What is a Food Forest?

Asian Chestnut
     Picture yourself walking through the woods.  Above you is a canopy of nut and fruit trees. Hanging
from the branches is a network of vines covered in grapes, kiwi, climbing
beans.  Along the sunlit edges you discover berries and nuts, climbers, and a groundcover of edible greens, herbs and root vegetables.

This is not just a dream.  Many carefully designed food forests really do exist, adapted to almost any climate, providing thousands of pounds of food per acre with less maintenance (but trickier harvesting) than conventional agriculture.  It is a model more suited to participatory and local agriculture than to factory farms.  Many large food producers might see this as a downside but, as Bill Mollison might say, perhaps the problem is really the solution!  Industrial agriculture has been very successful at creating large amounts of food.  But this model is based on the assumption of unlimited fossil fuel input and unlimited pollution output.  It is probable that this risky model will not be the best long-term solution to our food needs and, just maybe, a little more active participation is what we all need!

American Groundnut (Apios Americana)
The concept of a food forest is not a new one.  Growing food in the forest is as old as the human race.  It is speculated that the earliest hunter-gatherers may have intentionally dropped valuable food-crop seeds in convenient locations.  Native Americans used this technique with great success, spreading valuable plants throughout the forests of the Americas, before clear-cutting and monoculture farms dramatically altered the landscape.  In the 1940's, Masanobu Fukuoka began experimenting in Japan with orchards as diverse, multi-layered ecosystems.  Since that time, many others have followed suit around the world.

Where to Start? Eggs, meat, feathers, pest control, fertilizer, weed removal… the busy chicken is a tremendous benefit to any farm or garden.
Hen House Playing Card
I grew up on an abandoned farm in Southern New Hampshire.  From the age of 10, my family watched as corn fields faded into wilderness.  While the birch trees regrew out of the old fallow fields I often wondered "could we have guided this process with fruit trees and bushes?"

I did not invent the term "food forest".  About five years ago, I Googled the phrase "forests made of food plants" and soon ran across Bill Mollison's writings on Permaculture.  Eric Toensmeier & Jonathan Bates's book Paradise Lot about Food Forest Farm was also inspirational, not to mention Sepp Holzer's wonderfully quirky innovations.  My dream soon turned to obsession.  I enrolled in Geoff Lawton's Permaculture Design Course and committed myself to spreading the word about this environmentally sustainable philosophy.

A native of the windswept, coastal United States, beach plums are rugged, hardy, salt tolerant, grow in sandy soil, and make delicious preserves!
Beach Plum Playing Card
My Food Forest playing cards are both an outlet and an educational tool.  On the one hand, they allow me to express myself in fun, creative format.  On the other, they help me build games that can be shared with the world.  The cards do not, however, tell the complete story.  There are many subtleties that cannot be expressed in a deck of cards.  It is my hope that they will be a fun jumping-off point, a way for people to play with the concepts of companion plantings, food forests, and "Permaculture zones", creating virtual companion plantings that might, someday, inspire a healthier world.


  1. Hi there,
    great work!
    In Germany there is also someone working on developing a card set, so far only in German though.
    Maybe google translate can help some?
    His cards will include only perennial food forest species, an envisioned total of 175. Maybe the two of you can connect and make an improved version together? Or maybe you could use some of his work to develop a regional variation of your set?
    Good luck with your endeavour!

  2. Wow! Looks like they are doing a beautiful job. Unfortunately, my German is terribly weak. Thanks for the heads up!