Creating a food forest in your own backyard is a great way to produce your own food, reduce your carbon footprint, and create a sustainable living environment. A food forest is a low-maintenance, sustainable system that mimics a natural forest ecosystem, with layers of plants that work together to provide food and other benefits.
In this article, we will discuss the steps you can take to create a food forest in your own backyard.
Step 1: Assess Your Site
The first step in creating a food forest is to assess your site. Look at the soil type, topography, climate, and existing vegetation to determine which plants will thrive in your environment. Consider the amount of sunlight your site receives each day, as well as any natural water sources or drainage patterns. You may also want to conduct a soil test to determine the pH and nutrient levels.
Assessing your site is a crucial step in creating a food forest, as it will impact the success of your project. You need to consider several factors such as soil type, topography, climate, and existing vegetation.
Soil type: The soil type will determine what kind of plants will thrive in your area. For example, if you have sandy soil, you will need to choose plants that are adapted to grow in that environment. To determine your soil type, you can conduct a soil test and look at the soil texture.
Topography: The topography of your site will impact the water flow and drainage patterns. You need to consider how water flows through your site and where it collects. This will help you design your food forest to capture and manage water efficiently. Another important point here is concealment. Using the terrain in your favor you can avoid many problems.
Climate: The climate of your area will determine what kind of plants will grow well. You need to consider the average temperature, rainfall, and growing season. You can research your area’s USDA hardiness zone to determine which plants are suitable for your area.
Existing vegetation: You need to consider the plants that are already growing in your area. If you have a lot of trees, you may need to design your food forest around them. You can also incorporate existing vegetation into your food forest design and choose plants that complement them.
By assessing your site, you can determine which plants will thrive in your area and create a food forest that is sustainable and low maintenance. It is important to choose plants that are adapted to your area to ensure the success of your food forest.
Choose your plants
Once you have assessed your site, you can start choosing the plants you want to include in your food forest. A food forest typically includes seven layers of plants, each providing a different function in the ecosystem. These layers include:
- Canopy trees – tall trees that provide shade and shelter for the other layers
- Understory trees – smaller trees that grow beneath the canopy and provide fruits and nuts
- Shrubs – medium-sized plants that produce berries, fruits, and nuts
- Herbaceous plants – plants that die back to the ground each year, such as vegetables, fruits, and herbs
- Groundcovers – low-growing plants that provide erosion control and weed suppression
- Vines – climbing plants that produce fruits and nuts
- Root crops – plants that grow underground
Choose plants that are native or adapted to your area, as they will be better suited to your climate and soil conditions.
Here are some examples of each layer.
Choosing the right plants for your food forest is a crucial step as it will determine the success of your project. A food forest typically includes seven layers of plants, each providing a different function in the ecosystem. Here are some tips for choosing the right plants for each layer:
Canopy trees: Canopy trees are tall trees that provide shade and shelter for the other layers. They are typically slow-growing and long-lived and can include species such as oak, maple, and hickory. Choose canopy trees that are adapted to your area and have a deep root system to improve soil health.
Understory trees: Understory trees are smaller trees that grow beneath the canopy and provide fruits and nuts. They can include species such as apple, cherry, and peach. Choose understory trees that are adapted to your area and have a shallow root system to avoid competition with the canopy trees.
Shrubs: Shrubs are medium-sized plants that produce berries, fruits, and nuts. They can include species such as blueberry, raspberry, and hazelnut. Choose shrubs that are adapted to your area and have a deep root system to improve soil health.
Herbaceous plants: Herbaceous plants are plants that die back to the ground each year, such as vegetables, fruits, and herbs. They can include species such as tomatoes, kale, and basil. Choose herbaceous plants that are adapted to your area and have a shallow root system to avoid competition with the other layers.
Groundcovers: Groundcovers are low-growing plants that provide erosion control and weed suppression. They can include species such as clover, thyme, and creeping phlox. Choose groundcovers that are adapted to your area and have a shallow root system to avoid competition with the other layers.
Vines: Vines are climbing plants that produce fruits and nuts. They can include species such as grape, kiwi, and passionfruit. Choose vines that are adapted to your area and have a deep root system to improve soil health. Passionfruit usually grows like crazy here in Venezuela, and its very high content of Vitamin C makes it one of my favorites. They are useful for concealing buildings, too. We have them available the whole year.
