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Fukuoka’s Food Forest


Mandarin orange, a main crop of Fukuoka’s food forest.
At one time he was shipping an impressive 90 tons of citrus fruit annually

Many of us in the permaculture and organic movements have read Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution, which lays out his ingenious (though hard to replicate) no-till organic rice production system. I was surprised and pleased when, in my job as librarian for the New England Small Farm Institute in the late 1990s, I stumbled on his Natural Way of Farming, a translation of his 1976 book Shizen Noho. At that time he had already been running his orchard as an organic polyculture food forest for over three decades — since the 1940s! Natural Way of Farming offers much detail about Fukuoka’s methods of grain, vegetable, and fruit production. It was a major inspiration to me as I worked on writing Edible Forest Gardens (Vol. 1 & Vol. 2).

Geoff-Lawton-Online

Fukuoka’s food forest (he refers to it as his orchard) is a fantastic example of a warm temperate/subtropical food forest featuring multiple layers, abundant nitrogen-fixers, a diversity of fruits, nuts, and perennial vegetables, with sophisticated use of self-sown and broadcast annual crops. There is much for us to learn from his lifetime of experimentation in his humid, warm-temperate to subtropical climate. This is a good-sized operation, covering ten or more acres. In the 1980s Fukuoka was shipping 200,000 pounds (about 90 metric tons) of citrus annually from 800 citrus trees. (1)

The book is full of fantastic color photos of his no-till grain, vegetable, and food forest systems. I don’t have rights to them, so get a copy of the book and check them out! Used copies of several editions are available online.

Food forest design

Fukuoka recommends diverse polycultures, starting with mixing deciduous and evergreen fruits.

Never forget to plant green manure trees. (2)

Fukuoka’s nitrogen fixing trees include acacias, alders, autumn olive, wax myrtle (Myrica) and podocarpus. He advocated maintaining a productive and diverse understory.

Using the open space in an orchard to raise an undergrowth of special-purpose crops and vegetables is the very picture of nature. (3)

A natural orchard in which full, three-dimensional use of space is made in this way is entirely different from conventional orchards that employ high-production techniques. For the individual wishing to live in communion with nature, this is truly a paradise on earth. (4) 

Food forest establishment

When starting an orchard, the main goals initially should be prevention of weed emergence and maturation of the soil. (p.144)(5)

Fukuoka also advocates for terracing and the use of contour berm-and-basin systems (known as contour swales to many of us in permaculture).

Fukuoka set out his orchard in forest land he had recently cleared. Trunks and branches from land clearing were laid out in windrows on contour — like the hugelculture technique popular in permaculture today.

To establish a natural orchard, one should dig large holes here and there among the stumps of felled trees and plant unpruned saplings and fruit seed over the site, leaving these unattended just as one would leave alone a reforested stand of trees. (6)

Resprouting stumps and weeds were cut or coppiced with a sickle.

He offers some sophisticated ecosystem mimicry advice, listing weed crops by family and replacement crops in the same family. For instance, wild morning glories might indicate planting of sweet potato. Fukuoka advocates a minimal pruning strategy (see below). At establishment, he aims to set up the tree for a lifetime of minimal pruning by establishing a form like its wild character. After 5-6 years, Fukuoka came in and built terraces uphill from each tree row. Then he transitioned the understory to ladino (white) clover (Trifolium repens).

Food forest understory

What helps to rehabilitate depleted soil? I planted the seeds of thirty legumes, crucifers, and grasses throughout my orchard and from observations of these came to the general conclusion that I should grow a weed cover using ladino clover as the primary crop and such herbs as alfalfa, lupine, and bur clover as the secondary crops. To condition the deeper strata in the hard, depleted soil, I companion-planted fertilizer trees such as black wattle, myrtle, and podocarpus. (p.188) (7)

Fukuoka found that ladino clover would fully suppress weeds within 2-3 years, and would not need to be reseeded for 6-8 years. Drawbacks included less shade tolerance than he wanted, and the requirement for regular mowing. In winter he sowed brassica vegetables, and in summer legume vegetables and millets. Perennial vegetables were introduced and annual crops seed broadcast, with some annuals allowed to reseed themselves, producing strong-flavored feral offspring.


White or ladino clover, Fukuoka’s preferred nitrogen-fixing groundcover
in the food forest understory.

Table: Fukuoka’s companion crops

Adapted from table on page 144, Natural Way of Farming.

