Edible food forest – from fallow wasteland to 5 layer food garden in Tamil Nadu

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Renata Sridhar food forest in Tamil Nadu

If one day somebody had told me I would live in the middle of Indian nowhere (actually it’s in the heart of Tamil Nadu) setting up a food forest and self-sustainable farm – I’d probably share my most sarcastic smile and say: no way! But while time flies, life can be perverse, so here I am, in the beautiful land of Tamil Nadu, living off the grid with my bicultural family, learning how to live self-sustainable life.

One of the first projects after moving to the village in India was to turn the barren land into a green, food jungle. The idea was simple – whenever you turn your head, you’d see an edible plant, every day you wake up and watch through the window – you’d see snacks that could satisfy your cravings. The plan was brilliant but one year ago in 2020, I would definitely not expect how much planning, designing, and work will such a project require, indeed. What did we focus on this year and what did (or not) achieve?

Layers of the Forest

How did we plan and organize our food forest? From the very beginning, we wanted to have plenty of different plant varieties typical for the Tamil Nadu climate. We’ll definitely think about expanding the number of varieties but until soil doesn’t work with us fully – we need to be satisfied with local saplings.

During the food forest setup, we focused mainly on 2 things: food forest layers (multiple layers of plants stacked vertically to increase overall production) and perennials. What we recommend for your saplings/seeds planting, take into consideration “up”, “down” and “out” dimensions. The biggest layer will be trees (we planted i.ex. mango, jackfruit, tamarind, teakwood, sandalwood), which need full sunlight. The next layer will be small trees (banana trees, pomegranate, lemon trees), next shrubs (i.ex basil, tulsi, medicinal plants) that grow with less light. Intermediate between these two classes of plants is the vines (we used seasonally: bottle gourds, pumpkins, ridge gourd). Next, there are the ground plants (i.ex. groundnuts, urad daal, moong daal, pineapples) that cover the forest floor. Finally, we got underground plants – mostly vegetables like radishes, carrots.

Design and space where to plant them depend on the area you have to have your food forest.

Soil that works

As we arrived at an almost barren land, our most important goal was first and foremost to fertilize the soil. We are aware this process takes years to get done but we started with only natural boosters for soil fertility (cow-goat-rabbits dung), chopp&drop the weeds method. We also used fertility-boosting plants: nitrogen fixers such as groundnuts, moong/urad daal, agathi keerai plant. The roots of these plants associate with rhizobial bacteria — a partnership that benefits both the bacteria and the host plant, and that provides a nitrogen boost for other plants as well.


When we moved to a tropical climate farm we also knew that crucial aspects of setup and early years management will be watering and the entire irrigation system, especially during summertime (February-June). We used rain irrigation systems in the forest and that worked well for us. Next year we’ll be expanding food forest to new area planting coconut, cashew nut, papaya, and more moringa trees and we hope to manage with new similar setups as well.

Huge support to minimize the heat was the massive mulching we provided for the forest.

We also used compost piles to build soil beforehand. We dug holes in the ground, filled them with natural fertilizers, and closed them with the soil This allowed us to fertilize immediately once we started planting saplings, and added organic matter which helps with water management. To support the water supply, apart from an open well, we dug some water access structures – a rainwater harvesting pond.

Sustainable food production

That’s actually our goal and we are still in the process of learning how to plan crops in accordance with climate, seasonality, and our needs. First-year taught us much about succession and companion planting. What worked well was combinations of groundnuts+urad daal, turmeric+banana trees. We definitely failed with moringa, papaya saplings – poor water management led to the loss of about 30 plants.

There’s a lot of maintenance required to sustain all types of soil/sunlight requirements for diversified plants in one place. We keep on focusing on what’s working here for the climate: mulching, natural fertilizers, and a watering system. The rainy season is on the way, we’ll get ready for planting new plant varieties – coconuts, sapotas, guavas, and papayas. Keep your fingers crossed for us, come here again in a yer’s time and check how the plants grew.

I would love to hear your comments on this! How do you like the idea of a food forest? Do you have your own food forest? What works well for you and what needs amendments? Thank you very much for reading this article. I am curious if you have/had any experience of yours? Any comments? – please share your experience. And if you liked the article – share it, click “Like it” and “share it”. with those who may need this knowledge.