Root crops: Root crops are plants that grow underground, such as potatoes and carrots. They can be planted in between other plants or in dedicated beds. Choose root crops that are adapted to your area and have a shallow root system to avoid competition with the other layers.
When choosing plants for your food forest, it is important to select native or adapted species that are suited to your soil, climate, and microclimate. This will ensure that your food forest is sustainable and low maintenance. You can also incorporate beneficial companion plants, such as nitrogen-fixing plants, to improve soil health and increase biodiversity.
Plan your layout
Once you have chosen your plants, you can start planning your layout. A food forest is typically designed in a naturalistic way, with winding paths and irregular shapes. You can use the existing topography and vegetation to guide your design and incorporate features such as ponds, swales, and berms to manage water flow.
When you plan your layout, please consider the spacing and placement of your plants. Trees should be spaced far enough apart to allow for their mature size but close enough to create a canopy. Shrubs and groundcovers can be planted closer together to create a dense understory.
Prepare your site
Before you start planting, you will need to prepare your site. This may involve removing any existing vegetation, improving the soil, and installing any necessary infrastructure, such as irrigation or composting systems. You may also want to install a perimeter fence to keep out deer and other wildlife.
Plant your food forest
Once your site is prepared, you can start planting your food forest. Start with the canopy trees, and work your way down through the layers. Plant in groups or guilds, with plants that have complementary functions and can support each other. For example, you might plant a nitrogen-fixing shrub next to a fruit tree, or a groundcover that attracts beneficial insects next to a vegetable bed.
As you plant, be sure to mulch around each plant to retain moisture and suppress weeds. You may also want to add organic matter such as compost or manure to improve the soil.
Maintain your food forest
Once your food forest is established, it will require minimal maintenance. You may need to prune trees and shrubs to maintain their shape and promote fruiting, and weed around young plants until they are established. Some layers will need to be replanted yearly, for your annual vegetables. You can also add additional plants and layers over time to increase diversity and productivity.
A food forest is a long-term investment that will provide food and other benefits for years to come. By following these steps, you can create a sustainable, low-maintenance system that will enhance your micro retreat, homestead, or mini compound.
What are your thoughts?
Have you begun adding any kind of permaculture to your property? Do you have a food forest? Are you interested in creating one? Do you have any pros or cons to add to this or advice to someone just getting started with it?
Let’s discuss food forests in the comments.
Jose is an upper middle class professional. He is a former worker of the oil state company with a Bachelor’s degree from one of the best national Universities. He has an old but in good shape SUV, a good 150 square meters house in a nice neighborhood, in a small but (formerly) prosperous city with two middle size malls. Jose is a prepper and shares his eyewitness accounts and survival stories from the collapse of his beloved Venezuela. Jose and his younger kid are currently back in Venezuela, after the intention of setting up a new life in another country didn’t go well. The SARSCOV2 re-shaped the labor market and South American economy so he decided to give it a try to homestead in the mountains, and make a living as best as possible. But this time in his own land, and surrounded by family, friends and acquaintances, with all the gear and equipment collected, as the initial plan was.
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I love this idea. We are planning on adding medicinal plants & bushes to our yard this year. This gives me more ideas to add to our existing layout.
There are elders I know who use this concept even without knowing it exists. That was the way they grew up. Make sure to include Arnica and Aloe Vera if your climate conditions allow it. Those are plants that have saved me from serious injuries.
That picture looks like a great Secret Garden but not sure how anything grows there with what appears to be mostly shade. But, don’t forget raised bed gardening. It eliminates the need for a few of the potential problem areas like soil testing.
I’ve done a lot of research this winter about starting a raised bed garden area. Birdie’s Beds seem to be highly rated. I’ll give it a go.
I´d go with some planks and make sure to waterproof them with some natural oil…but for those with the moneys to get commercial beds, just do it!
Edible Lanscaping. What a great idea! Been working on it.
Yes it is!
Wonderful article! I second the raised bed idea if the soil isn’t really great for gardening, such as too much clay or sand. Sunshine is another factor, as most vegetables plants require 6-8 hours per day of direct sunlight in order to fruit well. Thirdly, be aware that walnut trees aren’t the best choice for a food forest, especially black walnut. They emit a substance called juglone that inhibits pretty much everything growing in a wide radius. Do your research and go for it!
Black walnut is a good detoxer! Imagine it’d do the same for surrounding vegetation by inhibiting growth.
