Food Forest Layers and Why They are Important
Food forests are designed to mimic the structure of a natural forest to grow food very efficiently. That structure is composed of a set of layers, each with its own unique role in the forest system. Food forest layers allow you to fully utilize all potential growing space in a similar way that a natural forest does. But what are these layers? And how do you put them together into a food forest? If you’re new to food forests—and you’re not a forest ecologist—then these layers can be a bit confusing at first. Keep reading to learn about the layers of a food forest and how to use them in your own designs.
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Food forests are a way of growing food and other useful material, such as timber, in a way that mimics a natural forest. This article is the third part in a series about food forests. If you’re already familiar with them, then keep reading to learn more about food forest layers. But if you are new to food forests, you might find the other articles in this series more useful before you read this one.
Food Forest Series
This is part 3 of a multi-part series all about food forests and forest gardening.
- 1What is a Food Forest? (And How to Get Started)
- 2Types of Food Forests - Which is Right for You?
- 3Food Forest Layers and Why They are Important - current post
People often talk about food forests as having 7 layers, which refer to the different types of plant life in the forest. These are what people traditionally think of in terms of food forest layers, and they are what I call the living food forest layers.
But forests are not that simple.
There are also non-living structures in natural forests, such as logs and snags (standing dead trees) that are vital to the health of many forests. These should be a part of any food forest design.
Understanding which layers to include in your food forest is critical to getting the most out of your system. Ultimately, the layers are what makes a food forest more productive than almost any other food production system. Before you read on, make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet that summarizes all this information and includes a list of extra resources on food forests, as well as some examples of existing food forests that will help inspire you to create your own.
7 Living Food Forest Layers on your Property
Food forests are designed to fully utilize all the potential growing space on any given piece of land. Unlike a regular garden or farm, this includes several vertical layers. These vertical layers mimic the canopy layers of natural forests.
But the vertical layers are not the only food forest layers in the traditional model. There are actually 7 plant layers which includes plants that do not climb or form tall canopies.
7 Living Food Forest Layers
- 1Canopy (trees)
- 2Sub-canopy (trees)
- 6Root crops
- 7Climbers (vines)
These 7 food forest layers each fill a potential growing space. That allows you to grow far more in any given area than you could in a traditional farm or garden, which would likely only use 1 to 3 of these layers (herbaceous plants, groundcover, and root crops).
So how do all these layers, taken from layers in a natural forest, translate into a food forest? Assuming you were going to plant all 7 layers, here is how you could do it.
- Canopy Layer: These are your large fruit and nut trees, as well as support trees that help improve your soil such as nitrogen fixers like alders. When you design your food forest, you’ll space these trees differently depending on which type of food forest you’re growing. (More on that later.)
- Sub-Canopy Layer: Around these large trees, plant smaller trees such as dwarf fruit trees or naturally small trees like hazelnuts.
- Shrub Layer: Then mix in some shrubs, like raspberries, blueberries, etc.
- Herbaceous Layer: Next, add your vegetables (perennial vegetables and self-seeding vegetables are a great option for a food forest), flowers for beneficial insects (native flowers are a great choice), and nitrogen fixing plants like lupines.
- Groundcover Layer: Plants like strawberries make a great groundcover that is also edible—and they’ll help fill in space between your other plants.
- Root Crops Layer: Add in some potatoes, garlic, bulbs, onions (wild onions are a great option,) or perennial root vegetables to get an additional harvest and fill another niche.
- Climbers (Vines) Layer: Finally, consider adding some vines to climb the woody plants (or you can build some trellises). Annual climbers like peas and beans are great options that are not likely to cause problems with trees the way that some vine species can. A trellis is a great choice for grapes and kiwis. Some people let them grow through their trees, but you would need large trees to be able to do that.
Working the Living Layers into Different Types of Food Forests
The arrangement of layers in your food forest will be different depending on which type of food forest you’re growing. In the most recent post in this series, I covered 3 core types of food forests that you can plant on your property. Each type mimics a different type of natural forest. The 3 types of food forests covered in that post are:
- Oak Savanna: Primarily grassland with trees and shrubs scattered throughout.
- Recovering Forest: More trees and shrubs than an oak savanna, but it will have a lot of herbaceous understory and a lot of sunlight reaching the ground.
- Mature Forest: A closed-canopy system with tall or very tall trees capturing most of the sunlight, and shade-tolerant plants growing underneath.
Each type of food forests has a different balance of layers, and different potential uses in terms of production on your property. If you haven’t already, make sure to look at the post on food forest types before you decide which type of food forest to grow on your property.
You can include all 7 layers for any one of these types of food forests. But depending on which type you’re designing, you’ll put more emphasis on some of the layers than on others.
In temperate areas, most mature forests in nature have plants growing in all 7 of these layers. But that doesn’t mean each layer is densely populated. Here in western Washington, there are very few native climbers.
An oak savanna and a recovering forest are also likely to have less of these layers. You wouldn’t find a full canopy in these two forests. This allows for more sunlight to reach the ground, resulting in more plant growth in the lower layers (layers 3-7).
Layers by Food Forest Type
Here’s how you could balance the layers in the three core types of food forests I’ve covered:
- Oak Savanna: This is an open-canopy system with lots of sunlight hitting the ground level, so the focus here is on herbaceous plants, groundcover, and root crops (layers 4 through 6). Large trees from the canopy layer (layer 1) form the foundation of the system with large, open tracts of land between them. Small trees and shrubs from the sub-canopy and shrub layers (layers 2 and 3) can be planted around the large trees to form small patches of woody plants surrounded by herbaceous plants, groundcovers, root crops, and potentially climbers (layers 4-7).
