A Field Trip to Some Food Forests (of YouTube) by Emma Williams


A Field Trip to Some Food Forests (of YouTube) by Emma Williams

When my oldest daughter was in first grade, she attended a school where lots of families were food insecure. The path to the school was lined with ornamental cherry trees. That tree, and the other ornamental plants and shrubs on the school grounds, seemed like a wasted opportunity.

Imagine, instead, there was group of people who planted and tended the school grounds by asking: “How might we best use this space to nourish the community and regenerate the land?”

And then as I mentioned in July, I resent the time it takes to keep the lawn at my house maintained.  And the Washington Post recently reminded us that standard suburban American lawn care practices are death to insects.


So for all of those reasons, I was looking forward to the Foragers 2 group’s visit to Forested, a permaculture food forest in Bowie, Maryland. But then I was unable to attend. Instead, for this post I watched YouTube videos from Forested and other food forest growers.  Watching a video of a forest or a garden is nothing like visiting one, but it does provide lots of inspiration. Here’s a summary of what I learned about how to plan and implement food forests.

Finding the Why

If you’re reading Fox Haven’s blog, it is likely that you are already familiar with the idea of permaculture and can imagine why someone would want to grow their own food organically in manner that replenishes the soil and provides wildlife habitat. But in addition to this larger purpose, if you’re planning a food forest it’s helpful to get more specific about your goals. This video outlined five questions to consider:

  • What are your goals? For example, the presenter’s goal was to create more habitat for wildlife, and a typical goal is to grow food cheaply and easily.
  • How dense and wild you want the forest to be?
  • What is your budget, and how much room do you have?
  • What are you going to plant? He suggested focusing on growing core things that you want and can grow well.
  • Observe key factors: how is sun hitting your land? How does water flow on your land? How does nature and life use your land?

Cultivating Joy

I loved this video about a family Southern California who converted their steep lawn into food forest during the pandemic, giving them something to be excited about and distracting them from feeling fear and depression.

The Seven Layers

All the videos talked about planting with a balance of seven layers:

  • Tall light-demanding trees
  • Short shade tolerant trees
  • Shrubs
  • Herbaceous plants
  • Plants that spread horizontally and provide ground cover
  • Rhizosphere (roots)
  • Vertical climbers

Some resources added two more layers, aquatic and fungus. (We will talk more about how fungus holds the forest together in the next post.)

Focusing on Soil and Water

Another beautiful California food forest video mixes poetry and practicality, with a handy example of how to use google earth and Canva to make a garden map. She describes strategies for retaining as much water as possible and nourishing the soil, essential elements of a garden or food forest.

“When you work with nature, she is ever changing and evolving, and you will transform along with her,” she says. She advises spending 15 minutes at the beginning and end of each day envisioning what to grow.

Doing What the Land Wants to Do

The Forested video was made after the forest had been in place for 10 years. Here are some insights they shared:

  • The food system has grown stronger by engaging lots of people with different skills, such as beekeepers; this was more feasible that one person trying to learn a ton of different skills.
  • It is important to create trails to make the space more inviting for walking.
  • Decide what to grow based on what’s already growing well. For example, they found that persimmons flourished, so they planted more. Since wild mulberry trees and blackberry bushes were growing well, they added cultivated versions of those plants that had more desirable qualities, such as thornless blackberries.
  • It is worth experimenting with the minimal effort feasible for a good yield, playing with creating heaps of compost and planting “feral vegetables” – sunchoke, potatoes, squash.
  • Find native plants that can compete with invasive species. For example, American groundnut competes with Japanese honeysuckle. (We are doing this at Fox Haven too.)
  • Mulch by “chop & drop”, chopping back plants that grow really quickly and leaving them on the soil as mulch.

Although watching these videos did not fill my lungs with fresh air nor did it calm my spirit in the same way as a real walk in the woods, it filled my head with inspiration.  The videos were also a good reminder the we can allow things to forest. We can begin and end the day with a dream of other ways of using land, of supporting and allowing what wants to grow.

How might you best use the space around you to nourish the community and regenerate the land?






Written by Emma Williams

Emma Williams is a public health scientist, artist, mother, and potter’s wife living in Smithsburg, Maryland. She participated in the herbal CSA five years ago and became fascinated with learning about herbalism. You can connect with her on Instagram @bright.acorn.
Photos by Shayla Ragimov


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