Food forests, or forest gardens, are often thought to be new to the UK. Popular wisdom is that they were pioneered by Robert Hart in Shropshire in the 1980s and further developed by Martin Crawford here in Devon at Dartington.

But whilst these pioneers have developed the techniques and popularity of food forests, the practice goes back into prehistory. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers undoubtedly impacted the botanical make-up of the landscape by harvesting seasonal crops and probably planted various useful plants, even if only by accident when discarding unwanted seeds. But here, as in the Amazon and Africa, the evidence of forest gardens goes back in to the distant past. 

In Devon we can trace food forests, aka forest gardens, back many years. In its simplest system a more silvpastoral system was employed with orchards being grazed by sheep, with hens scrabbling for insects and other feed, whilst pigs ate the windfall fruit. This practice goes back centuries. 

In my own family, my grandfather practised this system with many refinements that made it more forest garden than orchard. Hazel, elder, blackthorn etc were all grown in the hedges and supplied the kitchen with nuts and fruit for various dishes, potions and cures. The hedges also supplied wood for building and burning, from elm and oak. The stream running through grew watercress and provided water for the grazing and foraging live stock. 

But it wasn’t all food. Flowers were also grown. At the base of each fruit tree daffodils, primroses and violets were grown for picking and bartering for tea and coffee at the local shop. 

The 'orchard' as we called it was actually a complex and biodiverse piece of land. It was a landscape where there were layers of plants that Robert Hart would have quickly recognised. Hart’s observation was that instead of a monoculture orchard it was possible to create an edible polyculture of crops that spread over seven distinct layers.  

At the top were the mature trees, the forest canopy, that produced timber and firewood. Next came the lower tree layer, of apples, plums, pears, cherries and nuts. Below this he observed the shrubs such as raspberries, gooseberries, elder, and blackcurrants. At ground level he noted herbaceous perennial herbs and roots such as alexanders and horseradish. Also at ground level were the edible plants that spread horizontally across the forest floor. Crops such as marrows, gourds and related cucurbits. My grandfather grew these on the piles of composted manure from the animal sheds. 

The other layer of spreading plants didn’t spread horizontally, they spread vertically. This vertical layer comprised climbers that grow through the shrubs and lower trees. My grandfather’s favourite was the hop, which made marvellous beer to go alongside the cider from the apples. Other climbers included various beans and twining plants such as honeysuckle for fibre to make rough rope and twine.

That’s six distinct layers. But there is another that remains hidden in the rhizosphere most of the time. It is the forest mushrooms that appear from soil-borne fungal hyphae in wet autumns. 

Arguably there is also an eighth layer. The fungi, such as Oyster and Shiitake mushrooms that can be grown on wood gathered from the food forest. But that’s an article for another day. As are other derivations of this concept where mixed cropping or grazing exists in various systems of agroforestry, agroecology and at a new extreme, agrivoltaic farming. 

For now, let’s return to a very local food forest. 

A food forest project has been started in Sidford, on land near the Social Hall owned by EDDC. At present the land is being prepared for planting by volunteers. Planting will commence shortly from a selection of over 2000 potential food forest plants that can be grown in the UK. 

There’s more information about the food forest at