What is a Food Forest?
A food forest, or an edible forest garden, is a permanent planting that follows permaculture principals and mimics a forest layout, but replaces native trees with edible options that fill the same roles.
What are the benefits of a food forest over a monoculture orchard or annual garden?
- Low maintenance
- Perennial crops – less planting, and earlier harvests
- Increase in mycoryzal fungi which leads to better production from fruit and nut trees
What is the big deal with fungi?
Your soil naturally follows a progression in the same manner that bare ground does as nature tries to regenerate native forests.
Please read: This information is provided for educational purposes only.
This post may contain affiliate links, this means at no extra cost to you, we make a commission from sales. Please read our Disclosure Statement
Totally bare ground is bacterially dominant, and this is the type of soil that annual weeds and other annual plants prefer.
As these annuals die off, they fall to the ground giving carbon material for fungal networks to get established.
As the fungi establish the balance tips to less bacteria and more fungi. Trees and perennial plants prefer fungal dominated soils, and they will do much better.
Fungi and trees work closely together in a symbiotic relationship – Trees take sunlight and carbon dioxide in, and create sugars that they then exchange these with the fungi for nutrients.
In one study they cut down a tree in a forest and painted the stump with radioactive calcium and phosphorous. 8 days later 43% of all species within a 7m radius all had it in their leaves.
Strong fungi networks have many benefits:
- Greatly improve tree health and survival rates
- Gather water and nutrients for trees making them less susceptible to drought
- The fungi network extends the length and reach of tree roots
- Protect from predatory pathogens
- Detoxify soil of heavy metals
- Breaks down soil minerals in to bio-available forms
- Fungi evolve faster than their host plant, helping them to cope with sudden changes
To get this beneficial relationship established, the best option is developing a multi-layered forest setup.
7 Layers of a forest
1. Canopy – your big tall trees (in the city you may skip this layer)
2. Sub-canopy – smaller trees
3. Shrubs – most berry bushes
4. Herbs – leafy greens, either for eating or medicinal
5. Ground covers – strawberries are great
6. Roots – daicon radish, carrots, skirret,
7. Vines – grapes, passionfruit
BONUS LAYER: Fungi/mushrooms
How to plan a food forest
Step One – Access
Observe your sun, water, wind, soil, slope and existing plants
Step Two – Plan
Look in to appropriate rememdies and solutions to any issues, and plan out plants, ponds, swales, paths, gates, access, windbreaks etc
Step Three – Remedy
Any issues that came up in step one that need earth works or major reworking, get these done first.
Step Four – Plant
Plan for succession – it might be that a year of cover crops and letting windbreaks get established might be more beneficial.
Plant some nitrogen fixers or temporary windbreaks that you can eventually sacrifice if required.
Add your support plants around the trees
Step 6 – Mulch
Either with wood mulch or heavy cover crops using regular chop and drops to add lots of carbon to the soil to encourage fungal growth.
Step 7 – Maintain
Remove undesirable plants, add more of the good – dividing is a great way to get free plants.
Add more cover crops and chop and drop, and prune your fruit trees to establish good shapes early on.
How to Space your Food Forest plants
The natural succession process is:
Bare ground > grasslands > savannah > shrubland > thicket > woodland > forest
In a mature forest there is a totally closed canopy. This means light to the ground is severely limited. For a productive food forest, you want to aim for a half grown forest/woodland sort of set up, where the canopy still has plenty of holes to let the light in.
It is up to you to decide how much you want to actively manage the size of the trees to maintain the woodland density.
I have chosen to plant closer together knowing that I will need to prune to keep the right spacing, and to preserve the amount of sun we get through a big window in the lounge.
How to choose plants for your food forest
The first thing you need to do is decide on your goals of your food forest.
Do you want low or no maintenance, nuts, specific fruit trees, medicinal herbs, an ability to grow annual vegetables too, or all of the above.
Common food forest additions include:
- Nut trees to provide protein – hazels are great
- Fruit trees – apple, pear, plum, apricot (moorepark), peach (blackboy), mulberry
- Berries – woosterberry, gooseberry, raspberry, blackberry, currants, blueberry, elderberry, NZ cranberry
- Herbs – both edible and medicinal
- Flowers – for insects and bees, cut flowers, oils
- Dynamic accumulators for cut and drop mulching – comfrey, chives, dock, sorrel, nettles, dogwood, birch, chamomile, plantain, cress
- Nitrogen fixers, both perennial and annuals – peas, beans, tagasate, lucerne/alfalfa, kakabeak, kowhai, broom, honey locust, black locust, lupine, alder, goumi, seabuckthorn, licorice, vetch, clover, wisteria, russian olive, autumn olive
Ideally you will choose plants that embrace the idea of multiple functions – try to choose plants that fulfil at least 2 roles, known as stacking functions. This means you get more impact for the space you have – more ‘bang for your buck’ if you will.
For example peanuts – they are edible, nitrogen fixing and a ground cover.
Assess your plant choices
Then you need to think whether these plants fulfil your goals – do you have room for nut pines? Do you want to plant pears when no one in your house eats them?
What size do they grow to? Do you want the full size, or would a dwarf variety be better?
What are their sun/weather/water requirements – are they suitable for your site? Do they mind wet feet/drought etc
What are the plant’s frost tolerances or chill requirements. Is that variety suitable for your area or would you be better with a different variety, or another species that could fill the same role.
