How To Grow A Food Forest

Food forests are sustainable, edible ecosystems designed to match the diversity and balance of a natural forest. Gardening expert Madison Moulton explains the benefits of food forests and how you can create your own in five steps.

View of a food forest with various plants in a sunny garden. In the garden, various edible crops are grown in layers from trees to ground cover plants. There are fruit trees, tall sunflowers, raspberry bushes, climbing cucumber plants, tomato plants, zucchini, various herbs and ground cover plants including strawberries.


The way we grow food has changed significantly over the years, even for home gardeners. We are paying more attention to what we grow and how that impacts the environment around us. If you’re looking for a unique way to grow produce that is both low-maintenance and environmentally friendly, food forests are the answer.

Establishing a food forest is not a simple weekend project. But these mini ecosystems can deliver masses of produce each year with little to no attention once established, making the startup work well worth the effort.

What is a Food Forest?

View of the food forest garden. In the garden there are various trees (pear, apple), raspberry and currant bushes, various vegetable crops such as zucchini, lettuce, herb plants (basil, thyme, and others), edible flowering plants such as sunflowers, calendula and others.
Food forests mimic natural ecosystems for sustainable, diverse food production.

The term ‘food forest’ seems quite self-explanatory, but there is more to the concept than meets the eye.

In short, food forests are sustainable, edible ecosystems designed to match the diversity and balance of a natural forest. That is easier said than done, as the balance and functions of a forest evolve over decades or centuries – time we don’t have in our backyards. But with a bit of knowledge, we can create a productive ecosystem designed to deliver an abundance of food without much intervention.

The concept of food forests starts with Robert Hart, an important figure in permaculture. Passionate about growing his own produce, largely following a raw food diet, he struggled with the labor-intensive nature of traditional farming. So instead, Hart – inspired by his commitment to health, wellness, and sustainability – started the first modern food forest on his farm in the 1980s.

With this experiment (and now proof of concept), he hoped to combine ‘positive gardening and positive health.’

Food forests are designed to emulate the layered complexity and self-sustaining nature of wild forests but with predominantly edible plants. Plants are arranged in layers, from tall trees to the ground cover, with each layer having its own role and a different group of edible plants to choose from. This layered approach is what ensures the ‘garden’ largely takes care of itself once it’s established.

One of the major benefits of food forests is that they’re designed to need less work from us. There is more planning and time investment up front, but once you get the balance right, you can harvest from your garden year after year with little attention. Unlike traditional vegetable gardens that require frequent weeding, watering, and feeding, food forests are meant to grow naturally.

The Benefits of Food Forests

Building a food forest or a permaculture garden is not a small undertaking. Many gardeners wonder if it’s worth the investment and time it takes to get it right. But like any investment, the rewards you receive at the end are amazing.

Big Yield in a Small Space

Close-up of a woman picking ripe tomatoes in the garden. She holds in her hand a large wicker basket filled with ripe tomatoes. She is wearing a burgundy apron. Tomatoes are round, juicy fruits of bright red color with glossy thin skin.
Food forests yield diverse produce efficiently due to layered design.

Food forests can produce an impressive amount of produce in a small area. Thanks to their layered design, you can grow a wide variety of foods close together, ensuring diversity in both your garden and your diet. Things like row spacing and crop rotation are much less of a concern once the forest you’ve designed becomes balanced.  

Lower Maintenance

Weeding strawberry beds. Close-up of a gardener's hands in white gloves with a garden fork removing weeds from a garden bed.
Established food forests require minimal maintenance for abundant, self-sustaining yields.

After the initial setup (which admittedly takes a few years), food forests require surprisingly little work. The goal of a balanced and ‘natural’ food forest is that once the right ecosystem is achieved, the forest starts to take care of itself.

This means far less weeding, watering, and general upkeep while still delivering plenty of produce for harvesting.

Environmental Benefit

Close-up of a blackbird feeding on red berries in the garden. The Turdus merula presents a sleek and striking appearance with its glossy black plumage, bright yellow-orange bill, and vivid yellow eye ring.
Sustainable gardening fosters diverse ecosystems and benefits the planet and local wildlife.