- Recovering Forest: This food forest type has a partially-open canopy. Start by planting a small scattering of large trees from the canopy layer (layer 1). These should be widely spaced. Most trees in this type of food system will be smaller trees that fall in the sub-canopy layer (layer 2). This system will also have a large number of shrubs from layer 3 scattered throughout the food forest. Herbaceous plants, groundcover, root crops and climbers (plants from layers 4 through 7) can be added around the shrubs and trees, but grasses are not generally a part of this style of food forest.
- Mature Forest: This food forest will have a mostly closed canopy with large trees from the canopy layer (layer 1) and some smaller trees from the sub-canopy layer (layer 2), with scattered openings for sun-loving plants. The focus in this food forest will be on crops from those trees in layers 1 and 2, plus shade-tolerant shrubs, herbaceous plants, groundcover, root crops and climbers (plants from layers 3 through 7).
4 Non-Living Food Forest Layers
Most descriptions of food forest layers stop at the 7 traditional living layers. But if you’ve ever walked in a healthy forest, then you’ll know that these 7 layers don’t capture the full picture.
A forest is not just made up of its living elements—it also contains large amounts of dead and decaying material.
This material is critical for supporting the full complexity of life in the forest, and that spectrum of life will, in turn, help to nurture the plants in your food forest. Plus, it creates another opportunity for harvests in your food forest—fungi.
In addition to the dead and decaying material, you’re also likely to run across rocks in the forest. These rocks provide shelter for wildlife and can create beneficial micro-climates for plants.
Here are the 4 non-living food forest layers.
4 Non-Living Food Forest Layers
- 1Standing dead woods (snags)
- 2Large logs
- 3Fallen branches and limbs
- 4Large rocks
All of these features are discussed in more detail in the post How to Work With Nature to Rewild your Property (And Why You Should), but here’s the gist of it.
Snags are dead standing trees. While at first glance they may not seem to serve a purpose, they actually provide excellent habitat for wildlife. Research has even shown that there is more life in these snags by weight then in a living tree the same size!
You don’t need to have dead trees already on your property to take advantage of this feature—I’ve “planted” quite a few snags on my property, and animals started taking advantage of them as soon as they went in the ground. I’m constantly seeing birds using them as perches, and I find other critters like chipmunks taking advantage of them as well.
I have even seen woodpeckers visiting the snags.
Large logs provide a similar benefit, but at ground-level. Additionally, snags, logs, and fallen branches and limbs all help support beneficial fungi which can help your trees, shrubs and other plants to grow and produce a harvest.
As an added bonus, sometimes you can even eat the fungi! I’ve loved finding morels growing in my food forest!
If you inoculate your logs or snags with edible mushrooms before installing them, you can make sure you’ll get a harvest of edible fungi.
All of this woody debris also provides micro-climates that can help your plants get established and deal with droughts. You can also add piles of rocks and logs, instead of placing them individually, to provide additional habitat for wildlife and mimic the beneficial impact of rocks and logs that would be too big for you to install in your food forest.
Working the Non-Living Layers into Different Types of Food Forests
Like the living elements of a food forest, the non-living elements can be spaced differently depending on which type of food forest you’re creating.
The woody material would naturally be found near the trees. So if you are creating an oak savanna food forest, you can mimic what would happen naturally by placing the majority of the woody material around your large trees. Rocks could be placed throughout, and some woody debris, such as snags and large logs, can be added to the open areas.
There would naturally be a lot more woody material found in recovering forests and mature forests than in oak savannas.
Layers by Food Forest Type
Here’s how you could set up the layers in the three core types of food forests I’ve covered:
- Oak Savanna: Place large snags scattered throughout the food forest, with large logs placed mostly near the large trees. But some woody debris (along with rocks) can be added to the open areas away from the trees to create sheltered micro-climates that can benefit your crops. Smaller woody material is best used near the trees and shrubs. Rock piles or individual large rocks can be placed throughout to create habitat, or strategically placed near plants to create micro-climates.
- Recovering Forest: A recovering forest is going to have large amounts of woody debris scattered throughout. Snags, logs, etc. are all common, along with exposed rocks. Think about what a forest looks like after a forest fire. Use smaller woody material to mulch your shrubs and trees.
- Mature Forest: Mature forests tend to have snags and large logs scattered throughout. If you’ve ever walked through a temperate old growth forest, you’ve seen this environment. These forests also have large amounts of smaller woody debris scattered throughout the forest, which you can mimic using wood chip mulch. Rock piles or large rocks can be placed throughout to create habitat, or strategically placed near plants to create micro-climates.
Putting it All Together
Of course, you could add even more layers than the ones outlined here. Some people add water features such as ponds to the list of layers. You could also add earthworks.
These add complexity to the system and new opportunities for harvests. They’re not necessary to mimic a natural forest, but they are certainly worth considering in your food forest designs.
When you start your design, first figure out which type of food forest you are going to be planting. This will determine which layers you’ll be focusing on.
Then start your design by planning the large trees in layer 1 and work your way down the 7 layers. Make sure you leave room to include elements from the 4 non-living layers either before or after you plant.
I like to plant and then immediately add logs on the exposed sides of my trees and shrubs to provide a beneficial micro-climate. You can also use rocks to create moist and warm micro-climates, which can help you grow frost-sensitive plants.
Natural forests are highly complex and interconnected systems. These 11 living and non-living layers are a simplification of this complexity, but they can help you mimic what happens in a natural forest to boost your harvests and help you make the living world around you come alive.
Have you grown a food forest? Which layers have you included in yours? Let me know in the comments below!
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