Creating a Food Forest

May 30, 2023

A food forest is a gardening and food production strategy designed to provide edible yields while limiting maintenance and reducing the environmental impact of food production. This is done by creating diverse plantings of native and wildlife friendly plants coupled with edible plants and herbs.

A food forest might also contain animals that contribute to the diversity. As this ecosystem develops, the biodiversity and habitat for wildlife increases. This in turn decreases pests, diseases, and fertility requirements.

Food forests usually contain both native and non-native trees, shrubs, perennials, vines, annuals, and herbs. Plantings are usually interspersed and informal, utilizing layers of plants for weed control, shade, and structure.

Food Forest Plants

  • Canopy: pecan, hickory, oak, black gum, Kentucky coffee tree, black cherry, persimmon, soap berry Understory Trees: mulberry, pawpaw, wild plum, serviceberry, sassafras, Chinese dogwood, grafted fruit trees
  • Shrubs: blackberry, currant, elderberry, chokeberry, hazelnut, sumac, black haw, spicebush raspberry, gooseberry, goji berry, fig, bush cherry, blueberry
  • Vines: grape, kiwi, passion fruit, akebia, chayote
  • Herbaceous plants: greenbrier, Jerusalem artichoke, mountain mint, wild onion, sorrel, rosemary, thyme, oregano, lavender, mint, sage, artichoke, rhubarb, asparagus, horseradish, strawberry, watercress, garlic, echinacea, blue stem grass, Indian grass, northern sea oats liatris, Indian blanket, false indigo, joe pye weed

Planting a Food Forest

Start with a small easily managed area and expand slowly. Young gardens require considerable maintenance until they are established. Choose an open, sunny location for your garden and stake off the perimeters. Eliminate any weeds, grass, or other undesirable vegetation prior to planting.

The next step is to arrange your plants. Position the tallest species at the northern end of the planting area, with progressively smaller plants toward the southern end. This way the taller plants will cast less shade on the smaller ones.

Shade tolerant plants may be interspersed throughout after the canopy and understory is established. Mushrooms can be cultivated in the shadiest areas once the large trees have matured. Edible vines may be planted on any accessible fences, arbors, or walls, and you can also train vines up trees.

The edges of the food forest and areas where the canopy and understory has not filled in can be planted with annual flowers and vegetables. Cool season vegetables like collards, mustard, spinach, lettuce, kale, chard, radish, beets, peas, carrots and onions can be grown in the spring and fall. In the summer those areas can be shifted to warm season vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, okra, cucumber, squash, eggplant, beans, pumpkins, and melons.

There is no need to till the soil or create beds. Instead, dig a hole for each individual plant and incorporate 50% compost into the backfill soil. Mulch is also beneficial for a young food forest. As the forest matures low growing plants and leaf litter will take the place of mulch.

By creating a food forest, you can produce a diverse variety of food with less labor and environmental impact.

Written By "Botanical Brian" Pirtle, Horticulturist