This post was most recently updated on May 1st, 2020
Designing a food forest from the ground up can be an overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable task at the beginning. Working out what plants are good food forest plants, and even understanding what exactly is a food forest.
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I have created a series to help you in the design process. I will hold your hand while you get the hang of it all. I am right there beside you growing my own food forest from scratch with you.
First I suggest you read my post about designing your yard the permaculture way if you haven’t already.
Next I show you the steps to designing and creating a permaculture food forest. Below is a deeper explanation of the 7 layers of a food forest, and a list of food forest plants to get you started in your planning.
Obviously you can plant any plant you choose in your own forest garden, but the rule of thumb I like to go by, is that every plant needs to fulfill at least 2 roles to qualify to being planted at my place.
A food forest plant might provide flowers for the bees, fruit for me and leaf mulch for the soil. Or it might fix nitrogen and provide a climbing frame for a fruiting vine.
You will need to use plants that are best for your gardening zone, I suggest that you talk with your neighbors and the friendly people at your local plan nursery. The food forest plants listed are hardy to about USDA Zone 5, some even lower.
The plants on my perennial vegetable list are perfect plants for your food forest!
The Tall-Tree Layer.
This the canopy – It is made up of full-sized fruit, nut, or other useful trees, with spaces between each tree to let plenty of light reach the lower layers.
Dense, spreading species like the classic shade trees such as maple, sycamore, and beech don’t work well in the forest garden because they cast shadows over a large area.
Better choices are multifunctional fruit and nut trees. These include standard and semistandard apple and pear trees, European plums on large rootstock, and full-sized cherries.
Chestnut trees, Chinese chestnuts, Walnut trees are excellent options, especially if they are pruned to be open to let the light through.
Nitrogen-fixing trees will help build soil, and most bear blossoms that attract insects. These include black locust, mesquite, alder, and, in low-frost climates, acacia, algoroba, tagasaste, and carob.
Since much of the forest garden lies in permaculture landscape zones 1 and 2 (close to the house), timber trees aren’t appropriate as felling trees there would be dangerous.
The canopy trees will define the major patterns of the forest garden, so they must be chosen carefully and planted with plenty of space to let the light through.
|American Persimmon||Diospyros virginiana|
|Arazole / Mediterranean Medlar||Crataegus azarolus|
|Black locust||Robinia pseudoacacia|
European Plum (Myrobalan)
Japanese Walnut (Heartnut)
Korean Stone Pine
Siberian Pea Tree
Tagasaste/ tree Lucerne
The Low-Tree Layer.
Here are many of the same fruits and nuts as in the canopy, but on dwarf and semidwarf rootstocks to keep them low growing. Also naturally small trees such as apricot, peach, nectarine, almond, medlar, persimmon, pawpaw and mulberry work well here.
In a smaller forest garden, these small trees may serve as the canopy. They can easily be pruned into an open form, which will allow light to reach the other species beneath them.
Other low-growing trees include flowering species, such as dogwood and mountain ash, and some nitrogen fixers, including golden-chain tree, silk tree, and mountain mahogany.
Australian Round Lime
Banana (Lady Finger)
Fruit Salad Plant
Prunus persica v. nectarina
Tamarillo, Tree Tomato
Bambusa textilis ‘Gracilis’
The Shrub Layer.
This tier includes blueberry, rose, hazelnut, butterfly bush, bamboo, serviceberry, the nitrogen-fixing Elaeagnus species and Siberian pea shrub, and many others.
There are a huge range of shrubs available – try to lean towards ones with beneficial qualities – attracting insects, birds, provide food, mulch, nitrogen etc.
Ribes x culverwellii
Large Kangaroo Apple
Perennial Chilli, Rocoto Chilli
The Herb Layer.
Herbs in this layer simply means non-woody vegetation: vegetables, flowers, culinary herbs, and cover crops, as well as mulch producers and other soil-building plants.
Emphasis is on perennials, but we won’t rule out choice annuals and self-seeding species.
Pepino, Pepino Dulce, Melon Pear
Beta vulgaris var. cicla
The Ground-Cover Layer.
These are low, ground-hugging plants—preferably varieties that offer food or habitat— Sample species include strawberries, nasturtium, clover, creeping thyme, ajuga, and the many prostrate varieties of flowers such as phlox and verbena.
They play a critical role in weed prevention, occupying ground that would otherwise succumb to invaders.
Fragaria x vesca
Vaccinium Oxycoccus spp.
Creeping Oregon Grape
Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’ or ‘Huntington Carpet’
The Vine Layer.
This layer is for climbing plants that will use the trees as their climbing frame. Here are food plants, such as kiwifruit, grapes, hops, passionflower, and vining berries; and those for wildlife, such as honeysuckle and trumpet-flower.
These can include climbing annuals such as squash, cucumbers, and melons. Some of the perennial vines can be invasive so they should be used sparingly and with caution.
Cucumis melo reticulatus
Cucumis melo inodorus
Kiwi Berry / Hardy Kiwifruit
Basella alba ‘Rubra’
Perennial bean (scarlet runner bean)
Sweet Potato (‘Bush Porto Rico’/’Centennial’)
Vitis vinifera subsp. sylvestris
The Root Layer.
Most of the plants for the root layer should be shallow rooted, such as garlic and onions, or easy-to-dig types such as potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes, otherwise you disrupt the other plants roots too much.
Daucus carota sativus
Raphanus sativus L.
Oca, New Zealand Yam
Tree/Egyptian Walking Onions
Allium cepa var. proliferum
Do you have a food forest at your place? What are your favorite food forest plants? Tell me about them in the comments below.
If you would like help getting the most out of your garden, I would love to help you, find out more here
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For further reading, I also recommend all of these books. I own every one of them and they are amazing resources!
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