How to Build a Food Forest Step by Step

A forest ecosystem makes an excellent model for a sustainable, permaculture system of growing food. Also known as a forest garden or food forest, this layered approach to growing food will provide an easy resource for food for many years to come once it is established.

A permaculture food forest can be created in any number of ways with many combinations of plants and trees. The biggest benefit is that the plants grow together in the same space, repelling pests, attracting pollinators and keeping the soil moist.

Keep reading for a step by step guide to starting your own permaculture food forest.

zone 1 forest farming

The Benefits of a Food Forest

A forest is an ecosystem that takes care of itself without human intervention. A food forest is a type of garden mirrored after a traditional forest but incorporating edible plants.

Once established, a food forest will become its own ecosystem and will need very little, if any, human interaction while providing fresh, healthy food.

There are many benefits to starting your own food forest. A permaculture food forest will need less water than a typical garden. It will need much less maintenance. It will probably not need any type of fertilizers or pesticides.

Food forests generally do not need to be weeded, either, as all of the parts work together and enhance each other. Lastly, in a survival situation, a permaculture food forest will be camouflaged by its design since it does not look like a typical garden.

A permaculture food forest makes for an easy to grow, beautiful food producing forest garden that you can enjoy for many years.

Traditional Forests

A permaculture food forest is a combination of plants and trees that mimic the traditional layers of plants and trees found in a typical forest. A traditional forest, on the other hand, is generally made up of layers. You would find some or all of the following layers in a typical, natural forest:

  • Canopy. The canopy layer is the tallest layer in the forest. It is made up of the tallest trees, forming a thick cover over the forest. Oak trees and maple trees are examples of canopy trees in a deciduous forest.
  • Understory. This layer is made up of smaller trees, immature trees, and even large shrubs that take advantage of gaps in the canopy layer. This layer also provides shelter for animals that live in the forest. Young immature trees, dogwood trees, and serviceberry trees are examples of understory trees in a deciduous forest.
  • Shrub. The shrub layer is smaller bushes, and brambles that grow closer to the ground. These could be nettle, wild raspberries, or other thick woody vegetation.
  • Herb. This layer is mostly softer vegetation, including ground covers and wildflowers.
  • Forest Floor. This layer consists of decaying leaves, worms, fungi like mushrooms, and other bacteria that break down the forest ‘waste’ into fertilizer.

Permaculture Food Forests

A permaculture food forest can be created with those traditional forest layers in mind like so:

  • Canopy or Tall Trees. Your canopy layer – the tallest layer in your food forest, is comprised of taller fruit trees. You might try taller apple trees, pear trees, or a variety of nut trees. Some fruit trees need multiple trees nearby to be pollinated, and they all will need space between them to make sure they get enough sunlight.
  • Understory or Smaller trees. This is the perfect layer for dwarf fruit trees and smaller fruit trees. It could also include immature trees that will eventually become canopy trees.
  • Shrubs. The shrubby layer is made up of bramble bushes, such as raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries.
  • Herbs. This herbaceous layer could be made up of many perennial herbs, such as mint, that come back year after year. You could also incorporate annual vegetables in your herbaceous layer, although they will need to be replanted each year.
  • Ground cover layer. This would be shorter plants such as strawberries.
  • Vines. You can easily incorporate vines into your food forest, as you would also find many vines growing in traditional forests. You might want to incorporate perennial vines such as grapes, or even annuals such as cucumbers and squash plants.
  • Roots. If you have any additional space in your food forest plan, you might consider incorporating some root vegetables, as well. You may want to space these away from your shrubs. Root vegetables would include plants such as garlic, potatoes, and onions.

Step by Step Guide to Creating Your Food Forest

Step 1: Make a Plan

The first thing you need to do when creating your food forest is to make a plan. Ask yourself these questions…

What do you want your food forest to do? How much food do you want it to provide? What kinds of food do you want to grow in your food forest?

Think about what you want your food forest to provide for you. What kinds of foods do you want to be able to eat from your food forest?

Do you like lots of apples? Or do you prefer more berries? What kinds of herbs and vegetables do you and your family enjoy eating? A food forest isn’t worth having if it contains only foods your family doesn’t eat, so plan accordingly for the foods that you already enjoy.

What is your climate like? Is it dry, or wet? Warm, cold, or temperate? This will help you decide what to grow in your food forest.

You might love bananas, but if you live in an area that gets cold, you won’t be able to grow them. You might love apple trees, but they aren’t likely to grow well in the desert. So you’ll need to balance what you like to eat with what you are actually able to grow in your climate.

Your local ag extension office is a great resource for finding out what you can grow locally. It also helps to observe what your neighbors and local farmers are growing on their properties, as well.

What resources do you have available to you? Do you live near a creek or water source? Or will you need to be able to water your food forest in dry weather until it is established? Do you have access to fruit or nut trees that you can plant in your food forest, or are they unavailable in your area?

How much money can you spend to create your food forest? How much land do you have to plant your food forest? You’ll need to examine what kinds of plants, water, and soil resources are available to you.

