Food Forests (What They Are & How To Plant)


There’s a new trend in permaculture, and it’s called a food forest. If you’ve been growing vegetables for years and you’re ready to take your garden to the next level, consider planting a food forest! 

Food forests are diverse, intensified plantings of trees, shrubs, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Food forests come from an ancient agroforestry practice modeled from existing multi-layered forests to produce food for human consumption. Food forests use fewer inputs than traditional agriculture and require far less maintenance.

Read on to learn what a food forest is and how they work, as well as how to plant your own! 

What Is A Food Forest?

Food forests – also called edible forests or forest gardens – are becoming more and more popular as individual gardeners, communities, and colleges embrace these low-maintenance, productive gardens.

blueberries
Blueberries are just one of the many plants you can add to your food forest.

These intricate agricultural systems vary by region and intended use, but most food forests contain a diverse selection of annual and perennial vegetables, flowering plants, and fruit and nut-bearing trees. 

Multi-layered System Mimics Nature

Food forests are meant to model woodland forests and their various ecosystems. Edible forests focus primarily on vertical growth, and lateral growth second – much opposed to our traditional garden plots that are laid out horizontally. 

Apple trees are one type of plant you can use for the overstory (canopy) in your food forest.

The University of Florida has identified seven layers of a food forest: canopy, understory, shrub, herbaceous, groundcover, root, and vertical.¹ Each layer is integral to a healthy and productive food forest and serves a purpose for humans and the environment alike. 

1. Overstory (Canopy)

This layer is comprised of full-size trees that often reach between 30 and 60 feet tall when mature. This layer typically includes fruit and nut trees that provide food and shade for the crops underneath them. Apples, pears, walnuts, and pecans are examples of overstory trees.

brown pear
Pear trees are another fine addition to the overstory (canopy) of your food forest.

(You can find some self-pollinating pear trees here).

2. Understory

Small trees that grow between 18 and 25 feet tall make up the understory, along with immature fruit trees. Cherry trees and fig trees thrive in the understory. 

Cherry Tree
Cherry trees make a good addition to the understory in a food forest.

(You can find self pollinating cherry trees here).

3. Shrubs

The shrub layer is exactly how it sounds – space taken up by perennial shrubs and midsized edibles. These plants typically don’t grow taller than 15 feet tall but are bushier than herbaceous plants. Blueberry bushes and raspberry brambles are just two examples of shrubs. 

yellow raspberries
Raspberries are a great choice for the shrub layer in your food forest.

You can find thornless raspberry varieties here, and you can see some everbearing raspberry varieties here. You can learn about various types of blueberries here.

4. Herbaceous

This is the layer reserved for annual and perennial vegetables and flowers. Forest gardens strive to blend both types together for varied blooming and fruiting year-round. Understanding plant light requirements are critical at this stage – and crops that have more shade-tolerant will fare far better. 

asparagus spear
Asparagus is a perennial that makes a great choice for the herbaceous layer of your food forest.

When food forests are young, sun-loving vegetables will thrive in this space, but once the tree canopy has grown in, cool-season vegetables and shade-tolerant plants will appreciate this protective layer from the scorching midsummer sun.

Many food forests will have flowering plants in this zone – if not for a food source, to attract beneficial insects like pollinators and predatory insects. 

5. Groundcover

We’re used to seeing grass as a groundcover, but grass isn’t the most common ground cover found in nature. Woodland forest has an abundance of spawling plants whose roots protect loose soil and bare earth. 

ripening strawberries
Strawberries are a good choice for the groundcover layer of a food forest.

Food forests take advantage of edible ground cover, accomplishing two purposes at once – cultivating a food source and slowing the processes of erosion. Strawberries and squash are just a couple of examples of edible groundcovers that easily spread.

6. Root

Carrots, radishes, potatoes, and other root crops make up the root layer, utilizing underused underground space. These vegetables are important sources of food for their ability to store through the winter months, but these crops also serve the forest garden by loosening the soil for other plants and insects.

carrot greens
Carrots are a good choice for the root layer of a food forest.

(You can learn all about the spacing and soil depth requirements for carrots here).

7. Vertical

Vining plants are an integral part of native forests, and food forests replicate this layer with vines like sweet potatoes, peas, and beans. 

Some edible forests even have an eighth layer called the mycelial layer – this underground region harbors fungal spores that develop into edible mushrooms. Fungi serve a greater purpose than feeding humans, however – most plants actually depend on mycorrhizae, a fungus that colonizes root systems, to better absorb nutrients and water from the soil. 

sweet potato vines
Sweet potato vines make a good addition to the vertical layer of a food forest.

No food forest is truly complete without all of these layers, even though the plants mature at different times. Root crops and herbaceous plants have a much shorter life cycle than trees and shrubs.

Once an edible forest is a few years old, it will find its own natural rhythms, and mature plants will set seeds, producing new generations to fill the void they leave behind.  