Food forests are not just good for us. They’re good for the planet, too. The methods used to build and maintain a food forest contribute to better soil health and a more diverse ecosystem, making your garden far more sustainable in the long run. They also improve air quality and provide a home for local wildlife in your area, especially when native edibles are planted.

Improving Soil

Close-up of a rake raking dry leaves from the soil in a garden. A garden rake consists of a long wooden handle affixed to a broad head featuring multiple sturdy metal tines arranged in a fan-like pattern.
Food forests naturally enrich the soil, unlike traditional gardening practices.

Few gardeners I’ve met get excited about soil health. But for those that do, you’ll love food forests. Some traditional gardening practices can take a toll on the soil, requiring upkeep from us over time to boost health.

But food forests work naturally to restore and maintain the soil, as you would find in natural forest floors known for having rich, healthy soil. Organic matter like fallen leaves and branches keeps the soil fertile and full of life.


Beautiful portrait of a thoughtful blond curly woman with wildflowers in her pocket, holding a cup of coffee in a sunny garden. The woman is wearing a white shirt and a blue apron.
This ecosystem improves health through diverse produce, exercise, and stress reduction.

Growing your own produce is widely known to improve health, particularly when you’re growing a diverse range of foods as you would in a food forest. But the health benefits go beyond the kitchen, too.

Physical exercise is one component, particularly in the early years of forest gardening. Walking among your trees and plants can also lower stress and improve mood, boosting mental health.


View of a beautiful garden with various vegetable, flower and fruit trees. The garden has decorative elements in the form of a wooden arch, stones, and a wooden fence. Plants such as apple tree, apricot tree, climbing grapes, various bushes, Echinops ritro, Sedum, Rudbeckia and others grow there.
Forest gardens beautify space, offer unique plant relationships, and attract wildlife.

Finally, you can’t forget about the aesthetic benefits. We all want our gardens to be a space of beauty and enjoyment, and you certainly get that with your very own forest right in your backyard.

No matter the size, there is always something unique to look at or a new plant relationship to explore and watch grow. The increased wildlife activity also adds a buzz to your backyard.

How To Build A Food Forest

Once you’ve decided a food forest is for you, there are a few steps to complete before you get to enjoy your harvest, from planning to planting and beyond.

Step 1: Choose Your Location

View of the garden plot with unplanted beds. The site is surrounded by a high wooden fence. The soil is plowed and ready for planting. The beds are separated by bricks.
Choose a sunny and well-drained area for food forest.

Start by identifying where approximately you would like your food forest to be. Bigger spaces are slightly easier to work with, considering the mature size of the trees, but you can create a mini-forest ecosystem in smaller gardens, too.  

Look for a space that gets plenty of sunlight. Also, consider the soil you’re starting with and where water naturally collects in your garden after rain. Aim for a spot that won’t become waterlogged easily to prevent issues with disease.

Step 2: Check Your Soil

Close-up of a gardener checking the quality of the soil in the garden. She sits on the soil and holds loose, dry, brown soil in her hands. The gardener is wearing blue jeans.
Assess soil and enrich it with organic matter for a healthy food forest.

Soil health is vital for a successful food forest. Before you plant anything, take some time to assess your soil’s quality. Forests are known for their nutrient-rich, moisture-retaining soil, and your food forest shouldn’t be any different. Once you know what you’re working with, you can enrich the soil naturally before you start to improve conditions.

Use organic matter like compost or a thick layer of mulch to break down over time, replicating how forests build soil naturally. These amendments help improve soil fertility and structure and encourage beneficial microorganisms that support plant growth. Water the area well after applying mulch to help it break down and integrate into the soil.

Step 3: Choose Your Plants

Now comes the most exciting part—choosing your plants. A typical food forest consists of seven layers, with each one playing a part in creating a diverse and productive garden. All you need to do is choose edible plants suitable for each layer that will appreciate the forest conditions you create.

