Polyculture in a Bucket: Goji berry, kale, onions, strawberry, and foxglove.
Food forestry (a.k.a. forest gardening) is a concept that people seem to become enthralled with when they hear about it: a way of gardening that mimics the diversity and resilience of a healthy forest, and provides an abundance of fruits, nuts, vegetables, flowers, herbs, and more.
You’d have to be a baby-eating robot not the like the sound of that!
But forests are big, and balconies are small. So how to adapt this wonderful idea to the apartment-scale? All it takes is a basic understanding of how food forests are put together.
Layers of a Food Forest
Central to the concept of is the observation that forest ecosystems are segmented into distinct spatial layers. The seven layers generally noted are as follows:
[image credit: Graham Burnett]
Each layer serves various functions that support the health of the others: canopy trees create shady, moist micro-climates for the others to inhabit; groundcovers hold the topsoil in place; tap-rooted species mine nutrients from the subsoil and make them available to other plants. These are just a few examples of the inter-relationships that make forest ecosystems so healthy and productive.
Container Food Forests
While it would be difficult to re-create all of the complex relationships of a full-scale forest in a container, we can easily apply this concept of spatial layering to obtain a diversity of yields in a small space. At this micro-cosmic scale, we might simplify the layers to look something like this:
Tree – Mini-dwarf fruit trees such as cherry, peach, apple, pear, olives, and various types of citrus. Most common fruit trees can be adapted to containers. Shrub – Berry bushes such as blueberry, currants, goji (lycium barbarum.), goumi (eleagnus multiflora), huckleberry, and many others. Also large culinary and medicinal herbs like rosemary, sage, lavender, and many Artemisia species. Herbaceous – Can include green leafy vegetables such as lettuce, kale, chard, spinach, arugula, and others. Also tea plants such as bergamot, mint, lemon balm, lemon verbena, and stevia. Groundcover – Creeping or running plants like thyme, oregano, strawberries, lingonberries, violets, and purslane. Also insectary and medicinal species such as yarrow, echinacea, and chamomile. Rhizosphere – Crops such as alliums (garlic, onions, shallots, etc.) carrots, beets, and radishes are good picks. Potatoes and yams are less ideal, since you have to disturb all of the other plants to harvest the tubers.
The examples given above are only a small portion of the plants that can be utilized to create a container food forest. By stacking plants from each layer in a single container, you can maximize the productivity of a small space, and create more interesting and beautiful gardens at the same time!