York’s mayor said the city would expand composting programs and improve trash collection. The plan is supposed to get rid of rats, too.
You call that snow? Some big American cities are experiencing some of their least snowy seasons in 50 years.
From outside The Times
According to Bloomberg, 2022 was a turning point for energy: The first time the world invested as much in renewables as it did in fossil fuels.
Conservationists made the panda a mascot for the cause. According to Vox, it didn’t help nature as much as they had hoped.
Yale Environment 360 reported that Indonesia is censoring researchers who challenge conservation policies that the government claims are successful.(Video) EDIBLE FOREST GARDEN · Grow Food & Heal the Earth · Lessons Learned
High Country News calculated the amount of energy that could be produced by putting solar panels in parking lots and on the roofs of big-box stores.
From Politico: Independents funded by an environmental group helped to make climate policy less partisan in Australia. Some say Americans should adopt the same strategy.
Before you go: The Sierra Club tries to move forward
The Sierra Club, the largest environmental group in the United States, was convulsed by the 2020 murder of George Floyd and forced to confront painful questions about its mission and history, including whether its founder, John Muir, was biased against people of color. Now, after three years of turmoil, the organization has appointed Ben Jealous, a civil rights activist and nonprofit leader, to be its executive director
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Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward. Read past editions of the newsletter here.
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Continue reading the main story
How do you grow food in the forest? ›
To begin, the player must collect seeds first, which are obtained by collecting blueberries, aloe, and coneflowers. The seed type can be switched with "R" and planted with "C". A garden can be used endlessly, but blueberry bushes must be cut first or they'll block the spot they're on.What are the 7 layers of a food forest? ›
- Canopy (trees)
- Sub-canopy (trees)
- Root crops.
- Climbers (vines)
1) have dense wood, 2) grow slow, 3) be shade tolerant to some degree, and 4) produce few but large seeds. This is opposed to Early successional trees which tend to: 1) have soft wood, 2) grow quickly, 3) be shade intolerant, and 4) produce many small seeds. So in Hawaii I found that a few things worked.How do I build a food forest in my backyard? ›
Plant Placement in Your Backyard Food Forest
- When you buy plants, shrubs and trees they are small. ...
- Leave mulched pathways on the site. ...
- Leave room around your fruit trees.
After deciding what to grow, farmers often till the land by loosening the soil and mixing in fertilizers, which are nutrient rich. Then, they sow seeds or plant seedlings. When the crops are growing, farmers must water (or rely on rainfall), weed and kill crop pests.How much land do you need for a food forest? ›
How big does a food forest need to be? A food forest can be 1/8 of an acre or 200 acres.What can you put in a food forest? ›
An example food forest might include chestnut trees as a tall canopy tree layer. Apple trees grow below the chestnut trees. Meanwhile, currant bushes grow as an understory layer beneath the apple trees. A host of edible herbs and mushrooms grow underneath, and perhaps even grapevines use the apple trees as trellises.How does a food forest work? ›
So, a key feature of food forests is the ongoing presence of perennial plants such as fruit and nut trees, medicinal shrubs and flowers, and self-seeding annuals— plants that remain, year after year, building increasingly diverse ecosystems and producing food.Can we grow food forests? ›
The first step in establishing a food forest is to choose your plants. The largest plants will reach into the sun, so most common fruiting trees and shrubs are fair game. The smaller plants generally need to be more shade tolerant, as they will be in the understory.Do food forests need fertilizer? ›
Usually little to no additional fertilizer is needed in a food forest, except perhaps some compost around heavily harvested plants. They conserve water. Perennial plants generally have deeper root systems than small, annual plants, so they can reach further into the soil for the water they need.
How do you start a growing forest? ›
The key to achieving a dense forest is to arrange the landscape in a beneficial ratio of layers. “We divide our trees into four different layers: a shrub layer, sub-tree layer, a tree layer, and a canopy layer,” Sharma explains. The exact ratio of these layers depends on where you live.How do you build a self sustaining forest? ›
The forest needs to be watered and weeded for the first two or three years, at which point it becomes self-sustaining. After that, it's best to disturb the forest as little as possible to allow its ecosystem, including animals, to become established.How do you start a fruit forest? ›
- Start with the design:
- List your infrastructure:
- List the plants you want to grow in your food forest:
- Select the plants which have similar requirements from your list of plants:
- Start working on patch design:
- Make changes to your site if required:
The research data aligns with the general recommendation that food forests should be chopped and dropped ideally every six months (in the subtropics, less in cooler climates).What are the steps to grow? ›
- Soil preparation. Before raising a crop, the soil in which it is to be grown is prepared by ploughing, levelling, and manuring. ...
