How to Create a Food Forest
Food forests mimic nature and how plants grow in the forest without human intervention. Traditional gardens are typically very structured and created in rows with empty soil between the rows. Forest gardens are less structured and have little to no empty space. Every available inch of soil is used for growing food plants or covered with organic material to enrich the soil and promote a healthy biodiverse sub-culture.
Forest gardens, also known as permacultures, food forests, or edible forest gardens, are outdoor spaces that are filled with life year-round. These types of low-maintenance, sustainable gardens not only provide food for people, but food and habitats for wildlife, and improve the soil structure.
Something is always growing in a forest garden and that helps the planet (and us) by reducing the amount the carbon dioxide in the air we breathe. It’s a process called ‘carbon sequestering’ in which plants capture and store atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Creating a forest garden is simple. The process is an agroforestry system based on woodland ecosystems and incorporates vegetables, fruits, herbs, vines, shrubs, and nut trees which produce edible foods for humans.
Seven Layers of a Forest Garden
A forest garden is created in layers that reach from roots that are below the soil’s surface to the tree tops. Ideally, each layer will produce something edible for humans.
The first layer is the tallest trees. The second layer is shorter trees and shrubs, followed by vegetable plants, fruit vines, herbs, and root crops. The last layer is the ground cover which will protect the soil from eroding and prevent weeds from growing in the food forest.
The layers are mutually beneficial to each other and promote healthy plant growth, food production, and improve the soil and air.
1. Tall Tree Choices
Since the plants at ground level need sunlight to grow, you don’t want to plant large shade trees in your food forest. Plus, shade trees like maple and pin oak don’t produce food for humans.
Plant fruit and nut trees like apple, pear, plum, and Chinese chestnuts. Plant the tall-growing trees far enough apart to allow the sun to penetrate through to the bottom layers after the trees have matured.
Bear in mind that pruning may be needed after a few years to allow the sunlight to penetrate down through all the layers.
2. Short Trees and Shrubs
The next layer will be slightly shorter trees and shrubs. Plant trees and shrubs that will produce fruits and that will tolerate heavy pruning.
Peach, apricot, papaw, hazelnut, and persimmons are food-producing trees that will reach around 6-feet tall when mature and can withstand heavy prunings as needed to let the sun penetrate. Dogwood trees thrive in the shade of taller trees and produce pollen-filled blooms in very early spring and red berries in the fall for pollinators.
The shrub layer should include both food producers and pollinator attractors. Blueberries, blackberries, currants, butterfly bush, roses, and Siberian pea shrubs are low-maintenance choices.
Huckleberry, gooseberry, and elderberry will thrive in partial shade and are perfect fruit-producing shrubs to tuck away in the shady sections of the food forest.
Many shrubs come in dwarf varieties and will thrive when planted in small spaces within the food forest. The dwarf-sized shrubs will produce the same sized fruit on plants that are about 1/3 of the regular size.
Any of your favorite vegetables can be grown in a food forest. Observe how the sun hits each section of the forest garden before planting vegetables and other plants in the next few layers.
Some food producing plants need full sun exposure, like tomatoes and okra, while other plants, like squash and wild strawberries, will grow fine in partial shade. Traditional garden vegetables will require some maintenance and most are annual plants.
The best edible plants to grow in a food forest will be native perennial plants. They are acclimated to your climate and will re-seed themselves year after year. Native plants have also developed an immunity to the various pests and diseases that are common in your region.
Onions, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, arugula, borage, broccoli rabe, radishes, poke salad, cherry tomatoes, lettuce, and nasturtiums are a few of the self-seeding vegetable plants that will return for years without you replanting them.
Edible native plants will vary between the growing zones but some of the easiest to grow in almost any climate include Sea beet, Miner’s lettuce, giant bellflower, sweet cicely, parsnip, rhubarb, sorrel, lovage, and Persian garlic.
The fifth layer of a forest garden is the vines. The vines can produce vegetables, berries, or flowers, and they are important for filling up the vertical spaces around tree trunks and/or fencing.
Vining vegetable plants like cucumbers, melons, and pole beans are easy to train to grow up tree trunks, fence posts, and sunflower or corn stalks. These vining vegetables are self-seeding and will return year after year.
Fruiting vines include kiwi, grapes, maypops, passionflower, and various types of berries. The amount of sunlight that reaches the section of the food forest will determine which types of vine will grow best in that particular spot.
Flowering vines will make your forest garden beautiful and attract pollinators. The pollinators are fun to watch as they do their job to keep the garden productive. If you have areas that receive partial sun, plant flowering vines like honeysuckle, trumpet flower, hops, and star jasmine.
For shady locations, plant a Dutchman’s Pipe vine. It doesn’t produce food but it will thrive in the shade and reach a mature length of 30-feet. The vine will happily grow up the trunk of a tall tree and produce an abundance of heart-shaped leaves and pipe-shaped flowers. The large, deep purple blooms are filled with nectar and attract bees, butterflies, and birds.
