A food forest is made up of seven layers. The tallest layer is the overstory trees, followed by the understory. These layers make up all of the trees in your forest. Next you have the shrub layer, then an herbaceous layer. This is made of leafy, green stemmed plants. Then you have your lowest layers which are roots, ground covers, and vines. Beyond these plant layers there is also the mycelial layer which is made up of mushrooms, fungi, etc.
The main focus when creating a food forest is to develop plants in every direction. Having the different layers allows you to not only increase your harvesting yields per foot of growing space dramatically, it also helps maintain a healthy balance between bugs, potential weeds, water, and more.
One of the coolest aspects of growing a food forest is that you are also supporting the wildlife. With the combination of the different layers you create spaces for them to inhabit as well as a food source.
Now don’t be worried about the animals taking all of your food. In a traditional garden you generally only plant what you want to harvest. But in a food forest you are going to end up with much more than your family can consume alone. You will actually be glad the food you aren’t using is going to good use. Anything that isn’t harvested should just be left to fall to your forest floor as fuel for the next year.
The process of decomposition leads to more organic matter in your soil. This upper layer of organic materials is vital to healthy food production. It is the reason the Pacific Northwest is such a powerhouse in agriculture. The soils there are naturally high in dark, nutrient-rich humus. You can mimic this soil structure by adding AGED wood chips or bark when first planting your forest.
Steps To Start:
Select large fruit and nut trees for your canopy layer. You will want to select standard varieties as these will give you the full height potential you are wanting (20-25ft). These trees will produce most of their fruit out of the standing reach of a person, but it will provide a place for vines to grow and birds to live.
Next select dwarf fruit tree varieties. These may include a mix of semi-dwarf (12-15 ft) and dwarf (under 15ft) varieties. Depending on the type of fruit tree you plant, you may need more than one variety based on the type of fruit. I will cover more about this in my next post to help you have the most success.
Plant shrubs in partial to full sunlight. When first planting you will probably have to predict what your sunlight will look like in several years. As your trees grow they will produce more shade. While shrubs generally do well in partial shade, you will want to make sure they are still getting some sunlight as your forest matures. Berry bushes are a great option for this layer.
Your Herbaceous layer will include most of your vegetables. Don’t forget to include a mix of flowers and herbs as well to attract pollinating insects and enforce natural pest control measures. This layer is great for really filling in your space as there is a wide array of plants that can be used in shade areas to full sun spots.
Next is your Rhizosphere layer (root plants). This will include any of the root vegetables you are wanting to include. Some of these will require room to dig up while others take up less space. Plant in relation to other plants that won’t hinder your ability to harvest these crops. For example, you probably want to plant potatoes a bit further from trees than you could carrots just because of their mature size differences.
Next, add groundcovers and vining plants. Keep in mind some vining plants will mostly stay on the ground while others prefer to be by trees for support.
Add organic AGED mulch and make sure your plants have access to water, especially before being well established. Adding mulch will help you retain moisture, prevent unwanted weeds, and contribute to more organic matter in your soil over time. You just want to make sure the wood chippings that are added have been aged. Allowing fresh wood chippings to sit will prevent the aging process from robbing your plants of essential nutrients.
After you have planted your food forest be patient. Developing a truly self-reliant food forest will take time. Some things will work while others don’t. Just keep going. Replace plants as needed, embrace the natural look, and don’t mind the birds. To help your food forest become better established make sure some fruit is left on the plants at the end of the season. The hope is that these fruits and dropped seeds will lead to more growth over time. Eventually you will have more to harvest than you will know what to do with. When this happens, only take what you need. Leaving the extra will only help your ecosystem to improve. Don’t worry it's not being wasted, its being recycled.
About the Author
I'm Ashleigh Smith, a native to Northern Utah. I first gained a love of gardening with my grandmother as I helped her each summer. I decided to make a career of it and have recently graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Horticulture from Brigham Young University - Idaho. My studies have focused on plant production while I also have experience in Nursery & Garden Center Operations.
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Nice article on creating a food forest. If more front lawns were food forests, it would be a better use of our limited resources, like water, and perhaps we would have less food insecurity.
Ashleigh, Thank you for your article(s). You present the information very well and make it clear to “newbies” like me. I hope you will continue to write these. I am looking for a property with a larger area to garden where I can create a “food forest”. I have 2 issues that I struggle with, first proper watering and how to protect my harvest from deer, rabbits, etc.?? Maybe one of your future articles could address these. Thank you again!
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