When selecting plants, I always recommend thinking about what you like to eat first, as you don’t want your produce to go to waste. Also, consider what grows well in your area, as well as produce that will be available throughout the seasons for continuous harvests.

Choosing plants for your food forest involves planning for each of the seven layers. If you’re using a smaller space, you can remove some layers (like the taller canopy trees) as long as you adjust for the effect this will have on the balance of the forest.


The American black walnut tree presents a majestic appearance with its tall, broad canopy and deeply furrowed, dark gray-brown bark. Its compound leaves, comprised of numerous pointed leaflets, showing a rich green color. The tree's prized fruit, the walnut, features a round, green husk that encases a hard, deeply grooved shell containing the flavorful, oily nut within.
Choose fruit or nut trees for the top layer.

The top layer is made up of the largest trees. These should be primarily nut or fruit trees that can provide shade and structure to your forest. Make sure these trees are well-spaced to allow sunlight to reach the lower layers:

  • Walnut
  • Pecan
  • Macadamia


Close-up of a plum fruit tree in a sunny garden. The Plum tree exhibits a graceful and vibrant appearance, characterized by its spreading canopy of lush, ovate leaves with serrated edges. The tree produces fruit, plums, which grow in clusters, are oval in shape and come in purple.
Plant smaller fruit trees in canopy gaps for partial shade.

Smaller fruit trees thrive in the partial shade of the canopy layer. These should be planted in gaps so they get enough light while still being protected by the canopy:

  • Plums
  • Pears
  • Apples
  • Avocados


Close-up of raspberry shrub with ripe berries in the garden on a blurred green background. The raspberry shrub presents a charming and fruitful appearance, characterized by its slender, thorny stems that arch gracefully and bear delicate, serrated-edged leaves arranged in groups of three. The shrub is adorned with clusters of small, conical berries of bright red-pink color. They are composed of multiple tiny, individual drupelets, each containing a small seed.
Grow shade-tolerant berry bushes for fruit and insect attraction.

Largely berry bushes and other fruiting shrubs that can tolerate some shade. They provide fruits and attract beneficial insects for pollination.

  • Blueberry
  • Raspberry
  • Elderberry

Herbaceous Plants

Close-up of curly leafed kale covered with water drops in the garden. Curly-leafed kale is distinguished by its deeply lobed, curly-edged leaves that form a dense rosette. There are two types of kale growing in the garden, one of them is purple and the other is green.
Diverse plants deter pests and enrich soil in the vegetable layer.

Perennial and annual plants offer a variety of uses. This layer contains most vegetables, as well as plants to help deter pests and improve soil health:

  • Kale
  • Basil
  • Parsley
  • Echinacea


Close-up of a garden bed with carrots, onions and beetroots growing. Carrots are slender, tapered roots with feathery, fern-like foliage consisting of delicate, finely divided leaves that emerge from a central stem. The onion plant boasts long, slender, hollow leaves that emerge from the soil in clusters and grow upright. Beetroots, or simply beets, are round to oval-shaped roots with large, dark green leaves with prominent veining of bright pink-red color.
Root crops aerate the soil.

Plants in this layer are grown for their roots, which can break up the soil and help aerate it. These root crops can be harvested without disturbing the system too much:

  • Carrots
  • Onions
  • Beetroot

Ground Covers

Close-up of strawberry plant in the garden. The strawberry plant features a low-growing habit with trifoliate leaves that emerge in clusters from a central crown. These leaves are dark green and serrated along the edges. Each strawberry is comprised of numerous tiny seeds, embedded in the flesh of the fruit, which ripens from green to vibrant red.
Fertile ground covers retain moisture, suppress weeds, and prevent erosion.

Low-growing plants that spread across the soil, helping to retain moisture and suppress weeds. Ground covers are crucial for keeping the soil healthy and preventing erosion:


Close-up of blue wine grape plant in the garden. The grape plant is a vigorous vine characterized by its woody stems and large, lobed leaves. The leaves are a deep green color with serrated edges. Clusters of grapes hang from the vine, showcasing round to oval-shaped berries with a dusty blue hue.
Grape is a climbing plant that utilizes vertical space, boosting forest productivity.

