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What is the difference between an Orchard and a Food Forest?

Most fruit trees have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years as forest trees. Their purpose in fruiting is reproduction, so in a forest setting they would have produced a certain amount of fruit every year hoping their seed would be eaten and spread, and their family would in this way grow and evolve.

Then there is a disturbance in the forest – perhaps a storm has brought down a big tree, and the fruit tree is flooded with sunshine. Now it has a great opportunity to grow it’s family around it, and so it produces more fruit to maximise the number of seeds falling around it. In a similar way, when the tree feels stressed or is about to die, it puts all its energy into its fruits so that it may be succeeded by its children.

By means of grafting and careful selection, humanity has co-created varieties that are more productive (for example, cultivating nut trees with branches tending to split and duplicate before fruiting can double the amount of nuts produced) and with preferred tastes and qualities. Both orchards and food forests will (generally) use cultivars, but will choose different qualities.

The orchard

An orchard will capitalise on both sun and stress to maximise fruit production. To ensure that the tree is always in stress, an orchard may choose to graft a productive variety onto a weak root-stock. The inherent weakness in the tree often requires that her branches be supported. The trees need to be pruned each year as long branches are too weak to support the amount of fruit. To keep the trees in peak stress, the roots are cut every few years to maintain production.

Insects play a vital role in the natural fruit cycle, firstly with pollinating but then equally important to evolve the natural system by attacking those plants and fruits that are weak to make room for the strong and healthy. This is the balance of syntropy and entropy in the continual dance of evolution.

Commercial orchards designed to maximise stress for the trees attract natures’ cleaners; insects, bacteria and funghi. In a conventional orchard, these forces would be met with poisons. Poisons further offset the delicate balance of nature, leading to a loss of soil life and soil health. This in turn is offset with chemical or animal fertilisers. Even when the latter is used, it is often full of chemicals such as found in the animal feed, as well as antibiotics and de-wormers. The chemicals further degrade the natural soil life, rending the orchard viable only with constant inputs and attention.

inputs + attention ==> maximum production

The food forest

Food forests are based in mimicry of nature. In terms of sunshine, it is closer to the orchard than the forest in that it is designed so that the fruit trees perceive their opportunity to reproduce.

But this is where the conceptual style similarity ends.

The aim of the food forest is strong, healthy trees arising from thriving living soil. The role of the food forest gardener is to accelerate nature to restore balance. The cultivar that is appropriate in the food forest is a strong, self-sufficient, productive tree. An ideal is minimal (or no) pruning of the majority of the productive trees, with blades for chainsaws/loppers kept sharp for “chop and drop” of support trees.

The time and input is most at the beginning phase, in the development of an inter-relational design and in building a rich, living soil. When we encounter a problem, such as insects eating the fruit, the solution sought is systems-based, such as creating habitat for insect predators and building soil health to strengthen the tree. Bio fertilisers are often used to create a running start for self-sustaining fertiliser systems, such as using nitrogen-fixing plants and bio-accumulators around the tree. These support layers form a guild to feed our productive plant, build soil health and create pollinator/preditor habitat. And, beautifully, many of the guild species are themselves productive, whether it be for herbs, salads, berries, flowers, teas or medicines.

Start-up inputs ==> low input systems ==> diverse nutrient rich products, biodiversity

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