Why Are Food Forests Important?

Forest farming, or agroforestry, is an agricultural practice that has been around almost since the dawn of civilization. In the western world, we’re more used to growing and eating annual vegetables, even though perennial plants are primarily dominant in nature. 

Rows Of Onions In Garden Early April 2022
As gardeners, we often get used to neat rows of plants, but a food forest turns that idea on its head!

Annuals, while delicious and nutritious, require a lot of work from seed to harvest, and can only be enjoyed locally when in season. Out of season, our annual vegetables are grown somewhere else and shipped thousands of miles to our local supermarkets, which we drive to buy groceries. 

Food forests are counter-cultural because there is no wasted space or energy. Every planting serves a specific purpose. Crops are either directly harvested as food sources, or they indirectly benefit the harvest by improving the health and quality of their companion plants.

Food Forests Are The Definition Of Sustainable Agriculture

Forest gardens are a more sustainable means of food production than conventional agriculture. The investment is mostly in time – decades may pass between the first planting and peak harvest. In the meantime, annual crops can be grown in the spaces between immature trees.  

purple figs
Fig trees and other fruit trees can produce fruit for years after planting.

Food forests are productive in all stages of growth – but it is only in the later years that the adult forest does what it’s designed to do: produce food without any human intervention. 

Low-maintenance Agroforestry Practice

The goal of planting food forests is to create a self-sustaining food-producing system. By planting fruit and nut-bearing trees with shrubs and perennials, harvests are ensured for years to come.

black walnut tree
Walnuts (or black walnuts, shown here) produce nuts for years after planting as a long-lasting part of a food forest.

Even the annuals planted in food forests tend to be self-seeding varieties, so that work is minimized after the first year. The most work required in planting a food forest is in the very beginning, when establishing the plants.

Saplings and young shrubs will need regular watering to survive transplanting. After the plants are established, the hardest (and most rewarding) work will be harvesting! 

Successions & Changing Seasons

The incredible thing about food forests is that they change and grow as the years progress. Most of us are used to annual vegetables that grow, mature, and die in a single season – but food forests take decades to mature. When they do, they provide hundreds of years of peak maturity.

When food forests are young, there is ample sunlight to grow even the most sun-loving vegetables. By the time trees mature and start leafing out, the understory will be in partial shade and will necessitate different shade-tolerant crops. 

daylight
As the trees in a food forest age, they allow less sunlight through to plants in the understory. So, try some shade-tolerant plants as your food forest grows.

Even within the calendar year, a food forest looks different from season to season. Early cool-season crops can reap the rewards of full sun.

By midsummer, trees will have leafed out, providing shade from the afternoon sun. By autumn, when the leaves have fallen, sunny spaces will again be made for later-season crops. 

Pollinator Habitat

In a world where native pollinators are dying daily due to habitat loss, a food forest provides a place for pollinators to rest and feed. Some of our favorite foods (like cucumbers and squash) require pollination to make fruit – so partner up with the bees for the most productive garden. 

bee on flower
Bees and other pollinators help you to get a better harvest after all of your hard work planting and cultivating.

Chemical-free

By design, food forests don’t need synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Falling leaves and decaying plant material cover the floors, serving as a mulch that suppresses weeds and returns organic material back to the soil.

Incorporating nitrogen-fixing plants (like peas and beans) into the forest provides a source of nitrogen for all plants to use.

peas
Peas help to fix nitrogen in the soil, restoring this essential nutrient for other plants and future growth.

Not only do flowering plants house a healthy pollinator population, but attract predatory and parasitic insects to the food forest, keeping pest populations controlled. Growing diverse plants within a food forest discourages the rapid multiplication of pests that result in full-blown invasions. 

Zero Emissions

With so much of our food supply depending on the use of fossil fuels, chemicals, and over-tilling soil, food forests are a refreshing way to produce a sustainable food supply without adversely affecting the environment. Edible forests are a natural carbon sink, sequestering carbon dioxide in the soil and trees’ root systems.

Purifies Water

Food forests are proven to aid in the purification of rainwater, holding the water on-site to be used by plants and wildlife. 

rain
A food forest can help with water purification when it rains.

Protects Natural Resources

All of the different components of an edible forest work together to retain soil and reduce erosion. Mature tees’ tall canopies and strong trunks serve as a natural windbreak that protects smaller plants from prevailing winds. Each level of a food forest creates a microclimate benefits some insect or animal species. 

soil erosion
Depending on where you live, soil erosion may be a serious problem. A food forest may be able to help turn the tide.

(You can learn how to create a cooler microclimate here).

Accessibility

Food forests are easily made accessible for folks with disabilities. Pave the walking paths to make them wheelchair-accessible, and label plants and trees in different languages, including braille. You can even record an audio tour of the food forest for visually-impaired folks. 

