What Is the Difference Between a Forest and Food Forest?


photo of trees in food forest

The food forest is a relatively new concept in the United States, and many people think that forests and food forests are the same. So, what is the difference between a forest and a food forest?

Food forests are man-made forests that are specifically made to grow food. They have 8 layers and are designed to replenish themselves each year. Forests are large land areas filled with trees. They grow naturally and the trees don’t typically grow food, although berries do grow among the trees.

Now you may be wondering what a food forest is, and why there are 8 layers. Read on to learn more about this concept.

What Is a Food Forest?

A food forest is when someone plants a large variety of plants that will eventually produce food. They do this in a way that mimics different ecosystems and patterns that have been found in nature. Food forests are planted and grown in ways that help encourage the production of food. They are also called forest gardens and are designed by humans to produce food for people to enjoy.

The reasons why people plant food forests vary. Some people want to be able to eat out of their garden, and some people want to be able to eat off of and rely on their own land instead of relying on grocery stores. Growing a food forest is a great way to get fresh, organic produce.

Food forests are designed in layers.

Food Forest LayersDescription
Overstory (or Canopy) LayerThe tallest layer, usually made up of large fruit and nut trees that thrive on full sun.
Understory LayerSmaller fruit and nut trees. These trees are more shade tolerant.
Shrub LayerCan consist of any number of fruit and berry-producing, shade-tolerant shrubs.
Vine LayerShade tolerant climbers that can use the surrounding overstory and understory as trellises.
Herbaceous LayerThis layer can be a variety of perennial and annual herbs and leaf-bearing plants that accommodate one another and the guild as a whole.
Groundcover LayerThese are horizontal spreading crops that cover the soil around the upper layer plants providing food and benefiting soil health.
Rhizosphere LayerThe root crop layer which is mostly made up of annuals and biennials.
Mycelial LayerNot universally recognized as a layer. This is a mushroom layer that is mostly subterranean but can produce edible mushrooms.

By planting all of these layers, they encourage growth and avoid plants failing to grow because of competition for nutrients. However, some people think that there are only seven layers in a food forest.

Food forests don’t typically have many weeds because the overstory layer provides shade and prevents weeds from growing. Food forests don’t need fertilizer because when the workers trim the plants, they drop the trimmings onto the ground surrounding the plants to encourage healthy soil.

Food forests are great for insects because they include a variety of plants that attract insects, while fruit-growing plants keep other insects from causing damage to the other crops. However, the fruits and berries may attract deer and rabbits, so the owners of food forests need to keep an eye out for them.

Food forests do not need to be re-planted every year like many gardens do, and will grow year after year without a lot of human intervention. Because of the amount of produce being grown and the delicate nature of the ecosystem, food forests are never sprayed with herbicides or pesticides, although that may change depending on the preferences of the owner of the food forest.

Like forests, it takes years for food forests to be fully developed and self-sustaining but some parts of a food forest can mature and produce very quickly. Read this article to understand just how long it actually takes to grow a food forest.

What Is a Forest?

photo of a forest

A forest is a large area that is filled with trees. Forests grow naturally over time, although there are man-made forests in the world as well. Many forests nowadays are man-grown because the demand for lumber to build houses and to make paper has eliminated many forests, so now they have to be regrown.

Forests typically do not have as much diversity in plants growing alongside the trees. Although you may find berry bushes, vines, and other similar plants growing underneath the trees, the trees are what mostly make up forests and many plants that grow under them are not edible for humans.

Forests often are full of animals such as deer, rabbits, and squirrels, as well as insects such as spiders and ants. Oftentimes, water will flow through a forest in the form of creeks, rivers, or streams.

Forests are not sprayed with pesticides or controlled and trimmed by humans, although sometimes dead trees are removed to prevent forest fires.

Forests take years to grow naturally.

What Is the Difference Between a Food Forest and a Forest?

Food forests are different from normal forests because they are man-made rather than natural like forests are. Food forests do not naturally have creeks, rivers, or steams flowing through them. Instead, food forests are watered and controlled by humans, usually through permaculture design.

Food forests have many different plants growing in them that are planted with the intention of feeding people, and there are specific layers of plants growing intentionally. Forests mainly grow trees, although berry bushes and vines can be found growing as well. However, forests don’t necessarily grow to feed people or animals.

Food forests need to have the fruit picked from time to time, while forests are completely self-sustaining, although sometimes humans intervene to prevent forest fires.

What are the Similarities Between Food Forests and Forests?

Food forests and forests are similar in many ways. Food forests and forests are not sprayed with pesticides and take years to grow naturally. Both forests and food forests attract animals, although food forests intentionally don’t attract as many animals.

Food forests and forests both have trees, although the type of trees grown in each type of forest is different than the ones grown in food forests.

Both food forests and natural forests are made up of layers. In fact, the concept of layers in a food forest is a replication of the natural systems of a forest.

photo of food forest harvest

The Best Resource For Learning About Food Forests

There is a general consensus among many practicing permaculturalists that Edible Forest Gardens (2 volume set) by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier is a groundbreaking work on the concept of growing a food forest. These books do an excellent job of laying out the basic principles and demonstrating the practical application.

Edible Forest Gardens (2 volume set)
  • Used Book in Good Condition
  • Hardcover Book
  • Jacke, Dave (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 1068 Pages - 11/15/2005 (Publication Date) - Chelsea Green Publishing (Publisher)

Last update on 2021-08-28 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Where Are Food Forests Planted?

Food forests can be grown in any area of land. If you have a garden that can support a few plants and trees, then you can grow a food forest and have a variety of different foods available for you to eat in your garden without having to go to the grocery store.

Food forests can be grown anywhere with enough space with plenty of access to water and healthy soil, so if you want to grow a food forest and have land available to do so, have fun planting!

Harold Thornbro

Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Public Speaker, Teacher, Homesteading and Permaculture Enthusiast. If You're Looking For Me, You'll Find Me In The Garden.

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