Food Forests




Kahikatea Farm specialises in growing plants for food forest systems, and we are adding to our range all the time. We also run courses, workshops and site visits to show you how to (and how not to!) develop a food forest suitable for your site. Read on to find out about our own food forest.

What is a food forest?

A food forest, or forest garden, is a way of growing food and other plants for human use (such as medicines, fuel, fibre and dyes) in a way which mimics a natural forest. So we follow the principles that are at work in a forest but substitute plant species (and perhaps animals) which are most useful for our needs. These plants are layered or ‘stacked’ from the canopy trees down through the small trees, shrubs, ground cover and roots, and also include vines and fungi. Plants for cycling nutrients, deterring pests and attracting beneficial insects are designed into the system.  Plants are chosen for their multi-functionality wherever possible. Although the term food ‘forest’ is used, ‘woodland’ or ‘savannah’ may sometimes be more appropriate, as to allow for more light through to sun-loving plants, the spacing of trees is much wider than in a natural forest. And although the scale sounds grand, it need not be – it is perfectly possible to design a food forest in a small urban garden. If you don’t believe us, come and do one of our courses!


1. Canopy layer

2. Small tree layer

3. Shrub layer

4. Herbaceous layer

5. Edible root layer

6. Ground cover layer

7. Climbers

(Note that there is a lot more going on in the soil with other plant roots and all the macro and micro organisms, but that’s another story….which unfolds on our tours and courses!)


A Garden of Eden

Food forests, just like natural forests, tend to be very aesthetically pleasing, as well as bountiful. In his foreword to Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden book, Rob Hopkins describes his visit to Robert Hart’s forest garden in Shropshire. Hart was the pioneer of forest gardening in temperature climates. Hopkins says

“…it was a tangible taste of something altogether new and wonderful, yet also instinctively familiar. This seeming riot of plants and trees, when explained, proved to be an intelligently designed, three dimensional food system…it created an extraordinary space – with height, with colour, with scents and wildlife, yet one in which one instinctively felt at home. Perhaps what Hart created was the closest to what we imagine the Garden of Eden as being.”

Another way of growing

Forests don’t need us, but it turns out that we need them – and that has never been more true than in these times of climate change and resource depletion. Forests provide all their own fertility, they grow their own soils, they don’t produce any waste, they are resilient to extremes of weather, they support a whole eco system of micro and macro organisms, they use only rain water, they don’t need any humans to work them, and they have a multitude of outputs. How different to our modern system of farming food, which often uses fossil fuel powered machinery and/or a lot of human labour, requires intensive cultivation (which depletes soils), needs fossil fuel powered irrigation, uses fossil fuel based chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides (which are trucked in from outside, contaminate ground water and kill beneficial as well as ‘pest’ organisms) …. and at the end of it all this ‘modern’ system usually only provides one crop!

But can they feed the world?

Forest gardens have been common for centuries in many parts of the world, particularly the sub-tropics and tropics. However,food forests and other permaculture systems are often discredited by proponents of industrial agriculture who say that these ‘primitive’ systems cannot feed the world’s growing population. We would argue that they are the only systems that can feed the population sustainably. The combined yields from a food forest are far higher and the inputs are far lower. They are more resilient to natural disasters, and are not based on increasingly expensive finite fossil fuels. But they would require a change in our diet away from annual vegetables towards perennial ones, away from grain-based proteins towards nuts and seeds, and away from protein from large grazing animals to protein from small browsing and foraging animals (predominantly chickens, ducks and rabbits and to a lesser extent pigs and goats), plus aquatic creatures and insects. That is not to say we cannot eat beef, wheat or tomatoes! Clearings often arise within forests, for example when a mature tree falls down, which are then colonised by annual ‘weeds’. We can mimic this by having areas of annual vegetable production and grassland which is grazed regeneratively. There is also a lot more land which could be cultivated. What’s your front garden growing at the moment? What about your roadside verge? Get out there and start a food forest revolution!

Our Food Forest

Here in Poukawa we are on clay soils with an average annual rainfall of less than 700mm. We have wet winters with approximately 20 frosts per year to a minimum temperature of -6 Celsius, and hot dry summers, with extremely drying westerly winds. We started planning our food forest in 2007 and started work in 2008 by putting in two swales (water harvesting ditches on contour). We seeded the banks and proceeded to plant fruit trees and nitrogen-fixing tagasaste (tree lucerne), alders, robinia and acacias. The food forest area covers about 2 acres and is a north-north-east facing U shape with a hill at the back with timber and firewood gums behind that, protecting the site from the cold southerlies. We planted marginal value hedgerow fruit and nuts and companions on the north west to protect from our prevailing hot dry wind. The U shape slopes into a gully which is dry in summer and very wet in winter and we created a pond at the bottom. This gives us several microclimates to work with.

We have a wide range of productive trees and shrubs with edible uses which have been planted over the years since 2008. These include apples, crab apples, pears, apricots, peaches, plums, gages, cherry plums, quince, nashi pears, grapefruit, oranges, mandarins, medlars, mulberries, sweet and sour cherries, american and japanese persimmons, feijoas, cherry guavas, loquats, silverberries, rowan, himalayan strawberry, sea buckthorn, cornelian cherry, irish strawberry (arbutus), aronia berries, serviceberries, elder, currants, worcesterberries, highbush cranberry, blueberries, american pawpaws, casimiroa, cherimoya, manuka, hazels and chestnuts.  We are adding constantly to the ground cover and herbaceous layer plants, including many of those which are listed in our catalogue. We have other plants we are trialling in our home gardens and around the farm which may later be added to the food forest.