Let’s Explore a Food Forest – Plus 3 Tips to Get Started
Have you ever wondered what a food forest is? How can you grow food in a forest? What should it look like? Let’s face it—there likely isn’t anyone else in your neighborhood with a food forest. And it can be hard to know how to get started without an example to aim for. In this podcast episode, we explore a food forest looking at the layers, plants, and how it all comes together to cultivate abundance for people, plants, and wildlife.
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Let’s start by taking a walk in a forest—not a food forest but a natural healthy forest. What do you see?
Walking into the forest you likely notice how much cooler and even moist the air is. Sunlight is likely spotted with just a few rays making it through a tall canopy of trees.
Birds sing and perhaps a squirrel runs around the branches chittering at you. Insects buzz around the trees and spider webs glisten in the rays of sunlight that make it through the branches.
If you’re lucky you might glimpse an owl or hear it hooting in the distance. And if you’re very lucky you might catch a glimpse of a bear or other large animal making its way along.
The forest is filled with life.
Let’s look closer.
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The trees aren’t all the same size. There are tall canopy trees but likely smaller trees are growing between the tall canopy trees.
These smaller trees are all different sizes—but they help form a complex multi-layered canopy.
Shrubs grow around and between these smaller trees and the tallest canopy trees.
Some shrubs are as big as a small tree but many are small.
And you likely can’t see very far through this forest since it’s filled with life and all that life is in balance.
Around your feet, there are smaller non-woody herbaceous plants. A mix of groundcovers, flowers, and potentially vines that climb up some of the trees.
Beyond the plants, there are also logs, rocks, branches, dead leaves and stems, and snags (dead standing trees).
These non-living elements of a forest are just as important as the living plants and animals. A forest can’t be healthy or abundant without them.
And down in the soil, the forest is still alive. All those leaves, branches, animals that die, and everything else that falls to the soil floor are being broken down creating a rich layer of duff and topsoil that keeps the forest going.
This forest has so much life in it.
Birds are flittering through the branches and other animals running and climbing around up, through, and over the forest. Dozens of different types of plants live here and untold numbers of insects, fungi, and other life
So how can we translate this vision of a forest into a food forest? Because let’s face it—that forest is a long way away from a traditional garden.
Take a moment to think about all the layers of the forest we just explored. Those layers are the same layers as found in a food forest.
It’s those layers that help make a forest so abundant and filled with life. And we can use those in our food forest to make it abundant too.
A garden by contrast has far fewer layers and is less abundant than a forest.
But a food forest is going to be different than the forest we just walked through. So let’s take a similar journey through a food forest.
Before we explore a food forest I want to take a moment to read a recent review from Treyisagod on Apple Podcasts.
I am in Alabamaian that was raised in a rural setting ironically disconnected from the land. I’m new to all things home and garden. This is the first resource that I’ve encountered that is digestible and sensible without being overwhelming. Darren feels like a supportive, educated older brother that just wants to see you succeed. In the second episode he talks about perennial vegetables. One discouraging problem that I’ve experienced is that there is little information on sourcing perennial vegetables. I was very surprised that he discussed this during the episode. this podcast is great already.
Thanks, Trey for the review—I really appreciate it. Yeah, finding perennial vegetables can be a challenge and I’m glad you found this podcast helpful. And future episodes will cover more perennial vegetables along with other perennial foods. So keep listening and I wish you luck on your journey to abundance for people, plants, and wildlife. Thanks again!
And if you like what you hear today, then please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever else you listen. Your review will help more people find us.
People like you, who want to bring these skills home, to enjoy wildlife, grow more food, and help heal our living world.
Okay, let’s get started.
Further Reading: Growing with Nature episodes and blog posts with more information about the topics covered in this episode.
- What is a Food Forest? (And How to Get Started)
- Food Forest Layers and Why They are Important
- Types of Food Forests – Which is Right for You?
