Grow 3-5X More Food with Less Maintenance Compared to Conventional Gardening
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We are going to cover a lot of ground in this post, so I put together a free package of resources that will help you implement what you learn in this post. Be sure to grab it before you leave!
If you are wondering how to start a food forest, you are in the correct place.
In this post, I’ll outline the exact process to follow to go from an empty field to a fully-functioning ecosystem inspired by forests. You’ll learn how to choose the right plants for your food forest, design your layout, make soil improvements before planting, and much more.
What is a food forest? (aka forest garden)
In layman’s terms, a food forest is a type of garden where you grow many different fruits, nuts, herbs, and even vegetables. It is designed to mimic a natural forest and has many different layers, from trees to shrubs, ground cover plants, vines, and more.
These plants all work together, help each other grow, and create a balanced ecosystem that provides an abundance of food and resources for you and an ideal habitat for your wildlife helpers.
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of HOW to create a food forest, let’s first understand the big picture WHY: Why would you want to plant a food forest instead of a normal garden? In particular, why is it more resilient than other farming methods?
How come wild cherries from the nearby forest do so well while the cherry tree you planted in your orchard five years ago dies miserably?
One of my earliest memories of visiting my grandparents’ farm was playing on the dry stone wall, tossing stones around, and generally fooling around.
Then, looking down, I came across a tiny seedling sticking out the side of the wall, growing in nothing, with barely any soil between the stones.
Out of childish curiosity, more than anything, I decided to set it free from the heavy stones and leave it to grow on its own. That was 20 years ago…
Today, that seedling is this strapping young fellow on the image left – a European Ash tree.
He has survived the droughts, heavy snows, pouring rains, and sub-zero temperatures all by himself, without anyone taking care of him.
As I sit under his shadow today and plan my food forest I’m curious to find out how trees flourish without human intervention.
How come wild apples, plums, and cherries from the nearby forest do so well while the cherry tree I planted in my orchard five years ago has died miserably? To understand this I needed to return to the place where the seed of this Mountain Ash tree came from and revisit my teacher – the forest itself.
Forests Are Our Teachers
Just by my house, some 50m away, is an entrance to a forest. I visit there often; it makes me feel relaxed. I enjoy the serene sounds of nature, the falling leaves, birds, and other critters. Most importantly, I go there to observe and learn.
You see, given enough time, most ecosystems end up like a forest. This is the endpoint of ecological succession, where the ecosystem becomes stable or self-perpetuating as a climax community. Without any significant disturbances, the forest will endure indefinitely.
This is exactly what you want your own food forest to be like. To achieve a low-maintenance abundance of fruit, nuts, berries, and herbs you’ll want to create a forest-like system where fertility comes from various sources, where you’re greatly aided by fungi, where wildlife is your primary pest control, where soil holds water like a sponge, and where you have a high diversity of plants.
You want a carefully designed and maintained ecosystem of useful plants that emulate conditions found in the forest.
However, the problem is often that you’ll find yourself starting with a bare field, a blank canvas, and the overall plan can feel a little overwhelming. Sometimes even reading books such as Edible Forest Gardens can make things harder rather than easier.
While creating my own food forest, I broke down the plan into smaller, manageable steps. I want to make as few mistakes as possible, and honestly, I don’t have time to make them.
So today, I’ll let you in on my process and share additional resources that will help you go from that bare field to a fully-functioning ecosystem inspired by forests.
Good! Grab a copy of my Food Forest Starter Pack. It will walk you through the exact steps you need to take to implement this 5000-word blog post you’re reading (click here to download).
Ok, let’s dive in!
STEP 1. Set a Goal: What Do You Want From Your Food Forest?
First, you have to be clear about the ultimate goals of your project.
Why is this important?
You see, with a clear goal, everything becomes more manageable. You know where best to place your efforts and, most importantly, what the priorities are, what to focus on, and what to postpone for the time being.