What else do you want to put in your food forest?

You might want to incorporate some interesting things in your food forest. You could include a chicken coop or rabbit hutch. You might want to incorporate a man-made pond or water feature. You could also make a place for bench, picnic table, or work-station where you can gather up your harvest.

Once your food forest is established, you may even want to incorporate decorations, bird feeders, or feeding stations to encourage wildlife to visit your food forest, as well. On the other hand, you may want to discourage deer or other animals that may feed on your harvest by surrounding your food forest with a fence.

Planning to grow some flowers, especially edible flowers, will attract pollinators to your food forest. This will encourage pollination and may improve your harvest.

Step 2: Choose Your Location

Where will you locate your food forest? Ideally, you would have a few acres of land where you live that you can start your food forest on. The closer to where you live, the better it will be.

If you don’t have a lot of land, you can still start a small food forest, or at least use the permaculture food forest principles to start a smaller version of a food forest. You might be able to fit in a few small trees and shrubs in a corner of your property even if you don’t have a lot of land.

If you don’t have land where you live, can you rent land, borrow land, or even use a space in a community garden? You may need to think creatively about your food forest space.
Try to locate your food forest in an open, sunny area near a water source so your plants can get plenty of water and sunshine.

Step 3: Observe and Interact

Once you’ve figured out where you want to have your food forest, you need to observe it. Ideally, you could spend a year or at least a few months, observing what is happening with the climate, soil, wildlife, and plants on your land.

You’ll want to make careful notes to see how the plants and wildlife interact, what is growing, and what is thriving. You may want to look for the following on your plot of land:

How much sun, shade, rain, wind, and water are on your land? Soil. What type of soil is it? What kind of nutrients are present? What is the drainage of the soil like? Will the plants sit in water that doesn’t drain or does the water drain away adequately?

What weeds are growing there? How do storms, rainfall, and droughts affect your land? What kind insects, plants, and wildlife are growing? How will they affect what you want to grow? Will what you want to grow be able to thrive in this area?

tools needed to draw permaculture maps
These are the tools you’ll need to draw the sketches.

Step 4: Create a Map

No matter what size or type of food forest you are creating, maps will help you figure out where everything should go, and if you have enough room for everything that you want to grow.

You don’t have to be an artist or master gardener to create a map of all the zones your food forest, a simple sketch will be more than sufficient. For example, homefixated.com shows a few sketches and pictures of their small food forest, here.

Your map should include all layers of the food forest, your water source, and any other significant structures, such as existing trees or houses.

Remember, as you draw your map, that structures could block the sun. Your map will help you place your food forest where it will get the best light possible.

zone map
An example of a hand-drawn permaculture zone map, going up to zone 4.

One possible arrangement, as mentioned on modernfarmer.com, is to arrange the food forest so that the tallest trees are on the northern side of the food forest, with the smaller plants being on the southern side.

This will ensure that all plants in your food forest can receive adequate sunlight to grow. However, this won’t matter if you are planting shade tolerant plants in your understory layer.

As you create your map, you may need to adjust what types of plants and trees you are going to plant. You might also need to adjust where you will put them. Your map will help you figure this all out before planting, so there are no surprises.

Step 5: Prepare the Soil

Ideally, you will be able to plan a few seasons ahead so that you can prepare the soil well for your food forest. There are several options you can choose from.

Soil Moderators

If you are planning a year in advance of starting your food forest, you can plant some soil moderators and cover crops to prepare the soil, and help it get healthy. For example, legume trees and clovers will help adjust the nitrogen content of the soil.

Cover crops will help prepare the way for more delicate plants. Ideally, plant these a year ahead of time. You can add in your food forest over time, allowing it to slowly get established. You can remove the legumes and plant your food forest plants as needed.

sheet mulch

Lasagna or sheet mulch method

If you only have a season to prepare your soil for your food forest, you might consider the lasagna method of gardening, a.k.a. sheet mulching. You’ll lay down cardboard anywhere you are going to plant.

Cover the cardboard with several layers of manure, grass clippings, and wood chips and allow them to decompose. This will smother the weeds and bring worms to the soil, which will improve the soil quality. This method only works with smaller food forests, as it is prohibitive to lay down enough cardboard and manure over a plot that is several acres.

Soil amendments

If you are starting with a very small food forest, you might consider tilling in soil amendments. This is the quickest means of starting a food forest, but also the most expensive and time consuming.

Start by tilling your area, then adding in whatever amendments your soil might need, such as aged manure, compost, straw, and even worm castings. You can mix these items in by hand, or even till them into the soil, if desired.

Step 6: Planting the Canopy Layer

The canopy layer, or the tallest trees, are the first pieces of the puzzle to be planted. In a food forest, these will typically be your taller fruit and nut trees.

Remember that you need to choose varieties of trees that grow well in your area. For best results, ask your local nursery which trees to plant. You may need to plant multiple trees of each type so that they can be properly pollinated.