- 3 Reasons Why You Should Plant a Food Forest
- Why Snags are Awesome (And How to Get Started)
- What is the Soil Food Web and Why it Matters
- Why You Should Plant a Hedgerow (Plus 5 Tips to Get Started)
- Why Native Plants Matter (And Why You Need Them)
Books and Other Resources
- Video Example – A Forest Garden With 500 Edible Plants Could Lead to a Sustainable Future | Short Film Showcase
- Video Example – Amazing 23-Year-Old Permaculture Food Forest - An Invitation for Wildness
Plant List: More information about some of the plants covered in this episode.
Let’s Explore a Food Forest
Ready to go for a walk and explore a food forest? The food forest I want you to visit is my front food forest.
When we bought our place at the end of the summer in 2016 this was just a lawn along a busy road.
It’s a small food forest—only about 2,300 square feet or 5-hundredths of an acre.
And it’s still young and growing.
As we enter the food forest the first thing you will notice is all the birds in it. There are always birds in this food forest.
And we other wildlife visit it too—and we just love seeing butterflies visiting the flowers growing it.
But there aren’t any tall canopy trees in this food forest. At least not yet.
Though the entrance still feels like a forest. Shrubs reach well over your head and some young trees have already reached 15-feet in height.
A native evergreen huckleberry grows at the entrance with native onions, miner's lettuce, a mulberry, one of our native Douglas hawthorns, along with a goumi berry, strawberries, a young pawpaw, raspberries, checkermallows, and many more native plants.
All these plants are found in the first 500 square feet of the food forest as you first walk in.
And it does feel like a forest. But not a mature forest—more like a young forest or one that is recovering after a forest fire.
These forests tend to have a few scattered large trees with lots of open spaces between them that are filled with a mix of small young trees, shrubs, and non-woody herbaceous plants like flowers. These are often the types of forests where you can find berries growing wild.
But the layers of the mature forest are all there—just in a younger state.
As we continue to walk through my food forest a hedgerow filled with native plants runs all along the west side of the food forest blocking the view of the road and providing cover for wildlife.
One day trees in that hedgerow will reach 40 to 60-feet but today they’re just getting taller than the shrubs. But already the road can’t be seen.
And along the trails, we see more food plants. We can take a moment to pick serviceberries, more raspberries, goumie berries, and strawberries but also gooseberries and even some cherries.
You can also take a moment to pick leaves of 2 types of checkermallows, nodding onions, Good-King-Henry, nasturtiums, and others to add to a salad.
Bush beans grow in open areas and scarlet runner beans grow up an arched trellis.
But this area is also younger than the entrance. It’s more open to the sun giving more room for vegetables, and other sun-loving plants.
Though as it matures there will be more shade and it will look more like the entrance with shade-tolerant vegetables like native miner’s lettuce and woodland sorrels replacing some of the checkermallows.
But this food forest will never be as shady as the mature forest we walked through. Sunlight will always reach areas of it and there will always be sun-loving plants growing in these areas.
There will never be a closed canopy over this food forest.
But it will still have a canopy layer—just one with gaps that let sunlight through just like a forest recovering from a fire.
The cherry tree, mulberries, native hawthorn, pawpaws and native shore pine, cascara, and Douglas maples are all part of the canopy.
Between them are a mix of berries and other shrubs along with nitrogen-fixing lupines, other flowers, and many types of perennial and native vegetables.
The gaps between the canopy trees are large enough that sunlight will always reach the ground.
This is a recovering type of food forest—a food forest with some tall fruit and nut trees but lots of open spaces for berries and vegetables.
There are 2 other types of food forests that each have a different balance between their layers.
- Oak Savanna Type
- Mature Forest Type
As we shift back to exploring this food forest you will see something else that we also saw in the mature forest we first explored.
And that is a bunch of logs, rocks, snags, dead leaves, and stems. All of which help build healthy soil and support a wide range of wildlife.
Plus, the soil stays moist even through the summer with no watering.
The result is true abundance for people, plants, and wildlife. Abundance just like that found in a forest.
Because unlike a garden food is grown in many layers. Roots, ground-covers, flowers, and vegetables all grow on the lower layers of the food forest.
Next, there are the shrubs.
These provide additional harvests of berries and fruits along with habitat for wildlife and some fix nitrogen to improve the soil and help support other plants in the food forest.
