Food forests are a quintessential permie approach to food production. By layering plants that work together, a garden can offer a harvest with fewer inputs by mimicking an established forest ecosystem. The extra foliage and root matter in the system provides shade, water retention and organic matter.
The Flemington Food Forest in Melbourne’s northwest, sits on the grounds of the Farnham Street Neighbourhood Learning Centre (FSNLC). The garden is brimming with life, sandwiched between a children’s playground and the community vegetable garden.
Joanne Nataprawira has been involved in the project since its outset, providing design input, planning and direction. Jo began working with Pat and Tom of the Melbourne Inner Northwest Transition Initiative, Pip Mackey from FSNLC, and other local residents. Further support for the program has come from Brigidine Sisters Justice and the Moonee Valley City Council.
Jo and her team started with small established trees in a conventional orchard system, with an understory of grasses and broad-leafed plants. Where the understory includes running grasses like kikuyu and couch grass, it’s important to fully suppress them. ‘In other projects, we’d tried to dig the grass out, but the soil is quite heavy clay and it’s really difficult to dig,’ Jo says. They instead used recycled materials (cardboard sheets and boxes, newspaper, hessian bags and woodchips) to cover the grass and deprive it of sun and water.
Mapping out the paths at the beginning is an important part of the design process. Paths should allow access to the trees, entry and exit points, and generally give good access to the garden space.
‘We wanted to have the woodchip paths quite deep so that the water wouldn’t just run off,’ explains Jo. Digging the paths out to a depth of 20–30 cm also provides extra soil that can be used for planting later on. ‘Once we had dug out most of the grass, we sheet mulched down the edges a little way and then filled the paths with woodchips.’
Adding Soil And Nutrients
The topsoil was very thin in parts, so a garden soil mix was bought from a local garden supplier.
Nutrients can also be a great addition at this stage of the development. Rock dust is a slow-release fertiliser that sheds a range of macro and micronutrients over about 10 years. The nutrients offered will differ based on the source rock; matching the rock to your soil type will give the best results.
Helping to balance the soil pH at this stage will also have positive effects, especially if your soil is skewed to one extreme. This requires balancing the magnesium and calcium levels, using products such as lime or gypsum. Soil types are regionally and locally specific, so asking around your neighbourhood or garden centre will be a good start.
‘We used a nice soil mix that included mushroom compost, but haven’t added much else,’ Jo says. ‘We’ve planted nutrient accumulators that die off, such as comfrey, and do a lot of chop and drop.’ This mimics the natural forest process that brings nutrients up from the subsoil and bedrock, making them available on the surface. The mulches used (straw and woodchips) are also feeding the soil.
As the potential for harvest grows over time, small additions of nutrients using manures or foliar sprays will ensure the plants offer the best bounty.
Left to right: The lush, flowering understorey layer beneath the fruit trees; Fruit trees in front of community house before conversion.
Supplying water to plants can be critical in some regions, especially in the establishment phase. Before planning for irrigation, it’s important to map the microclimates of your food forest.
Jo and her team wanted to work without irrigation, but seeing the effect of Melbourne’s hot, dry summer months suggested a change of plan. Now the garden includes a limited drip system along the fence, which keeps the trees and softer leafed plants thriving. As the food forest grows and reaches maturity, the reliance on irrigation will diminish.
Introducing Understory Plants
With established trees already offering a canopy, the next big addition is a stacked understory layer—planting different kinds of plants in the garden to occupy different levels.
When the fruit trees are at full size, they’ll dwarf most plants and provide lots of space for under planting. ‘Elderberries grow really fast; in one year we’ve had them cover a whole fence,’ Jo says. Guavas are also excellent, such as feijoa, or small trees like tamarillos.
In the understory live smaller medicinal shrubs such as wormwood, nitrogen-fixing Indigofera australis and hardy rosemary. This layer is the place for raspberries and currants, but these plants are delicate and should be planted into a more established system. ‘In the beginning the most important plants were the ones that could survive with minimal input,’ Jo says. ‘The aim wasn’t necessarily to get yields; it was to build the soil and provide protection for the trees.’
Below the shrubs are plants that sit low around the base of other plants. Herbs are great here, such as parsley and mint, or small flowering plants like borage and calendula. Groundcovers that have worked well in this food forest include Warrigal greens and yarrow.
Filling Out The Layers
The food forest design specifies seven distinct layers to the forest ecosystem. Once the first round of planting has taken hold, it’s time to fill in the missing layers.
The fruit trees, depending on their size, can provide the canopy layer of foliage but an established food forest can accommodate larger deciduous plants. Nut trees, such as chestnut and walnut, are useful and productive, as are larger fruit trees such as mulberry and pear.
An equally important layer for maximising the yield is the rhizosphere, where root plants grow. Hardy root vegetables can be used in places, such as daikon or parsnip, as well as less conventional plants like yacon or horseradish. Sweet potato will grow well in warmer areas and provides groundcover as well as edible tubers.
No food forest is complete without its vertical layer of vines and creepers. These are plants that snake their way up into the canopy. Delicate climbers like peas and Malabar spinach can be introduced early, while chokos and melons are more suited to an established system. At Flemington, Jo has found plants volunteering for the job. ‘The prostrate saltbush has been climbing up the olive tree and it’s using that space without impacting the tree, which is looking great. The nasturtium also likes to climb into the canopy.’
Maintaining a food forest garden means keeping the balance between the different layers until the garden begins to self-regulate. You may find that some plants struggle and need to be replaced, while others become too vigorous and start to dominate. This fine-tuning process is ongoing work. ‘Some people establish a food forest thinking that it’s no maintenance, and that’s not the case,’ says Jo. ‘You have to observe all the time and take care to keep the balance.’
The chop and drop method of pruning plants means that the excess foliage becomes the mulch layer and feeds the system, like in a forest ecosystem.
Maintaining the paths to keep good access is important, and over time the paths may change according to your needs.
The harvest is the time where your work is repaid, so it’s important to make the most of it. The bounty that your food forest provides is evidence of the health of the system. As the apex plants, the fruit and nut trees often offer the most, all at once, so learning to distribute or preserve these fruits means you can enjoy the rewards all year.
Smaller plants may be harder to see, so getting to know the cycle of production and keeping your eye on what is in season is key. The more time you spend in your forest the more food you will find! This garden will rival most with its shade, colour, bird life and shelter, so spending time in it is a great way to relax and connect with the natural world.
Climate: This style of garden is all about creating a closed ecosystem and in the process changing the climate, so if your garden wouldn’t benefit from being cooler, wetter and more humid, this is not the right design choice. Your climate will also impact the plants that you can use.
Pests and diseases: The food forest creates a great environment for plants to thrive, but it can also become a host for pests and diseases. In some cases these can be solved by natural order, such as the ladybirds that flourish on an aphid infestation, yet in other times intervention is required. In the case of stone fruit, which have a soft and delicate skin, extra humidity and understory can promote problems like mould and fruit fly.
Netting: Fruit trees in particular can attract birds and bats to your garden to share in your harvest. If you intend to net your food forest, this must be taken into account from the outset. Larger trees like nut trees may not be appropriate.
Visiting The Flemington Food Forest
Experiencing a food forest in person can be a great way to understand this style of gardening and provide inspiration. The Flemington Food Forest can be publicly accessed from Farnham Street, behind the Farnham Street Neighbourhood Learning Centre.
If you’d like to get involved in the garden or donate a plant, you can contact Joanne directly: firstname.lastname@example.org