A permaculture food forest is a strategy for growing food that focuses on creating a backbone of edible perennials for lasting and low-maintenance harvests. Find out how to create a low-maintenance, permaculture garden with edible rewards!
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My first experience with planting a food forest was at my local community garden, located on a slope.
Through careful observation using the permaculture design process, we identified that growing perennial edibles would help us fix erosion problems and stabilize the hillside garden. And this led us to redefine the space as a community food forest rather than as a typical garden of raised vegetable beds. So fun!
What is a Food Forest?
A food forest mimics a forest edge that is planted with edible plants.
Picture all of the vertical layers of a forest growing together: Tall trees, small trees, shrubs, herbs, and ground covers. Tall, canopy trees grow inward from the edge. Correspondingly, smaller trees peek out from underneath the tall trees to catch the sun’s rays. Next, shrubs step farther out into the sunshine, along with herbs, flowers, and ground covers blanketing the sunniest edge.
Indeed, a typical forest edge is busy! Sometimes vines even grow up the trees, and mushrooms grow under the tallest trees in the shade.
Ultimately, these layers of the forest stack together, with each plant vying for the specific amount of sun exposure it needs to thrive. Intertwined, these layers produce a vibrant, productive, low-maintenance, and relatively self-maintaining ecosystem. That is to say, a healthy forest doesn’t need humans to weed or fertilize.
An example of a food forest might include chestnut trees as a tall canopy tree layer. Apple trees grow below the chestnut trees. Meanwhile, currant bushes grow as an understory layer beneath the apple trees. A host of edible herbs and mushrooms grow underneath, and perhaps even grapevines use the apple trees as trellises.
Certainly, you can swap out my selections above for your favorite nut trees, fruit crops, and herbs to make your own system!
History of the Food Forest
Managing forests for their edible benefits to humans is an ancient practice. In fact, existing ancient food forests have been found in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
As the New World was colonized, the colonists and anthropologists didn’t know that they were looking at managed systems. To them, the forests in front of them looked like untouched forest.
What we realize now, of course, is that the early hunter-gatherer societies didn’t wander around aimlessly in search of food.
In fact, they knew which areas produced which desirable foods or medicines, and at which time of year. It informed their movement.
As they moved through forest and prairies areas, they encouraged desirable plant species by cutting back the growth around them. Ultimately, giving them the space to grow abundantly helped them thrive and reproduce.
It was an early form of forest gardening.
They wouldn’t have spent a ton of time tending this space. However, the desired plants would certainly be given an advantage over other plants.
Geoff Lawton found a 2,000 year old food forest in Morrocco. Incredibly, 800 people continue to farm this desert oasis. Among other edible plants, you’ll find date palms, bananas, olives, figs, pomegranate, guava, citrus, and mulberry.
Likewise, he found a 300 year old food forest in Vietnam that has been cultivated by the same family for 28 generations.
With these ancient stories in mind, we can create vibrantly abundant perennial gardens that require less maintenance. Above all, they can be a legacy left for future generations.
This is the inspiration behind the modern food production strategy called a permaculture food forest.
Want to grow fruits, vegetables, and herbs in your front yard landscape without sacrificing curb appeal? Check out my mini guide, The Permaculture Inspired Edible Landscape.
The Benefits of an Edible Perennial Forest Garden
Perennial gardens don’t disturb the soil regularly like annual gardens do. Rather, they continually enrich soil with organic matter as leaves fall and plants die back for the winter.
Consequently, the food forest model can help to restore land, biodiversity, and habitat while creating an edible yield.
A forest is one of earth’s most stable ecosystems. In fact, when we mimic it in food production, we get all the ecological benefits of a forest PLUS food!
Food Forests vs. Orchards
Imagine planting a 0.10-acre site with about 30 apple trees to create a mini orchard. For the home gardener, this would obviously yield a lot of apples!
Still, a single-species orchard can be a tough space to manage. As a monoculture, it may attract pests and diseases that discover the smorgasbord of their favorite food. Consequently, this would require you to spend time and money on pest/disease treatment.
The standard apple orchard arrangement also doesn’t take advantage of the vertical space above and below the trees. There is a single harvest opportunity of apples. Most importantly, if it’s wiped out by a disease or pest, there’s no reward for your efforts.
