How to speed up the development of a food forest

There are ways to accelerate ‘ecological succession’ and reap the benefits of a food forest in as little as 10 years.

Fact checked by Haley Mast

When designing sustainable and eco-friendly food producing systems, we often seek to mimic the most successful natural ecosystems we find around us in the natural world.

“Food forest” design is one key example. It involves creating functioning food producing systems that mimic the ecology of natural woodland or forest ecosystems. In food forest design, one interesting thing to think about is how we can accelerate ecological succession to achieve our goals in a more timely fashion.

What Is Ecological Succession?

Ecological succession refers to the process through which an ecological system evolves over time. Ecological systems typically go through a series of predictable stages as they change and evolve.

Take, for example, the evolution of a natural forest. From bare soil, annual wind-dispersed herbaceous plants will typically arrive first. These pioneers will colonize a site and have adaptations that allow them to survive and to improve conditions for herbaceous plant communities to evolve. 

After establishing ecological communities of grasses, forbs, and legumes, the soil alters to the degree where it can begin to support shrubland species. A new, more protected microclimate emerges and small pioneer tree species can begin to grow. Pioneer trees create thickets and shape their environment; a young forest ecosystem begins to emerge; and soils change to support the growth of a wider variety of woody species.

As the young forest grows, pioneer trees are gradually outcompeted, shaded, and replaced by further trees, typically longer-lived species. As these trees grow to maturity, creating a greater degree of canopy cover with layered understory growth, we can reach the climax stage of a forest. This climax stage is not, however, the end of the journey, and a forest or woodland will continue to change and evolve over time.

This is, of course, a simplification of the process, but it gives a broad idea of how such ecosystems evolve. By looking at this, we can learn a lot about these changes and use them to our advantage to accelerate the natural process and reach a mature tree-based ecosystem more quickly.

Why Accelerate Ecological Succession?

The process of ecological succession leading us to climax forest will typically take from 50 to 150 years.1 With the right approach, however, we can accelerate that process and create an ecologically functioning climax forest in around ten years. Accelerating succession can help us to repair, restore, and “rewild” within a timescale that allows us to use these strategies to tackle a number of local and global problems.

Speeding up this natural process also allows us to develop systems for food production that work with nature, rather than fighting it, and boost biodiversity, resilience, and yields more quickly to deliver food security at a range of scales.

How to Do It in Food Forest Design

Natural old-growth and secondary forests are complex, multilayered systems that have often taken years to evolve. But when we mimic such systems and create food forests, we don’t need to wait for the natural succession process.

Instead, we can shortcut the process by carefully designing and planting layers of vegetation all at the same time. We can plant the right trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, etc., for a particular site to accelerate the system’s journey to the climax forest stage.

Through our practices, we can ensure complex and resilient ecological function in a far shorter time frame. We should:

  • Use what is already growing on a site, noting what might work to fulfill certain ecosystem niches, and chopping and dropping or mulching over existing vegetation to feed the soil, rather than removing it from the site.
  • Introduce the correct hardy and resilient pioneer plants for a specific situation, relying on species that can grow well and easily in a particular environment to improve conditions for numerous other species to grow.
  • Improve the soil not only through carefully selected pioneer plants but also by chopping and dropping, mulching, etc., to add more organic matter to the soil; this speeds up the process that takes place naturally when, for example, deciduous plants drop their leaves and return the nutrients they contain to the system.
  • Manage water wisely, introducing earthworks and other features to improve the growing conditions on a site and to enable the establishment of more biodiverse ecosystems more quickly.
  • Substitute plants to fill particular ecological niches, mimicking the natural forest ecosystem in an area as closely as possible while carefully choosing plants to obtain a yield and meet our own needs.
  • Finally, we might also consider enlisting wildlife ecosystem engineers—such as beavers, for example, or carefully rotating livestock through a system—to promote healthy soil, healthy plant communities, and beneficial changes that speed us toward our goals.

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