Recently I encountered the term ‘food forest.’ The unfamiliar term piqued my curiosity as my gardening interests primarily involve growing food. One cold, dreary day, I decided I needed to find out exactly what a food forest is.

A food forest is a type of garden plan that mimics forest-growth patterns to ensure better yield, maximum light exposure and simpler management while fostering biodiversity.

The term was first popularized in the 1960s by Robert Hart, an author and farmer living in Great Britain. The goal is to implement a system that behaves like a forest ecosystem and yields edible harvests through sustainable, low-maintenance agroforestry.

This concept appeals to me because it is based on perennial plants and is relatively low maintenance. Does a forest need tilling, weeding, fertilizing or irrigating? I think not.

Food-forest gardening is part of the permaculture school of thought in which people attempt to design earth-friendly systems that are permanent and thrive with little outside interference. Think of it in terms of segregation versus integration. In a traditional garden, you have rows of vegetables planted in one area, fruit trees in another and herbs in a third area. With a food forest, all are inter-planted as you would find them in the natural world.

Typically, a food forest encompasses seven different layers.

— the canopy, which consists of fruit and nut trees over 30 feet in height;

— the lower tree layer, which includes dwarf fruit trees that are about 12 feet in height;

— the shrub layer, where you’ll find blackberries, raspberries and blueberries;

— the herbaceous layer, where perennials such as asparagus, artichokes and rhubarb grow along with herbs and leafy greens;

— the rhizosphere, where root crops such as carrots, potatoes, onions and parsnips grow;

— the soil surface for cover crops such as alpine strawberries, nasturtiums, lingonberries and various creeping plants;

— and the vertical layer, which includes vining plants such as grapes, cucumbers, cantaloupe, kiwi, beans, squash and sweet potatoes.

A food forest can vary in size from a few hundred square feet up to several acres. In a small space, you must be very selective in the plants you want to grow and eat. It probably also means forgoing the canopy layer, which I would do in any case as I’m not interested in harvesting anything that can’t be reached with an 8-foot ladder.

Annual plantings aren’t completely ignored in a food forest. Sunny areas around the perimeter can be used for growing tomatoes, peppers or corn.

I already have an established garden and mini-orchard, and I’m not about to pull everything out just to have a food forest. However, since I like the concept I’m going to incorporate it when I plant new things. I won’t get all of the benefits as I will need to irrigate, but I should be able to reduce the need for weeding and perhaps fertilization.

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I now plan to plant my recently purchased bare-root raspberries along the fence by the asparagus rather than where the blackberries are.

I recently purchased ginger and turmeric rhizomes, intending to start a spice garden. Rather than having another segregated garden, I’ll now put them near my dwarf fruit trees.

My herb garden needs refreshing. Rather than replanting the herbs in a segregated area, I’ll intersperse them throughout the garden. Prostrate rosemary will grow almost anywhere and makes an attractive ground cover. French sorrel, oregano, lovage and parsley are destined for the vegetable garden as are fennel and dill.

Since I’m not being entirely compliant with food forest principles, I am thinking of adding a “three sisters” component. Native Americans long ago learned the wisdom of planting corn, beans and squash together. Corn provides tall stalks for the beans to climb. Beans stabilize the corn during strong winds. Beans are also nitrogen fixers, meaning their roots can take nitrogen from the air and convert it into forms that can be absorbed by plant roots. The squash leaves shade the ground, which helps retain soil moisture and prevent weeds.

Alpine strawberries, nasturtiums and chamomile may make their way into a few areas that need ground cover. I’ll benefit in having another fruit to enjoy and edible nasturtium flowers for more colorful salads. And I may try drinking tea for a change.

Workshop: UC Master Gardeners of Napa County will host a workshop on “Home Vineyard Part 1” on Saturday, Feb. 24, from 9:30 a.m.to 2 p.m. The Master Gardener Integrated Grape Team will explain what to do, what to look for and what to plan for in the vineyard between February and August.

The morning session will be a classroom discussion of growth cycle, pruning and training and basic cultural practices for growing table or wine grapes in the home garden.

There will be an afternoon field trip to a local vineyard, weather permitting. Participants should be prepared for outdoor conditions, wear good walking shoes or boots, and bring lunch. There will be a 30-minute lunch break. Location address provided upon registration. Online registration (credit card only) coming soon. Mail-in/Walk-in registration (cash or check only).

UC Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) answer gardening questions on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to noon, at the UC Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Ave., Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143.

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