The single species—all needing the same nutrients in the soil—would, over time, deplete the soil and require imported fertilizer.
On the other hand, let’s explore taking the same site of the apple orchard and planting it with a food forest. You could potentially triple the yield in the same amount of space!
How would that work?
The Apple Orchard Transformed into a Food Forest
Imagine planting the northern edge (in the northern hemisphere) of the orchard with a row of tall nut trees. Alternatively, stagger rows of apple trees with plum and cherry trees, for example.
Likewise, in a commercial operation, select fruit crops with high economic value that demonstrate ease for commercial harvesting. In the rows with the fruit trees, you could plant some nut- or berry-yielding bushes.
Underneath and between all the trees and shrubs we could seed a variety of herbs and flowers that help to:
- add nutrients to the soil (fertilizer and soil building)
- attract beneficial insects (pest prevention)
- attract pollinators (for better fruit set)
- add potential harvests in the form of cut flowers and culinary/medicinal herbs
Some of my favorite understory herbs are yarrow, calendula, chives, comfrey, and daffodils. I like to seed the whole area with clovers.
Do you have a grand vision for your site? If so, check out my Permaculture Design Program and become your own designer!
An orchard on steroids!
You’ve created a biodiverse ecosystem instead of a monoculture. As a result, you’ve lessened the threat of pests, reduced the need for fertilizer, and potentially increased and/or diversified the yield.
Most importantly, this diversity encourages more stability in the system.
In the backyard, this is great news, because few households will be able to use 30 bushels of apples! It would be nice to have a diversity of edible products.
Likewise, for those interested in taking crops to market, here are some examples of successful commercial food forests:
- Mark Shepard of the 106-acre New Forest Farm describes his process in his book Restoration Agriculture.
- Stefan Sobkowiak shares his experience of transforming a conventional apple orchard in the feature-length educational film Permaculture Orchard.
Have you considered growing perennial crops for money? In fact, a food forest is an excellent model for ecological crop production.
Before starting any planting project, be sure to start by observing the land. In permaculture design, we use a specific set of permaculture-approved questions. Get my free, 13-page worksheet, Making Observations at the end of my article about how to use the power of observation.
One way to start building a food forest is by building fruit tree guilds, one at a time. As a result, I pretty much always have fruit trees on my gift wish list! Furthermore, you’ll find even more ideas for starting your food forest in my article on planting a hedgerow.
Books to check out:
- Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 2: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier
- Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel
- Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway
- Integrated Forest Gardening: The Complete Guide to Polycultures and Plant Guilds in Permaculture Systems by Wayne Weiseman, Daniel Halsey, and Bryce Ruddock
Have you created a food forest? What edible crops did you select?
Emma @ Misfit Gardening says
We have a multi-fruit orchard which is being built up with edible hedging such as rugosa roses, elderberry, blackthorn for sloes, currants, filberts and berries. I’m working on propagating these plants and plenty of herbs to reduce the lawn and build the orchard into a bee haven for my hives.
Thank you for sharing these ancient food forest stories, I can’t wait to check them out!
I love all your information on food forests! This is our second year working on our food forest and so far we have apples, hazelnuts, sea buckthorn, currents, blueberries, comfrey, thyme, cucumbers, squashes, kale, and much more! It has been slow going do to $ constraints and we are also converting the space from an old driveway so the soil has needed lots of amending.
This sounds like a wonderful space! Keep up the good work 🙂
Thank you for the info, Amy. Very inspiring. I hope Mr. Lawton is correct in saying that we will eventually get back to this type of food production.
I hope so, too!
Cindy @ Holistic Health Traditions says
Fascinating. I’d never heard of a food forest before, but it makes perfect sense. The natural way always tends to do better than man’s “clipped and homogenized” way. Sadly, we don’t have enough space for a forest, but maybe I can incorporate some of the ideas around our apple and pear trees.
Hi Out of curiosity would like to know, is it required to do weeding in forest gardens, How about watering?
