Agroforestry Approaches For Gardens and Small Farms

Integrating trees into your garden plan can have a big impact on food production.

Apples growing on tree
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Agroforestry is the combination of agriculture and forestry. It is different from traditional forestry and agriculture in the way that it focuses on the relationships between components rather than on just the components themselves. It can be beneficial when implemented at a range of different scales. While the concepts of agroforestry are most typically applied as forest gardening, when implemented on a smaller, domestic scale, there are other agroforestry approaches to consider as well.

Agroforestry basically involves considering how trees can be integrated into a range of different means of food production. Main types of agroforestry include:

  • Forest gardening/food forests: Abundant and biodiverse, largely perennial, planting schemes.
  • Silvoarable systems: Integrating trees with traditional row crops/grains/pulses.
  • Silvopasture systems: Integrating trees with animal pasture/livestock farming.

All of these types of agroforestry can be implemented on a small scale, as well as in larger agricultural systems. Even the smallest garden can include a small food forest. And even a homestead less than an acre in size can potentially consider silvoarable and silvopasture systems.

There can be a wide range of benefits to planting more trees – both for the planet and humanity on a global scale, and for your own personal benefit. But how exactly should you approach integrating trees into food-producing systems? Let's take a brief look at the three main types of agroforestry mentioned above.

Small Scale Food Forests

Forest gardening does not necessarily have to include an expansive area. I myself have a small area where the principles and ideas of this type of food production are applied. The term "forest gardening" can be misleading. Often, this type of scheme in temperate climates more resembles a loose woodland with open glades.

Even a system with just two to three fruit trees can be turned into a food forest, with layered guild planting around each tree and other useful plants in tiers between them. Even in a tiny garden, layers of planting below dwarf trees or large shrubs can become a diverse "food forest."

The key is to choose trees and other plants best suited to your site, your needs, and to the function of the ecosystem as a whole.

Small Scale Silvoarable Systems

Even in a market garden, or small homestead, silvoarable systems can also be very interesting and practicable approaches to take. Silvoarable systems appropriate for a site will depend on its location, and the conditions to be found there.

Creating workable alleys of arable crops between rows of trees can potentially provide a range of benefits. Though the specifics of crops, tree species, and spacing will differ in different environments. Canopy cover is typically greater in warmer climates, while wider, more open alleys are required in cooler climate zones.

In some areas, alley cropping between trees is a more established practice, while in other areas, it is definitely more experimental. As a small-scale producer, with a relatively small area of land, you could play a role in furthering research into this type of agroforestry in your area.

Some traditional arable farmers are reluctant to give up croplands for trees. But by introducing productive or useful trees, conditions for crop production can be improved, and a number of additional yields can be obtained – increasing per acre yield overall in an effectively designed system.

Small Scale Silvopasture Systems

Livestock producers should also consider agroforestry approaches. On a small homestead, smallholding, or farm, combining orchard trees or other useful trees into a grazing system can be a fantastic idea. When people think of traditional livestock pasture, they will typically imagine large, open fields. But in many areas, integrating trees into areas for animal forage and pasture can also be wonderful.

It is important, especially on a smaller area of land, to carefully manage stocking and grazing to ensure that the fertility of the land and the quality of the sward is maintained. Rotational grazing and tractors can make it possible to manage livestock in woodland/forests, and also to include more trees in traditional pasture lands.

These three key agroforestry approaches are all interesting solutions, which can be implemented on a much smaller scale, as well as in larger agricultural production. This is just a brief introduction to these ideas, and there is a lot more to learn. (Check out The Agroforestry Research Trust for much more on the topic.) But these ideas should serve to show the interesting ways in which trees can play a more important role in food-producing systems. So before you commit to a more traditional farming/food growing approach for your own small-scale production – consider the amazing opportunities agroforestry could open up for you and your land.