You´re right. That´s why planning is important. Once your forest has been evolving for a few years, your soil will improve dramatically.
Important what you comment about the walnut: there is a total chemical war between species of different plants (and bugs!), so research is going to be paramount. Neem is a great plant for the outer limits, too.
We’re doing this outside of St. Louis. You can check out our substack and watch the process as we figure things out and screw things up.
I need to plant a food forest in what is already forest. Being 70 I also do not have that much time. All I can do is clear away what my small tractor can handle and plant under the trees already established. I live in north Florida so I get some freezing temperatures and tropical storms. I am trying cassava and true yams for root crops. Those can be planted in open areas under the trees. I have some native persimmon trees and plan to graft Asian persimmon scions to any saplings I find. I have a cleared orchard with blueberries, pear trees, figs, and several kiwi fruits. I have just planted some pecan trees but those are for future generations, it will be a decade or more before those produce.
Thing is I have lived here for 51 years, I was just busy doing other things when I should have been planting slow growing trees.
Daddio7, we too have property in northern Florida but I’m learning it’s a whole new life out there being from the west. I’ve done research and have found a few things to plant such as mulberry, certain apple trees (but people tell me they don’t do well), peach, plum,an orange that doesn’t look so good after the winter, a lime that took a hard hit, a lemon that also took a hard hit. Blueberry is doing great. Great neighbor who grows a garden and gets three plantings per year. But it’s a challenge there with the sand. Have to build up the soil and looking to companion plant with the fruit trees.
I´ve learned that micro-climates are a thing for some crops, according to a Spanish farmer I met a few years ago. Some people in countries like Russia even get lemons and oranges once a year. Researching is going to determine success!
Good luck “)
Great article, Jose! Appreciate your information & all the articles you have shared over the years.
We are slowly working on this. Being in the well over 65 age bracket… things often take a lot longer to do than anticipated ! We’ve lived on our small farm 22 years, but only got motivated to add gardening after we retired. The property had been let go for about 10 years before we bought it, but had pecan trees, figs, pomegranate & a scuppernong grape vine hidden under all the jungle. We have added a few raised beds, quite a lot of recycled kiddie pools, leaky water troughs & livestock mineral tubs as container gardens for herbs & root crops. Working on adding more berry bushes & getting squash & pumpkins to survive the bugs & hurricanes. I am planning to sow some hulless oats & sunflowers to help feed our chickens & maybe our goats.
David the Good’s Survival Gardener YouTube channel & website has a lot of information on creating food forests, grocery row gardening & lots of composting videos for anyone interested in more inspiration.
Blessings from NW Florida!
That sounds awesome! I love pomegranate juice and looking for a few plants. This weather down here is awesome for them.
I´m going to check that channel.
Blessings for you too, from the heart of Venezuela “)
We started our food forest three years ago. It takes a lot longer than might think to get started. I also consider including animals in my food forest with good results. I provide habitat for many of the Every year, we add another dimension to our food forest and to our annual gardens as well.
Dear Cygnet Brown,
That sounds awesome. It will take some time, indeed. That´s part of the message: start early, and make it a main component of your survival retreat.
Jeez, make like three or four of them in public land nearby your homestead if you can. OPSEC wise, this is something that I should share to my Patreons, by the way…
Here in AZ it’s called Agriscaping, or edible landscaping. I’ve been looking into it for a while now, but my only problem is that I cannot protect my “crops” from the squirrels and rabbits. I planted a garden a couple years back and found that I was constantly battling them and decided the only way to keep what I’d grown was to protect it in an enclosure. Unfortunately, that would scream “food” to unwanted human visitors as well. I suppose if I trap enough of them, (the squirrels and rabbits, that is) I might eventually “win the war” against them.
Nothing like some outdoor cats! They are natural hunters.
You´re right. Incredibly, when I came back after 6 years to my mountain cabin, one of the big surprises I received was finding a squirrel. I hadn´t seen one in South America in decades, and never into the wild. Rabbits are a common plague, though, but a dog, even a small breed should keep them away. Maybe even a cat?
I couldn´t say. And if your temperament allows it, why not get a pistol crossbow?
I am using raised planter boxes for the rabbits and javelinas.
HOA’s are the biggest problem.
Native Seed Search ,in Tucson, sells heirloom seeds collected from Mexico and the Southwest. They can provide seeds native to your area.