- Sowing. Selection of seeds of good quality crop strains is the primary stage of sowing. ...
- Manuring. ...
- Irrigation. ...
- Weeding. ...
- Harvesting. ...
Solution : 1. Different methods of growing crops are: (i) Mixed cropping (ii) Inter cropping (iii) Crop rotation.How do you grow enough food for survival? ›
- Pick a crop.
- Assess your climate.
- What does your family eat on a consistent basis?
- Consider Your Space.
- Grow Crops that Produce More.
- Grow What You Know How to Preserve.
- Sweet Potatoes.
- Bell Peppers. Bell peppers start out green, but they mature to red, orange, yellow, purple and even chocolate brown. ...
- Blackberries and Raspberries. ...
- Cabbage. ...
- Cucumbers. ...
- Garlic. ...
- Strawberries. ...
- Tomatoes. ...
- Zucchini and Squash.
Earth is a pretty big place, but it's not as big as our appetite. That's the conclusion of a new study by researchers in Canada, who calculated that if the entire world population tried to eat what the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) actually recommends, we wouldn't have enough farms to feed everybody.
How much land do you need to grow enough food? ›
The General Consensus is 5-10 acres to be self-sufficient
Even though a lot of those sources put the number at a lot less, the general consensus is that you really need at least 5 acres of land per person to be self-sufficient. And that's assuming you have quality land, adequate rainfall, and a long growing season.
The most productive protein source (whether plant or animal) is soybeans, which produce 314% more protein per acre than chickens for meat (the most productive animal protein source). Dry peas produce 29% more protein and dry beans 3.8% more.How do I start a small food forest? ›
- Step 1: Make a Plan (and a Design) ...
- Step 2: Choose Your Location. ...
- Step 3: Observe and Interact. ...
- Step 4: Create a Map. ...
- Step 5: Prepare the Soil. ...
- Step 6: Planting the Canopy Layer. ...
- Step 7: Plant the Understory and Shrub Layers. ...
- Step 8: Plant Your Herbaceous Layer.
Food forests, on the other hand, are stable, self-sustaining, diverse ecosystems. They are an important food source for pollinators and serve as a habitat for many animals and don't require pesticides or fertilisers.Why are food forests good? ›
Food forests emulate the ecosystem of a young forest but with a crucial difference: most of the plants are edible. By mimicking the autonomous ecosystem of a forest, these systems can provide low-maintenance and self-nurturing sources of food, while actively contributing to reforestation.How long does it take to grow a food forest? ›
For a food forest to reach full maturity at every layer it can take several years. However, the lower 3 layers of the system referred to as the Ground Cover Layer, Root Layer, and the Vine Layer can reach full maturity in a few weeks to months and provide an abundant yield.What trees grow in a food forest? ›
Various types of pears, naartjies, oranges, lemons, limes, kumquats, apples, figs and stone fruit are ideal for a South African food forest. Click |HERE| for an article on functional fruit trees, how to plant them, and which varieties are perfectly suited to our South African gardens.Are food forests sustainable? ›
We present and illustrate the main services that food forests provide and assess their sustainability. The findings indicate that the majority of food forests perform well on social-cultural and environmental criteria by building capacity, providing food, enhancing biodiversity, and regenerating soil, among others.How do you grow food all year round? ›
Use row covers and cold frames to provide additional warmth and shelter in spring and fall. Grow crops next to sheltered, sun-facing walls to help create a warm microclimate that can give plants a longer growing season. In the wall, sun-facing walls help cucumbers, peppers and other tender plants to continue to ripen.Can you grow food without dirt? ›
Simply put, hydroponics is the practice of growing food in nutrient-enhanced water, without the use of soil as a growing medium. The roots are suspended in water, which is enriched with nutrients that would otherwise come from the soil and its organic matter.
What fertilizer is best for food plots? ›
Use 13-13-13 fertilizer.
