If you’re curious about how to create a permaculture food forest, you’ve come to the right place.
What is it? In simple terms, a permaculture food forest is a garden that imitates the structure and function of a natural forest. It consists of a variety of plants, including fruits, nuts, herbs, and vegetables. The garden is arranged in layers (like a natural forest), with trees, shrubs, ground cover plants, and vines. These plants coexist, support each other’s growth, and establish a harmonious ecosystem.
A food forest not only yields a rich variety of food and resources for you but also creates a beneficial environment for local wildlife.
10 Practical Tips for Creating a Permaculture Food Forest
1. Gather information about your property
Before you start planting, get to know your property. Observe your surroundings. Notice the natural paths of water, wind, and sunlight throughout the year and their effect on your property. Take notes and try to discover the patterns. Research and try to discover the implications of your observations.
- What are the measurements of the property?
- What are the microclimates?
- Where are the utilities located?
- Which hardscaping elements will stay or be changed?
- What are the known challenges?
- What structures are on the property?
- Where would any planned structures need to be located?
- What is the condition of the soil? Test the soil so that you understand any underlying issues.
Large or complicated properties can be challenging to navigate. Consider hiring an expert. A trained professional may help you avoid costly mistakes. They can evaluate space limitations, drainage, sun exposure, and other factors to ensure your food forest will thrive.
If you do this step on your own, spend time reading permaculture books to familiarize yourself with the key principles. Some of my favorite permaculture books include:
- Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture – Toby Hemenway
- Practical Permaculture for Home Landscapes, Your Community and the Whole Earth – Jessi Bloom & Dave Boehnlein
Permaculture principles applied to small spaces and containers:
- Container Gardening—The Permaculture Way: Sustainably Grow Vegetables and More in Your Small Space – Valéry Tsimba
2. Understand the vision for the property and implement goals to make it happen
Now that you are beginning to understand your property, it’s time to decide what you want to achieve with your food forest. Create a vision statement of what you would like the property to become. This is also a good time to consider the time and resources you wish to devote to the project and ongoing maintenance.
- Do you want a wide variety of fruit to eat every day of the year?
- How much of your food would you like to grow?
- Would you like to grow rare or unusual fruit?
- Are animals or other livestock included in your vision?
- What plans for water or energy conservation do you have?
Now, set goals to implement that vision. Consider how to meet the needs of everyone who lives on your property. Include as much detail as possible in your plans. Your goals will determine what, where, and how much you plant.
Write your vision and goals down and keep them in mind as you build your food forest.
3. Evaluate and improve the soil
You may not be able to implement all the goals and food forest plans at once but begin by improving the soil.
No matter what or when you plant, it needs good soil to grow well. Adding a thick layer of compost and wood chips is a simple way to improve your soil. If you live in a dry climate, begin watering. Adding compost, wood chips, and water makes your soil come alive in preparation for planting.
4. Learn which plants grow best in your climate for each permaculture layer
In a food forest, you’ll have different layers: canopy, low tree level, shrub level, and herbaceous level. Each layer supports various types of plants. Take the time to learn which plants grow best in your climate for each layer and plan your food forest accordingly.
If you live in a mild winter climate, these posts about perennial herbs and other perennial crops may help. For other climates, find local growers or check with your extension office for planting resources.
5. Plan fruit tree guilds in your food forest
Fruit tree guilds are groups of plants that work together to support the fruit tree. Look to existing local plant groupings for guidelines of what is already working well in your climate. Choose resilient plants that offer different benefits to one another.
For example, planting nitrogen-fixing plants can help fertilize the soil and benefit the fruit tree. Other plants may help keep pests away and provide nutrients to the soil or provide leaf litter for mulch.
10 Practical Tips for Creating a Permaculture Food Forest (cont.)
6. Plant suitable varieties for your climate
It is essential to understand chill hours, climate zones, and their impact on what you can grow. If you live in an area with low chill hours, you’ll need to choose trees that don’t require a lot of chill hours. Research the varieties that will do well in your particular climate before planting. If you don’t have enough chill hours for a particular fruit, the tree may grow, but it will not produce fruit.
If you live in the low desert of Arizona, this fruit planting guide lists several options that grow well.
7. Start with trees that are easy to grow
When creating a food forest, knowing which trees will do well with minimal effort in your area is essential. For example, citrus, mulberry, fig, and pomegranate are good choices for beginners if you live in the low desert of Arizona. These trees are easy to grow, hardy, and provide abundant fruit. Growing easy-to-grow trees is a good preparation before tackling tough or finicky plants that are more difficult to grow well.
8. Purchase small trees for planting
While larger trees may seem appealing, smaller trees (1-gallon or 5-gallon) are less expensive, easier to transport and plant, and establish roots quickly. They’re often healthier and will catch up to larger, more costly trees in just a few years. Learn more about how to plant bare-root and container fruit trees in this blog post.
9. Plant canopy trees first in your food forest
The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the next best time is today. Canopy trees are the largest in your food forest and form the top layer. They provide shade, shelter, and a habitat for wildlife. Planting canopy trees first helps create the microclimate that allows other plants to survive and thrive. The size of a canopy tree will vary depending on the size of your property.
10. Take pictures and videos of the process
I’ve never regretted taking ‘before’ pictures. I usually regret not taking enough and not taking video footage as well! Documenting the process of creating your food forest will allow you to see how far you’ve come.
Recording the process is also an excellent way to look back and learn from successes and mistakes. As an added bonus, before and after pictures and videos can inspire others when you share your journey.
By following these practical tips, you’ll be on your way to building a thriving permaculture food forest. With a bit of patience and hard work, you’ll enjoy a bountiful harvest. Good luck!