How to Start a Food Forest

Food forests are an old idea gaining traction in modern times. Ilana Strauss

Gardens and orchards may look orderly, but they don't stay that way naturally. That’s why food forests — forests made up entirely of plants that can be eated — are becoming popular.

These ecosystems take a long time to get going, but once they're in motion, they basically maintain themselves. Plus, they can provide much more food than most traditional gardens.

Nimrod Hochberg, an Israeli community organizer, is building a food forest inside a Tel Aviv park. He also lives on his family's food forest in the countryside, where he helps maintains 500 acres of fruits and vegetables, all growing wildly.

I sat down with Hochberg to find out how you can start one of these forests, whether you've got a huge tract of land or a small backyard.

Start with the basics

A person digs in an Israeli food forest
As with any type of gardening, know your soil before you start planting your food forest. Ilana Strauss

"The first thing you need is patience and knowledge that you are starting a long-term project," explained Hochberg. "The second thing you need is a piece of land — the bigger the better."

It's tempting to immediately buy fruit trees and plant them, but Hochberg says the soil is the first thing you should pay attention to.

"A good farmer doesn't grow plants, he grows soil," Hochberg told me.

In a natural environment, the dead leaves from a tree fall to the ground, slowly composting and turning into dirt. In traditional orchards, those dead leaves are frequently removed and replaced with fertilizer, but in nature, trees use thiscompost to grow.

"To create a sustainable system, you need to imitate patterns you see in nature," Hochberg continued. "When we put mulch on the ground, we are imitating this natural cycle."

So start your forest by covering your land with a heavy dose of mulch and giving it time to decompose.

Remember water

City planners tend to divert water into tunnels and away from towns, which can make it hard for plants to grow. So you need to figure out where your forest's water will come from.

In his forest, Hochberg set up a pool to catch rainwater. The rain hits a roof first, then flows into the pool and is used to water the forest.

"It depends on where you are," pointed out Hochberg. If you're in Israel or California, you may need an elaborate system like this. On the other hand, if you're in Costa Rica and get too much rain, you can probably just rely on nature.

Move onto the starter plants

Now that your soil is composted and land watered, you're ready to start planting. But don’t buy that apple tree just yet!

"First, grow plants that grow fast and easy," Hochberg explained.

You need to start off with hardy plants, like legume trees and clovers, before you invest in more delicate trees. Let the tough plants literally grow like weeds for a few months or even a year. They'll make the area more hospitable to other plants by putting more nutrition in the soil, blocking hard winds and creating a better microclimate.

"Trees are amazing temperature moderators," Hochberg said.

The main attraction

An eggplant ready for harvesting
Eventually, your food forest will yield yummy produce, like eggplants. Ilana Strauss

Finally, it's time to plant those fruit trees. Pick trees that grow naturally in your area (i.e., don't try to grow oranges in New York), and plant them between your "starter" trees.

For the first year, you'll need to pay close attention to these delicate fruit trees. Water them, add compost and just generally baby them. After a year, you'll have better soil and your trees will be stronger, so you'll be able to let them grow on their own.

"After a few years, you don't really need to maintain anything," Hochberg said. "My family's forest is in its sixth year, and for about 80 percent of the trees, we don't treat anymore."

Don't limit your forest to trees. Real forests have many different kinds of plants living in the same environment, and food forests should too. Hochberg recommends planting "layers" — big trees, small trees, bushes, small plants, vines and herbs — next to each other. You might have big pecan trees with small mulberry trees underneath them, and lettuce, broccoli, herbs and mushrooms on the ground.

"Because of the layers, you can get a lot of food," said Hochberg. "You can get much more food from a food forest than from a regular orchard."

In addition, the plants help each other. Trees give shade to vegetables, which provide mulch to trees. You might even consider getting some chickens to live in your new ecosystem so you get fresh eggs from your built-in insect eaters.

"It creates the feeling of a forest, not an orchard," said Hochberg.

Prune out the starters

An insect crawls along a peashoot in a food forest
Food forests can bring you closer to all the cycles of nature. Ilana Strauss

After a few years, your food plants will be thriving, and you won't need the starter plants anymore.

"Take them down," said Hochberg. "They've done their job."

Building a food forest is a time-consuming process, but the results can be pretty amazing.

"You get very intimate with your land. You know every tree, you know every bush, every bug," said Hochberg. "It connects you to the real world, gets you out of screens. Because nature is much more interesting."