How To Plant A Food Forest

Hopefully by now you’re inspired to plant a food forest in your own backyard or community! 

Food forests can be as simple or as extravagant as you want them to be. Whether you have a quarter-acre or five acres to work with, you can personalize your food forest to your space, your tastes, your climate, and your ability to devote time to the project. 

Choose A Location

Whether you build a food forest on public or private land, there are benefits to both. The University of Minnesota advocates for more plantings of edible forests in public areas:

“Communally established and managed food forests are a sustainable way to address the increased need for urban food security, resilient communities and productive public land. They can help people learn about and care for plants that produce edible fruits, nuts and vegetables.”²

https://extension.umn.edu/agroforestry/planting-community-food-forest#:~:text=Food%20forests%20are%20food%20production,communities%20and%20productive%20public%20land
High Point Community Garden
If you are already part of a community garden, it is not much of a stretch to turn part of it into a food forest.

A food forest is, really, too big of a project to tackle alone – so share the bounty (and responsibility) with your friends and neighbors. 

If you can, choose a well-draining planting site that receives full sun. The ground doesn’t have to be level, but planting and harvesting will be significantly easier on flat ground. South-facing slopes are best, and if you can cite your garden near a pond or creek so that your forest garden has a readily available water source. 

Planting Instructions

Trees and shrubs are best transplanted in spring or fall, with fall being the preferred season, as trees will have nine months before being exposed to summer sun and heat.

Perennial roots and bulbs can be planted in either spring or fall. Annuals can be transplanted in spring, before or after the last spring frost, depending on whether the plants are warm or cool-season crops. 

potato plants
Potatoes need plenty of sunlight to really thrive, so put them in a bright spot within your food garden.

(You can find frost dates by zip code with this tool from the Old Farmer’s Almanac).

When planting trees, take care not to bury the trunks too deep into the soil. Trees can choke if they’re mulched too high, so bring the garden soil to the same level as the potting soil, and no higher

Plants To Include

When picking out plants for your food forest, consider what trees and perennials are native to your area, or which plants do particularly well in your climate. Then think about what you and your family like to eat. 

Start with fruit and nut trees for the eventual overstory:

  • Apple
  • Pear
  • Plum
  • Walnut
  • Hazelnut
  • Pecan
plum tree
A plum tree is one possibility for the overstory (canopy) layer of your food forest.

Choose smaller trees for the understory:

  • Cherry
  • Fig
  • Papaw
Pawpaw
A pawpaw tree is one option for the understory layer of a food forest.

Decide on a few berries and shrubs:

  • Blackberries
  • Raspberries
  • Blueberries
  • Elderberries
blackberries
A blackberry bush is a great choice for the shrub layer of your food forest.

Choose a blend of annual and perennial vegetables for the herbaceous level:

  • Asparagus
  • Rhubarb 
  • Swiss chard 
  • Brassicas like brussels sprouts and broccoli
rhubard plant
Rhubarb is a solid choice for the herbaceous level of a food garden.

Pick your favorite shade-tolerant root crops:

  • Carrots
  • Radishes 
  • Turnips
radish
Radishes are an option for the root level of your food forest.

Select a few plants suitable for ground cover:

  • Strawberries 
  • Squash 
zucchini squash
Squash or zucchini is a great choice for the groundcover layer of your food forest.

Settle on a couple of vining plants to climb the tree trunks:

  • Pole beans
  • Peas
  • Grapes 
  • Sweet potato vines
pole beans
Pole beans are a great source of plant protein – and also a great choice for the vertical layer of your food forest.

Research each species’ ideal growing conditions and planting instructions for the best results. Use this information as a starting point, but feel free to make your forest garden your own!

Conclusion

Food forests are a cornerstone of permaculture and sustainable agricultural practices. Designed to mimic woodland forests, edible forests bring varying levels of microclimates together into one self-sustaining system. 

Regardless of much or how little space you have, a food forest tailored to your needs and tastes is well within your grasp. Reach out to your local agricultural extension office for more information on which plants grow best in your climate, and use the information in this article as a starting point. 

I hope you found this article helpful. If so, please share it with someone who can use the information. 

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, please check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here. Enjoy! 

~Jonathon

Resources

¹ Hickey, Lisa, “Backyard Food Forest,” University of Florida IFAS, 3 Sep 2019, https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/manateeco/2019/09/03/backyard-food-forest/

² Wyatt, Gary, “Planting a community food forest,” Univerity of Minnesota Extension, 2021, https://extension.umn.edu/agroforestry/planting-community-food-forest#:~:text=Food%20forests%20are%20food%20production,communities%20and%20productive%20public%20land

About the author:
When not writing content or growing flowers in her native Virginia, you can find Sarah hiking a long-distance trail deep in the woods. Follow along with Sarah’s adventures at http://sarahcolliecreative.com.

Sarah C.

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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