Crop Type Sample Crops Understory
Evergreen Fruit Trees Citrus, loquat Fuki (Petasites), buckwheat
Deciduous Fruit Trees Walnut, persimmon, peach, plum, cherry,  apricot, apple, pear Devil’s tongue (probably an aroid), lilies, ginger, buckwheat
Fruit vines Grape, kiwi, akebia Millets
Nitrogen fixing trees Acacia, wax myrtle, alder Green manures*, vegetables


Table: Fukuoka’s green manure crops

Annual crops (mostly) broadcast seasonally. Adapted from page 144, Natural Way of Farming.

Crop
Spring
Summer
Winter
Ladino clover, alfalfa
Yes
Yes
Yes
Bur clover
Yes
Mustard family vegetables
Yes
Lupines, vetches
Yes
Soybeans, peanuts, adzuki beans, mung beans, cowpeas
Yes


Management

Black wattle trees (Acacia mearnsii) were his favorite nitrogen fixer as they were evergreen and grew to the size of a telephone pole in 7-8 years. At this point he cut down the wattles and buried them in trenches (more hugelculture). The wattle trees, fast-growing and evergreen, always served as a home for aphids and scales, and as a home to their predators like ladybugs, which provided pest control through the food forest. He ran poultry and other livestock in the orchard understory once it was established.


Black wattle acacia, Fukuoka’s primary nitrogen-fixing tree speces

Pruning

Fukuoka has a lot to say about pruning in Natural Way of Farming. He sought minimal pruning styles to allow his fruit and nut trees to grow as close as possible to their natural shape. To this end he grew many seedlings of citrus and other species to observe their natural form. Almost half of the trees he inherited from his father died in his quest for a low-maintenance, natural pruning regime, about 400 trees!

Fukuoka’s food forest today

Masanobu Fukuoka died in 2008 at the age of 95. Today his children and grandchildren maintain the farm, including the food forest area. Citrus and ginkgo are thriving, and mango, avocado, and feijoa have been added. Shiitakes are cultivated in the understory on logs. Wild vegetables still grow beneath the orchard in some areas. (8)


Masanobu Fukuoka in 2002

Species in Fukuoka’s food forest

I’ve done my best to extrapolate from the translated common names in Natural Way of Farming. Some were nailed down with assistance from my Yama-Kei Pocket Guide to wild edibles of Japan. Surely there were many, many more which did not make it into the books, but this is a pretty good start.

Large Trees
Latin Name Common Name Uses Functions
Acacia mearnsii Black wattle Nitrogen fixer
Alnus japonica Japanese alder Nitrogen fixer
Castanea spp. Chestnut Nuts
Ginkgo biloba Ginkgo Nuts, medicinal
Juglans spp. Walnut Nuts


Ginkgo nuts, still producing well in Fukuoka’s food forest today.

Medium Trees
Latin Name Common Name Uses Functions
Amygdalus communis Apricot Fruit
Aralia elata Japanese angelica tree Shoots and young leaves
Citrus maxima Shaddock, pummelo Fruit
Citrus reticulata Mandarin orange Fruit
Citrus x. sinensis Orange Fruit
Cydonia oblonga Quince Fruit
Eriobotrya japonica loquat Fruit
Malus domestica Apple Fruit
Prunus avium cherry Fruit
Prunus persica Peach Fruit
Prunus salicina Plum Fruit
Pyrus spp. Pear Fruit
Zizyphus jujuba Jujube Fruit


Loquat, a tasty evergreen fruit tree

Shrubs and Small Trees
Latin Name Common Name Uses Functions
Eleagnus umbellata Oleaster, autumn olive Fruits Nitrogen fixation
Ficus carica Fig Fruit
Fortunella japonica Kumquat Fruit
Myrica rubra Wax myrtle, yumberry Fruits Nitrogen fixation
Podocarpus spp. Podocarpus Nitrogen fixation
Punica granatum Pomegranate Fruit
Ribes spp. Currant Fruit


Wax myrtle or yumberry, a Japanese native nitrogen-fixer with edible fruit

Vines
Latin Name Common Name Uses Functions
Actinidia deliciosa Kiwifruit Fruit
Akebia quinata Akebia Fruit, shoots
Dioscorea japonica Japanese yam Tubers, aerial tubers
Dioscorea polystachya Chinese yam Tubers, aerial tubers
Peuraria lobata Kudzu Tuber starch Nitrogen fixation, weed suppression
Sechium edule Chayote Squash, shoots, tubers
Vitis vinifera Grape Fruit


Akebia, another Japanese native with edible fruits and shoots.