Many of these vines also have medicinal uses, like passionflower, which has been used for centuries to treat insomnia, stress, back pain, and high blood pressure. Planting vines that are multi-purpose is ideal for off-grid homesteads and preppers.
Herbs add flavor to food and many are used for medicinal purposes. Herbs plants also produce fragrances for you to enjoy and blooms filled with nectar and pollen for the pollinators.
Plant herbs that will provide a multitude of uses and match the herbs with the right planting locations (full sun, partial shade, etc.) for best results. Also, plant as many perennial herbs as possible or at least the varieties that will re-seed themselves.
Lavender is a good choice – it’s a well-known sleep aid. Plus lavender tea helps relieves stress, anxiety, and treats digestive issues.
Peppermint is used to flavor beverages, ice cream, candy, and the oil from the leaves is good for soothing irritated skin, muscle, and joint pain.
Turmeric is used in curry recipes and to treat arthritis, allergies, and digestive issues.
Many other herbs that grow well in a food forest and the lower-growing plants can be grown under the taller ones.
6. Root Crops
Root crops are the hardest workers in the garden. Many root crops typically provide two foods from one space and one plant. Radishes, beets, and carrots provide tasty bulbs that grow underground and develop nutritious green tops above the ground.
The root crops also help keep the soil of a food forest loose. As the bulbs grow downward they are moving the soil and prevent it from becoming compacted.
Root crops need minimal sunlight and make excellent additions to a forest garden. Try growing sweet potatoes, which produce a long vine that can double as a ground cover. Also tuck in parsnips, potatoes, turnips, celeriac, horseradish, onions, ginger, garlic, fennel, and rutabagas.
A forest garden is not set in rows like a traditional garden but rather in layers until all the available space has something growing in it. Tucking in roots crops and herbs into all the available nooks and crannies is the ideal usage of growing space.
7. Ground Cover
The final layer is the ground cover. All the soil should be kept covered with mulch or living vegetation to improve the soil. Ground covers are living mulch and protect the soil from erosion and weed growth. They will also help prevent soil compaction that can be caused by heavy rainfall. As the ground covers die and decompose they will add nutrients and organic material back into the soil.
Evergreen ground covers will protect the soil year-round and keep something green growing in the food forest for humans and wildlife. Evergreen ground covers that grow well in the sun and are edible include flowering thyme (use just like the herb thyme), creeping raspberries, and bearberry. Bearberry has glossy green leaves and produces small red berries in the fall that taste much like cranberries when cooked. If you don’t like to eat them, the birds will. The plants also have medicinal uses.
Lilyturf is an evergreen ground cover that thrives in the shade around the base of trees. It’s a hardy plant that produces pollen-filled purple blooms in the spring. The root of this plant has medicinal uses and is often used as an anti-inflammatory and expectorant.
Nitrogen Fixing Plants
Nitrogen is an essential soil element and plants can’t grow without it. They can make proteins or amino acids and won’t be able to uptake water and food. Increase the nitrogen in the garden soil naturally by planting ‘nitrogen-fixing’ plants.
Nitrogen-fixing plants are those whose roots are colonized by bacteria that extract nitrogen from the air and convert it into a form needed for them to grow. When the bacteria are done with this nitrogen, it becomes available to the plants.
Any plant in the legume family, like peanuts, nasturtiums, beans, and peas, are good nitrogen-fixers. Ground covers like, clover, vetch, alfalfa, and fava beans are ideal too.
Plant a wide variety of plants in all the food forest layers so the plants will be able to give something back to the earth they are growing from. Every plant in a natural forest serves a purpose and has a job to do to keep the forest healthy and thriving. All the plants grown in a forest garden should do the same.
Every available space is used in a forest garden to grow food but pathways must be designed within the food plot for easy access to plants. Since the food forest will have an organic shape, so should the pathways that meander through it.
Use recycled or organic material to create the pathways. Rocks removed from the garden area or tree rounds cut from a tree that had to be removed can be used to create pathways through the forest garden.
As the plants grow and re-seed themselves the garden will take on a natural, flowing shape but you will need to be able to reach the plants for harvesting. Create pathways that run through the forest garden in a way that will provide easy access to plants with minimal foot traffic on the soil. Walking on the soil compacts it, so the less foot traffic in the growing areas the better.
A garden produces food for both the body and mind. Add some seating and a table so you can sit and enjoy the growing plants and passing pollinators. A few bird houses and bird feeders make a welcomed addition to the garden area.
You may want to consider placing a bee hive or two near the forest garden. All the flowering plants will attract the bees and a nearby hive will help them to thrive and reproduce. Plus, you will be able to get fresh honey from the hives.
The goal of a forest garden is to create a food-producing plot of land that requires minimal human intervention to be productive. In a natural forest, humans do nothing yet it is a productive oasis that provides food and shelter for countless animals.
With the proper layering and plant choices, you can create a forest garden that will keep your family well-fed and be beneficial to all plant and animal life.