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Banana plants among trees

A Flourishing Future: The Benefits of Growing a Home Forest Garden

Imagine you’re standing in a lush, forest that is blossoming with beautiful colors and life, but instead of standing among the common canopy trees of Florida like oaks and pines, you look around you to find several edible species like mulberry, avocado, jackfruit, loquat, starfruit, and many others. This edible forest is more than just imaginary, and is commonly called a forest garden! A forest garden is a perennial food system that is structured similar to that of a natural forest, which consists of seven layers:

1) ‘Canopy “tall tree” layer’ consisting of the original mature fruit trees.

2) ‘Low-tree layer’ of smaller nut and fruit trees on dwarfing rootstocks.

3) ‘Shrub layer’ of fruit bushes such as currants and berries.

4) ‘Herbaceous layer’ of perennial vegetables and herbs.

5) ‘Rhizosphere’ or ‘underground’ dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers.

6) ‘Ground cover layer’ of edible plants that spread horizontally.

7) ‘Vertical layer’ of vines and climbers.

You may notice that the arrangement of plants looks very different from your common home-garden! Commonly, forest gardens are grown with plants mixed and growing together instead of using row-like patterns that are very rarely found in nature.

The difference between forest gardens and vegetable gardens.

Forest gardens differ from your common vegetable garden in several ways. At-home vegetable gardens often contain mostly annual crops, which only last one season or one year; whereas forest garden systems often contain a diverse array of perennial crops, which last several growing seasons or years. This difference is important when examining the long-term sustainability and resilience of a garden, especially when considering the harsh weather that our landscapes endure in Florida. Forest gardens are resilient to extreme weather conditions because, like a forest, the canopy and low-tree layers provide protection against strong winds, and the diversity of plants provides a diverse range of tolerances that can protect against floods, droughts, rising sea levels, and so on!

Because forest gardens are grown using mostly perennial crops, the energy required to grow a flourishing garden decreases over time! For example, you may put in a lot of time and energy to plant and establish your forest garden, but as the trees and plants mature, they will require less of your time and energy. These systems also require little to no synthetic fertilizers because, like forest systems, much of the system’s nutrients are cycled through the system. For example, when you prune a tree in a forest garden, it is common practice to mulch those leaves and branches back into the soil. Depending on the species of plant, this can add nutrients to the system, as well as create a natural mulch for your system! This practice also creates a more sustainable ecosystem that has little risk of nutrient runoff, which is common with the addition of synthetic fertilizers.

Thank you to everyone who joined us live on January 5, 2021 at 6:30 for our class: Fostering Food Resilience: The Basics of Beginning a Florida Forest Garden!

In this class we explored the preparation and planning that goes into creating one of these amazing systems in Florida. This class was broadcast live on our Facebook page and our YouTube Live page. Watch the entire recording, with question and answer session, right here:

Written by UF/IFAS Extension Hernando County Master Gardener Sydney Clingo.