Types of Food Forests – Which is Right for You?
A food forest is a permaculture feature that imitates the structure of a forest to make the most of space, soils and sunlight in order to grow food very efficiently. In permaculture circles, it’s one of those terms that gets thrown around a fair bit, but not everyone means the same thing when they use it. Natural forests come in a variety of types, so it makes sense that there would be different types of food forests as well. This post is all about 3 types of food forests and the pros and cons of each, so you can determine which is right for you.
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This blog post is part 2 of a series on food forests. If you’re new to food forests and want a primer, then check out part 1 of the series.
When I’m looking at types of food forests, I often find it helpful to compare them to the types of natural forests they resemble. It goes without saying that there are a lot more than 3 different types of natural forests in the world, but here are 3 general types of forests found in temperate climates that we can use to help us understand the different types of food forests.
3 Types of Food Forests
- 1“Oak Savanna” Type of Food Forest
- 2“Recovering Forest” Type of Food Forest
- 3“Mature Forest” Type of Food Forest
Each of these 3 types of food forests mimics the structure of the corresponding natural forest type found in temperate climates. While food forests are often talked about in more tropical environments, there are also many examples of these systems being implemented in cooler, temperate regions of the world.
Each type of food forest has its own pros and cons, which makes it important to determine which one is right for you. Make sure you grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet, which summarizes this post and also contains extra tips to determine which type of food forest is right for you.
“Oak Savanna” Type of Food Forest
Oak savannas can be found all around the temperate world. Even in my home turf in western Washington state, a place typically associated with dense conifers, there used to be vast tracks of oak savannas.
These systems are something between a grassland and a forest. The trees are spaced out, so plenty of sunlight reaches the ground. The understory is mostly made up of grasses and other herbaceous plants with a few shrubs mixed in.
So what would you find in a food forest that mimics an oak savanna?
This type of food forest will feature fruit trees, nut trees, and support trees spread out so that their canopies rarely touch. You could use any size tree in this food forest, but the larger the tree, the more space you’ll need to give it to mimic the oak savanna.
Since a lot of sun will reach the ground in this type of food forest, you can grow cereal crops or pasture grasses between the trees. This could provide a staple food harvest in the form of wheat, and you could raise livestock on the grasses.
But you could also grow traditional annual vegetables and even set up raised garden beds to make it easy to grow these crops.
Throw in a few berries, and you have a decent food-producing system that incorporates trees, shrubs, and annual vegetables.
But this system does have some downsides.
One downside is that this type of food forest will require more regular maintenance than the other types to keep it set up the way you want. Just as an annual garden requires regular maintenance, this system will require you to visit it at least weekly. So if you’re going this route, be sure to keep it close to your house.
(If you use this system for raising animals, then the animals could do the regular maintenance for you. In that situation, you could place this type of food forest further away from your house.)
Using permaculture zones is a great way to figure out the placement of your food forest based on how often you will be visiting it. Check out the post What You Need to Know About Permaculture Zones for more information about using this tool to design your property.
An oak savanna type of food forest is great for raising animals and producing large amounts of food. But it does require additional maintenance compared to the other types.
Pros and Cons of a Oak Savanna Food Forest
Here are the pros and cons of the oak savanna type of food forest.
“Recovering Forest” Type of Food Forest
Have you seen a forest recovering from a forest fire or logging operation? There may be a few scattered tall trees left, but most of the trees will be small, and there are a lot of woody shrubs mixed in. There will also be herbaceous (non-woody) plants growing throughout the system.
Like an oak savanna, there will not be a closed canopy. There will be more areas with dense trees and shrubs, creating sheltered pockets of shade, but you’ll still have a fair bit of sunlight reaching the forest floor.
Unlike an oak savanna, though, you wouldn’t find much grass in the understory.
How would you plant a food forest that mimics a recovering forest?
This type of food forest is best planted in clusters. Plant 3 to 5 fruit and nut trees with a couple support trees (nitrogen fixers) close enough that their canopies will just touch when mature. Around these trees, add in some shrubs and herbaceous plants.
This will mimic the pattern of regrowth naturally found in recovering forests.