This general purpose, quick-release product gives an equal mix of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. We recommend the equivalent of 300 pounds per acre.
Plant growth depends on access to 1) water; 2) nutrients; 3) light; and, 4) space.How small can a food forest be? ›
A food forest can be as big or small as you like. A small yard or a small part of a yard is big enough. Start with one of each layer plant and see what works. You don't have to do your whole yard area or have a master landscape plan.What are the 3 things needed for a self-sustaining ecosystem? ›
Each element in this ecosystem must function properly for the organisms to grow and thrive, that includes both physical and environmental conditions. Clean water, proper sunlight for plant growth and clean air are all components needed for the fish to live and the plant to continue to grow.What 3 needs must be met for a forest to be considered sustainable? ›
However, all national sustainable forest management requirements must include the following: Maintenance, conservation and enhancement of ecosystem biodiversity.What are the 3 components of sustainable forestry? ›
- Ecological sustainability. Sustainable forestry secures the long-term availability of renewable resources, protects biodiversity and helps to combat global warming. ...
- Social sustainability. ...
- Economic sustainability.
Q: How many trees can you plant on an acre? A: Depending on the species, you can usually plant about 500 trees per acre, or one every 5 to 15 square meters.How many layers does a food forest have? ›
There are seven layers (or eight if you consider the mycelial, or mushroom, layer) of a food forest – the overstory, the understory, the shrub layer, the herbaceous layer, the root layer, the ground cover layer, and the vine layer.Can you live off a food forest? ›
You can live off a food forest in a 1/30th acre (1450 sq. ft.) of land within a few years, provided you have enough sunshine and a long growing season. If you live in an area with limited sunlight, you can grow 1/20th of an acre, equivalent to 2209 sq.Can you grow crops in The Forest? ›
Crops like ginseng, goldenseal, shiitake or other mushrooms, and decorative ferns are used or sold for medicinal, culinary, and ornamental uses. Forest farming can provide shorter-term income while high-quality trees are being grown for wood or other tree products.
Can you grow food in the woods? ›
Many homeowners have limited space to cultivate fruits, vegetables, and nuts under full sun exposure. But many have a small woods in their yards, and a backyard forest can be a viable place to have some homegrown fruits, greens, herbs and even medicinal plants to satisfy your gardening desires.How do you keep food fresh in The Forest? ›
Using a drying rack is often the best option for meat as it prevents it from becoming spoiled. meat and all meats take 8 minutes and 20 seconds to dry on the drying rack. Mutants can steal meat and other meats off the drying rack, they can also destroy the rack which will cause all the meat to disappear.What food can grow in forests? ›
Root and stalk veggies will do well, such as celery, leeks, onions, asparagus, artichokes, potatoes, rutabagas and most herbs. Lettuces, kale, spinach and other leafy vegetables will also succeed.What is the goal of a food forest? ›
Food forests support forest ecosystems and connect communities with nature. Trees of different sizes produce nuts and fruit, while their shade can support a variety of fresh, flavorful mushrooms, herbs, and berries. Trees also improve air quality and retain water.How quickly can you grow a forest? ›
If a piece of land is free from human intervention, a forest will naturally self-seed and take over within a period of around 600 to 1,000 years. Akira Miyawaki's methodology amplifies that growth process to establish a mature, native forest in ten years.What food grows well in survival? ›
- Beans. Beans, such as these adzuki beans, are a great staple crop. ...
- Corn. This is harder to grow in an apartment but is a yard staple. ...
- Squash. Both winter and summer squash are great in your end-of-the-world garden. ...
- Cabbage. ...
- Potatoes. ...
- Kale. ...
- Sweet Potatoes. ...
To make a food plot in the woods, you only need three items – a backpack leaf blower or a rake, seeds and fertilizer. Try and get as far away from a 4-wheeler trail or a food plot as you can, take a backpack leaf blower and four to five pounds of some type of seed that germinates really quickly with you.What makes food last longer? ›
Make Sure Your Refrigerator Is the Right Temperature
40° F or below. Any hotter makes it possible for bacteria to grow. Plus, a warmer fridge makes your food spoil faster. If you don't know the temperature of your refrigerator, consider buy an appliance thermometer — they're pretty affordable.