The best time to plant fruit trees is during very early spring, when the trees are still dormant but the soil is able to be worked. Many fruit trees can be shipped bare root during this time, making them easier to plant. Fruit trees are slightly delicate until they are well established.

Dig a hole that is just deep enough to fit the roots, being careful not to plant the tree too deeply. Fill the hole in with the soil you removed, then cover the area with compost and mulch. Water thoroughly to make sure there are no pockets of air in the soil.

Make sure your fruit trees are spaced adequately apart and that they will receive at least six hours per day of direct sunlight.

Step 7: Plant the Understory and Shrub Layers

Once the trees are established, begin replacing your starter plants with understory layers. You can plant dwarf trees and bushes during this phase. Berry bushes generally do not have a neat and tidy appearance, but they will provide lots of berries for your family.

They’ll need plenty of room and bright sunlight to grow, so consider planting them along the outskirts of your food forest, or wherever there are enough gaps in the canopy layer for the sun to shine though.

When planting berry bushes, its best to plant them in late spring or early fall. Bare root bushes will need time to get established, but once they are, they will come back year after year.

Berry bushes, especially black berries, spread quickly via runners. Make sure you plant them where you won’t need to worry about how far they spread.

If you plant your fruit trees in early spring, you may want to consider waiting until the following fall or spring to plant your berry bushes so that the fruit trees have plenty of time to get established. Then the tree roots will be deep enough not to compete with the berry bushes for water and nutrients.

Step 8: Plant Your Herbaceous Layer

Once your canopy, understory and shrub layers are established, you can begin planting your herb layer. These can be planted according to how much light and space are available. Many herbs prefer full sunshine, but others can do well in part shade, as well.

Perennial herbs, such as mint, will spread voraciously. You may want to consider containing these types of plants in raised bed structures or pots sunk in the ground if you do not want them spreading freely. However, if you have plenty of space, it is perfectly fine to give these plants free reign.

Some ideas to plant:

  • Rosemary
  • Oregano
  • Mint
  • Sage
  • Lavender
  • Thyme
  • Asparagus
  • Artichokes
  • Rhubarb

You’ll want to plant these types of plants in the spring, once all danger of frost has passed. You can start many of these herbs from seed indoors about 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost date.

This will give the plants enough time to grow into seedlings. From there, you can harden them off and plant them when the time is right for your area.

Step 9: Plant any smaller, ground cover plants

These types of plants are smaller and should be somewhat shade tolerant. They can be planted into the soil after all danger of frost has passed.

  • Alpine Strawberries
  • Lettuces. Although lettuces are annual plants, they can be direct sown from seed.
  • Nasturtiums (edible flowers).

These types of plants are smaller and should be somewhat shade tolerant. They can be planted into the soil after all danger of frost has passed.

Step 10: Add in Your Vining Plants and Root Crops

Many of these plants are annuals, so they should be added in last. You will need to replant most of these year after year. They can be planted once all danger of frost has passed. For example:

  • Potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Squash
  • Pumpkin
  • Cucumber
  • Grapes

These plants can be trained to grow up well established trees and shrubs if they will not interfere with the host plant’s growth. While the result may not be a ‘tidy’ looking garden, it will be effective.

Otherwise, you can add in simple trellises or fences to your food forest to grow these plants on. They can also sprawl across the ground if you have plenty of space.

Step 11: Consider Adding Chickens

Chickens are an excellent addition to any food forest. You may want to keep them fenced in so that they do not destroy any developing plants.

You can allow them to free range in the fall and winter after you are finished harvesting your plants. They can eat any leftover produce and turn over any bare ground. Chickens will also eat bugs that might devour your vegetables.

Step 12: Go with the Flow

You may find out that there are a few surprises along the way. Some plants that you thought would flourish in your food forest might not work out. Other plants might surprise you, and do better than you expected.

Over time, you’ll learn as you go. If a plant fails, just try something else in its place.

Keep watch over the health of your food forest as it gets established. Once it becomes established, it should need very little maintenance.

However, you may need to add irrigate your food forest during times of drought. You might also need to prune away some branches of the canopy and understory to make room for other plants to grow.

Over time, you might want to add additional plants or try new things in your food forest.

Final Step: Have Patience

Permaculture food forests take time to plan, plant, grow, and get established. And while you may want to complete yours in a single season, you will probably be better off allowing each layer of the food forest to become established for a season or two before adding in the next one, especially if you are planting a very large food forest area.

However, given time, your food forest will provide you with plenty of food for many years to come. So while a food forest isn’t a quick fix, it is a long term investment with many rewards.

food forest pin

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3 thoughts on “How to Build a Food Forest Step by Step”

  1. Thanks for putting this into such a concise order. We have been working on our food forest/permaculture for 4 years. Just starting to see “fruit” of our labors.

  2. You don’t address how to deal with 4 legged neighbors and feathered friends who will definately beat you to any food. A family of raccoons can strip a dozen fruit trees in one night.

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It is the most comprehensive article on how to build a food forest. Lots of tips !

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