The permaculture term, “food forests”, seems to be gaining notoriety across the world wide web and in local conversations. As one of the key permaculture zones, food forests are simply food gardens in a forest setting. They are built using diverse edible trees and plants that imitate natural forest patterns and ecosystems. There purpose is grounded in permaculture: the art and science of building abundant systems that are beneficial to both the land and wildlife as well as to people, community and culture. Fabulous food forests are designed to become sustainable food abundance for years to come.

Food Forest Design

To begin building a food forest, you want to first identify the location, as well as consider the edible trees and plants you desire and their light requirements. Make a list of your desired trees and plants marked with their sun and shade needs. This will help you choose the location, and assist in where to locate each plant and tree within the food forest. If most of your chosen plants and trees thrive in part-shade to shade, then locate the food forest in a northerly protected area. If their needs are lots of sunshine, choose the most sunny spot, and if they require part-sun, orient the food forest east to west.

You will likely have a mix of plants and trees for both sun and shade, which you can strategically place within the food forest to meet their light requirements. The forest bed can be any shape you want: straight down a fence line, curved around a pond or round in the middle of a lawn. Once you have your location and shape chosen, you can now draw that shape and begin placing your plants and trees into the forest. This will be done using layers in a manner to mimic a natural forest ecosystem.

Food Forest Layers

When you walk through the forest, what do you observe? There is a lot going on from the forest floor up to the tops of the tallest trees. The first layer is this canopy of tall trees that are placed first in your design. You will want to know the eventual spread and height of these trees, and all your plants, so that you give them enough room to grow. Place any trees needing more shade on the north end of the forest. The second layer is large shrub or dwarf trees, and the third layer is smaller shrubs. Most shrubs have good spread so allow for this in your design.

The fourth layer is herbaceous, which includes all flowering plants, edible plants and even culinary and medicinal herbs. Below these is the fifth layer of ground covers, and the sixth layer is any underground roots and bulbs. One could grow sweet potatoes as an underground layer that also serves as a ground cover. There are many herbs that can serve as both edible ground covers and also small shrubs, while endless edible and flowering bulbs can add food and beauty to the forest. The final seventh layer is vertical climbers which can be flowering, edible or medicinal.

Can you see now why these food forests are fabulous? The tall trees provide a protective canopy under which the smaller trees and shrubs thrive in dappled sunlight. The herbaceous plants can enjoy shade deep within the forest or more sunshine on the forest edges. The ground covers control weeds, provide moisture and create organic compost from all the trees and plants above them. The underground layers work to provide more nitrogen, aeration and beauty while the tall trees offer the space for vertical climbers. It is the natural and even magical forest ecosystem that teaches us how to create fabulous food forests.

My First Food Forest

I built my first food forest about three years ago, with a crescent moon shape that mimics a beautiful curve in the land around the pond. My goal was to build a sustainable, edible and medicinal forest upon which I could survive, if I had to. The tall trees I planted are moringa, ice cream and red bananas, a Carrie mango, a Mexican avocado and I am adding a papaya tree soon. My large shrubs are cranberry hibiscus, Kama sutra lime, coffee and a flowering native plant. My smaller shrubs are native flowering and medicinal plants, and my edible longevity spinach ground cover is thriving. I have work to do in adding more culinary and medicinal herbs as small shrubs, and to add some edible, medicinal and flowering root bulbs.

I harvest lots of bananas, make salads with the longevity spinach, hibiscus and moringa leaves, make coffee from my own beans, soak in a Kama sutra lime bath and await my mangos and avocados. So far, so good. I see the bunny rabbits munching on the longevity spinach, the butterflies dance around the native plants and the bees swarm the moringa and fruit tree blossoms. Even the ducks waddle up from the pond to explore this forest, and on occasion, a majestic blue heron or snowy egret will grace the forest with their presence.

It is enormously satisfying to grow edible and medicinal plants and trees, to harvest and consume what you grow, to provide shelter and food for wildlife, to learn nature’s wisdom and watch the fab food forest do its amazing thing. The forest is always growing, changing and teaching, and we get to grow, change and learn with it. Everyone should experience the creation of a food forest at least once in their life!