You have to think are you doing this because of: 1. being more self-reliant, 2. making an income, 3. producing healthy food, 4. educating others, 5. having a fun project for all the family
As you can see, each of these will require different considerations for your precious time and money. For example, if your goal is to create an income from your food forest, you’ll want to focus on researching which tree crops sell well locally and then think about how to grow them in the most efficient manner.
On the other hand, if you want to be more self-reliant, you’ll want to think about creating a diverse food forest with as many fruits, nuts, and herbs as possible to fulfill your needs and stop being dependent on the grocery store.
Don’t overdo the thinking at the outset; just be clear about what you want from the beginning.
STEP 2. Explore, Sit Quietly and Observe, Analyse
2a. Explore your local forest so you’ll have an idea of what will grow best in your area
Start with taking casual walks in your local forest. When designing a food forest, you want to learn from the local ecosystem and try to emulate it. This is why such observations are important. This is how you discover what plants will grow best in our area.
You’ll want to look around and identify the plants that are thriving. As Mark Shepard would say: identify the perennial plants, observe how they grow in relation to one another, and take note of the species. Later, you can use that list to find commercially productive variants of the wild plants you can grow in your food forest.
This step is crucial because if you want to create an edible landscape requiring less work and maintenance, you need to grow species well adapted to your area, i.e., species that are volunteering to grow around your site.
If you have nature as your ally and use the natural tendencies of the native vegetation, then you’ll be doing considerably less hard work. This is one of the fundamental permaculture principles of working with nature rather than against it.
For example, when I walked in my forest I saw elderberries, hazels, hawthorns, lindens, cherries, apples, junipers, etc. So, guess what I’ll be growing in my food forest?
I’d also take seeds from those naturalized species and use them as rootstock for my plants. But that’s a lesson in itself, so be sure to read my post on growing trees from seeds.
2b. Sit quietly and observe your site
Next, sit at the future site of your food forest. Whether it’s 5 or 50 minutes, just sit there quietly. Brew yourself some coffee or tea, and just be mindful of what is happening around you. Immerse yourself and study the wildlife, feel the breeze, and listen to the sounds of the natural world around you. You can learn a great deal simply by sitting quietly.
One of my best ideas, which saved me a lot of time, came when I just sat down and observed my site. For years, I tried to get a wild hedge under control, and year after year, I cut it, but it kept re-sprouting. This mindless management involved a great deal of work, as I always found myself battling against the hedge’s natural inclinations.
It wasn’t until one day, when I was sitting quietly looking down at the hedge, that I came up with an easy solution to the problem. I asked myself a simple question: How can I let nature do the work for me? As I observed the hedge more thoughtfully, I realized that some of the species growing there were useful, while with others, I had even planned to grow them there anyway.
If I just gave a head start to the species I want there, they would eventually overgrow the ‘non-useful’ ones, and I wouldn’t need to cut down everything each year mindlessly. Sometimes we are just too much in working mode to come up with solutions that are a whole lot easier. Having the time to observe, think and ask the right questions helps us save money, time, and unnecessary labor.
These moments of mindfulness help put things into perspective and reveal a wealth of important information about the site.
2c. Do a site survey and make a basic map
It’s time to put on your permaculturist explorers’ hat and take notes about your site. You’ll want to ‘read the landscape’ and note down everything you can decipher about your water situation, climate, soil, slope, aspect, wildlife…
The landscape you see around you and its resulting ecosystems are formed from the interaction of climate, landforms, soils, and living things. Therefore, to better understand your site, you should analyze these elements, or parts of them, one by one…
At this point, you want to be actively involved and walk the site, conduct surveys, and look at different natural processes. You can use modern technology (smartphones and desktop computers) to help you understand the weather patterns, terrain shape, and water movement across the land.
You also want to get your hands dirty and investigate soil texture, structure, and biological activity. You can also perform some lab tests on your soil and experiment with some basic tests yourself.
There are many things you’ll want to explore during a site survey. Click here to download my free site survey checklist and use it as your reference during this phase of the design.
Based on your collected information, make a rudimentary hand-drawn map or use Google Earth as a base layer and annotate the printout with your notes. You can even make multiple thematic maps for each landscape component you’ve analyzed.