Perennial Herbs
Latin Name Common Name Uses Functions
Allium fistulosum Welsh onion Scallions
Allium sativum Garlic Garlic
Allium tuberosum Chinese leek Greens
Aralia cordata Udo Shoots
Asparagus officinalis Asparagus Shoots
Colocasia esculenta Taro Tubers
Crambe maritima Sea kale Leaves, broccolis
Cryptotaenia japonica Honewort Culinary
Dactylis glomerata Orchardgrass Weed suppression
Lilium spp. Lilies Bulbs
Medicago sativa Alfalfa Nitrogen fixation
Mentha spp. Japanese mint culinary
Panax ginseng Ginseng Medicinal
Petasites japonicus Fuki Stalks
Phleum pratense Timothy grass Weed suppression
Zingiber mioga Mioga ginger Shoots
Zingiber officinale Ginger Spice, shoots


Fuki, a Japanese native perennial vegetable for full shade and one of the
traditional "seven herbs of spring".

Ground Covers
Latin Name Common Name Uses Functions
Ipomoea batatas Sweet potato Tubers, leaves Weed suppression
Medicago spp. Bur clover Nitrogen fixation, weed suppression
Trifolium pratense Red clover Nitrogen fixation
Trifolium repens Ladino clover, white clover Nitrogen fixation, weed suppression
Vicia spp. Vetches Nitrogen fixation


Sweet potato, an excellent weed-suppressing groundcover as well as a food crop.

Annuals: Self-Sown and Broadcast
Latin Name Common Name Uses Functions
Arachis hypogaea Peanut Peanuts Nitrogen fixation, weed suppression
Brassica napus Rapeseed Oilseed Weed suppression
Brassica rapa Turnip Roots, greens Weed suppression
Brassica spp. Indian mustard Greens Weed suppression
Echinochloa spp. Japanese barnyard millet Grain Weed suppression
Fagopyrum esculentum Buckwheat Grain Weed suppression
Glycine max Soybean Beans Nitrogen fixation, weed suppression
Hordeum vulgare Barley Grain Weed suppression
Lupinus spp. Lupine Nitrogen fixation, weed suppression
Melilotus spp. Sweet clover Nitrogen fixation
Panicum mileaceum Proso millet Grain Weed suppression
Perilla frutescens Shiso Culinary
Pisium sativum Garden pea Peas Nitrogen fixation, weed suppression
Raphanus sativus Daikon Roots, greens Weed suppression
Setaria italica Foxtail millet Grain Weed suppression
Trifolium incarnatum Crimson clover Nitrogen fixation
Trifolium subterraneum Sub clover
Triticum aestivum wheat Grain Weed suppression
Vicia faba Broad bean Beans Nitrogen fixation, weed suppression
Vigna angularis Adzuki bean Beans Nitrogen fixation, weed suppression
Aster Family crops Burdock, lettuce, edible chrysanthemum Greens, roots
Brassica Family crops Chinese cabbage, cabbage, leaf mustard, potherb mustard, black mustard Greens
Carrot Family crops Carrot, parsley, celery Culinary, greens, roots
Chenopod Family crops Spinach, chard Greens
Cucurbit Family crops Watermelon, cucumber, melons, winter squash, bottle gourd, wax melon Fruit vegetables, some greens
Legume Family crops Kidney bean, asparagus bean, sword bean Beans Nitrogen fixation
Potato Family crops Tomato, eggplant, potato, peppers, tobacco Fruit vegetables, tobacco


Shiso is a Japanese native culinary herb that is almost excessively well-suited
to the food forest understory.

References:

  1. Ramon Magsaysay Award Biography of Masanobu Fukuoka
  2. Masanobu Fukuoka, The Natural Way of Farming, 186
  3. Masanobu Fukuoka, The Natural Way of Farming, 144
  4. Masanobu Fukuoka, The Natural Way of Farming, 186
  5. Masanobu Fukuoka, The Natural Way of Farming, 144
  6. Masanobu Fukuoka, The Natural Way of Farming, 185
  7. Masanobu Fukuoka, The Natural Way of Farming, 188
  8. Japanese articles summarized on Wikipedia

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24 thoughts on “Fukuoka’s Food Forest

  1. Awesome! Thanks for this article! I had no idea that wax myrtle was nitrogen-fixing. The photo of the fruit looks different than what we call wax myrtle down here (on the Gulf Coast of Florida) which is tiny, blue-grey and thickly coated with wax. Is the one you mentioned just a different variety? I’ve used its leaves as a bay leaf substitute, but the fruits seem too dry and waxy to be edible.

