In a food forest, layers of perennial edibles and medicinal plants are grown together rather than neat rows of annual crops that need to be dug up and replanted annually. Food forest flourish based on the idea that natural forests do just fine without any sort of external intervention. They are designed to mimic the structure of a natural forest to grow food as efficiently as nature intended, growing in a highly optimized pattern, utilizing multiple layers and making the most of both horizontal and vertical space where plants can grow together in support of each other. Virtually a self-sustaining living ecosystem.
But what are these layers? If you're new to these concepts and feeling a bit confused, read on to learn more. Understanding which layers to include in your food forest is critical to getting the most out of your system. You may want to include all 9 layers or perhaps put more emphasis on some layers over others. I'd simply suggest to start with the large trees first and work your way through the layers from there.
1. Canopy/ Tall Tree Layer
Typically over 30 feet high. This layer contains timber trees, large nut trees, and nitrogen-fixing tree but there are a number of larger fruiting trees that can be used here as well depending on the species, varieties, and rootstock used.
i.e. coconut palm, mahogany, kapok
2. Sub-Canopy/ Short Tree Layer
Typically 10-30 feet high. The majority of fruit trees fall into this layer and in smaller food forests, this layer can also act as the canopy layer.
i.e. nutmeg, cacao, orange
3. Shrub Layer
Typically up to 10 feet high. The majority of fruiting bushes fall into this layer including many nut, flowering, medicinal and other beneficial plants.
i.e. Suriname cherry, coffee, coco plum
4. Herbaceous Layer
Plants in this layer do not produce woody stems as the Shrub Layer does. Many culinary and medicinal herbs are in this layer. A large majority of other beneficial plants fall into this layer as well.
i.e. motherwort, Cuban oregano, perennial vegetables
5. Ground Cover Layer
There is some overlap with the Herbaceous Layer and the Ground Cover Layer, however plants in this layer are often shade tolerant, grow much closer to the ground, grows densely to fill bare patches of soil, and often can tolerate some foot traffic.
i.e. mimosa, thyme, clover
6. Underground/ Root Layer
These are root crops. Many of these plants can also be utilized in the Herbaceous Layer, the Vine Layer, and the Ground Cover layer.
i.e. yucca, sweet potato, yam
7. Vertical/ Vine Layer
These vining and climbing plants span multiple layers depending on how they are trained or what they choose to climb on. Vines are a great way to add more productivity to your forest and can double as Ground Cover.
i.e. passion fruit, grapes, chayote
8. Aquatic/ Wetland Layer
This layer isn't always present but can always be added to any food forest. There are a whole host of plants that thrive in wetlands or at the water's edge. There are many plants that grow only in water. To ignore this layer would mean to leave out many useful species that provide food, fiber, medicinals, animal feed, wildlife food and habitat, compost, biomass, and even water filtration through bioremediation.
i.e. lotus, watercress, papyrus
9. Mycelium/ Fungal Layer
This is yet another layer that is often ignored but is actually responsible for keeping the entire system working cohesively. Fungal networks live in healthy soils. They will live on, and even within, the plant roots. This underground fungal network transports nutrients and moisture from one area of the forest to another depending on the needs of the plants. In addition to the vital work this layer contributes to developing and maintaining a tropical forest, it can also provide mushrooms that can often be used as food or medicine.
i.e. oyster mushroom, wood ear, Haitian djondjon