From this site assessment map, it should be visible where the site potentials lay and what you’ll need to design for.
STEP 3. Food Forest Design – Create a Layout and Choose the Plants
3a. Choose a general layout – orchard, woodland, savannah
Four basic layouts determine the final look of the food forest: In their book Edible Forest Gardens, Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier suggest more options, but I’ll round it down to the basics:
4. Closed canopy forests – the end point of succession, these are mature forests – example: “Your local forest.”
Which layout suits you best depends on your goals and your site’s characteristics (climate, terrain, biome, etc.). Different systems require a different design approach, management, and maintenance….
Savanna-type or agroforestry systems are based on a keyline design and are much better suited for commercial fruit, nut, and herb production. Usually implemented on a broadacre scale, this layout with equidistant rows enables efficient machine harvesting.
The woodlands we call orchards are more of a hybrid system that you can use for both commercial production and home use. The layout also has equidistant rows, but permaculture orchards are usually implemented on a relatively smaller scale.
Mid- to late-succession woodlands offer the opportunity for the most varied, interesting, complex, and productive patterns of trees, shrubs, and herbs. Although primarily geared towards home food production, you can implement this layout in your suburban backyard and scale up to a farm scale.
3b. Start by outlaying your infrastructure first
Start your design with the scale of permanence in mind and plan your water, access, and structures first. It’s best to begin with these essentials because they will be the most permanent elements of your food forest.
This includes thinking about the most suitable places for your water tanks, irrigation lines, and other water elements and planning for the locations of access points, different buildings, and fences.
Water planning comes first, as water is the number one priority for any permaculture system. The water systems you develop in this stage will become permanent land features that other infrastructure components will follow.
Immediately after designing the water systems, consider where to put your roads and paths. Their placement will define your movement around your food forest for many years, so think long and hard about their potential locations. Once they’re in, it’s hard to rearrange them.
The fencing pattern will generally follow access, and you can subdivide your food forest into different growing zones. By doing so, you can manage and protect them separately if necessary. Finally, consider where to put different buildings, if any…
Good infrastructure design is essential to minimize maintenance, maximize productivity, and provide a habitat for beneficial animals.
3c. Make a list master list of plants you wish to grow
Make a master list of plants – your desired species and others necessary to fulfill a specific purpose in your food forest. Think about ecological functions needed throughout the garden, such as food production, gathering and retaining specific nutrients, beneficial insect nectar plants, and ground cover for weed control.
Create a spreadsheet with each of these categories, do the research, and list all the plants you want. Now, suppose there is a desired species that won’t work on your site. In that case, you can always find an ecological equivalent, i.e., an ecologically similar species that fills a similar community niche in comparable habitats.
For this, you can use climate-analogous species. Based on the climate classification of your site, you can find almost identical climates across the globe, and then, by researching plants in those areas, find all kinds of interesting species you didn’t know you could grow.
However, growing plant species that aren’t native to your bioregion can work against the natural tendencies of your site. You can make things easier on yourself and focus only on what works. Here’s what I mean…
Based on the inspection of your local forest in step 1, you’ll know what species grow best in your area. These native and naturalized species are part of the already functioning and thriving ecosystem. All you need to do now is imitate that ecosystem on your site but use the more productive variants of these species.
Be sure to include these plants in your master list!
3d. Create guilds from your master list of plants
This is the very core of forest gardening. You want to create effective polycultures that share the resources and mutually support themselves. But how can you choose the right combination of plants? Here are just a few of the recommendations from Edible Forest Gardens.
You can build your guild based on what you know or guess about plants, their species niche, and how they interact. In this way, you can also create novel plant combinations through your experiments.
You can create a random mixture. A lot of people will select a group of interesting plants and throw them together and see what happens. However, while sporadically it’s ok to spice things up, if the whole garden is like this, it will probably result in failure.
You can also try to emulate a habitat and use a model ecosystem as a template for design, incorporating species directly from the model habitat. This model habitat could be your local forest.