Have you also included their required pollinator plants? Some varieties need another certain variety so they can set fruit.
Do you even like the fruit or nut in question?
Layering in Time and Space
If you are trying to provide food for bees and other beneficial insects, it is helpful to have a mixture of wildflowers, bulbs, herbs, perennials, cover crops all in succession to provide year round flowers.
Try and choose apple and plum varieties that fruit in staggered stages so you don’t have all the trees ready at once.
Coping with Weeds in the Food Forest
Now some weeds are actually very beneficial, and if they aren’t invasive, it would be find to leave some there to grow. Some weeds are edible or medicinal.
Edible weeds include: Chickweed, yellow dock, curly dock, dandelion, plantain, and nettle. Yarrow powder is great for stopping bleeding.
The most annoying weeds here are couch/quack grass, buttercup and perennial clover – these are invasive and they strangle and out compete desirable plants.
To deal with those, you need a thick layer of cardboard and then 6-8 inches of mulch.
You can use rhizome blocking plants around the edge of the garden to help block the roots coming through, these include – comfrey, sorrel, daylillies, rhubarb
Weeds prefer bare ground – keep the ground covered with plants and mulch, as your fungal network grows there will be less weeds.
Hack back competitive plants and use them as mulch and create space for the desirable plants to grow.
Planning guilds and polycultures
A good guild of plants will give you a better yield than growing the plants individually would.
They work together to share resources and help each other cope with climate stressors.
For a guild to work well, the plants need to occupy different areas of space, both on top of the ground and the roots below.
Two ground covers will compete with each other, but a ground cover and a vine will work well next to each other.
For every 2 fruit trees it is ideal to have a nitrogen fixing plant, or to have nitrogen fixing cover crops that you will chop and drop before the seeds set.
Between trees you can add bushes, surrounded by ground covers and let a vine climb up an established tree as a frame.
Feeding your Food Forest – Why not just plant an orchard?
Planting up your understory with benefical plants will not only increase your overall yield, but also they cycle more nutrients then bare ground, or just grass would.
This is especially true if you plant nitrogen setting plants, or dynamic accumulators.
The reason that chicken poop is so rich in nitrogen is because they are fed seeds, plants send nitrogen to their seeds to help give the seeds a nitrogen boost when they sprout.
To feed your trees extra nitrogen, you need to chop and drop the nitrogen fixing plants before they set seed and send their nitrogen up. They store some of their nitrogen in their leaves, so chop and drop will help this source be added to the ground.
The nitrogen on the nodules on the roots will only be released when there is root die back. To get root die back, you need to reduce the size of the above ground plant (or in annual plants, chop them off totally).
Feeding the soil naturally from the top down helps to build the soil web and grows the soil infrastructure. If you dig in compost, or put it in the bottom of a hole, you are encouraging the roots to stay within the hole rather than to reach out and get established quickly.
Mulching, especially with wood mulch that contains both wood, bark and green leaves, is the fastest and most effective way to help establish a forest floor environment and get the fungal networks established.
It can take 5-7 years for a forest to firmly establish their own nutrient cycling.
Mulch sources may include:
- Grow your own – comfrey, lucerne or even grass
- Get free wood mulch from Delta, if you live in town and ring them, they will dump a full truckload for free.
- You can buy it – hay (watch for broad leaf sprays!), straw, wood mulch from an arborist or landscaping supply store.
How to get high yields from a Food Forest
There are a few things you can do to help ensure you are getting the biggest yield from your edible food forest garden.
- Choose your site well
- Choose high yielding varieties
- Choose crops that have a long harvest season, or varieties that crop at different times to overlap them over time
- Plants may be used for food, fibre, fodder, fertiliser, fuel, pharmaceuticals, or just for fun
- Plan for redundant yields – plant more than you will need. This allows for death, disease, bad years and if you have too much after preserving what you need – give it away or sell it on.
- Aim to keep your forest in that ‘mid succession’ state with plenty of dappled light on the ground.
- Create pockets of production – a patch of asparagus or a row of berries
- Plan for pollination – both providing for pollinators, and providing the varieties to cross pollinate your trees.
- Add in mushrooms! Burgundy wine caps are good to grow in wood mulch, or add some logs inoculated with oyster or shitake mushrooms
- Make your mistakes on paper, then place out the trees with sticks so you can check your lines and placements before you actually plant out.
- Design your site for minimal effort and minimal inputs. Put anything you need to cart uphill so you only have to move it down hill.
- Try to eliminate watering needs – use ponds, pocket ponds, mulch and swales as appropriate
- Propagate your own plants – buy a few and divide them as you can. Ask friends for cuttings or seedlings and grow from seed if you can.
- Let go of perfectionism – your fruit trees don’t need sprayed
Where to now?
Make a map of your section using Google and mark out the sun, wind, water and other major features
Spend some time dreaming about what you want, and play around with different ideas, what are your goals?
Once you have some ideas get planning, plan for waterways, paths, access, windbreaks and earthworks.
Choose plants and combinations that work well together.
Map out your plants and then do a walk through, marking your main trees with sticks to check placement.
Do any earthwork
Source mulch and order plants
Plant windbreaks and mulch to kill off invasive weeds
Plant out your main plants
Continue to maintain and add more plants
For more in depth knowledge about food forests, these two books are very detailed and much cheaper than a permaculture design course!