In order to create a fruitful food forestry, vertical stacking is a must. A healthy forest packs in life and biomass at every level—upper canopy trees, understory trees and shrubs, herbaceous plants, groundcovers, fungi, roots and vines that climb through it all. The majority of these stacked plants are perennials, with some annuals in the understory.

The vertical stacking nature of a food forest allows for much greater diversity. One small plot can provide nuts, fruits, perennial vegetables, medicinal herbs, edible mushrooms, edible tubers, vine fruits and even useful fibers and firewood. A more diverse system is also less susceptible to pests, diseases and crop failures.

Fungi, invertebrates and bacteria living in the forest soil break down leaves, fallen wood, plant material and dead roots into rich humus that builds fertility and water-holding ability. A forest produces its own fertility; no need to import it from off-site. In contrast, the soil in an agricultural field is tilled annually and left uncovered, resulting in the loss of nutrients to the atmosphere and the loss of soil through erosion. Chemical fertilizers are applied to make up for this annual loss of fertility.

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Here’s a glance at the ABCs of stacking plants:

A Think of stacking plants vertically so those at every level are performing an important function, be it a tree
bearing fruit, a nitrogen-fixing shrub or a low-growing companion plant that serves as a ground cover, provides food and insectary service.

B Encourage diversity by planting a wide variety of annuals and perennials.

C Choose plants that can serve many different functions.

D Be sure to let leaves, plant material and wood decompose in place as they do on the forest floor.

E Practice companion planting.

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F Plant groundcovers, not grass, because grass will compete with food producers for nutrients.

G If space and topography allow, use swales and berms.

H In larger food forests, practice rotational grazing.

This article was originally published in the NEW PIONEER ™ Summer 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

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