The Food Forest, Part 1

The growing season is upon us, and this year why not design your backyard (and front) to harvest and store water to grow fruit and vegetables in a beautiful edible landscapefood forest 1

Many homeowners in Calgary have converted their lawns into a food forest. A food forest is a beautiful productive landscape that you can install in place of your lawn. It is called a “food forest” not because of tall trees and the like, but rather because all the plants (and animals) in the system are arranged in the same kind of pattern that defines forests.

Think about a forest for a minute and ask yourself: “why don’t forests ever need to be watered?” “Why don’t they need fertilizers or insecticides” “Why don’t they ever need to be weeded?” The answer to these questions is really quite simple: all the plants and animals in a forest system together provide for each others’ needs with their own products. The numerous animals and falling leaves among others return nutrients back to the soil on the forest floor, fulfilling plants’ fertilization needs. Weeds are never an issue in forests because weeds only grow where soils are heavily disturbed, and create the fertile growing conditions for woody plants that eventually shade them out. And the forest provides all sorts of varied habitats for pest-eaters, keeping pests at bay. In fact, a pest problem is nothing more than an indication that your landscape is deficient in habitat for pest-eaters(like chickens, native birds, predatory insects etc.). To sum this up, forest ecologies are self-regulating systems, in that they require no extra energy or resources from the outside (other than the Sun).

food forest 2We can use the same patterns that define forest ecologies in the design of landscapes that provide us with food, energy and shelter. A design practice called permaculture evolved out of Australia in the 1970’s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren and has blossomed worldwide as a positive and solutions-based way of designing sustainable human communities using nature’s patterns as a design guideline. Permaculture design can start right in your own backyard!

The purpose of permaculture is really simple: to create landscapes (and communities) that can feed, shelter, and provide us with our energy needs. And it does this by creating situations where the most amount of output comes from the least amount of input, whether that input is fossil energy, human labour or some other resource from far away.

Let’s now getting into how this works and how we can start doing it.

Functional Design

At the core of permaculture is functional design. Systems in nature, like our forest described above, are assembled in a particular pattern where the needs of one component in the system are met by the yields (or products) of another component. When a system is assembled in this fashion, it can make the best use of available resources with the system, and commonly doesn’t need any additional resources from outside the system. If you were to look closely at each unit of resource in the system (such as nutrients, water, carbon etc.) you would see that everything is used more than once. In sustainable systems, every component serves more than one function, and every function is served by more than one component. Unfortunately, modern society is dominated by a pattern where we only use resources once, never to be used again (and then all of a sudden we start noticing resources shortages). In industrialized societies, apparent shortages of resources are not about ‘scarcity’, but functional designinstead a lack of sensible and functional design. For example, think about your washroom. After you flush the toilet (1 unit of water used) you then wash your hands (another unit of water). So two units of water are used to fulfill these functions. But if you were to direct your sink water into your toilet reservoir, then you’d be only using one unit of water to fulfill these functions (so you can only flush your toilet if you wash your hands!). In most households, water only provides one function, instead of multiple functions. We don’t have a water scarcity in Alberta; we have a design scarcity!

However, good design starts with you! It doesn’t take very much money and time to start redesigning our households to make effective use of resources and energy. All it takes is a simple pattern understanding of how to connect various components together in functional relationships. If we can develop a good understanding of what the needs of each of these components are (trees, dogs, greenhouses etc.) and what their products (or yields) are, we can quickly see how they can beneficially connected to each other. In permaculture, we call these Needs and Yields. This benefits you because it saves lots of money and work in the end.

Needs and Yields Approach to Solutions

So now that you have learned a little bit about how what functional design is, you might be wondering how it works in practice. So let the following serve as an example:

Lets say your property has terrible soil (like most properties in Calgary), and you want to build it up right away to grow some healthy and nutritious plants. One good place to start is by building healthy compost, and that becomes your first design task.

needs and yieldsYou next step is to figure out how to build this healthy compost with as little of your time and energy as possible, which means using as many local materials and services as possible. At this point you need to understand what makes good compost, and in a nutshell, you need a good mixture of carbon materials (leaf litter, straw, cardboard etc) and nitrogenous materials (manure, greens, coffee grounds etc). Well, carbon based materials are pretty easy to get, just look around your yard and you’ll see tons of it. Just get a bale of straw and put it next your compost pile, and add when needed. No problem. However, nitrogenous materials take more work to get. You have your food scraps, but that’s commonly not enough. So here’s where a good understanding of Need and Yields can help you save time and energy in getting that nitrogen into your pile.

So here’s a riddle: What small feathery creature deposits nitrogen on a regular basis, makes a cooing sound, and likes to hang out high in sheltered open places? Pigeons! Pigeons can potentially do a lot of hard work for you: they go around eating up grains, seeds and the like in the city streets and deposit them all in one place (like C Train platforms) as nitrogen and phosphorus-packed droppings. You, as the designer, can put pigeons to productive use by understanding what their needs and yields are.

food forest 5

So among other things, the pigeons need a loft to hang out in, but yieldnitrogen-rich manure. Your compost pile needs nitrogen. So what can you do? What if you build a pigeon loft directly over your compost pile? The loft provide a yieldfor the pigeons, and the pigeons then yield manure directly on top of your compost, daily. All you have to do is sit back and have a tea while the pigeons save you time and put nitrogen into your pile for you!

The take home message here is that everything in a system is connected to everything else. Each component in a system has its needs, but also has its yields. This kind of thinking can be applied well beyond your compost pile. You can apply it to designing your landscape and garden so that you don’t ever have to water it, fertilize it and provide insect control to it ever again (remember the forest explained above).

We can start sensible design right in our yards, and a food forest is a good example of this. A food forest will grow you fresh fruits and vegetables, build healthy soil without fertilizers, and store water for weeks without rain events! Join the growing community of people in Calgary who are changing their lawns over to food forests and storing water and producing healthy and fresh food right outside their kitchen doors!

About the Author

Adrian Buckley is an active permaculturalist and founder of Big Sky Permaculture, a Calgary-based permaculture education and consulting organization. Adrian regularly teaches courses and workshops in permaculture design, and plans and installs food forests and edible landscapes for homeowners and community organizations. To find out how you can become involved in permaculture, visit Big Sky Permaculture’s website at Adrian would be pleased to answer your questions and can be reached by email at


About The Author

Survival Spot is dedicated to helping everyone learn philosophy and fundamentals of preparedness and survival.

2 Responses

  1. okiewife

    hmm..this has me thinking. I have not been able to have a successful garden since moving to sw OK. This idea of a food forest is a new concept for me, taking it one step further than the edible landscape. Thanks for the article.

  2. Barbara

    Okie– If you're accustomed to an area with better soil, that's likely your problem. SW OK is mostly sun-baked clay with no nutrients for the plants. Lots of improvements and perhaps even raised beds can help. I am in similar landscape further west and can feed my large family on less than half an acre lot. It's mostly about what you're growing plants IN.


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