Climbing plants that can grow up trees to utilize vertical space, maximizing the productivity of your forest:

  • Passion fruit
  • Beans
  • Grapes
  • Cucumbers

Step 4: Plant In Stages

Close-up of a man planting a fruit tree in a sunny garden. He is wearing black trousers, high black rubber boots and yellow and green gloves. The tree has an upright trunk with smooth, gray-brown bark. A gardener holds a large shovel full of soil.
Plant a food forest in stages for optimal growth and establishment.

It’s easiest to plant your food forest in stages to give the layers time to establish since they grow at different rates. Start with the larger trees and shrubs, as they’ll form the structure of your forest.

Then, gradually introduce the smaller plants and ground covers. This staggered approach helps reduce competition for sunlight and nutrients, allowing all your plants to thrive.

Step 5: Maintenance

Close-up of a young woman watering a garden with a hose. The woman has curly white hair and is wearing a white shirt and blue apron. She waters the trees with a yellow hose.
Early watering ensures young plant establishment.

Even though a food forest is designed to be low-maintenance, some attention is needed in the early years to ensure its success:

  • Watering: Young plants need regular watering until they’re well-established. As the forest matures, its mulch and canopy will help retain moisture, reducing the need for extra watering from you.
  • Mulching: While your forest will eventually create its own natural mulch, you may need to mulch the soil yourself in the first few years. Apply in thick layers to slowly break down into the soil.
  • Pruning: Pruning helps manage growth early on, improve air circulation, and increase fruit production. Employ a chop-and-drop approach, leaving any branches you remove where they land to break down naturally.
  • Weeding: In the initial stages, you may need to weed around your young plants to reduce competition. As your food forest grows, the need for weeding will decrease as ground cover and mulch suppress weed growth.
  • Observation: Regularly walking through your food forest and observing the changes and interactions can provide insights into its productivity. Make adjustments as needed, such as adding more mulch, introducing new plant species, or adjusting plant placements based on growth patterns and sunlight availability.

Final Thoughts

A food forest is not an overnight project. It takes time for the ecosystem to balance and for plants to mature. Be patient and let nature do its work. Your forest will change and evolve, but the time spent waiting will be worth it in the end.

short growing season. Krupnyy plan pripodnyatoy gryadki s rastushchimi buryakami i morkovkoy ryadom s gryadkoy rastushchikh ogurtsov v solnechnom sadu. Beets obladayet kruglymi, gladkimi korneplodami purpurno-bordovogo ottenka. Beets have leafy green stems, featuring deep green, slightly crinkled leaves attached to reddish stems. Carrot leaves, attached to the edible root, are feathery and fern-like in appearance, growing in a rosette from the top of the root. Carrots are root vegetables with a distinctive appearance characterized by their long, slender, tapering shape and vibrant orange color, although they can also be found in shades of yellow, purple, red, or white, depending on the variety. The smooth skin is typically glossy and may have fine root hairs, while the flesh is crisp, crunchy, and ranges from pale orange to deep orange. Carrot leaves, attached to the edible root, are feathery and fern-like in appearance, growing in a rosette from the top of the root. Carrots are commonly cultivated for their sweet flavor, crunchy texture, and versatility in culinary dishes, making them a popular ingredient in salads, soups, and side dishes. Показати більше ​ 1 150 / 5 000 Результати перекладу Результат перекладу short growing season. Close-up of a raised bed of growing beets and carrots next to a bed of growing cucumbers in a sunny garden. Beets has round, smooth, purple-burgundy roots. Beets have leafy green stems, featuring deep green, slightly crinkled leaves attached to reddish stems. Carrot leaves, attached to the edible root, are feathery and fern-like in appearance, growing in a rosette from the top of the root.

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A close-up of a cluster of ripe hardy kiwi berries hanging from a vine. The berries are smooth-skinned and green, with a few fuzzy red hairs at the blossom end. They appear almost jewel-like against the backdrop of dark green leaves, hinting at the juicy sweetness within.


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