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The Building Blocks of a Food Forest – Create a Forest Floor

A forest lives on a fallen forest.

That means, to grow a sustainable food forest, we need to recreate a forest. Our current way of growing fruit trees is in the way of orchards. We space our trees a certain distance apart. We get rid of all the weeds and grass underneath and bring in all the nutrients and water the trees need.

This system requires a lot of energy and input from us and it’s not a natural way for a tree to grow. To build a productive agricultural ecosystem, we need to replicate the conditions in a natural forest.

How Do We Replicate Nature’s Forest in a Food Forest?


A forest lives on a fallen forest. The “fallen forest” is all the detritus on the ground. Branches, sticks, leaves, animal dropping, dead animals – these are all part of the detritus.

When you walk in a forest, it’s like walking on a thick sponge. That thick sponge is your fallen forest. It’s full of nutrients and fungi. If you tried to find the line where the detritus ends and the soil starts, you’ll find it’s very hard. The detritus is a part of the soil, it’s not a separate piece of your ecosystem.

What’s so good about fungi?

Fungi are your most undervalued friends in a food forest. Fungi are the largest measured organism on the planet. They can spread over many acres.

The little part of a fungus that you see poking out the top is actually the flower, or the fruit. The mushroom you see is not the actual plant. The plant is all those roots you can’t see, working hard beneath the soil.

There’s something amazing about fungi. They can bring minerals and nutrients to your forest from 100s of miles away.

Now, when you rake up all the leaves and branches, you’re removing that natural forest ecosystem. You’re putting the trees in an unnatural state. This causes dis-ease for the trees, which often results in actual disease. That tree is at ease with the detritus and its fungal friends.

Then we make it worse…

We cultivate the soil, aggravating the problem. By cultivating the soil, we destroy that ultra-helpful fungal network. Cultivating breaks that all-important supply system. It’s like putting a roadblock up that stops trucks supplying your local supermarket. You run out of food.


In this picture above, we have no ecosystem. No place for birds to move in and improve the soil with their droppings. No detritus building into a home for fungi. No fungal network for nutrient transport. This system will need all its nutrients brought in manually. No efficient!

Orchards Fight Nature

By cultivating the soil and removing our fallen forest floor, we’re fighting nature.

We’ve lost our hardworking fungi. They can’t bring nutrients to our tree anymore. Our system breaks down. Now we need to bring in all the nutrients the tree needs and most likely a lot of water too.

That thick spongy forest floor holds lots of water. The organisms within it hold lots of water. A well-functioning food forest hardly ever needs watering. An orchard will need continuous watering. Less so if you add lots of mulch, but still a lot more than a natural forest ecosystem.

In permaculture, we don’t do orchards. We focus on food forests only. It doesn’t matter which tree you want to grow, fruit, nut, or timber, they can all grow in a food forest. It’s about intent.

What Do You Want to Grow?


Think about what your goal is, what will be your yield?

If your goal is to grow nut trees, then nut trees are your climax, your production tree. We now move into supporting that production tree. We need to build a forest floor and encourage our fungi friends to move in. Now they can bring us nutrients from miles away.

We surround our production tree with other trees and shrubs. Not random trees and shrubs, but the ones that bring us nitrogen and carbon.
This is what my next article will talk about – planting nitrogen-fixers and carbon trees. 


  • Jack of all trades, master of some. Wild garden grower. Loves creating stuff. From food forests and survival gardens to soap and yoghurt. A girl on a farm with two kids and one husband (yep, just one - although another one would be handy). Weirdly enjoys fixing fences and digging holes. Qualified permaculture teacher and garden go-to.

Suzanne Harris

Tuesday 21st of July 2020

"The little part of a fungus that you see poking out the top is actually the flower, or the fruit. The mushroom you see is not the actual plant. The plant is all those roots you can’t see, working hard beneath the soil."

I never know this about mushrooms. They always seem to have no roots but now I know why. Love this idea of a "fallen forest" . I will be looking at my garden in a different way now. It's not always about how it looks but about how it feels under the mulch and who is living there.


Thursday 23rd of July 2020

For sure, it takes a bit to change our thinking from "pristine" to "productive". Although a food forest can certainly look beautiful in its own way :)