The Permaculture-Inspired, Food Forest Card Game
By Karl Treen

food forest card game

food forest card game

Two years ago we began planning a food forest based on permaculture principles for my son’s school. Generally, teaching gardening is mostly boots on the ground with a smattering of classroom work. As any good teacher knows, keeping the attention of twenty-five elementary school children through a lecture is a challenging task. That said, permaculture involves a lot of theory. Without understanding permaculture principles, some of it doesn’t make sense at all to the conventionally raised child. While my activities were usually pretty well received, we had a limited amount of time together for teaching more complex concepts. I needed a tool that I could introduce and then leave behind so that the children could teach themselves.

My son goes to a Montessori school. Being up close and personal in a Montessori classroom, I was struck by the fact that their teaching tools mostly resembled toys. One day something clicked and I found myself sketching up a rough draft of my own toy, a deck of cards that would allow the children to actually play with permaculture concepts. Thus was born the Food Forest card game.

Much like a standard deck of playing cards, the deck can be used to play an infinite variety of games. All of the games so far are based on matching one card’s inputs with another card’s outputs. Every card has a collection of icons on either side of a central image. The icons on the left side are “inputs” and the icons on the right are “outputs”. To keep this clear, there is an arrow pointing in from the left and another arrow pointing out from the right. These icons include:

  • Food: the card either needs or provides food
  • Water: the card either needs, or stores, water between rainstorms
  • Pollinators: the card attracts and/or requires pollinators
  • Nitrogen: the card either depletes the soil of nitrogen or increases the supply
  • Groundcover: the card either represents a groundcover or needs one
  • Trellis: the card either requires or serves as a trellis
  • The infinity symbol: this symbol allows players’ to incorporate their own observations and knowledge of connections into some of the games.


four card guild

There are many more possible connections between plants and other elements in a food forest, of course. I began the process with twice as many icons, but there was a fine line to walk between enough and too much information, especially for beginners. In the end, I had to settle on the inclusion of “infinity” which can be used in some games to challenge players to think outside of the box.

Beyond the “input/output” system, there are other permaculture references on the cards. Sun/shade requirements are indicated for each card, and some cards actually cast shade on others depending on card orientation. At the bottom of the card’s text is a key to the level in the forest where a card might appear, from root vegetables to the forest canopy. There is also a key to the suggested permaculture zone where the card would be located, from zone 0 (the house) to zone 5 (the wilderness).

Using some or all of the card elements described above, from simple to incredibly complex, any number of games can be created.

With the children, we usually play a game I called Picklet, which is a great way for players of all ages to familiarize themselves with the basic mechanics of the deck. For this game, nine cards are dealt, face-down, and players take turns turning over one card at a time. When one plant provides an output that matches the input of another plant, the first player to recognize it says “Picklet!” and claims the pair. There are non-competitive games too, but the children I work with tend to be more engaged in the competitive ones.

The amazing thing is how my 8-year-old son consistently beats me at the games I’ve developed with this deck. It seems that young brains are especially receptive to game-based learning. I encountered very few children, ages six and older, who could not quickly master the beginner games.

The games are not just for children though. The complexity of the cards lends itself to adult games too, even including a solitaire game and a poker-style game. More games are in development, and we hope that the permaculture community will improve and perfect, the games we have already designed.

food forest game


We have already printed test decks of the cards. We are now raising money to print the cards in larger quantities and to make this educational tool available more widely. The campaign has been well received and is moving steadily toward our goal. We really appreciate the support of our backers.

For more information, please visit our Kickstarter campaign: Here!

food forest card game