This is, of course, the easiest way to win. Here, you’re not inventing anything new. Instead, you’re copying what already works in nature. All you need to do is observe how the native plants grow in relation to one another and imitate that in your food forest.
3e. Do a patch design – define your planting areas and plant spacing
Design your patches one by one; a patch could be a row, a contour, or a grouping of plants in one area. However you decide to tackle the patch design, the most important aspect is deciding on the planting distance.
If you followed the design process and started your design by choosing the overall layout, you should already have an idea of the distances between the patches. Now let’s look at how to space the plants within the patch.
The easiest way to determine this spacing is by using the ‘crown touching rule’ and placing the individual trees a crown’s diameter apart. For this, you’ll have to find the information on the size of the individual mature trees’ crowns and use that as your guide.
Usually, the biggest mistake people make is overly-dense spacing where tree crowns interlock. This is OK when you’re planting a screen or hedge, but otherwise, this will stress the plants and limit their growth.
In his book, Creating Forest Gardens, Martin Crawford recommends adding 30-50% more distance around each woody plant if you want more sunlight for understory plants. Also, you want to plant wider than the ‘crown touching’ distance when soil conditions are limiting to reduce competition between plants for limited resources.
STEP 4. Prepare the Future Food Forest Site
4a. Adapt your site if necessary
If you’re not starting from scratch with a bare field, the chances are there is something already growing there, and you’ll need to adapt your site accordingly. This means clearing unwanted vegetation and leaving whatever you find useful. You can use any available biomass for mulch, compost, wood chips, firewood, and mushroom inoculation….
For example, I will leave some naturalized plums and use a wood chipper to create mulch from the trees and branches I don’t need, plus I’ll also use the wood for my hugel beds.
4b. Shape the earth to your advantage and optimize water retention
After you have cleared the vegetation, you can start the earthworks to optimize water retention on your site. This involves shaping the earth to promote water infiltration, distribution, and storage.
Effectively, what you want to do first is to slow, spread, and sink the water as it falls from the sky into the soil. The soil is the cheapest place to store water and is the largest storage resource available on most sites. To do this, you can use two famous techniques: keyline plowing/subsoiling and swales on the contour.
Following this, you want to have a way to capture as much water as reasonably possible and store it for dry periods. You can do this by digging ponds that store the water and diversion drains that collect and distribute that water when necessary across the site.
Whether you use one or both of these strategies depends on your site conditions: climate, terrain, soil, your context…One question on everybody’s mind is whether or not to swale it. For assistance, I would encourage you to look at this cheat sheet by Ben Falk if you’re in two minds about doing swales on your site.
4c. Set up infrastructure and put down irrigation, pathways, and fencing
Following the earthworks, begin with the most difficult, important, or permanent elements of the food forest.
Start by putting down pathways throughout your site. They are important as they define and protect your different growing zones from compaction. You want to minimize compaction in the areas you’ll be planting soon after, and having clearly defined pathways keep you on track (pun intended).
A well-built pathway can also act as hard surface runoff and collect the water you can connect with the other water elements you built in the previous step. Integrate rather than segregate!
Fencing the site is the next important thing. I can’t recommend building a main perimeter fence and enclosing your whole site strongly enough. Importantly, there are security issues and protection from theft or trespassing. Moreover, I hear a lot of people regretting not doing this type of fence first to ensure that their trees get protection from wildlife.
You don’t want those deer, coyotes, kangaroos, sheep, or rabbits nibbling on your seedlings.
Finally, if necessary, put down irrigation and install water tanks – you can’t overdo it when it comes to ensuring enough water during a drought.
4d. Build up your soil and improve the soil structure
It will come as a surprise to many, but improving the soil first rather than planting straight away saves time. This is because waiting for a year and simply conditioning the soil during that time and planting in year two yields better results than planting immediately.
To improve the soil in this transitional period before planting, you can add soil amendments such as compost, compost tea, and fertilizers, or use cover crops to improve the soil fertility so that your plants get a decent head start. However, there is a caveat to this soil building…
Ideally, food forest soils contain a fungal presence ten times higher than bacteria. So you should aim to recreate those conditions.
