If growing more food with less work (while regenerating the land and providing healthy habitats for wildlife) is something you’d like to accomplish, then you must know about creating food forest gardens!
I have been studying and practicing permaculture for years now and have had so much success. I have been able to grow more food, with less of my time and energy — which is a big relief for a busy homeschooling, home-business-running mom of 2!
What is a Food Forest or Forest Garden?
Food forests or forest gardens are combinations of diverse edible and medicinal plants grouped together to replicate natural growing patterns.
I tend to think of traditional vegetable gardens as short-term gardening. You plant annuals like tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash to harvest during that same season.
Food forests, on the other hand, are long-term gardens consisting primarily of perennials. You don’t have to replant them every spring because they return on their own or easily self-seed.
Food forests consist of seven layers:
- The Overstory (large fruit and nut trees)
- The Understory (dwarf fruit trees, sugar maples)
- The Shrub Layer (serviceberries, bush varieties)
- The Herbaceous Layer (perennial vegetables and self-seeding herbs)
- The Root Layer (onion, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes)
- The Ground Cover Layer (mints, thyme, clover, strawberries)
- The Vine Layer (grapes, passionfruit, melons, pumpkins)
Plants in each of these layers are multifunctional (and can sometimes overlap), creating broad connections throughout the entire ecosystem. For example, you might plant calendula in a food forest to attract beneficial insects into the garden, to add to salads or tea, and to use to make homemade skincare and beauty products.
By considering what to plant in each of these layers, you can grow a diverse abundance of plants in a designated area without having to worry about them competing for resources.
Creating a food forest requires careful thought and patience, but the benefits are definitely worth the time and energy you put into establishing them. Let’s cover those next!
Benefits of a Food Forest
I’ve already mentioned that one major benefit of planting a permaculture food forest is that it requires less of your time and energy once your plants become established. You can grow a great deal of food with much less work year after year by planting trees, shrubs, perennials, and self-seeding annuals.
But what other benefits can a forest garden offer? I’m glad you asked!
- Food forests protect and encourage healthy soil. Forest gardens can help you grow more robust, nutrient-dense food, eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers and herbicides, and prevent soil erosion.
- Food forests are more resilient to pests, disease, and damaging environmental factors. Robust, diverse, nutrient-dense plants (nourished by healthy soil) are more resistant to pests, diseases, droughts, and other irregular weather patterns—ultimately minimizing the time you spend on garden maintenance.
- Food forests create shade and can even act as windbreaks. The trees grown in your food forest can help to keep things cool and grounded during extremely hot or hazardous weather.
- Forest gardens make excellent habitats for beneficial native wildlife—increasing biodiversity. Taking cues from nature, food forests should be full of life and promote diversity.
- Food forests are aesthetically pleasing and make great places to connect with nature. One of the fantastic things about growing a forest garden is that you’ll have more time to relax rather than work to maintain your garden.
Permaculture teaches that we can accomplish more by working with nature rather than against it. Grow a food forest of your own and you’ll see what I mean about these benefits!
Do I Have to Have Acreage to Grow a Forest Garden?
You might be surprised to discover that you don’t actually need a large plot of land to grow a food forest. When you are just getting started with permaculture food forests, it’s best to start small and add on as you gain more experience.
You can grow a food forest in a plot of land as small as 1/10th of an acre. Even if you own more space, limiting yourself to a small area will help you avoid overwhelm and burnout while getting your food forest up and running.
How to Design a Food Forest or Forest Garden
Now for the fun part—designing your food forest! You don’t have to complete a permaculture design course or be a landscape designer to plan and implement a forest garden.
The following steps will help you get started growing a food forest in your unique landscape. Let’s dive in!
What Are Your Goals?
Like I mentioned earlier, developing a plot of land into a forest garden won’t happen overnight. Although your focus may shift over time, it’s best to set some concrete goals for what you hope to achieve with your food forest.
These questions will help you determine your long-term gardening goals.
- Why do you want to grow a food forest? (a healthier lifestyle, be more self-sufficient, regenerate the land, encourage biodiversity, etc.)
- Who do you hope your forest garden will impact? (immediate family, local community, etc.)
- What would you like to grow and sell to make extra money from your homestead?
- Will your site be used to educate others?
This step should get you thinking about why growing a food forest is important to you. Knowing this will encourage you to keep moving toward this dream if and when you run into hurdles along the way.
Writing down your goals is vital to sticking with any plan. Using a garden journal is a convenient way to record your goals and manage your priorities.
Observe Your Site
Making observations about the land and what grows well in your area is a step you don’t want to skip. Part of working with nature instead of against it requires you to really slow down and pay attention to your surroundings.
In your garden journal, make note of your site’s strengths and weaknesses. What already grows well in this space, and what do you know hasn’t?
Is your plot sloped or flat? Are there long-standing trees, or is it bare? Is the soil more often dry and dusty, or is there standing water after it rains?
What challenges could these characteristics present? What does the land need to improve growing conditions?
Try to remain objective when making observations. This is not a time for dreaming of what you’ll create. Instead, sit back and take in what is currently taking place in your space.
Create a Map
When it comes to garden planning and design, having a visual reference is super helpful. And now that you are intimately acquainted with your growing space, creating a map should be pretty simple.
Either sketch a map of your land in your garden journal or print a map of your property using Google Maps (this is the best option for larger plots of land).
A key element of permaculture designing is analyzing zones and sectors to maximize energy efficiency across the land. This sounds complex, but it’s actually quite easy.
Zones require us to think about the elements of a food forest that will be used most often or need the most attention and place those closest to the house. In permaculture, zones are typically drawn in a target shape, with your home in the center.
Adding sectors is like slicing the target diagram into pieces of a pie. This is where you’ll make notes of sunlight, wind, where water tends to collect, and any other energy factor your plan entails.
I go into much greater detail on zones, sectors, sun mapping, and other observational factors in my Permaculture Homestead Design Course. If you’re looking for more in-depth resources for your food forest plan, I highly recommend checking that out.
Choose Your Plants
You’ve completed the most challenging steps in the forest garden design process. Now it’s time to pick out plants!
By now, you know that the plants in a permaculture food forest are strongly interconnected, which is why a companion planting chart is an excellent resource to have on hand when choosing plants for your forest garden.
Go back to those forest layers I mentioned in the beginning. You don’t have to include every layer, but these will help you envision the scale you want to create. Many plants overlap in these categories, as well. So you won’t necessarily need to buy plants for each one.
Also, be sure that if you are planting trees, include varying sizes and account for the shade they will create as they grow. It’s also important to choose plants suitable for your climate. This USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map will help with that.
Implement Your Plan
Now you’re ready to start planting!
Start with the new canopy layers you are adding to the landscape. These will likely be the largest and most labor-intensive plants to get in the ground.
Then move on to adding plants in each of the food forest layers you’re growing. As you go, add compost and mulch (especially in the beginning stages) to cut down on weeding and watering.
When you are just starting out, you may want to add more annuals to your food forest. Doing so allows you to take advantage of that sunlight that won’t be so abundant in a few years when the canopy layer matures.
That’s one of my favorite things about growing a food forest—it’s a fluid, ever-changing system offering new lessons year after year!
Food Forest Fun
I really hope this gave you some insight and inspired you to grow a forest garden of your own! Although the permaculture design process has many steps and much to consider, I can honestly say the rewards are well worth your inputs. Learn more about how you can create a permaculture homestead.
Remember to start small and have fun. Lose the pressure to do everything perfectly. With permaculture, there’s always a way to overcome obstacles!
I’m curious to know, what is your primary reason for wanting to grow a food forest?