Above these shrubs are the small trees that provide fruit, shade, and habitat.
And then finally there are the tallest trees—the canopy trees that provide additional harvests, habitat, and shade.
Combined these layers stack on top of each other with each providing their harvests. The result is far more abundance and diversity than any traditional garden can provide.
And as a perennial system, it becomes more abundant every year. While I’m still adding new plants to it to fill in gaps I don’t have to replant as you do in an annual-based garden.
And this food forest never needs to be fertilized or watered. The only maintenance is a bit of pruning to keep the trails opened, a little weeding in the trails, and chop-and-dropping some of the plants on and off through the year to help build soil.
As we go back to the food forest I want you to take a moment to sit on one of the wood rounds that serve as a sitting area.
Listen and watch the birds as they chirp and sing and dance through this food forest. Bees buzz around the flowers. You might see a hoverfly, ladybug, or other beneficial insect moving about helping to keep the food forest in balance.
And where ever you look even in this young food forest you will see food ready to be harvested.
3 Tips to Help You Start Your Food Forest
So did you enjoy exploring this food forest? Ready to get started with your own? By exploring a food forest I hoped you would get a better sense of what a food forest is and how it can work.
But there is still a lot more that I didn’t cover in this episode. In there I’ve put links to a series of blog posts I wrote all about food forests.
These posts dive into what a food forest is, why you should plant one, the 3 types of food forests, and the layers of a food forest.
So make sure to check out those to learn more about food forests. But I also want to give you 3 tips in this podcast episode to help you get started.
The 1st tip is don’t try to plant a whole food forest all at once.
I’ve been working on mine for several years and I’m not finished yet. I plan to greatly expand it in the future and I’m still adding more flowers and perennial vegetables along with native vegetables.
Instead, start with 1 or 2 fruit trees—go for semi-dwarf or dwarf trees if you don’t have much room.
Next on the sunny side of your fruit tree out a good 6-8 feet from it plant a couple of berry bushes. Then add some lupines or other nitrogen-fixing flowers around the tree and the shrubs.
Then add some perennial or native vegetables or even just some traditional garden vegetables. Strawberries are a great addition too.
Finally, add a couple of logs, a stump, a snag, or some other habitat feature. And make sure to mulch the ground around these plants.
Now you’ve got the start of a food forest. You’ve got multiple layers all stacked together and all providing harvests and habitat.
Then just repeat this with another fruit or nut tree.
The 2nd tip is to make sure to mix in native plants in your food forest. Look for native edibles or native flowers as a place to start. But consider native shrubs and trees too even if they’re not edible.
These native plants will provide a foundation of support for your food forest. They will attract and support wildlife. And I’ve found the birds and other wildlife prefer to eat native berries and fruit than my cultivar varieties.
The birds go for our native red flowering currants and leave our cherries mostly alone giving us time to get abundant harvests. Before we planted all our native plants the birds would pick our cherry tree clean—but today they only slowly go for the cherries since they’ve got the native plants they prefer.
Plus, you can still get harvests from many of the native plants.
But the main point is your food forests will be far more abundant and support far more wildlife with native plants than without. And you will also get better harvests.
And the 3rd tip is to acknowledge that your food forest will change over time. When you first plant it the sunlight will reach the ground and there will be almost no canopy cover.
But over time the trees and shrubs will grow and more areas will become shady.
Other plants will mature and grow too.
And some plants will be pushed out and need to be replaced by plants that are better adapted to your maturing food forest.
Like all healthy, natural systems a food forest is dynamic. It changes over time and you will need to change with it. Don’t get locked into a single design—be flexible, take time to observe it, learn what works and what doesn’t, and make adjustments.
Make sure to take time to explore your food forest too and don’t forget to enjoy the beauty and abundance that it brings.
And stay tuned for our next episode where we will look at why you need plant-eating insects in your garden. You may not like these insects but they’re part of a healthy and abundant landscape. Luckily you can work with them in a way that still provides abundant harvests for your family and your community. Make sure to tune in next week to learn more about why your garden needs plant-eating insects.
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