  2. I’m a admiring fan and have been following for several years now but I was a bit surprised to see the use of Kudzu Peuraria lobata. It has become so invasive here in the Pacific Northwest that we have dedicated groups that go out and eradicate it.

    1. Hi Sheri, this is a list of what Fukuoka grew presented for historical and permacultural interest, not a list of recommended species for anybody else. It happens that kudzu is native in Japan.
      Jaime, the farm is on the island of Shikoku in southern Japan. The climate is interesting as very temperate and very tropical species grow together, like mangoes and apples.
      Geoff, glad you liked it!
      Eric

  3. Nice article, i had heard a report that the place was not as well looked after now, using pesticides etc. Anyone know any recent info?

  4. Thank you for this great article, Eric. The plant species index is particularly helpful. Fukuoka-sensei’s farm is being run by his son and grandchildren using organic methods. No synthetic chemicals are being used. The family has asked that people please not visit the farm. They have enough to do just maintaining it. Fukuoka’s son is not as interested in teaching as his father was.

  5. i’ve read that Citrus are easy to maintain with a no-pruning philosophy. Did Fukuoka strategy worked with other fruits (apple, …) ? Thanks

  6. I have no first hand knowledge of the oranges that Fukuoka grew so I can’t comment. But where I do have first hand knowledge, I do know that not pruning the pears, plums, apples, peaches, and apricots that I do have presents problems. Harvest becomes difficult as the trees get tall. Ladders are required. Without light and ventilation, there are problems with fruit not ripening and disease. WIthout pruning, branches conflict with each other, rub together and create open wounds on the tree or shade out branches immediately below them. When this shadin occurs, energy is split between two branches resulting in reduced yield. Not pruning often leads to alternate year fruiting especially in apples. Not pruning dwarf or semi-dwarf apples can lead to more mass above ground than there is below ground such that heavy winds on a fruited tree that is staked can still overpower the stake.

    Pruning in early years to shape it leads to less pruning in later years. Selective pruning in later years after the tree shape has been established is a very quick exercise to do if it is done every year. It’s also a great opportunity to do a close up inspection of the tree when the leaves are off it to see if there are problems such as borers.

      1. Fukuoka’s comments on natural shape are interesting:

        “Many have a vague idea of the natural form as something akin to the shape of a neglected tree. But there is a world of difference between the two. In a sense, the true natural form of a tree may be unknowable to man. People will say that a pine tree should look like this, and a cypress or cedar like that, but knowing the true form of a pine tree is not all that easy. It is all too common for people to ask whether a low, twisted pine on the seashore is the natural form, and to become perplexed as to whether a lone cryptomeria standing tall in a meadow with alternate branches drooping downward in all directions is the natural form for this tree or whether the branches should be inclined upward at an angle of 50 degrees and ranged radially about the trunk like a mountain pine.”

        But he goes no further specifically discussion natural form. But he telling says it all that “the true natural form of a tree may be unknowable to man.”

        He follows on into Is Pruning Really Necessary?. He says “The branches of a tree growing naturally never cross or entangle, but once even the smallest part of a new shoot is damaged, that wound becomes a source of confusion that follows the tree for life. As long as the shoots on a tree emerge in an orderly fashion according to the natural law for that species, guarding the correct angle front and back, left and right, there is no crossing or entangling of the branches.” He’s talking in general but if I ask does this apply to the apple tree, experience says the answer is no. I have at least 25 wild apples growing that have never had a pruning by man. They are wonderfully natural with criss-crossing branches, rubbing branches, broken branches and no fruit on many of them in the seven years that they have been in my safekeeping. He goes on to say “If you draw a mental picture of the natural form of a tree and make every effort to protect the tree from the local environment, then it will thrive, putting out good fruit year after year.” So what is this natural form of an apple? What I see in my woods? He’s answer that question when he says unknowable. But then he says, “To learn of these forms, I began observing various plants and fruit trees.” Again, the question, Is what I see in my woods, the natural form? Hmmmmmmm!!

        He then goes on at length about his oranges and then jumps into natural forms of other trees. Apples among others have a tall, cedar-like conical form. None of those in my woods have a shape like he shows. They all have shapes closer to that of his abandoned tree shape.

