Food Forests and Food Hedges (‘Fedges’)
If you are like most people, your vegetable garden is a little plot of land that has been stripped of grass, with seeds and plants added in the spring and then removed before the snow falls. Compost is continually added to improve the soil and replenish the nutrients, and weeding is an ongoing chore. What if there was another, more sustainable, long term way to garden?
Modelled after tree forests, food forests are edible food systems that require no weeding, spraying or digging. They grow and sustain themselves without human interference. Since they are permanent, food forests encourage greater biodiversity than simple backyard gardens. Think of all the microbes and insect life that could flourish if the soil strata weren’t churned up every time a plant was added or removed.
Food Hedges (Fedges)
Similar to food forests, food hedges, or fedges, are hedges using edible shrubs or small trees, interplanted with perennial vegetables and herbs. Fedges also double as privacy fences or windbreaks.
Fedges can consist of one species or several. One advantage of using several species within the hedge is having a stunning array of fruits or vegetables available throughout the seasons.
Fruit bushes, such as raspberries or blackberries (Rubus sp.), currants (Ribes sp.), high bush cranberries (Viburnum trilobum) and elderberries (Sambucus sp.), all make excellent choices for a fedge. Alternatively, espaliered apple (Malus sp.), pear (Pyrus sp.) or cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera) trees would work very well as an edible hedge.
How Do Food Forests Work?
In essence, a food forest is comprised of multiple edible plant layers, all of which exist in a self-sustaining living ecosystem. It includes:
- a canopy or tall tree layer (large fruit and nut trees)
- a low tree layer (smaller fruit and nut trees)
- a shrub layer (berries and currants)
- a herbaceous layer (herbs)
- a rhizosphere or root crop layer (shade tolerant root vegetables)
- ground cover crops (clover, mushrooms, strawberries)
- and a vertical layer, such as vines (grapes)
Multiple layers mean high density, which translates into high productivity and prolonged food supply, much longer than an average vegetable garden. The density of plants also ensures little, to no, bare soil, eliminating the problems of soil erosion and weeds. At the same time, the dead leaves provide a continuous supply of mulch and compost, so fertilizers are not required either. By the time a food forest becomes established, the soil is teeming with beneficial insects, bacteria and fungi, all of which will help the plants grow and thrive: a true ecological community!
The highly diverse plant species also encourages many different types of insects, birds and animals. Unless a foreign species is introduced, nature will quickly create a balance of predators and prey. For humans, this means no pesticides are required in a food forest.
How to Start A Food Forest
A food forest can be as large as several acres or as small as a suburban front yard.
Begin by clearing a patch of land of all existing vegetation. Initially, compost or mulch will be needed to replenish the soil with valuable nutrients. Research which species plants and trees are suitable to your soil and climate conditions. Consider how big each tree and shrub will eventually become, and provide ample space for them to grow. The forest will become densely vegetated over time.
Plant the faster growing plants first. Be sure to include plants that will improve the soil, like clover. Next, add the fruits or nut trees. Plant in layers: trees, shrubs and groundcovers, to increase the amount and diversity of food available for harvest. Some species to consider include Ultra northern pecan (Carya sp.), hazelnut (Corylus sp.), pawpaw (Asimina sp.), serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.), highbush cranberry (Viburnum sp.), nodding wild onion (Allium sp.), and ground nut (Apios sp.).
Food Forests in Canada
Having existed for decades in tropical countries, cities in temperate climate zones have adapted the food forest concept as a sustainable way to feed growing populations. Red Deer, Alta., Duncan, BC., Hay River, N.W.T., and Sudbury, Ont., are just a few of the communities across Canada that have invested in growing food forests.
Benefits of Starting a Food Forest
Although an initial investment would have to be made to purchase the trees and plants, a food forest would ultimately be much less expensive than an annual vegetable garden. The low maintenance aspect alone is appealing to those of us who toil in the hot sun weeding and watering on a near daily basis. If the plants are chosen well, for example, using mature trees and shrubs, food can be harvested within a few years. If the focus is on the root, cover crop and herb layer, plants can be harvested within three months of planting.
If the concept of food forests has captured your imagination, find out how you can start one in your neighbourhood.
Watch Food Forests and Fedges: How to Start a Food Forest in Your Community. This was originally recorded as part of Halton Garden Week in February 2021.
For more information read the book that started the movement – Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape by Robert Hart.
Contributed by Helen Stephenson, Community Garden Coordinator
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