What Does Forest Mean Where You Live?

Starting Blindly

I started my research last summer by visiting community food forests on the East Coast. In order to categorize what the food forests looked like physically in terms of number of species, structure (how many layers) and the functional role of plants, I used some standard vegetation sampling techniques.

Can you imagine measuring the height and percent coverage of every plant inside the circled orange flags? Not fun!!

Can you imagine measuring the height and percent coverage of every plant inside the circled orange flags? Not fun!!

I mapped each site by laying a grid on top of it, randomly generating coordinate numbers and then placing enough plots to cover 40% of the site. It easily took an hour to map each site. Finding the coordinates on the ground and laying down circular plots to measure the height and percent coverage of plants within the plot took all day if not more at most sites. This was all in order to capture a quantifiable image of the “forest” structure.

The process brought me back to my thesis days of fighting my way through the understory of Costa Rican forests to lay transects for measuring plants and collecting soil data to understand what level of succession and ecological function the forest had achieved after reclaiming abandoned cattle pastures. Believe me, while I was happy to remember my solitary days of reflecting on the world while surrounded by that beautiful landscape, I was in no way happy about re-enacting the meticulous measuring of plants while providing a sweaty feeding ground for mosquitoes.

The Result

I quickly realized that the attempt to capture the “forest” structure of food forests in this way was futile. In the first 1-3 years of establishment food forests are highly dynamic. Plants decide to continue growing where we’ve placed them, or to move on, or to take a larger or smaller are than planned, or new plants that weren’t planned for decide they like the growing conditions and want to inhabit a space, etc., etc. Plants have plans of their own sometimes and as good ecological companions, we need to observe during those first years and take notes from the plants themselves and where they prefer to grow or not. Add on top of that the human element of multiple volunteers entering a place to harvest, drop seed from discarded eaten fruit or pulling weeds that were meant to stay as bioaccumulators, wild food, aesthetics or unrecognized nitrogen fixers. Dynamic indeed.

May Theilgaard Watts in 1965

Needless to say, I have stopped measuring. Instead, I capture more general metrics on vegetation layers and plants present. In response to releasing that part of the research, a committee member suggested I browse the book Reading the Landscape of America by May Theilgaard Watts to think about how I might be able to write descriptions of the forest structure in a different way. It was a delightful read.

I learned long ago that I do not have the skills to be a botanist. Paying attention to details is not my strength. I see the big picture and the interactions. However, I love reading botanists’ accounts of the world around them, particularly those of ethnobotanists. It transports you into seeing your surrounding environment through a very different lens. Watts originally wrote her book in 1975 under the title Reading the Landscape- An Adventure in Ecology. Indeed, an adventure it is and I would prefer they blended both titles. Additionally she was an excellent artist that illustrated her own writing. I can only hope that I’ll be able to write with her flowing prose about landscapes of food forests. I’ll post an excerpt below for those who are interested in an example.

I absolutely love this illustration of the umbrella magnolia from the chapter on the Great Smokies.

The Point

The point I’d like to make though, is that the word forest can have a different meaning depending on where you live. When trying to understand what a food forest should look like, do not get caught in imagery of tall stands of trees dripping in moss, plants growing on the branches and layers of thick vegetation beneath or of towering evergreens with little vegetation beneath. First, keep in mind that forests come in all shapes and sizes. Second, the word forest in the term “food forest” is used to describe a production ecosystem that effectively utilizes both vertical, horizontal and temporal space.

Essentially, the word forest in this sense means you are not gardening with annual row crops in full sun. Instead, the design of the system capitalizes on sun and shade, on annuals and perennials, and on layering plants rather than strictly planting them in rows, squares or any shape that is one plant high. If you live in a dry area, the tallest plant may only be a shrub for your region. That’s fine! Grow those edible shrubs and some ground covers underneath them and plant them in patterns that mimic the natural ecosystem of your area.

Also important to keep in mind is that food forests still require maintenance over time in many areas, especially those areas where water is abundant. Natural forests where I live now in western Virginia succeed over time into systems with very little understory. So here, a food forest with multiple layers requires maintenance to keep it in a layered state over time.

An Activity

If you’re getting involved with a community food forest, I suggest taking some time to do a visual exercise with your group to sketch out what the word forest means to each person and then jointly decide what you want it to mean for your food forest. Some questions to spark discussion: How many layers do you want it to have? What is the projected number of years you want to keep it in that state? What happens if a plant gets shaded out? Will you create light gaps occasionally? What type of non-edible plants do you want to let thrive?

Watts's Four Types of Hawthorns

Watts’s Four Types of Hawthorns

Excerpt from Reading the Landscape of America by May Theilgaard Watts, from chapter 1- In Search of Antiques of The Forests of the Great Smoky Mountains, p.7-8:

We walked gratefully where dignified boles lifted the canopy high to make a timeless green shade that urged the saplings below into a similar dignity. The understory plants held their foliage flat and broad, like begging hands that caught each green-gold strand of sunshine.

By the time the understory of small trees and the third story of shrubs had entangled each thread of light, it was only an occasional frayed wisp that dangled down to touch the frest floor. But out of those frayed wisps the forest floor had woven itself a garment that enfolded everything in richness.

The most beautiful single aspect of the entire forest was, surely, the insteps of the trees. A more suitable union of tree in earth could hardly exist. Those arched and clutching roots wore lichens and mosses, liverworts, ferns, and fungi, tucked into crannies, enshrouded curves, and lushly molded to muscular bulges.


Drawing of a four-layered forest by May Thielgaard Watts. From Reading the Landscape of America


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