        But then he says: “The natural forms of young grapevines and persimmon, pear, and apple trees have low branch, leaf, and fruit densities, and thus produce small yields. This can be resolved by discreet pruning to increase the density of fruit and branch formation. From there he talks about a central leader with scaffolds which he says can be used to climb the tree to harvest apples. With all due respect to a man for whom I have an immense amount of respect, this is a bad idea on many different counts. Focusing on just one, this is a good way to damage next years fruiting branches and buds.

        I don’t disagree with this shape description, in fact, I would endorse it, but I don’t believe that apple trees naturally grow that way if the trees in my woods are telling me true. My experience has been that having an apple with a central leader/scaffold shape requires intervention at the beginning by pruning, by weighting or spreading branches. Branches DO NOT grow out from the leader at an angle of about 20 degrees to the horizontal in a regular, spiraling arrangement that make it easier to climb. The previous sentence without DO NOT is Fukuoka’s words; DO NOT are my addition. They come from observation and mistake. Branches will emerge as close as two inches from each other in the same vertical plain. To leave both creates problems of shading, rubbing, ventilation. One must be pruned. Often a scaffold towards the top of the central leader will put on immense growth and become a competing leader. To weight or spread the branch produces an unbalanced tree. The development of a pyramidal shape with lateral scaffolds results from judicious pruning to force that shape.

        He finally says: “Considering the many years of toil and the losses that may otherwise ensue, it is certainly preferable to
        choose to do some formative pruning early on.” With that I agree absolutely. The nit that I have is that his desired cedar shaped extended triangle does not naturally occur. It comes from selective pruning and shaping when the tree is young and until it reaches its cropping years. If it attained that shape naturally, why intervene at all?

        Thank you for the comment about sounding like Fukuoka. If only it were true. The closer I think I get, the farther I get. Sigh.

  7. I am not an expert on pruning or apple crops but I’d like to mention a few things. With trees like apples that have undergone thousands of years of horticultural breeding, Fukuoka-san said probably no one alive today has ever seen an original apple tree so it is hard to know what its original shape actually was. The varieties people grow today, even heirlooms, have been bred to be useful to human beings–they taste good, are designed for specific uses, yield heavily, and respond to human care. That may be one of the reasons they are difficult to grow without pruning and other types of care. The low side branches bear so heavily in many commercial orchards that they need to be supported by wooden stakes or they will break from the weight of their own fruit, for example. Fukuoka-san loved to grow trees from seed even though he knew most of them would not yield a commercial crop. He did this because he loved to watch them grow naturally to a stately size, to maintain genetic diversity. and to provide food for wildlife. When someone asked him once about the fruit that was growing so high up they couldn’t be harvested, he replied, “You don’t think I’m growing food for just people, do you?” Of course he had more than ten acres and had plenty of room to play around. Although he made that remark about climbing up into the trees to harvest, I don’t remember anyone actually doing that. We used ladders. When the fruit was out of reach we just left it there.

  8. Hey Eric thanks a lot for the info helps a lot as I live in a similar climate zone. I have a question for you we have 4 different Indigenous species of Podocarpus In South Africa of which 2 of them are native to my area they are Podocarpus Falcatus and Podocarpus Latifolius, do you know if these two species are also Nitrogen fixing ? Many Thanks

  9. Many Thanks Eric, We always look forward to your posts, even as far away as we are in SAfrica. We are however in low rainfall in general (600mm pa)
    How about some future article on hardy plants suitable for lower rainfall areas ?
    Now we need to ask Geoff and his people to make articles available in pdf format.

    1. Now we need to ask Geoff and his people to make articles available in pdf format.

      Hi Jack. This feature is already available. At bottom of every post you will find some ‘share’ buttons. The leftmost button is a ‘PrintFriendly’ button. Click on that, and then at top you’ll see the option to create a PDF from the post.

  10. Great article. Great questions. Great answers. I am so happy to see folks focusing down to specifics so we can put these ideas into practice as well as we can.

  11. Thanks for the stimulating article and replies. Tree forms / arquetypes are also succeptible to epigenetics, soil types and inconsistencies below ground such as rocks which can provoke branch distribution changes. Many highly ‘ social ‘ trees are quite variable when they are left to themselves as they closely relate to other surrounding trees most of the time. As was mentioned above, the family lines of apple trees have been fiddled with a lot by plant breeders. Underground water currents also affect tree form and balance. Regards Pete

  12. Very interested in the concept of the food forrest as a way for landless types to guerrilla garden public lands. Acorns, nopal, olives, pomegranate.

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