One advantage of this type of food forest is that it will require less maintenance than the oak savanna type. That’s because this type of food forest is more focused on perennial food production.
But it will still require regular maintenance. Some livestock, such as chickens, could be raised in this system. You could potentially raise goats and pigs in this type of food forest if you managed them carefully.
Pigs and goats can do a lot of damage to a forest so be careful with the number of goats and pigs you put in your food forest and how long you leave them there.
This type of food forest doesn’t need to be right next to your house since you wouldn’t need to go there every day, but it should still be where you could easily visit on a weekly basis for maintenance.
A recovering forest type of food forest is great for growing perennial crops with some regular maintenance. But it won’t produce as many traditional annual vegetables as the oak savanna type.
Pros and Cons of a Recovering Forest Food Forest
Here are the pros and cons of the recovering forest type of food forest.
“Mature Forest” Type of Food Forest
The previous 2 types of food forests are both open-canopy systems where a decent amount of sunlight still reaches the understory despite the trees. But in a mature forest, the canopy is mostly closed, with only filtered sunlight reaching the understory.
Mature forests in the temperate world do still have open areas where large trees have fallen and created openings. But these will be scattered, leaving most of the forest with a closed canopy.
Snags and downed woody debris are very common in mature forests. These can be included in your food forest designs to better work with nature (and help nature work with you).
When designing this type of food forest, you’ll want to use a relatively smaller number of large fruit and nut trees, with support trees mixed in. Planting standard-size fruit and nut trees, plus some larger species that reach 30+ feet (about 9 meters), will result in nice full canopies.
Shade-tolerant edibles like currants can be planted in the understory. The understory is also a great place to plant shade-tolerant understory trees that can be coppiced on a regular cycle.
You can also plant large trees that you then coppice on regular cycles, such as once every 10 years. If you coppice different parts of the food forest every year, (each part being on its own 10-year cycle,) you will create a mosaic of closed canopies, open canopies, and partially closed canopies.
This mosaic of coppicing will mimic what happens in a mature forest when large trees fall. This creates more structural diversity, which will support more types of plants.
You can work small, relatively-permanent open areas into this type of food forest to create edges with more sunlight for growing more food crops. You could design your food forest to include long, wide-open areas that could double as paths and areas for sun loving plants.
If you have hills on your property, you can create terraces with the large trees planted on the slopes between the terraces.
But to truly mimic a mature forest (and make the most of the advantages of this type of food forest,) the open areas should account for a relatively small amount of the total food forest area.
This type of food forest requires the least amount of regular maintenance of the 3 types, making it ideal for areas of your property that you don’t visit regularly.
The mature forest type of food forest is great for growing large fruit and nut trees, shade-tolerant edibles, and some sun-loving food crops. This type of food forest can also be used for timber harvesting through sustainable practices like coppicing.
Pros and Cons of a Mature Forest Food Forest
Here are the pros and cons of the mature forest type of food forest.
Moving Through the 3 Types of Food Forests Over Time
Each of the 3 types of food forests have their own pros and cons, and you may want one type of forest at one point and transition it to something else.
Just as natural forests can shift from one forest type to the next, so can a food forest. You can start with an oak savanna type, then transition it to a recovering forest type, and eventually shift to a mature forest type of food forest.
At my own place, most of my property is covered with old pasture grass. In my food forests, I’m slowly transforming them from grasslands to a recovering forest type through mulching and planting woody plants.
Eventually, some of these food forests will start to have the features of a mature forest. Others, I’ll keep more open and maintain as the recovering forest type of food forest.
Adding native plants can greatly boost your food forest and support local wildlife. Plus, if you live in an area that is naturally forested, there are likely a lot of native shade-tolerant edible plants that would be a great addition to your food forest! Check out the post 5 Ways Your Property Will Benefit from Native Plants for more information.
Through managed disturbance caused by livestock or coppicing, you can also take a mature system back a step to a recovering forest. You can also use these techniques to take a recovering forest type that is starting to form a closed canopy and open it back up.
Just like a natural forest, your food forest does not need to be static. A dynamic system that is managed through careful application of disturbance will be much more diverse than a system where disturbance is minimized.
So which type of food forest are you going to plant? Or are you going to change it over time? Let me know in the comments below!
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