Planting a Food Forest

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 As we are in the middle of winter and spring is approaching quickly, one starts to plan new plantings for their garden. How about this year, try building a perennial food forest in your backyard? A food forest is sometimes called a forest garden. Food forests are designed to replicate ecosystems and growing patterns found in nature. There are several layers in a food forest, with each providing ecological functions. A food forest can be designed with only a few layers or nine layers. 

The idea of a food forest has its roots in permaculture. Permaculture “is the conscious design and maintenance of cultivated ecosystems that have the diversity, stability, and resilience of a natural ecosystem.” [Bill Mollison]. Each layer is designed to mimic natural ecosystems through deliberate diverse perennial plantings while providing food for you. Plants may be selected to fit one ecological function, while others can fill many. As a food forest grows, these ecological niches that are filled will allow the food forest to become self-sustaining. 

Root Layer

The root layer is designed to help build the health of the soil. Some plants with deep roots are chosen to allow for nutrients to be brought up. Other plants with extensive root systems are chosen to stabilize the soil 

Ground Cover Layer

The ground cover layer protects the soil surface. Plants prevent soil loss from erosion and provide weed suppression. Ground covers that provide nitrogen fixation can be chosen to help build the soil and add nitrogen to the soil to be used by the other plants in the food forest. 

Herb Layer

The herb layer can be considered part of the understory layer. Herbs have scents, and the properties of the plants chosen are used as a distraction and deterrent for pests. The herbaceous plants will die back in the fall, providing biomass, organic matter, and nutrients to the food forest.

Understory Layer

The understory layer consists of small trees and shrubs. Shrubs and trees are typically fruiting or can be used for medicinal purposes. Many of the plants for this food forest layer are pollinator attractors and encourage birds and beneficial insects.

Canopy Layer

The canopy layer is the top layer of a food forest. Larger fruiting trees are chosen for this layer. Trees can also attract pollinators and wildlife while also providing food. The trees also provide shelter for the plants underneath. 

Planting Suggestions for Food Forests:

Root Layer: Borage, Horseradish (Big Top), Jerusalem Artichoke, Rhubarb

Ground Layer: Calendula, Strawberry, Oregano, Mint, Clover

Herb Layer: Basil, Dill, Lavender, Asparagus

Understory Layer: Goji Berry (Phoenix Tears), Elderberry (Sambucus species), Blueberry (Premier, Jersey, Patriot, Onslow), Raspberry (Prelude, Encore), Bush Cherry (Nanking Red, Nanking White)

Canopy Layer:  Pawpaw (KSU Atwood, Select Pawpaw), Fig (Brown Turkey, Hardy Chicago), Apple (Liberty, Stayman Winesap, Enterprise), Persimmon (Miss Kim, Sung Hui, Hira Tanenashi), Mulberry (Red Mulberry, Black Mulberry), Pear, Asian (Daisui Li), Pear, European (Potomac, Shenandoah)


Planting a Comunity Food ForestUniversity of Minnesota Extension

Resources for the Food Forest Enthusiast James Madison University

NC State Extension Permaculture Design

MSU Edible Food Forest Garden