In the beginning, you’ll probably start from a bare field, and you want to nudge your soil towards fungi domination continually. You can do this by inoculating the soil with fungi or cover cropping with green manure crops – Michael from the Holistic Orchard recommends red or crimson clover in preference as these two nitrogen-fixing legumes have a stronger affinity for mycorrhizal fungi. Finally, you want to spread woody mulch everywhere to feed the fungi in the soil.
For more info about improving the soil in your food forest, read my Definitive Guide to Building Deep Rich Soils by Imitating Nature.
STEP 5. Source the Plants and Start Planting Your Food Forest
5a. Start a nursery or buy plants
Now that all the preparation work is complete, you can start planting. You have two options depending on the budget: grow your own trees (and shrubs, of course) or acquire young ones.
If you’re on a tight budget, I suggest growing most of your trees. Actually, regardless of your budget, you shouldn’t stray from learning how to grow your own trees. This is one of the most important skills you can have as a permaculturist, and the chances are that sometimes the type of trees you’ll need won’t even be available to buy.
Growing your trees is like printing your own money. It’s actually quite simple, and you don’t even need that much space. You can read about it in my post on ‘How to set up a Small Permaculture Nursery and Grow 1000s of Trees by yourself’ and start your nursery today.
Another option is to buy young trees from nurseries. However, the trees will be more expensive, already grafted, and probably already one or two years old. If you have the budget and don’t have time to grow your own trees or wait, this is how to get an instant orchard without the hassle of setting up a nursery.
5b. Phase your project and plant in stages
Planting a food forest can take place in stages or all at once. However, being honest, you’re unlikely to do it all in one go. More realistically, you’ll plant your food forest in stages over several years. You’ll know where to plant as long as you know the outline of your rows or patches. After this, it’s only a matter of slowly filling the space with plants.
Establishing stages normally involves planting hedges and/or canopy trees in the first year or two, then later shrubs and a ground cover layer. Here is a recommendation from Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden book:
Windbreak/hedges and edges>>Canopy layer including N fixers>>Shrub layer including N fixers>>Perennial/ground cover layer>>annuals, biennial, and climbers.
Depending on your layout, you can add annual veggie production. At least, in the beginning, there will be a lot of light and space available for you to use to grow your beyond-organic vegetables.
5c. Finally, put your plants in the ground
I won’t go into detail here on how you should be planting. For a step-by-step guide, refer to my other post.
In short, make sure you dig a large enough planting hole, spread the roots, sprinkle in mycorrhizal inoculant, or dip the roots in a mycorrhizal root dip if required, and refill the hole with the soil you took out.
In almost every instance, you should use sheet mulch after planting to control the weeds. Unless the soil is very poor, do not add extra materials. Most importantly, don’t forget to mulch with the right type of material. Since you’ll be growing woody perennials, you must feed the soil biology (fungi) with woody mulch.
Take Action! (Get Your Free Food Forest Starter Pack)
Creating a food forest is a multi-stage process; you don’t have to go through all the steps outlined above in the exact order. The idea behind this post is to give you a framework for planning and planting your first trees. Aftercare and maintenance will be the subject of another post.
So these were the steps I followed when creating my food forest. I’ve been growing my food forest for a couple of years now. Still, honestly, it’s an ongoing and never-ending project as I always like to expand to more land, plant more plants, and experiment with different plant combinations. With every new patch of land, I follow these exact steps.
I want you to do the same thing and start creating that low-maintenance food abundance today, so I’m giving several bonus resources to help.
In the bonus section:
I’ve documented the exact workflow I use to create food forests and packaged it into a Food Forest Starter Pack for you. It includes the following resources:
- First, I distilled this 5000-word article you’ve just read into an easy-to-follow checklist to make it simple when you get to the implementation stage
- Second, I’ve made a site survey checklist that you can use as a quick reference when starting with a new patch of land.
- Third, I’ve included a short tutorial on the exact design steps I used when planning the layout for my food forest.
- Lastly, I created a PDF with 5 temperate climate guild examples you can copy and recreate in your food forest.