It all depends on your preferences and unique situation. Nothing is required. 🙂 In a remote forest garden, you may not weed or water, and simply enjoy the harvests of whatever comes. In a slightly more managed garden, you might chop the weeds/understory back two to three times a year and simply water during extended dry periods. In a small yard, you might give it more attention, carefully selecting your understory to make it pretty and tidy, weeding out things you don’t like, and watering regularly. The only real “rules” are to give the trees more attention in their first couple of years while they get established—watering regularly and preventing the undergrowth from overtaking the young trees. Also keeping grass away from the trunk.
Gene Kremer says
The high art of forest farming is in using animals to keep the weeds down. They do some useful pruning and leave some fertilizer. And when the time has come, they ca feed you, too. Scale them up to rotate: cattle (beyond me but good for a large operation), goats if you dare, pigs, turkeys, chickens (the easiest); rotate them through with sub-fencing to keep them where needed. Mark Shepard describes this process well.
Hi. Thanks for the information about a food forest. I am ready, willing and able to get this underway. There is one problem, Ozark soil. How can I achieve such an incredibly fantastic idea of self-reliance with miles and miles of soil deemed inappropriate for anything besides prairie grass. You reply is awaited with hope.
Try building up rather than digging down: raised beds or planting berms work well! So your challenge is to find great organic matter to fill them with. Good luck!
Just found this article and it’s going to be a huge help to us…we just bought a wooded 1/2 acre lot next to our property (giving us 1 acre total) in the PA mountains, and are looking to turn it into a food forest. Plus laying hens and bees. We have a few gorgeous black walnuts for an instant canopy level, but this article has given us some great ideas for what else to plant and where. Our biggest challenges will be solid clay soil, black bears and choosing things the black walnuts won’t kill! Our whole family is looking forward to the adventure.
Kay Fleming says
Tell me more about the Free 10 day Permaculture course. Is it self directed? Describe it more so I can decide about subscribing for it. Thank you
Find more info here: https://www.tenthacrefarm.com/subscribe/
Sara Lederer Weertz says
Amy, I manage a substantial urban community garden on the near eastside of Detroit…five minutes from Downtown! Forty years ago, as vacant, burned-out, and decayed neighborhood houses were razed, my brother-in-law bought up the land and used it to plant alfalfa for his high school’s agri-science program. Five or six contiguous lots make up what we lovingly call the Back 40, which is home to numerous family gardens mine being the largest. 🙂 Over the years, my BIL has planted (and continues to plant) copious amounts of peach, apple, and plum trees that line the perimeter of the garden. We also have voluminous raspberry and blackberry brambles as well as a strawberry patch, each producing sizable amounts of berries every spring/summer. I grow the standard fair of beets, carrots, spinach, swiss chard, broccoli, zucchini, delicata squash, butternut squash, and eggplant⏤canning and freezing what I can for the winter months. Over the past few years, I’ve been working to establish more perennial vegetables: asparagus, green globe artichokes, rhubarb, and a failed attempt with mushrooms. My point (and I do have one) is that your blog on creating a permaculture food forest with currents couldn’t have come at a more perfect time, as I have been researching how to grow and care for currents in my zone. Learning about food forests and a forest edge was like a lightbulb going off. I never would have thought to plant currents under the fruit trees; and now that I do, it seems so perfectly clear. Thank you for your gardening wisdom and advice.
This sounds like a lovely shared space!
Sommer Blessing says
I have a question: how close together can you plant the nut and fruit trees? Is 15 feet ok?
Spacing depends on the tree: its maximum expected size, growth speed, canopy form, etc. Edible perennial systems require more spacing between trees to allow adequate sunlight for crop production and to reach the ground layers.
Lisa Ortega says
I have a lot of folks here in Las Vegas planting fruit trees on 3′ centers, calling it permaculture. they are dwarf and regular sized, does not matter. Do you have any thoughts on 3 foot spacing of fruit trees. Any comments would help. Lisa
I don’t know that the spacing of fruit trees has anything to do with permaculture, unless the designer is using it to solve a specific problem. In this case, it sounds like space is the issue? You might check out the idea of “backyard orchard culture” to read about growing super-dwarf fruit trees in small spaces using aggressive pruning. I’d be interested in learning more about the water needs of these trees and whether it’s appropriate for your climate.